The hilltop in the garden lay in silence. The bright air seemed dimmer. Certainly—colder. Frost rose, from where the bier lay.
Just a plinth of smooth stone, covered in a sheet of ice. A body lay on it. Her hands were crossed. But those who had put her there had done little else. They had not the time before she froze.
Now—she lay there, eyes closed. A slight smile on her lips. Frozen blood still stained her clothing. Five broken shafts of wood stood out on her side.
It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair.
Around her stood statues. They changed, each time someone climbed the hill. And—it seemed like they were always different.
It depended on the person. They would turn and see a face they recognized in the mists. As real as life. Standing, sitting—but carved of grey stone.
A smiling adventurer and his team, missing two people as they gathered around in a circle, like they had before they entered the dungeon.
A Hobgoblin staring up at the sky, leaning back on a bench, spreading his arms. A Gnoll, edged over, looking slightly irritable at the lack of personal space.
Headscratcher and Brunkr.
And in the middle of the grass, the frozen ground. The young woman.
The visitors—and there had been hundreds—thousands—had climbed here. Passing through the garden, up the hill blooming with Sage’s Grass and yellow flowers. Coming…here.
It was as if the protections were gone. Or perhaps it was—a wake. As if The Wandering Inn held a wake for its owner.
She was dead. And yet—so some cried. Not dead. They said it.
It could not be. Her frozen skin. Her half-smile. There was hope. Or so the young man from Earth claimed.
People had laid things at the foot of the bier. Against stone, where the objects half-froze as the powerful magic kept the body frozen.
An [Enchanter] had drawn it. With a shaking brush, in the evening. As horns blew and people screamed and war was declared.
That was one moment in memory. Hedault’s hands, so precise—shaking like a leaf. The azure Antinium, head bowed, casting the spell. Her one word.
No tears had come from her that day. Or any other Antinium. But they had left things.
Some people had left parts of themselves. A Dwarf’s helmet. A little Drake girl’s doll. A favorite ball. A letter. A chess piece.
The Antinium had left coins. Flowers. And—nonsensical things. Some of the visitors, even in their grief, wondered at the logic.
“Why a pillow?”
Lyonette gently held back Bird. He wanted to raise Erin’s head. But she was—ice. Already, Hedault was working on protective wards against accidents. Bird clutched his favorite pillow, stuffed with all his feathers.
“She—she will want a soft thing for her head.”
The [Princess] said nothing. After a while she wiped at her eyes. Her tears were freezing to her face.
“Just put it there, Bird. I’m sure—she’d appreciate it.”
How fast. Too quick. It was still—not happening. It was just poisoned crossbow bolts. Not Crelers. Not monsters. Not war. They weren’t even smart killers. This was a dream.
The spark of life she had tried to give them burned on her fingers. A tiny flame. It melted the ice, still.
It had never gone out. Slowly—the [Innkeeper]’s closed eyes fluttered. Beneath the sheet of ice, she stirred. It cracked.
Erin Solstice sat up suddenly. She gasped.
“Ow. That really hurt!”
And then she—she—she did something silly and loving and—
Mrsha raised her head and uncovered her eyes.
Erin was dead.
The Gnoll curled up again. Covered her head. And tried to unmake reality and do it again, right.
She was not the only one here. If you walked up the hill, you would pass by…strange, black-brown mounds. Slightly shiny, dulled perhaps. Large brown shells with antennae. Look closer, and you would realize—
They were Antinium. They knelt there, curled up in the grass. Unmoving. Not eating, or changing position.
Barely breathing. More had come, in the night. Workers and Soldiers, painted and not.
Mourning. The silence they generated was a physical thing. Before—
There had only been weeping and screams.
And then the horns of war. But the vengeful had gone. The shocked wandered about in a daze, unsure of what to do. Jobs were neglected or done by rote.
Not everyone. Some people marched about, doing jobs, avoiding the downers. Why was everyone sobbing? It was one Human. One Human who hadn’t learned to dodge. Who had gone rushing towards danger rather than listening to her [Dangersense]. You run at monsters? You got ate.
No sympathy. The world wasn’t ending. Go ahead and grieve, but Liscor was going to be just fine.
Nothing was wrong. People died.
And still more dealt with it other ways. Eating. Drinking—that was popular. Finding family and checking on them to make sure they were still there.
But news was still spreading. Liscor knew. All of Liscor knew. Celum—knew. But elsewhere?
Krshia Silverfang looked at Tkrn as the Gnoll stopped, panting, from the dead-long sprint. He had gone into the nearest town to check for monsters or obstacles ahead. [Bandits], whatever. He had—
She fell out of her saddle. Half-tried to catch herself. Then just hit the ground and lay there. The Gnoll convoy stopped.
“What? Tkrn—that is a very poor joke, no? That—can’t be true.”
One of the Silverfang Gnolls tugged at his ear. Someone else looked at Tkrn. He looked at Krshia. She believed. The others began to shout at him.
His response, instead of words, was to throw back his head and howl. The raw note told them he wasn’t playing some terrible joke. The others stopped. Voices joined Tkrn’s.
The Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe just sat there. At the large table where Goblins ate. Her meal-half finished.
Snapjaw had returned. Snapjaw alone, so the Goblins had feared the worst. But the news she brought?
A sound ran through Goblinhome. It sounded like a moan. It sounded like death. It was the sound Goblins had made when the army of Humans had killed them at the Floodplains.
Goblins did not weep. So it seemed—Goblins did not weep for the [Innkeeper]. Many did not weep. They just stopped. Stopped, to process it. Shook their heads. Went to find the truth.
Thus—no one wept for Erin Solstice. No Goblins, at least. Just her friends. Just Cave Goblins, who didn’t know what Goblin was, properly. Just Goblins who weren’t Goblin for a moment.
It was a waste of water and energy.
Rags sat there. She looked ahead as Snapjaw turned. She looked around as Redscar shook his head. The Ogres were confused. Human? What Human? Why did it matter?
The Chieftain said nothing. She had no order. They had not been there. She listened as she was told Numbtongue was there. Rabbiteater alive. And that Badarrow was gone, for a while. Perhaps she understood.
But she said nothing. Did nothing. She sat there. And in time, her claw moved. She sat at the table as Goblinhome moved around her. Soon—she picked up the wooden spoon and ate. Because you didn’t waste food.
A little Goblin sat at a table in the inn. She thought hard, and moved a chess piece. Then peeked suspiciously at the Human’s face. The [Innkeeper] smiled, and moved the bishop. The Goblin grumbled, moved another piece, and slurped greedily at the soup.
She took another bite. And kept playing.
A hundred and one perspectives. As she walked up the hill, the [Princess] had seen too many. Her legs were leaden. She—was not working.
The inn was closed. But she was still moving. Because, despite how much she wanted to lie down and move no more, like Bird, or kneel on the hill with flowers like the two Goblin brothers—
Her daughter needed her. The [Princess] bent down and picked up the small bundle of fur. She hadn’t eaten in nearly a day, now.
“Come on, sweetie.”
Weak fighting. But no more than that. Lyonette gulped. But she forced herself to be ruthless. Even cruel.
“You have to eat. Just swallow it. Then you can come back. She won’t—go anywhere.”
Oh, hate me. Shake. Hit me. But live—
The [Princess] bore the little Gnoll down the hill, past the silent Antinium. More figures were summiting the hill. Two Drakes from Liscor. A man with his hat in his hands. They looked past her. Ahead—Teor was holding a kite, or something, chatting with Redit and pointing up into the sky.
The garden remained. The people passed in and out. A bee lay in the grass, too tired to fly. The Fortress Beavers were silent, hiding, huddling together in their den.
The wake continued, unending. Lyonette walked out into the silent inn.
Erin Solstice was. Dead.
But she wasn’t. Cling to that.
They were just words. But he had said them. And the others had claimed the same. Lyonette went to the little meal she had prepared. Just the last of the Ashfire Bee honey. Crackers. Bread. Fresh beef, anything that might tempt a little Gnoll.
Three chews and the Gnoll stopped. So Lyonette just made her sip honeyed milk. Water, until the tears that the dry tear ducts had ceased flowed again.
She looked up only when he said it again.
“Erin isn’t dead.”
Kevin was grabbing Montressa’s arm hard enough to hurt. Trying to say it, again. She was just shaking her head.
“It wasn’t a—a stasis spell we cast, Kevin. If I knew one—it’s Tier 5, the one I’ve heard of. But it wouldn’t stop—if I knew the Tier 6 version—”
“It doesn’t matter, Montressa. It’s—cryosleep. It’s something from my world.”
My world. He said it for everyone to hear. Caution had gone out of the window. Lyonette just listened, hungrily.
“She is alive. I think. She has to be. She’s just—stopped. Right before she dies. Her brain’s frozen. Her body—she—just needs to be woken up.”
“How, by warming her?”
The [Aegiscaster] was incredulous. Lyonette half-shook her head, rocking the little Gnoll slowly, and hoping the sleeping draught would put Mrsha to sleep for a while. But she would have nightmares. And then wake into the worst one yet.
“No! I don’t know! I just know it was something from my world. It was all I could think of.”
“You’re the only one who thought of that.”
Palt murmured. He hadn’t risen. He couldn’t. His hooves were cracked, and probably the bones in his hindquarters. He’d kicked the wall until they’d pulled him away. He looked at Kevin.
“How? How does it work, then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then how is she not dead?”
Montressa shouted. She flinched as Lyonette looked at her.
“I’m sorry. I’m—”
Kevin’s head was bowed. But when he raised his head, Lyonette saw—
Just a bit of determination. A tiny bit of resolve, even now. Even here. She remembered the silly young man—older than her, in fact—and remembering wanting to toss him into the outhouse and lock him in.
How they changed. Now—she looked at him hungrily. And he just pointed at Montressa.
“Call her. There’s only one person who can help Erin now. With actual science. We need…Geneva. The [Doctor].”
Montressa looked around the inn. The door still hung ajar. From where the Minotaur had forced his way into the inn. And that was another moment Lyonette would not forget.
Slowly, Montressa nodded. She raised a finger to her brow. She spoke. And as the sun rose, the day after continued into another day of disbelief and grief—
Maviola El returned.
The [Bannerlady of Memory’s Flame] rode back to Liscor on a stolen horse as the sun rose. She was smiling, her black hair, streaked with orange, blowing in the wind.
She was not the woman who had left. She had touched…greatness. With just the tips of her fingers.
She had ridden across Izril and rallied the Five Families. She had seen a girl achieve a fraction of her potential.
She had fought side-by-side with a Drake.
And Maviola had lost her great friend, Gresaria Wellfar. She had wept, upon hearing that news. Wept—with grief.
And pride. Pride, in the great [Harbormistress] of First Landing, who had rallied the [Captains] of the sea to fight for her honor when the courage of the Flowers of Izril failed. The Guild of Assassins was still not enough to lay on her tomb.
But it would be done. Maviola would have preferred her friend to live—but she would say only this: Gresaria Wellfar had died well.
“May we all be half as brave in our final moments.”
That was all she said as she rode across the road towards Liscor. The walls, somehow familiar despite her staying barely a month—looked so inviting. She had been riding far. It was far harder to return without [Haste] and the adrenaline of flight and battle in your veins.
Well, she would have arrived yesterday. But there had been complications. A voice muttered a reply.
“Can’t I be braver?”
“I will stab you, Saliss.”
Maviola warned the Drake. She glanced over her shoulder.
…A naked Drake was flopped over the back half of the horse, just dangling as it carried both across the Floodplains. Maviola had found Saliss floating down the river on a hunch. He had apparently been trying to float the entire way back to Pallass. Given the real dangers to the Named Adventurer in the north, she’d persuaded him to ride.
It was amazing he hadn’t gotten sick of riding like that. It couldn’t be fun. But—Maviola thought Saliss was doing more than a comedy bit. He might be injured; he’d barely moved as she helped him into the saddle and made camp.
The transmutation potions might have done lasting damage. And the [Alchemist] was out of…almost everything.
They had paid a high price for victory. Maviola had seen higher. But she was ready to rest. For just a day or two. And then…?
The Wandering Inn rose on the hill. Maviola El smiled, but didn’t turn her horse towards it. There was a stables, now. But she intended to find someone else first before the inevitable excitement of the inn.
The gates of Liscor were manned by a double-shift of [Guards]. They raised their weapons; Maviola slowed. They’d fixed her with arrows from two hundred feet away.
“…Clear. Clear! I recognize her! Bows down!”
Someone shouted. Maviola looked around as Saliss stirred.
“Something’s happened. Monster attack?”
“Eh. No holes in the walls.”
“Excuse me. Is something amiss?”
Maviola waved as the horse trotted towards the gates. The Senior Guardsman just stared at her. Maviola saw—his eyes were red and a bit puffy.
“We’ve just returned.”
“You’re—Maviola. Maviola El.”
The Drake said it slowly. Maviola hesitated. But the secret was out. She was prepared for…
But the Drake barely looked twice at her. He just shook his head.
“You don’t know.”
The other [Guards] looked at Maviola. They knew her. They knew Olesm’s…but nothing of the past amusement, confusion, annoyance—anything was there. Maviola felt something settle into her stomach.
“Is Olesm alright? Was the city attacked?”
“Attacked? Attacked? Yes!”
Someone raised their voice. The Senior Guardsman turned to the Gnoll. He looked back at Maviola.
“It—yes. But Strategist Olesm is f—alive. He’s not here, though.”
“You mean, he’s at the [Healer]’s? The inn?”
Maviola twisted in the saddle, already turning her horse. Someone laughed; a pained, incredulous noise. And the sound made Saliss slide out of the saddle. He wobbled as his feet touched the ground.
“Where. Is. Olesm?”
Maviola addressed the Senior Guardsman. She recognized it at last. Shock. He just looked up at her and shook his head.
“He’s gone to war. They all have.”
The [Lady] looked at him. Then she kicked her horse into a trot. Saliss just turned. He looked up at the inn, and began to walk that way.
Maviola went for Zevara. She found the Watch Captain not in her office, busily tending to her city, but in the main part of the Watch House. She was drinking.
The City Watch was practically gone; the walls were prepared for battle, but the Watch House and streets empty. It was practically a ghost of a city.
“Watch Captain Zevara!”
The Drake determinedly poured another bit of liquid out of a bottle into a cup. She raised it to her lips and then poured with her other hand into the second cup.
The Minotaur took a drink. Maviola El stopped in her tracks. Calruz of Hammerad sat there as two rats lapped at the drops on the table.
The world was so—strange. Was this the Minotaur prisoner? What was going on?
“Oh. It’s you.”
Zevara wobbled around in her chair. Maviola stared at her. She saw four more [Guards]. All just drinking on duty. One was at the desk. Sober—a Gnoll [Guardswoman]. She seemed to be the only one actually working.
“What is happening?”
Maviola felt it on her skin. Just like the day…no. It was a familiar feeling. She had felt this before. On those days. Two days ago.
The Potion of Time’s Return and the Potion of Youth burned in her veins in equal measure. But Maviola El suddenly felt older.
She was marshaling the House of El’s forces, trying to figure out where they would fight. The Goblins were everywhere. Goblin Lords, destroying entire cities. And the Goblin King—
A Goblin King in their lifetimes. Dead gods. And the Antinium in the south were practically a footnote. The Necromancer of Terandria was attacking! Undead were rising across the region—
Zedalien. The half-Elf sagged against the doorframe, panting. Maviola El turned and felt it in her veins.
“Zedalien? Is there news of Fulviolo and Petria—?”
She knew, before the words fell from his numb lips. It was in every line of his body. The bells began to ring, as Maviola El collapsed. Her brother.
They rang for the death of the leader of the House of El.
She saw the same terrible truth here. Maviola El stopped. She looked at the Minotaur, who would never have been allowed out of his cell in a sane era.
Who would have been attacked if the citizens had the energy to pursue vengeance.
She knew. But she didn’t know. And like then—like always. She denied it.
“What has happened, Zevara? Where is Olesm?”
“Gone. To destroy Hectval. I tried to stop him. He’s gone. 4th Company is gone. Adventurers. Civilians. Over half the watch. Two thirds.”
That was an army. The hairs on Maviola’s neck rose. She remembered the disastrous end to the meeting with the Drakes.
“What did…Hectval do?”
“They sent raiding parties to attack Liscor. Four of them. The Antinium got two. The Watch forced one to surrender. The last went for The Wandering Inn.”
And they got killed? Yet Maviola felt it. The slow dance to the center.
“She never saw them. They had crossbows. Poisoned damn bolts. She wasn’t in her inn. So—so—”
The Watch Captain never finished the words. The Minotaur’s head rose. Calruz looked at Maviola.
“Erin Solstice is dead.”
The [Lady] had been prepared. She had known—it was Erin, or perhaps Lyonette, or…no. She had known who it must be.
She had known.
The words still sent her stumbling. She looked back, into the Watch House. Zevara drank. The Minotaur sat there, his scars, one stump of an arm—his face grimly resolved for…
She looked at the [Guardswoman]. The grim Gnoll, standing to attention. Waiting for an incident. Crime.
The [Guards] on the gates. The silent, shocked city.
Maviola El looked around. Then she ran. She ran, abandoning her horse. Running for the magic door—
It wasn’t working. Maviola abandoned it. She ran out of the city. The same [Guards] who’d let her through the gates stared at her back. Almost…darkly amused, a hint of it beyond the grief.
