8.11 E (Revised)

…And then she woke up.

The young woman opened her eyes. Erin Solstice sat up in her bed, in her bedroom, in her home with the familiar, bleak skies of winter slowly giving way to spring. The faint sounds of a furnace, the glowing, bright lights of her digital alarm clock were the only disturbances to the pleasant silence and shadows in her room. She felt her warm, padded layers of blankets that kept the morning chill away.

Late morning, that was. She stared at the old, faded quilt with chess pieces stitched onto each diagonal panel of cloth, which had endured since she had won her first chess tournament when she was eleven. Hand-stitched by her mother…

Something trickled down her cheeks. Slowly, the young woman sat up. It was cold. Normally she would have stayed in bed, lazily going back to sleep, even.

Yet something was wrong. She reached up and touched her cheeks. Tears ran down her face. She had no idea why.

I was so happy.

The sound of her own voice startled Erin. Why had she said that? She looked around, breathing in, out, not knowing what was happening.

For a moment. Then, the feeling of pain, of loss, was gone. She wiped the water off her face onto her blankets with a shaky laugh and wriggled until her cold feet were protected by more blanket. She rolled over and tried to remember what she had been dreaming of.

Her room was a soft, relaxing color. Light beige walls, bright blue curtains providing contrast, and when the windows were open, fully illuminated by the sun. A little table set with two chessboards lay next to the bed, a tripping hazard.

An old poster of a famous chess game, custom-ordered, was stuck to one wall, a bit frayed, nostalgic. With it, a younger girl had put up little stickers of chess pieces. Only three remained, along with some scribbles in pencil. Old notations in chess.

The carpet on the floor also cut the winter’s chill, and on the far wall, a desk with a computer, a third, miniature chess board, and two empty porcelain bowls stacked onto each other shared space with a messy notepad and cup filled with pencils and pens. Staring around the room to take it in, Erin let her head sink back onto her pillow, now a plain blue like the curtains, but which had once been chess-themed like her blanket.

She’d quite forgotten her dream, unfortunately. Erin Solstice lay there, occasionally turning, until her alarm clock went off, waking her for her 10:00 AM day. She promptly turned it off and went back to sleep. Twenty minutes later though, someone rapped on her door.

“Erin? Are you still asleep? It’s time to get up.

For a moment, she had the strangest sense of déjà vu. Only—it felt wrong. The voice was wrong; she poked her head out of the blankets.

“…Mom?”

“I have breakfast getting cold. And you have a job, Erin. Remember? You promised to start working.”

Recollection of yesterday’s promise flooded into her mind. Erin put a blanket over her head as if it was a shield. But not even an enchanted shield could…could…?

“Aw, Mom. I don’t want to.”

The woman outside the door was clearly not in the mood to retread old arguments with her daughter. She opened the door a crack and Erin winced at the light.

Shauna Solstice walked over and opened the blinds. There was nothing like sunlight for getting her out of bed, and her mother knew that very well.

Like her daughter, Shauna had light brown hair, tinted a bit orange especially when the light caught it. Unlike her daughter, her hair was frizzy, while Erin’s refused to even consider a single fritz. Neither Erin nor her mother were taller than Erin’s father, but Shauna had an entire inch on Erin that had never vanished, no matter how much Erin had tried to catch up.

As always, clothing defined the two’s styles. Shauna spent time making sure her clothing was coordinated for contrast, and she could do that better than most because she had sewn some of the clothing she’d worn or adjusted what she’d bought.

Erin had similar addendums to her wardrobe, custom t-shirts she had sometimes requested, but she would throw on whatever article of clothing was on top of her drawers when she was in a hurry, and didn’t fold laundry, so accrued more wrinkles on her garb than Shauna had to gain herself.

At the moment, Shauna looked peeved, and she could do it well when she stood, hands on her hips, lips pursed. When one of the Solstice family was upset, everyone could tell by body language alone and Erin had learned from the best. Shauna turned to Erin, raising her eyebrows.

“You discussed this with your father and made a promise. You have to take it up with him if you changed your mind.”

Erin knew that was a tall task. Her father, Gregori, or Greg since the spelling always threw people, was big on promises. Well, he was a lawyer, and in worker’s compensation.

Slowly, Erin got out of bed. Her mother didn’t wait for her; she was already downstairs. Of course, she was working too.

Erin Solstice opened a drawer and stared at the bright clothing. Well—not flashy logos, but the colors seemed so vivid. She chose the plainest color—such soft cotton!—and dressed herself.

As she did, she saw two things. The first was her hand-built computer—not prefabricated, but put together from component parts—was showing the screensaver. She supposed she must have forgotten to turn it off; she had long since disabled the automatic hibernation setting since she played games of chess online into the morning.

Forgetting she had breakfast waiting for her at once, Erin clicked on the mouse and the screen flashed to life. Sure enough—a chess game. Definitely not against a real person. Erin moved her bishop absently, and then realized she’d forgotten what game she was playing. Well…she waited as the computer moved and then punished the program’s foolishness.

Chess was chess.

“Hmm, hmm. Wrong move, Mister Computer. You’re losing your edge.”

Erin poked the screen. There was something relaxing about playing chess wherever she was. She opened the internet browser as she waited for the computer to make another move. It was being slow today; maybe her computer had a bug or was it just getting old? It wasn’t some state-of-the-art thing. Custom-built, yes. But she hadn’t built it.

Her father had built the computer. He liked computers and video games. Erin’s mother, Shauna, had an interest too, and it disturbed Erin that she was third-best in her household of three people at playing video games.

Maybe that was why she liked chess.

“News, news…”

Erin murmured as she clicked and typed. The sound of her mouse and the background hum of the computer’s fan was the only real noise in the world.

She didn’t normally narrate her life. She did trash-talk the computer when playing chess, but who didn’t? Erin felt like she was trying to remember an old song and dance. Yes, check the news. Which was…?

 

President To Speak On Latest Disappearances

 

Erin blinked. The biggest headline and picture was of a man—the president?—at a podium, was juxtaposed next to a map with highlighted areas on it of varying intensity of red. The rest of the news page was filled with the other stories, links, an ad—but this one was full-page.

Several things struck her as wrong instantly. Firstly? That wasn’t who she remembered being President of the United States. Secondly—disappearances?

Memory tugged at her, but she scrolled down.

 

‘I thought he was gone.’ Families reunite after two-year disappearance among the ‘Spirited Generation’.

‘Anti-Vax’ fever at an all-time high. Experts warn pandemic only getting worse.

Angry tortoise kills a man in sleep.

The Spirited Generation: Disappearance and discovery in eight stories.

 

Erin stared at the stories. She felt an odd dissonance, but then reality asserted itself. Of course there was a pandemic. Everyone was stuck indoors and that sucked, even for young women who loved to sit indoors and play chess all day.

And of course the disappearances weren’t helping matters. She should know. She had been…

Erin put a hand to her head and tried to remember. As always, nothing more came. She began to click on the first link about the ‘Spirited Generation’ when an irritated voice floated upwards.

Erin Solstice!

“Oops. Coming!”

Erin pushed herself back from her desk, leaving chess and news behind. She emerged from her room, the hallway, and made for the stairs to the living room and dining room combined.

On the way, she halted. Her head slowly turned and she stared at a room lit at the far end of the hall. Door slightly ajar. Bright, artificial light streamed from the crack.

It was…a bathroom. Just a bathroom. Erin stared at it, as she always did, and slowly walked forwards.

She cracked open the door and looked around. It was empty, which was a relief. But…

She turned off the bathroom light and closed the door. Then she went downstairs for breakfast.

 

—-

 

“There you are. Playing chess the moment I wake you up. I don’t know where you get it from.”

The accusatory tone made Erin wince as she walked down the carpeted stairs. She stared around her family’s home. In Michigan. Warm in the winter, but not so much that Erin didn’t wish she’d tossed on a coat and slippers.

Snow was melting outside. Sunlight—brighter than the dreary winter—shone through two open windows. At the far end of the room was the kitchen, dining room, and they connected to the living room without a hallway or door.

Shauna Solstice sat at the dining table, occupying the far end with a sewing machine and cloth. The chatter of the sewing machine was a familiar background, but Erin paused to listen to it anyways as she came down the stairs.

Her mother’s job was making handicrafts, having picked up on it when caring for Erin. She’d jumped on the internet trend of selling her works online.

The smell of breakfast lured Erin to the table. She stared at the plate and knife and fork, and then sat down. She poked at a fried egg, the toast, reached for the butter knife.

“It’s cold, mom.”

“Well, it was warm when your alarm went off. And I warmed it up after I came to get you. I wonder how it got so cold since then?”

Shauna replied without looking up. Erin sighed. Her mother had little pity for those faced with cold breakfasts. And truthfully, if Erin was playing chess she wouldn’t even notice what food it was, or how warm.

She began eating, and discovered she was hungry. Erin began to perk up. But no sooner had Erin begun to enjoy her meal than her mother spoke.

“When your father gets back, you can use the car, Erin.”

“For what?”

Shauna glanced up and gave Erin a look over her glasses.

“For your job?”

Memory flooded Erin’s head again. Her face fell and the food turned to bleh in her mouth.

“Aw, Mom—do I have to?”

“You’ve gotten your shot, and it’s been three months. Some time out of the house might do you good.”

“I’d rather play chess.”

Erin folded her arms and slouched. Her mother sighed. Shauna’s daughter was an odd mix of lazy and hard working. She would play chess, study it obsessively for ‘fun’, and watch videos of chess games all day and night.

But try to get her to do a simple part-time job and Erin was as stubborn as her parents. Shauna pointedly looked at the food the chess-squatter had scarfed down.

“Well, unless you have another big chess match online, your father and I think you should get some work experience.”

As in, any. Erin wanted to object that she had tons of…but she didn’t, not unless you counted summer jobs. Right?

Shauna saw her daughter frown. The mother adjusted the sewing machine, cursing as she realized she’d begun going off-target in the neat line while arguing with her daughter. She began to undo her error as she spoke.

“Has that grandmaster messaged you again, Erin? Are you going to have a rematch?”

Erin rolled her eyes. If she could have slumped further in her chair without sliding under the table, she would have.

No, Mom. We’re not having another match. I’m not playing grandmasters left and right. It was only three games, casually.”

“Three games against a grandmaster chess player.

It was awful, having parents be proud of you for things you were not, in fact, proud of yourself. Erin rested her chin on the table.

“I lost the last one, anyways.”

It was Shauna’s turn to want to roll her eyes. Of course, she’d been telling all of her friends about it.

“Two draws and one loss is extraordinary. And it was all live. If you wanted to be one of those stream chess players…”

She gestured and Erin saw that a laptop was sitting on a stool, facing away from her. Her mother was watching something while working. Sometimes the news—but she’d been watching those newfangled live streams ever since her daughter had played one of the best chess players in three games.

“There was even an article about you. That’s not nothing, Erin.”

Shauna pulled up the small article that she kept showing people as if it were a major headline being broadcast in every living room in the world. Erin glumly finished her breakfast. She reached for a little accompaniment to the food. But her hand recoiled as she saw the blue—

…No, it wasn’t blue. It was an avocado. Erin stared at the ripe fruit. Slowly, she picked it up.

“I thought you hated avocado by itself, Erin.”

“What? Oh. Yeah.”

This was true. Erin put the avocado back slowly. Nevertheless, she stared at it for a long while. Then she pushed back from the table and turned to her mother.

“Well, I’m not playing a big match today. But do I have to work?”

“You’re too old to just sit about, Erin.”

Mom. I’m only twenty…”

The bad argument that she was ‘only’ twenty died in Erin’s mouth. Because of course, it was wrong. She was twenty four.

Erin still felt twenty, taking a gap between high school and college, playing chess, and wavering because she was good at chess, but she didn’t think she wanted or could be a professional.

Four years had passed. Erin’s eyes slowly rose from her breakfast. She saw the calendar on the wall. Erin could have used her phone, the computer, anything. But the calendar, like a movie, was there to remind her.

March 6th, 2021. Erin felt a shock in her chest, as she had every day on seeing the date. It had been 2016 when she’d gone to the bathroom and never come back.

Then she glanced down and saw the headline of the article on the small screen.

 

Spirited Generation girl plays three games against Grandmaster in chess game on…

 

It wasn’t a great title. They didn’t even have her name, or the Grandmaster player, which Erin felt was a bit rude. It was just the idea of it that the article was trying to sell you on.

But that title.

The Spirited Generation.

Shauna Solstice looked at Erin’s face. She closed the lid of the laptop abruptly. Her daughter started.

The familiar looks of annoyance, motherly pride, and so on changed. Erin saw her mother’s face cloud with concern. And…Erin felt a lurch in her stomach.

“How are you, Erin?”

Erin’s toes curled on the carpet. She forced herself to smile.

“Fine. I just don’t want to work.”

Shauna hmmed, sounding peeved, but she looked relieved.

“Ask your father. And clean up the dishes! Dishwasher!”

She pointed, and Erin realized she had to bus her plate and utensils and the breakfast dishes.

Oh, what a miserable existence. Erin groaned over it…until she stopped. Because it wasn’t that much work to put some food in tupperware, put dirty plates in the dishwasher. In fact, it was downright easy. She’d had far worse when…

It was happening again.

Erin Solstice went upstairs before her mother could talk more about her part-time job. She sat in the chair in front of the computer and loaded up the news article.

The Spirited Generation. That’s what they called Erin and all the others who’d been lost. Based on Spirited Away, the famous movie. Erin had to admit, it fit.

The article was nothing Erin didn’t know, but she read it again.

It had been nearly four months since she’d woken up in the abandoned mall. Three since she’d been back home.

She remembered nothing of the four years before that, even when the FBI and other investigators had pressed her to remember any clues. Anything at all.

 

 

—-

 

The world was in a bad place. A pandemic in the air. Lockdowns, a world divided by both sickness and paranoia. Conspiracy theories, tensions between countries, distrust in governments at an all-time high.

Protests, demonstrations, riots…it seemed like something new every day. Not just in her country, not by far. Erin could scroll through any number of sites and see dozens of conspiracy theories. Videos too. They weren’t being listed on a lot of big sites, but no one could get rid of them.

And the heart of the issue was the virus. And the Spirited Generation.

Erin was maybe even one of the first, certainly part of the ‘first wave’ of disappearances at the very least.

Four—closer to five years ago—she had been going to the bathroom in her house when she had vanished. Her parents had looked for her, suspected she’d run away or been kidnapped. But they had no idea why. Why would Erin run away or be kidnapped? She was a highly-ranked chess player worldwide, but not some celebrity and their family wasn’t rich. And run away? Erin was a homebody! She liked playing chess, not exploring or getting into trouble.

They had done what all good parents did: search and inform all the authorities. They had feared and prayed and tried to find a clue until they realized they were not alone.

Young people were vanishing. Across the world, teenagers to young adults were just going missing. Not children, and not anyone over thirty.

At first, it had seemed like a rash of kidnappings. Accusations had been thrown about, and all the old conspiracies trotted out. World leaders had been slow to comment. At first, that had caused outrage. Then, full-blown distrust in governments.

All because people had noticed—seen with their very eyes—the young people vanish into thin air. It had been recorded on security cameras, reported by families begging for news of their children. They caused a fuss, but there was no tangible proof, just missing kids for any number of reasons.

Then people had begun seeing the actual clips. Security footage at first, which leaked from governments suppressing the videos for ‘reasons of national safety’. And then more.

Actual, sharp, clear images of someone just disappearing at a convention, when those were still a thing. A recording of a birthday where a girl turning nineteen vanished in front of her horrified friends.

A group of people vanishing in an airport, caught on the cameras and reported by people who had been standing right next to them.

Conspiracy became full-blown panic. This wasn’t just some single event. This—this was aliens! Government organizations! The end of the world!

The breaking point was the disappearance of an airplane. Or rather, the inexplicable downing of Flight 241 in the skies right as it was leaving the airport in Portugal.

Investigators never found significant portions of the plane—nor could anyone explain what had happened in that moment caught on distant cameras.

Riots and demonstrations. Mass-protests at numerous capitals and a lot of blame from country to country. Then the pandemic occurred, and few people believed that was coincidental.

In short, it was like the end of the world. But something had happened while it was all becoming a fever’s pitch. Something wonderful that did not end the conspiracies or unrest, but which changed everything.

The lost generation. The missing children.

They came back.

 

—-

 

Erin finished reading the article. She sat in her chair, rocking backwards and catching her feet on the edge of the computer’s table. She promptly overbalanced and crashed onto her back.

“Ow.”

Are you alright, Erin?

“Fine!”

Erin got up, grumbling, and righted her chair. The article was done, but the story wasn’t.

The Spirited Generation came back. Not all of them. Nor in any logical order. People like Erin, who were in the ‘first wave’ of disappearances, came back after someone had vanished not a week ago.

Many were still missing, and the lists kept being updated with people who had just run off or suffered some other event. Still, lots of names, the ‘confirmed missing’, were still up there. Erin checked the confirmed list, and stared at the names. You needed some kind of visual proof to be on the list, so it was short.

 

Daly Sullivan

Kenjiro Murata

Erik Muller

Kent Scott

 

Followed by nearly a hundred confirmed names, some with addendums specifying that they’d been found! Returned!

Of course, that was just the primary list. There were plenty of others who weren’t confirmed, and reported missing with no good explanation.

And people wanted to know what the heck had happened. The first person to return had no memory of the nearly two-year gap. No knowledge of…anything.

They tried hypnosis, drugs, to no avail; that period of time was simply erased. Which of course lent credence to the aliens theory.

Nothing worked on any of the returning children. They couldn’t remember. Some of the young people burst into tears when pressed. Hypnosis, medication—nothing brought it back, but some of them claimed they could remember something…terrible.

Erin remembered nothing at all. Nothing…but some days she woke up like she had this morning.

Erin had been back for four months total. The first month had been in custody of the government. They had kept her under surveillance, asked her questions. She’d missed the initial spat of the first young people being kept in top-secret facilities as actual mobs threatened to storm the building unless they were released.

Even so, her appearance had meant more to her family than…Erin closed her eyes at that memory of seeing her parents rush in. She wished she could have told them why it had happened.

Now, she was trying to live again, twenty four years old, but looking and feeling as if she were still just twenty. It was her choice, and her family’s to avoid attention.

She could have been on television. Or at least been interviewed; it wasn’t as if she was the first one back, so the huge demand for her hadn’t been as strong. Erin could have been on any number of podcasts or shows. The offers still kept coming in.

Hence, Shauna and Greg’s insistence that Erin try to reclaim her life by doing normal things. Which included going out of the house and working, apparently.

Erin would have loved to claim the pandemic made it impossible, but one thing about being a member of the Spirited Generation was that you got all the shots and tests, including the newest vaccines. So, Erin’s parents had no qualms about sending her into the world. She still had to wear a mask.

As for her job? Why, the easy thing even someone like Erin could do!

“Shopping. I hate shopping.”

Glumly, she loaded the app up on her smartphone. She knew what she had to do. Go to the store, get groceries, deliver groceries, get paid. She was going to be one of those remote-shoppers and her mother had threatened-encouraged her that she’d be the first customer.

Erin almost wished she was playing chess live. There was money there! It was one of the things that had happened while she’d been gone. She was too shy to do that…maybe a day of shopping for other people would change her mind.

“Erin, are you going to start? Your father’s not back yet.”

“I’ll just walk to the store. I can do the neighborhood, right?”

“I don’t think that’s how it works, dear. Tell you what—take my car. I’ll steal your father’s.”

Erin sighed. Her mother’s car had terrible acceleration on the highway.

Fine.

She stomped towards the door, thinking she’d do an hour of work and then call it good to placate her mother, and hide in her room all day. A voice stopped her as she went for the door.

“Don’t forget to take a coat. It’s raining.”

“What? Aw.

It had begun raining in the time since Erin had gone back upstairs. A drizzle, nothing too hard. Miserable. Snow became slush and Erin hated driving in slush. Glumly, she looked up.

“Is it going to get bad?”

Her mother typed on the laptop.

“Let me check…no. Take a coat anyways.”

Erin didn’t want a raincoat. She looked around.

“I’ll just take—”

She reached for an object in a stand and halted. There was no reason for it. Suddenly, all thoughts left her head. She stared at the thin, long, dark blue object.

It wasn’t anything special. It was just…

An umbrella.

Erin reached for it, and then snatched her hand back. She stared at it. Why didn’t she want to pick it up?

Erin Solstice stood there. Her mother was absently watching one of her shows as she worked. She didn’t see her daughter recoil from the stand and slowly back away and walk back up the stairs.

 

—-

 

She didn’t leave her house.

The not-quite-recollections plagued her day by day. Anything could set it off. Erin knew it was normal. Everyone had them. She’d talked to people like her, was even part of one of their message groups—although some trolls had found the last one and started asking them all kinds of questions.

