(The Flowers of Esthelm, Book 3 of The Wandering Inn is out on Audible! Grab it here! And please consider leaving a review! Thanks!)
He broke the silence not because it bothered him after all this time, but because he wanted to.
Because he craved a response. Part of him thought he’d get one, even now.
The air was thick like a miasma, silent as a massed grave.
“They’re coming again. They never learn, do they? Do you see them, my friend?”
He turned his head and waited. No one else spoke, so he let his voice echo.
Filled the air again.
“They buzz around like little insects. Noisy. Irksome. Should I deal with them? I would have to leave you alone.”
Silence. Then, a chuckle. His. He reached out and patted the air; he would never dare to touch, even if he could.
“No, no. I would never leave you alone. I’m just kidding! Still…”
A frown crossed his face. Pensive, his voice became petulant.
“…Is this time special? Is there something I don’t know? They look like the same bugs to me. So why…?”
He paced around. Nothing had changed. He had not slept in eons. He had never ceased keeping watch. Nothing came here. Nothing moved. Yet—something had changed without him noticing.
Again, the fingers reached out, tentatively stopping.
“You’ve grown so silent. Have you withdrawn your blessing because we have done something wrong? Are we taking too long? I’ve tried my best, you know. You don’t say anything. I’m not a mind-reader. What do you want me to do?”
No. Response. As always. Yet it irked him. It enraged him. His voice grew louder, so loud a buzz filled the room as pebbles and dust shook.
“Answer me! I deserve that much, at least! Am I not your faithful companion? Faith. Have I not kept it for you for so long? I know you’re there. Or why else would it have changed? Is it them? Us?”
He stretched out an arm, pleadingly, shifting from wrath to regret, chagrin in a moment.
“I’m sorry! Don’t be angry.”
He groveled—sinking low to the ground, looking up hopefully.
Nothing moved. The…man’s…plaintive whisper was nearly lost.
“Can you even hear me?”
His head rose and beheld the object of his affection, anger, remorse, and desire. What the little bugs came for, every time. Something had changed. He whispered, uncertainly.
The Village of the Dead, or the Village of Death, was a death-zone. Aptly named, but it was an adventurer’s term anyways. It referred to places so lethal that even Named-rank Adventurers’ survival could not be guaranteed if they entered—let alone in them clearing or overcoming the challenges within.
There were a number of these places in every part of the world. Some were simply regions of ecological or magical damage, like the Dyed Lands or the Bloodfields, still valuable but inherently risky and without known treasure waiting to be seized.
Other locations were lairs. Like the Kraken’s Pass.
Some were dungeons. Magical relics, malevolent dungeons designed to slaughter, places where something died or waited.
The Archmage of Izril’s mansion might have become a death-zone in time, if it had slaughtered ten or twenty times the population it already had and existed for decades as such.
However, most death-zones were old. No one remembered when the Village of the Dead had appeared. It was simply there. A place you couldn’t fly over. That you avoided. Safe, for all that. The undead never left a mile’s radius of the village. Yet neither could it be destroyed.
They would rise, again and again, even from disintegration, incineration. No spell could bind them forever. No team had ever ended whatever curse lay over the land. Armies had perished, disappearing past the first streets.
So they gave up and marked it well. After all—no one knew if there was anything beyond the treasure of those who had come before lying within. There was little incentive beyond glory.
The sun was shining brightly. The summer waned, but the light was bright, the air warm. Yet in the first few feet of the Village of Death, the light took on a weak tone. The mortal smells of earth, greenery, vanished.
The air felt stagnant, and the odor of rot hung about. The bodies added to the putrefaction; rotten flesh and exposed organs hanging out of mangled corpses. They stood, shambling, or walked aimlessly—dead and rotting. But their eyes. They glowed, or where eyes were lost, the sockets held a magical fire.
Undead. Zombies and skeletons, but predominantly the former. Ghouls, corded muscle instead of rotting flesh, moving with far more animation than their lesser kin. They rotted, but they did not fully decay, not here.
A wide, cobblestone-and-dirt street that you might see in any large, prosperous village held the undead. Crumbling houses of broken wood, not a single piece polished or free from grime or mold stood sentinel, creating walls on two sides. They looked as ruined as the undead, but like the undead, they never fully disappeared.
The shambling corpses turned, suddenly, as something interrupted the silence. Their unfocused wandering became coordinated in a moment. Their gazes baleful. They turned and moved as one. Like…a swarm of insects themselves. Or a single unified mind with one intent. They looked down the street.
Then there was light. Undead stared up, mystified, transfixed for a moment as something arched out of the pallid sky. Something bright, brighter than the reduced sun. A memory from outside.
The first of [Valmira’s Comets] landed like a falling star and blew a knot of zombies apart. Another struck, lobbed from far overhead and far away. One vaporized a pair of Ghouls and left a skeleton in pieces, trying to reassemble itself before the binding spell faded.
Another struck a roof and exploded it. The undead that could think, a huge, bloated Crypt Lord commanding the others on the street, were unconcerned by the magical firepower raining down. The huge amalgamation of undead, dozens of hands and legs forming its ‘limbs’, a mass of eyes squelched together, a creation of death—the Crypt Lord—waited.
This was not a problem. The spells raining down were like rain. Soon, the power in this place would reanimate the undead. The roof of the house damaged by one of the spells would repair itself.
Both village and inhabitants could not be destroyed. They had tried many times, bombarding this place with far greater spells. Tried to remove undead one at a time, bury them, reduce the threat of this place even by one body.
They would reappear here. Flesh would knit. Bone would replace itself. Even if there was nothing to restore itself—it would still be made anew.
The Crypt Lord waited. It stared at the broken skeleton. The bones were rolling together. Then…slowly…they stopped.
The light went out in the skull’s eye-sockets. The Crypt Lord stirred. It plodded over and crushed the skeleton’s broken skull. It stared at the bone dust, as confused as it had ever been. The sentience in the greater undead could not comprehend what was happening.
Something was wrong.
There was no time to question, even if it could have made logical assumptions and thought. The undead in the street began to move as the bombardment stopped. The Crypt Lord turned.
There, at the head of the street, something moved. Not one of the undead. It ran into the street, making sound. It was a screaming bellow, a yell.
The adventurer stopped as they saw the street full of undead. Thousands of undead crammed together began to move forwards, Ghouls leaping past stumbling zombies and skeletons. The adventurer wavered. Then they looked over their shoulder and took heart from something. The [Warrior] raised their sword, and, with another whoop—
A woman with silver arms shoved past them. A two-handed sword was resting on her shoulder. She ran forwards, silently. Right behind her came a Minotaur with a pair of blades. Hot on their heels was a Stitch-man with a curved blade, shouting, followed by his bodyguards. The [Warrior] disappeared behind a dozen more adventurers.
Yvlon raised her sword as the first zombie appeared. She shoulder-charged into it, and felt something smush as she cracked its rotting frame. She hurled it down, stomped with her boot. Her foot crashed through the skull. She kept running without missing a beat. The second undead she met was a skeleton.
The [Silversteel Armsmistress] crashed through the fragile skeleton, scattering its bones. She looked around for a target and finally swung her sword. The Sword of Weight caught a leaping Ghoul and sheared halfway through its torso. The undead flipped with the force of the enchantment, and Yvlon whirled her sword down for a finishing blow.
Dorgon charged past her. The Minotaur had kept pace with the first wave of adventurers, refusing to break ranks and charge recklessly ahead. Now, he lunged, bellowing. Yvlon had gone into the fray silent. He did not.
“The House of Minos! Forward! Don’t slow!”
He bellowed over his shoulder, ordering the first wave of adventurers so that the others hot on their heels wouldn’t be bunched up. He matched actions to words. The Minotaur ran past knots of undead, his swords blurring.
Yvlon saw the flashing blades go through three zombies, slashing them apart. The other shortsword-swordbreaker was slashing on Dorgon’s right, carving with equal ease; cutting far further than the two shortswords should be able to reach.
[Sickle Cut]. Yvlon recognized the technique as she wrenched her sword up. She impaled a second zombie and wrenched it out. Her left hand, pure silvery metal, made a fist. She swung it left and backhanded another corpse’s jaw clean off its face. Grimacing, Yvlon whirled her sword, cutting with equal ease—if not a Skill.
Dorgon’s charge only stopped when he met a bloated zombie-Gnoll as large as he was. He didn’t bother stopping his scything blades, but kicked the Gnoll in the chest, then began laying about him.
The undead closed around him in an instant, only held off by the complete radius of defensive slashes the Minotaur was using to shield himself as much as attack. However, he was not strung out ahead of the others for more than a second.
“A magnificent charge! I’ll write about this in my memoirs!”
A laughing [Prince] leapt into the center of the horde, followed by eight Stitchfolk bodyguards. Prince Zenol’s sword was not double-edged, but had only one killing side; the other was flat, and the sword was curved, almost like a scimitar to Yvlon’s eyes as she hacked a Ghoul’s arm from its shoulder.
Someone stabbed the Ghoul with a spear. Yvlon saw a [Spearman] move up and run forwards with a knot of adventurers.
However, not to the [Prince] and his bodyguards. Zenol had found his target: nearly thirty eight undead bunched up. He pivoted, swung his sword at waist-height. Yvlon saw the concentration on his face, the grin of his teeth on his silkflesh face. His royal garments, enchanted to replace actual armor, fluttered.
“[Sword Art: The Farmer’s Scythe]!”
Yvlon saw the sword flash, and the flicker of the enchanted steel—she slowed for a second as all thirty-eight undead slowly collapsed, falling into two pieces. Not just them; a handful of other undead were also cut.
“Dead fucking gods, did you see that?”
The [Spearman] shouted. Yvlon just gritted her teeth. Flashy—but it worked. She only hoped Zenol had more Skills. However, his bodyguards had closed around him and were fending off the leaping Ghouls as the [Prince] saluted Dorgon. The Minotaur ignored him, keeping his swords slashing—right up until Yvlon hit the lines of the undead.
The woman put her fist through a zombie’s head—stared at her gore-covered arm embedded squarely in the skull—and began to shake it. The head came loose and Yvlon found a skull embedded on her arm as she gripped her sword and cut around her. Dorgon blinked at that for a second. Yvlon, gritting her teeth, put her sword down and hit another undead with her shoulder.
It was almost more effective than swinging her sword. Her arms—her enchanted steel armor was weaker than her metal flesh. With every swing of her sword, she hacked apart an undead. She ripped the zombie’s head off her arm, gagging.
She didn’t know her strength. The Yvlon of old wouldn’t have managed to punch through a skull and flesh, even rotten, like that.
“Everyone move aside! I’m using my Skill! [Jab Barrage]!”
Another adventurer shouted, launching into a flurry of stabbing attacks that knocked several undead down or backwards. More were using their Skills to clear undead back, but some fought like Yvlon with only grit and muscle, relying on sharp weapons to do their job and holding back.
The first street of undead was falling to pieces as fast as the adventuers could attack. Only the Ghouls even had a chance; shambling zombies, for all their strength, weren’t fast or tough enough to face down Gold-ranks.
Skeletons were faster, but fragile, weaker. The only undead Yvlon could see that was a threat was—
“There! Crypt Lord! Who will take it?”
Prince Zenol pointed, having stopped to let his bodyguards fight. He surveyed the battle, shaking gore off his sword and choosing his target. He looked around, positioned himself to leap forwards—
Yvlon ran at the Crypt Lord. Her sword came up. Dorgon, sprinting forwards, saw her turn her head. Her blonde hair was already filthy beneath the steel helmet she wore; he had a similar helmet. Zenol had none.
“I’ll get it!”
He nodded and slowed. Yvlon braced as the Crypt Lord surged forwards. Black blood—poison—ran from an open maw of ‘teeth’, which were broken bones. Sixty eyes all fused and rotten together into a single staring eye gazed at her as a huge hand rose with crushing force. A Silver-rank threat for an entire team. However…
“[Curve of the Moon]!”
Yvlon’s sword art was not a horizontal slash, but a crescent. Like the name, those watching saw a huge arc slash through the air. Zenol raised his arm, stopping his leap. He blinked.
The Crypt Lord was down. Yvlon had gone two thirds of the way through it. She’d raised her sword for a second strike, but there was no need. It was already motionless, the binding spell broken.
Some of the younger or lower-leveled adventuers stopped to stare. The rest just forged ahead. Dorgon grunted as he shook filth from his armor and blades. He looked down the street.
“First street cleared! Advance!”
He began striding forwards. Yvlon was already running at the next zombie. Prince Zenol, grinning, motioned to his bodyguards.
“Leave the lesser undead! We won’t fall behind!”
They surged forwards as one, leading the way in the first wave as more adventurers, Silver-ranks some of them, came forwards, clearing the undead still standing.
It was too easy. Then again—they were lesser undead. If they had each reanimated, regenerated flesh as fast as you cut into them, healing while your sword was buried in their guts? That might have slowed the Gold-ranks.
Then again, perhaps not. The first rank of adventuers reached the end of the street and turned. The [Spearman] swore again as he saw a second street, just as crowded, identical to the first in almost every way. He slowed, but Dorgon charged with Yvlon and Zenol.
He repeated his charge, beat-for-beat. The Minotaur hacked through undead, using the exact same Skill as he had less than a minute ago. Yvlon blinked at him as she hacked, efficient with her enhanced strength and sword, but unable to use her sword art for nearly a half-hour.
“[Sickle Cut] is always active. Don’t waste your Skills!”
Dorgon snarled as an undead landed a glancing slash on his light metal armor. He pivoted—beheaded it. He moved beautifully, every motion a cut from one arm or the other—or both. Yvlon had seldom met warriors capable of using weapons in both arms properly like Dorgon without sacrificing something.
The House of Minos’ adventurer-captain from afar. Technically Silver-rank. Handpicked for her group by Yvlon for the melee wave.
[Twinblade Linebreaker]. She’d known he was good.
Prince Zenol clapped his hands, laughing. He was just as unpredictable, but Yvlon had accepted his request to join her group. He pointed.
“My servants, clear this rabble. We have to entrench our [Archers] and [Mages]! Go forwards! [Ferocious Command]!”
The eight bodyguards charged with howls. Yvlon thought she saw tendons and muscles bulge as they cleaved forwards in a berserk fury. Zenol rested on his curved sword. She strode forwards, leaving him behind as he stopped the [Spearman] and pointed him towards a flanking position.
They were moving so fast. Yvlon heard a voice as she stepped back for a moment.
She raised the speaking stone to her mouth. She had been issued with one, along with every wave leader. Somewhere else, Jelaqua was shouting.
“We’re running through them like [Sailors] at a brothel!”
“We’re slaughtering them!”
The excited Selphid clarified. Yvlon heard shouting through the speaking stone, an echo of what she was hearing around her.
“There’s no reanimation spell! We’re pushing down our street—Halrac! Start moving up the archers! Get them onto the roofs and we’ll secure! Don’t push too far ahead! If you get to an intersection, try to find out where we are! We need to take this place piece by piece—no pockets of undead behind us.”
“Got it. Strategist Soew, do you hear that?”
“I hear. I am moving up the [Mages]; they will hold off bombardment. Do not advance more than three streets so far. I am attempting to map your progress.”
Yvlon strode forward again, dropping the stone back to dangle from the bracelet. She was already lifting her sword for another cut.
