The Wandering Inn had breakfast. It happened every day, but it was always different. It had changed, from when the inn had first been reoccupied. And since then, breakfast, so often overlooked, had defined the inn. Because there was a story there.
At the beginning, breakfast had been scraps, badly-cooked food or blue fruits, eaten by a scared, lost girl. Later, it had been a young woman, making pasta and eggs, serving two [Guardsmen]. Then—a skeleton had appeared. After that, a few more guests.
Adventurers. Antinium. Still in small groups. And often, the young woman ate alone. But then had come a day when a City Runner sat and ate with her. And—a [Princess]. Later, had come a small white Gnoll cub. And for a while, the young woman had vanished and the inn had grown dark. Until a [General] sat in the inn, and the [Princess] waited on the tables instead.
At some point, the [Innkeeper] came back. And by that time, the inn was lively. More adventurers came, and there were daily guests now. A bee began flying about. The staff increased. Once, there had been five Hobgoblins, always early for breakfast. And now, the inn was fuller than it had ever been.
There had been dark days, though. Days when no breakfast was served. When the young woman sat at an empty table and wept. When grief walked the tables. Days of mourning, when spilled blood was just drying on the floorboards. But days of triumph, too. Glorious mornings. To have lived them all was to have seen a story, told only in breakfasts.
And he had seen them all. Or most. Even in his head, Pisces Jealnet had to clarify that detail. Most, not all. But he had seen The Wandering Inn change over time. And this was better.
This was how Pisces began his day at the inn. He roused himself, over-weary from a late night of studying. But he did rise, and early too. He found Ceria stumbling half-asleep out of her door, went downstairs as she tried to lean on him. Yvlon and Ksmvr were there and Pisces greeted them and ate breakfast.
“Saffron rice! With eggs! And sausage?”
Erin Solstice still hadn’t quite figured out how to add nuance to her breakfasts. But the rice was delicious and the food filling. Pisces ate it with good humor, adding extra black pepper on his eggs. Ksmvr discovered he loved rice. Ceria requested a steak. Yvlon vetoed it.
“You need to stop eating like that, Ceria. I know [Mages] burn energy and half-Elves don’t get fat. But you don’t need a steak for breakfast.”
“But I can have one.”
“Captain Ceria, I must inform you that the risk of parasitic worms or eggs is notably higher in meat products than anywhere else. It is a common issue in the Hive. Insects burrowing out of your head would be unpleasant, or so I feel.”
“…Well, now I’m not hungry.”
Yvlon smiled at Ksmvr. The Antinium twitched one antennae in a ‘wink’ and both Ceria and Yvlon stared. Pisces did not. He sat back and ate his breakfast, ruminating on what he’d studied. The bickering was pleasant background.
The inn wasn’t empty, of course. These days, breakfast wasn’t just Erin and her guests. It was a bit of a crowd. Drassi was eating her breakfast before getting to work; Erin was helping Lyonette serve tables for once.
“Hey Relc! Is it your day off?”
“That’s right. And I’m gonna be here. Drinking and watching plays! And Embria’s working. Which is too bad, obviously. But it’s play-day!”
The Drake crowed. He had a drink in one hand, alcoholic. The only other person in the inn with a drink this early was the Drowned Man, Seborn. He was sitting at a table and Pisces caught a fragment of his conversation as Lyonette stopped by.
“…taking no for an answer. Jelaqua’s stopping by today and we’re having it out.”
“And we need to talk to her about Ulinde.”
Pisces filed that away. But he was more conscious of the room as a whole. Drakes and Gnolls he didn’t know by name were present, eating breakfast. But as Palt and others had observed, including Wall Lord Ilvriss, Erin’s inn wasn’t filled with masterful cuisine. It was fresh and fast and simply good, and that was the best part. No, it was the other things that drew people here.
The [Actors], for one. Pisces turned and watched the Players of Celum setting up on stage. Practicing for the evening. This early, there wasn’t much to be seen; the [Actors] were practicing their lines on the floor while a few declaimed from the stage. It was just practice, for all they did their best, but some, like Relc, were here even for that.
Pisces observed one of the performers attempting to practice her lines for Pygmalion. The Players of Celum were now fully comprised of three species: Human, Gnoll, and Drake. Temile had been actively recruiting and come up with a fairly wide cast. The [Actress] he’d cast in the part of Eliza, or rather, ‘Eriza’ for a more Gnollish-name was struggling to live up to his high standards.
“No, no. Be the character. Don’t speak to me! I’m not here! Remember—face the audience, but don’t look at us. Now—from the top! Professor Hissins enters. And—begin!”
A Drake hurried onto the stage, pretending to be getting out of the rain. He began, speaking in a carrying, conversational tone. He was decent, Pisces observed. He’d performed before. The Eriza [Actress] hadn’t.
She was a young Gnoll. Female, auditioning or a newly-minted member of the cast. She began her part and Pisces saw Temile wince almost at the same time the [Necromancer] did.
It wasn’t that the young Gnoll woman was bad. It was just that she wasn’t good. She spoke her lines…not exactly stiffly, but clearly from memory. She spoke them as if declaiming to a room, but aware she was on stage and determined to not show it. So she was aware of the audience, and yet trying to pretend she didn’t notice the stares. After a moment, Temile cut her off to explain why that was a problem.
Pisces already understood what Temile wanted. True actors, whether by class or nature, didn’t act like that. Some spoke to the crowd, acknowledging them as part of their performance. And to others—the audience was truly invisible, and they lived in their world, alone. That was the height of acting in either fashion.
He watched as the Gnoll girl tried again. And she was doing better. Pisces had a moment of sympathy for her. After all…he was much like her. A poor actor who was caught between extremes. Trying to pretend he didn’t see the audience.
The [Necromancer] looked around. And he saw the three faces turn away from his. The morning breakfasters pretended to be talking with their friends, or interested in their food. But they had been staring at him. Exactly at him, not just looking his way or idly browsing. There was a difference.
Three, today. Pisces had observed them out of the corner of his eyes. The [Necromancer] affected not to notice. And that was an act. Here he was, performing the [Actor]’s contradictory role. Pretending not to know he was being watched. But like the [Actress] on stage, he always saw the audience. Pisces couldn’t help it.
It was a self-defense mechanism. Too much attention, too much anger or hatred or just dislike, and he would be in trouble. Pisces could remember the look he got before a mob gathered, or someone started an incident. He didn’t suspect it would come to that here, but habits died hard. And even now—
“Hells, I hope we get an easy job after yesterday. And a bonus. We’ve earned it, right? We’ll probably have to wait until we’re paid.”
Ceria’s voice made Pisces look up. The half-Elf was yawning. They were all tired after yesterday.
The Bloodfields. Pisces still remembered the battle there. He’d gone over what he could have done better. Practiced with the [Shatterbolt] spell so he wouldn’t miss a distant target a second time. And considered that [Deathbolt] wasn’t a good spell to use on slimes or plants. He still needed to learn [Acid Orb]; Grimalkin was right about that. He nodded as Yvlon sighed.
“We all got out of it fine. It was dangerous. But I’m proud of everyone. When are we meeting?”
“Twenty minutes. They’ll all start coming through then. Plenty of time for a hamburger.”
Pisces smiled slightly. Yesterday. He’d gone out drinking, been toasted for his part in saving two adventurers from Walt’s team. The huge [Warrior] had even gone as far as to clap Pisces on the back and say he’d misjudged him. So, today, the Horns were minor heroes, even if only among the teams working in the Bloodfields.
The [Necromancer] turned his head. A few of the Drakes and Gnolls that would be working on the road were breakfasting here since it was convenient. And some had waved at the Horns as they’d come down. Just—waved. It wasn’t as if the Horns had helped save the city from the moths, or just come out of Albez. But the feeling was the same. They’d ventured into the Bloodfields and come out.
“Glory. And yet, it changes nothing.”
“What was that, Pisces?”
Exactly that. It didn’t change anything. Pisces turned his head towards Ceria and felt them again. Four stares, now. He’d missed one of the Gnolls by the door. That was the thing. They were staring at him. After his team had been hailed for their valor yesterday. But that was the nature of people. And of Pisces’ class. He knew it would be so. Even in a smiling crowd he could pick out the frowns.
And even now, there weren’t many smiles. Not at him. More for Ksmvr, even. Because for all the Antinium was Antinium, one of the scourges of Rhir, a nightmarish foe that was the enemy of Drakes and Gnolls and all species—he was disarming, friendly, innocent. He was a member of a species. But Pisces was different. He had a class. And he had chosen.
Necromancer. The word hovered above his head, unspoken. It defined him. But each day, Pisces pretended not to notice the stares he could see, the way people watched him. He paused as one of the starers stood.
A Drake. He was one of the workers on the road. Pisces knew that by his clothing, nothing else. He didn’t know the Drake. And for a moment, Pisces thought the Drake would go to the outhouse or somewhere else. But then the Drake started walking towards the table where the Horns sat.
Pisces paused. He looked up, still watching out of the corner of his eyes. His teammates saw the Drake approaching and turned. So Pisces did too. He met the Drake’s eyes. Saw him fully.
Pale yellow scales, tough arms and legs. A [Laborer], perhaps. Not one of the skilled workers, but not unkempt either. He’d been sitting alone. Watching Pisces.
Now he stopped in front of their table. He was—trembling. With nerves? And a suppressed anger. Pisces saw it all. Ceria did not. She blinked up at the Drake.
“Hi there. Can we help you?”
Both Pisces and the Drake started. They’d been so focused on each other. The Drake turned his head.
“What? I—no, Miss. I’d like a word with…”
He gestured to Pisces. Ceria sat up a bit. Yvlon frowned.
The Drake looked at Pisces. He opened his mouth, and Pisces saw he was missing a tooth, a molar, but the rest of his teeth were sharp. White, barely yellow—he must take good care of them.
“The name’s Mesiel. Hey. You’re that [Necromancer], right?”
“I am. How can I help you, sir?”
Pisces already knew. Yvlon was staring at his face. Pisces realized he was being too calm. He should look confused. But it didn’t matter. The Drake hesitated.
“I saw you yesterday. Daring the Bloodfields to save those two Humans. That was brave.”
“Thank you. It was what we were hired to do.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t see any of the other adventurers doing it. It was…brave. Good thing you got them out.”
Ceria nodded uncertainly. She’d picked up on the Drake’s tone too. She looked at Pisces. The [Necromancer] waited. The Drake, Mesiel, swallowed hard. And then he came out with it.
“I wanted to ask you something. Pisces, right? Pisces Jealnet?”
The Horns looked at Pisces. He felt his heart jump. His last name was unfamiliar. Unwelcome. But he just nodded.
“I read your bounty. I’m not here to collect! But I read it. Do you—do you know that Liscor had a problem with the undead? Not just with the crypt. That’s new. But back during the Second Antinium Wars. The Necromancer hit the city over a decade back. You heard about that, right? Az’kerash.”
The word came from Mesiel’s lips like a curse. Again, Pisces’ heart jumped. He nodded, straightening in his chair. Waiting. The Drake’s eyes were locked on him now. A familiar look. Anger and grief and—confusion.
“I was there. The undead—they put our city under siege. For months! The Necromancer was destroying the wall piece by piece, and the army and the Watch had to try and rebuild it while fighting the undead. We were all fighting. If someone died in Liscor—they came back. Even the rats. Even the damn rats.”
He was going somewhere. Far away. Back in time. The Horns waited, caught up in the Drake’s memories. Pisces’ stomach was twisting. Waiting. Which one was it?
The Drake gulped.
“My mother died to a zombie during the siege. It snuck past our lines somehow. The sewers. And it got into her house. She was just an old Drake. And it ate her. But that’s not all. It turned her into another one. A zombie. I came back and found her. Undead.”
He looked at Pisces then. Yvlon opened her mouth, but whatever words she was looking for weren’t there. Pisces nodded. He looked at the Drake’s eyes.
“I’m sorry for your loss, sir. I was not there, but I am sorry.”
“Yeah. Thanks. But I wanted to know—how can you be one? A [Necromancer]? How can you do that?”
The Drake was shaking. And around them, people were turning, listening in. Erin Solstice looked up from her conversation with Relc. Hesitated, began moving their way.
Pisces looked at her and shook his head. He looked up at the Drake, and rose. Mesiel took a step back. But Pisces looked at the tables around him. His audience. He spoke to them, to the Drake.
“I am sorry about your loss, Mister Mesiel. I am. But yes, the undead are dangerous. And they wish to slay the living, it is true. But I attempt to control them. I cannot speak for other [Necromancers], but I want to understand them. And I am not Az’kerash. I am an adventurer, and a [Mage]. And a [Necromancer]. It is my occupation.”
It wasn’t a perfect speech. Far from it. There were no perfect, elegant words that Pisces wanted to deliver. It wasn’t even the whole truth. But it was the best he could give.
And even so. Mesiel listened to Pisces’ words. He stared into the Human’s face and shook his head slightly.
“Why do you do it? What’s there to be gained in—I could understand [Summoners]. Or making Golems. But undead? Rotting flesh and bone? People?”
Pisces’ shoulders began to hunch, but he straightened them. He met the Drake’s eyes. It was as if they were the only bright things in the world. So hard to meet.
“I attempt not to use people, sir. And I work with bone. It is—a material. To be used in creation.”
That was the wrong thing to say. The Drake jerked back.
“A—but why dead bodies?”
Pisces opened his mouth and hesitated. Say it another way. He spoke slowly, trying not to stumble over his words.
“It’s what I’m good at. I understand it, like a [Bladesman] understands his sword. What do you do for a living, sir?”
“I’m a [Builder]. I work with constructing stuff, fixing, mainly.”
The young man nodded.
“Then I enjoy necromancy as much as you might while swinging a hammer. It may not be a direct comparison, but if you understand passion for your work—the satisfaction of completing a task well—that is what I have towards necromancy.”
The Drake nodded jerkily. He searched Pisces, and then his team. Pisces wondered what Ceria and Yvlon’s faces looked like. The Drake tried again.
“But couldn’t you make golems instead? Why bone? And the undead. Do you enjoy making them into—puppets?”
He was going in circles. So was Pisces. Erin trotted over.
“Okay! Hey! No bothering Pisces, okay?”
The Drake looked at her.
“I just want to know. He’s got a bounty. I read it.”
“It’s false. Wistram made it up. Parts of it.”
Ceria stood up, protectively standing by Pisces. He wished she wouldn’t. The Drake turned back.
“Parts of it are fake? What parts?”
“The—look. Pisces did some bad stuff. There was an accident at Wistram. People got killed, but it wasn’t exactly—it was an accident. And the [Mages] in Wistram? Montressa and her team? They have a grudge. But—Pisces isn’t—the necrophilia isn’t true.”
The aforementioned Pisces closed his eyes. Erin inhaled her lips. Mesiel just looked at Pisces. And Pisces looked at him. He bowed his head slightly.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Mister Mesiel. But cannot give you what you want. I am a [Necromancer]. But I am not Az’kerash.”
The questioned lingered, even as a Gnoll and Drake came to pull Mesiel back. Pisces met his eyes.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
It was the most honest answer. The most unfulfilling. The [Necromancer] watched Erin chivvy the others back. He turned. Now, they were all staring at him.
“Damn. What was that? He can’t just—”
Ceria was flustered. She turned. Ksmvr was looking anxiously at her and Pisces. Yvlon just met the [Necromancer]’s eyes. She nodded. So did he.
Pisces sat back down at the table, although his appetite was gone. His team sat around him and Erin came back. They looked expectant. He just shrugged, keeping his face straight.
“It is—tolerable. Fine, even. He asked, which is more than I am accustomed to. In truth, I am surprised no one sought me out before.”
“People didn’t know. They might have, but I guess rumors are spreading.”
Yvlon murmured. She looked around and Pisces sensed heads ducking back. The [Wounded Warrior] frowned, but stopped when he shook his head. Pisces glanced up at Erin, managed a smile for her. But it didn’t fool her.
“That Az’kerash guy was a jerk. Not Pisces. Well—Pisces is a jerk, but he’s not a bad guy. And they’re not the same.”
Erin’s comment made Pisces smile. The [Necromancer] stood back up, pushing his plate back. He looked around.
“But he was the Necromancer. That’s how they remember him.”
No one replied to that. At last, Ceria muttered as she drained her cup.
“Let’s get to work guarding the Bloodfields, shall we?”
Pisces nodded. He felt tired, despite having just risen. Not physically, but with that mortal tiredness. He turned towards the magic door. And then he felt a hand on his shoulder.
Yvlon’s. Ksmvr put his hand on the same spot. Two of them, in fact. And Ceria gripped Pisces’ other shoulder. She raised her eyebrows. And despite himself, he smiled. His heart lifted for a second and his shoulders relaxed.
He was not alone. And so, the [Necromancer] walked towards the doors, surrounded by friends. It was just another day. They were always like this. They had been ever since he’d gained his class. Like breakfasts, some had been dark days. Many had. But they were getting better.
Yes. Better. But he wished he had an answer for Mesiel. A perfect answer to tell him the truth. Pisces sighed and shook his head. He hadn’t found it yet.
Why do you do it?
Because I want to. That’s all.
Someone else was having an unordinary, ordinary day. Bevussa, Gold-rank Captain of the Wings of Pallass, descended into Liscor’s dungeon with her team. Ready to slowly explore the dungeon, kill monsters, get paid.
She’d had breakfast at The Wandering Inn. Or maybe—a snack? Bevussa’s beak opened and she made a disgusted sound. She was still tasting it, nearly twenty minutes later.
“Something wrong, boss?”
Zassil, one of the winged Oldblood Drakes and a competent [Flier], looked curiously at Bevussa. He was actually a [Battle Flier], which wasn’t that noteworthy. But it was unique to flying species. Bevussa spat, opening and closing her beak and grimacing.
“That soup. Gah! I know Erin said it keeps well, but—Ancestors! It’s coated my tongue!”
She drank from a water flask as her team walked through the cleared tunnels. By now, all the traps had been carefully outlined in glowing paint, and the adventurers had barricades up, maintaining a safe zone. Even so, the Wings of Pallass were wary; monsters could bypass the barriers.
Wary and yet not. This was a job. They’d done many days of this routine. It could turn deadly at any second, but it was what they were used to. This dungeon would make their fortunes. Or become their grave. Even so, they could chat.
“It tastes awful. I’ll give it that.”
Issa muttered as she flexed her wings. Bevussa nodded and Zassil and Kin, their [Mage], all agreed. Erin’s Scale Soup was so foul that it beat out even potions. It was the texture on top of the taste.
“Why’re we using it, Bevussa? I know it’s not much, but none of the other teams go to Erin’s inn every day for it. The Flamewardens didn’t.”
“They have the Heartflame Breastplate, Zassil. They don’t need the potion. Dead gods, but I’d love to try it on myself, even if I couldn’t fly!”
