The group of riders raced after the magical carriage on horseback. They’d had to chase hard from their position after it; the pink carriage was known not to slow. However, this group of riders was determined to catch it. One of the Humans on horseback pulled ahead, riding through the freezing wind and urging his stallion to catch the fleeing vehicle.
The lead rider was a middle-aged man whose gravitas came more from his rounded belly than his physique. However, he was a skilled [Rider] and urged his horse onwards, trying to catch the carriage as it shot across the frozen ground ahead of him.
So close! His horse was galloping faster than was possible for any normal, non-magical horse to go. But still the carriage moved faster. It was pulled by spectral horses, which raced through snow and across the winter landscape like the wind.
The man on the horse could sense he had only seconds left of this mad sprint before his horse would tire, or risk injuring itself. He dug his heels into the horse’s side and it obliged its master, giving up one final burst of speed—
“Oh, do stop making a scene and get in. Quickly if you please; I’m in a hurry.”
The man on the horse blinked. The carriage suddenly decelerated, putting the now-open door at a level with the horse. And from the dark opening, two gloved hands reached out and yanked the man off the horse and into the carriage.
The stallion, suddenly divested of its rider, slowed and looked around in stupid confusion. The other riders shouted, but the carriage sped up again, instantly losing them in a flurry of snow.
Inside the carriage, the middle-aged man, the [Mayor] of the small city known as Leadenfurt, found himself face-to-face with a stern, steely-eyed woman. Her name was Ressa, and she politely let go of him and steered him into one of the padded seats. The man gulped as he saw a woman sitting across from him.
“Mayor Wullst of Leadenfurt. A pleasure.”
Lady Magnolia sat across from the surprised Wullst, smiling and munching on a cookie. It was one of many on a tray sitting on her side of the carriage.
Wullst remembered himself and tried to bow. Magnolia scowled.
“Do stop. I haven’t the time to make this long; I’m bound for First Landing and I doubt you’d like to be dropped off there. It’s a cold, long ride home, especially without a horse.”
The [Mayor] sat up, conscious of Ressa, sitting quietly next to him. Staring at him. Not that he was intimidated by the look or the proximity—Wullst had been a veteran [Rider], a soldier for many years and he was an excellent fighter. It was just that you heard stories about Magnolia’s maids.
He cleared his throat.
“Lady Magnolia, I deeply regret taking up your time. It is just that this message you sent to all the cities in the area—”
“What of it?”
“You—you requested soldiers from our garrison. A sizeable force of six hundred assorted horse, infantry and—I understand the wording is ‘puffed-up idiots who can cast at least Tier 3 magic’—”
“Mages. Yes. Was that so unclear you felt the need to catch me?”
Wullst spread his hands helplessly.
“Not at all, Lady Reinhart. It’s just that—is it war? We contribute the annual levy to fight with the Drakes, but this is unusual.”
Magnolia sighed. She bit into the gooey insides of the cookie, which was filled with some kind of jam, and chewed for a moment before answering.
“It’s for the Goblins, Wullst. I intend to raise an army and crush them. I trust you’ve heard by now the Goblin Lord destroyed two Drake armies near Liscor?”
Of course he had. And if he hadn’t, Wullst wouldn’t have admitted to it. He nodded carefully.
“A dire situation. Yet the Goblin Lord has a ways to go before reaching any major city, if you’ll beg my pardon. He needs to get past Liscor first, and the Drakes are certain to send—”
“Wullst, I am the [Lady] of this carriage, not you. If you would like to cross your legs, shave your beard, wear a pink dress and some rather uncomfortable undergarments, then you may sit in my place and dictate to me all the things I already know. I’ll even let you eat my cookies if you go that far. Until you are that committed, please do not presume to state the obvious.”
Magnolia snapped at Wullst. The man paled and shut up. Magnolia eyed him, picked up another cookie, and bit into it savagely. She frowned as she chewed.
“Plum. Ressa, were you behind this? Never mind. Wullst, I am not asking for your opinion. I am telling you that I intend to raise an army and march it south, to destroy this Goblin Lord. I have requested soldiers from you, and your oaths dictate that you raise the required force or provide me an explanation as to why you will not. Have you one?”
“I do, Lady Reinhart. I beg your forgiveness. I received a request from Lord Veltras not two minutes before yours. He required me send him twice the number of men you had levied—”
“Veltras? Damn him.”
Magnolia scowled, opened the carriage door, and tossed the plum cookie out. She slammed the door as Wullst stirred uneasily.
“I do beg your pardon. But it is simply that we lack the manpower to count ourselves safe if we send nearly two thousand of our own to—”
“Yes, yes, shut up. Very well.”
Magnolia sighed. She flicked her fingers, and then stared at Wullst with narrowed eyes.
“Two hundred. Make them cavalry and the best you can spare. Put any mages you have free on horseback, and have them travel to the place I indicated in my letter. If that is too much, you must petition Veltras because I will have some aid from you. Will that do?”
“Yes, Lady Reinhart!”
Wullst bowed, his heart beating in relief.
“Good. Then get out.”
The carriage slowed. Wullst found himself ejected from the carriage before it had stopped rolling. He nearly fell in a drift of snow, and found himself staring around an empty road. He looked back and saw the pink carriage already accelerating.
He was alone. Wullst shivered as a gust of the winter’s winds buffeted him. He would be glad when the snow began to melt, which should be soon, according to his weather mages. He began slowly trudging back in the direction of his escort and mount. He almost wished he’d had the courage to ask Magnolia for one of her cookies. A plum one sounded very appetizing right now.
The magical carriage sped on, flying over hills, across bridges, northwards, ever further. It seldom slowed, never really stopped. When there was traffic on the roads, it swerved off the road, sometimes crossing frozen lakes rather than deal with traffic. And it never ran into trouble. Sometimes it ran over trouble, but that was trouble’s problem, not Magnolia’s.
And now it reached a massive city, a sprawling metropolis that had walls, and had built over said walls to accommodate the vastness of its architecture. First Landing, first and grandest of the Human cities ever built on Izril appeared on the horizon. Its watchful towers kept a vigil to the north sea, built countless ages ago by the Human nobility who had fled from Terandria fearing others might follow.
And so they had. More Humans, who had overrun half of the continent. Now their cities reached all the way to the High Passes, but it was always the north where their treasures lay. The ancient seats of power had been established here, and it was here Magnolia Reinhart’s blood-spattered carriage rolled to a stop.
In front of a pair of massive gates, and a mansion that was taller than some palaces, Magnolia Reinhart stepped out of her carriage and stretched. Ressa stepped out beside her, quiet as a shadow.
“Oh, look at the blood. Reynold, have that cleaned later, will you? Was it from that young Wyvern we spotted? I believe I actually felt that one.”
The carriage rolled away through the snow, and Magnolia paused in front of the gates. They were three times the size of the carriage and made of neither wood nor iron. The stone bars looked down at Magnolia as she strode towards them.
