6.66 H

The Creler spoke to Yvlon. As the thousands poured across the landscape, as the giant adult crawled forwards, surrounded by its kin, she heard it speak.

Not in words. But she heard it nonetheless. It spoke in the same language as Skinner, when she had beheld the creature in Liscor’s crypt. When she had fled, and her team and her dreams had died in darkness. But this thing was beyond even Skinner. It was more than just mindless destruction. It thought. It gloated.

Yvlon turned her head as she ran. And she felt the Creler’s amusement at all that had come before it. The useless bloodshed and hatred. It exposed her flaws with its magnificent, terrible, simple evil. Everything paled beside it.

Look at me, it laughed. Look, and see how petty your squabbles are. How futile your hopes and dreams. I am the end of all things. I shall consume the world and leave naught behind. I am your death.

“The door.”

Someone panted. Yvlon turned her head and saw the Silver-rank teams. They were making for the door to Erin’s inn. Behind them, the tide of Crelers spread out, some pausing to devour plants, the Bloodfields, the rest coming on. And the adventurers, monster slayers, fled.

They ran. Adventurers. Men and women. Humans, Drakes, and Gnolls. Mortal souls, fleeing a real monster. She couldn’t blame them.

But they’d never make it. The door was closed. Yvlon saw the scrum around it, people desperately pounding on the door.

[Message] spell! Tell Erin to open the door!

Ceria screamed at Montressa. The [Aegiscaster] tried.

“The Mage’s Guild—there’s no one at the inn! I’m trying, but no one’s near the inn.

Panting. Her breath caught in her lungs as her arms pumped. She was slowing, unconsciously. Yvlon turned her head again, measuring. The Crelers could outrun a horse over time. The smaller ones. And they were overtaking the slower adventurers. The door wasn’t open.

“We’ll never make it.”

Yvlon heard the distant voice. She saw Stan, looking back, seeing what she did. The Crelers would catch them before they got to the closed door.

In that moment, Yvlon saw both past and future. She remembered a horde of undead. She saw the Crelers advancing. She turned her head and saw the Silver Spears. Her team, falling, fleeing, fighting and running.

She saw Isceil stumble. His right arm was gone below the elbow. The adult Creler had torn it away. Spat something. Beza seized Isceil.

Keep going. Keep—

Yvlon slowed. She saw Stan look back at her. The old man wavered.

Yvlon.

“Go.”

The [Wounded Warrior] felt dreamy. Her head was light. But she was also focused. She drew her sword and turned. Around her, adventurers were slowing. They had the same thought.

Horns of Hammerad! Stand and fight!

Ceria turned. Ksmvr was already running backwards, his bow drawn, the Flamecoat Dagger in his off-hand. Montressa looked backwards, eyes wide. Beza stumbled as her head turned and Isceil looked up. The Wistram [Mages] turned back, staring.

For a moment, Yvlon thought they were alone. She looked around, her pulse drowning out voices, the sounds of the advancing Crelers.

“Pisces…?”

He was still running. His [Flash Steps] carried him across the ground, faster than anyone else. He looked back, seeing his teammates stopping. Yvlon turned her head and met his eyes.

“Pisces.”

The [Necromancer] hesitated. He looked at the distant door, and then he whirled. He came back. And he wasn’t the only one.

“We’ll hold for one minute. Just a minute.”

Ceria whispered. Yvlon looked at her silently and the half-Elf met her eyes. They had a debt to pay, the two of them. It was fitting. But they couldn’t do it alone.

A running figure turned back. Captain Stan whirled. He shouted as he drew two crossbows and fired.

Boltspitters, hold the line!

His team slowed. Two ran on, but the rest came back. Alais’ team slowed. The [Aeromancer] raised her staff.

Thunder’s Solace, to me!

More adventurers were stopping. There was no wild bravery in it. They’d just made the simple calculation that Yvlon had. Someone had to stay.

The Crelers screamed as they came. Yvlon saw a rank of men wearing armor surge back towards her. Walt, his face white, his mace raised, raised his shield. He bellowed.

“The Ensoldier Shields stand here! We stand here!

They came. All of them. Tommie, Belt—Yvlon saw them look at her and nod. Someone roared.

More. The rest were still running. Captain Kam, horseless, turned. She cried out.

“Whistling Bows—”

Gone. They’d left her behind. So the [Bow Rider] advanced alone, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the others. She drew an arrow and loosed it, drew another one, her hands moving in a blur. Yvlon saw a single Creler stumble, fall into the roiling mass coming towards her.

They’re staying? Are they mad?

Beza slowed. Palt, Ulinde, Montressa—they looked back. The Centaur was incredulous. Montressa stared back at Pisces. But Isceil turned back.

Isceil!

The Drake shook off her hand as she grabbed at him. He stared down at the stump leaking blood. He looked at her.

“Let go of me, Montressa. I have to stay. We have to stay.”

“Madness. There’s no stopping that.”

Beza looked at the adult. It was so big. And the other Crelers—the Minotauress wavered, looking at the closed door. But Isceil walked forwards. He pointed his other claw and fire erupted in a line, burning towards the Crelers. He looked back.

“Go, if you want. But Drakes do not run. Drakes do not run!

He came forwards. The [Mages] stopped. Then they followed Isceil. It was that or run. Such an easy choice. And yet—

More teams turned. Yvlon didn’t even know their names. But the Drakes and Gnolls set themselves next to Humans. And Yvlon looked at them. She saw a Drake with wildflower reds and yellows on her scales, aiming a crossbow.

A Gnoll with short-cropped fur, dyed black across half his head, lifting an axe. As Yvlon’s gaze passed over them in a fraction of a second, it felt like forever. She met a Gnoll captain’s eyes and he lifted a paw. She nodded to him.

“Barriers, there and there! They’ll cover us! Break them up—stagger the lines! Enchanted armor and line-holders to the front!”

Stan pointed, bellowing. The adventurers moved. The line in the grass grew, spreading out, forming two ranks. It became a formation, a half-circle. Yvlon was on the outmost edge. She saw walls of ice raising around her, creating shields to her sides.

“[Shield Wall Formation]!”

Walt’s team formed a single line to her left, shields raised. Another adventurer planted a tower shield in the ground.

“[Tower Guard’s Bulwark].”

Adventurers in lighter armor took the second ranks. The third rank stood behind barriers. Seconds. They had seconds. The Crelers were making for the spot of defiance.

“Hold. Hold the lines. If they swarm you, you’re dead! Potions don’t work if they poison—”

Stan was shouting, but Yvlon didn’t hear anymore. She waited. Arrows and spells flew over her head, disappearing among the first wave of Crelers. It didn’t seem to make a difference.

One last look back. To her left, to her right. Adventurers met her gaze in that moment that dragged into eternity. Familiar faces and strange ones. She would remember them for the rest of her life. Yvlon saluted with her sword and raised it.

“Silver and steel.”

She looked for her team. Pisces was standing next to Ceria. He raised a hand and she saw black magic strike a Creler. It collapsed, dead. Ceria was still pulling ice from the ground. She didn’t see Yvlon.

But an Antinium stood at her back. The Human woman looked and saw Ksmvr. He had let go of his bow. Now, the Forceshield was in his hand, a shortsword and the dagger in the other. He looked at her.

“You must not die. My team must not. Run away, Yvlon. Please?”

She looked at him. And she wanted to tell him…but there was no time. The Crelers were sixty feet away. Fifty.

She hugged him and kissed him on his cold cheek once. Then they turned. Ksmvr fell back.

Yvlon turned. The larval shapes leapt. She swung her sword and the adventurers met the Crelers. Yvlon’s enchanted blade slashed through two Crelers. Dozens crashed into the ice walls surrounding her. More flooded past her, trying to surround her. They raced up her armor, biting, tearing—the enchanted metal held.

Break them apart! Don’t let them swarm you! Hold the mage-barriers!

The [Wounded Warrior] swung her sword, cleaving three in half. She shouted as the ground exploded around her. Arrows pierced the Crelers. Shards of ice struck Yvlon’s armor, blasting Crelers off them as they raced for her head. She saw a huge shape, swung.

The juvenile Creler charging at her recoiled as the magical blade shattered part of its carapace. It tried to rear up and cover Yvlon. Ksmvr leapt forwards. His Forceshield took the impact. The Antinium stabbed with his dagger and the huge Creler burst into flames. Yvlon swung her sword low, cutting Crelers down. She saw an [Ice Wall] rising, cutting off the wave. Yvlon charged left, towards another gap.

Magic and steel. The first wave of Crelers were funneled into gaps, and the adventurers cut them apart. Yvlon saw a Drake falling as she screamed, six Crelers digging into her leather armor. The Gnolls with her ran back as the Crelers poured through a gap. The [Wounded Warrior] ran towards it.

Fire and lightning. Yvlon saw a tempest of fire and electricity flash past her. The Crelers, the dead Drake, all vanished. A gap appeared in the wave of oncoming Crelers. Isceil exhaled. And Crelers died. He turned, and the magical breath swept the ranks of Crelers. Palt and Ulinde stood with him, linked.

Burn! I’ll burn you all the way back to the blighted lands!

The Drake screamed. The adventurers looked up. Ceria pointed.

“[Fireball].”

“[Lightning Bolt].”

The [Mages] were casting magic. Alais’ spell blasted Crelers back as the warriors cut Crelers apart, refusing to give. Yvlon saw Walt blocking a huge Creler tearing at his armor and shield. She lifted her sword and brought it down. The chitin covering the Creler cracked. Orange blood ran from its innards. Yvlon swung again and her heavy Sword of Weight crushed the thing’s head. It still tried to move, but Walt shoved it back.

“We can do it! Hold! Hold!

He called at his team. Yvlon saw a glow of magic as Montressa raised her staff.

“[Five-fold Arcane Barrier].”

The [Aegiscaster] was blocking nearly fifty feet by herself. Her glowing shields kept back the black shapes, the glowing forms pressed up against her barrier. Her staff glowed as the brass orb spat lightning. Yvlon felt her heard surge. She turned—

And she felt it laughing.

The adult. It had stopped as the adventurers halted the first wave of Crelers. Now, the house-sized Creler opened its—mouth? The maw gaped, revealing orange light as tearing mandibles and incisors parted. It spat, straight at the adventurers. At Isceil, burning the Crelers down by the dozens with each second.

The same thing that had taken his arm. Now, Yvlon saw what it was. Pieces of its own body. Shards, like Ceria’s [Ice Spike] spell, but dozens of them. Faster than an arrow. Shell or bone or—the barrier protecting Isceil shattered. Montressa screamed. She planted her staff, desperately reforming the spell.

Hold that barrier! Hold it!

Stan shouted as he reloaded his crossbows. He looked up. The adventurers dove. Isceil turned. He saw the adult opening its mouth wider, aiming—

The second volley tore him apart. Or it should have. The Drake vanished. Palt’s illusion disappeared and Isceil appeared to the left. He roared, throwing a [Fireball] at the adult. The flames burst uselessly on the thing’s head.

“It’s useless! It can’t be hurt by pure magic! [Stone Spear]!”

Beza bellowed. The Minotauress raced forwards, and her hand found Caddin’s back. The [Spellscribe] read from the scrolls of parchment in her hand.

“[Stone Skin]. [Haste].”

Caddin glowed for a second. Then he parried a Creler leaping at him, knocking it down. Another tried to tear at his wooden armor. But his skin resisted the cuts! He became a blur and Beza ran past him. The Minotauress stomped a Creler flat. She touched the Ensoldier Shields as Yvlon and Ksmvr tore at the Crelers trying to cover them.

Walt’s armor was failing. The thick steel was being cut by claws. Beza placed a hand on his back.

“[Lion’s Strength]!”

Walt’s eyes went wide. He raised his mace and brought it down with a roar. A Creler turned to paste. Yvlon felt a touch on her arm.

“[Haste].”