Kin looked envious. Even Bevussa nodded; she’d been raised among Drakes and the famous Heartflame Breastplate stirred feelings of awe and envy in her feathered chest as well.
“They’re just renting it from Miss Shivertail. Can’t we do it after them, Bevussa?”
“And do what? Turn into a land-bound team, Zassil?”
“Well, maybe it’s light enough to fly in? And if it’s not, one of us could stay on the ground. They’d be just as safe with that artifact on! Have you seen the flames?”
“Keldrass is paying for it and I’m not wasting gold on something we don’t need. The Flamewardens can pay to use the armor.”
“And we pay to drink Scale Soup? That’s a terrible tradeoff, boss!”
The Wings laughed. So did Bevussa, but she shook her head.
“Let’s think about it, team. Erin’s food isn’t as good as, say, a Stoneskin Scroll like the one that we bought from that Minotauress, but it’s a tiny fraction of the cost! And it’s pretty good!”
She thumped a fist on her chest for emphasis. Her skin was tougher now, like leather. Zassil, Issa, and Kin nodded reluctantly. Bevussa gestured back the way they’d parted with the Flamewardens.
“It doesn’t make much difference if you’ve got armor. Some, but anything that can go through plate mail will go through her enchantment. But if you’re wearing light armor or nothing at all? The Scale Soup was made for our team!”
The Wings of Pallass stopped in front of a barricade. Zassil muttered.
“It still tastes like Wyvern shit melted into a pot.”
“True, but it’ll keep you alive. So eat it. I’m actually thinking of asking Erin if she can make it more palatable. She said she forgot how to make it the other way.”
“Why doesn’t she sell more of it? Dead gods, if it tasted good I’d eat it all the time.”
“Lack of interest? Apparently to make it she melted like, eight pots and nearly killed herself a few times. I’ll talk with her. But no complaining. Now, let’s get to it.”
Bevussa checked the barricades, unlatching the bolts with Issa. Beyond this point lay unfamiliar territory. Monsters, and treasure.
“Think we’ll get a haul today, boss? Something we don’t have to gamble for, like with the Raskghar? I’m still mad about that armor! Did Keldrass say he finally got it appraised?”
“No. What is it?”
“It’s classified as Siegespell Armor. It might be a variant, but it’s close to Named-rank gear.”
Zassil hissed as Bevussa shoved the barricade aside. She reached for her shortsword, grimacing. She felt exactly like the rest of her team.
“Damn. That’s not fair! We didn’t get nearly as much for our share!”
“It’s luck of the draw, Zassil. But let’s all be on the lookout for secret rooms, huh? If there’s magical armor and an invisible bow and whatnot in this dungeon, there’s something for us. Stay sharp and on me! Kin, take point!”
The Wings of Pallass straightened and nodded. Bevussa watched Kin take the lead and followed after, Zassil in the rear after Issa. Her team got to work. It was an ordinary day. But it could turn special or dire in a second. She just wished she could get the damn soup’s taste out of her mouth!
Palt, the Centaur [Illusionist] had not had breakfast at The Wandering Inn. He hadn’t really had breakfast; just a few oat snacks he’d eaten while talking. Negotiating, really. He was yawning, tired from an early morning. Dawn, practically. But the Ullsinoi faction had been in heated conference last night, and they’d come to a decision as promised.
Naturally, they’d included Palt in the conversation. He’d said as much as he could, but the Elusive Lot, the leaders of his faction, had done the deciding. And they’d decided right! The exhausted Centaur grinned as he trotted down the street. He didn’t mind the stares the Drakes and Gnolls gave him; he was used to being an oddity.
And nothing could shake his good mood. It was going to be a good day. Possibly an amazing one. No—it was already exemplary. Terrific!
And because it was this particular day it mattered. The day might not have been special, but now it would be. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Palt wasn’t interested in the philosophy of such things.
He murmured to himself as he paused by a market stall. The Gnoll attending it looked somewhat familiar. But Palt was too busy to listen to her talking policy with her customers. He murmured to himself as he pointed for a few ingredients and she happily packaged them up.
“I’ve settled the matter. The Ullsinoi faction has convinced the Revivalists not to interfere in your inn for a few—a very few!—concessions. You can offer us more than sheer military matters. Plays, your door as a hub for our people—how much Miss?”
“Four silver and three coppers, yes?”
Palt happily paid Krshia, not noticing the Gnoll staring at him. He thanked her and hurried off, thrusting the ingredients into his belt pouch.
“—only a few concessions. The Ullsinoi faction would love for your inn to stay right where it is! And if it connects to both Pallass and Invrisil? We just need to put a few—markers—on the door. And if you’re able to tell us—”
He was so relieved. The Elusive Lot had seen his points! In fact, they’d realized how valuable Erin was even outside of her status as an Earther. That was what Palt liked about his faction. They were practical, and they stayed in the world, not apart. Erin would get what she wanted. Montressa wouldn’t, but Palt would get what he wanted. And perhaps more.
The Centaur distractedly pulled out a mirror and checked his appearance. He could always use a glamor spell, but that would be a waste of magic. He pulled out a comb as he trotted towards the inn. Okay—now, he needed a smooth transition.
“So, shall we discuss the matter over a meal? Somewhere else than your inn? I know it’s work—no, wait. I’d love to show you some more of my cooking. No—”
The Centaur halted. Careful! He tried again.
“I just happened to have—no, that’s trite. Miss Solstice, would you care to accompany me for a night out? No, that’s far worse. She might not even get the nuance if I said it another way, though! Argh!”
His hooves did a little dance on the cobblestones. This was the hardest part! Palt glanced around.
“Let’s share a meal and discuss it. My treat. A table at Wishdrinks? Or perhaps a place in Pallass. I insist! We’ll need to work closely—no. I’d like to get to know you better. Damn, damn.”
He wasn’t used to Human traditions. Centaurs had it easy. And Dullahans! Lizardfolk were delightfully straightforward—Humans were complex in their inelegance and Palt didn’t know what was normal in Erin’s culture. But he’d workshop it.
“Hm. Go now or deal with Montressa? She’s all the way in the Bloodfields. Damn, damn.”
A passing Gnoll father glared at Palt and the Centaur saw his son staring up at the Centaur. The Centaur closed his mouth. He cast a localized [Hush] spell.
“No, no. Deal with Montressa first. She’s going to throw an unholy fit. Let’s go there first. [Flash Hooves] it is. Then—a dinner? No…how about—a chess game! Wait! Has she played Go? Palt, you’re a genius!”
He happily galloped towards the eastern gate. Montressa first. He’d present Erin with everything she wanted and then they’d nail down the deal over a meal. Take it slow. But there were first steps, and Palt intended to make this day one he’d remember. Should he get her flowers? But that was so trite and she wasn’t going to eat them…
The Centaur laughed as he ran out of the city. He smiled as his heart leapt. It was going to be a special day, he knew. Because it was today!
Ceria was worried about Pisces after the awkward, tense confrontation in the inn. But the [Necromancer] didn’t seem too bothered. Indeed, he even made a small joke as they entered the grasslands bordering the Bloodfields for work.
“One would imagine venturing into the Bloodfields, battling a Watchertree, and nearly being consumed by insects would merit us a day off.”
The half-Elf blinked. Then she laughed, relieved.
“That’s because we’re soft. I bet Master Reikhle doesn’t see it that way. See? He’s already at work!”
The Gnoll [Master Builder] was indeed already chivvying his workers at the road. It was sloping upwards, heading into the foothills, and the Gnoll was shouting orders.
“Stone! Yes, lay the foundations! I don’t care how fast it has to be—we’re making this part out of stone!”
He was pointing at the road, which would cut into the foothills around the Bloodfields to pass south towards Pallass. Ceria wondered if that would slow the pace of the road; it was being built incredibly fast! Already, the road stretched for miles, and she’d heard a second team was connecting it to Liscor’s eastern gate.
A scrum of people not being shouted at caught Ceria’s eye. She paused and whistled. Yvlon had already seen and raised both her brows.
“That’s a lot of adventurers! Is something going on?”
She pointed ahead. The Horns picked up the pace, heading for more Silver-rank teams. But not the usual five or six. Ceria’s jaw dropped.
“Dead gods. Nine, twelve—fourteen teams? Everyone’s here!”
She recognized all the teams who’d signed up on the first day in Liscor’s Adventurer’s Guild. Even a few native Liscorian teams of Drakes and Gnolls. But mainly Humans. Ceria waved to Alais and Stan in the back as Yvlon nodded at Kam and her team. Hauntgheist, Thunder’s Solace, the Boltspitters—even the Ensoldier Shields were here! Walt’s team was back after yesterday’s dire battle.
“Ceria! Good to see you! Your team’s not on a break?”
“Not us! We’re back at work. But what about your guys, Walt?”
“Hah! It’ll take more than a few hits to knock us down! Tommie and Belt are fine. See?”
He pointed out the two warriors. Both men had holes in their armor and were wincing, but the healing potions had put them back on their feet. They waved and came over as the Horns were welcomed among the teams. Walt slapped Pisces on the shoulder and the [Necromancer] winced. But Walt was trying.
“We still owe your team more drinks! You slipped away. Dead gods, but your Antinium guy can put them away.”
“I was sufficiently inebriated. Hello, Captain Walt. Hello, Captain Alais. Captain Crossbow Stan.”
Ceria laughed as Stan and Alais came over. They nodded to her. Things were even easier among them now. And even Pisces being welcomed. Not as easily, but Walt kept slapping Pisces on the back. He’d shown them. Ceria smiled, then saw Yvlon gesturing at the huge group.
“Why are all the teams present, Stan?”
Crossbow Stan shrugged. He was yawning and shaking his head.
“No clue. We just received word all of us were supposed to come today. It’s got to have something to do with the Bloodfields and the incident yesterday.”
“They’re not making us fight there!”
Alais was alarmed. Ceria shook her head.
“No way. We’re not being paid for that. And we’re not doing it. Maybe it’s another demonstration…?”
“Whoops. We’re finding out. Here comes Master Taskmaster himself.”
Reikhle was striding over with a few [Scouts] and his subordinates. The Gnoll shouted.
“Attention! Listen up!”
The adventuring teams broke off from their gossip and turned. The Gnoll didn’t beat about the brush.
“You all heard what happened yesterday? Good! The Bloodfields are more dangerous than we thought! Those spores that got the Ensoldier Shields are putting my road in jeopardy, and Liscor’s Council and the Watch both want to know what the Bloodfields are capable of! So you’re all being called in.”
“To do what? Fight?”
A voice called out nervously in the crowd. Reikhle shook his head.
“We are taking every precaution against the spores and these new plants in the Bloodfields. Until we determine the outer range the spores might travel to. So. All teams will be deployed to the Bloodfields today—on standby, mainly. You lucky slugs! A few teams who should be able to resist the spores, like Hauntgheist, will do the scouting.”
“So we’re just here to bail them out. Excellent!”
Ceria cheered up at once. A few of the teams assigned to scouting groaned, but they seemed relieved by the precautions. Ceria turned back to Pisces and Yvlon and Ksmvr.
“Looks like we get time off, huh?”
“Not so fast! Since none of you will be scouting ahead, you’re all working here! Which means anyone who can lift is going to help my teams!”
The adventurers began cursing. Reikhle ignored them and began issuing orders. Ceria groaned, but good-naturedly. She hung back with Stan, Alais, and Walt. She couldn’t lift things, anyways. And that meant she had plenty of time to relax and gossip. Rank had its privileges. Ceria began to grin. She nudged Alais.
“You know what’d be really nice? Chairs. Think we can get some from Erin’s inn? Or I can make some out of ice. And some drinks!”
Yvlon rolled her eyes, exasperated.
As the adventurers milled about and the workers resumed building the road, they were being watched. Montressa du Valeross stood on a small crest, nearly two thousand feet distant. She wasn’t worried about being spotted; she was under an [Invisibility] spell. And she was using another spell to magnify her vision of the adventurers.
She was searching for her target. She’d lost him for a second. But then Montressa narrowed her eyes.
“There he is.”
She was staring at Pisces. Her hands clenched on the magic staff that Archmage Nailihuaile had personally created. Like the brass orb, it had been a temporary gift, meant to be tried in the field. Both were powerful magical artifacts. But even without them, Montressa was first of her team.
They were standing with her. Well, Isceil was sitting on a rock. But he glanced up and nodded, spotting Pisces. Beza’s arms were folded as she stared at the distant adventurers. Ulinde was sharpening her claws. She was still wearing the Drake body she’d been gifted by the Halfseekers. Montressa glared back at her, then looked around.
“Where’s Palt? He’s late.”
The Centaur and fifth member of their group was indeed absent. Montressa looked around. Isceil yawned.
“No idea. Stop glaring at me, Montressa. Beza?”
“I have no idea what he’s up to.”
The Minotauress snorted. Ulinde shifted nervously, glancing at Montressa out of the corner of her eye.
“He—he said he needed to take care of something in Liscor. He’ll be over in half an hour, he said.”
“Well, he’s late. I want everyone here in case we need to move!”
“And do what, exactly? There’s fourteen—no, fifteen teams of Silver-ranks down there, Montressa. Unless you want to link up and blow them all to pieces, we’re not fighting our way through that many Silver-ranks.”
Isceil pointed out. He complained loudly and irritably, having marched all the way here in the morning. Even with movement spells, it took the Wistram team far longer to get here and set up than the others; they were still banned from The Wandering Inn, save for Ulinde. And Palt.
Montressa ground her teeth together.
“There might be an opening. And the Horns might do something. Go scouting.”
“And if they do? What do we do? Kill them? We could have let them die yesterday, Montressa.”
Beza pointed out. She looked pointedly at her leader. Montressa said nothing. Her knuckles whitened slowly. Beza looked at Isceil and Ulinde. The Drake nodded.
“If we did nothing, they might be dead. I’m not saying we should have. We saved those Humans. Although they barely thanked us! But if you wanted Pisces dead…”
“I know, I know!”
Montressa turned and shouted at Isceil. He leaned back. Montressa struck the rock she was standing on with her staff.
“I know! But there were innocents! We’re not—we’re not him!”
“But he was going to save the adventurers. He and Ceria—”
Ulinde shut up as Montressa whirled. Beza looked concerned as she put a hand on Montressa’s shoulder. She turned to the Selphid.
“One good deed doesn’t excuse what he’s done. Still, we can’t go after them without violating Liscor’s laws. And there is Erin Solstice to consider. Montressa, all this observation is pointless. Why don’t we focus on the inn?”
“We can do that. Later. You can. But we’re watching the Horns.”
Isceil exhaled loudly, shooting a flurry of sparks out of his mouth. He looked at Beza and grimaced. Then he shared a look with Ulinde. Montressa ignored them all. Her eyes were focused on Pisces.
“I’ll get him.”
“You could have let him die. Maybe he’s—”
Beza slashed with one hand across her throat. Isceil shut up, and just in time too. Montressa’s eyes blazed as she turned her head. Isceil fell silent.
Why wasn’t he showing his true colors? What would it take? How could she get him? Montressa’s mind was locked up, going in circles. She stared down. Beza sighed as she shifted her weight.
“I might as well do some scroll scribing. But after this, we need to talk about this observation, Montressa. Focus on what we’re supposed to do. Montressa? Montressa.”
The young woman didn’t answer. After a moment, Beza made a disgusted sound. She sat down and pulled out her equipment.
“Not like Palt’s missing anything, anyways. Hey Ulinde, those Halfseekers talking to you, then?”
Isceil began chatting with Ulinde. The Selphid nodded, glancing nervously at Montressa’s back. The [Mages] waited. Beza writing carefully, Isceil chatting with Ulinde. Montressa waiting.
They were being watched as well. Like some comedy skit, the Wistram team’s vantage point was being spied on from another position even further back. A black, grinning skull slowly rose over a rock. She stared down at the [Mages]. She was only six hundred feet back, and she was listening to every word the [Mages] said. And she could also hear the Horns chatting thousands of feet distant.
The black-boned skeleton peeked over the ridge. She was under the effects of so many concealment spells she wouldn’t have been visible anyways, but even so, it was style.
“Ijvani, cease peeking and keep your vision still.”
The black skeleton wilted. The voice in her head was Az’kerash’s. The Necromancer was watching through her mind. Like Ijvani, he was simultaneously listening to multiple inputs at once, watching through a fixed [Scrying] spell as Ceria argued with Master Reikhle about being allowed to sit in chairs. The Gnoll didn’t mind that, but he drew the line at a table and drinks and snacks. They were on watch, not relaxing!
Across the Bloodfields, Hauntgheist and two other teams were approaching the Bloodfields, getting ready to measure the effects of the spores and the range they might be blown. Az’kerash observed everything, as well as listened to Isceil grouse.
He was also keeping himself busy. In his study in his hidden castle, the Necromancer had split his mind to divide his focus. But managing four or five inputs was trivial. So he devoted the rest of his attention on a scroll in front of him.
He was scribing a spell as well. Beza had given him the thought. But the [Spellscribe] would have wept to see the difference in the quality and scale of the spells both were scribing. Her [Stone Skin] scroll, being written on the finest parchment with gemstone ink was nothing to the black scroll that seemed to suck in the light, being inscribed with glowing dust that shone like the moon.
Az’kerash couldn’t even use a quill; he was melding the dust into the scroll, forming the basis for a spell. And even he had limits; scroll scribing wasn’t his talent, so creating a scroll of [Greater Teleport] was beyond even him. Even so—this scroll would sell for maybe a hundred thousand gold coins on the market. Or a few; Az’kerash didn’t pay attention to the market for Tier 6 spells.
It was mindless work, really. Something to keep him occupied. Not like the focused creation of new undead he was normally consumed with, or the machinations that kept him abreast of the world, finding new sources of power. Really, he was focused mainly on the Wistram [Mages] and the Horns.
And Ijvani did not understand why. She was happier than she had been, to have her master directing her personally for so long. But why today?
She had to ask. The skeleton mage sent her thoughts to her Master, not bothering with verbalization.
“Master, why am I here? I have kept the [Mages] under observation. But why is today important?”
As she thought, she prodded the little, quivering ‘heart’ in her ribcage. The Healing Slime quivered away from her, which was fun. Az’kerash thought absently, his words appearing in her head with perfect clarity. Conveying more than mere words, in fact. Image, intention, emotion—it was all part of it.
“Because of the communications within the Ullsinoi faction. And the larger debate that occurred in Wistram yesterday, Ijvani. I was not…privy to the communications within the [Illusionist] factions. But other factions in Wistram are less talented. Montressa du Valeross’ mission to pursue Pisces Jealnet will be rescinded today. And his bounty will be mitigated. Not erased.”