Now you know. How could we explain?
The Wandering Inn was dark when Maviola El burst through the doors. Not uncrowded. But the lights had been extinguished. Dimmed where not removed. The windows shuttered.
As if light itself were too cheerful a thing for this place, at this time. Maviola El stopped, panting. She ran down the long, trapped hallway. Past the newly-built portal-room, unoccupied, the door not staffed like usual.
A pair of figures were just opening the door to the common room. One was leaning on the other as she guided him forwards, murmuring.
“It can’t be. Can’t be. Not to some salt-sucking no-name bastards…”
Wailant Strongheart and Viceria entered the common room of the inn. Maviola El caught the door before it closed.
She found the wake, continuing.
No one had cleared away yesterday’s plates and dishes, nor today’s. The kitchen was not lit, full of good smells. No laughter at the tables.
There was sound. Shuffling. Voices. Little weeping. Those in here had little left to cry.
The door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] was open at the far end of the room. Open to all. Sunlight played through the door. A green hill, stretching up, past glowing Sage’s Grass.
Maviola stopped. She saw—as she burst through—a ring of figures stir.
Men with hats. Mostly Human. One, a Drake, one, a Gnoll. They stirred. Weapons in their hands.
Their hats were off.
That was enough to frighten. But they just looked at Wailant, Viceria, and the City Runner who had told them. Their daughter, Garia, stumbling towards the garden. They sat back down as they recognized Maviola.
She knew, at once. The garden was open. And a Gnoll was walking through. Not one of Erin’s…special friends. Just a Gnoll, that Maviola didn’t recognize. Yet he entered the garden, something in his paws.
Maviola looked for faces she recognized. But the door called her. She slowly began to walk forwards, following the Stronghearts. She entered the garden. And she saw the procession.
It continued. There was no [Immortal Moment]. And more people had come for this than even Lord Toldos’ funeral.
A city’s worth. More than a city’s worth. And they came even now, just hearing about…
Erin. Maviola’s head rose. Towards that shrouded hill in the mists, above the entire [Garden of Sanctuary]. There—she saw a long line of people. Ascending the hill. Descending in another place. Slowly. So, so slowly.
No one complained. One person would go up. A minute would pass. Five, ten…people would trickle down in groups. By themselves. Someone else would go up.
Maviola El wanted to push forwards. She wanted to see. But—she waited as the Stronghearts took their place in the line. Then Maviola saw the black shells.
The silent, kneeling Antinium. Then she believed. But she still had to see—
Erin Solstice. It felt like an eternity and a second before the line carried Maviola onto that hill. She heard Wailant’s voice, first. Garia’s. The [Pirate]’s oath of fury—then silence.
Maviola El saw the frost. Felt the icy cold. She saw gifts, arrayed at the foot of the bier. The body, preserved by magic and cold.
She was still smiling. Maviola saw Erin’s death. She heard the sound escape her lips. The same sound the others made.
Oh. This was happening. Had happened.
Was still happening. Maviola El heard a voice, speaking. And then the truth of it hit her a second time.
“…did not know Erin Solstice well. We met…four times.”
A Gnoll, the Gnoll who had preceded the others into the garden, was speaking. Some of those on the hilltop were listening. Others, like Wailant, were oblivious as he knelt there. The Gnoll went on. Speaking for those who would hear it. For Erin. For himself.
“I heard of her reputation, of course. But she came to my shop to employ me. For…beans. For chocolate. You see, she was very—erratic. I thought her half-mad. You see, I am a [Fermenter]. I—it does not matter.”
His delivery was poor. His oration weak. But he spoke from the heart. The Gnoll gulped. Went on.
“She employed me, paid my price. That is all my customers do. But she asked for my name. I gave it and thought little more than she was interesting, the job different. That was all, and I would have not known her. But she came back.”
“She came back. Three times. Not to collect the beans. But to talk. To ask me about myself. It was only three times. A few minutes of talk…half an hour at most. I did not know her well. But she changed Liscor. I heard about the Raskghar. About how she defended the city during the siege. I did not know—Erin. But she asked me to call her by her name.”
He hung his head.
“She made me laugh and smile. That was all.”
He wiped at his eyes. He smelled of his shop. He had left—flowers. That was all. Just bright, long-leafed blooms of green native to the area. Camouflaged, but sharply scented, to attract pollinating insects.
He was one of many. Maviola El looked around. She saw statues.
Lord Toldos, standing as if he were one of the mourners. Looking tired. Maviola El jerked. Then she saw an old woman, sitting in the grass, attending to something invisible, only she could see.
It was probably her spear. If her skin were not grey stone, it would have been tanned. Her hair slightly unkempt, as if she had stood in the breeze coming from the harbor too long.
Still strong. Still—
Gresaria Wellfar did not look up as her friend fell to her knees. Maviola El collapsed.
Then—she understood. Then she saw the Drake, standing there. Dusky yellow scales. Not naked. He’d put on a silly box that a silly [Innkeeper] had given him.
‘May contain small nuts.’
Only—he wasn’t laughing. Saliss of Lights.
What had those damned Drakes done? What had those cowards brought low? How had this happened?
What would happen now?
Time passed. First—Maviola El was just stunned. Disbelieving. Then it hit her. And she stood and joined the mourners.
Wailant Strongheart was gone. He had stumbled down the hill and was tending to the Sage’s Grass. Checking each leaf and the roots. A little bee buzzed around him, as if grateful for the company.
Viceria was listening as someone else took the small podium and spoke. Garia was still weeping. Her face buried in her arms.
Maviola whispered when it was her turn to stand in front of Erin. She looked down. Searching for a sign of life. She only saw the smile. The closed eyes. No breath. Ice. Why ice?
“My heir of flame. You were supposed to live. I—I—why before me? I was supposed to die in the north! You were to keep Izril’s flame alight. To be—”
Maviola El was on her knees. She reached for the bier—but a powerful magic forced her hand away. Someone had protected it.
Saliss of Lights, the [Alchemist] of Pallass, the Named Adventurer, just sat there. Cross-legged. He murmured into the silence as Maviola El wept.
“I told you all. I’m the hero of the story. Everyone else dies. Except me.”
Liscor mourned. Maviola El lost track of time. Her plans fell to ruin. It all came undone.
How could you expect things to be the same? Erin was dead. Who was going to…? The inn? The north? The magic door?
The future had been uncertain, but bright, even if you didn’t know it. You knew it had been bright. Because now, the light had gone out. And everything was shrouded.
After a while, someone noticed she was here. Someone from the inn.
An Antinium was walking up and down the hill. Bringing bowls of food to the Antinium curled up. They didn’t eat—until he made them. With cruelty. With merciless words. With a kind of ruthlessness that he had learned, somehow.
“Eat. Eat the food or Erin would be sad.”
“Eat. Or you will have failed her twice.”
It was—Garry. Maviola heard his voice. Of all of the Antinium, only he was somehow moving. He made the Workers and Soldiers eat—then let them collapse once more.
It was not a kindness he did. Nor one they would ever thank him for. It was a selfish duty of command. Maviola had seen, done the same. Garry ascended the hill and saw her.
That was all he said. Then he left. After a while, Lyonette stumbled up the hill.
She cried out. The two turned. They looked at her. The [Princess] was pale. She carried a little Gnoll in her arms. Mrsha had fallen asleep. Lyonette didn’t want to put her down, even though she was heavy and almost too big to carry.
“Oh, dead gods. You two—”
Saliss stared at Lyonette. Then he went back to looking at Erin.
“Who did this?”
Maviola’s head rose. Lyonette just shook her head. Grief hit her a second time. She hadn’t told Maviola. She’d forgotten they were returning.
“I—I can’t explain. Not here. Come down. To the inn. Do you want to eat? I can—I can tell you there.”
Maviola El didn’t want to eat. But Lyonette was desperate for something to do. So she let the [Princess] take her by the arm, pull her gently down—
Someone pushed past her, nearly knocking her down. The [Lady] stumbled. She saw a cluster of Antinium. Garry included, trying to hold a Worker back.
“I must. I must.”
Pawn struggled forwards. The other Antinium—Yellow Splatters, Purple Smile, Garry, Chesacre, Thaina—tried to hold him back without hurting him.
The Worker pushed past them all. He fell to his knees.
Garry’s voice was the loudest thing on the hill. People turned. The [Priest] raised all four hands.
“I must try.”
He touched Erin. Bypassing the enchantments. Reaching out. Speaking.
“[Heal Minor Wounds]. [Heal Minor Wounds]! Heal her, I beg you!”
Saliss looked up. Pawn raised two arms as two more touched Erin gently around the frozen blood. Maviola El looked back. Lyonette inhaled—
Nothing happened. Pawn spoke again. Repeating the Skill.
Heal…? The Worker looked around. He produced a dagger and slashed himself. Green blood fell onto the grass. He spoke.
“[Heal Minor Wounds].”
The cut closed. Pawn stared at his arm—then touched Erin again.
“Why won’t it work?”
“Pawn. Enough. She is g—”
Garry saw Pawn whirl. The Worker charged Garry. The [Cook] was knocked off his feet. They went tumbling down the hill.
Lyonette cried out. Mrsha woke as she put the little Gnoll down and tried to separate the two. Garry didn’t even stop Pawn as the Worker flailed at him. The other Antinium tried to pull them apart—
The word stopped the two Antinium. They looked up.
Viceria Strongheart. Maviola El closed her mouth, lowered her hand. The [Green Mage] looked down at Pawn.
“How dare you? Stop fighting. Go.”
The [Priest] looked up at her. Then he sagged. He lay there, strings cut, as the Soldiers and Workers helped him up. They carried him away.
Maviola had not heard wrong. But no one could…but she had seen it.
Yet that was still overshadowed by this moment. She would not forget it. She hated that she could be so analytical, save that reflection for later.
“Let’s go into the inn.”
Lyonette went back. Mrsha was looking up at the hill. She’d been dreaming that this was all a dream. And Erin had hugged her and called her silly—
She wanted to go back up. Lyonette carried her down. The little Gnoll was too tired to fight. She just lay there, on the table where Lyonette placed her.
The common room of the inn was silent. People ate to distract themselves. Some of the staff were working—in silence.
Grief had a different place here. It could be louder. Maviola heard an argument. She saw a broken table. Wailant had smashed it.
She let Lyonette grab some food from the kitchen. Pizza. Maviola stared at it blankly until Lyonette put a slice on her plate. No one touched it. Not Saliss, not Maviola—
They were here. The children from Earth. The [Mages], sitting around. The Silver Swords, Fierre, the staff—some drifted over as Lyonette spoke.
And the full, sorry tale emerged.
A raiding party from Hectval, here to avenge an insult to their city’s honor. Overconfidence.
“Why the ice? To keep her from becoming undead? It won’t stop the process long. You need to—properly prepare her body. A coffin. Or cremate her.”
The [Princess] flinched. Mrsha looked up.
“No. Maviola—it was Kevin’s idea. She’s—she’s not dead.”
Maviola just looked at Lyonette.
“She is dead, Lyonette.”
“No. She’s not.”
Rose raised her voice. Some people looked around. The young woman looked at Maviola, pointing at Kevin.
“Kevin thought of it and he’s right. Erin’s in cryostasis! It’s this thing where you freeze someone and they’re not dead. They can be brought back to…”
Maviola listened. She shook her head.
“Insanity. You’re wrong, Miss Rose. You cannot bring back the dead. Not—perhaps in the era of legends, it might have been possible. When Dragons flew across the skies. Even then—it would have been a miracle. You would need the greatest of relics. Or—”
A [Cleric]. But she had seen the Antinium fail.
“She’s not dead, though.”
The [Lady] shook her head. Rose raised a trembling finger.
“You don’t know how biology works. She’s not entirely—”
Saliss of Lights put down his fist on the table. The plates jumped. And the inn went silent.
The [Alchemist] looked about. And his eyes held some of that ruthless mercy that Garry had shown.
“Want me to prove it?”
He looked around. Kevin stared at the Drake. In a corner of the inn, Ylawes’ head rose.
They had all heard it. The desperate refrain. Erin isn’t dead. Cryostasis. Maviola, on hearing it, just shook her head. It sounded like what [Soldiers] said of fallen comrades. How would you bring her back? If you were alive—you’d have to cure the poison and then apply a potion.
But Erin wasn’t breathing. Her heart had stopped. And to add to that, her flesh was now ice. There was nothing to bring back, at least, to Maviola’s understanding.
And there was one more thing. The [Alchemist] looked around.
He pointed at Montressa. The young woman looked at him.
“Cast a spell. I know you know it. Cast the spell. And you—I can see it. So can you. Can’t you?”
He looked at Maviola. She nodded. Montressa’s lips moved.
The inn went silent. Rose faltered. Saliss looked at Montressa. The [Mage] made no move.
“Don’t need to? Or have you already tried? There is nothing there.”
Maviola nodded. She saw Lyonette’s eyes swing towards her.
“No, you see—science—”
There was no spark of life. Maviola saw it differently than Saliss. And she had seen…nothing. No spark. Not even the faintest ember. Nothing. Magic—Skills—both thought Erin was dead.
She was dead.
“You couldn’t put your boon on her, at the end, could you, Lyonette?”
“No. No—I tried. I thought—”
“The dying cannot be given a boon of life. Nor can the dead. The only Skills that work on dead bodies are those that belong to those who command inanimate objects.”
Silence. Rose tried to say something. Kevin slowly sat down. He put his head in his hands. Maviola El felt tears coming again.
Children. How they’d hoped. She didn’t blame them. But they had to know. Even Mrsha. The longer they hoped, the more it would tear them apart to say goodbye.
“It can’t be. But—”
“You must say goodbye. Before…the dead rise.”
Lyonette jerked. Maviola shuddered. A sound rose in the inn, a wail. A Gnoll howled and others took up the sound.
Maviola shook her head. She looked at Rose, at the others, gently, but firmly.
“I buried my brother, Fulviolo of the House of El. Tyrion Veltras buried his wife. The King of Destruction lost two—three of his Seven. Great men and women, [Kings] and [Queens], Dragons and heroes have lost their loved ones. How many came back? They would have moved the entire world for them. But they could not overturn death. I’m sorry. But this is the truth.”
She bowed her head. And the ghost stirred. He looked up, raising his head. His clawed hand touched the hole in his chest. His wounds that showed how he had died. Then he stood—remembering his body in life. He walked past them.
“The world is empty. Empty—ending. Let it all end.”
The [Priest] was shaking. The ghost stopped for a moment, looking. Listening to the undeniable proof. He walked towards the walls of the inn. And he spoke.
“No. Not yet.”
Pawn’s head rose. He looked around for the voice.
Numbtongue wanted to bury himself on the hill of flowers. Rest. Rest—
And stop losing people. He could not stop it. He thought he was stronger. He had tried. He had sworn not to let it happen again.
Erin was ____. It was his fault. He had been overconfident. If he’d stayed inside. If he hadn’t told Bird to stop so he and Badarrow could compete—
Badarrow knelt next to him. The [Sniper] was crying. But he had Snapjaw, and she had told him she would follow him into the ground if he tried. Numbtongue?
I have seen it. The child needs you. They need you. Stop.
Pyrite’s voice in his head. Numbtongue didn’t hear Shorthilt. But the ghost spoke, again and again. You have to stay. No matter how much it hurts.
Stay for what? To watch them die?
The Hobgoblin did not move. He did not rise. He had nothing to hope for. Kevin said Erin was alive. But—he had not been able to prove it. It was just some…idea from his world.
Earth could not bring back the dead. And magic could not. He had used potions and they had been just water.
He had seen the flame go out. The Hobgoblin knelt. He placed the beautiful sword on the grass in front of him. Then he carefully brought out the beautiful kitchen knife. Her blood was still on the handle. Numbtongue regarded it.
How magnificent. He sighed. Badarrow didn’t notice his friend unsheathing the blade. Numbtongue lifted it—
Reiss. The [Soulbard] ignored the ghost.
“You have nothing to give me. You could not save her.”
The Goblin Lord had a hand on Numbtongue’s shoulder.
“No. But you still need to listen to me. Listen—”
Numbtongue wanted to close his ears. The Goblin Lord leaned forwards.
“Listen to me. They are wrong, in the inn. They see nothing with magic. No Skills work on Erin. But she is not dead.”
The blade wavered. Badarrow looked up. He lunged. Numbtongue grappled with him. Now—the blade wobbled. He just had to overpower Badarrow for—
“She is not dead! I can prove it.”
The Hobgoblin’s grip wavered. Badarrow tore the blade away and knocked Numbtongue down the hill. He grabbed the sword and ran.
Numbtongue lay on his back. He stared up at Reiss. The Goblin Lord looked down at him.
“Take my hand?”
“No. Just come with me.”
The Goblin Lord walked. And Numbtongue followed. He had to know.
Maviola El was speaking. Burn her. Cremate her. The others were denying it. But it had to be done.
Erin was not—
The door opened. A Hobgoblin stood in the doorway, panting. Badarrow whirled.
He raised his fists. But Numbtongue walked past Badarrow, not going for the weapons. He was looking at something in the air.
Maviola’s hair rose slightly, as the Hobgoblin tilted his head. Listening. He looked around.
“Erin…is not dead?”
