Erin stared at Numbtongue. The Hob wore a pair of steel cuffs that had just been placed on his wrists by a Gnoll [Guardsman]. The Hob looked at her, and then at the ground. He was wet, sweaty, and looked…beaten. So did the other Hobs. What had happened? Green blood still dripped from Headscratcher’s hands where he had held the bandages against Bird’s side.
They were under arrest. Olesm had ordered it. Erin turned to the [Strategist].
“You can’t do it. It’s wrong.”
“I can and I have to, Erin. Liscor is in danger. Senior Guardsman Klbkch!”
The Antinium had sheathed his swords. He was standing at the entrance to the Hive with the Soldiers. He turned.
“I am in my position as Revalantor of the Free Antinium, Strategist Olesm. My Queen rages. She demands the death of whomever injured Bird. As we speak she struggles to save his life.”
“I understand. I will send the Watch to patrol the waters in full force. But there is a situation. The Goblin Lord is coming here. Liscor will soon be under siege. By both the Goblin Lord and Humans.”
Erin exclaimed, but neither Olesm nor Klbkch looked at her. The Antinium Revalantor went still for a second.
“I don’t have the time. Watch Captain Zevara has the details. I have to contact Pallass. Now.”
Klbkch didn’t waste time asking further questions. He turned and the Soldiers retreated into the Hive. Then Klbkch strode down the street. Leaving Erin, the Hobgoblins, and Olesm behind.
“Olesm, what’s this about the Goblin Lord? I thought he was defeated! On the run!”
Erin stared at Olesm. The [Strategist] passed a claw over his eyes.
“I don’t—I don’t have the time to tell you, Erin! I need your door, now. Guardsmen! Arrest the Hobs and put them in separate cells!”
He turned. Erin ran around Olesm and blocked his way.
“No! Olesm, the Redfangs did nothing wrong! They came here because of Bird!”
Olesm shouted at Erin. She stepped backwards. The Drake glared at her.
“I know! But the Goblin Lord’s army is about to sweep down on Liscor, a mysterious Hob just destroyed part of your inn and nearly killed Bird, and there are hundreds of Cave Goblins living in the dungeon! I do not want those five causing an incident! And if I send out the Watch with orders to find and kill a Hob, they will find and kill Hobs. This is for their good, Erin! Don’t argue; just let me do my job!”
He tried to push Erin aside. But she folded her arms.
This time Olesm nearly hissed at her. But Erin wasn’t looking at him. She was looking at the Hobs. Her friends. Employees and…they’d done nothing wrong. Nothing. She knew that. Olesm knew that. But still Numbtongue was in cuffs. Erin closed her eyes. Then she looked at her friend, the Drake with light blue scales. Olesm. And she clenched her fist slowly and spoke.
“You’re right, Olesm. But you’re wrong. You can’t arrest them. I won’t let you.”
Olesm sighed. His shoulders drooped and his tail curled up at the tip. He shook his head.
“You don’t have a choice, Erin. I’m sorry.”
Erin saw Olesm’s head raise. He blinked as she punched him. The [Strategist] staggered back and cried out in pain but he didn’t drop. So Erin kicked him in the stomach. She whirled and the Gnoll [Guardsman] raised his paws.
He tried to block her, but Erin’s fist punched right through the Gnoll’s guard and knocked him flat. The other [Guards] stared at Erin. So did the Redfangs. Erin turned and shouted at them.
“Run for it, guys!”
The five Hobs hesitated, but then they took off. Headscratcher, Badarrow, Shorthilt, Rabbiteater, and the manacled Numbtongue each sprinted off in a different direction. The Watch tried to chase them, but Erin jumped forwards. She hit a female Drake with another [Minotaur Punch] and knew she had only two left. She turned, keeping her hands up as the Watch jumped back.
“Come on, I’ll take you on! Fight me! Hiyah!”
Erin tried to menace them, but the Drakes and Gnolls rushed after the Hobs instead. Erin threw a fake jab at a Drake close to her, making him duck back.
Behind you! A bell rang in Erin’s head. She turned—
And Relc was standing in front of her. The Drake waved at Erin. The [Innkeeper] hesitated, but then she aimed for his chest.
The Drake [Spearmaster] raised one claw. He caught her hand. His arms strained a bit with the recoil, but Relc himself barely moved. He let go as Erin blinked up at him. The two stared at each other. Then Erin threw another punch, this time at his stomach.
Relc blocked her fist again. This time he shook his claw.
“Ow. That hurts.”
Before Erin could react he reached out and tapped her on the forehead with his knuckles. She frowned and tried to swing at him again—
And then found herself lying on the ground. She stared up blankly at the clear sky. Then someone’s face appeared in her field of vision. It was Relc. Erin stared up at him dizzily. The Drake scratched the back of his head.
“You’re under arrest.”
Erin blinked stupidly up at Relc.
“Yeah, that’s fair.”
She lay on the ground for a few minutes. By the time the world stopped spinning Olesm had gotten to his feet and the Hobs were returning.
In chains. The Watch had caught them. Erin watched in despair as the Hobs returned. First Badarrow, caught by Relc. Then Headscratcher with a bloody nose. Shorthilt. Rabbiteater with several bleeding scratches on his leg. But not Numbtongue.
“Senior Guardswoman Beilmark. Did they give you trouble?”
Olesm winced as he clutched his stomach. Erin felt bad; she’d kicked him as hard as she could. The Gnoll who’d caught Rabbiteater shook her head.
“No sir. They tried to knock us down but they didn’t draw steel, sir. But the fifth Hob, the one we already shackled—he uh, made it out.”
Erin looked up. Beilmark looked embarrassed.
“The fifth one—he ran down the streets shouting about a Raskghar attack. In the panic we couldn’t catch up to him and then he ran up to the battlements and jumped off.”
Olesm glanced down at her and made a frustrated sound.
“That’s—keep an eye out for him! Don’t shoot him, but if he appears in the inn or the city—just keep an eye out! As for these four…”
He turned and looked grimly at Erin and the Hobs.
“Take them to prison and put them in separate cells.”
Relc raised his brows. Olesm shook his head.
“All of them. The Hobs…and Erin. I can’t have them running around. And Erin causes trouble. This is an emergency and I can’t—I don’t want to lose my breakfast. So take her to a cell.”
He looked back at Erin.
Olesm didn’t wait for a response. He turned and hurried off. Erin stared down at her hands. Relc walked over with a pair of metal cuffs. He shrugged.
“You know, he does have a point.”
Erin stared at Olesm.
“Yeah. That’s fair too.”
Then she looked at the four Hobs sitting around her. They looked at her, tired, confused. And frightened, though they tried to hide it. Erin smiled weakly at them.
And she saw the guilt in their eyes as Relc closed the manacles over her hands. Then Erin and the Redfang Warriors went to jail.
Klbkch did not waste time. When Olesm told him Liscor was in danger he made his way to the barracks, listened to a brief summary of events from Zevara and then spoke four brief words.
“The Antinium will fight.”
There was nothing else to be said. Not to Zevara who was trying to do a thousand things at once. Klbkch strode back through the streets of Liscor to his Hive and descended into it. Twice as many Soldiers were on guard near the entrance. They might not have known what was going on, but they could sense the tension in Klbkch. The Revalantor walked further into the Hive.
He felt as though the air was tingling around him. Klbkch’s antennae slowly moved back and forth. He didn’t grasp at the handles of his swords, but he was aware they were there as he walked.
War. It had returned to Liscor. Klbkch had not predicted this. The news had caught him off guard. But now he knew, he felt as through the entire Hive was humming. Klbkch recalled a distant scene and paused. He remembered a song, echoing, and for a second he nearly drew his swords.
Goblins and Humans. They were coming in numbers to drown Liscor. And the city was not ready. The Hive was not ready. But they would fight and fill the Floodplains with death if they had to.
“Prepare the Hives. Call the Black Tide. The Antinium march.”
Klbkch whispered. Then he forced his hands away from his swords. Not yet. Klbkch kept moving, but now the air was electric. Workers straightened and Soldiers turned as he passed. They could feel it. The Soldiers closed their hands into fists and stood straighter, and the Workers stared at Klbkch’s back. They could feel it too. But only those around Klbkch. Those who passed out of his range were cut off. Confused.
The Hive was in disarray. Workers and Soldiers milled about, only half going about their assigned tasks. The rest were—confused. As if their mental link with their Queen had been interrupted. As if she were dead. When Klbkch passed by them, they stared at the Revalantor and then moved smoothly back to work. But as soon as he passed from view they grew confused again. Because their Queen was occupied.
Klbkch could feel her presence as he swiftly made his way towards her chambers. The Grand Queen’s presence filled his mind. He could ‘hear’ her, sense her emotions and will. She was in turmoil. Then Klbkch did hear her voice, echoing from her inner chambers.
He entered her chambers. The Soldiers standing guard were agitated, standing far away from the entrance to the room. Twitching, half-looking inside before watching the corridor leading to her rooms. Klbkch didn’t have to guess why. The scent of Antinium blood—hemolymph—was thick in the air. And inside the Free Queen’s chambers was a mix of confusion.
Strange Antinium milled about in the center of the room, surrounding a fallen Worker. The Free Queen of the Antinium herself bent over Bird, issuing orders as her feelers moved rapidly, scooping up gels and tending to strange, bulbous sacs filled with green blood and organs. Klbkch stopped, his mandibles opening with shock as he beheld the scene.
No wonder the Soldiers were agitated. Although they had guarded the Queen all their lives, they had probably never seen the Drones, the Antinium with bodies that resembled their Queen, before. They had no arms or hands, but six feelers with palps and hunched, insectile bodies even more ant-like than…well, the other Antinium.
The Drones had smaller mandibles than even Workers and they were physically tiny compared to their brethren. They were not designed for war. In fact, the nine or so Drones weren’t even properly formed.
They’d been crudely copied from memory, but the Free Queen had yet to complete their design. As a result, the Drones moved unsteadily, sometimes jerking as muscle fibers fired improperly. They were unbalanced compared to the relatively flawless design of Workers and Soldiers, but they were more precise than the other two types of Antinium at delicate tasks. As such they were essential here.
Because of Bird. The Worker lay on the ground. Bleeding. The Drones clustered around him, applying the Antinium’s unique gelatins and secretions to him. Another tended to a strange tube inserted into Bird’s chest. As Klbkch watched, he poured a bowl of blood into the tube, and then trundled over to the semi-translucent sac filled with blood and floating organs. The sac twitched as the Drone collected more blood from it.
It was alive. The blood sac wasn’t Antinium, though. Klbkch doubted it was even conscious. It was designed for one purpose: to provide raw materials for his Queen to harvest. He stared at it for one second, then looked at his Queen.
“More gel! Stop the bleeding! More blood.”
The Free Queen’s voice echoed as she bent over Bird. Her massive form was hunched, bending possessively over Bird, forcing the Drones to scurry around her. The Free Queen’s head turned to Klbkch as he approached.
“He is dying.”
“Can you not save him?”
The Queen’s mandibles clicked together harshly.
“I am trying. But his body is torn. Whatever struck him created a shockwave. His organs are in failure. I am trying, Klbkch. But his internals are—who did this? Who?”
Klbkch bowed his head. He looked down. Bird was moving slowly, mandibles opening and closing. He was awake. The Antinium didn’t have anesthesia or painkillers. Klbkch spoke dispassionately.
“A Hobgoblin, my Queen.”
“Find it. Kill it. Send the Soldiers! All of them!”
“That would not be wise, my Queen. The waters are still risen. And there is another issue—”
A feeler shot out. The Grand Queen grabbed Klbkch and drew her head close to his.
“Do not argue with me, Klbkchhezeim.”
He held still. Klbkch opened his mandibles slowly and spoke cautiously. He had never seen his Queen like this. Why did she care about Bird so much? She would not have grown half as agitated to lose a thousand Workers. But Bird?
“My Queen. Liscor is in danger. I have just been informed that the Humans are driving the Goblin Lord to Liscor. Not to eradicate it as we had assumed, but to lead an assault on Liscor.”
The Free Queen froze for a second.
“Impossible. That would be an act of war. Besides, the Humans cannot breach Liscor’s walls.”
“That is what we believed. But the Strategist of Liscor believes they have obtained trebuchets.”
“I am unclear. But it is certain that the Humans intend to create a breach in Liscor’s walls and allow the Goblins to sack the city before occupying it themselves. My Queen, Liscor will be under siege in four days’ time.”
The Queen released Klbkch. She sat back for a second, her antennae waving frantically. Klbkch stared up at her as the Drones worked frantically. And then he heard a sound.
Both the Free Queen and Klbkch looked down. Bird was lying down, still oozing blood. His mandibles opened and closed.
“It hurts. I am dying. Ow.”
The Queen bent over him, the danger to Liscor and the Hive forgotten in an instant. Klbkch moved closer and a Drone hurried out of the way. Bird’s head turned.
“It hurts. Revalantor Klbkch? Is that you?”
Klbkch looked down at Bird. Dispassionately. He had seen countless Antinium die before. Bird was one face of millions. Klbkch’s hands tightened on his sword’s hilts. Just another Worker. But Bird was an Individual. And he looked so broken lying there. His left side was missing.
What kind of a Goblin could have done this? By throwing a sword? Klbkch had fought Goblin Chieftains in the Second Antinium War. He had dueled Goblin Lords. But even the strongest Hobs he’d met there didn’t seem capable of doing that. Only a few had been that strong. And they had been—
Klbkch realized Bird was moving slowly. His right side was twitching. Bird’s mandibles were opening and closing and he was quivering. With pain? Klbkch searched for something to say.
“Stay alive, Bird. This is an order.”
“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch. I will try.”
“Klbkch. Move back. Bird, do not move. You are torn.”
The Queen’s voice was quiet. Her feelers pressed against Bird’s side, applying a viscous gel. But the regenerative gel the Antinium used was insufficient to this injury, as were healing potions. Bird was torn open. And no matter how desperately the Drones labored, they couldn’t stop the worst of his bleeding.
In a Human it would be different. In a Drake or Gnoll, too. But Bird had no arteries, no closed circulatory system. It was impossible to close a vein or stem the bleeding. All the Queen could do was restore his blood. But so long as Bird bled—
“Can you save him?”
Klbkch looked up at his Queen. She did not answer. Her feelers were wet with Bird’s blood. The Free Queen kept moving, directing her Drones, but Klbkch sensed the answer in her emotions.
She was frantic. She had not been taught to heal like the other Queens designed solely for that purpose. When she had crossed the ocean and left Rhir, she had been young. She was neither a Weaver Queen nor a Battle Queen who could save Antinium wounded on the battlefield. All she knew of the Antinium was a result of rediscovering it from memory, out of desperation.
“Do not die, Bird. Hold on. The bleeding will slow.”
“It hurts. It hurts.”
Bird stared at the tube in his chest as a Drone poured more blood into him. He clicked his mandibles and tried to turn his head.
“I fell. There was a Goblin with a beard. He had a sword. Where is Erin? She was very upset. I broke her tower. Where is my bow? I must have my bow. It is mine.”
The Queen gently pressed down on Bird’s chest. He looked up at her, at Klbkch.
“I am dying.”
Klbkch knelt by Bird’s side. He pressed a hand to Bird’s torn flesh and felt the gel and blood mixing at his touch. He looked up at the Free Queen.
“No. He can be saved. He must.”
The Free Queen shook her head. Klbkch stared down at Bird. Then he looked around.
Drones, hurrying about. The quivering sacs of flesh, the product of secret experiments. Staring Soldiers. Bird. The Queen searching through her reagents and catalysts for something. Panicked. Not thinking. Hive in chaos. Belgrade and Anand in the western area, restoring order. Pawn’s presence, stabilizing Antinium around him.
Bird dying. Garry standing by the door to his kitchen, staring at them. The Queen calling for more blood. Klbkch’s swords were by his side. Bird looking up. Asking for his bow.
Movement in a corner. A shape. A vessel, a body shaped in the image of a Queen. Holding a mirror. Jerking. Standing. Moving forwards. Speaking. A face reflected in the magical depths of the mirror. A voice.
“Klbkchhezeim. What passes here?”
Klbkch looked up. Then he turned and knelt.
The Antinium around him—stopped. The Free Queen, the Drones, the Soldiers. Bird. The small version of the Queen looked around. And then she raised her mirror. And reflected in the depths was a large form. A Queen of the Antinium stared out from the mirror’s surface. She sat in a grand chamber, surrounded by Antinium. An azure Antinium with a staff stood by her side, and Prognugators armed with silvery blades, replicas of Klbkch’s weapons, surrounded her. The Grand Queen of the Antinium spoke.
“Why does this Worker’s fate concern the Free Queen of the Antinium? Why are Drones present in Liscor’s Hive? Answer me, Klbkchhezeim of the Centenium.”
