In the moments after Ryoka died, she had a vision. She had left her body and she was running down a path. It was some kind of road that stretched on until infinity and she was running as fast as she could down it.
There was no pain. There was nothing but the wind on her face, and the sensation of flying, flying across the ground. Ryoka ran. And ahead of her was a flying blue figure. Ivolethe.
The Frost Faerie was laughing as she let herself be chased by Ryoka. She was going so fast, and no matter how quickly Ryoka ran, she could never catch up to the faerie. But for once, Ryoka didn’t mind that. She ran, happy and free.
And then she came to a cave. Ryoka slowed and slowly walked into it. Now she was in a different place.
In a place where mountains touched the sky, there was a cave. It lay at the foot of one of the mountains, dug into the side. It could have been called a cavern. There was an old man living there. The cave was his home.
It was a large cave, but small for the old man living inside. Too small. It was cramped and he didn’t belong there. He should have been out in the sun, but he hid from it. He was old, and Ryoka heard him whispering. His voice echoed around her, until she was standing by his side.
She looked down and saw her own body lying on the floor. Ryoka knew her heart wasn’t beating. It was in pieces. Magic had shredded it. And the old man was trying to keep her alive. He pointed, and Ryoka saw her chest begin to rise and fall.
Now his voice echoed around the cave, whispering. Frantic and old.
“—breathe. The death magic must be dispelled. But the heart—where’s my scroll of regeneration? No time. I’ll have to reconstruct it—what do Human hearts look like?”
He turned and began to search around his cave as Ryoka watched her chest continue to rise and fall. Something was happening in her chest. Ryoka knelt by her body and felt her heart start to assemble itself, flesh and blood melding together.
“I can’t find my compendium of anatomies! Another heart? A magic one? No, no. Just heal the damage. It’s just a death spell. Simple to fix. She will survive. Of course she will.”
He was old. And worried. And tired. Ryoka looked at the old man as he paced back and forth in his tiny home, his cave of rock.
And then she saw a Dragon.
His scales were bronze and shone like the sun. They looked closer to gold in the half-light of his cavern. The Dragon was huge, taller than any creature of the land or sky, majestic. His mane flowed like molten metal, his claws were like razors.
And he was legend. He was one of the last of his kind, a reminder that magic, true magic still walked the earth. He was older than the mountains he rested under, the ancient watcher. A being of flame and sky.
And then Ryoka felt her body give a start. Her heart began to beat again and she saw herself cough. Ryoka felt her chest convulse. She was lying on the ground, her heart aching. And then she opened her eyes and the old man and the Dragon were one. He had a name.
He crouched over Ryoka, an expression of worry on his huge face. The Dragon reached out with one claw and touched her. So gently, a giant gently caressing an ant. She looked up into his eyes, heliotrope and cerulean and saw him smile.
Relief filled the huge Dragon as he looked down at Ryoka Griffin. And then, just as suddenly, the relief turned to fury. He turned, and Ryoka sat up, despite the pain in her chest. The Dragon roared again, a sound that made the cavern shake and the vast collection of his artifacts tremble. She looked towards the entrance of the cave, waiting. The vision was still in Ryoka’s mind, that endless road and Ivolethe. But she put it aside for one moment.
There was no way she was going to miss what came next.
Venitra stopped when she heard the second roar. It echoed through the High Passes, sending the other monsters running for cover. Even the goats. It even sent a moment of trepidation through her. But the undead woman did not flee. She had come too far to be denied her victory now. Her master would not accept failure.
And Ryoka was so close. Venitra’s body was still frozen from the ice but she made it move. She strode towards the huge cave opening. There was a yellow flag of some sort tied to a rock at the entrance. The undead disregarded this. This place was suitable for Ryoka Griffin’s end.
“I have found you!”
She roared into the cave, wondering if Ryoka had awakened some kind of monster within. Venitra strode into the darkness, fearless. She had been created to be superior to any monster! She was perfection. Her master had made her, so she must be so.
Her sword and shield were drawn, weapons of enchanted bone, like her body. Venitra walked forwards, her heavy tread crushing rocks underfoot. She had been built like a knight; her body was armor superior to any steel, and the magic in her warded her against lesser spells and attacks. She was flawless! Unstoppable! She was—
The woman rounded an outcropping of rock in the darkness and saw the Dragon. He loomed over her, violet and blue eyes burning with fury. His scales glinted as his head moved down to regard her.
“Wretch. Thing. You dare trespass in my domain?”
He bellowed the words and Venitra trembled. She stared up at him. A Dragon. A—she brandished her sword. She could see a young woman lying on the ground in front of the Dragon. His tail was half-curled around her, protectively.
“Give me Ryoka Griffin. I have no quarrel with you, beast.”
Did her voice quaver? Surely not. She was not afraid. She was not! Venitra lifted her sword, daring the creature before her.
The Dragon reared up. His eyes narrowed and Venitra braced herself. He roared a third time, and Venitra dashed forwards. Her body, enchanted with [Haste], darted at the girl half-sitting up on the ground. Venitra leapt—
Something grabbed her. Venitra cried out and stabbed at the claw grasping her. Futilely. Her blade glanced off something, and then she felt herself lifted. Venitra struggled and something hurled her—
The undead woman twisted, her shield raised, her sword slashing the air frantically. What had just happened? She felt weightless. There was nothing to stand on, no ground—or Dragon—anywhere around her. Everything was a blur and she was…moving? What? Venitra realized what was going on.
Then her body crashed into the side of the mountain. Venitra felt the shock of the impact crack her body. She lay there, stunned.
“I broke? I? What—”
Wing beats. She struggled upright and then saw him. A Dragon flew upwards, wings stretched wide. His head rose and he turned to look at her. And Venitra was afraid. She raised her shield. The Dragon inhaled. Venitra crouched. Her body was bone, not flesh! He couldn’t harm her. He couldn’t—
The air caught aflame. The world turned to fire. Venitra felt her ivory body blacken and crack from the heat. She screamed. Pain, real pain engulfed her soul. Everything was burning! She cried out.
But there was only fire. Venitra screamed and the Dragon roared. He turned his head away from the broken undead creation and flew upwards. He shouted at the sky.
The mountains shook with the word as Teriarch bellowed another word. And hundreds of miles away, the Necromancer’s heart began to beat faster for the first time in years.
Az’kerash’s voice faltered. In the minutes after Venitra had been encased in solid ice, the room around him had gone silent. Ijvani, Bea, Kerash, and Oom stood in their teleportation circles. The spell was nearly completed. But their master’s attention was solely concentrated on the image of Venitra.
“Venitra. Can you hear me? Respond. Pull back. Retreat. This is an order!”
The Necromancer spoke to his servant. But Venitra didn’t seem to hear. She strode towards the cave opening. And then the image of her vanished. Az’kerash cursed. Ijvani turned her broken skull to stare at her master. She had never heard him swear before.
The Necromancer began to pace back and forth. He whirled as the projection of Venitra flared back to life. Ijvani gasped as she saw Venitra. The bone woman was flying through the air! Then she was landing. And there was fire—she saw Venitra, her master’s last great creation and favorite of his servants burn in the fiery inferno. She heard Venitra calling out for her master. And then she heard the voice bellowing her master’s name.
“This is problematic.”
Az’kerash stared at the projection of Venitra. She was barely moving. Ijvani couldn’t even tell her apart from the melted rocks, still glowing with heat. He turned.
