Ksmvr of Chandrar was no naturalistic force in the world’s consciousness. That did not mean he didn’t deserve to be there. Only that he was made.
Of course, he had to have the right stuff to appear, and it had to be the right moment. Yet not even Ksmvr would deny the fact that he was, in some sense, as artificial as Domehead. He had been created, not born.
He told the audience a story as the fourth entry in his series began. It was, at first, a simple scene. A lone Antinium Worker, sitting around a campfire, speaking.
Until you saw he carried a glowing sword, partially-hidden by a cloth wrap. A relic from another era. Until you saw that he wore a cape, and had a little cat in his lap.
When you saw the Empress of Beasts, leaning against Domehead, who sat perfectly still, in the company of her army; the huge, hunched forms of the Loquea Dree clan, as the camera panned across everything, it became a moment. Then—you heard Ksmvr’s voice.
“The day the Horns of Hammerad were named Crelerbane, Hell’s Wardens, was cloudy. I distinctly recall a buildup of clouds that hinted at approaching precipitation. However, it did not, in fact, rain, which might have aided Captain Ceria Springwalker in conjuring ice magic. Indeed, the cloud cover dissipated over the course of the day.”
His audience stared at him. Nsiia coughed.
“Ksmvr. Is that important to the story?”
Ksmvr looked blankly over at her.
“I am trying to add salient details. Strategically, you see, we were fighting in the area just outside the Bloodfields, which was largely grassy, with only slight gradation to the terrain. If we had been fighting in the Floodplains, we could have used the landscape as cover…”
“Yes, yes. But perhaps…you might tell us the story dramatically?”
For a second, everyone, including the audience captured in the image, looked as though they expected Ksmvr to try and fail. After all, what they knew Ksmvr could be amazingly literal at times. Oddly silly, fixated on trees, a fond lover of cats.
Spitty’s mortal enemy. It was amazing how many small details about Ksmvr were known by hundreds of thousands, nay, millions of people. Objectively useless information, even if you were to meet him. Yet they did not know him, for now the Antinium went still. He seemed to think, to ponder for a great moment.
When he spoke next, his voice deepened, as deep as he could make it. He struck a pose and, if you knew what he was imitating, you might see some Wesle or Jasi in him. Perhaps even Barelle the Bard.
“The Crelers attacked a group of adventurers hired for simple guard-duty just outside of Liscor, along the Bloodfields. We were one team of many, all Silver-rank or Bronze, tasked with protecting [Builders] and road layers. Hitherto this moment, we had encountered exactly one substantial danger from the Bloodfields itself.”
He looked around.
“We were not prepared. We never reached the magical portal door leading back to the inn. We had no teleportation scrolls. We assumed, naively, that we would be able to retreat in the face of any threat. It was a rare lapse in the judgement of my team, but my Captain, Ceria Springwalker, did not have command of the operation. Nor were we allowed to deploy undead, another fact that might have saved lives. When the Crelers struck, they came out of the ground by the thousands. Juvenile Crelers, Baby Crelers. And the Adult Creler.”
His audience shifted. Even here—no, —anywhere—the word ‘Creler’ was synonymous with terror, with one of the world’s universal threats. Ksmvr’s own voice reflected that. A kind of warble, never heard before. Intensity. Hatred.
“If you have never seen one, I cannot describe an Adult Creler fully. It was approximately twice as large as a house. It spat bolts of…something. Internalized substances that could kill from afar. Nothing but great magic stopped its fangs from slicing armor apart. It was so well-armored that few weapons could even harm it. And it was aware. It fought us with tactics. It was cunning. It had a mind.”
He looked around.
“Even magic could not stop it. I watched a [Mage] of Wistram cast the full might of his power on it and fail to kill the Adult Creler. It was not a threat for Silver-rank teams. The instant it emerged, my captain, along with all of the others, instantly ordered a retreat. We did not reach the door; in fact, Crelers pursued the teams that did escape into the inn. We realized we would surely perish in flight. So we took a stand.”
It was a tale already told, the greatest moment of the Horns of Hammerad, the instant they became Gold-rank adventurers. Ksmvr did it some justice, although he had peculiarities in the way he talked. He was not a natural [Storyteller], but his enthusiasm and the fact that he had been there gave some moments a quality other renditions would lack, as did his style:
“The Adult Creler severed Yvlon’s arm after it began to break. Nevertheless, she picked up her arm and, using it as a replacement for her sword, began hitting the Creler. It was ineffective, but I believe it may have unsettled the Adult Creler.”
“She used her own arm to attack the Creler?”
Someone called out. Ksmvr turned his head.
“Only briefly. She made a tactical retreat to request Pisces reattach it. Which he did, to the best of his abilities. However, when Yvlon Byres reentered the battle, she charged the Adult Creler alone. Brave warriors like Crossbow Stan had already fallen, yet she brought her damaged blade up and performed a mordhau blow—with the crossguard as the hammer. It was she who finally broke the weakened armor of the Adult Creler’s head. One adventurer, who ignored the wounds she had taken. She would surely have died in moments, but she advanced. And that is why we took hold of victory.”
His voice rose with evident pride, and his gesturing, with three arms, became more dramatic.
“Yvlon Byres knew no fear. That is why she became a [Silversteel Armsmistress]. She fought, despite losing her arm. Despite taking near-fatal wounds. I believe that, of the two, the Adult Creler knew fear first. Its spirit and armor broke before her, and she began to carve out its main brain as it began to retreat for the first time.”
A Frostmarrow Behemoth dueling with the Adult Creler, a spontaneous link moment. The desperate barrier raised by Montressa du Valeross. Yvlon’s suicidal charge and, as she cut into the Adult Creler’s brain, the final, pivotal blow.
The audience leaned in as Ksmvr concluded his tale.
“I took advantage of the moment, landed on the Adult Creler, and finished her blow. Thereafter, it expired.”
His audience, like a free-falling bird in a beautiful dive, came to an abrupt stop, slamming into the end of Ksmvr’s story. Leka Thri frowned, his beak opening.
“Your story seems to lack a proper ending, Ksmvr.”
“Yes. You told parts of it well—parts not at all!”
Nsiia objected loudly as Ksmvr looked blankly at his companions. The Antinium scratched at his antennae.
“I am not a perfect storyteller, so I apologize for not giving my team due diligence—”
“No, Ksmvr. Not that. You told it fairly well. But just not about yourself.”
That was the key element his audience noticed. Ksmvr hesitated.
“Yes I did. I represented myself in the story—”
At this, he stopped because everyone began to chuckle. From Vasraf to the crow-Garuda—even Yinah opened her mouth. Nsiia’s smile was humorous—but a bit sad. She looked at him.
“Ksmvr, recount the part where Pisces drew his blade and fought.”
Ksmvr nodded slowly.
“He was the swiftest warrior on the battlefield, and fought up close, despite lacking armor. Crelers were all about him, but he had his flaming rapier in one hand, slashing, casting with the other. I personally witnessed hundreds of Crelers attacking him, yet he danced between them as if he were on a ballroom floor in Terandria. Even when they struck him, he refused to stop fighting. Indeed, his white robes of surpassing hygienic value turned crimson and orange with blood—”
He was warming to that section of the tale, but Nsiia propped her chin in her hands.
“…And where were you?”
Ksmvr gave her a blank look.
“Fighting Crelers. I contributed in a distraction role, as I was unable to do any qualitative damage to the Adult Creler until the end. My role was lamentably low.”
“Yet…you mentioned you are invulnerable to Creler poisons.”
“Yes. Therefore, I did risk wounds.”
Ksmvr shrugged matter-of-factly.
“I believe I concentrated on centers of the smallest Crelers, to do the most effective damage. You see, the smallest Crelers were weak enough that one could easily inflict damage, even by biting. Although they swarmed over and attempted to eat everything. I kept mobile, and survived by luck as much as the others’ efforts. Mostly due to Captain Ceria, in fact. Her fortress of ice—”
Vasraf had been listening. Now, he narrowed his eyes as he put the pieces together.
“You mean to say, you were fighting while they climbed you, in the thickest swarms of the Crelers, biting them?”
“It is an effective use of mouth-parts when not imbibing potions. Yes, General Vasraf. What of it?”
His audience looked at each other. Yes, this was Ksmvr. The Antinium looked genuinely uncomprehending. Because he had no worth. Or so he claimed.
“Ksmvr, you make it sound as if your team single-handedly killed a thousand small Crelers, scared the Adult Creler into fleeing, and then brought it down while you sat to the side, knitting!”
“I did not, Nsiia. I have well-documented my role. I simply contextualize it with their achievements.”
Nsiia was shaking her head.
“Ksmvr. You make too little of yourself, and that does a disservice to your team. Surely they are impressive, the three of them. I would quite like to meet them all. Ceria, Yvlon, Pisces. And yet—when you lie, even by kindness, it still paints a picture of them. Each one has a fault. Only not when they come from your mouth.”
The Antinium sat there, digesting her words. He almost shook his head, but looked around.
“I am aware they have their faults, Empress Nsiia. No one is perfect.”
Ksmvr shook his head.
“They are simply superior to me. You see, I am an exile. I am inferior by every standard I should be held to, and therefore, it does not merit me pointing out any flaws they have when…”
His audience sighed. Ksmvr tried to justify himself, but he already had, just not in the way he wanted. He looked around, then finally at Rémi. Even the [Journalist] seemed skeptical, but Ksmvr spoke to the camera.
“They are not perfect. But truly, they lack great flaws. I am honored to be their teammate. They each set a great example. You do not know them. Nsiia thinks I am biased, but I can find little fault with any of them that truly matters. They are…”
The scream from Yvlon Byres’ mouth was followed a second later by her running a [Gladiator] through with a lance of metal. Silversteel, a jagged point that emerged from her arm. Her arm of living, shifting metal.
The [Silversteel Armsmistress]’ scream was followed by her stomping on the other woman’s chest, to screams and roar from the crowd. She whirled, and the melee around her moved, drawing away, as everyone in sight saw the berserk Human searching for a target and declared ‘not-it’.
The two women holding Yvlon’s back, Rexel and Leprel, watched as Yvlon’s head turned left and right. Her face was contorted with fury—more so than last time.
“Byres! Slow down! We’ve already taken out one. Don’t—sands blast it!”
Rexel, the [Storm Bandit], watched as Yvlon charged towards the biggest foe, a huge Hemp-caste [Gladiator] holding a tower shield and spear. He backed up, cursing.
“The Silver-Killer is on a rampage again!”
A voice was roaring over the din of it all. And with it, a chant.
The chant was a thrum in your veins, a second heartbeat to mix with the roaring of blood. The air smelled like iron, and the packed ground radiated Chandrar’s heat. But despite it, all you could see was the other fighters.
Low-grade ones, in this entry bout in one of the capital’s lesser arenas. The capital city of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, ironically or fittingly dubbed Tyrant’s Rest, was so large and the arenas so popular it had lesser arenas and the central one, the Coliseum of Monarchs.
As in, the [Gladiators] were [Kings] and [Queens] of their class. This place was good enough for monarchs to visit. Nerrhavia did few things small.
And because there were so many bouts and the arenas could be specialized, there were countless crowd-favorites. Old veterans with wily tricks, champions who came from other cities to rise and fall, eternal losers, lucky dark horses, and, of course, newcomers.
The Silver-Killer of Izril was the latest entry into that lineup, and she was taking the Arena of Change by storm. So-named because it was where a lot of new gladiators got tossed in; into huge fights like these, where outstanding talent rose to the top and got shuffled to other arenas.
“We’re not going to stay here long.”
After the bout, Rexel made the proclamation to Leprel, the [Thief] and her teammate in the three-woman team. Yvlon was sitting on a bench as an [Arena Healer] gingerly tended to her wounds.
She had some bad ones, but Yvlon had avoided more of them by being on the offense so much that her enemies largely focused on saving their skins. Rexel winced as the [Healer] muttered over a huge gash that actually seemed like it had gone into the tendons of her leg.
“You’re wounded badly, Miss Byres. I don’t know if it’s infected—I need to put this gel on it. If it turns dark, there will be no potions and no fighting for you for a while.”
Yvlon finally spoke, the first time since she’d entered the arena. The woman nodded warily, and turned to Rexel.
“Any more wounds…? Speak up; you don’t want a small infection. Even a scratch? No?”
“No, Miss Healer. Do we have time to rest?”
The [Healer] began packing up.
“Rest, eat, request anything you have credit or coin for. I think Miss Yvlon Byres has at least a few notices in her room. You won’t fight until tomorrow at the earliest. I will be back in ten minutes to check the leg. Don’t move until then.”
Yvlon nodded tightly. The [Healer] paused, pursed her lips, and regarded Yvlon’s right arm.
“…As to your arm, I have no remedy. But it seems as though I am not needed.”
Rexel stared at it in a kind of morbid fascination. The jagged metal that had been Yvlon’s right arm, torn off from her encounter in the Village of the Dead, had gone up to her shoulder, a terrible, crippling wound.
Now? Yvlon’s right arm ran down to the crook of her elbow. It even tried to flex slightly.
It was growing back. Rexel had heard of people who could regenerate, and potions and spells that did the same. Even so, Yvlon’s arm being able to do it, however slowly, was the stuff of stories.
The woman stared at her arm as the [Healer] left. Only now did Leprel speak up. She was dizzy, and had raw meat and ice on her head where someone had smacked her a good one.
“That [Gladiator] you ran through, Yvlon…is she alive?”
The woman turned.
“I don’t know.”
“I could ask if you want.”
Leprel hesitated. Her eyes met Yvlon’s, then moved away.
“Well, if you were worried…”
“I’m not. That was a [Gladiator]. She chose to fight. You told me all the regulars here signed up for this. Rexel, are we fighting here? Did anyone say anything about the investigation?”
“Neither, Silver…I mean, Yvlon. Maybe they sent you a message?”
Yvlon half-stood, looked at her leg, and grimaced. She relaxed, but only barely.
“Fine. I’ll check.”
Then she sat and…simmered. Rexel and Leprel exchanged glances.
“Is your ass still troubling you, Silver-Killer? There’s medication for bad toilet shits…”
Yvlon snapped. She glared at them. Rexel hesitated, but she’d been a [Bandit]. She knew dangerous tempers, so she pressed on.
“You’ve torn through three opening bouts. The investigation’s ongoing. They’re actually investigating that—who was it that wronged you and accused you, Magistrate…?”
“Yes. So all’s well, eh? People are cheering you. Yes, you’re a prisoner, but you even have a sponsor!”
Yvlon Byres glanced at their private waiting room, the [Arena Healer] who had tended them without checking if they could afford it, and Rexel thought of their nice rooms in the arena. No rusted equipment or people manipulating things against them. Someone powerful had decided to become Yvlon’s patron, and it showed.
And yet, there the woman sat.
“I’m still a prisoner, Rexel. Don’t worry, I respect you and Leprel for helping me. Even if you two are criminals. But we’re prisoners.”
“Yes…and I know that’s got to grate, Byres. But eh, it’s the best of a bad situation. I’m cheering, myself, each time I eat the food here, and it’s so good! You though, you’re as angry as a beehive up a mule’s ass. Are you sure you’re alright? Not still sick?”
Yvlon Byres had been about to snap back. She was a striking warrior; no wonder Nerrhavia’s Fallen had embraced her. Yes, she was pale of skin, despite being tanned under Chandrar’s sun, she had blonde hair, blue eyes, and she was merely beautiful.
One could not help how they looked, especially Humans. Stitch-Folk, who could be as stunning as they chose, placed less value on mere appearance.
Yet substance—like her glorious metal arms? Fascinating. Alluring, even. It was one of the reasons Stitch-Folk liked her so much. Look! Here was a Human who did what they could do! And the metal was arguably better than most cloth!
Her fame as a member of the Horns of Hammerad, insistence that she was wrongfully accused, and brutal fighting style all played into that. Yet now, Yvlon’s shapely nose, once broken but correctly set, wrinkled. The scar on her cheek, very faint, twitched.
“I’m not angry, Rexel.”
The [Storm Bandit] opened her mouth wide. Leprel took the melting bag of ice off her head to stare. Yvlon sat up straighter and squared her shoulders.
“I’m not. That is to say, I’m angry that I’m imprisoned. I do—intensify in battle, but I’m calm. See?”
She took in a breath, exhaled, and nodded at Rexel. She tried a faint, wry smile.
“I’m just exasperated. Irritated.”
“So you’re not seething with fury? Or about to eat people’s ears when we fight, like you were ten minutes ago?”
“Rexel…you say the strangest things. I’m a [Warrior]. I’m calm. I’m just—”
Yvlon looked around. Her brow furrowed. Then she caught Rexel’s eyes, exhaled.
“—Under stress. My team’s missing. I am fine. Thank you for your concern.”
“But you fight like you’re in a fury!”
“It’s just a Skill. It’s just me being more aggressive. It works. I have a hold on it. There’s a difference between that and having a temper, Rexel. Well, I don’t see the gel turning any colors. I’ll find that [Healer] and see you in our quarters.”
Yvlon stood up briskly. Rexel and Leprel exchanged a glance as she strode out of the room. Only when she was out of earshot did Leprel whisper.
“She thinks she doesn’t have a temper? My mother beat me like a sack of gnats and she was a calm, gentle lamb compared to Yvlon!”
“She’s deluding herself. But she fights so fiercely even the other [Gladiators] won’t get near her.”
Rexel grimaced. It was a problem, though…she looked after Yvlon. She kept saying the same things. She didn’t have a temper.
Rexel wondered if it was just being Human, or Izrilian. She sighed, rose to her feet, and groaned.
“Let’s smooth things over for her, eh?”
Leprel nodded. They had to do their part, which was, since they couldn’t fight well, represent Yvlon among the gladiators, make sure they didn’t gang up on her. It wasn’t too hard. Rexel left their waiting room and found some of the gladiators that were not badly wounded. She slapped the nearest woman she could find on the stomach and the Stitch-Woman [Javelin Thrower] sat up with a yell.
Rexel offered her a hand and one of the oranges she’d taken from the fruit bowl in their waiting room. The [Gladiator] saw Rexel’s grin, the fruit, snatched it, and glared. Rexel winked.
“Hey, you. You’re finally awake, eh? Sorry about Silver-Killer back there. She’s a fury once you let her loose. Name’s Rexel. What’s yours…?”
Yvlon Byres stalked back to her rooms. And she did stalk. The [Gladiators] watched her, and not just the ones who had fought in the Arena of Change.
Given the varying nature of the arenas, the gladiators were housed in a central location so they could go to whatever arena needed to. It took a bit of transport time, but saved in other ways.
Most of the low-level ones got out of her path. The ones with confidence, or the appearance of it, watched her go without clearing a space. One of them, a short Beastkin from Baleros—well, that’s where most of her kind came from—stood on the tips of her toes to stare after Yvlon.
“There goes the Silver-Killer. Mad as a loon, they say.”
She spoke with a perfect accent to Nerrhavia’s Fallen, though. The fur on her face was a bit sandy, but only because she’d just finished her arena match.
One of her fellow [Gladiators], and sometimes-partner, watched with a moribund expression on his face.
“I hear she’s too vicious for the Arena of Change. They’re saying she might tour in the Labyrinth of Challenges. Or even debut in the Coliseum of Monarchs, with us. Which means we have to fight her. We’re dead.”
He was a curious fellow. Human…but not apparently so. In fact, he looked as foreign in nature as any [Gladiator], because of the semi-permanent [Stoneskin] spell on his body. The armored plates made him slow, but with armor and his natural tendency not to get hurt, he was one of the Coliseum of Monarchs’ favorite defensive fighters.
“I’d try my luck. She’s too full of holes, give me a moment and I’ll add one more. Some poison’d slow her down.”
A woman grinned, flicking a dagger up. The [Stoneskin Warrior], Relladen, shook his head.
“Not if she hits you with that changing arm, Thexca. Would you fight her? Vitte?”
He nudged the Beastkin. She flicked her ears back and forth a few times.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t look like fun.”
Her two companions sighed. They were all top-tier [Gladiators], as evidenced by where they fought and their open abilities on display, like Vitte’s dagger from her homeland, the Empire of Scaied. She was, in fact, a heroine of theirs, being the highest-ranked [Gladiator] from that land.
“It’s always fun or not fun for you, Vitte. Why did you drag us out to look at one newcomer?”
Vitte scratched at her ears with a paw. You could mistake her species for Gnoll from far away…and mostly if you didn’t know Gnolls. But she was of that same kind of group, where ‘paws’ replaced hands, and she had an elongated muzzle.
“It’s not me. You wanted to see her most, didn’t you, Mectail?”
The last of the quartet said nothing. He had watched Yvlon Byres pass. Now, he slowly nodded.
“She’s losing herself. She fights like a [Berserker], but she isn’t one, nor was she trained as one. Someone has to stop her, before one of us with the right Skills takes her head off.”
Thexca, Relladen, and Vitte all looked at Mectail. The last of them stood out in his own way, more than the rest.
Relladen was armor, [Stoneskin], one of the rare kinds of fighters who used tridents, nets, shields. A [Gladiator]’s [Gladiator], experienced in hampering foes, putting on a show, and fighting in concert or alone.
Thexca was the knife-throwing poison expert, quick on her feet, with a curved blade—two of them—ready to capitalize on a weak point.
Vitte was Beastkin. Her features were reminiscent of a Gnoll’s, but her fur was shorter, her species was far smaller than the tall Gnolls of Izril, and she herself was renowned for her agility. Also…her magical ability, which went hand-in-paw with her species’ nature.
She was of the one Beastkin species who could be found in great numbers in Chandrar at all, and even that was a relative term. But then—she had an iconic appearance. One of her people had even been known to have served the King of Destruction himself.
Tottenval the Blooming Plague. And, like him, Vitte was a Fox Beastkin.
