They came, from the world over. For one man’s name.
Flos Reimarch. Scorn him if they would, the other petty rulers and plotters and schemers. His enemies might curse his name, might point out a thousand of his flaws. And the King of Destruction would probably agree with many.
But they came, from distant shores, across Chandrar, through the deserts and across thousands of miles. For him.
Not just because he was a [King] of war. Not just because he was mighty. But because of what he was. Because of what he offered his people. For a chance, and a dream, they came.
A marching band of Gnolls looked up as they passed through the night. The King of Destruction was still far yonder by many miles. But so few compared to how far they’d come. They hurried, even in the night, preferring it. Daylight would bring more trouble.
And they had buried their dead six times before. The Gnolls hurried, hoping to reach the King of Destruction, hoping to send a quick member of their people ahead. That they would find him before—
The female [Chieftain] raised her head. The band of just over a hundred Gnolls, worn, a tiny tribe, looked up. And they heard the shouting. They saw the torches.
They ran, abandoning their belongings, what few remained. But it was too late. So they stood and howled as they fought. There had been no quarter before. And there would not be again.
They died, there, on that lonesome road. For a dream. Gnolls stood together, whirling slings, throwing spears and fighting in a land of sand and dust. The children hid, as they blew horns and called his name. They had found death, seeking that [King]. But it was just a different kind than they had left.
One by one, they fell. Until even their attackers started to falter at the slaughter. Until both sides were burnt down, because the Gnolls would not cease or flee. In a foreign land, a small tribe of a foreign people died.
But still they dreamed of a [King] who did not even know their names. Who had never known them. They reached for that dream, as silence fell and blood seeped into the sands.
And the King of Destruction heard, but he did not understand. And he woke from restless dreams reaching for his sword. But all he heard in the waking world was silence. And the beating of his heart.
And still more came, finding death. But some found him.
In the dawn of the day after the King of Destruction’s dramatic hunt of Manticores, his arrival at Belchan, another [King] sat upon his throne in the north.
Medain, the Kingdom of Adventurers. So named for the three magical dungeons that had been discovered in the nation, which still provided treasures and lured countless adventurers to the nation like flies to honeyed fruit.
That alone made Medain rich, but it was also a coastal nation and thus blessed with easy access to water, unlike many of Chandrar’s desert-nations. Medain could afford [Hydromancers] to desalinate water, could attract trading ships by dint of the monster parts and materials that were generated in its dungeons.
It had a powerful army, made of former adventurers and those willing to fight in wars. The laws of Chandrar were not that of Izril; adventurers made up a part of Medain’s armies that regularly clashed with its neighbors.
So Medain’s [King], Perric, was a powerful ruler of a powerful nation. But he was displeased today.
“I have a parade ready to proceed whenever Wistram deigns to transmit my celebrations. Why have they not answered my summons? You.”
He pointed. The woman in robes spoke, her voice breathless with fear. She was a [Mage] of Wistram of course, but any true ruler cultivated fear in those who stood before him. Even Wistram’s envoys were not above being made examples of.
“Your Majesty, King Perric. The academy has heard your request, but I am not privy to the thoughts of the Archmages or the Council—”
He silenced her with one look. The air around the throne grew stiff, edged, and the young [Mage] faltered.
“High King. I am a [High King]; two nations fall under my aegis. And I did not request. I informed the academy of the parade. Why have they not sent their [Seers] or [Diviners] to broadcast it?”
“Wistram’s single—channel your Majesty—it can only support the display of one event at a time.”
“Yes. Which is why I have put Medain’s grandeur on display.”
Perric stared, resting the side of his face on his hand. His throne shone as he sat on it, with so many protective spells and enchantments that the [Mage] standing before the throne would be vaporized if he so desired. She spoke carefully, sweat beading her brow.
“Yes, High King. However—I regret to inform you that this day, Wistram has received invitations or pronouncements from over forty separate nations or organizations of their own displays. The Academy is simply unable to choose.”
High King Perric of Medain paused. His eyes swiveled left and a huge scrying mirror—so large you could pace back and front in front of it and never go out of frame—lit up. He saw an image of a group of [Knights] charging…
“A single Hydra?”
Perric scoffed. He had been an adventurer in his youth. The huge, roaring monster with multiple heads, taller than two houses, able to snap up a horse and rider in a single bite, did not faze him.
It was customary for [Princes] to journey from their kingdom if they were not needed, to level in another class perhaps, or just enjoy their freedom. As a [Prince], Perric had been a Gold-rank adventurer. He sneered at the image as the [Knights] charged in.
They were not the Order of Seasons, but rather armored in dark purple and green, eschewing full-plate for more mobile coverings of chainmail, scale, and layered armor for maximum mobility. They charged around the Hydra, battling the heads as they hacked at it.
Perric saw they were at least aware of the Hydra’s ability to regenerate; they were using magical blades and they burned, or used other effects in the open wounds to halt the Hydra’s tissue regeneration.
As the huge beast retreated, hissing and snapping, one of the [Knights] leapt from the horse. He used a Skill and the [High King] saw an arc of light appear. The slash took off one of the Hydra’s long heads by the neck and the [Knights] roared and charged as the beast reeled backwards.
The image abruptly cut to a pair of Drakes sitting at a table. It was a rather nice table, and the two Drakes were shuffling pieces of paper. One of them spoke carefully into an amulet he’d tied to a little wooden stand, and his voice was pleasant, clear, and intimate, altered by the speaking spell.
“…And we’re back. This is Noass and Sir Relz, coming to you live, is that the word, Sir Relz? Yes, alive and well from Pallass. What you good viewers just witnessed was the Order of the Thirsting Veil, if I have the name right, battling a Hydra. They are a Terandrian-based [Knight] Order, founded in Ailendamus—Sir Relz?”
The Drake with the monocle next to Noass nodded. He took a sip from a cup in front of him, and the magical tonic also did wonders to his voice. He had a second cup with a stamina potion in it. It was a bad idea to mix alchemical drinks like alcohol.
“That’s correct, Noass. The Thirsting Veil Order, known for their stealth-capabilities as well as an emphasis on poison-based weaponry and armor. This was an initiation for some of their younger [Knights] and [Squires]—the veteran [Knights] were leading a hunt of the Hydra, as you saw. Not an easy kill, no indeed. I think we’re going back to them? Ah—we have a picture within a picture, here—”
The Drakes hurriedly edged over as a scrying mirror appeared, showing the battle once more. The Hydra was spitting venom and the [Knights] were trying to prevent it from retreating into a swamp. Noass nodded.
“You can see they’re armored for the battle. Normally, I imagine those shields—uh—would not block that venom. Or if it did, they’d have to worry about poison seeping through the armor, possibly even corroding it, evaporating. Can we have an expert confirm that?”
Someone to the side murmured and there was a sound of a door opening hurriedly. Perric just stared as the Wistram [Mage] smiled nervously. Noass coughed.
“—obviously, poison is somewhat unique for a [Knight] order. [Knights] normally eschew that sort of fighting, isn’t that right, Sir Relz? Of course, this is a mainly Human-based class—”
“There are [Knights] across the world, Noass.”
The other Drake coughed and nodded hurriedly.
“—of course, of course. I meant, not a Drake class. Or Gnolls! I’m sure it’s fine! Does the job—[Knights] are a heavily-armored class with rapid mobility if you’re unfamiliar with them. Magical items really do wonders for the class, but they do have a code of honor. Poison is odd, isn’t that right, Sir Relz?”
“That’s correct, Noass. But I understand this is for slaying monsters or in mass-battles; seldom a duel between [Knights]. They might coat their blades with a lesser poison, but a lethal one in a honor-match? Never. But they are a formidable force in Ailendamus; the Thirsting Veil has fought in a number of wars, which is a controversial subject in [Knight] battles—oh! They got the Hydra!”
The dying monster had been lanced. Noass exclaimed.
“It’s still going to fight back! Hydras. Nasty, nasty creatures. Ironically you almost always wear one down; they regenerate, but they can’t do it forever, so the trick is to force them to regenerate rather than going in for a single kill—see? The [Knights] are trying to hack it apart so it runs out of energy—”
A furry hand appeared next to the desk. Noass leaned over.
“…and I’m told from our experts that yes, Hydra venom is an issue in all those regards. Clearly, these [Knights] have a Skill, or perhaps armor or a potion they’re using against the venom. And I imagine it makes them deadly on the battlefield, even if they’re not slaying monsters! Sir Relz, I’m getting a [Message] here saying our next uh, entertainment? Our next section? Our next viewing will be of a battle in Baleros between two companies.”
Sir Relz nodded. Still a bit awkwardly, but clearly with at least an hour or two of practice now, the Drakes motioned for the scrying mirror to be taken off-screen as they turned to face the audience. Someone moved the image a bit closer as the two Drakes leaned in. Sir Relz was already motioning for a map to be brought over.
“Let’s brief the viewers now on the stakes, the companies, our predictions and [Strategist] predictions on the matchup, Noass. Which company will win? The companies in question are Saliev’s Dogs and the Shoretreader’s Lament. Let’s talk numbers, the levels of each notable [Commander], any interesting features of the terrain, elite soldiers or units and of course the overall makeup of each army—we will be accepting [Messages] from any accredited [Strategist] on their analysis of the battle.”
The two Drake [Commentators] went on as King Perric just stared, blank-faced.
“Do we have any idea on how willing these two companies are to retreat, Sir Relz? Mercenary companies in Baleros do not want to fight to the death over most battles, so I imagine the other side will surrender or retreat once an upper hand is established. But surprises are why we watch! I see we have a visual of both sides from whomever’s on the field—oh! And one of the [Mercenary Commanders] is waving!”
Noass waved and shouted, as if the distant Centaur [Commander] could hear him directly.
“Hello! You are alive! Live! I don’t suppose we could get an interview before the battle, could we?”
Sir Relz said something, but at that moment, King Perric made a slashing motion and the mirror went blank. He slowly looked around.
“And is this what Wistram deems worthy of broadcast?”
“Are these two—Drakes and a battle between mercenaries more important than Medain?”
He stood abruptly. The [Mage] stared up at Perric from his throne. His aura was on the verge of sweeping her aside, just from his presence. The [Mage] quailed, turning pale as Perric pointed towards the blank mirror.
“That man was broadcast to the world! Hunting Manticores! Should I demonstrate my prowess in battle, against a dozen Sandsea Worms? Order one of my [Generals] to find a nest; we will hunt!”
He raised his voice, but the [Mage] protested.
“High King, that will not be necessary. Due to the—due to the numerous important requests we have received, yours among them, the academy has elected not to show any one nation. Until a fair order can be set out, Wistram does not wish to offend any monarch by exclusion or the order of their appearance!”
That made enough sense to pause High King Perric’s wrath. He sat down slowly, eying the [Mage]. She was a half-Elf. Perric had one in his harem. His philosophy towards a wife was that she should be loyal, if he ever found one worthy of ruling beside him. But a [King] should demonstrate his might. Therefore, he had made it one of his passions to collect at least one member of each species in his harem.
Except for Selphids, naturally. And he had given up on most half-breeds. And every single Beastkin tribe. If this [Mage] had been a shade more beautiful, he might have invited her to join him that night. But she was not. Perric drummed his fingers on the armrest.
“I suppose I must allow the academy their politics. But why is there only one…channel?”
Sighing in relief, the half-Elf spread her hands, adopting a conciliatory tone.
“High King Perric, the proposed system of—magic-vision is extremely complicated to make. At the moment, three Archmages and many of Wistram’s finest [Mages] have only been able to create a magical system capable of supporting one unified broadcast. However, with time and perhaps additional resources, more dedicated broadcasts will be possible. It is Wistram’s goal that anyone with a scrying orb might be able to watch any number of important events, even switching between the two.”
Perric snorted at the speech.
“And it would allow Wistram to watch us, as well?”
The [Mage] froze. Perric’s eyes glittered.
“I have heard a rumor to that effect.”
“Your Majesty, Wistram Academy would never do such a thing! Any rumors to the contrary are false and malicious—”
“Yes, yes. Begone from my sight. Cancel the parade. When one of your Archmages has time, we shall discuss trade options—assuming Medain is suitably able to command the world’s attention.”
Perric turned his head, giving orders, and the Wistram [Mage], bowing, retreated. Perric scowled as he motioned and the two Drakes appeared once more.
“—what a battle! Half a minute and a [Commander] sniped as he trotted towards us! It’s a clear rout—I er, think we had better revisit how we do interviews, Sir Relz.”
“Indeed, Noass, indeed. But onto the next segment. We have a parade in Rhir—no, I’m sorry, the Blighted King has allowed some of Wistram’s [Mages] to tour the walls and cities of the Blighted Kingdom. Nowhere that might reveal military secrets of course; this is being broadcast worldwide.”
High King Perric’s face was black with fury. He turned his head—the Wistram [Mage] had already made tracks out the door. Perric breathed in heavily as he turned back to watch. It was, after all, entertainment. You could go outside, but that was…outside. And somehow, seeing the two Drakes talking and knowing everyone was watching made this special. Important.
And many had not ever seen Rhir in person, including Perric, so he was a bit fascinated. Noass was nodding as he turned to face the audience.
“If you’re just tuning in, this is Noass and Sir Relz, your [Commentators] for the day! If you would like to see us permanently, please [Message] Wistram! Naturally, the fate of Rhir is a world-wide issue, so let’s go now to the kingdom and hopefully the Blighted King will have time for a few words.”
“We’re going out in thirty seconds.”
Someone murmured off-screen. Sir Relz nodded.
“As always, we will deliver commentary after the direct viewing. We have a full schedule for today, and we will be live all day—until some other [Commentators] will take the position. As always, we will stick to our schedule unless an event of significance occurs—for instance, the King of Destruction is apparently still in Belchan at the moment, but if he finds any more monsters to hunt, we will have to cut to him—”
Perric’s right eye began to twitch.
Television had come to the world. Or rather, magicvision. That was less catchy, but everything was new and sparkling. And already, influence from Earth was coloring this new idea, this new technology.
There were differences, like how the two Drakes could and did call in experts to demonstrate Skills, used illusion magic to illustrate their broadcast, and any number of differences emerging. But Wistram was being informed by, well, people who knew what broadcast entertainment was.
And the academy was all-in. Perric was not the only monarch furious over their lack of representation, but all of them were getting the same sort of message: Wistram had a limited amount of important space to show everyone, and you might not be important enough.
Of course, you could be. You might be! But Wistram only had one channel. For now. Another could be created, but availability would always be a problem. Still, generous aid would not go unappreciated, nudge, nudge. And right now, everything was new and free!
You might pay for it in the end. No, you would pay for it in the end, but for now, with a Wistram-quality scrying device or better, the broadcast was free. And the Archmages and Wistram’s Council were envisioning donations in exchange for airtime, multiple ways to gain financial revenue—
After all, commercials and such had not yet come to this world. However, there were a few hiccups.
Aaron Vanwell, also known as Blackmage, stood on a table, aiming a wand at his head. The tip glowed as he shouted. A group of [Mages] were all pointing at him, but he had the wand aimed at his temple.
“I’ll do it! Don’t make me do it!”
“Aaron, Aaron! Calm down! Dispel his magic if he casts. He’s not going to do it, right?”
Nailihuaile, the Archmage of the Revivalist faction, shouted up at the young man. Aaron stared down at her.
“I’ll blow my head off before I let you do it! No commercials!”
“Aaron, it’s a great idea—”
The young man pushed the wand towards his cheek. The other [Mages] all raised their hands. The Star Lamia Archmage waved her staff. She was nearly certain she could dispel his magic right now, but keeping the Earthers under her control and cooperative was important. You couldn’t cast mind-spells or charm spells on them all. It was inefficient!
“Aaron, stop this! We can talk!”
“I’ll blow my head off before pay-per-view exists in this world!”
The Lamia Archmage threw up her hands.
“Fine! We won’t do it! It was just an idea! Why is this such a problem anyways? Dead gods!”
She slithered away in a huff as Aaron relaxed. If this wasn’t the most important thing in the world, well, you had to have standards.
Angry [High Kings]. A worldwide broadcast. The ethics of television. All of this was happening, and the day was starting. But while all of it was happening elsewhere, with a remove of thousands of miles in some cases, it was all connected.
This world was slowly creating a web. Like Earth, people had discovered a way to influence each other even from incredible removes. It was true that a butterfly flapping its wings might have caused an earthquake before, but now the butterfly flapping its wings was captured in prime-time television with commentary and analysis on exactly how many earthquakes it was supposed to generate.
Was it good? Bad? It was happening either way. But Teresa Atwood couldn’t see the invisible lines being drawn across the world. As she woke up and stretched, exiting her private tent, she looked around in the King of Destruction’s camp. And her mind was focused on only one thing.
Teresa, or Teres as she preferred to be called, walked through the King of Destruction’s camp the day after he’d slain a pack of Manticores. She yawned in the early morning, and looked around on a familiar sight.
Sixty thousand [Soldiers] were already disassembling the camp. Teres felt a bit guilty as she saw a group of [Soldiers] moving to her tent, but it was their job and she was rubbish at it herself. As always, the tidiness and efficiency of the entire camp astounded her.
But then—the army was being led by Orthenon and Flos Reimarch, both of whom had lived at least half of their lives on campaign. They could set up a defensible camp and all the necessary things in it from latrines to sentries in their sleep. Teres was learning some of the job, but Orthenon didn’t have time to teach her, and he had told her outright that she was to be the King of Destruction’s bodyguard, not a [Commander.]
