“—And it looks like the rain has truly broken the spirit of the Face-Eater Moths. What a dramatic end! A simple climate change spell has reversed the entire battle and indeed, saved the city of Liscor, a stunningly intelligent move by that young mage, wouldn’t you say, Noass?”
“Indeed, Sir Relz. Although I would point out that it was destined to rain sooner or later given Liscor’s unique climate. However, actively encouraging the climate change was a smart move. I can see our fantastic [Soldiers] from Pallass finishing the last of the moths off now. No doubt this will be a hotly debated topic in the days to follow.”
“Without a doubt! This dungeon is unlike any I’ve seen before and it’s—I’m told that it’s being considered a Gold-rank dungeon, and that will play a major role into the politics of the Drake cities and perhaps the Human ones. Adventurers will be coming to claim the dungeon’s riches, but the strategic danger of the dungeon cannot be underestimated. I wonder if Liscor is prepared to handle the influx of both monsters and adventurers into the city?”
“They’ve certainly incorporated a few adventuring teams well. The Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt, and the Horns of Hammerad—all names to watch! Now, let’s go back to the battle. I wonder if we can find someone to talk to? Ah, it’s the [Innkeeper]. Hello Miss, are you—”
Erin gave the two Drakes a bright smile and then slammed the door in their faces. The two chattering commentators went silent. The crowd from Pallass burst out into complaints. They tried to open the door again but it only revealed a brick wall. The magical connection had been severed, at least for the moment, and with it, the [Mage] in Pallass apparently decided his work was done too. The image of the Drake city disappeared and the connection broke.
Across the world, people looked up from their scrying orbs, scrying hand mirrors, enchanted magical pools of water and in one case, a shield enchanted with [Farseeing] and [Clairvoyance]. Some pondered what had occurred while others laughed and went about their lives, thinking of Liscor’s battles as a pleasant diversion, a distraction.
Magnolia Reinhart did not think of it that way. She was immediately in conference with Ressa and a few [Ladies] and [Lords] whom she trusted. Lord Tyrion did not speculate, but rather adjusted his plans slightly. The Walled Cities began arguing with each other and Pallass found itself defending its decisions as all five other Walled Cities blasted the Pallassian army’s lack of support for Liscor.
So it was in Izril. However, in other places, other continents, the reactions of those who had seen Liscor’s struggle was different. The King of Destruction put down the marble-sized scrying orb at last and stretched. Then he began pacing around excitedly.
“What a battle! Tremendous! Those are the kinds of monsters that live in Izril, are they? And they emerged from a dungeon? I had heard of legendary dungeons filled with monsters, but to think they could grow to such size! What treasures must they be guarding? What ancient nation constructed such a dungeon I wonder, and to what end? Gazi, you never spoke of the scope of Liscor’s dungeon!”
He turned, his eyes shining with excitement to stare at the woman sitting across from him. Gazi looked up. Two of her four smaller eyes focused on Flos, her king, while the other two moved around restlessly in their sockets. She opened her mouth and smiled at him with sharp teeth.
“I did not know the extent of the dungeon, my King. To my knowledge, Liscor’s dungeon was only a two-level crypt filled with undead. The true extent of the dungeon evaded my sight. Although I did note the Antinium Hive had dug extensively underneath the city. Their activity may well have concealed the dungeon from my gaze.”
“I see. Perhaps they were aware of the dungeon before now. Ah, but what a city! The Antinium, the fabled scourge of Rhir and Izril, living in peace with Drakes and Gnolls? I saw those—what did you call them? Soldiers? They were painted for battle.”
“Yes. That is new.”
Flos grinned. His face was not as alien as Gazi’s. Where the half-Gazer’s skin was orange-brown and her face was loosely based on a Human’s, Flos was entirely Human. Gazi had no nose, four smaller eyes and one large central eye and ‘hair’ tied back into a braided ponytail. Flos had red-gold hair, a strong nose and features worthy of a statue. He was a [King].
Not just any king. The King of Destruction, a ruler who had once ruled over almost all of Chandrar and been poised to invade the other continents of the world. Flos’ name had been known by every nation under the sun until he had suddenly and unexpectedly given up his dreams of world domination.
He had entered into what many called his ‘slumber’ and his kingdom had fallen to pieces. Most of his vassals had left him and his lands had been reclaimed by his enemies and other nations. He had slumbered for over a decade until two Humans from Earth had appeared in his throne room.
And then the King of Destruction had woken up. He had called his vassals back to him, reclaimed his throne and found the spark of ambition to once again rule. He had called his most trusted followers to him, his Seven, a group of legends that had helped him conquer years ago.
Only three had responded. Of the seven, three were dead. Queravia and Tottenval had been slain before Flos had entered his slumber. Another, Drevish, had been killed by the Emperor of Sands. His head had been sent to Flos and the King of Destruction had vowed to slay the Emperor of Sands himself. And one more, Amerys, had not responded though she was known to live in Wistram, the home of [Mages]. Four of the Seven were absent. But three had come.
Takhatres, Lord of the Skies. The bird-man who led his tribe of Garuda against the Emperor of Sands at this very moment. The fastest being on Chandrar and perhaps, the world.
Mars, the Illusionist. A mighty [Vanguard] and a champion of Flos’ armies. Practically undefeatable in battle, Mars took the appearance of a beautiful woman with magical artifacts while concealing her true nature.
And finally, Gazi Pathseeker, known as Gazi the Omniscient. A Named Adventurer and [Scout] feared for her ability to spot any threat, deception, or spell from miles away. She had returned from Liscor blinded, her central eye damaged by an encounter with a certain [Innkeeper]. She sat before Flos now in front of the campfire.
It was night. In fact, it was so late into the night that it was closer to dawn than not. Liscor was far removed from Chandrar and thus evening in Liscor was deep night for Flos. His excitement had forbade sleeping however, and as the [King] walked around his fire more people sat up.
“My King, it’s late. Wouldn’t it be better to rest now? We have a long day in front of us and it will be dawn in a few hours. Why not lie down until then? My bed is open.”
A sultry voice spoke from the side. Flos glanced over and looked at a beautiful woman lying on the ground. She was half-naked underneath the stars and her skin was dusky and flawless. She looked like some vision of the sands, unreal under the moonlight and the surrounding arid desert. To look at her was to be entranced and one young man sitting around the fire gulped and looked away. Flos just stared blankly. Gazi rolled two of her eyes and tossed a bit of sand.
The image of the beautiful woman flickered just a hair as the sand struck her in the face. For a fraction of a second a shorter, less enthralling woman could be seen wiping sand from her face. Then the illusion returned. Mars glared at Gazi. The half-Gazer only smirked.
“Bad illusion. You need a new artifact.”
Mars the Illusionist narrowed her eyes. She drew the simple blanket more firmly around her body.
“Maybe I’ll get one tomorrow. What about you, Gazi? Going to get a new eye?”
There was an intake of breath from the two other people sitting around the fire. Gazi just grinned, not affected by the jest. She pointed to her closed central eye.
“Perhaps one made of gold. It would do me no worse than my current eye. And look better. Would you like to see what my eye looks like now? It has yet to recover.”
Mars shuddered and looked away. She gestured alluringly to Flos. He was still staring at the scrying orb, as if hoping it would show Liscor once more.
“Well, my King?”
“What? I suppose you’re right, Mars. Why not, let us sleep for a moment. The bazaar awaits after all. Although I shall hardly sleep a wink after such excitement.”
He sighed but made to lie down. Mars scooted her bedroll closer and Gazi sat up as if to do the same. Flos ignored both and lay down on the ground. He closed his eyes and began snoring within minutes.
Mars and Gazi stared at him. They turned around and looked at the other two companions around their fire. Trey and Teres, the two twins from Earth looked at them. They hurriedly turned.
“Time to go to sleep.”
They rolled into their bedrolls which provided them sanctuary from the cold night air. Mars and Gazi eyed each other and then went to sleep as well. This was Chandrar and this was the King of Destruction’s camp. He was far from his Kingdom of Reim at the moment, having travelled for three days at speed. He was headed to the Jerios Bazaar. Trey still wasn’t sure why.
Morning came too quick and too early. Trey woke up as someone kicked him in the ribs.
He shot out of bed. The kick hadn’t been hard, but the second one would be worse. The young man from England rolled out of bed and looked around blearily. It was still dark! But the smiling half-Gazer didn’t seem to care. Gazi nodded to the campfire where a pot was already simmering. Trey could smell the mild aroma of Yellats cooking with grain. It was a slightly spicy, filling soup and his stomach rumbled at the thought of breakfast.