The skeleton nodded, then remembered to keep her vision steady. Montressa was not aware of this fact yet. In a thoughtless way, Ijvani looked forwards to her anguish. But then she had another thought.
“Ijvani, you are testing my patience.”
“I am sorry, Master. But why does it matter for me to stay here, then? If the [Mages] are unable to pursue this Pisces…”
Az’kerash looked up from his work on the scroll. And Ijvani saw/felt his bitter smile. The Necromancer rose, and focused on Pisces, standing together with Ksmvr as the adventurers began helping the workers. He nodded to the image in his mind. And Ijvani felt…
“Because they do not forget. Because she will not cease. No matter what happens, they will drag him down. Watch, Ijvani. Wait for my signal.”
Az’kerash stared at Montressa’s hunched back. And Ijvani felt another image flash in her mind. It looked like Bea’s face. But alive. Turning away.
A [King] sat on his throne, pointing down with a shaking finger—
Az’kerash’ mind closed abruptly. Ijvani nodded, shaken.
She grabbed the Healing Slime as she waited. Motionless. In her jaw, the [Blackfire Fireball] waited. Az’kerash sat down and resumed work on his scroll. But—impatiently. His three Chosen, peeking at him, saw him pause to address Ijvani every few minutes. He was waiting. But he was certain. Because he was waiting for something, and it would matter not at all to his grand schemes. But it mattered to him. So the Necromancer waited and watched with his minion.
“We have to help carry all this crap?”
Walt’s outraged voice rang across the groups of sitting and chatting adventurers. Ceria looked up. The leader of Ensoldier Shields was one of the people conscripted for work. Many of the adventurers, like Kam, the [Bow Rider], weren’t obligated to work, not having particularly useful Skills or builds. But some, like Walt, were good for sheer labor.
Ceria watched as the burly adventurer was shouted into working by Master Reikhle. She was relieved not to be working. And indeed, no one in her team had been conscripted. Yvlon and Ksmvr were surely candidates, but perhaps this was a silent reward from the surly [Master Builder].
If so, Ceria enjoyed it. She sat back in her chair and looked around. Pisces was standing, talking to a group of adventurers with Yvlon as Ksmvr practiced shooting with Kam. It was relaxed, but Ceria’s ears perked up as she listened to Pisces talking.
“Yes, I have met other [Necromancers]. A cult, in fact. I have no inclination to associate with them.”
“Criminals exist in every class.”
Yvlon put in. She was glaring at the adventurer who’d asked Pisces the question. The woman raised her hands.
“Obviously! I was just wondering.”
The half-Elf rose, a bit warily. Pisces was at the center of attention again. Like the inn, his actions of yesterday had earned him wary recognition. But with it had come the questions. They weren’t—accusatory. But adventurers and workers alike wanted to know more.
And the [Necromancer] was answering them, politely. But Ceria thought she could see some tenseness in Pisces, under his polite, open façade. She came over and Alais turned towards her. The [Aeromancer] hesitated. Then she nodded at Ceria with a smile.
“You know, that ice chariot of yours was something yesterday, Ceria!”
“Useful. And it’ll help out a lot with scouting. Far better than walking like my team has to do.”
Stan agreed thoughtfully. Ceria smiled.
“Well, it’s only possible with Pisces’ horses. Undead horses don’t mind if their legs break.”
The adventurers laughed, some awkwardly. They turned back to Pisces and Ceria saw more adventurers were keeping back, listening, but not part of the conversation. She looked at Pisces and saw he knew it too. But the [Necromancer] was smiling.
“If I could conjure more horses, I would, Captain Stan. But they can’t be controlled by anyone but me.”
“Pity. I’m footsore from walking. And I’m not as young as you children!”
Stan smiled around. He was in on it too, from the way he was making people laugh, relax. Yvlon smiled as she drank from a water flask.
“Still better than Ceria.”
“Am I telling lies, Ceria?”
The half-Elf spluttered, but she was glad of the laughter. It took some of the attention off Pisces. But they were going to keep asking questions.
And—it was actually Yvlon who glanced at Pisces. Then she hesitated, adjusted the gauntlets on her arm, and nodded at the workers.
“You know, Master Reikhle should really be coming to Pisces, not Walt or his team. The Ensoldier Shields and all our [Warriors] can lift, but Pisces could conjure a dozen skeletons and have them work twice as fast as even a low-level [Hauler]. Right, Pisces?”
The light conversation died as if Yvlon had stuck her sword through its heart. Every eye turned to Pisces. He was looking at Yvlon. But she had the same look as yesterday, when she’d suggested the ice chariot. And she looked at Ceria and then nodded at Pisces.
And he? He hesitated.
In his study, Az’kerash sat up. And he saw Pisces nod, at Yvlon Byres.
“That is…correct, Yvlon. I had considered it, but I think it would be imprudent to use undead.”
“Why? You did it at Albez. That’s how we managed to clear all the dirt and get to the treasure by ourselves, Alais, Stan.”
“Really? And you’d conjure…undead?”
Alais looked at Pisces. Yvlon shook her head.
“Animate. He has the bones for it.”
Someone laughed nervously in the back. No one else did.
“Bandits. Ksmvr killed a bunch of them. I saw Pisces recovering the bones myself. And I’d swear on truth spell it’s just bandit bones. Is that a problem?”
The armored woman spoke coolly, looking around. A Drake adventurer coughed.
“So long as its Human bones.”
Some chuckles. But the other adventurers were just waiting. Stan leaned on the table the adventurers had taken from Erin’s inn.
“So, these skeletons would be under your control, Pisces?”
“Perfectly. I would be watching them. I could set them to a task, but they wouldn’t deviate so long as I maintain direct control.”
“And what can they do better than the [Workers] here?”
“Run? They don’t get tired, Kam. Think about it. They’re not as strong or as tough as we are, but they can work all day. Go on, Pisces, show them.”
“Yvlon, I don’t believe—”
Ceria stared at Yvlon. But the woman’s face was clear, knowing. Pisces hesitated.
“It’s not like it’ll go out of control.”
Ceria’s heart was beating far too fast as Pisces hesitated. But he undid the drawstrings on the bag of holding. The adventurers drew back in a wide arc, all save Yvlon and Ceria and Ksmvr. As the bones spilled from the bag of holding and rose, they tensed. When the glowing green flames appeared in the sockets, a few half-drew their blades. Yvlon looked around.
“It’s one skeleton. I could beat one of those with a beer mug. Old Stan might have trouble, but the rest of you?”
That put their backs up. One of the Human Captains laughed, but shakily.
“I could kill a group with a fart.”
“I’d believe that.”
A Gnoll growled. There was a quick punch, laughter. But still, it was Stan who approached first. He warily waved a hand in front of the skeleton. It didn’t move. Stan reached out and touched it.
Ceria shouted. Stan leapt back. Everyone looked at the half-Elf. She scratched at one arm.
“Damn it, Ceria!”
Stan swore at her. The half-Elf laughed. And that did it. A few more adventurers approached. One prodded at the skull as the skeleton stared forwards, unmoving.
“Dead gods, I’m creeped out. And it won’t move?”
“Not so long as I control it.”
“I can just imagine it turning and going for me—”
“But it won’t.”
“Are you sure?”
Yvlon glared at the Drake.
“It’s not even got a weapon.”
“Well, if it grabs mine—”
One of the Gnolls ignored the debate. She knocked on the skeleton’s head thoughtfully, then tried to pry it off. It came loose and the skeleton collapsed. The Gnoll paused.
“Oops. Can you—”
The skeleton jerked back upright and the Gnoll swore, retreating. Then she laughed.
“It’s not exactly strong, is it? How could this thing outdo our [Workers]?”
“Well, they could gather stones, drag all the heavy stuff rather than put it on wagons or have our [Haulers] do the job. And they don’t get tired, so they can go full-speed. For skeletons. Go on, Pisces. Show them.”
“Well, if we gave it a bag of holding…”
Stan was rubbing his chin. He eyed the workers, who were hauling pieces of stone to lay a foundation. Reikhle was overseeing the mixing of some kind of cement or mortar that would form a sturdier section of the road. It was backbreaking work.
“Can a skeleton pick up stones? They’re not that smart.”
“The ah, intelligence of an undead like this is limited, but they can do so. I haven’t put them to this specific task, but this skeleton should be capable of it. Shall we test it out?”
Pisces looked around. The adventurers murmured.
“Should be interesting.”
They followed the skeleton over as Pisces pointed. It began picking up stones at the base of the foothills. After a moment, someone looked around.
“It needs a sack. Hold on.”
“Yeah. It—it certainly beats having to pick all that up yourself, right?”
“What if there were six? Do they need to stop?”
“Never. You’ve seen undead, Ovelel.”
“Sure. But—okay, I mean, I saw a Golem once at one of those massive farms. And that thing was worth every gold coin. Never stopped working; could plough, chop wood overnight. And fight! But undead aren’t that convenient.”
“Because they might go wild. But—hey, Pisces! Can you do six?”
“Easily…if no one would be alarmed by it?”
“I mean, it’s six skeletons. And his farts…”
There was an odd mood in the air. Something was happening. Something that wasn’t magical. Or if it was, it wasn’t a kind Ceria could conjure. It reminded her of Erin. And it was spreading. The adventurers stood back warily, watching, commenting. But then there were six skeletons. And they picked up stones, loading them into a sack. And they were just…working.
One picked up a pickaxe and the wary adventurers stood back. But all the skeleton did was hit the stones with it. Clumsily; it didn’t have the exact finesse of a [Miner]. But it could get the pointy end in the right place, breaking up weak rock. And if you watched it, saw how Pisces calmly made them move…
It took Master Reikhle a good twenty minutes before he noticed the commotion. Then, the approaching group of eight skeletons, carrying huge sacks. The workers stopped and the Gnoll stormed over.
“What is going on here?”
He stared at the undead, his fur standing up on end. But they just trooped past and unloaded their cargo. Workers sprang aside, cursing, and backed up, grabbing at improvised weapons. But the skeletons neatly deposited the stones into the trough that would form the road. They emptied their sacks, then turned, and held still.
“What is this?”
Reikhle looked at Pisces and Ceria and the adventurers following him. It was Yvlon who replied.
“Undead workers. Master Reikhle. Skeletons. We thought you could use extra workers.”
“I don’t need—”
The Gnoll hesitated. He stared at the skeletons. Alais nudged Pisces.
“That wasn’t bad. But can they run?”
Silently, Pisces pointed. The skeletons charged back the way they’d come and began grabbing pieces of stone, loose rocks, and piling them into a sack. When one was filled, a skeleton grabbed it, hoisted it up with the worst lifting technique imaginable, and ran back.
It wasn’t fast, with the weight on its back, but it was faster than any of the Drake or Gnoll [Haulers] who weren’t about to run. And it was less than they could carry, it was true. Drakes and Gnolls stood aside, watching as the skeleton deposited the bag in the trough.
“But they’re undead.”
Someone commented softly. And yet—Master Reikhle was watching the skeleton charge back. The others had already filled another sack.
And that was the thing about the undead. You could look at them and imagine them turning on you. The adventurers had seen it. The potential for what they were was there. But—they didn’t tire. They didn’t slow. And they were completely expendable. They followed orders to a fault.
Slowly, the Gnoll [Master Builder] rubbed his fur. It was still standing up. But after a few cautious sniffs, he turned towards Pisces. He nodded towards the work.
“My team can do all of that. There’s no need! Hrr. But tell me. There’s rocks to break up ahead to smooth the road. Those things. Can they use a pickaxe?”
And the moment continued. Ceria saw Pisces raise his brows. His lips quirked for a second.
“Of course. I can also animate horses. If you needed something to traverse the rocky terrain. I’m at your disposal, Master Reikhle.”
Palt didn’t gallop all the way to the Bloodfields, but he was still breathing hard when he arrived. Even a Centaur took a while to get there, and he did not like rocky inclines. But he made it. Just in time to hear Montressa’s voice.
“No. No. Nononononono—what are they doing?”
The [Aegiscaster] was staring down at the road. At the ten skeletons hard at work, helping create a smooth incline for the road to ramp upwards. She was white-faced, pale.
“Montressa, it’s alright. It’s just skeletons. [Calm]—”
Palt reached for her. The young woman slapped his hands away. She stared around.
“Are you seeing this? They’re using undead! They’re using his undead!”
“I see it. Idiots.”
Isceil spat over the cliff. Beza just shook her head.
“Like using Golems. Don’t they see those things will take away their jobs?”
“I don’t know. There’s work to go round. And it’s not much worse than Golems, is it?”
Ulinde flinched as Montressa whirled on her. The young woman’s eyes were wide.
“They’re monsters. Both of them! You can’t trust—they’re letting him do it.”
“It’s only ten skeletons. I could take them out without even using my hands.”
Beza began, but Montressa wasn’t listening. She pointed, hands shaking.
“I’m going to stop it. They don’t know—they don’t see what’s going to happen!”
“Montressa! Nothing’s going to happen! This isn’t Wistram!”
Palt panted, catching his breath. He felt annoyed at having to work so hard. But—this was it. He looked at her.
“Montressa, it’s over. You need to stop fixating on Pisces.”
“What? No it’s not. We’ll go down there. Now. Everyone on me.”
She turned to him distractedly. Palt shook his head. he saw Ulinde, Beza, and Isceil look up.
“It’s over, Montressa. You can’t go after Pisces anymore. Or the Horns. Wistram is going to reduce the bounty on his head. From two thousand coins to two hundred. Not commute—but they’re also rescinding the order to bring him in. You don’t have a mandate anymore. It’s over.”
For a moment Montressa didn’t hear Palt. Then her eyes went wide.
“Ask your faction. The order should have come in by now. It’s resolved. As is the matter with Erin Solstice. She’s…being allowed to stay.”
Palt trotted backwards. Isceil and Beza traded glances as Ulinde twiddled her claws. Montressa put a dazed hand to her temple. Then her eyes focused on Palt. They narrowed; she wasn’t an idiot. Slowly, the young woman took a step forwards.
“You. You did this.”
“Is Erin Solstice coming back to Wistram?”
Beza stared at Palt. He shook his head, warily.
“It’s too costly politically to abduct her. And I’m sure she won’t leave of her own volition. There are some deals Wistram can make that will benefit the Academy even if she remains where she is. So the other factions have decided—”
“You bastard! You got to her first!”
Isceil shot to his feet as the penny dropped. Beza growled.
“You went behind our backs?”
“The Ullsinoi faction—”
“Damn them! What about our groups?”
“I don’t think they mind, given that you’re still banned from her inn and the first thing you did was start a fight that ended in your arrest!”
Palt snapped back, losing his temper. Isceil and Beza squared off as Ulinde turned her head. Beza glanced at the Selphid.
“Ulinde, you sold us out?”
“I didn’t! I just thought—Palt was the only one who can talk to Miss Erin! So he made a deal—”
“This isn’t over! We want that Earther too! I’m going to go back to that inn—”
“Go ahead. If she doesn’t blind you with curry, you can pitch her any deal you want.”
Beza snorted furiously, Montressa was swaying on her feet, staring down at Pisces.
“Do we get anything from this, Palt? Or is it just you stabbing us in the side?”
“Sorry, Beza. It’s nothing personal. But I saw an opportunity to benefit my faction and took it. I’ll support you on another Earther, like this ‘batman’, but this one’s ours. She wouldn’t leave the inn. It won’t help your faction either way. So—look, I did what was best. We can’t go after Pisces anyways. You know that, Beza.”
She opened her mouth and the Centaur kept talking. No spells—you couldn’t [Charm] fellow [Mages]. He didn’t need to, anyways. He was using facts and truth to do his persuasion.
“Do you really want to wait for them to leave Liscor and ambush them? That’s cowardly, Beza. We’d have to fight to the death and they’re dangerous. Montressa, it’s done.”
The Minotauress shifted uncertainly. But a flicker of relief showed in her eyes at Palt’s arguments. Isceil was still furious.
“You cut us out!”
“I’ll make it up to you! What do you want, Isceil? Secrets? Gold? But we’re not going to loiter here for weeks or months fixating on one team and trying to persuade an angry [Innkeeper] while risking fighting an entire city! Ulinde agreed to back me.”
“That’s right. It’s—it’s going to be alright. This is the best solution. And we can stay here a few days. I want to talk with the Halfseekers. And that Pisces helped save the adventurers. So…”
A noise came from behind Palt. He turned. Montressa was staring at him blankly.
“Montressa. I’m sorry. You can say whatever you want. But—”
The word came from her white face. Montressa stared at Palt, her eyes huge in their sockets. The Centaur paused.
“Montressa, that’s an order. From your faction. Ask them. They’ll contact you.”
“No. I’m not going to walk away.”
The other [Mages] paused. Beza stirred uneasily. Montressa was too still. And she wasn’t blinking. She looked at Beza, then Isceil.
“He’s a monster. You came with me to hunt him down. You promised.”
Isceil flicked his tongue out uncertainly.
“Yeah, but if the Academy’s pulled their order—”
“I didn’t get it.”
Montressa turned. Palt exclaimed.
“Ask them! Montressa!”
“I didn’t get it. So I’m going to do what I came here to do.”
“You can’t do that—”
Montressa whirled. She planted her staff and Palt saw the magic flare too late. The bolt of reduced lightning was still a bolt and it knocked him flat off his hooves.
“Montressa! You can’t—”
Beza froze as Montressa aimed the staff at her. Montressa spoke dreamily. But Palt, looking up, dazed, trying to breathe, saw too late that he’d made a mistake. The young woman had snapped. Montressa du Valeross looked at Isceil and Beza.
“I’m going to get him. And you’re going to help me. If you get in my way, I’ll hurt you. But you promised, Beza. He’s a monster. A murderer. Are you coming or not?”
The Minotauress paused. She looked at Isceil. The [Oldblood Magus] hesitated. Then he got to his feet.
Ulinde was fumbling for a healing potion as she knelt by Palt. The Drake looked at her. He bared his teeth in an apologetic smile.
“I agree with Montressa. And I have a score to settle. Let’s go.”
He turned. Montressa leapt from the rocks. Beza turned. She wavered. Palt gasped something at her.
The Minotauress looked down at him. Then she shook her head.
“Some things you can’t forgive. Don’t get in our way.”
She turned and followed. Palt struggled to his hooves.
It was supposed to be a wonderful day.
Ceria was smiling, watching Pisces working. And the [Necromancer] was working. He had ten skeletons and an undead horse moving, helping the road’s construction. The other workers were wary, but the undead worked silently and without rest. Master Reikhle was already thinking of ways to send them ahead so he wouldn’t have to look at them.
“Clear the road in advance. Yes, we could do that.”
“They creep me the hell out.”
Walt muttered. And his voice was far from the only one expressing the same sentiment. But—the undead were there. Not killing anyone. People saw what Pisces was doing. And that was enough. Ceria thought it was enough.
