Jecrass’ tired army had raced across their nation and then the border of Medain’s kingdom for nearly a day. They had used every movement-Skill available, run alongside their mounts and used potions to keep both rider and animal alive.
They were exhausted. Medain’s heavy cavalry was fresh, having ridden from the capital for less than four hours; even if it had been at top speed, the difference was obvious.
Jecrass’ army was still riding towards their [Princess], staggered. Medain’s army, led by their High King, was marching straight at the conflict where Jecrass’ ruler, Raelt, the King of Duels, was fighting.
The outcome of a full-fledged battle was clear. The only option Jecrass had was to secure their [Princess] and retreat. They could outrun Medain’s infantry-heavy army. But Princess Jecaina was still surrounded by Medain’s forces. The surprise attack by the Minotaurs had prevented them from taking her away before both forces met. But the [Riders] from Jecrass were exhausted.
Even so. A rare wing of Jecrass’ army peeled away and met a group of [Armor Knights] as both sides shot towards the melee. They had galloped after the faster [Trick Riders] fighting in a knot around the King of Duels.
“Heavy riders! [Lancers]—bring them down!”
One of the [Knight-Captains] from Medain saw the breakaway group—barely more than four hundred strong. He sent an equal number of lancers. From afar, it was apparent that the other group was armed with axes and shields. They had to be tired; he was confident his [Lancers] would bring them down in the first clash.
The lancers of Medain shot towards their foe, shouting as they came.
“High King Perric and the Golden Ranks! The Kingdom of Adventurers!”
Jecrass’ [Riders] were silent. Too tired to even raise a battle cry perhaps. The [Knight-Captain] was so distracted by the melee with the [Princess]—he was ordering his forces forwards to get her back to the safety of Medain’s army. He’d fought in wars before and knew Jecrass had the advantage in cavalry-clashes. And the other detachment was slower than most of the elite [Trick Riders]. They were…
He heard a strange sound coming from the oncoming heavy-riders. A furious…bellowing. It wasn’t a sound a Human made. Or…a horse. It sounded like—
Cows. Or rather—he turned his head too late. And then realized how large the enemy’s horses were. And saw the armored heads and horns of the bicorns too late. He watched both sides accelerating, suddenly—uneasy.
“[Arrow Formation]! [Furious Charge]! [Doubled Impact]!”
The [Lance Leader] called out as both sides charged straight at each other. The Bicorn’s leader said nothing at all. The animals looked—fresh—for creatures that had ridden countless miles. No, that wasn’t right.
They looked pissed. Medain’s [Lancers] shot forwards. And as both sides were about to collide—the Bicorn-riders flickered. They flashed past the lances aimed at rider and horse. Then they crashed into the enemy’s horses. The bicorns hit the warhorses and downed riders and horse in screaming impacts.
Jecrass’ [Riders] swung their long-handled axes down, hacking. And their magical animals trampled and savaged their opponents. They charged, ignoring spears, pikes—the bull-horses were fearless in combat, almost uncontrollable!
And in the heart of the battle—the [King of Challenges] fought. His [Trick Riders] cut around him, slashing through gaps in their opponent’s armor, ducking, dodging, but pressing onwards.
Towards the [Princess], struggling against her captors as they tried to break free of the melee and retreat.
High King Perric was heading straight for Jecaina. Locked onto Raelt. The King of Jecrass was a whirlwind, killing [Knights], enemy [Commanders] as he howled like some beast. But—the High King’s attention was also dragged away by the second force moving alongside his army. His army slowed, half-turning to face the unexpected force, smaller in number, which had foiled his plans.
Minotaurs. They marched from the coast, the tiny, distant warships. Bare thousands of them, compared to the other armies on the field. But two of them had killed Gold-rank adventurers with a single throw. Now—they were marching. Moving towards another distant army, which had come to do battle with both Medain and Jecrass.
The King of Destruction’s army was still spilling out of the border between Jecrass and Medain, the Lion’s Valley, where so many battles had ended in stalemate. But their furious advance had likewise…slowed.
The House of Minos had come. It was so surprising to those on the field—even to many watching by scrying orb.
“Students? This is what we would call a ‘messy battle.’”
Niers Astoragon was watching with his class. The entire damn world was, he had no doubt. He looked up briefly.
“Rearrange the board. And while we do—does anyone have an insight as to why a Minotaurian army has just landed against the King of Destruction? Remember your history and political lessons. I’m waiting for a good answer.”
He knew. And so did some of his students. A girl raised her hand.
The Titan of Baleros nodded to one of his new students. She was in the elite class that Umina, Marian, Venaz, and so many others enjoyed. But a new summer class, since most of Niers’ oldest students were…on assignment. The [Princess] ducked her head.
“They um—I know why they’re fighting, Professor. My…my kingdom funded them. Along with a number of Terandrian kingdoms.”
Some of the other students eyed Angelica, reminded she was royalty. Rare, even for Niers Astoragon; he had taught only six other members of royalty. But he treated her the same as the others.
“Very good. But for full marks, Princess Angelica, I would have liked to hear that aside from the Kingdom of Morein and two thirds of Terandria’s kingdoms, the House of Minos also received funding from Izril’s nobility—and two Walled Cities and a number of Balerosian nations. To do war with the King of Destruction. I was wondering when they’d show up.”
The other students looked astounded. Niers sighed.
“Information networks. We’ll move it up on your curriculum. It’s a [Mercenary]’s best tactic, asking for multiple sides to pay for the same thing. I would have been tempted to copy the House of Minos—if I had a damn armada.”
He sighed. But then he pointed at the battle.
“Now—watch. You’re about to see something special. The House of Minos fights in a unique way. And—they have a significant history with the King of Destruction. Can anyone remember why?”
The King of Destruction’s rise and downfall was an incomplete story to Teres. She had heard it from the people who had been there, including Flos Reimarch himself. But they were unreliable sources, emphasizing smaller details, telling parts of a whole.
This is what she knew. When he had left Chandrar to make war on the world, the King of Destruction had sent his armies to two continents that had tried to assail him on Chandrar.
Baleros, and Izril. He sent Amerys to the south of Izril, hoping to lock down the Drake Walled Cities. She had besieged Zeres as he sent more forces with Takhatres to aid her and possibly find allies in the Gnolls.
To Baleros, the King of Destruction had seen a greater threat in the Great Companies of Baleros. So—he had sent his [Gambler of Fates], Queravia and made for her with the bulk of his army. She had landed first after storms at sea which had delayed his fleet. There she had made a stand.
And died. The Titan of Baleros had slain her. But perhaps—history might have been different if reinforcements had arrived in time. That they had not was due to two battles at sea. The King of Destruction was weak on the ocean, having little experience there compared to his land offensives.
Two navies had fought his. The first—from Rhir. The Blighted King’s warriors had destroyed the reinforcements bound for Izril. The second army had ambushed the King of Destruction.
Minotaurs. They had nearly destroyed his fleets; but for the sacrifice of Tottenval, the Gardener, they might have killed Flos himself. That was what Teres knew.
The King of Destruction had never spoken about Minotaurs. Now—he stared at the distant army.
“Milord. They bear the House of Minos’ standards.”
“Of course they do. Order Orthenon back from entering the battle. I want him to flank them; tell him to check for any other forces lurking out of sight.”
Flos’ voice was quiet. Mars nodded.
“Your Majesty. Do we advance on them or fall back?”
Death Commander Ytol spoke. Like Mars—he had gone still at the sight of the Minotaurs. It made Teres’ hair stand up. She had never heard one of Flos’ officers suggest a retreat.
Perhaps—because they had never thought it was necessary before. She looked at Mars. Normally, the [Vanguard] was always spoiling for a fight and laughing, even drinking before battle. This time, she looked intense. She began checking her armor and weapons.
“Retreat, Ytol? With two nations fighting before us?”
Flos answered the Death Commander quietly. Ytol glanced at the army.
“We did not prepare for a battle with Minotaurs, your Majesty.”
The King of Destruction’s jaw worked. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the distant Minotaurs.
“The one with that axe killed three Gold-ranks. I know that weapon. I think I remember him. From the battle at sea.”
“Check for Prince Khedal or the King of Minotaurs. Sire, if one or both are here—”
“I said—advance, Ytol. Spread out. Let’s see what they brought to fight me.”
The King of Destruction’s hands tightened on his horse’s reins. Mars glanced at Ytol and nodded. Blank-faced, the man bowed.
“F—your Majesty? Why are they here?”
Teres saw Flos look at her and flinched. He blinked and smiled—but it changed nothing. The King of Destruction sat up slightly.
“I never knew their hearts, Teresa Atwood. They attacked me once at sea, declaring war though I had chosen to avoid fighting them. As for why—perhaps just that they put themselves against me. To the death. They ended my dream once. I would like to return the favor now.”
Teres saw him turn ahead, and then the air was full of orders and she was only in the way. She rode, seeing the other army marching at them. A tiny force compared to the vanguard the King of Destruction had brought to fight both nations at once.
And yet—they disturbed her.
Why had they come?
As was often said, the world watched. Noass and Drassi were commentating. At one point, the [Gossip] turned [Reporter] just threw her notes up in the air.
They did not understand. They were Drakes, being advised by Wistram. Minotaurs seldom entered the academy.
But there were Minotaurs across the world who saw.
Rhata pushed the piece forwards with her nose. Zevara stared down at the grey rat, affronted. Haldagaz nibbled on a cracker. Neither rat had played chess, of course, although Calruz had taught them to move pieces.
The Minotaur sat across from the Drake, at the barrier of his cell. Zevara scowled. It was a custom of theirs, now, to have moments like this.
“I give. How is the monster-clearing work going? I didn’t get to check with you yesterday.”
Grumpily, Zevara folded her arms. Calruz scratched at his chin. He looked more…alive, since she had made part of his imprisonment fighting monsters.
The dungeon’s door blew open. Zevara heard loud voices raised in argument. She spun, putting her hand on the sword. Calruz straightened as Rhata and Haldagaz leapt onto his shoulders in alarm.
It was Bezale. She came down the dungeon.
“What is the meaning of—”
“Calruz of Hammerad. You have to see this.”
Bezale stopped in front of his cell, panting. Two of the [Guard] followed, weapons trained on her. She was unarmed. But she did have a scrying orb in hand. Calruz blinked at her.
“Why are you here?”
Zevara was about to order the Minotauress to put down the orb. She kept tabs on who visited Calruz. Erin, Olesm—and yes, Bezale, twice—but the Minotauress had put aside everything. She thrust the orb urgently forwards. This went beyond criminality. Minotaur looked at Minotaur.
Calruz saw the scrying orb, the gesticulating Drakes. And then the distant army, marching towards the King of Destruction. The view cut to [Mages] on the ground, trying to call out to the Minotaurs who ignored them. His eyes widened.
“The House of Minos.”
“They’ve gone to war.”
He saw Bezale nod. She stood there, then looked around. Zevara blinked at Bezale.
“Why did you come?”
“Our home has gone to war. Prisoner—whoever. This matters.”
The [Spellscribe] answered her succinctly. Then she sat down, cross-legged. Calruz copied her. Zevara looked at them. Both Minotaurs—
—Were watching. Venaz stood there, in front of the scrying orb, eyes locked onto it.
Wil was gone, still waiting for the [Alchemist] to come back with the results of the poison-test he’d performed on Yerranola. But the other [Strategists] were there.
“Grandfather’s beards. Minotaurs? You know about this, Venaz?”
“Of course. I didn’t expect them to show up now…”
Venaz answered Merrik without looking away. Peki and Feshi glanced up. The Gnoll growled softly.
“The House of Minos. But why did they come? I heard about the payment—some of the tribes gave money too. But why oppose the King of Destruction so fiercely? Did he attack them?”
“He never did. Minotaurs attacked him.”
Peki squinted at Venaz. He glanced at her and nodded.
“Our King decreed it. Just like this time—she’s…hold on. Get out of the way, you stupid Drakes! Show me—ah.”
He bent down, snorting, as the image turned to the two Minotaurs leading the small army again. Venaz made a sound.
“She sent them. Of course.”
The huge Minotaur in front was clearly a [General]. Unlike the younger Minotaurs striding behind him in ranks, the one in front wore a battered, bronze-ish armor, clearly enchanted from the way it seemed to glitter oddly in the light, even with no rays of sun hitting it directly. He stood proudly, holding the axe he’d thrown as well as carrying a huge two-handed battleaxe. But he was—old.
His fur and mane had turned grey. That was the real clue. In fact…Feshi thought the other one, a Minotauress, looked just as elderly.
“They’ve finally found a place to bring the fight to the King of Destruction. Looks like…a lot of Sharphorns. And [Lineholders]. Yes…it makes sense. The idiots—where’s the artillery?”
That was all Venaz said. His friends watched him.
“Who’re the Minotaurs, Venaz?”
Merrik squinted at the orb. Venaz started. He looked at them and then shook his head.
“I forget you wouldn’t know. Anyone of the House of Minos would…they have to be watching. They’d have informed the King once they made their decision to land. They’re all watching.”
Venaz was right.
From the House of Minos, they gathered to look into the scrying orbs. Minotaurs, young and old, most on their island, but across the world—from Calruz and Bezale in Liscor’s prison, to the throne of the House of Minos.
Prince Khedal folded his arms as he watched the advance of the Minotaurs from their warships.
“They mean to bring the fight to the King of Destruction, my liege. His forces have slowed; it may be another hour before they enter into range.”
“What of the battle between Jecrass and Medain?”
The voice that came from the throne was female. Khedal glanced at the battle dismissively. He turned his head.
“Both sides are adding forces to the fight but neither one is triumphing, my King. Medain’s main army is growing closer. Should our forces…?”
“No. They will have the King of Destruction to contend with. And stop calling me, ‘my King’, brother.”
She sat on the throne. The King of the House of Minos, since it was a royal title, not bound by distinction of gender.
The King of Minotaurs. Prince Khedal nodded. They were bound by blood.
“The young [Prince] will be disappointed you forbade him from joining General Ozem’s forces.”
“He isn’t ready.”
That was all his mother said. Khedal nodded. He looked down at the forces below. Four armies, three of them of Chandrar. His hands clenched and unclenched, and the [Prince] wished he were there. He growled into the orb.
“Fight gloriously, Humans. You owe your opponents no less.”
Reim’s army had slowed their advance. They were moving away from the battle with Jecrass’ army and Medain’s. High King Perric was clearly wary of both armies since he’d slowed his forces to create offensive lines against either one pressing at him.
But he needn’t have worried. Both the King of Destruction and Minotaurs were locked on each other. The Minotaurs were advancing faster, away from their ships.
It was a curious tactical move. But the King of Minotaurs did not order the [General] to abort. It was his battle. And indeed—it was forcing Flos’ hand.
“They’re trying to advance on us. So if we fall back we’ll be caught in the pass.”
That was Jelaim’s frank assessment. He wasn’t one of the commanders around Flos, but he shared their insight here. He shook his head, baring his teeth.
“But we outnumber them by…”
Teres was astounded. She heard the count coming in; Orthenon had sped along the coast, checking for ambushes or tricks. As far as he could tell—there were none.
“Your Majesty, Orthenon believes this is the entirety of their force not counting the skeleton crews holding their warships.”
“And how many landed?”
The King of Destruction looked ahead. The elevation dropped to sea level from the pass, so they could actually see the distant ships.
