Some called him Az’kerash. Others, quite few now, remembered the past and called him Perril Chandler. No one living or dead remembered to call him by the nickname even he had forgotten, Peril. And those who spoke of him usually didn’t even bother with ‘Az’kerash’. They called him the Necromancer.
He cared not. He cared little about many things, in fact, and that lack of emotion was a void which grew with each passing year. A little sphere of silence and empty feeling in his heart. But he had grown used to that, too.
He was busy. In fact, he was so busy he didn’t even bother looking around as his servant spoke to him. All of his gaze was focused upwards, and the magelight was the only thing that lit up the grand chamber he used for creation.
Creation. There was no other word for it. The Necromancer looked up and created something never dreamt of by any species, now or in the past. It took up all almost all of his focus, and yet he still replied absently to the woman with pale skin and green eyes who stood attentively by his side.
Her name was Venitra; all else was meaningless. She stood before her master, in darkness, in the silence of his castle. She was here to report, and that provided her with all the joy in her life. When she spoke to her creator—when she was in his presence and felt his attention on her, however slightly—she felt fulfilled.
“Another being has breached the outer web, master.”
Perril Chandler did not frown; his face never changed as he stared upwards. He was devoting so much energy to what floated above that needless expressions would have been a waste. The fact that he could even respond at all was incredible to anyone who could understand what was happening. But he had been a genius, once. A prodigy. Now he was a legend and so he spoke, although he would only truly remember what had been said when the spell was finished. If there was something important enough to warrant his full cognition he would attend to it. But until then he simply trusted to his subconscious.
“Another one? Curious. Describe this new intruder.”
“Human. Female. Six feet in height. Black hair; athletic build.”
“Hmm. Not part of either army, then. Are there any other features that set her apart?”
Venitra nodded, although she knew Az’kerash wouldn’t see her. She had been taught to mimic the gestures of the living and she did so dutifully even though she’d never been alive.
“She resembles a Drath Archipelago native. Also, she appears to have several pieces of highly magical equipment, and she is running quickly in this direction.”
Venitra hesitated. The watchers had seen something else around the girl. Some kind of…things. Blurry, fuzzy blue things. Frost Sprites. But her master had long ago insisted they were unimportant, so she did not mention them. She did not want to fail him or bother him. That would be her greatest nightmare, if she actually slept.
“Nothing of consequence.”
“Hm. And you said she is running?”
“Yes. Quickly, but without any movement-enhancing Skills.”
“A Runner, then. Possibly a Courier, although they move more quickly. Interesting.”
One pale white hand came up and rested on his lips as Peril devoted more thought to this new information.
“I would investigate myself but my work—no, no. She is no doubt a messenger for one of the armies. Are they still engaged in combat?”
“Yes, master. Zel Shivertail has retreated from Wall Lord Ilvriss and is attempting to reform his shattered forces. The other army is actively hunting the scattered bands of warriors. Neither side has noticed the presence of the castle or made their way through the second web.”
A sigh. The Necromancer would have shaken his head, but he didn’t need to think as deeply.
“How troublesome. Even in this remote region, chance and the petty squabbles of the Drake cities can bring an army upon our doorstep. Well, it matters not who wins. Observe them, mark the spots where the dead fall. And if any penetrate the veil and enter the castle – kill them.”
Venitra’s eyes glowed brightly and she smiled.
Her moment was over. Reluctantly, Venitra withdrew, and then went to deliver the instructions she had been given to the guardians of this place. She left the large room where the supposedly-dead legend stood, and walked out the double doors, letting them swing silently closed behind her.
It was a castle where Az’kerash made his home, but not one that would have been familiar to anyone who studied castles in Erin and Ryoka’s world. The corridors in this castle were vast, and the stones that made up the walls, floor, and ceiling were huge chunks of black stone, far too large for even the most advanced construction equipment from this world to ever lift.
And it was inhabited, just not by the living. A small army stood in front of the doors, waiting for an enemy that had never penetrated these walls. But it was always best to be vigilant, lest their master be troubled, so Venitra decided to be extra-cautious.
She raised her hand, and a dozen undead warriors followed her as she strode through the halls. Venitra walked through the darkness, needing no light. Only the glow of the deathless eyes lit the darkness, not just from her and behind, but from the corridors, the walls, the ceiling…
The undead stood silently, waiting. Waiting.
Four days after leaving the Stone Spears tribe, Ryoka realized she was smiling.
It wasn’t an unnatural thing; normal human beings did it all the time. So did Ryoka. But she had trouble remembering when she’d last done it unconsciously, just because she was in a good mood.
And it wasn’t even as if she was even doing something insanely fun. In fact, she was failing to do something. But it was the challenge Ryoka loved, the feeling of pushing herself hard and doing something of real worth.
She frowned down at her open hands, which were glowing with light. That wasn’t a normal human thing, and neither was the sound that came from her hands. It was loud, and incomprehensible.
It sounded vaguely like someone saying ‘eh’ through a microphone, but only if that someone was a rock who could speak and the microphone in question was some kind of tricked out synthesizer that made the sound warble and bounce.
It sounded weird, and it was loud enough to make some birds in the distance fly up as Ryoka walked through the snow. She frowned, concentrated, and the ‘eh’ changed into an ‘ah’ that was high-pitched, sonorous, and somehow, flat.
“Is it…? No. Damn.”
Something landed on Ryoka’s head. The girl ignored it, although the cold was just slightly below a comfortable temperature. She frowned at her hands, until a small face appeared upside-down in her vision.
“Human. What is that?”
Ryoka ignored the question. Two seconds later the Frost Faerie pulled back Ryoka’s eyelids and the girl swatted at the faerie with a shout of anger. The faerie flew away, laughing, and Ryoka looked up.
The Frost Faeries flew high overhead, a group of twenty or more. Only one was hovering around Ryoka, but she was sure the others could hear every word she said. And because they were traveling companions and because she knew they wouldn’t leave her alone until she answered, Ryoka spoke.
“I was working on a spell until you interrupted me.”
“A spell? Ooh, what is it? Tell me!”
“[Noise]. It’s a Tier 0 spell that Ceria taught me.”
The faerie just blinked at Ryoka. She sighed, and lifted her hand to demonstrate. Her palm glowed for a second, and then the same warbling ‘eh’ echoed from her palm, only quieter. The faerie stared at Ryoka’s palm in expectation, flicking her glance between it and the girl’s face.
