Tiqr had fallen. The Empress of Beasts, Nsiia, knelt in the dust. Her spear lay beside her. Her headband beside it. She wept, and behind her, Tiqr’s citizens, hundreds of thousands, knelt with her. Weeping for their nation.
This was how Tiqr ended. The coalition’s armies roiled in confusion, trying to process what had happened. General Thelican was red-faced with fury and shame. Not only had Tiqr not launched the attack that Wistram had all but assured him would come, he and Nerrhavia’s army had been seen to be afraid of the attack! Worse still—the one army that had refused to retreat, Illivere, led by Magus-Crafter Femithain, had been the ones the Empress of Beasts surrendered to.
Disaster. Of course, this wasn’t being broadcast to the rest of the world via [Scrying] spell. But surely, many nations were watching, being updated by their agents or via magical observation. Worse—Thelican’s stomach twisted.
The [Reporter]. The damned Remi Canada person that his [Queen] had ordered him to find. This would be in another of their articles! Now, Thelican regretted not hunting them down. But he hadn’t predicted this.
“General Thelican! A message from Queen Yisame—”
“Queen Yisame demands to know—”
“Wistram’s Archmages are awaiting a conversation at your soonest—”
“General, our forces to the north—”
The Stitch-[General] bellowed. He ignored the people surrounding him and pushed forwards.
“Get me to the front! Move the army forwards—encircle the prisoners!”
There were hundreds of thousands of Tiqr’s citizens. They outnumbered Nerrhavia’s army. Thelican was too incensed to care.
“Surround them! Make way! Move!”
“General, Queen Yisame demands—”
“We are under attack!”
The bellowing voice stopped Thelican. He whirled and saw one of the [Messengers] shoving the rest aside.
“What? From who?”
“Oliphant! The north! A part of their army sortied from the gates! General—it’s Tiqr’s army. They’re overrunning—”
Thelican’s blood ran cold in the veins of his body. For String People did have veins; the magic that animated cloth to flesh gave them biology. It also meant they could die. And suddenly, the [General] was imagining his head on a pillow before Queen Yisame.
“Deploy the chariots! Intercept them!”
Of course, it was too late. Femithain heard the horns, saw chariots and riders breaking away from the coalition’s army, riding north. But he could see they’d never make it in time.
Femithain was no [Strategist], but he didn’t need to be to understand what had happened. As [Armsmaster] Dellic frantically queried Nerrhavia’s officers, Femithain heard enough.
“Tiqr’s army has broken north! They pierced the encirclement—they’re headed northwest!”
“To the Kilalle Steppes.”
Femithain nodded to himself. He looked down at Empress Nsiia. Or perhaps—simply Nsiia of Tiqr. She was a prisoner of war, now. She still knelt, but he caught her looking up, listening.
“Dellic. Have Nerrhavia’s forces any chance of catching Tiqr’s army? How many have left?”
The [Armsmaster] shook his head.
“The officers are saying it’s the entire army. And they came right out of the gates as soon as the Empress—”
He halted, staring at Nsiia. Femithain adjusted his spectacles.
He had to admire it. Nsiia’s surrender had given her army time to flee. They were still nearly eighty-thousand strong, and if some of Tiqr’s citizens had gone with them—he eyed the sea of people spread out in front of Tiqr’s gates. Even had a hundred thousand fled, they would pose an insurmountable threat.
“You sent them to the Kilalle Steppes, Empress Nsiia?”
He addressed the kneeling woman. Nsiia looked up. Her eyes flashed as Dellic warily stood beside Femithain.
“My General, Vasraf, I gave him leave to do as he wished. I do not know what he plans.”
So you couldn’t be forced to betray him. Femithain’s estimation of Nsiia rose again. And it had already been high. She had calculated this. Her show before surrendering had bought her army time to flee. Thelican had pulled back his forces to protect himself; and Nsiia had chosen to surrender via the south gate, making the chase even harder.
However, that was only a small concern to Femithain at the moment. He stood, conscious of the coalition’s army reforming, centering on him. Because Tiqr had surrendered to Illivere. Not to the coalition. In the realm of politics, that was a very important distinction.
“Empress Nsiia. What do you hope to gain from your surrender?”
“Nothing. Tiqr is no more. I am no more an [Empress].”
The woman looked up at Femithain. And he realized she was young. A full decade and a half behind him, at least. Now, bereft of her rank and artifacts, she looked tired. And afraid. Femithain paused.
“You surrendered to Illivere. What if I had fled?”
“I would have surrendered to Deimos. Or Nerrhavia. Never to Savere. Do what you will, Magus-Crafter. We are your prisoners.”
The Magus-Crafter nodded slowly. Nsiia was looking at him. And he knew she remembered the warning he had tried to give her at Pomle. He leaned on his staff. Thelican would be coming. And Illivere, for all its strength, was one nation among many. Savere was powerful. And Nerrhavia overwhelming.
Still. He looked at Nsiia.
“You chose me, though. Why?”
Nsiia shrugged. She was looking at Dellic. The [Armsmaster] was watching her, balanced on his heels, ready to unsheathe his sword and strike.
“You tried to warn me. And Illivere has few slaves. I…hoped you would give Tiqr some dignity.”
“That is difficult.”
Nsiia nodded. She looked up. There were no illusions in her eyes. Her nation was defeated. And the defeated were treated harshly. In Chandrar, very harshly. Femithain looked at her. And then he nodded.
“You made a choice, Empress of Beasts. The King of Destruction gave you no death. But your surrender will see your nation picked apart. And your fate is also in my hands, it seems. So know this: you chose well.”
She looked up. Femithain smiled. Then he turned. The Magus-Crafter thought of himself as a poor fighter. A mediocre [Mage]; he was a far better [Crafter], a creator of Golems. But he was also Magus-Crafter of Illivere. And he had to admit—he was somewhat good at his job.
The man vibrated to attention. Femithain nodded to Nsiia.
“Arrest the Empress of Beasts. Take her headband and the spear; I wish her guarded by Stone Golems and eight [Artificers] as well as sixty of your best.”
“At once, Magus-Crafter!”
Dellic hesitated only for a moment before stooping to snatch the spear and headband up. Nsiia rose to her feet; he backed away a step. She held her hands up and to her sides.
“I have surrendered. Do what you will.”
She was looking at Femithain. Dellic barked an order.
“Stone Golems! [Artificers] of Stone, to me! Cetith Squadron, to me!”
Startled, Illivere’s army moved around Dellic and Nsiia. Femithain nodded, seeing Stone Golems stomping towards Nsiia. They held stone mauls and even Nerrhavia’s advancing [Soldiers] looked wary of them. In fact, Illivere’s army forced the other armies to move around them, awkwardly trying to surround Tiqr’s citizens.
Femithain’s studied the commotion. It was all chaos, but he wasn’t looking for the whole picture. It was all in the details. Like faults in stone. He needed—
Femithain spotted a familiar face in the crowd. He pointed and strode forwards; his twin Steel Golems strode forwards, forcing a path through the [Soldiers]. The Magus-Crafter walked towards them, making a straight line for the man in armor leading his [Soldiers].
Objective. Femithain’s mind was a tidy series of thoughts. Empress Nsiia had surrendered to him. She hoped he would help Tiqr. However, her surrender placed undue pressure on his nation. Femithain weighed Illivere’s future against Nsiia’s wishes, saw a path. All that was left was to achieve it. And that was simple, in a way—or at least, Femithain saw it as so. He had a finite number of options he could pursue, and so he tackled them one at a time.
The Magus-Crafter intercepted the [General] of Deimos through the ranks of confused [Soldiers]. Heic looked up and shouted for his men to make way. Femithain left his Golem bodyguards behind and the two paused, shouting amid the commotion.
“Magus-Crafter! Dead gods! Did I hear right? Tiqr’s surrendered to Illivere?”
Heic was astounded. Femithain nodded and grabbed the man’s shoulder. No time to subtleties.
“Exactly so, General Heic! Let us discuss this later. However, General Thelican is approaching with the other coalition leaders.”
It was true. Thelican was making for Femithain and Nsiia, and he wasn’t the only one. [Bandit Lady] Urele was trying to do the same, flanked by her elites. Other [Generals] were approaching—Femithain looked at Heic.
“Of course. We’ll have to decide what’s to be done. Surrendered? I thought for certain we’d be facing Tiqr in the field. Their army’s fleeing to the north. We have to catch them, but with such a lead—”
Heic was spluttering. Femithain shook him slightly. Surprised, the [General] looked at him.
“General Heic. I would like you to support Illivere’s claims in these next moments. In fact, I believe it will be to Deimos’ benefit. Will you heed my request?”
The man blinked at him. Femithain waited. It was a gamble, but he had been acquainted with Heic over the course of the war. He saw the man’s eyes sharpen. Heic wasn’t a fool. And to Femithain’s satisfaction, the man nodded after only eight seconds of indecision.
Thelican’s voice rang through the air. The [General]’s escort cleared the [Soldiers] in front of them; their weapons were drawn. They only halted in front of Illivere’s army; Dellic and the ranks of Golems refused to budge. Magus-Crafter Femithain and General Heic strode towards Thelican. The Stitch-[General] was apoplectic.
“Magus-Crafter, you—er—congratulations! On accepting Tiqr’s surrender on behalf of the coalition!”
You had to admire his ability to improvise. Femithain regarded Thelican over the rim of his spectacles. The [General] was looking for Empress Nsiia. He spotted her in the ranks of Illivere’s army and gestured.
“Wonderful work! We shall take the Empress and discuss matters. Men!”
He nodded to his Nerrhavian elites. The silk [Soldiers] strode forwards and then hastily stopped when the first rank of Golems and Illivere’s [Soldiers] lifted their arms. Thelican hesitated and turned towards Femithain. The Magus-Crafter cleared his throat.
“General Thelican, my pardons for the zeal of my army. I ordered my soldiers to hold the Empress.”
“Oh, of course. Well, if they’ll move aside—”
“I would prefer to do so at a later time. It would be a blow to the coalition if Tiqr’s [Empress] and army were to escape.”
Thelican did a double-take, looking around and then darkly towards Nsiia. The [Empress] glanced at him, and returned to watching Femithain. The Magus-Crafter stepped forwards. Thelican hurried over; more [Generals] were appearing and they were all seeing Illivere’s army holding the Empress.
The Stitch-[General] was red-faced, but Femithain was still very, very careful. Thelican commanded a vast army and Nerrhavia’s leadership may be pompous, but they were still very good at and willing to kill if need be.
“There’s no way she could escape. Magus-Crafter, I’d be grateful if your men would release her—my [Queen] would like to speak to you. We can sort this out later, eh?”
“And I would be glad to, General Thelican. However, if her people were to see her collared, or perhaps, attacked, they might well revolt, surrender or not.”
Thelican shot a glance at the citizens kneeling in the dust. He hesitated, but Femithain knew he would insist. Which was why Savere’s [Bandit Lady] was such a pleasant and calculated interruption.
“Make way! Move, rot your hides! Where’s the [Empress]? She’s Savere’s prisoner! Move or we’ll run you rotted maggots down!”
A group of cavalry were riding through the army, quite literally doing what they’d threatened. [Soldiers] moved out of the way of the horses and Lady Urele, Savere’s commander, rode straight for Illivere’s army. She turned to find Nsiia, and Thelican whirled on her.
“Commander Urele! Return to your position.”
“Shut up silk boy! You—Magus-whatever! Where’s the [Empress]? She’s our prisoner, got it? Anyone who objects can answer to the Siren!”
Urele rode around in a dangerous circle. She had a horsewhip and she unstrung it now, cracking the air and forcing everyone around her back. She spotted Nsiia among the Golems at last.
“There! Grab her!”
“The Empress of Beasts is a prisoner of Queen Yisame!”
Thelican roared, but it was too late. Some of Savere’s riders leapt from their saddles and swept towards Nsiia. The Golems moved, raising their warhammers. Like Nerrhavia’s best, Savere’s most infamous hesitated. They might be high-level, but there was something about a giant stone Golem lifting a hammer over your head that made even the bravest think about their life choices.
Lady Urele whirled on Femithain.
“You! Mage-boy! Order your Golems to stand aside before my people dice them!”
Femithain began, but General Thelican leapt in. Now he was purple with fury.
“Soldiers! Form a wall between the Empress and Savere’s irregulars! She is Nerrhavian property!”
The Saverian [Rogues] moved back warily as the silk-cloth warriors stepped forwards, brandishing their curved blades. Femithain heard a mocking call as one warrior slashed out, making a [Rogue] leap back and swear at him. Urele stared at Thelican.
“Move your handkerchiefs, Thelican.”
The Stitch-[General]’s face darkened.
“Remove yourself, Commander Urele, before my army removes you.”
The two commanders stared at each other, their soldiers tense, on edge. The air was sparking, and more armies were still converging. Another [Commander] rode forwards—Femithain recognized Lady Yucale of Lamult.
“What’s going on here? Is the battle over? We’ve yet to take the city!”
She was clearly out of the loop, or else regarded the battle as only ‘won’ when someone planted a flag in a conquered city. She caught sight of the standoff and hesitated.
“Move aside for Xern’s [Strategist]! I said, move aside! Is anyone listening?”
Another leader, the [Strategist] of Xern, forced to dismount and fight through the press of bodies on foot. Femithain was counting heads. Seven, eight…nearly all the coalition’s leaders were nearby, or in earshot. Thelican was bellowing at all of them to listen to him! Urele was looking around, and some of her people were slipping to the sides, trying to find a way through Dellic’s circle around Nsiia.
And at that moment, General Heic proved why he was a [General] of Deimos. He looked at Femithain, checked his own army, mixed with all the others in this scrum, and then raised his arm and bellowed.
“Deimos salutes Illivere’s splendid triumph over the Empress of Beasts!”
