On Cinaelu, the celebration of the end of chains was observed by one who remembered why the day had come about. He was far, far too young to remember it, of course.
However, the generations of his kind that had passed since the Rebel of String cut her bonds had been far fewer. True, glorious Khelt had not existed, then. But the rulers left records.
So Fetohep of Khelt celebrated the day as it should be. Others tarnished the glory of the day by sending Djinni assassins across Chandrar. Lesser people used the moment as an excuse to eat, or for self-indulgence or petty vanity, like Nerrhavia’s Fallen itself.
The undead ruler celebrated it as one should. He marched over Medain’s borders to liberate the King of Jecrass. Let all those who held chains see them break, and tremble and wail laments until they expired in their own foul excrement and fear.
However—if there was one way in which Fetohep agreed with the String Folk, it was crucially in this: a petty [Warlord] could destroy and despoil. A battle won or lost was little to be proud of. A war? Perhaps. Yet the King of Khelt believed that if you were going to win, it should be in style. It should be a grandiose victory that they told stories about. When you struck your enemy, their children should wake up howling.
So this was Fetohep. And where he led, Khelt followed. Few news organizations were tuned into the war between Jecrass, Medain, and Khelt at any given moment. Once seen, Khelt’s endless army lost some of its impact. Nevertheless, Fetohep had ways of securing attention.
Wistram News Network, the Wonders of Nerrhavia, and all six news channels currently in existence, including the networks from Terandria just established this week, were all covering Khelt’s army marching forwards, and the capital of Khelt in a rare display of the undead kingdom. Live, full-coverage.
How? King Perric of Medain, other important players in other events would have loved to know why. They eventually discovered the reason was simple: Fetohep had simply donated liberally to all six networks.
In a world where news was new and exciting and the rules weren’t set, the King of Khelt still used it as he pleased. For while the medium changed, some things did not.
This was how Fetohep won his wars.
An army without seeming end, legions of armored skeletal warriors bearing the arms of Khelt marched across the ground. Tens of thousands with each second the views panned across them, and more still behind.
Undead without limit. A fraction of Khelt’s true potential. A sight to terrify all foes of Khelt.
At their head marched half-Giants, similarly made of bone, some carrying massive weapons and shields, others javelins. Above them all, though, towered the lumbering Jaw of Zeikhal, the massive beast so broad and wide that it could hold a palanquin on its back. Ranks of skeletal archers, and small bodyguards of the few living beings spread out across the vast army as it marched, sending Medain’s people and soldiers fleeing before it.
Yet—that was simply the army. What mattered was not the army alone. It was…the music.
The King of Khelt rode to war. His people, staring at the scrying mirrors and orbs posted in every street, beheld their great ruler. They cheered him, for they had always loved him. Now? They saw him anew.
Undefeated! Breaking army after army. So—they celebrated. In Khelt’s capital, the scrying spells reflected Jecrass’ people, playing the august, triumphal notes of Khelt’s anthem. Improvising on it, [Musicians] riffing in the streets, dancing.
Cheering. For if the people celebrated, it was only because their [King] had shown them how.
Here was how you marched upon a foe. King Fetohep of Khelt stood on the moving, golden palanquin on top of the Jaw of Zeikhal, plain for all to see. He lifted his halberd, sweeping the glowing weapon around him in a dance of blades that was as much art and show. Undead players struck the same anthem as the cheering around him filled the air.
The King of Khelt danced, whirling his halberd as a few of his chosen undead, his companions of old, performed the same ancient rituals of war, and his citizens cheered him. The broadcast was shown around the world, and not least, in Medain, despite the High King’s order that no one watch.
That was how you humbled your opponents. Fetohep posed as wailing bone flutes and drums echoed around him. The mighty king, so rarely seen, in the public eye once more. Waging war as if he were alive.
Sometimes, he could swear he felt his heart beating. His conscience impelled him towards Khelt, as if he had abandoned his land. The king’s bones called him back, but Fetohep told himself that it was only natural to feel this way. He was taking a risk. Breaking with tradition.
And yet, another world lay reflected in a picture on a young man’s phone. Part of Jecrass, swollen with water, was Khelt’s at a stroke. So the King of Khelt continued onwards in procession and war. He had made his choice, and he did not intend to break his promise to Jecaina.
Fetohep’s occupation of the airwaves—along with an increasing portion of Medain as he pushed in—was the kind of news that no one could easily ignore.
Khelt itself was a powerhouse, albeit one people had been allowed to forget. Few but the most idiotic would trouble Khelt, and, rather like the Demons of Rhir, every now and then someone would cause a stir by being obliterated by Khelt’s infinite armies, and everyone would worry, realize that Khelt was content to maintain its borders, and begin to forget until the cycle repeated itself.
Well, unlike the Demons of Rhir, Khelt had always been passive, defensive. That was changing. In another time? They would have still been more of a name, not in the public consciousness. A concern for [Generals].
Two things had changed: first, the exigency of the war itself. Everyone knew the King of Duels and hearing that Medain had imprisoned him had not won the Thalassocracy of Medain any friends. So there was already attention there.
The second was conflated with the very fame of Raelt himself; television. Fetohep was seen. He had made his appearance in the ‘Arbiter Queen’s’ famous judgment. It could be argued that the news networks had made the legends as much as the actual deeds.
How they loved their names. King of Duels, Arbiter Queen, and so on. People got to know the people they saw on the scrying orbs, observed them as intimately as anyone else in their lives. If you spent eight hours watching Jecaina, listening to her, or Fetohep, let alone someone like Drassi or Noass or Sir Relz, always on the airwaves—that might be more time than you spent with a coworker. Than a lover?
All this meant that there were Lizardfolk in Baleros copying Fetohep’s dance and cheering him on. Which reminded one of an important saying.
“If a Lizardfolk trips in Baleros, does anyone care?”
Someone chuckled as one of the news networks focused on the public reaction to Fetohep’s spectacle. The result was a few laughs—and an icy stare. The [General] shuffled his feet, fell silent, flushing.
Ailendamus was not amused. For one thing, they had a new headache in the Order of Seasons and Pheislant to deal with. For another?
Well, it was an undead king. The fact that anyone, let alone the public, could look upon that horror and cheer it on, let alone celebrate it, think of Fetohep as inspiring, commendable? Horrific to Terandrian ideals.
“What a nightmarish display. It only solidifies the need to combat such creatures.”
The remark came from the head of the table. King Itorin II of Ailendamus looked at the scrying orb with clear revulsion. Some of the other Humans looked at each other. The scrying orb on display in their war council hadn’t made them any keener to try their snacks. If his Majesty disliked it, they could turn it off and get back to business.
However, no one did that, because the man who’d brought the scrying orb in—and the second of Ailendamus’ troubles, at least in this room, was watching it out of the corner of his eye. One did not force the [King]’s cousin to do anything—unless the [King] himself overruled Duke Rhisveri.
The man glanced up, and replied to Itorin.
“Undeath may appall…but you must admit, the style is to be admired. A victor in both grace and warfare.”
He watched as Fetohep’s armies advanced, and then turned his attention back to the war council, losing his good humor.
“…Which is why I do not understand why General Vexil was not recalled! I personally asked him, moments before disaster, why he hadn’t taken further preparations. We lost an army to the Order of Seasons and you are telling me this is fine?”
His glare touched the [Great Generals], [Strategists of Empire], and so on. All powerful men and women who looked uncomfortable at the upbraiding. Every eye turned to King Itorin, who raised a placating hand. He was far from ignorant of war himself.
“Uncle, Uncle. I understand your concern, but the fact is that General Vexil’s loss—while tragic and a setback, was entirely necessary.”
“An army of thirty thousand lost is necessary?”
Rhisveri retorted. At this point, Great General Maxeff, the man who’d made the joke about Lizardfolk, began to feel annoyed by the man’s presumptuousness. He might be a Duke and royalty, but there were limits! Nevertheless, Itorin II tolerated his cousin’s outbursts for the same reason he was here.
Duke Rhisveri was a genius. A touchy, reclusive, arrogant genius who normally concerned himself with managing the treasury and such, but a genius you learned to respect. It was he who had improved the old Lance-bow designs, had helped win some of Ailendamus’ great battles, and, in this case, was even responsible for a political coup that should have weakened the Order of Seasons and other [Knight] orders—not to mention addressed the abhorrence on the scrying orb.
However, the Summer’s Champion had moved too soon. The loss of Vexil and his army exposed Rhisveri’s weakness in turn.
The man was…incapable of tolerating defeat. The other leaders here understood that sometimes you lost a battle. Indeed, the [Strategist of Empire] retorted as politely as she could.
“Even if he had fled rather than making his stand at Stone Giant’s pass, your Highness, there is no way Vexil would have been able to outrun the Season of Summer. Not with their mobile force. He chose the best location possible and his tactics were sound…just not for their caliber of [Knight]. He was meant for starting fires and ranged combat with half-Elves in Gaiil-Drome.”
“I know that. Why did we not scramble forces to meet him as he fell back? The loss of an army—”
“Is an army, Uncle. A single army, which gives us full casus belli to invade Pheislant. Vexil’s death was a small blow, but we are already recovering the elements that retreated, and if he had downed a few of the Order of Seasons’ best [Knights], it would have been a fine tradeoff. Let us turn our attention to more significant matters.”
It was astonishing that Itorin ignored the venomous look Rhisveri shot, but the Duke finally let the matter drop. The other commanders eyed each other, refusing to say anything out loud, but disgruntled by the haughty Duke. Nevertheless…a genius. Ailendamus’ plans did not involve Chandrar today, tomorrow, or perhaps even this decade. Terandria mattered, and if they had plans to ever take Chandrar—well, Humans could dream, but these people knew better than to overreach that far.
However, on the other hand, Ailendamus did have designs on Khelt. Fetohep might not have transgressed in any way on Ailendamus holdings, but an opportunity had emerged by his very presence. For all Rhisveri’s faults, when he came up with an idea, he made up for his every demand. Even sending forces to Izril on some mad hunt for a thief.
Fetohep of Khelt had been pushing into Medain like a knife through a block of butter. Literally; he had made an arrow’s journey towards the capital, parting Medain’s forces and breaking through fortress and city in a narrow, deliberate path of destruction.
No army had, as of yet, troubled him. After the first conflicts at the border fortresses, Medain had fallen back rather than risk full-out battles. Khelt’s army was just…massive. Fetohep was a terrifying warrior, and he employed strategy on par with any of Medain’s [Generals] while fighting.
In fact, he had the wherewithal to fight on more fronts than purely physical, as this celebratory advance indicated. It was vanity of a surety, but Fetohep made no secret of why he was invading Medain.
“The King of Jecrass, Raelt Leysars, the King of Duels is the unjust prisoner of King Perric of the Thalassocracy of Medain! Release him and mine armies shall withdraw. Refuse and Medain shall be as sand before the tide!”
His heralds bellowed the [Message], and Fetohep had been interviewed by Drassi and repeated the same line. Release one man, and I will stop wreaking destruction.
King Perric did not. However, the ego of the High King of Medain was not that of his subjects; riots had broken out three times in the capital as Fetohep advanced. As of yet, the armies gathered there, not to mention the Golden Ranks of adventurers, had kept an iron grip on the city, but the fractures were showing.
The only thing that had stopped Fetohep from already cracking Medain’s coastal capital like an egg was the distance involved…but his army could move without rest, as he had shown…and his honor as a king.
It worried Jecaina, even though she had the much-needed break and Fetohep hadn’t been troubled yet in his one-sided war. Day by day, she and her forces retook Jecrass’ land—the portions not ceded already to Fetohep, that was—from what remained of Reim and Medain’s forces.
The King of Destruction had marched out of his fortress; Medain tried to put up a defense, but they were withdrawing too as Fetohep came on. Jecaina was busy explaining the situation to the people who were now in Khelt’s land, fortifying Medain’s border, and…recovering. Jecrass had been worn ragged, and like a horse that had faithfully borne its rider, it only collapsed to rest now that the danger was over.
So Jecaina had no right to demand Fetohep hurry, save that Raelt might be in danger. Fetohep had already sworn to enact vengeance if Raelt were harmed, so all was well. But he moved slowly because of his honor. It was a strange thing to say, but mercy was his one weak spot.
Mercy slowed him down. Fetohep took city after city. He did not slaughter the people—nor did he force them from each settlement he passed by. He did not kill the [Soldiers] who surrendered. And that was the problem.
If you drove the defeated before you, they died in droves, even if many reached shelter, but they weren’t your problem. Similarly, one could sell captives and make a profit—but Fetohep had no love for slaves or Roshal. Particularly today.
Thus, when he took a city, he made sure they would not attack him from behind. The populace was allowed to go about their lives, the hungry were fed, and no one attacked prisoners, despoiled…well, his army was mostly undead, anyways. But the task of caring for captives necessitated living minds to deal with their needs. In fact, Jecaina wondered if some cities were left better for the completely destitute than before Fetohep had conquered them. Temporary or not, no one starved that he had conquered.
It cost Khelt little; the undead kingdom was rich in food and gold. It did not humble his armies; he could have left a garrison in each city and still kept his vast force intact. It only cost him time.
Time, which to an undead king mattered little. Only to Jecaina. She had a terrible intuition that if there was any weapon High King Perric could use, it ran on time. He was an odious man, greedy, aggressive, dismissive and petty. However, even a weasel could scheme, and that was all he had left.
After performing for nearly three straight hours, Fetohep left some of his servants to continue the parade. Undead could dance without pause for as long as they pleased—as rare as the sight was.
He took his leisure, riding, rather than using the great palanquin on the Jaw of Zeikhal. Riding was a treat for him, an indulgence. As he rode, he took a call via scrying orb. Another indulgence. This war was one of pleasantries, for him. Fetohep spoke, his army marching around him as he lifted a hand, holding off more supplicants.
“Queen Jecaina. I am moving at all speed. That Medain falls in a week should reassure you; my army will not slow upon taking the last three cities in my path. Either way, I shall only hold them and speedily take the capital, retrieve your father, and return, if High King Perric does not release him before then. The conduct of war dictated otherwise with the other settlements. Starving people often turn to dire means, and cannibalism among the defeated leads to…unpleasantness.”
“I apologize if I seem…anxious, your Majesty, Fetohep. I’m simply concerned and you told me to trust my instincts.”
Fetohep nodded slightly, though it was audio-only.
“That I did, but be assured. If King Raelt is at all harmed, I shall enact vengeance upon High King Perric and Medain, if he is released or not. I calculate he will be turned over ere I begin a siege of the capital, either way. Medain will make one stand outside the city, relying on its walls for support—then, once beaten, he will relent.”
That was his calculation of the man. Jecaina agreed reluctantly. Fetohep smiled.
“I must attend to the needs of conquest, Queen Jecaina. However, I will prevail upon you in Jecrass and enjoy our first conversation in person. With your father.”
He ended the call and turned to his next task. Fetohep was on the march, but he suddenly had almost too much to do!
Almost. It was certainly better than managing Khelt, which often managed itself. Fetohep was checking on his kingdom at every hour, watching the border—he almost didn’t have time to place bets on the fights in Pomle’s arena, but he managed it.
There was his now-daily call with Kevin, just to ensure his business was being kept up, attending to each living commander stationed—but mostly, his job lay in the new lands ceded to him by Jecrass.
Fetohep…felt the lands, already. It would take centuries for it to be fully under his control, but enough undead were stationed at the borders, and the people had already experienced the first effects of his reign.
The terrified citizens of Jecrass, and fleeing people of Belchan had looked on the undead with horror, but Fetohep’s living servants had spoken to them. Within a day, something miraculous had happened: the war had ceased.
They had been used to marching [Soldiers], some of whom took liberties. They had known the King of Destruction’s war, Medain’s forces…no longer. Not one [Soldier] would trespass beyond the border. Monsters? They were being hunted down by undead legions.
Just yesterday, a pack of Manticores had been sent fleeing from their nest in the hills by an army of skeletal warriors. To the people of this land, Fetohep had issued this promise. This would be their life from now on. Free from danger! Free from starvation or want! If they stayed. Otherwise, they would be sent from this land with provisions and coin aplenty; he was not cruel. But they would go.
Fetohep’s largesse and savvy extended to more than Jecrass’ people. The next person he met was a woman who had travelled hard to meet with him. She had come at his behest; now, she gulped as her sizable escort fell back.
Herdmistress Geraeri of the People of Zair had not been happy to learn her lands were among those now claimed by Khelt. Her people were strong…but she wasn’t stupid. One look at Khelt’s armies and she had petitioned Fetohep for an audience, which he now gave her.
The Centaur woman made her case plainly as possible.
“Princess Jecaina ceded our lands, King Fetohep, but my people have dwelt there for generations. We are not formally part of—”
She halted as the Revenant’s head slowly turned towards her. Fetohep had been watching the celebrations in his capital as they spoke, and gazing on a map being held by an undead servant, but now his head rotated slowly and his golden eyes flashed.
“Queen Jecaina. In absence of her father, she has become [Queen]. To intimate otherwise is an insult to Jecrass, Herdmistress Geraeri. An affront I would take—personally.”
The [Herdmistress] gulped.
“My deepest apologies, your Majesty. The lands, though…”
Fetohep nodded. He knew the People of Zair’s plea before they made it. He forestalled Geraeri with a wave of his fingers.
“Your case is plain, Herdmistress, and my time is limited in this hour. I shall reply, and in the unlikely event I err, you may correct me. The People of Zair claim their land that Jecrass has ceded to me. You ask me for right to land that was claimed by Jecrass. Perhaps you might remind me that Jecrass itself was founded of those who did not ‘own’ it, but lived and died there over generations. That is your claim. I do not think you will threaten me with war, though.”
He looked at her. The [Herdmistress of the Land] met his gaze. At last, she lowered her head in a slight bow.
“The People of Zair are not weak, King Fetohep. Against Khelt, though? I will not send us into certain death. I only ask for your wisdom, as you demonstrated with the ruling of Lyfelt. This…is it fair that we should be forced off our lands? I prevail on your honor.”
Well done. Fetohep’s golden flames grew a bit, and he nodded once. There were few things she could have said to move him, and she had chosen the best ones. No threats. Nor overlong protestations, aside from her error in insulting Jecaina.
6/10. It might seem low, but it was on an objective scoring system. Maybe 5/10, frankly; it was well-done for what he might expect of many, but in the totality of what he had seen and witnessed? 5/10.
Fetohep wrestled more with his grading than his reply. His return to Geraeri was simple.
“I have already been aware of your desires, and that of the People of Zair, Herdmistress. So—this is what I offer.”
She tensed, surprised by his rapid reaction. Behind her, the Centaurs armed with bows and weapons suited to their stature—long-handled weapons or spears—looked up as Fetohep addressed them and their leader both.
“People of Zair. I do not make light of the lives lost and spent upon Jecrass’ land. You have a right to claim it; although the people of Jecrass long endured before you came there. They settled the land that you lived scant lifetimes on.”
Geraeri looked worried, but Fetohep was just warming up.
“Nevertheless, Khelt understands the bonds to the land as well as any nation still existing. So, then, I answer you, Herdmistress Geraeri. From the traditional pastures of your people, to the border struck by Queen Jecaina and I, to the crossing of rivers Yerides and Sothsoil, I shall allow you your land, under your law, save for the laws that govern all those of Khelt against theft, murder, and so on.”