The problem was, Erin couldn’t identify with the ones who started crying when they were watching a movie because it triggered some unremembered trauma. She cried…but their experiences were different somehow.

Usually it was an action movie, or a fantasy, horror, sci-fi movie, some piece of fiction that set it off in the Spirited Generation. Erin had sat through a number of movies without needing to cry. But she had burst into tears while passing by a clearance sale on old Halloween costumes.

A skeleton, one of those cheap ones on display. And then, when she’d seen a colorful videogame ad online with those fantasy monsters. Ogres, Giants, Goblins, and so on. It was stuff like that which drove her and the others crazy. Something they had forgotten which was so important.

She didn’t know why the umbrella mattered. It disturbed her, so she procrastinated. And as she always did, she found herself at her computer, playing chess.

There were two chess boards in her room, one for experiments, another for extrapolation if she wanted to think around a game she was playing. That felt familiar too.

“Darn it. Darn it.”

Erin muttered as she found opponents online to play at chess. In this new internet-age, it was never easier to play against people from the comfort of your bed. She wished it could solve everything, but it was just chess.

She clicked around listlessly, playing a game against an opponent whom she trashed. Not quite the legendary Fool’s Mate, but a variation on the Bird’s Opening into Fool’s Mate. They quit after insulting her.

The second game went like that—Erin wondered if she was being matched with bad players. She just shrugged, moodily, and opened the game against the computer and set it to max difficulty.

That was how her mother found her. Shauna, on a hunch, had gone upstairs and found Erin.

Erin stared at the screen as Shauna sighed. Her daughter had been keeping a tally and it was all wins. She was on a streak, but her face was bleak.

“Erin…”

She spun around, looking embarrassed.

“I’m going! I was just—”

She trailed off because the answer was she wasn’t.

Her mother didn’t scold her immediately as she might have. She just stood there, biting her lip. Then she spoke.

“Erin, maybe we should see if we can book another appointment with your therapist today or tomorrow? You said she was helping?”

Erin’s heart sank. Her mother looked at her, full of worry and anxiety. Erin knew she worried every day. She wanted to tell her what had happened. She had been as honest with her family as with herself. But she knew nothing.

Nothing.

Nothing—

“Erin? Erin. What’s wrong?”

The young woman saw Shauna’s face turn to alarm. She felt it again. A familiar sensation.

Tears ran down her cheeks. She reached up and touched them. Then she looked at the computer. She looked around at her familiar room. At her mother, looking so…

“I’m sorry, Mom.”

Erin’s voice was muffled. Shauna instantly went over to her.

“It’s alright, sweetie. It’s okay. Let’s call your…”

“No. No.”

Erin pulled away. She shook her head, trying to explain. Trying to tell her…she looked around and spoke.

“I’m sorry. Mom? Mom, I’m really sorry. I think I’m dreaming. I think—I died. And I’m just pretending I’m back home.”

Shauna Solstice blinked. Then her face turned pale.

“Erin. Do you remember…?”

The young woman slowly nodded. She was uncertain, but the feeling grew in her chest. She clenched her hand, and felt something was wrong. She didn’t remember. And yet? She looked up at her mother.

“This sounds crazy, Mom. I don’t…remember where I went, when I vanished. I know why I came back, though. I died. I can’t remember a single thing—but I remember my friends. I had friends. I don’t know their faces. But I know they were there. I remember the people who died for me. It feels like a dream, right now…so far away, so—silly.”

The certainty was growing in her. Like the tears, something was welling behind an invisible dam. She strained for the memories. What had it been? What had she lost?

Pain lanced through her chest. Shauna reached out.

“Erin, let me—let me call your father. And the agent…”

She fumbled for her phone. Her daughter was still speaking. Her eyes searched the distance, looking past the walls.

“It was somewhere else. Another…another world. And it was good and bad. And I died. I remember.”

She touched her chest. That was what was wrong. Shauna made a sound. Erin looked up and saw her mother was crying.

“Erin, don’t strain yourself. This could be—just breathe. Don’t—don’t say you’re dead.”

Guilt flashed across Erin. Yet still, she shook her head.

“I’m sorry. I can’t remember entirely. Something’s…I can’t remember it all. But. I could never forget. They died for me. I remember how they laughed and how they left.”

She stood up, slowly. Now, her head moved. Searching. Her room felt so empty. All the mundane things, all the things that had been so familiar, a worn plushy, warm blankets, the chess games—it felt hollow. She shook her head.

“I’ve changed. I don’t fit in here. I can’t sit in my old bed and not feel as though something’s wrong.”

She walked past her mother. Shauna tried to block her.

“Your father’s on the way. Erin, stop. What are you doing?”

Erin’s mother stopped as the young woman looked at her. Because there was something different in Erin’s eyes now. Certainty. She walked into the hallway of her house. Looking for…again, Erin shook her head. Trying to throw something off her. It was closing in, like fog, eating away what she knew had happened. Yet, it couldn’t erase it all. She remembered.

“I held them as they died. I watched them. I wish each and every one of them had survived. I would do anything to change what happened. But deny it? Forget? Forget? How could I be so petty? So small?”

She turned her head. Shauna pushed into the hallway.

Erin!

The bathroom door. It was no wardrobe and the bathroom light was significantly less cool than a light post. Erin still walked towards it. Shauna pulled at her.

“Erin. Erin, sit down. You’re having an episode. Erin?”

“I killed people. I killed monsters and I met heroes. I served drinks to adventurers and friends. I was there. I—I have to go back.”

Erin struggled. She tried to explain, pulling away from her mother and feeling horrible. Yet she had to.

“I have to! Mom! Let me go. Let me—”

Something was telling her to go. None of this—was any of it real? Erin longed to explain it. But she felt it, more strongly than anything. She struggled free.

Erin!

The [Innkeeper] ran. Down the hallway, feeling each step elongate in time. The bathroom door. No, just the door to the other world.

I have to go back. I have something left to do. She grabbed the handle and threw it open. Erin Solstice stepped into—

 

—-

 

She woke up.

Erin jerked upright. She was lying on the ground. Blood soaked her clothing. She tried to pull out the crossbow bolts in her chest, but saw empty, torn holes in the fabric instead.

Whole skin. No gaping wounds, just bloodstains.

She looked up and saw a man in a hazmat suit recoil.

Subject’s awake!

Then Erin saw the spotlights. The crowd of people in hazmat suits, and beyond them, two lines of soldiers. She stared around. She was in…a mall? Yes, lying on pale white tiles, shops open around her, glowing with light in the early morning.

But someone had cordoned off the mall, erecting barricades, the warning tape that crisscrossed entire sections, and then gone fully military and set up actual concrete roadblocks to keep the press of people back. There were spotlights, two trained on Erin’s position, the rest glaring into the crowd, almost as if to blind the onlookers.

The onlookers? Hundreds, thousands of people were pressing against the barricades, pointing at Erin. The flash of cameras was blinding—or would have been if many had a clear shot. But they couldn’t even get within three hundred feet of Erin and the people clustered around her because of the soldiers.

Soldiers, wearing body armor and holding the kind of firearms that made you stop. There was shouting in the air.

Let us through! Is it one of them? One of the Spirited Generation—

“News! We have a right to—don’t touch—”

Back up! Back up—

The man in the suit was trying to say something, but someone on a megaphone was shouting orders. The military was forcing the crowd back as Erin sat up. Meanwhile, everyone within the circle of armed forces wore the bright hazmat suits that made Erin feel like she really should have had one herself. Then she realized—they were wearing them because of her.

A gloved hand thrust out gently as she tried to get her legs to work.

“Don’t move. Can you hear me?”

The voice was accented. Erin looked up. She saw a visor, and behind it, a man’s face, concerned, but staring at her like she was a ghost.

“Who are you? Where’s Numbtongue? I was…”

She had just been shot. By crossbows. She was struggling to remember. The figure looked around as a woman practically sprinted over.

“Is she safe to move?”

“I’m checking her vitals. Stand back. Miss? Miss, can you tell me your name?”

She looked up at the worried medical personnel as the commanding officer and a gaggle of secret security, or whatever they were, descended on her. Erin breathed.

“Erin Solstice?”

 

—-

 

The Spirited Generation. Erin sat nervously in front of the very serious government agent as he explained what that meant. It was not the dark room lit by the single desk-lamp, but a much brighter room with the antiseptic white walls and floor, marred only by the single door and window along the far wall.

The man wore no uniform; rather one of the suits with red ties and a single, round badge pinned to his left side. Unlike the bevy of military personnel, doctors, and other people who’d escorted her through the crowds shouting her name, he had the secret-service look of someone who was not going to tell you how important he was.

Incidentally, this was Canada. Not her home country of the United States, but they were on the way and they wanted her. Even so, this government wanted to know what the hell had happened as much as everyone else, so Erin was here, repeating her story. It felt like less than an hour since she’d been lying outside her inn, bleeding to death.

“Goblins.”

“Mhm.”

The man gave her a look and some of the observers—and there were more behind the one-way mirror, Erin was sure—all murmured. She remembered it all.

She had no Skills, though. Just her memories. Shot with crossbows…the blood was on her clothing. Indeed, they’d taken her clothing, her possessions, and given her replacements.

And her bag of holding. That was what had convinced them. The first scientist to see the dimensional object actually passed out. But while that was important, the government agents were more concerned with Erin’s story.

Erin looked at them.

“So I’m part of the Spirited Generation? Haven’t you found more people like me?”

The man hesitated. He consulted his notes. Looked around for the nod from what might have been the authority in the room and replied at last.

“No. You are the first one.”

Erin felt a shock on her skin. As if that was somehow…wrong? No—

Right. She believed it. Just as she’d believed all he’d said about the Spirited Generation, the confusion, pandemic, arguing. Chaos. No wonder they wanted her.

And no wonder the United States wanted her back. The serious agents gave her a break as someone rushed in. Erin blinked…and within thirty minutes a second military force, this one American, was escorting her towards a waiting helicopter that had just landed.

 

—-

 

The [Innkeeper]. The girl who came back. Erin Solstice’s name was plastered on every newspaper in the world. And who read newspapers in print anymore?

She was on every headline, every website, video, worldwide for six months. And for six months, Erin was never out of the sight of one of the government agents.

Everyone wanted to talk to her. In fact, when the United States government had realized that the Canadian government had her bag of holding and the knife that Pelt had made, they nearly went to war demanding it back. It nearly went to war because it was magic.

Scientists interviewed her, medical people did a lot of embarrassing and sometimes painful tests. They wanted her blood, hair samples—Erin kicked the person who wanted the stool sample, but that was only the start.

She met with the President after the first week of making sure she wasn’t irradiated, a shapeshifter, carrying some horrible disease or parasite, or half a dozen other potential security hazards.

The day was January 22nd, 2021 when she shook hands with the President of the United States.

President Jeb Bush.

Two weeks later, she got to see her parents…

“This is a dream.”

She had been feeling it. She pressed a button and Agent Olivia hurried into the room. She wasn’t technically ‘Agent Olivia’ in sense of rank, but Erin kept calling her that and the woman had given up long ago.

“Erin? What’s wrong?”

Erin stood up. She’d been having a moment of peace after months of being the world’s most famous icon. She’d met the Pope, at least a third of the world’s leaders, spoken in front of the UN…

And that was fake. It had been a faint whisper in her mind. But she would have never noticed if not for…

She pushed back the laptop, turned off the relaxing music and stood. Even the music was…believable. That’s what threw her.

She had put it down to the sheer fantasy of meeting the President and being in the world’s eye. But now she was sure.

“Olivia. This is a dream. You’re fake. That’s real.”

She pointed at the latest song she’d stopped on her computer. The Agent folded her arms.

“Very funny, Erin. If this is one of your plans to break out again—please don’t.”

Erin ignored that. She’d broken out of the top-secret, guarded facility and nearly gotten shot once because she’d been cooped up. That’s when they’d started flying in expert chess players and giving her laptops and entertainment to keep her from going crazy, despite the ‘security risk’.

She looked around.

“Fake. Fake walls—not fake news. Fake news is a real thing. Well, some of the news is real, not fake. The…uh, expression is true. You’re fake, not really here. Or I’m dreaming. But the Spirited Generation is really a thing back home. This—”

“I think I’d better call for one of the doctors. Erin…”

“No. No. I know this isn’t—”

Erin went for the doors. Olivia grabbed at her. Erin raised a fist.

“[Minotaur Punch]!”

She swung. Olivia caught the arm and restrained her, gently. Erin struggled, but the woman was trained and had a lot of pounds on Erin. She kept struggling, even as Olivia shouted for a doctor.

“No! I know this isn’t real! I know it! I—”

 

—-

 

“—was so happy.”

Erin stopped, with tears on her cheeks and her hand on the bathroom door. Erin looked around.

It had been only a second since she’d stepped into the bathroom. All her adventures, all her friends—was it all a dream? A hallucination caused by night time peeing?

No it was not! It took Erin only one day to figure it out this time. She stood on the roof as her mother and father shouted at her and some people stared at her from the street. Erin didn’t care. She screamed up at the sky.

“I will never forget. And this place feels fake! No matter how hard you try, you can’t fool m—

 

—-

 

She was an amnesiac again, only this time found by the government. It took Erin three months. But again—she shouted up at the doctor as he tried to figure out why she was denying reality.

I remember! I know this isn’t reality! Is it me? No—what are you? Who are you?

She pointed up at the face, and kicked an orderly in the chest.

 

—-

 

Woke up.

Sometimes it took months. Other times, a day. An hour.

Eighteen minutes.

Erin Solstice woke. She ate breakfast, and talked, and smiled. Then, at some point in time during her day, during the week, while shopping or browsing the internet or—she frowned and—

The [Innkeeper] pushed herself back from her desk again and looked up. Shauna Solstice hovered there, frowning.

“I know this isn’t Earth.”

One and a half days. Erin looked around.

“I know this sounds crazy, Mom. But listen…I think this is a dream and—”

How?

The voice stopped Erin. Because it was the first voice she had heard in this place that was real except her own. She stopped. She looked back and there…she was.

Shauna Solstice looked like she always had. She had given Erin her hazel eyes, some of her features, although her hair was lighter than her daughter’s. She looked like the same woman Erin had always known.

And at the same time, not. Her eyes moved. She turned, and someone else stared through her eyes.

Like someone wearing a puppet. A perfect mask. Erin stopped. She shuddered. Her mother’s face fell away. Not in any physical way, but changing.

A woman stood there. The same age…but she had Erin’s face.

Erin, a replica of herself, stared at the flinching young woman.

Erin, as if Erin was fifty. The [Innkeeper] recoiled.

Erin so old her hair was white and wispy. At the end of her life.

Three versions of herself. Not changing, but all at once. Like some strange trick-mirror or prism that let you see all three compounded into a single body. Three in one. Three of one.

Then Shauna again. Only, Shauna Solstice from her pictures, young, wearing the fashions of her youth. And Shauna as Erin had never seen her, older than her grandmother had been. All three at once, embodied in a single face.

Three Shaunas, like the Erins, in youth, in her middling years, and in her late age.

“What—what—”

Erin nearly crawled onto the computer’s desk to get back. The stranger just looked at her.

“How?”

Her voice was a mix of old, young, and middling. It was not Shauna Solstice’s voice. Not in tone, or intonation. There was imperiousness there. More than a parent wielded. Terrible authority.

Kindness too. At least, the kindness from one side. It was not kindness to Erin to hear it.

“Wh—what?”

The world shifted. And Erin remembered it all. She gasped.

The many times she’d ‘returned’ to Earth were a blur in her memory. She faintly recalled each false narrative, the details blurring together But her life? Her death?

She remembered that, and had realized the artifice of this place each time. She looked up.

The stranger stood before her. Wearing her mother’s face. She looked at Erin. And a mix of emotions warred across her expression.

Curiosity. Annoyance. Disappointment? She spoke once more.

“Each time, no matter how cunningly woven, you break out. You find the gap and tear it apart. How? Are we still so weak? No. It is something else. Willpower is not enough. Even when you do not remember, something informs you. What flaw is it? Tell me.

“Who are—?”

Tell me.

The word shook everything. It was like Erin’s bones and soul vibrated. She flinched and the words tumbled forth.

“I—can tell what’s real and what’s not! The Spirited Generation—the pandemic—all the news and even the music. That’s real, isn’t it? But not us coming back. Not me bringing back artifacts. Not…this.”

Erin gestured at the open windows on her computer. The stranger looked dismissively around.

“Yes. Your memory is here. And history is here. Enough to make all this to see what you would do. What you are. And you do nothing. You sit about, you play…games…and you eat and sleep. Nothing more. If you are thrust into great places, you do not act different.”

“I broke out of a government lab once.”

‘Shauna’ ignored that. She looked at Erin.

“You do not speak with the conviction of saints. You do not lead nations. You are not capable of wisdom or knowledge—if you were, they would have claimed you. Nor are you a great warrior. You have not withstood pain beyond any other. You are…normal.”

“Hey! I’ve had pain and stuff.”

Erin bristled. The eyes pierced her.

“Yes. You have known love and loss and you play games. You are…ordinary. That is what disappoints me.”

“Well…yeah. Why?”

A sigh.

“I thought you would be greater.”

Erin realized the hallway was gone. Her room, this woman, and only a few things were left. Everything else was oblivion.

Not white space. Not a trippy flat landscape of nothingness.

The world simply ended around her. And nothing more was here. The woman stared at her.

“…Who are you?”

“My name, child, is Kasigna. I thought you would be so much more. But you are not. You are the first of them. The children. And you are just…Erin.”

Kasigna walked out of Shauna. Erin’s mother vanished and now she was another woman. She walked through oblivion, staring at Erin, trapped in a figment made of memory and reality.

Earth’s reality, in the year of 2021 combined with Erin’s mortal life. Somehow…Kasigna had made these false realities, baked of bits of truth and what might have been, or might be happening. Erin shuddered as the women circled, the three-in-one. Inspecting her.

“Why is that a problem? Where is this? I’m dead. I—”

“This is my place. And I created it because I wanted to see. You were first. You should have been wondrous. That was the criteria. But your great talent was…this.”

She had a walking cane, now. The old woman hobbled, the young one walked briskly. The middle-aged woman faced Erin. She pointed and Erin’s head turned.

Her chessboard. Erin looked at it.

“What?”

“The first one was to be great and glorious. A fitting first child. Talented. Unique. So many of the children are. So many not. But you—this is your talent?”

Erin shrugged.

“Well yeah, I’m good at chess.”

The look the strange woman gave her was withering. The chess board vanished.

What a worthless mistake that you of all others were chosen by chance.

She vanished too. Erin felt the room vanishing.

“Hey! Hey, that’s rude! Chess is great! Come back! Where am I? What are you doing?”

A presence. Erin spun. Kasigna sat on her bed. Now, existence was a circle of about six feet. Erin’s eyes darted around. What would happen if this room vanished? This person…she made a punching fist and eyed her hand.

She didn’t want to touch Kasigna. The strange woman smiled even as her eyes pierced the [Innkeeper].

“And yet, you stand above most of the other children. You survive. And you saw the untruth of this place time and time again. How? I made it of your world. Events there. Songs. Your memory. Yet still, you break out. How?

She pressed Erin and it was like a weight on Erin’s entire being. The [Innkeeper] struggled, but this was no aura.

Nor did she refuse to answer. It was a relief to Erin to explain. She turned and pointed.

“There. Duh.”

Kasigna frowned. The pressure abated. She craned her neck to see…

The computer. It was still showing the chess game, despite no wires existing. She frowned.

“Is this trickery? How?”

“No, it’s chess. If you made this place—you suck at chess.”

Erin informed Kasigna with a triumphant smile. The stranger just stared at her. Erin went on.

“It’s the chess program. I keep beating it and that shouldn’t be possible. Chess programs are better than any Human, y’know. Each time I start winning I get confused. Grandmasters too. And I win each game or lose. You end up in draws all the time at high levels. All I do is win and it gets old. Also, suspicious.”

“What?”

The voice of the unknown, sinister presence was unworldly and possessed three ages in one. Nevertheless, it had the miffed quality of someone who had no idea what Erin was talking about.

Erin stood there, smugly folding her arms and smiling for all of five seconds. Then her face fell.

“Wait, I just gave away the secret. Now I’m trapped forever, aren’t I? Drat.”

Kasigna stirred. She stood up without standing. One moment she was sitting, the next, standing.

There were no transitions to how she moved, Erin realized. If she was walking, she vanished and Erin saw her walking, or saw one of her ages. Now, the room vanished.

Erin stood in nothing. There was only her; nowhere to run. She could not run, or move her feet. She tried, but Kasigna was there.

“No. No more illusions, Erin Solstice. I have seen you. My curiosity assuaged. Now, it is time.”