His voice rang over the others, a product of a [Loud Voice] Skill or truly prodigious lungs. Femithain saw Urele and Thelican both look around, along with Xern’s [Strategist], Lady Yucale, and all the others. Heic bellowed again.
“Illivere has accepted Tiqr’s surrender! The war is over! Huzzah!”
“No, it was a coalition led—”
Thelican’s voice was drowned out by a roar from around him. Heic turned and shouted at his [Soldiers].
Deimos’ army began applauding, and cheering the end of the battle. That was enough. The tired [Soldiers], most of whom did not care who had accepted whose surrender so long as they didn’t have to fight another hyena or elephant, began cheering as well. Soon, they were shouting.
Femithain listened, bemused, but also grateful. He saw Heic turn his head and the [General] gave him the most unsecretive wink Femithain had ever seen. Then Thelican was bearing down on Femithain.
Femithain beat him to it. The Magus-Crafter clicked his fingers and his two Golems moved aside. He turned—and Thelican was walking by his side.
“General Thelican, let us speak freely. Lady Yucale, my apologies. Yes, the war is over. Thelican, may we converse?”
“Of course! I—this is a bit of a disaster—[Strategists]! No one gets near the Empress! Surround, er, Illivere’s formation!”
“Xern’s [Strategist] does not obey orders from—”
“I was speaking to my [Strategists]!”
Thelican roared back. He whirled and Femithain knew it was time. The Magus-Crafter took a breath. He was conscious of Lady Yucale hovering on their left, Urele trying to bully her way to Nsiia as she glared at him, and all the other messengers, officers, and high-ranking leaders around him, listening in. He wove a quick [Bubble of Silence] spell, but he had no doubt it would be penetrated.
And Thelican was turning towards him, and Femithain knew one thing: there were at least two dozen truth spells aimed at him. So he told the truth. That was the first thing you had to learn to survive events like these.
“Magus-Crafter. This surrender business.”
Femithain gave Thelican an apologetic smile.
Thelican looked relieved.
“Yes! Certainly! Those damn Archmages—er—my information was terribly flawed! We were ready for an attack, and then Tiqr just rolls over? But why did the Empress of Beasts surrender to you?”
Femithain paused, and he chose his words carefully.
“The Empress of Tiqr’s surrender was a pleasant surprise. However, I believe Illivere’s terms of surrender are most palatable to her.”
Especially because he hadn’t offered her any. But Thelican’s eyes widened.
“Queen Yisame made her offer, and I know the Siren laid out her terms. But Illivere…?”
Femithain waved off the specifics.
“Illivere wishes an acceptable end to the war, General Thelican. I can promise you that I offered the Empress nothing that would trouble the coalition.”
“But her surrender to you—the Empress is a valuable prisoner, Magus-Crafter. I can see those Saverian dogs sniffing around her formation—let me pull up two battalions and we’ll escort Nsiia to our camp.”
Femithain shook his head.
“General Thelican, I am well aware of the exigencies of Queen Yisame’s requests. For now, however, let us discuss the division of Tiqr’s assets.”
“Of which the Empress of Beasts is non-negotiable—”
“Illivere is, of course, prepared to back Nerrhavia’s claim to Oliphant and its citizens. As well as Nerrhavia’s strong claim towards occupation of the bulk of Tiqr’s territory.”
Thelican paused. He looked at Femithain.
“Occupation? What are you talking about?”
The Magus-Crafter raised his eyebrows.
“Nerrhavia intends to occupy Oliphant, does it not? Tiqr’s citizens may be difficult to return to their settlements at first, but if Oliphant is repopulated by at least three hundred thousand, that should leave many able to return to their lives across the nation. We can hope more refugees will return in time as well.”
“What? What are you talking about, man? These are all…”
Thelican broke off, staring past Femithain at the sea of Tiqr’s citizens. Femithain raised an eyebrow.
“General Thelican, I do not believe even Roshal is inclined to house and feed hundreds of thousands of [Slaves] at such short notice. Let alone the cost of transport and training? They would never make it to Roshal.”
“True! There are far too many even with prisoner trains. Dead gods, but we’d have to feed them. I imagine Roshal would pay to send their own scouting for likely slaves, but—the coalition can divide them up. Savere’s ships will take tens of thousands, I have no doubt.”
“Unless of course you returned them to Tiqr.”
“Why would we do that?”
The Magus-Crafter gave Thelican a long look. The [General] flushed, sensing Femithain’s confusion.
“A slave-state, General Thelican. Isn’t that the most effective solution to the issue?”
The [General] paused. Then his eyes lit up.
“You mean, an occupied country?”
“You can hardly sell all the slaves. Savere’s fleets would fail to move even a fifth of this many people and Nerrhavia would spend as much as it earned to broker a mass-sale. The Slavers of Roshal would hardly offer as much for regular citizens. A slave-state on the other hand…”
It was a practice familiar to Chandrarian nations. A subservient nation that was effectively a vassal of a larger one, forced to supply almost all of its goods to its ruler, who usually kept a large garrison within the country to ensure a happy and continuing relationship. It was also of particular note to Thelican and Nerrhavia. The [General] frowned darkly.
“Nerrhavia was a slave-state, Magus-Crafter.”
“A subservient region, then. I very much doubt Nerrhavia’s citizens are inclined to move to Tiqr without encouragement. On the other hand, Tiqr is rich in land.”
Thelican rubbed his jaw. He was calming down, now, and he was starting to think about more than his reputation and Yisame’s fury. He glanced towards the city in the distance, and then the dam his army had built.
“A military presence would be required, but Oliphant does have a river. And it’s agriculturally rich. Dead gods, but you’re right. Here, but that’s a discussion for after…”
He paused and looked at Femithain. The Magus-Crafter nodded.
“Illivere would naturally support Nerrhavia’s claim. Its armies have made the greatest contributions to the war.”
“Really? To Oliphant and—how much of Tiqr?”
Thelican was interested. New land, even for a nation as large as Nerrhavia, was tempting to a [General], who might well get a large cut of the pie. Femithain nodded.
“Shall we discuss the matter? Naturally, each member of the coalition will require a share.”
“And a percentage of the population. You’re right! That would be simple. But the Empress?”
Thelican was glancing at Femithain suspiciously. The Magus-Crafter lifted his shoulders.
“May we discuss the matter? Let me explain my position, General Thelican. The Empress of Beast’s surrender was a fortunate accident. However, her capture…it is a matter of politics, General Thelican. Do you recall that I am elected as Magus-Crafter on a yearly basis.”
“Ah, yes. By your…er, democracy?”
Thelican fumbled for the words. Femithain nodded. Urele was now fighting her way towards him.
“Of a sort, General Thelican. But my support is based on my accomplishments. The Empress of Beasts would be an asset. I would consider it a personal favor, of course, were you to intercede on Illivere’s behalf with Queen Yisame.”
“But Queen Yisame…”
Troubled, Thelican glanced back towards the waiting [Messengers]. Femithain coughed.
“Without Nerrhavia’s support, I believe I would be forced to cede Empress Nsiia’s captivity. Perhaps to Nerrhavia, but I imagine Savere will wish to force the issue.”
And it’s a long way to Nerrhavia. Both men thought of Saverian raids and the issue of transporting a prisoner that far. Thelican shuddered, but he persisted.
“Magus-Crafter Femithain, you and your army have done me any number of services. But this is a matter of Nerrhavian pride. How would it look if the Empress of Beasts were not taken as Nerrhavia’s prisoner?”
“Fairly innocuous, General Thelican? It would be a personal gesture of friendship.”
“I couldn’t persuade you to give her up? I would consider that a token of friendship myself.”
The laughter from the Magus-Crafter surprised Thelican. Femithain smiled at the Stitch-[General] and shook his head.
“General Thelican, greed does not become you. Would you have Illivere support Nerrhavia’s claim to Oliphant and the division of Tiqr’s lands and cede the Empress of Beasts?”
The [General] was left tongue-tied. He looked at Femithain, back at the Empress, and Femithain could see him weighing his options. What decided Thelican in the end was Oliphant. It was a beautiful city and it had not been taken by war. The [General] eyed it, and Femithain could practically see the Stitch-Man thinking.
It would need a [General] to garrison it. And it could be quite wealthy if Tiqr’s citizens got back to work. Someone who owned that city and the land around it? They were practically a [Prince]. What was that to a prisoner who would please only one [Queen]? Slowly, Thelican turned back to Femithain and nodded.
“Queen Yisame is quite insistent, Magus-Crafter. But even she cannot wish for Dragons, eh?”
“Very true, General.”
“Let’s…discuss the issue. Yes, indeed. Allow me a moment to converse with my [Queen]?”
Thelican didn’t wait for a response. He was already hurrying towards his primary [Mage], and Femithain saw him moving his lips, composing a [Message]. The Magus-Crafter turned—
And a hand latched onto one arm. Urele glared at Femithain.
“You. Magus-Crafter. The Siren wants a word.”
Femithain saw one of his bodyguard Golems raise his sword. He raised a hand and Urele warily let go. He nodded towards her. This was the second challenge. If Thelican could be persuaded to convince Yisame, the same wasn’t true of Urele. Femithain didn’t know her, and even if he had, he was quite aware that the only person who could sway the Siren was Revine herself.
“Magus-Crafter! What’s this rot I hear about Illivere taking the Empress of Beasts prisoner? Give her to Urele. Now.”
The Siren of Savere was not a pleasant person to converse with when angry. She didn’t converse so much as bark orders. Magus-Crafter Femithain pursed his lips as he spoke into the enchanted conch shell that Urele had given him.
“Queen Revine, the matter is not so simple.”
“No? Urele tells me Illivere’s army holds the Empress. I will have that bitch collared and sent to me. Unless you want to challenge Savere over it?”
The voice snapped back. Femithain stared at the conch and then at Urele. The [Bandit Lady] was listening, staring between Femithain and the artifact. Femithain sighed. The first thing you had to do with Revine was—
“Queen Revine. Are you aware of Queen Yisame’s claim on Empress Nsiia?”
The voice on the other end of the conch went silent. Then Revine’s voice came back, a lot calmer, quieter, and decidedly more worrying.
“Magus-Crafter. Are you planning on turning over the Empress of Beasts to Nerrhavia? I would take that as an insult.”
There it was. The Siren of Savere could be a raging tempest, but when she was truly angry, she went quiet. Femithain paused, and saw Urele shift. She had daggers sewn into her armor. But he met her gaze levelly as he replied.
“Queen Revine, let me be frank. General Thelican has expressed Nerrhavia’s desire to have the Empress of Beasts in no uncertain terms. Were I to forfeit her capture, I have no doubt they might force the issue, and Illivere is ill-capable of resisting such a demand.”
Revine paused. Femithain continued.
“If Savere is willing to press the issue, I will have no option but to cede Empress Nsiia’s capture. I would prefer not to, but I have no inclination to cross Nerrhavia. I trust you understand my situation?”
The perfect truth. Femithain fancied he heard grinding teeth on the other end.
“Magus-Crafter. Give the shell to Urele. Urele.”
Femithain passed the conch to Urele, and saw the [Bandit Lady] raise it to one ear. She grimaced, whispered urgently into the shell—it was her turn to turn away to muffle the conversation. But Femithain believed he understood that the Siren was asking for Urele to spell out just how likely Savere was to win an altercation with Nerrhavia.
The cursing coming from the conch confirmed Femithain’s theory as Urele passed the conch back. Femithain heard Revine’s voice on the other end, still cold and deliberate.
”Who’s getting the Empress of Beasts, then? Illivere?”
“General Thelican may agree to that. He is concerned with the distribution of Tiqr’s land more than the Empress’ capture, I believe.”
The tone of Revine’s voice darkened audibly.
“He wants Tiqr? Oliphant is Savere’s. I’ll deal with him after this. Fine. Keep the Empress for now. But hear me, Magus-Crafter. I want her. When everything’s quiet, you’ll hear from me. We’ll discuss our terms then.”
“As you wish.”
Femithain lowered the conch. He handed it back to Urele. The [Bandit Lady] gave him an odd look.
“The Queen’s letting you have the Empress? Fancy free, that’s unusual. She doesn’t like giving her toys away to anyone. We’ll talk to you later, Magus-man.”
Femithain decided not to dignify that with a response. He let Urele talk into the conch and walked back. Thelican was waiting for him, and as Urele strode towards them, a second meeting commenced. This time in Thelican’s personal tent, although no one was lounging about. The Stitch-General was pointing down to a map of Tiqr as he led the conversation.
Xern’s [Strategist], General Heic, Lady Yucale, all of them were in hot debate over what was to be done with Tiqr. They would have gotten around to the idea of dividing Tiqr up in time; one look at the army of citizens told anyone with sense that they weren’t going to be easy prisoners. Thelican was speaking loudly.
“Oliphant will be occupied by Nerrhavia’s army. We will discuss a more formal division of Tiqr—”
“Oliphant? That’s ours! And we’re taking those prisoners. Slaves.”
Urele snapped at Thelican. The Stitch-[General] turned and stared down at her.
“The citizens of Tiqr are, by the grace of her Majesty Yisame, now Nerrhavian citizens. Second-class.”
The word burst from half a dozen mouths. Xern’s [Strategist] was foaming at the mouth.
“Xern has an equal claim to Tiqr’s citizens! If we are dividing land—”
“Illivere will cede our claim to Oliphant.”
Femithain’s cool voice made the other leaders look to him. Thelican turned with a smile and Heic raised his brows. Femithain nodded, meeting every eye.
“Generals, commanders, a more formal arrangement may be struck by our nation’s respective leaders at a later date. But in the interest of time, we must reach a settlement now. Thus, as Illivere has claimed the Empress of Beasts, we will be content to cede our claim on Tiqr’s lands, save for a moderate expansion along our borders.”
That pleased everyone in the room. One less claim? And aside from a disappointed few who might have wanted to claim the Empress of Beasts, no one, most importantly Thelican and Urele, objected to that either. Femithain went on.