That suited Teres just fine. She liked Orthenon. She had a thing for him, as Trey would put it, but it wasn’t a mad crush as Trey assumed. She just liked…Orthenon. He was terrifyingly dangerous at times, but he was also devoted to his [King].
And he had a sense of humor. He laughed, even told jokes. But in his way. He put on a front, and that was because he was literally second to Flos Reimarch, even more so than the King’s Seven. Teres respected Orthenon a lot. Plus, to be fair—he was amazingly handsome. Every little bit helped.
“Good morning, Lady Atwood. His Majesty’s not up yet.”
One of the army [Cooks] greeted Teres. She received her breakfast with anticipation. There was no bowl of stew or some horrible food like the armies during the Great War had, like bread made out of turnip flour. Rather, Teres had a full meal, courtesy of bags of holding and preservation spells.
It was still not gourmet food, and made for mass-consumption but Teres had hot, chewy flatbread, one of those Yellat-curries that were so beloved around here, and a steak with gravy. She stared at the steak.
“We’ve got thinner slice if you want, or other cuts of meat. Anything you wish, Lady Atwood.”
The [Cook] misinterpreted Teres’ look. She shook her head.
“This is more Manticore meat?”
The Stitch-Woman grinned. She was of the Hemp class, so her skin was rough, but she had a wonderful smile and she seemed genuinely happy to be serving food to Teres, let alone Flos himself.
“Of course! His Majesty slew enough for the next week of meat meals! And left a lot for those Belchan bastards to take. Are you a steak girl?”
“I am now. Is Fl—his Majesty really not up? Normally he’s up at the crack of dawn.”
Other people got touchy about Teres using his name. The [Cook] frowned and glanced over to one of the larger tents.
“No, Lady Atwood. But I hear Lady Mars and some of the Nomads were drinking with his Majesty, celebrating the newcomers.”
“Oh. That would explain it.”
Teres cut off a soft bit of the steak as she held her plate. It was tender. Manticore meat didn’t taste like chicken or beef, incidentally. It did have a gamey taste, but Manticores were magic, and magic was a taste, like umami. Plus, the sauce was great. Teres swallowed and saw the [Cook] looking to the side.
“Are the Gnolls up, yet?”
“No sign of ‘em. They’re all asleep, or staying in their tents.”
The Stitch-Woman grimaced and Teres didn’t miss the gesture.
“Something wrong with the Gnolls?”
Gnolls. Teres longed to see them, but they were indeed inside the tents. She’d gotten a good look at them up close and she had not been disappointed. Gnolls were—
Well, tall! Males and females were the same height—which was taller than most Humans by default! They were furry, with hair ranging from blonde to black, sometimes into red, but usually around brown, and they had heavier forms than most Humans. Not from fat either; they were like hyena-people if you had to relate them to any animal.
But the children were so adorable! Teres had seen some scampering around on all fours and only her sense that it was not a good idea to go and try to pet or pick one up—gotten from Garuda chicks and an incident with Takhatres being very upset—had stopped her.
She’d watched as they’d greeted Flos, but she hadn’t gotten a chance to learn much about them other than asking everyone in sight what Gnolls were like. The entire tribe of two thousand—and the Lizardfolk—had gone into their tents almost directly after eating.
They had been worn down from so many miles of travel. Apparently, they’d marched day and night to catch Flos before he started heading south and so the King of Destruction had ordered an audience to be held tomorrow. Now, Teres glanced at the camp. She saw a few of the Lizardfolk out and about—they were chatting to the [Soldiers] or other new recruits to the King of Destruction’s camp, looking very chipper. They were a social people.
But both the Lizardfolk and Gnolls were getting the stink eye from the [Cook]. Teres asked why and the woman leaned over.
“If they’re here to leech from his Majesty…I came from Nerrhavia’s Fallen myself, Lady Atwood. Short trip, no troubles. Some of the others who claim his Majesty’s grace, though—they’re criminals, or people trying to take his goodwill. His Majesty is generous. Too generous to some! I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Lord Orthenon and the others have had to deal with troublemakers in the new cities and settlements. Of course, Lord Orthenon gets rid of it the moment he appears, but…here’s two species who don’t belong to Chandrar.”
She nodded at the Gnoll tents and Lizardfolk. Teres blinked.
“But they could just be refugees.”
“Perhaps. But you hear about Lizardfolk and light fingers. As for Gnolls—half-wild. Strange folk, who raid and fight with Drakes. You know Drakes?”
“Vaguely. I saw the battle in Pallass.”
“They live in Izril. Very strange. But they’re descended from Dragons and that says enough. Warlike—and the Gnolls are the savages. Just you watch out for his Majesty, Lady Atwood. You and Lord Atwood and his Seven have to stay his mercy.”
Teres and Trey’s reputation among the King of Destruction’s people had solidified into them being something of advisors and aides to Flos, which wasn’t far off from the truth. Teres smiled a bit wanly.
“What about his wrath?”
The [Cook] clicked her tongue in dismay.
“His wrath? Even if this lot spat in his face he’d not but send them off with some gold and bread! Leave his wrath for his enemies. And that’s rare enough too. His Majesty laughs at enemy [Generals] most often. Have you seen him furious, Lady Atwood?”
“Only once or twice.”
Teres murmured. She remembered Flos after receiving Drevish’s head. Then she’d been afraid of him. The [Cook] nodded.
“When he wakes, no doubt we’ll see what these furry folk are made of. In the meantime–”
Some of the Lizardfolk were coming out of their tents for food. The [Cook] bade Teres farewell with a grimace.
Teres went off to have breakfast. She was just cleaning her plate with a last bit of bread and wondering if there had been too much steak for breakfast—although she’d actually lost a lot of weight since coming to this world—when Teres saw a commotion around the outer area of the camp.
This was not the [Soldier]’s section, but rather, an increasingly large area devoted to people who had come to enlist in Flos’ army, young people, old—not just caravans from afar, but people from Jecrass who had seen him passing by.
Most were just young glory seekers, and Teres had heard Mars and Orthenon both agreeing that it would be a surprise if a third of them stayed after a week of marching in the army. Still—even that would be a substantial addition.
And the armies of Reim kept growing with more and more of the King of Destruction’s people. Flos did not lack for an army; he only needed a high-level one, and the resources and arms to equip them.
However, sometimes his fame attracted trouble, as in this case. The [Soldiers] around the inner camp which Teres, Flos’ elites, and the Gnolls themselves were camped were holding back a crowd demanding to see the King of Destruction. That was common enough. What was uncommon was the strident voice and the young woman who’d forced herself nearly into the inner camp. Teres wandered over as she saw a tall young woman with a rapier of some kind arguing with a [Captain].
“I wish to have an audience with the King of Destruction! I’ve come from Jecrass—”
“His Majesty does not answer to you!”
The [Captain] snapped back. He was another Stitch-person, again of the Hemp class. Teres thought the young woman was brave or foolhardy to be arguing with him; she’d seen Stitch-people fighting and they weren’t afraid of most edged weapons; they could just sew their limbs back on.
“Lady Atwood, hold back, please.”
One of the [Soldiers] recognized Teres. She nodded and the young woman blinked at Teres. She noticed the slightly curved sword Teres wore at her hip.
“You there! Are you one of the King of Destruction’s vassals? If so, I challenge you for permission to enter the camp!”
Teres blinked, but the [Soldiers] laughed, including the [Captain].
“This isn’t Terandria, whoever you are! Challenges aren’t laid about for the right to see King Reimarch! Back away, all of you!”
He lifted the halberd and the people behind the young woman moved back a step. She flushed, but refused to budge. She pointed at Teres.
“Are the King of Destruction’s vassals afraid of a challenge? I heard he once entertained anyone who could make their way to him, even blade in hand!”
The [Captain] glared, but before he could reply, someone stumbled out of her tent.
“What’s this? Who’s shouting? Who am I killing?”
A bleary voice interrupted the argument. Teres turned and saw a beautiful, red-haired woman stumbling out of her tent. Her hair was long, and her skin as perfect as a Stitch-Woman made of silk. Her eyes were green, and the armor she wore was magnificent—but almost decorative. The breastplate was practically molded around her chest.
Mars the Illusionist was stunning to anyone who beheld her. But Teres was more impressed that the illusion actually captured her haggard appearance—on her illusionary body. She had red eyes and her wondrous hair was frazzled.
However, it was all fake. Mars wasn’t that tall, she was definitely wearing armor, and she had once told Teres that free-flowing long hair was the dumbest idea imaginable in a battle where it would catch on something. In truth, Mars never left her armor. What made her appear as a beautiful woman—in this case, with dusky skin, and a voice that belonged to a singer—was always her illusions. She changed appearances like Teres changed clothes.
Even so, the [Soldiers], people here to see Flos, and Teres all had to pause for a second with envy or admiration. An illusion should not be that perfect. Mars, stumbling out of her tent with a hangover was still…
“Hold on. I think I’m going to throw up.”
The woman paused, put her hands on her thighs, and breathed in for a second. Then she looked around.
“Hey there, Teres. What’s going on?”
She walked over, regaining some of her color as she drew a potion from her belt and drank it. Teres pointed wordlessly; the [Soldiers] and crowd had fallen silent.
Here was one of the King of Destruction’s vassals. Mars smiled, her eyes lighting up as she saw the crowd.
“Oho! More people come to see his Majesty? Did I hear someone yell about a duel?”
By way of answer, all the [Soldiers] and the [Captain] pointed to the young woman with the rapier. She bowed, respectfully. Mars was hardly Orthenon or Gazi, who had a presence and always their own source of dignity.
But then again—Mars didn’t need that. She was the King’s Champion, a [Vanguard] who stood at the head of every battle. Teres had seen her fight a few times, and nothing had ever even seemed to slow Mars the Illusionist when she charged.
“She rode in fast, Lady Mars. And she’s demanding to see his Majesty, along with the others. She asked Lady Atwood for a duel.”
“A duel? Reminds me of the old days! A few people used to meet my lord that way—I think Orthenon did it! Fought his way past everyone and he and I were going at it when his Majesty wanted to see what the fuss was!”
Mars chuckled as she cracked her neck. She eyed Teres, a glint of amusement in her eyes. Mars was like an older sister in how she treated Teres and Trey. One who would also hand them a jug of wine if they so much as coughed.
“How about it, Teres? Want to duel? Then again—”
She eyed the young woman and then Teres.
“—Better not. Orthenon hasn’t gotten you up to par yet with your sword training. And his Majesty would kill me if you got stabbed.”
Teres blushed as all the other eyes turned to her. The young woman with the rapier gaped at the mention of the King’s Steward. Teres wanted to deny Mars, but the [Vanguard] was looking the young woman up and down. Which probably meant she wasn’t a nobody.
“No one sees his Majesty.”
The [Captain] declared, trying to take control of the situation. Mars folded her arms, smiling. And the young woman, breathing heavily, hesitated—and then pointed at Mars.
“Mars the Illusionist! I—I challenge you to a duel! If I duel you for a minute, allow me to see his Majesty!”
The crowd and [Soldiers] fell silent. Teres blinked. Then the [Soldiers] all erupted into gales of laughter. The young woman turned even redder, but Mars just threw back her head and guffawed for a second. Then she waved for silence.
“Quiet, you lot! Quiet!”
Her words silenced the [Soldiers]. Teres saw more of the camp not at work drifting over. Mars stood with the dry wind blowing her hair. And when she smiled, head tilted just so, she looked like a hero out of the stories, real enough to stand with the King of Destruction. Everyone stared at her as she looked at the young woman.
“Sounds like fun. Alright, go ahead.”
The [Captain] shut up as Mars looked at him.
“In the old days, anyone who could defeat the King of Destruction’s vassals or even give us a worthy fight was allowed to see my lord Flos. Let’s give her a chance. For the old days.”
There was an excited murmur. The young woman flushed with anticipation as everyone backed up. She reached for her foil—
And then looked up.
Mars with her illusion was tall, and she strode over to the young woman. She smiled down at her.
“But you will be fighting me. For one minute. Do you know who I am?”
She raised one fist, clenching it. And the [Soldiers] and crowd shouted.
“Mars the Illusionist!”
The thunderous cheer roused the rest of the camp. A huge crowd was drawn in moments, and the two women stood in the circle. Mars winced, rubbing at her head, and the young woman breathed heavily, taking a stance. She aimed the tip of her blade at Mars’ chest.
“I know who you are. Draw your blade, Illusionist.”
She had a different style than the one Orthenon had taught Teres. The young woman saw the rapier—a [Fencer]’s distinctive stance. But Mars refused to go for the sword and shield she carried. She eyed the blade the young woman had and smiled.
“Ah. Enchanted foil. Nice for duels. But sort of shit in war, right? Go on.”
She beckoned, yawning with the other hand. The young woman flushed.
“Draw your weapon! I won’t attack an unarmed foe!”
“It’s the one chance you’ll get! Do you think we’re on the same level, kid? Come at me! And tell me your name! I am Mars the Illusionist! You can’t scratch me with—”
Mars’ head blurred as the young woman stepped in. She was fast! Teres barely saw her, even with her training. The foil struck straight at Mars’ apparently unguarded shoulder; the armor was literally a breastplate, not actual plate.
But the [Vanguard] dodged. She moved back so fast that Teres didn’t see her. The young woman missed, and leapt backwards in a moment. Mars laughed as the crowd gasped.
“Not bad. A [Fencer]! And I see your silver bell.”
She pointed, and Teres heard a chime now, in the silence. The young woman had a silver bell on her foil. Orthenon had told her that the [Duelists] and [Fencers] of Terandria had bells they used as ways of showing their prowess. He’d told her to avoid anyone with a bell in the battlefield.
“Draw your blade!”
Mars taunted the young woman. Teres saw the [Fencer]’s eyes narrow. She shifted and Teres saw she was about to lunge.
“My name is Jecaina of Jecrass! I am—”
She nearly bit her tongue as Mars charged her. The [Fencer] dashed left in a blur, then leapt forwards. A lunge aimed at Mars’ heart. And the [Vanguard]—
Caught the blade barehanded. She yanked the foil out of the way as it skidded across the armored belly. Jecaina’s eyes went wide and she tried to let go of her blade and dash backwards again. Too slow.
Mars slammed her head forwards. The shout and impact were one sound. Teres heard a thud, and winced as Jecaina dropped like a log. She sprawled over, face-first and Mars tossed the blade onto the ground. Then she raised her arm.
There was a pause at the sudden end. And then a cheer.
The [Soldiers] and crowd roared her name. Teres thought it was a bit of a cheap shot, but the [Vanguard] had effortlessly defeated the young woman who—Teres was willing to admit—was better than she was. Mars laughed as she walked over to Teres. She shook her head and jerked a thumb at the unconscious girl.
“Rookies. Shout and they freeze up. And most [Fencers] forget you can use your head or anything you want in an actual fight.”
“Is that fair when you’re actually wearing a helmet?”
Teres stared at Mars. The [Vanguard] laughed. She winked at Teres and turned back to the crowd.
“Wouldn’t have made a difference. Alright, someone dump her outside the camp when she wakes up! Tell whoever’s making a fuss that they can see his Majesty if they beat me in a duel!”
She spread her arms as she laughed loudly. Faced with that, the other eager people demanding to see Flos decided they could wait.
“That was a good way to wake up! I’m off to find something to eat. Any Manticore left? Let me know when his Majesty wakes up. I think I drank an entire amphora or two—and he had just as much!”
Mars walked off. Teres shook her head; she doubted Flos would be long in waking up with as much noise as Mars had made. Indeed, some furry heads were poking out of the tents. And the Lizardfolk had already been part of the crowd cheering in the short duel.
Teres was about to talk with them—until she saw a familiar person stalking across the camp, a roll of parchment in hand. Teres changed course and found a young woman with a veil, sitting and sketching as she scowled about her.
The [Blacksmith] looked up with a start. Nawal glared for a second, and then dipped her head.
“Greetings to you, Teresa Atwood.”
She didn’t call Teresa, ‘Lady Atwood’, nor did she seem especially pleased to see her. Teres wondered if Nawal would have snapped at Trey. Probably. She was a prickly person. Teres nodded.
“Morning, Nawal. What are you doing?”
The [Blacksmith] had come with Flos on his march north, and Teres hadn’t asked why yet. Nawal was not her friend; Trey seemed to get along with her, but he could tolerate the [Blacksmith]. Nawal’s sharp tongue got on Teres’ nerves. She didn’t know why Trey could stand to be insulted every two seconds.
“I am designing a weapon for his Majesty, Teresa Atwood. And it is not an easy task, sands take my hands! Especially when one blocks the light!”
Case in point. Teres scowled—and then realized she was casting a shadow. Even so. She shifted and Nawal grunted. She resumed her work, with a long bit of charcoal.
“So you came with the camp to design a weapon? The Naq-Alrama blade, right? I thought you were already making it? Why do you need to follow Flos around?”
The look the young woman gave Teres nearly made Teres want to kick the parchment out of Nawal’s hands. The [Blacksmith] adjusted her veil and scowled.
“Is a piece of art something that can be made in a day? Should I lay a piece of metal on the anvil and beat at it until something proper emerges? A blade suits the owner! And this blade will be made for the King of Destruction’s hands, not forged with no idea of who will wear it! I have been observing, you rude foreign goat, you!”
Teres glared back.
“I’m trying to be nice! What’s the problem? Flos told you he wants a longsword.”
“Hah! If you understood anything about forging for a warrior—”
“Ah, Teresa! There you are!”
A booming voice silenced the argument. And indeed, the camp. Teres turned—and realized Flos Reimarch was awake.