She had armor, despite being a magic-user. They all did. Only a fool went without, striding around with his chest bare, still oiled like the attendants loved to add to you. His muscles stood out on his frame, and the Stitch-Man’s cloth was not fine, but Mectail didn’t care.
He was even bare-footed, and he only had some worn pants on. The [Martial Artist] followed the path Yvlon had taken, arms folded, frowning.
“She is going mad with her Skill. There is something else about her, but I do not know what. Her arms? Her balance is completely off. Spiritually, that is.”
“Uh oh. Mectail’s found someone he wants to fight again.”
Thexca sighed. But Yvlon Byres was a person to watch. How else to explain her rise? It wasn’t her natural talents alone. Vitte was right. Someone was protecting her from running into that bad moment where she’d be caught out. But who?
Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen was still aglow from rallying her political power. Her grand showing on television was one thing. Now she had two glorious matters, along with the politics and her restored image abroad.
Not that she wasn’t sympathetic to the Gnolls. It was just that—to Yisame, some things came first.
Like watching, obsessively, the brand new documentary about Ksmvr! It had just come out, by Rémi Canada of all people! She was waiting for a “Part 2”, but, as she watched, she also had someone else on replay.
The Silver-Killer of Izril was as fierce as Yisame had dreamed. Heartslayi, that fool of a [Writer], didn’t understand Yvlon. She wrote as if the woman fought like some genteel [Knight]. When the reality was Yvlon spearing an opponent on her arm and stomping their ribs.
“Send a basket of oranges. They seem to gobble them up. Is she injured? Send for an [Infection Healer] if she’s injured.”
Yisame’s quill danced as she wrote instructions to one of her agents. After all, she couldn’t be seen openly to favor Yvlon Byres—yet. Right now, she was posing as one of the rich, anonymous benefactors.
And waiting, waiting for Yvlon Byres’ debut. She had pushed it back as far as she could, and been assured that, all things being equal, Yvlon would fight in the Coliseum of Monarchs next week, if she won and survived all her matches with no injuries that would keep her from participating.
Once she was there, Yisame could reveal her support; it would be unseemly to support Yvlon before that. The sky was the limit after that. Because a [Gladiator] in the Coliseum of Monarchs could take work even as a [Bodyguard], and the ones in lower arenas could meet with adoring fans and clients.
Yisame waited for that moment. She lived for the moment story met reality, and she hoped Yvlon would not disappoint her. She had plans, she had momentum. Life was well.
…Right up until the listings changed and Yisame checked a sudden, unusual event. She took one look at Yvlon’s next fight, which had been decided far before any arena bout, and cursed.
Yvlon Byres stared at the spell scrolls. Two pieces of rolled parchment, sealed by a simple bit of string.
Nothing fancy. Nothing huge. Very swallowable, in fact—although they had trouble on the way out. They were cleaned—obsessively—with soap, and smelled of berries and nothing else.
She still didn’t touch one as she grimly carved herself a slice of apple. There was a mountain of oranges that Rexel and Leprel kept sharing, but Yvlon didn’t want any.
She wasn’t mad. She was just—fed up. Irritated. Ready to hit something—but not due to anger. Due to the injustice of it all. She was still a prisoner. She still had to fight, like a hound in some dog-fighting arena. Like a [Slave].
Yvlon was surely allowed some pique over that, no matter what Rexel thought. She just wondered…
If I open one of these scrolls and it’s a Scroll of the Void and I suck half of Nerrhavia into it, would it be worth it? They probably don’t activate without me trying. Maybe the effects are even listed. Most scrolls are that sensible.
She was just—Yvlon heard a snap and cursed.
The little steel knife had snapped and the blade was embedded halfway in a chunk of apple. Yvlon stared at it.
“What is going on?”
First the doorknobs fell apart. Then her bed collapsed as the supports beneath it gave way, rusted. Even the silverware—including the actual silver—seemed to have a half-life of minutes. Yvlon looked at her hands.
“It’s me. But why?”
Even enchanted metal. She didn’t feel bad for the arena’s staff, but it was concerning. Yvlon had stopped fighting with a sword because she couldn’t actually trust the metal. That, and because her arms were so much more dangerous than even lesser enchanted blades.
“My amazing arms that everyone loves.”
Yvlon stared at her arms. She slowly raised a finger, and stared at it. Before her eyes, it turned into a knife’s blade. She went back to slicing the apple. Then stopped.
She stared at her arms. Her monstrous arms. Yvlon clenched her fist, and something hit her in the cheek. The apple crushed in her grip, squirting a bit of juice. Yvlon cursed and raised her hand to throw the mess, then just sat there, head bowed.
And to what she was referring to, her glorified captivity, her arms, the mysterious problems, or all of it, she didn’t know.
Someone knocking at the door made Yvlon look up.
“What is it, Rexel?”
The woman cracked open Yvlon’s private room and saw the mess. Yvlon started, then began to explain.
“I just lost control of my strength. It’s nothing. What’s the matter?”
Rexel looked nervous. She edged into the room, followed by Leprel.
“It’s—I just heard, and one of the arena managers is coming to ask. But I think you shouldn’t. I know you’ll want to, but it’s a good gladiator and he’s…challenging you. To a match.”
Yvlon’s head rose.
“A challenge? You mean, a duel?”
“Yes. But listen, Yvlon—”
The woman’s arm stretched and Rexel yelped as it grabbed the bit of paper. Yvlon and Rexel stared at it.
Yvlon saw her arm retract and stared at it. Then she forced her eyes on the short missive.
“Who’s…Mectail of Pomle? Pomle. Why do I know that name?”
“He’s a [Martial Artist]. From Pomle. He’s beaten more people with his bare fists than I’ve stabbed and he’s a [Gladiator] in the Coliseum of Monarchs. You could rise high in rank if you win. But Silver, he’s really dangerous. He’s broken people’s skulls with a single punch.”
“Worried for me, Rexel? If he uses his hands, he’ll never get close. Not to me. Not with…these. Why did he want to challenge me?”
“Maybe he thinks your arms are a good match? Or maybe he wants to get ahead. I don’t know. People don’t seem to think he wants an easy win…even if he was stupid enough to think your right arm can’t change.”
Yvlon grimaced. She stared at the invitation.
“Silver! Let’s talk about this over dinner! You’re still healing, and this isn’t the plan!”
Yvlon raised her leg and showed it to Rexel.
“I’m fully healed up, thanks to the potion. I could fight in five minutes. If he wants to fight, I’ll oblige him. I’m a prisoner, but you said that the higher I rise, the closer I can get to freedom. Well, fine. If I have to battle my way out of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, person by person, I’ll do it.”
Her eyes flashed dangerously. She was breathing hard, and she didn’t understand why Rexel edged away. She didn’t see how her hands changed and little razors ran up the smooth skin like gooseflesh.
“Tell him I’ll fight him tomorrow.”
Mectail of Pomle. Now there was a name she heard more often in the courts. Yisame peeked at a biography of the [Gladiator]. Wins, losses, his background…
Obviously a fluff piece written to make him sound as good as possible, but the statistics spoke to anyone who followed arena matches.
Lots of ‘losses’, where he either surrendered or was rendered unconscious or incapacitated and spared actual death. Not uncommon in the Coliseum of Monarchs; even psychopaths thought twice, because if they killed a friend of someone else’s, they were now a target.
However…that was because he had a long career. Six years on the sands. Typical beginning. Indebted, given a choice between a number of ways to repay the debt…meteoric rise.
Lots of wins. In fact—Yisame stared at the breakdown. Most of his losses came from group battles, where he achieved a very high number of opponents downed, but didn’t last until the end. And he had a win-rating of over 90% in duels.
Yisame muttered on the Throne of Logic, in another of Nerrhavia’s Courts, this one to a different purpose. That she could do more advanced sums and actually break down Mectail’s history statistically was due to her seat. She felt clear-headed, as befit an artifact like this. Mental or physical enhancements were the stuff of legends—or the very rich.
“Yes, Your Majesty. You…anticipated me.”
Yisame’s head snapped up guiltily. She saw her Minister of War looking somewhat surprised. Instantly, Yisame’s expression became guarded. She made a signal, and her voice spoke. It was rare for the [Queen] to voice her opinion when the Court of Steel invoked itself.
Court of Steel. A general term that divided those allowed into this gathering. The Court of Silk was the catchall term for anyone allowed in the political-yet-social quagmire. This was a council of war—although it was often about politics within Nerrhavia—so it was a bit more constrained.
Nevertheless, it was not an official council of war, which would see Yisame, her [Generals], [Strategists], and other core cabinet members. So Yisame had been sitting back, largely ignoring the drama of the day.
“Her Fabricated Majesty is concerned by such rumors as pass by her ears. Minister, let us withdraw conversation of Reim. Our armies advance. We see no reason to overstate the obvious.”
Yisame’s [Royal Speaker] had an excellent ability to cover for any mistakes. The [Minister] bowed, only a bit off-put. Yisame, behind her one-way fan, could see him glancing at his allies. Suspecting a ploy or perhaps wondering what she knew.
“Pomle indeed, Your Majesty. I have heard word that it has freed [Slaves]. Cast out the masters. A grave insult to Roshal.”
A fool’s insult. The Court of Steel looked aghast, but some just shook their heads at the stupidity of Pomle’s [Martial Artists]. What did you expect of people like that?
Yisame just nodded fractionally, though it was largely unseen. However…the Minister of War looked around.
“—An insult. Yet in this case, the insult is compounded twice. For the offended parties were none other than Prince Exhait, who had graciously travelled to Pomle to learn from the masters there.”
Yisame sat up. The Court of Steel’s murmuring reached a threshold—then abruptly went quiet.
“That is a grave insult, Minister Deroti.”
The Emissary of Cloth, the foremost head of Nerrhavia Fallen’s diplomatic wing, murmured. Completely unsurprised. She had known about this, but the way she glanced at Yisame’s throne made it clear that the [Queen] had taken her advantage and nullified it.
A babble of voices broke out as Yisame sat back. Her mind raced ahead of what was playing out before her, since that needed to move at the speed of sound.
“It cannot stand. Has Roshal petitioned…? Of course they have.”
“A [Prince] of the realm. Was there any offense given? Not that Pomle would have an excuse. Did they issue any statement?”
“They grow overconfident. An example should be made.”
Yisame subvocalized that. She stared at her [Royal Speaker], and the woman licked her lips. She spoke for Yisame. She was very good at keeping the royal throne from looking bad and steering the conversation. The trick was that Yisame could give her basic instructions, but you did have to trust your voice to convey your thoughts accurately. Normally, the [Royal Speaker], Issu-le, understood Yisame perfectly, in that the [Queen] did not want to have to deal with more problems.
In this case? She said the wrong thing.
“We do not find it suitable to mete out punishment for a single instance. Not when Tiqr takes arms once more.”
Yisame’s head turned. What did you just say? Issu-le, who had beautiful silver paint on her silk-skin, flinched slightly as she saw the glare from the throne.
No one else noticed behind the fan. The Court of Steel brightened up.
“Yes, Tiqr. The Antinium problem and the Empress of Beasts fled Illivere. Should we expect the lumbering Golems to catch up? The Magus-Crafter has already failed to keep her prisoner.”
“The garrison under Ste-General Hvcia…?”
That calm voice came from an actual [General]. General Thellican, fresh off his victory in Tiqr, however bruised it had come. He hadn’t gone north yet, having already fought in a war. Nerrhavia did rotate its military leaders to spread experience and prevent them from burning out. Yet now, the [General] looked alarmingly keen. He bowed to the Throne of Logic and Yisame.
“I think I espy Her Majesty’s wisdom. If I may be bold—this knot is one of several in the region. Pomle has issued Nerrhavia with a grave insult. Similarly, Tiqr. Our ‘allies’ in the region prove incompetent, in Illivere, or untrustworthy.”
He was referring to Savere and the rhetoric played well. Yisame’s fingers drummed on her throne as Thellican turned.
“If one is to address the issue, let it be a single shear to cut through each problem. A single grand army, from the capital, to issue Pomle our wrath and curtail the Empress of Beasts’ rebellion.”
“Former Empress, General Thellican.”
Someone whispered. And the proposal was met with round approval. The [Royal Speaker], or rather, Yisame, had issued a suggestion that the Court of Steel liked.
But which Yisame hated. Issu-le wouldn’t meet her gaze. Not only was adding a third opponent not what Yisame wanted, she happened to know that Ksmvr was with the Empress of Beasts. Which was why sending an army…
“Subtlety. You hemp-headed idiot.”
Issu-le flinched as Yisame sent a scathing instruction to her earpiece, her earring. The speaker did her best.
“We are pleased to have such a loyal and capable [General], Thellican. Yet we consider a single needle enough to deal with minor issues. Thellican’s might may well be needed to deliver the final blow to Reim. Perhaps a lesser recourse?”
The [General] frowned. But his opponent, the Emissary of Cloth, smiled hugely, welcoming the moment to humble her opponent.
“Your Majesty, I am sure our Ste-General is able to quell Pomle and pursue the former Empress with his ample forces and allies in the region. We need not add to the expense with a bloated army to perform such a simple task, as I am sure the throne is mindful of.”
Yisame sat back, sighing. Thellican began to argue, but now that Yisame had reminded the Court of Steel of how much it cost to mobilize, send out an army, and so on, it devolved into another fight that she nudged in the Emissary of Cloth’s favor.
“Only the garrison. Have the Magus-Crafter understand it is his responsibility. Mobilize our allies. This is well-agreed.”
Yisame smiled, genuinely smiled, as the Court of Steel rendered its verdict for her. That only encouraged them, because they thought Yisame approved. Which she did.
A Ste-General was a rank for someone who held a region. Sometimes conquered regions, such as Tiqr, but they were not high-levelled or as capable as Thellican, who could go on the full attack.
There, you see, Yvlon? Your friend will not run into Nerrhavia’s full might. Yisame wondered how she would be able to tell Yvlon this. Soon…she rose and her sweating [Royal Speaker] spoke, relieved.
“Her Majesty is pleased by the wisdom of the Court of Steel. We shall adjourn for the day. Unless dire straits dictate otherwise, we shall remember Nerrhavia’s entertainments. With great diversion.”
“Perhaps the latest royal dancers? We have begun preparation of one of these plays, and even sequestered some of the…scripts. Although they are being re-written for more grace.”
The Emissary of Cloth was pushing her luck. The [Royal Speaker] smiled condescendingly.
“In such times of war, Her Majesty may choose to visit an appropriate venue.”
That left them guessing, and gave her the perfect opportunity. Yisame smiled and walked off. The next day, she visited the Coliseum of Monarchs in ‘disguise’, which meant that everyone in the court knew she was there, and half attended as well. Purely by chance.
Mectail of Pomle waited in the center of the flattened ground, still stained crimson in some places. Yvlon saw him as the announcer read out some of his accomplishments.
It was hot. It was always hot in this damned place. Her armor fit a bit better; a cuirass over her chest, greaves, but nothing on her arms. A helmet.
Steel painted with silver. Artifice. Rexel and Leprel were staring at Yvlon from the waiting room. They’d tried to talk her out of it, and then, when she refused, had attempted to give her hints.
“He’s a [Grappler]. Or was. He transitioned into striking for mass-fights. So he can do both. Don’t let him touch you.”
It was a vague buzzing in the back of her head. And Rexel’s anxious voice was the only thing Yvlon did hear. The crowd was roaring; they seemed to be even louder and more numerous this time.
She just looked at the arrogant Stitch-Man standing there. Arms folded. A sword held loosely in his left hand.
No grip, no stance—
“I thought he was a [Martial Artist]. Why’s he got a blade?”
“Some use swords. I’ve never heard of him…Leprel?”
“He shouldn’t have a sword. Why’s he got a sword?”
The [Thief] panicked. Yvlon shook her head.
“I don’t care. Am I not supposed to kill him?”
Rexel bit her tongue. She had a scar across part of her upper lip.
“Maybe. You look at the royal booth, remember? If you see anyone—”
“I follow their orders or don’t. Got it.”
“Yvlon…he’s better than anyone else you’ve fought. Even the Champion of Rust would be average in the Coliseum of Monarchs.”
“I’m not underestimating him.”
“I didn’t say you were. You’re…”
Yvlon turned her head. A strand of her hair fell out of her helmet, across her vision. Slowly, she lifted her left hand. The silver fingers closed over the strand—and morphed into scissors. They snipped it off. Rexel closed her mouth.
“I’ll be fine. Thank you for your concern.”
The gates were opening. Mectail of Pomle had been staring their way the entire time, ignoring the cheering. Yvlon would have taken that as a sign of respect, but he had his eyes closed. Arrogant.
She strode out of the waiting room without a word. She thought one of the two called something behind her.
Yvlon almost laughed. She didn’t need luck. She didn’t…she stepped into the arena and saw tens of thousands of faces, shouting, screaming at her past magical barriers. Huge walls of weathered stone, a glowing, enchanted box where eager Stitch-Folk in regal clothing peered down at her.
Even a new giant scrying mirror, reflecting her face. Yvlon stared at a woman with metal arms, scowling up at something.
“I hate this nation.”
A second later, her lips moved. The woman’s eyes flickered and she looked down. At last, Mectail of Pomle opened his eyes. Across the long arena, the [Martial Artist] uncrossed his arms. He lifted the sword—then planted it in the ground. He looked at her, and Yvlon began striding towards him.
Did he think she was easy pickings? Did he expect her to play by some rules, like this was a game? Yvlon began striding forwards faster.
She had no sword. But in the projection, the woman’s silver arms began rippling. Turning to long blades. Mectail watched, eyes on Yvlon.
She sped up, her armor shifting as she began to jog then run across the long distance. She felt the weight pulling her down, but it was familiar. Not nearly as swift as Pisces or Ksmvr. But a charge, growing in momentum. No roar. She—
Yvlon felt her breathing intensify. Her heartbeat spiked. She thought she heard a voice. This time she didn’t reach for her Skill, but it activated anyways.
She barely noticed the fact that she hadn’t used it. Mectail’s eyes narrowed as the woman, already running at a sprint, suddenly moved faster. He heard the roar. Slowly, the [Martial Artist] moved. He held his hands out. Clasped them together, and bowed.
The woman never slowed. She didn’t even notice.
Vitte watched, anxiously, from her position with the other [Gladiators]. She knew Mectail was good. But he was up against a Gold-rank adventurer, and they were dangerous. Gold-rank was fitting for the Coliseum of Monarchs. And this one?
“Shit. I thought Mectail was taking it easy in this duel. What is that?”
Thexca stared at the opening attack. The woman, the one they called the Silver-Killer, slashed with one arm. It didn’t sound impressive; an arm was short. But what if you saw her arm lengthen, like some huge metal scythe, and slash outwards in a growing blade? By the time it came at Mectail’s chest, it was a long, thin blade, razor-sharp.
The other [Gladiators] stared at that nervously. Especially those who weren’t Stitch-Folk. No—even the ones who were Stitch-Folk looked uneasily at that.
“That’s not a [Gladiator]. She’d murder everyone in range.”
Relladen turned to one of the others, who hadn’t been keeping up.
“She did that on her entry to the capital. Two dead. Someone else lost an arm.”
“Oh. That’s not—”
“I thought adventurers were supposed to do that to monsters.”
Vitte didn’t respond. She was watching. Mectail had taken one look at the slash and, rather than duck, leapt back.
Warily. And wisely. Because Yvlon’s second arm came up and a thin needle of silver jabbed out, a lance of metal that would have impaled him if he had been struck mid-duck.
Thexca eyed the move. Yvlon’s arms began to flow back into shape. Vitte muttered.
“She doesn’t know how to use them right. Not perfectly.”
But she was learning. Already, she was unpredictable. She charged after Mectail as he kept stepping backwards. Now his arms were raised, open loosely, and he was balanced on the balls of his feet. Watching…
The second time, the Human woman thrust her broken arm forwards. It telescoped, her flesh turning into another piercing lance of metal that shot past Mectail as he leaned left. As it did—it morphed again and a second blade shot out of the lance, going for his face.
Thexca looked a bit sick as Mectail’s head twisted. He stepped back, looking surprised, and brushed at a gash on his cheek. Then his hand moved. He went to block the other arm as it came in a slash. His forearm blocked the blade of metal—but it dug into his flesh. He knocked it back, grimacing, and the woman recoiled.
Arms as tough as metal. Even so—Vitte’s tail whished back and forth. She’d seen Mectail block regular swords without getting cut.
“Come on, Mectail.”
She muttered. And realized it was an echo of someone else’s words. The [Gladiators] in the audience focused, no longer laughing or placing bets. They were realizing that rather than this being an easy victory—Mectail was in genuine danger.
She never stopped advancing. The scream had ended. It might have been a warcry, but it sounded like a beast to him.
A beast of flesh and metal. With that helmet on, he could see the eyes flashing at him out of the shadows. Even her posture was lowered. And the arms—
Not poisoned. The [Martial Artist] was breathing calmly. Wound on the cheek, arm. His plan of attack wasn’t going smoothly. But that he was used to. He watched her. He had thought he understood those arms.
He did not. They could change multiple times, not just do one thing, like extend or turn into razors. What a terrifying ability. Because—
Here she came. A huge, overhand swing. Arm flashing—reflecting the light and threatening to blind him. But he didn’t dare take his eyes off it bec—
The arm exploded like a porcupine. Thin lines of metal, shooting outwards. The same move that had downed the Champion of Rust.
There was nowhere to dodge in that space; he’d be perforated a dozen times. So he could only back up. And the other arm came out like a whip, slashing.
[Long Backstep]. A low-level Skill carried him out of range. If he retreated, he was safest. But that meant he’d never get close.
A bellow from her. Mectail saw her arm returning to normal. It took a moment; it wasn’t instantaneous. If it was—he didn’t know if he’d be safe. Yet he noticed something else that made the [Martial Artist] narrow his eyes.