The adventurers raiding the Village of the Dead attacked so fast that the projection of the battle on television for three minutes was a [Mage] jogging past dismembered body parts, incinerated or otherwise spell-damaged undead, and Silver-ranks stabbing the last wounded undead yet to fully die.
By the time they reached the front rank of the fighting, Rags had returned from the hill. She, Numbtongue, and Mrsha joined a crowd in the common room of The Wandering Inn.
Niers Astoragon watched from a beam, cursing and trying to get a better view. They were not the only ones, of course.
In Pallass, Chaldion was observing from Pallass’ war room, although this was not, strictly speaking, a military engagement that affected Pallass in any way.
Someone could have pointed this out. In theory, any one of the [Tacticians], [Strategists], and other, lesser members of Pallass’ military could upbraid Chaldion, the [Grand Strategist] of Pallass, for using the room for recreation.
No one did. In truth, Chaldion would have usually preferred to watch elsewhere, but the bar where he’d normally have ready food and a better audience was closed. There were few other places where he could have someone fetch him a drink whenever he wanted.
In Oteslia, Lyonette was gripping the table so hard Mivifa saw her knuckles turning white. The Oldblood Drake saw it—but she herself barely turned away from the scrying orb. She was many things, but she was an adventurer. Saliss, Mivifa, and the two Gentlemen Callers were glued to the scrying orb.
But where Mivifa was passionate for fellow adventurers, the romance, excitement, glory of this raid, it was different. For the rest…
It was personal.
Ilvriss watched as well, clenching his claws. He’d stopped to watch and had ordered camp struck, despite it being only midday.
“Adventurer Tessa, thoughts?”
“They’re killing undead. Zombies, Ghouls, and skeletons. Crypt Lords? You could do that with Bronze-ranks. Probably. Also, it’s Shriekblade.”
Ilvriss nodded. He’d seen nothing so far to alarm him. Yet he listened as Drassi, panting from the fight in the broadcasting booth, spoke loudly.
“This raid is ongoing—if you’re just tuning in, you are watching an assault on the Village of the Dead, live, covered by me, Drassi, and uh—Joseph.”
The [Football Coach] made a non-sequitur of a sound. Drassi went on, with practice and natural talent, her eyes never leaving her own view of the battle.
“Sir Relz and Noass are not covering this event or whatever boring thing they were working on because they are not allowed in here. Here’s what we know: the Village of the Dead is a death-zone, famous for the regenerating, nigh-immortal undead. I’m not seeing that today. Are you, Joseph?”
“Uh—uh—they look pretty dead to me.”
“Yes! And not undead! We can only speculate unless we get an interview, and the raid is ongoing so you can kiss your tail on that idea, but it may be the adventurers have found a way to negate what is going on here! In which case, they might be further into the Village of the Dead than any other group has been in living memory! You are seeing this live if you are just tuning in! We are accepting [Messages] and live-calls from the audience if you have anything to say—stay tuned! It looks like heavy fighting in front—but nothing deadly yet, right Joseph?”
“Are those Ghouls? And Crypt Lords? They look pretty—”
“Gold-ranks eat Ghouls for breakfast. Stick with me, Joseph!”
It was an event. No—it was the event of the hour. It was also live, so it meant it was the event the world needed to see. Real news.
In fact, it was so much more important than any other conceivable thing in the world at this very moment that this truth of television became a self-fulfilling truth in actuality.
Two vast armies were lined up on arid ground. The heat of the long summer had baked the earth a bit too much, so that it became too close to sand in places; treacherous footing in an engagement that might mean life or death when a single misstep would provoke an opening.
Accordingly, the heavy-infantry of one army had been staggered, to bait a chariot charge from the heavy-contingent of Stitchfolk on the other side into the difficult terrain for wheeled vehicles.
The King of Destruction was facing another of Nerrhavia’s armies, and the hordes of Nerrhavia’s Fallen had begun to push even Reim by sheer weight of its powerful military, if not any one single victory.
Tense Hemp-caste [Soldiers] were waiting, as their counterparts of Reim held their position, having thunderously cheered as their [King] took up a position close to the front in the vanguard with his two subordinates, Venith Crusland and Maresar Crusland.
The Stitchfolk [General], arrayed with his Silk-caste command, was waiting for Reim to charge on his entrenched position. Yet no attack had come in the last fifteen minutes.
Now—he watched the messenger with the white flag stop and hand something to his people. It was conveyed to him after a long wait of minutes where it was analyzed for hostile spells, poison, or the like.
Yet from the King of Destruction? The [General] was not surprised it was a letter, but he had no idea what it could be until he unfolded it. He read it to his subordinates out loud.
General Murab, I greet you with all due civility and whatnot, to present you with an appealing offer.
Although our respective Kingdoms are at war, and I have sworn to carry the battle to Nerrhavia’s heart, and no doubt your [Queen] has instructed you to take my head—would you consider a temporary ceasefire for a day, that we might watch the raid on the Village of the Dead?
I would consider it a great personal favor, as it is, I’m sure you’ll agree, not to be missed. If you agree, I shall pull back my army until this event is over, upon which time we will reengage. Do let me know by raising a flag of truce if you agree.
–Flos Reimarch, King of Reim
General Murab slowly peered at the distant [King], and saw a hand wave at him. He turned to his [Strategist], and then glanced at the scrying orb with similar coverage of the event in his tent. He cleared his throat, uncertainly.
The King of Destruction was not the only monarch to halt an impending battle due to the raid, strangely. High King Perric himself negotiated a similar truce with Fetohep of Khelt. Both monarchs sat back, with drink or company or simply a scrying device.
Not just them; the Titan of Baleros, the Cyclops of Pallass, King Itorin II of Ailendamus and his royal family, the Bannermare of Baleros, Admiral Seagrass, the Blighted King and Queen…
They watched. For sport or amusement or because it might aid them in some way. However, for some—it was more than idle curiosity or a desire to be part of a communal event.
Nsiia sat cross-legged, ignoring everything but the broadcast. It might surprise many to hear of it, given that a war of far greater scale was ongoing. However, those people forgot who these [Kings] and [Queens] had been. Perric, Flos, Fetohep, Nsiia—
Adventurers and warriors. They saw the adventurers risking everything in a place of infamy. Near-certain death. Yet what they craved was heroism. Bravery. Inspiration.
Victory or defeat. Let it be glorious.
It was their entertainment. In person? It was—
Levil, team captain of the Pithfire Hounds was not in the first wave of adventurers. Or the second. Or the third.
The fourth was his. It made sense. He was a Silver-rank. Not Gold; the waves of four dozen adventurers at most were meant to go in succession. The first group went in hot, fought until they needed to fall back, and let the second wave fill in the gaps, fighting together if need be.
Standard, good tactics. It wasn’t one place either; four different spots were subject to the adventurers’ attacks.
Four, for four hundred adventurers. Silver-ranks backed up the Gold with sheer numbers. But not all the firepower had been committed to the first push. Levil, for instance, as a captain and [Fire Mage] who could cast [Fireball], was considered more valuable than a [Warrior] in the Silver-rank category. So he was one of the vanguard who’d be a hammer to metal.
Similarly, the ranged-adventurers with spells and arrows who could attack indirectly with volley or lobbing spells from afar were their own group. One was led by Halrac the Grim, another by the highest-leveled [Wizard] who could coordinate linked spells like the [Valmira’s Comet] storm that had hit the village first.
It had looked impressive, raining down on the small settlement. Yet…as the first rank charged and Levil saw Yvlon and the other Gold-ranks disappear into the village, he realized something.
He couldn’t hear the fighting. They should have been within a hundred feet of the waves waiting to go in. Yet it was as if they had been swallowed by the village.
“They’re alright! Don’t worry! Speaking stones are active. They’re tearing apart the undead.”
That came from the second wave in their position. A cheerful Gold-rank—a woman called Briganda—reassured the others. Levil relaxed slightly.
“If it was bad, we’d have seen some of them tele out. Guess it’s a good sign we haven’t.”
An [Axewoman] nodded, and a few of the Silver-ranks shifted nervously.
Tele, as in teleport. Along with coordinating the attack, Soew, the strange Owl [Strategist] had made insurance policies. Speaking stones, enchanted by [Mages]. Also—[Lesser Teleport] scrolls, or even beacons that the few [Mages] capable of the spell could use to save the adventurers in trouble.
It was all good, in short. An organized attack, despite the chaos of last night. They’d arrived at the village at midday and were sieging it. It was just—Levil checked his breathing.
His entire team was with him, except for Makki and Mousey and Bram, their [Beast Tamer]. The dogs weren’t right for fighting massed-undead. So they were on bodyguard-duty for the [Mages] in case undead came at them. Levil knew Bram was upset, but it made sense.
“They’ve cleared a street!”
For the first few minutes, it was all good news. The adventurers in the fourth wave, the last, heard nothing but progress. This was even being televised; they saw a [Mage] run in, and half of them waved to be seen.
Not Levil. He was just holding his wand in an increasingly-sweaty hand. He wanted to be in the fighting now, not waiting! His entire battle strategy was ‘go in hot’. He threw [Fireballs], burnt through his mana supply as fast as he could—and then switched to lesser spells or mana potioned up. The faster the enemy died, the better.
The antithesis to this kind of battle, obviously. Levil listened. He began to hear…a pattern.
“Third street down! No contact yet—second wave, with me! We’re moving up. Stop running! They don’t need us—yet!”
Briganda shouted. She led the second group of mixed Gold and Silver-ranks forwards at a trot. The other adventurers cheered. Levil didn’t get the updates, but someone actually had a scrying orb and he could hear that attractive Drake talking. Apparently some of the people were from Liscor and had autographs they’d been swapping last night.
“—another street down! But the undead aren’t stopping! There must have been thousands dead already! They’ve packed the streets! Joseph, what do you think?”
“How many Crypt Lords is that, Drassi?”
“My count’s at twenty dead here alone. That’s…a good point. That’s—I want to say that’s a lot of Crypt Lords. Can anyone confirm? Hold on—”
“Wave three. Move in. Follow my directions. I need you to take a side-street and support the first and second waves.”
Soew’s voice made everyone jump. The Gold-rank leader of the third wave checked himself, asked questions for half a minute, then advanced. Levil’s heart jumped, but he waited.
Every time a street was cleared, someone would shout it, and the waiting adventurers would cheer or laugh. Some had even taken bets after the first three had gone down in succession. However, nearly twenty minutes into the fighting, Levil heard the announcements coming in more slowly.
“…if you’re just tuning in…Village of the Dead…that has to be at least a thousand undead. I’m told this a multi-pronged attack. Wait—we have one of our people in studio saying I’m off. Two thousand undead, six hundred and forty eight. Are you serious? There’s so many—”
Levil heard the shout. He saw their group commander check himself.
“We’re needed. Follow me!”
They entered the Village of the Dead. Levil was closer to the front; he was tasked with casting [Fireball] if he saw a good target and falling back. His wand was raised—
But of course, the first street was already cleared. In fact, Halrac the Grim himself was there, his face classically expressionless, with nearly thirty [Archers]. Levil felt silly as the rest of his team stopped, behind him.
“Where’s the fighting?”
One adventurer asked eagerly. Inside the Village of the Dead, they could hear the fighting at last. In the distance, it sounded like. They were already moving past the [Archers], but Halrac stopped them.
“Halt. You’re needed here.”
Confused, the fourth wave of adventurers stopped. Halrac was talking with the adventurer in charge. He seemed to know the captain.
“Nailren. Yvlon’s wave is stymied in the fighting. Too many intersections. They want us to start clearing out undead. There are at least ten thousand visible.”
The Gnoll Silver-rank growled.
“You must be joking. How many are in the streets?”
“They’re packed. They want us on the roofs—the [Mages] are using targeting spells, but we need a line of sight or at least a good position.”
The Gnoll [Archer] nodded. The adventurer shifted as the two conferred. What was the problem? Halrac eyed the house behind him. He lifted the speaking stone to his lips.
“Strategist Soew. Are you sure the houses are clear?”
“I had [Dangersense]-capable adventurers check them. They went into thirteen; all have been empty. I am keeping some adventurers checking, but we have seen nothing.”
Halrac folded his arms.
“I don’t like it. That’s why you’re here, Nailren.”
The Gnoll nodded, quick to adapt. He shouted.
“Fighting formation! Let’s cover Adventurer Halrac! I need volunteers—no. Just knock the walls down, yes? Who’s got a hammer? Spells?”
Two adventurers, including the [Axewoman] and Keima, who was an [Axe Fighter], instantly volunteered. Levil raised his voice.
“I’ve got [Fireball]! Let me! Where do you want it?”
Halrac’s gaze swung to Levil. He inspected a house; pointed.
“Blow the wall down.”
It took three [Fireballs], which taxed Levil and surprised him. The houses were sturdy. However, the smoldering hole revealed nothing but a rotten inside. Halrac grunted. He had been covering the entrance; meanwhile, Nailren had set more to breaking down doors.
Eight homes—all empty. Just as Soew had said. The [Strategist] was talking to Halrac when Levil, panting, lowered the mana potion from his lips. He probably shouldn’t have made it seem like casting [Fireball] in quick succession was easy.
“Nothing. We are boarding up the doors as we go, or sealing them with wall-spells, Captain Halrac. I am not a fool. However, our assumption was the Village of the Dead was on a time-limit so we did not secure our flanks. If the undead truly aren’t regenerating, perhaps we should consider stopping and fortifying after an hour and making this a loss-less war of attrition?”
“Maybe. I don’t like the empty houses. How many casualties so far?”
“Three. Silver-ranks, all.”
Halrac made a sound. He kept staring into the empty houses, but the adventurers who’d gone in—all [Rogues] or [Thieves]—hadn’t detected traps.
Levil chanced a glance into the homes. This Village of the Dead was…unsettling. He understood Halrac’s worry.
It looked like a humble, villager’s home. Albeit one long gone to rot. The floorboards were old, covered in mold or black…something. There was furniture, what little of it remained, even glass swallowed by spider webs. Dust—
Even so. Halrac was talking to Nailren.
“I’ve fought undead before. I know one more tactic they might be using—burrowing. How sure are we they’re not going to tunnel up and attack from below?”
The Gnoll bared his teeth.
“I’m from Pallass, Captain Halrac, yes? I know how our army lost against the Goblin Lord in the mountains. I checked; there aren’t any noticeable holes or undead—even in the root cellars or basements.”
The Gold-rank [Veteran Scout] bit his lip. However, he had put several of the adventurer-archers to climbing one of the roofs to lob enchanted arrows at the street beyond already. He just…didn’t like it.
Neither did Levil, the longer he stared into one of the empty houses. The fact that there were absolutely no undead within bothered him. He expected the houses to be filled! The streets had been so congested with bodies that they’d had to be piled to one side or destroyed just so adventurers could march through.
And yet…nothing. Halrac lifted the stone.
“Captain Halrac, we need your [Archers]. Two of the four attacking waves are falling back.”
His brows snapped together. Soew’s voice was calm—but insistent.
Levil heard an oath. He saw someone pointing at the scrying orb and saw the view the rest of the world was getting—ironically better than his.
A wave of undead was forcing Yvlon’s team back. Mrsha clung to Ulvama, squeezing her so hard—and Selys, clinging to them. Both ignored her sharp claws, as intent on the battle as everyone else.