“It’s what the spell does. Ceria taught me it as a way to practice controlling magic. It’s not very useful, according to her; you can’t toss the sound and complex things like voices or music are impossible to create.”
She’d been trying to figure out if that was actually true. But after nearly an hour of producing various squelches of noise, Ryoka had to admit that Ceria was probably right. The spell was too limited to create actual sounds, let alone any kind of deliberate sound no matter how much mana she put in it.
Not that she had much mana or understood magic that well. Ryoka could only sense half of the things Ceria had spoken about. To her, the spell was a vague feeling in her head, a feeling or thought she could focus on. It was like nothing else she had ever felt; if there was such a thing as a sixth sense, magic would probably be it. It was like feeling a new part of her brain open up, and Ryoka had no idea how any of it worked.
She could add mana to a spell to make it stronger, adjust certain parameters like the loudness of her [Noise] spell or change the noise that came out, but nothing else. Even that was apparently tremendous work for a beginner, but Ryoka had sort of been hoping for more out of the spell.
So had the faerie. She looked at Ryoka and shook her head.
“Magic here is so silly. Tiers? More nonsense for you playthings and fools.”
She flew around Ryoka’s head and landed on the young woman’s left shoulder. Ryoka looked over and saw the small faerie resting comfortably on her jacket, legs swinging. It was such an odd sight, Ryoka had to blink even though this wasn’t the first time the faeries had done it.
They acted so familiar now it was eerie. But after four days—six if you counted the two in the Gnoll tribe’s camp—Ryoka had gotten to know the Frost Faeries, at least in the sense that neither side was actively trying to kill or maim the other.
She told them stories, and for that they helped guide her, played less pranks on her, and generally deigned to answer her questions. Ryoka still had a definite sense that she was more ‘interesting lesser being’ than ‘equal sentient’ to them, but she took what she could get and put up with their remarks and occasional snowball to the face.
And honestly, it was a small piece of wonder for a faerie, a being of the fey and myth and legend to sit on Ryoka’s shoulder. She just wished it wasn’t so cold.
“It might be silly, but that’s the only magic I can do. That, and [Light].”
The faerie sniffed dismissively.
“Aye, we’ve seen you playing with your faint glows at night. ‘Tis a pale specter of faerie fire or wyrd light. Have ye never seen a will-o’-wisp? That light is true light.”
“I have not, and I don’t particularly want to be led astray. And what do you mean ‘faint’?”
Ryoka had been experimenting with the [Light] spell, and at least there, she’d realized she could actually alter the orb of light significantly. Instead of having it float next to her, she could just project light from her hands like a flashlight, or even shoot it from one finger. It was incredible, but again, only to Ryoka.
“Hah! You think your light is bright? It’s but feeble glimmer compared to yon candle up overhead.”
The faerie gestured upwards, and Ryoka didn’t have to look to know she was pointing at the sun.
“Well, I can’t make light as bright as the sun. I’m sorry if that’s disappointing to you.”
“Worry not, pathetic human. All you mortals do is disappointing and sad.”
The faerie laughed and back flipped off Ryoka’s shoulder to reappear at the girl’s side even as Ryoka abandoned her magic practice and picked up the pace. The faerie leaned backwards in the air and adopted a lounging pose, as if she was lying down in the air. But she never lost her position in front of Ryoka, even when the girl transitioned into a run through the snow.
“We did promise to guide you to your destination, but so slowly? We bore, Human! Run faster! Or tell us a story!”
Ryoka gritted her teeth and raised her voice as she ran through the snow that tried to drag down her every step.
“I’m just a sad, sorry mortal. I can’t fly, and I don’t have Skills. I’m sorry I’m not Val, okay?”
The faerie blinked down at Ryoka, and then laughed in amusement.
“The Human? He is just as slow as ye are.”
That was interesting. Ryoka frowned up at the faerie. They didn’t like answering too many questions when she put it to them directly, but she’d learned to draw answers out of them in the form of conversations.
“Really? I thought he’d be fast, to you at least. What about Hawk? Isn’t he quick?”
“Would ye compare snails to birds, Human? We ride the wind and race through storms! We move across paths beyond worlds—what can your small feet to do catch us?”
The faerie looked insulted, and Ryoka quickly changed the subject.
“Okay, fine. You’re fast and I’m not. I guess you travel around a lot, then? Is that how you know Teriarch?”
The faerie narrowed her eyes down at Ryoka. She and her friends had already refused to answer Ryoka’s many questions about their home, their magic, and pretty much anything else of value. Reluctantly, she nodded.
“We’ve seen the old fool about before. In passing, when he was but a whelp, and later. What of it?”
“You’ve been around here for a long time, then. Are you older than Teriarch? How old are you—or do faeries move through time differently?”
Now the faerie did frown. She flipped her wings and ‘sat’ in the air, facing away from Ryoka.
“Oh come on. What’s the point of a secret if you can’t share it?”
Ryoka felt like she was coaxing a kid, but the faeries were childish at times. But when the immortal turned her head to look at Ryoka, she felt a chill as she realized she was speaking to just that. Sometimes the faeries were childish, at other times their gazes turned ancient and unreadable. Like now.
“Some things cannot be told, and certainly not for a single tale, mortal.”
“How about a hundred? Don’t you owe me a favor? You may have promised to take me to the place where the dead gather, but I’ve told you countless stories and poems. Doesn’t that mean I get a few questions answered or—”
Ryoka grimaced as she stepped on something soft and mushy. That was the problem with running in the winter, the fall, or outdoors in general. Oh, sure, the snowy landscape looked pristine, but she’d probably just landed in a patch of half-frozen muck, or a pile of compressed leaves of something.
The faerie looked down at Ryoka and shook her head. Ryoka made a face as she pushed through whatever it was and ran on. She hated running in the snow. She had boots and heavy clothing on, and she was moving far more slowly than she or the faeries would have liked as a result.
And she couldn’t see where she was going, which led to moments like these.
“Okay, what about—shit!”
She stepped on something else that was slippery and gave way under her boot. Ryoka made a face as she lifted her feet higher so she could run on top of the powdery snow rather than on what was beneath it.
