It was so hot. A burning, all-consuming heat. Teresa Atwood gulped water, but it did little to quench her thirst. She felt as if she couldn’t cool down.
Her blood was racing. And her heart wouldn’t calm down. The young woman kept drinking.
And then she threw up. The water she’d gulped down so fast came up as her stomach, unprepared, decided it didn’t need the hydration. Teresa gasped and spat, and leaned over the side of her horse to do so. But she didn’t stop moving.
“Lady Teres! Are you alright?”
An alarmed voice called out. Teresa turned her head and vaguely saw someone riding towards her. A man with only one half. Death Commander Ytol of the Rustängmarder came towards Teres, balancing despite his lack of limbs.
Teresa realized she was slowing. [Riders] rode past her, as Ytol inspected Teres.
“Too much water, too quickly. Are you fit to ride?”
“I think so.”
Teres wanted to splash some water on her face, despite the waste. She needed to—just a bit. She cupped a palmful of water into one hand and splashed it onto her face. She was licking at her lips when she tasted the blood.
Ytol looked gravely at Teres as she recoiled. Then—she saw the water running down her face. It was red and dark. With blood and grime. Teres brushed at her face.
The young woman stared at her hand. It was red. A bit of flesh had come away. Not hers. Her stomach—moved. But only because she’d drunk more water. The sight of someone else’s blood was just numbing.
“Lady Atwood. We must keep moving. If you are unwell, please fall back.”
The Death Commander spoke, not unkindly. Just briskly. Teres looked at him. The leader of the company of the Rustängmarder paid no attention to the blood. And she—just stared at it.
She knew it was wrong. But Teres didn’t cry, or weep, or wonder whose blood it was. She had the first time she’d killed someone with a sword. After the battle at Reim—Trey used magic, but Teres had been taught the sword. She’d felt the times she killed someone. And they had haunted her.
They still did. But she didn’t dream any longer. She just rose, rode her horse, and fought. And this last battle had been the sixth major engagement she had ever taken part in.
The Realm of Jecrass. Teresa Atwood turned her head and saw parts of it burning. Across Belchan’s border, the King of Destruction’s armies had set the grasslands ablaze. But the River Wardens were fighting the fires. And while Flos Reimarch’s forces had marched on Jecrass, they had been halted at the border.
Rather—both sides had withdrawn after tearing each other to pieces. Jecrass had gotten the worst of it. But they had more soldiers to throw into the conflict.
And they had refused to give ground. Even in the face of Mars and Flos Reimarch—they’d held to the point of slaughter.
For one man. King Raelt Leysars, the [King of Challenges]. Also known as the ‘King of Duels’, as he’d been dubbed. Now, Jecrass fought for their [King], against Reim. And the incredible part was—they were holding the King of Destruction at bay.
“What’s wrong with Teres?”
Another voice. Teres looked up and saw someone galloping back towards her. Mars, the King’s Champion, the famous [Vanguard], didn’t look tired. But she’d fought without rest during the battle. She must have killed hundreds. Perhaps over a thousand soldiers by herself. Her armor was red.
And despite it all, they were retreating. Pulling back. Teres wobbled as Ytol turned towards her.
“Lady Teres is feeling the fatigue of battle.”
“I got it. Teres, come on. Ride on my horse.”
“I can ride.”
Teres protested. She clutched the mare’s reins. She liked her horse. She’d named her Frecklehooves, because of the white-yellow hair around her legs. Flos had been offended at the name.
“Then ride with me.”
Again, Mars wasn’t unkind. Just—insistent. Teres nodded and dug her heels in. Her horse followed Mars, mostly without Teres’ help.
“His Majesty insists we get back to Sadomere by nightfall. Sadovere? Sadere? I don’t know.”
Mars was speaking to Ytol. The Death Commander nodded.
“Sadomere, Lady Mars. Is the city fortified for our defense?”
“It had damn well better be.”
That was all the [Vanguard] said. Her voice was terse. Teres found herself looking at Mars.
“We gave Jecrass a beating. I think it was that General—Lael? We beat her in the field. Shame I couldn’t get her. Those damn [Trick Riders]—”
Spurring their horses across the field, leaping over enemy [Soldiers]. Cut down, a few—but weaving, throwing ropes. Trying to drag Mars the Illusionist off her feet. She was strong—she yanked back and pulled one rider and their horse into the dust. But the rest were throwing nets, ropes, even creating illusions.
Stalling her advance, until Ytol ordered Mars to attack the enemy infantry rather than wasting time with the cavalry. Teres saw the King of Destruction ordering another charge. She plunged into the chaos, following him as the Rustängmarder warded the King of Destruction.
Teresa Atwood saw a face as she rode through an unguarded flank. She swung her sword down and felt another woman die—
“—might be in trouble. Depends on how well Sadomere is fortified. Flos hasn’t ordered for reinforcements, but even defending…”
Mars was speaking quietly to Ytol. Teres looked up. Ytol was nodding, glancing at the marching Rustängmarder. They were moving fast; their numbers hadn’t been largely depleted. The army as a whole…had. They had left over ten thousand dead behind. The enemy—four times that number.
“A bloody damn battle. Those Jecrass soldiers won’t retreat even when I charge them. They must love their [King]. Damn, damn. I hate when his Majesty’s right. ‘An honorable man’. Pah.”
Mars spat. Teres looked at her.
“Why are we retreating? We…won, right?”
She didn’t remember. She didn’t have a view of the battlefield. Teres had just charged and fought until she heard the calls to retreat, or someone told her to rest. Mars looked at her.
“Sort of, Teres. We tore the enemy apart. We might have stayed; run them down and taken prisoners. But his Majesty got word from Orthenon and Gazi there’s a second army moving to reinforce. Sixty thousand strong. Fresh.”
Teres looked at Mars.
“They’re…not going to stop them?”
The forces of Reim were split. Orthenon and Gazi were circling, striking Jecrass with fast-moving cavalry. And Shepard Zamea and her half-Giants, who could keep pace. At the same time, Flos commanded the largest of his armies, with Mars and the Rustängmarder protecting him, and Parasol Stroll.
They kept clashing with Jecrass, and Jecrass was usually the army that fell back or took the worst of the battle. Every time, actually. The King of Destruction’s army was just filled with too many elites, and he and Mars and his best vassals were higher-level than their opponents.
But they could not advance. Jecrass—and half of Belchan as well—were stalemated. For every battle Reim won, they lost a dozen smaller battles. Because King Raelt of Jecrass had managed to duel the King of Destruction even in war.
Raiding parties. Fast-moving Jecrass riders who attacked held settlements, overran garrisons or threatened supply lines. Jecrass was famed for the speed of its riders and it had proven that here. Flos’ armies couldn’t advance too far or they’d be cut off, surrounded, destroyed.
By the same token however, Jecrass couldn’t defeat the King of Destruction or his vassals in a pitched battle. Reim’s armies were nearly as numerous as Jecrass’ by now, and every engagement they won left far more dead on Jecrass’ side than Reim’s.
But Jecrass had reinforcements. Mars was cursing.
“Those were Silver-rank adventurers supporting from the sides. And Orthenon reported hacking up a team of Gold-ranks. So Medain’s supporting Jecrass. And Stitch-Soldiers from Nerrhavia…”
The other nations were backing Jecrass. Not officially; few had declared open war, like A’ctelios Salash. But they were sending gold, soldiers, and even artifacts to Raelt to help him push back Reim, weaken the nation.
So far—it was about even. Teres knew the dead numbers hurt Reim in the long term, but she and the [Soldiers] were also leveling. In time—the battle might wear Reim down too far. But survival mattered most.
“We have an army of sixty thousand joining the ones we just smashed. Some of those sands-cursed half-Elf elites from the Claiven Earth too. Insanely good [Archers]. They could tear us apart and if the [Trick Riders] shield them—I can’t kill them. I hope this city’s good enough to help us repel a siege. Because if Raelt pulls all his forces—he could overwhelm us.”
Mars was looking ahead. Teres saw a distant city, lying flat against the horizon on Jecrass’ border. Not one of the hill-cities with natural walls or heights to help fortify it. Even she knew that was a bad sign.
“His Majesty assured me reinforcements were not needed. We stand at Sadomere, Lady Mars.”
“Then we trust him.”
That was all Mars said. She rode ahead and Teres saw they were catching up. A [King] rode close to the head of his vanguard. Flos of Reimarch was sitting thoughtfully.
He too had dried blood on his armor. His beard. Yet, he looked calm. War was second-nature to him.
“Teres. Are you well?”
Flos of Reim turned his head and looked at her. Teres nodded.
“Worn out. Your Majesty. Sadomere doesn’t look defensible. And our army is worn out. They may level, but we’ll be outnumbered by those fresh reinforcements. And they have half-Elf archers. At least a thousand of them.”
Mars emphasized the words. Flos grimaced.
“Marksmen. Teres, you’ll keep back if we have to sortie. They can shoot through a gap in a visor. Any of them over a hundred years old who train for it, anyways. Half-Elves who practice war are nightmares on the field.”
“And we can hold Sadomere?”
“Perhaps. I believe so. I have a plan, Mars. Trust me.”
The Illusionist smiled. She tossed her head and her perfect face and body—splashed by red—looked radiant in the setting sun. A heroine out of a tale.
“Yes, sire. Although—Orthenon wouldn’t.”
“Well, he’s not here. Let’s get the army inside the walls. Teres, come. You’ll rest. I have no doubt the city will be besieged within the next…four hours?”
Teres wearily slumped on her saddle. The two veterans spoke, talking of numbers and strategy. She looked up only once.
“Is this all to make Chandrar better? I thought Raelt was an honorable man.”
She saw the King of Destruction turn his head. He looked at her.
“King Raelt is an honorable man. A brave one, too. He clashed with Orthenon personally in battle this morning. And I bear him no ill will personally. As a [King]? Yes. But he is a good man.”
The [King] paused. And he looked at Teres.
“But he sheltered that Prime Minister. He is backed by my enemies. This is Chandrar, Teresa Atwood. We shed blood like water over squabbles. Like the Drakes. Like Baleros. Like any nation. If you want peace, Chandrar must be united. And to do that, I have killed many good men.”
His eyes flashed in the twilight. Teres looked at him. Another man’s morality. A [King]’s logic. At the moment—Teres didn’t want to hear it.
That was all she asked. Nawalishifra was gone south, towards Reim. She was no fighter. But Gazi had arrived on the battlefield a few days ago, after returning from her mission from A’ctelios. The half-Gazer’s eye was still closed. But Flos had been happy nonetheless.
It was Trey whom Teres longed to see, though. Her other half. Even apart, they were brother and sister. Twins. She wanted to see him.
But he had never arrived. Flos Reimarch’s brow darkened. He looked at Teresa. And shook his head.
“I’m afraid Trey will not be meeting us at Sadomere, Teres. I had thought he was simply delayed, moving slower than Gazi. Or the Quarass had need of him. But it seems…I have sent Venith after him. I have need of him. Gazi may soon need to quit the battlefield as well. Just as well; her eye is closed and it is her plan.”
The young woman looked uncomprehendingly at Flos. So did Mars. As Sadomere’s gates opened and the King of Destruction’s army entered the city they had taken three days ago, Teres looked at the simple, short walls. The standard battlements. And she wondered if they could hold this place.
The [Warrior] in her asked that. But the sister looked at Flos.
“Where’s my brother? What’s wrong?”
The King of Destruction sighed.
“I’m afraid he’s decided to disobey my orders. He left Reim, but didn’t go north. He left.”
Mars looked at the King of Destruction. And she chorused with Flos.
Earlier that day.
Trey Atwood rode across the barren border around Khelt. Dead lands. This, of all of Khelt’s wonders, was undeveloped. Lack of tending and water had turned the ground fallow. Barren. Devoid of life.
But the undead lived beneath the soil. Armies and armies of Khelt’s people, ready to fight and be destroyed again and again.
They could and had overrun powerful nations before. Trey had read books in Flos’ library—Khelt was not long-lived compared to some kingdoms, like the Shield Kingdoms of Chandrar. But it was still ancient.
And it had killed vast armies seeking to plunder it. An army of half a million had marched on Khelt, filled with powerful magicians, Djinn, and great warriors.
They had been overwhelmed by the seas of undead that had risen. The ‘brave’ invaders had slaughtered a thousand undead minions for every one of their soldiers who fell at first. But what was that to an army that was uncountable?
That was the power of Khelt. And while their armies were far weaker away from the capital where they had died—Khelt was unsurpassable wherever its ruler reigned.
But Trey did not fear the undead beneath the hooves of his horse as he rode. Nor did he listen to the escort he’d left at the border. They shouted after him. One of them—a [Captain]—even rode after Trey, bellowing.
“Lord Atwood! His Majesty did not send Lord Crusland word that you should stop in Khelt! We have orders to bring you north at all speed!”
He had a movement Skill. Which was how Trey had reached Khelt so quickly. But the man hadn’t been prepared for Trey to ride across the border. And even now—he turned his horse, eying the ground.
It was moving. Undead warriors were rising around him, lashing out. The [Captain] rode back.
“Lord Atwood! King Reimarch expects you in Sadomere this evening—or tomorrow at the latest!”
Trey ignored him. He had no desire to ride for…twelve hours straight, drinking stamina potions even with a speed Skill. Or to listen to Flos. He called back to the [Captain] who was racing back to the border.
“You may tell his Majesty I am staying at Khelt. I am staying with King Fetohep as long as he will allow me.”
“His Majesty demands—”
Trey looked at the [Captain] as Kheltian undead rose, forming a barricade. Protecting Trey.
“If you want to come after me, go ahead and try.”
And the brave, living warriors of Reim hesitated. They looked at the undead rising out of the earth, and Trey, riding on. And they turned back.
For no one demanded anything of the ruler of Khelt lightly. Not even the King of Destruction. The undead monarch, the [King] of Khelt had known the instant Trey crossed onto his lands. And he gave Trey passage, as Trey had hoped.
The young man clutched his horse’s reins, soothing the animal as it rode. It was nervous, but it had been here before. And he looked ahead. Hoping to see a…a friend. As much as Nawalishifra. Trey couldn’t march to war as Gazi had.
The young man clutched something as he rode. He halted in the dirt and sand, as Khelt began to turn to green, fed by the vast supplies of water. Slowly, he dismounted from the horse and sat on the ground.
Ahead of him were villages. Cities, tended to by the undead. Fields maintained by undead wielding hoes and shovels. A paradise built of the undead—sustained by them in a perfection that allowed hedonism and art to flourish in equal measure.
But Trey sat on the ground. And bowed his head.
He looked at something. In time, an escort rode towards him.
“Lord Atwood? We are to escort you to his Eternal Majesty, Fetohep of Khelt.”
A mortal man called down to Trey. He was leading a carriage. Kheltian. And the escort was living—some of Khelt’s few peacekeepers, high-level [Soldiers]. They respectfully bowed. And Trey looked up as his horse pooped next to him. He had been engrossed.
