I’ve always thought I was pretty detached and aloof. Growing up, I learned to ignore people and go my own way. Take running, for example. Lots of people run and everyone agrees that’s healthy.
But take off your shoes and suddenly everyone is a medical doctor who can’t wait to share their opinion on how stupid running barefoot is for your knees, your feet, your arch…
Somehow, what I do is important to other people, as if I’m making them run barefoot. Or, alternatively, if someone sees me running around in sports gear in the winter, they decide that I’m a poor, homeless girl who’s about to freeze to death and try to bother me again.
What I’m saying is that I learned to ignore other people and not react to the world around me, at least externally. I don’t show my feelings, and I keep calm most of the time as a result.
“Shit, shit, shit!”
Now is not one of those times. I’m currently crawling my way through a snow bank, and believe me, I’m doing it fast. Every two seconds I look around for moving shapes in the darkness, and I try not to piss myself as I do.
I’m in hell. Literal hell. You want to see blood and death all around? That’s pretty much a battlefield, and this one has gone to hell, mainly thanks to me.
Let’s set the scene. I walked in on a skirmish between two armies, and got captured. Somehow, I managed to escape by causing a lot of chaos, pepper spraying the general of the army and dropping a smoke bomb in the center of the camp. I was just running away when the other army attacked, and sent my lovely escape right into the middle of the crap heap.
Thousands of soldiers came charging down the ridge as I ran out of the camp. I saw this Drake guy in armor charge right past me, with no weapons but his bare hands. But the army behind him hit the soldiers chasing me like a brick wall, and before I knew it I was in the middle of a huge battle, three times as large as the one I’d seen from the hill.
I tried to get away, but I guess assaulting a [General] isn’t so easily forgivable because archers and mages were still trying to tag me even as both sides began fighting. I ended up sprinting behind a grove of trees and hiding in cover while both sides tried to push the other back.
That’s all okay, right? All I’d have to do is wait until attention was away from me and sprint out of there. I can run fast. That’s practically all I do.
But right when it looked like the soldiers were falling back, someone—a mage—decided that my smoke bomb was a good idea. I felt wind, and suddenly the entire world was covered in thick mist.
Mist? I take that back. It was more like fog. It made everything blurry after about five feet, and as a result I had no idea where the hell I was. I made a break for it twice, and found that each side was just as lost as I was. The soldiers began spreading out and fighting in groups everywhere, so that I had no idea where to run to.
It’s hard being lost in the middle of a battlefield, but the hardest part is being the one Human caught between two armies comprised solely of Drakes and Gnolls. You kind of stand out, and when one side is out for blood and the other one doesn’t trust you, you tend to get shot at.
My leg is still burning. I lie down in the snow and feel at it. I pulled the shaft out and poured a healing potion over it, but I guess it wasn’t enough or something was wrong with the arrow. Damn. Is there a fragment caught in my skin?
I can’t tell. It’s dark, my winter clothes are covering the wound, and I don’t dare start a fire or even make a torch. I can hear shouting and screams all around me. The armies are still fighting, and occasionally I hear someone loose a really powerful spell, or shout orders in the distance. I’m just praying they don’t find me.
The snow is melting into my gear, and I know that it’s going to weigh me down if I stay there any longer. I don’t have the latest high-tech snow gear; my clothes aren’t waterproof and I really don’t want to try outrunning soldiers with another twenty pounds of weight on me. I have to get up.
Slowly, I push myself up into a crouch and look around. Now, where am I? I could be a few miles from where I was taken prisoner, or I could be two feet away from the camp. The mist dissipated after a few hours—just in time for the sun to set.
Damn winter days. Damn soldiers. Damn that Wall Lord and his stupid attack dog. Damn opportunistic enemy army.
And damn me for not waiting for Octavia to make copies of all of the bags and potions I ordered! What the hell was I thinking?
I’m down to one bag, one potion, and Teriarch’s magical potion of [Haste] now. And the problem is that the bag and potion work in tandem – realistically, I’ve only got one last diversionary tactic left. And this one—
I feel at the heavy bag I’ve secured to my waist. I really hope it’s not wet; that would render it completely useless, but Octavia reassured me the material that goes into the alchemical bags is both puncture and waterproof. It has to be, in order to contain most of the things [Alchemists] stuff in there*.
*They’ve got everything from those tripvine bags to deadly magical explosives I really wish I’d paid for right now. Here’s the thing: Octavia knew of alchemical versions of everything I wanted, but they were all more expensive than the versions I had her make. I didn’t exactly break the creativity bank with my requests, but I did offer far cheaper variations of existing equipment. A smoke bomb a la my world cost me only a handful of silver (aside from the experimentation and research fee), where it would normally cost a few gold for all the magical ingredients or spells that go into it.
Toss the bag first and then the potion. Right, right. Problem is, it’ll probably kill any normal person and I…don’t want that.
What am I saying? This is a war. But I’m no soldier, and I’m not a killer. Erin told me that.
The potion, then? I was tempted to pop the cork open and take a few swallows several times, but Teriarch’s potion is truly my last resort. Unless I am literally about to die, I won’t use it because if I end up in a situation where I’m without it—
Something else. One deadly diversion, emergency potion. A few healing potions left. And my leg—
Agh. I wince as I stand up and move into a snow-covered bush. It hurts. Damn it, there is something wrong. I need to see.
But the light…I glance around.
I’m in a small copse of trees, or is it a huge forest? There’s open ground to my left, and most of the noise is coming from that direction.
Can I risk it? Do I have any choice? I crouch in the bush, ignoring the prickling branches. They are not an issue at the moment. I’ll risk it.
