Markus crumbled the slip of paper together and held it to the candle flame, marveling as it caught and became fully consumed by the fire.
“That bad, huh,” came from the viper sitting across from him. Adelaxia happened to be his wife but her love poison to his ears. She crossed her ankles over his lap as she arched herself back over the chair to reach for the platter of fruit on the table. Her little stunt seemed awfully complicated for the fact that she wanted to eat a grape. She plucked a single purple ball from the vine and tossed it into her mouth, smirking at him as she chewed it.
The grape was only a means to an end of what she intended and from his vantage he had a perfect view of her petite breasts only barely concealed by linen. The message didn’t go unnoticed by Markus but he shoved such lustful thoughts aside for the time being.
“Much worse,” he began and brushed her feet off him. “It appears our suspicions all these months have been correct.”
The playful look in Adelaxia’s eyes dimmed as his words finally dawned on her. She averted her eyes to the map tapestry hanging from the wall, a remnant of the old empire and the borders they once shared through the universe. “What are you going to do about it?”
“We,” he corrected. “I’ll have to mobilize my standard-bearer at once.”
“We’ll be seeing him today to congratulate him on his renewed fatherhood.” Markus massaged his temples to ease away the pain of having to deal with yet another war. It appeared peace would elude him forever. Only a swift and decisive victory could prevent a year-long bloodshed. He went to the dresser and changed into his most lavish robes and weighed himself down in gold trinkets, rings and necklaces.
Adelaxia came from behind and slipped her arms around his waist as she studied him in the mirror. “We’ll get through this. Just as we made it through everything else in life by taking one step at a time.”
Markus solemnly nodded, aware that their lives were at stake if he failed and troops stormed their world. After finishing getting dressed, he instructed his scribe and sent out messages to the commanders within his satrapy before joining Adelaxia once more. She considered herself a free spirit and didn’t bother changing into anything more presentable to the Padishah Emperor, Justinian I. There were two things he loved about her that kept him from seeing other women. The first, her skill and talent to challenge him in bed, and the other her innate ability as a realmwalker mage to open up portals to other worlds. Both saved him a good deal of coin.
Adelaxia’s sun-kissed skin shimmered as she accumulated magic and drew a spell in the air. A tear formed where she slid her fingers and ripped open. Untamed energy sizzled through and would threaten to devour the city if she didn’t contain the portal. She gritted her teeth and clasped her hands together as she began to stabilize the magic. Her chest heaved as she finished the process and turned to Markus, holding her hand out and waiting for him to take it so they could enter together.
They drifted through the void between worlds for a sparse few heartbeats in which he felt weightless. Streaks of light shot out from every which way as they passed through the other side and appeared outside the Imperial Palace on Aequila. Portals required prior knowledge of the destination, making ventures into the unknown dangerous which was why realmwalkers spent the first three years of their apprenticeship traveling the known routes with a master. Markus could trust her enough to not get them stuck inside of a wall.
Despite all the training, Adelaxia became a master by the age of seventeen. Eager as she was, she constantly strove for new heights and soon had her sights set on him. Markus couldn’t and didn’t want to resist her for long and let her sink her nails into him. Markus moved to the doors leading to Justinian’s court when a guard stepped forward and blocked his path with a spear. “His Imperial Majesty is celebrating and doesn’t wish to be disturbed at the moment.”
“Lower your weapon. Do you know who you’re speaking with?” Adelaxia snapped. “This is Satrap Markus Relius!”
“Satrap? I apologize, my lord, but the Emperor does not wish to be disturbed. He-he’s celebrating the birth of his son.” The guard shied away, lowering his gaze out of fear he may make the wrong decision and end up on the Emperor’s bad side.
“It’s quite all right, he’s only doing as he’s been instructed. Why don’t you go on ahead and tell the Emperor I need to speak with him urgently.”
The guard looked from him to Adelaxia and nodded, slipping behind the doors while they remained behind.
“We don’t have to wait.”
“Calm yourself. A few minutes aren’t going to turn the tide here now,” Markus said, resting his hand on the pommel of the khanjar.
After a few moments the doors swung inward by servants and he was greeted by the Emperor sitting atop his throne.
“Markus! Come in, come in and take a seat at my side.”
They did as he said and strode across the carpet laid out through the center of the great hall. Lavish drapes hung from the pillars. Flutes played from a corner while a half dozen burners gave off incense into the air. Young, barely clad women roamed the hall as far as the eye could see. The longer he looked, the more certain he became of the deadly assassins amongst them.
Battle Maidens. Legendary daeva bound to ancient relics and forced to heed their master’s will. Each was a specialist for a particular weapon type but they were all equally lethal.
Padishah Justinian beckoned them closer and indicated to a pair of pillows by his throne. Markus couldn’t help but notice the eyes of his friend wander to Adelaxia and the smile that formed as he marveled her body. He giddied on the throne and clapped his hands. A serving girl stepped forward with a pitcher but Markus shook his head and declined.