…One of the spikes from her right arm was bloody. He stared at her shoulder. She’d stabbed herself by accident.
She didn’t even seem to notice. On she came, and there was a limit to how many times he could retreat. He’d seen enough. Mectail leapt forwards.
Under a razor’s edge—dodge the metal spike that shot downwards. She swept her left arm around. It was going to morph—
The razor blades were already extending when the palm hit Yvlon in the chest.
[Launch Palm]. Mectail had aimed and hit her in the solar plexus, angled up. He watched as she landed. He exhaled, and charged forwards.
She landed six feet away, stunned, feeling her ribs uncompressing. What kind of—
Weak blow. Don’t lie down!
She came up so fast it surprised him. Her arms dug into the ground and threw her back up, a lattice of metal. She saw his lips move. Yvlon swung her arms.
That’s right. Monster.
A long blade, like a sword, slashed down. But it curved, at waist height. Too low to dodge—she saw him jump, aborting his charge. Yvlon punched her arm, the [Razorform] metal blade at the tip. Straight at his chest. He saw it coming, and blocked the razor with his arm, thrusting it left. But it cut him.
He had another shot at her. Yvlon tried to pull her arm back into position, but she just gritted her teeth. Waiting—she’d close a net of metal around him and slash him ap—
The second palm hit her in the same place, denting her armor. Yvlon stumbled backwards, cursing. She brought her arm back, but he leapt out of the way of the scythe. That wasn’t as hard as she thought he’d hit her. Had he not used a Skill? What was…?
She almost went to charge him again. Then stopped. Something had suddenly gone out of her. The burning fury in her chest—extinguished. That quivering rage—suddenly she noticed a sharp pain in her shoulder. Had she stabbed herself? She felt her head clear and saw his intent eyes on her face.
A gauging look. The Stitch-Man with sun-darkened skin, no armor, not even clothing, just pants with a short ponytail. Bleeding from two places, circling left. Yvlon stared at him. She saw him. No, she had seen him before, but no details.
What had he just done? She saw his lips move and finally heard something.
“[Skillbreaker Palm]. Two palm-strikes from Pomle. Are you going to fight me like a person, Silver Arm?”
She stopped, looking at him. Skillbreaker—?
Her confusion only lasted a second. Then Yvlon took aim, and threw a telescoping punch. Her arm lengthened by about a foot, and he stepped sideways. She was about to slash with her other arm when he grabbed the first and—
Yvlon saw the world spin and stared up at the sky. He had just thrown her!
“What kind of a stupid—”
She rolled, waiting for a kick to her back, but when she got to her feet, Mectail was just waiting for her. Yvlon heard the cheering from the crowd, the shouting—she was panting. Something was gone.
Her—[Berserker’s Rage]. She didn’t need it. Even so—
“What are you doing?”
He hadn’t attacked her! The Stitch-Man was waiting. He replied, slowly.
“I don’t wish to battle the Silver-Killer of Izril. Will you fight me?”
Again, he performed that insulting gesture. Which was…Yvlon saw him put his hands together. One hand made a fist, the other a palm. He clasped them together. Then bowed.
“Don’t mock me.”
It was becoming too easy. Her arm reached out, like it was made of some elastic flesh, stretching, exploding into a network of blades. No one could dodge that. He didn’t even try, just backstepped again.
“That was not an insult, Yvlon Byres. It was—”
She ran at him. Her adrenaline was pumping again. She swung an arm like a blade. Aiming low, for a gutting strike with her other ar—
Her legs went out from under her. Yvlon landed on her back for the third time in this match. This time, it was a leg sweep, a kick behind her legs so fast she hadn’t seen it.
Mectail appeared in Yvlon’s vision as she stared up. He offered her a hand as the crowd shouted at him. And his fellow gladiators. Idiot. Attack her! Don’t—
Yvlon came up with a slash that made Mectail retreat, grimacing. He did his backstep trick again, and a whip of metal came tearing after him. He went to deflect it, and it looped, curling. The [Martial Artist]’s eyes widened—
It cut off his hand. A lasso of metal tightened, and Mectail stared at a bloody stump. Yvlon’s arm began to retract as she ran at him, her other arm raised, turning into a longsword’s blade. She slashed. Mectail looked at her, eyes wide with sudden pain and fury.
Yvlon saw his leg coming up and twisted. Too slow.
This time, it felt like she was flying. She saw the world curve around her, thought she saw a woman with open-mouth in regal clothing looking horrif—
Yvlon bounced off the magical dome and hit the ground below. Ribs well and painfully broken. She lay there for a while. Only after a moment did she manage to drag something from her belt without screaming.
A Potion of healing. Yvlon felt the pain receding and managed to pull herself to her knees. She saw—dizzy, coughing up blood—Mectail reach down. He picked up his hand, and the Stitch-Man held it to the bleeding stump. Then, grimacing, he spoke.
She saw a line of stitches knit themselves, sewing his hand back onto his arm. Yvlon cursed.
They advanced as the audience’s cheering died down. Yvlon felt like the healing potion had only been partially effective. That had to be one of his better Skills. She couldn’t let him kick her again.
“You’re not holding back anymore. Changed your mind?”
Mectail stared at Yvlon. He was frowning. He opened and closed his newly re-attached hand. Then he shook his head at her.
“No. I wish to fight the one called Yvlon Byres. A Gold-rank adventurer. Who went into the Village of the Dead. Crelerbane. Not a berserker with metal arms.”
She stared at him. And a third time, he did that gesture. The [Martial Artist] bowed to Yvlon silently.
“Would you stop insulting me?”
His head jerked up. Mectail eyed Yvlon, confused. Then shook his head.
“I would never insult a fellow warrior I respect, Yvlon Byres. Nor am I here to kill you. We are warriors from distant lands. I admire you, and your abilities. Will you fight me properly?”
“Properly. Here? You want a fight? Here, you [Gladiator] idiots—”
She slashed and he leaned under the blow before sweeping a fist upwards. This time he just hit her in the jaw. No Skills—just an uppercut with all the weight of a [Martial Artist] behind it. Yvlon stumbled, slashing with her arm, and tasted more blood. Mectail stood there, glaring at her. She opened her mouth, dizzy, and he snapped.
“We are both prisoners of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. We both fight with a code that goes beyond mere gold. Why are you insulting me? Show me the strength that took you across the world.”
Prisoner? Yvlon focused on him. She narrowed her eyes, head spinning, and finally saw it. A collar around his neck. A thin one, not a huge band of metal like she and the others had worn. One fit for the top-gladiator in the Coliseum of Monarchs.
Yvlon stopped, abruptly. Mectail of Pomle paced left. She watched him, but he didn’t go for a surprise attack. He too stopped, in front of something. The weapon he’d cast down when she first came into the arena.
A longsword. Plain metal. He picked it up, turned, and, to the amazement of the other [Gladiators], the audience, and Yvlon herself, reversed it in his grip, and offered the hilt to her.
“No matter where I go, or what bonds I wear, I am searching for great opponents to test myself against. Will you fight me, Yvlon of the Horns of Hammerad?”
Yvlon Byres heard the shouting from the arena—and it sounded like a good number of people were screaming insults at Mectail. Others were cheering him. Others still telling Yvlon to gut him, or for both to start fighting.
She heard them, and stared at the metal blade he offered her. Somewhere in the gladiator stands, his companions were pretending they had never met Mectail.
The [Martial Artist] waited. Slowly, Yvlon reached out and took the blade in her left hand. She held the sword, more awkwardly in her off-hand, and stepped back.
The two regarded each other. Yvlon looked around the coliseum, which she hated. Hot Chandrar, which she hated as someone not used to it, and also as someone who had metal flesh. She listened to the crowds baying for blood, and was reminded of the collar on her neck, which did not belong there.
She hated all these things. However—she glanced at Mectail. Dead gods, even Ylawes would have said he was something else. He waited, and it seemed that he was not going to bow a fourth time, not offer her the gesture of respect of Pomle.
So Mectail made a gesture that reached across species and continents. A universal sign. One hand, palm out, fingers folding back. Beckoning.
Yvlon almost laughed. Almost. She lifted the longsword, which made her, in this moment, far weaker of a warrior. But it was a weapon, not the savage way she could kill people.
“I don’t think I’ll pose much of a challenge, except for my Skills.”
Mectail shrugged. He smiled.
“We did not come here to entertain them.”
He glanced at the audience, who were booing. Yvlon did grin, then. The [Silversteel Armsmistress] saluted him in the style of her land. She advanced as he circled left, in a slower bout. A sparring match between fellow warriors.
By now, the jeering was so loud Vitte could hear it everywhere. From Thexca, too. She even threw the snack she was carrying into the ring. Compared to the earlier fighting, this was like watching children squabbling. Yvlon Byres was good, but with only one arm—and her off-one at that—she was far less dangerous, and Mectail also pulled his best Skills.
“Dead gods, it was so kitschy. I forgot that Mectail is famous for his wholesome fights.”
The [Gladiators] were complaining loudly. Only the [Martial Artist]’s fans, who loved watching him perform stunts like this, were happy.
And maybe a certain Sandquen, who had a new chapter for her story entry. Vitte just watched as the two eventually stopped with Mectail knocking Yvlon down, and helping her to her feet. They departed the arena, talking, even laughing as detritus showered down around them from the stands.
“Well, I guess Mectail’s got a new friend. Does that mean we have to fight with her?”
“She nearly got him before his stunt. Might be a regular.”
The others were groaning. Vitte smiled.
“Look at it this way. He might convince her not to try and kill us in every match. Which means we don’t have to kill her. I’m going to introduce myself.”
She hopped off her seat. Thexca shook her head.
“I hate Mectail.”
Yvlon Byres felt like a cloud of resentment and ire had lifted from her head. She didn’t stalk back to her rooms to debate unleashing an unknown scroll after the match. She talked to Mectail and met his companions, a Fox Beastkin named Vitte, an annoyed woman named Thexca, a warrior called Relladen…all of whom awed Rexel and Leprel.
“You, uh, look a bit calmer, Yvlon. Never thought I’d see the audience boo someone off the grounds. I nearly thought the guards were going to halt the match.”
Rexel commented. Yvlon brushed at her hair.
“…Mectail’s interesting. He told me I’m suffering from a Skill I received. I didn’t believe him…but he’s offered to practice with me. I might take him up on the offer.”
“I just hope your patron doesn’t mind.”
Yvlon shrugged. She looked at her two teammates, bit her lip, and then exhaled.
“Rexel, Leprel…you might have been right. I have a slight temper.”
The two women stared at Yvlon. The [Armsmistress] raised her hand.
“A bit of one. I’ll work on it, alright?”
“A bit of—”
Rexel yelped as Leprel pinched her. She gave Yvlon an unconvincing grin.
“Sure. I mean, that’s great!”
Yvlon Byres remarked drily. She went back to her rooms, shaking her head, and went for a lie-down; even with potions, she’d been kicked around.
“I am beyond ashamed, Your Majesty. We—can prepare a far more suitable duel!”
The [Arena Master] had been both apoplectic and very nervous, but Yisame swept absently back to her rooms, already thinking about what to commit to writing next. It was a shame, but she wouldn’t be able to summon the triumphant or courageously defeated Yvlon —not after that show.
But it was like a book! The [Martial Artist], breaking her out of her fury. Offering her a sword! Yvlon and him, dueling genteely. A comradeship already born!
Yisame was nearly at her rooms when someone had to interrupt her. The Emissary of Cloth. The beaming woman stopped the [Queen] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen in the Court of the Steel.
“I beg a word, Your Majesty? I have tasked Ste-General Hvcia with bringing Pomle to heel and making a small example of them to remind them of their place. And I have also taken steps to address the Tiqr matter.”
“Very good, Emiss—what did you say?”
The woman beamed, her cloth radiant and her expression waiting for praise that was not about to come.
“Ste-General Hvcia believes she can deliver a small victory suitable for a reprimand. Pomle lacks for [Mages]; she will conduct an attack shortly. As for Tiqr, since no more forces have been authorized and Femithain is…shall we say, suspect, I have arranged for the Empire of Scaied to intervene, as our intelligence suggests Tiqr’s rebel army is headed into their lands. I have even hired a mercenary capable of killing that Antinium.”
She beamed at Yisame. The [Queen] looked at the Emissary of Cloth, and her war council, who all looked very pleased with their actions. This was the problem with encouraging a court to deal with things Yisame didn’t want to have to deal with personally. She decided…it might be for the best that she and Yvlon had not met today. Now, how was she going to deal with this?
Yvlon Byres slept. Which was a thing she did usually every day. And, like every day so far in Nerrhavia’s Fallen, she had a very unfortunate habit of turning all the metal she touched fragile. Even the sword Mectail had offered her.
She had wondered if it was the effect of her arms, making the metal weak to rejuvenate her flesh. Regardless, she hadn’t paid too much attention to it, preoccupied as she was with everything else, from her sickness, to changing locations, the fury simmering in her, and so on.
So one of the things she never thought on was…well. What happened to the bits of metal she broke by accident. She assumed they were just cleaned up by servants or staff.
Which was partly true. But the broken sword and silver knife that Yvlon had both placed on a dresser underwent a…change…as the woman slept. Not all the metal. Indeed, by the time the [Servant] did creep in to toss them away, they had already disgorged the tiny metal insects.
Like a beetle, albeit not one Yvlon would have ever recognized in form…or substance. A little steel beetle cast around the room. It began to move towards her, but recognized…something. Instead, it and the other one made of silver, a tiny insect of another kind, headed straight for the drain. They disappeared down into it.
Sewer systems. The sign of an advanced civilization. Pipes, plumbing…key infrastructure. A testament to Nerrhavia’s richness that it could afford superior materials, not cheap clay or stone. Lovely sewers for a capital city.
All made of metal.
Ksmvr sparred with Leka Thri. Well, sparred was not quite right. Because neither warrior had the ability to properly ‘spar’.
When it was clear that the Loquea Dree clan would join them, a number of Tiqr’s warriors, including Vasraf and Nsiia, expressed the earnest desire to see how good the crow-clan was.
The answer was…complicated. To someone with a connoisseur’s appreciation for battle, like someone who followed the thrilling fights in Nerrhavia Fallen’s arenas, say—
It was sort of boring. For actual experts in fighting, warriors, it was fascinating, because skill in combat did not always equate to flashy matches.
Most of Loquea Dree’s sparring exhibitions were over in a flash. Either their opponents slipped into their guard and managed to touch them, or they ran into the deadly scythes—true, a practice variant, but it was considered a mortal wound.
“As befits the deadly Executioners of the Kilalle Steppes.”
Nsiia herself got ‘cut’ on the shoulder at the same time as she ‘stabbed’ one of the warriors. Ksmvr considered she’d lost an arm, but possibly inflicted a mortal wound.
“Not Executioners. We prefer Loquea Dree.”
Leka Thri, who was the mouthpiece of his clan, hurriedly corrected her. The image-rehabilitation of his clan was in full…attempt. A nervous Yinah was sitting on Leka Thri’s head, meowing uneasily.
“We do not bare our blades except when a true crime has been committed. We have other techniques. See.”
And to demonstrate, he went barehanded up against one of Tiqr’s warriors. The woman gamely leapt forwards, earned herself a snap-punch from Leka Thri, and stopped moving. Some of her friends went to check on her.
…It was a work in progress. However, that was the style of Loquea Dree, and fascinating for Tiqr’s warriors. They actually used punches and kicks with their claws; if someone got under the huge scythes they wielded, they might eat a powerful punch.
Naturally, Ksmvr requested a sparring match and everyone watched as he and Leka Thri…spent the next five minutes trying to figure out how to effectively spar.
“I cannot use the relic-class sword. Or my crossbows. Even without points, the bolts could kill.”
“I can fight barehanded, but it is not my natural weapon. I could attempt to use a scythe?”
“Do you know? How to use a scythe?”
“I have been taught to use almost every variety of weapon in existence, to a degree of competency.”
Leka Thri eyed Ksmvr.
“…Have you ever used a scythe?”
“No. I could borrow practice weapons.”
“I am adept at using every kind of weapon…”
In the end, Ksmvr copied his current gear. Longsword, buckler, dagger. Leka Thri had a practice scythe. The two leapt into a mock battle…which became instantly boring.
Mostly because Ksmvr darted left and right, leaping, while Leka Thri swooped and dove. Neither one saw a perfect moment to strike, so they kept baiting each other.
Yet still, Nsiia and Vasraf watched.
“He is quick. As fast as anyone in the army.”
Vasraf was more fascinated by Ksmvr, and it was to him that Rémi and the others turned for commentary. Nsiia frowned.
“Yes. Far more of a danger with all his tricks like the crossbows. Leka Thri is a skilled warrior too, but if they are trying not to harm each other…”
It became that boring dance. Even so, Ksmvr was keeping up with a Garuda on the wing. Vasraf nodded.
“If all Antinium were as quick, I would be amazed. I always thought of them as hand-to-hand fighters.”
“That is my understanding. Ksmvr is an exception.”
Again, the [Wild General] nodded.
“And yet…it is almost a bit disappointing.”
“How so, [General]? He seems skilled, as any adventurer might. He’d press any warrior fairly hard, even our best.”
One of the veteran soldiers observed. Vasraf nodded, but he was frowning. He turned to Nsiia.
“Your Majesty. You have sparred with Ksmvr. How good is he with his blades?”
Nsiia pursed her lips.
“I can beat him almost every time, but that is because my Skills and class exceed his. With his crossbows and Skills and gear, I think he could push me hard enough that it might be equal if I had to charge him, and I without any artifacts. And I am the [Empress of Beasts].”
She tossed her head and grinned. Then turned to Vasraf.
“With his magic sword, he could threaten any warrior here with death. Especially with his speed.”
She nodded to him. A magic sword plus Ksmvr’s agility? Vasraf folded his arms.
“…But he is no great master of arms.”
Nsiia raised her brows.
“No. He fights very well with his sword and shield, and his extra arm makes him surprising. But he is no expert—ah, see.”
Leka Thri won. He came down in a risky attack, but his kick caught Ksmvr on the buckler, and the scythe descended. Ksmvr dodged, but it hooked him in the air. He stopped, nodded.
“If I had my Forceshield, your kick would have failed.”
“Yes. I know.”
The two regarded each other with approval. Nsiia strode over.
“Ah, Leka Thri. Will you or the First of Judgement tell me what unique style your people use?”
Because it was a style. Leka Thri looked over at Seelaw Ya. The clan leader gave a nod.
“We developed a style from warriors of old, who used similar weapons. We adapted it for the skies. Jakka and moreit.”
He demonstrated. Ksmvr saw him hold the blade out. Point to the scythe’s edge.
“Moreit. To fight like Loquea Dree is to understand threat and attack. Moreit is threat. Jakka—”
A fast punch that moved the air.
“A strange way of classifying it. You mean, you don’t consider the scythe an attack?”
Vasraf was fascinated. Leka Thri shook his head.
“It is a threat. If you fail to account for it, it will kill. Threaten areas where the opponent moves. Like so. And so—”
He changed the scythe rapidly, twisting it, cutting, but often just placing it at angles around an imaginary foe. Leka Thri could choke up on the handle, change directions, and move the long scythe blade anywhere he wanted. It was a bit odd until you remembered it was meant for an aerial battle.
“Moreit. Threats as the opponent moves. As you close—jakka.”
“Interesting. But you see, the way Tiqr teaches its warriors is like so. I imagine you know other weapons. So…do you see our fighting styles in the air? We have a style of blades based around animals.”
Nsiia herself demonstrated the mobile form of fighting she had used on Ksmvr. But she described the fighting more conventionally. Attack and defense. Watching your flanks, keeping your guard up, pushing your opponents—quite utilitarian. Leka Thri was only too happy to compare observations, and Ksmvr himself was drawn into the technical discussion.
“Here, Ksmvr. Do you know any style of fighting unknown to us?”
The Empress turned from a demonstration of two warriors with shield and sword battering at each other. Well, battering was the wrong word.
It had a kind of elegance, the way a proper shield and sword technique was used. You could clip the enemy with the edge of your shield, trap a blade, hit them with your shield, or just ram them back. Some styles even used larger shields as a weapon, lashing out sideways to tear an enemy’s face or hit them with a concussive edge.
Ksmvr observed that, the Loquea Dree warriors with their careful scythe placement and brutal hand-to-hand closers, and the warriors with axes showing off techniques for a student.
Domehead. The Golem was watching their methods, as someone who also used an axe. It was all about finding the moment to transmute all that weight and momentum into the final killing blow, unlike the dance of someone with a less all-or-nothing weapon.
“I have indeed been educated in the art of fighting in multiple weapon sets. My expertise is not the same as my ability, but I have an understanding of some advanced techniques.”
Leka Thri, Nsiia, and Vasraf turned to him eagerly.
“Yes? Then what blades would you use? Would you be able to use Leka Thri’s war scythe? I cannot fit it into my understanding of battle—at least, not without practice.”
Ksmvr looked at the war scythe. He nodded slowly.
“That is an acceptable weapon in my school of blade fighting. It is not one I am familiar with, but the concept is applicable.”
“Of course. A giant club, a sword that is ten feet long, all work. If you can apply the most important principle.”
Everyone leaned forwards. Ksmvr looked around, as if to impart some great secret. He even whispered, so Rémi, who was capturing the rest of the fighting, couldn’t see or hear.
“…Do not be hit. Learn to parry blows. You see, fighting with any weapon is…”
His audience left so fast that Ksmvr looked around, slightly hurt. He turned to Domehead. The Golem was standing, observing the fighters. The lights in his head lit up as Ksmvr turned to him.
“…Fighting with any weapon is about that. Dodge or parry. Blocking is silly.”