But breakfast came after pain. Trey got up, grabbing the staff at his side and looked at Gazi.
She grinned at him. Trey groaned in mild resignation. This was always how his day started. At the break of dawn Gazi woke him up. He raised his staff as she led him to a spot just away from the fire.
“[Flash]! [Sand Arrow]!”
The staff that Trey held was expensive and the orb held in place at the top flashed with blinding light as an arrow of sand shot across the desert. It flew past a group of three training with swords. Flos, Mars, and Teres looked up as Gazi nodded.
“More arrows. Hit that rock, there.”
She pointed to a hand-sized rock twenty paces away. Trey squinted to see it and aimed.
More arrows flew and hit the ground right around the rock. It was a good shot; Gazi looked mildly disappointed. She thumped Trey with the flat of her huge greatsword.
Sweating already, Trey did. He kept shooting arrows of sand until Gazi made him switch to casting [Flash] and the other few spells he knew. Trey was a [Mage]. His sister Teres was a [Warrior] aspiring to become a [Blademaster]. Or perhaps aspiring wasn’t the right word.
They were the personal servants to Flos. Or companions. Vassals? It was hard to tell. Trey and Teres followed the King of Destruction around. They were hardly as useful as the rest of his servants like Orthenon, his [Steward], or the other vassals like the stern Venith or his wife, Maresar. But they had knowledge from another world and Flos claimed it was they who had given him the inspiration to wake from his slumber.
So for that reason they were indispensable. And Flos’ vassals had taken it upon themselves to train Trey and Teres to be worthy of accompanying the King of Destruction. There were few [Mages] in the Kingdom of Reim, Flos’ nation, so Gazi was training Trey in the use of magic.
He hated and enjoyed it. Trey wiped sweat from his face in the brief moment Gazi allowed him to rest. He hated Gazi’s strict requirements regarding his aim, the flow of mana in his body, and the speed at which he cast spells. Too slow or off-target and she’d hit him with her blade. But he loved magic.
“Good. You hit the target six times out of eight.”
Gazi didn’t have to turn her head to count Trey’s strikes on the tiny rock they’d been using as a target. Her four smaller eyes could all move independently and they were powerful enough to see through walls and indeed, her head. Trey wondered what her large eye was capable of. He also wondered who would have dared to blind Gazi. She was fearsome, unreadable, and very deadly.
She was also his only friend. If they could call themselves that. Gazi hung around Trey more often than anyone else. She was a loner, but she had formed a bond with Trey after he had objected to a practice the King of Destruction and his nation allowed: keeping slaves. He hadn’t realized it, but the entire continent of Chandrar kept slaves or sold prisoners of war and criminals to the Slave Traders of Roshal in exchange for coin.
Chandrar was the biggest exporter of slaves in the world and Flos had sold off the first army he had crushed to feed his impoverished kingdom. Trey understood the reasoning but he couldn’t accept it. He had argued—futilely—against Flos’ decision and the ensuing fight had driven a rift between both him and Flos and Trey and his sister.
There was still a gap, months later. Trey stared at Teres as she trained with Flos and Mars. The other two warriors took it easy on her despite Teresa’s skill with her sword—she had improved in leaps and bounds and was already a Level 18 [Warrior], soon to become a [Swordswoman] according to Orthenon, her teacher. Trey didn’t know how he felt about his sister becoming a warrior.
He didn’t know how he felt about being a [Mage] to be honest. It still felt like he could pinch himself and wake up from the dream he was in. The King of Destruction? Magic? Levels? He was in a dream—
Smack. Trey staggered as Gazi hit him with the flat of her blade.
“Enough rest. Give me five casts of [Sand Veil] in quick succession. Change directions each time.”
Okay, maybe he wasn’t dreaming. Trey rubbed the back of his neck and did as she instructed. Training with Gazi was hard. Speaking to Gazi was hard sometimes. But she was a friend. She understood how he felt about slavery. She had been a slave, once.
Flos roared the words at last and Trey sagged in relief. He trudged back to the campfire, already wrung-out by casting so many spells so early. He’d feel better after an hour and some rest; his internal reservoirs of mana would refill. It was important to keep pushing himself, though. According to Gazi, most [Mages] were lazy and didn’t use all the power their bodies were capable of. She intended to make Trey a [Mage] beyond all others. He feared she might succeed.
“What have we here? Yellats? Grain? Ah, what a familiar meal. It feels as if we’ve had it for the last four days in a row!”
The King of Destruction laughed in good humor as he peered into the cooking pot. He was a huge man, muscle without fat, and he always seemed to be bursting with energy. He was also, apparently, over forty years old. He looked more in the prime of his life than Trey did. Flos took a seat on the arid ground and looked around.
“Has the rest of the camp had breakfast, Gazi?”
“They are eating now, my lord. We’ll be on our way within half an hour. We should reach the bazaar just after morning.”
“Good! I haven’t been to Jerios’ Bazaar in over two decades! I hope everything has changed.”
Flos rubbed his hands together. Trey, sitting exhausted next to his twin sister, looked up.
The [King] looked up, pleased to be asked a question. He had striven to bridge the gap caused over the winter and Trey’s willingness to ask him questions was a first step in mending their strained relationship. Trey hesitated.
“Are you—is it truly alright for you to leave your kingdom for so long, your Majesty? Especially right now? You don’t have much of an escort—”
Trey broke off, aware that he was in earshot of the other people sitting at campfires further away. They did not intrude on the King’s personal campfire, but they still sat close enough to defend their ruler at a heartbeat’s notice.
Their escort was a mixture of [Warriors] and [Mages], all of them elite. The band of String People warrior-mercenaries known as the Serpent Hunters and the small coven of [Mages] known as Parasol Stroll had joined Flos’ kingdom during the winter. Both groups of his former vassals were incredibly dangerous and they had been selected to follow Flos wherever he went.
Flos only smiled as he saw Trey looking at the robed men and women holding parasols over their heads and the silent men and women with stitch-marks around their arms and legs wearing dark green armor.
“My escort is more than enough to handle any [Brigands] or monsters by themselves, Trey. We could handle a small army with Mars and Gazi! Never fear that I’m undefended. Besides, we are travelling to Jerios and the Bazaar does not tolerate armies marching upon it. As for your second question—this is an important trip firstly, and secondly, my kingdom is well-attended in my absence.”
“But you just fought a war. Two wars—”
Trey had been there. He had ridden with Flos as the King of Destruction had fought off the first armies that had come seeking his destruction. After his grand defeat of the coalition army besieging his capital city at Reim, the King of Destruction had led his army north against two of the kingdoms that had caused him harm.
The Kingdom of Germina ruled by the Quarass and the Kingdom of Hellios. Both nations had sent an army to trap Flos by slaughtering his people as they fled towards the city and very nearly succeeded. In return, Flos had marched his armies into their kingdoms and destroyed both. The memory made Trey shiver and Flos saw it. The King of Destruction smiled gently, not quite looking at Trey.
“Orthenon is more suited to the job of managing the kingdom, Trey. He is quelling unrest in both nations and ensuring law and order. A [Steward] can do such things, oft times better than a [King] can. Besides which, my face would only spark more hatred in both nations at the moment.”
That was certainly true. Trey remembered the sight of Flos’ armies besieging the capital of Hellios and fighting Germina’s armies on the field. It had been a slaughter. With the defeat of the coalition army, no other nation had been willing to come to the aid of either kingdom. And in a one-on-one battle against the King of Destruction, no small nation had a chance.
It had been so quick. Before the winter had begun to set in, Flos’ armies had marched north at speed. He had taken Orthenon, Mars, and Gazi, leaving Maresar and Venith to guard the kingdom in his absence. The conquest had taken less than two weeks. Hellios had surrendered unconditionally as the King of Destruction’s armies had marched across their borders and crushed their army. The Kingdom of Germina had not.
Blood. It ran hot on the dry ground, quenching it. There was smoke in the air, though there was precious little to burn. The kingdom of Germina built its city out of mud brick and stone. Now Flos’ army flooded through the streets, forcing frightened civilians back, pursuing the stragglers of the Quarass’ army.
Trey rode ahead, following Flos as the King of Destruction charged his mount towards the squat palace that was home to Germina’s ruler, the Quarass. It was an ancient building, grand because it was so old. It had been decorated with reliefs showing previous rulers over thousands of years. Flos rode into the building, his armor bloodied. Gazi followed, a swift shadow by her king’s side.
