They ran. Through the night, following their leader. Past rocks and around forests. Splashing across a shallow ford in a lake. Pausing only to drink and rub the sides of their horses. Drink stamina potions, offer the rest to their mounts. Run alongside them. Fly.
It was as if they were one creature at times, Drake and beast. Until they separated. Their horses galloped through the night, riderless as they flew overhead. Then the two were together again.
Miles flashed past, counted in millions of blades of grass, the slowly looming mountains in the distance, far-off Drake cities. And then, at last, a huge city whose walls rose towards the sky.
Pallass. They knew they were close, then. But their horses were weary. So were they. Their journey passed along roads mostly, but they had gone through the wilderness. Fought Wyverns off. And they had been travelling nonstop for days, ever since they had set out. But still, they kept on. Stopping would be unforgivable now.
So it was that they came across the Drakes marching north from Pallass and several smaller cities. A column of infantry following the armored Drake cavalry looked up as they heard the racing hoof beats. The sentries called a warning and then shouted relief signals on top of each other. The [Sergeant] in charge of Pallass’ 7th Armored Division looked up and saw them. His eyes widened.
There were about four hundred of them. A small number compared to the legions Pallass had sent and the other Drake forces heading north. But they were the fastest. And such was their fame that the [Sergeant] instantly recognized their battle standard—that of Oteslia, a city with a huge tree in the background—and their armor. Bright green and white, armor meant to catch the sun and reflect it.
He shouted as the [Soldiers] looked up. The riders were headed straight for them. If they didn’t stop, they’d crash right into the center of the marching Drake column.
“Oteslia’s Winged Riders! Make way! Make w—”
Too late. The [Sergeant] flinched as the first rider rode straight at him. He saw the Drake riding in front shout a command. And then the horse leapt. The Drake ducked, but the horse cleared his head by a good meter. There were shouts—the other Winged Riders had leapt as well, straight over the Drakes marching past them. They avoided those holding pikes or spears and landed on the other side. Still galloping.
The Pallassian [Sergeant] stared as the Winged Riders kept racing north, turning to follow the road ahead. He stared as his [Captain], riding a much slower horse, raced up to him.
“Sergeant! Were those—”
“Winged Riders, sir! From Oteslia!”
The [Sergeant] couldn’t keep the note of surprise out of his voice. He’d heard Oteslia had deployed its armies and the Winged Riders, but this was the first time he’d ever seen them. Honestly, Oteslia was known as the weakest of the Walled Cities when it came to pure military strength. But the Winged Riders were an iconic group. He stared at the already distant Drakes and saw their wings.
Oldblood. They were all Oldblood Drakes capable of flying. Oteslia placed almost all of its Oldblood Drakes into elite units, much like Pallass did. But they focused on their Winged Rider companies primarily, ensuring their numbers were always strong. But that was only part of what made them so elite.
“They made it here? Already? They had to have been running day and night!”
The [Captain] exclaimed. The [Sergeant] half-nodded, but he was scanning the sky rather than paying attention. The Winged Riders were a group of old, famous for their incredible mobility. But in the past, they had been known for something else. And while the breeding stock was incredibly limited, it was still tradition for at least one rider in each company to be riding…
There. His eyes picked it out. Flying overhead, a flash. The [Sergeant] pointed and Drakes looked up. They saw a brown shape. Wings beating hard. No—two pairs of wings. A Drake’s, and the creature the rider rode. A horse with wings.
“Ancestors. I thought they had all died out.”
“Not so. They live in Oteslia. The last of their breed.”
The [Captain] and [Sergeant] stood together in awe, watching the Pegasus fly northwards, following the Winged Riders. Perhaps only an Oldblood Drake could fly on such a creature’s back; certainly the [Sergeant] wouldn’t risk trying it, not without a Featherfall Potion at least.
“We’d better keep moving. Liscor’s days away.”
The [Captain] reminded the [Sergeant]. The Drake nodded and shouted at the soldiers to keep moving. One Drake reported an attack—falling crap from above. It was the subject of much humor from the weary Drakes. They too had been marching late into the night each day. They kept one eye on the sky, watching the distant horses and Pegasus. And the Winged Riders rode on.
They might arrive in time. But as the weary Drakes of Pallass picked up their pace, they knew, soldiers and officers both, that their force wouldn’t make it. The Human and Goblin Lord’s armies would get to Liscor first. If they hurried, they could be there after the siege had started. The real question was how long Liscor could hold. How long. They kept moving until at last they were allowed to camp. And sleep. But come dawn they marched again, with stamina potions in addition to their rations.
And so dawned the twelfth day.
I wake up. My bed is simple, but warm. I shift in the sheets, feeling the high-quality cotton move around me. The bed is raised to keep off the floor of the tent I am sleeping in. And it’s made of wood—the mattress is stuffed. Exorbitant? Surely. Impractical? Only if you don’t have a bag of holding. I can feel light on my face, but not see it. I sigh, but quietly. I am not alone.
My name is Laken Godart. [Emperor] for my sins. And I think…yes, I think they are rather great sins. I sit in my tent on the dawn of the twelfth day since leaving my domain. Since Riverfarm. Since meeting the Goblin Chieftain named Rags. Since being betrayed by someone and being rescued by Tyrion Veltras.
Funny. It feels longer. By now I’m accustomed to riding on horseback, although I’m not comfortable at all with it. I’ve grown used to the company of the [Lords] and [Ladies] and [Knights] and so on that ride with Tyrion Veltras, and hearing the thunderous sound of thousands of animals moving at once. And I’ve gotten used to being blind again.
It was terrifying at first. I had to leave Riverfarm, ostensibly to oversee the engineering team that would man and build the trebuchets. Moreover, I think it was a political move from Tyrion, perhaps to hobble me. Or to put pressure on someone else. Magnolia Reinhart? His allies?
It seems to have worked in any case. I witnessed—in my limited way—the way he drove the Goblins south. How he slew Tremborag. And his plans to take Liscor. All of it without seeing a thing.
My [Emperor]’s senses are gone. I own none of the land I ride over, nor can I claim it. Thus, I can only hear and feel the horse beneath me. Smell blood, feces, the changing air.
Blood. I heard the Great Chieftain of the Mountain die. I heard something shrieking—Eater Goats. That was barely yesterday. I shudder as I sit up. It’s just past dawn. I turn my head towards the other figure in my tent.
My bodyguard, manservant, [Knight], and perhaps, friend, springs to his feet. I sense him turn towards me. I can sense the stubble on his chin, the way he grasps at a tray, even sense the sword in its sheathe at his side. The calluses on his palms—he’s been practicing with the other [Knights] when not accompanying me.
As I said, my [Emperor] senses are cut off while I ride. But in this tent that Tyrion Veltras gave me, with a few of the hand-carved totems from Jelov, I can ‘see’ in this small space. It’s one of my few comforts.
Jelov. Durene. Wiskeria. Prost. They all seem so far away right now. I clench my hands as Gamel approaches me. I rub at my face and sense him stop.
“Your majesty? Will you have breakfast?”
“Yes. Thank you, Gamel.”
I swing myself out of bed. I’m dressed; I didn’t bother to undress last night. I sit as Gamel offers the tray to me on a little table. By now I’m so used to him being here that I don’t even mind eating while he watches. Much.
“You’ve had breakfast?”
“Yes, sire. I woke up and trained, then had breakfast and came here. I apologize for my smell.”
I shake my head as I pick at my food. What’s today’s meal? Some kind of lamb, potatoes…Yellats? Spicy, crunchy—oh, and a gelatin of some sort. A treat, and again, not what you’d expect from people on the moves. Bags of holding and [Chefs] employed by the nobility see to the higher-quality meals, which I’m lucky enough to receive. Still, I’ve heard some of the nobility complaining about the rough fare. I chew, swallow, and speak quietly.
“Don’t worry about the smell, Gamel. It’s hardly worse than the horses. But don’t push yourself. Did you get that cut on your leg in sparring?”
He jumps. It still surprises the other villages of Riverfarm that I can tell what’s happened to them. Again, only in this tent. He pauses.
“It’s just a scratch, sire. One of the [Knights] struck and I missed the timing to block.”
“Was it intentional? The other [Knight], I mean.”
Gamel’s hesitation this time makes me worry. He is a [Knight]. I made him one myself. But—he isn’t of noble birth. In fact, he was a [Farmer] until a few weeks ago. He was no [Warrior] and up until now he barely had any training with a sword. By contrast, the [Knights] who rode to Lord Tyrion’s call are the best of the best. Some of them resent Gamel’s class.
“I am well treated by most, your majesty. Some of the Clairei Fields Order have been teaching me personally.”
It’s not an answer, but I don’t push. I sigh and cut up the lamb.
“I see. Well then, inform me if there are any problems.”
I eat in silence, leaving the jello or whatever it is on the side. I’m in no mood for it and my stomach hurts if it’s too full when I ride. Besides…I push my tray back.
“Have the jello if you want, Gamel. Or share it with Tessia. How is she? And the others?”
Gamel takes the tray and steps back. He places it to the side and comes back with a fresh set of clothes before I can ask. He’s really become adept at managing my needs. I listen as he speaks with his back to me. Neither he nor I are at the level where he’ll be dressing me, thanks.
“Tessia and the others are—well, Lord Veltras has them hard at work each night. Working with them—I mean, the [Mages], sire. Constructing additional trebuchets, calibrating the old ones—teaching the [Soldiers] how to man them.”
“Do you think they’re trying to figure out how they’re made?”
Gamel shrugs uneasily. That was a worry of mine.
“I think not, your majesty. Some of the nobles have looked, and a number of other folk, but they don’t quite understand the way the trebuchets work. They see the arms, but when Tessia speaks of physics and balance and ratios, even the [Mages] go cross-eyed.”
He says that a bit smugly. I just nod. Lazy. Even the best of the people Tyrion brings over lack more than a rudimentary understanding of math. Some of them might be able to build a trebuchet, but why apply yourself if it’s not your class? It’s that kind of thinking that…
I trail off. It doesn’t matter.
“So the trebuchets will be ready? We’re closing in on Liscor by all accounts.”
“Yes, Emperor. We’re very close. I don’t have a map, but one of the local [Soldiers] told me that we’re close to Esthelm. And it’s only a stone’s throw away from Liscor. We may reach the city tomorrow.”
“As soon as that?”
“We’ve been moving faster to catch the Goblins that left the Goblin Lord’s army.”
“Ah yes. Them.”
I sit quietly. Yesterday—or was it the day before? The Goblin Lord turned on his own. From my position I could only hear the [Scouts] giving Tyrion reports. And hear the fighting at a distance, of course. Tyrion let the Goblins tear each other apart until one side began to flee. I think…the Goblin Lord killed the Chieftain opposing him. And I think, based on what was said, that it was the little Goblin he killed.
Rags. Her tribe fled. Tyrion would have forced them back or slaughtered them, but our army was attacked by Eater Goats by the tens of thousands. They came down from the mountains. Naturally I witnessed none of this as well. It’s terrifying, hearing the shrieks those goats made, being ordered to move and hearing the sounds of fighting and not knowing what is going on.
Being helpless, in short. I’m out of my depth here. And the Goblins…
“The Goblin Lord will be attacking Liscor, then. And brave Tyrion Veltras will swoop in to save the day. Oh, hurray.”
Gamel catches the sarcasm in my tone. He hesitates.
“Isn’t that good, sire? I mean, it will be war with the Drakes, but the Goblin Lord will be dead at least.”
How casually he says that! War with another species. Intercontinental strife! I’ve talked to enough people to know how big this is. If Liscor, this gateway between north and south falls, it will be war, regardless of the Goblin excuse. Not to mention…I shake my head.
“War isn’t a good idea, Gamel. It seldom is, if ever. As for the Goblins, I very much fear that we are doing a terrible thing.”
The worst. I feel my shoulders ache. I have had time now. Time and perspective to think on what happened. And now that I have, I can sense the weight of my sin. Gamel doesn’t understand.
“They are monsters, Emperor.”