“Please, allow me to introduce Adelaxia.”
Adelaxia took the pitcher from the girl and filled up the Emperor’s goblet.
“Ohh, I see you’ve got yourself a nice one.” He eagerly emptied the goblet to keep her at his side. “I’ve never been one to part with what I like. It’s been ages since I’ve seen you. You should really come and visit me more often.”
“Yes, well, that’s because I’ve been busy ruling the satrapy you so generously gave to me.”
“I understand. Ever the dutiful one but come, you must celebrate with me. It’s not every day one becomes a father after all.”
Markus clanked goblets with Justinian but sipped on his wine while the latter downed the drink in a single go. The news from earlier still troubled him and he needed to confront Justinian about it as soon as possible. “I apologize in advance for tipping the mood but matters are urgent. The former Shah has rallied an army of fifty thousand, mostly mercenaries and bandits from the Frontier and Outer Realm. I’ve put my forces on alert but they won’t be able to hold off such a large-scale attack for long.”
Justinian stopped drinking, his eyes cresting the rim of his drink as he took him in. His expression soured, and the musicians stopped playing while silence spread throughout the hall. “So the old crow’s come out to die after all. Was wondering if the elements already got him or if he’d face off against me one last time.”
The former Shahs had ruled over the Outer Realm for centuries with a decades-long war against Aequilla and the Inner Realm. Justinian, with the help of Markus, managed to crush the army five years ago which allowed Justinian to take on the title of Padishah.
“It appears he’s been biding his time to recruit an army. His forces threaten my satrapy but they won’t get far without a fight against my guard units.”
Justinian grinned, playing with the rings on his fingers. “No matter. He who controls the Maidens rules the universe. Where is it their forces are gathering?”
“Khyam. I’d be willing to lead an army there myself.”
“Nonsense. You should stay and celebrate with me. The Battle Maidens will make short work of their continued rebellion.” Justinian smiled at Adelaxia and beckoned her closer. “You got yourself a fine husband. A good friend of mine.”
“You’re too kind, Your Majesty,” Adelaxia said, her cheeks blushing ever so slightly as she filled his cup with more wine. “I’m the fortunate one for him to take me.”
Justinian grabbed her ass and barked a laugh. Markus bit his tongue not to speak out against him. He lowered his gaze to the floor and accepted it for what it was. Adelaxia knew what she was getting herself into when she accompanied him inside the palace. She could have waited outside for him to return but seeing him lay his hands on his wife spurred an anger in him he never usually felt. The calm he wore so dignified trickled away.
“Attia … I want you to go to Khyam and bring me the head of the pretender. His skull should adorn these halls to remind anyone who refuses to submit of the consequences.”
“Very well,” Attia said, rising from her cushion behind the Emperor. She glanced at Markus before vanishing in thin air.
Out of the seven Battle Maidens Justinian possessed, three remained on watch inside the Great Hall but wore more casual clothing to fit in to the guests. Markus knew each and everyone of them during his time with Justinian battling the lords, and later the Pashwa Empire, that held them.
“What about you, when will we get to celebrate the birth of your child?” Justinian asked, smiling as Adelaxia refilled his goblet. “And don’t come with any lame excuses like you haven’t found the time to nail her to the bed. One can always spare five minutes.”
“Soon enough, I hope. We’ve only just married and would like to enjoy the time we share before having to split it between a family. Isn’t that right?”
Adelaxia perked up, quickly putting a smile on her face as she realized he’d been referring to her. “Oh, mhm. Surprises usually come when you least expect them and at the most inopportune time. It’s what makes them a surprise after all.”
“Ohoho,” Justinian growled, slapping his knee. “Sounds like she has a confession to make.”
“Speaking of which, I have one of my own to make.” Markus flashed a grin as the doors to the Great Hall burst open. In poured dozens of Raksha guard units followed by a handful of magi wielding fire and setting the lavish drapes alight.
Guests screamed as they attempted to flee but were caught in the middle of a battle.
In that very moment, Justinian sent the Maidens out to confront the enemy. They whisked past Markus, drawing their weapons at breakneck speed. The Raksha redirected their attention to the oncoming women but their movements and strikes were slow in comparison and left them astonished as the Maidens cut them to pieces.
Markus gripped his khanjar, pulling the ornamental dagger out of its scabbard. He had the blunt blade sharpened just for the occasion and thrust it up beneath Justinian’s jaw and into his skull. His friend’s eyes widened as he lashed out futilely.
“Shh, it’s okay. You may find peace at last.” He twisted the dagger and ended the rule of the Padishah Emperor Justinian I. He slumped over and the fighting died out almost immediately as Justinian was no longer able to supply the Battle Maidens with magic and keep them in the world.
“You’ve done it.” Adelaxia’s voice trembled. She swiftly moved in and embraced Markus, kissing him on the neck as she squealed with joy. Not even his desire to have her on the spot could mask the stench of death and smoke building in the hall.
