The bustle and clamor of hundreds echoed deep within the cave. The murmurs of many simultaneous conversations were an accompanying background noise as soldiers bitched, commanders bellowed, and camp followers bantered. In alcoves carved into the rock by the elements or Techniques, smiths worked steel into blades, armor, and arrows as the ringing of metal on metal sounded everywhere. Roars, howls, and snarls were a cacophony of bestial sounds as monsters were herded to and fro. Clusters of troops gathered around fire pits, eager for their meals as the smell of slumgullion competed with that of unwashed bodies and camp latrines. Flames turned the dark interior of the cave into midday.
Ryan Ka Shiumu walked through the army he had painstakingly gathered, a handful of his most loyal warriors in his wake serving as an honor guard. Three years ago, it would have been the strongest single army seen in Elysium in centuries, a force that could have carved out a true Layan kingdom in the place of the schismatic Southern League. Nowadays, it was just one more bit player in a world crowded with them. Even so, he was determined that it would be the force that defeated a legend.
Grim thoughts tightened his mouth. The Southern League was supposed to be an alliance of the Layan lords against the Orakian Kingdom of Divisia. An assembly of the many lords was supposed to make decisions regarding the war, but the truth of the matter was that the Layan lords spent as much time fighting each other as they did fighting the Orakians. The greatest Layan lords expended considerable sums hiring professional hirelings to complement their conscript armies, while landless nobles formed mercenary companies to make their livings at the expense of the great lords. However, as professional soldiers of fortune, their employers were not always Layan.
Second son of a minor Layan lord, Ryan had been on the battlefield as a freelancer since age fifteen. Over the past twenty years, he had built the strongest mercenary band in Elysium. It had not hurt that he was one of the chosen who had received the great gift of the goddess Laya: the ability to transform into a powerful dragon. The knowledge that he was a Dragon Knight had only enhanced the battlefield desirability of the Company of the Silent Moon. The irony in the name had not been lost on him.
Either way, they had commanded the best contracts for two simple reasons: their skill and their commitment to fulfilling their agreements. Many of the other mercenary bands were treacherous cowards, with a marked tendency to avoid combat and "resolve" fights with bribes, either for themselves or for the opponent. The Silent Moon was unique in fighting bravely and determinedly. They'd even fought for detestable Orakians against other Orakians, when the meseta was good enough.
Everything had changed three years ago. Messages had been sent to all the lords of the Southern League that commanded them to Aerone to swear allegiance to someone calling himself Lune. The reaction had been unanimous: dismissive laughter. The great lords went about their affairs without worry. When rumors came that an army was assembling in Aerone, a handful of lesser lords saw it as an excuse to loot the place. They called up their conscripts and attacked.
The heads of those lords currently decorated the gates of Aerone.
Word of the defeat and its aftermath had spread like wildfire. Certain it was a fluke, another group of lesser lords had banded together, hired a few mercenary bands to supplement their forces, and attacked. That battle ended as brutally as the first had, with the lords and mercenary captains adding their heads to the macabre ornaments outside Aerone.
Right about then was when the greatest lords of the Southern League decided that the upstart at Aerone needed to be taught a lesson. The three greatest lords summoned an assembly packed with their allies and minions and passed a declaration of war against "Lune of Aerone." The call went out to the mercenary bands, and a grand army marched on the town. Ryan had also received a hiring offer, but deemed the price as beneath his notice.
The sheer number of trophies that adorned the town gates after the Third Battle of Aerone soaked Elysium in a wave of terror.
When the messages went out a second time, the lords of the Southern League tripped over each other to arrive at Aerone fast enough. They were welcomed by Layan soldiers in the ancient armor of the Devastation War and the commandeered survivors of the three attacks on the town. However, that faded to nothing when they met the giant who called himself General Lune Kay Eshyr.
Lune's words at that convocation had been spread throughout the Southern League. "I have returned from my thousand year exile at Orakio's hands. Your time of bungling is at an end. You will resume to your role as Laya's soldiers and obey me absolutely. The return to open warfare with the Orakians begins now!"
"Captain, do you think it's true?"
Reverie interrupted, Ryan glanced at the bodyguard who had spoken. "Do I think what is true?" he asked in his gravelly voice.
"That...that Lune truly is the Lune of legend, Laya's champion, back from the moon."