“Tiqr’s divisions of lands will require at least a majority agreement by the members of the coalition. I propose to leave each nation a proportionate amount of land to their contributions. For instance, Deimos’ borders could naturally expand to the Reic River; it does run through their borders. Which would create a natural border with Nerrhavian territory around—”
“Xern claims the Reen Plains!”
“That’s not up for debate! Reen borders Lamult—”
“Oliphant belongs to Savere!”
Urele slammed a fist down on the table. Thelican glared at her, and then looked around at the other leaders.
“Savere will be content with an expansion on the southern borders, surely? It would be greedy of Savere to demand the entire southern and central regions of Tiqr!”
Most of the other leaders nodded. Urele stared around, and then narrowed her eyes at Thelican.
“You want to take it, silk-boy? That’s Savere’s spoils!”
The Saverian [Bandit Lady] glared daggers at Nerrhavia’s [General]. Outraged, Thelican raised his own voice. Femithain carefully watched, seeing the shift in the currents.
Savere was an unpopular nation, for all that the Siren of Tides and their alliances with [Pirates] and [Bandits] the world over gave them the strength. Urele was outmatched, and aside from supporting Heic’s claim to the Reic River and Thelican’s to Oliphant when it came to a vote, Thelican had little else to say.
[Bandit Lady] Urele stormed out of Thelican’s tent after two hours of hot debate, hurling oaths and promising that this wasn’t over. But Thelican was already moving Nerrhavia’s army into Oliphant along with a bulk of the citizens, and the rest of the coalition’s army was preparing to break up.
Femithain found Armsmaster Dellic almost exactly where he’d left him. Illivere’s army was still guarding Nsiia. Dellic sprang to his feet when he saw the Magus-Crafter approaching.
“Magus-Crafter. May I ask what’s happening?”
“Tiqr’s division is more or less complete. The coalition has agreed on a temporary set of new borders. Nerrhavia will leave a large garrison at Oliphant—Illivere’s army will return home.”
Femithain’s news provoked a cheer from the living army. Nsiia raised her head from between the Golems standing watch over her. Femithain saw Dellic looking towards her as well.
“And the Empress?”
“A captive of Illivere.”
Dellic inhaled. Femithain waited.
The man took his time in replying.
“…Is this Illivere’s reward for its contributions in the war, Magus-Crafter? If Nerrhavia has Oliphant…”
Femithain shook his head.
“Illivere does not need land, Armsmaster. Far better to sacrifice soil for friendship; our Golems provide our workforce in any case. As for the Empress of Beasts—she is a political prisoner. That is my determination and I will explain myself before the Head Artificers if necessary.”
Dellic might have had more reservations, but he didn’t voice them, which was a merciful change. Femithain ordered Illivere’s army to prepare for the return march. As he was discussing the guard on Nsiia—Femithain was most wary of Savere, despite Revine’s agreement—General Heic came riding towards him. The man looked rather pleased as he dismounted to shake Femithain’s hand.
“Well done, Magus-Crafter! Not a bad day’s work, eh? A battle avoided—a shame, I’d have liked to level up. But that was some smooth diplomacy if ever I’ve seen it!”
“You’re too kind, General Heic. I merely reached a compromise.”
Heic gave Femithain a sharp look.
“Did you? I rather think it went the way you wanted, Magus-Crafter. I can’t believe Nerrhavia and Savere both gave up on the Empress. The way their [Queens] were going—but they’re more interested in pissing on each other than Illivere.”
Femithain saw Dellic shake his head.
“Crudely put, General Heic, but perhaps. Have I contented Deimos as well?”
The [General] chuckled.
“Give us the Reic river and I think my [King] will be content, Femithain. Better Nerrhavia to have Oliphant than Savere; I’d hate to share a border with them. Their raids are bad enough. Congratulations, then! You have the Empress of Beasts. I can’t fault you on that, for all I’m jealous! A fine addition to a seraglio.”
His voice reached Nsiia from where she stood. She turned and regarded Heic; the [General] stared back, before laughing and clapping Femithain on the shoulder.
“You might need to watch yourself in the bedroom, though, Magus-Crafter! Or call for one of Roshal’s trainers. In any case, I’m proud to have marched with Illivere! No [King] took to the field—or [Queen], save for the Siren, but you were there start to finish! I’d call on you in Illivere, once this is all settled down.”
“I should look forwards to it, General Heic. And I will extend an invitation when time permits.”
He held out a hand. He did like Heic in his own way, and Thelican his. Femithain would have to seek him out as well to thank him for his efforts. Funny, how you could like someone and detest parts of them at the same time. But then, people were so complicated compared to Golems. Heic bade Femithain farewell as he rode with Deimos’ army.
That left only Dellic, Femithain, and Nsiia. Femithain walked through the watchful Golems.
“I am only Nsiia, now. It seems that [General] was right, Magus-Crafter. You are good at what you do.”
Nsiia watched Femithain curiously. The Magus-Crafter inclined his head.
“One tries, Empress Nsiia. Let me assure you that you are a guest of Illivere. I would not wish to anger the King of Destruction.”
She blinked slowly at him. She was like a caged hyena, Femithain thought. Intelligent—capable of reason—but like a hyena, never truly a pet. You couldn’t tame them, only feed them, or leash them. She bared her teeth.
“Do you have any true allies, Femithain of Illivere?”
He calmly met her eyes.
“Illivere survives, Empress. We choose the best course of action as we can. That is a Golem’s logic. I fear it makes poor people of us.”
Nsiia shook her head. She stared at him, and then sagged. She bowed her head as she leaned against one of the stone Golems, staring at Femithain. After a while, she spoke up.
“Do you even have a harem, Magus-Crafter?”
“I will have someone provide a proper label on the guest rooms. Perhaps a sign.”
Nsiia stared at Femithain. Then she laughed, surprised at his joke. She laughed and laughed—and then choked on the laughter. But she didn’t sob. She just sat down and bowed her head. Behind her, Nerrhavia’s army swept into Tiqr. Its citizens, some of them, returned to their homes, only to find them looted by the Hemp-[Soldiers].
Some didn’t return home; they were taken by the armies of other nations, captives to become [Slaves], or to work their lands and occupations again, but as citizens of another nation. Femithain saw it all as he stood with his Golems, listening to Dellic give orders. He saw Nsiia’s bowed head, the trickling tears down her cheeks.
He left her to her grief. Tiqr was still fallen. She was a prisoner. And her people were subjects. Or slaves. Femithain shook his head. No, there was little for Nsiia to laugh about. And as Femithain walked back to congratulate Thelican again and pledge to visit him in Nerrhavia when time allowed, he reflected that while he had done Nsiia some small mercies, she would never thank him for it.
Femithain was not a good man. He knew that for a fact.
So, Tiqr fell. It happened with words, and negotiations and a lot of confusion near the end, but that was how it always went. Anyone who’d ever conquered anything knew it wasn’t a simple process. And in truth, when the dust had settled, the facts were fairly straightforward.
Tiqr had fallen. The Empress of Beasts had been captured, alive, and the nation divided by its conquerors. Some of the citizens of Tiqr were now subjects of another land, or slaves, or simply fled. Tiqr had been erased, and that was that.
Oh—and an army had escaped the capital in the confusion. General Vasraf had declared that he would never cede Tiqr to invaders and had sworn to liberate his home with the rest of Tiqr’s army and nearly a hundred thousand of Tiqr’s citizens. They’d fled to the Kilalle Steppes, too quickly for the coalition to pursue in the aftermath of Tiqr’s surrender.
They’d be a problem and a big one if they weren’t rooted out. There was nothing like angry people deprived of their home to ferment insurrection. And on that note, Tiqr was divided, but the land was hardly as simple as an expansion of every nation’s borders.
Nerrhavia alone had claimed Oliphant, and so it had now expanded out of its natural borders. It would have to maintain a standing army in the region, which would alarm the other nations who would have to do likewise to maintain order and watch each other.
All of that was enough to provoke a heated discussion by anyone who had interests in the region, or just Chandrar in general. It was messy, and would throw a Creler into the politics of the nations around Tiqr—and it was already politics.
That wasn’t what had nations of the world in an uproar, though. No. In fact, Tiqr’s defeat had actually been overshadowed by the scandal that occurred as Tiqr was surrendering. Femithain had been completely oblivious to it, along with everyone who was actually at Tiqr.
It was the worldwide announcement that Wistram had put out from the Mage’s Guilds. As people were waiting for the news of the siege on Oliphant to come through, a highest-priority [Message] had come blasting out of every Mage’s Guild! It was a denouncement of the King of Destruction allying with Tiqr to destroy the Nerrhavian-led coalition! He had broken his vow of peace if not in practice, than in spirit! Wistram condemned the warmongering action by Reim—
For about, oh, ten minutes, the news had been echoing. The King of Destruction had allied with Tiqr! Except even that didn’t convey the alarm.
THE KING OF DESTRUCTION HAS ALLIED WITH TIQR; THE COALITION ARMIES COULD BE WIPED OUT. THE DREAMERS OF REIM ARE MARCHING. ALL BETS ARE OFF. PANIC. And even then, it could have used italics.
For ten minutes, everyone was waiting to see who’d declare on Reim. No—would Tiqr win? How had it happened?
Then had come a very subdued message from the Mage’s Guilds. No, wait, cancel the last declaration. Reim had not, uh, allied with Tiqr. The [Message] had been in error, and Wistram had falsely reported the information supplied to them without proper verification. The academy regretted the mistake—Tiqr had in fact, fallen, without the King of Destruction’s support, surrendering to Illivere.
Niers Astoragon, the Titan of Baleros, second-in-command of the Forgotten Wing Company, etc. etc., had nearly laughed himself off his podium in the classroom. To be fair, it was as much outrage as hilarity; the nervous titter running through his class was an echo of the emotions that had to be running through the other nations in the world.
“This is a disaster! Wistram just announced Reim went to war when it didn’t? How could those idiots let that happen?”
The students in Niers’ special class were all nodding. Wistram was the backbone of Mage’s Guilds, a reliable source of, well information. This was beyond scandalous! The fact that Wil Kallinad, normally one of the most reserved members of Niers’ class when it came to voicing his opinions had said it was a sign of how bad it was. Venaz was staring down at the map of Oliphant in disbelief. He looked up sharply, breaking away from the simulation Niers’ class had been running of the battle.
“They must have been spying. How else would they have known it?”
“What? Venaz, are you snorting Dancepetals?”
Marian the Centauress turned and gave Venaz the fisheye. But Niers pulled himself upright and waved at Venaz.
“No, continue that thought, Venaz.”
The Minotaur nodded. He pointed at the [Message] spells frantically appearing on the scroll Niers had ordered spread on the table where all the students were sitting. It was attuned to hold sets of [Messages] addressed to it; normally few spells reached this scroll as they would have to be broadcast the world over, like general alerts. Right now ink was appearing and disappearing as the [Messages] popped off faster than anyone could read them. Venaz glared at the map of Oliphant as he spoke.
“Professor, I’ve heard rumors that Wistram was able to spy through scrying orbs. They announced the King of Destruction was allying himself with the Empress of Beasts before she even left Oliphant’s gates, if the timing on this is right. They had to have been spying in some way to have believed—falsely—that they were going to ally? How else would they have assumed this?”
“They wouldn’t do that. Wistram doesn’t spy, surely!”
A shocked voice from one of the newer students. Niers shook his head sadly and the older students sighed. The Fraerling addressed the young man.
“Always expect the enemy to do what benefits them, Reniz. Never mind the ethics of it. And I’d say Venaz is right. Or at the very least, Wistram believed some very bad information.”
He shook his head, steading himself.
“This was clearly a bad mistake among Wistram’s [Mages]. A false statement broadcast the world over?”
“Beyond scandalous. Their credibility is ruined. What if they had announced the Iron Vanguard had launched an attack on a city owned by Maelstrom’s Howling? Or a Terandrian kingdom had attacked another? They could have started a war!”
Cameral, the Dullahan, looked truly upset. Some of the other students were nodding. Umina, Marian, Venaz, Cameral, Wil—all were some degree of angry at Wistram’s mistake. On the other hand, Yerranola, the Selphid, and Feshi, the Gnoll, both looked as amused as Niers.
The Titan chuckled as he read some of the [Messages] being shot through the Mage’s Guilds. Rulers the world over were expressing their fury at the false news in no uncertain terms. He waved at one of the [Servants] attending the lesson.
“Copy these down, would you? I want to save them for later reading.”
He didn’t wait for the nod, but instead stomped on the desk for his class’ attention. Niers waited for silence, and then spoke in a level voice.
“We’ll be discussing what measures you would take as a [Strategist] after learning about this mistake by Wistram. And this was a test—I imagine a number of [Strategists] are going to be questioning every [Message] that comes through Wistram, or expanding their own information networks. If you were advising a nation’s ruler, especially in Chandrar, this is a situation where you wouldn’t want to be caught off-guard by bad information. But for now let’s focus on what we do know. Tiqr has fallen.”
He students looked up and nodded. Order returned as Niers pointed at the map of Tiqr.
“Get rid of the siege map. We’ll revisit it and see if they could have won with the King of Destruction’s Skills later. For now, let’s analyze the situation, class. What have the coalition gained from this war? My view is that their gains are almost outweighed by their losses. Thoughts?”
Niers would have been happy to hear a dissenting voice, but everyone agreed with him, which wasn’t bad. Umina, the Lizardgirl, gave her analysis, speaking over the others as they debated the issue.
“Tiqr’s army is still intact and worse, led by Tiqr’s [General]. He has to have leveled up from the war and if he strikes from the Kilalle Steppes, the coalition will have to watch their backs for years unless they’re able to hunt them down. And that would mean angering Kilalle’s Garuda tribes—”
“Never a good idea. Remember Peki, from the officer classes? I once ate her sandwich and she still has it out for me. She holds a grudge forever. Almost as bad as Drakes, like Kissilt.”
