(The Wandering Inn is on break until March 18th for Patreon readers and March 23rd for public readers.)
She had watched him die. Poisonbite scrambled up the mountain. Her hands were scratched and bloody. She was hurt. Her wounds burned. But she was alive.
It was no blessing. Poisonbite’s eyes ran. She could still smell the stench of burning flesh, the death in the air. It rose upwards. Far below, the basin, the Floodplains of Liscor was filled with the dead.
Goblin dead. Few others. They had been cut down like a [Farmer] harvested grain. Poisonbite had fled the fighting. She had hid, and been overlooked by the Humans as they charged past her. She had hid, as she always did. To live. To survive. But no part of Poisonbite could rejoice.
Noears was gone. He had not fled. She had witnessed his end. Seen him conjure lightning from the skies. For a second he had shone brighter than all the Humans. And for that they had ended him.
Why? Poisonbite gasped, wiping at her eyes. Why hadn’t he run? He might have lived. But he had stayed there. And his sacrifice had meant something. More Goblins had escaped because of him. Because of him, she was there.
Poisonbite could feel her. She scrambled higher, heading up a rocky slope full of loose boulders. She had climbed for over two hours, but still the mountains loomed overhead. Taller than imagination. But she was close.
The little Goblin stopped as she crested the edge of the slope. She saw dark shapes. Rocks. And Goblins. They sat or stood so still that they appeared to be part of the mountainside. Only the crimson glow from their eyes betrayed them.
Goblins. Poisonbite looked around. There were so few of them. Cave Goblins. Goblins she knew from her tribe. Tremborag’s former warriors. A handful of Redfangs. And Goblins in black armor. Poisonbite stared at them, but she did not reach for her dagger. She had lost her other one in the fighting.
Poison had failed her. Steel had failed her. As it had failed all the Goblins here. They had died like flies before the Humans. Where a vast army had been were now thousands. And though some Goblins climbed as Poisonbite had done, they were few. The last of them were here. And she was up ahead.
Slowly, painfully, Poisonbite staggered forwards. The Goblins watched her pass. She heard a voice ahead of her. Saw a gathering. Hobs and Goblins stood around a little Goblin kneeling on the ground. She was weeping. Goblins did not cry. But she did. Rags screamed. Poisonbite approached slowly. And she saw tears. Tears and missing faces.
They were all gone. Rags shook with the pain of it. They were dead. Garen. Reiss. Noears. Pyrite. Her tribe. His tribe. Everyone. Everyone was—
Snapjaw had carried her up the mountain. The female Hob stood to one side. She was dry-eyed, but empty. She had watched Eater of Spears die, and Reiss. A few others stood around Rags. She knew some of them. Others had been enemies. But there was no fighting here. The Goblins who wore black armor, who had fought under Reiss, were devastated. They did not look up. They did not move.
Devastation. How had it come to this? They had fought for Liscor. She had seen them. But she had been too late. They had fought and it was all meaningless. Rags still saw him riding at her. Tyrion Veltras. An army of Humans. It had all been for nothing.
Rags choked on the knowledge. She screamed and wailed, though her throat was torn. The other Goblins watched and listened. No sound was enough for Rags’ grief. She only looked up when she sensed the others.
They came to her. First Poisonbite, who would not talk. She sat and curled up, covering her face. But she was not the last. Rags turned and saw them.
He walked up the slopes, followed by Cave Goblins. His armor was torn. He was wounded. Yet, still he shone. The axe he carried was gold and jade. The cloak he wore billowed red, the color of blood. He walked through the other Goblins and stopped before Rags. She looked up. She had never seen this Hobgoblin in her life. But he saluted her.
“Who are you?”
Rags whispered. The Hobgoblin bowed his head.
The name told her everything. Rags got up and looked at Rabbiteater. He returned her look. She did not know his story. She did not know why he looked like an adventurer, or why the Cave Goblins followed him. But he had lost his friends. He was…one of them.
He joined the gathering. Snapjaw looked up and Rabbiteater returned the look. The two Hobs stared at each other and then away.
Rabbiteater looked at Rags.
“Headscratcher. Shorthilt. Numbtongue. Badarrow.”
The names meant nothing to Rags. But they were part of the countless thousands she had heard. She nodded. Rabbiteater sat down and buried his face in his hands.
The last of them came with the rider. Only he did not ride his Carn Wolf. He urged the injured animal up the slopes. Pushing, pulling. Trying to support its weight. Rags turned as Redscar crested the slope. She looked at him, wide-eyed.
Rabbiteater looked up. He saw the Hobgoblin lying on the back of the injured Thunderfur and sprang up with a sharp cry. He ran, sobbing, and Badarrow looked up. The two Hobs embraced as Redscar walked towards Rags. The Goblins stared. Because in Redscar’s hands was a blade.
A rust-red sword, made redder with dried blood. A magical weapon with a name.
Redfang. Garen’s blade. Rags stared at Redscar. Then she looked to the other Hob. Badarrow stood, painfully, supporting his side. He leaned on Rabbiteater and stumbled over to Rags.
“Chieftain. I, Badarrow.”
That was all he said. Rags looked at him.
“Others? Headscratcher? Numbtongue? Shorthilt?”
Badarrow did not cry. His fingers still bled. Torn from his bowstring. Redscar did not weep either. He sat down. And his wounds dripped like tears.
He was dying. Rags whispered. Then she shouted. One of the last healing potions was found. The Goblins who had followed Redscar up the slopes helped tend to Thunderfur. They looked at Redscar with awe. The Goblin was silent.
Poisonbite. Snapjaw. Rabbiteater. Badarrow. And Redscar. Five. All that remained. Five.
Rags waited. She hoped Ulvama would be there. She had hoped that Pyrite—but he was gone. All who had lived had come here. And this was all that remained.
She looked around. The Goblins did not meet her gaze. They were empty. Shattered. They had all seen death. But this was too much. Too much. Some Goblins just curled up. Others, like Hobs, were sitting still. They would not move. They wanted to die.
So the Goblins mourned. In silence. In pain. The spring air was cold on the slopes of the mountain. The night dark, just before dawn. Rags cried. She cried every tear she had. It was not enough. And she wondered what the point was of continuing on. She saw a Redfang warrior reach for his dagger and look at it.
Perhaps that was what he had been waiting for. On a rocky ledge higher up the slope, a shape stirred. Two eyes opened and red light shone from them. The figure stood and laughed.
As one, the Goblins looked up. They saw a tall figure, half-naked, leap down towards them. On his back he carried a rusted weapon as tall as he was. A notched greatsword. And he had a beard, grey. He laughed as he appeared above Rags.
Greybeard. Greydath of Blades. The Goblin Lord looked down at the Goblins. His grin was wide. His eyes shone. Rags looked up at him. She was not surprised. She was beyond surprise. She had only grief in her. Grief, and anger.
Greydath agreed. He leapt down and stood in front of Rags. There was no apology in his eyes. He looked around at the others, clearly counting. Then he shrugged.
It was that shrug which made the fury in Rags rise, loud enough to drown the sorrow. She saw Snapjaw stir. Saw Rabbiteater and Badarrow look up with sudden, furious recognition. Redscar pointed.
“You. You are Goblin Lord.”
He did not deny it. Greydath watched as the Goblins stirred. They looked at him. But they felt nothing. Rags sensed nothing from the Hobgoblin. It was as if he were a ghost. Not a Goblin. Certainly not a Goblin Lord.
“You saw it all.”
Redscar looked at Greydath. It was not a question. Greydath nodded.
“I saw it.”
“You did nothing?”
Rags whispered. Greydath glanced at her.
The small Goblin had no answer for that. She just stared. But another Hobgoblin moved. Snapjaw drew her sword. She pointed it at Greydath.
“You! You let him die!”
Greydath shrugged. It was too much. Snapjaw lunged, sword swinging. Greydath moved. His arm blurred and he blocked Snapjaw’s blade with his greatsword. The sound rang in the night. Snapjaw staggered back. Greydath turned. Rabbiteater had the magical axe in his hands. He was staring at Greydath with hatred. So was Badarrow. The Goblin had an arrow pointed at Greydath’s chest.
“You coward. You did nothing! You let him die! He was Goblin Lord! Like you!”
Snapjaw screamed. She tried to bite at Greydath, but he dodged her. The Goblin Lord threw Snapjaw back. He was still smiling.
“So? He fought.”
Redscar’s voice was quiet. He lifted Redfang and Greydath’s eyes flicked to him. The other Goblins were getting up. The Goblin Lord looked calmly at the three Redfangs.
“He chose to. He could have run. He was a traitor. Reiss, a slave. What of it?”
The words made the Goblins furious. They slowly advanced and Greydath waited. His smile was mocking. Designed to infuriate. But Rags did not draw the shortsword at her side. She looked at Greydath’s face.
“Pyrite is dead. You taught him.”
For a second she saw Greydath’s smile flicker. But then the Goblin Lord turned to her.
“So what? He was a Hobgoblin. One Hobgoblin.”
“It doesn’t matter to you that he died?”
Greydath tilted his head back and forth. He stared past Rags, into the dark sky. Then he shook his head.
That was it. It was too much. Poisonbite leapt at the same time the Redfangs swung. Greydath spun. All four Goblins stumbled back. He laughed at them.
“Is that all? Is that all you can do? This is why they died. Because you are weak. And you. You failed them all. You could stop nothing. Just run.”
Greydath pointed at Rags. She felt the words go through her. She stared at Greydath. Hurt and pain and anger welled up and her. And then it vanished. She felt a calm cold settle over her. A certainty. She looked into Greydath’s eyes and saw none of the mockery in his voice. Slowly, Rags shook her head.
“Why are you doing this?”
The Goblin Lord hesitated. Then he shrugged.
“To tell you that you are weak. To make you angry.”
“Is that why you waited? To tell me this?”
Rags asked him. Greydath shook his head.
“Not you. You think I waited for you? No. I waited here. Waited. Watched. For whomever came. For you. Or Garen. Or Reiss or Tremborag. Or even—”
He glanced at Rabbiteater and Badarrow. The Hobgoblins exchanged a glance. Rags looked at the Goblin Lord. The question burned in her heart. All the Goblins felt it and she gave voice to it.
At first Greydath did not respond. Rags pressed him.
“Why? Why did you watch? Why did you not help? Why did you do nothing? You are a Goblin Lord. Stronger than anyone else! Why did you let them die? Why?”
“Because it is meaningless. Because it had to be so.”
The Goblins stirred. Their fury rose. But Greydath was unmoved. He looked around at them. There was no contempt in his gaze. Just age. Tired age. It made them pause. The Goblin Lord raised his voice as he turned to face them all.
“Goblins die. You think you are alone? That this moment is unique? It happens everywhere. A thousand thousand times. In every part of the world. Year by year. Day by day. Goblins die. Chieftains die. Tribes die. Lords die.”
He lifted his greatsword. The battered weapon was just iron. It was bent and chipped. Notched. But when Greydath held it, it shone. The Goblin Lord swung the blade and the air tore. He stared at the blade and he shook his head. Then he planted the greatsword in the ground.
“This sword is useless. I am useless. Goblins cannot be saved by me. Or even a hundred of me. We wait for only one thing. A Goblin King.”
