It was a strange thing they saw. Almost incomprehensible in that first moment, especially for many who were not familiar with the idea. Then it caught in the mind, like a burr to the imagination. A brilliant idea, a natural extension of something they had already been led towards. After all, it had flowed like this before.
In another world. But only a fraction realized that. It changed the experience of viewing, but what it told remained the same.
The first thing they saw was the sky. It was evening, cloudless, and it looked like someone had poured fire across a pink aurora in the sky, turning to a deep blue like the ocean on the very edges of the horizon. A few stars were visible, glowing a faint fiery red, or bright yellow, or just plain white.
There was virtually nothing on the horizon that interfered with the glorious view. No clouds. No mountains. No hills or buildings or trees, and no birds either. It filled everything, beautiful, hauntingly vast. Then, a moment later, was the sound.
Sound. Not smell. Not touch. The audience heard crunching, the sounds of someone walking on something dry, powdered, with labored breathing close by. The view shifted upwards abruptly, and someone’s face came into the frame.
Yes…frame. For it was a kind of lens, if not a camera or video recorder. Something similar, and the person angling the image understood something about capturing images. They settled the image on themselves, not too low, so you weren’t staring up at them and into their nostrils. For a second, two faintly violet, mostly grey eyes stared straight into the audience’s. Then they flicked ahead, scanning for something.
The person in-frame was a young man. Human, skin tanned as well as sunburnt, wearing a headwrap and long, concealing clothes to prevent the rest of his fair-ish skin from burning. They were nondescript, a beige that ran to brown, as to make him somewhat invisible amid the sand surrounding him. He was dusty, sandblown, and looked tired.
Behind him was the undercarriage of something huge and hairy that went mweh. It was, in fact, a camel, standing to grudging attention as the young man spoke. He had the reins of the camel in one hand, and spoke quickly. His voice was clipped, precise, and fast. As if he only had half the time to get a word in that everyone else did.
“This is Rémi Canada…[Journalist]. I think I’m here at last. If not—this joins a dozen other failed attempts. It will be, to the best of my ability, an accurate account of everything I see, without editing or falsehood.”
He stopped for a second. His eyes flickered, but he didn’t open his mouth. The view changed again, and that was when the audience realized he held the view that bobbed occasionally, dipping as he climbed onto the camel’s back. It knelt and he rose, riding up the hill, set against the sunset in that vivid, open sky that could only belong to one continent.
Chandrar. As the camel crested the hill, Rémi adjusted his camera, or whatever else the audience was seeing through, allowing them a view of the great sand dune he had crested sweeping back towards actual ground. Still dry, but dotted with actual vegetation brave enough to grow along the changing border of sand.
“Hup. Go faster. That way.”
Rémi ordered the camel, and it went down the hill, somehow tracking the finger that appeared for a second. The destination was as obvious to the animal as it was to the viewers.
Amid the arid place, with still no visible signs of civilization or large patches of vegetation—anything—a giant valley had formed, completely coincidentally, out of two large sand dunes.
It might be gone tomorrow, if the wind blowing the tops off the dunes kept up. But for now, it completely hid several miles of land in the neverending landscape about here.
Yet it was not completely empty. There was nothing much to see beyond tough low-level vegetation, actual dirt rather than sand—except for one little spot where something glowed despite the fading light.
A distant fire. Tiny, smokeless, and distinctly—at least one figure. Rémi focused on it and the image magnified, bouncing around as the camel descended.
“I think this is it. My Skills are telling me—this could be it. Slow down, girl.”
The distant fire was disappearing into the night, so even though Rémi rode closer at a measured pace, details were nearly impossible for all but the most discerning viewer. All they could see was a fuzzy group of shapes amid the small amount of light, not pixelated, because this was not an electronic recording. More like how the eye lost detail, and everything grew blurry and indistinct.
Nevertheless, the campfire’s residents finally came into focus, and a voice murmured, loud enough to be heard as Rémi and the camel approached.
“…tracked. The same one stalking us. Prepare for battle. Not you, Yinah.”
Something meowed loudly, and then one of the three figures standing around the campfire turned. Rémi stopped abruptly, as a voice called out.
“You there. Halt! Draw blade and die.”
The camera moved, rising, as the young man called out.
“I’m unarmed! This is a magical artifact! Don’t shoot! I just want to talk!”
But the female figure didn’t loose an arrow. She held a bow, tipped with an arrow that glittered dangerously with a light of its own. She was only a silhouette against the fire’s light. She turned her head.
“Do you see anyone else, Ksmvr?”
Ksmvr. Then, you might remember the name and put together the pieces.
A figure leapt down, causing the camel and Rémi to start. He followed it, and an odd figure landed, a cloak billowing around him. He too was nearly invisible without light, but something shone dully, light reflected off a curious body.
A strange one. Not as tall as the woman, but squatter, with a rounded back even when he stood upright. Shorter too, but he had leapt downwards from an incredible height with such ease. He stood there, tilting his head left and right, and…were those antennae? One, a stump of one, waved left and right erratically.
“I saw no one else, Nsiia.”
“Well then, it seems our pursuer either has invisible friends, ones far away, or tells the truth. Come closer, stranger! Keep your arms raised and don’t aim that…thing directly at any of us. Domehead, awake. No need to keep hidden.”
The leader, or so it seemed, the woman, gestured. Rémi rode forwards, slowly, then jerked. The camel screamed, and understandably.
Something came out of what had seemed like part of the hill the group was camped next to. A massive figure, with a glowing head, rose out of the sand it had been buried in, a giant! A [Knight] in full armor—
No. Something even larger. A giant wearing metal armor glowing with faint, magical runework. And rather than a helmet, his glowing ‘head’ was a perfect half-sphere. A crystal dome, transparent, disclosing a small forest of glowing crystals of many colors, predominantly bright yellow, within. They winked and turned off or on hypnotically, but the giant metal creation—the Golem—had a huge axe in one hand. It stowed the weapon on its back as the camel backed away, making sounds of alarm.
“Hush, Sandi. Relax…”
The camel, whose name was apparently Sandi, did not want to get close. Yet then the woman laughed, and whistled.
“Come here. Don’t be alarmed by this giant child. If your master means treachery, he’ll be the one to suffer for it. Not you, brave one.”
Somehow, her words calmed the camel and it trotted forwards, even eagerly. Rémi dismounted, and that’s when the woman came into view by firelight, and Ksmvr as well.
The first sight of Empress Nsiia of Tiqr, the Empress of Beasts, was a fitting one. Whether Rémi had chosen the moment or by luck, she stood with only the faintest hints of light on the horizon. A cooking fire was at her back, and she was as travel-worn as Rémi. Still, she wore riding clothes and, over them, a patchwork of leather pieces. She had a sword at her side, and dark skin.
But what stood out was the way she held herself, hands on her hips, eyes glinting. They were a bright orange, almost as wild as the cat that perched on her shoulders, eyes aglow. A city cat, a house-cat with blonde and ashy fur, but two strange, ceramic back legs, perfectly carved to imitate the real things.
The Empress of Beasts smiled, warily, facing down Rémi and his unseen audience as if she had an army at her back, rather than a single cat and two odd companions. Her eyes had a faint glow, like an animal’s, and her hair was running long, uncut, almost as wild as the very air around her.
She was Nsiia of Tiqr, Nsiia Oliphant, the fallen Empress of Beasts who had lost her empire and been taken prisoner of war months ago. A friend of the King of Destruction. A recent escapee, hounded by at least three major powers who had no desire to see her regain power.
…She was the least interesting of the three people who stood there. Marginally more interesting than the cat, Yinah.
The giant Golem was eight feet tall, made of polished metal despite the fine layer of grit, and carried a battleaxe that no normal Human could have wielded without being a giant of their kind. Yet Domehead could lift it one-handed. He was an automaton, voiceless, seemingly without personality—certainly without face—but he was a miracle of the Magus-Crafter of Illivere.
The first Sentient-class Golem in living memory. Built by the finest magical craftspeople of Illivere, champion of the Testing Grounds. Affectionately dubbed ‘Domehead’ by a nation that wanted him back.
Yet even Domehead was not as strange as the last figure, which the audience may have seen, certainly heard of, but never up close. Never like he was: still, watchful, his two broken antennae twitching, his three arms at rest.
One hand on the hilt of a long, wrapped sword at his side. Another casually drifting near what looked like a plain little cloth sack—a bag of holding. The last clutched a strange buckler with a shimmering forcefield around it.
Three arms. He had a fourth, but it was severed above the elbow, the stump long since healed over. Yet not with flesh. His entire body was…chitin.
Insectile armor. A carapace of dark brown and black, and his eyes were two round, multi-faceted orbs without pupils or any other color. He had two biting mandibles, and his ‘back’ was a rounded shell, like a beetle’s. He was shorter than Nsiia, discounting his antennae, and compact, but bedecked with strange artifacts.
His long cloak, bearing two holes from arrows or spells. The wrapped sword at his side, the sword of a [Paladin] from antiquity—though the audience did not know its exact nature. A Forceshield, two hanging compact hand-crossbows, a belt of potions, bag of holding, and more tools and weapons.
He was an adventurer. The only Gold-rank Antinium adventurer in existence. The only Antinium to ever leave his Hive and journey abroad, alone.
Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad.
There they stood, a trio—quartet if you counted the narrow-eyed Yinah, and sextet if you counted the mare and second camel resting around the fire—each one as striking and as different as they could be from each other.
Rémi Canada, unseen but audible to the audience, held up his hands.
“I’ve found you. I’m Rémi Canada, a [Journalist]—please, give me a second to speak?”
Nsiia’s eyes narrowed as she pointed directly at the viewers.
“What is that you’re holding?”
“A modified artifact. It’s a scrying mirror, but it’s not active!”
Nsiia had raised the shortbow she was carrying at the word ‘scrying mirror’. She aimed the arrow straight at Rémi’s chest.
“And how are we to know it’s not active?”
“Nsiia, I do not believe he would admit it is a scrying device if he intended to spy on us. He has already found our location and you believed he has been following us the last four days. If this is an ambush, we are already jeopardized. He would die, either way. Should we not hear him out?”
The Antinium spoke. Nsiia glanced at Ksmvr, and put up her bow again with a wry laugh.
“Well thought out, Ksmvr. Alright then. Explain yourself, Rémi Canada.”
The young man exhaled, and lowered the magical camera, with a telltale shaking until he steadied it. He approached, explaining.
“I’ve been trying to find you for nearly two weeks. As soon as I heard you’d escaped the Illivere Federation—before that, honestly. I was hoping to interview you. Or even have a chance to meet you. Now that you’re fleeing from Illivere, I hope you’ll…take me with you. I realize this is sudden, but I am a [Journalist]—I’ve written articles for newspapers and reported on Tiqr’s war. However, I believe you will be the story this world needs to hear. If you’ll let me accompany you and film what you do.”
Nsiia tossed her head back as she pointed to the fire. Domehead had already stepped backwards, in the shadow of the camp, as still as a statue, without the need to move, even to look around. However, his arms were cradled—the better for Yinah to curl up and nap in them. The Empress of Beasts glanced at Domehead and smiled.
“You found us, when at least three nations have hunters and trackers after us—and you want to accompany us into a warzone for a story? Hah! Well, I have heard of [Writers], [Historians], [Poets], and other fools trying the same. I also know your name, Rémi Canada. Sit, and I shall consider it.”
She gestured, and again, the viewpoint wobbled as Rémi hesitated. He coughed, and then spoke.
“—As a matter of fact, Empress Nsiia, I hate to contradict you, but I am not here to follow you, specifically. I was hoping to meet with…”
The camera swung left, and Nsiia’s look of shocked outrage was replaced by a puzzled Antinium. Ksmvr looked left, then at the camera. Then he pointed to himself with one of his hands.
And that, of course, was how it all began.
Ksmvr did not know Rémi Canada, except vaguely by name. The young man was interesting, at least as Humans went. Which was not very, to Ksmvr.
He could not fly, possess bodies, breathe acid, breathe underwater, smell what you had eaten yesterday, or so on. Also, Humans looked vaguely the same, but Ksmvr appreciated that not everyone could be Pisces.
Rémi was fascinating in that he had somehow sought out this small group, despite Nsiia’s best attempts to take them through the least-populated areas of Tiqr. She was native to this land and had chosen the most inhospitable terrain, the better to foil trackers. They had also moved at a near-gallop, albeit with Skills, the entire time.
Nevertheless, this young man had done what other [Trackers], [Hunters], and [Scouts] had not. He had already been on the way, and heading from the opposite direction, which helped, but he explained as he let his camel sit and took a seat next to the fire.
“I had to ride nearly day and night to catch you. I wouldn’t have dared try to catch up, but I have [Expeditious Traveller]—it’s helped me get around.”
Nsiia grunted, already in a dangerously bad mood. She sat, cross-armed and cross-legged, next to a bubbling pot of porridge by the small fire they’d made. Breakfast, in fact. They were travelling by night due to Ksmvr’s allergy to baking to death in the heat of the sun, but she’d sensed Rémi coming.
“Alone? Even when Tiqr was safe, I would have called you foolish without any escort. Monsters abound, especially near the borders of my empire…my former empire. How could you find us, nonetheless? Neither scrying spell nor Skill should let you follow me. A [Tracker] would not be able to hone onto me personally, only follow what little trail we have—and sand and camouflage take care of that.”
“You mean, because of your aura?”
Rémi angled the strange object he held and Nsiia glowered at it. It was, to Ksmvr’s eyes, a curious kind of box. He had seen what was surely part of a scrying mirror inside, but it was somehow attached to, or linked with, what looked like a glowing crystal, expertly cut into a rough sphere, but with smooth facets rather than perfect roundness, like some kind of extreme geometric object.
“My aura, yes. I am a monarch in class—even deposed of my throne. You either have a level beyond mine, or a different means.”
“Different means, Your Majesty. I’m…a [Journalist]. The Skill that led me here isn’t one that means you harm. Nor does it track you, specifically. It must not interfere with your aura. It’s called [Follow the Story].”
“Hah! Explain your class then. I’ve never heard of it. Is it like that…Drassi? Of Wistram News Network? Television?”
Ksmvr grew more interested as he sat around the warm fire. Rémi nodded, fishing out a flask of water but keeping his device perfectly level with what looked like practice.
“Yes, Empress Nsiia. It’s a class about news. About…truth, reporting events. A new class, in a sense. Not [Reporter]. Mine’s more of a derivation. A [Reporter] is on the scene, or someone who relays what’s happening to an audience, like television. My class writes news articles. Have you seen a newspaper?”
“That new thing? I saw a few articles.”
“Well, a [Journalist] researches, finds new stories for the public, be it through magazines, newspapers, the television…and I do think I may be the highest-levelled [Journalist] in this world.”
Nsiia’s eyes narrowed suspiciously and Ksmvr sat up at this claim. But Rémi didn’t appear to be attempting to deceive them, and he spoke very confidently indeed about such new things.
“Hah. So you find stories to tell? Why did you come to us? I will own that my flight from Illivere is news, as is Domehead. Ksmvr himself is a famed adventurer, but one who survived the raid on the Village of the Dead. We three all have tales to tell, but why Ksmvr?”
Nsiia couldn’t hide that she was peeved, and didn’t bother to try. Rémi glanced at Ksmvr, and angled the box towards him. Instantly, Nsiia moved her head left and towards it, scowling.
“What are you doing? What is that thing for?”
“Recording, Your Majesty.”
“Recording our positions?”
Rémi shielded the box from her wrath. He explained, backing up.
“It’s not transmitting to Wistram or any other organization. I’d never do that—there is a thing known as ‘journalistic integrity’, Your Majesty! It is not my job to interfere like that unless I feel I have an ethical responsibility to do so—not in this case at all. This is a new artifact I commissioned, with almost all of my profits. Not a new one, in fact; an existing kind of magical device. It takes images and transfers them into this crystal, here.”
He tapped the rounded crystal very gently.
“[Mages] have had the magical acumen to broadcast images, record them, from creating pictures to full-scale images, for a long time. They have not created…media until very recently.”
“And you want to record Ksmvr? Why him? You are aware the King of Destruction has been wounded gravely in battle, aren’t you? There is a war in Terandria, unrest in Wistram of all places—a thousand and one great events. Why him?”
Ksmvr opened his mandibles.
“Yes, why me, Rémi Canada? You are surely aware of who I am?”
He looked at the young man and Rémi nodded.
“Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad, Gold-rank adventurer. Former or current member of the Hive of the Free Antinium, Liscor. I couldn’t identify which was true.”
Ksmvr was impressed by Rémi’s understanding, not to mention the gratifying speed and accuracy with which he spoke. Ksmvr liked that kind of person. Rémi reminded Ksmvr of Hedault, or Femithain, although the two other Humans were different in other ways.
“Why did you seek me out, Journalist Rémi? If you are aware that the Horns of Hammerad live, and I do believe it is an interesting news story of some small fascination, you surely should have sought out the more veteran and important members of my team. Captain Ceria Springwalker, Pisces Jealnet, or Yvlon Byres. Unless…I was the only one you could find?”
Rémi brushed at some hair in his face and shook his head. His eyes were intent on Ksmvr, searching him, but he kept as much attention on that little recording box. He hesitated, then angled it towards himself.
He had an odd tool for that. He could actually place the box on a long arm and hook with a lever that let it rotate back towards him, or to capture a sight that he couldn’t with only his arm for extension. He recorded himself now with the box as Nsiia scooted over so she was next to Ksmvr.
“I have heard credible reports that at least Pisces Jealnet and Yvlon Byres are alive. I can give them to you if you would like, Ksmvr. I assume you’re going after them?”
“That is my intention, yes.”
“Well, I would like to record that. I can’t fight, but I will find my own supplies. I can even offer to pay you, although it’s not much…”
Nsiia glowered at Rémi. He gave her a puzzled look, and realized Ksmvr also didn’t understand. He looked at Ksmvr, shaking his head slightly.
“Ksmvr—excuse me—do you have any last name, Ksvmr?”
“I do not. Antinium do not have last names. Ksmvr of the Free Antinium is a suitable appellation if you must give me one.”
“Then that’s a fact I, and my audience, now know about Antinium, Ksmvr, where we knew virtually nothing before. You are the first Antinium willing to talk, an adventurer, an emissary of your people. This is the chance of a lifetime to show the world what Antinium are.”
Ksmvr found many fallacies in Rémi’s plan, though he had to admit, he understood the [Journalist]’s idea.
“I regret to inform you, Rémi Canada, that I am an outcast of my Hive.”
“Nevertheless, Ksmvr, there is no way for me to meet an Antinium under normal circumstances. I believe you could change the world’s perception of your species.”