And at least I don’t have to fumble around with a flint and bits of wood in the dark. I take a deep breath and concentrate.
“Okay, okay. You can do this.”
I can’t make a sphere of [Light] like the spell normally gives off. That’s a huge giveaway in the darkness; I saw a few [Soldiers] making those and they got sniped by a group of archers right off. It’s too obvious, but I do need light.
So what if I alter the spell a bit? It’s [Light]; when we were practicing, Ceria told me the spell is very easy to manipulate. All I need is an image, and I have one in my head.
“Come on, you’ve seen this a million times.”
I whisper to myself as I point a finger at my leg. Focus, think pinpoint, directed. Concentrated. A narrow beam, just like—
Something twists in my head as the word comes out. It feels like incredible pressure in my brain, and then sudden relief as the [Light] spell alters and a new one takes its place.
And there is light. Not from an orb, though.
Slowly, I raise my finger and stare at it. The tip of my finger is glowing white-yellow, and it’s emitting a cone of light that looks like any flashlight beam. It’s a narrow band; more like a penlight than anything else. It’s perfect, and just what I need.
That is so convenient. Why didn’t Ceria teach me this spell instead of the orb of light? It’s so useful—but of course it’s probably another spell mages learn. Or not. If you’ve got the ability to light up your surroundings, why bother with directed light?
Regardless, it’s perfect for being covert. I doubt the light is too visible from my position in the bush, so I quickly shine it down at my leg.
It’s awkward, rolling back the cloth around my injury with one hand as my light source, but I pull the wet fabric back and see the problem at last.
Looks like I missed a spot when I pulled that damn arrow out. I see a sliver—well, more like a large fragment buried in my flesh. The potion grew the skin right around it, and as I touch the wood gently I wince.
Damnit. It’s stuck in there now. But I need it out, and so I pinch at it and pull.
Sparks. Flashes of pain. My flesh tears and I nearly scream as the wood splinters. I grab at my belt and come up with a small knife.
Slowly, ever so slowly I lever out pieces of the wood and push back my skin to dig the rest out. The pain—
It’s not the worst I’ve felt, but there are tears in my eyes when I’m done. I grab a bottle out of my pack and pour the last of the healing potion over the wound. It closes instantly, and the pain is gone.
I have to sit after that. Just for a second. I shuffled out of the bush and squat in the snow for a second. Only then to I realize my fingers is still shining like E.T. I scowl, and cancel the magic.
I cover my face with both hands. God. This is beyond intense. I can still hear the fighting all around me, in the distance. What now? Do I run for it? I should, shouldn’t I?
Let’s consider the options. Either I run now, or I wait and hide until morning. But what then? Running in the light of day is going to get me spotted instantly, and if I keep trying to hide, the odds of me being detected go up as well. After a battle like this, whichever side wins is going to be scouring the woods for survivors, and if Wall Lord’s army finds me, I’m not going to be one of them.
Escaping the radius of the battlefield now is my only option, but the only issue is—to where?
Anywhere. Anywhere is fine. If I just pick a direction and run, eventually I’ll get away from them. That’s what I have to hope.
I squat in the snow, and suddenly realize something awful.
I need to go to the bathroom. As in, now. It’s gross, but it’s nature. I was with the Frost Faeries in the morning, and then I was pretty much being taken prisoner, tricking idiot [Lords], and running for my life and hiding for the rest of it.
Shit. I mean, not shit. This is not the place for any of that. I’m in the middle of a war here!
But what am I supposed to do? This is another issue that I never thought I’d have to deal with, but again, I’ve got no choice.
Cover, cover…I eye the bush. That is a very uncomfortable place to squat, but it beats anything else.
Do you know how hard it is to take off several layers of winter clothing and then do your business when you can hear people dying and hacking each other to bits around you? I mean, that does help the bowel movements in one sense, but in another—
Fear and hatred are pretty much equal in my heart as I brush away branches and try to hurry nature on its course. I’m terrified at any moment someone’s going to see me and this is not the way I want to die—
“Should we come back when she’s done, do ye think?”
“Bah! ‘Tis only a bit of night soil. ‘Twill do the thorn bush good.”
I swear, I had a small heart attack when I heard the voices in my ear. I look around, and see a familiar face. A Frost Faerie grins at me as she perches on a leaf, and more of her friends sit in the bush. Watching me in a very intimate moment.
I growl at them.
“It’s not us doing the pissing now, is it?”
The faeries laugh as I grab at my clothes. Here’s one small mercy: I did bring toilet paper with me*. I wipe fast and stumble out of the bush as the faeries float around me, chatting and winging through the air as if they don’t notice the battle going on.
*Toilet paper in this case being blank pieces of parchment, broad leaves, and anything else I could grab that looked soft on the skin. It’s not as if there’s actual factories manufacturing the good stuff, and some people in this world use stones, clay, sponges…fuck that.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
I hiss at the faeries once I’m properly decent. One of them settles on the bush, seemingly ignoring what just transpired there.
“We’re here to fulfill our part of the bargain, silly mortal. Do ye think we’re oath breakers who’d go back on our word for a silly little mortal war?”
I blink at them, and then remember.
“You mean you’re going to take me to the Necromancer? Do you not see the people killing each other over there?”
One of the faeries yawn and she floats up to the tree line.
“I see naught to worry us. Do ye fear the soldiers? Hah!”
She raises her voice and shouts.
“Come then, pitiful mortals! Come with your spears and metal! Yon Human will fight all of you!”
I hiss as loudly as I can at the faerie, looking around wildly. She flies back down and laughs in my face.