Klbkch felt the Free Queen’s shock ripple through his connection to her, but he didn’t move. The Grand Queen was here. The vessel she had sent looked around the chambers, inspecting everything. Seeing through her connection with it and the magic mirror it held.
“Grand Queen. An Individual of the Hive has been injured by an unknown assailant. He is—a valuable asset to the Hive.”
“A single Worker? Ah. One of your unique Antinium reported to the Hives. Very well. And the Drones? We forbade this Hive to experiment with new forms or create Antinium besides new Workers and Soldiers. Why?”
“A…necessity, Grand Queen. My Queen deemed them essential for the purposes of enacting the Rite of Anastases when I fell.”
That was a lie. The Drones had been present for nearly six years, hidden in the Free Queen’s laboratory, defying the Grand Queen’s orders. But the Grand Queen did not know that. She paused and her feelers rubbed together.
“We see. Very well. Klbkchhezeim, Free Queen, you are called to speak with the other five Hives. Abandon this…Worker so that we may speak.”
The Free Queen spoke softly. The Grand Queen’s vessel turned and looked up at her.
“This was not a request.”
Klbkch spoke quickly to prevent his Queen from speaking again. It had been years since the Grand Queen and his Queen had communicated. And yet the two had never forgotten their past. A decade had passed since his Queen had settled in Liscor, but the Antinium never forgot.
“My Queen. This Worker is of great importance to the Hives. If necessary, I would require that the Hives wait. The importance of this Worker cannot be understated.”
The Grand Queen froze, her mandibles opening in shock. So did the Free Queen. Beside her, in the mirror, the blue form of Xrn smiled, raising her mandibles with delight. The Grand Queen regarded Klbkch for a second. If the Free Queen had said the same, she would not have listened. But Klbkch was a Centenium. The last of the ancients. So the Grand Queen slowly nodded.
“Very well. If Klbkchhezeim speaks of this Worker’s value—what say you, Queens of the Antinium?”
For a second Klbkch thought she was speaking to the Free Queen. But then the mirror flickered. The image of the Grand Queen sitting in her Hive vanished. Another Queen filled it. A smaller Queen, shadowed in a quiet place, surrounded by shadows. Antinium blending with the darkness. The only light came from phosphorous moss growing around the room, dimly giving light. The Queen spoke in the shadows, her words soft.
“If Klbkchhezeim speaks, the Silent Antinium listen.”
Her image flickered. The mirror brightened. Another Queen sat in the light. She was huge, the largest of the Queens, her body bloated. A ring of steel stood around her, Antinium covered in metal armor. Tersk stood by his Queen’s side as she waved a Feeler.
“The Armored Antinium assent. What strengthens the Hives is worthy of being saved. Preserve the Worker.”
Another flicker. She vanished and a third Queen appeared. Her room was filled with motion; Antinium with wings flew or ran. This Queen sat in the center of her Hive, as corridors and tunnels filled her cavern and her Workers and Soldiers moved in a constant stream. She twitched as Pivr, her winged Revalantor, brought her a bowl of meat to eat from. Her voice was quick, impatient.
“If it must be, it must be. Save the Worker but hurry. The Hive must discuss and the moment is now. Twisted Queen?”
The last Queen appeared in the mirror. And she was unlike the others. A ruined face and one eye stared at Klbkch and the Free Queen. Repaired mandibles opened. A voice spoke. The glowing sacs and bodies floating in liquid in the chamber around the Queen moved uneasily, unaccustomed to sound or light.
One word, and her image flickered and changed back to the Grand Queen. The large Queen was clearly displeased, but the others had spoken. She waved a feeler.
“Then it is decided. Save the Worker. Queen of the Silent Antinium, I call upon you.”
The body holding the mirror jerked. And then it’s mannerisms changed. The mirror shifted as it crept closer, suddenly less decisive, more reserved. The Drones moved back as one as the puppet moved forwards. The Silent Queen stared out of her mirror down at Bird. He looked up at her and whispered.
“Hello. I am Bird.”
She ignored him. The Silent Queen made the small replica lower the mirror so she could inspect the wound. She spoke, choosing each word with care.
“His system is severed. The liquid leaks. It must be redirected.”
“I know. But the damage is too great to contain. Each seal I form cannot contain the blood. If I had false flesh or chitin—”
The Free Queen’s voice was frustrated, and she felt helpless in Klbkch’s mind. The Silent Queen regarded Bird and then looked around the room.
“Not necessary. Apply a gel of congealed blood-fluid here and here. Increase the ambient temperature by three degrees. This Worker’s body temperature is dropping too quickly.”
The Free Queen immediately sent Drones to obey. The Silent Queen abandoned Bird and moved towards the blood sacs.
“These are containers preserved for blood? Parts?”
The Free Queen spoke. The mirror flickered.
“You were not allowed to create other Antinium! This is unacceptable! A violation of orders! This—”
The image flickered back to the shadowed Queen. She inspected the living sacs of organs and then pointed with one feeler.
“There. That is necessary. Splice that organ with the Worker’s injuries.”
The Free Queen’s antennae waved with surprise.
“Would that work?”
The little vessel and the Silent Queen in the mirror nodded as one.
“The Worker design was created uniformly. With flesh and chitin, a seal may be created.”
She looked up at the Free Queen. For a moment the Queen of the Free Antinium hesitated, then she moved. She reached out and gripped the sac. She tore the membrane. Antinium blood splattered. Something died. The Drones swarmed over the sac, cutting with knives. The Silent Queen crept back to Bird and oversaw the treatment.
Klbkch watched impassively. This was not like the weaving of old, where a Queen could replace a limb or body part in minutes. This was crude. But it worked. The organs replaced the damaged ones in Bird’s body as the Worker quivered. The membrane and more regenerative gel was packed into place, creating an oozing mass. And then raw chitin was delicately placed just so, to cover the rest. It was sealed in place with a different type of gel meant for sealing wounds.
The bleeding stopped. Bird lay on the ground, surrounded by blood as the transfusion tube was removed from his chest. He stared up at the Free Queen and Klbkch as the Silent Queen sat back, her job done. The Drones moved back, disposing of the rest of the organs and beginning to pack away the tools and different mixtures they had brought here. Bird opened his mandibles and spoke.
Klbkch stared down at Bird. The Worker stared up at him.
“Am I going to live, Revalantor Klbkch?”
Bird nodded slowly.
“That is good. I am Bird. Ow. Ow. I am much in pain. Ow. But I am brave. La, la, I am a brave little Bird…ow.”
He fell silent. Klbkch saw his mandibles open a bit, and wondered if Bird had passed out…or gone to sleep. The Silent Queen’s image flickered and another intelligence took control of the body. The Twisted Queen, her broken body a reflection of Bird’s own, stared down at him. Her feelers moved slowly towards him and both Klbkch and the Free Queen grew concerned. But the Twisted Queen did not touch Bird. Instead, she looked at Klbkch.
“Why. Does it speak? Why is it. Named?”
“It is Individual. You were informed of my success. And you have known of my designs for the Antinium.”
The Free Queen spoke coldly. The Twisted Queen looked at her and did not reply. The body jerked. The Grand Queen spoke briskly.
“The success of the Free Antinium is documented. Now the Worker has been preserved, we are called to more important issues.”
She made the body move back. Klbkch pointed, and the Drones carefully lifted Bird out of the way. They moved back as the vessel, the Free Queen, and Klbkch stood in the center of the room. The Grand Queen’s voice echoed out of the mirror.
“We are called to action, Free Queen. So we gather. The five Queens of the Hives are present. We deliberate. We call on you to join us.”
The Free Queen hesitated for a fraction of a second, then lowered her head.
“I am a servant of the Antinium, as are we all. What do the Hives call the Free Antinium for?”
The vessel raised the mirror it held. The view of the Grand Queen splintered into five parts. The five Queens sat and spoke. Each in their Hive. Each watching, regarding the others. In unison and apart.
The Armored Queen and her legions standing to attention.
The shadows moved as the Silent Queen raised her head.
“For excellence bar none.”
The Flying Antinium and their Queen buzzed, their wings beating restlessly.
The Twisted Queen sat as things grew and died around her.
The Grand Queen spoke simply. And her Prognugator, Xrn of the Antinium, raised her staff and called a map of Izril into the air. Klbkch knelt and his Queen leaned forwards. And the humming was back in the air. War. The Free Antinium looked up across their Hive and felt it.
And a little Worker, in pain, lying in a corner of the room turned his head a tiny bit. Just a bit because everything hurt. He stared at the mirror, the kneeling Revalantor, and the six Queens gathered for the first time in a decade. His antennae waved a bout and he looked at the Drones standing silently around him.
“Excuse me. Who are they?”
While the Queens of the Antinium spoke, another conversation took place further north. Two others were magically linked, but not by an artifact. One spoke and then the other did, using the same mouth. They saw through the same eyes. But they were not the same. One’s voice was Human, male, old but not decrepit. The other was young, a Goblin’s voice. And the body walked through the camp, staring at the Goblins, the distant Human forces who had paused for the death of Tremborag of the Mountain.
Reiss, the Goblin Lord spoke to his master, Az’kerash. Behind him lay a Drake’s body. Oteslia Blackwing. A group of Goblins scurried forwards and bore her away. The rest were silent. Snapjaw, Eater of Spears, and the Goblin Lord’s tribe stood back, watching their leader with unease. They knew. But for the moment, no one else did.
Rags was busy trying to organize the remainder of Tremborag’s tribe. Garen Redfang snarled and tended to the few thousand who had decided to join him. Reiss and Az’kerash watched it all and spoke. The first thing Az’kerash said was simple.
“Have you leveled since we last spoke, my apprentice?”
Reiss stirred. He blinked, but then realized he shouldn’t have been surprised. He shook his head slightly.
“A pity. But you have mastered the art of raising Draugr now?”
“Yes, master. I have.”
A smile passed Reiss’ lips. It was not his own. Az’kerash tapped a finger to his lips and Reiss did the same.
“In that case, study from the Tome of Greir Rot next. The section on undead enhancement, I think. Empowering your Draug and lesser undead will allow them to win battles until you are capable of reaching the next stage of undead animation.”
“When you have learned those spells, inform me. The next step for a [Necromancer] at your level would be to amass an army of expendable corpses supplemented by an elite core of Draug and high-ranking undead. Or focus on a select group of customized creations. Either way, the challenge you will face lies not in outnumbering your enemy, but dealing with warriors and mages who can slay even Draug with ease and survive most mundane attacks. But as a Goblin Lord, your focus will be different. It is a curious change, but one that will make you stronger if you survive.”
“Yes, master. What is the solution for dealing with warriors and mages?”
Az’kerash frowned with Reiss’ face.
“Simple to speak of, difficult to achieve. Ideally, you would learn new spells to supplement your abilities. Or create minions with supreme offensive abilities. Naturally, either option is difficult to properly work towards. [Necromancers] struggle to excel against small groups of high-level foes. It is the weakness of our class which I have long sought to address. As you know.”
Reiss spoke carefully. He was waiting. When he and his master spoke like this, they could have been any master and apprentice. Az’kerash’s tone was interested, almost affectionate. When Az’kerash spoke of his passion, of Necromancy, he sounded like a teacher. But still Reiss waited. And he did not have to wait long.
“So much for your progress. Now we speak of what has passed since I last contacted you.”
Reiss tensed, though he knew the Necromancer could feel it through their bond. He couldn’t help it. Az’kerash paused. When he spoke this time, his voice was cold and dispassionate.
“I am disappointed in you, my apprentice.”
“I gave you an order and trusted you to lead your army after Zel Shivertail’s defeat. I ordered you to preserve his body. You failed to do so. I expected you to defeat this Goblin Chieftain of the Mountains and cause havoc in Human lands. You failed in that mission as well. I find you fleeing from the Humans instead, your undead army destroyed, with two other Goblin Chieftains defying your will. This is unacceptable.”
Reiss waited. Az’kerash looked about, focusing on the milling Goblins, on Rags, and then on the distant Humans.
“Tyrion Veltras has gathered a powerful army to him. I see the banners of multiple [Lords] and [Ladies] of note. And he has enough [Mages] to humble you a dozen times over, my apprentice.”
“Yes, master. What should we do? What is he doing?”
And where have you been? Reiss didn’t ask that last part out loud. To the south, he knew, his master was sitting in his castle, surrounded by nothing but death. Az’kerash, Peril Chandler, the Necromancer of Izril, regarded the Humans and Goblins for one long minute. Then he smiled and spoke.
“The Humans are using you as a weapon against the Drakes, my apprentice. They think they can use you to start a war. I suggest…you let them.”
Reiss’ heart began to beat faster. He stared at the Humans. He bit his lower lip, and hesitated. Then he gritted his teeth.
The Queens debated. The Necromancer spoke with the Goblin Lord. Erin went to jail. The young woman chattered nervously as she was led down the stairs to Liscor’s prison. It wasn’t that she was afraid of being beaten and locked away forever; she’d been treated quite civilly, in fact, especially since she’d just punched Liscor’s Chief Strategist and several members of the City Watch.
No one had hit her with sticks. Nor was she dragged along in chains while her captors hurled insults at her. Instead, she was escorted quite politely, although there was a heavy escort, and all the [Guards] kept out of arm’s reach.
Relc hadn’t been allowed to take Erin to prison. He and Olesm and the other high-level officers of the City Watch had gone straight to Erin’s inn. To take her door and deal with whatever was happening. Liscor being under attack. Erin had no idea what it was all about and the [Guardspeople] around her didn’t tell her anything. She walked down the steps to the prison, the Hobs following in a line.
“So this is a prison? It’s cleaner than I thought it would be. I’ve never been to prison, you know. I’ve never even been in trouble with the law. Except for that one time I got in trouble for throwing snowballs at cars. I didn’t know it was dangerous! I never did it again. I was a good kid. I think.”
The Drake guiding her grunted. Erin kept chattering, the pit in her stomach sinking further the lower she went.
“Am I going to be on a watch list? Or will this be on my permanent record? Do you have records? Wait—am I already on your watch list? Hey, do I have a file and if I do, can I see it?”
One of the Gnolls behind Erin groaned under her breath. Erin had been talking nonstop for the last ten minutes they’d been walking. And even the City Watch’s stoic silence could only take so much. The Drake in front of her grunted.
“You don’t have a file, Human. Do you think we’re made of parchment? We just remember your face.”
“Oh, really? So if you saw me next time…”
“We might break your arm by ‘accident’. Or kick you in the face if you keep causing trouble. Or if you don’t shut up.”
Erin clamped her lips together. She walked down the last of the stairs in silence, much to everyone’s relief. The Drake stopped by a door, opened it with a key, and pointed inside. Erin stepped apprehensively into the prison and looked around.
It was actually pretty nice, as prisons went. Okay, sure, it was clearly a prison and there were cells, but they were big ones, some clearly meant to lock up groups while others were smaller. At the far end, a few cells looked enchanted; the metal bars were semi-translucent or seemed to glow, suggesting that they were reinforced or magicked in some way. And the furthest cell didn’t even have bars; the opening was encircled by a double-layer of tightly-written runes which glowed pale yellow in the dim light.
But the thing that surprised Erin most was…that there weren’t many cells to begin with. Liscor didn’t believe in having large prison populations. Troublemakers were fined, ejected from the city…or killed. The patrol of guards led Erin down the short jail, and she saw several people behind bars. Drakes, and a few Humans, all who looked like they’d been in some sort of fight. A pair of Gnolls, one of whom had been very unhappily sick, a Garuda…
Erin stopped, much to the annoyance of her captors. Bevussa waved at Erin and smiled weakly from behind the enchanted bars of her cell.
“Hey Erin. Fancy seeing you here.”
“What are you doing here?”
The young woman ignored the Drake who was trying to lead her onwards. Bevussa grinned sheepishly.
“I uh, got into a fight at the Adventurer’s Guild and punched a few people. You know, over the lottery? I’m in here for the day. Some of the other Gold-ranks are too. Keldrass is in the other cell. Say hi to him, would you?”
Erin blinked. The Drake growled at her and she remembered to keep moving.
“Whoops, sorry about that. Hey Keldrass! Bevussa says hi.”
“Tell her to eat her own tail.”
“Shove yours up your ass, Keldrass! I wasn’t even aiming for you!”
It definitely seemed like Erin had missed something. She kept walking and noticed they were headed to the back of the enchanted cells. She gulped. The City Watch wasn’t taking this lightly, for all they were treating her and the Hobs nice. She turned her head. Four Hobs stared at her back. Erin whispered quickly.
“Okay guys, look. I’m not sure what’s in there, but I do know how to survive jail. According to TV. The trick is that the instant we get in there, we have to find the biggest guy—or girl—and beat them up.”
