For a second Ryoka’s heart stopped. The casual violence stunned her. But then her instincts and years of practice kicked in and she was raising her hands and moving away from Gazi.
Across from her, Ryoka saw the huge Drake’s eyes narrow. Relc stared in shock at Zevara as she collapsed for one second, and then his spear swung up and he roared at Gazi.
Relc kicked off the ground and sprang at Gazi from behind. Ryoka barely saw him covering the ten feet between him and Gazi; he was just a blur. He made a striking cobra seem slow.
Gazi was still smiling at Erin, but she moved as Relc did. One of her smaller eyes was swiveled around in its socket, showing only the whites. She twisted out of the way as Relc charged, and the Drake blew past her, his spear missing Erin’s stomach only by inches.
Relc snarled and twisted, impossibly fast. Ryoka felt like she was moving in jello compared to him and Gazi. Again the Drake raised his spear and thrust his spear towards Gazi’s large central eye. She was still grinning as she raised her sword.
Fast as Relc was, Gazi had matched his timing. And she wasn’t aiming for him, but rather, his arm.
Gazi’s sword came down a moment before Relc’s spear reached her. Her sword bit deep into his arm even as he twisted to avoid, pushing his spear’s point down. Instead of striking her face, the tip skittered across the front of her armor, raising a shower of sparks.
Relc shouted in agony as the curved sword lodged into his arm, but he kept moving. His spear spun and Gazi raised a gauntleted fist to block.
Once, twice. Sparks flew as Gazi deflected both spear strikes at her face. She grinned at Relc as his face twisted in pain. She yanked her sword away and Relc leapt back, holding his arm. His body was tougher than leather, but the sword had still cut all the way into his bone.
And that was it. It was over. While Relc could still use his other hand, he was suddenly fighting with only one hand against Gazi. He twirled his spear, feinted twice at her face, but she caught his spear with her sword as it shot out for a third thrust. The wood split as she cut the spear in two and Relc leapt back, cursing.
The entire moment had taken seconds. Erin was jerking backwards from the whirlwind of movement around her. She blinked and gaped as Relc dashed backwards towards the other guardsmen, covering his useless arm.
Klbkch covered Relc as he seized another spear and fumbled at his belt pouch for a potion. The Antinium was shouting orders, his voice a staccato megaphone as guardsmen around him drew their weapons.
“Fall back! Use bows only. You four will engage with me. Relc—”
“Give me a minute.”
Klbkch nodded. He advanced slowly towards the grinning Gazi as four other guardsmen spread out to encircle her. The others trained arrows on her.
“Gazi of Reim. Put down your weapon and surrender.”
“Demands are made of the strong to the weak, Klbkch of the Free Antinium. Not the other way around.”
In answer, Klbkch lunged forwards, both swords sweeping together to slice at Gazi’s neck. She cut twice—first battering down his leftmost sword and then locking blades with Klbkch, forcing his sword back with her larger weapon. She heaved and the Antinium went flying. Gazi raised her sword and flicked the tip almost casually, shattering an arrow as it flew towards her head.
The other guardsmen were already rushing her, but Gazi moved through them casually like a dancer. She stepped into a Gnoll’s charge, tripping him up, slapped a Drake and sent him stumbling into his friend, blocking the other Drake’s thrust, and slashed down at the third Drake. He fell, bleeding extensively from the massive cut down his chest.
“Feints and tactics are useless against me. I see the truth in your souls.”
Five more arrows thunked into the ground behind Gazi, missing her by only inches in one case. She didn’t even move her head, but she did when the jar of acid flew from behind. Gazi blurred out of the way and Rags lowered her hand and blinked at the empty air.
An armored foot kicked the Goblin off her feet. Rags cartwheeled away and landed with a thump on the ground. She didn’t move.
That was when Erin broke out of her stupefaction. She looked at Gazi as shock turned to rage. The adventurer smiled at her.
