The Horns of Hammerad sat in a bar. A bar.
Not an inn. Or a tavern. Or a dive, or a hellhole, or a pub. A bar. There were differences.
They were covered in dust. Stone dust, mixed, mostly limestone but differing in color and consistency. They’d tracked it in, but no one was objecting.
They’d had a bad day. Rock Golems. Yvlon was still hacking; she’d inhaled more than a few lungfuls of stone dust. Ceria was pouring a glass of water in her face.
“It’s in my eyes. I can’t get it out!”
They’d been fighting a Stone Golem…infestation? Plague? Again, it wasn’t any of those things. The natural-occurring varieties of Golems sometimes just appeared, especially in areas with lots of magicore. And they caused havoc.
But they were powder. And the Horns were free to continue on their journey north. After they rested.
Pisces was helping clean Ksmvr off. The Antinium was practically covered in Golem remains. The [Bartender] brought over a bucket of water, but he put it on a table far from the Antinium and [Necromancer]. It was Ksmvr he stared at, with clear nerves.
Dust and grime hit the floor, but no one objected. The Horns eventually stopped hacking and groaning. Then they just looked at each other.
“I hate fighting Golems. What were they made of, pumice?”
Pisces grumbled. He wasn’t dirty; he’d stayed out of the Golem’s reach, fighting from a remove. His comrades hadn’t been as nimble, or, in Ksmvr’s case, had opted to fight closer up.
It didn’t matter. It was one adventure in a number they’d had since going north. And at least they were being paid for this one. Indeed, their payment came as the old [Village Headwoman] walked over. She was in her late nineties. But since she was a half-Elf—it really didn’t mean much.
Even so, the half-Elf had years on her, more than Ceria or Falene. The [Cryomancer] stood up respectfully as the other half-Elf, Disabella, walked over. She looked like she was oh, just thirty years old, with that immortal youth all half-Elves had.
She had dark skin, black hair, and she had lived here all her life. In Izril, a half-Elf far from home. Ceria bowed slightly.
“Miss Disabella, sorry about the mess.”
“I dare say you’ve earned the right to a mess. After clearing out dozens of our pests.”
The half-Elf [Headwoman] was a curious mix of things. She was spry, lively. But she acted…old. Motherly. Because she’d married three times and had over a dozen children and grandchildren. She made Ceria uncomfortable. She was the exact opposite of the half-Elves who lived in their timeless villages in Terandria.
A half-Elf who lived in the present, who mixed with other species. ‘Timecaught’ was the derogatory term sometimes used, again, only by the half-Elves who believed in separation.
Ceria wasn’t one of them, but she understood the word. Because…Disabella was aged. Not in body, but her relationships and life among the mortal races made her feel older. They had left lines on her face despite her ‘youth’ as half-Elves measured such things. She had lived each one of her ninety years in this village. Ceria, who had grown up for over forty years in a half-Elf village couldn’t imagine it.
The [Headwoman] gave Ceria a smile as if she could read the younger half-Elf’s every thought. But again—they had talked. And this was the end of their battle against the Golems who’d haunted this village’s mines, attacking anyone who got too near.
“My gratitude. And you’ve earned your fee. We can’t pay you much—”
“It was our honor, Miss.”
Yvlon tried to bow and stand and not cough all at the same time. Disabella smiled. She reached for the small pouch of gold she’d brought.
“Nonsense. Most Silver-ranked teams couldn’t have beaten Stone Golems, even softer ones. They’ll be telling stories about seeing one of the Byres family’s [Knights] for years. Yvlon Silverarm, perhaps. Some of the children are shouting that already.”
The [Armsmistress] turned bright red. She tried to protest, but Disabella just laughed at her. She looked at Ceria and nodded.
“Here. Gold, and—”
What was placed on the table was an old, old little compact mirror. It had a crude hinge and it had been made of a seashell. As Ceria slowly flipped open the lid, she saw a shining oval of glass.
A scrying mirror. Disabella’s possession. Ceria looked up at the other half-Elf.
“Disabella! We can’t—”
“Take it. It was a suitor’s gift anyways. I daresay the village will miss it, but we don’t need to see this Wistram broadcast anyways. We can’t pay you properly. So if you’ll accept this in place of gold…”
Indeed, the bag of gold was mostly silver with only a few gold pieces. Ceria hesitated. The scrying mirror did indeed make up for the cost. But the mirror…
She looked at Disabella. The half-Elf gestured.
“Go on. Truly, I don’t need it.”
Perhaps not. Ceria took the mirror and flipped it open. At her touch, a small picture formed in it. A familiar Drake’s voice spoke.
“—we are reporting to you from Viadem’s Pass. The battle led by the main army of Belchan, led by Grand Mage Esiela of Belchan’s Academy and General Fultoolm is taking place. They are hoping to defeat the King of Destruction’s army. Both sides are approaching—the King of Destruction is less than fifty miles from Belchan’s capital. If this army fails to stop him—and no force has managed to slow his advance—”
Ceria stared at Noass’ face. The Drake had been reporting nonstop on the conflict in Belchan, covering the war. It was a first for this world, and the Horns of Hammerad had been watching with everyone else on the little hand-mirror.
Now, it was a gift. The [Cryomancer] looked at Pisces and Ksmvr. The Antinium looked at her. Pisces raised his eyebrows.
“It really is overpayment.”
“Not if scrying mirrors stay as cheap as they have been. The [Trader] who brought some through last week had them at a tenth of the price. Wistram’s ruined the value of heirlooms.”
The [Headwoman] smiled. She waited. And Ceria saw an old smile, filled with nearly a century’s worth of life. But she had to wonder—how easy was it to be Disabella?
Ceria had met the headwoman’s husband. And he was in his fifties, a good man. But she looked so young. And she would be that way while he aged.
Perhaps…the compact mirror really wasn’t what Disabella wanted to own. A suitor’s gift. Ceria slowly nodded.
“Thank you, Miss Disabella. We’ll take this in place of the gold, though.”
Pisces rolled his eyes as she slid the bag over the table. Disabella didn’t argue.
“Thank you again, Ceria. If you want to stay the night…”
“We’d love a bath.”
Pisces murmured. Ceria caught herself nodding.
“I am choking on dust, Captain Ceria. I believe this impedes my combat efficiency.”
Ksmvr waved a hand. Ceria smiled. Disabella smiled as well; she hadn’t been as bothered by Ksmvr as the other Humans on their road north. There had been…incidents.
“A bath for all of you, of course!”
“Thank you. And if we can help in any other way…”
Yvlon coughed. Pisces nodded and sighed as he edged over to stare into the mirror. Ksmvr shuddered.
The Horns laughed at that. Ceria put the mirror down and realized her hair was covered in dust. Every time she turned, she created a cloud that sent everyone into coughing fits. In time, the Horns found washbasins being brought to them, and the villagers came around to thank them—again, wary of Ksmvr, except for the children who begged to borrow his Ring of Jumping.
Another adventure, and the Horns would nearly be at Invrisil. And then they’d see The Wandering Inn again. Ceria yearned for that, and she knew her friends did too. And then further north, to find Ryoka.
All these things would come. But for now, the Horns sat around. And the other villagers and the adventurers began to stare at the little scrying mirror, listening to the voice as the images flickered. Tonight wasn’t their story.
War in Belchan. Three days had passed since the King of Destruction’s furious declaration of war. And today—
The war was coming to its end. In Pallass, Noass was commentating with Sir Relz on an aerial view of the battle, courtesy of an actual [Scrying] spell linked with other spells.
That was necessary—there was no way for any [Mage] on the ground to get close. Because both armies would slay any bystander casting magic in the area.
Three days. It had taken Tiqr weeks to fall, even with a coalition of nations invading. But Tiqr had been larger than Belchan. The other armies unprepared for the stiff resistance the Empress of Beasts had put up.
And…the attacker had not been the King of Destruction. From the moment he had declared war, his army had marched deeper into Belchan, leaving a trail of destruction that had been captured by the worldwide broadcast. Flos Reimarch’s force of sixty thousand soldiers had already been camped within the outer limits of Belchan; now, after three days, they were almost upon the capital.
“Analysis, class. How has the King of Destruction made such incredible progress?”
Niers Astoragon stood on his lectern and looked at his students. His special class was emptier than normal, so he’d merged it with some of his advanced regular students and the officers. The room was unnaturally silent as the [Strategists] and [Tacticians] watched the silenced view of the battle.
The Titan had, of course, been observing the entire conflict. He’d been teaching lessons around it nonstop. Now, he pointed.
“The King of Destruction’s fought through numerous engagements, Professor. Eleven major ones…”
The Centauress cleared her throat. She looked restless. But most of the students who’d seen battle did. They could sense the conflict was nearing and were having trouble keeping their eyes off the scrying orb.
“Focus, class. Objective decisions in the heat of battle.”
Niers spoke quietly. He understood their emotions, though. The students focused back on him, some flushing. Marian went on.
“The King of Destruction does not have a large army. He’s gathered some of his reinforcements from Hellios, but most of his actual armies are still on the march north. By all rights, this army should not be attacking Belchan; they have nearly double his forces trying to hold the pass.”
“But he is going to engage them. And he hasn’t been slowed, even by forces larger than his. Why?”
“Because he’s the King of Destruction, Professor.”
The Titan of Baleros nodded. That was an accurate summation. He pointed at the scrying mirror. At the tiny shapes that the [Mages] performing the [Scrying] spell were trying to zoom in on.
Orthenon, the King’s Steward. Mars the Illusionist. The King of Destruction himself and his elite vassals. You could see the half-Giants in detail even from this range.
“Half-Giants. I should say, true half-Giants. First Shepherd Zamea of the Nomads of the Sky is twice as large as the average War Walker. Think on that.”
The class did. The Dullahans paled; Niers nodded. Cameral and the others could appreciate how vastly tall that was.
“We have at least three individuals on the field over Level 50. And that makes light of the other of the King of Destruction’s vassals. Grand Mage Esiela is most likely over Level 40, as befits the leader of Belchan’s mage academies. At the very least she’s high thirties. General Fultoolm…? Thoughts?”
“Below Level 40, at least, Professor.”
Umina raised her claw. Niers nodded.
“Levels aren’t everything. But…well, we’re looking at nearly a hundred and forty thousand [Soldiers]. Not a small number. Although Belchan’s lost a vast number to the King of Destruction already, and they’re warding off attacks from Medain to the north and Jecrass to the east. Still, that’s nearly double the King of Destruction’s forces. Do you think they have a chance? How would you fight this battle?”
Silence. The students looked at each other. At last, Cameral raised his hand.
“By your leave, Professor?”
The Dullahan pointed to the scrying mirror.
“I…agree with General Fultoolm’s strategy in large. He’s holding a narrow chokepoint, with little room to maneuver. We can see Belchan’s [Mage] corps, which the King of Destruction lacks in number, holding at the back of his armies. In theory, they should be able to bombard his forces throughout the battle. The King of Destruction also lacks an individual as powerful as Grand Mage Esiela. And they will be in range of Belchan’s Academy.”
“Which has a number of bombardment spells. Their students could even be charging them as we speak.”
Niers nodded. Cameral shifted.
“Yes Professor. All in all, the terrain and composition favors each army. If the King of Destruction reaches the capital, it would be a battle more strongly in his favor. However…”
He paused. And that summed it up. Niers grinned around the room.
“Would any of you want to be General Fultoolm? What would you do? And finally—does he have a chance in winning with two-to-one odds, a [Mage] advantage, favorable defending conditions and long-range support?”
“Absolutely not. If I were there I’d retreat. This is off-the-record by the way. I am not here in any advisory capacity. All my musings are my own opinion, not the position of Pallass’ military.”
Grand Strategist Chaldion waved a claw as he reclined in the chair. Noass stared at him. He tried to bow and nod at the same time. Chaldion was sipping from his iconic drink. And smoking on a puffer.
“Er, absolutely, Grand Strategist. But a number of other [Strategists] and interested viewers have pointed out that this is the spot to hold the King of Destruction’s armies…”
“Absolutely it is. A perfect defensive position, which is where Belchan has thrown back armies from Hellios and Germina in the past. Fighting around the capital would be madness; Belchan’s walls are too low and the city hasn’t withstood sieges before.”
The old Drake leaned forwards. And his fake eye gleamed red. He’d removed his eye patch for the interview and it was unsettling, intimidating Noass greatly—
And very stylish. In Tails and Scales, Grimalkin snorted as he took a long draft from his cup of goat’s milk. Rufelt and Lasica and the other patrons of the bar were watching Chaldion live, on…tv. Television.
It was a surreal experience. Rufelt couldn’t help but glance over at the [Sinew Magus].
“Something wrong, Grimalkin?”
“Nothing. Chaldion’s certainly enjoying himself.”
Indeed, the Grand Strategist was reclining in his comfy chair as he took a long smoke from his burning cigar. The end was glowing brightly as he exhaled.
“It’s still a fool’s move. This is the King of Destruction. And he has two of his highest-level vassals on the field.”
“But what would you do, Grand Strategist? If this is objectively the best place to be in…”
Chaldion looked up.
“If I were in that position? I’d retreat to the capital.”
“Despite it being an inferior position to defend?”
“Yes. And I’d pull back every soldier holding against Jecrass and Medain. Even if it meant losing all of my eastern and northern flanks. This [General] whomever is gambling on the fact that he can stop the King of Destruction with his two-to-one advantage. And this Grand Mage whatshername, and ‘artillery support’ from the academy.”
He laughed derisively. Across the world, other monarchs and leaders watched. Prime Minister Lyfelt, sitting in a small cabinet meeting, shot to his feet.
“Send a [Message] to General Fultoolm—no! To this Drake! This—this is slander. General Fultoolm assured me this was the spot—”
Chaldion went on. And he seemed to be looking straight at each viewer as he spoke.
“They’re going to be slaughtered. This isn’t a battle. Watch. They’re about to begin.”
The pass was narrow, the ground a mix between rock and soil. Both armies were lining up.
The army of Belchan on one side, rows of infantry forming walls of steel. At the back, hundreds of [Mages], some students of the academy, others graduates, shielded along with the [Archers] behind tens of thousands of [Soldiers].
Hundreds of [Mages]. Still a vast number for any one army. It was one of the features of Belchan as a nation. And General Fultoolm was no fool. He’d formed his infantry into formations, not one giant line as one might imagine. They were prepared to hold the center while the flanks pushed forwards and engulfed a smaller force.
And indeed, their army was twice as large as the one entering the pass. The King of Destruction’s army looked small indeed. A mass of foot and horse, with only one small group of [Mages]—Parasol Stroll. Yet, their side had half-Giants. The laughing Serpent Hunters, armed with poison blades on one flank.
Two vassals and the King of Destruction himself. He was on foot, surrounded by the Rustängmarder. The hundred-some elites and the [King] stood at the center of the army, near the front.
“I would have thought that this [General] would have lined up his soldiers in a more…orderly fashion. He has gaps in his formation.”
The Empress of Sands mused. There was a snort of derision from herself. A head sitting above and staring down at the scrying orb, the young [Emperor], snapped back down at her.
“If he lined his soldiers up in a straight line they’d be wiped out. He has his pikes braced to prevent the [Steward] charging; the pockets are meant to draw his opponent in.”
“Too much room to maneuver.”
Another of the Empress’ heads spoke. The grizzled [General] stared down at the pass.
“It wouldn’t matter against a lower-leveled army, or two larger forces. But the [Steward] is too quick. The pass is too wide. The pikes will not stop him.”
“Nor the half-Giants.”
“Nor the [King].”
Laughter, a female head laughing derisively. Not the head that sat on the beautiful Stitch-Woman’s body. Another of her minds. And more whispers. The Empress of Sands looked up. And her heads, her other selves that practiced war were in agreement.
“The King of Destruction has his reason for war. And Belchan’s army is a line of sand before a wave.”
“It cannot stop him.”
“It will not stop him.”
The young man spoke down to the Empress. He spoke to himself, angrily.
“No, you erred. You were warned. The King of Destruction has his reason for war. And now he will conquer another nation. This head is flawed. Put me on.”
The other heads voiced their agreement.
“My perspective is wrong.”
“Put me on. I understand war.”
“No, put me on.”
“Put me on.”
Voices, whispering, demanding. Like the voices everyone had in their head, but louder. Real things. Each head wanting to take control, to lead. The female head of the [Empress], who had been Emira Saet-rei of Doran, before she became another part of the Emperor of Sands…paused.
“I have made errors. I did not believe the King of Destruction’s subjects would have been attacked. I did not consider that the Prime Minister of Belchan was such a fool. And I do not understand war with such clarity, it is true.”
She nodded to the two armies. The King of Destruction was striding back and forth, bellowing at the other side. He was demanding their surrender. Or else—
Annihilation. Belchan’s forces shuddered, but their [General] raised his sword. And their Grand Mage shot a [Siege Fireball] across the pass. It exploded as Parasol Stroll twirled their umbrellas, but the act heartened Belchan’s [Soldiers]. They roared defiance at the King of Destruction.
But Reim’s army was eerily quiet. The King of Destruction nodded. The Empress watched, until her younger, impetuous male self, interrupted.
“Put me on.”
She looked up at herself, and the head, who still remembered being Emira Saet-rei, beautiful, intelligent, brave—and horribly obsessed with bad puns—ignored the young man’s head.
“I know that I am the perspective needed. I have made mistakes. And clearly—I underestimated the folly of Humans. Of men. But do not get a head of yourself.”
Silence. Then half of the heads groaned. Puns indeed. The Empress of Sands smiled. Then her smile vanished. She watched, in silence. The battle was beginning.
The air was hot. Both armies stared at each other. The King of Destruction’s was advancing.
Slowly. Grand Mage Esiela shifted. Her robes kept her cool, kept the elements at bay and were warded against common weapons and spells. Nevertheless—she was sweating.
