(The Living Library is an app with a number of interactive stories! A friend of mine, Quill, has finished The Sorcerer’s Tower—give it a read if you’re looking for more stories!)
Vampires were dying. It would be wrong to say they’d been betrayed, though perhaps it felt like it to them.
Tricked? Yes. Deceived, certainly. They had been outwitted. Cornered and routed in a war, through a medium they had no idea they were even fighting in.
The cunning of House Byres, their foes—had done the work of a million silver blades. It had been so effective that the attackers had forgotten that they were even driving their enemy to death.
But no one was admiring the genius overlong. Ironically—only the Vampires and one young woman who was their ally even knew what was happening. And those who were old enough to remember when the plan had been put forwards, of course.
He had been there. But he was gone. On an adventure to the home of [Mages]. So the question now became, simply—what was the future of Vampires? Obviously they were a disparate group, full of individuals. But, as a whole, was there a smart move? A logically sound escape?
Where, if not Izril, could they live? That was one of the questions Vampires asked in the days that followed. However—to those who remembered, like Himilt and Bamer, some options were instantly off the table. The trouble with being a Vampire…was that you had a history.
His eyes narrowed. Or rather—golden flame reduced, like distant twin suns, into pinpricks. Fetohep of Khelt turned his head. And expressed his thoughts about Vampires thusly.
He rose from his seat, a chair placed so that in every room of his palace, the ruler of Khelt would not be without a throne. The Human standing before him saw the Undead King of Khelt rise, and turned his emaciated head towards the night. His voice rose and the legions of armored undead around his palace stirred.
“Vampires? Fetch me my armaments of the sun! Bear unto me proof of their existence and I shall arm the armies of Khelt with precious wood and silver and pile the sands with the corpses of the bloodstealers until even the most depraved of [Warlords] would turn away and beg for mercy.”
He almost began to pace, so caught up in the brief flash of fury. But then Fetohep caught himself and looked towards the intruder in his domain. His guest.
“Where did you see their presence, Teresa Atwood?”
He regarded the young woman, freshly bathed and free of the stench and dirt of battle—for the moment. She had arrived and just been ushered into his presence. She waved her hands at him frantically.
“No—no! I didn’t see Vampires! I just asked about them!”
Fetohep hesitated. Then he sat back down.
“I see. But the fact that you speak of such filth tells me you know of them. From…your world? Have they invaded there?”
“No. They’re just a my—well…I thought they were just stories.”
Teresa didn’t know what was true anymore. She looked at Fetohep.
“So…Vampires are real?”
“Were real. Perhaps their taint lives on.”
Annoyed, the ruler gestured and his goblet was filled with the essence of mana and death. Teres was given a sweet wine as she sat. Fetohep of Khelt rested a hand for a moment over the edge of his dining room throne-chair.
“You come to me asking of their nature, or their history, Teresa Atwood? Naturally, I am the most logical choice, even beyond the Quarass in this regard. For that perspicacity, I shall entertain a brief conversation on the subject of…Vampires.”
Teresa opened and closed her mouth, but before she could get in a word in edgewise, Fetohep went on.
“Yes. They existed. Yes. They were a scourge upon Chandrar too. But Human memory being what it is—what do you perceive to be a Vampire, Teresa Atwood?”
“Um…pale. Sunlight kills them. Strong, fast, they…can heal from terrible wounds? You can’t even kill them without silver, or a stake to the heart, or garlic…”
Fetohep had been waving her on. He stopped her there.
“False. Garlic is anathema, but hardly their death. And a lesser Vampire could be slain without their greatest weaknesses. Still—close enough. What else?”
“Vampires need blood to live. They…can turn other people into Vampires. Actually, they can turn other people into slaves, or Vampires. They can command animals, turn into mist, bats, uh, hypnotize you with their eyes. They have no reflection…”
That was about the most obvious stuff. Teres tried to think of anything else. And because she was standing in front of the King of Khelt whom she did not like—and the feeling was mutual—she added one more ‘fact’.
“Oh, and they sparkle in the sunlight. Just—glitter away.”
Fetohep paused in drinking from his goblet. He eyed Teres’ straight face.
“…That is not my understanding of a Vampire’s powers. But your grasp of their basic strengths and weaknesses is acceptable. They do indeed have abilities beyond their—species. A Vampire appears at first glance to enhance and give strength to anyone who accepts their ‘gift’. The allure has drawn more than a few like you to them, begging for their version of immortality and power.”
“And that’s a bad thing, right?”
Teres sighed. There was always a catch. Always! She was ready for a big speech about it. Fetohep just shrugged.
“Perhaps only to those Vampires prey upon. I am not one to speak. Khelt’s rulers persist thanks to our bargain of undeath. A Vampire is—by some measures—a superior being. Their weaknesses multiply, but so do their strengths. Such is the allure of their power—especially when honed by blood—that even the Quarass sought to drink of their strength in several of her incarnations.”
“Really? Then why do you seem to hate them so much?”
Teres sat forwards. Okay—Vampirism wasn’t off the table! This might be a productive day after all. Fetohep looked at her.
“Simply that such a race is superior, Teresa Atwood. And like every species thus empowered—they have ruled this world. When Vampires claimed their eternal night, they devoured the people of Khelt like every other. You have seen war. You have seen slavery. Vampires would make slaves of the world. They delighted in suffering.”
“…Oh. But—but they didn’t succeed, right? I’ve been studying history. Orthenon’s taught me when he had time. I know about the old empires. Every species seems to have done it. Half-Elves, Selphids, Minotaurs…Drakes…”
“Not all species. And it is important to remember, Teresa Atwood, that not all empires were of the same length or atrocity. If my ire is directed to Vampires—it is because I have read of their wars of conquest. They held Chandrar only briefly. And they never will again, so long as I exist or Khelt remembers the past.”
Fetohep rose and looked out the window. Teres sat back. If there was one thing Fetohep was good at—it was storytelling.
“What did happen, then?”
The [King] hesitated. But it was late, and while he could have performed any number of functions, Teresa was the only outsider to Khelt present. He would have still usually dismissed her.
…But Trey Atwood was gone. And he had told Fetohep it was a true parting. The Ruler of Khelt was just—bored. So he answered Teres’ question.
“At the height of their power, Vampires did try to claim each continent in turn. Rhir proved inhospitable for their kind. Terandria fought bitter, unrelenting wars as Vampires corrupted even their lines of kings. They infested Izril, ruling that continent in force. Baleros and Chandrar—less so.”
“Why Baleros and Chandrar less?”
Teres imagined the vast land of Baleros, from the jungles to the plains and frozen north. Fetohep tapped a finger against the glass, dislodging a tiny desert-moth drawn to the light of his chambers. His servants stood silently, waiting on his every desire.
Dead gods, he was so bored.
“Dullahans proved too obdurate as blood-slaves and they built their bodies out of silver. Centaurs suffered, as did Humans and Lizardfolk especially given their numbers, but the Naga and greater Lizardfolk united their peoples against Vampires. However, it was Selphids who truly drove them from the land. One parasite was enough.”
He waited for Teres to remark on this bit of irony, or ask a question. Trey would have. But his sister just went ‘mhm’ in a slightly disinterested tone. She was not half the guest her brother was.
Still, she was listening, so Fetohep moved through his palace and issued an order. Within the palace of Khelt’s vaults, silent guardians stirred, heeding his will.
“Chandrar fared better than Baleros, in truth. The scourge of Vampires came here and they began to corrupt, for a while. Chandrar is possessed of less vegetation, and despite the searing sun, the nights suited their kind well. However, the Shield Kingdoms of Chandrar numbered nine in those ages. When the true corruption of Vampire’s power was revealed, the armies of Khelt fell upon their kind with Germina, A’ctelios’ hordes, and every other nation in Chandrar.”
Teresa sat up slightly.
“What, just like that?”
“To trivialize a vast, unrelenting war that makes a mockery of Reim’s petty conflict with Jecrass? Yes. Such is a summary of history.”
The young woman stuck her tongue out at Fetohep’s back and folded her arms. It felt like sitting in the company of one of her teachers, every second. Only, her teachers hadn’t threatened to cut off her head when they were mad. Most of them.
“Just like that.”
Fetohep stared out the window of perfectly blown glass. Not one imperfection would have been tolerated, not in Khelt. Not a single bubble or distortion. His gaze flickered.
“Let me tell you what ‘just like that’ looked like, Teresa Atwood. When the world rose against Vampires, the Quarass of Germina was possessed by their power. Her Champion of Ger sacrificed his life to convince her of the corruption of such power. Thus awakened, she understood the need to rid her nation of this influence. In herself—no less. So she drank poison that would have blackened the insides of Dragons and flew to the greatest of their lairs. There—she poisoned their bloodwells with her own ichor. She let the lesser spawn die by the thousands, and fought for hours against her kin until they brought her down and tore her to pieces.”
Teresa gulped. The little Quarass had done that in her past life? Fetohep looked over his shoulder.
“That was the prelude. As the Quarass was reborn, she led a true army from Germina and proceeded to stake and eradicate every last Vampire in the lair left alive. To warn the others, she had the rest executed by burning them from the toes upwards in molten stone. You would do well to remember that the next time you annoy her.”
Teres decided she didn’t want the snack the servant was offering her—a fancy version of a sundae, with a hand-baked wafer and whipped cream made from a magical cow or something. She always felt like she gained weight when she visited Khelt.
Fetohep turned forwards, slightly pleased by her reaction.
“So ended Vampires. They were driven first from our continent, then Baleros and Terandria. Izril was last. If there are Vampires—they shall not gain a foothold again so long as I live. We suffer no more overlords. Why do you ask? Have you proof of their existence?”
Fetohep ended the little history lesson there. He turned to look at Teres, expectant. Concerned, as a ruler. Surely something had prompted this question. Some sign.
Teresa Atwood shrugged.
“No. I just thought it would be cool. How about werewolves, then?”
The ruler of Khelt stared at Teres. After a moment he shook his head and looked past her.
“…Where is your sibling? I find his company far more agreeable.”
“On special business. Don’t ask me where. I’m not allowed to say. Flos didn’t even have him fight in the war—not that he needs to. We’re in peace talks. Which is why I’m here. He told me to take a break and placate you.”
Teres folded her arms. Fetohep eyed her.
“In that, the King of Destruction miscalculates both our natures greatly.”
“You said it. Okay—question. I know you’ve probably forgotten, but…what’s the most attractive species in the world? I’m just curious. Or—the most sensual or something?”
Teresa blinked. She peered at Fetohep, but his poker face, as it were, was invincible. She had no idea if he was messing with her or not.
“Would you like me to summon a Centaur for companionship to see the truth of my statement? There are a number within Khelt.”
“Then come with me. I think there is something that may interest you, for whatever reason you brought Vampires up. Servants, leave us.”
He led Teres out of the dining room. The young woman walked down the vast hallways as lights grew to illuminate their passage.
Down she walked, down staircases and ramps. The King of Khelt ignored her questions and proceeded at a steady pace. He walked past hundreds of paintings of the most important figures of their age, each created by the greatest [Artist] of that era. Some stared after Teres, or moved.
The King of Khelt passed by an artwork that spanned an entire hallway so vast that it took Teres twelve minutes of jogging to get to the other end of. It was so cold—but she could have walked into the painting and made a snowball. She wished Trey was here; it wasn’t fun by herself.
Down, they went, taking a magical elevator that passed by a suite that one of Khelt’s kings had filled with treasures to impress one of his guests and found too odious to remove. Down, past—
The point was they went a long ways. Until they passed by a set of vast doors so tall that Teres nearly hurt her neck trying to stare up.
“Where…where are we?”
“The armory of Khelt. I have had a weapon forged for battling Vampires brought out. Now—I shall show you its function. This way.”
A pair of undead guardians with glowing eyes put something around Fetohep’s form. A…crystalline armor set, hollow, made of some strange material that let Teres see what looked like a swirling mass of storm clouds compressed to a razor’s thinness inside the armor.
Fetohep led her back to the elevator. Teres groaned, and he looked at her as he stepped onto the floating platform.
“We will take the direct route back, not the scenic one. To the rooftops.”
Teres’ stomach stayed on the armory floor. The rest of her shot up with Fetohep on the magical platform.
Fetohep stepped out onto a balcony, one of many on his palace’s roofs. This gave him a commanding view of his magnificent city of wonders and the vast desert beyond, some of it turned green by Khelt’s vast water stores. Teres hugged the ground behind him.
He was quite pleased by that.
“Now, look up, Teresa Atwood. You asked a question only out of curiosity. But here is my answer. If there were Vampires who dared to try to invade Chandrar once more, I would slay them thusly.”
Fetohep raised his hands and clapped them once. Teres, opening her mouth to shout something at Fetohep about safety regulations and elevator speeds—saw the clouds swirling in the crystal armor move. They parted—
And the sun came out. Fetohep’s armor did not merely…glow. Or illuminate. The sun itself shone from his armor.
Blinding. The people of Khelt looked up, wondering why the sun had suddenly risen. So bright was the light that Teres couldn’t s—
No, she could see. She should have been blinded. But somehow, everything was thrown into clearer relief, not just made dazzling. She dared to look up and saw him.
“A true [King] does not need to even look at his foe, much less stir himself for lesser foes.”
Fetohep shone as he stood there. His armor unleashed the contained radiation of the sun’s light like a beacon, illuminating the night for miles around.
He looked down at her. Teres stared at his armor.
The magical fire in Fetohep’s sockets flickered. He had only meant to impress on Teres his power. This armor could slay a legion of lesser Vampires. But she stared at the workmanship of the armor as much as the magic.
“It is a masterpiece, isn’t it? Another creation of Serept.”
“Oh! The creator of the Diamond Swords? I saw them on the scrying orb! And you! He made these too?”
Fetohep gestured and the light went out. He eyed Teres to see if she was being facetious again, but she looked fascinated.
“Only naturally. Serept was a Smithing-King, who in life reached a level few [Blacksmiths] dared to imagine. He worked to forge crystalline artifacts—it was something of a motif. He took it to extremes—the Diamond Swords, armor made of quartz, battleaxes forged from a single ruby, and so on and so on…the more garish of his creations I hesitate to display. Some have made their way into the world, but I have a collection.”
“Can I—can I see it?”
Fetohep looked at Teres as she scrambled up eagerly.
“You have an appreciation for craftsmanship?”
“I love it. Wait. Do you have other artifacts I can see?”
“Countless thousands. Come with me.”
The two looked at each other as they descended once more. Fetohep casually removed the armor—treating it with a warrior’s courtesy. This unexpected connection over weaponry was startling and not altogether pleasing to either. As they descended at a slower pace—Fetohep could have actually made the dais descend so fast Teres would free-fall—she looked at him.
“You were…probably kidding about the Centaurs. And I see that Vampires wouldn’t uh, take Khelt easily. Or at all if they’re smart.”
Fetohep lifted one hand in agknowledgement, waiting. Teres bit her lip.
“But seriously. If you hate Vampires but know you can beat them—is there a species you…fear?”
The undead king paused. He inspected Teres’ face, then replied softly.
She snorted. But this time, Fetohep looked completely serious.
“My answer is serious, Teresa Atwood. Drakes and their ancestors, the Dragons, are the reason the Shield Kingdoms came to be. When they united, they drove Gnolls to hide beneath the earth. They made such war that legends were made of the nations who opposed them and lived. Neither you nor I have witnessed dragonfire pouring from a hundred thousand Drakes. And that was but the children. Working together with their parents, the Dragons, they were virtually unstoppable.”
“Oh. But Orthenon says that his M—Flos nearly got to Izril. He says that if they’d landed and reinforced Amerys, they might have really pushed the Drakes back.”
Fetohep flicked this assertion away like a bug.
“Certainly in the modern day, Drakes are weaker. And that is for the best. Their weakness comes from infighting. Teresa Atwood, the reason behind the Drake hegemony’s fall can be summed up simply. The only reason Drakes ever lost and Dragons were finally destroyed was that they began to battle each other. If they had not—a thousand Khelts would have fallen before them. It is nothing but realism to acknowledge this fact.”
“Oh, I see.”
Teresa fell silent. After a while, she looked at the vast palace they passed by and sighed.
“What is it?”
Fetohep saw her look up, almost wistfully.
“It seems like all the big battles and empires and legends were before us, doesn’t it?”
Fetohep shook his head slightly.
“The young always say such things. In this case, the—heights of power may be less than they were. That is true. But do not be so wistful. Here is a lesson from me. Be very grateful, Teresa Atwood, that Flos Reimarch is the name that shakes the hearts of millions. In the days we spoke of, he would be an average [King], possibly a good one compared to his peers. But nothing more.”
“And what about you?”
Teresa looked up challengingly. She saw Fetohep’s yellowed teeth in his preserved skull grinning at her. The King of Khelt spoke.
“I? A weak king of the undead. Difficult to invade, rich, wise, certainly. But weak once past the borders of my nation. The reason Khelt is the power it is today, Teresa Atwood, is because we kept all that other nations lost. Now, let us talk of lighter things. This way, you will see the most ridiculous item Serept ever forged. A halberd for a giant.”
A door opened. Teres’ jaw dropped.
“That’s not real. There are so many gems—why would you make something like this?”
“I think it was a bet. Another lesson—the most excessive things usually are the product of some bet. If you will follow me…”
Teresa Atwood didn’t really hate Fetohep. Rather, it was accurate to say that she didn’t understand or gel with him.
Trey now—Trey was good at being impressed, especially by history and his clear respect for the [King] was what Fetohep liked. There was something else as well—Trey was better at treating Fetohep like a person.
Teres’ version of that was to poke Fetohep or Flos, needle them. Flos enjoyed that more than Fetohep.
But mainly—the difference was that if Trey got along with Fetohep and the Quarass better, Teres was more at home with Flos. Because the King of Destruction for all his power and vassals was the sort of person who’d happily bivouac and spend the day on campaign. The other two rulers—when Teres stood with Fetohep, she was reminded who he was.