“It appears we underestimated your dedication,” came a voice from the entrance. Kalim, the richest satrap in all the empire stood with a silver dragon perched on his shoulder. His eyes narrowed onto Markus. “I’ll be needing the relics now.”
Markus shoved Adelaxia aside and rose. “We need to find the child first and foremost.”
“Of course,” he said. “I’ve already sent my men to deal with that. Now if you’d be so kind.”
Markus turned back around to where Justinian’s body laid slumped over to find Farid plucking a ring and slipping it over his own finger. A dark cloud appeared in front of him and took on the form of a young woman with short lavender hair and a bow in her hand. The blue tint under her eyes gave her a defiant appearance.
Farid burst out into laughter as he fumbled around his waist. “It worked. You’re actually mine now and have to do whatever I command you to.”
“As you wish, master.” Mitra narrowed her eyes at her summoner. He gripped her shoulder and brought her down to her knees in front of him.
Markus fumed as he stormed over, turning Farid around and effortlessly snatching the ring out of his hands. “Give me that you fool. We’re not here to pleasure ourselves but to liberate. Find the Lady Calisma and the child too. We can’t allow them to escape.”
Farid eyed the dagger Markus held and gulped before raising his trousers once more. “I’ll get right on it.”
Markus nodded, watching him go before he turned his attention to the ring. He put it on and channeled some magic to the item, feeling it vibrate under his influence. He smiled and gave it some more. Adelaxia approached him, laying her hand on his arm as she watched in anticipation.
Mitra reappeared, sizing up her new summoner with a raised eyebrow. She kneeled before him and pressed a fisted hand to her chest. “At your service, master.”
Adelaxia’s grip tightened. She jumped on the spot and let out a yelp. “Quick, grab the other relics and become the Padishah Emperor. You can finally rule the universe!”
Kalim stepped forward, interrupting their celebration. “I don’t think so. It’s better if we abolish those ideas and return to a more decentralized way of life.”
“I can’t let you do that. We need to align our forces, if we’re going to defeat the Darkness.”
“There will be enough time to deal with fairy tales once we all have our fair share of the reward.”
Markus held his khanjar to the side, blocking Kalim from accessing the Emperor’s corpse. “We already went over this. There are more urgent matters at hand.”
“I didn’t help you overthrow the Emperor just so you could crown yourself as the next,” Kalim said. He held out his right hand, a dark mist seeping out of his grip and onto the floor. It piled up, taking on a human form. A daeva captured to fight for him. Not just one but three of them appeared heavily armored with helmets concealing their faces.
Even so, Markus could still make out their dark faces and dangerous weapons at hand. “We shouldn’t be fighting but it appears you leave me no choice but to determine the best course of action for all of us. Prepare for defeat.”
Mitra threw her hands to the floor, creating a smokescreen around her and Markus and moved him to a safe distance before redirecting her attention to the daeva roaming the halls. She pulled back on her bow, loosing two arrows in quick succession into the smoke. A soft clank gave away the fact that she managed to hit one of them and Mitra pounced on the opportunity, pulling the string back further and applied magic she received from Markus into her arrow. It flew across the great hall at a lightning quick pace, bursting through the armor and sending the daeva flying back against the wall. He grunted out in pain and slid to the ground unmoving.
“You’ll pay for that,” Kalim said and in that moment Markus realized the mistake Mitra had made in bringing him away and leaving the remaining relics undefended.
Sure enough, Kalim rushed forward and used his summons as a shield to block Mitra’s attacks and help pin her down. The dragon perched on his shoulder leaped into the air and soared along the ceiling, eying them all. Kalim reached Justinian and pulled a ring from his body.
“Concentrate on taking him out,” Markus said, channeling more energy to her. Mitra worked efficiently, quickly mopping up the summons using their bodies as shields and focusing on Kalim. She pulled back on her string, bundling the excess energy into her arrow as she loosed it. The arrow darted across the hall before taking a sharp turn and burying itself into a pillar with an explosion. Chunks of rock and wood scattered through the hall after someone managed to deflect her attack.
The dust slowly cleared away, allowing the nimble form of Attia to appear with her dual blades held at the ready. Markus gritted his teeth, focusing all his effort into ending the conflict before it spread. Justinian sent Attia away but with Kalim in possession of the relic, he could summon her right back to the scene of battle without delay.
The remaining separatist summoners entered the hall and joined Kalim with their daeva. Their combined strength would easily overcome his own. Mitra pulled another arrow out of the air and notched it. He didn’t need to speak in order to communicate with her and he could tell she felt the tip of balance as well.
“You don’t have to die here,” Kalim said. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and grinned as Attia drew Adelaxia out from cover. “You helped relieve us of the tyrant. Take your Maiden and go back home so we may live as equals.” Markus glanced over at Mitra and combed his hand through his hair in resignation. All of them gained the power of a Battle Maiden but lost all the same. The Darkness would snuff them out like a candle in the wind.