The [Wounded Warrior] blurred. Her sword cut two Crelers apart mid-leap. Yvlon advanced, cutting everything apart in a whirlwind of steel. Ksmvr looked around hopefully, but Beza was running past him, towards another breach. The Minotauress’ scrolls, her fortune, spilled from her pouch.

Every coin. Every moment used, to buy another second. By Isceil, Ulinde was casting with both wands. She was throwing [Fireballs] as fast as she could point her wands. The [Spellslinger]’s spells halted a section of the waves of Crelers for a second. Then two. Then five. Then she faltered and the rest charged through the burning ground, over the bodies of their comrades.

But they were stopping. Ceria shouted triumphantly. She and Pisces were throwing spells as a Bone Horror held one of the gaps. The Warbear tore at the Crelers, who bit at the bones, trying to get past it.

“[Deathbolt]. Ceria, there—”

Pisces pointed. Ceria saw adventurers falling back, overwhelmed. She pointed.

“[Ice Wall]!”

She froze a group of Crelers in place, the [Ice Wall] spell engulfing the smaller ones. But the Crelers began heating up, melting through the magical ice. But it slowed them.

Hold! Boltspitters, there! [Volley Fire]!

Stan’s crossbows shot as his team shot around another group of adventurers. They were falling. Ceria saw another Human go down, his chest laid open. A Junior Creler raced over him. Isceil blasted it with frost. He gasped, his breath rattling in his chest.

“Just another minute! We’re holding them back! We’re—”

Ceria looked over her shoulder. The half-Elf froze.

The door still wasn’t open. More Crelers were advancing at the group of adventurers and workers around the door. Ceria saw them fighting there. She looked around.

“The door—Erin—”

Across the ground, the adult Creler charged. It surged for the adventurers. Montressa du Valeross looked up. She raised her staff.

“[Fivefold—

The adult hit the layered wards with an impact that tore the air. Adventurers looked up. They saw the magic flicker. For a second it held. Then two.

And then the magical barriers splintered. The adult tore through the lines, breaking Ceria’s [Ice Walls]. It was headed for one figure.

Isceil. The Drake stared up at the adult as the lesser Crelers poured through the gaps after it. The adult Creler descended on Isceil. The Drake breathed flames once, roaring his defiance—countless limbs tore him to pieces.

No!

Ulinde blasted the adult with [Fireballs]. Rays of magic shot from her wands, slicing through the air. The adult turned. Scythes cut at the Selphid. It spat, and a group of Gnolls vanished.

The adventurers looked up. They saw the giant Creler turning, tearing apart the barriers protecting them. The adventurers fell back. Their formation broke.

Horns, to me! To me!

Yvlon ran, hearing Ceria’s voice. Scuttling shapes raced around her, biting, hounding the adventurers. The adult was turning, searching for a new target. It tore the lines of adventures in half. Yvlon saw it fix on a new target.

A gleaming wall of ice rose. The Creler smashed through it. But more ice was rising. Ceria Springwalker stood on a bluff amid the mud and grass. She was making a fortress of ice, as the adventurers tried to hold the gaps funneling the Crelers.

Fall back! Fall back!

Another voice. A weak, shimmering barrier was holding back Crelers opposite the walls of ice. Montressa and the three Wistram [Mages] were protecting the other group of adventurers retreating towards the door. Crelers encircled both positions. Now, they overran both sides, advancing as the adventurers tried to hold them off another second.

And the adult watched. It was laughing. Yvlon was certain.

“You. You have to die.”

The [Wounded Warrior] whispered. She saw adventurers loosing arrows. A [Piercing Shot] from Kam’s bow shattered on the Creler’s armor. The adult was too strong. Too tough.

Even the smaller ones. Yvlon saw Walt’s team trying to batter down a junior Creler, the thick plates covering the Creler shrugging off the [Warrior]’s blows. Yvlon ran forwards. She gripped her sword, brought it up and down.

The Creler’s armor cracked. The junior Creler collapsed under the weight of the blow. Yvlon’s enchanted sword shone as Walt’s team attacked the spot where she’d broken the Creler’s armor. Yvlon whirled. Her sword cleaved through one of the smaller Crelers. She stared at it.

At the adult. Yvlon began to run. She didn’t hear Walt screaming at her to get back. She didn’t see Ksmvr running after her, leaping into a wall of Crelers, slashing.

Someone had to kill it. The adult was gloating, confident in its armor. It noticed Yvlon as she surged through the Crelers.

Cover her!

Ceria screamed. Stan pointed and his team loosed their crossbows. On the other side, Ulinde threw spells from her one remaining wand. Pisces pointed.

“[Deathbolt].”

The magic struck the adult Creler as it aimed its jaws at Ceria, lazily. The Creler jerked. It aimed up and Ceria and Pisces dove. The top of the ice fortress vanished as the projectiles tore it apart. And Yvlon reached the Creler’s head.

It looked down at her. Sunken eyes—dozens of them—gleamed at her. The entire thing was armor. It had no weak underbelly, no gaps. But it had a head. The [Wounded Warrior] shouted as she ducked under one of the adult’s limbs, slashing at her.

There. She aimed for a smooth section just past the eye. The head. Her Sword of Weight cut the air. Yvlon swung her blade with all her strength.

It could do it. It was a weapon worthy of a Gold-rank adventurer. The blade struck the thick armor across the Creler’s head.

And rebounded.

Yvlon felt the ringing impact. She stared down at the blade as it shivered and bounced off the Creler’s head. The adult turned. Long limbs stretched out, thin, sharper than steel.

Yvlon Byres swung again. Harder. Her reinforced arms brought the blade up. Slashing down. It struck.

Cut away a sliver! Crack! Yvlon screamed. But the blade just rebounded. Yvlon stared down at it.

An enchanted weapon. A powerful artifact taken from Albez.

Magic, nonetheless. It failed to break the adult’s carapace on the second swing. Then the third.

Yvlon, move!

Ceria screamed, but the [Wounded Warrior] was transfixed. She swung her sword, hitting the same spot. And the adult looked down at her. Yvlon stared up as the creature moved, hundreds of segments shifting, sunken eyes staring. Laughing with hideous glee.

She swung again. And she saw a flash of movement. A cutting limb. She twisted. Felt something touch—her—

Yvlon looked down. Her right arm was gone. Ceria screamed as the [Wounded Warrior] staggered backwards. Another slashing limb came for her face—Ksmvr leapt and blocked it with his shield. It threw him through the air.

“My arm.”

Yvlon looked around for it. She laughed as she saw the perfect cut just below her shoulder. The cut had gone through her arm, into her enchanted breastplate. Just like that. She giggled, helplessly.

“That was so easy. Why didn’t someone do it earlier?”

She sank to her knees as the Crelers laughed and swarmed around her. Looking around vaguely for her sword. Crelers bit at her. Blood ran from her shoulder. And the adult laughed. Yvlon wanted to laugh too. At the bitterness, the helplessness, the unfair nature of it all. And her arm—she saw it on the ground, still holding the hilt of her sword. She looked down at the blood covering her armor.

Funny. It was so terribly funny. Even now, she didn’t feel a thing.

 

—-

 

“They will not bring it down.”

Az’kerash, the Necromancer, spoke coldly. He watched the battle through the scrying spell, through Ijvani’s eyes. He watched as Pisces whirled, blasting another Creler with a [Deathbolt] spell. The [Necromancer] frantically pointed and the Bone Horror rose again, snapping, the bear heads biting.

But it was third time the Bone Horror had been animated. And the Crelers swarmed over it, biting through bone.

And the door was still not open. Now, the workers and adventurers were fighting Crelers too. Az’kerash watched. It had been eight minutes.

Eight minutes, and the adult Creler had torn the adventurers apart. Lazily, it surged forwards, ramming into the ice barriers Ceria had conjured. The ice fortress held as adventurers fought the smaller Crelers. But the adult—it turned, shot more projectiles. Montressa’s barrier held again.

Arrogance. The Creler was just toying with the adventurers. It feasted on their suffering, letting the offspring do the killing. Az’kerash stared down at the adult. If it had one flaw, it was that. The arrogance of power. Intelligence beyond savage hunger.

And yet—the Necromancer spoke curtly.

“They cannot defeat it with magic alone. Adult Crelers are the death of everything. And yet it can be done. If they had warhammers, if they surrounded it. But there are too many larval-stage Crelers and juvenile-stage ones.”

Master? What should I do?

Ijvani’s voice came through his mental link with his Chosen. The skeleton was nervous. This had not been planned. But her master was calm. He ignored Ijvani, appraising the battle. His eyes fell on Yvlon.

She was grabbing at her sword, lost. Shell-shocked. He saw her blood running onto the ground. The adult had ignored Yvlon after cutting her arm off. And baby Crelers were swarming around her. They would have killed the blonde-haired warrior. But a shape danced around her.

Ksmvr. The [Skirmisher] slashed, his shield raised. His shortsword ran through Crelers, his dagger set others on fire. They covered him, biting, tearing at the Antinium. But his carapace was thick. His Ring of Barkskin made his body stronger.

But they were eating him. And yet, the Antinium never stopped. He tore Crelers off his body as he protected Yvlon. Az’kerash watched.

Antinium. A Prognugator? None of his artifacts can hurt the adult. But that sword—no. The [Warrior] has lost her arm. The adult is too powerful. Too cunning. It will let nothing break its armor. These adventurers cannot stop it. The only logical choice is to flee.”

He looked back at Pisces. The [Necromancer] was gasping. His [Deathbolt] spells were killing Crelers, but there were hundreds for every one Pisces brought down. His head was turning. Az’kerash nodded.

“Ijvani, wait for Pisces to retreat.”

Master?

“The adventurers are breaking.”

The Necromancer’s voice was blank. He looked down, watching the adult pause. Contempt. It ran through both beings, Necromancer and Creler. And he had it for all he beheld. But his eyes flicked back to Pisces. Then to Montressa and the remaining Wistram [Mages] slowly retreating away from the bastion made of ice. His lip curled into a sneer.

“They are just adventurers. They will flee. So will Wistram’s [Mages]. Those not blinded by pride. You will unleash your magic then, to cover Pisces’ retreat. Raise physical barrier spells such as [Wall of Stone] to impede the adult. Do not use [Blackfire Fireball] on the adult directly; it will negate the majority of the spell. Prepare personal protective wards to cast on the young [Necromancer].”

Yes, Master.

The Necromancer turned. He shook his head, watching as some of the adventurers began to run, fleeing towards the door. It was still not open.

“They will run. And betray each other, before the end. It is what they do.”

Who, Master?

Az’kerash sighed. He closed his eyes, bitterly.

“Everyone.”

 

—-

 

Isceil was dead. Just like that. In a moment. The thing had seized him up, broken her barriers. Broken magic, all her years of craft in a second.

It wasn’t fair. Montressa was sobbing. Tears ran from her eyes as she raised more magical wards. [Forcewalls], [Barriers of Air], [Stone Spires]—anything to keep the Crelers back.

But the adult just spat and tore, and her protections broke. The [Aegiscaster] screamed as they tore, taking parts of her with it. The backlash hit her. She felt the mana in her veins revolt—

Montressa! You have to keep the spells up!

Palt shouted at her. The Centaur put a hand on her shoulder, and stabilized her through their link. Magic rushed through Montressa. She planted her staff and another layer of gold magic appeared. Montressa aimed at the adult and screamed.

[Lighting Bolt]!

The brass orb flashed, discharging its battery of power. The adult paused as lightning struck its body, deflecting. Dissipating.

Stop aiming at it!

The Centaur turned, pointing his fingers. A rain of arrows made of light struck Crelers advancing from the left. Montressa saw Ulinde, fighting alongside Beza. The Selphid had lost her left shoulder and arm. Crelers had eaten part of her face, but the [Spellslinger] was still fighting. Beza was crushing Crelers, tearing them off her, the last of her scrolls flashing as she used them.

“[Stone Spear]! [Acid Orb]!”

Spells flashed around the [Mages]. Adventurers were fighting, still. But the adult was unharmed. It opened its jaws and—Montressa saw her barrier break. A man looked down at the jagged spike impaling his stomach and began screaming. White-faced, Montressa raised her staff. Palt shouted at her.