“Oh. Thank you.”
“Are you…well? Lord Atwood? His Majesty expresses his concern. A [Healer] and other aids will be prepared if you are injured.”
The [Lord Commander] of Khelt bowed slightly in his saddle. None less had been sent to Trey. But the young man just shook his head. He climbed into the carriage.
“I’m…fine. Sorry for worrying you.”
And he was. As the carriage rode on, Trey sat there. Well of body. Although his throat sometimes felt—cut. But that was phantom pain. He was just looking at something.
A grimy backpack. Trey had washed it as best he could. But it was still filthy. And the backpack was open. The [Lord Commander] had not known what Trey held. But that was because it wasn’t of this world.
King Fetohep of Khelt was in a grand mood. As the carriage bearing Trey Atwood into the city rode forth, undead soldiers lined the walkway. His people observed the carriage. Not because he had insisted upon it; he seldom made his subjects do anything they did not want to.
No, simply because their ruler cared. And thus—status was awarded to Trey Atwood. For Fetohep of Khelt had few passions in death. And his people—some of whom loved only food, sex, and carnal pleasures, and some of whom took to art or other passions—followed their ruler.
This was Khelt. Paradise of Chandrar! And the capital city was ten thousand and one marvels of art. The people were content, never wanting for anything. Those that strived created wonders. Became great visionaries, thinkers, writers, poets, artists—
And those who cared for nothing more lived and died in excess, eating as much as they cared, loving as they wished. Living. Dying.
Unable to reproduce unless that honor was awarded to them. Unable to leave except by forfeiting Khelt’s protections. Subject to laws some in Trey’s world would have called ‘unjust’. Violating ‘natural laws and rights’.
Fetohep would have laughed at those that questioned him. And had them executed. For his paradise was not made of any will but his own, and that of Khelt’s rulers. It was not…a democracy. Those failed.
But Khelt lived in death. And the ruler, undead, a Revenant, had lived for six hundred years maintaining Khelt’s peace. He had been content, even if Khelt sometimes bent knee to those such as the King of Destruction. Passionless, even, a [King] who was slave first to his people.
Yet this boy had Fetohep’s favor. Trey Atwood was carried to the steps in front of the palace. Surrounded by a living bodyguard, flanked by the undead. People watched as the doors of the carriage were opened and Fetohep, the [King] immortal, waited for his guest.
No one left the carriage. After a minute, the [Lord Commander] hurried around to the side and spoke urgently. And then a young man appeared.
He was…normal. Not tall, or handsome, or elegantly poised, a genetic perfection such as some of Khelt’s citizens. Trey Atwood stumbled a bit as he came up the stairs. And Fetohep looked upon his face.
“Ah, Trey Atwood. Welcome once again to my kingdom.”
The ruler swept one emaciated hand out, grandly indicating the crowds, the welcome fit for another ruler. Trey looked at him, and bowed slightly.
“You honor me, your Majesty. But I’m afraid I’m prevailing on your goodwill, King Fetohep.”
Fetohep didn’t look put out by this. Trey nodded.
“I’m actually here without the King of Destruction’s permission, King Fetohep. He may want to…retrieve me. May I beg your hospitality until that happens?”
If it were possible, the magical flames in Fetohep’s eye sockets brightened further at this.
“Ah. Of course. That insolent boy-king has no authority in Khelt. By all means, stay as long as you would wish.”
His voice was triumphant. But Trey did not smile. He just clutched the ratty backpack to him as Fetohep gestured.
“Your arrival was—intriguing. Are you well? I have the foods you most enjoyed upon your last visit prepared. Sit, and we shall discuss the matters of the world.”
He swept ahead. Trey followed, and the servants picked for the day followed, bowing, offering to take Trey’s burdens. He refused them all.
The grand banquet room where Fetohep and Trey had first eaten with the Quarass of Germina was not the place the two were led to. Rather, it was a more intimate dining room.
As it had been the last few times. Fetohep had entertained Trey four times since their initial meeting, and he had taken to the rather plush private dining quarters where Trey could sit in a comfy chair as Fetohep—in a throne-like chair that had been ported to this carpeted room, filled with soft lights, delicate water running across an indoor fountain, and even a sofa, hand-stitched and tailored after Trey’s descriptions—relaxed and bade Trey make himself comfortable.
“Trey Atwood. It has been long since you last came to Khelt. The King of Destruction uses you often. As is befitting of talent. But that you have come here of your will, I shall not begrudge. Nor shall the King of Destruction remove you save for your will or mine.”
The King of Khelt could be said to be…besotted with his young guest. So much so that his servants stared enviously at Trey for all the praise heaped upon his head.
Fetohep had, once, infamously witnessed a menagerie made of every single known animal and monster in all of Chandrar upon his sporadic exoduses from Khelt by a famed [Beast Master]. And he had pronounced it ‘adequate’.
Trey though…a woman who might have been a [Beauty] in any kingdom but Khelt was serving the young man his choice of drinks stared admiringly at him. And the young man listlessly took a bit of orange juice and sipped at it.
“Thank you, your Majesty.”
Fetohep noticed Trey’s mood, at last. He paused, and waved a hand. Servants swept forwards, with fresh-made food prepared by expert [Chefs].
“You appear…unwell, Trey Atwood. Are you truly well?”
“‘mfine. Thank you, your Majesty. Fetohep. I’ve just had…a bad few days. I’m…I’m…”
Trey never finished the sentence. Fetohep shifted; not in outrage over the use of his name. The [King] preferred the informality. But rather, curiosity.
“What is wrong, Trey Atwood?”
“I went to A’ctelios Salash. With the Quarass. And Gazi.”
The young man whispered. Fetohep paused, in accepting a magical drink which wafted green fumes he was taking care not to let Trey inhale. He gazed upon Trey.
“A’ctelios Salash? That…city?”
Trey nodded. He looked up. He had the camera in his hands.
“Yes. Flos—the King of Destruction—asked me to go. Because the Quarass was going. To…I can’t say.”
“To heal the half-Gazer. A’ctelios’ [Fleshshapers] are famed. Of course.”
Fetohep was no fool. Trey hesitated. But then he ducked his head.
“I was forbidden to talk of it.”
“Rest assured. The mortal squabbles of nations are of no interest to me. It is a confidence I hold.”
The undead ruler flicked one hand. And Trey’s state made more sense to Fetohep. The [King] tried to remember what he had known so easily as a man. Kindness. His voice softened.
“…The Carven City is not an easy place to visit. Even after death, I was struck by it in my visits. It is…how was your visit, Trey Atwood?”
The young man from earth looked up. And his eyes were haunted. As [Soldiers] returning from war sometimes were. Those who had seen things that would stay with them forever. Fetohep froze, holding the green, misty drink in his goblet.
For that was not the young man he had bade farewell to a week ago. Mortals changed too quickly. And Trey? He just smiled, as if he too were dead. And he had been buried in the ground.
“I visited Tombhome. With Gazi. With the Quarass. We went to a peace conference. They tried to feed me the meat. I had my throat cut and nearly died. I was attacked by a pakheil. And it turned out to be someone from my world. Someone who had been tricked. I tried to kill a man. I tried to. And I killed others. Gazi got her eye back. And the city looked at me.”
He spoke with a rictus of an expression on his face. His voice trembling, torn by it all. Fetohep stared, his goblet held to his open mouth in shock. The attendants shivered and whispered.
“Attendants. Leave us.”
The [King] spoke at last. After a silence where Trey only shuddered. The King of Khelt looked at Trey. Then—he picked up his throne with ease, despite his emaciated arms, scooted it closer to where Trey sat.
“Tell me what happened, Trey Atwood. From the beginning.”
And Trey did. The words spilled out of him, unending. The long carpet ride, Gazi and the Quarass at odds—the city, terrifying, intriguing, and then horrifying all by turns. The friendly, duplicitous people, Trey’s guide, Athal, the meeting—
Gazi being healed. The Quarass slashing Trey’s throat open to teach him. And then the pakheil. The realization. Confronting Baosar. Trying to kill him—
Fleeing the city. A’ctelios, the dead city’s eyes turning towards them as they flew away on the carpet.
An adventure. A nightmare. When it was done, Fetohep looked at Trey.
An undead ruler. A monster. A Revenant, possessed only by his will as a mortal man. Ruling his kingdom as an eternal tyrant, monarch.
And yet—a friend. Because when Trey was done, shivering, Fetohep looked at him. And he hesitated—and then put a hand on Trey’s shoulder. And his eyes flared with fury for his young, mortal friend.
That was all Fetohep of Khelt said. He stood, and paced the floor angrily. Reaching for a blade he no longer wore. Trey looked up as Fetohep turned to him.
“You have been given the greatest of offences, Trey Atwood. And A’ctelios Salash? Rot infests Tombhome! They were not this craven, this duplicitous, this small a generation ago. This Baosar deserved only death. And the King of Destruction—more fool he, for risking you.”
“They turn people into monsters. Don’t they?”
Fetohep hesitated. He inclined his head, stiffly.
“Pakheil. Their…beasts of burden are no less than the members of their city. Warped by the flesh of their home. Visitors become pakheil more than most. But—the flesh of A’ctelios is not offered lightly. It is a choice. It has always been a choice. Not a trick. A’ctelios has seldom become so…consumed by madness as what you described.”
“But it exists. People let it exist. Why? How could anyone…?”
Trey rocked back and forth, shivering. He had had nightmares. He hadn’t slept properly since visiting the Carven City. He woke up screaming. Until Gazi had grabbed him and shaken him awake, or the Quarass. And then—just with servants rushing to his door in Reim.
Fetohep beheld all of this on Trey’s face. And his voice softened.
“The—Shield Kingdom of A’ctelios Salash was not always so, Trey Atwood. A hundred years ago, when you visited, they would have told you all of A’ctelios’ dark gifts. At the very door. Offered you lodging, and food. Only if you wished it.”
The young man from England shuddered. Fetohep went on.
“It may be—difficult to envision. But A’ctelios’ people are—were—honorable. Tombhome was a place people came to by choice. To trade. And the gift of A’ctelios was a choice. A gamble. Pakheil should be respected. The [Fleshshapers] should mend all physical maladies. That is what A’ctelios was.”
“That’s not what I saw.”
Trey looked at Fetohep. And the undead [King] did not gainsay his words. He looked around. Clapped his hands.
“Servants! Provide the—frozen drink with sugar and cream. Also, a tea. Food, for my guest.”
The servants flooded back into the room. Trey found himself beset with a milkshake, tea, creature comforts—as Fetohep insisted he eat and relax. In his classic way, the undead [King] spared no pretense at hospitality.
Soon, Trey was lying on his back, being fed grapes and sips of his tea by someone while a [Masseur] attended to him from above. Fetohep reclined, drinking his magical brew as he spoke.
“You have been ill-treated, Trey Atwood. And I will not soon forget A’ctelios’ offense. Nor the Quarass’.”
His voice darkened. The undead ruler drummed one hand on the armrest of his throne.
“She too I bear a grudge against. For her actions against you. I am old even as immortals, few as there are, reckon it, Trey Atwood. But the Quarass I fear is so old she forgets herself. She takes the most…optimal actions towards power and considers the cost only in lives, not pain. I am sorry.”
He looked at Trey. The young man clutched at his throat as the servants murmured. There was still the faintest of scars. Fetohep hesitated. He looked at one of his attendants and then at Trey. Trying to remember himself.
“No. It was just so fast. And I was—dying. She gave me a Skill. But I don’t want it. Not to ever be like that again.”
Trey whispered. Fetohep’s burning gaze dimmed.
“I am sorry, once again. If there is any consolation—the Quarass gave you a Skill most [Blood Mages] or [Artificers] would beg for. The power of lifesand is not inconsequential. Will you…show me one of your designs?”
It was a kindly offer. But Trey just shuddered.
“No, your Majesty. I can’t. Not anymore. They—they want my blood.”
His creations. Fetohep lowered his head.
“The Quarass is young. And old. I shall send an expression of my displeasure to Germina. Now.”
One of his eyes glinted and his servants shuddered. From across Khelt’s northern border…two thousand undead soldiers rose. And began to march.
Trey had no notion of it. He was remembering the last. And he shuddered worst of all.
“I thought it was a dream. But I’m sure the eye moved. Your Majesty. Did you—do you think A’ctelios could be wa—”
The word caught in his tongue. He tried it again.
“Is it still al—”
Another pause. He looked at Fetohep. The [King] made a slashing motion with one hand, stopping Trey’s words.
“Trey Atwood. Some things we do not speak of. Lest they be heard by ears to which space has no barrier.”
Trey looked at Fetohep. And he beheld fear. And that terrified Trey. Just for a moment, Fetohep rose. He looked towards the open windows that let visitors gaze upon his city.
“If what you refer to is so, and I believe the Quarass is also investigating…measures would be taken. I will contact her. After my first complaint is received. The Shield Kingdoms will investigate. Quickly. Decisively, even if A’ctelios is hostile.”
“What could you do?”
Fetohep looked at Trey. And his fingers drummed quickly—then stopped.
“Put it back to sleep. If the…vision moves—there are ways. It has happened thrice.”
Trey’s heart began to beat faster. The masseur looked very afraid as she concentrated on her task. The teacup wobbled as someone offered it to Trey. He drank, as much to pretend the world was normal as to quench his thirst.
“You mean it—”
He hesitated. Fetohep was raising a cautionary hand. Trey gulped and chose his words.
“Something happened thrice? More than—vision?”
Slowly, the [King] looked around. And he nodded once.
“A matter of trust, Trey Atwood. This is not to be repeated. Attendants—you will not listen.”
They all covered their ears. Trey saw Fetohep lean over. The [King] whispered.
“Thrice before. Vision is the start. Once—the first time—the solution was not found. Next came tremors all Chandrar felt. Movement. But it was stopped. It must be stopped. I promise you. It will be done.”
Trey stared at Fetohep. The [King] sat back and slashed with his hands.
“Attendants. Serve. Trey Atwood, enough. Khelt will aid Germina in investigating with all haste. But we speak no more of…unpleasant matters. Is that clear?”
The young man nodded. Fetohep relaxed. The attendants, shaken, looked at their [King]. And as he sought for conversation, his eyes brightened.
“Do not worry, Trey Atwood. You have been mistreated, but that has ceased since you are now in my domain. I know you have been occupied. But tell me…have you heard aught of the world’s news since you have returned?”
Trey looked up. His terror over what was being hinted at—began to fade. Fetohep’s gaze was forcing the very conclusion out of his head. As perhaps, the [King] willed it. Trey would remember later. But for now, he and the people of Khelt relaxed. For Fetohep was almighty in his domain. His very presence was safety. Comfort.
Only the [King] bore fear and worry for the future. That his subjects and friends would not have to.