“Trey, come on!”
Teres’ eyes were blazing. She had fought in the last battle, though she had mainly been protected as she rode with the King’s vanguard. Trey had stayed with the [Mages] and thus not had to fight. He felt sick. The battle had been a one-sided slaughter. The King of Destruction had rode through the lightly-armored ranks of Germina’s army, cutting the [Soldiers] down by the thousands with his army.
The twins pursued Flos and his personal vanguard. Trey could hear shouting behind them as the rest of the army spread out to seize the city. Orthenon was overseeing the surrender and Mars was fighting the last of Germina’s forces that had refused to surrender.
It felt wrong. Too easy, almost. It was hard to call war unfair, but after seeing Mars fight, after seeing how helpless Germina’s army was against the high-level vassals Flos commanded…Trey thought Mars could have destroyed Germina’s army by herself if she had enough time. She’d slain the Quinfer, the Germina army’s champion, in a duel that had lasted only a minute. Then she’d charged into the ranks of the army, ignoring the soldiers as they tried to batter her with their weapons.
Unfair. But the Quarass had sent a [Mage] to kill Flos. He had slaughtered the civilians that Flos had rallied to fight the army that had ambushed him. Flos had given the Quarass one chance to surrender. She had refused, sending his messenger back without the hand that had delivered the message. Now Flos rode into her throne room, Trey and Teres following just in time to see the Quarass rise from her throne.
She was an old woman, older than Flos. For all that she had an imposing presence, an aura of authority. It was powerful and made Trey halt. But if she was a candle, Flos was the sun itself. He dismounted from his horse as Gazi slew two of the soldiers who rushed towards him. The King of Destruction strode towards the Quarass, his bloody blade in hand.
The Quarass didn’t flinch. She raised a hand as Flos approached her.
“Wretched [King] of Destruction, I would speak with you—”
She never got a chance to finish. Flos strode up the dais and beheaded her. It was so quick that Trey was left gaping. Flos turned as the throne room erupted into screams. The Quarass’ court threw themselves at the soldiers following Flos or fell to their knees. Flos raised his sword and bellowed.
“The Quarass is dead! Throw down your arms or join her! Her crimes are not Germina’s! Join her, loyal citizens or surrender!”
His words had provoked a bloodbath in the throne room, but the streets went quiet. Soldiers and citizens of Germina had fallen to their knees, weeping, and Flos’ banner had flown over the city. Trey remained in the throne room, just staring. The Quarass’ head had been placed under a shroud but her headless corpse sat against her throne where it had collapsed. He thought she was still staring at Flos.
Staring at him.
Trey jerked and realized he’d been lost, staring into the fire. Teres was looking at him. He knew his feelings were written on his face and turned away. It didn’t help. Teres had been born only moments before he had and the twins shared the closest thing to a psychic connection.
“Hey, it’s over.”
Hesitantly, Teres hugged Trey. He let her do it, although the contact was awkward. Everything was so much harder now. He hadn’t forgotten their fight and she hadn’t either. But she was comforting.
The King of Destruction had slain the Quarass. Trey didn’t understand Chandrarian politics, but he understood that it was a massive event that had scared and outraged the other kingdoms. However, they were loath to march against Flos and risk the same. So they had secured their borders and threatened war should Flos so much as sneeze in their direction. The King of Destruction had been content to simply claim the lands of Hellios and Germina for now and thus no further wars had taken place yet.
At least Hellios’ ruler was still alive. Queen Calliope and her son, Prince Siyal, were captives in their own castle. Their deaths would have sparked a bloody uprising throughout their nation. Their lives prevented the same—Hellios’ army had laid down their arms almost to a man rather than keep fighting. A good thing too—Flos had made it clear that he would behead both royals in an instant had they attempted to stir insurrection.
The image of Flos with bloody sword in hand was at odds with the man peering into the cooking pot and asking Gazi what seasoning she’d used. When he was not at war or enraged, Flos was full of life and energy, hard to anger and impossibly fascinated with the most minute details of his citizen’s lives. He seemed bigger, and drew the attention in any room he entered. Mars had once joked that Flos could pass wind and still appear more kingly than half the [Kings] on the continent. Trey believed her.
Flos was one of the highest-level [Kings] in the world. Perhaps the highest—his true level was unknown, a closely guarded secret. But his Skills were incredibly powerful. They were all geared to war, making his kingdom prosperous in times of strife and impoverished at all other times.
Hence their meal. Flos waved away a hovering Stitch-Woman who inquired whether he’d like a meat breakfast or lizard’s eggs or any of the other luxuries his people would be only too happy to provide him. He’d been asked the question every morning and his answer was always the same.
“I like simple food. I will be fine, Xeritha. Thank you for your concern.”
The Stitch-Woman withdrew. Trey, who sometimes thought his purpose in life was to ask the obvious questions to amuse Flos, raised his voice.
“What’s wrong with your breakfast, sire?”
It seemed that people really objected to Flos eating the stringy, spicy vegetable called Yellats. They were a staple of the Chandrarian diet and tasted a bit like sweet potatoes if you made them spicy. Trey quite liked them.
Flos exhaled slowly as he peered into the simmering cook pot. He took out a bowl—a wood-and-silver carved piece that Trey was sure was not standard for camping and filled it with a bit to taste. He replied as he gently smacked his lips together, savoring the hot stew.
“Yellats are considered a poor man’s food, Trey. They are filling and easy to grow on this continent—more so than any other plant in fact. This poor soil and the heat will kill potatoes in a drought, but Yellats can survive extended dry spells. They are ideal in my opinion and I have grown up enjoying them. But to other nations they are a symbol of poverty. Other monarchs would starve themselves before eating a meal such as this.”
Flos shrugged, not at all concerned by this fact. He began pouring the hot soup into bowls and passing them around the fire. The King of Destruction delighted in such things, apparently. To him, activities like serving others or cooking was a luxury to be enjoyed when he was travelling abroad. In his palace and with his subjects Flos was waited on hand-and-foot.
“Come, let us eat and be off quickly! I wish to be at Jerios soon!”
He began to eat his food rapidly and Trey quickly blew on his food and did the same. Life moved at Flos’ pace, which was to say, fast.
Within twenty minutes they’d struck camp. The String People loaded their bedrolls and supplies onto the pack horses and camels. Trey had been surprised that Chandrar had as many horses as camels—his image of the Middle East was limited at best. He was just as glad to mount the placid mare that Flos had picked out for him. He knew the camels were tetchy even with experienced [Riders] or [Animal Handlers]. He’d seen one spit right in the [Packmaster]’s face one time.
Flos shouted in good spirits and his warriors cheered and set off. The King rode up and down the line of warriors and attendants, talking with them briefly, sometimes clapping a hand on a shoulder. His presence seemed to inspire regardless of whether he spoke for a few minutes or just a second. Trey watched the King of Destruction leave his subjects with glowing smiles.
“He is beloved. It isn’t just his Skills—a [King] who truly cares for each of his subjects is a rare sight in any land.”
Gazi rode next to Trey, at ease on her stallion. He glanced at her. The half-Gazer wore her brown scale armor like always. Her greatsword she carried around sheathed on her hip—but only when she rode. It was actually too long to carry that way when she was walking on the ground so Gazi kept it on her back. When Trey asked if it was hard to draw the sword, Gazi had just laughed and told him that anyone trying to catch her off guard would have to be very fast indeed.
Now the half-Gazer stared at her King with one eye, her other three scanning the desert landscape for danger. It wasn’t all desert of course—there were places with a lot of greenery and life. But the lands close to Reim had big arid spots due to the lack of water. Water was a resource prized as much as gold in Chandrar. Although gold was important too. Which was why their trip to the Jerios Bazaar intrigued Trey so.
“So this bazaar. Why are we going again?”
Gazi half-turned in her saddle although all of her eyes remained focused in other directions. Trey tried not to shudder as the half-Gazer smiled at him. It was her fake, small smile she always wore.
“Simple, Trey. The Jerios Bazaar is an annual gathering of [Merchants] and other sellers of goods. It has more treasures to be bought and sold than most nations will ever possess. It is an important place to visit should you desire valuable artifacts.”
“Right. So why does the King of Destruction want something from there? And if he wants something—why not take it?”
“His Majesty is not a thief.”
Gazi looked reprovingly at Trey. She turned and nodded to a speck in the distance.