“Time? Let me go. I—I don’t want to—”

Erin tried to turn around. She lifted a fist. But…the woman was walking towards her. And she was reaching out. Three hands, one hand.

“Want, child? No. Don’t you understand? Look at me and know. You are mine.”

She was smiling. Erin clenched her hand.

“Don’t—I’ll—I’ll hit you—”

Every part of Erin was telling her not to touch Kasigna. But there was nowhere to go. No Skills to use. There was only this place and Kasigna was this place.

Erin was dead. And the woman smiled.

“It will not hurt, Erin. I am the meaning in death. I am comfort. Take my hand willingly and come with me. For I have returned and I guide all souls. You and I will be one thing. And is that not glorious?”

“No. Stop. I don’t want to.”

The [Innkeeper] whispered. The hand reached out. Vast as everything here. As small as her own hand. Erin called for something. A Skill. A frying pan. Anything.

T-Tamaroth?

The word echoed louder than it should.

But the man with the beard did not appear. And Kasigna’s face turned wrathful.

“He has no authority here. You would choose him over me? There is no choice here. Enough.”

She grabbed for Erin. As her hand closed on Erin’s arm, Kasigna recoiled. Erin heard a sound. An exclamation. She saw a light.

It was no glorious beam of daylight heaven-sent. It was far more mortal. Smaller, but somehow, brighter. It glowed across her arm, and then the air. Erin’s eyes widened as Kasigna hissed.

“What insolence is this?”

The two stared at the burning flame. It looked so familiar. She heard a voice.

Well? Run already! Flee, my heir of fire!

The voice! Erin started. And she realized—she could move! Somehow, even though there was no space. She turned.

Stop! Insolent fire!”

Kasigna hissed. She reached out, but the flame moved first. A hand reached out and touched her. And the fire engulfed the stranger.

“Begone, thing!

The fire laughed as Kasigna made a sound. Erin realized she was running. And there were voices. Behind her, the nothingness that was Kasigna was receding. And as she fled—

“—hurry, hurry.

“—is coming. Someone has to—”

“Not you. Not you, please.”

Run!

A voice snapped. Erin looked back once. She was standing in front of the bathroom door, fumbling for the knob. But there wasn’t one! Behind her, Kasigna was engulfed in fire, yet it didn’t seem to be scorching her as much as infuriating. She was striding towards Erin.

A voice snapped from ahead of her.

Hurry, girl!

Erin had never heard the speaker before, but the voice was real and it gave her hope. She grabbed the edge of the door and tried to yank it open. Hands began to push it open. Hands? Of every shape. She saw a claw, a Human hand—

“What’s happening? What is that flame?”

She reached out. Kasigna was moving faster. And the flame—dying. Still laughing. Erin tried to squeeze into the opening and a hand caught her and began to drag.

A woman with a pointed hat pulled at Erin as Kasigna’s world tried to drag her back.

She looked at the flickering flame.

“You knew her as Maviola El. She is sacrificing herself for you. Now, run.

She pulled Erin out of the door. And then Erin was stumbling. Standing—

Three people stood around her. One was the woman with a hat. She straightened it and slammed the door shut. The others dragged Erin up. A Drake wearing gilded armor snapped at the others.

“All this for a Human? We have to go, now! She is—”

The door slammed. Kasigna recoiled. And Erin realized the woman was standing right in front of them. There wasn’t a door. That was—

Insolence.

Now she was furious. Erin stumbled back, but Kasigna snatched at her. The woman with the hat pulled at her.

With me!

The [Witch] and Drake in armor leapt backwards, and the third rescuer, largest of them all, dragged at Erin. Pulling her with them. They were running, fleeing…

The inn?

The Wandering Inn vanished behind them. Erin looked back and saw the familiar building, standing there. She stared. Her inn! Was that where Kasigna had been? No—

Just outside of it. Where Erin had died. That wasn’t what astounded her.

The inn was distant in moments. Erin wasn’t running down the hill, but across a…distance without any physicality. While the inn stood, it was not the only thing here.

A ruined city lay broken on the Floodplains. As well as Liscor. Erin passed by an inn and did a double-take. That was the same inn that she had once stayed at! Only it was beautiful, newly-built—and naught but rubble at the same time.

There were more villages and even settlements. Guard towers! She looked around even as the three urged her to flee!

Erin stared upwards towards the High Passes and saw a broken city, a glorious empire built in those reaches.

Nevermore. She could have stared forever, but behind them was the woman.

The stranger. And she walked after them. Chasing.

Gaining ground.

It was the logic of dreams here. They were running, conversing, and time was nonsensical. They could have been fleeing for days that passed in moments, talking desperately all the while.

The woman with the hat spoke.

“She is too quick. This is her place! Maviola was consumed in a moment! We will never make it to sanctuary.”

She was tall, commanding. The other, a Drake, barked a reply like an order.

“Then split up!”

“No. She nearly has us. Keep going.”

The last of them spoke. And Erin, like a dreamer, finally focused on his face. She saw a huge Drake wearing armor turn his head. She slowed and the others cursed. But she couldn’t help it.

“Zel?”

He looked at her. And there he was.

Zel Shivertail. The [General] of the Antinium Wars. Tidebreaker.

He was as she remembered him. Not the body they had laid to rest, but Zel Shivertail. The same Drake who had sat at her inn, lectured her, been kind and…

Here. He met her gaze, eyes sharp and watchful as he glanced over his shoulder. His feet slowed. His claws opened, and he turned, the Heartflame Breastplate gleaming. He looked at his companions, especially the shorter Drake. He reached out, and touched his companion’s shoulder.

There was no time for anything else. Not for Erin, not for more than words. No time even for regrets.

A kiss.

“I’ll leave her to you.”

The Tidebreaker’s voice was gentle. The other Drake tried to block him.

“No, stop.

Kasigna reached out for them, as large as a giant and no longer smiling. Her eyes and mouth were like pits trying to drag Erin in.

“Mine. You are all mine. Join me. Feed me.

Her advance was faster than any of them. The trio of ghosts looked up as Erin tried to dodge. She saw Kasigna upon her. And then the three-in-one stopped.

The Tidebreaker of Izril had a claw on her shoulder. He tightened his grip as Kasigna halted. The other Drake made a sound.

Kasigna, affronted, stared at Zel Shivertail. He nodded as Erin ran, at the urging of the [Witch], looking back at him. He—why was he—?

She knew. The three-in-one coldly spoke.

“You cannot hold me back, little [General].”

Zel looked past her, at the other Drake calling his name. He smiled to himself, satisfied.

“You’ve stopped.”

She reached for him. Erin looked back as she heard a cry from the other Drake.

Zel was gone. And Kasigna rose, dark pits of eyes looking to her.

“Nearly there. Further. Further.”

Only the [Witch] spoke then, urging the two on. Erin wanted to turn. And fight…? Fight what? She had no weapons. But she looked back as Kasigna strode after them.

“How much further?”

The Drake demanded. Erin looked ahead—behind—

Kasigna was reaching for her again. There was no logic to her speed. No defying her touch. Erin raised a punching hand. The other two ghosts turned. Kasigna was frowning. Then something roared. She and Erin looked up.

And flames engulfed her. Erin recoiled. For a second she thought it was Maviola—

But then the Dragon landed. He exhaled again, and silver flame made the thing, Kasigna, shriek. It recoiled, flailing, and fled. It looked like Kasigna—but suddenly, Erin saw rotten features. She smelled decay, corruption, even in this place. Something fled into the distance of this ethereal world.

The three stopped and looked up. And there he was.

A silver Dragon.

 

—-

 

Afterwards, the Drake fell to his knees and looked back.

Erin looked around.

She wasn’t breathing hard. Shock rippled through her. Confusion. But it did not overwhelm. There was no mind to race. No lungs or heart to labor.

She—and the three beings standing around her—were there and not there.

It was not a lack of color. Transparency in a visible sense. If there was transparency, it was that the entire world, everything, had a quality of ephemerality to it. Erin did not need explanation.

“This is the land of the dead.”

All three said it.

Yes.

The [Witch]. The Drake, who wore armor like Zel had, and the silver Dragon. They looked at her.

She did not know any of them. The two she had known were…

“Are they dead?”

It was a silly question to ask. The Dragon snorted and took wing, flying after the place where the thing had been. Erin didn’t know if it was still Kasigna. It had been…she would have called it dead and rotting, but it had been alive.

Life in death. And with a shock, she realized that’s what she was, too. If the world, that false city next to Liscor had been half-real, she was fully real. Compared to the [Witch] who addressed her, at least.

“Not dead. Worse. Consumed. There is nothing left of them, as there would be nothing of you. I am sorry. They were your friends.”

It was not a question. Erin looked back. She wanted to weep, but it had been too sudden.

“This is…”

“The place where the dead go. And I am Califor. You are Erin Solstice.”

Another matter-of-fact statement. The woman spoke as if this were so and if it were not so, it had better well be so before. Erin looked at her.

“But why? This is the underworld? Heaven? This…this?”

She saw Izril’s lands around her with buildings and trees in the same place.

Layers. What was now, what had been. A reflection of the world. And the ghosts…she stared at the kneeling Drake. He did not weep. Perhaps he could not.

“Why here?”

“Why anything? Come with me. You too, Sserys. We stand too close to the edge of his protection, still.”

Erin started at the name. The Drake slowly rose. He looked at her, and then followed the [Witch]. Erin walked after her, turning.

There was nothing in Izril’s landscape. And she could cross a mile in a moment, in a single ‘step’. There was no sunlight. No light of any kind, really. All of it…was. No darkness, no illumination.

Except there were shadows. Shadows, without light. They seemed to gather and disperse at the edges of her ‘sight’.

“Yes, there are more like that one. Weaker, though. They won’t intrude so long as he guards us. Come on.

Califor grabbed Erin’s arm. There was no sensation. Erin began walking.

“So this is the land of the dead.”

“Yes.”

“Why does it exist?”

“Because souls need somewhere to go. Presumably, it was made.”

“By who?”

The woman was tall, and peered down her spectacles and nose at Erin. Califor looked like a teacher, if a teacher could be a [Witch]. Stern did not begin to describe her. Her clothing was black, but not plain; it simply had a style that you had to appreciate as your eyes picked out details among the traditional [Witch]’s garb. Her spectacles were thin, and she was tall, authoritative.

Her voice had a snap to it that did not brook with excuses or delay. She adjusted her hat now, with a brisk tug of the brim.

“Ask your pursuer. She has too much power, here. The guardian chased her off, but she will return. Yet she was not here in such strength even when I died. And before that? They were just shadows like those.”

She pointed into the distance. Erin looked over her shoulder.

“They?”

“Six of them. They gained strength recently. Now we are all in danger. That we even managed to free you was a wonder and it took the sacrifice of two to do it.”

Zel and Maviola. Gone? The Drake turned, abruptly.

“For you, he challenged one of them. I cannot believe it. Even if you are alive, it wasn’t worth it. He had to fight. If he stayed longer he would have realized there is no fighting. Not them. All you can do is keep them back and we are not Dragons. All our levels and strength is like dust compared to history. How Drakes have fallen.”

His tone was bitter. Erin looked at him.

“You’re Sserys.”

He glowered.

“Yes.”

“As in…the General Sserys of Liscor?”

“Yes.”

She blinked at him a few times. The Drake was shorter than Zel. Taller than her, but that wasn’t exactly hard. He was missing a neck-spine three down from the top, and someone had lopped off his second finger on the right. His scales were an orange-red that turned to green of all things near the very edges of his scales.

Now she looked at him, the [General] of Izril who had once been called Spear of the Drakes was striking in how different he and Zel looked. The Tidebreaker of Izril had embodied his nickname; he had been larger even than Relc, so sturdy that it seemed nothing could bowl him over, or knock him down. A Drake who fought with his bare claws.

By contrast, Sserys was slimmer. Slimmer, but definitely a warrior.  A leader, the kind who might bellow orders from the center of an army, not the front. He stood and spoke with an oversized presence, such that no one would talk over him. She supposed he might be regal by Drake standards, or impressive.

He wore gilded armor, emblazoned metal that looked like mithril cut with some other metal to give it an evanescent pale green-silver look. On it, Erin realized with a shock, someone had etched the insignia of a city.

Liscor’s heraldry, and below it, the sigils of all six Walled Cities. Yet Liscor’s emblem, the city-on-the-waters, representing the Floodplains and spring rains, rose above them all. Next to it, Sserys had a shortsword, but it seemed to Erin that the true weapon was the spear attached to his back, angled to avoid tangling with the ground or his tail, also plated in the same armor.

Sserys’ eyes were blue and pink, like his scales, the blue shot with the faintest transition to pink around the edges. Right now, the eyes were hard, concealing a wound. Pain.

He looked at Erin with anger and loss. The [Innkeeper] opened and closed her mouth a few times, unsure of what to say. So the silliest thing popped out of her mouth.

“They have a statue of you in Liscor, you know.”

General Sserys looked at her with narrowed eyes and then turned and walked away. Califor eyed Erin and pursed her lips.

“The [Lady] told me you were worth saving. Don’t make me regret it.”

 

—-

 

They moved slower here. More leisurely. If time passed, Erin couldn’t tell. The mortal world was lost to her. She supposed that if she imagined a ghost’s life, it would be spying on mortals, playing tricks, possessing stuff, and so on.

Not so, here. This was simply the place where everyone went. Every single soul, and it had everything that had ever been.

The continent of Izril blurred past Erin, as she crossed the ground faster than a horse could gallop. Faster, perhaps, than she had ever moved, even in Magnolia Reinhart’s famous carriage. A single step carried her hundreds of feet, yet she could clearly see the landscape moving past her.

The landscape. Erin passed by fields of wheat, in the middle of being harvested. That was reality, what was happening at this moment in time. Yet—it was not the only thing in that place.

A grand edifice of stone rose from the ground in the exact same spot as the wheat. A carved figure of stone, surrounded by something that resembled Stonehenge from earth. Neatly-spaced boulders, surrounding the massive, oversized shape of a bird-man. Not a Garuda; he didn’t stand in the same bipedal way. Nor did this strange person have hands. A Harpy? The monument rose around neatly-cut grass and blooming flowers. Erin craned her neck to see the writing on the base of the statue.

…And she was walking past huts in a swamp. The field of wheat and statue were both there, like Kasigna, visible if she looked for them. This time, far from the present, was a vast swamp, bubbling waters covered with floating vegetation, deep, filled with the vast roots of trees and squat trunks. If Erin had been there, actually been there, she would have surely sank below her head into the fetid waters.

Three places at the same time. All what had been, or what was. And more reflections of this land. A different time—Erin walked a war-torn land still burning from magical fire. The ground was ripped up, and turned to glass in parts. She stared at nearly a mile of smooth, burnt earth, turned into perfect, steaming crystal by some unimaginable weapon.

And more. All of it, this piece of land that had seen so much forgotten history, passed by in a moment. It was only one place on her journey, but the sight of all the moments in time was like searing pain in Erin’s head. It hurt her to try and see all of what it was. Too much for her mind.

“Don’t try to see it all. Your mind cannot handle all the layers, not while it lives. You are still alive, somehow. Alive and dead. There are some like you, trapped here while still possessing life. But none like you. From Earth.”

“You know where I’m from?”

Califor gave her another look. She was a [Witch], Erin learned. A powerful one in life.

“Yes. Maviola El explained it to us. As have many of the dead. They share what they know—those who make it to the sanctuaries.”

“Like this one?”

The Drake and [Witch] nodded. Sserys had calmed enough to walk with them. Zel had died for this Human, so he stared at her, not friendly, but talking.

“It’s been like this since the start, apparently. According to the Dragon. He spoke to others before him. There have always been shadows. They devour the weak. Until recently, they could only do that. Even Califor and I—and Zel—could have held them off. Fought them, even.”

“What changed?”

You did.

The two spoke with eerie unity. But it had been three voices. Califor and Sserys looked at Erin along with the silver Dragon.

He had landed without sound. There was no air here, no medium for it. She stared up at the Dragon.

He was as large as an airplane and a half. So gigantic he dwarfed her inn, with respect to Pelt and Dawil. And he was radiant. Magnificent. When he moved, glittering silver scales moved like a silver sea. There was no light though, and he too was dead. If he had been in reality, Erin would have probably been blinded and in tears…mainly because his scales had to reflect sunlight like a mirror.

“Oh.”

That was all she said. She stared up at him and the Dragon knelt.

Somehow, he managed to be quite graceful, despite being on all fours. He lowered his huge, sinuous head, and spoke, in a quite refined, albeit deep and booming, voice.

“Greetings, Erin Solstice, who is between death and life. I heard the plan to free you from that one’s clutches and am pleased it succeeded, for all that was lost. I am Yderigrisel. Knight-Dragon in service of Terandria and Izril. You know my protection in this place whilst my strength lasts, mortal. You may now kneel.”

The young woman stared up as the vast ghost of the great Knight-Dragon, protector and ancient ally of House Byres, looked down at her. She realized she stood in the ancient land of House Byres. And around her were suddenly the ghosts of countless people of Izril. Under the aegis of his wings.

She looked into his eyes, mesmerizing clouds of silver crossed with flashes of color.

“Um. Thank you. Hi. Nice to meet you, too.”

He blinked at her. Califor adjusted her hat. The young woman didn’t kneel. The Drake [General], Sserys, glowered.

The [Witch] began to smile.

 

—-

 

The keep of House Byres, where Yderigrisel led them, had been grand and glorious. Now, it was worn, weathered by time, where once it had been nearly twice as tall, shining with silver painted onto the façade, or perhaps even baked into the stones that had made it up.

Once, you could have looked up and seen the beacon blazing from the top, bringing a light like sunlight into the darkness of night at all times.

Once, you could see the heraldry of House Byres flying proudly, joined by whatever [Knight] or noble house was present or allied.

Once, you could see the shattered keep, blown apart by some incredible force, the entire top section collapsed—and then the repairs underway, the modest reconstruction on a limited budget.

At least they kept the hot springs.

If you looked back further, instead of the wide manor in which they all sat, the expensive furniture still harkening towards the silver motif, the paintings of each glorious member of the family on the walls and functional weaponry and armor ensconced on every wall—you could see what the land of the House of Byres had been before.

A deep forest, the kind of which you could stand in and look up without ever seeing the sky. Giant firs, a labyrinth of underbrush, before Humans had come here.

The ghosts chose to remember it in its glory days, and stood on carpets woven to glorify [Knightly] crusades, admiring maps, or relic-weapons waiting for their next owner to draw them in service of honor and valor.

Amid it all was the silver Dragon, the guest of honor, who had an entire wall devoted to murals of his legend. Not only that; in its heyday, when they had known his company, two vast double-doors had made up an entire wall, such that he could push them open and enter. Upon silver-marble tiles, he now knelt, inspecting the Human.

The Dragon’s eyes narrowed, continuing the argument. He spoke, his vast voice echoing in the central point of the manor.

“Kneel.”

“No. I don’t wanna. Thanks for saving me.”

Erin stood on the carpet, facing him, arms folded. The Dragon huffed, spectral smoke appearing for a moment, drifting upwards, and then vanishing.

“You will not show me any respect for my efforts?”

“Sure I will. Thank you so much. I mean it. But I don’t want to kneel. I’ll shake your claw.”

Yderigrisel stared at her outstretched hand. He turned his head to one side, ignoring it.

“How mortals have forgotten their manners. Or perhaps just you. The [General] knelt, as did the [Lady] when I offered them my protection.”

Erin felt a pang in her heart. She touched it.

“That was them. You protected Maviola and Zel? They needed protection?”

“Yes. Until they decided to risk all for you. Thus, I—”

Erin bowed. Yderigrisel saw her bow low, as low as she could get without looking silly.

“Thank you.”

He gazed at her. Then the Dragon harrumphed, and it was a familiar sound and a loud one.

“I must watch the borders of my sanctuary. Witch Califor, General Sserys, educate this one. We will speak soon, Erin Solstice. We must.”

He took wing. Erin watched him go. An irked voice came from her left.

“What a curious Human. Zel told me you knew him before the Necromancer slew him.”

Erin turned.

“The…Necromancer?”

“Az’kerash. He lives. Remember that, if you should wake. Tell the Walled Cities. He must die. And so must those shades, if it can be done.”

Sserys sat on a fancy chair in House Byres’ manor. Yderigrisel had spoken to them there, crouching in the Byres home where they had once made it so he could enter and leave and talk with them at will.

More ghosts milled about the manor, and the landscape. In the sanctuary of the silver Dragon. They…didn’t do much.

They talked, or sat, as if content to pass away forever like that. Some argued, others asked newer ghosts what was happening, or they told stories.

There was no food to eat. No games to play. Children and adults sat there. Babies floated in the air or were held, not always by their parents. And if there was a vast number of them, beyond hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions or more—it was a small number, apparently, compared to all those who had died.