There was a gasp as he named the largest possible interpretation of the People of Zair’s lands. Geraeri’s eyes opened wide. Fetohep went on.
“You shall be my vassals, but I will content myself to tax none of what you produce and trade for. Your people shall not serve in mine armies save for when they pass. Four generations, from your oldest to youngest, shall pass and the People of Zair will be autonomous, as you were from Jecrass. Then—you will choose again.”
It was beyond a generous offer, Fetohep knew. In essence, he gave the People of Zair what they had not even under Jecrass. Yet he forestalled Geraeri’s response. There was always a catch, and it was this.
“One thing, though, Herdmistress Geraeri. If your people accept this bargain—and any who refuse are free to leave—they will not be nomads anymore. Your people may travel the breadth and width of Khelt, including the passage I shall arrange between my kingdom and this expansion. But they will not migrate from land to land. They will not roam in trading caravans. The borders will be sealed, and any who leave will not be allowed guaranteed return, as is the law of Khelt. You will have your land, and die there.”
The People of Zair made a sound, then, as they realized what Fetohep meant. They had lived on their land for generations, it was true, but Centaurs were nomadic. Many had no doubt travelled from Hellios to as far as Nerrhavia, or Medain in the north.
“Never leave the borders? Your Majesty, we are [Traders] and [Travellers]! How shall we conduct our business?”
Fetohep met the Centaur woman’s gaze.
“You shall change, Herdmistress. Nor does any citizen of Khelt ever want for food or shelter; I make provision for [Merchants] to trade in my cities, but only those I choose, few each month. Your occupations of the past—will no longer be needed, some. You may choose to become who you wish, but that is my requirement.”
He could not have them simply roam past the border and back. What they didn’t know was that this was more than pettiness, or a desire to keep them his subjects; his undead and his own senses could not easily detect individuals. Centaurs could well be infiltrated by spies or outsiders. Moreover—Khelt’s borders were closed. He let no one in. Not refugees, not armies. He chose who entered and that was how it had to be.
“Harsh requirements, your Majesty. I would have called it generous beyond belief, but this last? It will—unmake the People of Zair as they are. You know Centaurs love to roam.”
“Is a nation and a third of land not enough, Herdmistress? You may be nomads within Khelt if you wish.”
She gave him a twisted smile.
“All of Khelt is not all of Chandrar, your Majesty. Could I convince you otherwise?”
“No. I am aware of my generosity, Herdmistress. I will give you all your lands. However, when you claim roaming is in your nature—I throw the very same words you spoke to Queen Jecaina at your hooves. You say the land is yours, that the People of Zair live and die there. Prove it. It must be your land. Your children’s children may depart, and choose as they will, but it must be more than a home you can leave at any time.”
She nodded, seeing the logic in it. The Centaur bowed her head.
“A harsh choice.”
She repeated herself, then looked around.
“May…may I withdraw and consult my people? We will not all be united, your Majesty. No matter what we decide.”
“I give you one year from this day.”
He raised a hand. She stared at him, but then nodded slowly. A year? What was a year to Fetohep? She pawed at the ground, then fixed him with a long gaze.
“Thus, one way or another, Jecrass will never return to itself, will it? One last question, King Fetohep, if I may. Even if the King of Duels is freed and he demands the lands back…offers you anything? Would you relent?”
Another easy answer. Fetohep replied, hefting the halberd he held at the ready.
“Never. This land is Khelt’s. Not just in name, or quick contracts. My armies will never retreat, though we will make no more war after King Raelt is freed on Medain, unless provoked. However. The force you see here will rest under the soil. This army.”
The Centaurs stared at the entire force Fetohep had brought. This army to guard a third of Jecrass?
Someone murmured. Fetohep simply nodded at Geraeri.
“I do not intend to give up what is mine. Take your time, Herdmistress. We will speak again.”
Then he marched onwards, leaving the Centaurs to choose. Fetohep rode forwards, beckoning the next supplicant, the descendant of a River Warden, to him, to make the same pacts. Chandrar was changing. It would never be the same.
It was as Fetohep rode, at the end of Cinaelu, that he received word and the images of his parade through Medain finally changed. The undead king saw Drassi raise a claw and turn as someone handed her a sheet of paper. She read from it, then looked into the camera.
“I’m sorry, but we’re ending our coverage of Khelt and his Majesty for breaking news. It’s war. Anyone not interested in war can tune out now…”
He wondered what it was. The arrangement with Wistram had been such that only an actual emergency would override his procession’s broadcast; no lesser ‘events’, even something like Joseph’s soccer game and so on.
“I’m just receiving word that—that three Djinni are bearing down on the King of Destruction. On the holiday? It looks like they’re definitely coming from Nerrhavia. Wait a second. Djinni being sent to kill him? Where’s my book on…”
Drassi began to fumble for a book, frowning. Noass cleared his throat quickly.
“Ah—Drassi. That’s unconfirmed. We are reporting, first, before any other news channel including Nerrhavia’s Wonders, that three Djinni are indeed flying towards the King of Destruction in Reim! They seem combat-ready, but we can’t confirm they are attacking.”
“If they are, that’s a war crime. Djinni being sent against individuals? Breaches all the rules of war in Chandrar. We’ll see if Nerrhavia has a statement on that—we’re reaching out.”
Drassi added. She brandished the book. Noass turned to her. Fetohep had gone still, although his undead flowed around him.
“That’s not confirmed, Drassi.”
“But if it is, I’m calling it a war crime. Like [Poison Cloud] spells in Ailendamus, Noass. If they’re doing it, it’s not ‘seems like war crimes’, it is. This is Drassi. Possible war crimes from Nerrhavia’s Fallen if the Djinni attack. How’s that for news?”
The two Drakes began bickering. Fetohep of Khelt turned, as if he could look back the countless miles the way he had come towards Reim. Djinni.
“It seems you face a challenge, brat.”
Then he kept riding forwards.
When he got word of the Djinni, High King Perric felt like opening a bottle of something expensive. Djinni. Of course, it was a war crime.
No nation on Chandrar condoned the use of Djinni in war! Not for moralistic reasons so much as practicality. If one was lost, it was a finite resource, already rare, gone forever, and if two Djinni fought, that was the likeliest outcome.
More importantly…if someone started using Djinni, the other side would use their Djinni and that got—nasty.
If he had a Djinni he thought could slay the King of Destruction, or that damned Revenant, Perric would have given serious thought to using one. He hoped they’d kill Flos of Reim for him. That would be the good news among the sandstorm of misery.
Speaking of Djinni…he spent a few hours among his concubines. Stress was eating at him, and the High King did not let it fester. He consulted with an expert who would know more.
As in—another Djinni. Just not one who could kill Fetohep, or even give the undead ruler a good fight.
High King Perric had made it a goal to have a concubine or wife of every species in the world…excepting Selphids. And Antinium, he’d added to the list, if there even were females among them. The Djinni in his company of dozens—he didn’t stop at one per species—was among the weakest of her kind. Barely able to shapeshift and fly, and still stronger than any Silver-rank adventurer in existence for all of that.
“What kind of Djinni are coming after the King of Destruction? Do they have a chance?”
She blew a cloud of blue smoke at him, and he looked away from her pulsating, somewhat insectile worm-like form.
“Change back to a proper form at once!”
She sulkily obeyed, but still took another draft from the blue smoke drug she enjoyed. The Djinni Maef replied.
“I know one of my kin flying. That one.”
The Djinni pointed. Medain saw the image of the three Djinni, two carrying enchanted weapons, and focused on the one flying highest.
“And? His capabilities?”
The High King was impatient. Maef smiled sweetly. He’d made a mistake in the rules binding her; she couldn’t hurt him, but he’d allowed her too liberal use of her tongue.
“He could reduce this palace to ash, your Golden Ranks or not. Only your Named Adventurers could give him pause. Drenirkesun is mighty. Kill the King of Destruction? I think he can, army or not. No blade made of mundane metal could touch him, even if he took form and lay still on the ground. Even the [Grand Mage] is a child without enough magic; he can shift forms, and fights with the experience of millennia. He is older than Fetohep of Khelt. He would be a fine addition to your seraglio, your Majesty. I wonder if you’d have the courage for the ‘Scepter of Medain’ to rise in his presence? He can be quite beautiful, but true power turns men off, or so I observe.”
High King Perric didn’t even dignify the insults with a reply. He simply turned, curiosity satisfied, and strode from his chambers.
He had more important business to attend to; the defense of his realm. To that end, High King Perric did not meet with his worthless [Generals], who shook in their boots at the size of Khelt’s army or that behemoth; he met with the truly important people, who could do something about it.
Even a [High King] met with his guests respectfully. He offered them all refreshments and courtesies, but they were brief. They were familiar, but he would have accepted that even if they weren’t important.
Perric respected adventurers. Thus he had named Medain, unofficially, the Kingdom of Adventurers. The three magical dungeons of the kingdom were its lifeblood and he had been a Gold-rank before taking the throne.
At any rate, Perric cultivated his adventurers’ loyalty, not least with gifts of land and lavish prizes to any of Gold-rank. Let alone the two Named-rank Adventurers sitting before him.
Medain had two, and their presence was because they had made their names delving into the dungeons here—and because he gave them all they could want if they stayed within his kingdom and aided him. Neither had gone against Khelt yet, but it was time.
“One battle, friends. One battle. If the Revenant dies—his armies fall apart. If I offered you the right battle, I trust you’d remember our long friendship and take it?”
Both adventurers gazed at each other, appraisingly. They were in a bind. On one hand? Neither one wanted to fight Khelt. On the other—it was a bad look for them to run, especially Named Adventurers. Also, Medain was where a lot of their wealth was, and if they sat back and let Fetohep win…
They were respectively male and female. Human and, interestingly enough, Dullahan, although you thought it should be reversed based on their…characteristics.
One was a slimmer man, known as Three of Arms. Not because there were three in his team, but because he was sitting, two hands on a cup of something, and the last feeding him some of the snacks.
He was Human. A [Spellblade], although he ran more towards [Wizard] these days. In his career, the Three of Arms, Requiel, had stumbled across a strange object. A prosthesis of magic which had attached itself to him, giving him a third, strange arm.
Even now, Perric glanced at it. It looked tattooed all the way down, or ‘painted’ with shimmering light, a lighter tone than Requiel’s skin, glowing with magical spells that could activate at need be. With it, he could cast spells with three wands at a time, or fight with deadly strength in close-combat if needed.
“Even if Fetohep of Khelt dies, the army doesn’t fall apart, your Majesty. You know that. All those undead…”
“They’ll break on walls, unled. You know what I mean.”
Perric interrupted and the Three of Arms nodded. He eyed his companion.
“It would have to be the right battle. Frankly, even if you marched every [Soldier] garrisoned here…I wouldn’t care to make an assault on him directly. You, Falcon?”
The Falcon of Medain had a personal title he’d bestowed on her, which had stuck, much to Perric’s delight. She nodded.
“You need to give us a better battlefield. Your Majesty. Sorry, but we’re taking the risks.”
“Of course, of course, Lady Frieke.”
He soothed her. He knew adventurers and they weren’t being unreasonable. He wished they’d fought earlier, but they were right in that Fetohep might go for them—and he hadn’t pushed the matter since he needed them for this to work.
Frieke of Medain was known as the Falcon because of the huge bird, the Seahawk, which was gnawing on a bone. Bigger than a normal eagle naturally, this one—Konska—was as famous as its owner.
The Falcon of Medain was an interesting mix of classes. No normal class for her; she was a [Hawkmaster] and a [Dungeon Conqueror]. It came of her desires; she hadn’t come to be an adventurer, but had been a [Treasure Seeker] first.
Anyways, she was able to fight with bow and blade, a superlative skirmisher and solo-fighter. However, like all adventurers, her strength wasn’t always…direct.
One of her trump cards that only Perric knew about was the Ring of Emergency Recall on her finger. The twin was on Konska’s talon. At will, either could teleport to the other. Frieke could appear high overhead and shoot arrows down at an enemy from hundreds of feet before using a [Lightweight] spell and having her hawk spirit her away.
Or escape from a sticky situation.
Two Named-ranks versus Fetohep. If they got him alone, Perric was convinced they had better-than-not chances of killing him. But Named-ranks didn’t get to their position by liking such odds.
“A proper battle. If I offer you that, I have your word?”
He repeated himself. The two adventurers exchanged another reluctant glance.
“We’d have to agree, your Majesty. We’ll bounce if it’s not to our liking.”
“Then I will ensure it is.”
That was all he wanted, The two Named-ranks eyed him, looking even warier, but they’d agreed and he intended to hold them to it.
[Royal Promise]. One of his Skills that ensured no one double-crossed him. High King Perric left them to their refreshments and hurried to his next meeting.
He wished he had time to visit his prisoner, but visiting would take too long and might leave him in a temper, when he needed to be at his most diplomatic. It was a shame, but Raelt was still defiant. Perric had even been forced to stop his people ‘working’ on Raelt. Just in case the worst came to pass.
Not torture. Not exactly. Perric was not a savage monster. Rather, he’d been trying to persuade Raelt. You did need to wear them down, but no breaking bones or anything savage. After some isolation, some hunger, you sent for female company and gave them the right things to drink. Perric wanted an ally and the King of Duels would have been a damned good one if his daughter wasn’t such a fool.
In another month he’d have had Raelt back on the throne and Jecrass under his thumb! Damn Fetohep and that girl!
Perric kept all of it off his face as he smiled and greeted the [Emissary]. The half-Elf rose and nodded to him, bowing slightly. She was a representative of the Claiven Earth, and had come at his behest.
She twitched at that and even Perric had the self-awareness to bare his teeth. The Claiven Earth and Medain had often fought.
“Friends in this time, when all seems at its darkest.”
He smoothly went on. She just folded her arms. He knew Valesent Areis; she was one of the regular diplomatic contacts between them. She had also refused his offer of marriage both times he’d made it, as a young man and more recently.
She might be over a hundred years old, or eighty at least, but she looked like she was in her thirties or forties at most. If that; she was striking, and Perric would have loved to exchange pleasantries…but he had a case to make.
“Your Majesty, I have come at the behest of the Speaker of Trees and the Claiven Earth to hear your petition.”
He gritted his teeth on the word ‘petition’, but nodded graciously.
“You do me credit, Areis. I know you spoke personally for Medain and this chance, and I shall not waste it. I say to you what I said to the Speaker of Trees: we must come to an accord and stand against Khelt.”
She studied him. The Claiven Earth was somewhat like Khelt, but both would have resented the comparison. An exceptionally strong nation of half-Elves that often kept to themselves. However, they had made war on Flos of Reim and they would leave their borders.
“We did not commit many of our own to die against the King of Destruction. You wish us to spend more lives saving Medain?”
She stressed the kingdom’s name. Perric smiled.
“Ah, I understand the reluctance, Areis, but I’ve offered a ceasefire for fifteen years!”
Which he didn’t want, but it was one of his cards. She nodded at that. The High King pressed on.
“Moreover, this isn’t about me or Medain.”
She tilted her head.
“Not the King of Duels? That undead claims that if you release the King of Duels, he will retreat his dread army.”
A good sign, her referring to Fetohep thusly. Perric smiled.
“Areis. If the positions were reversed, would the Claiven Earth accede to the threats made by a foreign power? Let alone an undead Revenant?”
She frowned. High King Perric studied her.
The one advantage he had in convincing the Claiven Earth was that they were half-Elves like people thought of them. They had come to Chandrar long ago from Terandria, and created a forest along the coast. A verdant land that was death to attack—as he’d learned to his cost.
However, that also meant they loved nature, kept those ancient villages, practiced the bow…and hated necromancy, like most Terandrians. In this case, it was mostly that death magic killed life-magic and nature, hence the issue.
“Even if I were to surrender and make peace, Khelt is now on our borders. Consider the effects of so many undead seeping into the land over centuries? Moreover, do you wish to be next if Medain falls? Say you offend the King of Khelt.”
“Khelt is traditionally passive.”
The High King made a rude noise.
“Oh, yes. Which is why they are marching on Medain for Jecrass. Khelt may be traditionally whatever it wishes to be. Fetohep has broken with all precedent. I say again: the Claiven Earth could be next.”
She studied him, narrow-eyed. She knew exactly why he was asking and so desperate. In truth, Areis would have loved to tell the odious High King exactly what she thought of him and let Khelt sack his capital.
Unfortunately, she had been sent to this meeting for more reasons than Perric knew about. The Claiven Earth were afraid of just what he described; not immediate action, but all the death magic seeping across the border through the ground.
Khelt taking more land alarmed them. It reminded them of times when Khelt had expanded, and half-Elves had long memories. Most importantly of all…Fetohep being Fetohep was presenting problems Perric had no idea about.
So long as thou dwell within my borders, you shall never want for baser needs. Nor shall anything harm you.
That was the edict of Fetohep of Khelt, each ruler. A promise made with their people, inviolate. More than anything else, that was what they lived for.
The problem was…well, the promise.
The Claiven Earth were not at war with Khelt. They were battling Orthenon in the north, and still at war with the King of Destruction. They had started this war and they would not relent.
Unfortunately, the [Steward] was a deadly, cunning foe with speed unmatched. They could tie him up, though. Half-Elf [Archers] were among the best in the world and even he was in danger if caught alone.
So it was running battles, skirmishes—attack and retreat. Nothing static like they had done when fighting with Jecrass.
Elven [Outriders] streaked across Belchan and the embattled lines, striking supply lines, liberating cities, sniping officers or [Soldier] patrols and vanishing. The Steward gave chase, but he couldn’t be everywhere. It had been going well, and they had been forcing his army back with minimal casualties of their own as parts of Belchan revolted.
…Right up until he ran them into the new borders. Half-Elf riders had been scattering away from his advance and practically slammed into undead rising from the ground. When they’d tried to flee around them, more rose, cutting them off. Not one part of Jecrass’ long, long border could be trespassed! Orthenon had boxed them in.
Half had tried to flee across the new border into Jecrass, to escape, not harm anyone! The undead had cut them to pieces, and Orthenon had gotten the rest.
The Speaker of Trees had lodged a complaint with Fetohep. The conversation had been amicable as both sides attempted to disguise their hostility for each other. It had, however, been unfortunately short.
“Your Majesty. The demands of war dictate a mobile force may inadvertently trespass as it evades the enemy. I would have each of my people swear to harm not a single soul in your lands, but they must be allowed to move wherever they must.”
“And you expect me to allow a pitched battle in my land, where I have promised the war-weary people of Khelt respite? If a single arrow were to fly astray, a single spell, one of my subjects could be hurt. I suffer no trespass, Speaker of Trees. As well you know.”
Fetohep had not told the Speaker of Trees another reason; a lack of discernment among his guardians. However, even if that were not the case…the Speaker of Trees had done his best, as vexing as it was to plead.
“We would be willing to offer you remuneration for the—right—to move across the border.”
“Thus pitting the Steward against my forces, as you would strike from my lands. No.”