He strode towards her, a plate of food in hand. But where he walked, gravity seemed to twist and people were drawn about him. Servants, his vassals—Teres saw Jelaim, leader of the Serpent Hunters, Mars, two [Mages] from Parasol Stroll, and of course, Orthenon, all following the King of Destruction.
He took no notice of his escorts. It was as natural as breathing for him. He had eyes only for Teres and Nawal.
The [Blacksmith] froze, turning dead white under her dark skin. She adjusted her veil hurriedly and stood to bow. Teres just waved.
“And a fine morning it is to you! Although I have a terrible headache from last night. No, Orthenon, don’t waste a potion on me! I’m only sorry I missed the morning’s duel!”
Flos laughed as he took a bite of his breakfast, the same as the rest of the camp had eaten. He enjoyed a [Soldier]’s meal, well, at least of this quality. Teres saw him look around.
“Ah. There’s nothing like a battle to wake you up in the morning. And we still have Manticore meat! Delicious! Are you sure we couldn’t have ridden one, Orthenon?”
The [Steward] was pocketing the potion he’d been offering his [King]. He spoke quietly and precisely, bowing slightly as he did.
“Your Majesty, Manticores are notoriously hard to control. Moreover, they have difficulty flying as far as you might wish. If you wish, we could attempt to tame them—”
Flos waved a hand.
“No, no. I like Griffins and Wyverns more. If you have the chance, get me some of them. They’re probably worse than Nightsteeds to ride, but the oasis you don’t know always looks better than the one you do, eh? Teres, how would you word that where you come from?”
He turned to Teres, eagerly. And she felt that surreal feeling—the [King] was including her in everything. His Seven, the leaders of his army—and she was always with him. Nawal gave Teres a wide-eyed stare as the young woman fumbled for an appropriate expression from Earth.
“…The grass is always greener on the other side?”
Flos threw back his head and barked a laugh.
“Hah! That’s far too mundane. How disappointing.”
He paused to take another bite.
“And Nawalishifra, I greet you.”
“I greet you, King of Destruction.”
The young woman practically folded herself over. Flos saw the parchment she was drawing on.
“Ah, my Naq-Alrama weapon! I regret that I asked you to make so many steel blades so that they could be enchanted.”
“It was my privilege, your exalted Majesty. And the Naq-Alrama steel requires the right positioning of the moons to be forged. It will take long, but I am designing one to fit your hands, if you will allow this humble [Smith] to follow you about.”
“Custom-made. I’ve had a few blades made, but I heard Tannousin smiths forge to the wielder. What did you have in mind? Orthenon, is there anywhere to sit?”
“At once, sire.”
Teres saw chairs appear as if by magic. There was even one for Nawal and her as Flos sat, breakfasting with good humor. Nawal declined to sit; she stood before the King of Destruction, nervous as could be. She gave him no rough side of her tongue.
“What needs to be decided for my weapon, Nawalishifra? Ask any questions you may have; the Gnolls are still rising. Orthenon, prevail on their Chieftain to wait if he is awake.”
The [Steward] vanished as Nawal stammered a reply.
“Your exaltedness, I have been considering the best form for the Naq-Alrama steel. There are many forms your weapon may take, and not just a blade. I had considered a hammer, or a longer weapon—”
Flos interrupted her with a shake of his head.
“No hammers. What sort of [King] wields a hammer? Far too unwieldy. I prefer swords. Polearms are too long in the fray of things, and axes—well, I know swords. Isn’t a normal longsword good enough?”
He looked at Nawal. She caught herself—even her awe over the King of Destruction couldn’t diminish her pride as a [Blacksmith].
“The process, it is not that simple. It is about weight, and durability, your great and terrible Majesty.”
Flos frowned, and Nawal went silent at once. The [King] raised one hand.
“Call me King Reimarch if you must, Nawalishifra Tannousin. Or ‘your Majesty’ will do. No other titles. What is this about durability? I thought Naq-Alrama steel…tell me.”
She bowed again. Teres settled back, listening as Nawal collected her thoughts.
“I regret that I am an unworthy [Smith], but I must tell your Highness of the blade I am attempting to make. I will forge it true of Naq-Alrama steel, without alloy or infusion of other metals. However, even Naq-Alrama steel has limits, your Majesty. And—I am sure you know of its qualities?”
Flos’ eyes glittered as he took another bite. He chewed and swallowed, nodding.
“Near-unbreakable durability, the ability to hold magic and the innate power to pierce magical enchantments? The metal unworked turns solid in the daylight, doesn’t it? Which is why it’s so hard to forge.”
Teres thought that all sounded fantastical, like a mithril-sword or something. Jelaim looked frankly jealous; the Serpent Hunter loved magical swords, like the scimitars he wore on either hip. Nawal nodded slowly.
“Among other things, your Majesty. I am not able to share the secrets of my clan even to one as great as you, but Naq-Alrama steel may sustain an elephant’s weight without bending, may cut spells like water, and yes, the forging takes many, many days of work, even weeks! It is a process known only to Clan Tannousin and few others.”
“So? What is the problem? A longsword, even one without embellishment, will suit me fine. I often use my other hand for shields and so on, you see. Which reminds me—I tried the one we gathered from Hellios, Mars. I don’t care for it.”
Flos turned in his chair and addressed Mars, who was sitting next to him and drinking what was…probably…water. Mars raised her brows.
“What’s the matter, my lord?”
“It creates this—here, where is it?”
A shield appeared in the hand of one of Flos’ vassals. He lifted it, and Teres saw a white shield, and silvery metal traced in a tree-like pattern rising along it. Flos had used it in his battle, but now he raised it.
“The defensive enchantment. It stopped the Manticore well, but the activation—well, here.”
He struck a blow against the shield with his fist and it rang like a gong. Teres saw the shield glow. It flashed—and Teres ducked a burst of light. Flos had leaned out of the way, aiming the shield up.
Nawal was already on the ground. The burst of power from the shield shot into the sky, and it would have blown apart anything it hit. It had certainly sent a Manticore reeling the other day.
As if nothing had happened, Flos handed the shield back to an attendant.
“You see? Too slow a reaction. Do we have any Everfire Shields? Those are simple, but nice. The flame sticks to whatever it hits for a while, Teres. Just ram your opponent if your sword can’t get through their defenses!”
“I’ll lend you one from my armory.”
Mars laughed. The shield was taken away and Flos turned back to Nawal with ease.
“I’m sorry, as you were saying, Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin?”
The young woman was picking dust out of her veil. With anyone else, Teres bet she’d explode. But she only bowed hurriedly.
“It is true that an Oliphant’s weight cannot bend Naq-Alrama steel, your Majesty. However…Naq-Alrama steel is one thing. When it breaks, it shatters. Any force less than that which would break it will not move the metal. But I fear your Majesty might shatter an ill-designed blade in time.”
Teres blinked. Shatter? Nawal seemed to draw in on herself at the suggestion as Flos stared. Mars raised her brows, but the King of Destruction did not erupt in wrath at the thought that his costly blade might break. He just laughed. He did indeed rage seldom.
“You see? That is the mark of a good [Blacksmith], Teres. I didn’t think of that, Nawalishifra! But you’re right. You’ll have to compensate for my strength, eh? But could I break a Naq-Alrama blade?”
He looked delighted at the suggestion. Mars murmured as she looked at Nawal.
“You bend steel or shatter it with regular swords, my lord. And you’ve broken lesser enchantments.”
“It is not just that, Great King. I fear many blades do not use your full power.”
Nawal spoke, bowing. Flos sat up.
“That sounds like flattery, Nawalishifra. But go on.”
“No flattery, sire!”
The [Smith] hurriedly raised her head. She gestured, showing Flos her diagram and Teres saw that Nawal had been sketching different blade shapes.
“Normally, blades are light. A few pounds at most. Never more than five, really. Heavy is useless. However, with Skills, a [Warrior] may swing around even heavy weapons like twigs, would he not? And a great beast, like the Manticores, they laugh at light weapons. So, a wise [Smith] forges to the wielder.”
Flos nodded, now intrigued. His hand opened and closed as he gestured.
“Like a hammer that weighs thirty pounds on one end. I’ve seen [Warriors] who can swing it fast as a quarterstaff. But I’m not that quick.”
“No, but this Naq-Alrama blade, it may be fifteen pounds, your Majesty.”
Teres was astonished. Her blade was light! But fifteen pounds? Everyone but Mars and Flos looked askance at the idea. The King of Destruction frowned.
“That’s a bit cumbersome, isn’t it? If I wanted a blade for one of my Nomads of the Sky, I’d ask that. But for me? Fifteen pounds is surely far too heavy unless I’m using that hammer or something.”
He gestured at one of the half-Giants, looming over the rest of the camp. Nawalishifra bowed.
“But if the blade were perfectly balanced, your Majesty? I believe you do not know your own strength.”
That came out in a rush. Flos’ brows rose as Mars laughed in delight.
“Hm. Well now. Ulyse!”
He raised his voice. One of the [Mages] in the camp strode over at once. Flos stood.
“I need a training sword, or a regular blade. Ulyse, can you enchant it to be exactly fifteen pounds? I want to test Nawal’s theory.”
“Of course, your Majesty.”
Ulyse raised his staff as a sword appeared. It was rather miraculous how Flos could shout and get anything he wanted, almost instantly. Teres saw the leader of Parasol Stroll run his staff along the blade.
It didn’t flash or glow, but the servant carrying it dipped slightly under the weight and struggled to lift it with both palms. Flos plucked the blade up. He tried an experimental slash and blinked.
“Well, it is heavier, but I don’t seem to be slowed down too much. Not at all, really. I suppose I’ve never thought about it. Stand back.”
The others did and he swung the blade around. Teres heard the air whistling. She stared. He wasn’t any slower that she could see!
“Your Majesty! As strong as lions!”
Jelaim laughed with pride and awe. Flos grinned.
“What do you know? It’s not slow at all! And imagine if I hit you with this, Jelaim!”
“My stitches would surely all come out! Lady Mars, can you swing it as fast?”
Mars took the sword. She grunted.
“That is fifteen pounds. Fuck it, I’m not swinging this. I’m not built for strength like my lord. Jelaim, you try.”
She swung the blade once, fast, but clearly not as fast as Flos. Then she tossed the blade at the Stitch-Man.
He had to catch the sword with both hands, stumbling. Jelaim tried a cut, his muscles bulging, but he couldn’t get anywhere near a proper slash.
“Too much weight! The Serpent Hunters dance with blades, not carry them! Lady Atwood!”
He handed Teres the sword, and she took it with two hands.
The sword was far too heavy! Teres couldn’t even keep it straight in front of her! But Flos—she stared at him as he took the blade back. The King of Destruction held the enchanted sword of fifteen pounds out with one hand, lightly. Keeping it straight and even, like any good swordsman.
“Your Majesty! You must be strong as a pack of lions! An ox!”
Jelaim was agog. So was Teres, honestly. She hadn’t known how strong Flos was. She looked at Nawal—the [Blacksmith] has a smug look on her face.
“Well spotted, Nawalishifra. And yes, Teres, Jelaim. I am strong. Strong enough that I’ve broken even magical blades not enchanted for durability before.”
Flos tossed the blade to Ulyse. The [Mage] stopped it in midair rather than catch it as he dispelled the enchantment. Flos caught Teres looking at him.
“What? It’s just a Skill, Teres.”
“But even Mars—”
The [Vanguard] paused as she drank. She scowled at Teres.
“I’m strong enough! But my lord is stronger yet. Stronger than all of his Seven, actually. There was a time when Orthenon or I could beat him by strength alone—not anymore.”
All eyes turned to the King of Destruction. He shrugged, lightly.
“I am a [King], Teres. What would I be if I wasn’t strong enough to fight with my champions in battle?”
“But you said you couldn’t beat a Level 30 [Geomancer]! You said you were only as strong as a Gold-rank adventurer!”
The [King] laughed.
“I am. Without artifacts? Any good Gold-rank would tie me up in knots if they prepared well! I can’t deal with illusions well, or dodge [Fireballs] with ease. I hate wall spells, mental attacks—”
Mars chimed in. Flos nodded.
“—But I am strong. Still, that’s all. Now I have a belt, armor, a shield, a sword, these rings—but I lack for true artifacts. And without such weapons, Mars or Orthenon are still stronger than I. Gazi and Takhatres too.”
He nodded around, and Teres saw some of the others shaking their heads, denying his modesty. Then she heard a sound, a booming voice that made her bones rumble.
“He says that, but he’s stronger than all but a few of the half-Giants, Teres. Ask him why.”
Teres saw a shadow fall across the gathering. And she looked up and up.
And she saw a half-Giant.
Zamea, the Shepherd of the Nomads of the Sky, leader of her group of half-Giants was an absolute unit. And that unit was ten meters high. Thirty feet for anyone with weird metrics. She towered over…everything. Where she walked, the ground trembled. And her voice, even a quiet whisper, was like listening to distant thunder.
“Zamea! Good morning to you!”
Flos laughed and extended his arms in welcome. The half-Giant smiled.
“King of Destruction. I hear we are talking about blades. May I join you?”
She sat, cross-legged, but still rose above the others. Nawal stared up, wide-eyed, and bowed to the half-Giant, as did many others. Flos just laughed.
“You want a blade, Zamea? I won’t pay for one of Naq-Alrama steel for you! But perhaps we can make one like your axes!”
He nodded to her and the half-Giant smiled. Zamea carried a huge, ancient axe made out of steel. Just steel; it was so notched and worn that even with her care, it was old. But who could make a blade for a half-Giant? It was larger than Teres!
“What do we speak about?”
“Strength! Apparently I’m a fair bit stronger than I was when I was young! Could you swing a blade weighing fifteen pounds, Zamea? That’s heavy for the smallfolk.”
The half-Giantess laughed. She was tallest of her kin and her axe, when she drew it, was so heavy no one could lift it, even if they could have somehow managed the huge handle. Flos could push it up with one arm, but he’d have been a literal cartoon, lifting the handle with both arms wrapped around it.
“Weight matters, but there are no half-Giant [Smiths] among the Nomads, King Reimarch! Nor enough ore! But you alone could wield a blade as heavy as we use.”
Flos turned back to Nawal and Teres. This conversation had become a thing. But again, the [King] treated it as if it were a light discussion. He sat back down as Teres pointed at him.
“How are you so strong? [Enhanced Strength]?”
She knew that was a thing. But Flos just shook his head.
“Better. [A Kingdom’s Strength]. A Skill for a [King]. My Level 30 Skill, in fact. I suppose even after my slumber, I’m stronger than I was as a boy. I still see myself as a greater [King], you see. And I’ve leveled.”
He flexed one arm. Teres stared. Nawal bowed.
“Your Majesty, with your permission, I would wish to discover how strong you are. At least so that the blade I forge will not break by your strongest swing.”
“Fair enough, Nawalishifra. I confess—I seldom swing as hard as I can. My strength, you see, is too much for even me. I can tear my own flesh and bone from the impact if the sword twists in my hand. How shall we test my limits?”
Flos grinned. Nawal bowed, and in moments, Flos was calling for a wagon. He was going to lift enchanted swords, and then see if he could lift a wagon one-handed or two, unaided. Then they’d pile weights on and find the limits of his strength.
Teres watched the carnival-like anticipation as Flos’ vassals gathered around and the [King] began to throw or cut with enchanted weapons. He could lift and swing a thirty-pound blade around almost as fast! Nawal was scribbling frantic notes and Teres felt for her.
“Imagine trying to make a blade that won’t break with him.”
“Ah, but most blades are enchanted, little Teres.”
A hill of a woman spoke. Teres jumped and realized Zamea hadn’t moved. She was sitting cross-legged, to avoid stepping on anyone if she rose. She looked down at Teres.
The half-Giant woman was rather like a Human woman, scaled up. But there were significant differences. Her skin was…rugged. Almost closer to something hard, mineral, than flesh. She could have used a few tankers of skin cream. And her eyes were pale orange. She smiled down at Teres.
“Um, good morning, Shepherd Zamea.”
Teres hesitated, but bowed slightly. Zamea was leader of the Nomads of the Sky, and Teres wasn’t sure of her rank, but everyone but Flos’ immediate vassals bowed to her. The half-Giant didn’t nod, but smiled.
“Lady Atwood. Teres Atwood, we have not spoken, the two of us alone. His Majesty tells me you are his trusted follower.”
Zamea chuckled. Teres was feeling the vibrations of her speech as much as hearing them. She could hear Zamea inhaling and exhaling, come to that. She stared up at Zamea.
“His Majesty tells me you have interesting ideas. More than that, he will not share. But I am curious about you, little Teres of the smallfolk.”
“The what? Oh—is that what half-Giants call others?”
“Indeed. We are the Nomads of the Sky. One of the last colonies of our kind anywhere in this world. And I am the Shepherd of my people. But you have questions. Smallfolk always do. Ask, ask.”
Zamea chuckled. She did not eat or drink, and few of the other tall half-Giants had this morning. Teres had seen them feasting last night on huge portions of Manticore meat, but Flos had mentioned that half-Giants needed to eat once in a fortnight, but when they did, they were ravenous.
“Questions will not offend me, little Teres. Ask. I am told you have amusing questions.”
Zamea leaned down and Teres backed up. Even if she moved slightly towards Teres, the young woman felt as pressured as if Flos were exerting some of his presence on her. She gulped.
“Well—I was asking his Majesty—look, biologically, isn’t it hard for half-Giants to exist? I mean, you must have problems with your spines or…breaking bones when you fall!”