“Another barrier—Montressa!

It wasn’t fair. Why could something like this exist? Montressa stared at the walls of ice still rising. She saw Ceria pointing her wand. Adventurers fought at her position, holding back Crelers swarming around the base of the walls of ice, climbing, being thrown back.

Their forces were cut in two. Half were nearer to the door and the fighting around it. The other half was protected by Ceria’s ice walls, fighting in the center of the Creler mass. Montressa looked over her shoulder.

“The door! Why isn’t it open?

“Montressa, we’ll give you our mana! Keep up your barriers!”

Palt gripped Montressa, bringing her back into reality. Her wards were the only thing keeping the Crelers back from their position. She tried again. But then, Montressa saw a flicker of white. She turned.

A Bone Horror was tearing left, towards her position. It was throwing Crelers off it, but the burning eyes were looking towards her. Right at her.

Montressa froze.

“No, no, no—

She jerked. Palt looked around.

“Montressa, what—it’s just an undead! No! Montressa!

The magical walls protecting them disappeared. Montressa’s focus vanished. Ulinde screamed as Crelers covered her, passing through the vanishing walls of magic. Beza grabbed for her and a juvenile Creler knocked her off her feet. The Minotauress screamed.

No!

The undead filled Montressa’s sight. Palt cursed at Montressa. But the young woman was panicking. She let go of her staff. Tried to run.

Montressa!

The Centaur fanned his fingers, pointed. Smoke and mist covered the adventurers and [Mages] and the Crelers lost track of them for a second. But the illusion lasted only a moment. There were too many and they were too—foreign—the Centaur gasped.

“Montressa, come back—”

She was fleeing from the Bone Horror. Crying like a child again. Even now. Palt swore at her then. He cursed her as Crelers raced at him, looking for Ulinde and Beza.

“Damn you.”

He tried to reach her. But Montressa had stumbled towards the Crelers, mindless. She saw them too late and flung up her arms. She screamed as they bit—

A rapier stabbed one of the Crelers into the ground. Pisces let go of it, pointing.

“[Deathbolt]. [Deathbolt].

The death magic struck two Crelers, sending them backwards, limbs curling upwards. Pisces grabbed Montressa, flickered—he reappeared behind Palt.

[Flash Step]. The Centaur jerked. He saw an adventurer throw three Tripvine Bags. Another swung his axe.

“[Whirlwind Cleave]!”

For a moment, the Crelers fell back. Montressa was still screaming, crying. Pisces looked down as she flailed at him. He shook her as Palt grabbed the fallen staff. The Bone Horror rose behind him, holding the Crelers back and Montressa froze.

Montressa! Mons!

“No! Monster! Monster!

Montressa was incoherent. Pisces shook her harder. The [Necromancer] hesitated. Palt was raising a hand to slap Montressa. He saw Pisces reach out. And he took Montressa’s hand.

It was the first time they’d touched since Wistram. Montressa jerked, filled with panic. Then she looked up at Pisces. The fear filling her vanished. Palt whispered a [Calm] spell, but it was Pisces who held Montressa’s hand. With the other, he pointed. The second Bone Horror rose, whip-like arms slashing at the Crelers. Pisces looked at Montressa.

“You fool. There are worse monsters than me.”

They looked at each other. Then Montressa grabbed her staff. She raised it, and the magical shields appeared again. Just in time.

Too late. Palt galloped towards Ulinde. The Selphid’s body was jerking, but the Crelers had eaten her face, parts of her legs and torso—Beza tore a Creler loose from her arm. She reached for a potion and drank it. She stared down at the holes in her body.

“Poison.”

Despair filled her tone. She sank as Pisces covered them. Palt dragged his friends back. He turned his head.

“We can’t hold out any longer. The poison—”

The Creler’s poison was eating away at the adventurers. They were drinking stamina potions and healing potions, but both were failing as the poison worked its way into their blood. Only a few were unharmed. The rest couldn’t heal.

“We’re going to die.”

Ulinde spoke quietly. Palt knelt next to her. He dragged her onto his back.

“No. No, we’ll live. We’ll—”

His head jerked up. He looked at something. From her position next to Ceria, Kam lowered her bow for a second. The [Bow Rider]’s bleeding fingers dropped an arrow and she pointed.

Look!

Ceria turned. Her eyes went wide. The half-Elf gaped. Then she realized the huge, flying shapes coming at them weren’t flying Crelers. No—they were—

Moths! Dead gods! Take cover!

The half-Elf’s voice was filled with despair. But Stan was laughing. She didn’t understand why. Then she saw the moths descending. The red tide of Crelers turned as the moths flew down at them, biting, shrieking.

Face-Eater Moths. There must have been another colony in the foothills. They came at the Crelers in a mindless rage, and the Crelers were attacking them. The adult whirled and its wings fanned. It leapt and the adventurers ducked. The adult’s wings fanned the air and the wind blasted the adventurers flat like a spell as it flew, straight into the Face-Eater moth clouds.

The Face-Eater Moths darted at it. The adult Creler cut them apart, and the moths scattered. One shot past Ceria and the [Cryomancer] raised her wand. But the moth just tore at a Creler, biting at it with its razor-mouth.

“How—”

“They hate Crelers! This is our chance!”

Stan was laughing in delight. He pointed and Ceria saw. The wave of Crelers that had gone after the adventurers was splintering, dividing. The Crelers were doubling back, tearing into the Bloodfields, eating the grass, the insects, the Blood Slimes—and everything else. They brought down a Watchertree, ignoring the stabbing roots that killed scores of them.

But everything was attacking the Crelers. Moths, the Bloodfields—everything. The things from Rhir were everything’s foe. Insect-beds in the Bloodfields erupted and the small, vicious insects were torn to shreds as they swarmed over the larger Crelers. Even the floods of insects were of this world. Part of it, destined to die and become food in time. But Crelers were not.

“We can do it. Regroup! Get to Montressa’s side! Around the door!”

The half-Elf was laughing. She pointed. As the press of Crelers cleared up, the Ensoldier Shields, Thunder’s Solace, the other adventurers broke from the icy fortress, making a dash for it. Ceria saw a shape amid the fighting.

“Ksmvr!”

He was supporting someone. Yvlon. The [Wounded Warrior] was holding her arm. Ksmvr let go of her, raising his shield, as Ceria slid down the ice walls, towards him. Stan shouted something.

Ceria! Watch out, it’s coming back!

“What? What is—”

Ceria looked up and saw the adult Creler flying at them. It was roaring. The half-Elf saw the remains of the Face-Eater moth swarm. She saw its maw open—a flash—

Ahead of her, Kam disappeared. The [Bow Rider] vanished in a plume of dirt. Ceria stared in blank shock.

“Kam? K—

The adult Creler landed. It turned, aiming again.

A second spray. Ksmvr’s Forceshield caught part of it. Ice shattered around Ceria. She felt something tug at her side. Looked down and saw the ice shrapnel in her side, the torn robes. Saw the blood beginning to stain her clothing.

“Ow.”

“Bring it down! Kill it! Everyone, together!

Stan bellowed desperately. The adult slashed towards him. Belt raised his shield—a leg went through it and his body like a spear. Walt howled, attacking the leg—it knocked him flying. The adult Creler bit an adventurer in half.

Kill it!

“Acid jar! Take cover!”

A Drake pulled out a glowing jar of green acid. Ceria fumbled for a potion, drinking it. The adult Creler turned as the Drake threw. It spat—everything above the Drake’s torso vanished. But the jar of acid flew.

The glowing green jar hit the Creler across the head. The burning acid covered the chitinous armor and Ceria cheered as smoke rose—

The Creler shook itself and the spray of acid flew, covering the ground, adventurers, other Crelers. It clawed at the place where it was struck, then paused. The acid smoked on its armor. And then the smoke stopped. Dully, Ceria stared at the adult.

“Even that?”

“There’s no way to kill it. We can’t get through its armor.”

Stan’s voice was shaking. The [Crossbowman] looked around. The adventurers looked at each other. Tommie spoke.

“From the inside, then. We get inside and hack its guts out. That’s the only way.”

The man lifted his sword. His shield-arm was torn to pieces, and his shield had been ripped apart by Creler’s jaws. Ceria stared at him.

“Tommie, no! That’s insane!”

The Human man looked at Ceria, and then Yvlon and Ksmvr. He nodded to them.

“I owe you one. Belt, cover me.”

The [Warrior] turned. His friend grabbed his axe. Walt shouted, but the two Ensoldier Shields charged. The adult was cutting down another Silver-rank team.

Tommie!

Ceria shouted. She raised her wand and a wall of ice shot upwards, blocking Crelers swarming from the side. Belt raised his shield.

“[Target Shield]!”

The Creler’s head turned. It loosed another salvo. Belt vanished. Tommie ran on. He screamed, charging at the Creler. It reared up, and Ceria saw Tommie plant his feet.

“[Armored Leap]!”

He flew. Ksmvr looked up as Tommie jumped as high as he did. The man was aiming at the adult’s mouth. Ceria stared. He was going to make it. He was going to do it!

The adult Creler’s mouth was open, preparing to loose more deadly projectiles Tommie grabbed the edge, tried to drag himself in. The Creler had no teeth. But it had rows of—

Multiple incisors hacked at the man. Tommie screamed, but he had a potion bottle in his mouth. He pulled himself into the mouth as his armor was torn to shreds. Trying to get into the guts. He was screaming, his sword in one hand. The adult shook its head, trying to throw Tommie out. But he was climbing in.

“Dead gods.”

An orange glow. Something moved in the adult’s mouth. Tommie looked up and his snarling face went slack for a moment. And then Ceria saw them too.

Baby Crelers. They poured out of the adult’s mouth, climbing out of the thing’s stomach. Tommie never had a chance to let go. They covered him and the [Warrior] shouted once. A forlorn, lost sound.

If only. The adult shook the body off it, disgorging more Crelers from inside itself. Ceria saw the wriggling Crelers cover the motionless corpse as it fell and looked up.

Walt screamed. He charged the adult and his team bashed at the thing’s side. But the Creler just slashed out and Walt stumbled back, his armor and flesh torn to the bone. It turned to regard them and Ceria braced. But the adult just waited as the smaller Crelers swarmed over the adventurers.

It was enjoying this.

Crelers swarmed past the adult, larvae, hungry, tearing at the exhausted warriors. Caddin collapsed, trying to claw the Creler burrowing into his neck. Alais reached for him as she lifted her staff.

Caddin!

She lost her focus. The bolt of lightning caught the group of Crelers and Walt. The man screamed and dropped his shield. Alais paled.

“No. I didn’t—”

They were splintering. Ceria looked for help. Someone had to be coming. Seborn, Moore, Grimalkin—

Erin?

She heard a distant cry and looked up. At last! At last—

“The door’s open! It’s open at last!”

Ceria’s face went slack. She saw the crowd around the door pouring through. The Crelers surrounding them advanced wildly as the workers poured through. The Silver-rank teams fought, trying to get to the door. The adult Creler whirled, sensing its prey disappearing.

“It just opened now? But we’ve been fighting for—”

A lifetime. Ceria waited for someone to come charging out. But the waves of Crelers followed the adventurers and workers in. And—the other teams looked at the door and the Crelers as all of them, all of them, began swarming for the door. Ceria saw Stan looking at her. Across the ground, Montressa’s barriers winked out. Palt turned. Pisces, panting, looked at the door.

They began to flee. The adventurers closest to the door fought to get in, falling as the Crelers attacked from behind. It was so far from where Ceria was.

Go! We’ll cover you!

The [Ice Mage] pointed her wand. More walls of ice. Her body was freezing with too many ice spells. She looked around.

“Stan! Get out of here! You have children!”

The old adventurer looked at her. Across the ground, Palt galloped forwards, out of the lines of Crelers, his entire body aflame. Crelers dropped off him and the Selphid. What remained of her.