Domehead’s lights…dimmed with dubious understanding of Ksmvr’s mentality. Ksmvr gestured at his Forceshield.
“I know this advice is incompatible with my current gear. But my current gear is made up of artifacts I have been given by my team. Ergo, it behooves me to use it. Yet true fighting is…creation and intention. With any weapon, one must eventually learn more than attacking and defending.”
Domehead’s lights actually flickered off and on. Ksmvr frowned. He tried to explain further.
“Dodge or parry. You see, other people use magic. Swords with enchantments do not conform to Nsiia or Leka Thri’s styles. The same with spells. So you must learn to parry magic itself.”
Domehead’s interior crystals, which had been going dim one by one, suddenly regained their color and glowed even brighter. Now, the Golem seemed to focus as Ksmvr went on. The Antinium stared at his relic-class sword.
“Create. You see, all those present fight with very silly styles. Simple styles. Someday, Skills will create a different world than mere steel. Their fighting will do nothing because they do not understand.”
Domehead turned to look at Nsiia, wielding her blade with perfect economy of form. Ksmvr shook his head.
“It is only good if everyone fights as if they have limbs. As if swords move in three dimensions. Skills.”
He looked at Domehead. The Golem stared at him. Ksmvr remembered his audience, and frowned.
“You will never level. Therefore, you will never have Skills and never be able to fight thusly.”
He patted Domehead on the shoulder. The lights started to die in Domehead’s mind once more. Ksmvr paused. Then leaned in and whispered.
“…So you will have to learn how to wield magic itself like a blade.”
He patted Domehead on the shoulder and walked off.
That wasn’t recorded by Rémi Canada, Nsiia, or anyone else. Ksmvr rejoined the discussion on fighting just in time for Nsiia to comment.
“Loquea Dree has mighty warriors. Some of the most able I have seen, even your weakest. Tiqr does not lack for strong fighters as well. I cannot imagine our foes will exceed us on average.”
Ksmvr saw Leka Thri nod and Vasraf smile. He stared at the warriors fighting, honing their talents every morning before they continued their journey into the Empire of Scaied. He spoke, calmly.
“They are very acceptable for average [Soldiers], Empress Nsiia. But I must take offense with ‘mighty’. Loquea Dree is average. True blademasters will threaten all of us. I have not yet observed anyone with the abilities to match even a partial master.”
He said it so politely and matter-of-factly, as if it were not an insult, that it was twice over. Nsiia’s head rotated slowly.
“You speak very boldly, to insult every warrior in front of you.”
Ksmvr looked at her, astonished.
“I did not. I merely spoke facts.”
Vasraf and some of the other warriors looked at each other. They came closer, folding their arms and frowning.
“Do you claim to be an expert, Ksmvr?”
“No. I am substandard. I have reiterated that point many times, Nsiia.”
She was smiling dangerously.
“But you do have the gall to tell me that every warrior present is merely…average. Even Loquea Dree?”
Leka Thri opened his beak.
“Who is superior to our abilities? Your team?”
Rémi Canada had come over by now, and he swung his camera towards Ksmvr. For the first time ever, the Antinium visibly hesitated.
“…Comrade Pisces is a fine duelist. Yvlon is a highly talented Gold-rank adventurer. Yes, they are quite good at fighting. Pisces is…superb for his age and class, especially without Skills.”
Nsiia’s wrath had been growing. Suddenly, it abated, and she raised her eyebrows high and looked at Vasraf.
“Really. And how good is your friend, Yvlon? The one with the arms, who beat an Adult Creler?”
Ksmvr opened and closed his mandibles.
“She is…good…and exceptionally direct.”
Nsiia opened her mouth, hesitating. Leka Thri, of all people, turned to Ksmvr.
“As an adventurer. How amazing is your Comrade Pisces, Ksmvr?”
The Antinium brightened up with relief.
“He is one of the most superior [Necromancers] to ever exist. You see, he has not only ignored the prejudices of flawed judicial systems of law, but he also trained himself in swordsmanship at a basic proficient level as well as becoming a strong [Mage] and [Necromancer]. His insight and…”
He went on like that for a while. But it was fascinating, especially given his penchant for how he talked about his companions. Nsiia frowned.
“…Ksmvr. Wait, you would not have actually seen…say. Does anyone have a recording of the Village of the Dead raid?”
Ksmvr looked up, interested, as someone did produce the famous recording. Rémi Canada offered Ksmvr a recording of the scenes Ksmvr had not seen. Fascinated, Ksmvr stared at the crystal.
“Ryoka Griffin was present? And House Veltras? That is very intriguing.”
“You know the Wind Runner?”
“She is a personal friend of my team. Not me myself, but she had a longstanding association with the previous incarnation of the Horns of Hammerad and I consider her an ally. Hmm. Hmm. What is that!?”
He pointed at the image of two glowing Antinium appearing to battle the specter undead. Nsiia glanced at him.
“You don’t know?”
“I…ah. That appears to be a dangerous Revenant.”
Ksmvr stared as the Drake who had cut a path through undead and adventurers alike made his grand entrance. [Dragonbane Swordlegend]. Nsiia pointed at him as the lone [Duelist] challenged him.
“Now there is a warrior without equal. Or will you gainsay that?”
Ksmvr did not immediately respond. He watched as the two crossed swords, rapier and parrying dagger versus the Drake’s sword. Attack and defense, a whirling dance of blades that was so fast that the recording had to slow down to give regular members of the audience time to appreciate the elegance and form.
Tomoor the [Duelist], who was immortalized in this single battle by his students as one of the great [Duelists] of this era. Posthumously awarded a golden bell.
The Drake [Swordlegend], fighting with a smile on his face. Ksmvr looked up slowly.
“The Drake appears to be quite good. The [Duelist] is certainly fighting at a superior level. It is impossible to tell if this ‘[Swordlegend]’ is exaggerating his abilities, however. It may be he is only using his Skills.”
Nsiia stared at Ksmvr like he had a huge grin on his face. The Antinium’s mandibles clacked as he went back to watching.
“Yes. He is certainly high-level. As to his actual skill with a sword—”
“Dead gods! Are you not seeing the battle? Am I blind?”
Vasraf exploded, turning a bit red with outrage. He gestured at the duel between the two. Ksmvr calmly stared at it.
“I see it too, General Vasraf. But that is only an indication of Instructor Tomoor’s proficiency. He did not challenge the Drake to use his true school of fighting. I believe he’s probably a true master, but I cannot tell from this alone.”
He handed the recording to Rémi. The [Journalist] silently took it, and zoomed in on the others’ faces. Nsiia turned to Ksmvr.
“You speak like you know something, Ksmvr. Yet your team is not made up of anyone who could come close to this level, even your friend Pisces. You must admit that, surely.”
Ksmvr hesitated. He clacked his mandibles together a few times, and twiddled his thumbs as he clasped his hands. He responded slowly, looking the other way.
“…They are adventurers. They may be the finest team ever to exist, that will leave their mark on history. One…one does not need to be proficient technique-wise to be a fine adventurer. Skills make up for many lacking qualities. Magic is also not my purview, so Ceria might be…Comrade Pisces may be very skilled in that area.”
He edged away, eager to be out of the conversation. Nsiia blew out her cheeks, looking purely amazed as Ksmvr went off. Vasraf leaned over.
“He does not have that talent, nor show it.”
“No. He does not.”
Nsiia frowned, eying his armaments. Ksmvr had a shortsword, longsword, bow, and Forceshield, along with his crossbows and used all…well, quite well. He was an excellent shot with any ranged weapon and he used all three arms at once. Even so, it sounded like he was talking amazing smack.
On the other hand…she tapped a finger to her lips.
“Ksmvr is not able to beat me or warriors of my level easily, Vasraf. With his magic sword, yes. But he lacks the strength to break my guard. He is fast, but he does not strike perfectly, and he struggles to keep up with a warrior who can push him constantly.”
“Is there anything that sets him apart?”
Vasraf waited. Nsiia nodded.
“…I have never seen him actually surprised by any technique I used. In that he never seemed to lack for a counter. He was only unable to move to it in time. I have a thought, Vasraf.”
Nsiia looked at Ksmvr’s back.
“We remark upon Ksmvr’s abilities with a sword and his weapons. He seems arrogant. Yet now I wonder. I have heard of the Antinium fighting, just like you. So I must ask. Since he is the only Antinium I have ever heard of to wield a blade save one…who taught him?”
The others looked after Ksmvr. The obvious answer was simple. So Leka Thri walked over and asked.
“Ksmvr. Were you taught by the one known as…Centenium? Klbkch the Slayer?”
Ksmvr looked up blankly. He almost flinched at the name.
“No. Klbkch was occupied with his duties. I had no interaction with him until shortly before I was expelled from my Hive. I have never learned swordsmanship from him directly. My education was overseen by the Free Queen of the Antinium.”
Leka Thri turned and gave the others a blank look. He turned back to Ksmvr.
“Then, if you have observed Klbkch the Slayer’s style. Is he a master?”
Ksmvr turned from scratching Yinah, who was lying and wiggling on her back.
The Slayer of the Centenium stared at Ksmvr in the still recording. He flexed one arm and it moved, slowly.
Klbkch the Slayer. Revelantor of the Free Antinium. True Antinium of Rhir. Once he had been Klbkchhezeim, a [Swordslayer] and [Assassin] both.
Yet never hugely high-levelled. Even as a [Swordslayer], he had told Ryoka Griffin his highest level there had been…44.
Of course, dying didn’t help, and he had died many times. But what Ksmvr said was true. He had been far better, once.
“…Why is Ksmvr in Chandrar? Why is he being interviewed by Humans and associating with Garuda? Finally. Why are you showing me this? Wrymvr?”
The Centenium, Wrymvr the Deathless, dangled the scrying orb from one limb.
“Mockery and entertainment. Do you disagree?”
Klbkch’s hand twitched towards the two silver swords waiting for his new body’s completion. He looked at Wrymvr.
“There is more to combat than mere levels. Centenium were too superior to level quickly.”
“I am higher level than you.”
“You never died.”
Klbkch decided to ignore Wrymvr. The Centenium stared at the recording, then turned to Klbkch.
“Ksmvr. An unauthorized Prognugator of the Free Queen. Competency?”
A foreleg tapped Klbkch on the head. The Slayer stared at it.
“…He was created and trained by the Free Queen. Query her—I was unaware she was training a replacement. It is my understanding she wished to create a copy of me to ease our burdens. He was deployed prematurely. We exiled him for the reasons I outlined.”
“Yes. Experiment. Grow. But competency?”
Klbkch shrugged; he had control of his upper body, if not one of his arms or legs. He was impatient, but the time was allowing him to adjust to the enhanced reflexes and make plans.
“He was trained on the Free Queen’s abilities. I assume she based his fighting style on mine. She attempted to replicate my Worker-form abilities.”
“Ah. Therefore, weak.”
Klbkch looked around for something to throw at Wrymvr.
“He is most likely aware of my true capabilities. Hence his statement, however foolish. I am the basis for Antinium such as the Custodium the Grand Queen employs, as one of the few Centenium to use weapons.”
Wrymvr rubbed two limbs together.
“Yes…basis for inefficient, expensive Custodium. Alas. Regrettable. Weak.”
“Wrymvr. I am coming close to violence.”
The Centenium turned. Wrymvr seemed pleased by his interaction. He spread his wings, then shifted to turn back to Klbkch.
“Pity. You were good with blades. Will you reclaim them?”
Klbkch’s head rose. His mandibles opened and lifted in a smile. He flexed his one arm, and looked down at his body.
“Yes. I only need to wait a little longer.”
Wrymvr returned the gesture.
The pleasant days could only last so long. When they found Nsiia’s army, they struck like lightning.
“[Lightning Bolt]! Take cover!”
The crackling surge of electricity was strong in dry Chandrar. The static charge earthed itself as the shout came up: a sudden ambush! The [Scouts] had missed the invisible assailant. And the lightning bolt streaked towards Nsiia and Ksmvr as they whirled on their mounts—
—And earthed itself about two hundred feet to the left. And about two thousand paces too soon.
The invisible [Mage] shouted.
“There she is! You won’t escape you—you thieves! You wretches! Domehead! I’ve come to rescue you!”
Ksmvr stared as Crafter Se revealed herself and a small group of Illivere’s warriors. And by ‘small’, it was literally two hundred, a mixed force of the more advanced Golems, a few conventional ones, and armed Humans…who were doing a quick count as thousands of Tiqr’s warriors turned.
“…Is that Crafter Se?”
Nsiia shaded her eyes. Another lightning bolt fired from Crafter Se’s wand, but she was no combat magus. Even then, with nearly a mile between them, the enraged [Golem Artificer] was striking and howling.
“Domehead! Return! Domehead! Femithain is right behind us! Give Domehead up and we might let you live, Nsiia!”
“What’s she shouting?”
Vasraf saw Nsiia put her hand to her ear. He glanced at the force of two hundred.
“Looks like they have Stone Golems, and some ceramics. How dangerous are they?”
He turned to their [Strategist].
“Tough, agile; they might be armed with enchanted weapons, but there are only two hundred. A scouting force, perhaps meant for the Empress if we hadn’t found her first. I don’t think they’re wise, unless an entire army is close enough.”
Vasraf eyed another lightning bolt that just dissipated in midair before it got close.
“I…don’t believe this is a clever trick. Your Majesty, what are your orders?”
“I don’t want to slaughter them. Crafter Se is owed her fury. Vaguely.”
“Is it worth letting Domehead return? If that would pull Illivere off our backs…”
Everyone turned to Domehead. The Golem looked at Nsiia and Ksmvr. It didn’t move, or make a sound. Nsiia’s face screwed up.
“I…that would be helpful. But I will not tell Domehead to do so.”
“Because he is a valuable asset…?”
“Because Domehead may choose. As he chose to follow me. It is your choice, Domehead.”
The Golem stood there. He did not react as Nsiia pointed at Crafter Se.
“Do you wish to go back? I do not think she will punish you.”
No movement. The lights changed, but who could divine their meaning? Nsiia slowly rode to one side. Crafter Se was being restrained by her people.
“There she is. You may go to her or…”
Domehead walked towards Nsiia. He stopped, and the Empress of Beasts turned a rueful smile towards Vasraf.
The [Wild General] sighed, but nodded.
“Her Majesty’s will be done. Then let’s harry this force. I have no wish for them to trail us and lead the Magus-Crafter and a real army towards us.”
“How? Kill them?”
The blunt suggestion came from one of Vasraf’s officers. Ksmvr hesitated. He looked at Crafter Se. He did not wish that, but he listened. The [Wild General] shook his head.
“It shouldn’t be difficult. Have two Garuda squads in reserve. Archers, with me…”
The attack on Crafter Se’s advance group was fast. She squeaked as she saw nearly a thousand [Riders] coming her way. She tried casting more lightning bolts, but a [Mage] opposing her countered the spell.
“To arms! Arrows! Bows!”
The smaller, ceramic Golems smoothly raised their bows and the other [Mages] drew their wands. But the [Riders] bearing down on them were [Soldiers] used to fighting enemy [Mages] and arrows. Just before they drew into range, someone pointed up.
“Garuda! Garuda with—”
The first ceramic jars filled with the [Sticky Web] spell—an alchemical version of it—exploded, the ropes of webbing sticking to the archers and [Mages]. The [Riders], divided into two groups, came in for a pincer attack.
“Surrender or die!”
Crafter Se screamed.
“Surrender! We surrender! We—”
The purpose of the Garuda was twofold. After Crafter Se and the force had been stripped of weapons and useful gear and armor—including bags of holding—they were pointed back the way they’d come. But not directly back towards Illivere or their army.
“Send them on this route.”
One of the Garuda sighed as they began to herd the loudly-protesting Se and others away. Soon, the [Golem Artificer] would have no idea where she was or had been, Tiqr’s army would be far away, and it would be a guessing game to find them again.
Ksmvr thought little of that, aside from waving at Crafter Se, who cursed him so loudly from afar that some of Tiqr’s [Soldiers] began laughing and writing down the idioms. Nsiia shook her head.
“We’re on the border of the Empire of Scaied. She reached us before Nerrhavia’s garrison or anyone else. She must have truly wanted Domehead back. Do you wish to say anything to her?”
Domehead didn’t move. Nsiia shrugged.
“On we go, then. Crafter Se! Apologies! I will bring him back some day!”
A scream was her only answer. Tiqr’s army set off, distributing the gear they’d plundered. A shame they couldn’t take the Golems, but they were bound to Illivere and it was too risky to try and figure out how to control them without experts of their own.
Something occurred to Ksmvr only a bit later, though. He twisted to look back, but Crafter Se was far out of sight already. He supposed it was just a Skill or something. But to his knowledge, they were all part of General Vasraf’s army. Yet from afar…she should only have been able to see Vasraf.
Perhaps she had seen Domehead and Ksmvr? The Antinium rode on, thinking.
He could not stand by forever. Nsiia kept pushing him, but it took even Rémi Canada a while to understand why. It was a rare moment when the [Journalist] asked Nsiia why.
On film, of course. He could have done it off-screen, but he was genuinely confused.
“What, exactly, makes you want Ksmvr’s help so badly, Nsiia?”
The frankly astonished look on the Empress’ face turned into high amusement. She glanced over at Vasraf, who was not-so-subtly listening in. He had the same question.
“I forget, you were not there when I was freed, Rémi Canada. I would have thought you understood, Vasraf.”
“The sword, of course. A weapon worthy of you, Your Majesty? That’s all I understand. Perhaps some cleverness in how he freed you from the Magus-Crafter’s clutches? I never did ask how he secured the key.”
Nsiia started chuckling. Then laughing. She threw her head back. Oh, silly audiences. The thing they never saw. Ksmvr hadn’t unsheathed the [Paladin]’s sword. Not once.
They were crossing into the Empire of Scaied’s territory; however, they still had to pass though Tiqr. Ksmvr observed that it changed something in the warriors. In Nsiia as well. They stared at their homeland, though the geography only changed by increments.
But with such longing. As if there was something about just standing in their home. Ksmvr did not see it as wholly positive; some grew agitated or morose. Few fought directly in Nsiia’s presence, so she would walk the camps and calm warriors at night.
Their motive was not to fight the garrisons. Multiple nations had cut Tiqr up and put their forces here, seeking to exploit new lands neighboring theirs or establish close colonies. Some were even trying to make their areas into vassal nations—with little success.
Even so, the armies outnumbered Tiqr’s rebel force, and a single nation could potentially do enough damage to ruin Nsiia’s ambitions. So Nsiia had reluctantly accepted Vasraf’s advice to hold off on any conflict if possible until they found allies like the Monks of Sottheim at their destination.
That resolve lasted right up until the first convoy they passed. ‘Caravan’ was too small for the several thousand of Nerrhavia Fallen’s [Soldiers] leading a group half as large. No shackles, but the Garuda [Scout] came flying back, cursing.
“Rebels, Empress, General! Either rebels, dissidents, or Nerrhavia’s Fallen is selling Tiqr’s people by the thousand. They must be bound for Roshal!”
“Not all the way. A Slave City. In Scaied, perhaps. Somewhere to hold them; no ordinary convoy could carry that many.”
Nsiia’s head rose as Vasraf called their army to a halt. She stared at the army moving through one of the valleys below. Tiqr’s army had been crossing the rough hills, and both groups were close enough that they kept getting glimpses of each other across the ridgeline.
The difference was that Nerrhavia’s commander saw a single man on a horse. A few [Riders] were lazily summiting the slope, beckoning for Vasraf to come down.
The Nerrhavian [Commander] kept turning his head towards Vasraf and rubbing the back of his neck. But his instinct was to send more scouts, a handful of Garuda and Stitch-Folk on horseback, to scout around, in every direction, on a hunch.
“There’s enough of them to put up a real fight. Your Majesty, if there’s a garrison anywhere nearby…”
Vasraf was murmuring. Nsiia stared down the slopes. Ksmvr eyed her. Rémi Canada was focused on the people trudging along. This was not his moment; he was not in command. So he just looked at Tiqr’s people.
They looked poorly. Not poor, though they only had the clothes on their backs. What they looked was wounded. Ksmvr stared at bloody gashes and didn’t understand until he saw one of the [Soldiers] wielding a whip.
Then the Antinium went still. Rémi Canada looked left and realized there was something Ksmvr had never seen: a [Slave]. You could expect most people to at least understand. Ksmvr did not.
“…Give away our position.”
Vasraf concluded to an audience barely focused on him. His own voice trailed off. Nsiia was perched on Chance’s back. The horse was breathing hard, pawing the ground with a hoof. She nodded.
“You have made your point. Now I ask you, Vasraf. Do you truly believe we should leave our people to that?”
She pointed down at a [Soldier] angrily moving the people forwards. By hitting them as hard as he could with the butt of his spear. Ksmvr saw Vasraf stare down as he spat on a man. The [Wild General] sighed.
“I have two conditions, Your Majesty.”
“Five minutes. [Claw Captain]—take your forces around, fast. Stealth-Skills once you leave my radius. Seelaw Ya, will your warriors commit to an attack?”
“I will give you eight.”
The Loquea Dree warrior saw Vasraf grimace. Nsiia turned and the First of Judgement nodded to her.
“Eight to the death.”
“Hit the archers. Otherwise, keep the skies clear, [Sky Strikeleader].”
One of the Garuda nodded. Nsiia turned to Ksmvr.
“Will you join me at the fore, Ksmvr?”
The Antinium looked at her. He stared down at the valley below, then opened and closed his mandibles, clacking them several times.
“No? Do you see my people down there? I thought we were allied, Ksmvr.”
“That army is Nerrhavia Fallen’s. My companion, Yvlon, is their prisoner. If I am identified, and I believe I would be—I would not put her in jeopardy.”
The Antinium spoke uncertainly. Nsiia looked at him, but the army was moving. She whirled.