Ryan adjusted his glasses, darkened spectacles that were a rare prize from a thousand years ago. The shades adjusted automatically to light conditions, allowing the optimal amount to flow in. They had the added advantage of obscuring his face, preventing anyone from reading his intentions through his eyes. "Almost all of the greatest lords and half of the lesser lords formed an army to fight against him after the convocation," Ryan said quietly. "The largest army in Elysium in a thousand years, they said. They were swept aside like a child's tantrum. Or did you forget that?"
The soldier shook his head. Silent Moon had been present at the Fourth Battle of Aerone as observers. Instinct had told Ryan not to sign onto the campaign. He thanked Laya every day that he had heeded that small voice. When Lune's army had finished, the green field had been turned into an abattoir.
"Whatever else he may be," Ryan continued. "He is a great threat to our way of life."
A sigh shook the soldier. "I wish we hadn't lost the..." His mouth clicked shut.
His mood suddenly darkened, Ryan stopped before a group of Layan archers. The platoon leader noticed his arrival and stopped what she was doing. "Attention! At arms!"
The women all stopped what they were doing to salute him. He nodded at them. "Has the shousa been here today?"
A slight stir went up and down their ranks. The platoon leader pursed her lips before she answered. "I haven't seen her today, sir. I think she's at the back of the cave with her guards."
"Thank you," Ryan said as he turned around and continued his inspection, his pace in the little chit's direction. Perhaps this time he would succeed in getting the little chit to obey. Highly doubtful, but at least it would give him something else to concentrate on.
After Lune became the undisputed master of the Southern League, things had changed. Nobles of all levels were treated like common foot soldiers. The hoarded wealth of the mercenary captains was seized. The lands and possessions of the lords who had fought against the giant were confiscated without regard for their heirs. Contracts vanished, replaced with paltry wages. The ranks of the disaffected grew with each of the tyrant's abuses. Rebel groups formed even as Lune attacked Divisia. Casualties grew day by day.
Ryan had figured out that each rebel group would only annoy someone as strongly positioned as Lune, so he came up with a different strategy. He would use his band as the core of an elite army, use his reputation to gather all the rebel groups together, and defeat Lune once and for all. The dream that things could return to how they had been if Lune was no longer around drew many to his banner. Simple though it seemed, Ryan suspected that the changes Lune had brought would not be undone just by defeating the giant. In the power vacuum left behind, however, "King Ryan" was a distinct possibility. For that to succeed, however, he needed allies.
In his search for confederates, he had once sneaked deep into Lune's territory for a clandestine meeting with a rebel group, only to discover he had been led into a trap. The Layans that confronted him wore the ancient armor that marked them as Lune's most loyal followers. Outnumbered, Ryan had transformed into his Dragon Knight form on the spot. Barbed arrows that had sought his flesh clattered harmlessly against his tough squamous armor. The powerful Techniques that followed up those steel weapons, however, had been infinitely more dangerous. He had fled, unable to use his wings for fear they would be ripped to shreds by arrows and fireballs.
During his escape, he had spotted a cave. His options few, Ryan had run toward it with all his speed. He had slammed into an invisible barrier. He had struggled frantically to get through, but the glass wall had not budged. Desperate, he had abandoned all human thought and poured all of his might into breaking through. Energy far beyond that of a Technique repelled him even as the gift of the goddess poured power into his body. Lightning had rippled along his body in blue tendrils that sent spikes of pain through every nerve in his body. Bestial instinct overrode any sane concern.
As the voices of his fleet-footed pursuers grew louder, the barrier let him through. He fell down metal stairs. Dazed, he had picked himself up, only to confront a sight that boggled his mind. An alien landscape as far as the eyes could see, filled with machinery. Columns of dull gray reached far overhead as small lights blinked in strange patterns. Instinct told him that the key to defeating Lune lay on the other side. Confident in Laya's will, Ryan had followed the segmented metal walkways to their end, to emerge in another world.
Like all Elysians, Ryan knew there were seven worlds. He also knew that the goddess had decreed that no one could reach those other worlds, "for the secret world within the waves of the desert holds Her Treasure."
Yet he had arrived in that world of desert, its gently rolling dunes a sight that left him speechless. Still in the shape of a dragon, he spent many hours of that first night on top of a dune, mesmerized as the winds made the sea of sand dance into many shapes. Sometimes, he saw the sinuous curves of a woman's bare body. Other times, he had seen haunting echoes of his father's fief. He might have remained there until morning if not for an interruption.