But then someone called out. At first, all the adventurers shot up. But Hauntgheist and the other teams had barely begun their circuit outside the Bloodfields. There was no danger from them.
But down it came. Out of the mountains. Leaping from rock to rock, slowed by the [Featherfall] spell. Ceria’s heart lurched as she saw her old friend.
Montressa du Valeross. Followed by Isceil and Beza. No—Palt and Ulinde were following, but slower. The three [Mages] strode towards the construction site.
“Hey! This is our site! You can’t just—”
A [Taskmaster] strode up, angry at the unexpected visitors. Montressa raised her staff. Lightening shot from the brass orb orbiting it, earthing feet from the Gnoll. He ran backwards, alarmed.
“Oh hells, she doesn’t look happy. Pisces—”
“I see her. Ksmvr! Get over here!”
Yvlon checked her sword, taking hold of it. Pisces turned and the undead slowed. They collapsed, bones flowing back towards him. Master Reikhle shouted in fury. But then he turned and saw.
Ceria found herself drawing her wand. Her instincts told her to do so. Not just them either. Her [Dangersense] was going off again.
“Steady. It’s those Wistram bastards.”
Walt looked around, cursing. But the other adventurers had seen Montressa’s face. Stan pulled a crossbow out.
“If they’re after your team, Ceria—”
“We can’t fight Wistram [Mages]!”
“If they’re attacking us, it’s a damn war!”
Ceria shook her head.
“No one’s fighting. Pisces, Ksmvr, Yvlon, on me. We’re going to meet them.”
“Should I strike first, Captain Ceria?”
The Antinium tilted his head, eying Stan’s crossbow. The [Cryomancer] shook her head.
“No one’s starting anything! But be ready—”
“We’re coming with you. They’re not attacking you again. Liscor’s laid down the law and you haven’t done anything wrong! Whistling Bows, on me!”
Captain Kam snapped. Her team mounted up. Stan waved his hand.
“Boltspitters, to the side.”
“Hold on! This isn’t—”
The word split the air. Montressa pointed her staff at him. And the Horns walked forwards. Ceria was on Pisces’ left, Yvlon his right. Ksmvr stood next to Yvlon, his bow in two hands, the Forceshield in his third.
They met in the grass, two hundred feet from the road. In the distance the Bloodfields waited. But Montressa had no eyes for the road or the Bloodfields. She only looked at Pisces.
“Montressa. What do you want?”
The young woman didn’t reply to Ceria’s tight voice. She just stared at Pisces. And her gaze was hateful, angry. And also lost. She looked past Ceria, at the dozens of adventurers standing warily at their backs. Isceil and Beza were eying the small army nervously. But Montressa’s gaze found Pisces’ again. She shook her head slowly.
“Well done. Good job, Pisces. You did it. Again.”
“I did what, exactly?”
Pisces’ hand was on his rapier. He met Isceil’s eyes and fury drew the air taut between them. But Montressa—her hand tightened on her staff.
“You don’t even know? That’s funny. Apparently, the bounty on you is being reduced. And the Academy is abandoning their pursuit of you. I’m going to get orders not to bring you in.”
Ceria’s chest untightened suddenly. She smiled, looking at Yvlon. The [Wounded Warrior] didn’t’ take her eyes off Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] shook her head.
“Palt did it. He betrayed me. He—and that [Innkeeper] of yours.”
“I didn’t ask them to. But I am not your enemy, Montressa. I told you, what occurred was an accident. No—my fault. But I never intended it. I am sorry.”
Pisces’ voice was strained. Beza snorted. Montressa’s level voice never changed.
“No you’re not. But it’s funny—I believe you didn’t do anything to Palt or Erin. Because you didn’t have to. Look at you. You’re making undead to help build this road. And you got the Academy to lift its bounty on you. Well done. How do you do it?”
Montressa didn’t seem to hear Ceria. She looked at Pisces.
“You tricked them. Everyone. All these people—Erin, Palt—everyone. For a little while. And because they trust you—because they help you—they’ll die. You’ll ruin them all. Because that’s what you do. Someday, you’ll show them who you are. And they’ll die, or they’ll suffer. Because of you.”
“That’s not true. Montressa. You’re overreacting.”
“Stop! Montressa! The Academy has ordered you not to pursue Pisces! Everyone, listen to me! Montressa and the [Mages] here have no authority to take Pisces Jealnet in!”
Palt caught up at last with Ulinde. He was clutching at the scorch mark on his chest. The adventurers stared at him. Montressa ignored the Centaur.
“I’m not going to let you go, Pisces.”
“You have no authority here, [Mage]. We’re adventurers and this is an adventuring team. You want to kidnap one of us, you go through all of us.”
Kam snapped. She drew on her bow and Beza and Isceil tensed. Montressa stared at her, then past her. The adventurers were undecided—but over half put their hands on their weapons. They had heard about the ambush at the bar. And—they looked at Pisces.
Alais lifted her staff. Walt drew his mace. Ceria looked around as the Silver-rank teams aimed at the Wistram [Mages]. Montressa’s face, already pale, drained of all color.
“You tricked them too. How do you do it?”
“I tricked no one, Montressa. I am not the evil creature you make me out to be.”
Pisces voice was shaking with restrained emotion. People were looking at him and Montressa. She shook her head.
“No. No! You’re a [Necromancer]. That’s what you are! A liar! A thief! A murderer! You bring back the dead! You twist them!”
“Enough! He’s not one thing! He’s not like Az’kerash! I’m tired of you slandering my teammate!”
Yvlon snapped. She half-drew her sword. Isceil’s wand appeared his claws. Two dozen adventurers aimed at him and he froze. Montressa didn’t even see them, though. She pointed at Pisces with her free hand. And her voice was rising, turning into a scream.
“You can’t hide what you are! [Necromancer]. That’s what your class is! That’s what you are! Monsters! And you create only suffering!”
“Montressa, it’s not true! It was an acc—”
The young woman’s staff glowed. Ceria saw Kam draw hard on her bow and raised a hand. But Beza grabbed Montressa’s staff.
“Montressa. We’re outnumbered. We can’t do this.”
The Minotauress was looking at the sea of faces and the adventurers. Montressa fought her, but then relaxed. She went quiet again. And she stared at Pisces.
“Again. You got away again. But it doesn’t matter.”
She looked at Pisces, and Ceria saw madness in her eyes. Not insanity, but grief and loss, spiraling. Montressa’s finger shook. And she was screaming at Pisces as her friends dragged her back.
“You can’t hide what you are! They’ll see! They’ll see I was right! All of you—don’t trust him! He’ll kill you! He’ll turn! That’s what he is!”
“Come on. Don’t listen to her, Pisces.”
Yvlon grabbed at the [Necromancer]’s arm. She tried to turn Pisces. He was staring at Montressa. Slowly, he turned, seeing the adventurers staring at him and the Wistram [Mages]. He began to walk back. Montressa was still screaming. Ceria turned to follow her team.
“I won’t stop! Someday, I’ll bring you down! I’ll show everyone what you are. You think that bounty is for show? You won’t be safe! Not you, or anyone who tries to protect you! No matter where you run and hide! No matter who protects you! You murderer! [Necromancer]!”
The word struck Pisces and he staggered. He turned back and Ceria grabbed for his other side.
“Pisces. Let her go.”
He moved forwards. Yvlon grabbed at him and Pisces turned to her. Their eyes met for a moment and she let go.
Beza and Isceil froze as they dragged Montressa backwards. The adventurers turned as Pisces stepped forwards. He looked around. In the distance, Ijvani stared down at him. Az’kerash listened.
Pisces spoke slowly, not to Montressa, but to everyone. He paused, and the words came haltingly, painfully, not like his usual, sophisticated drawl.
“[Necromancer]. What a filthy word. It describes me. Pisces Jealnet, [Necromancer]. And you think you know what I am. But in truth, none of you comprehend what’s in my being. Even if you believe you do—you do not.”
He looked around, meeting Ksmvr’s eyes. Ceria’s. Yvlon’s. The adventurers, Montressa and her team, they all stared at Pisces. He touched his chest.
“There is neither pure malice here. Nor altruism. I am a [Necromancer]. But I am also Human. I am a [Mage]! And a person. I love, I weep. I make mistakes. So many errors they define me. Because I cannot outrun the past. Adventurer—hero—it doesn’t matter what I become, does it? For I will always be one thing: [Necromancer]. And yet you do not know what it means! None of you know!”
He whirled. And his voice was rough, his eyes furious. Pisces pointed, not at one person, but everyone.
“I’m sick of it all. You don’t understand me. And that is fine. Who here in this world truly knows someone? But my class is an indictment, a curse! You may find it appalling, what I do. You may hate the idea of what I am capable of. But why, why is it a crime? Tell me. When did being me, being a [Necromancer] become a sin? I have done many terrible things. But when I was judged, it was first for what I am.”
The young man drew a shuddering breath.
“Necromancy. You want to know why I practice it? Because I am good at it. Because I want to use it! Because it is what I love! There is no greater reason. None. But even if I did nothing with it, I would be hunted. And that is not fair. It was never—fair.”
He paused. And his eyes found Montressa.
“I have been a liar, a thief, a fool, and yes, I have let good people die. I have killed. And I have done many things, good and ill. But I have never thought of myself as a villain. But that is what you make us, Montressa. You—you and everyone who looks at our classes before our very souls. Even when we hide, you drag us out. Hunt us down like beasts. [Necromancer]! Monster! As if we cast away our humanity by practicing a different kind of magic! If we lost anything, it was because we were chased by you all!”
He shouted, his voice raw with emotion and pain. Ceria felt her heart shaking. Her eyes stung. Because Pisces’ were overfull. He clutched at his chest.
“I wish I could show you. Show you my soul, to prove it was there! I have never wanted to be anything but good. And yet, I found myself sinking lower because all I did turned to dust. Because wherever I tried to extend a hand to help, I was stabbed by prejudice in fear. Until I looked like the very thing you called me. Until I believed I was a monster myself. It was so hard to remember who I am.”
The [Necromancer] bowed his head. And he wiped at his eyes.
“I am different. But I wish I could just exist and it would not hurt you all. But it seems I cannot live in this world so easily. I never wished to be this. I dreamed of being a hero. I thought I could become one, regardless of who I was. When did I go so far astray?”
Far away, Az’kerash half-stood. He stared at Ijvani’s projection of the young man, and his hand rose. Searching for the place where his heart lay. And he saw Pisces turn, looking at Montressa. Her eyes were filled with empty hatred. Pisces stared at her. And he sighed, his voice exhausted.
“Montressa. I’m so very weary of it all. Exhausted, of the chase. Of being me. But most of all, watching the good people suffer for what you and your kind do. Watching trust turn to ash. I—I am a poor friend, a worse man. But [Necromancers] are not one and the same. If we are monsters, some of it was what the world shaped us into!”
He reached for the rapier at his side. And drew it. The steel glinted in the sun of another day. Pisces spoke slowly, staring at the blade in his hands.
“It’s been too long. I, running, and you, chasing. Unable to forget. So. Let’s end it, Mons. This old mistake between us. I am Pisces Jealnet, a [Mage] of Wistram. [Necromancer]. And I challenge you to a duel.”
Pisces pointed at Montressa. Beza let go of Montressa. Ceria breathed.
“I accept! Let’s finish this!”
Montressa grabbed her staff and strode forwards. Isceil followed her. Ceria cried out. Pisces’ face was pale as Montressa’s. But his eyes held a terrible truth. A certainty. And Montressa—she stepped forwards, and Ceria saw death in her eyes.
“No. Yvlon, help me. Ksmvr! Pisces—you can’t!”
The [Ice Mage] grabbed at Pisces’ arm. But Yvlon stepped past Ceria, knocking her arm aside.
“They won’t stop. Pisces is right, Ceria.”
She drew her sword. The adventurers fell back as Yvlon lifted the enchanted blade in both hands. She pointed at Beza.
“Come on, Minotaur. Come, or don’t haunt our backs ever again. If you believe what your friend says. If you want to take Pisces—step forwards. Because you’ll go through me.”
“This is a duel!”
Beza hesitated. Yvlon’s gaze never wavered. The same fury in Montressa’s eyes was reflected in hers.
“Then let it be. Between our teams. Step forwards or forswear hunting Pisces! I’m tired too. He hasn’t deserved this. Come on! What about you? Or you?”
She pointed at Palt and Ulinde. The Centaur backed up.
“No. Montressa, pull back.”
“I—I can’t. Palt is right. Beza!”
The Minotauress hesitated. But then Isceil spoke up. He lifted his wand and walked up next to Montressa. He pointed with his free hand at Ceria.
“They still tell stories about a monster who was one of our Archmages. He had friends, until they saw what he was. But they did see when they looked. His evil heart. His wretched lies. Step aside, half-Elf. I see a monster.”
“Stop! The Academy won’t allow it!”
Palt tried to trot forwards. But Beza’s arm stopped him. The Minotauress had made her decision. She reached for the scrolls at her belt.
“Honor matters more than the laws of Wistram, Palt. I’ve seen the death this creature caused. And others like him. I don’t believe him. And I won’t let my team fight alone.”
“Pisces. You can’t do this.”
“Then I should let her attack again? Attack Erin? Look at her, Ceria. She will do anything. I won’t let it happen.”
Ceria looked. Montressa stared at her, wild-eyed. She had lost something. Slowly, in a dream of her own, Ceria let go of Pisces’ sleeve. She looked around.
“Step back, then. Alais. Stan.”
“Ceria! You can’t do this.”
“I’m not letting Pisces die.”
How did it come to this? But look—look at her eyes. Ceria had seen a reflection of them somewhere. Where?
Illphres. Do or die. Montressa would never give up. Something was broken in her. Or—she was gone. Even if Ceria ran, she’d attack. Where had her friend gone? Ceria looked for her, but she couldn’t find the girl she knew.
The adventurers were hesitating. Stan looked around.
“Move back! Clear the area!”
“We can’t let them duel—”
“It’s that or fight. Neither’s backing down. Look at them, Alais. Get out of range! They use lightning spells!”
The adventurers were falling backwards as the Horns and the Wistram [Mages] slowly walked to the right. Towards the Blood Fields, away from the road.
“I’ll take Beza.”
Yvlon’s voice was cold. Ceria looked at her, then at Pisces.
“It doesn’t have to be like—”
She looked at Isceil and her voice trailed off. The Drake was aiming his wand at Pisces’ heart, a smile on his face. Ceria took a breath.
“I’ll stop the Drake, then.”
Pisces’ face was pale. He looked at Montressa. To the side, Ksmvr looked at Palt and Ulinde. He aimed the bow in their direction.
“Is it battle, then? You are both off-guard. And I understand that killing you before a duel has begun would be considered improper. I would not wish to disgrace my team.”
“What? No. We have to stop this!”
Palt cried out. He was going over the list of his spells, desperately, but he knew Montressa’s abilities. Ksmvr nodded.
“I see. In that case—I am content to watch also. If you move, I will kill you.”
The Centaur froze. Ulinde turned. Ksmvr aimed the bow straight between her eyes. The adventurers scattered around them.
“No! We have to stop them!”
She tried to step left, but Ksmvr pulled and she froze. Palt raised his hands.
“Look—Ksmvr? We need to stop our team. Let us go and—”
“No. I do not believe you.”
“We’ll pull them apart! Don’t you—why don’t you believe us?”
The Antinium tilted his head.
“Because that is what I would say to allay suspicion before I killed both of you in a surprise attack. Move and I will shoot.”
“They’re going to die. This is madness.”
The [Skirmisher]’s voice was calm.
“No, it was inevitable, I think. Your leader, Montressa, is beyond reason. So Pisces must kill her.”
“She could kill him! You don’t know Montressa—”
Ksmvr shook his head. He never turned his head as the five [Mages] and Yvlon took their distance.
“He will not lose. My teammates will not fall, any of them. Or I would be in error. And my reason for living would be torn away. Watch.”
They did. Stan was arguing with Ceria, trying to convince her to halt. But it wasn’t in the half-Elf’s control. Pisces stood apart from Montressa. Yvlon was advancing towards Beza at a walk as the Minotaur read from her scrolls. Isceil pointed his wand at Ceria.
“Move clear, adventurers. This is a duel. Between all present. A duel of honor, which is more than the [Necromancer] deserves.”
“You bastard. Didn’t you hear a word he said? Get away, Stan.”
The old adventurer retreated, shaking his head. Ceria had drawn her own wand. Ice formed along the tip as she aimed it angrily at Isceil. The Drake sneered.
“I heard pretty lies. Anyone can lie, half-Elf. Even to truth spells. And everyone’s a victim in their own book.”
“Montressa. You can walk away. Promise me. The Academy doesn’t want me. It’s you. Swear not to come after me. Swear. Please.”
Pisces looked at Montressa. For a moment, Ceria saw the rage clear in Montressa’s eyes. She looked at him, and hesitated. Fear and loathing and anger. But it wasn’t enough. She shook her head and lifted her staff.
“Me? How could I believe you?”
Pisces bowed his head.
“Yes. How could you?”
There was no signal. Yvlon’s pace accelerated as Beza’s sixth scroll scrambled to dust in her hands. The Minotaur began advancing, her fists clenched. She was wearing a shining, glowing magical gauntlet about her own fists and she moved too quickly. Ceria looked at Pisces and Montressa. They were still. The orb was rotating slowly around Montressa’s staff as the magic gathered about both.
Ksmvr’s voice was a warning. Ceria jerked her head up. The first [Fireball] shot towards her face. She flung herself left as she screamed.
The fire struck ice. The explosion hurled Ceria to the ground. And then it was battle.
The workers at the road stared. Master Builder Reikhle snarled, watching the battle.
But no one could stop it. The duel between the two teams had begun. Montressa conjured a barrier as Pisces leapt—he appeared in front of her, slashing with his rapier and blasting fire. The magic and steel glanced harmlessly off her barrier. She shot lightning and he dodged the bolt.
Yvlon and Beza were trading blows. The Minotauress was inhumanly quick, but Yvlon’s sword was heavier than even Beza’s punches. Yvlon staggered as a punch hit her armor—Beza’s arm was deflected by a heavy cut. Her Sword of Weight would have gone through the Minotaur’s arm without the magical armor and the [Stone Skin] enchantment.
But it was Ceria’s and Isceil’s duel that was the most mortal. The Oldblood Drake had conjured a barrier of his own, but weaker than Montressa’s. He was firing spells from his wand and breathing flame. It melted the [Ice Walls] Ceria was conjuring. She was running, firing [Ice Spikes], but outmatched by the sheer firepower Isceil was throwing her way.
Another [Ice Wall], three feet thick, began to melt as Isceil exhaled burning flames. Then he switched to acid. Ceria’s [Ice Armor] began to melt and she screamed and conjured another wall, blocking the deadly acid.
