The rider galloped along the road, then cut away on a straighter path between two large encampments whose banners flew from posts in the ground, showing that they followed different commanders. Like most residents of Twillig’s Gorge, Ovid had little experience on horseback, so he clung to the rider for dear life.
They passed a line of trees, beyond which lay a field of corpses shrouded in blankets and uniforms and ruined tents. Casualties of the Yucatazcan invasion. There must have been two or three hundred, at least, and there would have been others at the site of skirmishes all over southern Euphrasia.
“There will be far more blood spilled, come the dawn,” the rider said. “Are your volunteers prepared for that?”
“We’ve come a long way,” Ovid said coldly. “There has been plenty of time to think, and we’ve thought of nothing else. We’ll live free, or we’ll die. Atlantis cannot be allowed to prevail.”
The rider only nodded. Ovid managed to get his name—Ufland—but nothing more. Then the young cavalryman slowed the horse to a trot and guided the beast in amongst a group of tents set closer together than others, as though this battalion were themselves bonded more tightly. Ovid spotted two Northlander ogres.
With a tug on the reins, Ufland halted his steed. Ovid slipped off of its back. The rider followed suit, handed the reins to another soldier, and started toward the tent at the center of the cluster.
Before they reached it, something moved swiftly at the edge of his vision and he turned to see a Naga slithering toward him and Ufland. Ovid blinked in surprise, then the serpentine archer had reached him. Most would be terrified by the look on the creature’s face, but Ovid knew it as a grin. The Naga thrust out his hand and they shook.
“Welcome, Ovid Tsing,” the Naga said. “Your bow will be very welcome.”
“Thank you, Istarl,” Ovid replied. “I’m honored.”
This Naga had taught him how to use a bow when Ovid had been merely a boy. To see him now was strangely disconcerting, and yet comforting as well.
“Your mother is well?” Istarl asked.
Ovid gave a single shake of his head. “Returned to the eternal river,” he explained, referencing the Nagas’ beliefs about the afterlife.
The archer touched his forehead and then gestured to the horizon. “May her journey be gentle and sweet.”
Emotion welled up in Ovid’s throat. “Thank you, old friend.”
He might have discussed his mother’s murder, but the rider, Ufland, tapped his shoulder. Ovid turned to see a tall, regal woman emerging from the tent before them. Her skin was darker than night, and the moonlight shone upon her. She walked with one hand on the hilt of her sword, as if by habit rather than caution, and she strode toward them with a black cloak billowing behind her in the breeze.
A remarkable woman, that much was clear.
Ufland stood at attention and offered a short bow. “Commander, this is Ovid Tsing, leader of the militia on the Orient Road. They call themselves the King’s Volunteers.”
The rider could not quite keep the disdain from his voice.
Commander Beck silenced him with a hard look, and Ufland gazed at his boots. Ovid liked her for that. The woman studied him a moment, then looked at Istarl.
“You know him?”
The Naga’s serpentine lower half extended and he rose straight up so that he seemed also to be at attention. “I do, Commander Beck. Ovid learned the way of the bow from me and mine. He has courage and skill, though he is often far too serious.”
Commander Beck arched an eyebrow and studied Ovid. “Too serious? From a Naga, that’s saying something.”
Ovid said nothing. The moment lasted several seconds, then the commander glanced up the road, the way Ufland and Ovid had ridden.
“How many are in your command, Mister Tsing? How many in the King’s Volunteers?”
She gave them their name without a trace of irony.
“At last count, more than eleven hundred, Commander,” Ovid replied. “And nearly fifty Jokao.”
Commander Beck smiled, as though not quite sure whether she ought to believe him. “Stonecoats?”
“Impressive, sir. More than a battalion, and Stonecoats besides.” The woman seemed to mull this over for several moments, glancing at Ufland and Istarl, then she looked out over the ranks of the army toward the ocean. Toward the Isthmus of the Conquistadors.
“Only His Majesty, King Hunyadi, can give you a commission. But in times of war, adjustments must be made. King’s Volunteers you call yourself, and King’s Volunteers you will remain. We will consider you Commander Tsing from this point forward, as you have an entire battalion and more at your back.”