“‘Tis you who should be quiet! Have you forgotten? Mortals cannot hear our words any more than they can see our true forms. You’re the one clomping around and making sound in the darkness.”
That’s…true. True, but I just want to smack the smirk off the faerie’s face. I take several deep breaths. Even in the middle of a war these little nightmares act the same. If I were on the gallows, they’d be telling jokes and eating popcorn. They’d probably love the show.
But they’re here, and oddly, their presence reassures me even as they piss me off. I steady myself, and readjust my plans.
“Okay. Okay, you’re right. I’m sorry. Can you…take me to the Necromancer?”
“We will take you to the place where the dead gather, as per our agreement, Human.”
Faerie deals. Always beware the fine print. I’m not in the mood to analyze that statement, so I nod.
“Will you take me through safe paths? Away from soldiers, I mean?”
The faeries eye me.
“No paths are safe in war, Human. At least, not to you. We will take you away from the worst of the fighting, but we make no promises.”
Damn. But it beats wandering around, and hey, maybe this Necromancer isn’t interested in a single human. I haven’t seen any undead yet, which sort of makes me more inclined to seek him out than anything living at the moment.
“Alright, lead on.”
“Move quick, and silently as you can, Human. This way.”
The faeries fly off ahead of me, to my right. Deeper into the forest. I hesitate, and then move after them, slowly, quietly, wincing each time my boots crunch in the snow or I snap a branch.
It’s a long, harrowing journey in the darkness, with only the blue glow of the faerie’s light to guide my path. But then we enter a clearing and the faeries hover, pointing.
“There. Beyond lies the place you seek.”
My heart pounds as I stop and stare at the trees. They’re nothing special. Dark shadows seem to consume sight a few feet in, but otherwise the stand of trees looks ordinary to me.
“Are you s—”
Of course they’re sure. I bite the question back on my tongue.
“Okay, let’s go.”
I slowly walk into the trees, pushing past the thick branches. My nerves are twanging as I slowly make my way forwards. It’s so dark. What will I find beyond these trees? Death? It can’t be worse than what lies behind me.
But then—a voice in my ear.
Instantly, I stop, listening for the sounds of something approaching. But then the faerie hovering by my face points.
“Go left here.”
I eye her, but do as she instructs. But after only a few feet she stops me again.
Again, I take no more than ten steps before she speaks.
“Oh come on.”
The faerie glares at me as I give her an irritated look.
“This is the path, Human. Do ye want to find this Necromancer or not?”
I’d soon as rather not, but maybe they’re steering me around pitfalls or something. Grumpily I obey, but then the faerie floats in front of me.
“Good. Now, walk backwards.”
“You’ve got to be shitting me.”
“You do that well enough. ‘Tis the only way through this maze.”
“Maze? What maze? We’re in the trees!”
The faerie gives me another look, and I realize how stupid that sounds. Magic doesn’t need to be visible, does it? But then…she could just be messing with me. The problem is, both theories sound equally valid.
But the faeries don’t lie…much. So I sigh and turn around, only to have the faerie yell at me again.
“No, don’t turn! Walk backwards, fool!”
I glare at her, but face forwards again and slowly walk backwards.
“If this is some kind of prank—”
The faerie rolls her eyes in impatience.
“Look at your stone, you fool, you!”
For a moment I forget that I have Teriarch’s enchanted stone. Then I pull it out and stare at the magical arrow.
It’s pointing behind me. I turn, and it swings around. What the hell? You can only get to your destination by walking backwards at this point?
I try to follow the stone’s directions, walking backwards, forwards, left and right seemingly at random. No wonder everyone thinks this Necromancer is dead if this is how you have to get to him.
“That’s a clever trick.”
“Not so clever. And ye missed a step. You walked too far forwards.”
Damn. She’s right. Somehow I’m back in the clearing. I sigh, and then freeze as I hear a voice.
“Are you a Courier, then?”
I whirl around. Standing behind me is a Drake, a tall warrior wearing plate armor. My heart freezes in my chest. Oh no. A soldier.
My hand shoots towards my belt, but the soldier sighs.
“Don’t move. I don’t want to hurt you, but I’m not in the mood to get hit with some [Alchemist]’s concoction.”
I freeze, and the Drake nods. My eyes dart around the clearing, but he’s the only person here besides me. Literally.
The faeries are gone. Looks like they won’t help me if I’m attacked. I have no idea what to do.
I stare at the Drake and recognize him, vaguely. He’s the one who led the charge on the other army. He’s covered with blood, and it’s practically painting his arms.
“I saw you fleeing Ilvriss’s camp. I don’t suppose you have a message for me?”
He doesn’t seem to be overly hostile, and he’s clearly not with the soldiers I escaped from. I hesitate.
“No. I’m on a different mission. But I am a Runner?”
“Who else could be living this far away from civilization? No, don’t answer. I don’t particularly care right now. But tell me, have you seen any other soldiers here? I’ve been separated from my army, and I keep getting turned around here.”
He’s lost? I glance at the trees behind me out of the corner of my eyes. Must be an unfortunate side effect of the magic.
“I haven’t seen anyone, but I think there’s fighting that way.”
I point back the way I came.
“Not sure if they’re your side or the other side, though. I didn’t get close enough to check.”
The Drake shrugs wearily.
“It doesn’t matter either way. So long as I get back to the fighting. I’d like to talk with you once this is over, assuming we win. Seems like I owe you a debt for causing that chaos in the camp.”
Really? A Drake that isn’t immediately suspicious of me? A sensible soldier? This is almost harder to believe than the magic forest maze. But I don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when he looks like he’s just ripped apart a bunch of people with his claws.