The Goblins listened. Greydath stepped back from his blade, spreading his clawed hands wide. He looked at Rags.
“You ask why I waited? Why I did nothing? Because it did not matter who came. It did not matter if no one came. If I brought you to this place. If I helped, it would be meaningless. I can only watch.”
“Because you are not enough.”
He pointed at Rags. Greydath turned and his finger found every Goblin. They flinched back from him. His eyes burned.
“You are weak. You must be stronger. So suffer. Die. Struggle. But grow. I search the world for Goblins who can rise. Beyond Lords. Beyond all others. I test them, goad them. But never help. A true King must rise alone.”
Rags felt a chill. So that was it. That was the reason he’d sought her out. Not just her, but every Goblin of note. But—she stared at Greydath. For a second she thought she felt him standing before her. Then he was gone again. Not a Goblin Lord. But he had been. Why had he given it up?
“Tremborag said you betrayed Velan. Is that true?”
The Hobgoblin turned. He hesitated a second time, but guilt never crossed his face. Just…sadness. And that age. How old was he? Greydath shook his head.
“No. Velan chose his death.”
If he had answers, Greydath refused to give them. That too was why he had come. To make her question. To make her wonder. It did nothing to heal the pain in Rags’ heart. Greydath shook his head.
“If you want to know, look back. Find it yourself. Garen searched. And so did Reiss. They found something of the past.”
“The key. The treasure of Velan the Kind.”
Snapjaw whispered. Greydath nodded. He pointed up, towards the invisible summit of the mountain, high, high above. Clouds obscured sight. But Rags still looked up. A vast mountain, stretching up as if it could go on forever. Greydath grinned.
“It is surely there! High above. Claim it if you will. The treasure of the Goblin King. Seek the other key. The two will unlock his gift. If you claim it, perhaps you will be strong enough to follow. Perhaps not. But it is waiting. You have the key. Garen’s will. It is your decision to follow his footsteps. To succeed where he did not.”
He pointed at Rags and she felt a jolt as every Goblin looked towards her. But for the first time, she realized, Greydath had made a mistake. Rags laughed and the Goblin Lord looked puzzled. Rags laughed, with wild hysteria.
“Key? I don’t have it! Garen did not give it to me.”
Greydath blinked. But then his grin returned.
“Then find it. Search! Struggle! Or die. It matters not. Someday, a Goblin King will rise again. And until that day comes, I will search and wait.”
He turned away from Rags. And it was to all Goblins he spoke now. The former Goblin Lord spread his arms. His body was scarred from tens of thousands of battles. He had lived longer than all of them put together, surely. His words reverberated in their ears. In their souls.
“Grow. Despair. Rage! It matters not what you are! A coward, a traitor, a slave—all these things are what is Goblin! Be what you are. But grow!”
Greydath’s eyes found all of them. He looked from face to face, burning with a passion that Rags couldn’t name.
“Find the truth. It is at the beginning. And only Goblin Kings know of it.”
They stared at him. Greydath held their gaze for another second, then lowered his arms. He was done. He turned back to Rags.
“You will not see me, child. Not until you take another step.”
“Good. I hate you.”
That was all Rags said. She did not like Greydath. She did not trust him. But—she had to admit—the pain in her chest had vanished for a moment. Now it returned, biting. Greydath saw it. He looked straight through Rags, as if he had seen someone like her a million times. But he said nothing more.
He walked past Redscar. Past Rabbiteater, Badarrow, through Tremborag’s Goblins. Past staring Cave Goblins. He left his greatsword behind. Greydath stood on the edge of the slope. He looked back once and grinned.
“Grow. And never forget.”
How could they? The Goblins stared at his back. The Goblin Lord bent. Then he jumped. He hurled himself down the mountain, a tremendous jump that carried him down the rocky slope, onto a distant rock hundreds of feet down. His feet struck the rock and Greydath leapt, propelling himself faster.
He leapt again, launching himself down the mountain. Going faster. He was laughing. Greydath laughed as he fled. Rags listened to it echoing back up towards her. The funny thing about laughter was that it sounded like sobbing, sometimes.
And then he was gone. Leaving the Goblins alone with nothing but the dead. Rags looked around. She tried to find that grief once more, but in truth, she was just numb. So many had died. It felt wrong, but after a while she couldn’t even grieve.
Rags felt something in her mourn. But Greydath’s words had created something else in her. An urge. To keep living. Why had he died? It was to save her. Why had Noears fallen? To protect his tribe. How could she die and let them down?
Garen. Reiss. Rags would mourn them again and again, later. And she would not forget them. But—she looked around.
There they were. Goblins of every kind. Staring at her. Right at her. Rags felt the weight of their gazes and nearly stumbled. She saw someone turn to her.
Rabbiteater bowed his head. Snapjaw knelt. Redscar and Poisonbite approached. Badarrow waited.
Rags asked it as she looked at the others. At Redscar. At Snapjaw. After so much, they still looked to her? Redscar nodded. He half-smiled. Pain ran through him and her. But he still smiled.
“Who else could be Chieftain?”
Rags looked around. At Redscar. At the two Redfangs, Rabbiteater and Badarrow. At Snapjaw. Poisonbite. She shook her head. And then she stood tall.
The little Goblin climbed onto a rock. She stood in front of the Goblins. Thousands. They had lost their tribes. Their leaders. Their family and friends. The Humans had shattered them. The Drakes had pushed them away. They had been used again. Used and killed.
But still, they were here. And the living were here thanks to the dead. They looked up at the small Goblin. She took a breath of the cold air and looked past them. The sky was lightening. Dawn was not far away. Rags closed her eyes. Then she drew her sword. The Goblins below her did the same.
Their weapons were heavy. Blood stained. But as they raised them, flames burst into life. Their weapons ignited, and the fire burned in the darkness. Candles for the fallen. Rags held her flaming blade aloft and looked at them. Her people. She shouted down at them.
“I am Rags! Chieftain of the Flooded Water tribe! Chieftain of the Redfangs! Chieftain of Reiss’ Goblins! Chieftain of the Cave Goblins! Great Chieftain of the Mountain! Follow me.”
And they did. The Goblins limped after the small Goblin. They supported each other. They wept and mourned, but they did follow. Their eyes fixed on the small Goblin’s back. Was she a bit taller than before? Surely. A tiny bit. She seemed taller. Still a child. But taller.
She walked ahead of them as the sun rose. It was cold. And she was so tired. But still Rags walked. The light shone down on her body and she shaded her eyes. And she led them forwards.
They found him as dawn shone down on the battlefield. Only when Tyrion Veltras’ army had left the Floodplains did the gates of Liscor open. Oh, some Humans still remained on the field, but the army had gone. That left only the Goblin dead.
And the Antinium. They lay in a neat row. A hundred and one bodies. Fragments, really. The Painted Soldiers had died as Antinium do. Hard. They had fought to the last. He knelt before them as they approached him.
Lyonette rushed towards the Worker. He was motionless. She called out and the other searching Antinium made a beeline towards him. Belgrade, Anand—and Klbkch. The Revalantor was riding a horse of all things. He dismounted and the horse shifted uneasily. But it was too well-trained to move.
“Pawn. Are you—are you okay?”
The Worker didn’t move. He knelt in front of the Painted Soldiers. In front of a Soldier with yellow spatters of paint.
“They’re all dead.”
“They fought well.”
That was all Klbkch said as he dismounted. Lyonette looked up, her eyes flashing, but Klbkch just strode past her. He surveyed the dead as Anand and Belgrade approached. They had an escort of Painted Soldiers. They stopped in front of the bodies.
“All of them?”
Belgrade stared at the fallen. Anand shook his head.
“It was statistically unlikely they would survive. The fact that Pawn did is nothing short of a—”
He broke off. Pawn hadn’t moved. His antennae was broken. He was broken. Klbkch stared down at him. Then he glanced at the body.
“Yellow Splatters is dead.”
Pawn jerked. Lyonette glared up at Klbkch.
“Be quiet! Can’t you be kind? Can’t you be sorry for them? Pawn just lost—”
“They were under his command. Pawn led them. They fell. They fulfilled their duties.”
Klbkch stared coldly at Lyonette. He looked across the Painted Soldiers, living and dead.
“This is why the Antinium exist. Why Soldiers exist. To fight and die. How should I speak of them?”
The young woman met the Revalantor’s eyes. Klbkch hesitated. Then he shook his head.
“What good would that do?”
Lyonette opened her mouth, but Klbkch was already turning. He bent down and inspected Yellow Splatter’s body.
“Slain by a spell.”
“He died protecting me.”
Pawn whispered. Lyonette hugged him. Klbkch looked back at Pawn.
“Yellow Splatters was unique. His talents were commendable. Belgrade.”
“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch?”
The Worker shot to panicked attention. Klbkch pointed at Yellow Splatter’s body.
“Recover his remains. Bring them to the Hive. I will petition the Queen to perform the Rite of Anastases on his corpse. Yellow Splatters may be revived.”
Lyonette stared at Klbkch, uncomprehending. But the other Workers looked up. So did the Soldiers. They stared at Klbkch. The Revalantor nodded coolly.
“The odds of success are low. Yellow Splatters may not have the levels to be resurrected. I suspect he does, but we will see. It may even be possible to give him a more fitting body. Perhaps a voice. The Queen will—”
The word was quiet. It came from Pawn. The [Acolyte] looked up. He did not weep. The look in his eyes silenced even Klbkch for a moment. The Revalantor turned to face him.
“Explain yourself, Pawn.”
“No. You won’t revive him.”
Pawn moved forwards to stand between Klbkch and Yellow Splatters. He spread his good arms, protecting the fallen [Sergeant]. Pawn stared at Klbkch, and at the other Antinium.
“He’s in a better place. Why would you want to bring him back?”
“He is needed.”
Klbkch’s mandibles closed together, a tad uncertainly. Pawn shook his head.
“He’s free. Leave him be.”
He faced down Klbkch. The Revalantor wavered, then he turned.
“Decide as you will. But be swift. He must be brought to the Hive soon or any chance of resurrecting him will be gone. I must go.”
Lyonette was incredulous. She stared around the battlefield. At the dead. They littered the ground. So many that she felt sick. But Klbkch walked past and over the dead as if they were invisible to him. The horse whickered as Klbkch mounted it. The [Guardsman] and Revalantor looked down at Lyonette.
“I have my duties.”
He wheeled the horse southwards. Lyonette watched him begin to canter down the hill. Pawn turned.
“And that’s it? They died and that is all you’ll say?”
Klbkch didn’t turn. Pawn shouted at his back.
“What was the point? Why was it only us? What was this for?”
His voice broke. He fell to his knees. Lyonette bent as the other Antinium surrounded him.
“Pawn. Pawn, it’s going to be okay.”
Lies. Pawn looked up and Lyonette blinked back tears.
“She’s alive, Pawn. You saved Erin. You did save her.”
“It’s not enough.”
The Worker whispered. The Antinium shifted restlessly. But Pawn paid no mind. He looked back at the dead as Lyonette tried and failed to haul him to his feet.
“What can I do? What can I say? To the others?”
He gave the other Painted Soldiers an agonized look. They stared down at their brethren, silent. Unreadable. But not emotionless. Lyonette looked at the silent Antinium. She brushed tears from her eyes. Didn’t they know? She raised her voice and the Antinium looked at her.