Selys had seen undead fighting in the battle with Skinner, and rarely before that. However—this wasn’t Skinner’s thousands. This was—
Yvlon was bellowing. She swung her sword and beheaded six zombies. Yet the bodies which collapsed couldn’t even fall properly. It was a wave in every sense of the word; a wall of zombies, so close together that it was all flesh and grasping arms.
“[Lightning Bolt] incoming!”
Yvlon flung herself out of the way, and the bolt of electricity fried…dozens upon dozens. Area-of-attack spells and Skills were slaughtering hundreds. Yet there were so many.
Ghouls were crawling over the heads of the other undead, bounding off rooftops. Skeletons were clambering upwards too, launching arrows.
They were the real threat; the wall of zombies and Crypt Lords were a deadly, but slow force. They kept advancing despite the attack, while the faster undead sped along rooftops.
“We need those [Archers]! Prince Zenol—”
“For the glory of Nerrhavia’s Fallen!”
A laughing [Prince] leapt, landed on a rooftop, and cut two Ghouls apart. Dozens were on him in seconds, but he bought the other adventurers time to climb and contest this new avenue.
“We have hundreds of Ghouls coming at us and we’re under ranged fire! Halrac—”
Yvlon’s voice was so clear to Mrsha. The Gnoll grabbed Selys—then gaped. A bright arrow flashed—blew apart a knot of skeletons. The view of the scrying orb swung up to a distant [Archer], a man seemingly holding nothing but air.
The invisible bow! Mrsha saw Halrac and the adventurers loose again, and now magical arrows were blowing apart undead. She cheered, throwing up her paws. She clocked Selys in the jaw.
There were a lot of damn undead! Revi wasn’t in wave four. She wasn’t even in the village. She was a [Summoner], so she stood on a hill hundreds of paces away from the Village of the Dead and watched the artillery-[Mages] lobbing spells at the village.
Some were even sipping tea, chattering, or watching the scrying orb as they did. None were incautious though; they kept an eye out for undead coming this way. Only eight Ghouls had made it past the fighting, though.
“This isn’t thousands. These are tens of thousands! Maybe a hundred thousand, who knows?”
She spoke rapidly, to those around her, not able to relax. Geni, the veteran [Wizard] with grey hair, safely in the back ranks, patted Revi’s arm in a kind way.
“I know, dear. But they’re not regenerating. That’s something.”
“If they were, we’d never get through here. Imagine fighting that string-shit with all of them coming back? No wonder an army never made it past! I don’t like it.”
“The fact that a—so many undead can hide in there, and that we are not hearing anything? Mm. It bodes.”
A rather patrician-type [Mage] lowered his teacup. Patrician was a word Revi had never used, but it fit this [Mage] to a tee. He was the classic Wistram [Mage]—and he was indeed from Wistram Academy. His attitude, from his spectacles perched on his nose, to the chair and tea he was sipping, was the exact reason [Mages] got a bad rap.
“What do you mean by that?”
Revi growled at him. The [Mage] gave her the arched eyebrow that made her want to kick him in the shins.
“I mean—the Village of the Dead clearly has a spatial enchantment on it. Powerful too; it must be far vaster on the inside than the outside.”
“…You mean, a dimensional bubble? Like Wistram has? Moths eat me.”
Revi wanted to pace, but Geni patted her arm.
“Save your energy, Revi, dear.”
She knew the old woman was right. She was looking bad; the other [Mages] were glancing at her and she was a veteran! The [Summoner] tried to relax, but Revi was antsy. She hadn’t summoned anything—because Soew hadn’t asked her to, or a wave leader. Her mana ran out, so she was standing in the spell circles which ambiently drew mana from the environment, perfect for [Mages]. She was waiting.
As it turned out, she didn’t have to wait long. Revi didn’t know what triggered the change—maybe Halrac’s volleys from the rooftop. But then she heard half a dozen horn calls from the scrying orb.
Not from the distant village. It was too silent. The speaking stones chattered to life in an instant. Revi heard multiple voices, all screaming the same thing.
“—out of the houses! I thought you ch—”
“Give me bombardment on my street! We’re falling back! I’m at—”
Her head rose. Revi’s cotton-skin crawled. She mouthed the word at the same time as everyone else.
Levil’s wave was about to go and join the fighting on the front, having seen Halrac’s group onto the roofs when the ambush occurred.
He even saw it happening. The [Fire Mage]’s head turned. He felt it.
“Nailren! I’m getting a huge magical signature—is someone casting a spell?”
The Gnoll halted. The adventurers lifted their weapons.
“I feel it too! What is that?”
A [Mage] pointed. Every head turned to…the abandoned houses.
“Oh shit. Oh fuck. Halrac was right!”
Keima muttered. The adventurers looked around. What was coming? Invisible undead? Levil’s eyes were wide—an adventurer loosed an arrow, but it struck nothing?
From the ground? He stared down, and another adventurer shook her head. A Dwarf? Dasha of Vuliel Drae raised her voice.
“I’ve got [Tremorsense]! I don’t sense ‘em below us! What’s the magic?”
Levil had no formal magical schooling. He had no way of identifying the nuance in the spell, only aware it was there. The answer came in a moment anyways.
He saw a golden flash of light. Blinding—the [Fire Mage] raised his hand to his eyes. When he lowered it—there they were.
Undead. They filled the house he had blasted open. So tightly bunched-up that some instantly spilled out of the house. Ghouls, zombies, skeletons—again, lesser undead. But so many. And that was one house.
Levil recoiled. He raised his wand, and a jet of flame lashed out instantly. It burned through the crowd ahead of him. Then Levil turned his head.
Every house in the street had just filled up. Now—out the undead came.
“Halrac! Undead below you! Get back! Everyone, fall back!”
Nailren bellowed. He swung up his bow and loosed a shot which turned into three. The scatter-shot Skill blasted zombies backwards.
“Mass teleportation? That’s impossible! That’s—”
Ullica, the other [Mage] in the Pithfire Hounds, had gone into hysterics. Two adventurers near him were just staring, transfixed. Levil whirled.
“Ullica! Fight! [Fireball]!”
The detonation and blast of heat and force snapped the other adventurers out of it. Silver-ranks fought to desperately stem the flow of undead from the houses. Insill, Dasha, Pekona, Larr, and Anith, the entire team of Vuliel Drae, were fighting with the Pithfire Hounds. Back-to-back in a circle in the street.
Halrac’s group was now surrounded by climbing undead. They were loosing enchanted arrows all around them, killing countless undead with each arrow, but Ghouls were climbing with skeletons.
Insill wailed, the Drake [Rogue] slashing around him. Pekona just slashed undead in half, the [Blade Dancer] cutting down a score in an ever-widening circle by herself.
“Where are the Horns?”
For some reason, Larr, their Gnollish [Archer] wanted to know. He growled as he shot; already spells were blasting undead to pieces. He snarled at Anith, their Jackal Beastkin leader.
“Where are the Horns? Where’s Eldertuin the Fortress? Elia Arcsinger? All these Gold-ranks can’t detect an ambush or deal with these undead? I don’t see them taking the lead for all their talk! They’re just one of the teams out here! Tell me they’re further in—”
“Nailren, help incoming. Don’t move from your spot.”
A female voice spoke out of the stone on the Gnoll’s wrist. Levil recognized it. What did she mean by that, th—
One of the houses exploded as a huge paw made of ice and bone smashed through it. Undead were crushed under a single crushing blow. Then the other paw came down.
Levil, the Pithfire Hounds, Vuliel Drae, and the other adventurers looked up. A huge, bestial bear-monstrosity roared, and the sound was that of avalanches and grinding ice. Its body was made of ivory. Ivory—coated in ice.
Instantly, Levil raised his wand and fired a [Flame Arrow] at the face. He didn’t know what undead that was, but—
Nailren grabbed his arm.
“Don’t! That’s on our side!”
“What? That’s undead!”
Levil bellowed back. The Gnoll didn’t bother explaining. He just pointed and Levil saw the giant creation move.
The giant undead was on all fours, so vast it was taller than the uniform houses of the village. It was shaped like a bear—if a bear had been upgraded to be even more destructive and monstrous. Then, someone had taken the frame of the Bone Behemoth and coated it in ice instead of flesh.
Frostmarrow Behemoth. It tore through the first house and rammed through the second without slowing. Undead in its way turned to paste. The adventurers saw it circle, clumsily—then run down a street. It didn’t need to even attack; it just crushed the undead with its sheer weight. It turned again, and began tearing another house apart.
Levil stared so long that it was Ullica’s turn to shake his shoulder. He raised his wand and began blasting undead with a will.
The momentum had turned. The ambushed fourth wave didn’t just have the Frostmarrow Behemoth to thank, although it was more than enough. However—all the resistance on the other end of the street was vanishing too.
Levil saw walls of ice shooting upwards, covering the fronts of the trapped houses. At the same time, the massed undead who’d climbed out began collapsing. He saw a Ghoul turn—then its neck snapped. It fell, dead, and only then did Levil catch sight of the two [Mages] running to relieve the fighters.
Ceria pointed, and [Ice Walls] blocked undead in the houses. By her side, Pisces held his rapier in one hand. However, he hadn’t bothered to use it yet—he just pointed and undead fell, necks snapped. A skeleton resisted the blow, so the [Necromancer] lifted his rapier and stabbed it through the eye-socket.
“Up ahead—she’s fine. We’re going that way. Control the Frostmarrow Behemoth! You’re getting it lost!”
“I’m sorry if I’m directionally challenged when you say ‘that way’, oh great and glorious captain—”
The two squabbling [Mages] shouted at each other. They strode down the street as the Frostmarrow Behemoth whirled. Then Ceria lifted her fingers.
“Let’s go, then!”
A rapid volley of [Ice Spikes], as fast as Levil could throw the weaker [Flame Arrow] spell, picked off Ghouls on a rooftop. Pisces nodded. He vanished—appeared, stabbing a Ghoul through the head. More undead collapsed around him.
Ahead of him, the Frostmarrow Behemoth charged through a house. Pisces regarded it, and turned to Ceria. She shrugged.
They ran through the opening, ice and rapier cutting down the undead the giant creation didn’t manage to squash. Fourth wave watched in silence as the two Gold-rank adventurers rushed deeper into the Village of Death.
“Hey. Larr? I found the Horns.”
Dasha nudged the Gnoll after a moment. He didn’t really reply.
“Frostmarrow Behemoth going in. [Summoners], send your creations forward!”
Revi didn’t need to be told that. Everyone had seen the giant monster, the biggest thing on the field, hit the Village of Death. It had vanished inside, proving the village was a lot bigger due to magic; Revi should have been able to easily see it no matter where it went.
“They’re using undead? Wh-what was that thing? That’s not a regular undead.”
The poncy [Mage] looked well and truly spooked. Revi just bared her teeth. She was one of three [Summoner]-type classes, and the other two had already called familiars and the battle-golem. Revi was the only Gold-rank among them.
She breathed in and out, calling upon her magical power.
“Stitch me sideways. They’re using their best cards now? Okay—in that case—”
She reached for the first, the biggest summoning catalyst in her repertoire. Newly-added too. Geni peered at the amber-encased object.
“My word, my dear. Is that—”
The old woman hesitated. She looked up as the light flashed. The Wistram [Mage] screamed.
It turned out he was arachnophobic. And this?
The lead [Wizard] looked up and nearly fired on this creation. He craned his neck up and backed up slowly. So did the other [Mages].
“What is that thing?”
A Baleros adventurer looked well and truly spooked, which was ironic given the life on that continent. Someone else replied softly.
“That’s a Shield Spider. Dead gods. I had no idea they got that big.”
Revi grinned, feeling drained suddenly. She swayed as the mother of all Shield Spiders—literally—crawled down the hill. It wasn’t as large as the Frostmarrow Behemoth. But it was larger than any other thing on the field.
“Revi my dear. That’s new?”
“That’s new. But it’s not all. Watch…watch this.”
The [Summoner] croaked. She raised her catalyst, took a breath—and shouted.
“[Summoned Monster: I Call Your Kind].”
The light flashed again. This time, the Wistram [Mage] went into a fit. That was partly Revi’s fault; she hadn’t meant for every spider to crawl over him. He was just in the way.
A wave of glowing spiders scuttled in the wake of the largest one. Hundreds of smaller Shield Spiders scuttled down the hill, some as small as Revi’s palm, others far larger. They streamed towards the Village of Death.
“What the f—”
Someone breathed afterwards. Revi felt the spiders begin dying the instant they entered the Village of Death—the lesser ones. The larger one began tearing undead apart the second it entered. She felt relieved about the lesser ones dying.
Less of a burden on her. She swayed as old Geni looked at her.
“Hey Geni? Give me a second. I’m just gonna—”
Revi collapsed in the spell circle, trying to draw as much mana from it as possible. Geni bent over her, anxiously.
“Are you okay, Revi? You’ve overdone it.”
“Me? I’m a veteran. No, no…I’m just resting.”
Revi lay in the mana circle, unable to get up for a few minutes. When she did rise, with Geni’s help, she smiled gratefully at the older woman. She nodded at the village in the distance.
“Can’t…let them show us up that easily, right? When the Shield Spiders wipe, I’ll start calling on smaller summons. Can’t let the rookies beat us.”
“No indeed, my dear.”
Geni lied as she helped Revi stand.
Indeed. The massed-undead and sneak-attack from every angle was meant to wipe out large, embattled armies. The lack of regeneration was keeping it from being a disaster, but adventurers were falling back.
Falling back to defensive positions to rally.
Falling back, not retreating, but falling—
“We’re falling back, I said!”
One of the Gold-ranks bellowed. The first wave was in retreat. However, something was off. The second wave, which had moved in to support them wasn’t falling back.
“I said, pull back! Are you even listening?”
Something burst up from the ground. A pillar of stone; undead rained down around it. The wall of flesh advanced, biting, grabbing for something to kill. The wall ran into a staff. Then—a hand covered in vines.
The wall of undead stopped. Moore strode into them and began tearing them apart. On the other side, the advance halted as well.
“[Whirlwind of Blows]! [Impactful Blows]! Rampage!”
A Raskghar roared—but it wasn’t a Raskghar. Jelaqua advanced, her upgraded steel flail sending bodies flying with all the force of Moore’s blows. As they moved up, the two Halfseekers were covered by a flickering shadow that stabbed Ghouls and other undead trying to hit them from behind. Last of all came the Drake—no, the second Selphid.
“[Sticky Web], [Fire Wheel], [Lightning Bolt], [Acid Orb]…[Acid Orb], [Acid Orb], [Acid Orb], [Acid Orb], [Acid Orb]—”
Ulinde chanted. The [Spellslinger] was throwing multiple spells around from the two wands she held, but then gave up and melted the undead by lobbing the glowing orbs into their back ranks.
The Gold-rank adventurers stopped and realized their retreat was a flight from…nothing.
“Cover our flanks if you don’t want to advance!”
Seborn appeared and snapped at one of the adventurers. Shame-faced, the man waved his team back into position. Of all the Halfseekers—Moore was advancing fastest. He swung his bloody quarterstaff like an axe, face set, as if each blow was a reason for living. Relief. He had already advanced another dozen paces, ignoring the zombies trying to bite through his [Armor of Thorns].