“Besides which, if my lord wanted to seize the treasures of the bazaar he would have to send a very large army to take it. As it stands, we who have come with him are a capable escort of defending him, but little more.”
“You’re joking. Aren’t you a Named Adventurer? And isn’t Mars—”
Trey looked at Mars riding ahead of them, making ribald jokes with a [Mage] carrying a parasol. Gazi nodded.
“Mars is formidable. But the [Merchants] have many guards and artifacts to defend themselves with. She is only one person in the end. As for myself—I would not arouse the wrath of the entire bazaar at any cost. The sellers and buyers unite in the face of threat and there are most likely a number of individuals there that could best me.”
A nod. Gazi gestured to her closed middle eye. Trey had never seen it open, but he had seen the pus and liquid that had trickled from it in the first few days when Gazi had returned to the kingdom. He wondered if it could heal—Flos had talked about finding a healing potion strong enough to regrow Gazi’s eye.
“Without my main eye I would be considered a high Gold-rank adventurer, not Named. My lord as well.”
“Flos? But he’s—”
“Strong! But not that strong, Trey!”
Flos had overhead their conversation. He rode back, laughing as he gestured to the sword at his hip.
“I am strong, Trey, and an experienced warrior. I could best a Gold-rank adventurer with the strength of my arm alone, but that does not make me a Named Adventurer! To become a famous hero known across the world I would have to be truly outstanding in some way. Gazi obtained her title thanks to her eye—she is virtually impossible to ambush with it and she can cast spells with it. Her armor and blade is also of the highest quality.”
“But you’re the King of Destruction!”
Flos laughed again.
“What is a [King] without an army, Trey? The answer: he is still a [King], but again, without an army. And this king lacks both armor and sword. Had I my old arms I might have been a Named Adventurer, indeed. But I have neither armor nor sword nor any of my enchanted rings or other equipment. That is one of the reasons I ride to Jerios—to find a sword capable of surviving more than a few blows in my hands.”
He gestured at the steel sword at his waist. Flos did have a habit of wrecking the swords he was given. His remarks made Mars turn her horse backwards, frowning.
“What? My King, what happened to your old blade?”
“I gave it away.”
Flos smiled as Mars gaped at him.
“That was a national treasure!”
“I know. But I had no need of it and so I gave it to a [Soldier] when I went into my slumber. I wonder where it is.”
“But your sword—what about your armor? Your helmet? Your lance?”
“Those too. I gave each piece away.”
“Your rings? The [Ring of Health], the treasure that you took from the treasury of Armil?”
“And that. All gone. I regret it in hindsight.”
Flos laughed hugely as Mars spluttered. He waved a hand as if brushing away all his lost treasures.
“Mars, they served no purpose in my grief. Besides, it is more entertaining to rebuild my armory this way. I hated my old armor anyways. It was enchanted with a [Featherweight] spell and I hated having to strap it down or have it bounce about every time I moved. I’m in mind for some heavier armor, enchanted of course, but with a different focus…”
They rode on as Flos began talking animatedly about armor with Mars arguing for certain enchantments, vouching for armor enchanted with magical shields, disputing the notion that swords enchanted with [Sharpness] were better than swords enchanted with [Weight] and so on.
Trey listened with half an ear. It sounded like a discussion between people playing a tabletop game or a video game, but it was all real and those discussing it were deadly earnest. He watched as a collection of tents came into view.
The Jerios Bazaar was based around an oasis and it was a sprawling, noisy affair this early in the morning. It was also magical. Trey could see [Shopkeepers] and [Traders] displaying artifacts, showing them off by conjuring water out of the air or letting customers test their products. But he also saw signs of the visitors’ wealth—there were summoned servants flying through the air, djinni who appeared as sometimes humanoid, sometimes outlandish shapes that were half-corporeal, embodying the element of air or fire or some other aspect.
And beyond them? Trey saw someone sitting on an elephant arguing with a man on a camel on where he could rest his mount. He saw a magic carpet flying through the air and a screaming man drop—
The entire caravan groaned and Flos grimaced as Trey looked away.
“Ah. That’s why no one rides those things. Looks like the bazaar is just waking up.”
“You call that just waking up?”
Trey stared as a [Mage] arguing with a [Merchant] at a stall turned and vanished in a puff of smoke. The Jerios Bazaar was filled with amazing people and surprisingly, very few of them looked inclined to cause trouble. Indeed, if there was thievery it was only going on in an economic sense. Pickpockets and thieves were in grave danger in the bazaar. Trey saw a man turn as someone grabbed a pouch at his belt.
The cloaked figure ran with incredible speed through the crowd. He got fifteen paces before a man with a huge chest full of hair and a skullcap stabbed him in the chest. The [Thief] ran backwards, screaming, and was enveloped in flame, shot with two arrows and struck by a being made out of lightning. His corpse was quickly tossed out of the bazaar.
“Don’t cause trouble.”
Flos smiled as he approached the bazaar. Trey eyed him with trepidation because the King of Destruction was nothing but trouble. However, Flos touched an amulet on his chest and Gazi and Mars both twisted rings and they turned into different people as they approached the bazaar. Flos grinned down at Trey through a face ten years younger with dark skin and black hair.
“Surprised? I wouldn’t walk into the bazaar with my face, Trey. Believe it or not, I can be cautious.”
“Won’t the [Mages] be able to tell you’re under an illusion?”
“Oh, most definitely. But anonymity is prized at the bazaar—many of those visiting are wearing a disguise of their own.”
Flos flicked his fingers dismissively. He eyed Gazi—the half-Gazer had turned into a woman with long flowing locks of blue hair and starry eyes.
“Gazi, that illusion is ridiculous.”
“Blame Mars. She lent me the rings.”
“They’re for my use, not yours.”
Mars, a redhead dressed in impractically revealing armor shot back. She gave Flos a charming smile.
“Shall we, your Majesty?”
“Indeed. Let’s set up camp a ways away from the Bazaar. Hasil, Fellif—”
The leader of the Serpent Hunters and the [Mage] who spoke for Parasol Stroll rode towards him. Flos nodded to the bazaar.
“Don’t let more than eight of your people enter the bazaar at once. Keep the rest at camp—I will be going into the bazaar for the day.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Hasil, the dark-skinned Stitch-Man bowed, his hand on his poisoned scimitar. Fellif, the Human [Mage] with a sharp goatee nodded.
“Do you require an escort, your Majesty?”
“No. Mars and Gazi will be enough. Trey and Teres will follow me naturally; I will browse quietly. Weapon stalls I think, although Gazi will look for a healing potion for her eye.”
“We’ll split up? How much coin do you have, Gazi?”
The half-Gazer reached for her belt pouch.
“Hm. Enough. I have several thousand gold pieces and enough to barter with. My lord?”
“I have ten thousand gold pieces in my bag of holding.”
Teres choked as she stared at the small bag at Flos’ side. This one wasn’t the typical leather pouch that inconspicuously hung at Gazi’s waist—it was a black-and-ruby affair, taken from the Quarass’ treasury. As had the contents of the bag, Trey suspected.
“That’s not much to buy with, sire.”
Mars looked concerned at the small amount that Flos had brought. The King of Destruction smiled.
“I have a number of jewels I found as well. But I intend to spend lightly, Mars. Most of the gold must go to my kingdom and arming my soldiers. I simply wish for a decent quality sword. You recall I broke the last one?”
“Wasn’t it enchanted?”
“Poorly. Spells can break just as easily as steel if you swing hard enough, Teres. We might see about getting you a blade as well—Mars, how much gold do you have?”
“More than you. I fought as a mercenary for a decade, my King. I could buy you armor as well—”
“Mm. A few artifacts might not go amiss. A shame those djinni are so untrustworthy or I’d seriously consider a flying army of them. Remember the Kingdom of Oleis? Fantastic at harassing the enemy. But now that I think of it, a flying carpet—”
They began heading into the bazaar. Flos had elected to dismount so they all walked on foot, joining the crowds of people walking past the open tents that had been set up. Some were magical, so the tents were larger on the inside than the outside.
Trey gaped at the objects on display—there were magic scrolls, floating orbs, and then things that didn’t look so magical like rich saffron being sold by the pound, sheaves of high-quality paper, food and ice being offered by some food merchants—it was a feast for the eyes, ears, and nose. Almost overwhelming, in fact. Trey looked at Gazi. She was following Flos as he looked around animatedly, talking loudly to Mars and Teres.
“Are you going to shop by yourself?”
Gazi turned. She had no eyebrows to raise, but Trey saw her skin move in the same way.
