Outside of Invrisil, a battle was being fought between an army of Goblins and an army of Humans. The cold, muddy ground was warmed with blood and fresh bodies. Both sides struggled against each other, shouting, and the clash of arms filling the air. The battle had been long. The battle had been short.
To Osthia Blackwing, held captive in the heart of the Goblin army, it felt as though the battle had gone on for a week, and yet, at the same time, it had felt like it had rushed by in the course of minutes. She estimated that the true length was just over two hours. She had been forced to watch it all, as Goblins crashed into the ranks of Humans with their undead allies.
Crashed and broke. Despite their superior numbers, the thousands of elite Hobs and the presence of the undead, the Goblins had failed to overwhelm the Human army time and time again. And indeed, they had been forced back, humbled by one figure who had made the battlefield swirl around him.
Now Osthia watched him streak back across the battlefield, carried by a pink magical carriage that scythed across the Goblin front-line, running down any Goblin careless enough to get in its way. She was not the only one with her attention on the Drake [General]. The Goblin Lord sat astride his massive Shield Spider mount, staring at Zel Shivertail with narrowed eyes. He spoke, his voice filled with hatred and frustration.
“Why is he so strong?”
Silence greeted his question. The Goblin Lord’s lieutenants stood around him. Eater of Spears, Snapjaw, the Goblin [Beastmaster]…none could say it aloud. Their numbers had been cut down by Zel already. Now the Goblin Lord’s eyes turned to Osthia. She glared at him, her mouth gagged.
“What is he doing?”
Coming for you. She glared, her jaw working against the tight leather strips holding her mouth shut. The Goblin Lord nodded. He stared at Zel, and then turned to his lieutenants.
“Prepare. He is coming.”
The Goblins shuddered. He was coming. The hero of the Antinium Wars, the famous [General of the Line], the Tidebreaker. Those titles had been just words before. Now they were all too real. The Goblin Lord’s army was superior to the Human one, but the Goblin Lord had yet to meet Zel Shivertail on the field of battle. Now that was going to change.
Osthia could feel it. Zel Shivertail was not the kind of [General] who would risk a prolonged battle against the Goblin Lord, whose army was matched against his. He was coming.
She hoped he knew he was walking into a trap.
Faces. That was what you saw in a battlefield. Faces. Even if you didn’t want to—at close range, that was all you could see. You saw the enemy as you gutted them with your claws or with a sword. Their faces, sometimes covered beneath helmets, sometimes full of hate or despair. It was easy to see only the enemy in them, but it was strange how there was a person behind each [Soldier]’s face. The Goblins looked like people sometimes.
Zel Shivertail gripped the side of Magnolia Reinhart’s carriage, feeling the wind blasting off his scales. He saw the battlefield flash by him. Hundreds, thousands of faces turned his way. Human [Soldiers], cheering as they saw the Drake [General] flash by, Goblins, drawing back in fear and hatred. Zel glanced ahead and saw Reynold driving the coach with minute flicks of the reins. The [Butler]’s face was pallid and his hands shook a bit, but he was still upright, still driving with impeccable accuracy.
Zel waited until he saw his target in the crowd. Another man who stood out in the sea of armored bodies. The [Chevalier] Thomast fought in a doublet of red and gold cloth, much of which had been stained a deeper crimson still by blood. Not his. The clothing was probably enchanted, but Thomast had yet to take a blow. The [Duelist] and [Chevalier] fought with rapid thrusts and lunges that took down his opponents before they could strike. He turned as Zel leapt, scattering enemies and allies with his landing.
“Get ready to execute the plan! Turn and pick me up!”
Zel roared at Reynold and saw the coach speed off and turn—into the Goblin lines. Again the green-skinned monsters scattered, screaming and crying out in pain and horror as the carriage crushed them mercilessly.
Monsters. People. Zel turned his head and looked at Thomast. The [Duelist] was breathing heavily, but like Zel, he was ready to fight. They were the highest-level warriors on the field, or so Zel sensed. Funny, he didn’t know if he’d ever said more than a few words to the man.
“I’m turning over control of the left flank to you! Hold your ground or we’ll be overrun!”
“Leave it to me.”
Thomast nodded as Zel pointed, shouting over the roar of Humans and Goblins clashing. There were a thousand things that he could have said. The [Duelist] could have pointed out his lack of experience or Skills in battlefield command, the dangers of turning over strategy to someone else, or simply asked what Zel was doing. He did none of those things and instead turned his attention back to the battle. Zel was grateful. He ran forwards, cut down a charging Hob with a slash of his claws, leapt—and caught hold of the carriage as it streaked by the other way.
Three Goblins had grabbed on as well and had been crawling towards Reynold with daggers in hand. They took one look at Zel and let go. Zel saw their bodies disappear into the mass of Goblins as the coach turned. He gritted his teeth as he pulled himself closer to the front. All the pieces were in a row.
“Let’s do this. You ready?”
Reynold nodded. The [Butler] flicked the reins and the two spoke at once. Reynold uttered a command as the carriage sped towards the edge of the battle.
Zel felt the coach lift up, and felt his stomach drop. He ignored the sensation and raised one claw.
“[Rapid Maneuvering]! [Hold the Line]! [Vanguard of Steel]!”
He felt the Skills take hold on the Human army below him immediately. Zel looked down as Humans changed formations, obeying orders he had given. Below him, the battlefield began to shift.
“What’s he doing?”
From her vantage point apart from the battle, Magnolia Reinhart saw the established lines of battle break and Human [Soldiers] adopt a strange formation. They pushed past the undead and Goblins, encircling them from the right with cavalry and infantry alike crashing into the Goblin formations. A thin wave of Human [Soldiers] trapped the Goblins from the right, but so few that they were a single line compared to the green mass that began pushing back against them.
“That cannot be sound strategy. Sacra? What is General Shivertail thinking?”
“He used a Skill. [Vanguard of Steel]—can’t you feel it?”
Sacra turned her head, breathing heavily. Magnolia frowned and pinched herself.
“No, I can’t.”
“I can. General Shivertail’s Skill is—look!”
Sacra pointed. Magnolia saw the thin wave of Humans that should have been immediately overwhelmed by the Goblin numbers holding their ground, roaring as they traded blows with the Goblins. She saw a young woman in armor take a sword strike to her unguarded neck. But rather than drop, the sword bounced off her skin.
Steel bodies. Magnolia’s eyes widened.
“I say, how long will the effects last?”
“Not too long. But they don’t need to.”
Indeed, the Goblins were in disarray as their opponents suddenly became immortal foes, almost impervious to harm. They drew back, and Magnolia saw another strange event take place. Pink, armored [Knights] began striding across the battle lines, hacking their way through Goblins, spacing themselves out across the center and left flank where the undead were pushing at the Human [Soldiers].
“He’s broken up my Knights of the Petal again. What is he doing? The Goblin Lord will begin attacking them again.”
Bethal stared as her Rose Knights began pushing the Goblin lines back. Magnolia glanced up, towards a flying carriage moving across the battlefield.
“I believe the Goblin Lord is about to have his hands full, Bethal.”
Every head looked up. They saw the pink carriage flying over the Goblin Lord’s army. A black bolt rose to meet it. Magnolia’s hands clenched as she saw Reynold frantically swerve to avoid it. But then they saw the carriage dip, and dive. A second lance of death magic shot forwards—a clawed hand blocked it. Zel Shivertail clung to the side of the carriage. He was right over the Goblin Lord’s head now. Magnolia saw his arm tense—then he let go and dropped.
A hundred feet. Fifty feet. Twenty. The ground—
Zel landed with an impact that knocked the wind out of him. The thud was more like an explosion. He could feel dirt fountaining up around him, feel the crushing pain of impact. For a second the Drake lay there, stunned. Then he moved.
Up Zel rose. A claw shot out and slashed a Hob who’d tried to swing at him, thinking Zel would be too slow to react. Zel felt his claws shear through the Hob’s armor and flesh like parchment. He withdrew his hand and the Hob fell.
Goblins. Zel stood and looked around. There were thousands of them, all staring at him. Many had open-mouths. Some were still staring at Reynold as the [Butler] carried his carriage out of danger. They were stunned, unable to believe Zel had survived the fall.
Strength. Zel’s body hurt a tiny bit from the fall. But he had fallen further and survived. He’d fallen off a cliff once. And the danger of dropping into the middle of an army of Goblins? Zel had fought against Drakes, Humans, Antinium—all without more than basic steel armor and his claws. What was this compared to fighting a Drake Lord of the Wall?