The Hobs brightened up considerably. They could certainly do that! One of the female Gnolls looked askance. She glanced at her companions.
“Is she serious? She does know we’re putting them in separate cells, yes? What kind of prisons do Humans have?”
The others shook their heads. Erin blushed. She reached the end of the hallway and the Drake pointed.
“Oh. Just me? Uh, thanks for not hitting me or anything.”
Erin gingerly approached the cell. It was fairly spacious—fourteen feet by fourteen feet, quite unlike the image of cells Erin had seen in her world.
She jumped, but the Drake only wanted to unlock her shackles. Erin blinked as he took them off and then pointed. She backed slowly into the cell. The Drake grunted irritably as he closed and locked her cell door with a magic key. She thought he’d just leave her there, but to her surprise he looked at her.
“You’re lucky we owe you one, Human. You helped during the Face-Eater Moth attack, and with Skinner. And the Raskghar. My kid likes those hamburgers. Don’t make this a habit.”
The Drake grunted and walked past Erin. She heard more cells opening and saw Headscratcher entering the cell across from her. Doors closed, the City Watch marched past her. The Drake paused again in front of Erin’s cell.
“Don’t cause trouble. Don’t shout. You can talk if you want. Odds are Olesm lets you out in a few hours or tomorrow for hitting him. There will be a fine. If you’re here long you get fed.”
He nodded. Erin was left alone. She stared at the faintly glowing bars of her cell and gingerly touched them. They felt warm, but they didn’t shock her or explode. She gripped them with both hands and stared out. Two Hobs, Headscratcher, and Badarrow, were in her line of sight. Rabbiteater and Shorthilt were presumably locked up on her side of the dungeon.
“So…about my theory of beating up the biggest guy here. Uh, anyone see him?”
The Hobs dutifully looked around. The cells they were in were largely uninhabited, even by Gold-rank adventurers. Erin spotted empty cells around them, and then she looked at the furthest cell, the one guarded by runes. She saw someone standing there, immobile as a statue. Her heart leapt and she recoiled.
The Minotaur stared blankly ahead from behind the barrier to his cell. There were no bars in front of him, but the air looked…twisted. The runes shone constantly. Despite that, the Minotaur’s feet were still shackled. Not his hands—it was hard to put cuffs on someone with only one arm.
He didn’t move at first. The Minotaur was looking forwards, and he’d been so still that Erin had missed him in the shadows cast from the glowing runes. He stood at the left side of his cell. He looked…different. Erin had seen him after the Watch had arrested him. Then Calruz had been burned, wounded, barely recognizable. Now, he was still recognizable but for different reasons.
Some of the hair had begun growing on the places Calruz had been burned. It was uneven, and the Minotaur’s fur was uncombed, dirty. His face was grimy and the scars on his arms and legs stood out. He looked nothing like the proud captain of the Horns of Hammerad that Erin had known.
Erin and the Hobs stared at him. The Minotaur did not respond. The Redfangs eyed him. He was clearly the biggest person in the dungeon by far. They eyed his bulging muscles then patted their own arms for reassurance. Erin stared at Calruz and then looked at the Goblins.
“I don’t think we have to beat him up. It’s more like…an option? Don’t worry about it.”
The Hobs relaxed a bit. Erin stared at them and realized they hadn’t really gotten the joke from the start. She scratched her head and noticed that they were still shackled both hand and foot. She searched for something to say, but she really didn’t have anything.
She’d punched Olesm. Numbtongue had gotten away. Liscor was in danger again. Only this time it sounded really bad. The Goblin Lord. Erin hesitated, then sat down. She looked around her cell and decided it did fall behind prisons from her world in two ways: there was only a bucket in the corner for a toilet, and there was no bed. Drakes clearly believed that you should also suffer while in prison. She wondered if there was a torture chamber in Liscor too. Probably not.
She sat down on the cold stone floor and shivered. Headscratcher was gingerly pulling at the bars of his cell and Badarrow had already lain down. Erin stared at them.
“Sorry, guys. I didn’t mean to get you into this.”
The Hobs looked at her. Headscratcher looked incredibly guilty, and shook his head. He pointed slightly up and to the side, mimed shooting an arrow, made a snarling expression and then a look of shock and tapped his chest and pointed at Badarrow who nodded. He shook his head twice and then tapped his chest again before opening his hand and slapping his palm across his right arm, grimacing. Erin stared at him.
“I have no idea what you just said.”
Headscratcher sagged. Erin wished Numbtongue were here. Well, not here, but the Hob was the only one of the Goblins who was able to fully speak English, and her understanding of Goblins’ sign language wasn’t nearly advanced enough to interpret what that had meant. She looked around her cell again, but there was nothing to really look at. So she talked.
“I think they’ll let us go soon. Tomorrow, like the Drake said. Me, at least. I didn’t really expect Olesm to arrest me, you know. I mean, I guess after I punched him, yeah. But…I think he’s trying to protect all of you in his way. But it’s wrong. You know?”
Headscratcher shrugged. A Goblin’s reply. Erin half-smiled. Then her face fell.
“Is Bird going to be alright? Klbkch said the Queen could save him. But can she? It looked bad. Really bad.”
The Hobs looked at each other silently. Erin could read that. They didn’t think Bird had a chance. But she refused to believe that. The Queen had brought Klbkch back to life, after all! She could do the same for Bird. Klbkch had said she would save him if she wished. That meant she would do it. She would, right?
Hadn’t she given Bird money for his new bow?
Erin felt sick as she remembered Bird bleeding. She looked up, about to ask Headscratcher what had happened, even if he didn’t make sense, when she saw Calruz had moved. The Minotaur had turned. He was staring at her from his cell. Erin jerked and scrambled back. The Minotaur stared at her with a vacant expression. But then his eyes sharpened.
He moved forwards and the air rippled as he pressed his hand against the magical wall of his cell. His lips opened and he made a rasping sound. Erin stared as the Hobs stood up warily and stared at Calruz. The Minotaur made the sound again, then coughed. He was trying to speak.
“You. I know you.”
He looked at Erin. She stared at him, heart racing. Calruz looked at her, blinking. Erin hesitated. She remembered Calruz. She looked down at her hands and remembered him roaring at her, teaching her how to punch. How to fight. Back then—
And now. She looked at Calruz and remembered what Ceria had told her, what Erill had spoken about. Of Mrsha. She thought of the Raskghar and the bloody stone where Gnolls had died. Calruz blinked at Erin.
“I know you.”
“That makes one of us.”
Erin turned away from Calruz. She couldn’t look at him right now. Not yet. She sensed Calruz’s eyes on her, but kept her gaze ahead. She stared at Headscratcher. The Hob stared at Calruz and then looked at Erin. He stared at her and then spoke.
She blinked. The word was rough, and Headscratcher said it awkwardly, but he had said it. Badarrow opened his eyes. Rabbiteater and Shorthilt came to the front of their cells, looking at Erin sidelong. She sat behind the glowing bars of her cell.
“It wasn’t your fault. It was mine.”
“No. Us. Sorry.”
Headscratcher tapped his chest insistently. Erin stared at him and shook her head.
“It was another Hob, right?”
That was what Numbtongue had shouted at her in the panicked moments. Headscratcher nodded.
“Bad Hob. Us fight. Sorry.”
Erin bowed her head. She listened to the echoing voices in the prison as other people in the cells spoke quietly as well. She heard her heart beating altogether too fast, and heard something else. Drum beats in her head. A warning she hadn’t noticed.
“I think something bad is happening, guys. I think Liscor really is in danger this time. Do you…think so?”
She looked up at the Hobs, hoping they’d disagree. But they sat or lay on the ground or in Headscratcher’s case, just stood. The Hob looked at her and his red eyes glowed in the dim light. Slowly, he nodded.
“Yes. I think is bad. Very bad.”
Erin nodded as well. Her stomach churned and she looked north, past Badarrow. She didn’t know how, but she knew it was north. She could hear something coming.
“Yeah. Me too.”
“War. This is an act of war.”
Niers Astoragon strode across the maps in the war room in the citadel that was his home and the base of the Forgotten Wing company. His students looked down at him as they poured over the map. Niers stepped over a hill and nearly walked straight into the High Passes. He grunted and kicked; the magical projection wavered and he walked through the mountain range, emerging in the flooded basin that was Liscor.
Illusory water ran around Niers’ boots as he stared down at the city protruding from the water. Rainclouds hovered around Niers’ stomach, pouring water down into the basin. The Titan of Baleros frowned and stroked at his chin irritably. He was growing a beard after going clean-shaven for a few months and the stubble irritated him.
“It’s not raining in Liscor anymore. Someone adjust the projection and get these clouds out of here. Keep the water.”
One of his students moved and delicately tapped something on the map. The magical rendering of Liscor changed as Marian, a Centaur and one of Niers’ advanced students, changed the timescale of the map ahead slightly. The rainclouds vanished and the water levels began to lower.
“Stop. That will do for now.”
Marian took her hand away. Niers stared down at Liscor, now surrounded by mud and stagnant water in the valleys. He made a face and walked through the High Passes again.
“I hate magical maps. Where the hell did we put the paper ones? Venaz, Yerranola, find me a decent map of Liscor instead of this.”
The Minotaur and Selphid wearing a Dullahan’s body moved back from the table and began checking the maps stored by location on the far wall. Niers let them work as he kicked his way back through the mountains again.
Magical maps weren’t actually all that bad. They were a hundred times as expensive as an enchanted sword given the cost to make them, yes, and they could only depict what the [Mage] who created them knew—hence the vague, cloud-shrouded tops of the High Passes and other sections of the map which were featureless—but a single magical map could replace a hundred paper ones.
The one Niers was using could depict every known location in the world to great detail. Obviously the trees and grass and so on were just made up, but the large geographical features were all there. It was worth a fortune in gold, so much so that a good number of [Kings] wouldn’t have been able to afford such a map. Niers stomped across it in his boots, grumbling and kicking at cities and watching them vanish and reappear as he waited for his students to get him a proper map.
The trouble with magical maps for Niers was height. The High Passes were as tall as he was, which meant that he couldn’t see everything. He nodded as Venaz pulled out a map of Izril.
“That one will do. Lay it here.”
“Professor. Let me.”
A scaly claw descended and Niers looked up. Umina, the Lizardfolk girl and one of his youngest in the advanced class he taught, offered him a perch. Niers leapt up two feet into the air and landed on Umina’s claw. Venaz replaced the maps and Niers hopped down.
“Better. Now, as I was saying. War.”
He grabbed a pin and stuck it into the map, marking a spot just north of the High Passes’ other entrance. Niers pointed to the pin and spoke crisply to his assembled students. They straightened up, looking both nervous and intent. They knew this wasn’t a game. Niers had called them into the war room for a special lesson, and they were all aware of what was happening.
“The Humans are marching on Liscor. They’re driving the Goblins ahead of them and they intend to take the city using the Goblins as a pretext. Normally that would be suicide even with the army they’ve brought. Liscor is a Drake city, which means they’re fortified and their walls are extremely hard to crack with magic. But somehow, some way, the Humans are prepared. Tyrion Veltras has trebuchets. You’ve all read the [Message] that Liscor just sent out. Now, tell me what’s going on and what’s about to happen.”
He looked at his students. They hesitated, but they knew better than to wait for him to single one of them out. Wil, one of the Humans of the group, cleared his throat and lifted a slip of paper.
“Liscor made the first report, Professor, but the analysis was confirmed by multiple [Strategists] and [Tacticians] within minutes. It appears that somehow, the Drakes were all aware of the Human’s plans at the same time.”
“I suppose they all coordinated beforehand? Or have the Drakes learned telepathy?”
Niers raised one eyebrow. Wil hesitated.
“No, sir. It’s all too quick to be a coincidence. Either the Drakes knew ahead of time, or, more likely, someone tipped them off. About the trebuchets, that is.”
Niers nodded and Wil breathed a sigh of relief. The Fraerling looked at another of his students, a Dullahan holding his head up for a better view.
“Cameral? What are the Drakes saying?”
The Dullahan shifted his head to address Niers directly.
“They’re panicking. There are countless requests coming in for confirmation, asking for instructions, or outright denying the reports. The Walled Cities have begun a closed communication and there’s no way of knowing what they’re saying, but I have every official announcement they’ve put out.”
“They’re not moving yet. Which is unusual. Liscor’s put out an all-call warning and request for immediate reinforcements, but Pallass has yet to respond. Given the speed at which Drakes usually handle messages of this kind, this is unusual. And the other Walled Cities are equally slow to react. Salazsar’s pledged aid, as has Oteslia, but the other four Walled Cities are…they’re not replying.”
“And why is that?”
Niers prodded Cameral further. The Dullahan was good at explaining the situation, but he was reluctant to give out his personal take on the situation, which was a trait Niers had noticed in many of his Dullahan students. They regarded being wrong as a failing and so they said nothing, which was even worse. Cameral wavered, but then someone snorted to his left. Venaz leaned forwards.
“It means they’re wavering. They think Liscor will fall, so they’re not replying.”
Niers sighed. Venaz snorted, clearly pleased to have gotten the jump on Cameral. He had no problems stating his mind.
“Do you have proof, Venaz, or is this a hunch?”
The Minotaur straightened at the reprimand in Niers’ voice.
“I do, sir. Look at this. This is a message from Manus. It disputes Liscor’s claim and requests confirmation, despite the confirmation from over a dozen [Strategists]. They know the attack’s coming, but they want to buy time. Pretend it isn’t so they don’t have to respond right away.”
“And why is that? Surely they’d want to reinforce Liscor right away, especially Pallass, who we know has a connection to Liscor via that magic doorway.”
“You’d think so. But as I said, they think Liscor is going to fall. The Humans surprised them and the Drakes don’t think they can hold Liscor. So they’re refusing to act, like cowards. See, here’s another [Message] requesting confirmation.”
A harried Selphid [Maid] in a Lizardman’s body arrived with a basket full of [Messages] written on slips of paper. Venaz snatched one from the top and showed it around. Niers nodded.
There was no doubting the contents of the [Message] or that it came from Fissival this time. While the top-level Drake communications were secret and thus harder to obtain, general [Message] spells could be copied and obtained by anyone in the world if they had enough coin. And Niers was known for treating his networks of informants well for valuable information, so each [Message] spell sent was being sent not just to their intended recipients, but also to Niers and everyone else who was paying for access at the moment.
As such Niers and his students were reading [Message] spells at the same time as they arrived on Zevara’s desk in Liscor. Faster, probably, since Niers was paying the [Mages] a lot more than Liscor. Niers let his students pore over the [Messages] and report their contents for a second, but nothing noteworthy had arrived yet. He clapped his hands briskly for attention.
“Very well, that’s Venaz’s analysis. But if that’s so, that begs a question: are the Walled Cities right? Will Liscor fall? Give me your analysis…Marian.”
He looked at the female Centaur. She pawed the floor with a hoof nervously, but then tossed her long hair and replied confidently.
“I’d think so, sir. Given the fact that two armies are converging on Liscor, Goblin and Human? Liscor has barely ten thousand defenders if we factor in the City Watch plus the average amount of citizens who can fight in a crisis. Yes, they have Gold-ranks, but adventurers are known for fleeing cities in times of war. And the armies Tyrion Veltras have brought aren’t ordinary either.”
“They are not.”
Niers nodded appreciatively. He knew he should let Marian explain, but he couldn’t help himself. Besides, this wasn’t so much of a test of his student’s ability to see what was going on, as a lesson in war and politics by observation. He strode back over to the pin and tapped it with his knuckles.
“Two hundred thousand soldiers. That’s a powerful army, but it would deceive to just count it by numbers as well. Veltras has brought [Knights], [Mages], and most importantly, a host of [Lords] and [Ladies] and their personal retinues. That puts this army head-and-shoulders above an army of the same size comprised mainly of low-level [Militia]. And the Goblin Lord’s army is certainly no idle force either. If past Goblin Lords are any example, he would have Hobs by the thousand and powerful [Shamans] of his own. This one even has an undead army, although reports indicate it was mostly eradicated. Still, faced with all that, would any of you consider defending Liscor?”
His students looked at each other, clearly uneasy at the thought of trying to defend a city with that alone. Umina raised a claw.
“Well, sir, I don’t know if I would, but I’d point out that Liscor does have an Antinium Hive. Marian forgot to mention it.”
The Centaur blushed and Umina shot her friend an apologetic glance. Niers nodded.
“Never underestimate the Black Tide. But we know Liscor’s Hive is small—smaller than the other five older and more established Hives, at least. Do they have the numbers to supplement Liscor’s garrison? Can the Antinium defend as well as they attack?”
“It doesn’t matter. The Drakes should defend Liscor no matter the odds!”