“Would you like to come with me?”
Gazi smiled. It wasn’t that Trey wouldn’t mind following the King of Destruction, it was just that he liked Gazi’s company.
“Very well. My king—”
She broke off as their group of five passed by a crowd. The man who had fallen off the carpet had survived his fall, but had broken both his legs in multiple places. He was screaming for help as [Traders] clustered around him, offering him a number of objects.
“Sands, my legs! My legs are—healing potions, please!”
“Can I interest you in a bone regrowth potion sir? The finest to be had for miles—”
“Pain numbing tonic? Just a whiff and you’ll be free of pain—”
“Would you like me to retrieve your carpet sir? My djinn can find it for a nominal fee—”
The poor man reached for his money pouch as Flos passed by. The King of Destruction turned his head as he looked around.
“Blacksmithing…I’m sure there’s an entire row of tents devoted to weapons. Ah! Well, we’ll find our way there eventually! Gaz—I mean, Gabrielle, are you going?”
The half-Gazer bowed slightly.
“I will return within the hour, sire. May I take Trey with me?”
“Oh? But I had hopes to enjoy—well, if you wish.”
Flos frowned slightly, looking almost hurt that Trey wouldn’t follow him around. It would be him asking Trey exactly what he found familiar from his world and his opinion on everything, Trey knew. Teres was giving Trey a look that told him to stay and join in her suffering. Trey gave her a guilty grin.
“I’m sorry, your m—sire.”
“Far be it from me to distract you. Besides which, you might keep Gazi occupied. Don’t start a fight if someone insults my name, Gazi. And keep Trey safe!”
Flos sternly instructed Gazi before turning and staring at a stall filled with scrying orbs and mirrors and so on.
“Now here’s a shop that catches my interest! I could have watched the battle at Liscor far more easily and without hurting my neck with one of these. [Shopkeeper], how much is this orb?”
He held up a yellow sphere that shone with inner light. The man who hurried up to him with a welcoming smile had a turban on his head and silk clothing.
“Ah, a good eye sir! Eight thousand gold pieces.”
“For an orb this small?”
Flos looked dismayed. The man bowed his head slightly.
“Ah, it’s not just scrying, but records memory as well! Hence the price. Did I hear you say you observed the most entertaining affair in Liscor?”
“We did! However, my scrying orb was only so big—”
Flos indicated the marble-sized object. The [Shopkeeper] tsked.
“A true shame! For a distinguished personage such as yourself, you should have one at least the size of a man’s head! Allow me to walk you through my wares—did you know more broadcasts are occurring?”
The [Shopkeeper] smiled as he showed Flos a huge orb which a crowd of people were staring into. Trey and Gazi paused to stare at another image flashing across the orb.
“It seems Wistram’s ability to link the orbs of scrying is a service they are willing to offer to more than Drake cities. Look—this is a mock battle by the Titan himself in Baleros!”
A tiny figure was standing on a podium in the sphere’s image. As Trey watched, whoever was keeping the image steady shifted, and he saw a row of soldiers with wooden spears fending off a cavalry charge. The projection was being watched with fascination by the crowd.
“One of the Titan’s students set it up. There are [Kings] and [Lords] and countless others watching this at the moment. I believe Wistram intends to offer this service at a great price.”
Flos narrowed his eyes as the ‘Titan’ stood on a dais, shouting orders that were transmitted out to his army. Trey saw his hands clench for a second and saw Mars and Gazi shift and look at their king.
It was Niers Astoragon who slew Queravia, the Gambler of Fates. Trey shivered as he saw Flos’ gaze darken for a moment. But then the King of Destruction was talking animatedly with the [Shopkeeper].
“So any orb can be turned into a…a recording device for such a projection? Is such grand magic possible?”
“If Wistram wills it…ah, but I believe a mage must transmit the image. These humble orbs only convey the image that Wistram sends. Speaking of which, may I interest you in…?”
Gazi murmured and tugged Trey’s arm. He followed her into the crowd, peering back over his shoulder and for a second regretting not staying with Flos. Then he turned back to Gazi. He had to focus on her back to avoid getting lost in the crowd!
“Where are we going?”
Gazi raised her voice to be heard. She led Trey through the crowd. The young man looked around from stall to stall. So many things on display at once! He thought he saw the row of tents Flos had mentioned, where armor and blades were being sold. And…were there actual [Blacksmiths] making weapons at this moment? He heard a clang, looked to ask Gazi about it and realized he’d lost her.
“I’m telling you, this isn’t a good blade. Show me a better one.”
A few minutes later, Flos was arguing with a [Merchant] over a blade. Teres and Mars found him pointing at a shimmering saber that sparked with lightning. The disguised [King] looked disgusted as he held the saber up. The [Merchant] pursed her lips.
“What is wrong with that blade? You picky Humans! This one is enchanted to shock your enemies! Simply but tap your opponent and they won’t be moving any time soon!”
She was a Stitch-Woman. Flos shook his head.
“It’s fragile. The enchantment’s no good and the blade’s—what, pure silver? An enchantment on that won’t last.”
“Oh? And you’re an expert on blades?”
The [Merchant] was either inexperienced or had misjudged Flos entirely. He smiled.
“Give me a warhammer. Ma—Maven?”
Mars plucked a warhammer off the racks and tossed it to Flos. He set the saber back down and raised the warhammer. The [Merchant] raised her hands and screeched.
“What are you doing?”
“Any good sword can take a blow like that! Any enchanted blade should be able to take an unenchanted maul’s strike, or the enchantment is no good!”
Flos raised his voice. He’d attracted a crowd, which listened to him speak about blades. He raised the faulty saber, pointing to the silvery metal.
“A blade is only as good as its [Blacksmith], regardless of the magic put on it! If you bought this blade for anything more than four hundred gold coins you lost your deal, Miss Merchant! This is a half-decent enchantment but the blade will shatter far, far too quickly! I’d rather have an unenchanted blade of quality metal than an enchanted blade that will break after hitting a shield!”
He tossed the saber back on the rack as the [Merchant] went pale. Several people in the crowd nodded appreciatively, agreeing with Flos’ assessment. The King smiled and turned to Mars and Teres who’d gone shopping elsewhere.
“Any good shops?”
“Some decent swords among the trash. I’ll show you.”
Mars led Flos and Teres through the crowd, pointing out the good picks she’d spotted. Teres watched attentively. She had her own sword that Orthenon had given her, but the magical swords fascinated her. Flos just shook his head time after time, though. He stopped at a well-stocked tent and spoke to the [Merchant] waiting on his customers.
“Have you no enchanted swords worthy of a Gold-rank adventurer or better?”
“Ah, sir, I have this new blade that is enchanted with [Petrification]—”
“But the steel’s poor!”
Mars and Flos objected almost at the same time. Teres stared at the blade, unable to tell the difference. Flos looked dismayed.
“I could pay to have a better enchantment put on the blade here, or have it done later! What about your unenchanted blades? Show me your best—do you have any Dwarven-made blades?”
The sweating [Merchant] hurried into the back and his slaves came out with an assortment of blades. He was on trial as the crowd that followed Flos had gathered again. The [King] was simply too loud and too amusing to ignore, and his opinions solid. Flos inspected one blade and grunted.
“Better, but this is still only adequate for an enchantment. Do you truly have no masterworks? Something made by a Level 40 [Blacksmith] or better?”
“Honored guest, these are Dwarf-forged blades.”
“I have no doubt. But I’m talking about real Dwarven craftsmanship. Not just their mass-produced arms.”
Flos turned away when he realized the [Merchant] had no idea what he was talking about. He walked through the bazaar, talking to Mars and Teres.
“Perhaps I thought too highly of Jerios’ markets. Then again, truly masterwork blades would be rare…I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to have a blade forged myself and enchanted here?”
“We can look among the [Blacksmiths], but I don’t know their levels or the metals they work with, sire. I saw one tent claiming to work with pure mithril. A blade like that would hold an enchantment, but pure mithril? I suspect it’s a trick.”
Mars made a face. Teres stared at the blades Flos had so dismissively discarded.
“What did you mean, ‘real’ Dwarven craftsmanship, Flans? Do you mean all that’s fake?”
“Not at all.”
Flos grinned at Teres, enjoying his fake name. He pointed at another row of Dwarf-quality blades on display.
“Dwarven-made weapons vary in quality, but the Dwarves are good [Blacksmiths] and their steel is pure. It’s an indication of quality, but most of the blades are simply better than regular. You might as well turn to a [Blacksmith] on your continent with a higher level for a good sword. However…I know there are better arms made in their mountain home, however seldom.”