It wasn’t just the sundae, prepared by a [Chef] from the finest of ingredients at her whim. That was close to Earth—even if Earth’s accessibility was a product of globalized markets and innovations in freezing, transportation, and manufacture while Khelt’s was just incredible skill and wealth. You could get a sundae in each world, even if Khelt’s was better in every way.
But another to see Fetohep’s treasures. An enchanted, jeweled halberd made for a giant. Even Zamea would have had trouble lifting it.
Moreover…Fetohep’s conversation with Teres about weaponry meant that they were actually engaged in a lively, agreeable dialogue for once. The last time she’d been here to ‘entertain’ him, he’d ended up demonstrating his abilities with a sword and Teres had been thoroughly smacked around, despite her levels and Orthenon’s training.
This time? Night had long since fallen, but the first time Teres yawned, she was handed a small goblet. She blinked at it.
“A revitalizing draught. Drink it if you wish to continue our conversation.”
Fetohep saw Teres drink, grimacing, but the tonic wasn’t unpleasant. For once, it tasted refreshing—even fruity! She blinked.
“What is this? A stamina potion?”
She felt her exhaustion just—vanish. Not like stamina potions where you were given a shot of energy but had to pay the piper in the end. Fetohep nodded to the servant and he stepped away, bowing.
“A Potion of Revitalization. Somewhat more impressive than…stamina potions. Let us continue onwards.”
Teres smacked her lips.
“Wh—how much does one cost?”
“Mm. I do not count numbers. But I would estimate, at least eighty gold coins? Then again, the level of [Alchemists] varies. Once, Sage’s Grass was so expensive…”
Fetohep walked on. Teres stopped licking her lips, appalled.
“Isn’t—isn’t that expensive? I mean—I know you’re rich, your Majesty…”
He looked amused.
“What is wealth, if not to be used in munificence, Teresa Atwood? Certainly, it is well to acquire and preserve it. Yet I am Ruler of Khelt. My visitors, of which I have entertained few, will never leave my realm without singing praises of my hospitality. Have I not said it? Anything you might wish can be granted here. You and your brother are curiously reluctant to accept my gifts. Well—I gifted him a few small favors the last time we parted.”
“Favors? Like what?”
“Ah, a spell tome. A few liquid draughts. And as I perceived his garb was nothing more than mundane cloth—a fitting set of clothing to go with his staff.”
“Do I possess articles of clothing that are not magical in some way? This way to observe some quite interesting chariots. I believe each one comes from a different era of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, beginning at the empire’s inception. All taken from enemy commanders in battle or acquired by similar means.”
Teres bit her lip on a snarky reply. She hesitated, staring at Fetohep’s back.
“If—do you have a bunch of magical swords I could borrow?”
The king stopped and Teres saw him glance back at her sword.
“Hm. The King’s Steward gave you that blade, did he not?”
Teres felt embarrassed because it was a good sword. Enchanted with a few low-grade enchantments. Fetohep flicked his fingers.
“If I believed Orthenon or Flos of Reim was so impoverished, I would grant you a blade. But a low-grade enchantment has a point. If you allow the sword to do your fighting, you will not level.”
“That’s what Orthenon said.”
Teres sighed. She wanted one of Mars’ swords, though. Fetohep nodded sagely.
“If it were possible to buy levels…power from wealth is expressed in artifacts, in Drath, consumables, and so on. But levels cannot be stolen. I will give you no blade. However, if you wish it, I will certainly avail you of some decent clothing.”
Teres looked down at her travel clothing. She looked up quickly.
The ruler was already ahead of her.
“I shall schedule Khelt’s finest [Fashionista] to attend to you. You are no doubt required to return to Jecrass soon; by the time you leave, you will have a wardrobe of clothing more suited to formal events such as these. Do you have a preference of cloth?”
“Provide samples of silks, satins, magical cloths—shockwool and so forth—for Teresa Atwood’s perusal.”
The king turned to the hovering servant, who hurried away. Teres blinked. The contemptuous wealth of a king. But Fetohep wasn’t simply careless with it. As she thanked him, embarrassed, his preserved, corpse’s face turned to her.
“Your thanks are not required, Teresa Atwood. However, if you would like to express your gratitude—tell me of your brother. I understand his purpose is secret. Yet I have never once betrayed another’s trust.”
Teres bit her lip. She hesitated. But as Fetohep well knew, reciprocity was a very Human need. So she hesitated, and after looking around as if anyone could have spied on them in Fetohep’s domain, leaned forwards.
“I don’t know all of what he’s doing. It’s something Gazi spoke to Flos about. All I know…is that she’s gone. And Trey and two of Parasol Stroll’s [Mages] are heading to a harbor in Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”
The flames glowed in Fetohep’s sockets. And he came to a conclusion he had already reached when Trey had accepted his gifts. But suspicion and knowing were two important distinctions. He sighed and gestured—Teres blinked as Fetohep stopped leaning upon her with his will, subtly.
“Ah. Thank you, Teresa Atwood. Perhaps we should cut this tour of my wonders short. They are numberless, and the decisions of clothing may take you many hours. If they are to be prepared ere your departure, it would be best to start now.”
“Thank you. Are you certain I’ll be going, your Majesty?”
He nodded once more.
“The King of Destruction will no doubt require it. The war with Jecrass reaches its end. These peace talks will not last overlong and that boy is unlikely to have the patience to dance overlong on diplomacy. Nor does he need to.”
“It’d be a welcome end. We’ve been fighting for ages. The King of Duels put up a huge fight.”
Teres sighed. She was worn by battle, changed by it. When they had first met, Fetohep had seen a young woman, brash and confident. Now—she no longer flaunted the sword she carried. It was just a tool—and she had learned how to kill men and women with it.
Fetohep felt vaguely sorry for Teres. But that was what Flos Reimarch gave his subjects. Teres was confident in her ability to kill and perhaps, better for it. Yet few of Khelt’s children needed ever learn such lessons.
As to her statement, he just shook his head.
“I have followed the war in Jecrass and Belchan, Teresa Atwood. It is a conflict worth noting if only for the duels. I have—an interest in such things. Pomle has proven quite interesting in that regard…I digress. However, the outcome of the war was never in doubt.”
Teres squinted up at Fetohep as they walked upwards, towards the surface.
“You think so? King Raelt killed one of Zamea’s people by himself.”
He nodded again.
“And he has proven himself a fierce beast hiding behind the cloth of a [King]. One wonders what he might have been if aroused to fury beforehand in wars with Medain. But King Perric never pushed Raelt of Jecrass so far. No—this ‘King of Duels’ is fierce. But he is one man. And he fights an army led by the people whom stories were told about decades ago. One lion versus a pride of them is not a fair battle, or entertaining to see.”
“True. I just wish it had been over faster.”
Teres twisted her lips. Again Fetohep admonished her.
“Flos Reimarch was in no hurry to end the war. His armies have leveled from the fighting which ever favored him. If he wanted to end it—he would have used his greatest Skill. You have not seen him truly rampage, Teresa Atwood. I pray you remember that when you return to his side.”
She glanced up at him, suspiciously.
“Never rampaged…? I was there at Belchan when he threatened to execute the Prime Minister and hundreds of people.”
The undead king’s eyes flashed.
“That is only the beginning of why they call him King of Destruction. The reason no other nation interfered directly in the war with Jecrass and Reim outside of covert support is that they are still afraid of his Skill. But it is a single hammer he may use; once exhausted it takes too long to wield again. While it is unused, others tremble.”
Teresa glanced up again, narrowing her eyes. What did Fetohep mean by that? He just regarded her.
“Is he going to have to use it soon, your Majesty?”
“In this war? Doubtful.”
That was all Fetohep said. He ushered Teresa out of his presence and retired to his quarters. He was a king of a nation secluded from others, famously independent. But that did not mean Fetohep was out of touch with the world around him. Far from it. He consulted the news coming to him through various channels. And—directed more of them across the ocean. Towards that ancient place.
The home of Mages.
The ruler of Khelt was not the only one who missed Trey Atwood these days. The strange young man, who could be endearing or aggravating, was nonetheless…a friend to a number of people.
Even if he was a foreigner. Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin could have used him now, though. There was something about Trey that was reliable.
She could talk to him without being berated as if she was the ass of some disobedient mule in the middle of a sandstorm. Everyone else in her clan—especially those older than her—refused to listen. Nawal was in that uncomfortable position of being Clan Tannousin’s best [Smith], as well as being a woman, and younger than most of her venerable elders.
It created an imbalance in the relationships. When she had to speak, they sometimes ignored her. When she needed council, it was given as orders rather than advice.
Well—she spoke now, taking the full authority and responsibility of her position. And Nawal couldn’t help but feel bitter that her aunt, Bezhavil, Silmak, the ‘official head’, and Hesseif were all standing behind her letting her lie.
“Lord Venith, Lady Maresar, our work progresses slowly but surely. The forging of Naq-Alrama steel requires many steps, as you know. We may only work by blue moon and now—in this stage—the radiance of the sun at its zenith. Of course, in the times when we are not working, we will produce more blades to the King of Destruction.”
She waited, heart pounding, as the married couple left in charge of Reim itself and the kingdom while the King of Destruction was on campaign looked at each other. It was the stern Venith who responded with a slight bow.
“That is not strictly necessary, Blacksmith Nawalishifra. Reim is grateful for all the blades of the quality your clan produces. If you create more, his Majesty will pay you for each one, of course. But the Naq-Alrama blades are most important. Take whatever time is necessary.”
“Of course, Lord Venith. We swear to repay his Majesty’s forbearance, and let our water skins turn to poison if we fail this great trust.”
Nawal nearly wilted in relief. She babbled a great promise and felt Bezhavil kick the back of her heels, but both women kept their veils up. Silmak and Hesseif’s faces were perfectly blank and composed as they backed away.
Lady Maresar, the former [Bandit Lord]’s eyes, followed Nawal as they left the room. The [Blacksmith] sweated as she tried to walk normally. It had been Maresar who had asked about the odd hammering that happened only when the sun was at its peak at midday.
“Hammering in the sun? Now we have to pretend to do something every day! You idiot, Silmak! They’ll never know the difference? I told you we should have kept pretending we were working in secret, rather than ‘showing’ our work!”
When they were safely in their rooms in the palace, Nawal rounded on the [Shaman]. Her cousin looked guilty, but shook his head as he replied.
“At least they accepted our words. We just have to appease them. Make more blades.”
“More pure steel? It’s hardly worth the time!”
Nawal tore her veil off and stomped on it. The others stirred as she stalked about.
“We should—should just tell them! Tell his Majesty.”
“Nawalishifra! Tell him after we have eaten and drank for months of his hospitality?”
Bezhavil looked appalled. And afraid. Everyone knew the King of Destruction’s terrible wrath, and even if all the legends were not true—they had all seen the scrying orb at Belchan. They knew he was prepared to make good his threats.
“We are only making this worse. We can wait for Trey Atwood no longer. I agree with Nawali.”
Hesseif spoke slowly and heavily. Nawal looked at the clan’s best fighter they had sent. Silmak chewed his lip and shook his head.
“We have already kept up the ruse, though. Let us forge more blades for the King of Destruction. Perhaps, if enough of the ores can be found within the month…”
“I forge another ingot? Are you mad, Silmak? That delays us another two months! We cannot wait that long! The King of Destruction is no fool! He and his Steward know how long Naq-Alrama steel takes to forge.”
Nawal looked around, despairingly. It was Bezhavil who spoke, slowly.
“Then, Nawali, we must claim that it is your youth and inexperience as a female smith that delays us. You must tell the King of Destruction that.”
The female [Blacksmith] looked at her aunt, and around the room.
“You want me to tarnish my pride?”
“Better than that of the dead or Clan Tannousin.”
For a second, Nawal looked at her aunt and cousin. Then she looked at Hesseif. He couldn’t meet her eyes. In shame. She turned and stormed from the room.
She’d forgotten her veil. Nawal felt exposed, so she covered her face as she hurried to the rooms they had been allotted. Perfectly dark, without a trace of light—the ideal conditions for forging Naq-Alrama steel, except when moonlight or other shades of light were needed.
There was no point now, though. Nawal pushed past four of Clan Tannousin’s guards who let no one but their people inside. She ignored their looks and sank to her knees.
Her clan’s honor. And—these lies! This was not why she had learned to swing a hammer!
“I wish you were here, Trey Atwood. To make sense of it. At least I would not need to lie to you.”
Nawalishifra spoke bitterly. Her clan had hoped to use him to deliver the message. But he had been gone to A’ctelios Salash so long, as well as Khelt. And then—they had heard he was not returning to Reim. So their plans and their stalling had forced them to add to the lies.
Venith and Maresar believed that they had been forging the King of Destruction’s Naq-Alrama steel sword for the last month. And they had, ever since Nawalishifra had returned with an idea in her mind of what to make for him. They had carefully begun the hundreds of steps in the ritual to even prepare the ingots for smithing. They had softened the metal that had been hardened by even the slightest ambient daylight, created a proper receptacle for the moonlight bath, as well as meticulously calculated every portion of metal the King’s blade would require.
The last two full moons, Nawalishifra had brought the metal out, to purify first, and then forge in the moonlight bath, a process that required speed as even under moonlight, Naq-Alrama steel hardened quickly. It would take her weeks of hammering, softening, and hammering again until the final forge, where fire would speak for the first and last time before daylight finished the process.
But then she would have produced a blade worthy of even the King of Destruction. One to cut magic like water and give new life to their clan. Nawalishifra had been prepared for that moment. She had forged over eighty pieces of Naq-Alrama metal before—twice as many as other smiths needed before they were allowed to attempt it solo.
She had been ready. The metal had not been. Nawalishifra had brought her hammer down the first time on the softened metal, still so strong as to require her full strength to even move—
And this was the result.
Nawal knelt in front of the broken ingot of Naq-Alrama metal. It was—shattered. Like glass, if you struck it with a hammer. Moonlight had hardened the pieces that the clan had gathered; now they were individually harder than regular steel.
But no one would soften the broken metal so it could be reforged again. There was no point.
A seam in the metal. Air. Nawal saw it now; and no one could have seen it before. It had permeated the perfect ingot, such that it was no longer one unbroken piece of metal. When she had brought her hammer down—she had shattered it like crystal.
In other metal, it wouldn’t matter. Steel? You could work with that, as embarrassing as a mistake it would be. Nawal wouldn’t have accepted such a mistake in her own ingots, but she could have done it.
But Naq-Alrama steel was one thing. To break it, you had to produce enough force to shatter the entire blade. That was why it did not bend and why the few blades that had ever been broken seemed to explode. It was also why it was so hard to forge; the ingot had to be perfect.
And this one was flawed. Nawal stared dully at the metal. She reached out to touch a shard; cut herself. She stared at the blood on the glistening metal.
“Father. Your pride has killed us.”
He had been the one to forge these last ingots, with his last energy. She had helped him, but he was the one who had to watch for air, for these imperfections in the process, day in, day out. Had he known? Was that why he had died and left them to sell the metal instead of the finished product?
Nawalishifra didn’t want to believe it. But it made a terrible sense. Imagine if they had sold it? If her goat of a brother had managed to find a buyer? The metal would have broken even if they’d done it perfectly, but Clan Tannousin could have claimed that there was a fault in the smith who had tried it.
It was such a perfect excuse that she almost believed it. She did not want to believe her father could have done that.
But look. The metal was ruined. Nawal’s head rested against the stone floor. The other ingots were similarly marred. Air in the metal. She had shattered each one with a hammer in her fury and despair.
What—what did they do now? They could only pretend for so long. Nawal raised her head, slowly. She wiped at her eyes. The war with Jecrass was ending. Soon—the King of Destruction would be returning and his mind would turn to his promised blades. When that day came—Nawal feared she would end up taking responsibility for the failure she had not known existed. That she could have never prevented.
She wished Trey was here. He would not have expected that of her.
Everyone else did.
As for himself, Trey Atwood was nervous. He did wish he could have said goodbye. To Nawal, for instance, or the Quarass. He hadn’t seen her since they parted ways after A’ctelios. And it felt like he might be going away for a while.
If Gazi’s plan worked—a good while. Trey was nervous as he stared at the glittering, emerald bay.
The water was actually green, not blue, due to a trick of the light or some mineral content in the waters. It was beautiful and looked like it would be an amazing break from the heat.
But few people were in the water, despite the busy harbor. That was because Nerrhavia’s Fallen was a kingdom made of String People, and they didn’t like getting wet that much. It made their cloth rot or shrink.
Trey would have tried it, but he was under orders to keep a low profile. So he tugged his hood down and drank some water. Wearing a hood would have made him stand out more, frankly.
It was hot. Trey felt a blessed coolness blowing around him and blinked. He turned his head—and Mirin, the second-in-command of Parasol Stroll, waggled her fingers.
“Cooling spell. You need to remember to use magic, Trey Atwood.”
She smiled at him as he ducked his head. Trey adjusted his grip on his staff; his palms were sweaty.
“That’s why I’m going, right, Mirin? Thank you for bringing me here. You too, Palke.”
The male [Mage] nodded. The two had been Trey’s escort the long way south through Nerrhavia’s Fallen from Reim. It had been a pleasant journey, uneventful, with them teaching Trey magic.
He missed Gazi’s company, though, or the Quarasses’, for all they could be…terrifying. And horrible. Palke and Mirin were quite kind, but neither of them had that knowingness about them when they talked about the highest forms of magic.
Still—here they were. Trey stared at the boat and the docks.
“Do you have everything? Would you like to go over the plan again?”
Mirin looked at Trey. He gulped, shook his head.
“No. I have the memory cantrip you taught me, Mirin. I’ll—I’ll be fine.”
But as he bade them farewell and walked stiffly down the docks, Trey felt like this was more and more insane. He saw a queue of people ahead of him, waiting to board the ship. This was separate from the cargo being loaded on the other side; these were all passengers.
Like Trey, there were a lot of nervous young people. Even children! As young as seven. Trey saw a boy, a Stitchboy, solemnly listening to his well-dressed father giving him instructions.
“…Sayzil. Remember? Sayzil. He and I were friends. He will know you; I’ve written ahead. And take this.”
