The streets of Ryhad were bare. All the doors and windows barred up, but in between the cracks, Helodion could still make out the curious gazes of the inhabitants.
People on the Frontier weren’t the purest of souls and had plenty of reasons to distrust an imperial soldier, but for the entire township to shut themselves away seemed out of the ordinary. They no doubt heard about Justinian’s fate and perhaps they feared the repercussions or being made a scapegoat.
Helodion waited for the rest of his company to arrive through the portal at the square. A total of a hundred heavy cavalry men made it and took to the streets, supplies and gear in the baggage waggons trailing behind. The garrison wasn’t far off and he hoped to discover more answers there. His orders were explicit, to rally with the remaining forces and prevent the Gem of the Frontier, the city of Ryhad, from falling into enemy hands. A hundred thousand people lived there, more than anywhere else on the Frontier.
As they continued down the cobbled street, he noticed even more of the sandstone buildings were barred as well. A barricade of carts and stools stood at a street corner, blocking their path.
Helodion signaled for his men to halt and turned to his second in command, Kaspar. He didn’t like the pieces of information he garnered, nor the way in which they could fit together. His instincts itched under armor, warning him of a trap. “I want the men to dismount and remove the barricade. Send a party ahead and find out what happened here.”
“Looks like the place is geared up for battle.”
“The question is; against whom?”
Kaspar pointed to one of the closed up homes on the corner. “Why don’t we just go and ask these people? They’re bound to know a tad more than us.”
“Let’s not make things worse by barging in there. We don’t want to escalate the situation. We’ll wait for the scouts to return from the barracks.”
An uneasy mumbling broke out in the line behind him and whether they were walking straight into an ambush. They wore heavy armor and could fend off most volleys of arrows but an ambush with dozens crossbowmen would still take down a few good men. Helodion silenced them all by having them take up a defensive formation on the street until they had pushed aside the barricade.
It took five men to shove the cart off to the side of the street. It had been heavily laden with everything the people could find and the wheels broken.
After a few minutes, a group of magi came running down the road ahead. “Are you the reinforcements we requested?”
“Yes, yes, we are. You mind telling me what’s going on?”
“Of course, but I think it’s better if I show it to you myself.” The mage pulled back their hood, revealing herself to be a woman in her late twenties with shoulder long dark brown hair. She leaned to the side and gazed at his company. “There are more on their way?”
“This is all I’ve got, but we were told others would rally here as well.”
“I see,” she said, lowering his gaze. Her shoulders slumped as she turned and beckoned for Helodion to follow her. “I’m High Mage Soraya Amini. Come to the tower and I can show you what we’re up against.”
Helodion followed her into the upper district where the Mage Guild was set up, including the highest tower in all Ryhad. A handful of magi milled about at the gate and eagerly opened it for Helodion and Kaspar to enter before shutting and locking it again.
“Just this way, please,” the mage said, holding out her hand. Her voice was sweet but firm and he imagined she must have been an amiable woman before venturing out to the Frontier. They entered the tower with its spiraling staircase of what appeared to be over a thousand steps to get to the top.
Helodion froze and stared at the gigantic task ahead of him when Soraya cleared her throat and opened the latch of a lift to carry them to the top.
“We’re hardly as barbaric as you might assume. Our troubles began the other day when word first arrived of the Emperor’s death. The tribes of the desert heard of this almost as soon as we did and rallied behind the warlord Djarius,” Helen said as it carried them to the top. They stepped off the lift and wandered through a tidy office filled with books and maps on the Frontier. Helen opened the door to the balcony.
Helodion heard the name before, during the Magi War. Djarius fought for the Great King, Shahanshah Razil but turned freedom fighter once the tide of war had shifted and crowned himself in the wake of the Razil’s death.
Darkness bathed the city in black with Helodion having trouble making out the various structures. His heart sank when he realized the circle of torches surrounding the city weren’t part of the wall but belonged to a force outside the city. He gave up counting and turned to Kaspar. “It looks like we came just in time. I’ll have to speak to the commanding officer and get a strategical overview of the situation.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Soraya said. “The imperial soldiers abandoned their position when Djarius arrived to join him. They pillaged the city and opened the gates to pledge themselves. We were able to secure the gates and seal them but lost our realmwalker in a skirmish.”
“You mean to tell me that the army they meant us to reinforce is out there?”
Soraya nodded. “A quarter of them, yes. The desert tribes killed the others and took their armor and weaponry off the bodies. When can we be expecting the rest of the army to arrive?”
Helodion moved back inside and shut the door behind him. “We’re all that was left to join in. All other forces are occupied elsewhere. I need to get back and report the situation.”
“Unless you have anyone else opening a portal here soon, we’re stuck here for the time being. We only had the one realmwalker stationed here.”
Helodion raised his brow. “And how often do portals open up? I mean, there’s got to be interplanetary trade.”
“Yes, of course. Thrice a week we’d have traveling merchants come by, but I’m not sure how the war will affect their timetables. I rushed down as fast as I could when I felt the portal opening up in the square.”
“Lieutenant, set up a watch at the arrival terminal. We need to get a message through and have a realmwalker sent to us as soon as possible,” Helodion said. “Have they made any attempt to breach the walls?”
“When the soldiers deserted, they attempted to keep the gates open and storm the city, but ever since it’s been closed, they’ve encircled and showered us with arrows.”
Helodion peered out into the darkness. Djarius attempted to break their morale with the sheer number of men and torches set up, but it also showed off what was going on inside his camp. “They’re assembling battering rams and ladders. They know they couldn’t starve us out of here and time would only play to our favor. He’s going to attack us as soon as he’s ready because he thinks he only has to deal with a few magi defending the city. We’ll have to prove him wrong and make him pay the price. There are supposedly a hundred thousand people in Ryhad, let’s turn them into soldiers.”