“They were heroes. Obviously! Tell them that!”
Pawn looked at her.
“Yes. What else could they be? Tell them that. They were heroes. And you’ll never forget them.”
Lyonette blinked. Water ran down her cheeks. Pawn stared at the tears. And then he looked at the dead. Slowly, he stood.
“Never. We will never forget.”
The Soldiers looked at him. The Worker stood taller. Never, ever. So long as one Antinium lived. Never. Lyonette could not read the emotions running through the Antinium. She turned her head, stared towards a hill with an inn and a shattered roof.
“Come on, Pawn. We’re going home.”
The Worker looked at her. Slowly, Lyonette pulled and guided him towards the hill. The Antinium surrounded their dead. Belgrade stared down at Yellow Splatters. He looked at Anand, but the other [Tactician] had no words. Slowly, the two Workers looked back. The Painted Soldiers stood around Yellow Splatters. They gazed silently at the fallen [Sergeant] and realized the choice was theirs. Theirs alone.
They made their decision.
Osthia watched the Antinium go. She knelt by the body of a fallen horse, ignoring the stink and the mud and blood that clung to her scales. She had smeared mud onto her body. And she had waited for the Antinium to go.
It was agonizing. Osthia wanted nothing more than to get up and fly past them. But she dared not. That was Klbkch the Slayer she had just seen. And she had recognized the strange Antinium from the battle. They were the enemies of her people.
As were the Humans. Osthia looked around and then dared to crawl a bit further. She was on the lookout; Tyrion Veltras’ army may have left, but a good number of his nobles had split from his army and any one of them could be her doom. She could not be caught.
She had crawled past bodies already rotting, past glowing green flies, through the mud. All to avoid the attention of the Humans. Even now, she hesitated. She had to make it to the city. But her wings were bound. Reiss had kept her under guard until his lines had broken.
She had watched him die. Osthia still wasn’t sure what she thought about it. She knew what had possessed him in his last moments. That dark presence lurking behind his eyes.
Az’kerash. Liscor had to know. Her people had to know. Osthia gritted her teeth. There was at least two miles between her and Liscor. But she had not the strength to keep crawling, nor the patience. She had to risk it all. She got up slowly and began to run.
At first her weary legs betrayed her. But as she ran, stumbling, Osthia found her pace. She ran past and over Goblin bodies. So many. Osthia had seen battlefields before. But this had been a slaughter at the end. She stared at black bodies lying in piles.
They had been the Goblin Lord’s forces. Her enemy. They had killed her uncle and Garusa and so many of her comrades. They deserved death for that alone. But Osthia couldn’t find any victorious glee in her. She only felt numb.
They had died fleeing the Humans. Running away. It hadn’t been a battle. There wasn’t honor in this. But they were Goblins. Just Goblins—
Osthia tripped. She windmilled her arms and her manacled wings flapped uselessly. The Drake caught herself, and stared at the city. She was so close! She sprinted towards it. If she could just get in range of the walls—
Something flickered in the corner of her eye. Who was that? Osthia turned.
Someone was coming. Approaching her at speed, on a horse. A Human? Osthia didn’t bother to look. She put her head down and pumped her arms. She had to get to the city! If they spotted her, noticed she’d been a prisoner—
They had to know. Drakes, not Humans. Az’kerash had been Human. This might be a plot. The Walled Cities had to know! Osthia tried to outrun whomever was chasing her, but they were faster and she was exhausted.
Closer now. But too far away. Osthia waved her arms desperately. Liscor was just in front of her. She cried out, her voice raw and unused.
“Help! Someone deliver a message to Pallass! It’s—”
The rider bore down on her. Osthia spun, ready to make a final stand. She had a sword looted from the dead. But it was no Human who rode the horse, or Klbkch. It was a Drake. He drew up and Osthia gaped up at him.
His scales were dark red, no, closer to purple. He wore a breastplate that blazed with gold and fire that Osthia recognized. But it was his face that spoke to her.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss?”
He blinked. But Osthia knew him. A Wall Lord of Salazsar? What was he doing here?
“Who are you? Identify yourself. Are you a captive?”
He eyed her suspiciously. Osthia’s bindings gave her away. The Drake nodded, and then remembered to salute.
“I am. Wall Lord—sir! I was a prisoner of the Goblin Lord!”
“Goblins don’t take prisoners.”
“This one did. But—sir, I have critical news! It must reach the Walled Cities! Now!”
She stumbled over her words. She had to say it.
“It’s the Necromancer. It’s Az’kerash. He’s alive! He—”
Ilvriss jerked in his saddle, but not with the pure shock Osthia had expected. Instead, he swung himself to the ground and practically leapt at Osthia. His claw covered her mouth. She jerked in surprise.
He muffled her. Ilvriss stared around, but no one was nearby. He ignored the female Drake’s protests and hissed at her.
“Quiet! I know.”
She went still, her eyes wide. Ilvriss glanced around again, and then straightened. He stared long and hard at Osthia.
“This Goblin Lord had ties to the Necromancer?”
“He was his apprentice. He—”
Osthia struggled to describe all she’d witnessed. Reiss’ subservience, his resentment, the reasons he’d followed the Necromancer. She couldn’t. But Ilvriss just nodded.
“You must have valuable intelligence. I will hear it. But not here. We’re too exposed. Follow me. What’s your rank and name, soldier?”
He offered Osthia a claw. She stared at him, and then swung herself up into the saddle. The horse grunted.
“Osthia. Osthia Blackwing, [Captain]. Pallass’ 5th Oldblood Winged Division. Wall Lord—”
The Drake gave her a long look. Ilvriss shook his head.
“This secret is our only advantage. We will make him pay. I swear it. But we must trap him. Come.”
He urged the horse into a trot, heading back towards Liscor. Osthia saw more Drakes racing to join him. They’d been—combing the dead. The undead, rather. For signs of the Necromancer? She stared at Ilvriss’ back. And then she remembered to ride to avoid falling off. She was exhausted, grieving, though she didn’t know why. But she burned with vengeance.
She would not forget him, ever. And the Necromancer would pay. She swore it. The Drakes rode away from the battlefield, towards the city. They passed another figure, who picked his way across the dead, slowly, stick in hand.
“Is this hell?”
I don’t know. I have always imagined hell, if it exists, as a place of suffering. A place of torment, as you would imagine. Screaming, pure agony distilled into an experience. But perhaps hell is quiet.
If it is, I walk through it. My cane taps the mud. Every few feet I run into something. A body. Sometimes my cane taps on armor, other times flesh. If I were anywhere else I would be confused, unsettled by the strange forms lying around me. But I know what has passed here. And I am sick.
Everything is so…quiet. I can hear practically nothing. Nothing but my heartbeat. There are distant sounds. Galloping hooves, sometimes voices. The buzzing of flies. But around me nothing but silence. The dead lie in droves. Invisible to the blind man.
But I can feel them. Soft shapes, hard metal. They’re lying everywhere. I can’t imagine how many. I know there was a battle here, but I can see none of it. I wish my senses as an emperor extended to this place. I wish I could know the extent of my failure. My unforgivable…
Dead. Just like that. And the smell. I gag, but my nose has already gotten somewhat accustomed to the smell. It will only grow worse as time passes. And, I’m told, the dead will begin rising. I shouldn’t be here. But I can’t help it. I have to know. I have to know.
“Emperor. Your majesty!”
A voice calls out to me. Gamel. He’s been following me. I ignore him. I nearly trip over an arm. Bent down to touch clammy flesh. The body’s warming. I shudder.
“What have I done?”
A hand reaches for me. I knock it away. Walk forwards. I’m deaf to the voice that implores me to move back, to rest. I’ve been walking through the night and into the day. Searching for something to make sense of it all.
How could I? I didn’t realize this would be the result. Could I have done anything differently? There must be consequences for this. There must—I thought they were monsters.
Gamel grabs me. I start.
His voice is hoarse.
“Laken—sire. You must rest. Let me take you away. Lord Yitton and Lord Gralton—”
“Let them wait. Gamel, I have to be here. I have to witness this. How many are there around me?”
I cannot see them. But I know they are there. Gamel hesitates.
“A—score, sire. Many bodies. Please—”
“Thousands? Tens of thousands?”
“I cannot count them all. Your majesty—”
I’m shaking. I push Gamel back and stumble forwards. Where am I? I don’t know. I move forwards, tapping with my stick. Then the tip of it strikes something and something makes a sound. I freeze and Gamel draws in his breath.
“Emperor! Stand back! One of them is alive!”
He draws his sword. I hear it unsheathed, hear the laugh from below. I hold out a trembling hand.
“Hold. This Goblin. Is it hurt? Is it trying to attack me?”
There’s a pause. Gamel gulps.
“It—should be dead, sire. Somehow, it’s breathing. And it’s looking at you.”
“I see. You there. I apologize, but I can’t see you. I’m quite blind, you see.”
I sense something in front of me. Cautiously I tap forwards and hear a faint sound. Breathing. And—a voice? My heart skips a beat.
“Can you talk?”
“Back up, Gamel.”
I bend my head to listen. A low voice. Weak. But the words are perfectly understandable. If I were not told—no, if I forget all of what’s passed—I could believe I was listening to another Human being lying on the ground.
Maybe this is just a strange dream. Or a trick. But I cannot help but believe. I listen, as the Goblin speaks. And I shake my head.
I hear a faint laugh. Scorn. The Goblin has every right to it. What good are my words? He—it is a he—is dying. I kneel down in the muck. I hear a sound from Gamel, but I ignore it.
One Goblin. He sounds so Human. I open my eyes, blindly, as if that could help me see him. I wish I could. I wish—and then I have a thought. I bow my head over the Goblin. He could sit up and kill me. I think he could. But he lies there, too tired to add to the dead. And I speak to him.
“I’m—I couldn’t stop any of this. It was out of my control. I can’t change their minds. I can’t do anything for anyone else. Or for you. I shouldn’t. But I want to cheat. The world should not be like this.”
The Goblin gurgles a response. A question. I pass my hand over my eyes. They shut. My eyelids are too tired to keep them open.
“If you are willing, Goblin. Believe. You need not be loyal to me. But if you will it—”
I bend my head down and whisper.
I hear a gasp. The intake of breath. And I sense something beneath me move. That’s all. I straighten and turn. I sense a figure hurrying towards me, hear the jingle of Gamel’s chainmail.
“Your majesty? Are you alright?”
“I am. But—get a healing potion, Gamel. Leave it there.”
I walk away. I hear Gamel hesitate, then fumble at his belt. I don’t wait to see what happens. I don’t wait to see if the Goblin survives. That’s all I can do for him. In fact, there’s nothing I can do here. I can only remember this moment. Never forget it.
“Take me back, Gamel. Take me back.”
He does just that. I slowly walk across the battlefield. Up hills, avoiding valleys. It feels much the same to me. But I stop when I hear a familiar voice.
“Your majesty. What were you searching for?”
“Sin, Lord Yitton. Sin, and guilt. Evidence of it, at any rate. Did you make contact with your children?”
“I did. My daughter does not wish to see me. And I was informed that it would be dangerous to approach Liscor at the moment.”
“But they’re well?”
Lord Yitton hesitates.
“Yes, Emperor Godart. I believe so.”