The boy gasped as his father offered him something. Trey saw the glitter of magic and for a moment he felt as if the bay rippled.
Water magic. Some water-wand. Not with a bound spell, but a catalyst-wand with some water-based magical substance.
“Thank you, father!”
The boy bowed, and then he and his father embraced. Trey looked away. The dock was full of scenes like this.
A voice from the bored [Mage] in front made the others stir. No one stepped forwards immediately; they still had things to say.
Trey walked forwards, heart pounding. The [Mage] sighed as he went down the list.
Trey nearly fumbled the first step. The [Mage] ran down the list.
“Troy, Troy…aha. No mage-picture…can you tell me the city you came from, Mister Troy?”
“Alright. And your age?”
“Six—no, it’s seventeen now.”
The [Mage] nodded. He glanced up. He made a little sign and looked at Trey.
“Do you swear you are the person bound for Wistram Academy?”
Trey caught his breath, but in relief. Mirin and Palke had worried about the wording of this, but—Trey nodded.
The [Mage] studied the truth spell and nodded. He forced a smile and pointed to the ship.
“Very well. Your cabin will be assigned to you. Welcome, Mister Atlas.”
Trey exhaled slowly. He boarded the ship, walking up the gangplank. He knew Mirin and Palke were watching, but he gave them no sign.
The first step was done. Trey saw a [Sailor] pointing with a yawn towards the belowdecks.
“That way, Mister Student, sir.”
Trey nearly stumbled as he stared at her. She was a [Sailor], like all the other ones working on decks, loading cargo, swearing at each other. But this woman…had an octopus tentacle for a leg. She had a swaying walk.
“No problem, sir. Hey, Captain! We shoving off by evening or what? We’re dying of boredom here!”
The [Storm Sailor], Inky, saluted. She shouted at the [Captain] busy coordinating the loading of cargo and people.
Captain Lasc, aboard his repaired ship, turned.
“You want to dance with Lord Seagrass, the Undersea Crews, and half the [Pirates] in the sea, Second Mate Inky? This is steady pay and until we get everything re-enchanted and the crew up to snuff, I don’t want to hear complaining! Get back to work!”
Inky grimaced. She waved Trey onwards.
“I knew I should have jumped ship at Zeres! Would’ve been more fun than running a passenger barge!”
“Hah! On your toes, Inky! I heard one of the ships going to Wistram got attacked by a Sea Serpent once! Had to be bailed out by the Archmage of Lightning herself!”
“What, only one?”
The [Storm Sailors] laughed in good humor as Trey walked down the deck. So this was the Emerald Signet? The same ship that had been in the scrying orb? That Fetohep had been on? He’d told Trey all about it.
Trey wondered what telling Inky and the Captain would have netted him. A drink or a boot off the ship? Either way—it didn’t matter.
A second [Mage] was waiting belowdecks. Troy nodded and she pointed.
“Take a room. It’s shared space until we get to Wistram. And that’s four days if we get the right current and with wind spells; twice that if we run into delays.”
She had a bored expression, like the other recruiter. Trey looked at the identical cabins.
“Any empty one.”
The [Mage]—a Drake—gave him a disinterested look. Trey was doing his best not to stare at the spines on her neck or her scales, which were a pale purple. He looked around, and before he could pick at random, someone stuck out a hand from one of the open cabins and waved.
“Hey, we’ve got room for at least one more in here.”
The [Mage]’s head snapped up.
“That’s not necessary, sir. We can arrange for a private bunk—”
“Oh, go on. No sense in making other people double up, is there? Long as he’s alright with my friend—hey buddy!”
Someone called cheerfully. Trey stepped forwards and saw a young man lounging on a bed as something rustled around below the bunk. He waved as the Wistram [Mage] bit her lip and swished her tail.
“You afraid of dogs, mate?”
The stranger gave Trey a thumbs-up. He had an interesting accent. For instance, ‘go on’ had been turned into ‘gwan’, and…Trey’s eyes flickered towards the worn jacket and clothing. And the logo in colors this world didn’t possess.
“Mister—Mister Flynn, there’s really no need—”
“’S fine. Don’t worry about it. Hey, nice to meet you. The name’s Flynn. Flynn Patel.”
The young man offered a hand. Trey shook it, glancing at whatever was rustling under the bed.
“—Troy Atlas. Nice to meet you.”
Flynn had darker skin than Trey’s, and tanned. He was more muscular as well and older. He had left his hat on the bunk. His eyes looked Trey up and down.
The young man knew he had no signs of Earth on him from his clothing. He carried a magical staff, the one taken from the [Geomancer], and Fetohep had gifted him a shirt and trousers that were both enchanted. He looked like the son of a lesser noble house, and he even carried a few other magical artifacts.
“Nice staff. What, are you a student for this Wistram Academy?”
“That’s right. I’m an aspiring [Mage]. Aren’t you?”
Trey knew the answer before Flynn grinned and sat down on the bunk. Trey would have to sleep above on either side of the small cabin; someone had messed up the bunk opposite Flynn’s.
“Not exactly. I’d love to learn magic. But uh—I was recruited. I don’t know a lick about magic. I’ve been roughing it around here for the last few months. Say…Troy Atlas. That’s an interesting name.”
Trey gave Flynn a blank look. And his heart began racing. Here it was. What did he do?
Gazi had given him a set of goals, a lot of minute details, but from here on out—Trey was on his own. She couldn’t help him—at least—not like this. So he had a decision to make.
“It’s not that unusual a name. Where I come from.”
Trey sat back as casually as he could. Flynn studied him as the rustling thing under his bunk made a weird, growling noise.
“Really? Everyone I’ve met is Zenra Silk, or Meura Hemp.”
“You mean, Stitchfolk. That’s common in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Flynn Patel is sort of interesting too.”
The young man ducked his head. Now he was watching Trey.
“Well, my mother’s…from another country. India. Ever heard of it?”
Trey feigned ignorance. His heart was beating out of his chest. But—it was also fun. He kept the smile from moving across his face.
“No…no, not really. Is that on Terandria or Izril? Baleros? I haven’t been to the other continents before.”
He saw Flynn deflate. He sat back against his bunk, shaking his head.
“Nah, further than that, friend. Way further. Never mind. Sorry, thought you and I might have been from about the same place. So you’re a student?”
He looked at Trey, still polite, even if his hopes were dashed. Trey nodded.
“That’s right. I’m hoping to learn more magic. I’ve got a few levels in [Mage]. I’m a [Sand Mage], actually.”
Flynn sat back up.
“Really? Know any spells?”
“A few. Not many I can show you here—oh! But I can show you a few tiny sand-Golems. Here, give me a sec.”
Trey fumbled with his bag of holding. Flynn leaned forwards and Trey couldn’t resist. Now. He glanced up.
“So. Flynn Patel. When did your family move to Australia?”
He saw Flynn blink—and then his eyes went round. His jaw dropped. He stared at Trey’s face, and Trey burst into a shaky grin of his own. Flynn punched Trey’s shoulder and then shot to his feet.
“I knew it! You bastard, you had me thinking—god! Hey! Hey, I found another one!”
He shot to his feet and went to the door of his cabin. Trey heard him shouting as the young man called out to the female Drake.
“Hey! I found—”
And here we go. Trey took a breath while no one was watching, then put an astonished look back on his face. It wasn’t too hard. And it was a common emotion.
The Drake [Mage]’s exasperated look became one of shock and excitement as Flynn pointed at Trey. She nearly dropped the clipboard as she hurried over to him.
“Another one? Are you from—America?”
The Drake stared at Trey with a far different expression than before. Flynn shook his head.
“Naw. He sounds like the United Kingdom, am I right? I’m from Australia! Melbourne, myself!”
“Er…yes. I came here because I heard about the football game—and other things. I uh—thought there was a chance…does Wistram have more people from Earth? Home, I mean?”
“I need to send a [Message]. That’s—you’re absolutely right, Mister Atlas. Just sit here and we’ll take you to more of your people. Please—be careful about what you say. And you, Mister Flynn.”
The Drake gave the young Australian man a look. He was too jubilant to notice. He dragged Trey back into the cabin.
“I knew it. No one has a name like that. How’d you find out? Where did you land? No—wait. Have you met anyone else? I’ve been searching for my mates, but no one’s heard of them.”
Flynn looked at Trey as the young man sat down. Trey took a deep breath.
“I’m from Hellios, actually…”
“North of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. North of Reim.”
“Reim, Reim…that’s the kingdom everyone’s talking about, right?”
Trey nodded. There was a lot of catch up on, but he was appraising the outcomes of his decision at the same time as his conversation. He’d been meaning to reveal himself when he got to the isle; that was step two of the plan. But this was more natural.
The ship had moved into a slow, swaying progress out of the harbor and was picking up speed as the two finished understanding where the other had come from. Flynn shook his head, grinning.
“So, you helped this fellow out and this—this [King] of Khelt gave you the fancy items?”
“Something like that. What about you?”
“Me? I’ve been running about Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Working as an adventurer, hunting, even making things. Anything to earn enough money to survive. It was tough, the first bit. I had to beg for water, but I got my feet under me. I was just trying to make money and get to Silver-rank when I saw the game on television. Soccer. I asked at the Mage’s Guild and they had me on a ship before I could blink!”
The football game. Trey sighed. Flynn seemed in good spirits for someone who’d had to survive on his wits alone, even fighting monsters the last few months.
But perhaps that was because of his companion. The snuffling under Flynn’s bunk turned into a shape at last as Flynn broke out some dried meat and shared it around. It was spiced, and made Trey’s mouth water pleasantly. And drawn by the smell, a long-nosed dog wuffed by Trey’s foot.
“Oh, don’t mind Pricky. She’s just hungry. Here you go, girl. Troy, meet my partner and the only reason I’m still alive. Pricky, say hi.”
Flynn offered the meat to the strange animal that came out of the bunk. Trey looked down and saw…well, he thought it was a dog.
It looked like one. A longer muzzle, almost like a triangle, and small mouth. The dog was just a bit below midsized, with a dark brown coat. She looked fairly strong and she had sharp teeth. But what was confusing about her was…her hair.
It was spiky. There was just no other word for it. The hair seemed to clump together into tufts that looked sharp to the touch. And as Prickly noticed Trey, the hairs stirred and rose a bit.
“Er—Flynn? What is that?”
“Her? This is Pricky, a Needlehound. It’s like if a cactus crossed with a regular dog. She’s the first friendly animal I met. Was dying of thirst in the heat. I gave her some water and then—bam [Beast Tamer]. I was looking for a Pokeball at the shops, you know? Go on, give her a scratch. Prickly, this is a friend. Friend.”
Flynn laughed. He carefully smoothed Pricky’s fur one way, telling Trey to carefully touch her. Trey did so—and he found the fur was soft. It moved around his fingers.
“Her hair’s like a porcupine, only a lot more complex. If she’s mad or doesn’t like you—they turn into spines. She just has to rub you wrong and you’re in trouble. They can get sharp; she brought down this Bicorn by jumping on its back and just shredding the poor bugger. With me and anyone else though, there’s no reason to worry.”
Pricky was the one on the opposite bunk. That was out of necessity; even as her master, Flynn couldn’t sleep with her without the danger of her accidentally triggering her needle-hairs in her sleep.
“I hope this ‘Academy of Mages’ has enough room for her to run about. I hear it’s just one island. But I couldn’t leave her behind. I’d have gone mad without her looking after me, monsters aside.”
Flynn rubbed her ears affectionately. The dog rolled over, making a ‘frrrfhh’ sound in the back of her throat.
“So you just heard about Wistram?”
The [Beast Tamer] nodded. He seemed excited by the prospect of going there.
“It’s a relief there’s somewhere we can go. And—I’m hoping to find some friends there. Or news of what the hell happened on Earth. Where did you come from?”
“England. I was just…walking down the street with my—myself. And then I was here.”
Flynn glanced up.
“Huh. Did you hear about other people going missing? Was there any—sign?”
“No. Not at all. I just—appeared suddenly. What about you?”
The smile went away from Flynn’s face. He sat on the bunk, folding his hands between his legs as Prickly went back under the bunk. There was food, refreshments, anything the two young men wanted thanks to the Wistram [Mages]. Trey was certain they’d be four to a room and less well-attended if they hadn’t been from Earth.
“…I didn’t know what the hell was happening. But yeah. There was a sign. See—the thing is, I’m not sure if they’re here. Or…alive. But I was with my friends when it happened. A small group. I saw ‘em go. I was going to take a piss and I’d just come back when I saw someone vanish.”
Trey blinked. He hadn’t met anyone else from Earth.
“Yup. Just there one second. Gone the next. You’ve not seen anyone else. But—his name’s Daly—he was just gone. No sound, nothing else.”
“What happened next?”
Trey leaned forwards, urgently. Flynn shook his head.
“I started shouting and asking if anyone else had seen. No one else had even noticed. They just thought Daly had gone off somewhere. I was trying to explain when I saw two more go. Then people began shouting. I ran about, trying to find them. I was just going for security when—”
He raised his hands and lowered them.
“In the middle of an airport. Fucking hell, man. There must have been cameras! But no one came after me. And I’m not sure—you arrived in Hellios? How far north is that?”
“A long ways.”
Flynn nodded absently.
“That means they could be anywhere. Or…they ran into something nasty. I saw some real monsters out there. The [Mages] don’t know. But if there’s a chance…and I can get help, I’m going to find it at this Wistram place. Hopefully.”
He looked up at Trey, serious now. The young man slowly nodded.
Flynn was odd to Trey. Older, but younger at the same time. He had been an adventurer, treated this world like it was part-game. Trey had seen a war. And fortunately or not—he’d arrived in the King of Destruction’s throne room.
Even their motivations for going were different. But they were going together. Trey sat in the cabin, as Flynn asked him questions about magic, his experiences. The young man practiced lying on his first person who wasn’t Mirin or Palke. And he felt himself leaving Chandrar and everyone he knew and cared about far behind. Heading across the sea.
With a purpose, though. A great one. Trey closed his eyes.
Wistram Academy awaited.
Trey Atwood, Teresa Atwood, Nawalishifra, Fetohep of Khelt. One left Chandrar, and the others in their way lived and shaped it, however small. Yet their fates were tied to one man, one kingdom.
The next day, Teresa Atwood rode north at all speed. It would take her several days to return to the front. But that was fine.
The war was paused. Jecrass and Reim had halted the conflict that had raged across Jecrass and Belchan’s borders until Raelt had pulled his armies back, ceding the south and west of his lands to Reim’s advance. More than that—after his second attempt to bring the King of Destruction down, he had sent a [Messenger] under the flag of peace.
He had asked the King of Destruction his terms for Jecrass’ surrender.
That was the kind of news that made Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Medain, and every other nation opposed to the King of Destruction extremely nervous. Undesirable news, to say the least. However, it wasn’t being reported loudly from Wistram News Network. A glorious battle against the odds was good television. The peace negotiations—no.
That was how the Academy felt, at least, and they controlled the broadcasts. So attention across the world was turned to the incident in Baleros, football, and so on. That didn’t stop reality from occurring, of course. It just changed public perception.
Suing for peace. Jecrass was on the back foot and everyone knew it. The instant Raelt had begun the negotiations, the auxiliaries and irregular forces including the mercenaries from other nations had all but disappeared. Some remained in the cities, but they refused to fight.
Reim could have advanced and pressed the negotiations as they laid siege to the capital. But they didn’t. Fortuitously—a rainstorm had battered the north, coming off the coast of Medain. And the unexpected days of downpour upon Jecrass’ flatlands had stopped Reim’s army in their tracks.
Flos of Reim laughed as he looked up at the sky. It was bewildering for Jecrass’ forces, but Reim’s army, from the far drier nation, had stopped just to admire the weather. They had helmets collecting rainwater, or were just watching the rainbows created as droplets fell from the skies.
Rain was something to be marveled at, not fought under. It was a difference of cultures, even between two close Chandrarian nations. Indeed, Flos was frankly envious of Jecrass, which had grass to graze on and feed the horses and cattle it was so known for.
“I forget, sometimes, how much water these coastal nations get. Medain is rich with water; King Perric has never faced a drought.”
He took a sip of water, letting some of it run through his hair. He shook himself as Teres shielded her face. Four days later, and Reim was still enjoying the water.
“You should come to England. I’ve had enough of rain. It gets dreary.”
“Would that I could get tired of it! Ah, well, if I conquer Baleros or Izril, I’m sure it will lose its appeal.”
The King of Destruction sighed. He motioned Teres over.
“I see your time with Fetohep has done you well. Is that new clothing I see?”
“Yes. He gave it to me as a gift.”
Nothing less than the finest clothing in Teres’ wardrobes. In fact, shockwool cotton had gone into her dress. Far from creating more static, it ensured she’d never shock herself accidentally. And it was very comfortable.
Flos just nodded. He pursed his lips and frowned, dragging each word out.
“Fetohep is generous. There. I said it. That—delightfully stubborn pile of bones has his good qualities. I’m glad he released you to me in time though, Teres. I want you to be here when we take Jecrass.”
“So it’s a done deal?”
Teres was surprised. She hadn’t gotten much news on the road from Flos’ escort. He ran a finger down the map in his tent. Mars, Death Commander Ytol, everyone was there, if not in the tent. Zamea for instance was sitting in the rain, grumpy because there was no covering fit for her. Parasol Stroll was endeavoring to cast a mass-shield spell over the half-Giants’ heads.
“If Raelt wants to pursue the war, I’ll happily march on the capital and destroy it. But it seems his backers have disappeared. And our strength is concentrated here. He did very well keeping us from advancing, but if it comes to it—I will take Orthenon, Mars, Zamea, and the bulk of our army and smash his capital. Then we can do the dreary fighting across Jecrass. I’d prefer to avoid that. And I think—so would Raelt.”
Teres nodded. She had a vague grasp of the strategy involved now, and even if she didn’t—she’d seen what happened when all of the King of Destruction’s commanders joined him in the same battle.
“So what do we do while we wait?”
“Relax? Play this football game? I keep kicking the ball too damn hard. I’m more interested in this ‘baseball’. From Earth. But the [Tailors] have yet to create a uniform that suits me.”