“Very well. I cannot argue with that. Domehead!”
The Golem moved. Nsiia pointed. Vasraf glanced up from his rapid-fire orders to see Nsiia point.
“You will stay with the archers. There. Protect the [Mages] and [Archers]. Do not move from this area unless Vasraf tells you to.”
Domehead began walking over to the spot Nsiia pointed, but his torso swivelled as she set herself with the [Riders]. Ksmvr watched as Tiqr’s army moved into position. Not a full encirclement; the commander was getting so antsy he’d stopped the convoy and had begun moving them into a defensive stance. Nor did Tiqr’s army have the patience for it.
Five minutes. The second of Vasraf’s two demands was this:
The [Scouts] approaching the lone warrior saw him dismount. They watched, waving him on and telling him to get his worthless flesh-body down so they could interrogate him. Then…they saw him climb onto something.
Something big. And invisible. The man scaled a rope that appeared out of nowhere. And then sat himself on…a giant, grey thing. About twenty feet tall. It had big, floppy ears, long horns, and a strange, trunk-like nose. Normally, the two wide-spaced eyes in the head looked almost cute, or at least as friendly as any animal got. This animal…did not look so placid.
It was glaring at them. The Grand Elephant raised its nose and blew a blast of air like a trumpet. Nerrhavia Fallen’s army turned just in time to see General Vasraf shed his Skill. He stood on the Grand Elephant’s back, put an arrow to his bow, and shot both [Scouts] through the neck. Then he pointed.
“For Tiqr’s children!”
Nsiia howled at the same time.
They went down the hills from multiple flanks, appearing out of nowhere to Nerrhavia Fallen’s terrified army. Ksmvr, watching from Spitty’s back, saw Tiqr’s warriors charging on foot. Many had horses or camels or other animals and rode with amazing nimbleness down the rocky terrain. They didn’t fear stray stones or breaking their mounts’ legs; they had Skills to protect their friends.
Flights of Garuda took to the air, chasing down the enemy scouts, who screamed when they saw eight of Loquea Dree’s warriors spread out. [Archers] mixed with the small number of [Mages] in pockets, aiming down at the soldiers below.
That was what Tiqr’s children of flesh and metal did. The ones of fang and claw fought too. Ksmvr saw hyenas, packs of them, racing down, laughing, in a flanking move. Even some birds joining the Garuda in the air.
The hammer was the two Grand Elephants, who moved behind the riders with the warriors on foot, trampling towards the enemy lines. They had armor protecting their fronts, and Vasraf was only one of several [Archers] on the giant animals’ backs, shooting down into the melee.
They didn’t wipe out Nerrhavia’s army in one go, or rout them. They did hit the soldiers below so hard that Ksmvr saw the shock ripple through the Stitch-Folk [Soldiers]’ ranks. But then Tiqr’s warriors were skirmishing with ranks of Hemp-caste [Soldiers], and their blades dug into the tough ‘skin’ of their opponents as well as armor.
Nor did Stitch-Folk fear blades or fangs like other warriors. Ksmvr saw one take a terrible slash from Nsiia that nearly severed her shoulder. The [Soldier] screamed, scrambled back, but some kind of [Healer] or…[Stitch Healer] sewed the wound back up and pushed the warrior back to the front.
It was still a battle that favored Tiqr overwhelmingly. Ksmvr stood there, with the [Archers] and noncombatants. Rémi Canada shifted from the battle to Ksmvr.
“You’re not fighting?”
“I have reiterated my points to Empress Nsiia. I am an adventurer. I do not know if…”
Ksmvr trailed off to look at the fighting.
“—I am one warrior. Hardly as high-level as Empress Nsiia or General Vasraf. My contribution makes little difference.”
Yinah yowled from her position with Rémi; she had not been allowed to join the attack. Spitty took umbrage as well and kept trying to turn his head straight around so he could hit Ksmvr with phlegm.
Rémi Canada said nothing, but turned to Seelaw Ya and Leka Thri.
“And Loquea Dree?”
“Eight warriors, life or death. We stay here. With Ksmvr. We do not hunger for blood. Our kin should remember that.”
Seelaw Ya replied. Ksmvr thought he was genuinely calm. Ksmvr was conflicted. But…Tiqr was winning. Nerrhavia’s Fallen was retreating backwards, literally sacrificing its front ranks to pull into a better formation.
Ksmvr saw something that the soldiers in the melee missed. Amid the terrible fighting in the fore, the convoy of Tiqr’s people had broken away. They turned, spotted Vasraf and Nsiia, and began to cheer and scream.
They did not join the fighting; they had no weapons or armor. However, the few [Soldiers] guarding them met swift ends. Tiqr’s people streamed away from the fighting. And the Nerrhavia’s Fallen [Commander] saw it.
“[Bodies of Iron]. Push forwards.”
General Vasraf’s Skill took Nsiia and the warriors in the vanguard forwards without fear. They charged in, yet not just because of him. The Empress of Beasts herself had taken to the front as well, and she raised her sword.
“[Wild Gift: Elephant’s Strength]! Bring me that [Commander]’s head!”
Two top-level Skills combined, one from the [General], one from Nsiia, taking the place of a [Captain] or [Vanguard]. Even the horses turned into terrifying beasts of war, trampling forwards as the [Soldiers] in front of them were knocked backwards by terrific blows. A hyena that had somehow found itself near Nsiia leapt and dragged a [Soldier] down by the leg. Strong as an elephant, with fur like iron.
No matter how well-armed the enemy were, in this place, they could only slow down Tiqr’s advance. In this place. Nsiia saw something strange. The enemy cavalry hadn’t fought with her people for long. Not when a quarter of their horses would buck them, rather than fight Nsiia. Now though, they were streaming away from the defensive half-circle she was breaking into.
Nsiia’s head turned as she let a warrior charge past her with mace and shield. She traced the riders heading…away? No—they were on a collision course with—
He’d seen it too. The [Wild General] furiously blew a horn and pointed to intercept, but even as both watched, the [Riders] sped up.
The Nerrhavia’s Fallen [Commander] was laughing. Check! To use a chess term. He was threatening the one area that would force Tiqr to split its forces.
“[Skirmisher’s Onslaught]! Don’t let them join Tiqr’s army!”
He pointed at the unarmed people now fleeing from the riding [Soldiers], racing past Vasraf’s desperate encirclement. Vasraf began to pull warriors back from the fighting to give chase, but they would still be too slow.
“What a commendable move.”
Ksmvr quietly spoke. Rémi Canada looked at him. The archers on the hills were furiously shooting arrows down towards the force going after the civilians, but they were having trouble even hitting the enemy, fast as they were.
“It is working. Of course, such tactics have their flaws. I do not believe the Nerrhavia’s Fallen [Commander] realizes he is being recorded.”
This was true. Rémi turned back to the battle. Then—back to Ksmvr. The Antinium sat there.
“They will not be able to stop the [Riders]. One side has a speed Skill.”
Seelaw Ya stared at Vasraf’s [Soldiers] giving pursuit. Leka Thri opened and closed his wing-arms. But before anyone said anything else, Ksmvr spoke.
“I am resolute in my decision not to aid Nsiia openly. She has dragged me into her war. An adventurer should not play politics lightly. These are things I have been told by my team. ‘Do not dip your quill in an inkwell without an ink cap.’ Wise words, by Crossbow Stan. I…think they apply?”
Seelaw Ya looked at Leka Thri. The crow-warrior shook his head in the background. Rémi Canada was looking at Ksmvr, his camera fixed on the Antinium. He was staring down at the people, screaming and running.
“I am an adventurer. Not a [Soldier]. I do not participate in wars. It is bad for my health.”
“I understand that, Ksmvr.”
The Antinium looked at Rémi, bouncing a bit now.
“My team captain or my teammates would make their decision, because they are capable and understand the nuance of everything they do. I am not empowered to make such a decision.”
Rémi’s camera was bouncing a bit too, despite his best efforts. Some of the shaking entered Rémi’s voice. He tried not to bite his tongue.
“Perfectly understood. So…why are we riding down the hill?”
Spitty was picking up the pace. Ksmvr was already halfway down the slopes and moving faster.
“I am just going for a ride! This does not mean anything! I am an adventurer. I do not let random groups of clearly-criminal [Bandits] slaughter unarmed citizens going for a walk! I wish to clarif—”
Spitty hit a rough patch and Ksmvr bounced in the saddle. At first, no one noticed the lone Antinium picking up speed as he went down the hills. That is—until over twenty dark shapes took wing.
The crow-Garuda led twenty of his kin after Ksmvr. He flew next to Ksmvr. The Antinium twisted in his saddle.
“What are you doing? I am going for a walk. I mean, ride.”
“Stretching my wings.”
The warrior opened his beak with a sharp, menacing smile. Ksmvr looked at him. Now Nerrhavia’s soldiers spotted them coming, and slowed uncertainly. But it was twenty-some versus hundreds. Tiqr’s civilians ran towards them, screaming. Ksmvr looked ahead.
“It occurs to me that if we are fighting [Bandits]—”
“Leave the riders to us.”
Ksmvr nodded. He angled towards the soldiers on foot. Leka Thri pulled upwards, but Ksmvr shouted after him.
“Advice! Scream for psychological effect!”
Leka Thri did a double-take in the air. Then—he laughed. Nerrhavia Fallen’s [Soldiers] saw a lone warrior on a camel’s back racing towards them. The figure leapt from the saddle and the affronted camel peeled away. He landed, and they slowed in their mad charge.
What was that thing? A bug? A bug-person? With a cape?
A shimmering Forceshield came to life in one hand. With his other two hands, he drew something, both hands clasped around the hilt of…a wrapped blade. A longsword. Overhead, twenty Garuda sped at the riders on horseback.
It was just one…in the heat of the battle, only a few [Soldiers] realized what he was. They remembered a name. A story from Rhir and Izril.
Antinium. Again, just one.
But then the binding on the blade fell away. Vasraf, twisting in his saddle, bow drawn, saw the light. A blinding radiance at first. A…strange light, different from magic alone. He felt the hair on his arms rise from thousands of feet away.
A Relic-class blade rose. Nsiia turned and laughed to see it, in delight. In relief. The Antinium held the sword up. He turned his head to the first rank of Nerrhavia’s Fallen’s hordes. Then he opened his mandibles and screamed.
A screaming, running Antinium with a magic sword charged at the warriors. Which was scary enough. Then the Loquea Dree clan shrieked like the ravens of death. Like the heralds of the end. They dove, and the warrior leading the attack twisted, looking for the enemy. He saw a huge shape moving overhead, and saw a single glowing blade right in front of him.
Moreit. Threat and—the [Captain] tried to swerve, and collided with the scythe at neck-height. The other crow-warriors swept across the [Riders], aiming for the Stitch-Folk in their saddles, unable to dodge.
Ksmvr didn’t see Leka Thri’s battle. He was running, charging, and wondering—what would Captain Ceria say? He hoped she understood and wouldn’t be too angry.
A [Sword Captain] charged Ksmvr. The Gold-rank adventurer saw a sword moving, and judged his vector of attack. The longsword was light in his hands. Not his preferred weapon, but he knew how to use it. The Forceshield angled, and he swung the sword down in a perfectly executed slash.
The [Sword Captain] moved to parry the vertical blow. He was quick. His blade slashed across Ksmvr’s downstroke, to send the blade sideways and move into a slash—
The [Sword Captain]’s enchanted sword split into two. His parrying blow sundered his own sword and the man stared at the neat cut through his weapon. Ksmvr was so surprised he almost missed.
Almost. The [Paladin]’s blade slashed down without any resistance. Ksmvr was again surprised and had to reverse the motion before it cut into the ground. Such poor execution and form! Even so…he stepped back, shield raised, ready to attack. Only to see the [Sword Captain] staring at his right side.
“That’s my arm.”
The Stitch-Man stared at his severed arm and shoulder, mildly shocked. Ksmvr glanced down at the arm, still holding a shield. He whirled the blade as someone stabbed at him.
The sword cut a spear in half. Ksmvr slashed, and was rewarded with a scream of pain. The other [Soldier] had been too far away for a killing blow, but Ksmvr had sliced across the top of her metal shield…and breastplate…and cut through the top of the shield and into the woman’s body. She stumbled back, staring at her shield.
The Antinium spun, swung his sword, and sheared through another sword instead of rebounding or locking, and the top of someone’s shoulder. He blocked a mace blow with the Forceshield, and swung in two crescent arcs.
The longsword was fast. Not as fast as it could be…but it never met any resistance. Even the air seemed like it refused to impede the blade.
The [Soldiers] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen pressed closer, hearing screams, shouts. Was the Antinium dead? Suddenly, their momentum was coming to a standstill, and they had to get forwards before Tiqr attacked from behind! But the forward advance had stopped. No—it was going backwards?
[Soldiers] were trying to push back. Some were running, holding severed limbs. A few simply threw their weapons down. Why? It was just—
A single Antinium with a magic sword. A holy blade with no peer. Whatever it struck was cut. Even enchanted weapons and shields. Even—
A [Shield Warrior] threw up his shield. Ksmvr slashed. Carefully. Like a science experiment. The two warriors regarded the Stitch-Man’s shield. Or rather, half of it. The Nerrhavia’s Fallen [Soldier] regarded his shield, dropped what remained of it, and put up his hands.
He didn’t even look ashamed. It was just…common sense. And it spread amazingly fast. The [Commander] couldn’t understand it from afar, as his entire attack wave of infantry came to a standstill. He was cursing them and ordering them forwards when Nsiia threw a javelin.
[Officer’s Second Chance]! The javelin curved in midair and the man yelped, scrambling back as he realized Tiqr had pushed too far in. He was turning to issue more orders, his gambit failed, when Vasraf shot him through the armpit.
The battle was over soon after that. Ksmvr stood in front of hundreds of surrendering [Soldiers], trying to argue with them.
“No, you are not surrendering to me. I am not here. I did not know you were [Soldiers]. Therefore, your surrender is to Empress Nsiia of Tiqr.”
Leka Thri had landed with his warriors, having routed his foes almost as quickly as Ksmvr. In the distance, the army of Nerrhavia’s Fallen was surrendering—or dead.
“This was only part of whatever garrison was in the region. Too many soldiers to count.”
Vasraf was counting losses and grimacing. A single convoy had put up too much of a fight, even taken by surprise. Nsiia shook her head.
“Vasraf. Hush. We have liberated our people. And look—”
They found Ksmvr by the cheering. When the Empress of Beasts parted the crowds with her [Wild General], he was standing there, surrounded by Tiqr’s people. Her [Soldiers]. The Antinium looked confused as Rémi Canada fought to record it all, jostling for room.
“Nsiia. Please confirm that my involvement in this battle was accidental. Please do not cheer. Unless it is because I am a Gold-rank adventurer. Why are they cheering…?”
He still didn’t see it. Vasraf turned to Nsiia. This close, the air felt charged. The Antinium saw Nsiia gesture.
“Lift the sword, Ksmvr! So we can all see it!”
“Just do it!”
Slowly, the Antinium lifted the sword overhead. He still didn’t understand. But there it was. A glowing sword. And as her people saw her, they turned and fell to their knees, or looked at the Empress of Beasts. She raised her fist.
A symbol. No. Just look at him. The Antinium, standing with his cloak and shining sword, fighting for Tiqr no matter what he claimed. He looked like something out of those old stories. The warrior in Tiqr’s darkest hour.
A…[Hero]. You looked at him and remembered they had once existed. Ksmvr stood there, holding the sword up. He saw people smiling at him, cheering him. Even wanting to talk, take his hand and thank him.
“This sword is a bit heavy.”
He confessed to Leka Thri. The crow-warrior didn’t answer him immediately. He looked around.
“It is not unpleasant. Is it?”
Ksmvr was confused as to what he meant. Then he looked around at the smiling faces. Leka Thri’s expression was hard to read. But it looked…the Antinium shook his head slightly.
“No. It is not.”
“It is what I dreamed of. Someday, for all of my people. We will not be answered by screams, but by this.”
Leka Thri looked at Ksmvr. The Antinium offered a smile, and got one in return.
Ksmvr did not become a [Hero] that night. In fact, he did not level. When one had a magic blade of the caliber he wielded…it was unlikely one would level. The one drawback of such things.
He did remember something, though. That he was substandard.
It was good to remember. Otherwise Ksmvr might have a huge ego, which was a terrible flaw to have. He had indulged too much in the accolades of yesterday for not doing much.
Nsiia was still beaming over the victory days later, despite the headaches it had given Vasraf. He’d made a quick decision, and split the freed people.
Those who wished to fight for Tiqr, former [Warriors] or just men and women with the will, he let join the army. Those who feared they would not make it, but couldn’t fight, he sent to the Kilalle Steppes. They already had some of Tiqr’s liberated citizens hiding there. The rest? He let them go back to Tiqr if they wanted, to find their families, hide, or spread word.
Nsiia gave them all her blessing. It was an emotional reunion that Ksmvr saw, as she went among her people. It reminded him why she was fighting. Each person in Tiqr was her responsibility, her burden.
When you saw Nsiia like that, surrounded by people, pledging to find each and every one of their family members, friends, to return with an army—an impossible promise she would keep or die—that was the Empress of Beasts. Ruler of a nation.
He was Ksmvr. Even now…
It came out in a moment as Tiqr’s army crossed into the Empire of Scaied. Still fairly dry in the north; relatively rich as it reached the coastline.
Scorpion territory. Ksmvr saw the curious insects the first week. One crawled up by the fire, six-legged, all dark chitin, stinger raised. He eyed it.
“Ksmvr…what are you eating?”
Ksmvr’s voice was a bit muffled. He had been told that eating insects was a faux pas, even though Captain Ceria did it. He spat the stinger out of his mandibles. Nsiia stared at the limb.
“It is poisonous. I am most likely immune, but poison does not taste good. Nor is it very nutritious. If I was eating something. Which I was not.”
Nsiia eyed him, and then cursed.
“These damned things. I think they sense we’re here. Scaied is a haven for such vermin.”
“Technically, I believe they are arachnids.”
Nsiia flicked another scorpion, this one pale and semi-transparent, and turned to Ksmvr.
“Don’t be ridiculous. They are bugs. Spiders look different. And spiders are a kind of bug, are they not?”
“Spiders are very distinct, Nsiia. You see…”
The Empress wasn’t listening. She paced the ground, frowning. Now, Ksmvr saw no less than six scorpions in close proximity. Which was odd.
Scorpions, contrary to popular belief, did not go out of their way to pick fights with giant things that could squash them. Yes, they had stingers and would sting you, but Humans didn’t just run up to Giants and start punching them. Actually…given certain [Knight]-Orders, that was a bad analogy.
However, these scorpions did seem to be coming out of the ground. And heading towards one person. Nsiia saw Yinah bare her teeth.
“Yinah! Don’t. They’ll sting you.”
The cat backed off, snarling. Some of the hyenas, one of whom was gravid, yet had refused to leave even when pregnant, were also snarling, yipping as more scorpions appeared.
Vasraf calmly strode towards her in the mortal enemy of scorpions of this size. Boots. He calmly stomped some flat and looked around.
“I believe Scaied has noticed us. And it seems they are eminently hostile.”
“We would have had to fight them anyways. Hopefully it’s just pests.”
Nsiia frowned, though. Vasraf was just as wary, and it was as they broke camp and were heading south towards the monastery of Sottheim that one of the [Scouts] to their rear spotted a force.
“It’s far distant, Your Majesty. But I think I see…Illivere’s standards.”
Nsiia halted. Ksmvr turned back and saw Vasraf frown.
“Are you sure they’re bearing towards us?”
“Unerringly, General. They’re slow, though. The Golems are moving at a slower clip, but they won’t stop.”
Instantly, Vasraf ordered the army to zig left. However, they had only gone two hours when the [Scout] came back.
“They’re following us, [General]. I saw another Garuda in the skies.”
Illivere had zagged to catch up. However, Vasraf was equal to them. He conferred with Nsiia for her approval, and issued an order.
“[Army: No Foe Caught Us]. Full march!”
It was a Skill he’d picked up after Tiqr’s fall. Ksmvr saw Tiqr’s army speed up. They shot across the ground, moving at a pace that left Illivere’s army in the dust. However—unlike the famous King of Destruction or other high-level Skills, they paid for it.
Six hours of marching was not even a full-day’s effort, yet Tiqr’s army had to stop. Each person was issued a mere spoonful of stamina potion to fight off the worst effects, but the [Soldiers] dropped where they stopped for rest.
“Would that we had Flos here. His basic Skills can do almost as well without the backlash.”
“I will try to enlist the King of Destruction into the army if I ever get the chance, Your Majesty.”
Vasraf wearily traded jests with Nsiia. However, even with their exhaustion, Illivere wouldn’t be in range of them, even if they marched all day and all night. So Tiqr fell to resting.
Naturally, that was when they were attacked.
“Ambush! Ambush! Rally to the Grand Elephants!”
Vasraf’s voice had Ksmvr out of bed in an instant. He leapt up, confused, and saw figures attacking the camp. Something huge erupted out of the ground and Ksmvr drew his sword. The radiance threw the fighting into relief and the attackers cried out while Tiqr’s people rallied.
Warriors in light armor with curved blades, some dripping with poison, charging out of the darkness. More with arrows—but Ksmvr was focused on the giant shapes attacking screaming warriors.
Scorpions. Giant scorpions, one fourteen feet long with a stinger that impaled someone even as he watched.
“To me! Fight them off!”
Nsiia was howling. Ksmvr saw someone run at him. He parried the blade—and the surprised attacker’s head—clean from the body. Other people were shouting as more of the giant things came out from hiding.
“Oisk Stingers in the sands!”
Loquea Dree were in the sky, and the attackers were already falling back. Tiqr saw one figure pursuing them, battling with one of the giant scorpions.
