7.36 C

(I am taking my week break for this month to rest and recharge after this chapter. I will be back on the 28th for Patreon readers! August 1st for Public readers!)

 

“Mage-Captain.”

The Drake stood to attention and turned as Commander Cirille walked up to her post. At night, the [Necromancer] was one of only a few of her class awake.

It was necessary. To ensure the undead never ran rampant, Rhir demanded they were watched at all times. A level of monitoring that meant night-watches and no undead ever strayed out of eyesight. The last thing the Blighted Kingdom needed was an undead invasion.

But they did use undead. The Drake from Izril looked down at them and couldn’t suppress the shudder of revulsion.

The funny thing was that…her combat experience with undead was actually quite limited.

People remembered Az’kerash, the Necromancer’s campaign into Izril during the last great war. But while his wrath and ruin had fallen heaviest on Liscor; the undead he’d animated had indeed plagued Pallass and got as far as Manus.

But they hadn’t been a military threat. They had overrun smaller settlements, but they’d been crushed in every major engagement. The plague of undead had been a plague. Too widespread to eliminate easily. In a straight-up battle, Manus had crushed even armies three times their size.

Without a [Necromancer], undead were generally weak. Revenants were one thing, ghost-types or unique undead with minds another. But…

The Bone Behemoth stood, eyes illuminating the dark night. Magic lanterns provided vast areas of illumination, but it was still dark. The glittering stars in the skies, the undead’s eyes—nothing ruined her night-vision.

“Commander. This is a surprise.”

Hetarria’s scales glinted under the different light sources. She saluted crisply. Which was a surprise. Then again—she was a soldier of Rhir.

Military, Drake—and quite affable. If she wasn’t a [Necromancer], Cirille would have gone out of her way to make friends. Well…the last few days had been full of changes.

“Captain Hetarria. Am I distracting you?”

The [Necromancer] hesitated. Her eyes flicked to Cirille’s face, watchful, and then she glanced at the undead Bone Behemoth.

“Not at all, Commander. The behemoth doesn’t need tending to. It’s got orders to stay put and defend itself; regulations have me here, but I don’t need to do anything.”

“Ah. So you’re not drained of mana? I hear [Summoners] need to constantly give magic or something.”

Cirille leaned on the stone battlements. Hetarria shrugged.

“That would be accurate, Ma’am. Summoned creatures aren’t meant to hang around long. Undead are different. A horde can generate death magic enough to sustain itself. We…have a few support units. Bastion-General Zavarial authorized it.”

She pointed. Cirille saw a line of skeletons standing behind the Bone Behemoth. She felt another shock; they were armed.

“Skeleton archers?”

“That’s right. Supporting fire. They climb on the Bone Behemoth and shoot; we got the tactic from Oliphant-riders from Chandrar.”

“And all the dead bodies mean you don’t have to upkeep them. Smart.”

Hetarria smiled, unguarded. She had a white grin; her teeth were in excellent condition.

“Well, 5th Wall could support them if we hooked them into the mana reservoir. The trick for undead management is to run with a heavy [Necromancer] compliment. Most people think quantity is all we can do. But this Bone Behemoth has seen nearly forty three years of service. It’s been ground into dust, smashed to bits—but with more [Necromancers], we can keep it fighting an entire battle. A dispersible, regenerating giant-class fighter…”

She broke off, blushing in the shadows.

“Sorry, Commander. [Necromancer]-talk. Er…I meant to say the Behemoth might not be as tall as other titans, but it’s been custom-made. Reinforced. It could down a regular Bone Giant easily.”

“So there’s craftsmanship among [Necromancers]?”

“The best of all worlds, Commander. We craft like [Golem Artificers]. We create like [Summoners]. We can conjure vast armies or go singular. The only downside is…our creations go rogue.”

The Drake from Rhir saw Cirille nod. Hetarria eyed Cirille as the Drake stared down. She coughed.

“If yo—I’d b—I’ve…wondered what Izril is like, Commander.”

Cirille turned her head, surprised.

“You’ve never visited?”

“Not once. My parents—well, one of my grandparents—were from Izril. And my parents went back and forth. [Traders]. But once I started studying [Necromancy] in the magic schools, they told me never to visit.”

“I see. I’d say that’s…appropriate.”

“Necromancy really is outlawed there, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Terandria as well. Baleros and Chandrar are less restrictive, or so I understand.”

“They are. I’ve been meaning to visit. Use my vacations or take a leave for a year or two. See the world. But you know, Commander, I wanted to see the Walled Cities most of all. What are they like?”

“Beautiful. Contained worlds of their own, Hetarria. You can live your entire life in one and never want for diversions. Some people do.”

The Commander stared dreamily out across the empty landscape, towards Monarch’s Pass in the distance. Hetarria sighed.

“Funny. I want to visit. I imagine they’re nothing like what I think. I’ve seen mage-pictures of course. But I don’t know why I miss something I’ve never seen.”

“Perhaps you could visit someday.”

The [Necromancer] smiled crookedly.

“I doubt it. I am a [Necromancer], Commander Cirille. And I don’t plan on changing.”

“I know.”

Cirille turned her back to the wall and stood there, leaning on the cool stone. This was a harder thing to say.

“I owe you an apology, Mage-Captain. I let my beliefs get ahead of me. We are both soldiers; we fight together.”

“Thank you, Commander.”

Hetarria’s eyes widened. Cirille held up a claw.

“With that said—I still hate undead. I can’t help it. Even if I didn’t grow up hearing about The Necromancer, they still unnerve me. Using dead bodies…whose are those? I mean, the skeletons?”

She shook her head. Hetarria glanced down.

“Volunteers.”

“You mean, people actually…”

“Of course. It’s a choice. There’s a registry. Some volunteer as bodies for necromancy. Others for um…the [Golem Artificers]. Blood magic. Different things. It is a choice. But we have enough bodies.”

“Incredible.”

The Drake Commander shook her head again. She hated the idea, everything about what Hetarria was saying. But she didn’t say it out loud.

“I can’t see that point of view, Mage-Captain. But I admit: [Necromancers] are a useful asset on the battlefield.”

“Thank you, Commander. I…wish we’d been assigned to Huntress Delezza’s squad yesterday. But she hated undead. It’s fair; Noelictus was built on the undead and it still has problems from them. Undead can be terrible.”

The [Necromancer]’s eyes were shadowed. Cirille glanced at her.

“For instance? I know about Draug…or do you mean Ceiling Crawlers?”

“They’re not what gets bad, Commander. Those are just…strong bodies. I mean, Crypt Lords, Wailing Pits, Dorn Pillars…the ones that think. Every [Necromancer] trained in Rhir’s schools has to study one of them before we’re allowed to animate the dead.”

“I didn’t know Rhir had training academies.”

“It’s not Wistram. But Wistram doesn’t teach [Necromancy]. Ours are utilitarian. We have…more experimental practices. Including captive undead. To study the enemy.”

“What’s a Wailing Pit? Dorn Pillars?”

“Collections of the undead. They…command other undead. They think. And talk. A Dorn Pillar can wipe out a city if it’s left underground. Everything begins animating. It tries to kill and kill—that’s evil. I won’t deny that.”

“You sound like—”

Hetarria brushed at her face.

“I had to spend a night in its company. It was contained. But that was enough.”

An uncomfortable silence fell between the two. Cirille felt her scales crawling again.

“I can’t deny it. I think that’s horrific, Captain Hetarria.”

“Yes, Commander. I understand that. I can’t blame you. But I want you to know that I never animate undead with that kind of—potential. Never. I’m a [Soldier]. I also took courses from the officer academies. I know my job and that’s killing Demons.”

“I understand that, Hetarria…”

Cirille crossed her arms. She eyed the younger Drake. After a while, she went on.

“…Well, Izril isn’t perfect. I was a girl when the Antinium invaded. Feels like they’ve been here forever. And I’ve fought the Antinium.”

“Really? I thought there was a peace.”

Hetarria’s head snapped up. Cirille grimaced.

“That’s just writing on the paper. In practice, we raid each other. I’ve accompanied [Geomancers] who cast [Earthquake] or other spells—did you hear there’s a damn tunnel connecting the Hive in Liscor to the other ones?”

“I can’t imagine why a city would let them in…”

“No. They’re relentless. I’ve run into them six times. Twice on our side of the border. All kinds. All of them died hard. They’ll charge into your spears and won’t stop moving until you hack them apart. The worst ones are the ones that stalk you, practically invisible. Or explode.”

“Demon’s dicks, that sounds awful.”

The curse caught Cirille off-guard. She snorted and Hetarria grinned.

“Sorry. I don’t say ‘Ancestors’. Commander—”

“Cirille is fine.”

“Alright then, Cirille. May I ask why you’re here? This doesn’t feel like a social call.”

The Drake [Commander] turned to stare back towards 4th Wall. Towards safety. Towards—home.

“Well, Hetarria. I just got news. I’m being recalled. Or rather, I was offered a job. Promotion, salary, in one of the Walled Cities.”

“Should I say congratulations?”

“Thank you. I just sent a message back. I want to hire some of the other groups here. Commander Uxel’s company, maybe some of the Gnolls. Even a few [Knights]. Shake up the way armies are formed in Izril.”

“That—does sound big. Do you think it’ll be approved?”

Cirille shrugged.

“Either I get what I want, or I stay. I think I can get something, at least. The thing is…we need it. The Antinium aren’t going away, and there are always the Humans. They tried to take Liscor.”

“I heard about that. Sorry; Rhir’s mostly Humans.”

The Drake Commander hesitated.

“Oh. Right. Well—I meant, Izrilian Humans. But I think I have to go back. Seeing Delezza like that—she gave everything for the battle against the Demons. But I can’t. I want to go home and change things.”

Hetarria said nothing. And Cirille suspected it was the same way she hadn’t spoken her true thoughts about the undead. The [Commander] sighed.

“I respect the Blighted Kingdom immensely, Hetarria. But I think change has to come from home. It’s what I think I can do, anyways. The point is—I’ve learned from other species. I think the Walled Cities are wonderful. But insular. We must change. And Drakes hate changing things. Ancestors, we built Walled Cities back when Dragons flew about and they’re still there.”

A smile. Cirille glanced at her.

“So. It’s not going to be easy. But I’ll head to Salazsar after some negotiations. Er…the City of Gems. Very rich. Not my favorite city, but comfortable. There’s potential there. I’ll be a [General] and once my contracts ends I can—the point is that’s my plan. Want to come?”

It was a far worse pitch than she’d given to Merish. Hetarria was nodding until her eyes narrowed.

“What was that, Commander? Me?

“Yes.”

The Mage-Captain didn’t move and Cirille looked straight ahead, trying to track her out of the corner of her eyes. Hetarria moved back and then came into view.

“Pardon me if I’m blunt, Commander. But my impression is that you don’t like me. I appreciate you coming here, but I can’t believe you’ve spun around and embraced the undead just like that.”

“True. I haven’t changed. I’m thinking about it. But I don’t like [Necromancers].”

Cirille met Hetarria’s eyes straight-on. As if she were confronting Shellc about comments about Lizards, or another dispute. She spoke earnestly.

“However, Mage-Captain. I’m aware of the usefulness of [Necromancers]. So I hope that if you’d agree and Rhir could spare you—I could learn to like you. And even if we don’t become friends—I think Izril might need you.”

“Me.”

Hetarria stood there, looking as if Cirille had…well, gone insane. The [Commander] nodded.

“I’m aware it would be hard on you. Especially given that you’ll be in a city full of Drakes who hate [Necromancers]. In fact, this would be a miserable assignment and I’d advise you to think on it. I might turn it down in your place. But Izril might need you.”

“I see. I have to admit, Commander. I’d never expect you to say that in a thousand years.”

The Mage-Captain just stood there. Then she shook her head.

“I can’t reply to that now, Commander.”

“No need to. I just came to float it. I put it in my request to the Wall Lord who wants to hire me. I expect he’s spitting fire if he can. But I worded my proposal carefully. I’ll fight for you, and Commander Uxel and Terandrian [Knights] if I can.”

“Why?”

Cirille stared ahead. She didn’t like the words that came out of her mouth next.

“…Delezza told me that the Antinium would have wiped the Walled Cities out in a month if they’d gotten to Izril at full-strength. I’m almost certain Salazsar wants me to fight them. The Wall Lord said as much. We nearly lost the first time. We forget that, with the Second Antinium war involving Goblins and everything else. They’ve had twenty years, Hetarria. How much have we done to prepare for them?”

“Huh. Well I…I’d have to request permission from Bastion-General Zavarial. He might grant it. And I’d want other [Necromancers]. And it would be sudden. Can I get back to you?”

“Of course. Thanks for your time. I uh—apologize for the late hour.”

The Drake Commander instantly stood up. She saw Hetarria salute.

“Not at all, Commander. I’m bored out of my mind on night-watch. At least I have time to think.”

“Good. Then I’ll see you later. Uh—”

The two looked at each other a few moments too long. Cirille threw a salute out of desperation, resorting to her training.

“Carry on, Mage-Captain!”

She did a smart about-face and marched off. Only when she was safely down the walls and heading back towards her barracks did Cirille pause to smack her head into a wall. A passing Centaur gave her an odd look.

Idiot. She should have done that better. But it was done. Cirille sighed. She half-wanted Hetarria to refuse. It would make her life easier. Still—she hadn’t lied.

Someone was waiting for her at the Drake’s barracks. One of the [Messengers]. She had a note for the Drake.

“Message from Salazsar, Commander. Authenticated. The Wall Lord wants to request confirmation about the [Message] you sent.”

“Already?”

Cirille’s heart began pounding. She took the note with her claws. It was shorter than she’d thought. And the contents…she read it slowly. Then she looked up.

“What is this? I didn’t send—‘walls like cheese’? Do you know what this is?”

“I just run messages, Commander.”

The young Human girl stared blankly at the Drake. Cirille looked at the nonsense lines of insulting doggerel and her brows darkened. There was only one person with this sense of humor.

Sir Tom. Excuse me. Please send a [Message] back to the Wall Lord saying that this was a mistake due to another—gah!

She strode off as the [Messenger] ran to clarify the issue. Cirille knew where to find the [Clown]. The inn where they loved to perform those comedy bits and such.

Sir Tom!

She slammed the door open. The Gloomless Troupe turned, some falling out of their chairs in mock-surprise. Giggles swept across the room and the [Clown] looked up from his drink, surrounded by his followers.

Commander Cirille! Here to see more comedy? Sorry, but I’m out of jokes! I could stab myself if that helps! Hah!

The [Clown] laughed. The Drake strode over to him, not in the mood for politeness. She brandished the letter.

“Sir Tom, this is unacceptable! Pranks are one thing, but this has gone too far. Even Vir—even the Lizardfolk wouldn’t do this!”

He was in massive trouble. The [Messenger] hadn’t liked the wrong communications being sent any more than Cirille had. Security was of massive importance to the Blighted Kingdom. Bastion-General Zavarial would tear Tom’s head off.

If Cirille didn’t do it first. But the [Clown], far from laughing, just stared at Cirille blankly. He turned around.

“Is this a joke? Because if it is, I’m too tired for jokes. Anyone?”

His followers shrugged or giggled. But they seemed oblivious. Cirille slammed the letter down.

“Don’t play games, Sir Tom!”

“I’m not! Why does everyone blame the [Clown]?”

A huge smile spread over his face and he laughed at his own joke. But then—he snatched up the letter before Cirille could shout again. He read and blinked.

“What…is this? ‘Salazsar is naught but cowards and thieves…bring down your walls like cheese?’ That’s insane. Who rhymes like that? I could do better. This is insane, and I should know! But I didn’t do it.”

He handed the letter back to Cirille. She blinked. The [Clown] looked serious.

“Sir Tom—don’t play games.”

“I didn’t! This time!”

He grinned at her, which was an unconvincing move. But he sounded genuine. Cirille glanced around, suddenly confused.

“But if you didn’t do it, then who? Communications are strictly monitored. I thought only you would have access to a [Scrier]…”

The [Clown] stood up.

“You think they let me near a [Scrier]? I tried sending a [Message] to the Singer of—but I’m banned. Could it be one of the Lizardfolk? They’re funny.”

“No, I—no. I’m sorry, Sir Tom. I thought…”

Cirille heard giggling and half-blushed. But now she was concerned. Assuming Tom wasn’t lying, and that was a full possibility…

“I need to ask the message-[Mage] on duty about this. Excuse me.”

She left the inn. Tom followed her outside.

“I’m coming with you. Otherwise Zavarial will think I did it! You can be my witness.”

The Drake didn’t feel like arguing. She stumbled as she left the inn; the night sky was clouded. The helpful stars were out.

“Ow. Damn—it’s dark.”

The [Clown] bounded past Cirille with annoying energy.

I see perfectly in the dark. Anyone got a [Light] spell?”

Someone muttered, but none was produced. Cirille stared around. The wall was…there. Damn, from behind the wall, the magical lanterns were very dark. Probably good if you were trying to hit the defenders with a bow. But it made walking about a pain…

She was hurrying towards the walls with Tom at her side. The night was dark. Cirille heard little, save for the [Clown] giggling. She turned to him.

“Once more, Sir Tom—will you swear it wasn’t you?”

“Cross my heart and hope someone else dies.”

He laughed at her. Cirille peered at his face. It was very dark. She looked around and realized something was in the way, next to the wall. They’d nearly walked into the Bone Behemoth.

Ancestors!

She jumped away from the undead. Tom glanced up.

“Oho! Mr. Bones and his friends.”

The undead skeleton stared ahead, eyes burning in the darkness. They were unnerving. Cirille backed up.

“We must have gone the wrong way. Sir Tom, with me to—Sir Tom!

The [Clown] had walked over. He passed by the Bone Behemoth’s huge leg and leaned on a skeleton archer’s shoulder. It jerked, trying to support his weight and its head rotated to stare at him.

“What?”