Gazi slapped Erin. It wasn’t a gentle slap either, but a metallic crack across the face. Her hand was armored in metal and the overlapping plates cut into Erin’s face.
Erin stumbled backwards and an arrow streaked past her and tore through the middle of Pisces’s robes, just short of his crotch. He looked down, face white and the spell at his fingertips fizzled out.
Gazi was on him in a flash. She punched out again, and Pisces fell down, unconscious before he hit the ground. Then she turned to Erin and smiled again, ignoring the guardsmen as they fanned out behind her.
They weren’t willing to fire with her so close to Erin, or else Klbkch’s threats of what would happen if they did accidentally hit her were keeping them from attacking.
Erin stared at Gazi. She stared at the half-Gazer’s sword. It was covered in blood. Red blood. Drakes and Gnolls both bled the same color. It dripped off the sword and onto the grass.
She looked at Gazi. There was that same smile on her face. Her expression hadn’t changed since the day Erin had saw it. This was of no more event than strolling around for her.
“What are you doing, Gazi?”
Gazi shrugged. Her central eye wasn’t focused on Erin. It was swinging around, showing Erin the whites as Gazi focused on the guardsmen behind her. But all four of her smaller eyes were looking straight at Erin.
“It’s time for me to leave. And I will be bringing both you and Ryoka Griffin with me when I go.”
“You may ask me that when we are gone.”
Gazi’s hand moved. She broke the seal of the scroll she was holding in her other hand with her thumb and unfurled it.
Erin didn’t know what was going to happen. The piece of parchment was glowing with yellow light. She heard Ryoka calling out from far away.
“Stay away from her, Erin. And from me. If she gets us together, we’re gone.”
The other girl pointed at Gazi. She was behind Relc and Klbkch and the line of guardsmen.
“That thing’s a teleportation scroll.”
Gazi flicked her large eye over to Ryoka. She blinked once.
“That is…surprising. Now, how would you know that?”
Ryoka shrugged. Her eyes were fixed on Gazi.
“What else could it be?”
“And you believe staying a few feet away from me will change anything?”
“Unless you plan on teleporting everyone here, I’d say so.”
Ryoka was balanced on the balls of her feet, tense. But Gazi just shook her head.
“Tell me, Ryoka Griffin. Do you think I would have come here if I weren’t confident I could kill all of you? The scroll is simply here for transportation. You two will leave with me. The only question is how long it will take.”
The other girl hesitated. Erin stared at Gazi. She didn’t doubt the half-Gazer would do it. She was a smiling demon. Someone Erin had thought was nice. But now…
Relc had obtained another spear from one of the guardsmen. He twirled it as he spread out, walking towards Gazi’s left while Klbkch took the right side. Other guardsmen moved with them, forming a more complete circle while more Drakes and Gnolls aimed arrows at her head.
“Stay behind us, human.”
Gazi shook her head at them, ignoring the fact that she was now surrounded.
“I will give you one chance, guardsmen of Liscor. Give up on the two humans. None of the wounds I have dealt you so far are fatal. But continue to obstruct me and you will suffer and die.”
Relc flexed his right arm, wincing. The healing potion hadn’t fully worked, Erin noticed. The bleeding had stopped and part of the flesh had regrown, but his movements with it were stiffer.
“Go to hell you five-eyed freak.”
Gazi shrugged and smiled wider.
She raised her sword and the guardsmen readied their weapons. Klbkch was on one side, Relc on the other. Ksmvr moved up and pushed Erin back, all four of his weapons raised. Olesm and Ceria were crouched near the entrance of the ruins, silent observers.
Rags didn’t move. Pisces was unconscious. Ryoka stood warily behind the row of archers. Erin stared around. Over twenty people all stared at one person, a smiling adventurer wearing dark armor, holding a sword red with blood.
Gazi raised her sword and spoke into the silence.
“I am Gazi of Reim, Gazi the Omniscient. Advancing.”
For a second all was stillness. Then Erin saw Gazi’s eyes begin to move.