“That’s good. One good thing, at least. I’m done here, Lord Byres. I intend to return home. Will you join me? Lord Gralton’s forces will be coming with, I think.”
“Yes. I…spoke with Lord Gralton.”
Yitton Byres shifts. He was surprised that Gralton didn’t go with Tyrion. So was everyone else. But Gralton decided staying with me and Yitton was better than going to fight the Drakes. I nod.
“His company will be welcome. As would conversation on the road. And the escort. I’m afraid my people aren’t warriors. And I’m rather stranded. But I’ll happily travel with you, if you don’t mind the slower pace due to the prisoners.”
“I—would be delighted to travel with you, your majesty. However, regarding the prisoners you claimed. The soldiers are talking. They’re quite upset. Would you consider—”
“If you’re asking me to let them go or kill them, the answer is no, Yitton. Mark my words. If anyone harms them, soldier or noble or adventurer, they will pay. Spread the word.”
Do you? I wonder. But I don’t want to talk, not now. There’s time enough on the road to speak of morality to Yitton. Gralton too. I walk slowly towards the horse Gamel has saddled. And as I do, I hear shuffling. Sounds to my left. A smell not of horse or Human.
The train of prisoners was small. Barely a few hundred. But they had been captured, found among the dead. And for all they were monsters, they had been forbidden from being harmed. By the Human who never opened his eyes. He was the blind emperor. Some of the Goblins knew and feared him. Others just hated.
Being alive was little comfort to them. They waited, not sure of what the future held. But it could surely be little worse than the present. The Goblins sat together. And one of them had a hat.
Pebblesnatch curled up, tears running down her face. She clung to the muddy chef’s hat. She wept, and wept unceasingly. By her side, a female Hobgoblin stroked the top of her head.
Ulvama was injured. But she had survived capture and the battle. That was little consolation to her. The [Shaman] stared hatred at Laken. At him and every Human she saw.
Both Goblins looked up as they heard Laken Godart speaking. He was talking to the man named Yitton Byres and another man who smelled like dogs.
“North, Yitton, Gralton. I’ll beg your help until we reach my estates. North. And the Goblins come with us.”
The Goblins looked up as the Humans crowded around them. They were forced up, forced to march. Some resisted. Some wanted to fight and die rather than march again. But the [Emperor] forced them to move. He claimed them as his own and they were spared. But for what, they didn’t know. They could only cling to life. While the dead waited behind them.
A hundred thousand corpses or more. Fields of the dead out of reach. A fallen apprentice. The death of Garen Redfang. And the end of Tyrion Veltras’ plans. The end of his plans as well.
Az’kerash, the Necromancer, walked past the waiting undead. Ghostly wraiths, huge walker zombies, undead knights. And his Chosen. They stood where he had ordered them, ready to be mass-teleported. It had been a day, but the undead didn’t grow bored. But his Chosen, Venitra, Bea, and Kerash, were restless.
And afraid. Their master was furious. He raged. He had screamed. They had never seen him thus. Now he paced back and forth, fuming.
“Disaster. What has passed here?”
No one answered. Az’kerash whirled. He stared past them, clutching at his hand. The same hand that had been severed on Reiss’ body when Garen struck. The Necromancer’s body was wholly intact and pale, but the pain was still there, a memory. He grimaced.
“Of consequence? Nothing. What a perfect waste of my time and energy. My apprentice died without returning anything of merit to me. Useless.”
The word made Venitra flinch. Bea stared past her creator as he strode past her. Speaking to himself.
“A few Drake armies and a Human one. Paltry destruction, and for what? Only Zel Shivertail’s death was of importance.”
He paused. And a look of satisfaction flickered across Az’kerash’s face.
“At least he is dead. In that sense, my investment paid enough dividends. But had Liscor fallen—”
The undead watched their master anxiously. Az’kerash’s anger blazed hot—then, suddenly, after half a day of fury—it suddenly went cold. All the wrath drained out of the [Necromancer] and he stood calm and dispassionate. The living lost significance for him.
“He is dead. And it matters little now, I suppose. A lesson in foolishness. A waste of effort. Little more. Kerash.”
The undead Gnoll stood straighter.
“Master? Do we go into combat?”
Az’kerash shook his head.
“You are not needed. This—distraction at Liscor has cost me enough time and energy. I have work to do. The next generation awaits. Kerash, return to your duties. I will begin work once more. Prepare my materials. And bring me mana potions and—scales. Drake scales, I think. And chitin. Antinium-harvested. Or spiders if there are not enough.”
“Yes, Master. It will be done.”
The Chosen turned. The undead were already moving away. Az’kerash let them go, ignoring Venitra and Bea. He had barely paid attention to Kerash. In times past he had interacted often with his prized creations, his Chosen. But they had failed him and so they were dust, tools to be used and discarded. And they knew it.
So too did Reiss pass from Az’kerash’s mind. He turned his attention towards the future, and a new creation. Something that would last. That would not disappoint. The Necromancer’s mind fragmented, each piece taking a new challenge to think on. If he had any thoughts to spare, it was only to think of another possible apprentice, and to be irritated at the failure of his last one. But it didn’t matter.
Az’kerash repeated the thought to himself. He pushed his defeat from his mind. He dismissed what had passed. The future awaited. And what had he lost? What had happened at Liscor?
“Nothing. Nothing of consequence at all.”
The world remained the same. Az’kerash summoned his magic to him and began to work. The Goblins, his apprentice—the defense of Liscor itself—meant little. After all, what had changed? The Humans made war with Drakes and each other. The Drakes squabbled. There was no change to this world.
Beneath the earth, the Antinium were restless. Hundreds of thousands of Soldiers and Workers shifted uneasily. They waited in the tunnel they had built from the northern-most of the Hives towards Liscor. It was a grand project that had taken five Hive’s worth of Workers tunneling around the clock. Even so, it had only barely been completed in time.
All had been in order. Three Hives had sent their finest into the tunnel, towards the city of Liscor. They had waited there, as Workers continued tunneling. When the time came, the plan was to have them exit the tunnel and march on Liscor at best speed. They could reach the city within a day of nonstop marching. Two at the most.
That was the plan. The Queens had hatched it together and their Hives had obeyed. But their plans had fallen to ruin. Because Liscor had not fallen. The Goblin Lord had been broken at the city and Tyrion Veltras’ aim of attacking halted by Human machinations. And the Queens were…displeased.
Xrn’s voice cut through the tunnel. The Armored Antinium, shifting in their armor, the Silent Antinium, restlessly pacing back and forth, and the beating wings of the Flying Antinium halted. They looked up as Xrn stood above them.
The staff shone in her hands. Her eyes blazed. With fiery orange-red of annoyance, the green of surprise, and a steely grey determination. It was that last which called to Tersk, Prognugator of the Armored Antinium. He held still, though the raging voice in his mind made him want to strike out randomly. He called up at Xrn.
“Prognugator Xrn, my Queen—”
The azure Antinium gazed down at Tersk and shook her head.
“Ignore her. The Queens are furious. Their orders are not to be trusted. Hold your positions until we receive proper orders.”
Pivr fanned his wings.
“But my Queen—”
“I am in charge here. Not the Flying Queen. The Grand Queen has appointed me herself and I speak for her, especially when her judgment fails. Hold.”
Xrn’s voice made the Antinium grow still. It restored order and Tersk felt the balance in him reassert himself. He stood still, waiting. Xrn shook her head.
“We will have to collapse the tunnel. Pull the Workers and Soldiers back. All this effort. There truly is no predicting other species. Alas.”
She stared bitterly up towards the ramp that had been built to carry the army out of the ground. Sunlight shone down into the Hive. Tersk noticed some of his Soldiers and even one of his fellow Prognugators staring at it. Some had never seen sunlight. Pivr, whose Flying Antinium were allowed onto the surface to practice flying, had bragged about being in the sun. But no matter how many times Tersk saw it, he always thought—
Hoof beats. Tersk stiffened as he heard the sound echoing towards the tunnel. The other Antinium heard it too. All of them froze. Workers, Soldiers, Prognugators, all stared towards the entrance. Xrn’s eyes flashed bright yellow in warning, caution. She held up a hand and raised her staff.
Someone had found the entrance to the tunnel. Someone riding a horse. They would have to die if they came closer. The Antinium were in violation of their treaty, far, far outside the zone they were allowed to operate in. They would have to kill the wanderer.
“If they flee, my Soldiers—”
Pivr shut up as Xrn stared at him. The Centenium slowly moved towards the entrance of the tunnel. Her staff had stopped shining, casting most of the tunnel into darkness. She aimed at the entrance, the lights in her eyes turning to blackness. Tersk waited as whomever was above seemed to dismount from the horse. They were approaching, their footsteps crunching the earth above. And then—
An Antinium appeared in the entrance to the tunnel. Xrn froze. Her staff had shone bright pink-red for a moment. But at the sight of Klbkch, she lowered her staff and the magic shimmered out.
The other Antinium stared as the Slayer walked down the ramp. Tersk felt a surge of something in his chest. He had met Klbkch, but the name, and the knowledge still made him more alert. The Slayer. And his was not the only reaction.
The Flying Antinium’s wings fanned unconsciously as one. They shifted, eternally restless. The Armored Antinium were more subdued. But it was the Silent Antinium’s reaction that was most significant. They crept closer, fixed on Klbkch. The hunched Soldiers of the Silent Antinium, camouflaged, stared at him. After all, he was…
“Klbkch. Why have you come here? We know of what happened at Liscor. There is no point to our presence.”
Xrn was speaking with Klbkch. The Revalantor of the Free Antinium, the one who was meant to guide their Hive towards its destiny, turned his head. He stared at the army of Antinium.
“No. They will not be needed. But this tunnel must remain. My Queen has sent me here to ensure it is not destroyed.”
Xrn opened her mandibles in surprise. Klbkch nodded. He stepped past her and raised his voice, addressing all the Antinium.
“The Workers will continue the tunneling. The Free Antinium will dig from their end as well. We will complete the tunnel. Not to be used as a staging ground for an assault, but to connect the Free Hive to the others.”
“You mean—build an underground route? But there are hundreds of miles yet to be constructed! We only built this much of the tunnel to prepare for an assault. To link all six Hives would take—”
Klbkch turned to Xrn.
“What? Effort? Workers? We have enough. And time as well. The Antinium lack none of these things. It has only been desire that prevented such activity until now. But that ceases. The Hives will be connected.”
Several colors flashed through Xrn’s eyes at once.
“The Grand Queen has not given her permission for this project. She will surely object.”
“That is her choice, yes. But my Queen has spoken. And her will be done. I have decided as well.”
Klbkch faced forwards.
“The tunnel will be expanded. The Hives linked, the passages guarded. The six Hives will be open to each other at last. So proclaims the Free Queen of the Antinium.”
The Soldiers shifted. It was the same as gasping aloud. Tersk didn’t know how to process this information. But the Workers just streamed past Klbkch, and got to work. Tersk saw Xrn’s mandibles opening and closing as her eyes changed color. Blue, doubt. Yellow, caution. And then—a bright white light. Green and pink.
She smiled. Klbkch nodded.
“We shall have to hide the presence of the tunnel. Workers, seal the entrance after my departure. Xrn. We should speak.”
“Indeed we should. Klbkch.”