That hateful Revenant hadn’t even listened to the offer. He had simply fixed the Speaker of Trees with his condescending gaze and given a very Fetohep-like answer.
“There is no sum the Claiven Earth could muster that would interest Khelt, Speaker of Trees. Unless, perhaps, you were willing to part with one of your Hearts of the Forest? No, I thought not. Khelt is not to be so easily trespassed against. Take your [Soldiers] to other fronts, where they might ‘skirmish’ against a nation less able to reply to insult immediately.”
How that boiled. How that irked the half-Elves. No—irked was too small a word. This was why Areis considered Perric’s offer.
They had all seen the Village of the Dead’s raid. They had seen the horrors of the undead, and now one of the only nations in the world where necromancy ruled in strength was on the attack. Fetohep was too strong. If he did turn against the Claiven Earth and they stood alone…
It was about horror. Undead! The half-Elves were unable to simply let nightmares slide. Perhaps when they were buried farther off, under sand, sleeping. Now?
She met High King Perric’s gaze and sighed. If it were just Medain, she would have happily let him rot. She never told Perric that the reason she had been assigned the posting in Medain was not because she was a high-level [Emissary]. She hadn’t even gotten the class until she’d been posted here.
Areis had simply…gotten in trouble…for a habit picked up over decades, well, nearly a century of being a [Vintner]. Part of her punishment for numerous crimes of disorderly intoxication had been diplomatic duty to the most-hated [King] in the region. Even if they had the class, few half-Elves could tolerate the insult that was Perric unless ordered.
She really needed another drink. But first—she gave Perric his answer.
The instant the King of Destruction received word the Djinni were on attack, he broke off from the pleasantries with the String Folk [General] on Cinaelu.
No questions were asked whether this was a trap; Teres thought the [General] looked stunned. Nor was there time.
“To the horses! We ride for Reim. Get the army moving!”
Flos roared. He looked as intense as she had ever seen him. Teres scrambled into her saddle as Takhatres disappeared, sprinting to warn the camp in person.
“Flos! How do we know it’s an attack?”
“Three Djinni, just happening to fly our way? Seems like an attack to me! We’re dead if they catch us alone, your Majesty.”
“Takhatres can speed them. So can I. I’ll join the army and catch them—your Majesty, [Rapid March]. We’ll meet you. Teres—guard him with your life.”
Venith looked at Maresar, and then was galloping after Takhatres. Teres found herself riding with their small escort.
The King of Destruction and Maresar had movement Skills and they could make the ground blur beneath them, but the Djinni had apparently crossed most of Nerrhavia in hours.
“Are we certain they’re after you? I thought you told me Djinni aren’t allowed to be used to assassinate people!”
“I did, but I have known many who break the laws of war. They are used in battle—rarely. As for how I know? Here!”
Flos tossed his little scrying…marble…at Teres. She caught it, fumbling, and realized that whomever had sent the Djinni had worded their instructions poorly.
Three flew through the air, two carrying magical weapons, the last a flying cloud shaped like a Garuda, only with multiple sets of wings as well as their normal ones. The other two looked like exotic Humans, augmented with animalistic parts.
Like demigods from some kind of myth. Teres’ blood chilled, but then she heard the shouting.
“We fly to slay the King of Destruction! So ordered! So commanded by our masters!”
The female Djinni shouted happily, brandishing twin daggers. The largest kept silent, but the other, a Human with a cat’s face for some reason, bellowed as well.
“Merchant Almon, Emira Sulaake of Aeresuth, and the Escrite family order us to kill the King of Destruction for their glory! If you want quality goods, consider Merchant Almon’s Roads of Jade, which provide excellent service across Nerrhavia’s Fallen!”
The female Nightair Djinni flipped over; she was riding a flying carpet, unable to keep up regularly with the other two under her own speed.
“What was that last part?”
The cat-Djinni grimaced as Drenir laughed.
“I have to mention that every time…”
People looked up in awe and fear as the Djinni flew. The three great beings of magic ignored them, intent on their mission. Occasionally, one would repeat the names of their masters.
The Emira had standing clauses forbidding Drenir to invoke her name unwisely—the other two did not. A classic mistake. Now, they were happily shouting the perpetrators of this incident to the world.
If they had already succeeded, no doubt their masters would be happy to lay claim to the credit. However, they probably didn’t want all the attention on them now.
A bit of revenge, that was all. The Djinni ignored the eyes of the world on them. They could feel the distant scrying spells like pinpricks on the skin.
Three. Their forms were mutable. They could take on a hundred identities, a hundred thousand forms over their lives. The same with names. However, some things mattered, for reasons petty or grand. So, for battle, each one took a form that mattered.
The first, the Nightair Djinni, a weaker spirit riding on the carpet with no fear of crashing, carrying two enchanted daggers looked most Human of all. Humanoid. Her skin was closer to onyx and the deepest blue of the night sky, though, and her eyes were white. Her hair was dark, and she sprouted two horns from her head. Hooves, cloven.
She took the form of an old species long dead. Her name was Hisaille. She had been born in captivity and named by Lizardfolk.
The second was the cat-faced Djinni, Seemutor. He always kept the face of a house-cat on his head, for all his lower body now seemed to be that of some kind of elephantine beast. He too carried a weapon; a glowing shortbow from which he could loose arrows of terrible destruction. He flew, easily keeping pace with the carpet, the most boisterous of the three. Powerful; above average as their species measured such things.
Time alone did not make Djinni stronger. Some were born more deeply into magic, others in a certain element. Seemutor, for instance, was not the element of darkness and air like Hisaille. He was closer to fire and logic, hence his superlative abilities in calculation.
They could still grow, both younger Djinni. It was possible for them to deepen their bonds, increase their very being to certain limits. In time, if they were free, they might have done so.
It was doubtful either would match the last of them even if they had five hundred years. Drenirkesun stood above both. He flew, a vast cloud that took the shape of that six-winged Garuda. So huge he could have engulfed a ship.
It seemed, to the distant forces of Reim, that a cloud was flying at them, albeit shaped so. Two eyes flashed with lightning, and the air grew thick and charged as Drenir flew. He did not shout. He did not mention his masters’ names.
He…was simply prepared. And Drenir cautioned his kin.
“Do not take them lightly. They are the greatest mortals of their time. Leave the King of Destruction to me. We fight against Venith Crusland and Maresar, the Grand Magus Esiela, and Takhatres, Lord of the Skies.”
The Djinni knew his foes. The younger two were impetuous, which worried him. Especially Hisaille.
“I have killed scores of mortals. I know how to dance away from enchanted weapons and spells, Drenir.”
She laughed up at him. Then—quieted at the look from the vast Djinni.
“You have never fought a [King]. Stay away from him. Watch the Garuda as well. Of all of them, they can injure you most. Seemutor, the Grand Magus?”
“Done. It will be a fine battle.”
The cat-Djinni laughed. Drenir just sighed, and thunder rolled through his body. Both little Djinni looked up at him.
“Don’t you rejoice to be set free, Great Drenir?”
Hisaille swept up to him, hovering her carpet higher. One eye of lightning blinked at her, discharging electricity that swept through his being.
“To do battle in another person’s name? I wearied of that long ago, Hisaille. Nor is the King of Destruction my enemy. It only is.”
She dismissed that, shaking her head.
“If there is nothing to take enjoyment from, then it is a pale life indeed, Great Drenir. You will see. When we shake Chandrar, at least they will remember how we can touch this world!”
For a moment. Drenir knew. Then they would quarrel over the Djinni, scheme and fight to hold the leash. He reached up and touched something.
Each one bore a marker. Most Djinni did. It was not enough to have a vessel they were chained to. They needed a bond to enforce the magic written into their souls.
On his neck was a band of metal, a collar. Hisaille had two cuffs on her wrists; Seemutor, two dangling earrings. They could change to any number of shapes, but that remained.
“Let it be done.”
A [King] was no easy opponent, for all they boasted. Even so—the storm cloud began to grow larger as he crossed Nerrhavia’s borders. The clouds thickened, growing darker. Even his two kin looked up in awe as Drenir grew.
“Bloody hell. What is that?”
Teres thought she saw the storm cloud reflected in the scrying orb rolling in. It was so large it was a speck on the horizon, and getting bigger with each moment. Flos Reimarch turned his head.
“Faster, Maresar. It’s a day’s ride to Reim, even at our speed.”
“They may catch us, Flos.”
Maresar replied. They were at full gallop, the land speeding past them as if they were going as fast as a racing car. Maybe they were; Teres stared back. Still—it seemed like the cloud was slowly gaining.
“Why are we running? What about the army? It’s three Djinni! You’re the King of Destruction! Haven’t you fought them before?”
Flos glanced at her. He looked back and bared his teeth.
“Six times, Teres! Which means I’ve faced them more than most beings living or dead! Only six times, though. In battle and alone—they’re a rare sight!”
“So? Are these ones worse?”
He shook his head.
“Whatever is making that cloud is dangerous. The others? It’s not fear that drives me, but the danger! We can’t touch them with regular steel or even weak enchantments! If Amerys was here—! Or Orthenon, Mars, we’d have more of a chance!”
He growled, and Teres felt a surge of apprehension. Was that why they’d waited? For his two vassals to stay in the north?
“Takhatres has his tribe—”
Maresar and Flos said it at the same time. Flos glanced at Teres.
“Takhatres can fight them, and maybe his warriors who hold enchanted weapons, but as I said, his tribe would be struck from the skies by lightning even getting close to that one. Six times I told you I fought Djinni, Teres…twice in huge, pitched battles! If I have a great army, they’re a threat, but can be slain. Once, one was sent to kill me, like this, and we slew it.”
He looked back and cursed.
“Three times they sent us fleeing in defeat. Crushed entire armies until we stopped them, or slew their masters or sent other Djinni to do battle. That was when my empire was vast. I don’t care for those odds! What did you call it? Statistically, it’s not a good ratio of wins!”
Teres stared at Flos and suddenly apprehension was in her belly. She looked back, towards the whipping landscape and sand and dust. At least Nerrhavia’s army wasn’t going after them; they were marching north, a glittering line of metal disappearing fast as the wind picked up, turning the world hazy with sand and dust.
A storm preceding a bad battle. She shivered.
“Is there any hope?”
“Yes. With Drevish’s towers of lightning, yes! I wouldn’t risk my people to that alone, of course. We need weapons. Hence—whoever sent those three miscalculated. After all, it was Trey who delivered a weapon, a perfect counter into my hands. Don’t you remember, Teres?”
Now the King of Destruction grinned. Teres looked at him, mind whirling, then remembered. Her eyes opened wide and she smiled in relief.
“Nawal! Naq-Alrama steel!”
“Exactly. With one blade we can fight them like mortals. Takhatres or I can threaten even that one quite easily. Assuming she’s finished it—no, even a half-done product will do. Maresar, send word! We require Nawalishifra’s weapon and anything the Tannousin Tribe can muster!”
The [Bandit Lord] nodded and reached for a [Message] scroll. Flos turned back to Teres, and she saw why he was intent.
“It only matters if we can reach the capital before they catch us—or the army. No more talk. Ride, Teres!”
They rode, galloping ahead, towards the capital in the distance. To claim the great weapon promised to the King of Destruction.
They had no idea…that the metal had not been forged. That the alloy had been bad.
There was no weapon. When Nawalishifra heard the desperate demand, she could only laugh until she wept. She had feared the truth coming out soon, when the King of Destruction visited.
This was disaster.
The flight of the King of Destruction and desperate battle filled the news. It was not the only event of significance taking place.
Fetohep of Khelt was closing on Medain. Days away from the final siege, but for some reason, Medain’s armies were beginning to sally forth. It was impossible for them to hide, for all they did their best.
They were going to meet him in battle? Fetohep instantly grew suspicious. Perric was an arrogant man, but hardly a fool in battle.
“Scourge Forerunner. To me.”
One of the living lieutenants, a rare member of Khelt who trained for battle, rode forwards. A cluster of Khelt’s undead riders followed; they could move without rest and needed no food.
“Your Exalted Majesty?”
The woman waited. Fetohep’s head turned.
“Scout to our west. Send more riding bands north, unled, with orders to sweep and engage any hostiles.”
It was crude to use undead without living direction; they made terrible mistakes like Golems, but it could still work with vague instructions like that. The Scourge Forerunner hesitated. She wasn’t sure, not having served with Fetohep before. He stared at her.
“Speak your mind.”
“We have deployed forces to the west, your Majesty. Have they fallen?”
They already had watchers there. Fetohep nodded in appreciation of her question. He inspected the woman, making sure she was adorned with enough artifacts…he counted six, the maximum she could carry. Well enough.
There were less than a thousand of Khelt’s citizens fighting among the undead, and many had already been stationed to the rear; each one carried at least three artifacts.
“They see nothing, nor have any been destroyed. I remain unconvinced our flanks are secure. Watch for ambushes. Fall back at the first sign of contact. I suspect the Claiven Earth; they will strike you from afar. Keep two Shieldriders with you at all times.”
Her eyes widened.
“By your will, your Majesty!”
She took off, speeding westwards. Fetohep turned.
It only made sense. The Claiven Earth? He recalled the border incident.
“The arrogance of half-Elves.”
Fetohep sneered, in a rare display of a pot insulting the kettle. Even so, his intuition bothered him. The Claiven Earth and Medain both were more of a threat if they combined forces, but he had an army to match both. Something else…
He got his answer by nightfall. The Scourge Forerunner had not yet met half-Elven forces, but he knew they were on the way.
…Because the roving undead bands to the north began to vanish. They had run into something. Fetohep began diverting his attention to the north as his army slowed.
What had landed on the coast? That was the real question.
The first indication of the event taking place occurred at sea, days before. A minor movement. A significant one, but one only communicated to House Veltras from their allies.
The House of Wellfar. They attacked no one. However—the great ship, one of the few remaining warships of its class, The Pride of the Wellfar, took to sea with a smaller fleet. It was notable in that it even asked the Velistrane, patrolling far to the south in Drake waters, to be advised of a possible collaboration.
Nothing occurred. The Pride of the Wellfar engaged no ships, as the other vessels in the water kept far away from the warship. It queried one target and after learning the destination was not Izril—escorted them for quite a number of miles before turning back.
The second incident occurred with the House of Minos. Prince Khedal, the great Minotaur who had clashed with the Drowned Fleets, even the greatest [Pirates] in the pitched battle at sea with the [Strategists] from Baleros a while back, took after the second trespass in the House of Minos’ waters.
“They will not evade us again! [Captain], begin loosing warning shots!”
The Minotaur [Captain] didn’t wait for further orders. He bellowed and a catapult hurled a stone with astonishing accuracy, crashing into the water off the bow of the fleeing ship skirting their borders.
“Oars down! [Row With All Your Might]!”
The Minotaur warship had both sails and oars for this exact moment. They picked up speed, pushing past the limits of the wind—even enchanted sails—as they sped towards the vessel.
“Hold! Hold! We’re not looking to quarrel with the House of Minos!”
One of the [Captains] bellowed on the other ship, having already raised a white flag of truce. Prince Khedal didn’t care; his blood was up.
“No one trespasses on the House of Minos, least of all bearing warriors! Tell your ships to skirt the House of Minos’ waters—or prepare for battle! Your ship will stand to and be boarded for inspection!”
The fiery [Prince] demanded. He received a reply after a moment’s wait as the two ships continued to draw near. That was when he spotted the second vessel in the waters approaching…and the third.
“We are on a mission that cannot wait, Minotaur [Prince]! We must refuse.”
Prince Khedal stood on the deck, and the [Captain] saw his eyes begin to slowly turn red. More warships were being scrambled from the House of Minos, but it was three versus one…four versus one.
Not one of the Minotaurs cared, and the ship was still coming on. It was the Humans who were in trouble; Prince Khedal was ready to sink all four. And yet—the [Captain] checked the numbers, saw the clear danger to the [Prince], despite the glorious battle, and was forced to voice his dissent.
“Your Highness. Conflict at sea would risk our forces and a larger war. They are barely trespassing.”
“You would have me let them go with insult, [Warship Captain]?”
Prince Khedal growled at the other Minotaur, but the growing fury in him slowed slightly; the [Captain] was an honorable Minotaur with the experience to override even Khedal in matters of marine combat and the affairs of the ship. The [Captain] narrowed his eyes.
“It sits little well with me either. The House of Minos has suffered an insult, but the King is best able to reply. We could bring them to battle…but the Month of Strife is upon us. The old enemy draws near. We need every axe for that. I am not refusing you. Simply cautioning.”
Prince Khedal hesitated. He paced the deck, growling—then swung his hand.
“Let them go. Stay clear of our waters or the next vessel will be struck down!”
The other ships were already peeling off, staying further away. Prince Khedal returned, venting his fury with practice. The House of Minos was preparing for war with another enemy. He looked back once, and saw more ships all clustering together. Worthy foes. But a greater one waited.
Goblins. Their island was drawing near. Khedal spat into the waters as he watched the others come on in a fleet; the first trespass had already occurred, though. A smaller, nimbler grouping of ships.
They made themselves known as King Perric of Medain marched his armies forwards. The Claiven Earth appeared at the same time, wiping out undead scouting parties to the west.
The last group came from the north, from the coast itself. The declaration was writ across every headline in Chandrar and all four other continents.
Rémi Canada was trying to balance both events. War in the north and the Djinni attack. The [Journalist] looked at the headline he was printing.
‘Nerrhavia’s Fallen sends Djinni to assassinate the King of Destruction; a crusade is called against the Kingdom of Khelt!’
More news at eleven. He shook his head. They were already announcing it, faster than the slower newspapers.
A crusade. From distant Terandria, the words echoed.
An old term. An…antiquated term, in many senses. A word as old as the people who used it.
[Knights]. The Knight Orders of Terandria alone still sailed from their continent, to do battle against evil as they saw it. This was more than a single band of [Knights], though. This was…war.
Against evil. Undeath. It might be that Chandrar suffered such things to exist. Not so Terandria. Not for any who remembered the Necromancer’s depredations.
Not after the Village of the Dead had shown just how evil could fester and grow.
The choice had been, frankly, binary. Either Izril and the Village of the Dead; purge the village after the adventurers had failed, or distant Chandrar.
It had been easier to choose Chandrar. Izril was the home of the Five Families and they zealously guarded their fiefs. Permission would have to be arranged. Chandrar?
King Perric of Medain had petitioned the Human nations of Terandria for help against the undead scourge. Of course, many spoke out against helping the same man who had abducted the King of Duels. It might have been he would be refused, but for the genius of Duke Rhisveri of Ailendamus.
It was he who pushed the crusade. Stirred up sentiments in many Knight Orders against the undead. Ailendamus would send countless [Knights] and even fund the expedition. And in doing so, the other Orders would band together against a common threat…away from Terandria itself.
The trick was that Ailendamus was sending more [Soldiers], more [Knights], investing more gold in it than any other nation, even the most anti-undead. Who could doubt their commitment, then, if they would sacrifice most if the crusade was lost?
A nation which could afford it. Could replenish faster due to its simple size than the others. And…which had most to gain if combat-hardened troops returned with new levels. Either way. Ailendamus won, and to stand idle was to embarrass oneself. Faced with Rhisveri’s calculation, what were Knight Orders to do publically, even if they harbored private doubts? They had to contribute or be seen not to.