Marian shook her head, her mane of hair nearly whipping Feshi in the face. Across the table, Kissilt looked up at her.
“Go eat your tail, Marian! You still owe me fifteen silver!”
“No, I don’t!”
Niers smiled. He restored order again and got each student’s take—assuming they had something new to add. His class were discussing what actions they expected each nation to take, reviewing it against the facts—Niers was quite interested to see that Empress Nsiia was Illivere’s captive.
“Always consider the ruler. Feshi, you have a thought?”
“Hrr. Femithain is cunning. And he backs whoever the wind favors. He’s not taking much land—do you notice? He must suspect holding onto Tiqr will be as much trouble as conquering it. I think it is a wise move. If the people of Tiqr are like Gnolls, they will strike again and again rather than let these new nations take their home.”
Niers nodded approvingly as he glanced out a window.
“Suitably grounded in historical precedent. Time will tell. Ah, but look at the sun! We’re already out of time. We’ll pick up our analysis of the battle tomorrow, and see what the political fallout is! Your homework? Be prepared to offer me the best way to defeat the coalition’s army with a force like the Dreamers of Reim, and conversely, how to defeat the Dreamers! Bonus points to anyone who can cite me examples of when they’ve lost and how it was done!”
His students began packing up their things, or writing down notes. Niers saw them glancing at him and smiled.
“And Umina and Wil—”
The classroom froze. The Lizardgirl and [Lord] looked up, suddenly alert. Was today the day? The students held their breath, waiting. The Titan’s eyes twinkled. And at last, he nodded to them.
“You two look tired. Get some proper sleep!”
The room exhaled as one. Umina and Wil sagged as Niers merrily strode to the Fraerling-ways that would lead him through his citadel and to his quarters. Venaz silently patted Wil on the shoulder. Marian exhaled as she walked next to Umina.
“It’s been weeks! He’s just teasing us. He does it every class.”
“It’s not just mean, it’s sadistic.”
Cameral agreed, locking his head into place on his shoulders. He looked sympathetic; everyone in the classroom had been expecting Niers to summon Wil and Umina to let them ask their question, the one question he’d answer truthfully! But he hadn’t, and it had been over a month.
“It’s like getting a wish from a Jinn. I knew it was too good to be true.”
Yerranola exclaimed as the older students moved out of the class. Feshi turned her head to stare at the Selphid.
“I think that’s what they’re called. They live on Chandrar. I was doing research and apparently they’re one of the dead species. You know, like harpies?”
“Oh. What’s this about a wish?”
“Legend has it that you could get them to grant you wishes. Except, you know, they’re always bad, or they don’t get fulfilled the way you think.”
“Typical. But the Professor isn’t nearly so dishonorable. This is clearly another one of his pranks. Or—a lesson! He wouldn’t withhold the question once you’ve won it!”
Venaz snorted. By now, the other students had reconciled themselves to Umina and Wil’s victory, at least outwardly. Marian nodded. Umina just clutched at her midriff.
“My stomach hurts. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to ask the question when it finally happens. I mean—”
She looked at Wil. He was staring ahead. After a moment, he glanced up.
“I wonder how this affects the King of Destruction. Tiqr was an ally—but it makes sense not to have supported it. It’s too far away and it clearly couldn’t hold. It’s a thorn in the conquering nation’s sides now, but that’s still one less ally. I’m going to do some research. Anyone joining me?”
“Wil! We were talking about the question!”
“I’m not thinking about it. Or else I’ll panic wondering how long I have to wait.”
The young man compressed his lips. The other students nodded; that was wise. After a moment, a voice spoke up from the back.
The Centauress turned and saw Kissilt, the surly Drake walking with them. He normally didn’t keep company with them given Umina’s presence. The Drake looked straight at Marian.
“What? Anything wrong, Kissilt?”
“Yeah. Marian, give me my damn money!”
They said Femithain was cunning. A pragmatic leader who moved his country to best suit it. And of course, they said the Titan was a genius, one of the greatest—perhaps the greatest [Strategists] in the world. And that was probably true. But here’s a question ‘they’ sometimes forgot to ask.
How great was ‘greatest’? If you were the world’s best, were you the best the world had ever seen? Ever? In the entire history of the world, from start to finish, was Niers Astoragon the, definitively best, undisputed champion of [Strategists]?
No. Of course not! History was a far crueler measure than ‘now’. And ‘they’ deserved the same contempt. ‘They’ had memories that barely extended to childhood and only inaccurate and often biased accounts of history to rely on. And history was written not only by the victors, but often, by people who hadn’t actually been there. Could you really trust a [Historian] to do their job right? A [Writer] to lay out the facts without bias?
Of course not. Today was always better than yesterday. Or the past was always good because it was old and thus nostalgic. The future was ever waiting and people were stupid because they forgot. Niers Astoragon might be among the best [Strategists] today. But was he the best in a hundred years? What about three hundred? Three thousand? Did he even rank on the top 100 list of best [Strategists] this millennia?
The Quarass of Germina knew the answer. Or at least, she had a better chance of answering a question like that than almost anyone in this world. Because she remembered. She had lived and died lifetimes upon lifetimes, and she could remember the best of the best. They’d all died like the rest, but she could measure and recall.
That was her power. That was what made the Quarass of Germina dangerous, powerful. That was what made her ruler of Germina, protector of Ger, one of the four Shield Kingdoms of Chandrar. And she remembered why Germina was a Shield Kingdom. She was the Quarass, and she had died mere months ago. But the Quarass lives.
The Quarass lives. And now she sat in Reim, in a castle that she could remember being built oh, fifteen hundred years ago. Well, it had been just a keep then; it had only achieved the current form around eight hundred years back, give or take, after a number of renovations and three sackings. And it was even different now, thanks to the efforts of Drevish, the [Architect], one of the King’s Seven.
He had been gifted. The Quarass had known any number of [Architects] and talented builders and planners of wonders over her many lives. Even so, she ranked Drevish as in her top twenty. Probably even top ten. She took points off because she disliked his personality. Or at least, the other Quarass had.
She remembered it. A woman who feared the King of Destruction, enough to risk everything to kill him. She had spoken with the Emperor of Sands, listened to his words over the warnings in her head. The Quarass could remember her death. She remembered her last scream, choking, trying to flee. And the face of her death. Red-gold hair. And a sword.
It was a memory a second old. A lifetime past. But it still disconcerted her. For now that same person sat in front of her. Flos of Reim, Flos Reimarch, the King of Destruction, her death, was listening. Rain had been falling, but it had stopped at last. Now, the water dripped from the eaves of his palace. He raised his head and spoke quietly.
“Yes. So I am told.”
The Quarass spoke of Tiqr, of the events she had heard through her own sources. Tiqr had fallen. Empress Nsiia lived. Flos nodded, his shoulders relaxing.
“I am relieved. I have heard of Illivere and their Magus-Crafter. In passing. The man seems capable. And Nsiia may well…”
He trailed off. He did not look happy, for all the news was a relief. The Quarass studied him.
They were an odd pair. He was far older than her, still physically fit and showing little signs of his age, but nevertheless past his prime when he had terrified the world. And she? She was a girl. Barely thirteen. Nevertheless, they were rulers.
And he still mourned. Empress Nsiia, one of his companions of old had survived. That relieved the King of Destruction, clearly. But he bowed his head. Tiqr had still fallen. Flos Reimarch stared past the Quarass. She searched her memories for a time she had seen him thus. A few times. He had looked far worse when he had entered into his slumber.
Hundreds of lifetimes were hers to call upon. She could remember countless faces like the King of Destruction’s, people of every species in their triumphs and despair. She could remember it—and it gave her an insight. The King of Destruction was far from broken. But he was genuinely grieving. That was valuable to know, so the child took the information, trying to use it and her memories to guide her forwards.
That was the Quarass of Germina. Old and young. She was ancient beyond almost any other being in this world. But it was still a child who held the memories, who made the decisions. Thus, each Quarass was different. Some had been wise, others cunning. Some had been cowards, or simply shortsighted. The Quarass could remember them all, how they had thought, and how their own memories had led Germina to success or despair.
That gave her power, for all she was but a girl. Germina took its strength from her. Their famed [Assassins] used techniques she recalled perfectly; no books were needed or had ever been written. The poisons were ones she had designed in lifetimes gone.
She had more power too. Knowledge of classes. Levels. Skills, and secret advancements. That was true power. She could turn her subjects into what best suited them. Her [Highborn], one of the three protectors who had sworn to serve her by blood, Vaitsha, had already begun her change. The Quarass had told her how to change her class—[Highborn of Coin], a weak class, into a rare and deadly one.
The process was not easy, but if Vaitsha had the will, she would become as beautiful and as deadly as the serpents in whose fangs ran Germina’s venom.
However, all that power came with a flaw. The Quarass could see that the world held patterns that repeated themselves. People leveled, acted in certain predictable ways. But the problem was that while things happened the same way, they never, ever happened exactly the same way twice.
The previous Quarass had been a foolish woman. Overly vain, bitter at kneeling to Flos Reimarch. She had never deserved her position to begin with; she had poisoned her mother and taken the throne, only to realize too late what being the Quarass meant. It meant knowing her mother’s contempt for her and the bitterness of her own death. It had broken her. The new Quarass did not wish to end the way of the old.
Tread cautiously, then. The King of Destruction was like many men the Quarasses had met—even been. The current Quarass could remember being a man in a number of her lives. And that was an odd experience. But she had to admit, Flos of Reim wasn’t a simple bull you could anticipate. Parts of him were straightforward beyond belief. But other things made little sense.
He looked up. And straightened, remembering her presence. Flos gave the Quarass a weary smile and reached for a cup.
“Quarass. My apologies. You have caught me unguarded. I confess, the news of Tiqr weighed heavily on my mind. It is done. Let us speak of the present. I have kept you waiting.”
She inclined her head. His words were without guile.
“I understand, King Reimarch. Then, the reason for my visit.”
His gaze sharpened.
“Ah, yes. A discussion of Germina’s future. I have wondered when this conversation would occur.”
“We are allies of Reim. So I have pledged. I would ask you, now, King of Destruction, whether that means serving under Reim, or as true allies of old. And I would know more of your reasons for your return.”
“Ah. The reason for my awakening.”
Flos nodded. He watched the Quarass, now like…his eyes were hard to read. No, not like some bear of a ruler, all straightforward and bullish. Not completely. The Quarass shifted. She had wondered herself what her future held. Now, Flos paused.
“Quarass, I have no plans on erasing Germina. Nor will I put you in danger or threaten your life. I swore by the Shield Kingdoms, by Germina’s soil and Ger’s Oasis to shed my blood before yours. I swore it by Reim, Quarass. I do not forswear that oath.”
That was true. The Quarass wanted to relax, but her memories kept her wary, for all she saw he was telling the truth.
“Nevertheless, Reim may endanger Germina by its ambitions. And we are allies.”
A question. Flos nodded absently.
“Yes. We are, Quarass. But I am aware that the Quarass does what is best for Germina. To endure is your nation’s purpose. I would rather we march in step, but we will see what your choice is.”
He turned his head and the Quarass had an unpleasant sensation as the King of Destruction looked straight through her. After all, he had met her previous incarnations—two of them. He had experience with her. She cursed her predecessor, but kept none of it on her face.
“I cannot swear Germina will follow Reim entirely into the abyss, King Reimarch. But I am not my predecessor.”
Flos studied her and nodded slowly.
“No, you are certainly not. And I am content with sharing my plans with you, Quarass. My ambitions and reason for awakening, at least. I believe the Quarass of Germina is too knowledgeable to act rashly regardless of the situation.”
And because Germina could burn so easily if Reim turned against it. But both knew that went without saying. It was hard for the Quarass to betray Flos Reimarch. She and her kingdom had too much to lose. The Quarass was glad Flos thought the same way. It meant he would trust her. He waved a hand towards the window.
“Before we begin, however—I may have to attend to my second issue of state. You recall the army at my border?”
“Of course. Khelt.”
The army of twenty thousand. The Quarass could well recall what that ‘issue’ was. Flos nodded.
“Khelt. King Fetohep has deigned to send me a message of his displeasure. Mars and Gazi are handling him, but I have no intention of being pressured by Fetohep’s demands.”
“Ah. What does Fetohep will?”
She’d guessed that was the case. The Quarass moved her hand, drank from the cup of water she’d asked for. Wine was a poor drink to converse with in these matters. And she was far too young. Dead gods, but she hated remembering how good it tasted. It was very hard to be an alcoholic in hundreds of lifetimes and sober now.
Flos made a face as he drank from his cup. It wasn’t even great wine, but still—the Quarass resisted the urge to watch.
“At a guess? A vow of non-interference. Pledged in blood, most likely. He senses Reim’s weakness. I’m not inclined to give him what he desires, but you know Khelt.”
She nodded sourly, drinking the nourishing water. Flos went on, wiping his mouth carelessly.
“I would rather have Khelt’s aid, if not their alliance yet. But I believe I would negotiate poorly with Fetohep. He and I do not get along.”
They did not. The Quarass’ memories flickered. Fetohep and the King of Destruction nearly coming to war at a dinner hosted in Khelt’s palace. She sensed an opportunity and jumped on it.
“King Reimarch. If Fetohep’s will is not appeased, he will not cease.”
“I’m sure you’re right. I was thinking of marching an army over his border, but that might provoke him.”
Flos grimaced. The Quarass leaned forwards, keeping her voice neutral to hide her eagerness, but it was hard.
“I could intercede with Fetohep. He has a longstanding connection to Germina.”
“Hm. You would do that for Reim?”
Flos looked pleasantly surprised. The Quarass sat back, carefully.
“We are allies. It would be a small effort. However…if you will tell me what reason you have for awakening from your slumber, I will agree to it. And what makes your two aides, Teres, and Trey, so valuable.”