“God. Is this some kind of mountainous swampland or something?”
It didn’t look like it. Ryoka was heading up a hill, and she’d been running through a forest high up in the hills, close to the foot of one of the impossibly tall mountains. The faeries flew up the hill, and Ryoka followed, swearing as she slipped a few times on the ascent.
“Come on. I don’t want gold or any of those trick flowers you give, but I’d settle for knowledge. You told me you’re not even supposed to talk to mortals, right? Aren’t you breaking a rule already?”
Some more faeries flew down to fly next to Ryoka. The first one shook her head.
“Some rules can be broken. Others cannot. What you ask is too much, mortal. Leave it be.”
They’d stopped smiling for some reason. Ryoka wondered if she were treading on dangerous ground; she was certainly squishing through something.
“Is gossip really that important? I’m just asking about things of this world, not the secrets of faerie mounds or anything. What about Teriarch—I mean, the Dragon? Do you bother him at all?”
Ryoka grinned as she imagined Teriarch trying to keep his dignity intact while the Frost Faeries pestered him. No wonder he’d flamed them. She chuckled to herself, trying to keep her balance as she ran.
She was still laughing when she saw the first body.
At first, it just looked like an odd shape in the snow, a dash of color in the white landscape. Then, as Ryoka jogged nearer she saw the dark green scales covered with frost and the dried blood. And then she realized what she was seeing and stopped.
It was a corpse. Ryoka had never seen one before coming to this world. Well, of course she’d seen cadavers and she’d gone to a few open-casket funerals, but a corpse? Never.
And now everywhere she went she saw death. She should have been used to it by now. After the slaughtered Gnolls and the ruins in Liscor. But…
This person—no, this Drake hadn’t just died in the snow. Someone had killed him. Ryoka didn’t want to, but her feet took her closer, until she was about ten feet away. There they stopped. She couldn’t move forwards. And she couldn’t look away.
Death. The Drake had been killed, yes, but now the gristly details had emerged. He—or she, Ryoka thought the body size and shape belonged to a he—was lying face-down in the snow. The leather armor on his back had been split open by a powerful thrust; Ryoka could look into frozen insides from here. She didn’t want to.
Her stomach trembled. Her heart beat faster. Ryoka stared at the dead body for a long time, trying to make sense of it. And failing.
He was dead. Someone had killed him. Of course. It only made sense. This was a dangerous world…people killed each other. Or things killed people. Either way, it was normal. Even in Ryoka’s ‘safe’ world, people got shot and stabbed all the time. It made sense.
That’s what she kept telling herself. But Ryoka just couldn’t accept the fact of the dead Drake lying in the snow on this bright, crisp clear day, in the middle of nowhere.
She had to look away. She had to go. If there was a monster nearby—but the Frost Faeries would warn her, wouldn’t they? Or wouldn’t they?
Ryoka took a look around, and stepped backwards uncertainty. She had to go forwards, though, right?
She took a step to take her well around the Drake’s body, and felt something else squish slightly under her boot. The young woman froze.
Just something on the ground. But now a horrible premonition stole over Ryoka, the leaping of her subconscious to a conclusion her brain didn’t want to accept. No. It couldn’t be.
Slowly, Ryoka looked around. This place was very deeply buried in snow. You could barely see anything, but she’d started landing on something that tore and burst underfoot, hadn’t she?
Ryoka stared at the ground, and then at her boots. Slowly, she lifted them up and stared at the bottom. There was snow stuck to the bottom of her soles, but a piece of something else as well. Ryoka’s gloves picked out a fragment of fur and grey flesh. The hair was dusky blonde; the flesh was rotted from decomposition and frozen. The girl stared at it.
Then she threw up. And ran.
“Slow down, mortal.”
A faerie appeared in Ryoka’s vision as she dashed through the snow, slipping, running, pumping her legs as fast as possible to get away from the buried corpses. Each time her foot stepped on something that wasn’t snow Ryoka tried to vomit again, but she kept running.
“Human, slow down!”
The faerie was in front of Ryoka, speaking urgently. But the girl’s panicked, horrified mind was unable to listen to the words. She only stopped when the massive gust of wind blew her backwards so hard she crashed into the snow with a thump.
Ryoka hit something hard and she panicked, thrashing about. Was it another body? But no, it was just the ground. She tried to get back up, but a blue face was in front of her.
“W-what? What is…?”
Ryoka stood up, shaking, but she stopped running. The faerie hovered in front of her, serious now, face no longer lit by mischief.
“You are in danger. Do not blunder around like the fool ye are or you too will be dead.”
What did that mean? Ryoka stared at the faerie and tried to force moisture into a suddenly-dry mouth.
“They’re dead. It’s—the corpses. How many died? What happened?”
The faerie looked at Ryoka.
“What do ye think? We are close, now. Follow. And slowly.”
She flew off, ahead of Ryoka with the others. The young woman hesitated, but then stumbled after her. The smile she’d worn just a few minutes earlier was gone, and now there was a pit of fear and horror in her stomach.
The faeries pushed uphill a bit further, until they were at the crest. There they floated in the air, looking out at something below. Ryoka hesitated, and then climbed the last few steps and stopped as she saw what lay below.
Her mind was blank for a while. When it slowly returned, Ryoka stared on in silence. She’d heard the word of course, heard it quite often in her world. And she’d thought she’d known the meaning, but it was one thing to know, and another to see it before her eyes. Such a simple word. She breathed it into the cold air.
Below her and far away, miles away, Ryoka could see people in the snow. Fighting. Drakes in armor and tall Gnolls struggled with each other, cutting each other with swords and axes and other weapons, bashing each other, fighting, bleeding, dying.
Red blood spurted from a Gnoll’s chest far below, and he fell back, mouth open. Ryoka heard her pulse roaring in her ears as she saw the Drake raise a spear and drive it through his chest.
How long she watched she didn’t know. Long enough for her frantic heartbeat to slow ever so slightly. And then she heard the horn calls in the distance, the sound of drums, the faint clash of metal and the thump of explosions.
And the screaming.
On her hilltop, the Human girl stumbled backwards, and one of the faeries looked at her. The fey were all floating in the air, silently watching the battle without a hint of the glee they normally exhibited.
“They fight fiercely down below, do they not? The children of Dragons and the hunting dogs?”