“Surrender, half-Elf! I am Oldblood! I call on the power of Dragons! What can you—”
Isceil swore and dove sideways as five [Ice Spikes] shattered on his barrier. The flickering aura of magic went out and he desperately raised it again. Ceria lowered her skeletal hand and conjured more [Ice Walls] between them, creating disposable shields. Her jaw worked for a moment. Then she pointed her wand and her skeletal finger.
Shards of ice blew apart Isceil’s second barrier. He fired back, dodging, weaving—he could use [Flash Step] too! But if he had mobility—Ceria’s training with Grimalkin had paid off. She was raising thick walls of ice, preventing him from aiming at her. And the last layer of defense—the armor of ice on her skin—had stopped all of his spells.
“Your little ice walls can’t stop me!”
Isceil bellowed. He conjured a wall of stone as Ceria shot spells at him. She aimed a [Fireball] and he inhaled.
The explosion blew the stone wall to bits. It rained on Isceil’s barrier and he flinched. But then he exhaled.
A firestorm of air and flames blasted forth. Two elements. It hit Ceria’s walls of ice like a shockwave, blowing the half-Elf off her feet. She landed, feeling the heat pierce even her icy armor. Blisters rose on her arms as she shielded her face. As she rolled over, she saw her terrain had melted. She—
A spear made out of obsidian hit her in the chest. Ceria fell back as the adventurers shouted.
Kam screamed. She saw the half-Elf jerk as Isceil crowed. A barrier of ice grew around Ceria. She reached for a potion, smashed it on her chest. Rolled away as the next [Fireball] blew her cover to bits.
“She’s losing. Let us go!”
Palt stared at Ksmvr. The Antinium was hesitating. He stared at Ceria.
“She will not lose.”
His voice trembled a bit. Ceria was rising to her feet, shooting [Ice Spikes] at Isceil. Walt turned to Alais. His team was tense, and he saw hers was watching the fight.
“Can she take him, Alais?”
“I don’t know! They’re both better than me! Ceria’s got aim and she can make ice walls, but he’s got too many powerful spells! We have to stop this!”
Uncertainly, she raised her staff, but Walt grabbed her.
“It’s a duel! We can’t interfere!”
“Hells to that!”
Alais snapped, but by her side, Stan shook his head. He had a crossbow in one hand and was watching.
“Hold on, Alais.”
“Neither side’s in danger yet. They’re both equally matched. Wait. If we stop them, it’ll just turn into a feud later. Watch—and pray the Horns win. If we step in, it has to be at the right moment.”
Alais hesitated. Then she heard a roar. Isceil had inhaled for another breath attack and Ceria had pointed both wand and fingers.
Six [Ice Spikes] hit the Drake’s barrier and one got through. He stumbled backwards, swearing, as one of the deadly shards of ice struck him in the chest. Alais expected him to fall. But—the Drake regained his balance.
“Armor spells. You can’t take me, half-Elf!”
He snarled as he shot a volley of magical bolts back at Ceria. The half-Elf didn’t respond. She was ducking forwards, conjuring more walls of ice. Isceil darted left, inhaling again—
He ran over a patch of ice and slipped. His blast of lightning shot into the air and some of the arcs lanced downwards towards the adventurers wearing armor. They moved back even further as Isceil tried to roll to his feet. And Ceria ran.
“She’s going into close range!”
The [Cryomancer] shoulder-charged the Drake as he got up. His first spell cracked her [Ice Armor], but then she was on him. Ceria advanced, slashing with the dagger in her hand. The Drake backed up, cursing, wide-eyed.
“This is a duel! You call yourself a [Mag—”
He ducked a cut and aimed his wand. Ceria felt the flames engulf her, but the Drake was too unsteady to use more than a Tier 2 spell.
She tackled the Drake to the ground and then they were rolling. She slashed and bit, magical spells blasting from both wands. The Drake tried to fight her off. Beza and Yvlon raced past them, fighting, ducking back. Yvlon grunted as she ducked one of Beza’s swings. But the Minotauress was wary of her sword. Twice, Yvlon had slashed her down to the bone.
“What is that sword? It’s nearly cutting that Minotauress in half!”
Walt exclaimed. Yvlon’s sword flashed as Beza ducked back. But then she charged in and copied Ceria’s move. Yvlon went sprawling back as Beza tried to grab her. But the Minotauress couldn’t grapple; Yvlon’s fist caught her in the face and the [Wounded Warrior] got up. Her slash nearly cut Beza’s horns off.
Lightning flashed past Yvlon, some of it earthing on her armor. Yvlon staggered, turning. Montressa blasted more lightning and both Beza and Yvlon sprang clear. Pisces was a blur, avoiding lightning, throwing spells back at Montressa. But theirs was a stalemate.
“Stay away! Stay away!”
Montressa was screaming at the [Necromancer] as she blasted another skeleton apart. She screamed, wildly sweeping her staff and blowing a Bone Horror to pieces. She was enmeshed in her barrier spells which soaked up each of Pisces’ attacks. Each time he took down one of the outer layers she conjured another one. It was a stalemate. She couldn’t hit him yet and he—
He ducked in, slashing across Montressa’s face. She recoiled, caught herself as her barrier flashed—aimed her staff. Pisces disappeared. But then one of the skeletons rose. Montressa’s shriek was followed by a [Chain Lighting] spell. It blasted the bones so far away that it nearly hit the observers. The [Aegiscaster] was panicking as Pisces harassed her with undead.
“He’s baiting her spells with the undead. Trying to wear her down. That’s the only way.”
Ulinde whispered. The Selphid had the best view and eye for the battle. The [Spellslinger] watched as Palt clenched his hands. He couldn’t move; Ksmvr was aiming at both him and Ulinde and the Centaur couldn’t race an arrow.
“We have to stop—damn.”
In their rolling brawl, Isceil finally got a leg under Ceria’s stomach. He kicked her off him and the half-Elf stumbled up. She looked for Isceil as the Drake muttered a word.
He vanished in a cloud of dust. Ceria cursed and raised [Ice Walls], shooting spikes wildly with her skeletal hand. She whirled, creating her own stationary barrier. The adventurers coughed, moving backwards. Ceria looked around—
“Captain! To your left!”
She turned too late. Isceil’s lightning shattered the ice wall. The half-Elf aimed her wand, and the Drake closed his maw. He pointed his and the [Delayed Fireball] flew.
This time the explosion engulfed the ice barrier. Ksmvr made a sound. Ceria was lying on the ground. The [Ice Armor] had caught most of the spell, but she was dazed. Isceil aimed his wand at her as she threw up a hand.
The black bolt of magic hit Isceil from behind. It passed through him, bursting out of his chest. Isceil fell forwards. Yvlon stopped. Montressa’s eyes went wide as Ceria rolled to her feet.
Ksmvr’s head turned. Behind the Drake, Pisces lowered his finger.
Isceil fell to one knee, face white. Ceria looked up and Pisces dodged a huge comet as Montressa screamed, firing spells with both her wand and the brass orb. Ceria looked up at Pisces. Isceil raised his wand as the [Necromancer] appeared, conjuring a barrier.
Pisces looked down at his ring. [Shatterbolt]. He hadn’t used it on Montressa. He couldn’t. But Isceil? The Drake looked up, stood, shakily.
The [Necromancer] didn’t reply. He just set his stance, preparing to lunge. The Drake reached for a potion, wand at the ready.
Montressa screamed at Pisces, but her barriers kept her locked in place. She took a step, unsure, and saw Ceria advancing towards her. The [Ice Mage] met Montressa’s eyes. She smiled bitterly.
“Hey, Mons. Let’s settle this. Team captain to captain.”
Montressa looked at Ceria. The half-Elf looked at her. For a moment they remembered. Ceria’s voice was low.
“I should have said this all that time ago. He’s not perfect. And he never was. But he is my friend. If you want to hurt him, I’ll stop you.”
“You don’t understand what he is.”
Ceria shook her head. She looked at Montressa, with pity in her eyes. And she raised her wand.
“No. I don’t think you do. And you’ll kill him? You’ve gone mad. Come on, Montressa. Let’s settle our pasts.”
She lifted her wand. Palt kicked himself.
“Madness. She probably lost her grip when she saw the undead! We can [Calm] her. Ulinde! Ksmvr! Let me go to her! She’s not thinking!”
The Antinium looked at Palt. He hesitated.
“That is a very good try. I almost believe you. Don’t move.”
“Bevussa. I think I see movement ahead.”
The Garuda froze as Kin halted in the dungeon. The Drake [Mage] aimed her wand ahead.
Bevussa instantly warned her team. They clutched the magical amulets they’d bought. Zassil and Issa flew back, out of range. Bevussa hunkered down, ready to move. She waited—
And a masked, clothed figure appeared around a corner. Bevussa stared, and then she relaxed.
“Dead gods! You scared us!”
The masked warrior waved at Bevussa. The Garuda waved her forwards. She recognized the clothed body and the mask.
“We haven’t seen you in over a week. Where were you? Are you alright? We have to talk. Can you write? I’ve brought parchment and ink—”
She paused. The Garuda stared as the masked woman jogged forwards. Something was—off. Kin paused.
“Hey, does her mask look different to you, Captain?”
Bevussa instantly raised her shortsword. The masked warrior stopped. She tilted her head. Bevussa stared at her. It was dark in the dungeon, lit only by Kin’s [Light] spells. But the mask was indeed different.
Now it was a question. The woman nodded. But Bevussa looked at Kin. The mask was different. This one looked crude. Made of wood. It was more like a slat with eye holes.
“Stay where you are. Kin, this might be an imposter. Zassil, Issa—”
Bevussa turned her head. And the masked figure charged. Bevussa’s head snapped back up. She swore, her sword swinging up.
“Kin, get back—”
The masked woman lunged. Her sword blurred. Bevussa’s eyes went wide. She jerked backwards. Only a sweep of her wings kept her out of range as the masked warrior reappeared, her sword slashing at where Bevussa’s throat had been.
[Mirage Cut]. The Garuda cursed and lunged in. She knocked the woman’s blade back, using her aerial mobility to throw the warrior off balance.
“What’s wrong with you? Stop! Stop or I’ll—”
The stranger slashed. And Bevussa’s sword blurred. She buried her enchanted shortsword in the woman’s chest. Kin gasped, scrambling backwards. Bevussa stopped.
“I’m sorry. I—”
The masked woman looked down at the sword. Then Toren pulled off the mask. His eyes flashed. Bevussa stared into the skeleton’s grinning face as the enchantment hit her.
[Fear]. She choked, cold, icy fear running through her.
Toren’s enchanted blade took her in the stomach. He stared into Bevussa’s eyes. Saw them go round with shock. Ah, yes. That was what it looked like when they died. He’d almost forgotten.
He hummed a tune in his head as he twisted the sword. Bevussa made a choking sound and Toren put a foot on her chest.
The Drake [Mage] screamed. She lifted her wand, aiming at Toren. He dodged, and the ray of magic went past his chest. Zassil and Issa flew forwards, shouting. Toren pointed, and from around the corner bounded Ghouls. Two dozen of them.
The hallways turned to confusion. Bevussa was gaping at Toren, gagging with pain as he twisted the blade in her stomach. The Ghouls swarmed past her, attacking her team. Toren kicked her off the blade as the Wings of Pallass screamed and fought the undead suddenly overrunning them. He inspected Bevussa as she fell back, weakly grasping her shortsword.
It hadn’t been that deep a cut. Toren hadn’t been able to run her completely through. She had tough…feathers. Oh well. Toren wasn’t about to stick around for the fight. He pointed and a Ghoul leapt on Bevussa. And Toren walked on. He pulled his mask back into place, leaving the Wings of Pallass.
“Undead attack! Form up! Where are the Wings of Pallass?”
Three corridors down, Toren strolled past a team of adventurers fighting for their lives. They called out to him to help. He walked past them. The undead were storming the tunnels. Toren had brought them from his inn. His fake inn. He’d opened the metal door and let them out. How many?
All of them. The Crypt Lords led an army of the undead through the tunnels. Thousands, falling upon the Gold and Silver-rank teams. Even so, it was a familiar fight. Toren had seen it happen once and there was no huge flesh-pit this time or the crawling undead.
“Hold the line!”
At one point, the undead splintered and broke on a wall of flames. Toren avoided that tunnel, but he saw the unit of Drakes holding there.
Keldrass. And his second-in-command was wearing the Heartflame Breastplate. Between the Siegespell Armor and the Heartflame Breastplate, the Flamewardens of Pallass were holding the line, surrounded by the undead. If Toren’s goal had been to kill the adventurers, he would have been disappointed.
But it wasn’t. Toren passed through the tunnels, followed by a smaller group of undead under his personal control. The adventurers were too busy to stop him. And too busy to stop what happened next.
Toren arrived in the section of the dungeon where the roof had collapsed. He looked up, and saw the ropes leading upwards. Light shone down. Toren stared up. He had missed the sky. Slowly, he took off the mask. The clothing. They were just props. Hers. And he was all that remained.
The skeleton seized one of the ropes. A team of Ghouls and a Crypt Lord held the entry point as Toren began to climb. Alone. They advanced back into the dungeon, cutting the adventurers off. It didn’t matter that they’d probably be destroyed.
Toren climbed. He felt the magic of the dungeon leave him. Felt himself began to bleed magic. But he had enough in his bones. If he didn’t die, he wouldn’t…die.
He kept climbing. Soon, he was at the top. Toren looked down into the dungeon and listened to the screams and shouts from below. He nodded and looked around. The Flood Plains waited. And in the distance—a small building on the hill. The purple flames in the skeleton’s eyes narrowed into pinpricks of light. He stared down into the dungeon.
Slowly, Toren drew his sword. He went to the anchors that held the ropes the adventurers had descended on. And he cut the ropes one by one. Then Toren turned. Today he’d find out if the rumors were true. He walked towards the inn. Towards home. He wondered if she were there. He was coming home today.
Captain Pelico, Silver-rank team Captain of Hauntgheist, was leading his team around the Bloodfields, scouting the area where Walt’s team had fallen prey to the spores. His team was keeping a vigilant watch, armed with ranged weapons, moving forwards at a steady, wary clip. They had no [Scout] leading them. Nor were they aware of the magical battle drawing closer behind them.
They hadn’t heard about the battle on their scouting mission. If they had turned around, they would have seen the duel in the distance. But all of their attention lay on what was before them.
The Bloodfields. Hauntgheist shuddered as they did a slow circuit of the perimeter. Still two miles out—but too close for Pelico’s liking. Even so, his team was one of the few who could investigate the spores. He’d volunteered them, for the healthy pay bump. Hauntgheist had dealt with airborne threats like this before.
They covered their faces and every exposed body part in thick clothing over their armor. They even had glass goggles. And to breathe, they wore bandannas, charmed to keep all but clean air out. It was a cheap way of dealing with airborne threats like poison gas and so on. But if that failed, Hauntgheist’s members all carried stakes and rope to anchor themselves into the ground.
Again, an easy solution. Adventurers might be stumped or fall prey to a trap or trick a monster used, but their strength lay in their ability to adapt. Even so, Pelico was on alert. The Bloodfields had any number of tricks and the [Rogue] was only being paid to scout.
Unfortunately, there was a problem. Theirs was the closest team to where Walt’s team had been hit by the spores, but they’d done three passes and there was no sign of the spores. Or what had caused them.
“Look. The spore patch is gone. I know where it was. There! But it’s gone, Pelico.”
Desril came to the conclusion after the fourth pass. He pointed, indicating a patch of ground.
“Gone? You sure you’re not looking in the wrong place, Desril?”
The former [Raider] glared at his leader.
“I’m sure. You can see there’s some shit there. Left over, like. But the spores’re gone. Maybe they did their job? Maybe Walt’s team has them growing in them.”
“They were checked over by a [Healer]. It can’t be that.”
“Maybe the spores’re just one-use, then? The plant dies and comes back later? Like mushrooms.”
Another member of Hauntgheist offered. She adjusted her goggles to see, frowning. Pelico nodded. Nothing would surprise him around the Bloodfields. Even so—the [Rogue] shifted. His [Dangersense] wasn’t going off wildly, as it should near the Bloodfields. But he knew that was because there was a trap ahead. [Dangersense] was tricky. It only gave you a little bit of warning. Traps and the like you got a few seconds. Well, it was actually going off now; he knew the Bloodfields were dangerous.
“Perhaps something ate ‘em? Blood Slimes, maybe. Or those insects. The Bloodfields have to devour themselves to survive, right?”
Another [Rogue] offered. He eyed the Bloodfields and Hauntgheist shrugged. Frustrated Desril turned to Pelico.
“What do we do? We’ve gotta see the spores to get paid, right?”
“Maybe there are more. We’ll keep moving a few more miles. There are definitely more spore patches.”
No one in Hauntgheist liked that idea. Pelico grimaced.
“We’ll do it at a distance. Maybe borrow horses or—or the Horn’s chariot. Scout around the outside. We’ll reconnect with the teams first. Don’t worry; we’re not going further without a lot of support.”
The adventurers relaxed. They nodded at the commonsense idea. Then Desril pointed, frowning.
“Hey, what’s that?”
Hauntgheist turned back. The [Raider] pointed again. There was something past the spore patch. A large…odd…area. Not the usual red of the Bloodfields. Brown, in fact. Dead and lifeless.
“That brown spot. It looks dead, not like something else is growing there. See? There’s just no vegetation like a Watchertree would leave. The Bloodfields are just…dead, there.”
Pelico frowned, staring at the spot.
“Walt did mention that. That’s—strange. It looks dead.”
“Dead is good to me! Should we check it out, Captain? If we could investigate and find out why we might earn our pay—”
Pelico and half of the seasoned adventurers immediately overruled the idea. The [Rogue] shook his head.
“It might be a trap. Or poison. Or something. Maybe nothing, but we don’t get anywhere close. That’s just idiotic. Let’s wait for a request, huh? And it had better be a good one. Look, one more pass and we’ll call it in to Master Reikhle. The other teams found nothing.”
He pointed ahead, at a team of Drakes similarly geared, checking out another patch of the Bloodfields about three thousand feet ahead. Pelico cast a troubled glance at the empty place Desril had pointed out. The spores were indeed gone.
As Hauntgheist moved slowly forwards, some of them began to debate what the brown spot was.
“What could kill the Bloodfields? Salt? Fire? It just regrows! People have tried even drying the area out, but the Bloodfields are just too tough.”
Desril frowned. He glanced at the dead zone. Far wider than what any one Watchertree would leave, true. And there was no distinctive towering plant, either. He muttered to Pelico.
“You know, it reminds me a bit of grass what’s been nibbled on by moths. You know, with tons of larvae? I knew a [Gardener] once—got a bunch of them in his plots. Looked just like that. Maybe—”
“Dead gods! What’s happening over there?”