Ovid blinked in surprise. But Ufland seemed aghast at the idea that volunteers would be given stature equal to trained professional soldiers.
“You have something to say?” Commander Beck demanded of the cavalryman. “Some difficulty understanding the odds against us tomorrow, or the stakes involved?”
Ufland lowered his eyes. “No, Commander. None at all.”
Beck nodded. She turned to Ovid. “Take his horse. Ride back to your volunteers. Break from the road and lead them to the ocean. Your battalion will move west at dawn and stop where the shore turns south and becomes the Isthmus. You’ll guard the army’s eastern flank, Commander Tsing, and watch for further Atlantean incursion from the water. If the invaders break through, you’ll send the Jokao first. They’ll likely kill a hundred Atlanteans for each Stonecoat that falls. If we’re to die, Ovid, we’re going to make the scheming bastards pay for every life lost.”
Unsure if he ought to salute and not wanting to look a fool, Ovid only stood at attention as the others had done, chin high. “Understood, Commander Beck. The King’s Volunteers will not let you down.”
She studied him for one, final moment, then nodded.
Ovid started to turn, then paused. “One question, Commander.”
Her only reply was another arch of her eyebrow.
“The Legend-Born. Are they here, with the army? Are they still alive?”
Damia Beck smiled. “Collette is here. She and her brother both escaped from the dungeon in Palenque. The Lost Ones may go home, someday, Commander Tsing. Would that please you?”
She said it as though she wasn’t quite sure herself if it would be a good thing.
“I don’t know,” Ovid confessed, “but it would have given my mother great joy.”
The commander nodded. “For your mother, then.”
Ovid took Ufland’s horse. Carefully, not wanting to look clumsy, he slid one foot in the stirrup and threw the other leg over, settling into the saddle.
“Thank you for that, Commander Beck.”
The woman’s expression darkened. “Thank me tomorrow, at dusk.”
Unnerved, Ovid only nodded, turned the horse, and spurred it back toward the road and the King’s Volunteers.
Ty’Lis stood on the eastern shore of the Isthmus and watched the waves roll in. The gentle hush of water over sand and stone soothed him. His robes undulated with their own ebb and flow, but he calmed himself. Nothing would happen tonight. The eastern sky had begun to lighten and it filled him with anticipation.
At dawn, it would begin.
The warm ocean breeze ruffled his yellow hair and his robes. Even at this distance he could hear the flap of the sails of the glass ships. The sound lifted his gaze and he studied the beauty of those vessels. Amongst them the Kraken swam, its body surfacing in ripples and links. The legendary beast had followed the fleet of glass ships out of instinct, but it would be no use to Atlantis in the war. The Kraken was a sea creature and could not walk on land or fly.
Still, its presence was powerful. Ty’Lis was pleased the monstrosity had made the journey.
The sorcerer glanced along the shore and saw at least a dozen octopuses dragging their tentacles in the rushing surf. They would linger that way until commanded otherwise. Some floated higher, above the troops already, swimming with the air sharks. But most of the nearly two hundred that had accompanied the invasion force were arrayed all along the coast of the Isthmus. At dawn, they would be ready.
A smile touched the sorcerer’s lips. Ty’Lis had to fight the urge to look northward. Only a few miles distant, Hunyadi’s forces waited with the Borderkind abominations whose extermination he had hoped would precede this war. Not that it mattered. Far more than half of the Borderkind in the Two Kingdoms and beyond had been slaughtered at his instruction. When the conquest of Euphrasia had been completed, he would finish the job.
Far more worrisome were the Legend-Born. They offered hope to the Lost Ones. And much worse, if their legend was true. Ty’Lis had hoped to execute them publicly, on the battlefield, to demoralize the Euphrasians and destroy any resistance.
Now he had been forced to conceive another plan.
A lovely plan.
Again his robe began to undulate. He ran his hands over the fabric.
“Shhh. Quiet, darlings. Quietly now.”
A frisson of unease went through him and he realized what had disturbed him. Turning, Ty’Lis saw three sorcerers coming toward him, floating several inches above the ground, arms crossed in arrogance. The hems of their robes brushed the rocky earth that led down to the shore.