The faerie looked at Ryoka; the girl could only stare back. Her eyes travelled back to the battle below, caught by the carnage. She tried to speak. Her voice was shaky when it finally emerged.
I can’t believe what I’m seeing. No. It’s because I can believe it that everything is so horrible.
They’re killing each other down below. Blood and guts spill onto the ground as a Gnoll rips a Drake apart with an axe. I can’t even—
My stomach wants to heave, but I try to contain it. No. Don’t throw up. Look at the faerie. I turn my gaze, and try to focus on the wondrous being. It helps, a tiny bit. But I still hear the screaming.
“You are pale. Have ye never seen war before, Human?”
The faerie points at the battlefield and my eyes follow unwillingly. It doesn’t seem real. But I know it is. I can’t even speak, but somehow the words still come out.
The Frost Faerie shrugs.
“It is just another battle. It is natural.”
The faeries eye me as I shake my head.
I can’t even look away. The battle is a ways away, but now I can make out the details of what’s happening as the shock fades ever so slightly. There are sides, yes. Two sides. One seems to be made of organized soldiers wearing livery with purple—the other seems far more ragtag.
And the other side is being slaughtered.
Maybe it’s a skill. Or maybe this is just how this world fights. But I can see the soldiers in livery starting to tear right through the ranks of the other side. One Drake runs another through with a sword and yanks it out as he cuts another Drake down and charges forwards with his friends. The lines were never that even, but now they bend and break as the soldiers on the other side turn and run.
And they’re cut down from behind.
Magic spells—fire and flashes of lightning strike warriors in the back, and arrows rain down from a group of archers on a hill. I can see a Drake standing there, sword unsheathed as he points down at the battle.
Some of the fleeing warriors are tossing down their weapons and raising their hands up. They get ignored, but everyone who doesn’t gets hacked to pieces, staining the white ground red.
I want to vomit. I want to run. But I can’t do either. I’m transfixed, and a thought floats above the revulsion and horror in my head. Just when I think I understand this world, I realize how alien it truly is.
The battle’s over, or close enough. The few who got to the trees keep running as archers fire after them, and only now can I take in the bloody scene in its entirety. My knees are shaking.
“A problem, is it not?”
The voice in my ear makes me start. I look around and see the faerie.
The small creature points ahead, nearly directly past the sight of the battle.
“Yonder lies your destination.”
My destination…? I’d nearly forgotten about the Necromancer. I swallow. Oh god. How am I supposed to get past all that?
Running? They’ve got arrows and magic. This—this isn’t the same as the Lich. That was a monster, but this is a battle. What can I do if the army decides I’m a threat. Could the faeries—?
I look at them, and they seem to read my mind. One of the faeries fixes me with a serious look.
“We do not interfere in the quarrels of mortals. Remember that, Human.”
Oh. I don’t know what to say, but I open my mouth and I’m terribly afraid I’m going to beg them to help me. To—I don’t know—bury the army in an avalanche or something? Maybe I can just get around them. If I run west and then north for ten—no, twenty miles, maybe I can get—
“Look out! Duck, fool!”
A faerie shouts and points. I whirl, and see some of the archers and soldiers down below facing my way. They’re pointing, and I realize they’ve spotted my obvious position on the hill. I hear a shout, and suddenly they’re raising bows!
I dive into the snow just as the distant figures loose. Something whistles overhead, and I look up just in time to see black blurs shoot past where my head had been.
Oh no. This is bad. How could I have been so stupid? Who stands on a hill and gives away their position like that? I wasn’t thinking and now I’m dead.
I crawl towards the edge of the hill, back the way I’ve come. Get below their line of fire. But already I can hear shouting, growing louder.
“Damn it. Hey, can you—?”
I look up, and the faeries are gone. I’m alone.
I try to crawl faster, but the snow is so deep around me I can barely move, and if I stand up, I’m sure I’ll be shot. But now I can hear voices, angry ones, and a female voice roaring commands.
“Spread out! Don’t let the Human escape!”
I have to run. I brace my knees to get up and dash. How fast can I go in this deep snow? It’s knee-deep in places and nearly up to my waist where it piles up. If I slip—I can’t outrun people with bows and spells! But I have to.
A thought strikes me. Hold on, hold on. What if I…?
The shouting is getting nearer. I look around, and then take a chance. I dig into the snow around me. It’s deep. If I lie down, what then? I push snow up over my head, my body. Just pretend you’re a dead body. Hide. Don’t run; that’s what they expect.
I worm my way into the snow, trying to bury myself without making it seem like I’ve dug myself in. All the while I can hear sounds getting louder, but they’re practically drowned out by the thunder of my heart.
This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.
The snow buries my head, and all I see is white. The cold is around me, but I’m so panicked I can’t even feel it. I try to breathe slowly, and dig myself deeper while making no sound. The shouting is all around me now.
“Oh my god. fucking…shit, shit, shit—”
A dim part of me feels outraged that in a time of crisis, I don’t have the vocabulary to express myself. What am I, a middle-schooler? Even they know how to swear. But I’m scared out of my mind. I don’t even believe in a god*, but if I could pray—
*By that, I mean I don’t believe in worshiping one. That gods exist, or existed, well…that’s pretty definite in this world.
What do I do if they find me? I can hear snow crunching, and I wonder if they accept Human prisoners. If I have to fight—
Potions. The cloth bags. They’re my only weapons; I haven’t had to use any against monsters yet, but people—
I’ve got only a few of the ones Octavia gave me. Three potions, two bags. Which one was…?
I feel at my belt and then freeze as I hear someone speaking only a few feet away.
“Then the Human is still here. Have the others set up a net and look for traps. The rest of you, with me.”
I hear snow crunching, and then the voice grows louder. They’re right on top of me! I hold my breath. I am invisible, unseen—
But a terrible thought strikes me. This would work in my world, but here they have mages. And then the voice seems like it’s right overhead.
“We know you’re here, Human. If you don’t come out right now we’ll blast this entire hill with magic!”
No. No, no, no…
“Come forward! Now!”
The tone in her voice makes it clear she’s a second away from ordering a strike. I have to move.
Slowly, I sit up out of the snow, raising my hands. I’m nearly blinded by the light. I blink, look around—
And see the soldiers.