Teres saw the huge sails, and thought they were massive. Not as large as her world’s—but close. For a medieval-type ship? Possibly as large as Earth had ever made.
Warships. Six of them. The House of Minos had built vast vessels with reinforced hulls—the kind made for battles with sea serpents and bombardments from other ships at sea. Magically reinforced woods, steel-plated bows.
Each one could hold about a thousand Minotaur [Warriors] in addition to the skeleton crew. Now—all six had disembarked their forces.
But that—was such a strange number as Teres heard it.
Six thousand Minotaurs? They were outnumbered at least fourteen-to-one. She expected Flos Reimarch to laugh. She nearly scoffed aloud until something made Teres shiver.
That was like how Flos had fought Jecrass.
Still—their army puzzled the armchair [Strategists], the viewers from afar. Noass spoke loudly into the scrying orb as Niers motioned for him to be muted.
“No horse complement. No…archers? What kind of an army is this? Drassi, as a bit of a [Strategist] myself, I have to say that this looks more and more like a bl—”
He was mercifully silenced. The Titan raised his head.
“Anyone share that Drake’s opinion?”
His new students shifted. They were still too nervous to freely vouch their opinions and anyways—they rightly suspected this question was a trap.
“It—it is an unusual composition, Professor. The King of Destruction has a famous cavalry-leader in his [Steward], as well as powerful [Mages] and archers. Um—they don’t seem to have many [Mages] either.”
A half-Elf put up his hand defiantly. He was from Terandria. Niers nodded.
“All fair. But this is what you’re missing. They have an advantage few armies carry, especially in those numbers.”
He pointed. Artillery. His students looked at the odd contraptions. Only the Drakes and Princess Angelica were intimately familiar with them.
Weapons of war. It wasn’t unknown; far from it. But when a [Mage] could cast [Siege Fireball], why carry around ammunition and weaponry? The process of building them was a secret known widely only to Drakes and Minotaurs. Now, Niers eyed the siege weapons on the field, being pulled by their teams.
Eighteen ballistae. Seven catapults.
Another hand rose. This time from the [Princess] again.
“Not trebuchets, Professor? Even the Drakes have them.”
The Titan didn’t raise his head.
“Venaz would be able to tell you, Princess Angelica, that trebuchets are poor weapons for combat on an open field. They’re meant for besieging. Moreover—these are Minotaur-class artillery. Do you recall how they fought at sea?”
He meant the battle with the [Strategists] and their encounter with Prince Khedal’s warship. The others nodded. The Titan stared at the orb.
“There you go.”
He did not elaborate. Now, Niers looked at the Minotaur leading the army. As much as the types of warriors that had been brought…the question remained who led them.
“We took gold to strike against him…it feels like years ago. But the House of Minos could not attack immediately, inland as Reim was. General Ozem must have seized the moment to strike.”
Venaz pointed into the orb at the old Minotaur leading the rest. Feshi narrowed her eyes.
“He must be mad. Or extremely high-level. There are two of the King’s Seven there—if you count Orthenon. And the King of Destruction himself.”
“And he has his famous Skill. What are they hoping to do? How good is this General Ozem, Venaz?”
Merrik added. Like Noass, and some of Niers’ class, he shared the Drake’s skepticism. This looked like a poor fight. The Minotaur rubbed at his chin.
“Ozem? His class is [Onslaught General]. He is not the House of Minos’ best leader. But he is…the oldest. He has seen more battle than anyone in this city. He’d be…74 years old the last time his name-day was called. The Minotauress by his side? First of Horns, Neriha of Hammerad. She is only a few years younger than Ozem. My region’s greatest champion. I had the honor of taking six lessons from her.”
“You said they took artillery, but that’s a small number, even for that many Minotaurs, Venaz.”
Feshi pointed out. Peki nodded. Eighteen ballistae and seven catapults…was twenty five. She was bad with math. She expected more. Venaz just shook his head.
“Ozem knows his business better than me.”
He saw the image flicker back to the [Commentators]. And indeed, Queen Yisame, the Empress of Sands, Wistram Academy, so many others…were watching as they made their portentous statements.
The Minotaurs on the ground, their motives, strategy, was all watched from afar. But—it was a changing world. A brave, or idiotic, [Mage] struggled across the ground after them, hoping for an interview. Everyone saw through the scrying orb she was carrying her approaching the ranks of Minotaurs, calling out.
“Excuse me! Excuse me, I’m from Wistram! I’d like an interview!”
The woman’s voice quavered a bit. And it made the marching [General] look up. The drumming beat of feet had been the only sound aside from his thoughts and the beating of his heart. Now—he looked at the [Mage] waving at him.
“Who is that, Ozem?”
The Minotauress, taller than he was, squinted at the Human [Mage]. She was First of Horns, Neriha of Hammerad, the [Champion] who had come with his army.
Her eyes were going in her advancing age. She squinted at the [Mage]; the Minotaurs on foot strode past her, ignoring her attempts to keep up. The Human looked comically small next to them.
Most Minotaurs were above six feet tall, even without their horns and they could be far naturally taller. They were stronger as well—like the bicorns versus regular warhorses.
“Excuse me! I’m from Wistram—”
The vanguard around Ozem swung down their weapons in a moment and the [Mage] stopped. But she held out the scrying orb as if it was a flag of peace, or some relic-class artifact.
General Ozem of Maweil had served the House of Minos for decades. He couldn’t remember ever seeing something as strange as this. Of course—he knew what she was about.
“It’s the [Mages] with their scrying network. They probably want to speak with us for their interviews.”
That was all Neriha said. The two Minotaurs kept walking.
“Excuse me! Please wait—the world is watching—I’d like an interview—Commentator Noass and Miss Drassi…”
The [Mage] panted after them. The Minotaurs were striding ahead, aided by Ozem’s movement Skill. [Army: Longstriders].
They were making for the King of Destruction, who’d halted to spread out and create an organized front against the Minotaurs. Wise of him. Ozem calculated it would still be another hour or two before they approached him.
Medain and Jecrass were still fighting. Part of him longed to enter that fray. But he had a single task. The [General] had a thought. He turned to Neriha as the two walked. He carried the axe—still bloodstained—that he had used to kill Gold-ranks in a single throw. Of course, Neriha was an expert at throwing weapons, but Ozem was not. Yet the blade he held had gone true.
It was a gift, from the King of Minotaurs. For now.
“This means we are being broadcast to the House of Minos and the world at large, Neriha.”
“Hm. That does make one feel good.”
She smiled. The two ignored the [Mage] herself, but she was allowed to follow at a jog, panting, unable to fully catch up even with the [Haste] spell on her. The two talked as old friends did, of countless campaigns. Their conversation was even audible from the scrying orb; they took little attention to the plaintive [Mage].
“The lines for warrior-applicants will be long in Etrerra-Valar today.”
Few people knew what that meant. Drassi looked at Noass and he was searching through an encyclopedia on the House of Minos—and there were few.
But Minotaurs understood. Etrerra-Valar was the main harbor of the House of Minos. Warrior-applicants were the volunteers for the army.
The House of Minos was a paradise. Its standing army was all volunteers. No conscription necessary. And rather than [Soldiers]—most were [Warriors] in class. An important distinction, in many ways.
A strange land. Hitherto unknown to many of the public consciousness, like the Drathian Empire. Minotaurs existed, and you might see them, especially at sea.
But look now and listen.
“Excuse me—do you have a word for the viewers at home? Can I ask why the House of Minos has decided to—hello?”
The [Mage] jogged next to some younger Minotaurs, bearing axes and shields. Very few swords compared to some armies; there were axes, hammers among some of the older Minotaurs, but little in the way of spears or swords, a mainstay in other armies. No horses. No bows.
The young Minotaur glanced once at the [Mage], and then walked straight ahead, in ranks, with the others next to him. Curiously—the older Minotaurs in the front and the ones lugging the artillery had decorated their horns. The bulk of the army—their horns were just white ivory.
Sharphorns. You could feel their excitement, the way they nearly broke formation with their eagerness as the older veterans maintained the pace.
Neriha snorted, but affectionately, casting a glance backwards. Ozem nodded. Four thousand of the House of Minos’ [Warriors] were new. Two thousand were complete veterans, like him and Neriha.
“Excuse me, General Ozem!”
The [Mage] had finally caught up with the [General] again. She had that exasperated tone in her voice that suggested she was the one who was owed something. Ozem glanced at her.
“May I ask why you’re attacking the King of Destruction?”
“Our King ordered it.”
The [General] spoke briefly. The [Mage] fell behind and then hurried after him.
“Can you elaborate, [General]? We’d appreciate a few words if you could spare them—what do you feel the odds are for your victory? Are you sure this is the—”
“They’re so noisy.”
Neriha glanced back at the [Mage]. Ozem nodded. The King of Minos had ordered him to take the battle to the King of Destruction and fulfill their contract. But…that was just an excuse.
He had volunteered and known she would appoint him and Neriha. He could have sat down and explained all this to the Wistram [Mage], taken a break from his advance on the King of Destruction just to talk to her.
But she didn’t deserve it. If those watching did not know his name or his past or why he had come here—they did not have the right to know. So Ozem looked ahead. He saw the King of Destruction’s army spreading out, setting themselves on higher ground at the base of the pass.
Infantry, spread out in an enveloping formation to the left and right. Unlike a battle with two armies of either side, an echelon formation or any other type had little point. They just needed to surround the Minotaurs.
The [Steward] was circling from the side. Ozem was watching him. [Mages]…behind the King of Destruction’s lines, with archers. He wasn’t trying a unique maneuver. Besides—
His Gambler was dead. Now there was a [Strategist] Ozem would have loved to see on the field, as much as the Titan of Baleros. The half-Giants were moving to the sides as well; they’d join the flanking maneuver to avoid running through infantry no doubt.
He had time to adjust to them; both sides were still far out of range. Ozem saw all of this as the [Mage] pestered him, trying to get him to respond.
She was annoying. So the [General] decided to silence her. He raised his axe.
And began to sing.
The [Mage] jerked in surprise. But Ozem’s voice was alone for a moment. As if they had expected it, waiting, the other Minotaurs joined him.
Each one knew the song. Young and old, male and female, they marched as they sang. Passing by the dying [Soldiers] from Jecrass and Medain, towards the King of Destruction. Reim’s army could hear them, in the distance.
It was a song anyone who came from the House of Minos knew. Home.
“From days of war and wrath we ran
Exiled from every land
Searching for our honor lost
And found the House of Minos’ sands.
In days of old our savage kind
Lost our pride and lost our minds
To keep our wisdom the King decreed:
This land was ours as fate designed.
By rock and sand the holds arose
And the House of Minos built its throne
Maweil sails and Beriad creates
Hammerad protects and Samad grows.
Now watch and wait, and guard this land
That never may dishonor stand
When the King calls our fleets to war
We remind the world of our names once more.
From the House of Minos we march to war
And the axes rise and fall once more
Until the last horn will break
Let nations tremble and empire quake!”
Each to their own. Venaz and Calruz saw Minotaurs within the ranks of the Sharphorns and one of the old vanguards swung up their blades. And they joined in.
“Where does the warrior fall?
What end see I, large or small?
Laugh at death, and stand ever tall!
From the House of Minos, Hammerad calls.”
Each to a holding. Maweil was next, Bezale’s home, and Ozem’s.
“We sail until the world’s end
Bring death to foe and aid to friend
Those whom the House of Minos offend
Maweil’s sails your doom portends.”
Perhaps then—the others understood. Zevara looked at Calruz and Bezale and saw part of it. She sat there, next to his cell.
As he marched, General Ozem smiled. It was quiet again. He looked forwards, to the King of Destruction.
It would be glorious. Both armies slowly advanced towards each other over many miles. And behind them—almost as an afterthought—the battle between Jecrass and Medain reached its zenith.
Princess Jecaina of Jecrass saw war in its entirety for the first time. She saw battle—not as [Soldiers] returning home, wounded, triumphant, or absent—but as her father had known it.
“Fall back! To the High King! Rally on me!”
“Forwards! Guard the [Princess]!”
Men and women crashed around her, horses impaling themselves on pikes, their riders falling from saddles, hacking at each other. There was no finesse here, no patterns of attack and defense except on a larger scale.
The [Soldiers] were packed so tightly in places by both sides pressing forwards that they had no room to maneuver. They were literally shoved into their enemy’s swords by those behind them.
All for her. Jecaina saw a [Soldier] reaching for her, only to be taken down by a spear-cast from afar. She cried out in horror—until she saw the golden wave on his chest and realized he’d been a [Soldier] from Medain.
She had picked up a shortsword from the ground. It felt so heavy and awkward rather than the foil or rapier she carried. But she swung it, knocking down a blade coming at her. She found a shield covered in gore and hesitated—then she seized it.
“The [Princess]! Secure the—”
They didn’t even know where she was. The fighting rounded on the shouter, a [Knight-Captain] desperately fighting forwards. The [Princess] raised her buckler. For a moment she stared in horror at someone’s intestines, still stuck to the rim.
Then—a screaming [Knight] charged her and she brought the shield up and felt the shock of impact as he swung a mace. She lashed out, hacking at his helmet and armor. She tried to step back—collided with someone who threw her forwards.
He was right. Jecaina couldn’t use her footwork. And the other [Knight] just kept charging at her, trying to pull aside her shield and bring his mace down on her body for a killing blow. If he knew she was the [Princess] of Jecrass—the battle had driven him to madness.
An opening. Jecaina’s blade flicked across the opening as the mace rebounded. If the other [Knight] had possessed a shield; but it had been torn from his arm.
Her shortsword caught him in the tiniest of gaps between helmet and armor. His gorget failed him. Jecaina felt the sick impact—and pulled her sword back.
He clutched at a throat spilling crimson. But he still attacked her—or tried to. Jecaina brought her sword down on his helmet, like a hammer. She struck again and again, crying out.
He fell limp. Jecaina stood over him, shuddering. Just for a second—
She had killed someone. Not a monster. A person.
Her. She had killed…her. Jecaina looked at the female [Knight] and realized that. Then someone grabbed her.
She slashed at the person grabbing her. The [Soldier] stumbled, staring down at the gash in his armor. Jecrass’ armor.
Jecaina lowered her blade in shock. The [Soldier] fumbled desperately. For a potion.
His chest exploded in a gout of fire. Jecaina saw the short spear run the [Soldier] through as the enchanted tip burst through armor and flesh. A [Warrior] in armor painted with gold-leaf pointed at her.
“The [Princess] is here! Rally on me!”
Medain’s Golden Ranks carved through the [Soldiers] around her. Former adventurers, wielding the same artifacts they’d possessed in their career. Compared to that—Jecaina struck forwards in a quick stab. She saw the [Warrior] step back and his spear whirled.
The fiery tip sheared through her unenchanted sword. Jecaina stumbled backwards as the Gold-rank advanced. Even compared to Medain’s [Knights], they were in another class.
“To the [Princess]!”
A figure burst through the crowd. A warrior mounted on a fiery horse. Jecaina recognized it. Nightmare. The horse was dark, possessed of incredible night-vision and stealth; a carnivorous predator.
The enchanted barding was aflame. The horse screamed and charged. The Gold-rank adventurer brought up his spear and swore.
Jecaina saw the horse charge forwards onto the spectral spears. They pierced the animal’s hide and it screamed. But then—it kept moving. Jecaina saw the mouth open and razor teeth biting at the adventurer.
“Nightmare! Get over here!”