“The sanctuaries are decreasing. Even now, more fall. This is how it was. When anyone died, they came here. Young or small. Glorious and strong or weak. All but monsters. All peoples. Even Stitch-Folk in time. Except Goblins. And then—except Antinium.”

Erin stirred. She looked around and realized what she had not seen.

There were no Goblins here. Nor—Antinium. The people were mostly Human, but anyone who had ever died around here and found sanctuary. Dullahans, Drakes, Stitch-Folk…

“Why not?”

Califor spoke, regarding the countless ghosts.

“Perhaps they have somewhere else. Perhaps they aren’t welcome here.”

The Drake was older than Califor by far, but Califor seemed to have learned more. He took over.

“It was simple, Human. You died and if you were lucky, a strong soul kept away the shadows. You saw one of them—and more.”

“Kas—”

Califor covered her mouth. Erin stopped. The [Witch] looked at her.

“Do not say it. Names are power. And that one is power here. She wasn’t always.”

She looked at Sserys and the Drake nodded.

“No, she was not. There are six now with names and faces. They speak, they can barely be stopped. Yderigrisel can stop two at once; they tried to consume all the souls here. But that one…”

He shook his head. Erin tried to imagine it.

“Wait, so before ‘now’—how many days are we talking?”

He snorted at her and rudely put his feet up on the table. For a great [General] revered by all, Sserys was ruder and less couth than Zel himself was.

“Time is meaningless here. All I know is that the six gained strength ‘recently’. Very recently. And then, when everything shook—”

“The Summer Solstice.”

Sserys paused. Erin looked at Califor and the [Witch] stared at her, knowingly.

“Yes. Then. The shadows were even stronger after that. All of them were. Before, when I died, they were just…scavengers. They ate some of the [Soldiers] who died with me after the Antinium slaughtered us, but I kept the rest back. We went from sanctuary to sanctuary and there wasn’t as much danger. Oh, there was if you left the aegis of a powerful soul, but I walked the entire world and saw other souls doing the same. Now? It’s oblivion. A final death.”

“But this is death.”

“Yes. Though I think consumption is the final end. Perhaps it isn’t. But I do not think to see Maviola or Zel again. Those things are predators. I told my coven as much when they reached out to me. I tried to pass on, yet there was nothing to pass on to! We cannot die or move on, but we can be eaten. Why, I do not know. That is this reality, though.”

Califor spoke simply. Erin put her head in her hands.

“Why am I alive, then?”

“Simple. You did not fully die.”

“What? Don’t be silly. I got shot with crossbow bolts. Six of ‘em, I think. I…died…”

The [Innkeeper] touched her chest. She remembered the pain.

Sserys stirred. His tail moved and his mouth opened, but he hesitated. Califor raised her brows slowly.

“You don’t know? Of course not. Listen to me, Erin Solstice.”

Califor looked at the [Innkeeper].

“Maviola El was the last great soul to make it. Few do, now. Yderigrisel cannot find them and it is too dangerous for us to escort them here. But she did. Once we told her of this place, she told us all that you were alive. That you were a child of Earth, another world, as two are in this place. And that we had to rescue you. She convinced us to try.”

Sserys grasped at Erin’s arm.

“And Zel died from it. If you live, remember. Az’kerash slew him. He lives. Tell the Walled Cities! Tell them—”

She didn’t feel that. But she still felt. She looked at her hands, and knew she was one of the few solid things in this world. And hope blossomed in her chest?

“I’m alive? How?”

 

—-

 

Frozen in ice. Erin’s eyes were unfocused, trying to imagine it.

“I’m a block of ice?”

“It makes little sense as we understand it. But Maviola El apparently saw you—and that thing—as she fled here. Your soul is proof enough. You live. And you must be guarded until you can return. If you return. Otherwise something might take your place.”

Erin’s body lay in the [Garden of Sanctuary], according to Maviola. Califor and Sserys could not confirm that fact, only tell Erin what Maviola knew. Nor could they check. Apparently even ghosts couldn’t enter the garden, so she was safe in theory.

She spoke to Yderigrisel and Califor and Sserys—and a number of other ghosts.

There was no real pecking order in the lands of the dead in terms of social rank. A [Farmer] was no different from a [Lord] here, unless both ghosts believed it. Some did. But the real test was…strength of the soul.

It corresponded to the level they held in life, by and large. Even souls without levels were here.

Yderigrisel was one. He snorted when Erin asked why he could protect the sanctuary when Sserys, Califor, Maviola, and Zel had been all but helpless and only able to delay Kasigna a second.

“What levels were they in life, Erin Solstice? Level 50? Level 60 at best? I am a Dragon. Not just a Dragon, but one of the oldest of my generation. Last Knight-Dragon to fly! I died in the Creler Wars and brought low countless tens of thousands of my foes. I have battled [Archmages] and fought with [Heroes]. The greatest of your time would pale before me.”

She eyed him.

“Well, that’s humble.”

“It is not arrogance to state the truth.”

The silver Dragon was sort of a jerk. Or rather, he had some Ylawes-qualities taken to extremes. He reminded her of Eldavin, actually. And Ilvriss.

So just Drakes in general. And it was true his soul was definitely ‘strongest’ here. Erin felt it wasn’t just strength alone that gave him the power to repel the shadow-things. He could still breathe fire, which was more than the ghosts who lacked Skills or magic.

“Okay. But if I’m dead, can I tell them I’m here? Ask them to, I don’t know, fix me? Do they even know?”

“Maviola claimed they were trying. As for talking with them…is it possible?”

All turned to Yderigrisel. He snorted, not out of contempt.

“This is the end of all things. This is the world after death. Yet it touches life. Once, it was possible to summon ghosts and spirits from the other side. Such that true death was oblivion; even in death, it was possible to serve or suffer. No longer. Spells that reach into this place grasp nothing because we must hide from those things. Even if one appeared close to us by chance…you would have to risk everything. And it would take the kind of magic few can cast.”

“[Witches] could do it. We thought the afterlife was waning of power for millennia. Now, we know why and that it is true. My coven summoned me because I was newly-dead and we had a strong connection. If they could do it again, I would answer despite the risk. But that one walks Izril strongly.”

“Who?”

The ghosts fell silent. After a time, one of House Byres’ [Lords] answered somberly.

“The one with the beard.”

That was how they named them. They had seen all six, or some had, and rather than use names, they all had characteristics.

“Listen. Remember.”

Califor told them to Erin one at a time.

 

The man with the beard.

The young hunter.

The wise man.

The three women in one.

The dancing man.

And…the lost thing.

 

“Each one is far greater than the lesser shadows. They have actual bodies. Names. Flee them. Especially the three women in one. She seems to have the most authority here. Already, they destroyed two of the Walled Cities.”

“What? How?”

Sserys spoke shortly.

“She means the stronghold of ghosts, not the place itself. There are more than six. And speaking of six—when all six gather, not even ten of Yderigrisel can stand against them. Fortunately for us, that happens rarely. They seem to bicker and dislike each other as much as ally. What are they?”

The ghosts seemed used to this conclave, this discussion. They spoke, earnestly.

“The thing of Rhir, perhaps. It is a dead place; not even souls walk it. Something eats them which is both here and in the living world. Perhaps it spawned something worse than Crelers.”

“Undead? Az’kerash’s minions.”

The silver Dragon snorted at Sserys.

“Little Drake, you give one [Necromancer] too much credit. If he failed before your love, he was no great [Necromancer] as I knew them.”

The Drake bristled.

“Zel was the greatest [General] of his era!”

“Yes. Of his era. I disparage him not, but even a Level 80 [Necromancer] as I once crusaded against did not seem to have this much power…”

Erin looked from face to face. Califor sat with several [Witches], all of whom had created a coven in death. Sserys and a few strong non-Human souls spoke with Yderigrisel and the dead of House Byres. Erin waved a hand.

“Excuse me? Hello? What if they’re…gods? Has anyone suggested that? I mean, isn’t it obvious?”

The ghosts stopped arguing and looked up. One by one they fixed on her. Yderigrisel flapped his wings uncertainly.

“But the gods are dead. Even when I was a child, I was told…”

He looked at her. And Erin thought she felt a shadow even in this place. The heads of all the ghosts turned.

“I just said—”

“Stop. Speaking.”

One of the [Witches] who resembled more of a toad than person hissed at her. Her slitted eyes rolled uneasily.

“You are attracting attention. Someone find the other children. The burning flame was right. This is the answer.”

 

—-

 

Even the dead were bound by the phenomenon about dead gods. The children of Earth were not.

Erin Solstice had felt fear when she met Kasigna.

She had felt sorrow when realizing Zel’s sacrifice and Maviola’s loss.

She had felt anger at this strange afterlife.

Now, she felt guilt. Trepidation, as the fainter soul stopped and stared at her in wonder. The ghosts marveled at how real Erin was. But they were still perfect in every detail. She saw darker skin, curious eyes behind glasses. And fear, even now.

One ghost stopped before her. He enunciated carefully.

“Hello. My name is Abel. I’m pleased to meet you.”

Erin hesitated. She slowly took the proffered hand of the young man.

“I’m Erin. I’m…pleased to meet you.”

He nodded. After a moment, he looked at her.

“You’re also from Earth?”

“Yes.”

“He speaks a language unlike ours. He and the other. We wondered at his tales of Earth and a world full of machines and no magic. Ghosts can lie, of course. Now, we know he was telling the truth. He came recently. But longer ago than I.”

Califor regarded the young man. Abel nodded, concentrating to translate. After a moment, he looked at Erin.

“I was eaten. I did not know what happened. I do not know…how I came here. Do you know?”

Erin’s heart sank. She shook her head.

“No. W-what happened exactly? I’m so sorry, Abel. I was like you. I met other people.”

He smiled.

“They are alive? Good. We died. We…”

His face fell. Ghosts could not cry. But he shuddered even so at the memory.

“They came out of the ground. We asked them to save us. They are called Crelers.”

Crelers. Erin’s eyes went wide.

“Abel. Do you know…an Imani?”

He looked at her in shock.

“Imani? She was with us.”

“She’s alive. She—she—”

Erin wiped at her eyes. The young man and Califor watched. Erin looked around.

“This is too much. Why am I here? Why is this here? I don’t want this. This is death? It’s not right.”

“Since when did right or wrong matter?”

Califor regarded her. Erin shuddered. Then she looked at Abel. She expected him to be…angry. Hurt. Sad, any of these emotions and more, but he wasn’t. He just smiled, happy for once.

“I am glad she lived. Please, tell me about her.”

No malice in the dead for the living. Just regret and relief. Erin wiped at her eyes again. Then she told him.

 

—-

 

“I’m not dead.”

Erin poked herself in the chest again, just to tell. It didn’t hurt, yet she was still solid. Realer. Califor hovered over her shoulder.

The [Witch] had come to help Erin, despite not ever having met her. Erin hadn’t asked why. Sserys made more sense, strangely.

Zel. Erin thought about it. It was too fast. Realizing she was trapped, fleeing Kasigna and being saved. She had seen him and then he was gone.

She wished it hurt more. But she had already known he died once. A second time?

“I’m not dead. They froze me.”

It was so strange. She hadn’t expected that. Who had come up with that idea? It had to be someone from Earth. Kevin? That felt right. That was a real Kevin-move. Erin smiled.

“I’m not dead!”

The [Witch] looked at her.

“Nor are you alive, according to Maviola El. And the bolts were poisoned. You cannot be healed. She feared the task of healing you was monumental.”

“Yeah. But…”

Erin’s voice trailed off. She sat there and thought.

Maviola El. Like Zel, she had come out of nowhere. She had burned Kasigna, going in to give Erin a chance to escape.

A glorious end. Still, Erin’s stomach suddenly fell. A terrible, terrible realization slowly engulfed her.

Why had Maviola been here? For this was the land of the dead. And that only meant…

“Califor. Maviola was alive when I…when I got shot. She was in the north. What happened? Did her time run out?”

Surely, that was it. Erin had known Maviola had a time limit of sorts. The [Witch] looked at her.

Califor the [Witch] could be kind. Could be gentle, and walk with a feather’s touch. But that was not Califor the Witch, one of the greatest of her era. She spoke and the words snapped even without air.

“She died in battle. Saving a love. And he went to war for you. Against a city called Hectval. I am told thousands died in the battle. The Necromancer interfered, but Olesm Swifttail and the army of Liscor, even the Antinium, threw themselves into a trap and suffered for it.”

Erin slowly recoiled. She stepped back and drifted for a moment. Weightless.

“No. That can’t be—”

What reason did Califor have to lie? The [Witch] regarded her.

“I wondered what sort of person would inspire the Tidebreaker of Izril and the matriarch of the House of El to sacrifice themselves to save. I see why. And I also see that you haven’t understood. You are not dead. Not yet. But you did die. And now, your friends, your family are trying to move the world to save you. Even if they die.”

“No. I don’t want that. They went to war? I—I—”

General Sserys shook his head, regarding Erin with disdain.

“Silly girl. Did you think you were not loved? Did you think they would do nothing? I have seen brave men and women of every species hurl themselves onto spear tips to save a lover, a friend. For a chance. Look at you. You haven’t even processed your death.”

He pointed. His claw accusatorially aimed at her chest. Erin looked down.

Six crossbow bolts stood out of her skin, blood oozing around the broken flesh. She stared at the colorful fletching and reached up to tug at them.

It hit her again.

“I…died? But I never saw it.”

She looked up at Sserys, pleadingly. He shook his head.

“You walked into an ambush. The [Lady] of fire told us all. A silly Human, running into crossbow bolts. Not even a protective ring. As if you were immortal.”

“I thought it wasn’t dangerous. I didn’t know—”

Her protests felt feeble. Califor looked at her.

“Few do. Who here knew how they would die? You, who died in battle?”

She turned. The [Lords] and [Ladies] of House Byres, the other guests of this place, Sserys, all shook their heads. Califor turned to Erin.

“I knew my death when the Spider, the Stitch Witch came to me and offered the dark deal. My daughter’s life, or mine. I never expected to die until the moment came upon me.”

“You had one chance. We all did.”

Sserys sat there.

But suddenly, Sserys was sitting at a desk in a war tent. He looked up as screaming filled the air. Erin saw the Drake slowly draw his sword as the tent flaps parted and a vast, insectile form cast a shadow. The Drake lunged—

Erin saw the memory play out in front of her. For a second, she smelled what he had smelled, even felt his emotions from afar. The sensations.

His last moments. Sserys sat there, a single wound torn through his armor, his heart and body. He touched it and looked at her.

“I thought we stood on the moment of true victory. In arrogance, I never thought the Antinium had any last resorts. They unleashed their great warrior and I damned my people to war with them for decades since. Perhaps centuries. We all had one chance. And now you’re dead. Because you weren’t cautious. Because you thought yourself immortal. And because of luck, now they sacrifice themselves to give you another chance. First Maviola, then Zel. How many more?”

Erin looked down at her death. She looked at Sserys, at Califor. The [Witch] was not as bitter as the dead [General]. Nevertheless, her gaze was no less piercing.

She had one chance. And this? Erin tugged at the bolts weakly, yet she had no strength to draw them out.

“But I don’t want to be dead. I wanted to live. I want to…”

Blood ran down her front. The ghosts looked at her, pityingly, mercilessly, envying the shred of hope. The gaze of the countless dead, hiding from dark things even here.

Erin fled.

 

—-

 

The aegis of Yderigrisel extended far around the lands of House Byres. Erin felt the safety of his presence, like the radiance of his scales.

She ran, knowing it was foolish. But their calm, cold judgment had revealed the truth to her. What a pointless, foolish death.

An accident. Some Drakes with crossbows. Why that way? Of all the ways…

“I want to live. I didn’t want this! Maviola? Olesm? The Antinium? War? How many died?”

Erin sobbed. She stumbled across the landscape, miles blurring with each moment. Space was different here.

She stopped as she realized she’d gone far. She turned back, fearing she had gone too far and the shadows—she whirled.

No, there was no Kasigna. No…Tamaroth.

God of Rulers. Protect Us in Our Weakness. The old coin he’d given her burned in her memory.

She knew what they were. But why were they like that?

Why was this the afterlife?

“Why am I here? Alive? Dead? I—I have to get to my body. I’ll go back. Send a message. Tell them not to…”

But she wanted to live. It was still there, such a strong desire that despite the grief, the fear for her friends who would risk themselves for her, she still wanted to open her eyes.

To hug her family in this world and promise never to be so stupid again.

She wanted to see her real parents.

The little ghost, not quite dead, not fully alive, knelt on the ground and covered her face. Her tears fell to the ground and vanished. Shadows gathered in the distance, watching her. But they never approached.

Someone stood there. Keeping this place safe. Erin looked up as she saw the figure standing there.

This was safety. However, this was not Yderigrisel’s lands. She had run here, by accident, feeling safe in the shadow of a second mighty presence.

“Hope is a terrible thing, girl. Perhaps you will never wake. Like me, you will stay here. Neither dead nor alive. Waiting for one or the other. And that is worst of all.”

She looked up. A man stood in front of her. Erin recoiled—but he had no beard. Nor a nature like the strangers. The dead, rotting devourers.

Even so, she might have feared him. Once, perhaps, she would have looked upon the half-rotted flesh, the decay seeping along one arm and recoiled.

But she looked at his robes. She stood as the [Necromancer] nodded to her. And she realized he was a half-Elf, not Human. One ear on his left side had been torn away.

His features were somber. She stared at his face, at his body, clothed in once-regal robes torn by some battle. They were real. Real as she was.

This was no ghost. Still, he was here. The half-Elf [Necromancer] regarded her.

“Why have you come here, half-ghost girl? Has the silver Dragon taken to exiling souls from his precious sanctuary? It seems petty of him. We are all too soon to disappear when the six find us. And I offer no protection of my own.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I—I must have run out of his place. I…I’m Erin. I’m sorry if I bothered you. If you’ll just point the way back, I’ll go.”

The ghost’s eyebrows raised. The half-Elf blinked at her.

“How odd. Don’t you fear me? Or don’t you recognize my nature?”

He gestured at his rotten arm. She hesitated.

“Um. [Necromancer]?”

A single nod. Erin hesitated.

“I know it sounds like I’m making this up, but I actually do know a [Necromancer]. He’s not as uh, decayed as you, but he helped me a lot. Saved my life.”

“How strange.”

The half-Elf shook his head. He half-smiled.

“How strange. And you’re not dead yet. Was that his doing?”

“No. I don’t think so. I got hurt and…I was careless. I just died and I’m—trying to figure it out.”

Erin hung her head. The [Necromancer] nodded.

“Ah. You spoke to the ghosts of the Dragon’s sanctuary? They can be cruel without knowing it. They are dead. We are alive and can still regret and wish it were otherwise. I would not remain in their company, even had they welcomed me. Not that the Dragon and I speak to each other. Even in death, we do not care for each other’s company, he and I. If it were not for the threats of those shades, we would surely clash until one or the other fled.”

He grinned mirthlessly. Erin stared at him. The [Necromancer] seemed to relish the idea. Erin raised a hand.

“I’m sorry, but who are you? I didn’t think there were so many uh, big souls around here. I’m Erin. And you are…?”

This time the half-Elf really did look surprised. And then a bit offended.

“Have they forgotten me so soon? Does my appearance, the protection of this place not tell you who I am?”

He tilted his head, as if the ligaments and bones were not an impediment to moving the head at unnatural angles. Erin hesitated.

“Well, I’m not from here.”

“Even so. A master of death? Rot, putrefaction? If you know the legends of old, you would know the great [Necromancer] as…?”

He looked hopeful. Erin bit her lip.

“Uh—Az’kerash is the only one I’m thinking of. And someone just told me he was alive.”

The half-Elf sagged.

“So even my legacy is lost. Well. You stand before the Putrid One. At least, so they knew me. A legend of death I thought would never be eclipsed. Which was true until the next [Necromancer] appeared.”

He waved a hand. Erin bit her lip. Now he said it, she almost felt like she’d heard the name once before. Maybe Pisces had mentioned it. She had nothing.

“Sorry.”

“It is not your fault. So, then. The silver Dragon’s lands are that way. But if you would care to—tell me how you died, Erin. It has been too long since I have seen someone else trapped beyond death and life.”

He gestured, and a seat appeared. Erin stared at it, agog. There was just grass, but that was a seat! And not an echo of the world. The Putrid One looked at her.

“A memory. I sat here when I was just a boy.”

It was a beautiful little stool. Hand-carved, wooden, but decorated, as if someone had taken months, even a year of effort to create a stool for a child, with little patterns of birds and plants lovingly etched into it.

His memory. Erin hesitated, then sat. The Putrid One sat on a similar chair. She looked at him.

“I’ve been dead…I don’t know how long. Months? Weeks? Days? Recently, I think. Around the Summer Solstice.”

“Ah. What year?”