He strode up the ramp. Xrn followed him. The Antinium looked up into the sun. Tersk saw Workers move forwards and the light slowly disappeared. But he remembered. And he remembered a city. An inn. He wondered if he would see Pawn again. And he thought that if he did, nothing would ever be the same.
That was probably a good thing.
Liscor was quiet the day after the battle. The relieved celebrations had given way to a strange silence. After all, the city had not been attacked. But a battle had taken place. And there were dead.
Goblin dead. Perhaps it didn’t matter. But the Drakes and Gnolls of the city couldn’t forget that it was Goblins who had been driven to besiege Liscor, and Goblins who had defended it. Both had died. And that meant…
Nothing. To some, nothing. To others, everything. But perhaps the effects were most greatly felt outside of Liscor. In an inn on a hill.
The day after the battle, The Wandering Inn was closed. The shutters locked. It was barred to all visitors, and indeed, most who would have gone to the inn couldn’t even find the willpower to try. The [Innkeeper] did not want visitors.
So her guests stayed away. Even the regulars. They found other things to do. Other people to visit.
And in Liscor’s prison, a Minotaur in a magic cell heard voices. It had been quiet. It was almost always quiet where he stood. His gaze was blank. But his ears twitched as he heard voices, coming closer.
“You have as long as you want. But try to bribe me one more time and I will arrest you. Is that clear?”
“Yes, yes. I apologize. Look, it’s just that in Human cities—”
“Pah. Go on.”
The Minotaur stared blankly ahead. He didn’t respond to any words or stimuli most of the time. He barely ate any food. But the second voice. Something in it called to him. His gaze was fixed ahead of him. But as a shorter, slimmer figure walked forwards he slowly looked down.
A half-Elf stood in front of Calruz’s cell. Her robes were magical. One of her hands was nothing but bone. She looked up at him. The Minotaur slowly returned the gaze.
“Hello, Calruz. It’s been a while.”
He said nothing. Ceria Springwalker frowned.
“Hey. It’s me. I’m coming to visit you at last, you giant jackass. I wasn’t sure if I should, but—hello?”
Calruz didn’t respond. The Minotaur’s gaze was slightly unfocused. Ceria frowned. She walked back and forth and the eyes slowly tracked her.
“Can you hear me? Are you…”
She hesitated. A thousand things seemed to be on the tip of her tongue. She said none of them. Ceria folded her arms?
“Do you even remember what you’ve done?”
The half-Elf jumped. She stared at Calruz. The Minotaur’s eyes focused on her.
“I know you.”
“I hoped you would. You’re—what you did—”
Ceria struggled for words. Calruz spoke again.
“Below. She’s still there.”
The [Ice Mage] froze.
Again, the Minotaur didn’t respond directly to the question. He looked straight through Ceria.
“I can hear her. You shouldn’t have taken me out. She knows. She’s waiting for you to let her out.”
“Who? Who’s ‘she’? Did she do this to you? Where is she?”
Slowly, Ceria approached the walls of the cell. She stared at Calruz. The Minotaur stared blankly at her for a minute, then two. And then something changed. He blinked.
This time he looked at her. And recoiled. He was surprised to see her. Ceria backed up, clearly uneasy.
“Calruz? What were you talking about? Who’s ‘she’?”
The Minotaur stared blankly at her. Ceria looked around. Calruz shook his head.
“Sometimes I feel like…what did I say? What have I done?”
The half-Elf had been prepared for something. Not for this. She took another step backwards, looking down the prison. Calruz stepped forwards. He placed a hand on the magical barrier.
“I remember it. All of it. What I did. I went mad. Springwalker, you have to believe me.”
Ceria caught herself. She glared back at Calruz, biting her lip, clenching a fist.
“I believe you’re mad. You—you turned into a monster.”
“I know. I must be punished. But part of it—I didn’t intend for it. I started losing myself. You have to believe me.”
The Minotaur spoke urgently. His hands trembled on the walls of his cell. Ceria eyed him.
“I do. I do, Calruz.”
“Please tell them that. Please. I never intended this. Tell them. Make them know.”
“They’ll never forgive you, Calruz. I don’t think I can—”
“I don’t want that. Death is my only salvation. I’ll settle my debts that way.”
The Minotaur never blinked. Ceria froze.
“Don’t say that.”
“It’s nothing less than I deserve. You and I both know that. Tell them I’ll accept whatever punishment. The Gnolls—they deserve justice. Whatever it takes. Tell them. Please.”
Ceria went over to the cell. She bowed her head and put her hand against the magical barrier of the cell. Calruz stared at her.
“I’ve lost my honor.”
Her voice broke. Ceria leaned against the wall of the cell, her shoulders shaking. It was then that Pisces decided to stop listening. He straightened and turned his head. The undead mouse collapsed.
Yvlon stared at him. She and Ksmvr were waiting outside the dungeon. Pisces blinked.
“Don’t pretend. What are they saying?”
“I stopped listening.”
Yvlon jabbed Pisces in the side. He yelped.
The armored woman eyed him, but eventually nodded.
“What do you think she’s going to do?”
“Beyond saying goodbye? I have no idea. She may wish to…stay for the trial.”
“I can’t blame her, can you?”
“Captain Ceria is blameless in the guilt of former-Captain Calruz, surely.”
Ksmvr looked anxiously between Pisces and Yvlon. The [Necromancer] nodded.
“Oh, undoubtedly. Yvlon is merely referring to Ceria’s perceived guilt. If she wishes to stay, well, I am sure we can find work here.”
“And after the trial?”
Pisces shrugged. He stared towards the walls of Liscor.
“I imagine we find work.”
“Just like that?”
“It is our function.”
Ksmvr put in unhelpfully. Pisces just shook his head.
“What would you have me say, Byres? Some grand proclamation about our future? We obtained…success in the dungeon. Ceria, perhaps, closure. But this siege, the Goblins…it has made one thing abundantly clear to me. And one thing alone.”
“Stronger. We must be stronger, all of us.”
Pisces looked at Ksmvr and Yvlon. He touched at his robes, and remembered the army of the undead. The Goblins. The helplessness of the adventurers on the walls, save for a few. He shook his head.
Yvlon echoed the word. She felt at her reinforced arms and nodded.
“I can get behind that idea. We need to be Gold-rank. To improve. To become…”
She trailed off. Like Pisces, she stared towards the walls. Ksmvr looked as well. His voice was anxious.
“What will we become? Comrade Pisces? Yvlon?”
The two looked at each other. Yvlon smiled and Pisces raised his eyebrows.
“Why, whatever is worthy, Ksmvr. Something greater. Something new.”
Yvlon put her hand out. Pisces hesitated, then placed his hand delicately on hers. Ksmvr put two of his hands on the pile. The Horns of Hammerad at looked at each other.
In Liscor’s prison, a Minotaur and half-Elf talked. In the dungeon, the monsters crawled. They bred and fought and slept. It was…emptier. There were still monsters aplenty, but some had left. Goblins, for one. The Shield Spiders had retreated, their mad rampage on the surface having reduced their numbers considerably.
None of that mattered to the dark figure that skulked through the darkness. Toren, the undead skeleton hummed to himself as he dragged another body into the dungeon. Or rather, imagined humming to himself. He was a skeleton after all, and he couldn’t talk.
What he could do was drag things. In this case, he was dragging a dead body. A Human [Pikewoman] who’d been slain in the field. And half of a horse. It was a heavy burden, but Toren didn’t get tired. He did hurry though; the smell of fresh meat would attract scavengers. He’d left a few bodies out to distract them, but if he tarried too long he’d have to abandon his prize.
It was a winding route Toren took, around traps, through secret passages. But at last he reached a spot that he knew very well. He had claimed it. A mockery of an inn had been set up. And beyond it, a door had been placed at the far end of the hall. The door was closed. Toren perked up as he dragged the dead body towards it.
He was in a good mood. The skeleton had been in high spirits for the last few weeks, actually. To him, all the events that had passed recently were nothing but good news. First the adventurers had come by and killed a lot of monsters. Then all the annoying Raskghar died. And now?
An army of the dead. Dead Goblins, all about. Some humans and animals too. And there was Toren. Toren, who was in need of the dead.
The adventurers and the people of Liscor had done a good job of cleaning up their dead, but all the rest were just lying there. Fresh for the taking. And since Toren knew that any body could become a zombie or Ghoul if you did things right, he’d collected the bodies nonstop.
The door at the end of the hallway was shut, so Toren let go of his burden to open the door. He dragged the dead woman’s body and the horse’s half into the door and found a place for them. The dead were piled up. Not exactly neatly, but Toren knew where each one was. He wiped his skeletal hands on the dead horse, and then couldn’t help it. He turned to count.
One, two, three, four…thousand…
The dead bodies filled the amphitheater Toren had found. An obscene mass-grave. Only to the living, though. To Toren, it was possibility. It was death, raw and untapped. And he had amassed the collection all by himself.
A skeleton could do a lot if it spent all day and night just carrying dead bodies around. Toren grinned. And then he checked something at his side. A mask. It hung loosely, ready to be put on. Toren hesitated.
The mask called to him. But no adventurers had come into the dungeon for a while. They would come in time. And when they did she would grow louder. But until then, he, Toren was in charge. And he intended to make full use of his time.
The dead bodies lay in piles. Some were already stirring. The dead were rising. Toren carefully shut the door. Soon, there would be more undead. And he knew that they would grow stronger in death, especially with so many dead bodies. He had wondered what would happen if he could harness that power. The dungeon was full of monsters. Full of enemies. Alone, Toren could only run. But with an army?
The skeleton didn’t cackle because again, that was a thing that required lungs. But he was good at grinning. And he did just that. He grinned and squatted by the door. Waiting. And the dead lay. And began to rise.
Jelaqua noticed the first zombie get up as she prepared the pyre. She glanced at it.
“We should burn the rest of the bodies.”
Seborn and Moore glanced at her. The Selphid amended her statement.
“Not us. But the city should. Hells, isn’t there a suppression company for hire on Izril? They’d already be here if this were Baleros.”
“Different continent, Jelaqua.”
“I guess. But Liscor will be swimming in undead if they don’t do something soon.”
“More work for adventurers.”
Jelaqua sighed and shook her head. She stared down at the wood as Moore poured oil on the branches. Here was one less undead to worry about. The half-Giant paused as he splashed oil on the body in the center of the pyre.
“Are you sure, Jelaqua?”
He looked at her. The Selphid hesitated. She looked down at the body. Garen Redfang stared up at her. He had no right to look as happy as he did in death. Not with his chest filled with holes. He had taken two dozen stabs from Relc’s spear before he’d fallen. And before that—
Jelaqua traced the hole in his chest. Just above his heart. It was a clean strike. She wouldn’t have imagined anyone could hit him like that. Even a Goblin Lord.
“You know, guys, Selphids love dead bodies like this.”
The Selphid spoke quietly. Moore and Seborn looked up at her. They knew most of what Jelaqua meant, but they let her say it anyways. The Selphid, wearing the Raskghar’s body, spoke quietly.
“Among my people, the bodies of warriors over Level 30 are worth their weight in gold. More, really. Something happens to people as they level. They change. Even in death, bodies like that are as strong as steel. They don’t break. I’ve seen it happen. People moving long after their hearts have stopped. After they’ve taken wounds that would kill them.”