“Yes. And we treated them as such. We—I—ordered Wiskeria to attack them. To use poison gas. Tyrion marched them hundreds of miles. And soon, they will be killed to the last to start a war. There are historical precedents for this, Gamel. And it makes me think that we’re on the wrong side of history.”
I have done a terrible thing, I think. And I am about to be part of something just as bad. Or worse. But how can I get out of it? No way has presented itself. Tyrion is in charge here and I lack authority and power. Oh, I feel foolish.
Gamel clears his throat. He hates it when I talk like this. The one argument we’ve ever had was when I said this was a mistake for the first time. Now, he dances around the subject.
“On the wrong side of history…isn’t that something for people with quills to decide, later, your majesty? [Scribes] and [Historians] and such? Why would their opinion matter?”
I shake my head. There’s so much I have to teach Gamel. Gamel and all the others. Things I have to remember. Morality and more.
“Gamel, it’s said that history is written by the victors. You understand? Whoever wins writes history. The Goblins’ side of things never gets brought up. And tragedy, the crimes committed by others…they tend to be overlooked when glorifying the past. But a record will remain, especially if I have anything to say about it.”
That’s code for ‘I don’t understand’, or perhaps ‘I don’t agree, but I’m not going to say so’. Or maybe ‘you’re an idiot’. I don’t care. I stretch. There’s already sounds coming from outside the tent. People getting ready. I still have an hour before I need to get up, though. The [Mages] will be getting the Goblins moving, but since I’m not in the advance group—being a poorer rider—I’ll be moving with the main body more slowly.
“Well, let’s get ready for the road. I want to ride with Lady Ieka today, Gamel. Please send a message to her and ask if she’s willing—”
I break off talking sharply. Gamel notices and turns towards the tent flaps. My senses extend just around the tent, but it’s enough to give me a warning. I hear a knock on the canvas flaps, and catch a whiff of a distinct smell. What’s this? I frown.
Outside I sense the man hesitate. Then Lord Gralton enters the tent. The infamous, hot-tempered dog lord steps into the tent and I smell the odor of dog on him. I sense him as well; a huge, imposing man. Gamel steps forwards, bowing, and I sense him only slightly shifting to get his sword’s hilt closer to his hand. He’s wary. And he should be.
Gralton. Of the [Lords] and [Ladies] in the camp, he’s one of the most powerful. The most unpredictable as well. He was one of the first people I was introduced to when I first arrived. And now he’s come here. That’s…unexpected. I haven’t said two words to him since the first night I arrived. To the other nobility, yes. But not to Gralton. While they tested and prodded at me, asking where I was from and trying to curry favor and weigh my influence, he just watched. And now…
“Can I help you, Gralton? Or are you going to keep sniffing me?”
I turn my head towards Gralton. The man narrows his eyes. But then he grunts.
“I’ve been looking for you. Emperor.”
The title is sardonic when he says it. I raise one eyebrow, refusing to be riled. Gralton will have to try harder than that. Besides, I had my first measure of the man and I know how to deal with him.
“Really? You’ll have to elaborate. And please stop looming over my manservant. Gamel, let Lord Gralton pass. I believe we have an understanding.”
Gralton steps forwards. I don’t bother to look at him. I can sense him, and it bothers people when I don’t pretend like I have eyes. I stare somewhere to the left of his navel and shrug.
“Let’s see if you recall. Heel.”
I hear Gamel suck in his breath. Gralton freezes. For a second I sense his arms tense, and then he laughs. He takes a seat on the ground of the tent since there are no chairs.
“You’re brave, I’ll grant you. And if you weren’t an [Emperor] or half as brave, you’d pay for that. But since you and I understand each other—I didn’t come here to socialize. I came here to ask what you’re doing.”
“I see. Are you referring to the attack on Liscor, my presence in the camp, or something else?”
“All three. I want to know if you’re for this thing. War with the Drakes.”
Now that’s interesting. I cover a frown.
“Getting cold feet, Gralton? We’re all committed to this attack. Lord Tyrion has made it clear he’s expecting no dissidence.”
I hear a snort and pray Gralton won’t spit.
“He says that. But I’m my own man. I followed him because I thought we’d be killing Goblins. Now we’re starting a war and you appear. I want to know if this is all one big plan you and Veltras came up with. And if it’s not—I want to know what comes next.”
“You think I know? I am far from home myself, Gralton. And I’m not partial to war. It tends to leave all sides poorer. And as I’m sure you know, war never goes the way anyone expects. Just look at history.”
The man pauses.
“We’ve fought a lot of wars. Which one are you talking about, exactly? The Antinium Wars? Ones from wherever the hell you come from?”
I raise my eyebrows. By this point little verbal snares barely trip me up.
“Does it matter? Any war. Any great war, rather. It will be catastrophic. Tyrion may win or he may not, but wars always spell death and destruction.”
“So why are you supporting him?”
“Because I enjoy the scenery? Why are you?”
He laughs at my response. But—I can sense his eyes on me. And the way he sits, alert, and from his posture, I get a sense. Gralton’s not as simple as he lets on. He’s bestial in some ways, but if it’s dog-like, it’s savage instinct that he has, not mindless aggression. He came here for a reason, and not to state the obvious.
“War’s war. We’ve never been fully at peace with the Drakes. They attack us, we attack them. I don’t care. If it’s a fight, I’ll take part in it. But it’s the politics I hate. If you sleep with the wrong people, you end up with knives in your back. Better to be in battle than face that.”
What is he saying? I frown, buying time. And then I sense someone else approaching the tent. I pause.
“We have another visitor. Gamel?”
He’s already at the tent flaps. I hear him halt whoever’s outside. I frown. I know that figure. And I know that voice.
“Your majesty? Lord Yitton Byres wishes to speak privately with you.”
Yitton? I sense Gralton shift to look past Gamel. Then he looks at me. I can sense him grin. He knew Yitton was coming.
Instinct. I nod at Gamel and he moves back.
“Very well, let him through. He can join our impromptu meeting.”
A man steps into my tent. He pauses when he sees Gralton sitting on the floor. For my part, I study Yitton in my mind.
An older man. Fit for his age, but not rich. He has a sword at his waist and chainmail. Mustache, beard…but it’s his reputation and my understanding of him that stands out in my head. The other nobles regard Yitton as inferior to them in many ways, a small [Lord], albeit with ancient holdings. But he’s someone that’s allowed into Tyrion Veltras’ most personal meetings. An honorable man, by all accounts.
And currently, haunted by something. Yitton takes a step into the tent and I incline my head.
“Lord Yitton. What brings you here?”
The man hesitates. He glances sideways at Gralton, who just nods a greeting.
“I had hoped to speak with you privately, your…your majesty. Would you grant me an audience?”
“I would. Gamel, please guard the tent. As for you, Gralton—I rather suspect you’d like to stay. Which you may, unless Lord Byres objects?”
The [Lord] of the Byres House hesitates and looks at Gralton again. Something unspoken passes between them and he nods hesitantly.
“It’s…not that secret of a matter. By all means. Excuse me, Lord Gralton. My issue is urgent. I wouldn’t bring this up, but I have nowhere else to turn. Tyrion is not open to reason, and—”
And no one’s sticking their necks out for you. I nod.
Yitton takes a deep breath.
“It’s my son. And my daughter. I think they may be in Liscor.”
I sit straighter. Gralton doesn’t seem the least bit surprised by this. He must already have known. But I didn’t. And that’s not good.
“Are you sure?”
He shakes his head.
“I do not know. Liscor’s Mage’s Guild is refusing all [Message] spells not from a Drake city. But my daughter was last sighted at the city. She and her team ran into an—an incident. I was informed she survived and joined a new team, and that my son went to check on her. But neither has sent me a [Message] spell and I fear they may be trapped in the city. Or worse, as prisoners.”
“And we are about to assault said city, which is inhabited by Drakes.”
Yitton said the word heavily. I nod. That said it all, really. I heard that Yitton was against attacking Liscor from the start. It’s not a position anyone else in the camp has taken. But his sense of honor plus the fact that he might be putting his children in danger, well, it paints a picture.
A terrible one, because I can’t help him. But Lord Gralton and Yitton are both looking at me, and I sense I’m being tested. By Gralton. I think Yitton is genuinely at the end of his rope. But why Gralton? Does he want to see what I’ll do?
No, no, Gralton is too straightforward for that. Then, is he hoping I’ll help Yitton? Or perhaps—
I turn my head towards the two, more to buy time than anything else. Let’s see. We have an [Emperor], me. An unknown quantity. Lord Gralton, who hates trickery and is about as sociable and charming as a rotting pig’s carcass. But is powerful. And Yitton Byres, one of those rare honorable men people keep talking about. I’m not sure how honorable he really is if push comes to shove, but I think he’s a man who tries to be good.
Ah. I think Gralton sees what I see. An opportunity. I lace my hands together and lean forwards.
“I see. I understand your predicament, Lord Byres. Unfortunately, I doubt if anyone could persuade Lord Tyrion to halt the attack, for any reason. Nor do I have the…power to rescue your offspring if it turns out they are indeed in Liscor.”
Yitton’s shoulders fall. Not that I think he was expecting any other answer. He’s desperate.
“I see. My apologies, Emperor Godart, Gralton.”
He turns to go. I raise my voice.
“Lord Yitton, that doesn’t mean I’m unwilling to help. And, I think, neither is Gralton. If there is a way to rescue your children, whether by ransom or some other means, let’s discuss it.”
The man turns, hope on his face. I turn my head towards Gralton and sense him bare his teeth in a savage grin.
“Is there something that might be done?”
I temper expectations. I don’t know, honestly. But the point isn’t to make outlandish statements. I look towards the tent opening and raise my voice.
“Gamel! Find two chairs for Lord Gralton and Lord Yitton, please. I think we’ll be here until we’re ready to ride. And perhaps while we’re riding we’ll speak further. Until then—Lord Yitton, please have a seat on the floor. I’d offer you my bed, but then I’d have to do the same to Gralton and I prefer life without fleas.”
The man barks a laugh. Yitton looks askance as he takes a seat on the floor. I sit and look at the two. It’s not just about Yitton’s son and daughter. It’s about forging connections. Choose your allies wisely. And unless I’m wrong, I’d guess that Lord Gralton’s made his choice faster than the other nobles. Faster than Lady Ieka who makes me nervous, Lord Erill who’s a bit too cunning, or the others.
“I don’t know what the future will hold, much less the attack on Liscor. But I do know that when the pieces are in the air, we can only make plans and hope they go well. You don’t know where your children are, Lord Yitton.”
“I know where two are. But the other two…”
Yitton trails off. I shake my head.
“If and when, gentlemen. If and then. If they are in Liscor and if we attack, what will occur?”
“They’ll be taken prisoner. Or killed.”
Gralton speaks bluntly. Lord Yitton puts his head in his hands. I turn my head reprovingly towards Gralton.
“Very well. But perhaps we can forestall that? With an offer of a ransom, perhaps. Or a guarantee? Do Drakes honor the rules of war? And what will your children do, Lord Yitton? I heard that they’re…adventurers?”
“Yes. Yvlon’s Silver-rank. And Ylawes is Gold-rank. His team is strong, but he couldn’t take on a city.”
“But he could protect his sister? Don’t give up hope, Lord Yitton. What would he do? And how might we aid him, if it comes to that. Lord Gralton, I’m sure you’d be willing to help. As allies.”
The man growls. Yitton looks up. He glances towards me and Gralton as if he’s only now figuring out what’s going on. Perhaps honorable men are just rather slow on the uptake when it comes to intrigue. He hesitates, and then he nods and sits a bit straighter. He doesn’t seem that much more hopeful, but he’s trying.
“If Ylawes is in the city, he knows what’s coming. And the only reason he would stay is—he’s a [Knight], and he champions causes. But he wouldn’t risk a war unless Yvlon were there. He won’t abandon her. So he’d be trying to find them a way out. North, towards us, unless he’s wary of the Goblin Lord.”
“Would he go south?”