She tried not to show it. And, as she stood behind the tens of thousands of [Soldiers], she kept her back straight. She knew they were looking at her. After all, she was the Grand Mage of Belchan, head of Belchan’s Mage Schools.
The highest-level individual on her side of the battlefield. And she was a [Mage]. She could cast spells at range and to greater effect than any [Warrior]. That was the boast of all [Mages]. More firepower than a common [Archer] with only a handful of arrows, with more versatility than any idiot with an axe. Esiela was capable of becoming invisible, levitating, and she could cast [Siege Fireball] by herself. She didn’t need to link to use the spell.
Students at her back. Esiela looked over her shoulder and saw some of Belchan’s older students. They stared at their headmistress in trepidation. But also—with trust. The Grand Mage made herself smile confidently.
She shouldn’t have looked back. Doing so only made her conscious of her role. She stared ahead instead.
The King of Destruction stood at the front of his army, surrounded by his vanguard. He was roaring orders as he advanced. His voice was no longer magnified, but it was still impossibly loud. And—he was only a man. And far away. But he seemed…larger.
His rage was a physical thing in the air, beating down on Belchan’s army. Esiela was actually using an [Aura Shield] to block the effects, but she knew it was there.
“So. This is the King of Destruction.”
The Grand Mage murmured. She sensed General Fultoolm looking at her.
“Take him down, Grand Mage. Do that and his army crumbles. That is all you and your students need concern themselves with.”
Esiela bit back a sarcastic response. ‘Only’ slay the world’s most infamous [King]? And yet…she’d agreed to fight.
Esiela had seen the images, of course. The Prime Minister, Lyfelt, had ordered scrying orbs banned except with extreme necessity, but most of the [Mages] in Belchan had seen it. The sight, the bloodshed had disturbed Esiela greatly. But it had not been all of Belchan; just one village! And the King of Destruction would slaughter countless innocents if he got to the capital. He had already, or put them into chains as slaves.
So Esiela would fight. She was already preparing bound spells to unleash one after another from her staff. [Acid Orb Volley], [Siege Fireball], [Chain Lightning]—any one of the powerful spells would obliterate any one man.
Even the King of Destruction. Esiela realized she was breathing faster.
The army was coming. Only eighty thousand. There were nearly twice that many [Soldiers] here! Remember the plan. Ahead of her, some of the fortifications the army had been constructing seemed like a paltry defense. A few channels filled with spikes, walls of dirt raised by [Mages] and [Diggers]—but there had not been enough time for a proper fortification. The King of Destruction had been too fast.
A figure strode forwards as both armies drew nearer. Esiela saw a glowing form. Magic armor, covered by a powerful illusion from head to toe. Her skin chilled and crawled further.
Mars the Illusionist.
Belchan’s army paused as the army of Reim halted for a moment. And then the [Soldiers], half-Giants, [Riders], who had been so silent, began to shout.
“Mars! Mars! Mars!”
The [Vanguard] glowed with magic. Esiela licked her lips. Those were…powerful artifacts she was wearing. The woman stopped, standing in between the two armies, in the dead zone.
“Within bow range. Prepare a volley—Grand Mage, your spells—”
General Fultoolm murmured. Esiela shook her head.
“Her armor will stop any arrow, General. Don’t waste your magic. I’ll…deal with her after the [King].”
Her voice wasn’t trembling. Or if it was…Fultoolm stared at Esiela. He lowered his gauntleted hand. The Grand Mage stared at Mars. The woman had raised her sword in one hand, pointing it ahead. Straight at Esiela, or so it felt. In her other, a black shield with a snarling face dripping…blood….was secured to her arm. What artifact was that?
“Come! Where are Belchan’s heroes? Is there no one strong enough to face me? Or is your army so ball-less and craven that you only fight unarmed children?”
Mars bellowed at Belchan’s army. The [Soldiers] hesitated as she walked back and forth, beckoning.
The air was electric. Esiela froze as Mars’ words rolled across the army. She felt the power of a Skill, but she didn’t know what was happening.
“What’s going on?”
She whispered to Fultoolm. The [General] was grinding his teeth.
“[Call of the Champion]. If no one comes out to face her, Mars will demoralize the entire army. And any [Champion], [First Warrior], [Royal Protector], or so on will lose their class. But better that than losing one of our best—I kept our champion classes off the field for that reason.”
“Because they’d die?”
No response. Mars laughed derisively.
“So be it! My lord! Give us your command!”
She turned her head. And Esiela saw the red and gold-haired head turn. She felt the air grow hotter.
“Here it comes! Brace—don’t falter, brave sons and daughters of Belchan!”
Fultoolm roared. [Courageous Speech]. It made Esiela stop sweating as much. Mars’ contempt had been pressing down on her. She turned her head to Fultoolm.
And the King of Destruction pointed across the dry ground. He had been still. Coiled. No—more like waiting. Burning with the same fury that hadn’t died after days of battle. Now, he roared one word.
Esiela’s head snapped forward. She saw the first ranks of infantry begin running. They were still out of bow range! Weren’t they going to tire themselves out?
But then she saw how fast they were moving. The people on foot covered the ground unnaturally quickly.
[Rapid March]. And striding ahead of them were—half-Giants. Esiela looked up. Thirty-foot high men and women, carrying axes. She aimed her staff.
“The King of Destruction! Grand Mage! Focus on him!”
Fultoolm roared. He was shouting orders. Esiela jerked her staff down. She aimed.
There he was. Charging with the Rustängmarder. They gleamed of death magic. Necromancy. But he was there. Coming at her. Looking…
Esiela shouted. The spells stored in her staff triggered at once. Orbs of dark brown acid flew forwards, followed by a glowing, massive fireball. And lightning.
None of them reached the King of Destruction. One of the half-Giants in front saw the spells, swung down his axe and shield to block them—but the spells detonated before they even reached him.
The Grand Mage’s eyes bulged. She turned. A flow of mana had reached out, snapped the bindings on each of her spells, triggering each before they reached their target. She looked around, tracing the magic back—
And saw them. A group of about four dozen [Mages]. Each holding a brightly colored parasol. Young and old, dressed in magical robes, like her. They strolled forwards, twirling the objects that were their magical foci.
Parasol Stroll. Esiela had discounted them; they were [Mercenaries] as much as [Mages]. And she was higher-level than any of them. But—Esiela pointed her staff again at Flos.
A powerful Tier 4 spell, multiplied in a hail of ghostly darts. They flashed at the King of Destruction—
And again, vanished. This time Esiela saw the [Mages] of Parasol Stroll pointing. They were cancelling her spells! All-together, each one taking a different dart.
She stared at them. Then aimed her staff their way.
A bolt of lightning shot up, arcing downwards in a long curve—slower than regular lighting, and subdividing, becoming dozen of lightning bolts! That would—
Ulyse of Parasol Stroll saw the lightning bolts falling. He raised his parasol, twirled it. Every [Mage] in their loose formation did the same, halting.
The colorful umbrellas twirled. The lightning bolts hit a barrier in the air of twisting colors. A mass-shield. Ulyse heard the thunderous detonations, but not a shock made it to his group. He smiled.
“Tier 5 spell. That must be their Grand Mage.”
Mirin commented. She’d thought the [Grand Mage] would be in hiding, and that was a decoy. But Ulyse hadn’t.
“She must be getting upset. Incoming. At a walk, everyone.”
The [Grand Mage] was aiming more spells at Parasol Stroll. The [Mages] advanced. Arrows were flying their way too as Flos and his army closed the remaining ground.
And that was a mistake. Grand Mage Esiela had diverted arrows meant for the half-Giants and [Soldiers]. But they were useless on the mercenary mage-company. They raised their parasols, joining their magic. And the air shimmered and glowed as spell and arrow failed.
Grand Mage Esiela was staring. Ulyse grinned around his parasol. He bowed slightly her way.
“Taunt. One, two, three—and reply. [Arrows of Sand].”
Parasol Stroll’s company turned. And for a second their parasols spun as one, like some unified, brightly colored creature as they stood with their backs to Belchan’s army. Then they turned and pointed wands, or the parasols or their fingers.
Arrows made of magical sand rose out of the ground and shot in an arc at the [Archers] and [Mages]. Thousands of them. The low-level spell scaled up wonderfully. And the spell caught the other [Mages] off-guard.
Because a single Tier-5 spell was easy to block or dispel. But many low-level spells? Harder. Ulyse saw Belchan’s [Mages] dispelling them, or throwing barriers up.
Mirin clicked her tongue. Ulyse nodded. Grand Mage Esiela had ignored the rain of magical arrows altogether. Her robes could probably neutralize a Tier 3 spell. But she was still foolish.
The magical arrows of sand burst in the air. None of them reached their targets. But that was the point. A stinging cloud of sand poured down over the soldiers below. They coughed and swore as they were blinded temporarily. Grand Mage Esiela looked around, startled, as the rain of arrows stopped. The [General] was howling at her. She raised her staff and conjured a breeze, but that just blew more sand around and it was too late.
The King of Destruction’s army covered the remaining ground. And the [Archers] were blinded and the other [Mages] distracted. The Grand Mage had completely forgotten her objective. She was throwing spells at Parasol Stroll.
“[Siege Fireball] incoming. Dispel. Begin counter spells. Rain [Flame Arrows]. Mirin, take your group and burst acid orbs over the others while Orthenon moves into position. At a walk. Leisurely. I’ll match spells with the [Grand Mage]. This could get rough, so keep your individual shields up.”
Ulyse advanced with his group. Spells were beginning to smash into their combined magic shield. It might go down soon; the [Grand Mage] was strong. But she’d made a mistake.
The leader of Parasol Stroll tried to send earth magic through the ground and impale the Grand Mage as a greeting. His spell failed—she’d severed it halfway. He grinned.
She was strong. But she was an academic. Not a [Mage] who survived on the battlefield with his wits. You couldn’t cast big, direct attack spells and hope to win in a proper battle. And he was distracting her from where she could really do damage. So long as that happened—he won.
Ulyse raised his parasol and blocked a [Piercing Arrow] coming at him. The [Prismatic Barrier] was failing. Soon they’d be taking direct hits. And they’d die. Some of them. But that was war. He marched on with his [Mages]. Grinning, as the Grand Mage wavered.
And the first [Soldiers] hit Belchan’s army.
[Mages] dueled. [Archers] launched volleys of arrows at each other. The cavalry was maneuvering, looking for an opening in the narrow pass. But the first group that reached Belchan’s entrenched defenders was the foot. The infantry, massed behind the King of Destruction.
He was charging ahead, faster than anyone else. Mars ran next to him, shielding him from arrows and spells. But the King of Destruction was not first to reach the line of Humans.
The first were the half-Giants.
Behold. The [Soldiers] looked up as a shadow passed over their heads. They gazed higher and higher. Not ten feet, or twenty feet, but thirty feet up.
Taller than houses. With the last blood of Giants running in their veins. It was just a word. From afar you could dismiss them. But up close?
Zamea strode at the first line of [Soldiers]. Then her pace picked up. She began to run, outdistancing the Humans on horses, the racing [Soldiers]. So tall she blotted out everything behind her.
And her axe gleamed. She smashed through a wall of dirt and stone, snapped wooden spikes in the pits dug to stop small, mortal folk. The first row of pikes and shields in Belchan’s army held their ground. Trembling with each step. They were braced to stop a charging mass of horses, [Soldiers]. But this? How did you stop—
Zamea swung her axe. And the rank of [Soldiers] in front of her vanished. She plowed into the [Soldiers], her feet smashing them flat. She didn’t stop. The swords and spears thrust into her skin, but barely penetrated. The half-Giant brought down her axe again, with both hands. And the earth shook with the impact.
“Small! Come, smallfolk! Bring us down! For Reim! In the King of Destruction’s name! Flos Reimarch!”
The woman roared. She planted her feet and swung her axe again, in an arc. Armored bodies went flying. And the mortal smallfolk ran. They backed away. Who could stop her swing? A Level 30 [Shieldmaster]? Against that?
Colossal strength. Skin that could stop steel. Zamea roared as three more half-Giants charged into the [Soldiers] of Belchan. There were tens of thousands of them.
But here were Giants. And behind them—the King of Destruction and his army. They poured into the openings torn by the half-Giants, howling, cutting through the broken formation. General Fultoolm stared.
“Bring her down. Bring that one down! Archers! Mages! Grand Mage—”
He looked for Esiela. But she was gone, dueling the [Mages] of Parasol Stroll. The [General] looked up as the [Soldiers] tried to surround the half-Giant. She was mighty, but she was only one. There were only a few half-Giants. If one fell—they could drag her down with ropes, cut her to pieces.
The [Soldiers] of Belchan poured forwards. A [Captain] pointed and a detachment of elites with shields rushed at the half-Giant. They had enchanted blades.
Zamea swung and her axe bounced off the elite soldiers as they braced. Fultoolm felt his heart beating again. He gasped in relief as the half-Giantess recoiled. An enchanted javelin struck her in the cheek and sunk deep.
She could die. She could die! Zamea shielded her face as arrows flew at her eyes, and the elites began to encircle her, trying to cut at her left leg. She roared her fury. Then Zamea raised her axe. She tensed—
She swung her axe. And the blade gleamed. It grew wider for a second—the [Soldiers] froze as it came at them—
And the blow cut half of them apart. Enchanted armor tore and bent. Skills and shields failed to stop the mighty strike. General Fultoolm stared.
“A Skill? That’s not—fair.”
He looked at Zamea. A half-Giant, so tall she dwarfed any creature in this world he had ever seen. As strong as a mountain, with skin nearly as strong as stone.
With Skills. Who could level. Because she was half.
Half of a Giant. Half of a legend that had dueled Dragons and built ancient fortresses in days when [Heroes] and [Archmages] still existed. And though Giants had all but passed from the earth—
Their descendants remained.
The Army of Belchan not fighting for their lives stopped, for a second. Staring up at her.
First Shepard Zamea. Leader of the Nomads of the Sky. She planted her axe as Reim’s [Soldiers] rushed past her. And she calmly drank from a huge flask.
“Smallfolk, we are not at all equals. Is that not so, Teresa Atwood?”
She smiled. And a girl stared up at her as she pushed forwards in the infantry. Zamea laughed. And it was a terrible laugh. She strode forwards.
“Behold! Flee, smallfolk! Surrender!”
The half-Giants were bellowing as they carved forwards. Zamea cut through the infantry, carefully wading behind the ranks of Reim’s [Soldiers] now. Wary of elites who could bring her down.
But the King of Destruction didn’t slow. He raced onwards. And now—General Fultoolm saw a beautiful woman, wearing no helmet, hacking her way towards him.
Mars the Illusionist. Her blade was living fire. Every time she swung it, it cut through metal and body. Just—fire. Her sword was twelve feet long, and the burning flame made [Soldiers] scream. You couldn’t protect yourself from that! And when she ran into someone who braved the searing flames that ate at their skin, blistered and scorched flesh black—
Her black shield and the carved, snarling face moved. Two wide jaws opened. Mars thrust the shield towards a [Captain] advancing on her with a greatsword. And the shield bit. Two jaws closed as Mars rammed the other [Captain]. General Fultoolm heard a scream. He saw blood and black liquid pouring from the mouth as it chewed.
And Mars the Illusionist shoved aside the dying [Captain]. She rammed through a press of [Soldiers] who fell back rather than fight her. More were trying to slow her—arrows bounced off the [Vanguard]’s armor, her face and hair—but that was the illusion.
And she couldn’t be stopped. General Fultoolm fumbled for his sword. He had enchanted weapons. He was a [General]! The defender of Belchan!
But…she was laughing. And her eyes were locked on his face. Mars sheathed her sword and reached for something at her side.
Bag of holding. She drew a second blade. It shone with a bright, pale light. Like moonlight. A piercing weapon—she beheaded a [Soldier] and the blade carved halfway through a second [Soldier] standing next to the first without so much as slowing.
“Hold—hold her back—”
Fultoolm wondered who was speaking. Then he realized it was his voice. His elites were pressings forwards, fighting Mars back. She slowed, dueling them in a press of bodies. Alone. She’d cut so far in that she was surrounded, but it didn’t matter. Because they couldn’t hurt her.
“General! You must pull back! Pull back!”
One of his [Strategists] was shouting. But Fultoolm couldn’t. If he did—Belchan’s army collapsed. His Skills were the only thing keeping the soldiers from breaking. He raised his sword.
“[Grace of the Bastille]!”
The ranks of [Soldiers] firmed. The elites fighting Mars began to block her blows, even dodging her shining blade as it threatened to cleave through flesh. The entire army began to block, defend with unnatural skill.
A defensive Skill. His Level 30 Skill, the one that he was so proud of. It would affect his entire army.
For one minute. One…minute. That could change a battle. That was what Fultoolm always said. You could reverse any odds.
But look. The [General] raised his head. And he saw the King of Destruction.
Just a man. No half-Giant, not supernaturally tall. Tall, yes, and strong, and…just a man. You could say that if you didn’t see him in person.
Fultoolm saw a [King]. He was holding a broadsword and shield. And he was still cutting forwards with his vanguard. He had no flashy Skills. No amazingly magical blade; his shield burned with fire, but his sword was normal. Just sharp.
The King of Destruction didn’t even fight with any unusual tactics. He was just a fighter. A good one, seasoned by countless battles. But he was so strong.
A [Lineholder] with a tower shield saw the King of Destruction coming at him. The Rustängmarder raced after the King of Destruction, their masked faces covered with blood as they hacked apart their opponents, refusing to even step back once. The [Soldier] was brave. A brave son of Belchan. He raised his shield as he aimed his spear at the King of Destruction’s chest.
The [King] knocked the spear’s tip aside with his shield. He closed, bringing down his sword. The [Lineholder] lifted the tower shield.