“Kerash! Go to Venitra. Use a scroll. Teleport there and bring her back. Do not do anything else. Do you underst—”
“Master, there is a spell addressed to you! It’s a [Message] spell.”
Bea cried out. Az’kerash turned.
“I sense it. Do not answer, Bea. Kerash, take three scrolls of [Greater Teleport]. If Venitra is unable to use it, force her to—”
He turned. Ijvani pointed. There was something in the air behind him. The necromancer stared at the burning piece of air, a shining, fiery dot, and narrowed his eyes.
“Do not respond to the spell. Kerash—”
Bea didn’t touch the spell. Neither did Ijvani. But somehow, the spell itself activated. Ijvani stared as the point of flame expanded, wrote itself in the air. That was impossible. The rational, dead part of her mind kept saying that. It was just a [Message] spell! It couldn’t—what was happening?
Then the word wrote itself in the air. It was a single word, and when it completed, there was a voice.
And with that word came fire. The Necromancer raised his hands as flames burst into the room. He shouted.
“[Mass Flame W—]”
The air ignited. Ijvani’s bones caught flame. The air, the stone, everything burned. Searing fire engulfed the Necromancer and his servants. They cried out. Bea screamed and Oom writhed in silent agony. Ijvani shrieked as she felt her enchanted bones melting in the fire. She caught a glimpse of Kerash flailing, engulfed in flames, and then her master, raising a hand.
“[Snap Freeze]. [Void Room]! [Sanctuary of Protection]!”
A cold blasted through the room, lowering the temperature and creating boiling steam. Still the flames did not go out. But then the air in the room vanished and the flames disappeared too. Ijvani stopped flailing and saw her master, standing motionless, ash covering his body.
He was burned. And as he turned, a roaring face appeared in the air in front of him. A Dragon. His projection had engulfed the room in fire. His words were thunder.
“Az’kerash, you worm! You dare? You dare send your minions to trespass in my home?”
“Ijvani. Bea. Oom. Kerash. Leave.”
Az’kerash spoke through gritted teeth. His servants picked themselves up. They stared at the Dragon and fled. The air was gone in the room, save for a pocket around Az’kerash, a glowing sphere where the heat could not touch. But despite the vacuum of air, the heat from Teriarch’s wrath was beginning to melt the stone within.
“Calm yourself, Teriarch! I did not order Venitra to attack you. Nor did I intend to interfere with you in any way. She was pursuing a girl—”
“Ryoka Griffin. You tried to kill her! A Runner! A messenger! Have you no shame, coward?”
The Necromancer held up a hand, black eyes narrowed. His white pupils locked with Teriarch’s.
“I was safeguarding my interests. She knew my location thanks to you, Teriarch. If she spoke of it—”
“I do not want to hear your excuses, brat!”
This time fire burst into the air around Az’kerash. He shielded his face as the flames danced around him. These were no ordinary flames. They were a Dragon’s fire, and they flew around him in the void, trails of white-hot fire that burned on pure magic, not oxygen. He muttered a word and a layer of bone grew out of the floor, shielding himself from the flames which began burning their way through the thick ivory.
“Enough! I will not apologize for my actions! I will safeguard my secrets at any cost! That girl was a tool. Why do you care whether she lives or dies?”
Teriarch’s eyes narrowed. He inhaled, and Az’kerash raised his arms.
“[Wall of the Damned]!”
This time the raging Dragon’s fire blasted through the projection between the two. It blasted around the twisted wall of glowing bodies that had appeared to protect Az’kerash and into the corridor beyond. The undead warriors standing in the hallway burned. Ijvani and the other servants had a chance to scream before the inferno flashed down the corridor and blasted across an entire wing of the castle.
When the smoke cleared, Az’kerash lowered the shield between him and Teriarch. He stared at the Dragon. Teriarch was panting, wheezing. He slowly lowered himself back onto the ground, curling his wings up tiredly. He and the Necromancer stared at each other.
“She is under my protection now. Understand? Kill or threaten her, and I will personally exact a reckoning upon you and your toys!”
Az’kerash coughed, exhaling a plume of black ash as he spoke. He wiped it from his lips grimly before speaking.
“I will leave her and her associates alone. Allow me to collect my servant, Venitra.”
“You may send someone to bring back what is left of her.”
Teriarch’s tail lashed the ground. He narrowed his eyes at the man standing in his destroyed room.
“I will not warn you again, Necromancer. I will not be crossed.”
“I was not aware that a single City Runner merited your protection. Or do you care for Humans now, when you’ve abandoned your descendants, the Drakes?”
Az’kerash responded icily. Teriarch hesitated.
“I care not for mortal lives. But Ryoka Griffin. She is—deserving of respect. She delivered a gift for you. Has she done anything to warrant death?”
It was the Necromancer’s turn to pause.
“No. But I will warn you, Teriarch, that my secrets are not to be given away. If you will not let her die, make clear to Ryoka Griffin the consequences of—”
“I think you have already done that. She is under my protection, Chandler. Remember that. Your undead are no match for my wrath.”
Again the two locked gazes. This time Teriarch was the first to look away. He spoke a curt word and flicked his wings. The image vanished.
In the silence, Az’kerash looked around the now-destroyed room. He sensed the havoc Teriarch’s fire had wrought, and heard his servants screaming for his aid, still aflame. Slowly, Az’kerash sat on the ground, brushing ash from his robes.
“That ended poorly.”
He paused. And then smiled as he put a finger to his lips.
“Or perhaps not. Hmm.”
Fire. Ryoka saw fire. She heard Teriarch’s roar, saw him hurl Venitra and then fly out of his cavern after her. And the fire—it burned through the air, searing, shining bright despite Ryoka’s closed eyelids.
So hot. So…pure. It was fire, and it made every flame, every bonfire and firework and campfire Ryoka had seen before it seem pale in comparison. To see Teriarch breathe fire was to understand it. She stared up as the Dragon roared and felt tears evaporate on her face.
Then she cried for other reasons too. She cried for Ivolethe and walked back through the empty pass to the place where ice had mostly melted away. A few large chunks remained, melting in the now burning air. And on the ground…a shining splash of wet. A few droplets that had once been ice. Ryoka bent and touched the water. It dripped from her fingertips and evaporated.
She blinked, and her eyelids drooped. Ryoka lay down on the ground.
When she opened her eyes next, Ryoka was flying. For real this time. She looked around and realized she must have passed out. Because she could not explain how she was looking down at the world. The air rushed around her as Ryoka saw snow below her, tiny houses, clouds—she looked around, panicking as she realized she was up high, and then saw the claw.
It was gripping her gently, a talon of burnished bronze scales. Ryoka looked up and saw Teriarch.
He was flying. Or rather, gliding. The huge Dragon flew through the night’s sky, high, high above the ground. Like an airplane. His wings barely moved as they spread wide through the air. Occasionally they would flap, but Ryoka had a distinct impression they were moving far too quickly for the wings to do much.
It was cold this high up. So cold. Ryoka felt the icy chill of the air around her and would have frozen, but Teriarch’s claws were warm. They radiated heat, enough to keep her more than comfortable. Slowly, Ryoka shifted, and the Dragon sensed it, minute though the motion was.
“You are awake.”
It was an unfulfilling exchange after everything that had happened. Ryoka twisted in Teriarch’s grip to look up at him better. The Dragon turned his head and she saw one massive eye looking at her.
“Am I dreaming?”