He said it like a question. The others looked at him. Maviola El shook her head. Another lost child. But—then he looked around.
He pointed at Montressa. Then at Falene. Bezale. Palt…and his head turned. Searching. For someone who was not there. It swung back to a point in the air. His ears twitched.
“Erin is alive?”
Saliss just looked away. Numbtongue shook his head. He looked around.
“She is not dead.”
“I can see she is not alive, Numbtongue.”
Maviola El snapped. Anger flashing in front of despair. She knew he was in shock, denial. Mrsha just looked at Numbtongue, hoping. It was a cruelty to let the child believe—only to have it dashed.
“I can prove it.”
The inn went silent. Numbtongue looked at Reiss. The Goblin Lord spoke, and Numbtongue repeated. Two voices, speaking together.
“If there is no life—then prove she is dead. [Detect Death].”
The [Necromancer], the Goblin Lord, pointed a finger towards the garden. He looked at Numbtongue.
“I see nothing.”
The words echoed in Numbtongue’s mind. It changed nothing.
It changed everything.
A [Necromancer]’s spell. The power of those who craved mastery of death. It was a spell Falene, Bezale, Palt, Viceria, Ulinde—not Hedault or Grimalkin or anyone else knew.
An odd spell. That detected corpses. The power of death magic, which congregated only in bodies. Not in inanimate things. A useless spell for a non-[Necromancer], surely.
Montressa knew it. And never more had the inn needed a [Necromancer] than now. She cast the spell that Pisces had taught to her.
She whispered. And the Tier 1 spell, the useless sensory magic, was worth more to those in the inn than anything.
A second proof emerged just as soon as the first. Maviola El was sitting there, disbelieving. But she saw no spark!
And yet—and yet—it was little Visma who began giggling. She had listened to the adults talking. The words of hope had made her reach for something.
“Stop laughing. Stop!”
Ekirra snarled at her. His mother and sister tried to stop him biting Visma’s tail. But the Drake ran over to Mrsha. Whispered in her ear as she showed the little Gnoll something. Ekirra stopped snarling. His eyes went round.
Mrsha sniffed at the object. Then she took a bite herself. Of the thing Visma was showing her. What she’d been nibbling on.
A piece of pizza.
It was lukewarm. But suddenly—Mrsha was devouring it.
It made Lyonette relieved to see. Mrsha had not eaten. But why—the Gnoll looked around. And Visma was laughing.
The first laughter besides hysteria in the inn. Other people looked up. Someone raised a mug to throw at the Drake girl.
“What in the name of Rhir’s hells is so funny?”
“It’s fresh! Tastes good!”
So what? Visma waved the pizza up at Rose. The young woman raised it, sniffed. Took a bite.
It had been lying out since yesterday. And the pizza Lyonette had brought from the kitchen, also untouched?
Fresh. Pizza, for all its wonderful staying properties, couldn’t do that without…
“The [Field of Preservation]. It’s working.”
Rose looked around. Lyonette blinked. Then—Hexel uncoiled from his table with Elirr. He looked around.
“The [Garden of Sanctuary]. I thought it was broken since it let everyone in. But—”
His eyes flicked towards the walls. Palt had broken his hooves kicking the wood walls. Not a scratch. And across the common room—
The silent [Grand Theatre]. Temile’s head rose.
“But how? Neither alive nor dead—”
The [Lady] stared about. Then it hit her.
“Neither alive nor dead. Her Skills don’t turn off. Nor does anything work on her.”
She had never heard the like. She knew of…ghosts. Bound to this world. But wait. Wait…Maviola’s brow wrinkled.
“Maybe. Perhaps it’s like the [Princess] who was put to sleep in a castle. And her Skills and all those within were preserved with her.”
“The freezing worked, Kevin.”
Joseph breathed. Kevin looked around.
“Then she is alive? I mean—not alive. But she didn’t die. Then she’s—”
The word blossomed in the inn like hope. She was alive? Maviola half-shook her head. If she was—she rose.
“But to heal that?”
That was all Lyonette said. She turned back to Bezale.
“Get her. I don’t care if she’s busy. Make it a priority! We have proof.”
A second surge of life ran through the inn. Mrsha began eating another slice of pizza, to prove it was true again. Montressa was surrounded by the other [Mages], even low-level spellcasters, demanding she teach them the spell so they could see themselves.
Neither alive. Nor dead. It was enough. Reiss bowed. A [Priest] raised his head.
Bird uncurled slightly from the corner of the inn. Suddenly—something ran through the air.
“If she’s not dead. Then—there are potions that could cure her. Master Saliss.”
Octavia threw herself forwards as she put her eyes back in. She’d taken them out to stop crying. The Drake turned. Octavia was weeping again.
“I failed. I was too slow. But the poison—I have one of the bolts.”
The [Alchemist] looked around. He half-turned in his seat towards Kevin.
“Freezing? Explain it again, Kevin-guy.”
“We froze her as fast as we could. [Snap Freeze]. Montressa, Bezale, Palt—I heard it had to be fast.”
“If that actually stops dying—”
The [Alchemist] rose. He turned to Octavia.
“Show me the bolt. If it actually works—if that could have saved people on the battlefield from bleeding out—”
He looked back at Kevin.
“That will change everything. You should have told me a long time ago. How dare you not tell me sooner. I’ll hit you.”
He raised a fist. Kevin opened his mouth. Saliss swung weakly, missed. Then he walked into Octavia’s shop. Maviola El—was trying to think.
“The House of El doesn’t have Potions of Regeneration anymore.”
Lyonette looked at her sharply. The [Lady]’s head rose.
“…They don’t fix poison half the time, either. But—what about the Eternal Throne of Calanfer?”
The [Princess] was suddenly thinking. They all were. More [Messages] flashed across the world. People rose from the stupefaction, the disbelief, the grief.
Hope, that wonderful lie, that illusion you clung to, surfaced. And yet—
Erin Solstice was still lying there. Encased in ice.
Maviola El listened to the bubbling conversations. The sudden shouting. The whispered prayer of the Antinium. And she remembered something else she’d been told.
“Olesm. Zevara said he went after Hectval?”
The others turned.
“Yes. He left yesterday. With an army—”
“That fool. That—”
Maviola felt her blood spike suddenly in alarm. She looked towards the window. Then she was hurrying for the door.
“Maviola? Where are you going?”
Lyonette called after her. The [Lady] turned.
“I’m going after him! This Drake city cannot be allowed to get away with this. And he may be in grave danger.”
She turned. In minutes, she was racing from Liscor, having recaptured her horse.
Yes. The mourners in the inn had been only part of Liscor. One reaction to the [Innkeeper]’s death.
Let the others grieve. Let them try to turn back oblivion’s hands. Let them plan and look ahead.
But not now. Not here. Enough of it.
An army marched on the road, past the Bloodfields. A force enraged beyond belief.
Drakes, Humans, Gnolls. A half-Giant. Adventurers. Civilians. [Soldiers]. [Guards].
Their grief was manifested in fury. Later, they would collapse. Later, they would fully mourn. But first, vengeance.
Now for wrath. Now for the ruination of cities. Now—blood, until a second Bloodfields covered the land!
A [Strategist] rode at the head of the army, screaming for blood. Behind him, Maviola El rode upon the south, bringing the fire of hell and vengeance in her wake.
The world had ended. It was only fair Hectval end with it.
Hectval, one of the biggest cities in the region, one of the best. If not the best, really.
Yes, there was Pallass to the south. But you could call Hectval second-best to Pallass. And only then, really, because Pallass was so old. Hectval was filled with master [Bowyers], and exported the famous, brightly-fletched arrows and crossbow bolts that made them a renowned and dangerous enemy to cross.
You could even tell Hectval was the most important. The Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem Alliance—based off the three cities who had allied against other Drake cities and Gnoll tribes—had Hectval first.
A leader among cities. Something to aspire to. Little Gnoll crime, an elite fighting force. Yes, Hectval deserved its reputation—or so claimed Hectval’s patriotic citizenry, the great military minds and ruling Council.
Which was exactly why they couldn’t let the insult to their city and Scalespeaker Yisht slide. Oh, no. Liscor was a backwater border-city with no idea of manners, dignity, or diplomacy at all. It was a savage city and as such, the raiding parties were justified. That was how Drakes did these things, you see.
If they were lucky, they’d actually assassinate one of the targets. Otherwise—they’d torch outlying farms, attack travellers. Maybe destroy that damn inn everyone was talking about. After all, they were…
None of the four ambush teams reported back. Which was cause for some alarm, but they must have just slipped up. Unfamiliar terrain—perhaps the Bloodfields had got them? Probably prisoners of war. The ransom would arrive, or maybe Liscor would be baited into a retaliatory force.
Hectval waited, having already mobilized its considerable army and alerted the other two cities of a possible conflict. They were good at the game of Drake diplomacy. Yisht had said that Liscor’s Council were naïve as Lawsheep, and clearly, they were already degenerating to let Gnolls on the Council, let alone have an Antinium Hive settle under their city! Just—pathetic, really.
The City of Hectval received nothing as eloquent as a formal declaration of war the day after their ambush teams were due to have struck and reported in. One of their [Negotiators], on standby to receive the probable notification, instead got some weird [Messages] from Liscor.
“Er—Scalespeaker. I have some communiques from Liscor. But they’re not—not quite standard.”
“Is it war, then?”
Yisht rubbed at one eye. He still felt that damn Drakes’ punch. As one of the Council—Scalespeaker being one of the posts—he had been waiting for Liscor to declare war. But they didn’t have the gonads, eh? He took the [Messages] the [Negotiator] was holding out.
“What are they saying? Did the teams get captured? Some petty insults? Hah! Well, let’s just…erm…what is this?”
“I checked it, Scalespeaker. But it’s genuine. Comes from Liscor’s Council. Mage’s Guild certifies. Um—there are pages of them…”
The rest of the Council sat up. Yisht was reading the parchment rolls, blank-faced. After a second, he laughed, a bit incredulously.
“Is this a joke?”
The first part was a transcript.
Liscor to Hectval. Is this Hectval’s Council?
Hectval. [Messages] to the Council may be transferred depending on the importance. Who is sending?
Liscor’s Council. Excellent. Please relay this to Hectval’s Council at best speed: we are going to burn your entire damn city down.
Hectval. Liscor, your message appears to be somewhat confused. Send again?
Liscor. We are going to tear down your walls, pour salt down your wells, and turn your precious little city to rubble. You are all dead. You pathetic, inbred Drakes don’t know what you’ve done. Go find a noose and hop into it. We’ll feed you to the Bloodfields. Tell Yisht I will personally feed his tail to him.
Hectval. Is this Liscor’s Council?
You’re dead too.
Hectval to Liscor’s Mage’s Guild. Please confirm identity of sender?
Mage’s Guildmistress. Identity confirmed. You’re dead. If you have any sense, run out of your city and keep running.
Hectval. Is this a formal declaration of war?
You don’t deserve formality. We’ll plant Creler eggs on your corpses. Start running.
It went on, and on. Pages of [Messages], really. Yisht’s mouth opened wider the more he read. Some of the threats—well, it sounded like people were taking turns.
In fact, Liscor’s Mage’s Guild was sending the [Messages] pro bono to Hectval on behalf of the citizens.
“Are they mad? What is this?”
“Better deploy the army. Sounds like we got them mad.”
One of the Councilmembers chuckled, discarding the parchment contemptuously. He looked around at the Council.
“Oh, what are you looking so nervous about? Their army is across the damn continent! All they’ve got is the Watch. We have the Watch, the army, and the alliance!”
That was true. Hectval’s Council relaxed. Some kept reading the parchment, though. The [Councilmember] smoothed his neck-spines.
“We already have three thousand [Soldiers] enroute to stall whatever’s coming. I suggest we alert our [Generals] and have them move—”
“Councilmembers! A report from 3rd Regiment!”
Yisht looked up as the same [Negotiator] skidded into the room. This time he looked frantic.
“What is it? Have they met the enemy?”
“3rd Regiment has been wiped out! They’re being held prisoner or dead! We’re counting an army of 16,000, marching on Hectval!”
The Councilmembers dropped the parchment. Yisht turned pale under his scales.
“…Say what now? Wait, that’s an actual army.”
He looked at the sheet again. He’d thought it was just words. But then he looked at the others.
“How mad are they?”
An hour ago, 3rd Regiment had set up a roadblock. They were spread out on the newly-built road. Damn thing. No one had asked Hectval if it was alright to make a road. But it was convenient so Hectval had let Liscor build it.
And now—it was an ideal place to hold back any retaliatory force and cover their ambush team’s withdrawal. The Bloodfields lay to the left—and get too close and even an army would suffer. So—this was a good spot to hold. They’d dug in, set up palisades, and of course, their famous [Crossbowman] lines.
Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem. Each one was a city with a specialty. You had to have one. Hectval was known for their archers. Bows, crossbows, they made the best [Archers] around. Okay, there was Pallass. But Pallass didn’t count. Their army was known for their ranged capabilities.
And the alliance meant Hectval could specialize. Drisshia was the center of a local [Mage] school and provided a smaller army, but invaluable spellcaster reinforcements. Luldem? Heavy infantry. All three cities had their mounted divisions, but in the foothills, it was less cavalry.
They were prepared to defeat any idiotic force that came this way—or hold and retreat. Their [Commander of the Line] could go toe-claw to toe-claw with a [General] for a while if he used all his Skills. And besides—Liscor’s ‘famous army’ was doing mercenary work to the south. Liscor was going to suffer for angering Hectval. They had no idea what—
The army came down the road like Demons from Rhir. The [Commander] counted a thousand at first. Then two thousand. By the time he counted six thousand, he was already ordering his forces to sound the retreat. He’d spread out multiple wings of his regiment to envelop the foe. Now—he sent one group forwards to hold the line. He saw the Drakes riding forwards, bows raised.
They vanished. The howling army dropped the [Riders]. The [Commander] saw the flash of magic—flame—
“Oldbloods! Fall back! Orderly withdrawal! Prepare to hold them at the fortifications!”
Hectval’s Drakes looked at each other uncertainly. The rearwards forces were already scrambling for horses, those on foot abandoning gear—
The army was charging already. No order! No—they were screaming. The [Commander]’s scales prickled. What in the name of the Ancestors had the ambush teams done? He turned.
“Get them moving! Hold the line! [Steelclad—”
A form dropped like a stone. The [Commander] whirled his shield up as his [Guards] raised their bows and weapons. He saw the Garuda flicker—
Bevussa planted a sword in his open mouth and whirled into the air. The Wings of Pallass dove, screaming, at the Drakes. Gold-rank Adventurers?
The first rank of [Lineholders] felt their [Commander]’s Skills vanish. They wavered, but then firmed.
“Drakes do not run!”
The [Lieutenant] exhorted her troops. The Gnoll-conscripts had already been ordered to hold their ground. The Drakes firmed.
A half-Giant covered in thorns punched through the first wooden palisade, spikes tipped with iron. The Drakes looked up, and Moore’s face was the last thing most of them saw. Then the charging Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans overran them.
Olesm Swifttail didn’t even have a chance to use more than one Skill before the first rank of Drakes crumpled. There were more forces in the hills, the narrow ravine adjacent to the road and the Bloodfields. Ideal ambush territory—
“4th Company, I want them dead!”
“Lightbridge! On me!”
Embria’s 4th Company raced as fast as she did on horseback up a bridge made of light to hit the enemy there. They were wavering, not sure if they should retreat or fight.
Liscor’s [Soldiers] took them to pieces. As for the main enemy—Olesm was shouting at the army to stop pushing in clumps in case they took a [Fireball]. Beyond that? It was just how fast the army could run that was holding them back from the slaughter.
[Vigor of Champions] meant they didn’t tire. Fury meant they’d marched here at a rapid pace, through the night, barely pausing to rest. It was poor strategy. There was no planning—it was an army mostly made up of the militia—there was Embria’s 4th, and two thousand of the Watch, and adventurers, but most were civilians.
Olesm didn’t care. Erin was dead.
Hectval would burn.
They left half the regiment dead in the first clash. Then—Olesm was bellowing.
“Captain Menolit, hold your group back! [Rapid Retreat]! Keldrass, back!”
He was ordering the army to retreat, heal up, and advance in something like a formation rather than let them keep pursuing. Olesm put the [Riders] under his command forwards. He addressed the temporary leaders he’d appointed.
Menolit, Keldrass, Bevussa, Jeiss—Embria was functionally the second-in-command despite being a [Wing Commander]. The rest were Senior Guards, Adventurers, and [Veterans] like Menolit, despite the Drake never having actually been an officer.
Olesm didn’t care. He was barely holding himself back from plunging after the Drakes and hacking them apart.
Kill them all. Feed them to the Shield Spiders! No, cut their limbs off and let them bleed out. Even that’s too good for them.
Erin was dead. Erin was DEAD. Erinwasdead. ErinwasdeadErinwasdeadErinwasdead—
It still didn’t feel real. Liscor’s army was made up of people like that. People who hadn’t come to grips with it. Who were shocked—
But also furious. Who wanted blood. Who demanded it. Hectval had done this?
Olesm would kill the Scalespeaker himself.
Blood and vengeance. The Wings of Pallass had joined. The Flamewardens. Moore alone of the Halfseekers. Other adventurers like Gemhammer, and the citizens of course. Not just Liscor’s civilians. Esthelm, Celum—they’d all come, volunteering.