The rider struck at the adventurer with a spear and the two exchanged blows as more of Medain’s elites moved forwards. The rider turned.
“Princess! That way!”
He pointed and the Gold-rank jabbed. Jecaina saw a burst of fire. She turned—and ran. She heard a voice, saw, for a moment, at the center of the fighting, a figure on foot.
Raelt of Jecrass was fighting without his horse. He had his parrying dagger and sword; both were covered up to the hilts in red. He looked—Jecaina saw his head turning.
She shouted—and felt an impact on her back. Jecaina turned; one of the Golden Ranks had thrown something.
A net. The adventurer grinned as he hauled her back.
“To me! We’ve got the [Princess]!”
The battle turned around Jecaina in a moment. But—she saw Jecrass’ [Riders] plunging forwards, fighting in the press. But they were light cavalry! They weren’t meant for a fight like this. And half were on foot. Which meant they’d lost their mounts.
Medain’s army had finally caught up. Now—the Golden Ranks and fastest of their infantry were amid the fighting. Jecaina fought wildly, but the net thrower’s bindings were like steel. She was dragged backwards, into their grip again.
So helpless. Jecaina wanted to shout. One Gold-rank—or even two! But an army surrounded her. She was dragged backwards as Medain’s ranks closed around her.
Then she saw a tall man. Not as tall as her father. He had a crown, and he was strong, armored in numerous artifacts and surrounded by the Golden Ranks, his elites. High King Perric looked down at Jecaina with a triumphant look on his face.
“Princess Jecaina. You have inconvenienced us quite a bit.”
High King Perric gestured to his soldiers.
“Take her to the capital at once. Force Jecrass’ soldiers back. Don’t tear them completely to bits. We need their army to take on the King of Destruction.”
“Let go of me! You have no right, you coward!”
Jecaina fought the hands around her. Perric looked at her with a flash of anger at that last word. But he turned past her.
“Amplify my voice. Raelt of Jecrass! Your daughter is my captive! Pull your forces back now!”
His words boomed across the battlefield. Jecrass’ soldiers stopped fighting and saw, at last, Jecaina being dragged onto a horse. The Golden Ranks surrounding her. She saw a man on the ground look up. His circlet of gold—her father met her eyes.
“There you are.”
Raelt muttered. He’d been so worried, looking for her among the bodies, the fighting. So—he stumbled forwards.
Geril was next to him. The old retainer had fought through everything to stay with him. General Lael? She might be in the fighting. Or dead. Raelt didn’t know. Right now—he didn’t care.
There she was.
King Perric frowned as he saw Raelt stumbling forwards. The man looked half-dead, covered in blood and wounds.
“King Leysars, you will turn your army to do battle with the King of Destruction! Your daughter is—”
Could he even hear him? Perric raised his voice. And he saw the King of Duel’s eyes turn towards him.
Raelt came to a stop. He seemed to take in the odds only now. Medain’s elites, standing fresh and ready and Jecrass’ exhausted army.
The King of Destruction had managed to transport a vast army with him. But Raelt’s desperate riders hadn’t a chance. Not against Medain’s full army.
The Gold-ranks were cheering their leader, one of them. The High King drew his enchanted sword, the Wavebreaker of Medain, a heirloom of his house, and pointed it at Raelt. He wore a Ring of Ironskin along with the Greater Arrowguard Ring, and an Amulet of Solidity, which could resist both aura and spell. His boots were [Haste]-capable for two minutes. His armor…
Raelt pointed his rapier at Perric.
“Fight me, you little coward.”
His voice was unenchanted. But it was loud enough. The cheering stopped. High King Perric looked down at Raelt. The [King of Challenges] swayed on his feet.
“You are in no position to make demands. I—we say again—”
“Fight me, Perric. And I’ll kill you like the pig you are.”
The [King of Challenges] began to walk forwards. His soldiers advanced. He was looking at Jecaina. She tried to call out to him.
“Don’t be a fool! She’s my prisoner! Her life is in my hands!”
Raelt was just looking at Jecaina. Perric put his sword out, towards Jecaina. The King of Jecrass looked at his daughter. Then up at the King of Medain.
“You cannot have her. I said, I challenge you, Perric. As [Kings]! Fight me!”
He roared. And his army shouted.
The High King hesitated. He was armed in twelve artifacts, each more powerful than the last. Raelt looked dead. But…he had brought the King of Destruction near to death. Twice. More than that…
“You’ve forsworn yourself in a duel before, King Leysars. You have no right. Turn your army now and—”
The King of Duels stared at his daughter. Then the Golden Ranks. They were tensed, wary. Each one was a former Gold-rank adventurer. And they had a sixth sense about what might come next.
Not easy foes. They were fully prepared to fall back with Jecaina and their [King] rather than fight. And Raelt had no more tricks. No more River Wardens, either, not with him.
His daughter. Raelt shook his head slightly. Behind him was the King of Destruction’s army. They might be able to crush Medain’s forces. But they would have to take the capital in a siege first, if Medain’s army had Jecaina. And Flos had sworn his oath.
If the Minotaurs weren’t here…if he had noticed earlier, or made peace earlier.
If, if, if. Raelt’s life was plagued by those kinds of things. A ruler, no, a [King] was haunted by them, no matter what they did. His head bowed.
The King of Duels turned away, lowering his rapier and dagger. The High King smiled. Jecaina stirred. She saw Raelt walking, his posture light, relaxed.
Perfect. She opened her mouth. But.
She wanted to be saved.
Her father looked back. Her father. Her dad. King Perric of Medain might have sired children dozens of times with all his wives. But he was no parent.
Jecaina saw Raelt neatly turn, his body compact, moving on his heel. He raised his rapier as he took a step, as if to bow or kneel.
The [King of Challenges] vanished. He stepped across the distance between himself and Jecaina. Covered it in a moment.
A [Fencer’s Lunge]. He buried the rapier in the head of the Gold-rank who held Jecaina. Enchanted rapier piercing through Skill and artifact.
[Royal Arms]. The other Golden Ranks recoiled, crying out. Raelt withdrew the sword.
He cut across a second Gold-rank adventurer, aiming at one covered in leather armor. Enchanted, but leather. Blood flew.
“You fool. Capture him! Him and his daughter!”
Perric reacted first. His Golden Ranks closed in. They were, after all, Gold—
A [King] looked at them. He was, after all, a [King].
[Flurry Blades]. Both his rapier and dagger moved. An adventurer threw himself sideways to avoid. Jecaina saw Raelt spin, seeking another target.
He moved away from a slashing blade with [Flash Step], moving out of range. His rapier flickered. The air moved. [Wind Cutter] took the woman in the eyes.
The King of Duels slapped the horse’s side. Jecaina looked down at him. And then realized—the Gold-ranks around her had fallen back, to take cover. She felt the horse start, then move.
The High King saw it all and roared. His Golden Ranks surged forwards.
“Horselords and Jecrass! For the King of Duels!”
The [Soldiers] charged. They broke forwards, on foot, on horse, and Jecaina thought she saw them glowing. Just for a moment. It came from her father. Men and women seemed larger. And they fell upon Medain’s army like—like—
[Aura of the Lion]. Jecaina’s horse made a furious sound. It planted its front hooves and suddenly kicked.
A Gold-rank [Warrior] had been grabbing for her. He had dozens of Skills, possibly with [Ironskin] or [Greater Endurance]…
The horse’s hooves still kicked him in the face. Raelt saw another grabbing for Jecaina’s leg. He stepped over and ran the man through the chest.
Someone knocked him aside. A woman with a shield. Raelt tried to drag the rapier free—but it was caught in the screaming adventurer. So he let go of it.
“I’ve got him! I’ve got—”
The [King] leapt. He wrenched her shield down and swept his parrying dagger across her throat. The Gold-rank shouted and one of her rings flashed.
The blade turned. Raelt’s vision spun as she buffeted him with her shield. She was strong! He dragged his dagger up and stabbed again.
Again, the ring flashed, turning the blow. So Raelt pushed the blade—slowly—through the woman’s throat as she hit him with the hilt of her sword. He cut left.
The High King and the Golden Ranks saw the former Gold-rank adventurer clutching at her throat. And again, the [King of Challenges] stabbed. Again and again.
The man was supposed to be a [Fencer]. He picked up the woman’s sword as more of the Golden Ranks closed in. He brought it down on a helm, covering his daughter.
The High King rode forwards at last. He went for Jecaina, cutting through the [Soldiers] who were throwing themselves forwards like insane [Berserkers]. He saw her riding, trying to break through as another, common [Soldier] blocked her way—
And there was Raelt again. He had a hatchet this time. He brought it down on the man’s shoulder. He rose, stumbling—someone had shot an arrow through his shoulder.
He looked up. The High King hesitated. He tried to maneuver past Raelt. Jecaina—the King of Duels was blocking the way. The Golden Ranks held back, their bravado challenged and found wanting.
They were afraid to die. Raelt was breathing hard. He looked back, once.
Geril was grabbing at Jecaina. The old [Retainer] looked back once.
A wall of Medain’s [Soldiers] stood between the [King] and his escape. But he just smiled. Or bared his teeth.
“Fight me, Perric.”
The High King hesitated. He saw Raelt lunge.
A beast made of a man hacked at the Golden Ranks. It bit off a man’s ear and buried a dagger in a woman’s eye. They dragged it back, but it kept fighting. It screamed his name.
The High King fled. He chased the daughter, riding forwards. Jecrass’ army was broken. Many still fought, but the rest were falling back, trying to protect their [Princess].
Geril was shouting in Jecaina’s ear. She looked back once. The High King was pursuing her with his Golden Ranks. He was…his army had encircled Jecrass’. They slowed as they fought clear. Just a bit closer, a bit…
“I have you at last!”
The High King caught up with her. He swung his sword sideways and Jecaina reached for a sword she didn’t have. The enchanted blade sheared through the [Soldier] who brought up his shield to guard her.
A copy of her father. The High King raised his sword again, to behead her horse.
“[Full Power Blow].”
Geril hit the High King with his halberd. His blade glanced off Perric’s armor and the High King recoiled. He whirled his blade.
He cut Geril once and Jecaina cried out. The old retainer’s eyes flickered.
He hit the High King again. This time the impact nearly took the High King off his horse. His mount reared—and Jecaina’s horse finally won clear of the press of bodies. She rode, Geril right behind her.
“Stop her! I command you! Stop—”
Perric’s voice sounded behind her, more distant with each word. Jecaina saw more of the Golden Ranks following. Twice—they tried for her. She fended them off with a blade she seized at last from one of the [Soldiers] protecting her. But it was Geril who fended them off.
“[My Life, My King]…”
He murmured and brought the halberd down, forcing a Gold-rank to reel backwards. The second blow cut a man to the quick.
The old man forced the pursuers back, and Jecrass’ horses did the rest. Arrows aimed for her mount, but the others covered her. Geril actually caught an arrow.
He had never seemed stronger. Unstoppable, even by the Golden Ranks. Jecaina was looking back.
Raelt hadn’t followed them. She’d thought—thought he would break free, follow them.
“Captured, my lady. You must ride. Jecrass needs her—her [Queen].”
Geril rode with them, almost sedately. He looked at her. She turned to him.
“Me? But I—”
“Without the [King], you must replace him. That man is not worthy of ruling Jecrass. Your father…could not have abided by your imprisonment.”
“It was my fault, though.”
Jecaina’s eyes stung. She felt something bop her on the head. Gently. The haft of Geril’s halberd. He shook his head at his charge.
“Not at all, your Majesty. These things—you mustn’t blame yourself. Now go on, Jecaina. My lovely child. They’re waiting for you.”
“Go? But what about—”
The old retainer was gone. Jecaina looked back and saw his horse galloping next to her. She stopped. But the other seized her and carried her onwards. He was gone. He’d been dead the moment the High King swung his sword.
She fled, tears in her eyes. The King of Jecrass lay in chains, and the High King looked ahead and told himself—it was fine. He had Jecrass’ ruler. All that remained was the King of Destruction.
Tragedy, loss, the King of Duel’s capture, it had all happened before the other two armies had met. As Jecaina fled, the second battle began ahead of her.
News of the battle between Medain and Jecrass reached Reim’s army as the Minotaur’s force finally came within range. They seemed both huge and small—giant bull-people, but so few. Jecaina saw them in tight formation around their two-dozen artillery pieces.
Laughably small compared to the huge vanguard that Flos had marched north with his and Orthenon’s Skills. In the distance, Medain’s army was reforming. Battered—but vast.
“They’ll threaten our flanks soon, milord. If the battle with the House of Minos drags on…we’ll be outnumbered. Apparently, King Raelt freed his daughter before falling into captivity.”
“We will rescue the King of Jecrass, then. Our mission has just changed slightly. As for our flanks—pull up those two battalions there—we’ll keep two thousand horse in reserve to ward off a charge—but this battle should be over before he can reach us.”
Indeed, even Jecrass’ fleeing, broken army had yet to reach the impending battlefield. They were travelling wide anyways; Jecrass was still at war with Reim.
It was the House of Minos who now advanced.
“Your orders, your Majesty?”
Flos of Reim looked ahead. At General Ozem.
“I think it is him. I recognize that armor. He was on one of the warships. Do you remember, Mars?”
The Illusionist hesitated. Then she ducked her head.
“Always, lord. But this isn’t the time to be lost in the past. They are a dangerous foe.”
“I know that. But permit me my memory. I swore upon my waking that I would settle things with the King of Minotaurs. This…will be a fine first step. Is all in readiness?”
He turned his head and regarded his army.
“Ready, King of Destruction.”
Shepherd Zamea boomed, shouldering her vast axe.
“The Rustängmarder stand ready to march. But your advance will be slower than the rest of the army’s sire. That is my command.”
[Death Commander] Ytol bowed. The King of Destruction flicked his eyes to him, but nodded shortly.
“The Serpent Hunters are prepared.”
Jelaim called out.
“Parasol Stroll will begin spellcasting as soon as they are within range.”
Ulyse and [Grand Mage] Esiela stood at the front, their catalysts shimmering with power. Flos nodded at them. Then he looked ahead.
Orthenon raised his spear. He was circling, ready to charge the Minotaur’s flanks and their siege weapons.
Last, the King of Destruction looked at the two riding with him.
“You will stay back, Teres. I have battled the Minotaurs in their strength only once. But—I think this engagement will be too dangerous for you yet.”
Teres caught herself, and then nodded. She rode backwards, stationing herself with Ytol. She saw the wariness in Flos’ eyes.
“The last time we fought them, they barely had time to open up with those damn war weapons of theirs. It was all boarding action, aside from their damn King’s axes destroying ships. It’s giving me an uneasy feeling. As well as that axe their leader’s carrying. It’s a Gold-rank slayer. Stick with the Rustängmarder, your majesty.”
Mars the Illusionist was last. He nodded at her advice.
“I don’t intend to give them any advantage, Mars. First them—then this High King. Now, my Illusionist—will you do me the honors of beginning this battle with your challenge?”
“I would accept nothing less.”
Mars the Illusionist rode through the ranks, at the head of the army. The [Soldiers] slowed. And Teres heard their cheer again. Flos began it himself.
“Mars! Mars the Illusionist! Mars of Reim!”
She dismounted from her horse as she reached the head of the army and began to stride forwards on foot to the cheers. Across from his army, the House of Minos’ force had slowed and begun their final preparations.
“We are nearly within range, General Ozem. Your targets?”