Sir Tom, don’t antagonize the undead!”

The Drake stared uneasily at the skeleton’s head. It was a Drake’s skull and bones. She could tell; the anatomy was different from a Human in significant ways. But Tom just laughed.

“Demons and Crelers and Fearless, oh my! And you’re worried about these guys? Don’t be silly—”

He pushed the skeleton aside and strode towards her, spreading his arms wide. Laughing. Then he tripped on a stone. He went down, prat-falling, cursing—and the three arrows flashed over his head.

Tom—

The skeleton archer lowered its bow and drew an arrow. Tom whirled. Cirille reached for her sword. That idiot had triggered their defense mechanisms! She began shouting.

Hetarria! The undead are attacking! Hetarria—

The walls were silent from above. But the Drake had to have heard—unless she’d already gone off-duty? Cirille saw Tom whirl. The [Clown]’s daggers were out and he was moving so fast she didn’t see him. He practically teleported to the skeletons who’d shot at him and slashed them down.

One, two, three. The enchanted daggers cleaved through bone with ease. They crumbled. Tom laughed, shrilly, surprise evident in his voice.

“Well, I guess you were right, Cirille! That’ll learn me!”

“We need to tell Hetarria. Sir Tom, please stop antagonizing the undead!”

The Drake hurried for the wall. The stairs leading up to Hetarria’s post she summited three at a time, Tom following and grumbling.

“…no one worries about me when I’m getting shot at. Bet you Emily would have…”

“Mage-Captain! The undead attacked Sir Tom!”

Cirille reached the top of the wall in a blur. She was panting. Her sword was still drawn; Hetarria backed up, wide-eyed.

“Commander Cirille—what? I just felt three of my skeletons die. Was that—”

“Sir Tom was leaning on the undead. Then they drew arrows and loosed at him. He would have died but for luck!”

The [Clown] giggled. Cirille pointed at Hetarria—and realized it was with her sword. The [Necromancer] stepped back.

“I’m sorry, Commander. It must have triggered their self-defense commands. I didn’t mean to—”

“No. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to accuse—”

Cirille lowered the sword, shamefaced. Hetarria’s eyes were wide. And in a moment, Cirille had jumped to a conclusion involving a betrayal. An assassination attempt—

And in a moment, shown her real colors to Hetarria as well. The Drake moved back further. Her ivory breastplate was dark, without moon or torchlight.

“It was an accident, Commander.”

“I understand. I apologize. I…I should go. I’ll tell Bastion-General Zavarial. Sir Tom…?”

The Drake looked around. And suddenly, she realized the [Clown] was out of sight. It was very dark. Cirille stared about.

“…Mage-Captain. What happened to the magical lanterns?”

She looked back at the Drake. The [Necromancer] blinked.

“I didn’t notice. It is…dark.”

It was bright around them. But about twenty feet ahead of them it turned practically pitch-black. Cirille felt a prickle on her scales. She turned to look for more lights. How had that happened without her noticing?

There were only a few lights. No stars in the sky. No torches or magical lights on the wall. Just a pair of burning orange flames. Cirille stared at them. At least they provided l—

“Down!”

The [Clown] tackled her to the ground. Cirille hit the stone hard. She saw something huge, ivory-white pass over her head. And the Bone Behemoth’s fist hit the space where she had been. The impact was like thunder. Cirille lay there, staring up at the sky as Tom leapt off her.

“You traitor.”

The Commander leapt to her feet. She raised her sword—and saw Hetarria standing there. The [Necromancer] was pointing at the Bone Behemoth. She spun as Cirille and Tom advanced with weapons in hand.

“No! Wait! I didn’t do anything! I didn’t do anything!

She flinched. Cirille hesitated. The Bone Behemoth was shaking—its hammer was raised. Tom looked at Hetarria. The Drake was pointing a finger. Trying to keep it from striking? Cirille hesitated.

She put down her sword. What the hell was happening? Then she heard a shout. Hetarria’s scream.

The Bone Behemoth swung again.

 

—-

 

When Flora was done speaking with the Giants, she found them waiting for her. People.

Demons. Some had horns. Odd…blemishes on their skin. Deformities, as small as a finger made of moving glass—or an extra eye.

It touched them, the corruption. The curse of Rhir. Despite their best efforts. But they were proud.

There were sixty of them. Flora caught her breath as she saw one of them, her guardian and friend, Bazeth. The [Champion of Blades] carried his glaive as always. His armor, his weapon, were magic. He had learned to fight in Drath—wherever that was.

But he was a Demon. He nodded to her; the Blight had touched his two horns, turning the tips of them into something like silver, but weak as sand. They flaked away when he moved hard and regrew like hair; faster actually.

Beyond that, he was hale. And the Blight had touched Flora not at all. It had to some Demons, but they had ways to defend against it. The Harpies suffered the most, flying as they did in miasma clouds, far above the stationary cleansing zones.

Yet that had changed. The world changed.

“Are you not going? I thought—you said it was tonight.”

“It is begun, Flora of Texas.”

Bazeth nodded at her. She hesitated.

“Stop saying that.”

“Flora of Earth?”

“Not much better.”

The Demon sighed. He was formal, from his tutelage by the proud Empire of Drath. But this was not a moment for idle chatter.

The others were waiting. They stood around her. The figure in the center of the sixty-odd people shone. She…unnerved Flora. When they had first met, she had been a pitiable figure, but also glorious. Desperate. Noble.

She was still all these things. Flora bowed slightly. She couldn’t help it. And the figure smiled. Or her lips twitched. Her entire body twitched, but she tried to repay the gesture. Flora didn’t deserve it, but the Demons copied her.

“Flora. It has begun. Will you come? Come and see. G-good and evil. Callidaz cannot s-show you.”

The girl from Earth had saved her life. Silvenia spoke, freezing by seconds. Her voice echoed. She should not have been alive. She was still wounded. Looking at her hurt Flora.

But what glory. Flora looked at Silvenia and was afraid.

“It’s begun? But you’re here.

In the Demon Kingdom’s territory. Far from the front of any line. Silvenia’s eyes flashed.

“Distance is n-nothing. If you come. I will keep you safe. It has been too l-l-long.”

“Do you have to do this?”

Bazeth shifted. The others looked at Flora. But even the Demons did not know. They stood with Silvenia. Apart from her. Staring at her like Flora looked up at the Giants.

The air twisted. Silvenia’s smile was broken. Look at what they had done to her. The Blighted Kingdom. But she lived.

Now, the half-Elf laughed. Her staff rose. And Flora’s feet left the ground. The sixty Demons, Silvenia, and the girl floated higher. The half-Elf looked at her.

I have done it. A thousand times a thousand before. We are warriors, Flora. You have seen the kindness of Demons. Heard the wisdom of Giants. Now. S-see wrath. D-decide. Walk with me. See why they call us Demons.

The girl from Texas hesitated. She ran her fingers through her short, garnet hair with a hint of copper. Her denim jeans and long shirt, the same as she’d been carrying on the shooting range, looked patchy compared to the enchanted metal on the others. Her boots, which Bazeth admired, shifted in the dirt.

Then she nodded. Silvenia smiled, her eyes lighting up even more brilliantly. She raised her staff higher. And the Demons walked. The world blurred around them. Flora walked too. The gun was in the holster at her side.

She feared Callidaz was right. She had a choice. To give them the gun or not. To help or not. They might betray her, not let her go. But she thought they would.

Because it didn’t matter. Not at all. Silvenia led them through the brilliant night. Flora stepped through clouds. They followed the half-Elf. She needed no weapons from Earth.

Flora had seen images of weapons which erased cities. She had flown above the land. She had told the Demons of all these things. And Silvenia had taken a sprig of grass in hand. The half-Elf had split the sea. She had cured the blind and brought down fire. Then she had taken the staff and shown Flora wonders.

She was…passionate and wise, yet still full of mortal pettiness even after so long. Noble. Cruel. Pitiful, as Flora had met her. Courageous. But not kind. The half-Elf marched upon the Blighted Kingdom, her foes unawares. Her eyes were the silver of stars. Her hair was white and pale green. Skin scarred a thousand times. She wore wounds even her magic had yet to heal and her body shook.

None of it mattered. The half-Elf walked the skies once more. King Othius IV woke from his dreams turned to nightmares. And Silvenia laughed. She had but one weakness in the entire world and it was this:

She couldn’t rhyme.

 

—-

 

Cirille ducked. The huge claw made of bone passed over the wall. She heard a scream, distant; someone had been hit. A [Soldier] from Rhir, a Human, was carried off the wall. She screamed the entire way down.

Hetarria!

The [Commander] had few weapons capable of killing something this large. A ring with a one-use [Fireball] spell, her sword, enchanted—a few Skills if she had a company or more at her back.

I’m not doing it! I’m trying to control—stop! Hetarria to the Necromancer Corps—report to my position!”

The Drake pointed and the Bone Behemoth froze again. Wavering. Hetarria was fighting—something. The huge, orange eyes glowed as Hetarria bellowed.

But no one heard. Cirille looked around. The darkness encompassed her position. And she heard the faintest echo of someone shouting.

“…what happened? Something just…”

She stumbled left, as the Bone Golem raised another fist. A colorful man leapt past her.

“It’s gone rogue! Where are the lights?”

Tom the [Clown] looked around. Cirille ran forwards, towards the voice. It became louder. Not thirty paces ahead, a [Soldier] was shouting. Suddenly, his voice was a roar.

Something just swept the [Sergeant] off the walls! What was it?

A full-bellow. Cirille saw him whirl, bringing his sword up. She blinked at him.

“Bone Behemoth.”

“What?”

The [Soldier] stared at her. Cirille pointed.

“It’s attacking everything in sight! It’s right—”

She turned. And the giant undead was gone. Swallowed by the blackness. Yet—it was there.

Why was it so dark? Tom stared about. He giggled, high-pitched, uncertain. Staring at Cirille.

“Are you serious? You’re asking what’s happening? You two?”

The [Soldier] had a deep frown on his face.

“I think…I think we need to report this to Bastion-General…”

“The [Necromancers]. Hetarria needs support—”

Cirille was nodding. She turned, and Tom kicked her in the stomach. She had armor on, but Cirille still doubled over.

Sir Tom! What was—”

We are under attack, you idiots!

The [Clown] howled into their faces. The [Soldier] and Drake looked at him. Tom spun, a desperate look in his eyes.

“Rogue undead? Darkness? Am I the only sane insane person here?

Under…attack? Something in Cirille’s brain went click. She shook her head. And then clutched at it. Why hadn’t she picked up on all of this before?

“—wrong. What’s—my potion.”

She fumbled for something at her belt. Tom whirled back and saw the Drake take a gulp of a single potion. Her eyes cleared. She took one breath and screamed.

Ancestors!

Pain! The Clear-Mind Tonic was like snorting salt water while plunging your face into a freezing bath condensed into a single moment. Her nostrils ran and her eyes did the same. But it worked. Suddenly, the obvious revealed itself.

No torch-lights. Unnatural darkness. Rogue undead?

“We are under attack! There’s a mind-fog spell in the air. Sound the alarm!

The Drake whirled. The [Soldier] blinked at her, stupidly. Then he grabbed for his horn at the same time she did. They both blew a shrill blast of sound into the air.

No one answered them. Cirille took a breath and blew again. By rights, she should have set everyone within miles to high-alert and they should have instantly taken up the call. But her war horn provided virtually no response. The Drake, panting, lowered the horn and heard something.

“…hear that? It sounded like an alarm.”

“…you sure? It’s too faint to…”

“Silence spells. Vision spells. And something’s numbing our minds. This—how far does this spell reach?”

The Drake stared about wildly. Tom was shouting down over the walls.

You idiots! Get up here! It’s a raid! It’s—

Cirille! The Bone Behemoth is rampant!”

Hetarria was still fighting with her creation. It was assailing the wall, smashing its hand as she ran away from it, like some ludicrous game of cat-and-mouse. Cirille bellowed as she ran.

Sound the alarm! Send a [Message] spell to 4th Wall! We’re under attack!

The [Necromancer]’s eyes widened. Cirille saw her put a claw to her temple. Fighting the confusion spell.

Confusion spells? Area-wide? That was a Tier 5 spell. At least! Cirille kept running. The Demons were making a large-scale assault, or a raid! She had to raise the alarm! She had to—

“Tom, with me!”

The [Clown] appeared out of the darkness. A gaggle of the Gloomless Troupe followed. They looked more serious than any of the other startled [Soldiers] on the wall.

Sound the alarm, you idiots!

One of the [Jesters] shrieked as she brandished a blade. Another ran to an alarm-gong and began hitting it. The [Soldiers], bewildered, stared at them.

“What—”

We’re under attack!

Tom drew his knife and stabbed a [Soldier]. The man cried out and grabbed at his leg. But it worked. The pain and his training made him straighten. The [Soldier] looked around, and then shook his friend.

Dead gods! It’s a spell! Sound the alarm! Sound—

Why were the [Clowns] not affected? Madness. Tom laughed, his voice mixed with fear as well as…giddiness? And his troupe laughed as well.

This way! Central command is below. Move aside! Move—”

Cirille shoved figures aside as she came to a walkway. She came upon a clump of bodies, tried to push at them.

Move aside! That is an order—

She saw the figure stumble backwards. Enraged, Cirille grabbed him. She saw a [Soldier] in dark armor, staring up at her. He was clutching at his chest. She looked down and saw blood.

Torn metal. The [Soldier] had been sliced deep. He looked up at her. Cirille tried to catch him as he fell.

She looked up. The clump of figures resolved itself in the darkness. Struggling [Soldiers] from Rhir. Fighting, dying, as other shapes in armor assailed them, hacking at them.

Demons. They turned, identical, horned figures with two-handed swords. They advanced without a word.

They were on the walls. Cirille counted eight. Half were wounded. They made no sound as they advanced. No one had heard them climbing. Or noticed, befuddled as they were.

Demon attack—

The Drake deflected the first two-handed cut. The Demons spread out, trying to flank her. She backed up. Feinted left. One raised his sword—

A dagger sprouted from one eye. The [Jester] lowered her hand and threw another.

Laughter. A [Clown] barreled into the second Demon. He grabbed at the air and the sword vanished from the Demon’s hands. Tom ran the enemy soldier through with it and ran past the Demon to stab another Demon.

Sound the alarm!

He screamed at her. Cirille saw the Gloomless Troupe flooding past her, teeth bared, screaming and laughing as more figures appeared out of the darkness. The Drake hesitated. She looked around, and then ran for the stairs.

 

—-

 

Alarm. 5th Wall heard it slowly. Too slow. The unnatural darkness, the sudden absence of light provoked little attention in the lower-level [Soldiers]. Something befuddled the senses.

Some of the officers noticed. Before Cirille had even encountered the rogue undead, some safeguards functioned.

Bastion-General Zavarial’s amulet emitted a shrill scream of sound and he shot out of his bed.

Enemy hex! Sound an alarm!”

He bellowed; the half-Elf ran out of his quarters. He saw his subordinates staring dumbly at him. Two were shaking their heads, understanding something was wrong. Bastion-General Zavarial swore.

By my authority as Bastion-General, sound a full-wall alarm! Everyone to the walls! Move!

His command woke his subordinates from their stupor. They reached for cleansing potions, amulets; a [Secretary] grimly stabbed himself through the hand with a quill and woke up.

“[Message] spells to 4th Wall: ‘We are under a wide-scale spell, at least Tier 5—unknown location, unknown scale!’

“Bastion-General, speaking stone!”

Someone blew a horn as Zavarial caught the stone keyed to Quiteil’s command. He waited for the other horns to pick up the alarm as his two subordinates produced magical keys to trigger 5th Wall’s alarm system. Even if the horns didn’t work, the spell built into the wall would—

Triggering alarm and anti-shroud spells, Bastion-General—now!”

A [Defensive Commander] shouted. He unfurled the scroll-key.

Nothing happened. The scroll was dead. Bastion-General Zavarial saw it as he shouted into the speaking stone.

Quiteil! We are under magical attack on 5th Wall! Mind-shroud spell! We are trying to raise the alarm, but—Quiteil?”

The speaking stone glowed. But nothing happened. The half-Elf paused. He looked around.

“What is happening? Commander, the alarm!”

“We’re trying, Bastion-General! 5th Wall should have anti-shroud spells already, but nothing’s working!”

The [Commander] checked the scroll. The command room was dark. Zavarial realized—many of the magical illuminations that should have been active, everything from Tier 0 [Light] spells to the glow of the enchanted war-table—were all dark.

The magic was dead. Or…suppressed. Zavarial’s hair stood up and he felt a lurch in his stomach.

“I don’t hear any other horns.”

“[Mass Silence] spell. Everyone in this room—get out there and sound the alarm. I don’t care if you have to run across all of 5th Wall. Go. Find every [Commander] and get their forces on the wall. Bastion-General Quiteil, respond!”

The speaking stone was directly keyed to Quiteil’s stone. A Tier 5 [Speech] spell. It shouldn’t be so easily knocked out. The stone was still glowing. Zavarial stared at it. But he heard nothing. He waited a second longer, and then dropped the stone and ran. They had to sound the alarm.

If he had stayed a moment longer, he would have heard a voice laughing at him.

 

—-

 

“Try it again.”

The commander’s mess wasn’t that full this late at night. But there were always those willing to stay up and socialize.

Commander Uxel sat at the table, clearly annoyed, as he sat with Merish, Paxhal, and Viri. The little Lizardman wasn’t really an officer, but he’d talked his way into being allowed into the nightly games with that ingratiating way he had.

Now, the Lizardman was testing his commander’s patience. But it wasn’t his fault! This time.

Del.

Viri slapped the card down. But the black fog failed to appear. Uxel cursed.

“What’s wrong with it? Is the enchantment broken? Viri, I swear, if you have broken the cards or this is a trick—”

“I didn’t, Commander! I promise! It worked last round!”