The King of Destruction clicked his fingers impatiently. Off the battlefield, he was prone to his flights of fancy once more.
“We stopped for the warm rain and to give the army a break. Relax, Teresa. Orthenon is conducting the negotiations. If you’d like—we can plot which nation is most likely to declare war next. I’m hoping Medain will. Then we can swing north, take Medain, and deal with the Claiven Earth before Nerrhavia moves.”
He cheerfully tapped the two sprawling nations on the map. Teres raised her brows.
“Just like that? From Jecrass to Medain?”
“Jecrass was a surprise, Teres! Medain won’t be that hard if we play it right.”
Mars laughed. She was good-naturedly sitting and checking her weapons. Today, she had a flashy mohawk; a new illusion based on Earth’s styles. Colored bright purple, though.
She was a contrast to Death Commander Ytol. One-armed, and one-legged, his punishment for ‘desertion’, the man bowed to Teres as if she were of Mars’ rank.
“Medain is a powerful coastal nation ruled by High King Perric. But his army is reliant on adventurers, many of them Gold-rank.”
“The Kingdom of Adventurers. You know, I’d love to explore some of their magical dungeons. A shame they’re almost completely explored. The monsters respawn, but the treasures do not.”
Flos sighed, his eyes twinkling. Teres raised her brows.
“Didn’t you say that the Gold-ranks are really strong, your Majesty? You’re only as strong as a Gold-rank adventurer without gear. And a ‘High King’ sounds better than a…[King].”
Half of the vassals in the room coughed or looked scandalized. Mars and Flos just laughed. The King of Destruction ran a hand through his wet hair.
“True! But adventurers are limited in number. Kill twenty and two hundred run for their lives. If it comes to a fight—and I think I can insult Perric enough that he declares war on us—we’ll just kill a few teams and the rest won’t stick around. More to the point—Medain’s army isn’t half as mobile as Jecrass. It’ll be one big battle where we kill the High King. He’s strong, and he was a good adventurer. But he’s about…Raelt’s level of [King].”
Ulyse of Parasol Stroll coughed into one hand.
“Lady Teres, High King is a name given to King Perric because he rules over a defacto, smaller kingdom. One of his coastal holdings. It is a more powerful class…but not by that much.”
“Indeed. Before this battle, I’d have put Perric far above Raelt in levels and strength. Now? Raelt might be the better fighter of the two, and Jecrass’ people have fought like Manticores, each and every one!”
Flos’ eyes glittered. He looked out of his war room tent and shook his head.
“Medain isn’t a nation I fear. The half-Elves of the Claiven Earth? I’d rather settle with them than have to take their forests. Without the Mad Ones or Amerys or the Order of Glass—I’d hate to fight in the trees without a way to rob them of their cover. Have you ever seen half-Elves melded into trees loosing arrows at you in the middle of a fog from all sides? Disgusting. We might have to see if your world has any useful tricks to fight that kind of foe.”
He shuddered. The others nodded and Teres sighed, nodding. She looked outside at the rain.
“It is beautiful. Why were you so surprised by the rainfall?”
Flos just shrugged.
“I don’t know Jecrass well. I knew it had a good number of rivers, but I didn’t think it got storms like these.”
That surprised Teres.
“But it’s only two nations over! Surely you’d visited…?”
He shook his head.
“As a boy, perhaps. But I started my war of conquest early. Jecrass became a vassal-state of Reim without resistance early into my campaign. Its warhorses fed my armies—a fine boon. But I didn’t stay here at all. I could tell you more about the west, or south where I had difficulty and spent years on campaign. It is a beautiful land. I wish Raelt and I had not come to blows. But we have. And now we shall be done with it. One way or another.”
He leaned on the table, then. And his brow darkened. Teres caught her breath, because she remembered.
“The—negotiations. Are you still asking for the same thing? Belchan’s…?”
Flos looked. He met her gaze coolly. And he shook his head a fraction.
“The Prime Minster? Those who slew the Gnolls who came for my protection? Teresa Atwood. We have gone to war over our differences, Raelt and I. Those are the first of my demands. Now I ask for far more. I will have it—or I will march on his capital. But do not think of it today. Come. Let us sit in the rain.”
Surrender was different from peace. And the terms of defeat—Raelt had fought wars against Medain, other nations before. He knew how to sue for peace, negotiate.
But he had never…surrendered. And he found it simpler and harder before. Because he had little to negotiate on.
“Prime Minster Lyfelt’s head. All those in his government responsible for the safety and conduct of the King of Destruction’s refugees…? That’s too open-ended. How am I even supposed to decide who that is?”
“That is his Majesty’s will. If you would like me to, I will name each position.”
“And they die.”
Orthenon, the King’s Steward, nodded. Just a slight tilt of the head. He did not blink, or give any sign that it bothered him. Raelt sat there, thinking.
It was just him and Orthenon in one of the small guest rooms in Raelt’s palace. It was…too small, too quaint to hold Orthenon, the Left Hand of the King of Destruction.
But that was how it worked. Raelt had sued for peace, and Orthenon had come himself as the King’s emissary. If he feared treachery or poison—well, Raelt was the one who had more to worry about.
That was the first way surrender looked different from a peace treaty. Orthenon had refused lesser negotiators. He wanted to speak to Raelt alone. Also—this wasn’t as much a discussion as a one-sided offer.
“This is not negotiable, King Raelt.”
The man knew that. But his crown felt so heavy. He had gone to war for this. Because it was wrong.
But now—it was his entire kingdom or the same. Raelt had seen the writing on the wall as Warden Winta died. He could fight—and send his people to the slaughter. Or sue for peace.
“We are running out of time, your Majesty. The contract has been waiting the last four days.”
Raelt murmured. They had worked on this for four days while the rains began. He would not get a fifth. Raelt knew that perfectly well because he had called for the rains. Not with a Skill—he hadn’t been fortunate enough to get them. But he’d requested a favor and Queen Yisame had granted it.
To buy time. To negotiate. He could still back out. Raelt read down the agreement. The…personal demands were at the bottom. The rest was simpler, and he and Orthenon had dickered on the points, but the Steward had mainly only consulted Raelt.
It had been refreshingly simple. Jecrass would cede nearly a quarter of its lands, mainly the borders, to Reim. It would become, in effect, a vassal kingdom, bound by the magical contract to pay tribute. It would not be allowed to declare war, a portion of its resources, soldiers, sent to Reim for a duration of fifteen years, pending renegotiation…
It was really, a very neat contract. Raelt was surprised at the generosity of some of it. For instance—he got to live if he agreed to the peace. Jecaina wouldn’t be held for ransom.
“King Reimarch trusts me a great deal to let me live.”
Orthenon’s eyes flickered.
“His Majesty respects valor in combat. The magic will bind you, King Raelt. The exchange of hostages?”
Hostages. They were dead. Lyfelt, his officials…Raelt looked up. This was where the ‘negotiations’ got hard. Because he had no cards to play. Nothing to threaten Flos with and both men knew it. However—
“Not his family. Or the families of the officials.”
The Steward’s face was cold. Raelt inhaled slowly. He pressed two fingers together.
“Not. Their families. They’re surely innocent of his Majesty’s wrath.”
“This is not a negotiation. His Majesty—”
Raelt actually raised his voice to the living legend sitting across from him.
“I am aware of his Majesty’s fury. However. I would remind King Reimarch that he did not demand their families at Belchan. Nor could Lyfelt’s family conceivably be held to blame; how could they have known?”
That was a new addition to the terms. Orthenon frowned.
“His Majesty did not consider slaying each family member outright. But they will foment rebellion against him.”
“I’m aware, Steward Orthenon. But they will be twice as likely to attack Reim in captivity, even if they are not slain. For the—the appearance of it. Let me take charge of them. I will prevent them from seeking retribution.”
The Steward frowned darkly. He stood up, and walked to the windows, regarding the rain. Four Scrolls of Weatherchange had done that. A small fortune, to awe Reim’s armies.
“…The contract will need to be amended. The section under ‘Obligations of the Crown’.”
Raelt nodded and took a breath. And he remembered as he haggled with Orthenon over the terms that Lyfelt died. His officials died, the instant Raelt signed.
It was a bloody peace worthy of the King of Destruction. But what choice did he have?
As Orthenon left that evening to collect his ruler’s will, he turned to Raelt.
“The contract will be signed by dawn tomorrow, your Majesty. Or King Reimarch will break off the peace negotiations. I will return before midnight at the latest with the final draft.”
Raelt met the man’s eyes. Then he let Orthenon leave. The trembling servants stepped aside as the Steward left the palace and rode like an arrow towards the King of Destruction’s camp, just visible in the distance.
Then Raelt went to consult his other option.
“If I refuse the contract, it will be war unrelenting. He is within range of my capital. Within a day, it will be a siege—and since my walls are not exactly those of the Blighted Kingdom or a Walled City of Izril, it will be fighting in the streets by noon at the latest! And still, you won’t guarantee a declaration of war?”
Raelt looked at the three figures in the mirror that could convince him to continue the fight. One was a half-Elf, the Speaker of the Trees for Claiven Earth, someone Raelt didn’t know. It didn’t matter—the position wasn’t permanent among them.
The other two were rulers. One was High King Perric of Medain, haughty as he sat in his throne. The second? Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, the major power to the south of Reim, surrounded by a war council.
Each one ruled a nation more powerful than Jecrass. Each one had an army of note. Nerrhavia’s Fallen was of course a major power of Chandrar, vast and influential, ruled by String People.
The Claiven Earth by contrast was small, reclusive—but incredibly dangerous. The half-Elves had settled their nation long ago, coming from Terandria, even growing a forest along the coast. Even the King of Destruction had chosen to make peace rather than fight them to the last during his first rise to power.
And the last—Medain. Raelt knew the ruler, High King Perric, and the country very well. Medain was an aggressive coastal nation. The Kingdom of Adventurers, who possessed a strong army supplemented by active and retired adventurers. It was he who led the discussions.
“Jecrass cannot make peace, of course. Reim’s ambitions must not be tolerated.”
He said it as if he were giving orders to Raelt. The ruler of Jecrass said nothing. High King Perric drummed his fingers on the armrest of his throne.
“You have petitioned our nations for reinforcements, King Leysars.”
“Not petitioned, your Majesty Perric. Demanded.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. He and Raelt glared at each other. Not once had Raelt used the ‘High King’ title; he refused to give the larger man even that small satisfaction.
High King Perric had tried to invade both Jecrass and Belchan in years past. More than that—Raelt just detested the man, who had been a Gold-rank Captain before taking the throne. He had an ego to match Flos Reimarch.
But he might save Jecrass. Deliberately, Raelt looked past him towards Queen Yisame and the Speaker of Trees.
“And not from one nation either. If I am to refuse the peace treaty, I must have reinforcements from all three nations at once. Nothing short of that will stop the King of Destruction. As I have said, your Majesty.”
He nodded at Yisame. She stirred, looking guilty, but one of her members of the war council spoke.
He was perhaps an [Earl], or some equivalent rank in Nerrhavia’s fallen. But he looked down his nose at Raelt as he spoke for the [Queen].
“Her Majesty has provided her assurances that reinforcements shall arrive, King Raelt of Jecrass.”
“Assurances I have received before.”
“Nerrhavia has sent countless chariots—”
“Not an army.”
Raelt ignored the man. He looked past the String People at the half-Elf standing alone. The Speaker of Trees inclined his head.
“Our archers failed to meet your expectations, King Leysars?”
“They performed to the best of their abilities, Speaker of the Trees. But—it was not what was needed. To fight the King of Destruction, I need three armies. So yes! It is not enough! I need an army. And if I am to turn down the King of Destruction in this hour of peace—there will be no second agreement. All three nations must sign a pact of war. A contract, to come to Jecrass’ defense!”
The other rulers stirred. Raelt clenched his fists. He had gone back and forth with them on this point and none of them wanted this last bit.
They were happy to talk. They had been talking since he’d announced he was suing for peace. None of the nations wanted that. But a formal contract, sealed by magic? They’d have to fight with him in an actual war.
There was still a chance. High King Perric shifted in his throne.
“I see no reason to object. Medain has abstained from the hostilities so far because the conflict did not threaten our borders. But I would be willing to march on Reim and curtain the King of Destruction if I had a sufficient reason.”
There he went again. He never said ‘no’, because that was cowardly. But he always demanded the other two nations agree. So—Raelt turned to the Speaker of Trees.
“The King of Destruction is not that easy a foe. The Claiven Earth do not prefer to die on foreign soil. However…his conquest of Belchan and Jecrass would give him too much power. It depends on whether unity can be reached.”
The Speaker of the Trees glanced sideways. And it rested on Nerrhavia.
Nerrhavia, was the problem. The war council was murmuring, one speaking to the [Queen]. Yisame had said not a word. She raised a hand and one of the other Stitch Folk spoke up.
“King Leysars, her majesty of course agrees Reim must be stopped. And Nerrhavia’s Fallen is prepared to act in concord with other nations.”
Raelt waited. But that was all. He narrowed his eyes.
“Medain has already given its assurances. King Leysars, it falls to you to rebuff the King of Destruction. Since we are all in agreement…”
Perric scowled at the scrying mirror. They were dancing again.
“I want a contract of war. Spelling out your determination in ink and magic, King Perric.”
The King of Medain’s’ eyes flashed. He leaned over his throne and snapped.
“For a nation so pressed, you are in little position to make demands, Raelt—”
Enough. Enough of it. Medain, Perric, was not the problem.
Raelt spun. He pointed directly at Queen Yisame, addressing her and to hell with the niceties of it all.
“Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen! I have yet to hear you speak. Let alone receive even your assurances that if I go to war against a foe I cannot defeat, Nerrhavia will come to my aid!”
“King Leysars. Her Majesty—”
Raelt looked at the Stitch-Man.
“Be silent. I am addressing Queen Yisame.”
He looked at the woman. She blinked uneasily as Raelt turned towards her.
“Your Majesty, Are we [King] and [Queen], or ruler and vassal? Because I am unaccustomed to speaking to those lesser than me as if they were equals.”
He heard a squawk from the Stitch-Man, the [Earl]-[General] or whatever his rank was. Yisame actually jumped in her seat. She blinked at him—and then she rose to her feet.
“Your Majesty of Jecrass. We give you our solemn word that Jecrass shall not stand alone. Surely that is enough?”
She implied that a formal contract was rudeness, with the hint of incredulity in her voice, the way she looked at him. So well he almost believed it. But he had known Lyfelt and while the [Prime Minister] had not been a woman, he’d played the same game.
“Your word, your Majesty?”
Raelt laughed, and he heard the note of hysteria in it. He shook his head.
“I took you at your word when I began my war against Reim. You sent me charioteers who refused to obey orders, gold, [Mercenaries]—all of which I thank you for—but you sent me no armies. Nothing capable of pushing back the King of Destruction. Now—you say to me that Nerrhavia’s armies will be there, on the field.”
He pointed out his window, at the distant speck of Reim’s armies.
“Where were you yesterday, Queen Yisame? Where was Nerrhavia in the days before that? When I struck the King of Destruction’s heart, and his armies stopped, the battle might have been won if Nerrhavia’s armies stood with us. Your word, Queen Yisame, is not enough.”
He stood then, weary, and looked at his audience.
“Either I have an assurance that Jecrass not fall alone, or I will accept Flos of Reim’s bloody treaty, though I will condemn a foolish man, a shortsighted man, but still a halfway decent man to death, and all those who served under him.”
They stared at him. King Perric’s eyes burning with annoyance, Yisame’s shocked, the Speaker of the Tree’s considering, weighing. Each one turned to regard the other.
“A moment, Raelt of Jecrass. We must confer.”
Yisame broke the silence. The mirrors flickered out. Raelt sagged.
This was it. It felt like only a second passed—though it might have been minutes—before his numb mind was awakened. There stood Yisame, Perric, and the Speaker of Trees, united. He looked at their faces for what he thought was a simple answer.
And they surprised him. Yisame smiled down at the [King of Challenges] and she gave the most miniscule of bows.
“King Leysars of Jecrass. You will have your treaty.”
He blinked, stunned. But then High King Perric was announcing he was having the treaty drawn up and the Speaker of Trees was nodding. It was done.
Now he had two options. Raelt excused himself as the other three rulers began spelling out the exact terms of the war. It was rude—but he was beyond rudeness.
Two paths lay in front of him. One was peace, the death of his friend and innocent people and vassalization.
The second was a war, with three nations at his back. A more unclear future. Raelt studied the rough of the contract.
Did Jecrass have the strength for it? Certainly—it would be a long and bitter war, even if won. He would have to abandon the capital; the King of Destruction would hit them within hours of his peace treaty being refused.
But it could be done. Raelt walked through his familiar palace. All the corridors which had been so small and pressing and familiar when his only worry was fighting Medain or Hellios, and dealing with his treacherous River Wardens.
It was treachery that weighed on the mind. Raelt didn’t trust Perric, and he wasn’t sure Yisame could be fully trusted either.
“But a contract. They have to obey.”
Raelt murmured. Three nations fighting Reim…
The palace was quiet, to Raelt. Like when he had challenged the King of Destruction—it wasn’t that no one was speaking or moving. Rather, it was full of commotion. People receiving the contract, issuing orders regarding the army stationed in the capital, servants hurrying to and fro—
People afraid, seeing the King of Destruction poised to attack. But Raelt walked in silence. Only one thing mattered.
“…majesty. Your Majesty.”
A voice interrupted him. Raelt turned and saw Geril. His old, trusted retainer was tentatively plucking at his sleeve.
Raelt realized he was walking down the Sunset Retreat Corridor, absently tracing the path he used to take to throw oranges at people. And Geril had found him. He must have been speaking for a while and Raelt hadn’t heard.
“Geril? What is it?”
The [King] turned blankly. The old man hesitated. The stress of war had worn Raelt. People no longer approached him as easily and they looked—nervous when they looked at him. Or awed, like Jecaina and some of the River Wardens.
The [King] finally looks like a King. Raelt found it a bitter irony. Geril ducked his head.