Zamea blinked. Then she chuckled. Flos’ head turned as he lifted a wagon with eight people sitting on it. He grinned and shouted something from afar, but Teres didn’t hear it. Zamea made a gesture and then turned to Teres.
“A fine question! And a curious one. [Mages] ask me that as well. To answer—I see you have an enchanted sword there, young Teres. What enchantment?”
“Just—piercing and toughness. Why?”
Teres drew the blade carefully. It was a good sword. Not a powerful one, but Orthenon wanted her to learn to fight rather than let the blade fight for her. Zamea gestured.
“Thrust it into my arm.”
She put her arm on the ground. Teres recoiled.
“Little Teres, you could not cut deep if you tried. Thrust it into my arm. Now.”
The half-Giant’s eyes stared at Teres. Unwillingly, Teres aimed the blade at what she hoped wasn’t an artery or vein and gingerly stabbed. Her sword—slid off Zamea’s skin.
Teres blinked, then she realigned the blade and tried again. This time she put force behind the stab and it went in—about a few inches.
Heads turned as Zamea ordered Teres. The girl flinched, then tried a slash with two hands. The sword cut—but it cut barely more than a few inches, again! And Zamea’s arm was massive.
Zamea rose. She sat back upright as some of the distant half-Giants who’d camped and slept—on their backs, in the open—called out to her.
“Shepherd! Are you teasing the smallfolk?”
One of the half-Giant’s rumbling voices called across the entire camp. Zamea laughed as Teres turned crimson. She bent back down to Teres after raising one hand. And her eyes were brilliant and huge.
“You see? Half-Giants have skin like armor. Especially those of us whom the blood runs strong in. The Giants of old were said to have armor that even an enchanted battleaxe wouldn’t break. If I fall, Teres, woe to any beneath me or the ground itself. But I will break after mountains do.”
Teres saw that. She stared up at the half-Giant.
“You’re…fairly incredible, Shepherd Zamea.”
The huge woman’s eyes twinkled.
“You think so? Then you have too low expectations by far, Teresa Atwood! You have not seen us fight. But those of us who have come with King Reimarch will fight. When the time comes, we will tear through the smallfolk. Save your awe for that.”
The little speech was accompanied by a smile. And it was not pitiless—but it had a grand and terrible weight to it. Teres shuddered. She had not seen Zamea fight. But the Nomads of the Sky were not all warriors. Only a handful had gone with Flos; the rest were actual [Shepherds], or those with classes suited for travel.
They herded large breeds of regular animals, like sheep. They were still tiny, but nearly three or four times as large as any sheep from Teres’ world. They had feasted on them the day they arrived. To do that, they’d culled the sheep. Zamea had helped, gently breaking sheep’s necks with her fingers.
“You’re not as—as gentle as I thought you might be, Shepherd Zamea. I imagined half-Giants would be…different.”
More like a certain groundskeeper in a magical warding school in Teres’ head. Capable of wrath, but kindly. But Zamea was taller than Hagrid. And—far different. Her smile was kind, but also fearful. And she laughed quietly.
“Gentle? Ah. Some of the tallfolk who walk alone learn that. Gentleness, to avoid scaring the smallfolk around them, lest they gather in fury. But that is not what I am, nor what half-Giants are. Why would we be gentle? Look at us. We are greater than the smallfolk.”
She pointed. And in the distance, Teres saw some of the other half-Giants near Zamea’s size. Some were ‘only’ sixteen feet tall. But they had a separate camp away from the smallfolk, and they were visible from a distance.
A pair of young half-Giants had risen. They were playing a game in the morning. Two of them were laughing and one young twenty-foot male tossed what was a throwing axe for him towards another half-Giant his size. The other caught it without fear; their skin was tough. But no one besides them dared get near.
The sight was terrifying. Teres imagined what would happen if they slipped and the axe went flying towards…well, a smallfolk. She looked at Zamea and saw the half-Giant pointing.
Some other half-Giants were walking around the camp, the shortest ones, who were nine feet or more. And Teres saw what Zamea meant about caution.
They were not careless, but they weren’t careful either. They didn’t walk like a friend Teres had known back home, who was a tall bloke who was always careful about bumping into people. The Nomads of the Sky strode about freely, and people navigated around them with care.
“Sometimes we take in our kin from afar. And they walk like mice. The Nomads must teach them to walk with pride. But then—they believe the lies of the smallfolk. That we are all the same height deep down.”
Zamea sighed. Teres looked up at her and couldn’t help it.
“But we are all like that, aren’t we, Zamea? We’re all people, right?”
The half-Giant stared down at Teres. Then she laughed like slow thunder.
“You do it too. Look at me. Do you say our lives are equal, little Teres?”
She leaned down. Teres was smaller than her head. The half-Giant grinned at Teres, showing huge teeth. Teres tried not to step back.
“We’re not the same. I’m not saying that. But deep down—fundamentally—we’re all people, right?”
She was trying to think of some philosophy, but the huge half-Giant woman was distracting her by being—there. Yet, Teres thought she was right. Each person was a person. You couldn’t measure a soul by appearance. And yet, Zamea chuckled at Teres’ notions.
“Yes. Smallfolk say that. As if there is no difference between us when all else is stripped away. But look—”
She stood. And Teres gazed upwards and the smallfolk in the camp, all of them, stopped and stared. A thirty-foot half-Giant leaned down. And one of her hands plucked Teres off the ground.
Teres bit off a scream as she rose, incredibly fast. The hand was so gentle—but it held her with absolute control. Zamea lifted Teres up, opened her other palm, and deposited Teres there. She raised her to mouth-level and spoke.
“I am one of the last of my kind. The Nomads are one of the last of the tallfolk, and the most numerous. And we number but hundreds. Look at me. My blood is that of giants. You could walk across the world and find so few like me—while your people are like dust, everywhere. Who is worth more? Who is more significant?”
Just the sight of her mouth opening, the dizzying height, and the tremendous words and rumble made Teres faint. She opened and closed her mouth, pale. This was a child of giants. And Zamea was half—
Imagine what they had been like. Striding across the world. One of them could destroy a city. Teres tried to argue, but her knees shook and she sat down.
Gently, one finger rubbed Teres’ head, like she might rub a little mouse’s head if she had a pet, or a doll. So carefully, as not to break her. Teres cringed as Zamea smiled. And she looked down on Teres.
“We are not equals. The King of Destruction is not equal to you, even reduced to the fact of his life. Some are worth more than others, or else why do we follow one such as him?”
“But…okay. Okay, please put me down?”
Teres whispered. She was afraid. Zamea just smiled.
“And if I do not?”
She put Teres on her shoulder. The young woman grabbed Zamea’s shoulder as the half-Giant began to walk, choosing her steps with care. Teres was white-faced. This was worse than Fetohep taking offense. She felt Zamea moving, was terrified she’d slip and fall and the half-Giant wouldn’t even notice—
A voice came from below. Zamea halted, and Teres saw a familiar shape below.
Mars the Illusionist. She stood with both hands on her hips, grinning up at the Shepherd. Mars wagged a finger as she pointed.
“Shepherd Zamea, you’re scaring our little Teres. Put her down, please. His Majesty will want her as he meets the Gnolls.”
The half-Giant halted. Teres saw her and Mars exchange a glance, and then Zamea smiled.
“Very well, Illusionist. Lady Atwood, I trust you have learned a lesson?”
Teres whispered as Zamea gently let her climb onto her hand. The half-Giant set her down and Mars caught Teres; the young woman’s legs weren’t working. Zamea crouched.
“You see? Respect for few of the small. Those who walk with giants. Let us talk again, Teresa Atwood. Until that time.”
She rose, as tall as the sky. And then Zamea took a step. Another. And she was gone. Teres looked at Mars.
“His Majesty warned you about tickling other people, Teres. Well, Zamea’s a good sort. But she’s fierce as Orthenon. Here, come with me.”
Mars’ tone was strict, but her hands were gentle. She let Teres sit for a moment.
“She’s so—I just said—”
“She’s a half-Giant. And the leader of her people. She doesn’t play nice. When a nation doesn’t like the Nomads, the half-Giants don’t run away. They fight and walk where they please. Zamea’s like her forebears. That she came for his Majesty means she truly respects him. Now, come on. His Majesty’s with the Rustängmarder, but the furry-folk are up and waiting.”
Mars led Teres to the Rustängmarder. There were only about two hundred of them in Reim total, and eighty had marched with Flos. They had their own tents, their own space in the camp, around Flos’ tent.
They were the ultimate elite soldiers. As feared as the Nomads of the Sky. Their armor was dark black and green. And they wore the full-visored helmets that covered their faces at all times.
Teres might have talked back to Zamea, once. But never to the Rustängmarder. They were men. All men, who enlisted in this army and fought for pay wherever they went.
There was one fact about the Rustängmarder Teres had learned, besides their blank expressions, their perfect discipline and their unwillingness to retreat in front of slaughter. And that was that the Rustängmarder had a leader for each company, a [Commander]. And that commander always had levels in [Necromancer].
The King of Destruction was talking with the commander now. Teres knew him, but she held back. The man leaned against a table as he bowed awkwardly to the King of Destruction.
“It was good to fight alongside you all yesterday. The Rustängmarder’s edge has dulled not one whit. And you, Commander Ytol. You have my gratitude for taking command of my infantry. Venith could only be in so many places at once, and he and Maresar must watch Hellios and Reim in my absence.”
“It was our honor, King Reimarch.”
The man’s voice was quiet. He alone did not wear his helmet; the rest of the Rustängmarder were lined up behind him, standing in perfect rows as they waited for any order. They were like machines. But they were not.
“[Death Soldiers]. Don’t poke fun at them, Teres. Although I doubt you could make them mad, I’d hate to see it. They’re good sports if you want company for a night, though. Brave sad lads. But they’ll find salvation with his Majesty. And I’d trade a hundred regular [Soldiers] for each one of them. Five hundred.”
Mars murmured to Teres as she led her over. Flos was nodding. He looked at the commander, Ytol. And his face was happy…and sorrowful.
“Ah, but you paid a heavy price to come here, Ytol. Were the rest of the Rustängmarder so angered as to demand it?”
He looked heavily at Ytol. And so did Teres. The [Death Commander] smiled. And he tried to bow, but he was unused to the crutch he leaned on. And of course, he had only one side of him to bow.
His right arm was gone. And his right eye. And his right leg. It was not an old injury, either. His limbs had been cut away last month, or so Teres had heard. When his company had marched to join the King of Destruction.
“Half for desertion, my [King]. That is always the price. I was only grateful it was I who bore my company’s sins. Otherwise we could not fight for you.”
The Rustängmarder stood silently behind Ytol. Flos bowed his head.
“But you came for me. And the Rustängmarder sent your company.”
The [Death Commander] shrugged. He had a bleak look in his eyes. Pitiless and empty, but when he looked at the King of Destruction…he smiled. And something in his eyes shifted.
“Desertion is desertion. But I would give up my other half to honor our oath. When our contract ends, we will all come. But it pained us to honor one vow and forsake the other. So. I above others was chosen for the honor.”
“The honor is mine.”
Flos Reimarch bowed slightly. The Rustängmarder moved. Ytol tried to bow lower. Flos Reimarch motioned, and turned to address Orthenon, Mars, Teres, and the others with him.
“We have one army, now. The makings of one that would make other nations tremble. Once, I had many such armies, each more fearsome than the last! I led my own, and each of my Seven had one to command, save for Drevish and Tottenval, and they had armies of [Builders] and [Farmers] in their way. Commander Ytol has my infantry. I have my Nomads and the Rustängmarder to break my foes. Serpent Hunt and Parasol Stroll, four divisions of elites.”
“And Orthenon with his pretty pony [Riders].”
Mars grinned. The [Steward] turned his head and gave her a flat look. The [Vanguard] winked as Flos laughed.
“And Orthenon’s fearsome cavalry, yes, Mars! I did not forget you! But this army—it will do.”
He gestured at the rest of the [Soldiers], who had disassembled all the camp by now.
“My [Soldiers]. Many are low-level. But I will have them all reach Level 10 soon. Just by marching here, they will level. And if I can recreate one of my units—the Ensorcelled Blades, the Mirage of Chandrar, or the Dreamers…”
“Then we could put up a fight.”
Mars agreed, her eyes shining as she shifted from foot to foot. Flos nodded.
“The pieces gather. But as I say, we need more magical arms, more specialized forces. I hope to march north and enter Medain. Mars, Orthenon and I could challenge a dungeon!”
“King Perric will never allow it, your Majesty.”
Orthenon murmured. Flos sighed.
“Well, Nerrhavia. Or—does Hellios have an old dungeon? That’s the easiest way of it. Germina and Hellios had decent artifacts, but I’d rather like a few more treasuries.”
“Just crush a few more kingdoms.”
Mars helpfully suggested. Flos grinned.
“We’ll have to have them declare war first. But that is for the future! I will decide where to march after I meet with our guests. The Gnolls. Are they on their feet, Orthenon? They were half-ragged from marching.”
“Their Chieftain is, my lord. Will you meet him now?”
Flos’ gaze sharpened.
“Yes. Yes, I believe I will. Have him meet me in a proper location. For an audience—Mars, you, of course. A small gathering. And Teres.”
He looked at her. Teres glanced up swiftly.
“You want me, Flos?”
Everyone reacted to her using the name. Orthenon frowned. The Rustängmarder’s heads slowly swiveled around and looked at her. Teres froze. But Flos just laughed.
“Of course! For a moment like this? Come, Teres. I only regret Trey isn’t here. But come. Let us find out why the Gnolls of Izril have come to my banner.”
Teresa Atwood stood in a large tent. Flos Reimarch sat on a throne.
It was a portable throne, but it was still grand. The bags of holding and enchanted wagons could hold a finite number of items, but this was apparently as important as weapons or food.
And perhaps it was. For the King of Destruction had an audience. His vassals, Jelaim, Ulyse, Mars, Orthenon, all of his elite commanders and some of his high-ranking officers stood around the tent, listening to their [King]. Orthenon and Mars stood to either side of the King of Destruction.
And Teres stood next to Mars, on the left of Flos. Closer to the King of Destruction than Mars, in fact. She felt out of place. The air had that feeling to it, of weight. She did not belong. And yet—
She did. Flos wanted her here. And of those present, only she, Mars, and Orthenon gave voice to their thoughts. The rest were silent.
And the King of Destruction sat and looked at the Gnoll standing before him. The Gnoll was not alone; some of the other Chieftains and important Gnolls were gathered in the tent. But the one Gnoll in front, with russet hair and dye that turned the mane of hair around his head paler shades, was the one who spoke and answered.
There were also Lizardpeople standing and looking excitedly around, but they were not the focus. The Gnolls were. Both species had come seeking the King of Destruction’s grace. And found it. But the Gnolls…
Teres had heard the [Cook]’s comments about the Gnolls, but she’d put part of that aside to just distrust of outsiders, like how Nawal didn’t talk to men besides Trey and Flos and a few others. But she saw that estrangement was not limited to just the [Soldiers].
Flos’ vassals eyed the Gnolls warily. Not with fear; never that from Ytol or Jelaim or the others, but with a caution. They did not know these people. They did not know why they were here.
Neither did Flos, it seemed. The King of Destruction was staring at the Gnolls with interest.
“Chieftain Nelrra, of the Dustfur Tribe. I accept your greetings. And I greet the other tribes who have come with you. Lizard-friends of Baleros, you are welcome.”
He nodded to the Lizardfolk. One waved excitedly.
“Greetings, your Majesty! It is an honor to be here!”
“I have fought with Lizardfolk before. So I will address your people first. [Swamp Leader] Xeca, why do you come to Reim? Why do you call yourself my people, when you have never lived in Reim?”
The Lizardman who had led the thousands of Lizardfolk through Jecrass bowed slightly. He had a brilliant, rainbow-colored set of scales, minus a few colors, but he was more vibrant than anyone but a Garuda in color. His neck-frills opened slightly as he bowed lower.
“Your Majesty! We came because we wanted to see the King of Destruction ourselves! Baleros is overfull and the jungles flow with blood. And there are flies and swamp monsters. We heard there was work in Reim, that you treated all species fairly! Some of us have come to fight under your banners, or to live here! But mostly—we came here because we wanted to see.”
Flos looked at Xeca. The Lizardman nodded.
“Yes. To see the mightiest [King] in the world! That is what they call you! We are all Lizardfolk, Highness. Purely Lizardfolk; not a Naga among us! But I think if we follow you, we can become what we were meant to be.”
“Ah. Curiosity drives you.”
“And ambition. Milord, Lizardfolk are cunning fighters. And their other forms, Naga, Gorgons, Medusae and their other forms are powerful. They might struggle in the sands, but they’ll be an asset when we fight along the coasts.”
Mars murmured. She was nodding as she looked at the Lizardfolk. Some of them were whispering and pointing at her, delighted to be in her presence. They were disarmingly friendly. And yet—Xeca had a gleam in his eyes. And Flos had much the same look.
“I can respect both ambition and curiosity. And Reim will welcome any number of Lizardfolk, [Swamp Leader]. There is no need for me to decide further; your people will have a welcome place in my army. Orthenon, find all those who do not wish to fight a space in my cities. Along the water, I think. But they are welcome indeed.”
“Thank you, sire!”
Xeca bowed and the Lizardfolk burst into an excited chatter. Teres distinctly heard one of them speaking.
“I told you this was a good idea! Wait till I send a [Message] back home—”
Orthenon spoke, and the Lizardfolk fell silent. They gaped up at him and then bowed and retreated. The [Steward] motioned.