And yet, they stared as if he were the monster. Zel wanted to laugh at them. They were afraid of him for surviving a fall from the sky? This was normal. This was what high-level battles were like. The first breath of air in Zel’s lungs was sweet. He inhaled, and then roared.
His voice caused a hush across the battlefield. Zel turned, staring around for the Goblin Lord’s figure, or that of his spider. He saw neither. The Goblins were moving to surround him. Where was the Goblin Lord? Zel twisted around again as he heard a voice.
Someone was shouting his name. And the voice—Zel saw a bound shape. A Drake with bright yellow scales was fighting on the ground, her arms and legs bound.
A Drake? Zel stared, shocked. She was an Oldblood Drake. A captive? She’d managed to loosen a leather muzzle on her mouth. Now she screamed at him.
“It’s a trap! Get away, sir! The Goblin Lord—”
She turned and sprayed acid from her mouth at a Hob. He screamed in agony and another clubbed her down from behind with a mace. Zel looked around. All he saw were Hobs. And they had enchanted weapons, wands, bows—
The first arrow Zel blocked on an arm. The other eight glanced off his scales. The bolt of lightning made his side tingle and ache, but his armor caught most of the magic. The Drake turned and caught a sledgehammer blow to the side. He grabbed the Hob who’d hit him and pressed his claws into the Hob’s eyes. Digging deep. She screamed and died.
Turn. A sword slashed across Zel’s face. He felt the tip cutting through his outer scales, drawing a line of blood. An enchanted blade. Zel twisted before it could keep cutting and lashed out. Another killing blow. The Goblins stared as two Hobs fell. Zel wiped the blood from his scales and looked around.
Goblins all around. They closed in, their faces afraid, staring. Zel laughed and spread his arms wide.
“For Izril! Sserys and the Drakes!”
They were afraid to come to him, so he went to them. Zel charged alone, into the ranks of the Goblins. He cut them down, trying to find a single figure in the midst of the army.
Where was the Goblin Lord?
Sacra breathed the word, her eyes wide. Magnolia saw the blaze of golden-red armor, the sole Drake in the center of the Goblin’s army. Zel Shivertail was a whirlwind, cutting Hobs down as they rushed him from every angle.
It was a sight to motivate the Human army, which was pushing back the Goblins, riding on the momentum of their [Vanguard of Steel] effect. And yet, Magnolia felt nothing but anxiety as she stared into the heart of the battle.
“Where is the Goblin Lord? General Shivertail is alone.”
No one answered. Bethal, Sacra, and the other servants were transfixed, staring at Zel. Magnolia looked around and then kicked Bethal in the rear. The other woman stumbled.
“Stop gaping and look, Bethal! If the Goblin Lord escapes then General Shivertail will be well and truly cut off. I don’t think Reynold can get back to him!”
It was true. The pink carriage was under attack as Goblins loosed arrows and spells at it. Magnolia knew that the carriage wasn’t that invulnerable—the enchantments might well be breaking. Reynold was already trying to steer it away from the battlefield. She kicked Sacra and gave the same order.
“Find the Goblin Lord! We are the only ones who can look!”
The other servants and Bethal turned their gaze to the battlefield. Magnolia stared through the sea of Goblins, trying to connect the Goblin Lord’s visage to the milling crowd of Goblins. It was damnably hard—and not least because the Goblins did look alike at this distance! And yet, he had to be out there. If only she could find out where before he escaped completely. Zel Shivertail had been nearly on top of him and the Goblin Lord couldn’t have moved that far—
A swirl in the army caught her attention. Magnolia saw the Goblins moving slightly, eddying around something. The [Lady]’s eyes narrowed. She was no battlefield expert, but she’d seen more than one ballroom where one person was at the center of attention. She was the attention most of the time.
Bethal had seen the same thing. She pointed a finger and Magnolia saw the Goblin Lord. He was dismounted, leading his Shield Spider away through a screen of Hobs. He hadn’t gone more than fifty feet in the chaos and he was moving slowly, confident that Zel couldn’t spot him through the waves of Goblins surrounding him.
What arrogance. For a second Magnolia could almost admire his casual retreat. Then she smiled and a glint appeared in her eyes.
“A shame you and I will never meet in the realm of politics. You might have done better there than on the battlefield.”
Sacra glanced at Magnolia, only having heard the last of what her mistress had said. She stared at the Goblin Lord, her hands clenched on her mace.
“There he is. But how can we get General Shivertail’s attention?”
“Oh, that’s quite simple.”
Magnolia’s fingers raised and she carefully flicked her hand at Zel Shivertail as he cut down another Hob with his claws. She pitched her voice so and tilted her hand as if she was cupping his chin in her hand. She turned her hand and whispered.
“Look over there.”
Across the battlefield Zel Shivertail’s head turned. Magnolia saw his body jerk and his eyes widened. He stared for a second and then charged into a Hob who was running at him. The Drake lifted one hand as he used the Hob as a shield. One hand, raised in thanks. Then he was charging. And she heard his voice.
“Turn and face me, coward!”
And the Goblin Lord turned. There was only a hundred feet separating the two as Zel Shivertail and the Goblin Lord locked eyes. The Goblin motioned and a wall of Goblins surged forwards. Zel Shivertail roared and charged.
Magnolia’s voice was distant but the two War Golems heard. They raised their heads and abandoned their posts, charging into the Goblin army and heading for the Goblin Lord. She heard Bethal shouting at her Rose Knights and saw them slicing into the army. Suddenly, the Goblins were trying to hold back pink [Knights] and a pair of armored giants and Zel Shivertail himself. All headed straight for the Goblin Lord.
To his credit, he held his ground. The Goblin Lord refused to run. He mounted his Shield Spider and began firing black bolts of magic at Zel Shivertail. The Drake absorbed the magic, letting it splash over his enchanted armor, dodging others. Charging.
Unstoppable! The Goblins tried to block him with spears, grabbing at the General, throwing their bodies in front of him. But nothing worked. Zel came on, roaring, and Magnolia saw a pair of Goblins moving forwards to stop him.
He was coming. Snapjaw’s mouth was dry with fear as she heard Zel Shivertail roaring. He was cutting a path through her people like they were made of grass! And he was heading to the Goblin Lord, her hope, the hope of her people.
He had to be stopped. She ran forwards with Eater of Spears. The two Hobs were ready to die to stop the Drake. Snapjaw raised her enchanted sword.
She screamed at Eater of Spears. He roared and charged towards the Drake’s left. Snapjaw ran right. She could stab him from behind. She’d poisoned this blade. All she needed was one good strike and—
Snapjaw’s legs carried her past Zel Shivertail as he spun to face both her and Eater of Spars. Snapjaw blinked, tried to turn, and failed. She ran past the Drake [General], unable to turn. It was as if someone was holding her in place! And then she heard a voice.
A Human woman’s voice. It whispered in her ears.
“This way, my dear.”
Snapjaw fought against the voice, tried to slow her legs. But the voice was powerful and it held her. For three seconds. That was all. But in the time it was too late. Snapjaw turned, weeping, and saw the end.
There he was. The Goblin Lord was sitting across his giant Shield Spider, only a few paces in front of Zel. The Drake [General] clenched his fists.
A huge Hob blocked his way. Zel looked up as Eater of Spears blocked his path. The Hob was a giant. His face was set, his eyes locked on Zel’s face. The two paused for a second as Goblins drew back, seeing one of their heroes facing the Drake [General].
“You can’t stop me.”
Eater of Spears paused. He stared at Zel, his face solid, grim, unflinching. He spoke, a bass rumble.
He charged forwards, fist swinging fast. Zel leapt forwards as well and the two met in a clash of fist and claw. The Drake [General] slipped around the Hobgoblin’s fist and slashed left-right across Eater of Spears’ chest. He tore the Hob’s front open but the Goblin refused to fall. Bleeding, his body staining crimson, he lashed out and hit Zel in the chest with a mighty punch.
The Drake grunted and spun with the impact. He slashed again—this time Eater of Spears made a sound like a groan and Zel’s claws bounced off bone. His ribs. Flesh sundered, the Hob was too slow. Zel sprinted past him and Eater of Spears fell backwards, grasping weakly for the last healing potion at his belt. Only, Zel had crushed it sometime during the exchange of blows.