No one entered the home of the Reinharts without presenting themselves at the gates in person. Not even Magnolia Reinhart, scion of the house. She walked up to the gates and pressed her hand against a dull gem set into the stone.
“I am Magnolia Reinhart. Open.”
For a moment nothing happened. Then the doors slowly began to swing inwards. Magnolia walked through them, and Ressa followed.
The flurrying snow had built up around the Reinhart estate. Inside, it was a memory. Magnolia’s cold skin warmed the instant she entered her ancestral home, and she saw grass, a detailed walkway, the sloping massive layers of mansion built ever upwards by generations of her family, and of course, her family.
They awaited her down a pathway of bowing servants. Magnolia strode past the uniformed men and women and occasional nonhumans, ignoring their greetings.
“They must have gotten this ready for me.”
She spoke curtly to Ressa. The maid nodded as she walked at Magnolia’s side.
“They know how much you hate it.”
Magnolia snorted and stared at a curtsying girl who might not have been ten. Then she narrowed her eyes at the older woman, young man, and girl waiting for her.
“Ah, Magnolia! Wonderful to see you at last.”
The woman was the first to speak as Magnolia strode towards her. She looked down at Magnolia from the flight of steps, smiling unpleasantly. She was dressed in an expensive gown of silk, and her fingers glittered with magical rings.
Unlike Magnolia, who had a kind of genteel, relaxed aristocratic air about her, this woman seemed to embrace her own importance. She had commanding eyes, piercing blue and not diminished by her age. For that matter, her face and hair reflected little of her years as well, both being the products of expensive [Alchemist] potions and creams. Her hair was a dark brown, accented by—
Magnolia reached the top of the stairs and shoved the older woman out of the way as she was about to speak. The woman stumbled, caught herself, and turned, white with fury. She opened her mouth and realized that Magnolia was striding into the mansion already.
Confusion, panic, and fear dominated the two younger Reinharts. One of them stumbled and the other shrieked in outrage.
“She pushed me! That maid—”
“Good job, Ressa. Keep up! Aunt Cecille, wonderful to see you. Get out of my way. Young Wernel, I notice you have a sword. Keep it sheathed or Ressa will do something about it. Is that Damia I hear screaming back there, Ressa?”
“Excellent. Wonderful lungs. She screams like a banshee, which puts me in mind of my sisters. All four of them. Let’s leave her behind, shall we?”
The two accelerated their pace, forcing Lady Cecille Reinhart to chase after Magnolia while venting her fury.
“How dare you, Magnolia! Is this the way you treat—slow down! Where are you running to? You haven’t returned to your estates for years and—slow down, I said!”
Magnolia did not slow down. She rounded a corner of the mansion, brushing past surprised servants, navigating from memory. Cecille hitched up her skirt and ran to catch up.
“The rest of your family awaits you in the parlor. They are demanding—”
“When aren’t they? I haven’t the time to deal with them, Cecille. Make my excuses if you want, but I’ll only be here long enough to grab what I came for and leave.”
Magnolia glanced sideways at her aunt. The woman’s face was red with fury.
“You think you can do as you please because you’re the head of the family?”
Once again, Cecille was left standing gaping in outrage. She had to hurry to catch up again.
“And what is so—”
“I’m going to meet Grandfather. I need an army, and I intend for him to give me one. You may come if you wish. We’re nearly there.”
Magnolia threw open a pair of double doors and began descending. The wonderful, expensive and exotic carpeting which she’d gone past too quickly to appreciate turned into a sloping hallway of stone leading downwards. Cecille, whose hair was now far too frazzled to comment on, paused as she realized where she was, and where Magnolia was going. She turned pale.
“Grandf—you can’t mean to—how bad is the situation outside?”
“Wonderful. Just lovely, really.”
“No. Why do you think I’m here?”
Magnolia tapped her foot impatiently as Ressa began walking down the corridor. She scowled up at the woman wavering at the entrance to the passageway.
“Well, Aunt Cecille? Coming?”
The older [Lady] of the Reinharts stared at Magnolia. She looked down at the stone passageway—still lovely craftsmanship, it had been constructed by Dwarves after all—but far older and abandoned compared to the modem mansion above. She hesitated.
And then fled.
Magnolia slammed the doors shut without a word and continued downwards, her shoes clicking as they touched the cold stone flooring. Ressa was waiting for her at the bottom of the ramp and they proceeded past ancient murals on the walls, vistas of past triumphs and defeats—the history of the Reinharts.
It was a very, very long passage because of that. The two women talked quietly as they walked quickly down the hallway, slowly descending further and further below the mansion. A ring on Magnolia’s finger began to vibrate as they walked and she took it off with a grimace.
“I forgot it does that. What an unpleasant time I’m having, Ressa. First I have to see Aunt Cecille, and that spoiled brat of a son she has. Did you see the magic sword he was trying to show us?”
“Just as well I kicked him as we passed. Otherwise I’m sure he would have followed. Your Aunt Cecille’s smart enough not to come down here, but he might actually try to accompany us.”
“Did you? Ah, you’re too thoughtful, Ressa. And you got to shove young Damia. I envy you.”
The [Maid] quietly smiled as she and Magnolia walked. She glanced over her shoulder, back towards the rest of the mansion.
“The rest of your family won’t be happy about this. I’d expect the entire lot to be waiting for you when you’re done.”
“They’re never happy, Ressa. And they probably never will be. So what? So long as I get what I come for, I’ll be happy enough to kick whomever I please afterwards. Now, let’s be ready. I hate meeting the old man and today I’m going to ask a lot from him. This will be tough enough without worrying about my lovely relatives.”
They had arrived. Magnolia strode into a different room than all the others she’d stormed through in the last few minutes. Here she stopped. For in this place, at the bottom of the Reinhart mansion, sudden movements might see you very dead.
A brief description of the Reinhart estate proper would be helpful in describing this room, for it was everything the mansion was not. If richness in every variety and excess was the theme that had been used to decorate the mansion by rich, if not particularly tasteful individuals, the theme of this underground room was magic.
And danger. A double line of runes formed a circle around the entrance to the grand room, and a slight shimmer in the air marked off a field that Magnolia did not approach. Beyond the magical boundaries lay—well, one word for it would be an armory.
Or a hoard. If Ryoka Griffin had been in this room, she would have felt a similarity between this room and the hoard of Teriarch the dragon. True, the rows of floating magical weapons, bookcases full of sealed magical scrolls and other lists of rare and valuable artifacts spoke of a greater deal of organization and attention to detail than Teriarch’s amiable splendor, but it was nevertheless a collection of wealth beyond most people’s wildest dreams.
Magnolia, who dreamed of confectionaries, was not impressed. She tapped her foot and then raised her hand and rapped on the invisible force field blocking her from the rest of the armory. Ressa, standing at her side and looking wary, winced. The unflappable maid was tenser here than she had been at any time during their long journey.