Seborn grunted. He stared down at Garen and shook his head.
“Treasure to the Selphids. He was a traitor, regardless of how he died.”
“But he came back.”
Moore hunched over his staff. He didn’t weep. None of the Halfseekers did. But neither did he look away from Garen. Seborn looked away. Jelaqua nodded.
“He did. But he was a traitor, Moore. By all rights I should claim his body. Or leave it to rot. That’s what Selphids do.”
“To your enemies?”
“No. And not to our friends, either. To the useless. That’s the biggest sign of contempt.”
The other two Halfseekers looked at her.
Jelaqua bent over Garen. She stared down at him. At the slight smile on his face. And she thought of all he was. All he had been. Traitor. Murderer. Friend. Companion.
“Good night, Garen.”
The Selphid stepped back. She lit a torch and tossed it on the pyre. The soaked wood went up in seconds. The Halfseekers watched as the wood blazed. Smoke began rising. The body burned and the three watched until it was nothing but ash.
No one said a word. Not until the pyre was smoldering embers. Then Jelaqua turned.
That was all she said. Moore cleared his throat.
“Do you think the key…?”
He glanced at the pyre. Jelaqua shook her head.
“I checked. He didn’t have it on him. Or in him. He must have given it to someone. Or it was lost in the fighting.”
“Do you think it was true, what he said? About the Goblin King’s treasure?”
Moore stared at the ash. Jelaqua shook her head.
“If it was true, if there is a treasure up there…”
She looked up. The High Passes stretched up overhead. The Halfseekers looked up and took in the enormity of the mountains. So high. None of them spoke. Then Seborn sighed.
“It doesn’t matter. The key’s gone. If we found it—”
Then what? They didn’t have answers for that either. The three stood around, not sure of what to say or do. They were…uncertain. Until someone broke the silence.
It was Moore. The half-Giant stood in front of the pyre and looked down. His hands reached out and lightly grasped the shoulders of his two remaining comrades. The other Halfseekers looked up at him. The half-Giant’s voice was quiet as he spoke.
“Time. Time stopped. For us and for him, I think. Ever since that day we were shattered. And so was he. We searched and lived, but we couldn’t really rebuild. We couldn’t move on. Now we can. Garen is dead. We have fulfilled our oaths.”
“We did, didn’t we?”
Jelaqua tried to smile. Moore did not.
“We can move on. We can dream of the future again, Jelaqua.”
“Some of us have obligations. Debts.”
Seborn spoke quietly. Jelaqua nodded.
“Thinking of quitting, Seborn?”
“I don’t know.”
The Drowned Man folded his arms. Jelaqua nodded. She stared into the ashes.
“I’m tired. But I can’t just turn my back now, can I? I think…one more adventure? One more try?”
She looked up. Seborn hesitated. Moore nodded.
“One more time.”
“There’s only three of us.”
Jelaqua smiled tiredly.
“Maybe we’ll meet someone on the road. Maybe they’ll come to us. Or we to them. It’ll happen. The only question is what we should do until then.”
“Seek fame? Settle grudges? Earn money?”
“Maybe. Do you remember our old motto, Jelaqua? Perhaps that should be our goal.”
Moore rumbled. Jelaqua blinked up at him. And then she guffawed.
“Oh, come on, Moore. That?”
She punched the half-Giant in the side. Moore sighed. Jelaqua turned. She cast the pyre one last look. Seborn walked with her.
The three began walking away. The last of the embers began to die out. They had no words for Garen. He had betrayed them. But still, he had been a Halfseeker. And the Halfseekers had…a motto of sorts. A saying. A goal.
The Halfseekers. The Half Freaks. Those who belong nowhere but here. Adventurers for hire. People, really.
Searching for a home.
“So, was it worth it?”
Magnolia Reinhart looked up from her cup of tea. Lady Bethal, Lady Wuvren, Lady Zanthia, and the women whom Magnolia Reinhart trusted most implicitly sat around her. They were in Magnolia’s mansion. They had left, and they had come back. And the world was changed now.
“I can’t say, Bethal. Not yet. But I believe it was worth the attempt.”
The woman calmly stirred a few more sugar cubes into her tea. The aged Lady Zanthia grimaced and pointedly sipped her dark tea that had no sugar at all in it. Bethal didn’t give up, however. The [Lady] eyed Magnolia.
“You threatened Tyrion to his face. With the only thing that would make him back down. Would you have done it, if he attacked Liscor? Killed the boys?”
The other [Ladies] glanced up at Magnolia. The Lady Reinhart pursed her lips. Only Bethal could be that indelicate in company. Well, Bethal, and Zanthia.
“It was a threat.”
The other [Lady] met Magnolia’s eyes. The woman in the pink dress paused. Her eyes flickered, and then met Bethal’s gaze impassively.
“I’m known for keeping my promises, Bethal.”
The [Ladies] waited for more, but that was it. Magnolia sipped her tea. At last Lady Wuvren sighed delicately.
“So you are. I however wonder if it was wise to repeat the threat to the other nobility. That will have even greater consequences.”
“It was necessary to force Tyrion to back up. That young man never backs up if he thinks he has a chance of victory. You have to slap him with the truth before he’ll see it.”
Lady Zanthia growled around her tea. Magnolia nodded.
“It was inevitable.”
Bethal caught the sugar cube Magnolia tossed at her. She added it to her tea cup.
“I know it was to prevent the conflict with the Drakes from starting, but was that preferable to this? It seems like we’ve only created a larger mess from all this business with the Goblin Lord, don’t you agree?”
The [Ladies] exchanged glances. Zanthia muttered something about the follies of youth, loud enough to be heard by all.
“No one wins a war, Bethal. And this was a war, make no mistake. We only stopped it from being a larger one. But no one wins in a situation like this.”
“On the contrary. It’s quite possible to win. It just so happens that we lost this one.”
“So the Drakes won? I hardly imagine they’d agree with that.”
One of the other [Ladies] raised her eyebrows. Magnolia shook her head.
“That wasn’t what I was referring to, Lady Asca. Humans? Drakes? No. I rather imagine Izril lost as a whole.”
The women looked to her. Magnolia sipped from her teacup, her face grave.
“The most famous Drake [General], Zel Shivertail, is dead. The world is poorer for his absence, not least because he was a better man than most men I have met. The Drakes have lost him, many of their soldiers battling the Goblin Lord, and are now wary of Human aggression once more. As for the north—we spent time and effort fielding an army that did very little. The Goblin Lord razed a number of settlements. And now we are at peace.”
“And in this peace you’ve won, we’ll spill as much blood in a civil war between the nobility. Was this really worth the cost, Magnolia?”
Zanthia glanced up. Magnolia Reinhart drummed her fingers on her arm rest.
“I will acknowledge the cost. However…I cannot but believe the decision was correct. Moreover, it has resulted in some unusual gains. Ressa? Please show Lady Zanthia the correspondence we just received.”
A [Maid] moved in the background of the conversation. Lady Zanthia found a letter being offered to her. She frowned, fished out a monocle, and read the letter. She grunted loudly.
“What is it?”
Lady Wuvren leaned over to see. Zanthia shoved the letter in her face. Magnolia explained to the other listeners.
“The letter comes from one of the Walled Cities. And a certain member of the nobility. It would be unwise to name names. And in truth, the letter says very little of consequence. There are more perhapses and maybes than I could count, nothing of substance. But it leaves the door open for an invitation in the future.”
“To the Walled Cities. Perhaps to a soirée or gathering.”
“No Human noble has been invited to a Walled City in—”
Bethal broke off. Magnolia nodded.
“And all this came from opposing Tyrion’s plans? But the Drakes have to have known your stance, Magnolia. Why all of this now?”
One of the younger ladies looked confused. Magnolia sighed slightly.
“There’s a limit to what one can prove with words. But with this? I have rather indelicately put my finger down on the side of peace between Drakes and Humans, and like-minded individuals have taken note.”
“So. You make gains. But remember the cost.”
Zanthia kept her gaze on Magnolia’s face. The Lady Reinhart nodded.
“I am well aware of the cost. After all, we are the nobility of Izril. And we do not forgive.”
“Or forget. Any of us.”
It was just politics. Lord Erill knew that. Which was why what he had chosen to do was a reply in kind. Less than a day had passed since Magnolia Reinhart had forced Tyrion Veltras to back down. What most people didn’t mention was how she’d done it.
With threats. With an open invitation to violence. Lord Erill was a [Merchant] before he was a [Lord]. He was used to underhanded business, even shady deals and other…unpleasantness. But even he had been shocked by the open threat he’d received.
Accede or die. That was Magnolia Reinhart. And the threat hadn’t just come to him, but the other nobility. But the image he had received had been meant for his eyes alone. His mother. Lord Erill’s blood burned at the thought. He was no warrior. He had come at Tyrion Veltras’ request and lent coin and his warriors to the cause, but he didn’t take to the battlefield. In the same way, he would never reply to Magnolia with steel. Or even an open threat. She was too powerful for that.
But there were ways and ways. Lord Erill knocked on the tent flap. He waited for the response and pushed his way in.
“I have something for you. And your friends.”
The [Lord] didn’t beat about the bush. He cut to the chase. He placed a bag of holding on the table as the occupant of the tent looked up. Erill spoke quickly, trying to conceal the nervousness in his chest. Magnolia was one thing. But this group was another. But Magnolia had made her choice. And so had he.
“I want no part of your…organization. And as far as you and I are concerned, I was never here. This is a one-time offer.”
“Gold. Gems. Other goods that can be exchanged. Two hundred thousand gold pieces’ worth in total. Consider it my repayment to Magnolia Reinhart. I want her to know nothing of this. And I owe you and the Circle nothing. This is a donation. Are we clear on that?”
Lady Ieka reclined in her chair. Lord Erill nodded to her.
“Then I bid you good day. I’ll see you tonight for dinner.”
He turned and walked out of the tent. Lady Ieka eyed the bag of holding. She stared at Lord Erill’s back and smiled. The [Merchant Lord] hurried away, his task done. He wanted nothing to do with the Circle of Thorns, and the less he knew of them, the better. But he had not been the only visitor to Lady Ieka’s tent. And some had stayed longer.
“Dear me, Magnolia. You do have a talent for making enemies.”
Lady Ieka reached into the bag of holding and drew out a pair of coins. She flicked them up and the gold flew into the air. Lady Ieka waved the smoking pipe she held and the coins turned into butterflies. They landed, fluttering their wings of gold. Ieka smiled.
“The Circle of Thorns will remember this.”
“You know they’ll all be coming for you. You’ve made more enemies and some of the third parties will take their side.”
Ressa stood with Magnolia after the tea conference had finished. Magnolia was watching Reynold ferry her trusted inner circle back to their estates. They’d all be under guard after this. And she had no doubt reprisals were coming.
“I know, Ressa.”
The [Maid]’s look made it clear how doubtful Magnolia’s knowledge really was.
“This was really better than a war?”
Magnolia sighed. She turned from the window and looked at her oldest friend.
“I talked it over with the old man, Ressa. On one of his talkative days. And a number of [Strategists]. They had Tyrion moving south and establishing a defensive line. He would get far enough for sizeable gains, but this would be the prelude to a long, long war. It would merely place the north at an advantage. And in the meantime—he wouldn’t even get to Pallass before the Antinium did something. Or our pale friend.”