The [Longstick Jumper] hunched his shoulders. Paxhal tried another card. But the magic wasn’t working.

“Maybe it’s a sign we’re up too late? We can find out what the matter is tomorrow, Uxel. Lay off Viri.”

The Garuda yawned. He had flight duty tomorrow. He stood up. Merish perplexedly looked around.

“It’s not just the cards. The lights went out four minutes ago. Did no one else…notice?”

The [Shamanic Warrior] got nothing but blank looks. Uxel was still frowning. Merish stood up. He sniffed the air.

“…And I don’t smell anything.”

“So? We’re not filthy Humans. We bathe.

The Gnoll Chief Warrior looked at the Gorgon.

“Uxel, I smell everything. Something is off. Don’t you feel it?”

The Gorgon blinked slowly. Which was also odd. Uxel was quick.

“I don’t know what you mean, Merish. Everything seems fine. Except for the cards. Maybe—”

“Alarm. Sound the alarm!

A voice. The commanders turned. Cirille skidded into the room.

Merish! Uxel! Paxhal! Get to your soldiers! We are under attack!”

The Garuda and two Lizardfolk blinked, confused. Merish’s eyes went round. He reacted with an oath, leaping up and knocking the table over.

“What? Are you certain? I didn’t hear anyth—”

Cirille took a page from Tom’s book. She shoulder-charged forwards and punched the Gorgon in the face.

“Ow. What was that f—”

Uxel recoiled, blinking stupidly. Then his eyes went sharp. He hissed as he drew himself up.

Mind-spell!

“What mind-spell? I don’t—”

Viri and Paxhal went flying as the Gorgon twisted and his tail slapped then off their feet. They got up cursing, and then looked around.

“But I didn’t even feel it!”

The Lizardman looked around wildly, slapping his cheeks. Cirille didn’t have time to waste.

“Everyone’s been hit. There’s no visibility, hearing—”

“Or smell. How far is the spell?”

“I’ve run at least four hundred feet and it’s still going! Everyone’s affected, on the battlements and not! Get your commands moving. Hit them if you have to—Demons are on the wall!

The [Commanders] whirled. No time for questions. Cirille ran on. But though she’d done this with sixteen other officers so far, she was desperate. Most of the wall was asleep while the Demons were overrunning them! There had to be a faster way! There had to be!

 

—-

 

And there was. Bastion-General Zavarial could not see far into the darkness. But he saw further than most. He had been a lowly [Archer]. Then [Ranger]. [Veteran Ranger]. [Blightwarden]. And at the same time, he’d risen through the ranks of [Soldier], [Sergeant], [Captain]—he’d skipped [Lieutenant]—

In time he had become a [Blightranger General], an expert at fighting in the Demon’s territory in hit-and-away missions. He had made Bastion-General.

But he was no Quiteil, or another [General] class. His wide-reaching powers came from 5th Wall’s enchantments.

And every single one of them was dead. Zavarial’s abilities now were limited to the bow and sword he carried. He stood on the walls.

“World’s end. They’re everywhere.”

“Bastion-General? What do we do?”

One of his officers looked around, trying to see. But without Skills, his sight only went twenty paces. Zavarial looked around. Then he raised his bow.

“Commander. You will rally the wall. Hold the line and alert 4th Wall. By horse if you must! The spell might extend across all of 5th Wall. Break past it.”

The Dullahan, born on Rhir, saluted.

“Yes, Bastion-General! But the alarm—”

“Keep spreading it. I will punch a hole. Get below. Now.

The officer ran. Not understanding. Bastion-General Zavarial checked his rings. He had been given six by the Blighted Kingdom, from the treasury. His bow was made from the bones of a long-dead animal, and his arrows were enchanted. He had fired one into the sky and never seen the detonation, although he had known it had gone off.

“Clever. But not enough. I am Bastion-General Zavarial of 5th Wall. I will not see this wall fall without a fight.

The half-Elf swore into the darkness. He looked around and braced himself. He drew a single arrow to his bow and aimed straight up. He was not the most powerful [General] to counter this. But he was not helpless. The half-Elf drew back as far as he could and shouted.

“[Arrow of Greater Dispel]!”

He loosed. The arrow sped upwards, into the darkness. It detonated in the sky. Bastion-General Zavarial turned and—

 

—-

 

“What attack, Commander? I didn’t hear—”

Captain Shellc’s blank look vanished. Cirille punched him anyways. She saw him hit the ground and spring up, swearing. But suddenly—the barracks was full of shouting. Gnolls and Drakes looked up, shaking their heads.

It was suddenly brighter. The magic was still dead, but torches provided more illumination. Cirille could hear and think. The fog of wool that had been stuffed in her head despite the potion faded. She heard someone—several someones—desperately blowing horns, ringing gongs. She heard shouts, cries—

And then, the blessed sound of the wailing horn. A screaming wail from a hundred different places, so loud it woke everyone. Merish looked up.

“I smell blood.”

Cirille turned. Her division looked to her. The Drake bellowed.

Arm up and get topside! Now!

 

—-

 

The sirens shrilled across 5th Wall for miles as the spell lifted. Waking sleeping soldiers, alerting others. Those under the mental fog felt it fade and reacted at last.

Too late. Or just in time. Richard fell out of his bed, reaching for his sword but recalling tornado sirens—he rose.

We’re under attack! Emily—get Chloe out of here!

A [Nurse] screamed as the other Earthers scrambled out of their bunks. Fear, real fear gripped Richard. A surprise attack? Half of them had died close to 5th Wall. Half of them—he heard another sound from above. The roar of voices. The clash of metal.

Battle.

 

—-

 

Tom looked up and around. The [Clown] saw the dark skies flash. And Bastion-General Zavarial’s arrow lifted the darkness. Tom had no time to appreciate the relief. He turned.

Why are there so many Demons!?

There were hundreds on the wall. Tom saw them now. He threw eight knives, each one hitting a target and snatched. A Demon running at him, virtually a clone of the other faceless figures he’d been cutting down, flailed, suddenly bereft of his blade. Tom stabbed him. It was such a familiar sensation these days.

The Gloomless Troupe was locked in combat. They charged the enemy, as fearless as their foe. Tom laughed, feeling the other him reveling in the fighting. Or was it just Tom?

“Is it me? Is it me or me?

He found himself stabbing someone on the ground. The [Clown] rolled away just in time; arrows hit the battlements. One stuck out of his leg. Tom laughed instead of screaming. He rolled over again—

And found Tom staring at him. The two [Clowns] staggered upright. They blinked at each other. Then they turned. One stabbed a Demon through the helmet; the other bum-rushed another and smacked into him. The Demon went flying. Off the walls.

Into a sea of Demons climbing from below. Thousands of black-armored figures, assailing 5th Wall.

A damn army. Tom looked around. No giants. Arrows—he took cover as the other Tom pulled an arrow out of his shoulder and stabbed his opponent in the eye with it. Just infantry.

Thousands and thousands of them, assailing the wall as far as the eye could see. Tom shouted.

“Fire the damn wall spells! I don’t have enough knives for all of them! Heh. Hahah—

The wall stood there. Gray stone, no flickers of magic appearing. Tom looked around. And then he realized—aside from Hetarria, still fighting for control of the Bone Behemoth, he didn’t see any magic.

No magic at all.

 

—-

 

—Dove. Even as his arrow cleared the skies, the half-Elf had lunged. For the stairs, leading down from the tower.

He nearly made it. The half-Elf was halfway down the stairs, braced for the wall when his momentum ceased. He felt himself rising.

“No.”

He reached for a handhold. Anything. But something picked him up. Carrying him higher into the sky.

Around the Bastion-General, the world brightened. The enchantment affecting the wall vanished. The stars reappeared. The alarm began to spread. The half-Elf twisted, seeing the army.

“…sixty thousand. Eighty…dead gods. Quiteil? Quiteil. This is Zavarial. Code Shelten-Khelt-[Brigand]-Dirt. A hundred thousand attacking 5th Wall. At least. All infantry. Some kind of [Mage]. I regret to inform you of my—”

The backup, single-use speaking stone slipped from his fingers. The Brigade-General watched it fall. Always make plans. Quiteil had taught him that. He should have carried two. But he had heard nothing from that one either.

Zavarial felt himself rising higher, into the air. Above the ballista now firing into the mass of enemies below.

He had done his duty. 5th Wall fought. But…the real enemy was invisible to him.

The half-Elf drew another arrow to his bow. A Deathslayer Arrow. It cost over ten thousand gold pieces to produce. It was reserved for only the greatest foes. He had fired one at the serpent-titan. Now, he held the others in his fingers. Looking for a target.

The Bastion-General floated in the air, hundreds of feet higher than the wall now. Higher. Higher. He looked around, his eyes searching the ground for anything. But the Demon [Soldiers] were identical. He spotted a few irregular figures. But where?

Then he heard the laughter. It came from above. Zavarial twisted and looked up. Still higher. He stared, and his eyes widened.

Who are you?

He shot before he screamed. The Deathslayer arrow flew upwards, sent by half a dozen Skills to his target.

It winked out of existence. The half-Elf in the skies, hidden among the clouds, laughed at him.

“Goodbye, little [General]. You did well. Thank you for your voice.”

She pointed. Zavarial fell back towards the tower. Faster—faster—he aimed up with two arrows. Shouted—

“[Double Sh—]”

The explosion consumed him and the tower.

 

—-

 

“Hm.”

Bastion-General Quiteil woke up. He couldn’t have said why. Instinct? Paranoia?

He woke up many times each week. Fueled by a sudden thought, some unconscious conclusion, bad food…but the Bastion-General trusted his gut.

Quiteil of 4th Wall had placed his bedroom next to the office where he worked. Cirille had observed it was more like a [Secretary]’s office. Well and so—it was. And his bedroom was far smaller than the room dedicated to maps, communication devices, documents, and so on.

“Night-Commanders, report in.”

The [Secretary] picked at the corruption on his right arm as he keyed a group of speaking stones. Instantly, they lit up as the Night-Commanders on duty for 4th Wall gave their codes and reports. Nothing new. One reported eighteen bats; a completely irrelevant detail in most other armies that would have got him laughed at for paranoia.

Here? Quiteil made a note in case it was shape shifted enemies or spies from some [Beast Master]. Although the wall was enchanted to detect such things and he had sentries with detection Skills.

But that was Quiteil’s vigilance. The Bastion-General demanded more details from one [Commander]. Then he checked the other walls. 3rd, 2nd, 1st—and the capital reported all was well.

“5th Wall, report in. Code is…”

There was a brief moment of silence as Quiteil checked the war-maps. Nothing of note on 5th Wall. And then he heard Zavarial’s voice, crisp, a bit irritated. It was close to midnight, after all.

“Code Shelten-Khelt-[Brigand]-Dirt. All is well, Quiteil.”

“I see. Thank you. Apologies for the disturbance.”

The Bastion-General closed the connection. He sat back and had a few thoughts.

The code was good. No issues there. Second, no other disturbances anywhere else. All was well.

However…Zavarial was awake at a late hour. But that was perfectly natural and it had happened before. Many times, in fact.

Still—he was not Bastion-General Quiteil for nothing. The man keyed another stone.

“Commander Cirille. Report in.”

Until he was fully confident, he would do this all night. He had before.

 

—-

 

It took them three minutes for Cirille’s company to arm. Which was no time at all in most circumstances. Far too long for a night attack. But the Drakes and Gnolls were armored and assembled. After three long minutes.

The explosion that had shook 5th Wall from overhead hadn’t repeated itself. Nevertheless, Cirille waited, vibrating with nerves. She had sent Shellc’s squad ahead, and was bellowing at her officers to get above now!

She was just about to go above when her speaking-stone chimed. The Drake whirled, eyes wide.

The magic was working! None of her [Mages] had been able to send [Message] spells! Not even conjure [Light]! But now, she heard Bastion-General Quiteil responding.

Commander Cirille. Report in. Night code is Invinctel-Surreptitious—

Bastion-General! We’re under attack! Er—Code Viridian-Adamantium-Salazsar-Terrium!

The Drake shouted into the stone. She heard nothing from the other side for a second.

“Bastion-General, the spell is widespread and there are Demons on the walls. Unknown number; they had suborned command of undead forces and—”

“—this is Commander Cirille. Code Viridian-Adamantium-Salazsar-Terrium. Nothing of note to report, Bastion-General.”

Cirille heard her voice, coming from the speaking stone. The Drake froze.

“I see. Commander, how many arrows are currently stockpiled in your division?”

“I’d…have to consult my [Quartermaster], Bastion-General. One moment.”

Bastion-General!

The Commander screamed, but she knew it was no use. Someone was mocking her. And Quiteil’s voice was distant.

“No, never mind. Apologies, Commander Cirille.”

“Not at all, Bastion-General. Cirille out.”

The stone went dead. Cirille stared at it. That had been her voice, perfectly replicated. Her claw tightened around the stone. Then she heard a voice as the stone lit up for a second.

Out of curiosity, how many arrows do you have?

The Drake threw the stone to the ground and smashed it with the heel of her boot. She whirled.

Officers, our speaking spells are compromised! 4th Wall is not aware of the attack! We need to find Bastion-General Zavarial and send word now! Move out!

She ran for the wall. She never found Zavarial. The place where he stood was ash and burnt stone. And the Demons climbing the ladders had turned the wall into a bloody battleground. The Drakes advanced.

 

—-

 

Quiteil sat back in his seat. He had a few more thoughts.

He’d asked about arrows just the other day. It was conceivable that Cirille had forgotten. Also—she had been quite pleasant despite his history of interrupting her speech.

Just minor things. Perhaps she was holding her tongue and being civil. Perhaps she thought he wanted a full count.

He didn’t deal in ‘perhaps’. Quiteil touched another stone.

“[Scouts]. Report in. 5th Wall.”

Rhir had sentries posted in the dangerous lands between here and 5th Wall, watching for infiltrators. In towers, hidden—each one reported in.

“The Wall looks completely normal from a distance, Bastion-General. I can see [Soldiers] moving about; absolutely nothing of note.”

A [Sharpshooter] informed the Bastion-General. Quiteil nodded. He had conducted a perfect survey of 5th Wall. All was well. He sat back in his chair. All was fine.

Quiteil didn’t go back to sleep. Slowly, he keyed another stone. And then another, simultaneously.

“Commander Uxel, report in. Ser Vorn, report your status.”

His eyes flickered at the pause before their voices reported. Slowly, Quiteil pulled out an hourglass of sand and flicked four stones.

 

—-

 

Commander Cirille looked across 5th Wall. And at last, she saw hell.

Demon [Soldiers], coated in metal, climbed onto the wall from ladders. They had claimed two gates and were storming the walls from the inside. In the distance, she saw places where the wall had been overrun.

All before her division had even reached the battlements. Captain Shellc stared around, his mouth open.

Impossible.

But it was happening. The area around Cirille was the most stable. She saw Rhirian [Soldiers] fighting with the Demons, holding their lines.

Because of Bastion-General Zavarial. The half-Elf’s arrow had dispelled a massive radius, lifting the enchantment and buying the precious minutes needed. Now, his commanders were pushing forwards, trying to retake the walls.

“Commander, we need to link up with our other forces! The Demons are trying to seize the gates! Take your forces and push across the wall until you reach reinforcements!”

The sub-[General] bellowed. He pointed down the wall; Cirille saw the Demons fighting there. Tom and his Gloomless Troupe were advancing down the other side, but they’d already taken heavy casualties.

Yes sir! Captain Shellc, move forwards! Spearwall formation! Where is Bastion-General Zavarial?”

The two [Commanders] hung back, shouting. The sounds of battle raged around them, but there was still that eerie silence. And now—Cirille saw black walls ahead and behind of her. The world cut off past those points. They were enclosed by some massive enchantment. Her scales tingled.

Tier 7? Or…higher?

Dead. I saw him fall before something destroyed the siege tower. We have yet to receive word from 4th Wall. We are sending [Messengers] on foot, but—”

Both heard a shriek from above. They ducked and an [Archer Captain] bellowed.

Harpies diving! Take cover!

The [Archers] aimed up. But the figures flashed past the wall. Cirille saw a Harpy up close—a female figure, garbed in light cloth armor, with no legs or arms. Instead—a bird’s massive wings and talons for legs. Only her torso was humanoid. Her face was twisted in a snarl as she dove—

Below, a [Messenger] dove. But the Harpy dragged him up and then dove and dropped him. Cirille saw the body hit the ground.

“Harpies?”

“Yes. No Demon Giants. No [Mages]. They have archers, but no siege weapons—the Harpies only number a few hundred, but they have the skies! They only go after our [Messengers]! I don’t understand it.”

The Demons were attacking with numbers rather than any kind of army. Cirille looked around.

“Have you tried—”

The Dullahan snapped at her.

We’ve sent a hundred [Messengers] from every point on the wall! They never make it! Take your command and clear that section, Commander!”

He whirled back to the furious defense. Cirille looked around.

Arrows in the sky. Flashes of light as potions were used, or Skills. Shouting, screams—the Demons made little sound as they advanced.

But no magic. Her [Mages] were helpless. Something was suppressing the magic of 5th Wall. If it hadn’t been, they would have torn this army apart with the same spells.

Something was stalking them. Cirille turned back to the Dullahan.

“Sir, someone was intercepting my speaking stone—”

“I know. Go, Commander.”

She ran, seeking her command. Cirille saw a flash of scales, saw the lines of her forces. Then saw them. The Demons turned, spilling onto the wall.

Like insects. They looked identical. Faceless, behind covered visors. The Drakes slowed.

Spearwall formation! Squad, on me!

Shellc bellowed. In front of him, Drakes with long spears lowered them. They kept their shields up as arrows fell in scattered bursts.

The Demons advanced. But their formation was weaker, scattered. They were trickling onto the walls from ladders.

Soldiers, advance at a walk!

