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Rated: 13+ · Novella · Fantasy · #1672240
A mercenary captain seeks justice by joining a quest for vengeance
*Starbr*Ebook available for free at Smashwords  *Starbr*

*Star*Published in Spectacular Speculations  ; July - December 2010*Star*

*Starb*Featured in "Action/Adventure Newsletter (November 20, 2013)*Starb*

*Starbr*Featured in "For Authors Newsletter (December 11, 2013)*Starbr*

Fallen Empire

Prologue ~ Bargains

Riri Gast peered over a mug of forgotten ale, watching the dark silhouette survey her mother's prosperous inn from the door. A noonday sun obscured the stranger's features, yet she felt his eyes on her- and her alone. Habit forced her right hand to massage the stump its counterpoint once resided. Stress always flared the pain of the old war wound. The din of the crowded proprietorship eased to an uncomfortable silence as the slim visage strode down the steps to the sunken dining room, the soft slinking of metallic armor singing in its wake.

Riri felt heat around her neck and cheeks as shadow fell from the guest, revealing a handsome man with skin of honey and shoulder length locks mirroring his ebony chain mantle. The youth's pale features contrasted with the dark skinned citizenry of Asnium. He paused, elbow resting on the pommel of a sheathed longsword, a warrior at ease- yet ready. A crash from the kitchens diverted Riri, introducing an opportunity to compose uncomfortable thoughts of fancy. She winced as her aged mother kneeled over the remains of two bottles of rare wine.

A gasp erupted from the customers, turning Riri away from the distraction in time to see an ogre, full of dark hair, protruding canines, olive skin, and a patchwork of spiked, leather armor, duck under the inn's archway. Instinct forced her right hand to the sword by her side. Riri closed her eyes and unleashed a frustrated sigh. No leather belt adorned her waist. No sword rested within its sheath. The old wound throbbed as she remembered a time long past and debated the reasons why the nightmarish creature ventured so far beyond the Endless Desert of the west.

The ogre followed the newcomer like a slave, a hulking shadow that stepped over the steps rather than upon them. Merchants, jewelers, and horse lords who frequented the upscale diner stepped aside as the duo approached her small table nestled in a dark corner. The human paused to drag a chair opposite her before taking a seat. His ogre stood behind, a frightening guard with hairy arms folded over its chest.

Riri's new companion placed a gauntleted finger in the air, beckoning her mother toward them. "Wine, if you please, Bahiti." His voice, smooth as silk floating atop water, paused as he smiled at the indigo stain seeping into the wooden floorboards, "Ianic- if you have any left." Riri received a dark eyed stare of warning from her mother that could break rocks before the diminutive innkeeper set about the task with a speed belying her advanced years. Riri stilled a frown from creasing her features. How does he know my mother's name?

The youthful face turned toward her. Dark eyes regarded her with a soft intensity. A dimpled half-smile framed chiseled features. "Good day to you, Captain Gast."

Riri swallowed, extending a trembling hand toward the warm ale between them. "I am not a Captain," she sipped the bitter draft, "not anymore." The whispered confession shamed her. A second, longer swig diminished her heightened apprehension. "Perhaps Captain Thry can assist you. He leads Lord Tesq's forces now."

The stranger waited for Bahiti to return with his wine, nodding thanks as she retreated. He held the glass but refrained from drinking. Instead, his gaze hardened, emanating a silent threat, a warning against obstruction.

The intruder's silence further unnerved the former mercenary captain. Riri sipped as a coherent string of thoughts penetrated through the pain around the stump of her left arm and the dread rising within. The foreigner speaks our language, without flaw. He walks with monsters. He knows my name, my past. Secret Gods help me he knows my name! A gasp erupted from her. "You're the Black Knight."

The whispered words initiated an adverse reaction. Men and women, garbed in light robes fled the inn. A riot of fear and desperation clogged the door as respected citizens of high standing clawed for freedom. The Black Knight covered his mouth and chuckled at the chaos. Riri smiled at the beautiful sound.

The Black Knight's reputation left a tomb as staff fled with patrons. Only Riri and the silent ogre remained. He lifted the glass once more, a bracelet of circular diamonds sparkled against the light while an onyx stone on the ring finger absorbed it. He pulled the glass to a prominent nose, covering an unadorned chain holding an emerald medallion with his forearm. He sampled the aroma with a deep inhale and smiled, eyeing her with chocolate eyes that seemed to shimmer.

Riri swallowed a lump forming in her throat and wondered how one near her own age caused such terror. Almost did her mind dispute the rumors- almost.

The youth sighed. "What troubles you, my dear Captain?"

Her words spilled without thought, "Is it true the western horse lords capitulated to your rule? Is it true that you will avenge the Old Wrongs by warring against the east? They say you command the winds and the rain and the storm- that the Secret Gods obey you. They-" Her throat constricted.

Eyelids closed to small lists during her litany, breaking the speech. "Finish it. Tell me, what else do They say?"

Far more fearful of angering the warrior than insulting him, she pressed on. "They say you preach a blasphemy. That you will free men from the gods they serve, and-" Another swallow as Riri looked away for an instant.

The slits closed tighter, concealing mahogany pupils. "And?"

"And damn us all."

The Black Knight sighed and placed the wineglass down. He reached for a pouch tied to his belt. "It is said," he tossed the pouch into the air, caught it, and threw it once more, letting the jingle of heavy coins orchestrate while speaking, "that the Merchant Lords of Asnium serve no king, only gold. It is also said that their charioteers follow the same rule."

He tossed the cloth pouch toward her. Riri caught it and freed the leather knot in a single motion. Thin gold coins, the size of a child's fist, sang as they erupted from the bag and littered the wooden table. "The horse lords never surrendered, and I do not seek to conquer your people. I have, how should I put this, military arrangements with the horse lords along your western border. My force of ogres is large, but not large enough to invade your country." The youth sighed and shook his head. "Do you know how long it takes to orchestrate such an arrangement with no centralized bureaucracy?" He smirked, a sinister gleam dancing behind his dark eyes. "Not that you could stop me, had I assembled all the ogre hordes."

"As far as righting the Old Wrongs, well, that's where you come into play, Captain. As I traversed your lands, I asked your people for an opinion of who is best of the mercenary captains. Your name came up more than any other did. The people still recall your stand at Horl's Pass against four times your number. I have need of such expertise." The Black Knight leaned forward, eyes sparkling like the minted gold beneath his chin. "You can lead the forces that right the Old Wrongs perpetrated by the Libaian Empire. You will be a hero." He leaned back, conspiratorial tone shifting. "Perhaps you can join the pantheon of these so-called Secret Gods you all worship when you die." Sarcasm clung to the Black Knight's words as he dissected the Asnium religion. "That is what happens to your peoples' heroes is it not?"

He spread an upturned hand about the gold pile. "Take that as your commission. Spread the gold amongst the survivors of Horl's Pass. That should be enough men to move my plans forward. Tell them that I'll pay double after the job is done."

Riri tried to suppress irritation at the stranger's foolish scheme. "You are a fool." She winced as the foreigner's eyelids closed to slits once more but found the strength to press her point. "If you think a thousand men and a few ogres can defeat the One Hundred Legions-"

The stranger forestalled her with a raised hand. "My plan," he began through clenched teeth, "requires our travels within Libaias to look anything but an invading force. Stealth is the key. A massive push from your nation will lead to a war that would cause all my efforts in these lands to be for naught." The stranger seemed unaccustomed to sharing his plans as gauntleted fingers began to drum a steady, impatient beat atop the table. "As for the legions, I have set into motion events that will call their attention elsewhere. Furthermore, I know they are weakened from a costly campaign in the south. If the armies of Libaias march, it will be a shell of its former glory."