Normally, the half-Gazer had a lidded gaze, like normal humans. But now her eyes opened wide, and seemed to bulge outwards. And move.
Up, down, right, down, left—her eyes – all five of them, were rolling around in their sockets, pupils wildly dilated. Gazi’s central eye flicked in so many directions at once Erin felt sick just watching it.
But Gazi didn’t seem disturbed by the display. She turned, and walked towards Relc, sword raised. She spoke out loud, as if making an observation.
“Fifteen Drakes, five Gnolls. [Guardsman] classes. One [Spearmaster] Drake, and one [Swordslayer] Antinium. A Human [Assassin] in the back.”
Relc’s arms tensed, and his posture lowered for another charge. But Gazi moved first. She flicked her sword at him, a quick movement that had so much power behind it that the blood on her blade flew off in a red shower.
It caught Relc in the face and he jerked back reflexively, cursing and wiping at his eyes. That was enough to leave his side open as Klbkch, Ksmvr, and a Drake rushed at Gazi from the other three cardinal directions.
Gazi smiled and stepped back, into Relc. He cursed and shoved at her, but she took no notice.
One of Klbkch’s swords spun out of his hands and he retreated, a long shallow cut running down his carapace. All four of Ksmvr’s swords clashed harmlessly against Gazi’s armor, as did the Drake’s spear.
Gazi spun and cut Relc in the side just as he managed to wipe the blood out of his eyes. He howled and fell back as the others did.
“Her armor is impenetrable.”
Ksmvr announced this fact as the guardsmen with bows unleashed a shower on Gazi. Erin saw the truth of what he’d said soon enough. Gazi calmly raised her sword and used the broad side to block her face, moving it slightly to catch arrows. Besides that she remained still, and the shafts that struck the rest of her body broke noisily on her rust-colored armor.
Erin covered her face and moved away from Gazi as splinters flew into the air around her. The guardsmen continued the barrage for nearly a full minute before stopping. At the end of it Gazi lowered her sword, completely unhurt.
She was still smiling.
“My Lord gave me this armor that I might walk through the bloody battlefield for him. Your weapons will not pierce it. Nor will you stop me from achieving my goals.”
From her spot behind the archers, Ryoka saw Klbkch and Relc rush at Gazi from behind, Ksmvr only a second slower. This time they timed their movements perfectly, a spear and sword slicing at her head from both directions. But Gazi just dodged Klbkch’s sword and parried Relc’s thrust again, and then cut Ksmvr as he rushed at her. She was still holding the scroll in her other hand.
And then she looked up and smiled at Ryoka.
Gazi appeared in front of Ryoka in a blur of movement. Ryoka threw a punch, but Gazi’s fist streaked past Ryoka’s arm and caught her in a perfect counter.
Ryoka blinked. Suddenly she was lying on the ground, and Gazi was gone. What just—
She pushed herself upright and saw the fallen guardsmen. The row of archers that had been firing at the adventurer to cover the others was gone. Screaming and groaning guardsmen were lying on the ground, arms and legs slashed deeply.
Blood spurted from wounds as they desperately reached for healing potions. Gazi had severed arteries, and the guardsmen had to heal their wounds or die in minutes.
And Gazi was back towards Erin, fighting with the guardsmen again. She was dancing in a whirlwind of blades, smiling and laughing.
Yes, that was it. Dancing. That’s what it looked like. Not a rapid dance or some kind of ridiculous jumping up and down, but a slow dance. Each step she took was deliberate, and every time she swung her sword she either deflected a strike at her face or cut someone around her.
It was a beautiful sight. Beautiful and full of despair for Ryoka. Gazi saw everything as it came at her, from every direction. She ignored feints and knew when something would miss. And she only had to defend her head.
Relc kicked at Gazi’s side and she dodged left before cutting him shallowly down one leg. He was already covered in shallow cuts, as was Klbkch. Gazi wasn’t going for the kill. She was bleeding everyone around her, fighting purely defensively.
And still smiling.