The Minotaur who spoke was lamed. One of his arms was shriveled, deformed, unable to function. He was the [Master of Artillery].
“The [Steward]. Then—target the half-Giants. The catapults are to attack the bulk of the army on foot. Honor to you, Nervhetti.”
The [General] replied and the Minotaur grinned. He clasped his good hand to his breast.
“A privilege, General Ozem!”
He stepped back and almost all was ready. The annoying [Mage] had fallen back to what she considered to be a safe distance. Ozem looked forwards.
Neriha, the First Horn, was shading her eyes to squint ahead.
“You know, I don’t think this King of Destruction has seen our artillery perform.”
“Last time we boarded him too fast. We would have taken him in combat—until the Gardener overwhelmed our warships.”
“Ah, yes. That brave Beastkin. How many ships did the [Gardener] of Reim down?”
Ozem couldn’t remember. He should have—but he was focused ahead.
“You can stop the Illusionist?”
“We’ll find out. The fact that our [King] is watching me is actually somewhat worrying, Ozem. I feel quite nervous!”
The two Minotaurs looked at each other. And then they burst out laughing. They weren’t the only ones. The old veterans in Ozem’s vanguard laughed at this as well. The Sharphorns in the ranks, the green [Warriors] who hadn’t seen many battles—they were all at least Level 16, but that was something a child could boast of—were too stiff by comparison.
“Ah, Neriha, I’ll miss this. Don’t let her slay you.”
Ozem saw the Minotauress grin. Then—he saw the Illusionist making her way through the ranks and his blood began to hum. Even in the ambush, she had slain so many of the House of Minos’ warriors.
Mars the Illusionist. One of the greatest living warriors this world had to offer. It was useless to compare her to the other Named Adventurers and legendary fighters of their time. Even Neriha. Anything before they met was useless speculation. And the [Vanguard] of the King of Destruction had left countless ‘legends’ in the ground.
The chant began from Reim. The Minotaurs were silent—until their [General] faced them. He had a compulsion to speak, a rare one.
“Master of Artillery. Hold fire until the Illusionist’s challenge and my signal.”
His voice was a steady shout, audible to all. Even the distant [Mage]. The Master of Artillery raised his hand in acknowledgement. General Ozem looked across the Minotaurs.
“I feel nostalgic, looking at this army. Not that we have ever faced the King of Destruction on land. Like Neriha, I feel slightly nervous. I have never fought before an audience besides my foe.”
The veterans chuckled and the Sharphorns listened to the old [Onslaught General], untensing a bit at the humor. Ozem waited. Then he looked back.
“The House of Minos has taken gold and jewels to do battle with the King of Destruction. Supplies, food, artifacts—[Mercenary]’s pay to battle Reim. To some—that is what the House of Minos is. But we did not make war the first time for payment. Nor this.”
He looked back and pointed. His other hand still held the sacred axe, the relic gifted to him.
“Look there, young Sharphorns. You see our enemy. A man. But a [King]. Perhaps the greatest of Human rulers you will ever meet. Do not scorn him. The House of Minos never made war because we found the King of Destruction dishonorable or a weak foe.”
Ozem shook his head. His horns, decorated with his victories in battle from the beginning—slaying a century-old Hobgoblin, their oldest foe—gleamed.
“No. She made war to halt a man—a Human man—who would rule this world unchecked. So we ended the King of Destruction’s dream and put him into slumber! So once, now again. The House of Minos shall suffer no tyrant.”
At this, there was some sporadic cheering, again from the Sharphorns. Those who knew better were silent. Ozem waited.
“But. That is not why we are here.”
He gestured to the two thousand veterans of countless battles. Most were as old as Ozem himself. They grinned behind their scars, hefting weapons they had known better than any lover. Ozem looked at Neriha and she grinned. He pointed back, towards the warships and their distant homes and bellowed to them.
“We are the ones who cannot live in peace. Brothers and sisters, we are the House of Minos’ failures! Because we find rest in only battle. And—because we could not find a glorious death and lived far too long! We must thank our King—and the King of Destruction—that this is our battlefield! And if we dare to win again, we will return to the House of Minos as failures once more!”
Now they laughed, the old ones. They cheered raggedly. Each one was like Ozem. Addicted to battle. Married to war. The King of Minotaurs had called for warriors to fight the King of Destruction here and win her victory with the Sharphorns. Ozem and Neriha had answered her. He would have begged for an opportunity like this.
Because he was going to win. Ozem had not sailed across the oceans, waited for months on ships while the High King threw petulant fits—just to lose in front of the watching world. He turned and spread his arms, laughing. Greeting the army in front of him like an old friend.
“King of Destruction. You kept us waiting far too long.”
The arrogance of Minotaurs.
“Honor bound fools. They’re forgetting his greatest weapon. You shouldn’t have paid him.”
The angry voice came from one of her heads. The Empress of Sands watched. She was still in control of herself.
“Oh be quiet. I’m sure this Minotaur [General] has everything planned.”
“They’re making a mistake.”
She turned to look at the old man.
“It’s all in your head.”
Groans from around the room. The other heads hated her puns. But they watched. Now—both armies were stationary. Reim’s army crept forwards slightly. They were entering into the lines of fire. The best [Archers] and spells could travel as much as a mile—the [Grand Mage] could certainly hit the Minotaurs from that range.
But Reim’s forces held their fire. Because of the single, glorious figure striding forwards. Hair streaming behind her—like fire today. Tall, beautiful—her favorite form for war. And they called her name.
Mars the Illusionist. One of the King’s Seven. Ozem saw Neriha tense.
He murmured. The [Vanguard] had crossed the open ground to halfway between both armies. Half a mile away; he saw the magic gathering around some of the [Mages] behind the King of Destruction’s army. So powerful and concentrated it began to become visible as the raw power warped space.
He held his ground. If Reim had its traditions—so did the House of Minos. They waited, as the [Vanguard] stopped. Then Mars struck her shield.
The sound was not loud—but irresistible. It carried—a noise that travelled across the battlefield and reached every Minotaur in the army. Even if they had covered their ears, they would have heard it.
The Illusionist’s voice was a roar suddenly. Teres started as the chanting stopped around her. Mars planted her sword and bellowed at them.
“I am the Champion of the King of Destruction! If there are any brave enough in the House of Minos to fight me, step forwards or be forsworn as cowards! And I will show you how a true [Warrior] fights!”
The House of Minos’ army shuddered at the taunt, the challenge. Teres recognized the Skill.
Like she had done at the battle with Belchan’s army, Mars was using one of her Skills.
[Call of the Champion]. She had done it to Jecrass’ armies and not been answered. If they failed to send a champion, the Skill would demoralize them.
And if they sent a [Champion]—Flos had told Teres once that only three people had ever dueled Mars and lived in this fashion.
The Illusionist’s shout rippled across the army of six thousand. She waited, hair blowing in an imaginary breeze. The myth of the King of Destruction, waiting for her opponent.
Neriha’s eyes were locked on Mars. Ozem felt his blood boiling as he stared at her. And then—came Mars’ answer.
“Fight me, Illusionist!”
A Minotauress raised her axe and bellowed into the sky. The Illusionist turned. The [Vanguard] saw a Minotaur—female, step forwards and point her axe at her. She readied herself.
“No, fight me, Illusionist!”
The First Horn of Hammerad raised her weapon to the sky. Mars blinked. Then she saw the [General], Ozem, bellowing.
“Challenge me, Mars the Illusionist!”
“Fight me, Illusionist!”
Another Minotaur answered her call. And then another. Sharphorns and veterans bellowed, answering her challenge. Each one trying to take up her call.
Every one of them. An army without fear looked at the Illusionist. Each one ready to fight her. They bellowed as one.
“Challenge me, Illusionist!”
For the first time in her life, Mars had too many opponents. The House of Minos stomped the ground, roaring as they lifted their weapons.
General Ozem laughed. Mars the Illusionist had never seen an army of Minotaurs! He raised a hand and there was silence.
“If only there were an army of the Illusionist to fight! Alas. I have her opponents here. Step forwards!”
Sixteen Minotaurs stepped forwards. Each one was armed with a single fine weapon. Axe, sword, club—one only with fighting gauntlets. They turned to the [General]. Expectant. Eager.
“You. Your name.”
The Minotaur faced the army. He raised his arm.
“I am Lewril of Maweil!”
Ozem nodded to him. The Minotaur strode across the ground as the army shouted his name. He strode at first—then burst into a trot. The Illusionist waited for him. Ready.
The Minotaur was huge. Nearly seven feet and a half. Ozem knew him. The sword he carried—he was good with it. And young. He burst into a sprint two hundred paces away from Mars.
Neriha watched. He might have wasted energy—but Lewril was cannier than his charge indicated. As he closed with Mars—he dug his sword into the ground for a moment, throwing up a cloud of dirt.
A Skill. From half a mile away, Ozem saw him leap sideways. Sword lashing out—
Mars burst out of the cloud and her sword flashed. Elongating.
She beheaded Lewril in a single stroke.
The Minotaur’s cheers stopped. Reim’s army cheered and laughed. The Minotaur had gone down in a single blow! Teres saw Mars lifting her bloody blade, calling out.
“Was that your best? Send me your next [Champion]!”
She saw the House of Minos’ army pause—and then a second Minotaur strode forwards. No—Teres heard a higher timbre—Minotauress. She shouted her name and then charged. This time—Mar shot forwards to meet her.
Teres waited in silence as the two warriors charged. The Minotauress was bellowing—she had a spear. She lunged forwards—Mars could have taken the impact on her armor. But she slid under and slashed the Minotauress across the belly.
A cry of pain. And then—the sword flashed again.
A second head fell to the ground.
More cheering. The Minotaurs were silent. And then—Teres saw a third warrior bellowing his name.
“They have to be mad.”
She was incredulous. Were they…trying to tire her out? Or really, were all six thousand going to challenge her one after another? She looked at Ytol. The [Death Commander] shrugged.
“If they think she’ll tire—Mars has killed dozens upon dozens when one army tried it. Strange though—I didn’t think Minotaurs would stoop to that.”
Neither did Teres. But she saw the third Minotaur charge. Mars was closer now, so the clash occurred in less than a minute this time. Again, the Minotaurs cheered loudly until their warrior died. This time Mars hamstrung him and speared him in the chest. He tried to attack her even as he died.
But die he did. Reim’s forces cheered and laughed. Until the fourth warrior shouted her name.
“This is a trap.”
That was Teres’ intuition. She hadn’t missed the artillery. She looked at Ytol. His face was grim.
“If it is, milady Mars can survive until the [Steward] charges. Wait.”
The fourth warrior landed a single blow. Teres groaned as the flail struck Mars once—Ytol just shook his head as she cut across the Minotauress’ chest.
“She wouldn’t even have felt it. One stamina potion—she won’t need one for at least thirty more duels. Not if they end like this. She has countless Skills, milady Teres.”
Then why? Reim’s cheering grew staggered. Because it was almost—embarrassing—how fast the Minotaurs died. But morale couldn’t be higher. If the Minotaurs were trying to prove they were unafraid of death—
Mars might have sensed the mood or a trap, because she strode backwards, blade in the air. Another challenger made his long way across the half-mile towards her.
She cut him down. Fifth. Then sixth. Seventh…
Perhaps it was demoralizing them. Reim’s army was impatient—and almost disturbed by the sight of eight Minotaurs now dying in a single engagement. But then the King of Destruction laughed.
“Come, House of Minos! We grow bored! Don’t let Mars have all the fun!”
He roared. Instantly—the confusion turned to confidence once more. The House of Minos didn’t reply. They just cheered the ninth warrior who moved from their ranks to close the gap.
Both armies watched the ninth challenger die. Then the tenth. Eleventh…Teres saw Mars bang on her shield.
“Is that all? Send them two at a time! Three! I’ll take your entire army on!”
The Minotaurs paused. Then—Teres saw five Minotaurs striding forwards. She hissed.
Mars was laughing. Mockingly, she pointed her sword. And the [General] nodded.
Five Minotaurs shouted their names and came at her. This time—they spread out. Ready to strike at her from all sides. They charged, spreading out—
They died so fast Teres didn’t have time to be worried. Mars used a Skill—her blade flashed around and the Minotaurs strove to attack her. Their weapons bounced off her armor.
“She used a Skill!”
“She’ll get that one back after six minutes. I don’t understand it.”
Mars was lifting her sword to Reim’s cheers. Now the army of six thousand was down sixteen Minotaurs. Teres was worried. They were doing something. Then—
She heard cheering.
The Minotaurs were cheering. They shouted the names of the fallen. Sixteen Minotaurs had attacked the Illusionist. Sixteen had died.
Ozem bellowed as he raised the axe of the Minotaur King over his head. His voice reached the orb, the Illusionist, and the Minotaurs.
“The lawbreakers have challenged the Illusionist! Their shame is ended in glorious battle! Honor has been upheld.”
The Humans milled about. Even the Illusionist and the King of Destruction looked confused. Lawbreakers? The House of Minos had sent prisoners to fight the Illusionist?
Of course. Neriha sighed.
“I hope they haven’t tired her out.”
“She is a seasoned warrior. By the time we meet, she will have use of all her Skills.”
General Ozem nodded. He had fulfilled every duty he had. Save for perhaps two. First—the axe he carried. Second—the Sharphorns.
Third, and just for him: victory. He looked at the King of Destruction’s army. The Illusionist had faltered, perhaps unsure of whether this had been mockery. It was not from Ozem. He was grateful to her. There could be no greater glory. Each criminal had been given an honorable death with the world to see.
How wonderful. But he was so tired of waiting! So the Minotaur [General] raised his axe.
“Now, to war. Hold your ground, [Warriors] of the House of Minos! Master of Artillery. Open fire.”
The battle began in silence as Reim’s army hesitated. Parasol Stroll focused their magic. The King of Destruction frowned.
Then the first bombardment began.
The Minotaurs had adopted a strange, close-knit formation around their two dozen siege weapons. They looked like an island compared to the sea of Reim’s army. Ozem had deployed the older veterans to several points. At his vanguard, several groups in reserve behind the Sharphorns—and the rest to the rear and flanks.
Warding them against the King’s Steward, who was prepared to attack any opening. Orthenon had indeed been riding with a heavy vanguard of his own, but he had yet to find any opening in the formation which he could exploit with a lightning-fast charge.
Now—at the Minotaur [General]’s order, he saw the artillery crews in the army moving. Their weapons were spaced out, given a large amount of room to turn and fire without fear of hitting the warriors around them.
It was the [Master of Artillery] who had the honor of firing the first shot. He stood with his ballista, and carefully selected an item from the racks that had been set up, drawn from the portable Chest of Holding—a box enchanted like the smaller bags.
The [Master of Artillery] was younger than Ozem and Neriha, but again, he had seen countless wars. Yet—his blood had never raced more than today. His arm was steady, however.
His other arm was lamed from birth. Disqualifying for a craftsman or a regular warrior. Yet in the House of Minos—all could find a place. He could not load the ballista alone. But his aim and will directed it. The crew of loaders were his hands and feet.
No one fought alone in their army.
Now, the Minotaur picked up the first bolt he had chosen, and inserted it into the groove where it fit perfectly. The entire action was smooth, even unconscious. It took him one long step and pivot; he could perform the maneuver even in darkness or blinded.