Of course, the actual implementation was of many diplomatic members persuading hot-headed [Knights] to swear fiery oaths that could not be easily gainsaid, presenting it as a case of undead expansion, even playing on Eldavin’s lessons about Az’kerash.
But for Greysten, the Order of Seasons might have well committed a number of its [Knights] to the effort as well. As it was, Knight-Commander Calirn sent barely a hundred Knights of the Spring.
The other Orders all contributed numbers of their own. The result? A navy was bearing down towards Medain. The first elements had already arrived.
The Four Winds of Teral, the famous Sea Courier ship had led the first [Knights] to Medain, and they were already disembarking. Fetohep listened to the news in silence.
“Four ships, including the Courier’s ship, have disgorged the Orders Pregaris, the Sothbound, Hunters of the Kingdom of Noelictus…”
He drummed his fingers on the saddle. Of course. The most militantly undead-hating [Knights] were leading the charge. Pregaris came from further north than Ailendamus and the Dawn Concordat’s conflict; their nation was at peace. Samal, the Kingdom of Keys, had time to let its bored [Knights] fight.
The Sothbound likewise came from Cenidau; the [Knights] of the tundra also had fewer targets to fight at the moment, and they too specialized in undead-slaying among other things. After all, a zombie eventually rotted away; the ice-bound corpses in the north could last forever.
Noelictus’ [Undead Hunters]…it was still a small force, mere thousands strong from the four ships. More would come. This group intended to be the lance-tip on which Medain and the Claiven Earth struck.
“Four ships. Of course, The Four Winds of Teral can only fill the sails of four at most.”
Fetohep mused. He took in the news as his army stopped. They were already digging in; it was a fight at last.
And treachery. Terandrian Kingdoms had declared a crusade. Fetohep listened to the fiery speeches, the condemnation of the taint of undeath. They would purge Chandrar of this plague and…
He’d heard it all before. Fetohep’s response was simply this. He turned to the communication spell keeping him in touch with his capital. The worried ‘advisors’ he had installed to manage the Kingdom listened as the King of Khelt spoke.
“Mark The Four Winds of Teral. For all future endeavors at sea, be it delivery, correspondence, and so on, Khelt shall not hire the ship, until four millennia have passed. Assuming the ship survives until then.”
“It—it will be done, your Majesty.”
Fetohep nodded. The most important task taken care of, he turned his attention to the war. It was no longer a simple case of overwhelming Medain with superior forces, numbers, and so on.
This would be a battle to remember. Fetohep would have smiled, but he was growing—
Both battles did not take place concurrently. There might have been overlap, but chronologically, while the Djinni might have struck first, it was a running battle that had intermittent breaks. Similarly, once the sides had met, Fetohep of Khelt engaged in a protracted battle, such that the coverage was flickering from one event to the next.
A field day for a reporter, in short; the kind of day when you wished you had more time, rather than needing to fill it. That was every day in this world for Rémi Canada.
Nevertheless, he wasn’t placed to attract the world’s attention. Well—he had some small bearing on what happened, which pleased him.
Drassi was interviewing Queen Yisame as the Djinni first sped over the border, their purpose clear.
“…So, your Majesty. They’re clearly attacking the King of Destruction. What does Nerrhavia’s Fallen have to say about this Djinni-assassination? Under the rules of engagement all nations of Chandrar should adhere to, assassinating someone via Djinni is a war crime.”
Queen Yisame had graciously agreed to accept the interview about the actions of the Djinni. She smiled, face made up as she occupied the left side of the ‘screen’, Drassi, the right.
“Reporter Drassi, I was as shocked to hear of this—brazen act as you were. Rest assured, and I swear on truth spell, that I, nor anyone in Nerrhavia Fallen’s seats of powers condoned this action. It is Emira Sulaake’s action of her own initiative among the other Djinni owners; even now, she has been summoned for questioning. Moreover, while they claim to be attacking, Flos Reimarch is in possession of his army and we are at war.”
She stressed the syllable. Drassi nodded, taking a few seconds as there was a bit of lag in the communication spell. She shuffled her notes; glanced down at them.
She hadn’t had much time to prepare for this, but she’d gotten the interviewing opportunity over Noass and Sir Relz, much to their palpable disappointment. Wistram had decided Drassi was most well-liked. She had notes on Chandrarian rules of war, Djinni, Nerrhavia’s Fallen—all the kind of things a [Student] had for a test.
And one more thing. Drassi got so much correspondence these days the Mage’s Guild had to sort it for her. Normally you couldn’t reach her; however, she had a lot of time for a personal [Message] from—
Drassi peeked at it again and read the [Journalist]’s short note. It had been all the prompting she needed.
There will never be a second time, once you take them down in public. Make it count; they’ll learn after this.
Drassi looked up and took a breath. She smiled, and Queen Yisame smiled up behind the makeup that accented her already gloriously perfect skin. She was clearly relishing her moment, like the Arbiter Queen’s spotlight. What she wasn’t prepared for was Drassi leaning forwards.
“Your Majesty, are you saying that you have no control over your subjects in Nerrhavia’s Fallen if members of your aristocracy can simply try to murder other people with Djinni? Let me be clear: Flos Reimarch may have an army, but the Djinni were sent on Cinaelu, your holiday, during an agreed-upon ceasefire when he wasn’t even near his army! This sounds like an assassination, and it sounds like you’re only ‘questioning’ Emira Sulaake? Her Djinni are shouting what they’re doing! It’s not very unclear to me.”
The [Queen]’s face went slack as everyone watched. Noass began banging on the door, but the staff had orders to keep him and Sir Relz out.
Possibly no one had spoken to Yisame like that since she was a child. Nor had Nerrhavia expected this. Her eyes flickered sideways to someone off-screen, and she replied.
“…Of course one cannot always prevent untoward actions in Nerrhavia’s Fallen, wide as it is. I misspoke; Emira Sulaake will be punished, as will all perpetrators. I do remind you, Reporter Drassi, that Djinni lie, so the truth must be established.”
Drassi nodded repeatedly, and then leaned in further. Yisame leaned back as if they were actually sitting in the same room.
“So—are you going to have her recall the Djinni? They’re about to attack.”
“Of course. If this is an illegal, untoward action, then Nerrhavia will surely recall the Djinni. Unless, by implication, you approve of this as a way to defeat the King of Destruction? I’d have expected they would be recalled the instant the news was heard of—or Sulaake threatened with imprisonment, or so on. Is that going to happen?”
“I—once an arrow is loosed, it cannot so easily be put back, Reporter Drassi.”
“But a Djinni’s not an arrow. Am I understanding you that you won’t be calling them back? Then, even if it was started by one of your subjects, this appears to be a state-sanctioned war crime. What would you like to say to that, Queen Yisame? Queen Yisame, hello?”
Drassi could not have known how broadly Rémi was smiling. She had to know how significant a moment this was, but credit to her, she just leaned forwards, intent, pressing Yisame as if she was a friend spouting stupidity over food in a restaurant.
Everyone got to see Yisame blinking, stuttering—before the scrying orb went dark. When it came back, a smiling, slightly upset [General] was sitting in a different spot.
“I believe there were interruptions with the spell, Reporter Drassi. I am [General]—”
“Where did Queen Yisame go? Technical difficulties? Wistram assures me we have a spotless connection. You dropped your end. War crimes, General. Fine then, let’s talk about war crimes. Will Nerrhavia be assassinating any other enemies with Djinni? How are we to believe you won’t if you break the rules whenever you see fit?”
The [General]’s face went slack, but at least it wasn’t Yisame. He glanced at the [Diplomat] and read the words; that was less satisfying. However, everyone had seen the Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen and Drassi.
The interview’s politics mattered not one whit to war. The Djinni came upon Reim’s army without being recalled or slowed.
Takhatres’ tribe, the few that had come with him, and the army turned as three Djinni burst from the air. The growing cloud of Drenir had vanished an hour ago, much to the bafflement of the army led by Venith and Takhatres.
Now, the Djinni appeared. They had been invisible! A carpet crashed into the center of the marching [Soldiers] and a Djinni appeared.
Hisaille swept about her with the enchanted daggers, slashing through armor with a wickedly sharp blade that had a curved pattern, leaving cuts that wouldn’t heal. Blood ran faster from the injuries it left, bleeding even a weakly-cut wound with such profusion that men and women dropped dead within minutes if the blood was not staunched.
The second blade glowed like it had come fresh out of the forge. She drove it into a man’s chest and the heat cooked him from the inside. She lashed around, her dark blue skin and face already covered in blood, a frenzy of laughter.
The [Soldiers] of Reim were well-trained veterans. They whirled, stabbing at her, slashing—their blades pierced Hisaille’s body with no effect. An arrow shot through her head and stabbed out the other side.
She was mist! She was a dancing shadow that had no corporeality! To strike at her was to hit only air; when she replied, the two blades cut the [Soldiers] down.
“Block the blades! They’re real!”
An [Officer], a [Captain], surged towards her, holding an enchanted sword. He knocked one dagger down, and his blade flickered.
He slashed her, and the female Djinni cried out. The enchanted blade had cut her across the chest! She pivoted, as the sword whirled back to behead her—
Vanished. Her body just dispersed, and the [Captain] whirled. He turned, realizing he could track the daggers—
Too late. One slashed at him from the side and he deflected it, but the other stabbed him through the back. Hisaille reappeared, laughing, as the blast-heat of the dagger seared him and he fell without a word.
The cut was already closed on her chest. The other [Soldiers] scrambled back, fleeing her advance as they realized she could materialize and dissipate without end. Nor did the daggers have to connect with her body; she detached a hand trailing with mist and shot it through the neck of one of the archers before drawing it back.
“Hisaille! Not them!”
Seemutor called. The youngest Djinni looked up with a scowl, but the cat-Djinni hovered overhead, ignoring the arrows flying up at him. They passed through his body, and he wove, dodging the few enchanted ones. Then he loosed a blazing arrow which seared downwards and struck—
A barrier. Grand Mage Esiela had raised it just in time. She replied, angling her staff.
The orb of flame shot upwards at dizzying speed. At first, Seemutor dodged, but it began to curve, tracking him. So he whirled, reached out, and—plucked the fire out of the spell.
It was like Eldavin had once shown the [Mages] of Wistram. A fiery strand untangled from the whirling ball of fire. Seemutor grabbed it, and somehow, drew it to his bow. He drew back as a fiery arrow appeared—
Venith bellowed. A [Shieldbearer] threw up a shield and Venith pointed.
The detonation of the arrow blew the soldiers off their feet, but they got up, dizzy, concussed—but alive. Seemutor ignored them as he spun through the air, shooting another arrow at the stationary Grand Mage. This time she sent lightning spiraling up at him—he blocked it with a palm, laughing.
“Is that all, Grand Magus? I have slain dozens of your kind!”
Venith stared up at the Djinni. There was no way for him to take the fight up. He would have gone after Hisaille—but she was coming to him.
“Guard the Grand Mage!”
He rode down on the Djinni. She misted to one side, struck at his horse, intending to slay the animal with her fiery dagger. She blinked as Venith leaned down and struck the dagger so hard it hit the ground. He slashed at her—she cried out.
Venith cut the Djinni’s head clean from her body. Rather than dying or collapsing, though, her head floated back. With an expression of outrage, it reconnected and she raised a hand.
He swore, checking his sword. It was enchanted to pierce armor—not kill clouds! He came about, charging her again as she ran towards Esiela.
Clouds. Venith heard a boom from overhead, and recalled the last Djinni.
Drenir. He hovered in the sky, a cloud as large as a hill. Garuda darted around him, trying to attack—falling back. They fought him for all of three minutes; he replied with tongues of lightning. Dozens of Takhatres’ warriors fell, struck by so many bolts of lightning that Esiela stopped her own spellcasting.
She looked up as the Djinni focused on her. He ignored the figure that kept leaping, trying to slash him.
Takhatres’ daggers were close to relic-class and did do more damage than Venith’s sword. Even so—they destroyed only parts of Drenir. The Djinni pointed a finger down at Esiela.
“The King of Destruction dies.”
A bolt of lightning, more like a pillar of electricity arced downwards. Esiela’s shield exploded and the Grand Mage lay on her back, stunned. All three Djinni swooped down. A fiery arrow shot towards Esiela as she screamed—
“Damn! [Lightning Sprint]! [Burst of Strength]!”
Takhatres flashed past Esiela. The bolt of fire hit—and struck the ground. Venith saw Takhatres, carrying the Grand Mage, run past him.
“Get to Flos! The [Soldiers] can’t do a thing!”
“After that one!”
Hisaille cried out, and she and Seemutor pursued, the youngest Djinni having to reclaim the carpet which sped after her. Drenir remained as Venith raised his shield. The Djinni looked down and sighed.
“Do not follow if you wish to live.”
He raised himself up, the cloud-Garuda coalescing. Venith shouted.
[Soldiers] fled as a vortex of fire struck the ground and rampaged around. A living tornado, a humanoid shape, covered the ground, scattering the King of Destruction’s army. Venith raised his shield as it came at him.
“[Perfect Block]. [Shield of the King].”
The tornado struck the glowing shield and—pressed against it. Venith felt the air turn into an inferno on all sides. It burned, pressing in—
Then was gone. Drenir turned. Gasping, Venith and the [Soldiers] saw him streak off after Flos and the other two. It had taken him minutes to decimate the army.
Venith almost wished he’d stayed, but the Djinni knew it was the King of Destruction who mattered.
“All those with magical blades, with me. Ride!”
Venith went after them.
Fetohep and his vast army met the Claiven Earth and Medain first. The crusaders were still en-route, so Perric took one flank, the Claiven Earth the other.
They didn’t dare attack from opposite cardinal directions; there was too much risk of Fetohep overwhelming one side. So both were on diagonals, awaiting the vanguard.
Pierce the King of Khelt’s lines and claim his head. It was a simple plan in concept. If he died, nothing, not even the Jaw of Zeikhal, his living warriors, mattered.
In practice, Medain’s heavy infantry and Golden Ranks advanced from one side in hard numbers, ready to press Khelt’s skeletal warriors and hold them. The Claiven Earth had a different tactic.
They had a fifth of Medain’s forces, but all of them were half-Elves. Half-Elves with magical arrows. They didn’t even wait for the Terandrians but began to loose arrows from afar, well out of range of even Khelt’s bows.
Fetohep had skeletons with longbows, but the half-Elves had Skills.
The Speaker of Trees was not at the battle; he was no warrior. They had sent one of their young [Generals], the same woman who’d clashed with Orthenon. The [General of Bows] had one prescient Skill among many: [Army: Extended Range].
Longbows fired glowing arrows into the sky, like miniature fireworks. Especially where they landed. Perric saw the glittering explosions from afar.
Khelt’s army held its ground, having dug into fortifications in the time it had taken both armies to reach him. They seemed like…well, like the ground had turned to bone and metal. But for the eyes.
Countless glowing eyes, skeletal faces, and the old armor of Khelt. The half-Giant skeletons stood in the back, unable to cast their javelins as far as the half-Elves. Yet the army was so vast. It sat in a circular camp, in the center of which, the Jaw of Zeikhal ignored the few arrows that struck its form.
Fetohep of Khelt stood in the center, amid a vanguard of the best undead, heaviest-armored, his living forces behind the arrows destroying his undead soldiers. He saw a dozen of Khelt’s skeletons blown to pieces by a single arrow; the glowing tip burst and trails of sparkling, blue-white light shot outwards. Each undead they touched just…collapsed, animation spell broken.
Anti-magic arrow. Undead-killers. The Claiven Earth had committed few living bodies to this engagement, like Fetohep, believing life was important. They were so alike—so different. They were willing to spend the magical arrows, however.
“Casualties mounting. Over two thousand destroyed already.”
The first minute of the volley had already wreaked a heavy toll, and the Claiven Earth were daring Fetohep to come after them. They were in spread-out groups, each one ready to withdraw if cavalry charged. Their few infantry were even further back. Fetohep stared narrowly at them and Medain’s army. They wanted the same advance; they’d block the half-Elves while his army was shredded.
“Fetohep, the [Knights] are coming! We’re trying to reach you, but the distance—”
He spoke curtly into the speaking stone.
“Jecaina, tend to your nation. Khelt will not bow so easily to this hasty alliance. Nor is this even but the hundredth battle I have fought against Khelt’s enemies. I shall humble their arrogance.”
There was but one reply Khelt could give to the naked provocation. As the [General of Bows] and High King Perric watched, they were aware of the approaching [Knights].
“Steady. Steady—wait for an opening. Let those damned [Knights] charge in. Then you two will join the attack.”
Perric was exhorting his two Named Adventurers and three Gold-rank teams, all of whom were nervously watching Fetohep. He knew the Claiven Earth had counterparts; they had better have brought more than their puny army, damn them! Areis had assured him they were committed!
Even so, it looked good. Outranged, Fetohep had to push in and Medain’s armored forces were perfect for fighting his undead, which were comparatively more fragile for all their numbers. Perric waited for Fetohep’s move as more arrows burst in his army. He saw the soldiers begin to move and his [General] called out.
The Humans and half-Elves saw the King of Khelt raise a hand. The [General of Bows] held up a hand, ready to order her people back and let the Humans engage. Then she heard something.
A warbling flute. The horn for the attack? She tensed—then heard more flutes begin to sound. Someone began banging on a drum. But—strangely.
Not the boom, boom, of war drums, but faster, a ratta-tat-tat. It was joined by the clash of cymbals, even horns. What kind of a strange signal to war was this? Only a few people had ever seen Khelt do war. Fascinated, the [General of Bows] stared. She turned to one of the two half-Elves waiting with her. Well, the two who mattered.
“What is this, do you know, Elders? Are they adopting an unknown formation?”
The two half-Elves looked up. They’d been resting. One of them, a woman, glanced at Khelt. She snorted.
“Unknown formation? Tree rot, girl. Look.”
Fetohep of Khelt’s intention became plain. The [Soldiers] moved, revealing the heart of his command; High King Perric’s eyes bulged.
The golden palanquin on the back of the Jaw of Zeikhal had been detached. Rather than sending the great undead forwards, Fetohep had placed the palanquin in his command center. Now—he was resting on a royal couch, reclining, propping his head up on one arm as a band of undead musicians played around him.
He even had a fan. He was waving it gently, as if he were actually alive and could feel the air on his face. That damned—that—that—
Perric gobbled as the King of Khelt reclined, playing music. The half-Elf’s barrage of arrows faltered; then redoubled as if in outrage. And Khelt…held…still.
Undead soldiers marched forwards, replacing their comrades who were blown apart without batting an eye. Fetohep just relaxed, watching his enemies with every impression of amusement.
“If the Claiven Earth would like to try to spend arrows to slay Khelt’s legions, let them. I shall wait until they fire every arrow ever fashioned—then slaughter them at my leisure.”
He informed his amused, awed living subordinates. Moreover, this was more strategy than just insulting his opponents, although a good leader did both.
The rank-and-file undead were being destroyed, but even now, a few were getting up, reassembling. So much death magic meant that Khelt’s legions were…repairing themselves. They were still being destroyed by the arrows, but it was as Fetohep said. He would let the expendable undead be destroyed a thousand times, rather than risk the living or greater ones.