Commander Cirille drew her sword. She walked, under the cover of fellow [Soldier]’s shields as her division spread out across the wall. The Demons ran forwards, disengaging Rhir’s [Soldiers].

“[Archers]! Loose!

Lieutenant Ossky had command of the [Archers]. Arrows rained down from Drake bows, downing the Demons. But their armor was tough. The Drake looked up.

1st Wing—

“Belay that order, Ossky! The skies aren’t safe! Foot combat! Oldbloods! Prepare to breathe! Advance at a trot!

The central spear-wall was filled with Oldblood [Lineholders]. They advanced a step ahead of the others. And the Drakes and Gnolls sped up. They marched like thunder, in formation, in step. Faster. Cirille felt her heart pumping.

She saw a Drake go down, crying out as an arrow caught him between a gap in his shield and armor. The other Drakes pushed forward as someone dragged him back, fumbling for a potion. The formation didn’t slow.

Not yet. Not yet—Cirille saw the Demons closing, a wall of them now. Two hundred paces, one hundred—the first stragglers were already running. Now.

“Spearwall—charge!”

At last. The [Soldiers] roared and all the fury and fear they had felt up till this moment, the helplessness of the magic—turned into movement. They charged, and the Demons advanced.

The first wave hit the spears. Demons ran onto the metal. Cirille shouted.

“Oldbloods—breathe!

Magic fire and lightning and acid—a dozen different effects struck the first rank of Demons. They jerked, burning, freezing—and Captain Shellc roared.

Swords, forwards!

They advanced amid the thrusting spear-tips. Gnolls and Drakes hacking at the Demons and parrying blows. Both sides hit each other with a clash of metal. Cirille saw the lines form as the Demons advanced forward, heedless of the casualties. She gritted her teeth.

Advance. Advance!

They couldn’t hold this place forever. They had to—

“[Company: Armorbane Weapons]! The spearwall will advance five steps!

The Izrilian army stepped forwards. The Demons ran onto their blades as their armor suddenly became as tough as paper.

1st Swords, fall back! 2nd Swords, forwards!

“[Archers]—loose!

Light. Ossky blinded the Demons as she flew up for a second. The thud of arrows hitting flesh and piercing armor was one sound. Cirille bellowed.

The spearwall will advance five steps! Forwards! 1st Spears—fall back! 2nd Spears—forwards! Forwards, damn you!”

Forwards. The Drakes screamed and Gnolls snarled. A Demon cut through their ranks, breaking through one section. Others followed.

“5th Squad—fall back! Decles Tribe—forwards!

Gnolls advanced on the gap. They swung huge clubs, overpowering the Demon’s shields and weapons, battering them down. The [Barbarians] howled, fighting—

Decles Tribe—fall back! 8th Spears, forward! Ossky—covering flash!

Light. The Gnolls, their fury spent for a moment, fell back, drinking stamina potions. Ossky opened her mouth and the Demons were blinded.

Advance the spear wall!

Formation. Thousands of hours of drilling, all for this. The front lines moved forwards as individual squads fell back, never giving the enemy an opening.

“They’re going down like flies, Commander!”

Shellc retreated, panting, a cut on his arm. He took a single gulp of potion and it closed. Cirille looked around. It was true; the Demons were falling back. They’d covered nearly two hundred paces on the wall. It felt like a second had gone by.

Keep advancing! The Demons have the gates!”

It was true. The Demons had taken two gates and were pouring in from there. However, 5th Wall had been built to allow defenders to rally. Checkpoints held the Demons back from flooding up from behind. And as Cirille hit a wider section of the curtain wall she heard—

Hold! Hold, damn you! Is everyone dead?

Uxel was holding a section with only his Lizardfolk and a handful of her Drakes and Merish’ Gnolls. The Lizardfolk were fighting hard, but they had lighter, shorter spears, and their slings were doing even less damage. The Gorgons and Nagas were covering one section by themselves; the ground was covered in Demon bodies.

Commander Uxel!

Cirille bellowed. The Gorgon whirled. He grinned; his scimitars were covered in blood.

Cirille! Guard yourselves!

Shields up! Gorgon stare incoming!

The [Soldiers] hid behind their tall shields. Cirille saw Uxel’s eyes flash. She was a bit too slow and felt the paralysis of her limbs. For a second.

Charge!

The Demons had been stunned. Now, Cirille’s forces moved in, hacking them down before they could regroup. Uxel’s forces linked with hers.

“Where’s Merish?”

“I don’t know! Somewhere below—they’re trying to close the gates!”

“We have this wall—company with me! Uxel, can your forces fight?”

He bared his teeth, his scales gleaming.

“We’re fresh! But my Lamias are useless! Two of them managed Tier 4 spells, but they don’t have the mana to keep fighting!”

“Our [Mages] too. Wait—Tier 4?”

Cirille put that out of her mind for a second. She pointed.

Serpent-crusher formation!

Nagas and Gorgons forwards! We’re taking the stairs!

The Drakes and Gnolls made room for the two Lizardfolk species to take the vanguard. Cirille chanced a glance over her shoulder. She saw no more Demons—yet. Rhir’s [Archers] were on the walls with the infantry, knocking down more ladders.

“We’re good! Move down the stairs! Ossky—take eight squads and the [Archers] and hold this breach!”

The Oldblood Drake broke off and held the area above the gates. The rest descended.

 

—-

 

Below, the fighting was even fiercer. Without the narrow wall, the Demons were trying to push in until they could encircle the defenders from behind. The only thing stopping them were the three races who had rushed to this gate to hold them back.

Minotaurs, Gnolls, and Humans. The Minotaurian line of axes held. Three hundred Minotaurs formed a line, pushing the Demons back. Fighting on their flanks were the Gnoll tribes, led by Merish.

Breathe and fall back!

Chief Warrior Merish roared. He spat frost and lifted a glowing axe. Magic? The Gnoll brought it down and turned a Demon’s face into paste. He howled and the [Shamanic Warriors] fell back.

Merish! The [Knights] are charging!

A Gnoll howled. Merish turned. He saw three dozen [Knights] riding into the Demons from the side. Ser Vorn, the Order of the Thirsting Veil and four other [Knight] Orders charged.

The Demons fell back as the Humans charged in. One second—five—their lances stabbed, and they cut with swords, thrust spears home. Then they turned.

Disengage!

Ser Vorn’s voice was ragged. They’d charged nearly two dozen times already; a fifth of their number had fallen.

“We cannot hold this ground!”

Merish howled at the [Axe Captain], Kerten. The Minotaur raised his axe. He clutched at his side; someone had torn out half his guts. Merish slowed.

“If we fall back, the walls are lost. For the House of Minos!

The [Axe Captain] bellowed. The Minotaurs answered him in a roar. Their axes fell like thunder. Merish nodded to Kerten. The Minotaur saluted him.

“Hold this ground, Merish. [Honor Guard], with me! We will close those gates.

The Minotaur raised his axe. A dozen Minotaurs moved forwards. They began cutting into the Demons.

Kerten!

Merish bellowed. The [Captain] advanced. Merish saw one body fall. Then two more. The Demons pressed around them. Merish fought forwards with the Gnolls. Then he heard a welcome sound.

Chief Warrior, fall back! Join the ranks!

Cirille. The Gnoll whirled. He saw Drakes charging forwards. The Minotaurs moved back, as Drakes and Lizardfolk suddenly reinforced their lines. They began to push.

“Plain’s Eye Tribe, to me. After Kerten! Cut them apart!

Gorgons—with the Gnolls!

Uxel screamed. Gorgons and the magical warriors followed the Minotaurs into the breach. Merish bared his teeth.

“[Enchantment: Flashfire].”

He swung one axe. The explosion blew a Demon’s face off. The Gnoll lifted his other axe.

“[Enchantment: Leaden Weight]!”

The second blow caved in a metal shield. The Gnoll roared. He saw a Gorgon leap; Uxel landed and his scimitars whirled, cutting the soldiers around him to bits.

Close those damned gates!

The [Soldiers] fought for the locking mechanism. Slowly—slowly—the gates began to close. Cirille took one group of archers left, aiming for a clear spot.

Loose! [Instantaneous Reload]! Loose!

Two ranks of Demons fell, armor bristling with arrows. Merish heard shouts of triumph. He howled. The gates slammed shut. The soldiers cheered. Merish wiped at the blood and sweat running down his fur.

Kerten?

The [Axe Captain] was dead. He had fallen at the gates as they closed. Two of the [Honor Guard] remained. Merish crouched next to his body.

“Chief Warrior.”

Cirille approached, panting. Her blade was wet. Merish’s head rose. Ser Vorn rode forwards. Uxel. Four [Commanders].

“Kerten is dead.”

“Damn.”

That was all she said. It was inadequate. But they had no time and Merish knew it. The [Commander] pointed at the walls.

“We’ve taken back one gate. Shel’s Cleansenborne just shut the other. We have to secure those walls! Merish—how are your warriors using magic?

“What do you mean?”

The Gnoll was confused. He’d seen the other Drakes using their breath abilities. But then he realized; the Lizardfolk and Drakes hadn’t been using their spells.

“Nothing under a Tier 4 spell works! Our [Mages] are having to link to punch through whatever’s covering us!”

“At least there’s no elites. The Demons are sending low-level infantry at us in waves. There are thousands of them, but we’re holding. Back up to the walls—Ser Vorn. How are your [Knights]?”

“We have lost seven of our number. But we can still fight.”

“In that case—hold the ground in case they breach the gates! I’ll post Shellc and half of Uxel’s forces here. The rest of you, with me!

Cirille raised her sword. And this time—Gnolls, Lizardfolk, Drakes, and Minotaurs moved as one. They took to the walls. Merish panted.

“I don’t understand. Our magic works just fine. But we are [Shamanic Warriors] and [Shamans]. Perhaps because it comes from our tribes—”

“There’s some kind of enemy enchantment. Yeah. Look—we’ve taken back parts of the wall!”

Cheering. Merish saw the walls were still struggling, but the Demons had been pushed back to distinct fighting zones.

“Commander! Acting-General Telvir wants your forces to hold your position!

A messenger landed next to the officers. Viri. He ran towards Cirille, his little stick carrying him across the wall in another hop. The Drake turned to him.

“Viri! We can still fight—”

“Hold! The Demons are trying to overrun the gates! Keep them closed! That’s orders!”

The Lizardman panted as he pointed at the commanding officer, who had set up a command station further along the walls. Cirille bristled, but nodded tightly. It made sense. Merish saw the Demon numbers were crowding around the gates and ladders they still held. They still outnumbered 5th Wall’s defenders, but only just.

“We need to get word to 4th Wall. If they haven’t seen the darkness already.”

Uxel was panting. The Gorgon was a fierce fighter, but suffered from the frailties of serpents as opposed to mammals; he couldn’t fight as long and overheated in battle. Merish nodded, and then he spotted something.

Look. Over there!

Two groups were moving. The Harpies in the air dove after a group of nearly a hundred [Riders], making for 4th Wall down one of the main roads. The [Messengers] were moving in force. They were loosing arrows and the defenders on the wall were harrying the Harpies.

A second group took wing as the Harpies were distracted. Garuda. They flew, more agile and faster in the air than Oldblood Drakes, speeding past the distracted Harpies, higher and higher into the air.

“Paxhal’s wing. Lucky bastard gets to run for cover.”

Uxel grinned. He didn’t mean it. Merish’s heart lifted. He turned back to the [Riders]. They were fighting clear as well; the Harpies were under attack from all sides. They just needed to get past the shadow-barrier. 5th Wall could hold. It had to. Merish turned back to the fighting as Cirille pointed.

“Get your Gnoll [Hunters] on the wall, Merish. I want arrows raining down on the Demons. And your [Shamans]! Viri—tell General Telvir that we have some spellcasters in action!”

Merish turned and howled a command. The little Lizardman leapt off to deliver the news.

Gnolls streamed up the walls. He stared grimly into the milling, faceless Demons below. Fodder. But they had killed Kerten. His eyes narrowed as he stared past them.

There. On the far side of the magical barrier. Was that…a Demon? He stood alone. No—no, wait…there were two of them. One wasn’t in armor. Merish turned to the [Far Hunter] on the walls.

“Can you hit that target? Looks like an officer.”

“I can.”

The Gnoll drew his longbow, anchoring himself. He sighted—loosed.

 

—-

 

Flora stared at the carnage. Demons were dying. Falling off the walls, assailed from arrows and cut down.

“We’re losing?”

She couldn’t understand. What was Silvenia doing? Bazeth stood right next to the strange barrier that blocked sight and sound, glaive in hand. He glanced at her.

“No, Flora of Humanity. We are n—”

His weapon blurred. He knocked something out of the air and Flora jumped. An arrow hit the ground.

“It’s not safe here. Stay behind me.”

The Demon [Champion] cautioned her. Flora stepped back. This wasn’t war as she knew it. And despite his words—so many Demons were dying.

“Had Silvenia ordered this? Why?

“We do not question her.”

Bazeth looked uncomfortable. He had been a senior commander until her…return. He stared at the distant bodies falling as they tried to reclaim the walls. Flora felt her gun in hand, sweat beading in her palm. She saw the flight of Garudas taking to the sky.

“They’re going to warn the others!”

She pointed. They were out of range, even with a Skill. Bazeth stirred. He spoke crisply into something.

An amulet. Not like a speaking stone. Primitive magic, Silvenia called it. This one reflected something. A laughing face. Well—

“Silvenia. The Blighted Kingdom is about to warn 4th Wall. What are your orders?”

The half-Elf smiled.

Wait, Bazeth. Do you see, F-Flora?

“No, Silvenia. This is a slaughter.”

“I know. W-wait. I h-have been waiting.”

“For what? Why?

In the image, the half-Elf pointed. She smiled—her lips trying to move around their injuries. And suddenly—her eyes lit up.

“Because. It makes it funnier. Watch.”

She pointed d—

 

—-

 

Merish didn’t see the flash. His head was turned to the Demon officer. He heard the thunder, felt the world shake. He stumbled—turned.

The [Messengers] were gone. The Harpies flew away from the crater. Paxhal’s wing jerked in midair.

Mage spell! Some kind of siege bombardment! Take cover! T—

Cirille’s words were cut off by another sound. More thunder. Merish saw a spider web reach down out of the clouds. But it wasn’t silk.

It was lightning. Hundreds of lightning bolts, striking in a single flash of light. The world lit up and his vision went dark. The Gnoll covered his eyes.

When he opened them—the skies were clear.

“Paxhal?”

Ossky whispered. The Garuda was gone. Still shapes lay on the ground. Feathers fell out of the air. Slowly, Cirille pulled herself upright.

“A [Mage]? Some [Aeromancer]? What—”

 

—-

 

Now. Bazeth. You may advance with the reinforcements. Happy hunting. Try to level up.

Silvenia called. Flora was still half-blinded from the distant lightning strikes. Bazeth looked up sharply.

“Reinforcements? Wh—”

“[Pillar of Flame].”

It came down from the heavens. Like the first time she had shown Flora. Like biblical wrath. To mock her ideas of power.

 

—-

 

Fire. It struck the walls. Cirille’s head turned.

“General Telvir?”

The Dullahan vanished. The pillar of flames shot up a hundred feet. It rolled across the walls.

And the world became quiet. The defenders of 5th Wall, the officers, even the Demons stopped. Slowly, the pillar of fire moved down the wall. Chasing the fleeing [Soldiers]. Turning everything to ash.

“That is a Tier 6 spell. At least.”

Uxel whispered. He looked up, towards where the fire had come from. Cirille trembled.

“They just killed our command. They just killed Paxhal. We have to—”

Cirille! Get off the walls!

The shout came from below. Cirille turned. Merish, Uxel, and herself realized the same thing Ser Vorn was shouting as the [Knight] galloped along the wall. They were t—

 

—-

 

“I think we just lost General Telvir.”

Richard couldn’t take his eyes off the pillar of fire. The [General] had been right—right—

“Sir Richard. There is a powerful enemy [Mage] in the area. You should fall back.”

The flat voice came from the [Destroyer Knight], one of the Shel’s Cleansenborne. The massive man—or was it woman?—turned their helmet to regard Richard impassively. The unit was holding the gates and wall.

“But the wall—”

“Our orders are to ensure the safety of Rhir’s Champions. This battle is too dangerous. Fall back. We will attempt to clear the Harpy blockage.”

They were circling. Richard hesitated. But the giant soldier left no room for argument. Richard moved back, waving to the other Earthers. Emily fell back, protectively shielding Chole. Her spells hadn’t been working right.

“Find Tom. I think his group was on the walls near—”

 

—-

 

“[Hammer of the Obsidian Giant]. [Pillar of Frost]. [Pillar of Lighting]. [Implosion Well]. Now you may advance, Bazeth.

She was laughing.

 

—-

 

The Shel’s Cleansenborne and the gates vanished. Richard saw something open in the air. And then contract. He recognized it. Something like a black hole—

The huge warriors were dragged towards the opening in the air. They screamed—the one near Richard thrust him back. Desperately—he—she—clawed at the ground. But the force sucked them into the air, into—

Pop. It vanished. Richard, screaming, found himself falling to the ground. A few feet away from the place where the—the—

Something lay on the ground. A sphere of—Richard looked at the walls. The gates. They were gone. A hole had been torn open in 5th Wall. And then he looked up.

 

—-

 

“—”

Cirille lay on the ground. When she got up, the gates were gone. She didn’t understand.

There was a hole in the wall. The explosive force—a giant, shimmering hammer made of black stone had—she didn’t understand.

“—”

The Drake said it. She looked around, blankly. Why was there a hole in the wall? That wasn’t right.

Two bright lights caught her attention. They were sweeping down the wall. One froze everything it touched. The other arced, electrifying, dancing from body to body.

She didn’t understand. The Drake saw a Gnoll running towards her. His ears were bleeding. A Gorgon seized her, slapped her face. Ser Vorn was looking around, shouting—

“—coming—”

She looked blankly up at Uxel. At Merish. Slowly, Cirille let them drag her forwards. Ossky was on the walls. The parts not destroyed, that was. Shellc was lying on the ground, trying to breathe. A piece of rock had hit him, shattered his ribs.