Trey was feeling a bit better—and how not, when the massage was undoing tension he didn’t even know he had? The Skill was literally soothing him—as Fetohep surely knew—and he could distract himself enough to respond.
“No, your Majesty. I came back and I was—withdrawn. Has something happened? I know about the war in Jecrass—his Majesty, Flos, ordered me to go north. But…”
Fetohep waved an impatient hand.
“Not that. I…or rather, my treasures were recently uncovered. The Diamond Swords of Serept were found by a group of students. Adventures. There was…a battle at sea. Among the major sea powers. You—you didn’t hear of it? I had…some role in the events.”
He looked keenly at Trey. And the [King] looked keenly disappointed when Trey shook his head.
“No, your Majesty. How were you involved? Were you at sea?”
“As an apparition. The Diamond Swords forged by Serept were cursed by an enchantment. Among other things, it allows the ruler of Khelt to manifest themselves—it is of no consequence. It was—a minor affair. Yes.”
The [King] paused. Eying Trey. And the young man resolved to find out what a ‘minor affair’ for Fetohep looked like. After a moment, Trey thought to inquire.
“What of the Diamond Swords? Forgive me, your majesty. I don’t know anything about them. Would you be so gracious as to enlighten me? If it’s not too much of a burden, that is?”
Fetohep’s magical flames in his eye sockets brightened.
“I suppose I could enlighten you. Attendants! Fetch the magical recording of the events. You see, the six swords are treasures forged by Serept of Khelt, Trey Atwood. Each one possesses an unparalleled magical enchantment. And I granted half to the treasure seekers…ah, but the pictures should illuminate the events…”
For the next…two hours, Trey found himself watching an aerial blow-by-blow of the events surrounding Wil and the others at sea, with Fetohep’s associated commentary.
“I would have given the Pact of Temius to the Gnoll, and perhaps The Unfilled Cup of Cexila to the Minotaur had I had the choice. That would be the…blue blade and red blades respectively.”
“Why, your Majesty?”
Trey stared at Wil as the young man duplicated himself and charged the enemy. Fetohep waved a lazy hand, freezing the recording.
“The Pact of Termius is a blade that calls upon the powers of nature and animals, befitting a Gnoll [Shaman]. And the Cup of Cexila is a blade which drinks the blood of those it slays, healing the wielder. Blood and flesh, really. But The Windblade of Seripsel is fitting too. I understand that the three remaining blades will return to me in time—although the carriers have been forced to take shelter at Zeres. A tiring development, but I had allowed them time to return the blades to me. Especially in light of their companion…”
He trailed off. Trey looked at Fetohep. But he wasn’t caught up yet. And this little…event with Fetohep actually had helped Trey. Distracted him.
But—not forever. As Trey rose, the massage done, he felt better. Fetohep glanced at Trey.
“Ah, you found the massage to your liking? Perhaps now we may retire to the…sauna. Or are you in need of other refreshments?”
The sauna was a popular way to ‘bathe’ in Chandrarian cultures. Hot stones and steam, rather than costly water. Trey ducked his head.
“Thank you, your Majesty. But I’m…fine. I truly am. I’m just sorry for prevailing on you. I should have gone north. To my sister. She’s—fighting in the war. Against Jecrass. I had no idea it was happening until we got back. Well, the Quarass wasn’t happy.”
He bowed. Fetohep looked disconsolate.
“Ah, yes. The war. It was displeasing to me to hear the events as they unfolded. Let us discuss that, then. Cancel the sauna.”
He spoke to a servant who bowed and hurried off. Trey sat in his chair and Fetohep relaxed. This was all for Trey’s benefit; the humidity just made Fetohep’s preserved flesh rot faster. But he took visceral pleasure from watching his guests fulfilled.
“Do you…know the events that led to the war unfolding, Trey Atwood?”
“Sort of, your Majesty. But please, I’m sure you have a more, uh, complete view of what happened?”
Fetohep nodded. He was, in some ways, easy to placate via flattery and acknowledgement of his status and vision. But perhaps—that was because he liked Trey. If he had a flaw, it was his kindness. Even in death.
That was one of the requirements to become a ruler of Khelt, though. Fetohep had told Trey that he had been chosen among others because he loved his people, more than he was the best warrior.
“Indeed, I witnessed the events, Trey Atwood. It began with the foolishness of the Prime Minister of Belchan. But also—the cowardice of mortals. A single village’s misplaced prejudice. The death of Gnolls.”
He told Trey the events simply and with less commentary than his exploits at sea. Trey listened. His heart broke for the Gnoll tribe, attacked, for no crime other than being Gnolls and seeking the King of Destruction’s favor.
He heard how the King of Destruction had challenged Raelt of Jecrass. And in so doing—the King of Duels had earned his name.
A tale of wrath, of sorrow. Of terrible deeds. Like Trey’s own. Fetohep finished simply.
“The King of Destruction would have slaughtered the Prime Minister. And his officials. The politicians, the Watch Captains, the rulers of each city and village responsible for the carnage. He put hundreds to death for his justice. What say you to that, Trey Atwood?”
The undead ruler’s voice was disapproving. Yet, Trey Atwood looked at him. And his hand clenched on the bag that still sat at his feet, smelling of rotten flesh and a city of horrors.
“What do I say? I say—good.”
Fetohep glanced at Trey, surprised by the response.
“…Good? The slaughter of so many would be good?”
Trey bowed his head.
“Yes. Some people deserve to die. Some monsters shouldn’t live for what they’ve done.”
He clutched the pack to his chest and closed his eyes. Fetohep’s eyes flared, with that undead ruler’s perfect morality. But he looked at the young man who grieved. And held his own tongue.
In the silence of Fetohep’s glorious kingdom, and his rich rooms full of artwork and treasure, the King of Khelt saw Trey shaking. The young man, the [Sand Mage] held the bag.
“I didn’t know. I couldn’t stop anything. They were—they tried to warn me. I couldn’t even help them. They’re still alive. They knew it was me.”
He looked up. His eyes were overflowing. Fetohep beheld dark rage. Fury. A young man’s grief. And he looked around, unsettled. Unsure of what to do.
Fetohep of Khelt, in his glory and riches…looked at his young friend. Shaking. And he gestured.
“Perhaps…the comforts of the flesh? You have witnessed a tragedy, young Trey. I was similarly unsettled when first I visited A’ctelios. I think. When I fought Crelers for the first time, certainly. You are young. You there. Summon a seraglio of Khelt’s finest. Drinks. Even such pleasures as dreamleaf—no, the Vault of Wishes. Procure it and—”
Trey didn’t listen. He was fumbling with the bag. Drawing out the camera. Fetohep, meaning well, summoned Khelt’s most beautiful women—and a few handsome men and boys—trinkets of unsurpassed value. Drugs of every sort.
And it wouldn’t help. It didn’t help. A bevy of people willing to give Trey a night out of his wildest imagination—solo or in a group—stopped at the doorway. A magical vault containing one’s wildest imaginations halted on a pillow of silk. A hundred substances of various effects halted on their way towards the room, all legal in Khelt.
Because the young man wanted none of it. He showed Fetohep something. And the ruler slowly dismissed his thousands of expensive, worthless treasures. Because this was Trey’s grief.
“What is this, Trey Atwood?”
It was…a camera. Trey had found it in the bag that had belonged to the pakeil. The person. And he had fixed it. With magic.
[Repair] was such a useful spell. And Trey had…recharged the camera. Given it new life after it had run out of power.
It was a good camera. The kind you’d take a semi-professional video on. To upload it to Youtube, take videos with. It was, of course, capable of pictures. And video.
He wished he’d never found it. For…it had memories.
A young man standing in the sand. Surveying the landscape. He cursed—in an unfamiliar language.
“Where are we?”
The view included a group of eighteen. Staring about, shouting, trying to call on their phones.
That was what he asked, but in another language. Portuguese? That was the first video. The next few were similar.
A view from atop a dune. Surveying a vast, vast landscape of sand to the north. To the south? More habitable lands. A shout—someone screaming as loudly as he could behind the speaker. A voice—
“Hey! You—you with the camera! Come down here!”
Accented English. Russian? The next videos gave clarity. To Trey, they were as sensible as his appearance in Chandrar.
People milling about. Talking. At last, there was sense. The wielder of the camera turned it back to his face. Trey saw a worried, smiling face. Other people.
A young man from Russia. A pair of Taiwanese visitors. Someone who said they had been with their parents—crying. Being consoled by an older Chinese woman—and she was barely twenty six. Still, oldest of the lot.
“We are somehow here, now. We don’t know how we got here. We were in an airport—this is going to be a record of what’s happened. Just—just in case.”
The young man had good English. And he began taking videos of each of the eighteen people.
Eighteen lives. Each one, who turned to the camera and told the viewer, Trey and Fetohep their names. Repeating where they had been from.
“Travelling back home.”
“Going to visit Hong Kong with my—my parents. Are they okay? Do you think—”
“Some kind of plane crash. We’re all hallucinating. That’s what—”
“Water? We’re going to need—I’m—”
Young people, as young as Trey, older—but not by much. But a girl who was barely fifteen, who’d been standing with her parents when she’d vanished.
There was no logic to it. The Russian man had been holding his girlfriend’s hand. But she—despite being his age—hadn’t come along. And they were far from home.
Lost, in Chandrar.
Videos. At some point after taking each person’s introduction, the Portuguese cameraman had realized he was going to run out of power. So he’d begun rationing them.
The next video was of someone yelling. One of them—the Russian—had leveled up. As an [Explorer] in the night. Someone else? [Survivor]. A third—[Traveller].
“I am—I’m a Level 3 [Cameraman], yeah? It was green. No one else said it was green. But I—”
The young man looked into the camera. Grinning, as people discussed what it meant. They all had Skills. One of them tried it out. Pointed.
“[Survivor’s Intuition]! There’s something that way!”
A short cut. And then—the others clustered around a small cactus plant. One of them—a fellow from Cameroon—had a knife. He was scraping at the plant, removing the bristles to get to the flesh. They were all talking.
It hurt to watch. Stop. Stop it. Trey kept playing the videos. He’d seen them too many times.
The next time the camera came on, the people were shouting at a caravan. The viewpoint captured a flying figure. A Garuda, spotting them. The others shouted, or stared. Some looked wary, but the caravan was kindly. Humans rode towards them on camels, shouting. In English—
“Are you hurt? What was it? [Bandits]?”
“Where are you from?”
Bewildered answers. Confusion—and already, as some of them eyed the swords and wands—cautiousness. The travellers from Earth lied, and the caravan, after some swift bartering for a colorful scarf, a water bottle and a few trinkets—took them in.
The battery had begun running low. Trey saw only three more videos. He clicked on the next one.
“I have—I have a Skill. Green. [Extended Battery]. I think it will save me some battery. I think. But this is another…world, yeah? A game. That’s what one of us said. We are getting close to a city, now. For food. Shelter. We’re going to…stop there…”
The young man looked worried. But optimistic. He smiled. He was always smiling.
“We’re headed towards it. It is a nice place. Apparently? I will show you more. The battery is running low. I can’t recharge—so this is Davi, signing off.”
Darkness. Two left. Trey’s finger shook.
“A’ctelios Salash. Welcome, welcome to the Carven City! All are welcome here! Food, drink—all free!”
A laughing face. A demon wearing a Human’s skin. Davi eagerly filmed…Athal. Welcoming them inside. He began taking images of the interior of A’ctelios, after the outside.
Some of the Earthers saw what the city was. Some—refused to enter. The Russian man walked off, after arguing bitterly with his group. He pointed at the eyes that had become entrances and shouted that it was madness.
Some followed. A girl. A young man from Canada named Rémi. But fifteen entered. The young man from Portugal, Davi, was unsettled. He filmed the inside. The cavernous room, the smiling people.
The strange cries of a baby. The meat they were given, succulent, free of charge by Athal, who grinned as Davi and the others scarfed the food after a long time on the road.
Fetohep was touching Trey’s arm. The young man didn’t know it, but he was crying. His finger shook. But the last video—
A voice. Cracked. In pain. Davi’s face appeared in the frame. In darkness.
In the background, someone was crying out. Rhythmically. In pain. Davi was clutching at his stomach.
“The meat—it was—a trap.”
He whispered to the camera. Someone was moving in the corner. Davi looked up. He saw the man from Cameroon. With a knife, stained red. He reached down, his body jerking. He was already…transforming. Davi shook his head as the knife lowered—the man staggered away.
“What did we do wrong?”
That was all Davi said. He tried to say something else. But the broadcast continued. As he jerked—the others fell silent, given a last mercy or…too far gone.
They changed. And a young man picked his way across the ground, ignoring the pakheil as they screamed. Athal picked up the camera, investigated it eagerly.
“Look! An artifact! They had an artifact! Tell my father—we can sell this—how does it work? Why is that thing flashing red? One? 1%? What—”
That was the last. Trey saw the screen go dark.
There were a few…pictures. Of Athal. Of a few people, blinking stupidly into the camera. He must have used it. But the camera had run out of power. And Athal must have thought it was just junk. So he’d put it in the bag. And the pakheil—Davi—had remained.
Until he’d attacked Trey. And then—
“He’s still there. In A’ctelios. He’s probably alive, even after he was—nothing dies there. He’s alive. And he’s—him.”
Trey wept onto the camera as it turned off. Fetohep sat next to him. Staring at the dark screen.
He had witnessed it all. The [King] was silent. And Trey?
He had tried to kill Baosar. He had failed, but Gazi had done the job. Trey wished now, he’d killed Athal. That he’d had the power to burn A’ctelios Salash to ash.
But they’d run. And Davi was still alive. Part of Trey wished he’d never known the young man’s name. Because it was his face Trey saw in his nightmares. Eating down the meat and remarking how good it was. Thanking the inhabitants of Tombhome for their generosity.
“I will never forgive them. I won’t. Someday. I’ll come back. And I’ll bury Tombhome again. I will kill them all.”
That was his vow. Trey looked up at Fetohep. And the undead ruler looked at him with sympathy.
“Trey Atwood. This evidence of wrongdoing by A’ctelios’ inhabitants I cannot forgive. Nor will I ever forget it. The Carven City will be held to my justice. Khelt is not weak.”
“It has to be erased.”
The young man reached out. He grasped at Fetohep’s robes, speaking pleadingly. And Fetohep—hesitated.
“There are things worse than A’ctelios’ depravity, Trey Atwood. I do not ask that you understand. But I rule Khelt. And I have seen Crelers and worse. A’ctelios is madness. But it is a weapon to be borne against all foes. It is—”
“Madness? Madness is a weapon? What enemy do you use it against?”
Trey looked at Fetohep. And the undead ruler’s fiery eyes dimmed. But he replied.
“Dragons. And far worse. When they are needed, A’ctelios’ mad legions will fight.”
“So you won’t destroy them.”
That was all he cared about. Trey met Fetohep’s gaze. The [King] shook his head with true regret.