And the sword cleaved through the metal. Through the shield and the man’s head. Through the metal helmet. It snapped bone, drove the [Lineholder] into the ground. The strength.
Fultoolm saw Flos yank the sword free. He whirled, slashing, knocking an axe aside. Then he rammed into a female [Soldier] and sent her flying backwards. His sword moved—another of Belchan’s children died.
Flos Reimarch thundered. He brought his shield down and caved in a skull. Belchan’s front lines were crumbling, but the advance of his army was slowing. The numbers were still against them.
And the [Mages] were finally beginning to exact their toll. Parasol Stroll was battling with Grand Mage Esiela and a few of her [Mages], stalemated. Some of their number had fallen. But the rest of the [Mage] corps at the back of the army were bombarding Reim’s army with spells
[Fireballs], [Lightning Bolts], or weaker but deadly spells like arrows of ice and sickles of magic were hitting Flos’ army. The half-Giants were forced to shield themselves from the magic bombardment. The King of Destruction himself was being targeted.
“Protect his Majesty. [Spellward Shields].”
[Death Commander] Ytol leaned on his crutch. Half of his body was gone, but the leader of the Rustängmarder was still commanding from the army. He ignored spells raining down around him as [Soldiers] advanced with shields over their heads. They were glowing, blocking the spells.
“Orthenon! Bring down the [Mages]!”
Flos was roaring, his voice carrying over the battle. Fultoolm didn’t see whom he was shouting out—the [General] began to scan for the absent Steward. Then—he saw a [Soldier] rushing the distracted [King]. She was a [Swordslayer]. And her enchanted blade gleamed as she thrust at Flos’ heart.
He jerked back. But it was one of the Rustängmarder who took the blade through the chest for him. The soldier, armored in dark colors, jerked, as the blade went through his ribs and chest. The [Swordslayer] tried to drag the blade free.
Too late. Flos beheaded her. He caught the mortally wounded soldier of the Rustängmarder as he fell. And Flos Reimarch paused. He reached for a healing potion at his side, but the man was dying. So the King of Destruction knelt, as the Rustängmarder fought around him.
“Brave [Soldier]. You have fulfilled your oath. Tell me your name.”
The dying man somehow had the strength to reach up. He pulled his helmet loose. And the King of Destruction looked into the dead man’s face. He listened and bowed his head. Then he let go.
“Go now, Igel of Reim. Rise. Your crimes die with you.”
Helmetless, the man rose. He was a young man. And his eyes were wide and blank. The wound in his chest had stopped pouring blood. He did not look at the [King]. But he took his sword and shield and plunged into the fighting at the front.
Faster than the other Rustängmarder, than any other [Soldier]. Igel’s blade hacked and he charged into Belchan’s ranks. He ignored the wound in his chest, ignored the blades that cut at his unguarded face and pierced his thick armor.
The [Soldiers] of Belchan fell back, unnerved by this fearless warrior with the hole in his chest. Flos raced forwards, at Igel’s back. And the Rustängmarder roared as they charged, the first noise they had ever made.
It was only after an arrow pieced Igel’s eye, and a sword was thrust into his throat and he kept moving that the children of Belchan realized the truth. Igel’s blank eyes stared forwards as his body kept fighting.
But he was already dead. The [Death Soldier] advanced, fighting, fulfilling his oath in death. And the courage of those who fought him broke.
How could you fight a dead man? He was already—
Half-Giants cracked the earth as the King of Destruction roared.
“Advance! Cut their army in half!”
He was poised to do it. But—the [Mages] were creating walls of magic, slowing the advance. On them everything hinged.
Grand Mage Esiela was panting. But she’d brought down four of Parasol Stroll. They could win! The King of Destruction was pushing in with his elites, but if he fell—
“Students! [Mages]! Hold back the enemy! Teachers, with me. We kill the King of Destruction.”
The [Grand Mage] turned. Parasol Stroll launched spells at her back, but the massed ranks of Belchan’s spellcasters were using the same tactics on them. They had learned in minutes the lessons of battle.
Esiela ran backwards. She could see how far the King of Destruction had pressed into the canyon. He was indeed trying to split Belchan’s army straight down the middle. But if she reached him—Mars the Illusionist was distracted! And the half-Giants and the Rustängmarder couldn’t protect him from her spells.
“To me! We kill the King of Destruction!”
Blood was in Esiela’s eyes, her pulse thundering in her ears. She ran around the back of Belchan’s armies, searching for the King of Destruction. His advance would be his undoing. She turned, as the back ranks of [Archers] whirled. Looking at her. She raised her staff, shouting, rallying them—
A hand grabbed her. The Grand Mage stumbled. She turned. One of the teachers in her school was pointing. Esiela looked at him. And she realized the [Archers] weren’t looking at her.
A second army appeared at Belchan’s backs. Thundering down the canyon was a group of nearly ten thousand [Riders]. For a moment Esiela’s heart jumped. Reinforcements?
But no—Fultoolm was screaming for the infantry to turn. For the archers to fire! And Esiela recognized the figure leading the wedge of cavalry. Her heart stopped.
Orthenon. The King’s Steward. The Left Hand of the King of Destruction.
He had circled around. Somehow, he’d travelled around the entire canyon range, fought through the forces there and reached their rear. How had he done it so fast?
Because—he was the [Steward]. Not one of the Seven, but second only to his [King]. Esiela stared. Then she began to back up.
“Form a line of pikes! Bring him down! Bring him down! Fire the bombardment spells!”
Fultoolm was roaring into a communication stone. And from the sky, Belchan’s Mage Schools began to unleash the stored magics. The spells that had been raining down on Flos’ army began to aim for the [Steward]. And the [Mage] corps, retreating behind another wave of [Soldiers] began to fire spells too.
[Valmira’s Comets] began to hit the ground. The glowing meteors made of magic exploded, sending shockwaves of earth fountaining up. Lightning bolts fell out of the sky, and rains of arrows burst from miles away, aiming at Orthenon.
They missed. The artillery spells were tracking the [Riders] too slowly. Each one was racing faster than anything on land Fultoolm had ever seen. Only a bird was faster. They wove, dodging spells.
“Cavalry! [Charge Commander] Veldeen! Stop the [Steward]!”
Belchan’s own cavalry detachment, a small number for the battle in the pass, raced out. They aimed straight at the [Steward], buying time. Fultoolm saw them racing at Orthenon. Stall them until he could put enough pikes and [Soldiers] between them and—
Orthenon raced ahead of the [Riders], a dark blur. The [Steward] was armed with a spear and his sword. He twisted as he raced at the [Charge Commander].
“[Sword Art: The Tide Breaks].”
The gaunt man flashed past the first rank of Belchan’s cavalry, riding perpendicular across them. His sword cut in a blur, rising and falling so fast that it did indeed look like a pattern of silver.
Horses and riders collapsed, heads and limbs severed. The first rank of the cavalry fell, and the following ranks collided, crashing into screaming piles of people and horses. Orthenon turned his horse, shot onwards.
They were coming. Grand Mage Esiela was moving back, throwing spells. But the [Steward] cut one in half, dodged another—and Parasol Stroll was cancelling her spells again!
She’d retreated behind a thin rank of spears. They were covering the [Archers] and [Mages]. Pikes braced, ready to impale horses. Esiela saw the [Steward] aiming straight at them and hoped. Even if he had so many horses, they couldn’t—
The [Steward] and his wedge of horses hit the spears. The pikes knocked [Riders] from horses, made some rear, took a few down. But for a few seconds, the flesh of his cavalry was steel.
And a few seconds—
The [Steward] had his spear out. He beheaded the [Sergeant], then rode straight through a group of [Archers]. He ignored them as his [Riders] followed. He was making for the students of Belchan. Then he leapt from the saddle, landed in their midst.
They stared up at him. The [Ruinbringer Steward]. Orthenon of Reim. A legend in their times. The man drew his sword. He looked at a teacher, of 1st Year students. High Mage Fredalius, a kindly fellow who always had a treat—
Orthenon beheaded him. Fredalius never had time to raise the barrier spell with his wand. The [Steward] cut left and right. Belchan’s students and [Mages] stared as the magic-users around Orthenon collapsed without a sound. The [Steward] kept moving, calmly lopping off hands and limbs. His sword was a blur as he walked through the spellcasters.
Only after a second did they begin to fight back, to run. It was surreal. The [Riders] were tearing apart the [Archers]. A few [Mages] tried to aim spells at Orthenon. Others made barriers.
The [Steward] leapt over a rising [Wall of Stone], blurred. Six children died. Children, who’d come to fight because Grand Mage Esiela had been assured they’d be safe.
She stared, so shocked by the carnage she couldn’t move. And again—the same thought echoed.
It wasn’t fair. Spellcasters, [Mages] with years of training just to cast basic spells, students of magic who’d spent their entire lives training in their craft died with a single sword thrust. Up close—all their magic was useless. The [Steward] was faster than they could even say the name of a spell. And bunched up, they were dying like flies.
Fultoolm’s voice froze in his throat. He stared as the [Steward] just…took apart Belchan’s rear lines. It wasn’t a battle, it was a slaughter as his [Archers] and [Mages] were cut down. He looked around.
Fultoolm saw the King of Destruction fighting through his army, circling, joining Orthenon’s assault, hammering Belchan’s army from multiple sides. He had less numbers, but so many individuals who couldn’t be killed.
Heroes. So many heroes. Legends from the age when the King of Destruction had conquered Chandrar. Fultoolm turned. Retreat. They had to retreat, make a second stand. If—
“There you are.”
The [General] heard a beautiful voice. He turned, and saw a woman with white hair, a tall, lithe form. He stared into her vibrant, glowing eyes that shone like the dawn.
Of course, it was an illusion. It was said that Mars the Illusionist had any number of forms. That her true appearance was wretched—that she wasn’t even Human. She was a tricky opponent, for all she fought from the front. Her illusions could distract, confuse.
But he was glad of it, in this moment. Because she looked the part. A gallant heroine, champion of the King of Destruction. Not even touched by blood.
Mars the Illusionist saluted Fultoolm. His command was slaughtered, his elites dead. The [General] stared at her. Then he raised his sword.
He charged at her. Mars saw his sword blur. She jerked back. The [Lightning Slash] sent crackling electricity dancing across her chest. She brought her sword up. Fultoolm saw it coming. He didn’t close his eyes.
The [General] toppled, cut from below the right arm across his left shoulder. And his army cried out as they felt him die. Mars stood over his body and turned. She raised her sword and bellowed a wordless cry of victory. Then she looked down at the [General].
“An honor? You served the wrong ruler.”
She shook her head. Then she sheathed the shining blade and drew the sword made of fire. The King of Destruction’s army poured forwards.
And Belchan’s army began to surrender. [Soldiers] who had seen the [Mages] destroyed, Orthenon pushing in from the rear—the King of Destruction, the Rustängmarder, the half-Giants or Fultoolm’s death—they threw down their weapons and raised their arms.
Teres had blood in her mouth. Not her own. She was fighting with a cluster of veterans to the side when she heard the call being carried across the battlefield. The group of Belchan’s elite [Spellswords] who had been holding the line looked up, hesitated, and then threw down their blades.
All across the battlefield, Belchan’s [Soldiers] were surrendering. There were only a few pockets of—no, even the most stubborn of their warriors didn’t have the heart for it. Not in the face of Zamea, or Mars. There was no glory, no pride left to fight that.
Teres only realized she was gulping for air, her heart beating out of her chest after she lowered her sword. Then she felt her burning arms, the cuts she’d taken, a burn across her chest and chainmail that had fused with her skin.
She didn’t throw up—but only because she’d felt this before. The crash at the end of a battle. Teres looked around, trying to tell what had happened. She had been so caught up in her fighting she hadn’t seen the entire battlefield as others had. She saw the remaining [Mages] on Belchan’s side surrendering as Orthenon wiped his blade. And a woman, kneeling in front of Parasol Stroll as Ulyse, Mirin, and the others surrounded her.
All told nearly half of Belchan’s army survived. Put another way—nearly half of them had been slaughtered. Still, Reim’s forces had gone through Belchan’s so fast that some pockets of the army hadn’t even had time to fight before the battle was decided.
It was a nightmare. No—surreal. Grand Mage Esiela knelt on the dry ground. She was surrounded by Parasol Stroll. She hadn’t even taken any wounds. But she’d seen Fultoolm die. So she had surrendered. She couldn’t even flee; she’d tried to cast [Invisibility] and other movement spells and Parasol Stroll had caught her.
Now, she was afraid. The [Mages] were suppressing her magic. She couldn’t have cast spells if she wanted to. And she saw the King of Destruction standing with his vassals as the rest of the [Soldiers] were disarmed.
Prisoners of war. They hadn’t been executed. But they’d be slaves. Or ransomed at least, by the Slavers of Roshal. Imagine that. Nearly seventy thousand people…
Better than being dead. Grand Mage Esiela was imagining a mage collar around her neck. She wanted to throw up. But only her dignity kept her from doing so. Her students…
“Six [Mages]. More than we thought. Grand Mage, you are powerful.”
The leader of Parasol Stroll leaned on his bright umbrella as he addressed her. Ulyse was a kindly, uncle-ish sort. A mix between the grandfather and uncle, really. But he had battled her with deadly spells, killed dozens of people during the battle.
He was relaxed, afterwards. Just taking his leisure amid the dead. That was the difference between him and her. Esiela shuddered as Ulyse looked at her.
There was a younger woman standing next to him. Ulyse turned to her.
“Mirin, the mage-collars the Slavers of Roshal carry won’t work on someone of Grand Mage Esiela’s caliber. We’ll have to ensure she doesn’t escape.”
“Or offer her a place.”
The other woman’s voice was quiet. Esiela shuddered as the [Mages] of Parasol Stroll all looked at her.
For answer, Ulyse reached out and picked up an umbrella. Covered in blood. He showed it to Esiela.
“This belonged to Vivica. One of the [Mages] you killed. Six of our own are dead. But that is war. So, as is our custom, we offer you a choice. Be bound to our company, with the blood-debt of the defeated and the fallen. Take up a parasol and walk with us. Fight with us. Six dead. So, then—six years. Swear by magical oath and blood. Or become a [Slave]. The choice is yours.”
“If the King of Destruction wants her slain…”
One of the [Mages] murmured. Esiela just stared. This was all too much. Ulyse nodded.
“We need more magic, especially of her power. I will argue if he asks it. Well, Grand Mage Esiela? You do not have long to decide. Ten minutes.”
He nodded. The King of Destruction was pointing. Esiela saw his [Soldiers] were moving. They were…beginning to march?
Yes. Reim’s army was already beginning to move down the pass while some guarded the prisoners. They were moving. Advancing to the capital.
To kill the Prime Minster. And bring everyone there the King of Destruction’s justice. Esiela’s blood chilled. But she was helpless. Even if she fought with tooth and nail—the [Mages] were surrounding her. And she was fairly certain that they could fight hand-to-hand far better than she could.
Esiela jerked. She looked up at Ulyse. A kindly face and those…calm eyes. She shuddered. After thinking for one second, Esiela croaked.
“My students. My—the teachers. The other [Mages]. Will you…?”
“We will extend the same offer to the others. As is our custom. Slavery or the possibility of ransom or joining our number.”
“And I would swear…”
“To uphold our purpose. No more. Simply to fight with us to the utmost of your ability, cast spells as commanded. Since you are a defeated [Mage], someone will have to monitor you. Mirin, perhaps. But our oaths are sworn with blood magic and other contracts. They are not forsworn lightly.”
His eyes glinted. Mirin looked at Esiela. The Grand Mage shuddered. No indeed. She knew just how well you could bind someone with magic, especially with their blood if they gave it of their own accord.
Six years. But…she knew Roshal’s [Slavers]. And six years serving as a battle mage compared to what a [Slave] might…? Especially someone as valuable as Esiela.
No, there was no choice. Esiela nodded. She licked her lips and realized they were bloody. She immediately gagged.
“I—I will. Join you.”
Ulyse glanced around. The [Mages] of Parasol Stroll nodded.
“Ah, good. You will be a welcome addition, Grand Mage. Then we will administer the oath. Quickly. We must recover and await his Majesty’s orders. And I imagine, I must explain your presence to him.”
He nodded at the King of Destruction. Esiela froze as Mirin produced a vellum scroll glowing with power.
The leader of Parasol Stroll looked at Esiela with a smile. A cold one.
“We will be assaulting Belchan’s capital. You wouldn’t happen to know the name of it, would you?”
Esiela whispered. Ulyse nodded.
“Your magic will be invaluable for that battle. We will be attacking the capital before nightfall. His Majesty does not intend us to rest, or for Belchan to reorganize.”
She looked at him. And she could always refuse. But the collar awaited. Esiela bowed her head.
In the end, she’d never really had a chance. Not she, or her army. She drew her own blood and signed the contract, felt the magic bind her.
Then she took the parasol and marched with the other [Mages] upon Levrhine, her home. And the people of Belchan, the students of Belchan’s schools, Prime Minister Lyfelt, saw the Grand Mage marching against them. Just as they had seen the battle, the death of General Fultoolm. The way the King of Destruction had swept over Belchan’s army.
They had seen it all.
“Well, that’s it then.”
No one had spoken in the scrying orb’s studio for a while. Grand Strategist Chaldion or whomever he was, quietly drank and smoked as he sat back in his chair. Noass and Sir Relz, who were normally trying to fill the silence with commentary…were quiet.
There wasn’t much to say. They’d just watched Belchan’s army routed within…what, thirty minutes? An hour at most. And Reim’s army was marching on the capital.
The students in Belchan’s Mage School had to be panicking. Their staff and headmistress had been killed or…converted. Only some of them had gone to battle—the ones who’d been deemed able to fight. There had to be thousands more students.
And of course, Belchan’s capital, Levrhine had its own garrisons and defenders. Probably tens of thousands, to prevent a surprise raid. A decent army. And there were other parts of its military. They could presumably rally and fight back.