“Sure. Thanks. I’ll just be going now…”
I take a few steps backwards. The Drake smiles.
“I understand. But before you go—could I get your name? My name is Zel.”
He nods and smiles again.
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Ryoka. Now then, I’ll let you be on your way.”
He turns and begins to walk past me, but then, stops, and sighs. I tense, but he’s not looking at me. Zel scratches at his cheek wearily, leaving a thin trail of blood.
“Oh Dragon dung.”
I look over. Standing at the edge of the clearing is a group of soldiers, weapons drawn, and leading them are two Drakes I recognize.
Lord of the Wall Ilvriss strides forwards, resplendent in his gold and crimson armor, his loyal subordinate Periss at his side. His cape swirls around him as he draws his sword, a shining blade that glows even in the darkness.
The effect is somewhat ruined by his red eyes and the awful stench coming from him and Periss. That might be why the elite soldiers are standing a bit farther behind the two than necessary.
Ilvriss stares at me and Zel, his eyes burning and blinking rapidly. He looks pissed. And uh, I might be edging behind Zel at this point.
The lone Drake looks at Ilvriss and the warriors without a trace of fear, but rather, weary resignation. He nods his head and Ilvriss returns the gesture.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss. I don’t suppose you’re here to surrender, are you?”
“On the contrary. I will have you surrender here, now, or after I have subdued you. This battle is over.”
Zel nods as if he expected nothing more. He eyes Ilvriss’ red eyes with interest, as well as Periss. She’s got a nasty bruise on her scales where I kicked her, and both she and Ilvriss are giving me casual looks of murderous rage.
“That’s a lot of elite soldiers to capture me. I’m flattered.”
Ilvriss shakes his head in irritation.
“I would not sully our duel with underhanded tricks. They are here for her.”
He points at me with his sword, and every eye shifts towards me. Oh shit.
There’s got to be at least fifteen soldiers behind Periss, and they all look like they’ve got special armor. How do I know? Magic runes, shining metal where there’s no light, and a general sense of…death emanating from the group of warriors.
I am so dead.
Ilvriss nods to his second-in-command.
“I will deal with Shivertail. Capture the Human.”
I tense to run, but surprisingly, Zel interrupts. He takes a casual step towards Ilvriss and everyone in the clearing raises their weapon. Is this guy some sort of badass? Or…the general of the other army?
“Hold on now, that’s a bit unfair. Why don’t you send some of those warriors my way? I’m sure it will make this a fairer fight.”
He raises a bloody claw, and Periss hesitates. She looks towards Ilvriss.
He glares at her. Looks like he wants an honor duel, no matter how stupid everyone else thinks it is. He points at me.
“Go, Periss. Hack off her legs if you must, but bring her to me alive. ”
That doesn’t sound good. I take two steps back, but one of the Drakes in the ground raises a bow. Well, shit. I’m definitely not faster than a speeding arrow. Think, Ryoka. What can I…?
It’s dark in the clearing. I glance around. The moonlight is faint as it filters through the thick canopy. If I run…no, their eyes are too good.
Eyes. Too good. Darkvision. My eyes narrow. Zel is beginning to circle with Ilvriss and Periss is slowly advancing towards me, sword raised. Her eyes are on my belt, but I don’t reach for a potion. Instead, I slowly raise my hand.
“Hey Lord Asshole. Take a good look at this.”
Ilvriss spares one glance towards me and opens his mouth at the same time Periss does. But that’s all I need. I focus, and push all the magic I have into one spell.
My palm shines white, and the Drakes and Gnolls cry out and cover their eyes. It’s the [Flashlight] spell again, only this time it’s on high beam.
I turn and sprint back towards the enchanted section of trees, pointing my hand backwards as I do. The light is blinding, but I hear the soldiers blundering after me even as the Zel guy leaps towards Ilvriss.
The trees encircle me. I hesitate. Teriarch’s stone is in my belt. Which way do I—?
“To your right, Human!”
A faerie flies down and shouts in my ear. I immediately run right even as I point my palm backwards. Blind them. I can hear Periss shouting angrily, her voice ringing through the trees.
“Seize her! Cancel that spell!”
The bright light emanating from my palm suddenly goes out. I blink in shock and nearly stumble as the now far-darker forest closes in around me.
Oh hell. I didn’t know mages could do that. I drop my hand and put all my energy into sprinting ahead. The faeries keep calling out directions and I obey them as I hear my pursuers shouting just behind me.
“Forwards! Now right!”
“Diagonal left! No, other left!”
“Stop and turn right! There! Run!”
My foot catches on a root, and I stumble. My arms windmill and I jerk back upright—
And stop when I see the castle.
It sits in the center of a flat, open stretch of land covered by white snow. It’s impossible, but the castle is suddenly there, a structure sitting in the center of a cleared section of forest. It was invisible until I made my way through this maze; I could have sworn that only more trees were ahead of me.
But here it is. A castle. The home of the Necromancer, I’ve no doubt. It looms overhead, a black fortress of stone, a lone sentinel in the open landscape filled with snow. There’s something beautiful about it, but I have no time to admire the sights.
“Don’t move, Human.”
I hear the voice a second before a hand grabs me and a shaft of edged steel appears at my throat. Periss roughly drags me back as her soldiers rush out of the forest behind me. Somehow, they managed to follow me through the maze.
“Mage, watch for any magic coming from her and neutralize it.”
Periss is so intent on me she hasn’t even seen the castle. I hold very still as the steel nicks my skin, watching as the other soldiers gasp and stagger backwards from the massive castle. But Periss only has eyes for me. She snaps orders at the other soldiers.