Domehead. Nsiia shouted as the Golem took a furious stinger-blow straight to the chest and staggered. Yet he brought down his axe and smashed the scorpion flat, yet the giant arachnid got up and scuttled back as someone blew a shrill whistle.
“Domehead, to me! Don’t pursue!”
Flaming arrows struck Domehead’s crystal dome. A bolt of magic hit him in the chest and he hesitated—then stomped backwards.
It was a fast attack. An ambush by the Empire of Scaied. Vasraf didn’t even have time to bury the dead. Seelaw Ya landed as the [Wild General] ordered the camp struck.
“An army is coming. Eight thousand strong.”
“Damn. Tend to the wounded. Prepare to move! Now! If Illivere flanks us—”
Nsiia helping tend to the wounded. She bent down.
“Oh no. You…[Sympathetic Heal—].”
She tried to cast the Skill on the wounded hyena, but the animal snapped at her. It growled, a spear embedded in its side. Nsiia bent, eyes wet. She put her ear to the animal’s belly.
“I understand. [Sympathetic Healing]. I promise, we will take care of them, brave mother.”
Ksmvr didn’t understand. It seemed as if Nsiia had used the Skill just as she’d tried. Until he saw Nsiia call for a dagger and help.
One of the [Druids] strode over, face bleak. They bent over the hyena and cut her open.
“What are you…?”
Ksmvr saw Nsiia reach down and heard a sound. A coughing whine. The Empress of Beasts lifted something up, turning to him.
A tiny hyena cub. Three, in fact. The [Druid] helped her rescue three out of four. Then save them because they were prematurely born. She urgently mixed milk with a healing potion. It was them that Nsiia had saved.
The mother was already dead. She had been before Nsiia called for the knife. Nsiia bore them away as Vasraf put the army into a desperate march, still by night.
Their pursuers were visible by the time dawn rose. Ksmvr saw an army, banging on their shields, blowing those strange whistles. Nsiia cursed them.
“Scaied. Someone’s hired the mercenaries. Vasraf, how did they find us?”
The [Wild General] eyed thousands of Scaied’s mercenary army. You could hire companies like Baleros’ endless outfits. However, in Chandrar [Mercenaries] were less common. Yet this was an entire empire you could hire. For a fee.
“I don’t know, Your Majesty. We should have been hidden. Perhaps magic? Or they sensed us another way?”
“Can we rout them?”
Nsiia demanded. Her eyes were flashing, but Vasraf shook his head.
“It’s too close. Moreover…look. Oisk Stingers. Sixteen.”
Nsiia’s mouth became a thin line. Ksmvr spotted more of the huge scorpions. These ones looked like they had armored bodies, some kind of magical adaptation. Worse—some had two sting-tails, and their claws were dangerous weapons too.
“How dangerous are they?”
He kept staring at the little hyena babies the [Druid] was trying to save. Vasraf turned. He pointed.
“Our Grand Elephants are the might and fear of enemy armies. In battle, it is wise to assume an Oisk Stinger is a match for one of our Grand Elephants. Perhaps not as fearsome in laying waste to infantry—but they’re deadly and strong. Even Domehead couldn’t kill one with a single blow. Perhaps with your sword—”
He eyed Ksmvr. Then he turned to Nsiia.
“We move, Empress. That’s my decision. We can lose them.”
She nodded tightly. Ksmvr had no idea how Vasraf would do that; the armies were so close some of the [Archers] were exchanging ultra-long-range fire via Skills.
“[Battlefield: Dust Storm].”
Vasraf grimly pointed. At his words, the wind began to pick up. The jeering intensified, and Ksmvr felt the first sting of sand on his carapace. Tiqr’s army headed into the sandstorm without a word and Scaied followed, but warily, fearful of an ambush.
The hyena cubs lived. All three, and Rémi Canada was there to record when one finally opened its eyes and looked around for its mother. But at least it did live, and there were other hyenas and experts in animal rearing in the army.
That was the one good piece of news. The bad news was that Scaied was following them.
The dust storm raged for two days, surprising even Vasraf. His Skill was a wild card, as befit his class; he could only summon one, and climate often dictated the rest. Nevertheless, when they finally broke out of it, Scaied was close behind.
“They can’t have scouted us through that. They’re following us. Illivere too!”
The army of Magus-Crafter Femithian had been spotted, doggedly following at their slower pace. Now, a crisis had enveloped Tiqr’s army. Ksmvr had begun to suspect as early as Crafter Se; it was confirmed now.
“We have a spy. Or someone is giving away our position. Inadvertently or deliberately.”
Vasraf spoke calmly, but his gaze rotated to include Ksmvr, Rémi Canada, the Loquea Dree clan, Tiqr’s newly-joined citizens, and even his own warriors. Nsiia, inspecting the scratches on Domehead’s armor, frowned.
“Exclude Ksmvr from your suspicions, Vasraf. If he had not rescued me, I would not be here.”
“One can be deceived. It may be a spell or some other method. I am sure that, somehow, news is reaching one of our enemies.”
Vasraf looked pointedly at Ksmvr’s wrapped sword. The Antinium lifted it.
“I believed that this wrap would confuse its magical aura, General Vasraf. However, if I am at fault…”
The [Wild General] nodded.
“I will conduct an inspection. My [Mages] would have noticed if your sword was visible, but I may ask you to show us the bindings. Thank you, Adventurer Ksmvr.”
He rose. Nsiia murmured.
“And while he does that—I will talk to you.”
Ksmvr turned his head. Nsiia stood, and faced Domehead. The Golem sat there, only the paint on his armor damaged from his encounter with the Oisk Stinger. But Nsiia pointed at him.
“Domehead, I am not your master as Golems have them. You are different and I hold no command spells, nor do I know how, unlike Crafter Se or Femithain. Yet you are my…”
She hesitated, looking at Ksmvr.
“…Creation. My offspring, perhaps, as much as Femithain’s. I try to teach you. I will try to protect you. However, you are new to this world and yet you are more capable than most [Soldiers] under my command. Still. You are a target.”
She frowned, folding her arms. Ksmvr saw Yinah peeking at the mostly-blind hyena cubs. He kept a close eye on them; he would not pet them because they were too fragile. He had offered his personal healing potion, but the [Druid] said they needed good food and rest to build their strength.
Nsiia glanced at the cubs, and then at Domehead, who had Gold-rank grade armor and a battleaxe enchanted by Femithain himself. And yet…she gave both the same look.
“If you were Human, Garuda, Stitch-Folk, or any other child, I could order you to fight with other [Soldiers], if I had to. Shoulder-to-shoulder, to learn with others protecting you. Well, you cannot. And your great strength may be needed…”
She hesitated, looking towards the distance where Scaied was marching towards them, even now, as Tiqr rested. Domehead’s lights winked on and off.
How frustrating. Did he understand? He did not communicate, as even Goblins and Antinium did. He just…sat there. Nsiia bent down.
“I will place you with the [Archers] and [Mages]. It is not a valorous place, but you must stay there. Do not chase the enemy, like you did with the Oisk Stingers. If they had surrounded you—the enemy would focus on you and bring you down. Do you understand? Stay to the rear. If I can rest assured our rear lines are safe, it will do good in the battle and allow Vasraf to commit forces forwards.”
A single light in one of the biggest crystals turned on and off. Nsiia gave Domehead a helpless look.
“Do you understand? Will you do this?”
Ksmvr had been listening. Now he leaned over.
“Nsiia. I have seen Domehead’s strength. He may do more good in the vanguard, like a Grand Elephant. He does not bleed. He does not die as easily—even Stitch-Folk might envy him. If he could beat an Oisk Stinger—and I think he could—is that not a better use of his abilities?”
Domehead swiveled to face him. Nsiia scowled.
“You will be silent, Ksmvr.”
“Empress. I have to agree.”
Vasraf had returned. He stood at the edge of the conversation, but came forwards slowly. He nodded at Domehead.
“I understand…Domehead is different from any Golem. But if Scaied’s army forces us to battle, I cannot ask our remaining Grand Elephants to die fighting them. And our regular warriors will be torn apart by the sixteen Oisk Stingers. If even one could fall…Seelaw Ya has promised to send Loquea Dree to combat them, but Oisk Stingers hide in the ground; his clan is a poor match. Hyena teeth will do nothing.”
Nsiia spun, glaring at Vasraf.
“I will not have Domehead die twice, Vasraf! The first time was my fault and as Ksmvr and Femithain have told me…”
Her face screwed up.
“…It is a debt I must pay. I will not send him to be destroyed.”
“That is the responsibility of any warrior, to know when to fall back.”
“He does not know anything! Nor am I sure Domehead understands even this!”
Vasraf and Nsiia began arguing as Domehead turned from one to the other. Ksmvr saw a hand twitch. The Antinium sat forwards as the crystals began flashing. Almost like…alarm? Anxiety?
Ksmvr moved over to sit in front of Domehead. Behind him, Yinah had crept into the basket with the hyena cubs. She picked one up like a cat and towed it out. Rémi went to stop her and got a slash across one hand for his troubles. He cursed, swinging the camera towards Ksmvr and keeping an eye on Yinah.
The Antinium sat in front of Domehead. As still, as seemingly emotionless as the Golem. He looked up at Domehead. It was up to him to speak, because Nsiia did not understand.
Ksmvr did. Domehead and he were alike in some ways, in their understanding of the world. Yet Domehead was Ksmvr when he had just left the Hive. How would Ksmvr have felt, with the Horns?
…Wary at first, perhaps. Suspicious. Lost. Yet what if…what if Nsiia was like Ceria, Pisces, and Yvlon later? Especially like Yvlon. Ksmvr thought of how Nsiia sang to him, and taught him. Yes…in that case, Ksmvr thought he would do whatever it took. So what to tell Domehead?
Perhaps—a precious lesson he’d had to be told many times. Ksmvr leaned forwards.
“Domehead. You are not wrong to understand that you can make a difference in battle. There is always a time and place to act. Nsiia may put you in the rear, but you may have to go forwards to save her. To do what must be done.”
Nsiia whirled around, furious. Domehead’s crystal lights began to brighten, and Ksmvr went on. He looked carefully at Domehead, and thought of Femithain.
“However. You should have a care for your existence as well, Domehead. You must preserve your life and body. Not because you matter.”
Ksmvr tapped his chest, ignoring the angry ruler. Then he tapped Domehead’s huge metal plate, where his Golem Heart lay.
“Not because you matter. But if you should be destroyed, you will sadden at least two people. At least.”
He looked at Nsiia, then back to Domehead.
“That is two too many.”
Nsiia was striding over, eyes flashing, as Yinah tugged the crying hyena cub over, one of the two who hadn’t opened its eyes yet. But then Domehead moved. The Golem had been sitting there, no face to be read, just that round dome that looked everywhere and nowhere. It had not moved when Nsiia spoke. It had not moved when Ksmvr spoke, or Vasraf voiced its opinion, only shifted its frame ever so slightly, twitched a hand.
Now, Domehead moved. He did not speak. The lights played in different colors in the crystals in his head-dome as the Golem raised a slow finger on his left hand. He reached out—and tapped Ksmvr on the chest.
Exactly like Ksmvr had done. The Antinium was surprised. Nsiia halted in her tracks. Ksmvr saw the finger retract, and Domehead sat still. Ksmvr looked at Domehead. Then he smiled.
“I have three. That is more than you, Domehead. I know this lesson. I must not die. But you understand. You must not let them die. Or you would have no worth or purpose. It is a tricky thing, to do both. If the time comes…you will know what to do.”
He smiled happily. Right before Nsiia seized him and dragged him up. She was angry. Ksmvr braced himself for her wrath, but he did not understand why she looked so…distraught. Nor how his words had affected those who heard him.
“That is a terrible thing to teach, Ksmvr.”
“No it is not. Domehead understands.”
Nsiia shook Ksmvr, at a loss for words. Vasraf was looking at Ksmvr, holding his tongue, but the [Wild General] kept glancing at his [Empress]. He did not fully disagree and Ksmvr saw that.
And yet, in this moment, as it came on again, and Nsiia began to shout, it was the man behind the camera who couldn’t help it. Rémi Canada spoke.
Nsiia stopped and let go of Ksmvr. The Antinium [Skirmisher] turned. Rémi Canada rose. He glanced at Yinah, but the cat was not attacking the little hyena baby. Rather, she had curled around the small red thing and was purring.
Even a heartless, murderous household cat understood something Ksmvr only had half a grasp on. Rémi spoke.
“I know we haven’t known each other long, Ksmvr. And I’ve played the role of observer. But I feel as though I have to say something. When I’ve watched you—when we’ve watched you—you talk about yourself with such…low self-esteem. As if you don’t matter. As if your team were g—”
“Were great and glorious and perfect, and you were not. Not deserving of accolades for freeing Nsiia, or saving innocent people from being slaughtered. Even the way you speak about staying alive for them, not for yourself.”
Ksmvr tilted his head, confused. He saw Rémi fix his strange violet gaze on him and go on.
“…You are not heartless. That’s why I came out here. To prove that. To prove Antinium were not monsters. I know a [Journalist] has to weigh their conflicts of interest, but I felt it was a story I had to tell. I wasn’t wrong. But do you not understand, Ksmvr? It comes out in your stories, but you don’t seem to realize it’s more than that you would make your team sad by dying. They appreciate you. You are their friend, teammate…I would go as far as to say they love you. Do you not see that?”
Ksmvr stood there. Rémi Canada waited, but Ksmvr did not immediately speak. When he did—his voice had the slightest warble.
“I believe you are speaking of interpersonal matters. I think this is an invasion of my privacy, Rémi Canada. But to your point…I suspect I am…regarded fondly by my team.”
Nsiia exhaled in a rush of sudden, sympathetic exasperation. Ksmvr held up one of his hands. He looked at Rémi.
“I suspect. How can anyone know? They have not said so, but I hope it is true.”
“Said so? Explicitly? Would they have to, Ksmvr?”
Rémi Canada’s eyebrows were in danger of floating into space. Ksmvr looked at him.
“It is the only way to know for sure. I…I have a new Skill. [Sense Affection]. Perhaps when I meet them again, I will know definitively.”
Ksmvr shuffled his feet. He looked at the sky.
“I would like that. But I do not take it for granted. They are the only people who have ever cared for me, when I had nothing to offer them. When I, myself, was inferior.”
“Why do you say that, Ksmvr?”
“Because I know it to be true, Nsiia. I was informed of this fact.”
“By who? Tell me, and I will add them to the list of people who I intend to stab.”
The Empress of Beasts snapped, eyes flashing. Ksmvr calmly returned the look.
“I was told by Klbkchhezeim of the Free Antinium. Revelantor of my people, when he cast me out. He was not wrong. I made a mess of the Hive and nearly jeopardized its place in my city, and—nearly killed someone important. Many Antinium who mattered could have lived if I had not failed.”
“That was one failure, surely. One Antinium tells that you are a failure, or worthless, and you believe them?”
Nsiia ran her hands through her hair. Ksmvr nodded.
“Yes. Do not look so surprised, Nsiia. Who better to know than a Centenium of my people? He would not lie to me. He told me I was worthless, and cast me out. I am grateful, because I knew I was worthless. If you do not know your worth, how can you judge how to improve yourself? When the Horns of Hammerad formed and Ceria Springwalker, Pisces, and Yvlon Byres took me in, I was appropriately grateful because they did not have to. I owe them everything. I had nothing. I have them, now. I must not lose their affection.”
He turned back to Domehead. Ah. It was like another piece of the puzzle being placed. Almost like a sound, or a feeling. Rémi Canada broke in, taking over for Nsiia. Like a tag-team, speaking to Ksmvr from both sides.
“Do you think you will lose their affection, Ksmvr? Is that something that happens among the Antinium? Do you think your team would simply stop loving you someday? I have to tell you—that is not how it happens. Not if they care for you.”
Ksmvr turned to face Rémi. He looked at the young man and his mandibles rose and opened in what people now understood to be how an Antinium smiled. Yet the mandibles drooped slowly at the end. Nuance to the smile. Perhaps even other Antinium would have to look at it for context. Since it was so rare that they did smile. Until now.
What did the Free Antinium, the Antinium of the Flying Hive, all those who saw this now and later, think? The one representative of their species stood, in the recording, in the present, smiling, a bit melancholy.
“I have always thought it humorous, Rémi Canada, how you people speak about love and affection. By which, I mean, non-Antinium. It seems a common thread across continents and nations. Perhaps there are other species who understand.”
He glanced at Nsiia and Vasraf. Leka Thri had come to listen, but he did not intrude. Ksmvr told his audience, calmly.
“You speak as if parenthood is a truth. That those who produce offspring must, should love their creations. Even Domehead. But he knows the truth of all other Golems. Just as Antinium. It is not a given.”
Domehead looked at Ksmvr. The Antinium nodded politely to him. Nsiia began to object, but was uncertain. Yinah licked the baby hyena’s closed eyes. The infant tried to nuzzle the far smaller cat. She gave Ksmvr much the same look as his audience. Only Rémi kept his face neutral. He listened. This was what he wanted. Ksmvr had to explain.
“Do [Golem Artificers] love every Golem they make, even flawed ones? No. I do not believe so. Some do have affection for their creations, like Femithian, but he will destroy a failure. That is fair because it is economical and expedient. Antinium are much like that. I was not born of any mother or father. I was created in a vessel designed to bring me to life, that has no feeling or true mind. Should I expect it to love me?”
Vasraf couldn’t even understand what Ksmvr was saying. The Antinium turned back to Rémi, speaking matter-of-factly.
“Perhaps you would think that my Queen is then my parental figure, as she oversees such things. Would you expect her to bear affection for me, personally? Or all Antinium? My Queen has a Hive of Antinium. So many thousands of Workers and Soldiers—should she love them all? They die, sometimes by the hundreds, each day. We will inevitably perish in a fraction of her lifespan. I am over three quarters of the lifespan of a Worker. I am a Prognugator—or was—so I may live longer, but adventurers live short lives.”
“And how old is that, Ksmvr?”
The Antinium beamed at Rémi Canada.
“This year, I am three years old.”
The child looked around at the shocked faces. No—he was a fully grown Antinium. Older than average, really. Even Yinah was older than he was. Vasraf had dropped the water flask he was holding, and the precious liquid dribbled into the sand, but the [Wild General] didn’t even notice.
“You’re only three?”
“I am proudly three. For an Antinium, Nsiia, I would only have one year left to live, on average. So I have calculated myself as being sixty six years old, thereby allowing me to drink at establishments. I understand Humans assign age like ‘dog years’. Therefore, I do the same.”
The Antinium puffed out his chest. Then turned back to Rémi and shook his head.
“That is inconsequential to my point, Rémi Canada.”
The young man gazed at Ksmvr behind his camera, with as much emotion as the others, but urgency. Show them this.
“I don’t think it is, Ksmvr. I’m…sorry to hear Antinium have such short lives. But you have to know that we Humans, and many other species, do love unconditionally. I think if your team were here, they would say they care for you no matter what you do. I will try to be there when you meet them, so I can ask them just that.”
Ksmvr chuckled, a light fluttering sound, and looked surprised that he had made it. He shook his head at Rémi.
“Your point is made like a Human. And it is a good one, Rémi. I would be happy if it were so. But I think it is silly, nevertheless. Shortsighted. Wrong. I think it is so foolish that you have what I have. All of you.”
He turned around, fingers pointing to the people around him. Ksmvr gave them a deep stare.
“Even a fraction of what I have—and you take it so lightly. You say I should be loved without any deeds? You think it is yours by right, and does not need to be earned? That it will never disappear? You are the fools.”
He looked at them all.
“You take it so lightly. You think you have some value, that your life has meaning just because you existed. It was random chance. That is your value. You must work to keep it. You could have easily never been. If you achieve nothing, you are not worth something even so. You are worth less than what you began with.”
“Why do you believe that, Ksmvr?”
The Antinium turned. And he was in a kind of…trance. Delirium? No, just as if someone had cracked a stone and water was leaking out, from where it had been contained for a long time.
“When I was made, Rémi, I was a Prognugator. Not a Worker. Not a Soldier. When I was made…ten thousand Antinium were created. Not as you see me. Not like this. But ten thousand. Then, nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine Antinium died. I could have been one of those who were subsumed at any stage of their creation. I was not. I was the best of them. I took a bit of their insight. A bit of their strength. Their space, their right to live…that most of all.”
He touched his fingers to his chest.
“I know I am unique. I know what I had, and I thought, once, it made me superior. Special. I was taught by the Free Queen to be the best of my kind. I learned from studying one of the Antinium’s heroes. And we have so few. Only ever a hundred. But I am a pale copy of the Antinium I was created in imitation of. My worth is as an adventurer, in my team.”
“How does that work? Ten thousand Antinium die to make a Prognugator? Is that how Klbkch the Slayer was made? Is he the one you were supposed to replace?”
Rémi’s voice was urgent. Ksmvr hesitated. He knew he should not be speaking, but he continued.
“No. He was not one of ten thousand. He was one in a million. No. He was one of a million.”
Ksmvr touched his chest and looked at his fingers, opening and closing them.
“I am one in ten thousand. Perhaps more. Perhaps only that. I was chance. I know this to be true, though—Klbkchhezeim is that million. He was made in a way none before or since have ever been created.”
The Antinium’s head rose. He looked around at his silent audience. After a second, he closed his mandibles.
“I have said too much already. I only tell you this so you understand. When I say I am worthless, that I was cast out of my Hive despite all that was poured into me, I do not lie. When I say my team is owed everything, I do not lie. I will do all I can for them, and that includes living. But I am not them. Now, I am going to walk away because I do not know how to end this conversation.”
He turned away. He was walking towards Spitty when Nsiia called out after him.