"Your Highness, you are still wounded! You cannot go!"
Ryan had watched as a tall figure had staggered by, his face partially concealed by a strip of cloth wrapped around his eye. Several men in armor he did not recognize followed behind him. Ryan suspected that if the one-eyed fellow had not been a king, they would have seized him and dragged him back.
"I am not waiting here while my daughter is in that demon's hands!"
Those fellows didn't even flinch at the one-eyed king's bellow. Apparently, it was an argument that had been going on for some time. The second armored man stepped in to continue the fight.
"Your Highness, we need you! You are the sole leader left to us!"
"My daughter needs me!"
"Your Highness, without you, Cille and Shusoran die here in Aridia," said the third, his face grim.
A bitter chuckle met that statement. "Without Thea, Cille and Shusoran die here in Aridia. Don't be fools! We all know the truth. If only for that, you must know I have to go save her!"
"Your Highness, you are too weak to face Siren again. We cannot afford to lose you when we have already lost Queen Maia and Queen Lann," said the first armored man.
Siren! These were Layans who had fought Orakio's Fist and survived! Surely, such powerful allies would be of great help against Lune. Not only that, they had desperately needed something, which gave him an opening. Ryan had leaped down from the dune, surprising them all.
"I am a Dragon Knight," he had gutturally growled at them. "I will rescue your Thea, at a price."
One green eye had glared at him. The lines of pain on that face belonged that of a healthy man near Ryan's own age. "What price?"
"Your warriors will swear fealty to me and my cause," Ryan had replied. "No more and no less."
The one-eyed king had squinted at him. "Would you take my throne?"
"No," Ryan had replied. "I only need soldiers to fight beside me against a threat to my people."
"Is that so?" A smirk had appeared on that scarred countenance. "Very well. So long as I am the ruler of Shusoran, the warriors of Cille and Shusoran will fight alongside you."
Agreement reached, the King of Shusoran had tossed him a large green gem. "My daughter and heir, Thea, was abducted by Siren himself. Others of our women were also taken. They are in another world. We are almost certain it is the one to the east of this one. That gem, the Dragon's Tear, should open the passage to it."
The cacophony of protests from the armored men was drowned out by Ryan's suspicious growl. "How do you know that?"
The smirk did not fade. "Call it a hunch. Are you backing out?"
Desperation to get his hands on this man's soldiers decided Ryan. "No."
"Then return with my daughter!"
So he had gone east. He had found the cave that led to yet another world and followed a trail of rumors to an Orakian castle that supposedly held the princess and others. In his dragon form, he had co-opted a band of Layan nomads and attacked the castle by surprise. It had been a great success, since he had managed to get all of the women out. There had been only one small problem.
Ryan touched the scar that ran from eyebrow to cheek. An Orakian cyborg had slipped past his guard in dragon form and wounded his face with a hot weapon. His eye was still in socket, but it had been damaged beyond hope. What was left of his cornea was a blurred mess that caused stomachs to turn. Thankfully, Ryan was right-handed. The loss of his left eye was inconvenient, but would not slow him down too much on the battlefield.
No, what still provoked his rage even now was the betrayal that had followed. The King of Shusoran had died shortly after Ryan returned with his daughter. Now the leader of two nations of refugees, Thea had relied on him to assist her. He had evacuated the refugees of Cille and Shusoran, an effort accomplished without alerting the Orakians of that world only thanks to Laya's blessing. Thea had given him the Twins' Ruby in gratitude. He had brought them to Elysium, confident that her troops would be his in the battle against Lune.
And what did that little whore do? Discover the identity of his enemy and deliver herself into his hands! Swear fealty to him! There had gone the army he was certain would help him defeat Lune!
When he had attempted to remind the councilors to whom they owed service, the response had left him speechless. "The terms of the agreement His Highness King Lyle made were explicit. 'So long as I am ruler of Shusoran.' His Highness is dead and no longer our ruler. Her Highness has made her preference clear, and we shall follow her."
"Damn you, you cunning rat bastard," Ryan muttered inaudibly as he arrived at the back of the cave. "Tricksome whoreson."