He would move faster, soon. The Minotaurs around him, the [Loaders], waited, braced. They were poised by the cranks—the ballista needed winding after each shot, unlike magic or bows. The complexity of the machine, its fickleness, not to mention the space it needed and time to set up were reasons other races didn’t bother with them.
More fools, they. The [Master of Artillery] had overseen the building of this ballista. Each piece of wood, from deshwood trees of the House of Minos, carefully cultivated, were soaked until fully inundated with the alchemical liquid meant to keep the timber flexible. Then—enchanted. The strain of the fibers of enchanted string locked into place would have shattered an unenchanted weapon.
A mile away, the King of Destruction’s army waited. The [Master of Artillery] placed the bolt, and adjusted his aim. He had the right of the first shot. All was in readiness. But for a moment—the Minotaur admired the weapon once more.
The ballista bolt the [Master of Artillery] selected with his good hand was no ordinary bolt. The ones fired from lesser instruments might be wood, or crude iron, propelled at incredible speed, but nothing more.
Not so from the House of Minos’ armories. This one was a product of countless hours of work.
A masterpiece. The tip of the bolt was whalebone, inscribed with runes bought from Deríthal-Vel. Each tracing of the [Runesmith]’s craft was given power by lining the runes with melted gemstone infused with magic. And the whalebone itself was hollowed; packed with an explosive mixture made by an [Alchemist] of at least Level 30.
The shaft of the bolt was likewise inscribed, this time with enchantments by [Mages] who had traced guidance and flight spells along with lightweight sigils—weak but effective, meant only for a single use. The shaft was made of deshwood, without flaw, carved for this purpose.
The entire object was a minor artifact that Rhir or any nation would have been proud to use. A piece of art on the part of the artisans who had made it. Even the House of Minos seldom brought out large quantities of such ammunition.
The [Master of Artillery] placed it reverentially in the ballista. Today was a special day. The first bolt he took his time with, aiming as the [General] bade. He sighted—[Time of the Archer] gave him the luxury of concentrating, lining up his shot. Elevation, the speed and angle of the wind, even the movement of the other army were all part of his calculations.
It took him only a moment. Then the Minotaur fired.
The first bolt had no Skills beyond the ones affecting his aim. The ballista tore the air with the sound it made. Like thunder.
The King of Destruction looked up. The [Master of Artillery] had his assignments. But he couldn’t resist it. The glowing shot traced an arc through the air, flying high, cutting through the air.
Teresa Atwood heard the distant sound. Her eyes traced the glowing projectile as it rose and fell. But—then she heard a sound.
Thump. The other ballistae were firing. Flos Reimarch’s head rose.
“[Fortified Shields]. Brace! Shepherd Zamea, guard your kin!”
Death Commander Ytol bellowed. Shields rose. Eighteen ballistae had fired—six were aimed at Orthenon’s cavalry, which split, avoiding the projectiles. And seven catapults…but where was…?
The Master of Artillery saw the catapults firing. He felt the reverberation. But Reim’s army might not have even seen the dark shell they launched. It rose and broke into pieces even as it flew. The Minotaur saw—for a moment—tiny, glowing orbs. Filled with the same volatile mixtures. Breaking up, spreading out.
He grinned. But there was no time to watch them land.
The first [Loader] snapped. The Minotaurs stepped back as the ballista rearmed itself. The [Master of Artillery] already had a second enchanted bolt, identical to the first. He adjusted his aim…
Thump. The [Loaders] waited only a beat for the siege weapon to rock with the impact. Then they seized the cranks and heaved.
The ballistae rearmed itself. Across from him, the catapult crews had seized the arm. Six Minotaurs dragged it down with a roar, anchoring it. The Minotauress in charge, the [Catapult Mistress], adjusted her aim slightly. The arm of the catapult tore the air again. The Minotaurs dragged it down. Four seconds later—the catapult loosed.
The ballistae were slower—but only just. The crews worked with relentless efficiency, loading and firing. They put six more shots into the air before the first bolt landed.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump—
It sounded like the beating of his heart. The [Master of Artillery] was in motion, aiming, loosing—his world was readjusting, finding new targets. Feeling the strain of his weapon unloading. And then, at last, finally—he saw the first bolt land.
It was coming straight for the King of Destruction. Flos Reimarch looked up.
One of the Rustängmarder called out. Parasol Stroll’s [Mages] were already casting. Three of them pointed up.
A shimmering, concave arc formed in the air. Teres saw the glowing bolt falling, falling—
It struck the magic in the air and detonated. Teres saw a flash of violet light and white. Two brilliant colors, blinding—
The impact made everyone duck. Flos of Reim shielded his face. The [Mages] cried out.
Ytol’s voice rang out again. And the other bolts struck. They landed across the army. And this time—there was no magical shield to stop them.
Teres saw one land fifty feet away. It missed striking the ranks of [Soldiers], hitting the earth. There—it detonated.
She saw a flash of green and red this time. Like fireworks.
The explosion consumed dozens of people around it. The rest were thrown back like toys. Teresa stared.
“Shields up! Archers—[Interception Fire]!”
The [Death Commander] was looking up. More objects were falling. Orbs—like alchemical flasks, bursting across Reim’s army, landing in unpredictable showers. Where they fell, they exploded.
Like grenades. Teres heard screams, deafening blasts. And then the second volley struck. Teres saw the volley ripple across Reim’s army. Then—a second one.
Thumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthump—the siege weapons were reloading and firing as fast as they had at sea. Only this time—they were using enchanted munitions.
“Hold your ground! Keep your shields raised!”
Ytol was bellowing, somehow audible among the explosions. The [Soldiers] were panicking. It was the King of Destruction himself who overrode the order.
“Advance! Spread out and advance! Parasol Stroll—block those weapons and attack!”
The [Mages] and [Archers] began to reply as more glowing barriers appeared in the air. Reim’s army began to spread out, staggering themselves. Suddenly—the mile of distance looked far too far.
The King of Destruction raised his voice from his vanguard of Rustängmarder. Teres saw the [Steward] in the distance. His cavalry had split, avoiding the bolts launched at him. He couldn’t have missed the destruction. Now—he was charging.
“The King’s Steward is coming. [Lineholders], push him back.”
General Ozem hadn’t moved. He saw the wing of cavalry pushing on them from the left. He hadn’t given Orthenon an opening, but the [Steward] must have decided the artillery had to die now.
The [Master of Artillery] changed his aim from the half-Giants. They were raising shields, some of them blocking the ballistae bolts coming at them, but most were able to dodge at this range. Now—he aimed at the riders.
Here came the King of Destruction’s Left Hand. The [Ruinbringer Steward] raised his spear as he raced across the ground. He used a Skill.
[Vanguard of the King, the Phantom Storm]. Ghostly riders appeared around him. A second army to join the living, famed warriors of old! The [Master of Artillery] saw them charging towards the old [Lineholders] braced for the impact. He swung the ballista, checked the [Steward]’s progress. This time—he used his Skill.
“[Twin Swallows, Fly]. [Doubled Acceleration]. [Invisible Bolt].”
The ballista thumped.
Orthenon saw the siege weapon firing. But he didn’t s—
His spear moved. The first invisible bolt he struck from afar. His spear extending to touch it nearly thirty feet distant. But there were two.
[Perfect Dodge]. He slid down across the saddle, leaning to avoid the projectile. Orthenon felt the teeth-rattling impact behind him. He turned his head—
The ghosts from his Skills vanished. The mortal men and women did not. Horses reared; Humans lay in the crater caused by the explosion. Orthenon twisted; he saw the [Master of Artillery] aiming again.
“[Twin Lances of Ruin]! Go, go!”
His forces split, accelerating as if on the charge, but they weren’t even at the Minotaur’s line. They narrowly dodged a second volley; two thirds of the ballistae were aiming at them and several catapults. They tore open the ground as Orthenon’s forces charged. He raced through a bursting orb, feeling the freezing cold for a second—
His eyes were locked on the [Master of Artillery]. He was below the arc the Minotaur could safely fire. Now—the first ranks of Minotaurs were waiting.
Veterans. [Lineholders]. Orthenon raised his spear.
“[Steelflesh Charge]! [Spear Art: The Falling Sparks]—”
His forces hit the first line of [Lineholders]. The Minotaurs, armed with axe and shield—stopped the charge.
“[The Line Holds].”
The [Lineholder Captain] saw half a dozen of his kin die as the [Steward] struck them. He raised his shield; a ghost struck at him and the impact drove his feet into the earth. But he refused to move.
The [Riders] and the [Steward] tried to push past the first rank of Minotaurs, into the Sharphorns. They pushed—
The lines held. Orthenon had killed the first Minotaurs with his spear art. He put his spear through a grey-maned Minotaur’s neck and slashed left. But still—she swung at him. She knocked back a second [Rider], fighting—he plunged in, spear whirling.
Another death. His spear was flickering out, like the sparks from a grindstone’s wheel, landing among Minotaurs with a reach far beyond what the man should have had. Each one he killed or mortally wounded.
Still, they refused to fall. The [Lineholder Captain]—no—each one kept fighting. The Minotaur that Orthenon had slain cut at him, roaring without a voice. Orthenon stabbed him again.
It was like trying to ride through a wall. Even the ghosts of his Skill had to spread out, finding no gap in the veteran’s formation.
Elites. Orthenon cursed.
“Circle! Fall back and circle!”
The riders behind turned, unable to join the charge. He fell back and the dead Minotaurs pushed forwards. They kept fighting for seconds…minutes…only after they had thrown back his charge did they fall.
From the rear—the second group of [Riders] had met a similar wall. But without the [Steward]—the [Lineholders] had fallen back in two places, inviting the cavalry forwards and then stopping their charge. The Sharphorns and other Minotaurs pressed in, hacking apart the first ranks of horse before they could fall back.
The [Steward] fell back. He struck twice more, each time meeting Minotaurs who refused to yield. And the ballistae began firing at point blank.
Teresa saw the [Steward] falling back. The living were riding back with him, weaving, dodging the artillery’s fire. The ghosts still assailed the Minotaurs from all sides, bloodying them. But Orthenon was pulling back.
He’d failed to break their lines alone. The King of Destruction was shouting.
“Cover the ground! With me!”
His army was trying to reach the Minotaur’s lines before the artillery could resume their onslaught. Orthenon had bought them a few minutes with his charge. But the [Master of Artillery] had swung his weapon back towards the King of Destruction. Again—he launched a fortune of fortunes of ammunition at the King of Destruction’s army. No.
The bellow came from above. One of the half-Giants screamed. A glowing bolt had hit her in the shoulder, tearing her flesh down to the bone. Even her skin—Zamea raised her axe, blocking a second bolt.
They were aiming at the half-Giants. The Nomads of the Sky fell behind. Flos Reimarch saw a half-Giant flailing, screaming as a barrage from a catapult set his body aflame with alchemical fire.
“Zamea, guard your people! Hold your ground!”
The half-Giantess looked up, eyes blazing. But the Nomads began to fall back.
“To the Master of Artillery: keep the half-Giants from advancing.”
General Ozem saw the full force of Reim’s army coming. Now, the [Steward] was circling. He’d hit them again in conjunction with the main army.
And still—the House of Minos’ lines didn’t move. The artillery was launching more deadly salvos across Reim’s forces and at the half-Giants, the riders. But the Minotaurs had yet to fight save on the flanks.
“The Illusionist is coming.”
Neriha spoke. Ozem saw her leading the charge on his position. He reached out. The First Horn clasped his arm.
“Fight gloriously, Neriha.”
She raised her axe and threw it. The [Vanguard] raised her shield and the impact rang. Neriha charged to the roars of the army.
And now Reim’s forces were unloading their fury onto the House of Minos.
Ozem raised his own as the arrows began landing. The Minotaurs waited. The [Onslaught General] saw a flicker of magic.
“[Siege Fireball]. [Chain Lightning]. [Acid Orbs]—”
[Grand Mage] Esiela was linked. Ulyse and a dozen [Mages] cast the spells with her as the focal point. She unloaded the first wave of spells at the Minotaurs. Magical artillery to match the ones that had punished Reim’s army.
The first spells were aimed straight at General Ozem. Esiela saw a vast ball of fire shooting at the enemy. Slow enough to dodge. But not bunched up as they were! She saw the old Minotaurs in front raising tower shields. The fire bloomed—
The [Elite Bodyguard] of General Ozem caught the first spells on their shields. Ozem felt the heat, heard the sizzle of ozone. Minotaurs groaned, bellowing with pain.
They couldn’t block the spells perfectly. Yet—the magic failed to reach him. He saw the second rank of spells change targets.
This time the lightning ran through a group of the younger Minotaurs. Esiela saw their bodies illuminate, jerk. She aimed her staff again as more than half failed to rise, even as their comrades dragged them back, trying to apply potions.
“Volley [Acid Orbs] up. Rain it down on them.”
Ulyse’s order. Esiela obeyed. She aimed at another group, aiming up to arc the spells.
Her hand—dragged itself down. Esiela found herself aiming straight at the [General]’s Minotaurs again. She struggled.
“Ulyse! I can’t—”
“[Shieldtaunt]. Continue launching spells. Break link and reform on me.”
The old [Mage] hissed. Several of the Minotaurs were striking their shields, and Esiela couldn’t aim at anyone but them.
Flos’ army was doing the same. As the artillery continued its bombardment, [Riders] and [Shieldbearers] and other experts began to bait fire away from the main army. Both sides were struggling to take the targets off each other. And still—the Minotaurs refused to move.
They were taking casualties now. But General Ozem refused to give the order.
“Hold your ground. We are winning this exchange. If we wait long enough, the Humans will run out of magic and arrows!”
His vanguard laughed. It was true; the King of Destruction’s [Mages] and [Archers] couldn’t match the House of Minos’ siege weapons.
For now. The [Master of Artillery] was going to run out of his enchanted ammunition. But the King of Destruction didn’t know how many more volleys he’d endure.
He was coming. And now Ozem’s blood howled.
The Illusionist met Neriha first. The First Horn had another axe—two of them, one in each hand. Ozem saw the [Vanguard] accelerating, her own artifacts glowing.
The two hit each other in an instant. Neriha’s axes lashed out in a flurry of blows. Mars’ sword cut the air. [Grand Slash]. Both warriors staggered back; Mars checked herself. Her armor had held. Neriha regarded the cut on her side which had torn the hide armor. She laughed and her second move was to strike at Mars with an overhead blow. The [Vanguard] raised her shield—
Ozem looked away. The flash of light from Neriha’s Skill was blinding. He turned back and saw the two striking at each other. And at last—at last—
They were here. The King of Destruction in his vanguard of Rustängmarder advanced in behind the first two waves. Ozem stirred.
“Greathammers of Hammerad. You will engage the King of Destruction. Sharphorns, advance.”
The first rank of Minotaurs moved past the [Lineholders]. They were singing.
They raised the huge, one-handed hammers each one carried, along with the tower shields. To their side, Ozem’s vanguard was waiting.
“[General]. Where is our target?”
“With me. Axebearers of Maweil, you have the honor of the first contact. To the ends of the world, Maweil sails! Forwards!”
Ozem of Maweil raised his axe. The Axebearers strode forwards.
“The King of Destruction!”
The Humans howled. They flooded across the ground as the oldest Minotaurs walked at them, each one bearing a two-handed battleaxe. The Sharphorns followed.
Closer. Ozem saw the King of Destruction bellowing his fury. The artillery boomed. The [Onslaught General] bared his teeth.