“High Mage,” came a cry from the lift as it slowly came into view. “A message just came in with one of the arrows. You better have a look at it.”
Soraya took the slip and unfurled it, scanning the lines before nodding solemnly and handing it to Helodion. “Looks like we have until dawn to give them our answer.”
“We can’t hand over the city.”
“They promise to spare the lives of the people if we give it up without a fight,” Soraya said. “We don’t know when the next portal is going to open up or if we could even hold out long enough. It’s a difficult decision, but I can’t play with their lives if I know we won’t be able to protect them.”
“You just told me what happened to the garrison when they surrendered. What makes you think they’ll treat civilians any different? Our only hope is to keep them off the walls for as long as possible and if I were Djarius, I’d attack before the deadline runs out.”
Soraya raised a brow. “He gave us until dawn to reply.”
“Which would make an attack before then even more of a surprise.” Helodion scratched his chin and glanced back at Kaspar. “Prepare for an early morning assault and make sure we’re ready to move through an open portal at a moment’s notice.”
“That’s not for you to decide. The people have a right to know and determine their own future.”
“Not in this case they don’t. The Mage Guild is a neutral party and I’m the highest ranking official in service to the Empire here. I say, we hold for as long as possible and await reinforcements or a chance to retreat.”
Markus sat at his desk, steadily working his way through the tomes stacked high on the table. Not that he found administrative work or even study to be of entertainment but out of necessity.
“Can’t you put that away and spend at least the evenings with me?” Adelaxia asked as she sat on the corner of the desk and shoved the books aside. She sighed, running her fingers through Markus’ hair. “You hardly even notice me anymore.”
“As much as I’d love to have you on your back right now, it must wait for the time being. I’ll be sure to dedicate myself to you once this whole ordeal is over,” Markus said. He jotted down some notes on paper and glanced up at his wife. The urges twisted inside of him, to let go of his objective for just an hour or two but he couldn’t let go of the reins at such a critical moment. “I’m going to suggest Rouya to make me her vizier and the Defender of the Realm. It’ll give me widespread authority to put through the necessary measures.”
Adelaxia let her shoulders slump and moaned aloud at Rouya’s name. “Why are you playing this game? Just kill her and be done with it. She’s got two relics which would bring us up to three. That’s more than enough to take on the rest of them.”
Adelaxia was correct. Numerically and in terms of experience, he could take the initiative and create facts. He needed to establish stability as soon as possible to fight the looming threat. If the Battle Maidens of myth were real, then so too was the Leviathan. The Devourer of Worlds. He needed to succeed where Ardeshir had failed mankind all those years ago.
“Rouya is Queen of Aequilla,” Markus said solemnly. “As long as she rules, there is a sense of legitimacy to the undertaking. If I become Defender of the Realm and she passes away, it would pass the crown on to me. Killing Rouya would just make me one of many traitors.”
“What about the bastard boy?” Adelaxia asked, wedging herself onto Markus’ lap. She wrapped her arms around his neck and locked him in close to her. “Wouldn’t that just make him king?”
Markus eyed the slender figure directly in front of him and reached for the paper knife on his desk. He set the point on her neck and moved it down between her breasts, tearing through the blouse and exposing her breasts to him. “As far as I’m concerned, Jahangir died earlier this week. The good captain and everyone else with knowledge won’t be around much longer to say otherwise.”
The space between them continued to shrink until Adelaxia had her chest in front of his face and he felt his member stirring beneath her.
“Let me hear it from you.”
Markus caught her wrists and bound her arms behind her back. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.”
“A pity. Empress sounds so much more fitting when it’s me carrying the title.”
Hours passed since Markus Relius’ attack on the mansion left the entire property in ruins. For over a hundred years the ya-Vahn family ruled over the lands from the mansion and served under the former Shah. It wasn’t until Justinian’s campaign that Kalim’s family home was set ablaze and his father taken prisoner. It took five years for him to be released and made Kalim the new head of the family and governor under the rule of the Padishah Emperor.
Kalim slowly regained his consciousness, slipping in and out of memories from all across his life and the shame he had to bear. The son of a loser who got captured and weakened the name. He would no longer be the puppet but the puppeteer. Kalim opened his eyes to the darkness engulfing him.
Rage flared up and he drew upon his connection to Attia through his ring to bring her to him. The rubble burst away in a magical explosion, and Kalim was able to take a breath of fresh air and glimpsed upon the wasteland of hundreds of gold and thousands of silver coins.
Nothing remained intact of the once highly regarded mansion that so marvelously combined art and function. He crumbled to his knees, releasing the anger inside of him in a thunderous roar. Scratches and bruises marked his body. His clothes lay in tatters with only threads hanging from his shoulders.
Attia protected him in the critical moment but failed to bring him outside of the collapsing building on time.
“I should bring you to a physician,” Attia said, drawing him out of his thoughts. “Your well-being is my top priority.”
“He’s going to pay for this. That double-crossing rat is going to pay thrice over for what he did here. I’m going to destroy everything he loved.”
The beauty of his home could never be restored as long as others sought to control them. Wounding an animal was not enough, he would have to end its misery.
“Master, you’re still in shock.”
Kalim waved her concern aside and balled his hands. “I want every realmwalker rounded up and detained. It’s about time I speak with the rest of the league.”
Next time on Battle Maidens …
New to Battle Maidens? Episode 1