In another street. Yvlon’s wave began advancing once more. They had just been joined by the second-wave. Their response to the overwhelming undead numbers?
Typhenous pointed. A hole appeared in the street. Glowing, melted remains and disintegrated bodies in the path of the spell. The [Mage] bowed, quite courtly.
She stalked forwards. Briganda moved up, striking her hatchet to her shield in a challenging, ringing sound.
“Let’s go! Come on, you lot!”
Adventurers charged once more.
The third of the three-pronged attacks had stopped dead in its tracks. Undead came from the houses, and they were busy sealing them back up. However, while the third group had stopped—they hadn’t actually retreated.
Again, and again, the undead came. Crypt Lords now, pushing through zombies and Ghouls, squashing them. Skeletons with bows shooting arrows with lethal points, if not accuracy or the same expertise as the living.
They broke. They faltered—they bounced off a line in the sand.
Eldertuin the Fortress had been in the second wave. However, he was now in the vanguard, standing and fighting with the huge tower shield covering him. However, the shield itself was only part of his protection.
Copies of his shield rose from the ground; a sparkling barrier protected him. His might was the mace he swung, and it did fell Crypt Lords. But the Named Adventurer was his nickname. Adventurers fought in a line, enjoying his protections, stalemating the undead.
The real damage came from above. Yet another sparkling arrow landed, and some adventurers cheered as it blew apart another Crypt Lord.
Elia Arcsinger saluted Eldertuin from her rooftop, which her team was loosing arrows from. The two Named Adventurers nodded to each other, coolly.
The last group had suffered hardest at first. Lacking the intensity of the Horns, Halfseekers, or Griffon Hunt, who were all pushing forwards with determination, or the two Named Adventurers, the majority Silver-rankers—who had been meant as a diversion anyways—had fallen back fast, taking the only casualties thus far.
Now, they were advancing. It would be charitable to say they were fighting. But half of the ‘fighting’ was just staring up at the Frostmarrow Behemoth’s rear as it tore its way forwards.
“Another street! Damn it—and we haven’t even found another of the attack groups! How big is this place?”
Ceria Springwalker groused, shooting [Ice Spikes] into another intersection of undead coming their way. However, she had no time to waste mana on the hordes of undead and a single-attack spell.
She raised a hand. A wall of ice engulfed the front rank of zombies, immobilizing them, and thickened, quickly blocking the street. Some undead tried to come over the top—but Pisces pointed and two bolts of light fried the Ghouls and he snapped the necks of the rest.
“[Ice Wall] up! Put those barricades down!”
Ceria shouted. The adventurers behind her scrambled to secure the gap in the time before her spell vanished, installing the metal-and-wood barricades to stem the undead flow.
“Pisces to Strategist Soew. We have another street full of undead. Requesting bombardment.”
The [Necromancer] spoke into the speaking stone. The Owl’s voice replied.
“It will be done. Please turn left at the next street; we are attempting to link you to another attack group.”
Pisces turned back to the Behemoth’s advance. He spotted several undead coming past the Behemoth and pointed to each one. Their necks snapped.
“This is so…unsatisfying. I suppose when one is the most capable adventurer on the field though, one must put up with such easy victories.”
He sniffed. Ceria frowned at him. However, it was true that Pisces could just point and kill undead—if not Crypt Lords.
“I thought you had to snap your fingers to do that, Pisces? Why is it just pointing?”
The young man paused.
“…My fingers hurt from snapping too much.”
Ceria and Pisces blinked at each other as the Frostmarrow Behemoth moved ahead. Yvlon was fighting in her street. Which left…
“Ksmvr? Come in. Where are you?”
“Fighting, Captain Ceria.”
The voice came over the speaking stone as Ceria switched communication devices. She looked up at the rooftops, frowning. Pisces stopped as well.
“Fighting? Ksmvr, I told you to fall back.”
“…This is not Ksmvr. Excuse me, you are breaking up. I have found our adjacent attacking force. Six streets over.”
Elia Arcsinger was picking her next shot when her daughter pointed.
“Is that a jumping undead? No—wait! Look! Mother!”
“I told you to call m—”
The Named Adventurer looked up and saw the adventurer deepest in the Village of the Dead. He was running on a rooftop two hundred feet away, being pursued by a wave of Ghouls. They clambered over the rooftops, leaping like animals, eyes glowing as they bit and tore.
They never caught him. The [Skirmisher] ran faster than they could. He had a sword in one hand, a rippling field of magic around a buckler in the other. He swung the Forceshield, and the edge struck a Ghoul leaping up at him, shattering a bone in its face. Ksmvr turned, pivoting—a crossbow fired into another’s face.
The Ghouls reached the end of the roof and the Antinium halted. He turned and they leapt for him, a ravening mass. Elia watched as Ksmvr spread his arms. He somehow felt the need to address the undead lunging at him.
“You made one error, although I realize you are not capable of tactical thought: I can fly. Whee—”
He flipped backwards into the air. The Ghouls poured over the rooftop, landing on the street below. Elia saw the Antinium soar into the air—land on another rooftop and begin running again.
“Ksmvr to Eldertuin. I have scouted your location and you are six streets away from the south-western attacking force. Designation: Attackers 4. Please take the right-most street from your position. Establishing mapping to other attacking forces.”
The voice came clipped, very calm, through the speaking stone. If Elia hadn’t known better, she would have thought the Antinium wasn’t in danger at all. Eldertuin replied after a beat through their local link.
“Understood. We’re holding ground. We’ll move up in five minutes.”
“Ksmvr! Get back here! You’re all alone! Stop playing tag this instant!”
That was Captain Ceria’s voice. Loud, too—Elia winced and took the speaking bead she used out of her ear. She heard the Antinium reply after a moment.
“…This is not Ksmvr. I am being strategically helpful. Is this not so, Strategist Soew?”
“This is so. Captain Ceria…”
Whatever appeal Ksmvr had been about to make was never uttered. Because, at that precise moment, someone broke in on all lines of communication.
“This is Attack 1—fall back! This is not a joke! I don’t care where you are! Fall back! Soew, we have injured! Captain Jelaqua’s body is gone and their half-Giant nearly got slaughtered! Every position—now!”
Elia’s heart skipped a beat. She heard a chorus of confused voices. However, she spoke loudly, cutting off the others.
“This is Elia Arcsinger. Define the threat.”
The adventurer’s voice was grim.
It came out of the sea of zombies without warning. Jelaqua was slowing down as her Rampage ended, the Raskghar body stressed past its limits. She saw something—huge—crashing through the sea of undead.
That was all she got to say before the Draugr hit her. It was not necessarily larger than the other zombies. If anything, this Human had been less than six feet tall. But where other zombies were just copies of their bodies in life—Ghouls lean muscle, strong but like animals—the Draugr was all muscle.
Death had turned the hulking former-Human into a twisted parody of strength. The only person Jelaqua had ever seen that had the Draugr’s physique was…Magus Grimalkin.
“Bowel maggots! It’s a Draugr!”
Someone shouted, but the warning came too late. With one movement, the hulking undead crashed into Jelaqua. She tried to swing her flail, but it was under her guard. With one blow, it drove a fist into her chest. A rib-breaking blow to gouge out her heart.
The punch hit her armor. Maughin’s fine steel held, denting slightly, but protecting her inner self. Jelaqua roared, kicking at the Draugr with her Raskghar body. The Raskghar form she wore was similar in strength! She held the biting jaw back, punching and feeling like she was hitting a rock. The two rolled about as Moore whirled.
She nearly had thrown it off her, despite its refusal to budge when the second Draugr emerged from the undead mass. It smashed lesser undead to bits, heedless of their wellbeing as it threw itself on Jelaqua and the second Draugr.
“Get it off me! G—”
It ripped Jelaqua’s head off her body. The Raskghar form spasmed; the second Draugr grabbed Jelaqua’s arm, planted its foot on her torso, and pulled.
The armor Maughin had forged could have stopped a crossbow bolt at close range. But the body of the Selphid wasn’t nearly so strong. Jelaqua felt her arm tear and her inner body disconnected just in time; the arm came clear.
The Draugr threw the body parts aside, but hesitated. Whatever instinct was in them told them—the body was still alive?
Headless, the Raskghar rose. Its good arm whirled the flail one-handed, and the steel ball struck one Draugr in the face. Just a stunning blow; Jelaqua was already stumbling backwards, almost blind.
Seborn leapt forwards, sinking two blades into the first Draugr’s leg. He sliced and the thing stumbled, a hamstring severed. It whirled, striking with a [Warrior]’s speed, one crushing fist a killing blow—but the [Rogue] was already dodging back.
Ulinde blasted the Draugr with arrows of blinding light. It stumbled, but the second Draugr charged after Jelaqua.
It ran into Moore’s fist. With a roar, the half-Giant sent it crashing backwards. His thorn-covered fist tore the face off the Draugr and hurled it into the ranks of the zombies.
The [Green Mage] shouted at the adventurers now covering Jelaqua as the undead moved forwards, no longer held back. Moore was turning to the second Draugr that Seborn and Ulinde were fighting when he saw the huge body get up.
Faceless, skin torn to shreds, neck at an angle, the muscle-bound undead got up. Moore turned back with a growl of fury. He raised his staff.
This time, the blow wasn’t as perfect. It struck the Draugr on the shoulder rather than the head, but Moore heard the crack of bone. However—that was all. The Draugr surged into him and the taller half-Giant reeled as a fist struck his chest—his arm—
Seborn saw the undead wave move around the giant, biting, scratching—but he and the Draugr were cut off. Moore was hitting the Draugr as it traded blows with him, but for once his strength and size weren’t winning the battle easily. The Draugr tore with one arm and Moore howled as it scored a blow past the armor he wore. He whirled his staff down.
“[Pillar of Earth]!”
The Draugr tried to dodge. However, the spire of stone struck it from below and sent it flying. Moore, panting, saw it hit the ground—twist—and then began to get back up.
The second Draugr was limping after Jelaqua. A shadow flickered around it, slashing from all sides. Seborn’s enchanted daggers burned flesh or froze it—but unlike a mortal foe, this Lizardfolk Draugr, disturbingly bloated with muscle from their slimmer forms—refused to fall.
Ulinde set it on fire. Seborn dodged back, but the flaming undead just walked on. He looked around. The first Draugr rose to its feet, eyes flashing with blue magical power. It roared, expectorating foul liquid—
Moore grabbed it and threw the undead into the wall of the nearest house. Wood splintered as the Draugr bounced off the surface. It stumbled—Moore grabbed it by one leg.
The fighting adventurers looked up as the half-Giant bellowed. Moore lifted the struggling Draugr, ignoring its attempts to break his grip, the other zombies trying to climb onto him. He swung the Draugr into the wall.
Whumph. Seborn felt the impact in his bones. He saw the Draugr flailing—Moore swung again. The second impact made it go still. Then—Moore tossed it down and drove his staff down onto its head.
It didn’t get back up this time. The second Draugr stumbled. The hail of spells it had taken drove it to its knees and Seborn planted a dagger in its head.
Two dead. However, the adventurer-commander was shouting.
“Fall back! Draugr just appeared and smashed into us! Everyone, back up! Cover the half-Giant!”
Moore was turning. The adventurers were beckoning to the Halfseekers in front. Jelaqua, headless, turned, at the same time as Moore. The [Green Mage] stopped.
More huge figures were moving through the crowds of undead. Seborn muttered an oath.
“Depths take me…”
“Draugr! Yes, Draugr! Don’t engage them hand-to-hand!”
The attack-leader was bellowing into his speaking stone, firing with a wand at the huge bodies that had torn through their kin, charging to meet the Gold-ranks. Moore ran, as Ulinde tried to cover him. She shouted, an edge of panic in her voice.
Elia’s voice was insistent. So was Soew’s. The adventurer looked ahead. He laughed hysterically. Then he tossed the Tripvine Bag as someone used a [Wall of Stone] spell. The adventurers turned and ran.
“How many? I see twenty coming down this street alone! Fall back!”
The two Draugr that had fallen were replaced by a dozen tanks of flesh which ran at the wall of stone, tearing through vines, punching blindly, without heed or regard for their wellbeing. The Halfseekers fell back with the other adventurers.
“Get me mage fire! We can’t retreat fast enough! I need reinforcements! Get me—”
The leader was demanding every asset they had as the wall shattered, barely seconds after it had gone up. The undead advanced again, the Draugr moving into a pounding charge. Then…slowed.
“[Sluggish Advance]. Retreat one street back. Reinforcements are fortifying.”
Soew’s calm voice filtered through the speaking stone. The Draugr were moving in slower-motion, weighed down by her Skill. The adventurers fell back, and Jelaqua, half-carried by Moore, was rasping to Ulinde.
“Get me the second Raskghar body! Hurry!”
Even as they pulled backwards to safety, more contacts began barking rapidly into the speaking stone.
Ceria saw the undead burst forwards, punching at the Frostmarrow Behemoth’s closest limb less than a minute after Jelaqua’s team ran into trouble. However, this incident was almost comical.
The huge Frostmarrow Behemoth looked down at the undead. Strong the Draugr might be, but the disparity in size still meant that it was a child fighting a…well, a giant undead.
Until the Draugr began cracking the ice armor. Then, Ceria raised her wand.
The oversized projectile hit the Draugr and knocked it flat. A huge shard of ice had gone into its stomach. However—the Draugr stood up, revealing a hole in its gut as it broke the ice pinning it, but otherwise unharmed.
It came towards Ceria, roaring, making actual sound with its intact lungs. Ceria prepared to encase it in ice and blast it to bits with [Ice Spikes]—but an arm blocked her.
Pisces smiled superiorly and flicked his finger. Ceria saw the Draugr’s neck twist—
It didn’t break. The undead kept charging. Pisces frowned. He snapped his fingers. The neck twisted again and Ceria heard something tearing, maybe a bone cracking? Yet the Draugr kept running.
Ceria swore as she conjured a wall of ice. The Draugr ran into it with a crash that both of them felt.
Ksmvr observed the new threat with clinical interest. He fired a crossbow point-blank; the Draugr staggered as the bolt hit it, but its body was tough! It had no armor, being a bare-chested Human woman, garments long rotted, rotting front betraying wriggling maggots.
However, to kill it—Ksmvr fired again. The bolt went through the roof of her mouth but failed to hit the brain. He didn’t get a chance to reload the crossbows; the Draugr swung a fist.
Ksmvr stepped back, keeping out of range as the huge undead swung, missing the nimbler [Skirmisher]. He raised his buckler and absorbed one punch on the Forceshield.
“Considerable impact. Likely fatal to Silver-ranks if struck on vulnerable points. Fast—”
He hopped back as the Draugr woman charged, head down.
“—but not excessively so. Slower than a Ghoul. Easily manageable with any Gold-rank team. However…”
He stared down the street as six more Draugr charged at him. Ksmvr withdrew the Flamecoat Dagger, slashed the Draugr once. The undead woman burst into flame as the dagger touched her arm. Ksmvr turned and began running.
However, there were a lot of them.
Draugr. Niers felt a slight crawl on his skin. Not from personal fear of course. Just an unpleasant memory of such undead.
In large numbers, too. He’d seen undead hordes where a hundred Draugr might be present, but that was a full-scale disaster. There were a lot of them attacking the adventurers.