It was notable who had come to fight. Olesm himself, Liscor’s [Strategist], shouldn’t have been here. But Liscor’s army had authorized Embria to come herself.
And it was also notable who wasn’t here. For instance—the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings had not joined in, despite the rage and grief consuming them.
They might have. But they were instead sitting in the inn. They had failed their task. The two Brothers who had been in the inn when Erin had been—they alone were marching with the others. The rest stayed where they were. Guarding the inn and Erin’s remains.
They would not fail a second time.
Someone else not here? Altestiel of Desonis. Olesm remembered that, in the shock of the night.
The Drake was hitting his head on the table until his forehead bled. Trying to—wake up—
People were shouting. Furious voices. Menolit had retrieved his spear and was howling for blood. But Todi’s Elites had already killed the ambush team. Tossed their bodies in a Shield Spider pit when they had heard what happened.
“This is war! We’ll burn down the city! Call back the army!”
Jeiss was bellowing. Olesm heard Altestiel arrive. He felt the storm front break over the inn.
Yet when the Earl entered…he just stood there. Over Erin’s body, which had been moved into the center of the inn.
“We have to—we have to put her in the garden.”
Lyonette was repeating herself. Mrsha was trying to nudge Erin’s hand. But everyone was being kept back.
“Back! Back! Step fucking back! She’s frozen! We have to keep her body safe!”
Joseph was pushing the people wanting to touch Erin. Altestiel’s aura pushed more away. He just stood there.
“Which city did this?”
When he looked up, Olesm realized he’d come to the same conclusion growing in the [Strategist]’s heart throughout the fading day and into the night.
Vengeance. The [Earl] turned. Kiish, the others, were openly grieving, but they threw themselves at the Earl, shouting.
Lightning began to fall and the storm winds howled through the night.
For an hour. The Earl had been raging. He had helped mobilize the army. But he had not joined in the march of vengeance.
Olesm had seen it. Desonis’ [Queen] had spoken.
“Desonis will not make war on a Drake city!”
And her will had been chains of water. They had bound Altestiel and his people had carried him to the coach. He looked back at Olesm.
“Their deaths, Olesm. Do not let it go unavenged!”
He had howled. One voice of many. Still—
The Antinium were not marching either. Olesm remembered Moore raging. But the Halfseekers had been grieving. Seborn—Seborn, who Olesm had expected to join—had just stayed by Erin’s side. Weeping from his Human half. Neither had Jelaqua nor Ulinde gone. The Silver Swords? They would not join in the slaughter, although Dawil had half-nodded before turning away.
The Antinium had been broken. Surrounding the inn, making a clicking noise. And besides—
Xrn had forbidden it. The Small Queen had looked upon Erin only once. Then walked away. As if that was that.
Damn them all, then.
The first battle was fast. Hectval had not expected this. Olesm sent [Riders] to run down the flanks. He watched the regiment being obliterated with satisfaction. And he wanted to see their entire army slaughtered thusly.
“Prepare to move out! Wings, scout ahead! Give me the next fifteen miles—”
Olesm was shouting. The army moved forwards in a vast column; he was beginning to spread them out. Too close together and they’d do no good. Just bunch up while a fraction fought, at the mercy of area-of-attack spells. He began to move them through the rough terrain turning into foothills as they passed the Bloodfields.
Something happened though, as they ran down the remains of Hectval’s regiment. The first clash had wiped out the Drakes thoroughly. But nearly two thirds had made it away. They were slowly chased down as the [Riders] and Bevussa’s team and two Oldbloods from Liscor harried them. Mid-morning saw them make a stand. Olesm closed in with nearly eight thousand on foot towards the force hemmed against a cliff. Then he heard a shout.
He stared, as the Drakes, and Gnolls, who had fled the first attack, threw down their arms. Olesm twisted the Ring of Sight and saw more clearly. Yes, they were abandoning their weapons—spears, swords, shields—and raising their arms. Shouting.
What was happening?
“Yes, Strategist. It’s customary.”
Olesm ignored the furious shouting behind him. The soldiers wanted the enemy dead. Only the officer’s Skills were keeping them in check. Embria was explaining at a shout.
“It’s city-fighting. They’re [Soldiers]! Close to [Mercenaries] at times! Like Liscor’s army! They’d rather surrender and be ransomed than die!”
That made sense. But—Olesm stared at the surrendered Hectval forces.
He had never fought an actual battle against other Drakes. Nor had he joined Liscor’s army. It made sense—and yet it didn’t.
“They didn’t even fight.”
“No. But its customary. Even in the thick of battle. One battalion takes a beating and is cut off? They’ll surrender. Drake cities ransom soldiers all the time. Surely you were taught that in Manus?”
“Yes I was! But I’m not inclined to accept their surrender!”
Olesm wanted to order his [Archers] to fill the entire group of two thousand with arrows and leave them to rot. Surrender? There wasn’t any mercy for them.
4th Company’s officers and some of the retired [Veterans] shifted. Captain Vell coughed into her claw.
“Sir. It is traditional to accept. If Liscor did not honor the rules of engagement—”
“Did they let Erin surrender?”
Olesm bellowed. There was a roar of fury from the soldiers. It was Captain Wikir who raised a paw.
“Strategist. A request?”
The Drake rounded on him. The Gnoll looked at him directly.
“At least let the Gnoll conscripts go. They aren’t part of the army proper.”
Olesm realized that out of the two thousand Drakes, there were about four hundred Gnolls. Most wore the poorest, most ill-maintained equipment. And they were in front, he noticed.
“Poor bastards probably didn’t have a choice. They’re not career [Soldiers], sir.”
Olesm remembered the Paworkers of Hectval and his desire to raze the city grew.
“Fine. As for the Drakes? What am I supposed to do?”
“Capture ‘em, ransom. You can get a few gold per each one, usually.”
Vell replied, and 4th Company agreed. It was common.
“Let’s just make them run through the Bloodfields. Any who refuse, we kill.”
Menolit snarled. That was met with agreement from half present. Olesm almost nodded himself. But he realized—everyone was looking at him.
Zevara had refused to take command. She had tried to talk him out of it.
“Hectval will pay. But this isn’t wise, Olesm!”
He hadn’t listened. Even now—if the Scalespeaker were standing in front of him, Olesm would kill him with his bare claws.
But this—he tried to think.
Erin was dead. But she wouldn’t—
They were too good for her mercy. He knew what his training, what honor he had, his morality, and his duty compelled him to say.
So what? Goodness had bled out on the grass outside her inn.
Kill them. But Olesm was spared of having to speak by Bevussa screaming at him through a speaking stone.
“Olesm! Your left wing is in battle! They’re getting chewed up!”
“What left wing? I told them to halt—Menolit, guard this group! 1st to 4th Battalions on me! Double time! Embria, go!”
Olesm swung himself back into the saddle. He raced across the ground and found that the wing he’d ordered to sweep left had kept going and had met with the enemy.
This time they’d run into an ambush. Crossbows in the hills, Drakes with their classic spear walls covering gaps in the stone. The dead—
Were fewer than he’d hoped for. Olesm stopped as he saw the retreating elements. Bevussa had gotten them all to safety?
“No. We lost eight hundred.”
“Only a hundred died, maybe. Two hundred? The rest were told to surrender.”
The new rules of this war unfolded as Olesm found that the second regiment had fallen back, taking the prisoners of war with them. When he returned to Menolit, he realized he needed the prisoners to exchange.
And one more thing. Olesm put the prisoners behind the main army, under guard, and realized he had to put a large number of his soldiers there to prevent the surrendered [Soldiers] from simply escaping or worse, fighting back. And what if the enemy tried to liberate them?
Two more of Hectval’s regiments were in the foothills. Hectval itself was still a day or two’s march away. But these two groups were trying to slow the massive army coming their way. One made the mistake of taking the battle to a pass.
Olesm watched them vanish as the Gold-rank adventurers and Liscor’s Watch took them to pieces with 4th Company. So what if it was [Soldiers] versus [Guards]. Hectval had no idea of what Liscor’s Watch had been through! Liscorian [Guards] were trained to kill Rock Crabs.
As well, 4th Company was part of Liscor’s army. And their practice of layering Skill-buffs over their forces meant they turned their group of six thousand low-level [Warriors] and [Soldiers] and the Watch into a superior fighting force.
Olesm took 1,600 more prisoners; once the momentum shifted, Hectval’s forces just surrendered. It was astonishingly easy. Even so—after the second battle, Menolit jogged over to Olesm.
“Olesm. I need a word.”
“What? Bevussa, tell them to halt while we scout ahead. Do you have anyone in your group who knows how to fortify? Get Earlia to tell the others to do it…move the supplies up and feed everyone!”
Olesm was cursing. Menolit, the [Veteran], looked at Olesm seriously. He said the last thing Olesm expected him to.
“Olesm. We should retreat.”
The [Strategist] stared at Menolit.
“Retreat? We have more forces than Hectval’s entire army!”
He’d seen the reports. Hectval’s entire army should have been around 9,000, including the Watch. A smaller fighting force—but then, their army stayed in the city. And, Olesm was realizing, that might not count conscripts only full-time [Soldiers]. And besides! He had 4th Company, Gold-ranks! And the Watch.
Menolit looked Olesm in the eye. The Drake was no less angry as he shifted his severed tail, the other half lost in battle. No less distraught. But he saw more clearly than Olesm.
“This is a bad idea, Olesm. We should stop now. This isn’t an army.”
He gestured at the disordered ranks of soldiers. Soldiers, not [Soldiers]. Yes, every Liscorian citizen had the class. But…
“What are you talking about? We have the Watch! We have Gold-rank adventurers.”
“Yeah. They’re the ones who’ve been taking these battles. But most of the fighters here haven’t ever been trained to fight in formation. They hit each other, they bunch up—they can’t follow commands. There’s more to an army than levels or numbers. Training, drilling together matters. You give the order to fall back and they won’t.”
Olesm knew Menolit was right. The [Veteran] had seen more battles than he had. Olesm looked around. He snarled.
“What do we do, then? Just leave? Let them get away with…?”
The older Drake was silent. Olesm turned on him—and he saw the spear vibrating in Menolit’s claws. But all the [Veteran] said was—
“I’m not in command, Strategist. But now I think of it—we didn’t take supplies. We just grabbed potions, food—there’s no command structure. We didn’t even take the magic door.”
Olesm looked at him. Wavering. But again—he heard a snapped report.
“Moore and the forces with him are moving up!”
“What? Tell him to wait!”
“He’s not listening to anyone!”
Olesm whirled his horse, cursing. And he began to feel his command slip. He could either pull them back. Or…he looked ahead, down the road, towards the hills.
The war in the foothills began to intensify as elements of Liscor’s army and Hectval’s met past the Bloodfields.
Geneva Scala sat in her office, trying to understand. Someone was writing [Messages] to her. The Selphid [Mage] was transcribing as fast as his hand could move. She was reading. Feeling her heart sink with every line.
She was talking to Joseph.
Not…‘Joseph’. But the real Joseph. Of course, she had suspected the previous conversations of having more than one person. Or…being someone else.
As it turned out, she and the others had been right. Paige looked up. Daly was chewing his lip, hard enough to cut into his cheek. Siri was shaking her head.
“An [Innkeeper]? I’ve heard of it. The Wandering Inn. Wasn’t that behind—all that fighting in Izril?”
The others looked at each other. Ken produced a journal. The [Diplomat] shook his head.
“I recall—this is Liscor, yes?”
Geneva read the panicked words. At first, she’d been busy administering the latest cure trial. But the insistency of the [Messages] had dragged her away from her work.
“Then—it has been on television before. At least…three times?”
Ken’s lips moved, consulting his notes. The Face Eater Moths. Events like the Wyvern attack. The others looked at him.
“It was her. She helped get the cure. And she’s…”
“Poisoned. Shot by six arrows. No—bolts. Unenchanted. Poison on the tips, unknown. Prevented healing potions—potions attempted multiple times to no effect. Chest, stomach wounds. One bolt removed. She hemorrhaged out. Death from immediate exsanguination within less than four minutes before a [Healer] could arrive.”
Geneva was making notes. She had yet to come up with a system to note magical and other ailments. She wished she had a picture. But this was enough of an image.
“We use poison. That’s—you don’t survive that.”
Siri murmured. Daly shook his head.
“They must have got an artery.”
“Yes. If I was on the scene—”
If she was there, it would still have been three-to-one odds that…Geneva checked the messages.
Erin Solstice. That Erin Solstice, a young woman from her world died.
The [Doctor] clenched her hand. She could have stopped the blood loss! If she had transfusions on hand? She’d reverse those odds.
Idiots. Idiots, who trust to magic potions and never learned the basics of medicine! She wanted to say that. The convenience had crippled the advancement of science in this world.
They’d tried. Staunch the bleeding—but they needed non-magical solutions, not Skills from a [Healer] who might not be there in time. A single, non-magical clotting agent might have saved her. A blood bag?
“It says—it says she is alive, Geneva. How is that possible?”
Aiko was reading the desperate [Messages] over Geneva’s shoulder. The [Doctor] leaned her head onto her hands.
“…They froze her, Aiko.”
“What, like Walt Disney?”
The Selphid looked puzzled. A reference from their world, from their time. Geneva shook her head. She tasted bile in her mouth. That was what they were asking her for. A desperate scrawl.
—[Alchemist] working on the antidote for the poison. How do we bring her back?
“Tell them…tell them to list where she is. Any danger of the cor—the body being disturbed? What temperature is the freeze? How fast was it—”
Geneva stopped. The [Mage] looked at her curiously. She threw down the quill she was writing the reply with.
“No. What am I doing? She’s already dead. She’s dead. Oh my god. They—they don’t know about cryonics. Just what they saw on television. In the movies.”
The other members of the United Nations company looked at her in shock. Geneva wanted to throw up.
“But they froze her. Geneva—”
“I know. It was all they could think of.”
Those poor kids. Those—the [Doctor] realized no one else understood. She raised her head and looked around. Daly was the first person whose eyes she met.
“Cryogenics is not a medical field, Daly. We’re experimenting with it. But it’s not known medicine. Not to me.”
“But we’ve done it. We freeze people like—”
“Not Walt Disney. That’s a myth. And yes, we’ve frozen people. But Daly, it’s an idea. No one has ever, and I mean, ever been resurrected from being frozen except for embryos! And a human being is infinitely more—”
The penny dropped. Paige murmured.
“Oh no. You don’t mean—”
“If we brought her to the best medical facility on Earth with an unlimited budget—I’d expect us to fail with our current technology. I—she’s dead. They just froze her solid.”
Geneva did not want to tell them that. But she had to.
Geneva to Joseph. I am sorry to say this. But cryonic preservation is closer to myth than reality. No one has ever been brought back from being frozen. It may not be possible. Certainly with our level of technology. And if Erin Solstice is dead, the likelihood of her becoming undead is extreme. I repeat—
Erin is alive!
The words scratched themselves across the paper as the [Mage] wrote, unconsciously copying the style and force of the words. Geneva saw the parchment tear a bit. She looked down. Then her eyes widened.
[Detect Life]? [Detect Death]?
There was a spell like—
She knocked her chair over, leaning on the paper.
“Paige. Get me this spell. I need it to be learned. Now!”
The [Blackpowder Engineer] stared at Geneva. But then she noted down the spell. The Selphid looked confused. Idis was just as perplexed.
“What’s the big deal, Geneva? Selphid [Mages] know both spells. Only us and [Necromancers], but—”
“You know the spell? And you don’t—”
The others stared at her. Geneva hesitated. Idis formed the reply.
“Talking to Okasha, sorry.”
They nodded. Geneva took the moment to just—scream. Internally. No one understood. Any medical practitioner would.
There was a…spell? A spell that told you with one hundred percent accuracy if someone was alive or dead?
Employ it in every ER room in the world! Have it tell you the instant a patient was gone. Geneva didn’t believe it herself. What if someone was dead—but they were brought back? Cases where they were in the body bag and they woke up?
Would it tell the truth then? If so? It was a terrible spell. A necessary spell. One that took the uncertainty out of those moments.
Geneva Scala had never hated anything more than that spell. Magic that took away uncertainty, and thus, hope.
As a [Doctor], she needed it. And she would test it to make sure it was true.
But it changed…she sat back down, slowly. It changed the problem. Suddenly, she was not breaking the news to someone in denial. She was thinking.
Assume that Erin Solstice was brain-dead. Functions of life ceased. Of course—she had been frozen. But quickly. You couldn’t ask for a faster freeze considering the conditions, according to the scrawled replies.
And also—assume that potions didn’t work. Skills?
“She is not alive. So any Skill meant for a living body would fail.”
Rules of a game. Some of the others were nodding. Geneva began making notes. And then stopped.
This was insane. Cryonics was something beyond the cutting edge of medicine back home. How was she supposed to deal with it?
When they warmed her up, she’d die. The water in her cells had surely expanded, which meant if you brought her back to life she died from the damage to—everything. You couldn’t just freeze and unfreeze something.
Magic. Magic had to bridge the places where science was insufficient. And yet—
“Healing potions did not work when applied to the corpse? Of course not. And we have to assume poison is still present…”
She was trying to come up with an answer. The others waited as Geneva wrote, piecing out her thoughts.