“Chieftain Nelrra, step forwards.”
The Gnoll did so. He knelt, until Flos bade him to rise. The King of Destruction took longer just studying the Gnoll [Chieftain] than he had speaking with the Lizardfolk. When he did speak, it was with a hint of confusion.
“Chieftain Nelrra, you have led three tribes to me. From Izril, which I understand is as far as Baleros. And yet—your presence is more curious than that of the Lizardfolk. They joined my armies in small numbers in my first conquest of Chandrar. I know them, and I even know that I may give some of them what they seek, the opportunity to change their form.”
The Lizardpeople stirred excitedly, but one look from Orthenon quelled them. Flos went on, his head never moving as he stared at Nelrra.
“But the Gnolls of Izril are foreign to me. Not unknown; I have known members of your species. And yet—I never conquered Izril. I have no strong bonds with any one tribe. You are welcome guests of course, but you have come through Jecrass seeking my name. I ask you why.”
The Chieftain paused, and then spoke in a low, growling voice. Teres stared at him, fascinated, as Chieftain Nelrra raised his head and met the King of Destruction’s eyes. It might have been an affront to any other monarch, but the Gnoll met Flos’ gaze steadily.
Pride. The Gnolls were sniffing the air surreptitiously. And they looked weary from their travel. But they stood in front of the King of Destruction with as much pride as the vassals arranged around the room.
“King of Destruction. I speak for the three tribes gathered here. I speak for the Gnolls yet to come, at least those of us whom I know travel for you. We ask to become part of Reim. To be your subjects. We crave the King of Destruction’s protection, and we will fight in your armies. But we desire what we hope you will offer: a place of our own that will be ours forever.”
The Gnolls nodded behind him. Flos’ eyes glittered and he sat up with interest.
“Succinctly put, Chieftain. Before I go further and ask the nature of this desire, let me ask a question first. Why me? I was told the Gnoll tribes stick together in Izril; few leave their homeland. There are more Gnoll [Pirates] on the seas than there are in Chandrar.”
He was asking the question of questions. Why were the Gnolls here? Nelrra bowed his head silently.
“It is true that Gnolls seldom leave our home, King Reimarch. But—the reasoning of our journey is not an easy one, no. May I explain as best I am able? I do not have the manners to speak as one might to a monarch, I regret to say.”
“Speak freely. I have never held grudge nor enmity over titles or address.”
Flos nodded. Nelrra seemed to relax slightly. He bowed his head again.
“To explain then, your Majesty. My tribe is small. We are not a great number; in fact, those you see here are part of three other small tribes all joined together. And we are…tired. That is the best way I can say it, yes?”
He looked behind him for a second and the other two Chieftains, one male, one female, nodded slowly. Flos paused.
“Yes, King Reimarch. We weary of Izril, of our conflicts with the Drakes.”
A soft growl from the female Chieftain. She bowed, and all eyes turned towards her. Flos looked at Orthenon.
“I did not know the Gnolls and Drakes fought so. I know of their bitter wars in the past, but I thought the Humans of the north and Antinium were enemies enough.”
“Perhaps they are. And perhaps this is peace, your Majesty. But it is a bitter peace and even without war, our species clash.”
Chieftain Nelrra bowed his head. He shook it slightly.
“How can I explain it? Only to say that not all Drake cities fight with the tribes. Some live in harmony, but they are rare indeed. There are City Gnolls who live among the Drakes. And yet—there are no Gnoll cities. The strength of the Gnolls lies in the tribes, who wander Izril’s plains and the continent. And the tribes fight with Drake cities.”
The Gnolls paused. Nelrra shook his head.
“Not always. We are accused of thievery. We fight each other over feuds and grudges from ages past.”
“Ah. So you come here because you weary of such conflicts. I begin to understand. But such a long ways? Chandrar has its own share of woes. And you know who I am. Reim will not be peaceful.”
The King of Destruction raised both brows, and Nelrra nodded. He had a walking staff; he was apparently a [Shaman] as well as a [Chieftain], and he leaned on that now.
“We know what this journey will bring us, your Majesty. And it has been a long one. More difficult than I expected, and my tribe and I prepared for a painful voyage. And Chandrar is foreign, unfamiliar.”
One of the Gnolls murmured. There was a stir from around the tent. They weren’t exactly making friends with that comment, Teres thought. But then she heard a quiet rumble.
Zamea and some of the half-Giants sitting around the tent were laughing. There was a hole open to the skies and Teres caught sight of the Shepherd’s smile. The Gnolls stared up for a moment. Teres felt a chill. They were literally standing in the shadow of giants.
“Zamea, you’re blocking the sun.”
Flos Reimarch smiled. The darkness grew light again. He motioned at Nelrra.
“All you say is true. Chandrar is a harsh land.”
The Chieftain nodded. He went on, staring around. He, like the other Gnolls, had dust in his fur. It had to be hell with all that sand.
“This land grows too hot and too cold by turns, and there is not enough to eat. Water is scarce. And I dislike sand.”
“Because it’s coarse and rough and it gets everywhere?”
Teres couldn’t help it. She really couldn’t. Flos stirred and looked at her.
She fell silent. Chieftain Nelrra nodded, unsmiling.
“Yes, Miss Human. Especially in the fur. As I say, this land is harsh, and our journey long. But, King of Destruction, we feel it is still better. Because we are so tired of Izril. Even if there is war, even if we must fight, this land of sand could be our home.”
He gestured around.
“It would be better than Izril, even with all I have said, yes? Better than Drakes. King Reimarch, I say to you this: my tribe and I agreed, the other tribes who have come agreed. Better to live with sand in the fur than to fight and clash with an enemy who hates our very existence. Better than to be sold to slavers, or hunted like dogs. We are not dogs.”
His eyes flashed. The King of Destruction went still.
“Of course. Is it that bad on Izril?”
Nelrra shrugged, slowly, then shook his head.
“Perhaps not. But as I say, I am tired of clashing with Drakes. Tired of being told where we can and cannot go. It is not terrible always, sometimes not for long periods. But a small tribe is a target, especially from some Drake cities. We…are too weak to pull ourselves from the pit from which we hang. And too tired, too tired of death to rage against the Drakes like other tribes, like the Woven Bladegrass tribe and others.”
“Tired. I understand, Chieftain Nelrra. So you speak for three tribes. Are there more?”
The [Chieftain] nodded slowly.
“We come to you, dozens of smaller Tribes, and those worn by living in Izril for the hope you will take us under your protection. My group was first, but I know of at least six other tribes making their way to you. Most of them small, like mine. We are willing to work, to serve. But we crave your shield.”
Teres waited, but the King of Destruction didn’t have a quick response. In this moment, he was slow, pondering, and he had the weight of his crown on his head, for all he didn’t wear it.
“I see. Before I respond to you, Chieftain, clarify one thing for me. Again, I ask: why me? Surely there is more bountiful land in Chandrar, or opportunity in Baleros. Again, why the King of Destruction, who would make war?”
The Gnolls stirred. Chieftain Nelrra’s head rose slowly.
“To answer that, King of Destruction? What other nation would welcome Gnolls with open arms? I can think of almost none, and few would allow us the same rights as the native peoples. But Flos Reimarch is different, or so I believed.”
He lifted one paw and pointed. Not at Flos, or Mars, or Orthenon, but at one of the Garuda [Captains] along the wall.
“I heard a rumor, when you first conquered Chandrar and sailed north to Izril. A rumor that you would shelter any species, any people who declared for you. No matter whom they might be. That any species was treated as equals, Selphids, half-breeds, any. Not just treated so; that they could rise to become one of your Seven.”
The Gnoll bowed his head slightly.
“It is true. I would not have dared it on a rumor, or even a memory. But I had hope. Proof, as did the other Chieftains. The Garuda.”
The room changed. Flos sighed, and the Garuda [Captain] raised his head. The King of Destruction sighed, slowly. Mars and Orthenon both paused and nodded. Teres didn’t understand.
Flos seemed to sense it. He turned his head and addressed Teres and the room.
“Teres is my aid, Chieftain Nelrra. A companion, but she is as foreign to Chandrar as you. Permit me to explain. Teres, the Garuda are another nomadic species, treated like barbarians by many. Tribal barbarians. The Centaur are a third such race, but they have settled their cities in Baleros, and have a Great Company. The Garuda have few cities like Qualvekkaras; most live in nomadic tribes to this day.”
“And they’re like the Gnolls?”
A light went on inside Teres’ head. Flos Reimarch turned his head.
“So it appears the Gnolls believe. But I wonder if Takhatres would say the same?”
He glanced at his [Captain], but Nelrra went on.
“There is another reason, King Reimarch. You raised not just a Garuda to one of your trusted Seven. But another.”
This time the room fell silent. Mars and Orthenon looked at Flos. And the King of Destruction closed his eyes.
“Of course. Tottenval. My [Gardener].”
Nelrra nodded, cautiously. The air was heavier around Flos. He did not open his eyes.
“He was…Beastkin. But I heard a rumor that he looked…”
The [King] raised a hand. Nelrra felt silent. Flos nodded as he opened his eyes and they were distant, sad.
“He had some Gnollish blood in him, or so he claimed. He was a Beastkin of the Fox Tribe. A gentle, merry soul. A prankster, my old friend. I still owe his people a debt. He died at sea and saved my life.”
No one spoke in the tent. Above, the half-Giants nodded silently. Orthenon and Mars stood heavily, weighed down by the past. At last, Flos spoke.
“So, the Gnolls desire land, is it?”
“A place to call our own. Where we will not be exiled from. Yes, King of Destruction. That is what we ask. We will pay for the land with our blood. We will fight in your armies and defend your kingdom. But we do ask it.”
Cautiously, Nelrra raised his head. The King of Destruction sat there, looking at the Gnolls. Then he nodded. His voice lost its heavy air, and grew…conversational, quicker.
“Hm. I am having trouble deciding on it. Reim has a few oases, but they are only able to sustain so many. Hellios is more plentiful, and Germina is dry. So—Hellios. But it would be easier if I’d conquered Jecrass. They have rivers and plenty, and I think your tribes would enjoy it more. Well, for the future that may be so. But for now? Hellios.”
The Gnolls stirred, uncertainly. Teres felt a flutter in her chest. Flos pondered.
“Land in Hellios, by a river, perhaps. Do you want a castle? I have stone from Hellios in profusion. Reim is already being restored, as are the roads. Germina is constructing two new cities for my people, but castles are simple enough. Drevish—”
He paused, and his face grew still a second. Then he shook his head briskly.
“Ah. Well, I can still have a castle built within a few months. Even if they will be inelegant things compared to his works.”
“A…castle? Your Majesty? I do not understand.”
The Chieftain darted a quick glance at the other Chieftains, his eyes wide. Not daring to, but hoping. And the King of Destruction smiled. He stood from his throne.
“A castle indeed, Chieftain Nelrra. You desire land, but you should have something to defend. Unless Gnolls dislike structures that much? At least a city. I will allow your tribes to pick a spot in Hellios if you desire one; at least for your City Gnolls. Hellios, is, after all, a land of stoneworkers and they can create one quickly.”
The Gnolls in the tent stared. And Flos laughed. He descended the small dais, and approached Nelrra. The Gnoll looked at him; they were of a height. Flos Reimarch spoke.
“You ask for a boon you would pay for. Well, I say it is paid. You have given me a sight I had not dreamed of, Chieftain. Gnolls, who have come to Reim! You crossed an ocean—on a chance, a dream! For your people. I would reward that alone.”
He nodded at the other stunned Gnolls, and his voice rose, growing.
“For your bravery, Chieftain Nelrra of the Dustfur tribe, I will grant your people land. From the stone mountains of Hellios all the way south to Reim! Let no subject of Reim scorn your tribe or raise a hand against them in my kingdom! And—I will ensure this pact lives on longer than my lifespan alone.”
The Gnoll Chieftain looked unprepared for the sudden turn of events. Teres was staring but—she had expected this from the start. It was only Flos’ deliberations that had thrown her off. The King of Destruction gestured towards the tent flaps.
“The Quarass of Germina is an ally. As is Fetohep of Khelt, to some degree. I will prevail upon both for treaties allowing your tribe and all those who come to me access to Germina’s lands in perpetuity. Both will demand concessions, but they are both immortal rulers. Khelt and Germina will always harbor your people.”
“Your Majesty. You are giving us…land?”
“As much as can be spared. If I take other nations, I will add to them. But yes. Orthenon, bring me my maps! By nightfall, we will find a space for your people. And write your land by treaty and ink and law.”
The King of Destruction smiled. Teres saw the Gnolls staring, some tails beginning to wag. But Nelrra objected.
“Your Majesty. This is a gift too far. We wish to earn our land—”
The other two Chieftains looked like they wanted to kick him if they dared. But Flos just laughed.
“You have brought me a sight I dreamed of, Chieftain! And what is land to one such as I? My favor is not a petty thing, is it? Tell me, Mars, Orthenon! Is this the least of what I offer those who bring me dreams?”
He whirled. And his two vassals smiled. Mars called out, laughing at the Gnoll’s expressions.
“You showered gold on Tottenval for flowers, your Majesty! And he was our Beastkin, Tottenval, the Blooming Plague! You let Drevish build his damn cities like grass across Chandrar! They still stand and we’ll have a demon’s time retaking them.”
Orthenon bowed, smiling slightly in that way that Teres loved.
“Your Majesty once laid coastal roads across the east of Chandrar, from Seilk to Azan-avar. For a [Messenger] boy who ran the entire way through sand to bring you a missive. It still stands to this day, and the nations which trade plentifully now remember you still.”
“Yes! So witness, my vassals! You have heard my proclamation! And Chieftain Nelrra fears I am a petty [King]. But answer me this—will I ever break my word? Will I be forsworn?”
The shout came from around the tent. And the half-Giant’s voices made the skies shake. The Gnolls looked around, wide-eyed. And Flos laughed. He raised a hand and all quieted. Then he turned to the Gnoll Chieftain.
“A gift. It is not a petty thing, for all I give it quickly, Chieftain. But I believe, no, I know that your people will answer my gift a hundred times over. Take it, and keep it. What your people dream of should not wait a second longer than this. You have done well.”
The Gnoll Chieftain looked at the King of Destruction. And then he knelt. The other Gnolls did too. Flos grabbed Nelrra’s shoulder and made him stand. He was smiling; some of the Gnolls were overcome, unable to process this. Some didn’t believe.
But they would. Flos was as good as his words, and Orthenon was already bringing up maps, calling for a table. They wouldn’t believe, perhaps, until they were there, staring at the land Flos would give them. Maybe not even for months.
And yet, Teres believed. Because she knew Flos. He loved this, Teres saw. This, even more than he loved war. And he did love war. But he enjoyed seeing people laugh, and smile.
You couldn’t really call it an audience after that. Flos Reimarch certainly abandoned his throne and his vassals, caught up in his wave of ebullience, were more than cordial to the Gnolls.
It was true that where Flos Reimarch led, his people followed. And Chieftain Nelrra’s speech had won over some of the people, especially the Stitch-People of the Hemp class, and the Garuda.
The Lizardfolk too, funnily enough. One of them tried to pat a Gnoll on the head and got a light smack.
The three Chieftains were overwhelmed as Flos, in his way, motioned them over to the map so they could find what parts of Hellios suited them best.
“Queen Calliope and her court will cause a fuss, my lord…”
“Let them. It’s that [Prince]…Siyal, I want to test. Tell him to help settle the Gnoll tribes and let Maresar watch him. Hellios doesn’t need all its land, and I want him to consider my offer. Hm. Do Gnolls like mountains? Hellios has a few, but all you get from them is stone…and some ores.”
“The Stone Spears tribe would have. If they were still…”
One of the Chieftains murmured sadly. Flos was caught between talking with Nelrra as the Gnoll hesitantly pointed out good spots, and asking all the questions Teres had wanted to.
“So, your tribes are small?”
“A few hundred is small, King Reimarch. A few thousand is still small. Larger tribes number in the tens of thousands, some larger still. But there are many such tribes. We are experienced in hunting, gathering as a whole, but each tribe is known for some specialty.”
“The Dustfur tribe gathers a plant in Izril. Its pollen is mildly paralytic, but the plant itself is very useful in a number of aspects. We have brought some to plant.”
Jelaim slid over as fast as possible to Nelrra; the Stitch-Man looked excited at the idea of easy access to a new coating for his blades. Flos was nodding.
“We will see where best your tribes may excel. For now, build and rest. If I could, I would issue another Edict, but—next month. Your tribe looks exhausted, Chieftains. Was the journey truly that arduous?”
The Gnolls nodded. They did not prevaricate or blunt their words, Teres saw. Which of course made Flos like them all the more. The other male Chieftain nodded.
“The journey was hard, King Reimarch. We crossed the sea smoothly, but with some hunger; but since landing, we have had…conflicts.”
“Conflicts? But you were given safe passage.”
“[Bandits] on the road. And some places refused to harbor us. The journey was mostly smooth under your name, but there were setbacks.”
Flos frowned deeply.
“Where did they occur?”
“Mostly after landing. The nation we came to—it was Medain? The [King] did not wish us there long and we had a difficult time gathering supplies. When we came to Jecrass, all was well. Their [King] allowed us supplies and we were escorted.”
“A good land. Many horses.”
The female Chieftain murmured. The other Gnolls agreed. Flos frowned deeply.