 

“Montressa! Get on my back! Beza!

The Minotauress wasn’t able to stand. The poison was dripping from her wounds. The Minotauress tried to argue. But Palt just yanked her onto his back. The Minotauress grabbed at her belt.

“Take—take—”

The scrolls tumbled out of her grip. Pisces couldn’t reach for them. He was conjuring more undead. He looked around.

“Montressa?”

She hesitated. She looked at Pisces. Palt grabbed at her.

Come on!

“I have to—you can’t get away without me.”

The [Aegiscaster] was holding her barrier, preventing the Crelers from getting past her. Palt looked at her. He was swaying, trying to carry Ulinde, himself, and Beza’s weight. He gritted his teeth, looking at Pisces.

“I can’t carry her too. Beza, [Lion’s Strength]! Where is your sc—”

One of Montressa’s barriers failed. Crelers poured forwards. Pisces pointed. The Warbear charged into the gap. He looked back.

Go!

Palt met his eyes. The [Illusionist] turned.

“I’m sorry.”

He galloped away, Beza on his back, Ulinde clinging to him. The other adventurers around them fled, leaving only Pisces and Montressa. Her barriers flickered. Failing.

Stan.

Ceria saw Palt running, galloping as the Crelers flooded the doorway. She turned to Crossbow Stan. He looked at her. The Boltspitters were running. Ceria looked at him, putting all the magic she had into creating a wall of ice, shielding their escape.

She tried to think of something to say. But then the old adventurer turned without a word. She thought she heard his voice, but it was lost. The half-Elf whirled. Another wall of ice blocked a charging group of Crelers.

The other adventurers were abandoning their positions. Only those who couldn’t run remained. Ceria looked around desperately.

“They’re climbing over the ice walls! Get to the door!

“My arm—where’s Pisces? He can fix—”

Yvlon looked at her severed arm. Ksmvr had drawn his blades. They couldn’t run. So Ceria watched as the last adventurers ran.

Palt made it. The Centaur fled through the doorway, through the Crelers, a magical shield knocking them aside. And the rest were pouring through the doorway. They turned, as the adventurers tried to make it to the doorway.

They failed.

The Crelers poured around them, cutting them off. They were inside the inn. Ceria screamed, shouting at them to come back. But the shards of ice couldn’t stop the Crelers. She saw Stan turning, firing his last loaded crossbow. He reached for another and found none. The other adventurers kept running.

Rhir’s nightmares cut them off. They poured into the open doorway, after the ones who’d fled. The rest surrounded the last adventurers. Ceria saw her friends forming a circle. Falling.

Stan!

He never heard her. The old man’s expression was grim, concentrating. He reached for a crossbow bolt and disappeared as a juvenile Creler struck him from the side. Ceria saw them cover him.

She closed her eyes. When she opened them, she heard Yvlon laughing. Bitterly. Slowly, Ceria stood and looked around.

The Crelers were gone. Few remained where they stood. The last of the adventurers stood amid Ceria’s broken palace of ice, facing a fraction of the horde that had assailed them.

A hundred, instead of thousands. The rest were in Erin’s inn, or fighting the Bloodfields. But the adult remained. It turned, counting. Ceria stared up at it.

“Damn you back to hell.”

She raised her wand. Yvlon picked up her sword as Ksmvr held her, tying a tourniquet around her stump of an arm. Ceria counted.

The Ensoldier Shields, Thunder’s Solace, three other teams, a few adventurers. Yvlon, Ksmvr—herself—

She looked up. He was—there. Or he had been. Montressa’s barriers were gone. She searched the ground, saw him running. Away, towards the hills.

“Pisces?”

 

—-

 

The [Necromancer] fled. The [Flash Step] spell carried him past Crelers who leapt and missed him. Pisces blurred across the battlefield, slowed. He ran.

Montressa was in his arms. The [Aegiscaster] was limp. The young woman was clutching her staff. The brass orb had fallen. Spent. She looked up at his face as he ran from the Crelers. Towards the foothills, away from the Bloodfields, away from the Crelers, the door.

His team.

Pisces halted on an incline. He stopped, wheezing, his lungs rattling as he tried to breathe. He dropped Montressa on the grass. He looked at her, choking on blood, spit. She tried to stand, but she was too exhausted. Pisces turned his head, but the nearest Crelers were too interested in the inn to pursue him.

The young man met Montressa’s eyes. He was bleeding from cuts that had torn open his robes, bites that had taken pieces out of his left leg. But he wasn’t hurt badly. He panted.

“Make for the doorway. You can survive with your barriers. No—hide in the hills. Use [Invisibility]. Split up.”

He pointed, his finger shaking, towards the rocky incline in the distance. Montressa stared at him, and then at the distant adventurers. They were making their stand on the icy fortress. She saw the adult Creler. She knew it was death. But even so—she looked at Pisces.

“You’re leaving again.”

He didn’t reply. He was looking back.

The Horns of Hammerad stood together. Ceria was drinking her last mana potion, blasting Crelers climbing the walls of ice off her. Ksmvr was leaping, landing on Crelers, cutting at them. Yvlon had her sword in her left hand. She was swinging the enchanted blade with her one arm, staggering, as Ksmvr fought around her.

“It is suicide to stay.”

Pisces spoke through pale lips. He didn’t meet Montressa’s eyes. He hesitated, looking at the distant foothills. Safety.

“You’re going to run away.”

Montressa voice was dreamy. She looked at Pisces. She wasn’t scared of the bones any longer. They were just bones. She’d been so silly. But she was afraid. She saw the fear in his eyes. Pisces turned away from the adventurers.

“Even if I tried—I would fail. I can neither save my friends nor escape that creature. If I return, I shall most likely die. I have one thing left to try. And it is not enough. Logic dictates one action.”

Somewhere, unseen, Az’kerash nodded slowly. Montressa looked at Pisces. He spoke the truth. If she were at Wistram, his words would have been lauded. He was right, of course. Logic dictated one course.

Pisces began to turn away. Montressa du Valeross, lying there, looked at his back. Slowly, she raised her staff. Aiming for his back. She looked back at the fighting.

“She’s waiting for you.”

The young man turned. He looked and saw Ceria’s eyes on him. For a second, across the distance, their eyes met. And Pisces froze. He looked over his shoulder. And then at Montressa. She waited.

And Pisces sighed. His shoulders slumped. He raked a hand through his hair and again he looked at the distant foothills. Then at the adult Creler. He laughed, once. Bitterly. With humor. And he relaxed.

With one hand, he pulled out a mana potion and drank it. Then another. And another. Montressa saw him gulping down the potions, sweating, struggling to down the mouthfuls. The [Necromancer] shook. And his eyes flickered, but he controlled himself. Pisces spoke slowly.

“The gods are dead. But I still see devils and demons. And heroes. Their company shamed and changed me. I think I’ve been happy.”

He drew his rapier slowly and walked forwards. Backwards. And Montressa saw him glow. She saw the lines of power shift. And she saw the bones shift.

They came out of the bag of holding, spiraling upwards from the battlefield. Ivory, floating upwards and around Pisces as he walked back. The [Necromancer] lifted his hand and pointed.

“I gave it all to necromancy. So if it is my end. Come, rise. For my dearest friends.”

Across the grasslands, the Crelers stopped. The adult turned, and the gleeful contempt in it faded for a second. It sensed the magic and turned. So did Ceria. She looked up, and saw the bones spiraling into the sky, floating down.

Assembling. Creating a gargantuan shape. A hulking giant, larger than any Bone Horror. It rose, assembling itself from the dead. Bones twisted and merged in the air as the towering figure reached ever higher. The adult Creler looked up and saw a massive shape, taller than even it, building, rising.

A behemoth.

Dead gods.

Montressa saw the undead rising. She wanted to scream, but she saw the Creler. And it was more terrible than any undead. She saw Pisces stumbling, collapsing as the magic left him. But he pointed. And the giant made of bones, a hulking shape, planted all fours on the ground. Pale, green flames appeared in its eye sockets as the adult Creler shrieked a challenge. The undead creation put one paw on the ground.

Then the Bone Behemoth charged. The adult Creler shot forwards, tearing the ground with its many limbs.

The two met in a shockwave of sound. Ceria stared—until she saw a glowing shape crawling towards her. She pointed and an [Ice Spike] pierced the Creler through. But only partway. She was so tired—

The Creler’s organs exploded. It was leaking ichor, but it scuttled forwards. They didn’t die even when they were dead. Ceria drew her knife, slashing at it. She heard a voice, and a steel rapier ran the Creler through. Pisces appeared on the ice fortress. He stumbled, and Ceria caught him.

“Pisces?”

The adventurers turned. In the distance, the Bone Behemoth and Creler were fighting. It was taller than the Creler, but the huge adult was tearing into it. It had more limbs than the ape-like thing. The behemoth tore at the Creler, biting.

“Sorry. Montressa is over there.”

Pisces pointed. Ceria looked at him.

“Your eyes.”

They were filled with blood. Pisces wiped at the red coming from his nose, spat.

“I overtaxed myself a bit. What do you think? It may be slightly inelegant, but it is rather impressive, isn’t it?”

He grinned, blood running down the side of his mouth. Ceria stared at the Bone Behemoth, battling the adult.

“It’s too much! You’re going to—”

“No. I’m afraid it is not enough.”

Pisces sighed. He looked backwards. And Ceria saw the adult tear the bones off the behemoth. Pisces smiled wetly at Ceria. He blinked as blood ran from his eyes.

“I’m sorry.”

 

—-

 

“Fool.”

Az’kerash watched as the two giants collided. Ijvani was trembling.

But you said he was Level 30, Master! This is—

“He is talented. But he will kill himself. And it cannot bring the Creler down. He should have fled.”

The Necromancer rose. He stared at the battle. The Creler was moving around the giant made of bones. It was like an ape, a huge, fanged skull biting, heavy limbs smashing. But the Creler was closer to an insect—segmented. Its body was armor. And—it was far heavier than the construction of bone.

“The Bone Behemoth is too light. It is made of bone! Too weak! The Creler outweighs it many times and the construct cannot break its outer shell! But he made it. He learned it.”

Az’kerash’s voice was caught between emotions. He stared down as the behemoth smashed at the Creler, forcing the horror’s legs into the earth. The Creler slashed back with dozens of legs, cutting into the bone.

“See—it cannot break the shell. If it were heavier or there were two—but he can barely sustain one. He went back. He saved the girl who tried to kill him. Why?”

The Necromancer was clenching his hand so hard he would have drawn blood if he had any left to give. He stared down at Pisces as he stood with the Horns.

“They would not do the same for him. Nor will they. He is a fool. They will not—”

The Necromancer’s voice was trembling. Shaking with emotion and memory. Ijvani was afraid. She whispered.

Master?

“They will abandon him in turn. That is what they do. Watch.”

The skeleton hesitated. It seemed like they were seeing different truths. Different visions.

Master, I don’t think—

Watch!

 

—-

 

“It’s going to lose. Dead gods. The—it—”

Ceria watched as more bones went flying. The Bone Behemoth was trying to pin the adult, but the Creler was heavier. Stronger. Part of the undead construct tore away as the adult Creler lunged, tearing the bones to pieces.

Pisces stared dully. He pointed and the Bone Behemoth tried to move around the Creler. But it was faster too. It fanned its wings, leaping back. Jumped. It struck the behemoth from above. The creation of bone cracked and Pisces sagged.

They sat in Ceria’s ice fortress, a weak copy of Illphres’ spell. Ceria forced a mana potion into Pisces’ mouth. Half of it dribbled away as he tried to swallow.

“Can it—can it do anything?”

The last of the adventurers stood with Ceria. Sat. Walt and the last four members of his team were bandaging poisoned wounds. Alais was lying still, as Thunder’s Solace stood around them.

No one tried going for the inn. No one moved. They wouldn’t make the five minute run before the behemoth fell. They were exhausted. Only Pisces could have made the distance.