Her eyes flicked to Flos’ face as he paused. That was the information the Quarass craved. The reason for the King of Destruction’s return? Invaluable in understanding him and in other ways. And his strange followers, the twins? The girl that had been present when he had first met her? Every instinct in the Quarass told her they were important too.
Flos of Reim paused, considering the Quarass’ request for a moment. She held her breath, wondering if she’d been too straightforward with her demands. But he was a straightforward man. She wasn’t prepared for him to grin and nod.
“Of course! I happily agree! You do me a great service, Quarass. Let us speak then, of my return!”
He smiled, laughing, and she stared at his face. Wait. Her memories kicked her in the head. He’d wanted her to ask and volunteer her aid with Khelt and Fetohep. He was going to tell her anyways and she’d—
The Quarass kept a blush from staining her cheeks, but only just. She reached for her cup and drank the stupid water. For a second she was a child again, scowling, realizing she’d fallen into his trap. Flos Reimarch smiled and lifted his cup.
“Ah, Quarass. We are allies. And I think you will agree. But trust is so hard to hold, isn’t it?”
She muttered, thinking of lifetimes of betrayal. Flos raised his cup and she hers. They clinked quietly and she studied him again. Flos nodded as he drank.
“Well, let us try. You are not the old Quarass. And I liked the first one I met. She was a grand woman.”
“Yes. She was. Flawed, but I will attempt to surpass her. Yet that depends on you. On Reim. Tell me, King of Destruction. Why did you return?”
Flos sat back. He sighed, and the Quarass saw him as a young boy, bowing beside his parents and staring up at her on her throne. She saw him as a man, leading an army past her borders and asking where Germina stood—against Reim or for it. And then, sword in hand, her death.
Then and now. The Quarass waited. At last, Flos looked up.
“Quarass, my return stems from the two you mentioned. The twins, Trey and Teres. You are correct. They have worth far beyond your imagining.”
She drank in his words, greedily. Flos Reimarch nodded. And then his eyes twinkled.
“I wonder, Quarass. You who have lived countless lives surely imagine any number of reasons why I would return. Why the twins would matter to me. You who know so much, listen. Trey and Teres are unique because of their origin. They come from another world. Tell me, Quarass. In all your lifetimes, have you ever heard of that?”
The child, the Quarass, blinked. She stared at Flos. First she stared for the signs of a lie. Then for madness. And then her mind assessed his words. Weighing. Recalling. She stared at him, unblinking. And then, with the best, most expressionless face she had, she sat back. She reached for her cup and stopped before her hand knocked it over.
The Quarass of Germina looked at Flos Reimarch, the King of Destruction. After a moment of thought, she slowly shook her head.
“No. Tell me more.”
Trey Atwood was sitting in a parlor. Or maybe a tea room? It was a place to speak in, to relax—but in a refined way. A salon, although he doubted Flos referred to it as such.
It was a waiting room, really. As Flos and the Quarass spoke in private, her entourage was settled in Reim’s palace. The people of Germina were quiet, surly, even, but they’d been at odds with Reim just months prior. It was more incredible that they were willing to come here peacefully at all.
But they loved their Quarass. She was like a god to them, although that concept was foreign to the people of this world. Still, that was how Trey understood it. He and Teres were sitting with two of the people who’d come with Germina. Flos had insisted and apparently they were meant to talk.
“Ah. Er, well, I’m pleased to meet you. I’m Trey. Trey Atwood. And this is Teres.”
Trey looked at the two guests sitting across from him. The two Germinan guests stared back. They were an odd pair. One was a boy, barely fourteen, maybe, with a scar on one cheek and a another down his leg. He looked like a street kid, for all he wore fancy riding gear. And the other was a woman in her thirties, clearly noble. Pretty, too. She bowed her head slightly.
“I am Highborn Vaitsha Zectiou. I have pledged to be the Quarass’ companion.”
“Oh? Er—is that an honorary title?”
“It is the most honorary. I have sworn to guide the Quarass and protect her until my death. May my blood spill on the sands before hers.”
Trey missed home. People didn’t usually lead with that as an opening line. But he bowed and nodded.
“The Quarass lives. Um…his Majesty is one of the three, then, isn’t he?”
Vaitsha and the boy stiffened. They glanced at each other and Vaitsha nodded.
“That is true. He has sworn to shed his blood before hers. So—yes. May it come to pass.”
There was a lot to unpack there and Trey wasn’t about to touch it with a ten-foot pole or his magical staff. He decided to sip from his tea cup. He saw Vaitsha do the same after a moment. And then cough.
“Are you okay?”
“I am…well. Thank you.”
She looked…pale. Paler than the young boy standing next to her. As Trey watched, Vaitsha set down her tea cup and sipped from a little vial. He noticed her hands were gloved. Perhaps she was unwell? Sick?
Trey didn’t ask. He looked around, desperately, for help. But Teres was talking with the other two guests in the waiting room. He wanted to throw something at the back of her head. But instead, Trey turned to the boy.
“And you are?”
The street boy looked up defiantly as he tried to drink from his cup like Vaitsha.
“I am Khalid, who has no other name. I serve the Quarass as well, as her protector and dagger! She lives forever!”
“She lives forever.”
The two Germinans nodded. Trey looked around desperately. At last, Teres saw his look and came over.
“Hello. I’m Teres. We’ve met. This is Nawal and Calac.”
She introduced the other two young people in the room. Teres smiled at Nawalishifra. The [Blacksmith] looked very uncomfortable as she bowed and murmured a greeting behind her veil. The other young man bowed stiffly.
“My greetings to you, Highborn Vaitsha and Khalid. May the Quarass live forever.”
He turned and bowed slightly to Trey.
“Lord Atwood. Lady Atwood tells me you are the pupil of Lady Gazi.”
“Oh. Yes. Um, we haven’t met. Pleased to meet you.”
Trey stood up and offered a hand. Calac took it. He had a strong, callused grip. He nodded to Trey, stepped back, and proceeded to sit and sip from his tea cup without saying anything for the rest of the conversation.
Calac was Venith’s son, maybe a year younger than Trey and Teres, but taller, muscled—more like an athlete than the twins. He knew how to use a sword, and he was a [Lord]—he’d been trained to fight and lead soldiers since he was a child. He was also in disgrace with his father, and clearly resented being lumped together with the guests in this room.
Trey still remembered Calac trying to attack Flos before the King of Destruction’s duel with Venith. He’d seemed to be headstrong and eager to prove himself in the few times they’d met. He had a problem with Venith, his father, but Trey couldn’t fault him there. Venith would be a hard father to impress.
Teres stared at Vaitsha and Khalid as silence took over again. Trey gestured and Nawal, after a moment’s hesitation, sat on their couch. On the end, far enough away from Trey that there was no chance of them even bumping elbows. She was very quiet. Uncharacteristically nervous given her usual pithy language. Teres spoke into the silence after a few very painful second.
“So uh, how’s Germina?”
“Germina rebuilds. The people of Ger have their Quarass again. She is changing Germina, as we are allied to Reim.”
The answer came quickly from Vaitsha. Teres nodded.
Trey whispered to Nawalishifra. She looked at him, scowled behind her veil, and then bowed.
“Lord Atwood. You did not tell me you were a lord, you, Trey Atwood.”
He raised his hands.
“I’m not! Calac just said that.”
Nawal shook her head. She was staring at him as if he were a…goat. With sharp teeth.
“You have the King of Destruction’s ear. That alone makes you the same level as a [Lord] or even a [Prince]. You are important, more so than you told me. You did not tell me you were his personal servants, trusted friends who spoke to him as equals.”
“Well, not as equals—”
“You two ride with the King of Destruction?”
Khalid interrupted, staring at Trey and Teres. The young man hesitated.
“And he grants you the privilege of addressing him? You two?”
Vaitsha blinked. Calac looked up silently and nodded. Teres looked at Trey.
“He lets everyone address him as equals, right Trey?”
“Right. It’s not…”
The two twins trailed off. Nawali was looking around. Calac shook his head. Vaitsha spoke slowly.
“The King of Destruction keeps few by his side. Informality or not, he named you as his two trusted friends. Then, you are much like his vassals. His Seven. A [Lord] would do well to bow before you. I am Highborn of Ger, and thus lower in station.”
She bowed deeply. Then Vaitsha gave Khalid a significant look. The young boy sat up, looking alarmed, then copied Vaitsha’s bow. He gave Trey a look of deep suspicion and clamped his lips shut.
Trey sighed. He was happy to talk to Nawali—when they weren’t in the company of others. She seemed wary of the Germinans, and of Calac for that matter. Teres was shifting, about to ask something else that would probably get them in hot water. Calac was scowling and the two Germinans looked at everyone as if they were potential enemies. It was almost a relief when a [Servant] came to summon Teres and Trey out of that room.
“The King of Destruction wishes to see you.”
The two twins stood up. Nawal gave Trey a narrow-eyed look and he flushed, searching for an excuse. But there really wasn’t one, so he hurried out of the room. In the silence that followed, Nawal twitched her veil. Calac sipped some tea and scowled. Khalid and Vaitsha waited. After a while, she coughed.
Trey and Teres entered the room where Flos and the Quarass were sitting. They came in slowly, aware of the Quarass’ presence. When Trey saw the small girl sitting across from the King of Destruction, he nearly laughed. Until she looked up and stared at him. Then he stared into her old eyes, shuddered, and remembered.
She was the Quarass born again. He slipped into the room behind Teres and bowed. Teres did not.
“You wanted to see us, Flos?”
The Quarass’ gaze flicked sharply to Teres’ face. Trey winced, but Teres refused to address Flos by his title. Nor did the King of Destruction insist. Indeed, he smiled and gestured to two more chairs that had been set out.
“Yes indeed! Come in and sit, Trey, Teres. Have you greeted the Quarass’ companions?”
“Highborn Vaitsha and Khalid? Yeah. We met them.”
“Excellent. I hope you will become their friends. They fulfill a similar role to the Quarass as you two have with me.”
Trey bit his lip and Teres coughed. The Quarass was looking from Flos to them, and especially at Teres. Trey recalled that Teres had helped set up the scenario in which she was reborn. He looked at the King of Destruction.
“Your Majesty, um, what happened at Tiqr? Has the siege ended?”
Flos’ face froze for a second, and then he sighed.
“It has fallen. But Nsiia lives.”
The twins looked at each other, worried. Flos sighed.
“Yes. I suppose it is the best I could have wished for. Nsiia asked me that I might help her end Tiqr, in death and destruction. But I could not. So Tiqr falls and she is captive. But she lives. That is the cost of my peace so far.”
“You could have helped her, though. Right?”
Teres frowned at Flos. The King of Destruction looked up and stared at her.
“No, Teres. I swore an oath. I will not make war without cause and Tiqr was not mine when it was attacked.”
“But she asked…?”
Flos shook his head.
“That was what Nsiia asked herself. But I cannot dance about my oath, Teres. Or play with words like some ambassador or diplomat, Trey, Teres. I hold the honor of Reim, my people, my kingdom, upon my actions. That is what it means to give my word.”
“Okay then. I was just asking.”
Teres fell silent. Flos smiled slightly, and sat back. He looked tired and murmured as he looked into the drags of his cup.
“Yes. It is done. Nsiia lives. As a captive of Illivere, but better to live, than…yes, better to live, and in Illivere’s lands. I will return Tiqr. I swear it.”
He shook his head.
“Enough of that. It is done, and I have dwelled on it far too long. Trey, Teres, I have summoned you to speak to the Quarass. Teres, you have met her before.”
Teres lifted a hand. She tried to meet the Quarass’ eyes, but hesitated as the Quarass stared at her. Trey saw the gaze flick to him. Old eyes in a young face. He froze, and then bowed, belatedly. Teres did not.
“Your Majesty, forgive me. I’m Trey Atwood. And this is Teres. My sister.”
The Quarass inclined her head.
“King Reimarch has informed me of your natures.”
Teres shot a glance at Flos, looking alarmed. He smiled.
“I’ve told the Quarass about your world. Would one of you mind showing her your phone? I believe that will satisfy her doubt.”
Both Teres and Trey shot up. The King of Destruction waved a hand.
“Sit. It’s hardly a secret, is it. There are at least a few dozen of you running about.”
“But it’s a secret! Isn’t it dangerous to…”
Teres looked at the Quarass, biting her tongue. Flos shook his head.
“The Quarass is Reim’s ally, Teres. She has sworn it. Moreover, I require her trust and aid with Khelt. Come, bring out your phones, one of you. She does not believe you two are from another world, yet.”
“It is an astounding claim. Have you proof of this?”
The Quarass looked at Flos as Trey dug in one pocket. The King of Destruction laughed.
“I saw them appear in my throne room, Quarass. They were dressed outlandishly, and they had no idea who I was or even of magic! And this—ah, thank you, Trey. This is a trinket from their world. Give it to the Quarass.”
He watched as Trey gingerly offered the Quarass his smartphone. She stared at the lit screen, and then at Trey.
“Um, it’s a device, your majesty. It turns on when you hit this button and—”
Flos held up a hand and Trey fell silent. The Quarass took the iPhone from Trey and stared at it. She blinked at the screen, held up a hand—looked at Flos.
“It’s quite safe. You tap on the screen to make the functions active, like an artifact. Don’t squeeze it too hard or it breaks.”
Gingerly, the Quarass ran her finger over the screen, staring at the locked screen. Trey opened his mouth and Flos waved him to silence. The Quarass blinked as she tapped one of the buttons. Then she turned the iPhone over, regarding the smooth screen, the back, the buttons. She tapped the power button and blinked as the screen turned black. When it turned back on she stared at it and raised her head.
Flos was grinning, clearly delighted by her reaction. The Quarass met his eyes and then looked at Trey. She hesitated—her eyes flickered, and she shook her head.
“Impossible. I have never seen a device like this. Not in any lifetime. I see the truth in your words, King of Destruction.”