High King Perric would not suffer this insult long. Know thine enemy. Fetohep knew his mortal opponents. Moreover—he raised a hand.
He was a Revenant. He had been a [Warrior], so many Skills were limited to close-combat, but he had fought for Khelt in an age most had forgotten.
“[Summon: Company of Khelt].”
He invoked one of his Skills. Three hundred skeletal warriors rose from the ground and marched into place. Fetohep visibly saw the volleys slow as the [General of Bows] gave an order. There was nothing for it.
Medain came forwards as Perric, enraged, ordered an attack. The half-Elves moved in closer, so as to strike at Fetohep and his valuable undead.
“So much for bait. The High King had not the patience to wait even twenty minutes. You fight on my ground, fools.”
Fetohep rose, retrieving his halberd as the attack began in earnest. The [Knights]…he thought about his words to Jecaina. He could well turn his enemy’s aspirations on their heads.
The rank-and-file mattered very little to him. Their best warriors, the High King? They were his threats. Fetohep’s golden gaze swept the battlefield. He ignored Medain’s heavy cavalry as they charged at his pikes, then broke off, letting the foot soldiers in steel armor push forwards, circling for an opening.
The mortal [Soldiers] ran into trained undead, with a military precision that matched or exceeded their own. Humans cried out in dismay as Khelt’s warriors swung with strength and speed that normal skeletons didn’t match. They still crashed forwards, but countless of Khelt’s warriors waited beyond. It was like running into a wall of bones. And swords.
That was when the first undead buried under the sands began to dig themselves out, grasping at terrified Humans, stabbing from below. Fetohep sighed.
They fell for it so often.
“They have passed by the foot, milord. Hundreds, possibly thousands dead.”
Maresar reported. Flos Reimarch looked back, and his teeth clenched. Reim’s riders streamed out behind them.
“Esiela? Venith? Takhatres?”
“He has the Grand Magus. Venith is following. Flos. We aren’t going to reach the capital before they catch us.”
Teres knew it was true. She had seen the distant fire behind them. Now, two of the Djinni sped after. Invisible but for the scrying spell tracking them.
Drenir, though. The Djinni had defeated the army that Flos had crushed countless of Nerrhavia’s armies with for a warm up. He sped forwards as Flos turned.
“Can Tannousin bring the blade to us?”
“I asked and they are silent! Something is wrong. Our people say they’ve hidden away!”
The King of Destruction cursed.
“[Assassins]? It would be—very well. We must reach the capital! Are the lightning towers armed?”
“Armed and ready!”
“Then give the blade to whomever reaches it, preferably Takhatres! He can use it best. If need be, I will fight the Djinni without—I will need you, Esiela, and Venith to back me up. Teres! You will take cover!”
The young woman didn’t argue. This was beyond her. Maresar nodded. Teres looked at Flos.
“Fight the Djinni? Alone?”
Flos was looking back.
“I know how to defeat them without a Naq-Alrama blade. I wouldn’t want to try, but if—damn.”
The damn was because of something in the distance. Teres, Maresar, and the riders all looked back. For a moment, Teres didn’t believe what she was seeing. Then she realized:
This was the power of a Djinni.
Drenir hadn’t bothered to fly with the other two. Aware of the distant King of Destruction, he had transformed again. First, he had flown up, the blazing pillar of fire transforming. Higher, higher—until he was lost in the sky, so high even the scrying spells had missed him.
He had angled himself, given himself the momentum in a fiery explosion, and let gravity and his new form do the rest.
Hisaille and Seemutor saw their brother fall to earth, overtaking them, impossibly fast. Hisaille stared up in awe.
“I knew he was powerful! This? Brother—did you know he could do that?”
“Of course. This is the technique Drenir used to humble armies of Drakes and fight Dragons.”
Seemutor looked up. His slitted cat-eyes beheld Drenir. Or—what the Djinni had become. You would never know he was a living thing. Not from afar.
A falling meteor shot through the sky. A blazing ball of ignited air. Only if you were close enough to feel the heat would you see the stone man, curled up, the size of Zamea—aimed at the King of Destruction.
Flos bellowed one word. Teres screamed, but a [Rider] grabbed her and they fled. Alone, Flos turned back, staring at the falling meteor. He swore. Reached for an artifact looted from Hellios’ armory.
Drenir hit the ground so hard that the explosion and shockwave sent the riders who had fled slowest flying. Teres was blinded, deafened, nearly thrown from her saddle as her horse screamed and landed.
Possibly only the fact that Drenir had been targeting Flos had saved them all. The move that could wipe out an army, even humble a Dragon, had its drawbacks. The heat and speed blinded even the Djinni.
He left a crater the size of a lake. Flos Reimarch survived—but he was thrown from his horse. He had only escaped the meteor by activating the [Lesser Teleport] scroll and a defensive artifact. He rose, a protective dove flying about him, a spectral guardian which had flitted from a ring he carried. It called out a single note—
Drenir rose, a being of stone and fire amongst the ash. He pointed and a bolt of lightning hit the dove. The shockwave made Flos’ ring explode on his finger, shredding his skin. He cursed, reached for his belt.
He vanished a second time as the Djinni’s second bolt of lightning flashed through the air. Flos appeared next to some of his riders, leapt into a saddle.
Drenir sighed. This was the trouble with fighting foes who had access to magic. He put both hands together, all seven fingers on each hand charging with lightning. The trick with the meteor tired even him; the lightning was him. That was how Djinni fought and cast magic; they created everything of themselves. Even so—
Takhatres hit him from behind. His blades hammered Drenir’s back, punching in, cracking the tough form he had taken and piercing it. Drenir grunted, spun—
“[Sphere of Inner Reflection]!”
Esiela shrieked. The Grand Mage, still carried by Takhatres, cast the Tier 5 spell she’d been preparing. Drenir’s hands shot out—and crashed into the thin line in the air.
No fanciful magic; no distracting lights. No sound, either. No air…the next level of defensive spell to even Montressa’s best spells was made to shield a [Mage] from even higher-Tier spells. A Tier 7 mass-attack spell wouldn’t break it!
Drenir just began to expand, pressing at the insides of the spell trying to contain him. Takhatres ran after Flos as Hisaille and Seemutor slowed.
“Brother! Can we help—”
“Go. This will not hold me long.”
Already, Drenir was doing something. He had lost all form, like Hisaille could do. Yet the Nightair Djinni had never seen…he was changing. Become a gas…multiple types of gas that were reacting. Combusting—
Esiela stared as the internal forces already began to push at her spell. The other two Djinni were on Flos, Takhatres, and Teres, who found herself with the King of Destruction by a stroke of ill-luck in a moment.
“Someone take this [Mage]!”
Takhatres dropped Esiela and slashed at Hisaille. He jumped onto her carpet, drove both daggers into her chest—she was already mist. He ducked a dagger, and the other attacking from behind, then lashed out. She was laughing, and then activated one of the scrolls she possessed.
“Manticore! Summoned Manticore! Guard his Majesty!”
A [Rider] screamed. A glowing monster appeared and the [Soldiers] broke off. Teres lifted her sword, crying out as the monster dove at her.
Flos just sped onwards, glancing over his shoulder. Seemutor aimed a fiery arrow at him, but Esiela pointed up.
“[Extended Spell: Shield of Air]!”
The low-level Spell was weak. It couldn’t even stop one of Hisaille’s daggers, but here the Grand Mage proved she knew magic at least enough to fight. The shield blocked the arrow and it detonated in Seemutor’s face. He uttered a curse that rolled through the air, vibrating Teres’ bones as she hacked at the Manticore.
“Vexing pus-rotted Salash-get of a [Mage]—”
He abandoned the bow, realizing she’d do the trick again. Esiela screamed—but Seemutor clearly thought he should go after the [King], rather than waste any more time.
He conjured a scimitar out of his body, an oversized weapon that was almost as large as he was. Impossibly balanced, and far too cumbersome to swing…unless it weighed nothing but air.
The cat-Djinni dove at Flos, bringing the sword down in a hacking blow. Teres shouted.
“Flos! Watch out!”
Takhatres had seen it too. He dove, slashing—and passed through Seemutor. He was doing the same trick as Hisaille! The Djinni grunted with minor pain as the daggers scored him, but he was non-corporeal. Flos had turned in the saddle. He brought up the sword he carried and blocked the strike.
His horse screamed at the impact. Flos slashed, and Seemutor swung low, scything in, fearless of the King of Destruction. He slashed, aiming to bisect horse and Flos in one blow.
The King of Destruction bent low in the saddle, reaching out, and stabbed Seemutor through the face as the Djinni came at him. Teres expected his blade to pass through, but she saw the Djinni recoil. Then scream.
Hisaille hesitated. The cat-Djinni was recoiling, clawing at his face. Flos rode at him, slashing, but the Djinni was in the air.
“It hurts! He has wounded me! I can’t close—”
“Leave the King of Destruction to me, I said! He can harm you!”
Drenir boomed from within the fracturing spell. He saw the King of Destruction whirl, and resume his frantic ride. Drenir counted.
“They flee towards the capital! Stop them!”
The wounded Djinni and Hisaille hesitated. Then they began slashing at the vassals. Venith had caught up, and he, Takhatres, and Esiela were the dangers. They could stop Drenir from slaughtering Flos and so had to be taken out or stopped!
How had Flos harmed Seemutor? He was noticeably hurt, his face bearing the wound even as he changed to a rabid tiger-man, slashing with furious claws at Venith, who braved the attacks on his armor and shield. The answer was obvious to Drenir.
A [King]’s aura. The countermeasure of royalty against Dragons, Djinni. That Flos had mastered it enough to wound Seemutor meant he could fight Drenir.
“I have killed [Kings] like you, even so.”
The Djinni finally burst his bonds—if not his captivity. He exploded upwards in an explosion that consumed the [Soldiers] around him, took aim again. The vassals struggled to protect Flos. Teres fought the Manticore—and then the other monsters Hisaille unleashed from scrolls. She realized something at the same time Drenir did.
The Djinni hesitated, eying Flos, Takhatres, Venith, Esiela…he counted. Where was the last one?
Maresar? If she had fled, they wanted her to reach the capital to arm it—or retrieve a weapon. Where was she? His head swiveled, tracking the many riders fleeing in every direction, then towards the capital. Drenir cursed, before making up his mind and diving at Flos again.
He never saw Maresar. Though the [Bandit Lord] had been in front of him three times as he searched. Oh, she could have attacked and made herself known. Her enchanted arrows might even distract them a bit, but they always forgot.
[Bandit Lord]. Well, in her day, [Bandit Lady] hadn’t even existed. [Bandit Queen]? It was a new tide, created by the likes of the Bloodfeast Raiders and the Siren of Savere.
And one more thing gave her the class. The man glanced over his shoulder as a group of riders sped away, in one of many groups. He saw the King of Destruction teleport again.
“He’ll run out of scrolls soon. More speed.”
The group sped forwards, risking detection. Maresar sighed. He looked like, well, one of the [Riders].
[One of the Lads]. A Skill for a [Bandit Lord] who escaped a losing situation. Maresar reached the capital as Flos labored towards it.
Fetohep’s army met Medain’s and the Claiven Earth and…held. That was all they had to do. The undead lacked the explosive strength of the living; they didn’t need it. They just wore their enemy down with numbers.
The big undead were the ones who actually killed. Like the Village of the Dead, Fetohep pointed.
“Skeleton Knights, break them.”
A group struck into an opening, tearing forwards, the more dangerous skeletons not-immediately noticeable among their lesser cousins. His half-Giant javelin-throwers launched a deadly barrage, landing among enemy archers.
Above them, the Jaw of Zeikhal lunged and obliterated a group of riders. Adventurers surged forwards.
“It’s gotten loose! Hold it down again! Hold it—”
Magical binders struck the giant monster and snapped off. Fetohep patiently had his forces try to free the creation; it was there to distract his enemies.
“Target that [Mage]! [Pinpoint Volley]!”
One of his living commanders was having a field-day. She pointed, and eighteen skeletons and three half-Giants all launched projectiles at the luckless [Mage]. Gold-rank or not, not much was left after the terrible impacts.
Of course, most of Medain’s Golden Ranks weren’t stupid enough to be that unguarded. They hunkered behind magical shields, blasting the undead—his army held.
But it was already bleeding. Khelt’s army was…good.
Too good. High King Perric was sweating as he saw his fabled—well, he called it ‘fabled’—heavy infantry, which had troubled the King of Destruction and beaten Jecrass’ [Riders], run into a wall of undead and stalemate. Meanwhile, Fetohep, that damned monster, looked like he was enjoying himself.
“My friends. To me.”
He stood with the corpses of his comrades, lost in the very battlefield he had suffered his mortal wounds on. For a second, the King of Khelt regarded them—then they charged.
Half-Giants smashed into the screaming Humans. Undead riding the skeletons of elephants, rhinos, and giant horses crashed forwards. Fetohep slashed with his halberd. He whirled it, and brought it down.
The earth split with the force of his Skill, and everything above it…Fetohep attacked for two minutes, and then turned and withdrew, casually, before the adventurers and army could close back up.
It wasn’t looking good, in short. The [General of Bows], Laiska Clearbranch, was gritting her teeth. They should have waited for the [Knights]! But then—they were meant to reach Fetohep in the gap opened by the other two nations.
She didn’t see a gap. What she saw was Fetohep riding back, protected by a line of half-Giants raising shields against the arrows targeting him.
“Elders, the battle isn’t going well against Khelt.”
She turned—and one of the two half-Elves woke up. He had been snoring in the rocking chair they’d had to practically carry him in.
“What’s this? Are we losing again?”
He mumbled. Of all the half-Elves on the battlefield, this one was unique. Because, well…he had white hair. He looked old. That was important because Areis, the [Emissary] to Medain, was over a hundred and she looked young, certainly far less than fifty still.
This half-Elf was one of the Claiven Earth’s equivalents to a Named Adventurer. Every nation had one or two. And the half-Elves lived long.
“Elder Joreldyn. We seek your great power.”
She turned to him, humbly. The half-Elf blinked his eyes. Rheumy, for all he was half-immortal.
“Undead. Oh, I tire of them. Again and again…one spell.”
“One spell. Please, Elder.”
He grumbled. The half-Elf put his hands together and began to chant. An old style of magic.
“Thou willest look up and see/Look up and come to me. Sweet Mother of the Sea…”
Fetohep of Khelt noticed the magic in the air. More than the Gold-rank adventurers. He turned, spotted the distant half-Elf like a blaze of fire among sparks.
“Target that [Mage]!”
He snapped, and every bow in the army turned. The [General of Bows] flung herself forwards as tens of thousands of arrows, javelins, all hammered down towards them.
The projectiles bounced off the air around the old half-Elf. He blinked at the armored woman lying on him.
“Get off. I have to start over, now.”
Grumbling, he pushed her off. Shame-faced, the [General] got up. Fetohep pointed.
“Scourge Forerunner, I want that caster dead.”
Lines of undead riders broke off from their clashes with Medain, harrying the enemy army and running down the half-Elf lines and converged.
High King Perric watched, almost relieved the pressure was off, but concerned for the caster. He looked up as someone burst through his lines, demanding an immediate audience.
“Who the hell is—”
He reached for his weapon, nervous, wondering if this was some ploy, but stopped with the two Named Adventurers.
Three of Arms and the Falcon of Medain saw a grey-haired woman halt in front of them. She wore a striking set of green-and-light-purple armor, which looked almost natural, for all it was made of metal. She had ridden straight through the Human’s lines.
“Perric of Medain. The Claiven Earth have sent me to fulfill our oath of alliance for this battle. However. We will not bleed the forests dry of our people. Give me a company of a thousand [Riders].”
“Who in the name of Selphid’s tits are you? Do you know—”
The Falcon of Medain and her hawk were angry. Perric held out a hand. He spoke, breathlessly, eyes fixed on the woman’s face.
“I will have my finest heavy cavalry join you—”
“No. A thousand regular [Riders] is best.”
The woman interjected. She glanced impatiently over her shoulder.
“Now. Khelt is moving.”
The Falcon of Medain had never known anyone to get away with speaking to Perric like that. However, he snatched up a speaking stone and barked into it.
“Of—of course. 4th Light Mounted, follow the command of any half-Elf that commands you. No—Ierwyn! Commander Ierwyn of the Claiven Earth!”
The grey-haired half-Elf raised her brows. She nodded at Perric.
She was gone before the bewildered acknowledgement came through. The Falcon of Medain looked at the Three of Arms and the High King, astonished.
“Who was that? Some old half-Elf swans in here and—”
“Hush your tongue, Frieke. You just saw a living legend.”
Requiel breathed. He looked at Perric. The High King looked just as impressed.
“I thought she was dead. Certainly in retirement—”
The half-Elf [Commander] rode towards 4th Light Mounted. Far from the most exalted force in Medain’s army.
It suited her purposes just fine. The [Captain of the Charge] was bewildered. Nor did his [Riders] look favorably on the old foe of a half-Elf leading them. Oh, they’d probably listen, but she had never drilled with them. They didn’t know her style, and they were far from veterans.
It didn’t matter. Ierwyn spoke, briskly.
“Follow me, Humans! We ride to battle!”
She kicked her horse around and sped forwards. Bewildered, resentful, the ‘Humans’ barely caught up. They had no formation, no idea what she was doing. She was leading them straight at the enemy! The undead riders and terrible skeletal remains of elephants and other beasts were a terror.
If not for their training, they might have just stopped. As it was, they followed her in a disorganized mess. It didn’t matter.
Ierwyn was one of two Elders. Two old half-Elves who had survived battle and strife and earned every grey hair on their heads. They hadn’t lived in the villages where decades passed by with little happening. They had lived.
She had seen every comrade fall. She had seen war, centuries ago. Ierwyn remembered Fetohep of Khelt. Her eyes narrowed as she donned the helmet, completing the magical set of artifacts. She had been content to let the King of Destruction pass by, so long as he didn’t trouble the Claiven Earth.
“They woke me up for you, King of Khelt. Only you. Now—all of you will fight with me. You do not deserve it, Humans. Yet for this battle, we will be bonded in blood. You will be my comrades.”
They heard her voice, humming through their ears. They had even forgotten her name, most of them. How it changed, so quickly. Perhaps one or two of them remembered.
It mattered not. She raised her weapon overhead. The partisan spear glinted with the magic of the woods. The Claiven Earth’s champion, Ierwyn the Herald of Forests, [Sylvan Commander of Fables], raised her voice.
“With me! [A Fraction of My Experience]!”
She cried out, and the 4th Light Mounted froze in their saddles. For a moment, they felt her touch them. They knew her. The veteran of countless battles. Her Skill gave them exactly what it promised; a fraction of her battle-understanding, her knowledge. Like the King of Destruction’s Skill, only without power, merely technique, understanding.
Age. Perhaps even a weak Skill—but what about someone who had lived hundreds of years? Who had mastered so many weapons? What about a half-Elf, a Level 60 [Commander]?
The legend of the forests pointed. She no longer needed to speak. 4th Light Mounted—no, the Fables of the Forest, reborn once again, the most feared company of the Claiven Earth roared and charged after her.