Venaz clenched his fists. He ignored the skeptical looks some of the others shot him and turned to Niers. The Titan raised an eyebrow.
“You’re confident, Venaz. Explain.”
The Minotaur nodded eagerly. He was practically ablaze with energy; discussion of real-life tactics and strategy got the Minotaur fired up like nothing else. Eagerly he paced back and forth, pointing to locations on the map of Izril as Niers stepped back to give him room.
“Liscor is the lynchpin of the Drake defense. Everyone knows it. It’s held off Humans advances just by being there. An army marches past and it’s cut off. Supply trains get raided. Liscor rains and cuts off a warfront entirely. Assaults by sea and attempts to circumnavigate Liscor fail because the Drakes can always counterattack from that location as well. It’s vital. And if it falls, the Humans can take the offensive in every war rather than the defensive one. The Drakes cannot lose this city. It’s worth throwing every soldier they have into holding it, rather than letting the Humans claim it.”
Venaz spoke with passion, and Niers saw a few of his students nodding hesitantly. The [Grandmaster Strategist] just sighed internally and scratched at his growing beard. He looked for the right student to call on and saw Umina scratching at the colorful frills on her neck uneasily.
“Umina. You have a thought?”
She jumped and blushed.
“I uh—well, I just think that Venaz might be wrong, sir.”
The Minotaur turned and stared expectantly at Umina. She turned pale, but Marian trotted over and stood by her side. Umina seemed to draw strength from her friend and took a deep breath. Niers nodded as he saw her eyes focus. She was one of his best students, better than Venaz or Marian or anyone else when she was confident.
“Well…first of all, I’d point out that Tyrion Veltras has prepared for this attack. He’s clearly aimed for this from the beginning. No one saw it—except for you, sir.”
She grinned at Niers, who waved the compliment away. His students nodded, impressed. Of course the Titan knew. Niers wanted to smack them all on the back of the heads. Hero worship. Oh, he had to knock that out of them or they’d never graduate.
“I didn’t predict the trebuchets, Umina. I thought that Tyrion Veltras was going to bombard the walls down with magic; create a breach for the Goblins. It would be harder, but he has the [Mages] to do it. Or bring a bunch of ladders and enough wood for siege towers in bags of holding and ‘accidentally’ let the Goblins have it.”
“Even so, sir. Tyrion Veltras set this up and so he knew the Drakes would find out sooner or later. If I were him, I’d expect the Drakes to do exactly what Venaz is suggesting. And if I were him…I’d want that to happen.”
Niers covered a smile. Umina walked to the map and touched the icon marking Liscor.
“They send elites. As many soldiers as they can to fill Liscor. I’d send the Goblins at them—force them to fight or die. Hold the Goblin Lord hostage maybe? Is that why Elia Arcsinger is—? Either way, I’d get them to attack first. Weaken the Drakes. But then I’d move in with my army. If the Drakes send fifty thousand, a hundred thousand of their own to defend the city, all the better. I’d smash their entire force and weaken both Liscor, Pallass, and every Drake city that sent soldiers.”
She traced lines from Pallass to Liscor, from smaller cities, her claws running across the map. She looked at Niers and her eyes were cold.
“Liscor is a trap, sir. And if I can bag as many high-level soldiers in it as I can, I win even more. I want them to try and hold Liscor. Because if they’re in the city, they can’t retreat. Drakes don’t run. I’ll slaughter them and break their spirits in one blow.”
The room was silent. Umina looked up and met Venaz’s eyes for a second, then looked away. Niers enjoyed the incredulous look on the Minotaur’s face. Sometimes he forgot that a ‘female’ like Umina could be as ruthless as he was.
“Well done. It’s not what I would do necessarily, but that is how Tyrion Veltras thinks. You have a gift for thinking like your opponents, Umina. Hone that talent. It will serve you well. Well done indeed.”
It was one of Niers’ highest compliments. Umina turned red with pride and Marian laid a hand on her shoulder in delight. Niers waited a beat, and then turned to Venaz. The Minotaur looked uncertain, dismayed. Niers walked down the map, past Liscor and to the northern-most Walled City. Pallass. He stared up at the Minotaur.
“Umina’s given an excellent example of the dangers of trying to hold Liscor. However, Venaz’s points cannot be discounted either. But one statement was incorrect to begin with. You are wrong, Venaz. The Walled Cities are hesitating, but they haven’t abandoned Liscor just yet. They’re doing the same thing we are: weighing the odds and deciding if they should rush to Liscor’s aid or form a larger army and try to take the city back. The problem is Pallass.”
Venaz’s brows shot together. The Minotaur folded his hands behind his back as he stared at the Walled City that Niers was tapped with his left foot.
“How so, sir?”
Niers nodded. The Minotaur wasn’t arguing back as he normally did. He was listening, trying to figure out where he was wrong. Better. He was learning. Now he just had to understand how other species thought politically. Niers pointed down at Pallass.
“They’re the ones ideally placed to support Liscor. The problem is their leadership. They have a democracy, which means their ruling body, the Assembly of Crafts, has to come to a consensus on what to do. That makes Pallass historically the slowest of the Walled Cities to react to incidents.”
Cameral muttered under his breath. Venaz nodded as well. Umina and Marian, who both came from democratic societies, shot the two dirty looks. Niers ignored his students as he went on.
“Say what you will about the system—it leads to stability, but it means paralysis at times. And the problem is that this is exactly the kind of situation that has Pallass split on what to do. They’re wavering, arguing, trying to figure out what to do. But that’s the real crisis. If they wait too long, the choice will be out of their hands.”
“Whatever. Pallass is indecisive. And if they won’t move, the other Walled Cities will hesitate. The hesitant factions in Pallass can just deadlock the Assembly and keep the war hawks from sending aid to Liscor until it’s too late. And I think that’s exactly what Tyrion Veltras is counting on.”
The students murmured with interest. Niers nodded. Do you see? He wanted to ask them. Tyrion wasn’t fighting just a war on the ground. He was using the politics of the Drakes against them. He might hate the Drakes, but he’d studied his enemies well. He knew their climate, their systems of government—and he knew Goblins as well.
He would have made a fine [Strategist], although Niers would have never suffered him in a class. He knew Tyrion Veltras. He had met the man. Tyrion was like a sword. He could employ strategy, cunning, and he could be devious, but like a sword he could only cut. And he went straight for the heart.
Niers was about to have two of his students simulate an attack on the city and propose viable strategies for defense and offense—Wil and Marian probably, and he’d kick Marian in the ear if she suggested trying to use hit-and-run skirmishing tactics in the muddy floodplains against the Humans with their cavalry—when he saw Cameral checking at something in his hands. He looked up sharply as the Dullahan raised his head for attention.
“Professor! My scrying orb just lit up. Wistram is broadcasting one of their [Scrying] moving images again! It looks like someone is transmitting the spell from Pallass!”
Niers’ head snapped up. He grinned.
“Now that’s interesting. Get a large scrying orb set up now. I think we’ll all want to see this.”
They weren’t sending reinforcements. They were asking for confirmation. Confirmation! They weren’t sending reinforcements. They were not—
Olesm ran across the water bridge leading from Liscor to The Wandering Inn. He huffed as he ran and tried to watch the water for Rock Crabs or larger fish monsters, but he ran as fast as he could, ignoring the disturbance he was causing in the water. A Quillfish shot a spine at Olesm and he swore, but he kept running.
Pallass wasn’t responding to his [Messages]. They were wavering. They think Liscor’s a lost cause. Or they’re hesitating. Or—
He had gotten back to the City Hall and seen Wall Lord Ilvriss arguing with his fellow nobility in Salazsar as Zevara frantically sent more and more [Messages] and received noncommittal answers. There had been no door, and Olesm had been told that Embria had gone with the patrol to The Wandering Inn to secure the door half an hour ago and not returned. So Olesm had ran here. He ran up the hill to the inn and saw [Guardsmen], [Guardswomen], and [Soldiers] milling about on the grass. Olesm gulped for air and then shouted at the Gnoll wearing a Senior Guardsman’s insignia.
“Senior Guardswoman Beilmark! Why isn’t the door in Liscor? Where is Wing Commander Embria?”
The Gnoll turned.
“Olesm, er, Strategist Olesm, we tried to remove the door, but one of the [Barmaids] blocked us. And she has uh, adventurer support! Wing Commander Embria went through the door to request aid from Pallass, but she hasn’t returned.”
“She did? I’ve got to get her.”
Olesm ran through the doorway, ignoring Beilmark’s warning shout. They had to get to Pallass, get them to start sending soldiers through! He charged through the door, saw Moore raising his staff like a headman with an axe, and froze.
“Moore, don’t! It’s Olesm!”
Lyonette cried out. Moore hesitated. He lowered his staff. Olesm stared at him and then realized why no one had tried taking the door. He pointed at Moore with a trembling claw.
“We need—that door is—Erin’s in jail! Bird might die but he might live! I need to get to Pallass!”
The adventurers and Lyonette, all of whom were clustered around the entrance, stared at Olesm. He ignored Ceria, the Horns, Jelaqua, and Moore and Mrsha racing about him and charged for the door. It was open. Bright light streamed through and Pallass’ streets were ahead of him. Olesm ran through, and felt the door blink out behind him. He whirled and saw only brick wall.
“Ancestors damn it!”
The door was out of mana! Embria must have depleted it before Olesm! The door could only take two people after all—wait, was that right? Hadn’t Hawk, Wall Lord Ilvriss, and Erin all gone through one time? Didn’t that mean three—?
Loud voices made Olesm turn. He saw a huge crowd of Drakes and Gnolls gathered down the street. And standing on a wooden platform—Olesm’s heart sank—was Wing Commander Embria. She was arguing with a paunchy Gnoll dressed in a [Senator]’s robes, shouting, really. The Gnoll was smiling, well, fake smiling, and answering back as the crowd jeered Embria.
Olesm ran for the two of them, cursing inside. As he ran, he passed by a pair of Drakes who were speaking to a Human in flamboyant clothing who was holding a scrying orb up in front of him. The two Drakes were speaking into the scrying orb for some reason. One of them had a monocle. They sounded…familiar.
“This is Noass and Sir Relz of Pallass, newly made [Commentators] with a Human [Magician] providing us the [Scrying] spell. We happened to be on the scene when we met—er, what did you say your name was, sir?”
“Eltistiman Verdue, [Magician] for hire at your service.”
“That’s right. We are speaking to you from Pallass where, at this moment, [Strategists] are warning of an attack on Liscor. However, the Assembly of Crafts has not yet issued an announcement. Senator Errif is speaking to a crowd and what appears to be a Wing Commander from Liscor of all people! She arrived through the door—”
“—in rather a huff, Relz, wouldn’t you agree? Rudely storming up to the [Senator], in that classic Liscorian aggressiveness—”
“—too true, Sir Relz, too true. But Senator Errif has been giving her a piece of Pallass’ mind! Attack on Liscor? Not likely! Does she have proof? Should we move an army through that door to Liscor on one [Strategist]’s say so?”
“There are apparently a lot of [Strategists] supporting this claim, Noass.”
“Indeed, Sir Relz, indeed. But what’s best for Pallass? We have to ask that, as harsh as it may be. If we look at the odds, this Human [Lord], Tyrion Veltras, is bringing not only two hundred thousand soldiers, but the Goblin Lord’s army is being driven before him. Of course, this is all apparently due to the Human’s inability to catch the Goblins, but if they were to accidentally assault Liscor—”
Olesm dashed past the two Drakes, ignoring the cry out of outrage from the one with the monocle. He shouted as he pushed through the crowd.
“Excuse me! Excuse me! Let me pass, please, I’m Liscor’s [Strategist]!”
“It looks like we have Liscor’s actual [Strategist] on the scene, Noass—”
“Unprecedented! Can Drakes just walk through from Liscor to Pallass? And what’s he doing? Looks like he’s joining the Wing Commander. Let’s go in for a closer look. Make way, please! [Commentators] passing through!”
Olesm fought to get to the stage where Embria was arguing with the Gnoll [Senator]. He felt the crowd open up—not because of him, but because of the two Drakes following him! Olesm growled, but dashed up onto the wooden platform. A [Guardsman] dressed in Pallass’ colors held a spear up threateningly. Olesm held up his claws.
“I’m Liscor’s [Strategist]!”
The Gnoll didn’t look convinced, but an amused, growling voice spoke from above.
“Let him up, [Guardsman].”
Olesm scrambled onto the wooden platform and looked around. A sea of faces stared at him. Suddenly he felt dizzy. He hadn’t thought this through. Apprehensively he stared at the smiling Gnoll and Embria. The Wing Commander was red—well, redder in the face and her tail was practically tied in knots. The Gnoll on the other hand was silky smooth. He growled at Olesm, his voice magically amplified by a broach on his chest.
“Well, it seems Liscor’s [Strategist] has come, yes? Many folk seem to be fleeing from their posts in Liscor to come to Pallass to ask for aid.”
“I am—I am asking for aid! Liscor sent a reinforcement request and Pallass hasn’t answered!”
Olesm gasped, trying to raise his voice loud enough to be heard over the jeers from the crowd. Errif, the [Senator], raised one paw.
“Please, good people. We have of course heard Liscor’s plea and we take it seriously. Yet, the [Message] spell we received claims Liscor will be attacked! But can we truly take that as truth? I received a frenzied report about Humans plotting to attack Liscor with the aid of Goblins—this is a serious accusation! It would mean war if true.”
“It is true! The Humans have trebuchets—”
Embria began to shout, but Errif kept speaking, and somehow his words drowned hers out, though he was quieter. A Skill. Olesm saw him smiling at the crowd, speaking mockingly.
“They might! Who knows? They might! But to declare a national emergency and expect soldiers within minutes of calling it? Striding into Pallass to do so? That is hardly appropriate, yes? Give us a day or two to verify your reports. If this is true, we can send reinforcements, yes? My fellow [Senators] in the Assembly of Crafts, the Scalethrift party, don’t believe Pallass should blindly rush into things.”
“Days? In two days, the Humans will be right on top of us! We don’t have two days, you furry—”
Whatever Embria had been about to say was cut off by Olesm’s desperate claw. The crowd roared in outrage and Errif frowned at Embria. He raised his voice.
“Wing Commander, please, show some respect for Pallass’ systems of government!”
Pallass’ citizens cheered and some began to throw things at the two Drakes. Olesm felt a shoe bounce off his back. He stared at Errif. He couldn’t be serious! Olesm raised his own voice desperately, shouted over the crowd.
“Senator, this is no mistake! We need the support of the Walled Cities now! If you could send a few thousand [Soldiers] through now—”
Errif frowned at Olesm.
“The Assembly is debating. We will not take action until a vote is called.”
“Why are you here, then?”
Embria demanded. Errif sniffed.
“We are on break. Wing Commander, Liscor’s Strategist, the Assembly of Crafts has heard your request! We will consider it! But I remind you, Pallass is not at the beck and call of Liscor. We will have our own [Strategists] go over your report. And when we are certain, we will do what is best for Pallass and Liscor!”
He raised his furry arms and got a cheer. Not a huge one; some Drakes and Gnolls in the crowd looked uneasy, like Sir Relz and Noass. But it didn’t matter. Errif had said his bit and he was beckoning for Pallass’ City Watch to remove Embria and Olesm from the stage. Embria swore at the [Guards] and Olesm felt something rising in him.
They weren’t going to help. They were going to stall like this and then claim it was too late. Or Errif’s party was, at any rate. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t right.
Olesm felt something hot in his stomach, searing him from within. He stared at the pompous Gnoll [Senator] with his paunchy belly and smug, superior expression. He thought of Liscor, his home, and of the Goblin Lord and his armies. He thought of trebuchets, of the walls he had stood on for so many years, of his friends and family, and his duties. He thought of Erin too. His stomach hurt where Erin had kicked him. And Olesm felt all of the panic, fear, and anger building in him until he did something completely uncharacteristic:
He lost his temper.
The image projected across the world from Wistram had shown all of Errif’s back-and-forth with the Drakes on the stage. Truth be told, it hadn’t been too gripping, but the reactions of the Drakes and the Gnoll’s statements were of great interest to anyone following the events in Liscor. Wistram certainly thought so, or they wouldn’t have broadcast the image and audio. But it wasn’t exciting.
That was, until the Drake with pale-blue scales who claimed to be Liscor’s [Strategist] shoved the [Guardsman] trying to remove him from the stage. Instantly, the Gnoll [Senator] was in front of Olesm, bursting with patriotic indignation.
“You will not lay your claws on a member of Pallass’ Watch! [Guardsmen], arrest this—”
Olesm screamed in Errif’s face. A thousand scrying orbs around the world reflected Errif recoiling as a bit of spit struck him on the nose. Olesm turned and bellowed at the [Guardsmen] now reaching for their weapons.