“Ksmvr! Did you not see them cheer you? When you saved them? Will you not acknowledge you have something?”
The [Skirmisher] spun. He drew his sword in a flash, and a beautiful glow, like the sunrise, illuminated Tiqr’s camps. Warriors looked up as Ksmvr raised the blade high overhead. He looked at Nsiia.
“Did they cheer me, or the blade? I am just Ksmvr.”
He lowered the sword, painstakingly re-wrapped it with the cloth, and went over to offer Spitty a Yellat. Nsiia stood there, with Vasraf, Leka Thri, and the others.
“Vasraf. I will free Tiqr. I will hold each one of our enemies to account. I will free my people, wherever they have been taken.”
The [Wild General] saw the [Empress of Beasts] turn her head. But her gaze never left Ksmvr.
“I will also have that child see he is loved and happy. Mark me, Vasraf.”
The man smiled, looking at the same person.
“Your desire is my wish, Your Majesty.”
The Empire of Scaied had not sent its full might against Tiqr. It had been paid. It was a nation that had an ethos that revolved around gold. Cost-effectiveness. Rather like the Antinium, they would take no war to the bitter end, fighting to the last.
“If it becomes unprofitable, they will stop fighting us. They have a metric. Mercenaries.”
Leka Thri agreed.
Ksmvr looked around the war table. Nsiia scowled at him, but not for long. Everyone was treating him differently now that they knew how old he was. Ceria had told Ksmvr it would be bad if it got out, but he did not realize how bad.
Warriors came over to ask about his age, clap him on the shoulder, offer to teach him things. They tried to give him treats. Yinah even gave him a desert mouse she’d caught, rather than feed it to the baby hyena she’d adopted.
“We are being tracked somehow. I cannot tell how—only that it is done. Two armies are approaching us. Scaied is the faster, but they are coordinating with Illivere. Hemming us in. If we must battle both…but we cannot escape. The scouts are sensing movement ahead of us. We must smash one army first, and force the Empire of Scaied to see this as too costly.”
Vasraf looked around the war council. Nsiia hesitated.
“I would take many battles, Vasraf. But are you suggesting we battle Scaied and Illivere?”
“No. Only Scaied. We can triumph over this army. But we must do so before Illivere reaches us. Destroy them, and then continue to evade Illivere.”
It was the only plan Vasraf had. He suspected more armies or soldiers might be lying in ambush ahead, now that they could tell where Tiqr’s army was. And if they were trapped and both armies hit them—they were dead.
If only they could tell where or who was giving away their position! Yet Vasraf had covertly investigated Loquea Dree, checked that Rémi was not giving away anything—the [Journalist] had even given his [Message] scroll over voluntarily—watched Ksmvr, even checked for tracking spells and artifacts on everyone else. The citizens of Tiqr didn’t seem to hide double-agents…what were they missing?
Domehead sat there, without a word, completely there and completely silent. Listening as the others conferred. Vasraf looked weary.
“We cannot risk moving ahead, Empress. I feel like that Nerrhavian commander…I can almost taste the ambush lying ahead of us. If you have another vision, I will hear it.”
“No. Vasraf, your insight has saved us many times. I am no [General]. To arms, then.”
Nsiia rose. She looked at Domehead.
“You will protect Yinah and the rear. Ksmvr—”
“I will consider fighting, Empress Nsiia. Scaied is not Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Ergo, I will battle them, especially as I was attacked.”
Ksmvr saw the Empress hesitate.
“You are a child.”
“Only by your standards. Loquea Dree will not fly in force unless I do battle. Is that not so?”
He turned to Seelaw Ya. The First of Judgement regarded Ksmvr.
“Then—I will entrust you to kill the Oisk Stingers. You may well be able to wipe out all sixteen if your blade carves them up as well as it did Nerrhavia’s Fallen. I will make sure you are protected.”
Ksmvr nodded and gathered up his blade. Domehead watched him go. The Golem could not speak. Nor…no. He was sure. He had realized something. He knew where the tracking signal was coming from.
But he did not speak. Or communicate. It was not even that he was unwilling to nod or use sign language. It was just…foreign. Incomprehensible. He did not quite understand how to ‘say’ something. Because there was just a huge gap in his head. It was slowly, slowly filling. But Femithain hadn’t even left him blueprints for speech. Even the Magus-Crafter had never thought to write a language center.
Frustrating. Frustrating. Domehead rose from his seat. He saw the danger. But he did not understand how to articulate it. There was so much he did not know how to even encompass. All he knew was what he had been taught. So he did just that.
The Empire of Scaied saw Tiqr’s army coming and halted. They sent runners to Illivere; they could not see Tiqr’s army, only Vasraf, but they knew Nsiia was there.
Illivere was still out of sight, but the Magus-Crafter received Scaied’s correspondence. He stared at it.
“Magus-Crafter? Is Tiqr fighting? The ambush is a day away.”
Crafter Se jostled with Armsmaster Dellic for his attention. The Magus-Crafter spoke, succinctly. He turned to the horizon, but both forces were out of sight.
“Tiqr has advanced on Scaied. They are faster; Scaied is requesting us to flank them at full-speed. We will do so. Order the [Golem Artificers] to push the Golems to the limit. Leave the supply train here; we will even leave the slower Golems to catch up if need be.”
Crafter Se strode off to arm herself. Armsmaster Dellic peered at Femithain. He checked the coordinates they were following.
“—None that stopped me before. And now is too late for any. Prepare yourself, Armsmaster Dellic.”
Femithain passed a hand over his face. He saw Illivere’s army move into double-time. Slowly, the Magus-Crafter followed the signal he had planted long ago. Ah, Nsiia. He had half-hoped…she would find it. Too late.
Scaied’s army and the sixteen huge monster-scorpions arrayed themselves in a long line, jeering. Looking a tad bit nervous. They were, after all, [Mercenaries], and while they had a lot of historical enmity with Tiqr, the attitudes of both sides were completely different.
Tiqr was not in this for the money. And word had reached Scaied that the Empress of Beasts was on the rampage. She and Vasraf were bad enough, but that Antinium, the one with the magic blade? He made them nervous.
Still, Nerrhavia’s Fallen was a rich employer and, more importantly, Illivere was on the way. They just had to hold.
But that sword. Ksmvr held it up, as Vasraf bellowed from his perch on the Grand Elephant’s back.
“We have Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad, who bears a relic from days of legend! If you do not wish to see your precious scorpions taken to pieces and your dead piled high, lay down your arms and surrender!”
The enemy army jeered, but the bright light from that blade made the jeers grow faint and uncertain. Yet then, Ksmvr saw a movement amid their ranks.
Humans and Stitch-Folk, the people of Scaied, parted. A cheer ran through their number, and Ksmvr saw a lone figure walk forwards and plant himself across the field from him. Nsiia cursed.
“Who is that?”
A Stitch-Man planted his feet, a huge smile on his features. He raised his arm, and Scaied’s soldiers cheered. He bellowed back at Vasraf.
“A blade fit for a great warrior! But it is more than a blade that makes the battle! I will claim the head of Ksmvr the Antinium! Nerrhavia’s Fallen has hired me!”
He threw back his shoulders and drew two objects from their sheathes. Daggers. Ksmvr was instantly reminded of Seborn. But these were longer, a mix between both dagger and shortsword. Wavy, with curved edges like they had warped. Those left cuts you couldn’t close easily.
More importantly? The man had no armor. None. He had clothing, which looked enchanted from afar, but not a trace of even leather. Ksmvr eyed him, lowering the sword. Now, the army was cheering his name. Vasraf recognized it, and his eyes flicked to Ksmvr.
“Hscel! Hscel Scarless!”
“Who is that? It’s a familiar name, but I don’t recall one of Scaied’s champions bearing that title. Is he a [Prince]? A famed [Mercenary Captain]?”
Nsiia was trying to recall. It was Seelaw Ya who answered.
“He is not a mercenary or soldier. That is Hscel Scarless. A Gold-rank adventurer.”
Ksmvr’s head snapped up. Hscel saluted him with a blade.
“Adventurers should not fight in wars! But since we’re here—I am Hscel, Gold-rank. Shall we duel, rookie?”
He grinned. Nsiia looked at Vasraf.
“What position would he be?”
“Average. But he’s a team of one.”
Nsiia turned. The [Skirmisher] checked his sword. The glow of the [Paladin]’s blade illuminated his chitin. The sun was setting; Vasraf had even calculated when they attacked to account for Ksmvr’s heat-weakness.
“I believe I can defeat him, Nsiia.”
She nodded tightly. Vasraf lifted his bow as the horns began to blare. Loquea Dree took to the air, screaming. Ksmvr watched the first ranks of both sides charge. The Grand Elephants trumpeted and the Oisk Stingers advanced, with no sound at all.
Hscel Scarless didn’t move. He just waited. Only when Ksmvr stepped forward did he copy the Antinium. The [Skirmisher] saw the man eying the longsword. His balance was…very good. Ksmvr saw the two kris blades were held one forward, one back. He suspected they were poisoned and enchanted.
Around them, soldiers fought, but the two opened a path towards each other. It was not the dramatic parting of [Soldiers] in respect for the ceremony. Rather—they opened it themselves.
A soldier ran at Ksmvr, slashing, and he swung his sword through their blade. The warrior tried to dodge and Ksmvr leapt onto them. He was too fast to evade. He ran towards a rank of Scaied warriors, and swept his blade forwards.
Tiqr’s forces backed away, then charged into the breach. A huge shape tunneled out of the ground suddenly. An Oisk Stinger! It had been lying in wait. It stung—
Air. Ksmvr was already jumping. He was an Antinium. He had sensed the vibrations and landed on its head. The impact was heavy, but the arachnid was huge, tough, and its stinger was already drawing back as its claw snapped.
Ksmvr cut one claw off. The Oisk Stinger kept waving its appendage; it hadn’t even felt the pain. Confused, it snapped with the other pincer and lost that too. Then Ksmvr ran the blade through its head and swept it sideways.
A huge cheer went up from Tiqr’s forces as a sixteenth of Scaied’s monstrous war creatures fell in the first minute of battle. The other Oisk Stingers were whisked far clear of him. Ksmvr whirled—and heard applause.
“That is a sword worthy of a death-zone. You wield it well. But you are still awkward.”
Hscel Scarless appeared out of the battle without any blood on his blades. He had walked through both sides, dodging everything. Vasraf had aimed an arrow at him once; the Gold-rank adventurer cut it in half mid-flight. The [Wild General] didn’t bother after that.
“Hscel Scarless. You are a fellow adventurer. We do not fight. I was attacked while accompanying Empress Nsiia of Tiqr. This need not come to battle.”
Ksmvr straightened, his Forceshield in one hand. He put his third hand on his belt for his crossbow. Hscel smiled.
“You need not support Tiqr. Ksmvr of the Horns, is it? I have heard them call you Ksmvr of Chandrar. This is not personal. I do not fight for Scaied. Or against Tiqr. It’s just…a lot of gold.”
Ksmvr watched him, pacing left. He saw someone turn, slash. One of Tiqr’s warriors, hoping to help Ksmvr. Hscel didn’t even look around. He leaned over, and stabbed the warrior through her neck before her blade reached him.
That was…fast. Very fast. Ksmvr didn’t know if Pisces could have…Hscel shook his head.
“I’m not here to kill warriors. Back off! I tell you, Ksmvr, I will trade you your life for that sword.”
“That does not sound like a fair offer to me.”
Hscel grinned faintly.
“I know. But I thought I’d try. I’ll kill you for the bounty and that sword, adventurers or not. But I would like you to believe I’d only attack you because of the bounty.”
Ksmvr considered his words. The man sounded reasonable. Friendly, even.
“…How much is the bounty?”
“Two hundred thousand.”
“Ah. I would consider it too.”
Hscel laughed. Then looked at Ksmvr.
“I know you’ve made Gold-rank. But it was this year, wasn’t it? I’m fully Gold, Ksmvr of Chandrar. I won’t warn you again.”
Ksmvr hesitated. He opened his mandibles.
Hscel’s head turned slightly. Ksmvr brought his crossbow up and fired.
[Aggregate Volley]! It seemed like eight of Ksmvr’s arms all unleashed their crossbows at once, a spread of bolts—all in an instant. Then he was leaping forwards, longsword slashing, Forceshield raised.
He’d placed each bolt in a pattern, so that they spread out. They shot into Scaied’s forces, going through warriors who fell screaming or missed and hit the ground.
Not one hit Hscel. Ksmvr leapt forwards.
[Quick Movement], [Quick Slash]—
He was a [Skirmisher]. Ksmvr was so fast that Pisces had to use [Flash Step] just to keep up with his mobility. He closed towards the other Gold-ranked adventurer in a moment. The world was a blur around Ksmvr as the sword flashed and—missed.
Hscel spun out of the way. Ksmvr was in a world of speed, where everyone else slowed down to a crawl. He turned his head and saw Hscel moving in the same dimension. And he was—
[Twin Strikes]. Two long daggers like lances shot at Ksmvr’s sword-arm. Ksmvr threw himself left. [Evasive Flip]!
One cut right through the top of his shoulder; the other missed. Ksmvr flipped, angling his shield, slashing. He saw a bl—
A flurry of stabs hit him in the stomach. Half glanced off his Forceshield. Ksmvr detonated the Tripvine Bag he’d taken out of his belt with his third hand and heard a curse. He landed, grabbed a potion, and pressed it to his stomach, but Hscel didn’t advance.
He’d backed off. A single vine had tangled around his arm and the adventurer carefully cut it loose. The rest lay draped around Ksmvr, or on the ground; the Antinium swept them away.
“Three arms. Tricky. That was a foul trick.”
Hscel glared at Ksmvr. The Antinium didn’t respond. Slowly, the wounds on his stomach began to close. Hscel did a double-take, and stared at his blades.
“How? They’re poisoned.”
The wounds weren’t closing fast. Ksmvr played for time.
“I apologize for the trick, Hscel Scarless. You are…quick.”
“I am a Gold-rank adventurer.”
Hscel paced left, watching Ksmvr’s third hand. The Antinium was hesitating. He’d missed. Eight crossbow shots and a Skill-enhanced sword. He had…he couldn’t actually remember meeting anyone this fast besides Hawk. And he had never sparred with Hawk. This was his first experience meeting someone faster than he was in battle.
“You say that as if you are not actually quick.”
Hscel gave Ksmvr a mirthless look. He didn’t miss Ksmvr closing his wounds, but he seemed…wary. He kept eying the sword Ksmvr held.
He was waiting for Ksmvr to use another effect. Pity that Ksmvr had no idea what other enchantments the blade held.
“I once had the honor of challenging the Lord of the Skies to a duel. Do you know his name in the Hives? The King of Destruction’s vassal?”
This would be the point where Ceria would curse and say something pithy, like, ‘he has a nickname, we’re in trouble’. Ksmvr shifted his posture. He had to equalize the speed disadvantage. Remember—Hscel could not block Ksmvr’s sword. He had not beaten the Forceshield. Therefore—
“Was it a fair duel?”
“I lasted a minute. I brag about it to my companions. Well?”
Hscel saw Ksmvr kick the ground. A shower of dirt sprayed at the Gold-rank adventurer. Ksmvr drew a spare dagger, wishing he had the Flamecoat Dagger. He leapt forwards, sweeping the longsword up in a diagonal slash. If Hscel jumped—
A miffed Stitch-Man appeared through the dust. He kicked Ksmvr in the chest and slashed, cutting Ksmvr deep along one arm. He leaned under the slash, tried to sever Ksmvr’s hand, but backed off as the dagger slashed. Even so, he flicked his arm and cut Ksmvr across another wrist. He circled, staring at Ksmvr.
“You do not fight honorably at all.”
Ksmvr felt green blood running down his body from his wounds. Uh oh. Uh oh. He reached for another potion, speaking rapidly.
“People with acid for blood do not fight fair.”
Hscel blinked down at his blades.
The battle was going well and going south. Tiqr was pushing Scaied hard. However, without Ksmvr, the Oisk Stingers were conducting deadly hit-and-runs. They were suffering for it, but the battle was already dragging on.
And Illivere was coming as fast as they could. Ksmvr was fighting Hscel, and only the Gold-rank adventurer’s wariness and Ksmvr’s lies had kept the Antinium from losing more than two potions.
However, Illivere could change it all. Nsiia even heard the Scaied officers shouting.
“How much longer?”
“They’re closer than we thought! Less than an hour—”
Nsiia ran through the [Tactician] who hadn’t spotted the break in their lines. She screamed at one of her warriors.
“Tell Vasraf we have one hour! One hour!”
She spun, looking for Ksmvr. Some battles were over fast, but those tended to be ones where it was an ambush that turned into a rout. Unfortunately, without grand magic or that kind of momentum like a cavalry charge, this was turning into a long battle.
One that could go many hours. If they beat Scaied before the end of the hour and withdrew, they could hold Illivere off. But they had to be winning much faster than this. They needed Ksmvr. Loquea Dree was circling, attacking weak flanks, but they had to keep out of range of the enemy [Archers] and there were only sixty of them.
“Pull back! Pull back the line!”
Nsiia saw the warriors disengaging around her. A second wave hit the enemy. She backed up, panting, as her bodyguards surrounded her.
“Your Majesty, to the rear!”
“I can fight. Where’s Vasraf? Tell him to send me into another spot!”
Warriors moved back, some carrying the wounded to [Healers], others on their own momentum. Nsiia thought it had been nearly thirty minutes since they’d started fighting. Even with stamina potions…
Vasraf was standing in the rear, directing the army’s clashes and loosing arrows. He turned as Nsiia strode back, gulping water.
“Where’s Ksmvr? Has he won or…?”
The [Wild General] pointed. Nsiia turned and saw Ksmvr. He was staggering backwards from Hscel Scarless. True to the man’s name, he hadn’t taken a single wound. Ksmvr on the other hand…Nsiia saw green blood splashing the ground.
She began to run towards him, but Vasraf bellowed.
Hscel looked up as the archers loosed. He stared at a wall of arrows, cursed, and flicked his wrist. A bracelet glowed and a bubble enveloped him for a single second. Long enough that the arrows bounced off the temporary shield. He whirled to attack Ksmvr, but found The Laughing Brigade. Snarling hyenas and warriors advanced, as the laughter picked up. Hscel backed up, scowling, unwilling to join the clash.
“Get him back here.”
Vasraf ordered his forces. Nsiia ran from their back lines to meet Ksmvr. He was already healing as they helped drag him back.
“…so that. So that’s…”
She almost thought he was saying ‘substandard’ at first. Ksmvr looked up as she seized his arm.
The Antinium sagged. He reached for a stamina potion as a [Healer] and Vasraf himself hurried forwards.
“So that’s Gold-rank. He is—difficult.”
“He beat you? Even with the sword?”
Nsiia could hardly believe it. But then—she had seen how fast Hscel moved. Ksmvr shook his head.
“I would rather fight Eldertuin the Fortress, please. Someone chose him well.”
Nsiia had to agree. The Empress looked towards Hscel. He had done something in Scaied’s ranks. They were chanting Ksmvr’s name.
“Could you avoid him?”
“I suspect he’ll seek out Ksmvr no matter where he goes. Do you need arms? Can we help you win?”
The [Wild General] crouched beside Ksmvr. The Antinium shook his head slightly.
“Tricks are too slow. He dodged dirt.”
“Vasraf, we need Ksmvr’s sword. Could he lend it to me? I would fight the Oisk Stingers.”
“Could you defeat Hscel, Your Majesty? If he goes after you, with that blade?”
“—I don’t know. I don’t think he will find me easy prey.”
“And I will not risk it. He may well assail this camp if you take the blade and leave Ksmvr defenseless. Ksmvr, if you cannot win, stand back. We will take Scaied’s army without your sword.”
“Vasraf, we have one hour at most.”
The [Wild General] nodded. He stood and strode back to the front. Ksmvr was panting.
“I—do not think victory is impossible. He is fast. He is fast. But he is not a master. He has weak spots. I am just substandard.”
“Don’t say that.”
Nsiia gripped his arm. Ksmvr looked at her.
“I know I am. If I was better, I would be a [Hero]. I am not. I have a plan. I need gear. Wands.”
He was stumbling to his feet. Nsiia saw a [Mage] rush forwards. Hscel Scarless waited. Ksmvr got up.
“You don’t need to be a [Hero]. I will fight with you, Ksmvr. But not being one—remember what I said.”
Ksmvr turned blankly to Nsiia. He half-shook his head.
“You do not understand, Empress Nsiia. I was almost…no. Maybe not. But it was not a Skill. What kind of class was it?”
He ran without another word. Nsiia’s brow furrowed. What did…that mean?
Hscel and Ksmvr met a second time. The Gold-rank adventurer seemed surprised Ksmvr had returned.
“You know I’m faster. You’re worse than I am, relic or not.”
Ksmvr lifted a wand. Hscel twisted left.
“I can defeat you.”
He knew he could. Hscel was quick, but that was all he was. He was almost like Halrac. He had weaknesses. Ksmvr thought Jelaqua could beat him.
He never got close. He refused to, because if he did he was at risk, like the one time Ksmvr had detonated the Tripvine bag. No armor.
Captain Ceria could beat him. Freeze him. He would not be able to bypass her [Ice Walls] so easily.
But could he sweep her head from her shoulders before she cast a spell? Ksmvr bled. He slashed. The hand was gone before he could strike it.
Comrade Pisces could lock him down with undead. With magic and his rapier.
Yet—would Pisces also step into the whirl of blades and take a poisoned wound? Yvlon? Her arms—
He was so fast. All or nothing. Each one of Ksmvr’s teammates—
Another sting. Ksmvr let Hscel drive the blade deep. He leapt into the kris dagger, biting, slashing with all three limbs. He just needed one wound. The man jerked—he was not perfect.