“He’s Human. And he’d run into all the Drakes heading towards Liscor. No. No, he’d go north. And if he were trying to escape…”
Yitton grips his hands together worriedly as he talks. I listen with Gralton as Gamel reappears with some chairs. We talk, forging the beginnings of what might be friendship, an alliance of convenience, or something else. And I invest my time and energy into helping Yitton do something for his son and daughter. What else can I do? I can’t stop the war. I can’t change Tyrion Veltras’ mind. I have very little power. But perhaps—I sense Gralton looking at me.
Perhaps I have an ally. A smart one who conceals his true intentions behind a façade that’s half-real. And who’s decisive enough to take sides rather than choose the strongest person to hide behind. Maybe Gralton’s a betting man. Maybe I look like a likely dark horse to him. There are worse allies to have than him and Lord Yitton Byres. I nod at Gralton.
A smart man. He still smells like wet dog, though. Then I turn my attention back to Lord Yitton. If his son really is in Liscor, I pray he won’t do anything stupid. For his father, if nothing else.
Yvlon looked up at her brother. He was dressed in full armor and had his shield on one hand. His hand was hovering around his sword’s hilt as he stared down at her and looked around the inn. The other Gold-rank teams stared at him and Dawil and Falene, standing behind Ylawes. The Dwarf hefted his hammer and the half-Elf shifted her staff. Yvlon glanced at Pisces, Ceria, and Ksmvr. Then she looked up at her brother.
“We’re going, Yvlon. Now. Grab your gear and get ready. We’re leaving Liscor and going north. Any team who wishes to join us—or anyone in the inn—is welcome to come, but we are going now. Before Liscor is attacked.”
The [Knight]’s jaw was set. Yvlon leaned back in her chair as Ceria rubbed one eye and stared down at her eggs. She looked towards Erin and Lyonette.
The inn was barely open this morning. And signs of last night’s festivities were still scattered around the inn. Empty mugs, plates that had yet to be washed, a passed-out Goblin lying under a table…Yvlon shook her head.
“It’s too early for this. Lyonette! Can I get some water?”
She waved her mug. Ylawes frowned at her.
“This isn’t a joke, Yv.”
“I’m not saying it is. And I’m not going, Ylawes. I’m staying with my team.”
Yvlon looked back up at Ylawes, scowling. Her brother grimaced.
“So you’ve said. But your captain doesn’t seem capable of making up her mind.”
“Hey, I’m just—”
Ceria protested weakly. Yvlon stood up.
“We’re going with Erin. We’re not leaving her behind.”
“I’m making up my mind too!”
Erin shouted from the kitchen. Ylawes looked at her and shook his head.
“I understand that, and it is a noble cause, Yvlon. But be realistic: Liscor is about to be attacked, and when it is, both you and I will be in grave danger. Our only chance is to go north now. Persuade your captain, bring Miss Solstice and the others.”
“I have a name you know, it’s Ceria—”
“Why don’t you go and let us decide what we’re doing, Ylawes? If we go north, we’ll go north. But we’ll do it with our team. You can leave.”
Yvlon folded her arms. She wasn’t wearing her armor, but her metal armguards and gauntlets were more or less permanent fixtures now. They covered the…modifications Pisces had done to her arms. And the damage.
“I won’t leave without you.”
The [Knight] snapped, his brows crossing with vexation. Yvlon sighed.
“I’m not a child, Ylawes!”
“But you are my sister. If father learned that I abandoned you—”
“This isn’t about what our father would say! And what I do isn’t your problem, Ylawes.”
“It is. I can’t let you risk your life any further. We’re going and you are coming with us. This isn’t a discussion.”
“No, it really isn’t.”
Yvlon stared at Ylawes’ face, exasperated and annoyed. It was always like this. He was always in charge and she was sick of it. She stared past Ylawes at his teammates.
“I’m not budging. I’m a grown woman and an adventurer in my own right. You don’t give me orders, even if you are Gold-rank. Just go, Ylawes. What does your team think of this? Falene? Dawil?”
The half-Elf shrugged her slim shoulders.
“I follow my team captain, Miss Byres. And I happen to agree that you and your team are being quite foolish. It falls to us to keep the less-experienced out of harm’s way.”
Ceria rolled her eyes. Yvlon looked at Dawil. The Dwarf hesitated.
“I can’t say I’m pleased, lass. But your brother has a point. There’s a fine line between stubbornness and suicide and you’re pushing both. Why not leave?”
Because it would mean being saved by Ylawes. Yvlon scowled. She didn’t want to say it, but that was why. And because Erin wasn’t going. That too. But mainly the first part.
“It’s my choice. I’m a Horn of Hammerad and we aren’t budging.”
She looked at Ylawes. The [Knight] blew out his cheeks, and looked around. Griffon Hunt, the Halfseekers, Gemhammer—the other teams of adventurers who were waiting in Erin’s inn, taking turns moving the door further south—stared at him. He hesitated, and then shook his head.
“This discussion is over. Yvlon, if you won’t see reason, we’ll have to take you by force. Come on—”
He reached for her arm. Yvlon backed up.
“Be reasonable. Don’t make me force you.”
“You? I’m not six, anymore, Ylawes. You can’t pick me up and carry me.”
“If I have to, I will.”
Again, Ylawes grabbed at Yvlon’s arm. This time he seized the metal vambrace. Yvlon gritted her teeth. She pulled, but Ylawes was strong.
“Don’t resist. Your arms are fragile.”
“Then let go.”
Yvlon yanked, and Ylawes nearly stumbled. He let go, afraid of damaging her arms. Yvlon felt fine. She backed up as Ylawes looked at Ceria.
“Please talk some sense to her.”
The half-Elf got up slowly. So did Pisces and Ksmvr. Ceria looked uneasy, but her expression firmed as she looked at Yvlon.
“We’re not going yet, Ylawes. And Yvlon’s one of us. If she doesn’t want to go, you have to respect that.”
“He is doing this for her own good, Ceria. I’ve pointed out the obvious to you as well. Why won’t you heed reason? We are both half-Elves—”
Falene scowled at Ceria. The [Ice Mage] rolled her eyes.
“And that makes us kin, right? Forget it. You can go, but if you try to take Yvlon, we’ll—”
“What, stop us?”
The tone of Falene’s voice was frankly disbelieving. Yvlon felt a surge of adrenaline and anger as the [Battlemage] looked from her to Ceria. Pisces folded his arms.
“You would do well to reconsider any threat, Miss Skystrall.”
“Yes. We are completely and legally able to defend ourselves with lethal force. I think.”
Ksmvr nodded. Dawil raised a hand.
“Hold on, you two. Falene and Ylawes aren’t suggesting—”
“Yes we are, Dawil. Ylawes, take your sister. I have had enough of arguing.”
“And I’ve had enough of you two trying to order us around.”
Yvlon reached for her sword. Ylawes stared at her and his hand went to his hilt.
“Don’t be a fool, Yvlon!”
“Then back off.”
“I can’t. Why are you being so stubborn when I’m just trying to help you?”
“I. Don’t. Want. Your Help! I never have!”
Yvlon snapped at Ylawes. She drew her sword, or tried to. The blade was half-way out of the sheathe when Falene pointed a finger at her.
“[Binding Cords – Iron]. Ylawes, take her!”
A series of thin metal cords erupted from her fingertip and wrapped around Yvlon. The [Wounded Warrior] shouted in outrage and fell back, struggling. Ylawes stepped forwards and a wall of ice sprang up.
“Don’t do this—”
Ceria warned Ylawes, but Falene pointed her staff again. The ice shattered as something struck it and Ceria stumbled back. Pisces made a noise of outrage. He lifted his hands and flames burst from them, aimed at Falene. Ylawes surged to block them and the flames burned harmlessly around his shield.
“Is it combat, then? Should I aim to incapacitate or kill, Captain Ceria?”
Ksmvr drew his shortsword raised his dagger. Falene bound him with the cords spell as well.
“Stop! Stop, you featherbrained nitwit!”
Dawil roared at Falene. He shoulder-charged the [Mage] as Ceria raised another ice wall. Yvlon was struggling as Ylawes bent to grab her. She tried to kick him, and he tried to pull her up, but he had miscalculated how heavy she was—and how hard it was to drag an uncooperative person single-handedly. Pisces drew his rapier and Ylawes turned towards him. The [Knight] drew his sword and Yvlon shouted.
Pisces and Ylawes faced off as Ceria aimed her wand at the struggling Dawil and Falene, who were shouting at each other. Ylawes narrowed his eyes and Pisces lowered his posture. The two hesitated—and an arrow embedded itself on the table next to them. Both dodged back and turned.
Halrac lowered his bow. The other adventurers were on their feet. Ylawes turned to them, and then twisted. He blocked a whirling frying pan and the cast iron pan clattered to the ground. Erin lowered her hands.
“Darn. That never works anymore.”
Ylawes snapped at Halrac. The [Scout] aimed his bow at the [Knight]’s chest.
“That’s not your decision to make. Let your sister go, Ylawes. She’s an adventurer and so are you. You don’t get to order her, family or not.”
“That’s precisely why—”
Ylawes’ face flushed. Bevussa folded her wing-arms, looking annoyed.
“I’ve seen enough too. This may be a family matter, but it’s turned into a Gold-rank team fighting a Silver-rank one. Enough. Falene, put down your staff. Cast a spell and we’ll all attack you. This is stupid and pointless.”
The other adventurers nodded. Typhenous pointed his staff at Falene. The half-Elf hesitated and lowered her staff reluctantly. She glared, and then doubled over. Dawil had kicked her hard in the shins. The Dwarf looked at his two teammates and shook his head.
“You idiots. I told you they’d never go. Listen to the other Gold-ranks.”
“I can’t just—”
Ylawes swore as Dawil kicked him in the shins, hard enough to go through the metal armor. The Dwarf glared up at him.
“You want to carry your sister off like a damsel in distress? It didn’t work the first time you tried it, and it won’t work now. If you want to give it a shot, I’ll scrape you off the floor when the other Gold-ranks paste you to it. Otherwise we’re done here. Idiots.”
He stomped away. Ylawes stared at Dawil, his teeth set, and then looked around. He stared at Yvlon.
“Sister, please think about this.”
“I have. I’m not going, Ylawes.”
Yvlon folded her arms. Ceria hesitated, looking at Ylawes. The [Knight] breathed in and out, slowly, trying to keep calm.
“Then what will you do? If Liscor falls—”
“I’ll go with my team. If Liscor falls, we’ll take Erin south.”
“But the Drakes—”
“Are not your concern. We’ll survive, Ylawes. But I’m not going to follow you.”
The [Knight] looked pained. And hurt. Yvlon’s own chest stung a bit as he straightened. He had come all this way for her. But she’d never asked him to. He turned and looked around again, then at Yvlon. Then, at last, he shook his head.
He never finished the sentence. Ylawes just turned and walked out of the inn. Falene looked at Ceria. Pisces made a few rude gestures.
“Remember we offered you a chance. We are leaving Liscor.”
She swept after Ylawes. Dawil was last. The Dwarf tugged on his beard, looking close to swearing. He stared at his teammates as they walked out the door, then looked around. His voice was somber as he spoke.
“I’m sorry about that, friends. But it seems like we’re going.”
Halrac queried Dawil. The Dwarf nodded.
“North. We’ll try to avoid the Goblin Lord. But we’re leaving the city today, unless my teammates have other plans. It’s been a pleasure.”
Bevussa nodded at him. Revi waved a hand hesitantly. Yvlon, the iron cords disappearing as Falene’s spell ended, sat up. She looked at Dawil. The Dwarf looked tiredly at her.
“Wait, you’re going? Just like that?”
Erin stared at the Dwarf. Dawil shrugged and smiled ruefully.
“I’d like to say goodbye. But those idiots are storming off. Hey, wait for me!”
He turned and roared out of the door. Then he looked over his shoulder. There seemed like so much more he wanted to say. But the Dwarf just turned.
“Farewell. Let’s all meet again someday.”
And then he was gone. Yvlon stared at the door. She stood up slowly.
“He’s going? Just like that?”
“Did you want him to stay?”
Pisces sat at a table and watched as Ksmvr sat up. The Antinium looked around and sheathed his weapons, looking ashamed.
“I have been of no use. I am worthless.”
He sat down too. Ceria closed her eyes and breathed out slowly.