“Someone search her belt and pack! Remove any suspicious items.”
One of the soldiers, a tall Gnoll with a poleaxe hesitates.
The Drake ignores him. She glares at me.
“We are going to go back to Wall Lord Ilvriss to aid in his battle. Prepare for combat against Zel Shivertail. And I swear to you Human, if you try anything I will slice off both your legs and arms—”
At last she looks up and freezes. The sword at my throat lowers, but I don’t dare move. Periss slowly lets go of me and takes a step back.
“By all the Ancestors, what…?”
She looks at me, and suddenly the sword is right back at my throat. I raise my hands, but the tip of the sword is literally tickling my larynx.
“What is this place, Human. Where have you taken us?”
I gulp. That actually hurts, as the sword tip pierces my throat..
“This is the place where the dead go.”
“It’s the home of a [Necromancer]. Ah, the Necromancer. Az’kerash.”
It’s like I just said I brought them to the gates of hell. The elite soldiers groan aloud, and Periss’ scales go nearly as white as the snow. To her credit, she doesn’t even hesitate.
She seizes me and another Drake drags me backwards. I’m practically lifted off my feet as the soldiers rush back towards the forest.
We get fifteen steps in, and then suddenly we’re rushing back out. Periss and her warriors stop in confusion, but I know what’s wrong.
“It’s a maze. You have to follow a path to get out.”
She turns and seizes me with both claws.
“What path!? Tell us how to get out?”
“I don’t know! I’ve only got this, but it points towards the Necromancer, not away!”
I show her the magical stone. Periss looks at it and shakes her head.
“We’re trapped here, then.”
She slowly lets go of me and looks around.
“Soldiers, comrades. It’s been an honor. Say your last words now, if you have them.”
The other Drakes and Gnolls look at Periss, and their weapons lower. They hesitate. Then a Drake begins to murmur, and a Gnoll howls towards the sky. I stare as the others begin speaking quietly, or simply wait, hands on hilts, staring at the castle.
Periss looks at me, all hostility gone.
“I have always loved my Lord. I wish I had the courage to tell him.”
I stare at her, uncomprehending. Periss holds my gaze, and then nods once and turns away.
I don’t get it. I don’t understand. And in truth, I never have.
The Necromancer. Az’kerash. To me, he’s just another name, another bigwig in a world where everyone’s bald. How could I understand who he is, when everyone just says his name as if what he’s done is common knowledge?
Well, it probably is. But I don’t know it. It’s like someone who’s never been to our world hearing the name Hitler and wondering who he was. I didn’t realize the gravity of what Teriarch was asking me to do, and I don’t know why the soldiers look like they’re ready for death.
But then the earth shakes, and I do. I hear a groan, not the sound of any natural geological process, but the sound of something that is neither living nor natural. It echoes out of the ground, a horrible noise that comes from beyond, from the depths of dark horror and fear.
Bleeding in the brain. Squiggling shapes in your bedroom. The shadow standing at your front door. Maggots crawling in your mouth and eyes.
My heartbeat echoes. I turn, and look towards a patch of ground that begins to bulge upwards. Periss raises her sword slowly.
The earth shakes. I can feel it in my bones.
This is the place where the dead gather. This is the place where the Necromancer lives. But somehow I forgot what that means.
Now I know. Now I understand.
Something reaches up out of the ground, a hand, grey-green flesh, rotten sinew. But pink in places, too, oozing red. And bone. An arm, but not one any Human would have.
It reaches towards the sky, each finger as tall as I am, and the colossus rises. A head breaks the snow, and two eyes filled with huge, squirming maggots gapes at us. I’m screaming in my head, but the cold air is filled only with silence.
Az’Kerash. The Necromancer.
The undead giant slowly rises out of the ground and the soldiers behind me stare up at it. Suddenly, their magical gear that was so deadly seems like toys in the hands of children. They are ants, and so am I.
The giant stops halfway out of the ground. It raises its other arm, shedding snow and dirt and waits. I hesitate, but then I see more shapes.
They’re sitting up out of the snow, or walking from the castle. Skeletons, undead, both far more ghastly shapes too. A hideous, bloated creature with bones for teeth and claws drags itself across the ground, dribbling black blood from its ‘mouth’. A thing made of many worms reshapes itself as it slowly drags itself through the snow.
A tall skeleton of a Gnoll strides towards us, a massive battleaxe in his hand, faded silver armor and a circlet shining in the moonlight.
An army of the dead. They advance towards us, walking slowly, as if they’ve got all the time in the world. And they do. They’re dead, endless, immortal. And we are trapped and alone.
Periss speaks quietly to me, her eyes never leaving the approaching undead. She holds her sword at the ready, tip pointed straight ahead.
“What was it that you were supposed to deliver?”
I don’t even bother with hesitation. What’s the point, now? I sense the ruby ring and letter in my pouch.
“A letter to Az’kerash from a Dragon.”
She stares at me silently. Then her lips quirk into a half-smile.
“And my Lord thought you were carrying a mere artifact of the past. Would that he knew this. Well, go.”
She points towards the castle and I stare at her.
“You’re just letting me leave?”
She shrugs as the horror drags itself out of the ground. The soldiers around her are forming into a line, their faces grim.
“You have your duty, I have mine. Let us both die fulfilling our roles.”
Across the snowy expanse, the undead Gnoll corpse in armor stops and speaks. His voice is hollow, booming.
“I am Kerash, Commander of the Endless Legions of Az’Kerash. Die with honor.”
