It took her a long time to clean up all the broken wood. It was just as well she needed fuel for the fire in the kitchen, but it was still a pain to pick up all the splinters. Especially when one got stuck in her hand. But she’d done it, and now it was late.
The night was cool. Erin Solstice was tired, still shaky from the adrenaline and panic in her veins, but she was oddly—satisfied.
Despite the crack in her front door, she carefully locked it with the big, iron key she found. Despite the angry Relc and the damaged inn, her only reward from the huge fight—she was satisfied.
Because the young man wasn’t dead. She had put herself on the line to save him. It was a curious thing. The little Goblin who had watched the fight was fascinated. And so, in his way, was the [Necromancer] himself.
He sat in his cave, still replaying what he had thought his last moments would be. He didn’t know that Drake, but he had been a…dangerous quantity unknown in the regular run-of-the-mill [Guardsmen], who were inept as could be.
As for the Slayer of the Antinium? Pisces shuddered. His hands trembled so badly that he could barely move the needle across the piece of bone he was carving. So he stopped and thought.
The [Innkeeper] had saved his life. And kicked him out of her inn, but she had also fed him. Despite extorting a high price after…he had attempted to rob her. She was unlike anyone he had met. He owed her a debt, perhaps. But the real question he asked himself was where she had come from. Why didn’t she know what a [Mage] was compared to a [Sorcerer]?
Why was she here, alone?
It was a question Erin Solstice herself had asked many times, but she had no way to know for certain. Magic, chance? She didn’t ponder it long. She was dozing.
It had been a rough day, and Erin was lying in the kitchen with some blankets piled up. She was beginning to dream about disappearing skeletons and obnoxious mages. About Dragons breathing fire and Goblins and giant lizardmen eating pasta.
She slept, but countless miles away, something else was happening. Something that made her dreams skip and scatter and even made the young [Necromancer] sneeze a few times and rub at his nose absently.
Something was happening.
It was night here as well. Despite it being across the entire world, continents away. The deepest blackness of night, so late dawn was only an idea yet.
However, many remained awake. They had not slept, in fact, for days, not truly, just traded on and off shifts. Laboring to finish a project decades in the making.
Some stood out of pride and dedication alone. Their eyes had begun to sink into hollow sockets.
Men and women. Humans and…people with pointed ears. Feathery people, even a woman clad all in armor, her disembodied head floating next to her body. They all shared the same purpose, the same ideal.
The same kingdom. Now, they took their spots in the glowing diagram, and it covered the floor, so vast that the audience, standing well away from the lines of power, had to crane their necks as they waited for the final piece of this—hope.
This ritual. They were far too deep underground to see the sky, but two moons, one pale green and the other light blue, hung fully in the sky. That was necessary too.
There was so much magic in the air that it was beginning to distort the world visually. It was necessary; and it might not be enough, even with this.
The man in the center of it all continued to chant, as he had for hours, now. His voice was wavering, hoarse and cracked from the strain of talking so long. He wore the robes of a [High Mage], and he was festooned with artifacts. Each word was being checked by terrified apprentices and [Scholars].
Indeed, even the leader of this odd congregation was following the magical incantation, though he was no [Mage]. None of them were basic ‘[Mages]’. Not here. Not this kingdom of blight and glorious despair.
The leader was a man, a [King]. He looked younger from a distance. Barely seventy years old. Barely…and far younger than those with pointed ears. Until you stared into his eyes and saw true age looking back. Age and despair and defiance and—in this moment—hope.
The Blighted King stood, despite the late hour, with a giant of a woman by his side. A warrior with a scar down her cheek and a hand on the throwing axe at her side. She was wary, despite being clad in armor, of a trick, of failure—the Blighted Queen could do nothing but watch.
The same for the nobility, their guards, and even the lesser [Mages]. Only one person could follow what was happening fully, and it was the man who stood on the Blighted King’s right side.
He looked—thirty? Thirty and sixty. Young and old. Time was odd about him, and his hand curled over the grip of a staff as well as the floating spellbook from which he was reading. He was the most tense of anyone here. If anyone would stop this at its zenith and bear the consequences, or avert calamity—it would be him.
But everything was going well. Impossibly well, in fact. One of the participants was looking around. Whispering to the others. There was so much power here. More than they had brought. Then she fell silent, tongue-tied.