That was purity. That was the height of perfection. If Gazi had been a martial artist she would have been 27th Dan or something. Ryoka knew she had no chance of even hitting her.
She turned to run. Run like a coward to prevent Gazi from teleporting them. But Gazi just turned and raised her sword as if to throw it. Ryoka froze, and Gazi smiled and leaned back to avoid another sword.
She couldn’t even run. Ryoka screamed in her head as she tried to figure out what to do. What could she do? Erin was still staring at the melee, but the other guardsmen were staggering away, too wounded to fight. Only Relc and Klbkch and Ksmvr were left. And then only Relc and Klbkch.
Howling. Ryoka heard it in her mind. She was helpless. She shouldn’t be. She’d practiced self-defense all her life. She’d trained her body. She couldn’t be—
Howling. Ryoka heard it in her mind, growing louder. Then she realized it wasn’t just in her head. She looked around.
A lone voice cut through the clashing of metal on metal and the shouts of those fighting. It was deep, resonant. Ryoka had heard wolves howling, but this was deeper, and somehow far more disturbing.
Wolves howled as a way to communicate; as a way to be social. But this howl was darker. It had emotion in it; black fury and rage that expressed itself in a wild sound that sent chills down Ryoka’s back.
It raised all the little hairs on Ryoka’s neck and sent a chill down her spine. It wasn’t even a conscious thing; the animal noise poked at a primal part of her brain and put fear into it.
No animal howled like that. And as soon as the first howl ended, another voice rose to join it. And another. And another.
Erin covered her ears to stop the terrible noise beating down on her. She looked around wildly. The din had made everyone stop, even Gazi. She paused, and Relc staggered away from her, bleeding from a dozen wounds.
The Gazer tsked in annoyance and frowned in the direction of the city. She shook her head.
“Gnolls. And winter is about to arrive. In about sixteen minutes. Inconvenient. I must move faster.”
She unfurled the scroll wider and pressed her thumb into it. Erin saw an intricate web of tightly-written lines of symbols before Gazi spoke a word and the parchment flashed with light.
The symbols began to move. They spun and whirled around in a dizzying configuration before forming into a circle. And then the circle fell off the scroll and onto the ground. It formed a ring in the air, a small circle that slowly grew larger.
Gazi turned towards Erin.
“It is time to go.”
Erin couldn’t speak. She didn’t know whether to run or fight or—
An arrow streaked past Erin’s shoulder and Gazi’s sword came up. She caught the black shaft before it struck her eye, but two more flew straight at her face. Gazi cut both down and frowned.
Erin looked behind her. Over a hundred yards away, a group of furry, tall people were loping towards her and Gazi. They were carrying bows, and one of them she recognized.
Krshia led the Gnolls as they howled and ran towards Gazi, a group of fifteen shopkeepers, artisans, and even a tavern owner. But these weren’t the friendly people Erin knew from the city. These Gnolls held massive bows and their eyes glowed with fury. They didn’t speak. They didn’t wait. As soon as they reached bowshot range, the Gnolls began to loose arrows at the Gazer.
Unlike the guardsmen who’d managed a semi-accurate spread when firing on the lone adventurer, the arrows from these Gnolls were all on target. Gazi frowned and her arm blurred as she cut down arrows and dodged backwards swiftly.
“Krshia Silverfang. Your interference in my business was most unwise.”
Krshia snarled at Gazi. She aimed an arrow straight at Gazi’s eyes as she coldly replied.
“Blood for blood. You slaughtered our kin. We will slaughter you.”
“You are welcome to try.”
Krshia’s arrow broke on Gazi’s sword. The Gazer disappeared into the Gnolls and they began falling, bleeding. Dying?
Erin wasn’t sure. All she knew was that Gazi was cutting into people with her sword, letting their blood coat her armor. All as she smiled.
But Gazi’s smile flickered and faded slightly as the Gnolls kept spreading out. She’d cut down the first four Gnolls easily, but now they were firing at her from every angle, she had to dodge and use her sword to deflect the crossfire more actively.