Something walks beside him. She looks almost humanoid, but she has no face, no features. Her body is rotted flesh, green in places, purple and blue and black in others. She rots, even in this cold, giving off a putrid stench.
“I am Bea. Am I not beautiful?”
Her dead flesh moves and I feel my stomach heaving involuntarily. Periss grits her teeth together, but her voice never wavers.
“Run, Human. This is between us and them.”
“The old blood shall be avenged.”
A Gnoll says that. He raises an arrow and sights towards the thing that called itself Bea, but doesn’t fire. Not yet.
“Death to the Necromancer.”
I look to Periss.
“You’ll die. Run.”
She looks at me, just once, and shakes her head.
“Drakes do not run. Go!”
My feet take me away as the soldiers charge. Sixteen against a horde. Kerash raises his battleaxe with one hand and Bea spreads her arms wide. I turn and pump my legs, running past zombies and horrors that reach for me.
The screaming begins in only seconds. I hear the sounds of death, of flesh being torn and bones breaking. But I hear the living shouting in defiance as they charge the dead, fighting to the last. But falling.
One by one.
Zel Shivertail and Lord Ilvriss dueled in the snowy clearing, exchanging blows as they circled in the cold night. One wore armor sparkling with enchantments and held a sword which glowed in the night; the other wore plain steel and fought with his claws.
It was a close fight, but unbalanced. Zel was swifter, stronger, tougher. His claws were like steel and he had two and Ilvriss had only his sword. But the [Lord]’s armaments were magic, and he fought taking full advantage of that fact.
The magic enchantments on Ilvriss’s armor deflected Zel’s every strike, and the Drake [General] found himself slowly being pressed backwards as the [Lord] slashed with rapid, powerful cuts of his long sword.
With each cut Zel took, no matter how small, he stumbled, and his scales would darken around the cuts. Ilvriss pressed the attack mercilessly, guarding his uncovered face, the only spot Zel could truly attack.
“Surrender, Shivertail. This is too small a place for you to die. Once your Alliance surrenders you will be released.”
“It’s not over yet, Ilvriss.”
Zel ducked a slash and kicked out, sending Ilvriss stumbling back. The Drake snarled and raised his sword, and the blade glowed brighter. But then he wavered.
In the silence of the snowy night, something cracked. The [Lord] stared at his clawed hands. They were decorated by several rings that swirled with light, but one now grew dark. Slowly, the emerald gemstone, a brilliant stone with luminescent depths, broke in two. The gold holding the gemstone split, and the pieces fell into the snow.
Ilvriss stared at the broken ring. For a few seconds, the world stopped for him, and the sword lowered in his grasp. He whispered.
Ilvriss stared for just a second too long. Zel rushed forwards and seized the long sword by the base of the blade. The Drake howled as his hand bled, but now Ilvriss was caught, and although the [Lord] struggled, he was unable to tear his blade loose.
Zel raised a hand and balled it into a fist. Ilvriss shouted with rage as he released his sword and reached for a dagger at his belt. He lashed out, took a blow to the chin, and collapsed on the ground.
Slowly, Zel Shivertail sat next to Ilvriss and sighed. Then he heaved the Drake onto his shoulder and looked around. There was no sign of Ryoka or Lady Periss and her soldiers. And he had no time to look.
The [General] started running back the way both Ryoka and Ilvriss’s soldiers had come, bouncing the unconscious [Lord] on his shoulder. The battle wasn’t won. Not yet.
Zel pretended not to have seen the tears on Ilvriss’s face, and the salty drops fell into the snow as the Drake carried the Lord of the Wall onwards, leaving the broken ring behind in the snow.
Somehow I made it across the open stretch of ground between me and the castle. I don’t know how; I just ran. Ran as I’d never done before. The undead tried to seize me, but most of them were still focused on the soldiers fighting behind me.
I run, with blood freezing in my veins, towards the drawbridge. It was lowered, and I pound across the black metal, hearing the voices dwindling behind me. I did this. I brought them here.
A courtyard, deserted, paving stones covered with snow. And at the end, two vast double doors. My legs cover the distance in seconds and my hands seize the vast rings, pulling with all my strength.
I hear a scream as I throw open the wide doors and rush inside. Periss. I can’t focus on her death, but I feel the pang in my heart. She went down fighting.
I have to run. I can’t hear any sounds of pursuit, but the undead are terrifyingly silent.
The castle’s corridors are massive and silent. I run through them, blindly at first, and then by the faint light of Teriarch’s stone. Run, run!
Glowing, pinpoints of light all around me. The corridors are filled with silent skeletons, zombies, the undead! But they don’t move. They don’t even look at me as I run past. They’re…inactive. But something is moving down here.
“Intruder. Halt and—”
I skid to a halt. Someone is standing down the dark corridor. A woman. No. Not a woman.
A…knight? She’s wearing armor. But then she walks forwards, and I see that armor is bone. Her skin is bone. She is bone.
The knight made of bones is no Toren, though. Her face is that of a beautiful woman, harsh and angular though it might be, but her face is ivory white. Bone. And her armor, which is just another part of her body, is gleaming white. She has a great sword made of bone in her hands.
At her back are a group of skeletons. Again, not like Toren. These ones look like they’ve been…altered. They have far too many ribs, and it looks like their frames have been redesigned so they look like walking tanks. They’re all armed, and the bone-woman is striding towards me.
I reach towards my belt. Teriarch’s potion? No. The bag. I rip the string away and hurl it towards the woman.
She slices the bag in half before it gets anywhere near her. But that just makes the contents explode in her face. White powder fills the air and she halts, looking confused.