And he came back. Ceria looked at him. She glanced up as Ksmvr appeared. The Antinium’s body was cut—there was no part of him left unscathed.

“Captain Ceria. Comrade Pisces. Yvlon is hurt. You must make her better.”

He was supporting Yvlon. The armored woman tugged at the bloody bandage around her arm. Pisces and Ceria looked up. Yvlon grinned bloodlessly at them.

“It got my arm. Fix it, please?”

Ceria stared at the perfect cut. At Yvlon’s…arm. Blood and flesh and bone and metal. The [Wounded Warrior] waved it at Pisces. The [Necromancer] stared at it.

The Bone Behemoth collapsed. The adult Creler began tearing it apart from the skull. The smaller Crelers advanced on the adventurers. Pisces stared at Yvlon.

“I can’t—”

“You have to. Fix the bone. You can do that.”

“Not the muscle. Yvlon—”

“Please? I can’t die like this. Not after all this. Let me try one last time. Let me—please?”

The woman’s voice broke. The [Necromancer] stared at her. Then at the adult Creler. It was destroying the bones of his creation. Slowly, he rose. He stumbled over to Yvlon, put a hand on her stump.

“Put it—place it here—”

She connected the arm to her shoulder. Pisces put a hand on the spot. Ceria saw him mumble. And the bone—fused. Yvlon made a sound as she let go. The severed limb dangled. She fumbled for a healing potion, poured it over the gap. Ceria waited.

Nothing happened. The bone had fused, but the cut flesh refused to do the same. Yvlon stared at her arm. Ceria looked at Pisces.

“Can you heal—”

“No. If it were right after. But no—”

No. It has to heal.”

Yvlon grabbed at her arm. Ceria reached for her. Ksmvr was just staring. He looked back at the Crelers.

“They are coming. Please, Captain Ceria, sound the retreat.”

“To where, Ksmvr?”

“The door. I will cover you—”

Work, damn it. You’re my arm!

Yvlon shouted. Her left hand found the inside of her arm. She stared at the cut cords, the flesh in her arm. She grabbed the tendon and muscles and pulled, trying to connect the severed parts to her arm. Ceria made a sound.

Pour.

The woman looked at Ceria. The half-Elf took the healing potion. She poured. Yvlon held the two pieces together, pulling the part of her severed arm together as the potion dribbled over it—

The skin began to move. The muscle and tendons slowly fused. Ceria saw flesh closing, reluctantly. She stared as Yvlon gasped. In relief. Her severed arm was reconnecting. But—as Yvlon let go, as it healed—Pisces stared at Yvlon’s right arm. It was still limp. The [Wounded Warrior]’s face twisted.

“I can’t—can’t move it.”

She was trying. Trying to lift it. With her left hand, she lifted the enchanted blade. She tried to make her right hand grasp the hilt. She wrapped her fingers around the hilt. Lifted with both arms.

Move. Move!

Her right arm moved slowly. Awkwardly. There was no strength in it. But still, Yvlon swung the sword. She couldn’t change the grip of her fingers. And her arm wasn’t moving right. Not everything had connected. But the sword did move.

“Dead gods. Yvlon—”

“It’s fine. It’s enough. I knew it would be like this, someday. I just wish—”

The Crelers poured over the ice walls. The Horns turned. The adveturers rose. Yvlon cut one larval Creler apart. She saw a huge Creler smash through a wall.

“Silver Spears to me!”

For a second, Yvlon forgot where she was. Laughing, she reversed her grip on the sword, grabbing it with her right hand, then her left. Holding the blade in her gauntleted hands. She swung, the pommel and hilt striking, hammering at the giant Creler’s abdomen as it reared.

Murder-strike. Mordhau. A sword-fighter’s trick to attack opponents wearing armor. She’d used it once. This time, the blow cracked the Creler’s underbelly, exposing insides.

The juvenile Creler fell back, leaking gore. Jerkily—Yvlon pursued it. She swung her sword, breaking the thing’s chitin as Ksmvr slashed at it from the side. Then a shadow fell across her. She looked up.

The adult Creler hit the fortress of ice and destroyed it. Yvlon saw huge chunks flying, felt herself crash onto the ground, shoulders first. She went over backwards, hearing parts of her back crack. She was sure something was wrong. But she rose.

“Didn’t feel it.”

She grinned. The adult Creler turned. It looked for the last adventurers. And it saw Yvlon. She struck it along the head. It was still whole. Nothing had torn its shell.

Fall, damn you.

Yvlon swung, performing the murder-strike once more. She hammered the same spot again and again, alongside the nightmare’s head. But the armor refused to give.

A limb like a sickle swung for Yvlon’s head. She ducked it, chuckling. But the second one tore into her chest. It went into a rib and withdrew as Yvlon danced back. She looked down at the blood. Poison, too.

“But I didn’t feel that either.”

The armored woman struck again. The adult Creler inspected her, confused more than anything. She wasn’t afraid. She didn’t feel the blood running down her armor.

Yvlon!

Ceria was desperately trying to freeze the huge Creler, immobilize it. Pisces looked past the Creler, towards the broken Bone Behemoth. He pointed and the bones stirred—Pisces collapsed. He panted, staring up at the adult Creler. It was still toying with Yvlon, cutting her, trying to make her scream.

Arrogance. The adventurers looked up and saw the Creler opening its maw wide, wide. It disgorged more Crelers and paused. Gloating. They could not kill it.

Nothing could.

“If only it was stronger.”

He whispered through bloodless lips. Beyond him, Yvlon hacked at the armor.

“Just break. Why won’t you—”

She stared down at the slim blade that had cut through her armor. She giggled.

“I didn’t feel a thing.”

Another blade cut her across the side, rebounding off part of her enchanted armor. But it still cut deep. Yvlon felt the impact, but no pain. She grabbed a potion and drank it. Some of her wounds healed. She looked up as the adult Creler focused on her.

No.

Ksmvr saw it open its maw. He leapt, slashing at the Creler’s back. He landed, a tiny bug, slashing, biting desperately, trying to distract the adult. It ignored him.

Yvlon, dodge!

The armored woman lurched to the side. The wall of ice exploded as the Creler loosed more spears from its mouth. Pisces pointed, swaying on his feet.

“[Deathbolt]. [Deathb—”

The death magic flickered out as he stumbled. Yvlon struck the adult as it turned towards Pisces. It looked at her again. Laughing.

Yvlon was tired of the laughter. She was so weary. She looked at her sword as she raised it to strike again.

“Give me something. Please?”

She swung, a perfect mordhau. Yvlon put all her strength, all her weight, behind the enchanted blade. The Sword of Weight swung, a heavier blow than a warhammer. It hit the adult Creler alongside the head.

The pommel cracked as the blade rebounded. Yvlon looked down at her sword as the enchantment broke. The sword became heavy in her hands. So heavy she could barely lift it with her exhausted limbs, let along swing. Thirty pounds of weight on top of the metal.

She stared down at the metal. And she sank to one knee. The adult Creler reared up, as the woman knelt, too tired to stand. It fell on her.

Yvlon! Run!

Montressa du Valeross shouted. She threw up a magical barrier, and gold-violet energy blocked the adult. It landed on her ward and Yvlon looked up. Montressa held her staff, shaking. She expanded her spell, drawing on the last reserves. She looked around as the adventurers, the Horns, looked at her. The [Aegiscaster] smiled.

“Run.”

 

—-

 

Az’kerash saw Montressa blocking the adult. He stared as he heard her words. He saw the Horns turn. His eyes stayed on Pisces.

“When one of them dies, go, Ijvani.”

He was staring at Yvlon.

 

—-

 

Ksmvr landed beside Yvlon in the mud. One of his antennae was gone. And he was bleeding green. Yvlon looked at him as the enraged adult smashed into Montressa’s barrier again and again. But she refused to let it drop.

“Yvlon. Can you move?”

“I—my sword’s heavy.”

Yvlon tried to lift it. Her arms shook. She was too tired. And it was far too heavy. Ksmvr stared at her sword. He shook his head.

“Drop it.”

Yvlon hesitated. She looked around. Broken weapons. A scroll lay in the mud. Beza’s. Ksmvr looked at her and put two of his hands on her sword hilt. He pointed at the inn.

“Thank you for everything. Flee. I will not let it kill you.”

He looked up at the adult Creler. Yvlon looked at Ksmvr. His Forceshield was flickering. The magical buckler went out. Ksmvr stared at it, and then looked at her.

“Run. You must run, Yvlon. And live. I will be happy. You have given me everything I never knew I wanted.”

The words made Yvlon flinch. She looked at him. Slowly, Yvlon reached out with her good arm as the other hand held the sword, resting it in the mud. Yvlon touched him.

“You have to go, Ksmvr.”

“No.”

He stared at her, shocked. Yvlon Byres smiled weakly. She placed her hand on his chest.

“You can make it. My quick [Skirmisher]. My friend. I can’t.”

“No. I must die. You must live.”

She shook her head. Montressa was screaming defiance as the adventurers fled, moving towards the edge of the barrier shielding them. The adult was screaming too. It wanted them. It was done playing. Yvlon touched her chest with her fingers.

“I’m sorry. But not again. There’s nothing left here—”

She touched at her right arm with her left. Then the holes in her body. She felt nothing, but she saw them, leaking blood.

“I’m broken, Ksmvr. There’s no fixing this. Or this. You have to go.”

“I must stay. I cannot lose you.”

Yvlon smiled.

“If you stay, I stay. I won’t leave.”

“But if you remain, I must stay too. Please run away. You mean more to me than my life. Please?”

What an impasse. What terrible, twisted love. Yvlon reached out. She hugged Ksmvr, as tightly as she could. The magic flickered overhead.

“I’m sorry. But I love you too. I guess we’re both too stubborn. Watch my back until I fall, then.”

“…Please?

She let go. Yvlon turned. So did Ksmvr. They looked back, at two distant figures. Montressa screamed as she lifted her staff.

Ceria! Pisces!

She whirled. And there she stood. Montressa du Valeross. Mons.

A [Mage] of Wistram.

A young girl who had fallen a tiny bit in love, until it turned to betrayal. A fellow student.

A child afraid of the undead.

A friend.

She pointed at them. Ceria was bleeding from one temple. She wiped the blood away from her head and looked up. The Creler was smashing downwards. Below it, Yvlon and Ksmvr stood together.

Yvlon was picking up something. She unfurled the scroll and Ksmvr turned.

Run.

They all shouted it. The barrier came down and Montressa collapsed. Ksmvr ran past her. He leapt into the oncoming ranks of Crelers, kicking, slashing.

Yvlon was reading the scroll with one hand. Ceria saw a flash of magic. Yvlon straightened and she grinned.

[Lion’s Strength]. She lifted the broken, heavy blade and charged the adult. Montressa was looking back. She mouthed the word again.

Ceria saw Gerial’s face. She looked up and saw Skinner. The adult Creler was ignoring Yvlon, watching the other adventurers. Walt, laying about him with two of his teammates. Alais, slumped on the ground, dying, as her team tried to protect their leader. A Gnoll, fighting alone with a bent sword and buckler. The adult opened its mouth and the Gnoll vanished.

Fifteen left. The adult was counting. A Drake ran. She’d fought the entire time, and her daggers had broken in a Creler’s spine. Now, she was hundreds of feet distant, time bought by Montressa. Running for the door. The adult Creler opened its mouth. The Drake cried out.

Vanished.

Fourteen. Sick, Ceria looked up at the adult. It didn’t want to let any of them go. None of them could leave. Except Ksmvr. Except—

The half-Elf raised her wand. Pisces was on his feet, panting. He was drinking his last potion, a stamina potion, with one hand, shaking. His rapier trailed in the mud. He looked up as the air froze.

Cold. Colder. So cold that even Frost Faeries would scream at the chill. Colder than Illphres’ ice. Ceria was reaching deep in herself, pulling magic from her very bones. Pisces stared as she lifted her wand.

Walls of ice rose from the ground, shielding them. They thickened, creating a shield of frozen water. They would not break.