“A ruler cannot always be moral, Trey Atwood. Nor do I know if A’ctelios can be destroyed with all of Khelt’s power. Buried, perhaps. But the Tombhome was slain by the original inhabitants of A’ctelios. And they were heroes. They felled a nightmare. That excuses none of this generation’s offense. But it is a reason…”
He trailed off. Trey looked at him and turned away.
“Trey Atwood. I would do much in my power for you. But I am still a [King].“
The voice was quiet. Trey shuddered.
“I know, your Majesty. Thank you. But—”
He brushed at his eyes. And felt as if he’d wept all his tears. Slowly, Trey Atwood rose. And he looked around. At Fetohep, resting in his seat, unchanging. At Khelt, this perfect place.
“I have to go. Don’t I?”
Fetohep of Khelt paused. And his undead gaze flickered.
“No. Not if you do not wish to. I have told you: Khelt welcomes you, Trey Atwood. Stay as you wish. My subjects will offer you every comfort. My treasuries will satisfy your wildest imaginations. Ask what you will. And it will be granted to you.”
Like…a friend. A grandfather. A kindly ruler, offering Trey anything he wanted. And the young man was so tempted.
A night with the most beautiful woman. Food and drink unlimited. Magical treasures. Safety, comfort, riches.
It was all here. Here, waiting for him. Fetohep would give it to Trey and not even Flos would be able to take Trey away.
That was the truth. But the young man turned. He looked Fetohep in his undead face. And he did not flinch. That was part of why Fetohep loved him. Trey inhaled, once.
“Your Majesty. Do any of the King of Destruction’s vassals seek me?”
The undead [King] hesitated. But then he nodded.
“Lord Venith Crusland has brought five thousand of Reim’s [Soldiers]. He is attempting to cross the border. None of his party have sustained more than superficial injuries. Yet.”
Loyalty. Trey closed his eyes. Venith would try Khelt, even if it meant fighting all of the undead.
“I have to go, your Majesty. I have…a mission. I can’t speak of it, truly. His Majesty has orders for me.”
“Must you go? You owe that boy nothing.”
The ruler of Khelt almost reached for Trey. And the young man stepped away. He smiled at Fetohep. And he bowed, deeply. Gratefully. But he still left. Trey walked towards the door, and as Fetohep rose, he spoke.
“Your Majesty. You are too kind to me. You have given me every comfort in this world, and I am eternally grateful. And you are wise. Wiser than I. But—that is why I must go. Because I am mortal. And flawed. And I see A’ctelios’ horrors. And I cannot forgive.”
He pointed. Fetohep looked at the camera, sitting on the little table. Trey had left it behind, with the backpack.
“You see why A’ctelios is needed. The lives of a few can be sacrificed for the good of all. And that is—a [King]’s wisdom. But I serve the King of Destruction. And he would go to war for a single child. He will give me vengeance if I ask. Thank you. And—goodbye. I fear it might be some time before we meet again. If we do.”
Trey bowed again. He turned and left. And then he was gone. Riding south. To his fate. To serve the King of Destruction.
Fetohep felt him go. He sat still, unmoving, until Trey had left his lands. And that took hours. Only then did the [King] rise. And he walked listlessly out of his room.
His treasures awaited him. His people. But the [King] was suddenly alone. And he stood awhile, on a balcony overlooking his magnificent city.
Pondering what he had lost.
The army of Jecrass was marching on Sadomere. A battered thirty—no, closer to forty thousand plus reinforcements. A hundred thousand to pit against half that number.
Numbers. But even so—Teres was aware of how vulnerable they were. The city of Sadomere was not Reim. It wasn’t built as strongly, had no secret weapons.
And only one of the King’s Seven was here to defend it. Mars was also, arguably, the worst person to defend a city. She could hold a hallway until the entire structure came down around her. But a wall where there was only one of her?
No. And the walls were exposed. The [Builders] had made the city well, but not with an eye for sieges. Proper siege architecture was usually ugly.
It was also a strategic move. Denying an enemy a useful foothold on the border between both nations meant that it was disadvantageous to actually rely on the city. Like in…moments like these.
“Milord. We’re surrounded.”
“Hm. Hm. Hold on, I have a message from Venith. I think it’s good news.”
Flos Reimarch was checking a [Message] on the magical scroll he carried. He smiled as Teres, Ytol, and Mars inspected the army.
They were surrounding the city. And they had no siege weapons as Teres understood them. No ballistae, or trebuchets, let alone cannons or the high-tech weapons from her world.
They had a few primitive catapults that could hurl stones a decent distance. But that was all. Jecrass’ forces didn’t really need conventional siege weapons.
They had [Mages]. Ulyse, Mirin, and Esiela of Parasol Stroll approached Flos.
“Your Majesty. The enemy has a number of high-level [Mages]. Grand Mage Esiela counts a number of Claiven Earth’s high-level [Mages]. Not the highest-level. Thirty plus—but they could punch a hole through the walls.”
Ulyse, the leader, reported. Esiela, the former Grand Mage of Belchan, ducked her head, hiding her face as Flos turned towards them. The King of Destruction’s gaze paused on her for a second.
“I see. Can you fend them off, Ulyse?”
The [Mage] hesitated.
“I suspect they will attack from multiple sides, your Majesty. To prevent our own from being sniped, we will have to concentrate on one wall. We will do our best, but only a single [Geomancer] need collapse an unenchanted wall to create a breach.”
“I see. Well then, I will take it into account. Deploy to the northern wall, Ulyse.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
It was a measure of the [Mage]’s trust that he only bowed without asking…questions. But there was nowhere to run.
“Ah. Trey has left Khelt! Of his own will. Venith is escorting him to Germina. And Gazi will ride south to meet them. Good, good. We may be able to arrange a meeting, Teres, but the plan is still going ahead. I had feared…Trey would seek Fetohep’s mercy. And I would have been unable to stop him.”
The King of Destruction laughed in genuine relief and good humor. Teres looked at him.
“If we meet him.”
The [King] glanced at her.
“Well—it may be hard to arrange. Or did you mean this battle? Orthenon’s taught you well, Teres. What do you think our odds are?”
Teres heard another laugh. But Mars wasn’t laughing. The enemy had them outnumbered. And worse—Jecrass’ elite cavalry had taken to the field. And yes, they were terrible at sieging a city until the gates fell, and you could still create walls of pikes to stop them coming in—
But going out? Sortieing meant you’d be charged, and you’d never outrun them. If Flos was confident of defending, Teres wouldn’t have worried.
But the Claiven Earth had sent their troops to support Jecrass. Oh—‘mercenaries’. And the half-Elves were good [Archers].
They were even able to hit Sadomere’s defenders from a thousand paces away. The longbow [Archers] would trade out, use a Skill, and launch arrows that hit the defenders hiding behind the battlements. Only Maresar or similarly skilled [Archers] would have been able to counter them.
And the [Mages]—Teres knew that Parasol Stroll was good, but she didn’t have much hope. Even if Flos’ army repelled this one, it would be a brutal siege. And Jecrass could just pull in more troops if they were losing.
“You’re right, Teres. It’s not good. These walls were never built to counter enemies like this. Let alone the fact that we’ll be dealing with breaches. Once they enter the city, Jecrass’ cavalry will have an open battleground. Not nice alleyways.”
Flos glanced over his shoulder at the city. Teres nodded. Damn wide streets and efficient municipal planning. But the King of Destruction was smiling.
“Milord. They’re advancing.”
And here they came. Flos Reimarch’s head snapped up as the [Archers] began to advance within bow range. Infantry moved forwards, screening and hiding the vulnerable [Mages].
“Mars. I’m relying on you. Use your ranged weapons. Force those [Mages] back. For…ten minutes. Ulyse has the north wall—take the east. The west is the Rustängmarder—only idiots would concentrate on them. Teres! You and I will stand on the south walls. Perhaps that will dissuade them. Grab a shield. And watch for those high-level shots. Nuisances.”
The King of Destruction strode forwards. He raised his shield casually as Teres kept a distance behind him. Every now and then Flos would swat an arrow out of the air meant for him, even if it curved or tried to vanish.
Jecrass’ army was advancing. Their [Archers] threw up hails of deadly arrows as Flos’ tired army tried to return fire. It was technically in Flos’ favor; even with elites, his army had range and protection. Only the numbers favored the attackers.
And the fact that they would cause a breach and allow their army to make it a more even fight. The King of Destruction reached the southern wall. And there he stood, waving at the enemy army. Teres swore she could see General Lael hesitating as she saw the King of Destruction facing her.
“Flos. What’s your plan?”
“Wait. We have to let them get closer, Teres. You know I have a plan?”
“You’re not a complete dunce.”
The King of Destruction grinned toothily at Teres.
“Thank you, Teres. In truth—a Drake or Minotaurian army would be worse. They have siege weapons along with [Mages]. But this is fine. And I do have a plan.”
“The [Army of the King]?”
He smiled at her and angled his shield to block an arrow. Flos winced as it detonated and swore as both his and Teres’ ears rang from the fireball.
“Damned explosive arrows! Not yet. That must be used for a battle where it cripples my enemies. Or else it is wasted for a month. No—watch.”
The enemy army was charging the city. Teres saw Ulyse and the other [Mages] exchanging fire with the northern wall’s attackers. But soon—far too soon—there was an explosion.
From the southern wall. Flos swore and grabbed at Teres as the wall began to collapse near them. A [Geomancer] had caved it in. And the army, realizing the King of Destruction had few [Mages] there—was charging at the gap.
“Pikes! Get below and prepare for a charge!”
But then the wall rippled. And Teres saw another section cave in on the eastern side. She looked at Flos.
“[Mages]. One cannot fight without them. And my armies are light on [Mages]. Don’t fear, Teres.”
He heaved a sigh. The King of Destruction looked out as more parts of the wall began to collapse. There were less defenders on it than Teres realized. Perhaps anticipating he’d lose the walls, the King of Destruction had pulled his forces back. But they were getting ready to clash with fresh Jecrassian troops and the other army’s elites soon.
“Flos. What is the plan?”
The King of Destruction stood on the crumbling walls of his city as Jecrass’ army began to charge. He spoke, casually to Teres.
“Just this, Teres. You had no way of knowing. Nor Raelt, or my enemies. But they might have considered it if they remembered that I am just a man.”
He looked at Teres. And she, holding his hand, saw him let go. Teres stumbled. And Flos Reimarch turned to the walls.
“King Raelt of Jecrass is a worthy foe. He leveled up after challenging me and winning. In his way. That battle turned him into a force to be reckoned with. But no one in this world wins singlehandedly. General Lael!”
He bellowed. The distant [General] saw Flos raise his arms. The King of Destruction laughed.
“Congratulations on your [King]’s new levels! And yours as well, no doubt! And might I add one more thing?”
He pointed at her. And the [King] smiled.
“I leveled up too.”
The man raised one fist. Teres saw him point.
“For you, my glorious [Architect]. This—Skill is for you. [The King’s Architect]!”
He bellowed the Skill. And Teres saw—the King of Destruction disappear.
For a moment, time slowed across the city of Sadomere. Which was—when you got down to it, a shitty name for a city, wasn’t it? And what terrible architecture!
“Sadomere. What is that, a name of a horse? Maybe a horse designed these walls.”
Teres heard a man’s voice. And she saw an old, grumpy man walking across the walls. In between the galloping horses’ hooves hitting the ground, he strode, looking around the broken rubble. And beside him strode a man.
“Yes, yes. The name is bad. I’ll rename it something appropriate. Drevish’s Posthumous Masterpiece, or some such. Can we fix it?”
“If you name the city that, I’ll design a guillotine so you can kill yourself. Come on, we have work to do. [Riders], huh? And [Archers] and [Mages]. How do you get yourself into these messes?”
For a moment, the old man’s annoyed voice passed Teres. And she saw him glancing past her, through her. Seeing only the city. What it was, and could be. And the [King] walked with him.
But he too was—a memory. The real King of Destruction stood on the walls a heartbeat later, staring after him. Teres breathed.
The [Architect], a memory of him, turned. And Flos Reimarch raised a hand.
“Drevish! My [Architect]!”
For a moment, his voice was pained. And he cried across the wall to the man in the distance. Reaching out at an illusion. Teres saw the white-haired figure bow. And the city changed around them.
Time snapped back to reality. Jecrass’ charging [Riders] saw the gaps in the city. They charged through, screaming, upon the unprepared army of the King of Destruction. And saw—too late—the angled ramps, poised in the gaps to break their charge. Stone itself had reshaped to create the barriers, wide enough to allow infantry to fight in, but perfect to halt any number of horses.
The [Riders] tried to stop, but they crashed into the barricades as the infantry swarmed them. And the walls—Teres turned.
“Arrows! Take cover!”
Someone screamed. But the arrows that rained down on the walls from the elite [Archers] all missed. The young woman lowered her shield. And she saw—along the walls, now with rebuilt defenses that created total cover from above and the sides for archers, more like tunnels with crenellations than battlements—another addition.
Statues. They were huge, imposing, rising along the walls, practically drawing the eye. And they drew more than that. Arrows curved through the air to smack the statues in the face rather than the defenders. Magical interception. Flos’ [Archers] rained down on the other army.
The King of Destruction blinked at the statues taunting their foes. He leaned over the battlements for a view.
“Is that—are they all wearing Orthenon’s face?”
Teres stared and her jaw dropped. They were indeed, larger-than-life versions of Orthenon, scowl perfectly captured. The [Stewards] stood amid the rain of spells and arrows, bits of the magical stone being blasted away. And the skill had done more than that.
“General Lael! The city’s changed! We’re receiving fire from—”
One of the Jecrassian [Soldiers] shouted at the [General] commanding the siege. She stared up at some impossibly high towers.
“What in the name of unicorns is that?”
Flos turned. A number of insanely high watchtowers had been constructed. As tall as skyscrapers. And the [Archers] on top—after getting over their acrophobia—were raining down arrows on the enemy with unparalleled range.
“Those are Drevish’s experimental Skytowers! He swore they’d be the best thing for [Marksmen]! Orthenon and I told him they’d be knocked over in an instant!”
The King of Destruction and Teres looked around. The city was transformed. Gone were the wide streets; they were now narrow, with choke points. The gates had been reinforced and given a second layer of portcullises just to stymie attackers.
And all with the stone available. As if the [Architect] had simply moved stone and masonry around, enchanted a few objects. Flos looked about his city. Teres stared at the Skytowers, jutting out from the sides of the city, inordinately high and casting shadows, the tight houses, the weird horse-traps. She was the one who said it.
“This place is a nightmare of a city to live in!”
Flos Reimarch began to laugh.
“It is! But it’s the perfect thing to beat an army, isn’t it? Especially this army?”
Indeed, the [Mages] were sending tremors into the ground and finding the city’s foundations were beyond solid. The two gaps in the wall were turning into kill zones. And—the King of Destruction looked about. His laughter ceased. And he looked at Teres.