But she was still moving, still unharmed. Gazi slowly crossed the distance to another Gnoll as he fired at her desperately. She stabbed through his bow into his stomach and he fell down, clutching at his insides. Gazi retreated, weaving, and began pursuing her next target.
She was going to kill them all.
Erin didn’t know when she started moving. She only realized it when she’d approached Gazi. Arrows flew by her face, missing her by centimeters, brushing her hair. It was terrifying, and Erin knew any second she could be struck. But she kept walking.
Two steps. And then three. A flash of fire burned her right arm and she realized she’s been cut by a projectile. It didn’t matter.
Gazi was moving away from her, walking towards Krshia among the storm of arrows. Erin stopped in front of her, shivering as she saw Gazi cutting down blurred shapes as they sped towards her head.
But now Gazi seemed to be blocking the ones flying at Erin too. She smiled at Erin, as if on the verge of laughter.
“And what will you do now that you are here, Erin?”
Erin punched at Gazi’s face. The half-Gazer’s arm came up as she swung to deflect another arrow and seemed to just coincidentally knock Erin’s arm away.
Klbkch charged out of the grass, ignoring an arrow as it struck him in the back. He raised a sword in both hands. Gazi pivoted to block and bodily checked Erin, hard enough to knock her into the ground. She stepped on Erin’s arm as the girl tried to rise and ignored the cry of pain.
“Distance and numbers mean nothing to my eyes, Erin.”
Ryoka saw Erin rolling away after Gazi stepped away from her. The innkeeper was cradling her arm. It didn’t look broken, but she didn’t get up and attack Gazi again. Of course not. What would be the point?
Klbkch fell down at last when Gazi clubbed him with the pommel of her sword. The Gnolls were still firing, but the portal she’d opened was now nearly head-height. Ryoka could see into it. It was some sort of tunnel, ringed by spinning symbols and flashes of colors she couldn’t name. And on the other side was grass. Not the grass from around here, but different grass. Shorter. Thicker leaves. Drier soil; a harsher landscape.
It was definitely a portal. And Gazi was going to drag Erin and Ryoka into it.
She advanced towards Ryoka, still deflecting arrows as if her sword was an umbrella. She called out to Ryoka as she approached.
“You are worth far less than she, but perhaps you will be worth the wait.”
Again. It was the same damn feeling. Gazi laughed as she dodged and parried attacks from every direction and angle.
It was so unfair.
“Two for the price of one, as my lord would say it.”
Ryoka backed up, but Gazi flicked an arrow and pain exploded across Ryoka side.
“Don’t move. I need you, but healing potions can mend much.”
She had to have a weakness. Ryoka clutched at the arrow that had buried itself in her stomach and tried not to scream. Gazi was arrogant. She—she wasn’t even fighting seriously. Relc was the…the only one who could really challenge her, and she’d taken him out in the first seconds.
She had to have a weak spot. Her eyes. Without her eyes she’d be—
Gazi stepped in front of Ryoka. She caught the leg as it flashed towards her face.
“A good kick.”
Then she kicked back and Ryoka woke up on the ground next to the portal. She felt sick. She tried to stand and realized her arms and legs weren’t working properly. She shook as she pushed herself onto her knees and looked around.
Gazi stood over Ceria, sword drawn. Olesm was a collapsed heap next to her, unmoving. Over half of the Gnolls were lying still on the ground and the other ones had stopped firing. Because Gazi’s sword was at Ceria’s throat.
“Why wait? Why, if you knew I was alive?”
The half-Elf was asking Gazi a question. Ryoka tried to reach out to her, but her body was failing. Broken. She felt dizzy and the world kept going black in places. She barely heard what Gazi said.
“So it would hurt most of all, of course.”
Ryoka blinked and suddenly she was staring into the dirt. She’d fallen? Fallen down. She pushed herself up. She couldn’t fight. But Ceria. She couldn’t let her die either.