Her mistress was not. She raised her voice and cupped her hands to her mouth and shouted.
“Hello? Anyone there? Grandfather, I know you’re listening! Come out already! I haven’t got all day!”
Ressa shifted uncomfortably.
“Magnolia. Maybe it would be best to wait—”
“Give the old man a second to insist on ceremony and make an entrance and we’ll be here all day, Ressa. Old man, I know you’re out there! Come here, you pretentious letch!”
For a moment, all that could be heard was the sound of Ressa swallowing. Then—footsteps. They came from a part deeper in the armory, where eyesight began to blur. Someone began walking towards Magnolia and Ressa. Had he been standing there all along? Or had he been called by Magnolia’s voice?
An old man walked into the center of the armory and stopped in front of the barrier that separated Magnolia from the rest of the room. He was old, yes, but hardly old enough to be called ‘grandfather’; he was in his mid-sixties and looked spry although it was true that his head of hair was almost completely grey.
He was dressed in a fashion that had gone out of style centuries ago, and was so old that it would have been trendy by today’s standards. That was because fashion was cyclical, not linear. But age was not, and so the man’s eyes contained a depth to them that few other beings possessed. An agelessness similar, but not akin to the look in Ivolethe’s eyes, or Teriarch’s.
Four attendants, all young women, seemed to materialize from the back and came closer, spreading out the room around the old man. They were clearly [Maids] as well from the way they dressed, but they too were garbed in a style far older than the plain black and white Ressa was wearing. They nodded to Magnolia’s maid and she nodded back, as one did to fellow workers in the same trade.
The old man and Magnolia faced each other across the magical divide, locking gazes and then looking each other up and down. He peered at her with a frown, and then spoke.
“Young Magnolia. I should have known it would be you, girl. Only you would have the audacity to address me so casually.”
“As if your detection spells didn’t warn you I was coming the instant I set foot in the manor. Let’s dispense with the meaningless pleasantries, Grandfather. You know why I’m here.”
“Manners, brat. Or have you forgotten who it is you’re speaking to?”
The old man stared down at Magnolia imperiously. She sighed, and gave him a very fake, very unconvincing smile.
“Oh, forgive me great uncle Regis. Or is it great, great, great, great, great, great, great uncle Regis? A few hundred more greats? Would you like me to say that every time we meet?”
There was a snigger. It did not come from Regis. One of the attendants covered her mouth. Regis turned red and half turned to look at her before rounding on Magnolia.
“I am your honored ancestor, girl!”
“And I don’t care, you puffed up ghost.”
Ressa watched the interplay between Magnolia and Regis, whom she called Grandfather because Great Uncle was equally as incorrect. Ressa would never have dared to be so impolite to him on the other hand. She could sense the enchantments on this room, and they were making her sweat.
Detection spells, truth spells, and so many protection spells that Ressa felt like she were standing in front of a wall made of magic, for all it looked like a few glowing runes on the floor. But that was intentional. The real proof behind the magic contained in this vault lay in the old man himself.
He was dead. He had died over three thousand and eight hundred years ago in this very room. But his memory lived on, as perfect a reflection of the soul as there was in this world. Regis Reinhart stared at his grandniece of countless generations with a frown of annoyance on his face.
“You are impertinent, unruly, rude—which is still better than your cowardly relatives, I must admit. Do you know that they haven’t dared set foot down here since you left?”
“I didn’t know, but I’m not surprised. They don’t like being reminded that you’re here. The dead should stay dead in their eyes, especially if the dead know all of their mortal foibles and failings.”
Regis laughed shortly. Yes, he was dead, but he was alive in this room. A miracle of magic, or rather, one specific kind of it.
“You children. When did necromancy become such a horrific thing? When I was young, [Necromancers] were as valuable as diamonds! And if your family had a lick of sense between them, they’d realize that someone who’s lived for thousands of years might have some decent advice in his head to share with them!”
“Especially one who delights on spying on them and everyone he can.”
The old man bridled at the implication.
“What I do is to safeguard—”
“Yes, yes. Your time honored duty and all that. It doesn’t excuse what you do, old man. How many scrying spells do you have built into this place anyways?”
“Not enough. The outside world is a complex place to keep track of, as you well know, girl. And my descendants within the estate are hardly valuable sources of information. They spend their time lazing about, bickering, and not doing anything of worth. That inbred lot is useless to pay attention to unless I wish to keep up with ballroom gossip.”
Magnolia smiled, although it was so bitter it couldn’t really be called a proper smile.
“Useless, yes. Inbred—no. I’m pleased that we’ve saved ourselves from that issue quite handily by entertaining prostitution, scandalous affairs, and if my wonderful family can rise up to the challenge, harassing the hired help. The Reinhart legacy is free from that issue for a few generations, at least.”
It was Regis’ turn to smile sourly.
“Tell that to Wernel and his half-sister, Damia. They quite enjoy each other’s company. Unbeknownst to their aunt, I might add.”
There was a pause. Ressa saw Magnolia’s face twist.
“Ew. I shall have a word with Cecille about that. Please do not inform me of the other indiscretions of my family, Grandfather Regis, or I believe I won’t sleep tonight.”
“As you wish. Tell me why you have come then, and I shall decide whether it was in vain, or not.”
Regis crossed his arms and his attendants came forward. Magnolia nodded. Now she was completely serious. She stepped closer to the barrier that kept Regis’ memory in the world and spoke.
“I, Magnolia Reinhart, do return to my ancestral home to claim the right of my blood. I ask for relics of the past for war and protection, to protect the lands our family has claimed, to destroy our enemies, and safeguard our legacy.”
Regis’ eyes glittered as he stared down at her.
“You have proven yourself a worthy scion over the decades you have ruled the family, girl. You have protected our name and returned more riches to this vault than you have taken. More than the other unworthy descendants of our house. So you may take what is needed. What is needed—and no more.”
His voice echoed through the room, and there was an acknowledgement. The barrier surrounding Magnolia and Ressa faded. Magnolia stepped forwards, and then she was standing in front of Regis. He reached out and grasped her by the arms, smiling down at her. She kicked him.
“Enough, old man.”
Regis’ face contorted and he grasped at his shin as Magnolia strode past him. His attendants hurried to his side as Ressa stood where she was. She knew better than to try and enter the armory.
“We do this every time. Take what’s needed? Hah! The motto is ‘give more than you take’, you greedy fool. By rights I should walk out of here with a quarter of the contents of this armory in a bag of holding, rather than let you keep it.”
Magnolia strode past him and the attendants who’d been preserved along with Regis. To her, they were as real to the touch as they had been in life, and clearly felt the same, too. Only in this place, though. Ressa looked at Regis as one of the women helped him up and then she looked away. When Regis Reinhart had made the sacrifice to keep his soul here to safeguard the Reinhart treasures, he’d insisted on four [Maids] being preserved with him. The reason was obvious, and both Ressa and Magnolia detested the old man for it.