“Drevish. One of my Seven. Immortalized in my Skill. It is beyond fitting. The other two—I would like to see them again, Teres.”
He quieted. And as the horns began to blow a retreat, the King of Destruction stood on his battlements. Remembering a man Teres had never met. And as she looked at the crazy architecture, all the experimental designs, like the slanted bowl the enemy army would have to run down and up to get to the inner city, the statues of Orthenon—and the ones with the stupid faces the [Steward] would have never made—she wished she’d met him too.
The war continued. King Raelt’s armies fell back, as Sadomere, rechristened Drevish’s Madness, became a linchpin of the King of Destruction’s defensive line. But the King of Challenges refused to retreat. And his nation refused to surrender to the King of Destruction. And either way it seemed like Flos Reimarch won.
The largest port-city of Pheislant was known as Phel’s Light. After a [King] who had created…
A lighthouse. Or rather, a citadel whose tallest, central structure was the lighthouse. The magical beam illuminated the sea. Guiding ships to shore and helping them navigate the dark cliffs and treacherous shoals at night.
Phel’s Light was, like Zeres, Lailight Scintillation, First Landing, and the other port capitals of the world, a very important place. For it was where goods flowed through. And having good relations with Pheislant was thus important.
Terandria had a few big ports. Among them—the Lord of the Dance’s city. Lord Belchaus was infamous for keeping his waters free of marauders. Even in wartime.
But his port wasn’t the best for ah…illicit cargos. Or [Slaves]. Or a lot of things. If you were at odds with Lord Bel, or his nation, it was wise to steer clear of his waters.
And Pheislant’s harbors were frankly better. On the southwestern edge of Terandria, they permitted more easy access to Baleros, Chandrar, and Izril. Lord Bel’s harbors were further to the east. Why stop there if you could go to Phel’s Light?
All that meant simply that…Phel’s Light had all kinds of business for anyone who was anyone in Terandria. And as evening fell across Pheislant, a particular group was awaiting a very special ship.
Knight-Commander Calirn of the Order of Seasons stood on the docks. Keeping a vigil. He had personally come from the Order of Seasons’ headquarters—which was not very far as they were headquartered in Pheislant, technically on their own lands, but allied with the Terandrian Kingdom—to attend this somber gathering.
He was not alone. Some members of the Order of Spring were there, and a few keepers from the Order of Fall, to record the moment. No other Knights of Winter; but theirs was a small and solitary season. They would pass the vigil alone, mourn alone.
The most populous group was the Order of Summer, however. The Knights of Summer stood on the deck, nearly forty of them. They had all requested it. They were waiting.
Not just the Order of Seasons either. Six other Knighthood Orders were waiting on the docks. The Order of Ram, the Thronebearers—from Kaliv and Calanfer respectively—had greeted Calirn when he arrived on the docks. They were small orders. Not nearly as vast as the Order of Seasons, which was one of the largest in Terandria, part of Pheislant’s might.
The other orders were smaller too—but for one. Order of the Thirsting Veil. They stood opposite the Order of Seasons and Calirn had not greeted them. Not out of any personal enmity. But because they were Ailendamus’ [Knights]. And relations were—strained between the vast kingdom of Ailendamus who was threatening war and Pheislant, their enemies.
Normally, Calirn would have warned the hotheads of his order—the [Summer Knights] and young, impetuous [Spring Knights] not to start a conflict. But there was no fear of that today.
The [Knights] waited in silence. They were all here waiting for the same ship. A special ship, that only [Knights] used, really.
A funeral barge. It was shared among [Knights]. And it collected their remains at every port. Sometimes bodies; usually ashes. Calirn awaited ashes. They were easy to transport and a Courier could be hired to take them. As in this case.
Normally, [Knights] were buried where they fell. Only their belongings were brought back. But sometimes they had family. Loved ones who needed the closure. Sometimes, it was an honor, or just the practice of the order—like how the Thronebearers insisted on it.
In this case, it was both. The man who had died had perished in a quest to avenge his love. And he had asked—she had asked Calirn—that they be buried together. Even though the man had failed, Calirn would honor their request.
In ash, he sailed across the waters. A fallen [Knight]. An extinguished flame. Ser Raim of the Season of Summer had tried to burn away the Spider of Terandria, the [Witch]. Belavierr.
He had failed.
There was nothing more to it. He had come so close. But his mortal body had betrayed him before his radiant soul. Calirn bowed his head.
Raim was the highest-leveled [Knight] who had died here, by far. He could sense the other Orders looking at him, wondering who had died. Some probably knew. Raim had been powerful. A [Knight] of his level could change the course of battles. Defeat the greatest of monsters.
He would be missed. And Calirn would not forget the Stitch Witch’s further sin on her list of transgressions against his Order.
But today? He just stood there. Reflecting on his faults, that had led to Ser Raim and the [Hunter]’s deaths. For he was Knight-Commander Calirn. And he was responsible for leading his order to war. For making decisions that would lead to the death of his [Knights].
As he awaited the barge, Calirn was silent. But he was aware of a shifting in the ranks around him. At last, the [Winter Knight] raised his white-haired head—as white as the snow which he could call with the power of his aura—and looked about.
“What is it?”
“[Knight Commander], it was just a minor quarrel—we are ashamed to break your concentration!”
Shamefaced, two of the [Spring Knights] clasped their fists to their chests. Calirn looked at them.
One of the Knights of the Spring hesitated. But the other, young, female, came out with it. Her cheeks flushed as she spoke.
“I—I mean no disrespect to the people of Phel’s Light, Knight-Commander! But I feel it is a—a disgrace!”
Calirn gave her a blank look. The [Knight] gestured around. The docks were mostly empty. Or at least—this berth was. It was reserved for the barge, after all, so the docks themselves and the walkway on the harbor front were empty.
The [Knights] were there—and their [Squires], a few others who had ridden with them or were related to their causes—and a handful of pedestrians. Calirn regarded them. The Spring Knight went on.
“We are gathered here to honor our [Knights]! They have died far from Terandria’s soil and return home now! It is public knowledge. There should be a crowd. There have been, but—”
She looked around, frustrated. Calirn understood. Usually there was a large gathering of people, who would honor the fallen [Knights] even if they didn’t know who it was. But today?
No. Only the closest relatives. Calirn looked at the young [Knight].
“Knight Zidele, I understand your frustration. However—we have sworn an oath to perform our duties. Not for reward or fame or crowds. That we are here is what matters, do you understand? If people do not wish to join our occasion, what reason have we to begrudge them. Should we demand a [Baker] neglect his or her livelihood to attend?”
Zidele flushed at the reprimand. She bowed her head.
“No, Knight-Commander. It’s only—if it were that, I would understand. But as I understand it—they are attending another event.”
Calirn looked at her, blankly. Zidele’s voice had drawn the attention of the other knight orders. He sensed them listening in, turning their heads as most without helmets waited for the barge.
“Other event? What is that, Knight Zidele?”
The young woman hesitated.
“The—concert. By the Queen of Pop, Knight-Commander. She arrived in this city not two hours ago. They are all there. Rather than here.”
“The Queen of…Pop?”
The Queen of Pop. The Siren of Songs. The Baroness of the Beat. All of these titles were…self-proclaimed. She was not, in actual fact, royalty.
But her followers treated her like that. In Phel’s Light, the streets were flooded. Visitors had come streaming into the city, and even the nobility and a monarch was in the city.
A [Prince], in actual fact. The 3rd Prince of Pheislant. And two young [Ladies]—an actual [Baroness], the daughter of a [Baron] from Calanfer—and so many more had arrived in the city.
Because the Queen of Pop, the world’s first [Popstar]—was coming to perform in Phel’s Light today. And the crowds? They were going nuts.
Much to the bemusement of anyone who didn’t get it, actually. People not in the know, usually older adults, shook their heads or just stared at the younger generations lining the streets as the first coaches pulled through. They cheered madly, screaming.
“Queen of Pop! Queen of Pop!”
“Sing for us!”
“I love you! Please marry—”
That was the [Prince]. Besotted, he’d been to the last six concerts. The enigmatic, famous [Singer] had been performing her way south to Pheislant. And her fame was still growing.
She had changed Terandria. Her songs were reaching even the most refined of monarch’s courts in the form of ‘albums’, magical crystals that recorded sound and played them back. That wasn’t new of course; people had recorded speeches, music, and so on before.
But the Queen of Pop’s music was different. It had a…beat. A kind of flow and style and instruments this world had never dreamed of. It was pop, in a world that hadn’t even discovered rock, let alone funk or jazz or…
Instruments. The Siren of Song had an entire caravan, including wagons with her team and their belongings. She was known to have very strict requirements. And—she was also a private person.
The [Singer] wasn’t even visible, but some of her fellow performers, her band, were waving to the crowds. They were shouting and screaming and waving at the young men and women perched on the coaches or staring out the windows. And—for the befuddled [Knights] or anyone else who saw it, that was amazing. Because a [Knight] was a minor celebrity in most places outside of a city. But this?
This was fame as the world had seldom seen it. Knight-Commander Calirn actually heard the cheering as the Baroness of the Beats rolled in. The other [Knights] grumbled.
“Disgraceful. Knight-Commander, perhaps young Zidele is right. This isn’t fitting for…”
One of the [Summer Knights] murmured. Calirn turned his head.
“Ignore it. Or would you like to lodge a complaint with Prince Tellsiv of Pheislant?”
The [Summer Knight] closed his mouth. But his eyes flashed, suggesting he would like to do that very thing regardless of the politics. The cheering was wild, noisesome—
They were at a wake. The other orders shifted. At last, one of the Thronebearers coughed and walked over. He bowed stiffly but politely; his golden armor polished to perfection.
“Knight-Commander Calirn, I am Ser Dalimont of the Thronebearers of Calanfer. The Thronebrearers of the Eternal Throne of Calanfer greet you on this dark day. If it is not troublesome in this moment, may we speak of inconsequential matters before the arrival of our lost fallen?”
Calirn saw the [Summer Knight] turn his head to hide a grimace. The [Knight Commander] himself winced; the Thronebearers actually took lessons in their flowery language, along with actual combat training. But he rose from his kneeling posture and nodded.
“Of course, Ser Dalimont. Please, let us dispense with formality.”
Ser Dalimont relaxed, and looked relieved himself. He nodded and stepped closer. He was—probably—close to Level 30. Calirn could see the man’s natural aura. Not a trained thing, like the Order of Season’s higher-level [Knights]. But the Thronebearers had different Skills than the Order of Seasons, which used their auras in battle.
Calirn could turn the cold air that surrounded him into a freezing vortex. Make his blade so cold it would cause frostbite in any cut. Even make a shield of ice from it. He was a [Winter Knight]; his comrades from the other seasons could make flame, hasten their steps—it was the power of one’s aura, their embodiment of nature.
But Ser Dalimont was lower-level. And his order was smaller. He bowed again to the [Knight Commander], a grandmaster.
“I apologize for breaking your concentration, Grandmaster Calirn. However, if I may—is it true one of your champions has fallen?”
He looked at the large gathering. Calirn inclined his head heavily.
“Yes, Ser Dalimont. One of our best. Ser Raim. His prowess in battle was all but unmatched.”
Dalimont’s eyes widened. He knew the man’s name.
“A terrible blow to your order. May I ask what enemy took his life?”
“I regret that I cannot say, Ser. Only that it is a pernicious foe of Terandria. One who triumphed this day. But our war continues.”
The Thronebearer [Knight] bowed his head.
“Only naturally. All enemies will one day fall. And on that topic—the news from Chandrar is dire, is it not? Another nation battles the King of Destruction. My Order has debated crusading to Chandrar, but we are too few to push against such a foe. Only if dozens of [Knight] orders were to join such an effort might we throw back the King of Destruction. And even then, we would need the backing of a number of nations.”
Calirn had been having those very thoughts of late. But he saw where Dalimont was going with this—as careful as a [Courtier], the Thronebearers. He nodded and cut to the chase.
“Naturally, that would be best for the world. But I fear Terandria is far from united, Ser Dalimont. The possibility of war with Ailendamus makes cooperation unlikely.”
Both [Knights] turned. The Order of the Thirsting Veil, in their dark armor and somber gear—smelling vaguely of the poisons they loved to use—stood at attention. Dalimont’s brow darkened, but Calirn was a [Knight]. He made no pretense, but raised his voice.
“Ser Knights of the Thirsting Veil. May we speak candidly, as befits those of honor?”
The [Knights] looked up. They looked to their leader—a woman who used a long greatsword. She strode over. Like Calirn and Dalimont, her helmet was off.
“Grandmaster Calirn, I am Dame Hevlca. The Thirsting Veil greets you. Is aught the matter?”
Her words were clipped, precise. Very straightforward. Calirn nodded to her as Dalimont shifted uneasily.
“No direct issue, Dame Hevlca. More concern for the future of our orders and Terandria. I speak with utmost informality; this pressing war with Ailendamus may lead to our orders clashing. Or do you disagree?”
The woman blinked. And some of the other [Knights] in earshot looked up. One of the other four orders drifted closer. This wasn’t exactly improper, but Calirn was being unusually direct.
And yet—the Order of the Thirsting Veil was known to Calirn. They used poison. Yes. And their armor was black. But their hearts were pure. They were [Knights]. If anything, the Thronebearers had a more sullied history of obeying the crown over their conscience. She nodded slowly.
“We are conscious of that fact, Grandmaster. But we serve Ailendamus. The Thirsting Veil is not as—detached as the Order of Seasons. A fact my fellow [Knights] and I have reflected on.”
In that they were tools of war to pursue conquest, not just defenders of the peace. Calirn and the other [Knights] nodded, hearing the words that would never be spoken aloud. It was as close to criticism as they would hear from Hevlca—her other [Knights] looked uneasy at even that.
“Nevertheless. If war threatens, each Order must stand with its nation. Is there no chance Ailendamus’ [King] will relent?”
The woman’s eyes flickered.
“…Little. As it stands, the southern kingdoms have past quarrels with Ailendamus. And the northern kingdoms are disinterested in further conflicts. Their eyes turn to crusades abroad.”
War with the Drakes, or Chandrar, or Baleros. Calirn grimaced. Terandria fought abroad; the Humans would unite against any invader, but they loved making colonies. Chandrar had been the last target and the King of Destruction had liberated Terandrian satellite nations. But Hevlca had no reason to lie. The other nations were more interested in attacking other species than curtailing Ailendamus’ growing power.
“Then Calanfer, Kaliv, and Gaiil-Drome will go to war against Ailendamus. And so will its [Knights]. Candidly—Pheislant has no reason to support Ailendamus and many reasons to oppose it. But I do not know if the Order of Seasons marches to war.”
Hevcla nodded, looking warily at Ser Dalimont. The Thronebearer was sizing her up as well.
“It would be regrettable. But my Order is bound by our oaths.”