She felt him chuckle through his talon. Teriarch smiled, and then looked down. So did Ryoka. The world flew past her below. Ryoka stared. There was no comparing this with sitting in an airplane and staring out a window. It wasn’t like skydiving or gliding. She flew through the night sky, impossibly fast, and yet the wind did not roar in her ears. There was silence around the Dragon, and the air was calm around him. Ryoka looked down, through clouds, across a frozen world.
This was the sight a Dragon saw. She felt her heart in her chest shake. Her heart.
“You brought me back to life.”
“It was not hard. A death spell destroys very little. And I am a master of magic.”
Again, the Dragon smiled, but this time it was sadly. He bent his head as he flew to look at her.
“The Necromancer. He came after you because you knew where he resides, didn’t he? I did not expect that. I…apologize.”
Ryoka stared at him. She tried to find the helpless rage, the despair and contempt she’d felt for his indifference. But she couldn’t. She had died. Ivolethe had died. There was only the truth, empty and painful. Truth, and beauty. She stared into the eyes of a Dragon and nodded.
“Yeah. He did. He killed a good person. And Ivolethe died to stop him.”
Teriarch nodded. He looked past her, down at a mountain below. Then he swerved to move out of the way of a peak that rose in the sky, higher than he was flying. Ryoka stared at it as she flew past. The slopes were covered in ice. It was a world unto itself up here and she could swear she saw something moving across the ice and rocks. Then it was gone, lost behind a cloud. Teriarch’s voice was quiet.
“He will not come after you again. I have spoken with the Necromancer and we have reached an accord. You are under my protection.”
“Why? I thought you didn’t care about mortals.”
“Then why did you come to me?”
“Because I hoped you would. Because it wasn’t fair. Because I didn’t know what else to do.”
Silence. The Dragon nodded once. Ryoka looked at him.
“I shouldn’t tell anyone about Az’kerash or his servants, right?”
“That is what he wishes. And perhaps it would be wise. But I will not force you. Not now.”
She looked at him. He looked at her. Ryoka tried to wiggle an arm. Teriarch’s claw opened a fraction so she could scratch at a cheek. She didn’t feel fear, though his grip was loosened on her thousands of miles in the air. She felt safe with him.
“Are you going…to put a spell on me?”
There was a pause. Teriarch’s head glanced down at Ryoka.
“Another geas spell? No. There is little point it seems. And you—you have paid for the knowledge you possess. Paid far too much for it.”
He said nothing. Ryoka stared down. She thought she could actually recognize where they were now. A narrow pass led south, in a gap between the mountain ranges. She and Teriarch flew over a city, tiny below them, and entered a valley where the mountains formed a natural basin.
It was a beautiful, still sight, as flecks of snow whirled around them. The snow covered the area, making it shine. Winter. This high up you couldn’t see how it had melted or turned to mud where the snow was thin. But winter was ending. It had ended.
Ivolethe was gone. Struck by that sudden realization, Ryoka fought back tears. Then gave in. Her voice croaked.
She took a breath.
“Why did he—I mean, I know. But why did—why did she—why…?”
She tried to ask the question she had no words for. Teriarch listened as she choked on her words and fell silent. He did not respond.
The Dragon flew lower now, gliding down through the clouds. He whispered a word and Ryoka saw his body vanish. She looked down and realized she’d vanished as well.
They landed in the snow within sight of Liscor’s walls. On the east side, so Ryoka couldn’t see Erin’s inn. Teriarch let go of Ryoka, placing her gently on the ground.
She stumbled, fell to her knees, jolted awake by the cold snow. Ryoka looked at her hands and realized she was visible again. Teriarch was still a ghost, but his voice was clear in the night’s silence.
“I am sorry. I did not mean for this to happen.”
She looked at him, where he should be. A Dragon stood on the ground, a legend. His wings spread wide, and his scales shone in the moonlight. His eyes were deeper than the stars. He was real.
But she couldn’t see him. And if she closed her eyes, Ryoka could imagine it was all a dream. This world, everything she’d been through. Magic didn’t exist. She couldn’t actually cast spells, monsters weren’t real, and there was no wonder. The world was empty of such things.
But she remembered a laughing blue creature of frost and wind. She saw the world freeze and heard a faerie’s voice. Ryoka reached out and touched a scale, hot and warm and real in the silence.
Magic was real. You just had to believe.
Ivolethe was gone. Brunkr was dead. Az’kerash…there were a thousand things she could say. Ryoka said none of them. She felt Teriarch’s body shift and stepped back.
He leapt into the sky. She felt a gust of wind that knocked her over, and then heard his voice.
“I am sorry.”
And then he was gone.
Ryoka got up slowly. She began to walk, stumbling through the ice and snow, towards Liscor. Her heart hurt. Her entire body felt…tired. It felt like she really had died back there, and the last few moments had been a pleasant illusion. But she believed.
The gate were barred when Ryoka reached them. The guards on the gates aimed arrows and wands at her. They cried out when they saw her. Ryoka stumbled into the city, as people rushed towards her. There was too much to say, too little she could say.
But she’d come back in time. Come back before Relc, bypassing the patrols searching for her and Regrika. They were called in. Zel and Ilvriss returned. Ryoka found the Horns of Hammerad nursing their wounds and Mrsha and Lyonette with Krshia and every Gnoll in the city. And Erin—she found her with the Gold-rank adventurers in her inn, surrounded by the Antinium.
Ryoka was silent through it all. She couldn’t explain, couldn’t answer any questions. Not now. She told them it was over, and then realized it wasn’t. Not yet.
She had made it back in time for the funerals.
Erin stood in the snow and looked at the two bodies wrapped in a shroud. They were Brunkr’s remains, and Ulrien’s body. The cloth they were covered in was white. It seemed to blend together with the snow. Only the pyre of wood separated them from the cold oblivion around them.
She looked to one side and saw Ryoka standing by herself in the cold. The Runner had a dazed look on her face, as if she were dreaming while awake. She was alone, for all people surrounding her. No one stood by her side. Many watched. Zel and Ilvriss, and his followers. A group of Guardsmen including Relc and Klbkch. The Antinium.
Everyone was here. And that was odd. Gnolls from Liscor, adventurers from Celum, Drakes of all colors, the Horns of Hammerad, Griffon Hunt, the Halfseekers, Lyonette, Mrsha, and Pawn, Bird, and the other Antinium—they were all here. Erin would never have expected to see Xrn and Klbkch sharing space with Zel and Ilvriss, for all they stood on opposite sides of the pyre.
It was like a dream. Yes, that was how it felt. A bad dream that she couldn’t wake up from. Erin stared at her hands.
Her right hand was bandaged. It had broken, and though the healing potion had fixed her skin and Pisces had helped with the bone, she had been ordered not to use it. Her injury was one of the few present. Zel, Ilvriss, even Revi, Seborn, and Typhenous all looked like normal.
The only injured were Jelaqua, Moore, and Halrac. Halrac had bandages over his ribs. Moore’s fist had been broken like Erin’s and he was still recovering from the healing of his other wounds. And Jelaqua—Erin glanced at the Selphid.
The top of Jelaqua’s head had been sewn together in a hurry. It was hard to see the stitches at a distance, but up close they were noticeable. The Selphid was still active, though. She seemed to be wincing as she cradled her stomach. But she stood with the others, watching the bodies.