The Axebearers met the Human horde staggered, spread out. The Humans advanced shields up. They looked up.
Up, at the sons and daughters of Minos. The Minotaurs towered above them and swung down their axes. The first one spoke.
She stepped forwards and swung her axe. The enchanted edge swung horizontally, in a vast arc. And the [Soldiers] of Reim died.
The Minotaur standing down the line brought down his axe. The impact was like a small detonation. He swung his axe up, looked around. The Humans stared at their dead comrades in front of him, tried to push forwards.
The [Veteran Axebearer] used a second Skill. Five Humans vanished and he brought his axe back. Almost perfunctorily, he raised an arm.
He blocked the javelin’s throw aimed at his chest. And then stepped backwards. The Humans rushing at him saw the Axebearer move back into line.
“The House of Minos!”
The Sharphorns charged with the veteran. They brought their weapons down in huge blows, their full weight and strength behind them. The Minotaur moved forwards again. He looked around—there.
A [Lieutenant], behind the bodies. The Axebearer charged at her.
[Impact Rush]. He knocked the [Soldiers] backwards then brought his axe down. She looked up. The Minotaur’s axe struck her. He fell backwards again, into line, hunting for his target.
Up and down the lines, the Axebearers advanced with the Sharphorns. Ozem saw them crashing forwards and Reim’s momentum stop. The King of Destruction saw his first lines evaporate. He looked at Ozem and the [General] nodded.
It was a difference of species and levels. Reim’s soldiers were probably high-level. They might have been one of the strongest regular armies.
The House of Minos had sent its veterans. The Axebearers were all Level 30 or higher. They might have ten levels, twenty on the regular [Soldiers]. And the Sharphorns were all [Warriors] who had trained for this moment.
They crashed through the Humans and then their momentum slowed as the battle lines stabilized. As the Axebearers used their Skills up and had to fight without, the numbers stabilized. But the lines held.
Now the catapults were launching directly into the press of bodies past the first lines. They were still firing as the ballistae pressed at the [Riders] and half-Giants. The regular [Soldiers] ran into the House of Minos’ forces and could not make progress.
But he could. So could she. Ozem saw Neriha battling Mars the Illusionist. And she—
Was already losing. The [Vanguard] shrugged off a furious blow on her shoulder. Her armor had taken Neriha’s strike without even denting. And the Illusionist cut Neriha again. The [Champion] faltered as her skin turned pale from where the life-sapping blade touched her.
“Five minutes, Neriha.”
Ozem whispered. He looked to the side. The second legend.
Orthenon the Steward crashed against the [Lineholders] once more. They held. But they were dying. The [Steward]’s forces were charging, pulling back, and charging again, trying to ram forwards. Sharphorns were moving forwards to supplement the dying veterans.
His comrades. But still—the [Steward] was slowed.
That left just the King of Destruction. He made for Ozem with a roar as the ranks parted and his Rustängmarder vanguard and the Serpent Hunters hit the House of Minos.
The King of Destruction charged. His vassals could no longer keep him back. He carried sword and shield, and heavy armor. His Rustängmarder, the [Death Warriors], pushed forwards, fighting grimly.
The first Minotaur that the King of Destruction met roared and brought up his shield. He struck with his axe—
And the King of Destruction staggered. Flos Reimarch was a tall man. As Humans went, taller. Stronger.
But Minotaurs were larger still. Flos shoved away the axe. The Minotaur rammed him with his shield, trying to bring his axe down again. The [King] raised his sword—
And split his foe from shoulder to stomach. He—was stronger. And the fury of the Minotaurs around him was an echo of the King of Destruction’s fury.
“Face me, Ozem!”
Flos roared. The [General] was still waiting. He saw the King of Destruction coming. An Axebearer saw Flos, tried to charge at him.
Jelaim threw one of his knives and struck the Minotauress on her unguarded arm. She faltered, roared in fury. The Rustängmarder blocked her, fearlessly fending off her blows. And she was weakening…weakening…
By the time Flos reached her, the [Death Warriors] had cut her down. Jelaim’s Stitchwarriors were using their poisoned weapons, supplementing the King of Destruction’s advance.
Flos Reimarch looked around and roared.
“Has Orthenon not taken the damn artillery yet? Jelaim! Find those catapults and smash them to pieces or capture them!”
He still heard the explosions which were tearing his army apart. Jelaim opened his mouth to respond and turned.
“Your Majesty! The [General]—”
Ozem was pointing at him. Flos whirled. The young Minotaurs were falling back. He saw another group of veterans coming forwards.
“Rustängmarder. Guard your [King].”
The [Death Captain] spoke calmly. The King of Destruction turned to Jelaim. The Serpent Hunter’s leader was wavering.
The King of Destruction’s vanguard met the Greathammers of Hammerad. The Minotaurs—were laughing. Maniacs obsessed with war. Like the King of Destruction, but his fury had consumed even the joy of battle.
The Rustängmarder were silent. The first [Death Warrior] raised his shield as a Minotaur with a hammer—a one-handed maul with a flat, crushing edge, brought it up.
The Minotaur ran into him with his larger shield. [Stunning Bash]. The dark-armored warrior recoiled, stunned. Before he could move, the hammer fell.
The [Death Warrior]’s head and part of his torso crumpled. He fell. His comrades moved back as the Greathammers swung into him.
And—the [Death Warrior] did not rise. He had sworn to fight in life and death. But there wasn’t enough of his corpse to reanimate.
Armor tore as the Greathammers swung. Metal, even enchanted metal was crushed. Bones broken. Flos of Reim saw Minotaurs falling. Going down to his elites. But both sides were falling evenly—no—the hundred or so Rustängmarder were falling behind.
“This is your honor? Tottenval was my Gardener. He took no lives.”
The King of Destruction murmured. He saw a Greathammer plunge through the fighting. The Minotaur’s blow came first.
The [King] nearly fell. His armor and arm cracked. But he shoved aside the hammer. His return stroke rammed the enchanted blade into the Minotaur’s armor. The huge warrior roared. He and the King of Destruction traded another blow. Flos Reimarch was howling.
The Minotaur—fell. The Humans around them cheered as Flos Reimarch pointed.
“To me. Crush these Minotaurs! [Royal Vanguard]!”
Regular [Soldiers] charged alongside the [Death Warriors]. The Greathammers met them, refusing to retreat.
Both sides were burning away. The House of Minos was fully engaged on all flanks. The [Riders] under Orthenon were circling—and he was cutting in.
The Greathammers of Hammerad were falling. But so was the King of Destruction’s vanguard. His Skill—and the numbers were taking their toll on the front.
Ozem saw it all. The Minotaur’s strength was great. But they were still vastly outnumbered. Still—their artillery sang. For a moment, the half-Giants were kept away.
Now was the time. Ozem pointed.
“At last. With me, my old friends! We can finally fight.”
He plunged into the fighting as his personal command followed him with a roar. The King of Destruction was occupied, Orthenon still slowed.
Neriha was dying. But the Illusionist had yet to kill her. Ozem plunged towards his target, the one he had known was his from the start. Behind him the House of Minos fought, trying to hold Reim’s forces back.
Then the Serpent Hunters and Orthenon’s forces reached the first ballista.
The [Master of Artillery] saw them overwhelming the [Loaders] in the distance. The ballista on the flank was in danger of being taken or destroyed! He saw Stitch-Warriors knifing the [Loaders] who fought back with their side arms. Falling.
The [Catapult Mistress] fell backwards, a dagger in her chest, poisoned. She raised her voice.
“Maweil’s sails, guide me h—”
The [Master of Artillery] saw a bloom as every enchanted munitions she had left detonated at once. Reim’s forces—and the Minotaurs around her vanished.
Orthenon had been plunging towards a second catapult. But he slowed as he saw the destruction. Fearlessly, the weapon aimed at him.
“This is how we die, Humans.”
The [Master of Artillery] laughed. He fired again. He had one job. Keep the half-Giants back. He saw them retreating another hundred feet.
He was almost out of enchanted ammunition. But he’d saved one last bolt. Until the end, then. He saw General Ozem moving forwards at last.
[Elite Bodyguards]. Axebearers. Greathammers. [Veteran Lineholders]. The highest-level, most elite Minotaurs that Ozem had under his command. Nearly two hundred of them. He had held them until he had his opening. Saved every Skill. Now—the [Onslaught General] pointed.
He and his vanguard moved forwards suddenly. So fast that it caught everyone off-guard. The younger warriors fell back, moving aside to let them pass. The [General] picked up speed. He carried the axe that had killed the Gold-ranks. His battleaxe—the weapon he normally used—was still on his back.
The throwing axe. General Ozem hefted it.
“This is one of the twin Axehorns of Minos. Her Majesty gave it to me. I must return it to her.”
The personal weapon of the King of Minos. He lifted it up now.
It was not his Skill. But he had borrowed it with her weapon.
“[Axe of the Gigant].”
He lifted the weapon, aimed—threw. The [Soldiers] looked up as he aimed at his target. The House of Minos’ [Warriors] roared.
For a moment, an axe worthy of a Giant spun through the air. Zamea saw it land, carving its way through the army towards its target. She saw the [Onslaught General] and his vanguard charging.
Orthenon spun. He had sensed the Skill. He broke off his attack on the artillery. Frowning.
Neriha laughed. She had Mars. The [Vanguard] struggled, her sword stabbing. Blades cut at the First Horn. Illusions sprung into half-reality. Neriha’s face was a mask of blood. But she was gloating.
“I’ve won, Illusionist. I’ve won.”
She had Mars in a huge bear hug. She had dropped her axes. Mars stabbed her repeatedly, but the Minotauress had seized her and refused to let go. Mars was cursing. Ozem was—he was—
Aiming at her [King]? No—Mars saw his trajectory and realize. Not at Flos. She struggled. But it was too late.
“Do you see where he’s aiming?”
The Titan looked up. No one answered him. He looked down at the battlefield. It was so obvious to him.
Flos of Reim turned. He saw the axe clear a path. And the [Onslaught General] was charging now. He hit his target as he crashed into the army.
Away from Orthenon. Too far for the immobilized Mars to reach him in time to stop.
Past the King of Destruction.
Straight into the heart of the regular [Soldiers] and infantry. Away from the King of Destruction’s vanguard. The Serpent Hunters. Even Parasol Stroll.
General Ozem’s Minotaurs appeared in the middle of the destruction caught by the giant axe. Teres had seen it land a hundred feet ahead of her. And then—suddenly—the [General] was there. He grabbed the axe as it returned to him and put it in his belt. Then he pointed ahead.
“Wipe them out. [Vanguard: Cleaving Arcs]. [March of the Invincible]. [Vanguard: Haste]. Charge.”
His elite Minotaurs drew their weapons. And they charged at…Reim’s [Soldiers]. Teres saw a Minotaur swing his axe and kill a dozen men and women in a single, vast swing.
Unenchanted spears broke on a [Juggernaut Warrior]’s armor as he just ran forwards, swinging his blade. The [General] had drawn his battleaxe. He swung it and Teresa saw the edge turning metal molten where he struck. He was a whirlwind. His entire vanguard was.
[Ironskin]. [Enhanced Strength]. [Greater Toughness]. His great Skill, [March of the Invincible] turned his command into a force that could have fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the King of Destruction and all his elites for a time. But Ozem hadn’t used it on Flos Reimarch, or Mars, or Orthenon.
He was using it on Flos’ low-level [Soldiers]. His Minotaurs were rampaging. Every time one swung their weapon, multiple [Soldiers] died.
Teres saw the [Soldiers] that Flos had protected across his entire Belchan and Jecrass campaign, in the midst of leveling—dying. The [General] was heading at him, cutting straight through the bulk of the army as his artillery struck to the sides.
“[Formation: Reinforced Armor]! [Rapid Retreat]. [Immobile Ranks]. [Redirect Arrows]. Focus on the [General]!”
Commander Ytol was shouting, using every one of his Skills. He pointed at the oncoming [General] as he maneuvered the horse.
“Milady Teres, retreat.”
Teres was transfixed. The [General] had spotted Ytol and her. He was pointing. Six of the Minotaurs swung towards them, swinging their weapons too fast to see. They were coming.
“Excellent! Those Minotaurs are fulfilling their promise!”
High King Perric of Medain was gloating. He’d taken a risk and his army had abandoned their pursuit of Jecrass to pivot. Now—they were marching along Reim’s exposed flank. In less than twenty minutes they’d be able to fully flank the King of Destruction! He was already sending his cavalry forwards to keep the Minotaurs from folding.
He saw the [General] going straight into the King of Destruction’s army. Too cowardly to take on the King of Destruction or one of his vassals? It didn’t matter. The High King pressed his [Soldiers] forwards faster, ignoring his [General]’s warnings.
There was one more thing to remember.
The King of Destruction bellowed. He saw the [General] moving towards her. He probably had no idea who she was. Just that Ytol was there. The young woman had drawn her sword.
His [Soldiers] were fleeing. Reim’s nigh-unbreakable morale up till now had been shattered by Ozem’s attack. The ones assaulted by his vanguard were trying to flee.
Stopping Teres and Ytol from escaping. The [Death Commander] had drawn his blade. They were making a stand with the forces around them.
The King of Destruction looked around.
Parasol Stroll tried to cast spells at Ozem. But—the [Master of Artillery] had found them. Three of the [Mages] disappeared as a bolt landed among them, nearly destroying Esiela’s personal barrier.
Orthenon was fighting the [Lineholders] who refused to let him leave. Mars finally hacked apart Neriha’s arm. The Minotauress was dead. But she had never let go.
The King of Destruction tried to surge backwards. But there were the Greathammers.
“Bring the King of Destruction down. [Thunderstrike Impact].”
One brought his hammer down and Flos Reimarch went deaf. He lost his footing—went down.
The Rustängmarder around him were fighting. The [King] pulled himself up as he saw a body fall to the ground. He looked up and a Minotaur grinned at him. Flos raised his shield.
This time, the blow broke the enchantment. The [King] fell back as he slashed. But the Greathammer was immune to pain. Both of them were warriors. They’d fight to the death.
The [Soldiers] around Flos charged—and were cleared by a vast swing. The King of Destruction snarled. He saw the Minotaur swing his hammer up.
Teresa saw the [Onslaught General] coming. She drew her sword as Ytol rode forwards.
“Milady Teres, that way.”
He pointed. One of the Minotaurs broke off as Teres tried to ride left, through the press of bodies. The female Minotaur had a greatsword, the Minotaur [Elite Bodyguard]. She swung—Teres brought up her sword.
The impact was too powerful for her Skill. Teres saw the sword meet her desperate attempt to parry. Her hand went numb. The blade sheared through her horse—
She landed on the ground. Breathless. The Minotauress whirled her sword.
“[Sword Art: Kraken’s Tendrils Lash].”
Teres heard screams, bodies falling. She raised her sword feebly. The Minotauress looked down at her as Ozem roared a challenge at Ytol. Teres saw the Minotauress raise her sword. She heard a voice. Faint, but perfectly audible in her ears.
“[Army of the King].”
Something—moved through the King of Destruction’s army. The world changed. Teresa Atwood heard a voice, as the Minotauress’ eyes flickered. That voice, speaking in her head. She looked up.
General Ozem saw the Minotauress raising her sword to bring it down on the young woman the King of Destruction seemed to care about. The [King] was down. The Minotauress brought her greatsword down.
The King of Destruction used his Skill.