What bothered him was the timing. Niers could picture his own assault on the Village of Death. He spoke, his voice low, unable to be heard over the commentary on the scrying orb—although Drassi and Joseph often just watched with everyone else—to his only audience.
“If I didn’t have a way to neutralize the regenerating undead—I wouldn’t be stupid enough to let those houses stand. On the other hand, if they rebuilt themselves, I would have to barricade houses teleporting in those undead. My army’s deadlocked with so many undead on the street. That’s when the Draugr come in—”
He felt another tingle on his skin. That…he didn’t like that. He turned to regard his newest pupil.
Apista might have been listening—or she was just doing that weird bee thing where they opened and closed their mandibles, chewing on some nectar or whatnot.
“Someone thought out how to break an army here. Whoever made this place did all this on purpose. The only flaw is the regeneration factor going out.”
Apista waggled an antennae in thoughtful agreement. Niers eyed her. He sighed, and stared down over the side of the beam.
Below, Rags had come to the same conclusion as Niers. She did not need Drassi telling her Draugr were dangerous to see the proof with her own eyes.
What Rags was curious about was how they held up to a Gold-rank adventurer. She watched, learning, observing. What she saw was—
Yvlon stumbled, forced back by the pure brute strength of the Draugr. She stared at her sword in its heart, a killing blow. However, the Draugr had kept coming and Yvlon had been forced to let go to avoid being struck in the head.
She felt her arm take the force of the blow she’d blocked, but rather than her bones break or even bruise—she flexed her arm, stared at it and the Draugr.
It swung in a silent roar. Yvlon ducked, and came up with a punch that broke something. The Draugr raised its arms—Yvlon caught them before they could descend.
The two wrestled. The [Armsmistress] was growling—pivoting for position—but the Draugr couldn’t lower its arms! She threw it back, grabbed her sword, and whirled it once.
The Draugr fell, headless. Panting, Yvlon looked around.
Prince Zenol had killed his Draugr as well. He’d hamstrung the monster, dodging its charge. Now, one of his subordinates ran it through on a pike. He was no longer smiling—but his teeth were bared.
“The threat escalates.”
She just nodded. Zenol’s eyes lingered on her arms.
“Beautiful. I should have upgraded my physique for this battle. We’re pulling back.”
More Draugr were coming up. Yvlon saw Dorgon disengage from his fight with some undead. The adventurers ran down the street.
One Draugr? Yvlon could take on alone. Four? Separate and kill, or hit with a Skill if they were together.
But ten? Twenty? Then it was too dangerous. That was what they were facing now. The adventurers skidded down the street and Yvlon saw a temporary barricade, even palisade spikes set up.
Nailren bellowed, loosing an arrow. The adventurers hurtled through the gaps and wood was closed to form a wall and choke points.
However, the Draugr wave would break that apart like nothing! Yvlon turned to shout that to Nailren—and saw a familiar [Fire Mage] standing up.
Levil aimed his wand at the first rank of Draugr and Ghouls.
An older [Mage] stroked his beard and did the same. Typhenous intoned.
More [Mages] stood in a line. Yvlon heard them all shouting.
“[Double Cast: Steelthorn Spray]!”
“[Fireball]! [Arrows of—]”
The spells rippled down the street and the flash engulfed the undead. When Yvlon lowered her hand, she saw only two Draugr left; and they were unmoving. The [Mages] launched another volley as more Draugr tried to advance.
They vanished too. The adventurers cheered, and, panting, Levil staggered back to cover. Typhenous wearily patted him on the shoulder.
“Mages are recovering! We’re holding here!”
Nailren barked at Yvlon. She nodded. The undead were still coming! More Draugr were mixed in with the undead. She set herself at one of the choke points, cursing.
First Crypt Lords. Now Draugr. She had a feeling…they weren’t the worst of what they were about to see.
She was right. The next change as the Draugr kept coming manifested itself in a huge, glowing-eyed figure far taller than anything but Crypt Lords. Scuttling forms creeping up the walls, joining the skeletons now raining arrows from above.
They looked like a normal person’s skeleton—be it Gnoll, Drake, Human, or even other species he’d met. A normal skeleton that someone twisted, added ‘limbs’ to, so they appeared to be like spiders, or bone-centipedes, racing forwards on multiple limbs, flat to the ground.
Horrific, but purposeful. They existed to climb, and they swarmed up the houses, their multi-digit appendages securing grips, pulling themselves upwards as they opened maws to bite at the adventurers or leap from above.
They were joined by hulking monstrosities of bone, armored plates of it forming Bone Horrors, far less elegant and purposefully made than the ones Pisces commanded—
But no less dangerous. They could take a beating even the Draugr could not, and they had any number of limbs to attack an adventurer with.
The Silver-ranks wavered in the streets when they saw both bone-variants join the flesh-and-blood kin. Skeletons were climbing too, and Ghouls, all to take the rooftops and leap onto the adventurers from behind. Not only that, the undead were still teleporting into the houses unless they were destroyed, which meant that while adventurers had barricaded the ground floors, some were coming out of the windows or broken pieces of the wall!
All of this meant that the roofs of the houses, supposed to be the safest location, were now dangerous. A group of thirty [Archer] adventurers found themselves besieged from all sides, cut off on the four roofs they were perched on.
“Let’s get out of here! We have to run!”
A pale-faced [Bandit Archer] shouted to the others. Half of them wavered, but on all sides the undead were coming up. Where did you run to? To jump was to land, possibly break your legs, and be swarmed at once.
A Ghoul pulled itself over the roof’s edge, climbing onto rotted shingles with ease, biting, snapping, looking around for prey.
Halrac’s boot caught it in the head. The [Veteran Scout] kicked the undead back into the mass below. He aimed his bow down; loosed a glowing arrow.
A Bone Horror vanished as the arrow exploded. The Gold-rank captain snapped at the other adventurers under his command.
“Hold your ground. If you run, you die! Anyone with close-combat classes, keep the undead from climbing up!”
“But Halrac, there are—”
The [Scout] pivoted and kicked a Bone Crawler so hard its head exploded in a shower of bone fragments. The Silver-rank adventurer gulped.
As of yet, Halrac hadn’t even drawn his shortsword. He kept moving, drawing arrows and loosing them into the street below. He snapped at another [Archer], one with dark skin and nearly-transparent hair underneath her helmet.
“Keep hitting those undead attacking Yvlon’s group—there! Kill the Draugr!”
The [Magical Archer] saluted him with an arrow, put it to her bow, and murmured.
The enchanted arrow shot high into the air, then arced, perfectly hitting one of the Draugr in the head as it twisted like a homing spell. She kept firing.
Halrac’s invisible bow sounded again. This time, to shoot a normal arrow and knock a skeleton away from an adventurer it had snuck up behind. He was too late for the other one.
A second skeleton grabbed a Silver-rank and upset her balance. It yanked—hard—and she flailed, losing her cool. She was about to tear free—when eight zombies grabbed the skeleton’s dangling feet.
Adventurer, skeleton, and zombies fell into a mass of undead below. Halrac never heard a sound; he shot a flurry of arrows down, killing undead. Yet no adventurer came out fighting.
“Keep away from the roof’s edges!”
He shouted at the others. Halrac reached for the speaking stone on his armguard, and then let it drop. No point asking for reinforcements again. They knew—
He spun as a Draugr came up the roof, tearing into the wood as it went for the [Archers]. Halrac put an arrow in its eye. It kept coming.
The second arrow was stouter, and longer than his. Not regulation-size. It also had more force than even his invisible-bow’s enchantment. It blew a chunk of the Draugr’s head off and the undead pitched into the crowded street below.
Halrac turned. The Minotaur with the curious ‘x-bow’, the fusion weapon of two bows crossed together, lowered it and calmly put another arrow to the string.
The [Scout] nodded to him. The Minotaur nodded back. Calm as could be, he turned, and a foot shattered another undead face coming up. He and Halrac were no strangers to fighting in close-combat.
The other [Archers]…Halrac cursed as he heard more casualties being reported. This was joined by another sound, as missiles began to strike the roof around them.
“We’re under fire!”
Someone else shouted, pointing. Halrac turned and saw skeletons. Shooting arrows at them from another roof.
Their tactics, echoed! Halrac snatched an arrow aimed at his face out of the air, put it to his bow, and hit the skeleton—in a rib. The undead lost the rib, but it just staggered upright and began firing back.
Skeletons. An [Archer]’s worst enemy in a ranged duel. You had to hit them in the head! Half the [Archers] began firing back, but Halrac snapped.
“Ignore them! Keep the undead from climbing up! You—you—enchanted arrows! Blow them to bits!”
Two adventurers did just that, but no sooner had they taken one roof than another skeleton band appeared. This time Halrac raised the speaking stone.
“We’re about to be overrun! Where’s that Bone Behemoth, Ceria?”
He heard her voice, arguing with the others.
“—too far away, Halrac! If we move, they’ll overrun our street!”
Cursing, Halrac looked around. However, a second voice interrupted Soew saying something.
“Very well. I shall intercede. Help is imminent, Captain Halrac.”
That voice. Halrac looked around. He saw only a blur of magical flashes from his rooftop, countless shadows in the streets below—
An arrow hit him in the chest. He staggered; the enchanted armor on his chest blocked the blow. His boots kept him from tumbling off the roof and into the street below.
The group of skeletons took aim as Halrac fumbled for another enchanted arrow. Two adventurers were down, crying out from the barbed arrows sticking out of their skin. The [Marksman] put the arrow to his bow as three other [Archers] turned, but they’d be too slow! He saw the skeletons draw.
Ksmvr landed on the first one, and crunched the fragile undead to pieces. He whirled, shortsword, buckler, and dagger in hand. He lashed out with all three.
Sword cut a bow apart. Forceshield swung, clipping a second skeleton and knocking it off the roof. The dagger touched a third and set it aflame.
“Ksmvr! Fall back! You’re too exposed!”
The Antinium ignored Ceria’s call. He sprinted across the roof, knocking the other skeletons down, killing another one, then leapt. Halrac saw him land amid another group trying to target the [Archers].
That idiot is going to die. Halrac whirled.
“Press the undead back! Enchanted arrows in the streets! Clear them away!”
They couldn’t do the same for the rooftops where Ksmvr was fighting alone. The adventurers began firing downwards, securing their position. Halrac loosed another arrow, supporting the adventurers on the ground. But he was watching Ksmvr fight.
Alone. The [Skirmisher] was a whirling frenzy of blows. He was good, and his three arms gave him an advantage. He picked fights only with the skeleton bands—but that was still suicidal. Halrac was a [Scout]. Fighting alone like that?
Your luck ran out.
Sure enough, Ksmvr was just dispatching another group of undead when he ran into his first sign of trouble. He slashed with his shortsword, intending to cut a skeleton to bits as he pivoted to block a strike with his Forceshield.
His enchanted shortsword bounced off rusted steel armor. Ksmvr looked at the skeleton, still wearing the weaponry it had carried in life. He backed up.
A skeleton stabbed him in the back. Or tried to; Ksmvr’s tough carapace thanks to the Barkskin ring he wore, and the cloak he was wearing blocked the knife-strike. The others leapt on him, stabbing as the Antinium thrashed.
Halrac shot an arrow at the armored skeleton before it could attack too, but he couldn’t risk a shot in the melee. He watched the Antinium fighting, unable to help.
“Bone Horrors and more bone-type undead coming in! They’re climbing and they jump! Watch your heads!”
Soew listened to the shouting. Now, the undead weren’t just fighting from street to street. The neat and tidy battle on all four fronts was devolving into a defensive battle where the undead could come over the roofs, from the houses…
Have I fallen into a trap as a [Strategist]? They presented me with advantageous ground and now it reverses.
The Owl Beastkin [Strategist] spoke, her voice measured, logical.
“Adventurers Pisces, Ceria. Please take your force to link up with Eldertuin’s. Attack 1—you will link with Attack 2. We can no longer risk fighting on four fronts. We will attack from the west and ensure our flanks are guarded.”
That came from Attack 1’s leader, but Yvlon’s voice broke in.
“Regroup? If we’re all together, the undead will just flood our positions.”
“They are already doing so.”
Soew pointed out. The undead were without quantifiable limit so far. Yvlon replied tersely.
“I’d like you to consider letting us hold, Soew. We’re not buckling—yet.”
“Because they might want us to group up before something else arrives.”
The [Strategist] considered this. Her instinctual moves, which had earned her respect and won the day on other raids…she tilted her head ninety degrees.
“Acknowledged. Hold ground. I repeat, ignore last orders. [Improved Bracing]—Attack 1, you have eight minutes to make use of my Skill.”
“Got it. Holding put!”
The Owl-woman said nothing. She studied the map and the village from her position outside. Slowly—she began to shift her tactics, as if she was fighting against an intelligent opponent. She did not like this. Monster-slaying was her forte. She had not been able to pay for a class at the Titan’s academy in [Strategist] versus [Strategist] combat.
“Soew. Strategist Soew. Come in.”
This voice was Eldertuin’s. Soew changed speaking stones instantly.
“What is it? Report.”
“I think we’re seeing the next phase of the undead attacks. My group hasn’t moved back—”
“I am aware of the bone-type undead. [Archer] and [Mage] groups are taking out high-priority targets. Do you need to fall back?”
The Named Adventurer’s voice was terse. Soew heard an impact and he snapped a reply.
“No. That’s not what I meant. The zombies. They’re—running. There’s a command-type undead out there! The Crypt Lords are rallying them!”
Soew digested this as more groups began reporting the same thing.
The threat is increasing each time. Across all attack groups. This is coordinated.
The zombies, which had until now been shambling forwards, strong, menacing if they grabbed you, but slow, had begun to run. Not all could, but those with enough muscle left began sprinting alongside the Ghouls.
Crypt Lords. Commanding undead. They were still zombies, but now the adventurers were facing a much, much faster foe.
From bad to worse. Soew’s eyes flicked left and right. There was no question now. Retreat or regroup? The running zombies meant that if the adventurers tried to run, they’d be fighting all the way out.
So retreat becomes more and more unlikely. Should I abort the raid? If this pattern follows—what will we do if Liches arrive? Skeleton Mages? Bone Behemoths? There is a limit to how many threats we can take on before casualties begin to cascade.
As she wavered, on the verge of demanding a full retreat before it was too late, Soew’s awareness of the battlefield changed.
Soew’s head rose. She stared, her beak-mouth opened wide in genuine surprise for the first time.
“Soew, what are we doing?”
A panicked voice from Attack 1’s leader, the most fragile of the four leaders’ temperaments she’d regretted putting in charge. Soew breathed.
“Standby. Another variable has emerged.”
“Standby? Standby for what? Another threat?”
Paranoia and panic. Soew hesitated—then clarified.
Her eyes flicked up. Then—she heard the horns begin to sound.
“What is that?”
Revi was sending other summons into the battle when she saw something appear in the distance. She pointed and the [Mages] all looked.
Geni frowned. She murmured a cantrip and both she and Revi blinked, their eyes magnified suddenly. They saw people on horseback cresting a hill, coming down in a wedge-formation. Revi stared.
“That can’t be other adventurers.”
She knew that because the group was far too uniform and cohesive to be an adventurer team.