Both men’s head snapped up. Pelico readied himself, but his teammates was pointing back towards the road. Desril swore.
“Don’t scare me like that! What?”
Then he saw it. Hauntgheist stared, seeing the duel between Montressa’s team and Ceria’s at last. Adventurers were racing after the six running shapes.
“What? Is it a fight? Dead gods, all the teams are out there!”
“What’s happening? [Bandits]?”
“No way. That’s—hold on, that’s the Wistram team! They’re dueling the Horns!”
Hauntgheist exclaimed. Pelico saw Ceria at a distance. She was battling one of the other [Mages], who was pursuing her, surrounded by a magical bubble of energy.
“Dead gods. Springwalker’s in trouble. Should we—”
“If it’s a duel, we can’t interfere.”
“Bugger that. Let’s put a bolt in those Wistram bastard’s heads. Look! Springwalker’s on the run!”
Desril pointed urgently. It was true. Ceria was retreating, towards the Bloodfields. The battle had shifted in that direction as Yvlon and Beza’s duel took them further back, the [Wounded Warrior] pressing the Minotauress [Spellscribe]. The other four dueling [Mages] followed them, threatening each other’s battles.
“They’re getting near the Bloodfields—”
“We’ll cut them off. Hauntgheist, hold up!”
The adventurers watched the end of the battle. Ceria was running. Her [Ice Walls] were shattering under Montressa’s spells. The [Aegiscaster] could fire two spells with both the brass orb and her staff.
But so could Ceria. Her [Ice Spikes] flew from both her skeletal hand and wand. She hit Montressa’s barrier, watching the magic flicker. Montressa advanced, shouting as she cast spells.
Ceria ignored her. She ran back, forcing Montressa to keep advancing. The [Aegiscaster] couldn’t layer her barrier spells on the move! And as one of her lightning spells hit the [Ice Wall] where Ceria was hiding, the [Cryomancer] moved. She took a step out and pointed.
From her skeletal fingertip, a huge spear of ice formed. It shot across the ground, like a bolt launched from a ballista. With her wand, Ceria aimed at the same target.
The cold froze even the bones on her hand, turning her skin to ice, deadening it. Her wand-hand was burning with the backlash of the other spell. The half-Elf could control neither perfectly. But she ignored the burning/freezing pain. Mana burned in her veins. She felt as if she were burning away her very soul, as she always did when she was reaching her limit. But she reached for more magic.
Both spells hit Montressa’s barrier. The [Ice Lance] first. The crash threw Montressa back from within her barrier. She looked up—
And the fireball finally broke the magical shell. Montressa got to her hands and knees.
“Staff? My staff—”
She couldn’t see or hear after the explosion. Ceria advanced, her wand raised. She hesitated. She had a shot. But then Montressa grabbed her staff. The barrier reappeared. Ceria halted.
“Oh shit. [Ice W—”
Kam saw the lightning throw Ceria off her feet. The [Ice Armor] had saved her, but Ceria was down, writhing in pain. Montressa, swaying, stumbled closer. Kam saw her aiming at Ceria.
“No. Enough! I’m stopping this now, duel or not!”
The [Bow Rider] aimed her bow at Montressa’s back. She drew—and a sword kissed her side.
Kam froze. She stared at the Drake adventurer standing next to her. He was resting his claw on the hilt of the bullwhip he carried as the shortsword touched her side.
“Tellis! What are you doing?”
The other adventurers reacted. Half of them drew weapons on Tellis. The other half—the Drake’s team backed him up as he shook his head.
“No one’s interfering in the duel. Lower the bow, Captain Kam.”
“You’re on their side?”
Kam stared at Tellis. The Drake paused. He looked past her, at Pisces. The [Mage] was battling Isceil. Both he and the Drake had hit each other. Now, Isceil was blasting apart one of Pisces’ Bone Horrors, snarling. Tellis shook his head.
“Neither. This is a duel. My team won’t interfere no matter what happens. But no one else does either.”
Kam looked at Stan, Alais. Walt, and all the other Silver-rank Captains. They were hesitating. But half of the other teams were silently opposing them. Stan’s hand twitched towards his bag of holding. Then he shook his head. He looked at Ksmvr and Palt and Ulinde. None of them had moved. they’d followed the battle, but they were at a stalemate. Ksmvr’s Flamecoat Dagger was aimed at Palt’s chest.
“My team will not die. My team will not die.”
The Antinium repeated the words. And none of the adventurers could move. Palt’s face was pale as he watched Ceria conjure a wall of ice, trying to get up. Montressa blasted it apart. Hauntgheist saw Pisces jump in. Slashing. Isceil caught a slash across the jaw, but he exhaled. Pisces went backwards, howling as acid burned at him. The Drake had conjured a buckler made of stone. But he didn’t advance on Pisces. He was waiting.
[Shatterbolt]. The [Necromancer] flicked his wrist and the Drake [Flash Stepped] out of the way. But the spell didn’t come. The two exchanged another volley of spells. Isceil watched Pisces’ ring. The [Necromancer]’s arm was bleeding.
And across from them, Yvlon watched Beza stagger upright. The Minotaur’s magical gauntlets were gone. She couldn’t block Yvlon’s sword, even with them. Now, stone covered her arms, like scales. She charged, head down, and Yvlon advanced. Two-handed, she swung her sword, aiming for Beza’s chest.
The Minotauress aborted her charge, flinched back. Yvlon advanced. Her Sword of Weight was heavy in her hands, but all she’d drunken was a single stamina potion. Beza had healed her cuts twice.
The Minotauress blurred as she reached for another scroll. Yvlon’s eyes narrowed. She swung her sword in rapid arcs, cutting at the Minotauress as she tried to strike at Yvlon. But Beza couldn’t, without risking one of her arms. Yvlon’s armor was too sturdy. And Bezale refused to attack from a distance.
One minute. That was how long Beza’s scroll lasted. And she’d used three. Yvlon took a hit across her helmet that made her head ring. A punch to her breastplate sent her staggering back. She cut, keeping Beza at bay. A kick to the side—Yvlon heard something crack. But she felt no pain.
She slashed, and Beza jumped backwards. Yvlon had cut down the Minotauress’ side. Yvlon kept counting.
Fifty eight, fifty nine—
Beza slowed. The Minotauress reached for another scroll, but too late. Yvlon charged. She brought her sword down in a two-handed cut. Beza’s armored gauntlets went up to block the strike, turn it. And Yvlon shouted.
Ksmvr saw the cut. Yvlon’s sword arced. It turned, changing its trajectory as the [Warrior] used her Skill.
A Skill meant to kill people. The Minotauress’ eyes went wide as the enchanted sword curved impossibly fast, changing its position. Her arms were in the wrong place. Beza staggered as the enchanted sword cut her deep across the pelvis.
Yvlon halted the cut, swung the other way. The second cut tore into Beza’s arms. It lodged in bone. The [Spellscribe] bellowed in pain. And she tore away.
One arm hung limply as Beza fumbled for a scroll. She dropped it as Yvlon charged her. The Minotauress stumbled back, lost her footing. She fell. Yvlon swung her sword up.
Beza gasped. Her eyes were wide in her head. Montressa turned. Yvlon looked at her bloody sword. She stared down at the Minotauress, shielding her head with her one good arm. Yvlon closed her eyes. Then she opened them. And they were cold.
“Stop! Don’t make me kill you, Montressa!”
Montressa blasted away Ceria’s last barrier of ice. The half-Elf aimed her wand at Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] stopped. Ceria aimed at Montressa’s heart. And Pisces slowed.
Isceil pointed his wand at the Minotauress. Montressa, breathing hard, stared at Ceria. Her staff was glowing. Her barrier intact. Pisces looked at both stalemates. He glanced at his hand. And then at Isceil.
The Drake was looking at him. Flames and electricity crackled out of his mouth as he spoke.
Pisces turned. He had two targets. The Drake and Montressa, battling Ceria. The Ring of [Shatterbolt] glowed on his hand. His rapier rose in the other.
Isceil aimed his wand at Yvlon as Pisces lifted his hand. The Drake’s mouth opened as he inhaled.
The magical ring flashed.
Pisces hesitated. Ceria looked up at Montressa. Why did it have to come to this? The [Aegiscaster] stared down at the half-Elf. And Yvlon swung her sword down at the yielding Minotauress.
It was just an ordinary day. But it mattered because it was today. This kind of day.
The ground exploded. Pelico turned. He saw the Bloodfields erupt. A shower of dirt fountained up into the air, from the brown patch of land. The [Rogue] Captain stared.
It wasn’t his fault. Or even Yvlon’s. Her blood had awoken them. But it was no one person’s fault. Hauntgheist hadn’t done anything to provoke them. None of the adventurers had, really.
They hadn’t gone near the dead patch in the Bloodfields. Or provoked anything after their encounter with the Watchertree. But that didn’t matter. What rose, seething, hungry from the depths didn’t need a reason. It only needed food.
The brown spot. It wasn’t a trick. It wasn’t some ruse. It was exactly what Desril had said. Dead land, in the middle of the Bloodfields. But how was that possible? The red wastes had survived fire and salt, every effort to kill them off. It had survived cold and drought.
What could kill the Bloodfields? No—not kill. Pelico stared up and realized what the truth was. Not kill. Eat. Something had eaten the rich vegetation of the Bloodfields. Had preyed on it, like the Bloodfields preyed on other creatures. But what could do that?
Crelers could. Something was moving in the ground, two miles distant. Pelico stared. It was as large as a house. Larger. In the red earth, something stared at him and laughed.
It rose out of the ground and kept rising. The wet soil fell around it, exposing an armor of blades. Scuttling legs. Wings. A terrible maw. And eyes. Sunken sockets. Too many limbs to count. And it rose still larger. Pelico stared up at it.
This was no child. Nor even half-grown creature that he had battled. This thing was old. It had grown here in secret. And now it rose. A colossus. Screaming—he was screaming and it was laughing at him.
An Adult Creler. It’s shriek tore the sky as it surfaced, digging itself out of its deep coffin of dirt. Everyone, adventurers, far-distant workers, [Mages]—Yvlon, Ijvani—stopped. They turned. And they saw it.
Out they came with it. Hundreds of Crelers. Swarming across the ground, hundreds, no, thousands of larvae, red-pulsating bodies and exposed organs withdrawing, revealing sharp, chitinous legs, biting, tearing parts. A nigh-indestructible body. And juvenile Crelers, some as large as bulls, giant pill bugs with too many limbs, fast—faster than horses. Too many limbs to count. Too many to count.
Monsters that came from Rhir’s hell. They had nearly overrun the world, once. Pelico turned, looking for salvation. But they were so fast. They were so—
Ceria breathed the words as she stared at the distant Creler. It was shaking itself. Dirt cascaded everywhere. And a wave of red and black flowed down off it. Crelers, crawling all over each other, biting, tearing at everything in sight. For a moment, the sight transfixed the half-Elf. Then she realized she was still lying down, aiming her wand at Montressa.
She stood up slowly. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. Thousands of Crelers were streaming towards them. She looked around. The adventurers were all frozen in shock. And the tide was coming on, shrieking.
“Crelers? Are those—”
Montressa was swaying on her feet. She looked at Ceria. The half-Elf turned. She looked back to see if she was dreaming. Then she pushed Montressa.
The young woman stumbled. She lifted her staff, staring at Ceria. A line of blood ran from a cut at her cheek. Ceria looked around.
The adventurers stared at her. Ceria looked around. She heard the distant shriek, now. She drew in a breath and screamed.
The paralysis broke. The adventurers turned and ran. Ceria looked over her shoulder.
Thousands. Her team had killed a few dozen once and nearly died. But that was a Junior Creler. And there were at least a hundred of them. They were coming! They raced across the ground, chittering. And the Adult Creler shrieked. The noise made Kam’s horse rear and scream.
Beza got to her feet as Yvlon grabbed her. The duel was forgotten. They stared at each other and ran. Behind them came death. Ceria looked back.
“The other teams!”
Alais turned, but Stan grabbed her. He was white-faced. Hauntgheist was gone. Crelers were covering the Bloodfields, eating—eating the plants and creatures there! But their prey lay ahead.
“Run! They’re already dead! Get to the door! Sound the alarm!”
Kam galloped past them, screaming an alarm. In the distance, Master Reikhle turned. He had heard the shriek. He stared. And the Gnolls and Drakes turned to stare. They were transfixed. Then they ran.
One of them beat on the door. But it wasn’t opened. Erin had changed the door. The workers looked back.
Ceria ran. She could see the scrum at the door. She screamed at Montressa. The young woman was stumbling to keep up.
“[Message] spell! Warn the city!”
Palt galloped after them. Ulinde was on his back. They were all miles away from the door. How far had they gone in the duel? Ceria looked back over her shoulder.
The Crelers were overtaking them. They moved like lighting across the ground, skittering, charging the slower adventurers. And the adult was coming. It was charging forwards, maw open.
“We’re not going to make it!”
Alais gasped. She was falling behind with the slower adventurers. Walt’s eyes were wide.
“We can’t fight that many! We’re outnumbered hundreds to one!”
“Hold them back! Spells!”
Kam galloped back. She loosed an arrow into the sea of Crelers. Ceria didn’t even see them land. But the adventurers turned. Ceria pointed her wand.
“[Ice Spike]! [Ice Wall]!”
The spells hit the first wave of Crelers, but the ones that were caught up were overwhelmed. A large Creler smashed the wall apart. Ceria saw the adult moving faster than the others. Isceil cursed. He turned back.
“[Mages]! Link! Montressa, give me power! I’ll blow them apart!”
The Wistram [Mages] halted. Isceil grabbed Montressa’s hand. She stared at him and Stan screamed!
“No! Keep running!”
But Palt and Ulinde had galloped over. Beza’s one good hand found Isceil’s shoulder. He closed his eyes. Ceria saw the magic flash around him, gathering.
“Buy them time! Everyone, turn and fire!”
She whirled, stopping. Pisces whirled and pointed.
The leading Creler collapsed silently. But it was one. The adventurers turned. The ones with arrows and spells launched everything at the first wave, holding it back a second. Isceil was mumbling.
“Three elements. Hit the Crelers. Hit that thing—”
“Isceil! Do it!”
Palt bellowed at the Drake. The [Oldblood Magus]’s head snapped up. He inhaled and from his lips shot lightning and fire and air. A tempest shot forwards, a flaming whirlwind of lightning.
For a moment it tore the first wave of Crelers apart. The smaller ones just vanished as the searing fire and electricity hit them. But the adult was Isceil’s target. The Wistram [Mages] pointed.
A hail of glowing comets followed the firestorm. Ceria saw the barrage hit the Creler as the lighting and fire engulfed it. She heard a scream. Saw the massive shape falter.
Even the Crelers slowed. The adventurers cheered. Ceria looked back. Let it be dead or hurt! She saw a shape move, cutting through the flames. And then the monstrosity emerged.
Unscathed. Isceil stared. The giant Creler bore no marks from either the comets or his attack.
“They resist magic! Adult Crelers have spell resistance!”
Walt screamed at the adventurers. He was running. The Crelers were advancing again. Montressa stared.
“But that’s not fair. That’s—”
Palt yanked her off her feet. He galloped forwards. The adventurers ran. The spells had lost them ground. The Crelers were advancing. And now they were angry. The adult was surging forwards. It opened its maw and spat something. Ceria saw a flicker. A projecti—
Isceil spun slightly, around in a perfect circle. He registered the impact with the others only after it had come. He looked down. And Ceria saw nothing.
His right arm was gone. The Drake looked around.
“Huh? My wand—”
Beza slowed, staring back at Isceil. Bemused, the Drake looked around.
“It got me? But I didn’t even see—”
Another flicker. Captain Kam dove and her horse’s head vanished. She hit the ground. The adventurers screamed.
“It’s not open! I sent a [Message], but it’s not open!”
Ulinde screamed at Palt. Someone bounded past her. Ksmvr twisted in midair, loosing another arrow. He landed next to Ceria.
“Captain, we will not arrive in time. The Crelers are too fast. There are too many.”
Pisces was panting. He appeared at her side. The half-Elf’s breath was caught in her chest. She inhaled. And for a long moment, like one of Erin’s [Immortal Moments], she felt time slow.
Yvlon was running next to them, her helmet missing. The woman’s hair was streaming as she turned her head. Pisces was stumbling, clutching at his side where he’d been hit by a spell. Ksmvr was pointing back. Saying something.
“We’ll never make it!”
Alais had seen the same thing. She screamed, and the adventurers looked back at her. Fourteen teams, but even the fastest were falling. Ahead of them, a group on horseback vanished as the adult spat something again and it cut the armored horses to pieces.
Ceria saw the crater appear, realized she was running towards it. Ksmvr dragged her to one side and she stared at—nothing. She couldn’t even see what the Creler had spat, it was buried so deep in the earth.
“The door’s not opening. And we’re not going to outrun them.”
Stan wheezed. The second time, his words registered. Ceria saw the Gnolls and Drakes pounding on the door. She looked back. The leading wave of Crelers was less than four hundred feet away. Closing.
It was Yvlon who broke the silence. She was running beside Ceria, blood leaking from one of the gauntlets. She laughed, and it sounded like despair in Ceria’s ears. She turned her head and met Ceria’s eyes.
“Again. It’s happening again.”
Skinner. Ceria saw Gerial’s face. She opened her eyes and met Yvlon’s gaze. Ksmvr was screaming at them.
“Yvlon, we must keep running. Go, and I will ensure you reach the door!”
Ksmvr’s voice was a shout. Pisces looked at Ceria.
“I can carry you. But the door’s not open. We won’t make it.”
In that perfect moment, Ceria saw the future. She saw Yvlon turn. Around them, adventurers were looking back. Counting. Realizing the same thing.
Ceria met Pisces’ eyes. She looked around at her team and slowed.
“Not all of us. Everyone, run. We’ll buy you time.”
The Ensoldier Shields stopped. Walt bellowed as they fell into line. Captain Kam raised her bow. Crossbow Stan stopped and turned, already firing. Half his team ran past him. Alais hesitated. But Ceria was looking about. Montressa stared back at them.
She saw Ksmvr whirl, pointing. Yvlon had already stopped as she lifted her blade. And Pisces? Ceria stared at him as he slowed, still running. She looked at him. And then at the Crelers.
“Horns of Hammerad—”
Erin Solstice was making lunch in her kitchen when she felt it. She fell to her knees as her head exploded. But the next moment she was on her feet.
[Dangersense]. It was the loudest Erin had ever heard it. Louder than the Face-Eater Moths. Louder than anything. Erin dropped the ladle she’d been holding. She ran.
The common room was full of laughter when the [Innkeeper] burst out of the kitchen. People were watching the Players of Celum on stage, performing. Erin stumbled out, and a few heads turned.