They could. But they wouldn’t. Because the international broadcast, the television, magicvision, whatever you wanted to call it, was working against Belchan.
It had shown them just how overwhelming their foe was. So the King of Destruction had shattered their morale. In his city, Prime Minister Lyfelt might be in power, but when the King of Destruction rode on the city, his head might be offered at the gates for some modicum of mercy.
Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the [Politician] could stay in power. But he’d never fight off Flos Reimarch.
That was the second thing Raelt of Jecrass said. He adjusted the scrying orb, but the other Drakes were still speechless.
In the picture, Chaldion looked sideways at Noass as he leaned back. His voice echoed out of the scrying orb.
“I believe I predicted this. Would you like a breakdown of exactly how badly Belchan’s army was beaten? Because that is why he is called the King of Destruction.”
Raelt saw the Drake who was named…Noass…stir. The [King] wasn’t in a mood to listen, though. He had seen enough. So he deactivated the scrying orb, put it in his saddlebags. And he said the word again.
The [King] of Jecrass turned. Raelt Leysars had forgotten he wasn’t alone. He’d been so engrossed in watching the battle. He saw his old retainer and confidant, Geril, looking at him.
“Morale, Giles. That was what General Fultoolm lacked. Along with everything else.”
“I don’t follow, your Majesty.”
Geril cocked his head. He was dressed for war. As was Raelt. But while the [King] wore light, enchanted, flexible leather armor and a rapier at his side, along with a few rings and potions, all treasures of Jecrass’ limited treasury, Geril was wearing much heavier armor.
He was an old man, but he was wearing a damned hauberk, as well as other pieces of mail armor and a conical helmet. He was also carrying a spear he could use from horseback.
Mind you, he could probably use it. The [Retainer] had fought in wars before, and he had been a veteran of a number of battles. Still—Raelt would have just as soon not brought Geril to the front lines. Even if he did hope to avoid a battle.
But Geril had insisted, and he could help command as well as fight. Raelt nodded at him.
“Morale. If Belchan’s army had held, they might have done more damage. Well, that and they let the King of Destruction hit them. You can’t fight half-Giants and Mars and—all of them head-on.”
That was Raelt’s opinion. His blood chilled as he remembered Zamea cutting down [Soldiers] like wheat. No indeed, fighting the King of Destruction head-on was suicide. He went on, forcing the words out. A cold, calm analysis. It was that or succumb to what he’d witnessed.
“Morale. If your army fights, then the King of Destruction’s army is just another army. With powerful Skills yes, but his strength comes from his line breakers, his few elites.”
“You may be right, sire. But then wouldn’t both armies still be destroyed?”
“Yes. In the best case you take two-to-one losses. Three-to-one even, but you destroy his army. And in the worst case—he uses his [Army of the King]. Or maybe that’s the best case.”
“I don’t follow, your Majesty.”
Another voice to his left. Raelt turned and saw General Lael looking at him. She’d watched the entire broadcast too and her hands were tight on her mount’s reins. Raelt spoke quietly.
“It’s the best case in a sense, General. Because you and your entire army will die—but the King of Destruction loses his best weapon for a month. Either way, you lose the battle. But without morale, your army won’t force either outcome.”
Silence. The riders around Raelt stared at their [King]. But Raelt wasn’t in the mood to debate his point. He didn’t like war. But he’d done a lot of thinking and he’d seen high-level battles before. That was just his conclusion, though.
“The King of Destruction is thirty miles away from the capital. Even if he’d delayed in taking prisoners…General, pick up the pace. Advance at a gallop if we must. We must get there first. Stop taking prisoners. Advance at all speed, without opening us to ambush.”
Raelt ignored the worried voice that came from one of his River Wardens riding in his company. General Lael nodded. She rode ahead and Raelt turned.
Ahead and behind him rode Jecrass’ army. A substantial force, larger than the one that had been destroyed by Flos Reimarch.
But then, Belchan was fighting on multiple fronts. And Raelt had taken all the forces he could spare straight across Belchan’s borders as soon as he’d declared war, three days ago. Mostly horses, over a hundred thousand of them. The foot could barely keep pace, even with Skills boosting their movement.
A vast army. For the two nations, at least. Medain’s was far larger, Nerrhavia’s beyond compare. But these armies had warded Belchan and Jecrass well in their alliance, sometimes with Hellios and Germina as well.
And three of the nations were fallen or falling. Raelt still couldn’t believe it. But he had seen Belchan’s army, [General] and Grand Mage defeated. And now he was marching on his friend and sister nation.
He was not the only one. Medain from the north, Jecrass invading from the east. And those were only the two closest kingdoms. The Claiven Earth, even Nerrhavia from the south—armies were marching on Belchan for a piece of the nation.
Or—perhaps in simple outrage over what they had seen. Not that children or civilians had been slaughtered, but that it had been seen, a first in this world. Public favor was more on Flos Reimarch’s side than it was Belchan’s.
But the dead. Oh, the dead and slaughter. Yes, The King of Destruction had been merciful, in a way. He’d taken prisoners from his battles rather than execute all of them. Indeed, the only reason he had taken three days to reach Levrhine was probably because of all those battles and ensuring the prisoner trains wouldn’t escape.
The same of course, applied to Jecrass. Their army had marched over the border and invaded Belchan. But Raelt’s armies, led by General Lael and the [King] himself hadn’t really fought many battles. A few skirmishes the first day, but after that they’d been bogged down.
By all the people surrendering, or trying to flee the King of Destruction’s advance. Conquering a city that opened its gates and begged for mercy wasn’t a great feat. But it had slowed Raelt from reaching Levrhine.
Now, he was in a race. But if there was one thing Jecrass was good at, it was moving fast. Their cavalry was among the best in the world. And they only had about sixteen miles left.
“Pick up the pace! We’re riding ahead!”
Raelt snapped at Geril and his River Wardens. They stared at him. But they obediently accelerated with their horses.
The King of Jecrass himself cursed as he felt the saddle crushing his nether regions. It was a good saddle, enchanted, and his horse was a brilliant stallion, some pureblood breed known for its ability in battle. Cimallion or something.
Raelt didn’t know. He didn’t like horses. The King of Jecrass was often defined by his dislikes. He disliked oranges, his River Wardens, bells, horses, and war. But he was also a [King], and so he was often in close proximity to all these things. So Raelt rode. He was a decent rider, even if he’d never had the class. As he leaned over his horse, he heard a sound, one of his dislikes.
The ringing of a bell. A silver bell, attached to a young woman’s rapier. Jecaina of Jecrass, [Princess] and sole known heir to the throne, leaned over her own mare as she caught up with her father.
“Father! Father! Are you going to attack Levrhine?”
“I told you to stay back! Jecaina!”
Raelt snapped at his daughter. The [Princess] had insisted on coming with him into battle. Raelt and Geril had forbidden it, but she’d ridden with them and they hadn’t been able to get her to leave. Even with an escort of [Soldiers] she slipped out of their clutches. Raelt had been about to order her bound and carried back to the palace, but—she was a [Princess] and a kidnapping was possible.
“Father, the King of Destruction is riding on Levrhine!”
Jecaina was wide-eyed. Raelt snapped back.
“Really? And here I thought he was riding past it.”
The comment provoked an open-mouthed stare from Jecaina and the River Wardens in earshot. Raelt was not known to be an angry [King] at all. In fact, he was rather known for being snippy at worst, and rather even-tempered in all but the worst situations. But right now he was letting his inner self out because it did not matter at the moment.
“But Father—what are you going to do?”
Jecaina looked nervous. As well she might. All of the River Wardens in attendance—a full third of them and their armies—had expressed serious reservations. Raelt didn’t care. He had to do this. Just as he’d been unable to stand the sight of the slaughtered Gnolls—he had to. He looked at Jecaina and saw the silver bell again.
“That damned bell. I told you not to wear it.”
“What? What’s that got to do with anything?”
The [Duelist Princess] covered the bell, surprised at the old argument. It was a beautiful little silver bell. No casual trinket either. The silver bells of [Duelists] were known the world over as a mark of skill by anyone who studied the art of blades. [Fencers] and [Duelists] wore them into battle, and anyone who carried a silver bell was a recognized talent with the blade.
Strutting your abilities. Raelt hated it. He hated bells, showing off. He hated his River Wardens, who were all talk for the same reason. You did what you had to do, that was all.
“Father, my bell has nothing to do with—what about Levrhine?”
“I’m going to do what I must.”
Raelt Leysars spoke coldly. Almost numbly, but for the fear and trepidation in his breast. He did not want this duty. But he was a [King]. And the crown he wore meant he took on all of his duties, and he was his own judge, and could never run from his responsibilities, or what was right or necessary. That was what Lyfelt did not understand.
Because he was not a [King].
“You don’t understand what the bell means, Jecaina. You got it for defeating a [Fencer]. But the bell means more than that. It is not supposed to ring.”
The [King] looked at his daughter. She stared back at him. Raelt was garbed for war. He had taken his armor—not the royal armor because that was mail and Raelt thought it was too heavy and inflexible—but his armor, and his sword.
A rapier. Unlike the foil that Jecaina liked to use for her duels. Raelt had lived in Terandria. He loved exercises with his sword, but that was not really [King]-ly. His rapier was enchanted, and on his left side, he also carried a parrying dagger.
A cup rapier with enchantments on the blade. Just cutting enchantments to add to the serrative qualities of the rapier; it was a thrusting weapon after all, meant for light cuts and thrusts. A dueling weapon, which was sometimes derided as a weapon for small engagements, not the actual battlefield.
Well, it was better than an épée. And Raelt’s rapier was enchanted with cutting magic so a slash from it was far more dangerous than a regular rapier. Feather light, perfectly balanced, with a cup guard on the handle. No idiotic and often impractical swept hilts, which often traded defensive properties for aesthetics. Actually, Raelt’s hilt was a pappenheim-hilt, which was actually two shell guards, but that was only if you got technical.
And he carried a parrying dagger enchanted with a 5-pound [Weight] spell. Raelt fought like a traditional [Fencer], not with one rapier. Or two, like a flashy idiot. The dagger was used for knocking a blade aside, keeping an opponent wary of both hands.
Raelt liked fencing. He had taught his daughter how to fence, which is where she had gotten the same love. But he didn’t force his hobby on anyone outside of his family. He even dared say he was good at it. A parrying dagger was short and it was a stupid, stupid thing to use in a fight unless you were good at it. An enchanted sword was useless in the hands of an amateur.
But King Raelt carried no bell. He never wore his. He looked at Jecaina now. And the father, riding to war, had a proper fatherly squabble with his daughter. Because…what else was he supposed to do?
“It’s ridiculous. Silver bells aren’t a mark of pride, Jecaina. They’re a test. I never told you because I thought you’d figure it out.”
“Figure what out. Is there something inside?”
Jecaina looked at her father, bewildered. Raelt sighed.
“No. The test is that they don’t ring if they’re worn by an expert. A proper [Fencer] wearing the bell makes no sound. If the bell rings—it’s unnecessary movement. At most, it rings once or twice in a duel. Experts count how many times it rings in a bout. It’s meant to showcase your abilities by never being seen, Jecaina. Unless you look for it. That’s a [Fencer]’s pride.”
For a while his daughter just stared at Raelt, open-mouthed. And then she turned bright crimson. She hung her head, and Raelt regretted his outburst. But he rode on.
Lyfelt, old friend. His heart ached for the foolish, arrogant [Prime Minister]. But despite it all…Lyfelt had not been a bad man. But Raelt was not coming for him. He was riding to do what was right. Nothing more, nothing less.
“The King of Destruction is approaching Levrhine.”
That was all you needed to say. Flos Reimarch rode at the head of his army. They were tired, but not by much. Stamina potions, Skills—and their fury kept them moving.
Gnolls marched with the army too. One had white fur. The others carried bows, hunting javelins. Many had gone south, civilians. But they marched behind their [King].
For vengeance. To answer a [King]’s fury. For a child, for a people killed far from home.
The pounding feet and hooves were like thunder. Teres was afraid. Flos had marched to battle in fury, laying waste to each army. But with each passing mile, the dark energy coming off him grew deeper.
He was not coming to Levrhine for battle. But his justice. And he had sworn to kill a man.
Prime Minister Lyfelt of Belchan. Not just him. A thousand of Belchan’s citizens for every Gnoll that had been slaughtered. And Teres…feared he would carry out on his threat.
She still remembered the dead Gnolls. That—could not be forgiven. This Lyfelt was to blame. But the others? People who had no idea, who were just Belchan’s citizens?
No. She was resolved to stop it. Somehow, even if she had to put herself in front of Flos. That was Teres’ resolve. She just hoped she could do it.
She wished Trey were here. But he was marching north with the rest of the King of Destruction’s armies, and Gazi. The Quarass had declined to do battle.
This was how they rode. In fury and retribution and bloody vengeance. In silence. And racing ahead of the vanguard and marching [Soldiers] was the [Steward].
Orthenon spotted the capital city of Levrhine first. He put up his hand and his [Riders] slowed. Orthenon had only six thousand of his cavalry with him. He wasn’t about to start the siege—just prevent the Prime Minister from fleeing. But what he saw made him stare.
An army had taken Levrhine. A massive one was encircling the city. The gates were open and horses were pouring into the city. A winding column was joining the rest of the army.
“Another army? Reinforcements?”
A worried voice from one of the officers. Orthenon wondered the same thing. His eyes narrowed and then he spotted the banners. A horse on fields of gold.
Jecrass’ banners. The [Steward] cursed. He kicked his mount forwards.
The arrival of the King of Destruction’s steward provoked a ripple in the army. He was outnumbered six-to-one. But the entire army pivoted towards him—until a command rippled through their ranks. A man on horseback rode out of the gates. Then he dismounted—he’d had enough of horses.
General Lael and the River Wardens and an army of elite [Trick Riders] and [Lancers] surrounded the man. But the [King] of Jecrass didn’t step back as Orthenon rode down on him. The [Steward] stopped abruptly.
And he looked down on King Raelt.
“What is the meaning of this, King Raelt of Jecrass? His Majesty marches on Levrhine. Why is Jecrass’ army here?”
His voice was flat. And Jecaina, being restrained by Geril, shuddered. In awe and trepidation. Danger hung from the Left Hand of Destruction. The [Ruinbringer Steward]. A man who had slain monarchs, nearly as many as his [King].
She looked at her father. And he seemed small, compared to the tall, dark figure. But Raelt Leysars of Jecrass only nodded to Orthenon. And the circlet on his head flashed as he spoke.
“I’ve subjugated this area. Pull back your men, King’s Steward. These lands are now formally part of the Realm of Jecrass.”
Orthenon stared at Raelt. Incredulously. He looked past Raelt, at the capital city.
There was no smoke. No sign of damage at the gates. Nor had Jecaina seen so much as a bared blade. The people of Belchan had thrown open their doors and let the army in. They’d taken the palace in moments.
Just in time too. Orthenon had been only minutes behind. Raelt met the [Steward]’s burning gaze.
“Jecrass declared war on Belchan. The Realm of Jecrass was unable to let the slaughter of innocent citizens pass—”
He broke off as Orthenon leaned over the saddle. The [Steward]’s gaze fixed on Raelt’s face.
“The King of Destruction demands justice. This trick will not protect the Prime Minister. Or Belchan.”
Pressure. Like a [King]’s aura. Raelt saw the people behind him stagger. He locked his legs and replied in a level tone.
“I have claimed this city. Justice will be done. If the King of Destruction would like to witness it, he may come himself.”
Orthenon looked at Raelt. The two didn’t blink. Abruptly, Orthenon sat back upright. He waved his hand in a circle—the [Riders] behind him moved.
Everyone around Raelt tensed, and the [King] felt a leap in his chest. But the riders were just turning around. Orthenon looked down at Raelt. And his voice was cold.
“His Majesty is on his way. He will decide what occurs next. That is my warning to you, King Raelt of Jecrass.”
Then he bowed slightly, a courtier’s bow to a [King]. And he was gone. Raelt waited until he was a hundred meters away, already accelerating faster and faster—and then he sagged.
It had begun. There was a babble of voices after Orthenon was gone. People talking to him, demanding—asking—
Afraid. Raelt saw it on their faces. It was in him too, a terrified, clawing thing. But he mastered it. He couldn’t hear the others as he turned.
“Keep a watch out for him. The [Steward]. And the [King]. The other one, I mean. Geril. Where’s Geril?”
The [Retainer] looked at Raelt. The [King] paused. His daughter was staring at him with wide eyes.
“Jecaina, you will remain with the army.”
“No buts! You will stay with a guard of [Trick Riders]—”
The famously mobile elites of Jecrass, well, one branch.
“—and stay safe! Do you understand? No arguments this time, Jecaina!”
Only after Raelt saw his daughter nodding did he realize that she hadn’t responded. The [King] caught himself. He looked around.
Everyone was looking at him. Morale. They were terrified. And why not? Their [King] had barely been able to deal with the [Steward]. Raelt was underlevelled. Why not be afraid? Even with an army larger than the King of Destruction’s. Raelt breathed in and out.
“I must speak to Lyfelt. Watch the gates. General Lael—deploy the army.”
“For what, your Majesty?”
Raelt looked at her.
“For a battle. An army is approaching.”
Her face went as white as the other’s. Raelt just shook his head. It was common sense.
But it couldn’t come to that. He knew. So, slowly, the King of Jecrass ascended the steps to the parliament where the Republic of Belchan was ruled.
Lyfelt was there. He had been hiding in his home, but the parliament building had safe-rooms. He had holed up in them from the mob. But the army had forced the safe rooms open.
Another flaw. Raelt was led by some of his [Soldiers] and the terrified [Politicians] and leaders of Belchan to the vault. What was the point of a vault you could open from the outside? His [Soldiers] had forced the safe word and key out of the caretakers in moments.