There are eight of them, all Drakes except for a single Gnoll with a bow. And they’re armed, wearing chainmail, heavy leather, and holding weapons still covered in blood. And…they’re not looking at me.
Nope. Not at all. The Drake leading them is surveying the landscape below the hill with the other Drakes. They’re looking the other way…and they’re standing about ten feet downhill from me. One of the Drakes turns around as he hears me sit up, and shouts. The others turn, and raise their weapons as they react with obvious surprise.
Oh my god.
It was a bluff. And I fell for it!
Their leader is the first to react. She unsheathes her sword and points it at me as she shouts.
“Do not move! Soldiers on me!”
Her voice rings out and I hear shouting. I keep my hands raised, mind racing.
Ryoka, you damn idiot…! What can I do? The Gnoll had his bow trained on me. I’m not going to be able to grab a potion, but what about a spell? If I could buy a second, I could use Teriarch’s potion. It’s my last resort, but—
I have two spells. [Light] and [Noise]. I could use either one with my hands, but what could it do? The arrow is pointed at my face. I’ve got an idea for one spell—but no.
No. I stare down the shaft and eye the arrow tip. I…I’m too afraid to try. The soldiers are encircling me, and now more charge up the hill.
The Drake captain or commander or whatever points at me with her sword. She seems cautious of me, but all I’m in danger of doing is turning the snow yellow.
“On your feet, Human. Slowly. Make no sudden moves.”
This isn’t my first arrest, although it is the first one in this world and the first one where I’m being held up at sword point. I move with exaggerated care, making no moves that would alarm the soldiers. The Drake eyes me from head to snowy toe.
“Who are you? Are you a soldier from the Trisstral Alliance? Or a mercenary? An adventurer? Speak!”
Trisstral Alliance? I have no idea what she’s talking about—probably all those soldiers her army just slaughtered. I shake my head slowly.
“I’m a Runner.”
The Drake Captain blinks, but her eyes narrow.
“A Runner? Prove it.”
Thankfully, I can. Runners use Seals, but we also get one of our own to show to suspicious people…mainly like her. I’ve got one that lists my designation as City Runner; it’s spelled so the seal would break if it left my possession for longer than five minutes.
“I’ve got a Seal in my belt pouch.”
She looks at one of the Drakes.
The Drake approaches me warily. She’s smaller than I am by a few inches, but she eyes me as if she’d like nothing more than to stab me in the eye. I don’t move, but I have to speak.
“It’s in the third pouch from your left. Don’t touch the other ones.”
That might not be the best thing to say, but it’s a valid damn concern. Teriarch’s ring and letter is in the second pouch, and he warned me what would happen if someone else touched it.
The soldier certainly doesn’t like hearing that. Her movements slow and I can sense the arrows and weapons around me as she slowly reaches into the pouch and fishes around. She pulls out the seal, and backs away quickly as she hands it to the Captain.
The Drake studies the seal and nods reluctantly.
“It’s real. Here.”
She tosses it back at me. I catch it unthinking, and I sense the soldiers lowering their weapons. Looks like Runner status means I do qualify as a non-combatant, but then, they’re not sheathing their blades either.
“What’s a City Runner doing out so far from any of the cities?”
The Captain eyes me suspiciously, but here at least I can lie with conviction. Oh so much conviction.
“Got a delivery for a tribe around here. Gnolls. The Stone Spears. I’m looking for their Chieftain, Urksh.”
“We’ve met them. You’re several days off.”
“Got chased by a Wyvern. If you point me in the right direction, I’ll go.”
It’s a good story. I keep telling myself that, and I hope I can still do fake honesty as well as I used to. The Drake is nodding as if she’s buying my story, and I’ve got the advantage that if she does bring me to Urksh, he’d probably cover for me.
I think she’s about to let me go when she nods at the soldiers.
“You may be telling the truth, but without someone with lie-detecting Skills I can’t confirm that. Regardless though, you’re going to have to come with us.”
Shit. My heart races.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss will want to see you. You won’t be harmed so long as you don’t resist. Take her.”
She nods, and two soldiers come to flank me. They don’t seize me, but they point and I go. Don’t fight soldiers.
God, I’ve made a big mistake. Or maybe not. Maybe this Wall Lord is a reasonable guy. I’m sure he is. I’m sure he’ll send me on my way with an apology and a shake of the hand…claw.
I’m so fucked.
I can hear the female Drake shouting orders, recalling the soldiers, as they form up and move and and behind me. No chance I’ll be left with my two charming, smiling companions. I eye the blood on their weapons until one of them snarls at me and I look ahead.
I descend the hill and follow the small column of soldiers as it winds its way back towards the battlefield. As I walk, I try to figure things out. Is this army here to fight the Necromancer? People think he’s dead, and besides the Drake was mentioning some kind of alliance.
A war, then? I doubt anyone’s allying with the infamous Az’kerash, and I didn’t see any undead on that battlefield. Dead, yes, but they all bled quite a lot before they died.
Am I in danger because of the war? I mean, what does a [Necromancer] like more than dead bodies? Shit. I was going to plan how to meet the guy before I went to knock on his front door, but if this army gets attacked—
I stumble, and a soldier catches me and pushes me along. Nice to see they’re so interested in my well-being. What do I do? What can I do? The potions—
I see a glimmer of light out of the corner of my eye as I’m pushed along, and I see a faerie floating by, as conspicuous as can be. But the soldiers probably only see a fuzzy blur, and so she flies closer to me as I walk along. I stare not-quite at her, and she waves a hand.
Are they…going to help? She points to the soldiers, and my heart beats faster. If she freezes their weapons or hits them with something I can probably do the rest.
The faerie taps one of the soldier’s swords, making it frost over for a second and then points at me. She draws a line across her neck, waves, and flies away. I stare forwards and bite my tongue so hard it nearly bleeds.
I hate those bastards.
His name was Zel, although few called him by that name anymore. It was a sign of respect, but it made him lonely at times. To others, he was Shivertail, or the legendary General of the Line, the famous Tidebreaker.
Some days he wished they didn’t believe in him so much. Because one day he would lose a battle, and his life.
It might be today.
The [General] stood over his maps, staring at a rough drawing of the terrain and landscape. Their army hadn’t been here long, and this was a forsaken part of the continent that not even Gnoll Tribes visited that often. He grimly marked a spot on the map and tapped it.