“Damn. Are you sure it’s for the best, Yvlon?”
“Yes. I wasn’t going to go with Ylawes anyways. He was always like that, giving me orders. It was just—”
The others looked at her. Yvlon shook her head. Her eyes went to the closed door.
“It was just that he came all this way and did so much for me. Because he was worried. And I never said thank you for that.”
The others looked at her. Yvlon wanted to run to the door. But she held still. One of the adventurers who’d watched everything unfold uttered a curse.
Yvlon glared at him. The Drake met her gaze and looked away. Erin stared about.
“Well, that sucked.”
No one argued with that. The adventurers sat in silence as Lyonette brought Yvlon some water. Then the door opened. Yvlon looked up. Was it Ylawes, back again?
No. It was Olesm, Zevara, and a host of the City Watch. The adventurers froze as Zevara stepped into the inn through the magic doorway. The Watch Captain looked around.
“Hey, Zevara. Olesm. Can I get you an—”
The Watch Captain forestalled Erin with a claw. She looked about the inn, and Yvlon saw her focus on the sleeping Goblin on the floor. She nodded to one of the [Guardsmen].
“Secure the door.”
A few of the Drakes and Gnolls moved to the door. The adventurers watched, growing more and more nervous. Then Yvlon saw a pair of [Guardsmen] she recognized walk through. Klbkch and Relc took up positions by the door. And another pair of Senior Guards walked through as well.
“What’s this about, Watch Captain?”
Keldrass stood up. He eyed Zevara. The female Drake looked at him and spoke.
“We know you’re trying to leave Liscor.”
The adventurers paused. Olesm cleared his throat.
“By Drake military law, all adventurers in or around Liscor must come to the city’s defense in times of crisis. Dereliction of duty is a treasonous offense.”
“You can’t conscript us. This is a war. We’re not part of it!”
Revi folded her arms. Zevara glanced at her and shook her head. She addressed the Drake teams from Pallass.
“This is not an option. You must stay in Liscor. The city needs your strength to hold the line. As Watch Captain, I order you to remain in the city. And to ensure that is so, I am confiscating the door. As we should have done from the start.”
She gestured. A pair of Gnolls grabbed the magic doorway. Erin stared.
“You can’t do that.”
Zevara looked at Erin.
“I can and must. This is a matter of security—”
“Hold on. You’re not taking that door.”
Halrac pointed at the doorway. Zevara turned and the Watch braced themselves.
“You stand down.”
Revi glared as she cracked her knuckles, not quite pointing her wand at Olesm’s feet. The Drake gulped. Zevara didn’t blink.
“We are taking the door. If you try and stop us, we will—”
“Do what? Arrest us? There are thousands of Goblins between the inn and Liscor. And us. You’ll never make it.”
Zevara looked at Revi, and then past her at Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked blank, and then backed up a step.
The adventurers looked at each other as the City Watch edged towards the door. Halrac cursed as he slowly drew an arrow. Zevara waited, daring them to make the first move. Olesm gulped. Relc and Klbkch, who’d set themselves up near Zevara, were braced. Relc was chanting under his breath.
“Bar fight! Bar fight! Bar fight!”
No one else said a word. The stalemate drew out and out, until the adventurers and the City Watch heard pounding footsteps. Then Ilvriss hurtled out of the door.
Some days he forgot what Periss’ face looked like. It was unbelievable, but so. Some days he forgot the sound of her voice. Already, memory was failing him. But he had sworn an oath. And he remembered the drink Erin had given him. Part of him wanted to taste it again, to sink into the past. But he recognized magic and he understood the addiction of drugs.
Later, perhaps, he could inquire. But not now. Now, he was needed and more than ever. A Wall Lord did not run from his duty. He ran to his duty and embraced it. Ilvriss had not touched a drop of alcohol since that day. Nor had he succumbed to despair, even in these dark hours. And neither had Liscor. If it fell, it fell with dignity. And he would remind them of that.
Ilvriss had begun running when he’d heard of Zevara’s plan to take the door back. Of course, Swifttail had understood the issue. It was obvious, really. The adventurers were fleeing the city by hook or crook and if they could not go north, they would go south. But why hadn’t Zevara stopped to think about what she was doing? If they fought—
Dignity. Ilvriss charged through the magic door, tripped as the uneven cobblestones turned to wooden floorboards, and nearly crashed into a table. Only wind milling arms saved him. He steadied himself, brushed his clothes off, and turned. The Watch and adventurers stared. At him. At his chest. Because Ilvriss wore the Heartflame Breastplate. It glowed, not yet burning, but shining with golden-red light. Ilvriss looked around, drawing strength from the warmth of the artifact.
“Watch Captain, hold. Adventurers. Hold. This will not come to bloodshed. The first person to strike, I will personally cut down.”
“Hold on, isn’t that—”
Erin’s forehead wrinkled. Ilvriss ignored her. He straightened and took a deep breath. The adventurers were staring at the door. One of them, the Human with a surly expression, gestured at it with his bow.
“That door isn’t leaving the inn.”
“On the contrary, it must. It is a security risk if this inn should fall. And it will, if the Goblin Lord’s army attacks Liscor. We will take it into the city and place it in the city hall.”
“Not before we leave.”
The Gold-rank [Scout] looked ready for a fight. The other adventurers less so. The Drake-led groups were especially nervous. Attacking a Watch Captain was already trouble. A Wall Lord? Ilvriss capitalized on the uncertainty.
“I said hold. Listen to my proposal before you take action. Watch Captain, Strategist Olesm, you two as well. I agree that this door must go to Liscor. Left in the inn, it would be in danger of falling into the Human’s hands. But by the same token, it cannot be overlooked as a means of escape from Liscor. I propose to let the adventurers use it to leave Liscor.”
Zevara’s shout of outrage was forestalled by Ilvriss’ raised claw. He kept his eyes on Halrac, Bevussa, Keldrass, and the others. The Gold-rank captains were staring uncertainly at Ilvriss. He nodded.
“I am aware of the dangers. And I do not ask your teams to die for the city.”
The adventurers relaxed a bit. Ilvriss narrowed his eyes.
“However, I demand that you fight. I demand that you stay until the cause is lost. Your teams will not leave Liscor until the walls fall and the battle is unwinnable. You will stay and join Liscor’s defenders. The door will remain in the heart of the city, as an escape route.”
The adventures looked at each other uneasily. Ilvriss saw them weighing the odds. Fighting would be deadly and dangerous. If they had to hold until the siege was unavoidably lost—Ilvriss looked sideways as he heard a polite cough.
“And if we declined this honor, Wall Lord? Some of our teams are allied with the Human cities, or at least determined not to bear arms against our kind. What prevents us from leaving now?”
Typhenous, the elderly Human [Mage] inquired politely, his eyes flicking towards the door. Ilvriss grinned mirthlessly.
“Does honor and duty not compel you, Human?”
“Not sufficiently, no.”
The Drake nodded.
“Well then, here is another reason. You will be going south, into Drake lands. You could try your luck heading north—if you don’t run into the Goblin Lord’s army and perish. But if you go south, you will run straight into reinforcements from every Drake city on the continent. And I will have told all of them of your treachery.”
Typhenous’ polite smile melted off his face. Ilvriss looked around. Now he had every eye on him.
“Until the day of the siege, until I take my last breath and the last [Mage] falls—if I see any of your teams flee, I will send a [Message] spell to every city. You will be wanted in any place that Drakes draw breath as traitors. Consider that. I offer you the chance to fight and retreat honorably. Run with your tails between your legs and the world will know of it.”
The inn stood frozen as Ilvriss turned from face to face. Halrac met the Wall Lord’s eyes.
“I don’t fight my own people, Wall Lord.”
“Should I then consider you an enemy?”
Ilvriss laid a claw on his sword hilt. The Watch tensed. Halrac’s eyes flicked to Ilvriss, to the door, and then to his team. Typhenous looked pale, and Revi wide-eyed and nervous. At last, the [Scout] lowered his bow.
“If it comes to a battle, I won’t fight. I don’t kill Humans.”
He paused and looked at Zevara.
“But. I am an adventurer. If it’s Goblins, I’ll hold the walls.”
Zevara glanced at Ilvriss and the Wall Lord nodded.
“That is acceptable. Now, Miss Solstice, please talk to the Goblins outside of the inn so we may carry the door into the city. Unless you object? I would suggest that you bring your people inside the walls soon.”
“I—but—okay, but—is it necessary? Can’t they go? Is it—”
The young woman looked at Ilvriss uncertainly. And she was young, for all she was so much different from any other Human he’d met. She looked at Ilvriss and he saw the real question in her eyes.
Was this happening? Was it really happening? He nodded. Yes. He wanted to say it. Yes, girl. Yes, child. It was. The adventurers braced themselves. They understood. Some had lived through it, and the others could imagine it. But Erin Solstice could not. She had never seen a battle of this magnitude and she couldn’t grasp at the implications, even now. But Ilvriss could. He braced himself, feeling the tingle running down his spine.
It was war.
“Remember, only kill Goblins and Humans. Do not kill the Drakes unless ordered. Other targets will be specified as friendly or enemies. When the battle begins, the Free Queen, Klbkch, and I will lead. Your Queen’s commands are superseded by our own. Is that clear?”
Xrn, the Small Queen stood on a small platform of earth and looked down. Fourteen Prognugators and one Revalantor looked up at her. They were the representatives of three Hives. The Flying Antinium, the Silent Antinium, and the Armored Antinium.
Tersk stood shoulder-to-shoulder with three of his fellow Prognugators, who wore the thick steel armor that marked their Soldiers. Pivr flexed his wings with his four Prognugators. A pair of shadowy, camouflaged shapes marked the two Silent Antinium leaders. The rest were regular Prognugators, who looked like regular Workers but bore silvery blades. Copies of the Slayer himself. They had come from the Grand Hive to lead Workers and Soldiers into battle.
As had she. The Small Queen’s eyes shone with multiple colors, red for battle excitement, blue in anticipation, bright yellow and white for hope. She looked down on the Prognugators and then past them. At the army of Antinium standing in the tunnel.
They had come. From the interconnecting tunnels in the Hive, the Queens had sent their Soldiers, their prized warriors. An army of steel-bound Soldiers from the Armored Hive, ready to do battle with weapons forged for them. A flying horde of warrior types who moved about restlessly, fanning their green wings. A few giant Antinium stood out among them, hunched, beetle-like forms with rending mandibles. War machines.
And lastly, the fewest in number but just as deadly, the Silent Antinium. Camouflaged assassins who blended with their surroundings. Their arms were scything blades capable of cutting metal. Three Hive’s worth of warriors, and more arriving by the day.
Not just Soldiers either, but Workers. All three Hives had sent their own to dig the vast tunnel north to Liscor. The effort was monumental; not only did they have to dig the tunnel large enough to transport an army swiftly, but they had to make sure the roof wouldn’t collapse thousands of tons of dirt on their heads. And they had to do it quickly and in secret.
Tens of thousands of Workers moved behind Xrn, excavating stone and dirt. More Soldiers stood at the ready, prepared to fight anything that attacked the digging Workers. Already they’d had to do battle with a number of subterranean monsters. This project was not easy.
But it was proceeding on time. When Liscor fell and the city’s people retreated into the Hive of the Free Antinium, an army would be there, ready to take back the city from the Humans. They could do it. And if the Drakes or Humans tried to seize the city again—
That would be a task for the Twisted Antinium and the Grand Hive’s forces. Tersk shivered. He had seen a few of the Twisted Antinium gathering as well, preparing to intercept the Drake armies. They were—different. While each Hive of the Antinium was varied, the creations of the Twisted Queen were disturbing. They had been kept away from the other Hives, because to look upon some of them was to become Aberration for a number of Soldiers and Workers. They bothered Tersk and he could not fathom why. They were all Antinium. Weren’t they?
Whatever the case, the army was here. Tersk watched as Xrn’s head turned left and right, regarding the Prognugators.
“Remember. You come not as invaders, but liberators. Heroes. This battle is the first of many. But with it, the Antinium shall truly have a city of their own.”