Prime Minister Lyfelt waited for him inside. His family had been taken to safety. But the man, a handsome, charismatic leader, waited inside.
He looked…smaller. Raelt had been to Belchan a few times, but they often communicated via the magic statue. Raelt forgot that Lyfelt was shorter than he was.
A good looking man, the kind you could vote for. Believe in. But just a man. Not a [King]. Raelt knew the look of a [King]. And that was of someone who could never walk away from his duties until the end. Who wore them for life. A heavy thing, a crown. Flos Reimarch, for all he was so different, had that look.
Lyfelt looked up as Raelt came in. He started, afraid, as if he had expected…but he tried to smile.
“Raelt. My friend.”
The [King] heard him distantly. He looked down at Lyfelt. Then, abruptly, he sat in the safe room. It had enough food to last Lyfelt a long time. Artifacts to dispose of waste…Lyfelt could have lived a long while. Assuming the King of Destruction couldn’t crack the safe with his bare hands, or order his vassals to destroy the entire building.
“Raelt, I can’t tell you how grateful I am. And it—it’s brilliant. I will repay you, I promise.”
The [King] said nothing. He felt his armor bending as he let his shoulder slump, alone with Lyfelt for a moment. Felt the rapier and dagger at his side. The Prime Minster waited, went on, his voice quavering.
“Politically—it works. Belchan’s capital is yours. The King of Destruction has no cause to attack Jecrass. He would be making a mistake. If—the other nations could back your claim. I’m sure they would, but to be safe—”
Raelt looked at him. And he said nothing. His mouth felt closed, sealed by something stronger than magic. Lyfelt hesitated.
“He could force the issue. But—Raelt. I am eternally grateful. I didn’t know what to think when Jecrass invaded. Let me help. I can at least try—”
“I have one plan.”
Raelt spoke, though it felt like it took all of his strength to do so. The [King] looked at his friend.
“My plan is this: take Levrhine first. Claim it, before it is destroyed and the people slaughtered for your mistakes.”
His words were blunt. Lyfelt paled. But then he nodded.
“I don’t deserve your mercy. But you are saving lives. It’s…heroic. What will you say to the King of Destruction when he arrives, Raelt? Do you have a plan?”
“Then what do you intend to do? Fight?”
Raelt just looked at Lyfelt. The other man hesitated. The word sounded as ludicrous out loud as it had in Raelt’s head. Fight that? The Prime Minister hesitated.
“Then what? If he demands…”
The coldest words Raelt had ever uttered came out of his mouth. But he never looked away.
“I have taken Levrhine. But I do not intend to do battle with Flos Reimarch. I intend to give him what he wants.”
He waited. Lyfelt stared at him. What little blood remained drained from his face. He opened and closed his mouth.
“Raelt? You can’t be—you know—how—Raelt?”
He stammered, at a loss for the words for only the second time Raelt had known him. The [King] said nothing more.
Lyfelt scrambled over to him on the bench.
“Raelt. You can’t do this. He’ll kill me. Torture me! He said—I did not know. I swear to you, Raelt! Please! Think of our friendship. Please—”
The [King] heard nothing more. He sat there, and he watched Lyfelt’s lips moving, as the man pleaded, begged, raged. But Raelt could hear nothing. He just sat.
And Lyfelt eventually stopped. He looked at Raelt, staggered onto the bench. And he began to weep.
A [King] should not cry. But he was no [King]. Raelt sat there, with his friend for a while. Hearing nothing over the ringing in his ears.
In time, there were running footsteps, voice which interrupted the deafening, damning silence. Raelt looked up. He heard a panicked voice.
“Send for General Lael! The King of Destruction is leading an army towards the capital gates! His Majesty—”
“I’ll go myself.”
Raelt slowly walked out of the safe room. The [Messenger] stared at him. Raelt slowly descended the steps, the flurry of people and voices silent and invisible to him.
The King of Destruction was waiting.
“What is this?”
Flos Reimarch’s voice was very quiet as he stared at the army assembled in front of Levrhine. Jecrass’ army was large. But they shifted, like a breeze before his very gaze.
Teres was there. Zamea, crouching. Mars, Ulyse, Jelaim, Ytol, Chieftain Nelrra—Flos’ vassals. The [Steward] addressed his lord, his voice soft.
“They went in through open gates, your Majesty. No one so much as shot a bow at them.”
Jecrass’ army had stormed through the capital and occupied it in the hour before Flos’ army could get there. Now, they stood in front of it. Barring the way.
The King of Destruction looked at the city, and the army. He was quiet. Still. As contained as he had been the night the Gnolls had been found.
“I see. Then come with me. We will see what King Raelt has to say.”
He motioned. Teres saw his vassals hesitate.
“Who, your Majesty?”
The King of Destruction turned. And his eyes gleamed in the fading light, like burning embers.
The army of Jecrass faltered as Reim’s forces advanced. The mounted horses were at a disadvantage in close quarters. But they had not been given the order to attack. Who would order that? So it was stay—or retreat.
“Where is King Raelt of Jecrass?”
Flos Reimarch spoke as he rode up towards the other army. They looked up at him and both animals and people quailed. The female [General] flinched as she met the King of Destruction’s gaze. Teres thought she recognized a young woman far in the back of the army, mounted like most of them.
But then there was King Raelt. Teres had only seen him from afar. And she was surprised.
He was a tall man. Not exactly as serious-looking as Orthenon, but attractive. Limber, wearing leather armor and a rapier. He looked…normal. Not exactly like a [King]—or rather, Flos. The only [King] besides Fetohep that Teres had ever met.
He was on foot. Flos looked down at Raelt as he approached with an old man in armor. The King of Destruction paused. And then he slowly dismounted.
Mars and Orthenon walked forwards with him, as they had again. But this time the air hurt. King Raelt paused as he looked at the King of Destruction. He could feel his anger.
The conversation between the two men was simple. The two [Kings] looked at each other.
“King Raelt of Jecrass. Why is your army here?”
“Jecrass declared war on Belchan.”
“Because we witnessed the atrocity. Jecrass could not stand by. Nor could I.”
Flos paused. His eyes flicked to the city.
“Yet you conquered Levrhine without a battle.”
“The people thought it safer to surrender to Jecrass than Reim. I have no idea why.”
Mars smiled. But it was a smile with a glint in her eyes. Flos just looked at Raelt.
“I am not in the mood for games or jokes, Raelt. I considered you a sensible ruler, a good man. Why are you blocking my armies?”
King Raelt inhaled slowly and spoke.
“To prevent a slaughter. The people of Belchan have done nothing wrong, your Majesty Reimarch.”
Flos’ eyes narrowed.
“Some of Belchan’s people slaughtered Gnolls for no other reason than that they were Gnolls and mine.”
“Yes. And they are dead. The people of this city are innocent.”
Raelt dared not look away. If he did, or even blinked, he would never be able to meet Flos’ eyes again. The King of Destruction looked past him, at the parliament, tallest of the buildings in the city.
“Bring out their ruler. The [Minister], Lyfelt. He will answer for the pain of my subjects on my blade.”
King Raelt paused. And then he nodded, slowly. He gestured at Geril.
“You will have him.”
Teres exhaled slowly, behind Flos of Reim. She didn’t see the figures perched on the walls. Rémi Canada held the scrying mirror level, like a camera. Noass and Sir Relz leaned forwards with the world. Listening to the enhanced picture and sound.
“One life for hundreds of thousands. He did it.”
Rémi’s assistant, a Garuda, whispered. The young man from Earth looked at her. And he whispered back.
“Stop whispering during the filming. And this isn’t over.”
He was right. Flos Reimarch raised a hand as he stared at the city behind Raelt. And his eyes were burning. He looked back—and his eyes found the white Gnoll standing in the army.
Sailt. The young Gnoll was watching. So were the Gnolls in Rufelt’s bar. Across the world. And the King of Destruction’s burning gaze ignited as he met the white Gnoll’s gaze. He turned back.
“Another thing, Raelt. Bring out the members of Belchan’s parliament. The [Politicians]. And the officers. Their Watch Captains. Their leaders.”
Raelt froze. He looked at Flos.
“…What will you do with them?”
The King of Destruction’s voice was normal. He gestured at the city.
“Spare the citizens. But bring me every politician, every coward who hides behind paper. Every single one who allowed my people to die because it was convenient. Because they thought they could get away with it. Because it didn’t matter. Belchan’s leadership. [Mages] too, if they did nothing. The leaders of every city who ignored the Saltstone Tribe as they marched past. Bring them to me, or allow my [Soldiers] to find them. They will take no others. Not their family or children. But they will be brought here. And I will see their deaths.”
He looked at Raelt. And the [King] saw the King of Destruction’s expression flicker not one whit. Behind him, his vassals nodded. Teres’ stomach clenched. But she saw Sailt smile. And the Gnolls murmured, here and elsewhere.
That is what they heard and saw. But Raelt did not. He looked at Flos Reimarch. And his voice shook as he replied.
“Many of those people have no idea of what Lyfelt ordered, King Reimarch. They would be completely ignorant.”
“Some knew. That is enough. I will not take the thousand lives I vowed. But I will see every single one of this rotting nation’s leadership answer for the crimes done to my people. No less.”
The King of Destruction’s eyes flashed. He spoke with such conviction, such fury.
An honest fury. Raelt felt the same thing beating in his breast. He was almost ashamed to meet the young white Gnoll’s gaze. Ashamed to stand here, arguing, when he had seen what had happened.
But he would have been far more ashamed to have done nothing. He would have not been worthy of the crown he wore, if he had not come. And, it was a partial justice. A flawed one. But the King of Jecrass shook his head.
Orthenon and Mars started. They looked at Raelt. And the [King] looked up. Raelt Leysars looked at the King of Destruction. And he felt the difference between them.
Raelt was a Level 26 [King]. Average. Neither good, nor bad. But low-level. He had not ridden to war. His nation had not suffered disaster and neither had he expanded the borders vastly. He was a good [King]. A decent [King]. If he had ruled like his father, as a good, decent [King], he would have been in his mid-thirties when he died.
That was what you expected. Raelt was not the man who had taken a country apart. He was half—less than half of Flos’ level, he knew. He had higher levels in another class besides [King], for goodness’ sake.
He was just a [King] who liked fencing. Who enjoyed throwing rotten fruits at annoying River Wardens. Who hated bells. Who disliked horses, or rather, riding them. He was fine with the stupid animals, but he wasn’t a huge horse-lover. He liked dogs. And he had wept for the Gnolls, who had been slaughtered as neither dogs nor people deserved.
But this was wrong. Raelt shook his head, standing in front of the King of Destruction and his [Steward], and Mars the Illusionist. The half-Giants looked down at him. And his army and the world watched. The [King] met Flos Reimarch’s eyes.
“No, Flos Reimarch. I will give you Lyfelt, to face justice. As he deserves. But no more. You have already drowned Belchan’s soil with the blood of its people. Enough. Or will you declare war on Jecrass, King of Destruction?”
His words provoked silence. Teres, even Orthenon, Mars, Zamea, and the others, were stunned. But the [King] refused to step back. He met Flos’ eyes and the King of Destruction stared at him.
“You are protecting murderers and cowards, Raelt.”
“No. Just silly, foolish people. Thoughtless, but not cruel. And if you slew all of them, the world would be empty.”
Raelt shook his head. He looked at Flos, and he pleaded with the other [King].
“Do what you must. But show mercy.”
“Mercy. And did my people have that when they cried out for it? Was it ever given?”
“No. But if you kill all those you demand, King of Destruction, King of Reim, you will kill guilty people. But innocents too. And if you do—you will be a monster like the very man you have come for.”
Silence. The King of Destruction breathed in and out. And Raelt looked at him and was afraid. But he had tossed his hand in, the same way he always lost games of cards with Lyfelt. But this was not a game of cards, of betting and doing the most valuable thing, like politics. It was just doing what was right.
At last, Flos Reimarch shook his head.
“No. I respect your will, King Raelt. And I would that you had joined me. But it seems you and I are different sorts of [Kings]. Different men. And I will not stop at one man. I could never face my subjects if I were anything less.”
The King of Jecrass nodded heavily.
“And I will not back down. What then?”
The King of Destruction said it simply. Raelt bowed his head. After a moment, he raised his head. And he looked around.
The King of Jecrass looked straight into the scrying mirror that Rémi Canada held. And his words were caught and heard by all like this. From the Empress of Sands, to the Drakes in Pallass, to Rufelt’s bar, to Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia, King Perric of Medain, and more. Fetohep of Khelt. The Archmages of Wistram.
“I dislike politics. But hear me, now, King Flos Reimarch. Jecrass is not your enemy, nor that of Reim. But we have claimed Levrhine. And we refuse to allow you to slaughter our citizens. Prime Minister Lyfelt…we give you, for your judgment, and for the crime committed against your people. But no more. Do you declare war, you are forsworn. And every nation shall take arms gainst you. For what you pursue is not justice, but bloody vengeance. And Jecrass shall not allow it.”
His voice was soft. And he looked at his army, and weighed them against the smaller army led by the King of Destruction. And he saw death. But he did not move or yield the ground.
And the King of Destruction, Flos Reimarch looked at Raelt. Frustrated, furious. And then—suddenly—calm. Terribly so.
“Very well. You have made your case, King Raelt of Jecrass. And we understand your will. Yet for honor, for the pride of my people, for my justice, Reim shall never retreat. Not until justice as we will it be done.”
The two [Kings] looked at each other. Raelt felt hair stirring on his neck. A terrible foreboding. Yet, he only waited. The two were bound now, by ancient tradition. By the will of [Kings]. If one had fled now, they would no longer be a [King].
“What then, King Reimarch?”
Flos turned. His eyes burned across the ground. Neither his army nor Jecrass’ could meet his gaze. He nodded.
“To prevent the death of our subjects, to prevent war, we invoke ancient custom. The will of Chandrar’s rulers. So it was in Hellios, when King Treland made war on our subjects. And so it was in days since and past. King Raelt Leysars of Jecrass. I challenge you to a duel. And let the one who yields or perishes be forfeit. Before both armies, we will clash. Do you or your people break the duel, or retreat, you are forsworn.”
Old words. Raelt felt…nothing. He looked at Flos. And then realized what he felt was a crushing weight on his neck. Something heavy, dragging at his chest.
A duel. Ancient custom. He should have expected it. And it fit. Oh—how it did.
Duel. Or be called craven. Duel the King of Destruction. Or let it be war. He looked at Flos Reimarch. And nodded.
That was all he said. Flos Reimarch looked at him and spoke in a low voice, meant for them alone.
“You forced me into it. Turn back, Raelt of Jecrass. And no one will think the less of you.”
King Raelt of Jecrass looked at Flos Reimarch. The King of Destruction. Raelt had no such title. He was lower in level, in ambition, and he had not seen a tenth of the sights Flos Reimarch did. But…he smiled, slightly.
“It occurs to me you have always made one mistake, Flos Reimarch. You read parts of me so well. But you do not know me.”
The smile caught the King of Destruction off-guard. Flos looked at Raelt.
“Indeed? What do I not know?”
Raelt shrugged. He was shaking. And he looked at the King of Destruction, at the army, and tasted bitter death. But he smiled.
“You assume I could turn back. I could refuse. That I could have not come here, or stood my ground. But you forget one thing.”
Raelt Leysars spread his arms. He laughed at the King of Destruction, with dark despair, with pride and the arrogance that had made Jecrass. That burned in his veins.
“I am a [King].”
And the King of Reim looked at him. For a long moment. And then he threw his head back and laughed. The two men howled with laughter. And then Flos Reimarch, the King of Destruction, nodded.
Then he walked back. And King Raelt knew he was going to duel the King of Destruction. So he stared at the twilight skies. And he wondered what his last words to his daughter should be. He wished…he’d had more time.
But he couldn’t have ever done anything different, really. That gave him some comfort. King Raelt reached for his belt pouch. And a bell rang once.
The sun was setting. Or rather, it had set a while ago, and the last vestiges were disappearing behind the horizon. It wasn’t going to be a duel at sunset with the fading rays of light on each combatant’s back like something out of the stories; they’d probably end up fighting in the darkness anyways.
There was nothing special about the sun’s position, anyways. It was always rising or setting. And if it wasn’t out, you could call a duel under moonlight—with the stars aflame, or not one in the sky—poetic.
You could find meaning in any moment. And the [Poets] and [Bards] would. But they had never fought. And all Raelt found in his heart was a cold certainty.
He was going to try and kill another man. With a sword. Cut him to bits, hack at his flesh until his opponent stopped moving. He’d try to do it more elegantly than that, but there was no grand ambition in his heart.
He just wanted to live. And the [King] was certain…that he would not.
Raelt of Jecrass stood in a ring of his people, in silence, like that of a wake. He was stretching. And yes, a [King] should not ‘limber up’. But he was a poor [King] compared to the giant standing on the other side of the field.
Reim’s army had withdrawn, and the two forces were now standing at a greater remove. Well…a few hundred paces. They’d formed a vast circle, outside the gates of Levrhine. It was here, amid rocky earth and soil that they’d fight.
Nothing special. Raelt couldn’t help but analyze the terrain for any advantage.
“Pure ground. Could use a [Stone Wall] scroll. Geril—”
His voice was the only sound in his ears in the immediate vicinity. Raelt saw his old retainer and friend start.
“Here, your Majesty—”
He had a selection of all of Jecrass’ treasures. Scrolls used for battle, rings—every single artifact in the possession of the River Wardens, or General Lael’s officers. Raelt eyed the other scrolls proffered. Some were marked with symbols, for easy use.
Like the Scroll of [Fireball]. He didn’t take that one. Raelt took the [Stone Wall] scroll.