There was one last wall of Hobs between him and the Goblin Lord. Zel counted. Six—four—three—two—
The last two Hobs fell back, fighting furiously, until they heard a voice. They moved backwards, and Zel saw the Goblin Lord staring down at him. The Goblin was tall as a normal Human man, and proportioned in much the same way. He was no giant, no inhumanly large monster. But then, Velan hadn’t been either.
This Goblin was no Goblin King. But he still faced Zel, unafraid. His hands grasped a black blade of magic. He pointed it at Zel and the [General] opened his crimson claws. They stared at each other for a second.
And then Zel charged. He roared as he came, and in the distance the Human army screamed and shouted. The Goblin Lord charged, and the Goblins around him howled defiance.
The Shield Spider lashed out at Zel, trying to trap him with its legs, biting. The Goblin Lord swung—Zel ducked under both black and legs and found the Shield Spider’s belly. He cut into its center and tore pieces of carapace from its body.
The Shield Spider screamed. It bled as Zel dodged back, a pale blue ichor. The Goblin Lord raised his finger and shot a blast of death magic at Zel. The [Deathbolt] pierced Zel at point-blank range. He stumbled. But did not fall.
“Not enough. [Titan’s Cut]!”
Zel raised his claws and slashed. The arc of his claws traced through the air, and the air itself bent as he cut. An imprint of four claw marks opened up across the Shield Spider’s entire body and it screamed. The massive strike severed one of its legs, crushed another at the base and opened up its bulbous abdomen. The giant spider collapsed in a bloody pool and the Goblin Lord tumbled from its back. Zel walked forwards, claws ready.
The Goblin Lord had fallen behind his spider’s abdomen, out of view. Zel walked around the side, trying to get a good look. He saw a foot—then the Goblin Lord. The Goblin rose, pointing at Zel’s chest—
Zel’s claws went through a barrier of magic and into the Goblin Lord’s side. He tore—the Goblin Lord screamed as Zel ripped his stomach open.
Blood, red and wet, splashed to the ground. The Goblin Lord stared down at his open stomach and then up at Zel.
That was all he said. It was such a normal word. Zel nodded. He stepped forwards, his claws open.
Goblins screamed as they saw their leader fall. They swarmed Zel. He turned and cut them down. Regular soldiers, fighting a [General]. He was five steps away from the Goblin Lord.
Gershal of Vaunt screamed the words as he carried Salvia away from her downed mount. His voice joined thousands of others. The Humans roared, cheering.
Magnolia clenched her hands as she saw Zel cutting down Goblins left and right. They were all over him, leaping on the General’s back, trying to hold him back—trying to save their Lord. But Zel stepped forwards. He was close. So close. She saw his claws raise—
And then a pillar of white blocked her view. Magnolia blinked. She saw something—a yellowish-white thing—erupt from the ground. A pillar? No, more like a spike of ivory. A wall of bone. Magnolia stared.
And then she saw another. A spire of bone shot out of the ground, implaling a Hob and two smaller Goblins. More bone pillars began rising out of the ground in a circle around Zel and the Goblin Lord. They grew like obscene flowers, stained red with the Goblins they impaled, raising higher, higher—
“Magnolia. What’s happening?”
Bethal stared at the bone walls as they knitted together, forming a dome in the middle of the battlefield. A circular wall of ivory engulfed Zel and the Goblin Lord, blocking them from view from every direction. Magnolia stared. Bethal looked from her to Sacra, her face pale.
“Is it a spell or—”
“I don’t know.”
Magnolia whispered. Her heart was suddenly beating very fast. She stared at the dome of bone. It couldn’t be the work of the Goblin Lord. If he could cast that spell he would have done so before Zel reached him. But if not him, then there could be only one other person who cast the spell.
And now Magnolia truly felt afraid. She stared at the ivory wall as Goblins began to bang on the impenetrable bone with their weapons. She turned to Sacra.
“Get me all the [Mages] you can find! Open that dome now!”
Zel twisted as he saw the bone spires rising from the ground. He saw the Goblin Lord’s eyes widen, and felt that sense of unease at the back of his mind spike into bells of alarm. He turned, ignoring the Goblin Lord, and saw the walls of bone close, obscuring the sky overhead. Suddenly, everything was dark.
Only his enchanted breastplate shed any kind of light in the enclosed space. Zel eyed the smooth ivory walls, wondering if he could break them. Then he felt…something.
Magic. It was a palpable presence at times, when great spells were cast. Zel could feel it being concentrated here, a tingling on his scales. He looked around and saw the air shimmer.
It wasn’t a tear in space, or a portal. It was more like a bridge or an—opening—that someone stepped through. The air twisted, and a shape stepped out of the shadows. Zel saw a bone-white woman, no a woman made of bone, a giant wearing bone armor and holding a sword and shield step out. She stared at him with green eyes that blazed with undead light.
And she spoke. One word.
The air moved. Zel turned and saw more shadows flickering, becoming people. Four more figures stepped into place. A skeleton of black bone, dressed in a [Mage]’s robes. The flames in her eyes glowed gold as she twirled the staff in her hand.
A woman, a rotting corpse walked out to Zel’s left. By her side, a strange figure dressed in a trench coat, a humanoid creature with no face, features concealed by a hat. The rotting undead spoke for both of them.
“Bea. And Oom.”
And the last, a Gnoll dressed in armor. His eyes glowed blue. His body was dead, but for the light in his eyes he might have been alive. He was powerful, taller than Zel, and he had a sword that glowed with magic in one hand. He spoke last, his voice deep, booming in the enclosed space.
The five undead stood in the dome. Zel’s heart was pounding in his chest. He stared from face to face. They had entered this place with a spell. Not [Invisibility]. He would have sensed it. No, the spell, the way they seemed to appear—[Teleport]? [Greater Teleport]? They had to have used an artifact.
There was no time to ask what was happening. No reason to either, really. Zel looked from face to face, and focused on Kerash. The undead Gnoll raised his sword and pointed at Zel’s chest.
“Surround the Drake.”
The five undead moved around the dome, trying to flank him. Zel backed up until his back was at one of the bone walls. Bea and Oom took his left side, while Venitra and Ijvani his right. Kerash stood in front of him. The five undead readied themselves, waiting. Zel eyed them as he shifted, his stance low, his claws open.
Five. Each undead was clearly unique. They all radiated danger, but—he appraised them quickly.
Venitra, the undead bone woman was clearly some kind of [Knight]. She looked like a kind of golem. Dangerous, but not unbeatable. The skeleton by her side—the way she held her staff reminded Zel of something. Had he met her before? She was a spellcaster, but that too was manageable.
The real threat was coming from Zel’s left. He had no idea what the rotten ‘Bea’ could do, but all his instincts screamed at him not to let her touch him. As for Oom—Zel risked a glance and saw a featureless, smooth face. Oom’s body was black, almost translucent, and the way he stood—the trench coat and hat were concealing something. He had no face. Was he even humanoid?
Kerash was the last. Zel thought he was a Draugr of some kind. They were powerful, hard to kill and strong, but it was only the enchanted sword that could hurt him. Get rid of that and—
Too many. Zel knew he was tired, but even if he had been rested, five high-level enemies at once would be—his eyes narrowed. He glanced towards the Goblin Lord, but the Goblin was trying to hold his guts in. Good. Even a healing potion wouldn’t heal that quickly. He had been shocked to see the bone walls go up. So he hadn’t planned this.
“So you’ve sent your minions to do what you’re too afraid to do in person, Az’kerash?”
The undead shifted when Zel spoke their master’s name. As if they were surprised. But who else could it be? Zel looked from face to face. Yes, who else?
“It seems you’ve planned this well. Did you plan on stabbing me in the back or were you always hoping that I might walk into a trap like this? Come out and face me yourself, coward. I know you’re watching.”
His words made the fires in the eyes of the undead glow brighter. Zel watched the bone woman—Venitra’s—eyes blaze bright green. So they could feel emotion. That was important to know.
A cold, precise voice filled the air in the dome, echoing. Zel had only heard Az’kerash speak a few times, but he could never forget that voice.
“I had intended to slay you at Liscor, but circumstances forced me to abandon that plan. Nevertheless, a strategy may be utilized again. My apprentice was the crux of this trap, though he did not know it. I am afraid I have little time to risk myself in battle, General Shivertail. It is my children you fight today. And it is they who will claim your life.”
That voice. Zel snarled, twisting around. But the Necromancer wasn’t here. He was speaking through his minions.
“Too afraid I’ll kill you a second time?”
Again the undead servants rustled. Az’kerash had called them his children? What had he done in the years since the Second Antinium War?