“Ceria—”

She was making a shield on her hill. Ceria looked up and grinned at Pisces. She pointed.

“Go on. Get out of here. You can make it.”

Pisces stared at Ceria. He was the only one who could hear her in the shattered howling battle, the sounds of dying. Pisces—and Az’kerash.

“What? But—”

She pointed into the distance behind them. Towards the Bloodfields. The Crelers had fought to the death there. Some remained, but if you could outrun them, even the adult might stop. Everything would attack it there.

“Get lost, Pisces. I’ll cover your back.”

The ice was growing thicker. The air was turning to vapor. The Creler recoiled from the chill. Aiming at her. At Pisces. The first volley struck the walls. And the ice held.

Pisces looked at her. Uncomprehending. Ceria smiled. She waved one hand.

“I won’t be mad. One of us has to do it and I’m too slow. Besides, I already had my turn. So did Yvlon. If Ksmvr comes back—maybe they’ll let him. Go. One of us needs to live.”

Far away, the Necromancer stared, listening to unfamiliar words.

Master?

His hand moved and his mouth opened. But then he sat back.

No. No. It will make you strong, boy. We must be alone. Even she will—let her die like this.”

He covered his eyes and wept. But he had forgotten how to cry.

Next to Ceria, Pisces looked at her face. She turned back to the adult. It was charging her walls of ice, ramming into them. She snarled at him.

“Go on, you idiot. Do the smart thing!”

“I—”

Ceria saw a flicker as the adult Creler opened its maw. She shoved him away. The ice shattered around her. But still, it held. And it grew again, reforming. The half-Elf taunted the monster in front of her.

Come on, come on! Try it!

Her body was turning to ice. But she didn’t care. Ceria’s heart stopped. Her blood froze in her veins as she drew more and more. Liquid ran from her eyes and froze. She pointed at the adult Creler and it stopped. A third time, it opened its mouth and Ceria waited. She laughed as she raised her wand, focusing the cold into one last—

Something hurtled at her from the side. It knocked her off her feet. The spell vanished from Ceria’s mind. She turned, gasping, and saw Pisces. He stared at her and the ice exploded around them.

Both hit the ground. Ceria stared up at Pisces as he scrambled to his feet.

“I told you to run!”

The [Necromancer] nodded. Then he paused.

“I tried. But—how strange. It seems I’d rather die than leave my friends behind.”

He grinned at her, a wide, wild smile. Ceria stared at him. She blinked the frozen tears out of her eyes.

“You idiot!

“Yes. I am. I’m sorry.”

Pisces held out a hand. Ceria took it. Above them, the Creler was hunting for them. Killing. Laughing.

But Ceria Springwalker was still smiling. Somehow. Maybe it was because Pisces was standing with her. He gripped her hand tightly and she didn’t let go. They held hands as they stood and faced their end.

“If only it was stronger.”

Pisces murmured ruefully as he lifted his rapier. Ceria nodded. She was so close to him. As close as they had once been. They looked at each other, friends. And Ceria felt something flicker in her heart. Her right hand held her wand. Her hand of bone held Pisces’ hand.

Bone. It should have been the other way around. But he was a [Necromancer]. If anyone wouldn’t mind, it was him.

“If only I could have frozen it. But I wasn’t—”

“We weren’t—”

They trailed off. Their eyes met. And they shared a thought. Then—the two minds became one.

If.

Pisces’ eyes went wide. Ceria felt something pushing in her. She felt her bones shift. And she saw the world change. All the death. All the dead. But there it was.

A broken heap of bones. Pisces looked at Ceria and felt cold. Not the superficial chill of the body, but the depths of ice. The essence of frost. He saw Illphres’ face, smiling behind her mask of ice.

Magic flickered. Bone moved. It wasn’t a spell, an incantation—it was a thought. It surged through him, through her, back. It was part of both of them, connecting the two. Deeper than any physical connection. Connecting their minds, their will. Their very souls.

Magic.

The [Necromancer] and the [Ice Mage] looked at each other. He was frost and she was bone. He called upon death and she pulled ice out of the air. They thought as one.

The broken bones of the behemoth were smashed to pieces. Ground to dust and fragments. Motionless. The magic touched it. And pale light flickered in the broken skull. The adult Creler turned uneasily.

Something was happening. The bones were reshaping. But not—not like a normal undead. The bones rose into the air, melding together. A tundra swept over the ivory, coating the bone with ice. Like flesh. Like skin. Heavier—stronger. The Crelers backed away from the magic shaking the air.

The adult paused. It opened its maw, loosing the deadly projectiles. Ice shattered, bone splintered. But the construct kept forming. Limbs grew thicker. Ice and ivory. Both were weak on their own. But together—

The adult charged. But something held it back. A flickering barrier. Magic. Montressa howled as the Creler stopped. Yvlon swung her sword and one of the Creler’s legs buckled. It looked down as she swung again. A single leg snapped and for a second the Creler paused.

Enough. The behemoth rose a second time. It exhaled and frost swept from its jaws. Taller. Stronger. Heavier.

It rose over the Creler, a thing of death and cold. A being animated by necromancy and strengthened by ice. It moved slowly at first, but then with undead strength. A limb rose, and the adult Creler was hammered down by a strike like a mountain falling.

A glacier’s might.

Montressa du Valeross looked up. She stared at Pisces and Ceria, illuminated by the glow of their combined magic. The air was swirling around them.

“A link? No—”

They weren’t two people, but one source of magic. And their creation was born of both. It rose as it hammered the Creler flat. The thing opened its jaws and roared.

The sound was made of grinding ice, moving bones. It tore the air as the adult Creler backed up. Not a Bone Behemoth. Not a Frost Golem or anything of either side. Both! Magic made of two elements!

Impossible. A Frostmarrow Behemoth.

Perril Chandler whispered. He stared, and his eyes widened. Ceria and Pisces pointed. They spoke with one voice.

Take it down.

The Frostmarrow Behemoth charged the Creler. This time, the impact knocked the Creler flying. It landed, righting itself, and shrieked. Again, the two collided, but this time the Frostmarrow Behemoth didn’t give ground. It hammered the Creler down again, crushing it flat, trying to pound it into the ground.

But the Creler refused to submit. It fought back viciously. The adult flew. It flew up, blasting pieces off the behemoth. Landed on top, scything, clawing. The Frostmarrow Behemoth threw the giant Creler off of it.

Yvlon watched, mouth agape as it pinned the adult, ignoring the pieces being ripped away by the many claws. And Yvlon saw the head descend, the limbs pounding. Blows that shook the ground struck the Creler.

But even now, the Creler didn’t break. Its armor absorbed the crushing blows, flexible. Ductile. Yvlon saw Pisces and Ceria waver as it tore upwards, cutting at the behemoth, trying to get free.

“Still?”

The [Wounded Warrior] looked at the Creler. She lifted her sword. [Lion’s Strength] still surged in her. So Yvlon charged. She aimed for the same spot alongside the Creler’s head.

She’s going.

She has to break it. Nothing else can.

Ceria and Pisces spoke at the same time. The half-Elf pointed and the behemoth pinned the Creler, giving Yvlon an opening. The [Wounded Warrior] charged past the smaller Crelers. An Antinium flew, cutting them down. And Pisces had a thought and Ceria had a thought. He looked down at his ring. The half-Elf stared as the [Necromancer] raised his ring, flicked it.

“[Shatterbolt].”

The magical dart of energy flew across the ground. The spell hit the Creler’s head. Yvlon heard a piercing sound tearing the air, but the armor refused to break. She raised her sword, feeling the strength in her arms.

Again, then! And again until the end of time!

She swung her blade again. Mordhau! Murder strike! The pommel bounced off the Creler’s carapace. Again! Yvlon lifted the sword! Until Beza’s enchantment vanished! Until she was dead! The Creler fought to get free, but the Frostmarrow Behemoth was holding it, trying to crush it. Yvlon swung her sword, shouting.

Acid, magic. And her sword. Dozens of blows, Isceil’s magic. All of it. At last, something gave.

Crack.

Yvlon heard the sound distantly. She felt the impact, saw the break, the splintering in the black exoskeleton. It split the air.

The adult Creler felt it too. It tried to move, but the behemoth was holding it in place. Yvlon stared at the broken spot.

Break it open!

Tear it apart!

Ceria and Pisces pointed. The Frostmarrow Behemoth slammed the Creler down and the cracks grew. Yvlon laughed. She reversed her grip, and her sword’s tip tore the first layer of plating away. She cut again. And the adult Creler, twisted.

A hundred larval Crelers squirmed out of its mouth. They came for Yvlon, digging into her armor, biting at the Human woman’s flesh. But an Antinium tore them away. He stood, shield raised, guarding her back. Swinging his blades as they tried to pour over him. And Yvlon dug deeper. She rammed her sword’s tip into the Creler’s head, prying loose a piece of the armor. She saw flesh—

The Creler heaved with desperate strength. It tore itself away from the Frostmarrow Behemoth and Ceria and Pisces screamed, collapsing, as the spell failed. They rose, shaking, and tried to assail the monster. But the Creler ignored the spells striking its side. The Creler turned, twisting. The Human woman. Where was—

I have you.

Yvlon was clinging to the thing’s head. With one hand she held on to the broken part of the Creler’s head. With the other, she shoved the blade deeper. Her enchanted sword was in the Creler’s head. Yvlon was twisting the blade, cutting an opening. The Creler thrashed and Yvlon nearly flew off. But she held on. Beza’s scroll gave her strength.

Cut it apart! Yvlon!

Ceria was on her feet. She saw Yvlon tearing off pieces of the Creler’s armor, exposing soft innards! She was sawing into the thing’s head, cutting with her sword as the Creler tried to throw her off!

Yvlon felt the Creler now. She was so close, she could practically feel its thoughts running under her. It was afraid. It tried to throw her and she braced—it slammed Yvlon into the ground.

Her armor bent. It dug into her skin, tearing into her. Yvlon lost her breath. But she didn’t let go. She would have laughed, if she had any air left.

After all that, you think that would make me let go? She thought the words. I didn’t feel a thing!

She grabbed the sword, cutting more flesh away. The Creler felt that. It shrieked, and Crelers swarmed over its body, trying to protect it. Ksmvr tore them away. The adult tried to strike the [Skirmisher], it tried to reach Yvlon, but she was too close! She felt its fear and laughed.

It wasn’t fair. It was one single wound, one chink in its armor! Why was that enough? The Creler screamed, writhing, rolling, trying to dislodge the thing clinging to it. But she felt no pain. She didn’t let go. She would never let go.

Its limbs tore at Yvlon. But she was clinging to its side. Digging into its head. Deeper, deeper now—orange blood was rushing around her. Yvlon was in the hole, cutting with both hands as the Creler writhed. She was burrowing into it, killing it from the inside!

Like a Creler. Like the very thing it was. Yvlon saw only heaving, pulsating orange now. Shifting liquid. She carved with her sword; it was the only thing she knew was real in this world.

She could feel nothing at all. No pain. No part of her body. But still, she burned. Her thundering heart was everything in this world. And her will. Through lips she could not feel, the [Wounded Warrior] laughed.

Deeper still. Something was moving in the adult. It’s innards were trying to squash Yvlon! But she felt nothing and cut and cut—towards its brain.

It was right there. It had one. A pulsating, terrible mass. She could hear it now, bargaining. Thinking so loud it nearly overwhelmed her. Whispering. She ignored it. Yvlon aimed her sword towards the brain and realized her strength was gone.

Beza’s enchantment had faded. Yvlon gritted her teeth. She pushed forwards, plunging her sword at the thing’s brain. It’s very insides moved to block her. Yvlon fought forwards, shouting.