“Your Majesty, the other scrolls—”
More silence. Raelt was doing practice lunges, and then sideways ones. Well, he knew he looked ridiculous as he leaned from leg to leg, transferring his weight, letting his muscles slowly warm up. But he had to be ready.
“Your Majesty—I have a poison. And—a wand of [Lightning Bolts]. If you have nothing of the like in your armory, I pray you will accept it—”
A voice. River Warden Dulfe looked at Raelt. And the [King] looked at the man’s face. Even now, Dulfe wore the illusion spells that added to his looks. But his face was pale. And he was looking at his [King] with somber…
Respect? If not that, then gravitas. Not like the same man who argued with Raelt. Funny. Raelt yearned to tell the man he would be more respected without such obvious illusions. So he did.
“Warden Dulfe, you are better served without illusions. You are not an ugly man. Nor a handsome one. But a man’s vanity has never changed who he is. I have often thought you would be better loved without such magics.”
The man started. The other River Wardens and officers stared at Raelt. The [King] was so casual, matter-of-fact. Dulfe hesitated, looking around, and then bowed his head.
“Yes, your Majesty. But—the wand?”
“No. No poison, no wand. This is a duel.”
“No. What sort of [Kings] would we be if we used them? Look at my opponent.”
Raelt pointed. And those around him looked. They stared across the ground.
And there—there was light. And sound. [Light] spells lit up the dueling ground. And standing amid his subjects, laughing, arming himself for battle like Raelt, was the King of Destruction.
Raelt felt a mild chill as he looked at the other man. As if he was so cold, he couldn’t even feel it. The subjects of the Realm of Jecrass shuddered. Another River Warden spoke up.
“No one would begrudge you bringing poison, sire. Or—any weapon. I beg you—”
“I would, Warden Winta.”
Enough leg exercises. Raelt began stretching out his fingers, arms. Neck too. He could hear the King of Destruction laughing. And there—there was the [Reporter].
Rémi Canada. He had appeared in Levrhine, probably to witness the battle. If he hadn’t expected it—well, he held the eyes of the world. He was broadcasting both sides. And the difference was night and day.
Flos Reimarch stood with Orthenon and Mars and his other vassals. He was laughing, as they checked his armor and plied him with objects. Almost like they were relaxing and offering him little snacks and treats. They were excited. No fear in their eyes.
“Milord, no plate armor?”
“None. I’ll take the helmet, but plate will be too heavy. And Raelt looks like a quick fellow. Let’s see. I have a broadsword. Spear—”
“Here, your Majesty.”
Orthenon and half a dozen [Warriors] instantly offered their artifacts. Flos ignored them all. He waved away the spear shrouded with dark fog Mars produced.
“None of your grand artifacts, Mars! Give me straightforward weapons! Axes, spears, swords—we fight with skill and daring, not with gold.”
“Apologies, your Majesty. Your opponent doesn’t seem to be taking any poisons or artifacts either. A brave man.”
Mars grinned, her white hair waving in the slight breeze. Her armor shone, and Orthenon lowered his magic spear.
“No need for antidotes then! A brave fellow indeed, and straightforward! I knew I liked him. A [King] after my heart.”
Zamea laughed as Flos tossed a pair of bottles over his shoulder and Jelaim nimbly caught them. The First Shepherd’s voice was audible across the battlefield.
“Brave or foolhardy, King of Destruction?”
“He stands with conviction, Zamea. Let not one person scorn him.”
The King of Destruction smiled. He was placing the different swords and weapons into his bag of holding. Enough blades for a small company, in case he broke one. He had a few potions, but like Raelt, he was going to fight mostly with blade.
“Alright, Orthenon, give me a few scrolls. Yes, yes. I have healing potions—stamina potions? Do you think we’ll be dueling that long?”
More laughter. Orthenon bowed. He was serious as ever.
“One should never be unwary, your Majesty.”
Flos Reimarch’s eyes sharpened.
“No indeed. Very well. Two. Now, step back everyone. I need to warm up.”
He took a sword and cut the air with it. His swings were fast, compact—a seasoned veteran’s motions. Raelt watched from afar.
“What do you think about this battle, Sir Relz? The King of Destruction isn’t as famous with the blade as his warriors. He’s not the Illusionist. Nor his [Steward]—the rumors say he doesn’t have or use personal Skills in battle.”
“He’s as strong as any adventurer, though, Noass. We saw him cut down a number of high-level [Warriors]. I…we must applaud King Raelt of Jecrass’ daring, at least. Indeed, Flos Reimarch is unguarded! That helmet and his armor probably have enchantments, but there’s still gaps. One thrust to the face would kill him.”
“There’s a chance, is what I’m hearing.”
“Yes, absolutely. A chance. King—the ruler of the Realm of Jecrass could—”
Sir Relz paused. The two Drakes were commentating on the lead up to the duel. But even he couldn’t say it.
Raelt could win? Look. The [King] tried not to smile bitterly as he warmed up. Even he didn’t think he had a chance.
Everyone was watching. In the moment, in Raelt’s mind, there was only him, the ghosts standing around him, and the King of Destruction. But the event was comprised of thousands of individual moments, each person taking away…something from watching.
“Pisces. What do you think?”
Ceria whispered as her team sat around the table. The bar was silent as people crowded to see the tiny scrying mirror. The [Necromancer] looked up as every eye turned to him.
“…The [King] of Jecrass is a fencer. A dueling dagger and rapier. I can’t tell the enchantments, but if he’s wise, the dagger is enchanted with [Weight]. Like Yvlon’s sword was. He can divert most attacks with it. And a [Fencer] has reach and mobility. It depends on his level. However…”
“He is most likely going to die within the first five minutes of combat.”
Ksmvr calmly announced. Yvlon looked sideways at him, and then at Ceria. The half-Elf looked at the other [Warrior].
“…I agree. There’s no way this [King] can win. Even if the King of Destruction doesn’t have an active Skill like those two Drakes are saying…he’s got a massive level advantage. He’s going to be fast and strong. He’s stronger than I am by a bit. And that means if he gets one strike in…”
The others stared at Yvlon. At her bare, glorious, silver flesh that moved like skin, but was as strong as steel. Stronger, perhaps. Ceria gulped. She’d seen Yvlon swinging her 30-pound sword around fighting the Golems. She wasn’t quite as fast as she’d been with it when it was enchanted to weigh only a few pounds, but when she hit something—it broke. And Yvlon had literally punched through one of the Stone Golems and torn it apart with her bare hands.
The King of Destruction was stronger than that. The Horns looked at each other.
“A [Duelist] or [Fencer]. Depending on his level. He certainly looks…competent. But that is the King of Destruction. And I do not see a bell.”
Pisces spoke softly. Ceria looked at him. She remembered. Pisces had once carried a silver bell, a mark of pride.
“If you had a rapier and time to prepare, Pisces. Against the King of Destruction? With [Invisibility] and your Ring of Shatterbolt and…?”
He looked at her. And the [Necromancer], her arrogant, sniffing friend, smiled faintly.
“Why, Ceria. If all four of us were to fight Flos Reimarch? My advice would be to run away. This isn’t just about levels, or Skills. Or magical items or chance.”
He looked at the two [Kings].
“He is…going to die.”
It was a sentiment shared widely. By other watchers, in other parts of the world.
In Rhir, the fifth-greatest [Lord] in the world…according to some lists…stood in his private quarters. He was not alone. A younger man dressed in [Knight]’s armor stood with him.
“King Raelt of Jecrass’ only means of survival is to forfeit the duel. If he survives long enough. Five minutes would be…appropriate without him losing face.”
“He seemed serious, Lord Operland.”
Hayvon Operland, the foremost [Lord] of Rhir and the Blighted King’s court, nodded.
“In that case, he will die. It is not just a manner of Skill—”
He gestured dismissively to the scrying orb and the Drake commentators, who were muted. Hayvon looked at Richard, one of the otherworlders who were residing in his estates.
“The King of Destruction is no foreigner to duels. He has fought [Kings] and [Champions] in single combat and in battle for more years than Raelt of Jecrass has been alive. When he was a boy, he slew the King of Hellios in a duel. And he rampaged for decades after that. I cannot fathom a world in which he loses.”
Richard nodded quietly. Even from afar…the King of Destruction looked like a monster. He grinned as he shouldered the broadsword and shield he was using first. A pure, relaxed expression of someone who had fought these battles to the death before. By contrast, King Raelt looked…grim.
“What a waste.”
That was all Hayvon said. The [Lord] looked at the battle between the [Kings].
“Either way, one dies. There is a chance King Raelt survives, if he succumbs to cowardice. Flees. But he is not likely to last the first minute. And either way, two [Kings] risk their lives while the Demons grow in strength. Look at these petty conflicts.”
He looked at Richard, with the same fervent gaze Richard had come to respect. A man devoted to stemming the Blight and his kingdom’s enemies. And they were terrible enemies, capable of horrors.
Richard nodded. But the two turned back to watch, nevertheless.
It was time. There was no one counting down the time both sides had to prepare. But Raelt was ready. And so was Flos. The two [Kings] looked at each other. And Raelt felt cold, despite his exercises. He stood up, and heard nothing. Saw nothing, but the other [King]—
A voice intruded on his thoughts. Raelt looked around. And he saw his daughter.
Jecaina. His beloved, child. Raelt didn’t know what to say. She was just looking at him.
“Don’t. Father, you can’t—”
She looked at him. And then past him, at the legend she idolized. And Raelt of Jecrass searched for the proper words. His father had never spoken them to him. He had died, when Raelt had been far from home. Suddenly. Raelt always wished he could have heard them. But now, he realized he didn’t know what to say. So he did his best.
“Geril. General Lael. My River Wardens. Bear witness.”
His company started. They looked at their [King] as Raelt stood with his daughter. And the [King] turned to look at his army. Many had probably only seen his face once or twice. He spoke to them, but mostly to her.
“People of Jecrass, bear witness. This is my daughter, Jecaina Leysars of Jecrass. Heir to the throne. Your [Princess]. If I fall, she will carry on my name.”
They watched, the people of Jecrass. Through scrying orbs as the [King] removed his circlet of gold.
“Jecaina, it is a foolish thing to fight a pointless battle. As a monarch, you must safeguard your kingdom first. Your ambitions, your petty desires and ego—that is not what matters. You serve your nation, and it is the nation which matters. Flee, retreat, kneel if you must. My father knelt to the King of Destruction and he was a good ruler. And I am a [Duelist]. I enjoy my small hobbies, my little world. I do not challenge Giants.”
The [King] turned his head and looked at Zamea. Flos was waiting, backed by his arms of legends. Raelt looked back at Jecaina.
“However, there is something else you must always remember. And that is what it means to be a [King]. To wear the crown. You must never, can never be anything less than the crown you wear. That is the dignity, the weight of your duties. Never compromise on your soul. And sometimes that means you fight to the last.”
She looked up him, her eyes swimming with tears. Raelt placed the crown on her head, softly, and bent to kiss her on the forehead.
“I am sorry.”
He stood, then, lighter for the absence of that bit of gold. And the [King] turned. And he walked away from his army and subjects, into the ring between both armies. With his back straight, his posture relaxed. And the rapier and parrying dagger were in his hands.
The army of Reim began to chant as Flos Reimarch advanced. The King of Destruction. They shouted his name. The half-Giants and Rustängmarder, his vassals.
“Flos Reimarch! King of Destruction.”
He smiled as he raised his sword. And they howled. On the other side, Raelt heard nothing. Then—a shout.
“Raelt of Jecrass! King of Jecrass!”
Mortal voices, shouting. His River Wardens, his old retainer. His daughter. His army took up the chant. But they were drowned out by the roar of the half-Giants, for all their numbers.
The two [Kings] approached. Raelt Leysars was calm. He was an average [King]. Yes, that was true. But he had another class.
[Duelist]. And he was higher in level in that than his class of [King]. Which was probably a mistake. But he had been a young [Prince]. And he loved the sword.
He hated bells. And horses, and oranges. And other things. But as Raelt walked forwards, he felt in his belt pouch. And he pulled something out.
Orthenon, the King’s [Steward] stood in the center of the ring of bodies. He called out calmly as Raelt fumbled with his rapier’s hilt.
“Upon my signal, both sides shall duel until death or forfeit. Any who interfere, I shall cut down.”
The two [Kings] saw him walk back. And it was time. Raelt heard his blood thundering in his veins. And he felt more alive than he could remember in years. And what a shame that it should be so. He wished he had felt like this for a thousand days.
“Moments like these we live for.”
The King of Destruction stood. His hair shone red and gold. And his eyes gleamed like emeralds. He did not ask Raelt to surrender again. He just waited.
“Sorry. One moment.”
Raelt felt silly. He was still fumbling with a bit of string, as everyone waited. The King of Destruction just nodded. What dignity. Everyone stared at Raelt as he cursed over the bit of thread, trying to tie a knot.
Had he lost his nerve? What was he doing? The King of Destruction waited patiently. And then Raelt fit the knot, tied the string. He lowered his hand. And as he raised his rapier, something shone from the hilt. Tied with a bit of thread.
It rang in the silence, as the two [Kings] faced each other. A high, piercing sound. Familiar. Flos Reimarch stared at it as Raelt slowly walked left. And the King of Destruction circled the other way. Only he saw the little object clearly at first. But the gleam amid the falling night caught the eye.
What was it? Then—the watchers heard the sound again. Coming from the rapier, and the object Raelt had attached to it.
A jingling bell. It rang a third time, as Raelt shifted his posture. Delicate, beautiful, made so that even the slightest motion would make it chime.
But it was not silver. Ceria Springwalker stared into the mirror. And she saw a flash of—
She looked at Pisces. The [Necromancer] stared with wide eyes at Raelt of Jecrass. And the two [Kings] paused.
“You surprise me once again, Raelt of Jecrass. But you never wore it before.”
Flos Reimarch smiled. And his eyes danced. Raelt shifted his posture.
“I just dislike bells.”
Odd last words. But too late. The [Duelist] and [King] exhaled. And it was done. He saw the King of Destruction’s shield lower a fraction.
And he stepped. Across the six or so feet in a single lunge.
[Fencer’s Lunge]. Aiming for the King of Destruction’s heart. Raelt’s rapier flashed, the tip aiming for Flos’ heart. The quintessential attack of his class.
The tip of the blade missed. Flos Reimarch shoved the rapier’s lightning fast thrust away. It skidded upwards, slashing through his enchanted armor along the shoulder.
Blood ran along the rapier as Raelt disengaged, flickering back. With each step he blurred. Not [Flash Step], but [Quick Step]. Nearly as powerful, and his, without spell. He circled, lunged in as the King of Destruction turned. A second strike, at Flos’ side. Feint, slashing at the wrist that held the broadsword.
The King of Destruction halted his counterthrust. But he was exposed. Raelt was going for his tendons, so the [King] thrust his arm forward.
The rapier cut deep, the inside of his arm. But shallow. And the broadsword—
Raelt flung himself backwards, a second before it ran him through the belly. He saw the shield in Flos’ other hand flicker, his parrying dagger moved. The strike with the edge of the shield towards his neck missed.
The [Duelist]-[King] stepped back, using his mobility to give himself a moment as Flos checked himself. The King of Destruction was wounded twice. Across the shoulder, and his left, sword arm. But neither cut was deep or had scored any critical wound. He was left-handed, which had thrown Raelt off.
The King of Jecrass wasn’t wounded. But his left hand was numb. He’d knocked away the shield coming at his face, but the force behind the blow—
He couldn’t rely on parrying. One good strike would shatter his guard. Maybe even his sword.
A monstrous strength. And Flos was fast. Raelt had been hoping to end the battle in one thrust. A fool’s hope, but when the other [King] hadn’t known how fast he was, he’d had the element of surprise.
Now, the two looked at each other. Flos glanced at his arm, dismissed the blood. He grinned.
But not enough. Raelt opened his mouth to reply, as if they were just on the dueling ground. But he couldn’t reply casually. He saw his death reflected in the way Flos shifted his guard, warding his vitals. He wouldn’t let Raelt get in a second shot like that. And the odds of him winning—
As Raelt began to walk left, he realized there was a dull sound at the back of his ears. He was locked on Flos, and the other [King] didn’t seem to hear. But there it was. So loud that Raelt couldn’t tune it out.
Loud…? And then Raelt realized.
It was screaming. Shouting, from hundreds of thousands of voices. His head turned. And he saw the people on the wall of Levrhine. The citizens of Belchan. His army, and beyond them, in the scrying orb, the people of Jecrass. [Fencers] and [Duelists] the world over—everyone else.
Shouting in awe. For there the two [Kings] stood. And the King of Destruction bled onto the ground. The golden bell rang as Raelt turned his head. They were cheering him, Belchan and Jecrass’ citizens. Believing in a miracle for a second. And the King of Destruction laughed.
“Don’t be distracted, King of Jecrass!”
He charged in, shield raised. Raelt jerked, caught off-guard. He stepped back, but that was a mistake.
Flos couldn’t catch Raelt’s footwork or [Swift Steps]. So he threw his sword. It spun through the air, a scything blade. Impossibly fast. Raelt raised his dagger to parry, remembered—leaned left. The sword flashed past his face. It kept flying, straight at the onlookers. Orthenon leapt forwards and struck it out of the air.
But the King of Destruction was close. And he had a second blade in his hands, already. An axe. The long-handled hatchet swung in a quick cut at Raelt’s unguarded left arm. The [Duelist] twisted again—too close! He tried to jump back—
And realized he was being led. Raelt’s dagger flashed downwards, slashing. He caught the King of Destruction alongside the helm. And the bigger man didn’t even flinch. His hatchet locked with Raelt’s rapier. He was too close to Raelt’s chest—
Flos Reimarch rammed into Raelt’s midsection with his shield. Raelt felt the wind go out of him. He tried to move back, and Flos heaved.