But he was the guardian. And though Magnolia picked up swords and looked through scrolls on shelves as Regis swore and limped after her, she could take nothing out of the armory without his consent. Which is why they began arguing again in the center of the room.
“I should ban you from this place for a decade for your disrespect—”
“Save it. You know as well as I that I’m owed whatever I need.”
“In times of need! You can’t simply remove artifacts whenever you feel like it, as I’ve explained to your sister and brothers time and time again! If there’s a war, I’ll let you have what you need. But to my knowledge, there’s no war going on. Just more infighting, assassinations, a Goblin Lord—”
“That doesn’t count as a war anymore? My, how the times have changed.”
“On the contrary.”
The specter scowled as one of his attendants faded from view and came back with a drink in one hand and a map of the continent which she hung in the air. More ‘features’ of the enchantment that held him. Ressa was of the opinion that Regis had turned his sacrifice into a very enjoyable form of immortality as well as a way to safeguard the Reinhart legacy from greedy future generations.
Now Regis sipped at his drink, not deigning to offer Magnolia one. She could have drunk it too, for what passed into the armory became part of it. One of Regis’ requirements was for several barrels of the finest vintages to be rolled into this place every year.
Regis sighed as he wiped a bit of liquid from around his mouth with a napkin and then indicated the map.
“A Goblin Lord has and ever will be a threat. Not one necessarily worthy of a Reinhart, but I have heard of these assassinations too, child. They trouble me. The Circle of Thorns haunted your grandmother, and though I gave her aid, she died with their curse still yet lingering over the family. For that hint of danger alone I would give you something.”
“Good to know you’re keeping track of things.”
Magnolia nodded as she sat down in a seat one of the attendant ghost maids brought for her. She tapped a foot on the ground, not disturbed at all by where she was. Regis sat too.
“So you come for what? Detection spells to find the master of the assassins? Guardians to protect you?”
“I have Ressa for that. Don’t scowl, you know she’s capable. No, I need an army and arms against the Goblin Lord, Grandfather. You know he’s a threat. He crushed two Drake armies recently. Had you heard of that?”
“No. I’ve been working to establish new informants, but it is passing difficult when I lack a body and must conceal my nature! I would have heard in time doubtless, but—how many in each army. Did they work together? What was their leadership?”
“Two Drake armies, one led by a Gnoll and the other a Drake from a Walled City. Both high-level [Generals]—”
“Hah! High level by your standards perhaps.”
“High level, and commanding strong, experienced warriors. They worked together, old man. Both armies were ten thousand strong. Not a huge force, I will admit, but they went into the mountains hunting the Goblin Lord and were completely defeated. A single [Scout] made it out of the massacre and said they were wiped out to the last Drake.”
Silence. Ressa saw Regis swallow a mouthful of his drink, no longer looking content.
“That changes things. A Goblin Lord that just won a victory is dangerous. His army will grow stronger and replenish itself in days whatever the losses he took. And with that, he grows one step closer to becoming a Goblin King. You were right to come here.”
He got up and studied the map of the continent. It was old, but most of the geographical locations were unchanged.
“The Goblin Lord was south of Liscor the last I heard. I assume that’s where he fought? He’ll come north, I agree with that, but perhaps he’ll get bogged down around Liscor. It’s winter, isn’t it? If you wait, come spring the valley will be impassible—”
“He’ll come north before that, I’m sure of it.”
“How do you know?”
Regis frowned at Magnolia as she stood up. She calmly traced a line past Liscor north. There were no cities listed on the map around there; when Regis had been young, the Gnolls had occupied the north as wandering tribes.
“They won’t attack Liscor. Goblin Lords aren’t idiots. He’ll march right past and start sacking cities, and then spring will roll around and he’ll be trapped on the north side as our problem.”
“An intriguing conclusion. May I ask—”
Magnolia tapped the city of Liscor on the map, one of two gateways between north and south. In the days when Regis’ map had been made, a Dwarf city had stood in the High Passes. Now it was lost to time.
“The Necromancer couldn’t bring down Liscor’s wall in a month. The Antinium couldn’t do it either, and every time we send our armies down to battle the Drakes in the blood fields in the time honored tradition of wasting lives for no gain, we ignore the city. Because it is too difficult to take without a truly powerful siege weapon, a massive army, a magical artifact, or a being of immense power.”
“Like a Dragon.”
Regis folded his arms, and suddenly, with the obsession of an old man who enjoyed harping on the complaints of the young, glared at Magnolia.
“Why don’t you have that scaled disgrace of a lover you trysted with do your dirty work for you, girl? I’m sure he’d make quick work of a Goblin Lord—if he ever bestirred himself from his caverns, that is!”
Magnolia turned and scowled at him. Regis retreated out of kicking range.
“You know as well as I that if I asked Teriarch for help he’d refuse. And I don’t expect to be lectured on my private affairs from you. Insult me or Teriarch again and I’ll dispel your damn enchantments and break this armory open to rest your departed soul, dear Grandfather.”
“Hah! You wouldn’t dare try, brat! Reinharts of the past have broken themselves against the enchantments that keep me here!”
The old man smiled smugly and folded his arms, supremely confident. Magnolia, who breathed the stuff, smiled nastily.
“My ‘scaled disgrace of a lover’ as you put it, has informed me that he would certainly be able to dispel or destroy the enchantments protecting you, oh loving grandfather of mine.”
Regis Reinhart paled.
“You wouldn’t. And he wouldn’t dare! The risk—”
“Oh, he’d risk it. For half the treasury. I told him no, as I don’t plan on giving away half of the Reinhart legacy to sit in his caves for him to gloat over. But tempt me, and I’ll see how fast he can teleport over here.”
The threat seemed to stun Regis for a moment. He made an inarticulate noise.
“Enough of this. The Dragon may rest and sleep himself into oblivion. I’d rather he stayed there in case the Necromancer returns. You haven’t told me what you’re planning on doing with him. The rest of the continent may sleep at ease believing him gone, but you and I know he’s a threat.”
“Why, I plan on dealing with him just as soon as I deal with the Antinium. Which, I may remind you, you failed to anticipate being a threat. ‘Leave them alone and the Drakes will handle it’, I believe you said.”
“Don’t quote my errors, girl—”
“And don’t lecture me on Az’kerash, you fool. I know he’s a danger, but I also know that a [Necromancer] may only raise a single army, however strong he is. He can split that army, but it’s hardly as dangerous as six Hives which can overrun countless cities.”
Magnolia tapped the map where six points had been marked around the south eastern part of the continent.
“Kill one Queen and the rest will lead her Hive. Kill the [Necromancer] and his undead lose their master. I’ll kill him when I’m ready or when he makes a mistake. I have more than enough to deal with now.”