“Your Majesty, an incident in the capital. A small skirmish between our people and some of Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s warriors.”
Normally, it would have been a diplomatic incident and a headache for Raelt. But the war had stripped away those kinds of duties. Today, he just gave Geril a blank, even peeved look.
“Over what? Why are you coming to me about it? Have one of the River Wardens arrest or discipline whoever it is.”
The retainer hesitated.
“Sire. The instigator was, ah…”
He turned and Raelt saw a sullen young woman being escorted by some of Jecrass’ [Trick Riders] towards him.
Ah. You couldn’t discipline someone above your rank.
Princess Jecaina of Jecrass had a scrape on her cheek and a banged knuckle. Raelt listened, with that pained feeling of a father as Geril explained.
“Six [Master Charioteers] were drinking, sire, and Princess Jecaina objected to their remarks. She…challenged them to a duel. Then, when they refused, started a brawl with several of her friends. [Soldiers] nearby joined in, as did more of Nerrhavia’s soldiers…”
“How many wounded?”
“In need of healing potions? Only—six.”
Six? Jecaina flushed. She burst out.
“They were insulting you, father! And the crown!”
Raelt looked at his daughter.
Geril flushed. So did Jecaina. She looked away from Raelt.
“They said—they said no real king would have given up the battlefield. As if you hadn’t been fighting the King of Destruction for nearly a month! And they called you a coward!”
“I gave up the borders. They’re Nerrhavia’s people. Free to say what they want. Isn’t…isn’t [Master Chariot] a noble title, Geril?”
“Those awarded the class usually are of the lowest noble rank in Nerrhavia, sire. It’s an extremely negligible title as Nerrhavia counts them—”
Raelt’s head hurt. He looked at Jecaina.
“You’ll make an apology to Nerrhavia’s [General], Jecaina. Geril, find whoever that is. Anyone hurt? Heal them up and keep them separate.”
Jecaina pursued Raelt as Geril bowed. The King of Jecrass let his daughter follow him. That roaring was back in his ears—but he heard her.
“Jecaina Leysars. Why did you start a fight with our allies?”
She gulped as he looked at her.
“But—but they insulted you. The honor of Jecrass, father…”
The [King of Challenges] gave her such a blank stare that Jecaina trailed off.
“Have you been hanging around the River Warden’s children again?”
“Only a bit. With—I’m not allowed to fight. So why not?”
“Because you’d die.”
Raelt muttered. He saw Jecaina turn red. She stared furiously at him. Again, Raelt gave her a long look and Jecaina hesitated.
This wasn’t how their father-daughter talks normally went. Normally it was Jecaina who had no time to talk to Raelt. This time…
“Nerrhavia’s chariots are part of our army—for now, Jecaina. If they decide to ride off because you insulted them—”
“They insulted us first! And what good have they done? It’s only a fraction of the army Nerrhavia could have sent! You said that y—”
Raelt grabbed his daughter’s shoulders. She stared at him wide-eyed. Raelt gave her a tiny shake. He released her, and took a breath. He tried to think, to explain.
“I understand. I understand you’re angry. I don’t appreciate being called a coward. Even to my back. But you cannot challenge random [Master Charioteers] to a duel and cause a brawl! You are a [Princess].”
“But our honor…”
Raelt tasted the word on his tongue.
“Honor. Jecaina, if honor could be besmirched by words, no one would have any left. I know you’re trying to defend me. But Jecrass doesn’t need a—a [Warrior Princess]. It needs you to be a calming influence. Someone to look up to. I thought…you did well when I was gone.”
His daughter looked up at him.
“I heard from Geril. You—you went to wounded [Soldiers] and helped raise spirits. I was proud of that. This? You don’t need to defend me, Jecaina. There’s nothing Nerrhavia’s soldiers can do to me that exceeds what Reim’s might.”
Her head lowered. Raelt looked at his daughter and felt wretched. Here he was, giving her a lecture on failure. He looked around.
“…I know I haven’t had much time to speak. My every waking moment’s consumed with these negotiations. The Steward, the other rulers…”
He had a thought and forced a smile.
“Orthenon, the King’s Steward in the palace. At least you got to see him, eh?”
Jecaina had dreamed of meeting the King of Destruction, of pledging her sword to him. Raelt saw her look up. But none of that old enthusiasm was there.
“I did. I wish he hadn’t come.”
Raelt’s forced smile fell away. He stood there, tiredly.
“Me too, Jecaina.”
What was he to say? Raelt wished he’d actually taken a wife, been married. Jecaina, his adopted daughter…he felt like he’d failed her. Especially now. What kind of a kingdom was he going to leave her?
Raelt cast about. And because he didn’t know what to say—he felt for his side.
“Are you free? Let’s go to the practice courts.”
She blinked at him. Jecaina wore her own dueling sword, a copy of the one Raelt carried. She’d…stopped wearing the silver bell, Raelt realized. He’d been used to hearing it chiming wherever she went.
“Now? Do you have time?”
Raelt did not. He had to decide whether the King of Destruction was to be accepted, or the contract of war. He hadn’t really expected the others to agree. But they had.
“Of course. Just for a bout or two.”
They walked down the hallways of the palace, father and daughter. Like this—they could pretend it was peace. Raelt nodded to servants who bowed to him, staring as if they hadn’t served him all his life.
King of Duels. The man who’d fought the King of Destruction twice. Stabbed him through the heart.
Jecaina had the same look in her eyes when she stepped onto the empty practice courts. Raelt drew his sword.
“Do you have the deflection bracers on?”
It was a magical artifact [Fencers] and [Duelists] used. It could deflect a few strikes. It didn’t really work in combat; if anything touched you, it depleted the magic. But the ones Jecaina wore could deflect two to five strikes with the practice rapiers.
Raelt put his own on. He took a position across from Jecaina. The rapier felt light in his hand as he drew the parrying dagger he used. He didn’t care about the audience of servants, soldiers, and so on.
This was his life. This was what he was good at. Every day he practiced lunges, or thought of swordplay while sitting on his throne. And—what a waste. It hadn’t protected Jecrass. Hadn’t slain the King of Destruction. He had given all he had to his daughter.
And it was just this. She walked across from him, her body balanced, moving on the balls of her feet, watching his posture, the way he held her sword. This was all—
He stepped in. Normally Jecaina would first, but she was hesitant.
[King of Challenges]. She deflected his first thrust wildly, as if expecting him to have the strength of a Minotaur. Raelt slid forwards as Jecaina tried to bring her wide blade back. He caught her slash with his parrying dagger, slashed once.
A cut across her chest. The audience sighed. Raelt looked at Jecaina as she took a few breaths.
“Breathe. You’re off today.”
“You—but you’re so much better.”
She made him smile. Her father looked down at Jecaina and shook his head.
“You’ve never said that before!”
“But you dueled the King of Dest—”
Jecaina made a startled sound and leapt back as Raelt slashed at her face. She backed up and her body took over as Raelt slashed furiously.
One, two, three, four—Raelt felt every heavy swing deflected and then Jecaina lanced at his chest. He knocked the blade down, stepped back.
“Jecaina. It’s me. I might have leveled—but you’ve dueled me since you were a girl. Nothing’s changed. See?”
He stepped forwards, this time Jecaina stopped overthinking her blade. The two danced backwards, first Raelt on the attack, then falling back as Jecaina began using her flurry-Skills.
It was familiar. Raelt was concentrating hard and not at all. He was aware, for instance, of the audience growing excited. Both he and Jecaina practiced an aggressive style. There was little waiting; the two knew each other so they didn’t test each other but went into bursts of attack and defense.
Raelt felt a cut across his upper arm as his guard lowered. People cheered; Jecaina lowered her blade.
“You let me have that.”
“I was careless.”
“But you have a golden—”
Raelt looked up. So that was why she felt off. He shook his head.
“It’s just a metal, Jecaina. You knew I was good. And bells—more than a few [Fencers] with the golden bell have lost to a bladesman with silver, or nothing at all. In a battle, you can’t ever tell.”
“Then—am I good at fighting?”
The King of Jecrass looked at the [Duelist Princess].
“Of course you are.”
“But you won’t let me fight.”
“Yes…because it’s too dangerous.”
“Jecaina. If you had a gold bell, I wouldn’t want you to fight. You don’t need to. You’re Jecrass’ [Princess]. You don’t need to be me.”
“I want to. I want to fight. I don’t want to be here—being useless!”
She slashed viciously, through the air. Raelt realized he’d done her a disservice. He shook his head.
“Jecaina. You’re not weak. But war isn’t fencing. It’s not a tidy duel. It’s too easy to die. That’s why I have a bodyguard. More than that—if you were captured—”
“I know. It’s just…everyone else is fighting.”
“Let’s have another bout. I have time.”
He glanced at the sky. The sun was setting. Yisame was no doubt waiting for him, and Perric and the Speaker of Trees.
Well, to Rhir’s hell with them. This was more important. The two went three more rounds. Raelt scored three more points; he didn’t hold back. It was what Jecaina wanted; she looked satisfied, even though she’d lost each clash. The last one had been close.
“So—if I had gone to Terandria, do you think I’d have done well?”
Raelt was sipping from some water. He blinked at his sweaty daughter. The courtyard was protected from some of the rain, but it kept blowing in and making the ground slippery.
“Terandria? You’d do terribly there, Jecaina.”
“What? But you said—”
He grinned and stepped. A fencer’s lunge. Jecaina yelped as he struck her stomach. He’d nearly speared her through the gut.
“Bracer’s dead. Grab a new one.”
She stomped off as Raelt took another sip of water. When she came back, Raelt shook his head.
“Terandrian [Fencers] and [Duelists]—have a different style, Jecaina. Point-based. It’s similar to how we fight, but they use lighter swords. Much lighter, for the…sport of it. It’s not meant for combat. You’d lose in points due to the style of it. I taught you to win a fight, not a competition.”
“Oh. But why learn a sport?”
That was what Raelt had thought. He shrugged.
“It’s more for the nobility. No risk of injury. Fencing…fencing isn’t a good style for mass battles. We require space, where most [Soldiers] fight in close formations, with armor, shields—that’s why people call [Fencers] snobbish, or outdated to actual combat. A nobleman’s Skill.”
“It worked pretty well against the King of Destruction.”
“True. Now—if you want to win either sport or a fight, you need better footwork.”
“It’s good enough!”
“It’s predictable. You always circle left. See? Now show me some unpredictability…”
It cost him an hour. But it was worth the price of it to see Jecaina smile, to feel light and free. Raelt wiped at the sweat and rainwater on his brow.
“We’ll have more chances to practice soon. Stay out of trouble until then, or I’ll take away your foil.”
He lied to her. He wasn’t sure. But it was worth it to see her smile. Raelt watched her walk off to get clean. He probably didn’t have time to. Well, it wasn’t like the others could smell him through the scrying mirror.
Time to decide. Raelt…closed his eyes. War or peace?
“Geril. Where is…Lyfelt?”
The [Prime Minister] and his family were a guest of Raelt’s. A guest…but Lyfelt was under guard. He could neither run nor be harmed. Raelt had intended it to protect his friend from the wrath of his people. But now—it felt like he was holding Lyfelt to die.
“In his quarters, your Majesty.”
“I should talk to him.”
It was a bad idea. Raelt felt he’d be swayed to continue the war. But he was compelled to.
And—damn it. He had been right. This entire war’s start felt like ages ago, but he had been right! Flos Reimarch had been prepared to execute innocent people! Over an atrocity, yes. The death of those poor Gnolls. But he had still been wrong.
Yet, that felt like an old reason. They were past it. Now it was war. Raelt sighed.
“Take me to…”
“Your Majesty! A visitor has come to the palace!”
Raelt turned. A [Servant] was hurrying towards him. Geril intercepted him.
“Who? The King’s Steward?”
Had he gotten word about the secret pact? Raelt’s heart began to race. But the visitor’s name astounded both him and Geril.
“No, sire. It’s—the Quarass of Germina.”
The Quarass of Germina walked through the palace’s gates, unmolested by the guards or anyone else. She left her escort behind and walked forwards. She had given her word she had come in peace, and Raelt had allowed her entrance.
After all—the Quarass had sworn it by Ger. And as she walked through the palace of Jecrass, she received a far different welcome than she might have gotten in Reim. If Trey Atwood had been there—he would have understood at once.
It was the distance of friendship, and history. The King of Destruction respected little of tradition. It was why he clashed with Fetohep, and treated the Quarass as a wary ally. Reim had dealt with Germina from a remove for most of his reign, an uneasy subordinate given the last Quarass’ personality.
But Jecrass had long been neighbors to the Shield Kingdom of Germina. So as the Quarass walked through the palace, she was besieged.
By [Servants], folk, old and young. They came to her, begging, offering praise, looking for…
“Great Quarass—my son walks with a limp, and he’s but six years. His leg was twisted in birth. Is there any way to fix…?”
“Quarass, the brewing of the draught to stop bleeding—my mother knew it, but the recipe was lost in a fire. Is it…?”
“Should we be growing yellats again this year or another crop? We’ve had smaller harvests each year for the last four, but…”
The girl walked among them, dressed in fine clothing, but so young. Until you looked at her eyes and saw the old being looking back.
It could terrify or disturb. But that force was a kindly one, here. She spoke to an old, perplexed [Nursemaid], repeating the list of ingredients for the birthing tonic. She turned to the [Farmer].
“You have taken too much from the fields. Plant beans, or a leafy product instead of yellats for at least two years. As for you, your son’s leg can be corrected, but it requires a [Healer] experienced in realigning flesh. Try…”
That was how Raelt found her. Dispensing Germina’s greatest treasure, her wisdom, to his people.
“Quarass of Germina. I greet you in the name of Jecrass. I regret that I did not have time to prepare a proper reception. We are at war. May I ask why you have come?”
The [King] sketched a wary bow. The Quarass inclined her head to him.
“King Leysars, I come in peace. Not at the command of the King of Destruction. Indeed—I only seek to rest here an hour or two at most before continuing my journey.”
“Where to, Quarass?”
“Northwards. I have no stake in this war. But curiosity and the bond between Jecrass and Germina compelled me to seek you out. Will you offer me the shade of your roofs?”
Raelt flushed and nodded.
“The shade of Jecrass and its rivers bid you welcome, Quarass. Geril, make her escort welcome. I will receive the Quarass…on the balcony.”
The girl gave him a small nod. Geril nodded and hurried off. The King of Jecrass bowed and gestured. The two walked together. It was the first time Raelt had met this Quarass. But she was always her. Just different.
The balcony was a small place, fit for receiving other dignitaries. The wind could be chilling, but the rain was kept out by a small enchantment and it was pleasant.
Rain fell across Jecrass as the two sat there. It was a bit cold, so Raelt called for a coat of fur; the Quarass was dressed for a ride.
“Your presence, Quarass, is welcome. As always. I ah—offer my condolences for your death. And congratulate you on your rebirth.”
She flicked her fingers delicately. The girl was so young. But the Quarass spoke as she had when she was an older woman.
“My death was fortuitous, but thank you, King Leysars. You have my sympathies for this war. Will your daughter be joining us?”
Raelt hesitated. Jecaina would want to ask a large number of questions neither he nor the Quarass had time for.
“No…but if you’d permit it, Geril would be a welcome accompaniment. And I offer you refreshments, of course. Will you take a meal? Or simply a drink?”
It was an infraction for another ruler to have a servant present as company, but not with the Quarass. She smiled.
“Geril? Yes, it would be welcome to speak with him a third time. And I would be gratified to eat.”
“What will you have?”
She pondered for a moment as a third chair was brought in. And there Geril came. He bowed and she smiled up at him.
“Geril. You have aged well. As boy, then man, now older. It is well done, your service to Jecrass.”
“You honor me, your Majesty.”
The old retainer had a small but delighted look on his face, a rarity. It was the kind of compliment you had written on your tombstone. Because the Quarass had known Geril across three lifetimes.
“I think I shall have estreke almeat.”
“A fine choice. I’ll have some myself, Geril. Not much…”
Raelt was not hungry. And he was a bit surprised by the Quarass’ choice.
“It’s a rather plain dish, your Majesty…”
She smiled and Geril laughed.
“It is traditional for the Quarass to order it.”
“Really? The last Quarass—”
The current Quarass of Germina made another flicking motion with her fingers. She sighed.
“The last Quarass broke from many of Germina’s traditions. I must apologize for her actions. The Quarass you see before you now, Raelt Leysars, is the one I would have preferred during the King of Destruction’s reawakening.”
He nodded. There had been two Quarasses; although he had been too young to remember the first one. But the second had risen to power under…shady circumstances. The old Quarass might have not died of old age.
“The last Quarass was difficult, if you’ll excuse me, Quarass. Much cruder and less gracious. I did not care for her one bit and I was quite relieved when I heard you had changed.”
But the young Quarass just nodded and sighed.
“Thank you, Geril. I recall all her memories. It was unfortunate—her killing the second-Quarass-before-me. By poison.”
Raelt coughed on the sip he’d just taken from a goblet.
“Er…I had heard such.”
He didn’t know all of what made the Quarass the Quarass, but he knew enough. She nodded.
“It was troublesome. Not only did she inherit her mother’s disaffection for her, the Quarass-before-me was also a fool. Addicted to a few of Chandrar’s drugs and without the will to quit them.”
“Terrible, I’m sure.”
She smiled at Raelt’s uncertain look.
“The Quarass is always the Quarass, King Leysars. But half of what I am is who I was before I became me. Do you understand?”
He did, in a way. The current Quarass gestured to herself.
“What does this Quarass seem to you, King Leysars?”
“I’ve known you only for a few minutes, Quarass. But—more confident than the last one. Certainly more daring.”
That pleased her. The Quarass steepled her fingers and nodded.
“Yes. Braver, certainly. It was pure chance that this child became me. But fortunate. Did you know—before I was summoned, this child had one event of note in her life? One night, as her father slept, she, waking by chance, saw a poisonous viper that sometimes plague Germina’s houses. It was prepared to bite, and her father would not wake. So she found her father’s dagger and killed it. It bit her four times and but for the antidote, she might have died.”