“Know that I keep my promises.”
Gazi raised the sword high over Ceria’s head. She raised her other hand and caught Erin as the other girl lunged at her.
Gazi looked at Ryoka. The Runner croaked and tried to form proper words. Her mind was spinning.
“Do it and I’ll kill myself. Bite my tongue off. You won’t have me and Erin.”
The adventurer shrugged.
“One is still better than two. And I doubt you have the courage for that, Ryoka Griffin.”
She grabbed Erin by the throat, lifting her up. The portal was large now, spinning in the air, eight feet by eight feet wide. It was humming, a deep sound that Ryoka could feel in her bones. And it was—collapsing? Flares of color were emerging from around the spinning symbols. It was about to end.
Krshia lifted her bow as Gazi lifted Erin up. The girl’s feet kicked feebly.
“We will see her die before letting you take her.”
Gazi looked amused as she shook her head.
“Liar. I can see the lies on your face, Krshia Silverfang.”
Krshia hesitated. Ryoka tried to get up again. No good. She flopped on the ground and felt something fall out of her pocket. Her iPhone. She stared at it.
Throw it at Gazi? Probably not.
The adventurer let go of Erin and gripped her sword two-handed as she raised it over Ceria’s head. The half-elf stared up bleakly at the raised sword.
Ryoka’s voice was a hoarse croak as she pushed herself upright. Erin stood right in front of Gazi, fist raised, knowing it was useless to attack. She would do it anyways, Ryoka knew. But she had to speak first.
Gazi didn’t even bother turning her head. She spoke to the air.
“Now. What could you possibly say that would stop me here? I am curious.”
Ryoka took one deep breath, and then another. The world was spinning. If she took one step she’d probably puke or fall over. But she had to say it. Weak spot.
She hoped Erin moved fast.
“The King of Destruction has awakened. Flos has returned.”
Erin heard the words, but didn’t know what they meant. But they caused a hush, and she saw Gazi’s eye widen. Slowly, the Gazer turned.
Gazi the Omniscient. She could see through walls, across miles and even into the hearts of other people. She could see through lies.
Her central eye turned, and all four smaller eyes. They fixed on Ryoka, staring into her, searching for the truth. And Erin moved. Faster than she’d ever moved before. Her hand raised, and shot out.
Maybe Gazi saw it out of her peripherals, but she turned. Her sword cut down the two arrows streaking towards her face. Her right hand caught Ksmvr’s dagger as he hurled it at Gazi. Perhaps it was that which made Gazi too slow. Or it might have been the crimson gaze, the touch of fear that came from a gemstone burning in a skeleton’s eyes.
It might have been all of those things, or nothing. But Gazi’s hand came up—
And Erin poked Gazi in the eye.
It was a terrible feeling. Erin’s finger sunk into the open eyeball, straight through the cornea. Erin felt her fingertip pushing through horrible wetness, through the gooey center and felt something burst over her hand.
An armored fist hit Erin in the chest. She felt herself go whumph as her ribs cracked. Erin didn’t fly—but she did move up and down in the air for a second or two. When she hit the ground, all the lights in the world went out for a while.
When Erin got up, Gazi was clutching at something. A gooey mess ran around her armored hand, and she looked—
She wasn’t smiling anymore. For the first time, Gazi’s secretive smile was gone, and her four good eyes stared at Erin with dark hatred.
She strode towards Erin, but suddenly Relc was there. He laughed and threw himself at Gazi.
“[Triple Thrust] you stupid bi—”
She cut him as he cut her. Gazi’s cheek opened up as Relc’s caught a deep cut down his face. Gazi stopped and blinked. Bright orange-yellow blood dripped from her open wound.
More arrows flew. This time, Gazi’s sword was too slow. One caught her hair, and another splinted into her face, striking the mess of her eye. She cried out again.
Her other eyes flicked towards Klbkch and Relc and she sighed. Then she looked at Erin and Ryoka.
“Well done. Well done, the two of you. I should have been more careful.”