“Commander.”

At last, Cirille heard. And saw. The Demons were pouring over the walls in the areas cleared by the spells. They were attacking the shattered gates. And behind them—

 

—-

 

Silvenia’s voice was fragmented. She clutched at her chest. The magic—her face flickered.

Silvenia.

Flora looked at the broken wall. The half-Elf was doubled over in pain in the projection. But she grinned around the blood dripping from her nose, eyes, mouth—half of her face.

“See? Advance—advance!

No tactics in it. No strategy. It was just more fun this way. Flora heard the first piece of armor moving. She saw the first body step out of the barrier behind her. Bazeth whirled.

 

—-

 

Reinforcements. A second wave of Demons walked through the wall. A second horde of infantry, as many as the first. Cirille looked at them blankly.

“That’s not fair.”

Ossky looked at the line of bodies, marching fast. Cirille looked around.

Command was dead. Bastion-General Zavarial was dead. Both gates at their location were broken. Spells had cleared sections of the wall. Demons were coming.

“I…how? How did this happen? It should not. A Great Company would have feared to attack this wall! This should not be happening!

Uxel looked around. His face was blank. His hands shook as they clutched his scimitars.

“Who has done this?”

Merish looked around. The Gnoll stared up at the skies. Blood matted his fur. Cirille turned around again.

“I see.”

That was all she said. The Drake looked around for a superior. But there was no one. Ser Vorn clutched at his armor, broken in two places. The [Knight] looked up at Cirille. His gaze swept across to the others.

“I fear, friends. That we have no hope of victory. If you would retreat—I will hold this ground.”

The others stirred. Uxel looked around desperately, staring at the sky from which annihilation had come.

“Can we even retreat? The Harpies—and those spells. If they have more scrolls—more magic—”

“Commander. Your orders?”

It was Ossky who saluted. The Oldblood Drake stood at parade-rest, as if she were being inspected in Manus. Cirille looked at her. And she nodded.

 

—-

 

The second army of Demons advanced on the broken 5th Wall. Magic came down from the skies in bursts, in the distance.

The entire wall was under attack. The area that had been held by Bastion-General Zavarial stood—but barely. Other sections had been overrun.

Command was dead. The gates were breached. Half of Shel’s Cleansenborne had been destroyed by a single spell.

Rhir’s forces were scattered. Some were still trying to fall back, in larger groups. Harpies assailed them. Demons pursued. And the magic slaughtered them before they broke through the concealing enchantments.

In a way, it meant those still fighting were safest. Or…hiding. The Champions of Rhir and a portion of the armies had retreated inside the remaining sections of the wall, holding the narrow corridors and defensive positions.

But that meant the Demons could take 5th Wall unhindered. It meant they’d overrun the construction work. Taken the entire foothold the Blighted Kingdom had spent decades establishing.

They had to be stopped. Commander Cirille found the other irregular units drifting towards her position.

The Minotaurs. A handful of Garuda. Survivors from other detachments of the army.

A group of half-Elves, led by the master archer, Springwaters. The half-Elf saw the Drakes holding formation at the gates. The Demons were coming.

“They’ve overrun the walls to the east. Two sections. They’re going to surround us from all sides. Are we retreating?”

“There is no safe place from that magic.”

Another voice. Lacten, the [Martial Artist] of Pomle. He had lost an arm. He reattached another now, sewing the limb on.

“4th Wall might not even know there’s an attack. The enchantment spell—no one can cast magic below Tier 4, besides [Shamans] and Oldbloods with their breath attacks.”

“And our creations are stolen, Commander.”

A final group appeared out of the darkness. The [Necromancers]. About twenty of them remained. Hetarria was being supported by two of her soldiers.

Something had torn off her legs. But the Drake wasn’t bleeding; a cap of bone had encased her shins, and two artificial, primitive bone legs were allowing her to be helped along. She tried to salute.

“I beg to report failure, Commander Cirille. The Bone Behemoth is out of our control.”

Cirille turned her head and saw a huge giant made out of bone assailing a section of the walls. She just nodded.

“Can your [Necromancers] fight, Mage-Captain?”

“Hand-to-hand. Even the wands aren’t working. We’ll try to stop our Behemoth.”

That was all that could be said. Cirille looked around. And she realized—there was only her. Perhaps a higher-ranking officer still fought somewhere else along the walls. But right here…

Commander! A second wave of Demons is coming! Your orders?”

The despairing call came from Viri on the walls. The Lizardman pointed.

A hundred thousand Demon [Soldiers] marched. Identical, numberless. Infantry, with barely any support. But a tide of them to equal the Antinium. They were moving down the entire wall, making for ladders, the broken gates.

The irregulars watched. Merish snarled. How were there so many? The irregulars numbered about ten thousand. They waited, Drake [Soldiers] staring at the endless enemy.

They wavered. Cirille looked about. Her mind was calm and the ice in her body cooled the raging emotions trying to leak in. She turned to the others.

“We have to stand here. We’ll deploy around the breach in the gates. At least we can funnel the enemy through there. Captain Shellc, hold that breach. Uxel, you take our left flank. Cut the enemy down as they come down the stairs and keep them from encircling us. Merish, our right.”

She pointed up, to a ruined siege tower.

“Springwaters, take every archer up there and give us support. Keep the Harpies off our backs. Ser Vorn, your [Knights] will hit any weak points in the line. I want the Minotaurs in reserve—”

The others looked at her. For a second, they wavered. But then the officers moved. Cirille saw the disparate companies moving. She also saw the despair on some faces.

Listen up! You will hold this ground! The first Drake or Gnoll who deserts—

Captain Shellc was shouting at the first ranks. Cirille stopped him. She walked forwards. She had been taught that speeches were idiotic, especially in the midst of battle. But she made one anyways, because they all needed to hear it.

The irregulars heard the Drake [Commander] speaking.

“Attention. The Demons are coming. We’re outnumbered. 5th Wall is falling. In another situation, I’d order a retreat. But there’s nowhere to retreat to.

She looked around. A group of Dwarves took their places next to the Minotaurs. Cirille went on. The Demons were coming.

“We’re foreigners. We came here to fight in Hell. Well—this is it. Hold the line. Each second we buy is another second the Demons don’t get. Another second 4th Wall has to prepare.”

If they even know we’re under attack. The Drake closed her eyes. Then she drew her sword and pointed.

We don’t run. Soldiers! For the Blighted Kingdom! For the Walled Cities!”

From the gates of Deríthal-Vel! Grandfathers, watch us!

A Dwarf bellowed. The Minotaurs lifted their axes. Cirille heard the other commanders shouting. Uxel was screaming something at the enemy. She felt cold. But she smiled anyways.

The Demons hit them nine seconds later.

 

—-

 

She was deaf. She couldn’t hear herself breathing. She couldn’t hear her heart beating, though she felt it. All the Drake heard were the voices.

—coming over the walls!

Lieutenant Ossky!

Light. Glorious, in the darkness. Five of Shel’s Cleansenborne held the gap, cutting down the Demons coming over ladders. Ossky ran as the blinded enemies charged onto spears. The Drake hacked through one helmet with her sword; another replaced it.

“Springwaters—Uxel’s position! Now! Now!”

The half-Elf whirled as Cirille shouted at him. Arrows struck the Demons, as the Gorgon and Lizardfolk fell back. Stretched too thin. Snarling Gnolls on the right, fighting with Drakes—

Elites on attack!

Something cut through a gap in the walls. Cirille pointed.

Ser Vorn!

The [Knights] charged. The Drake drew her sword as a section at the gates opened. She shouted.

“6th Spears, Minotaurs on me! [Impact Charge]!

They hit the enemy and threw them back. Cirille saw a blank face; a helmetless Demon. She stabbed him through the throat, turned—another one cut at her.

Commander!

Captain Shellc ran the Demon through from behind. The [Swordsman] grabbed Cirille as she cut again. Again—

Fall back! Your charge is done!

That was the only thing Cirille heard. She looked down. Someone had put an arrow through her side. She yanked it out and drank a potion.

Advance. Again and again—the Demons had no fear. No morale to break! A Minotaur squad went down, swinging their axes. The last, her weapon buried in a foe’s midsection, grabbed a Demon and ripped their head off before they brought her down.

Nothing. The other Demons didn’t even pause. They just turned and fought through the gap in the lines. It was worse than fighting Antinium.

“[Shockwave Hammer]! At them!

A Dwarf brought his hammer down and his warriors moved forwards, in heavy plate. They ignored the blows raining down on them. Cirille breathed. She turned again.

Merish coated one foe’s body with frost and his enchanted axes flashed. A Demon died. He turned—a Demon stabbed him in the stomach. The Gnoll howled.

Merish!

A hand grabbed the spear before it could impale the Gnoll. Lacten brought his hand down. He severed the spear and struck the Demon in the face with a blow that snapped the neck, rending armor. He kicked and a Demon flew backwards, metal crumpling. Merish’s warriors dragged him back.

Were they winning? Losing? Cirille didn’t know. She saw the irregulars falling, but cutting down multiple Demons for each one that fell. She looked around.

Ser Vorn—fall back! Nagas, forwards! Cover his retreat!

The [Knight] was enmeshed in the fighting at the stairs. His small group pulled back, two [Knights] unhorsed. Cirille saw the flash of light.

But it wasn’t Ossky this time. A shimmering arc cut through the air. She saw a squad of Drakes with spears collapsing. The Demon with the glaive severed their weapons. Then he extended his arm and cut. Armor—bodies—the slash went through them all.

The Drake pointed, almost relieved. The first Demon not like the others. His horns were white at the tips, and he wore some kind of lamellar armor. He moved like he was dancing.

She wanted to kill him.

Enemy commander! Springwaters—take him!

The half-Elf screamed a reply. Cirille spun. A group of Harpies were attacking the [Archers]. Ossky was fighting desperately. But one twice Springwaters’ size had seized him. It dragged him upwards. The [Master Archer] plucked an arrow out of his quiver. His broken bow fell from his hands.

The Village of the Spring!

He plunged the arrow into the Harpy’s chest. Cirille saw the flash.

 

—–

 

Ser Vorn saw the half-Elf die. The [Knight] from the Order of the Thirsting Veil saluted the sky as the Harpies retreated. Then he returned to his spear.

A little black vial in his hands. He was coating a bit of cloth with it. Rubbing it over the spear’s tip, careful, as careful as could be. His order used poison. The enemy didn’t seem to be affected by it, though. He had watched them fight on even with the most deadly toxins coursing in their veins. But that one…

“Let the lance-arrows fall from Ailendamus’ walls…”

He realized he was humming under his breath. A song. The [Knight] looked up. Two of his Order were left. He nodded to them.

“The Demon Commander.”

They nodded back. Ser Vorn turned his warhorse. One enemy stood out to him among the rest. A true Demon. He fought on foot, but he was no mere [Soldier]. His glaive spun as he slashed and attacked, cutting down the irregular soldiers before they could even go near him.

The Dwarf [Stone Lieutenant] went down, his armor torn. Ser Vorn nodded.

“Enchanted blade. Don’t try to block it. On me. Sortieing.

He charged. The remaining six [Knights] on horseback charged with him. A screen of Demons flung themselves forwards. Ser Vorn saw them coming—

Gorgons!

A hissing-scream. Ser Vorn saw the flash. His horse stumbled—but the Gorgons slowed the charging Demons. The [Knights] thundered past. Ser Vorn saw Uxel. He lifted one hand. Then gripped the spear tightly.

The Demon Commander saw the [Knights] coming. He set himself, face behind the helmet composed. Not fearless, but a master of fear.

A worthy foe. Ser Vorn leveled his spear. The first [Knight] shouted.

“[Extended L—]”

The Demon cut the air. The snap of the blade of wind hit the [Knight] in the chest. Her armor took the blow, but she reeled. The Demon moved sideways. Ser Vorn saw a flicker—

Dodge!

Two [Knights] went down. The glaive cut through their armor as the Demon blurred. Ser Vorn struck.

[Extended Strike]. [Hammer’s Blow].

The Demon blocked it. With the shaft of his glaive, somehow, spinning the weapon. But the impact threw him back.

A second [Knight] brought down a greatsword. The Demon pirouetted. Grace—he caught the blow again on his glaive. A superior enchantment. He swung as the [Knight] passed.

A third one died. Ser Vorn maneuvered. Turning for a second charge. Four [Knights] left. He heard a voice.

Until my dying breath, from sea to glorious sea—

Charge again. This time a lance and two spears struck from all sides. The Demon knocked one down; his glaive flashed impossibly fast. A lance was struck, and the rider reeled from broken armor. Ser Vorn saw the glaive spinning his way—

Vorn!

A bellowing voice. The Gorgon hurled his scimitar.

[Hurricane Throw]. The Demon [Champion] tried to dodge. The [Knight] thrust his spear. He struck enchanted armor—shouted.

[Hydra’s Strikes]!

His spear blurred. The Demon stumbled backwards. Eight wounds bled. Ser Vorn thundered past him as the Demon stumbled.

“Poison.”

Ser Vorn swore he heard the Demon muttering. He should have died before Ser Vorn turned amid the fighting. But today was full of disappointments. The Demon stumbled upright.

“You should be dead, sir.”

The [Knight] lifted his spear. The other [Knights] were separated in the fighting. The Demon’s face was pale in his helmet.

“[Purified Flesh]. Few poisons in this world can even harm me.”

Drathians.

A voice spat. Uxel slithered out of the fighting, his armor torn. The Demon [Commander] turned. The Gorgon drew a backup scimitar. Ser Vorn lowered his spear, aiming for the enemy’s chest. The Demon looked at him.

“It is dishonorable to fight two on one, [Knight].”

“I am aware.”

The two commanders charged. The Demon’s glaive spun. Ser Vorn saw Uxel deflect a blow. He stabbed again.

Deeper. The Demon was slowed. The spear sought his heart. The Demon staggered, backing up. Ser Vorn passed him. Turned—

Bazeth!

A young woman’s scream. The Demon looked up. Ser Vorn turned. He saw Uxel slashing down—

Crack. It was like thunder. The Gorgon recoiled. His scales opened up. Something had struck him in the shoulder. Ser Vorn’s head turned. He grabbed his shield—

Bang. The impact was heavy. Ser Vorn’s horse reared. The [Knight] reeled. What was that? It was heavy—too fast to see. A spell?

Flora! Stay back! Silvenia—

The Demon was shouting. He cut left and right, keeping the Lizardfolk away from him. Uxel was attacking again. But another shot rang out—the Gorgon screamed.

Where? Ser Vorn turned his head. He saw her behind a rank of Demons.

A young woman. Human. Not a Demon at all. The [Knight] hesitated until he saw her raise a piece of metal.

That sound again. So loud he heard it over everything else. The [Knight] felt pain.

His shoulder—the bullet had deformed the enchanted metal! He lowered his lance as he kept his shield up. Ser Vorn charged.

 

—-

 

Flora saw the [Knight] turn from Bazeth. He rode towards her, breaking past the Demons as his spear stabbed again and again. She felt her breath coming fast.

Reload. She’d practiced it countless times on the shooting range. Spent cartridges fell to the ground. She sighted—pulled the trigger.

Five shots this time. The [Knight] reeled. His horse went down. But his shield blocked the bullets. She hit him in the leg and saw the armor deform—

“Flora, retreat!

Bazeth was trying to reach her. The [Gunslinger] saw the [Knight] charging on foot. He cut through Demons, his spear abandoned, a sword in hand. She reloaded, raised her revolver.

“[Double Tap].”

Two bullets fired simultaneously with one pull. This time he couldn’t stop it. She heard a sound—his shield fell from deadened fingers. Instead of scrambling for it, he ran towards her. She fired again.

Two rounds left. One missed. He actually dodged it, blurring left. A demon [Soldier] struck at him and the [Knight] slowed a second. Flora pulled the trigger again. Another miss. Again—

She hit him in the helmet. The [Knight] was barely twenty paces away. He stumbled. Flora saw him sag backwards. Then he caught himself. The sword cleaved the Demon’s head in half. She stared at his helmet.

Dented. The [Knight] charged, his sword raised. Flora reached for the fast-loader.

And dropped it. She saw the [Knight] running. She didn’t have another. Flora fumbled for the open cylinder. She whispered.

“[A Bullet A Day: Armor Piercing Round].”

She felt something in her fingers. Flora closed the cylinder. She raised the revolver.

Bang.

 

—-

 

Cirille saw Ser Vorn fall. The Drake screamed something. Uxel was howling. The Demon and the Human girl were falling back.

They were dying. Lacten had moved too far in. The [Martial Artist] was fighting in a circle of bodies, alone. He spun, kicked, dodged a flurry of blows—

An arrow struck him in the shoulder. The [Martial Artist] barely slowed as he deflected a thrusting spear. But enough. The Demons ran him through from behind. Lacten kept fighting. He backed up, reaching for a potion.

But there were none left. He vanished. Cirille saw Merish fighting forwards.

Merish—retreat! [Rapid Retreat]!”

She shouted. The Gnoll howled—but the others dragged him back. The irregulars closed ranks. They were surrounded now. Instead of holding the gates and walls, they held only one section of wall and the gates, forming a rough semicircle.

“Commander—”

“Every archer, I want that Human dead. And that Demon.”

Cirille pointed. The [Archers] loosed, but the Demon’s glaive was cutting down arrows. Cirille heard a scream.

Bone Behemoth!

She looked up—and a fist obliterated a group of Gnolls. The undead was attacking.

Hetarria!

The [Necromancers] fought with something they couldn’t see. The [Necromancer]-[Captain] was screaming.

Stop! Damn, you, stop!

She was cursing at the other [Necromancers] as they struggled, freezing the undead giant as it tried to swipe across the lines of defenders. Then Hetarria’s expression went calm.