“Hardly. My battle was never with one individual. I wage war with Drakes, with species as a whole. The living are my enemy, Shivertail. You do not merit my presence. My creations are enough for you. Each one is a masterpiece, unique among their kind. Look upon them and despair, for they are your betters.”
“So you say. But you sent five.”
Again, Zel studied the undead. They had names; they had some kind of personality—were they Revenants? Spirits bound to flesh? Yes, they had to be. But two of them bothered Zel. Ijvani—he could have sworn he’d seen that staff before. Zel’s eyes widened as he recognized it.
The flames in the skeleton’s eyes flashed at Zel’s voice, and Venitra shifted. The Necromancer’s voice was amused.
“Yes. You encountered Venitra and Ijvani before. A shame neither one managed to accomplish their tasks. Tell me, how did you realize I was still alive? It seems you were…informed of my survival before now.”
His voice was…probing. Zel lied as he tried to think. The bone walls were meant to hold him. Cutting his way out while the undead attack from behind was suicide.
“It wasn’t hard to figure out. Your illusion spells aren’t as potent as you thought. And you have enemies.”
“Only naturally. But was it Magnolia Reinhart who told you I was alive, or someone else? I had suspected she was aware of my deception. Did she warn you about me, or had you known before that?”
There was a pressure in the air that made Zel want to talk about Ryoka. Truth spells. He bit his tongue and focused on the other undead. Ijvani was one thing. But Kerash? The undead Gnoll was clearly the leader, but there was something else about him.
Draugr weren’t too dangerous to Zel. They were strong, but there was a limit to their strength. They couldn’t exceed the capability of their bodies in life. So unless this Gnoll had been particularly powerful, he wasn’t as dangerous as, say, Venitra. But that name—
“Are you really Kerash, the Gnoll Warrior-Chieftain who died over a hundred years ago?”
Zel addressed Kerash. The Gnoll shifted his grip on his sword, his eyes never leaving Zel’s face.
“I am my master’s loyal servant. That is all you need to know before you die, Drake.”
“Well spoken, first of my Chosen.”
Az’kerash’s voice was approving. Zel’s eyes narrowed. So. Kerash. That might be…his eyes flicked again to the five undead. What were they? Assassins? Vanguards? But why have them at all?
“Children, you said? You created these horrors, Necromancer? That’s strangely sentimental for someone who uses the undead as disposable tools.”
“Hardly. These are my champions, my chosen few. They are created to be superior to all other undead, to lead and instill despair among my foes. You gave me the idea for them, in fact. After my defeat and ‘death’ in the last war I reflected on my weaknesses. These five, my Chosen, are my answer to that flaw.”
An answer to a flaw? But the Necromancer’s greatest weakness was—Zel’s eyes widened. He murmured out loud as the pieces fell into place.
“So that’s why you made them. I see. They truly are your masterpieces. Your…hope. And if I crush them, your plans are set back, aren’t they?”
There was a pause. Az’kerash’s voice did not reply. Zel smiled as the undead shifted. When the Necromancer did speak, there was a twinge, the slightest sense of uncertainty in his voice.
“Enough of this! Kerash, finish Zel Shivertail off.”
“Yes, master. Everyone, on my mark. Attack as one.”
Kerash’s voice rumbled as he gripped his sword with both hands. Venitra raised her shield and both Oom and Bea took a step forwards. Oom’s hands were in the pockets of his coat; Bea’s rotting palms were turned towards Zel. Ijvani raised her staff.
Silence. The five undead and one Drake waited. For one eternal, immortal moment, there was nothing but the pumping of Zel’s heart, the burning eyes of the undead. Then he saw Kerash’s mouth open. Zel moved before the undead could speak. He sprinted right, into Venitra and Ijvani and slashed.
Ijvani cried out as Zel raked a claw across her arms and ribs, slicing across her black bones. Zel grunted as he hit her bones—they were metal, or coated with it! He recalled the same sensation as when he’d fought her the first time. But his slash had cut deep across her ribs and sent her stumbling back. Zel turned and saw Venitra rushing at him, ready to stab.
Another Skill. Zel stepped forwards and smashed his head into Venitra’s. He heard a crack, and saw her stumble back. Zel whirled, and sidestepped as Kerash charged him with his sword. Zel kicked and the Gnoll stumbled. He would have leapt on Kerash and torn the sword from his hands, but Oom and Bea were on his left, and Zel moved away rather than let either get close to him. They were just approaching. Were their attacks touch-based?
He turned, looking for Venitra, and saw a black, skeletal hand. Ijvani pointed with her staff and uttered a spell.
And then there was flame. Zel roared as the flames engulfed his body, burning every exposed part of him not covered by armor. He struck at Ijvani but she was already fleeing. And then Venitra crashed into his left, stabbing. Zel stumbled, regained his footing and pushed back as she tried to bowl him over.
The two titans struggled as Oom and Bea circled. And then Kerash was closing in with his sword. He stabbed Zel in the arm as the Drake fought. The [General] turned and roared again. But he was alone. And outnumbered.
“Bring down that dome!”
Sacra screamed the order and over a hundred [Mages] blasted the dome with spells from afar. Humans, a few half-Elves, and Goblins. Both armies were trying to crack the shields of bone, although the Goblins had switched to a defensive strategy to keep the Humans from nearing their Lord’s last line of defense.
Or so they assumed. Magnolia knew this had to be the work of the Necromancer. She stared as the rain of spells and enchanted arrows ceased.
“Nothing. Not a scratch.”
The bombardment hadn’t left a mark on the ivory surface, just cleaned it of the Goblin blood staining the outside.
“It’s impenetrable! Focus your attacks elsewhere! I want covering fire on our [Knights]! Take down that Crypt Lord!”
Sacra ordered the [Mages] to begin targeting Goblins. Magnolia knew it was the correct decision, but she would have rather kept trying to bring down the dome. Zel Shivertail could be in peril—
No, he was in peril! She knew it. Magnolia cursed, and saw a shape flick into the shadows behind her.
“Ressa, give me the weapon.”
Magnolia raised her hands and Ressa put the strange tube that her grandfather had given her into her hands without argument. The [Maid] stood behind Magnolia, her maid’s uniform covered in blood.
“Are you sure?”
“Zel Shivertail cannot be lost! Hold on, I’m aiming!”
Magnolia snapped as she raised the tube. She was no [Markswoman], but the dome was a big target and she felt like accuracy was not a requirement. She hesitated as she felt the magic contained in the artifact.
“How did grandfather Regis say to activate it? What was the command spell? Thaurmodesium?”
“Yes, that! Thaurmodenasium! By my command, fire or—”
Magnolia felt the tube warm slightly, felt it kick in her hands, and heard nothing.
Precisely nothing. A cone of silence had burst from the tube. Magnolia felt it leave her hands and stepped back as the tube floated in place. It was a simple metal tube, inscribed with glowing runes on the inside and outside. Now these same runes glowed brighter and brighter, so brightly that they became a beacon.
Heads turned. Goblins and Humans alike stared as the tube glowed, and then emitted a series of—sparks. A few paltry sparks jettisoned out of the front of the tube. Magnolia stared as they flickered forwards and turned to Ressa.
“Is that it? Because if it is, I’m going to the family estate and burning it down—”
Ressa gripped Magnolia’s arm and pointed. Magnolia turned her head back just in time to see the sparks of lightning continue forwards. They were just flickering bits of energy, but for some reason, they neither earthed themselves nor dissipated. Instead, they hung in the air, and changed.
They became…diverse. Or perhaps they created more copies of themselves, because the air was suddenly dancing with bolts of lightning. They played over the Goblins and Humans in front of the tube, making the soldiers yelp and drop their metallic weapons. And then, from the tube, there came more lightning.
It was like lightning had come to life. Magnolia stared as a dragon made out of lightning took wing, emerging from the tube and flying forwards. She saw ships made of lightning, proud warriors and [Knights]—it was a light show! The lightning danced over the heads of both the Human and Goblin armies, making soldiers look up in awe. And as the Dragon soared overhead, doing absolutely no damage to the Goblin army, it left a trail of words in the sky.
The script was elegant, cursive, and hard to read. It was a different writing script than Magnolia had ever seen, but ancient as it was, it was still perfectly legible.
From the armories of the Emperor of Storms: a gift. To his enemies, see light and sound, ever fleeting, the wrath of the skies. Behold the advent of lightning.
And then there was light from the front of the tube. Magnolia blinked at it. The opening of the tube glowed and that was the last thing she saw for a while. She felt the impact as the air shattered, though. It threw her backwards and only Ressa catching her saved Magnolia from breaking her neck.