“Something has to be done about him sooner or later. Why not force his hand?”
Ressa pointed out that fact. Magnolia shook her head.
“Not yet, Ressa. Not yet. Before we can take either the Necromancer or the Antinium off the board, I need to be sure we’d win. And I’m not. I want to take care of him without forcing a war. Because he’ll just run if he’s unprepared. He needs to die.”
“The bounty you placed isn’t drawing the people you wanted.”
“Give it time. News spreads slowly in some circles. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. But I think this was for the best. The Drakes can’t afford a war and neither can we.”
“So it’s just backstabbing and poison. Kidnapping, ransoms, plotting…dark shadows lurking in doorways…”
Magnolia forced a smile onto her face.
“That’s why I keep you around, after all. Besides, it’s good to lure our enemies out into the open, isn’t it?”
“By striking the beehive?”
“Hush. What choice did I have?”
Ressa was pointedly silent. Magnolia turned. She walked towards her pink couch and ran her hand along the embroidered fabric.
“It couldn’t be allowed, Ressa. That was all there was to it.”
“If you can live with the consequences…”
“Then there’s nothing more to say. I’ll prepare the staff for war.”
Ressa vanished. Magnolia sighed. She whispered after Ressa’s back.
“Oh, don’t do that. Far better to prepare them for peace. After all, war is a constant. But in peace…things change.”
She looked back out the window. And she felt the world turning again. Shifting. Again and again, on the smallest of things.
He stood on his desk, checking his notes, writing orders, calculating. A thousand things were on his mind, each more pressing than the last.
Painted Antinium. The ramifications of Magnolia Reinhart’s actions. Even the reemergence of the famed ‘Gecko of Liscor’. All these variables were in play. And that was only the Izrilian angle. There were matters in Baleros to attend to. Niers Astoragon scribbled notes as he checked the tally of the Forgotten Wing’s forces across Baleros. He was adding up numbers, checking their monetary reserves. And doing figures all the while.
If you had a head for such things, or experience, you could see that Niers was planning on a lot of investments. Spending capital. And you only did that for a few reasons.
Niers jumped. He stared back up at Foliana. The [Rogue] had appeared behind him as she liked to do. The tiny [Strategist] glared.
“But soon. You asked Peclir Im about travelling. What’s all this for?”
The Titan hunched his shoulders.
“It’s just a short trip. And if I can ensure that our company is prepared in the meanwhile—I can accelerate the training of a few of my students, reach out to some of our old graduates and other companies.”
“Make the company stronger so you can leave it? Hmm.”
“Just for a little trip. But you know it’s best to be prepared…”
Niers trailed off. Foliana eyed him.
“Mm. Where will you go?”
“Bet it’s Izril. Bet it’s Liscor.”
“Shut up. And keep that to yourself.”
“You really want to visit, don’t you?”
Niers ignored her. He stared at the list of figures, speaking to himself.
“Just a little bit. And then I’ll be ready.”
Foliana watched him work. She vanished after a while. Niers didn’t know if she’d left or was just hiding. He stared at the numbers, and then glanced at something to his right.
It had been hard to get the [Diviner] to capture a single image from the scrying orb, even with these ‘movies’ that Wistram was selling. But it had been done. And now Niers had an image on his desk. It was somewhat blurred by distance. And you couldn’t make out features. But it was nevertheless an image of her. Niers stared at the young woman waving the flag. He stopped work and stared at it.
“Was that you?”
The figure didn’t answer. But Niers didn’t care. He wanted to know. And soon—soonish—he might find out. He just had to work in the meanwhile. Soon, some day—
“It was her.”
In another part of the world, a pair of crowned heads conferred. A loyal servant of the throne waited. The voices were regal, by virtue of station if nothing else. They argued.
She was of the opinion that it could be a mistake, or worse, a trap. He was of a different mind.
“It was her. You saw it.”
Both stared at the pool in front of them. Unlike a scrying mirror, the pool was enchanted water. It had reflected the battle at Liscor for its interested audience up till now. It was really more of entertainment than anything else. They had no stakes in the fate of Izril, directly or otherwise. This had been a pleasant diversion. Or it had been right up until they’d seen her.
Possibly no one else had noticed. After all, she hadn’t been on screen long. And she was certainly not part of the larger narrative. But to them, she had stood out. As the half-Elf casting the scrying spell had been watching, before the battle had started, they had seen her.
For a second the young woman had been in sight. Climbing up the walls, carrying a little white Gnoll. It was uncharacteristic of her, as was her humble attire. But her face, her voice—that was unmistakable.
“Make sure it’s her first.”
The man with the crown spoke sharply to the waiting servant of the throne. The man bowed, crisply.
“I will make the arrangements, your Majesty.”
“Good. Bring her back. Her kingdom has need of her.”
The man stared into the enchanted pool. Her image was gone. But Lyonette du Marquin still stared back up at her father. He sat back on his throne. Wondering where she had been.
A different [King] sat on a different throne. His was far grander. And his name was far more important. As monarchs went, he was known throughout the world. Derided perhaps, but known.
The Blighted King sat, listening to his steward, advisor, and personal mage, Nereshal, speaking. The [Chronomancer]’s words were crisp, and he did not waste time. Nevertheless, Nereshal could not hide his unease.
“Several of the [Mages] are protesting the—the scope of the second ritual, Your Majesty.”
“Do they? Why?”
The Blighted King looked up. Nereshal licked his lips.
“They speak of cost for little gain. Such a ritual might cripple the next generation of the kingdom. And yet—”
“Rhir’s population can sustain ten times the cost if needed.”
The cold voice made Nereshal sweat.
“Yes, sire. But some—”
“They are uncomfortable. It is not a question of cost.”
The Blighted King looked at his advisor. Nereshal nodded silently. The man on the throne turned his head and shook it slightly.
“You saw the recording as we did, Nereshal. The Antinium. Our old enemies gain in strength. They evolve. Meanwhile, the Demons have planted spies in my kingdom. Spies and traitors. What use is a sword if it is not wielded, Nereshal?”
“Well then. It must be done.”
“But if those summoned are weak—”
A hand halted the protest. The Blighted King stared ahead. He spoke slowly, reluctantly.
“We erred. The chosen ones are weak. Timid. Children instead of warriors, heroes of prophecy. But they grow with guidance. Too much protection, but it is necessary. We will treat them as the smallest of flower buds, to be raised with care this time. And their comrades will aid in that process. It will be the salvation Rhir seeks. So we have spoken.”
“It will be done. And those who are protesting…?”
“They will obey or be dealt with. Inform them of our will, Nereshal.”
“By your leave.”
The man retreated. The Blighted King sat alone on his throne. As he did, he spared a thought for the cost. But what cost could be greater than the one the Demons exacted on Rhir year by year? And what was promised was worth more than…anything. He had spoken to the children from another world. And they had given him such dreams that even his nightmares were soothed.
Weapons that rained death from the sky. Steel and fire. He dreamed of it. Weapons to end this war with the Demons once and for all. Weapons to purify Rhir.
Someone had left a window open in the throne room. A gust blew inwards and the man on the throne caught a whiff of it. The air smelled of rot and death. The smell of home. The Blighted King sighed and dreamed of the day when there would be only spring.
It was a spring day when the [City Crier] shouted the news to a crowd gathered in one of the northern cities of Izril. Humans and a few non-Humans gathered to hear what had happened in the south. They had no scrying orbs, and didn’t pay for the latest news by [Message] spell. So they listened. The man who stood on the lip of the fountain shouted the news clearly for all to hear. After all, he earned his coin from delivering the news. A little hat sat at his feet. Mostly copper coins sat in it.
“News from Liscor! The Goblin Lord’s army has been defeated! Lord Tyrion Veltras has struck a great victory and now heads south to the Blood Fields to challenge the Drakes! The battle went thusly: first, Lord Veltras besieged the Goblins with weapons from afar! He hurled gigantic stones by means of a great and powerful new weapon—trebuchets! With their aid, the Goblins were broken. Then, as they fell to infighting, Lord Veltras himself led a charge…”
The gathered crowd listened as the [Crier] elaborated on the heroic battle, embellishing a few details, making up the rest. After all, his class demanded he tell the news, but it didn’t demand accuracy or even truth. And it was in his best interests to make Tyrion Veltras stand out in a good light as possible. He was paid for that as well.
The splendid rendition of Liscor’s battle as it happened, with cowardly Goblins and noble Humans riding to the aid of the ungrateful Drakes went on for some while. Most of the people in the square had work to do and drifted in and out. That suited the [Crier] because he could repeat the tale multiple times, changing it slightly each time for the benefit of his audience.
On one of his retellings he got a welcome surprise. Someone tossed a silver coin into his hat. He looked up and shouted his thanks. He got no reply. A City Runner jogged past him. She’d only stopped to listen for a few minutes.
“Letter delivery? Put it over there.”
The [Receptionist] at the local Runner’s Guild looked up and spotted the bag of letters the Runner was holding. She didn’t bother asking about the run or the contents—this was one of the bulk letter deliveries the guild received once or more times per day. It was a direct route and sometimes contained mail from cities hundreds of miles away. Letters travelled down the main road and stopped at city to city, making the round from City Runner to City Runner.
The [Receptionist] didn’t worry that the young woman with the bag was new. You didn’t trust something like this to a green Runner. She accepted the letters, counting them quickly, and then tallied them up, gave the Runner a seal, and pointed her towards the board.
“Are you heading back to Reizmelt? We’ve got two deliveries that could go right now. Or, if you could do a rush delivery, we’ve a contract that needs to get to Malmerra by dawn tomorrow…”
The City Runner paused by the board. She took one of the contracts to Reizmelt and the [Receptionist] had the package by the time she returned. She handed it to the Runner with the instructions.
“Be careful. It’s fragile.”
The warning was heeded as the package was carefully stowed in a bag of holding. The [Receptionist] eyed the bag appreciatively. That was good stuff for a City Runner. She frowned. Something about this young woman seemed familiar, and it wasn’t just her rather unique appearance.
“Hold on. I know you, don’t I? You’re her! The girl who made a name for herself doing that spice delivery two weeks back? Don’t they call you…?”
She tried to strike up a conversation, but the City Runner couldn’t stay to chat. She was already moving. The [Receptionist] sighed. But she knew she’d see that particular Runner again. Everyone went everywhere in this business, after all.
Back out of the city the young woman ran. She ran unconsciously, her stride long, passing by wagons, riders, and foot traffic. Some cursed her, others laughed as they pointed at her feet. Some knew her and shouted at her. She waved but didn’t stop.
And then she was out of the city. There the road opened up. The spring air blew, and the cool wind was at the Runner’s back. She ran across the grassy landscape, along the dirt road.
A City Runner. She was quick. But still, [Riders] passed her on the road. Carriages sped by. She was no Courier. She had seen them running. Some, the fastest, were just blurs or afterimages. Others were slower, but they were so well-defended that trying to take their deliveries from them would be suicide.
She was neither that quick nor that famous. But the road she took was well-travelled, and so there was no danger—unless you counted stepping in horse crap. It meant she wouldn’t be paid as much, as her delivery wasn’t that difficult or time-constrained, but it suited her just fine.