The Prognugators looked up at her, and Tersk felt their confusion. Why did it matter? What use was a city to the Antinium? He knew. And he saw Xrn’s eyes turn to him and felt the shock run through him. Yes, he knew. He thought of the strange city, and of the things he had learned there. It was worth sacrificing tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of Antinium to have it. To become…something more.
Tersk looked back at the silent rows of Soldiers in gleaming armor. The pride of his Hive. They waited, and Tersk waited as well. He would soon be there. He thought of Pawn and wondered if the Worker was as excited as he was. At last, they would pit their might against the Humans. The Antinium had been preparing for this day since before Tersk had been born. He couldn’t wait. He couldn’t…
“No. No, wait. It is too soon. What do you mean?”
Pawn grabbed desperately at Anand’s arm. The other Worker turned to him. The [Tactician] clicked his mandibles together.
“Pawn, I have said too much. Just bear in mind what I said. Prepare your unit for combat.”
“You have not said enough! Why was I not informed? What do you mean, our role will not be to hold Liscor? What will we be doing? Will Erin—”
Pawn broke off. Anand was shaking his head.
“Revalantor Klbkch has forbidden me from speaking of it. I know my role, but he believes you might—complicate the issue. When the time comes, you will lead the Painted Soldiers into battle. That is all. Pawn, I cannot say more.”
Anand looked guilty. Pawn stared at him. He had orders. But he had to say more, orders or not. He opened his mandibles.
“All of the Painted soldiers?”
“All of them.”
Anand nodded. He looked past Pawn, at the Soldiers who filled the barracks. There were a lot more than the odd three hundred or so that Pawn had started with. They had tripled their numbers, and now Painted Soldiers and Workers filled the expanded barracks. But many were new. The old ones, the veterans who had enough levels to truly show for it, stood teaching the other Soldiers how to be…[Soldiers]. They read books, they sat, they ate snacks. They were.
The thought of taking them into combat—a war—was horrifying. Pawn had already been struggling with the thought of Liscor falling under attack, but from what Anand said, the Antinium wouldn’t just be holding the walls. They would be doing something else. And Pawn was afraid they were going to betray their allies.
“Are we going to leave them to die? Selys? Mrsha? Lyonette? Erin?”
“I have been issued with orders to keep them safe. If possible.”
Pawn echoed the words. Anand nodded. He looked back at Pawn.
“Pawn—I cannot say all of what will happen. But the plan is good. And Erin will most likely survive.”
“You cannot guarantee it, though.”
The two Workers looked at each other. Pawn shook his head.
“So I am to wait? To lead my Painted Soldiers into battle when the order comes and not know what happens?”
“That is correct. That is what we’ve always done, Pawn.”
“It’s not enough.”
The Worker whispered. It wasn’t enough. Not anymore. Anand hesitated, and then turned away.
“It is all we can do.”
He walked away. Pawn watched him go. He turned to look at the Soldiers and Workers, at Yellow Splatters, Purple Smile—and he shook his head.
“No. There must be more.”
But he didn’t know what that was. So Pawn bent his head, clasped his hands together, and began to pray. For a miracle, for knowledge. For anything. He listened, his heart beating, but he heard nothing.
“Lord Veltras. Another [Message] for you. From our informant.”
“I’ll hear it.”
Tyrion Veltras rode at the head of his army. He watched as the Goblins ran ahead of him. A vast host. Enough to take a city. And that wasn’t even counting the army of Humans that marched behind him. He turned his head as his aide, Jericha spoke crisply, reciting the [Message] spell verbatim.
“The portal door is now in Liscor’s possession. It is connected to a passageway south of the city. The Gold-rank teams will fight in Liscor and flee through it if the city is lost with civilians.”
“Or to reinforce the city through the door. Dragons take it all!”
Tyrion Veltras’ brows snapped together. He felt a surge of frustration.
“That [Mage] assured us the door would be inoperable!”
“He probably expected to flee through it and didn’t consider the fact that the recovery effort would fail—or that the city would seize the door after the connection to Pallass had been lost.”
Jericha frowned. Tyrion just clenched a gauntleted fist. Lord Erill and Lady Ieka had provided the criminal element. He had been against it—a force of [Knights] could have seized the door—but against his better judgment he had allowed the covert operation. And see what had happened.
“Can the informant do anything?”
“He reports not, Lord Veltras.”
“Very well. Liscor may be reinforced, but the numbers will be low. And the presence of an escape route may work in our favor. The adventurers and other elements of the city will flee through it.”
Tyrion grimly adjusted his plans, thinking through how the door could be used against them. They had to seize it. Jericha cleared her throat.
“There are two other missives that may require your attention personally, Lord Veltras.”
“The first is from Lady Reinhart—”
“Ignore it. I told you, I am not in the mood to bandy words with her.”
The [Mage] nodded quickly. She licked her lips nervously, an usual gesture.
“I understand that Lord Veltras. But this latest [Message] is—is not like the others.”
Tyrion looked back at Jericha. Magnolia had been sending him messages nonstop, urging him to halt his campaign, to turn back or take a different tact. Ever since she had learned what he was doing. She was resourceful, he would give her that. But he could not be swayed. All of her power lay in influence, gold, and political power. He had direct military might and there was nothing she could do to stop him.
Or so he’d thought. But the look on Jericha’s face told him that his unflappable aide had been disturbed. She spoke slowly.
“This latest [Message] was—addressed to me, Lord Veltras. Magnolia Reinhart mentioned me by name and issued a…warning if it was not delivered. The contents are quite extraordinary.”
The scion of the Veltras House tensed. If Magnolia threatened Jericha or his servants—he forced himself not to give into emotion.
“Repeat it, then.”
“Yes, Lord Tyrion. The message from Magnolia Reinhart, omitting the introduction to me, reads as follows: ‘To Tyrion. I see you are set on your course, despite my warnings and urgings to the contrary. It seems you have placed your faith in war. I, however, think you are a fool of the highest caliber. Your plan will not succeed. Do not force my hand, or I will take steps both you and I will come to regret to stop you. Sincerely, Magnolia Reinhart.’”
A silence followed Jericha’s words. The [Mage] looked at Tyrion. He frowned.
“Take steps…there is no way she could halt this army. Is she intending to provide more aide to the Drakes?”
“She already leaked the information of the trebuchets to them. It is hard to imagine what she could do.”
“Assassins, perhaps. Double the night sentries and keep a close eye on the food. Aside from that—ignore her messages. But report any ones of similar quality to me.”
Tyrion saw Jericha nod. He put Magnolia out of his mind. He could not be stopped. Not by her or anyone. Liscor burned in his mind. It had to be taken. He would see victory in his lifetime or put the wheels in motion to end this millennia-long war for dominance with the Drakes. He would have vengeance.
A final time Jericha interrupted Tyrion.
“Lord Veltras. You have a message from your estates. Ullim reports that your sons are growing restless. They are inquiring about your absence and growing unruly.”
For a second, all thoughts of war and plans vanished from Tyrion’s mind. He twisted in his saddle. Ullim was his [Majordomo]. Tyrion had entrusted the welfare of his sons, Hethon and Sammial to him. They were boys, too young to even become squires. Well, Hethon was not, but he wasn’t of the right temperament for that life. And Sammial was too wild, yet.
“What is Ullim doing? I told him to keep the boys in care.”
Jericha ducked her head.
“Yes, Lord Tyrion. But the issue isn’t—if you’ll permit me to speak freely, I believe it is that the two are simply lonely. The boys miss their father. That’s all.”
Tyrion stared at Jericha until she flushed and looked down. He blinked. When he had grown up, his father had been dead. Dead and buried, a casualty of the plots of the Reinharts. And the two were…? He felt a moment of regret and wished their mother was there. She would have known what to do. She would have been there. But she too was dead.
And that had led him here, in part. Tyrion turned forwards, forcing himself to put the past out of his head.
“Tell them I am on campaign. They should know what that means. If all goes well at Liscor, I may have time to return. I will attempt to make time. That is…all.”
“Yes, Lord Veltras.”
There was a pause as Jericha relayed the message. Tyrion stared ahead at the Goblins as he rode. He tried to keep thinking of Liscor, keep replaying the battle and its innumerable permutations in his head. But he was distracted, now. By Magnolia, damn her, and his sons. He couldn’t help but wonder what she was doing. She was a thorn in his back. Some day he would have to pluck the thorny branch from which she grew. Burn the Reinhart estates to the ground. But they were a dangerous, difficult weed and she was the worst. Why didn’t she see the danger of the Drakes? Why was she opposed to him?
Lonely. Tyrion bowed his head for a second. Then he forced himself up. He couldn’t waver now. And Magnolia couldn’t stop him. No matter what she did.
“Well, he hasn’t responded. So I suppose it’s come to this. Ressa, prepare my riding dress, will you? It’s time to put our plan into action. Oh dear. No one will be happy about this. Tyrion least of all.”
Magnolia Reinhart sighed as she sat in her parlor with a group of [Ladies], all of whom could be considered her closest friends. They sat with her, sipping from tea or sampling biscuits. Noblewomen all, each a fair flower of the realm. As dangerous as any [Lord] in their own right.
They were Lady Bethal Walchaís, fiery and beautiful. Lady Zanthia, old, tough as steel and demanding. Lady Pryde, for whom the name was as fitting as it was insufficient. Lady Wuvren, of whom the [Bards] had once sang songs about. And still did. It was said that an Archmage had drowned himself after being rejected. It had actually only been a [Star Sorcerer] of course, but you know how people exaggerated such things.
Those [Ladies] and a few others. Magnolia Reinhart’s inner circle. The people she trusted explicitly. Her army, in truth. Tyrion Veltras had his forces and they could raze a city in a day. Magnolia Reinhart could move mountains with hers.
Hypothetical mountains. Mountains of stubbornness, fear, and self-interest. The [Ladies] could alter the fate of the continent through politics and words. And it was for that reason Magnolia had gathered them. Although the Lady Reinhart feared that words wouldn’t be enough this time. It was time for action, and terrible action at that.
“My friends. It seems Lord Tyrion has declined to speak with me yet again. Or even snap back. He is set in his course, and so we must be set in ours. The time is upon us. Before we leave, have you any objections to my plan?”
The [Ladies] looked up. Lady Zanthia pursed her lips and Bethal tilted her head back. It was Wuvren who spoke up first.
“You do know that he will never forgive you, Magnolia? Even if your attempt fails? You’ll risk the enmity of the entire north, for what? To stop him from seizing Liscor?”
“In order to stop a war, I’d gladly make enemies of my peers, Lady Wuvren. I only ask whether you are ready for such a task. It must be done. If we enter another war of centuries, we will fall to ruin.”
Magnolia looked at Wuvren. The [Lady] nodded.
“I suppose it is, at that. Well, I will do my part, though it may be a mistake.”
That was enough for Magnolia. She turned.
“Lady Zanthia, you had a thought?”
“Only that we may all be dead ere a few months pass. But I acceded to your leadership and I won’t speak against it. But when you strike, do it at the right moment.”
The old woman fixed Magnolia with a gaze that even the [Lady] had a hard time meeting. Magnolia resisted the push of Zanthia’s will and smiled. It was always a test with her.
“Of course. I will wait for the opportune moment. As one must. But we must neither be too slow nor too quick.”
“A [Lady] is never early, or so the saying goes.”
Bethal laughed lightly. Magnolia smiled as some of the other [Ladies] sighed and rolled their eyes. They would have taken Bethal’s presence more easily if Thomast had been there, but husbands, bodyguards, and everyone except for Ressa had been barred from this most august of meetings.
“Yes, Lady Bethal, I have heard the saying too. But I’m afraid that while a [Lady] is never early, she is quite often late. Let it not be so this time. Do let me know if you run into complications. As for the rest—we have a day to move into position. Reynold will take you to your destinations.”
The [Ladies] nodded. They stood up, smoothing dresses, chattering lightly. And their eyes flashed brightly. They were no strangers to hard decisions, or war if it came to that. They had lived through multiple wars. Lady Zanthia had lived through more than a dozen. And they were ready to do what it took to stop another one.