A [Lord] drew his sword and watched the light bend. The [Soldiers] moved uneasily, because they had no idea what was happening. The congregation, the ritual itself, all focused on a point in the air. A split in…
Everything? The [Mage] in the center of it all wept, his eyes beginning to bleed. He was so exhausted.
But his task was nearly done. The spell was completing.
It was not a clap of thunder. It was not the boom of space-time being rent. Rather, it was a whisper. Something grew thin. A veil tore ever-so-slightly. The light changed, drew inwards just for an imperceptible second; the wind blew in this deep cavern impossibly—and then they were there.
Young men and women. They appeared mid-motion, some sitting, some lying down. Some walked out of the air, looked up from their smartphones in bewilderment. Bewilderment—then shock, panic. Fear or disbelief.
“Where am I?”
They shouted in alarm as a sigh ran through the waiting people. The [King] was on his knees, and his [Queen] was helping him up. The [Mage] beside the Blighted King had his staff raised, but his eyes were filled with disbelief.
Panic and chaos below as people rushed around, but every eye was on the Humans. They were so young. So few for the cost paid. And they had no idea what was going on.
Some of the summoned Humans were crying out in fear. Others tried to run in their panic but found their legs wouldn’t cooperate with them. A few stared around the room, noting the magic runes by their feet, the robed men and mages clustered together, and the watching aristocracy.
Uncertainty hung in the air, from those waiting for this moment to those called forth. But it was the [Mage] who spoke. He stumbled up from the dying ritual, and his voice filled the echoing chamber.
A wheeze. A pained laugh. The relieved hysteria of hope. The [Mage] raised his arms, robes falling about him, and fell to his knees. His face, stained with bloody tears and watery ones, raised to the heavens as he cried out.
“The Great [Heroes] of Prophecy are here! We are saved!”
It was one voice at first—then the others took it up. [Mages], [Soldiers], onlookers cheering in relief as the group of Humans drew together in fear. Some of those watching simply collapsed in…hope?
But others watched with calculating, appraising glances. The [King] rose, beckoning, and the young people waited. There was nowhere to run—but they weren’t in danger. Yet. They were confused. Lost. Far from home.
And they were not the only ones.
The night was old, and dawn was only an hour away. The countryside, here, was full of chirping crickets, owls, the sounds of insects buzzing, and so on. Or at least, on a normal night it would be. Right now, all was silent. Unnaturally silent.
An old man stood outside his home, sword drawn. The night was dark, and by all rights, he should have been in his home enjoying his dinner. But he heard something outside and had gone to investigate. This far out in the countryside, he couldn’t rely on militia patrols to keep him safe.
If it were a monster, he would run, naturally. On the other hand, a lone Goblin or a [Sneak Thief] trying to steal from him would meet his sword. He had been a [Swordsman], and he was more than strong enough to defend himself. Still, he was no fool. If it were [Bandits] en-masse or worse, he’d report to the Adventurer’s Guild.
He had to know. His grip was sweaty on the leather-wrapped pommel. Something was out there. The man hesitated—then shouted into the night.
He almost hoped there would be no reply. The night was too still, though. And then—somehow, they were there.
They hadn’t been a second ago. They were no [Rogues] or invisible folk. But one second he sensed nothing and the next they were standing out of sight. The [Swordsman]’s hand was tight on his sword, and he backed up towards his house. Until he saw them.
Slowly, they approached. Hands raised, as pale with fear as he was.
Children. That was the first thing the old man thought. Children.
But then, he was old. Not all were that young. They were younger men and women. But children—because of how they looked. Lost, afraid. More afraid of him and the darkness than he was of them.
Humans? He hesitated, then put down his sword. If this were a trick—he called out, hoping they were no monsters or [Bandits]. The terror on their faces was too good to be an act. He hoped.
“Oh, are you young’uns lost? Come in, come in. The weather’s far too terrible to be out at a time like this.”
His sword sheathed, he opened the door to his home, letting light spill out invitingly. But none of the children moved. They just…stared at him. That was when the old man’s hair began to prickle a second time.
Something else was wrong. Their clothes were strange. He had never seen such—odd attire. Even in the darkness, he could tell there was something different about the fabric, the colors.