There was no priest. No one to say any words. And there was no ceremony. The Gnolls, led by Krshia, approached Brunkr’s shroud. Krshia bent. The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] bent to touch Brunkr, then put something by his body. A sword. His sword.
Someone else put his shield there. Another added a part of his armor, someone else a piece of clear stone, a gift, perhaps. The Gnolls put their tributes by their fallen brethren.
Ulrien had no gifts by his body. His greatsword and equipment had been removed. He lay, silent, as the adventurers stood around him. Some were crying. Typhenous wept openly. Revi brushed at angry tears.
Both Ceria and Yvlon were crying, and Erin thought that Ksmvr and Jelaqua might have if they could. Moore closed his eyes and Seborn stared silently at Ulrien.
No one said anything. Not Halrac, not Typhenous, not Revi. They had been like this all night. After Ryoka had appeared out of nowhere and told them that both Ikriss and Regrika were gone, they’d demanded questions, argued. Halrac had to be restrained by both Moore and Jelaqua from grabbing Ryoka.
Now they were quiet. The Gnolls finished paying their last respects. Erin, Lyonette, and Mrsha were last. They had known Brunkr, each in their own way.
Lyonette was first. She walked over to Brunkr, tears dripping into the snow. She knelt next to the body and bowed her head. Mrsha walked up next to her, clumsily, on two feet. She buried her head into the shroud and moaned. It was the only sound Erin had ever heard her make besides barking and crying.
After forever, a few minutes, Lyonette pulled at Mrsha. The Gnoll tried to hold on, but the girl gently made her let go. Erin stepped up, last. She looked down at Brunkr.
She had no words. Erin fiddled with her hands, and placed something on the ground next to Brunkr. It was a flower, yellow, small. A faerie’s flower. It was the only flower she could find. Erin wiped at her face and stepped back.
“Is there anyone who wishes to speak? If so, now is the time.”
Krshia called out. The Gnoll’s eyelids were puffy and her voice was hoarse from howling. The Gnolls had called out after hearing what Regrika had done. They had called her traitor, and howled until they could not any longer.
Now they were silent. No one spoke, so Krshia took a torch from one of the Gnolls. She approached the shroud where Brunkr lay. On the other side, Halrac reached out and took a torch that Typhenous lit with magic. They walked up to the silent bodies and lowered the flames.
The shrouds lit. They were doused with oil and made to burn easily. Erin stared as the fire caught one edge of Brunkr’s shroud, and leapt from the torch onto the chest of Ulrien’s covering. The flames began to spread slowly, and then engulfed both bodies. Halrac and Krshia stepped slowly back from the blazes.
Cremation. It was the way Drakes did it, and some Gnolls and Humans. Buried bodies might come back unless treated properly. And burning made sure that their corpses could not be plundered. Gold-rank adventurers were stripped of their equipment and cremated for that reason; to avoid being despoiled by thieves.
Now Erin glanced at Griffon Hunt again. They had not said much as they prepared their friend. They had been so silent it hurt. She looked at Halrac, his face set, his jaw clenched. Typhenous, head bowed and Revi staring defiantly into the flames as tears streamed down her eyes. They had to say something.
Then Halrac moved. He reached for something. His bow. The people around him, adventurers who had known Ulrien, stood back as Halrac selected an arrow from his quiver. The arrow’s head shone with light, painful in the darkness.
Halrac put the arrow to his bow, aimed up, and loosed. A single shot, high, high up into the night. He put another arrow to his bow, drew, and loosed. The second arrow shot up and met the first.
There was a soundless explosion in the sky above. Erin shielded her eyes as the two magical arrows burst. Halrac reached for a third arrow, and Revi moved.
She had talismans in her hands. They glowed, and she threw them to the ground. Ghostly warriors rose, warriors and mages wearing glowing armor. She pointed, and they shot their weapons upwards. Revi raised a wand and shot crackling lightning into the sky as one of Halrac’s arrows exploded into a fireball, high above.
Typhenous raised his staff. Dancing missiles of light, arrows that left streaks through the air shot upwards. Hundreds of them. They crisscrossed the other spells and arrows. Typhenous pointed, and orbs of light rose, exploding high overhead.
For a moment, the three were the only ones filling the sky. Then Erin saw someone else move. Jelaqua raised something in her hands. It was a ball of liquid. She threw it up and the alchemist’s fire exploded, showering down burning fragments. Moore raised his staff and leaves shot into the air, catching fire and burning. Seborn threw something that turned into a cloud of dust that shimmered in the air.
They weren’t alone. Ceria shot ice up into the air in a stream of frozen vapors. Yvlon hurled something like what Jelaqua had thrown, only smaller. Pisces shot sparks, and Ksmvr shot an arrow from his quiver.
Around the gathering, other adventurers were doing the same. Everyone who had known Ulrien in passing or in person raised their weapons. Those who were mages shot spells up. Others used arrows, aiming away from the crowd. Those without either threw alchemist concoctions, or used artifacts.
The sky was filled with light and flashes. Explosions. Erin stared up. Fireworks filled the sky, in a world where they had never been invented. Because there was no need.
“Magic and might. Spells and tricks. Ammunition and weapons for him in the next life. A last goodbye, to show his enemies he is not forgotten. A tribute to who he was. A promise he will be avenged.”
Erin turned. Klbkch stood behind her with Xrn by his side. Neither Antinium raised their weapons. They were not adventurers. Neither was Erin. She stood in the silence until Halrac had fired his last shot, and the flames were dying down. There was little left of either body but ash.
What happened then? Erin couldn’t remember who was the first to step away, but she knew who was last. Halrac stood by Ulrien’s remains, and Krshia by Brunkr. The others went back to the city, to the inn.
That night Erin let Ishkr and Drassi serve the food, what she’d stockpiled. Wind blew against the hastily-repaired hole in the wall, and there weren’t enough tables or chairs, but her guests didn’t care. They sat on the ground or stood with plates and mugs in hand, somber, quiet.
She and Lyonette couldn’t do it. Drinks were free, as was food, and the people in her inn ate and talked quietly. They drank to remember, and then drank to forget.
That night, Erin let Mrsha have something to drink, and put a drop of faerie flower nectar in her drink. The Gnoll fell asleep in Lyonette’s arms, and then Lyonette fell asleep after Erin gave her a similar mug. Erin offered it to Halrac when he came in, but he shook his head and sat with his teammates, alone and silent.
Ryoka came in and sat in a corner, staring at the fire. Zel and Ilvriss never came in, and neither did Krshia or the Gnolls. They were elsewhere. In the silence, Erin watched as the bodies filling her inn slowly left through one of her two doors. In the end, it was just Ryoka and her.
Neither girl spoke. Erin walked over to the kitchen and lay down on the ground. She closed her eyes, too hurt to cry, in too much pain to sleep. Or so she thought. But sleep did come, black and quiet as oblivion.
[Magical Innkeeper Level 32!]
[Skill – Inn: Reinforced Structure obtained!]
It was too much. Erin woke up and cried. Then she fell asleep again. The next day she went to Ryoka with the letter she’d found in her room.
It was a bad dream. A nightmare, only when you woke up the next day, you realized that it was reality. And somehow, you kept going.
And paid your debts. The first was Erin. Ryoka sat in the inn. No one was around. It was silent. Just after dawn. The sky was clear and blue and it was warmer, but no one had come downstairs or upstairs.
Ryoka sat at a table. She hadn’t slept. She had woken up from the dream after meeting Teriarch. Now she just felt empty. Like she wasn’t here. She didn’t want to be here.