A bolt, a beam, a cascade of lightning burst forth from the mouth of the tube, cutting through the bemused ranks of Goblin soldiers and some of the Humans too close to the radius of the blast. The lightning did not fry those it touched—rather, it vaporized them. It left a trail of melted ground and smoke around fifteen feet wide as it shot across the battlefield. It hit the bone of dome—
And cracked it open. The bone splintered, the Necromancer’s magic broke. For a second, Ressa could see six shapes struggling in the darkness—then the magic of the lightning flashed around the opening. It obscured the rest, as the tube earthed its charge on the dome of bone.
It had been broken open, but as the shock of the spell reverberated across the battlefield she could see the walls of bone shudder and begin closing. The spell was reassembling itself.
“No! Get in there! War Golems, go to General Shivertail’s aide!”
Magnolia struggled to get up. She thrust away Ressa’s hands and stumbled upright. Her ears were bleeding, her vision still blinded. Still she pointed. And the War Golems, cutting through the Goblins, turned.
They charged, shrieking, racing across the ground. Goblins raced to stop them, screaming. The first War Golem blasted them with a beam of fire. The second blasted the rest with lightning, far less powerful than that of Magnolia’s artifact, but still strong enough to shock and kill.
Magnolia screamed the words, Ressa holding her back. Across the battlefield, the Goblins were screaming the opposite.
Snapjaw raced at the second Golem, seeing Goblins with chains and rope trying to slow it. But the massive beast was unstoppable. She grabbed a chain and felt herself being dragged along. Lightning blasted her, travelling down the chain. Snapjaw felt her body shaking, saw flashes—she hung on.
Goblins seized her from behind. Two more Hobs grabbed a chain. Snapjaw saw them jerk as they held on. One Hob spasmed—she could see him dying as he held the chain. His heart—hers was fluttering, stopping. Still, they dug their heels in the mug.
The Goblins had formed a chain twenty bodies deep on each rope, but the War Golem had only slowed. It was still moving forwards. Still moving—
A shape blocked its way. Eater of Spears roared as he charged into the War Golem. He swung a fist and the massive metal monster punched back. It’s dagger-fingers sank into the giant Hobgoblin’s stomach, tore. Eater of Spears roared in pain and Snapjaw tried to drag the War Golem back.
The rift in the walls of bone was closing! They just had to hold the Golem—hold it—
Snapjaw wasn’t sure when the next bolt of lightning stopped her heart. She saw everything flash—found herself lying on her back. She sat upright, saw the Golem pounding Eater of Spears down. Saw him hold on to its legs.
The first Golem was at the opening. It pushed inside as the bone began to flow around it. The second threw aside Eater of Spears and raced for the opening. It crashed into the gap, made it halfway inside—and lodged in place. The bone covered it, entrapping the struggling Golem. It fought, and then, slowly, began to die. The magical dome was crushing its insides, bending the enchanted metal of its body. The Golem stopped moving and Snapjaw saw the bright light in its mouth dim and go out.
It was dead. But one of the Golems had entered. Snapjaw hoped it would be enough. But she had no idea what was going on inside. She only knew her Goblin Lord was alive.
The rest was a mystery.
Zel Shivertail was alone. He had been alone before. But never like this.
The undead surrounded him. Venitra cut at his left—Kerash his right. Zel blocked with his arm and leg. Both blades bit into his flesh. He roared and slashed at Kerash—a wall of oozing gelatin blocked him.
“Eat him, Oom!”
Bea cried out, circling Zel, afraid to get cut by his claws. Oom extended his ‘arm’, letting Zel’s claws sink further into his body. The Drake roared as he felt his scales burning and yanked his arm out.
“My second eldest creation, Oom. He was made to destroy you, Shivertail.”
Az’kerash’s voice was calm as the undead continued their attack. Ijvani blasted Zel with a spray of something black that tried to obscure his vision—he blocked it with his hand, and kicked at Venitra as she charged. But the bone woman was so heavy—her body was solid bone and the momentum of her change carried her in to him. She knocked Zel over and he grunted as her sword stabbed towards his head.
He threw her off her with all the strength he could manage. A sword stabbed at his breastplate and failed to penetrate his armor. Kerash slashed at Zel’s head and again the Drake blocked with an arm as he rose. More blood—another cut—the blade was terribly, terribly cold, but Zel could handle the pain.
What was worse was Oom. The undead creature had tangled around his legs, engulfing them. Zel tried to break free, and failed. Ijvani scorched him with another fireball made of black flames.
“Slimes! It’s not undead, it’s a damned—”
Zel roared as Oom tried to engulf him. He swung a fist and part of Oom’s body sprayed outwards, but the rest kept sticking to his body. The Necromancer’s voice was amused.
“Indeed. An Acid Slime, given sentience and far more power of course. It is rare for such a creature to form naturally, but a simple matter for me. Oom is your natural enemy, Shivertail.”
The acid was burning Zel, and if Oom covered his mouth, he’d be in Zel’s insides, suffocating him. Zel heaved and part of Oom splattered across the bone walls.
He moved his feet, but they were still stuck. Now Venitra and Kerash were on either side. Venitra swung and this time her blade cut deep into Zel’s arm. He staggered and Kerash sliced into his leg. Both blades hit bone.
Falling. Zel felt it. He twisted, reaching for a potion at his belt, but Oom was pulling him down again, trying to hold his arms. He had to—Zel felt more fire burning him, opened his mouth and felt it scorching his body. And Bea was reaching for him with a rotted hand.
And then the wall exploded. Zel felt the impact, felt something lift his body, Oom, and all the undead and throw them into the far wall. He slid to the ground, stunned, and then got up.
There was daylight! Something had blown open the wall of the dome! Zel saw shocked Goblin faces turning towards him and heard the Necromancer’s voice.
“How—what artifact was—Kerash! Do not let Shivertail escape!”
His voice was urgent. Kerash and Venitra threw themselves in the way of the gap. Zel charged and his fist collided with Venitra’s shield. For the first time in that battle, Zel ran up against something he couldn’t push back. Venitra struck at him with her sword and he dodged left. The gap was closing! Zel ran at Kerash, not caring if he took a blade to get out—
And then Oom abandoned his trench coat. He surged out of his clothing and into the gap, creating a wall out of his body. The slime formed a wall and the undead created a wall in front of him. Zel halted. He stared at the undead and thought for a second.
Then he backed up. Kerash stared and Venitra lifted her sword uncertainly. She took a step forwards, but too late. Zel had a potion at his belt and was downing it.
Ijvani tried to cast a spell, but Zel sidestepped the bolts of lightning. The undead wavered, but if they moved they would have to abandon the closing gap to the outside. Grimly, Zel downed two more potions, feeling his wounds close and his body surge with energy.
And the gap closed. He couldn’t escape. Oom and the four other undead flowed away from the gap as it narrowed. Then Kerash’s head turned.
“What is that sound? Oom?”
Zel heard a shriek. The slime turned—and was splattered as one of Magnolia’s two War Golems surged into the gap. It turned, its glowing mouth appraising, and immediately slashed at Kerash. The undead scattered.
The gap in the ivory walls closed. Zel saw another Golem racing at the opening, saw it get caught—he was already leaping at Ijvani.
“Golem, cover me!”
He roared at the War Golem as it slashed at Venitra and Kerash. The two warrior-undead scattered to either side, blocking the Golem’s sharp dagger-fingers and cutting at its legs. Both their blades cut into the Golem’s enchanted body more easily than Zel’s flesh.
Ijvani screamed at the other undead as Zel savaged her with his claws. He was trying to destroy her head, but her bones were tough and she was blocking with her staff. He ripped one arm off and then felt a cold stickiness engulf his left arm. His scales began to burn at the same time.
“Oom! Hold him so I can touch him!”
Bea dashed forwards. Zel kicked at her and she stumbled back. She was least agile of the undead. But she managed to distract him long enough—Oom finally managed to engulf Zel’s torso.
“Finish him, Oom!”
Kerash roared as he cut at the Golem’s legs. The Golem was on its knees—it couldn’t handle the onslaught of both undead at once. Zel saw its mouth glowing red and shouted.
“Golem—fire on me!”
The War Golem looked up. It focused on Zel and he saw a fiery inferno grow in its mouth. The fiery laser erupted from its mouth and blasted Zel and Oom as they stood locked in place.