“True. So this Goblin Lord. I’m prepared to give you a good deal child. You have contributed to the Reinhart family, I will admit, so what you need is yours. Name it.”
Regis waved a hand regally and his attendants stepped forwards with swords, rings, magic scrolls and other objects of power in their hands. Magnolia looked around dismissively and then pointed.
“I’ll have that. The Crown of Flowers.”
On a pedestal across from her sat a laurel wreath made of glowing flowers. When Magnolia spoke one of the attendants dropped the sword she was carrying. Regis nearly choked on his drink.
“What? No! What would possess you to—out of the question!”
“You said what I wanted.”
“Within reason! That is one of the three great treasures of this armory! If I let you have it again—anyways, its power is weak in the winter.”
“Its power is sufficient to end any Goblin threat old man, winter or not. Give it to me and I’ll not ask for anything more.”
Regis scowled at Magnolia.
“If you were going to conquer the continent, I’d let you have it. Or if there were a genuine Goblin King. A Lord doesn’t warrant that artifact, not by far.”
“What about a Great Goblin Chieftain? Ever heard of one of those, Grandfather? One appeared in the Dwarfhalls Rest. Apparently it’s been living there since the last Goblin King fell and it fought for the Goblin King.”
“A Great Chieftain? I’ve never heard…no, perhaps there were some…I do recall one or two over the years.”
Regis floated away from Magnolia, forgetting to walk for a moment. His form grew misty and transparent as he thought.
“I do recall such Goblins, though rarely. They are akin to Goblin Lords, but lack the drive to be Kings. Thus, they are dangerous. You say one has been here without your knowledge?”
“And it seeks to join the Goblin Lord. The Goblin Lord, great uncle, who may well be a King if left unchecked.”
“More and more reason why you should finish him quickly. But not with the Crown of Flowers.”
Magnolia sighed, but Ressa knew that the Crown of Flowers had been a long shot anyways. Magnolia turned back to the map.
“Very well. I’m currently levying soldiers from every city from here to Invrisil. I intend to form an army and attack this Great Chieftain first, and then the Goblin Lord.”
“A sound plan. How many soldiers…?”
“Forty thousand give or take. Hardly as large as the armies we send to fight with the Drakes each year, but enough for a Goblin Lord.”
“Assuming he hasn’t grown too large. Have you a [General] for this army, or do you plan to lead it yourself like you did as a child?”
Magnolia folded her arms and stared icily at Regis.
“I have a [General] in mind that is more than competant. But I require arms for him, soldiers from my estate, and more artifacts besides. Give them to me.”
Regis gritted his teeth, seeming to calculate unseen odds and numbers before nodding.
“What do you want?”
“I will have forty thousand soldiers and a [General], grandfather. Give me two companies of our own warriors and some battle golems. Armor fit for a [General]—he won’t need a weapon. And a magical artifact to deal with this ‘Great Goblin Chieftain’. Oh, and give Ressa a dagger.”
The guardian of the armory pursed his lips, looking put out by Magnolia’s demands. He glanced at Ressa, who stood straight and returned his gaze as it probed her. Finally, grudgingly, he nodded.
“It will be done. I will give orders. You may take two companies of [Knights], armed with minor magical artifacts. I will give you the armor of your forebears for this [General], and three battle golems. Your maid—”
“Gets a dagger. Or a shortsword. She can use both. But it has to be concealable.”
“Assassins. Bah. Very well, I will grant her the Keing Dagger—”
“That’s a poor artifact. Give her the Yawning Blade, you cheapskate.”
“For her? No. She may have the Vision of Grasses and I will expect it returned when this business is done.”
Regis pulled a dagger out of the air and handed it to Ressa. The blade was curved and tinted green, and tapered off into a cutting edge that eyes alone could not see. Ressa bowed as she accepted it and took exquisite care not to let the edges touch any part of her body.
“There. As for this artifact you require—I will give you one that can dispose of the Great Chieftain personally. One moment.”
Magnolia waited and found herself being handed a tube with countless symbols etched into it after a moment. It looked like a very cylindrical vase, or an over tall cup of some kind. She dubiously stared into it and the attendant who’d given it to her snatched it back.
“Please treat it carefully, Lady Reinhart. This device will activate if you will it, and it is capable of felling a Giant.”
“A shame that they were all wiped out, then.”
Magnolia took the tube back and tossed it up in the air. Then she caught it and pointed it around, aiming casually.
“How do I—? Oh, yes, I see. I just have to think and it’ll trigger, correct? How very handy. I can’t wait to see what it does.”
She swung the tube carelessly, aiming it around the armory. Everyone ducked, including Regis. He roared at her as Ressa picked herself up from the floor.
“Careful with that, brat! Do you know how many of your ancestors have died from magical artifacts they’ve used improperly?”
“Not many if they had to get them from you, great uncle. Now, I’d love to be going soon, but I felt I should mention one last thing. While I was requesting soldiers, it came to my attention that Tyrion Veltras is doing the same. It seems he intends to raise an army to deal with the Goblin Lord, although he was quite content to leave them alone earlier.”
Regis’ face purpled as he got to his feet. He roared, making his attendants clap their hands to their ears.
“The Veltras? Those lowborn dogs want to steal glory and a march on our family? Why didn’t you tell me before? If you had, I’d have given you all that you asked without arguing!”
Magnolia smiled sweetly.
“Because now you’ll give me everything I asked for and more, grandfather. Or would you like Tyrion Veltras to be the one responsible for defeating both the Goblin Lord and this Great Chieftain?”
Regis stared at Magnolia, eye twitching. Ressa saw one of the attendants—two of them, actually—giggling, and wondered if their long years of imprisonment here were bearable after all. She hoped so, for their sakes.
As for her, Ressa looked at her mistress as she stared down her immortal ancestor. He glared at her, swore, cursed her mother and her mother’s mother, all of whom had dealt with him before, and then, surprisingly, smiled.
“You’re an impertinent brat. You always were. I suppose this is why you make for such a good head of the family, though. It’s children like you who make me think we’ll take this continent yet.”
He smiled fondly at Magnolia, who rolled her eyes. Ressa sighed too, as Regis began to speak about Magnolia’s great, great, great, great grandmother.
Visiting the family was always a tiresome affair.
They left the estate in good time after they parted with Regis. He had Magnolia’s soldiers and arms ready when they left. The family wasn’t trouble either. When they saw Magnolia coming out of the stairwell with the magical artifact of devastation pointed right at them, they fled.
“Aunt Cecille? A word as we leave.”
Magnolia called out to one of the women fleeing the range of the tube she was holding. She handed it to Ressa, who cradled the deadly artifact with a great deal more care than Magnolia. The two women strode on.