“Commander. I think I can stop it.”

What? Then do it—

The [Mage-Captain] just nodded.

“I’ll buy you a few minutes.”

She walked forwards as the other remaining [Necromancers] shouted at her. Cirille didn’t see Hetarria—she was looking around.

The last [Knights] fell back, with the Lizardfolk as another Naga died. Uxel stared blankly at the place where Ser Vorn had fallen.

“Where are our reinforcements?”

Cirille whispered. Did they not know? But look—the barrier still covered 5th Wall, for nearly a mile behind and back. She had to imagine whatever was still casting magic in the distance was creating an illusion.

Break it. Break through. But how? The Harpies had the air. They were attacking everyone who ran for the barrier. They’d see it at once, or the magic-user would—

A thought. Cirille’s eyes flickered. She looked up. The Harpies flew in ragged formation, shrieking, striking targets of opportunity.

“Lieutenant Ossky.”

Commander?

The Drake was leading the remaining [Archers]. She had not flown in the skies. It would be…suicide. She had less than thirty Drakes now, capable of flight.

“Lieutenant. I want you to fly. Take the battle to the Harpies.”

The Oldblood Drake paled. Cirille cut her off.

Fight them. Pretend you’re trying to clear our position. Then fly higher. Every Oldblood with a breath attack—once you break through the enchantment, use it. That is your order.”

Ossky looked at Cirille. Her eyes flickered. There were at least four times as many Harpies up there. And the magic was coming from above. Cirille waited.

The Oldblood Drake saluted.

“It will be done, Commander. 1st Wing. To me.

 

—-

 

Hold your ground! Hold! I said—

Captain Shellc was reaching for the healing potions he’d used up for the umpteenth time when he heard the bellow from above.

First Wing, to the skies! Archers, supporting fire!

The skies? The [Captain] stumbled back, away from the walls, for a clear view.

Ossky! Are you mad? Come back! Come—

The Drakes flew. Two Garuda joined them, shedding their armor. The Drakes were armed with a single weapon each, and their armor was light.

They flew. At first, the Demons didn’t seem aware of their presence. The Harpies were incredulous. They dove at the Drakes, shrieking, maneuvering in the air, as agile as Garuda. The Drakes were heavier. Slower.

But they could breathe magic. The sky lit up.

Ossky! Come back!

Shellc roared. But he heard another voice, bellowing from the walls.

Lieutenant Ossky! Fly! Aim up!

Drakes were falling from the skies. The last two Garuda went down, tangling with Harpies. They had armor too. And Skills. Ossky’s light flashed and the Harpies screamed, blinded. She was flying higher. But the Harpies tangled with her.

 

—-

 

She wasn’t going to make it. Cirille saw the Drake struggling; the Harpies were dragging at her, trying to shred her wings and throw her to earth! There were too many! The Drakes closed around her, fighting, breathing flame and then air that knocked the Harpies back. Ossky fought to get clear—

An arrow struck one of the Drakes protecting her and he fell. The Harpies closed in. She slashed at them with her sword, cursing. But she was panting, unable to breathe again so rapidly. Cirille saw wings—

And a flash of scales. Something flew into the sky, past the arrows. High—higher. Like a bird.

“Viri?”

Uxel looked up. The Lizardman flew higher. He struck a Harpy and leapt, using the Demon like a foothold. His staff lashed out as he struck them. They recoiled as the little [Longstick Jumper] screamed.

Go—

He fell.

 

—-

 

Ossky flew. She dropped her sword. Her armor fell away. She left the Harpies as she flew higher. Higher—faster than the others.

Up. Through the dark enchantment in the sky. It turned the world silent. But the Drake knew there had to be sky above. She flew higher—the air grew thin but the magic in her carried her up until—

The sky. Ossky broke through the miasma. She gasped. The stars were out. In the distance, 4th Wall shone, distant lights. Monarch’s Pass and the Demon lands. The Drake inhaled as she aimed at the clouds. The light grew in her chest, shining—

And her jaws snapped shut. The Drake froze, clawing at her mouth. She couldn’t—breathe! Or speak or open her mouth—

She heard laughter. And from above, she saw her.

The half-Elf. Silvenia waved a finger as she called forth a comet of light and flung it at a distant section of the walls. She pointed down and Ossky saw the illusion.

5th Wall, unbroken, completely normal. [Soldiers] were at ease on the walls. A few bats flitted through the air, just below Ossky. A perfect illusion.

The Demon raised a finger to her lips.

“Ah, ah. No breathing. But it was a good try.”

She watched as Ossky’s wings wavered. The Drake had no oxygen. No air. Ossky felt the world growing dark. As dark as the world below.

They were dying. Viri was—Vorn—the Drake tried to fly at the half-Elf. Silvenia just flew above her, laughing and watching the Drake die. Ossky screamed but no sound came from her lips. The light was burning in her chest. Burning—

Silvenia saw the Drake clawing at her throat. The half-Elf turned back to the battle, narrowing her eyes. Then her gaze swung up. She saw Ossky digging into her throat. Tearing her scales. Silvenia raised a hand.

And then there was light. Ossky’s throat flashed. The sky turned golden. The flash was followed by thunder.

Lightning. A thousand arrows of light. They shredded the Drake’s body. She fell back to earth, through the milling Harpies.

But they saw it.

 

—-

 

Cirille saw the light. It shone down through even the magical darkness. She heard Shellc screaming.

Ossky!

How long had it been? How long would it be? Had the enemy a way to explain that? Cirille didn’t know. But she knew something.

They just had to hold out until dawn. The sky was lightening. Even in the darkness spell, she could tell. Dawn would see reinforcements, and the enemy couldn’t cover the walls forever.

She had to believe that.

“Hold out until dawn! Until dawn!

The Drake shouted to everyone and no one. The irregulars moved together.

This was how they died.

 

—-

 

The Bone Behemoth was attacking their flanks. Cirille turned. She saw Hetarria walking forwards. The Drake walked with two of her most powerful subordinates. They saw the undead turn to them. Eyes glowing orange. It raised a fist. Hetarria drew her sword. She placed it in the other [Necromancer]’s hands.

He ran her through. Cirille cried out. She saw Hetarria fall. The Bone Behemoth froze as it brought its hand down. It stood there. Then—it slowly drew the warhammer and shield.

“Hetarria?”

The undead giant’s eyes glowed silver. It rose to its full height and turned. The Demons saw the hammer fall. The Bone Behemoth swept across their ranks. Faster—faster—it moved with will, not mindless violence.

Cirille saw the undead turn back to her once. It saluted. Then plunged into the lines of Demons, cutting a swash through them without end. Roaring without sound.

The light came from the heavens and destroyed it a minute later.

 

—-

 

They held the line. The tidy formations were ruined. Drakes fought with weapons seized from their allies. Minotaurs falling back with Gnolls.

How long? Cirille heard laughter. She saw the last Champion of Rhir fighting.

Tom was laughing. Barely two dozen of his followers left. They were all covered in blood. Theirs and the enemy. He was cutting through the Demons.

Fake! Fake! You’re all worthless! Am I even killing anything?

He raged at the Demons, screaming and laughing. Each time he seemed close to death, a body or chance came between him and the blades meant for him.

[Devil’s Luck]. The [Clown]’s laughter sounded like despair.

Merish was holding a section with his Gnolls. He stumbled. Cirille spun.

Merish! [Enhanced Shields]!

Drakes surged forwards with Dwarves and a handful of Dullahans. The Gnoll staggered upright. He clutched at the arrow shafts in his chest. The magical dyes on his fur flickered. Even his magic was running out.

He tore the arrows from his fur, roaring. The Demons around him died as the Gnoll charged into them. His axes shone—and went dull. The Gnoll kept fighting. He drove one of his blades into a Demon’s throat. Then—staggered again.

Half a dozen arrows in his fur. The Gnoll gave Cirille a miffed look. He collapsed.

Merish! She was fighting towards him. Again—again—

Uxel reared up. He had one scimitar left. He was fighting towards where Viri had fallen. Nagas and Gorgons fell around him as he cut forwards. Captain Shellc was advancing past the lines. The [Swordman]’s blade blurred. Faster than anything around him.

The lines were collapsing. Cirille raised her sword.

Until the dawn!

Uxel screamed. A demon had severed his serpent’s tail. He spun—and another bore him down. They dragged the Gorgon down to earth. Shellc disappeared in a cluster of Demons.

It was just her. Cirille limped towards the wall. They were making their stand there. Backs to stone—the Demons advanced.

“Dawn.”

She swung her sword and watched a fresh Demon [Soldier] deflect it. A Gnoll ran him through with a spear and was cut down in turn. Cirille looked up.

Where was it? How long had they been fighting? Her eyes widened.

Wait—above, an orange glow. The Drake saw a ray of light peeking out of the darkness.

At last. She laughed and raised her sword. Pointing up.

“The dawn! We did it! Hold on, the d—”

Silvenia descended through the heavens. Cirille looked up, frozen. The half-Elf was carrying fire. She pointed down.

The [Commander] looked up at her, with bitter despair. She raised her sword—

The fire seared her from this world.

 

—-

 

The last commander lay dead. Silvenia floated just above the ruined walls, looking around.

“How they f-fought.”

She laughed. Her body shook with the strain of battle. The half-Elf floated, freezing for a micro-second as she spoke or moved. Wounded.

Yet invincible. The irregulars were targeting her. The arrows bounced off the magical shields; the half-Elf ignored them. She stared about.

“Well, those are enough survivors. Fall back.

The Demons retreated. Bewildered, the few hundred irregulars stared upwards. The half-Elf floated past them—

A knife pierced one of her barriers and halted in midair. The half-Elf frowned. Then she twisted—

The enchanted blade wouldn’t have gone through her shields. But the [Clown] had guessed that. So he’d jumped with it. He stabbed, his blades meeting the magical shields, piercing—

“What are you? Whatareyouwhatareyou—

Silvenia heard his crazed laughter. She pointed and the [Clown] twisted—that saved him. He landed on the wall. The half-Elf blinked at him. Tom dove, dodging her as she shot a bolt of magic that blew a chunk out of the walls. He was quick.

The Gloomless Troupe attacked her. Throwing daggers—the [Archers] aimed at her. A [Piercing Shot] broke one of her shields. The half-Elf didn’t look away from Tom. He slipped as he tried to leap again—and the [Fireball] went wide. He screamed as the flames burned him, but then rolled, drinking the potion. Silvenia blinked—and then smiled.

“Oh, look. A [Hero]. I k-know what to do with you.”

She pointed a finger—Tom saw her eyes flash.

“[Siphon Luck].”

The [Clown]…slowed. He felt something go out of him. He stared up at the half-Elf. And she laughed.

“You must be the [Clown]! Laugh for me, funny man.

Tom stared up at Silvenia. His mouth worked.

“…What at?”

She clenched a fist and opened it. Tom’s body tore apart. The Gloomless Troupe saw blood and flesh and the tattered clown suit land on the ground.

“Well then.”

Silvenia floated past them. Bazeth stood on the ground. Flora stared up at Silvenia. The half-Elf pointed.

“Advance the real army, Bazeth. Seed the ground.”

“The real army?”

Bazeth’s eyes flickered. The half-Elf was breathing hard.

“Yes. I need to use my mana for this. [Dispel Phantasmal Warriors].”

The Demons—vanished. The faceless, nameless infantry. Silvenia started laughing again. She floated higher.

“Silvenia? What are you going to do?”

She turned. With madness in her eyes.

“You have your orders, Bazeth. Carry them out. Take the soldiers prisoner. Or slaughter them. You need to level. There are some hiding in the walls. I—am going to take 4th Wall.”

Silvenia!

But she was flying higher. The half-Elf flew faster, faster—towards 4th Wall. Leaving only the bodies of her foes behind.

 

—-

 

No Demons. They had all been illusions. Captain Shellc stared down at his clean sword. He looked up only when he heard the scream.

“Captain! The Demons!”

The Demon [Champion] was pointing. Now—now—at last—the real Demons came. Demon Giants. An army of fifteen thousand, and thirty Giants.

Damn you!

The Drake screamed. But Bazeth was advancing. The girl with the gun fired once; the irregulars fell back towards the walls. Richard stared at the battlefield from where he had seen them all dying. Cirille. Tom.

“All—illusions?

The Demons moved forwards. Bazeth’s order was simple.

“Kill them. Avoid needless casualties. Giants—the frozen baskets. Forwards.”

The Demon Giants strode through the gaps in the wall. Smaller than Callidaz and the last true Giants. Children. Flora saw them bearing huge burdens; they ignored the walls completely, moving past it.

The defenders of Rhir retreated to the broken walls for their last stand. And the Deathless flew on.

 

—-

 

Too late. Too slow. His paranoia, his checking of timing—he should have called an army forwards the instant he’d woken up.

And he would have still been too late.

“Hurry, Lord Hayvon.”

That was all Quiteil said. The Bastion-General sat at his desk. And only now did the war-map flicker.

5th Wall disappeared. The [Peerless Logistician General] saw the wall turn into fragmented pieces. Some vanished altogether. Demon units flooded past the walls.

Bastion-General. The wall—

A strangled voice from the speaking stone. His Majesty, Othius IV, trembled. He had not been sure when Quiteil sounded an emergency alert. But the flash of light had confirmed the Bastion-General’s intuition.

“5th Wall is gone. The enemy is coming. Your Majesty, I estimate magical suppression of at least Tier 7. Requesting authorization of a Tier 7+ spell usage.”

“Quiteil. It has to be—”

The lights went out. Quiteil’s magical lighting, the war map—every speaking stone went out. The only thing glowing was the hum of the wall’s enchantment itself, worked into this very room.

“Ah.”

The Bastion-General sat in the darkness. Then he stood up. He heard laughter, magnified, from high above.

I am coming again, Othius!

Thump. Something hit the walls. The room shook. Quiteil stumbled. He heard screams. She was already here. Had she slain Lord Hayvon? If she had—

All communications were offline. Magic—the entire network that the Blighted Kingdom ran on. Quiteil paced around his room. He was no Zavarial, it was true. No warrior.

Yet he was Bastion-General of 4th Wall. The Human man looked up. He reached for a candle, a mundane candle, lit it with a flint in a flurry of sparks. Slapped a piece of paper accidentally set alight. Then he spoke.

“[Eighteen Minutes of the Secretary].”

The world…stopped. An underling froze, hand on Quiteil’s door. He could see her, through the glass pane. The Bastion-General sat down at his desk.

Enchantments were still dead. Which was inconvenient. But he had eighteen minutes. And an office to work with. Quiteil pulled out a list of names. He began writing memos.

 

—-

 

Archery Commander Victus, you are to prepare for Contingency #2: Deathless. All archers above Level 30, prepare Deathslayer Arrows and Anti-Magic Arrows. Arm enchanted munitions for all archers firing!

The voice roared into [Master Archer] Victus’ head in a moment, barely after he realized something had killed almost all the magic on 4th Wall. He wasn’t the only one.

[Memo]. The low-level Skill hit every commander on 4th Wall. Quiteil sent eighteen off to 3rd Wall. Two to the capital.

Request Nereshal to cast time spells on mark. Activating higher-Tier wall spells on 4th Wall. Singular enemy. Female.

That was all. He strode out of his office, knocking aside the subordinate who had been about to knock. Quiteil took to the walls. He looked up.

And there he saw. The half-Elf floated alone. She was laying waste to the walls. But as she did—the spells he had authorized activated.

4th Wall began to shine. Silvenia blinked—and the [Spellward] enchantment activated. Her [Fireballs] blinked out of existence as they struck the glowing walls. She frowned.

“Well, well. Anything below Tier 4 magic? That’s n-new. My turn.”

She flew upwards. The air howled as the half-Elf conjured something in the air. The sky froze and condensed. The [Soldiers] on the walls looked up and shouted in horror.

“[Arrow of Winter: Glacius Pillar].”

Silvenia began laughing hysterically. She was so caught up in the grand magic that she didn’t see the man walking onto the walls at first. But she sensed him.

The half-Elf caught herself. Bastion-General Quiteil glanced up. He was exposed; and despite the Tier 6 protective enchantment he’d just activated, he had no doubts he was in danger. But he had to see.

“Ah. Coordinates are…43.32, 1204.2, and…73.2 plus current height of the wall, which translates exactly into 153.5.”

His eyes flickered, doing the mathematical calculations instantaneously. It had always bugged him that the wall was 80.3 feet high.

“You must be the Bastion-General. I killed your friend.”

Silvenia pointed down at Quiteil. A beam flickered down from her fingertip as she called the [Arrow of Winter] to life. It struck a shield around Quiteil. Disappeared. Silvenia frowned.

The Bastion-General ignored the half-Elf. He was checking his calculations. He side-stepped; the beam twisted to hit his protective spells. Oh well. Then he spoke.

[Unstoppable Command]. Attention.”

His voice echoed across the walls. In the war room of the Kingdom’s palace. Bastion-General Quiteil cleared his throat.

“By my command as Bastion-General of 4th Wall. I authorize Tier 7 Spell: [The Thousand Gateways of Orlaey]. Loose.

Silvenia blinked. She saw 4th Wall g—

 

—-

 

Archers on 3rd Wall saw the portal opened and loosed the enchanted arrows. Nereshal raised his staff.

[Time Slow]!

The [Archers] in the Citadel put Deathslayer arrows to their bows and loosed. Nocked a second arrow, loosed again. The bubble of time collapsed after three seconds—the portal vanished.

4th Wall lit up. Every [Archer] group loosed into the portal spell. And at the same time, portals opened up around Quiteil.

Across the wall, hundreds of portals opened for a second, discharging glowing green-black-white arrows which shot forwards. They twisted, seeking the source of magic. Behind them came enchanted arrows, exploding, using Skills, or just locked on by the Bastion-General’s calculations.