“Mercenaries? Some of them might want to get in on this.”
Another [Mage] opined. Revi shook her head slightly. Then she heard the horns. They were blowing in the distance, on the eastern side of the Village of Death rather than the embattled west. Revi’s eyes widened as she saw people on foot appear over the bluff. Geni gasped.
“That can’t be what I think it is. Revi, my dear! Do you see those banners?”
“I see ‘em. Why are they here? Who—did we make them angry?”
“No, I think—they’re on our side.”
How, though? Revi saw the army of Humans descend, following the [Riders]. And there, fluttering in the wind and noon light was the unmistakable crest.
Drassi was just as incredulous. She was turning, listening to a Gnoll girl whispering to her off-screen. She turned to the audience.
“Breaking news! It seems like—an army of Humans bearing the standards of House Veltras of Izril has just arrived on the eastern side of the Village of the Dead! Not just that—if I’m hearing this right, there are eight thousand of them, led by none other than Lord Tyrion Veltras himself!”
Selys choked on her drink. Rags’ eyes narrowed at the name, but Mrsha bounced up and down, excited, grabbing Ulvama’s arm. It had to be! She looked for a pad of paper then signed rapidly, grabbing the adult’s arms, trying to get them to understand.
Ishkr was the only one who spared a look for Mrsha as the others burst into confused babbling. He bent down, reading Mrsha’s signing and Kevin did likewise. He didn’t know enough of Mrsha’s language, but he got—
Help! Her! Feet? Feet—Running?
“Miss Ryoka Griffin?”
Ishkr translated. Kevin blinked. Mrsha pointed, jumping up and down, just in time for a second feed to appear, interrupting the fighting in the Village of Death.
“We are being scried, Lord Veltras. I believe it is Wistram Academy. Should I attempt to interrupt the spell?”
Ryoka Griffin heard Jericha’s cool voice from a distance. All of her attention, all of her focus was concentrated on the silent settlement below.
The Village of the Dead looked so…quiet. Shrouded in a kind of mist that made it impossible to see into it.
Yet she knew her friends were fighting in the streets. It was so unnaturally silent, though. At least—from the village.
Around her was nothing but noise. Mortal noise, though. Marching boots, horses, the clash of steel—shouting officers.
Above it all came a voice, calm, addressing Jericha and the small group behind the deploying forces.
“I do not care to make this an event. However—Hethon, Sammial?”
“I want to be on the scrying orb!”
Lord Tyrion Veltras stared down at his sons, bouncing as they sat in one of House Veltras’ carriages. Only Jericha and Ryoka had exited; the two boys were prohibited from doing so. Eight of House Veltras’ retainers were standing guard as well, and they were well behind the lines of House Veltras’ forces.
Eight thousand [Soldiers]. It was a lot. A lot—and a little. Ryoka chewed on her lip as she watched the cavalry, led by Lord Tyrion himself, set up. The [Lord] eyed his sons and nodded at Jericha.
“Yes, my Lord.”
With that, he turned to Ryoka. The [Lord] gestured down at the Village of the Dead.
“It appears the adventurers are already engaged. Miss Griffin, do you believe they can hold their position? If the scrying orb is to be believed, they are pressed but not in danger.”
“I—don’t know. Maybe? I’m not an adventurer. Why?”
Ryoka stared up at Tyrion. The Lord of House Veltras sat there. With all the [Soldiers] he had been able to march here in two days’ short notice. She knew it had been an incredibly outrageous request, and Jericha had said as much.
However, Lord Tyrion had agreed! Not just that; he had come in person, using his Skills to make the journey possible.
The fact that his sons were here made Ryoka incredibly nervous, but Lord Tyrion had refused to leave them behind. It hadn’t helped that when Hethon and Sammial heard they might get to see an adventurer raid, they’d begged to be brought along.
“I intend to assault the Village of Death from the east. The undead will be diverted, assuming their numbers are finite. A classic pincer movement. However, I will support the adventurers if need be.”
Lord Tyrion glanced at two [Strategists] already setting up a war table. He looked back at the young Asian woman standing on the grass with her bare feet.
The Courier. Also—Ryoka Griffin. Whom he was asking for…strategic advice? Ryoka’s mouth worked.
“I—don’t know. Whatever you think is best.”
Tyrion hesitated, then his head inclined slightly, as if he was surprised by the lack of insight Ryoka was showing. He looked at Hethon and Sammial.
“Do not leave the carriage, you two. Jericha must coordinate the [Mages]. You are to remain here and watch the scrying orb.”
“I want to see up close!”
All three adults spoke at once. Ryoka looked at Tyrion.
“I’ll—I’ll stay with them, Lord Tyrion. I’m not a warrior anyways. Thank you. But do you think eight thousand is…”
Enough? Jericha turned her head and fixed Ryoka with another of her now-classic glares she wore half the time Ryoka was speaking.
Lord Tyrion Veltras himself frowned. He leaned on the pommel of his saddle as Hethon and Sammial gave Ryoka looks of incredulity.
“Eight thousand was all the available [Soldiers] who could immediately join us without stripping garrisons. If you believe it is not enough…”
“No! I mean—this is already more than I could have asked! I just—”
Ryoka had the amazing ability to put her foot in her mouth. She should have been a [Gymnast], if she had classes. However, she was spared from apologizing further as the [Lord] nodded.
“You may be correct. We will see. As I told you, I have no intention of leading House Veltras’ soldiers into a pointless, bloody conflict.”
Ryoka’s heart skipped. He had said as much from the outset. Nor could she ask him to kill his people. She didn’t want that. She didn’t want…
Her friends to die. Tyrion regarded her. At last, he nodded.
“We will begin the advance. Eight thousand is no small number when it comes to House Veltras’ forces. Nor will we be alone. Jericha—take command of setting up fortifications. I will begin sortieing now.”
“Yes, Lord Veltras. Luck to you!”
Jericha saluted him. He lifted the tip of his lance. Jericha stared at Ryoka. She coughed as Tyrion began to ride away. Ryoka blinked. Then she raised her voice awkwardly.
“Um—good luck! Thank you!”
Tyrion turned in his saddle and made the same gesture. Ryoka lifted her hand lamely. Hethon and Sammial, still in the coach, exchanged glances.
They were now convinced the Wind Runner alternated between amazing and embarrassingly weird.
Reinforcements had arrived? Good!
A skeleton punched him in the jaw. Ksmvr punched back, and was rewarded by searing heat as his dagger went through the nasal cavity in its skull. However, now he was fighting a skeleton on fire.
Regrettable mistakes. I have overreached. However, if I die, reinforcements are here.
Taking comfort from that, Ksmvr heaved and the skeleton fell away. Yet the press on him didn’t let up. He tried to get up and they dragged him down, by the cloak he wore.
Cloaks were a mistake. I should have made it easy to remove. Ksmvr struggled and felt another kiss of steel. It lodged in his side; stuck.
The only reason he was alive was his Barkskin ring. The skeletons were grappling with him, and neither they nor Ksmvr were able to employ the full weight behind a thrust or strike.
That was about to change. A Bone Crawler leapt on Ksmvr, teeth and claw-like ‘ribs’ slashing at him. He kept the Forceshield in front, between him and it, but felt it already begin to lacerate his front.
Is this how I die? The [Skirmisher] felt a moment of…panic? He thought he was unafraid of death. But who would protect Yvlon, Ceria, and Pisces? What would they say if he—
The Bone Crawler and Ksmvr—flipped. He staggered; found himself on his feet. Not like this. He felt hands grab him as he tried to jump. They dragged him down.
A crossbow fired.
[Power Shot]. It killed some of them, but Ksmvr was still trapped. He wondered if this was how Crossbow Stan had felt. He…they weren’t even Crelers. Just skeletons.
Dragging him down to the street, where a Bone Horror waited, half its body…opened, to let him fall into the maw of bones.
Ksmvr dropped the crossbow, reaching for something. Acid, at this range? He flailed, trying to shake them off. Another undead leapt onto the roof. Ksmvr heard a sound. A voice.
“[Like a Lion, He Leapt].”
A sword flashed. The skeletons at Ksmvr’s back fell away, severed. Ksmvr whirled. He saw gleaming, brown skin, a beautiful smile.
Prince Zenol flourished with his sword and killed another skeleton. He pivoted, pirouetting under a second skeleton and just bumped it with his shoulder. The skeleton went flying into the Bone Horror below, who happily crunched it up.
The flashy [Prince] turned, and cut another undead apart. Ksmvr was surprised. He grabbed his crossbow, hurled the other two attackers off him, and rearmed himself with a fresh crossbow as his shortsword stabbed a skeleton in the head.
“I saw you struggling, Antinium Ksmvr! Brave, to go alone. Unnecessary at this moment! Come, before we’re cut off!”
The [Prince] whirled—pointing back the way they’d come. Ksmvr nodded. He and the Stitchman ran across the roof. Both leapt as they reached the edge. Somehow, the [Prince] had the same ability as Ksmvr’s ring!
They landed among another knot of undead. Zenol cursed as he was forced to swing his sword too close for his liking. Ksmvr fired his crossbow again; his mandibles opened and closed on a skeleton’s face.
It flailed, and Ksmvr let go and punched it. The head flew off. Effective distraction tactic. He had learned people really hated that, even if his mandibles couldn’t fully disembowel them. Yvlon had forbidden him from doing that in sparring sessions.
The two fighters were trying to reach another place to jump. More Bone Crawlers were climbing up, sensing the isolated two. Prince Zenol’s whirling attacks were efficient for all they were showy, but both were lightly-armored. If they were caught—
“Glory and the art of blades! To me!”
A man with a tiny mustache leapt onto the roof. He speared a Bone Crawler through the back, and then was forced to stab it again when his rapier failed to kill it. For all that, his parrying dagger killed a skeleton with a thrust through the face. He was followed in an instant by two Drakes and a Dullahan of all people.
Two of Lifwail Blades, Oldblood Drakes, landed along with a nimble Dullahan. They joined the fighting. [Scouts], an [Elite Skirmisher] like Ksmvr. And—
Instructor Tomoor saluted the two, with a self-satisfied smile on his face.
“You two seemed to be in trouble! Prince Zenol, is it? And er—Ksmvrwhatsit? Strategist Soew has ordered us to integrate you, Antinium, into our group. No adventurer fights alone! Prince Zenol, you’re needed with your group!”
The [Prince] recovered, sweeping his blade around himself. He saluted Tomoor and the others wryly. The Drakes gave Ksmvr a second look, and the Dullahan was positively nervous, but the Prince just smiled at Ksmvr.
“It appears you aren’t the only roving strike force! Nerrhavia’s Fallen thanks you, friends!”
He leapt away, and Ksmvr looked at his new companions. His mandibles opened and closed as Tomoor whirled and speared a Ghoul through the face. He began fighting after a moment, but he couldn’t help but make his observation, even so.
“Incredible. They have established dominance on me.”
It was not an unpleasant feeling.
Lord Tyrion Veltras breathed in and out as he rode down the hill. His horse—the [Riders]—kept pace with him. Only seven hundred; he had a much larger contingent of foot-soldiers, who had been stationed at outposts and come to answer his summons.
If he’d had more than two days’ notice to cover a hundred and sixty miles, he could have brought far more of House Veltras’ standing forces to bear. As it was, he had made the journey in excellent time. All for a single Runner’s request.
Incredulous eyes were trained on him via scrying orb. House Veltras’ [Soldiers] stood at the ready, in perfect formation. Was he really going to involve himself in an adventurer’s raid? Why was he here?
It made no sense to people like Regis or Magnolia Reinhart, or other nobles. Because they were missing the rogue element.
“A bloodless battle. A training exercise.”
Tyrion murmured, remembering how Ryoka Griffin had phrased her request. Well—she had not put it like that.
A half-effort battle? Against his will, his lips moved up. He had never heard of someone asking him to do…that. She had begged him, though, prevailing upon him on the road back to House Veltras.
For her friends. That was what the Courier had said. She had no right to ask for another favor…well. That was what she said.
Lord Tyrion Veltras had disagreed. He raised his lance. His [Soldiers] cheered as the [Lord] pointed.
“Jericha. Attract the undeads’ attention.”
From the hilltop, the [Mage] raised her wand. The linked [Mages] with her all cried out with the same voice as a blazing second sun appeared.
The blazing ball of fire, larger across than two men on horseback, shot down towards the Village of the Dead. Tyrion saw the glowing flash of light appear for a second in the shrouded streets—then vanish.
His eyes narrowed. He could not tell what lay in the streets, despite the ring on his finger that should have let him do just that. Hidden enemies in the mist.
However, House Veltras’ forces did not carelessly advance into the Village of the Dead. The glorious cavalry charge that people were expecting—did not come. Tyrion Veltras was famous for his prowess in the saddle and lightning attacks.
Yet he just sat there, waiting.
Half-assed? Tyrion’s version of that was a battle where none of his soldiers died. A training exercise.
No undead came from the Village of the Dead even after the [Siege Fireball] had landed. Tyrion lifted his hand.
“Should we send a volley, milord?”
His [Archery Captain] spoke crisply. Tyrion shook his head.
“Hold. Jericha—send a second fireball into the nearest house. Preparations?”
“Nearly complete, Lord Veltras.”
He had been counting. Twenty one minutes since they had arrived—less than ideal, but still fairly quick. The [Lord] smiled.
A second glowing orb hit a house. This time Tyrion saw it explode, on the fringes of the Village of Death. Yet still—no undead came out.
They wanted his army in the streets. Tyrion had seen the embattled adventurers and his [Soldiers], fine though they were, were not Gold-ranks. He checked the little scrying mirror someone was holding up as he heard his name.
“Strategist Vissk from Pallass, yes. I’m not sure what this Lord Tyrion is playing at. He’s clearly adopted a defensive posture, here, see? A semi-circle with a rather heavy archer complement behind infantry and his horse. But throwing spells into the Village of the Dead? Not bold at all, which isn’t what you’d expect of a [Lord] famous for his cavalry competency.”
The Drake was speaking to Drassi, quite pleased as the battle in the streets went on in one corner. The [Riders] within earshot glowered at the scrying mirror at the live, and rather rude, commentary.
Tyrion just lifted an eyebrow as he saw a representation of his formations from a bird’s eye view via the [Scrying] spell. He regarded the televised image—roughly fifteen seconds behind the present if he was any judge—and spoke.
“[Infantry Leader] Oleza. Your position is off by six feet to your right. Adjust.”
“At once, Lord Veltras!”
The chagrined voice was immediately followed by distant shouting and a group of [Soldiers] moving six paces to the left. Tyrion ignored the lesser Drake [Strategist] giving his biased opinion.
Chaldion, nor any credible [Strategist] had decided to make such foolish statements. However, one could always find the fool of the moment ready to give their uninformed opinions about a situation they were not well-versed in.
Tyrion Veltras was ready. He glanced at the tired [Mages], recovering their mana after both spells, and the silent village. In the scrying orb, he saw the adventurers shouting at each other, having just gotten word about his army.
The [Lord] smiled. He lifted a hand.
“Jericha? Fire at will.”