“Before I deal with Cecille, have word sent to Lady Bethal, Ressa. I know her Knights of the Petal are quite good. I’d like them to hunt down that other Goblin Chieftain—you know, the one that’s been waylaying travelers on the road?”
“She has Thomast. He could probably outduel any Chieftain living, and if worse comes to worst, Bethal’s intelligent enough to retreat. However, I think that her knights will make short work of the problem. She’s to join me at Dwarfhalls Rest later. We will bring down the Goblin Chieftain as soon as I can march the army all the way there. Argh, but it’ll take forever. A shame I couldn’t borrow the Banner of Terland but—he’d never let me have it.”
“First the Goblin Chieftain and then the Goblin Lord. In quick succession. You aren’t waiting for them I see.”
Magnolia smiled coldly. Regis had the eyes of a being who’d lived for thousands of years, but Magnolia’s eyes were more distant still.
“I don’t play games, Ressa. I have assassins to deal with, the Antinium, Az’kerash—and now this issue of otherworlders that Regis doesn’t know about. I can’t waste time on a Goblin Lord.”
She paused and then kicked at one of the walls, speaking loudly at the ceiling.
“You hear that, old man? Time to broaden your scrying! There’s more at stake here than the continent and you had no idea until I told you about it! Guardian of the Reinhart legacy my foot!”
A loud curse echoed through the mansion, making Lady Cecille cower as she scuttled up to Magnolia. The head of the Reinhart family sighed and walked on. Ressa followed, smiling slightly.
The mighty planned and made preparations for war. That was how it was. That was how it always was in Izril. Unlike Baleros, where war was more like endless conflicts between mercenaries and seldom engulfed the entire continent, or Chandrar where it happened between kingdoms more rarely in the deserts, Izril had only one war. That of the Drakes and the Humans.
Oh, and the Gnolls of course. The tribes were always an issue. And the Antinium, damn them! And if it came to that, the Goblins were a threat. But to Drakes, the threat had always been Humans. Always. They had landed on their shores millennia ago, and Drakes never forgave the land they had ceded to the Humans. Never.
Terandria had politics. Rhir struggled for survival. But Drakes had a foe. Those damn Humans. It was more of a bad rivalry now, true, as neither side did more than send armies to the Blood Fields each year to kill each other. But give them half a chance and the Drakes would happily invade the north, while the Humans would do the same.
That was why Drakes were ready for battle. And in Liscor, the council—a group of individuals who represented different facets of the city from the Captain of the Watch to the [Strategist] that was required by law to be present in case of emergencies—knew what to do. Or rather, they knew what they were supposed to do.
Olesm Swifttail sat around the table, feeling very nervous and very, very unsure of himself. Drake law was clear and it outlined the steps a city should take in cases like now. But unlike a Human invasion which would mandate instant support from every Drake city on the continent, the situation with the Goblin Lord was different.
He had crushed two armies sent against him. Two. Armies. Both had been led by famous generals. Thrissiam Blackwing and Garusa Weatherfur were legends to Olesm. The thought that they’d both fallen in battle made him fear for his city.
He was just a [Tactician]. Hardly qualified to make decisions about the city. And the Council—well, Olesm didn’t like to badmouth fellow Drakes, but they were only a nominal ruling body that took care of bureaucratic measures. They weren’t leaders.
And they were all Drakes. Olesm would have loved to have Krshia in the Council rather than the appointed Head Merchant, a Drake with less experience than the Gnoll. But politics were politics. Of the group, the few people who seemed in control and knew what to do were Watch Captain Zevera, Wall Lord Ilvriss, General Zel Shivertail, and the Named Adventurer, Regrika Blackpaw.
It was reassuring to have them all here. Very reassuring. Olesm thought the other Council members would have panicked if it weren’t for such legends being in the room, reassuring them. They might have panicked anyways, but there was another factor keeping the room somewhat calm.
The Humans. The Human, in point of fact. Jelaqua Ivrith and Ulrien Sparson were both here, but Olesm knew for a fact that Jelaqua was a Selphid. But to the other Council members it probably didn’t matter. Jelaqua looked like a Human, so she counted.
Thus, the prevailing mood was nervousness, but hidden by bravado. Yes, the situation was grim. However, you couldn’t let the Humans see that, could you? Had to put on a brave face. Yes, stiff upper tails and all that. It seemed the other Drakes were reminding each other they had to stay calm in front of the Humans.
“I think we’re agreed, then.”
Wall Lord Ilvriss spoke as he leaned over the table, and Olesm sat upright guiltily. He’d been dozing off—the meeting had gone on for hours. Ignoring the guilty starts of the others in the room, Lord Ilvriss summarized the main points they’d discussed.
“Word has already been sent to the other cities. I expect my city will send another army—a larger one—to destroy this Goblin Lord in due time. No doubt it will be a confederation army after all. However, in the meantime Liscor must stand. To that end, a message spell has been sent to Liscor’s army.”
“Which isn’t here because…I don’t get that bit.”
Ilvriss turned and glared, only half-acknowledging Jelaqua’s bright smile. Zel cleared his throat and nodded at the Gold-rank adventurers. They were awarded a place at the meeting due to their experience, although neither Ulrien nor Jelaqua had spoken much up till now.
“Liscor’s army is a mercenary one. They spend months, sometimes years in the field, earning money. They’re exceptionally good at their job—with them here the Goblin Lord could assault the walls and would definitely fail to seize the city.”
“However, they’re too far away to return and preoccupied with fighting. They have agreed to send a unit to defend the city. They should arrive…in time.”
Zevara gritted her teeth and lashed her tail. Olesm winced. The reply from Liscor’s army had been short, concise, and unhelpful. But that was the relationship between city and army. It was always strained.
Ilvriss cleared his throat, looking annoyed at the interruptions.
“In the meantime, we shall prepare the city for attack. If it comes to it, we can hold the walls long enough for reinforcements. However, I doubt the Goblin Lord is foolish enough to besiege us. If he is…”
If he was, it was war. Olesm swallowed hard and looked around the room. The plan was good and simple and it had mostly been politics argued over so far. However, no one had brought up the white Dragon in the room and Olesm was afraid that if he didn’t speak now, he’d lose the nerve. Cautiously he coughed and raised a hand.
Instantly, every eye was on him. Olesm felt himself pale as Zel Shivertail himself looked at him, but he stood and spoke hoarsely.
“Begging your pardon Wall Lord—”
Ilvriss nodded graciously at Olesm, smiling a bit. He had been very nice to the Drake, which was at odds with all the things Erin and Ryoka said about him. Olesm continued, speaking to him and Zel.
“—But what about the Antinium? I understand that if it comes to a siege, the Antinium are called upon to defend the city. However…”
Ilvriss’ smile vanished and Zel shifted. The two Drakes looked at each other as the council room fell silent. Yes, the treaty clearly spoke about Antinium aiding the city. But they had only done it once, when Skinner attacked. And the feelings the two Drakes had about the Antinium were abundantly clear.