Nobility? Now he regretted sheathing his sword. But they were Human, and if this were a trap…
The terror on their faces. Was a large city burning? Hair was rising all over his arms and along his back. Had Invrisil fallen or…?
At last, one of them broke the silence. A young man pointed a trembling finger, and the old man nearly drew his sword again. Because the finger was pointing at him. But—rather than anything behind him, a warning—the finger just pointed at his side. The young man gulped and then finally asked—
“Dude. Is that a sword?”
And a few, a few simply wandered in carelessly.
A young woman paused mid-step. Her raven hair was matted with sweat and bound in a ponytail. She was barefoot, blasting music from the earphones and iPhone in her hand. Mid-run—she stopped slowly as she passed through a doorway.
And realized—abruptly—this wasn’t home. Or the track. Or her world at all. She came to a stop in a room full of people chatting or standing around, who turned to goggle at her. Swords, daggers on their hips, strange clothing—even a magic orb on a counter.
One of the [Receptionists] raised her brows as the odd woman came running in. She called out slowly. The young woman had to take her earbuds out of her ears and her thundering heartbeat had to slow before she finally heard the question.
“Hello? Miss? Are you here to join the Runner’s Guild?”
Two twins were walking down the street, laughing and arguing together. They turned the corner and walked out of London and into a throne room.
The paving stones turned into cracked marble. The overcast sky into a room a hundred feet tall and a night sky shimmering with every colorful star in a desert landscape. And a street of people into…
The boy tossed his smartphone up as his sister scolded him in case he dropped—
His hand froze. He fumbled—missed—and the phone clattered to the ground, the only sound in this frozen, slumbering tomb.
A tomb meant for a man. A living man, hair bedraggled, thin, practically a statue on the tiny chair before the throne. He sat there, staring at nothing and no one. Until that sound woke him.
Slowly, the man looked up. His eyes alighted on the two as they froze, in outlandish dress, a light coming from the smartphone. His blank look turned into a frown, and the twins stared back, terrified, confused—no idea where they were.
A second. As two pale green eyes fixed on them. Before a man in faded, noble clothing burst into the throne room, spear leveled, ready to run them through, and dozens of [Soldiers] came screaming to the defense of that slumbering ruler and the throne.
They had a second to scream before the man sitting in that chair stood. He stood, breathed in, and uttered the first order in two decades.
Not just one. Or two. Or even dozens. They were coming. From every background, every place.
A girl was laughing as she was being dragged from her cell. Laughing with defiance—until she tripped. She went sprawling, landing on something soft, and waited for them to drag her up.
Then she realized there was a different kind of light on her. She looked up and saw an adventurer staring down at her. He moved an iron-covered hand and extended it.
A woman leaned over the counter in the Adventurer’s Guild and blinked down as the man helped the young woman to her feet. They stared at her bright orange jumpsuit. Asked questions, but she couldn’t stop laughing, then.
Because there was no one holding onto her. Her wardens were gone.
She was free.
She took a step off the street and into a tomb. She fell, screaming, into the darkness, the light from her phone the only thing in the gloom.
An intruder in a sacred place. The guardian awoke from his long vigil and heard the first voice in an age. Like a song.
He—didn’t know where he was. The young man knew every inch of this mall he was supposed to be in, and the street leading to it. Or he should. But no matter how hard he tried, his cane couldn’t find anything familiar. Just…dirt. Dirt? How had he gotten here? Had he gone to the park instead?
“Zoe? Are you there? Anyone?”
If he could have looked around, he would have known everything was changed. He already knew—but not how much. His eyes opened and shut as he turned, slowly—
But he was blind. So he called out in the forest, hoping someone would hear him.
“Hello? Can someone help me?”
And after a moment—someone heard him.
More and more, flickering into place. Each one different, each in a different place.
Rain fell upon the world. Just for a moment. A passing shower of souls. But where they landed, ripples spread across hither-to calm waters.
Not legends of Earth. Nor did they have any special powers save for those which all Humans had. But they were living. They were here.
The world was beginning to shift.
The night was late, and Erin Solstice was asleep. She rested her head on the cold floor of her kitchen, on an inn sitting in a plain full of quiet grass. Around her was silence. In her dreams, she drooled a bit and mumbled about pasta.
She was lonely. But she was no longer alone.