First. You’d need the antidote. For the patient—Erin. She would die either way or be unable to be healed. That was simplest, most obvious. But you’d have to…apply it in her corpse-state? If Geneva were there, she might try a surgery on the corpse if you could…preserve it while warm? But bacteria, cell damage—
Some way of applying the antidote while the corpse was preserved? Body. No—person. She was not dead.
Madness. Geneva wrote on.
You needed a way of warming the body without warming it. As well as reverse the damage the freezing had caused. Insanity.
But…let’s say you managed to do that. Warm the body without destroying it. Then you had a chance.
“Some kind of—of false-life. A ventricular assist device. If they are alive, the key is pumping the potion around the bloodstream.”
Yet a healing potion wouldn’t work. So—a superior potion. Geneva went for her notes.
“They need a Potion of Regeneration.”
Idis made a sound. Daly stirred.
“What’s the difference, Geneva?”
“Highest-grade alchemy items work on living and non-living matter, Daly. I’ve consulted with [Healers]—they shared their notes during the Yellow Rivers pandemic. Some potions ignore poison. They’d need that. If only to reverse the freezing damage. Apply that. Remove the poison. Find out how to warm her—and then restart her heart and…”
All this while keeping her body safe. They had a what, a [Field of Preservation]? Did that work on someone who was neither alive nor dead? She had to be kept frozen.
The [Doctor] didn’t know. This sounded like a fairytale. But that’s what it was. An experimental procedure neither world had ever envisioned before. And they needed one more thing.
A [Doctor]. Geneva looked at the Selphid.
“I’m ready to send.”
She began writing her reply. Stopping every few seconds to jot down more notes. It was insanity. But…she looked at the name again.
Erin Solstice. But for her, the Yellow Rivers disease would still be spreading without a cure. Geneva shook her head.
…hypothetical procedure would be made up of many parts. At least one ‘Relic-class’ potion or spell capable of restoring inanimate organic matter to a healthy state. Please advise me of your location and the condition of the patient.
The words poured in suddenly. Lyonette gasped in physical relief.
Geneva was hedging her words, every few lines writing ‘hypothetically’, or ‘in theory’. She kept stressing that you couldn’t just unfreeze someone. There was no medical basis for this.
And yet. It was like Visma’s discovery. Numbtongue’s revelation.
Hope. And with it, all the fear in the world. The [Doctor] did not have all the answers. But she had clues. Clues to a puzzle.
Suddenly, The Wandering Inn felt alive again. It was a painful life. Every step, Lyonette wanted to scream. To wake back up. To go back in time and tell Montressa to put up a barrier! To tell Bezale to cast a spell!
Throw a [Fireball] at them. Have Olesm blast them from the walls! Lyonette—why hadn’t she stopped Numbtongue? No, why hadn’t she checked for Erin?
She’d been so concerned with Mrsha, and Mrsha had been in the garden.
Guilt flooded the [Princess]. Unreasonable guilt. Overwhelming. She heard Joseph babbling to Rose and Kevin.
“Write it down! Potions! Can Saliss make a Potion of Regeneration?”
No. Lyonette knew that was beyond even the [Alchemist]. She’d heard of his Potion of Youth—and that was a far cry from the real thing, which actually reversed your age permanently. A draught that took twenty years off. If anyone had something like that, it was under lock and key in a treasury. A Terandrian kingdom might…Calanfer?
She didn’t know. Her father was cagey about their remaining treasures. As for producing something like that, either it was some secret artisan or no one had done it.
“She is not dead. She is not dead.”
A voice amid the others. Lyonette looked around. Bird was rocking back and forth on the floor.
The other Antinium were standing, holding each other. Pawn, Belgrade, Garry—Bird looked around.
“She is not dead.”
“Then she must be brought back.”
Yellow Splatters said this like a fact. The others nodded. Whatever the cost. Suddenly—the Antinium saw a light in the abyss they had been plunged into.
“My Skills did not work.”
It was a whisper from Belgrade. Garry looked at the others.
“Yes. If she is alive—then—what about it?”
The other Antinium stirred. Garry’s antennae twitched. Lyonette saw their heads turn. And then she heard a whisper.
“The Rite of Anastases.”
“But she is not Antinium.”
Perhaps. Could it be done? Garry ran. Bird followed. Pawn just remained, with Belgrade.
“She is alive. She is alive. She is dead. She is neither. They killed her, Belgrade. They. kILLeD hEr.”
“Pawn. Be calm. You must be calm.”
The [Priest] shook as Lyonette ran over. She threw her arms around him and he relaxed—or at least stopped shaking. But his grief and numb despair was changing.
To fury. And as Lyonette’s shock faded—she felt a cold pit in her stomach. She hugged Pawn, trying to stave it off. But the truth was that Geneva wasn’t certain. Erin was not…dead.
But how did you bring her back? Suddenly, a mountain as tall as the High Passes. And worse—Lyonette realized something else.
The others didn’t even know.
Maviola El rode as fast as she could after the army of Liscor. Her mount quaffed another potion thirstily, and the water. But she pushed the stallion as hard as she could.
She came across signs of battle. Blood on the ground, broken earth. She looked ahead. Faster. Faster, she had to be faster!
The true nature of war among Drake cities unveiled itself to Olesm piece by piece. And he realized—the surrenders were another weapon.
Hectval’s forces met Liscor’s. The armies were spread about the hills, fighting in clumps. Olesm was trying to draw them back together.
But Menolit was right. This was no cohesive army. It was bits and pieces, driven forwards solely by rage. Groups ignored his orders, charging the enemy. Taking poor engagements, fighting without formation.
Even so—they won. Olesm counted eight pitched battles, six of which had gone Liscor’s way. The Drake [Soldiers] weren’t the highest-level. Nor were they a match for Gold-ranks. The sheer fury of Liscor’s citizenry.
Embria’s 4th had split up to apply their Skills to the other parts of the scattered army, fighting over a few miles of ground as they advanced, leaving the road and heading towards Hectval. The south of Izril proper lay down the road. But Hectval was in the hills, along the High Passes.
Another battle, won. Olesm was in charge of this one. [Instantaneous Barrage]. His Level 30 Skill had doubled the volley of arrows, striking the Hectval troops and forcing their surrender as Jeiss, one of Liscor’s best [Swordsmen], led the vanguard and routed the Drakes.
Yet the victory and rush of satisfaction was short lived. Half the Drakes were dead. But from the other half, Olesm heard the familiar refrain again.
“Yield! We yield! Surrender!”
He bared his teeth. They surrendered. And expected to be treated like prisoners of war, wounds treated. They demanded it.
“Tell Keldrass’ group to get back here!”
He snapped at Bevussa. She took wing, cursing. Olesm looked at the latest group of Drakes.
“You won’t win this war! Enjoy it while it lasts, Liscor!”
The [Commander] was glowering at the soldiers. Olesm strode over to him, dismounting from his horse.
“Where is Hectval’s army?”
“I don’t have to answer that.”
The [Commander] folded his arms. Olesm stared at him.
“Yes I have. I’m a prisoner of war.”
He said that like it was a shield. Olesm looked at him.
One of the Gnolls howled. They were bloody, healing wounds from the battle. Liscor’s people—Esthelm’s—the Drake just sneered at them.
“You savages. You’re not a proper Drake city. The Scalespeaker was right. Marching with Humans? I half-expected a Gnoll commander. Well—are you going to take our surrender or not?”
He stared at Olesm. He wanted Olesm to formally accept. The Drake looked at the [Commander].
The blue-scaled [Strategist]’s first punch knocked the burlier Drake back a step. The second one made him stumble. The [Commander] clutched at his bleeding snout.
“You dare hit a pr—”
Olesm hit him again. This time he felt something crunch. The Drake recoiled. He raised his claws—Olesm kicked him in the knee with a boot. The other Drake went down, swearing. He was about to jump up with murder in his eyes when Olesm began stomping on his face.
Menolit and Captain Vell dragged Olesm off the [Commander]. The Hectval Drakes were staring. They would have gone to the rescue of their [Commander]—but the other soldiers had weapons and were ready to dice them.
“Stop! He’s a prisoner of war!”
Olesm spat. The [Commander] was lying on the ground, unmoving. Olesm looked behind him. Prisoners! Hectval had attacked Liscor’s army because they had to escort the damn prisoners of war! He was sure they were [Scrying] their captives.
It was so clever. So stupid. So—he raised a bloody boot and the others yanked him back.
One of the Hectval [Soldiers] said, looking shaken. He flinched as he saw a Drake aim a bow at him.
“Shut up. You don’t deserve to be made prisoners. You—do you even know what you’ve done?”
The Hectval Drakes looked at each other. They slowly shook their heads.
“You killed her! Your damn ambush squads! Erin Solstice! The [Innkeeper] of The Wandering Inn!”
One of the Drakes just looked blank. Another snorted.
“A Human? One Human? You’re all…”
His tongue stopped wagging as he stared at the [Commander]. At the bows suddenly aimed at his chest.
“Hold your fire!”
Vell was shouting at the people with bows. Olesm was breathing hard.
He looked at the surrendered prisoners. Shook his head.
“Put them with the others. Someone heal this—get him out of my sight!”
Some people dragged the [Commander] off. One of the [Healers] kicked him once, then dropped a potion on his chest.
“Olesm, this is going too far. There are rules of engagement—”
“I don’t recall signing a treaty, Captain Vell! Regroup! Regroup! Get Keldrass back here! Where’s Moore?”
“Still fighting. Strategist—”
Menolit looked at the Drake. Olesm stared ahead. His jaw worked. He looked at the prisoners, swore, and raised a claw.
The [Veteran]’s eyes widened. He almost said ‘are you sure?’ But he didn’t want to change Olesm’s mind.
“What? We have them on the run!”
An angry Gnoll bellowed. Olesm swung around.
“We can’t keep doing this! The prisoners are slowing us down! Either we let them go—or execute them! Either way, we’re marching too slowly. Tell Moore to disengage once the enemy flees and get back here!”
Menolit was right. Grudgingly, Olesm turned his horse. Take the prisoners. Head back. Menolit murmured a silent ‘thank you’ as Olesm spoke into the speaking stone and word was relayed across the different groups.
Then came Bevussa.
“Olesm. Moore’s marching ahead.”
“What? I just told him to—”
“So is Umbral’s group! They’re out for blood! They’re going all the way to Hectval’s walls!”
“I gave them an order! We can’t take an entire city! Get them back here!”
Too late. Olesm heard distant fighting. And worse—he saw more elements of his army marching ahead. They had heard him.
They weren’t listening.
Blood. Blood for the [Innkeeper]. For revenge. Menolit looked at Olesm.
“Do we leave them? This is a bad idea, Olesm—”
The [Strategist] hesitated for a moment. Then he cursed and began shouting.
“We’ll catch them and drag them back if we have to! Form up and advance! Archers in the center! There!”
Onwards. Menolit’s warning lay forgotten as Olesm advanced. He caught up to Moore, the others, trying to turn them back.
But the [Strategist] realized—he had lost control. The fury in the other groups had not abated.
Hectval had not yet bled nearly enough. These—these were just skirmishes. The prisoners began to lag behind the furious advance of the main force.
Camouflaged [Scouts] identified Liscor’s advance. They noted number, composition, and location. Two more armies began to creep into position.
A terrible realization struck Lyonette. It was simple, compact, and she realized she had never had to do it before.
Tell friends. Tell family. Tell…anyone…that Erin Solstice was dead.
Or…injured. Mortally injured? Held in stasis? How did you even say it?
How did you tell someone…? And why had Lyonette never done it? The answer was simple. It had always been Erin.
Or the news had come to the inn. Of all the duties the [Innkeeper] had ever taken on—Lyonette wished she knew how to say it. Because she had realized.
Geneva Scala had not known Erin was dead. Was—that anything had even happened. Pallass had known, and Esthelm, and Liscor and Celum and Invrisil because all those cities had been alerted when they were trying to save her.
But the others didn’t know. They had no idea.
Ilvriss. Krshia? Griffon Hunt. The [Emperor]. The Players of Celum, on their way to Riverfarm already. Klbkch.
The Horns of Hammerad.
The duty of notifying them fell to Lyonette. She did not want to. It would make it even realer. It would hurt even more. Her failure.
Stop killing them, Bird.
The [Princess] felt sick. How was—how—
Mrsha was listening to Montressa, Bezale, and Palt speaking with Viceria and Falene.
“You’ve never heard of any spells? Potions?”
“[Restoration]. The Healer of Tenbault—but even Gold-rank adventurers struggle to get healing from her. Beyond that? It’s the upper floors.”
“It always is.”
Mrsha was lying, shivering. But listening with intensity. She’d…thrown up. Eaten two slices of pizza, and then been physically ill. Lyonette had wrapped her in a blanket.
Everything was wrong. Only the words kept Lyonette moving.
Not dead. She was not dead. Lyonette stumbled towards the magic door, for the Mage’s Guild. Then she remembered Bezale was here.
She turned back. One of the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings sat back down. Lyonette looked at him.
“I’m staying here.”
He nodded. Hatless. She felt as blank as his face. She walked over to Bezale. But what did you write?
Paper. Quill. Ink. Lyonette found herself sitting at the table. She tried to write.
Erin Solstice is dead.
No, erase that. Scratch it out. It was not true.
But it was true. As good as. How was she supposed to say it?
Erin Solstice is dead.
Dear Horns of Hammerad,
I am writing to you to convey ill tidings—
What was she writing? At this moment, all the eloquence of Calanfer felt worthless, hollow. Lyonette crossed it all out. Tried again.
To the Horns of Hammerad.
Ceria. Yvlon. Pisces?
Was she going to write to each one? Lyonette tried Ilvriss. It was—easier. He had been here long. But it wasn’t the same as the Horns.
To Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar from Lyonette of The Wandering Inn,
I regret to—
I regret. Lyonette stared at the words. I. Regret. She wrote again, the words coming from her.
Erin is dead. She’s not dead. But she’s dead. They say they might be able to heal her. But no one knows. She’s dead. They shot her. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have stopped Bird. I should have stopped Numbtongue.
This is all my fault.
This is all my fault.
Erin Solstice is dead.
She crossed out the words. And tried again.
Olesm listened as Bevussa finally spotted Hectval’s main army.
“Ten thousand marching at us, Olesm!”
“They must have conscripted a large number of civilians. Gnolls?”
“Nearly a third.”
“So they’re not [Soldiers]. Tell the others to fall back! Fall back! This is not a good idea!”
The Drake stared ahead at the rocky landscape. Hectval was marching downhill. Liscor’s army was—he looked around.
Moore didn’t even turn his head. Olesm felt a pit in his stomach.
“They’re going to advance right into the army. Grab Moore!”
“Grab him? You nuts?”
The panting City Runner pointed at the half-Giant. Olesm cursed. He’d chased Moore and the other forces rather than let them fight alone. Damn them! Well then—he looked around.
“It’s a fight then! We’ll have to envelop them—tell Moore to hold his ground. Can he at least follow orders? We need to set up defensive lines! Recover! Break out stamina potions!”
“Who has them?”
Captain Vell looked blankly at him. Olesm felt the burning fury in his chest abate slightly.
“The—doesn’t Jeiss have the bags of holding?”
“He ran out ages ago. We’re down to just healing potions.”
“How many? Who else has bags of holding? Potions?”
“The soldiers are carrying some. But—”
Olesm looked around. He scowled as he saw Moore, barely held back from charging.
“Keldrass’ force is ready. Where’s Umbral’s command? Wait, there it is. Why is it not formed up?”
The soldiers were just milling about. Standing, sitting. Ready for battle but nothing resembling a line. Olesm looked for Umbral, the appointed head of the military from Esthelm. Vell shook her head.
“No clue. Strategist—what’s our plan of attack?”
“You’ll reinforce this group, Captain Vell. I want your squad to hit targets—each group will advance and flank. Keldrass on the left—Menolit on the right. Bevussa and the cavalry will hit the [Mages].”
“We don’t have any [Commanders] besides Embria! She’s got the vanguard.”
“Yes sir. Only—”
“Umbral! Where’s Umbral!”
Olesm bellowed. There was no chain of command here. Heads turned. He heard the shout repeated, and then die. Frustrated, Olesm turned.
“And where are those prisoners? What happened to them?”
“They fell behind. Strategist—”
Olesm felt something draining out of him. His anger. He felt…tired. Uneasy. Very uneasy. Hectval’s army was coming their way. He looked around. Trying to conjure the fury of only a day and a half ago.
Erin was dead. Rage! Rage until Hectval was…
The fury was still there. It had never left Moore, the others. But something was hitting him. His conscience. Command.
This was a mistake. Menolit was glancing at Olesm from his spot. The [Strategist] knew it. But he’d failed to turn the army. He wasn’t a [General].
And they weren’t listening to their [Strategist]. At least, not Moore and nearly half the army.
Ancestors. What was he doing? Olesm’s vision cleared for a minute. Why were they fighting uphill? On Hectval’s territory? Where were the prisoners?
“Vell—take your squad and find out what happened to the prisoner train. Now. All forces! Fall back to that position! There!”
Olesm pointed to a more defensible spot, where a natural ridgeline would give them cover on one side. The army heard him shouting. His group and two more began to move.
Moore refused to budge. So did the angriest group, which had fought forwards. Olesm bellowed at them, digging his heels into the horse’s side.