“As is mine, Dame Hevcla.”
Dalimont replied stiffly. Calirn sighed. He was trying to…mediate. It was of little use he knew, but something had to be done.
“It seems we have more common enemies than each other, Dame Hevcla, Ser Dalimont. The King of Destruction. The Demons of Rhir. I would be pleased if you could bear my thoughts back to your Grandmasters. At the very least, I ask that fewer [Knights] be sent to war. That we may have fewer occasions to mark such moments.”
He looked pointedly towards the waiting [Knights] on the docks. Hevcla and Dalimont looked at Calirn. And both bowed.
“As you say, Grandmaster. Perhaps there is time for dialogue.”
At least between the knightly orders. If they could agree to send less of their [Knights] to the frontlines, the war would be less bloody. Weaken each nation less. Calirn sighed.
So much for diplomacy. He was a [Winter Knight], and far less suited to political maneuvering or flattery. He was, like Hevcla, straight to the point. She at least, appreciated that. The woman drew closer and Ser Dalimont stood back with the others for a moment as she murmured to Calirn.
“One hopes the war will be an empty clash soon followed by treaties and ransoms, Grandmaster Calirn. Or a lesser forfeit. But candidly—Ailendamus has been approaching Izril’s Five Families for support. The Wellfar family for naval assistance—it is even rumored his Majesty may offer a lesser cousin of the throne’s hand in marriage. In exchange for aid, of course.”
The Knight-Commander’s brows snapped together. Wellfar? Izril’s nobility sometimes joined into Terandrian wars. If that was the case…Ailendamus wanted to win this war, not just capture troops and some land.
“Dire news, Dame Hevcla. Thank you for telling me.”
She nodded. And in her eyes the knowledge that this might lead the Order of Seasons to oppose Ailendamus was forefront. But perhaps the Order of Thirsting Veils did not want to see the three Terandrian kingdoms conquered. An empire was a terrible thing.
Honor and duty. That was a [Knight]’s life. She stepped back to her order after bowing. And then Ser Dalimont approached.
“You do us a service, Grandmaster Calirn. My order agrees this is…disadvantageous. We hope the Order of Seasons sees it the same way. Frankly speaking.”
As close to bluntness as he got. The Thronebearers had to be worried about war. Calirn nodded, and then Ser Dalimont offered his private words.
“Candidly, Grandmaster…my order is prepared for the worst. As is Calanfer. I too may not speak of my errands…but I soon depart via ship with one of my fellow [Knights] on a mission of great importance after we welcome our fallen. Calanfer would not wish—enemies—in this war from abroad.”
He had been listening in. Calirn looked at the man and Dalimont blushed. Thronebearers. They played too much politics. Stiffly, Calirn looked at Hevcla.
“One would hope Calanfer pursues its goals with dignity, Ser Dalimont.”
The man’s cheeks flamed. He bowed again.
“Of course, Ser Calirn. I offer this information as—a token of trust. We too are exploring…alliances. But the waters are muddied.”
Odd. Calanfer had two eligible [Princesses] they could marry off. As well as the lesser nobility. Unless—had the 2nd [Princess] remarried? But that still left one…
Calirn’s head hurt with the politics of it all. Still, Dalimont was giving the information in friendship. He nodded slowly.
“If Ailendamus should push—Pheislant will decide where it stands. Apart, perhaps, or with little aid. But the Order of Seasons will not let a sovereign nation fall so easily. That is all I may say.”
“Thank you, Grandmaster.”
The relief that came from Dalimont was palpable. It was a dangerous pledge, Calirn knew, but he would never have changed his mind. The [Knight Commander] was about to ask Dalimont more, push for more information before the barge arrived—when he heard a roar in the distance.
The Queen of Pop had emerged from her carriage. She was…radiant. Her clothes, makeup, even the way she was poised as the wagon’s doors opened and it slowed to let her step out and greet her fans—all of it spoke to a different world’s culture.
But this world was learning fast. People flooded forwards and were stopped by the line of [Bodyguards] hired to escort the famous singer.
“Excuse me! I’m a [Prince]! Singer! Miss Cara, it’s me! Make way! Make—”
The [Prince] of Pheislant wasn’t getting through the crowd. The others were cheering wildly, asking to shake the [Singer] of Terandria’s hand as she went across the crowd, doing just that, smiling, laughing.
The air around her was electric. Personality, force of will—even people who didn’t know the Singer of Terandria felt drawn to her, like metal to a magnet. She was laughing, excited, blowing kisses and talking with her audience as her fellow band members did the same. One of the young men with a guitar saw the [Baroness] and began talking with her as she stared at him with admiration.
Ser Dalimont grimaced at the wild noise breaking the silence of the harbor. Calirn resisted the urge to clench his jaw.
It didn’t matter. The [Knights] had died and their honor wasn’t tarnished by lack of attention. And yet—it did matter. Their sacrifice should not be overshadowed by…
He stood there, waiting for the ship to come in. And the [Popstar] brought the streets of Phel’s Light to a standstill.
“People, people! We’ll be performing in thirty minutes! The Singer needs her privacy! Thank you!”
The [Manager] of the tour, a young woman from earth, bellowed into the crowd, her voice amplified by her Skill. They backed off—if only because it was true the wagons needed to set up. The Singer of Terandria had been given the largest plaza to perform in and the wagons were moving into it.
Setting up so everyone could see her perform. The crews that came with her were experienced; they were already putting up a circular stage with bags of holding, and a pair of [Illusionists] were getting ready.
But the main star and her band were all in a single wagon. Oh, they had special effects. Makeup. Props. But the song was the thing. And while the [Singer]’s crew moved around the wagons, getting ready, no one, absolutely no one was allowed in the private wagon that belonged to the Queen of Pop.
Only her closest confidants were allowed in there. As the self-styled ‘Queen of Pop’ disappeared into her wagon with her band, a group of eight sighed and relaxed.
One of them, the young man with a guitar, was protesting at the wagon.
“Come on. Just a peek? She’s a [Baroness]. Just for a moment. Ask Cara if—”
“Absolutely not. You know the rules.”
The [Manager] snapped back at the [Guitarist]. She smiled at the disappointed [Baroness] and her friends, who were clustered around the young man. His cheeks were flushed, but the [Ladies] dropped the matter first.
“We hope we can speak with the Singer later?”
The [Baroness]’s friends looked at the young man with the guitar. He blushed.
“Of course! I’ll make it happen. After the concert…”
The noise faded as he climbed into the wagon. The entire vehicle was perfectly sealed against outside noise. It was also enchanted to be bigger on the inside than the outside.
There were even sofas, a kitchen in the back…it was a mobile base. Costly, but the Queen of Pop had bought it and renovated it. Now, the band relaxed.
And they were a band. Aside from the [Manager] and one young man from Argentina who was setting up their electronics—he had a pair of speakers connected to a laptop—the rest of the band had instruments.
A [Drummer], a [Bassist], the lead guitar…each one of them had an instrument they could play. Or…pretend to play. After all, the songs were augmented by actual music from the laptop and speakers.
But a few of them were actual musicians. The [Drummer] for instance, needed no help. He’d been an actual member of his band back from home. The [Guitarist]…? Not so much.
The [Singer] was real, though. Before her band, she’d sung alone, with only karaoke music on an iPhone enhanced by a spell for backup. She had become the Queen of Pop, the beloved icon sweeping across Terandria, creating a wave of music and a new culture among young folk.
As the door closed, the Singer smiled at the awestruck young [Ladies], her fans. Then the door shut. The [Manager] locked it. And the [Guitarist]—winced as the [Popstar]’s smile vanished.
“Stop listenin’ to the plámásing cunts thats yer wan I wouldn’t let in here you stupid fook.”
Cara O’Sullivan strode over and poked the [Guitarist]—Greg—in the chest. Hard. She stopped smiling. And her natural accent—Irish—came out. The rest of the band…looked at each other, trying to figure out what she’d said.
Greg blinked at the young woman. She was dressed like a star. Literally. Her dress glittered. Sequins had been involved, heavily, and her makeup hid natural blemishes, gave her that look that was usually only attainable with illusion spells or image-editing software.
Cara calmed down. She looked around and her accent disappeared. She switched over to the voice everyone normally heard.
A blend of American and British, heavier on the British side—very crisp, and quick. It was a disconcerting change. She smiled at Greg.
“I said—stop listening to those flattering cunts, you stupid fucking idiot. They don’t come in here. No one does!”
She snapped and the young man backed up.
“It was just for a second, Cara—”
“Shut it. You’re a damn idiot, Greg.”
“Yeah, shut the hell up, Greg.”
The [Drummer], whose name was Thien, leaned over and scowled. He was Vietnamese. The others called out insults as well.
“Get laid somewhere else. And if you mess with those [Ladies] and one of them gets pregnant, her parents will have you killed.”
The [Manager] snapped. She was Nigerian. Almost every person in the wagon was from a different country; well, there were two people from Argentina. Cara nodded.
“You know your job. You strum on that guitar and you don’t cause trouble. We can replace you. If you try to show off in a guitar solo again or crowd-surf when the guitar is still playing on the audio track, I will neuter you.”
She poked Greg in the chest. The young man backed up.
“Hey! I’m just trying to enjoy myself!”
Cara made a disgusted noise. She stalked over to the sofa and sat down. She grabbed a glass of water and began to hydrate.
“This isn’t about enjoying yourself. This is a job. We’re not rockstars. And this isn’t Earth. Greg, you’re new, so you don’t get it. I’m not a [Popstar].”
“That’s your class, though.”
The young man paused uncertainly. Cara rolled her eyes. She jabbed a finger at her chest, taking care not to mess the dress as she reached out.
“Where’s the lyrics? Anyone?”
“Here. These are our songs—”
The [Singer] began to read as she spoke back, irritably.
“I’m not a [Popstar]. I’m a damn [Thespian]. This is an act. I have two classes. And as far as I’m concerned, I’m acting. I sing my songs—which are not mine—and we make money. But I don’t like those idiots out there.”
She nodded to the carriage. Cara paused, raised one finger.
“And by those idiots, I mean that [Prince], our noble ‘fans’, and the monarchy. From Pheislant to Ailendamus—it’s all [Kings] and [Queens]. We’re in a feudal system and the rich stay on top.”
“Like home, you mean.”
One of the others joked. Cara sighed.
“I hate the social order that keeps people oppressed. I hate the nobility, the monarchy, and the poncing superior bastards like the [Knights] who step on smaller folk, even the nice ones. I hate feudality and hierarchy and all of this shit.”
She looked around. And that was the [Singer] of Terandria. She had—opinions. Her band, all from Earth, looked at her. Greg sat in a corner and tried practicing on his guitar.
“Abebi, what’s this I’m hearing about a…ship? Some kind of funeral?”
The [Manager] grimaced.
“Sorry, Cara. Apparently some of the dead [Knights] are coming back by ship today. Right as we’re performing.”
“Fuck. Do we have to stop or something? Delay the concert?”
One of the other exclaimed. Abebi shook her head.
“No. But the [Knights] aren’t happy. [Prince]…whoever is in charge, though, so it’s fine.”
“Damn. Another fucking complication. I’ll deal with it. Just follow my lead. No—Thien—listen up…”
Cara thought out loud. And Thien and some of the older band members including their electronics expert, Nicolas, hurried over to confer. Because this band really was something of a front. They had been recruited, given roles. But the phenomenon that was the Singer of Terandria had started and stopped with Cara.
She had been the one to find them. The one whose songs they’d heard and she had gathered them from across Terandria. They weren’t even the only Earthers. There were others, just not travelling with the band.
“…Okay. Okay, that’s the plan. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But let’s go with that.”
“Are you sure? We haven’t practiced playing on the move, Cara—”
The [Bassist] was worried as she checked her guitar. It was one from this world—enchanted to play louder and closer to an electric bass. She was also capable of playing it with most songs. Cara just nodded.
“Follow my lead. If you make mistakes, I’ll cover for you. Except if some idiot tries a shithead stunt!”
She shouted and Greg ducked his head, turning red. Some of the others winced in sympathy for him; Cara was not kind when she was upset.
“I just don’t get it, Cara. I know we’re performing, but why try so hard? We could do an hour’s playing and walk off. You said it yourself; we are just making money. And looking around.”
The Irish [Singer] glared at Abebi. But she moderated her tone.
“Abebi. I mean every word I said. But did you see how many people came here? Forget that [Prince]; there’s a city full of kids and people who came to see us. Who pay for tickets even if they don’t have much. So when we bring it—when I go out there—I give it my all.”
The others looked at Cara. And they could see she was gearing up. The [Actor], the [Singer]—was wearing a look of utmost concentration as she read over the lyrics.
She was an interesting person, Cara. She’d found them. She was the highest-leveled among them. And she did have the [Pop Star] class, along with her second class—[Thespian]. The combined Skills and her ability to sing and channel their world’s culture of stardom had given her this fame and comparative fortune. Everyone else rode on her coattails—if she’d worn them.
“Alright, where’s my plagiarism log?”
Someone tossed it at her. Cara marked down which songs they were going to use. She kept a record of it.
“Why do you have that, Cara?”
The [Bassist], Rae, from France, asked. Cara glanced up.
“It keeps me honest. Plus, if we ever get back to Earth—I can give something back. These aren’t my songs, Rae. We’re playing our world’s best hits. That’s why the ‘Singer of Terandria’ is the most famous person right now.”
It was true. Cara had sung everything from modern pop hits that had come right out right when she’d been transported to this world to classics, like Sinatra’s song, My Way. And she could sing.
“I’m a bit nervous, Cara. I’ve only done this—four times.”
Rae confessed. She wasn’t used to the crowds, and she was terrified of messing up. Her hands were shaking as she adjusted the guitar. Cara’s face softened. She reached out.
“Don’t worry, Rae. People have fucked it up before. I can cover for you all. If you’re not sure, just look confident.”
“But—I feel like a fake.”
The young woman confessed. Cara smiled crookedly. She took another gulp of water.
“That’s fine, Rae. We are faking. Just pretend. My class—all of this is fake. You think I looked like this when I came here? Nah. I was chubby. I lost weight when I gained Skills. Even my face changed.”
She gestured to her statuesque appearance. Rae’s jaw dropped.
“Absolutely. You just stick with me. And we’ll be fine.”
The [Singer] smiled. And Rae, relieved, nodded. She stepped back. And as Cara stood up, her band looked at her. Thien, Nicolas, Rae—even Greg. The [Singer] turned her head; even through the soundproofed magic, she could hear a dull roar.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Our audience is waiting. Let’s not disappoint them.”
They drew inspiration from her. And as Cara threw open the door, she smiled. And it looked genuine. Maybe it was. She raised her hand and became the Queen of Pop.
“People of Pheislant! I am delighted you came out for me!”
The woman’s voice was audible across the city. People who didn’t know what was happening looked up, as the screaming redoubled. Some of them grimaced. But the Queen of Pop didn’t waste time.