“We missed the battle. Ilvriss just got the entire group from Verdam and lost barely more than a handful of his own.”
The officers and adjutants standing around the war table muttered at this news. Zel felt the same, although his face didn’t show it.
“They got cut to ribbons. That was the last group not scattered to the winds, which means we’re on our own now. So. Let’s recap.”
Zel walked around the table, looking at his highest-ranking officers. In the privacy of his head, Zel Shivertail winced. They weren’t much. These were all low-level [Tacticians] and [Lieutenants] and even a few [Leaders] the allied cites had sent, not the high-ranking [Strategists] and [Captains] in Ilvriss’s army. No wonder the Verdam soldiers had been destroyed so quickly.
He wished he’d been at that battle, to even the odds. If he’d been there with his army, it would have been a fair fight—more than one. His abilities would have been a counter for Ilvriss, but that was war, wasn’t it? Fairness was a dream.
Zel cleared his throat, and everyone in the room snapped to attention, although they’d hardly been slouching before. They were brave, and loyal, and they were fighting to protect their homes. He couldn’t fault them for that, but the battle rested heavier on his shoulders because of it.
“Ilvriss caught us off guard when we were mustering our forces. If we’d gotten our army together we would have been fine, but none of our [Scouts] caught him and our [Strategists] didn’t think a Lord of the Wall would come out of one of the Walled Cities. Well, recriminations aside, he did and he’s here. And he’s just taken away our last chance at evening the odds. They outnumber us two-to-one, and we lost several good officers in that ambush.”
No one spoke, although Zel heard a muffled groan. He agreed, privately, but the soldiers had faith in him, despite the difference in levels, equipment, and soldiers between them and Ilvriss. He was a [General], and his abilities could turn the tide of this battle. But if he fell or couldn’t use them—
“Wall Lord Ilvriss’s forces don’t have to move; they know they’re guarding the only viable pass. Either we try to get out somewhere else and they fall on our backs, or we assault them head-on and try to rout them.”
Neither option was a good one. Zel saw it on the faces of those around him.
“An offensive battle isn’t one Ilvriss expects us to take. He’s hoping we’ll try to sneak around and catch us up against a cliff or in a tight spot so he can hammer us flat. It might work.”
Skills only did so much. They couldn’t produce miracles. Zel paused as he pointed to the battlefield, and the place where Ilvriss’s army was camped.
“That’s what he expects. That’s what would suit my abilities. So that’s what we’re not going to do. We’re advancing on his camp and attacking. Not tomorrow, not in an hour; right now. His soldiers are still healing and he’s probably assuming we’re still trying to gather those who have fled. No. We move out in ten minutes; leave the camp and have everyone ready.”
Zel fit action to word as he strode out of the tent. All or nothing. The cold air was harsh on his scales. Was today the day he died? He hoped it wasn’t. But if it was, he’d go down with a claw on Ilvriss’s damned throat.
He probably wouldn’t die. A captive was just what the leaders of the Walled City wanted. High-level officers and [Generals] were too valuable to lose in a small war like this.
The Drake growled under his breath as he stomped through the snow. He clenched his hands as he growled.
“What a burning stupid reason for a war.”
Good soldiers were going to die for politics. He hated that. But as his soldiers rallied and he prepared to launch an attack on Ilvriss, Zel had one consolation:
At least he’d get to see the surprise on that arrogant lizard’s face when he attacked.
I really want to wipe the smug look off of that bastard’s face.
I’m standing in a tent, facing Lord of the Wall Ilvriss, the [Lord] in charge of the army that just slaughtered all those soldiers not an hour ago. Unlike his soldiers, he’s not in muck, snow, and blood. Rather, he’s wearing pristine red-and-gold armor in a luxurious, warm tent in the center of the camp that was going up as we speak.
And he’s arrogant. Exceedingly so. I can see it in the way he lifts his chin, the way he moves and looks at everyone around him as if they’re less important, and especially the way he talks.
He reminds me of some of my dad’s buddies, the politicians and bigwigs who you really want to smack a few times, or at the very least throw dog crap at*.
*Oddly specific? I did it once. Hilarity ensued.
And he’s about as trusting as a snake, and paranoid to boot.
“I told you, I’m a Runner. I’m not part of your little war.”
That earns me a glare from one of the Drakes in the room, the one who captured me. Her name is Periss, and she’s a [Commander] who seems to worship the ground Ilvriss stands on. I think she’s his second-in-command, but honestly, I don’t care.
I’d rather just run away from here and forget all these people, their names and titles. But that’s not an option, apparently.
“So you are. But a Runner is still a threat, especially if you are delivering messages or items to the enemy.”
Ilvriss stares hard at me and I stare right back. At first, I tried to be polite and humble, but when it became clear there’s a rule about killing Runners and after I got to know him* I sort of lost the humility bit.
*It took five seconds. ‘What is a Human doing in my tent?’ Pretty much sums it all up, or maybe it was the tone he said it in.
“I told you, I’m not delivering anything to this Zef or Zwell or whatever his name is. You can get someone to prove I’m telling the truth.”
Ilvriss stares hard at me, but I’m not going to blink. To his credit, neither does he, and he looks away, too important to get into a staring contest with a Human. He sniffs and his tail twitches slightly at me.
“A [Lord] can detect falsehoods as well as any other class, Human. I know you are speaking the truth, but it does not change the fact that you are here.”
“What could I do that’s so dangerous?”
“You could send word of Zel’s…predicament, or perhaps he would contract you to deliver something yourself. It matters not. You are a random element, and I will not have you disturb my battle.”
He’s almost sensible. Although, I wouldn’t ever accept a request to dodge an enemy army—well, I probably wouldn’t. I bite my tongue and try to come up with a response.
“I’m a City Runner, not a citizen of your Walled Cities. You don’t have any right to detain me.”
He raises his non-existent eyebrows and I hear Periss chuckle softly.
“Indeed? And who will enforce your ‘rights’, Human? An army from one of your precious cities? If they can make it past Liscor, I would be much impressed. But until then, I am a [Lord] and this is my army who provide all the right I need.”
Well, I hate to say it, but he’s right. You can’t exactly say ‘you and what army?’ to this guy, and he’s not about to budge on his position. I can see it in his eyes.