She hesitated.

“I have no idea.”

He tilted his head again.

“…Then how many years has it been since the life of [Archmage] Seenaw, the Garuda? The Archmage of Light? The Radiance of Sands?”

“Um…I don’t know. Never heard of them.”

The Putrid One pondered.

“If you do not know me, then perhaps…has a Dragon been slain in living memory?”

“Er…not that I know. Oh! The Creler Wars were like—six thousand years ago?”

“The what?”

The two exchanged looks, and then began to laugh. Erin laughed and the half-Elf chuckled. And he didn’t seem so bad. Erin shook her head.

“I’m not dead. I’m frozen in ice. I was shot by poisoned crossbow bolts.”

The [Necromancer] raised an eyebrow.

“Indeed? May you live, then. There are far more significant deaths. I myself fell in battle at the end of my great ambition. Slain in battle by the hero of my age. Because of my power, I am not dead. Still, I fear that if my body is touched, life will be but one moment.”

He sighed. Erin bit her lip.

“Oh. That’s…terrible. I’m sorry.”

“I yearn for it. Because it is one thing to know I am dead. Another to wish to live, even for one moment before I can finally rest. There will be none for you or me, Miss Erin. The living do not belong here, yet we cannot leave until our last links are severed. And it seems even in death, my protectors are too strong. My greatest servant watches over me still. That I could command them…but death has severed my magic.”

Another smile. The half-Elf looked so maudlin. Erin gulped.

“I—I don’t want that either. How long…has it been?”

The Putrid One looked at her.

“Countless eons, Erin. Did they tell you to regret your follies in life, those ghosts? They should have told you to regret that you had not fully died. For you may suffer here forever.”

 

—-

 

Califor and Sserys found Erin in the land that was called the Village of the Dead. Erin saw the rotting houses, the uneasy construction that had no sense for…living…inhabitants. And what lay beyond, the true center of this place where the [Necromancer] remained.

As well as the pristine grazing lands that had been before this place had been erected. The river that had been here until some jerks decided it needed to go the other way to feed a huge city in the distance.

The [Witch] halted before the half-Elf as he stood in his home in the present, a place of death, his tomb. The Putrid Once glanced at her and sighed at the intrusion.

“Begone, little ghost.”

He turned and the [Witch] held her ground. Barely.

“I have come for Erin Solstice, [Necromancer]. I have business with her.”

“The dead have business with the living?”

Eyebrows rose. The half-Elf regarded the Drake [General], again without much interest. Then he looked up.

Yderigrisel landed. The Dragon and [Necromancer] scowled at each other.

“Release the child to me, Putrid One.”

“She was never a captive, Dragon.”

Erin waved her arm urgently, edging between them. Both ghosts looked at her.

“I’m sorry I ran off. I was just—I met this guy. Don’t fight!”

Yderigrisel and the Putrid One eyed her, and then each other a second time.

“This is not the time for conflict, Putrid One. Even in this place, I despise the slaughter and chaos you and your kind have wrought. Untold millions of deaths. You turned kingdoms to rotten abysses of despair and deserved far worse than death.”

Erin gulped. The half-Elf just smiled in reply. He caught her gaze.

“Did you think they called me that for nothing?

He laughed, and suddenly his teeth were gone and something wriggled in his mouth. Erin backed up.

“I thought you were nice!

The half-Elf closed his mouth, looking affronted.

“To one trapped as I am, yes. But I will not be lectured on how I lived. Not by a lizard who dreamed of being treated as a [Knight] and knelt to every kingdom and [Lord] he could find.”

He sneered at the silver Dragon. Yderigrisel’s eyes narrowed. He inhaled—and Erin floated up.

“Stop! Stop!”

She caught herself. She was flying! Or—just moving without her feet. The Dragon eyed her.

“I do not suffer insult. However…”

He looked towards the distance, then the Putrid One.

“I tell you this, [Necromancer], only because it concerns us both. The Five Families are broken in the north. Their sanctuary—gone.”

The Putrid One’s eyes flickered.

“Gone? Already? A ghost fleeing there told me all five houses stood together for the first time in death.”

“They did. And the six devourers walked upon them. Izril dwindles. I have no energy to spend on conflict with you. Make your peace, for even you will end. If you will it, let us both hold them off until the last.”

The Dragon pointed a wing back the way he’d flown. The Putrid One looked past him, at Erin. The young woman saw Califor’s grave face, and Sserys’ unease. She saw the half-Elf slowly nod.

“Very well. An end to it all will be a relief.”

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice had come to the land of the dead just in time to see it end. She realized that now. Even the afterlife was changing. One of the ghosts, a [Lord] wearing silver mail, spoke grimly.

“The sanctuary was at First Landing, where the Five Families of Izril first landed. One of the strongest sanctuaries. Every generation of all the noble houses stood there.”

The ghosts stood in conclave. The Putrid One stood by himself; Yderigrisel and the House of Byres glared at him, but even they held their arguments as he spoke.

“There are greater sanctuaries. The Five Families are new to Izril. There was a time long before them when Gnolls and Drakes ruled here. The Tribes still stand in death in the south.”

“Not much longer.”

Califor and the coven of dead [Witches] were not the greatest of their kind. Of their generation, perhaps. Some had gone far and wide. The toad-witch was called Uonp.

“I went to Baleros where many Dragons died. I have seen the [Kings] and [Queens] in Terandria still holding court. Many great souls exist, for all are here who once lived. Yet as I fled, I saw Dragons eaten. Consumed to nothingness.”

“How? I have held off two. And I am valorous and courageous even among my kind—”

Califor and the Putrid One rolled their eyes as Yderigrisel spoke. The Dragon went on, ignoring them.

“—I cannot imagine one of my kind save for the young would fall so easily. Even the bearded man I could hold off. If with the aid of House Byres’ strongest.”

He nodded to the dead [Knights] and nobility who bowed. Uonp shook her head.

“Strength of the soul? It means nothing to her. You burned her when she was off-guard, mighty Yderigrisel. I have witnessed her slowly unmaking each sanctuary. She will come here. If only for her.”

She pointed. And all eyes turned to Erin. Now, the young woman stood there and felt odd.

“Why me?”

But she knew. Califor answered her.

“Because you stand at the heart of why they gained in strength. You come from another world. And this is a thing unheard of.”

The other [Witches] nodded. Yderigrisel inclined his mighty head. Erin stood with Abel and a girl named Cadence. The others had been…lost…when they died.

Each one was from Earth. Each one had told their stories to the ghosts. And they were different and alike. Erin had lived longest; Abel had died within the hour he had come to this world. Cadence? She had gone to a town and done well, telling people she was from elsewhere. They hadn’t believed her, but she had been trying to find others like her when she fell ill.

Just…ill. A sickness that hit her hard because she had no immunity to the diseases. Made worse by a healing potion administered before they realized it was disease.

She had died in a bed. For all Erin had done much more than the other two…here it ended.

A magic door? Making friends with the Antinium? None of it mattered here. The dead could not touch the living. And the Putrid One had set the world of his time to quaking with legions of undead. Yderigrisel had fought Crelers when they first emerged from Rhir in a swarm to end all things.

What mattered was that they were from Earth and could believe in gods. What mattered was…

“She is alive. Let her and the [Necromancer] flee this place and attract the attention of the hungry strangers. We should join other strongholds. What business have we with her?”

A [Legendary Mercenary] pointed at Erin and the Putrid One. He was rebuffed almost at once by two sources. The first was Yderigrisel. The Dragon’s head lowered and he stared at the Dwarf.

“I have given my oath to protect both Erin Solstice and fight with the [Necromancer]. I will not be forsworn in death when I honored every vow in life.

The first [Lord] of House Byres spoke, silvery mustache moving in the invisible breeze of his memory.

“This is our home, likewise. If House Byres is to end, let it be here.”

The others nodded solemnly, even eagerly.

A glorious battle against the predators of dead souls in the afterlife. How noble. How pointless. Erin saw it on the face of Sserys and Califor. It was the [Witch] who replied, nodding to the assembled ghosts.

“If that is your will, House of Byres, Yderigrisel, do what you wish. But that is not why I agreed to help Maviola El when she beseeched us. I care nothing for honor or glory. We are dead and I would rather flee than face whatever end those six have.”

She was met with scowls among the honorable ghosts. A smile from the Putrid One. Sserys shrugged, seemingly at home with the statement. Califor went on, and now she looked at the [Innkeeper].

“I did not rescue you out of pity, Erin. I aided Maviola to fight the three-in-one for your soul because you live. Because there is a chance, however slim, that you may return to your body. And if so…you must remember this. You must tell them on waking what you learned here. And you must carry my wish among the living.”

She advanced. Erin looked at her.

“Your wish?”

Another of the coven of [Witches] frowned at Califor.

“There have been those who die and come here. Even our sisters who walked the land of the dead in the heights of magic, Califor. They wake as dreamers, with faint recollections.”

Califor rounded on the other ghosts of [Witches].

“Perhaps a child of Earth is different. But even if it is only a dream, I am too near death to not be a part of this world. Sisters, when you see those six, does your spirit not rebel? Do you not abhor them? They are our enemies, and I do not know when [Witches] swore to oppose them. I know it in my craft. Even here.”

Pointed hats turned. Erin felt a chill. This was older than the Putrid One. Older than Yderigrisel. Califor turned back to her.

“I would arm you, Erin Solstice, in the hopes you live. Arm you with knowledge. Arm you with all I knew and every secret of the dead. And I will keep you safe if it is within my power. Because you must live and fulfill my wish.”

She reached out and grabbed Erin’s arm. The young woman actually felt pressure. Califor looked—desperate as she drew closer.

“What? What is it?”

“My child. I left my child! The [Witch], Belavierr, gave me a choice. My death or hers and I died for her. I left her behind and this world grows crueler. You must protect her. I wish I had taught her more. I wish I had not left her. I will have you swear it upon your soul.”

The [Witch]’s voice was desperate, pleading. A sigh. Erin stared into her eyes. Everything, every regret and hope and dream of Califor was in that one wish.

“I—I’ll try if I can. But I don’t even know if it’s possible.”

“If. If it is, you owe more than one debt.”

This time, it was Sserys. He approached her, wearing the armor of the [General] of Liscor, pointing accusingly at her face.

“Zel Shivertail died for you. The Necromancer plagues Izril still, in secret! He must be avenged! Remember! Tell the Walled Cities!”

He faced her. Erin hesitated. The weight of his desires and Califor’s pressed on her. The power of the two dead ghosts. Sserys drew nearer still. And suddenly—his face was wracked by the same pain as Califor’s.

“I regret many things too. If I had not been so foolish at the end. If I had waited for him to join me, I would not have left him alone all these years. Regrets?”

He laughed, hollowly, and suddenly he bore his death-wounds again. The Drake reached for her, grasping, hands passing through her shoulder. He whispered.

“I wish I had spoken my love. I don’t regret my war. I don’t regret fighting for the Walled Cities and my home. I wish I had not died. But if only I could have also told them who I was. If I could have shouted that—maybe they would not be so cruel. Maybe he would have lived longer.”

Califor was still whispering, pouring out her regrets.

“Nanette, Nanette, my child. I wish I had taken you elsewhere. I wish I had seen you smile more…”

The Putrid One drifted closer. And suddenly his face was twisted by the same despair as the other two. But for different reasons. He looked at Erin, almost angry.

“Human girl. Mortal woman. I loathe you. If you have a second chance, if you could recognize your mistakes, I hate you. I envy you. And if I could take that away from you…”

His hand opened and closed. His rotten features drew closer.

“I am like you. Yet when the time of my return comes, it shall be the moment of my death. So. I wish I had another chance. I wish I had seen more clearly.”

She tried to back away as the three ghosts pressed around her. Suddenly, there was another voice.

“I wish I had told my family I loved them. I fought with them before I left. They will never know where I went. That I loved them. Tell them. I wish I had done more with my life.”

Abel reached for Erin. His features twisted. The young woman tried to pull away.

“I’ll try, Abel. I’ll try, Califor. Stop—stop telling me. Please…?”

One of the [Ladies] announced herself in a mournful sigh.

“I wish the House of Byres had not faded. I wish my descendants would recall our glory.”

She drifted closer. Erin turned. Suddenly—all the ghosts were drifting towards her.

It was like a vortex. Their faces began to twist with grief, longing, loss. Something in Califor’s desperation called to them. They came towards Erin, moving around her.

In a spiral. She tried to flee. But then even Yderigrisel spoke.

“I wish I had not died. I wish my kin lived. There are so few left. I wish our time was not ending. I wish I was remembered…”

Even him. They circled Erin. Reaching towards her. Pulling at her, demanding her to carry their wishes. She tried to flee. To scream.

Three ghosts clung to her. The Putrid One, Sserys, Califor. They whispered in her ears, dragging at her, pulling, as if trying to put themselves in her. So she could carry them to the land of the living.

“I wish I had loved.”

“I wish I had another chance.”

“I wish I had left her more.”

I wish—

She was sinking in an ocean of ghosts as they all called for her. The [Innkeeper] cried out. She heard the voices merging together. They were creeping under her skin. Into her body. Into her s—

A voice shouted amid the storm of whispers.

I lived well! I have no regrets!

The whispers stopped. Erin saw a single figure standing there. She lifted the spear over her head. Her tanned skin, and smile—

She was so many years younger than when Erin had met her. But she stood the same way. Salt flecked hair. A smile as she and her husband walked through the sea of despair.

Gresaria Wellfar swung her spear and the sea of ghosts parted. She shouted at the stronger ghosts, laughing.

“I did everything I wanted. I tried everything I could. I did not always succeed—but I would never give my dreams to someone else to carry. For shame! Stand back, you sea-leeches!”

The ghosts drifted back, blinking. Recoiling. The Putrid One let go of Erin, as the trance of misery faded. Yderigrisel flapped backwards.

“What was that?”

“Wishes are a dangerous thing. Hello, [Innkeeper]. I was told Maviola died well at the end. And again, I wasn’t there to see it. Just like her.”

Gresaria Wellfar touched Erin’s arm. The young woman gasped in relief. The [Lady] turned. She was almost as young as Erin, just half a decade older. Her husband bowed to Erin.

“Well met.”

She breathed. Then—looked again.

Gresaria? Thank you. And you’re…”

The pair of them smiled. Young as Erin or Ryoka. It was how they saw themselves.

Erin Solstice had met Gresaria for half a day, and it had mainly been Gresaria trying to ‘kill’ Maviola. She had never seen her again.

The old rival to Maviola El had died in the north, when the Flowers of Izril went to war against the Guild of Assassins. She had roused the pride of the nobility and led the [Captains] and crews of First Landing against the guild itself.

This was what Erin had heard. She was ashamed to admit that even then, the news had been a distant blow compared to the immediate, like Tritel and Ci, Lord Toldos, and the others.

Now, she looked at Gresaria and felt tears spring to her eyes. Twice, Gresaria had helped Erin and her friends, without even knowing her.

“Thank you.”

She repeated herself. At a loss for something else to say to encapsulate it all. Gresaria and her husband looked at her. Then the [Harbormistress] of First Landing, the Duchess of the Waves, the Duchess of Salt, threw back her head and laughed. Her green-and-brown hair shone for a second, and she looked as young as Maviola.

“For what? I should be thanking you, and that reckless flaming horse thief! What a way to end it all. But not you, eh? May you have a thousand adventures more.”

“And find yourself an adventurous wife. That’s what I did.”

Her husband winked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked at them as they grinned and Gresaria gently squeezed her shoulder.

She wished she had known them when they were alive.

 

—-

 

“Why are you here, ghost? I thank you for—stopping us.”

Afterwards, as the ghosts haunted by memory and regret returned to normal, Yderigrisel inclined his head to her. Gresaria nodded briskly at him, addressing the congregation of the dead.

“I did not think to see a living girl here, much less one I knew. We come here bearing warning. First Landing has fallen. The six strangers assailed us. The Five Families stood against them—and fell. We left rather than fight a losing battle, to warn the others. There is no standing against the three-in-one.”

The ghosts fell silent. Erin saw the Byres family look at each other.

“How? They were not all mighty, but there were six Dragons who held that sanctuary. How did they fall?”

Yderigrisel demanded, shocked. Gresaria looked up at him gravely.

“They did not fight. They were prepared to, but the three-in-one—that woman—she walked forwards. And they knelt and vanished before her. She rules this place. And with each moment, she holds it more strongly. The ghosts fled; the six will pursue, yet I saw three walk this way. Now, I know why.”

She looked at Erin. The ghosts began to susurrate, little wailing whispers. Califor looked around.

“Then we must flee.”

“Where? Can any stronghold of the dead stand against that kind of power?”

One of the [Witches] demanded, despairing. Califor turned on her.

“Perhaps not. But what else is there to hope for? Izril is lost. The bearded man is rooted here and clearly the six prey on Izril first. Yet what else can be done? Surrender without a fight? I say that if we are to end, let us place hope and wish together and strive for some small defiance before all ends.”

She looked at Erin and an echo of her whisper lingered. Erin looked around. She wanted to ask why her, again. Yet the answer was simple.

Because there wasn’t anyone else.

“I…I’ll try to tell them what’s happening. But I don’t know if I’ll get to come back.”

“A chance is better than none. And this is a grand reason to fight. I had despaired, thinking my battle would be for vanity or survival. Nay! One last time, let the House of Byres defend a cause!”

Yderigrisel cried. He flew upwards and ghosts called out. Califor nodded at Erin.

“We must prepare to go. They are coming.”

Her words were not wrong. No sooner had she spoken than Erin saw the manor of the House of Byres, the great keep, the one in the modern time, faded, the swamp, fade away.

Like they were shadows in front of light. But it was not light that pierced this afterlife.

It was them.

They walked across the landscape from north to south. Just walked, with a speed unmatched. Confident, this time approaching in the open.

Three strangers. Erin and the ghosts fell silent. The young woman felt fear in her heart.

She knew three of them.

The first was Tamaroth. Like the others, his appearance seemed to change so the one constant was the beard. He looked like her father. Like the principal of her school. Even like Zel, for a moment—

Like his nature. A leader among men.

The second hobbled, or walked straight-backed, or with the weight of age on her shoulders. Three-in-one.

Kasigna. Her eyes were fixed on Erin and Yderigrisel both. She was smiling.

And the last? The last knew Erin, but she did not know it.

It was not man or woman or even…person. It was like a shadow that moved. Something half-remembered in the darkness.

A lost thing, creeping across the ground. Reaching for her.

“Three.”

Someone spoke. Sserys. The ghosts, all of them in the sanctuary, millions, stood transfixed as three walked upon them. Despair was written even in Yderigrisel’s expression. But still, he flew down and blocked their path.

“This is not your place, creatures. Strangers. You are not of the dead and you devour noble souls. Cease. Begone, or my wrath will fall upon you.”

The three stopped. The first who walked forwards was Kasigna. She smiled up at the Dragon.

“I am Kasigna, little Dragon. And this is my place. Therefore, kneel.”

She pointed. And Yderigrisel knelt. Erin heard a sigh. And the ghosts around her knelt. Kasigna looked past Yderigrisel. At the young woman, who did not kneel at her words.

“Erin Solstice. Know me and worship me. I am Kasigna of the End. I am your god. I am salvation in death. This place is mine. Come. Touch me, and I will remake this broken place into a fitting place for all of you.”

She spread her arms wide, and Erin felt the tugging. As if she stared into a chasm and something told her to jump.

“We have business with you as well. You stand on the land I would claim for the living. Take my hand, Erin Solstice. And I will show you glory.”

Tamaroth extended his hand. She stared at him, remembered his visit on the Winter Solstice.

The last—the thing—said nothing at all. It simply reached out and offered nothing. It was here because Erin had lost something.

Your body. Come, give it to me.

The ghosts were still, quaking before Kasigna’s power. Erin shook her head. She looked around for Califor, but the [Witch] was paralyzed. Erin shook her head, burying her head in her hands.

“I want to live. I don’t want this. It’s too much. Too heavy. I just want to live and for things to be happy. Please?”

They laughed at her. Even the thing that had no real face or mouth. Tamaroth smiled.

“Young woman, did you expect the afterlife to be kind? And if you did, by what right? What reason? Without us, there is nothing. This is why we are here. It is a mercy. Now, choose. Or we choose for you.”

He strode across the ground. Somehow, Erin was closer than any of the ghosts—pulled towards the three. Yderigrisel tried to move as the three reached for Erin. Fighting each other, pushing each other aside to touch her. The [Innkeeper] was curled up, head buried in her knees. Tamaroth reached down—

[Minotaur Punch]!

Erin jumped up and swung. All three strangers recoiled. She missed. Tamaroth stared at the fist which had just missed his face. He was so surprised he missed touching her arm.

“You would strike us?

“If I’m going to vanish? Sure. Come on! I’ll smack you! Bring it!”