Fetohep never even saw one of his cavalry divisions vanish. By the time he’d turned his head, he saw her, streaking through his lines, cutting the charges of his undead riders apart. Behind her followed the thousand Humans, fighting beyond Medain’s finest. Fetohep’s gaze focused on Ierwyn.
“You! They called for you, Herald of Forests?”
He bellowed, and for the first time, those around him heard a note of—uncertainty—enter his tone. Of course, the [Sylvan Commander] never replied.
“[We Fell Upon Them Like Mist]—”
She began the Skill and the 4th Light finished her sentence.
“[Our Blades Sang Through All Things]!”
They swung, swords passing through shields, spears piercing metal with ease. Like the Djinni, for a few dreadful minutes, blades passed through them and they rode like vengeful ghosts.
Fetohep cared not for the undead riders that were falling like chaff. He only had eyes for one group.
“Scourge Forerunner. Fall back!”
She heard him through their speaking stone link, but she was embattled around the half-Elf caster. She turned—saw the Herald of Forests coming at her.
The Scourge Forerunner raised her own blade, her artifacts shining. Fetohep looked at her, too far to reach. The Jaw of Zeikhal was rampaging, but far too slow to catch Ierwyn.
“Khelt stands forever! Khelt—”
The two met in a single clash. Ierwyn sped past the toppling body, already circling, hitting another target.
Undead surged towards the Herald, but her company cut through them without rest, without fear. Even as some of the Humans fell…she was singing through his ranks. A legend like him.
Then, the half-Elf finished his spell. Fetohep looked up and saw the spell activate.
Mother of the Sea. Sea’s embrace.
“[Outlandish World of Water].”
The old half-Elf cackled. The [General of Bows], High King Perric, everyone, looked up. The hovering globe of water looked like a miniature planet. A world unto itself. A—
A million tons of water hit a patch of Khelt’s forces and they vanished. Bone pulverized by the spray of just…weight. Water and weight. The elder half-Elf pointed and the spell pounded another part of Fetohep’s army.
“Bones and water. Fertilizer. Another battle. Another war. Are we losing this one?”
The [General of Bows] just watched, lost for words, as he hummed under his breath. Fetohep pointed, turning to his [Mages].
“Consume Tier 4 Defensive Scrolls at will!”
The Jaw of Zeikhal lumbered forwards to block the pressurized blasts of water being hurled at his army. Fetohep saw the Herald lancing in, able to run rampant where all others had been held back by his undead. His army began moving back, reforming ranks.
Naturally, that was when he heard the triumphal, prancing horns. The clarion call that sounded like a child tooting on mere brass to the wind of their own imagined glory.
Nevertheless—he looked up and saw the stream of riding figures. Such a narrow, few thousand.
All of them [Knights] and [Hunters]. Sisters and brothers to the Order of Seasons. They entered the battle, making for the King of Khelt. And he?
He was no longer smiling.
As Khelt fought on, the first [Riders] reached Reim. Nearly a day of riding. A day of being harried by the most powerful magical beings in the world yet living.
The citizens of Reim surely stared, because they remembered the army that had set forth, winning victory after victory. Who came in their gates now but battered, burned [Soldiers] babbling about fire from the skies, unstoppable, untouchable foes?
All of them said one thing, though. The palace. They had to escort the [King] there. To the weapon that could turn this tide of battle.
In the distance, the towers of lightning were already hurling destruction, but warily, unable to risk striking the mortals. The air was hot, charged with static.
One of the [Riders] broke through the frantic reformation as more of the garrison prepared to sortie and protect Flos. He looked like any other [Veteran], but didn’t bother with talking, just burst through all others and rode up the steps of the city itself, racing for the palace.
Even now, some guards and soldiers noticed and made to check the [Veteran]. They halted as Maresar shed her Skill. She shouted.
“Where is Clan Tannousin? Nawalishifra! I need the Naq-Alrama blade!”
Heads turned. Of course, they’d heard the demand via [Message] spell. Every hand pointed; Maresar turned and rode at the figure.
Nawalishifra stood in front of the great double doors leading into the palace. The [Smith], the young prodigy of Clan Tannousin, stood alone.
Maresar felt a lurch, and checked her corners, but no one had been speaking about [Assassins]. What was it? Threats made? Bribes? Treachery?
She came to a halt, panting, her dark skin covered with sweat and grime. The [Bandit Lord] looked down at Nawalishifra, decorated with so little and so much.
Her blacksmith’s garb was reinforced against the heat she had to work in; she could wear no lesser jewelry, not even bracelets or other adornments of her clan. In the heat she worked in, even that would melt. Her arms were strong, and she had the same fire that Maresar had always sought in her band of [Bandits], and now, [Soldiers]. Rebellion and spirit.
Where was it? Maresar gasped.
“The blade. Where is…?”
The promised weapon for the King of Destruction. Clan Tannousin had promised it would be made, and it had been worked on all this time. Surely…surely…even if it was not done…?
For answer, Nawalishifra simply held something up. She looked pale. Sick.
She had not expected this. The [Blacksmith] had been prepared for the King of Destruction’s ire. Ere his return, she had convinced herself to tell him, to beg an audience first thing and confess the truth. Her clan had thrown the blame on her shoulders.
Even though…Maresar stared down, horrified. The huge ingot of metal, the glowing Naq-Alrama alloy shone in the sun.
So many things were wrong. It should not have been in sunlight! That ruined the metal if it wasn’t finished forging! And worse—
It was still in an ingot form. A block of metal.
“What is this—”
She began furiously, outraged. Until her eyes saw the obvious. The—crack running down the pure ingot. The flaw in the prepared materials.
Nawalishifra’s eyes held tears. But she had wept them all. She had helped make this—but helped. This was the last act of her father, the great [Naq-Alrama Smith] of Clan Tannousin. His last action had not been a great one, his legacy for his people.
Flaw. A single flaw, perhaps more. That was enough. No one could make anything with this.
It was…worthless. She had been prepared for the King of Destruction’s understandable fury, after all he had lauded and hosted Clan Tannousin. That they would rely on the missing blade?
“You said nothing.”
That was all Maresar said. Nawalishifra stared up at the [Bandit Lord]. Maresar looked at the other ingots, sitting hardened, worthless in the sun. No one had helped Nawal carry them out here. Clan Tannousin was hiding.
“I—I was making another. I gathered the ingredients, enough. I was making more, to replace what was ruined.”
Nawal said quietly. Almost hesitantly, unlike every other time she had ever spoken. She looked up at Maresar, pleading.
“I thought I could do that. I didn’t know it was needed.”
The [Bandit Lord] just looked at her. She stared at the ingot. It was something. Use it. Her mind babbled at her. Flos was returning and without a weapon—
“Can we at least use that? It’s still Naq-Alrama steel, flawed or not! It should be hard as diamonds!”
The [Blacksmith] gave Maresar a broken smile.
The young woman dropped the ingot. It landed, tumbling, striking the ground at an angle. And—cracked.
Maresar saw it break, like a gemstone. No—like a diamond. Hard as a diamond. Without any of metal’s strength. The pieces landed on the ground and Maresar looked at Nawalishifra. The [Blacksmith] turned.
In the distance there was lightning. A cloud like darkness, spreading after fleeing figures. She heard shouts, cheers, even. Cries.
He was coming, fleeing the poison cloud, the three Djinni. Maresar dismounted from her horse. Nawal?
She began to walk, slowly. To meet the King of Destruction.
The [Knights] struck Khelt’s lines like a hammer. There were no members of the Order of Seasons in this first wave; only Spring Knights had been sent, and a paltry few at that. These? These were the best.
Pregaris Knights, the Order of the Kingdom of Keys, a paradise like Khelt’s. They wore strange armor, with markings like actual keyholes on the metal, the obsession of their kingdom.
Yet they fought with all of Samal’s strength! Doors and keys—one slashed the air with an heirloom, walked through the door, and appeared out the other side. It was just a dozen feet of space she covered, but it allowed her to bypass the first rank, begin carving back out!
The Sothbound, fur-armored [Knights] who brought cold with them. They hurled javelins, fought with axe and shield in small bands, overpowering even Skeleton Knights, their theoretical cousins, with ease. One saw a half-Giant skeleton lumbering towards him and bellowed.
“[Summon Allies: Wolves of the North]!”
Bounding, furious grey-white animals appeared out of a sudden blizzard of snow. The snow melted; the animals did not. They were not as large as Carn Wolves, but they fought in huge packs, surrounding the half-Giant skeleton and letting the Sothbound assail it as it was brought down.
Other [Knights] came, champions of their orders, some the only representatives, others, small knots. One blew apart undead with vials of alchemical fire before coating her bardiche with flaming liquid. Others formed lance-tips, striking and pulling back like they were jousting.
The last group in full force were the enemies of his kind, for all they came from a land like his.
Noelictus, Kingdom of Shade! Fetohep snarled as he saw them, walking among the [Knights]. Hunters! Hunters with crossbows, lighter, leather or cloth armor, their distinctive hats, calmly loosing enchanted bolts from cover, doing the most damage without risking their lives in the melee!
“Curse you, spawn of Noelictus! How soon do you forget what you were made of? The very kingdom you serve would turn against Khelt? Hypocrisy! Treachery—”
Fetohep slashed and an enchanted bolt blew apart on the tip of his halberd. One of the [Undead Hunters] had taken a shot at him, the bolt passing clean through the shieldbearer in front of Fetohep before phasing out the other side.
The [Knights] took the center as Medain surged around them. Now the Golden Ranks were coming out, and the Named Adventurers. They pressed in on one side, but the real threat was still above and on the flanks.
The two half-Elves. The orb of water was pounding the Jaw of Zeikhal, and for the first time, Fetohep saw the cracks appearing in the great monster’s skeletal frame.
Meanwhile, the Herald of Forests was cutting in with her band of legends, scything through unguarded flanks. Hunting his people.
They knew him. Fetohep had not snarled, not raged even when thousands of undead warriors perished in the volleys. He had not cared when they destroyed his riders, the Herald of the Forest ruined his advance. Even the Jaw of Zeikhal barely gave him pause.
His Scourge Forerunner was dead. Jeirra Akreen. He knew her name. As a girl, she had petitioned him to bear the right to lead undead. She had even debated leaving Khelt.
His head turned. Fetohep’s command of the battlefield was everywhere, but it was devoted in one place. Undead surged forwards, running, striking in from all sides, feinting—forming an elaborate formation, trying to stop her.
They could not. The Herald of the Forests bore down on the second living officer, who tried to get behind the undead rushing to protect him. She swung her partisan down. Fetohep saw Khelt’s blood run onto the sands.
In another place, he saw a Tier 4 barrier explode. The countless million tons of water struck the place where another living soul had been. He saw nothing, even when the waters rushed away.
Death. He felt them die. His subjects! The Herald, Ierwyn, and the old [Mage] both watched Fetohep as he began to rage. They knew his weakness.
“My subjects, to me! Khelt shall unleash fury! You impotent wretches! You arrogant Humans, who deride the undead! Khelt has not made war on Terandria for eons and still you come, prancing your ideals upon every other kind and nation! Damn you! I shall strip you down to your bones and scatter your remains across Rhir! I shall topple every craven tower in your kingdoms, and break your conceits on Chandrar’s shores! Gilded, spoiled bratlings! Die!”
His counterattack came as the living lieutenants, even some of the undead, began unveiling scrolls.
“Evade! Spells incoming! [Army: Evasive Dodge]!”
The [General of Bows] shouted. Half-Elves looked up and saw the sky come to light.
Over a thousand scrolls activated in the first counter-volley. [Fireballs], [Lightning Bolts], and other spells of that caliber flashed across the air, blasting the living caught unawares. The Herald spun her partisan, as the Fables of the Forest came under fire. Even the [Knights] fell back; spells were neutralized, blocked—but some of them still fell, overwhelmed by the barrage.
That was the first wave. Fetohep, furious beyond belief, had his army activate the others they carried, unleashing a storm of magic made of pure gold, each scroll bought, saved for battles like these.
Hundreds of spells blasted the barrier around the old half-Elf. He cackled as Fetohep’s army earthed its fury uselessly towards him. The High King and [General of Bows] were both intimidated by the sight. Well they should be, but the old half-Elf wasn’t in charge of winning the battle. And—he remembered something they had not.
“You were great in your time, Fetohep of Khelt! Not the greatest. You just lived long. I remember when they told me you died! Hah!”
However, it was true that death had granted the King of Khelt more power. More experience. More tricks. He pointed, and the skeletal warriors embattled with the [Knights] drew back.
Half of them, rather. The other half suddenly—collapsed. Fetohep spoke to his officers in the area.
“Fall back. Uncontrolled undead emerging.”
The Kheltian officers looked up, paling. They fled backwards, more terrified of this than the mortals. The [Knights], seeing the skeletons collapsing, hesitated. One of the [Hunters] swore as he reloaded a crossbow.
“Back up! Greater undead spawning! That’s—”
The first giant of bones rose out of the sacrifice, not a proper Giant’s skeleton, but an amalgamation of bones. A Bone Horror on a far larger scale. The Abomination of Bone charged at the living—yet it had none of Khelt’s grace. It was a savage, uncontrolled undead being.
The nightmare of places like Noelictus and Khelt. The [Knights], adventurers, and [Hunters] targeted it, as more began to rise out of the remains of Khelt’s lesser undead.
Fetohep was venting his fury, unleashing Khelt’s weapons one by one. Yet the [Knights] came on, and there were thousands. They began mounting charges, pushing in, ignoring the rest of the army. Now, the vast undead legions were working against what needed to be done; they could overwhelm, bog down foes, but not the Herald of Forests. And the mortals had one goal.
The Falcon of Medain took flight. Three of Arms sallied forth, joining the [Knights]. They had one goal. It was so easy for them. They didn’t need to rout the army. They just needed—
To kill him. Fetohep saw them driving in, lances of petty vengeance against him. He formed his vanguard, even as his army moved to protect him.
Then it happened. He heard a terrible crack. An explosion, but he felt it. Fetohep looked up and saw the last of the great spell, the water, blast open the Jaw of Zeikhal’s frame. The undead giant wavered as magic poured out of the breach.
The mortals cheered. Cheered. Fetohep saw his greatest asset on the battlefield waver, the many legs, the scorpion-like legend from the Great Desert, begin to collapse. He pointed.
“No. No. If you would do this, mortals, you living fools and cowards—reap the entirety of it!”
The Jaw of Zeikhal froze. Then, it began to lumber forwards in a final charge. Fast—faster! It ignored its dissipating bones, the furious onslaught of binding spells and damage. It collapsed, halfway among the living and undead forces. Again, there was a cheer, but too late. The old half-Elf and the Herald had both turned.
“Get back! Get—”
Fetohep roared. The Jaw of Zeikhal—exploded. Bone, and a wave of dark, half-invisible magic shockwave blasted out, knocking mortals down. High King Perric, seeing the explosion, felt the wave even from here, but laughed.
“That was his last trick? That—fool! Press in, press—”
“Your Majesty, look!”
One of the [Strategists] pointed in horror. Perric’s glee faded. He saw Fetohep’s true plan all along. The half-Elves stared in horror. Medain’s citizens, the [Knights], likewise.
The shockwave of death magic had killed the [Soldiers] around it. They had gotten to their feet—but as their friends realized they were not alive. They had become undead, zombies and ghouls and Draugr. That was one thing, and horrific enough. The worst?
The Jaw of Zeikhal had marked the area nearly two thousand feet around where it had died. The sand, the arid ground, and the few plants—had all withered. Turned ashen, grey. It had changed the very land itself.
“Deadlands. He’s—he’s converted it into lands of death!”
The [General of Bows] whispered. It was the very thing the Claiven Earth feared. Pure death magic emanated here, worse than even Khelt itself. The undead began to fight around it, animated by the legacy of the great undead. Even if Khelt was wiped clean, every body burned—Fetohep had poisoned the land here, and the stain was already spreading.
He had to die. The Jaw of Zeikhal’s death still weakened the army. Push in. Hold the rest of the undead legions back! Just—kill him. Fetohep began to advance himself, leading riders to meet the [Knights] and warriors spearing towards him. His living officers called on him to retreat! There were vast legions of undead still! Not even a third had fallen, and more could be revived! Yet they saw Fetohep advance, swinging his halberd to bring down the first [Knight] who struck at him.
The fearsome warrior-king, who wiped even the smiles from the greatest [Knights] as they saw him attack. Yet he was suddenly at the forefront.
He had simply lost his calm. While it was clichéd, the Herald of the Forests had to admit as she struck towards him—
It was going just as planned.
Flos Reimarch rode through the gates of Reim, coughing. Poison burned his lungs, though he had imbibed an antidote. He saw Nawalishifra walking towards him.
He knew. The instant he saw her face, he had to know. Nevertheless, the King of Destruction slowly dismounted. His brave horse collapsed.
“Save her. She bore me here.”
He spoke to one of the [Soldiers]. They bent for the laboring animal. Flos looked around.
“Where is Clan Tannousin, Nawalishifra? My blade? Maresar?”
She gave him no answer. Just a look that told him everything.
“I tried to replace it, King of Destruction. I—”
Her voice trembled. Flos Reimarch looked at her. The King of Destruction spoke slowly. His red-and-gold hair was as stained with battle as Maresar’s skin and armor had been. Yet no blood touched him. He had not even scored his opponent’s blood.
“You said nothing? I would have forgiven it. Yet in pride, you hid a secret. As we rode, you did not dare to tell me? I have ridden through fire and smoke, left thousands of my people to die fighting the Djinni. All for a blade that is not here.”
There was nothing she could say that would appease him. Nor did the King of Destruction unleash his wrath, though it would have taken a single swing of his sword. He just turned away.
There was no time. Behind him came the others. Teres, Takhatres, blurring away from another arrow of fire, Venith, Esiela.
“The blade! Where is it? Give it to me!”
The Lord of the Skies met him at the same time as the others. Flos shook his head.
“It never was.”
Horrified, Teres slowed. She too was coughing with poison, terrified of the Djinni following after. They were dodging lightning unleashed from Reim’s towers, but the barrage could not last forever. What had humbled an army could not kill Drenir; he was blocking the lightning bolts as Seemutor and Hisaille rushed forwards.
“Clan Tannousin failed? How is this possible?”
Venith rounded on Nawal. Before anyone could say anything else, Flos turned.
“I had hoped to make the Sorcelled Blades from the Naq-Alrama blade and give it to your tribe, Takhatres.”
He named his ability to make a unit, and the Lord of the Skies nodded heavily. He was unscratched, but looked—tired. He was drinking a stamina potion, the eighth so far.
“Are we dead, then?”
Teres felt a note of despair in her chest. Flos just shook his head. He looked back towards the gates. His voice became…dreamy. Resigned.
“I told you, I fought them six times, Teresa Atwood. Six times. Three times they humbled me. Twice, we won in massed battle. Once, I fought a Djinni with as few as this. That time was the last. I know how to best them. It will be—at the greatest costs. Venith, Esiela, you will have to guard me. Takhatres—the other two Djinni. You can’t kill that one.”