“Something’s coming! Get out! Get out!”
Her voice made heads turn. Drassi looked up from the bar she was manning. Lyonette, feeding Mrsha her lunch, paused, in patting sauce off her lips. In Octavia’s shop, Numbtongue glanced up at the door.
“Something wrong, Erin?”
Relc paused over his third drink. Erin whirled. Why weren’t they—
“Something is coming. My [Dangersense] just went off! Run! It’s bad! Worse than Skinner!”
Relc’s face went slack. Erin felt like she was trapped in an [Immortal Moment]. She looked around. Temile was on his feet. Ishkr was stopped, a tray of empty mugs in one hand.
“My [Dangersense] isn’t going off.”
A Drake began at a table close by. Erin turned.
The Hobgoblin ran through the door, sword drawn. He wasn’t paralyzed. And neither was Relc. The [Guardsman] turned and sprinted for his spear. He looked around.
“I don’t know. Everyone, its coming! Get up and run!”
Mrsha clutched at Lyonette. Everyone was staring. Erin was white-eyed, shouting. They had never seen her like this. Then Lyonette stood.
“Get the potions! Where’s it coming from?”
The frozen moment broke. The Players scrambled off the stage. The guests surged to their feet. Lyonette grabbed Mrsha, shouting.
“Where? Where is it?”
Relc sprinted to the windows. He tore the front door open, looking around wildly. Erin ran for the door.
Octavia shouted, but Erin slammed the door in her face. That didn’t change her [Dangersense]. She turned the dial on the door.
“Liscor. Lyonette, go!”
“What if it’s Liscor?”
Erin hesitated. She looked around. Relc called from the door.
“It’s not outside. What the hell is it?”
Drassi whispered. Someone cursed. Erin looked around.
“I don’t know what—”
She looked at the door. Turned the dial to the yellow stone. Erin yanked it open, saw a full street. A Drake [Guardsman] leaned forwards.
“Hey, you need a receipt.”
“Something’s coming. Something’s about to hit Liscor! Warn Venim! Sound the alarm!”
Erin shouted at the Drake. The [Guardsman] stared at her. Then he grinned, uncertainly. The people on Pallass’ street looked around.
He stared past Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked around.
She grabbed the Drake. The [Gossip] stared at her.
“Go! Tell Grimalkin something’s coming!”
Erin shoved her through the door. Drassi stumbled. One of the Drakes on duty cried out.
“Hey! You can’t do that! You need—”
“Something is going to attack the inn.”
Erin saw the Drakes looking about incredulously. Relc was checking out the door, but there was nothing. It was such an ordinary day. The young woman pointed.
“Something—my [Dangersense] is going off. Something is going to happen!”
“Miss, I don’t sense anything. And I have [Dangersense].”
A [Guard] protested. Erin drew breath to scream as they tried to shove Drassi back towards the door. Then a familiar Drake shoved the others aside.
Kel, the surly Drake, stared at Erin. He met her eyes.
“Worse than the moths. Worse than Skinner.”
She panted. Time was too slow. A second was an hour. Kel stared at Erin. And then he nodded.
“Get Watch Captain Venim. Sound the alarm! Move!”
Drassi shouted, but Erin was already fumbling the door closed. Lyonette reappeared; Mrsha was clutching her neck.
“Erin! Where is it?”
“Do we go to Liscor? Celum?”
“I don’t know! Celum! Yes! Maybe? I don’t know where it’s coming from!”
Erin was looking around, panting. Relc growled.
“Aw, nuts. What is it? Raskghar? Monsters? Those damn [Mages]?”
Mrsha sniffed the air. Erin looked towards the door. If it was the dungeon, and they went out—but if it was in Liscor?
“Erin, we’re here. What are we looking for?”
Seborn appeared at her side. Moore on his left. Erin counted. Numbtongue had his sword and guitar out. The Hobgoblin looked at her.
“Stay in the inn? Better cover.”
He gestured around. Erin wavered.
“I—I don’t know where it’s coming from—wait! Wait! Relc, Seborn, Moore, Numbtongue, everyone get ready!”
It was growing stronger. Erin saw Seborn flicker over to a window. Desperately, Erin turned the door. Maybe there was a clue? She flung it open.
Liscor, nothing. People on the streets.
Pallass, Kel staring.
Esthelm, empty, a man asking to come in.
Celum, Octavia, gaping.
“It’s open! Run!”
The wave of Gnolls and Drakes poured into the inn, knocking Erin off her feet. The crowd gathered around her drew back as the workers charged into them. The Drakes and Gnolls didn’t care; they scrambled over each other, shouting.
“Move! They’re right on us!”
“Dead gods! Dead g—”
“Warn the Watch! They’re here!”
Relc fought the Drakes off him. He seized an arm. Master Reikhle turned.
The first Creler scuttled through, mandibles tearing. It went straight for Erin. A spear came down. Relc ran it through, but the Creler kept moving. The Drake stared at the hideous thing, nearly a third of Mrsha’s size. Then he looked up.
They poured through the door. The adventurers came with them, fighting, screaming. The inn turned to chaos as everyone went for the doors. Erin stared. She saw the first huge Creler barrel through, biting a fleeing adventurer, sawing his spine in half with one snap. The dead man fell, blood spraying her. She stared at the huge Creler. At the hundreds, pouring in.
“Out the door! Go!”
Those inside the inn were fleeing towards the actual door. Erin took a step forwards. Her magical door was open. And the Crelers were pouring through. They were covering the last people who’d come through. They were already—
They came for her. Erin kicked, felt one race up her leg, so fast. It opened its mandibles, coming for her face. She had to close the door—
Relc bellowed. He tore the Creler off Erin, taking her skin with it. The [Guardsman] roared as his spear flashed in every direction. Giant Crelers were forcing their way through the door. Erin slashed at one. She was surrounded—
Lyonette screamed as the Crelers filled the inn. She whirled, Mrsha in her arms and ran. She fumbled at Erin’s windows. Unlatched one. The Crelers covered Drakes and Gnolls fleeing at the door, ran at her.
A Juvenile Creler, up to her chest and longer than she was, charged at her. The [Princess] screamed, trying to force Mrsha out the door. Apista was trying to sting it, but the Ashfire Bee couldn’t even penetrate the armor. Lyonette pushed Mrsha out as the Creler reared up, biting, tearing—
Numbtongue threw himself forwards, grappling with the giant. He roared at Lyonette.
She scrambled for the window as the Hobgoblin screamed. Something bit into Lyonette’s shoulder, tearing flesh like paper. She screamed and tore it off. Apista flew past her as Mrsha dragged her out. But Numbtongue was still in the inn, fighting the Creler.
It bit him repeatedly as the Hobgoblin shoved it back. He slashed with his sword, but the steel rebounded off the shell. He whirled.
Crelers poured up his leg. Four of them. The [Bard] tore them off, saw two huge pinchers. He jumped back. Stared at his exposed stomach.
“You’re dying. There are too many for me or you. Run.”
A Hobgoblin stared at Numbtongue. Reiss grabbed Numbtongue as the Hobgoblin fell against a table, staring at his organs.
“Get up and run!”
Pyrite moved Numbtongue’s body. He threw Numbtongue out a window, smashing through the glass. Crelers came after him. Lyonette screamed, but Pyrite was smashing a potion on Numbtongue’s stomach.
Pyrite looked back once. Then he grabbed Lyonette and Mrsha and ran for the city.
Drakes and Gnolls flooded out the inn’s doors, screaming. They ran for the city as the Crelers poured out the inn. Only a handful were left, fighting for the doors. Seborn cursed as he looked around.
Moore threw one of the Players through the window. The half-Giant whirled, planting his staff in the ground.
A huge pillar of earth rose, smashing the floorboards and impaled one of the Junior Crelers. But only one. They were still coming. And the half-Giant was a target.
Seborn flashed around Moore, stabbing so fast he could barely see his own arms. Crelers died around him, but more were biting him, tearing at him. He felt the poison entering his blood and howled.
The half-Giant turned desperately, swinging his staff and throwing another spire of earth up. Erin had been by the door. She was d—
Relc emerged from the sea of Crelers, his spear blurring. He tore Erin out of the sea of bodies. Seborn seemed slow compared to him. The [Spearmaster] was roaring, killing the Crelers around him as he fought for the door.
None of them touched Erin. But they swarmed over the Drake, biting, tearing. Their fangs pierced his scales. Relc impaled a huge Creler charging him through the head. It kept coming and the [Sergeant] staggered. He tore another off him as Erin threw a potion. The Tripvines slowed the Crelers for a moment, but they began eating the bag and vines!
“Poison. Damn, damn—”
Erin yanked open the door, grabbing for her belt. Seborn pointed.
The half-Giant screamed; Crelers were burrowing into his side, trying to eat him alive! Seborn flashed over and stabbed until the Creler was dead. Relc roared as he held the door.
“Healing potions don’t work! Move!”
The Halfseekers turned. They went through the Crelers, grabbing the last living person in the inn. Temile’s thumb was missing, and the Actor was bit so badly he couldn’t move.
Moore bellowed and threw one of the huge Crelers into the sea pursuing them. The half-Giant staggered, turned and ran. He was bitten down to the bone.
“Go. The city.”
Relc’s breath was growing slower. His spear never stopped moving as Erin dragged Temile out. The Halfseekers ran as Seborn stopped.
The [Rogue] turned. Moore stopped. He looked back, then seized Temile. The man in his arms, he charged down the hill. Seborn and Relc held the door for a second. Five. Ten.
The Crelers covered them, biting, eating—
“La, la. I am Bird. It is noisy down there. I am Bird. That is a good word. Bird. Birds.”
Bird sat in his tower. He was munching on one of the birds he’d let sit out for a few hours to get nice and squishy. He wasn’t supposed to eat them, especially when they had wriggly things, but he wanted to and he didn’t have to tell Erin. He listened, hearing the commotion below.
“Something is very loud.”
The [Bird Hunter] stood up. He heard screams. Then saw people rushing out the door. The Antinium’s head jerked up. Those were not good screams. He drew an arrow, looking about.
“Bad things? Bad birds?”
Then he saw the first red, insectile shape crawl out of the windows and appear in his line of sight. Bird froze, but his bow did not. The arrow nailed the Creler pursuing Ishkr to the ground. Bird stared. Then he began to scream.
“Alarm! Creler attack! Alarm! ALARM.”
They were coming out of the inn! The Worker saw Drakes and Gnolls fleeing in every direction, then turning to the city. Bells were already ringing in Liscor, but there was no army here to stop the tide of Crelers.
Only Bird. His bow sang as he loosed arrows as fast as he could, drawing with three arms and loosing. Crelers fell, impaled by the arrows from above, but more were coming. Big Crelers, but barely more than children. Juvenile-grade. The Antinium recognized them and avoided them. He couldn’t even stop them. The giant ones chased the others. Lyonette and Mrsha were being carried by Numbtongue.
“ALARM. SOUND THE ALARM.”
Bird was shouting at his Hive. With his mind. He didn’t know if they could hear him, but they must! Crelers! Crelers were here! They would eat everything!
The Worker saw the last few running out of the inn. There were so many Crelers coming out! A vast nest! The Antinium heard movement behind him and whirled. He stared down the stairs.
They were coming up the corridor, dozens of them. Bird drew and loosed an arrow in less than a second. He watched the shaft hit the Creler in one of the glowing midsections, hitting the vulnerable innards. But that barely slowed the Creler. They wouldn’t die from a single arrow, or even a dozen. Not even the larvae. They wouldn’t stop even until they were completely dead! And sometimes not even then.
Bird called one last time. Then he climbed out of his tower. He hit the roof and began to slide near the edge as the Crelers boiled out of the roof, swarming down at him. The Worker skidded down the roof on his back shell. There was the ledge. He put his feet down. And then he leapt.
For a moment Bird flew. And even then, his heart soared. Then he felt gravity catch him.
He crashed down off the roof and got up. Erin turned. She was outside the inn. That was good.
The Worker got up and ran. He saw Seborn stagger out of the door, then Relc. They were the last to leave the inn. The Worker turned as Moore turned back.
He grabbed the [Rogue]. Seborn collapsed, bleeding from dozens of wounds. The half-Giant turned as Erin and Temile ran. Relc was stumbling after them. Bird turned.
“This is bad. We are going to die. Alarm! I have been very happy, Erin. Alarm!”
He was loosing arrows as he trundled down the hill as fast as he could move. The arrows slowed the first wave of larvae, but not the bigger Crelers. A Juvenile exploded out of the doorway. Bird saw it charging down the hill at them. Moore turned. Relc raised his spear.
The Worker happily blocked the Creler’s path as it came for Erin. He drew a dagger. She screamed and threw her knife. It lodged in the Creler’s exoskeleton, going hilt-deep into the head. But that didn’t stop a Creler. Bird saw Erin turn.
And the Creler exploded. Bird saw the flash, felt the kick—and he was flying again. Then he landed. The Antinium waved all his limbs on his back. Then he got up.
“That was not me. I think.”
He looked up. Erin picked herself up as the hillside exploded. Another spell shot down from the heavens. Liscor’s walls sent a flaming ball of magic down and the first wave of Crelers coming out the inn vanished. She looked around—they were regrouping. They were going after Relc! He swung his spear as they leapt—
And another spear impaled one. Hooves trampled the others. Embria turned her horse in a quick circle and shouted.
“4th Company! Cut them down!”
Drakes and Gnolls surged past the fleeing people. They formed a line as Liscor’s Watch charged out of the gates. Wing Commander Embria thundered past Erin. She leapt off her horse and landed beside her father. Her spear stabbed, killing Crelers, cutting them to pieces.
“Kid? Ancestors, that was fast—”
Relc fell to one knee. Embria grabbed him.
“On your feet, soldier!”
“Not—I got bit.”
The Drake’s body was covered in deep lacerations. He was bleeding, but green and yellow ran with the blood. Poison. The potion Erin had used on him hadn’t worked.
Embria stared at him, wide-eyed. She turned and bellowed.
“[Healer]! Sergeant Tilk! Creler poison! Get over here now!”
Erin stumbled towards Relc. But a Gnoll shoved her aside. The [Healer] ran as Embria turned. The waves of Crelers pouring out of the inn didn’t stop! All of them were coming through the door!
“What happened? Where are they coming from?”
The [Innkeeper] looked around. She knew the answers as soon as she asked. She spotted adventurers, Silver-rank, collapsed outside the gates. All of them were wounded. But there weren’t enough. Less than a third who’d gone through were back. Most of the road crew was alive. Reikhle was babbling as Olesm pointed.
“They came out of the Bloodfields! Thousands! We barely escaped—”
“[Attack Formation]! Hold that line! Embria, advance!”
Olesm bellowed. The Watch was forming a line as the walls unleashed their spells on the Crelers. The huge Crelers were being brought down as Embria and the high-level [Soldiers] aimed at them. The small Crelers died to swords, arrows, maces—even boots. But they died hard. And Gnolls and Drakes were screaming as the Crelers bit straight through steel!
“We didn’t see it. They just appeared—”
A female adventurer was babbling as Olesm turned to her. The [Strategist] was swearing.
“I don’t care! How many? An Adult? We need to sound the alarm in Pallass! [Rapid Retreat]! Pull back on the flank!”
“The Horns? Where are the Horns of Hammerad?”
Erin called out. She saw Lyonette and Mrsha, tending to Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin was on the ground. The [Princess] was shouting for one of the [Healers].
“They’re still out there.”
A voice. Erin whirled, expecting to see—
It was Palt. He was bleeding. Creler bites had torn open his chest. The Centaur was half-collapsed. Ulinde was on his back. What was—Erin stared at the Selphid. Something had torn her half to pieces. And Beza—the Minotauress was silent.
“The Horns? There are adventurers out there?”
Olesm whirled. Palt was staring at Erin. The [Illusionist]’s voice was a whisper.
“We—we held as long as we could. I tried. I’m sorry. Isceil’s dead. It killed him. We fought—but we couldn’t hold out.”
“But it was minutes—”
“Ten minutes. You didn’t open the door for ten minutes!”
The female adventurer whirled on Erin, cursing. The [Innkeeper] looked at her.
“No. My [Dangersense]—I checked the door not a minute after it went off—”
“We were there! We sent [Messages]! But you didn’t open the door!”
“I didn’t know.”
Erin whispered. Palt looked around, vaguely. He was shaking.
“They stayed behind to buy us time. They were trying to retreat. But there were too many Crelers! Hundreds! Baby Crelers and Juvenile ones—and an Adult. An Adult Creler.”
Olesm looked at Palt. He stared at the inn. So did Erin. The Crelers were slowing in coming out. But they were still coming. Dying. She looked at Relc, trying to move. Seborn and Moore, downed. Numbtongue.
Something in her head began counting.
Ten minutes ago. Plus nine of fighting. Nine? About right. Erin stared at the Watch, holding the Crelers back.
Grimalkin of Pallass folded his arms. He stared at the breathless, wide-eyed Drassi as his students paused on their third lap around the city.
The [Gossip] clutched at a stitch in her side. She’d raced across the city, looking for him. The [Sinew Magus] shook his head.
“I’ve told Miss Solstice time and again: I am not her personal [Bouncer] or her eternal ally. I have my own duties. The Watch’s entire purpose is to protect citizens of Liscor, like Erin Solstice. She should go to them first, not me.”
“But she said—she was really afraid! Please, you have to help!”
The Drake begged Grimalkin. But she didn’t know what ‘it’ was. Grimalkin paused. But then he shook his head.
“If the crisis demands it, she should flee to safety in Pallass itself. But I will not—cannot—drop everything to bail her out of danger every time. Unless she sent you with an offer?”
“No! There was no time! Please—”
“Magus Grimalkin, we could investigate for you?”
One of Grimalkin’s students suggested. Grimalkin glared and the Drake shut up. Grimalkin sighed as he looked at Drassi.
“Miss Drassi, was it? Whatever the situation is, I will react when called upon by Pallass. Not by an [Innkeeper].”
Grimalkin was turning away when a [Guardsman] raced up. The [Sinew Magus] saw Kel appear, panting.
“What is it now?”
“Magus Grimalkin! Liscor is sending out a third-priority alarm to all nearby cities! Crelers have been spotted around the Bloodfields! A nest has invaded the inn—hundreds of Larvae-stage Crelers and Junior-stage! And—there is a confirmed Adult-stage Creler.”
The muscular Drake paused. He saw Drassi turn pale. Grimalkin’s students looked up, and Grimalkin paused.
“Alright. I’m on my way.”
“Oh, thank you—”
Grimalkin was already sprinting towards the door. The [Guardsman] raced after him. Grimalkin bellowed as he left the Drake behind.
“Convene the Watch! Let nothing through that door!”