The south? The Invisible War? His words led Riri to study the imprint upon the coins. A square altar flanked by four spiked chalices adorned some of the coins. Upon the rest, a hooded cloak did a poor job of concealing feminine features clutching a small dagger. Miittaani! She eyed the Black Knight as thoughts of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and demon worship played in her mind behind a hellish background of bloodstained wildlife. The southern peninsula's dark religion was, at best, the worst kept secret in all of Alast. At that moment, she realized that her supposed benefactor only answered half of the original query.

The Black Knight shook his head. "No, I'm not from Miittaani. I do not consort with devils and demons. I do not eat human flesh" Riri eyed his bodyguard through her peripheral. The Black Knight laughed and his mirth suppressed her uneasiness. "I like your boldness Riri Gast. I will tell you this." He brought the wine glass to his lips, paused as his nose wrinkled, and lowered it untouched. "I led the defenses during the empire's invasion of Miittaani."

His hand curled to a tight fist as he stared past her, mind lost in the past. "They're like locust, weeds- these legionnaires. For every one you kill, a dozen take his place. They won the war, but it wasn't enough. Like they did your people forty years ago, and the northern lands a few years after that, they seek to break a people of their will. They stormed my wife's home." he traced the outline of the hooded figure atop one of the gold pieces. "She was a priestess of Ba'al'rishna. Her magic was strong. An arrow shouldn't have killed her. But in the time of her greatest need, her fickle god withheld his blessing. She died in my arms. I swore to avenge her, but the gods intervened at my moment of triumph." His eyes, rimmed with lines of pain and determination, returned to the present. "I hate them."

Riri placed her hand atop his. "We all hate the Libaians. They owe the world much for the suffering they cause."

The Black Knight wrenched his hand from her gentle hold. "Do we have an agreement, Captain? I cannot succeed without you."

"Lord Tesq will never-" Riri paused, shocked with the swiftness of her own capitulation. She frowned at her perceived greed while eyeing the king's ransom glittering before her. At that moment, she realized that the money did not win her over. The story- his story- touched something deep within her. She imagined herself the avenger of the Old Wrongs. She saw an opportunity to put the lie to the teeth of lesser men who shunned her as a useless cripple. Her mind battled against the temptation overwhelming her reason. I should walk away. She recalled the eyes of her mother and found strength. She stood and turned from the treasure, taking satisfaction in her resolve.

The stranger began returning the coins to their pouch. "Your loyalty to this Tesq is admirable." Riri halted. "I hear you held the pass against overwhelming force, lost your hand in the melee." He tied the thong and passed it to his bodyguard. "They say Tesq called you worthless for your reward, promoted an idiot as your successor-"

Riri fled the man, the truth of his words forcing an internal confrontation with her fears. Visions of that final encounter with the horse lord drenched her in sorrow. He broke her, challenged her value in front of comrades after a great victory, and tossed her aside like so much rubbish. The fact behind his words hurt most of all. What value does a maimed soldier bring?

Upon exiting, Riri pulled the front door closed and rested against it. Tears streamed down her face as her stump flared with agonizing pain. The door opened, and she fell into a strong embrace. A fantasy of lovers caressing flashed in her mind. Riri fought against her body as tense shoulders and arms relaxed as he held her.

A bejeweled gauntlet caressed her wound. The onyx bauble on his finger seemed to rotate, the imperfect cut waxing and waning in an enrapturing dance with every revolution. The pain subsided, drifting away like smoke. Riri stared up at the Black Knight and caught an instantaneous grimace of pain. He returned the gaze, a hint of anger creasing his features. "Are you Asniums so primitive? Why does an injury as old as this pain you so? The infection still remains."

"I don't-"

"Of course you don't know. But I suspect you could recite the One Hundred Sacrosancts of your precious Secret Gods without fail. Religion," the Black Knight's nose twisted and flared with contempt, "the invisible chain of the ignorant." His face softened. He sighed. "You're a slave and you don't even know it." He severed the gaze, venturing backward as he released her. "Rmuk. The gold."

Moments of silence past before the beast pried her fingers open and placed the bribe within. The Black Knight nodded once, signaling a finality of sorts. "We march in four days." Riri nodded and turned. "Oh, and tell your mother I forgive her. I know some of your leaders do not agree to my presence. The poisoning of my drink was patriotic, in a matter of speaking. She needs not fear my wrath." The mercenary captain faced her new benefactor, shocked more by the display of benevolence than the accusation. He smiled and touched his nose before returning to the deserted inn.

Chapter One ~ Miscalculations

Riri Gast maneuvered her gilded war chariot behind a rise representing the natural border separating the cities of Asnium from the Libaias Empire. Her trio of horses, seeming to sense their master's apprehension, whined soft neighs while excavating the ground with steel shoes. She reassured the animals with an expert twist of leather reigns. A clean-shaven spearman sharing the chariot nodded in approval as the morning sun glistened off his baldhead. A scruffy archer, his pale skin a stark contrast with the spearman's ebony hue, flanking her right grunted a confirmation while unbuckling a simple leather cuirass. Riri pocketed the respectful gestures as a sign that the men would follow any competent leader, regardless of gender, regardless of deformity.

Captain Gast sensed a palatable tension while surveying her company of war chariots. She shared their trepidation as they changed into soiled cotton robes, obeying their benefactor's need for stealth. A miscalculation meant war against the fabled One Hundred Legions. Three thousand mercenaries stood little chance against one hundred thousand infantrymen.

The sound of approaching footsteps and foreign words caught Riri's attention. In the distance, a procession of hideous ogres, two thousand strong, marched toward the impromptu camp. Riri swallowed rising bile as the dread of the undisciplined hordes accompanying the Black Knight proved far more palatable than the imaginary threat of facing the One Hundred Legions. Suppressing memories of their weeklong march proved difficult, as scenes of ogres devouring captured enemy scouts arose unbidden. She did not begrudge the death of Asnium's enemies encroaching upon their lands, only the manner of it.

The monsters seemed to possess an unexplainable level of fear, respect, even love for the human leading the march. Riri admired his tirelessness. He favored marching with the horde, disdaining the horse she offered, and remained always armored in the dark mantle and chain skirt touching the tops of ebony boots.

The beasts stopped short of her camp, as always, but a dark silhouette crossed the invisible threshold, making its way toward her. Men paused in their work, offered bowed heads or salutes in its wake. The camaraderie never extended to physical displays of respect. Some shied away as he passed.

The shadow coalesced into the almond skinned stranger from unknown lands. His strange jewelry shimmered with each step. A sheathed long sword of unremarkable caliber swung from his left hip. In the right hand, he carried a pile of black and white blankets. The young man smiled, displaying gleaming ivory teeth while passing the ebony rags to her. "Put these on, Captain."

She frowned at the garment. Only Libaian slaves wore black. In anger, she threw the robe to the ground. "I am no one's slave." The din of human activity ceased. Riri noted her tone, the boldness of her actions, and gasped. "My Lord Bellemarr, I apologize." She lowered her eyes and prayed to the Secret Gods for Bellemarr to view her meekness as adequate.

The Black Knight said nothing as he retrieved the garment, shaking the dust and flecks of morning dew from it. "I understand, Captain. But you will have to trust me. A slave is invisible and can do things a normal citizen cannot." He unfurled an ivory gown decorated with crimson scrollwork along the sleeves and pulled it over his armor. "Stealth, my friend, is paramount." He walked off, toward the border city of Celecot. Riri rushed to follow while donning the thick robes.