Right about then, Layans throughout Elysium had begun to call Lune their emperor. Left without options, he had spent the year and a half since building his forces up, determined to destroy his oppressor and his betrayer. Rebels flocked to his banner. He even welcomed the Orakians, cut off from their own kind, into his army. Ryan was a beggar in his own world, and could not afford to be choosy about his allies. Aware he could not defeat Lune in open battle, Ryan had changed his strategy. Rather than fight, he would deny the demon Laya's Treasure and seize it for himself. The chief obstacle was penetrating the defenses of Lune and Divisia. As he did not have enough to break through, he conserved his strength. To make sure his soldiers kept their edge, he raided Lune's depots and disrupted his supply lines.
Crowded though the cave was, there was a large space between the troops and the tiny encampment that was his goal. Women in pale blue and white clothing stood at attention, one at each cardinal direction, their hands ready to draw the curved swords at their hips. Blue-hued breastplates offered their torsos good protection, even as their hard gazes did nothing to conceal their physical beauty. They were part of the Kensai embassy... if one used the word "embassy" loosely enough, at least.
"I want to speak to your master," he said gruffly. "Tell her that and be quick about it."
The bitch glared at him defiantly, pretty much as Ryan expected. For at least two hundred years, mysterious raiders had come and vanished in southern Elysium without explanation. For them to show up virtually on his doorstep seeking to ally against Lune had been, at the time, an unexpected and pleasant surprise. Their leader, the shousa, had brought an impressive platoon forty strong and hinted she could call up many more. The problem was that she expected to lead not only her Kensai, but Ryan's entire army.
The bitch turned her back on him and knelt. "Shousa."
A brat in gold clothes and a silver plate touched the bitch's head to receive the obeisance. Her name was Miyu, and she was supposed to be the leader of the Kensai, sword-wielding Layans that supposedly came from another world, a frozen hell covered in "ice" and "snow." Whatever else, she was insufferable.
The girl tossed her long lavender hair over her shoulder, her clear blue eyes condescending. "Is there something you wish to discuss, Ryan?"
Beautiful though she was, the only thing Ryan really lusted to do at this point was beat her face into the ground. "That's Captain Ka Shiumu to you, shousa."
Tension suddenly filled the air. The bitch at Miyu's feet attempted to stand, but the lavender-haired girl's hand kept her in place. Sapphire daggers bounced off his glasses as the girl attempted to stare him down. More Kensai edged closer to their leader as his own bodyguards eased their staffs into combat stances.
"Watch yourself, male," Miyu said softly, her tone a threat.
Just his luck that the strongest potential allies he had encountered let women run things instead of men. Their obstinacy had already cost him the opening presented by the Divisian's capture of the demon's sister, since Alair had somehow escaped from the dungeon. Rumor had it that a redheaded woman had helped her escape. If he somehow managed to convince these bitches to join his side, they were all going in the vanguard with the Orakians. "Have you reconsidered your position?"
"My position?" Her tone was all amusement now. "The Kensai will not follow a man. The only reason we would even deign to help you is that we have no wish for Lune to attempt to rule over us. I have told you this many times."
"My men won't follow a woman, especially not a...young woman." It had been on the tip of his tongue to call her a brat.
"That is unfortunate," Miyu said mockingly. "Laya's holy barrier will keep Lune away from us. You have no such blessing."
Ryan gritted his teeth and said nothing. Yes, those barriers gave the brat a defense that only a Dragon Knight or monsters could get through. Even if Lune sent all his beasts to cause terror, they could not take cities or bring others to heel for him. That still didn't mean he was going to submit to this brat half his age! Perhaps if he had them all seized and tortured...
"If you think you will, perhaps, force us to submit to you, I warn you that you will not have your way," Miyu said with a touch of contempt. "Even if you attempt to seize us, we will break free, and there will be war between the Kensai and your rebels. You cannot afford another enemy, Ryan."
Calculations flickered through his mind. There was always the chance that in the confusion, one of the Kensai would indeed break free and return to her world. If the Kensai had anything like the strength this brat claimed they did, his already tenuous situation would become impossible to overcome. She had him by the balls.
Ryan turned his head in the direction of the voice. One of his men was waving at him excitedly. A group consisting of one tall, broad-shouldered man with brown hair, a second of equal size with wild black hair and a pale complexion, and a lithe redheaded woman with a dancer's frame followed close behind the soldier. Instinct screamed at him.
They're the ones who freed the demon's sister!