“I see this one’s logic, Ksmvr.”
Nsiia leaned over, whispering. Ksmvr hesitated, then tilted his head slightly.
“Then you think we should let him accompany us, Nsiia?”
“Why not? This…what do you call your box, Journalist Canada?”
“Rémi is fine, Your Majesty. I call it a ‘camera’, although that’s more of a catchall term. Magic recorder would also do.”
“Then Nsiia is fine. It seems to me that since Ksmvr and I are thrown together by the whims of fate, your recordings might also detail Tiqr’s plight, mightn’t they? Or do you have no care for Tiqr?”
Rémi nodded at Nsiia.
“I reported on the war for Tiqr, Your Majesty.”
“I know. Then…?”
Rémi held up the box on the stick, which somehow stayed perfectly level despite his less-than-perfect motor control. A balancing spell, Ksmvr guessed.
“I would consider it as important a news story as that of interviewing the Antinium.”
Nsiia smiled, satisfied.
“Good. Then we shall eat, and break camp. We ride by night. Just what is it you want to do? Shall it interfere with us or will you just…watch?”
“If you’ll let me use whatever Skills you are employing, I will follow you, ask questions when you are free—I can eat by myself, but I also have supplies. If fighting breaks out—I am protected from some harm by my Skills. [Impartial Observer].”
Nsiia threw her head back.
“Hah! Now there’s a [Spy]’s Skill! What a curious coincidence. I shall allow it. Unless Ksmvr objects?”
She looked at him and Ksmvr hesitated. However, it did seem like Rémi Canada might be helpful, and if he had news of the others…Ksmvr nodded slowly.
“I shall allow it. Although I must inform you, Rémi Canada, that I am not part of Empress Nsiia’s movement to free Tiqr.”
Rémi focused on Ksmvr in an instant. Nsiia scowled.
“I consider Ksmvr a boon companion—”
“I am only coincidentally in the Empress’ company, due to shared pursuit. In fact, I would like to state that I am not part of any political or military movement in direct confrontation with other nations.”
“—a friend and comrade in arms, who has saved my life and I his.”
Nsiia shouted. Ksmvr saw Rémi track both of them, and then turn to Domehead.
“And Domehead? Isn’t he property of Illivere? Or, do you consider you’ve liberated him as a Sentient-class Golem?”
He swung back to Nsiia and Ksmvr in time to catch the way they looked at each other. Ksmvr hesitated.
“I did not free or liberate Domehead. Nor did Nsiia.”
Nsiia turned back to Rémi, and Ksmvr saw her narrow her eyes with more than just annoyance or pique. She regarded him a bit more warily. Rémi eyed them.
“Then how did he come into your company? I would like the full story later, whenever you can give it to me.”
Nsiia frowned and crossed her arms again. Ksmvr scratched at his head. Already, he somewhat regretted his choice, but all he had to do was…be recorded? Surely, it was not a problem. So he shrugged.
“He followed us. I believe the dynamics and cultural significance of Golem-creation have not extended to Sentience-class Golems and am unsure of the exact positions in play. But it is my understanding that Nsiia is Domehead’s mother.”
He pointed at Nsiia. She blinked at him. Rémi blinked at Ksmvr. Domehead’s crystals winked in their dome. Ksmvr looked around, then went to eat breakfast.
It was at this point that Drassi fell out of her seat and hit the floor. The crash in the newsroom was accompanied by her swearing and two assistants rushing into frame to help her up. Drassi stood up, re-seated herself, and spoke.
“Uh…if you’re just tuning in, this is Drassi, and we just saw—I can only describe it as a recording of [Journalist] Rémi Canada meeting the Empress of Tiqr and Ksmvr—and a Golem named Domehead? This is…this is extraordinary! It’s like one of those recorded broadcasts, only—well, how did we get it?”
Another Drake hurried over to confer with Drassi, but the [Reporter] pointed him around. So the Drake gave a nervous report.
“Apparently—it was a, uh, delivery to the Mage’s Guild via a City Runner. It broadcast first on Visions of Chandrar—one of the competing news outlets.”
“I’ve never even heard of that one. Is it new? And then we got ahold of it?”
Drassi blinked. The Drake nodded. Drassi turned to the viewers, looking amazed.
“Well, there you have it. Rémi Canada is apparently travelling with the Empress of Beasts and Ksmvr—he’s a personal friend, I’ll have you know—in Chandrar! Expect more of these recordings to come. In fact, this one’s not over! So, uh…is this going to be a thing? Because I like it!”
She looked around, and there it was. It was a thing.
Not a movie. Not a television show, or news broadcast. Technically, if you had the terminology for it, it was a documentary, or a journalistic report. And it went around the world, mainly thanks to Drassi’s personal friendship with Rémi Canada that led her to copy the recording.
Also, the nature of the revolutionary little device Rémi had poured all of his income into producing. The documentary hit every major city, every person who could pay to see a broadcast of the recording, and even small villages where people now had a habit of gathering around the scrying orb to see interesting events, or even had it playing as they worked.
This is what they saw.
Nights of riding, days of rest. Or talking with Rémi. At first, it was disconcerting, him with his little box and how he asked questions and always pointed it at them.
But then Ksmvr and Nsiia got used to it, and she stopped trying to walk into every frame. In fact, they almost forgot about it. Not that it existed, but they never saw anything other than Rémi pointing it at them, so they began to just…act normally. After all, nothing ever came of it.
The first days of flight and adjusting to Chandrar’s challenges were over. Ksmvr had settled into a routine of travel across Chandrar, such that riding each night was involved, and chatter was minimal as they moved as fast as they could—besides, sand and the bumpy ride of Spitty, Ksmvr’s mortal nemesis, didn’t make for great chatter anyways.
They had some time to talk around fires or eating without fires, or before they broke camp or slept, but Rémi occupied that. He kept up well, despite being noticeably the weakest traveller among the group.
“I’m not used to travelling. I’ve done it before—but never at this intensity. I’ve gotten a lot of experience.”
That was his one comment around a breakfast of dried Yellats and dry jerky, followed by not-dry water. Nsiia quirked an eyebrow, amused.
“You’re too modest, Rémi. Even a trained [Warrior] would find this pace somewhat tiring. Ksmvr, how does it trouble you, if at all?”
“I hate Spitty.”
The camel turned his head from flirting with Sandi and spat. Ksmvr blocked it with his Forceshield and glared at the camel. Nsiia laughed. Yinah meowed, complaining at being woken up. She got to ride in a side-basket hanging, not on the mare’s flanks or Spitty’s side, but on the smoothest, most comfortable ride: around Domehead’s neck. Indeed, the Golem was carefully feeding Yinah bits of meat.
For some reason Rémi recorded that, then focused on the group. Nsiia stabbed the ground with her sheathed sword, and did a rough sketch in the dirt.
“We’ve circumnavigated much of Tiqr. I would have liked to ride through the heart of it—but now is not the time. We had to place distance between us and Illivere. Us and Savere, as well, which is why I held us so far north. There are garrisons in my empire as well—and no doubt Nerrhavia’s Fallen will be after us soon.”
“Are those the three groups most likely to pursue, in your mind, Nsiia?”
Rémi asked. He did talk and interject questions, but usually preferred to let Ksmvr or Nsiia fill the air. Nsiia scowled.
“Yes. The Siren personally wants me. Nerrhavia? They have an interest in keeping me from my people. Femithain wants Domehead, and he was responsible for my captivity. It falls on his head if we are not caught. So—three nations. There are smaller ones, but—peh.”
She turned her head and spat, to show how she cared for them. Ksmvr nodded.
“We are nearing your western border. What is the plan after that? Where are we bound? I am content to be headed in Pisces’ direction.”
Pisces was due west, headed towards Roshal, so Ksmvr had not objected. But Nsiia just sighed.
“I need my army. And they are here. To the west of Tiqr lies three major lands.”
She pointed, and Ksmvr and Rémi leaned forwards. Ksmvr was aware of the nations around Reim, having followed the King of Destruction’s war, but the rest of Chandrar was largely unknown to him. He knew Roshal was a harbor on the furthest west coast of Chandrar, the famous nation of slavers.
In the center of Chandrar was Zeikhal, the Great Desert that had devoured countless nations and was a no man’s land that few could survive the further in you went. But along the southern coast? Savere, then Nerrhavia’s Fallen to the east…tiny Pomle, Illivere, Tiqr, smaller nations, and then?
“The Kilalle Steppes border Zeikhal here, you see? They are a wild place—few permanent cities. No central ruler. Garuda territory. Their clans—groups of Garuda, much like your Gnolls—hold it. They have been friends to Tiqr more than enemies. It is here Vasraf and what remains of my armies hide.”
She pointed to the northwest of Tiqr. Then circled a section along the coast.
“Here lies another power we should be wary of, and why you should keep accompanying me, Ksmvr. The Empire of Scaied is a mercenary one, and they might well go after an Antinium alone for the bounty on his head. More than that? You helped me escape.”
“In fact, I merely waved my sword in the vague direction of—”
“Yes, yes. But they are enemies of Tiqr and you are an enemy of theirs by extension.”
“I object to this line of thought.”
Nsiia grinned at Ksmvr.
“Not everyone is as reasonable as you, Ksmvr. The Beitv Underlands are in the middle, there. Another land without a central great power, though they do have rulers…”
“Tell me about them.”
Ksmvr was fascinated. Nsiia shrugged and cast her eyes at the evening sky. They had an hour before the land cooled enough to ride.
“Shortly? Very well. The Empire of Scaied made war on Tiqr many times—and we them. They fight for coin. Mercenary—they clash with other kingdoms, raid, and sustain themselves by war. Tiqr does not, and we share opposing views. I thought they would attack Tiqr when the other nations made war, but they were busy enough not to join in.”
“They have a number of unsavory features, and I do not have time to list their many faults.”
Ksmvr held up his hand.
“…Is this an unbiased opinion?”
Nsiia’s glare made him lower it after a few seconds. She poked holes in the little sketch of Scaied for a moment, then sighed.
“I wonder if you would like them, Ksmvr, or they you, without fear of the Antinium in name. You see—they do deal with creatures kin to yours. Or so I think. Giant scorpions, which they ride—somewhat like the Jaws of Zeikhal, but far smaller.”
Ksmvr looked at Nsiia. He frowned, drawing his mandibles together.
“I am not a scorpion.”
She blinked at him.
“Yes, but I meant you are like an insect. And a scorpion…”
“I am not a scorpion. No one rides Antinium.”
Ksmvr crossed his arms. Nsiia peered at him.
“Fine then. The Beitv Underlands might be more your folk.”
“Because they live underground.”
The [Brave Skirmisher] paused. He opened his mandibles, raised a finger, then crossed two arms.
“I admit, there is some correlation there.”
“It’s my understanding that the Beitv Underlands have never had a strong military presence or a large standing army, Empress Nsiia. How have they survived? Peace treaties? Economic strength? Skills?”
Rémi looked intrigued. Nsiia just laughed.
“Nothing so smart, Rémi! They survived because no one would bother to invade them. The Beitv Underlands have some wealth, but if anyone tries to conquer them, they collapse the tunnels and withdraw. You would have to take two armies—one to fight and one to dig!”
“Antinium could do it.”
Ksmvr spoke, and Rémi shifted the box to him.
“Do the Antinium have designs on Chandrar, Ksmvr?”
The Gold-rank adventurer hesitated. Ksmvr looked at Rémi, at the box. He shrugged.
“I am not a Queen of the Antinium. But we have designs on everywhere acceptable to be colonized. Chandrar is far away.”
Nsiia eyed him. Rémi nodded, but frowned.
“Yet the Antinium have a reputation for being a warlike, invasive people, Ksmvr. What would you say to that?”
Ksmvr gave him a blank look.
“We have invaded Izril by Drake and Human rhetoric. We did make war. We would move to Chandrar if we could, to establish new Hives, I believe. If possible.”
He fell silent. Rémi waited, then prompted him.
“…That is what species do to live. The Gnolls left Izril. Someday, we may leave Izril too. If so, the Beitv Underlands might be a prime target.”
Ksmvr stared calmly into the camera. He chewed on his breakfast as even the Empress of Beasts gave him a troubled look. Then he amended his statement.
“Except that we would have to cross water. We hate water. I hate water.”
Rémi Canada’s first documentary came out after a lot of drama and news around the Meeting of Tribes, to substantially less fanfare and instant attention. That it even got coverage was thanks to Drassi, but it didn’t have every eye glued on it, like, say, watching Foliana of the Forgotten Wing Company, Three-Color Stalker, try to throw peanuts at Grand Magus Eldavin did.
…Through the scrying orb. As if she could somehow toss a nut across the world and onto the other projection just because they were presented side-by-side in the same picture. Which demonstrated her lack of spatial understanding vis-à-vis the perspective of a camera, or her own misplaced confidence in her Skills. Or just her desire to toss shelled peanuts at [Mages] who annoyed her.
That was hugely interesting to any audience, no matter who you were, and had happened on the news. Live. Including such memorable scenes as the [King] of Pheislant, who was currently divorced, maybe, possibly, definitely asking both Queen Geilouna of Desonis and Strategist Perorn of the Forgotten Wing company out on a date.
And being shot down. By flaming arrows. That was another event from the news, and the Meeting of Tribes. So you could see why, frankly, even though Ksmvr was in the news, and Nsiia and Domehead, it wasn’t as instantly eye-catching.
Moreover, Wistram and the other news networks, which were becoming more mainstream television, were learning a lesson—their audiences did need breaks. They could only show so much high-drama before being tuned out.
Enter Rémi Canada’s first foray into the documentary. Was it at the worst possible time? Or…best?
There was something that made the documentary do the rounds on the other channels. It was just…well, a lot of quiet. Actual conversations, rather than a bloody battle. Like the opening, sometimes Rémi and the others just rode and the view was of Chandrar’s landscapes, the vivid sky, or capturing a conversation.
Because, crucially, Rémi Canada’s recordings were not edited. It was up to anyone who received a copy of the magical image to do so—or not at all. He didn’t have the magical acumen to do so, so, very interestingly, some groups chose to play it wholesale, and to their interest, they found audiences willing to watch someone just ride across Chandrar for an entire day in the background.
And—coincidentally—watch Ksmvr, Nsiia, and Domehead. None of the people being filmed really understood who was watching them. They didn’t stop near Mage’s Guilds or civilization. They were certainly staying away from scrying orbs, which, by now, everyone sort of knew could be reverse-engineered to spy on the user. And ‘everyone’ was really just anyone with a modicum of power or connection to a group with any military might or secrets they didn’t want revealed.
The only person who could chart any of this was Rémi Canada. And he was just the journalist, film crew, and passenger in this adventure together.
Ksmvr observed a few qualities about Rémi after two days of travel. First, the [Journalist] possessed a number of interesting abilities, both in Skills and developed by his profession.
He was able to keep up well with Nsiia, Domehead, and Ksmvr, despite being the least-conditioned of the group. Ksmvr could ride Spitty until the camel dropped dead, but Nsiia made sure they got plenty of rest, and he was a [Skirmisher] over Level 30, and had Antinium biology designed to weather most extremes.
Short of heatstroke, he could keep on going. Nsiia was the Empress of Beasts and Chandrar was her home. She could sleep in the saddle, and her faithful animal companions had extra intelligence and strength due to her presence.
Domehead was a Golem. He could run all day and all night. So even Yinah looked perkier than Rémi after a day of hard riding. Nevertheless, he kept up.
“I’ve done some hard riding. Unless you have an escort, you have to bounce around for stories.”
“And you seek those out.”
Ksmvr was riding Spitty, side-by-side with Rémi and his camel, Sandi.
Spitty and Sandi. He kept trying to ride closer and Ksmvr kept pulling him away. The camel turned his head to glare at Ksmvr, and the Antinium offered him a Yellat to eat. Spitty hated Yellats.
“I had to, right when I was starting out. Newspapers were not in circulation, nor was the television. I actually went from city to city with a little news bulletin—I made a small profit selling them to [Merchants] and people who were interested in my writing.”
“Fascinating. And you did this alone?”
Rémi hesitated. He had his magic-camera out, and it was on that swivel-stick that let it film both Ksmvr, the camels, and him.
“I had companions. At first. They died.”
“I am sorry to hear that.”
Rémi’s face had gone guarded. Ksmvr saw him nod, slowly, and look at Ksmvr.
“May I ask a question? Did any Antinium leave the Free Hive but you?”
“No. I was exiled.”
“Really? May I ask why?”
Nsiia turned in her saddle. Rémi raised his eyebrows.
“Really? But you’re a Gold-rank adventurer. You seem to be one of the most competent the Antinium could hope for—every species and nation respects Gold-ranks. I also thought you once threatened to start a war in the name of the Hives?”
Ksmvr felt unpleasantly warm, despite the cold air. He shrugged.
“…That was a bluff.”
“Really? A bluff?”
Nsiia cackled with delight. Rémi smiled.
“And you don’t mind sharing that to our audience?”
“—Ah. Will many people see this? In that case, I would like you to remove this commentary.”
“Could I persuade you to keep it in?”
“I would prefer you to remove it. Threatening war is a viable tactical advantage. Psychologically.”
Rémi coaxed Ksmvr into allowing him to keep it in. Ksmvr relented because his war threats had backfired and he’d been cautioned by Captain Ceria not to do that too often anymore. He tried to go back to Ksmvr’s expulsion.
“I have heard that other Antinium have left the Free Hive in some way. Bird the Hunter. So others have exited.”
“Yes, but their situations were not analogous to mine. You asked, specifically, if any had left with me. They did not. I was exiled. Their status is less directly related to that.”
“May I ask what that is?”
Ksmvr thought for a second. He prodded his stomach. And found he didn’t want to talk about it.
“You may. I decline to answer.”
Rémi nodded. He changed tack instantly. He was tactful, and had already managed to get Nsiia’s account of Tiqr’s fall out of her. Ksmvr was surprised to hear the Empress of Beasts relay her view of how the war had gone.
“—I never thought Tiqr was doomed, Journalist Canada.”
“No, Your Majesty? But you could see the odds stacked against Tiqr from the outset. Surely you heard your [Strategist] and [General]’s commentary. Did General Vasraf ever advise you to sue for peace?”
Nsiia threw her head back, eyes blazing.
“Peace? That would have looked much like what we see now! At best, I would have been a puppet on the throne, but the other nations in the coalition did not make war just to stop me from allying with Flos Reimarch. They did it to take Tiqr, which they wanted. Let us not play games.”
“Of course, Your Majesty. But the odds…?”