It was strange, to hear the Quarass talk about the girl she had been. Raelt listened raptly as the Quarass pulled up her sleeve and showed him faded scars on her arms.
“That was the caliber of the girl who became me. And no one but her father knew the story of it. Pure chance. That is the flaw of the Quarass; the true character of who becomes me is never fully known.”
“I see. So in the case of the previous Quarass…”
“If I was a fool, a fool I remain, even with my memories. It is why a wise Quarass decides her successor. Chance led Germina poorly in the Quarass-before-me. This time I hope it has been more gracious.”
Both Geril and Raelt nodded. She was as fascinating as ever. Even the previous Quarass, as haughty as she had been, had captivated the room. Raelt turned.
“Ah, the estreke.”
It was a common dish that the Quarass had ordered. Popular, certainly, and tasty. Raelt liked it himself, but you’d never see it at a banquet.
Estreke almeat. It was a dish of nomads, popular among [Shepherds] and the like. They took stringy, tough meat from lamb, or beef, generally, even horse, and cut it into small strips to be grilled. Then, a heavy cheese sauce mixed with melted butter was poured on top.
For the taste, the pure quill of it—rich demáy root-tree juice mixed in to give it that succulent flavor, all over yellats for the spice and filling. Cheap—plentiful, and the dish could go with flatbread as well on the road.
The three were offered a single pot and they dipped bread as they ate. The Quarass had a good appetite, but she looked wistful as she chewed.
“Delicious as always. I have gone to many nations, but this meal is best eaten in Jecrass.”
“You’ve had it before, Quarass? Er—”
Raelt saw Geril cover a smile and flushed. That was a stupid question to ask the Quarass. She just smiled.
“It brings back fond memories, King Leysars. The first nomad-kings of Jecrass offered me this very dish when we met. Ever since, I have tried to eat it with the ruler of Jecrass once.”
“I see. Well, I am honored…”
Raelt chewed slowly and savored the bite. It did fill him up; he realized he’d eaten poorly—that was to say not at all—this morning.
“May I ask now, Quarass, why you have come? Even on a journey, it is unlike you to intercede in a moment like this. We might well be under siege come the morrow.”
She gave him a knowing look.
“Or at peace. You stand, Raelt Leysars, at a crossroads. And this Quarass would like to speak, whether it changes nothing or everything. But before I speak of that—let us sit. And remember peace. Such things are best savored with meals.”
She was right. Raelt ducked his head. It was Geril who spoke up.
“Ah, peace, Quarass? I remember it fondly. Jecrass under the King Raelt and his father has been kind to me.”
“There have been far poorer days Jecrass has known. I myself recall the horse fairs with great fondness of these last few decades.”
Yes. Peace. Raelt closed his eyes. In peace, Jecrass looked so different from now. Today—it was all just moving battle lines, fortifications, armies fighting.
But without war, Jecrass was wonderful. He complained about the River Wardens, oranges, and rebellious daughters…but the King of Jecrass knew the good parts as well.
Horse fairs, with mundane and magical beasts attracted visitors from across the world who bid on the best animals. Jecrass, fed by rivers and storms like these, was a wonderful land to ride about in. Snow would even frost the ground lightly in the winters.
“I suppose there won’t be time to visit Hellios or Germina come fall.”
He spoke regretfully. The Quarass nodded.
“Not for some time to come.”
It was tradition, when no wars were taking place, for Belchan, Hellios, Jecrass, and Germina’s peoples to cross borders and trade with each season. Each nation had a specialty; for instance, summers belonged to Jecrass in bloom. Magical goods came from Belchan and they had one of their large winter celebrations each year.
In fall, it was best to go to Germina, to trade for pieces of art. Ger’s mud-brick city was beautiful then, and you could wait there for a chance to petition the Quarass for a bit of wisdom. In the spring, go to Hellios for the Celebration of Stone—to find the best [Masons] or [Builders] with their designs…
Raelt had taken Jecaina as a girl to Belchan to watch the mage-lights. That had been her first sight of real magic, back when he was a new father and she was toddling around.
Those were good years. Now—he opened his eyes and saw the distant smoke from Flos’ war camps. And—the Quarass.
She was just watching him. Her conversation with Geril had ended as he thought.
“You remind me of the past, Quarass. Do you think it’s wise that I sue for peace?”
The Quarass gave Raelt a small nod.
“You may think so, King Leysars. But I only wish to give you…perspective. Those years were indeed bountiful. But as I say—Jecrass has known poorer. Neither you nor Geril remember the Creler Wars. But it was a bitter time indeed for Jecrass. Many took root in the soil. The horses and horsepeople died in droves, unable to flee the swarms.”
Raelt shuddered. Crelers were still a threat, albeit mercifully rare.
“What of Germina? I know the Shield Kingdoms fought back…”
She made a bitter face.
“Complacency drove every nation to folly in those times. Yes, Germina rallied. But it was a bitter lesson I learned once more. My poisons did little to the spawn of Rhir and they taught me there was more to learn of corrosion and decay. If I had been wiser…I would have prepared. Before every great war, there are usually signs. Had I heeded them, I would have risen to the occasion as I had in lifetimes before, forged Germina into a weapon. For the darkest wars require a light for others to rally around. That is my purpose.”
She spoke strangely. Raelt looked at her.
“You speak as if there is another war coming, Quarass. Jecrass is at war. And Germina lost its war with Reim.”
She smiled thinly.
“True. Both our kingdoms have known Reim’s strength. But that—is not what I refer to. With respect, Raelt Leysars…this is not the war that I dream of.”
She looked past him. Raelt’s hairs stirred and Geril looked troubled. A greater war than this? One that made her think of the Creler wars…
“Then what? If a dark war needs a light, someone to rally around, is Flos Reimarch that [King]? Is that why you made peace with him?”
She flicked her hands again.
“I had little choice in that. I speak of the future and past, Raelt Leysars. Not always of the present. Since that is what weighs on you—yes. Let us speak of peace and war. Medain, the Claiven Earth, and Nerrhavia have reached out to you to continue your war.”
Raelt’s hand jerked on his goblet. Geril sat up.
“Have you—have you told—?”
The Quarass looked levelly at Raelt and shook her head.
“I have neither told Flos Reimarch nor concrete proof of this. It is just…familiar. Have they given you assurances of their determination?”
Raelt’s mouth worked. The Quarass knew. Even without inside knowledge? He hesitated, and she touched her chest and made a small sign.
“I swear by Ger not to reveal what I know. I am, in this moment, the Quarass of Germina, Raelt Leysars. If you seek my knowledge, ask. If not, I will go.”
He hesitated. But then nodded.
“A contract. I forced them to agree. They will all sign a magical contract to go to war. Declare war. If they do—I will turn down the King of Destruction’s peace offer and continue to fight.”
Geril was troubled. But he had no counsel to give. Raelt stood up and walked to the balcony. The rain trickled down an invisible barrier.
“What would you say to that, Quarass? It might destroy this nation I was given to rule by my father. But Lyfelt need not die for it. Innocent people might not need to die for it. And—that was why I started this damn war! What was the point, if I make peace?”
He clenched a fist. Staring west. The Quarass sat at her table, dabbing at her mouth. Raelt waited, almost hoping she had no wisdom. But what she said was this:
“You still believe you can win.”
Raelt jerked. He turned back and saw her looking at him. That knowing look pierced him through.
“You believe you can defeat the King of Destruction. That is why you waver, Raelt Leysars. You possess the will to fight.”
“I—if Jecrass kneels—”
“Is it your nation and people you fear for, or your pride?”
Geril made a choked noise. The girl did not look at him. She sat lightly, meeting Raelt’s dark gaze.
“This is not an insult, Raelt Leysars. But a question. The world beheld that the King of Jecrass was no mewling lamb but a wolf with a golden bell on the day they called you King of Duels. Even the King of Destruction was surprised. Yet the one who was surprised most, I think, was you.”
“I—was. By myself. I didn’t think I had it in me. Am I hungering for war?”
She tilted her head left and right, shook it.
“Not precisely. But war burns in your blood. You have an aptitude for it. And young men, even at your age, are loath to quit when blood is spilled. But you are also correct—the war can yet be won. Yet does ego force your decision, or your crown?”
“Your Majesty. I…I wish you had not gone to Terandria.”
It was Geril, who spoke up unexpectedly. The old retainer looked at the Quarass and Raelt and spoke. He heavily gestured towards Raelt’s crown. Raelt blinked.
“Your father, wanted you to be safe, sire. While the King of Destruction marched, he sent you to learn fencing, to be safe abroad. It was…a father’s concern.”
Raelt had considered the same to Jecaina. He nodded, uncomprehending.
“It made me the fencer I was. Was that wrong, Geril?”
“Perhaps he should have let you join the King of Destruction’s army. Or stay in Chandrar, at least, your Majesty. You might not have discovered your strengths so late. Perhaps—you might have been a [King] as great as Flos Reimarch, able to stave off his advance then. Forgive me. It’s an old man’s thoughts.”
Geril shook his head, troubled. It troubled Raelt too. He turned away.
“I’m not set either way, Geril. Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Medain, and the Claiven Earth…the King of Destruction never took the Claiven Earth and Nerrhavia joined him rather than fight overlong. What do you think, Quarass? If I force them into signing a contract…could they disobey it? A clear, magical injunction to make war?”
That was his fear. He looked back at the Quarass. She raised her brows.
“The clear wording? No. But there is war and war, King Raelt. They could send only half an army. Still—the King of Destruction would not take it lightly either way. That would give Jecrass hope.”
Raelt nodded. It was Flos’ reaction that he was counting upon. You couldn’t make war lightly against him. The Quarass tapped her glass with a nail and it was refilled. She drank, went on.
“However. If you ask my knowledge—I think all three nations will make war with great effort. They will send proper armies and do great battle against Reim.”
“You think so?”
Raelt and Geril looked at the Quarass, with hope. She looked over her cup of juice at them levelly.
“Of course. If they sign—they will make such war. But. King Raelt. They will make furious battle here. Because you are what will halt the King of Destruction’s advance.”
And then he saw it. Of course, Medain’s armies and the Claiven Earth would fight. And the war would spill over their borders. But here—it would be here.
“Jecrass will be torn by this great war. You may win or lose. But it is because you are King of Duels, the ruler that can stop the King of Destruction even at great cost that they count on.”
Could he bear that? That…Raelt looked over his city, his palace. They would have to abandon it the first day, retreat, fight defensive battles until the other armies struck. Even then—it would be a long war of retreat and advance. Could he order Jecrass forwards?
“What is my other option, Quarass? Give up a third of my kingdom? Become a subordinate? Let Lyfelt and the others die? What would that make me?”
She spoke severely. Raelt turned.
“A good [King] lets innocent people die?”
The Quarass slapped the table.
“For your nation? For your daughter and line? A good king would have damned ten times their number to death if it was for the best. Did you make war, King Raelt, for principle or practicality?”
She nodded. The child waved a hand at him.
“That is where we differ. You are a kind [King], Raelt of Jecrass. That is good for peace. But war? When this conflict started, do you know what I would have done?”
Raelt gritted his teeth. The Quarass pointed south.
“I would have not fought the King of Destruction so. I would have taken ten thousand, twenty thousand of my fastest [Riders] and sent them south. To Hellios, Germina, and Reim most of all. Split them up, sent them in every direction to avoid detection.”
Raiding parties. The Quarass’ eyes glittered as she leaned forwards.
“I would have sent Jecrass’ cavalry forth scorching villages, towns, inciting cities to riot. Anywhere that did not declare against the King of Destruction I would have erased and slaughtered, to force the King of Destruction to defend as well as attack.”
“You would have slaughtered innocent people.”
“It appalls you. But consider that it would have worked. Make a mockery of his protection by heaping a village of corpses up and Flos Reimarch would take the bait. You could bait him to attack or defend. You never considered it. Because you are a good king. I would have enraged the King of Destruction, were I you. And I would have used poison.”
Raelt hung his head. It was true.
“So my decision? I am not asking you to choose, Quarass. But what would you do if you were me? Not King of Jecrass. But…a ‘good king’. One who’s conscience will weigh heavily on him no matter what he does?”
Either way, good people died to no reason. The Quarass thought for a moment. Then she stood up. She beckoned, and Raelt walked over. He leaned down and she whispered in his ear.
He expected some sage advice. Some platitude. But the Quarass just whispered to him.
“Whichever answer you can live with. Look ahead, and see how fate branches. Whichever route you can accept—which you will not wail and bemoan the rest of your life—that is the one to choose.”
Raelt straightened. He looked down at her, and the Quarass smiled. He felt…lighter. It was obvious, but when she put it like that—he knew. He had known.
“Thank you, Quarass.”
“I shall be on my way. You have much to do, Raelt of Jecrass. And I must go north. Farewell. I hope we will meet again.”
She nodded to him. He bowed, and the girl slipped from her seat and walked, barefoot, away. Geril escorted her, looking at his [King]. Raelt of Jecrass stood there for a second.
Then he walked away, to make his decision.
“We are prepared to sign the contract. Publicly.”
Queen Yisame stood in the room, visible on the scrying mirror. High King Perric from the scrying orb. The Speaker of Trees in another, smaller mirror.
“Before Wistram and the world. My armies are preparing to advance. We’ll sweep across the border and into Belchan and liberate it.”
Perric waited in front of a grand table with two of his [Generals]. He had a [Mage] from Wistram ready to broadcast the announcement and he was royally annoyed—because Queen Yisame would sign first. He had argued that point the last hour, but it was done.
Raelt nodded. He took a breath as his version of the contract was laid before him. One of the [Mages] in Queen Yisame’s court coughed.
“We need a [Mage] to begin the broadcast on Jecrass’ side, your Majesty. And a ten minute wait for the event to be introduced…”
“Ten minutes? For those Drakes from Pallass? I will do it myself!”
Perric scowled. Raelt saw the Wistram [Mages] conferring and hurrying about as the other rulers had that pained look of people trying to be important while having no idea what was going on.
He smiled. And bowed to Queen Yisame.
“Your Majesty, that will not be necessary. I have made my choice. Jecrass…will not continue war with Reim. I intend to sign his contract.”
Perric froze with one hand on the table. Yisame looked at him. The Speaker of Trees sighed.
“Ridiculous! You cannot back out now! My armies are on the move!”
Perric shouted. Raelt ignored him. Yisame looked gravely at Raelt.
“I understand your friend—Lyfelt of Belchan—will die as part of this contract. And other innocents.”
He nodded slowly.
“Yes, your Majesty. I will bear that responsibility. But I weighed each choice. And I can no longer ask my people to fight the King of Destruction. They have suffered too much. I…am sorry.”
Her eyes flickered. For a moment, the Stitch-Woman looked at Raelt and he saw some kind of understanding in her eyes. Then she stepped back as one of her attendants flicked a fan across her body and face.
“If that is your will, King Leysars, we shall abide.”
Her mirror turned off. The Speaker of Trees nodded.
“You have made your choice, King Leysars. We will not begrudge you it.”
He bowed and Raelt nodded. The last was King Perric.
“Raelt. You cannot make peace! I will not allow it! Reim will swallow Jecrass whole! Don’t be a coward!”
The man raged at Raelt. The [King] of Jecrass looked at Perric.
“You know, Perric, you’re in no position to give me orders. And I rather disliked you anyways. This conversation is over. Goodbye.”
“Raelt! Don’t y—”
The King of Jecrass turned off the mirror with some satisfaction. Then he sat back.
He was shaking. But it was done. And it was the right decision. The Quarass…it had been Jecaina as well. Wondering if she would have to fight. Warden Dulfe, Winta…
They had sacrificed so much. For nothing? Raelt shook his head. He would make sure it wasn’t for nothing. But it was enough. He…he hated Flos for what he had done. But the man had made war for the Gnolls. Raelt hated Flos for his strength, his armies.
But he wasn’t a man Raelt loathed. That was a crucial difference. Raelt had tried to kill him twice.
“Enough is enough. I’m sorry, Lyfelt. I’m…”
The [King] had the hardest task of all now. He sat there for a moment. Because next—when he rose—he would have to wait the night away until Orthenon came by at midnight. And until that moment—he would have to tell his friend he was letting him die.
When he rose. So Raelt sat a while. Wishing he could weep, rather than feel relieved.
It was over. The black screen on the scrying orbs around the world suddenly turned back to Noass and Sir Relz launching into their next segment.
“—sorry for the technical glitch, folks. Just a minor…minor event on our end. Now, er—I think—think we have a guest—”
The Drake was clearly frazzled. But recovering, looking for a guest—
“—yes! Er—you there. We have an excellent [Sweeper], a real tale of the common working—Gnoll. You sir, what’s your name?”
A rather bewildered Gnoll was pushed in front of the camera. Nerrhavia’s Fallen, the Claiven Earth, Medain’s armies were given the order to stop mustering.
It was ov—
High King Perric’s fist smashed the scrying orb. His magical gauntlets absorbed the backlash as the contained magic detonated.
“That worthless wretch!”
He bellowed. His [Generals] ducked as he hurled the props he’d been holding, one of them the royal scepter of Medain, across the room. They backed up towards the doors.
The High King raged. The [Mages], his officers, all fled. The seething man stood there, gripping the table hard.
The nerve of Raelt of Jecrass! That pissant little [King] wasn’t in the position to give orders!
High King Perric wore, for anyone counting, a record twelve artifacts on his person. Each perfectly balanced so that the magical leakage was at the threshold. In his estimation, which he had made widely known, his artifacts and levels as a [King] placed him at the rank of Named Adventurer.
…But the Adventurer’s Guilds outside of Medain had refused to grant him that title. It was one of the things in life that eternally infuriated Perric.
He never forgot such slights. He was [High King], and knew what was due to him. Wistram, Jecrass, the Adventurer’s Guilds…
And Raelt Leysars. Perric strode back and forth. He was no fool. He knew what this meant.
Raelt was doing this to spite him. It was obvious. The [King] was going to kneel in order to give Flos Reimarch an undivided south. And who was next?