“If it comes to that young Swifttail, we shall…appraise the Antinium situation as need be.”
Ilvriss spoke to Olesm, but, the Drake sensed, to Zel as well. The [General] nodded.
“They may be helpful. If not…”
Another silence. If not, it might mean another war, far worse than any war with a Goblin Lord. Olesm looked around and sank into his seat. Now he was wishing he hadn’t brought up the issue, because he was really worried.
“If it is the Antinium that concerns you, perhaps it would be best to focus on the Goblin Lord as a threat first, yes? A known enemy in the trees and one underfoot is better than a shadow on both sides.”
Someone else spoke up. Regrika Blackpaw leaned over the table, larger than life, a giant of a Gnoll. She smiled reassuringly at Olesm and he found himself smiling in return. Ilvriss nodded.
“True. I would like to know how our warnings about the Goblin Lord were ignored so badly both armies were surrounded.”
“They knew about the undead, but the exploding ones we saw must not have been mentioned to either general. Or whoever briefed them thought it wasn’t a concern. Neither one expected them to be underground.”
Zel muttered. Ilvriss pounded the table with a fist.
“Ridiculous! If I find the Drake who thought the undead weren’t a concern—”
“The [Scout] that Hawk found fled the battle before the end, but he saw the undead rising. His conclusion was that the Goblin Lord was far more powerful a [Necromancer] than anyone suspected. Hiding the undead beneath the snow—that’s a tactic Az’kerash used to use in the Second Antinium War.”
Ilvriss and Zel shared a concerned glance. Olesm’s heart beat wildly. The [Scout] that Hawk had found had been on the edges of the battlefield near the end. He’d seen the last charge of Garusa Weatherfur, and heard the horns signaling a full retreat. No one close to the place where Thrissiam Blackwing had made his last stand had survived.
“Hrm. It is not good, no. But we must know how much of the Goblin Lord’s army lives, yes? I know Goblins rebuild their forces quickly. It is essential to find out. Hrr. Are there any who might scout the army?”
Regrika looked around the table at the Council. A few heads shook—the leader of the Adventurer’s Guild, a very old Drake lady that Olesm recognized, spoke up. She was Selys’ grandmother.
“There’s not a Drake or Gnoll adventurer worthy of the name in the city who could do it to my knowledge. Not a City Runner either; Hawk might be able to do it, but he would refuse to go near the Goblin Lord’s army. Quite sensibly, too.”
“There’s a [Scout] in my party, Halrac Everam. He might be able to do it, but I’d hate to risk him as well.”
Ulrien volunteered the information quietly, and the Council members looked at him. The huge Human man was like a reassuring rock, for all he was…Human. Zel shook his head.
“I would hate to have any of our best die trying to scout the Goblin Lord’s army, Regrika.”
“Hrm. True. But are you sure there are no City Runners of renown? I would love to see a list—if the Courier Hawk will not do it, a City Runner might. Courage is needed in dire times, and I would speak to any who might volunteer for such a mission.”
The Gnoll [Champion] seemed insistent, so after a moment one of the Council members fetched a list with names of City Runners in Liscor. Regrika pawed through the list, staring at sketches of faces, names, levels, and then looked up.
“I see the issue. Few with high levels. Are you sure there are no others?”
The Council hesitated. Olesm realized they had overlooked someone and spoke up excitedly.
“What about the door to Celum? There are more adventurers and Runners through there.”
Regrika blinked at him.
“A door? What is this?”
Olesm explained briefly about Erin’s magical door, and the Named Adventurer Gnoll shook her head in amazement. That she was impressed made Olesm proud for Erin. Zel nodded slowly.
“True. I’d overlooked the door, but if it came to a siege, I would hope that Erin would allow us to bring her inside the city. Her door could sustain us in a siege and bring reinforcements if needed—”
Ilvriss uttered it as a curse and folded his arms. But Olesm had remembered something else about the inn and edged over to Regrika Blackpaw tentatively.
“There is another Runner who might be willing to take the risk, Miss Blackpaw.”
“Oh? Why is she not on the list? Is she Human?”
The Named Adventurer looked intrigued. Olesm nodded eagerly.
“Her name is Ryoka Griffin. She’s quite good—she ran through the High Passes by herself, once! I could introduce you to her perhaps.”
“A Human female? A City Runner? Or…a Courier?”
“Not a Courier, Miss Blackpaw, but she’s probably the closest to it in Liscor or Celum!”
Regrika bared her teeth in a smile.
“I would like to meet such a Human. Yes, thank you Olesm Swifttail.”
Olesm flushed with pride. Jelaqua spoke up as well, coming over while Zel and Ilvriss and Zevara argued about Humans.
“We all stay at the inn. We’d be happy to show you around after this.”
“I would be most honored, yes. And I shall introduce you to my companion too. She is a powerful [Mage], a Gold-rank adventurer. We must drink together, yes?”
“Of course! I’m sure Erin and Ryoka would be honored to meet you!”
Olesm practically fell over himself with pleasure. Another famous guest for Erin’s inn! Wouldn’t she be pleased when Olesm brought a Named Adventurer to her inn?
After a moment Ilvriss called everyone to order. He pointedly tapped on the map with the Goblin Lord’s probable location on it.
“Our business is not concluded. We have more to do. Regardless of whether or not the Goblin Lord attacks, I suspect him to head north. If he does, we must ensure the nearby villages are cleared long before his arrival and track his movements heading north. Hopefully he becomes the Humans’ problem. Either way, we must prepare ourselves.”
Ilvriss’ eyes glinted as he looked around the room, meeting everyone’s gaze but Ulrien and Jelaqua’s.
“The Goblin Lord must die.”
“The Goblin Lord must die. However, I regret to say that we will most likely be gone before he falls.”
Xrn stood in the chamber of the Queen of the Free Antinium and spoke calmly as she held her staff. Three other Antinium stood with her. Tersk of the Armored Antinium, Pivr of the Flying Antinium, still covered in wounds, and Klbkch. The Queen of the Free Antinium looked down at Xrn.
“I see. You will return to the Hives?”
The blue Antinium lowered her head and Klbkch felt an ache in his chest.
“I must. The Grand Queen wishes me to return and fears I may be wounded if the Goblin Lord attacks.”
Klbkch’s Queen shifted her weight. He saw her looking from Prognugator to Prognugator, and then at Pivr’s wounded form with some satisfaction. Her only comment was to Xrn, though.
“I trust you have seen what my Hive has produced and seen the worth of it.”
Tersk stepped forwards and bowed. He was still not wearing his armor. He seemed greatly changed as he addressed both Klbkch and the Queen.
“I have seen much my Queen will see the value of. Much. I will petition her to recognize your Hive formally.”
“I too. The Antinium should not face such a threat below. Not alone.”