The coarse linen itched and trapped unbearable amounts of heat. Lord Bellemarr nodded at her approach. "Good, you understand. Now heed these words. Stay behind me, always to the left and two paces behind. Keep your head down. Do not look left or right when Libaians can see you. And above all, do not speak."

They traversed the stone road, its straight paths and precise crossroads indicative of the unimaginative Libaian engineering. Riri could not help but regard the stark contrast of Celecot and the haphazard livestock trails that birthed the free cities of Asnium.

The Black Knight turned down a crowded street lined with Libaians of all castes. Disreputable looking vendors pandered questionable meats, tools, and wooden utensils from rickety carts, shouting over each other for custom. Wealthier merchants worked within stone buildings. A young seamstress dressed an ivory mannequin in linen. A fat grocer displayed slices of salted pork at his shop window. In the distance, heavy strokes from a blacksmith's hammer reverberated throughout the community.

Bellemarr approached a slender spice merchant adorned in a short-sleeved azure robe. He removed a rolled parchment from his robes. Riri noted the wax seal, a crimson eagle in flight, as the document changed hands. The men exchanged whispers in a foreign tongue, Bellemarr soft and calm, the proprietor excited and anxious. Coins exchanged hands before her master departed. He visited a wood worker, the blacksmith, and the grocer before leaving the merchant quarter. Each meeting ended with the turning over of a sealed message and gold.

They returned to the main road and headed east. Riri followed the Black Knight's instructions until he halted. She spared a glance from the stone road. A spiraling tower of brick and mortar commanded the roadside. Five legionaries, garbed in leather died with oxblood, formed a lazy guard around the entrance. Riri uttered a sigh of despair as Bellemarr led them into the lion's den.

A brute of man, large enough to look an ogre in the eye, peered down at Bellemarr, barking orders in the language of her enemy. Four hard-eyed men flanked the leader. Bellemarr smiled, displaying another sealed notice. The guard's tone seemed to shift, his baritone voice bordering on respect. More coins exchanged hands and a wall of crimson parted, allowing access to the tower. To Riri the men paid no notice, except the last, a wiry thing with stubble across a long chin groped her as she passed. Riri almost paused- almost.

They entered the cramped quarters. A small wooden desk, littered with documents, some opened some sealed, filled half of the first floor. An old man stood behind it, peering at a sealed parchment with a magnifying lens. A penknife shook in his other hand. The blade touched paper. Bellemarr coughed. The courier sliced the seal clean off and sheared the paper in two.

A face full of fury greeted them as Bellemarr took the room's lone chair uninvited. Bellemarr leaned forward. A menacing scowl marred his chiseled features. He challenged the old man in low tones, speaking the incomprehensible tongue of the Libaians. The elder's bluster deflated under the Black Knight's ire. The young lord stood, embraced the shamefaced administrator, and gestured in Riri's direction.

Keep your head down! The orders shouted in her mind as the gaunt Libaian ogled her. The old man took a cautions step, casting wary glances at Bellemarr. The Black Knight gave him a somber nod before climbing the winding stairs lining the tower.

Riri battled the revulsion she felt as knuckled, bone-thin hands pulled the cowl from her head. With bowed head, ebony hair filled her peripheral. A withered hand cupped her chin, forcing her to stare up into raven eyes. The lust behind the dark pools proved unmistakable.

The sound of birds screeching from above interrupted them. As he looked upward, the senior's eyes widened, as if trying to peer through the masonry. A second caw, pitiful and dying, spurred him into action. He attempted to clench Riri's missing limb, hidden beneath the disguise, and sneered once he realized the deformity. Clutching her forearm instead, he pulled the warrior upstairs with him. She struggled, contemplated killing the Libaian for a moment, before remembering earlier instructions.

A lone door greeted them at the top of the steps. The courier tried the handle, failed, and pounded on the wooden door. Spittle flew from thin lips as he shouted. Another screech answered the tirade. Hysterical, he turned toward Riri, drawing the penknife from his robes.

Riri backed away, imitating fear, praying to the Secret Gods for the strength to kill the fool. He raised the knife high. The door opened behind him, a gauntleted hand gripped his wrist and squeezed. The letter opener clanged to the stone floor as the Libaian howled in pain.

Shouts from afar and the loud bashing of fist of wood, echoed up the stairs. The Libaian shouted through the pain, leaning over the steps.

Bellemarr spared her a glance, his eyes narrowed to slits. "I had hoped for more time. But I miscalculated in using you for this ruse."

Riri pulled the garment from her body, using teeth and hand, exposing the leather mantle beneath. "You told me nothing of your ruse! What would you have me do?" She took a cautionary step back at Bellemarr's glower, the fear unfeigned this time.

The Black Knight released the prisoner and the whimpering fool collapsed, clutching his injured appendage like a lost child. Bellemarr disrobed, exposing the charcoal armor beneath, unsheathing his longsword while descending the winding staircase. "Do you think you can tie him up without botching things?"

She regarded him with silent incredulousness. Bellemarr halted, looking over his shoulder. "He is a loyal servant, not a combatant. We only kill when we must." He took another step before pausing once more, facing her, eyes filled with a mysterious wisdom belying his youth. "It's what makes us different from those you would call monster."

Shame coursed through her being as Riri nodded at his back. She began cutting the slave's linen into thin strips with the penknife. The nameless prisoner tested her, attempting to bull over the charioteer with his shoulder. Riri laughed at the masculine underestimation while driving a knee to his groin. Unperturbed, she bound hands and feet. The sudden clash of steel below turned her focus.

Five against one! Instinct took over as the captain abandoned the trial of tying up the resistant prisoner with one hand. She stretched for the small knife and drove it into the senior's heart, staining her hand crimson. She left him wallowing in his own lifeblood and sped toward the sounds of battle.

Bursting through the door, Riri beheld the impossible. Bellemarr held off five legionaries, their short gladius favored by the empire proving useless against his speed and the reach of his blade. None possessed a shield save one, the overlarge brute leading the charge.

Bellemarr gave her a cursory glance as the skinny soldier who fondled her missed his thrust, receiving a nick across the wrist for his efforts. "Did you take care of the messenger?"


The swordsman danced amongst the Libaians, his weapon a blur of parries and feints. "Go to the camp! Surround the city!"

Riri rushed to relay the order. A keg shaped legionnaire broke from the melee to intercept her. Bellemarr sliced his thigh as a parting gift, the blade sinking deep, and received a thrust to his unprotected flank from a longhaired youth.

Riri wanted to fight, relished in another opportunity to prove the doubters of her beleaguered past wrong. Yet the Black Knight ordered her to surround the city, so she ran- until a scream halted her. She faced the battle as bystanders ringed the combatants.

Bellemarr backpedaled over longhair as the boy screamed in agony. He struck a bearded fighter to his right in the face, parried an overhead strike from the groper to his left, and winced as the pervert used superior strength to drive the Black Knight backward. Steel rang against steel. Bellemarr received a slice above his eye from the giant and a precise thrust to his right calf from the keg-bodied one replacing a dying beard-face. Three stood against one.

Captivated by the bravery, Riri watched the knight, her knight, fight like the heroes of legend. She joined a ragged cheer from the audience as her champion impaled the groper upon his sword, screamed as giant's gladius bit into his forearm. Bellemarr retreated from the assault, leaving his weapon inside groper's chest. Reality overtook the euphoria blotting Riri reasoning as she realized that legendary heroes never took wounds. Bellemarr wailed in pain and backpedaled from the circling thugs. The storybook heroes never screamed in pain either. Two stood against one.