Ilvriss turns and studies a map in his tent. I stare at it covertly, trying to spot any landmarks, like say, a castle made of bones or something helpful to locate that Necromancer.
“Zel may have been injured in this skirmish, but his main force is still out there. Until we find and crush them, you will stay in our camp.”
I grind my teeth.
“Fine. Great. Wonderful. I’m honored.”
“You will not be treated unfairly, unless of course you attempt to escape. I honor all the tenets of war. But you must first relinquish any magical items on your person.”
One of his aides comes towards me, reaching for my belt. Shit. I step back, and Periss reaches for her sword.
“Don’t resist, Human.”
“I’m not resisting.”
Yet. I wonder if I could get out of this tent? The last thing I want to do is sit in a camp while I’m tied up and an enemy army is about to attack. I try to look around as I speak.
“Don’t touch my belt. I’m carrying a magical item that will attack anyone who’s not me or the recipient.”
They brought me into the center of this camp, but the soldiers are healing and they’re guarding the perimeter, not me at the moment. Only Periss is really watching me, and if I could cause a distraction, my potions might help me get away.
The aide hesitates, and Ilvriss looks over.
“What are you carrying that is so important?”
“Stuff. It’s confidential; I can’t speak of it.”
“If it is a weapon, we may seize it for use during our campaign.”
“I don’t know what it is, but if you want to touch it, do it a few miles away from me, will you?”
Periss glares at me, but now I’ve got Ilvriss interested enough to come over. He points at me.
“Show me what you are carrying.”
Slowly, I reach into my belt and sense the Drake behind me reach for her sword. But I’m not about to use the ring as a weapon. Rather, I’m taking the time to remember where all of Octavia’s potions are. Some in my belt, some in my pack. Well, damn. But I know one of them is small enough that I put it in a pouch…
I take out the ring and letter and show it to Ilvriss. Wisely, he doesn’t get any closer, but he studies both.
One of the Drakes hurries forwards. He’s not a soldier either; probably a servant of some kind. He’s holding a stone, a clear bit of quartz or something. He waves it over the stone, and it turns deep violet, almost black.
Berlys-whatever takes a step back and gulps as he looks at Ilvriss.
“My Lord. This is a potent magical artifact. The magic on it is Tier 5 or higher.”
That makes the Wall Lord look at me. He narrows his eyes, and Periss’s sword is so close to my back that I can practically feel it tickling my spine. Don’t move. But I know exactly where Octavia’s potion is, now. If she’d just move away—
“What are you carrying? No, do not answer. You have your rules. Intriguing. This may be a weapon, but if it is it is lost to us.” He looks over at Periss, and the Drake nods reluctantly.
“We don’t have time to dispel the magic, if we even could.”
Ilvriss nods once, and then turns back to me, now suddenly and unfortunately focused on me.
“Well then, what else are you carrying?”
“Potions. Defensive equipment. Not stuff I want stolen.”
“We will recompense you for your items. Show me.”
Great, now he’s curious. I sigh, and reach into a pouch slowly.
“Stop. Berlyrssat will take your items, unless any of them are trapped?”
“No. But be careful.”
The Drake aide takes my belt, and begins opening pouches. My pack is sitting on the table, and pretty soon he has most of the items out. Ilvriss ignores my normal gear and stares hard at the potions, especially the one Teriarch gave me.
“Quite an odd collection for a mere City Runner.”
“It’s a dangerous world. Sue me.”
Poke. Unlike Mrsha’s claws, the sword actually goes into my skin a bit and draws blood. I glare at Periss and she gives me a death-look in return.
Ilvriss ignores us lesser beings and studies the glowing potion. Then he frowns as he stares at a clear liquid in another potion.
“What’s this? It’s not like any potion I’ve ever seen.”
“Don’t open it.”
“Is it deadly?”
The Drake eyes the bottle, and I shake my head.
“It’s not. It just smells bad.”
He looks over at me and sniffs.
“Smells bad? What kind of a potion does that?”
“Hey, I don’t judge your armor.”
Poke. I grit my teeth. Aagh! That hurt! I project as much sincerity into my voice as possible.
“Just don’t open it, alright? It smells bad. You’ll regret it. Don’t be stupid.”
This time Periss growls, but Ilvriss just raises an eyebrow. Yep, he’s like all those arrogant idiots. Tell him not to do something and he wants to try it just to show he can.
“Smell is hardly one of the things I fear. Any scent can be easily erased by magic.”
His claw reaches for the cork stopper. Periss raises her voice.
“My lord, is that such a good idea? Please allow me.”
“It is not deadly. The Human has said so and I have read the truth of it in her words. Let us see what she fears so much.”
I hold my breath and hope like hell I don’t puke. Ilvriss struggles to uncork Octavia’s wedged-in stopper, but then it comes out and—
Have you ever smelled—no, wait, that’s not how I should explain it. Have you ever been hit by a car? Because the smell that fills the tent is more like a physical blow than anything else. I’m ready for it, and I still double over and nearly retch. The others aren’t so lucky.
Ilvriss jerks as the smell hits him, and I see his face change. He grasps at his throat—to stop from vomiting?—and his other claw grabs at the bottle. Mistake. It falls to the ground and the stink-liquid pours out and the smell gets worse.
In front of me I see the aide topple over in a dead faint. I hear the sound of vomiting and turn to see Periss throwing up.
No time to hesitate. I spin, step forwards hard as my other leg comes up.
Periss is still holding her sword. I guess soldiers really do have good instincts. She sees me move and tries to raise her weapon, but too late. My shin smashes into her face and she crumbles to the ground.
Oh god. I’ve got vomit all over my pants. But no time to rejoice. I charge towards Ilvriss and the table.
He’s still gasping, trying not to puke. I snatch a potion off the table as he turns towards me. Shit. He’s got a sword too.
I uncork the potion and throw it in his face. I bought several potions from Octavia, all of them based on things from my world. This one I know works, because she tested it on herself.
The pepper spray potion splashes Ilvriss in the eyes and he doubles backwards, howling in agony. I toss the bottle to the ground and pray like hell I don’t have any of it anywhere near my face. I step around the fallen Lord of the Wall and grab everything I can, stuffing it into my pack.