“Just from the phone? You haven’t even seen what it can do.”
Flos was disappointed by the Quarass’ ready acceptance. She shook her head, tapping on Trey’s smartphone gingerly.
“I need no further proof than this. This—this is a strange material. What is it?”
She was referring to the screen and casing. Trey blinked.
“Plastic. And the screen is glass, and, uhm, metal, your Majesty. It’s just…”
He trailed off. ‘Just’? How did you make plastic, anyways? How hard was it to make? Probably…very hard. The Quarass was staring at the casing of the screen.
“It has never been made. I have seen metal, but this is not. Weaker than metal, I think.”
“Much weaker. It cracks if you press too hard. But show her the rest of the phone!”
“I will. Um, your Majesty? Er—”
“Quarass. Address her as Quarass, Trey. She has no other name than that.”
Flos nodded at the young girl. Trey hesitated as he stood up. She handed the phone back, staring at him. He leaned over, unlocking his phone.
“My apologies, Quarass. It has uh—”
“Show her the photo. No, the video! Not the bird.”
Flos was enjoying himself to no end. Trey shot him a look as he opened up the camera app. The Quarass blinked as she stared at the screen and listened to Trey’s explanation. Her eyes flicked to Teres. She watched Trey take a picture, took the phone, and copied him. She blinked at the slightly off-focus image. Then she lowered the phone.
“I see. Everything you have said is true, then. Or so it seems.”
“I have told you no lies, Quarass. Isn’t it extraordinary?”
The flat reply made Trey think the Quarass was anything but pleased. She was staring at him as if he were a monster, and—Trey glanced at Teres. She raised her eyebrows and the twins shared a thought.
What had Flos told her about their world? Was this a good thing? Neither voiced the thought aloud, though. The Quarass handed Trey back his iPhone and watched as he put it in his pants. Flos rubbed his hands together happily.
“I must have the twins show you the other amazing things they can do with it. But later. You agree, then, Quarass? Even Fetohep might be persuaded if you pressed him thusly. As for Germina…what say you?”
The Quarass paused for a second, and then her small head nodded. She looked at Flos.
“I agree. And I accede to your request. I will speak to him, then.”
“Excellent! You do me a great favor, Quarass. And we must speak more after your return. But Fetohep does not wait and I believe even Gazi and Mars will tire of his army soon. Let us deal with him, then discuss the matter at length. I will host you in my palace—but first—Mizzi!”
Flos raised his voice. The door opened and a [Servant] bowed.
“Horses! No, a carriage for the Quarass! Horses for me—and my armor! We ride to the border! Quarass, need you anything before you leave?”
“I will have one of my own drive your carriage, if it pleases you, King of Destruction.”
The Quarass rose, and Flos nodded. He beckoned to the twins. They followed him. Teres frowned at Flos’ back.
“Hold on! Where are we going?”
“To deal with Khelt. Remember the army assailing our borders, Teres? The Quarass and I have reached an agreement. She will help me deal with Fetohep and Khelt. We will ride there. Oh—and Quarass?”
She stopped as Flos strode for the door. He looked back and stared at the twins for a second. His lips moved as he stared at Teres, and then he shook his head.
“Take Trey with you to meet Fetohep.”
Both Trey and Teres exclaimed. Trey looked at the Quarass as she stared at him, and then turned to Flos. Teres glared at him.
“Why Trey and not me? Wait—what does this Fetohep want?”
“I’ll explain it on the road, Teres. Trey will go with the Quarass. Trey, have Ulyse charge your phone before you leave. You may be Fetohep’s guest for the night.”
“Wait, but why me? Your Majesty, what am I supposed to do?”
Flos was already striding down the corridors, calling for his armor and a mace. [Servants] flooded around him as the Quarass walked beside him. Her people were hurrying towards her, Vaitsha and Khalid staring daggers at Flos. The Quarass snapped.
“I am journeying to Khelt. Send Hedolac to the stables. He will drive the carriage that takes me. No one else will accompany me. You will remain as guests of Reim. Here.”
Her subjects protested as one. Vaitsha, Khalid—all of them gave Flos a look of deep suspicion as he grinned, donning his armor in the corridor with the help of some servants. The Quarass raised a hand, instantly silencing them.
“I have agreed to do so to aid Reim. Our allies. I will be in no danger in Khelt.”
“Even so, Quarass, let us accompany you—”
Vaitsha protested, and Khalid stepped forwards as the other Germinans nodded. The Quarass held up a finger and all of her subjects stopped. It was impressive; even Flos couldn’t silence his vassals like that.
“No. None of you are necessary to negotiate with Fetohep. He would see bodyguards as an insult likewise. Vaitsha and Khalid, you two lack the formality King Fetohep demands. You will all stay in Reim. Offer no disrespect.”
And that was that. The Germinans looked like they wanted to protest, but one look from their Quarass had them bowing. They still followed her as Flos strode down the corridor.
“Armor for Teres as well. Hm. Chainmail. And a helmet. Trey needs nothing.”
“Flos! Why is Trey going with the Quarass?”
“Because I think he might be useful to her.”
“And not me?”
Trey felt like Teres was missing the point here. At Flos’ words, all of Germina’s subjects gave him a death-glare, some of them putting their hands on their hilts. He didn’t want to go with the Quarass and her scary gaze, much less alone! But Flos just shook his head as he saw a man rush up with a selection of maces.
“That one. No—wait. Let me try the heft of this one. Yes, this one! Teres, for all your endearing qualities I find so helpful, you are a poor [Diplomat]. Mars is better. Trey, on the other hand, has a talent for it. He may well serve you, Quarass. And he has the phone.”
“You believe he is necessary?”
The Quarass looked dubiously at Trey. Flos laughed and clapped Trey on the shoulder. Trey nearly fell down.
“He is! Believe me, he will make the difference. We ride for Khelt’s border! Teres, stop fussing. You will accompany me. Khelt is a boring place. And Fetohep would enjoy you as much as he enjoys my company. Actually…no. No, as much as I’d enjoy the scene, you come with me. You have the sword Orthenon gave you? Good!”
They were out of the palace now, and Trey saw a carriage was already waiting. They weren’t too common in Reim, given the lack of roads, but Flos had demanded one and so it had appeared. It wasn’t particularly royal and some of Germina’s subjects looked aghast at their Queen riding in it. It was serviceable, though, and Flos nodded as he saw his own warhorse waiting. He turned to the Quarass.
“I will ride with you to the border. If only to deal with Fetohep’s nuisances. Shall we?”
“Very well. My subjects. I will return tomorrow.”
The Quarass dealt with the final protest as Teres mounted up. She looked at Trey as he hovered by the carriage.
“You’re going to Khelt, I guess, Trey.”
“I don’t know why.”
“He does. I’ll get it out of him. You just behave. Be careful of her. And don’t tell her too much!”
Teres jerked her head at Flos, and then glared at the Quarass. Trey nodded lamely. They reached up and clasped hands for a moment. Then the Quarass was turning to Trey.
She stepped into the carriage as the driver, one of her subjects, helped her inside. He gave Trey no such help and in fact gave Trey a look that managed to communicate that if he did anything that made the Quarass so much as frown, Trey was dead. The young man hunched his shoulders as he sidled into the carriage. The Quarass was already sitting. Flos laughed and pointed.
“On to Khelt! Teres, with me!”
He had a bodyguard of a few dozen [Riders]. They set out at once and Trey saw the carriage begin moving. Instantly, a bit of dust stung his eyes. He heard the Quarass cough and hastily closed the leather coverlet. Glass had not been added to this coach and so now the carriage was dark, but for the outline of light around the doors and windows.
In the darkness, there was a little girl with a voice and eyes as old as time. She stared at him, unblinking. Trey was reminded of a horror movie. If she screamed, he’d jump out the window.
It was going to be a long ride. After a minute of silence, Trey had to break the silence. He bowed awkwardly from his seat.
“Um. I’m Trey, your—uh, Quarass.”
“Yes. King Reimarch has told me of you and your sister. Trey Atwood.”
He shuddered. The Quarass’ tone was emotionless, impossible to read. Her face was so still. She stared at him for a longer moment and then her eyes flicked to his pocket, where he had put his phone.
“The King of Destruction has told me how you met him. You awakened Flos Reimarch.”
Trey was starting to realize that was a very bad piece of information for anyone to know. He raised a hand lamely.
“By accident. It was just—we just appeared in front of him.”
“Yes. Tell me more of your world, Trey Atwood.”
“What? Oh, it’s not—”
“Do not lie to me. Flos Reimarch has told me of the advancements of your world. Earth. Tell me more.”
The Quarass’ eyes were trying to burrow into Trey’s head through his skull. He gulped, remembering Teres’ words.
“It’s—we have a few things that—”
“Do not attempt to hide the truth.”
“Lies. You are attempting to hide the truth. Speak with honesty or I will know.”
The little Quarass stared at Trey. He wilted under that thousand-year-stare. There was nowhere to run. And he felt like if he jumped out the window, the Quarass would just stop the carriage and make her driver put him back in. He gave up and did his best.
“Well, it’s called Earth and it has no magic…um, it’s really a lot like this world, and not like it at the same time. You see, in my world…”
The Quarass listened to Trey’s explanation of what Earth was. There was so much to say, from the fact that they had no magic, to the technological advancements, the nations—she just listened, not gasping or interrupting like Flos would every two seconds. It was unnatural. The only time she stopped him was when Trey tried to hide something—somehow she could see it in him.
“Enough. Tell me of your weapons.”
“Weapons? I don’t—”
“The weapons that destroy cities. The weapons that fire for miles. Like crossbows, but a thousand times better. The King of Destruction has trusted me with the knowledge. Tell me.”
What was Flos thinking? Was he thinking? Trey had to believe so. He tried to obfuscate, but the Quarass dragged the words out of him. He couldn’t not tell her, and Trey began to worry she was doing something to him. After he began chattering about nuclear weapons and radiation, he was certain. He couldn’t stop.
“I see. Enough. How many nations fill your world? How large are the armies?”
“Well, there’s a million soldiers in China’s army, it’s the largest—”
What was scariest was the way the Quarass seemed to believe every word coming out of Trey’s mouth. And that she believed it, and still, hearing of nuclear weapons, of planets and people landing on the moon, she didn’t react. Trey was certain it was a mask, a poker face, but he couldn’t see past it.
She didn’t even flinch when he told her about the population of Earth. Her eyes never left Trey’s face. He guessed she was trying to tell if he was lying about anything. She made him tell her about nations, history, and then technology like his phone. The carriage’s dark interior lit up as he showed her some pictures from Earth.
That was when he saw the child come out. The Quarass leaned forwards, staring at the foreign pictures, and then demanded to play the game Flos had talked about. Trey didn’t have Flappy Bird, but he had other apps. For half an hour he watched her play Candy Crush and shatter his high-scores like Gazi had with Teres. He saw her smile, and then glance up at him and school her face to expressionless again.
She was a child at times. It leaked out of her when she was unguarded. But other times she was the ruler, stone-faced, piercing eyes. But after a while, she began to relax a bit in Trey’s presence and he in hers.
She wasn’t very haughty. From hearing about Queen Calliope of Hellios and her son from Teres, Trey had expected the Quarass to be at least a bit arrogant. Or spoiled, even, being a child. But the Quarass seemed content for him to ask her questions.
“Um, so you’re the Quarass of Germina. The old one—”
“Died. Yes. Do you know what a Quarass is, Trey Atwood?”
“Not entirely. Teres told me about how you were…summoned?”
“Right. And Flos—King Reimarch—he told me the Quarasses all share the same memory. You remember all the old Quarass’ lives. And you rule a Shield Kingdom.”
“Germina. One of four remaining. This is all correct.”
“So you remember…everything?”
She waited. Trey hesitated.
“Like, everything or just…”
The Quarass sighed slightly. She stared at Trey and pointed to his side.
“You have an aura of magic about you. You are a practicing [Mage]. Do you carry a magical item?”
“I have a training wand Gazi lent me—”
“Give it to me.”
Trey did. The Quarass inspected the wand dismissively. Then she pointed it.
“I have never cast a spell in this body. But my fifth predecessor before me was a [Mage] of some talent. In times past I have been far greater. In one, I was even considered as a possible [Archmage]. The memory of each spell rests within me. [Light].”
A shimmering orb of soft yellow light filled the carriage. Trey gasped; it was a beautiful glow, far better than the light from this phone. The Quarass nodded.
“That is a simple spell. This is a Tier 5 spell. [Pestilence’s Touch].”
She pointed the wand at him. Trey shouted in horror, but it was too late. The wand’s tip pressed into his chest.
He jerked backwards. The Quarass lowered the wand. There was a sound from the front.
“Silence. I am well.”
The little girl offered the wand back to Trey. He was feeling himself frantically. Was he hot? What had she—he stopped as she smiled at him.
“You are not affected. I could not cast the spell.”
“That wasn’t right!”
Trey snatched the wand back. The Quarass sat back, looking pleased with herself as he edged away from her.
“Listen to me, Trey Atwood. My knowledge is vast, but my ability to use it is limited. I know magics of old. Spells from previous lifetimes. But I have very little magic as of now. Often, Quarasses are selected for their talents. But my body is weak. I remember fighting, but I cannot lift a sword properly. Once, I slew monsters. I can remember it. But do you think I could kill even a single adult with this?”
She raised an arm, gesturing to her young body. Trey shook his head. The Quarass went on, bitterly.
“I remember men and women and even beasts Quarasses before me have taken as lovers. I know how to seduce, or kill in cold blood. I remember how to shoot an arrow a mile and strike an ant sitting upon a cactus’ spines. But that is but memory. The knowledge of my body is gone. And wisdom is only part memory.”
She tapped one cheek lightly. Trey nodded. The Quarass sighed.