Bea screamed. The undead woman lurched forwards. Too late. The slime screamed, a soundless wail as the fire blasted its body apart. Zel felt Oom’s body vaporize around him. He stumbled, felt his scales flaking off. But his hands were reaching. Where—
There. He found a core in the slime’s body. A mana stone, his heart. It was large, as large as Zel’s fist. Oom’s gelatinous body wriggled around it, burning Zel, trying to infiltrate his body, burn it. Zel gripped the stone tightly.
All four undead were staring at him. Bea raised one hand. Her eyes were wide. Why had Az’kerash made her so much like a normal Human woman? Her voice shook.
Zel’s grip tightened. Oom screamed as the mana stone broke. And then there was silence.
The slime dripped from Zel’s body as he stood. The Drake swung his arm and the acid that had been Oom’s body splattered across the ground. He tossed the shattered mana stone to the ground and looked around.
The War Golem collapsed as Kerash drove his enchanted blade into the back of it’s head. Venitra rose, her shield smoking after having blocked a second fiery beam. The four undead stared at Zel Shivertail.
He was burned. His arms screamed—he could feel his bones cracked in places, feel the acid eating at him. But still Zel stood. He looked around at them, the confident undead, now, suddenly aware of their mortality.
“That’s one. Who’s next?”
Az’kerash’s voice was a hiss. Kerash raised his sword as he and Venitra flanked Zel again.
“You will pay for that.”
Venitra’s voice was deep. Zel laughed at her.
“Venitra, don’t rush in!”
Kerash stopped Venitra before the bone woman could charge at him. The Gnoll pointed.
“Ijvani, lock down the Drake’s movements. Venitra, cover me.”
He advanced, sword at the ready. Zel gritted his teeth as Ijvani tossed a spell at him. It was some kind of ooze—like Oom it stuck to whatever it touched. He got some on his leg as he pivoted to dodge—Kerash slashed at Zel’s eyes and was blocked. Venitra charged with her shield and Zel scored her twice across the chest with his claws. He could cut her body! But the strikes weren’t deep and the impact jarred his hands. Zel hissed, raised his claws.
And Bea touched his body.
It was quick, just a touch on his arm. But the instant her pallid flesh made contact with his, Zel felt a hot flash run down his arm. And then—a terrible uneasiness.
He whirled, seeing Bea’s hand stretched towards him. The undead woman had lunged at him, ignoring the danger. Zel’s claw took off her arm as she tried to retreat. But the second touch felt just as bad as the first. And as Bea stepped back there was a sense of…satisfaction in her eyes.
Zel sensed the other undead moving back. He grabbed at his belt and shattered a potion bottle as he smashed it over his arm. The liquid splashed across the spots Bea had touched him at. But instead of healing the spots she’d touched, the burning sensation ran down Zel’s arm. And—pain.
“Excellent job, Bea.”
Az’kerash’s voice sounded satisfied again. Bea picked up her arm and retreated. The undead watched Zel as he clutched at his arm. His arm and his claws hurt. Whatever the burning was, it was spreading like wildfire. Why? Because of the touch?
No, because of the potion. Zel realized his mistake too late. Healing potions healed most things, but they weren’t cure-alls. They couldn’t regenerate lost limbs, and they could only heal what a normal person could be expected to get through. That was because they amplified a body’s healing process, made it faster. And while that worked on damaged flesh and bone, it didn’t work on—
Bea spoke the words mockingly. Zel coughed, and stared at the blood on his claws. His lungs burned as the magical disease coursed through his body. He looked around. The undead grinned at him. Four mocking eyes. Zel closed his and straightened.
Then he smiled. The undead hesitated. Zel opened his claws as he tossed his belt and the healing potions to the ground. He nodded to them, and clenched one fist.
“Well then. Let’s end this, shall we?”
He charged Venitra first, ignoring the blade she stabbed into his side. His claws were sharp. And there was nothing holding him back anymore.
The battle had been long. The battle had been short. To the Goblin Lord, it felt as though the battle between Zel Shivertail and the undead had gone on forever. He knew it couldn’t have been more than…no, how long had it been?
Five minutes? Ten minutes? Twenty minutes? Half an hour? It continued. Zel Shivertail whirled, striking left and right, refusing to let the undead regroup. They had burned him, cut him, smashed his bones, poisoned him, infected him—and yet he stood.
The Goblin Lord had seen it all. He had lain where Zel had fallen, clinging to life with his own magics as the undead and the Drake battled. Now, he desperately uncorked a healing potion, one of the ones Zel had dropped and poured it over his stomach.
His organs began to heal. The Goblin Lord pushed them into his stomach, trying not to scream as Zel cut at Venitra. The Drake [General] was gasping, his green scales mottled with the disease as it spread unnaturally fast. Part of his body was simply black with ash and soot—his scales were flaking off. Yet still he attacked. Venitra raised her shield as the claws slashed across them. Zel hit her with a punch that cracked her pristine face.
She cried out in outrage as fracture lines ran from one cheek. Venitra swung her sword and Zel grabbed it.
He roared as he yanked the blade away. Venitra abandoned her shield and raised a massive fist. She swung and Zel punched. The Drake’s fist shattered her nose. His next blow cracked her bone chest plate.
The Drake lifted Venitra, her entire massive body and threw her at Bea, who’d been sneaking up on him from behind. The blow sent both female undead tumbling to the ground and Bea’s body broke as Venitra landed on her. Zel turned and Kerash’s sword lanced into his shoulder. Zel’s slash opened the Gnoll’s chest, exposing his ribs.
Ijvani fired the same spell again, engulfing Zel in flames, giving Kerash a second to retreat. Zel turned, his body blazing, and kicked Ijvani. The skeleton broke into pieces and crashed to the ground. Venitra struggled to her feet and Az’kerash’ voice spoke in the silence as Zel paused a moment to gasp for air.
The Goblin Lord could hear Zel’s lungs wheezing for air. The Drake took a step towards Kerash and stumbled. The Gnoll backed up. His chest hung open, the dead flesh severed. Venitra raised her sword unsteadily.
The undead paused. Az’kerash’s voice was sharp as Zel coughed more blood up.
“[Flesh Regrowth]. [Mend Bones]. Venitra, support Kerash! Your role is to take his blows not charge in alone! Ijvani, advance! Use more powerful spells to decimate the area—the other three will survive your magic! Bea, attempt to find the Drake’s back!”
“He’s still standing, master! He shouldn’t be—he should be dead by now!”
Bea cried out as she circled Zel. The Drake turned to face her, his eyes burning. He was slowing though. The Goblin Lord could see it. And yet, it was Zel who made the first move. He slashed at Bea, cutting into her stomach as she leapt back. Again, the contact with her body made whatever infection that was coursing through Zel intensify, but he ignored the spreading stain on his claws. He stood and beckoned at the other undead as they circled him warily.
“Come on. Come on! I thought you were supposed to be monsters!”
His eyes blazed beneath the blood and burnt scales on his face. Again, the four hesitated. But they attacked as one, moving in perfect unison.
Venitra low, Kerash high. Bea from the left, Ijvani from the back. Zel cut Kerash and seized Venitra’s head. He twisted and the bones forming her neck began to crack.
Again Zel roared the word. Venitra managed to loosen his grip on her and stumbled back. The undead retreated as Zel swung at Ijvani, staring. Zel stumbled.
“You cannot win this battle, Shivertail. I am impressed you are still standing. But—”
Zel regained his balance and grabbed Kerash’s blade as it swung at his head. His claws bled as the enchanted metal dug into his claws. He hit Kerash in the face, bashing the Gnoll’s face in. Kerash stumbled back. Bea leapt at Zel and he kicked her. The tip of his foot pierced her abdomen and he stomped her to the ground. She gasped.
“Your minions can’t kill me.”
Zel rasped as he ground Bea’s body underneath his foot. She was grabbing at his leg and he was ignoring it. Venitra and Kerash attacked with Ijvani, but Zel refused to budge.
“You think you understand strength! I am the shield of the Drakes! I am a [General]! And a general does not fall!”
He bent and cut Bea in two. She gasped and stared at her lower half, separate from her torso. Zel turned.
He charged into Venitra, trading blows with the bone knight. It was she who fell back, cracked and broken. Zel ignored Kerash as the Gnoll cut at his back. And the Goblin Lord moved.
Slowly, ever so slowly he rose. His body was weak, and he had no more magic for a spell. But Venitra had dropped her sword as Zel continued his assault. The bone blade was heavy, but strong. The Goblin Lord grabbed it stealthily.