And the wind blew at her back. The [Wagon Drivers] and [Guards] walking with their caravans grumbled as the spring wind blew into their faces. The City Runner ran past them, and they pointed her out. The wind changed back as she passed.
Reizmelt was a small city, but a good one for a Runner. It lay between a lot of cities, so the odds were you’d pass by here for a delivery. It wasn’t where you went for the best deliveries, but as a place to rest it worked. The Runner slowed as she approached the gates. She jogged into the city and checked her destination. She headed to a residential district and several minutes later she was done. A Runner’s Seal lay in her pouch, ready to be exchanged for a few coins.
But not today. The evening sky was drawing in, and the City Runner was tired. So she jogged further into the city. She passed out of the permanent homes and into a place where the transitory went. Inns, brothels, taverns, all littered the streets. The Runner slowed further as she passed by an opening in the city, a square of space for vendors and people to mingle.
In a plaza, a [Fist Fighter] plied his trade. The young woman stopped to watch as he stood in a small ring, lined by nothing but twine. He was bare-chested despite the cool air and his hands were wrapped with leather, making them thicker, rounder. He rang a little bell and called out, attracting attention.
A crowd gathered around him. The young man shouted a time-worn slogan.
“Challenge me! A gold coin to the one who can knock me down and keep me down! Five silver to fight! If you’re standing in five minutes, the gold coin is yours!”
The word ‘gold’ attracted more than a few people over. One of the men, a passing [Farmer], inquired about the prize. The [Fist Fighter], a young man with a twice-broken nose and a boxer’s ears, replied.
“Five silver coins if you’ve a [Warrior] class of any kind. A gold coin if you win. Two silver if you’ve no classes in combat.”
The [Farmer]’s eyes lit up. He handed the young man a pair of silver coins and entered the ring to the shouts and cheers of his fellows. The City Runner watched and saw the [Farmer] had more than his fair share of muscles. And the young man was smaller than he was by a good deal. Still, the boxer waited, undaunted.
The [Farmer] took a few practice swings as the [Fist Fighter] waited. Then he nodded and someone rang the bell. The fight began as the young man tipped over a wooden hourglass.
On the [Farmer] came and his swings were fast and wild. The [Fist Fighter] danced in the area, dodging and weaving, blocking what could be blocked. And when the swings missed he lashed out. His leather-covered fists sent the [Farmer] reeling back. One and two and again. The young man took no hits and the [Farmer] fell down after a minute.
The audience groaned and cheered. Another man scrambled up. He was a tough, a bouncer. He offered five silver to the cheers and entered the ring. The [Fist Fighter] had no time to rest. Nor did he need it. Two minutes later, the bouncer stumbled out of the ring. His companions mocked him, but none of them dared to enter. But they weren’t the only takers by far.
So the boxer beckoned and they came. Mostly men, but a female challenger sometimes came by on the rare day. First the brave or foolish stepped up and were carried out. But then the serious fighters came by. Those who waited for the [Fist Fighter] to tire or thought they knew his game.
And he beat them all. Soon, the little cup by the ring had silver coins aplenty. And the young man was covered in sweat. He was about to scoop up his cup when a new challenger stepped into the ring.
“Boy. I’m an adventurer in a Gold-rank team. What will I have to wager for a gold coin?”
A man with steel armor and an enchanted shield and a steel mace strutted forwards. His team stood behind him. They laughed as the [Fist Fighter] sized up his opponent. The crowd jeered and dared the young man to take the fight. The City Runner watched.
And the boxer looked up and calmly replied as he wiped sweat from his brow.
“Five silver, sir.”
The adventurer went red. His team laughed, and the man took his armor off. He was scarred and his muscles bulged. The crowd oohed and went silent. The [Fist Fighter] raised his gloves and went still.
They started with the bell. The [Fist Fighter] wasted no time. He charged and his fists flashed.
First once. Then twice, he struck the adventurer with blows that made the audience wince. The big man stumbled and cursed. He swung, but the young man danced around him. Punching, jabbing. He struck again. But the adventurer, who was part of a Gold-ranked team, was ready.
“[Flurry of Blows]!”
And his punches were quick. The [Fist Fighter] stumbled as the first punch lifted him off his feet. How many pounds lay between the two? The City Runner counted, and saw the next blow take the boxer in the stomach. The young man stumbled and received a punch to the back of the head.
Down he went. The adventurer nearly kicked at him until he was reminded that was against the rules. He waited as the boxer rose. When he raised his hands, the adventurer rushed forwards with a yell.
The crowd shouted and moaned as the [Fist Fighter] tried to weave and block. But this time he was outmatched. Twice he went down and twice he rose. The big adventurer knocked him down a third time and there the boxer stayed. Not because of a count. If he’d had the strength he would have risen a dozen more times. The Runner had seen it done.
The adventurer who had boasted walked out of the ring, nose bloody, bruised, but gloating. He stopped and took his prize: a gold coin, or in this case, twenty silver coins from the cup. He walked away, laughing with his team goading him for taking the hits in the first place. The boxer lay on his back, staring up at the sky as the crowd departed.
The young woman approached then. She saw the [Fist Fighter] trying to open a small bottle filled with a weak healing potion. But his hands were clumsy with the gloves. So she took it for him and offered him the bottle.
Silently, the [Fist Fighter] drank. He looked at the Runner and nodded to her. She nodded back. After a while he was able to move again.
Coin gone, bloodied, he sat up. The Runner waited, but the boxer was done for the day. He shook his head. She left him there to clean up and collect what remained of his day’s earnings. And she went to the inn both were residents of.
The Huntress’ Haven was ill-named. Not because it wasn’t a haven for anyone who liked hunting; the place was a haven for adventurers and their ilk. But only because the [Innkeeper] was a man, more like a bear himself. He waited the tables himself and turned as the City Runner pushed into the building. He roared at her.
“Well, well. If it isn’t the Wind Runner, back from another delivery! You want food? I’ve got a meat stew boiling.”
The young woman nodded. She waited for him to get a bowl and eyed the simmering cauldron over the fire. The [Innkeeper] ladled some of his soup into the generous bowl. It was thick, with heavy chunks of meat.
There were a few unspoken rules for eating in this inn. Mostly it had to do with the stew, which was pretty much a standard for dinner.
You didn’t ask which kind of meat was in the stew. The [Innkeeper] was a former adventurer and he hunted down most of what went into his kitchen. It was always edible, fresh, and non-poisonous. Cheap, too. Taste was not a guarantee.
The City Runner took the bowl with thanks and walked across the room. The inn wasn’t too occupied despite the dinner hour, which the [Innkeeper] noticed with a scowl. Nevertheless, his regulars ate at their tables.
One of them was a girl who sat at the back. A teen, really. Younger than the boxer, who came in, bruised and bloody to mockery from the [Innkeeper], who had told him again and again not to fight adventurers. The City Runner paid no attention and glanced at the girl.
She was shivering. And hunched over her hot food. The young woman was wrapped in thick layers of clothing despite it being spring and her hair was jet black.
She ate furtively, close to the bowl, in small bites. If you looked closely, and she was unguarded, you’d see she had pronounced canines. Not that she ever smiled or showed you her teeth if she could help it.
The Runner didn’t look. She took the hot bowl and went up the stairs to her room. The inn was old and the floorboards creaked. She found her room, second to the last, and went in. She placed the bowl on the side table next to her bed and looked around.
The wind blew. A small breeze, filled with the scents of the mystery stew, dust, and the smell of the inn. In her small room, Ryoka Griffin let the gust blow the hair around her face. Then she opened the window.
The wind flew from her inn and into the night sky. Ryoka sat in the open window, and lifted the bowl of soup up. She dipped a spoon and tasted. The wind blew in a small tornado, swirling her soup. The young woman smiled and the wind lifted her hair.
“So the Goblin Lord’s gone.”
She looked out across the city. Night was falling. Ryoka ate slowly, savoring the hot meal. The wind didn’t bother her. It was comforting. She closed her eyes, picking apart the story she’d heard from half a dozen [Criers]. Battle. A rout. Tyrion Veltras challenging the Drakes. Goblins fighting Goblins? But Liscor still stood.
“Good thing I wasn’t there to make it worse.”
That was all Ryoka said. She put the empty bowl to one side and perched on the inn.
A howl filled the air as a sudden gale rattled the tiles on the inn’s roof. Below, the [Innkeeper] struck the floorboards and shouted for Ryoka to keep it down. The wind subsided to a breeze.
Ryoka stared across the dark landscape. The air was cool. The wind swirled around her, soothing. The young woman closed her eyes and thought of her friends. Then she opened her eyes. Her past lay behind her. A white Gnoll. A smiling young [Innkeeper]. Shattered ice.
The dark night air was still. But still the wind blew around Ryoka Griffin. She stared up and smelled the earth. The flowering world. And she sighed. Ryoka stared into the night and whispered.
“It’s going to be a beautiful spring.”
End of Volume 5.
Another volume ends. This one was the longest. The longest and, perhaps, the hardest. Certainly the longest.
I have mixed feeling about how it ended. As I wrote many times, I wanted to end the Goblin war arc in this volume. Honestly, I thought we’d be done at the end of Volume 4. So much for predictions.
But really, I do have regrets. Some of them are just in how I wrote some chapters, or how I built up plotlines. I made some places too long, didn’t focus on other details. I think…this is the first major war I’ve ever written. It will not be the last.
It’s funny. Each author has their own way of telling stories. Of talking about battle and conflict and loss. I have my own style. I read all the comments talking about how the characters, Goblins especially, seemed to slip out of trouble at the last moment. And honestly? The final battle had always been planned like that.
It’s about expectation. This is a story about fantasy. Magic. Another world. People don’t die as senselessly as they do in our life. Sometimes they do. Other times they lived charmed lives. But war brings death. And characters die.
This chapter ended with despair, with sadness. And it was meant to. I believe a good story has happy moments. Wonderfully inspiring moments. But also sadness. Otherwise how would it reflect life? To me, a great story inspires emotion. Happiness, anger, grief, annoyance…the only failing comes from a scene that doesn’t convey those feelings as strongly as it should.
Did I do a good job? I hope so. And I’ll keep doing my best. And, for anyone worried, after this volume won’t be another war. We will have peace, and all that entails. At last, the Goblin Lord’s arc is done. I can focus on all the stories I’ve neglected. And yes, Ryoka Griffin. Not wholly on one place or another. But I can branch out. The writing doesn’t need to be as constrained. More calm, magical moments waited I’m excited about the future.
But I will take a break. I always take a break at the end of each volume. This time I’m taking 2 weeks off. I feel a bit guilty about that, but only a bit.
I pushed very hard in Volume 5. I wrote chapters that were upwards of 20,000 words in one sitting. My hands and, I think, my mind, are very tired. So tired I can’t really feel it. So I need two weeks. In truth I’ll just have one week off; I have a project I need to finish that will take a week to complete. So, two weeks. On Monday, the 18th, I’ll be back with the first chapter of Volume 6. I’m sorry about the delay, but I think I’ll be ready to write my best then.
Thanks so much for reading Volume 5. I hope you enjoyed it, ups and downs, good parts and bad. I’ll see you soon. After a bit of a rest. I think we could all use one. Waiting for spring,