Weaponless, with wounds across face, leg, and arm, Bellemarr rushed the fat one and wrestled him to the ground. The men rolled around in a frenzy of curses and punches. Giant stalked the pile, short sword ready to plunge. Riri wasted little time as the brawl's rotation exposed the large one's back. She sprinted to the dead boy and retrieved his weapon. Fearless, the Asnium charged the Libaian. Shouts from the crowd threatened to expose the plan, but the large one remained focus on his task.

Bellemarr surfaced atop the rotund one. The giant shouted in triumph while thrusting his gladius downward. The Black Knight scampered away and the blade disappeared into keg-body's chest.

She stabbed the aggressor in the back as he tried to unsheathe his weapon from his colleague's gut. Not waiting for the body to drop, she rushed to the Black Knight, bleeding and broken. Riri helped him stand, placing his good arm around her shoulders.

He coughed, shaking his head as she pulled him into the tower, not trusting the intentions of the mob around them. "I told you to surround the city."

Riri slammed the door, tossed the ungrateful lord into the stone chair, and barred the door with the oak table. Secure for the moment, she faced the Black Knight. "If not for me, you'd be dead." She knelt in front of him and pulled the chain dress up, inspecting his wound.

"There is no need."

Ignoring him, Riri inspected the thigh, pushing, probing, kneading, and searching. Confused, she brushed away dried blood, and found unmarred skin.

A soft hand pushed hers away. "I told you there was no need."

Are the rumors true? Awed and frightened, she looked up into his chocolate eyes. "What are you?"

His eyes, dark pools hidden behind a tight curtain regarded her with suspicion. "A man, nothing more, nothing less." Outside, a crow cawed. Bellemarr's eyes grew wide. "I had no time to kill the last bird. Did you restrain the messenger?"

Riri tilted her head to the side, baffled by the query. "There was no time. I killed him." His nostrils flared at the answer. Injuries forgotten, or vanished, the Black Knight rose and took the steps three at a time. Riri followed, puzzled by the mystery.

A door stood ajar, displaying the trail of blood and fowl corpses within. The courier lay amongst blood soaked parchments, clutching a crimson quill in his death pose.

Bellemarr rounded on her, his expression furious. Although of a similar height, Riri felt small, insufficient, and shied from under the dreaded gaze. "Lord Bellemarr, what- what-"

"Your incompetence has wasted our time here. You had one job, one job! And you allowed this- this buffoon to best you!"

Her eyes watered and Riri prayed to the Secret Gods to steel her against the pain. He would not see her cry- he would not! "I don't understand. I had to save you. Surely you can see that."

Bellemarr sighed, a weary sigh. His shoulders slouched, as if the carrying the world. The Black Knight looked less a hero, and more the longhaired youth dead in the yard. He turned away, gazing out the window as the sun began its descent. "You were- compelled to disobey. It is a game as old as time. One you don't comprehend. I understand and forgive you." He faced her, demeanor calm, features icy. "Next time you feel compelled to countermand my orders, ignore it. If I tell you that a flea can pull a chariot, don't fight against it, simply believe in me and hitch the flea."

Bone deep shame flooded her being as the forgiveness hurt more than anger ever could. "I shall announce the retreat."

Bellemarr grunted in humor. "My ogres have instructions to sack the city should we fail to return by sunset. I have come too far to stop. Nothing will dissuade me from this course. But know these two facts. Every death here is on your head and when the legions march against us, it will be your fault."

Chapter Two ~ Costs

Riri guided her chariot atop a rise in the plateau. She wanted to see the spectacle reported by scouts with her own eyes. The Captain relinquished reigns to an unwashed archer and stepped around the vehicle. Stunned, Riri beheld the marching legions of the Libaias Empire, and marveled at the puny size of it.

She turned to a scout. The moonlight highlighted wrinkles and pocks littering his weatherworn face. "How many legions?" The scout shrugged. A second scout held up an open palm. Five. Shaking her head, Riri could surmise one obvious path. "A trap. A bad one." Five thousand men against one thousand chariots and two thousand ogres. Too even to call.

The enemy forces halted well short of bowshot. Fifty rows of men, five ranks deep, resembled fire ants against the landscape. Tower shields formed a wall as the Libaians prepared for an attack. A banner depicting a crimson eagle in flight rippled as a breeze passed.

Riri glanced over her shoulder. Bellemarr approached, fully armored, and marching on foot with his hordes. The Black Knight joined her, face an expressionless mask while surveying the pathetic resistance brought against them. "Don't let the numbers lull you into arrogance, Captain." He pointed to the center legion. "Those purple shields represent Legatus Marrinae Albus' forces. If she leads this band then it will be a long night."

"You know her?"

The mask fell, exposing a hint of anger, a hint of fear. "Oh, yes. I know her well. She was there when my wife died."

Bellemarr's silent bodyguard smiled, a sickening curl of bloated lips accentuating a scar outlining a socket where an eye once rested. "Gamageggz"

Bellemarr smiled as Riri leaped at the beast's first words. "Yes, Rmuk. Glory." His gaze, hazelnut orbs filled with unknown powers, stared into hers. "Have your chariots form two circles at each flank. Pound them with arrows." That searing stare looked up at the behemoth by his side. "You will lead the charge, old friend." Riri turned away from the sickening pull of his scar as Rmuk's smile widened.

Preparations took little time, as Bellemarr's stratagem resembled old tactics employed by her people during the war for freedom from the empire. She thought it a good plan, as tactics did not become old unless they proved successful. Riri snatched the reigns from the archer of her own team, prepared to lead the circle along the southern flank.

The Black Knight shook his head. "Your place is here, Captain"

Riri suppressed a grimace. He thinks me a cripple, useless. "My lord, I-"

"A general who fights beside his men may as well turn the command to someone else. You cannot lead from the fray, Captain" He focused on the row of ogres before him. "If you are too afraid to order your forces to die, then perhaps my trust in you is ill placed."

The surety of his tone, the calmness within his honey-dipped words nettled Gast so, even as his precious eyes melted the sharp sting of their meaning. She could not doubt his wisdom. A spearman snatched the reigns from her, nodding an agreement while ushering her from the chariot with a gentle shove.

Joining her liege, she stared at the backs of hulking brutes donned in ill-fitting armor sewn from pieces of mismatched leather. Rmuk alone wore anything resembling a uniform, thick charcoal bands of studded leather covered torso and thighs, a sickening imitation of his master.

The lack of focus and discipline startled Riri. A dozen to the left thumped chests in rhythm with gauntleted fists, shouting incomprehensible war chants. A second group shouted slanders across the green, as if the distant ranks of soldiers could hear. Chaos reigned through what Riri surmised to be an insult to all the militaries invented by men. Rmuk alone stood silent, massive hands rested atop a wicked greatsword with jagged teeth along one side, a warped parody of Bellemarr's calm demeanor.

The chariots flanked the opposition and formed two roving circles with one leader in the center. Each archer fired one shot, reloaded, and waited for the circle to come round once more before firing once more. Arrows fell like rain.

Riri gasped as the empire's flanking units changed formations. Shields formed a canopy above them, protecting them from the storm. Some arrows hit the mark, but many clanked off the umbrella.

Bellemarr grunted. "This is new." Riri panicked, looking over her shoulder to the one-hundred chariots held in reserve. Bellemarr shook his head, calm, implacable. "Do not commit the reserves. Rmuk!" The beast turned in time to see Bellemarr give an almost imperceptible nod.

The guardian of the Black Knight raised his weapon high. "Gamageggz!" The warrior charged, as did they all. They resembled a peasant riot as the ogres descended upon the Libaians, an unruly mob armed to the teeth and ready for murder.

Bellemarr touched her bare arm. A chill rippled down her spine. "They have a defense for every attack. We will use their tactics as a weapon. Send your reserves behind the Libaians and charge them."