Kerash was dueling Zel as Venitra fell to one knee. He was falling back—Ijvani was cowering, her body nearly torn to bits. The Goblin Lord crept up on Zel from behind, sword raised. He aimed for Zel’s neck as the Drake beat Kerash down with blows that cracked the undead Gnoll’s shoulders and arms. Wait…Zel’s claws were on Kerash’s head. He began to twist—
Now. The Goblin Lord leapt forwards. Zel turned, fast as a snake. He kicked the Goblin Lord and the Goblin felt his ribs crumple from the blow. He fell, gasping, as Zel flung Kerash backwards.
He coughed more blood out as he kicked the Goblin Lord before he could go for the sword again. Kerash stumbled up—Zel’s fist cracked his skull.
The Drake [General] was slowing, but he still charged Venitra as she came at him. The two grappled, desperate, Venitra’s body breaking. The Goblin Lord tried to get up. He grabbed the sword and slashed at Zel’s legs. The Drake grunted as the blade pierced his thigh. He turned, grabbed the Goblin Lord and raised a claw as he shoved Venitra back. The undead woman stumbled, and the Goblin Lord looked into Zel’s eyes.
Someone moved behind the Goblin Lord. He saw Zel’s eyes widen, felt the Drake release him. Too slow.
A hand rose and pointed. The Goblin Lord felt something flash past his face—tear through one of his ears. Zel stumbled. Glittering shards of diamond shot through the air, some as long as daggers, tearing into his face, his body. The Drake turned towards Az’kerash as the Necromancer raised his hands. He moved.
“[Accelerate Spell]. [Stone Lance].”
Zel’s head twisted. The Goblin Lord saw a flash, felt the impact on the far wall as the lance of stone broke. And as Zel Shivertail turned his head back, the Goblin Lord saw part of his head was missing.
Again, the Necromancer pointed. This time the black magic that washed over Zel was a wave, far stronger than anything the Goblin Lord could create. It sapped the last of the Drake’s energy, rendered his body stiff. Az’kerash pointed, at the Drake’s chest and uttered the spell again.
The dark magic struck Zel. He stumbled, his leg moved—stopped. He stood in place, eyes vacant.
There was no light in his eyes. The Goblin Lord wanted to cry out. Treachery! He had attacked from behind! But that was how Goblins fought. And yet the Necromancer…Az’kerash’s black eyes were locked on Zel’s own. The Drake’s gaze was unmoving.
The fourth spell was the last. Zel didn’t move as the spell struck him. Az’kerash lowered his finger then, and looked around.
“Ah, my apprentice. Your timing was quite useful. For that distraction I thank you.”
The Goblin Lord stared up at his master, at Az’kerash. The Necromancer was here. Here. He must have used one of his Scrolls of Greater Teleport to come here. The Goblin Lord knew he had only eleven left. No—four now. He had spent those valuable artifacts for this.
For Zel Shivertail. The Necromancer turned his gaze back to the Drake. Zel Shivertail stood in place, part of his head simply…gone. He had dodged the worst of the Necromancer’s spells, but a shard of diamond had taken his left eye. And his body was burnt black in places, cut from a thousand blades, and discolored from where Bea’s plague touch had spread.
And still, he had fought through it all. And if the Necromancer had not come at the last—the Goblin Lord looked away.
A voice interrupted the silence. Bea crawled towards her creator, her body badly damaged. The Goblin Lord moved away from her as she dragged her torso towards Az’kerash. She was holding a broken stone in her hands.
Az’kerash greeted her with obvious satisfaction in his voice. The undead woman did not share his joy. She held the pieces of Oom’s mana stone in trembling hands.
“Oom! He’s dead, master. Can you—is he—”
The Necromancer’s voice was cold and dispassionate. Bea stared up at him, her legs separated from her body, cradling what remained of Oom.
“But he fought! Master—”
“I warned him to safeguard his mana core at all costs. He was foolish, allowing that War Golem to damage him so. No, perhaps it was Shivertail I underestimated. Or was it the capabilities of my Chosen? Venitra, Kerash, rise. I am disappointed in you both. And perhaps you most of all, Ijvani, how is it you failed to damage Zel Shivertail in any meaningful way throughout the battle?”
The other undead, the Necromancer’s Chosen, began to rise, shamefaced. Venitra had to have Kerash’s help to stumble upright.
“Master. We are grateful.”
Kerash’s voice rasped. Az’kerash eyed him.
“You are badly damaged, Kerash. I must restructure your body when we return to the castle. All of you. Prepare yourselves for transit. I will destroy the enchantment protecting this place momentarily. Ijvani, you will make your way back with an invisibility spell; there are no more scrolls of teleportation.”
The Goblin Lord stared at the black skeleton as she stumbled away from the others. Bea still pleaded with her master.
“Master, what if I took the fragments back? If I put it in Oom’s special place, maybe—”
“He is gone, Bea.”
Az’kerash’s eyes flashed with annoyance and the undead woman shrank back. He turned, his face displeased, and then relented as he looked towards Zel again.
“Ah, General Shivertail. What a formidable opponent you were. Perhaps if you had been a touch faster in battle, or escaped Bea’s touch a moment sooner, I might have reconsidered arriving myself. But for all your strength in life, you will be the finest of my servants in death. For that I thank you.”
He walked over to Zel, his hands reaching out to touch the Drake’s chest. The Goblin Lord saw Zel’s eyes flicker, saw the Drake’s claws move.
The cut was fast. It scythed through the almost-invisible aura of protection around the Necromancer’s body, cut into his neck—but only just. Zel was too far away. His claws only opened the Necromancer’s throat. And as the Necromancer staggered back, his black eyes wide with shock, Zel collapsed.
The Necromancer’s throat did not bleed. He covered his pale flesh and stared at Zel. The Drake looked up at him, fallen, unable to move. Just looked.
“Return! Apprentice, finish the Drake! Secure his corpse!”
Az’kerash’s voice snapped. He grabbed for a scroll at his side and vanished. The undead around him stared at their master—Ijvani disappeared in a pop as she cast [Lesser Teleport] and the others fled, pulling out scrolls of their own. The Goblin Lord looked around, stunned by the sudden absence of the other undead.
“Hah. Hahaha. Coward.”
Zel Shivertail lay on the ground, laughing. He was still alive. Somehow. The Goblin Lord could see into his head, but the Drake still clung to life. His eyes turned to the Goblin Lord.
The Goblin Lord said it as he knelt by Zel’s side. He stared down at the Drake, seeing how the enchanted armor had failed in places. The magical metal had been melted in one place, pierced in two. Zel Shivertail stared up at the ivory ceiling overhead. The enchantment was breaking up—the dome was collapsing in places, letting sunlight in.
The Goblin Lord could hear Humans and Goblins shouting outside the dome in confusion. There was still a battle going on. But in this moment he only had eyes for Zel. He felt he should say something.
“I’m sorry. It was not a worthy death. Cowardly. It was—”
He got no further. A hand shot out and grabbed him by the throat. The Goblin Lord choked, tried to move back. He couldn’t. Zel Shivertail sat up, his grip crushing the Goblin Lord’s throat.
“I’m not dead yet.”
He stared at the Goblin Lord with his one good eye. It blazed with a strange light. How could he still move? How could he—the Goblin Lord was choking.
“I could kill you. It would be so easy.”
Zel Shivertail said the words casually. He stared at the Goblin Lord, and then, suddenly, released him. The Goblin Lord stumbled backwards, gasping for air.
“I don’t feel like it. Not anymore.”
Zel stared ahead. His head was—blood dripped from the missing part of his head. His voice was distant.
“I feel so tired. So this is how it ends? Funny, I always thought it would be—quicker.”
He turned his head. The Goblin Lord stared at him. But Zel was no longer looking at him. The Drake [General] looked ahead, and his voice was very distant.
“Sserys, old friend. I couldn’t lead them. I couldn’t inspire them like you did. But I tried. I wonder, would you say this was a job well done? I couldn’t kill the Necromancer, in the end. I only got one of his minions. And…”
His voice trailed off. Zel’s head drooped. His voice was lower. The Goblin Lord moved forwards to hear. Zel’s voice was a whisper as he looked ahead, looked at the past.
“My mentor, my friend, wings of my heart, did I do a good job? Defending our people? It was so very difficult without you. Will I see you, I wonder? Will you say I did a good job or a bad one when we meet?”
The Goblin Lord spoke, his voice trembling. He reached out, hesitated. He spoke, as gently as he could.