“I am Quarass of Germina. My duty is to hold the Shield Kingdoms against their foe, to ensure Germina endures. But I am not invincible. Far from it. Until I level, until I grow, I am weak and I will do what must be done so I and Germina survive. That is best suited by allying with the King of Destruction, regardless of the past. So. We are allies. You will answer more of my questions now.”
Trey did, shakily. The Quarass let him ask his own questions as well. He was curious about Germina, having not visited it except when Flos’ army had invaded. She looked pleased at his curiosity. And then Trey asked a question that made her pause.
“Um, your companion. Highborn Vaitsha. Is she okay? She looked sick. She was drinking something when she met. Does she need medicine?”
The Quarass blinked at Trey and he’d wondered if he’d finally managed to offend her. But all she did was shake her head, tapping one lip and studying him.
“Interesting. You noticed that? Reimarch was correct. You may serve indeed. And you are correct. Vaitsha is sick. But she will live. She is sick, but by her own will. She is changing her class.”
The girl shrugged.
“She is ingesting poison. Hence the gloves and vial.”
“Just enough to live. Not enough to kill. She drinks poison and antidote each day, in greater quantities of each. If she lives—and I have taught her of poisons and ensured that she has the antidotes she needs—she will change her class. And her blood shall become poison and she will be Germina’s viper, a fitting servant.”
“But—what? That’s horrible!”
Trey looked at the Quarass, shocked. She just stared at him.
“It will change her class. She has a poor one at the moment, a mundane class. This will give her unique Skills. Power that she needs. That I need.”
“But she’s eating poison! She looked ill! Does it hurt?”
The Quarass narrowed her eyes. Trey shut up.
“I offered her a choice. For Germina, she accepted. She took the poison of her own will, knowing the agony it would cause her. That was her decision. By what right do you deny her right to choose?”
“I just—it seems wrong. Are you doing that to Khalid, too?”
Trey remembered the fierce young boy. The Quarass shook her head.
“Khalid is young. A boy. Unlike me, his classes are difficult to level at such a young age. He will take far longer, but he has begun training with the [First Warriors]. In time he will reveal to me what class he is most suited for. And he will be a champion like no other.”
“You’re shaping him into what you want him to be.”
It was an accusation. The Quarass lifted her shoulders.
“Should I not? Germina lives only through its Quarass. Without me, my country has nothing to set it apart from others, and far less than most. But Germina must endure. To survive, the rulers of Ger would lie with snakes and grasp at stalks of dust.”
Trey was silent at that. He shifted uncomfortably. The Quarass’ voice and the way she spoke reminded him of Flos. It was a ruler’s perspective. He tried to think of what Teres would say. Then he thought of something else and looked up.
“His Majesty helped make you the Quarass, didn’t he?”
“Yes. Although he did not find me. My [Councilor of State] did. He might have chosen better, but he was the least of my inner circle. Perhaps it is well that he chose me. My previous incarnation was a fool.”
She spoke so coldly. Trey looked at her.
“Couldn’t he have found someone older? It seems so…”
“Cruel. I know it’s for the good of Germina. But was it the best for you? For Vaitsha?”
The Quarass was silent. She looked at Trey, and he saw a flicker of something. When she replied, it was more slowly. And she sat back against the seat of the carriage.
“I was chosen because I looked like the last Quarass. I would not have chosen myself. But fate gives little choices. Now I am Quarass. Perhaps it is a cruel destiny. Perhaps Vaitsha suffers at the cost of herself so Germina may gain. This is true, Trey Atwood.”
The girl paused. And for a moment she stared past him, at the floating ball of warm light. She reached for it, and cupped it in her hands. Then she tossed it and let it hover in the air between them. The Quarass looked at Trey and shook her head.
“However, I choose to be her. I chose to be Quarass of Germina and give myself for Germina. I could flee. I have fled in eighty seven lifetimes, some brief, some long and old. I will not. I am no coward.”
And that was all. Trey bowed slightly, and the Quarass nodded. They said nothing more for a while, until a fist hammered on the side of the coach. Trey jumped and the Quarass looked up. The window was jerked aside and both blinked in the sudden sunlight. Flos’ face and voice echoed through the carriage.
“Trey! Quarass! We’re nearly at the border! Open the door!”
Trey looked at the Quarass. She nodded and he opened the door, seeing the ground rush past. The Quarass ordered her driver to keep the carriage steady; Flos was riding alongside them.
He was beaming as he rode on horseback. Trey saw Flos was wearing sheets of metal—plate armor, save for his head. And his horse was similarly barded. He was riding quickly next to the carriage, but they were both moving far faster—the [King]’s Skill, [Rapid March], was moving them at nearly double the speed they’d normally be going.
“Your Majesty, shouldn’t we slow down?”
“Why? This is enjoyable! Teres, watch out for the carriage! Don’t talk—you’ll bite your tongue!”
Flos laughed, unconcerned with the very warning he was giving Teres. He rode forwards and pointed ahead.
“Before you head into Khelt, I wanted to show you Khelt’s armies! Don’t be worried; they’re undead, but we have it well in hand!”
Trey saw they were heading towards a valley of sorts—no, a dried-up river, a natural fortification that marked Reim’s borders. Flos waved ahead of them; Trey saw something in the distance.
“Gazi and Mars are holding off Khelt’s warriors! Teres and I will join them! Teres, don’t be alarmed!”
He nodded at Teres as she rode up beside him. Teres looked amused as she shouted back.
“We fought zombies before! They’re not scary; just disgusting! How dangerous can an army—”
Her teeth clapped together as she came down hard on the saddle. Trey winced. Flos sighed.
“Healing potion! You didn’t bite your tongue off; don’t worry! You have to learn not to do that. And as for zombies—there!”
He pointed ahead. Trey leaned out the carriage door slightly. His eyes widened in horror.
An army was holding their ground on one side of the dried valley. Reim’s army, led by Mars and Gazi, were locked in combat with Khelt’s soldiers. Trey saw the Serpent Hunters, slashing and whirling, their poison-coated blades hacking apart their foes. Parasol Stroll had the high ground and were literally blasting apart Khelt’s troops as their color parasols spun, aiding the [Mages] casting spells. The regular army held a line, using the height and loose soil to push back the army.
But Khelt’s [Soldiers] kept on coming. A line of them charged down the valley. Trey saw them now, as the carriage rolled to a stop. He saw dried flesh, gaping mouths with few teeth. Sunken sockets.
Zombies. Thousands of them. Twenty thousand—no, less, from all the fighting. Armed in broken and battered armor. They were emaciated, skin dried by Chandrar’s arid climate. Some were worn down to yellowed bone, but most still had dark, leathery flesh. Like mummies, in fact, minus the bandages. But that wasn’t the scary part.
A new wave of Khelt’s soldiers were charging at Reim’s defenders. Charging, not shuffling or groaning. They sprinted across the ground, ancient and rusted weapons, raised. Screaming.
Trey made a squeaking sound. Teres halted, gulping down a mouthful of healing potion. The sound that Khelt’s soldiers made echoed through the air, raising goose bumps on Trey’s arms. Flos grinned as he lifted the mace he’d brought and pulled out a helmet.
“Zombies don’t run in your world, Trey? They do in this one! And Fetohep can make them sprint.”
“Are they—that’s a message?”
“The only one Khelt sends.”
The King of Destruction laughed. The wave of Khelt’s troops hit Reim’s [Soldiers]. They bounced off the walls of shields and clawed at the defenders, but Trey could see Gazi and Mars leading the [Soldiers], hacking apart the zombies with ease. But there were so many!
And yet, Flos just looked excited. He pointed as his bodyguard formed up around him. Teres was spitting blood, and her own sword was in her hands. Trey stared at Flos. The King of Destruction waved at him and the Quarass.
“We’ll deal with Fetohep’s message. Teres, stick with me! You’ll level today—try not to get bitten! Trey, follow the Quarass’ lead! I will see you tomorrow! Now, with me!”
He roared and surged forwards on his horse, catching everyone off-guard. His bodyguard and Teres pelted after him, and Trey’s sister wasn’t even able to say something after him. Ahead, Reim’s army had spotted their [King]. They roared as he raced towards their embattled lines.
“King of Destruction!”
Flos’ voice was a bellow. He charged straight for the flank of Khelt’s armies as the thousands of zombies turned towards him.
“[Royal Vanguard]! Gazi, Mars, to me!”
His unit of cavalry went through the first five ranks without even slowing. Flos swung his mace in a blur, grinning as he crushed bones and armor. His army surged forwards, and Trey saw Gazi and Mars leaving their positions, cutting towards him.
“He’s going to be surrounded!”
“Not so. Khelt’s army poses little threat to men in armor. Least of all the King of Destruction.”
The Quarass watched with detached amusement, watching the battle and Trey’s face. Flos had cut straight through his army and into his own lines. Trey saw him leap from his saddle, turn to Gazi and Mars—and then the three of them charged forwards by themselves! On foot!
“He’s off his horse!”
“A smart move. Losing a horse to a spear would be a waste against Khelt.”
“Smart? But what if—”
Mars charged left, covering Flos’ flank as Gazi ran with her [King]. Flos was hammering Khelt’s [Soldiers] down with each swing, a shield in his other hand. The undead were like toys in front of his strength, but they were everywhere, and armor or not, he was surrounded. Trey watched, on pins and needles. Then he heard a shout.
Mars, the [Vanguard], one of the King’s Seven, raised a sword. It was glowing, bright yellow, enchanted with some magic. She turned as a wall of undead charged towards her [King]. Trey heard her voice even from where the carriage sat.
The undead around her disappeared. Trey didn’t see the actual swing; it was too fast. He did see body parts, and armor raining down across Khelt’s army. He gaped. Mars pivoted, charged forwards and rammed into another group of Khelt’s soldiers ahead of her.
She did it again! Another pocket just disappeared, and Reim’s army poured into the gap. Gazi was swinging her claymore around, effortlessly slicing through everything she cut, heedless of the weapons bouncing off her armor. She only protected her face as Flos kept carving forwards. And Mars wasn’t done.
“[Grand Slash], [Grand Slash]—”
Hundreds of zombies just disappeared. She was holding off an entire wing of the army on her own. Trey gaped. He’d seen Mars sparring in the training grounds, but he’d never seen this. He turned and saw even the carriage driver was gaping. The Quarass wasn’t. She looked amused.
“Have you never seen Mars the Illusionist do battle?”
“I—no! I mean, she’s fought before, but I was always busy—”
He’d seen Mars kill a [Geomancer] in battle, but she hadn’t used that Skill. She hadn’t had to. She’d just charged through everything; her armor was impenetrable as far as Trey had seen. The Quarass shook her head, indicating Mars.
“[Six-fold Grand Slash]. She may use it six times for every time a lesser [Warrior] would. This army she could destroy herself if she had time. This army is but a nuisance in front of Reim’s might, even weakened. That is not what makes Khelt deadly.”
Trey turned back to see Flos and his army mopping up the last of the zombies. They kept fighting, even when it was only a handful left, Trey had to admit. But they had been crushed without a single casualty on Reim’s side, as far as Trey could tell. Some were using potions, but—Trey paused.
There was a mass of bodies coming from the horizon. Past Reim’s borders, past some invisible line, the earth was stirring. Trey saw the earth erupt, undead forms tear themselves free of the soil, rising, rising—and running straight for Reim’s border. Trey looked towards Khelt and paled.
A second army, twenty thousand strong, was sprinting straight towards Reim’s borders. Only now did Trey realize that the valley was practically strewn with bodies. How long had Reim’s soldiers been fighting? Since this morning? The Quarass nodded as Flos and his soldiers reset their formation.
“Khelt’s armies are endless and undying. They are made up of every one of Khelt’s own that has ever died. The King of Destruction could fight this battle day and night and Fetohep would not cease. It looks as though four such armies have already fallen to his vassals. We will continue on before they tire.”
She clicked her fingers and the driver uneasily moved the carriage forwards. Trey gulped, but the Quarass pointed impatiently.
“Towards the undead.”
She turned her head to look at the Germinan man. Slowly, without saying a word. He flinched and moved the carriage forwards, slowly at first. The twenty thousand Kheltian [Soldiers] were coming right at them. Trey yelped and closed the carriage door. But the Quarass just leaned out of hers. She raised her voice at the mass of screaming undead charging towards them, weapons drawn—
“Fetohep. I seek an audience on behalf of Reim.”
The undead split at the last second, streaming past the carriage as the horses reared. The Quarass sat back as Trey and the driver both froze. Then the undead were gone and Flos was laughing as he led a second charge into their ranks. The Quarass looked at Trey, smiling at his white face. And then she clicked her fingers at the driver.
“Keep moving. Khelt’s capital is yet hours away. Follow the road. It is paved.”
The carriage kept moving. It passed from Reim’s dusty land into—well, more of the same. Trey expected the earth to darken, perhaps the sky to cloud over. But Khelt looked much like Reim. At least for the moment. The border was uninhabited, but nevertheless, Trey felt a chill as their carriage rolled forwards.
The Quarass closed the carriage door. She looked at Trey and calmly sat back.
“Now we are in Khelt’s lands. The King of Destruction has sent you with me to impress King Fetohep.”
“I don’t think I can. I’m not impressive! I don’t know why Flos wanted me to come!”
Trey clutched at his stomach. It was suddenly hurting a lot. The Quarass studied him.
“I see some reason to it. But if he has not educated you as to Khelt’s nature, I will do so. Khelt is a necrocracy, one of two remaining in this world. Perhaps one, depending on your definition of the word. They are an ancient kingdom whose borders are seldom questioned.”
“I can see why.”
The Quarass nodded.
“They are not a Shield Kingdom. Germina is older. Nevertheless, Khelt is powerful, as you can see. Fetohep is latest of a line of their rulers. He is six hundred years old.”
The Quarass waved away the number as Trey’s eyes bulged.
“He is younger than me. I warn you, make no insult to his appearance. Nor to Khelt.”
“Do you think I will?”