Riri turned, clutching her maimed wrist, the signal to surround the enemy. A junior officer nodded, shouted the command, and led the unit to their position.

The clash of steel returned Riri's attention to the fighting as outnumbered ogres charged the ranks of men. A weak breeze carried screams across the landscape. Whistles blasted in a single note. The legions performed a disciplined shift, shuffling the second rank to the first. The fresh bodies proved no match against the brutes, as the press of bodies pushed the formation back.

Bellemarr paced, his steel skirt whisking against the leather padding beneath. He seemed a man ready to burst and unleash death upon all enemies. "Break, break damn you." The low chant barely carried amongst the violent sounds in the distance. "Break." His forehead creased in worry.

The Libaians did not break. The center legion, garbed in indigo armaments, began holding their ground. A second whistle of two short bursts prompted the rearguard of each legion to turn about, forming a wall of shield and sword as her charioteers crashed into them.

A hurricane of spokes and wood and men erupted as Riri's reserve pressed the Libaians back onto themselves. Her unit retreated for a second charge, only half their numbers survived the first wave.

A soft whisper of steel against leather turned her focus toward the Black Knight unsheathing his longsword. "They are too disciplined. Your chariots and my ogres do not fight well as one." A retort came to Gast's lips, but the words refused to come, as Bellemarr's mood shifted from apprehension to intense concentration.

He surveyed the cloudless sky, windows to the soul drawn to slits. "Thunder is nothing more than plates of ice rubbing against each other," he whispered as if in another world. "But no clouds." The strange man rested his sword's tip into the soft earth and squatted. With brow creased, drawing dark eyebrows close together, he removed a gauntlet and caressed the dirt as if massaging a lover. "The same here. It's deep. Two huge plates, shifting so slowly that you can barely sense it. But what is the cause? What manipulates the plates?"

He's gone mad. Yet the scene of wounds healing after a battle played inside her mind as the doubts swirled in contradiction.

The Black Knight sighed, frustration plain. "And what costs? There is always a cost."

Riri risked his ire by clasping his shoulder. "My lord, if you have something, best do it soon, we're losing- badly." He nodded with a look of defeat. She found it difficult to remove her hand.

Without warning, Bellemarr plunged the blade into the earth straight to the hilt. A shock coursed through Riri. She snatched her hand away and grimaced in pain. The Black Knight gazed upward, his irises without pupils. Strands of hair parted from his shoulders, floating amidst an unfelt wind. The diamond wristlet he wore began to shine, the glamour hypnotizing her, as the studs seemed to dance in a circle.

A distant rumbling from the west preempted soft tremors underfoot. The oddity did not alarm her, staring at his bracelet brought a sense of comfort, a feeling of apartness from the danger of more pronounced tremors.

Bellemarr unleashed a lusty eruption of emotion while unsheathing his weapon from the earth, stretching arms and sword overhead. Head still surveying the heavens, the Black Knight paid no heed to the deep fissure spreading between his feet and traveling toward the battle, expanding as it traversed the plain.

Riri screamed in horror as a cavernous gash divided the battle in two. The land rose and fell as an earthquake stole balance from man and beast. Unperturbed, the crevice continued along its destructive swath. Bellemarr howled in ecstasy, perhaps oblivion, as his own hordes became victim to the destruction.

A great spire of molten rock erupted from the severed earth within the Libaian ranks. Men died screaming, Ogres, brutal killers all, fled from the liquid fire that consumed life without prejudice. The Asnium's fled in a rout with chariots aflame or melting. And the horses- by all the Secret Gods, her precious horses died in agonizing songs.

Bellemarr's screeching seemed endless as he tore the world in two. Riri punched him hard and screamed as a second shock sent her reeling. "Stop it!" The sounds of death, the insane wailings of the Black Knight, stole the strength from her plea. Frustrated and afraid, she beat him with fist and stub, crying through the electric currents. "You're killing us all!"

The Black Knight seemed to hear, or perhaps he completed the song of death. No matter the reasons, he ceased, lowering sword tip to the ground. Bellemarr gasped, as if seeing the destruction for the first time. A pool of lava blackened, smoked, and cooled where the battle once took place. The plateau shifted where broken, north higher than south as far as the eye could see. The dead, far too numerous to count, littered the landscape where liquid fire did not reach. Nothing remained but charred carcasses and mutilated corpses where the invincible legions once fought. A ring of death, ogres and men, formed the petals of Bellemarr's flower.

He faced Riri with no sign of guilt etching his features, only a weary resignation, and a hardening around the eyes. "We march on the morrow." He collapsed into her arms.

Interlude ~ Glory

Rmuk scratched the scar where an eye once rested. The badge of honor always irritated as the night breeze invaded the crevice, but Rmuk never complained. Surviving battle with the God King heaped glory upon his name. The ogre studied torchlight dancing from the watchtowers of the man dwelling while standing guard outside the God King's tent. Soon the legends of the God King's path to glory would spread throughout the Lost Children of Ma-R. Soon the God King's prophesied rise to power would free his entire ilk from banishment. A shiver of delight spread through his being. So close, yet unattainable this night. Soon. Perhaps the next moon, or the one after, the God King would recover enough to call the attack. For now, he rested, as did they all.

His clan, with ivory skulls impaled by bloody nails painted upon their mismatched armor, feasted on charred man meat by the fire and beckoned him with silent gestures. A shake of his head replied, the honor of guarding his God King's convalescence superseding the desire for strong food.

Twenty ogre clans marched from the Aryn Desert beyond the mountains, a definitive response to their new deity's promise of war and glory. The half a dozen campfires flanking his own clan's flame seemed paltry in comparison, but his brethren died with glory, a true warrior could ask for no greater reward.

A woman's scream turned his attentions to his lord's tent. Grunts of appreciation rippled through the feast as ogres cheered their leader with fists filled with limbs and innards. The fools thought it a cry of pleasure. Rmuk surmised another theory and pulled the burlap flaps apart before ducking inside.

The God King sat atop a pallet, face buried in his hands, with a cotton blanket concealing his nakedness. The deformed woman ripped the blanket from his body and covered her own at Rmuk's entrance. The guardian growled at the insult and relished the sheer terror behind her dark eyes. An idle hand scratched his war wound. He smiled at the man mate's displeasure.

The God King pointed to the exit without lifting his eyes. "Get out." Although low, barely above a whisper, the tone implied punishment for disobedience. Rmuk inclined his head and turned. "Not you. Her."

The woman crawled across the carpeted floor, beseeching the God King with a whimper. "Bellemarr, please don't do this." Only now did Rmuk notice the purpling bruise on her cheek. "I love-"

The God King faced her as she spoke, stilling the words from her tongue. "Don't. Just leave- before I kill you. You've no idea what you've done to my plans. None."

She stood, clutching the blanket with the stump from her missing hand. Crestfallen, the woman walked with the gait of an elder, swaying side to side as tears streaked down her face.

Bellemarr eyes promised death as she passed. "There's a pouch on the chest. Take it." She flinched and looked ready to protest until the God King's eyes flared a promise of pain before death. "Take the money and leave!" She wailed in distress while snatching the leather bag. The tired walk disappeared as she fled from sight.

Rmuk awaited the God King's pleasure in silence, not deigning to speak unless beckoned.

His master arose from the pallet, naked save the jewels of power adorning neck, wrist, and finger. It pleased the guardian to see his master up and about. A folding table contained foreign fruit growing from pastures they passed and a chipped bottle filled with water. The God King took a long draft from the carafe, sighing in pleasure between gulps. "How long this time, old friend?" He spoke in the tongue of ogres with a familiarity that never ceased to amaze the warrior. Rmuk crouched and pulled a doeskin rug from the floor, drawing two circles and three crescents of various widths in the soil with a thick finger. "Five moons," the God King shook his head, "and I remember nothing." He drank once more, stopped, and peered at Rmuk. "You should never have let her in here."