“Stand down! That is an order!”
He pointed at a Drake with a sword. Errif growled, forgetting his amiable smile.
“You do not give orders! I am a [Senator] of Pallass, and you are—”
He went ‘ulp’ as Olesm grabbed him by the robes. The Drake shouted in Errif’s face.
“I said, shut up! That is an order! I outrank you, you stupid furry idiot!”
Errif gaped at him. The crowd gaped at him. Sir Relz and Noass’ jaw dropped as they hovered in the edge of the scrying orb’s field of vision. Olesm turned. He shouted at the stunned crowd.
“I am the Strategist of Liscor and my city is in danger! When I give orders, only a Watch Captain or a [General] can challenge me! I outrank you. I outrank a Lord of the Wall and the entire damn Assembly of Crafts at this moment!”
He pointed back at Errif, who was lost for words. In the scrying orb, Sir Relz stared at Olesm and then seemed to recall that he was supposed to be commentating. He turned back to the scrying orb with wide eyes.
“That’s Liscor’s [Strategist] claiming he has authority over Pallass! That’s…I mean, that is how military protocol works. But in another city? Is that fair? Noass?”
The other Drake jumped. He looked around and seemed at a loss for words. Then he looked back at Olesm.
“It—it may be, Sir Relz! But hold on! Let’s got a word from the [Strategist] himself. You there, sir! We’re broadcasting this moment as we speak—no, we’re sending this live across the world! What do you have to say about the claims that Liscor is in danger?”
Errif turned pale as he stared into the scrying orb. Olesm gaped at Noass. He stared into the scrying orb and then seemed to realize what Noass was saying. His scales nearly turned white with shock for a second, and then he visibly caught himself.
“Is Liscor really under attack or is it truly an overblown alert? What if Liscor, if you are wrong and the city is not in danger? How will you ensure Pallass doesn’t waste resources and soldiers on Liscor? What if you place Pallassian lives at risk?”
Noass pressed Olesm, beckoning whomever was holding the scrying orb forwards. Olesm paled even further, but then his claws balled into fists. He shouted back down at Noass, suddenly furious.
“You want to talk about risk? While Pallass is debating, an army of Goblins is marching on Liscor! The other Walled Cities are hesitating! None of them—no, only Oteslia and Salazsar have responded to a priority distress call! It is the duty of Walled Cities to immediately respond to threats, and I have called for aid! Where is it? Why do I have to repeat myself? Liscor is in danger! If I’m wrong, Pallass wastes time. If Pallass is wrong, Liscor falls.”
Noass hesitated, and Sir Relz raised his monocle.
“But Sir Strategist, if the danger to Liscor is real, then the risk to Pallass’ own is—”
“This is not about danger! This is not about risk!”
Olesm bellowed at Sir Relz and the Drake recoiled. Olesm pointed around the crowd, shouting louder and louder.
“Liscor is in danger! If we fall, Pallass is next! I don’t want to talk to a cowardly politician or a bunch of idiots looking at maps! I want [Soldiers]! Is this a Walled City or a Human slum without discipline?”
The Drakes and Gnolls stared up at Olesm. He whirled and pointed at Errif, who was clearly trying to interject and not finding a way to do so. He advanced on the Gnoll, who backed up, looking alarmed.
“This isn’t a matter of politics. This isn’t about whether Liscor will win or lose a battle. This is about duty. About law! When a city calls for aid, other cities answer! And if you or anyone else gets in the way of the chain of command, I. Will. Arrest. You.”
The Drake poked the Gnoll [Senator] repeatedly in the chest, sending the Gnoll stumbling backwards until he nearly fell off the stage. In the scrying orb, Olesm turned and stared straight at the viewers. He shouted, his face flushed, his tail lashing the ground.
“I am the [Strategist] of Liscor and I am calling for reinforcements! Give me your best or hide behind your walls like cowards but we will be in Liscor, holding the line! If we have to defend Liscor by ourselves, we will! True Drakes do not run!”
He paused for breath, panting. The scrying orb swiveled left and right, revealing a crowd staring up at Olesm in shock. The Drake finally seemed to come back to his senses, and he turned pale again. He looked around, then leapt from the stage and tried to push his way through the crowd, back to the door to Liscor.
It looked a bit like he was running away, but that didn’t matter. Drakes and Gnolls roared and swarmed around Olesm and Embria while Errif found himself besieged from all sides by a suddenly angry crowd. The image jostled as it moved back and forth for a minute. Shoving bodies and confused shouting was all that was heard and seen. Then the [Mage] won clear of the crowd and moved back several feet. A disheveled Drake with a monocle appeared, panting a bit.
“And that was Liscor’s [Strategist]! A terrific appeal to Drake pride, and of course Pallass’ citizens are in arms at the thought of abandoning a fellow Drake city in its hour of need! There’s no way we’ll get to the [Strategist] himself—I seem to have lost Relz—but we’ll try and get a response from Senator Errif! Human, to me!”
The scrying orb became a jumble of shouting voices and the Drake with the monocle shouting for people to ‘make way’. It didn’t matter. Niers Astoragon silently pointed, and the [Diviner] raised a hand. The scrying orb went dark.
The students looked down at their professor and saw him staring at the blank orb. The Titan of Baleros had a wide grin on his face, a look of uncharacteristic delight his students had seldom ever seen. He breathed out slowly.
He whirled and strode away from the scrying orb. Slowly, the other students came back to the here and now. Venaz clenched a fist, Marian shook herself in place. Umina looked to Niers.
“Professor, what do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said. Full marks! That Drake—that was Olesm Swifttail, wasn’t it? He may have just saved his city.”
Niers couldn’t stop grinning. He turned and looked at his students. They stared at him, some half-understanding, others confused. They couldn’t feel it yet. But Niers could, and he wagered Olesm and a good number of other people in this world had caught on. The King of Destruction had figured it out.
It was the scrying orb. The ability to send an image across the world to everyone with an orb of their own in the moment. It was a sense that Niers had, that Olesm had picked up on.
The idea of the world stage. Niers paced back and forth.
“That Drake’s done it. Marian, get me every [Message] spell that comes in the next few minutes. Run! The rest of you—remember that. Remember this, because this is history. I can feel it. I feel like a new war is beginning. A war of words, of public opinion! Every city and nation will have to consider it. It won’t just be [Message] spells, it will be people seeing their leaders making decisions. What will happen to the Drake chain of command if their people see them making choices they don’t like? What will happen to a [King] whose people broadcast his every failing? What—”
Marian raced back into the room, holding a basket of [Message] spells. Niers turned.
The Centaur tore through the pieces of paper. The first one made her exclaim.
“An announcement! Oteslia has deployed its Winged Riders! They say they can reach Liscor in six days!”
“Six? From across the entire continent?”
Venaz roared in disbelief. He grabbed another piece of paper and his eyes bugged out.
“Zeres has pledged an army of eighty thousand regular soldiers and five thousand of their elite Saltscale Wardens!”
“What? But they were just—”
Wil looked stunned, but his friend, Cameral, had caught on. The Dullahan fixed his head to his shoulders and grabbed another piece of paper.
“Every Drake city just saw that. Do you think they’ll sit still? He called them out! If they did, their people would riot! If my people saw something like that—Manus is pledging an army of their own!”
The students grabbed for the basket, exclaiming, reading out report after report as the cities scrambled over themselves to be the first to send aid to Liscor. Niers’ smile didn’t vanish—he could imagine that right now, at this very moment, Tyrion Veltras was not smiling.
At last, the frenzy died down. And Niers’ students turned back to him, waiting to see what had changed. Niers stepped over the map, looking at the [Messages]. Thinking.
“This changes much. And nothing at the same time. Liscor will have its reinforcements, faster than Tyrion Veltras expected. But…”
He looked at Marian. The Centaur nodded.
“Even the fastest armies won’t get there in time. A force from Pallass? Yes. And they’ll be moving troops through the magic door. But they still need to hold out.”
“Exactly. And that door is a weak point. If I were that Drake, I’d put my best soldiers on the door. Or my most expendable ones.”
Niers frowned to himself. He looked at the map of Liscor and didn’t let his elation cloud his judgment.
“Whether they hold out in time for reinforcements now depends on how many soldiers they can bring through from Pallass, how strong the Goblin Lord’s army is…and how far Tyrion Veltras is willing to go. It’s still in his favor, but…”
Niers shook his head.
“They have a chance. More, if there are other factors I don’t know about. As it is, I give Liscor a chance.”
He looked down at Liscor. Then his eyes travelled to something else. The paper map had no fine details on it. The mountains were just mountains and the city of Liscor was just an illustration. But the map had one thing going for it the magical one did not: it could be changed by Niers himself.
Liscor was already tiny on the map of Izril, a single city surrounded by mountains. But Niers had added something nonetheless, marked a spot just east of the city. A little dot, set just outside of Liscor. It would have looked like an ink stain or a speck if you didn’t know it was there.
The identity of Niers Astoragon’s mysterious chess partner was unknown, even to him. But he had [Scryed] his opponent once. And he had not seen him. Her. It. But Niers had seen the room his chessboard was in for a moment. And he had remembered it. He couldn’t help it. It hadn’t meant much; the room could have been any wooden structure anywhere in the world. But then had come the day of the Face-Eater Moths attack. And Niers had seen it.
The same inn. The same interior as the one he had seen for a brief second. And he had known. Niers had conducted a bit of information gathering, found out the name of the inn. Nothing else; he hadn’t wanted to tip his hand to anyone that he was curious. But the name of the inn burned in his mind.
Was his opponent staying there? Had they been moving from the inn on the road? Or were they…?
For a second Niers stared, and then he pretended to be inspecting Liscor. He shouldn’t have put the marking there. It was a mistake. Of course, no one would notice. It was a tiny dot, so small only a Fraerling would notice. Or a keen-eyed student. Niers looked back up and murmured to himself.
“More than a chance.”
His students watched him, waiting for his conclusion. The Titan of Baleros had none. He took a seat on a closed ink bottle and shook his head.
“I don’t know how it will turn up. But I am sure of one thing. I’ll bet all my hats and Venaz’s horns that there’s a lot more we don’t know about. If I were Tyrion Veltras, I’d watch my back. Everyone in the world knows what he’s planning. But I wonder if he knows what everyone has in mind? Because believe me…”
Niers walked over and tapped the bright red pin marking Tyrion Veltras and the Goblin Lord’s army. He looked around and smiled like a wolf.
“Nothing’s ever this simple.”
The Necromancer smiled as he relayed the last of the [Message] spells to his apprentice via their mental link. He could sense his apprentice’s growing sense of unease, but Az’kerash was calm. In his study he stared at the twisted flesh and bone sitting in front of him. Waiting to be shaped. He was close, he could feel it. The last iteration of his Chosen had been a failure, but these would be true masterpieces. Still, there were matters which required his attention.
“This is an opportunity, my apprentice.”
“I do not see it, master.”
Reiss spoke through their link. The Goblin Lord stared at the Human army and imagined them coming down on Liscor’s walls. So that was their plan. They would send the Goblins to attack Liscor, then fall on them once the city fell. He bared his teeth.
“We will not do it. This plan will fail. Attacking Liscor is certain-death. Foolish-death. We will let the Drakes battle the Humans and escape—”
Az’kerash’ voice was firm. Reiss tried to protest, but an invisible force took control of his tongue, his vocal chords, his jaw.
“You fail to understand Tyrion Veltras’ will, my apprentice. He will not let you flee. You think you can outrun his army? He will burn you and slaughter your tribe to the last rather than let you flee. And it does not matter if Liscor repels your army. It does not matter how many soldiers Pallass sends today.”
My apprentice. Reiss bit his tongue. He had a name. A name given to him by a dying Drake. His name. But he didn’t tell his master. Instead, he tried to sound innocent, confused.
“It does not?”
“No. They are doomed, regardless of how much they struggle. Even if the city of Liscor holds off your army, my apprentice, Tyrion Veltras will not be stopped. He intends to take Liscor and he will take the city regardless of how many defend it.”
“Then we die. We die if we win, but we die twice over with reinforcements from Pallass.”
Reiss felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. But then it stopped. A chill entered him as his master’s energy flowed from him to Reiss, giving him strength. Reassurance, black, like midnight, ran through Reiss’ veins.
“Pay no attention to the doorway, my apprentice. It will be dealt with momentarily. Rather, consider Liscor and your fate. Do you think I would abandon you after all the time I have invested in you?”
Yes. Just like Oom. Just like the others. But Reiss didn’t say that either. He pushed the words down, daring not even to think them in his head. There was nowhere safe from his master. Nowhere but the depths of his heart, the beating soul he clung to. Still clung to. It was the one place Az’kerash could not look; his master’s heart had ceased beating long ago.
“What can we do, master?”
“Why, let the Humans play their game, my apprentice. Be the pawns in their trap. Take the city. Kill the Drakes. Slaughter the Antinium in their Hive.”
“But if we do—”
“Your Goblins will die. Yes. And Drakes will die. And the Antinium. And Tyrion will expect to sweep in and clean up the survivors. But he will not. Because on the day Liscor falls my apprentice, I will be with you. And I will raise every soul that falls. Every last one. Drake. Gnoll. Human. Goblin.”
Reiss’ heart skipped a beat in his chest.
“Master? What are you saying?”
A smile flashed across Reiss’ lips that was not his own. His lips moved and spoke another’s words.
“Exactly what I claimed. On the day you do battle, I will lend my strength to yours. I will reanimate the fallen and give you warriors to slaughter the Drakes. They will not be able to defend against that. Imagine it, my apprentice. Imagine a zombie or Ghoul or Draug rising for each of your enemies you slay. Every single one, in a city of Liscor’s size. Only the Antinium will be spared and they will fall against your hordes. With them you could hold Liscor, could you not?”
“But the Humans—”
Reiss protested, but his mind was racing. How many citizens did Liscor hold? Ten thousand? No, many more than that. A Walled City held hundreds of thousands. Did Liscor hold a hundred thousand citizens? More? A hundred thousand undead plus his army…
“Perhaps you do not think it would be enough?”
Reiss bit his lip. Yes, even with those numbers, they would have to hold shattered walls. And they would be wounded, tired after fighting an entire city even if the undead rose. But again the smile flashed across his lips.
“Yes, my apprentice. Tyrion Veltras has an army dangerous enough on its own. But I promised you I would raise every soul that fell. And that includes his warriors. And he has brought [Knights]. Adventurers. They will become lethal undead far stronger than the rest. The strength of the living is matched by the power of the undead. But if that is not enough, if you hesitate, I will offer you one more token of victory. My Chosen.”
This time Reiss’ heart did skip another beat. He felt it, and he felt his master’s joy.
“Yes. Not Kerash. I cannot risk him. But I will give you Bea. I will give you Venitra. Ijvani has not yet returned to me, but two are enough. Bea will bring death to the Antinium and Venitra will take Tyrion Veltras’ life. Is that not enough?”
It was. It was enough. Two of the Chosen. Reiss remembered them fighting. He had seen Venitra kill. He closed his eyes and remembered them standing over Zel Shivertail. They had not killed him, but they had come close.
Two. With two, he could—Reiss’ mind raced. Az’kerash spoke with his lips, forced his eyes open.
“So, my apprentice. Do you still fear Liscor and the plans of the Humans? Or do you see victory? Because should you take Liscor and hold it, you will have a city of your own. A place to defend. A home for your kind.”
And there it was. His dream. A shining city on a hill. Reiss’ eyes opened wide. He stared at the image in his mind. Of all places. Liscor. He imagined rebuilding the walls. With his master’s power it could be done in a day. And if he could defeat Tyrion Veltras, could it be possible that the Drakes would…? If he left some alive, if he…
“Well, my apprentice?”
Reiss stood in place, staring at the Human army. Around him Goblins milled about, staring at his back. The Goblin Lord slowly turned and they flinched from his gaze. But he was not looking at them. His eyes found a Goblin with a crimson blade, who stared at him suspiciously from the back of a huge wolf. And another—a small Goblin who wept for the Great Chieftain who had been her enemy.
“Yes, Master. I do not fear the Humans. Give me power and I will take Liscor for you.”
For him. For Goblins. Reiss heard Az’kerash laugh as if he could hear the lie. His master spoke one last time, in his head, not with his mouth.
“Then prepare, my apprentice. Prepare and grow your army. Two Chieftains must kneel and I must strengthen myself for the ordeal to come. But know that I am with you.”
And then he was gone. Reiss understood the irony of that, but he could still feel his master’s magic filling him. He clenched a fist and looked up. His blood hummed. He stared back at the Humans and then began to walk slowly. And he saw it. A vision of a city filled with Goblins. A safe haven.