The Minotauress recoiled. Ozem saw a [Soldier], a common [Spearman], leap into her, burying his spear through her armor. He heard the Skill. Saw it.
[Army of the King]. The King of Destruction’s…Ozem brought up his axe and blocked a blow from the [Death Commander]. Suddenly—his vanguard’s momentum slowed. Ozem heard his [Dangersense] going off. He bared his teeth. The [Soldiers] of Reim looked up as their [King]’s Skill ran through them. They turned. Ozem saw the Minotauress yank the spear out of her chest, striking at the [Spearman] who dodged with unnatural grace.
Then the young woman rose. Her sword slashed, and a shadowy flicker cut the Minotauress as well. It parted her armor and the Minotauress staggered. The young Human stepped forwards and drove her blade home. Ozem looked around.
[The Army of the King]. The words ran through her head. Different. If Teres had to describe them—she would call them radiant.
[Temporary Level 35 Trained Bladeswoman!]
[Skill – Shadowcut Blade obtained!]
[Skill – Acrobat’s Form obtained!]
[Skill – Sword: Keening Edge obtained!]
[Skill – Enhanced Strength obtained!]
The words burned. Teres’ body came alive.
Eight levels. He had given her eight levels and the Skills to go with it. She raised her head. Her sword had cut the Minotauress in a moment. She felt stronger—faster, even with Skills aside.
It wasn’t just her. The [Soldiers] around her surged forwards. Suddenly—they were on even footing with all but the best of the Minotaurs! And the Skill affected them all.
General Ozem backed away from [Death Commander] Ytol, trading blows with the man. Now his force was outnumbered against a foe on even ground. No—Teres looked at a [Soldier] who had been just Level 11. He had gained more levels than she.
The Greathammer Minotaur was lanced from a dozen blades. Flos Reimarch stood up. He wiped at his bloody mouth.
“[Army of the King]. We are men and women who fight Minotaurs, monsters and great foes. This is why I am [King]. Come, House of Minos. If you wished to see my wrath—now you shall. Kill them all.”
His [Soldiers] poured forwards. It was, as many had said, a Skill with so many limits. But when he used it, his army was invincible.
For one battle.
The tide had turned. Ozem felt his army shudder as the King of Destruction’s army turned into a sea of elite monsters. He backed up, his battleaxe swinging. Strong they might be, but they had not earned these levels!
But there were so many. Medain’s army had halted its advance. They were turning, instantly going from offense to retreat.
It had happened at last. The [Army of the King] had been forced. The King of Destruction had used his greatest trump card. He would be bereft of it for a crucial month.
But he would destroy any foe on this battlefield. The Sharphorns were suddenly under-leveled and outnumbered. The veterans fell back, trading blows as equals now. Ozem looked around.
And finally—he laughed.
“I win, King of Destruction! This is the House of Minos’ victory!”
He roared. The Minotaurs around him heard his cheer and bellowed as well. They fell, laughing.
“Sound the retreat! [Lineholders], hold back Reim’s army!”
The [General] turned. The Humans looked up at him, not comprehending. Perhaps the one-legged [Death Commander], tied to his saddle, understood. He stared darkly at Ozem, unwilling to risk his life.
He had won. General Ozem had forced the King of Destruction’s hand. All of it, the sacrifice of Neriha, the death of his brothers and sisters—
“Let the world celebrate their victories in the days that follow. Today, it was the House of Minos who took on the King of Destruction’s army.”
The [General] bared his teeth. Only one thing remained, now.
“Fall back. Sharphorns, to the ships!”
The order went out across the army. The House of Minos’ soldiers pulled back. The young, those new to war were in full retreat. A quarter of them had fallen already; but the veterans were yanking them out of their battle-fury. Ordering them behind them.
“We will make a stand here. Carve through the King of Destruction’s army and buy the young time to make for the ships! Unleash the artillery without limit!”
Ozem’s voice was a roar. His comrades of old shouted as they fought alone among the sea of Humans. Here they died! The [General] spun, his battleaxe laying left and right. They cut at him; he broke a healing potion against his flesh.
Someone seized him. A [Venerable Warrior]—in his eighties, older than Ozem himself!
“Galran! Come to die together?”
Ozem’s eyes were red with bloodfury at last. The old Minotaur grabbed him. His eyes were red too. But he could still think. He pointed back.
“Someone must lead the retreat! [General], that last task is yours. Go. Go!”
The Minotaur did not want to. Someone slashed at Galran and the Minotaur roared. He brought his maul down.
“The last duty is yours. The young might yet live! We will cut you a path!”
They had a future. Ozem hesitated. He saw the Sharphorns moving back. But slower—they needed his Skills. He looked at his comrades.
“You have given me victory, friends. Die well.”
They turned their backs to him, fighting. Ozem ran through enemy [Soldiers], hacking, fighting to escape. They pierced his armor—but another potion bought him time. Behind him—Galran and the Minotaurs made a stand.
The House of Minos was retreating. Reim’s army poured forwards. They were slowed; the Minotaurs buried deep within their ranks fought until they were brought down. And they died slowly, with the weight of their levels and age keeping them fighting long past their lifespans.
But they did die. It was inevitable. And finally—the Minotaur’s artillery was silenced. The [Mages] overwhelmed them with spells.
The [Master of Artillery] struck the bolt against his ballista as the enemy closed in around him. It was the last explosion. And it bought time.
The Sharphorns and the last of Ozem’s veterans fell back with the [General] himself. They were pursued.
Flos’ army was reforming. Now—the King of Destruction had demanded a mount. His Rustängmarder had been torn down to a dozen, including Ytol. One of the half-Giants lay wounded. The Serpent Hunters had taken fierce casualties, and five of Parasol Stroll had died.
And he had used his Skill. The King of Destruction’s fury was palpable.
“Run them down. Not one of the Minotaurs will live.”
Orthenon was already in pursuit. The Minotaurs were moving as fast as possible. Ozem was using every Skill to hasten their progress back to the coastline. But it was far to go.
Another army was in full-retreat as well. Medain’s army was hurrying back to their capital.
“Milord. The King of Jecrass.”
Flos Reimarch snapped. He looked at Medain’s army.
“Kill the Minotaurs. Then we will wipe out Medain’s army. The [Army of the King] will not rest until this battle is done. Take the foot, Mars. Kill High King Perric and bring me his head.”
His forces split. The cavalry and half-Giants raced after the House of Minos. And High King Perric’s forces saw a horde of fast-moving infantry closing.
“Leave the heavy foot behind! Golden Ranks, with me!”
He began to race for the capital. But the King of Destruction’s army was nearly as fast as horses, some of them. Both forces ran for the coastline, the beaches, the distant Minotaur warships and the capital’s walls.
General Ozem looked back and saw the King of Destruction and the [Steward] riding on him. He looked at his army.
He had won. They had won a great victory.
Now, it was time to die.
They ran. Sprinted, without regard for their endurance. They were trying to outrun horses.
Ozem ran with them. Every inch of him longed to have been with his comrades. But he had a duty. Honor and duty.
The young. He should have fought closer to the coastline. The House of Minos had asked for those unafraid to die. But these—they had a future.
“Sharphorns. Drop armor. Drop secondary weapons. Drop shields!”
His voice made the Minotaurs hesitate. Then the younger Minotaurs dropped their gear. Shields, armor, throwing axes—everything. They carried only one weapon.
“Run! Pick up the pace! Who is the highest commander living?”
A young voice. A [Sea Captain]—she slowed.
He knew it, vaguely. The Minotauress carried a long axe.
“Seler of Maweil!”
She saw the old Minotaur grin.
“Good. When I fall, you will take command. Get your force to the ships if possible. If not—”
The roar came from behind them. Both Minotaurs looked back.
The King of Destruction was coming. Orthenon was shooting at the Minotaur’s side. The [General] raised his voice.
“[Lineholders], make your stand here!”
The last of the Minotaurs turned. They formed a shield, waiting. The King of Destruction could have raced past them. But he was too furious. He came at them as the Minotaurs began to sing.
“From the House of Minos we march to war
And the axes rise and fall once more…”
The younger Minotaurs slowed as they looked back. Their instincts told them to stay. Not to flee! But the [General] roared at them.
“Retreat! Are you [Warriors] or beasts? The House of Minos has need of every axe! Run!”
They ran. The [Lineholders] sang as they clashed with the King of Destruction. They bought precious minutes.
[Longstriders]. [Fearless Charge]. [Vigor of Champions]—he was not a [General] who had the Skills for speed.
“[Vanguard: Haste]! Go!”
His last Skill was ready to use. The Minotaurs blurred. But the King of Destruction had countless vassals capable of matching that speed. Ozem looked back.
“Wipe them out. Orthenon—take those ships!”
The King of Destruction was ordering the [Ruinbringer Steward] ahead, to take the warships. The skeleton crew would fight—but if they needed to, they would have to retreat.
Alas. The [Steward] flashed past them with a smaller group. Ozem didn’t know if the Sharphorns or crews would be able to fight him off long enough to escape. It didn’t matter.
The King of Destruction was nearly upon them. Now—Ozem turned. He planted his feet on the ground.
“Greathammers, Axes of Maweil. This is where we stand. All of you—with me.”
The veterans stopped. Seler of Maweil looked back.
“This is strategy, Seler of Maweil. I am blessed to be both [Soldier] and [General]. I see the glory of both! Go! May you return to the House of Minos. Now, my brothers and sisters—let us bring the King of Destruction down!”
The last of them joined Ozem as he drew his battleaxe and waited. The King of Destruction slowed. His [Death Commander] rode with him. And that young woman. He was intelligent, at least. If he charged—Ozem would kill him.
For a heartbeat, the King of Destruction looked at Ozem. Then he led his army forwards with a roar. General Ozem ran across the ground with a roar.
Behind him, the ship’s sails blew in the wind.
The Minotaurs were outnumbered, wounded, and exhausted from running for nearly an hour. The Sharphorns were close to the ships. Close enough to be running over dunes and onto sand, at least.
But the Steward was nearly upon them and the warships. And the King of Destruction’s vanguard not far behind. Ozem’s forces held them at bay for a minute.
Five minutes. The King of Destruction’s riders could not all press together; that gave the Minotaurs the advantage. They besieged the knot of Minotaurs, loosing arrows and spells.
The old Minotaurs fell slowly. They drank potions, shielding each other, overlapping Skills. Taunting their foes to close combat.
Fourteen minutes. It was down to a melee. Flos Reimarch had charged Ozem, and the two met as Mars’ forces neared the capital with Medain’s army still fleeing. Those left behind had surrendered rather than fight.
Zamea brought down her axe. A group of Minotaurs disappeared. The half-Giants had caught up with the [Riders]. Ozem saw them tearing forwards, striding past his forces.
Out of potions. The [General]’s armor was torn. Bloody. He saw the King of Destruction raging forwards, killing the last of his [Bodyguards].
“King of Destruction.”
The Minotaur raised his ruined battleaxe, the edge damaged, enchantment broken. He charged forwards and Flos rode down on him.
[Death Commander] Ytol’s voice was clipped. Eight bows sang. Ozem staggered. Flos’ head turned—but then they clashed. The Minotaur swung his axe—the [King] knocked the blade aside and swung it down.
He looked at Ozem’s blank eyes. The Minotaur grabbed at the blade and the King of Destruction let go. Ozem stepped forwards—
Ytol spoke and the bows loosed again. He had seen high-level [Warriors] die. Ozem lashed around him with the blade. But the Humans had fallen back.
The King of Destruction was enraged. But the [Onslaught General] just laughed.
He tried to say that to Ytol. The [Death Commander] saluted him.
The Minotaur wished he had the energy to fight beyond death. But—the arrows struck him again. With the last…pulled…
The [General] collapsed, the throwing axe in his hands. Arrows had taken his life. Flos Reimarch, the King of Destruction, was trembling with fury. Even so—the Minotaur had deserved better.
“The Minotaurs are within five miles of their ships, your Majesty. Orthenon will catch them before then.”
Flos dismounted and strode over. The axe in Ozem’s hands. He recognized it.
“The Minotaur King’s weapon.”
He reached for it. It wasn’t even held tightly in Ozem’s grasp. Flos lifted it up—then his arm jerked.
Something was…pulling the axe. Like it had returned to Ozem’s hand time and time again. The King of Destruction yanked it back towards him. And he felt—
The King of Minotaurs reached out for her axe. The King of Destruction’s arm bulged as he tried to hold onto it.
Several [Riders] came forwards. Flos gritted his teeth.
“I will see you dead.”
He spoke to the air. The King of Minotaurs said nothing at all. She stood, and pulled. The blade she had given to Ozem—slowly moved back through the air. Towards her.
Flos Reimarch’s feet left the ground. Teres saw dozens of people jump and try to pull him down.
“Your Majesty! Let go!”
The King of Destruction refused to. But he could not use his strength in this tug-of-war. He rose higher. Higher. He looked down and cursed.
He bellowed once—and then let go. He landed heavily. The Minotaur King’s axe soared through the air as she relaxed. The King of Destruction picked himself up.
“The last of her army dies.”
The warship’s sails were painted red by the fading light. Seler heard shouting. She gave one last order.
“Maweil’s Third Axes will turn and stand!”
They did. The [Steward] rode down on them with his escort. The ships were so close…
But the remaining thousand Sharphorns would never make it. Less than four miles…but the [Steward] was upon them.
Seler had failed General Ozem. The knowledge was bitter, but she took heart. They ran—until the [Steward] slew the last Minotaur and came on again. The King of Destruction was not far behind.
“Warriors of Minos. Here we stand. Turn.”
The Minotaurs turned. The [Steward] slowed. The last thousand Sharphorns placed themselves in the sand. Seler raised her axe and bellowed at the warships.
“Return to the House of Minos!”
No one would be joining them. She heard a distant bellow from the ships as she turned. Once more—the House of Minos’ [Warriors] sang.
“We sail until the world’s end
Bring death to foe and aid to friend.”
Seler joined the warriors of Maweil. She saw the [Steward] slowing.
They were singing again. The House of Minos’ last [Warriors] faced the Steward of the King of Destruction. Orthenon held up a hand. He saw the warships unfurling their sails.
“Lord Orthenon, do we attack?”
“The warships will repel us before we are able to stop them. Wait for his Majesty. He will want to be here.”
The King of Destruction was only a minute behind them. The [Ruinbringer Steward] saw the Minotaurs spreading out on the sand. For a glorious, honorable death. He wasn’t interested in them.
He felt…uneasy. The [Army of the King] had been used. The Emperor of Sands, Reim’s countless enemies would not miss this opportunity. But there was an opportunity here.
Medain’s army. Orthenon’s head turned. They were still not at their capital. Countless [Soldiers] had surrendered. But Mars—
Yes. Orthenon calculated it. She’d catch High King Perric. And he could surrender or die; the Illusionist would capture him.
Medain might fall today, if all was well. And Jecrass as well. That might turn a victory out of this costly battle. Orthenon cared not for the Minotaurs here. They were young. He might have let them go, but the King of Destruction would not. Their deaths were meaningless.
One of his [Riders] interrupted Orthenon watching the fleeing High King. He looked ahead at the pointing finger. The white sails had turned crimson.
All seven of them. He frowned.
“A warship is coming.”
The [Rider] pointed. Orthenon stared at a distant ship.
“They’ll have to make it here. Wait for his Majesty. We’ll finish the Minotaurs first.”