But Erin sat across from her. The other girl pushed a folded piece of parchment towards her.
“Why did you write it was all your fault?”
“It was. It is. Regrika and Ikriss came for me. Everyone they killed, Brunkr, Ulrien—Ivolethe. It was all to get at me.”
“It was one of my deliveries. I—saw something I shouldn’t have.”
“Just that? All of that—because you saw something?”
“And why didn’t you tell me? What about Zel? Klbkch? Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
“They told me they’d kill you and everyone else if I tried.”
“They killed Brunkr anyways.”
“Yeah. That’s why I went for help.”
“I can’t say.”
“I can’t say.”
“Can he really protect you?”
“I think so.”
“You think so?”
“I can’t tell for sure. I’m mostly sure, but—I can’t. And I can’t tell you or Halrac who ordered Regrika to come here, Erin. It’s too dangerous.”
“For a Gold-rank adventurer?”
“Then what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to Krshia. And then…I’ll talk to Zel.”
“Do that. And then…Ryoka?”
“Don’t come back. Leave. I don’t want you here. Not for a while. Not for a day, at least. Maybe more.”
Ryoka got up slowly and walked out the door, conscious of Erin’s eyes on her back.
That was all Halrac said in the morning, when he finally came down. He stood in front of Erin with the others. Typhenous, Revi, they were all packed. Well, packed…they had a bag of holding. Erin stared up at Halrac. His face was blank. But there was pain behind his eyes.
“Not the city. We’re staying. We might go—we don’t know. We don’t know if we’ll continue trying to enter the dungeon or…anything. But we can’t stay here.”
Revi said it as she looked around the room. Erin looked too. The blood was gone, but she could still see the spot where Ulrien had died. Halrac glanced at it and then away.
“That Ryoka Griffin still won’t tell us who Regrika Blackpaw really works for?”
“No. She wouldn’t tell me. I think she might tell Zel.”
“Fine. I’ll find out either way.”
The [Scout] turned. Erin longed to say something. She hesitated.
Halrac’s shoulders hunched. Typhenous looked at him and Erin and opened his mouth, and then shook his head. Only Revi stayed as the two began to walk towards the door.
The Stitch-Girl stared at Erin, a mix of hostility and grief in her eyes.
“You’re sorry? Because Ulrien’s dead? So what? It’s not going to help. Ulrien knew what he was suggesting when he offered to help you against a Named Adventurer. It was his choice. He died. And now our group has no leader.”
Erin stared at her. Revi looked away and wiped her eyes. She still hadn’t fixed the clumsy stitches that were keeping her together.
“Are you—are you going to break up?”
“Disband? Who knows?”
“We’ll probably go to an inn and drink until we throw up for a week. And then? I don’t know. Ever since we came to this city, to this inn, it seems like nothing’s gone right. It was nice while it lasted, you know? I even liked this place. But it’s too much. This place is too much.”
She turned away. Erin watched her go. After a while, Jelaqua walked up. The Selphid scratched at the stitches around her head.
“Don’t mind Revi. She only meant half of what she said.”
“She’s right, though. I got Ulrien killed. Bad things always happen around my inn. Around me. This isn’t the first time.”
The Selphid shook her head.
“Bad things always happen. You think you’re special in that? I lost over half my party in another inn. Tragedy doesn’t care where it happens.”
Erin looked at her. Jelaqua offered her a crooked smile.
“Don’t mind the head. There’s nothing important in it, anyways.”
“Is your body okay? Seborn said you might have problems.”
“Seborn? Oh, right. Well, I went on a Rampage. It’s a Selphid thing. Breaks muscles, and I can’t heal them like you can. And I took damage…I need a new body. But I don’t think I can get one, so I’ll manage with this.”
Jelaqua shrugged. She’d broken bones in the fight, and talked about inserting iron rods to keep things in place. Erin only nodded.
“Will you stay?”
“Us? Yeah, sure. We can’t really leave. It’s hard finding another inn.”
“If you needed to, I could—”
The Selphid quietly rested a hand on Erin’s shoulder. The [Innkeeper] nodded. She wiped at her face. Jelaqua patted her on the shoulder as Erin cried.
“I won’t forget. Regrika. I won’t forget.”
“I know. I won’t either.”
“She told me she’d kill me. And Bird. And you all. Everyone. I won’t forget her. I’ll find her and someday…”
“I know. Come on. Let’s get you sitting down. Come on.”
The second person that Ryoka told was Krshia. The Gnoll sat in her apartment. It was too empty without Brunkr in it. She looked at Ryoka.
“Who ordered Regrika?”
“I can’t say.”
“She is a traitor to our species. Tell me.”
“I can’t tell you, Krshia. It’s too dangerous. But believe me. Regrika’s not a proper Gnoll and she never was.”
Krshia stared at her. Her paws were clenched. Ryoka looked at her, waiting. If Krshia grabbed her, she wouldn’t resist.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t think she’d do it. I would have risked it earlier.”
The Gnoll nodded jerkily.
“And risked death for many. For me and my nephew as well. I see. It is not—there was no good choice. I understand that.”
“If you want to do anything to me. Hit me, tell me never to come back—”
“I do. But I will not. You are a friend to Gnolls, Ryoka.”
The young woman was surprised and guilty. Krshia nodded, head bowed.
“What you gave us is worth more than a single life. Worth more than the lives of many Gnolls, perhaps. It is a gift, and I know the value of it. But.”
She looked up. There were tears in her brown eyes.
“But Brunkr was my nephew, no? I helped raise him, I fed him, and spanked him, and watched him grow. I knew him. We are friends, Ryoka Griffin. That does not change. But I do not wish to see you for a while. May I ask that?”
Ryoka got up. She hesitated as she walked over to the door. Krshia was looking around the room, sniffing, catching one last smell of Brunkr.
“I’ll try to avenge him. I’ll tell Zel Shivertail.”
“Do. But it will not bring him back.”
That was true. So Ryoka left. There was still howling in the city. And the message would spread to every city on the continent, every city where Gnolls lived. Traitor. Regrika Blackpaw was a traitor.
Gnolls killed other Gnolls. That was normal. They were like Humans in that respect. But they did not kill people like that. They did not kill Gnolls they’d shared a drink with on the same night, after going to their party. They did not kill unless there was a war, or a true quarrel, or in truly dire situations. In short, they did not murder each other. To do that was to abandon the ties that made them all Gnolls.
In that respect, they were unlike Humans.
The third person she talked to was Zel Shivertail. On her insistence, she talked with him in a private room of the Tailless Thief, warded against any eavesdropping. Zel personally assured her that Ilvriss wouldn’t try to listen in, although that had taken a lot of arguing. She’d ended it herself.
“I won’t allow it! I demand to know what’s happening! Good Drakes are dead because of this! Children, families were burned by that traitor, Ikriss! If you won’t tell me I will cut it out of you now, Human! Who sent Regrika Blackpaw? Why did they want you? Why—”
Zel was holding Ilvriss back with all of his strength. Ryoka stared at the Drake as he screamed in the [General]’s grip. All of his attendants and Peslas, the [Innkeeper], were hiding. So Ryoka leaned forwards and whispered in his earhole.
“The Necromancer killed Periss. He sent Regrika and Ikriss to kill me. And he’ll send them to kill you if he knows you know. They’re undead.”