“I thought if I bled them, wounded them in great battles, they would relent. If one hound in the pack falls away, the next is more likely to follow. Even Nerrhavia’s hordes would not eagerly come one after another, not with the King of Destruction in the north. If I could do it again, I would sue for peace, if only to avoid the needless losses. Does that answer your question?”
The young man nodded, focusing on her face for a moment.
“Yes, thank you. And your plans next?”
She smiled thinly.
“That will wait until we find Vasraf. I do not trust you that much, Rémi Canada.”
She met his grey-violet eyes with hers, and Rémi ducked his head. Which led Ksmvr into his question.
“Violet eyes are not a natural color amongst Humans except when exposed to some magic, in their heritage or otherwise. May I ask your heritage, Rémi Canada? You do not appear to be natively Chandrarian.”
That was a guess based on skin tone and the fact that Rémi didn’t seem as used to the glare of the sun as even Chandrarians of his skin color were. The young man hesitated.
“—My eyes aren’t inherited, Ksmvr. They changed color due to one of my Skills.”
“Ah. Interesting. Which one? Unless it is secret.”
“No. I can share that. [Eyes of Personality]. It’s…call it a Skill fit for a journalist. It was one of the earlier Skills I got.”
Ksmvr nodded politely and added it to his lexicon of eye-based Skills. He concluded his observation.
Rémi Canada was a good deceiver. Not by outright lie, but by omission. He side-stepped, like Pisces could do with his rapier and footwork. He had things he did not want to say, like Ksmvr, who ignored or declined all of Rémi’s questions about the inner workings of Antinium Hives, and so on.
If anything, the most honest person here was Nsiia. Domehead could not talk, but ironically, Ksmvr realized the Empress of Beasts was fairly honest. She had been careful with Femithain, but he had never seen her do anything that was duplicitous, save when she needed to hide something. She was no manipulator.
Indeed, she was much like Spitty or Yinah. They did not pretend. Spitty spat at Ksmvr before the Antinium got on his back and kicked sand on Ksmvr’s bedroll. Yinah would hiss and scratch at you if she did not want pets or cuddles.
Ksmvr…thought it was nice that Nsiia was like animals. He disagreed. Deception was a key element of warfare. But he liked it in Nsiia.
Even in how she fought, Nsiia was straightforward. She feinted, drawing her sword back for a strike. She pretended to favor her left leg after Ksmvr struck her a lucky blow with a practice sword, then exploded outwards with a leaping slash.
…But these were not deceptions and Ksmvr said as much. With a laugh, Nsiia planted the wooden blade in the sand. She had grabbed everything she could from Femithain’s mansion that might be useful. Fearing she wouldn’t find an actual sword, she’d grabbed the lead-weighted training blades Armsmaster Dellic had given her to practice with Ksmvr.
“How else should I lie in combat, Ksmvr? Ask you politely to block my thrust, then slash you from another direction?”
Ksmvr shook his head.
“No. But there is a nuance to combat you lack. Feinting is one thing.”
“And what else is th—”
He kicked sand into her face and she howled and slashed at the air. Ksmvr darted left, swinging low at her legs. That was how he’d do it if he got this chance. Take away her mobility, because Nsiia could leap around and almost match him. He cut in—
She blocked his sword without seeing it, hand wiping grit out of her gaze. Then followed it up with a roaring slash. Ksmvr jumped back, but he’d taken a blow across his chest.
“Point. I fear that—”
“You Manticore-kissed bastard! My eyes!”
Nsiia’s flying kick hit him in the chest. Ksmvr ran as she chased him with her sword for a good half a minute. Rémi was just watching. When she had calmed down, Nsiia pointed at Ksmvr.
“That was a dirty trick. It does not become a warrior of Tiqr.”
“But it worked.”
Ksmvr rejoined. Nsiia narrowed her gaze dangerously as Yinah dragged over a water bottle so she could rinse her face.
“If that is your lie, I do not do it, Ksmvr. I would consider tossing grit, changing weapons, but not attacking when I or another brave warrior parlayed.”
“Then that is the difference between adventurers and warriors.”
She took a gulp of water and splashed some on her face. Then she pointed her sword.
“Come out and let’s finish our spar.”
“…Not if you are angry. This is only for practice.”
Nsiia tilted her head and smiled thinly.
“I am not angry, Ksmvr.”
“You sound like you are lying now.”
“Come on out.”
Ksmvr was hiding behind Domehead. The Golem had watched the spar, and was now regarding Ksmvr as he poked his head out from behind the giant Golem. Nsiia pursed her lips.
“What if I ask Domehead to take over sparring?”
“…He does not need to do that. You do not need to do that, Domehead. You have no muscles to train.”
“He could practice by hitting you.”
“Domehead would not do that. We are friends, tempered by adversity. This is so, Domehead.”
Ksmvr patted Domehead on the shoulder. The Golem didn’t really have a head to turn since his neck and head were a giant dome, but his body twisted slightly from Nsiia to Ksmvr, clearly confused.
Training with Nsiia was one of the things Ksmvr did regularly, in hopes of improving. The other thing they did on their march was talk to Rémi. The third, other than mundane activities like riding, feeding, resting, excreting, and so on?
Train Domehead. Nsiia had taken Ksmvr’s words to heart. She did not recite the lullaby or oath as when she first called Domehead a child of Tiqr. Ksmvr suspected she felt Rémi’s eyes and camera on her, since he did see her take Domehead aside in private before they slept and rose.
What she did with them was talk to Domehead; though, the Golem seldom said anything.
“A warrior fights, Domehead. You are a Golem; I, an [Empress]. It is not either of our duties to fight without end. A [Soldier] knows only war and service until they rest. You will not be asked to do the same, and a [Soldier] will rest and retire, or else their life is one thing. Remember that. Someday you will put down the blade. You may be a guardian, a protector of the innocent. Spare no quarter when you fight monsters and horrors. When you fight warriors, offer them mercy. That is not weakness. That is honor.”
Domehead said nothing. Nsiia raised her voice.
“Honor is sparing a foe who asks for surrender. Honor is turning your blade when you can, and sparing the ground their blood. Honor is not kicking sand in someone’s face when you are talking.”
Ksmvr turned to Rémi.
“I think she is still angry. Nsiia, was that directed at me?”
“Why would you think so, Ksmvr? Not at all.”
“I feel as though you are now lying.”
“I am not.”
“I suspect that is a lie, too.”
The [Journalist]’s lips quirked. Yet, the idle banter was broken as Ksmvr, now riding on Domehead’s other side, across from Nsiia for his safety and petting Yinah’s head, spoke.
“Domehead. When a warrior surrenders, watch them to make sure they do not pick up their blade and stab you in the back. That may be a cunning feint. I would surrender to you, and then escape, or use a Skill to attack you. Flee, if I thought I could not win.”
“Do not teach him that!”
Nsiia snapped at Ksmvr. The Antinium saw Domehead turn to her. He could not speak, and he had yet to express himself, but Ksmvr thought that the way Domehead faced was a good clue as to what the Golem preferred. Another nuance was how many lights shone in Domehead’s ‘head’, and the crystals lit up most when Nsiia spoke. They went dark as Domehead turned to Ksmvr, with the Golem’s inherited disapproval.
Yet Ksmvr was determined.
“I am not teaching you my scurrilous ways, Nsiia. I am educating Domehead. He would take your words literally, and a foe would take advantage of that. You do not understand how Golems think. I do.”
She blinked. Ksmvr saw her eyes flicker to Domehead, and after a second the Empress of Beasts went on.
“—Many enemies will do that. It shows their dishonor, so yes, as Ksmvr says, I never lower my guard. But there are honorable warriors, Domehead, and I trust them. Sometimes, I realize they may dishonor themselves for what they see as a greater need. Other times, when they act dishonorably, they reveal themselves, and that is a tragedy. Even so, I do not regret sparing lives. It is the mark that separates us from blood-thirsty monsters.”
She patted her mare’s neck.
“Even wolves and other animals do it. They surrender and are spared. To kill without need, or for only the sport, the joy of death, is cruelty, and that is a thing of people. And animals who know enough to be so cruel. And cats.”
She looked pointedly at Yinah. The cat stretched out her claws. Ksmvr held her up.
“You would not do that, would you, Yinah? Kill for sport?”
“She would kill an entire population of creatures just to satisfy her hunting desires. She is a lady of death without mercy or compassion and only bloodlust, Ksmvr.”
Nsiia warned him. Yinah purred innocently. Ksmvr cuddled her. He completely missed her narrowing her eyes and nodding in his arms.
Between all these day-to-day activities, by the time Rémi Canada stopped and announced he needed to send the first recording crystal off, they were in the Kilalle Steppes.
The ground had risen, and grown less dry, actually. Ksmvr was used to Tiqr’s arid climes near the nation’s border. Literal desert and just cracked dirt, broken up by the rare oasis. Nsiia told him there were actual rivers and such closer in, but he hadn’t seen that since they had to flee her homeland.
But the Kilalle Steppes rose slightly, and then turned into brush. Not super-green brush, granted, but a kind of yellow, tough plant that hinted to Ksmvr that this place got some kind of rain.
And oh, it went on forever. Flat, leading into the occasional hilly area, but with that disconcerting effect. Ksmvr did see landmarks far, far in the distance, but Nsiia explained that the Kilalle Steppes were a vast piece of land.
“There are noticeable things to see, Ksmvr. But so spread out—this is ideal ground for Vasraf and my army to hide. This is also the territory of Garuda clans. They hold the skies; we may see a few.”
“Will they be hostile?”
She thought and answered simply.
“Not to me, most likely. They have always respected Tiqr. Some might be tempted by the lure of money, but Tiqr has been friend to Garuda and I do not think they would cast that aside. They will not necessarily be allies.”
In fact, they ran into the first Garuda clan within five hours of entering the first real areas of that grassy biome. Ksmvr took it as a lesson. One second he was staring around, watching for danger as always; the next, someone screamed.
It was a bird’s cry mixed with a voice. Ksmvr looked up.
But he hadn’t seen anything in the skies! And that was because he hadn’t been looking. Ksmvr stared up, wildly, and saw a patch of the grey-blue heavens move.
A Garuda banked, and flew left—he or she had been far distant and to the west, but even so, Ksmvr might have spotted them. Yet the Garuda had been camouflaged in the sky. They had feathers that were a darker blue than the sky, but…
Nsiia grinned at Ksmvr’s confusion.
“You think Garuda can’t hide? The sky is to them what a patch of grass or shadow is to us, Ksmvr.”
“I have been humbled.”
Ksmvr murmured. He stared up, and saw Nsiia raise her hand; the Garuda was already flying back, but she seemed to think she’d be seen. He stared at the sky, and, no less than twenty one minutes later, saw the clan coming in.
They flew in fast. As fast as, well, birds. Maybe not as fast as some birds in flight; they had a slower air speed due to their size and what they carried. But as fast as horseback riders? At least.
They came swooping down so fast Ksmvr resolved never to drop his guard if Garuda might be about. Here was a people who had [Skirmisher] in their very biology.
“Travellers below, do you fly in peace or war?”
A voice shouted from up above. Nsiia had her hand lifted. She beamed upwards.
“Only wings of peace for the clans of Kilalle! Don’t you recognize me, sky-friends?”
The other Garuda circled, and one folded his wings and dove. Ksmvr stared up, thinking how much Bird would like to see this. And how good it was Bird wasn’t here. He saw the Garuda pull up sharply and hover in the air, flapping his wings. He stared, narrow eyed, at Ksmvr, Domehead, and Rémi with clear suspicion. Then he did a double-take in the air. He looped a quick arc and shouted.
“Featherfriend, I’m as blind as a Human! Is it true? The Empress of Beasts! You did escape Illivere!”
His shout caused exclamations from above. More Garuda dove, and the rest broke off.
In minutes, they were landing, striding forwards a bit awkwardly to clasp Nsiia’s hand with their wing-arms. Not necessarily their talons—they touched forearm to forewing or simply bowed.
Nsiia hadn’t lied. The Garuda were delighted to see her. One pointed back the way they’d flown from.
“The rest of our clan will want to see you, Empress of Beasts. Will you eat with us?”
Nsiia smiled, eyes bright with emotion at the warm welcome.
“Not more than a meal, I fear. Which clan is this? I must find Vasraf—if you know where he is, I beg you for information. And are my companions welcome?”
The Garuda who had swept downwards had a bow on his back. Just a bow, Ksmvr noted. No blade, nothing more than a single potion at his belt.
No armor, no bag of holding. Of course, he might not be able to afford the bag of holding, but nothing else? Ksmvr found it odd because all of the Garuda literally carried one or two items at most. The warrior nodded slowly.
“Oh, the clan will want to see this. But if you vouch they’re featherfriends, they’re welcome, Empress.”
And that was that. Ksmvr got his answer to the odd attire of the Garuda as soon as he saw their clan.
More Garuda rose in the distance, a huge flight, to meet Nsiia. They landed, gaping at her, asking questions, and staring, not least at Ksmvr and Domehead. The rest of the clan stayed with their mobile camp.
Travelling animals. Beasts of burden like oxen carrying wagons. Even, Ksmvr saw, platforms that were very wide and could only travel on this kind of flatland without fear of falling or breaking or getting stuck.
This was how a Garuda clan lived. They flew almost nonstop, carrying very little to ease their burdens. Supplies, baggage, all went slowly below with herds of animals. In that way, any enemy would have to both evade their warrior patrols and make it through countless miles of aerial harassment to attack anything valuable if they couldn’t fly or attack back.
At night, Garuda slept on the ground and were at their most vulnerable. Rich clans could afford a kind of aerial sleeping encampment or formal bases, or, if Garuda had a city or settlement, they obviously moved from shelter to shelter.
They were sort of like Gnolls of Izril, but only in that both were nomadic and centered around groups. In fact, Ksmvr understood that their greeting and interactions with Nsiia were an exception; they landed to speak with her, when most would conduct their conversations airborne.
“A single warrior might speak with you to learn your intentions. You could attack them, in which case her friends will shoot you full of arrows or fly off, well out of range. There is a reason why few nations dare the Kilalle Steppes, even with great armies.”
Nsiia remarked drily. Ksmvr nodded.
“Yet, surely, Garuda have not conquered the world because they have a weakness.”
“In the air? No fiercer foe. Not your Oldblood Drakes or people with artifacts or riding steeds. But Garuda must sleep and land at some point. That’s when [Generals] across every age strike. They do better when mixed with Humans or another force on the ground. Many flew in Tiqr’s defense…but the other nations brought Garuda and archers too.”
Nsiia sighed. However, she beamed as an old Garuda chieftain flew forwards to greet her. Garuda didn’t hug, Ksmvr noticed. Weaker bones and feathers too easily ruffled; they made much with their wing-arms, though, and could perform amazing gestures, riffling their feathers to add to an emotion they were displaying.
The clan offered food, conversation, and a direction to take. They actually had heard of Vasraf striking back, liberating Tiqr’s people from slavery, but they’d fled a massive counter force weeks ago.
“If they are anywhere, here, in the foothills, is a good bet. But you will find more clans. We shall tell them the Empress rides for her kingdom and send you support!”
“Not aid. Not yet. The wind is not in your favor, Empress, and we did not fly for you before. Apologies, but that is how it must be.”
Another Garuda had come forwards to speak with Nsiia and she was nodding to both the old leader, and the second Garuda, who had an odd sureness to the ground that her kin lacked.
“Your goodwill is all I can ask at this time. Perhaps later—but here is one you should meet. Adventurer Ksmvr, I introduce you to Skyleader Rekai—”
The old Garuda who had white and black feathers, almost like a seagull’s, eyed Ksmvr, and held out a claw. Ksmvr shook it.
“—and Landguide Heka.”
Heka, the younger Garuda, was in her forties, and walked over to take Ksmvr’s hand with more firmness. He was interested.
“And who rules this clan?”
Both Garuda laughed with a familiar, light humor.
“He must be from Izril, if his being so odd wasn’t proof enough.”
Skyleader Rekai commented. Nsiia nodded with a grin. She gestured to Rekai, whom Ksmvr had thought was the Garuda’s equivalent of a [Chieftain] due to his age and the respect of others.
“Rekai governs the sky, Ksmvr. Heka, the land. It is a leadership of two.”
“What if the two disagree? Surely there must be a first among equals.”
Ksmvr was fascinated. Rekai and Heka exchanged glances that looked knowing.
“If sky and land disagree, one does what one thinks is best and the other must adapt or be blown away. Sometimes they quarrel completely independently, but neither can do without the other. Heka knows animals. I know air currents, sky battles, and I don’t presume to tell her where animals rest.”
Nsiia smiled, and Heka nodded, a respectful smile on her face. Even so, when they turned to have food brought out, Nsiia whispered to Ksmvr in a low voice.
“She is the power on the land, but Garuda who tend to animals or can’t fly are not as well respected. Bear that in mind.”
“Ah. And all landfolk would be…”
“Exactly. Can you blame them?”
She looked up. Rémi was capturing the Garuda doing amazing, three-dimensional maneuvers in the air just for fun. Ksmvr looked up and felt a pang of envy for once, even though he was no Bird. He could jump, but the Garuda had an entire other dimension, only partially touched by gravity, for them to explore.
“We’ll tell other clans you are coming, so you aren’t mistaken. Even, perhaps, send word to your [General], Empress. But let us ask this Antinium more questions! Are your people truly not going to invade?”
“I do not think that is germane at this given time, Skyleader Rekai. Rest assured, I will inform you if this changes.”
The Garuda laughed in disbelief, opening and closing his beak, which had a small crack from years of combat. He pointed, and the other Garuda, many flying even as they listened, laughed.
“He doesn’t speak like I thought he would! The Black Tide—I imagined you would be like Crelers.”
“We would resent the comparison. Antinium hate Crelers as much as any species. More.”
Ksmvr found that, to his amazement, he really was the source of fascination. And…a bit of uncomfortable fascination too. For the Garuda possessed little of the fear other species had for him. In fact, some muttered a bit, loud enough for him to hear.
“If you stare at it from high enough, it looks like a snack. I don’t see how the Drakes ever lost to…”
Ksmvr…did not think they meant that in a complimentary way towards him. He was uncomfortable. And unfortunately, reminded of Apista whenever the Antinium were present.
At least the lack of fear was a pleasant change. And there were supplies to be traded to supplement their dwindling food supply. In fact, Rémi sent off his first recording crystal to one of the Garuda, who was a City Runner—albeit in their sense.
“Don’t worry. Hey, I know you, Journalist Canada! I’m going to be the talk of the Runner’s Guild! I’m experienced. I fly between clans often, but that just means I’m one of the best Garuda since I’m fast, even for my kind! Alright, let me repeat the order. Send a [Message] spell to Wistram, the newspaper, a Drassi…”
Rémi watched the Garuda take off with the first crystal, but he exhaled once the runner was out of sight. Ksmvr was surprised.