Ryoka Griffin had no idea what Tyrion meant. She heard Jericha receive his words and saw him from afar from her vantage point. What did he mean, ‘fire at will’? The [Mages]? But he hadn’t brought that m—
Ryoka heard the creak. The snap of the air, and—an incredible weight suddenly moved by physics. She had heard that sound once or twice before. However—
Her head turned slowly. Wide-eyed, Ryoka saw what had been set up behind and to the side of her position without her seeing it, so focused she’d been on the television and the Village of the Dead.
Now, she saw the huge wooden arm settling back. The other copies of the huge, complex beast of wood, metal, and rope had all made similar sounds.
Ryoka Griffin’s head slowly went up. As did Hethon, Sammial’s, and every Human except for the front rank’s. They all traced the flying, glowing projectiles in their slow flight across the sky. Deceptively slow. Until you remembered that chunks of stone were not supposed to fly like birds.
The trebuchet’s first barrage hit the Village of the Dead like thunder. The [Siege Fireball] had been a dim, muffled explosion within the magical boundaries of the village.
Whatever spell was at work had a harder time with eight enchanted projectiles smashing into the houses, exploding and rolling through the street. Ryoka heard Hethon gasp and Sammial laugh, delighted.
She just…looked at the trebuchets.
Her trebuchets. No—not hers, but her designs, brought to life. A favor for an [Emperor].
Siege weapons to destroy a Drake city and an army of Goblins. She remembered hearing about it, reading about it.
“I thought they were lost.”
Jericha heard the faint voice from the Courier. She looked back with a frown. She couldn’t know, of course, why Ryoka looked at the artillery that had been set up from their portable bags of holding so swiftly. Her reply was curt, almost condescending.
“Lord Veltras would never abandon such useful weapons of war, Miss Griffin. These are the first true siege weapons acquired by the north in over a thousand years.”
Ryoka Griffin met the haughty [Mage]’s gaze with a look so disturbed that Jericha hesitated. However, whatever the Courier might have said was lost.
The trebuchets fired again. The record-loading time for a trebuchet on Earth was just under five minutes, to Ryoka’s vague recollection. That was with siege-experts, and at the height of their usage.
Lord Veltras’ forces weren’t nearly as coordinated, and they might be lucky to get off a shot every ten minutes or more. However—they had Skills.
One of the trebuchets had reloaded in forty seconds; all the time it had taken to transport another enchanted boulder to be attached. Now—it hurled the projectile at the Village of the Dead. Where it landed, Ryoka saw fire.
Ceria heard the impact. But faintly. Very faintly. She turned her head, seeking the light of the explosion, but even from the top of the Frostmarrow Behemoth’s head she couldn’t. However, just seeing the view from the mini scrying orb was enough to hearten her.
“They’ve got those damn trebuchets! It’s that [Lord]! The guy at the siege, Pisces, remember?”
She shouted down to Pisces. He was busy fighting in the street. Ceria clung to the Frostmarrow Behemoth as it raised a paw and squished a Draugr. Pisces bellowed up at her.
“I’m fine! Yvlon, do you hear that? It’s an army! It’s—it’s Ryoka! It has to be! No one else could do it! This is her kind of crazy! It—”
A skeleton shot Ceria in the chest. The arrow lodged in her ice armor, and never broke through. Even so, Ceria stumbled.
“Get down, you idiot!”
Yvlon barked at Ceria. However, she was fighting with renewed vigor. So were all the adventurers. Most had no idea what an army of House Veltras was doing here, but it was all they needed. The undead seemed—distracted—as more of the trebuchets began hitting the eastern side.
“Come on! Looks like they’re pulling back a bit! Hold your ground! We just need to fortify up—and get to the loot before those nobles demand everything!”
Ceria heard a laughing voice through the stone. Briganda. She grinned as she slid down the Frostmarrow Behemoth’s arm. The undead were pulling back.
“They’re falling back! With me, boys and girls!”
Briganda whooped. The [Shield Maiden] adjusted her grip on her shield, then went forwards. Forwards, into the undead!
She did not fight like Yvlon, who had her Silversteel arms to rely on, or like Zenol or Dorgon, who had almost artful finesse. Briganda fought like a [Warrior] who’d learned everything from the battlefield.
Slash, block, shield-ram—trip them up in the legs, and punch the Ghoul in the face with the shield when it was down. Briganda made no flashy moves; she just chopped, keeping her guard up, cut, never giving her opponents time to take the offense for more than a strike or two.
Ironically, her group was doing better than some of the other fronts, like the Halfseekers or even Yvlon’s side. Briganda was holding the other side of the street Yvlon was fighting on. She hadn’t moved as far, but neither had her side wavered after the undead press let up.
Because she hadn’t charged ahead. There was less imbalance between the Gold-ranks and Silver. They fought shoulder-to-shoulder, and Briganda herself let go of her shield to yank a Gold-rank Gnoll back.
“Keep together, you idiot!”
She whacked the Gnoll on the back of the head. The other woman growled at her, but fell back into line. Briganda turned.
“Bone Horror coming up! Where’re my hammers?”
Gemhammer came up the street as a Bone Horror parted the ranks of the adventurers. It charged, an amalgamation of thick bone—and ran straight into Briganda. She gritted her teeth.
[Block Charge]! She raised her shield; took the impact. The Bone Horror stopped dead and both adventurer and thing recoiled.
However, that was enough. Briganda didn’t need to even strike back, if her hatchet could have even done enough damage. The instant the Bone Horror halted, a maul cracked its face. Five more heavy weapons swung. Briganda saw a leg vanish as a glowing pickaxe hammered through it like it was made of butter.
The Bone Horror went down, almost feebly fighting. Briganda laughed, checking herself.
“I almost feel bad for it—no, wait. I don’t. Earlia, move back!”
The Captain of Gemhammer saluted Briganda. The [Shield Maiden] looked about her. The Silver-ranks in the second row were waiting, some chugging stamina potions. They were tired from fighting for…what, two hours now? However, adrenaline was still pumping in their veins.
“Let’s go! Second rank, come on! They’re lightening up!”
Gemhammer, Briganda, and the second rank surged forwards with a cheer. They pressed the undead back in a minute of furious fighting—two—
Fight, fall back and rest! Briganda hadn’t been sure when they appointed her a wave leader, but she was a veteran and knew how to fight with regular adventurers. They were nearly at the end of the street when a hand yanked her back. Briganda stumbled back from the street corner and saw the Gnoll adventurer had grabbed her.
“What are y—”
Flame blasted down the street. A huge swathe of it; not from her side, but from the other end. Every undead became an unliving candle in a moment, those that didn’t just vanish.
“Dead gods! Who the hell is that?”
Briganda shouted, feeling the heat cook her skin and armor. She heard a shout in the distance.
“Flamewardens—hold! Hold! Friendlies ahead!”
She turned the corner, passing flaming corpses, and saw scorched ground; houses engulfed in flame. She saw another group of adventurers advancing.
The Flamewardens had pushed so far with their wave due to a single tactic. Draugr? Bone Horrors? Trapped houses?
The Oldblood Drakes, joined by some other Drakes capable of the same trick, just opened their mouths and breathed fire, lightning, or other magical effects. They were panting as the second group of Briganda’s adventurers linked up.
“Street secured, Captain Keldrass!”
One of the Drakes barked with military precision. Keldrass was ordering more of his Gnoll-and-Drake adventurers to hold the new intersection as Briganda strolled over.
“Hey! Nearly cooked us! You’re—Keldrass, right?”
The Drake and Human woman regarded each other, both a bit dubiously. Briganda grinned; stuck out a hand. She had to sheath her hatchet, and Keldrass lowered his mace. He wore armor. Plate armor, thick, and carried a huge shield like the rest of his team. They were heavies. They went in, relying on their magical breath as well as their gear.
“Keldrass. Apologies; we thought you’d be further ahead.”
The Drake was panting, leaking smoke. Briganda knew he was Attack 1. If he was here…
“How many streets did you clear?”
She eyed the houses the Drakes had set aflame, rather than bother with clearing or blocking them. Keldrass growled, taking a drink of a curious tonic. He spat, cursing, as the foul liquid went down.
“Eight! Why is your group bogged down here? This entire raid has bogged down!”
Briganda was startled. This was their third street! She looked at Keldrass’ group. They’d been fighting hard.
“Trust Humans to take it easy. The plan was to have reached the heart by now!”
Another of the Flamewardens growled, coughing. Some of the adventurers behind Briganda bristled at his tone. The woman herself smiled—then reached out and tapped the Drake on the plate armor.
“Hey, Scaleboy. Watch how you talk about your fellow adventurers. We’re all in this together.”
Affronted, the Drake stepped back. Briganda looked at Keldrass’ group again. She eyed the tired Humans and other species, who’d kept pace with the Drakes and motioned to Keldrass.
“The raid’s slowed because the plan’s changed. We were supposed to blitz in and out—until we realized the undead don’t come back. Also because it’s not the Horns alone. They never expected so many teams. Our groups can’t move as fast as yours. For that matter—why don’t you slow down, huh? Let our group take over; we’re fresh.”
“You think we need to rest? We can do this all day! If Selys had been able to loan us the Heartflame Breastplate we’d have cleared twice as many streets—”
Another Drake growled. Keldrass agreed, coughing again. He spat something like soot from his mouth.
“We can keep fighting. Don’t worry about us, Adventurer Briganda. We’ll take the left street, you move ahead—”
He gestured, impatient to go on, confident in his wave’s ability to keep their momentum with their fire breath.
Briganda didn’t doubt that. However…she was beginning to understand what was meant by ‘Drake stubbornness’. She hadn’t met many, but Keldrass reminded her of some adventurers she’d fought with.
She looked over his shoulder and shook her head. He hadn’t noticed—Briganda grabbed him by one shoulder and turned him around.
“You might be good, but your group isn’t. See?”
She pointed out some Silver-ranks to Keldrass. The Drake, still panting, saw a few in clear distress.
“What’s the matter, fatigue?”
Briganda didn’t think so. The amused [Shield Maiden] eyed a Drake, leaning on a wall, clutching at his stomach.
“What’s the issue, soldier?”
Keldrass strode up to the Silver-rank Drake, acting like the former military veteran he was. The Drake gave him a panicked look. She had silver-green scales.
“Nothing, er, Captain Keldrass! I’m just—not feeling well.”
“Are you sick? Injured?”
“No…I just need a rest.”
The Drake’s eyes rolled desperately. Briganda was trying not to grin. Keldrass just gave the Drake an impatient look. He noticed similar discomfort on two more faces.
This wasn’t an issue afflicting Briganda’s group. However, some adventurers looked—
“Drink a stamina potion, then.”
“That’s not the issue.”
The [Shield Maiden] cheerfully informed Keldrass. He looked back at her, then the Drake, uncomprehendingly.
“Spit it out! We’re wasting time! What’s wrong with you?”
Briganda walked over and whispered, loud enough for everyone close to hear.
“She needs to find a place to crap.”
The Drake’s scales mottled crimson. Keldrass recoiled—looked at Briganda—and his face twisted up in disgust.
“What? Didn’t you take a potion to—”
“Not all adventurers can afford ‘em. Or prepare. Mind you, some don’t bother. It just splashes as they keep going. You should see their armor after an hour-long fight if they ate too much the day before.”
Briganda cheerfully commented. Some of the adventurers looked appalled. Others just looked amused. She grabbed Keldrass as the Drake in question looked ready to dig herself a hole in the street.
He let himself be towed, this time. Briganda spoke with a smile.
“Your adventurers need to rest for twenty minutes. Clear a space, or pull back. Let them eat. You’re used to going on stamina potions, but this is a longer battle, not a brawl. They’ll collapse if they don’t eat anything after two hours of fighting, potions or not.”
He glanced at her. The Oldblood Drake hesitated—then, to Briganda’s relief, ducked his head.
“My mistake. You’re right.”
She patted him on the shoulder, relieved he was seeing sense. Eating, bathroom breaks—who thought of that in the middle of a raid?
Veterans who’d soiled themselves after fighting for three hours straight, that was who. Anyone who’d ever seen someone pass out because they’d tried to go eight hours non-stop without eating a bite, only on potions.
When Yvlon’s group found Keldrass and Briganda’s forces, they were resting, taking a seat in the street while some stood guard, fighting undead. Yvlon looked at Briganda and Keldrass, furious.
“What are you doing?”
“Resting. Your group could do it too, you know.”
Briganda met her eyes, squarely. She knew it was personal, and Yvlon looked like she could still fight another hour, but these were the basics.
Fight. Attack. Block. Don’t get ahead. Rest. Regroup.
Yvlon just stalked past them, back towards the fight. She let the others rest and join her; she didn’t slow. Briganda shook her head. When her group rose with Keldrass’ and threw themselves back in, they moved up fast, fresh, ready to get back at it.
Best of all—Briganda grinned. The undead were thinning out. Rule #12 of adventuring or something: why take the risks when you can let the enemy fight someone else? At least half the undead clogging the street were heading towards the east. The other army tearing the village to bits.
“There they are.”
Lord Tyrion’s eyes narrowed as he saw the enemy exit the village at last. Zombies emerged from the mist—then Ghouls, bounding along, skeletons—most armed with bows—moving into actual ranks at the back.
A rough formation emerged. The undead moved out of the Village of the Dead, waves of zombies interspersed with Crypt Lords, Draugr, Ghouls moving in packs.
However, none of them broke free from the mass. Tyrion murmured to himself.
“They’re moving with coordination.”
They were sticking out of range of all but the trebuchets and Jericha’s linked spells. She blew apart one group of the undead, but they just massed up. When they did advance—it was all at once.
The zombies streamed out of the streets, their shambling turning into a run. Skeletons ran behind them, taking aim, loosing arrows from out of range. The Ghouls bounded in groups on the flanks, circling to attack from the sides. The Draugr, Crypt Lords, Bone Horrors, and bigger undead marched behind the ranks of literal meat shields in front of them.
Thousands of them. Probably ten thousand already and more coming out of the Village of Death. However, as far as Lord Tyrion was concerned—they had already lost. If he’d had to contend with regeneration, he would have had a harder time. But an emplaced enemy that was unwilling to endure bombardment?
“[Archers]. Prepare to volley.”
The undead were coming uphill, towards his forces. Tyrion heard shouts as thousands of [Archers] took aim. He held his arm, waiting—
The first wave of arrows hit the mass of undead. Tyrion saw the second flight of arrows half a second after the first. Excellent. The [Longbow Captain] had used [Instantaneous Reload].
The second rank hit the Ghouls trying to circle. Dozens of bounding forms fell, riddled by arrows. Tyrion called out.
“Archers, fire at will! Commanders, target those Draugr and Crypt Lords! The front ranks will prepare for combat!”
His heavy infantry stepped forwards, raising shields and blades. They waited as Draugr fell, charging, struck too many times with arrows to move. Ghouls were still bounding along, but dedicated [Expert Archers] were picking off the high-level undead.
And zombies? Zombies had no armor. Zombies that ran?
They impaled themselves on the first line of spears and kept coming. Then they ran into the heavily-armored Humans. Zombies clawed and bit and struck steel plate. They were answered with sharp blows, crushing impacts.
Even Ryoka could see how easy it was. She wasn’t a complete idiot when it came to basic warfare. The zombies were running into a kill zone.
Not only were they fighting uphill; House Veltras had entrenched themselves, even going as far to have dug pits the undead fell into and were hacked to pieces as they tried to climb. The Humans actually fighting the undead in the melee only fought zombies and skeletons; any Ghoul-class or higher was shot dead or blasted to pieces before it reached them.