No time to sort stuff. I can already hear shouting and people drawing close. I grab the rest of Octavia’s special items – two bags and one potion left now—and look around.
Everyone in the tent is down, but Periss is already stirring and Ilvriss is screaming and rolling around. He might be able to hurt me if he ever stops rubbing the peppers deeper into his eyeballs.
Do I try to take them hostage? No. Then the tent? I see figures? Where—?
I turn, and realize I’m an idiot again. I grab my pack, spare one second to kick Ilvriss in the stomach, and charge at a wall. Any wall. It’s a tent.
Periss’s sword makes a handy canvas-opener. I slash a triangle of fabric out to open a path just as the first soldier races into the room. I hurl the sword at him and he ducks—and it hits his leg. Swords are really heavy, okay? Then I’m out of the tent and running.
The camp is in chaos. When I used the stink potion to get to the High Passes, I had it uncorked in the bottle. Ilvriss shattered it, so everyone’s getting the entire dose straight up. Some of the Drakes can function, like me, but they’re still green* and it looks like every Gnoll is rolling on the ground clutching their nose.
*Green as in green in the face. Some have green scales, others have blue, yellow, black…look, I’m busy right now, okay?
I charge towards the edge of the camp, just as the soldiers notice me. Some of them reach for their bows and I curse.
Zig-zag motion, crouched low and moving fast. But no—there are too many. Potion, then? Teriarch’s or…?
I grab for a bag at my side. First bag I asked her to make. I undo the string and toss it to the ground as what’s inside ignites.
Smoke billows out of the bag, thick and white. The [Soldiers] cry out and some retreat back from me, but it’s not poison. I dive to the ground next to the bag as arrows begin flying overhead. The smoke quickly engulfs me and everything around me.
Smoke. I wanted a grenade, but a fuse takes time to light. But Octavia was able to make it into a bag, and she’s got a stone that lights on fire when it meets the air.
It’s some kind of pyrophoric substance, and it lights up the mixture I told her to make. Smoke. You can make a military-style smoke grenade with some saltpeter, sulfur, charcoal, and wood dust. All of that’s fairly common—people use saltpeter as food preservatives, and only sulfur is hard to get. But an [Alchemist] has some, and so she sifted the ingredients together and added a material that catches fire in the open air.
Instant smoke bomb. I made ones like it all the time when I was a kid, until the police caught me.
But unlike the small versions I made, this one’s got enough smoke to cover me and a huge section of the camp. Smoke billows upwards and I cough.
Stay low, get out of the radius. I hear shouting and thundering footsteps, but I just go for it. I charge forwards, praying like hell I don’t run into anyone.
I do. Five times. But they’re just as confused as I am, and Muay Thai teaches all kinds of throws, sweeps, and takedowns. I run on out of the smoke and out of the camp as soldiers rush around, and then charge after me.
I’m nearly at the edge of the camp and running towards a ridge when I hear shouting. Not from behind, but ahead. I hesitate, and that’s when the second army crests the hill and starts charging right at me.
Zel Shivertail paused as his soldiers crouched at the base of the ridge that led directly to the enemy camp. He was confident—fairly confident his soldiers had managed to take down all of the [Scouts] that Ilvriss had posted, but they had only minutes before their disappearance was noted.
Now was the moment. He looked at his commanders, and saw only trust in their eyes. He hoped they wouldn’t be betrayed. He was leading the charge himself, which was risky, but he had to. A [General] led from the front and he was the strongest warrior.
He raised an arm, and hesitated as a [Scout] charged towards him, waving a furry paw as he abandoned the cover of the treeline. Zel raced towards him and spoke when they were close.
He listened for a few seconds to the Gnoll, and then dashed back to his commanders. They stared at him, tense, expecting the worse.
“This is it! The Ancestors are smiling on us today. Our [Scouts] report that something’s just happened in the camp! Headquarters is in disarray, and they’re off guard! Follow me!”
He leapt to his feet, and his soldiers rose as well in a roar. Zel charged up the ridge in seconds, and when he got to the top he looked down on chaos.
The enemy camp was full of running soldiers, and a thick white smoke that covered the main tent. Zel saw them running towards him, but they hadn’t even spotted the army running up the ridge yet. No, they were chasing something else. Zel grinned.
“A monster attack, or reinforcements from another side? Either way, this is our chance.”
He looked back as the first [Soldier] made it up towards him. Zel raised a claw into the air and shouted.
He shot down the slope, and heard his army roaring behind him as they surged down the incline. Zel ran towards the smoke, unsure of what he’d find. Something was in the air, and it stank so horribly he wanted to gag. But he ran on, prepared for everything.
Everything, except for a tall Human female sprinting out of the smoke, running as if Wyverns were on her tail. Zel’s charge faltered as he saw her sprinting away, shouting.
The Human girl wasn’t alone. Soldiers billowed out of the smoke, practically half of the camp They paused as they saw the charging army, but the girl just turned and sprinted away from both groups.
“Who is that?”
Zel had no answer. A wild arrow shot past his head and he grinned. He ran towards the soldiers who were struggling to form a line, and shouted.
The effect on the army behind him was immediate. They roared as they felt it take effect, and Zel grinned to see the expressions on the enemy soldiers ahead. Everyone knew Zel Shivertail was the greatest defensive general on the continent. But that didn’t mean he didn’t have a few good offensive skills.
Few people knew he had that skill or how devastating it could be if used right. As the momentum built up behind him and he felt the Skill make his body lighter and his soldiers rush towards the enemy like a moving wall of flesh and steel, Zel grinned.
The Human was already gone, but the enemy formation was in shreds, and he could smell something horrible in the air and see smoke billowing out from the center of the camp. He might have to thank that girl when this was all over. Thanks to her, it looked like this battle might be winnable after all.
The first soldier saw Zel approaching and raised a spear, eyes widening with fear as he saw the famous [General] charging at him. Zel raised a weaponless claw and slashed, and both armor and flesh tore. Then he was turning, lashing out, cutting a huge Gnoll down. He blocked a spear with one hand, catching the tempered point as the Drake holding the weapon struggled to move it.
One of Zel’s soldiers charged into him, stabbing, and then the first rank of Zel’s soldiers crashed into the enemy like the tide. Zel grinned, and slashed left-right at a huge Drake who fended off the blows with his shield. And then the battle had truly begun.