Both Mars and Teres stared at Flos in surprise. He nodded and bought a few kebabs for them to eat while he explained. Flos tore the hot meat off a skewer as he spoke.
“Back when my kingdom first expanded, before I had met you, Mars, I decided to invest in my army. I had obtained a fortune from the kingdoms I had destroyed and so I ordered a massive shipment of Dwarven arms from Terandria. We sent a fortune to the Dwarves, in exchange for arms for over a thousand soldiers as well as personal armor and a blade for Gazi.”
“And they delivered?”
“No! That was the curious part of it. The Dwarves failed to provide a tenth of the arms I paid for—they had overcommitted and suffered a disaster in their forges or so I was given to understand. They were unable to repay me either—so they sent me a set of armor and blade for Gazi instead.”
“One blade and suit of armor?”
“The very one she wears. And if it seems a poor repayment Mars, it was not. I don’t know what [Blacksmith] made the armor, but it was worth far more than I paid—than I could have paid at the time, I believe. You know Gazi’s scale armor, Teres, and her blade? Neither one is enchanted.”
Mars raised her voice, attracting attention. She lowered it and hissed at Flos.
“It has to be! That armor’s been through more wars than—I’ve had to replace my armor three times and I buy the best-quality armor money can afford!”
“Nevertheless. It was made by the truest of experts. I’ve never inquired as to the make of the armor as I doubt any of my [Blacksmiths] could hope to replicate it. It’s a masterwork, Mars. In the mountains there are some Dwarves who truly know metal.”
“Incredible. And you hope to find a blade like that here? I think I would have noticed such a weapon.”
“Indeed, it would be a long shot. And I am more interested in that scrying orb in truth. What that [Merchant] said about anyone broadcasting their image…”
Flos looked back in the direction of the scrying orbs then turned to Teres.
“You said it’s familiar to something from your world, Teres. What was it you mentioned?”
“Ah, of course! You did tell me about it, but I had imagined something entirely different. And this is similar?”
Teres hesitantly explained as Flos listened with growing interest. She didn’t like the look in his eyes when she talked about news appearing all over the world. Teres cursed Trey and hoped he was having fun wherever he was. She was going to kick his butt for leaving her behind when she met up with him again.
Nawalishifra Tannousin tossed her head and grabbed the hilt of her dagger. She was nearly out of patience with the man in front of her. She would have drawn her blade and stabbed the man twice if she could have gotten away with it. But doing so would scare away other customers and she and her people needed this sale. So she kept her voice pleasant, though her every instinct railed against her acting like a common [Merchant].
“It is simple, you oaf, you! Look, this is Naq-Alrama steel! Pure ingots, forged in the heat of my people’s forges, may the dunes take me if I lie! It is not some metal you find lying about on the streets or melted out of cheap steel! It is magic and enchantable and I am selling it to you!”
She glared at the dark-skinned [Trader] who was blinking hard in obvious confusion. Though he looked accustomed to the sun, Nawalishifra was sure he was a city-dweller, not a true son or daughter of the sands. If he was, he would not ask so many foolish questions.
Her skin was far darker than his, and Nawalishifra had to shift her veil not to inhale it as she talked. She knew she was not what he had expected—there were few women in her clan who could swing a hammer, and she was the only [Blacksmith] in her clan worthy of the class. That was the problem, sadly.
“I don’t understand. This metal’s special? But it’s an ingot. Why haven’t you made it into a sword? It’s useless as it is.”
Nawalishifra turned red and gripped the hilt of her dagger. She didn’t know what would come first, dagger or sharp words, but another young man pushed forwards. He had too wide a smile and was too unctuous as he bowed to the man in front of him. She wouldn’t have minded it save for the fact that he was her brother, Allaif. He stepped in front of Nawalishifra as she glared at him.
“Sir, please excuse my sister, ill-tempered though she is from standing out in the sun! She does speak a truth however. The metal is yet to be smithed, but surely an outstanding buyer such as yourself can see the merits of buying the steel as it is! It is ready to be shaped, into shield or sword or mace or arrowhead! And the metal is magic, as my unmarried-and-ill-mannered sister says.”
His ill-mannered sister glared and folded her arms. They were standing in the shade, in near darkness, in fact! The tent’s flaps had been veiled to let as little light in as possible—too much might spoil the quality of the ingots before they could be smithed. Her ears burned with shame—because Allaif’s frantic explanations covered up the truth that the buyer had gotten too near to.
The ingots were less useful, for all they were pure Naq-Alrama metal. It would be far more proper to sell a blade and Nawalishifra was sure it would be ten times as valuable as the next cheap artifact she’d passed on display in the bazaar. But her clan couldn’t forge and sell such a blade—at least, not sell and forge it.
Allaif’s talking had gotten the interest of some other buyers. They clustered around the metal. One, a rich [Merchant] dressed all in silks, sniffed as he eyed the metal. He knew the worth of Naq-Alrama metal, Nawalishifra was sure. But he was skeptical.
“I can see the value of forging a blade, but can any [Blacksmith] manage such a feat? I am told the metal is tricky beyond belief to manage.”
The question threw Allaif, but it was Nawalishifra who interrupted. She gave the men her best smile and felt like her teeth were falling off as she gestured to the ingots.
“Not so, good sirs! The metal is tricky and requires smithing only under the moonlight until quenching, but the trick of shaping the metal is easy indeed. Why not let my humble self show you?”
She led the men outside and, cursing at having to waste the precious metal, took one of the wasted ingots that had been damaged by sunlight on the journey here. Nawal hammered the metal rapidly in the shade, pointing out how to hammer the metal just so to make it move correctly.
“It is all about temperature, honored guests. And the striking must be precise. Six strikes here, see? One, two, three—and then another two here! Thus the metal moves. And care must be taken not to allow it to reduce in heat below a threshold—the forge must be hot, and no magic fire can be used at any time. Fold the metal and then apply the powder and oil mixture before quenching the blade in light-bathed waters—”
She went down the list of details and specifications, noting the dismay on the faces of her customers. Allaif was grimacing at her to stop, but Nawal had memorized this routine by heart and she knew misleading a customer would ruin the metal and throw her clan’s name into the wastes. If selling the ingots as they were wouldn’t do so already, that was.
“So many steps!”
The knowledgeable buyer shook his head. Allaif hurried over to him, fawning in a disgusting manner.
“We can repeat and write down the instructions to your pleasing, good sir. The metal is ready to be forged and any high-level [Blacksmith] can make a blade beyond all others out of it!”
Nawal glared at her brother. Write down the secrets? They were already compromising all of their clan’s crafts by giving away the ingots! But they had no choice. She would have rather torn off her veil and walked the bazaar naked, but their clan depended on the sales they earned from the bazaar. If they had to sell secrets to survive this year, so be it.
“I will think about it. Perhaps I will return on the morrow again.”
That was all they got from the well-informed buyer. The rest left without so much as that vague promise. Allaif walked back to Nawal and she glared at him.
“I think he might buy if we lower the price more, sister.”
“What? We will barely have enough to eat with on what we are selling already! And what was that disgusting display, you dog, you?”
Nawal snapped at her brother. He glared at her.
“Do not blame me for making the best of a bad situation! We must sell the ingots, and it is more profitable to sell them and earn goodwill with a [Merchant] or other faction than to hold onto them and starve with them sitting uselessly in our homes.”
“Useless? A blade forged of pure Naq-Alrama steel is—”
Nawal choked on her words. Her brother shook his head slowly and pityingly.
“Useless since no one can forge the metal in our clan but you, dearest sister. And what manner of fool or coward would use a blade forged by a woman?”
That was true. Nawal knew that no self-respecting warrior in the Bazaar would do so. She hung her head as Allaif turned away. Her clan lived closest to the desert and made their fortune with their signature steel. However, calamity had struck them not half a year ago and thus the metal they had meticulously refined over the course of the year was useless. She turned away, despairing, as Allaif looked around.
Their tent was guarded by other members of their clan, warriors armed with weapons that were mere alloys of Alrama steel and not pure metal. Nevertheless, the weapons shone in the light such that they looked enchanted when they had yet to receive a [Mage]’s enhancements. They were still magical, though, so there was truth to the glimmer. It was all the advertisement their tent needed; in truth, Nawal’s clan would have had visitors queuing up to bid on their blades any other year and her clan’s warriors would be needed to guard the tent. But not this year.