The whisper cut like a sword, befuddling Rmuk. Did he not cry in pleasure during the night as they marched onward? Did he not scream the woman's name? Did he not ride astride her animal throughout the day? Silent as ever, Rmuk bore the rebuke and awaited judgment.

"Is there a river-" the God King fumbled, searching for the correct word, "big water nearby?"

Rmuk nodded once, reliving the horror of seeing so much liquid in one spot for the first time. In the desert, clan wars lasted a lifetime or more for waterholes no larger than a skull. He pointed over the God King's shoulder. The young man gathered some soapbark and left the shelter without a stitch of clothing. The shock almost caused him to speak. The God King, unarmored and weaponless, the scandal would bring great dishonor to the clan. Rmuk gathered the cotton undergarments, chainmail armor, and longsword before rushing toward the big water.

Rmuk paused as he watched the human grimace in pain while washing his nether regions with a fierceness of one in battle. His master glanced to where he stood, a look of utter despair marring his features. "I can't get it off." He scrubbed harder.

Afraid, Rmuk could find nothing out of place along his ruler's chest and abdomen. He wondered at this- weakling before him and craved the conquering warrior that united the clans. Rmuk swallowed, forcing the words out as his throat constricted. "I see nothing, God King. What do you wash off?"


Rmuk blinked with unfeigned confusion. "God King, I do not-"

"Of course you don't." The savagery behind the retort almost caused the guardian to smile. "None of you understand." A hand waved, taking in the ogres encircling his tent and the human vanguard. "All of this is game, a cruel, sick show. The gods control us like marionettes!" He stood, wet skin glistening against the light of a full moon. "My cause was just. A wife murdered simply for being what she was. She was no longer human, so Anurra dispatched his Avatar and her legions across the mountains. But did Ba'al'rishna guard his subject? No! He forsook her for the crime of-" the fierceness left his eyes as they lowered, "of loving me. Now her country lies in ruins, her people scattered." The God King's eyes met Rmuk's promising death. "But I learned, Rmuk. I learned the rules, rules not even the gods can circumvent. But now," the master paused, shaking his head. "My free hand is gone. I manipulated the Balance. I soiled myself with another woman." His shoulders rolled forward, hunched in defeat while crossing his arms. "Everything has a cost. The Balance will force a confrontation. The Avatar is free to intervene. I- I am not ready for that fight."

Rmuk filtered through sensory emotions that formed an ogre's history, the chill before a hunt, the sliminess of a foe's blood between his fingers, the bite of steel across flesh, the satiation after mating, the thrill of a battle that even the God King fears, a taste of ash on the tongue. Sensations clouded the memory he sought. A story told long ago, a tale of treachery, a battle, a wife slain while defending her husband.

Sensation overwhelmed him, anger flooded, obliterating rational thought. Rmuk stalked toward the God King, dropped his load, and cradled his master like a babe. His lord stared up with eyes fit to kill. "Your mate," he paused, allowing random thoughts to coalesce, "she died in battle?" The God King nodded while struggling from the ogres iron grip. "Much glory!"

The God King's eyes widened like a cub earning his first axe, or an adversary recognizing his own death. He nodded a slow nod of sudden comprehension. "It does make an odd sense. Perhaps I did not notice it in my grief. Perhaps- perhaps I chose not to notice."

Rmuk released him, sighing with relief that the warrior god would not make the rains flood the desert, strike him with lightning, or bring fire from the earth. The guardian stood, allowing the God King time to contemplate.

A grunt from behind caught his attention. Rmuk faced Tmis, a clan leader with a jagged sword, black with dried blood, tattooed upon his breast. The smaller ogre saluted as one would an elder, fist to chest with head slightly bowed. "The man things flee, Rmuk." He pointed to a commotion from afar.

The God King sucked his teeth as shadows raced toward inky blobs silhouetted against a starless horizon. "Everything has a price. Rmuk, form a barrier between them and the chariots, quickly. No matter their superior numbers, they stand no chance against us on foot." The warrior god began to clothe himself. If Tmis found that odd, his disfigured face betrayed nothing. "None must escape. They must pay for this betrayal. Kill them all." Tmis saluted once more and sped off. "No! Wait!" The God King curled his lips, a private smile. "There may be a way to salvage this mess." He nodded, affirming some private thought. "You will capture, not kill."

Chapter Three ~ Negotiations

Wooden chariots, destroyed by their ogre captors, formed an open cylinder around Riri's beleaguered forces. Although primitive, the bulky prison proved difficult to penetrate and escape. A handful of attempts left ten men dead. Every few hours, a platoon of beasts pulled five or six victims from the two hundred or so archers and spearmen and charioteers still alive. Screams echoing through the autumn night soon followed, and with it, an orgy of noisy feasting by their jailors.

Behind the mercenary captain, the colossal arch of reinforced wood securing the entrance to the city of Libaias dominated the landscape. The Black Knight, in his devilish genius, left the prison open, clearing a path to the capitol of the Libaian Empire. Spears and short bows formed neat piles beyond the confines of the open cell, a fool's temptation she possessed no desire to indulge. The taking of arms so near the city would sandwich her beleaguered forces between two packs of wolves, with the Asniums' playing the sheep. The quandary threatened to madden her. To the front lay an eventual death in the cook pots of former allies, to the rear, certain death in the hands of Asnium's mortal enemies.

The mercenary captain sat, legs crossed, elbows resting on knees, mind puzzling over a problem with no solution. The mute spearman, a third of her chariot team, obscured her view with his height and long limbs while staring through charcoal eyes of disdain. Unflinching, Riri met the glare. The silent one possessed enough decency and honor to lower his eyes. He does not understand. Every choice leads to death.

She surveyed the cramped quarters once more out of habit. A cluster of chariot teams huddled near the end of the crescent. No doubt conspiring their escape, the fools. One archer, his leather armor shredded beyond use, prayed with head bowed against the remnants of a chariot, pale lips mouthing the short hymn to the Secret Gods.

Secret Gods protect and guide us in all things. Show us the meanings of your teachings and make us whole.

Riri felt a tear trickle down one cheek and wiped it away. Prayers will not help us against- him. Fear to think the Black Knight's name filled her with shame, a shame expounded and worsened by the persistent aching to feel his touch once more.

The rattling of metal accompanied a chorus of grunts as her tormentors pried the primitive gates of their community jail apart. Five times this day; thirty-five men, maybe more, maybe less. She sighed, a weak release of hopelessness and despair. Secret Gods let them take me. I no longer wish to endure this. Eyes watered again, but Riri lost the strength to combat them.

An ogre, half as tall as a man and twice as wide, squeezed through the opening. Its leather apron adorned with spikes scraped against metal as it entered. Overlarge canines sprouted from its mouth like two tusks. It greeted the helpless captives with a smile, a sloppy wetting of bulbous lips, and a gleam of hunger within beady eyes. Massive hands, the hue of moss before the winter, gripped a long chain. It stepped toward the prayer, the nearest victim, and proceeded to bind the man in a makeshift noose.

The archer appeared unafraid, standing and lowering his head, giving the creature easier access. The ogre paused with a look of uncertainty creasing its brow as thick eyebrows met above a wide nose. The prisoner filled the inaction with his own, striking the beast in the throat.