“King Raelt is a good man; I have heard his people gave succor to those travelling through. I do owe him my gratitude, and I shall not forget it. There have been incidents from Nerrhavia, but mostly among the Hemp who have left their homes to come to me. But—Medain. I know their [King]…I think. Orthenon, his name?”
“Perric, my lord.”
Flos snapped his fingers.
“Ah, yes. He was a brat when I conquered Chandrar. They say he is a halfway powerful [King], but I wonder. He was an adventurer, wasn’t he?”
“He detests you, milord.”
“He does? Was I particularly vengeful in conquering Medain? No? Well, I assume he has his reasons. But I will demand my people be given respect.”
Flos’ eyes glinted. Then he turned to Teres.
“Teres, come here. Chieftains, this is my companion, Teres. She is not one of my Seven, but her knowledge and perspective entertains me. Teres, I am sure you have questions! Ask! Now, about this river…”
Teres found three tall Gnolls looking down on her. She was tall for her age and gender, but they were Gnolls. The female one growled a greeting and introduced herself.
“I am Lessha, of the Gembows Tribe. I greet you, Lady Teres.”
“Just call me Teres, please. Um…can I ask about your people? I mean, if it’s not offensive.”
The Gnolls smiled, baring their teeth.
“It is better to hear someone asking to ask than not at all. Refreshing. Ask away, Miss Teres. We have many questions of our own.”
Teres found herself asking questions about the Gnolls and reassuring them that Flos was who he said he was—and that they would be safe in Reim as the King of Destruction conferred with the Chieftain by turns. He was distracted, although he had already outlined a large area that would be enough for six tribes. And he still wanted a castle.
“Teres? Teres, come here! Look at this!”
Teres broke off from a discussion with Lessha about Gnoll children and came over. Flos was looking at a scrying orb.
He had two, now, in his immediate possession. The tiny one Gazi had given him, which was the size of a marble, and a much larger hand-mirror you could stare through. Neither was particularly big; scrying devices weren’t actually that great, Teres had learned. You had to calibrate them and they could be defeated any number of ways…
But the world was changing, and Teres began to understand why in that moment. She saw Noass, Sir Relz, and a view of Rhir as the two Drakes commented on the Blighted Kingdom.
Flos just stared.
“Is this…your television, Teres?”
“It—it looks like it! That’s like a news channel. How did…?”
“They’ve been broadcasting it all day, my lord. You were on it yesterday during your fight with the Manticores, but this is different.”
Ulyse offered as he twirled his parasol, looking intrigued. The members of Parasol Stroll had brought it to Flos’ attention. The King of Destruction peered at the mirror, looking confused.
“Ah, so they’re broadcasting sights the world over, eh? Why are those two Drakes talking?”
“Well, they’re commentating. You know, announcing the news? Like news anchors?”
The King of Destruction exhaled.
“You did mention. So that’s what it’s supposed to look like? Hmf, I had imagined it differently. Well, why don’t you hold onto this? Tell me if there’s something of actual interest to see! I care little for seeing Rhir; unless the Demons attack!”
He handed the scrying mirror to Teres. She blinked as Flos went back to the table with the maps on it. She stared at the mirror.
“—truly, awe-inspiring. But then I have a thing for walls, Sir Relz. Now, I think our next broadcast will be of the nation of Ailendamus. Again. But they are a very powerful, very uh, generous nation or so it seems. I believe their [King] is going on a parade of sorts, and one has to see all the grandeurs—”
“I will take it, Lady Atwood.”
Mirin offered quietly. The second-in-command of Parasol Stroll accepted the mirror. Teres wandered back to Flos.
“Castles. Drevish could have made an excellent one, but—Orthenon, do we have some of his older blueprints? His designs? Let’s let the Chieftains look at some. He made hundreds he never built. We may discuss it later. For now—”
Flos was letting the Gnolls communicate the good news to their tribes. They hurried out of the tents and he smiled. Then he turned to Teres.
“Ah, what a glorious day! And to think I had such a poor night!”
“Too much drink, my lord?”
Flos paused. He looked at Teres; the war council was clearing out. It was midday after all and they were in Belchan’s lands. They’d have to go north, or more likely, south, and find another kingdom to bother or enter.
“Slightly that, Teres. Age doesn’t help with celebrations. But I think it was something else. Still, I am in a good mood. You do not look as happy.”
“What? No, I’m fine. I just wish Trey could have seen the Gnolls too. He’d have enjoyed it.”
Teres shifted from foot to foot. Flos smiled.
“Missing your brother, Teres?”
“Just a bit. Are you sure he’ll be fine? You said A’ctelios is messed up.”
Flos had indeed told her about the horrible city carved out of a dead thing. Teres thought it sounded a bit like Cthulhu or something, but—it was probably not. Right? Trey had promised to take videos, anyways. She was also a tiny bit worried about him since he could be a right idiot. But the King of Destruction was reassuringly relaxed.
“Teres, if Gazi and the Quarass cannot keep Trey safe, I doubt I could. Moreover, Trey is a quite diplomatic sort. He’ll keep out of trouble. I would hesitate to send you, though.”
Teres blushed, annoyed because Flos was right. She didn’t like anyone ordering her around, by and large. But her encounter with Fetohep and Zamea had proven that backchat was sometimes unwise.
“Well, he’ll be back in two days, right? He’s on his way back if they did everything well.”
“Indeed. I received a [Message] from the Quarass informing me that Gazi’s eye was healed. Which was magnificent news! We weren’t sure if a powerful healing potion would affect her eye. But the Quarass also mentioned serious complications—well, we shall see.”
Flos shrugged. Teres didn’t like the sound of that, but Trey seemed to be alive, at least. Flos grew pensive and she looked sidelong at him.
“Are you still hung over?”
He started, and then laughed. But his exuberance with the Gnolls had faded remarkably quick. Flos seemed…troubled. He motioned Teres back to the throne and sat down in it, slowly.
“I have been sleeping poorly, Teres. And I do not know why. But something in me told me to come north, rather than anywhere else. I thought yesterday it was to meet my subjects. But I feel that is only part of it.”
“What else is there?”
The King of Destruction paused. He looked at Teres suddenly, and she realized he was serious.
“I do not know. But it is bothering me greatly, Teres. Something is wrong. And before I leave Belchan…”
Flos Reimarch stood up. He looked around pensively, and then raised his hand.
They broke off from their conversations and stepped towards him. Flos Reimarch frowned, and he looked at Teres, and then out towards the camp. She could hear Gnolls howling joyously, a strange sight that made Teres almost smile. But the King of Destruction’s face was suddenly grave.
“I did not hear of any of my people coming through Belchan. Only that Jecrass harbored them well. I wonder. Follow me. I have more questions for Chieftain Nelrra.”
“Two tribes should have come through Belchan. They came from further west, yes? So they would have travelled around Izril that way.”
“That puts them landing around the Claiven Earth, if they took the most direct sea route.”
Orthenon murmured as he traced a line across the map indicating sea routes. Flos Reimarch stood with Chieftain Nelrra, frowning deeply.
“Yes. The half-Elves. They are not my allies either, but I would expect them to show any species courtesy—if not aid. So that would lead both tribes south. Coming through…Belchan. When did you say they departed?”
The Chieftains exchanged glances.
“Around the same time as well, King Reimarch. We had decided to forgo the Meeting of the Tribes.”
“What is that?”
“Ah—the time when Gnolls gather together. Once every decade. But we decided we had little to gain from it. All tribes benefit, but…those who offer more gain more, and we have little to give.”
“I see, I see. But it is passing curious. Few have come by way of Belchan. Zamea, how did your company travel?”
“By way of Nerrhavia. But we came from the east, Lord Reimarch. And no one would trouble the Nomads and the Rustängmarder.”
Flos nodded slowly as the half-Giant replied. He stared at the map.
“If they have made all speed without delay, we should have word of them. They may even be close by. Let us…”
He fell silent as someone strode up to the table where he stood. Flos turned his head.
“Your Majesty, a [Commander] from Belchan’s army has a message for you to be delivered in person.”
“Ah, Belchan must be restless.”
Flos sighed and rose. The camp of the King of Destruction’s army was ready to march, but he’d delayed their movement to confer with the Gnolls. Now, Teres saw that frown on his head. And he looked north.
The [Commander] waiting for Flos stared as the King of Destruction and his entourage approached. Belchan had shadowed the King of Destruction’s army with a small force of about six thousand. Apparently a large portion of Belchan’s army was doing some war exercises about twenty miles distant, a much larger force than Flos had brought.
Flos was of course, bound by his oath, but this was a political play, a reminder of strength. The King of Destruction did not seem to remember it, though.
“King Reimarch, Prime Minister Lyfelt extends you an invitation to dine with him in his estates, in private company of course. This very night.”
The [Commander] had an invitation in writing. Flos glanced at the scroll as Orthenon accepted it, and turned his head. He smiled, looking at Teres.
“Ah, how kind of the Prime Minister to extend an invitation to one such as me. But I would not wish to take up the good Minister’s valuable time with my trivialities. You may inform Minister Lyfelt that my army will be moving. As soon as I take some of my people on a quick ride.”
The irony in his tone made his vassals stir and laugh. The [Commander] hesitated.
“A…ride, your Majesty?”
“Yes. I believe two Gnolls tribes will be heading south towards me. I will take my people—Orthenon, the cavalry with me. Just, say, two thousand? Prepare horses for Chieftain Nelrra and a few others.”
“As you will it, milord.”
Orthenon bowed. The Belchan [Commander] was not happy.
“Your Majesty, Prime Minister Lyfelt has invited Reim into Belchan’s borders for a specific—”
Mars leaned forwards and he shut up. The Illusionist was grinning. But Flos just raised a hand and smiled.
“I have been invited to Belchan, have I not? I may as well spare the Prime Minister the effort of escorting my subjects. I shall take his generous invitation if I have the time. But for now—let us ride. We will not be gone long. As soon as I find my subjects and return them, my army will be marching south.”
He looked at Teres and she nodded, already looking for her horse. But she didn’t miss Flos’ creased brow. And the way he kept looking around. Searching for something.
In Wistram, the news hit the Academy like a bomb. A literal bomb, like the ones Viltach dreamed of. They weren’t more powerful than some of the spells he knew existed, but anyone could use them. You’d make them, throw them or teleport them at things that needed destruction.
Like the damn Demon King and his armies. Or—A’ctelios Salash. The Shield Kingdom which rots. And yet, today, the news from A’ctelios made Viltach want to smile.
Archmage Viltach sat up. He stared at the [Mage] from his faction who’d burst into the room.
Mage Rievan Forstrom nodded.
“Absolutely, Archmage. A’ctelios claims their leader was assassinated by none other than Gazi Pathseeker and the Quarass of Germina! There was some debate over the exact incident, but—”
He got no further because Viltach shot to his feet. The Human Archmage—one of two of the five Archmages currently controlling Wistram—smiled, feeling a victorious surge in his chest.
“A’ctelios? But this is perfect. Quickly, change the image! No—wait—send a [Message] to those Drakes! And prepare—we must coordinate this properly. Tell Feor and Nailihuaile to meet me now.”
He strode out of his quarters, leaving Rievan behind. The King of Destruction had done it! Viltach had known Flos Reimarch couldn’t keep to his oath. Now, the world would see exactly what sort of man he was.
And when he was forsworn, Reim would die. And that moment would be broadcast the world over.
In high-fidelity definition and sound, of course. Brought to you by Wistram Academy. Buy a scrying artifact today.
Some of them hated him. They hated the King of Destruction, with all of their hearts. He was not universally beloved. He polarized. You hated or loved him.
But you still came to watch. The King of Destruction rode out from his camp; the infantry and bulk of his armies had resettled for a few hours. But two thousand of his [Riders] followed the King of Destruction as he rode north, through Belchan.
The army [Commander] was not happy about it, and nor was Minister Lyfelt himself if the [Messengers] that Orthenon kept swatting away were any indication. But what could they do? Flos had been invited.
And he wanted to find his subjects.
Even so, the small host was almost like a parade in how many people it drew. Because here was Flos Reimarch, the King of Destruction! Orthenon, Mars, both rode in his wake along with Teres, Ulyse, members of Parasol Stroll—
And some of the Gnolls. Chieftain Nelrra was among the [Riders] sitting comfortably on the saddle. That surprised Teres, but Gnolls knew horses fairly well. They just preferred to run since they were good at that too.
But she and he were just barely noticeable additions to the procession. There sat Flos Reimarch, red and gold hair moving in the breeze. Mars the Illusionist, beautiful. Orthenon, gaunt and scowling.
And—the people looked up and saw a myth as tall as the tales they told about the King of Destruction. And all that you laughed at, the stories you thought couldn’t be true—it all became real.
Half-Giants strode along, keeping pace with the trotting horses. Four of them, each nearly as tall as Shepherd Zamea. And she walked next to the King of Destruction. And the smallfolk looked up and remembered that there were Giants.
“Come, Human children! Gather and see!”
Zamea’s voice boomed across the landscape. Belchan was more lush than the southern nations, and greenery sprang from the earth—not in great profusion, but enough to make Teres feel this was a rich land. People stared up as the mighty half-Giant smiled.
“Witness a glory that comes only once a lifetime! The King of Destruction!”
The half-Giants accompanying her roared his name. They drowned out the jeers, the insults of those who had come with hate in their hearts. The cheers too. But the riders began to shout his name—
Until the King of Destruction raised one hand.
Flos’ voice was quiet, but he somehow spoke over Zamea. And she fell silent. And so did the crowds.
Flos Reimarch turned in his saddle. A huge crowd had come just to see him. The people wanting to enlist, people wanting to see a glimpse of him before he departed. Some jeered. Others might have thrown things if it weren’t for the half-Giants. Belchan’s smaller force was actually having to hold the crowd back.
And the King of Destruction just paused a moment. There he sat. And he looked around and Teres saw his face.
“A glory that comes once in a lifetime? Ah, but Zamea. You remember me of old. How do you say to them that this is Reim’s might? When we number two thousand by horse, not two hundred thousand? When Reim is still small?”
Flos called up at her. The half-Giant smiled.
“You alone make that legend, King Reimarch. And your vassals. Or do you disagree?”
The [King] paused, and he looked at Orthenon and Mars. He smiled slightly.
“No. But I also remember.”
Slowly, he turned his head. And his eyes were distant. He looked at Nelrra, and then ahead. But for a moment, he lingered on the crowd.
“Orthenon. I think your Skill would do. Let us remind these people, Belchan, of what was. They have gathered to see me. So they should see me.”
He looked at his [Steward] and the man bowed.
“By your leave, your Majesty?”
Orthenon slowly rode ahead. He gestured, and the riders began to trot. The crowd watched, waiting.
Flos rode just behind Orthenon, with Mars and Teres and Nelrra now. He looked at her.
“Orthenon’s Skill? What is that?”
Teres stared at the [Steward]. Flos nodded to the man’s back. Orthenon was moving slower, and his dark steed was snorting. There was stillness about him. He was about to use it.
“I don’t know that I’ve told you the full power of my [Army of the King], Teres. But you know that I have few Skills that I can use. My Skills shake the earth, but I may use them seldomly. I find that inconvenient. Orthenon now—his Skills can be used once a battle, or once a day. And they are less than mine in scope. But…”
There was a word. Orthenon lifted his spear.
The riders moved. They followed after, and Teres felt her skin chill. The air grew cool. And she felt like someone was riding beside her, invisible. Flos looked at her and his eyes shone.
“This is the power Orthenon wields. My glorious left hand. My [Ruinbringer Steward].”
Orthenon pointed ahead. And his words filled the silence.
“[Vanguard of the King, the Phantom Storm].”
Teres felt a sensation. She glanced sideways and stared. A woman wearing engraved armor rode at her left. It shone with silver and gold, and she carried a mace. Her hair was pale blue.
But she had not been there a moment before. She had ridden out of nowhere. But now more came.
They appeared out of the dust, out of the midst of the living. Riders wearing ghostly armor, becoming realer. The crowd of people stared.
What they saw were people. People, but not of this day and age. Teres knew at once.
They were dead. But they had ridden in this company long ago. Now, they came to life, as real as the others.
She was terrified. Because the woman who rode by her was real. She bowed as Flos rode past her. And the [King] knew her. He nodded once, and rode ahead.
“Thank you, my [Steward].”
Orthenon bowed. And Flos cast a glance backwards. Even the half-Giants were silent. For striding shapes seemed to be following them in the mist. As if more of their kind would step out of the air.
The people of Belchan stared. And the King of Destruction drew a sword. It was base magic. No artifact of old. But he pointed ahead. And his voice echoed.
“Ride with me, Teres. Ride with me, Chieftain Nelrra. For the glory of Reim! What was lost. We are shadows of our glory. And that is ever so.”
He pointed. And they rode. Teres saw Mars calling out to the figures who rode with them. She knew them. And they looked back at her. But they never spoke. And the Illusionist’s face was filled with grief.
The [Riders] seemed to carry a silence with them. And time…Teres found herself riding after the [King]’s back. All who beheld them stared. The living and the dead. And Teres looked at Orthenon’s face as he rode at his [King]’s side.
And she was afraid. Because the [Steward] of the King of Destruction wielded memory like a blade. And it cut all equally deep.
They rode with that ghostly host for a minute, or perhaps an hour. And Teres couldn’t take her eyes off the King of Destruction’s back. He led them at a trot at first, and then faster. A canter, and then a full gallop. The half-Giants began to jog, and their footsteps shook the ground.
There were more of them. But no one spoke a single word. Flos took them down the roads, faster, faster.
And he was using his Skills. The ground began to blur and Teres experienced a dream-like sensation; she was moving too fast for her mind to keep up.