Erin hopped backwards, jabbing the air like an amateur boxer. Kasigna, the thing, and Tamaroth looked at each other.

Then they laughed. They laughed so hard that they doubled over. Laughed at Erin. The young woman slowly lowered her fists.

“That’s what you want? Well, then, strike us!”

All three seemed to say it at once. They advanced on her, smiling. Erin backed up. Kasigna turned as they passed Yderigrisel.

“Ah, what a wonderful little place. How they make things, even in my ruined lands. Come, little one. All of you.”

She reached for the silver Dragon as he knelt, immobile. Tamaroth turned as Erin ran backwards from the lost thing still reaching towards her.

“And this one is mine.”

He was looking at Sserys. The [General] knelt in front of him. Kasigna reached down for Yderigrisel’s head. Erin heard a sigh.

“Of all the ways it should end, like this? Defending a silver Dragon. Yet it is an end.”

A hand caught Kasigna’s. This time the woman did start. She looked up.

“How? I rule this land!”

“And my kind rules death. Nor am I fully dead.”

The Putrid One informed her calmly. He picked Kasigna up. Erin saw the Putrid One’s head turn around a hundred and eighty degrees to face her.

“We have power in this place. Look, friend of [Necromancers]. This is what I was.

He lifted Kasigna higher. Higher—he did not float. The misshapen flesh expanded, the rotting skin—

The Putrid One heaved as his noxious form engulfed the frail form of the half-Elf he had chosen to be. Kasigna went flying. The [Necromancer] advanced. She was on her feet as if she had never fallen.

She hissed.

“Insolence!”

The Putrid One was already fading. He looked back at Erin and smiled.

Respite.

Then he was gone. Tamaroth and the lost thing seemed more amused than anything else.

“How they struggle. Then I shall take her.”

Tamaroth turned. But the Putrid One had done more with that one touch than just throw Kasigna back a pace.

The kneeling Drake in front of Tamaroth moved. He lunged to his feet. Tamaroth’s head turned—and Sserys’ head collided with his chin.

Headbutt.

Tamaroth staggered as the Drake jumped backwards. Sserys seemed to be as surprised as Tamaroth that he was still existing. He’d clocked the bearded man with all his might.

Erin had no conception of physics or the materiality of their ‘bodies’ in this place. Even so—

That looked like it hurt.

“That worked? If you take them off-guard, they miss their chance! Don’t let them touch you!”

Sserys snapped around. The ghosts were getting to their feet. Califor grabbed Erin’s sleeve.

“Now! Run!”

The lost thing lunged. Uonp blocked it. She vanished. Erin stumbled away.

To arms!

The first [Lord] and [Lady] of the House of Byres drew swords. Gresaria Wellfar and her husband joined the ranks of ghosts freed from Kasigna’s control.

They blocked the three. Kasigna was enraged, striding forwards. Tamaroth was following Sserys. The Drake turned to Erin.

Run. And tell them.”

He met her gaze. Erin began to run. She saw silver flash.

Yderigrisel. Freed, he roared and his voice was the loudest in this place. He flew upwards as the three turned to face the army of ghosts.

The smaller ghosts fled. They ran, with Erin and Califor, fleeing the three as the House of Byres, Sserys, and Gresaria made a stand.

The Knight-Dragon flew next to Erin and Califor for a moment as they raced south, the ghosts fleeing the battle behind them. Califor was pointing.

“To the sea! We must find another continent, another haven if one exists!”

Then she and Erin turned as they ran to the silver Dragon. For a moment, Erin thought his nerve had broken. One vast eye blinked at her, and Yderigrisel spoke. To her.

Remember this, girl from another world. Bring wrath and justice to these craven things when you wake! And tell…tell the House of Byres I was faithful even past death.

He banked his wings and turned. The Silver Dragon spread his wings and dove across the vast distance as the ghosts fled.

Erin ran once more. This time, her tears faded into nothingness before they even hit the ground.

Just like the ghosts.

 

—-

 

Erin was crying as she ran. Death. Even here, after they died, why was there still death? Tears ran down her face at the unfairness of it all.

None of the other ghosts cried. They couldn’t. They were trapped here, at the mercy of these…these parasites. These predators of souls.

It was not right. So Erin was angry as she ran.

“[Like Fire, Memory]! [Fireball]! [Minotaur Punch]! Relc Punch! No?”

“What are you doing?

Califor snapped at Erin. They weren’t sprinting—well, some of the ghosts were. Califor strode along at the same speed Erin ran. Some of the [Witches] just walked at top speed in this place.

“Trying to fight back! If I could throw fire—Maviola burned Kasigna!”

The [Witch] shook her head.

“She was inside Kasigna, wherever you were and the three-in-one was distracted! We saw her, and you. That can’t happen here. Magic is gone, and so are Skills!”

It was true. Erin couldn’t produce the fire, try as she might. So she kept running. Yderigrisel had possessed his fire because it was his. Erin…could spit on the dead gods?

She was darn well going to if she got the chance! Erin looked around and saw a swarm of bodies. The refugee ghosts were fleeing. Many followed Erin and Califor, but the others were splitting up. Some, on the assumption it was better to brave the lesser shadows alone rather than the three who would follow.

Others to warn the other strongholds. Izril was lost.

Erin saw two more strongholds on the way back south. Invrisil had been one, and the adventurers who had made a place here abandoned it, fleeing in every direction.

Similarly, she saw a strange conflagration of souls fleeing as she and Califor crossed the High Passes. Winged shapes flew, heading west.

“Harpies.”

Califor pointed up. Erin stared at the ghosts as they too ran from the kingdom that had once been theirs. She remembered a name.

Empress Sheta of the Harpies.

Erin stopped as she reached the Floodplains of Liscor. They had fled for moments—or perhaps longer, but it felt short. Califor stopped.

“What are you doing? They are coming!”

The [Witch] pointed. There were mountains in the way, countless obstacles, but somehow, Erin saw the three. They were turning towards her, having destroyed the sanctuary of the silver Dragon. They were following and they were faster than the ghosts.

However—Erin ran towards the inn, not further south.

“My inn! You said they couldn’t get into the [Garden of Sanctuary]! Maybe if my body’s safe, we can—”

She ran into the inn. Califor followed with a stream of ghosts.

“There’s a problem. Erin—”

The [Innkeeper] ran for a wall and phased through it. She realized what it was in an instant.

She couldn’t use her Skills. Not even in her inn. Erin looked around.

“Maybe the door’s open? Mrsha’s here. It has to be…there!”

She saw it flicker open this very moment, into the kitchen! Little Mrsha, stealing cookies! Erin ran at it.

“Follow me, every—”

Even in death, the bwuh sound Erin made was instinctual. There was no smack of her ghostly body hitting the barrier, but she found herself pressed up against it. Erin ran her hands over the barrier she had never experienced with the [Garden of Sanctuary] beyond. She threw up her hands.

“Oh, come on. It’s me! It’s me! You stupid door! I’m going to—”

“Stop shouting and run.

Califor grabbed her. The two ran onwards, Erin shouting insults at the [Garden of Sanctuary] the entire way. She looked around for Reiss. Numbtongue had claimed he saw the Goblin ghost.

Reiss was gone.

 

—-

 

Onwards. Past Liscor. Erin had never gone this far south. She ran through the Bloodfields with the other ghosts. Behind her, she saw the three approaching. They stopped now and then to snatch up ghosts.

They were too fast. Gaining ground. But the ghosts had a lead on them and Califor carried them south.

They reached Pallass and ran past the empty walls. The Drakes standing at the Walled City called to them. Califor and the other ghosts from the north shouted warnings, but the ghosts of dead Drakes refused to abandon their city. Erin saw the three stop at the walls and walk onto them. A Dragon and Oldbloods breathed fire—then knelt.

Gone.

After that, more ghosts of Drakes and Gnolls joined the stream flowing out of Izril. Gnoll tribes, Drakes from cities. Even Dragons, taking wing. Behind them, the three gorged themselves on the souls, picking at the slowest.

Erin looked back as she reached Zeres. And she saw them for what they were.

Rotted, foul figures, crouching, gorging themselves on souls. Fighting, snarling at each other. Even the Putrid One had not been so foul. They stank in this place. But they were alive.

Coming back. Growing stronger. Erin shouted back at them.

“Why are you doing this? Why do you have to do this?”

One of them answered.

We want to live. Don’t you?

They were desperate. For all they wanted to be so feared. Erin saw them grabbing. She pointed.

“They’re people! Children! Don’t you care?

Kasigna looked at her.

“We matter more. Some things matter more than others. This is the truth. You matter more than grass or insects. So it is for us.”

Erin clenched her fist.

“The first person I ever spoke to was an insect! He’s my friend!”

They laughed at her and followed once more.

Erin ran onto the sea with Califor. Across waves frozen in time, blurring over the ocean as the land vanished behind them.

And still, the three followed.

 

—-

 

What could stop them? Erin had no Skills. Califor was helpless. But the ghosts were still brave.

So brave. A squadron of Drakes stayed to delay the three a second, darting around them and forcing them to slow to grab at them.

An adventurer halted and called an insult to Tamaroth.

“I’ve seen better beards on the asses of donkeys!”

It actually worked. He slowed, and Erin laughed and cried as the adventurer vanished, saluting towards her and the others. More tried it, but the dead gods refused to fall for it twice.

If only they could be fought! Erin felt herself growing…tired…of the flight. Even the ghosts felt the distance they had covered. There was no sweat to wipe, though, no muscles to burn or grow tired.

Tears, yes. Erin was the only one who could shed them, so she did. For the ghosts. For brave people.

“If only I had some water.”

The murmur came from Abel. He had joined Califor and Erin at the first flight and stayed with them. He looked longingly at a tear as it vanished. The [Innkeeper] nodded, licking her lips.

“Water? I’d love blue fruit juice. Anything.”

Erin longed for it too, but Abel shook his head.

“Just water. Just sweet water. I would do anything for that.”

Erin closed her eyes, still moving. Yes, even that would be the most luxurious thing in the world.

“A glass of cool water. Not so cool it hurts your teeth, but almost. So cold and fresh and even a bit sweet if you’re thirsty enough.”

The ghosts murmured, all of them imagining it. So did Erin. She heard a sound.

“Erin Solstice. Look.”

Califor stared as they fled across the deeps of the ocean. Erin looked down.

She was holding a cup of water.

She promptly dropped it and it vanished. Abel and Califor made a sound.

“How…?”

The stool. Erin recalled the Putrid One making it! Out of a memory! That had been a cup of water from the well when it had first been dug! She tried again.

“It was—it was a good cup of water. Not the best, and it had a bit of dirt in it, but I really liked it and I didn’t tell Belgrade—”

She babbled and the cup was in her hands. She looked at it. Abel stared. She handed him the cup. He raised it to his lips and drank.

“It tastes a bit of dirt. It’s…water.”

He would have cried if he could. The ghosts almost stopped, but the three following made them turn and flee. Erin saw Califor looking at her.

“Memory. Memory is yours to command! If that is so—”

She looked over her shoulder. Erin’s eyes narrowed.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

Califor seized her arm as they turned.

“Don’t think. Remember!

The [Innkeeper] obeyed. Memory. She would have loved to conjure something really nasty, but she’d never fired or held a gun. In fact, the number of weapons she had held were…

Acid jars, Pelt’s knife, Lyonette’s sword one time—Califor reached out as some of the martial ghosts halted, sensing what was happening.

“A weapon! Any weapon!”

Erin thought of a weapon to use against them. Nothing up-close. Something…

She recalled her first friends. Her eyes opened wide.

She had held it just once. She looked down and Relc’s spear rose in her grasp. Solid, dangerous.

The three slowed uncertainly as they saw the solid weapon appear. Erin looked around.

“I don’t know how to throw it! Anyone?”

Give it to me!

A Gnoll [War Chieftain] howled. She hefted the spear and the ghosts around her howled or shouted as she took aim. The three slowed. The lost thing, Tamaroth, Kasigna—the spear wavered between them. Then the Gnoll threw.

The spear flashed through the air, even without the aid of Skills. Straight at—

It struck Tamaroth in the chest. Erin shouted and saw the dead god…

Standing there. Tamaroth smiled.

The spear was gone. It hadn’t even seemed to hurt him. No. On the contrary. Califor looked at Erin, and the cheering stopped.

Erin stared at Tamaroth. He’d just eaten—absorbed—Relc’s…Relc’s…

Relc’s what? Erin put her hands to her head.

Relc had a weapon? No, that wasn’t right. He always went around with his bare claws…wait, that didn’t seem right either. How did he use his [Triple Thrust] attack? What…

“You’ve forgotten.”

“What did I forget?”

The Gnoll [Chieftain] was staring uneasily.  The dead gods were laughing. She looked at Erin.

“The spear.”

“I forgot that?”

Erin felt a terrible fear in her chest. She looked at them.

“Was that an artifact?”

“I don’t know! I—will anything work on them?”

A weapon? Some glorious…but what would work on them? Erin stared at the dead gods.

“…Flowers?”

The faerie flowers? The three were watching, amused. They heard her voice.

“The flowers of the fae?”

Kasigna exclaimed. Tamaroth laughed. Even the lost thing appeared amused. They called at her, their voices twining, amused.

“Yes! Yes, Erin Solstice! Yes, child! Fight us with flowers!

Erin looked at the laughing strangers and then at Califor. She whispered to the [Witch].

“They’re sounding pretty happy about that idea. Let’s not do that.”

Califor gave her a look. She tugged her hat up and snapped.

Run!

 

—-

 

They were in the middle of the sea, with nothing around them but the waves when the first hands reached up and tried to drag them into the water. The green-blue waters turning to abyssal colors parted as something emerged from the fathomless deep.

Erin screamed, and ghosts were dragged under. Not to suffocate, struggling with whatever held them. What was it?

Drowned Folk. They clutched at Califor’s dress, at Erin’s leg. One grabbed Abel.

“What are you doing?”

He walks the depths. The wise one. The one with knowledge. He wants you. We live if he takes you. Stay. We want to live even here.

They pleaded with her. Drowned Women, dead [Sailors], people…Califor shouted as the three advanced, consuming the fleeing ghosts now struggling against their kind.

“Traitors! They will consume us all in time!”

The Drowned Folk would not let go. Laughter came from the depths. And then—Erin saw, in the deep of the ocean, someone walking up towards her.

The wise man.

“Emerrhain.”

The three greeted him with distaste. Even rivalry, especially from Tamaroth. The wise man smiled.

“So this is the one you hunt. Shall we make a contest of it?”

He reached for Erin and the three fought like carrion crows. Erin ripped free of a hand trying to drag her under.

“You—you jerks! You all suck so much! I don’t care if you’re gods or dead gods or what! You are the worst deities I’ve ever met!”

She shouted at the four. All of them turned.

Affronted.

Kasigna stared at Erin.

“You have never met ones such as we, Erin Solstice. You have no way of comprehending what we are. You should worship us and be grateful for what we bring. You know of us. Your world craves us!”

Erin shook a fist at the four.

“Oh yeah? Oh yeah? Well—I may not have met the other ones directly, but I know they’re way cooler than you all are anyways! Pssh! Totally! You’ve been dead for like, forever, right? There was this guy who took only three days to come back from the dead. And he was the son of a god! Plus, he had a nicer beard!”

She pointed at Tamaroth. The man frowned at her. Erin hesitated.

“P-probably. I didn’t see it myself. But he has pictures! All you have is a stupid coin which gave Pelt a heart attack!”

Emerrhain and Kasigna laughed at that. They were not united, Erin was sure. Allies of convenience at best. She pointed at the others—the lost thing was just standing there, listening.

“You know what? You’re not even gods. You’re like—super cockroaches. That’s all.”

The laughter cut off. Now, all four were staring at her. Slowly, Emerrhain shook his head.

“How she shouts.”

“You have nothing to give us. Yet insolence we do not stand.”

Kasigna reached for her again. Erin ran backwards, but the sea-ghosts were rising. Tangling her. She struggled as Califor put herself between her and Kasigna and the four, trying to tear the hands away.

“You losers wouldn’t even try this if it was a fair fight! Cowards! I’ll spit on you! You all suck!”

They held her, and the other ghosts. The four stopped.

“Is that all you have to say? Would you really challenge us if you lived? Even knowing what we are? You, child? Alone?”

Emerrhain bent down. He was more interested than the others. His eyes alight with curiosity. Erin struggled, but the hands of countless ghosts held her. So she just nodded.

“I know what monsters look like.”

She stared at him. Emerrhain frowned. Erin went on, panting, straining—ready to spit or bite his hand. The words flooded out of her mouth without thought. Just what she believed.

“I—I know monsters. See, you can run, hide, and refuse to fight people. Animals too. And that’s alright. But monsters? Sometimes you have to fight monsters. Because monsters don’t stop. Someone has to, even if it means you get hurt. And that’s all I see. Four stupid monsters that smell like poo. That one can’t even beat me at chess.”

She pointed at Kasigna as best she could with the hands holding her in place. The other gods looked at the three-in-one. They didn’t look amused this time. Erin had struck a nerve.

But the watching ghosts and Erin and Califor still heard laughter.

Well said!

The voice came from below her. Erin looked down. She saw a face grinning at her in the depths of the ocean.

Then—the woman exploded out of the sea. She knocked the other ghosts holding Erin away. More ghosts followed, freeing the trapped ghosts, grappling with their kin.

More Drowned Folk? Her voice had some of Seborn’s cadence, but the woman looked different from the other Drowned Folk.

She had a really cool hat. The [Pirate Queen] swept Erin a bow.

“So you’re the ghost that one chases! Well, if I had a ship I’d give these bastards a real battle! But we were without ships and at a loss. Good thing we found something better. To arms, sea folk!

More ghosts burst out of the surf. The four dead gods looked amused. Right up until the waters moved and something glowed in the abyssal depths. Erin looked down and realized there were more ghosts than she had ever dreamed of.

Branches broke the surface of the dark waters. Glowing, spectral, half-colored like everything here. The memory of a body not made of flesh or scale…

The first of them stood taller now as the [Pirates] and [Sailors] ambushed the gods. Many ghosts ‘flew’ through the water and into the air. More still rode the replacement for their lost ships.

Still beautiful. The being the ghosts rode stepped higher still, the tips of its body breaking out of the water. Even the four strangers looked up.

Erin saw vast, ancient limbs. Wood so old it had turned to stone—then something else entirely. What had once been a vast tree, but had changed over the eons underwater. Colorful aquatic plant life, sprouting from the trunken limbs, the branches and bark, replacing foliage with a different rainbow of colors. Life which became death and life again. It looked like…

Coral?

A Treant rose out of the ocean, turning to face the four. Even the oldest of trees died. Tamaroth sighed, almost happily.

“Ah. [Pirates]. Always unexpected.”

The ghosts of the sea were laughing, clinging to the Treants as more of the ancient giants surfaced. The [Pirate Queen] drew a sword.

Alright, you know how to do it. No touching them. Keep these traitorous cowards off them! Go!

She swarmed towards the gods with the other ghosts, pressing in and blocking them. Throwing themselves like the surf at the four. The four looked more annoyed than anything.

“You can’t win! It’s impossible!”

Erin protested. She saw the other woman turn, urging her and Califor on.

Run, living girl! Run for sanctuary! Let us test them first! Don’t you have something you have left to do? One of us has a second chance.

Because she did, and because that was true, Erin ran. She shouted back at the ghosts. Thanking them. They cheered her on, spitting in the eyes of the dead gods.

Literally. It wasn’t just about her. It was about them. To frustrate them, delay them another second. These cheating, disgusting things eating everything without weakness or fairness in the world. Unstoppable.

Gods.

 

—-

 

The end of Erin’s journey came as the sea ended. Behind her, the last of the brave [Pirates] were in flight. Even the Treants.

Four followed. Perhaps they could have stopped the other three.

Not Kasigna. Erin had seen a Treant refuse to vanish, grappling with the lost thing. But the three-in-one they could not stop.

They knelt to her power. All the ghosts fled. Izril’s refugees. The sea’s people.

And they came at last to the other continent. Erin stumbled onto the dry sands and looked beyond. She realized where she was. Of all the continents—

Chandrar.

The shore was a beach, but the sand never ended. The waves lapped up onto the sand, and while vegetation grew here, it was arid, nothing like Izril’s lush grasslands. Only in a few places did Chandrar ever bloom, and then when it rained.

But Erin could see far beyond this coastline. Across the desert, where the vastness of the continent meant that even rains born from the sea would never reach that far inland.

A dead, gigantic desert. Zeikhal, the largest desert in the world where nothing could live. Mountains, perhaps created in ancient times, existing when water had flowed here, had been worn away to dunes the size of mountains instead.

And yet, Chandrar was not all dead earth. Imperium of old had been built here, and still remained, civilizations which rose out of the bleak landscape, shining with hope, to fall—but never be fully destroyed.