Medain. Perric cast his eyes across the war maps. The King of Destruction’s peace or not—it was obvious. Medain was too rich, and it would provide the King of Destruction with a coastline at last! He’d find some reason, moan about his worthless refugees, and then attack.
“If that damn coward hadn’t decided—”
It had all been lining up! Perric’s armies would have swept in and taken parts of Belchan and Jecrass, fortified the passes, and let the Claiven Earth and Nerrhavia’s Fallen batter at Reim before advancing. This had been perfect.
Until Raelt had caved. Now, Perric was looking at a defensive war. He didn’t like it.
The man considered his options. He had to worry about the damn half-Elves to the west, sometimes enemies. Weak coastal nations to the east. Jecrass and Belchan had been weaker, but stubborn neighbors forever. But Reim was a powerhouse. And…
The [Servant] flinched as he looked up. One of his many wives. The Lizardwoman. She pointed, terrified.
“The—ambassador is here again. The House of M—”
“They do not have my permission! Tell them to begone! I will not be disturbed!”
Perric thundered. His wife fled. He looked down at the map.
Everyone thought they could just march across his land. The King of Destruction’s decree about his ‘refugees’ had incensed Perric. But this was not the time for a direct war. Flos was…not a better [King] than Perric. Maybe higher in level—for now—but Perric was younger, and he had greater vision. Flos was a savage. Perric would eclipse him—he just needed more vassals like the Seven.
No, no, no. Perric was the one true [King] among all these half-baked men. And a true [King] did not allow his plans to fold so easily. Perric’s eyes narrowed.
He’d suspected Raelt might surrender. He had a few tricks left.
High King Perric had been an adventurer. And a good adventurer always had contingency plans. You looked at the weak points of your opponents. And Raelt was his opponent. So—then.
The door opened. Perric turned.
“Send a [Message]. How many Gold-rank teams are stationed in Jecrass’ capital at this moment? Find me the most mobile one. And tell them…”
He had another plan. The High King gave his orders then sat back. He ordered some wine, suddenly in good spirits. Yes, this was salvageable. All they needed was a few hour’s head start. And then…he chuckled.
“Get me the Wistram [Mages] and tell them they must remain within the capital. And send a [Message] to Queen Yisame and the Speaker of Trees.”
Raelt Leysars was about to change his mind.
The mood in the capital was quiet. Jecaina Leysars walked down the streets, restless, prone to prowling as everyone who knew her was well aware.
She didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. Peace—hopefully. But what then? Lyfelt—her father’s friend—would die for that peace. And so many people had died.
If they ceded part of Jecrass, what happened? Jecaina felt miserable. And useless. Never mind that she had dueled her father, she wished she was a better [Princess].
A commotion made her raise her head. By law, the capital was under martial law. Most of the civilians had been evacuated, in fact. But [Soldiers] were soldiers. And given that there were multiple foreign forces in the capital—brawls or arguments were common.
She suspected two nations of causing the most trouble. So Jecaina was prepared for the rowdy group of adventurers shouting, clearly drunk, in a standoff with some wary City Guards.
“No real [King] would run away with his tail between his legs! Jecrass—Jecrass—the King of Duels is nothing more than a coward. The King of Adventurers wouldn’t run!”
Jecaina’s hands clenched as she saw a Gold-rank adventurer, swaying and sneering into a Watch Captain’s face. The man was scowling, hand on his belt—but away from his club.
They were Gold-ranks. And this was a City Watch. For all intents and purposes, it was like watching adults being confronted by a gaggle of children.
Unfair. And the others were shouting insults. Jecaina had no idea why they were here—this was far from the entertainment district. But they were waving mugs and laughing as they called out insults.
“We came here to fight, not run away!”
Another called out—then they caught sight of Jecaina as she strode forwards. The [Duelist Princess] had her rapier on her, but she didn’t draw it.
“What is going on here?”
The Watch Captain looked both alarmed and relieved. He gestured at the team of Gold-ranks—the Silvereyed Sables, if Jecaina remembered correctly. From Medain.
“This lot showed up and started a ruckus just a few minutes ago. Started insulting his Majesty—”
“Insulting? Hah! We’re just telling the truth!”
One of the Gold-ranks called out. They laughed. If they recognized Jecaina, none of them showed it. One of them swayed against her companion and he buffeted her. She straightened slightly, rubbing at her ribs, then slouched over again.
Jecaina eyed them.
“You’re the Silvereyes, right?”
“That’s right. And who’re you?”
“I am Princess Jecaina Leysars of Jecrass. By my father’s order, this city is under martial law. Drinking and disorderly conduct are unlawful. Go back to your abode.”
“And why should we? What’s the point? There’ll be peace tomorrow. Peace, bought by your father selling out his nation! Like the coward he is!”
The leader of the Silvereyes pointed at Jecaina. She felt a flash of heat run through them. Her hand reached for her side and they tensed.
The Watch Captain was alarmed. Jecaina forced her hand away from her side. She remembered her father’s warning. But—it was hard to take that from them.
“Your team is willing to insult Jecrass’ crown, when your [King] hasn’t even deigned to declare war? Moreover—his contribution to the war is half a dozen Gold-rank teams who haven’t stayed in any battle till the end before fleeing!”
The Gold-ranks flushed. The [Captain] opened his mouth hotly.
“We fight smart! If Jecrass was half as intelligent, it wouldn’t need to throw away your ‘elite’ [Trick Riders] like flies before muck!”
This time Jecaina’s fury turned her pale. The [Trick Riders]? They were beloved of Jecrass! A class that could level in times of peace or war—their performances were famed! And they had fought Mars, Orthenon—charged into battle without fear!
“How dare you? You haven’t sacrificed anything! You walk around, putting on airs—I thought Medain sent adventurers, not cowards with egos like Drakes!”
The Silvereyes glowered. There was a bark of laughter from the [Guards]. The leader put a hand on his side. He carried a shortsword and small shield.
“Those are fighting words. Put your money where your mouth is, ‘Princess’. And we’ll show you exactly how good we are. Come on, unless you’re afraid of taking a cut from a real warrior? Where were you when we were fighting?”
The [Princess] drew her sword before she could think. All her frustration, her guilt, was brought out by that mocking statement. The [Guard] stirred.
“[Princess]! Your father—”
The Watch Captain stepped back as two of the Silvereyes drew their weapons and blocked him. The leader challenged Jecaina, steps unsteady at first, but then surefooted.
“Come on! Neither of us needs to get hurt! Unless you’re not a quarter of the fighter your father ‘claims’ to be!”
Jecaina hesitated. The Gold-rank looked more sober by the second. And even if he was a hothead and drunk—he was good.
She could beat him, though. He was still overconfident and Raelt had taught her everything she’d known. She had beaten Gold-ranks in duels before. She stepped forwards—
You don’t need to be me.
Her father’s voice halted her mid-step. Jecaina hesitated. She bit her lip—hard. Then she lowered her sword.
“What’s wrong? Come on, coward! Or is the King of Duel’s daughter going to run away from a challenge?”
Each word pricked her like a nettle. But Jecaina slowly rammed the rapier back into its sheathe. The Silvereyes stirred. She shook her head slowly, looked at the Watch Captain, and stepped back.
“I don’t need to prove anything to you. Nor is this the place.”
She took a few breaths. It was hard—but this felt right. It had felt good to challenge the Nerrhavian [Charioteers]. But this—she looked at the uncertain Gold-rank Captain.
“If you want to challenge me, do it when there isn’t an army on our doorstep. As [Princess] of Jecrass, I order you to stop disturbing the peace or you will be arrested!”
He wavered. His team looked at each other and a few cursed, throwing down their mugs. Jecaina blinked at the hollow sound they made. And she wasn’t certain what came next.
But the Watch Captain was smiling. He bowed slightly to Jecaina, a man who’d had cause to report her more than once.
“Well done, your Majesty. You heard Princess Jecaina. Clear off or this will involve the army and your superiors!”
The rest of the [Guards] nodded. Jecaina felt…taller. She nodded and saw the Gold-rank Captain look at his team of eight. He swore under his breath as he lowered his sword.
“Okay. We do this the hard way. Now!”
Jecaina saw his hand flicker. She blinked—and was diving.
The Watch started as the [Mage] among the Gold-ranks lifted his staff. Jecaina saw a flash—
Lightning crackled across the street. It struck the [Guards], arcing across Jecaina for a moment. But her ring protected her. She felt the Watch Captain cry out as they hit the ground.
Felt, but did not hear. Her ears were suddenly stuffed with cotton. Jecaina got up, and saw the Gold-ranks charging.
“What are you doing?”
She tried to scream at them. Jecaina drew her sword, slowly, as all nine attacked the remaining [Guards]. She slashed at the Captain, and he backed up as she cut him across the collarbone, cutting through his armor with her enchanted sword. But—she spun left, and then saw the two [Riders] coming down the side street.
A second Gold-rank team. The Watch Captain stared down at the arrow in his chest and tried to stand. Jecaina looked around. She slashed, backing up, trying to shout—but there was no sound.
Her father was right. Battles weren’t duels.
The Gold-rank adventurers fought for a minute. The [Princess] was good. But they were used to fighting all kinds of foes.
The third arrow dropped her. One had taken her in the leg, and the other two were sleeping arrows.
“That did not go according to plan!”
One of them spoke as the [Silence] spell wore off. The leader of the Silvereyes swore.
“Shut up. Hide the bodies. And ride! We need at least six hour’s head start! You lot—start spreading the story.”
The second team nodded. The Silvereyes raced for the covered wagon and set the horses into motion. The fastest mounts they could get. The rest took to the horses and rode out of Jecrass’ gates.
No one stopped them or checked the wagon. It was just another disgruntled Gold-rank team leaving for Medain. The Captain of the Silvereyes watched his teammate tending to the wounded [Princess]. Her refusal to fight had been a surprise, but it had worked out.
“Pick up speed!”
“[Eleventh Hour Wheels]!”
The [Driver] called out. The Captain felt the wagon pick up speed.
High King Perric had his [Princess]. They were going to be rich.
Princess Jecaina was gone. Now came the question: who would notice her absence?
Raelt Leysars of Jecrass…did not ask about his daughter. He sat in the private, guest quarters with Prime Minister Lyfelt. As his friend wept and begged. Why would Raelt have worried about his daughter?
General Lael and Geril were next. The [General] was busy overseeing the army. If they went to war—but they wouldn’t. She felt relieved. She wasn’t drinking—yet. But when the treaty was signed and the King of Destruction’s army was marching off, she was going to drink for the next month.
She had leveled, but she never wanted to experience this kind of war again.
“General Lael. Do you know where Princess Jecaina is?”
She turned. Geril had walked into the war room, looking for the [Princess]. The old retainer was past his bedtime, but he was checking Jecaina’s haunts.
Lael usually suffered the [Princess]’ presence, but she informed Geril that she wasn’t here.
“Oh, the servants said she went for a walk in the city but hasn’t returned.”
“She might be drinking or out with her friends.”
Geril sighed. It was a common pastime of Jecaina’s. She was a good [Princess]; she made the rounds of the city, speaking to soldiers, being there, seen, while her father fought the war. But a young woman was still restless and had to be doubly upset that she wasn’t allowed to fight.
“We have a surplus of hands. I could inquire after her.”
Lael offered. Geril hesitated.
“It’s not necessary. She does hate to be monitored. But maybe…”
He lapsed into silence. Lael turned to a junior officer.
“Just send a [Message] to the Watch or the [Commander] in the city.”
They waited. A response came back after about ten minutes.
“Apparently, the [Princess] was involved in an argument with a Gold-rank team. Flawless Riposte. About the honor of Jecrass. That’s what a Gold-rank team is saying.”
Lael closed her eyes. Geril shook his head wearily.
“I will find her—his Majesty doesn’t need to know until—”
The officer clarified. Lael nodded.
“There was an altercation. But it didn’t come to blows. They’re all at a tavern. The [Princess] is, ah, carousing with the team. They settled their differences.”
“Oh? You have eyes on her?”
The officer conferred.
“Everyone can see her toasting Medain and talking, [General]. The Gold-ranks have bought the pub so no one else is allowed in. Should I…?”
“No, no. It was just an old man’s worry. I thought…that’s far better.”
Geril shook his head, clearly relieved. Lael nodded.
“Just keep an eye on the pub. If there’s a fight, let me know. You should rest, Geril…”
“I’ll do that. I don’t know what kept me up. Just a [Retainer] being fussy…”
The old man let Lael usher him out of the war room. He tried to tell himself his nerves were just that. Jecaina was fine. Meeting Gold-rank adventurers was, for a spirited girl like her, exactly the thing she needed to relax.
He went back to his room and had troubled dreams. Troubled—but he asked no more questions of her. Neither did Lael. Which meant the Silvereyes had an hour after leaving Jecrass’ gates.
King Raelt left Lyfelt’s rooms as the man screamed at him to ‘get out’. He leaned against a wall. It was late. Orthenon would be coming. He thought—briefly—of finding Geril or Jecaina.
But they would be asleep. So the [King] ordered a cup of goat’s milk and went to the practice courts to wait.
The Quarass of Germina was riding north. Covertly. Aside from Jecrass’ ruler, no one actually knew she was heading north. Flos Reimarch might know her general whereabouts—but Medain’s ruler did not.
And she intended to keep it that way. Her business was private. The Quarass was yawning.
“Damn children’s bodies.”
She remarked. Her escort said nothing, but was attentive to her needs. The Quarass was considering dozing for a while and bemoaning that a flying carpet was too obvious when she saw the wagon pass them on the road.
One of her bodyguards swore as the wagon thundered by. A small group of [Riders] shouted for Germina’s small group to get out of the way. The Quarass twitched her reins, calming her horse. Her eyes flicked to the wagon.
And she had several thoughts. She recognized the magical nature of the artifacts so placed the adventurers at once. And she identified their accents. Medain. Her eyes narrowed as she sensed one last thing.
An aura. Faint, but coming from the wagon. Disturbed. And certainly out of place. Moreover, the speed, the way the adventurers were shouting…
She had seen the like before. A thousand thousand times. The Quarass drew herself up in the saddle.
“After them! Stop that wagon!”
Her bodyguard jerked into motion. They were Germina’s people and asked no questions.
“Halt in the name of the Quarass!”
The [First Warrior] roared. He spurred his horse and the adventurers looked back to see Germina’s warriors coming after them.
“Dead gods damnit! Go, go! [Lightning Bolt]!”
One of them shouted. The [Mage] shot lightning backwards. The Quarass saw the magic—reflexively raised her hand to catch and redirect the magic, and remembered.
She couldn’t cast that kind of magic right now.
Her bodyguards threw themselves forwards. One blocked the spell with a magical shield and the bolt dissipated. The rest streamed after the adventurers.
“Protect the Quarass! Slay them!”
The Quarass, cursing, saw her people covering her. She heard screams, more crackling lightning—then it was over.
One of the adventurers, the [Mage], was down. A spear had gone through her chest. Another adventurer had been de-horsed and had surrendered. But the rest were fleeing, having stymied Germina’s riders. A group of her people were pursuing—but the adventurers had too large a lead.
Enchanted wagon wheels. The Quarass eyed the pursuit and calculated the odds of the [First Warrior] taking on the rest of them. Virtually…
She raised her hand and the order was relayed. The warriors fell backwards. The Quarass studied her side’s casualties and the last adventurer.
“Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me! I’m working on behalf of Medain’s crown!”
The woman was babbling, terrified. The Quarass pointed down as she rode her pony forwards.
“You. Who was in that wagon? The [King] or [Princess]?”
The adventuress turned pale. The Quarass read her expression and cursed.
“Send a [Message] to Jecrass at once. Tell them—their [Princess] has been kidnapped!”
She whirled. Her escort swirled. The Quarass looked ahead. She hadn’t predicted this. Her knowledge wasn’t infallible. But she knew men like High King Perric. This…she shook her head.
This was a stupid move. It threw everything into chaos. If she had not been here, it might have worked. Now? She saw the [Message] go out, flitting towards the sleepy [General] Lael and the restless [King of Challenges].
Raelt Leysars heard the frantic shouting. He blinked a few times, a cup of goat’s milk in his hand. Then he dropped it.
And went insane.
High King Perric was having a grand time. The wine was good and it had been nearly four hours since the abduction had gone off. The plan was perfect.
“You see? A day’s lead will take them far out of reach. I have an escort waiting at the border in any case. King Raelt will declare war come daybreak. I will demand his presence…in three more hours.”
Three more hours and they’d be all but uncatchable, even by Jecrass vaunted horsemen. After all—Perric didn’t have to have the [Princess] here to enforce his demands. Once they were across the border, she’d be within his grasp anyways.
He was speaking to one of his top [Generals], going over the plan. The man nodded. He cleared his throat nervously.
“What if the [Princess]—er, that is to say, what if Princess Leysars is less than cooperative, sire?”
The High King gave the man a blank look over his goblet.
“So? She is a political captive. She will remain here as a guarantee of Raelt’s continued fighting. And if she objects—in my experience, even the most stubborn woman teaches herself courtesy after a while.”
“Do you intend to marry her, High King?”
Perric would think on it after another cup of wine. Everything was going well—
Right up until the [Servant] broke his good mood.
“Your Majesty. The Silvereye Sables report a clash with strangers on the road!”
The High King frowned. The [Messenger] had no answers. Just that two were dead. But the wagon was intact and the [Princess] secure. The Silvereyes were accelerating and begging for an escort.
“Brigands, perhaps, your majesty.”
“Hmf. The reinforcements at the border will kill anyone who interferes. If they come under attack—sally forth and reinforce them. But covertly! Dead gods, you fools. This has to be—”
“Your Majesty! Jecrass’ army is on the move! King Raelt has left the capital and he is riding at the border! He—he’s declared war!”
Perric dropped the goblet.
Flos Reimarch blinked blearily at Teres, who’d come to wake him.
“The army’s moving!”
She had seen it from afar as the [Scouts] sounded the alarm. In the distance, thousands, tens of thousands of [Riders] were streaking from the capital.
“That makes no sense. Prepare for battle. If he thinks a sneak attack will work, we’re dug in…”
The King of Destruction was confused in his sleep. But as he rose and burst from his tents, his eyes narrowed.