Raelt felt his ribs compress. He moved backwards. Reduce the blow, reduce—
Pain. And then Raelt realized he was flying. The [King] flew through the air as Flos heaved and threw him. Raelt turned, seeing the ground coming his way. His ribs—
He hit the ground like a meteor, trying to absorb some of the impact. Raelt rolled, pushing himself up. He saw his [Soldiers]. Jecrass’ army, staring at their [King].
Flos had thrown him…dead gods. At least thirty feet. He’d just gotten his shield under Raelt and pushed. Only Raelt jumping at the same time had saved him.
As it was—Raelt’s ribs were fractured. He felt them burning, agonizing pain. The [King] fumbled for a healing potion.
The voice saved him. Raelt saw the spinning axe, dove.
The hatchet flashed past him, and went through two [Soldiers] before the wood and metal buried itself in the earth. The King of Destruction lowered his arm as Raelt dodged away.
Flos rearmed himself, with a swordbreaker this time, replacing the shield with it, and taking a shortsword in his other hand. The notched dagger was designed to catch an enemy’s guard. Raelt stared at him. At the dead [Soldiers]. He reached for a healing potion.
The King of Destruction had already healed himself. He had taken a sip from a little vial, and the two wounds on his body had closed. Raelt had to down his entire potion as his ribs stung and joined. One of the most expensive potions in Jecrass’ treasury. Shakily, he raised his rapier.
The cheering had stopped. Flos Reimarch casually advanced as Raelt tried to think. But his head was empty. He had to…
“Orthenon, ward both sides. Mars, Ulyse.”
The [Steward] bowed as Flos turned his head casually. The King of Destruction looked at Raelt. He rolled his neck.
“Well, Raelt? Shall we begin?”
The [Duelist] looked at the King of Destruction. And he raised his rapier and leapt forwards.
The two [Kings] fought in the growing darkness. Amid the glowing [Light] spells, surrounded by two armies, in front of the gates of a city. Like something out of the story books.
But so long as Jecaina lived, she would never read those books the same way. Because she watched the same legend she dreamed of meeting. And he was killing her father.
Jecaina was a [Duelist]. But she owned a silver bell. She did not know what it meant. But the golden bell—which only a Level 30 [Duelist] could even possess—that belonged to her father. She hadn’t even known that. She’d always thought he never had a bell, since he hated them.
Now, the [King] of Jecrass fought for his life. And he showed everyone, his subjects, the River Wardens, the world and Jecaina that he had earned that bell.
His feet flashed as he turned, maneuvering. Each time Raelt stepped he was a blur, never stopping, moving, repositioning, refusing to slow. If he did he’d be caught. His rapier darted, seldom thrusting, slashing, using the tip to reach and cut his opponent. His dagger stayed close to his chest, ready to deflect deadly thrusts.
The King of Destruction was laughing. His blades cut the air, slower, but only just. He didn’t have Raelt’s speed, or reach, but his strength—
He threw a javelin, dropping his sword, and pulled out a broadsword. He threw that too, and the spinning blades shot through the air. They could sunder steel and flesh with the sheer force of the throw. Raelt dodged left and Flos leapt into the opening he’d created, already armed with another blade.
The flying weapons were blocked by Mars and Ulyse’s spell. The air shimmered as Flos’ vassals shielded the audience. Raelt dodged backwards, but he couldn’t run forever. This time, as he stepped back, Flos Reimarch pointed.
“Come, King of Jecrass!”
The javelin he’d thrown arced back towards his hand. The [Duelist] whirled and leaned. The tip of the Returning Javelin opened the top of his shoulder. Flos threw the magic javelin again, and then rushed forwards.
A single thrust, like silver. The rapier tore open the King of Destruction’s chest on the right side, going through the enchanted armor. A powerful thrust—but it had missed again. Flos had tried to capture it with his swordbreaker. And in his hand he held another sword—
He cut, the sword going high, the swordbreaker going low, aiming at the other [King]’s side. And Raelt deflected the blade aimed at his face with his dagger.
The swordbreaker caught him on the ribs as he twisted away. It didn’t matter that he’d been hit with the flat of the blade. Flos just grazed him and Raelt’s ribs broke.
Jecaina made a sound as her father tried to retreat. But the King of Destruction just switched weapons and threw another blade. There was nowhere for Raelt to run.
“Surrender, King of Jecrass. This is your final chance.”
Flos called out. He had taken several deep cuts from Raelt’s rapier. But he’d protected his eyes and vital spots. Now, he drank from a potion and his wounds healed.
Raelt’s ribs were broken again. He had to drink another of his potions down. He looked up. Flos looked at him.
“I will not offer it again. I cannot.”
He had the [Duelist]’s measure. The King of Destruction changed his weapons again. The shield, and the magic javelin. He looked at Raelt. The [Duelist] coughed.
“I gave you my answer once.”
The two paused. And then they fought. Raelt dove as the javelin flew. He reached for the scroll.
“[Wall of Stone]!”
A vast wall of rock rose from the ground. Flos narrowed his eyes as the [Duelist]-[King] disappeared. He turned, warily walking around the wall. Shield raised—
Raelt leapt onto the top of the eight-foot wall. Flos Reimarch looked up, and the [Duelist] bellowed.
“King of Destruction!”
He lunged. A [Fencer’s Lunge], carrying him down. He landed, scoring a slash down Flos’ arm. The King of Destruction cursed, pivoting—
His back was against the wall. The [Wall of Stone] boxed Flos in as Raelt turned. All of his Skills. He had to use all the ones he had.
His rapier blurred, slashing faster than the eye could follow, aiming for Flos’ face, his chest—
The King of Reim snarled as his shield rose. He blocked his face—his chest and armor tore as the piercing rapier cut at his chest, his arms, legs. Deep cuts! His blood ran onto the ground, but his sword arm shielded himself. And the Skill—
[Evasive Leap]. Raelt dodged backwards, just in time. The sword which cleaved the air would have torn the rapier from his hand. He settled his posture as the King of Destruction lowered his shield.
He couldn’t reach for a potion or he’d heal. If he switched weapons—Raelt had to end this.
A flick of the rapier. The air rippled. Flos saw a blade of air flying at his face. Reflexively, he raised his shield.
Now. Raelt lunged. For Flos’ heart. He saw the world blur as he leapt. And the King of Destruction threw himself sideways.
The blade hit him in the side. It went through Flos’ side, tore as the [King] fell sideways. Cut through flesh, organs. But missed the heart. Raelt turned, cursing.
His blade cut Flos as he rolled. This time, deep, deep along the back, severing some muscle. Flos Reimarch was on the ground. He had to get up, but Raelt was there.
A flash of metal. He was throwing his sword. Raelt jerked back. But the blade curved—magic—
The impact as Raelt raised his parrying dagger and rapier broke something. Snapped a tendon—Raelt lost grip of both rapier and dagger as they twisted, tearing the skin from his hands. He stumbled backwards.
His sword. He looked for it. The King of Destruction was rising. Raelt saw it lying in the dust. Now, now, now! He ran for it.
Nine feet separated the two. Flos’ teeth were bared, he was still off-guard.
Now. Raelt snatched up his sword as he lunged, rolled. He aimed the sword like an arrow. And used his last Skill.
“[Sword Art: Hurricane’s Spiral].”
He vanished. Flos’ eyes widened as he saw, in those infinitesimal moments between seconds, a silver blur flying at his chest. A spiral, a single leaping thrust as the blade traced a pattern in the air. The destination unknown to anyone but Raelt.
Fragments of time measured by flashes. The King of Destruction raised his shield, protecting his face. And his sword arm rose, empty.
But Raelt was aiming at his heart. The [Duelist]’s sword struck, going through armor, through flesh and bone. Raelt felt the impact, felt his sword go through the King of Destruction—
And he saw Flos stagger. The King of Destruction stared at the blade running through his chest. But off-target. He’d twisted. The blade had missed his heart, going wide. But if Raelt twitched his hand—
He tried. Raelt’s hand moved. But the rapier held still. Flos’ chest constricted around the magical blade, but it was enchanted. If it moved two inches left—
But the blade didn’t move. Raelt didn’t understand. He heaved. But the blade—didn’t—
And then he felt it. Something so absolute that his hand couldn’t budge an inch. A crushing strength. He looked down and saw.
Flos’ sword-hand held Raelt’s wrist. The King of Destruction had seized the hand after it had struck. And he would not let Raelt finish the blow or move.
Raelt let go of his rapier. He had to—he pulled back, but Flos’ arm held him. The King of Destruction dropped his shield. He was bleeding. Covered in blood. But he spoke as he reached for something.
“I caught you at last.”
Slowly, he raised his hand. And drank the healing potion. Raelt saw his injuries beginning to heal.
The King of Jecrass desperately struck at the rapier still embedded in Flos’ chest. But the King of Destruction moved. He grabbed Raelt, and threw him—
Raelt hit the wall of stone. He felt something explode. The impact sent him down, but he was getting up. And he was free—
The King of Destruction pulled the sword out of his chest as his wounds healed. He tossed the rapier to the ground and Raelt saw him move. Raelt tried to dodge, but his legs slipped. Something was wrong—he needed his sword—
Flos Reimarch grabbed Raelt as the [Duelist] slipped. Raelt’s body wasn’t working right. He punched the King of Destruction in the face. And Flos seized Raelt’s armor and ran with him into the wall of stone.
Jecaina saw the wall of stone crack. Then, both [Kings] crashed through it. Raelt lay on the ground as the King of Destruction hurled him through the wall. The King of Jecrass wasn’t moving. He twitched as Flos casually coughed and checked the wound on his chest. Flos took another drink of a healing potion.
Raelt reached for his. He broke the glass vials on his chest as many as he could grab. His bones—he rolled away as Flos charged at him. The King of Destruction grabbed him. Threw him again.
Flashes of light. Raelt hit the broken [Wall of Stone] again. He couldn’t move for a crucial second. His body was breaking, healing—he saw Flos running at him. A fist—
Raelt raised his hands. The impact pushed him through the wall. He lay on the ground.
Get up. He had to get up or he’d die. The [Duelist] rolled. He saw a blade miss his head. Flos Reimarch had grabbed a weapon. Raelt got to his feet. He saw his rapier. He dove for it.
The King of Destruction slashed, and missed. He watched as Raelt grabbed the blade. The [Duelist] rose.
Out of potions. Something was still broken. He was coughing up blood. A lung? He looked at the King of Destruction.
Neither man said a word. No quarter, no mercy. Raelt was out of Skills. Flos Reimarch slowly advanced. The [Duelist] sighed. He lifted his blade and advanced.
The golden bell rang. Jecaina watched her father fighting. He had no tricks left. He wasn’t even able to keep his distance. He just cut, aiming at Flos’ face as the King of Destruction slowly wore him down. Another blow—Raelt went stumbling backwards.
The [Princess] of Jecrass breathed. She saw her father stumbling, falling to one knee. He’d broken something. He kept spitting blood. Flos of Reim advanced, cautiously. Unwilling to give Raelt another opening.
“He can’t die.”
Jecaina whispered. She looked around. But both armies were silent. Watching the end.
Geril was trembling. The old retainer looked at Raelt. Jecaina saw him looking at her father. Then at her.
“Milady. You can’t—”
He seized her. Jecaina didn’t know why. Then she realized.
She’d drawn her sword. She was fighting Geril.
“Let me go. I have to save him.”
“No, milady. Your majesty. The honor of Jecrass is at stake! You cannot!”
Jecaina didn’t want to hear. But the other [Soldiers], General Lael saw. They grabbed the [Princess], held her back.
“No, no. Let me go! I command you!”
She didn’t care about the honor of the duel. She just wanted her father to live. He was stumbling backwards again. The King of Destruction wasn’t even wounded. Wasn’t even tired. Jecaina pleaded.
“You have to do something. Please—”
She looked at General Lael. And then at Geril. The old man looked at her. He looked at Raelt.
The King of Jecrass was going to die. He would not yield. And nor would Flos Reimarch give him any mercy. Not in this duel. Not with both nation’s honor on the line. There was only one way.
If someone disgraced their honor. Geril studied the hauberk he wore. His old hands gripped the spear he carried. He looked up.
“Milady, Jecaina, stay where you are.”
He turned. And he smiled as Jecaina looked at him. The old and faithful servant, friend, and second father to Raelt and his daughter hefted his spear. He tensed, and Jecaina hoped. Geril opened his mouth.
And stopped. A shadow fell over him. And Jecaina saw her last hope die. Cut, by the watcher.
A dark gaze. A sword, aimed at Geril’s throat. The King of Destruction’s faithful servant stood there.
Orthenon. The Left Hand of Destruction. He held his sword at Geril’s throat and looked at General Lael, the other officers. Jecaina.
“The duel will not be interrupted.”
The officers of Jecrass’ army, the [Princess], and Geril all stood still. Overwhelmed by the [Steward]. And the River Wardens stared at Orthenon from afar.
There were no miracles here.
Raelt fell to one knee. He was tired. So tired. His arms burned and his muscles were torn. He was bleeding. And he saw his death walking towards him.
Cautiously. Raelt had been given two chances. But the King of Destruction had seen both of them. Raelt had hurt him.
But the King of Destruction bore no wounds. In the end, one was a [Duelist] and a [King]. An average [King]. Good at fencing. Worthy of his golden bell. But the other was the King of Destruction.
Time. Raelt stood up. Flos of Reim held a sword and shield in hand. He waited. He had seen men die before, and his guard was up.
Raelt would not die on his knees. He looked at Flos of Reim. He was out of Skills. Out of magical items. He’d lost his dagger, and there were no more potions.
“But skill. The blade lives. It is more than class. More than a Skill.”
The [King] mumbled. He looked at the King of Destruction. And he lunged.
A perfect step. Raelt slashed, thrust—Flos of Reim grunted as the blade cut across his shin, stabbed through his ruined armor along the shoulder blade. He slashed, and Raelt stepped left, dodging the blade.
He cut along the King of Destruction’s neck, but too shallow. Raelt stepped back as Flos knocked him back. Onto his back.
Raelt stared up at the sky. He saw a figure move, heard a cry. He looked up—
The sword tip hit the earth as Raelt turned his head. Flos blocked the return strike. He calmly stepped on Raelt’s right leg and snapped it. The [Duelist] made no sound. He braced as Flos Reimarch took aim again—
And jumped. His sword went under the shield. Through the King of Destruction’s belly. A second time Flos’ eyes widened. But again, he grabbed Raelt’s hand. This time he held the sword in his other hand. Raelt looked up at the blade as the King of Destruction lifted it.
“Protect his Majesty!”
A voice bellowed behind Flos. A bolt of lightning flashed. Flos and Raelt turned. The lightning exploded in midair as Ulyse raised his staff. There was a cry.
Someone had cast a spell. Someone had broken the truce. Abandoned honor. Jecaina stared, but it was not Geril. Not her. Nor General Lael. Orthenon’s head turned. And Raelt saw the man who had abandoned his honor in the eyes of the world. And found it.
Warden Dulfe. The River Warden aimed his wand at Flos. With his other hand he drew his sword. He pointed straight at the King of Destruction.
“Rally to his Majesty! Charge!”
He kicked his mount forwards. And his personal [Soldiers] charged. For a moment, Raelt and Flos stared.
No one had expected it. Not from the River Wardens. Not even Orthenon. Dulfe charged, breaking the circle of the duel. Flos Reimarch turned, dropping Raelt to bring his shield up.
The River Warden struck at the King of Destruction as he galloped forwards. His [Soldiers] raced at Raelt. Flos blocked the blow. Dulfe reeled backwards. And he looked at Raelt.
Something flashed. The man’s head toppled from his shoulders. Orthenon appeared, shaking with fury. Raelt saw Flos turning, saw Orthenon pivoting.
Hands grabbed him. Dulfe’s [Riders] dragged Raelt off the ground, never stopping their breakneck gallop. The [King] felt his broken bones screaming but they were grabbing potions.
And both armies erupted into chaos. The army of Reim howled and charged, and Jecrass’ forces rode forwards.
Defending their [King].
“Cowards! Craven oathbreakers!”
Zamea roared as her axe swung. Jecrass’ riders split around her. And it was true. The duel had been violated, the rules broken. Raelt had been saved by one of his subjects.
But Jecrass’ army burned. They rallied around their [King]. Who had dueled the King of Destruction. Craven? Cowardly? River Warden Dulfe had not thought so.
Nor anyone else in Jecrass.
Raelt stared as horses thundered around him. Flos Reimarch was bellowing orders as his vassals closed around him, cutting down Jecrass’ [Soldiers] left and right. He saw his daughter, Geril, General Lael bellowing orders.
“Your Majesty! We must get you to safety! We can only hold the King of Destruction off for minutes!”
The [Riders] were pouring potions on Raelt, babbling at him. They were forming a shield as the half-Giants strode towards them, axes swinging, huge faces furious. Raelt looked around.
A battle. And he was alive. He had lost the duel. But he had lived. Dulfe had died for him. Raelt stared upwards.
And he realized he was grateful. He had lost. But he wanted to live.
“Get his Majesty on horseback and out of here! Block Reim’s army—”
Geril was shouting. Raelt pulled himself up.
He stood. His subjects stared at him. The [King] looked around. And he was a [King] once more. Not a [Duelist], a man condemned to death. He looked around and saw Reim’s forces tearing apart Jecrass’ army. Zamea’s axe shone with blood. The [Mages] of Parasol Stroll were creating a magical shield as Mars and Orthenon rampaged. And the King of Destruction was pointing at Raelt, his eyes burning with fury.
“Jecrass is at war with Reim. Split the cavalry. Let the infantry stop the Rustängmarder and foot. Don’t engage the half-Giants or Mars! Maneuver! Hit and away! Don’t get near the [Steward] or Mars! Move!”
Raelt looked around for his horse. He mounted up, swaying. He was healing, but—the world was flashing. But he had to command. They couldn’t run. They’d all die.