But the cost. Oh, the cost. Magnolia closed her eyes as they left. This would be a problem. Damn Tyrion. He had forced her hand. But it could not be war with the Drakes. Better to throw all of the north into chaos, first. Better that. She sighed—and realized she wasn’t alone.
Ressa was there of course. She was always there. But Lady Bethal had remained on the couch. She looked up at Lady Magnolia.
“Magnolia, explain something to me.”
“If you insist, Bethal. What is it?”
The Lady Walchaís studied a sugary biscuit and made a face. She stood up slowly and looked at the map that Magnolia had provided the others—marked in several spots, purely as a conversational topic.
“Lord Tyrion Veltras is certainly going after the Drakes with a passion. Is it just that he hates them? As a people, I mean. Or is it something else? I feel as though I should know, but I don’t pay attention to the affairs of the realm as much as the others.”
“You don’t pay attention to anything but your husband, Bethal.”
The woman flashed a grin at Magnolia.
“True! So what was it? I feel like it was related to his wife.”
“Ah. She’s dead, isn’t she?”
Ressa muttered as she cleared the table. Magnolia stomped on her foot, or tried to. Ressa dodged. Bethal paid no attention to the two of them.
“Yes. I met her once. I can see why you wouldn’t want her around. But you didn’t have anything to do with her death, did you? It was—a fall. But there was something suspicious about it. Was it—”
“Yes, Bethal. It was the Drakes. Or a Drake [Assassin]. Lord Tyrion found the dead body of a Drake and his wife. A tragic scene. I believe Sammial, his youngest, was not six years old when it happened.”
“Oh! So it was recent?”
Magnolia sighed. Sometimes she wanted to smack Bethal across the back of the head. But that would start a fight and Bethal was quite adept with knives.
“I have no doubt you received an invitation, Bethal. Yes, it was recent. I think Tyrion Veltras always had designs on taking the fight to the Drakes. But since his wife’s death—yes.”
“And how does he know it was the Drakes who killed her?”
“Because the [Assassin] was hired by them.”
“And how does he—”
“Because I told him, Bethal.”
The woman turned. Magnolia met her eyes, and her voice was cold. Ressa looked up.
“I told him. When he rode into my estates and begged the one favor he has ever asked of me, I told him who sent the [Assassin]. I told him the truth and made sure of it myself. That Drake was sent by the Walled Cities. Hired in Zeres, funded by their money, agreed upon by the other Walled Cities. It was them.”
That was all Bethal said. She looked away, and Magnolia shook her head and sipped from her sugary tea. Regrets. It was a bitter taste on her tongue, for all the sugar. See what the truth did. See how mistakes added up? Oh, how she wished she could turn back time. But it was done.
“So that’s the reason? All of it? Or have I missed something else?”
Bethal stared at the map. Magnolia shook her head bitterly.
“No, you have it right. For his wife, he would wage war on an entire species. For one death, he would burn all of them in fire.”
The Lady Walchaís shook her head.
“It seems natural to me. If Thomast died I would find his killer and make them suffer for all eternity. If a Drake sent by the Walled Cities killed him—I would do exactly the same.”
She looked back, smiling, at Magnolia, but the look in her eyes reflected that promise. Magnolia sighed and Ressa shook her head.
“You two are alike in that, Bethal. But mark my words: I will not allow war. I will not allow Tyrion to drag down this continent for his own selfish reasons. He alone does not control the fate of Izril. And I have at least one trick up my sleeves to stop him.”
“Well, since I am part of that trick, I’d better tell Thomast.”
Bethal sighed lightly. She turned and nodded to Ressa.
“It’s been fun, Ressa. Until we next meet.”
She walked from the room. Magnolia stood there, sipping from her tea cup. Then she raised it.
“Throw that and I will be upset.”
Ressa spoke behind her. Magnolia lowered the tea cup and looked at her [Maid].
“This is an unfortunate situation, Ressa. It will be messy. Even with this, he might go forwards. And if it happens that way—”
“Oh, terrible war.”
Magnolia sighed. She looked down into the dregs of her cup, at the sugar and tea gathered there. Then she shook her head.
“I hope Erin Solstice is alright. She lives right next to the city, doesn’t she? Funny, I’d heard of her attempts to protect Goblins. And now an army is marching on her. If only she had more time, perhaps she could have made a difference. But I fear that this isn’t a matter of Goblins any longer.”
“You think she could have made a difference?”
“Perhaps she has. Perhaps. Time will tell. The Antinium, Goblins, Liscor, she may make a difference there. But in a war, what can one person do?”
Magnolia turned to Ressa. The [Maid] raised one eyebrow. She tapped Magnolia lightly on the chest and looked pointedly at her.
And the Lady Reinhart smiled, a touch sadly.
Rags walked alone. Not alone in the sense of physical presences; she was surrounded by several hundred Goblins. Hobs, regular warriors, Pyrite, and Ulvama. But alone in the sense of her tribe. She could feel them south of her. But they were far distant and she was too far behind.
They were marching towards the High Passes. Towards Liscor. The mountains loomed ahead of them and the Goblins were footsore and weary. They’d barely paused since they’d begun walking this morning. Only today had Pyrite recovered enough to move. Until now they’d had to drag him on a makeshift sled and that had been excruciatingly slow.
The big Hob was moving now of his own volition, but his face was pale. At first, he hadn’t been able to even sit up. And his heart had kept starting and stopping until Ulvama had cast a charm on him. The [Deathbolt] spell had sapped Pyrite’s energy even with the magic stones he’d eaten. Now he could walk, but he was weak.
“Chieftain, we going there?”
One of Tremborag’s former lieutenants pointed. Rags squinted at the pass opening up ahead of them and nodded. That way led to Liscor. Ahead of them, she could see a vast host marching towards it. The Goblins eyed the Human army apprehensively. They were behind the Humans, trying to catch up. None of them were quite clear on why, except for Rags and Pyrite.
“Can’t catch tribe. Why go that way?”
Ulvama grumbled as she stared at the Human army. She was tired and unaccustomed to walking and not afraid to say it. For Rags’ part, her gratitude on seeing Ulvama had long worn thin. The small Goblin glared at the [Shaman].
“Must go to tribe. Must get to Liscor!”
“Find Erin. Stab Reiss. Get to tribe.”
It was all Rags could think of. Ulvama sighed, but didn’t argue. Rags was Chieftain, and strangely, none of Tremborag’s Goblins questioned it. Pyrite muttered something and both female Goblins looked at him.
“What you say?”
“Chieftain, what happens when get there? Fight Reiss? Run?”
“Don’t know. Just keep walking.”
Pyrite grunted. Ulvama looked scornfully at the huge Hob.
“Pyrite is slow. Could go faster without him.”
She seemed to be holding a grudge. Rags poked her in the side and Ulvama yelped. The little Goblin glared.
“Going fast enough. Pyrite weak.”
“Can he fight?”
The [Shaman] looked challengingly at Pyrite. The other warriors marching behind them looked at each other. The Hob who’d been entrusted with Pyrite’s axe shook his head. They didn’t question whether Pyrite could fight. He’d cut down so many of Reiss’ warriors that they’d been too afraid to even loot his body.
For his part, Pyrite just looked at Ulvama and shrugged, though it cost him to do so.
“Am tired. When fighting starts, I will have energy.”
That was all. Ulvama nodded reluctantly. She cast her eye to the sky and the bright, spring day. It didn’t feel like a day for war. She raised her fingers and pointed.
Rags looked up as Ulvama’s fingers and skin paint glowed. Suddenly, the air felt fresh and invigorating, and it felt like she was marching with the wind at her back. She stared at Ulvama, and then at Pyrite. The [Shaman] looked away from both of them.
“March faster, stupid Hob.”
Pyrite smiled. So did Rags. The Goblins walked on. Rags tried not to think about what would happen when they got to Liscor. She told herself she’d deal with it when it came, but the truth was she was too late. Reiss had won. Whatever would happen would happen without her there. And she feared the worst.
To take her mind off of that, she looked at Pyrite. At Ulvama. They were both Tremborag’s Goblins, at least, they had been at one time or another. She looked at Pyrite.
“When did you leave Tremborag mountain?”
He blinked. For a second she thought he’d avoid the question, like he sometimes did, but the big Goblin just sighed. The time for secrets had long since passed. Now he just looked embarrassed and tired.
“Long time ago. Very young Goblin. I was…five? Had a fight with Greybeard. Greydath. Decided to leave. Start my own tribe. Become strong. Become Goblin Lord.”
The other Goblins gaped at him. Pyrite shrugged, flushing a bit.
“Stupid. Young and stupid. Thought it would be easy. So I made tribe. Made big tribe.”
Rags was confused. Pyrite shook his head.
“No. Other tribe. Called it—uh—Mountain Fierce Warriors Tribe.”
He looked ashamed. Rags stared at him and Ulvama sniggered. Pyrite scratched at the back of his head.
“Didn’t work well.”
He shrugged again.
“Had Hobs. Trained warriors. Had thousands of regular Goblins. But—stood out. Picked too many fights. Humans came. Destroyed tribe. Nearly died. Learned…learned Chieftain is not as good as Goblin Lord. Not nearly. So gave up. Became wanderer. Formed other tribe eventually.”
“But didn’t try to become Lord?”
“No. Not again.”
Pyrite shook his head heavily. He looked at Rags.
“Too much. Greydath—Reiss—Lords are too much.”
Overwhelming. Rags remembered what Greydath had said. Reiss had beaten Pyrite, even though he was a [Mage]. And Greydath—she nodded soberly.
“Much. But good to try.”
She heard a snort from Ulvama. The [Shaman] glared at her.
“Don’t need Goblin Lords! Why do stupid Goblin Lords and males fight all the time? Garen, Reiss, Greydath—stupid! Should just live in tribe.”
Rags sneered. But Ulvama did not. She looked longingly back north. Tremborag’s mountain wasn’t even in view, but the other Goblins did too.
The little Chieftain informed Ulvama. She got a glare in return.
“How do you know? That was our tribe. You didn’t know it.”
“Saw enough. You did bad things.”
“So what? They did bad things to us.”
Ulvama snapped at Rags. She took a deep breath.
“You don’t know. You don’t know me. We were happy there. Sex, food—we had what we wanted. Tremborag was great Chieftain. Humans deserve pain. We do bad things to them? I am Human and Goblin.”
“You mean, parents were…”
Rags stared at Ulvama. The Goblin glared at her.
“Mother was Goblin.”
The other Goblins stared at her. Pyrite just sighed. Rags searched for a comeback. There wasn’t one, really. But it still didn’t change the things Tremborag’s tribe had done. It changed nothing—but it explained everything. She shook her head.
“You don’t know.”
Ulvama looked down at the ground. Rags glared.
“I do. My parents die too. Big Drake—Relc—kill them. Cut off heads. For present.”
The other Goblins looked at her. Rags told the story of how she had thrown rocks at Erin, trying to get some food. And then how the Drake had hunted her parents down, leaving only her alive. And then—
“—And then, he give to Erin. To her. But she didn’t like.”
“Didn’t like the present?”
Pyrite and Ulvama stared at her. Rags nodded. The two looked at each other, and then they and the other Goblins all burst out laughing. They roared with laughter, and Rags did too. They had to laugh at that story. It was laugh or cry. Or curl up and stop moving.
They went onwards. Following the Humans, telling stories. Tragic stories, happy ones. The happy ones were so rare, but Rags had more than her fair share. At one point she caught Ulvama looking at her. It was strange, but she and the [Shaman] did get along. True, Ulvama flirted outrageously with Pyrite in ways even Rags could pick up on, but they were…alike. In ways that Rags hadn’t known until now. It was actually pleasant to walk with her. She wasn’t an enemy.
“When you said Goblins live in circles, what did you mean?”
The little Goblin scratched her head uncomfortably.
“What I said. Goblins live in circles. We kill Humans. Humans kill us. Repeat. Bad thing. Can’t keep doing.”
Tremborag’s Goblins exchanged glances and nodded, losing their cheer. They had seen the end of their circle in Tremborag. And yet—Ulvama shook her head.
“But what do we do? If Humans kill Goblins, what can we do? What other way is there? We run and die? We fight and run? We are hunted always.”