Pivr spoke up, sounding subdued. Klbkch glanced at him, surprised. Xrn nodded at both and then spoke up, voice clear as she clicked her mandibles together respectfully.
“We have agreed that your Hive is worthy, Queen of the Free Antinium. To that end, we shall request that a link be set up between Hives. We have magical artifacts that may do so—for now, we must communicate between Listeners.”
Ah, yes. The Antinium created specifically to listen. It was a crude way of communicating at distance and the other Hives all used magical artifacts to speak, rather than Listeners. But the Free Antinium had been cut off for years thanks to their ‘unproven’ status. Klbkch tasted acid. His Queen surely felt the same, but she only inclined her head to Xrn.
“In ages past we linked minds. Now…we cannot. However, I will confer with the other Queens as to what is to be done about this Goblin Lord, gladly.”
“I am pleased, oh Queen of the Free Antinium. I thank you for your hospitality, though we shall linger for a few days more. I wish to…take in this city, and I understand both Tersk and Pivr have their own needs.”
Xrn nodded at Klbkch. He nodded back. They had a few more moments. Time…oh, it was so fleeting. But perhaps this door—Erin’s door—they had talked, Xrn and he. They had made plans for the future. So had his Queen. The Antinium would live. They would restore themselves and return to Rhir. This Goblin Lord wasn’t worth mentioning.
Osthia Blackwing was now convinced that there was no greater threat on the continent than the Goblin Lord. None. Not even the Antinium were so dangerous. Not because the Goblin Lord himself was that terrifying—he would have lost the battle against her uncle and Garusa normally. No, it was his master that scared Osthia to her core.
Az’kerash, the Necromancer, hovered in the air before the kneeling Goblin Lord in his tent. Osthia, bound and helpless, could only stare up at the projection of the dreaded enemy of the Drakes as his deathless gaze swept the tent.
Black eyes and white pupils. One look from the [Necromancer] sent chills down Osthia’s tail. But the man’s voice was refined, scholarly.
“I do not see why you need the Drake. Oldblood she may be, but a useful corpse she is not. Unless you intend to keep her for other…diversions?”
There was disapproval in his tone. Osthia shivered in cold fury. She would rather die. But the Goblin Lord hadn’t touched her except to interrogate her about his master. The kneeling Goblin shook his head.
“She is spy. Tells me information.”
“Information I already have.”
Az’kerash’s voice was filled with scorn. He gestured at Osthia, and then made a gesture. A map floated in the air in front of Osthia.
“I need no spies, only magic. And I have given you your orders. Go past Liscor. Reclaim the Goblins in the mountain. Tame their leader, build your forces. Wreak havoc among the Human lands and become the Goblin King if you are able. If not, die cursing your weakness.”
He stared down at his apprentice, the Goblin Lord. But it seemed to Osthia that Az’kerash was speaking not as a master to a pupil, but a disinterested owner giving instructions to a dog. The Goblin Lord’s fate only mildly concerned Az’kerash. It was chaos he craved.
“I have my trusted servants in Liscor. Their tasks must not be compromised. They have been occupied there for a long time, it seems. Gathering information.”
Servants? Osthia started. The [Necromancer] had servants? Az’kerash seemed preoccupied, but suddenly the Goblin Lord laughed. Both the Drake and man stared at him.
“What do you find funny?”
“Servants? Not in Liscor long time.”
“Really? I was assured by Ijvani that they had reached the city long past when I inquired.”
The [Necromancer]’s eyes narrowed. The Goblin Lord laughed again, clearly delighting in informing his master of the lie.
“Not true. I met them. A week ago. They were lost. Could not find Liscor.”
Az’kerash’s brows snapped together. He frowned.
“In that case, it seems I must reprimand my servants. Thank you for telling me.”
Both Osthia and the Goblin Lord took some small pleasure in seeing the irritation on the Necromancer’s face. He waved a hand, about to dismiss the spell and then spoke curtly.
“Go north as I have told you, my apprentice. Burn the cities as you pass. Leave strong ones undefended. And kill the Drake. I do not like loose ends.”
His image vanished. Osthia saw the Goblin Lord stand up, brushing dirt from his knees. He looked at her. And she knew that she would live.
Because if there was anything the Goblin Lord could do to spite the Necromancer, he would. He was Az’kerash’s enemy as much as anyone. But Osthia feared…she feared they were all just pawns in some larger game the Necromancer was playing. She just wished she could tell someone what was happening.
Plots and treachery. Intrigue, planning—the minds of the leaders of many sides plotted and thought away across the continent. Each had their own agenda. Each was a fool. For however strong they may be, whatever powers they possessed, what were they?
Merely mortal. Well, Az’kerash might be an exception, but he was still young. Especially by Dragon standards.
In a game of armies and kings, of death and battle, a lone Dragon sat in his cave, aloof from it all. He was mighty. He had lived through the rise and fall of greater empires than any that now existed on the earth. He was a ruler of fire, one of the last and mightiest of his kind. He was a Dragon.
And now he had reached perfection. On the ground of his cavern, the Dragon gently and with exquisite care, extended a claw. With the finest of control he gently lowered the talon a fraction and tapped a glowing screen.
The iPhone beneath the Dragon blinked for a second, its screen glowing brightly in the dim light. It was surrounded by ice and cooled by powerful freezing spells; it seemed that it had a tendency to overheat and Teriarch couldn’t be bothered to keep repairing it with magic.
And the iPhone was especially strained as of now. Teriarch’s eyes flicked as he analyzed the small screen and he breathed out. At last. He had done it. He had struggled—so hard! And he had persevered. He had accomplished what no other being in this world had done, he was sure of it.
“Let me see. As of now, I am producing…”
His eyes flickered over the screen. Teriarch counted for a moment, and then took a breath.
“Five hundred thirty-eight quintillion, two hundred fifty-five quadrillion, eight hundred two trillion, nine hundred seventy-one billion, six hundred twenty-one million, three hundred sixty-two thousand, four hundred and eight…excuse me, four hundred and nine cookies per second, given of course a lack of any manual input on my part.”
Teriarch proudly stared down at the screen of the iPhone, which was showing a game and a lot of numbers. Cookie Clicker, the app, ran on as Teriarch gently tapped the screen a few times, watching cookies soar across the screen.
He’d done it. He’d clicked the screen, bought many, many upgrades, and finally, become a lord of cookies. Teriarch had no idea what the strange confectionaries actually tasted like, but he was sure they were some sort of granulated sugar treat. He’d had similar substances over the years, even if he’d never had ‘chocolate chip’ cookies.
And now he was producing so many! Teriarch was at the head of a virtual cookie empire that could literally bury his opponents live in cookies. He had enough cookies to fill the sea, to build himself a castle and army! He could do anything! He was a cookie god!
The Dragon blinked at the tiny screen and then slowly rolled—or perhaps collapsed—onto his side. He stared at the screen.
“I feel so empty.”