Levrhine would be destroyed if they retreated. So they had to…
Win? Yes! Raelt couldn’t imagine it. But his people were dying. By the hundreds, each second. They had to win. This wasn’t his life, but theirs.
“To me! Rally on me!”
The [King] bellowed. He thrust his rapier into the air. And the army of Jecrass looked up. They saw their [King] charge his horse forwards.
Straight at the King of Destruction. And the army followed. The cavalry of Jecrass thundered after Raelt.
“King of Jecrass.”
Flos was on the ground, surrounded by the Rustängmarder. Raelt plunged towards him. His rapier speared one of the Rustängmarder through the throat. Then he saw the King of Reim, waiting for him as he carved one of Jecrass’ daughters from her saddle.
How dishonorable. The King of Destruction raged at Raelt without words. And Raelt agreed. But—his rapier darted at Flos’ chest, was knocked away.
I want to live. And for my people—Flos struck a blow as Raelt thundered past him. The [King] blocked, but the impact sent him reeling back on the saddle. His [Soldiers] surrounded him, shielding him as Raelt sagged, holding onto the saddle horn.
Flashes. The King of Destruction roared as he cut down the [Riders]. His Rustängmarder held, but Jecrass’ army kept fighting. Raelt sagged, knocked senseless by the blow.
The world went dark. Raelt heard a voice. Like his own, but vaster. Speaking into his head.
[Duelist Level 35!]
[Skill Change – Quick Step → Flash Step!]
[King Level 28!]
“—eward! On the left!”
Raelt opened his eyes. He saw Orthenon cutting through his riders. Flawlessly, his blade severing metal and body with ease. He was staring at Raelt, his expression twisted with fury.
Raelt whispered. His rapier blurred as the two shot towards each other. Orthenon’s spear flashed, blocking the volley of thrusts and cuts. He leaned over, slashed.
Flos Reimarch saw two of Raelt’s [Soldiers] block the slash along with their [King]. The [Soldiers] died. Raelt took a mortal wound along his side. But for healing potions he would have died. He clung to his saddle as Orthenon turned, but the [Steward] was under attack from all sides.
Jecrass’ army surged around Reim’s. They had broken up their formation, attacking and moving. The [Riders] dodged away from Mars as she swung a blade that cut the air with slashes of light that stayed and severed anything they touched, refusing to fight her.
But they couldn’t perfectly avoid Zamea, or Parasol Stroll. The half-Giant cut through a group of [Riders]. The [Mages] were blasting Jecrass’ warriors apart. And the Serpent Hunters were covering them. They were armed with bows, blowpipes—and their blades made anything they cut or struck die within seconds. Horses, people—
A slaughter, an echo of the battle with Belchan’s army. Raelt reeled as he drank a healing potion. He had to stay upright. Had to—
“There you are.”
Zamea turned. Raelt saw the huge half-Giant bring her axe up. He saw it coming down. And jumped.
The axe missed him. It split the earth. Raelt saw it bury itself in the hard ground, saw Zamea wrench. And he moved.
He blurred. And the King of Jecrass raced up the haft of the axe. First Shepherd Zamea saw the Human coming. She tried to let go, but too late.
Raelt raced up her arm, dodging her swatting hand. He saw her face turning. And he lunged.
His sword ran through Zamea’s cheek. Raelt heaved, and cut into the half-Giant’s cheek. She howled and tore at her face. He dodged backwards, saw the hand coming.
Raelt fell to earth. Thirty feet. He hit the ground poorly.
[King Level 28!]
[Skill – Aura of the Lion obtained!]
[King Level 2—
Up. Raelt saw his [Riders] surrounding him. Zamea raged, striking at them with her bare hands. But the sons and daughters of Jecrass refused to give way. They blocked her crushing blows.
Flos Reimarch saw Raelt grabbing another horse. The King of Jecrass raised his blade.
The King of Destruction felt a chill. He saw Raelt plunging forwards again. But he was marked. And this time it was Mars who found him.
Her hair was like fire. And her dark skin and eyes burned. Mars the Illusionist in her fury had changed her weapon and armor. She wielded the sword made of fire, but her armor now left afterimages as she raced across the battlefield. As fast as the horses. And her blade set them to flame, throwing riders.
Mars the Illusionist surged at him, ignoring the other [Soldiers] trying to slow her. The King of Jecrass turned. Flos saw him duck one flaming blow, and then the second set him and his horse on fire.
Both screamed. But Raelt kept riding, striking at Mars with his rapier. He ripped another potion from a [Soldier]’s hands and drank it, tossing the rest on his mount. It was only fire. The burns healed as Mars switched blades.
Her sword made of pale metal. It cut straight through a River Warden. Mars ran at Raelt. And half a dozen [Trick Riders] crashed into her.
Ropes flew from their saddles. They snagged Mars and began dragging her across the ground. The [Vanguard] twisted. She slashed the ropes in half, but she’d lost Raelt. And he was still charging.
“Enough of this. Orthenon, to me. We’ll break this army in half. Commander Ytol, form up a charge!”
Flos snapped. The [Death Commander] and the Rustängmarder formed the head of the vanguard. Raelt saw them as he shouted, rallying a tide of riders at his back.
The King of Destruction. Four half-Giants. Orthenon and the vanguard of both riders and infantry.
Death. Jecrass’ army faltered. Thousands of their forces lay dead already. And Mars the Illusionist joined the spear led by the King of Destruction. The army of Reim howled as they charged.
Raelt whispered. They had to stand. They had to fight. Even if three of Jecrass’ died for one of Reim’s. Six. Ten.
He was at the head of his army as they pulled back, afraid. Raelt felt his skin chilling, his heart burning. The potions and magic were screaming in his veins, making him want to puke and faint. But he was their [King]. He had to say something.
The King of Jecrass bellowed the word. No grand speech. All he could think was that stupid word. The army of Jecrass looked at their [King]. Most hadn’t even heard the word he spoke, but they answered him, shouting what he had surely said.
Raelt charged. And they poured after him. Flos Reimarch paused as he saw Jecrass’ army pouring at him.
Both armies hit each other. Raelt saw the Rustängmarder holding the ground as the riders of Jecrass crashed on them. Slaughtered. Mars and Orthenon cut the [Soldiers] coming at them like flies. But Jecrass’ armies didn’t stop. And slowly, the Rustängmarder were pushed back. Flos’ [Soldiers] cut down two of Jecrass’ [Soldiers]. But the third cut them down.
“Bring Raelt of Jecrass down.”
Ulyse snapped. The [Mages] took aim. Grand Mage Esiela closed her eyes, but she was linked.
Raelt saw the [Siege Fireball] coming. This time, he urged his horse forwards. He felt the fireball explode, searing heat—an impact—
[King Level 30!]
[Conditions Met: King → King of Challenges Class!]
[Class Consolidation: Duelist removed.]
[Skill – Army: Flicker Charge obtained!]
[Skill – Royal Arms obtained!]
Ulyse saw Raelt standing up. He was bleeding, burned. He should have been dead. But each time he rose—the [Mage] had seen it before. Raelt pointed as he mounted his horse again.
His army—flickered—just like the name. Ulyse saw a group of [Riders] charging at the Serpent Hunters vanish for a crucial millisecond. And then they appeared amid the elite warriors, avoiding the first line of blades, fighting.
“Your Majesty! The King of Jecrass is counter-leveling!”
Ulyse projected his voice across the battlefield. The King of Destruction turned. He saw Raelt, his blade glowing, leading another charge.
A lower-level foe, growing exponentially against impossible odds. Flos of Reim snarled. He had seen it before. He pointed.
“Ulyse, bring him down. Orthenon! Go.”
The [Steward] shot forwards. He was carving a path towards Raelt again, as the [Mages] of Parasol Stroll began to rain lightning bolts down on Raelt’s position. Flos turned his head.
Jecrass’ army was being torn apart. But they refused to give. As Raelt rode, they kept fighting, even into a slaughter.
“They refuse to break.”
And it was taking a toll on his warriors as well. The Serpent Hunters were falling back, carrying comrades whose string bodies had been severed, desperately field-stitching them up. One of the half-Giants was roaring, downed, his legs shredded as Zamea and another stood over him, keeping the army back.
And then—Parasol Stroll was bringing bolts of electricity down as Orthenon tried to corner Raelt. They were forming a massive ball of bound electricity over their heads. Flos saw them aiming it up—
And then an explosion. The [Mages] brought up their parasols just in time as something hit them. Flos shielded his face. Mars looked up.
She saw a comet falling at her. The [Vanguard] raised her shield.
The [Valmira’s Comet] spell hit her and detonated. Everyone around Mars was thrown back. The [Vanguard] had braced. She lowered her shield. And she saw more spells raining down from the heavens.
“Your Majesty! Belchan’s Mage School is loosing artillery spells!”
Flos’ head turned. He saw distant flashes of light from the academy built into the hillside. And then he heard more horn calls.
Levrhine’s gates had opened. From the gates poured Belchan’s garrisons. Their [Mages] were holding the walls and arrows were raining down on Flos’ army. The King of Destruction saw Parasol Stroll shielding themselves and Orthenon breaking away as a wall of Belchan’s [Soldiers] appeared. Shielding Raelt.
The King of Destruction stared at the distant King of Jecrass. He looked around.
“He’s rallied them. Their will is unbreakable.”
He paused. The King of Destruction sheathed his sword. He put his head down and uttered an oath. Then he threw his head back and laughed.
“Mars! Find Teres and bring her to safety! Commander Ytol, signal Orthenon to take his [Riders] and strike Jecrass’ army. Signal the retreat!”
The King of Destruction roared. His vassals stared at him. But then moved within moments. Ytol raised his horn and blew a wailing call. The army of Reim looked up.
And they began to pull back. Raelt couldn’t believe what he was seeing at first. But it was true. Orthenon raced across the battlefield, dodging spells, still cutting down his opponents as the infantry pulled back, in an orderly retreat.
General Lael stared. Her face was cut open, and she was covered in sweat and blood. But she was alive. Geril, shielding Jecaina, had a chunk of flesh missing from his leg and side. And Jecrass’ dead littered the field, with Belchan’s.
But Reim’s forces were retreating. Raelt stared around. He stared at the King of Destruction’s back. Why? He had been tearing Jecrass’ army apart.
And his elite vassals had been in danger. Not Orthenon or Mars perhaps, but a single half-Giant falling, or his Rustängmarder—he might have won. But to do that, he either had to use his [Army of the King], or watch as his army was burnt away.
He had refused to do that. Just as Raelt had speculated. But he’d never imagined…
The [King of Challenges] realized he was swaying in his saddle. He kept hearing himself leveling up, kept blacking out, hearing and not hearing.
But then he heard a sound that jerked him into wakefulness. A single voice, from hundreds of thousands of throats. And again, Raelt emerged from his quiet world of ghosts and saw something strange.
His army, cheering him. Belchan’s citizens and their forces, standing on the walls, screaming his name. His River Wardens, his subjects, who had only known their [King] from afar. Shouting his name.
“Raelt of Jecrass! King of Jecrass!”
Jecaina, his daughter, was staring at her father with a strange look in her eye. The same look she got when she talked about the King of Destruction, or Terandria, or the Queen of Pop. That of a girl dreaming of a story.
But so he was. The King of Jecrass. The fearless [Duelist]. A man who had stopped the King of Destruction. Wounded him in a duel! Forced him to retreat.
“The King of Jecrass has thrown back Reim! We are seeing Reim’s army in retreat! He—he’s—he did it!”
Noass and Sir Relz were hugging each other, shouting into the scrying orb. Noass turned, staring about.
“He’s no ordinary king! How can he—someone name him! What is he?”
There was silence. You couldn’t just call him ‘King Raelt’, or ‘King Leysars’. Or even the King of Jecrass. He was something more than that. And into the silence, someone spoke.
“The King of Duels. The Duelist King.”
Rémi Canada watched as the King of Jecrass raised one hand and flinched at the roar of sound it created. Noass looked around.
“Who said that? Write that down! The King of Duels has held back the King of Destruction!”
The young man from Earth nodded. If he were still interning at a news organization, that would be the headline. Not anything else. Forget the honor of the duel, the way Flos Reimarch had crushed every army before this with a fraction of the forces, or how close the battle had been.
The headline was the same. Victory.
Defeat. Teres stared at Flos Reimarch. She was bleeding. She’d been stabbed. The magical armor had protected her from everything but the enchanted spear that had hit her. The old man had nearly killed her, but…
She was alive.
But Reim had been defeated. The army was retreating. Flos Reimarch himself had called for it.
It was beyond silence. Just—shock. The other vassals were staring backwards. Mars, Orthenon—the [Steward] had a few cuts, but he could still fight. And yet—they were leaving.
Teres didn’t know what to do or say. She was afraid. But—Flos Reimarch wasn’t raging. He sat with his shoulders relaxed, sighing, as the blood from his duel dried on his clothes and armor.
“It seems we’ve been defeated.”
He spoke at last. Mars twitched. Orthenon looked at Flos. Commander Ytol just nodded, lashed to his saddle. The King of Destruction looked around, and then found Teres.
Teres stared at him. The King of Destruction looked at her. And then he laughed. He threw his head back and laughed again. His vassals looked at him.
Flos Reimarch wiped tears from his eyes.
“Ah, how frustrating. An interrupted duel, Belchan’s forces—truly, frustrating. We could have kept fighting, but Raelt of Jecrass has inspired his subjects. And now look at us. Riding back, leaving our dead behind. Doesn’t it enrage you, Teres?”
He nodded to the column of [Soldiers]. Teres nodded. Flos looked at her.
“Are you…angry, your Majesty?”
“I am still furious. The Prime Minister lives. And my army was repelled by Jecrass. The duel’s honor was broken. Yes, Teres. I am angry. But also—did you see him, Mars? Orthenon? What did you think?”
Flos turned his head. Orthenon bowed slightly.
“I missed him by a hair, sire. The blame lies with me.”
“He’s quick. A strong [King]. And he held you to a duel for a while.”
Mars’ eyes glinted. Flos smiled.
“Yes. He did. I misjudged him. I thought I knew Raelt of Jecrass. But the boy turned into a different man. And now he has Belchan and Jecrass. How troublesome. And at the same time—how glorious.”
His words stirred those following him. The King of Destruction sat up taller in his saddle. He looked around.
“My blood is boiling. Not since before my slumber have I felt this! Not just rage, but admiration. I am almost glad the duel was interrupted. Because I should like to have such a man as my vassal. As an ally! But as he is—he is a worthy foe.”
The others looked at him. Teres just stared. Was he mad? A worthy foe? She couldn’t comprehend that.
But then—she heard a laugh like thunder. Zamea was laughing. So was Mars. Even Orthenon smiled. Flos threw his head back and laughed.
Part of Teres wanted to laugh too, and she didn’t know why. But Reim’s [Soldiers] looked at their laughing, delighted [King]. And they laughed too.
Madness. Madmen and madwomen, laughing. Just for a single moment. And then—Flos quieted. He turned in his saddle.
“It seems we must wait for the bulk of my armies indeed. We cannot waste time, however. Mars, you, I, and the bulk of our armies must secure the position we have taken. We will need to establish secure zones, ensure the cities do not revolt. And we are now battling at least Belchan and Jecrass! Perhaps more nations! We ride! Move out!”
He picked up the pace. Teres stared at him. They were still moving? But the King of Destruction was already snapping orders.
“Orthenon, take your [Riders]. You will assault the Mage School of Belchan with Parasol Stroll. Deny it—otherwise we will be under constant assault. If Raelt has already reinforced it—”
That night, Belchan was ablaze. With light, sound, motion. War had engulfed it. But now—Jecrass was at war with Reim as well. And King Raelt of Jecrass officially took control of both nations.
The Mage School was burning. Raelt was giving rapid orders, listening to [Messages] coming in.
Jecrass and Belchan versus the might of Reim. What a ridiculous notion. But the world had seen it. It was still echoing with his title. King of Duels.
And the first [Messages] were coming in. Dignified [Messages], from other nations being broadcast the world over, read by Noass and Sir Relz on live television. Supporting the defense of Jecrass, the Duelist King.
Not declaring war, though. Not Medain, or Nerrhavia, or the Claiven Earth. But at the same time as these grand shows of support were taking place—[Messages] were sent covertly. Even a [Courier], racing from Medain.
“I have sent a small gift, to you, King of Jecrass. And—you may find groups of [Mercenaries]. Yes, [Mercenaries] heading north.”
Queen Yisame was speaking directly to Raelt. He stared at her. Mercenaries from Nerrhavia?
“One cannot say. But perhaps…oh, I may estimate at least forty thousand. Perhaps more, if more are attracted by the allure of war. Naturally, they require payment.”
Hence, the gift. Which was, if the Merchant’s Guildmaster was right, about three hundred thousand gold pieces. Raelt stared. Then he slowly nodded.
Gifts from Nerrhavia. He’d just received money from the Empress of Sands, too. Support. Like King Perric of Medain hinting that some of his adventurers might be willing to enlist in Jecrass’ armies as outsiders.
Support. Indirect aid. Jecrass stood alone at war with the King of Reim. But supported covertly.
Still, what was shouted from Wistram and spoke the world over was this: Jecrass was at war with Reim. It stood with Belchan, throwing the might of Reim back. The King of Duels had fought the King of Destruction and triumphed.
That was what everyone said, and what many heard in the days thereafter. And there was truth in that. For a man had fought. And he did live. But the King of Duels’ fearless defense of Belchan’s innocent people? His magnificent victory?
That was just the headline. And yet, while, the true man, Raelt Leysars, disagreed with the legend, the titles, his subjects ignored him.
They had seen the man their [King] was. And they knew the truth. So they followed, the King of Duels, the Duelist King of the Realm of Jecrass.
Raelt Leysars, the [King of Challenges].