Down the main roads, turning, pausing. The [King] spoke, and people, staring, shook their heads. Some pointed, and he rode on.
He was searching for them. A trace of his people. But though some had seen others passing through, few spoke of those who had gone through Belchan.
And Teres felt it. A terrible feeling, a suspicion written on the King of Destruction’s face. Growing with each passing minute. Then hour.
At last, the King of Destruction halted. And his panting escort saw him turn. Teres couldn’t tell how long they’d travelled, or how far, but the sun was setting. Flos Reimarch stared about. His eyes flashed.
“Where are my people? Find them.”
Orthenon rode forwards, bowing. He shot forwards with a smaller escort. Shepherd Zamea strode over a hill, searching. The host of two thousand began to fragment, as Flos sent his [Riders] out in every direction. Searching for the King of Destruction’s subjects.
They were in Jecrass. [Riders] came back with news of the bands of travellers coming across the border. They were unable to cross, but Flos’ people rushed to meet them, making a beeline for the King of Destruction.
“Your Majesty. We feared to pass through Belchan as much as Medain. Some of those ahead told us this nation offered few escorts, and the people refused to trade. And worse. Perhaps the other tribes went around, to Jecrass or…”
Chieftain Nelrra panted as he let his horse drink and eat a bit. Teres was doing the same. But Flos Reimarch just turned as his [Steward] returned, shaking his head.
“I know they were here. Orthenon! Take your riders and scout yourself, not towards Jecrass, but further into Belchan. Summon all my Garuda in the army—if Takhatres were here—”
Away Orthenon went. But—Flos waited, with growing frustration. It was then that one of the Gnolls began to confer with Nelrra. He approached the [King].
“Your Majesty, we are natural trackers. I have with me my best [Tracker]. She has been unable to pick up a definite scent, but she thinks she has something.”
“Can she locate it?”
“It is too far away, your Majesty. My nose is picking up something, but I am not the most high-level or gifted. Apologies. If I keep scouting, perhaps I may find the scent.”
The female [Tracker] bowed apologetically. Flos stared at her. Then he shook his head.
“No, I have a better idea. What is your name?”
The Gnoll blinked.
“Is it your will to find your people, Lykesa? Even if it means changing your nature or class?”
She paused, and then nodded. Flos nodded.
“Then kneel. And close your eyes.”
He dismounted. The Gnoll [Tracker] knelt, and Flos put a hand on her shoulder. He looked down at her and then exhaled.
“I name you a [Royal Tracker]. A gift, and perhaps a curse. Your quarry will not be all things, but a [King]’s prey. If you would will it, take the class. And find your kin. Lykesa.”
He pressed down and the Gnoll jerked. For a moment, her eyes rolled up in her head. The other Gnolls caught her before she could sag backwards. Teres saw her limbs move wildly—and then she opened her eyes and refocused.
“Did you gain the Skill you needed?”
The Gnoll rose, wide-eyed. The others were staring at Flos. So was Teres. He turned.
“A royal class is a heavy thing, Lykesa. But the hour grows later and the time is urgent. Find them.”
She nodded and put her nose to the wind. Within a moment she was sniffing, casting about for a far, far distant quarry. Flos looked at Teres.
“My gifts are weighty things, Teres. I do not know subtlety.”
“I have them. Northwest. I smell—Gnolls.”
Lykesa instantly pointed. Flos turned.
A horn blew and a [Message] carried the [Steward] back at a lightning gallop. A mile a minute, or faster. His horse halted and the [Steward] looked at Flos.
“Northwest. Take Lykesa. She will find them. We follow after. Gather the others!”
Flos rode slower as the other distant [Riders] were recalled. The half-Giants strode back towards him. And they travelled north, as the sun continued to set.
They rode for twenty minutes, their tired mounts moving slower. But at the twenty third minute, Teres saw Orthenon riding back towards Flos.
“My [King], we have found something. However—”
The [Steward]’s eyes flickered. And that said enough. Flos turned his head.
“Lead me there at once, Orthenon. Now.”
They had come far. A Gnoll tribe had indeed come south, through Belchan. But they had never made it to him.
This tribe had been beset before. They had buried their dead six times. But there was not a seventh time. Their attacker had come last night. And the fighting had been over, then.
A hundred-some Gnolls at most. An easy target, already worn by…trouble. Clashes. They had hoped for sanctuary. They had found only death.
The attackers had been quick. They had tried to take the Gnolls by surprise as night fell. But the battle had not been a smooth rout. Both sides had fallen. In the end, the attackers had fled, taking most of their dead with them.
Most, but not all. Teres saw the fallen horses, the bodies mixed with the fallen Gnolls. But most were Gnolls. She stared as the King of Destruction slowly dismounted from his horse.
The rest of the [Riders] stared. Some, like Orthenon and Mars looked as [Warriors], counting bodies, where they had fallen. But Teres stared as herself. She had seen the battlefield afterwards. But this had been Gnolls, seeking the King of Destruction. Non-warriors.
Dark fur, matted with blood. They had fallen back again and again, in a narrowing circle. But they had been given no quarter.
They had all died. Adults and children. Even their pack-animals, the camels and mules had been slaughtered. All save one. Teres saw Lykesa pointing, Orthenon speaking. She couldn’t hear. Her eyes fell on a single figure, standing in the center of the bodies.
Perhaps they had left him as a message. Or perhaps they had left, rather than die. Because the young Gnoll was still alive. And he had a sling.
Just—just a sling. But it could throw a stone and kill an animal. Break a neck. Shatter bones.
He still stood there, the sling whirling. Someone called out a warning as Teres nearly approached. Two of the [Riders] that had gone with Orthenon were wounded.
The half-Giants were striding to keep up. But the young Gnoll didn’t seem to notice that these were different Humans, or the half-Giants. He had a blank look in his eyes. But his aim—
Flos Reimarch slowly took a step towards the Gnoll. And Teres saw he had white fur.
Pure white, like snow. But stained with dried blood. Flies buzzed around the battlefield.
Flos began to walk forwards. The Gnoll’s head moved slightly. A blur shot at Flos’ head.
Orthenon moved; the stone shattered in the air.
“My lord, the stones are dangerous. He’s killed at least two dozen—”
“Move. And stand back.”
The [Steward] looked at Flos. He opened his mouth and Flos turned his head. Silently, Orthenon fell back. Mars had dismounted. And Flos walked forwards.
The young Gnoll was grown. And his sling whirled. He had stood there, defending the dead for nearly a day. He wasn’t thinking, not in any conscious way.
But he had his sling. And ammunition. It whirled. And anything he saw died.
But it had not been enough.
They were coming back. He could see them, on the horses. He waited.
His fur was white.
One of them began to walk towards the Gnoll. So the [Slinger] threw a stone. It shot towards the figure. The first time it was destroyed in midair. The figure kept walking. The young Gnoll fumbled. Loaded a stone with bloody paws.
The sling whirled.
He flung a stone, as hard and as fast as his young limbs could move. The Human staggered. The stone struck him on the shoulder. But he did not scream or fall or run. He kept walking on. The young Gnoll reached for another stone.
He whirled the sling.
Another blow. The Human kept walking. Blood ran down his arm and shoulder. But he came on. He was close now, but slowed to avoid the bodies. The young Gnoll flung a third stone. At the Human’s face.
This time the stone glanced off an arm, gouging deep. But the Human lived. He was too close for a fourth stone. So the young Gnoll drew a weapon and dropped the sling.
He raised a hunting knife and a hand caught his paw. He struggled, but it was too late. The Gnoll waited, snarling, biting—
And the arms enfolded his body.
For a moment the Gnoll paused, uncomprehending. He felt the Humans squeezing, but not hard enough to kill. He bit, and tasted blood. But the grip never changed. And somewhere, somehow, he heard a distant howl.
More Humans. But the young Gnoll heard a howl. And the fog cleared from his eyes. He looked up and saw the King of Destruction.
The [King] had never moved. Even now, as blood ran from the side of his neck, he just hugged the Gnoll. Flos embraced the young Gnoll with the white fur. And as the others thundered towards him, he raised a hand.
Silence. They halted, and the young Gnoll looked into Flos Reimarch’s eyes. They were overflowing with tears.
The voice was raspy, dry. For answer, the [King] gestured. His [Steward] came, but the healing potion went to the young Gnoll.
“Your Majesty. You are bleeding.”
Flos looked at the young Gnoll. He was staring at the glowing vial of medicine. Flos gently opened it.
“Who are you?”
The young Gnoll was older than Teres, maybe. But not by much. He stared at her, and the others. Flos looked at him.
“I am the King of Destruction.”
“Oh. We were looking for you.”
There was a pause. The young man, the Gnoll, looked around. But all he saw were the bodies.
“They’re dead. All of them. They came last night.”
Flos nodded. He was weeping, and he didn’t even notice as Orthenon applied a potion.
“I am sorry. I was a day too late. Had I not wasted my time with frivolities, with games…”
He turned his head.
“Mars. Are there other survivors?”
“None, my lord.”
The Illusionist’s voice was quiet. The Gnoll looked at her.
“I know you. You were in the scrying waters. Are there other…?”
He saw Chieftain Nelrra. The young Gnoll stumbled forwards, seeing another living Gnoll. But Nelrra—backed away. He stared at the Gnoll. Slowly, the white Gnoll looked down at himself.
Teres stared at Nelrra. The Gnoll [Chieftain] looked afraid of the last survivor.
“White fur. He is a Doombringer.”
One of the other Gnolls whispered. Flos’ head turned. He stared at Nelrra incredulously.
“Chieftain, do you call this child—no, this man cursed?”
“Your Majesty. White fur among our people is a sign of…”
The Chieftain began, but he stopped. The King of Destruction looked at him.
The Gnolls nodded. Flos looked from them as the young Gnoll covered in blood stared around, lost. Slowly, the King of Destruction moved. He placed a hand on the young Gnoll’s shoulder.
“If he is cursed, I will embrace him a thousand times a thousand again. If you would cast him out, now—there is no land in all my domain that will shelter you.”
The Gnolls quailed. Slowly, they moved forwards. Nelrra reached out and touched the younger Gnoll’s paw. He looked at the Gnoll with white fur and his expression changed from fear to…he lowered his head.
“It is as you say, King of Destruction. No. You are right. The traditions of old we left behind in Izril. I am…ashamed. We will bring him back to my tribe.”
“No. He stays.”
The Gnolls looked at him. The one with white fur just stared ahead. His eyes had clouded over again. Flos turned.
“Orthenon. Find who did this.”
The [Steward] raced for his horse without another word. Teres was silent, white-faced. There were little Gnoll children among the dead. She—
Mars covered Teres’ eyes. The young woman fought her. But Mars held her tight.
“Just for a second, Teres. Look later. Don’t speak.”
Teres clung to her, feeling soft skin, even arm. An illusion. But she clung to it. Weeping.
The King of Destruction’s tears had ceased, but the proof of them was still there. He looked at the young Gnoll with the white fur.
“What is your name, lad?”
At first, the Gnoll didn’t respond. Flos gently put a hand on his shoulder.
“Look at me.”
The head rose, but mechanically. There was something there, but it was fading away, now. By degrees. The King of Destruction spoke, looking into those eyes.
“Stay with me an hour longer. Stay, for I am your king. I did not know your tribe. But you claimed me, and I failed you. But I will see justice done. What is your name?”
Something reappeared. Teres heard a voice as she looked at him. At that terribly lost look in his gaze.
“Sailt. Sailt, of the Saltstone Tribe.”
“Come with me, Sailt. Your tribe must be buried. Ulyse, preserve them. Remove the insects.”
The [Mages] raised their staffs silently. Flos had brought his veterans. But even they walked slowly here, staring. This was not a battle that anyone could be proud of.
Orthenon returned. He raced through the setting sunlight. A black shadow on a dark horse.
“Your Majesty. Survivors. We have the attackers.”
The Gnolls’ heads turned. Sailt looked up.
Flos whirled. His green eyes found Orthenon’s. The [Steward] nodded.
“A village not far from here. My Lord. Some of the Gnolls live. They were captured as slaves. All children. The village is surrounded by your riders.”
Sailt’s voice faltered. He began to cough, but he tried to make his way to Orthenon. Nelrra steadied him, searching for a drink. Teres gave him her water flask.
“Slaves? What crime did they commit?”
Flos stared at Orthenon.
“The village [Headman] claims they stole from his lands.”
Orthenon was breathing slowly. His voice was level and measured. But there was something dark in his eyes. Waiting. Flos looked back at the dead Gnolls.
“Stole. Did they?”
He looked at Sailt. The young Gnoll coughed and choked on his reply. He spat.
“No. They refused to trade with us. We did nothing.”
A glowing light. Mars held up the stone glowing soft blue, and Ulyse’s staff flashed white. The truth.
Flos nodded. His expression was just—distant. It had not changed. He looked back at Orthenon.
“How many children?”
“Fifteen children, your Majesty. They have white fur.”
“They would, after…”
Nelrra murmured. Flos turned. Teres saw him looking at her. Flos had no emotion on his face.
“Bring them to me. The entire village.”
The [Steward] rode with half the [Riders]. Zamea pointed and two of the half-Giants strode after them. Flos just stood there.
“He told me they had few of my refugees. He promised me they were given every courtesy.”
“Perhaps he did not know, my lord—”
Mars began. Flos looked at her and she went still. But the [King] just nodded slowly.
“Perhaps he did not.”
Another figure. Zamea’s voice. She bent.
“Belchan’s army, Lord Reimarch. They are coming. The six thousand who have shadowed us. They are going to stop Orthenon.”
Flos stirred. He paused, and then looked around.
“Mars. Bring them to me. Zamea, go with her.”
The [Vanguard] nodded. She strode into the distance. The half-Giant followed her. Teres heard distant sounds. But Sailt consumed her vision. He was just standing. Looking at Flos.
So was the [King]. The other Gnolls were looking among the dead. Howling in quiet grief. And crying. They cried the same way as Teres.
“Your Majesty, the villagers.”
Orthenon had returned. Several hundred people were being herded forwards by ranks of [Soldiers]. At the same time, amid shouting, Mars dragged a figure towards Flos. Zamea strode behind a few more.
“What is the meaning of this? We are Belchan’s—”
The [Commander] froze when he saw the carnage. Flos turned his head.
“The [Headman] of the village?”
Orthenon pointed. A man was pushed forwards. Flos nodded. He turned his face and Teres saw something that terrified her. She worked her mouth.
He ignored her. Flos Reimarch was striding towards the [Commander], the [Headman]. She saw a group of Gnoll children, with white fur, staring around. Chieftain Nelrra saw them and broke into a run. So did the others.
But Sailt followed the King of Destruction. Watching. Teres felt something in her chest. She stared at Flos’ back.
He ignored her. Mars and Orthenon looked at Teres. She felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Lady Teres. It is unwise.”
Ulyse. The [Mage] was staring after Flos’ back. Teres looked at him. And then she ran forwards.
He turned his head. Fixed Teres with a gaze. She hesitated.
In that moment if she had tried to plead with him, tried to stop him—but she did not. Slowly, the part of Teres that was still there, still able to think amid the pure howl of oblivion, spoke.
“Whatever you’re going to do, do it with this.”
She lifted the scrying mirror she’d snatched from Ulyse’s side. Flos Reimarch stared at it. Then at Teres. Slowly, he reached for it.
And nodded. He turned back silently. And the scrying mirror began to light up. Teres watched. Waiting.
That evening, the world watched an important, world-changing announcement. Courtesy of Wistram Academy. They’d even sent [Message] spells, and everyone was watching.
Because it involved the King of Destruction and war. A’ctelios, Tombhome, the Carven City and Shield Kingdom of Chandrar had been attacked. The King of Destruction had violated his oath.
That was the line. It was one that, when uttered, would change the world. Wistram Academy had Noass and Sir Relz commentating, being the ones chosen to break the news.
They were having a hard time of it. The Wistram [Seer] who had rushed to A’ctelios was trying her best. But the people of A’ctelios were literally frothing at the mouth in parts. And they had sharp teeth.
She stood in the Carven City, trying not to show…everything. A representative of A’ctelios was raging at Noass, who was trying to unpack what had happened.
“Your leader. Yes, I think we have a—a picture of what’s happening.”
Noass was having a hard time. A’ctelios was the victim here. Their leader slain by Gazi Pathseeker. But if you knew about the Carven City—he was omitting a lot of facts about A’ctelios, but anyone staring at the scrying orb…the Drake [Commentator] coughed.
“So—so is this war? Has A’ctelios in fact, declared war on Reim?”
It was the line of the month. The man standing in the image paused. Even A’ctelios in its madness wasn’t suicidal.
“If it is war, it is one caused by Reim! They have killed many of our own! Killed a pakeil, and our leader!”
“A—pakeil? Is that an animal? My notes say beast of burden. Can we see—no?”
Noass looked off screen. Sir Relz was speaking with the academy, directly on a call. He shook his head vigorously. Noass turned back and tried to give the viewers a smile.
“Well, let’s recap for anyone just tuning in. Sir, you say that your leader of A’ctelios was assassinated by Gazi the Omniscient? Thus, breaking the King of Destruction’s oath of non-aggression? Because that sounds like what you’re saying.”
Again, the man hesitated. He bared his sharp teeth, but cautiously.
“His Seven, Gazi the Omniscient, she claimed there was insult. That the outsiders were under his protection. But insult was given!”
“But who started—”
Sir Relz slid back into frame, sweating a bit.