The Drake froze. He stared at Ryoka and went limp. He collapsed onto the ground and Zel walked away with Ryoka. He’d heard. Of course he’d heard. He was shaking.
But he was no idiot. He’d already figured it out.
“Bones and blood. Mana potions. That’s what Erin fed the two of them. And I could have sworn I saw something else when I was fighting Ikriss. An illusion. Halrac said the same thing about Regrika. I wouldn’t have come to the conclusion it was the Necromancer, but I knew they weren’t what they looked like.”
Ryoka nodded. Zel stared at her. His claws were quivering although he pressed them against the table. He was shaking.
“So. You’re sure?”
She nodded again.
“It’s Az’kerash. Those two were his servants. He has a lot more, and a castle hidden in the forest.”
The [General] inspected one claw, clearly trying to keep calm.
“We thought he was dead, you know. I killed him myself in the last Antinium War. Or so I thought.”
“I know. I read about it.”
“And you just happened to know because…?”
“Can’t say. I can tell you some things, but I’m in a similar situation with the person who got Az’kerash to back off.”
“Are you being threatened?”
“No. This is about honor. Respect. I can’t tell you who’s protecting me, but there is someone.”
“It must be someone…truly powerful.”
The Drake studied Ryoka. She nodded, her face blank.
“But I can’t imagine Az’kerash would want anyone to know his secrets. Anyone living. That was why he sent those two after you, wasn’t it? If you really had your…benefactor negotiate a truce where you lived, aren’t you in danger by revealing his secret?”
Ryoka considered this and shrugged. She felt empty. Hollow. If Venitra appeared and tried to kill her right now—Ryoka would run. She wouldn’t give the undead the satisfaction of killing her. But she wouldn’t hide or cower any longer, either.
“Yeah, well, I’ve got a higher power on my side now. And as for keeping his secrets—as far as I’m concerned, he stepped over the line when his servants started playing ‘this little piggy’ with my fingers. They killed Brunkr. If I can help you take him down, I will.”
“But Az’kerash thinks you’ll keep his secret?”
“I guess so. He might be that stupid. I think he tried to get my…protector to cast a spell on me. But it never happened. So here I am. Talking about him. Just like that.”
Zel began to smile slowly. He gripped the table firmly, and his shaking stopped.
“You mean the Necromancer doesn’t know that you’re allowed to talk about him?”
Ryoka studied him. The [General] had left claw marks on the table where he’d gripped it to steady himself. Now he looked like a hunter, someone who was plotting. His feverish energy had turned into something quieter. There was fury in his eyes, but calm, like fire on an ocean, waiting to reach the shore. A hunter slowly setting a trap for an enemy. She nodded.
“He’s not an idiot. And his servants might have powerful illusions, but they’re not subtle. He might suspect that someone’s put everything together.”
“But he still thinks his location is secret. Thanks to the deal you and this…higher power struck with him. A deal which you aren’t honoring and which isn’t being enforced.”
The [General]’s eyes glinted. He looked around the room, thinking.
“I wouldn’t doubt that he’ll send assassins after me and Ilvriss. We both get them as a matter of course anyways, but I can look into an escort. Ilvriss…might be tricky. But of all the things you could have said, the Necromancer might be best. He’s not an idiot.”
“Could have fooled me.”
To her mild surprise, Zel gave Ryoka a reproving look.
“Ilvriss is many things. Hotheaded, arrogant—but not a fool. He cares for his people, if only them. And I think he might be willing to actually join forces with me on this. Me, and anyone else.”
He leaned over the table, intent on Ryoka.
“Who else knows about him? Your protector—”
“Can’t talk about him.”
“Yes. But could we count on him for help?”
Ryoka thought about this.
“No. No. I didn’t at first. It was desperation that made me go to him. Maybe he’d help, maybe not, but I think that if he really was trying to kill the Necromancer, he would have tried it already. Or told a lot of people.”
“Who else, then? Is there anyone who might know about the Necromancer? Anyone I could talk to without spreading the secret and alerting the bastard?”
Ryoka answered immediately. She didn’t know for certain, but she was all but certain. Zel straightened.
“Surprised? Isn’t she one of the most powerful people in the…world?”
“She is. And one of the most powerful on the continent. Which is why Ilvriss won’t be happy about that. You know, she’s considered one of the greatest threats to our people? If the Antinium were gone, the Five Families would be our biggest concern.”
“I think she hates the Antinium as much as you do. And Az’kerash too, probably.”
Ryoka watched Zel thinking. He stroked at his chin, absently picked slivers of wood from the table with his claws.
“Perhaps. It’s all making more sense. I received a letter from her a while back. I didn’t want to talk to her. Now I do.”
“Why didn’t you want to talk to her?”
“I had a friend once. A mentor. He taught me most of what I know about commanding and he was…a good Drake. He was wary of Magnolia Reinhart when she was young. He cautioned me about her.”
“A friend? General Sserys?”
Zel glanced at Ryoka in surprise and then he grimaced.
“That’s the problem with being in the history books. Everyone knows too much. Yeah. Sserys was a brilliant [General]. He was a leader. When he spoke people put their tails in a line and followed orders. He could talk to all the city rulers and Lords and Ladies of the Wall. I can’t.”
“I’m not him.”
“No, I mean, what made Sserys special? Was he just charismatic?”
“Charis…perhaps. He had his own way of leading. And when he gave orders, people listened, even people who hated him. More than that though, I think it was what he represented. His class.”
“His class? What do you mean? Wasn’t he a [General]? Or did he have a special class?”
The [General of the Line] looked surprised. He blinked at Ryoka.
“You didn’t know? The history books didn’t put that part in? Well, maybe they didn’t know. Yes, Sserys had a unique class. [Spear of the Drakes]. It means he was recognized as a leader for our entire species. He could give an order and any army across the continent would be bound to obey.”
Ryoka blinked at him. Zel smiled bitterly.
“He died before he gained a single Skill in the class. He’d leveled up once in it when the Antinium destroyed his army. He used to talk about what his first Skill might be, as if he was a hatchling getting his first class.”
The smile that ran across Zel’s face was fond and painful. Ryoka stared at him and felt a chill on her skin. She’d read both the first and second account of the Antinium Wars, but to meet someone who’d lived through both really put it home to her.
In her world there were politicians, heroic men and women, and yes, some people whose names were known throughout the world for good or bad. However, Ryoka would argue that they had few people who were living legends. But Zel had lived through the equivalent of two continental wars. He was a hero, someone who stood out from the rest because of his levels.
And here he sat across from her, resting his claws on a beat-up table. It really was something.
Of course, she’d met Teriarch too. She stood up. Zel looked at her.
“If there’s anything else you need to know, I’ll tell you what I can. But I can’t help beyond that. I’ve caused too much trouble for everyone already. And I can’t do anything. I’m not a fighter. I’m no hero.”
The Drake looked at her sympathetically and shook his head.
“Don’t blame yourself for everything. You couldn’t have known what was going to unfold. You took a job and the Necromancer made you pay for it. But you couldn’t have known.”
Ryoka looked away. She gripped her arms tightly.
“Maybe you’re right. But it’s still my fault. Do you understand that?”
There were others to tell, and some of the meetings were painful. Others simply sad. Lyonette slapped Ryoka, and then fell into her arms, weeping. Mrsha bit Ryoka gently, crying, and then licked her and hugged her.