“I know. But there must be other way. There must. Or circle always comes around.”
Rags insisted. She didn’t have the answer, but she knew it was true. After a second, Ulvama nodded.
“So Chieftain is looking for something else? Something that is not circle?”
“Yes. Like square.”
A Hob suggested. Another smacked him on the shoulder.
“Squiggly thing better.”
“How about line?”
Rags grinned, and she caught Pyrite smiling. They looked at each other, walking along, and for a second they forgot they were marching after the Humans, after Reiss, that they had lost their tribe. Then they heard a howl and looked ahead.
Someone was coming. The Goblins froze. Was it Humans? No, that was a Redfang howl! Rags’ heart beat faster. She looked up and waved her arms as she saw a group riding hard towards them. They were headed past them, towards the High Passes! Had some Redfangs survived? She shouted and the other Goblins shouted as well. The distant riders spotted them and adjusted their course. Rags was grinning and so was Pyrite—
Until they saw who was leading the Redfangs. The Goblins froze and Ulvama screamed a warning. The Hobs and Goblins moved in front of Rags, grabbing at weapons. Pyrite tried to lift his battleaxe. But on the forward rider came. He was leading barely more than a dozen battered Redfangs. They had cut their way north past the Humans somehow. But though he was accompanied by only a fraction of his tribe, though he looked haggard and lost, there was still no mistaking him.
Garen Redfang drew up in front of Rags, his Carn Wolf panting. He stared down at the tense group of Goblins. And his eyes found Rags. The Redfang’s Chieftain stared blankly at Rags. Then he nodded.
He had lost his tribe. He had been rejected by his warriors, old and new. He had confronted his team. And now he had nothing left. Garen Redfang stood with Rags as his warriors, exhausted and wounded, just lay down on the ground. They had ridden through magefire and hails of arrows. But somehow, incredibly, Garen had survived. Rags looked at the burns and fresh wounds on his body and wondered if he’d been trying to kill himself. If he had, he’d failed.
The two stood together. Pyrite and Ulvama watched Rags anxiously and stared suspiciously at Garen, but the Redfang Chieftain didn’t offer Rags any harm. He stood, looking blank and tired. Diminished. Rags stood with him, listening as Garen spoke of what had happened.
“So you go to High Passes?”
Garen stared past Rags. His Carn Wolf was lapping at some water being poured out of a flask. It was injured, but it had carried Garen all this way. Rags stared at the wolf as well and shook her head. She looked at Garen.
“You lost tribe.”
He hunched his shoulders. Rags pointed towards Liscor.
“You betrayed team.”
The Hob bowed his head.
“You betrayed me. And Reiss.”
Garen closed his eyes. Rags stared up at him and then sighed.
“You are stupid.”
She saw one crimson eye open a crack and glare indignantly down at Rags. The little Goblin was unperturbed.
“You are. Stupid. And bad traitor. Bad Chieftain. Bad brother. Bad everything.”
“Can’t do anything about it.”
Garen gritted his teeth. Rags kicked him. This time Garen roared and made a fist. The Goblins tensed.
“Do you want fight?”
Rags glared up at Garen. He relaxed slightly, but he was still furious.
“Why are you running away? Why always running?”
Rags stared at Garen. He looked confused.
“Tribe rejected me. Nowhere to go. Halfseekers will kill me.”
“Yes. So why running? Why run?”
“Because nothing to stay for.”
“Except tribe. Except old team.”
Garen opened his mouth. Rags shook her head. She had it now. She looked at Garen.
“You betray. Always betray, you say. But it was you. You betray and betray. And then run away. But that is the problem.”
She pointed back, towards Liscor. Garen followed her finger. Rags spoke quietly.
“When you betray, you should stay.”
“And do what?”
“Fix things. Try. Be loyal. Be good.”
Garen looked back the way Rags was pointing. He looked at her. For a moment he hesitated and she hoped—but then he shook his head.
“Too late. Far too late to make things better.”
He walked towards his Carn Wolf. It whined as it got up. Rags shouted at Garen’s back.
“Not too late to try! Never too late! Otherwise you run forever!”
She saw Garen look back once. And hesitate. But then he got on his Carn Wolf and rode away. North, and west. Towards the High Passes. Rags scuffed at the ground as he rode with the last of his Redfangs.
She was really hoping he’d give her a ride.
Goblins ran. Humans retreated. Adventurers fled the city, or prepared to. But Drakes didn’t run. That was what they said, anyways. But Relc had been part of more than one withdrawal and it looked like running to him. General Sserys’ iconic line was just that, a line. Drakes ran all the time. Relc Grasstongue just wished that were an option here.
He marched up the stairs to the battlements of Liscor’s western wall. Normally Relc didn’t make the climb unless he had to, but today he was looking for someone. She wasn’t hard to spot. Embria’s red scales stood out, even among the other Drakes. She was beautifully striking. Much like her mother, although her mother had pink scales. Just went to show that Embria got the best of both her parents. Her looks from her mother, and her talent with the spear from her father.
It was all he had to give, really.
Relc walked towards Embria. Normally he avoided his daughter. He had the feeling she was disappointed in him. It was a hunch, made stronger by all the times she said he was a disappointment to his face. Besides, whenever they spoke it always went back to the army. She wanted him to reenlist and Relc wouldn’t. Not again, not ever. He was sick of war. And he wished it hadn’t come to Liscor.
He heard Embria speaking as he approached. She was using a rare artifact, a gem with the ability to communicate her words to a speaker across the world. It was limited in magical power and it broke when it was out—plus the distance mattered, so he guessed this was an important call. No guesses to who it was with. Relc edged over and Embria looked up, glaring at him to be silent. He nodded and she spoke into the stone.
“Yes, sir. Absolutely. We will do our part. I swear it by the walls…yes, sir. Wing Commander Embria, out.”
She lowered the mana stone. Relc noticed it was beginning to disintegrate. It was nearly out of mana. He coughed as Embria lowered the stone.
“You talked to High Command?”
“I just had a conversation with them, yes.”
Embria turned to face her father, her posture straight, her face severe. She stood tall, as if to make up for the lack in height. Relc slouched to accommodate her, which only made things worse.
“So what’s the plan? Are they sending a huge army to rescue us? Come charging up north with the others?”
“Don’t be stupid. They’re on contract. They can’t move if they wanted to. And they were too far away to get here no matter if they’d started right when we learned what was going on.”
Embria shook her head. Her tail angrily lashed the ground and Relc avoided it. He followed her as she marched down the walls.
“Right, right. Well, it was worth a shot. So what did they tell you?”
“To do my duty.”
“Classified. If you were part of the army, I could tell you.”
Embria shot a glance at Relc and he sighed.
“I’ll pass. It’s probably just ‘hold the walls’. ‘Drakes don’t run’. ‘Liscor stands in the face of adversity.’ How’s that?”
She hesitated, which made Relc think he’d gotten it close. There wasn’t really much that High Command could tell her, anyways. Embria turned away.
“I’m going to do my duty, father. I wish you’d do yours.”
That stung. Relc glared at his daughter’s back.
“I’m a [Guardsman]. When the time comes, I’ll be up on the walls, same as you.”
Zevara would see to that. Relc imagined fighting with the damn trebuchets throwing rocks. Humans with siege weapons! It was bad enough that they knew how to throw magic. Now they could toss rocks? It was the end of the world.
“You should be a [Soldier].”
“Kid, let’s not do this—”
“No. You should be!”
Embria spun and poked a claw into Relc’s chest. He paused, and saw a [Guardswoman] patrolling towards him swing around smartly and walk the other way. Embria stared up at Relc, and he remembered a little Drake begging for war stories and asking about her mother. When had that look of admiration turned to contempt? Right before she’d enlisted in the army, that was when. All those years ago. Embria glared up at Relc and he tried to meet her eyes.
“You were a hero, dad. You were one of the greatest [Sergeants] we had. Everyone told me that you were the one they called on to hunt down enemy commanders. You were so good they awarded you a weapon worthy of a commander and gave you a name!”
“Yeah, well, it’s an okay spear. And the name’s not that great—it’s actually sort of an insult—”
Embria ignored Relc’s mumbling.
“Why don’t you want to join the army? Is it because you’re afraid?”
“Of dying? Sure.”
“What about your fellow soldiers?”
Relc shook his head.
“Those guys? They’re great. But what’s the point of fighting, kid? To win a war? To earn Liscor money and make the High Command proud? For what? I fought in the Second Antinium War because the Goblin King was about to destroy everything. I fought the Antinium for the same reason. But fighting other Drakes? What’s the point?”
“What about Humans?”
“What about them?”
Embria ground her teeth together. She hissed at Relc.
“Don’t play dumb! They’re coming to destroy Liscor.”
He folded his arms.
“Right. And where’s our army? Down south around Oteslia, that’s where. Who’s defending the city? A hundred of our soldiers and thousands of the Watch. Including—guess who?”
He jabbed a thumb at his chest. Embria flushed.
“If they’d known—”
“You said it. They didn’t. The army’s not a glorious defender of the Drakes, kid. It never was, even when old Sserys was in charge. It was a mercenary army. One of the best, sure, but just mercenaries. I don’t regret leaving it. And I’m not going back, so can we drop it? Just tell me why you wanted to see me, and I’ll get out of your spines.”
Embria stared at Relc. Then she turned away.
“Fine. It’s just a matter of courtesy. Here.”
She fished in her belt pouch and pulled something out. Relc blinked as a folded envelope appeared in front of him. He accepted it gingerly.
“You have to know what it is. You haven’t been away from the army long enough to—you can’t have forgotten. We’re about to go to war. Get it?”
Embria glared at him. Relc just looked blank. His daughter ground her teeth together.
“It’s a will.”
Relc’s stomach dropped. He stared down at the letter and saw it as addressed to him. Embria nodded curtly.
“It details my possessions go to you in the event of my death. I—had to update it. The other soldiers have filed their wills as well. It’s standard practice to send them back on the eve of a big battle.”
Relc spoke mechanically. He stared down at the letter, recognizing the neat handwriting. He began to open the letter and Embria snatched it back.
“Don’t open it! It’s in the event of my death!”
“Oh, right. Sorry, kid. I won’t open it unless you uh, die.”
She handed him the letter back. Relc stared at Embria. She looked at him and then threw a salute.
“I have to get back to my duty, Sergeant Relc. Until we meet again.”
“Sure. I mean, yes, Wing Commander.”
Relc threw a salute of his own. He watched Embria turn and march away. Her back straight, her posture proud and unwavering as she snapped at a slouching [Guardswoman] to stand up. For a second Relc wished she’d turn around, if only to insult him some more. Then he looked down at the letter and opened it. He read what was inside and looked up.
Erin Solstice was polishing the counter of her bar. She did it mechanically, noting how quiet the inn was. The adventurers had followed Ilvriss, Zevara, and the others out of the inn in the morning. They’d been assigned to defend the walls or parts of the city and had decided to check out the spots while continuing to move the door further south. Just in case.
In case of what wasn’t said, but the implication was Liscor falling and everyone dying. Erin tried to imagine it. She looked around her inn and then down at the clean counter. What was she doing? What was the point? If this inn would be rubble—and it would be if the Humans starting lobbing rocks at the city or the Goblin Lord’s army came this way—what was the point?
She should run. Run, and get Lyonette and Mrsha. And Krshia, only, the Gnoll had said she was going to stay and fight. So was Selys. The [Receptionist] had told Erin she wasn’t leaving.
“Grandma’s not budging, and if she’s staying, I’d better stay with her to make sure she doesn’t fall asleep. Besides, reinforcements are on the way, right?”
Reinforcements are on the way. Liscor will hold. Everyone Erin had talked to said something like that. The city wouldn’t fall and the Goblins and Humans wouldn’t take it. Because…well, because it couldn’t happen. They didn’t talk about numbers or the odds. In fact, they quite deliberately avoided mentioning those crucial details. But Erin had heard Olesm talking and she knew what the score was.
It was quiet. So quiet, that Erin could hear the voices outside. It was just a few voices, but they were loud. Shouting, even. She recognized a few of them and went over to the window.