“I am Yvlon Byres—”

Something inside the Creler struck at her. The woman felt it tear open her cheek. She turned her head, cutting, and it stopped. Just a bit further! Just a bit! She plunged deeper. Her arms. Her body—

Silver and steel be my guide! Everything dies—”

Something pulsed. Something looked at her. Even here, it fought her. Yvlon tried to ram her sword deeper. But everything had stopped moving. She fell backwards. No, not yet! Just a bit—

She fell. The Creler threw her out of its body and Yvlon hit the ground. She stared upwards, unable to move her head. No. No! She was so close! Nearly—

The adult Creler was turning, trying to flee. It had to flee! But it paused, and turned to Yvlon. Kill her, first. It opened its maw, ignoring everything. Yvlon stared up. She looked into the Creler’s gaping maw, and then past it. And she grinned.

He flew out of the skies. A falling shape. A flying insect. Antinium. The adult Creler moved too late. Ksmvr landed on the wound in its head. He dug down into it, burrowing, tearing. Reaching for Yvlon’s sword. He found it.

Vengeance. The Creler shrieked and Ksmvr drove the sword home. He plunged it into the pulsating, moving brain and the scream tore everything apart. Yvlon watched the Creler freeze. She saw it move past her, saw the shape drop from it. Ksmvr fell to the ground, stumbling, falling. He ran towards her.

“Yvlon. Yvlon.”

He reached for her, cradling her, feeling at the blood. She whispered up at him.

“Well done. I’m so proud of you, my little friend.”

He held her as her head fell back. A smile crossed the golden-haired woman’s face.

Ksmvr held her. Neither one moved, as the Crelers stopped and stared up.

The adult. Was it…?

It was still upright. Still—still moving. After all that, with a sword lodged in its brain. It was moving—just moving? The little Crelers looked up at the giant as it lumbered away. Away from Ksmvr, from Yvlon. Aimlessly.

The giant Creler paused, and then it kept moving. Away from the two, towards the Bloodfields. Silently. The little Crelers hesitated. Then they swarmed towards the still Antinium. The first Creler reared up, towards the unmoving pair.

Venge—

An invisible bolt of magic, shot from afar struck it in the chest and the Creler curled up. It came from a skeleton’s finger. Then—another. A [Deathbolt] struck the first Creler, then another. A second Creler fell, dead, and they turned and saw the [Necromancer].

Pisces and Ceria were supporting Montressa. The other adventurers rose, turning towards the last Crelers. There were so few.

But they stood. Walt and his three. Alais, bloodless, and two of her teammates. A pair of Gnolls. A Drake. They could barely stand. But they did stand. The horrors of Rhir paused. And horror felt fear.

The adventurers charged across the ground.

 

—-

 

They were too late. They had been too late from the start. And the Drake knew it.

Grimalkin of Pallass was first out the door. He charged onto the bloody ground, scattering Crelers. Most were dying, or injured. They were trying to burrow, to grow and hide. He ignored them. He had only eyes for one. The threat that had plagued the world over. The thing that would create an army by itself.

An adult. He had killed them, once. And he still had scars. Grimalkin’s head turned. He saw the bodies, the broken bodies.

And the huge shape in the distance. Grimalkin pointed.

There!

Jelaqua raced after him as the [Sinew Magus] charged. After them came the Antinium, 4th Company, the Watch. They fell on the smaller Crelers as the Gold-rank adventurers and Grimalkin went for the giant.

It was still alive. It had killed them all. But the adventurers had exacted a terrible cost. There had to be a thousand dead Crelers at least! Grimalkin raced forwards. He would make sure they were avenged.

On me! Surround it! Watch Captain, fall back and keep the nest off our backs!

Grimalkin roared as he charged across the ground, Jelaqua at his side. Six Gold-ranks followed, all under the effects of half a dozen enchantments. They raced towards the Creler. It didn’t react. It was moving south. Back towards the Bloodfields? It had to be trying to hide. It was moving slow—how badly had they hurt it?

“I’ll break its armor! Non-magical flail! Give me an opening!”

Jelaqua screamed at Grimalkin. She was wearing her Raskghar form. Grimalkin nodded. He pointed at its side.

“Go! Midsection—go for the underbelly after destroying the legs! Be careful—it can move even when its limbs are gone!”

Rampaging.

The Selphid accelerated, bounding left. Four of the Gold-ranks peeled off, following her. Grimalkin aimed his claw. The Creler still hadn’t turned. It was still moving. A trick? They were cunning. Were more buried?

No matter. Grimalkin concentrated. Fire took form in his claw and he threw it.

“[Grand Fireball]!”

A huge orb of fire shot across the ground. It exploded on the Creler’s side. But the creature was spell resistant. The fire would barely hurt it. But it would hurt it. Grimalkin braced for the counterattack at range as Jelaqua charged from the side. Dodge—

The Creler kept walking forwards. Grimalkin faltered. The Gold-rank adventurers and Jelaqua hesitated. Jelaqua jumped forwards, lashing the Creler’s legs with the strength of a Raskghar enhanced with a Selphid’s strength and Grimalkin’s magic. She battered one leg, cracking with dozens of blows. A [Axehunter] cut halfway into another leg.

[Treefell Chop]!

“Encircle it! Wait for a trick—”

Grimalkin’s bellow stopped as two of the Creler’s legs collapsed. The huge thing slowed, but the legs kept moving. And the adult didn’t change course or even—

The Drake and the adventurers stopped. In the distance, the Watch, Embria, galloping towards the Creler, the Antinium—they all paused. They stared.

The horror was still moving. But—the giant beast aimlessly wandered forwards. It ran into a hill and kept walking into the dirt and stone. It wasn’t—wasn’t—

“Magus?”

Jelaqua stepped back, keeping a wary distance. Grimalkin ran forwards.

“Is it—”

He caught sight of something on the Creler’s head. A gaping opening from which orange ichor was still seeping. One of the adventurers exclaimed.

“Dead gods. Do you think—”

“It could be a trick. Hold back.”

Jelaqua hesitated, but she let Grimalkin go ahead. Slowly, the [Sinew Magus] approached the hole.

The adult was huge. Bigger than some of the adults he’d fought. Smaller than others. But larger than a house. And its head was torn open. Grimalkin saw something pulsing inside the glowing innards and the Drake put up his guard, ready to retreat. But he saw how something had cracked the armor that made Crelers invincible against spell and steel. Cut through the insides, creating a tunnel of gore. It was huge, wide enough to accommodate someone smaller than he was. He could see into the Creler’s—

“Incredible.”

Slowly, Grimalkin stepped up to the dripping opening and paused. Something was still in there. The writhing mind of the Creler yet lived. He could feel its presence. Feel the dark thoughts. And yet—he saw the torn hole in its head. And whatever was in there tried to strike at the Drake. But it was fading. Already dead. It screamed orders that the body could not interpret.

The brain’s stem was torn apart. All that remained was a mind, and a body mindlessly moving. The Creler’s body kept crawling forwards as the [Sinew Magus] lifted a claw. What was inside shrieked at him.

“Stand clear.”

Light bloomed. After a moment, Grimalkin stepped away. He looked at Jelaqua. The Selphid paused, flail in her paws.

“What—”

“Something carved a chunk out of its brain. It couldn’t move. It might have repaired itself. I finished it off. I think. We’ll have to burn the body.”

“Turn it to ash. There must be eggs in it, and I hear they can come back from—”

The Selphid agreed unconsciously, then caught herself. She stared at Grimalkin.

“Wait. It was dead?

“Someone killed it.”

“No way. This thing’s an adult and a decade older than most! One of the Silver-rank teams got…”

One of the Gold-rank adventurers began. Grimalkin spun.

Watch Captain! Search for survivors!

Here! On me!

Zevara had already seen them. Grimalkin spotted the distant shapes. He raced towards them with the Gold-rank adventurers. They slowed, staring.

The Watch approached the figures standing amid the dead. Watch Captain Zevara, Wing Commander Embria—they saw the fallen bodies. The broken ice and ivory. But they had only eyes for them.

Adventurers. Less than a dozen. They stood—stood, because they were too tired to sit. Stood, because they had refused to fall. Not one was uninjured. They barely moved as their rescuers stared. Grimalkin stepped forwards. He saw a head turn. A moving throat, whispered words. Grimalkin nodded. He reached out and caught the half-Elf as she collapsed.

“Who—who is this team? Who did this?”

The Gold-rank Gnoll demanded. She looked at the adventurers. At the Frostmarrow Behemoth’s fading remains. At the dead Crelers. Grimalkin knelt, reaching for an antidote.

“The Horns of Hammerad.”

 

—-

 

Never. It screamed at her, you will never stop us! We will eat the world! For that is why we were made! You have not seen what gives us our charge! You have no idea of what lies dreaming!

But it died. And she laughed and laughed. Because it never understood. She sensed it dying, uncomprehending. It was all hunger and malice. It understood nothing of sacrifice. Nothing of how to die well. She reached up, wondering if she would see them again.

Her arms—she thought she could feel them. Yvlon Byres smiled, relieved there was something else. Something—

Someone was calling her name. Reaching for her. Shaking her. Telling her she had to wake up. Voices were screaming at her, telling her—Yvlon fixed on the one voice. But her arms—her body.

It didn’t matter. For him, for them she could bear it. So she reached back, pulling. And still, she felt—

“Please, you must wake up. Or else, why would I live? Please?”

Yvlon opened her eyes. And when she did, he was still holding her. She looked up. And she met Ksmvr’s eyes.

“Ksmvr?”

He froze. Yvlon stared up at him.

“Yvlon?”

She thought she was still dying. Yvlon had to be. Because she felt—she looked up at him.

“What? I thought I was—”

She’s awake! She’s alive!

Someone screamed. Yvlon stared at Ksmvr. The world came back. She realized she was not staring at the sky, but a ceiling. And Ksmvr—he was bandaged. His antennae was torn. But he was alive. The woman tried to move. And she realized she could.

She was alive. But—she couldn’t be. Yvlon remembered. She remembered the wound she’d taken. Her arm. She looked up at Ksmvr.

“You are alive.”

He told her. She tried to smile. But she was blinking away tears. Let it be. For him, she’d try. She tried to raise her head. Her friends were shouting her name. But she looked at Ksmvr. She was afraid to look down.

“I couldn’t leave you behind, my little friend.”

“You did not.”

The woman tried to smile.

“My arm. And my back—I—I’m going to have to rely on you from now on, Ksmvr. Okay?”

The Antinium looked at her. Yvlon wanted to reach for his face. He trembled.

“Why? Are you going to die, Yvlon?”

“No. No, but my arms—both of them—”

“What about them? They are very pretty.”

Yvlon paused. Ksmvr looked at her, tilting his head, confused. And she realized something. She could feel his hands. His three hands, so tenderly holding her shoulder. Her right arm. Her left. She hesitated. She could feel his touch. But it felt different.

And then it hit her. Words that screamed in her very soul. She hadn’t heard them. But now they echoed again.

 

[Wounded Warrior Level 32…

[Skill Change – Crescent Cut…

[Conditions Met: Wounded Warrior…

[Skill – Armform (Duelist)…

 

Dozens of notifications. Voices repeating themselves again and again as her mind finally registered them, as if once wasn’t enough. Telling her she’d changed. Telling her—

Yvlon’s eyes went wide. She jerked up. Ksmvr caught her, and Yvlon hesitated.

“My arms?”

He looked down. And the woman hesitated. Slowly, she raised her arms. She looked down. For a moment, Yvlon thought nothing had changed. She stared down at her arms and saw metal. Pure silver mixed with burnished steel.

Her armor? But then, Yvlon saw her skin. Muscle, the curve of her flesh. But—silvery. Shining as it caught the light. Her breath caught.

My—

Skin made of metal. Imitating the flesh she had once had. But—her arms were half armor too, flesh turning to angular armor. But it was all her. The armor made of her very body.

Her arms were silver and steel.

 

[Conditions Met: Wounded Warrior → Silversteel Armsmistress Class!]

 

Her new class screamed in her mind. [Silversteel Armsmistress]. Disbelieving, Yvlon raised one arm, saw the metal skin moving. She felt—she felt. She touched her chest, felt the soft bandages under her fingertips. But no pain, as she pinched her arms. Or—faint.