Trey was deeply worried. The Quarass considered the question.
“By your ignorance, you may, but ignorance is different from disrespect. Fetohep will accept ignorance. But he will take offense should you malign his kingdom or people in any way. As for formalities—I will make excuses for you. Treat Fetohep with the utmost respect. You may address him as ‘King Fetohep’, or his ‘Eternal Majesty’. Again, make no comment about his appearance. Do you know how to bow?”
Trey did, gingerly, in the carriage. The Quarass pursued her lips.
“Show me your bow.”
He tried, but the carriage was cramped and bumpy. The Quarass still made him do it and shook her head when she saw his posture. Orthenon had begun teaching Trey and Teres how to behave properly, but Flos had insisted they had more important things to do.
“Bow to this height. Move your feet so. Back leg there. Front leg—there. Hand—”
She was exacting, but a good teacher. Another facet of her memories, Trey guessed. He had memorized the bow to her satisfaction and a few other diplomatic subtleties by the time the carriage approached Khelt’s capital. The Quarass pursed her lips, but she sighed as the carriage slowed.
“You will not offend Fetohep unduly. Now, we approach the palace. Driver, slow. Open the windows of the carriage, Trey. See Khelt.”
He did. By now, the carriage had moved into Khelt and Trey—gasped.
The dusty landscape had gone. The arid climate that he had associated with Reim for so long suddenly turned into one of greenery. There were plants, trees blooming across Khelt’s land! A forest in the desert!
And that wasn’t all. Trey saw people along the road, staring at the carriage as it rolled through their home. They passed through a village—but what a village! The buildings were carved stone, painted without signs of wear or flaking, and paved streets, without a single stone missing! The people of Khelt were dressed in fine clothing—as fine as Flos’ own [Servants], and Trey was certain they were common folk.
They stared at the carriage, a bit uneasily, but mostly with curiosity. But that wasn’t what caught Trey’s eye.
It was the health of Khelt’s people. Not one looked emaciated, or sick. In fact, among the men and women and children as the carriage passed through the first town, Trey saw something he’d failed to notice since coming from earth:
Some of Khelt’s people were a bit pudgy. As in, they had excess fat. Trey had seen fat people of course since coming to this world, but they were a rarity; most people had little excess fat, and indeed, a life without the sugar of home had helped Trey lose ten pounds already. But Khelt?
It looked rich. The streets weren’t asphalt, and not all the windows were glass, but everything was so maintained and fresh. Nothing looked old or in need of repairs. The streets were fantastically maintained. Indeed, Khelt had roads, even extending outside of the capital!
And then Trey saw the farms. The carriage passed by a river and Trey saw a vast field, as large as any from his world. Plants were in full bloom—some wheat-type plant by the look of it, but more reddish. They were being harvested. And Trey felt a chill as he saw the thin, bony figures in the fields, wielding scythes. He leaned back from the window.
They were tilling the fields. Skeletons, hundreds of them, carrying baskets, harvesting the crops. And they weren’t the only ones. Trey saw a skeletal horse pulling a plough, and then more skeletons, sowing the ground. Watering it. Working tirelessly. They didn’t even glance up as the carriage rolled on past.
The horses caught scent of the undead and became skittish. The driver tried to calm them, but his eyes were as wide as Trey’s. Both of them looked to the Quarass. She just shook her head.
“They’re undead! The workers! Quarass—they’re—”
“Yes. I said Khelt was a necrocracy, did I not?”
She stared at him. Trey closed his mouth and gulped. Then he looked back at the fields. He was scared at first. But then, as the carriage kept moving and the horses grew used to the scent, he became fascinated.
The undead were so—mechanical! They moved tirelessly, their arms never slowing. They were efficient too—the fields were vast enough to trouble a combine tractor or whatever farmers used in Trey’s world, but there were enough undead to handle it! And there were fields upon fields! Not just undead sowing to crops either; Trey saw one group planting trees while another team felled a tree. They were quarrying stone, replacing broken stones in the road, harvesting—
“It’s so efficient. Why doesn’t everyone do this?”
The Quarass looked highly amused as Trey looked around. And intrigued; Trey saw that while his fear had faded, the Germinan driver was still shuddering each time a skeleton passed by the carriage. The Quarass replied calmly, staring at a team of skeletons marching down the road.
“Because the undead crave death. Khelt holds theirs by their [King]; but other undead may well seize control of them. [Necromancers] have implemented systems such as these before. But Khelt is one of the few places where such practices endure. People fear death magic, sometimes rightly. Accidents can turn into catastrophe if the undead are loosed. Many still remember the Necromancer, Az’kerash. He tried to make the same on his land of Terandria, until he was named monster.”
Trey’s objections trailed off. He understood fearing the undead. Their eyes glowed with pale light. And for all they meekly went about their tasks, there was something unsettling about them. These weren’t toy skeletons. They were actual bone. Dead bodies. And the ghostly flames burning in their eye sockets were as distant as the Quarass’ own gaze.
Even so, Trey was impressed. And as the carriage continued into the heart of Khelt, he saw more wonders of the nation of death. Life, for one thing. Trey saw his first playground in this world; a wooden fortress, filled with swinging rope bridges, a slide—even swings! No roundabouts or monkey bars, but a playground nonetheless! There were children playing on it, laughing and stopping to stare at the carriage Trey rode in. They pointed, and then waved at him and the Quarass. Some were barely younger than her!
“That’s a playground! From my world! I’ve never seen one here!”
“No. In other nations, children are apprenticed at their age. Or they help their families. In Khelt, they do not.”
“Where are their parents?”
The Quarass shrugged.
“Attending to their work or pleasures. The children are safe.”
“But if one falls—”
The Quarass looked at Trey reprovingly.
“Trey Atwood, you are no fool. The children are safer than we. If they but scream, they will be protected, their injuries bandaged. This is Khelt. And Fetohep’s reach touches all of his land. His people are buried everywhere.”
She pointed at the soil. Trey saw the driver shudder and felt another chill himself. But the playground called to Trey. The laughing children. He stared at it until it was gone.
And then they came to the capital, and Trey saw the stone facades rising from the earth, the green dancing amid the shadows cast by overhanging buildings. There were walls, but only to block the sand. The capital of Khelt had no fortifications like Reim or every other city Trey had seen. He passed by a carved image of a [King], a proud statue of a man. Then one of a [Queen]. Then a series of sculptures, each one of a member of royalty.
They stood, lining the entrance to the city, staring down at Trey and the Quarass. Past them was a city that would have fit into an older European town. And it would have been a tourist destination too; the buildings were tall, beautifully kept, made in an art style that Trey couldn’t place, but reminded him of…he paused.
Venetian architecture? Maybe, a bit, if you mixed it in with Beaux-Arts, and a bit of the Tudor revival elements and some experimental modernistic work here and there. That was what Trey would have concluded if he’d had the architectural knowhow to describe the buildings. It was varied, and much was made of stone; the people of Khelt had no need to worry about the cost of manpower when it had come to building their homes.
And they had forever to improve on them. Trey looked up and saw a new style of art as he passed through the exterior of the city into the true heart. And he realized.
Oh. The architecture was Kheltian. And it swept over him, a city designed to provide shade in the sun, but also filter the light, so that each building seemed towering and inviting by turns. Here, the stern facades said. Step here, beckoned some entrances. Here, the city whispered.
Here we are eternal.
The carriage rolled to a stop. Trey looked around; the Quarass was already rising from her seat. She beckoned to him.
“We will go on foot from here. Come. Hedolac, remain with the carriage. You will be directed to follow us later.”
The man’s voice was quavering. Trey looked at the Quarass. There was such a hush in the air. He didn’t know why. Then he realized he hadn’t seen a single soul since entering the city. The girl raised an eyebrow as he stumbled out of the carriage. His legs hurt from not carrying him for so long.
“Um—where is everyone?”
“Waiting, I have no doubt. Fetohep knows we are coming. You will follow me, Trey Atwood. Remember what I have said to you.”
“I will. I mean—what do I do?”
“Speak naturally. Speak honestly. Fetohep enjoys new guests, for all he rarely welcomes them. Remember—”
“Don’t insult him. Or talk about what he looks like.”
“Yes. Now, come.”
She strode forwards. Trey followed her, glancing back at the shivering driver. The street was very broad, and very, very quiet. Ahead of them, Trey could finally see the palace.
The Quarass frowned up at it. It was indeed big. And ostentatious. Khelt’s [Architects] had spared no work on it either. She shook her head.
“I prefer Ger’s palace. Fetohep is vain. He commissioned Drevish the Architect to improve his palace last. Each ruler of Khelt does so. It’s acceptable.”
She walked forwards, and then turned to glare at Trey. He was still trying to take it in.
She snapped at him, looking irritated at his wonder. Trey started and then hurried after her. They walked past flowering trees, neatly tended to. And Trey wondered where all the people were. He was about to ask—
And then he realized he and the Quarass weren’t alone. There was a sound in the air. Faint, but growing louder. Murmuring. The inescapable rustle of people. A crowd. Trey looked around—
And then they reached a grand plaza in front of the palace. The buildings fell away, and Trey saw Khelt’s people. They filled the vast space, an endless sea of faces, staring at him and the Quarass. He froze. She did not. She kept walking, and Trey saw Khelt’s people.
And its army. At first, they blended with the people. But then they were easily visible, for their stillness.
The dead. Rank upon rank of undead soldiers, standing in perfect formation. Their eyes burned as they stood, forming a double line down the street on either side, in front of Khelt’s people. Trey saw the people kept back from the undead, but without any real fear; they were watching Trey and Quarass with interest. Wariness.
But the undead stared straight ahead, their gazes level. They formed ranks in front of the steps leading up to the palace; these soldiers were all wearing burnished armor, not rusted weapons and ragged bits and pieces. They were also freshly dead, their corpses emaciated, but not yet worn away.
There they stood. And the Quarass stopped, looking down the long hallway of undead bodies. They formed a perfect line, straight up towards the palace. A single figure stood there, shadowed by his citadel. Trey couldn’t see him, but as he hurried after the Quarass, the figure raised a distant hand. And the silence, the rustling of so many bodies, broke.
The whisper came from the voices of Khelt’s citizens. Hundreds of thousands of voices, from each side, whispering a word. Trey nearly jumped into the Quarass. She looked around her. The figure, distant Fetohep, pointed. And living beings, a small rank of men and women with horns, raised them to their lips around the plaza and blew.
A wailing sound echoed the plaza, as if screaming some word in another language. The sound first terrified, but it picked up in volume and tone, growing louder. Triumphant. The [King], standing upon his palace’s steps raised his hand, palm up. Again, the whisper burst forth. Louder.
“Guardian of Chandrar. Shield Kingdom.”
It wasn’t for him. It was for the Quarass. The girl stood, staring up at the [King]. She was so short the crowd couldn’t even see her past the line of undead [Soldiers]. But then—they bowed.
As one, the undead warriors of Khelt drew their blades. They lifted their swords as they knelt, emaciated flesh and bone kneeling in the street. They bowed their heads. And King Fetohep pointed at her.
The word was a shout. And it was jubilant, expectant. Not a threat. Trey saw the [King] lower his hand. And he bowed to her, the girl staring up at him. Surprised. The Quarass had seen a lifetime of glories. But the girl had not. And she turned her head as the people of Khelt bowed with their [King]. He raised his head after a moment and they shouted his name.
And then there was silence. The Quarass looked back at Trey and he saw the hesitation in her eyes. But then she straightened her back.
“Walk with me.”
They moved forwards, through the ranks of kneeling undead. Trey felt lightheaded. Terrified. He stared up at the distant figure, standing in the shadows.
He didn’t even feel himself moving. He only knew he’d suddenly stopped. He’d crossed the plaza; now he and the Quarass looked up at the [King] of Khelt. He was still—Trey squinted. Then he heard Fetohep’s voice. It echoed from the palace steps, clearly audible throughout the plaza.
“Few guests bear welcome in Khelt. Fewer still worthy of respect. One stands before us today. We are Fetohep, [King] of Khelt. We greet the Quarass, may she live forever. The Shield Kingdoms have ever been allies of Khelt. And memory is the shield against folly.”
He pointed again, down at the Quarass. And his voice echoed, his eyes flashed. Burning lights in his…skull. A mouth moved. But—Trey’s eyes widened.
“Tell us, Quarass of Germina! Do the Shield Kingdoms yet stand?”
She called up towards him, a girl, unafraid. A ruler herself.
“Germina still remains. Forever we watch the skies. A shield still holds Chandrar’s sand! Does Khelt stand ready to heed our call?”
Fetohep nodded. Slowly, he descended the stairs. Coming into the light. Trey stared at Fetohep. He should have expected it. The Quarass didn’t blink as Fetohep’s burning, golden gaze found hers. His sockets blazed with a magical light. He spoke slowly. His mouth opened, but no tongue shaped the words.
“Khelt remembers, and Khelt honors the Shield Kingdoms. Nevermore shall our foes set foot upon these sands. So we greet the Quarass of Germina. Dragonbane.”
The word made Trey jerk. He looked at the Quarass. She turned her head. And one of her eyes caught his. And he put the pieces together.
Shield Kingdoms. And Khelt. A necrocracy. Fetohep spoke.
“The Shield Kingdoms stand; let Dragons beware!”
He bowed again. Slightly. The Quarass bowed back. Trey bowed deeply. He heard her mutter as she rose.
“An old greeting. He is one of the few who would remember it.”
And then Fetohep was descending. He looked at Trey. At the Quarass. And he smiled. But then—he was always smiling. His skin was dark. Leathery. Well-preserved, though time and the lack of moisture had worn away at him. He wore rich clothes, which sparkled as they caught the light. Fine silk. And he had a regal manner. The flames that burned in his eyes were like the ones Trey had seen in the other skeleton’s sockets, but more alive. Aware. Trey looked at King Fetohep.
He was most definitely dead.