“Have we done enough to warrant a first recording, Journalist Canada?”
The young man blinked at him.
“For a first one, of course! This is just the opening. I think we’ll have many more, and I don’t want a backlog.”
Ksmvr thought he was overestimating the appeal, but he didn’t dwell on it. Nsiia led them on after only an hour of talk, and warned both Garuda they might run into pursuit. The clan assured her—they didn’t care. No pursuers were likely to trouble them.
On they went. Three more days after that. But that little event with Rémi’s crystal?
It changed everything.
They continued. Nsiia was training Domehead on the third day as Ksmvr combed Yinah’s fur. She was educating the Golem, a bit overly-patient in her tone.
“It is a splendid block, Domehead. Now, attack—good.”
The Golem attacked, swinging his battleaxe into a blow that stopped a good three feet from Nsiia. The problem was he was too strong, and they had no practice weapons for him. More than that?
Domehead simply didn’t learn like Ksmvr or Nsiia. He did not speak, so even Ksmvr couldn’t tell if he took everything they said to heart.
Nor was he instantly able to communicate via Ksmvr’s clever idea, which was Mrsha’s hand-signals. He had tried to teach Domehead a few, like ‘yes’ or ‘no’. But even then…the Golem didn’t respond, even when asked a question.
If it frustrated his caretakers and companions, they still did their best. Nsiia was attempting to add nuance into Domehead’s attack routines. Ironically, this was what the Golem did well. She moved her blade to parry the strike, and stopped him.
“No, you moved into the low-cut. I don’t know what Femithain called it, but next time, change your attack.”
Domehead’s head lit up brightly, as it did when the Golem was ‘focused’. Nsiia explained.
“It is too obvious. I fought Golems in Tiqr’s war, and other times besides. They can be splendidly fast, and attack with all the precision engineered into them. Even by [Golem Artificers].”
She sneered at that.
“Especially if they base it off actual warriors. You were made without flaw, and they did not sacrifice ability for some odd quirk in you. Even so—I can tell where you are going to attack. Come, attack.”
Domehead did. Nsiia moved her sword unerringly in the direction of each of his strikes, even when he halted mid-swing or changed it into another routine.
“I know every pattern because you took it from me, and Femithain gave it to you. Which is not a poor thing, but you do not surprise your foe.”
The Antinium happily called from his seat. Nsiia scooped up a clod of dirt and hurled it at Ksmvr. He ducked. The Antinium saw Nsiia turn, exasperated, as Domehead froze, seeming to attempt to internalize her suggestions.
“Do you have anything to add, Ksmvr? I don’t know how to explain it like a…a Golem would know. Or an Antinium.”
Ksmvr tilted his head as Yinah scratched him lightly to remind him who was most important here. He went back to combing her fur.
“Only that you state that Domehead has a lack of deception and the unpredictability of non-Golem warriors. I would add to that: his attack patterns are not that refined. He is a capable warrior, but he does not fight like he could.”
“He fights better than any veteran [Soldier] below Level 30!”
“Yes…but by virtue of an aggressive offense that makes use of his reach and strength.”
The Empress of Beasts stared at Ksmvr as Rémi Canada, yawning, leaned against Sandi. Spitty trotted over, saw Rémi making moves, and spat all over the [Journalist]’s arm.
“They based his attacks and patterns on my fighting, and Armsmaster Dellic’s, Ksmvr. Neither of us take an axe as our primary weapon, but we are quite good with them.”
Nsiia put her hands on her hips, looking dangerously peeved. Ksmvr nodded.
“Yet Domehead would still lose to any [Blademaster]. Or even a suitably skilled [Swordsman].”
“Really. Then show me how Domehead should be attacking.”
“I do not know how to use an axe properly. I am only pointing out—do not hit me. I have Yinah. Do not hit—”
He was running away from Nsiia, Yinah raised as a shield, when someone blew a long, warbling horn. Nsiia lowered her practice sword. Domehead lifted his axe, turning, and Rémi spun. Spitty spat and hit him on the face this time, but the [Journalist], Ksmvr, Nsiia, and Domehead were all turning.
Nsiia whispered. Ksmvr saw her drop the practice sword, then raise a hand. He looked across the wide steppes, across the dry grass, and saw, in the distance, a small, dark outline amid the grass.
Only one figure. From there came the horn. Then—another call. Then another. Yet Ksmvr was confused, because he saw only one figure.
A man on horseback, although that was only a guess based on the way Nsiia began to run forwards, arm raised. He was riding hard, straight towards her, yet now, as Ksmvr ran forwards too, and hopped on Spitty’s back, he saw no horn in hand.
“Nsiia. This may be a trick. Domehead, do not follow her. Prepare for ambush.”
Nsiia didn’t turn. She was racing forwards, and that lone figure just rode at her. Rémi didn’t mount up. He swept his eyes towards Ksmvr, saw the Antinium halt, warily, and just recorded the moment.
They were so far away that even as both figures ran, Nsiia on foot, the man on horseback, it was minutes before they met. That dot of a figure never changed, even as it slowly grew, revealing the flash of armor, twinned shortswords, a bow, and patterned clothing, worn from battle. Ksmvr couldn’t make out the face yet, but he heard more hunting horns blowing.
Yet only one man rode forwards. Ksmvr heard other sounds now. Whoops. Wild shouting. Voices shouting someone’s name.
Nsiia. No—they didn’t call her that.
“—press! Empress of—!”
It sounded like thousands. But where…?
At last, Ksmvr figured it out. In Rémi’s camera, the truth was revealed as well. The stalks of short, yellowed grass in the Kilalle Steppes were flattening, moving behind the single rider in a huge pattern. As if something was pushing it down. Like a wave, with him at the fore.
It was a hypnotic sight. Only as General Vasraf of Tiqr finally came within the last thousand paces of Nsiia did his Skill finally lift and reveal who was making all that noise.
Like they suddenly had appeared out of an invisible mist, an army materialized behind the [General], riding horses, camels, racing along with war-dogs, even strange, canine-feline animals that Ksmvr knew were Tiqr’s hyenas. He saw one group of [Riders] screaming Nsiia’s name riding a mix of strange animals, from an impossibly dark Nightmare, to a striped horse.
There were two Grand Elephants, who began trumpeting, carrying a small host on their backs, armed with bows. But all of them were running at Nsiia, who howled as she raised her arm. Vasraf was the first to meet Nsiia, leaping from his horse, yet it was the stallion who stopped first and, without prompting, knelt.
Vasraf halted on the ground, the [General] looking weary, haggard from months of guerilla warfare. It seemed like part of that wounded exhaustion fled as he looked at Nsiia, then began to sink to one knee.
She caught his arm and held him. The Empress of Beasts looked past him, at the army that swirled around her, cheering, shouting, reaching for her, then falling silent. She looked at him, and then embraced him.
“You kept faith.”
“How could I not?”
Ksmvr, Rémi, and Domehead all watched as Nsiia turned, tears in her eyes. She raised her hand, and the soldiers and civilians, Tiqr’s last army, looked at her.
She made no speeches, as if this was the right place to suddenly orate with a speaking Skill. She had no famous quote, probably rehearsed, to say now. All Nsiia did was raise her hand into the air and shout one word.
The army looked at her, and then they and whatever audience watching was there, back in time when Nsiia had walked out of the gates of her city. The Empress of Beasts waited a heartbeat, then thrust her hand into the air, higher.
This time, Vasraf shouted the word with her, and many people around her. Once more, Nsiia threw up her arm, and this time, animals howled and brayed and everyone shouted it, so loudly even the Kilalle Steppes heard it.
That was how Nsiia Oliphant returned to her people. The Empress of Beasts, freed from her captivity, reunited with her army and greatest [General], on a mission to free her nation and people or die trying.
Ksmvr had completely forgotten that was who she was. She was just Nsiia, to him. Who got mad, laughed, and rode about like another adventurer or a simple warrior.
Ah, but that was because he hadn’t seen her in the context of who she was. Her class. An [Empress] needed a people, or it was just a name.
She returned to Ksmvr, Rémi, and Domehead as that person, head held high, changed in a moment. As if, Ksmvr thought, someone had suddenly thrown something around her shoulders. A heavy weight. Not simply a burden, because it added something to her.
“I believe it is customary to kneel in front of royalty. Or at this moment.”
He murmured to Rémi. Ksmvr knelt as General Vasraf and the [Soldiers] followed Nsiia. Ksmvr saw Domehead hesitate, then kneel. Rémi copied him.
The Antinium tugged on Spitty’s reins, expecting him to kneel. Even Sandi knelt, like the horses. Spitty took one look at the procession of the Empress of Beasts, turned his head, and spat on Ksmvr’s head.
Sandi made a sound as Ksmvr stared up at Spitty and his archrival smugly bared his teeth. How could a camel look smug? Very easily.
Nsiia laughed as she saw the sight. She strode forwards, and tugged at Domehead to bring the Golem up. Then she turned.
“You do not have to kneel to me, friends. You never did, and I consider you equals. Rise, and let me introduce you to my people. Vasraf, here are the people who accompanied me out of Illivere. Yinah, a brave little cat. Domehead, whose fate is linked to mine and to whom I owe the burden of raising, and teaching. My brave mare, Chance. Rémi Canada, who takes images of everything to show the world. Sandi, and this one is Spitty, a finer spirit you will never meet.”
Her eyes twinkled as she indicated the camel. Vasraf stayed out of range as the camel straightened himself with obvious pride.
“That much is clear, Your Majesty.”
But his eyes were on Ksmvr. Nsiia turned to him, and again, the Antinium felt every gaze lock onto him. Tiqr’s people were curious, wary, but not hostile. Nsiia spoke for everyone’s benefit.
“This is Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad. Ksmvr of the Free Antinium! The very same one who broke the chains placed on me. Bearer of a sword from aeons past, a [Paladin]’s blade! A Gold-rank adventurer who escaped death a continent away and appeared before me, by great fate and magic! If there is ever a sign for hope, for victory, he is surely it. I have returned, and together, we shall liberate Tiqr or fall in such a blaze that our enemies shall remember their wounds until the day they die!”
A cheer rose up from the soldiers as Ksmvr waved an urgent hand.
“I did not liberate Nsiia, in fact. That is an objectionable interpretation of events. I did not agree to liberate Tiqr—hello—I am not declaring a side in—”
His voice was lost in the roar from around him. Ksmvr waved his arms frantically, and Rémi’s little box caught it all. The [Journalist] waited until Ksmvr was hurrying after Vasraf to clarify, Nsiia was taking the arms and hands of her people, talking, and the army was making camp. He shot nearly an hour of footage, then calmly pulled the memory crystal out of his artifact.
“Time to find another Runner.”
This was a recording alright. And yet—Rémi’s eyes glittered as he watched Ksmvr, Nsiia with her army, and the rest. This was enough to be topical, fascinating. Yet the real story he had come for—ah. It was finally time to record that.
Things moved fast the moment Nsiia reclaimed her army. She did not immediately assume command of military operations. In fact, she left that to Vasraf, who had the forces he’d cloaked in one of his Skills already striking camp with long practice.
“We’ll be hidden fairly well from pursuit, although if they know exactly where you are, Your Majesty, we may need to ambush them before they reach us. Thankfully, I obtained this Skill. From afar, they will see only me. Closer, and it falls away.”
“A thousand paces is far too close for any sane [General]’s comfort. No wonder they never caught you!”
Nsiia was inspecting the numbers of Tiqr’s people, the state of their armor and weapons. It did not visibly dismay her, but she did take a long breath.
“You took most of our forces. Even swelled their numbers.”
“We took on Tiqr’s citizens. I hit prisoner trains, caravans of slaves—but I didn’t dare strike at any in Roshal’s grip. They might have retaliated.”
Vasraf shook his head. He gestured at the army.
“We have supplies—we’ve raided outposts, and we survive on gifts of food, and trade with the Garuda clans. You see veterans of combat. But even so.”
“…The coalition broke Tiqr’s full might. Yes, I know. Yet this is more than I had alone. We will create a victory out of it, Vasraf. I have an idea as to how. But you will tell me everything, and I will listen. Domehead? Where is he, and Ksmvr?”
She turned and saw the two, behind the officers and other [Soldiers], apart from the rest. Vasraf eyed Rémi Canada. He nodded at the [Journalist].
“I know his name. What is his role in this? Another way to broadcast our battles? We have seen you on the scrying orb, Your Majesty. Are we to call this…Golem and the adventurer your closest aides, Empress? You hoped to have a force of Golems…”
“In vain. I could not sway Femithain. Domehead followed me. Ksmvr freed me, as I said, and I trust both without reservation. As for the [Journalist]—be careful what he sees. His box records all.”
Nsiia grimaced. Vasraf nodded warily. Rémi scrambled forwards as Nsiia beckoned to the other two.
“Your Majesty, I would like permission to record—”
“No. I am going to speak with Vasraf. Domehead and Ksmvr may join me, but you will not record that.”
“If I could make a case—”
“No. Record the camp. Vasraf?”
Rémi didn’t put up much of an argument as Nsiia pointed, and the war tent already being set up opened for her. Ksmvr thought the young man had expected not to be allowed to film an actual strategy meeting.
It surprised Ksmvr that he was allowed in the tent. Even the other officers held back, and the fact that Domehead accompanied Nsiia surprised Vasraf more than Ksmvr. Yet he didn’t mince words.
“Your arrival gives me hope, Empress. It truly does. I had begun to despair, and our army could not endure without you. We would be in dire straits by winter. And yet—have you a plan?”
“I do. I did not lie, Vasraf. I admit, I was not prepared for Illivere. Many of the things I tried to do—learn the art of Golem-making, find allies to deliver you supplies, arms, fighters like Golems—were a fool’s dream. Of course they were, for I was desperate and in captivity with no real chance of escape. Now? I did not know if my people would embrace me.”
Vasraf shook his head. He was actually slightly shorter than Nsiia, but a helmet with a red plume, and his boots, made him seem taller. Ksmvr thought he must be a good [General] given his Skills, and he held himself like a warrior. Even so, it seemed that if it came to battle, he would reach for the bow on his back, rather than the two less-impressive shortswords.
The bow looked like a piece of bone. And since it was bone, Ksmvr wondered if it was Grand Elephant bone. Clearly enchanted. He respected a [General] smart enough not to endanger his life directly.
More than that, Vasraf was noticeable in how he and Nsiia played off each other. He was a [Wild General], but his deep voice, his short-cut beard, and the way his features always seemed so watchful, piercing blue eyes in brown skin, made him the opposite of Nsiia.
Where she became angry, he became watchful. But not simply watchful…if Nsiia attacked like her moniker, the Empress of Beasts, he was a stalking hunter in the grass. A different kind of predator.
“Your stallion knelt to me, Vasraf. Herothe. He was born of Tiqr’s soil. He saw me declare the [Wild Riot]. All the blood shed by Tiqr’s children of fang and paw and wing…and yet he knelt. They still call me their leader, and I must answer, don’t you see? The animals of Tiqr could take away my class, but they wait and give me a final chance. Tiqr still breathes. It knows me.”
Vasraf nodded, eyes fixed on Nsiia as she clenched her hands, staring down at a simple map laid on a worn wooden table.
“This is so, Your Majesty. Yet the Grand Elephants have left Tiqr. I present to you an army, a fighting force. Yet we are a fraction of our strength. A beaten army, Your Majesty. We can harry the forces holding Tiqr, but we cannot take on Nerrhavia’s hordes, or even Savere’s bandits. And every nation will send forces after you.”
Nsiia nodded. Now, they walked around the war map, and she spoke, pointing down at it. Vasraf had a new map and Ksmvr saw Tiqr, the same place geologically, but demarcated into zones. Each nation held an area of land, and Nerrhavia and Savere held the lion’s share, to the east and south respectively. For Savere, it was just an addition to their landmass. For Nerrhavia, it was an outpost. Vasraf had marked different garrisons, the last known points of armies…Nsiia shook her head.
“I will not hide and wait a lifetime to see Tiqr restored, Vasraf. Yes, I am aware this army is not capable of fighting a massive force. But I have listened, as Femithain’s guest. Even without you, no nation finds holding Tiqr that easy, is that so?”
Vasraf smiled grimly.
“With a populace like ours? No. Animals and people, we do not take new chains and collars well. Many have been made slaves, but many more know this land. Will the kingdoms bring in their people to work our land? It has not been pleasant.”
“Exactly. As to their armies—some will come to pursue me, but the forces in Tiqr are not as mighty as the ones that conquered it. We face garrisons. And they are not as keen to hold onto Tiqr, I think. Savere? Yes. But Nerrhavia is distracted with Reim.”
Vasraf was nodding and they spoke quickly; both saw the same thing. If anything, the explanation was just to make sure they were on the same page, and perhaps for Ksmvr and Domehead’s benefit. Ksmvr saw the Golem’s head shining brightly.
“You mean to sue for peace if we deal them a blow. Defeat some nations, force Nerrhavia’s peace if possible.”
“It is the only way. You disagree?”
“Not at all, Your Majesty. But I say to you: if we take the field against Savere alone, with the Siren of Savere versus you, I, and our army—we will lose.”
“Yes. I am no fool, Vasraf. Your struggle becomes mine. To win this battle for Tiqr’s freedom, we must liberate our people, turn many into warriors, reclaim lands so we are not scavenging or begging for food. We require an army, supplies; we must seize them from victories, level by combat. We have a foundation here, but to live? That…will require allies.”
Ksmvr’s broken antennae waved. Ooh. This was fascinating, because he understood something of war, and he knew Tiqr’s history. Vasraf leaned on the table.
“Allies Tiqr lacked to begin with. We called on every hand, and no one came. Perhaps some might, if they thought they had aught to gain, but who would come that failed to aid us last time?”
Slowly, his head moved, and he looked towards Ksmvr. Vasraf’s eyes flickered, and he looked at Nsiia. With a start—Ksmvr realized what Vasraf had been thinking, perhaps from the moment they’d met. Nsiia glanced at Ksmvr, and the Antinium had to speak.
“I must regretfully inform you that I am not a representative of the Hives, General Vasraf. Nor am I willing to declare myself for Empress Nsiia’s bid. She informed you incorrectly.”
He nodded slowly.
“That is understood, Adventurer…Ksmvr. Your Majesty?”
He glanced at her. She smiled thinly.
“No, Vasraf. Not him. I hope Ksmvr will help us, if only because he does have a relic worthy of inspiring, and he is a doughty warrior. But I do not intend to invite the Black Tide to Chandrar.”