The Horns of Hammerad listened to Ryoka’s explanation of her guilt, not understanding, silent. Pisces’ eyes were shadowed. Ceria shook her head. Yvlon looked at Ryoka with something like understanding in her eyes. She understood Ryoka’s pain. Ksmvr just looked at Ryoka, uncomprehending.
The sun rose overhead. It was midday, and warm. The snow was melting outside, although it was still so deep that the water just froze into ice and created a crust on top of snow that was six or seven feet deep in some places, deeper in others. Much deeper.
Ryoka was packing. She took her belt pouch, her bag of holding, her backpack, and nothing else. There was nothing else to take. She walked towards the door to her inn and looked around for Erin.
The [Innkeeper] wasn’t there. But someone else sat at a table, staring around in mild bewilderment. Teriarch in his Human form stood up when Ryoka approached. She stared at him.
“I thought today might be more appropriate to speak. Shall we walk?”
They left the inn, walking atop the melting snow as if it were as solid as rock. Teriarch strode along, a vision of perfection, as Ryoka looked at him.
“Why are you here?”
“To apologize once more. I—perhaps only that. I do not know.”
The Dragon’s lined face was shadowed as he stared around Liscor and the quiet landscape. Ryoka looked at him.
“Just for that?”
“You were right. I owe you a debt. I asked you to send a letter to the Necromancer and did not think of the cost. For that I erred. And I am sorry. I would…ask your forgiveness.”
“Ask the dead for forgiveness, then.”
Ryoka turned away. Teriarch paused.
“If I could.”
There was genuine emotion in his eyes. Rather than look at it, Ryoka turned away. She stood on the snow, jumped up and down, to see if it would break under her enchanted weight. It didn’t.
In the silence, Teriarch looked around.
“It’s so bright. So full of life. I had forgotten what it was like.”
He whispered quietly. Ryoka glanced about and saw only a few birds flying through the sky, the snow, distant shapes on the city walls. She shook her head. After a while, Teriarch spoke again.
“I wished to tell you something else. I do not believe she is dead.”
The Dragon nodded gravely. Ryoka felt her heart quicken. It was just ice that had broken. Ivolethe was more than just an animated bit of ice and frost.
“You mean that was only her physical form? She might come back? She—”
He shook his head and she fell silent.
“Her mental form was destroyed. But I do not believe her soul, her spirit was. Yes, I believe she is alive. Her King is not that cruel. And he does not have many subjects left, or so I understand.”
“Her King? You mean…the King of the Faeries.”
She couldn’t imagine someone like that. A faerie king? But Teriarch nodded.
“Yes. He has many names. I have never met him, nor anyone who has. But for as long as Frost Faeries have come here, there are rumors. He has many names. The Lord of the Glades. The Walker of the Forests. The Eldest. The fae have their King and they obey his laws.”
Ryoka choked on the words. Teriarch nodded again.
“He makes laws and his subjects play with them. That is natural. But to break them—she was punished. But not killed, I think. Just banished from this world.”
“For how long? A year? A month?”
Hope, and disappointment. Ryoka saw the answer before Teriarch spoke it.
“Forever? No, again, perhaps not. But a thousand years, ten thousand…it would not be a short amount of time. The fae do not think of time as we do. And their King would punish Ivolethe for her sins.”
“For so long?”
Ryoka felt tears in her eyes. Teriarch nodded.
“The punishment for those who grow too attached to the world is never to see what it will become. I do not know if it helps or not.”
“It does. A bit. Thank you.”
Ryoka wiped at her eyes. Teriarch nodded.
“As for the rest, I sensed no undead of Az’kerash’s make anywhere about the city. I believe you are safe, and that he will honor his word.”
“So it’s over? Just like that?”
A hint of anger began to stir in Ryoka’s chest. She turned towards Teriarch angrily.
“What did everyone die for, then? What was the purpose of them sacrificing themselves? Were they all just—just accidents? Ivolethe, Brunkr, Ulrien—”
People had died when Venitra unleashed her [Mists of Madness] spell in Celum. The Horns of Hammerad had helped knock out people, but there were still tales of tragedy, people murdering each other in the madness of the spell. Ikriss had destroyed buildings, set fire to them with people inside. Teriarch shook his head.
“I cannot say. They died fighting. Some died by accident. And there will be no resolution, no retribution for the crimes committed here. I would have crushed the undead mockery that intruded in my domain, but if I had, Az’kerash might not have left you or your friends alive.”
“So you’ll let him get away with it? Just like that?”
Ryoka turned to Teriarch, raising her voice. He looked at her, his two mismatched eyes sad and tired.
“What would you have me do? Retaliate? Destroy his castle, destroy one of his servants? Cremate an undead servant of his for every life taken? I do not know if I could, and if I did, it would surely mean war between the two of us.”
“And you don’t know if you can win, is that it?”
This time, the Dragon stared at Ryoka and she felt dwarfed by his presence. His voice was calm, deep, and old.
She looked at him. He looked away.
“He is a gifted necromancer. And he has many spells and artifacts. More than that…he was not always an enemy of the living. You do not know his past. I do. I knew his triumph, his fall, his betrayal and wrath. I witnessed it all over the centuries. Who am I to judge him?”
“A Dragon. You’re a Dragon.”
“Yes. Does that confer any gift of reason to me? I think not. Once, my kind ruled Drakes like slaves and fought bitter wars with every nation on the globe. Were we right to do so then? I wonder. Az’kerash and I are not enemies. Nor are we friends. He does not interfere with me or those under my protection. And I…do the same.”
Ryoka turned away, disgusted. Teriarch looked at her. Then his head rose. He turned. And Ryoka heard something on the edge of hearing. She raised her head.
“No. Not now.”
It was a reverberation, a thump, an impact. A drum. It carried across the plains, reverberating. A single sound, which made the birds in the sky scatter, and the people on the walls of Liscor look up. And then it came again.
It was a drumbeat. And then another. A steady booming rhythm began to sound. Ryoka turned to the walls of Liscor and heard the people there start to blow horns in alarm. And the drumbeats rolled on.
The sound was a physical presence. The drumbeats rolled off the hills, a distant thunder. Both Teriarch and Ryoka turned. It was coming from the south. And as Ryoka’s chest constricted, she knew.
“The Goblin Lord.”
She turned to him, desperate.
“Do something! His army’s coming here!”
“He will pass by the city, I think.”
“It doesn’t matter! You have to do something! The Goblin Lord will destroy everything in his path! He’ll kill people! You have to—”
Again, Teriarch cut her off.
“What would you have me do? Burn them? Destroy their army?”
The Dragon shook his head as Ryoka stared at him. She punched at his chest and he caught her hand effortlessly. He let go of her gently. He looked wretched. And old.
“If I did, then what? One threat would be eliminated, yes. But what about next time? Goblins exist, Ryoka Griffin. So long as they live, there will be Goblin Lords, Goblin Kings. And monsters exist. Would you have me destroy all of them? Every creature that might threaten Human lives? What about Drakes? What if your species went to war, as you do?”
Ryoka opened her mouth. Teriarch went on.
“What then? Should I judge which side is right and destroy the other? Or seal them from attacking each other with a spell? I am no tyrant. But it seems that to save anyone, I must become one. No. If I move for one case, I should do the same for all. And I will not.”
“But they’re right here. In front of you! If you see something evil happening in front of you, what’s your excuse for not doing anything?”
Ryoka stared at Teriarch. He could stop it all. The Dragon looked back at her and shook his head again.
“Stop what evil? I see no evil.”