Numbtongue was standing on a hill next to Headscratcher and Shorthilt. He was speaking loudly to one of the new Goblins. Redscar? Yeah. They were debating something. The Goblins were talking, all of the leaders. The five Redfangs were part of that group, as were Noears, Poisonbite, Spiderslicer, and Redscar. And they were deciding something. Every Goblin in the Floodplains was gathered around them. Erin was sure, fairly sure, that they were deciding what to do now.
Run or stay. Or hide in the dungeon, maybe. It wasn’t an easy choice. There was a limited amount of space for an army this large, but they were outnumbered by the Goblin Lord’s force and the Humans. The Drakes were heading north, and the dungeon was…the dungeon. No good answers. Erin saw Numbtongue finish speaking and then Redscar reply. The Goblins outside hung on every word.
“What’re you going do, huh?”
She looked out the window and then heard a sound. Erin turned and saw Mrsha staring at her. The little Gnoll had come through the door from Liscor before it had been carried off. She’d leapt through, not wanting to be apart from Lyonette despite the Goblins. And now she was stuck in the inn, until Erin went into Liscor. She stared up at Erin. And so did a little Goblin with a big hat.
Pebblesnatch was in Erin’s inn, peeking out from the kitchen. She’d recovered her prized hat, which had somehow ended up on Garry’s head last night. Unlike the others, she hadn’t gone outside. She was…afraid. She’d stayed in Erin’s warm kitchen and the young woman had let her. She could understand Pebblesnatch’s fear. The Goblin and Gnoll looked at each other warily, and Erin saw Apista buzzing around the flowers.
No Lyonette. She was in Liscor getting some food since the Goblins had cleaned Erin out of everything. It was expensive; food was at a premium due to the impending siege. Still, Erin had money to burn. There were no Horns or Halfseekers. They were in the city. It was just Erin, and an army of Goblins outside.
“What’s going to happen?”
Erin asked the question out loud, but no one responded. She heard a sound from outside and turned. The door opened. To Erin’s surprise, Relc ducked into the inn. He grinned at her and waved.
“Hey! Lots of Goblins out there, am I right? Scary bastards. Whoops, there’s one here too. Hey, I’m not here to pick a fight.”
He raised his claws as Pebblesnatch backed up. Erin stared at Relc. Why was he here?
“Why are you here, Relc? I thought you hated Goblins.”
“Yeah, I’m still not keen on them. But I uh, was in the neighborhood. On a walk, y’know, and I thought I’d come by.”
The [Guardsman] grinned at Erin unconvincingly. She raised an eyebrow.
“A walk, huh? Well, can I get you a drink?”
“Ooh, yeah! I forgot you have drinks! I’ll have—”
Erin poured him an ale. Relc blinked at it but drank it down willingly. He sighed.
“That hits the spot. Remember when you didn’t have any alcohol? Instead you had that blue, sweet stuff. Those were the days.”
Erin leaned over the counter. Relc grinned at her and waved at Mrsha. The little Gnoll didn’t know him well enough to come over. He relaxed, the picture of sloth, but Erin detected something else from Relc today. She looked casually at him.
“So why did you come here?”
“Me? Well, like I said, I was in the area…”
Relc avoided Erin’s gaze. He was playing with something. A letter, opened and folded up again. Erin eyed it.
“Okay. Well, can I help you with anything else? Food?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
Now that was surprising. Erin blinked at Relc. He just smiled at her. He stared out the window.
“Lots of Goblins. That reminds me of old times too, right? Except there’s more of them.”
Erin said the word with finality. Relc’s grin slipped.
“Right. I’ve uh—look, it’s not that I think this is your fault.”
“Glad to hear it.”
The young woman picked up the dust rag and swabbed the counter. Relc coughed.
“It’s just that you tend to do weird things—and I was thinking—well, it’s sort of like the Face-Eater Moth attack. Or Skinner. Or that time you rescued Ceria from the dungeon and then we all got our tails kicked by that jerk, Gazi. And you poked her in the eye. A Named Adventurer. I mean, it’s sort of like that, right?”
Erin looked blankly at Relc. Why was he bringing up the past? The painful past, come to that. Relc hesitated.
“So the Goblin Lord’s coming here. And the Humans. Damn Humans. Hate them. Ugly fleshbags, am I right?”
He grinned at Erin. She frowned.
“Yeah? Well, I don’t like the fact that they’re coming to Liscor either. Or the Goblin Lord. He sounds like a jerk.”
“Exactly! So…can you do anything?”
Relc waved a hand in the air. He looked at Erin.
“You know. Something. Do your Erin thing. Make things work out right. Can you…can you help?”
He looked at Erin and lost the air of false cheer he’d come in with. Erin stared at Relc and slowly shook her head.
“I can’t—I mean, there’s nothing I can think of. That’s an army. I don’t—I don’t know what anyone can do.”
Relc’s face fell.
“Right. Of course not. It’s just that I thought—well, hey, it’ll work out, right? Drakes don’t run. The walls stand and all that. You’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. You should come into the city, though. No telling what’ll happen when…when…”
He lapsed into silence. Erin nodded. The two stood there for a while. Relc finished one mug, and then another. Erin listened to the Goblins arguing outside.
“You sure there’s nothing?”
Relc looked up at Erin at the last. Hopefully, questioningly, searching for something. Anything. But Erin didn’t have anything. She shook her head. And soon after that, he left. Erin was left staring out the window. At the Goblins.
“When you breach the walls, I will teleport my Chosen into the battle. They must not be seen by witnesses. I will time it so they arrive within minutes of you taking the walls. Use them against the Antinium, Bea especially. Venitra will be suited to ambush attacks when Tyrion tries to capture the walls. As for Ijvani—she has yet to respond. Never mind. I will send some other undead instead. Wraiths, perhaps.”
Reiss stared blankly ahead as he rode his undead shield spider. He was approaching the pass leading to Liscor. His army, his tribe, marched around him. In silence. They watched their leader as he spoke to his master, a figure unseen. But that didn’t matter. They read his body language, listened to his voice.
“Another thing. I have a…student who is currently residing in Liscor. He and I have exchanged brief communications. I would see him survive the battle.”
An image flashed into Reiss’ mind. The Goblin Lord’s heart beat faster at the sight. His master’s will wrote itself into his mind.
“Keep him alive if possible. He is promising.”
Reiss stared at the image, burning it into his memory. Another rival. Another doomed soul. He felt a pang of fear. His master used and discarded potential candidates constantly, whenever he found someone who attracted his attention. Perhaps Az’kerash sensed it, because his mental tone grew reassuring.
“He is skilled. Adaptive and sharp, for all he is a beginner in the craft. A touch too arrogant and his ideas are foolish. However, that is one failing in a gifted mind. But make no mistake. Seize Liscor and you will be first of my students, my faithful apprentice.”
“Yes, master. I will take the city.”
“Good. Then I will contact you when the moment is upon us. Prepare yourself, my apprentice.”
And then he was gone. Reiss sat back and looked around. His tribe looked at him. He was the Goblin Lord, and they were his people. Only, they were not the same in his mind as they had been a few days ago.
Some of them weren’t his. They were…Rags’. Tremborag’s Goblins. He had taken them. He had betrayed Rags. He had killed Pyrite.
It had to be done. But it was so not-Goblin that the echoes of the betrayal lingered on. The Goblins moved as Reiss directed them, but more like undead than Goblins. They were…silent.
Reiss sent the order for his lieutenant. He had to tell her about his master’s new plans, or the adjustments, rather. In truth, Reiss just wanted someone to talk to. He saw Snapjaw ride slowly towards him. Not as quickly as she usually did. And when she appeared, the metal-toothed Goblin was hesitant.
“Snapjaw, why are you hesitating?”
Reiss looked at her. The female Hob gulped.
“Is it you?”
The question rocked Reiss back in his seat. He stared at Snapjaw and she colored. But the question lingered on. Is it you? It is really you, Reiss? Or is it the Necromancer, using you as a puppet?
Up till now, Reiss had been sure it was him. Despite everything. His master’s voice was just a mental connection. The being that was Reiss was undiluted. But he remembered the moment when he had struck Rags with a spell and wondered. Was it him? Was this desire to take Liscor him? Or was it his mind being influenced.
He said it out loud, to reassure Snapjaw as much as himself. It had to be him. He had sacrificed so much, this desire meant more than anything. It was…he shook his head.
Osthia had spoken to him. Tied up, gagged so she couldn’t spit. But she had tried. She had begged him in the moment when they’d spoken.
“Don’t do this. Please.”
He couldn’t answer her. Reiss bowed his head. He felt haunted. By betrayal, by doubt. The shining city in his dreams seemed dark and the road ahead long. But nearly. They were nearly there. He looked at Snapjaw.
“Are you with me?”
She said it automatically. But she did not say his name. And Reiss wondered. He wondered as he stared down at his reattached hand. At the headless Shield Spider, rotting. At the silent Goblins, marching. And he knew he would have his answer tomorrow. Come what may. There was bitter relief in that, at least.
And then it was done. Erin stood outside her inn and saw the decision as it was made. She saw Headscratcher look down, Redscar sigh, and Spiderslicer turn away. Noears looked mildly relieved, and Poisonbite looked like she didn’t know what to think. She waited for one of the Redfangs to tell her. In the end, Headscratcher did it.
He pointed south. Erin nodded. That was it. The Goblins had debated, and they had chosen. By the slimmest of margins, they had decided not to stay or hide or fight. It was a practical choice.
“Should fight. Goblin Lord coming. Goblin Lord betrayed. Should fight.”
Redscar growled as he stomped past them. Erin looked at him, and then at Headscratcher.
“You’re all leaving?”
Headscratcher nodded. He looked at Erin and gestured to the inn.
“Will bring door. When get back, can come visit? Or teleport? If run from city in door, we find and protect.”
The awkward gallantry made Erin smile. She put a hand on Headscratcher’s arm and squeezed.
“Thank you. But you guys just find somewhere safe, okay? There are Drakes heading north. Don’t get attacked.”
Headscratcher nodded. He and Erin looked at each other. It was time for goodbyes. She hugged him without a word and he hesitated, then hugged her back. The other Goblins came over and Erin said goodbye to each one.
“Take care. Get a new guitar.”
“Don’t drink too much from that wine cloak, Rabbiteater. It’s bad for your teeth. I think.”
“Don’t sharpen your sword too much. There’s more to life than swords, you know. Like…maces? I dunno.”
“Good shooting. I’ll say hi to Bird for you.”
The five Redfangs shook Erin’s hands, or hugged her, or spoke a few words. Erin wanted to say a lot more. And she would. They weren’t going right now. But it felt too rushed. Too inadequate. She walked back into her inn as the Goblins began organizing, packing up.
They were going. And at least she was at peace with that.
“Good. It’s good. This isn’t their fight. This isn’t their problem.”
Erin spoke to herself in her empty inn. She stared out the window, and then looked north. The empty Floodplains waited. Soon they would be filled with Goblins and Humans and death. Still, she couldn’t picture the war entirely. It couldn’t happen. It shouldn’t happen.
And she wouldn’t let it happen. Erin’s hands slowly tightened into fists. She stared out the window and felt something rising in her.
“It can’t go down like this. I won’t let it. Goblin Lord? Humans? Why can’t we talk about it? Why can’t we stop? It could happen. It might happen. Someone has to try.”
Even if it was a risk. Even if it meant dying. Erin turned. She looked around blankly, and then ran upstairs. She came down with a bed sheet.
“Darn. I’m going to need thread, a pole—can I get Selys to stitch for me? Heck, I’ll do it myself if I have to. What do I say? What do I do? What if they shoot me?”
For a second she paused and stared down at her hands. Erin closed her eyes and breathed out slowly.
“Someone has to try.”
She began to work. And perhaps it didn’t matter. Perhaps one person could change nothing. But when everything teetered on the brink, one person’s actions did matter. One [Innkeeper], perhaps. Or the little Gnoll and Goblin who watched from the shadows. And who had heard…
Everything. And that night things happened. People marched and plotted and things got into line just so. More or less how it was expected to happen, but with some key differences no one expected. And the next day…
The Goblin Lord’s army arrived in Liscor.