“You did. You protected them. Your people. You did it. It was a good job.”
Zel stirred. His eyes focused on the Goblin Lord’s face and he frowned.
“I’ll let Sserys tell me in person, Goblin.”
He stared at the Goblin, and then smiled. It was such a strange thing that the Goblin Lord nearly smiled back. The Goblin brushed at his eyes and was surprised to find water on his claws. Zel looked at him.
“Do you have a name?”
“No. No name. Just Goblin Lord. Apprentice. Goblin.”
The Goblin Lord sat next to Zel as the dome broke. The Drake looked up at the sky. He sighed.
“How strange. Everyone should have a name. It doesn’t seem right. You—should have one.”
The Goblin Lord was silent. Zel stared up, blood dripped slowly from his wounds. And then stopped.
“How about Reiss? It’s a proper Drake name. If I had a son—Sserys always talked about wanting to raise a boy and name him that.”
Reiss. The Goblin Lord stared at Zel for a second. The Drake laughed.
“Take it if you want it. I don’t think Sserys will mind. And—no, never mind.”
“I will. And I will avenge. Avenge you and my people. I swear it. The Necromancer will die by my hand.”
The Goblin Lord looked at Zel. The Drake eyed him, and then shrugged.
“Good. I hope you do it. But I won’t be around to see it. And truthfully…I would have liked to…”
His voice trailed off. Reiss looked into Zel’s eyes and saw the Drake’s vision had gone distant again. Zel whispered as the Goblin Lord wiped at his eyes again.
“A good job. Did I do it?”
He laughed once.
“I suppose I’ll never know. But I did try. I did—”
Reiss waited a long time, but Zel never finished his sentence. He sat there, the last traces of laughter still on his face. The Tidebreaker stared up at the sky as the walls of ivory finally broke and both armies could see into the dome at last.
There was just silence at first. Reiss sat with Zel, head bowed, until he realized that it looked like both he and Zel were dead. He stood slowly, and heard the Goblins roaring. But from the Human side there was no noise.
There was only silence. Then the Goblin Lord heard a groan from the Humans. It sounded like something living had been torn from them. He saw the armored ranks of men and woman falter, saw some fall to their knees and others begin to weep. The news dawned on the army slowly as they saw the Goblin Lord standing over the distant form of their [General].
Zel Shivertail was dead. The Tidebreaker had fallen.
And the Goblin Lord had slain him.
It was not the truth. Reiss wanted to scream it out loud. But he couldn’t. And the Goblins roared as they saw the fallen Drake and their victorious leader. They streamed towards him, screaming, staring in awe at the fallen Zel Shivertail.
“Dead! Dead, dead, dead!”
Snapjaw shouted the words in triumph. She and the other Goblins were fighting to get to the Goblin Lord, offering potions. One Goblin reached to push Zel Shivertail aside. Reiss whirled and shouted.
The Goblins froze. The Goblin Lord looked around and pointed to Zel Shivertail’s body.
“Leave body. Anyone who touches, dies.”
They stared at him, and then at the fallen Drake. Reiss wiped at his eyes. He said one word.
He turned and walked away. Uncomprehending, the Goblins stared at him and then followed. Reiss the Goblin Lord led his army away as the Humans stared at the slumped figure in shining armor. They wept, and the cry went up. It echoed across the battlefield, across the city of Invrisil, and out onto the rest of the continent. The words shook the world.
Magnolia Reinhart wept as she retreated from the battlefield. Ressa, beside her, was dry-eyed, but her hands were tight on her mistress’ arm as she guided Magnolia away. The Lady Reinhart spoke only once as they retreated behind the procession bearing the Tidebreaker’s body away from the battle.
“I am offering a hundred thousand gold coins. No, I will offer a million gold coins or whatever artifacts I own. Spread the word among the Assassin’s Guilds, in every part of the world. I will have the Necromancer dead, Ressa.”
A’kerash strode through his castle, his damaged servants, his Chosen trailing after him. They were four now, and they dared not speak to him. The Necromancer had triumphed today, but that victory was hollow as well.
“Oom’s death was unfortunate.”
That was all Az’kerash said as he halted in front of his rooms. The four undead looked at him. Bea’s face was a mask of grief. The Necromancer looked at each of them and then away.
“I see I have overestimated your capabilities. Or perhaps underestimated that of my foes. The next generation of your brothers and sisters will lack your weaknesses.”
They bowed their heads. Az’kerash turned.
“I will repair you all shortly. Rest, and regain your strength. I have need of you yet. I have eliminated one of my greatest foes today.”
He turned and smiled bitterly. And from his castle, the same words were repeated. They broke upon the Walled Cities, and shattered the hearts of the Drakes. The end of a legend. The death of an era.
Fear for the future.
The news struck Liscor like a wave. Grief-stricken Drakes stood in the streets, weeping, and the Gnolls were little better. Zel Shivertail was dead. The hero of the Second Antinium Wars, the shield that had protected Izril for so long, had fallen.
In The Wandering Inn, Klbkch saw Erin weeping at the counter and Lyonette slumped at a table. Mrsha was howling from the top of the inn. He turned, and left the building.
Klbkch did not weep. The Antinium did not cry. He slowly walked through the streets of Liscor, hearing the horns blowing, seeing grief in every corner. He walked into the Antinium Hive and heard a hush. The Workers and Soldiers did not understand the grief and fear, yes, fear that gripped the hearts of those above.
Well, that was their nature. Klbkch descended through the tunnels, walking by memory, and came to a large room. The Queen of the Free Antinium looked down at him.
“My Queen. Has the artifact been installed to your satisfaction?”
“So it seems. The Courier delivered it to the door of the Hive this morning. I have placed it here.”
The Queen indicated a mirror made out of black glass, a tall frame that was far too small to reflect her entire body. Klbkch stared at it. It did not fit in this room, but it was a powerful artifact and there were few good alternatives.
“Have you activated it yet?”
The Queen of the Free Antinium stared at Klbkch as he slowly walked over to the mirror. He placed a hand on it and the surface rippled. It changed. Instead of reflecting the Queen and Klbkch, the surface swam until it was reflecting another room.
It was quite similar to the one Klbkch stood in. The only difference was that this room was carved of stone, and there were quite a number of tunnels leading to and from this cavernous room. And the Queen in the center was far, larger than the Queen of the Free Antinium. She was massive, bloated, and rested on a huge dais in the center of the room. She stared towards the mirror.
“Klbkchhezeim? The connection is strong it seems. How fares the Free Antinium?”
“Zel Shivertail is dead.”
Klbkch’s voice was flat. The Grand Queen of the Antinium went still. In the frame, Klbkch saw one of the Antinium gathered around her turn. Xrn stared at him. The Grand Queen was silent as she stared at Klbkch. Then her mandibles parted and rose.
“Good. We have much to do, Klbkchhezeim, my Queen of the Free Antinium.”
She waved a languid feeler. The Antinium turned to face Klbkch, and the Grand Queen spoke.
“The Goblins are moving once more. The Humans stir for war. The Drakes have lost their shield. And the Antinium will rise.”
Klbkch nodded. He stared at the Grand Queen of the Antinium, and his hands tightened on the hilts of his sword. He said only one word.
End of Volume 4.
So, we come to this at last. At last, the volume ends. And I had planned to write this last chapter directly before the break. Perhaps it’s better that I didn’t. Perhaps it would have been better had I not had the break.
We’ll never know. But it is done, and the world is changed now. Zel Shivertail is dead. And what follows will be…different.
This is the darkest end to a volume, and speaks of what is to come. And yet, and yet, our story is about Erin, about hope, and about more than just war. But it does feel like war and conflict threaten us despite our best hopes. As in this world, so in ours.
Thank you for reading. I had a good break, and I think it was appropriate—I hope to take a week long break after every end of volume, if only to recharge a bit. I have a lot of ideas for the next volume and a lot of story yet to come. Some of it will be tragic, some horrific (hopefully not due to bad writing), other parts hopeful, or sad or silly or…
Thank you all for supporting the story, whether it be from pledging or talking about it, or simply reading. I have a lot I want to do, from releasing the e-book to fixing typos and plot points and adding a glossary. I have a lot to do, but what I start and end with is this: writing. I hope you enjoy the story and if you do, I have a lot more to tell.
See you soon. I’m back to writing and Volume 5 begins in two days. I’ll put the monthly side stories poll up soon too, and maybe another short (non-canonical) piece side story I wrote during my vacation. Thanks for reading as always,