He exhaled, slowly.
“…It had crossed my mind.”
“They would not come. Not for me.”
Ksmvr spoke, and both Humans looked at him. Vasraf nodded slowly. Nsiia stared at Ksmvr.
“You must tell me the whole of it, sometime, Ksmvr. No, Vasraf. The Black Tide would mean war on all fronts, it would take too long, and the Antinium—the Queens at least—are not allies I would trust. Rather, for forces willing to take Tiqr back, I know where they are to be had.”
Vasraf was openly skeptical. Hopeful, but he folded his arms and waited. Nsiia smiled, and her eyes twinkled. Vasraf refused to ask her the obvious. He seemed used to this, so she came out with it.
“The King of Destruction has them.”
The [Wild General]’s eyebrows shot into his helmet. Ksmvr started.
“You want his allies? When the coalition made war on us because we might ally with Reim?”
“Yet we did not! And Flos, damn him, refused to intervene because of his peace. In fact, he fights to the north, surrounded, and everyone is trying to stop him from growing, because his allies lie scattered across Chandrar. Only a handful went to his aid because they wait for the King of Destruction to roar. Some are, like Tiqr, held down under boot. Some will not move for fear of being the next Tiqr. But they exist.”
Nsiia spun around to the map and pointed.
“You know it. I know it. There exists one clan in the Kilalle Steppes—many clans flew for the King of Destruction. One went to him and was feared above all else. And look—here. In our foe’s lands, the Empire of Scaied?”
The empire of scorpions and mercenaries? Ksmvr looked at a dot that was on the map, though it was no city or fort. Vasraf muttered.
“The [Monks] of Sottheim. I heard Scaied watches them like hawks. They would not have left their monastery lightly anyways, not if they feared reprisals.”
“Hah. Fear and Sottheim. You jest, Vasraf. They were simply aware of the journey and odds. But if we freed them…”
“It will be as if we are coming to the King of Destruction’s aid.”
Nsiia scowled. She stabbed the map.
“He refused to aid us. I will not declare for him. This is for Tiqr alone, and I say we do what can be done. Which is to attack other nations and reclaim these warriors for Tiqr!”
“Sottheim would be thousands of [Monks]. If they joined us. No nation would welcome fighting them. Only Pomle—and they would call that a worthy foe. And if we attacked or convinced another ally…”
Vasraf flicked his eyes across the map. Nsiia waited, and turned to him.
“This is all I have to offer, Vasraf. What do you say? If you tell me, as my [General], it is impossible, we will talk about hiding, building, and biding our time. Then—I will repay what debt I can, and bury hope for a while.”
She flicked her eyes to Ksmvr and he started. Then she turned to Vasraf.
“But if there is a chance, now? It lies in your hands, Vasraf. Can it be done?”
The [General] stood there, looking at the map. He looked up at Nsiia, and then at Ksmvr, Domehead. He rested his weight on the table for only a moment. Then he nodded.
“I say it can.”
Nsiia’s eyes gleamed bright and she clasped arms. So it began. Ksmvr stared at the map.
…He wondered if he should go now.
Nsiia convinced Ksmvr to stay for a few reasons. Firstly, she owed him, and an army to free Pisces and Yvlon and find Ceria was an attractive thing. Second?
“Scaied is still west, Ksmvr. So if you go with us, you benefit from Vasraf’s and my Skills to speed your journey. Lastly, you are still being hunted for freeing me and for being Antinium. For all these reasons, you must stay.”
He didn’t like it, but he agreed it was better. Better to have Yinah to pet, Nsiia’s army, and company, rather than just Spitty.
Chronologically, this was the moment captured on the third of Rémi Canada’s crystals. Third in the documentary, although, again, no one in Vasraf’s army used scrying orbs except to check news as it pertained to a chase. They were already having trouble fighting off scrying spells and television was not a luxury they could afford.
Rémi’s documentary captured Ksmvr, Domehead, and Nsiia fitting into the army. The [Journalist] saw the Empress of Beasts at her most charismatic. She sought out warriors, remembering some, stopping by groups to thank them, inspire them. She was a warrior-queen, and animals and people flocked to her.
He wasn’t interested in that. Oh, he recorded it, but the young man had the feeling it was the kind of puff piece you could do on any ruler. It mattered more because Nsiia was fighting for her homeland, but showing her at her best, the heroine of a tale of independence, was still not what he was after.
It was important. Privately, Rémi supported Nsiia’s bid, but he also bore in mind how bloody any war of freedom was going to be. He was interested in the wary way Tiqr’s warriors watched Domehead—because they had lost many friends to the Golems—but they almost respected Domehead for throwing over all of Illivere to follow Nsiia, his mother.
That was a story for his world. Artificial intelligence, ethics, morality, learning at play. But not this one. Rémi was fascinated by it and watched Domehead privately, but he and his camera were here for one person.
Ksmvr. He had not lied to Nsiia. If Ksmvr went, Rémi went. If the other Horns of Hammerad popped up, each with a grand story to tell, Rémi would still stay right here, rather than chasing after them. He wanted to film Ksmvr. Because the Antinium was Antinium, and like ‘Goblins’, he was only a monster, a nightmare from Rhir.
That he was not was obvious. Rémi wanted to show that to everyone. He had deliberately chosen a side—and that was Ksmvr’s, and he was searching for a moment to bring it out to people, capture the world’s imagination.
The problem was—it was hard.
Oh, the first two documentaries had attracted some attention. Rémi had an audience, Chandrarians—and a surprising number of non-Chandrarian— viewers who were intrigued by this window into the continent. However, it wasn’t ‘soccer-famous’. It wasn’t ‘King of Destruction’ viral.
It frustrated Rémi, and he could keep a tab on what was going on. His small news team had a feed to him that he was sure no one could trace and his [Message] scroll gave him a few updates.
[Confidential Sources]. If Wistram could tap into that, he’d answer for it, but he had to believe in his Skill.
“The problem is…”
Rémi watched Ksmvr as the Antinium warrior sat with Vasraf around a fire on their first night of journeying together. The [General] was sitting with some veterans, getting a feel for Ksmvr. Not as warily as they might have been, but swapping stories, asking Ksmvr about the Village of the Dead raid. The problem was…
Ksmvr was sort of boring.
The Blighted Kingdom, Walled Cities, and other interested parties were among those who watched Ksmvr and the documentaries by Rémi Canada. Yes, some watched because Ksmvr was Antinium. Some watched because Nsiia, Domehead, or just Chandrar was fascinating, because they were growing addicted to television, and so on.
But some watched because that was the enemy, right there. Some watched because they did not want Antinium cast in any light besides [Incinerating Radiance], and they could see what Rémi was up to.
The Blighted Kingdom had an entire group dedicated to this unhappy phenomenon taking place. They were glad to see Ksmvr was being boring.
Yes, because aside from some interesting comments, petting Yinah, and being a bit silly, he did do the alien invader quite well. He spoke of the Hives and you felt your skin crawl. It was fine if he was a bit personable.
…Well, fine as fine could be, given that Wistram had refused to take the documentary off the Wistram News Network. The Blighted Kingdom had made a request, and the Archmages and Council should have normally obliged, given their mutual foe.
However, it seemed Wistram’s new leader had overruled the request. Grand Magus Eldavin had replied, quite bluntly to their [Diplomat], that censoring the series when Drassi and other networks were broadcasting it sounded like an incredibly stupid idea, and thus not one he would ever endorse.
Still, Ksmvr was doing his enemies’ jobs for them, by and large. He was reserved, and you could call that professional, or whatever you wanted, but he was fading into the background in the Nsiia-Tiqr independence documentary.
Or maybe the Chandrarian documentary? Because that’s what the third memory crystal was showing. Ksmvr sat around with Vasraf. He had just, impartially, recounted the events of the City of the Dead, without giving away too many details.
“…understand that it is a matter for my team to reveal.”
Vasraf nodded, almost as formal. He looked around as some of the warriors looked ready to object, and they went silent.
“This is fair. That you freed Her Majesty is deed enough. You come to Chandrar, and I wish I could show you the best of it, friend Ksmvr.”
Yinah hopped into Ksmvr’s lap and he began to pet her, which didn’t make the Blighted Kingdom’s analysts happy. Cats were beloved in most parts of the world, and Ksmvr holding one didn’t help. But it was only a cat.
“I wonder if you would tell another story, Ksmvr? Perhaps about your earlier adventuring career?”
Rémi Canada himself tried. But Ksmvr calmly, and instantly, deflected.
“I would prefer not to take over the conversation. I am quite interested by General Vasraf. Would you share some stories, [General]? I have shared as much as I feel enabled to of the raid on the Village of the Dead. It is a custom in Tiqr to swap stories thusly, is it not?”
Vasraf gave his warriors an amused look and they chuckled. Rémi ground his teeth. Ksmvr was too good at being…diplomatic. Vasraf sat back.
“Ah. You speak eloquently, Ksmvr. And it is true; we are ingracious hosts. By rights, I should have led. But I have few tales of such daring, for I was not an adventurer. It also does not feel right to boast of great things. Not here. Not now.”
He looked around the camp and the warriors of Tiqr sombered. A hyena, resting by the fire, raised his head and nodded.
Too intriguing. Too interesting. Ksmvr was overshadowed by…Chandrar itself. As the night fell in that incredibly dark sky, before the vividness of the stars, on that hauntingly isolating view of the steppes, stretching into nowhere? Vasraf looked around and spoke.
“Ah, here’s a dark story for this day. Perhaps one that might help. We march to Sottheim—among other places. Scaied. Our enemies with stinger and venom. Take none lightly. Chandrar has many ruins. Many old powers. I will tell you a tale all who visit Chandrar and this region should know. Especially an adventurer who goes far.”
He nodded at Ksmvr and the Antinium nodded back. Vasraf looked around; in the distance, some people were cheering Nsiia, but here, the warriors sat around a bright fire, resting. Animals wandered around, and Domehead himself was sitting, dome glowing with a light of his own as firelight played off the reflection of the crystal and his armor.
The warriors stirred. One, a woman with only one ear, started.
“Do you say it is a bad thing to tell Ksmvr?”
She hesitated. Some of the other warriors had tensed. One grabbed the hyena and hugged him. After a second, the woman shook her head.
“No, General. It is the story to tell.”
“I have heard that name. One of the Shield Kingdoms of Chandrar, is it not?”
Vasraf smiled thinly.
“You are right, Ksmvr. And it will defend Chandrar if a great foe comes. But I do not think we celebrate it like Ger or other Shield Kingdoms. Listen and know: there is one rule all travellers to A’ctelios Salash must remember. To eat the meat they offer freely is a choice. One that can never be taken back. Never make it lightly. But—here is my story. I do not say never eat of it. For I have been to A’ctelios Salash.”
Even the other warriors were surprised. Vasraf closed his eyes. Of all things, an owl flew down to perch on his shoulder. Not one from the camp. Just a wild owl. He offered it some meat as he began to speak, his features far away.
“It was when I was a young [Fighter]. We went on raids against the enemy—in this case, [Bandits] who struck many nations. We pursued them north, along Zeikhal. A war party—not a poor one, but too zealous, without proper leadership. We ran out of supplies, like the amateurs we were. Inexperienced—we thought we could hunt and forage, even in Zeikhal, during the spring. We were fools.”
He shook his head, and Ksmvr nodded along, sympathetic. Vasraf went on.
“That was when, hungry, starving, we realized we had journeyed close enough to A’ctelios Salash. Have you ever seen the Carven City?”
He turned and only one warrior nodded. Vasraf shook his head.
“Then I must describe it. I don’t know how to say it. I saw…a face buried in the sand. Like some great statue. But then I realized, it was no being I could ever name. Not animal. Not beast. Not even monster. And it was no statue. That is what they carved out of it. They lived in its head. Each eye was an entrance and they lived within.”
His audience shuddered. Vasraf went on, holding out a hand.
“Understand me. A’ctelios Salash is not evil. At least, they were not. We came to them starving, desperate, and they gave us water for free, directions. And they offered us food.”
Someone whispered. Vasraf nodded. He held up a finger.
“Just so. But they did not trick us. They told us what all travellers must know. It is a choice. They urged us to try it, and seemed to think it would be a great favor. I…I do not wish to describe what it looked like. It was not normal meat, and it came in a huge chunk that never rotted. It did not smell quite normal. And yet?”
“I have never been hungrier in my life. Not just because I starved. Some days I can still smell it.”
The owl fluttered off and Vasraf looked about.
“A choice. What would you have done? I had starved for six days straight on the last of our rations. Here was food in plenty.”
“You did not eat it, though.”
Ksmvr was sure of that. Vasraf cast a glance his way and smiled.
“…Nearly. I knew what it did, but I did not mind. It is not a curse; and the people offered the choice freely. They were friendly, and hospitable. I might have taken that first bite. But for Algr. We had a warhound with us. One of the hunting dogs, a more loyal or fierce friend you’d never find. Algr we called her. She was starving to death but she sniffed that meat and refused to eat, even with some in my hand.”
As one, the people around the campfire turned to the hyena lying there. The animal looked up, and there was such a knowing look in its eyes, shining by moonlight and firelight, that Ksmvr felt something tingle in his body himself. Vasraf nodded.
“I didn’t eat. There was other food to be bartered for, though we had to trade dearly for it. Half the warriors ate. Then we set out to find the bandits. To make a story short, and because it was not glorious, we won. We tracked them down. Beat them.”
He shrugged, letting that part escape as if it had not mattered. Vasraf looked around, motioned. Someone offered him a pipe they’d been passing around. Ksmvr saw him blow some smoke quietly over the fire.
“What happened to the warriors who ate the meat, General? How did you win when half your company had eaten it?”
Vasraf started. The [Wild General] looked up and smiled a second.
“They came with us, of course.”
He paused. His face clouded.
“They fought with us, and we won a great battle against the raider-tribes. Then…they went to their home. To the Carven City, and I never saw them again.”
Now the silence was all-consuming. Ksmvr looked around. At the faces of the somber warriors. At Vasraf. He noticed something, then, and hesitated, but Vasraf was finishing the story.
“This is why I will not besmirch A’ctelios Salash, you see? Only tell this story. Yes, the warriors ate meat. But it was a choice. It was a fair trade. They had strength and endurance given by their food, which never spoiled, and their wounds closed quickly, even without potions; they bled less. I thought them the same men and women I had known.”
He passed the smoking pipe, took a swig of water. Stopped. Stared into the fire for a long time.
“Up until it came time to part ways…then I saw a hunger there. They could not have returned to Tiqr, even if they had the heart for the long journey.”
It was a fine tale. A tale of Chandrar, spooky, mysterious, but as Vasraf delivered it, not evil. For an audience, it was fascinating—more fascinating than Ksmvr.
But there was something they did not see, that Ksmvr did. As the Antinium sat around the fire, he saw something that the people watching the third recording would not. Could not, except maybe in the small vibrations.
Rémi Canada, holding the recording box, was shaking. He had the box on the stabilizing arm, but he himself was shaking, his features so contorted that…no one else noticed, sucked in by Vasraf’s tale. But Ksmvr saw Rémi staring at Vasraf—until the [Journalist] saw him looking. Then he turned his head.
But he had not looked like he agreed with Vasraf’s tale at all. Ksmvr did not know why. Because he did not know the story.
It was just a moment, and then Vasraf clapped his hands.
“Argh! I have brought us down too low. The first stories should be ones of daring. Not ones to draw us to silence. I should have saved it for the end.”
He laughed, self-consciously, and it broke the spell. Vasraf looked around and called out.
“Here! Is there no one with music? Let us play some for Ksmvr, a song that makes even hyenas dance!”
He stood up, and someone brought over a variation on a dulcimer, flutes, and drums, and played a merry tune for Ksmvr. The Antinium sat up as he listened, and applauded politely with the others.
“Do Antinium have music, Ksmvr?”
Nsiia was back now, with Domehead, and Yinah leapt from Ksmvr’s arms to Nsiia. She waited for pets and scratches, but the other animals were too close to Nsiia. So Yinah went right back to Ksmvr for full attention, haughtily offended.
The Antinium looked up.
“I know one Antinium who sings. I have never heard music in the Hives.”
“Really? What of dancing? Drinking? What do you do for fun?”
“Nothing. Antinium do not have social activities, Empress Nsiia.”
Just another thing to make Tiqr’s people frown and look at each other and set him apart. Excellent, excellent. The alien thing sat there. Until he added in a distant voice.
“We do like it, though. I had not the opportunity to hear music until I left my Hive. It is a nice thing.”
Nsiia’s head rose. She looked at Ksmvr and Rémi raised his camera suddenly. For the Antinium was suddenly unguarded.
“Really? You love music, but never play it in the Hives?”
“How would we know how, Empress Nsiia?”
“No one picks up an instrument in their spare time?”
Ksmvr looked at her, bewildered.
“Spare time? Instruments? We have no objects in the hive. We have no spare time.”
“Not a second to whistle or…?”
Vasraf leaned forward. Ksmvr looked at him.
“We wake, we sleep, we work. We fight. General Vasraf, I must inform you that many things of culture other species have, Antinium lack. We are a different people than what you understand. We are not a people. I am a former Prognugator, but I bear the body of a Worker. There are Soldiers and…other Antinium types, but we serve our Queen. There is no other need for entertainment.”
In silence, Tiqr’s people looked at him, more alien still. Rémi was waiting, breathless. And then Ksmvr said it. He looked at a flute someone held and his voice betrayed something. A quiver in that steady, perfect diction.
“…But since I am exiled, I am allowed to listen to music. It is…good. I like it. Will you play more?”
Nsiia turned to Vasraf, struck. The [General] sat up and now his eyes looked like a copy of hers, of Rémi’s, of an audience unseen.
Interested. No, beyond interested. Fascinated.
“What music do you like? I will have my people play any song you wish!”
Nsiia spread her arms wide. Ksmvr shook his head, blankly.
“I do not know what music I like. I have liked every music I have ever heard. Eighteen times so far.”
Again, everyone listening turned to each other with that look. What? And yet, he was telling the truth. Into this moment, someone decided to act.
“I…have some music. Not to offend Tiqr of Chandrar’s songs, but I have something that might interest you all. Have you heard of the song crystals from Terandria?”
Rémi Canada spoke. He produced something from his collection, the very impetus for his recording crystals, as Nsiia turned. Some warriors knew what he meant, and Nsiia herself clapped her hands and laughed.
“You have a song crystal? Why didn’t you share it earlier, Canada?”
“I thought it would be too noisy while we were trying to avoid attention…I have a few, actually. From the Singer of Terandria. Have you listened to them, Ksmvr?”