“I must make arrangements. I believe I can sell the ingots. For a better price than we might get if we had swords! Just hold here and—do not scowl at anyone who comes in!”
Allaif made extravagant promises as usual as he hurried out of the tent. Nawal glared at his back, suspecting that he was going to get drunk and cause trouble as usual. How could the same seed of her father’s loins be so useless in him and the wrong gender in her? If he was alive he might have died again just to see this sight. She turned away from the stacks of beautiful ingots and saw someone pushing into the tent’s flaps.
“Hello? Are you looking for our blades? We only have ingots for sale.”
Nawal called out, too tired to pretend to be happy to see the visitor. To her surprise she saw a pale-skinned foreigner enter the tent. His skin was far too pale for the hot sun and he jumped at being addressed.
“Ingots? Sorry I’m—a bit lost. You don’t sell swords? I’ll be going.”
He backed up towards the entrance and Nawal’s pride flared.
“We used to sell swords. The finest blades you will ever see, my word on it! Don’t back away, you milk-skinned fool, you! Come and see true metal, if only once in your lifetime!”
Her words made the young man stop. He approached the table and gasped as he saw the Naq-Alrama steel.
“That’s…is that magic metal? Some kind of special metal?”
Proudly, despairingly, Nawal nodded.
“It is Naq-Alrama steel.”
She looked at the young man’s blank face and scowled.
“Naq-Alrama steel! Have you never heard of it?”
He hadn’t. She grumbled under her breath.
“Ignorant foreigners. Listen well. This steel is magic, forged of the sands, refined through heat and kept from any—any sunlight! Such is the nature of the metal that it can endure any pressure when quenched in sun-filled waters. It will hold enchantments with ease and the blade itself cuts through magic like water. If there was ever a blade for one who seeks to do battle against [Mages], this is it! You could make a blade worthy of a [King] out of these ingots which we will sell for handfuls of gold!”
She raised a fist and nearly struck the metal, but held back, knowing the blow would only freeze her skin to the ice-cold ingots. The young foreigner looked impressed, which warmed her heart slightly.
“That’s incredible. If you’re selling them so cheaply, why not have someone make a sword out of—”
“We used to do that, you idiot, you!”
She shouted at him and the young man flinched. One of the [Caravan Guards], Hesseif, poked his head in and Nawal gestured to him that it was fine. He gave her a nod and resumed watching for thieves. Nawal sighed as she looked at the young man.
“We had a [Blacksmith] of renown who shaped the blades. He created less than ten per year, but they earned enough for our clan to thrive! But he died—his heart gave out last year.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. But can’t you get someone else to—”
“No. The techniques are too hard to learn overnight! It takes years of practice and of all whom my father taught, only I learned enough to shape the metal.”
The young woman laughed at the young man’s confusion.
“But if you can do it, can’t—”
“Who would use a blade forged by a woman?”
Who indeed? Women could be warriors, but they weren’t capable of making steel, that was a fact. It was a truth among Nawal’s people that women were impure—the metal grew to develop defects if they shaped it. Her father had broken with tradition because he needed a helper, but he had forbidden her from entering the forge whenever her blood flowed throughout the month and of course Nawal was forbidden from shaping any blade herself.
She could make armor so long as no one knew who had done most of the forging and goods like nails and so on, but never blades. So her father had said while she hammered in the forge and he claimed to have made each blade himself with her ‘help’. He had given her a chance, but he was dead and no one else would touch a blade she made, however keen.
The young man didn’t seem to understand that. He was a foreigner and wrinkled his brow. Was he a [Mage]? He was certainly no warrior of the sands, accustomed to blood and glory.
“I don’t know about people in your tribe, but I know someone who probably won’t care if you forged the blade. He just wants the best blade in the world. And if your uh, Naq-Aama—”
“Right. If that steel’s the best he might buy it. Why don’t I ask him?”
Nawal stared at the young man, and a sprig of hope entered into her heart.
“You? You have a master?”
“What? No! I’m not a slave—”
“But he’s wealthy? A man of power? How much might he spend?”
“Uh—he said he has at least ten thousand gold pieces, but I think he might spend more—”
Ten thousand gold pieces. It wasn’t a lot, but the thought of actually selling a blade had Nawal’s mind racing. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? Sell to foreigners! Surely there were some who wouldn’t mind how a blade was made so long as it was sharp! Drakes, perhaps? There were rumors that there was a great dungeon filled with monsters on their continent. Perhaps if she—
“Sister! Wondrous news!”
A loud voice came from outside. Nawal’s heart sank. She hurried out of the tent, making sure that the layers of flaps prevented any sunlight from touching the inside of the tent and came outside with the young man to see Allaif, standing in front of the tent and grinning broadly.
He was not alone. The rich [Merchant] from before and a man with a whip at his side were behind them, along with a group of armed thugs. Nawal eyed them with distaste, noting their cheap iron weapons and marking the man with a whip for what he was—a [Slaver]. Not of Roshal, clearly; he was probably just a local [Slave Trader] who dealt with the impoverished and desperate.
Nawal glared at her brother as he smiled broadly at her. He looked too happy, as if he was pulling one of his tricks on someone. They had always landed him and the people around him in deep trouble.
“Allaif, what is this? I have a buyer for our steel—”
“As do I, sister! All of it!”
Nawal’s eyes widened and she saw the other members of her clan start. Allaif had found a buyer? But—she looked back at the young foreigner. How much had he compromised to sell all of their ingots? Allaif rubbed his hands together, looking proud of himself.
“We will earn as much as we would for a commission on blades, sister! This generous [Merchant], Sir Redif, will buy all the ingots from us at such a price!”
“At what cost?”
There had to be a trick. Nawal eyed the [Slaver] with apprehension. Allaif spread his hands, looking wounded.
“Sister! I made the best deal I could, for the clan! I gave away only one thing to honored Redif.”
Allaif smiled at Nawal as the ground fell away under her. He spoke quickly as a rumble sprang up from the other clansmen.
“It is the best offer! The best! We will be paid richly and you, dear sister, will be sent to show any [Blacksmiths] how to forge Naq-Alrama metal! You will be able to continue helping around the forge—and find a husband if honored Redif is generous. It is for the clan, sister.”
Nawal just stared. Slavers? Her father had banned slaves from the clan two decades ago, before she had been born. Metal forged with the weight of shackles was impure as that of metal made with dishonest deeds or blood, or so he had said. She stared at her brother, her brother.
“You cannot sell me, Allaif.”
A flash passed across Allaif’s eyes, one of his dark moods nearly escaping.
“I can and will. I am our representative and I speak for our family and clan with our father’s death.”
“You are not worthy of licking his boots, you spineless worm!”
“How dare you!”
He raised his hand and Nawal gripped her knife’s handle, making Allaif hesitate. The [Merchant] interrupted impatiently.
“Enough! This isn’t a debate. I have papers proving my ownership of both the Naq-Alrama metal and Nawalishifra Tannousin.”
He brandished a sealed parchment, signed in blood. It was a binding contract. Nawal looked at it and felt her stomach drop. He’d actually signed it. Without asking, without thought. Allaif smiled victoriously as the other Tannousin clansmen muttered curses.
“Sister, is it really too much to ask? You will be well treated, privileged even! Our father was mad for letting you hold a hammer, but I have given you the same honor. Do not make this harder than you have to.”
“No struggles, girl. I’ve broken more new slaves than I care to remember.”
The [Slaver] grinned as he unslung his whip and his thugs drew their weapons. Nawal walked slowly over to Allaif. He smiled at her.
“Ah, sister. Do you see reason?”
Nawal stared into her brother’s eyes. He tried to look remorseful, but just looked insincere. He bent to embrace her and she drew the dagger. And plunged it into his chest.
Allaif gasped and his eyes went wide. There was a shout from behind him, but too late. Nawal’s voice was low as she felt blood rush over her blade.
“I renounce you, I renounce you, I renounce you.”
She whispered it into Allaif’s ears as he choked, and then twisted the dagger. He gasped and clutched at her shoulder. Then he fell backwards.
The [Merchants] and [Slave Trader] stared at Allaif in shock, and then backed up as Nawal retrieved her dagger from her brother’s body.
“There will be no sale. And I am no slave. Honored buyers—I regret to tell you my brother erred in selling me and my clan’s wealth.”
Nawal smiled very politely at the pale-faced [Merchant]. The man gaped at her and then colored with outrage.