Victory. One last battle. Reiss had told Osthia that he had three battles to win, long ago. Now it was one. All he had to do was take Liscor. With his master’s help it was possible. More than possible. All he had to do was gather the last two tribes to him. Reiss paused. After Tremborag’s death, it should be easy. All he had to do was convince Rags and Garen to kill them all. All he had to do was wade through the blood of the innocent. Reiss closed his eyes and touched his heart. He felt it beat, and quiver, then stop for a moment. It hurt. But it had to be done. For a dream.
One last time.
“We are gathered here for one reason. To discuss Liscor and the plans of Humans and Drakes.”
The Grand Queen spoke softly. The vessel that reflected her image raised its feelers and gestured to Klbkch. It tilted the mirror and five faces flashed at Klbkch for a moment. He stood before her, next to his Queen, the Free Queen of the Antinium. They listened as the Grand Queen went on, speaking to all the Hives at once.
“A decade ago, the Hives conferred and it was decided that a Hive would be established in Liscor. To forge an alliance. To secure a foothold. To allow the Queen of the Free Antinium to conduct her…theories. Now the situation has changed. So the Hives are met in conclave here to discuss. I am the Grand Queen of the Antinium. And we see in the Goblins and schemes of Humans an opportunity for the Antinium. We see their deaths.”
She looked at the Free Queen. Klbkch could sense his Queen’s resentment, her tension. And fear, too. For despite their objections to her, contempt, fury, both Klbkch and the Queen of the Free Antinium looked on the Grand Queen and knew she spoke for the Hives. They felt her pull, even in Liscor.
“The situation in Liscor has changed. Pallass has agreed to reinforce the city, as have the other Walled Cities and lesser cities. However, they will not reach Liscor before the Humans and Goblin Lord. So the city will be besieged. My Queens, your thoughts?”
The mirror flashed. The body twitched and another presence took over. The Queens spoke, each one different, each one inhabiting the vessel before ceding control. They were five-in-one. Each time one of the Queens took over control of the body it would stiffen, then move as they willed it. Five voices, all similar, but each different in how the Queens spoke. Each Queen unique, as were their Hives.
“Unprecedented. The opening of war.”
She sat still, her moving mandibles the only changing thing about her. The rest of her was still and silent. Watchful, waiting. The Silent Queen.
“Is it certain? Beyond doubt?”
She looked to Klbkch, as if he could answer her. The Silent Queen, weaver of bodies. She had been chiefly responsible for bringing back Galuc’s form in the Workers and Soldiers. And she had been the first to create the forms of old. The Silent Antinium, assassins camouflaged, stalking. The mirror flickered. The Grand Queen reappeared.
“We have monitored the messages sent between cities. Our Listeners have conveyed the truth and lies. It is so.”
The Grand Queen’s voice was authoritative. She sat tall, and her feelers moved slowly, decisively. It seemed as though she counted each word and weighed it, and her mandibles clicked. Counting, assessing, ever weighing odds and chance with cold logic.
“Pallass’ decision is of no consequence. The statistics show that the amount of soldiers they may transport through that door is extremely limited. Nevertheless, the door presents an unknown variable. An asset. Or hindrance. But the assault on Liscor is the primary focus.”
Her image changed. Light shone. A Queen stood amid steel as her Soldiers waited, wearing armor and bearing weapons made of metal.
“If it serves the Antinium, let the Humans fail here. With Liscor’s Hive it is surely possible to defeat both Goblins and the Humans even with compromised walls. Can the Flying Antinium not reinforce?”
The words were thoughtful, the body language direct, and faithful. The Armored Queen’s feelers moved slowly as if slowed by fatigue, but her posture was respectful, militant. She sat in the light, a bloated body ravaged by countless births.
Of all the Queens, the Armored Queen had sacrificed the most before they had rediscovered how to create Antinium without the actual eggs of Queens. Yet she had never complained, never wavered. If she had broken, it was only in her faith in the strength of the Antinium during the first war. She had turned to steel instead. Now it shone, reflecting from the mirror as she spoke.
“My Prognugator, Tersk, speaks highly of the Free Antinium’s combat potential. Between their might and that of Liscor’s own, surely the trebuchets may be destroyed before they can assault the city? And if the city is breached, the Antinium are more than a match for Goblins.”
“Revalantor Klbkch. Your analysis?”
“We have the means. Our tunnels may assault the Humans regardless of where they place their trebuchets. They are in range. Although…”
Klbkch spoke quietly. He thought of the tunnels the Antinium had dug in secret for a purpose just like this.
His Queen looked sharply down at Klbkch. He nodded.
“If the Humans were to place their trebuchets directly over the dungeon, our tunneling teams would be unable to directly assault them. We would be forced to burrow around the dungeon’s walls. There would be complications. But if we are prepared to sacrifice the Soldiers and Workers necessary, we could destroy the trebuchets regardless of their number. We have artifacts stockpiled. And Painted Soldiers.”
The vessel turned its head towards Klbkch and the mandibles rose in a smile. The voice that spoke began quicker, higher-pitched. Overeager.
“Ah yes, your elites. My Revalantor has told me of them. I wish to see their combat potential. As for reinforcement, the Flying Antinium are able to make the journey. But we may be spotted. If we use the farthest tunnels, my Antinium could rally in secret and arrive in Liscor in two days from there. Simply give the order and I will demonstrate their capabilities. I have many new warriors who will prove their effectiveness in battle.”
Eager. The Flying Queen’s every move hinted at an excess of energy and she twitched constantly, her words falling over themselves in their haste to get out. She was the most radical of the Queens in one sense because she pursued the most unstable and risky of designs. The Antinium had barely mastered flight in Rhir and her Antinium lacked the finesse of the old Weaver Queens.
And yet, her weakness was also a strength. Her Antinium could fly after their fashion. And the Flying Queen was tireless. Her armies could fill the skies.
“If the Grand Queen wishes it, I can have an army present at Liscor. We could break the Humans and slaughter their [Mages] and destroy their trebuchets. It would be a victory for the Antinium alone. A simple one. Ten thousand—no, five thousand of my Soldiers alone could halt the Human’s ambitions.”
“A suicide attack?”
The Armored Queen sounded disapproving. The Flying Queen looked annoyed as she flicked a feeler. The vessel raised something invisible to its mandibles as in the mirror, the Flying Queen ate from a bowl.
“A calculated loss. It would be little lost for much gain. And if the Humans attack anyways…I will send more, then. A proper army to fight and hold Liscor.”
She was about to say more, but then the mirror changed and the last Queen spoke. Her body did not move but her cracked mandibles slowly opened and closed. Her words were more halting than the Antinium’s natural staccato rhythm.
“The slaughter is. Not beneficial to the. Antinium as a. Whole. What says. The Grand Queen?”
The Twisted Queen turned her head then. Her missing eye, her broken expression, all hinted at the pain she had endured. In the First Antinium War, General Sserys had assaulted a Hive twice. First the Twisted Queen’s Hive, then the Grand Hive itself. Both times his armies had been broken by her warriors. And he had died battling one of the Centenium.
Wrymvr the Deathless. Klbkch did not see him in the mirror. That worried him. So did the Twisted Queen, at times. She alone had sent no delegation to inspect the Free Antinium. But then, that might have been for the best. The Flying Antinium, the Armored Antinium, even the Silent Antinium could be witnessed by other species and only instill fear, terror at best. But the Twisted Queen’s creations were horror manifest.
“The designs. Of. Humans are not. Important Drakes are not. Important. The only concern is. The Hives.”
“Yes. The Antinium may hold Liscor. Free Queen, what say you? Can your Hive withstand the Goblins in battle? The Humans?”
And now it came to the Free Queen. She stirred uneasily. She of all the Queens had been unmarked by her Hive. She had disagreed with them. Klbkch remembered. The Free Queen had argued against the creation of new forms, of researching more dangerous bodies for the Antinium to use. She had called for only two things: the rediscovery of how to make True Antinium and the creation of Queens.
Both ideas had been dismissed as impossibilities. The most difficult of tasks. But both achievements had been what defined the Antinium, what made them strong. For that reason Klbkch had followed her into exile in Liscor. Now the Free Queen spoke, uneasily.
“If—if my Hive throws its might against the Goblins and the Human army, I believe we could hold Liscor. At great cost. If it is the will of the Hives, we will honor our contract. My Queen?”
“Could your Hive repel the Humans even if the fighting spread into the city? How many Soldiers are present in your Hive? How many Workers? How many Painted Soldiers? Estimate their kill-to-death ratio.”
The Grand Queen’s voice was thoughtful. The Free Queen hesitated. Klbkch whispered numbers up to her and she told the Grand Queen. The Soldier and Worker counts she knew, but Klbkch had to make up the statistics involving the Painted Soldiers. Klbkch himself responded to the question about Liscor’s defense as a whole.
“If it came to a battle in the streets, Grand Queen, I fear the odds would be against the Hive. The Humans possess a strong, mobile force and [Mages] capable of wiping the Antinium out in number. Our Painted Soldiers as yet lack the ability to combat magic users without the advantage of surprise attacks.”
“A failing only my Flying Antinium has overcome. Which is why my Soldier’s presence in the city would be invaluable.”
“Or mine. My Antinium will not reach Liscor in time, but perhaps bags of holding may be sent. Armored, your Soldiers may stand a better chance against mounted Humans, Free Queen.”
“If Klbkchhezeim is to fight, my Silent Antinium should aid him. It is far, but if the Flying Antinium are willing to lend transport, I will send my quiet ones to kill [Mages] in secret.”
“A slaughter is. Inevitable regardless. Of those who join. Why ask, Grand. Queen?”
The Grand Queen spoke softly, ignoring the other voices.
“Klbkchhezeim. If the Antinium fail to defend the city, what if they assaulted the Humans from the safety of their Hive?”
Klbkch froze, as did his Queen. If they abandoned the city? He spoke carefully.
“I believe we would win, my Queen. If…if you are suggesting we cede the city, it is possible to wipe out any army above. We could collapse foundations, attack from below. It is more advantageous, but still unlikely.”
“We see. And if you defended, what then? How long could you hold?”
“Months. We have drainage systems in place to prevent flooding and the Humans would not penetrate more than our outer tunnels with bombardments. Why?”
The Free Queen spoke sharply. The Grand Queen looked at her.
“The Human Lord, Tyrion Veltras, intends to take Liscor. The odds are not in Liscor’s favor regardless of reinforcement. However, the Antinium need not waste combat potential fighting. It is my will that the Hive will abandon Liscor as soon as the walls are breached. They will close all tunnels, and hold out as the Humans occupy Liscor.”
Klbkch felt a jolt. His arms tingled. She meant to abandon Liscor? He stared at the Grand Queen as she went on.
“They will not reveal themselves until the Flying Antinium, the Silent Antinium, and the Armored Antinium have all positioned armies in proximity to Liscor via a constructed underground tunnel. Then, all four armies will retake Liscor.”
She looked around. And then the vessel jerked. The mirror flashed four times. Shock. Confusion. Excitement. Acceptance. The Queens spoke at once.
“What purpose is served by this act?”
“Have the Antinium not forged a contract? Will this betrayal be known?”
“So Liscor will become the first city of Antinium?”
“And what role will. The Twisted Antinium serve?”
“Grand Queen—my Queen.”
The Free Queen of the Antinium spoke slowly. Her emotions were in a whirl. Klbkch stood by her, trying to calm her. The Free Queen looked into the mirror at the Grand Queen. She struggled for words.
“You are—if Liscor falls, then the goals of the Free Antinium will never be realized. My Queen, without the Drakes and other species to act as stimuli, the process of creating individuals—”
“We are aware of the cost to the Free Antinium. However, we deem Liscor as a strategic asset of greater importance. Moreover, the Humans’ siege of Liscor provides a reason for the Antinium to seize a city. Thus this plan we deem as most appropriate. We have consulted with our Prognugator, Xrn, and she agrees this strategy is most sound.”
Xrn? Klbkch jerked. He couldn’t help it. All five Queens stared at the azure Antinium. Xrn, the so-called Small Queen, bowed as her eyes swirled with colors. Green and pink and blue and then a flash of white. Klbkch froze. The other Queen saw nothing but magic in Xrn’s eyes, but he had seen those colors before. She was telling him something.
“Xrn, my Prognugator. Speak.”
The Grand Queen lifted Xrn up. The Prognugator bowed.
“My Queens, I deem Liscor’s fall a chance for the Antinium to grow. Not as conquerors or invaders for once, but as heroes.”
The Free Queen stared at the blue Antinium. Xrn nodded.
“My Queen understated some of the nuances of the plan. By all means, let the Antinium hold the walls. Let them fight. A thousand. Two thousand. Six. Let them die fighting Goblins and Humans. And when Liscor falls, when the walls are breached, let them shield the frightened, the innocent. Let them hold until Liscor flees. Into the Hives.”
“Into the Hives?”
The whisper came from all the other Queens at once. Klbkch felt a thrill as he understood Xrn’s plan. She nodded.
“Yes. Let them be saved by the Antinium, sheltered. And then, in the Human’s hour of dark victory, let the Antinium rescue Liscor. Let them claim it and become the new rulers. Heroes indeed. Heroes twice to Liscor. And the new stewards of a city. Not a city ruled by Drakes and populated by Gnolls and Antinium, but a city managed by Antinium in which Gnolls and Drakes live.”
“They will never accept that. The Drakes will never allow it.”
Xrn tilted her head. She looked at the Free Queen and then nodded.
“Perhaps you are correct, Free Queen. Perhaps the plan will fail. The citizens of Liscor may not trust the Antinium. The Drakes may not accept the Antinium’s ownership of the city. All plans fail. So I offered a counter alternative: should the people of Liscor resist, they die. Should the Drakes try to take Liscor, it will be war. The Twisted Queen and my Grand Queen will station an army in hiding. If the Drakes assault Liscor, they will attack them from behind. And the Third Antinium War will begin.”
The room was silent after Xrn had finished. Klbkch remembered to breathe. He looked at her. She glanced back and the same pattern flashed through her eyes. Thought-mischief-sadness-hope. She was lying. She did not think the plan would fail. She wanted a city for the Antinium.
A city where Individuals could be made in number. And Klbkch understood. Xrn had thought of him. Of Erin and those she had met. She had devised a plan to save them in a way the Grand Queen would accept. But she had forgotten one thing.
Klbkch was a [Guardsman]. A Senior Guardsman of Liscor. And he knew the Drakes better than she did. They would die protecting their homes. Drakes did not run. The Gnolls would too. They might retreat in the end, but they would die step by step rather than flee.
Unless they trusted the Antinium. Would they trust them enough to flee into the Hives? Would they—would Erin? Was this a betrayal or a solution? He was a Senior Guardsman of Liscor. Zevara would never run. Neither would Relc. They would die on the walls. But could they be saved? He was a Revalantor of the Hive. He was Klbkchhezeim of the Centenium. He was Klbkch the Slayer. He had to—
Klbkch stood there, paralyzed as the Queens debated. As they argued. But in the end it didn’t matter. One by one, they fell silent. The Grand Queen spoke.
“It is decided. The Hives will prepare. Workers must be sent. All five Hives will dig the tunnel as far as possible. Prepare your Soldiers. Free Queen of the Antinium. Klbkchhezeim.”
Both looked up. The Grand Queen looked at them.
“Prepare the Hive of Liscor for war.”
She vanished from the mirror. The Silent Queen was next.
“Wait, Klbkchhezeim, Free Queen. We will meet for the first time in years.”
The Armored Queen spoke briskly. Tersk was already giving orders.
“All must be done as the Grand Queen wills. My Soldiers will greet yours soon.”
The Flying Queen rubbed her feelers together, almost giddy.
“At last! Battle! War! A grand trick to play on the Humans and Drakes alike. My Hive readies itself. Prepare yours too!”
And then only the Twisted Queen was left. She looked at Klbkch, at the Free Queen and she spoke.
“It is done. Klbkch. Hezeim. Wrymvr sends. His greetings.”
Then she was gone. Klbkch stared into the mirror. He and the Grand Queen looked at each other. Neither spoke for a long moment. Then the Free Queen spoke.
“Yes, my Queen.”
“You are a Senior Guardsman of Liscor, are you not? I know little of your titles. Of your life above. I have seen through your gaze but I do not understand. When you speak of your time above I am jealous. You have met others whom you speak highly of above. ‘Friends’.”
Klbkch lowered his head.
“I have, my Queen.”
“Could you slay them? Could you let them die? For the plan?”
The Free Queen stared at Klbkch. For a long moment the Revalantor of the Free Antinium stared at the ground. And then he looked up. His voice was cold as he opened his mandibles.
“If you ask it of me my Queen, it will be done. Simply give me the order and I will take Liscor for you.”