The fine particles fill the corridor, practically a smokescreen in itself. The woman stares at the particles covering her and the skeletons and waves it away.
That’s exactly what it is. I don’t know how the hell Octavia packed the flour in so tight—probably the same way she made the smokescreen. But now the air is saturated, and I grab the last potion out of my belt. I uncork it and hurl it in one motion.
Flames burst from the bottle the instant it meets the air. But even as the bone woman dodges, the liquid inside the bottle combusts and the hot oil and animal fat mixed with the pine resin burst outwards.
Liquid flame. Greek fire. Napalm. My last resort. But it misses the woman and instead bursts on a skeleton. She looks back at me—
And the air explodes.
The swirling flour dust and sugar I had Octavia pack into the bag combusts as the fine particles ignite. It’s called a dust explosion, and it’s as close to an actual bomb as I was willing to make.
Dust in the air. People know flour explodes when heated, but it’s really any fine particle in enough density that will combust. Coal mines, grain silos, even a kitchen can create these conditions.
The force of the blast nearly throws me off my feet and the heat cooks me. The flour dust blows outwards as the flames expand, engulfing everything caught in the center of the blast in fire.
But as the smoke clears, the woman made of bone strides forward, unharmed, untouched. Her eyes glow silver with rage, as she raises her great sword.
She stops. I’m already sprinting down the corridor, far, far away from her. I started running even before the flour exploded*.
*Rule one of monsters. You didn’t kill them. You didn’t even hurt them. I don’t care if you dropped a bomb on them or cut off their heads. They’re alive. Run.
I come to a cross in the halls filled with the waiting dead. I look at my stone. Left. I run, and see a pair of massive double doors. They’re guarded, but the soldiers stand still and silent like the others. I hesitate, but I hear thunder from behind and look over my shoulder and see the undead bone monster charging down at me. She’s running fast for someone so huge, but she looks like a freight train heading my way.
I rush towards the doors and heave at them. They’re heavy. I have to push all my weight against one, but slowly, slowly, the left door slides open. I slide through, and tumble into the vast room ahead of me. I spring to my feet—
Thick strands of web fly out and encircle me. Instantly, I’m covered in webs, barely able to move. I stare at the hand that cast the spell, and for the first time, I see Az’kerash, Perril Chandler, the Necromancer in person.
He’s just…an old man.
Az’kerash stands in the center of a vast, circular room, staring upwards, one finger pointed at me. He looks like an old man. Just that.
His face is lined and he has white hair; he looks like Teriarch’s human form, but without the superhuman physique. He’s just an old man, with white locks and skin that’s albino white.
But he is the Necromancer. I can feel the power he has in the air. It seems to pulse off him, so much raw energy it makes me sick. I fear him more than anything else.
His right hand is glowing, and he’s staring up at something. My eyes travel towards it, and my head goes blank.
Impossible. Horrific. But what hangs above me is a nightmare of flesh and bones. It looks like a—whale. Or parts of one. Something—his magic—is shaping the flesh and bone overhead, transforming the carcass into a shifting mass of organs and muscle. There’s too much bone up there, and it’s curving against the whale’s skull. It shifts, and I see tendons and muscle moving—
I have to look away. The Necromancer doesn’t even glance my way, but he speaks.
“Venitra. Lower your sword.”
I can’t look around. I can barely move my legs; if I tried I’d definitely fall over. But I hear the heavy footsteps.
“You have failed. Regard this as a lesson and learn from it.”
Her voice is deep, but surprisingly soft. I feel a presence behind me.
“I will dispose of the intruder now.”
“That won’t be necessary. Thank you, Venitra. I will take care of this myself. Leave me.”
I see the bone woman appear in my peripherals for just a moment. She looks at me with eyes full of cold fury, and then turns and silently exits the room.
I am left alone with Az’kerash. And now that I can look away from the terrible sight above me, I begin to see other details.
He is just a human or—he looks like one. But he bears other marks of his profession.
His robes are black. But that word and color don’t describe a tenth of what he is actually wearing. Can you weave shadows together? Can you take midnight and color it with shades of darkness, so finely woven that the world bends where the folds of the robes meet and swirl together? That’s his robe.
It is shadows, and they slowly ripple over his form, sucking in all light. And he has a ring on his finger, a piece of silver that looks normal, but makes what little magical sense I have scream at me that it is not.
And then Az’kerash speaks, and his voice is normal. Old, cracked, but still clear and strong. And—distant. He doesn’t look at me as he talks out loud.
“What is the point of having help if they can’t even keep out a single intruder? But then, if they were as competent as the creator, what would be my role? Wouldn’t you agree, young lady?”
“It is impressive that you made it this far. But I am busy, and I will discover anything of value from your corpse at a later time.”
He points at my face and speaks.
The air ripples, and a ring of edged silver speeds towards my face. I throw my weight against the webs, and topple over.
The sickle cuts my hair, and through the flesh of my shoulder, so finely that only when I fall and jar the cut does it start to bleed. And the pain hasn’t begun yet, so severe is the cut.
“Interesting. Low-level spells have their weaknesses. I commend you.”
His finger shifts downwards towards my face. I stare at the Necromancer and know I’m about to die.
He’s—he’s not even looking at me. His other hand is shimmering with so much magic that it’s making me feel sick just looking at it. I don’t even think he’s paying attention; he’s acting on autopilot!
I shout as Az’kerash’s finger glows. He makes no response and I desperately call out.
“I have a letter! I’m a messenger!”
The black glow around his fingers fades. Az’kerash pauses.
“A letter? From whom?”
“Teriarch. He sent a letter and a ring. It’s in my belt.”