He shook his head. The Antinium stared as Rémi tossed one to Vasraf, who read the inscription.
“I have not. My team has not purchased any.”
“You could buy them yourself. Don’t you get paid?”
“But that would be a misuse of my funds, when I could put them to better use for my team. But I will listen if you play a song. Is it good music?”
“There is only one way to find out! This one! Play this one, Vasraf. It says it is merry. I am not in the mood for sad, or ‘rock’, whatever that may be. This is a joyous moment, so play merry! Play laughter! Play for Ksmvr, who does not know music!”
Nsiia demanded, and the people cheered. Ksmvr was about to tell them he knew music—he had listened to it eighteen times—when the song crystal activated, and Cara O’Sullivan, the Singer of Terandria, brought a song straight out of Rémi’s world and into this one.
Rémi’s camera caught it all. Ksmvr’s head snapped up. A female voice began singing as a fast drum beat began to play. A catchy, modern song benefitting from Earth’s range of instruments.
Nsiia blinked—then clapped her hands and laughed with delight. Some of the warriors shook their heads, but most were fascinated. Vasraf himself scrutinized the crystal he was holding, but most people enjoyed the music.
Even the animals. It was a new kind of music, and Tiqr’s people, regardless of individual taste, could appreciate something new. Same with animals.
Of course, music was not new to any audience. This song was probably well-known, especially to a Terandrian audience or a city with access to song crystals. But that wasn’t the moment.
The moment came spontaneously, and inevitably. For, unlike what Ksmvr expected, the audience here wasn’t content to just listen along appreciatively to the nuance and tone of the music, analyze the lyrics, and give a round of polite applause or their considered feelings on the piece as a whole or individual elements.
That was boring. This song was not boring. He saw the first person begin to tap their foot as it lay stretched out next to the fire. The shaking foot began to translate into head-bobbing. Then the person stood up. And they began to dance.
It was a warrior’s dance, accompanied by laughter and clapping as they tried to sync it up to the sound. But they were hardly the only person to spontaneously begin to dance. One of the Grand Elephants began to slowly stomp to the beat, or tried to keep up since it was fast, and waved its trunk back and forth.
And that was how the animals did it. More people began to dance, together—although this was not really a couple’s song—just an expression of wanting to move your body to fun music.
Nsiia didn’t. She just looked around, taking it in. Vasraf didn’t either, because he was a [General]. Also, because he didn’t actually like dancing.
Wonderful. Fun. Still, not amazingly new, but it was certainly authentic and captured on Rémi’s camera. He panned it right and left, taking it in as the song began to play. Then Nsiia pointed and laughed.
The little cat had been bobbing her head left and right. Now, she began to happily roll right and left, in such a silly way that Vasraf took one look at her and began chuckling. So did a lot of Tiqr’s warriors, who stopped to watch. The cat seemed content to just keep doing that as the song played.
“Repeat the music! Have her do it again!”
The song was ending, but Nsiia badgered Vasraf into repeating it. And sure enough—the instant the music replayed, Yinah began doing her musical roll.
Cat videos were a powerful force in any world. Rémi rolled his eyes, wondering what he had just unleashed. But he gamely recorded the cat rolling back and forth in front of Ksmvr. At least he’d have another claim to fame. He saw something happen then.
Ksmvr stood up. He looked at Yinah, the people who were dancing. And then he began to dance too.
Somewhere, when this documentary was being aired live, a Blighted Kingdom [Strategist] performed the old Winebreath Blaster with commendable spray. Everyone stared. It was unimaginable! Literally—they could not imagine this. But there it was, live.
The Antinium didn’t really have the joint-flexibility of Humans, Garuda, or Stitchfolk. Like animals, he was hampered by his very body; for instance, his back shell didn’t bend like a spine.
So he couldn’t perform half the moves. But he had stood up, and, knees bent, was bobbing to the tune of the beat, all three of his arms stuck out. He was waving them up and down, arms straight, like he was banging on some imaginary drums, shaking his body to the beat. Every few seconds he alternated sides.
He was, in fact, performing a simple dance move that Rémi Canada recognized as the…no…wait. It was so simple Rémi wasn’t sure if it was a dance move. But it was hypnotic, because that was literally the only thing Ksmvr did.
No footwork, no movement. He just stood in front of Yinah as the cat rolled back and forth, doing what Rémi could only describe as an Antinium boogie, completely unprompted. The monster mash, that was what it was! A dance move so old and so…and Ksmvr was doing it happily, mandibles raised.
Completely unself-conscious because he was dancing. It never occurred to Ksmvr people might think it was silly.
Which it was. Tiqr’s army and Nsiia stared at Ksmvr for a long moment. Then Nsiia started laughing. Ksmvr didn’t notice, nor did he stop; he was caught up in the song. And Yinah didn’t care; she was just rolling back and forth.
“He’s dancing! Do you see that?”
Someone exclaimed. But then they were cheering Ksmvr on. Rémi double-checked he had the camera rolling. This…this was it.
He knew it in his marrow. But Rémi couldn’t have predicted what came next. Because, like a steel chair from the corner, a literal steel being rose.
Domehead. Nsiia saw the Golem flash its head-dome with a multitude of lights. It looked at Ksmvr. At Yinah, rolling back and forth. And then, behind Ksmvr, it copied the Antinium. Move for move, although Domehead only had two arms to wave.
Ksmvr turned his head and saw the Golem dancing. He almost stopped, but then Nsiia leapt forwards. She had seen Domehead, gasped, and leapt towards them with peal of laughter.
“Don’t stop dancing! Vasraf, come on and join us!”
“Vasraf, this is an order!”
The [Wild General] refused. So Nsiia leapt forwards and all three of them were doing it. Yinah rolled back and forth in front of Ksmvr, Domehead, and Nsiia doing the silly dance as an entire army laughed—and began to copy them.
The stupidest dance in the world. Well, that was harsh, but it was so silly. Yet the genius was that Ksmvr and Domehead didn’t do it self-consciously. They did it completely seriously, with no sense of embarrassment or irony that ruined it to watch. In fact, their enthusiasm was contagious. Add in a little cat rolling around…
“This is a disaster! Call Wistram! Have it removed! Now! Those damned Antinium geniuses!”
The Blighted Kingdom was in full panic. The cunning of the Hives. Their twisted genius! Who had known they were this savvy? Because—you took one look at this image. The Antinium doing this dance?
And it was hard to remember that they were the scourge of Rhir, the Black Tide, allies to the Demons. The Walled Cities were experiencing much the same problem. The worst part was you had an [Empress] dancing in the background, a cat, and a Golem doing the same infectious dance. To music.
No worse weapon in the history of memes had yet been unleashed. That was what people saw in the third documentary series.
That was the moment Rémi Canada had been waiting for. It went around the world the moment it was aired. To mixed reactions. Panic from people who saw what it was doing. Amusement. Disbelief. A horrible dance move infesting every bar and club.
Outrage. Outraged. The instant she saw it, Crafter Se, who had personally volunteered to lead the advance force chasing after Domehead, sent a message to Femithain’s main force, moving slower.
“This is Armsmaster Dellic. You’ve seen it?”
The [Golem Artificer] pointed at the scrying orb, as if he could see it. Domehead—dancing?
“This is an embarrassment to Illivere! Do you see what they’re doing to my—to Domehead? Tell the Magus-Crafter I move to add ‘defacing a national relic’ to the charges to be brought against Ksmvr and the Empress of Beasts! Tell the Magus-Crafter…”
Armsmaster Dellic looked around the main camp. He replied to Crafter Se, cutting off the woman’s shouting.
“I’m afraid the Magus-Crafter is unable to hear you at this moment, Crafter Se. He’s…er…laughing too hard.”
Armsmaster Dellic held the speaking stone away from his ear. He looked over. And it was true. The sight of Domehead doing that dance was making the Magus-Crafter laugh so hard…
Or were they tears?
[Dancer Class Obtained!]
[Dancer Level 1!]
[Skill — Feel the Rhythm obtained!]
Ksmvr knew he should feel bad about that one. But he didn’t. Everything had changed.
The third documentary crystal went out hot and fresh, less than two days after the last one. Because Rémi Canada had such intense confidence that, short as it was, it was worth watching. Which he was right about, of course.
Everything changed after that night. How could it not? Tiqr’s army woke up and more than one person laughed about the dance over breakfast. With Ksmvr. They were friendly, and he feared he’d lost his dignity.
Nsiia assured him it was the exact opposite.
“Ksmvr, you must ride with us. You are a symbol, and your sword inspires. More than that? You are something to draw the world’s eyes to our cause.”
“I must refuse.”
Rémi Canada was recording over breakfast, having sent for a City Runner, the best he could afford. But like heck he’d miss anything now.
His instincts were good. He had a front-row shot of Ksmvr stopping his munching on breakfast, turning to Nsiia as she leaned over.
“I will free your friends, Ksmvr. My army will join forces. But I am not so stingy as to think that is a suitable reward. For freeing me? For aiding me? Should I reclaim Tiqr’s throne, I will give you a royal class. I shall remove your friend, Pisces’, [Slave] class if I can—though I have not the knowing, just the understanding it can be done. And I shall award you lands and riches. Is that not an adventurer’s dream?”
Ksmvr calmly ate a banana. He replied with a copy of the calm dignity of yesterday, made more outstanding because you had just seen him doing the ‘Antinium dance’ as it would be known.
“Even so, Empress Nsiia. I do not have Captain Ceria’s approval, and I am well aware of the risks.”
Nsiia slapped her knee, impatiently.
“You could help us independent of your team’s decision! Land, Ksmvr! I would make you an [Emir] if you desired! A [Lord], or whatever rank you wish! Is that not a great thing?”
Ksmvr stopped. Then he did something odd with his mandibles. He waited, but Nsiia just frowned.
“What are you doing?”
“I am sneering. I cannot sniff, but you may assume I am now sniffing. Sniff. I must inform you, Empress Nsiia, that I am already de facto a land-owner. I own two trees. You cannot sway me with what I already possess.”
Gold! Rémi dropped his food, focusing with two hands. Vasraf’s mouth was hanging open, mid-bite, and Sandi trotted over, stole one of the precious bananas, a treat, with a mweh of happiness.
Nsiia looked at Ksmvr.
Nothing would do but for Ksmvr to pull out a scroll and present her with it.
“My contract of ownership and seal. Do not damage it, although I have backups.”
Nsiia stared at the scroll. Vasraf leaned over. Then she turned.
“Someone find me—do I have a—?”
She called for someone, and, after only a minute, the growing crowd of soldiers admitted a woman with a ragged hole for one ear, and a scar along the visible part of her shoulder. She bowed.
“I was an [Emissary] before I laid down the quill and took up a blade in defense of Tiqr, Your Majesty. What may I do for you?”
“Will you…tell me if this is real?”
Nsiia handed her the scroll. The woman took the scroll, read it, and stared at it. She had to find a pair of reading spectacles. She studied the seal, held up the scroll to the light, looked at Ksmvr, and then spoke slowly.
“…I would have to cross-reference it with a guild, as I do not know Izrilian seals, and it has no magical signature. It does not need one…it looks…real. Adventurer Ksmvr…by right of deed, friendship, and valor…hereby granted in perpetuity to descendants and…he owns two trees.”
He owns two trees. Rémi had the entire thing on the crystal, and the City Runner who had come to pick it up was eating another banana, staring. Ksmvr proudly accepted the scroll.
“So you see, I will not be bought by mere lucre or gifts of land.”
Nsiia exchanged a look with Vasraf.
“I…I see that, Ksmvr. Er. Well then. Would you consider throwing your might behind Tiqr if I gave you…a rock?”
“A rock. What good is a rock? Unless it is made of a rare mineral, of course. Do not insult me, Empress Nsiia.”
“How about…fifty rocks? And th—eight trees?”
Ksmvr halted, in the middle of peeling a banana. Spitty came over to do Sandi’s trick and Ksmvr slapped his mouth away from the banana.
“…Eight trees? What kind?”
Nsiia had to find a [Botanist]-equivalent.
“You have my attention. Perhaps I might consider endorsing…”
Rémi had to send off the crystal by midday. He delayed for another day. And that was when his contact told him the series was blowing up. Of course it was. Ksmvr had gone from being the Gold-rank adventurer, a loner from a hostile race, to becoming Ksmvr, the Dancing Antinium. Ksmvr, Lord of Two Trees!
It had an effect. They found Tiqr’s army the day after that—perhaps they’d already been coming, by the first documentary.
The attack was fast, sudden, and vicious. They came out of the skies, camouflaged, invisible—it was too fast to tell what, or diagnose their exact method of creeping up.
Or rather, flying up. They dove out of the sky with a speed and savagery that befitted [Bandits].
Garuda bandits. [Air Bandits], who slashed down with killing blows. They might have been lightly-armored, but you only needed one arrow between the eyes to kill. Or a spell like [Lightning Bolt].
Or an arrow through the wing, or sword, because it wasn’t Nsiia’s army that was under attack. Rather, it was another Garuda clan.
In fact, it was the same clan that they had met on the way in. The army was marching south and one of their [Scouts] rode up.
“Bandits attacking a clan! It’s two clans in the air! They’re going after the ground!”
Nsiia cursed. Vasraf held up a hand.
“They haven’t seen us?”
“They see you, General. And maybe those two. They must have failed to beat your Skill.”
The [Scout] pointed at Ksmvr and Rémi, the only two members not of Tiqr’s army, who might not benefit from Vasraf’s Skill. Which meant an entire force was in range of this sky-battle and attack on the clan’s ground.
“We must save them. They gave aid to us and alerted you, no less, Vasraf. To arms!”
Nsiia snapped. Vasraf nodded.
“Bows. We’ll only get one shot before they fly. Do we have the Garuda to battle them?”
“Not an entire clan, [General]. Take your moment. Once they see our army, they’ll fly off. It’s a raiding clan; they won’t risk fighting an army.”
One of his Garuda replied. Vasraf nodded.
Nsiia stormed towards the fighting Garuda. Skyleader Rekai was fighting off the surprise-attack, but he was outnumbered, and below, Landguide Heka was fighting this raiding clan’s ground-based Garuda.
Either Garuda who had been too injured to fly, or, Ksmvr noted, Humans and Stitchfolk. It made sense; they were trying to steal the supplies on land and nearly had them.
They never saw Nsiia riding towards them until she was nearly on them, and she shot ahead of even Tiqr’s fastest [Riders] on Chance. She leapt from the saddle as one raised a blade to stab a wounded Heka.
The Empress of Beasts landed as Ksmvr calmly aimed three crossbows, preparing for his [Aggregate Volley]. Domehead was running along with the other warriors, and Vasraf was signalling for the attack. They saw Nsiia stand there and throw up a hand.
The Garuda [Raiders] leapt back in surprise. The clan warriors on the ground looked up and stopped, hope in their eyes. Because this time, it was an [Empress] who stood there.
She had claimed a small crown, a circlet of gold with a single gem that Vasraf had carried from the capital. She had added to her armor, and wore a complete set, but the proof was simply in her aura, now blazing free. Her eyes.
She threw up a hand, palm up and shouted, her sword angled, held straight out as she stood over Heka.
“Enough! There is enough bloodshed here! Enough death! By my blade and kingdom, I will see no more of it! Lay down your arms or I will be your foe!”
One of the Garuda above spotted Nsiia and called an alarm. More swooped down, but they didn’t see Vasraf’s army waiting just out of their range, hidden by the Skill. Nsiia turned, fearlessly, as bows aimed and they jeered down at her.
Then she grabbed a spear she had armed herself with—because she used a spear arguably better than even a sword—and slashed the ground, drawing a line. Spear planted, ready to be plucked and cast, sword held in her other hand, she pointed it at the leader of this group.
“Lay down your arms, raiders, or die. I am the Empress of Beasts and you will not harm this clan.”
Words of a ruler. The [Raider] laughed, without any belief, though he did hesitate.
“If you’re the Empress of Beasts, I want that bounty. Take her alive!”
The other Garuda switched weapons. Nsiia sighed. She held up her sword, and swung it down. From his position, Vasraf calmly aimed his bow.
His shot took the head off the Garuda who’d replied to her. The rest of his army armed with bows took their shots at the Garuda attacking the land forces. Only three, [Markswomen], aimed up and dared to fire into the melee.
Ksmvr hit a Garuda with eight bolts and wondered if that was overkill. His volley only hit one target, after all. Domehead pounded forwards as Tiqr’s army revealed itself.
The clan on the attack saw all the Garuda who had flown down die in two swift volleys. Seeing thousands of warriors below, the ones in the air understandably panicked and fled.
Rekai’s warriors didn’t pursue. There was an army in the air, a clan of Garuda, and they loosed arrows and spells as they fled, such that Tiqr’s soldiers kept shields up. Nsiia spat; she knew they couldn’t catch the raiding clan, and she shouted.
“Skyleader Rekai! Take your warriors down!”
He was diving, wounded, with the surviving Garuda, to take shelter in the army’s aegis. Nsiia glared after the retreating raiders, who had lost a lot, but lived to strike again. Hopefully against fewer targets now that they’d lost warriors. Even so…
She was turning to talk to the Skyleader and Groundguide when a flicker caught Ksmvr’s gaze. He looked up, in the middle of having to reload each crossbow he carried, one by one.
“General Vasraf. We may be under harassing fire.”
The [General] had seen it too. He cursed.
“Bows up! Prepare for Garuda bombardments! They’re going to hit us from the clouds! Prepare barrier spells!”
The army groaned, going for shields. Indeed, the swarm of hundreds of Garuda [Raiders] were coming this way. They were going to attack, damn them! Safely out of range, unless Tiqr chased them off with spells, their own Garuda, or bow shots.
“We will defeat them, if you can protect our wings.”
Skyleader Rekai croaked. Nsiia frowned. She stared at the Garuda, swooping towards them, faster than they had run.
“No. Vasraf, wait. [Hawk’s Eyes]. Does anyone else see that?”
One of her [Markswomen] nodded. So did a [Scout].
“General, they’re not flying to attack. They’re fleeing a second force in the air.”
Vasraf narrowed his eyes. He nodded, slowly.
“Barely four dozen. They’re in pursuit. What kind of flying force…they’re fast.”
He broke off suddenly. The [Raiders] were streaming back the way they’d come. They were feinting left, right, but it seemed single figures were blocking them, herding them towards Tiqr’s army. Like sheepdogs, Ksmvr thought.
Or wolves. But instead of hunting one or two—he saw a distant speck tangle with another for a moment. One began falling, and the other flew away as the [Raiders] resumed their flight.
“What clan is that?”