Silvenia vanished. The magic detonated in the air, and the first volley consumed everything. Quiteil shielded his gaze. But the spell wasn’t over.

Open. Close. Open—arrows poured through from all four walls and the capital. One thousand volleys. Quiteil saw something flashing. Magical barriers breaking down. Spells absorbing the arrows meant for her.

But she did not die. Quiteil peered upwards. He saw the half-Elf floating in the air. Panting. She had tried to teleport—and failed. Quiteil heard her voice.

Well done.

A single arrow fell from her arm. Magic moved, healing the wound. Silvenia looked down at him. She should have been triumphant. But she was not. Quiteil for his part was displeased.

“You. I don’t l-like you.”

She aimed a spell at him. Quiteil activated another Tier 6 scroll. The walls began shining again.

Silvenia flew backwards, and he saw barriers appearing in front of her, hundreds. The Bastion-General held up a hand. She called at him, frustrated, enraged.

My spells will tear your wall apart, little man! Match me with your magic and I will break your kingdom in twain!

“I decline. I am no warrior. I will drown you in arrows instead.”

She howled at him, casting another spell. Quiteil broke it as 4th Wall’s enchantments activated.

“[Spellbreaker].”

“I broke your 5th Wall in a n-night!”

“You will not do the same for 4th Wall. This is a triumph of logistics. Of mathematics. Archers—make ready for a second volley.”

The half-Elf froze, stuttering again. Her face—Quiteil’s eyes narrowed.

“Your Majesty. Now.

 

—-

 

Othius IV rose from his throne far away. He shouted a Skill and spent one million gold pieces.

 

—-

 

The skies opened. Silvenia looked up. A golden ray shone down. She flung up her hands—

“[Greater T—]”

The beam blasted half of her enchantments away. The 4th Wall opened up with a second volley. The half-Elf flew as the [Golden Rays of Rhir] burned from the heavens. The Blighted King’s Skill. She howled as her skin turned to gold—reversed the transformation.

 

—-

 

Quiteil watched as Silvenia vanished. The rest of the rays missed. He did the calculations on gold spent.

“Your Majesty. She is wounded.”

The enchantments were coming back to life. He raised the speaking stone; the half-Elf’s suppression effect had waned when she’d been forced to defend herself. Now, she floated far, far out of range of bows or the spells being launched from the walls.

“Bastion-General Quiteil. Code Velten-Pallass-Crelers. Cease fire. This is an order.”

He wasn’t sure if the communications had been manipulated. But codes still worked. The walls went silent. The half-Elf floated in the distance.

Her face. He couldn’t see it anymore, but Silvenia’s voice was audible. It was a hiss of frustration.

“I’ve seen enough. But your 5th Wall burns. And nothing will be left of the ground when I am done. Cower there, Bastion-General. And I will destroy everything.

She floated backwards, and he saw the air warping.

Delay. Quiteil triggered a speaking stone.

“If you think so, Deathless. You are more of a fool than I thought. You…pathetic spellcaster.”

He did his best. Silvenia swung around. Her eyes narrowed.

“You can’t stop me.”

“On the contrary. 5th Wall will be rebuilt within the week.”

She laughed again.

“There will be nothing to protect.

 

—-

 

The Demon Giants marched past 5th wall. The rest were besieging the defenders, wiping them out but taking care to preserve their forces. Yet, a third of the forces had marched past the wall.

Why? The construction workers and survivors saw as the first Demon Giant opened a…basket on his back.

Frost spewed into the air, cold vapors as the Demon Giant, heedless of anything else, began tossing objects from the basket into the huge moat being dug. Like a [Farmer], the other giants did the same. They deposited the contents of their baskets across the ground, sprinkling, retreating, sprinkling—

Orange eggs. Glowing little pellets which began to move as the frost spells faded from them. They hatched in moments, burrowing deeper.

Crelers. Not just them. Other eggs, larval creatures, fell onto the earth. A few of the serpent-creatures also disappeared into the soil. The Demon Giants had massive baskets, enchanted to hold and preserve the creatures.

 

—-

 

Silvenia was laughing again. Quiteil’s hand clenched over the speaking stone. Buy another second. He saw something flicker in the skies beyond Silvenia.

Lightning. The skies were dark. Rain was beginning to fall. The Bastion-General nodded.

“I believe your plan will not come to fruition, Deathless. If that is who you are. Your Majesty, can you confirm the identity of—”

It is her. Silvenia, the Traitor!

Othius screamed into the speaking stone. Quiteil nodded. The half-Elf frowned.

“Why are you so confident, little man?”

“Lord Hayvon is liberating 5th Wall. You may wish to retreat. Archers, prepare to slow the Deathless’ retreat.”

Quiteil saw Silvenia waver. The half-Elf’s eyes flickered.

“That [Lord]? I know him. The 5th strongest [Lord] in the world? You want to put him against me?

She was mocking. Bastion-General Quiteil looked at Silvenia. And then he did something rare.

He smiled.

“Ah. You’ve read the book as well. Excellent. I knew funding the book was a good idea. So did Lord Hayvon.”

“Funding…”

The words clicked. Quiteil watched the lightning falling from the sky as the rain fell.

“A word of wisdom, Silvenia. Do not trust everything in books.”

She whirled.

Bazeth, fall back!

Open portals! Slow her retreat! Activate Tier 7 scrolls now!”

4th Wall lit up.

 

—-

 

The Demons were on the walls, trying to finish the survivors. The Demon Giants were sowing the deadly seeds of infestation. Bazeth lowered the amulet as Silvenia’s panicked voice broke in.

“Lord Hayvon? Retreat at once!

He knew the [Lord]. Silvenia had not. She had read a book.

How books lied.

The rain began to fall. The clouds were dark. The soldiers of 5th Wall fought, falling back into the corridors.

The first lightning bolts crackled down from the clouds. Distant, at first. The Demons glanced up as the weather swept over them. The soldiers, worn and exhausted, looked up as the skies brightened.

A bolt of lightning struck a Demon Giant in the chest. The huge figure stumbled. Armor torn. It fell, a gaping hole in its chest.

Bazeth whirled. The Demons were flooding back—a [Mage] raised her staff and vanished.

Another bolt landed, sending Demons flying. A woman rode out of the smoke, slashing into the bewildered Demons. And another bolt struck the Demon Giant.

No.

The [Champion] saw a figure emerge as the Giant fell. A lance was planted in its chest. Lord Hayvon looked around.

Forwards!

Bolts of living lightning, striking down across the walls. Moving, arcing—turning into men and women on horseback. Where they landed, the electricity turned into people.

“[Riders on the Storm]. Sweep left and right! Clear the walls!”

The [Lord] of Rhir roared. He had crossed the distance from his estates in a flash. His riders swept forwards as the Demons began to flee.

Silvenia!

The half-Elf was flying through the air, tearing a vortex behind her with her haste. Lightning twisted in the air, striking at her. She narrowed her eyes.

Begone.

She tore the lightning to shreds as Lord Hayvon wheeled his mount. Figures reappeared, falling from the skies. The [Lord] heard a voice from the speaking stone.

“I was unable to slow her, Lord Hayvon. The rest is up to you.”

Rally to me!

Lord Hayvon rode after another fleeing Demon Giant. He cast a spear and it struck the giant figure. It screamed as the flesh began to bubble and melt—

E-enough!

Silvenia pointed and the artifact went dead. Lord Hayvon felt half of his rings and armor flash—he rode out of the pillar of flames as the half-Elf swooped over the walls.

[Mass Teleportation]!

Demons flickered away from the riders running them down. The half-Elf hung in the air. Looking down at the [Lord].

“Your Majesty. I have confronted the enemy. Please confirm.”

Lord Hayvon spoke into the stone. He saw people fleeing the walls at last. The irregulars. And—Richard stopped as he saw Lord Hayvon’s elites.

The [Lord] had taken as large a force as he could for his Skill. Three thousand enchanted [Knights], armed with Rhir’s finest weaponry. They faced the half-Elf in the air.

“That is Silvenia the Traitor.”

Othius’ voice was old. Tired. In his war room, the [King] stared blankly ahead. He looked as though he were dying. He whispered.

“One of the Deathless. We thought they would be recovering another century. How did she heal from the wounds we gave her so quickly?”

“She is not healed, your Majesty.”

Lord Hayvon looked up. Silvenia’s face was a mask of rage as she counted the dead Demons. The lost Demon Giants—six of them. Her expression was twisted with rage.

Half of it. A…portion of her face was gone. Her very head had been torn open by something. Gone. But a magical simulacra filled the gap where flesh and blood and bone should have been. It flickered, and she froze at random.

Deathless.

The [Lord] said the word. And his warriors shuddered. The last, greatest weapons of the Demon King. Lord Hayvon spun. He rode down the lines of his warriors, reshaping themselves. Silvenia was ordering her forces back, ignoring the protests of her commanders. She waited alone.

“Soldiers of Rhir. Before you lies one of the Deathless. Silvenia the Traitor! The Traitor of Terandria! Islandbreaker! The Curse of Elves! She has laid waste to 5th Wall. But she will not haunt Rhir any further.”

The [Lord] rode down the ranks, his eyes on the half-Elf. Her smile was murderous.

“Lord Hayvon, fall back. Take the survivors to 4th Wall!”

Quiteil’s voice was an order. Hayvon ignored it. He spoke, his hand tight on his sword.

Give the order, your Majesty! If I slay her, my death and everyone on the wall is repaid a thousand times! She is wounded from Bastion-General Quiteil and she still bears the wounds of the last war! I can do it. Let me end the Death of Magic once and for all.”

The Blighted King hesitated. Quiteil was arguing.

“If we lose you, Lord Hayvon, we are exposed. 5th Wall can be rebuilt with his Majesty’s Skills. It is not worth gambling over!”

The [Lord] dissented. He looked across the wall. Years of enchantments, broken. Brave [Soldiers], dead. He shouted into the speaking stone.

Your Majesty! These last hundred years will be as peace and tranquility compared to the days that lie ahead! When one of the Deathless recovers—especially her—the others will follow. Her magic can heal almost any wound, even the ones we inflicted on the others. You know this!”

He knew the stories. His [King] had lived them. But still, Othius hesitated. And into that moment of hesitation—Silvenia acted.

 

—-

 

The half-Elf floated forwards. Hayvon twisted. His riders prepared to charge. Richard saw Emily fleeing, the other survivors running. He hesitated. And he saw the half-Elf who had broken 5th Wall by herself fly lower.

“Oh, such names you call me, Lord Hayvon Operland. Traitor. ‘Curse of Elves’? How harsh. I am the last true [Mage] in this world. I am Silvenia, the Death of Magic!

The rain stopped. The half-Elf shone. Her broken face moved. The magic that had been replacing her flesh solidified. Becoming…like skin.

Her voice was clear, lacking a stutter now. Silvenia spoke as the air twisted around her. For a moment she was whole.

The Death of Magic. The Traitor. The fallen [Archmage] of Wistram.

Silvenia of Demons.

 

—-

 

Both sides stopped there. Looking. Listening. The Death of Magic hung in the air. Lord Hayvon’s riders waited.

5th Wall lay broken. By a single person’s will and power. Silvenia hung in the air.

They did not know her. Bazeth knew the stories. Hayvon had read of her. But she had been wounded long before they had been even children.

Only Othius was old enough to remember her. Him and few others. The Deathless had lain wounded, more myth than person even to the Demons, her kin. Until a girl had pitied her and helped her recover.

Now, she introduced herself. It was the polite thing to do. Silvenia spoke, so that everyone standing there heard her clearly.

“You call me Deathless. You do not know me, children. You know not why I dissented. Why this war began. Nor does it matter.”

She spread her arms. Her body was shining. The half-Elf laughed. She looked like Tom, to Richard.

“We are at war, after all. Why do you hesitate? Even my commanders fear to unleash Crelers on the enemy. The enemy. When did war become so soft? Look how beautiful this last stand was! Brave soldiers fighting. Dying. Against summoned foes. It was such a wonderful sight.”

She pointed down at the broken wall.

“It brings my heart joy to see how fat and complacent you’ve all become. Look how easy you have had it since we lay wounded. Look at your beautiful wall, which is all you have made in a hundred years of our absence. And—you didn’t even manage to kill us Deathless.”

Silvenia’s grin was like fire. Her broken face peeled apart, revealing the shattered flesh her magic had yet to heal. She pointed at it, laughing. Laughing.

“You did so well. But even your [Archmages] could not bring us down. Your champions died over a hundred years ago and you hoped we had died too. I have waited a century to see. Your. Faces. And it was worth it.”

They shuddered as she floated forwards. A stray bolt of lightning, natural, caused by the storm Hayvon had summoned, flashed down.

Silvenia caught it. She held it in her palm, all the fury of nature contained. Then she made it vanish.

“A hundred years of interlude have passed. Today, we begin again. And today, you all learned for the first time in your lives what hell meant. You think you know the word. But you have never seen hell. I am the Death of Magic. And you have never known magic such as mine.”

A finger extended. And she pointed past the soldiers on the ground. Past 4th Wall. Quiteil listened, seeing her pointing towards the distant capital and Othius clutched at his chest.

Fear. The half-Elf screamed, rejoicing.

“Let us make war until the Walled Cities crack and fall! Until I bring Wistram to wrath and ruin! Until the Death of Chains breaks all of Chandrar’s bonds! Until the world ends and the Death of Wings reclaims her homeland! Let us make glorious war. Properly. For the first time in centuries.”

Both sides shuddered. Silvenia was like nothing they had seen. Save for Richard. He looked up and saw a familiar expression. He took a step back, shuddering. Tom had hovered on the edge of that insanity.

Silvenia was consumed by it. She was so mad, she was sane. A beautiful, all-powerful commander of Demons.

Lord Hayvon stared up at her. He rode upwards, his boots carrying both horse and rider upwards. Silvenia waited as the [Lord] of Rhir drew his sword.

“Demon. You will never break the Blighted Kingdom. We will defy you even if it means our deaths. Even if you slaughter every soul here—you will never break this people. This land.”

He raised his blade higher.

“Mortal men and women have hurled you back, Deathless. We will again. The Blighted Kingdom has not sat idle upon your return. If it must be a hundred thousand more years, we will never fall.

King Othius clutched at his chest. He lacked the conviction to utter such words anymore. But Lord Hayvon’s sword never wavered as he pointed it at the Death of Magic’s chest.

“I will be your end.”

Silvenia’s smile grew wider. She spread her arms. Rejoicing.

Ah. Good! There’s at least one of you with fire. It would not be fun otherwise. Come, [Lord] of Rhir. Come and show me the sharpest fangs peace has given you.”

“Lord Hayvon—retreat.

Othius whispered. The [Lord] rode down as his warriors lowered their weapons for a charge. He shifted his grip on his sword. Removed his gauntlet.

He plucked a single ring from his finger and handed it to Richard.

“I leave everything to my son. So long as he lives—let Rhir never fall.

The [Lord] rode forwards. Silvenia’s spells hung in the air as she began calling more into life. Bazeth was shouting.

“Silvenia! You must stop!”

Retreat, Lord Hayvon! That is an order!

Bastion-General Quiteil was shouting. Neither warrior listened to the other. The Death of Magic was glowing brighter. Lord Hayvon whispered.

“Advance at a walk.”

Silvenia! The Demon King orders you to fall back!

The [Champion of Blades] roared. Silvenia’s eyes flickered. The half-Elf raised her finger.

“They are right there. Do not give me orders, brat.

“His Majesty orders it. Fall back.

The Death of Magic turned. Rage flickered across her face. Then—the light went out of her eyes.

“I am running low on magic. Very well.”

“No—charge the Deathless!

Lord Hayvon roared. Silvenia turned back to him. She had a bitter expression on her face.

“Until next time, [Lord] of Rhir.”

She vanished. So did the Demons. Lord Hayvon’s lightning struck the air and the [Lord] landed on the walls. He howled.

Deathless! After them!

But it was over. And after—afterwards, only the dead were left to make peace with the living.

 

—-

 

The world was unfair. Cruel. Some people had all the power. In the end—they had died fighting shadows.

They had died for nothing. Reinforcements had come. The complete destruction and infestation of the lands beyond 4th Wall had not happened. But so what?

Too late, too late. They died on those walls, far from home. In vain. Her face reflected that bitter truth. Cirille’s body lay among the ash. A ring or spell had saved her from complete incineration.

It had not saved her life. She stared up at the false dawn that had betrayed her, her face anguished in death.

Richard found her with the others, as reinforcements rushed from 4th Wall, people desperately trying to clear the construction zone of the monsters that the Death of Magic had ordered seeded. Others were fortifying, mounting a safeguard against the Demon’s inevitable next attack.

But most were looking for the living and the dead. The [Knight] found the [Clown], with Cirille.

“Tom? I thought you were—”

“Dead? There are two of me, you idiot. Who attacks a Deathless?”

The [Clown] was not laughing. He knelt there, leaning over her. The Drake’s cheeks were clear of soot in places; Tom had been crying.

“Tom, I—”

“Coward. They died here. While you hid. They could have lived if you’d fought.

The young man raised his head. Richard just looked at him. Was he mad? They had died here. But the words also made him retreat in shame.

The Gloomless Troupe had been hundreds. Now—less than a dozen. But they walked the wall and even Rhir’s veterans gave them a berth. They had fought until the last.

So had the others. Uxel lay among what should have been a score of death, cut to pieces. Ser Vorn was gone, a casualty of an encounter no one had witnessed but Cirille and Uxel. Springwaters, Lacten…

Ossky. They had seen her light. Lord Hayvon had made for the flash of light as he rode for 5th Wall. The dead…Sisth had died with Delezza’s crossbow in hand. The [Hunters] had been wiped out to the last Human.

But some lived. A Gnoll breathed. Chief Warrior Merish had been covered by Drake and Gnoll bodies, but the arrows hadn’t killed him.

A little Lizardman lay on the ground, one of his legs severed, but alive. Viri.