“Moore! Fall back! We’ll fight them there! There! Get moving or you’ll be out there alone!”
The Drake’s furious scream was his breaking patience. It had already been broken, but this was desperation.
The half-Giant’s inarticulate roar was his only answer. Olesm stared as the rest of the army fell back and Moore’s group began to trickle backwards. Slowly, reluctantly.
And then? Someone ran up to him, panting. Olesm saw a big man with a beard, holding a sword and wearing ill-fitting chainmail.
“I’m—I’m from Umbral’s group. I’m in charge. You wanted me?”
“I wanted Umbral. Who in the name of Rhir’s hells are you?”
“Timbor. Timbor Parithad.”
Olesm stared. The…[Innkeeper] from Celum? He felt something lurch in his stomach.
“Why are you in charge? Where’s Umbral?”
The hatred eating away at Olesm turned into sickness in his belly. Umbral? He was the person whom Erin had met on her way back from Celum. He had visited the inn.
“How? Just like that?”
“He was fighting. And we were attacking them—a crossbow bolt got him. Poisoned.”
Olesm stared. Timbor looked around. He looked as ill as Olesm.
“No one was moving them. So I started giving orders—what are we doing?”
“Falling back. Get your people—get them into position.”
Timbor nodded. And suddenly—it seized Olesm. He looked around.
“Casualties. How many have we lost?”
No one knew. Someone called out the number.
“We lost a hundred in the first battle. Less in the second—”
A hundred? A hundred of Liscor’s citizens? No—they came from every city. A hundred of Erin’s friends? Her guests? Had Olesm known them? Or were they just people who had admired—
A sudden horror stole over Olesm. What was he doing? Sudden, icy panic seized him.
He was getting them killed. And this—he looked around the sloping ground again.
“Where are the prisoners? Vell! Move back! Fall back further, Ancestors damn it!”
He bellowed. You fool! He realized—they might not have anticipated this. But that was what Hectval had been doing. The surrendering prisoners—who surrendered too easily, even for [Soldiers]—the ambush squads—they wanted a fight on their terms. It wasn’t just Hectval! It was—
Warhorns began to blare from the west. Olesm looked up. He saw, emerging from cover, armored Drakes, surging down the hill. Then a horn blast from the right.
“Magical spells incoming! Olesm—we were tricked! They have illusion spells! They were hiding—”
Bevussa dove out of the sky. Olesm saw her squad diving with her. And behind her came more fliers. But not the two from Liscor.
Oldblood Drakes. Nearly eighty of them between all three armies.
Three armies. Olesm looked up as the Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem alliance sprang their trap. Bolts and arrows began raining down on the flanked army as a force larger than theirs pressed them from all sides. And then it was blood and death.
Was this what Erin wanted?
“We have numbers on them.”
“Only with conscripts. We didn’t expect this army. Drisshia and Luldem only committed two thousand. Each. The rest are getting into position.”
“So? They’re being pressed into the rock.”
The [General] in charge of Hectval’s armies snorted. He watched from the center of his army as the slow advance—supplemented by magic and ranged fire—began to press down on Liscor’s army.
They really had been steaming mad. They’d advanced—wiped out a number of the forces calculated to attack and fall back. That would hurt Hectval. But the prisoners were on the verge of being recovered. And then Liscor would be hemmed in from all sides.
“Fools. We’ll take the bulk of the army hostage. Prisoners of war—but let’s bleed them first. Each Hectval Drake who died—two of Liscor’s dies!”
His army cheered him. The [General] nodded to the [High Mage] leader and raised a colored flag. He received a flag-response too.
“Advancing. For the Alliance!”
The Gnoll [Conscripts] moved down the hill first. The army couldn’t even pull back from the pass, they were that disorganized. They were soon fighting on three sides as the ranks of Hectval’s troops supplemented by the heavy infantry and [Mages] battered them. The [General] saw a [Strategist]—a single [Strategist]—desperately fighting. A group of Gnolls sped backwards from a charging group of riders.
“Not bad. But he’s no Sserys. Mark that target. I want him alive. Now. Grind them down.”
The day had been going so well. The week. The month was acceptable. The year really bad as a whole.
But it had been fine, even if he had not known it was so. Up until the letter.
The Wall Lord of Salazsar sat on his desk. He read it again. At the same time the half-Elf [Cryomancer] and the [Necromancer] cried out as if struck.
At the same time the [Emperor] was told, and summoned Griffon Hunt. It came from Liscor. Lyonette.
To Friends of The Wandering Inn.
Erin Solstice has been mortally wounded in an attack by a Drake raiding party from the City of Hectval. She was struck by poisoned arrows.
She was unable to be healed. Her heart stopped. However, her body was frozen. Preserved.
Erin is not dead. Nor is she alive. I am writing to you to inform you of this. And to ask for your help. If you know of anything, have anything that can bring back someone whose heart is stopped and is frozen, please reply immediately.
She is not dead. [Detect Death] does not work on her. Nor [Detect Life]. She is currently resting in the [Garden of Sanctuary] in The Wandering Inn. More news about a way to revive her will be sent.
The Wall Lord read it again. He felt like someone had removed the top of his head. As he had when Periss…
But her? He imagined the laughing young woman again, leaning on the table.
“Hey Ilvriss. Ilvriss! Try this mayo. Good, huh? Fancy shmancy enough for you?”
It seemed inconceivable that she would die. Not die? He read it again.
Heart stopped. Frozen.
Dead. Revive someone with…? The Wall Lord shook his head. He read the lines once more, pausing on silly details.
‘I am writing to you to inform you of this.’ What a redundant line. Yet—the shaking words spoke to the young woman’s state of mind.
The Wall Lord’s head bowed. Hectval? He didn’t even know where it was on the map.
“Which fools took away one of the greatest assets Izril had? Which city burns?”
The Wall Lord of Salazsar’s claws tightened. Call for the armies! For vengeance! For—
He caught himself. Then he just sat there.
Ilvriss sat. How long he could not say. Then he rose. He walked out of his office. Towards the adjoining one.
The Gnoll started as he saw Ilvriss standing in the doorway. He rose from his desk.
“Ilvriss? What’s the matter? You look—”
The Wall Lord passed a hand over his face. He looked past Alrric. He shook his head.
“A friend. A friend—no. Alrric. Please send word. I am headed to Salazsar’s war room. Have the First Strategist of Salazsar meet me, and a scrying orb found. Find me…Hectval.”
The Gnoll [Administrator] hesitated. He saw Ilvriss turn.
“To what end, Wall Lord?”
“To look upon the greatest fools of Izril, Alrric. The enemies of the Walled Cities.”
The door slowly closed. Ilvriss walked down the hall. He stopped and leaned on a doorway. Then continued on. Simply that.
As if he’d been stabbed.
“Liscor is in trouble. Grand Strategist. Grand Strategist?”
Chaldion ignored the younger [Strategist]’s commentary. He was standing in the war room of Pallass. Just watching the battle. Someone was murmuring to him.
“Pallass has a treaty with the Hectval Alliance. We cannot make war on them, Grand Strategist.”
“I know that. I oversaw the last conflict and peace settlement.”
The Grand Strategist murmured. He half-turned his head.
“Besides which. There’s no point. Isn’t that right, Grimalkin?”
The [Sinew Magus] of Pallass sat there. He looked at the orb. Olesm was a distant point in the milling armies.
“So you’ll allow them to be captured. Killed, Grand Strategist?”
“Compared to involving Pallass and breaking our treaties? Yes. Hectval is a Drake city. This is a Drake war, to them. They will allow the surrender of Liscor’s army.”
Chaldion murmured. He removed his gemstone eye. Looked at it. He placed the sapphire in the box, and pulled out another. He did not want the magic of that eye. He put another in, and replaced his eye patch.
“Erin Solstice is dead.”
“I was just informed—”
“Pallass could not bring her back. Nor Saliss. She is dead. There it ends. Focus on the other children, [Sinew Magus]. Hectval’s unwise retaliation for the insult has done enough damage. This matter is Liscor’s.”
Chaldion watched. If it had been a case of Hectval’s army coming to kill Erin Solstice—but too late. Done was done. He sat there.
“Yes, Grand Strategist?”
“Inform the other cities that Pallass is severing diplomatic links with the Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem alliance. We will hold to our contract. But we will not be renewing it. I will write that into my will for my successor.”
“Yes, Grand Strategist.”
Chaldion closed his good eye. Then he watched.
The alliance of three cities pinned Liscor’s. From all sides they attacked the forces from Liscor. Pinned them down with spells, used heavy infantry and attacked from all sides.
Ranks of Drake spears, commanded by real officers, fought in formation. Liscor’s army had few supplies. They’d been marching and fighting for nearly a day.
It was the perfect strategy. A classic enveloping formation—safe for the rear as of yet. Even in the skies, the uncontested Wings of Pallass had been beset.
Eighty Oldblood fliers were fighting them. Loosing arrows. On the ground, the massed infantry was being taken to pieces. Yes—Hectval had the edge in every conceivable way.
So…why were they failing to advance? The [General] of Hectval frowned through his spyglass.
“Move the vanguard up!”
“They’re stalled, [General]! The—”
“I see it!”
It was the high-level units in play. Flame burst from one side and Gnolls and Drakes ran screaming. The Flamewardens of Pallass exhaled and the [General] cursed as an entire swath of his army fell back.
“Get [Flameshield] on that group and move in! And bring down that half-Giant!”
The vanguard was fighting a group in the center. A giant figure was bellowing, swinging a quarterstaff as thick as a club around and refusing to retreat.
You ran into superior individuals like that all the time. The [General] just cursed the few units, like the annoying Garuda team. Liscor had bought Gold-ranks? So what? They died to superior numbers.
“Coat the arrows. Hit the half-Giant. Send in the Mithril Spears unit. Kill him and the lines crumble.”
The [General] gave the order. He watched as arrows were loaded and a group of Drakes armed with the expensive metal spear tips moved in.
“Moore! Fall back!”
The [Strategist] was amplifying his voice. The [General] just snorted. A foolish boy of a Drake.
He was keeping his army alive—rotating soldiers, fighting in good holding points and using his Skills to hold off the inevitable slaughter. But he’d walked the army into the trap. And this? How did you think sending a half-Giant, a walking target into the vanguard of your army would go?
Olesm had made a mistake. He had been so caught up in rage. He had done what Erin would never have wanted. He was supposed to be a [Strategist], but he had committed every blunder in his blinding fury.
And he had forgotten.
Tragedy did not prevent more tragedy. Rain loved company.
The arrows flew as the Drakes armed with gleaming spears closed in. The arrows fell, tangling, snapping and glancing off the [Armor of Thorns]. But some struck the half-Giant. He stumbled. A Drake [Spearman] lunged.
He saw the tip of the spear pierce the thick thorns. Go through the armor, into flesh. The other Drakes swarmed forwards.
Erin Solstice was dead. Hectval had taken her. And now—
A quarterstaff descended. The Drake’s helmet deformed. The remains of his head came out the sides of the bent metal.
The other Drakes stopped.
They looked up as a huge hand as large as their heads yanked the spear out of his side. A half-Giant turned.
Moore swung the quarterstaff. It sent Drakes flying. He brought it down again. A Drake raised the spear to block and the impact broke his arms. He screamed—Moore dragged him up and hurled him into the milling bodies. The other Drakes looked up.
“Worms! Maggots! You wretched things! You killed her! YOU KILLED HER. You will all die!”
The half-Giant lifted the staff again. Drakes backed up. A [Shieldbearer] Drake interposed himself.
The blow drove him into the ground. Moore grabbed another Drake and swung him so hard the arm snapped. The Drake went screaming. The half-Giant raised his staff.
[Pillar of Earth]!
A group of Drakes disappeared. Gnoll conscripts ran. The half-Giant rampaged forwards.
“Hold the line! Hold the line! Bring him d—”
The half-Giant stomped a fallen Drake. He lashed out with his staff and another Drake died. They died each time he struck them. But that was too slow. He roared and charged into them. His armor stabbed them as he crushed them against each other. They tried to stab him. Poisoned! He was poisoned—
The half-Giant’s mouth was open. He was still roaring. A ceaseless bellow of rage that never stopped. Another poisoned arrow struck him in the shoulder. But it was so small—
The [Captain] was screaming. He rose into the air—
Moore ripped his head off. He hurled both pieces into the ranks of Hectval’s soldiers. They looked up. And then began to flee.
Olesm stared. The half-Giant wasn’t stopping. The arrows—the elite Drake unit—both disappeared. Moore? Gentle Moore? More vines erupted from the ground, spearing bodies upon the thorns. Trapping others in the thorny foliage.
Ahead. Moore ignored everything. Heading straight into the body of Hectval’s army. Olesm had never seen something like that in person. Only once before.
It was like the wrath of Zamea of the Nomads of the Sky. Only—it was wrath.
Hectval’s army poured down on Liscor’s. Superior positioning! Superior numbers! Formation!
They burned. Keldrass exhaled again as the Flamewardens advanced. He brought a warhammer down, killing one of the enchanted Drakes. Another struck at him. A blow to the side, under his helmet—
The blow struck the gorget, bounced off. Another Drake took aim.
This time it went home. Through the eye socket! It—
Snapped. Burned to ash. The Heartflame Armor was raging. Keldrass inhaled. The blue flame engulfed the screaming Drakes.
The Flamewardens advanced, heedless of the fighting. To the left, Jeiss was fighting with the Watch. The [Swordsman] beheaded the third enemy [Swordsman].
“What are they doing? Stop their advance!”
The [General] couldn’t understand it. Liscor’s army was surrounded. But against all reason, groups were advancing into Hectval’s army. Throwing the lines into chaos, heedless of the danger. This wasn’t strategy! What was that [Strategist] thinking?
They were going to die. They were dying. And yet—the [General] saw one of the figures fall out of the sky.
Bevussa saw her friend fall. An arrow in his side. She looked around.
“They’re all around us!”
Issa cried out. The Oldblood fliers were too numerous. It was just the Wings of Pallass. Both Oldblood Drakes had been forced to land.
Or they were dead.
“Go after Zassil!”
Kin dove. Issa flew after her, covering her. Below—Moore was still roaring. Bevussa heard it in her ears.
She looked up and saw a wing of Oldblood Drakes flying at her. In a ‘V’ formation, like they were geese. No spatial awareness. They flew as if they were rooted to the ground.
Dozens upon dozens of them in the air. Bevussa had been cut twice in clashes. And yet—she looked around.
Hectval had made one mistake they couldn’t realize.
They had killed Erin Solstice.
The Garuda had eaten the Scaleguard Sandwich. She drew her shortsword and flew, like she had when the Wyverns attacked. She had fought in Pallass’ 2nd Army! Gold-rank Adventurer.
[Mach Wings]! [Sundering Slash]!
Thump. The Drisshia [High Mage]-[Commander] whirled. What was that? She’d been watching the fighting. Those irregulars in the lines of Hectval’s army were hard to target! This wasn’t as easy as she’d been assured.
“What was that s—”
Thump. The second Drake screamed before she hit the ground. The [High Mage] saw the falling body. The imp—
The Drake bounced off the cliff, falling, tumbling. The [High Mage] saw the colors of one of Drisshia’s fliers. She stared—saw the second body, which had crushed one of the [Mage] corps.
Then she looked up.
A third Drake fell, screaming, trailing blood. He tried to save himself.
But he only had one wing.
Above—the Garuda dove, unmatched by the slower, clumsier fliers. She slashed through another wing and dropped them. She didn’t bother with their armor. Didn’t trade blows.
A flier’s combat. The Drakes had been raised in a city filled with ground species. They weren’t Garuda, who flew as soon as their wings developed enough plumage.
“Dead gods. Strike that adventurer!”
The [High Mage] pointed. She aimed up—but the Garuda was already shooting at another group of fliers with bows.
Bows in the sky? They just hovered there, as if they were safe. Bevussa shrieked. She severed another wing as they cried out and scattered.
Zassil was dead. Olesm saw Bevussa tearing apart the sky. But it was happening.
They were killing Hectval’s forces. But they were dying.
“Enough. Stop. I didn’t want this.”
He whispered. He was pulling more forces back. But he realized—the enemy army was trying to encircle. Behind—Captain Vell’s squad. He’d gotten them killed! Embria’s 4th was embattled, holding an entire flank against the [Armored Soldiers] assailing them. But the regular fighters were too low-level. They would die. Erin’s friends. And when the prisoners were freed, they were going to be trapped on all sides—
“Menolit! Timbor! With me!”
He desperately bellowed as he turned to meet the threat he knew was coming. Olesm whirled his mount around. [Blades of Glory] had returned. He pointed. He saw a group coming up the road. Drakes—
Olesm lowered his blade. Captain Vell was racing towards him with all the forces he’d left with the prisoners. He stared at her. Blood was on her armor and blade.
“They sent a group to free the prisoners! They’re all free, I’m sorry, Strategist!”
“Then we have to retreat!”
“No—they’re on the run!”
“How? There have to be three, four times your number—”
“We got their leader! And they’re running from the fire things! The elementals!”
Olesm saw the burning figure appear in the distance. A towering being of pure flame was pursuing a group of fleeing prisoners and Hectval’s rescue team. She rode up towards him, a glowing blade in her hand.