Riri blinked in shock as the giant staggered backward, clutching the arrowhead lodged in his windpipe. "What have you-"

The soldier sprinted away, screaming incomprehensible words while making a run for the weapon cache. In the blink of an eye, this unknown assailant stole the impossible decision from her in an act of madness. His dash prompted similar responses from the rest of the unit as soldiers raced for the tantalizing stash well within range of Libaian archers, sweeping Riri away in the avalanche.

She picked up a spear, useless with a missing appendage, but the security of the wooden staff spiked with iron calmed frayed nerves. She turned to face the inevitable charge as ogres rushed to fill the gap. Ten brutes lined the prison wall, waiting, taunting her forces in their harsh dialect of grunts.

A low whistle screamed from behind. A grunt of pain accompanying the sure sound of steel piercing flesh followed. The mercenaries huddled at the sound of bodies dropping. Riri found no voice to order dispersion against the arrows. She waited for a storm of arrows, certain that death guaranteed an end to the inner turmoil, and twisted to view the city when none came. Odd.

"No archers?" A toothless veteran to her right looked down at her. "Your orders, Captain?"

The stray hope empowered her as the leader took the first step toward Libaias. "To the city gates, but spread out!" A mad dash followed the order. Arrows zipped past her and a handful of soldiers faltered under the attack. Expressions by those closest to her mirrored the private query. Why so few arrows? As she neared the battlements, the silhouette of a dozen archers outlining the sky provided an answer.

Before deliberating the reasons why Libaias would leave a skeleton garrison during a siege, the massive archway of oak creaked open. Instinct rippled through the mercenaries as spearheads and bows targeted the opening. Riri shook her head, motioning for them to lower their arms with a hand gesture.

A gorgeous woman marched from the gate, golden locks curled to armored shoulders, accentuating a heart shaped face. She wore the golden cloak of a Legatus, the fabled commanders of the One Hundred Legions. Riri knew in an instant that the woman's azure eyes and pale features marked her foreigner. A foreigner wearing the clothes of a Legatus? She spoke in the tongue of her enemies, words with long syllables holding no meaning to Riri's ears. The leader felt the eyes of her army watching for a response. Riri stepped forward with a sigh. "I don't understand you."

The stranger turned and shouted. A citizen, with the dark hair and olive complexion of a Libaian, garbed in ivory robes peeked through the crack in the double doors before stumbling forward. The Libaian spun about in obvious anger, but retreated as a behemoth of a man in the armor matching the first stranger exited the city. The Legatus surveyed Riri's troops, a frown of displeasure plain on his weathered face as he waved the younger man onward with an imperial gesture.

The citizen cleared his throat. "I am Senator Cormidus. To my left and right are Legatus Marrinae," he nodded toward the female warrior tapping her feet with arms crossed, "and Legatus Horatius."

Riri stared at the woman and tried to imagine this diminutive figure as Bellemarr's antithesis. Cormidus' expertise with the Asnium language caught Riri unawares. "You speak our language?"

Cormidus stepped forward with smoldering eyes of unfeigned fury. "I house many Asnium slaves. I make it my business to know the tongue of my enemies. Now, why are you here?"

Murmurs from her men filled the tense silence. Riri eyed them all with a turn of her head. The mute to her left coughed while lowering a spear, eyes followed the weapon in embarrassment.

The female spoke in a foreign tongue. Riri strained to comprehend but caught a sole word- Bellemarr. Shocked, Riri pointed in the distance with her spear. Legatus Marrinae tilted her chin up, as if seeking the Black Knight in the darkness. She stroked an ancient sword hilt secured beneath her belt, and Riri blinked in confusion upon noticing the lack of a blade.

Snapping fingers obscured the view as Cormidus demanded attention. "Why- are- you- here?" The translator almost stepped back before discovering some hidden well of courage.

Riri schooled her features, cursing herself for showing annoyance. "The Black Knight betrayed us." Cormidus translated as she spoke. "He trapped us between his men and the city. His ogres took us in groups and cooked my men to eat." She blinked away the tears. She would not fail her people by weeping in front of their enemies. She would not! "We had no choice but to chance a flight to the city. We ask for sanctuary."

The large one, Horatius, opened his mouth, but his colleague overrode him with her own request. Cormidus spied Riri, then Marrinae, and back once more, his face paling with each turn. A debate ensued between them, with Cormidus punching the flat of his palm with each word. The female Legatus shook her head and smiled while Horatius glowered in silence.

Marrinae seemed victorious as Cormidus faced Riri with a sneer. "Do you give oath to defend Libaias with all your strength until this siege is ended?" He held up a hand, cutting off any reply. "You will follow our laws, and you will," the senator sighed in defeat, "take orders from the Legati. After the siege, you are free to return home. These are our terms. They are not open to negotiation."

Riri absorbed the words for a moment. The terms seemed more than fair to an invading army, but something about the senator sparked a hint of mistrust. Her mother's word echoed from the past. A Libaian is good for two things; inventing better ways to kill people and lying about it. Old prejudices proved hard to surmount, even with a horde of carnivores at one's back. Captain Riri stared over Cormidus' shoulder toward Marrinae. The Legatus returned the look, azure eyes betraying nothing. In that instant, Riri decided to accept the offer. She stepped around an affronted Cormidus to approach Marrinae and kneeled at her feet. "I pledge my service and the service of my men to the defense of your city against the Black Knight."

Two hands pulled Riri to her feet. Marrinae nodded and smiled before embracing the captain. Her new benefactor murmured incomprehensible words. The comfort and affirmation behind them was not lost to Riri, or her men. A chorus of shouts and cheers sparked life into a night filled with death. For the first time in the history of the empire, a foreign army entered the capital of Libaias under arms.

Chapter Four ~ Balance

Riri sighed and watched a chill breeze carry her misty breath away into the star filled night. She sought calm and tried to conceal disdain while surveying the suspicious gathering of peasants surrounding the grain silo her people guarded. When first given the order to guard the silo by Marrinae, Riri questioned its importance. Seeing the anger and hunger and desperation within the eyes of the mob revised her thinking. Riri shook her head at the chaos. Did the fools not understand that fighting men, men expected to die defending the besieged city, needed food?

New mothers clutched screaming infants as they pleaded for sustenance. Angry adolescents pushed the limits of Asnium discipline by pelting the mercenaries with withered fruit cores and animal bones. Brazen men taunted the guards by thrusting broken pitchforks, rusted blacksmithing tools, scythes, and dirks toward the soldiers. Only Riri's ring of sharpened steel, arrow and spear, held the peace by a taunt thread.

A female Legatus struggled through the crowd and stood between the two factions, hands stretched to her sides in an attempt to widen the gap. Riri recognized the golden locks of Marrinae, her savior, and wove through the tight ranks of mercenaries to stand beside the Legatus as she tried to calm the mob in the Libaian tongue. Although she could not comprehend the words, the captain could see hateful eyes tighten, hear the angry mumbles soar to a thick crescendo. She tugged on Marrinae's leather cuirass, trying to pull the fool away from the mob. You cannot reason with them, Marrinae. They see you as they see us, a foreigner stealing their food. The Legatus fought against her efforts and returned to her endeavors. Riri stood helpless, a slim branch against the tornado. She envisioned one inevitable outcome, the shedding of blood.

Something slammed against her face. Captain Gast fell to the ground as she clasped the wound along her temple and felt warm blood ooze through her fingers. Though still lost in a mental fog, Riri recognized the clear twang of a bow's recoil, an arrow's soft whistle through the air, and the sickening squish of metal piercing flesh. "No!" She tried to stand, to calm her forces, and fell to the ground as a wave of dizziness washed over her. The stalemate, reed thin, flimsy, snapped.