“Er—it sounds like both sides were to blame, Noass. But this is a clear provocation. It certainly sounds like the King of Destruction may have invalidated his oath. If you were—um—”
No one was saying it outright. It was hard to say. The [Commentators] couldn’t do it. They didn’t want to, no matter how much the Archmages shouted at them. And the Shield Kingdom was…wary.
“We know blood has been spilled. On…both sides? Look, an assassination of a leader of a nation—”
“Assassination is hard word to swear under truth spell—”
Sir Relz murmured. Noass paused. It was going to happen. You could feel it. Justification or not, a nation’s leader had been murdered by one of the King of Destruction’s Seven. But it was an agonizing battle getting there.
“Maybe we should see if Reim’s representatives have any input on this. The Quarass of Germina was there—can we locate her? No? Well, how about Gazi Pathseeker? Surely someone from Reim—”
Noass broke off as Sir Relz rose. The two Drakes stared as there was an exclamation audible from off-screen. Sir Relz hurried away, then came back and whispered in Noass’ ear. The Drake froze.
“Oh. Oh Ancestors—I think the King of Destruction wants to reply to A’ctelios’ accusations. We didn’t get the Quarass but—the King of Destruction? Really? Is this a joke?”
He stared. Then Noass turned back to the viewers. Which was again, the world. Or all of it that mattered, which was anyone watching. Rulers and anyone who could afford a scrying spell stared.
“Ancestors, I think he froze up.”
Rufelt commented from his bar in Tails and Scales. It was packed with his regulars. Lasica poked her head out of the kitchen.
“What’s happening now, Ruf?”
“The King of Destruction’s going to speak about the incident.”
“What? Hold on! Let me see! I’m nearly finished with this—”
The sound of Sir Relz swallowing was very audible. He prodded Noass, and the Drake jerked. He began breathing again.
“I—I—I think we’ll interview the King of Destruction again. I mean, now. A’ctelios, Seeress, please hold. We’ll listen to the King of Destruction, ask your opinion—let’s—let’s go to him now? Can we?”
Noass stared as the scrying mirror reflecting the King of Destruction was moved so it filled half the screen. The Drake was in the other half, doing the world’s first split-screen broadcast.
For a moment, the mirror was blank. People stared. Surely the King of Destruction wasn’t going to acknowledge the incident? They waited as Noass fidgeted.
And then the King of Destruction appeared. He stood, in the dusk, filling the mirror. He was looking down at the scrying mirror, at an angle. The sky behind him was filled with a setting sun.
Noass broke off. He caught himself.
“And here we have the King of Destruction. Gentledrakes, everyone—the King of Reim, Flos Reimarch, um—”
Flos Reimarch said nothing. Noass went on, stuttering.
“So—we’ve heard from A’ctelios. Your Majesty, King Reimarch. It appears your subjects, Gazi the Omniscient, beheaded Baosar, the leader of A’ctelios. There are allegations of offense on both sides. But how would you—you—”
The King of Destruction’s face was pale. And he said not a word. Noass’ mouth dried up. He tried again.
“Your Majesty, how would you accuse to A’ctelios’ claims that their leader was assassinated. Your oath—”
“I declare war.”
Noass paused. Across the desert continent, the raving fury of A’ctelios halted. The Archmages froze. Rufelt stopped midway through making his drink.
Noass was nodding. Then he registered what Flos had said.
“You—you what? I’m sorry. Did you say—”
“I declare war.”
The King of Destruction’s voice was low. Intense was a poor word. He spoke each word slowly. With a terrible, halting madness to them. Growing.
A’ctelios Salash paused. And even their fury halted. They felt fear.
And the world listened. Noass looked at the King of Destruction.
“War? So you’re claiming this incident was—was A’ctelios’ provocation? And—and—”
Slowly, the hand-mirror in Flos’ grip rose. The view tilted. And—Rufelt wasn’t sure what he saw at first. Then he saw the red.
The blood. He dropped his glass.
“What is that?”
Noass recoiled. The bodies lay behind Flos. A slaughter. The [King] slowly handed the mirror to someone. She angled it and moved back.
He stood amid the blood. The bodies on the ground were just bodies at first. Then the viewers began to place them.
Gnolls. And—behind them, a silent line of Humans, surrounded by armed [Soldiers]. A [Commander] in Belchan’s insignia. Mars and Orthenon.
“When I swore my oath of peace, I demanded my people be allowed to come to Reim. No matter who they were. From wherever they hailed. My people came. From Izril. Gnolls.”
Flos Reimarch spoke slowly. He filled the image. Wistram Academy sat frozen. They couldn’t cut away. They didn’t even know what that was. They could only halt the broadcast. And it was too late.
The King of Destruction looked around.
“The tribes of the Gnolls came seeking me. This—was—the Saltstone Tribe. But they never made it to my lands. They were attacked. Slaughtered. In Belchan. As the Prime Minister asked I hunt Manticores. He promised me my people were permitted to cross his borders. Look. This is what became of them.”
Flos’ voice was so—so empty. Not of emotion. But it was being held back. He gestured.
A white Gnoll. Rufelt’s paws shook as he saw a white Gnoll. He knew what that meant. The young Gnoll, Sailt, stared ahead blankly. His fur was matted with blood.
But he was not alone. There were fifteen Gnolls. Children. They clung to the other Gnolls who carried them. Each had white fur. And some were injured.
They’d been healed. But a little Gnoll child stared at the shining mirror Teres held. She had one eye. The other was missing. She looked so young, to Rufelt. A Plains Gnoll. Just like—
She was missing an eye. And the bodies of the Gnoll tribe—
“Ruf? It’s gone quiet. What’s—”
In Scales and Tails, Rufelt heard a crash as Lasica dropped the plates she’d been carrying out of the kitchen. The audience of Pallass’ citizens stared. The world stared.
Noass’ voice shook.
“Even the children—what happened?”
Flos stared into the mirror. Then he turned.
“For what reason did this occur? Because they were thieves? Because they quarreled, or broke any law? Orthenon, bring forwards the one who ordered this.”
A man was dragged into the frame. He was knelt by Orthenon and Mars. The [Headman] was pale, shaking. He spat at Flos’ feet.
“King of Destruction. May you—”
Orthenon struck the man with the butt of his spear. Silence. Flos stared down at him.
“Did your village kill these Gnolls?”
Silence. The man spat more blood. Flos leaned down.
This time the force of his question was like a physical thing. Even Noass flinched. The [Headman] looked up, unwillingly.
“Yes. We killed them.”
“Why? What crimes did they commit?”
The lie caught on the man’s tongue. Flos Reimarch waited.
“What did they do? Nothing? Then why did they die? This tribe came for me. What did they do to deserve death? Tell me.”
“They were yours!”
The man spat. He spat at Flos’ face. Blood spattered the [King]’s skin. He wiped away the blood as Mars drove the man’s face into the ground. The [Headman] kept speaking.
“They were yours! The beasts! You have enemies everywhere, King of Destruction! They never reached you! This is your fault!”
Mars began to press, but Flos raised a hand. He paused and his eyes found the mirror, then the kneeling man.
“Yes. Because they were my subjects. No reason beyond that. And they were not the first, were they? How many were waylaid within Belchan?”
This time his question went to the [Commander]. The man was kneeling. Zamea pushed him forwards. His face was dead-white.
“I had no knowledge of this, King Reimarch. None at all!”
“But it happened within Belchan. You had to know they entered your borders. But they never left. Your Prime Minister, didn’t he give them escorts? Track them? What were his orders?”
The [Commander]’s lips moved helplessly.
“We—didn’t escort them. Your Majesty. But—we did not know. Please—”
Flos spoke, swinging around. Still…waiting.
“They were given no escort. And no one thought to even ask about their deaths. Though you knew that my subjects had been attacked. You knew.”
He looked at the man. And there was no response. Flos Reimarch looked around. Noass didn’t say a word. He might have forgotten he was even being broadcast.
“Children to be sold as slaves. The rest cut down here. Because they came for me. They left their homes and came all this way. And died. Calling out my name. And Belchan’s ruler welcomed me into his lands with a smile. I rode, searching for them. And they were dead before I knew to look.”
He said nothing after that. Just stood, amid it all. Rufelt felt Lasica holding him. He wanted to turn the mirror off. But the King of Destruction just stood there. Then he turned his head.
The [Steward] moved. He needed no other order. He walked past the [Headman]. Orthenon drew his sword and placed it in the King of Destruction’s hand. The King of Destruction walked over to the [Headman]. The man looked up, cursing and struggling in Mars’ grasp.
Flos brought down the sword. A head rolled and for a second blood spurted. The mirror jerked in Teres’ hands. The world heard a cry.
The King of Destruction turned. The [Commander] found himself being dragged forwards.
“No! No! I had no knowledge, I swear—”
“You let them die.”
The King of Destruction swung the blade. A second head fell. The mirror jerked away—and for a second a young woman’s face was visible. But then a paw caught the mirror.
A white-furred Gnoll took the mirror. Sailt. He pointed it back, steadily. The King of Destruction gestured.
Another man was brought forwards. Another officer in the force of Belchan’s soldiers. And then a woman. She was one of the villagers who’d fought the Gnolls. She spat and cursed him.
The sword fell, glittering. Orthenon’s blade was magical, and the hand that held it was steady. Flos Reimarch didn’t blink. He brought the sword down casually. Once, twice, a dozen times.
There were hundreds of villagers. The sword kept on falling. They began to scream, to plead or argue. One shouted as he was brought before Flos.
“You cannot do this! We are citizens of Belchan! We are people protected by—”
His words halted mid-flow as the King of Destruction looked at him. Flos’ green eyes shone in the fading light. And his red and gold hair was darker, drenched in blood. He stared through the man.
“Citizens? People? I see nothing in front of me worthy of either word.”
He swung his sword. A body toppled, was dragged backwards. His [Soldiers] watched silently. The Gnolls stared. Even the fifteen children.
The [Steward] moved in front of his [King]. He put a hand on Flos’ arm.
“My King. Your time is wasted on them. Allow your soldiers to take care of the rest.”
For a second the King of Destruction paused. Then he nodded. He pointed.
“Let the others go. Only the officers. And every warrior in the village. Let the others go unless they fight.”
“You’re executing them? All of them?”
Everyone had forgotten Noass was there. He had been a statue. Flos looked back at the mirror. He stared at Noass, blankly. Then he turned.
“This will be avenged! This is war!”
Some of Belchan’s soldiers were screaming as their officers were beheaded. Flos looked at them. And his blank look began to change at last.
“War? Of course it is. Go. Return and tell your people of what you have seen today. And bring your armies. Because I will slaughter them. I will kill all of your armies and burn your cities to ash. Until nothing remains.”
The [Soldiers] stared. Flos raised his voice. It was growing louder. He pointed, and the men and woman backed away. The [King] cast the sword into the ground and it sank deep, tip-first.
“Flee back to your capital. When we next meet, I will drown Belchan in the blood of your worthless lot! Begone!”
He clenched his hands. They hesitated. Flos turned. His soldiers stared. His people watched, his vassals. And his subjects.
Gnolls. White fur, varied. Chieftain Nelrra. Those standing in the bar with Rufelt.
They looked at him. A Human man, who raged over their deaths. Who would go to war for a single Gnoll child.
Flos Reimarch turned. Those not dying were staring at him. Now he raged. His tendons stood out, and his eyes bulged. His face became a rictus, mask. He howled and his face contorted as his hands became claws, and his two vassals seized him. The King of Destruction raged and the ground itself began to shake. People fled as he bellowed at the mirror.
“I have kept to my oath! And this is how I am repaid? With death? With treachery! Cowardice and shame! Lies and flattery while children die! I will salt the earth and drench it with a hundred thousand lives! Until not a blade of grass grows. I come for you, you craven coward!”
He pointed at the scrying mirror. Noass hid under the desk.
“I declare WAR! On Belchan! On you, Prime Minister Lyfelt! Until I place your head on the streets of your city to rot, Reim will slay a thousand of Belchan’s people for every one of my subjects!”
The mirror began to crack. Flos Reimarch howled.
“SUMMON MY ARMIES!”
There was a sound, and the transmission cut out. And then just silence. From the studio, at least. Noass wouldn’t come out from under the desk. Wistram cut the image a minute later.
But the sound of the King of Destruction’s fury broke over Chandrar. It split the night. Belchan woke, fearful, as they heard a sound in the distance. Growing louder.
An army moved as word began to spread. War? War had been declared. Reim had declared war on the Belchan. And it was happening now.
An army lit the nation alight with fire. A tiny force, but they were led by a man whose humanity had been consumed by rage. Sixty thousand of them poured across the ground, screaming wrath and ruin. And Teres was there, racing behind the King of Destruction, his fury beating against the sky itself.
King Raelt of Jecrass walked towards the secret vault where he could communicate with Prime Minister Lyfelt of Belchan. His face was pale, almost white. His daughter appeared in the doorway.
Jecaina was white-faced, and with a huge purple knot on her forehead. Raelt didn’t ask where she’d been. Nor did he look at her. Her dark skin was so pale—but by moonlight.
“Leave, Jecaina. I am speaking with Lyfelt.”
The statue was babbling. Jecaina’s mouth moved.
“But I saw—”
Raelt turned. His daughter looked at him and fled. Raelt turned back to Lyfelt.
The Prime Minister was speaking rapidly. He had not seen the broadcast. Raelt had. But everyone knew of the declaration of war.
“You’ve heard of course. Was that your daughter? The sound was a bit off. Well—it’s—good! Not ideal; I’d have preferred another country, but he’s forsworn himself. Listen, Raelt. Reim can be defeated. We talked on the issue. The other nations will come to Belchan’s aid. If I can just count on you, it’s only sixty thousand—”
Raelt shouted. The talking statue went silent. Lyfelt stared at the King of Jecrass. Raelt breathed in and out.
“You didn’t see the moment the King of Destruction declared war?”
“No, I was dining actually. But I know what it means. Raelt, I can’t speak long. I’m besieged here, but I went directly to you to get your help. If you fall on the King of Destruction’s back, slow him even half a day—”
Raelt closed his eyes.
“Lyfelt, be silent.”
He waited. The statue paused. There was a babble in the background. Lyfelt’s face was blank, uncomprehending. He didn’t know.
“There was—a broadcast. From Wistram. They stopped it after his speech, but the world already saw. There was a…they showed a dead Gnoll tribe. Slaughtered by one of Belchan’s villages.”
The [Prime Minister]’s eyes widened. The statue remained the same, but he looked…genuine. Raelt studied him.
“Everyone saw it. The King of Destruction declared war. The [Headman] of the village admitted to the crime. The [Commander] he beheaded also claimed you did not search for the missing people, that they were without escort. I told you to give them aid.”
Lyfelt’s mouth worked silently. For once, the [Politician] had no quick reply. For a moment.
“That was—that was—dead? All of them? That’s a terrible tragedy! I did not order it, Raelt, you know me. I didn’t escort them because—that explains the King of Destruction’s—but surely he has to understand I can’t control every last—”
“Dead gods, Lyfelt! There were children hacked apart! They were slaughtered! The rest were being sold as slaves!”
Raelt bellowed at the statue. Lyfelt’s expression froze as Raelt hurled something—he didn’t know what. He pointed at the statue, shouting, his hand trembling.
“I told you to escort them. But you let your subjects attack his people. You let them…”
He couldn’t unsee the image burned into his eyes.
“I didn’t know. I only thought they were—Raelt. I did not know.”
The statue pleaded with Raelt. The [King] turned away.
“A’ctelios has declared war. Nerrhavia—the Claiven Earth—Oteslia too.”
He related the information dully. Lyfelt would know of it soon; it was being broadcast the world over.
“Against Reim? Then, maybe—Oteslia, even? A Drake city?”
Hope bloomed in the desperate man’s eyes. Raelt turned around.
“Against Belchan. They saw it all, Lyfelt. It’s being rebroadcast. A’ctelios declared war against Reim, and a handful of nations joined them. The rest have declared war on you! Because they saw everything!”
He shouted it into his friend’s uncomprehending, idiotic face. Lyfelt stared.
“But I didn’t—Raelt?”
The head turned, staring about. The clamoring voices were growing louder in the background.
“Raelt, please. You must listen to me. Please—”
“I’m sorry, old friend.”
The [King] of Jecrass turned away. The statue screamed his name. Raelt walked out of the secret vault, past his daughter. He entered his throne room.
River Wardens and [Courtiers]. His court stared up at him, clamoring. Some had seen, others knew bits and pieces. An incomplete truth. Raelt sat on his throne. His crown lay there. He put it on. Looked about.
“Send a [Message] to Belchan. To the world. As of this moment, Jecrass rides to war against Belchan. Jecrass declares war on Belchan. I declare war on Belchan.”
He said it thrice, to emphasize his words. The court looked at him, statues. Raelt went on, without missing a beat.
“Find me General Lael. Tell her to bring Jecrass’ entire army. We will assault Belchan’s capital before the King of Destruction reaches it. I want every available [Soldier] mobilized within the hour and riding towards our border. Strengthen the garrisons to the south, but every other [Soldier].”
They stared at him. Raelt looked around. Even Geril, his oldest retainer was staring. Raelt stood up. He shouted.
They ran. River Wardens, Geril, everyone. The throne room emptied for a second, as the entire palace woke up. Raelt was alone. He wanted to laugh at the expressions on his River Warden’s face. The unquestioning obedience he’d had for the first time ever.
But he didn’t. Raelt rested one arm on his throne. And he buried his head in his hand.
He wept for a second for his old friend. And then he rose for war.