She turned and retreated from Klbkch and he approached with Ksmvr and Toren at his side. Towards the portal. The Antinium and skeleton let Gazi move back, swords raised warily. The Gnolls kept firing, and it was all Gazi could do to block their arrows now.
“You must leave or die here, Gazi of Reim.”
Gazi nodded at Klbkch.
“Yes. I must. But first: vengeance.”
Her sword blurred and touched an arrow as it flew at her.
Ryoka pushed Erin aside just in time. The arrow missed both girls by inches and struck one of the bows a Gnoll carried. It shattered the weapon and the arrowhead glanced off and buried itself in the Gnoll’s fur. He howled in pain as Ksmvr and Klbkch moved to shield Erin.
“Ah. If I were better—”
Gazi shrugged. She lowered her hand and revealed a ruined mess of an eye. She stared at Erin, and the girl stared back.
“Erin Solstice. One day, we shall meet again.”
And then Gazi stepped through the portal. Krshia fired one last arrow, but it missed the adventurer. Gazi’s form distorted and then—
Erin stared into a tunnel as long as forever. It stretched on and on, but somehow she could see the ending. A patch of grass ringed by runestones only a few feet away. Gazi stepped into the portal, and her foot travelled thousands of miles, stretching out to touch the grass on the other side.
Relc threw his spear through the portal. Erin saw it flying through the air, an arrow hurled across the world. Gazi turned and caught it. She tossed it casually back.
The tunnel of light began to close. The spear landed in the grass on Erin’s side, and then the magic ended. The portal closed. Reality went back to normal.
And Gazi was gone.
Zevara stood in the remains of the battlefield, looking around. It was a battlefield. There was no other word for the field of broken arrows, the patches of blood, and the bodies.
The bodies. Two of her guardsmen, and one Gnoll. Three people; not a high toll considering who they’d come up against, but too many. They lay on the ground, two clutching at wounds that hadn’t healed fast enough. The Gnoll was headless.
The dead and the wounded. Zevara couldn’t remember a time she’d seen so much violence in such a short time. Not since the previous Watch Captain. Not since the Necromancer.
She glanced up and looked over at another gathering, this one of the living. Ryoka and Erin sat in a protective circle of bodies. Ksmvr, the Gnolls, even the damn skeleton and the human mage stood around them protectively, though Gazi was long gone.
Ryoka was still swaying where she sat. The girl had a concussion and possibly fractured bones according to Pisces. Erin wasn’t badly hurt; the cuts on her face and her bruises had been easily fixed. But she was staring down at her hand. At her finger.
Zevara turned away. She looked at Relc, and at Klbkch, two of her best guardsmen, even if they were…Relc and Klbkch. She shook her head at them, and they nodded, understanding.
“What the hell just happened here? Why by all the dead gods would this…?”
She waved a hand helplessly at the scene. Relc just shook his head, but Klbkch cleared his throat.
“The humans, Watch Captain.”
“I know. I know the humans. But why? Why them? Why now? Why Gazi? Why?”
“I do not fully know. Perhaps we should ask when the time is right. But for now we must accept that the world is changing.”
“The world’s gonna end.”
Zevara looked at Relc. The Drake stared at the ground, ignoring the cuts and gashes he still hadn’t healed. She was no soldier, but she had the same sense he did.
Zevara looked at the sky. Revelations. There would be rumors spreading the instant they returned to the city, but the truth was far worse. Zevara felt it in her gut, the sense of urgency, the fear.
Peace was over. The King of Destruction had returned. If she didn’t hurry, she was going to die without ever telling Olesm she loved him.
“I just want to sit by myself and not do anything. Just sit and play chess, okay? I’ll be better once I’m at the inn. Once I’m home.”
Erin told Krshia that for the hundredth time, she clutched the blanket around her hand even tighter, as if she could wipe away the memories, the feeling.
“I get that, but the Captain wants to talk to everyone in the city. We’ve got hot drinks and food. Just come with us.”