“I’m honored. And I hope you’ll listen to my little songs. My shining stars of Terandria.”
That was what she called them. The Singer walked across her stage, waving as her band took their places. The [Illusionists] began to cast their spells. [Darkness], literally dimming the sun shining down from above. Amplifying the other instruments—although the [Singer] had a Skill of her own. Even a reverb in her voice.
“Let’s get this started with a classic.”
The [Popstar] turned and pointed to Nicolas. He hit a button—and an electric piano began to play. The crowd cheered—then went silent. Rae began playing the chords on her guitar.
And that familiar song began to play. The Singer began to sing into the magical microphone she used. At the right moment, Greg broke in with his guitar.
The music flooded Phel’s Light. Loud enough that even the [Knights] on the deck, heard it, although too faintly for exact words. But the people not in the plaza looked up. And the music spoke to them.
A song from Earth. One of pop’s greatest hits. Timeless, even if parts changed. A song about a boy and a girl on a train at midnight.
Cara’s voice rose, and the audience swayed back and forth, shouting as Greg took the center of the stage for his guitar. But the [Popstar] shone—especially as the [Illusionists] conjured magical beams of light to follow her.
From her position, watching, Abebi saw Rae nervously playing. Greg had no nerves, but he was restraining himself from showing off. That was, sadly, what made him so good in the band, despite his inability to actually play.
The rest of the band was doing good. And Cara was as good as her word. She attracted the eye as she sang.
Of course, the famed song by Journey was a hit. The audience had probably heard it on the magical crystals already. But that was the thing—the hit of the year and possibly the decade or century was the song the Singer of Terandria opened with. And with just a short break, the next song began completely differently.
A pair of backup [Singers], native Terandrians, grabbed the microphone. They joined Cara and two members of her band. And she disappeared behind a screen. Came out strutting. With a hat and casual suit. She grinned as Thien began to lay down a fast beat.
This time, the [Popstar] came out dancing. But she wasn’t channeling the classic ‘King of Pop’ from her world.
Abebi made a note on her clipboard. They’d already done a lot of classics, so they kept on adding new songs in. Different performances so the crowd always had something new, even if they were repeat viewers, like the [Prince].
Cara insisted. She cared about her audience, for all she claimed to hate the act. You could never tell, seeing her on stage, channeling all the showmanship into her dancing and singing with her crew.
The audience was going nuts. The [Illusionists] had to cast a blanket [Silence] spell just to give the music the volume it needed. Uptown Funk was new—they’d be selling the magical crystals after the show.
“Miss Abebi—that thing you wanted to watch out for. The ship’s coming in!”
One of the stagehands whispered to Abebi as the Singer of Terandria launched into another song she’d taken from home. Abebi cursed.
“Already? Fine—I’ll get to Cara. Get ready! Tell the [Illusionists]!”
She hurried to the side of the stage. The [Bodyguards], keeping the others back, saw Abebi and let her through. Cara noticed—somehow—and held up a hand after she finished her next song.
“One moment, please! We might have another new song for you all!”
She leaned down and Abebi shouted up to her above the roar of the crowd.
“The ship’s coming in!”
Cara’s eyes sharpened. The Singer of Terandria rose. And she nodded at Thien.
“Hit it, Thien. My lovely stars! We have something new this time! If you’ll follow me—we have somewhere we need to be.”
Thien left his drumset. He grabbed another drum. Terandria had a lot of the instruments that Earth did. Not the same, but close. No pianos, which is what Cara wanted, along with some brass instruments and electronics, obviously.
But they had drums for war. Cara looked at the rest of the band. Rae jumped. She left the stage as the audience, confused, looked at each other.
“Somewhere to be?”
But then the [Singer] began to sing. And Thien grabbed the drum and a large, rounded mallet. He hooked the drum to his front. Because he wasn’t using a normal drum, a drumline. And he began a rhythmic beat that went through the ground.
Cara motioned, and her backup singers nodded. She pointed, and Thien stepped off the stage. The [Bodyguards] fought to clear them a path, but the [Singer] cleared the path herself. Her audience moved back as she walked with her band, following Thien.
They were playing a marching song. Marchin On—to the beat, as the [Singer] began to walk out of the plaza. And her audience followed.
Knight-Commander Calirn was in a poor mood. The music in the background had been echoing for a good fifteen minutes. And—while some of the [Spring Knights] had begun tapping their feet surreptitiously to the music, it was noise from this far away.
And now—the funeral barge was incoming. And the music was still playing. The [Knight Commander] closed his eyes. The other [Knights] were shifting, looking at each other.
It was even growing louder. Calirn’s brows twitched. He was about to demand a [Silence] spell from his Knights of the Autumn, as disgraceful as that would be. When he heard a voice.
Knight Zidele pointed. And Calirn turned his head as the distant ship drifted into the harbor. He heard a female voice, joined by a few others, singing energetically. To the beat of a heavy drum he felt in his boots.
“Why is that music growing—”
He snapped, and then stopped. Because the Singer of Terandria walked into the harbor. And behind her—came the city.
The marching band stopped. And the audience the Queen of Pop had lured out of the plaza halted, piling onto the harbor front, around the crews. The [Knights] turned and stared at the thousands.
And there was the Queen of Pop. The catchy, pop song stopped as the beating drum trailed off. Some people began to cheer—but she lifted a hand.
And she had an aura. As strong as Calirn had ever seen in a [Singer]. The Singer raised her hand—and her fans, her audience, saw the black barge.
They fell silent as it drifted into the harbor. The [Knights] turned. And they saw the ship and knelt. Knight-Commander Calirn bowed as Ser Raim returned home. And out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Singer of Terandria copy the gesture.
She knelt. Her audience saw her take a knee and followed suit, awkwardly. They bowed, or knelt, and realized what was happening.
“Knights of the Seasons. Let the Season of Summer welcome our fallen brethren.”
Calirn’s voice was suddenly the only sound in the silence. The people of Phel’s Light, tens of thousands, looked on. Suddenly somber. Gazing upon the [Knights] as they were brought from the ship.
It shouldn’t matter. Not really. But it did. Calirn saw the ashes brought forth. He bowed his head as the [Knights] walked, bearing their comrade. They turned—and the tens of thousands parted slowly. Allowing them room.
It was the largest gathering for such a moment Calirn could remember since the war against the Drakes as a child. He saw the Queen of Pop, the Singer, bowing her head. And he nodded to her, all of his objections forgotten.
In silence, the [Knights] escorted their own through the silent city. Greg, Rae, Abebi—all the others saw Cara kept her head bowed, until the [Knights] had long since passed by.
“Cara. I thought you didn’t like the [Knights].”
Greg looked completely confused. Cara turned her head as the moment of quietus passed. She whispered back, so quietly only the Earthers heard.
“I don’t. But those brave lads died far from home, trying to do the right thing as they saw it. So if you can’t respect that, grab a rope, tie it around your neck, and go jump off a chair. ‘Cause if you don’t, I’ll do it for you.”
Then she straightened. And she called out softly.
“Thank you, people of Phel’s Landing. Let’s go back. This next song is for bravery.”
She turned and walked back. The [Violinist] took up his bow and began to play as the Singer of Terandria walked, singing softly across the city. And the [Knights] listened, for the song was meant for them.
That was the Queen of Pop. Calirn saw his [Knights] bearing Ser Raim away. He would meet them at the monastery. But he lingered for a bit. To listen to the [Singer] he thought he’d misjudged.
The average length of a concert from Cara’s world was two to three hours. Shorter, depending on the material. But the Singer of Terandria had a surfeit of music. Nor—did she quit.
Four hours later, Cara was still singing. She let one of her backups—a native Terandrian man, a [Bard]—take over for a few songs as she gulped a stamina potion and then a healing one for her throat. But she kept going.
“I think it’s time for the big reveal. Get into costumes, everyone. One last set of songs. And we’re done.”
The [Singer] looked at her exhausted band. They looked up. And Thien grinned.
The last song by the [Bard] was met with cheers, but people were demanding the Queen of Pop. For one last song. The curtains were lowered, but the [Singer]’s voice was audible behind it.
“My shining stars. You’ve stayed with me for song after song. But for tonight—we’re going to change things up. With a new song—”
Wild cheering. She always had a new song. The voice paused and went on.
“—in a new style. This one’s for you.”
The curtains rose. And the audience, cheering, saw the [Singer] standing on the stage. The cheers faltered.
Cara’s hair was swept back. It was dyed black, made spikey with hair gel. Her makeup had been changed to make her features even paler, and black eye shadow emphasized her eyes and lips. The [Prince] of Pheislant, the noble fans—stared. The [Singer] adjusted the black jacket. And her band, dressed in another style from her world began to play.
The music was more urgent. A piano played as the [Singer] began to croon into the microphone. At first, people began to nod along to the music, move their legs. But that wasn’t quite—appropriate. This wasn’t pop. This was—
Thien brought his drumsticks down hard and the audience jumped. The backup singers shouted into their microphones. And Cara’s voice went lower. Growling. Screaming.
“What is that?”
Calirn almost clapped his hands over his ears. He saw an excited fan pointing.
“She’s doing it again! It’s rock!”
The [Popstar] became a rock-star. She laughed, eyes wide, channeling a completely different sort of energy. Some of her fans recoiled. But the rest began to cheer wildly and the world’s second mosh pit began evolving.
Rock. Pop. The [Singer] signed off to wild cheers, people shouting for an encore. The air around her was electric and her [Bodyguards] had to work for their gold to get the cast into the wagon.
Some didn’t make it. Greg was swept away by groupies—mostly of his own volition. Rae was left behind as well. Abebi made it into the wagon with Cara—that was what mattered.
“Get everyone else to their wagons. If they go out—make sure they have someone with them.”
Cara croaked. Her makeup had run from sweat. The other band members were grinning, swept up on the adrenaline. The concert had been madly successful—even by their standards.
“Can do, Cara. That was wild.”
They left, some of them to their wagons to sleep or rest—others to enjoy their accolades.
The [Popstar] didn’t go out. She rested on the sofa, sweating, panting. Abebi looked at her.
“Are you okay, Cara?”
“Like a fucking fiddle. Just grand, Abebi. Give me a moment. And pass me some of that food, will you? We got any ice cream?”
The costly gelato was in a box of ice. Abebi passed it to Cara and some of the preserved food. The [Singer] began to scarf the food without hesitation.
“Careful. You’ll burst out of your dress.”
The [Manager] was only half-teasing. Cara grabbed an entire meat pie made by the best [Baker] in Phel’s Light and began to eat it in huge bites. She shook her head.
“Don’t worry about me, Abebi. I don’t ever put on weight. Never have. I can eat and it all burns away.”
The young woman from Nigeria frowned. That seemed—off.
“Didn’t you tell Rae that you used to be fat before you gained your class?”
Cara blinked. The young Irish woman looked up. She thought, and then replied casually.
“Oh, that. I lied.”
Abebi’s mouth fell open.
“But you said—”
The [Actor] sighed and stretched out.
“I tell people what they want to hear, Abebi. That’s my job. Rae needed the confidence. So as long as you don’t tell her, she’ll be fine.”
The [Manager] fell silent. Cara glanced at her sidelong.
“Abebi. I’m acting. This—class. [Popstar]? I mean what I said. It’s just a class to make money. I don’t like pop songs. I sing them because it’s the most accessible music.”
“Is that why you had us play rock?”
Cara had pushed for that, ‘revealing’ more of her personality and giving them a new genre. It had stunned some fans, but the genre of rock was just as important. The [Singer] smiled crookedly.
“What makes you think I like rock?”
Abebi’s mouth opened and closed. She looked at Cara again.
Cara didn’t reply at first. Wearily, she passed a hand over her face. Smearing the makeup.
“Abebi. You’ve known me longest. So I’m going to tell you this. Once. All of this is a mask.”
She pointed at her face.
“Mask. And below that’s another mask. Because we’re not safe. I pretend to be the flashy Singer of Terandria because we need money. The others need it to live, I need it to buy artifacts, that replacement inhaler for Desmond—we need money. And that’s why we’re touring.”
“To find the best place to settle. I know.”
Abebi nodded. Cara did too.
“Terandria’s safest. So it seems. But no kingdom’s perfect. And nowhere is safe. We’re being…hunted. We need allies. Those [Knights]? Maybe we can trust them. We need to trust someone. Because I’m just a [Pop Star]. I can’t protect us if push comes to shove.”
“But you’re the highest-leveled among us! By far! You’re Level 40.”
Cara had hit that level last month. The [Singer] smiled crookedly.
“So what? Abebi. You think if Wistram tries to arrest us, we’ll get away?”
“The audience loves you! Can’t you hear them out there? A [Prince] wants to marry you!”
“Fuck him. Our fans will turn on us. I’m a celebrity, Abebi. A star. I shine—and then I’m forgotten in a year or two. We make the money we can, find good allies. Maybe Ailendamus. We back the winning horse. But we need help. Do you think I can stop a nation? Tell me—when has a celebrity changed anything?”
She sat there, smiling cynically at Abebi. The [Manager] hesitated.
“Are you sure? You’ve been so worried—why not go with those Wistram [Mages]? That Blackmage person?”
“I got a letter back from Elena the other day. Want to see it?”
“You did? Why didn’t you tell us?”
Abebi eagerly took the letter. It was from Elena! She had volunteered to go to Wistram. Abebi read through it. It was filled with talk of Wistram. Aaron and the magical experiments—encouraging the others to join her. Her face—froze. Abebi looked up from the letter.
“It—this is from Elena, right?”
“Yup. And we have some of those [Mages] following us. Keep asking to speak to me, to escort us to Wistram. All nine of us. Which means Elena hasn’t told them about the others. Good thing we switched the hiding place, right?”
The [Thespian] leaned back, sighing. Abebi read the letter again.
“She didn’t use any of the passphrases we came up with.”
Cara covered her face. Elena had been given a number of innocuous expressions she’d work into correspondence if everything was okay. That they weren’t there meant it wasn’t. The [Singer] spoke bitterly.
“It’s a trap. I knew it. They’re probably keeping her hostage. She can’t leave. Fuck those Illuminati-[Mage] cunts and their academy. And thanks to that jackass—blackmage—they’re onto us. Don’t share that, Abebi. I’ll tell the others after this tour.”
The Nigerian [Manager] nodded palely. She put the letter down, hands shaking. Cara went on.
“It’s Plan C or Plan G. We have to get with someone who’ll back us. Who can resist Wistram and…that’s all. That’s why we’re doing this. That’s why the masks. Abebi. You all don’t even know my real name.”
She looked at Abebi. The smiling [Singer], the bitter pragmatist—which one was real? Abebi looked at Cara.
“It’s not Cara O’Sullivan?”
For a second, the [Actor] stared at her. And Abebi saw her face, blankly staring. Unmoving. Then the [Thespian] smiled.