“Ah, Klbkch. But would it pain you?”
Klbkch tapped his chest with one finger. The sound was dull. He placed his hands on his sword and bowed.
“I am Klbkchhezeim of the Centenium before I am anything else. For the Hives, I would do anything.”
It was the answer the Free Queen sought. She nodded and turned away. Her voice grew distant as she rose.
“If it must be, Klbkchhezeim, we will take Liscor as required by the Grand Queen. Even if that means the complete eradication of Liscor’s populace.”
“Yes, my Queen.”
The two said nothing else. They stood, feeling cold and alien to the city full of warm-blooded people above. Cold. And old. And tired. Then they heard a voice. It did not come from the mirror, or the vessel which had gone limp. It came from behind them. A weak, warbling voice.
“Who were they?”
Klbkch whirled. The Free Queen exclaimed as she pulled herself over.
The little Worker was trying to sit up. He was not bleeding, but he could barely move. He relaxed as the Queen lifted him with two feelers.
“Ow. I am much ow. I heard voices. Not just in my head.”
“You are alive. Are you well? Do you sense your injuries worsening?”
Bird thought about that.
The Grand Queen bent over him. Her mandibles opened and closed and Klbkch sensed her anger, previously dormant, resurfacing.
“I will kill the one who did this, Bird.”
“Oh. That is good. I am not happy with them either. But I am mostly hurt. Where is my bow?”
Bird tried to look around and then flinched. Klbkch looked around. The bow was missing. The Queen fussed over Bird.
“Hold still. You are hurt. You must not move.”
“It hurts. It hurts muchly.”
“Yes. But you will live. You will stay here, Bird. You will stay and be well.”
“I am hurt. I am sad. Bad things happened to me. And to Miss Erin’s inn.”
The wrath in the Queen’s voice was foreboding. But the next words that Bird said silenced her. They chased the thoughts of betrayal and war from Klbkch’s head for a moment.
“Am I allowed to cry? I would like to cry, please.”
Klbkch froze. The Queen froze. They stared at Bird.
“I would like to. I would have but I did not know if I had permission? May I have it?”
The Free Queen looked at Klbkch, but he didn’t know what to say. She looked down at Bird, her antennae waving about wildly.
“But—the Antinium cannot cry.”
“They cannot? Then what will I do?”
Bird looked up, confused. No one could answer him. He looked from face to face and then seemed to come to a conclusion.
“I am going to cry.”
No one stopped him. Klbkch’s heart raced, though he couldn’t say why. It was impossible. The Antinium could not cry. It was completely, utterly impossible. They had not been designed to. The First Queen had not wept, though her heart had broken a thousand times. Not one of the Centenium had wept. No Antinium had wept. But then Bird opened his mouth and began to speak.
“Waah. Waaah. Waaaaaah. Waaaah. Waaah. Waah. Waaaaaah. Waah. Waaah. Waaaaaah. Waaah. Waaah…”
It was not crying in the way babies cried. It was not a reactionary sound, or a sob, or a hiccup of pain. Bird just said the word over again.
“Waah. Waaah. Waaaaaah. Wah. Waaah. Waaaah…”
It was insistent, annoying. And Bird did not stop. It sounded nothing like crying. It sounded like a mockery of it, in fact. Klbkch stared at Bird. At first he was shocked, then he was furious. He opened his mandibles to tell Bird to be silent—
And then he realized the truth. Klbkch stopped and stared at Bird. The sound was annoying. It got on the nerves. Klbkch had listened to babies wail and not been discomforted. But Bird made the sound and he reacted as he had seen Drakes and Gnolls grimace. And the sound kept going. A cry for help. An expression of pain. It was…Bird was…
He was crying, though he had no tears to shed. Though the Antinium didn’t cry. He had learned to cry. And the sound went on and on. The Free Queen held Bird, staring at him. And then, slowly, she began to cradle him, move him back and forth.
Klbkch stared. The way the Queen held Bird was familiar. But she had not learned that from the Antinium. She had seen it in his memories, through his eyes. She cradled Bird as he cried in her chambers. She bent over him and Klbkch felt something in her emotions he had never felt before.
He shuddered and took a step back. He stared at Bird, then turned. He had to go. He had to—Klbkch fled the sound of Bird’s crying and the strange emotion. He strode back into the Hive, past the staring Garry and Soldiers. The Hive must be readied. Klbkch knew that.
But no matter how far he went he still heard the sound. It echoed through the corridors, following him. A sound of sadness and pain as Klbkch strode through the tunnels of the Hive and began to prepare for war.
Headscratcher sat in his cell. He was miserable. Across from him Erin sat on the cell, telling the other Hobs a story about the time she’d thrown a snowball at a ‘car’. A Minotaur stared blankly at him from his cell, looking lost. Headscratcher tried to listen, but he couldn’t.
They had lied to the Watch. Not by words; they had barely been able to speak. But by omission. The Watch had questioned them about who had hurt Bird, about the identity of the mysterious Hob. They had told them about the beard and greatsword. Not the name.
It was one thing to hate Greydath, and Headscratcher did with all his heart. But it was another thing to tell the Drakes everything. To kill the other Goblin, to betray them. And yet, if there was a Goblin worthy of that, it was him.
Greydath. The name meant something, Headscratcher was sure. Greydath could not have been just a Hobgoblin wanderer. He had been someone before; his Skills told that if nothing else. Headscratcher clenched a fist and felt the helpless rage surging in him. He fought it down. If he went mad now he would only scare Erin. He could not break free of the cell.
But the anger wouldn’t go away. Greydath. He had done it. He had ruined everything. The Hobs were in jail. Numbtongue was the only one who was free. Bird was hurt and Erin had cried. She had wiped away the tears and now she was smiling, but every now and then her face would turn sad.
And it was all their fault. Headscratcher closed his eyes. Everything was desolation. But he knew one thing more after having fought Greydath. One valuable thing.
One thing. He clung to that fact. None of the Hobs had said it, but they had all realized it.
Badarrow had hurt Greydath. With an arrow. It hadn’t even been shot from his bow; the Hob had just stabbed him with it. That meant Greydath had no Skills to enhance his skin. He was just…fast. Skilled beyond belief. But his injury meant he could be hurt even by an ordinary sword.
He could die. Headscratcher remembered that, because he would not forgive Greydath. But then he looked up and saw Erin looking at him and his guilt burned him again.
He said it again. Erin paused and her smile wavered. She stopped telling her story and sat closer to the bars.
“Hey. What happened to Bird wasn’t your fault, right?”
Headscratcher shook his head. he couldn’t explain. Erin stared at him.
“Did you hurt Bird?”
“Did the Goblin who hurt Bird do it because you told him to?”
“Did you let him hurt Bird?”
Headscratcher shook his head. Erin nodded.
“Then it’s not your fault. You tried. He was just…a jerk.”
“It’s not your fault what other people do, Headscratcher. It’s not your fault what they do. Only what you do.”
Headscratcher’s eyes stung. Not just because Erin had told him it wasn’t his fault. Not only because he was relieved. He had feared she would blame him. Not only because he wished he could rip open his chest to show her how sorry he was. No, for one other reason.
It’s not your fault for what other people do. She called Goblins people. Headscratcher wiped his eyes, then looked up at Erin. She stared at him, trying to smile.
“We have to go. Can’t stay. Bad things coming. Goblin Lord.”
Erin’s smile vanished. Headscratcher fought with the words Numbtongue had begun teaching him. He wanted to talk to Erin.
“If stay…Drakes mad. We know. Must go. Should—should have—”
“Should have gone already.”
Shorthilt spoke from his cell. Erin looked at him, and then Headscratcher. She shook her head.
“You’re in jail. You can’t go anywhere, guys.”
The Hobs looked at her. Erin’s tremulous smile vanished.
“Sorry. Bad joke.”
She sat there with them in silence. Headscratcher wiped his eyes. At last, Erin spoke.
“It’s all happening so fast.”
No one replied. The Hobs looked down. The Minotaur stared at Erin from his cell. Erin looked at the stone floor. Her voice was quiet. Perhaps the entire prison was listening to her. Perhaps they were alone in the world.
“It’s all happening. And I want it not to. I want time to stop. I want to be here—even here, forever. I don’t want to know what happens next. Why can’t things stay the same? Forever?”
She looked up. And there were tears in her eyes. Headscratcher wiped his arm across his face. Badarrow turned his head away. Shorthilt and Rabbiteater scrubbed at their eyes.
“At least tonight…at least one more day.”
One more day. They were in jail, separated in cells that smelled a bit like pee, on hard stone. But they were here. Erin, the Goblins. Headscratcher had never been happier in his life. Never sadder. He looked up and through watery eyes, saw a Minotaur close his and sink to the ground.
For one more day, they sat together. Human, Goblins, and the Minotaur.
Waiting, waiting. Waiting for everything to change.
The Necromancer finished plotting and his apprentice thought of death. The Queens departed and their Hives began to stir. Erin Solstice sat with four Hobs and they and she said everything they wanted to say. And Olesm sat in the City Hall, at his office’s desk, pouring over plans.
He had not rested, though the hour was late. Pallassian troops had begun moving slowly through the door to Liscor, though the cost in mana to the [Mages] was painfully high, even with the door staying in Erin’s inn to soak up the ambient magical power. But they were coming.
And Olesm had plans. He’d consulted with Zevara, begun preparing Liscor for the attack, discussed how to blockade the streets with Ilvriss, even checked the sewers for the possibilities of collapsing them or laying traps. He had a thousand and ten things to do, but tonight he was looking at a book.
Reports, actually. Old ones. Olesm had demanded them from Pallass and they had been sent. Now he read them feverishly. They were concise, written after the fact in brief by a Drake not used to lengthy reports. The actual content of the reports was short, but so many people had added addendums and other details and insights that it was like reading a book. But Olesm read each and every word, trying to memorize as much as possible.
The account he was reading was of a siege. Of a city that had fallen to an invading army. Only, it hadn’t been Humans who’d taken the city. It had been Antinium. They’d overrun the city in hours, but the Drakes had retreated. Into a dungeon of all places. And they had held there for months.
The Drake who had written the report did not glamorize what had happened. He wrote frankly and unassumingly, at odds with the glorified notes of all those who had chimed in. He had signed the reports simply.
“Zel Shivertail. [Lieutenant].”
Olesm whispered the words. He looked at the report and then a map of Liscor’s dungeon. His claws traced the parchment and he thought long and hard about what might happen if—if.
There were so many things to keep track of. Olesm’s head hurt. He lowered his head on the desk and fell asleep, though he’d only meant to rest for a second. He had worked so hard. After the last Pallassian [Soldier] had come through for the day he’d tried to extract the door to Liscor, but he couldn’t get Lyonette to budge, and the Horns, the Halfseekers, Griffon Hunt and the Silver Swords were all there. So Olesm had given up. Gold-ranks were better than regular guards, anyways.
But he hadn’t entrusted it to just them. A dozen of Embria’s [Soldiers] and a [Captain] were standing watch in the inn, as were a group of [Guardsmen]. Sentries on Liscor’s walls were watching the Wandering Inn and no one was allowed in or out, magic door or otherwise. Olesm had left nothing to chance. He’d done everything right, in short. Even Relc was there, grumbling about a lack of free drinks and looking more alert than usual.
No one would be able to get in or out. Unless they had been waiting inside the inn all night, waiting for this moment. Embria’s [Soldiers] were standing by the windows, not speaking and glancing with irritation at Relc as he talked with the other members of the City Watch. One of the [Soldiers] began to yawn and caught himself. The [Captain] on duty turned to shout at the [Soldier]—
And all the Drakes toppled to the ground. Relc looked around wildly. He got to his feet unsteadily and growled.
He toppled over before he could grab the potion at his belt pouch. The inn went silent. Not a creature stirred, not even Apista. And then a figure popped open the trap door to Erin’s basement. He stumbled out, grumbling about dead Raskghar corpses and walked over to the magic door, staff in hand. He bent to fumble with the mana stones in the bowl and stopped as someone else stepped out from the shadows where he had been perfectly hidden.
Typhenous slowly turned around. The old [Mage]’s beard caught the light glowing from the tip of his staff. He turned and locked eyes with a smiling [Magician] who held a wand in his hand.
“Ah. I thought I might be running into someone else.”
“A neat spell. I was impressed that you got even the big Drake. May I ask what spell it was? Some kind of empowered [Sleep] spell?”
Eltistiman walked forwards, wand held casually in one hand. Typhenous smiled and tugged his beard as he turned, putting his back to the door.
“Not [Sleep]. A higher-Tier variation on the spell that involves a living vector. [Mites of Slumber]. A fine spell to use on the unwary. Even Gold-rank adventurers are not unsusceptible to its effects. Although I imagine Halrac might have noticed even in his sleep.”
“Few prepare against actual living creatures as vectors. I imagine the soporific effect is only partially magical and partially a magically-induced sickness?”
Typhenous looked surprised.
“Exactly. It’s a pleasure to meet a fellow mage of the craft, aside from young Pisces and Falene, who are quite insufferable. Ceria and Moore are far more pleasant company, although they’re hardly avid students. Merely practitioners.”
“It is a fine line between mages who study theory and simply cast spells without understanding the full effects.”
Eltistiman nodded, smiling. He regarded Relc’s sleeping form.
“I’m impressed you got the Drake, again. The mites must have labored hard to get into his skin.”
“I didn’t bother with that. I just had him eat some with his food.”
“As one would expect of the Plague Mage, Typhenous.”
Eltistiman nodded politely and Typhenous tipped his own chin. The two stared at each other. Typhenous sighed and glanced back at the door behind him.
“I don’t suppose we’ve come here for the same reason?”
Eltistiman smiled ruefully. He stood casually, his wand pointed at the ground. But the light tone and relaxed posture were betrayed by his watchful eyes. Typhenous leaned on his staff, eying Eltistiman.
“I’m afraid not. You see, my client would prefer that door stay here. She sent me here to make sure that it did, and to aid Liscor in any small way I could. Oh, and also to investigate these ‘plays’ she’s heard about. She’s quite taken with the idea.”
“I can well imagine. I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me who hired you?”
The [Magician] waved a finger.
“Ah, you know the rules. Let’s just say a [Lady] with a fine taste in horticulture hired me.”
Typhenous raised his eyebrows.
“Indeed? That is quite the important employer. Myself, I was hired by the Smiling Man.”
Eltistiman’s lips quirked.
“Oh, him? Well, I can’t imagine he was pleased by today’s events. Still, he’d be quite pleased if you completed your mission. Which you will not, by the way. Cast a spell and I will kill you. Throw your staff down, sir.”
Typhenous eyed Eltistiman. The [Magician] hadn’t even raised his wand. For a second the air hummed, and then Typhenous sighed. He slowly lowered his staff. He tossed it to the ground. Eltistiman, who’d tensed, nodded.
“Thank you, sir. And now, move to the side and retrieve a pair of cuffs from that Gnoll there. The one with the stripes on her ears. She has a pair of cuffs for magic users.”
“Well thought out, aren’t you?”
Typhenous grumbled as he slowly walked over, deliberately not making any sudden moves. Eltistiman was still watching him. He slowly bent and searched for the cuffs. Eltistiman nodded.
“It does pay to be prepared and I had an inkling my opponent was you. Those in the business, you know.”
“What I can’t understand was why you would do this. Surely you owe the charming young lady who owns this inn more than betrayal.”
Typhenous looked up sharply. He stared coldly up at Eltistiman.
“I owe Erin Solstice a great deal, young man. And I do not forget my debts.”
The [Magician] frowned. He lifted his wand warily, but Typhenous made no move.
The old Gold-rank adventurer sighed. He bent and looked around the Gnoll’s waists and finally found the cuffs.
“Simple. For money and the favors I am owed for doing this, of course. I owe Erin Solstice a great deal, but I owe my team more. You know why?”
Typhenous untangled the cuffs. He smiled at Eltistiman.
“I caused a great deal of trouble for my team. And they didn’t abandon me. I owe them a lot. This will be my last team, I think. And I’d like to repay them. And—one more thing.”
“What’s that? Put the cuffs on, by the way. I’m not falling for a trick if you fake putting them on or throw them at me.”
The old [Mage] sighed as he opened the cuffs.
“Perish the thought. The reason is that if I failed, the Smiling Man and…others would not stop with just me. You know that. They’d send [Assassins] next.”
“True. But my employer has a way with [Assassins]. As do I.”
“I suppose so. You wouldn’t care to let me go, by any chance?”
Eltistiman raised his wand for the first time.
“Not a chance. Cuffs on, now.”