“If she does not want to go, she will not go. And you are in no position to demand such things now, yes?”
Krshia glared at Relc and the Drake glared back.
“Having a bunch of bows and your little archery group doesn’t mean you’re suddenly guardsmen, Krshia. You get in the way any more and I’ll hit you. With this.”
He lifted his spear and the Gnolls around Erin and Ryoka rumbled. Relc didn’t seem impressed, but Erin shook her head.
“No. No fighting. I’ll go. Ryoka?”
Ryoka nodded dizzily at Erin. Relc smiled.
“See? I’m right and you’re wrong, Krshia.”
“Well then, we shall go with Erin. As concerned citizens.”
“Fine, let’s all be guardsmen, then. I’d like to see you become a Senior Guardsman. We’ll take care of the humans. You Gnolls just go back to the city and—”
Relc stopped shouting and turned around. The Gnolls looked too. Erin had no idea what they were sensing or…hearing?
“Hold up. What the heck is that?”
Something echoed on the faintest edge of Erin’s hearing. Howling? No. Not like Gnolls. But the sound of wind, yes. And suddenly it felt colder.
A lot colder.
“Oh gods, it’s here! Winter is coming everyone. Get ready!”
Relc roared and everyone around him was suddenly moving. Erin looked around, confused. Relc growled as he grabbed the blanket from Erin and held it up around her and Ryoka.
“As if we needed anything else.”
“What? What’s happening.”
“Winter is here.”
Klbkch said it calmly as he appeared with another blanket. And then Erin and Ryoka saw it.
From down over the mountains it came. A storm? Or maybe it was just the wind, frozen and made corporeal. It was a white and grey wave that crashed down like an avalanche, but instead of breaking on the ground, angled up at the last moment and blew straight across the plains.
It headed straight towards the group, and for a second Erin thought she heard voices.
“Look, look, sisters! A group of travelers out in the open!”
“A band of warriors! The dogs and once-Dragons have been fighting!”
“And humans! And the slaves! And even a dead thing!”
Laughter, bright and tinkly, like crackling icicles. Erin squinted. Were there…blue shapes in the oncoming storm? But then the tone of the light, ethereal voices changed.
“Look! There! A half-breed! A filthy whore!”
“Bury it in snow!”
“Let’s dump snow on all of them!”
“Here it comes!”
Relc shouted, and the storm enveloped Erin in a sea of white. She was thrown to the ground, tumbled around, and then she was cold and wet and the world was missing.
Something grabbed Erin as she struggled to sit up. Relc pulled Erin up and she gasped and spluttered as he freed her from the—
Suddenly, the world was changed. The grass was gone. Erin found herself shivering, waist-deep in pure white snow, and the air was suddenly frosty, and the skies grey and clouded.
Relc grinned at Erin and handed her the blanket back.
“Winter just arrived. Let’s get back to the city, huh? We’re going to need warm clothes; this one looks pretty cold.”
Across from her, Ryoka pushed her way out of the snow, spluttering. She looked around.
“What the fuck?”
The storm was gone, as if it had never been. Only the snow remained, and the suddenly frozen landscape. And also the group of hovering creatures that swirled and swooped in the air above Erin and Ryoka’s heads.
“They’re not dead! The half-breed lives!”
“Let’s bury them again! Deeper!”
“No, let’s cut off her hair and tear out her eyes!”
“Look, look! This human is different! See how different she looks, sisters?”
One of the creatures floated down next to Ryoka, and pointed. Ryoka recoiled as they all flew around her, still speaking in their voices-that-weren’t-voices.
“You’re right! How strange! How odd!”
“Can she see us, we wonder?”
Relc grimaced. He swatted at the faeries and shook his head.
“Ugh. It’s them. I hate those things.”
One of the transparent…things floated in front of Relc’s face. He shook his head, eyes not focusing fully on…her. She blew into his face and he recoiled, shouting and clawing at the frost on his nose.
“We hate you too!”