“Are a people like your kind and mine. They are as innocent as any race. Perhaps more so than others. That they are considered monsters is no fault of theirs. How else would a species hated by all others survive, if not to become the thing they are hated for? No.”
“They killed. I saw them. They killed Mrsha’s tribe. They killed children.”
Ryoka sank to her knees in the snow. She was crying again. Teriarch bent over her. His hands were warm.
“Yes. And I am sorry.”
For a long time they stood there, an old Dragon and a young woman. One with all the power to change things and the other with nothing at all. Then Ryoka stood.
He was surprised.
“Anywhere. Not here. Not with the Goblin Lord—”
“What about your friends? Those you want to protect?”
Ryoka shook her head. She felt so, so very empty.
“They don’t want me. Not right now. And I don’t deserve them. It feels like every time I get involved with them, they die. So…I’m leaving. I can’t do anything anyways. I’m too weak.”
She turned and began walking back towards the inn as the Goblin Lord’s drums beat on. Teriarch walked with her.
“Just like that? Where will you go? What will you do?”
“What I’m good at. Run. And I’ll do it somewhere far from here, where the only person I can get killed is myself. Somewhere where the wind blows strong. Far away.”
She felt the Dragon hesitate. He walked next to her, staring down at Ryoka. She stopped at the inn and looked inside. Erin was serving the Horns of Hammerad. Ryoka put her hand on the glass and turned away. Teriarch watched her walk over to the door and put her hand on it.
“You are going now?”
“Yeah. I’m going to go to Celum and…somewhere else. I know you don’t want to be seen. So—goodbye.”
She turned to him and held out a hand. Teriarch touched it gingerly. He took her hand and shook it.
“I am sorry.”
“Sorry doesn’t fix things.”
The Dragon’s gaze was distant. He looked into the inn and shook his head.
“It does not. But what else should I be?”
She had no response. Slowly, Teriarch stepped away. He bowed to her, his eyes deep, looking tired.
“I will not say we will not meet again, Ryoka Griffin. I only hope that it will be a better day when we do.”
He vanished. Ryoka bowed her head. A shadow suddenly covered the inn. She looked up, but saw nothing. Nothing but the sky, and a sudden breeze. The shadow travelled north, moving slowly, and then at incredible speed. Ryoka shook her head.
“Lazy invisibility spell.”
Then she went inside and said goodbye.
In Az’kerash’s castle, ashes still filled the corridors. Black soot and melted rock heralded the Dragon’s fury. And in his private sanctum, the Necromancer expressed his displeasure in his own way.
“Venitra. You have failed me. Your decisions have led to this moment, and your mistakes have cost me dearly. You have lost my favor. You are no longer first among my servants.”
His words were calm, quiet, and struck the burnt and badly damaged woman kneeling before him. Venitra would have wept if she could. She bowed her head, despairing beyond words. Az’kerash turned away from her and to Ijvani. The black skeleton shuddered, trembling before her master’s wrath.
“Ijvani. You likewise have failed me. There is nothing more to say.”
She bowed her head, the blue flames in her eyes dimming until they were nearly extinguished. Az’kerash turned to the three other servants gathered here.
“Kerash, I give you my authority. Do not betray it.”
The undead Gnoll stood tall. Az’kerash nodded. His eyes swept across his five servants and he shook his head.
“Perhaps it is time to add to your number. A new servant…perhaps. I will consider it. For now, there is much to do. Teriarch’s fury cost me a great deal of resources, not least of which is the scrolls of [Greater Teleport] that were incinerated in his fury. But that is the least of my concerns.”
He turned back to a map of the continent and his servants raised their heads, save for Ijvani and Venitra. Perril Chandler’s voice was musing, thoughtful.
“Ryoka Griffin is no longer a concern, or at least, one I cannot resolve. But Zel Shivertail and the Lord of the Wall…they may be a problem. So too might the Slayer and the Small Queen. I will take steps to remedy them. Perhaps my apprentice can deal with them. That is a concern. Information about my existence may spread. If so, I will take steps. If my discovery is unavoidable…”
He fell silent. His fingers drummed rapidly on the map. And then slowed. To everyone’s surprise, a smile slowly spread across Az’kerash’s face.
“But there is one unexpected boon. One, among all the loss.”
“What is that, master?”
Bea flinched when he turned to her. But the Necromancer just smiled.
“Why, my enemy of course. Teriarch, one of the greatest obstacles to my conquest has revealed his weakness. Another one, should I say. And it is Ryoka Griffin.”
“The Runner? But—”
The undead glanced at each other, remembering the Dragon’s wrathful fire and trembling at the memory. Az’kerash flicked his fingers dismissively.
“I will observe her. I will not interfere directly of course, but I will…hope that she survives.”
“Because she is Teriarch’s weakness, of course. And unlike Magnolia Reinhart, she is far less well protected. And he cares for her. Perhaps only enough to intercede. But in time, perhaps more? It matters, Bea, because Dragons have hides stronger than diamond, and hearts softer than snow.”
She looked up at him, uncomprehending. He bent, caressed her rotten face and kissed her gently. She shuddered, and the other servants looked at her with envy.
“It does not matter. Go, my servants. The time of my return is not yet. I have more to prepare. And it is a different sort of plague that falls upon the Humans and Drakes now.”
He turned his gaze back towards the map and smiled.
“Yes, a different sort. Goblins.”
The sky was bright. The sun was out. The sky was blue. Frost Faeries flew overhead, streaming north. They left, and the skies warmed. Winter had ended. So the Winter Sprites, the fae, flew one last time, laughing and calling out high overhead.
But none of the faeries looked back. None looked down at the young woman who stared up at their number. Ryoka Griffin stood in the snow and then turned. She began walking, and fumbled at her side. She pulled out an iPhone, only slightly dented from a recent fall, and two ear buds. Slowly, she put them in her ears.
There was a moment of silence as Ryoka flicked through her list of songs. In the end, she decided on It’s Time by Imagine Dragons. She began jogging as the drums began to play.
Northwards. The gates of Celum were empty, and the sun was shining down on a muddy road. The entire world was ahead. Ryoka ran, slowly at first, and then picking up speed.
Someone raced out of the gates after her. Erin Solstice ran after her friend and stopped. She cupped her hands and shouted.
“Ryoka! Come back!”
But it was too late. Ryoka’s head turned once, and Erin saw her smile for a second. Then her head turned ahead, and she picked up her pace. Erin shouted.
A single hand rose. Ryoka lifted it, and let it fall after a moment. She ran on, northwards, away. Erin stood in the melting snow, in the frozen dirt, and watched her friend run on and on. Until she was a distant speck on the horizon. And then…
And then she was gone. Ryoka Griffin disappeared, and Erin stood in the gates of Celum. Ryoka was gone.
And as she walked back towards Octavia’s shop and saw Lyonette and Mrsha hurrying through with their possessions, Erin stepped through the door to her inn. She heard shouting, saw Ishkr boarding up the windows from the outside, heard horn calls from Liscor’s walls, and the drums.
The undead were gone. Few knew they’d even been here, but they were gone. Ryoka was gone. Winter had ended, and the faeries had left. Brunkr was gone. Ulrien was gone. Griffon Hunt had left.
And Ryoka was gone. She might never come back. Erin sat in her inn and heard the drum beats. There was only one thing left now, wasn’t there? They had come at last. They were here, and they weren’t a pest any longer. They were here. Here.