He stared at Typhenous. The [Mage] put one hand through the cuffs, but Eltistiman was on alert now. Typhenous was moving slowly. Something was up. But he could blast Typhenous in a second. The [Magician]’s eyes flicked around the room. The basement? No. Typhenous? It would be suicide unless he had a ring that could block a spell. Was it the staircase? The door?
And then Eltistiman glanced towards the magic door. It was sitting against the wall, energy depleted after a day of use. It was closed obviously, and Pallass’ yellow mana stone had been taken off. But another mana stone had replaced it. A green, glowing gem. Eltistiman stared at it. And then he noticed that the door was open a crack—
Eltistiman whirled too late. The door blew open and a man rushed through. Fast. He leapt across the room, Eltistiman’s wand raised, but the man knocked him to the ground and his spell went wide. The dark-clothed man had a cudgel in hand. Eltistiman turned his wand, aiming for his chest—
The man with the cudgel swung into his ribs and then broke the [Magician]’s fingers on his wand with a series of precise strikes. The [Mage] jerked, but he still tried to cast the spell. Quick as a flash, the cudgel danced a rhythm on his head. the [Magician]’s head jerked and he went still.
“Oh dear. I don’t suppose he’s dead. Is he?”
Typhenous tossed the cuffs to the ground. The [Thug] carefully felt at Eltistiman’s pulse and then laid the [Magician] down. He walked back over to the door, rapped twice on it, then bent to pick up Typhenous’ staff and handed it to the [Mage].
“Here, sir. Don’t worry about the wand fellow. He’ll wake up with more lumps than I’d care to think on, but a healing potion will do him right up.”
Typhenous accepted the staff and leaned on it. The man with the cudgel looked back to the door as it opened. Three more men slipped in, all wearing dark leather armor concealed by dark cloth. The thing about these men was that despite the fact that all were [Thugs], they were quite snappily dressed. Dark cloth and leather didn’t have to look bad, and these four stood straight and nodded to each other as they stepped into the inn.
They didn’t even bother with masks; instead each wore a ring that would make anyone who saw their faces forget it in moments after seeing them. Besides the man with the cudgel, the other three carried a billy club, a swordbreaker dagger and a sap, and a pair of brass knuckles. No edged weapons of any kinds except for the dagger, and it wouldn’t be covered in blood if the men had anything to say about it. They nodded to Typhenous and the man with the cudgel cleared his throat.
“The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings present their regards, sir. Saw you had a spot of bother there and was choosing my moment.”
“I noticed. Thank you, sir. And who do we have here?”
The door had opened and five shapes had slipped into the room, almost unnoticed. Almost, since Typhenous had been looking for them. One of the masked women turned towards him as the others spread out, bows and daggers in hand.
“We are the Sisters of Chell. You know why we are here.”
“I do indeed.”
The Brothers clustered around the door as the Sisters inspected the slumbering Drakes and Gnolls. The man with the cudgel looked at Typhenous.
“This is the target, sir?”
“Yes. And the mana stones. Here.”
Typhenous pointed to the bowl. The men eyed them and then one of them pulled out a disguised bag of holding as small as two fingers. He whisked the stones into the sack.
“Do we have details on how they work? For the client.”
“The green stone leads to Celum. Blue to Liscor. Yellow for Pallass…there’s a red stone in there as well, but I wouldn’t activate that.”
“It leads to a cave full of Goblins. They’re quite friendly to the owner of this inn.”
“Goblins? Now I know I’ve gone mad.”
The [Thug] shook his head and twirled his cudgel. He looked sharply at Typhenous.
“Very well. What are our obstacles?”
He didn’t waste time. One of the Sisters of Chell came over as Typhenous described what he’d seen and heard.
“You’ll encounter sentries watching the inn. They’re armed with bows, but I doubt Liscor has many of its [Mages] on the walls. They’re exhausted from casting [Message] spells all day. The waters are placid and draining—you may run your boat aground on some of the larger hills. Watch out for Rock Crabs and other fish species.”
“Lovely. And pursuit?”
“If it comes, it will be by boat. There is a Courier in the city, but he doesn’t engage in combat from what I’ve heard. And there is a Gold-rank Garuda—”
One of the Sisters mumbled a curse, and a Brother gave her a reproving glance. Typhenous went on smoothly.
“—but she should be locked in the prison. Oh, and there are several hundred Goblins camped in a cave along the northern road, but none of them are Hobs.”
“Well, that’s a relief. We’ll see what occurs as it may. Goblins, you said? Not a problem, sir, even by the hundreds. We’ve expertise in dealing with Goblin Tribes. Now, you said you had a boat? Enough for all of us or must we swim? I apologize that we didn’t inform you of the numbers, but we had no idea this was going down tonight until word came in.”
The [Thug] looked apologetic. The Sisters rolled their eyes, but said nothing. Typhenous nodded politely. Each underworld organization had its quirks, and it had to be said that the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings had built a reputation on being, well, polite.
The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings and the Sisters of Chell weren’t the biggest of the underworld groups that worked out of the various cities of Izril, but the two largest local players in the region by far, certainly. And they’d clearly brought some of their veteran members for this job.
“It was a trick and a half bringing together enough of the fellows for this job. And no one warned us there’d be another group sharing our case.”
The [Thug] looked mildly reproachful as he gestured at the Sisters.
“Not my fault. You know how these things go.”
Typhenous raised his hands. The man with the cudgel nodded. He spotted one of the Sisters bending over a Drake, furtively rummaging around for valuables. He clicked his tongue disapprovingly as another reached for Eltistiman’s wand.
“Please, ladies. Have some class.”
The Sisters of Chell gave him a look that promised blood, but they reluctantly abandoned the goods. Two of the men wrestled the door from the wall and began to move to the actual door to the inn. Typhenous and the cudgel wielder were finishing their business. A bag of holding passed hands and Typhenous checked the money. He smiled at the glint of gold and other items.
“There’s more in the drop off point, but this is our part. Big E sends his regards.”
The [Thug] touched a finger to his head. Typhenous frowned for the first time. The man noticed.
“You are aware there is an [Emperor] in Izril, now, aren’t you? I assume you’re referring to our mutual client, but I feel I should check.”
The [Thug] wavered. He glanced at his companions, then he moved forwards and whispered to Typhenous for a second. At last he nodded.
“What? Really? Okay, fine. Yeah, it’s Erill. One of his, quote unquote, secret intermediaries gave us the job. Not any newcomer.”
He seemed annoyed by the lapse in professionalism and adjusted his clothes as he stepped back. The leader of the Sisters of Chell leaned forwards and hissed.
“Lady Spellcraft gave us our job. I take it there’s no questions of her identity?”
Typhenous nodded. He looked at the [Thug].
“I do apologize. It’s just that you never know…”
The man nodded.
“We’ll bear it in mind for future jobs. Now, about that boat…we will need it. The report indicated we’d be travelling via boat until we clear Liscor’s lakes.”
“Outside. Several of them, in fact. The adventurers tie them up. Take which ever you wish. And once you reach the shore, I take it you have ample transportation?”
The [Thug] froze. He turned back to Typhenous and scowled, for the first time visibly upset.
“It’s covered. You know better than to ask questions.”
Chastened, Typhenous looked down. The Brothers shifted. One of them glanced ahead.
“We are clear for now. Go at your ready.”
The Sisters tensed by the door. The [Thug] took his position next to the two men holding the magic door, nodded, and then thrust open the door. The men and women shot out of the inn like a flash. Typhenous heard nothing until, nearly thirty seconds later, someone blew a horn from the top of Liscor’s walls.
“Ah, and there we go.”
Typhenous sighed. He walked over and closed the door, then walked over to Eltistiman. He began tugging the [Magician] towards the basement. With any luck, no one would check for him and the [Magician] would get away. He did have a rather nice concealment spell. Typhenous wasn’t worried about reprisals; he had done his job and so had Eltistiman. That was how it worked, although Typhenous would have to be careful if they ever ran up against each other again. The young man was quick.
Two boats skimmed across the water as Liscor went into full-alert for the umpteenth time that month. People on the walls fired arrows, but by the time more arrived and the enchantments on the wall were ready to be activated, both boats were long out of range. The Brothers of Serendipitous Greetings and the Sisters of Chell moved fast; their Skills made the boats fly across the water. Only when they were well out of range did they slow and take a stealthier tack.
The rain had abandoned Liscor, which was a pity since that would have covered their trail perfectly, but the clouds were still lingering and so the rogues moved in shadows. They were headed north, and a fast wagon was waiting to take them even further still once they hit land.
None of the men or women talked. They were professionals. They kept an eye to the waters and to Liscor in case of pursuit—and an eye ahead for good measure. They were reaching land when they heard a strange sound.
“Hold up. You hear that?”
The [Thug] with the cudgel raised a hand. He turned around in his boat, seeking the strange melody that was playing across the waters. The Sisters instantly raised their bows. The sound was coming from ahead of them. Warily, both boats moved closer to shore. It would be easier to fight on the ground if it was a fight they were up against. If it was a [Shepherd] of some kind, well, they’d be unconscious faster than they could blink. Or dead if the Sisters got to them first.
Nothing moved as the boat with the Brothers drew to shore. The man with the cudgel leapt out. His skin crawled, though the ground and mountains ahead of him were dark and unmoving. It all looked like one solid mass at a distance, which was odd since the [Thug] did have a weak [Cat Eye] skill that allowed him to make out most things in the dark.
No movement, though. The [Thug] frowned and twirled his cudgel, hearing his three companions leap to shore as the Sisters paddled to get to ground as well. He saw a lot of strange shapes on the ground ahead, and wished his night vision Skill was stronger. He took a wary step forwards. Was that dark green shape on the rocks mov—
The distant song ended abruptly. The men froze in place. They stood back-to-back as the Sisters paddled closer. They were better at night-time scouting. One of the Sisters looked ahead and made a strangled noise.
“What is that? What is—”
Three notes sang on a guitar. The sky opened. A bolt of lightning shot down. The [Thug] turned, his mouth opening in a scream. The boat with the Sisters exploded, throwing the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings forwards.
The man with the cudgel’s ears rang as he tried to get up. He scrambled to his feet and heard only ringing for a second. But he saw the arrows flying down. He blocked one with his cudgel then threw himself sideways. If it hadn’t been for his [Flawless Dodge] Skill, he would have been killed. Two of his friends went down, clawing at the arrows that pierced them from head to toe.
The man with the cudgel looked around. He heard a strangled sound and saw his friend with the dagger and sap staggering forwards. He had an arrow in one leg, but he’d survived. The man pointed ahead.
Who? The [Thug] whirled. The ground seemed to explode around him. Dark, small shapes lunged at him, nearly invisible despite his Skill. Then they opened their eyes. Red light shone as they howled and attacked.
Goblins. The cudgel spun in the man’s grip as he deflected swords and daggers and a spear meant for him. Sweat rolled down the [Thug]’s face as he danced among the Goblins, parrying blows, knocking Goblins down with strikes. The Goblins were quick. And they were everywhere! They were just Goblins, but they fought better than most Bronze-ranks. They swarmed around him and the [Thug] spun. His cudgel flashed and he walked out of a pile of Goblins, shaking.
He looked around for his friend. Goblins were running, retreating back. The man with the cudgel saw a limp shape. Pilif hadn’t done so well against the Goblins. He lay on the ground, bleeding from a dozen wounds.
And then the man with the cudgel looked forwards and saw. Really saw for the first time. The mountainside and pass ahead was dark. He’d mistaken the uniformity of it all for some strange trick of the light, but that wasn’t the case. It really was uniform.
They sat or stood on the sloping ground that formed the base of the mountains flanking the northern road. On rocks, on the cliffs that soon became nearly unclimbable and hinted at the treacherous heights far above. They filled every available spot, silent, virtually invisible.
Until they opened their eyes.
Crimson light shone down on the last Brother of Serendipitous Meetings as the clouds parted, as if mocking him by revealing what he hadn’t seen before. The [Thug] backed up slowly, then stopped. What was the point of running? He adjusted his grip on his cudgel and shook his head, casting a glance back towards the inn he’d left.
“That’s certainly not a few hundred Goblins, you damn mage.”
The Goblins waited in silence as the [Thug] walked forwards slowly. None of them moved, but then a taller shape stood. A guitar sang like thunder and a tall Hob leapt to the ground from the rock where he’d been playing. Moonlight glinted off the base of his guitar and the broken manacles on each hand. The [Thug] stopped and saluted him with the cudgel.
“Ah, the song player. Kind of you to fetch us a tune, though I don’t care for the way things worked out. I don’t suppose you take bribes?”
The Hob didn’t move. His eyes regarded the thug and he took a stance. With his guitar. The Brother of Serendipitous Meetings eyed it, but decided it would be rude to comment. He sighed as he looked back at his friends and the smoldering wreckage of the other boat. He looked back at the Hob and smiled ruefully.
“A pity. If the Gentlemen Callers had taken this case, things wouldn’t have ended up like this. A true pity.”
He began to hum as he strode back to the bodies. He’d forgotten something. Completely ungentlemanly of him. A final courtesy. The Goblins let him go as the Hob slowly advanced. The [Thug] sang a little song under his breath. It was an old song, and the words were a child’s nursery tune. But the lyrics were known to all who walked the shadows of Izril.
“The good folk are rising, and we’re off to our beds.
The smart thieves away with the loot and the slow ones are dead.”
He stopped and bent over Pilif and turned the man over. He closed his friend’s eyes, then did the same for his other two companions. He straightened, and nodded to the Hobgoblin who’d paused a dozen or so feet away.
“Thank you for waiting, sir. It was a kindness.”
Numbtongue nodded. The [Thug] saluted him with his cudgel and smiled. Like a gentleman, but there was an edge to the smile that could cut.
“Well then sir, shall we get on with it?”
He and Numbtongue stared at each other. Then they charged. The Cave Goblins watched for a few minutes. Then they stood and walked forwards.
Numbtongue wiped blood off the base of his guitar and checked himself. His ribs were cracked and he was bleeding from his jaw. He may have lost a tooth. He looked down and sighed. Then he walked over to the boats. He stopped and blinked at what lay in the undamaged one.
Erin’s magic door lay there, propped up next to the oars. Numbtongue stared at it, then he looked at Liscor, ablaze with light. He wondered what had happened. Then he looked at the Cave Goblins.
They stared at him. Thousands upon thousands. And more waited. All looking at him. Numbtongue stared at the city in the distance. His friends were there. Prisoners. His brothers. And Erin was in trouble too, probably. But they had to go. The Goblin Lord was coming. Bird was hurt. Maybe dead.
They couldn’t stay. He knew that. Greydath had told them. But what if—Numbtongue closed his eyes. What if they wanted to stay? They were so happy here. If they could…
Numbtongue looked over his shoulder. He began to count Cave Goblins, counting the ones here and the ones below. Adding them up. Wondering if maybe, maybe…
He looked back at the city. He looked at the door. Numbtongue sat down as blood ran into the waters. Liscor was in uproar, and the world held its breath. And somewhere, he was certain, the old Goblin was laughing.
Typhenous knew the hired teams were dead. Or rather, he was counting on it. There were a lot of Goblins, and Numbtongue had escaped after all. And while the thugs might have been confident they could dissuade a Goblin tribe from going after them, the Cave Goblins and Numbtongue would surely recognize the door.
“A little betrayal.”
He stood over Eltistiman in the basement. The unconscious [Magician] was groaning, probably from all the broken bones. Typhenous shook his head and turned. Time to go, before this inn was flooded with people. He walked back to the ladder and began to climb it.
“And so, you have a way out, Miss Solstice. If it should come to the worst.”
Typhenous grunted as he climbed out of the basement and closed the trap door. Thus he repaid his debt, twisted though it might be. She would have a way to run before the end. He walked forwards and studied the empty wall where the magic door had been. Then he reached in his pocket for something.
“I should probably leave this behind, hm? Yes, best to dispose of the evidence.”
The glowing yellow fragments of the mana stone lay in his palm. That was the irony in it; in a room full of [Rogues] and [Thugs] and other disreputable classes, no one had noticed him palming the mana stone attuned to Pallass.
After all, his clients would be furious that the door had been recovered, but they’d only paid Typhenous to ensure no more reinforcements reached Liscor. The [Mage] tossed the fragments of the mana stone on the floor and walked to the door, muttering to himself and casting a concealment spell.
“Hired by Lord Veltras to ensure that no aid comes to Liscor. Hired by Pallassian [Senators] to do the same. And contracted by a third party of unknown origin to ensure that the door remains inoperable.”
He shook his head. It was a good time to have loose morals. But as he opened the door and walked across the surface of the water and Drakes thundered across the bridge to the inn, he had to think that it was all so silly. Everyone was looking at Tyrion Veltras, or the Drakes, or so on. But what everyone forgot was that there was always one rule to plans that you should believe in.
“Nothing ever happens the way you expect.”