“Insolent woman! You may have killed Allaif, but the contract—”
He flinched as Nawal swung her dagger and spattered the contract and the [Merchant] with blood. She cleaned her dagger with a handkerchief as she spoke calmly.
“I have renounced him three times. He is dead to my clan and I, and no longer of our blood. Any contract he signs is dust.”
Her clansmen appeared behind her, and Nawal was relieved to feel Hesseif’s presence at her back. The [Slaver] eyed her and cracked his whip.
“Is that so? Well, I have a contract and I say we enforce it right now. There’s always room in my train for more slaves, and breaking a contract is a crime!”
He raised his whip to strike at Nawal and there was a flash of light. Nawal blinked as the young foreigner blinded the [Slaver] and his thugs, making them hesitate. She felt Hesseif shift and readied herself for a bloody battle, but in the moment the light had flashed someone had appeared next to the [Slaver].
“I wouldn’t start a fight.”
A tall woman with blue hair and starry eyes, a vision of perfection, stood next to the [Merchant] and the [Slaver]. She wore brown scale armor made of a metal that Nawal had never seen before and held a greatsword in one hand. The woman smiled slightly as she held the greatsword underneath the slaver’s throat. He gulped and cut himself.
“I am a [Slaver]—”
“With a bad contract. You heard her.”
The woman nodded at Nawal. The [Merchant], pale-faced, backed up a step.
“Harming a [Merchant] in the bazaar—”
“Who said anything about harming? I’m simply defending a [Shopkeeper] from being illegally made into a slave. If you want to try and enforce your contract, I’ll defend her. And myself. Starting with your head.”
Her voice was loud enough for the other people watching to hear. Nawal admired her poise. This foreigner woman had the respect of the bazaar, and could slice apart the [Slaver] and his thugs without repercussion if they called her bluff. And the [Merchant] knew it. He backed up and the [Slaver], realizing the same, fled. The thugs he’d hired melted away as the young man turned.
She slapped a hand over his mouth and he staggered. She stared at him and his eyes widened.
“Gabrielle! I thought you’d lost me!”
“I didn’t lose you. You wandered off and I was waiting for you to find me. But you found something interesting so I decided to wait.”
Gabrielle, the mysterious woman, turned to Nawal. She had a slight smile on her face.
“So you’re a Tannousin [Blacksmith]? You, a woman?”
She knew about Clan Tannousin! Nawal straightened, pride in her voice.
“I am. Though I may be a woman, I am the only successor to my father’s craft, master that he was. I can forge true blades of Naq-Alrama steel, woman-touched though they may be!”
Her announcement drew a murmur from the crowd, a disapproving one, but Nawal only had eyes for Gabrielle and the young man. They looked at each other and the young foreigner spoke.
“I think our uh, master won’t mind that Gaz—Gabrille. What do you think?”
“I think he would accept such a blade gladly, no matter what hands touched it.”
Gabrielle looked thoughtfully at Nawal.
“Do you truly claim to have your father’s skill?”
Nawal drew herself up, her eyes flashing. She raised her voice as she stood with her brother’s dead body lying at her feet. She would grieve for who he was and who he had been later. But this was pride and steel—it was the pride of her clan.
“Lead me to your master, foreign warrior! Pay my cost and I will forge your master a blade sharper and finer than any he has laid eyes on in his life! My oath on it! I swear it on the body of the man-who-was-my-brother, cursed be his name!”
She pointed at her brother with her dagger and the young man flinched. But Gabrielle just smiled wider.
“Good. In that case, come with me.”
She turned and began to stride through the bazaar. That was a bit too sudden even for Nawal. She hesitated as the young man turned.
“Um, this way. Sorry, I never got your name—”
“I am Nawalishifra Tannousin, a [Blacksmith]. Who are you?”
She stared at the young man, all pale skin and awkwardness. But he had surprised the [Slaver] with magic. And he clearly knew this Gabrielle. Who was his master? The young man smiled at her and Nawal drew her veil further over her face in embarrassment.
“Me? I’m Trey.”
Trey had had weird days, but it felt like they all paled in comparison to an ordinary day around Flos. Even when he wasn’t here, things got weird. He now stood in a bazaar with Nawalis—Nawalishif—Nawal, a [Blacksmith] wearing a veil. She seemed calm, despite having stabbed her brother through the heart moments ago.
Gazi was equally calm as she stood at ease, sheathing her blade on her back. She didn’t seem bothered by the death either.
“It was her clan’s politics. Her brother would have died had she gone with the [Slaver]—his people would have beaten him to death the instant they were alone.”
“Oh. But Nawal—”
Gazi smiled. Her illusionary face stayed the same, but Trey knew one of her eyes was fixed on Nawal as the dark-skinned young woman began shouting at the rest of her clan standing behind her.
“Well done in finding her. I’ve heard of Clan Tannousin before. They can outsmith a Dwarf. Most Dwarves, at any rate. If this young woman can truly smith Naq-Alrama steel, she must be at least Level 30. Probably higher.”
Trey stared at Nawal as she shouted animatedly at her fellow tribes people, cursing them and exhorting them to clean up the body and keep the light out of the tent at all costs. He turned to Gazi, embarrassed.
“I didn’t do much. I just wandered in by accident and when I heard how good the blades were, I thought of his M—you know who.”
“Indeed. And I thought the same thing and let you enter the tent.”
Gazi smiled as Nawal strode over to them. She looked far more cheerful despite having just lost a brother.
“Lead on then, Trey and Gabrielle! Take me to your master and I will see what blade he wants! I will offer him a discount he does not deserve—more if he will buy all the metal we possess! Assuming he has coin of course.”
“He has that, and he will buy every blade you can forge.”
Gazi assured Nawal as she led them through the bazaar. Trey couldn’t help but notice that they were being followed by some of Nawal’s clan members. Probably for her protection, although Trey didn’t think he’d stand a chance. She’d moved very quick with that knife of hers.
“So where is he? Have you a camp? We must talk details and I must see your coin.”
Nawal was impatient. Gazi just smiled. She looked amused for some reason and Trey began dreading why.
“He is just up ahead. At that tent.”
It was a familiar tent, the very same one they’d passed by upon first entering the bazaar. It was the one with the scrying orbs and as Trey saw the huge crowd gathered around it, he heard Flos’ voice. He was shouting loudly, standing in the middle of the bazaar, and his illusion was gone.
Flos, the King of Destruction, stood in front of a [Mage] from Parasol Stroll who was holding a scrying orb up at him. He was speaking into it, his voice booming, the people around him looking awestruck or terrified as the Serpent Hunters and Parasol Stroll formed a protective wall around him. Mars stood behind the King of Destruction, as he spoke into the scrying orb, addressing an unseen audience.
The entire world.
“I am the King of Destruction! I have returned! If there is any nation that seeks my end, come! Send your armies to me! But I will not make war on any nation that treats my people and my kingdom as friend! Let any who crave glory flock to my banner, and any foe of mine quake behind your walls! I am Flos of Reim and I have awoken!”
Trey covered his face. He wished he was dreaming. He turned and saw Nawal staring at Flos, her face suddenly dead-white. He could hear the voices.
“The King of Destruction, here?”
“Amnesty? He wants adventurers and warriors to join him?”
“He won’t declare war?”
Flos continued, his voice a roar.
“The Empire of Sands is my foe! I will slay the Emperor of Sands myself! As for Wistram, send Amerys to me! Return to me my [Mage] or I will sail upon your walls and break your academy into dust! I say again, I will make war on no nation that does not attack my people! But the blood of Drevish stains the Empire of Sands and I will return the favor a hundred thousand times over!”
He went on, shouting into the orb, his image captured, his words projected across a thousand scrying orbs in a thousand spots across the world. Gazi turned to Nawal and smiled.
“That is our master.”
“Him? You mean—”
The young woman had lost her self-assurance. She stared at Flos as if he were, well, Flos, the King of Destruction. Trey saw her pale as she recalled her bold claims of a moment ago. Gazi just smiled wickedly.
“So, a blade worthy of a [King], and one my lord has never seen before. Your oath on it.”
She looked at Nawal and the young woman glanced at Trey and then at the King of Destruction.
She fainted. Trey caught her just in time and looked up to see Flos, the King of Destruction, grinning at him out of a thousand scrying orbs. He gestured, and the world followed his every word. In a bazaar, standing in front of a dusty tent filled with scrying orbs, Flos sent the pillars of the world quaking and laughed as nations and [Kings] scrambled to catch up. Somehow, Trey had expected nothing less.