What the sands took, people reclaimed. A majestic land, harsh, but as glorious as Izril, Terandria, or Baleros lay before Erin Solstice as she stopped a second. The second continent she had ever laid eyes on.

Perhaps the last she would ever see. She looked back as the end came.

The four were hot on their heels. Once more, they reached out, fighting each other to grab Erin. Jostling.

And for the first time since Erin had woken in the land of the dead, she saw them hit something.

The four ran into a wall of sand. It rose as they tried to walk onto the sands of the desert continent of Chandrar. They recoiled, much as Erin had, and tried to push against the wall.

It began to give, sand yielding before their touches. Then it reformed. Held firm. The four looked at each other, shocked as Erin was.

“What is this? Stand aside! Kneel.

Kasigna spoke and the ghosts around Erin were once again forced down. But a reply came from just ahead.

“No. We are masters of our deaths. And even in death, even beyond it, we have our duty. Begone you ravenous filth.

A line of men and women blocked the four. They had been standing here, like statues, waiting for the flood of ghosts, knowing they were coming, and knowing what followed them. They held the wall of sand, shifting it to block the four strangers.

There were eighteen of them. Just eighteen. There had been more Treants. Far more great [Pirate Kings] and [Captains] of the sea.

The eighteen men and women did not move. Erin stared. They were Human—sixteen of them.

Two of the eighteen were different. Half-Giant. Garuda. Each one was garbed in grand clothing. Crowns. Some identical.

A people lay beyond the line in the sand. The borders of the great desert continent, Chandrar. No—all peoples. Califor struggled upright as somehow, the eighteen threw off Kasigna’s command.

“This—this sanctuary holds? There are so many ghosts! And look, even species of old! Jinn.

She pointed. Ahead, Erin saw a vast gathering. If Yderigrisel’s sanctuary had been home to millions, despite the small amount of land he held in the House of Byres, this was a gathering without limit.

It was all of Chandrar. Erin saw countless Drakes, Humans, Garuda—and yes, species long dead to this world.

Jinn, floating alongside their family. Djinni, taking any number of forms they had possessed in life.

Watching the confrontation at their shores.

Not even the mighty Djinni—nor the watching Giants moved to help the eighteen at the beach struggling against the four. Every species in this world save one was here. There were no Dragons, Erin realized. She looked back; the wall of sand held! The eighteen were clearly straining, but it was a contest and the four were getting frustrated.

Especially Kasigna. She was staring at the men and women, puzzled, growing more furious with each moment. Erin was just stunned.

Who were they? How could they alone stand against her?

“How do they hold us?”

Tamaroth turned to Emerrhain. The wise man frowned at them. He named them slowly.

Khelt.

One of the women smiled archly at him. She was not beautiful if you only meant looks. She had taken many scars and she had not been chosen because she was a peerless beauty. Her beauty was confidence, grace.

Authority. She answered them proudly.

“Our reign still endures. Our kingdom still stands. So our power and pact remains. We are the rulers of Khelt and we say again—begone, things.”

“I rule death. I am a release of all things. I am salvation. Kneel to me.

Kasigna ordered them. The half-Giant answered her with a shake of his head. The King of Khelt, the great smith-King, turned his head.

“Fool. Death is not the end of duty.”

Tamaroth stared at them. He spoke, eyes burning.

“Your natures are mine. You rule men and women. Come to me.”

Erin felt a tug at her heart. Just a tiny one. The rulers of Khelt wavered. Then they chuckled. Tamaroth wavered. This time the Garuda called down at him from the dune on which they stood.

“Little man. We are not [Kings]. We rule Khelt because we must. We never sought the crown but were chosen because we were suited. Look to Terandria for those who coveted what is duty. A third time! Begone!”

The eighteen stood. And the four struggled and argued and threatened. Yet they could not advance. Erin saw them staring at her. At the kingdom of death, which had more power here than any other so long as Khelt endured.

She watched the dead gods vanish into the distance.

 

—-

 

The eighteen looked tired after the confrontation.

“They grow stronger again. If only the power of Giants could join ours, or the Treants of the sea. Still, I would rather lie with maggots than ally with Dragons. Let them hold Baleros and Terandria if they can.”

One of them remarked. The others nodded. Erin found herself staring up at them, awed despite herself.

They looked impressive. These were not the bodies of undead revenants bound in death. She saw them as they had lived. As the Garuda Queen had said—they were not rulers by nature.

The half-Giant bore a hammer. True, ornate, but he carried a huge anvil on his back, secured by chains of mithril.

One of the others had ink stains on her fingers and a quill in her hands.

Yet another had such a grace to his steps that Erin thought he was either a [Fencer] or a [Dancer] or both.

All were still garbed in robes or cloth, rather than armor, wearing the same crown. Each royal raiment swirled with magical sigils for protection, preservation. Yet, the eighteen wore the clothing carelessly, heedless of the priceless artifacts they wore, now a second skin. The only thing that they never took lightly were the crowns. They weighed upon each one, man and woman, half-Giant and Garuda.

A proud, but heavy weight that pressed on all things. Joy, humor, sadness, wrath—the weight of a crown. A kingdom.

Khelt.

The eighteen rulers of their nation turned to the vast number of ghosts, then. It was the closest female Queen who spoke. The last ruler of Khelt before Fetohep. She imperiously looked down the line of Izril’s ghosts as she addressed them.

“You stand before the Queens and Kings of Glorious Khelt, children of Izril. Rejoice. Weep if thou wilt. For while you walk Chandrar-of-death, know that no shades shall haunt you. We have pledged to guard our people and kingdom, and do so even in the second of our deaths.”

The ghosts looked up, taking heart from the words. One of them, Califor, struggled to her feet. Even the [Witch] looked tired from the long flight.

“Your Majesties. I bear news from the continent we fled. Izril falls. One of them walks it in strength—and we cannot stop the three-in-one either. If any strongholds remain, they will soon be empty.”

The monarchs exchanged glances. Not surprised, just resigned. What seemed to be the oldest and grandest among them lifted her hand.

“Such is fate. That any escaped is welcome enough. Kneel then, [Witch] of these dark tidings, and we shall accept you into Khelt’s glorious ranks. It is an honor we grant you for courage and escorting this one. Know that we shall shelter your soul until the end of things.”

She gestured at Erin. The young woman looked at the first Ruler of Khelt.

She was an older woman, but sort of short. She had the same authority as the others. She just looked at Erin.

“A living young woman. And you must be of Earth, as a few children claim to be.”

Erin started.

“You’ve met more people from Earth? Like me?”

The first Queen raised her left eyebrow.

“Of course. No ghost is prey to those scavengers on our continent. This is the strength of Khelt, granted to us by Fetohep so long as he lives. Sanctuary…for now. It may end. Until then, we are still rulers of Khelt. And you are?”

“E-Erin Solstice.”

“We see. Well met, then, child. Know that all those who sacrificed themselves that you might escape did so to defy those craven things.”

She gestured to the sea. Erin looked at her. The other rulers of Khelt stood there, regarding her. They deferred to the first ruler of Khelt. Erin looked at Califor. The [Witch] gave her a side-long look.

Slowly, hesitantly, Erin bent her knees and awkwardly copied Califor, who had knelt before the rulers of Khelt.

“Thank you for saving us.”

She mumbled. It was an awkward gesture, far from graceful. However, she looked up and saw the first Queen smile.

“It was righteous to do, Erin Solstice. And if you live, perhaps there is a chance you may repay us by bearing this knowledge into the lands of the living. For surely, that was your goal, [Witch]? How are you called?”

“Califor, your Majesty.”

Califor stood as if she had never knelt. Proudly, she had knelt, and now addressed the rulers of Khelt more brusquely. But she had knelt.

So had Erin. They nodded. Another King spoke.

“A fitting idea. There are few living in the land of the dead. None from this world apart. We have been attempting to contact Fetohep of Khelt, but even that connection fades as if he no longer stands on Khelt itself. If this mortal girl has even a chance—what plan had you?”

The [Witch] straightened her hat.

“Knowledge, of course. Lessons. Secrets. Anything that might keep into the lands of waking. Ancient spells. Buried treasure?”

“Fitting and more.”

The half-Giant smith looked approving. He gestured.

“Guide her, Witch. We shall call souls of great knowledge to aid you. However long it takes, we shall attempt to secure that amount of time.”

He grimaced.

“Would that we had the Quarass of Ger’s strength. She was wiser than we knew, to remake herself eternally rather than end here in darkness. We have safeguarded every soul of our subjects in death. And we shall until the bitter end.”

Erin stood there, in the company of the great ghosts of old. She looked around as they conferred.

“I’m sorry. I know this is all so important. I don’t know if I can help. I’ll try, but this is all too much. I’m just me. Those were dead g—it’s too large.”

The rulers of Khelt and Califor looked at her. Slowly, the first Queen of Khelt knelt.

“It often seems so. And it often is, young woman. But such is challenge. Will you rise to it? This world needs a [Hero], and the Dynasty of Khelt shall forge you into one if need be.”

She offered Erin a hand. Slowly, the [Innkeeper] looked up.

“But I’m just an [Innkeeper].”

The rulers of Khelt exchanged a look of concern.

 

—-

 

“[Innkeeper]. Innkeeper. Of all the classes…does any scholar here, any of the great rulers recall a class by which an [Innkeeper] rose to power?”

The dead rulers of Chandrar held great conference. Giants sat in the sands next to [Archmages] who had called Chandrar home. The Dynasty of Khelt, as the protectors here, led the meeting.

The great minds and famous adventurers looked at each other.

“I knew a [Farmer] who became legend.”

A [King] wearing a crown of glass raised a hand and spoke after a moment. An [Archmage] sitting in the air rolled his eyes.

“Yes, but that was a [Farmer]. I could name a hundred and eighty nine [Farmers] who became [Heroes]. An [Innkeeper], though? I can’t think of any…”

Erin loitered in the background, feeling embarrassed. The ruler of Khelt spoke—Califor was more practical.

“I must find every [Witch] who lives or has come here. We will teach you. Maviola El told us you were akin to our natures. I think that is so.”

Erin spluttered, astounded.

“What, me? I’m not [Witch]-y. I don’t even know magic!”

Califor gave her a look under the brim of her hat with a lot less respect than she had given the ruler of Khelt.

“Then you shall learn.”

The [Witch] strode off. Erin stood, scuffing her feet in the dirt.

“Well, what do I do?”

She looked around. Ghosts milled about her, talking, looking for those they knew. Many wanted to speak to her, but were kept back, respectfully. After all, she was the living girl among the dead. Erin called out.

“Abel? Has anyone seen Abel?”

“Here!”

The ghost appeared. Erin looked at him.

“I don’t know what to do, Abel. Should I just wait around?”

The young man looked at the gathering of greatness. He nodded wistfully.

“I wish I could help. But I’m not that great. I just…I died so soon. I could try to remember something from Earth, but I wasn’t an engineer or anything.”

Erin smiled sadly.

“That’s okay. I’m not sure all this knowledge is going to help that much. I mean, I’m dead. What am I going to do, learn to use a sword? I don’t even like fighting. I served adventurers, but I never wanted to be one.”

She waved a hand. Erin looked back the way she’d come. Towards her inn.

“I’m just an [Innkeeper]. I just wish…”

She looked at Abel again. Erin slowly turned her head. So many ghosts around her. So many…and so many sanctuaries emptied. So many lost. Weak ghosts were prey the moment they died, apparently.

Was there a chance…? Erin spoke, slowly.

“I remember them. If Zel and Maviola…excuse me. Excuse me!”

She raised her voice. The milling ghosts looked around. The rulers of Khelt broke off in a discussion with the [Monks], [Martial Artists], [Weapon Trainers], and the [Sage] who had invented Sage’s Grass as Erin floated up to shout. Erin saw fierce warriors, [Martial Artists] who were bare-chested, talking with great experts, one of whom had a blade three times as tall as he was.

The [Sage] had a cape like Rabbiteater’s, which was not cloth, but substances flowing like cloth. Water, liquid metal, alchemical substances like mercury, all of which could be plucked from the trailing cape nearly ten feet long at a whim and used for great workings.

But she had eyes for none of it. Erin called out across the myriad ghosts.

Excuse me! Sorry, I just had a thought!”

The ghosts around her looked up at the one living young woman. Erin shouted.

“I’m looking for someone if they’re here! A ghost! Some ghosts that I might know. If anyone knows me—if you can help me find them? I know I’m not the only one, but…I miss them.”

She gulped. Suddenly, she remembered. Her voice quavered.

“I’m looking for my friends.”

The Antinium weren’t here. Nor were the Goblins. But…Erin looked around.

“I’m looking for a man. Gerial? And—and a Gnoll? Brunkr? Does anyone know the Horns of Hammerad? Ulrien Sparson? A [Lord]? Toldos Everight? Redit?”

She tried to remember their names. A ghost floated up to her. The [King] with the crown of glass, looking interested as the ghosts murmured.

“Who, pray tell, is this Gerial? A great Gold-rank adventurer, perchance?”

Erin stared blankly at him.

“No. He was Silver-rank. Who’re you?”

The [King] smiled grandly.

“Ah, young woman. I feel we have a connection though we have never met. You see, I keep abreast of the world’s news for I am not long dead.”

He gestured at his regal form, the crown he wore. The crown of glass was magical, and sparkled with rainbow colors reflected by an unseen source of light, for there was none in the lands of the dead.

So powerful, magical, but so fragile that it seemed a touch could shatter it. He wore no robes like some of the monarchs, but armor. Leather armor—lighter, clearly enchanted, revealed by a thrown-back cape, which, like the armor, bore a spiral-design of rune work, some magical shield against harm.

None of it had helped him, for the [King] was only in his fifties. And he was a sturdy fellow, without apparent health issues. Yet dead. He nodded grandly to Erin, his trimmed beard red-gold, like his entire family.

“I died before my dreams could be realized, in accident. Yet my legacy was not lost. In time, they knew not my name, but my only grandson. And they call him by the name that has shaken the world. The King of Destruction—

The [Innkeeper] was nodding distractedly. She gently put her hands on him and spun him around and gave him a light push on the back.

“Yeah, okay, buddy. But I’m not looking for you. I’m looking for Gerial.”

The King of Destruction’s grandfather looked shocked.

“But I am a [King]! Is some Silver-rank adventurer more important than I?

Even in death the egos of some people. Erin looked past him. She spoke for his benefit, and that of those listening.

“I don’t know. Gerial was my friend, that’s all. He—he was sort of a goofy guy. He was part of the Horns of Hammerad, with Calruz, this Minotaur who was all ‘honor and stuff’, and Ceria, who’s my friend. I always thought he was sensible. And nice. He was one of my first guests. And…he died in the dungeon of Liscor. Undead got him. I actually fought them, at my inn.”

The dead ghosts listened as the [Innkeeper] spoke. Erin didn’t realize it, but flickers were appearing around her.

A laughing team, cheering on the night before they went into the dungeon. An army of the undead, a creature crawling towards her inn as a ring of Antinium stood. Skinner.

And the man’s face. Erin spoke, a catch in her voice, even here.

“I just never got to say goodbye to him. Gerial was his name. I know it’s a long shot. But if you know him? There are others. I knew a Gnoll who wanted to be a [Knight]. I thought he was a jerk at first. And he was. I punched him in the stomach. He…I wish he hadn’t died. That’s all.”

That was all there was. She wished they hadn’t died. And she remembered them all.

Every statue in her garden. Erin stood there, looking down at the dead. And because she had told them about Brunkr, she had to tell them about the Antinium chess club. Because they weren’t here, yet they should be remembered.

Now, the names came back to her.

Ulrien of Griffon Hunt. Someone had actually been saved by his team.

Marian. Sostrom. Hunt!

Zel Shivertail, of course. Goblins she had known by name and not. Headscratcher, Shorthilt…the one called Bugear who had died fighting the Eater Goats.

Vladimir, Bishop, the chess club’s Antinium.

“There was a brave [Lord]. An old man who fought for me. When I needed help, I asked him if he was willing to die for a belief. And he didn’t hesitate. He was called Lord Toldos. I wish…”

Memories circled around her. The Dynasty of Khelt, Califor and the [Witches], looked at the [Innkeeper] as she remembered her fallen friends.

“Ah. I think that the [Innkeeper] chose her class well. But she will not be the [Hero] or [Champion] of Khelt.”

One of them spoke, and the others nodded. Erin floated there, telling stories. And though she met people who had known her friends…

So many were gone. Someone had seen Hunt disappear when one of the sanctuaries fell. Ulrien? No one knew where he was.

She still told stories. Because she had to. Because it mattered, even if only the dead knew one more story. Her throat could not grow dry, and she would never grow tired.

It was as she was standing there, telling the story of the day her inn’s guests had played baseball, a story of the future after disaster and death, reclaiming a moment of happiness, that someone pushed through the sea of ghosts. He called up to her, floating a bit higher.

“Erin?”

She looked down. And there he was.

Gerial. Tall, gangly even, with a mustache on his face. Almost over-lean for a [Warrior], and so often wearing the bemused, worried expression around Ceria and Calruz. When he wasn’t laughing.

Unlike most of the ghosts here, his armor had no enchantment. It was leather…just leather. Compared to the flashing runes of magic, the Dragonscales forged into armor, the silk and, if you were a poor ruler, mere mithril armor, he looked like a pauper.

It just made him realer than the legends who stood around him. And more welcome to her.

He looked up at her as she froze. Erin breathed.

“Gerial. It’s you.”

“It’s me.”

He repeated after a moment of hesitation. What else was there to say. Erin floated downwards until they were on the ground together. She looked at him. He cleared his throat a few times.

“I heard the story about Ceria. Calruz. I wish…I didn’t know if you’d remember me, but they told me you were here. Everyone—they’re speaking across the coast, where we arrived.”

He pointed. Erin looked across the sea of the dead. Gerial swept a hand through his hair.

“We only met a moment. I was glad to learn that the others survived. And you remembered me. You…”

“Of course I did. Gerial.”

He looked at her. Erin began to wipe at her eyes, and then didn’t bother. She smiled, tremulously.

“Gerial. Hello.”

“Hello, Erin. Goodbye.”

He smiled wistfully. Erin threw her arms around him.

“I’m glad I could meet you. Even if it meant this.”

They smiled and hugged and Erin laughed, truly laughed in happiness for the first time since she had realized she was dead. For a moment, all was well.

Then the six walked on Chandrar with a second sea of shadows.

 

—-

 

The Dynasty of Khelt held them with a wall of sand as tall as the sky. It was six, not four. The shadows flickered, pressing in.

The ghosts watched, unable to fight. A Giant stood there, ready to block the advance of the dead gods if they were victorious. If Khelt fell…

Erin stood with Gerial. With Califor and Abel. And she realized something.

If someone told her the gods were bastards, she would get behind that statement. More than that, though, Erin decided the gods were petty.

They refused to let anyone snub them. They were petty. They fought with each other even as they threatened to overwhelm Khelt’s rulers. They were so much like people.

They would break Khelt’s strength. Erin saw it. The rulers struggled, moving up to the wall of sand and bracing it as if that would help. The thinning veil of sand saw the six, greedily pressing inwards.

Two more had joined the four. One was a fierce huntress, armed with a bow, pointing at Erin. The other? A dancing, charming man, who spoke of friendship.

“You should have taken my gift. But you are not any one of ours. We didn’t know what to make of you.”

He smiled. Erin shook a fist.

“I gave you food! You gave me a stupid coin! Who gave me the noose? That was a stupid gift! You tricked me! Get lost!

They laughed. This was all a game to them, Erin realized. She looked at the dignified rulers of Khelt, Gerial.

“If they go through, you should run. I’m already dead. Calruz and Ceria would beat me black and blue if I let you get hurt before me.”

Gerial smiled, trying to be gallant. Erin wanted to cry again.

“I’d rather hit them first. I’m so tired of this. If only…all I have are my memories. Maybe fire?”

She tried to conjure it. A ball of glorious fire. Tamaroth smiled, the pink glow reflecting in his eyes. Erin looked at him and tossed it aside.

Not glory. Not despair. And she had no mercy for them. Fire? She saw how greedily they pressed their hands to the sand. They wanted fire. They wanted life.

If only there was something stronger. Erin closed her eyes.

Hatred. She had that. But would they eat that?

“There has to be a weapon that can harm them. Although if they are what we fear, what weapon can harm them that we could forge? Ponder that, child. Bring weapons from your world. Now, move back. We are failing.”

The great smith-king grunted. Erin looked at him. He gravely nodded as the sand began to fall away. Erin backed up as Gerial pulled her back.

What weapon indeed? She closed her eyes. She felt like…

Flowers were useless against them. Because they were flowers. She kept thinking of them. Because they were flowers from them.

The fae.