I don’t feel the spider webs vanish. But they’re suddenly gone, and I scramble to my feet. I reach for my belt pouch, but it disappears from my waist and reappears in the Necromancer’s hand. He casually opens it and discards the belt as he takes both ring and letter in his hand.
For the first time he diverts his gaze from the floating collection of body parts overhead and glances down at the letter. I see his pupils only once—pale ghostly white light shining from behind two black corneas.
He doesn’t even look at me, but my heart falters in my chest. There’s something behind those eyes. Something inside that gaze, something else. It’s not Human anymore, if it ever was. But then he looks down and blinks once, and I look away, at his dark robes made from shadows and midnight.
“Let me see. Ah, yes. I was expecting this.”
I hold my breath. Az’kerash reads the letter swiftly, murmuring around.
“The usual long-winded greetings…my deepest congratulations to you…accept this small token of my esteem. Ah. And he’s sent a ring enchanted with warding and movement spells in the Silvarian dueling fashion – no, knowing him, it’s most likely an original. A nod to my passions and an expensive and practical gift. Appropriate.”
The Necromancer flicked his hand, and the ring vanished.
“How…predictable. A note and token of esteem to mark my two hundredth year of existence. He needn’t have bothered especially given our strained relationship. But Dragons are quite conscientious about such things and they are nothing if not formal. I don’t suppose this comes with a request for a reply? No, I don’t believe he would want to impose. Ah, well.”
The Necromancer looked over at Ryoka.
“Is there anything else?”
Ryoka tried to work moisture into a suddenly dry mouth. What? Her mind was full of roaring static.
Az’kerash turned back towards the ever-changing monstrosity above.
“Is there anything else?”
“Very well then. I suppose it would not do to kill one of his messengers. Go, then.”
Ryoka stood in place for a few seconds, but her legs wisely moved her towards the door. The static roared louder in her ears. A voice whispered in her ears.
Hundreds of miles.
Two armies at war.
Necromancer and undead minions.
For this. A delivery worth eight hundred gold pieces.
A letter. A…happy birthday letter and a token gift.
“I’ll just…be going now.”
The Necromancer didn’t even glance her way. He was totally engrossed in his project overhead.
“Ah, hm. Goodbye. Shut the door on your way out.”
She did, pausing only to pick her belt off the ground. Ryoka stared at the door, and then looked over and saw Venitra. And Kerash. And Bea. They stood around her, faces full of—
“The Master let her go? Why?”
“He is busy. His decision may be in error.”
“He doesn’t make mistakes.”
“No. But we should hold her until he is finished.”
Ryoka stared at them. Static.
She punched Venitra in her bony face and felt her hand crack. Broken bone? No, just horribly bruised. She reached into her belt pouch and pulled out a glowing orange-and-pink potion. Bea reached for her and Kerash intervened, pushing her pallid hands back with his.
“We need her alive.”
Ryoka uncorked the potion. The undead didn’t even seem to regard her as a threat. She downed the entire bottle. Wasn’t she supposed to only take a few gulps?
Venitra reached out towards Ryoka. Her fingers began to close over the young woman’s shoulders and then froze.
Ryoka blinked at the fingers. They’d stopped? No, they were moving slowly. Carefully, Ryoka moved backwards and watched as the fingers slowly closed together. The bone-woman’s face registered shock, and then Kerash moved, striking out at Ryoka, faster, but still at a snail’s pace to Ryoka.
She walked away. Then began to jog. And then run. Ryoka frowned, but her legs moved against her will. Faster, faster, faster.
Out of the castle in a blink of the eye. Ryoka’s mind was racing, but it couldn’t catch up with her body. Something in her was steering her legs, but her conscious mind was still trying to process what was happening. And then Ryoka was running—
Zel’s soldiers charged towards the enemy, and the Drake [General] lifted a bloodstained claw and roared, inspiring his warriors and demoralizing the enemy army. Without either Periss or Ilvriss, their ranks were crumbling as his superior Skills and abilities turned the tide of the battle.
“Reform ranks and prepare another charge!”
This would shatter them. As Zel took his place at the head of the line, he felt tired. Too many cuts from Ilvriss’s damn sword. But he was getting old, too. Too old for meaningless battles.
The enemy was still regrouping. Zel narrowed his eyes. His troops were trying to form up, but this was the moment.
He thundered across the ground, feet splashing in mud and blood. The enemy soldiers raised shields and tried to close ranks, but he could see the fear in their eyes. Zel raised a claw like a hammer and hesitated. His head turned.
“What is that?”
Like lightning. Like the breeze on a summer’s day, elusive, fleeting, a breath of air and then clear skies. She runs.
A lone Human runs out of the forest, out of the place where everything died. She runs through magic, through snow and across forests and hills, her feet barely touching the ground. Her body is constant motion, and only the air holds her back. Her wake is a gale and storm; the snow blows up around her and the wind creates a snowstorm in the air.
She runs through the snow, across the battlefield, between soldiers who turn and stare at the blur of movement kicking up a storm of snow behind her.
Warriors raise their weapons and slash at the Human, archers loose arrows and mages blast the ground around her with spells. But she runs on, between charging soldiers, ducking a scything blade, vaulting over a falling soldier. On and on, ceaseless, unable to stop.
A messenger, a carrier of words and private things.
A courier for both rich and poor.
A traveler with no allegiance but her own.
Screaming, but in words spoken so quick only the Frost Faeries flying ahead of her can hear.
The faeries hear her of course, and they keep pace with her easily. Perhaps they could stop her, but they’re laughing too hard to reply.