Nsiia was staring at something. Her eyesight, magnified by her Skill, focused on something only she could see. Then she blinked.
Skyleader Rekai and Groundguide Heka had both seen the movements too. Garuda eyes were keen, and they looked up. Then—abruptly, Rekai, who had been ready to fight, and who had grinned to see the [Raiders] flee, suddenly went pale. He squawked.
“That’s them. It’s them! The Executioners! It’s them!”
He shouted. The Garuda in his clan took one look at the fleeing [Raiders], and Ksmvr saw a panic set into them in an instant. Groundguide Heka sat up.
She looked up and screamed. In fear. Ksmvr saw more of the Garuda raiding clan drop out of the sky. One after another, as barely sixty figures pursued them. Now, they were getting closer and the aerial pursuit let him see something.
Blood. Showers of blood, as [Raiders] died. A flash, as one of the larger shapes dove. A scream. Not like other Garuda screamed. What was happening?
They passed closer still. Now, Ksmvr saw them. Garuda, in their many-plumed feathers, screaming, diving—and it sounded like, pleading—as sixty Garuda followed them.
A…kind of Garuda. But some group that, either by subspecies or nature, was completely different from the rest. They were taller than regular Garuda by far. Tall, long, their beaks curved. But that was not what was most striking. What was most striking was the cloth armor they wore, which matched the feathers on their wings. They dove, and Ksmvr saw the wings open.
Black. A midnight Garuda dove after a screaming [Raider], hurtling towards the ground. A weapon swung down, as the pursuer took aim. The Garuda [Raider] twisted, in an amazing spiralling dive that no regular warrior on the ground or [Archer] had a hope of hitting. The [Raider] dove—straight into her pursuer’s blade.
It was the strangest weapon for use in war. A ridiculous weapon that only a fool would use, or someone who knew only how to use this. It had no place in a fighting line, and it was cumbersome, designed for another purpose. And that was…the [Farmer]’s cutting tool.
A scythe. The fact that the blade cut inwards made it a contradictory weapon. And Ksmvr had never bothered to imagine even wielding one. Except—now he saw it.
In the air. The giant crow-warrior extended the blade in front of the [Raider]. And let the enemy warrior dive into the razor edge. Another warrior of this…Loquea clan performed a similar maneuver, swinging their scythe around and catching a Garuda mid-dodge.
Rekai hadn’t named them wrongly. It wasn’t a battle—it was an execution. The [Raiders] were so terrified of this small group that they fled. And those that fought—Ksmvr saw one Garuda fight back. She grappled with one of the crow-Garuda, slashing with daggers. They tumbled through the air, and Ksmvr saw them break apart after a moment. The Loquea warrior flew up, and the Garuda warrior fell, dead, to hit the ground in front of Tiqr’s army.
Her neck was snapped.
Someone breathed. Ksmvr looked around. Vasraf. He was looking up, and his eyes caught each warrior. Their armor made it hard to see where feather or figure began, but they finished their grisly battle and circled. Dark shapes in the air.
Terrifying the Garuda clan below. Vasraf turned, and Nsiia, Empress of Beasts, stood there. She looked up, and there was a smile on her face.
But it was grim, and whether it was genuine or wary, Ksmvr couldn’t tell. Vasraf spoke to Nsiia, and glanced at Ksmvr.
“Another sign, Your Majesty? You wanted to find the King of Destruction’s vassals. Here is one. The Loquea Dree clan. The Executioners of the Garuda.”
Nsiia looked at him and nodded. The figures were descending. Sixty of them, and Ksmvr didn’t think one had died in their attack. She raised her voice.
“Hail, Loquea Dree! I am the Empress of Beasts! Will you parlay with me?”
Not one answered. Then—abruptly, as one, they dropped. Fearlessly, towards the landfolk who saw them bank, land, scythes held in long arms, wings spread, around the army. Tiqr’s warriors started. Domehead whirled and Nsiia spun.
Rémi’s camera whirled, and he saw Ksmvr move, leaping, diving—a [Skirmisher] at his fastest. For once—too slow. He rolled upright, and came to a stop. He could have transitioned into any number of moves—
But for two scythes. One on his right, the other on his left. Boxing him in. Two warriors stood there, and if they pulled, the scythes would go right through him. He froze, a crossbow in his hand, the hilt of the [Paladin]’s sword in the other.
A figure landed in front of Nsiia, taller than she was. The tallest Garuda Ksmvr had ever seen. Face like a mask, eyes dark black, beady.
Loquea Dree. He or she spoke, voice rough, as if from disuse.
“Antinium. Black Tide of Rhir. Enemy to Garuda? Of Chandrar? So claimed. If it is, they die. We guard Garuda. From crime. From monsters. From enemies. What is your answer, Empress of Beasts?”
The crow-warrior looked at Nsiia. She looked at him, and the clan that had once served Flos Reimarch. Ksmvr looked around, at Rémi, capturing the scene; Domehead, frozen, uncertain what the move was; Vasraf; the terrified Garuda.
He was really reconsidering whether this was worth eight trees.
The scythe blades were very sharp. Enchanted. It was incredible, but each blade was individually enchanted by a master [Enchanter]. The shaft of the scythes, which Ksmvr now understood to be war scythes, a very odd creation even in the varied annals of arms making, was a separate piece. Given the wear and tear of battle, it made sense you’d have blades that could be fit into new frames.
The interesting thing was that the scythes’ shafts of wood were also enchanted, this time for protection and to be as light as possible. Having two separate enchantments should have been very difficult.
And it was, but as Ksmvr admired a blade of the Loquea Dree’s warriors, he received an explanation.
“The King of Destruction ordered each one forged. Each blade, made by his greatest [Enchanters]. When he ruled nation upon nation.”
Ksmvr eyed the giant crow-Garuda standing and talking to him. It was the leader, the same one who had demanded to know if he was a threat to Garuda.
The warrior corrected him instantly, without inflection in his voice—which was like a caw, the Garuda’s traditional accents, —mixed with a screaming sigh.
It contrived to make his tall, thin silhouette, his dark cloth armor and feathers, not to mention his scythe, curved beak, and dark eyes rather intimidating. Not to Ksmvr particularly, but he admired the effect.
If not nearly dying. But the Loquea Dree clan had put up their weapons the instant Nsiia vouched for him. Now, they stood in a conference with Tiqr’s army, the Empress of Beasts, and the terrified Garuda clan, staring at the bodies of their attackers.
“Leka Thri. My apologies. It is one name?”
“It is my only name. If you address me, address me so.”
The warrior stopped. Then, of all things, coughed. He reached for something, a small flask, and drank.
“Apologies. I do not speak long.”
Leka Thri had not said much. He had spoken for about five minutes in total, in fact. Now, Ksmvr saw the head tilt uncannily sideways, like an owl.
“You interest as well. Ksmvr of the Antinium.”
“You did not come to kill me, then?”
Nsiia looked up from talking with the other warriors.
“I say he is not harbinger of war, warriors of Loquea Dree. First of Judgement, Seelaw Ya. Why did you threaten Ksmvr? You came hostile, to one who is an adventurer. Your clan is not declared against the Antinium, and you have no quarrel with Tiqr.”
The leader was actually one of the two Loquea warriors who’d put their scythes around Ksmvr. He bent slightly, so he could talk to Nsiia at eye-level.
“We hear many things. Some, even Garuda clans, say this is the forerunner of invasion. Some say he is spy. Infiltrator. We held blades out, and judged him as well as the weight of your words. You are Empress of Beasts and honorable. Ksmvr of the Antinium passed both tests.”
Ksmvr glanced at the scythe. Interesting indeed. Now he looked closer, the wicked edge of the warscythe had a sheen to it. And it was changing color, even as he watched. But when Leka Thri held it up slightly, closer to his head, it turned a faint, dark blue laced with red.
“Your blades judge?”
Leka Thri held it closer to Ksmvr, and the blade changed again. It turned…well, no different blue, but the red receded and mixed faintly with grey, and, of all things, the faintest of yellows, like a daisy.
“What does that mean?”
Leka Thri turned as Nsiia approached. He bowed, deeply, and Vasraf nodded. For all they had come down like meteors, Loquea Dree was showing deference to Nsiia. Leka Thri turned to Seelaw Ya, and received a slight gesture from one of the First of Judgement’s wings. So he spoke.
“It says he has little of sin. Here. Yet he spills blood. Distantly; not so I. He has taken lives of people.”
He pointed to the blue. The red that grew when Leka Thri lifted the blade closer to him, and Ksmvr eyed the [Raider] corpses. But when Leka Thri shifted the scythe back, Ksmvr eyed the grey and yellow.
“In fact, I did not break many of Illivere’s laws. I merely…”
Ksmvr stared at the scythe. He technically freed Nsiia. And did a few other things. Leka Thri pointed.
“Breaking law is only one measure of judgement. Which law? How great? We do not slay for small crimes. We are not…murderous. You call us Executioners. That is not our name for ourselves.”
He turned his head and Seelaw Ya nodded once.
Both looked at Skyleader Rekai, who flinched.
“It is just a nickname, great Loquea Dree.”
Nsiia was watching the interplay just like Ksmvr and Rémi’s camera. She pointed to the final aspect.
Leka Thri looked at Seelaw Ya again, then turned. He put up the scythe and spoke, simply.
Ksmvr stared at the yellow running along the blade. He turned to Leka Thri, and shook his head.
“Using a blade to measure crime seems imprecise, to me. As proof, I am not valorous. I have done little that is commendable, of late.”
Nsiia looked at Ksmvr, and her lips twisted. Leka Thri stared at Ksmvr, without moving or saying anything. An uncanny stare…rather like any Antinium would give.
“This blade is a guide. It is meant to take lives; the colors of judgement were a secondary effect. Requested by the King of Destruction when he gave us our role. We make our own judgement. Only sometimes do the blades tell a simple story. When they run red and black with great murder and sin.”
So this was one of his vassals. An entire clan of Garuda—the Executioners, despite their distaste for the name.
But why were they here? No, for that matter, why were they not flying off to the King of Destruction’s side? Just for Ksmvr?
Leka Thri was something of a speaker for their clan, it seemed, since he translated some of Seelaw Ya’s intentions as they stood together. Ksmvr saw a few of their own helping restore order to the clan, even herding back the animals. However, the regular Garuda stayed well clear of them if possible. They looked terrified—and Ksmvr began to understand why.
One of the scythe-wielders stalked among the clan, staring at the blade as he passed by Garuda. Most he ignored; children hiding behind parents, warriors and non-warriors alike, backing up, flying away on some pretext. But now and then he would follow a Garuda. Stop them. And ask them a question.
It never resulted in anything. But the scythe blade was always just…there.
“Loquea Dree are one of the bodies of law, especially among the Garuda. There are Garuda nations, like the Shield Kingdom of Qualvekkaras, Kingdom of the Winds. Some answer to the law within nations, but Loquea Dree was formed when the King of Destruction first rose to power. I recall it, as a girl, hearing their name.”
Seelaw Ya had produced a wrap of dried meat, mixed with other herbs and some kind of spice Ksmvr had never tasted, but it was a simple meal. Still, Nsiia ate some out of politeness, as did Vasraf. Yinah sniffed the bundle, and reached down with one paw. Nsiia stopped the cat.
To Ksmvr’s surprise, Seelaw Ya silently raised the bundle and Yinah grabbed a morsel. The crow-Garuda stared as the cat chewed it down with no expression. Yinah eyed Seelaw Ya—then slowly edged around Nsiia’s shoulder so the cat was out of sight.
“When the King of Destruction had empire, he faced a problem. Garuda raided. Quarrelled. Clans under him fought with those not. Between each other. He had no great vassal to quell such issues, hunt down crimes. Some clan leaders—biased. None of his Seven could fly like Garuda, even Amerys.”
Leka Thri spoke. Ksmvr thought about the ‘Lord of the Skies’…Takhatres, the fastest Garuda in the world. On the ground. Leka Thri gestured to himself and the sixty warriors.
“So he found a clan feared by all. Great warriors. He gave them scythes and a charge.”
“To be the law of all Garuda?”
Leka Thri looked at Ksmvr. Seelaw Ya’s beak opened.
It was a monosyllable. It might have been a laugh. It sounded ominous. After a moment, Leka Thri went on.
“No. He charged us to hunt down murder, great crimes. ‘For so long as you carry my blades, protect your people from great evil. Even mine.’ He broke the Black Judgement, who slaughtered and executed the law without nuance. We protect Garuda from great foes. Crelers. Those seeking to wipe out clans. Foreign powers.”
He stared at Ksmvr. Well, that explained most of what they were and why they’d come. Nsiia grimaced.
“You did not go to Reim once Flos Reimarch awoke.”
“No. He broke faith with us. We did not forget that. Nor can he offer us what we want. If he reclaims empire and Garuda flock to his banner, more than one clan, we will think. But he has nothing we want.”
Seelaw Ya spoke. Leka Thri nodded, and Ksmvr didn’t miss the way the Garuda lowered their heads. They had never seemed angry. Now, they looked…more scary.
“So, you have come, judged Ksmvr, and not found him wanting. Could I ask you to fly in support of Tiqr? Garuda are my people, though not as many in number. Loquea Dree are renowned warriors, on land or in the sky. You would be a powerful ally and I reward such allies.”
Nsiia’s voice had only the barest hint of hope in it. Seelaw Ya looked at her instantly.
“No. Tiqr’s battle is not of interest to us.”
She sighed, but nodded. Vasraf interrupted.
“First of Judgement, we plan on finding the aid of other warriors who might join with those sympathetic to the King of Destruction. Tiqr does not ride in his aid, but the Monks of Sottheim are our target. Will you not share common cause with us? Tiqr fell for its association with Reim, Loquea Dree may well consider us allies in that sense.”
It was another good argument. Seelaw Ya gave it a second’s thought.
“No. We have seen what has passed. We are not blind. Tiqr’s war is still not ours. This flight does not come to fight in your name, Empress of Beasts.”
Nsiia and Vasraf both sighed. Ksmvr spotted one of Loquea Dree’s shorter warriors stop in front of Landguide Heka. He watched as the crow-Garuda bent down so they were at a level.
Landguide Heka stared in horror at the black eyes of the warrior. Garuda had irises, but the Loquea Dree’s were so dark that iris and pupil mixed together. It was part of why they were so alien. So odd.
Ksmvr thought they looked like Antinium eyes, albeit in bird-form. The warrior stared at Heka as the Garuda shook in terror. But crow-warrior didn’t look at the scythe. After a moment, the warrior opened her beak.
Heka froze in sheer terror. Which was funny, to Ksmvr. She made a strangled noise in her throat—and her beak opened and closed. She said nothing. After a full twenty seconds, the warrior stood up again. And she looked…odd.
Seelaw Ya and Leka Thri had both turned to watch. Now, they looked at Nsiia. Then at Vasraf, and Yinah, peeking out at them with clear nervousness.
Then their heads rotated to stare at Ksmvr. And Rémi Canada. Leka Thri looked at his leader and got a nod. So he turned back to Nsiia.
“Therefore we shall journey with your army. If it is acceptable. If not, we shall negotiate.”
Nsiia blinked at them. She rubbed at one ear.
“…What? You said you would not fight with Tiqr.”
“Yes. We will not. If we must do battle against common foe, we shall consider it. But we will journey with your army for as long as that one remains.”
He pointed at Ksmvr. The Antinium was as astonished as everyone else.
“Do you still suspect me of being a spy? A threat to Garuda?”
Leka Thri sounded surprised. Ksmvr tilted his head, much like they did, although not to the same degree.
Nsiia looked from Ksmvr to Leka Thri. The warrior glanced at Rémi Canada, aware he was being recorded perhaps, Seelaw Ya, and then turned to Ksmvr.
“You have something we greatly desire. Perhaps we can obtain it. We shall be ally. Journey with you. Even…friend. If you accept it.”
He opened his beak. Ksmvr saw no teeth, although that would have just completed the look, but a razor’s edge, serrated to rip. He stared at Leka Thri’s extended talon. At Nsiia. She was frowning, clearly confused, but she looked at Ksmvr. The Antinium hesitated.
“Will you fight to help me?”
“You have something we desire.”
“Will you tell me what it is?”
Leka Thri hesitated. He looked around again and leaned in to whisper.
“…To tell you what it is may ruin what we desire. Especially if it is known.”
He glanced around and Ksmvr wondered who he was talking about. Nsiia’s eyes had sharpened, but Ksmvr doubted she could hear the minute whisper, even with a Skill. Leka Thri paused.
“…We will bare our blades in your cause, be it Tiqr or otherwise. If we cannot find what we want, we will leave. But we think you have it.”
“I cannot give you what you desire if I do not know what it is. May I be told?”
Leka Thri hesitated as Ksmvr whispered back. He paused, then replied.
“…It is embarrassing. Perhaps later. Will you accept our company?”
He stood back. Ksmvr opened and closed his mandibles, perplexed beyond reason. But he looked at some superb warriors, at Nsiia, and shrugged.
And thus, Loquea Dree’s sixty warriors joined Nsiia’s army. Or rather—Ksmvr.
It was all about Ksmvr. The meeting with Loquea Dree’s clan, his magical sword, his curious personality, were all creating a kind of wave in an audience now fascinated by him.
These crow-Garuda, mysterious intentions or not, only added to Rémi Canada’s conviction that he was right. He filmed them joining Nsiia’s army, and Tiqr’s liberation was an amazing side-plot and backdrop to Ksmvr’s story.
But it was Ksmvr’s story. Loquea Dree and Rémi had come for him, and Rémi couldn’t parse quite why they were here. Until that night, when he got a clue.
Leka Thri and Seelaw Ya and a few others of the crow-Garuda were honored guests. The rest mingled, but largely kept to themselves. And how not?
They were intimidating. Not as much to Humans and Stitchfolk, perhaps, lacking some of the cultural understanding Garuda had, but even Tiqr’s warriors couldn’t hide how they found the Loquea Dree warriors.
Indeed, even the animals backed up. This was a bit of Loquea Dree’s fault in truth. Animals hated it when you stared too long at them, because that was what predators did. And Loquea Dree were excellent predators.
Nevertheless, Vasraf did his best to accommodate them and broke bread, offering it to Seelaw Ya as he sat around that night’s campfire with Ksmvr, Nsiia, and the others. Rémi had it all on film, of course, and watched as he tried to draw them in with tradition.
“The right to entertainment of choice belongs to our new guests and allies! Will you share stories, between warriors and travellers, First of Judgement? Or perhaps some sport? A game?”
He turned to Seelaw Ya. The First of Judgement considered the question. And to everyone’s surprise, he nodded.
“We shall have…music.”