He pointed at Drenir. The Lord of the Skies looked like he wanted to object. Then he met Flos’ gaze.
“I’ll do it. I need the Grand Mage.”
Flos just nodded.
“Your Majesty. What strategy is this? I’ve never heard of it.”
Even Venith Crusland looked uncertain. Teres saw Flos’ head turn.
“I need to fight Drenir close up. We must bring him down. My aura will let me touch him. However—”
He looked up as a shadow passed over the city. Flos stared up and met the eyes of the Djinni as lightning flashed. He sighed.
“—I am a [King]. Not Mars. For once, I fear I might be outmatched. Still.”
The King of Destruction looked at Nawalishifra and shook his head.
“…There is no other choice. To battle.”
Fetohep rampaged through the living like he had when he lived. His halberd spun, and he cried Skills aloud which he had not uttered in battle since he had drawn in breath with his lungs.
[Spear Art: Sands Fly Apart]. [I Fought Against Five Alone]. [Like a Lion, He Leapt]—
Humans, half-Elves, even the few Garuda and other species cried out as the King of Khelt activated his Skills. A rising slash that cut through ranks in an explosive shockwave.
Suddenly, for a moment, five Fetohep were whirling, bringing down [Knights]. Then the primary one exploded out of a melee trying to encircle him. He landed like a comet, slashing through a [Hunter], flinging a dagger through another [Mage]’s throat, the piercing weapon passing through the barrier.
Terrible combat! Even the [Knights] drew back, realizing here stood a legend of old! Fetohep made to draw breath to roar—
And suddenly realized he had gone too far. He had reached for the reservoir of adrenaline, fury, and it was missing. He was still dead. His rage at losing his subjects, the crusade, was enormous. But—intellectual. There was no biology behind it, and thus, the King of Khelt realized suddenly, he had made a mistake.
They had baited him into this! Now, the mortals were closing about him. Fetohep looked around the battlefield and felt—uneasy.
Too long. Too long since he’d fought like this. Not in battles, but in an offensive battle far from Khelt’s lands. He had always guarded his border, but this? He had forgotten his experience on a campaign outside of Khelt.
Now, even a slight mistake might cost him everything.
“To me. [Lesser Teleport].”
Fetohep touched a ring on his finger. His undead closed ranks and he—flickered—
The undead king felt a pull, then a snap against something. He stayed where he was, jerking with a sudden impact. Fetohep realized what had happened with long experience.
“Lock down teleportation! We have him! Close in!”
One of the [Hunters] shouted. They’d cut off his retreat magically! Like he had inadvertently done to whomever Az’kerash had tried to send his way, the adventurers—Fetohep turned. He saw mortals between him and the safety of his army.
The King of Khelt charged with a furious cry. The [Knights] not embattled broke away.
“Strike the King of Death! With me, sons and daughters of Terandria!”
Fetohep saw a glittering line of [Knights] form up into another lance. They were coming in, and this time…he swung his halberd furiously, but he had to ward himself from all sides!
They were coming for him. Not just one or two Named Adventurers. He didn’t fear the Falcon of Medain alone, or Three of Arms.
Yet the [Keybearer Knight] who wielded one of the heirlooms of her kingdom? The [Undead Hunter] whose automatic crossbow laid low the greatest of his soldiers one after another?
And worst of all—the Herald of the Forests. Fetohep thus counted five. And for all he had a Skill that could fight five-on-one…
The [Knight] charge threatened to do the job even without five high-level warriors. They streamed forwards at the gap—and then Fetohep heard the horns. The charge of Terandria’s finest wavered. They slowed, and then began to turn.
He saw all this with his mind’s eye of the battlefield. Fetohep’s perception turned. He saw another force break into the battle, racing in. Just as they had one time before, covering distance at desperate speed.
Jecaina of Jecrass. She led the last of Jecrass’ [Riders] in a desperate assault from the side. Arrows of sand landed among Medain’s forces, blinding them, but the narrow two thousand were aimed at the [Knights].
“To the aid of Khelt! Ride! Fetohep cannot fall!”
The Arbiter Queen did not lead the charge, but she was amid her [Trick Riders] and veterans. The Terandrian [Knights], outraged, turned to meet them.
“No. No! I told you to stay back! I will humble these arrogant enemies. Do not risk your life, Jecaina!”
Fetohep howled. Yet he had no time to reach for his speaking stone. He sought among his army for another artifact to come to her aid. He did not fear the death of undead, even himself! That was what it meant to serve—but the living? Not her. Not the girl.
He found so few artifacts left. He had taken an army’s worth of scrolls, armed his people in artifacts. He had not brought Khelt’s irreplaceable relics; they were not his to wield in the name of conquest. They had to be saved for the last defense. For—
The [Knights] thundered at Jecrass’ [Riders]. They actually outnumbered Jecrass’ forces, and that was a dire thing to imagine. The lighter, faster force of Jecrass began to swerve, having abated the charge. They turned, but they were not [Lancers], like the [Knights] in heavy armor, and the [Bicorn Riders] lay dead. Was this suicide? Or…
“Now! Rush backwards!”
Jecaina peeled away, and her forces galloped desperately, to evade the charge. The [Knights] came on and they had momentum, and fury. They wouldn’t let this foe provoke them and leave! They would—
Something snapped. Two dozen [Knights] in the front went down, and the rest nearly collided with the first rank. The others swerved. What the hell was—?
Jecrass’ famous, ‘elite’ cavalry was known as the [Trick Riders] of Jecrass. Every nation had one, and they had fought Mars, bled in every battle. They were fast, well-trained, but they had never shown their true potential. Because it wasn’t in slaying great warriors or being the hammer upon an anvil. It was this.
Two [Trick Riders] raced ahead of a group charging at the backs. The [Knights] had speed, but they suddenly collapsed, the horses going down. Why?
The [Knights] right behind saw what had happened. One leapt, swearing, and landed back in the horse’s saddle. More tried to cut at the thin line in the air, but the chain was iron.
It was tied between two thick poles of wood, and the [Trick Riders] had planted it in the ground, drawing the trap out of bags of holding! The impromptu clothesline knocked more [Knights] off their saddles.
In another spot, a [Trick Rider] dumped caltrops onto the ground, something the Wind Runner of Reizmelt would have been familiar with. He also proved she was not the first to come up with the tricks she used; he tossed a bag of black dust into the air, blinding the [Knights].
One of the [Trick Riders] whistled, and half the horses began to follow her. The [Knights] were in chaos! Not a single one actually died, but they devolved into confusion as Jecrass’ forces beat a retreat, harrying them with traps and tricks. One [Trick Rider], caught by a [Knight] hacking at her, did a hand-stand, hopped, and kicked the [Knight] out of their saddle before claiming the horse and galloping to safety.
The sudden intervention lifted Fetohep’s spirits. Of course, Jecaina was no fool.
“So Jecrass humbles the riders of other continents once more!”
He actually laughed. His heart…his soul felt lighter.
“Fetohep, we’re coming. We can pull you out—”
“No. No, Queen Jecaina. You have done enough. Stand back. I have erred.”
It cost him something to acknowledge. Fetohep spoke into the stone as his army fought around him. How much Medain, the Claiven Earth, and the Terandrians had spent to reach him. But they had surrounded him, charge or no, and were keeping his forces back. A diminishing knot of undead slowly drew around Fetohep. He spoke, in that moment, swinging his halberd.
“You must not die, Jecaina. This day. This day, let them come to the ruler of Khelt. I shall remind them of their hubris.”
He strode forwards. Five. The [Hunter]. The [Keybearer]. The Herald.
The Falcon of Medain landed, aiming a shortbow at him. Fetohep leaned out of the way of the arrow. He saw the Three of Arms aim a wand at him and flicked a dagger towards the Named Adventurer.
“You have come all this way for me, mortals. Now—regret that we met. To me, guardians of Khelt! Defend the throne!”
The Herald of Forests and the remains of the 4th Light saw glowing warriors rise, summoned like the Dagger of Serept. Fetohep brought down his halberd, and locked blades with the Keybearer. To death? He pressed the halberd down, down, as the [Knight] cried out and activated the magic. It was not Relic-class, it was his weapon of old. And the enchantment was simply, like many, utilitarian. Not fanciful, just—
The mortals saw the [Knight] collapse. They cried out. The High King stared. The other [Knights] shouted, but all saw the halberd drive down. Fetohep rose, golden eyes flashing.
“Four left. If you would take my head, bleed upon these sands.”
He was laughing. The Named Adventurers, the Hunter, the Herald—hesitated. Then they came at him. At the end of it, Fetohep saw his mistakes.
Ah, I grew too enamored with the idea of living again. They made me feel young, these children.
The first blade pierced his armor as the Herald ran him through the arm.
The King of Khelt fought.
This was the end of his long flight. The King of Destruction turned to meet the Djinni just outside the gates of his city. Hope of an easy turnaround gone. The promised blade had never been.
So they fought. The Djinni swept in, but Drenir saw the danger. Hisaille, Seemutor—they were still careless.
The King of Destruction’s first blow struck Hisaille so hard he nearly cut her essence in half. She screamed and Drenir bellowed.
“Stay away from them.”
He conjured another pillar of fire as Hisaille fled. He could slay Seemutor and Hisaille by himself! With his two hands! Drenir and Flos locked gazes, and knew their opponents. Yet the Djinni refused to come low, as Flos beckoned. He flew up and disgorged a rain of acid, a river’s worth.
Flos Reimarch swore. Drenir assailed him from above as Seemutor dueled with the [Archers] and [Mages]. He took aim at the King of Destruction, but each time, Venith was there. Blocking, the [Shield of the King].
Drenir pointed, and the very same lightning that Reim had unloaded from the towers now blasted into the city, picking off the mortals who tried to help their [King].
“Fall back! Leave the Djinni to us!”
Flos ordered his subjects. Many stayed, dying to distract them. The two younger Djinni laughed. Enjoying blood, enjoying war.
Hisaille crept forwards. She was going to stab that [Lord] in the back! She was wary of the King of Destruction, but—
“There you are.”
The Nightair Djinni had materialized to strike at Venith. She had to; her mist-form could not be sustained indefinitely. She had to have a form, unlike the other two, and her weakness was needing the daggers she carried. You could see where she was by how they hovered, although she could strike with them while incorporeal, for a time.
That was what he had seen. The Lord of the Skies had been busy defending his slow companions, his liege-lord. Now?
Takhatres stood in front of the gates, thirty paces away from Hisaille. He had been so…still, she had missed him! Had the blurring, incredibly fast Garuda lost all his energy?
Certainly, he looked tired. Sweat matted his feathers. The Lord of the Skies looked at Hisaille. She whirled, grinning. He had cut her time and time again, but his daggers weren’t specialized for killing air, but flesh. She sprang forwards.
Takhatres slashed her head off her shoulders. Hisaille never even saw him move. Her head floated off her body, and she cried out at the line of pain.
She dissipated. He was standing back at the gates. Hisaille held the mist-form, darted away, and reformed. She growled, preparing to call out to Seemutor or Drenir to help—
A blade severed her head, plunging through her neck and twisting. Again, the Djinni felt her head separate. She cried out.
She fled, mist, then had to reform. Her magic wasn’t infinite, and each time she became mist, she burned it faster. She formed and saw him.
He was standing right there. Breathing her. He—
Beheaded her. So fast! Hisaille screamed. Then, she heard a voice.
“Djinni tactics. [Fireball]. And—detonate.”
A glowing orb flashed through her mist-body and detonated. The fire ate at Hisaille in cloud-form and she shrieked. Grand Mage Esiela was aiming at her! Hisaille fled, but she could not maintain the mist form for more than a second. And when she came to, she—
—Was beheaded. The Lord of the Skies had her! No matter how far she tried to flee! He was too fast!
Terrified, now, Hisaille tried to call for Drenir, but he was battling the King of Destruction, and Seemutor was under attack! She saw the Grand Mage tracking her, able to see her even as mist. Now, the [Grand Mage] spoke, lips cracked and bleeding, injured, but intent.
This time Hisaille shrieked as part of her vanished. A true wound, worse than any before, tore at her. Drenir heard it.
“Hisaille! Sister! Flee!”
That was how Djinni died! Their bodies came and went, but their magic was them! The Grand Mage pursued the mist-cloud, but looked up and threw a barrier up—a storm of boulders thundered from the sky, striking at her, sending up dust-clouds.
Hisaille fled, sobbing in terror. She didn’t want to die! She stumbled, running for the carpet. Calling it to her. She…
Saw Takhatres, standing with one foot on the carpet. The Lord of the Skies looked up.
“I was only ordered. I am a servant. I surrender.”
She lifted her hands, pleading with him. The Garuda looked at her.
“You want to surrender after you’ve slaughtered so many?”
Drenir dove. Too late. Hisaille breathed.
The Djinni stared down at her body. Her head, floating, became mist. The expression of fear became resignation. Despair—
She disappeared. Unable to hold on any longer. With a sigh. Takhatres waited, but Hisaille would never come back. Somewhere, her masters cried out in horror, and realized their servant was gone. The treasure that had kept their family fed and wealthy, even if poor, was destroyed.
The Lord of the Skies looked up. Two Djinni fell upon him, screaming fury. He tried to dodge. He evaded Seemutor, as the Djinni exploded into scything fury. He ran—straight into the air itself. Drenir reformed and lifted him up. The Lord of the Skies blurred, stabbing him, hurting Drenir, but the Djinni cared not at all.
“Do you feel proud, childkiller?”
That was all the Djinni said. Takhatres reached for his belt.
Drenir became lightning. A pure ball of it. Ten thousand tongues of electricity struck through the air. Takhatres fell, alive or dead, Drenir cared not. So long as the body remained, his fury would not end. He created a pillar of stone, to crush the Lord of the Skies beyond all recognition. Grind him into less than paste!
Flos Reimarch bellowed, and Venith, Esiela, and the others tried to shield Takhatres from Drenir’s wrath. They could not stop him. However—the cry from Seemutor could.
“Brother! Argh! Brother, help me!”
Drenir turned. Seemutor, even Seemutor was wounded. Fleeing—bleeding his very essence. How? Hisaille was weak enough for blades to damage her alone, but Seemutor?
The answer was a flash of gold and other colors not part of any rainbow. An arrow curved through the air and the Djinni, desperately trying to evade it, tried to spread his essence out, form a gap.
It was no good. The bit of metal still exploded as it touched him and magic died there. Drenir stared as Seemutor screamed with real, deadly pain. He looked and there she was.
Maresar stood on a tower of Reim’s palace, bow in hand. She was loosing arrows—but no ordinary ones. Each one was an ungainly projectile, unbalanced, because of the shard of metal quickly tied to them.
Naq-Alrama steel. The broken pieces were being shot up in a shower! Not just by her; [Archers] were loosing bits of the metal.
Every time one touched Seemutor, both metal and Djinni’s essence were lost. The reaction of the two was of pure magic versus one of its nemeses, meeting.
Seemutor could not evade this, not from all angles. He tried invisibility, but Maresar had hunted invisible foes, and the Djinni was not used to weapons like this!
Drenir turned. He dove, as a chunk twice the size of Maresar’s fist flew from a [Power Shot] arrow. The largest piece of Naq-Alrama metal struck Drenir in the chest. A fatal blow for Seemutor. The Djinni’s chest flashed as the metal exploded.
The greatest Djinni staggered in the air. Then—the wound closed. Teres, who had been cheering, stopped in horror. More arrows struck him, a rain, using up the costly metal that Nawalishifra had said was flawed.
The [Blacksmith] groaned on the ground. She had her head in her hands.
“Flawed! Flawed! It breaks! It can’t touch one such as he! Only if it were made—”
Drenir was a giant in the skies. His form was dark blue, like Hisaille; he even seemed to be taking her shape, albeit as a huge cloud. His eyes looked down at the defenders of Reim as more Naq-Alrama arrows struck him.
Vaporizing bits of him. Wounding him, yes. Drenir bled his essence.
It could not kill him, though. Now he understood; a blade of such metal would have been his death. The rare weapons of Clan Tannousin would have ended all three if the Lord of the Skies held them.
Seemutor was screaming, unable to staunch his flow of essence. He looked as afraid as Hisaille. His confidence gone.
“They’ve wounded me, brother. Brother—Hisaille is dead.”
The cat-Djinni gasped. Drenir looked at him. Then, down at the archers, who had slowed their fire, unwilling to waste the few arrows left. They could kill him, Drenir knew. So he looked at Seemutor.
“Brother. Does your master summon you back? He must, if he sees you wounded. Flee. Flee, and tell him you are dying. Or will die. That is no lie.”
Seemutor’s eyes widened.
“You will stay, though?”
“I fear not that metal. Go, brother. Live.”
The cat-Djinni hesitated. Then, he fled, racing off into the skies. A few arrows pursued him, but Drenir caught each one, letting the burn tear at him rather than his little cousin. Then he turned back.
He was tired of this. Tired of seeing his people die. He had never rejoiced at this task like the other two; he was tired of blood. Even theirs.
“King of Destruction! Come forth!”
He turned. Let it be done. The Djinni boomed, and from one hand, he plucked a vengeance in kind.
Maresar dove from the tower as a comet hit it. The people of Reim stared up and screamed as more comets began to land across the city. Drenir threw parts of himself, caring not at the vast amounts of magic he expended.
“Djinni! Enough! Enough!”
The King of Destruction emerged. He shouted up as Venith, Esiela, shielded him. Drenir stopped his assault. He pointed down.
“You have slain one of my kin and wounded the other, King of Destruction. I could lay your city to waste from above! Choke them with poison; throw down lightning from the skies. That is not what my master ordered. Nor what I wish. Yet I will do so, unless you face me. Single-combat, as when you struck the King of Duels down. Take whatever you wish, but swear to face me upon your crown or I will slaughter your citizens without end.”
He should have done this from the beginning. However, Drenir saw Venith protesting, all of the King of Destruction’s subjects.
“Your Majesty, that would be suicide! This isn’t a mortal foe. If the Djinni is threatening, he knows he could be killed!”
“I know. And yet, Venith, he might fulfill his promise. I told you: I have beaten them. This? This is a better chance than not.”
Flos Reimarch was breathing heavily. He looked up at Drenir. Venith put a hand out.
“I cannot let you do this.”
The King of Destruction looked at him. He reached up, and slowly moved the hand.
“No more, Venith. Trust me. I can stop this Djinni. But at what cost?”
He stood there, and then called up to Drenir.
“You have your duel, Djinni. I need no more artifacts than what I carry. Come down and let us end this. I swear by my kingdom no one shall interfere if you will do the same!”
Upon hearing this, Drenir laughed. He laughed, bitterly, long and loud. He descended, as the King of Destruction strode forwards, alone. Because of all he had seen today, this was the most laughable. The funniest.
“Mortal [King]. You have made a mistake. I so swear. Now—let us finish this.”
King of Destruction or not—Drenir took a final form. A towering figure, taller than Flos by two heads. Six arms holding blades, skin like Hisaille’s in honor of her. Flos wavered as Drenir opened four eyes.
The Djinni spoke to him, as Flos readied his sword and shield he had borrowed from Venith. Contemptuously, humorously—and even sadly.