“What will happen to them, Hayvon?”

Emily looked at the survivors as the Champions of Rhir accompanied Hayvon. Fractions of each company; some groups had been wiped out to the last, like the [Knights] from Ailendamus. The [Lord] walked amid the wounded, his face bowed. But he did not look away from them.

“They will be returned home as their wounds heal. To their homes, as heroes. The Blighted Kingdom will not forget their sacrifice. They were the finest warriors we could have asked for.”

“No. No, I won’t leave.”

A voice croaked. Richard stopped. A Drake was lying on a stretcher. A [Healer] was tending to him, but Captain Shellc was trying to sit up. Someone had taken out his eye and Silvenia’s flames had scarred his right side. He spoke, desperately, as the young man from Earth halted.

“I can’t leave. I can’t—my command is here. Cirille is here. Tell them to let me stay. I have to keep fighting. We don’t run. Please?”

Shellc reached for Richard’s hand. The young man stared at him until the Drake collapsed, put to sleep by the [Healer]’s touch. Richard backed away.

 

—-

 

He found Lord Hayvon standing alone. The older man was leaning heavily on his horse. He turned as Richard approached.

“Oh. Richard.”

“Lord Hayvon? Are you…”

Are you okay? Richard closed his mouth on the question. He saw the [Lord] standing there. Away from everyone else, out of sight, Hayvon shook his head.

“We were too late, Richard. Too late. The Death of Magic broke our wall in hours. Like I could break a stick. I thought we could withstand her. What a fool I was. I truly thought we had more time. I thought with a new wall—”

He wiped water from his eyes and shook his head.

“We will fight on. But this is a dark day. Enough. But enough…let us at least give some meaning to this carnage. I was too late. I will bear guilt of that to the nations who entrusted the Blighted Kingdom with their warriors. Yet I will at least see them home.

He clenched his fist. And his horse reared. Richard felt something move across the walls. He looked at the [Lord] who had been so misrepresented by a book. Richard heard a cry in the distance.

Cirille!

Richard spun. He ran, hearing Tom’s cry. It couldn’t be—he had seen her—

Dead. The Drake’s body lay on the ground, where she had died. And nothing could change that. Not anything they had. If—

No. She was dead. But she also stood there. Commander Cirille turned her head. Richard stopped, eyes wide. And the Drake looked at him.

“What is this?”

Richard heard a cry. Captain Shellc stared up as Ossky alighted on the ground. Across the walls, he heard exclamations. Shouts of fear.

Commander!

Viri screamed as he saw Uxel slither past him. The Gorgon paused a moment. And it was him.

Not him. Tom reached for Cirille. And his hand passed through her. The ghost offered him a bitter smile and saluted.

“It is their memory, Sir Richard. Sir Tom.”

The [Clown] spun. But he stopped as Hayvon came to stand before them. The [Lord] bowed to Cirille.

“Commander. We will take your remains to the Walled Cities. You are a hero of Rhir. I salute you.”

He knelt. Slowly, the [Soldiers] did likewise. The Drake turned. She met Merish’s eyes as he struggled to rise.

They were all there. Gnolls, Drakes. Minotaurs. Viri tried to use his staff like a cane. He hopped after Uxel.

“Commander. Wait for me. Wait!”

“Stay there, Viri.”

Uxel spoke. It was his voice. The Gorgon looked…well, annoyed. Even in death, he snapped at the little Lizardman.

“Thank you, Lord Hayvon. Chief Warrior Merish. I leave it to you.”

The Drake turned. She walked forwards. An army of ghosts followed.

They stood in formation. The pride of Izril. Gnolls, Drakes—with Uxel’s forces mixed in. Ser Vorn walked forwards, glancing back at his body.

“How?”

Richard whispered. This was beyond anything he had witnessed, even as terrible as the Death of Magic had been.

Lord Hayvon rose. He drew his sword and saluted them as the army began marching away. Some, Rhir’s own, walked towards their walls. The others turned in other directions.

Going home.

“[The Pride of the Fallen]. Come, Sir Richard. We must honor them.”

The [Lord] watched them go until he was out of sight. The dead vanished. They were not there for him. Their duties had ended. At last…

They were going home.

 

—-

 

Dragonspeaker Luciva was breaking her fast when the Gnoll found her. Spearmaster Lulv raced into her dining room and shouted.

Dragonspeaker! Our army has returned from Rhir! Commander Cirille is standing at the gates of the city!”

What?

The Drake shot from her chair. From Rhir? Had they been recalled? Or had the Blighted Kingdom sent them back? Why hadn’t there been a communication?

“High Command to me!”

She thundered down the steps. A crowd was gathered at the gates. Bewildered citizens. Officers as well.

And soldiers. Luciva was glad to see it. It was too stupid to be a ploy, but she did not believe in making mistakes.

“I detect no magic at all, Dragonspeaker.”

“Then open the gates. Let them in. Prepare for anything.”

If Commander Cirille had returned without sending word over some incident, Luciva would have her stripped of her rank and imprisoned. The Oldblood Drake waited, her breath cracking with tension.

“Lady Rafaema, stay back…”

Lulv was guarding the true treasure of Manus. Rafaema stared as Drakes and Gnolls marched into the city.

Only a thousand or so. Manus hadn’t sent many; all the major Drake cities contributed to the ten thousand or so that went to Rhir. Cirille marched with Lieutenant Ossky and ranks of Drakes at their back.

But their precise formation was—odd. The formation split up, some Drakes breaking ranks to move towards a waving figure in the crowd. And there were absences; not all the Drakes that had been sent had returned.

That was to be expected. Even so, Dragonspeaker Luciva bellowed.

Hold your ground! Commander Cirille, forwards! Explain yourself!

She and a group of Manus’ highest commanders advanced as the lone Drake walked forwards to meet them. Cirille stood at perfect military attention. Neither afraid nor nervous as she should be.

Commander Cirille. Why are your forces here?

Dragonspeaker Luciva stared at Cirille’s face. The Drake paused. She looked around her city and inhaled, the scents of Manus filling her nostrils. She looked at Luciva and saluted. In a clear, carrying voice that the city heard, the Commander spoke.

“Dragonspeaker, I regret to inform High Command of the complete annihilation of my division sent to Rhir.”

The leader of Manus stared at Cirille. This was no joke. She reached out with a snarl.

“Commander, have you taken leave of your—”

Her claws passed straight through Cirille. Luciva froze.

Ghost! Magical weapons forward—

One of the officers cried out. But Luciva stopped them. Cirille hadn’t had the deathly chill of the undead. Luciva looked at the Drake.

“Commander?”

There were cries from the crowd. The other soldiers, Ossky included, were finding family. Friends. They walked through walls and people.

Memories. The Drake [Commander] kept her salute. Her eyes locked on Luciva. And they were filled with tears. She paused—took a shuddering breath, and then the words flowed forth.

“We encountered a superior foe the last night. Hundreds of thousands of Demons assailed 5th Wall and magic broke the earth. Our own spells were rendered useless. We perished in defense of the Blighted Kingdom.”

No one spoke. Cirille went on. She stared at her home, then looked ahead.

“I was honored to fight by Humans, Lizardfolk, Gnolls, Centaurs, half-Elves…I regret my inexperience led to our defeat. We were unable to strike down the enemy. The Death of Magic has overrun 5th Wall. But she was too slow to take 4th Wall. We stopped her. We did not run.”

The Death of Magic. Luciva felt cold sweat beading on her scales. Rafaema looked wide-eyed at Cirille.

“We did not run. Captain Shellc survives my command. But Izrilian forces have been for all intents and purposes eradicated on Rhir. The Deathless have returned.

Manus shook. The people looked uncertainly at Cirille and then to Rhir, so distant few thought of them. Hell stirred.

“Commander…”

Luciva looked at the Drake. She was no simulacra. There she stood. She held back tears. The Drake’s salute quivered. But she stood in front of the Dragonspeaker, to deliver the last message. Cirille took a deep breath, and then bellowed.

“The Demons have superior spellcraft and new weapons. They have been our end! The Blighted Kingdom cannot stand alone! Commander Cirille of Manus, to the Walled Cities. I request reinforcements.

The Walled City rang with her voice. Dragonspeaker Luciva stiffened. She heard voices rising across the city. She turned and the High Command answered in one word.

Granted!

Cirille smiled. Her form was flickering. Like a candle going out. Luciva wanted to reach for her again. She stepped forwards.

“They are coming. So—rest. Commander Cirille, you have done your duty. I relieve you from your post.”

The Drake nodded.

“Thank you. An honor to serve, Dragonspeaker.”

She stepped backwards. And her burdens left her. The clouds over Manus parted as dawn broke at last. Cirille looked up and smiled. Bitterly. With regrets. So many. But—her job was done. She had left the survivors. Now, she had come home.

The sun shone through the clouds and the Drake sighed. Light was too heavy for her soul, and it vanished.

She left. The other souls said their goodbyes and regrets and vanished. They disappeared from the world.

 

—-

 

Not just in Manus. Commander Uxel greeted his company. Lizardfolk walked into their homes. Ser Vorn knelt before his [King], answering the frantic questions until he vanished. Springwaters walked into a village of half-Elves for the last time.

From the House of Minos to the gates of Deríthal-Vel. In Chandrar—the Strongest of Pomle rose.

“Lacten?”

The [Martial Artist] bowed.

“Strongest. I was far too weak. I have seen the Death of Magic. I cannot touch you. I am dead. But I request one last match. To show you how I lived and died.”

The [Martial Artists] of Pomle watched as Orjin wavered, and then raised his fists. The Stitch-Man took a stance. They fought and Orjin touched nothing but air.

The dead left. But they were not forgotten. And thanks to a Skill—a terrible, wondrous Skill—they spoke. Conveying regrets, triumph…for an hour at most.

It was not enough. But it was a Skill every commander had wished for. Aside from the power to turn time itself back.

Now—look. The nations of the world stirred. The Death of Magic lived. Wistram trembled or hungered. Az’kerash stopped for a moment. And his eyes blazed with hatred for the same foes he had fought in life.

The Dragon sighed. He heard war on the wind again—as if it had ever stopped blowing. But best laid plans fell to ruin. The King of Destruction frowned, and checked himself, as if sensing another foe at his back.

The Demons. Hell was no longer safely contained and it mattered to everyone. To the Necromancer, to allies and foes. The Titan of Baleros hesitated a moment as he laid his plans.

Wall Lord Ilvriss sat and listened. And for a moment, something dark overshadowed even his foe. Even the Antinium rustled, wondering.

And Rhir? The survivors of 5th Wall lived another day. It was easy to say it hadn’t mattered. But that would have trivialized the life and death of everyone who had fallen. Merish closed his eyes as sleep took him. Viri slept, weeping. Shellc closed his eye, vowing to return.

Then…they too went home.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: It was another arc planned in advance. And it was delayed many times. But it’s been written. I…wonder if it’s the first tragedy that I’ve streamed live?

I hope I did it justice, but even with my best chapters, the amount of doubt you tend to get is immense. Because chapters like this deserve all the polish and time in the world. And as a web serial, I don’t have enough.

That’s the flaw of the medium. But we continue onwards. It’s not over. If Rhir is one part of the story, well, it’s a necessary part to me. Not always enjoyable. But The Wandering Inn is made of many perspectives. And the whole is what matters.

I am taking a break for a week. I’ll be back on the 28th, as I mentioned at the top. It’s necessary to keep writing, so I hope you’ll bear with me. Look forwards to that, and thanks for reading!

 

https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0

 

The Girl With The Gun by Cortz

Flora by Cortz

 

Rhir Eternal by LeChatDemon

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RhirEternal by LeChat

 


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185 thoughts on “7.36 C

  1. I wonder if any of this relates to the dead Gods. We know that at some point the mortal races went to war against the Gods. We also know that these days, even reading the word God causes mortal individuals to go insane. Is there a relationship between that, and the insanity we saw in both Silvenia and Tom? Probably a reach.

    • All but one of the gods are dead – the last one lies sleeping.

      The Demon King’s highest minions are the Deathless, which in turn have names like Death of Magic and Death of Wings. There’s certainly a theme here. We also know that Erin was visited by a being who offered her an item allowing her to fake her death, in trade for her soul.

      All of this points to the god of Rhir being a god of death. You cannot truly kill such a power – it’d be either a paradox, or else might badly damage the world.

      I consider it possible as well that the Demon King is this very god. Yes, the king is active in the world – but then, so was the King of Destruction, also said to be sleeping before the twins came across him.

  2. Crazy episode, I’m surprised there aren’t more comments from Patreon members. Pirate really pulled a bait-and-switch with Cirille creating a new cross-race army to take on the necromancer. It’s interesting to see how Pirate humanizes the demons’ plight and then de-humanizes their leader. When there’s an army of [gunslinger] demons, I bet the Blighted King is going to regret bringing the earthers to InnWorld. I also bet other Earthers from the United Nations will hear and join Rhir, and we might have an earth v earth gun battle (guns vs bombs). I also wonder if Tom will get his luck back and who intercepted the message Cirille sent accepting her post. Other Tom escaped? The world-building is simply amazing.

    In case Pirate reads this because there are so few comments, I look forward to reading TWI every week but, for what it’s worth, I’d be ok with weekly instead of 2x weekly. It’s such a fast turn around time that I can’t even imagine getting them out so quickly and as polished as they are (some of the author’s notes hint at wanting to revise more, so maybe a weekly schedule would give time for that). Either way I think the monthly break makes a lot of sense to me. Stay well!

  3. This chapter is bookmarked for posterity, when I need to read something that makes me feel here it is.

    I didn’t cry with Zel, I didn’t cry with the sacrifice of Erin’s Goblin Guard, but Viri… our pure little lizard, that just had a good time playing with a stick, shouting for his Commander to wait… that just broke my heart.

    Why you do us like this Pirate,
    Oh woman, oh woman, don’t treat me so mean

  4. Looking ahead, does this mean Ilvriss will be recruiting Chief Warrior Merish instead of Cirille? This would probably make his doombringer administrator veeery uncomfortable having to work with a warrior from the Plain’s Eye tribe.

  5. Was a twisty chapter and moving, ahhhh the ghosts really got me! Tom needs his luck and he lost alot of the creepy clowns…….I don’t like clowns hit see how useful he is. How do you die from illusions exactly? Great as always pirate.

    • Look up the spells “Shadow Conjuration” and “Shadow Evocation” on d20pfsrd.com for the answer to your last question.

    • Super High level illusions can probably simulate the sense of touch which means they can actually do physical harm. It’s a “common” super buff illusionists get in other high magic books I’ve read. Nothing says power like using something fake to do something real. The clues to them being illusions though had me going. I can’t find the words lol the demon army was very well done and I couldn’t tell if they were fake until the reveal even though I had my suspicions

  6. gonna be honest, I look forward to every chapter but these chapters were hard to read. Not hard to read in the material that they held, but more so that everything felt so abrupt. The building of the mixed race unit (seemed hella abrupt when you take into account the issues each race had), the choices Cirille made… everything just seemed so forced. the death of Cirille and co, like okay why did we introduce this character to have her die immediately after? introduction of Flora, have we met this girl before? Introduction of super power death archmage who we’ve never heard of before? Have we heard of her? it doesn’t make sense that we wouldn’t have.

    I’m going to rate this side story as a 6/10. Writing is rushed and storyline is forced. As one of your huge fans this chapter is not it. I understand the importance of the two sides but unless you mean to make something huge of Shellc and Viri, there was literally no point of Cirille. You could have accomplished the same with a POV from Richard.

  7. Slight typo – at one point Chole is named Chloe.

    —-

    I’ll trust that the story of Rhir is a necessary part of the whole, but I’m glad to be moving elsewhere next. I can’t really put into words why these chapters are a bit harder to read than others. I LOVE the Baleros chapters, I enjoy Wistram, I’m one of the people who gets excited to see a K next to a chapter number, but Rhir is a slog.

    Maybe it’s because there’s just so much uncertainty about the circumstances there? It feels like a constant fug of moral greyness. Which is probably intentional, and important. But uniquely in this whole beautifully built world, I think Rhir needs an editor’s touch, or maybe just a bit more explanation.

  8. Liked and disliked this chapter. Really liked the ending, very emotional. I was wondering if someone had a skill, like [Mass Raise DeadArmy], while I was reading and before the end. So cool that something along those lines happened.
    Did not like that Cirille was killed off.
    Don’t like Flora, hope she dies painfully and soon.
    Keep up the great work! Love reading this.

  9. I really like this arc. It has given a painting of the situation in Rhir we didn’t have before. I can’t believe you basically Horns of Hammerad’d again *crying face*
    I got visions from movies like The Last Samurai from this as well as lord of the rings with the faceless hordes. This arc was very combat oriented so I’m hoping for something lighter coming up like more of Erins cooking show lol but it also seems like something big is approaching and this is only the tip of the Ice berg.

  10. Damn, I liked a lot of those characters 😦 Awesome read, and I loved it’s place in the story. It didn’t feel disjointed to me, I just am saddened by what seemed to be an interesting turn for the anti-necro squad. I thought it would end up being better than Salazar expected.

    • Yeah, we got baited with the whole “this is exactly the type of commander and soldiers that Ilvriss needs” when Cirille became a Combined-Arms Commander. I was really looking forward to having them going to Salazar.

  11. One simple decision, a single act of misplaced mercy by a stupid, ignorant little girl… and from it a flood of misery such to drown a continent and set the world atremble.

  12. What a manipulative bunch of scumbags. Even with the devestation here, I still feel the blighted king must die horribly. Sure the demons are horrible, but we don’t know the full story, and at this point I’m thinking the grudge the king has is either because he lost his first family against the demons, or he is related to the demon king. There is more going on and I hope to learn the demons perspective, because unless it is truly horrible, they have a guy called the death of chains who is from Chandrar. I’m hoping he goes and slaughters Roshal, and that would make the demons into saints.

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