Music? Ksmvr sat up and Rémi focused as Nsiia nodded.
“Of course. We have songs and bands of our own. Does Loquea Dree have music?”
“Yes. We know you have songs. Perhaps you shall play some. For us—we shall begin.”
So saying, no less than eight of Loquea Dree produced small objects. They carried little gear, even though they were stronger fliers than regular Garuda. But they had small…bone flutes. Whistles. Yet Ksmvr and Rémi soon learned with everyone else that Loquea Dree’s main source of music was their voices.
A shrill, high-pitched orchestra began as the eight warriors played, four on the small instruments. The other four waited, perfectly still, until the beginning of a strange melody. Almost pleasant.
Right until they began to sing. And then every hair on Rémi Canada’s arms rose. Because he had heard singing, bad singing, sonatas, opera, and all kinds of music.
This? He added a new term into his musical lexicon.
It was not a cacophony of disorganized music. In fact, it was music, and beautiful. Also? Terrifying. The singers had some gift, but the sight of eight dark shadows in the night performing what sounded like a screaming lament seemed like the herald to a night-ambush by horrors with lots of teeth and claws.
Seelaw Ya and Leka Thri looked around as Nsiia’s smile froze into a rictus and Tiqr’s army stared in horrified fascination. Ksmvr himself tried to nod along to the song as Yinah slowly dug her claws into his carapace. For some reason…Leka Thri kept staring at him. At Yinah. At Domehead.
They were halfway through the song when Seelaw Ya looked over. Then, without warning, Leka Thri stood. Every eye was on him. What would the crow-warrior do now? Join in? Was there some new part of the ceremony unique to their clan? He stared at Ksmvr, then turned sideways, glanced at Rémi—put his arms out, his long arms, talons balled into fists.
And began to do Ksmvr’s dance. Arms waving, legs slightly bent, butt out a bit. The Ksmvr dance. He did it a bit slower than Ksmvr, to the cadence of the song. Then reversed directions.
Nsiia’s mouth opened wide and she covered it slowly with her hands. Vasraf began choking to death, assassinated by his food. Ksmvr just looked at Leka Thri. The warrior was doing what could only be a copy of Ksmvr’s moves. But how had he seen…
Rémi Canada himself had stopped thinking. Domehead’s dome flashed with lights. He watched Leka Thri do the dance, and began to rise, but Nsiia touched his arm. She looked around, desperately, and mouthed.
It was a tossup whether Tiqr’s warriors would have laughed anyways. Somehow, the silly dance…Vasraf looked at Leka Thri, doing it to the background of the scream-song.
“This is the most horrifying…”
His voice was quiet. Literally horrifying, and also horrifying in the sense of watching a social disaster. Ksmvr didn’t understand, though. Leka Thri was just looking at him.
We want something from you. Which would be…?
The song ended. Leka Thri lowered his hands. There was applause—led by Vasraf—but the Loquea Dree didn’t seem happy. Seelaw Ya, the others, were looking at Ksmvr.
“Will you play music now, Empress of Beasts?”
“Of course. Something dignified. Vasraf? For our guests?”
Seelaw Ya hesitated. Ksmvr looked at him. He looked at Leka Thri’s hard-to-read expression. But he seemed displeased.
Rémi Canada had it. The [Journalist] nearly dropped his recording device. He raised his voice, shakily, interrupting the moment. Because he could. He was part of this story, even if he was the recorder, the eyes and lens. And because…Loquea Dree really needed a hand right now.
“Why don’t you play the song from last night, Empress Nsiia?”
“That song? I’m sure our guests would not…”
Nsiia hesitated. But they knew the dance. Seelaw Ya glanced at Rémi, and nodded instantly.
“That would be preferable.”
Nsiia looked at Vasraf helplessly, and he didn’t understand. Not yet. But then that merry song began to play. Yinah didn’t roll about, much to the crow-Garuda’s disappointment, but after a second, Domehead got up. So did Ksmvr. He saw Leka Thri rise.
“You will dance?”
The warrior looked at him. Ksmvr nodded.
“I like music.”
“This is good. Music is good. You see. We are not just Executioners.”
Leka Thri glanced at Rémi. The crow-warrior adjusted his posture as Domehead began to do the dance, so that Domehead was on one side, Ksmvr in the center, Leka Thri on the other.
For the camera. Rémi met Seelaw Ya’s intent gaze. Leka Thri went on.
“Just as we said. We are law, but not without nuance. We are kin. We are not simply terror.”
Then he began to do the dance. Ksmvr did too, wondering why Leka Thri had told him what was obvious. The three began to do the Antinium dance—and now it was a bit scary.
But mostly hilarious. A giant crow-man, like a nightmare—one of the nightmares of Garuda children, Domehead, and Ksmvr, the representative of the Black Tide, doing that silly little dance.
Vasraf tried. He really did. He actually stabbed himself with his sheathed dagger. But then he started chuckling. Nsiia elbowed him hard, but it was like a cork popping out of a bottle. More of Tiqr’s warriors had to laugh.
“Apologies, Seelaw Ya. It is objectively funny.”
She turned to the leader, First of Judgement, fearing he would be offended. But he was not. In fact, and it was still scary—Nsiia stopped as she saw the expression on his face.
He was smiling. The crow-man turned to Nsiia.
“Yes. It is good. All is well, Empress of Beasts.”
Ah. Rémi Canada exhaled. There it was. He kept the camera focused on the scene. Recording #4 would have to go out soon. Maybe even tomorrow, if he could arrange a pickup. Somehow, he had a feeling one of Loquea Dree’s warriors might even do it if they couldn’t find a Runner.
You did things quite deliberately. Rémi Canada knew exactly what he was doing. So, it seemed, did Loquea Dree; though, they had slightly different purposes and, arguably, weren’t good at it. But they knew where to be for what they wanted.
As for Rémi? He wrote something down on the [Message] scroll he carried, one-handed. A note to his team when they sent this one out, and when they communicated. Just a title, a name to be used to refer to this series. It meant something, after all. Names. Intention.
He had weighed the ethics, and made a decision. When this video went out, and when they talked about it, they would use his name. A recording of Ksmvr, the Horns of Hammerad’s Antinium member.
Ksmvr, Gold-rank adventurer. Ksmvr the [Skirmisher], if you referred to his class. Ksmvr of the Free Antinium, technically formerly of the Free Antinium, but few made that distinction. Ksmvr of Liscor, a title not yet endorsed, but perhaps when they learned more of Ksmvr’s story. Saw what he did.
And Rémi’s name for him, so that everyone would know it. Intention spelled plain to anyone who understood.
Ksmvr of Chandrar.
Ksmvr of Chandrar. What a peculiar title. He was not made in Chandrar. He had not lived in Chandrar long. Why call it that?
It was just one of those nonsensical elements in life. And the Flying Queen of the Antinium knew nonsensical. No one else was as sensible as she. Proof positive? They had rejoined with the last of the six Queens of Izril. The Free Queen had finally been brought back into contact with the others.
Yet, oh, how dreary were her complaints. She stated, more than once in their meetings, that her Hive had been bereft of material and technological aid. Some of that was due to her remote location and the lack of any supply network until now. Even now, the Drakes were attempting to collapse it, thanks to Magnolia Reinhart. But Antinium could keep digging, so it was simply annoying…
However, the Flying Queen had to take umbrage with the Free Queen’s complaints. Did she think it was simple, to be one of the Queens in the proximity of the Grand Queen? Every figure and metric of her Hive was assessed, her placement of Soldiers, her research projects, all had to be tabulated and accounted for.
“Flying Queen. Your Hive’s efficiency has decreased in this last week. Can you account for the variance?”
And there she was. The Grand Queen of the Antinium. Taking the Flying Queen to task for something the Flying Queen was already looking into. Irritated, the Flying Queen rubbed her palps together.
Around her bustled her Hive, Workers and Soldiers, of more types than regular Antinium, many with wings, transporting goods, repairing parts of the Hive, and so on. Like any Hive, and hers had always been quick since she had incorporated the Flying Antinium’s naturally high speed into their network.
Hers was also the only chamber in the heart of the Hive. Every other Queen sequestered themselves away. The Flying Queen was surrounded by her Hive, the better to see them.
“I am tracing the reason for the delays, Grand Queen. Fear not.”
“That is a Drake expression, Flying Queen. I do not fear this inefficiency. Merely require it solved.”
Irritated, the Flying Queen watched the scrying mirror go blank. That was just it. No one appreciated her. She had used the idiom to exemplify her study of the enemies! No one had her vision! Pivr—she missed Pivr. Her greatest Revalantor should be here, to make her feel better.
“Inefficiency. My projects are mine to dictate. The Free Queen thinks she is so removed, so superior because she is creating Individuals.”
It was a sore point with the Flying Queen, because the other Queens had agreed that the creation of Anand and other Prognugator-type Antinium for far less of the cost of a regular Prognugator—not to mention their ability to level—outstripped any other achievement of late.
It irked her more because she couldn’t replicate it. She had tried. For instance, every Antinium in the entire Hive had been issued with a single copper coin just last week. The Flying Queen had waited…and nothing had happened.
She didn’t understand why, which indicated something of her lack of understanding about fiscal economics and the need for an actual system to spend said coinage.
Yet that was part of her success. She tried projects, more than any other Queen, and if they failed? She moved on. Some called that ‘reckless’, or ‘without proper foundation’, like the Silent Queen. Well, the Flying Queen had wings on her Antinium. So there!
And she had proof the Free Queen was not flawless. The Flying Queen went back to her second scrying orb, a large one she had placed next to the mirror. She reached down for a bowl of cheese-stuffs. Anand had brought some foods from the Free Antinium’s Hive, and the Flying Queen had instantly added it to her diet.
“The Free Queen informed us that this Ksmvr was exiled due to incompetence. Despite creating a Prognugator in secret without authorization, she exiled him? What a waste. I do not think he is incompetant. Proof? He is a Gold-rank adventurer. She is so blind.”
She stared at the recording of Ksmvr doing his dance. She had watched it eight times, often while working on her projects in the Hive. It was just…interesting. She rubbed her feelers together; she had been informed via the news network that another part would be airing tonight and had cleared her schedule to watch.
For now, though, the Flying Queen had to get to the bottom of these inefficiencies. It was in the supply chain, of all things. Apparently goods weren’t getting to the right places on time, or Antinium. She’d had her Prognugators analyze what was nearly a 22% slowdown! The Flying Queen focused on the logistical problem.
“…The area of interference…no. Not food distribution. Not the other Hives…”
She was so vexed by it, because the Grand Queen had intimated it was because of the Flying Queen’s methods that her Hive was falling behind quota. The Flying Queen was going to establish it was some outside force.
Of course, the Grand Queen was right. It was due to the quality only the Flying Hive had. She finally completed her analysis and stopped.
The source of the slowdown and congestion that made her entire Hive run so much slower was…right here. It was centered around her throne room. How could that be?
In the background, Nsiia began to dance with Ksmvr. The Flying Queen stared at the image and the series she’d been playing non-stop. Then turned her head.
All of the Antinium instantly went back to bustling around, carrying objects, putting foodstuffs for her next meal in place, scurrying here and there, rotating Soldiers out, and so on. Fast, commendable, perfect as could be, even above average. The Flying Queen hmmed.
She went back to watching the scrying orb. Instantly, behind her, the Workers and Soldiers slowed. Not a huge amount. But they did slow, well, by 22% when you accounted for pileups and delays in the Hive. Not even that much. Just…walking a bit slower. Heads turned. Lingering as a they exited through a tunnel.
Staring at the Antinium above ground. The beautiful land. The dance.
Ksmvr of Chandrar.
“It is so odd. I cannot figure out…”
The Flying Queen’s head turned and Antinium snapped back to work. She stared blankly at them. Back at the scrying orb. A slight…reflection finally caught her eye on the blank mirror she used to talk to the other Queens. Slowly, she turned back to watching and waited for three minutes. Stared at the reflection in the mirror. Then whirled.
Antinium froze in terror and mortal fear as the Flying Queen of the Antinium loomed, catching them in the act. The Flying Queen gazed down upon them. Well, well, well. Well, well, well, well…she hesitated.
“Well. How interesting.”
Later that week, the Grand Queen grudgingly—exceedingly grudgingly—commended the Flying Queen. Her workforce slowdown had somehow, mysteriously, vanished, and she had, in fact, hit a 4.5% increase that no Hive could match.
The Grand Queen suspected it wouldn’t last. But unfortunately for her, in some sense, the Flying Queen’s Hive continued to work even harder, and that was by Antinium standards. She couldn’t figure it out, but that was because she only looked at the reports.
She had no idea that part of the reason why Antinium Workers and Soldiers worked even harder than usual was due to the one-hour break before their rest period. In which they entered the now-enclosed area to stare at the scrying orb on repeat. The Flying Queen refused to tell the Grand Queen why until she was asked. She was not impeding the Antinium’s growth as a whole.
She was just a bit smug about it. And that was all there was to it. The Flying Antinium did not suddenly all turn into Individuals. In fact, they watched and went back to work and that was that.
Except for one single Worker, in Tunnel B35-South—this was obviously a translation for the Antinium—which corresponded to a job serving the nutritional paste to Soldiers and Workers. It was very simple. The Worker filled bowls with the slop. Antinium took said slop and ate it, and deposited it with another Worker.
This was the entire day of said nameless Worker, and it had been for nearly three years straight. Wait, eat, dispense food, rest—unless it was called to some urgent task like fighting to defend the Hive.
There were no feelings involved in said Worker. And yet—of late—it had been hesitating.
The moments in between rushes of Workers and Soldiers were sometimes minute, but it was there. Like the moment between filling bowls. Then, the Worker just stood. Stood, and waited. That had been everything, and that hadn’t been fine because ‘fine’ implied there was good and bad. It had just been.
But now—the moment seemed to stretch on. It had no orders during this moment. No monsters attacked, no Queen to command. So the moment…had no expectations.
There the Worker stood. The last Soldier took a bowl. It had time. It stared ahead. Then, slowly, it turned in its small cubicle, looking left, for a Worker delivering more slop, right, for more Workers or Soldiers or its replacement.
No one. And it was not exactly visible from the place where Soldiers ate without voice or interruption. Slowly, the Worker stood straight. Then it turned left—and began to shake all four arms. It did a little dance, left, right, left, right. Snapped to attention and began filling bowls as Workers entered. When they were done, and in that moment—the Worker began to do the dance again. Dance, and danced.
And began to level.
So that was what was happening with the other Horns of Hammerad. The first entry in the documentary series came quite some time after the other Horns had all been located, each by a different group, and had begun their long journeys.
Still, the first glimpse of Ksmvr was an insight. A way for the others to link up…if they had a scrying orb. Which not one did, at least on hand. Only Ceria Springwalker had a tiny scrying mirror.
“Block the scrying device she has. She cannot be allowed to see this. Yet.”
The Siren of Savere, Revine Zecrew, turned away from the orb, furious. So that was where Nsiia was? She was going to hunt her down and—
But this was only one of the Siren’s many plans. The [Bandit Queen], the [Hydromancer] who ruled lawless Savere—at least, that was what it was known for—did not pace around her study long.
In another time she would have been focused on Nsiia, but she had something else to allay her wrath, much to her people’s relief. She kept going back to something in her workshop, as one of her [Mages] ran off to do her bidding.
Her old friend. The Siren stared bleakly at a sheaf of organized letters. Amid spell tomes, books, even an illustration. Yet…
“She had an apprentice. She told me she would never take one. And here she is. Good enough to damn an Adult Creler, almost. And with some kind of powerful relic!”
The Siren didn’t believe in chances, and she often suspected designs, but she couldn’t see the one here that had led Ceria Springwalker to her. She thought about it. The half-Elf…was an adventurer. Perhaps one of those traditional, annoying, upstanding ones.
But perhaps not. She was Illphres’ apprentice. And even if she was the of the most holier-than-thou type? So what? The Siren…got what she wanted. There were ways.
She smiled. This was good. This was fascinating. This might be what she needed. She strode back through her palace, at the port-capital of Savere, Runsblud, home to an ever-changing court. The most dangerous [Bandits], [Pirates], and other criminals who took Savere as a port from the storm of law.
The Siren descended into a banquet hall replete with laughter, rogues—mostly women—her warriors, not a traditional army, but a match for many nations. Into Savere had come the half-Elf with ice powers. Savere was not Roshal, which twisted. But it could corrupt. And the Siren herself desired something. So beware, Ceria Springwalker. Could she navigate Savere’s dangerous reefs of power? Ingratiate herself to—or survive—the deadliest rogues and criminals?
Could she do that? Would the Siren find what she wanted? Revine turned, the power of water sweeping behind her as she saw the half-Elf, surrounded by Savere’s deadliest. She was—
Ceria Springwalkere turned. Revine stopped dead as she saw the half-Elf’s face. Her…cheeks were bulging so huge they looked like they had doubled her facial size.
“Ib a squirrel!”
Half the audience around her was cheering her on to fit more Yellats into her mouth. The other half were laughing so hard they were sliding off their chairs. Revine stared at Ceria. She closed her eyes.
…What had Illphres been thinking?
Author’s Note: If you’re a Patron, you saw the first…6,000 words for free as a rare chapter-teaser. That was because I wrote the edited chapter, but switched focuses to something else because I thought it would be better to edit.
So I wrote…like 34,000 words for that chapter, which is in editing and will be out sometime. And 6,000 words. So that’s 40,000. And now I wrote this.
I’m tired already and I’m not even begun this writing cycle. But that’s how it goes. I think you’ll enjoy the edited chapter when it comes out, but for now, make do with this paltry offering. Actually, the first six thousand and parts of this chapter show why I didn’t want to get it edited.
First, this is a longer tale than usual, so I was fairly sure I couldn’t do it in one arc. Which I didn’t. Second? I had some more emphasis on my weak points—painting a picture of what’s happening. I don’t know if you saw it, but that’s what I tried to do this time.
Anyways, leave me your thoughts and thanks for reading! I’m back! Time for a break?
Something different this time…here are the winners of a competition by @Me#3460 on Discord, for the best images of…pirateaba? Who people conflate with the character, Pirate, which my avatar is based off of. It’s great art and much thanks to all competitors and drawings. Here are the top three!
1st Place: pirateaba with amazing hair by Curry! No, I can’t do that. I wish I could. Also, that I could hold a burning quill. I mean, I can, but it’s not fun.
2nd Place: A Space Marine pirateaba by LeChat! With the weapons of war I apparently get. The keyboard is more dangerous than the mouse, by the way. Pointy.
3rd Place: Surreal pirateaba by Anito! Apples and hands. This is accurate to the core of my being.