One of Medain’s fleet, perhaps. The [Steward] turned back. Then looked forwards again. The ship was making for the coast at speed. Faster than the Minotaur’s warships, which had slowed.
“It’s…going to ground itself.”
Orthenon stared at the distant ship. He had been raised in the Empire of Drath. The King of Destruction was shouting, pointing at the Minotaurs. Orthenon felt…his…instincts…
“Your Majesty. Fall back! Fall—”
He turned. The enemy warship was landing. It was coming on faster, and faster. It was going to run ashore. And then he saw the light.
The distant ship began glowing.
Only one ship in the world did that. The ship began to shine. And still—it didn’t stop.
“Prepare for irregular reinforcements! With me!”
The [Steward] raced towards the shore. The Illuminary shot forwards. He saw a woman with a huge, classic [Pirate]’s hat standing at the prow of her ship.
Captain Rasea Zecrew. One of the most famous [Pirates] in the world.
She was crying. The [Pirate Lady] kept sniffing and dabbing at her eyes as the wind howled around her. Her ship was headed straight for the shore.
“What a time to be alive. Look there. There’s the legend of this era.”
She pointed. The King of Destruction had noticed her at last. Her crew was laughing. Cheering. The [Helmsman] took them forwards as the winds blew into the sails and the Illuminary picked up more speed.
“The King of Destruction. I wish I had been born when he was at his strongest.”
Rasea brushed a tear out of her eyes. Then she pointed.
“Okay, enough crying. Full speed ahead!”
The Illuminary shot past the Minotaurian warships, the startled Sharphorns. Onto the beach, towards the King of Destruction, the advancing [Stewards], the half-Giants.
The [Pirate]’s ship went aground—and then kept going. Orthenon stared as the ship shot over the first hundred meters of beach. The waters came with it. No—he saw something pushing the ship.
“A w—turn! Turn and—”
The Illuminary shot over the beach towards the cavalry. They tried to split in front of the [Pirate]’s ship. And it kept going! The wave had left the ocean and was rolling under the ship, pushing it!
“[The Eternal Wave]! Get them, lads! Open fire!”
Rasea Zecrew laughed as her ship split the riders in twain. Horses and [Soldiers] screamed as the waters sucked them under. She saw the [Helmsman] spin the wheel.
Orthenon saw an arrow pointing at him. He flung himself left a second before the stolen ballista fired. The Illuminary started spitting projectiles like a Minotaurian warship.
Seler and the Sharphorns stared as the Illuminary shot onto the beach, turning. The King of Destruction’s momentum slowed. And Flos Reimarch saw the fastest ship in the world coming right at…
“Your Majesty! Watch out! Turn! Turn!”
Teres heard Ytol shouting. She saw the King of Destruction galloping left, across the sand. The Illuminary turned—
And ran him over. The King of Destruction and his horse vanished beneath the wave and prow of the ship.
“Hey, did we just run him over?”
Rasea looked around as her ship cut straight through the King of Destruction’s army. She shrugged.
“I hope he’s not dead. Alright, lads! Just like we practiced! [Mark Target]! [Ship: Homing Missiles]! Fire!”
Magical bolts began shooting from the Illuminary’s sides. They shot upwards at a huge figure.
A half-Giant. Zamea staggered as the first volley hit her. One of the ballistae boomed and struck her in the navel.
“They’re big, Captain!”
“Well shoot them harder! Helmsman, port, turn to port! We’re running out of water!”
The ship swung left and the wave carried it across the beach. It shot back towards the sea as it kept firing. Rasea looked around.
“Here they come!”
The [Shepherd] and half a dozen half-Giants were charging at the ship. Rasea saw one blocking their way.
“[Ship: Burst of Speed]!”
It shot past the half-Giant as he tried to block them and missed. There was no faster ship! And her crew was one of the most feared.
Rasea was laughing. She grabbed a rope.
“Here we go—swing the boom!”
The [Helmsman] obeyed. Rasea leapt—and the rope swung her up. She arced with half a dozen of her crew, landed. The half-Giant looked at the figures on his shoulders.
Rasea stabbed him in the eye. Her crew cut the half-Giant across the neck, and then leapt. The circling Illuminary caught them.
“What—what is she doing?”
The [Pirate Captain] was assailing the army. The King of Destruction was nowhere to be seen! Teres stared. Then she saw the Illuminary coming back this way.
Ytol hesitated. What formation did you take against a charging ship? He changed orders.
“Scatter! Evade them!”
Again, the pirate ship sailed onto dry land. Past the Minotaurs. They were making for the warships. Rasea’s ballistae sang again and another half-Giant cried out.
“Alright, I think we got them! Anyone see the King of Destruction?”
The [Pirates] shook their heads. Rasea pointed.
“That way! Straight for the capital!”
Medain’s army was fleeing through the gates. But the Illusionist was fighting the Golden Ranks. Now—the Illuminary swung left. It shot across the coastline as Orthenon galloped after it. Rasea walked across the decks.
“Where’s the good ballista?”
She saw one of the [Pirates] waving. The [Pirate Captain] seized the ballista, waited.
The King of Destruction’s army had seen the Illuminary’s attack. Parasol Stroll and the [Archers] were shooting arrows and launching spells. But again—the ship was moving so fast. It was an army of one!
“[Ship: Armor-piercing Shot].”
Rasea aimed the ballista and fired it. The bolt struck Mars in the chest and sent her flying. High King Perric backed up as he saw the ship coming his way.
“Try to run him over too!”
The Illuminary swung close, but it was running out of speed. [The Eternal Wave] was vanishing. It swung back as the High King fled through the gates.
Rasea was laughing. Mars the Illusionist swore and charged after the ship, but she was on foot. Parasol Stroll was launching fireballs and spells at the ship.
Ulyse snarled. He saw the ship passing by—then turn. The [Mages] put up a barrier—but the ship shot past them towards the tide again, to pick up more momentum. He whirled to Esiela.
“Punch a hole through their hull! Aim for…”
Someone landed on the ground. She’d swung off the ship. Amid the wet ground, Rasea Zecrew drew her sword. Eighteen [Pirates] had joined her. Selphids, a Gnoll, a Centaur with two crossbows—
“Are you mad? The King of Destruction will hunt you down for this!”
The Drowned Woman’s fish-half lit up. Half-Anglerfish. Rasea grinned with her pointed teeth.
“I’m hoping he’ll try. What’s life without a challenge? Say—do you think this will make him angry? [Antimagic Blade].”
Esiela saw Ulyse raise his staff. Rasea stabbed him through the throat. She spun, cutting down another [Mage]. Then she winked.
“Here comes the Illusionist! Alright, go!”
The Illuminary shot past them again. The [Pirates] seized the ropes and were hauled up. Two didn’t make it. A spell snared one and Mars hacked another apart at the waist. She turned—but the wave knocked her and Esiela over. Drenched in water, the [Grand Mage] stared down at Ulyse’s blank face.
“They’re all after us now, Captain. What’s the plan?”
“Keep fighting until it gets too hot! Swing us back towards the Illusionist. I want to see—wait!”
The [Pirate Captain] whirled. She saw the horse racing, riderless next to her vessel, a moment before the [Steward] pulled himself up on the deck.
He had dropped his spear. He drew his sword now.
“You are all dead.”
Orthenon’s voice was cold. He alone had managed to catch the [Pirate]’s ship. He unsheathed his blade.
The Illuminary’s crew grinned. Rasea turned.
“I always wanted to see how good you were, King’s Steward! But I don’t think you brought enough friends.”
One of the [Pirates] brought up a wand and loosed a spell. Orthenon pivoted. He cut the spell—then leapt across the decks. The [Pirate] slashed—Orthenon ran him through and put his back to the railing. But he’d wasted too much time.
“[Ship: Slippery Decks].”
Rasea raised her hand. The surface of the Illuminary’s decks turned oily. Orthenon’s footing slipped. And every [Pirate] with a clear shot unloaded bows, spells, and crossbows.
A ballista fired across the ship. It blew apart the railing; the [Steward] was gone. He was backing up, slashing at six [Pirates] including Rasea herself who were pressing him from all sides. He snarled—
“[Sword Art: The—]”
The [Pirates] fighting him dove backwards as one shot the spell. The [Steward] cut through the fireball. Rasea leapt into the gap. Stabbing—
He was quick. She blinked and stumbled backwards. He’d slashed her chest right open. The [Pirates] shot again and the [Steward] blurred backwards. Rasea raised a potion to her trembling lips.
“Kraken’s blood, that was close.”
She laughed. The [Ruinbringer Steward] had cut down another [Pirate]. But—they were so high-level. He slid across the decks, striking at them. Rasea tilted her head. She looked ahead and nodded at the [Helmsman]. She leapt—
The ship rammed into Zamea’s leg and the half-Giantess screamed in agony. The impact knocked everyone who wasn’t prepared for it off their feet. Which was a quarter of her crew. And Orthenon. He stumbled.
Rasea Zecrew leapt for him. She brought down her sword and the [Steward] pivoted. He blocked her strike, cut one of the Centaur’s crossbow bolts in half. He grabbed the railing. Rasea brought her sword down.
She was aiming for his chest. The [Steward] saw the blow and raised his hand. Rasea changed the angle of the cut.
Orthenon’s forefinger and middle finger fell to the deck. The [Steward]’s face twisted with pain and fury. His blade blurred—Rasea’s stomach opened. She stepped back, clutching at her guts to hold them in.
He was gone. He’d taken his fingers too. Rasea swore and looked around. Then she ducked as something struck the mast.
Reim’s army was attacking the ship. One of the half-Giants hurled a huge stone. It tore through one of the sails.
“I think we have their attention, Captain!”
Some of the [Pirates] were loosing arrows at the [Army of the King]. They were actually clinging to the ship, trying to board it as the wave swept the foot soldiers around. Rasea saw Zamea raise her axe and throw it.
The [Helmsman] dodged the huge axe. Rasea saw the Illusionist on horseback, coming their way.
“I think you’re right, Vree. Well then. All hands, brace! [Helmsman]—get us out of here!”
The Illuminary turned again. It shot back into the surf. And then—out to sea. Rasea heard an enraged bellow from the half-Giants. She waved at them.
Reim’s army watched the Illuminary go. Then—they realized the [Pirates] were still firing the ship-mounted weapons as they sped away. The land-based army fell back in disarray.
“Where’s his Majesty?”
Teres stared at the [Pirate]’s ship. The Minotaur’s warships were sailing into the distance. With the Sharphorns. But Rasea’s ship was still turning. Trying to hit the half-Giants who were grimly retreating.
“Ulyse is dead. Where is King Reimarch?”
Orthenon rode towards them. He was covered in saltwater. And…his right hand was missing two fingers. Teres gasped. Ytol looked around.
The King of Destruction pulled himself out of the surf. Flos Reimarch looked around. He was shaking with fury. The Illuminary had nearly drowned him.
“Savere’s [Pirates]? I will crush Savere and the Siren!”
The King of Destruction would have remained on the beach as the Illuminary kept firing. But they had no way of catching or boarding the ship. And—the House of Minos was gone and Medain’s army had retreated to the walls.
With the High King and the King of Jecrass. Worse—Teres felt the strength of the [Army of the King] leaving her. The King of Destruction was raving with fury. Orthenon pressed a bandage against his hand.
“We have to reattach them. Get the [Healer] and sew them on. Maybe…”
Mars was looking around. Reim’s army was milling around in confusion. They had been…
Defeated? But all of their opponents had fled the field! And yet—Teres looked at the King of Destruction, swearing vengeance on Savere and Rasea Zecrew. The battered army. Then, one of the remaining [Mages] stepped away from the shell-shocked Esiela.
Flos Reimarch turned with a snarl. The next words made him go still.
“Nerrhavia’s Fallen has just declared war on Reim. So have the Claiven Earth, Savere…and a dozen other nations.”
Ytol looked up. Mars silently wiped at her face. Orthenon looked southwards, towards distant Reim. Hellios, Germina—all of their seized lands were now neighbors to nations which had declared war.
Silently, the King of Destruction removed his helmet and threw it into the sand. He took a deep breath…and then he sighed.
“Yes, your Majesty.”
The [Steward] bowed, gravely. Teres saw Flos shake his head.
“Tell Takhatres to recall from his campaign against the Empire of Sands. I can no longer do without his tribe here. And prepare the army to move. We must…safeguard our borders.”
He looked back to sea. Darkly, breathing hard. Then he shook his head.
“But how did she know I would be there? And why?”
Rasea Zecrew was laughing. She’d never been happier. The Illuminary had gone after one of the House of Minos’ warships and they’d stolen its armaments. Now, they were safely at sea.
Nothing could spoil her mood. She’d made an enemy of the King of Destruction, her sister, Revine Zecrew, the Siren of Savere was screaming at her, and the Illuminary had just become the most famous [Pirate] ship and crew in the world.
There were no downsides here. She turned and tipped her hat as she waved for someone to mute her sister’s ravings. She hadn’t ordered the Illuminary to go to war.
But someone had hired her. Rasea would have frankly done it for the joy of it. But she’d taken a lesson from the House of Minos. Why do something for free when you could be paid?
“If the King of Destruction gives us another run at him, we’ll keep fighting. But I assume this is enough for our pay?”
“Quite. You will find your payment at the following coordinates. A pleasure, Captain Rasea.”
The voice was distorted by magic. Or someone muffling their voice with a scarf. It didn’t matter. Rasea was pretty certain she knew who had hired her.
“Well, contact our ship if you’d like any more…favors.”
The [Pirate Lady] didn’t hear a response. She turned away.
“Alright, lads. Let’s go get the rest of our pay. Then—whoever levels most gets a cask of the finest drink we’ve got! Here’s to pricking the King of Destruction himself! We’d better get our full pay. Or I’ll sail right over to Wistram and burn their isle down!”
Her crew cheered. And the Illuminary set sail once more. Rasea sighed. It was a good day, a glorious day. The person on the other end had tried to pretend they were the Elusive Lot. But the Elusive Lot was more entertaining than that. Rasea shook her head.
“That’s one mean Lamia.”
Then she set sail as half of Chandrar made war on Reim. The House of Minos had done its duty. The King of Destruction had suffered his first—real defeat.
The King of Duels was Medain’s prisoner, leaving only his daughter to rule. And as High King Perric reflected after a few, bracing drinks—
It had gone mostly according to his plan.
Author’s Note: Well, this chapter was stressful to write! Lots of moving parts! Like…a clock. And I couldn’t make a clock.
But I did plan the battle with [Pirates], surprise Minotaurs, the [Army of the King], and mean Lamias from the beginning. Like other events, the pieces have shifted, but the event remains.
With this—the Jecrass-Reim arc is done in one sense. And the story continues! Did you enjoy the chaos? Do you have a newfound appreciation for ships? Let me know. I’m going to rest. I quite need it, but I think, for a chapter or two at least, I can relax.
Thanks for reading! The art of today will be a remix of old art! Apparently, CarolCM’s black-and-white pictures were actually very colorful! This is the before-and-after of changing the brightness settings. Also, we have an amazing piece by QYJO of the Horns of Hammerad! Pre-metal arms. Give them lots of love and see you next time!
Amerys and Mars, recolorized by CarolCM! (Thanks to Enyavar)!
The Horns of Hammerad by QYJO!
QYJO – https://qyjo.in/
Dr.replig8r (Artist) – https://instagram.com/vineethharidasan