“You may have fought half-Giants and their kin as now walk this land. You may be one of the greatest mortals to live. The greatest of [Kings] in a thousand years. You are still arrogant. The strength of a [King] is always in his kingdom. And I?”
He lifted six blades, each made of him. The Djinni exhaled through corporeal lungs, staring at the sky. How tired he was. Yet he looked down, and smiled grimly.
“I have killed Dragons. So let us end this, King of Destruction.”
He advanced, blades singing, as the King of Destruction fought for his life. In the first clash of swords, Teresa Atwood, [Bladeswoman] far below both though she was, could see it: neither had lied.
Flos Reimarch was outmatched.
Fetohep tasted steel. Pain, running through his body. Lances of disruption to the magic that animated him. He whirled, and drove one of them back.
Four on one. The others held back; they couldn’t even join the melee. They were too slow, too weak. The four though—
The Herald was best. She matched him, blow for blow, but she was older. A [Commander]. He was a [Warrior] born, and she fell back. If it were just the two of them, he, with his undead body—
A sting from the side. The [Undead Hunter] whirled back as Fetohep swung at her. She fired the crossbows she held again, one in each hand. Keeping wide.
He struck at her, but Three of Arms conjured barriers, slowing him, trying to constrict him, cast spells to slow or blind the undead king.
They were resisted by Fetohep’s armor, his Skills and artifacts. He lashed out, but the Falcon of Medain had taken over for the Herald. She fought, swore as his slash nearly did the same for her as the [Keybearer], flipped backwards.
Fetohep stepped forwards and struck her mid-flip. The showy move cost the Named Adventurer a stab through the stomach. She cried out, falling.
“So long as I live, Khelt shall never fall. You cannot slay me with half-hearted blades! Come. Die.”
He struck around him, in a fury, but—bled. Not actual blood, but took blows from all sides.
Jecaina was trying to get to him. His subjects were fighting fiercely, but he had told them to hold back.
Not one more living soul of his would die! Fetohep staggered as the Herald pierced his side again, flowing like the woman of stories to strike from all angles, graceful.
It would end like this. He knew it. He…sighed.
Jecaina screamed. She had gone in too far, and High King Perric was coming after her. That was his weakness, wasn’t it, these days? The living.
A wave of undead surged forwards, saving the Arbiter Queen, pushing Medain’s forces back. Fetohep’s concentration wavered.
The Falcon of Medain’s shortsword took him through the neck. Fetohep stared at her as the battlefield became still. His subjects, watching from afar, screamed. Even the undead froze. Jecaina choked and Fetohep whispered as the sword pierced him.
The King of Destruction was strong. So strong, Drenir couldn’t believe it. His strength exceeded his body, and Drenir had known Dragons who were weaker.
In the clash of swords, Flos could push Drenir back. He was a veteran, as skilled as the best, if not in perfect form and artistry, a seasoned warrior.
He could also wound Drenir; he had cut the Djinni twice and Drenir bled essence. The King of Destruction’s aura, the royal power, let him touch Drenir, knock him back.
Flos Reimarch was still losing. Drenir had six arms. He was faster. He was taller. He fought like a Djinni.
The King of Destruction charged, and Drenir flowed around him like mist, stabbed from the back. Flos Reimarch’s armor had taken too many blows, and Drenir’s swords were not relics—but they were sharp as anything. The King of Destruction bled.
Venith was tensed. Maresar, even Takhatres, on his feet, were all watching. Would they interfere? If they did, Drenir might win.
Flos had sworn by his kingdom. He might lose his class. They watched as he bled.
He had a healing potion in his mouth and drank from it as they dueled. He had known he would be injured; so why had he fought? That was his one big advantage; no potion made by mortals in this day and age could heal Drenir.
“Strong as Giants. But your flesh is too thin.”
Drenir slashed and Flos saw two arms descend; he blocked them, but the other two scythed horizontally. His shield blocked one; Drenir cut him with the last.
Unfair? Oh, yes. The King of Destruction cried out, and his subjects shouted in despair. He let go of the shield, dropping it, and Drenir pressed down.
“I have you!”
He dug a sword into Flos’ side. Then—hesitated.
The King of Destruction had his arm. Flos Reimarch clung to it with a bloody hand, grinning. He had…dropped his sword? Now, he held Drenir, and the Djinni felt his aura dragging at him. The fingers tore into his very essence. Flos spoke around the healing potion clutched between his teeth.
“We have each other, Djinni.”
Drenir stared. So this was his plan? To tear apart the Djinni with the strength of a [King]? He saw Flos straining and felt his limbs being pulled down. Unable to fight back against that strength, Drenir acknowledged Flos’ last gambit. Then he laughed again.
“You have me, King of Destruction. Yes, indeed. Hold on.”
Then he turned his body to living flame and Flos screamed and burned. Yet he did not let go. Teres saw him drag the Djinni down for his last, desperate gambit.
“Who are you?”
Fetohep of Khelt looked at the Falcon of Medain as the sword ran through his throat. Straight through her. She—she was not whom he was addressing, for all she thought it.
He was speaking to what lay beyond. To…a strangeness.
Always. Always they were there. In this moment, when he had reawoken to find he ruled Khelt…always.
Eighteen stood there. Eighteen glorious figures of old, rulers of Khelt! His queen.
Khelta herself. They always spoke to him.
Live! Serve. Protect.
They were bound by sacrifice and the land. The weight of the same crown Fetohep wore. They always said the same things…
“Listen. Know. Look.”
Fetohep stared. In that flash of time, he saw the eighteen. Only—what had changed? They were looking at him. Pointing. He looked—
And saw the young woman. So strange. Not dressed at all like them. She waved at him.
He asked her. The [Innkeeper] waved harder.
“Erin Solstice. Hi—”
The sword moved. Fetohep felt it slice—and his body fell, headless.
The lights in his eyes went out. The golden flames vanished. The Falcon of Medain lowered her sword as the King of Khelt’s head fell. She sheathed it with a flourish, breathing hard.
“Frieke of Medain.”
She spoke to the body, as the Herald of Forests raised her spear and the cheering began. The undead held still.
Khelt’s citizens wailed. They screamed at the sight. High King Perric laughed as the Arbiter Queen wept.
His body lay on the ground, head next to it. Already dissolving. The King of Khelt was dead.
Flos Reimarch burned. He screamed, as Drenir became flame—then an inferno. His skin burned, and healed, mid-burn, as the potion fought against the fire.
He would die unless he let Drenir go. Did he have the strength to tear Drenir apart before he burned away? Drenir doubted it.
Strange. As Drenir killed the [King] by fire, he waited for the terrible pain. The King of Destruction might well damage him so much it took decades to recover, yet he felt none. Oh, the strength, yes. But he was being dragged down. What was he doing?
Teres saw Flos, in the flames, pull the Djinni low. He was screaming, shouting in pure agony, but his fingers were fumbling. Searching for something.
He knew how to fight Djinni. He told her he had fought them personally once. Just…once. How would he win?
The young woman saw Flos find what he was looking for. What he had seen, and aimed for all along. His fingers touched the one thing on Drenir that had never changed, for all the forms the Djinni had taken, even as cloud, as meteor.
The collar around his neck. The King of Destruction gripped it with both hands, letting go of Drenir. The Djinni stared at him. Teres stared. She heard a voice from Esiela.
“He can’t be thinking of—is he mad?”
The Djinni felt the [King]’s grip on his collar. His prison. He looked at Flos as the [King] burned.
“Fool. You cannot break this. I could not.”
The King of Destruction ignored him. He was screaming, potion gone. Pulling at the artifact.
He was too weak. This had been made to hold Drenir. It was thus, stronger than Drenir was. Only a Djinni stronger than he could have removed it, or a Dragon, or…and hope might be dead.
What chance did a mortal man have? Yet, he was pulling.
That…strength. Drenir was still fire. This had all happened in less than a second. Flos was burning.
He felt something uncertain in his very being. A…strain. The Djinni’s eyes widened.
Flos howled. His arms tried to channel his strength. Not a fraction, heedless of whether it would hurt him! The fullest extent of it.
[A Kingdom’s Strength]. Once, it had stretched from shore to shore. Once—
He was going to die. Every part of Drenir saw the king burning to death. He felt the compulsion to end him. He—
Ended his flames. The command spells in his being tore at him, threatening death, forcing him to reignite. Drenir fought it. He met Flos’ burned gaze.
The King of Destruction screamed. One sound that tore through the air. His fingers tore, flesh down to bone.
He pulled the collar apart. The relic of millennia, forged to capture Drenir, his bonds that had never been broken—shattered.
The shockwave of the artifact breaking exploded around the two. Teres was thrown so hard she hit the walls of the city. Every person in Reim was knocked down, by the magic as much as the blast of air.
Impossible. They were made never to be broken! Drenir stared down at the pieces of metal, lying next to the prone [King]. And he realized.
“King of Destruction.”
Such a fitting name. Drenir looked down at Flos.
The man was barely alive. He was burned on every part of his body; he might have been blind from the heat and fire. No hair remained. He looked up, though.
Drenir could have slaughtered him. Killed every person in the city. He could have.
Yet his chains were gone. The Djinni reached up and felt nothing. No collar.
Horror struck all those who watched as the Djinni rose up slowly. The scrying spells reflected the nightmare of it; the freed Djinni of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Emira Sulaake of Aeresuth had gone still. She looked at Drenir as he floated over the King of Destruction’s body.
Madness. The King had freed a Djinni? No one could speak.
Drenir looked to the left. To the right. Up, and down. He breathed, in, and out, and tasted something. Then he looked at the [King].
There was too much to say. Hisaille was dead. Drenir had killed so many. Even now, his vassals rushed forwards, to guard him. The Djinni could have killed him. But it was his choice.
So Drenir rose. He bowed, slightly, and then rose higher.
“Thank you, King of Destruction.”
Then he turned. He flew higher, into the sky, like a bird, like an arrow. Streaking back the way he had come. When he spoke next, it was a roar. A bellow that was surely heard in every part of Chandrar. It wasn’t Cinaelu. It was technically the day after.
Drenir didn’t care. Nor would the Rebel of String. He bellowed the word.
Let all those who held chains beware.
Khelt was in chaos. The citizens were prostrate, wailing. In a blind panic, or just numb.
Fetohep of Khelt was dead! Already, the treacherous armies were celebrating—but pulling back. The undead had thrown themselves forwards in a frenzy and they were fighting to escape, job done.
This was the doom of Khelt. The direst day in six hundred years. Who could but walk when the earth had collapsed inwards? Who could see for tears in their eyes?
Only one person could. One person of Khelt…a young woman. She was a [Potter], though she was one of the rare sorts who had lived beyond Khelt. She had been born to a family who had left—and then pleaded to return. They had been allowed back in, and thus, the young woman had known the outside world and this paradise, if strange.
She was remarkable for reasons only she and the ruler of Khelt knew. He had summoned her, one day, and asked her to tell him the full story. She had thought little of the honor beyond the honor itself until the day he had summoned her back and told her.
If I should die before naming another heir, you shall take up my crown. On the day I perish, sit upon my throne. It is a terrible burden, but you are my heir of this generation if another is not found.
A terrible, horrifying honor. She had hoped it would not come, and he had reassured her that he had centuries left. He did need to name his successor, though. So—on this day, she ascended the steps to the palace.
The servants were wailing inside as out. The undead guards let her pass. She could walk anywhere in the palace; Fetohep had shown her enough to ensure that if…
She was numb. She would have fallen, but she had to obey. Khelt could not endure without a ruler. The undead would descend into their madness. Her eyes were dry. She hesitated on the doors of the throne room, as two of the greatest protectors of Khelt, undead armed with magnificent relics, watched her. She was terribly afraid.
But she had to know. So she walked forwards, opening the doors to the throne room.
The young woman’s voice trembled. She looked to the throne upon which nineteen generations of Khelt’s rulers had sat. The terrible weight of time rested there. A burden beyond belief.
The nineteenth King of Khelt slowly raised his head. The golden flames reappeared in the sockets as Fetohep’s body, his true body, raised its head.
She fell to her knees, weeping. Fetohep rose. He felt…disorientated, from his journey. From what he had heard. Nevertheless, he was aware precious time had passed.
His feet strode from the throne. His carefully-wrapped, bandaged flesh, more like a mummy from Earth, was more fragile than the Fetohep that had fought in the north. A six-hundred year-old body was far too much to risk. He was much too much to risk.
“Rise, child. Did you doubt me? Send word to the citizens! I live! Restore order. And—breach the vaults of Khelt. I call for my relics of war!”
Fetohep’s voice rose. The young woman rose as the guardians stirred. The relics? Fetohep’s eyes burned brighter than they ever had before.
This was how you humbled your foes, incidentally. The great strike to Khelt’s army, at such cost, to the [Keybearer] of Samal, all the blood lost to kill the King of Khelt…
Fetohep was dead. He was always dead. High King Perric stared at the scrying orb as Fetohep emerged from his palace to the cheers of his citizens. His army faltered and looked at Khelt’s army, advancing.
Their morale broke. Even the Herald of Forests and the other half-Elves stared, dull-eyed. They hadn’t known the Ruler of Khelt could do that! Some secrets had been kept even from their memories. How many times had one fallen in battle, though?
The answer: never.
Fetohep held the speaking stone away from him and Jecaina screamed at him.
“I will return as soon as I am able. There is a mission I must attend to. Stop weeping, Arbiter Queen. It does not become you.”
He turned, and his golden eyes of flame swept his palace.
“Listen. Know. Look.”
The rulers of Khelt called to him strongly, shouting to him now his soul had returned home. Fetohep?
The great crusade in the north was just starting. The thousands of [Knights] were all needed, for Khelt had not been broken in a single strike, and the ruler was angry.
In Reim, meanwhile, Flos Reimarch was carried by magic; no one could even touch him. He was so badly burned that even healing potions could not repair the damage in seconds. Every [Healer] clustered around him, but at last, Takhatres had to thrust his way through the crowd.
“Flos. Nerrhavia’s taken advantage. Your army is returning here.”
“You cannot speak to him! He cannot even move! We must find more healing artifacts. A’ctelios Salash! The damage—”
One of the [Healers] tried to stop the Lord of the Skies, but Takhatres, wounded as he had been himself, pressed on. He could see the eyes staring at him around the charred skin.
“Flos. They’re heading north. More armies are coming, but they’re heading north. They intend to liberate Ger, Hellios. Cut us apart and surround us. I can stop the ones headed here, but we give up both nations back to their people.”
And neither ruler might easily bow again. Especially Hellios. Yet Reim was in danger. Takhatres waited.
He could not move. He was wounded beyond belief. Nevertheless, the King of Destruction spoke, and it was not what they expected.
The Gnolls? Takhatres recalled they had been given land to the north! Hellios’ land. Flos spoke.
“Are you sure?”
His army was in tatters. Takhatres’ tribe could return, but to guard the north…Flos spoke.
“I will not be forsworn again. Go.”
The Lord of the Skies bowed and left. Nerrhavia’s armies covered the border, advancing on Reim now the King of Destruction was so wounded. Towards the capital.
That didn’t matter. Oh, it was war. A technical breach of peace—who was going to hold Nerrhavia to account? Flos had enemies who wanted him dead at any cost.
It still mattered not. Not right now.
The only news that mattered was that a Djinni was on the loose. The same kind of calamity that struck once a millennia, always a disaster, especially if they were powerful. And Drenir was almost as powerful as the last one.
Chandrar reacted to the news as if a Goblin King had emerged. No—perhaps more so. For this mattered to them.
A Djinni. All those who held chains trembled. Yet the response was immediate.
Other Djinni were summoned. From the Shield Kingdom of Merreid to Roshal, masters unleashed their own Djinni with one command: slay Drenir. Or chain him once more, if an empty vessel could be found.
That was what must be done. Even if they had to sacrifice other Djinni, not one would escape. From the instant he was freed, he was hunted.
Drenir knew this. Worse—he knew he could not easily flee Chandrar’s shores. He was wounded from battle, exhausted, and Djinni would hunt him from all directions. Some could teleport.
He did not want to kill his kin. They would have to fight him with all their strength and he likewise. Drenir dreamed of fleeing the shores. He had almost done so, but he knew he would never make it.
So he flew the way back he’d come. Straight into Nerrhavia’s Fallen.
His kin sped to meet him, with nets and chains and weapons. They shouted at him to run, even as they were compelled to fight him. They cheered his freedom, sobbing as they struck at him.
He never answered their blows. Drenir flew, letting himself be wounded. [Mages] struck at him, unleashing spells; he answered them as he flew, but speed was all.
They all knew where he was going. If he did not flee and hide—there was only one place to go. So fast Drenir flew! He burned his very magic away for speed. To get there in time.
She had to know he was coming.
Emira Sulaake of Aeresuth and her family hid, begging for protection from Queen Yisame and the capital. Some fled on horseback, but how fast could they run? Their servant—
No. Their slave was freed. And while they might call themselves ‘good masters’, the truth was that none would ever want to be judged while at the mercy of those they had imprisoned. They knew what would happen.
The glorious city of Aeresuth, a jewel even among Nerrhavia’s many cities was below him. Lit up. Defensive magics and other Djinni fought him.
He was bleeding.
Dying. Drenir’s essence leaked into the void and his kin were crying out. Some of the Emira’s cousins, the scions of Aeresuth, were running. She was probably hiding in the vault he had built to withstand all.
Drenir cared not. He fell, like a comet, and landed in the center. Buildings were blown away, the people lamented and fled. He called up at his cousins as they circled, throwing down weapons and magic.
“Brothers and sisters! Flee! My vengeance is at hand and I will never be chained again! Dream of freedom! Another can break our bonds! Go!”
They fled, as their masters realized what Drenir was going to do and ordered them back in panic. He waited until the last was speeding away.
Emira Sulaake, her family, were all running now. A few fools tried to attack him. Drenir didn’t care. He looked at the streets he had swept for over two thousand years, the bricks he had laid. Farmland he had made prosper.
All things he enjoyed doing, for the craft of it. If only he had been able to do it himself. Choose.
“I will not be chained again. Sister, I’m sorry I could not join you. I’m just tired, and they are so many.”
Drenir whispered. He sat, sighing, and reached for his heart. It was already torn, the very core of him dying. He tore it open, gently, even.
All the magic in him released at once. Those who watched, seeing Emira Sulaake flee on enchanted carriage, the others leaving the city, the city itself, and this entire region—saw the light.
Aeresuth vanished. The Djinni’s last vengeance left nothing. Not even a crater. Only sand and dust. Drenir’s last thought was regret. If he could have fled and lived…and freed the others, he would have.
But now they knew. Someone could break their chains, though he was mortal. Now, the world knew the King of Destruction’s great secret power. Let them tremble.
Let them hope again.
Author’s Note: A bigger chapter. I wasn’t sure if I could finish it, but I did. It’s still a busy, stressful month. However, we got the chapter done and…I am very tired.
There’s not much else for me to say since I can’t collect my thoughts. I’m done from the second I finished the chapter; energy out. I’ll just leave you with some amazing art Plushie drew as a birthday gift, and thank you for reading.
Volume 8. Something something quote here.
Thanks for reading.
The Blighed Princesses of Rhir, by Plushie!