Maviola El slowed her horse as she reached the pass. She looked ahead and cursed.
“Our rear is secure! I put a sea of flames at our backs! Now there is only this army!”
She was panting. Her riding clothes were bloodied in two places, and healed. She looked at Olesm.
“You colossal fool. What are you doing?”
Olesm looked at her.
“Maviola…? I’m so sorry. I led us into a trap—”
Olesm didn’t respond. Maviola looked around.
“Captain! Take your squad up and harass those [Mages]! Olesm—wake up!”
She drew alongside him. Her horse was panting. Olesm just shook his head.
“I’m a failure of a [Strategist]. I let my anger get the best of me—look. They’re getting killed.”
Jeiss’ momentum was slowing. The Flamewardens had run out of fire. The fliers were swarming around Bevussa. Maviola saw it all. She looked at Olesm. Then she slapped him.
It was a brisk blow. The Drake jerked. He felt himself wake up a bit. Maviola’s hand was scorching.
“What are you doing? Why have you pulled back like this? Advance! Why did you take those soldiers prisoner?”
“I—I couldn’t execute them!”
“So you decided to do exactly what they wanted? Stop playing their game, Olesm! I taught you more of war than that!”
The [Lady] snapped. Her eyes flashed. She looked around.
“This battle isn’t lost. Why is Moore alone? Advance! Forwards! You—advance after that half-Giant!”
She pointed to Menolit. The Drake swore.
He shouted and Drakes and Gnolls and Humans surged forwards. Olesm started.
“They’re going to die, Maviola!”
“This is war, Olesm. You know that! You have led men and women before! I have played games of strategy with you! Why are you holding back?”
She gripped his shoulder. Her hand left a smoldering imprint on his scales. This was not the time for the conversation. But she gripped him.
“Take the battle to them. Even if there is a cost—I did not come to help you retreat. Did you not swear to burn Hectval for Erin Solstice?”
The rage had cooled in Olesm. Now he flinched at Maviola’s words. Burn the city? The innocents? She looked at him. Maviola’s ire cooled, slightly.
“You have not wept. Nor are you as furious as you should be. Look. There!”
She pointed at Moore. The half-Giant roared his fury out. Unstoppable despite Hectval’s attempts to down him. Maviola shouted.
“That is how furious you should be! Did you not love Erin Solstice as much as the others? Where is your rage, Olesm?”
He shook at her words.
“I’m—afraid. Afraid of myself. I was about to execute those prisoners. I nearly killed a [Commander]—”
“So you did not weep? Did you shed a tear for Erin? Did you not feel the fury of her death?”
“She’s not dead—”
Maviola struck Olesm again. Then she put her hands on his cheeks. And they were cooler. Still warm. She looked into his eyes with her ember-orange ones.
“What are you doing, Olesm? Why are you suppressing your feelings? You are entitled to them. It is right to weep when terrible things happen. Men, women. Tears are natural. And so is rage. So is anger! Have you ever known me to hide my feelings?”
“No. Not you—”
He almost smiled. Her eyes fixed him. Maviola shook her head.
“Anyone. Olesm Swifttail, we all must feel emotion. Or else, what are we? Just shells of impartial thought? It is fine to weep. Fine to rage.”
“It terrifies me, though. What might I do? I hate them so much.”
The [Lady] shook her head. She looked past him, at Hectval’s army.
“Hate? Why do you say that as if it is such a wrong thing? Is there no one deserving of hate in this world? Did they not deserve it for what they did? We are no perfect people. Humans or Drakes. Hate them. Leave only room for your soul. But look at them, Olesm. What do you see?”
He looked. He saw an army from a foreign city. Who had started a war by killing someone he loved. Who had brought an army against his army. Who used surrender like a trick.
The [Strategist] felt it building in him. He looked back at her and realized. He had raged. And then feared for the people under his command.
…But that did nothing for the pain. Nothing for the fury, underlying it all.
Erin. He looked ahead. Hectval would never let them retreat. They would harry them back to Liscor, assail the city itself.
They thought this was a game of war. And the bodies were the score. Maviola El looked at Olesm.
“We’re still outnumbered. Flanked.”
“Oh, Olesm. You should have let the Earl join you. Or waited for me.”
The [Bannerlady]’s eyes glowed. She showed Olesm something she’d brought from Liscor.
A glowing mana stone. The [Lady] shook her head.
“I did not forget the supply line. Now—go.”
Olesm whirled. He felt the terrible rage building. This time—he didn’t try to suppress it. He raced through the ranks of bodies fighting the withdrawal.
“Turn! Turn around! 4th Company, to me! Timbor! Get me a door!”
The [Innkeeper] turned. Maviola tossed him the stone. She drew the Kaalblade. Olesm roared.
“For the Innkeeper of Liscor! Charge! For Liscor! To me! 4th Company to me!”
He stopped as the word went through the army. He pointed back at Timbor just once. The Drake spoke.
“Open that door. Summon the Black Tide.”
Then he plunged forwards. The army of Liscor followed, and Maviola El, holding a banner of fire aloft.
“What is he doing?”
[Strategists] watched. The Walled Cities were watching after Salazsar requested an immediate link to the battle. Had they heard him right?
“Did a [Strategist] of Liscor just summon—Pallass, confirm! We have to countermand—”
“Manus. Shut up.”
The Grand Strategist was watching. Liscor’s army surged across the ground, after the half-Giant and Menolit’s forces. The flanking forces were forgotten as they plunged towards Hectval’s army.
The Drakes had formed their famous defensive lines. But Liscor’s 4th Company was following the [Strategist] into the charge. And the [Bannerlady]—
She cut left as a roaring being of flame burst out of her horse’s flaming hoof prints. It dove at the enemy Drakes, burning them. Their weapons jabbed at it uselessly. Only a spell damaged the being of fire.
“The House of El!”
Maviola El cut left. Olesm was surging into the heart of the enemy army with 4th Company providing the tip of the spear. She supported him, using the flame elementals to burst past the lines of the Drakes.
Alone—she galloped behind the formations of Drakes. She saw their heads turning as their neat little rows of poised [Soldiers] turned. The Kaalblade ignited in her hand. She swept it down—
The glowing arc of magic beheaded Drakes as the [Lady] rode down the line of a battalion. The [Soldiers] didn’t notice her at first. How would an enemy [Rider] have gotten past them? They thought she was a messenger at first—
Then they saw the toppling heads as she held the Kaalblade out at head-height. Drakes screamed, throwing themselves down. Maviola hacked through a spear and half of a Drake’s head—
The artifact went dead. Cursing, she drew the spent mana stone and yanked another one out of her bag of holding. The blade ignited again, nearly taking off her fingers. The [Lady] swung it as she rode towards Olesm. Fire spouted in her wake, sowing more chaos in Hectval’s lines.
“They’re charging in! Burn them to pieces! [Fireball] volley! On my mark!”
The [High Mage] ignored the arrows bouncing off the barricades and the fighting around her mage group. She was aiming at the [Strategist]. She lifted her staff—heard a panicked shout.
“Where? They don’t have that many m—”
The bolt of lightning detonated overhead. The [Mages] flinched—another one struck from the skies. The [High Mage] turned.
“Enemy spellcaster! High-level! Blow them to bits!”
She pointed. The [Fireballs] soared, arcing far, far further than their normal range. They detonated—
And the force of the explosions was blocked. The fiery inferno raged helplessly against the barrier.
The [Aegiscaster] lowered her staff. Behind her, the spells sang again. The [Enchanter], Hedault, conjured a second bolt of lightning. But six struck the [Mage]’s shields.
Is that music I hear? The Drake heard a wail of sound. She didn’t say it though. She was raising her staff.
“Reform the barrier! [Barrier of—]”
Two arrows struck her in the neck and chest. An Antinium and a Hobgoblin lowered their bows. They began loosing arrows as the Hobgoblin behind them played, tears still in his eyes.
“I think I just saw Drisshia’s command go down!”
The Luldem commander was pushing into the unwise charge by Liscor’s army. Hectval’s forces were falling back, but they had left their flank open! Now, the heavy-armor regiment from Luldem was carving in.
The [Armor Commander] wasn’t oblivious, however. He saw the flashes of light. He turned—
“Reinforcements! 1st Axes! To the flanks! [Redepl—]”
The words stopped, strangled. The Drakes, turning, cried out. Suddenly—they saw.
A second force had emerged on their side of the battlefield. But not Drakes. Not Humans. Not Gnolls or any other species that belonged on Izril.
Black, beetle-like figures. Some small. Others large. Some had color on their bodies. Others—nothing.
Some had armor. Others, wings, hopping, gliding. But each form was alien.
The [Armor Commander] whispered. The Antinium—
Now the Walled Cities watched. Now Ilvriss watched with horror.
“The Black Tide is marching.”
“For this? For this war?”
Somewhere, the Queens were howling at each other. Why now? Xrn was pursuing the Antinium. Ordering them to stop. She had blocked off the tunnel.
“I gave you orders.”
Archer B21 spoke. Xrn stared at him. They were what?
“Reinforcements to Hectval at once!”
Az’kerash himself was staring. Not Belavierr, but his Chosen. More and more people, watching this battle no one had heard about.
He heard the discussion from his viewpoint in one of the war chambers. Manus wanted to send reinforcements. An aged voice replied.
“No. We will observe.”
“Grand Strategist, you are out of line!”
Dragonspeaker Luciva roared at the same time as the Serpentine Matriarch and the Sharkcaptain of Zeres. Chaldion ignored them.
His heart was beating as he watched the Antinium pouring towards Luldem’s forces. There were probably three thousand armored Drakes pivoting smoothly to meet…barely a thousand Antinium. Their flow had cut off—or the door was out of power. It must have been charged to send even that many this short distance.
“Be silent. That is an order, Dragonspeaker.”
Chaldion’s eye flashed. He looked around. The Grand Strategist of the Walled Cities met the gazes.
“This is the first battle between a major, conventional Antinium force and a Drake army since the Second Antinium Wars. We will watch.”
Three-to-one. And yet—Chaldion’s eyes focused.
He recognized the Antinium in front. Swinging the censer. And a few others. He consulted his notes.
Belgrade. Yellow Splatters. Purple Smiles. Chesacre. Thaina. And leading them, first forwards—
He was swinging the censer. But he was not inspiration. Not hope and healing here. Pawn was speaking as the Antinium marched. Arrows curved away from them as they advanced.
[A Leaf in the Storm]. And the [Holy Barrier] was blocking…everything. Luldem’s commander realized he had to advance. His Drakes were forming a perfect wall of steel.
“Elites to the front! Break their advance! Pikes! Drop! Axes in reserve!”
They were placed to destroy the Antinium. Soldiers and Workers would break on steel. But why the paint? The [Armor Commander] did not know.
Then heard something. A…voice?
Clicking. Staccato in places. But a living voice. His scales crawled. The Drakes stared.
They had never heard an Antinium speak.
But the one in front, with the censer, was speaking. It was just a Worker. But his voice—it tore at their earholes, a whisper and scream mixed together.
“I curse you. I curse you all!”
Curse? The Drakes checked themselves. [Mages] lifted staves—but they sensed no magic.
The [Priest] spoke on.
“I curse your cowardice. I curse your army. I curse your city and every stone upon which it stands. I curse your murder. I curse your names. I curse every breath you take, every step upon this ground. I curse your children, and your children’s children. I curse you to pain and death and starvation and grief. I curse your armor. I curse your blades. I curse your eyes and your love. I curse your food and your drink and your wells and your roofs to cave in.”
The voice ate into the [Armor Commander]’s head. He pointed.
The archers tried. But the arrows swerved. The voice was getting louder.
“I curse you by the [Innkeeper]. I curse you by the sky. I curse you by the light. I curse you by kindness. I curse you by sin. I curse you by Heaven. I curse you by darkness and the grave. I curse you by wrath. I curse you by hatred and rot and pestilence. I curse you by hell. I curse you by god—”
Ears ringing. The Drakes were flinching. The voice continued.
“I CURSE YOU TO DEATH. I CURSE YOU TO SUFFERING IN LIFE. I CURSE YOU TO LOSE ALL THINGS. I CURSE YOU UNTIL NOT ONE THING REMAINS IN YOUR HOMES. I CURSE YOU TO MADNESS. I CURSE YOU—”
“Kill them! Charge!”
The Drakes advanced out of formation. They had to kill that Antinium. They moved forwards, towards the thousand Antinium. They heard the chant stop.
The Drakes halted, losing their momentum. Relief—too late. The [Priest]’s mandibles opened. Wide. Wider. Then—he screamed.
It was a shriek without end. Without pause. Without rest. Without a trace of words or coherent thought in it. So chilling the Drakes shuddered. And then—the other Antinium opened their mandibles.
They all screamed. They came across the ground. The [Armor Commander] had never heard a sound like this. It sounded of Rhir’s hells. It sounded—
“Hold the line. Hold—”
His voice was lost. The Antinium surged at him. The [Priest] raised his staff. As if the censer was a flail. And his voice—
He had cursed them. Screamed at them. With words alone. Words, insufficient for the depth of his rage.
“The world ends! Death! Death! DEATH!”
Belgrade was screaming next to Pawn. The [Priest] looked at the Drakes as the first wave of Painted Soldiers neared the glittering pike tips. His voice dipped. He drew upon his hatred. His grief. The madness of Erin’s death.
The world split. Something peered out of the air. The [Armor Commander] turned his head.
A screaming thing appeared. Forming out of—it looked like a Worker. But it tore into the [Mages] to his left. The [Armor Commander]’s sword quivered in his hands.
“What did—what did—”
The first rank of Painted Soldiers hit the Drakes as another Aberration appeared, throwing itself forwards without heed of death or pain. Screaming.
“Hold your ground!”
The [Sergeant] was braced. The pikes were ready to impale the Antinium! They’d done this in the Second Antinium War. He saw the Antinium Soldiers charge into the pikes—
Snap. The thick haft of one of the pikes cracked as it struck the largest Soldier with yellow on its body. Another Soldier was impaled. It charged down the length of the pike—grabbed the [Pikewoman] and bit her face off.
The first line of Drakes disappeared. The Antinium didn’t stop! The [Sergeant] and the [Lineholder]s brought up their weapons.
A Drake roared. He blocked a Soldier’s charge. The Soldier, painted with little stars on his armor, stumbled. The Drake lifted his blade with a roar.
He swung—and the Soldier leaned around the blade. Blurring under it—the [Sergeant] stared as the [Shieldbearer]’s eyes widened.
The Soldier seized the Drake, grabbing both arms and wrenching them out. The Drake elite went down as the other two fists punched mercilessly. The Drake tried to move, fight back—the Soldier rose, red on his carapace.
Skills? The [Sergeant] whirled about. His sword rose—
[Flash Blade]! The light blinded the largest Soldier as it came at him. The [Sergeant] cut—
His blade dug in an inch into the other [Sergeant]’s armor and stopped. Yellow Splatters raised a fist. The Drake died. Yellow Splatter turned.
“Slaughter them all.”
Luldem’s lines broke. The [Mages] on the flanks were in retreat. Hectval’s army was falling back. But they weren’t done.
Olesm heard Menolit and the other leaders shouting. He was looking past them.
Hectval’s [General]. Olesm saw the dead and wounded.
“He’s making his lines stronger. So long as he lives—”
Maviola, panting, slowed her horse next to him. She nodded.
“He will fall on us if we retreat. Drake pride.”
Hectval’s army had held despite the charge. Despite the casualties. Oh, each line had broken, but the ones behind had forced them to turn and fight. Groups were surrendering—
Olesm stared at the [General].
“I have a plan. 4th Company.”
Embria came over, panting. She had a cut along her breastplate and looked like she’d been hit with some spell. But 4th Company was mostly intact.
“Your group will take on [Riders]. We’ll punch through that flank. There. Maviola, take command. Distract him.”
Olesm had spotted a place where the lines were thin—around a boulder. An eddy in the battlefield that revealed itself. Punch through there—and you’d be fighting through [Archers]. The Hectval [General] was just beyond.
Blood roared in Olesm’s head. He saw Maviola speaking. Forced himself to listen.
“I’ll go with you.”
“No! He’s afraid of you! Not me!”
It was true. The [General] was snarling orders from his position. He had dismissed Olesm, believing the momentum was all due to Maviola. And he was right. He was targeting her.
“Maviola! Watch out! Arrows!”
Embria whirled her spear up. Olesm saw bolts and arrows flying at—
The [Lady]’s hair and skin burned. The arrows and bolts caught fire and dropped out of the air, burning pieces of steel landing around her as the colorful fletching was incinerated.
Olesm breathed out. Maviola grinned at him.
“[Aura of Flame]. I do not trust to luck in my protection. Are you sure?”
She handed him something. Olesm stared at the artifact, wood and metal and crystal. A mana stone set in the hilt.
“My Kaalblade. The House of El’s blade. Use it.”
She pressed it into his claw. Then Maviola took up the burning banner. Just a piece of wood. She hoisted it into the air.
“To me, Liscor!”
The soldiers around her roared. Olesm wavered a moment. Then he saw a Gnoll push forwards in armor.
“We’ll guard her, Strategist!”
He saluted. A Drake with a shield took the flank, watching for enemies that pierced the fighting lines. Ahead—Moore had yet to tire.