His nostrils flared. Ru’Lem could have come to speak to him alone. Instead, the leader of the High Council had brought two other councilors. They would speak down to him, of course. They always did, when more than one was present. Alone, none of them had the courage to treat him with disdain. Together, they were too proud to address him any other way.
The octopuses on either side of him drifted further along the shore, moving away, dragging snail trails in the wet sand with their tentacles. Ty’Lis clasped his hands in front of him, sleeves enveloping them, and waited for the councilors to arrive.
“You wander far, Ty’Lis,” said the sorceress amongst them, an ugly crone called Nya’To, her skin and hair a tainted piss yellow.
Ru’Lem held up a hand and glanced at her, obviously displeased that she had spoken before him. The councilor on his right, a dark-bearded sycophant named Ha’Kar after his father, said nothing, watching the Council leader for any cue that he ought to speak or gesture or dance like the puppet that he was.
“Perhaps you ought to remain with us,” Ru’Lem said. His silver hair had thinned with age to nothing but wisps, but his beard remained thick and knotted with iron rings. “When the battle begins, it will be swift.”
Ty’Lis glanced at the sky. “We have a little time, yet.”
How dare they? None of this would have been possible without his efforts. He had gathered the Myth Hunters. He had removed Prince Tzajin to Atlantis and corrupted the throne of Yucatazca. He had engineered the murder of King Mahacuhta. Now they swept in to claim the glory and presumed to instruct him? They might command the armies of Atlantis, but he was not some Lost soldier.
“All is proceeding as planned,” Ru’Lem said, a warning in his voice as he knitted his brows. “We must all work together, now, to make certain there are no more mistakes. Your role has changed, Ty’Lis, but it is still vital to our success.”
A horrid malignance wafted from him, both a stench and an aura of darkness that would have cowed anyone else. The other councilors seemed to absorb the hideous ambiance, exuding cruelty and predation. Ty’Lis only smiled, revealing jagged teeth. The arrogance on Ru’Lem’s face wavered.
“We will not discuss the Bascombes’ escape again. I have delivered to you precisely the circumstances the High Council desired. After centuries of your predecessors bowing to other kings and letting our world be further diluted by the influx of unwelcome intruders from across the Veil, I have given Atlantis the chance to do something about it. Now you have taken command of our future, Ru’Lem. I hope that your hands are strong enough to guide it.”
The aged sorcerer sneered at him, lips peeling back. Thin even by the standards of Atlantis, his face had the flat, deadly aspect of a moray eel. It seemed as though he might issue a challenge at that very moment, but then Ru’Lem took a breath.
“It has been decided that you will command the Perytons when the battle begins,” Ru’Lem said at last. “They are unruly beasts, savage and useful, but loyal only to themselves.”
Ty’Lis smiled thinly. “And to me. They are loyal to me.”
“If we are to win the war, they must obey,” the aged sorcerer said.
“Oh, victory is vital. But there are other factors to consider.”
Before any of the councilors could reply, Ty’Lis raised a hand. He pursed his lips in a whistle that rippled the air. The octopuses up and down the shore made a terrible shrieking noise that made them flinch and cover their ears for a moment. Black smoke curled up from the palm of his upraised hand, pluming into the sky, and then it blossomed into a flower of deep purple light.
Ru’Lem raised both hands. The sound of the surf grew loud, but it did not come from the ocean. White froth and blue light steamed around the ancient one’s fists. Nya’To and Ha’Kar reacted as well, drifting aside so that he could not attack all three of them at once.
Ty’Lis smiled and raised both hands, showing empty palms.
“Do you think I am so foolish as to attack you, councilors?”
“Then what—” Ru’Lem began.
His answer came before the question could be finished. Powerful wings beat the air above them and they all looked up to see two Perytons gliding toward the ground. The moonlight cast twisted shadows from their antlers. Their green feathers looked black as tar in the night.
The Perytons alighted beside Ty’Lis, moving almost in a crouch, as though they might lunge. Their talons hung at their sides, but they were so swift that—this close—they could tear off a limb before any of the sorcerers crafted a spell.
“Why have you summoned us?” said one of the Perytons, its voice a low, rasping screech, almost birdlike.