“Of course it is. That part’s a lie. Come on. I want to see if one of those [Knights] stuck around.”
Abebi sighed in relief. And Cara rose. The [Singer] of Terandria left the wagon to raucous cheers. Protecting her people. She smiled, putting on another mask.
And she was unreadable. Unscryable. She murmured.
“Fuck it all. Where are you, ‘batman’? I could use someone else to help me out.”
The Singer of Terandria was changing the continent. The world. Through song. She was already rich. Famous. But she was a [Singer].
She was no ruler. She had a lot of [Bodyguards].
Not an army. Perhaps the Queen of Pop had an army of fans.
But Ailendamus had an army equipped with armor and blades. And their ruler, His Glorious Majesty Itorin II, had ambitious plans. Glorious designs for the future of his kingdoms.
Terrible ones for his enemies.
He was reaching out to other nations, laying the groundwork for aggression. War between Terandrian kingdoms was not like other wars. They followed rules. Protocols, traditions—as important as law. Treaties were held sacred, pacts between kingdoms that could not be violated.
Until someone broke them, with a Skill, or with pure arrogance and might. One was broken now, along the northern border of the Kingdom of Kaliv.
Kaliv, the kingdom of mountains, small in total landmass, but occupying the mountains. A power of the region. But hungry for farmland, food to feed the [Griffin Riders] and giant rams they used and bred.
A grassland along the Tergil River had been used as one of Kaliv’s larger farms. It had been taken in a war, oh, two hundred years back.
Now, a party of [Mercenaries] led by a [Sword Captain] of Ailendamus set upon the village and farm. They moved fast, herding up the Level 34 [Farmer] and most of the people.
“By order of his Majesty Itorin II of Ailendamus, this land is forfeit!”
The [Sword Captain] bellowed. The [Farmer] protested, shouting as the fresh-harvested food was dragged out.
“You can’t do this! This is Kaliv’s land! It was taken in war and ratified by Treaty of Everdel! Her Majesty—”
The [Sword Captain] struck the [Farmer], knocking him back. The [Mercenaries] were fiddling with oil, flint and tinder.
“Ailendamus does not recognize that treaty any longer. Men! Eradicate this illegal farm.”
The [Farmer] paled. The [Mercenaries] were setting fire to the silos, the crops. If they burned it all, Kaliv would feel the pinch. Especially in war.
“You can’t do this! When the Griffin Queen—”
The [Sword Captain] leveled his sword. The [Farmer] froze as his family tried to pull him back. The leader of the [Mercenaries] glanced at the burning barn.
“Don’t make this harder, sir. We need not spill your blood today. This is just politics between kingdoms.”
He spoke curtly. The [Farmer] looked at the armed [Mercenaries] on horseback, the sword held by the high-level [Warrior], and wilted. The [Farmers] groaned as the flames began to lick up one silo. They were going to transport that food up the mountains! As King Itorin had surely known. That was enough food to feed the mountain-cities for a month!
The [Sword Captain] was glancing about. Even if the Griffin Queen, Novakya, sent her fliers, they would be away and racing through the forests before they could be caught. And the fire just needed to burn—
A voice bellowed from above. The people on the ground looked up. The [Mercenaries] and their horses shouted in confusion as a blast of wind hit the burning buildings.
The fire flared—and then went out. The [Sword Captain] swore as, from overhead, dark shadows dropped out of the sky.
Six Griffins and their riders landed in front of the mercenary company of thirty riders or so. And in front of them, the one who had called out, was a man.
He was in his late twenties. And the [Farmer] and family of Kaliv gasped when they saw him.
“The Griffin Prince.”
The famed disgrace of Kaliv. The [Prince] who had been banished, never to return to his home city. That he had returned once in recent memory, dying, as the Stitch Witch was nearly ended—was almost unknown outside of Kaliv’s royal court.
To everyone else, he was only The Griffin Prince. His name had been stricken. To say it was anathema.
But he was still a [Prince] of Kaliv. And he roamed the border. The [Sword Captain] cursed as he backed up. He’d been afraid of just this.
“Stay back! By order of his Majesty—”
“King Itorin does not rule here. Take your men and go.”
The [Griffin Prince] thundered. He was physically fit, a warrior, armed with a long spear for use from Griffin-back. He, like the other five accompanying him, were also armed with bows.
[Griffin Riders]. One of them, a young woman, had her bow drawn and was aiming it at the [Sword Captain]’s face.
“Lily. Lower your bow.”
The Griffin Prince snapped at her. He dismounted, as the Royal Griffin, largest of its kind, snapped at the horses. But there were only six Griffins and their riders and the mercenaries outnumbered them five-to-one.
And they were high-level. So was the [Sword Captain]. He advanced in a careful walk, on the balls of his feet. His sword was held at the ready.
“We obey only his Majesty, [Prince] of Kaliv. This farm will be burned. Stand aside or die.”
Lily. Or Lillian Woods, saw the [Sword Captain] tense. She had the arrow in her bow, ready to draw and fire. But the Griffin Prince had signaled her to stand down. She could feel the other [Griffin Riders] tense as well.
The young woman was ready to attack. Her Griffin was too. She had killed people in this world before. Learned how to shoot a bow. But she’d known what that felt like a long time before that.
She was a [Murderer]. And then a [Bandit]. Now—she was a [Griffin Raider], flying in the Griffin Prince’s escort.
But The Griffin Prince was the one on the ground. He had an axe for combat in close quarters. Now, he drew it, and the buckler he carried.
“I have sworn never to let an enemy despoil Kaliv. If you do not retreat, my warriors and I will cut you all down. This is your last warning.”
The [Sword Captain] sneered. The [Mercenaries] were tensed, ready for action. So were the [Griffin Riders]. But the two leaders were closest. The Griffin Prince tensed as the [Farmers] drew back. The [Sword Captain] narrowed his eyes.
The [Prince] charged with a roar. His axe came up. The young man was strong and fast. But the [Sword Captain] had surpassed Level 30 eight years ago.
He dodged like quicksilver. His sword lanced out and The Griffin Prince blocked the tip of the sword, knocking it aside with the buckler. He staggered, cut as he stepped back. The [Sword Captain] slashed twice, impossible quick.
“Damn. His Majesty’s outclassed.”
Lily heard another of the riders curse. The Griffin Prince blocked one strike, but the second slashed him down the side. His blood ran through his leather armor, which had parted before the magic weapon.
The [Murderer] snapped. The other riders looked at her, but they held still. The [Prince] checked himself.
He was good. Not that the [Sword Captain] wasn’t winning, but the [Prince] had an innate sense of battle. The [Sword Captain] was twice as fast as he was, but The Griffin Prince’s skill with his axe and buckler was learned from combat experience. He managed to deflect another slash just based on the other man’s posture. The [Prince] charged in and the [Captain] cursed, unprepared for the bold move.
The [Griffin Riders] roared as The Griffin Prince slashed with the axe. The [Sword Captain]’s eyes widened.
He vanished out of the way. The [Prince] pursued. The [Sword Captain] gritted his teeth. He stepped back.
“[Blade Art: Eighteen Silverfish]!”
The young man brought up his buckler with a curse. The other man’s blade blurred. And the lancing cuts struck at the [Prince]. But he’d dodged back just out of range; the tips of the sword cut into his body, drawing blood, but shallowly.
Still, the Griffin Prince staggered. And the [Sword Captain] saw his chance. He leapt forwards, body flickering. His Skills enhanced his movement. His sword came up, enhanced again by Skills and magic.
A second Skill. It could be dodged, but the cut was perfect. The Griffin Prince jerked backwards—
His head hit the ground. The body fell. The [Sword Captain] heard the Griffin Riders fall silent.
The [Farmer] and his family screamed in shock. The [Sword Captain] staggered. He must have—taken the [Prince] by surprise. Panting, he whirled.
But The Griffin Prince’s escort was frozen in shock. The [Captain] laughed shakily. He turned to the [Mercenaries].
“Send word to his Majesty. The Griffin Prince of Kaliv is dead! He—”
The man saw one of the [Mercenaries] go white. He spun. And then the [Sword Captain]’s blood froze in his veins.
He had cut the [Prince]’s head off. He had. But the body was standing back up. And the head was back on his shoulders. Red gore was visible from inside; skin and bone had been cut.
But it was reattaching itself. Black thread was stitching the wound closed. And the young man’s head was looking at the [Sword Captain].
Sadly. The black thread sewed the gaping wound closed. And then disappeared, becoming flesh. The Griffin Prince grimaced, wincing with the pain. And he shook his head. His voice was somber as he gestured at the [Captain]’s crimson blade.
“Brave warrior. You will need a better blade than that to free me from my curse.”
He walked forwards slowly. The man from Ailendamus went white. His surefootedness was suddenly gone. He stumbled backwards.
The [Captain] whispered it. He had heard rumors. But this? He looked at his sword.
“It’s magical. I killed you.”
“Weak magic. My sin runs deeper than that. Now. Put up your sword and surrender. Or die.”
The [Sword Captain] hesitated. Then he closed his eyes.
“Men! Kill them!”
The [Mercenaries] hesitated. But the Griffins screamed and attacked. There was nowhere to run. Lily aimed her bow, shot one [Mercenary] from the saddle. Then she drew a spear.
“Up! Knives, up! Dive!”
Knives, her Griffin, flew upwards, and the five [Griffin Riders] dove at the [Mercenaries] who shot arrows and spells upwards. The Griffin Prince’s mount fought on the ground, shielding the [Farmers].
And the [Prince] and the [Sword Captain] fought a second time. This time the [Warrior] used all of his Skills.
“[Flash Cut]! [Flicker Step]! [Sword Art—]. Die, damn you!”
The [Prince] charged into him. He wasn’t using any Skills! He just—knew battle. More than the [Sword Captain], who was nearly a decade his elder. He took a cut across the face, but kept coming.
Fearless, ignoring the pain. Lily saw The Griffin Prince cutting, slashing with controlled attacks at the [Sword Captain]. Using skill, combat experience against Skills.
Another cut actually bisected him along his right shoulder. But the black thread sewed the [Prince] together. He came on. Wearing the [Sword Captain] down by cuts, forcing him backwards.
Because The Griffin Prince had no Skills to use. He could die. Be defeated. His resurrection took time. An enemy could blind him, keep hacking him apart. But the [Prince] was experienced. He had been fighting since he was a child.
He caught the [Sword Captain] at last. The man dodged back too slow. The buckler stunned him. The [Prince]’s axe hacked deep into where neck met shoulder.
The man fumbled for a healing potion. But the cut was mortal. He fell, choking, as The Griffin Prince gave him no chance to rise. The axe fell twice.
Dead. The [Mercenaries] saw-felt the [Captain] die. They fled. They’d been hacked apart by the superior [Griffin Riders]. Despite the disparity in numbers.
Lily shouted. The Griffin Prince raised one hand.
“No. Let them leave. Ailendamus is provoked enough. Let them go.”
He was panting. The other [Griffin Riders] grumbled. The [Prince] pulled himself upright. He looked around tiredly.
The girl from Earth heard a sound. The [Farmer] and his family were staring at the damned [Prince]. He turned to them.
“Are you al—”
They fled, screaming. And why not? They had seen him die. Seen the curse, laid on him when he was a boy.
The Griffin Prince’s shoulder slumped. Lily spat after the group that had fled. So did the other [Griffin Riders].
“Ungrateful bastards. But for us, Kaliv would’ve lost its grain. Should we loot some? Or burn the fields ourselves, boss?”
One scarred man leaned out of his saddle. The Griffin Prince looked up.
“No. We fly. Take nothing.”
The former [Marauder] grimaced. But he, like Lily, did not object to the orders. They followed the [Prince] willingly.
And they flew, through the sky. Following their cursed, exiled [Prince]. Lillian flew after the man who had tracked down the [Bandit] group she’d joined. Who’d refused to die. And who had offered her redemption or death.
The Griffin Prince of Kaliv. The shame of the royal family. The boy who had made a pact with a [Witch], for his very soul. The exile who defended his lands until he could find his death.
With him flew a [Murderer]. A [Marauder]. A [Rapist]. Disgraced [Knights]. People beyond redemption. Cowards and killers.
Kaliv’s Wing of Shame. They were offered one last chance. So they spent their lives in battle. And Lillian Woods was among them.
“I’m tired, Lily. Tell me a story from your home. Another fantastical story.”
That was all The Griffin Prince said after they returned to their hidden base. The young Canadian woman smiled crookedly. She looked at him.
A man grown. More honorable than any other ‘noble’ despite his curse. Dedicated to defending his home even when no one would offer him more than insults.
And yet—a boy still. Unchanged from the day he had made a mistake and been cursed—blessed—changed by the most powerful [Witch] in this world.
He was a [Prince], yes. A Level 6 [Prince]. And he looked at Lily as he closed his eyes. Seeking his end. Seeking word of the Stitch Witch, that he might be freed. If war came, The Griffin Prince would fly.
But he could never die. Lillian Woods had tried to convince him to leave his self-appointed guardianship. To seek his enemy. But he had refused. He loved her fantastical stories. Even if he didn’t believe them.
That was all—fine. If he did not believe, she would find the Stitch Witch. And free the [Prince] from his dark curse. Lillian laughed as she tended to Knives and then went to find him. She was a heroine in another, fantasy story. What a strange world this was.
But so much better than home. And if she couldn’t kill Belavierr, the immortal, she’d settle for the girl who’d tricked him. The girl The Griffin Prince loved—still loved. The daughter.
Author’s Note: This chapter is a bit shorter. Anyways, as you can probably tell, it’s mixing perspectives. Hence the title—7.21 KQ. The King of Destruction and the Queen of Pop.
I’m…ambivalent about that. But the reason the [Popstar]’s perspective is short is because it lost the poll! I warned you about that. It had to be written, but I didn’t devote an entire chapter just to Cara.
And perhaps that’s better. Or worse? Either way, it doesn’t mean that’s the end. Certainly not! Just that this is all we get for now.
Hope you enjoyed! I’m trying to keep the chapters shorter, but even this is a lot of work. Hope you like it!
There is so much amazing art coming in! So much, but I’m featuring only a few artists at a time! Today’s art is very fittingly the Quarass, Fetohep, and Trey by Microwaved Mrsha Plushie! Just incredible art.
Also, art by Mg! Which includes…nude Relc, but tastefully nude, Teriarch, The King of Challenges in a duel and…Pryde? Much thanks to both artists! More will be featured! And the poll is over, so look forwards to the chapters! I’m taking a break sometime this month, but I don’t know when yet! As always, thanks for reading! Whew. I need to rest.
PS: That Irish bit might be awful. I was trying to run it by some of my Irish readers (of which there are few), but anyone who’s actually from Ireland, let me know what needs changing.
The Three by Microwaved Mrsha Plushie
Duels, Nudity, Dragons, and Pryde by Mg