Maviola El turned, laughing, towards Olesm. Her eyes burned and he lifted the Kaalblade. There was a trigger—he ignited it and recoiled from the burning light.
“Strategist? You don’t need to come with us.”
“Yes I do. 4th Company—with me! Charge!”
“Sir! Cavalry hitting our flank!”
“Ignore them! Kill that Human!”
The Hectval [General] was raging. Everything—everything was going wrong. The Black Tide? Who had killed the Drisshia [High Mage]? The speaking stone was confused, a chatter of voices talking about Goblins and Minotaurs of all things. A one-armed Minotaur? Was that some adventurer?
All he knew was that it was her fault. He pointed a shaking finger at the burning [Lady] with the banner of flame.
“It all makes sense. It’s you! You! I’ve seen you on the news!”
He shouted. His voice was naturally too quiet to be heard over the roar of battle and distance between them, but the pieces had fallen into place.
“The Crazy Human of Liscor! She doesn’t spit blood, but fire! That’s the one! Kill her and the army falls apart! Shoot her!”
“The arrows are bursting into flame!”
“Then use your Skills! Kill that target!”
Hectval’s archer battalions unleashed everything on Maviola El. Around her—the soldiers fell, screaming. But the aura around her was burning the projectiles to ash.
There she stood, hoisting her banner high. Her flame was the flame of fury and glory. Vengeance. Around her, the army pushed back Hectval’s forces.
The [General] didn’t even see the two hundred some [Riders] cutting into his flank. He was screaming, directing the arrows at her.
But she was invincible. Invincible?
A Drake lifted his crossbow in the center of the archer group. Five Level 20+ [Archers] took aim.
“[Mark Target]. [Antimagic Bolt]. [Doubled Velocity]. ”
The [Magic Crossbowman] took aim down the glass sight. He sighted at her chest. The [Archers] fired. Then he did.
Enchanted munitions. Maviola saw the five arrows and bolts and pointed. [Fast Fireball] destroyed two. Her aura reached out, detonated the other three, burning the arrows up. The bolt shot at her, twice as fast as the other two.
Maviola El leaned and the bolt missed her, the passage of the wind ripping at her sleeve. The [Magic Crossbowman] lowered his weapon, cursing.
She dodged! That wasn’t fair! The [Bannerlady] pulled herself back upright. She lifted her banner.
Two arrows struck her in the chest.
Maviola’s eyes went wide. She staggered. The Drake with the shield and the Gnoll guarding her whirled.
The fire of the banner went out. Maviola stared. But her aura—
The two shafts were black wood. The fletching like midnight. They smoked. But they did not burn. She grasped at them weakly. Then—fell from the saddle.
Olesm Swifttail looked back. He saw Maviola El fall. His momentum slowed.
She was lying there. The two failed bodyguards knelt around her as Olesm and 4th Company slowed.
Embria was shouting. Olesm had abandoned his charge. He was trying to—this could not be happening. He turned back.
“Keep going, you fool!”
Maviola El screamed. She was on the ground. Blood welled around the arrows. Her eyes were flickering. She pointed at him.
Did she scream it or whisper. The [Lady] did not know. But she stood.
Clutching at the banner. The piece of charred wood. Flame. Maviola looked up.
But no fire came. She felt her heart stop.
A single Potion of Youth slipped from her grip. The Gnoll reached for it. Maviola didn’t reach for the vial. She looked around and sighed.
Then there was fire. It did not come from the banner. It came from her.
The fighting soldiers of Liscor and Hectval both looked up. The [Bannerlady of Memory’s Flame] ignited. Her skin caught the magical fire she had known all her life.
The blaze of her soul.
Numbtongue looked up and saw the fire through stone and bodies. Lyonette cried out.
She felt it, even from the inn. The [Lady] said nothing. She stood there. And the fire touched the souls of all who saw it.
Hectval, Liscor—sparing only the two bodyguards who watched her sides. It burned in them.
Fight. Fight! Maviola looked at Olesm. He stared at her.
His eyes filled with tears. Tears—he should have wept for Erin. For Maviola. Tears. Rage. Despair. Grief.
All of it at once. Yet he had heard her words. He lifted the glowing artifact in his claws. He looked ahead.
The [General] was celebrating. But he caught sight of Olesm, pointed at him. The [Strategist] whispered.
“I have lost everything.”
He rode forwards as 4th Company charged. For the [Innkeeper]. For Liscor. For the House of El and Maviola.
Of course he would make it. Maviola’s vision was blurring. She raised the staff. The fire—oh—
“We will bring you, Lady El.”
The Gnoll spoke. She turned, staring at him dumbly. Maviola’s burning gaze flickered, seeing the burning souls of all around them.
Fire engulfed the place where she stood.
The blast of fire blew apart both armies. The [General] stared at the place where the [Lady] had been. He killed her. He had done it.
Just—why hadn’t he won?
He stared up. The [Riders] were hacking towards him. The two in front—one with a spear that cut down his personal guard. The other’s glowing blade was just as deadly.
“You…this is no proper war. Humans? Antinium? Don’t you have any shame?”
The [Strategist] rode towards him. The [General] drew his sword. He lifted the enchanted blade as Olesm slowed, aiming his sword forwards as his mount drew panting breaths. Before he could ride forwards, the [General] tossed down his sword.
“I surrender. We surrender.”
The [Strategist] looked at the sword. He looked at the [General] from Hectval. He didn’t even know the Drake’s name. He shook his head.
“I do not accept.”
“What? I said, ‘I surrender’. You must oblige that!”
The Drake backed up a step. The [Strategist] shook his head.
“You do not deserve surrender. Nor mercy. You don’t even know what you’ve done, do you?”
He lifted the blade. He did not salute the foreign [General]. He said nothing more. He rode forwards as the Drake scrabbled for his blade.
A Drake’s head struck the ground. Olesm turned the Kaalblade off.
Embria was still mounted. She swung wide as Hectval’s army collapsed.
“Take their surrender, Embria. If they surrender.”
Olesm knelt there. He looked back. For Maviola.
But she was gone. The [Strategist] saw only the crater of blackened ash. No matter how much he searched for her—she was gone. Not a trace left.
He had lost everything. The Drake knelt and wept. Then he ordered Liscor’s army back. The survivors of the Hectval army was taken captive.
They were ransomed and let go within the hour.
Olesm oversaw the exchange. The chest of holding was dumped in front of him. He didn’t count the gold. He stopped the highest-ranking officer as they turned.
“We are going home. Both armies.”
The Hectval officer turned. He stared at Olesm. That much was obvious. The door was being moved with the bulk of the army. The wounded and some of the inn’s guests were long gone.
Less dead than one could have hoped for. The [Strategist] had done well—
No, he hadn’t. But Hectval would have wiped Liscor’s army out if he hadn’t been there. Something rather than nothing. He would never, ever let this happen…
The [Commander] prompted after Olesm said nothing more. The [Strategist]’s head moved. He blinked, looked at the officer.
“I will be back. Next time—it will be Liscor’s army. An actual army. It will be war and we will burn your entire city to ash. If I capture you, I will execute you. You and every officer I find. I will tear down your walls. Even if I have to call for Human armies. The House of El, the Black Tide. I will do whatever it takes.”
The Drake paled. Olesm went on.
“Ask your Council why. Ask your Scalespeaker. Ask what you have done. Or we will meet again.”
Then he turned and rode away.
Nothing was better the day afterwards. Everything was worse.
The Black Tide had marched upon a Drake army. Izril trembled. This was more than bravado. More than Wistram’s words.
It was, to quote Dragonspeaker Luciva…
“A new state of war with the Antinium. We must prepare for the possibility of immediate conflict.”
After all that had passed—the Walled Cities had no idea why this was the moment that had led both sides to this brink. Only a few knew why.
Liscor’s army returned. Bringing no triumphant tale of revenge. No closure. Just more deaths to mourn. A [Priest] felt his class twisting. The Antinium shrank from him.
He was not the only one changed. Not the only thing wrong with this world.
Maviola El was dead.
There was not even a body to mourn. Olesm had ordered everyone to search. But he had not found a scrap of fabric. A single bone, or limb, or drop of blood.
The fire had been all-consuming.
But. Even if it had not been there.
He would not have found her body.
Two days later, Maviola El woke up. She inhaled, and cried out at the pain in her chest.
She had been dead. She had been—
The two black arrows stood out in her chest. Immobilizing her—her arms and legs were bound. With string as black as the fletching…
“Maviola El. You have left the north.”
Two ringed eyes glowed in the darkness before Belavierr the Stitch Witch emerged. She stood there. Tall. Eyes as vast as forever. Broad hat sweeping low as she bent over Maviola.
Maviola struggled. But her flame—her heart—the pain of the two arrowheads dug into her. She wanted to scream. The battle? She remembered—
She remembered the Gnoll grabbing her as her world went dark. The Drake with the shield—
They had not burned when her soul caught fire. For a simple reason.
The Gnoll and Drake stood there. Perfect in every detail. Eyes empty. Staring straight ahead.
Puppets. Belavierr ignored them as she walked around Maviola. The [Lady] was bound to a plinth of stone.
No. A bier. Like the one they had laid Erin on. Not as cold. But still, chilling.
Maviola’s breath came in gasps. Her clothes were ragged. One of her lungs—she struggled to speak. There was no blood though, from the arrow wounds. Had Belavierr stopped it?
“I…should have known. The arrows did not burn. You—”
The [Witch] waited. Maviola just spat.
Belavierr replied, obliviously. Her eyes looked Maviola up and down. The [Witch] went on.
“I saw you. In the orb. You did not die. Then you came south. You should have stayed. Now, I have you.”
“You have nothing, Temptress. Spider! Face me, rather than attack me from afar.”
Maviola struggled. Belavierr’s head twisted sideways and down. She regarded Maviola. Then she did something that made the [Lady] frightened.
“No. I do not think so. I think I have what I want.”
“You will never get anything from me. I have denied you twice now. Touch me. Let us see who comes out unscathed.”
The [Lady] stopped struggling. No one would escape Belavierr so easily. She tried to ignite again, but something was wrong.
“You—what have you done? You aren’t fighting my aura. You—you have killed fire, here.”
“You can’t do that.”
That was not a [Witch]’s magic. To so simply outlaw fire. Unless Belavierr had made some great working—but twice, Maviola had burned her.
This time? Belavierr just smiled.
“I did not.”
A figure stepped out of the shadows. Maviola had not sensed him at all.
He was dead.
Az’kerash, the Necromancer, bowed slightly to Maviola.
“The Matriarch of the House of El.”
She went still. Suddenly—terrible fear engulfed her.
“Az’kerash. The Necromancer of Terandria.”
Alive. She did not need to be told what that meant. It meant—Maviola looked at him. Now, her eyes adjusted to the room.
She saw the Chosen, standing around, looking down at her. But it was Belavierr whom Maviola feared most. Belavierr and the Necromancer.
She was smiling. Maviola had never seen such an expression on Belavierr’s face. The emotion was—satisfaction. Satisfaction. Pleasure. Gloating, even.
“I remember you. Twice. It feels different. Now—I am awake. You burned me.”
“You work with the Spider, Necromancer? Take care. Two monsters of your ilk cannot surely coexist.”
Maviola ignored Belavierr. She spat at Az’kerash. The Necromancer raised one brow. His black eyes and white pupils regarded her.
“I take little pleasure in this, Lady El. But your kind are enemies of mine.”
“The House of El?”
“The living. My children and I will rule over a different world.”
Fear made Maviola gulp reflexively. She gasped in pain. Az’kerash glanced at Belavierr.
“Your puppets went undetected. The flame spell I cast was realistic enough. Have you more need of my…aid, Belavierr?”
“Only in the creation of my servant. I have long waited for the right vessel for my child.”
Belavierr spoke. Each word filled Maviola with a mounting horror. She looked around at the Chosen.
“They—they have souls.”
Az’kerash’s eyes brightened.
“You can see them.”
It was not a question. Maviola looked at him. And a second wave of revulsion struck her.
“You gave the undead souls? They have classes! They level!”
She struggled harder. If she could have summoned the same fire that had destroyed ‘her’, she would have.
“This is madness! You will end this world! You are party to this, Stitch Witch? Spider?”
“We work together. Our magics will create that which has never been seen. I have already given my thread. I only awaited a body. You.”
Belavierr bent closer. Maviola spat. The spit hit Belavierr. The [Witch] curiously regarded Maviola, oblivious.
“You burned me.”
“Is that the only reason?”
Maviola sneered. Belavierr smiled again.
“Yes. Now you will suffer. That. Is vengeance. I remember it, now.”
“Shall I leave you, Belavierr? Summon me when you are finished.”
Az’kerash turned. He did not seem comfortable around Belavierr’s gloating, even as a fellow immortal. The Chosen began to leave as well. A skeleton with purple eyes tiptoed after them. He really hated the family events.
The puppets remained. Belavierr’s whisper to Maviola made the Necromancer halt, though. She bent over Maviola.
“You will not die immediately. Do you know what this is?”
She produced a viridian vial. Maviola gasped.
The last Potion of Youth. Belavierr held it over Maviola. The puppet had picked it up on the battlefield.
“One week. And however many days you have left. Your thread is nearly out.”
“You will get nothing from my body. I wish you all the best of an old woman’s corpse!”
Maviola laughed. Belavierr shook her head.
“You will be young. Drop. Drop. You will not die. And you will suffer.”
Maviola inhaled. The [Stitch Witch] moved, around her other side.
“It will take a long time. Weeks. Months. I have my own ways. You will not enjoy it. You will suffer. I have forgotten how. You will teach me.”
“I will give you nothing.”
The Spider whispered. Her shadow moved on the wall. The darkness became more absolute. Her voice grew deeper. The rings in her eyes expanding.
“You will suffer until you break. Until you scream. That is not enough. You will suffer until you beg me to die. That is not enough.”
Her hands tightened on Maviola’s arm. The face leaned closer.
“You will give me everything. Pledge your soul to me gratefully. Then you will die.”
The [Lady] cried out. Fear. Revulsion. And fury. It swept through her chest. She tried to pull away, look away from Belavierr’s gaze. She saw—
The Necromancer stood in the doorway. His eyes reflected something. She shouted at him.
“Necromancer! Az’kerash! Peril Chandler!”
Toren saw the pretty eyes burning. Why did he like her? Why did he want to—he saw the Necromancer jerk.
Maviola El shouted at him.
“I heard stories of Archmage Chandler’s fall! I knew the Necromancer’s great crimes. The death he brought to a kingdom of Terandria! But I also heard of the man whom they called the Great Necromancer of Terandria! The man who made his class respected! I always wondered how the two could be the same person.”
“Your point, Maviola El?”
Belavierr glanced up, annoyance crossing her features. Maviola was panting.
“Will you allow this? Have you no honor left? I seek no mercy from the Spider. But have you no soul?”
“You are the embodiment of my enemy.”
Az’kerash paused. Maviola El looked at him. Then she closed her eyes.
“Then begone, monster. Spider—do your worst. I will not break.”
“You will. You do not know anguish.”
Belavierr’s eyes glowed. It was the only light in the room. Maviola lay, panting. The [Witch] reached for her.
“When you give me your all—I promise you one thing.”
“That I will suffer? I w—”
“No. When you give me your all. You will be smiling.”
The Witch laughed. It was an unpracticed sound. Maviola saw her raise a hand—
Az’kerash walked forwards. He raised a wand.
He pointed it at Maviola’s chest. The [Lady] convulsed as the black magic struck her. The Necromancer spoke.
“[Deathbolt]. [Deathbolt]. [Deathbolt].”
The [Lady] died. Toren saw the life go out of her. He felt a pang in his chest. And somehow—relief.
Maviola died there, a smile of surprise on her lips.
Belavierr stared at Maviola’s face in shock. Then she whirled.
“You killed her. Why?”
Her hands were grasping. Az’kerash looked at Belavierr.
“You have your vessel, Belavierr the Witch. We will cooperate. Until my Chosen are done. And your servants. Then—you will leave this place. And you will not return.”
“Why have you changed your mind?”
She tilted her head, confused. Az’kerash looked at what had been Maviola El.
“A brave woman’s words. My Chosen, my children, do not need your lessons. Only your magic.”
“One is the same as the other.”
“Perhaps. My words stand.”
The Necromancer looked away. Toren shrank as Belavierr stood there. Was it rage he sensed? Confusion? Her expression was blank. Her eyes flickered.
“I remember now.”
The second time, Az’kerash stopped on his way out of the room. He turned back. Belavierr produced a needle and thread. She bent over the body.
The Stitch Witch began to sew.
“They called me evil. I remember. The Witch of Calamity. The Temptress. Spider. So many names for me. Sometimes they called me good. The String Folk did. Then they called me evil. I wondered how to be…evil.”
She looked up, holding Peril Chandler’s gaze.
“I have only ever done as I desired. I have always stayed true to myself. So that is evil.”
He looked at her, the Necromancer and the Witch. Looking at each other directly. And somehow—never seeing each other eye-to-eye. Then one left.
The dark castle lay still.
Time passed. The worst had happened. And the worst still—the Stitch Witch smiled, unpracticed.
Then the Summer Solstice began.
Author’s Note: A second chapter. It wasn’t as good in many parts as I wanted. However. That was the substance of it. I’m going to look it over—but probably publish it.
Volume 7 is ending soon. No art for today.