But the mistake never came. He dodged back, letting go of the blade’s hilt. Ksmvr staggered as Hscel drew a spare.
Ksmvr thought he heard it again. He was bleeding badly. Stumbling. He drew Hscel in. One more time. One more time. He thought he heard himself levelling, despite the sword. Because he was outmatched.
Substandard. A blade swept in across his neck and opened it. Ksmvr bit and slashed without looking. A cry. Ksmvr clutched at his throat. Blood in his airway. Hscel stared at his cut arm.
“I shall remember this scar.”
That was all he said. Ksmvr said nothing. He was gurgling, reaching for a potion. Hscel Scarless leapt at him, blades closing towards Ksmvr’s neck. His eyes locked on the Antinium, staggering, the glowing sword wavering. Ksmvr tried to move it but it was so…
Heavy. Heavy? Something…
Hscel never took his eyes away from Ksmvr’s face. Antinium features. Broken antennae. Adventurer still. He saw Ksmvr’s chitin, the huge, beige snout. The giant lolling tongue and yellow teeth.
Spitty spat right into Hscel’s face. The Gold-rank adventurer almost dodged it. He stumbled back. Ksmvr heard a sound.
Then Rémi Canada was grabbing him, towing him back with Sandi.
“Get back here!”
Hscel howled, but camel spit was in his eyes, and for some reason it burned. Probably because of the hot peppers Spitty ate. Ksmvr was alive. And yet—and yet—he saw Nsiia running towards him. Saw Vasraf turning a grim face to the distance as Scaied’s army cheered, hearing Femithain’s forces were imminent.
“What is it? Why do I keep failing? It’s so heavy.”
The [Paladin]’s sword. Nsiia stared at it. Ksmvr whispered.
“What is it?”
“You’re delirious. Potions! [Healers]! You will not fight Hscel again. Vasraf, we have to fall back. Where’s…”
The Empress of Beasts turned her head. Her lips moved, but Ksmvr was still whispering.
“Almost. Almost. What is it? [Her—]. What does it mean?”
[Hero]? But he wasn’t one. Nsiia bent down.
“—What was that?”
“My class. I can’t level up. I failed. [Brave Skirmisher].”
“What do you hear? Say it again.”
Ksmvr didn’t know. Only that it started with an ‘her’. But…Nsiia was looking down at him. It was all because he was substandard, didn’t you see?
“It’s too heavy. Too heavy.”
The Antinium complained. He stared at the sword. Nsiia reached for it. She lifted the blade, with Ksmvr’s hand.
She looked down at the Antinium, mystified. What was he talking about? Swords were not heavy, contrary to what non-warriors believed. They were light. Even this longsword was perfectly balanced, a beautiful weapon designed for slashing and quick movements.
“Not heavy then. What’s the word? It’s…cumbersome. It’s…”
Forceshield in one hand. Dagger, longsword, crossbows. These were the tools of an adventurer. He also had his belt, with his potions of healing and his bag of holding. All of which were necessary. Important gear.
But even a bag of holding weighed several pounds. Hscel had almost nothing. Ksmvr had on armor. He had…
Something was flickering in the back of his head. Nsiia looked at him. With a monarch’s knowledge. And a sudden—burning suspicion.
“That’s not a class, Ksmvr. That’s…how long have you been hearing it?”
“Since Level 30. I am wearing too much gear.”
“No. I don’t think so. You’re just not—”
Ksmvr dropped his Forceshield, began taking off his belt, his cape. Nsiia stepped back as he shed his modified chainmail armor.
“Ksmvr. What are you doing?”
“It’s heavy. It’s all so heavy. Captain Ceria told me to wear it. But capes make me slow in the air. The Forceshield is mine, but it isn’t necessary. Just evade or parry. These weapons are wrong.”
He was muttering, searching around on his hands and knees. Still dizzy from bloodloss. Ksmvr was going back in time. This…this wasn’t right. What had possessed him? An adventurer fought with all kinds of gear, though. But he hadn’t trained with any of the weapons here.
“What’s happening? Empress, I am preparing the retreat.”
“Ksmvr. I think he has a rare event occurring, Vasraf. But how—it doesn’t make sense with the Antinium. No wonder he doesn’t understand. Ksmvr, we have to leave.”
Ksmvr stared upwards.
“…There. That’s it. I need that to fight him. Everything else is too slow. Even this stupid sword.”
He tossed the blade to the ground. Nsiia and Rémi turned their heads. Spitty cocked his head and frowned. What was Ksmvr staring at? A weapon better than the [Paladin]’s sword? Where? Where was—
General Vasraf of Tiqr stared at Ksmvr’s finger. Then…at the weapons hanging by his side, which he had never drawn in the heat of battle, in all the time he’d spent with Nsiia and Ksmvr. After all, he was a bow-expert. A [General]. These were weapons for dire fighting.
A pair of twin shortswords made out of ivory. Enchanted, well-crafted, but hardly the stuff of legends.
“Yes. I know them. Everything else is hard.”
Nsiia’s brows snapped together. Did he mean that every other weapon he had ever used…? No, but it made sense. If he had been trained to use every weapon, there was still one that he would use above all others.
One style he had learned from…her eyes flickered and opened wide. She began to understand.
Slowly, Vasraf drew his blades and offered them to Ksmvr.
“Hscel Scarless is advancing. General, I hear cheering. Illivere’s army will reach us.”
The Antinium was rising. He looked down at Hscel and the Gold-rank adventurer frowned as he saw Ksmvr had abandoned the sword. Ksmvr wasn’t even holding a weapon in his third hand.
“Ksmvr. It’s madness. We’re falling back. The Relic-class sword!”
Nsiia shouted at him. Ksmvr barely heard her.
“You take it. I hear something.”
The voice kept repeating in his head.
He had a feeling. Nsiia looked at him and her eyes flickered.
She bent and lifted the sword. It shone and Scaied’s warriors hesitated as the Empress of Beasts pointed it down at them. She stared at the Oisk Stingers and shouted.
“Tiqr’s children! To me! Rout them! Drive Scaied to despair!”
Vasraf looked at her as she swung herself onto the nearest mount. Spitty led her down in a mad charge. The [Wild General] turned.
“Illivere’s army will be upon us in moments, General—”
One of the [Strategists] was scanning the horizon. Vasraf nodded tightly, looking for hints of an invisible or camouflaged army. Then he looked down at Ksmvr. The Antinium was sprinting down the hill and Hscel had cleared a space around him. And behind him came the Empress of Beasts, holding the glowing sword in her hand, straight at one of the Oisk Stingers.
“We can grasp victory.”
If…his gaze swept across the ground again. If they had time. Vasraf looked around. Then around again. Then his eyes narrowed. At last, he realized something. An oddity he’d missed because it was gone, but it—he—should have stood out one time in this desperate battle.
“…Where is Domehead?”
Domehead was standing very still. He knew he had done something that violated his laws. Nsiia had told him to stay with the [Archer] and [Mage] designations. He had not done so.
But he had done one thing she had told him, once. And Domehead never forgot. He cradled something in his arms. You see—he could not speak. He didn’t even know how he’d begin expressing himself.
Yet Domehead was a Golem. And a Golem had realized what the people had not. He knew exactly how Illivere was tracking them. Their army was almost upon the battleground. Femithain had pushed them hard, and they crested a ridge and saw…
Armsmaster Dellic had been prepared to call a charge. Golems with huge bows, swords, and more weapons, all stopped. Steel-type giants, rough stone, even the rare Ceramic-type Golems armed with spellbooks.
They saw no desperate Scaied army waiting for their fresh one. No Tiqr force. Just a lot of flat ground.
“We should be right on top of them! How are we not there? How—?”
And then he saw him. Illivere’s army stopped as they saw a lone figure standing there. Crafter Se screamed.
The Golem stood still. Femithain’s head rose from behind his two Golem bodyguards.
One Golem. They were in the wrong place! No…Femithain narrowed his eyes and saw a little figure move. A tiny, blonde cat yowled, and leapt out of Domehead’s arms. Yinah dropped something and went after the little, rolling gemstone.
The gemstone Domehead had removed from her artificial legs. She batted it around, saw the giant army standing there, and meowed.
“It’s a feint. We’re—we’re off-target. We might be miles away from the fighting.”
Armsmaster Dellic realized what Nsiia had done. He spun, calling for scouts, but Crafter Se lifted an excited hand.
“No, wait! Domehead’s right here! We can get him and attack Nsiia! Magus-Crafter! Domehead, to me!”
She began to fumble for a command scroll, but Femithain didn’t respond. Domehead was just standing there. Regarding Illivere’s army. Then—
Yinah was backed up, hissing, ready to attack. She glanced up as the huge Golem stepped forwards. The house cat saw him draw an axe many times her body mass and decided to leave it to him. She skittered backwards, then turned.
Domehead had drawn his axe. Without a visible command from anyone.
“She must have given him orders to fight. Domehead! Erase—commands. There!”
Crafter Se activated a scroll. Domehead’s dome lit up brightly in response. Crafter Se beamed. Then she waved at him.
“Domehead, to me! Forwards march and halt!”
The woman ignored him. Domehead heard her voice. He turned his body slightly. And didn’t move. The [Golem Artificer]’s voice trailed off.
“Magus-Crafter…we are close to Tiqr’s army. Local scrying spells indicate we can reach them in the next thirty minutes.”
“Turn the army and prepare to attack. Long-range spells. Inform Scaied to hold.”
Dellic was giving rapid orders, ignoring Domehead. It was just a Golem to him, and he did not relish the idea of Tiqr free to attack them if they wanted their prize back. The man was pivoting the forces when the Golem moved.
He moved from a standing position, axe in hand, to break-neck run with the speed and perfect motion Femithain had given him. The sight of an armored giant surging at them was enough to freeze all but the Golems. The army swung back as Domehead moved—to block their path.
Femithain’s eyes opened wide. Domehead stood there, an angry cat yowling in the distance.
“Domehead, what are you doing? Obey orders!”
Crafter Se was bewildered. And how could Domehead answer? The lights in his dome winked on and off, on and off. Not even other Golems could tell what they meant. All he knew was routine. All he knew was…what he had been taught. What he saw.
So, the axe rose. Domehead’s legs shifted. Armsmaster Dellic, Femithain, and Crafter Se saw him adjust his stance. Stance wide, legs braced. A hand rose as he held the axe one-handed—and he had never been taught to do that.
The armored digits rose on the other hand, palm out. Like a striking [Empress] of another land, Domehead stood. No, he strode, steps light, shoulders thrown back. He planted the axe in the ground and drew a line. He pointed down to it, walking back.
A perfect copy in all but voice. Just like the Empress of Beasts had once stood against Garuda [Raiders]. Domehead stood, axe raised.
Waiting. If they are honorable warriors…prepare for treachery…
Where you make the most difference. The [Golem Artificers] were staring, like they had just seen a painting come to life before their eyes. Or—since that wasn’t actually that rare—as if their tea cup had suddenly risen in rebellion.
Crafter Se whispered. She saw something move. A Steel Golem, weapons raised.
“What are you doing?”
“We have to restrain it. It is taking a hostile stance. Don’t worry! If we just subdue it—”
Domehead watched the Steel Golem advance on his position. The other Golem had a sword and shield and swung the blade as it lifted the shield, in a perfect Block and Attack, Routine #2. Domehead leaned back and brought the axe down as the sword missed.
Two more Golems strode forwards to win the battering match that happened when Golems fought. They were not prepared for the first Golem to fall backwards, missing the center of its body.
Domehead stood there, axe already raised. He made the gesture again. Drew a line in the sand. He did not know how to speak. But this time he was clear.
“We can hit him with spells. We have arrows trained…”
Armsmaster Dellic’s voice trailed off as every [Golem Artificer] in earshot looked at him. Crafter Se’s mouth was open in horror.
“At Domehead? He’s a work of art! I will [Lightning Bolt] anyone who damages him irrevocably! We must capture him—”
“With what? Nets? Other Golems?”
Armsmaster Dellic was beginning to understand. There was…Domehead. The greatest Golem of the Testing Grounds. The first Sentience-class Golem. If you weren’t going to destroy him—who wanted to volunteer to run up with a net?
“Magus-Crafter? What are your orders? Magus-Crafter?”
Femithain didn’t respond. He just looked at Domehead, standing there. He smiled, as the Golem looked right at him. He had often been proud of his creations. But only because he had made them. So it was still a form of vanity. Now?
The Magus-Crafter smiled as a single Golem held Illivere’s army at bay. Slowly, he dismounted from his horse and walked forwards, despite Armsmaster Dellic’s warning. To have a word with his prodigal son.
Ksmvr felt light. He shed the cape behind him in a flutter of cloth. And his Forceshield. Captain Ceria had told him he deserved to keep it. The magic sword was in Nsiia’s grip.
Ksmvr knew all these artifacts were good and necessary. But oh, they were awkward. For that matter—Hscel watched him coming, eying the two blades Ksmvr held.
“In imitation of me? You think that—”
He was braced for a trick. But Ksmvr didn’t need a trick. Two swords were all the trick you needed. This…yes. This was right.
His first cut with the shortsword established the distance between them. Ksmvr had more reach than Hscel. The Gold-rank adventurer’s eyes narrowed.
Ksmvr was moving faster. Of course, with no chainmail or other gear. It meant he was as exposed as Hscel. And—
He was still slower. Ksmvr deflected a quick slash and both of them knew it. Rather than dismay him, it only convinced Ksmvr he was right.
He was slower. But he had two shortswords, the same weapons he had trained with under the Free Queen’s guidance. Not a longsword and a shield. Against Hscel, with two blades of his own, both could attack and defend.
Two blades. Three arms. Did you know something?
Three arms were a pain to use properly. Four? They got in the way of your range of motion. Fighting was completely different with four arms than two. And two—
He had been trained to use two shortswords and two daggers. But that was a derivative fighting style, invented by the wielder himself to accompany a new body. In all of her teachings, Ksmvr had not learned from that style. That swordsman. He had glimpsed the Free Queen’s memories of that one person he was a substandard, flawed, failed, inferior replica of.
Klbkchhezeim the Slayer.
Hscel muttered as he ducked a blade. Ksmvr was manipulating both blades perfectly, independent of each other. But not ignorant of each other.
He leapt, and Hscel pivoted to punish him in the air. He lanced outward, strike, strike—and met Ksmvr’s shortswords. Ksmvr swept in low.
My body doesn’t move right. Strange. It should be flexible.
Dissonance. He felt it. Was this what Klbkch felt in his Worker body? It couldn’t even bend properly. Four arms?
Someone else’s body. Galuc the Builder. Like this? Yes. Like—
He remembered Nsiia’s conversation with Loquea Dree’s clan. Attack and defense. Fighting schools. Very silly. All they were doing was playing in reality. But once you gained a Skill, you were fighting across dimensions. Fighting with blades that cut through armor, or stepping out of shadows. Seborn could even begin to do that.
Hscel was focusing on Ksmvr, cutting him with short moves. He was still a step ahead of Ksmvr. But he was making a mistake. He was watching Ksmvr’s body, his blades, but he didn’t see what Ksmvr was creating.
The shortswords rasped together, a flash under the rising moon. Hscel narrowed his eyes, moved back from a cut warily. He saw a blade flicker up—feint—leaned back. Blinking, he saw Ksmvr’s right hand waver, almost like a mirage.
Nsiia was shouting at Ksmvr as she charged past him. She was screaming as loudly as she could, swinging that shining blade. He heard her, dimly. He was almost doing it. Almost…what was she saying?
“Believe, Ksmvr! Reach for it!”
How did she know what was pounding in the back of his head? A feeling—Ksmvr wanted to snap at her. What did she think he was doing? Hscel blinked again. He was falling into feints. The swords were confusing him—was the Antinium angling them to catch the fading light? The pale ivory was almost like a mirror. But it would work even better if they were…
“Claim it, Ksmvr! It is yours! Believe you are worthy of it! Take it! You’r—”
Nsiia slashed through one of the Oisk Stingers. Ksmvr hesitated.
Worthy? Ah. There it was. A core of uncertainty. How dare he try to copy it? Substandard. Failure. Hscel was moving his blades in an arc, mouthing a Skill, no longer confident. He was going to use a deadly attack. Ksmvr saw it. A moment of death.
Yes. In his mind’s eye, he saw a true expert move. Unconsciously, he copied it. A flash of light. A confusing…mirage. Hscel squinted. How was the Antinium doing that with those swords? He took aim—
“[Kiss of the Viper]!”
His greatest Skill. He cut the air, a venomous blade slashing. Straight at the Antinium’s face. Straight at—
The air. Hscel stumbled. How? He was faster than Ksmvr! The Antinium had been right there! How did he do that? It was like Ksmvr had tricked his eyes. Like a desert mirage. Or an—
Illusion. A figment of the blades. They moved so hypnotically. A flash of metal. They belonged somewhere else.
To an Antinium in the darkness, bearing silver swords. A warrior who fought alone. One of the few of his kind to ever pick up a weapon. A story long forgotten. Just a name, they called him later.
Klbkch the Slayer. Hscel stared at his opponent. An Antinium with two shining silver blades under moonlight. He slashed, lunging as fast as he could and missed. Someone slashed him across the leg and he cried out. Who was he fighting?
Ksmvr heard a voice. An answer to his question. But only because he already knew what he was being told, somewhere.
̶I̶ ̶a̶m̶ ̶s̶u̶b̶s̶t̶a̶n̶d̶a̶r̶d̶.̶
I am Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad. Though I was exiled, I have a good memory. I remember—
Hscel slashed wildly. He couldn’t tell where Ksmvr was. He felt like he was fighting dozens of illusions, with no idea where the twin blades were coming from.
It was an echo. Rémi Canada’s camera caught what stirred old memories. In the Blighted Kingdom. In the Demons. In the Drakes who saw it, who remembered those old days. Even then, it had been a pale memory of the original.
You have never seen the original. Even this was a copy. But it was true. It was everything Ksmvr had ever been made for. And Nsiia knew it. So she shouted for him to claim it. His…
[Heritage: Silver Illusion – Conditions Met.]
[Skill School – Silver Illusion (Sword School) acquired!]
A blade pierced though Ksmvr’s face. Hscel felt nothing. The image vanished and he saw the silver blades flash.
One cut through his hand. A second slashed at his ribs and he screamed, trying to bl—
A second shortsword slashed through his elbow. The Gold-rank adventurer’s blades dropped along with his severed limbs.
He stared up as Klbkch the Slayer…no. His heir crossed his swords, shaking the droplets of blood off them under moonlight.
Hscel closed his eyes as he sank to his knees. He waited, defeated by that common story. Counter-levelling.
Heritage Skills. Nsiia was screaming in triumph. Ksmvr swept his blades down—
The final blow never came. Hscel looked up.
“What are you doing?”
Klbkch vanished. Ksmvr calmly picked up Hscel’s severed hand and arm and prised the fingers off the kris blades. He tossed the limbs back at Hscel—and they were already cloth.
“You are a Stitch-Man. I believe limb loss is not an issue, although blood loss is.”
“You’re not going to kill me?”
Ksmvr turned. Scaied’s army was fleeing, as they realized Illivere was not coming. An [Empress] with a sword, fit for a legend, led her army in pursuit. Ksmvr smiled.
“That looks quite appropriate. I told her I was not fit for the blade. No, Hscel Scarless. I am an adventurer. As are you. I do not kill fellow adventurers or innocent people.”
“…Unless they attack me first or really get on my nerves. But I will be content to rob you of your blades. I have learned something.”
Hscel stared as Ksmvr turned. He shouted after Ksmvr.
“What if I come after you again? That trick saved your life! But you still have a lot to learn.”
“I know. I will be content not to kill you.”
The Gold-rank Stitch-Man stared after Ksmvr as he ran back towards Vasraf’s army. He laughed, and turned his head to see a giant Golem with a glowing domed head sprinting across the sands, pursued by Illivere’s army. A yowling cat was clinging to his head-dome.
Domehead had learned the art of duplicity. And running away. Hscel laughed.
“You belong with us, rookie! Ksmvr of Chandrar! Gold-rank adventurer! I won’t forget this!”
That was what they would call him. Ksmvr of Chandrar. And also—heir apparent to one of the last Centenium. Klbkch the Slayer.
Ksmvr of Two Trees. He and Nsiia rode into the next adventure, armed with a realization—his new Skill fit for his level.
Klbkchhezeim’s mandibles were so far open they were in danger of detaching from his face. Wrymvr waved the scrying orb.
“See? He has your sword art. See? Mockery intensifies.”
“That—that is my sword style.”
Klbkch’s mandibles clacked together.
“But that is—my sword style! He cannot inherit it! That is mine!”
“He has inherited it. Well done. Well done.”
“My sword style! I owned that Skill! He can’t just—”
Klbkch stared at the image of the Antinium’s greatest thief, walking off into Chandrar’s night. With his Skills. Wrymvr waved the scrying orb around until Klbkch burst free of his restraints and kicked it into the ceiling.
Author’s Note: Hugqough. Will you laugh at me if I told you I thought it would be…almost exactly 7,000 words shorter?
Ahem. At least this is in two parts. This is Ksmvr’s arc, which I had originally planned to be one edited chapter. But while it could have used some patching up, the truth is this was an adventure, and the edited chapter, which I hope to release soon, is a bit more complex on some levels.
…Well, both shoot for the moon. I hope you enjoyed this chapter. The clues were there, but I never saw anyone figure out what [Her—] stood for. Well, it’s hard to see the entire puzzle when all you get is one of those squiggly pieces that’s not even an edge-piece.
Hope you enjoyed! I am going to rest, and relax…and write even more! But depending on what happens, I may release just the edited chapter if I can do it all before Tuesday. Fingers crossed, but if I do—it’s even longer than this one. Thanks for reading!
The Eternal Throne of Calanfer by Enuryn!