More arrows began their song of death as they joined the first. Angry shouts begat frightened screams as people died. Frightened screams begat shrieks of rage as the mob surged forward. The ring of steel tightened around the silo as the mercenaries fell back, exposing Marrinae and Riri to the advancing horde.

Riri glanced up at a slim youth whose overlarge garments fell from his pale shoulders. The young man raised a knife above his head. Riri, still nauseous, mustered enough strength to raise her injured arm. Riri prayed the Final Sacrosanct as custom dictated and awaited her end. She screamed as pain exploded above her heart.

A hand caught the boy's wrist. A fist struck him across the nose. The youth joined Riri upon the cobblestones. Riri glanced to her right and saw Marrinae dance amongst the crazed mob as she fought those closest to their position. While thankful for the intervention, Riri knew it would not stop them, she knew it would not stop the inevitable.

Numbers overwhelmed the female warrior as peasants attacked Marrinae from all sides. Riri tried to shout as a stout citizen struck the Legatus from behind with a large rock. Marrinae's knees buckled for a moment. In the next instant, she unsheathed her bladeless sword and raised pommel and hilt to the sky. Fire erupted from the item and stretched toward the sky. The plume sprouted leaves of flames that fell to the ground, dispersing the crowd as a fountain of fire rained upon them.

Riri felt spellbound by the display of power. In that moment of destruction, she comprehended why the Libaians allowed a foreigner to reach the highest echelons of their military. As the populace died, she thought back to the moment when Bellemarr unleashed his power and understood his wariness against attacking the city outright. It's not the army he fears. It's her.

The pain in her chest receded. Yet Riri still felt the severed vein pumping her life's blood out. Liquid, cool and sticky, trekked down her chest, seeping into crevices and cracks within her battered armor. So, it doesn't hurt when you die. The thought, distant, hazy, drifted away as fast as it came.

A dull throb began behind Riri's eyes, intruding upon her peaceful descent into oblivion. The feeling called him, summoned him from the fate that awaits all living creatures. She fought the strange power with an infant's strength. Against her will, Riri opened her eyes.

Marrinae kneeled before her. A tight smile creased a grim visage as she helped Riri to stand. The captain traced a finger where the knife struck and felt smooth skin. She gazed at Marrinae with unfeigned admiration and wished they spoke the same language. Instead, Riri pulled the Legatus into an embrace, and beheld the horror around them.

Riri pushed Marrinae away and stood. She spun in a tight circle. All around them charred Libaians and Asniums lay in haphazard poses. The sweet stench of burnt flesh filled the air. Around the ring of death, Libaias, capital of the Libaian Empire, burned.

Riri beheld Marrinae once more. Golden locks obscured her face as the Legatus stared at the stone walk. They shared an awkward silence before Marrinae turned and fled the murderous scene. Riri shook her head at the tragic irony. Bellemarr did not need to take the city by force. He could wait as Libaias tore itself apart.

Epilogue ~ Culmination

Rmuk relaxed his vigil of the God King as the human enjoyed a morning meal of strange fruits and water. He mimicked the God King's posture, legs crossed while sitting on the carpeted floor of the command tent. However, the ogre could only feign his master's composure. Last moon's vigil, interrupted by screams from the large man dwelling, replayed in his thoughts. He recollected the scent of fear filling his nostrils, the chorus of screams filling the night, and the fire- God King protect us- the fire! The ogresbane purged all moonlight as it swirled from the man dwelling, a portent of doom if there ever was, gone an instant after saturating the sky with its omen. Yet in the midst of it all, surrounded by six score of his kin, the God King smiled at the chaos, reassuring all that it was his will.

"Are the catapults complete, Rmuk?"

The voice snapped Rmuk to the present. He paused, confused.

"The siege engines, old friend. Did you complete them?"

Confusion persisted. "Ceginjun?"

Thin lips pursed in displeasure for a moment- only that- but the moment stretched into an eternity for the ogre. A flicker of worry at the loss of honor from displeasing the ogre clan's resurrected deity nestled in the pit of his gut. The God King sighed. "The- man weapons, Rmuk."

Ah yes, the man weapons, odd contraptions of wood and iron and hemp. Rmuk smiled, reliving last sun's pride drifting across the breeze as his kin tore apart the moving man huts and remade them per the God King's direction. He nodded, imitating the man movement of affirmation.

The God King smiled, returning the man movement while biting into a sour smelling ball of purple mush. "Did you load them as I asked?" His lord smiled at a second affirmation. "Good." The God King rose, already dressed in charcoal raiment and shimmering jewels. "Let's win an empire."

Rmuk leaped to rouse his kin, pulling the tent flaps apart. The God King grasped his elbow. "Only you and I will enter the city, old friend. The others must guard the city once I've arrived."

Rmuk gasped, pole axed by the change in plan. "No- no glory, God King?" The query felt leaden, ashy on his tongue. His kin possessed no such combination of syllables in their language. The lack of battle, after all this time-

"You question my judgment," the God King paused, forcing Rmuk to meet eyes closed to slits, "old friend?"

Rmuk swallowed, tracing the outlines of his wounded eye socket before bowing his head. "No, God King." His liege smiled before exiting.

Rmuk escorted the God King to one of the beasts men used for walking. It stood alone in the distance, attacking tufts of grass with a hoof. The God King mounted the midnight coated beast encased within ebony chamfron and saddle armor. The dark combination seemed to blot the rising sun.

The God King strode toward Rmuk. "Will your clan remember how to operate the man weapons, Rmuk?"

"Yes, God King."

"Good, see to it then." Without waiting for a response, the lord turned his beast toward the city and waited.

Rmuk selected clan mates for the honor, knowing the price for shunning stronger clans. He ignored the promises for vengeance. The God King's Peace would keep and none would challenge his authority here, under the eyes of their god. Soon, two clan mates stood ready at each man weapon.

Although lacking comprehension, Rmuk maintained his faith in the God King's plan. Without questioning the motive, without rationalizing the result, the ogre leader commanded his clan mates to fire the man weapons. "Iazifilouh!"

Wood creaked. Taunt rope snapped. Oblong projectiles sailed into the air, arching toward the man village before disappearing behind the walls. An eerie silence followed. Rmuk spied his god leaning forward, studying the man dwelling. Ogres not selected to operate the man weapons began inspecting weapons and armor as they stood, preparing for the worst.

A loud cry erupted from the man village, a distinct counterpoint to last moon's music. Confused, Rmuk sought his god and found him smiling. "Keep firing, old friend."

Rmuk joined the crews, assisting them as they cocked the weapon back for a second shot, aiding with the loading before ordering another round. Wood creaked. Taunt rope snapped. An odd assortment of man food flew across the sky, drenching the man village with fruit and bread and fowl. Joyous chants filled the atmosphere.

After a third volley, the gates to the man village flew open. Rmuk reached for the sword strapped to his back and paused as no enemy stormed their position.

"Come, old friend." The God King guided his mount toward the open maw of the man dwelling.

Rmuk relayed the God King final orders before sprinting to catch up. The ogre remained a pace behind the four-legged beast, confused by the wrongness of this apparent victory, faithful despite it.

They crossed the threshold of no return. Row upon row of silent man things lining the pathway greeted them. Rmuk spied each face as the God King passed, searching for any sign of hostility. He nodded at the awestruck facade of a wrinkled creature no taller than his thigh, smiled at a little thing no larger than his forearm clutching a slice of bread as if salvation lay within, and sneered as he spied the God King's mate cowering under his gaze.

The God King paused, surveying the enraptured crowd. He said nothing, but something made the man things bend knee in an unscripted dance, a wave of homage to their new ruler. The wrongness of his master's triumph dissipated in that moment, as he too bent the knee.

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