“I am afraid your sword is broken, Yvlon. But I found it for you. Caution. It is very heavy.”

Ksmvr offered her something. Yvlon saw it was her sword. The tip had snapped. And the pommel was cracked. The enchantment was still there, and the Antinium had to use two of his hands to hand it to her. Unconsciously, Yvlon took it in her right hand.

She lifted the broken, heavy, enchanted sword with one arm. It was light. Yvlon stared at her arm, as it flawlessly lifted the blade. Ksmvr blinked.

“Ooh.”

“I—my arms. I’m—”

She stuttered, staring at her arms. They shone. Ksmvr looked at Yvlon.

“They are beautiful. You did not leave me. I knew my team would not die. I knew you would not. But do not scare me like that again.”

He looked at her, and she saw him shaking a tiny bit. She heard it in his voice. And Yvlon forgot everything else. She hugged him, and he hugged her back fiercely. Yvlon felt the Antinium quivering.

“Yvlon.”

Someone called her name. Many people were, but this voice made Yvlon look up. She saw Ceria and paused.

She had changed too. Cold and frost lay on the table where Ceria was sitting. The half-Elf’s eyes were winter-pale, and faint blue and grey. Something swirled in their depths.

Snowflakes fell out of the air around her, melting as she left her seat and walked towards Yvlon. The woman stared.

“Your eyes—”

“I leveled up. It’s nothing special. Nice arms.”

The half-Elf paused. Pisces limped over next to her, and Yvlon saw another depth of power in his eyes. She looked at him. At her. At Ksmvr.

“Thank you.”

She didn’t know to whom she said it. But she heard the word repeated.

Running feet. Yvlon turned as Erin flung herself at the Horns of Hammerad. She half-tackled Ceria and Pisces and the two adventurers nearly fell over. The [Innkeeper] was crying. The world opened up, and Yvlon realized it wasn’t just them.

The inn—The Wandering Inn was around them. Destroyed. Walls were torn open, and only a few spells were keeping the ceiling up. Despite that, it was filled. Adventurers, some wounded, others fresh, stood next to [Soldiers] from Liscor’s army. Liscor’s Watch. They stood, staring down at the Horns. Erin was hugging Ceria and Pisces.

You’re alive! You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re—

“I saw it dead. You brought it down.”

Someone spoke to the side. Yvlon turned her head and saw a Drake with crimson scales staring at her. Embria waved a hand towards the door.

“An adult Creler. You killed it. The four of you.”

Embria looked at the four adventurers, mystified. Yvlon blinked up at her.

“Oh. Well, we had help.”

“How did you—you’re alive.

Erin buried her face in Ceria’s shoulder. Then she cried out; her tears were freezing! The half-Elf poked herself.

“I guess we are. Right, Yvlon?”

“Yes.”

Yvlon blinked. She opened her mouth and closed it a few times. Embria stared at her, but Yvlon just went back to hugging Ksmvr. She didn’t have anything else to say.

Erin turned and grabbed Yvlon and Ksmvr. Then another pair of arms encircled them. Bird. Yvlon felt Mrsha jump at her, sniffing her arms—

Yvlon! Ceria! Pisces!

Alais was making her way over to them. She was barely able to walk, but she was alive. So were Palt, Beza, the Minotauress staring in shock. Ulinde waved excitedly from her ruined body. Moore was limping up the hill as Jelaqua carried a protesting Seborn in her arms. They were staring. And someone began shouting.

Hammerad! The Horns of Hammerad!

Crelerbane! Hell’s wardens!

Someone else bellowed it. Walt. He was pointing at the Horns, laughing and sobbing. His three teammates stood around him. The last—Yvlon looked around as people took up the chant.

Hammerad! Horns of Hammerad!

“You did it.”

A flash of red hair. Not Lyonette—she was hugging with Mrsha. Pisces turned.

“Montressa.”

She bowed towards him, silently. There were too many words, not enough. Not in this moment. Grimalkin roared above the shouting.

“We have witnessed an extraordinary event! A feat that few in this world can boast of! The death that comes from Rhir has been slain by a team of adventurers! The Horns of Hammerad!”

Now the Watch and the [Soldiers] took up the chant. The adventurers were saluting them. Grimalkin looked at the Horns. He just nodded, folding his arms, approvingly. Yvlon didn’t know what to make of it all.

“But so many died. It wasn’t just us. It was—”

“You. And Ksmvr. With a little help.”

Pisces looked at Yvlon, smiling crookedly. He glanced at Ceria. The half-Elf smiled as snow fell around her. She stared at Yvlon’s arms. Erin sneezed.

“It’s cold! Can you turn that off?”

“I’ll figure it out.”

Ksmvr just remained still. He whispered, so softly that Yvlon was the only one who could hear. And some of the Gnolls.

“You must not die. Promise?”

“I promise.”

That was all Yvlon said. Then she felt tears fill her eyes.

Enough. Say no more. In silence, she hugged her friends, as the cheers became a roar, applause. But Yvlon needed only this moment. That was all she wanted. No levels, no Skills. Let it be for a while. Silently, the Horns embraced each other. Then they rose and looked about.

The inn was broken. The dead unburied. Darkness had come again. And it still waited. It had torn and tried to bury the sparks of light. In the end, the world was still not perfect. Soon, they would count the fallen.

But for one moment. Right now—Erin Solstice clung to her friends. The Horns of Hammerad held each other and the crowd of [Guards], adventurers, [Soldiers], and civilians, [Barmaids], [Princess], [Waiters], [Mages], and the little Gnoll cheered. And the noise chased away the future.

From his seat, the Necromancer bowed. And a skeleton watched, seeing something else, something he didn’t quite understand. And he saw her face, laughing and smiling. But even that was later.

Ksmvr looked up from hugging Yvlon and felt her touch his arms. His spare one wiped away tears from her eyes for visual acuity. Ceria leaned on Pisces, and the [Necromancer] smiled, looking around with water in his eyes that he’d never admit was there. The half-Elf laughed, and the Horns remained there for a second. Savoring it, that moment in time. After travail and trial, before time moved, they were in it and remembered it for the rest of their lives.

For one moment, everything was alright.

 


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160 thoughts on “6.66 H

  1. There’s a couple contradictions on the number of survivors. At one point the countdown of survivors went from 15 to 14 or lower with the death of a gnoll wielding a blade and buckler, then the twin dagger drake. Yet it’s mentioned that less than a dozen survivors remained followed by a description of those survivors – the Horns (4) + Montressa (5*, 4 if not considered an adventurer), Walt and three teammates (9), Alais and two teammates (12), pair of gnolls (14) and a drake makes 15.

    • Alais and co, the gnolls and the drake are mentioned before the count, and before their last charge. That means up to 2 of Alais’ crew, both gnolls and the drake could be (and probably are) dead.

  2. Az’Kerash is just like us, living vicariously through The Wandering Inn. Olnly, he watches the show while we read the books.

  3. So does it mean the whole team is pairing up with each other?
    I thought Yvlon thought of Ksmvr as a brother.
    There is a chance the other survivors ,well ,some of them ,will join up with the horns. Calruz too might get some sort of deal.
    I can’t help but feel like the inn being destroyed is gonna serve as a major stimulus in Erin aquiring some.serious skills on her next levelling . Who thinks the same?

    • I dunno… I’m a bit worried the door might be confiscated by some ‘authority’, because it proved to be a hazard in this case, letting in all those crelers… by the way, how does that work, that SO many crelers managed to come through?
      Surely the door must have been overtaxed?
      Hopefully it won’t get taken from Erin, but some safeguards will be put in place.
      And I really do hope the Inn gets restored, and turns into a veritable fortress – especially with Erin reaching 40.
      Come on, that’s supposed to be a bloomin’ great level, 40, so there’s got to be some serious benefits – right? *hopeful*
      Who knows, maybe the adventures guild will get relocated… or mybe some barracks for some antinium – they get to station some above ground finally, so they have access to stimulation all the time, and the Inn/Erin/door gets much needed protection.
      Who knows what Pirateabas devious, fabulous brain will throw our way 😃
      But I agree basically – looking forward to seeing the results of Erins big 4-0!

      • The mana cost of using the door is proportional to distance. Since the location was immediately south of Liscor, there was enough stored mana to allow for heavy door usage.

        • The point about the relatively short distance is a good one that I hadn’t considered. But shouldn’t the sheer mass of the swarm have caused the mana to drain out and empty? Or was it determined that distance is the primary driver of the cost of using the door?

          • Distance is the limiting factor for the door’s teleportation magic (that and it has to fit the door/bag of holdings). The mana used grows exponentially based on distance which is why only two people can travel to/from Pallass without charging the door.

        • Yes, exactly.
          The crelers would have attacked the city anyway, it was the nearest target. The Door was useful in this case: without it, the battle would have taken place in open fields, but here the inn served as a choke point.

    • She does, and nothing in their interactions felt particularly romantic to me. I saw them as an older sister and younger brother, fiercely protecting the other and not willing to sacrifice the other even for their own wellbeing.

      Ceria and Pisces is something else, I ship the fuck out of them.

  4. Thank you for the wonderful Christmas surprise! Was fully expecting some main character deaths in this chapter, if not an outright total party kill, so for the Horns to all survive is a lovely subversion of your usual style. Very happy to see them survive, grow, and develop as a result of this A class threat. Frankly, I’m shocked that they were able to defeat the adult Creler and I appreciate you painstakingly showing each individual step that made it possible. It feels much more real this way.

    I also liked the way that Az/Ivjani gave us a running commentary of the battle. His surprise and confusion throughout the battle as his predictions were debunked were delightful. I was fully expecting him to step in and save the day, or at least rescue Pisces, since he was the only character strong enough to defeat the monster. But turns out that I, like Az, should have had more faith in the Horns!

    • I so can’t wait for Tuesday . there is two things to look forward to: the end of the year and ch.67!! And maybe a third for those born on 31 December,I even have a classmate who was born on the 1st of January!

  5. I just realized that Erin totally forgot about not only the best Xmas story of all time but also the perfect play for the [Actors] to do next: DIE HARD!!

    Oh yeah good chapter too. It felt like there were a few too many convenient hesitations during what was supposed to be a pitched battle but you pulled it together there towards the end.

  6. Oh wow,

    Feels like any more words would be superfluous to describe this chapter.

    Had me almost cryiing severa’ time and D I had given up on yvlon and ksmvr there.

    Just a wonderful chapter as always

  7. Pardon my French but holy fucking vatican shitballs of heresy… This was a moving chapter. Been a little busy irl and this is what I was reading as New Year’s came and went… Never thought I’d be laughing while ninjas chopped onions in my living room on a New Year’s.

    An epic tragedy, comedy, and even a little romance, all in one simple chapter. I salute you pirateaba, for your writing is truly on a level we can only hope to find (to read), let alone write ourselves.

    #slowclap
    #hardclap
    #fuckitriotinthestreetsoverthiswin

  8. This was genuinely the most rewarding chapter of any book I’ve ever read. That’s not hyperbole. No other work has made me this invested. It’s the result of all the worldbuilding and character-building over so many chapters. The creler lore, the Wistram days chapters, the Horns’ quest and story..

    I wish I could feel like this all the time.

    Your work is immensely appreciated, pirate!

  9. There are many things about this chapter that are absolutely delicious and beautiful and heart stopping, but I think my favorite thing that stands out is how the unfairness of the situation flipped in a second. That it’s so unfair something like an adult Creler, with magic resistance and intelligence and super armor and projectiles can exist… and at the same time the “unfairness” that even one chink in its armor is enough to take it down. I loved that flip so much.

  10. Fantastic chapter! Pisces’ decision was such a joy to read.

    “I tried. But—how strange. It seems I’d rather die than leave my friends behind.”

    Reminds me of Ceria saying “Real mages help each other. We don’t abandon each other.” (Wistram Days (Pt. 4)). And that’s fantastic.

    I absolutely adore the evolving relationship among the Wistram graduates! Keep on being a stupendous author!

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