“That’s not an organized formation. Orthenon! What happened to the negotiations?”
“I haven’t left.”
The Steward rode towards Flos. He had been preparing to leave. The King of Destruction whirled.
“Someone find out what is happening. I…”
His eyes turned towards the capital which was blowing horns, and the army shooting north. His head swiveled and he grinned, his teeth shining by moonlight.
“I sense something interesting. An opportunity.”
Raelt howled. He had never hated a man before. Disliked them. His River Wardens—who had turned out to be brave. He thought he had hated Flos Reimarch.
But no—this was hate. Raelt shot across the ground, his horse riding full-tilt.
“Your Majesty! Y—”
They were riding around him. General Lael, Geril—they were trying to catch up. Raelt had been first out of the palace and the city gates. Only the [Trick Riders] and those with riding Skills were catching up.
“Faster! Find them!”
The Quarass’ [Message] had lit his blood on fire. An adventuring team, a Gold-rank team had kidnapped his daughter! They had four hours nearly on him and they were making for Medain’s border.
Perric was trying to abduct Jecaina. Raelt needed no explanations as to why. That man—if he touched Jecaina, tried to add her to his harem of species—
Raelt was going to murder Perric. Then the Gold-rank team. He dug his heels into the horse’s sides. Faster. Faster! It raced forwards, fueled by his rage.
“Raelt. Desist! Your daughter is in my grasp!”
Raelt’s head turned. One of his [Trick Riders] had a small scrying mirror. And there he was.
“Perric! Release my daughter or I’ll cut your head off and feed it to the worms!”
The man howled at the High King. Perric hesitated. He had not seen Raelt like this. He braced himself.
“Your daughter is already across the border! Halt your advance if you want her unharmed. This is what is going to happen. You are going to declare war on the King of Destruction and—”
“Perric. I am going to kill you!”
The High King tried to say something. Raelt’s hand blurred. The [Trick Rider] recoiled as the tip of the rapier punched through the scrying mirror.
“Faster! Anyone with Skills, find those adventurers and cut them off!”
“[Ride Commander], forwards!”
General Lael shouted. One of Jecrass’ commanders raced to the head of the vanguard. He shouted.
The horses around Raelt and the [Trick Riders] accelerated. For a minute—two—eight—they blazed across the road. Then the Skill wore off.
“Back! Next commander!”
A [Captain of the Horse] replaced the [Ride Commander]. Behind them, other officers were using their Skills, frantically burning away the ground. Raelt felt a second Skill boosting him, across the other ones. But it wasn’t enough.
Raelt pushed them faster. Faster!
The sun rose and began to set. The four hour’s lead shrank.
They were going to be caught. Jecrass’ army was storming towards the border and as fast as they were, even the Gold-rank team famed for their mobility was being caught.
It was still nearly a day’s ride to Medain’s capital. When his [Strategist] came to him with the calculations, High King Perric sat there for a second. Then he rose.
“General Bullan. Mobilize the army. We ride forwards!”
“The nearest army is—”
Perric knocked the man to the side.
“The capital’s forces, you fool! I’ll secure the [Princess] myself! Move! Summon the Golden Ranks of Medain!”
His personal vanguard, made up of Gold-ranks, mostly retired. Medain’s army began to pivot, away from the strategic points at Belchan’s border and towards the reinforcements now streaking towards the border.
The sun rose higher and began to fall. As it did—the wagon with Princess Jecaina reached the border. And the rest of the world began to take notice.
Queen Yisame was likewise bleary-eyed, but her war council had given her time to make herself presentable. They caught herself up to speed. Or rather, the scrying orb did.
Wistram was aware of this. How not, when Jecrass’ capital had seen their entire mounted army shooting north towards the border? They had no plan—they had left the capital practically undefended! She stared at the image.
“That is King Raelt of Jecrass we’re seeing, ladies and gentlemen.”
Noass was looking around, wide-eyed. Drassi was sitting next to him—they’d grabbed her instead of Sir Relz, who was drunk.
“That’s right. Here’s what we know. This rat—”
“High King Perric.”
“Yeah. This rat-king kidnaps the [King] of Jecrass’ daughter. And now Raelt is in hot pursuit.”
“What? That’s what I think. What kind of monster kidnaps a daughter? The question is: can they get her?”
Both Drakes stared at the scrying orb. They were overlaying a map and calculating speeds. Jecrass’ army was the fastest in the world. But the adventurers had four hour’s lead and they knew what would happen if they were caught.
“What will happen? Answer!”
Yisame looked around. One of her [Strategists] spoke.
“Your Majesty, we estimate the team will reach the border before Jecrass’ army and their [King]. However—High King Perric’s forces are mobilized further to the west. Even if they march at all speed—it will be the capital’s army who is able to fully take captivity of the [Princess] first.”
Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s ruler looked at the map. That meant from the border to the capital or wherever the army caught the Gold-ranks—there was time.
“How many agents do we have in Medain?”
The war council looked at each other.
“Several, your Majesty. What is their aim?”
Yisame hesitated. One of her [Generals] bowed.
“My Glorious Queen who rules over the vastest land—if I may say it, this is to Nerrhavia’s advantage. If Jecrass continues the war…”
He hesitated. Queen Yisame seldom interrupted her war council. Now—they waited. Yisame bit her lip. She did not gainsay her strategist and generals often. However…
“I—we dislike Medain’s ruler. High King Perric has made an enemy of public opinion and Jecrass. Begin a condemnation which we shall deliver at soonest convenience.”
The servants bustled about. But the war council waited.
“And of our agents?”
Yisame met her [General]’s eyes, took a consensus of the room. She held up a delicate hand.
“We shall observe.”
Which meant…the others nodded in satisfaction. Yisame turned. She looked at the orb.
“Bring it to our chambers. We shall leave the strategy to you.”
She knew what her war council preferred. So the ruler of Nerrhavia let them plan. And she carried the orb to her room and watched. She and her subordinates differed in who she preferred to win. And as dawn began to break—she saw the wagon racing north, towards the capital on the coast.
Late evening had fallen as the first [Trick Rider] raced over the hills that began to turn to dunes if you went further north to the ocean beyond. Medain had lovely beaches, a prosperous inland. It was a powerful nation, fed by waters and trade.
The Gold-rank team’s [Archer] shot the screaming [Trick Rider] from the saddle. Another followed, and one of them threw a Tripvine Bag.
The horse leapt over the exploding vines. The [Trick Rider] shot at them. Two Gold-ranks peeled off with half a dozen of the [Riders] that Perric had sent to help the abduction.
The Jecrassian [Soldier] put his blade into one [Rider]’s chest and brought down a horse before they cut him down. The wagon thundered on.
“Dead gods, where is the army?”
An escort of less than a hundred rode with the Silvereyes. That was all Perric had thought was needed. And it would have been enough—if the Quarass hadn’t spotted the wagon.
But now Jecrass’ entire army was coming over the border. Led by the King of Duels himself. He’d cut the border guard to ribbons and he was coming.
“His Majesty is coming straight at us with the capital’s army and the Golden Ranks of Medain!”
The adventurers in the wagon heard the news and shouted in relief. Jecaina lay there, hog-tied, struggling. They ignored her. In the distance—Medain’s army was streaming forwards, trying to keep to their formations.
They were stymied by the fact that Perric favored heavy infantry with mage and archer support, the exact opposite of Jecrass’ mobile army. And then—in the distance he appeared.
The Gold-ranks in the wagon jerked as they heard the King of Duels’ howl. They flogged the horses desperately, but the belabored animals had nothing left to give.
And the [King of Challenges] was coming. Raelt’s voice was raw and he had ridden for hours. His horse…the animal was reaching the end of its endurance even with the potions he had given it.
But he saw the wagon in the distance, streaming towards the capital. It was passing across a plateau; the border between Jecrass and Medain lay behind, a narrow pass. The guards Medain had posted were dead.
Now—the coast lay beyond. In the far, far distance, the shining sea. And the capital of Medain beyond, where the High King reigned.
General Lael shouted. Thousands of the cavalry followed their [King]. But in the distance—there was High King Perric and his army.
“Secure that wagon! Once it’s in our hands, force Raelt of Jecrass back!”
The [King] saw a distant dot of the wagon. And his army—fresh, far outnumbering Jecrass’—marched forwards. Medain’s army. King Perric had deployed his farther across Jecrass’ borders, far too far to recall in time. But he had the army of Medain’s capital to call upon. They’d sallied forth in neat, organized formation, marching at a slower pace southwards.
However—High King Perric’s heavy cavalry were riding forth ahead of his infantry. Thousands of them—making for the wagon.
It was simple if you saw it from above, like Niers Astoragon, the Wistram broadcast. At the rate of travel by the wagon with an oncoming speed from Medain’s army while being pursued by Jecrass’ at a velocity of—
The wagon was going to reach Medain’s forces before Raelt’s main army. And Medain’s forces were fresh. All they had to do was keep the wagon moving and it would be behind Perric’s army and in the capital.
It was going to—
Another [Trick Rider] charged the escort of a hundred. This time he was close enough. An arrow struck his horse and it screamed. But the man pointed. And vanished.
The Gold-ranks ran through the place he had been. The [Lancers] missed. The [Trick Rider] was at the wagon. He saw the Silvereyes’ leader aiming a wand.
“Horses forgive me.”
The man spoke. Jecaina saw his blade flash. The horses screamed. And the wagon skidded as the animals fell. The wheels snapped and the entire carriage spilled to the side.
The [Trick Rider] vanished in a spray of acid, crying out as he was surrounded. The Gold-ranks in the wagon were thrown as the vehicle crashed. Jecaina was knocked across the wagon.
But her bonds were loosened. The [Duelist Princess] struggled. She kicked, got one leg free. She was lying on her back. The door. She had to—
The Gold-rank Captain grabbed her. He was dizzy; his head was bleeding. Jecaina kicked him in the face, her hands still bound. She struggled towards the door. Crawled out. The wagon was tilted, stopped—Jecaina struggled out of one door.
One of the Gold-ranks kicked her in the side. Jecaina felt the impact, struggled forwards—someone brought down the hilt of their sword on her head. she kept moving until three more people hit her and she stopped.
“Pick her up and get her on the horses—”
More of Jecrass’ riders were coming. They charged into the desperate adventurers and Medain’s [Soldiers], dying to slow them down.
“Full march. Move faster!”
High King Perric saw the wagon stop and the group, unable to advance. Now—if you calculated the speed—
Jecrass’ army was coming. The High King felt a knot in his stomach. Damn Raelt. This was not how the plan was supposed to work!
But it would work. If they just got her. The High King was so preoccupied with the skirmish around the [Princess] that he didn’t hear the [General] until the man had to grab Perric’s arm.
“High King! More forces are coming from the south!”
“I know that! Once we have the [Princess]—”
“No—sire! It’s not Jecrass. It’s—the King of Destruction.”
Perric slowly lowered the magnifying binoculars. And he turned his head south.
The King of Destruction’s army was on the move. [Rapid March] let them move at twice the normal speed of any army. Not fast enough to catch horses. But—his entire vanguard was on the move.
They’d abandoned their war camp. Now, Shepherd Zamea and the half-Giants marched alongside the Serpent Hunters. The Rustängmarder were formed around the King of Destruction and Parasol Stroll.
Teres rode next to Mars.
They were coming. Flos Reimarch’s actions were a mystery to Perric at first.
“The capital was open! He could have taken it!”
And in that he misjudged Flos, just like Raelt. The King of Destruction was after bigger prey.
“Milord, you swore an oath to not make war unjustly!”
The [Vanguard] reminded her liege. Orthenon was riding ahead, chasing after Raelt and Jecaina.
“Nonsense, Mars. I’m just pursuing my foe. And—someone who kidnaps a [Princess], well—I think we should demand she be returned to King Raelt. Then we can sort out this terrible business of war.”
The Illusionist grinned.
“And if High King Perric objects?”
“I’m sure he’s a reasonable man. And if he’s not willing to hand over the Princess of Jecrass at once—well, that would be terrible.”
The King of Destruction looked ahead. And his army laughed. Now—now Perric was counting troops.
He had his capital’s army. Flos had his vanguard with the King’s Steward and the Illusionist. They were still several hours behind Jecrass’ forces, but they were crossing the border too. The High King made a rapid decision.
“Get the [Princess]. Raelt will turn and fight! Capture her! Put a sword to her throat and if he doesn’t turn now—”
He roared. Raelt was in sight of the wagon now.
It was like a picture out of stories. The desperate [King], riding at the head of his army, through the night to save his daughter. The shining army of Medain, poised for battle with the [High King] and his elites.
In the distance, the King of Destruction’s army, moving out from a pass between valleys. Laughing, ready for war.
A story. But Raelt just wanted his daughter back. He had never been more afraid. He saw the fighting around her. But he didn’t see her.
The distant coast was illuminating as the sun set. The wind blew a few sails in the distance. Raelt gasped for air.
She was hanging limp. The Gold-rank Captain and two of his surviving adventurers had taken horses. They were fighting clear. Moving towards the heavy [Lancers] and [Knights] bearing down on them.
Too late. Too late! Raelt saw the Gold-rank turn. His sword was at Jecaina’s throat. The [King of Challenges] screamed. He aimed his blade. Closer and he’d step across the distance.
“Stop or she dies!”
The Gold-rank of the Silvereyes was terrified. He dug his blade into Jecaina’s throat until blood ran. Raelt hesitated. But his army was coming. They had to get to her.
The Gold-rank saw that the [King] was willing to risk it, or too mad with rage and fear to slow. So he changed his grip. He lifted Jecaina’s wrist—
And dug his sword’s blade into her hand. Raelt saw the blade shear into her hand.
He slowed. The Gold-rank Captain was tensed. Ready to cut through her sword arm. He looked over his shoulder as Jecrass’ army slowed.
It was enough.
“We have archers, sire…”
Raelt held up a hand. The others were poised around the Gold-rank Captain. To cut at Jecaina. The heartless monsters. Could the arrows bring them all down before…?
The Captain glanced over his shoulder. The first [Lancers] streamed towards him, less than a hundred paces away. He laughed as he saw the [King of Challenges] just standing there. Jecaina’s hand bled, limply, as the unconscious [Princess] lay there.
He turned, racing towards, the High King’s army. Jecrass’ forces hesitated. Waiting. Looking at their [King].
Another impossible choice. Her hand or…? Raelt heard horns blowing. The King of Destruction’s army, far behind. Perhaps—perhaps—he looked over his shoulder.
At Flos Reimarch. The King of Destruction was watching through the scrying orb.
“Wait, Raelt. Wait, and I will give you your daughter.”
He spoke, as if to convince Raelt, though no spell connected the two. High King Perric was shouting.
“Turn your army and fight him! We have her!”
The first [Lancer] reached the Gold-rank Captain. He reached for Jecaina. The Gold-rank [Captain] gasped with relief. He lifted the [Princess], lifting his sword away and Raelt made a sound of despair. He saw a flicker—
The [Lancer] disappeared. The Gold-rank adventurer blinked. He stared forwards.
The warrior’s armor was split in twain, as was his body. He slid from the horse. And there was silence.
Teres turned in her saddle. She poked at the [Vanguard], Mars the Illusionist. Mars blinked back at her.
Flos Reimarch looked ahead.
The Steward slowed.
The Gold-rank Captain reached for Jecaina. Then he saw what had split the [Lancer] in twain—moving. It was…
An axe. It rose into the air, red with blood, dripping gore and floated backwards. Spinning back into the hand that had thrown it. And then the hand moved and threw—again.
The adventurer next to the Gold-rank Captain vanished. She made not a sound. He spun, tracking the weapon as it flew back.
“I’m warning you! I have—”
“[Perfect Throw]. [Homing Arc].”
He heard the distant voice. The adventurer tried to duck. The second axe took him off at the chest. Blood ran down onto Jecaina’s face and woke her up. She stirred, then cried out in horror.
The last adventurer reached for her. And the axe struck again.
Medain’s forces fell back, crying out. The [Throwers] were from so far away! And the angle—it came from neither the King of Destruction’s forces, nor Jecrass’. Or Medain’s.
High King Perric’s head slowly turned. He traced the arc and saw a figure standing on the dunes. The sun rose as the figure hurled the axe, clearing the area around Jecaina.
“Honor shall be upheld.”
He stood on the dunes. Behind him—the evening sun set and set the sails aglow. The Minotaur raised his hand and the axe flew into it. He pointed.
More figures marched over the dunes. Away from the warships in the distance. Unwelcome guests.
“But I didn’t give them permission to land.”
High King Perric spoke distantly. The Minotaurs ignored him. They marched forwards as Raelt’s army pivoted. Medain’s forces moved towards Jecaina. Jecrass met Medain.
The Minotaurs moved past the battle.
“Do we interfere, General? The artillery is assembled and ready to fire.”
The second thrower spoke to the commander. The Minotaur raised his horned head and glanced at the conflict. He shook his head slightly.
“We have given the King of Jecrass his opportunity. Our foe lies ahead.”
He pointed. The King of Destruction’s army.
Orthenon slowed. His hand tightened on the spear he carried.
Flos Reimarch’s smile faded away. He looked ahead. Mars shifted. She looked…nervous. The King of Destruction stared ahead and Teres remembered the stories of how his conquest had…ended. She heard his voice.
It’s not perfect. But that’s what it looked like in my head, roughly speaking. I did a lot of words this time. Next chapter—falling action. Or rising. Wait—climax? I need to study plot arcs again.
I hope you enjoyed it! This is…the Jecrass-Reim war’s arc. We could have gone to Liscor, but I thought this was better for me. It had a lot of buildup. But I hope the whole piece looks at least a little glorious.
Speaking of glorious—this is the art I’m going to feature today. Enuryn’s Dragonthrone, featuring a tiny Rags and Teriarch! It’s so beautiful it’s become one of my desktop wallpapers. Give him lots of appreciation!
…The next chapter awaits. Too long in the future for you, too soon for my hands! Thanks for reading!
Dragonthrone by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!