He ran. Drassi had caught someone else on her way to find him. Jelaqua was surging up the steps, shouting for people to clear the way. The Selphid had changed into her Raskghar body. It took Grimalkin off-guard—until he saw the flail in her hands. The Selphid roared.
“Grimalkin! The inn!”
“What’s attacking them?”
The Selphid leapt up the stairs. Grimalkin was faster. He touched her arm and both accelerated. The citizens of Pallass stared as the two dashed past them.
“An Adult Creler! I haven’t fought one of those in over a decade. I would appreciate the assistance.”
Jelaqua sped towards the door. She slammed into the wall before she realized it was closed. There was already two squad’s worth of [Guards] at the door.
“Step back! Crelers will swarm your formation! Lock down this street! Get me [Mages] and high-level [Guardsmen]! When that door opens, we are going through.”
Grimalkin snapped. The [Guards] jumped out of the way. Jelaqua stared at the door.
“It’s not open—”
“The inn itself may be under siege. You. Where are the Crelers coming from. The Bloodfields? Or have they assailed Liscor?”
“The [Message] didn’t say. We are asking for a confirmation—”
“Send it to me by magic when it arrives! Miss Ivirith, have you fought Crelers?”
The Selphid turned. Her eyes gleamed and the Gnolls present stepped back. The Selphid’s voice was low.
“I was part of a force that fought some in my Silver-rank days. Three Gold-rank teams and six Silver to back them up and destroy the entire nest. Two of them nearly tore us all to pieces. The Silvers won’t stand a chance! Seborn and Moore need me.”
She slammed a fist on the door. Grimalkin grabbed her.
“You won’t help them by damaging the door.”
“Sorry. The door—”
Grimalkin paused. He put a claw on the door but felt nothing.
“I see. It’s not connected at all.”
“Do you think maybe the Crelers—”
Grimalkin was nodding. The worst-case scenario was already appearing in his minds. He’d thought about it after hearing about the Raskghar attacks. The door was a weakness too.
“You—[Guardsman]. Did the door open after Miss Solstice warned you?”
The Drake saluted palely. Grimalkin nodded. Jelaqua stared at him.
“What do we…?”
“We wait. Send word to the Assembly and Strategist Chaldion. Pallass’ [Generals] too, everyone in the city. If the nest contains multiple adults, it must be purged before they escape.”
Grimalkin looked at the [Guards]. They were incredulous. But they moved at his words. He turned back to Jelaqua.
“If there are multiple adults, Pallass’ First Army will take to the Bloodfields at once.”
“It they hit the inn—”
Neither finished the sentence. Jelaqua turned back to the door.
“Hold on, boys. Hold on.”
The wooden doorframe cracked in her grip. Grimalkin opened his mouth. But he didn’t stop Jelaqua. He inhaled, feeling his muscles tense.
He waited. And he was counting too.
Twenty four minutes.
Twenty four minutes had passed. Erin knew that—somehow. A part of her, a watchful, calculating part, was incredibly calm amid the rest of her. Someone had pulled her behind the lines and she was kneeling next to Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin was lucid but—in pain. The Creler poison was eating at him and the healing potions didn’t work against the parts hit by the poison. Mrsha was holding his hand as the Hobgoblin bit the rag in his mouth.
Twenty four minutes since the Crelers had overrun the adventurers. How long could they hold? With—
“Get Sergeant Relc on his feet now!”
Embria’s voice was bellowing at one of the [Healers]. The Gnoll was hunching his shoulders as Relc’s head lolled.
“It’s Creler poison, Wing Commander. I can’t cure it, only stop it!”
“I’m good. I just—I got tagged. I hate this feeling—Erin, you okay?”
Relc was gasping. His scales were pale. Erin looked at him. Embria knelt next to Relc.
“Yeah. You saved her, Dad. Not a scratch.”
“Hah! Takes more’n—where’s Klb? I gotta get up there—”
“Don’t move. You’ll make it worse! You can’t fight with Creler poison. They’ve stopped coming out of the inn.”
“Oh. Right. Let me just lie here and…”
Erin saw Embria rise. She heard more cursing from the side. Seborn was being treated as well.
“Damn. Damn Crelers—is Moore…?”
“I’m here. I—I’m okay.”
The half-Giant was lying. Parts of his chest had been eaten away. Only the [Healer] stopping his blood loss was keeping him alive. But the poison wasn’t as strong on such a huge body and the potions were working. Agonizingly slowly. Erin could see his muscles knitting together.
“He saved me. They were everywhere and he got them—”
Erin caught Embria as she stalked back to her position. The Wing Commander stared at Erin’s huge eyes. She jerked her head.
“That’s his job. Don’t worry, he’ll live. Watch Captain, Strategist! Wounded are stable! What news?”
Olesm and Zevara turned. The Watch Captain had surrounded the inn. The hill the Antinium had worked so hard to enlarge was torn to pieces. Creler bodies were everywhere, bombarded by the wall’s spells and hacked to death by the Watch and 4th Company. Zevara exhaled.
“We’re burning the bodies. But they’re in that inn. Your inn. Miss Solstice, our [Mages] found—”
Erin could feel them in there. They hadn’t emerged from the door. But they were inside. Hundreds. Maybe a thousand or more. Zevara eyed her. Then she stared up at the inn.
It was silent. Dark, windows busted. But deceptively so. After the initial rush, no more shapes emerged from the inn. Yet Erin knew, knew, they were inside.
They were waiting. They could think. Zevara turned.
“Ordinarily, I’d blow the damn inn to bits. But your reinforced walls would make that difficult. Worse, there’s that door inside. We can’t destroy it.”
“I’m not doing it for you. It’s a valuable artifact.”
“Watch Captain, there’s also the matter of the adventurers in the Bloodfields. They’re still holding out. They could be alive.”
Zevara looked up at Olesm. The Drake [Strategist] was speaking in an icy calm. Like Erin’s. She hesitated.
“They could be. But we’re not going in there unprepared. Beilmark!”
“Yes, Watch Captain?”
The Senior Guardswoman appeared. Jeiss was at her side. Everyone who could fight had been rallied. Zevara pointed.
“What’s Klbkch’s status? I want Antinium here now!”
The Gnoll nodded.
“The Antinium are moving on the inn, Watch Captain! They plan to strike from below.”
Olesm exclaimed. Zevara hesitated. But all she did was nod.
“Good! Then we’ll combine our assault when he signals readiness.”
“Watch Captain! We can’t take that inn! It’s suicide! Even if I put my best people through that door, the Crelers are waiting! We need Gold-ranks. The Heartflame—”
“Something’s wrong in the dungeon. We got a distress call. The Gold-ranks came under siege by the undead. They’re holding, but they’ve taken casualties.”
Zevara’s voice was terse. Erin looked at her.
“We can’t wait for them. The Horns—”
“I know. Wait!”
Zevara paused. She stared up at the inn. Then she came to a swift decision.
“Prepare to assault from all sides. Olesm, I want [Mages] to tear holes in there. We’re going to hammer the Crelers. Tell Klbkch to wait for my signal. And Beilmark? Get me the Minotaur prisoner. Now.”
Beilmark saw Zevara’s head snap up. She saluted.
“At once, Watch Captain”
Erin saw her run. But too slowly. Everything was too—slow—
Twenty nine minutes.
The Hive was in uproar. Klbkch strode down the tunnels as Workers and Soldiers checked the tunnels. Creler attack. They’d gotten Bird’s message. The Antinium Worker had run to deliver it himself, along with the Watch.
“Prepare three thousand Soldiers and two hundred Painted Soldiers for combat. If Crelers infiltrate the Hive, protect the Queen at all costs.”
Klbkch’s swords were drawn. Anand, Pawn, Belgrade, Yellow Splatters, Purple Smiles—all of them were following him. He snapped at Belgrade.
“You will hold the Hive. The Crelers are reported at the Bloodfields and overrunning the inn. If they attack—”
“Is Erin safe?”
“If they attack the Hive, you will hold—”
“Is Erin safe?”
Pawn shouted at Klbkch. The Revalantor nodded.
The Antinium relaxed, but only slightly. Belgrade nodded to Klbkch. Anand looked at the Revalantor.
“What is the role of the strike-force, Revalantor?”
“Assault the inn. Use the Inn-route. Is the tunnel clear?”
“Clear, Revalantor. We will emerge in the basement. How many to lead the strike?”
“I will take Painted Soldiers in.”
Yellow Splatters rumbled. Klbkch paused.
“Send in a wave of Soldiers first. One hundred.”
The [Sergeant] hesitated. But he nodded slowly.
“Very well. The survivors will become Painted Soldiers. And I will follow the hundredth.”
“I will come with—”
The word came from all three. Klbkch pointed at Anand.
“Strategist! Lead the assault, but do not enter the inn! Yellow Splatters, choose your strike force and advance! Wait for the Watch to commence their strike and breach the basement!”
“They are in position. What is our signal?”
Klbkch didn’t know. He strode for the surface.
“I will send it. Watch Captain Zevara is preparing an assault. Wait for our signal.”
Erin stared as [Mages] surrounded the inn. Olesm was looking at her.
“We’ll go through the walls. Can you—”
“Erin, I know—”
“I don’t care. What’s taking her so long?”
Zevara was standing close to the doors with Embria. 4th Company was interspersed among the Watch. Waiting. But the Watch Captain hadn’t given them the order to attack. The Crelers were sitting in the inn. Erin thought there were more than before. They might be going through the door until it ran out of mana and then coming in. There were so many. She felt them in her inn.
In her. She felt sick. Ill. But she knew the plan.
“Why is she waiting? The Horns are—”
“Erin. An Adult Creler can kill a Gold-rank team. Gold-ranks can kill them, but depending on the team—the Horns could have fled. But if—”
Erin stopped listening. She ran towards Zevara. Just as Beilmark raced out of the city with someone. Erin’s head turned. She saw adventurers and [Guards] jerk back. She stared as Zevara turned.
The Minotaur was in enchanted chains. Zevara nodded at him.
“Watch Captain. What’s going on? I heard—”
“What is he doing here?”
A Gnoll growled. Beilmark looked at Calruz with hatred. Zevara ignored them. She reached for her belt. Produced a key. She stepped over and unlocked Calruz’ chains.
Embria aimed her spear at Calruz’s heart. The Minotaur stared at Zevara.
The Watch Captain addressed one of her [Guards]. The Drake stared at her. Zevara snapped.
She seized it and handed it to Calruz. The Minotaur stared at it as his one arm rose slightly. He looked up.
“What are you doing?”
“There are Crelers in that inn. We need to take it to get to the door. The Horns of Hammerad are on the other side. They held the line so others could escape. They may be alive. But we cannot bombard the inn. We’ll bring the walls down, but someone needs to draw the Creler’s first wave. There are thousands in there.”
Erin’s eyes went wide. Embria stared up at Zevara. The others realized what the Watch Captain was saying. Calruz stared at the battleaxe as Zevara held it out to him. The Drake’s arm was beginning to tremble with the effort of holding it level with one hand.
Erin looked at Calruz. The Minotaur jerked. He turned around to her. He opened his mouth. Then turned his head to the inn.
With his one arm, the Minotaur lifted the axe.
“Did you say the Horns were inside?”
“Yes. Try to flee and I’ll have to kill you. But I won’t force you to go in there. Guards, advance!”
Zevara drew her blade. The Watch moved up the hill. Erin saw Olesm signaling her. But her eyes were on Calruz. The Minotaur looked down at the axe for one second. One [Immortal Moment]. He stared at Erin. And then he turned and surged up the hill.
“Take down your Skill, Erin!”
“[Reinforced Walls]! Off!”
Erin twisted something in her mind. Something crashed in the inn. Calruz strode up to the door. He lifted the axe. And Liscor’s Watch stared up at him.
The Minotaur raised the axe. He met Zevara’s gaze and she saluted him. Calruz turned. Erin Solstice stared into his eyes and he thought she could see his soul.
The Minotaur turned. His foot kicked the door open and the darkness waited. His death moved. And Calruz laughed.
He howled as he charged into the inn, alone. The words came from his heart. His very soul. Unbidden.
“Death before dishonor!”
The Crelers saw the huge shape tear into the inn. They rustled. And Calruz turned. His eyes were red with blood. He saw the wall, the floor, shift. Crelers covered every surface. Glowing organs and black, twisted forms. Nightmares given life. A sleeping god’s musings.
Huge Crelers clicked, sensing their prey. It was alone. The Crelers raced forwards, one all-consuming hunger. Malicious thought given form. But the Minotaur only laughed. He swung his axe and bellowed a challenge.
They swarmed at him. He crushed them with his feet, striding into death. They tore his skin, bit his very bones. But they could not break him. He had already been broken once. His soul screamed one word.
Honor. The Minotaur roared and the Crelers fell back. His axe cleaved through a giant Creler’s torso. The Crelers surrounded him, cutting off his escape. But onwards the Minotaur charged.
Watch Captain Zevara heard Calruz’s scream. But she held her claw up. For one agonizing second. Then five. And in that moment, the Minotaur refused to die. He faced the thousands of Rhir’s nightmares alone. And they could not bring him down. Then she pointed.
The Watch surged up the hills. The first spell blew open the eastern wall. 4th Company, led by Embria, charged inside. Erin saw the walls exploding as spells brought them down. She stared, feeling her eyes sting. But it didn’t matter.
The walls of The Wandering Inn came down. [Guards] and adventurers flung magic and loosed arrows into the gaps. They advanced as a wave of skittering horrors broke across their ranks. And below, the first Antinium exploded up into the basement. Soldiers poured upwards, attacking the Crelers who’d fallen through the floorboards. They climbed up, grappling with Crelers, smashing them.
Yellow Splatters was the seventieth. He stepped over a fallen Soldier, charged, and met a Juvenile Creler. Anand was shouting.
“Flood the basement! Bring down the floor and go up the ramps!”
The inn was collapsing. Crelers boiled out the gaps. Erin saw them fighting with Drakes and Gnolls. Bringing them down. The few Silver-ranks able to fight were fighting alongside the Watch. Erin thought she heard Calruz’s roar. She pointed at the inn.
[Inn’s Aura]. Erin focused it, her very being of the inn. As Calruz went through the door, as the Antinium swarmed upwards, Erin focused.
She began trembling. Olesm looked at her.
Her hands were shaking uncontrollably. Then her entire body. Inside, the Crelers slowed. The Minotaur brought his axe down, crushing a massive Creler’s body. He roared, tearing them off him. The Crelers came at him. But slower. Just a touch—
“Erin! Stop! You can’t use an aura like that!”
Lyonette was grabbing at Erin. The [Innkeeper] didn’t hear her. The inn was breaking. So was her body. But the Crelers were slowing. They fought her. They fought the Watch, the adventurers, the Antinium. They fought and died. That was foregone. But it was taking too long.
Erin collapsed. She felt Lyonette and Olesm catch her. Her head was ringing. She realized later she’d burst a blood vessel in her nose and eye. It wasn’t bad.
Others had suffered worse. Zevara stood in the inn, looking around. Her voice didn’t tremble. She didn’t let it.
The Crelers were dead. They were hacked to pieces, vaporized. The Watch was still making sure they were dead. The basement was a sea of bodies. Some of them Antinium.
The floor was collapsing into the basement in places. And the upper floors were exposed, falling to pieces as the destroyed rafters and support beams began to tear down the inn.
Erin walked through her home in a dream. A Minotaur lay next to a table. She bent to check if he was breathing.
“Erin, stay back! We need to sweep the area—”
It was blank. Out of magic. Erin looked around.
“I need [Mages].”
“Get me [Mages]! Now! Erin, stand back! If that door opens and the Crelers come out—”
Zevara roared. Embria took up a position.
“4th Company, assemble!”
Forty seven minutes.
The door flickered open. Erin saw milling Crelers—but the Watch Captain slammed the door too fast. She switched the dial.
Zevara snarled at Olesm. She yanked the door open and Grimalkin appeared.
Jelaqua hurtled through the doorway. She stared at the carnage in the inn. Grimalkin’s eyes widened. There was a gasp from the other side.
“Watch Captain, status?”
“We have the Crelers in the inn! There is still an adult and possibly more than half left in the Bloodfields!”
Grimalkin stepped through the door. Zevara closed it. She turned the dial to the Bloodfields. Klbkch was in the inn, arguing with Yellow Splatters and the Antinium.
“Watch Captain, the Free Antinium are not permitted to march without direct authorization from you and the Council—”
“Where’s Seborn? Moore?”
“They’re alive. But the Horns—”
Jelaqua turned. Zevara turned to Grimalkin.
“Magus Grimalkin, take an advance party. Gold-ranks only, and Wing Commander Embria’s best! The Watch will reinforce the Gold-rank teams in the dungeon and cover their escape! Strategist Olesm, take twelve squads and Jeiss and Beilmark! The rest will follow me through the door. Anyone who can still fight!”
“Hang back. Taking an unprepared army against an adult is a slaughter. They can fire projectiles and they’re resistant to magic. I cannot protect the Watch—”
Erin wanted to scream. But every second was a delay. Zevara was nodding.
“Magus Grimalkin will clear the way. We go on his signal. If there are multiple adults, we retreat at once! But an adult cannot be allowed to escape and breed! Form up!”
The Watch was flooding the inn. Yellow Splatters moved out of the basement. Anand grabbed Erin, speaking to her. She pointed.
Grimalkin. Embria and three [Captains] and their [Lieutenants]. Jelaqua. Tekshia. A Gold-rank team. The [Sinew Magus] looked around.
“On my mark.”
Fifty nine minutes.
He held up four claws. Counted down. Erin watched him swing the door open. The [Sinew Magus] pointed. There was an explosion.
Jelaqua leapt through first. The others surged through after her. Zevara and Yellow Splatters waited until they heard Grimalkin’s voice. Then they were coming through.
Erin watched the Watch disappear. The others fell back, Relc was there, leaning on one of the [Guards]. He stared through the open door, cursed. Erin wanted to see, but the others were holding her back.
One hour. Maybe longer.
“Pull back to the city. Wounded first! I want [Archers] on the walls! Wall spells ready to go! Encircle the inn—[Guards] on horseback only! Prepare to engage and fall back if Captain Zevara retreats!”
Relc bellowed. The [Guards] stared at him. The Drake howled at them.
They flooded out of the inn. Erin tried to go for the door. She had to see. But hands were pulling her back. Anand was speaking.
“Belgrade, form up the strike force at the entrance to the Hive—”
“Are they alive? Are they—”
Toren saw the group depart the inn. He stared, but he didn’t see Erin’s face among the confusion. Yet—he knew.
He stood there, looking up at the sky. Looking down at his bones, feeling the magic in him fading. Toren reached for a mana potion, counted how many he had left.
He stared towards the inn, observing as Liscor’s Watch surrounded it. Searching the faces. He had seen Lyonette. He paused. And the inn stood there. And so did the skeleton.