The Winter Sprites. And they were not of this world. Erin could remember holding a knife on Earth. She doubted that would work. If only she had something more—

Her eyes opened. They flickered towards the six. Slowly, they narrowed.

Tamaroth was watching her, pressing forwards, wanting to be first. He watched as Erin slowly backed up.

“‘Scuse me. ‘Scuse me. I know everyone’s getting ready to run, but—excuse me. Can I get a word?”

She poked the Giant of Chandrar, first of the Nomads of the Sky, in the leg. Then she had to fly up because he was so vast, even compared to Zamea, that he didn’t notice. He knelt.

“DO YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO BRING THESE FOES PAIN?”

His voice was so loud even whispering, everyone heard it. The six snorted. The rulers of Khelt glanced over their shoulder. Erin whispered in his huge ear. Okay, she shouted, but her voice wasn’t audible to the others, only him.

The Giant started grinning. He looked at her.

“THAT, I CAN DO.”

He opened his hand. Erin floated onto it and landed. Gerial stared up. She smiled down at him.

“Erin? What are you doing?”

Something possibly stupid! Get ready to run if it fails!”

She shouted down at him. The Silver-rank adventurer blinked. Then he whooped.

The ghosts looked up. Erin was concentrating. Memory. Califor’s head turned as the [Witches] prepared to flee to Baleros. She saw Erin conjuring something.

“A weapon won’t work.”

“Shh. Feed us your memories, child!”

The dancing man called up to Erin. She looked down at him and flipped him off. The six saw her raise something into the air. They were confident, pressing forwards. Erin slowly took a breath. The memory was so easy. Even after it had happened, she had never forgotten.

And she had feared it. Rightly so. Heck, she’d even tried to stop it. Now, she reached out.

Erin, take a coat. It’s wet!

Shauna Solstice stood in the hallway. Erin turned back. She looked to the side and slowly reached out.

She picked up the umbrella and opened it in the sky.

And then there was light.

Light, sunlight, shone from underneath the umbrella. It flooded down around Erin. Not just a memory—her breath caught.

Sunlight. The ghosts around her threw up their hands, crying out in shock. Gerial’s eyes widened as he stared up.

“How—?”

Tamaroth’s gift on the Winter Solstice. Erin had refused it, yet she had held it now. How had he phrased it? A gift for her soul.

“I offer an umbrella made from the sun’s light. To bring day into blackest night.”

And there were no weapons in this world that could have harmed them. But this was something they owned. And it was a memory.

She was dead, though. So who was going to stop her?

The sunlight burned down around the rulers of Khelt. They looked up—and the light burned away the sea of shadows. They fled across the ocean, screaming, wailing. And Erin realized they had voices.

The six were caught in the sunlight too. And it exposed them.

Kasigna, Tamaroth, Emerrhain, the other three—they threw up their hands and screamed. And Erin saw them once more.

Rotting forms, clinging to life. They howled at each other, at the light.

The living world comes forth!

How does she hold it? You gave it to her!

She stole it from memory!

The corpse of the bearded man screamed at the others. He pointed at Erin. Thief! Which reminded her of something else.

Thief! Erin’s eyes widened. She’d had a dream, once. And she’d thought that was a dream as much as the umbrella. But what if…

 

—-

 

“I could choose not to, even now. Will we be reborn into that far future?”

The three stood around the stone, talking. Of the future, not what could be.

Young, old, and adult. It was a similar story. But it had changed a bit. Now, the King of Knights looked to the stars and dreamed of a kingdom in the future.

The old King of Chivalry’s head was bowed.

“If we are doomed to make the same mistakes, what point is there? Think of that.”

The young Arthur Pendragon looked around. He hesitated.

“You two…”

“The girl, Ryoka, showed us a future that might be. One world. The hope of more—is it better to take the sword or not? I have taken the sword, but now I dream of—”

Arthurs.

They looked at the squire. The youngest Arthur pointed slowly.

“…Where’d the sword go?”

They stared at the empty stone.

 

—-

 

The sword shone in her grip. And now the six did scream.

How does she hold that? Did they give it to her?

“Impossible!”

Impossible. They wanted to say that in the land of the dead? Erin felt the sword dragging her down.

“It’s heavy!

“EXTREMELY HEAVY!”

The Giant roared. His arm was lowering despite his efforts. His second arm came up, but he was still unable to hold the [Innkeeper] up. Erin couldn’t even lift the blade! She kept staring at it.

It couldn’t be. But it was. Even a memory—

“The blade of kings. She can’t lift it!”

One of the six cried. They were…rotting…in the light. Erin couldn’t even tell which one. She gasped. The speaker was right. She gritted her teeth. However—!

“I can’t lift it. Okay. Hey! I need a [King] to pick up a sword!

She heaved the blade over the edge of the Giant’s hands. He and she felt the weight lift at once and he stumbled backwards.

The blade some called Excalibur landed in the sands of the land of dead Chandrar. A blade fit for a King of Chivalry. Who could draw such a thing?

The ghosts of dead [Kings] stirred. A [Queen] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen folded her arms.

“Only [Kings]?”

The six looked up as an army of ghosts fought for the blade. Erin held the umbrella higher.

Kasigna called up to her, furious.

“You—you thief! You’re no hero! You’re just a thief and child.”

Erin waved back.

“Of course I’m not! I’m not a hero. I can’t fight you. But…”

She looked around and down at her chest. She bled. The crossbow bolts stood out in her chest. Erin reached for one and yanked it out, as Numbtongue had. She tossed it down.

“I want to live.”

That was all. The six began to flee the burning sunlight of a world they could not walk—yet. The sword borne by the mob of ghostly rulers. Erin spoke on.

“I want to hug my friends and tell them I’m sorry. That I’m back. I want to drink water. I want…”

She thought of Sserys and gulped.

“I want to be loved. I have so many regrets. And I want it all. I want my friends to be safe. I want to be safe myself. I want to see my family again. It’s not enough to have one of those things. If I can’t have any of it, I’ll fight for it. I’m selfish like that. And silly. I don’t know about you lot—”

She waved a trembling hand at the dead gods and the end of the afterlife. The rulers of Khelt. The [Witches].

Grand destiny.

Erin went on.

“I just know what I want. What I need to have.”

They screamed up at her, enraged, furious, no longer smiling. Burning, feeling pain, fleeing the sword and light. Their voices mingled, screaming at her in unison.

 

You know what we are. Do you really think to pit yourself against us?

“Are you the ilk from which they cut legends?”

“Do you hold the will to change fate?”

“Defy death?”

“Slay Gods?”

“Are you capable of challenging the world?”

 

For answer, she looked at them. Erin slowly transferred the umbrella to one hand and raised the other. She curled her fingers up and then waved a fist at them.

“I’m being me. I don’t know about all that. But don’t get in my way or I’ll hit you.”

They shrieked at the young woman who was no grand hero, no impressive foe.

Then they fled.

 

—-

 

Later, when the sword vanished and the umbrella still shone from the Giant who was bemusedly holding someone who in turn held the umbrella up, casting light, keeping the dark things at bay, Erin prayed.

Chandrar was safe for now. Not forever, but for now. So, in this moment, she prayed.

Not to gods. She’d met them and they sucked. Erin prayed to the living as the dead, instead.

“Please. Please…everyone. My friends. My family.”

It was a simple prayer. Erin closed her eyes as she composed it.

 

I want to live. I can’t ask you to, but please, if you will…I want to live.

But I want you to live even more.

Don’t die, please.

And let me see you again.

 

Erin Solstice rose. And then got to work.

The [Witches] waited for her. Great adventurers, [Sages], [Archmages], and so on. Trying to find out how to help the curious girl who brought sunlight for the first time in this place.

That was for her. For them, Erin Solstice had only what she knew. So, she carefully got to work.

It wasn’t so much creating as remembering creating.

“See, it was the best burger I ever made. I put some lettuce in there, some nice cheese…and I fried the hamburger patty just so. Even the buns. It was the best darn burger and Relc ate it in two bites. So…here.”

She slowly pushed it across the table. The hamburger of memory appeared and the grandfather of the King of Destruction slowly picked it up.

He stopped a moment to feel the texture—texture in this place. He found his mouth watering, and opened his mouth.

The ghosts watched as he bit, chewed, and swallowed. Erin held her breath. After a moment, the [King] opened his eyes.

“…I have had better. The seasoning is not strong; the meat slightly overcooked. The meat, to begin with seems to be substandard. Ground up because it cannot stand by itself. The bread, likewise—”

Erin threw up her hands, conjured an Imani-burger, and slapped it on the table. She shoved it at Gerial. It met with considerably more approval and the ghost-king looked disappointed he didn’t get that one. Erin folded her arms and glared at him.

“Well, this is the only inn in the afterlife. That’ll be four silver.”

The [King] stared at her. The [Innkeeper] wondered if someone could make an inn or she could borrow a palace or something.

In the land of the dead, The Wandering Inn opened for business. And someday, surely…

She would go back.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Notes: And we’re done. It was more work than I thought! Less than I feared, honestly.

The previous chapter will be up for Patrons if they really want to see the differences, but functionally, having an editor improved the entirety of the chapter in ways from simple things like my overuse of words like ‘but’, line-edits for clarity—and stronger visual scenery and proper emotional scenes.

In short, it improved me in my style, rather than cut down the chapter as many people feared. Which is what a good editor does, not shoehorn you into something else. I appreciate Rebecca’s hard work…and I don’t want to be an editor.

It’s exhausting to revise. However, I hope the wait was worth it and you can appreciate one of the better chapters I’ve written. One of the bigger ones. But I think the chapter speaks for itself there.

Thanks for reading, and helping me get to the point where I can hold editor-contests and take the time to revise chapters. I’m off to finish the next Patreon one, but look forwards to two more after this if you’re a Public reader!

–pirateaba

 

 

Erin and Headscratcher, and Hate-Fire Erin by Lire!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/lightsresonance

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/lightsresonance

 

Frozen Erin by Decarbry, commissioned by Roguish!

https://www.philosoficate.com/

 

Erin and Relc by Bunny!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/mochibunny
DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/mochibunny2

 


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43 thoughts on “8.11 E (Revised)

  1. Leave a typo for revising chapters and Erin Solstice!

    (Typo readers: Gorexn, MrWiggles, Goblinpat, seenkay, Kaitiaki, Niello, Aox, TheSleeplessBaron, Shalcker, randomdigits, Ignat)

    • >The woman spoke as if this were so and if it were not so, it had better well be so before. Erin looked at her.

      Missing something after before. Or the before is superfluous.

    • Not a typo, but hard for me to accept as ‘right’.

      Erin states that she breaks out of the illusionary earth simulation over and over again because she is never properly challenged in chess. (Great idea btw)
      She even states that at high levels she should be having to draw games instead of winning so much. And yet in the very first episode at the beginning of the story her mom recounts that she drew 2 games against a grandmaster before she has her revelation that’s she’s dreaming. I can rationalize ways this makes sense but it would seem better to make these statements Less contradictory.

      The chapter is super well done regardless.

    • The [Witch] halted before the half-Elf as he stood in his home in the present, a place of death, his tomb. The Putrid Once glanced at her and sighed at the intrusion.
      Putrid One

  2. Erin’s return to Earth, learning about her family there is incredibly bittersweet. Then, with her afterlife adventures, there was so much horror. Loss, grief, despair and fear dominated, and the six seemed unstoppable. Yet the tiny flame of hope never entirely went out, and moments of levity and excitement fanned the flame bit by bit until the end, when the heat roared out and anticipation turned to elation.

    The edits truly improved the emotional impact and flow of the chapter. As tiring as it was to revise, I think the energy was well-spent and the extra wait was well worth it.

    This chapter encapsulates the story of The Wandering Inn incredibly well.
    Thank you. I see every ounce of effort poured into this chapter, and it feels like it truly paid off. Excellent work, and rest well.

  3. The number of long standing threads and background characters/tidbits from throughout the story woven into this chapter was truly phenomenal. The editing was like the difference between a fantastic homemade cake and a professionally decorated piece of artistic food.

    Loved it, thanks Pirate and Rebecca.

  4. ‘Not even the mighty Djinni—nor the watching Giants moved to help the eighteen at the beach struggling against the four. Every species in this world save one was here. There were no Dragons, Erin realized.’

    Shouldn’t that be ‘Every species in this world save three were here’? It’s a rather important point that the Goblins and Antinium are also missing after all.

    Excellent chapter though. The six dead gods gave me chills.

    • I think ‘this world’ refers to the deadlands which means antium and goblins aren’t anywhere let alone chandrar

    • “Every species in this world save one was here” I took this as meaning the world of the dead. Goblins and Antinium (ogres, gnomes too?) are not in the world of the dead so..

    • If it was implying every species on innworld it would be missing more than 3… pretty sure there’s no crelers, chickens etc 😉

  5. Thanks for the amazing edited chapter! I’m sure I would have loved the unedited chapter too, of course, but I certainly won’t complain against a revised version.

    Pirateaba will make you root and care for characters then kill them, then kill them again in the underworld… how cruel.

  6. This has been one of my favorite chapters in a while and I think the editor really helped you shine in your writing

  7. you know, I had a thought. someone needs to make a picture of erin and the game as chess pieces.
    the antium chess club as pawns.
    numbtung as a rook
    rabbiteater as a knight
    marsha as a bishop
    lowette (I know I spelled her name wrong) as a queen
    pawn a bishop
    relic as a knight
    and can not think of the last piece… I was thinking zel or everyone’s favorite skeleton.

  8. I didn’t actually check against the unedited chapter but I think I noticed the difference and it was definitely for the better and made the story even greater.

    I really wish Zel and Ssserys get to meet again in a better time and place.

    I hope this revising isn’t too much extra work for you, please take care Pirate and thank you for the chapter.

  9. Amazing chapter, I’m so happy to see Erin’s just notquitedead and very much active! It makes the wait for her resurrection so much more bearable!

    Also, it makes that fanart crossover with Hades hilariously prescient, unless you told the artist what was coming?

    Ironically, Pawn was spot on for treating Erin like a holy prophet: she literally is one!

    • What if the antinium believing in her is what is actually making her into a match against the dead gods? She can stand against them because she is also a deity, now.

  10. The Putrid One finally “dies” and with it (presumably) all passive Skills boosting the village of the dead are gone as well? Masterful timing!
    Also lol, Fetohep can communicate with the dead kings of Khelt? Ah, too bad! He’s suddenly out of reach for the first time ever!
    That stuff made my day.

  11. This is a thank you, I hope, but it’s more just a share and hopefully you’ll see why. I haven’t read much of this chapter yet. Erin is in our ‘moment’ and beginning to share the last years’ collective pain of us on Earth. I’ve read all 8 books and in this time since August and I lost someone to suicide that many months ago. But upon getting to this chapter my grief and this world never crossed. It did, today, just now, in a good way, I think. I know he’s gone from this one but the way Erin is hoping back out to our world, sent my imagination running, Pirateaba. Maybe Dan woke up ….. there. My own solo escape (reading) into your world during this time has been my only relief from this pain. It’s very humbling to let the memory of him share space here, where I escaped to love your characters. The way Erin has hopscotched through time to intersect with your readers, me. This newest chapter, wonderfully edited.

    He and I played chess everyday multiple times; starting with our first date, For over two years + … I haven’t played a game since. Our board was marked with glyphs in green for me, orange for him. I was the artist, and he a medical student. Creativity met intelligence on that chessboard and each held sway. Layers of wins stacked on top of past wins at each square of the board. We could tell our lifetime wins this way. I never wanted to encounter chess in your story at starting it. Emphatically I was attempting to ignore chess in all formats. I disregarded the urge to put your characters away, for your story, looked soo long to be of some relief in the coming months, even though it messed with the whole chess ‘thing’! Dan and I played so many games that on occasion the first 8 exchanges were bygone conclusions, and no one else in this word spent so much time making a ‘new language’ with me over a chess board. After all Wandering Inn has a chess board someone can play across dimension and space. Makes me jealous when those moments come up, but they are precious to me too.

    I used to have a thing about my friends sharing a ‘story’ about a loved one they lost with me; instead of giving my condolences. So that the fallen might live in someone else’s memory (mine) as a means of remembrance, gift, or whatever needs meet their moment. For whatever reason I’ve not been able to talk about much of this to anyone, pandemic and all, but I’ve spent a lot of time watching Erin level up, and face some weird shit. This has helped some. But also I’ve never had someone ask for the same to remember the soul that I know is gone. I hope no one minds that I did it here.
    J.

    • I’m sorry for your loss, he sounds like a great and dear friend.

      Thank you for sharing a little bit of what you loved about him with the rest of us. <3

    • Hey Jamie, I’m glad you found something in this chapter that helped in any way. That’s more than an author can ask for, and it’s humbling.

      I can only hope to keep writing chapters that move people, even a tiny bit. Thank you for sharing and best wishes,

      –pirateaba

  12. Loved it. I was unsure what it would turn into and understandably worried but seeing all this has put my heart at ease. Kind of wondering why the sanctuary did not let erin in but I’m guessing that will be answered later.
    Anyway have a good day and keep up the amazing work pirate!
    :)

  13. That… was amazing. Well worth the wait in my book! For all that the three-in-one is feared, seeing and remembering the past through Erin was beautiful. All the chapters we have been through, all the stories that have started and ended in Erin’s grand story, they are *with* her. I won’t lie and say I remember Gerial all that well, but it just goes to show that all parts of the story come together even now. The Wandering Inn lives up to its name, even in death. Thanks for the Chappy :)

  14. Editors and revision helps, this chapter is certainly greater than the already good first edition.

    Looking forward to the next editor event!

  15. I have been reading this story in its for the last 3 years and finally decided to catch up. Just wanted to say that it’s awesome and you are awesome for making it!

  16. I wonder if Erin’s going to level from this. She is after all, opening the only inn, ever, in the land of the dead. Can’t wait to see what she does once she awakens and what she ends up learning here. I’m thinking she manages to do it on her own (super unlikely) or she wakes up to practically everyone she knows being there. And how convenient it is that Alendamus has the scroll to bring Erin back and the Order of the Seasons are considering fighting them, and Rabbiteater is with them… willing to fight as compensation for his stay.
    Love the gods’ work. They’re really turning into the end-game monsters. Still, Rhir is concerning. I wonder if there’s anyone in the land of the dead who actually remembers the gods. If not, did they all find oblivion after so long?
    Such a lovely chapter. Really pulls you in as you read it.

  17. I can’t help but picturing BTS’ dinamite on the radio when Erin is at home. It’s like the song I most often heard on it too for the past months

  18. “And yet, you stand above most of the other children.” You are telling me someone has done BETTER than ERIN FKING SOLSTICE in this world??? The singer? She has fans, she wont get an army to die for her. Ryoka? She knows powerful people, they wont die for her, aside from Ivolethe, who cant anymore. Clown or knight man? Nope. She can give people near Zel level strength and raise armies. The TITAN wants to get in her pants. The necromancer is finding a way to save her. Indirect power. Goblin/antinium kind worship her. Both world threats. Toss her into the demon kingdom and shed be playing chess with all the deathless.

    Also a good reason would be needed for why these legendary ghosts wouldn’t possibly give her the world’s greatest secrets to fight gods. A better reason than Erin not “feeling” like it.

    • I would love to see Erin interact with the Demon King and the Deathless. Hope she’ll do thar when she wakes.
      I don’t get the reason why the ghosts wouldn’t give Erin all the knowledge they can. Sure it might put everything they cared about in life (kingdoms and such) in danger, but that’s better than letting the parasites take the world of the living and the dead. Yeah. The threat of the gods outweighs the possible consequences.

    • “Also a good reason would be needed for why these legendary ghosts wouldn’t possibly give her the world’s greatest secrets to fight gods. A better reason than Erin not “feeling” like it”
      because she can’t understand their insights and they can’t teach her practically and their knowledge of where the great treasure was could be hundreds of years out of date.
      e.g they tell her there the secrate to eternal youth is to circulate her mana constantly in this really precise way but they can’t demonstrate it and she knows none the proper temknolgey.
      or they tell her that in the black bone forest of Jenuwa there lies a great artefact but the contrary of Jenuwa fell 14 thousand years ago and the black bone forest was destroyed 15 thousand years, oh and some random adventurer all ready found it 16 thousand years and it was destroyed in a great fight.

  19. Psst, Pirateaba!

    This is a bit late, but hopefully you will read it anyway: the “Next Chapter” link in 8.10 still goes to the unrevised version instead of here, which is kind of confusing for us lowly non-Patreon readers who only get the password page with no explanation as to why this chapter still hasn’t been unlocked. If I hadn’t noticed that the link from the Table of Contents had a “revised” in the address I might still be wondering what was going on… :-)

  20. So I’m guessing, but because the Putrid One died. The Horns will have a better chance at the village of the dead right?

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