For now, at least. And if a Human was injured, like one of the [Heavy Infantry] soldiers who went stumbling backwards, an arrow lodged between a gap in their armor, they were replaced by veterans who closed ranks, and a [Healer] who was already applying a potion.
Ryoka muttered to herself. She saw what Tyrion had meant.
A training exercise. All he was wasting was gold on potions and ammunition. Meanwhile—his army got fighting practice.
The key was in his commanders. Ryoka saw one group of pikes cutting the undead to pieces; crystal had grown on the pikes, sharp as razors. One of the [Archer]-commanders kept downing Draugr with glowing arrows.
It was as the undead were pushing at the Human army, threatening to encircle as they climbed higher on the hill, that Lord Tyrion moved at last.
His banner fluttered in the wind. The [Lord] raised his lance—and his seven hundred [Riders] streamed down the hill after him. Ryoka saw them flash forwards, far faster than even a horse should be able to move.
They caught the undead by surprise. Tyrion hit a group of Ghouls circling and his force just ran over the bounding undead. Then he turned.
The skeletons had been forming into an entire company of archers at the back of the undead. But whatever tactical genius the Crypt Lords had only extended to grouping them up. They turned as Lord Tyrion bore down on their backs. A few loosed arrows.
The rest exploded. That was what it looked like. Sammial was shouting in awe and surprise as the skeletons went flying, sent to pieces by the lance-charge. Lord Tyrion ran through their entire group—then spoke.
“Strike the rear then fall back!”
He suited actions to words. The undead pushing at his forces disappeared again as his charge carried them into their ranks. Tyrion impaled a Draugr with his lance, yanked it free, then lifted it and whirled. His cavalry was disengaging within seconds of their charge.
They trotted away, ignoring more undead pursuing them from the Village of the Dead. When they had formed another wedge, they repeated the movement again and again, smoothly slaughtering undead from flanking charges, refusing to be hemmed in.
Beautiful. It was, to Niers Astoragon, a beautiful display of martial prowess. House Veltras’ [Soldiers] were not adventurers, but they took the undead army to pieces with nothing more than equipment, formation, and training.
It was what a [Strategist] admired. The kind of army they wanted, that had the discipline to pull off maneuvers and feints in battle. Niers didn’t think they’d lost a soldier yet!
Horrific. Those skeletons! Toren had covered his eyes when they were all run over like that. He chanced another look but—
No, it was too cruel. He turned away and saw Az’kerash watching, eyes fixed on the projection. How could he look at this slaughter without flinching?
Perhaps because it wasn’t over yet. Toren glanced back at the scrying orb. He was rooting for his people, obviously. Only, he wasn’t sure if they were underdogs or overdogs. He had seen some undead dogs, though.
The momentum had shifted back to favor the living. Undead still contested the adventurers at every turn, but more and more, the overwhelming numerical advantage was vanishing.
Now it was high-level undead—a challenge, but one adventurers lived for. Meanwhile, tens of thousands were moving east.
Going after Lord Tyrion’s far larger army. It was he who might not hold, but Strategist Soew’s reassurances to the Attack groups were simple.
“He has declined every offer for support I have made. Continue your advance as planned.”
The adventurers were all too happy to do that. They began to move forwards once more.
He watched, with patience. Not amusement or anger. Merely a kind of weary indifference. His comment to his master was laced with only a hint of query.
“Bodies die. They are coming closer. Is this your plan? All the bodies we’ve gathered—you had no need of them? Is that what you are telling me?”
He moved closer—then away. It hurt too much to stand close. Still, his hands reached out, grasping, now—worrying.
“Are you hurting? Why don’t you…is her curse growing stronger, this—this harridan—this woman who laid you low? Is that it? Only six have ever come this far. Soon—soon—”
No response. So the man turned wrathful and petty.
“Fine then! If you don’t respond, I’ll let them break into the inner parts. I’ll do nothing. There’s a small army outside. You don’t even care. Fine. Fine…”
He sat, waiting, heedless of the fighting. They were just bodies. Not a single one was his master’s creation. Just stragglers, fools who had never made it inside. They didn’t matter. Perhaps if they got further…then?
They were just zombies. However. First there were ten thousand coming out of the Village of the Dead.
Then there were twenty thousand, despite the bombardments of the trebuchets now slaughtering hundreds with each strike.
Then there were forty thousand.
“We are being pushed back. Jericha, withdraw another hundred paces!”
Tyrion Veltras divided the line of undead once more with another charge. Each of his [Riders] might have slaughtered three undead at least in the ride forwards. Tyrion? He sent eight Draugr to their deaths with calculated lance-strikes.
It was like a drop of water being removed from a pool. He had brought countless arrows, and his archers had not stopped firing once this entire battle.
The undead kept coming. How many were there now? A hundred thousand? Almost all zombies too!
Armies have perished here. Tyrion saw broken armor on some. Traces of finery, a [Merchant]’s hat…
Children. He looked back as his army pulled back onto flat ground. Too close to the trebuchets. His eyes were only on his sons’ coach, though. No danger—yet.
Magical webs held the undead in place. A second furrow of dirt formed a pit they collapsed into. A mesh net, nearly invisible in the fading noon light trapped the zombies and they were run through mercilessly.
They fell for every trap, every tactic and defense the Humans employed. Yet the issue was no longer strategy or the ground they fought on, but sheer numbers.
Ryoka watched as Lord Tyrion galloped through the undead, rotten forms with glowing eyes. Yet she saw the [Lord] and his narrow band of riders weave through the undead again and again.
Like a silver needle plunging through rotten cloth. There was something she could admire about it.
Something to admire. And—Ryoka glanced at the trebuchets—things to hate.
However, she was biased. Because she sat with Hethon and Sammial, fingering the unused Faeblade, Windsword—watching. She was not a warrior.
Besides, the two boys needed someone to watch them besides the guards. Jericha was fighting, sending magic raining down on the undead. Hethon and Sammial though—they were nervous.
At first they had cheered their father, so cleverly taking the army to pieces. Luxuriating in the praise a Balerosian [Strategist] gave after the Pallassian one was shut up. However, now?
“He’s not going to lose, is he?”
Hethon stared at the [Lord] riding at the head of the tiny vanguard of humanity. Ryoka bit her tongue before replying.
“Of course not.”
“He’s not going to! He’s not!”
Sammy punched his brother’s arm as if saying it was a crime. The two boys looked at their father, though. Ryoka saw their thoughts as clearly as if they were her own.
Children. Watching their immortal, ever-victorious parent show frailty. Flaws. If only by comparison, seeing how Tyrion had to retreat from the undead. Fearing, understanding what might happen if he was hemmed in.
The lesson here was something everyone learned in time. It still hurt Ryoka’s chest to see. She reached out and gripped the boys’ shoulders.
“He’ll be fine. He has artifacts and those are zombies. I could beat them. Probably.”
Hethon and Sammial looked at her, taking reassurance from that. Sammy looked back at the battle.
“It’s not fair. If father had even a fourth as many [Soldiers], he’d win. In a fair battle he’ll always win. Monsters don’t fight fair.”
He declared, arrogantly. Ryoka looked at him. In the stress of the moment, she let her tongue slip.
“Monsters don’t fight fair? No kidding. Is fire hot?”
Sammial hesitated. Hethon blinked—then hid a smile. No one spoke to Sammy like that. Ryoka bit her tongue. It was stress. It was—
Oh, who was she kidding? It was just her. Ryoka turned back to the battle.
“If he did have more time—I should have come here first. I thought there would be more.”
Hethon was uncertain, as if Ryoka was attacking Lord Tyrion’s commitment to…what, her? Ryoka half-shook her head.
“No, eight thousand from House Veltras—it’s more than I could have asked. I just thought there would be…more.”
Both boys peered at her. Then, Sammial Veltras sat up. His head turned away from the scrying orb and the carriage window. He blinked at something through the walls of the coach and turned to Hethon and Ryoka.
He announced it solemnly, with perfect conviction. Ryoka eyed him.
“I don’t know. Someone.”
He said it without sight, without knowledge. Ryoka’s skin tingled as Hethon looked uncertainly at Sammial. Aura. Which meant…
She opened the carriage door and stepped outside. The roar of battle was louder, now. The voices of each commander were still steady, the thwap of bows loosing arrow after arrow louder.
Younger boys and girls were running to wagons and to the [Archers], dumping sheaves of arrows out of bags of holding. The fighting [Soldiers] were being relieved; an entire group of weary [Pikemen] took a break on the grass as their leader exhorted them.
The undead filled the ground, coming up the hill. Ryoka heard the trebuchets firing, barely making a dent in the sea of glowing eyes. She tore her eyes away from the village, from the [Lord] fighting, circling, charging.
Then she heard the piercing sound fill the air.
Jericha looked up, and followed Ryoka’s gaze. The Wind Runner stood next to the carriage and looked to the north. She smiled. In relief. The [Mage] whirled—ready to meet a threat. However, the piercing whistle was familiar. She frowned.
“That flute. That can’t be—”
House Veltras used horns, like many armies. Not all forces used the same signals though. This haunting cry could have been a bird shrieking. It was too elongated though, the note held for too long.
As Jericha listened, more joined it. A chorus of piercing cries. She knew the force that made use of flutes.
“Lord Veltras. To the north.”
She spoke into the spell and the [Lord] turned, lowering his lance, letting his horse rest and sip at a stamina potion. He gazed ahead; flicked his gaze up towards the hill, and Ryoka Griffin. Then he raised his lance over his head.
He was answered by a wave. The figure on horse-back was no [Warrior], for all he bore a sword. He had no strategic genius, but he was intelligent. For instance, he knew how to delegate. So, as he raised his hand and halted his horse, the Patriarch of the House of El watched his forces move forwards.
Lord Deilan El gazed at the seething mass of undead with mild horror. He had heard stories from his father, but he had never seen so many. Yet he didn’t think he was in danger. His [Captain of the Guard] would never let him get close to actual harm.
“Lord El, will you give the order?”
Speaking of which, she was poised, ready to give the order. Deilan blinked. He adjusted the spectacles he wore, and then nodded.
“Of course! Er—go. I hope we’re not late?”
That was addressed to one of the other members of the House of El. Lady Desinee and Lord Marthos El gave him equally blank looks. They all turned back as the [Captain of the Guard] cried.
It was a cry completely at odds with conventional sense. An order to charge. None of it made sense.
Jericha turned to Ryoka.
“Why are they here? What is the House of El doing here? They don’t go to war!”
She was, of course, wrong. For two reasons. The House of El was here. It was not just them, either.
“War Golems: advance. Find Eldertuin Terland and fight under his command.”
An irked voice from the side was one of Terland’s [Ladies]. She gestured, and half the Golems marched forwards. A small group—but the huge Golems were each worth a hundred men themselves.
Three members of the House of El. Each there for different reasons. Each here for the same reason. Because of the same person.
Ryoka Griffin exhaled, heart pounding. They had come! She hadn’t been sure! Eldertuin had promised to prevail on his family. She had gone to Tyrion last, but Deilan had been the biggest variable.
“Ryoka Griffin. How did you manage to persuade Lord Deilan El to participate in this battle?”
Jericha had left the [Mages] to look at Ryoka. The House of El had brought a smaller force. Less than half Tyrion’s size even with the Terland family joining them. Yet it seemed they had also met…
Reinforcements. House Veltras’ horns began to blow, signaling more of their army had arrived. Ryoka’s heart leapt.
“Tyrion sent for more [Soldiers]?”
“He could have mobilized half the north if he had been forewarned. Answer me. How did you persuade the House of El to take arms?”
Ryoka Griffin looked at the older woman. For answer, she pointed.
The House of El had stopped. They had sent crossbows forwards, along with barely two hundred infantry—mostly [Mercenaries], which they liked to employ—unsupported. Lord Deilan stood back from the fighting with the bulk of the army, which was just there to protect him.
The standard of the House of El flew high where he stood. As did the emblem of the Terlands. Yet another flag flew as the House of El moved into the battle.
A white flag. Incongruous with the art of war. Yet Ryoka knew…knew…
She watched as it burst into flame, the oil-soaked cloth set alight. Not by a Skill, not by an aura.
But look at that. They haven’t forgotten so quickly.
He had come, because Ryoka had made a few good points. However, the real reason the leader of the House of El had come was because of her.
For a second, Ryoka thought she could see the [Lady] riding with the banner held in her hands. Then—it vanished. She saw a strange sight.
Eighteen coaches raced down the slopes as Lord Tyrion peeled away, watching. The mass of the undead was slowly turning to the new threat. However…were the House of El sending coaches into the undead a la Magnolia Reinhart’s style?
No. As they were about to collide, the coaches swerved. The lead one, with the burning flag mounted on it turned, the [Coach Driver] urging the well-trained horses to race past the undead. As he did—the side of the coach opened up.
The entire wall slid apart, the wood panels moving via clever mechanisms inside. Inside the packed coach, a line of men and women holding crossbows stood up.
They began firing. Ryoka saw the first rank of undead fold up. She saw flashes as the bolts exploded in a variety of colors like fireworks. Sammial and Hethon shouted with glee—but Ryoka saw something peculiar.
The [Crossbowmen] and [Crossbow-women] didn’t try to reload their weapons. Instead, they just slapped a bolt into the groove—raised the weapon—and fired again.
A second volley hit the undead as the first coach raced along the front of their lines. The other coaches had also opened, revealing crossbow-wielding [Mercenaries] who fired, and fired again, just as fast as bows!
“How are they doing that?”
Ryoka saw Jericha turn back to her, surprised that Ryoka didn’t know. She had called the House of El!
“Automatic reloading crossbows. The House of El manufactures the enchantment and the weapon.”
Indeed, the coaches and crossbows had wiped out thousands of the undead, the magical bolts detonating deep within their ranks, by the time they peeled away. Ryoka saw them circling, like a kind of ranged cavalry, as Lord Tyrion linked up with more riders.
The cheering from the House of Veltras—and the scrying orb—was the loudest yet. While Ryoka had been surprised by the crossbow tactic though, her real eyes were on the two hundred [Mercenaries] on foot now marching towards the undead.
“Lord Deilan. Aside from honoring the memory of our great-aunt, Maviola, what was the other reason that Courier used to persuade you to commit to this…expense? We might not even see whatever the adventurers haul, and we do not benefit from Adventurer Guild bounties on the undead. Unless we’ve registered our entire house as adventurers?”
Desinee El looked quizzically at Lord Deilan. The [Lord] half-shook his head. The perpetually impoverished House of El was spending gold with each shot, not to mention the [Mercenaries]’ pay—although they were always on retainer, so at least they were justifying their cost—all for seemingly nothing.
“She had a persuasive argument. Notwithstanding her connection with Maviola—she was very convincing. This is all to an end, Lady Desinee. We will benefit if all goes well.”
“By fighting this battle? How?”
Lord Marthos knew, but he didn’t see. Deilan on the other hand, had. He smiled as his eyes never left the two hundred [Mercenaries], surely the attention of Wistram News Network via the [Scrying] spell.
What was the exact wording she’d used when she made her request? Lord Deilan’s lips moved.
“I think she said…ah yes. ‘Product demoing’.”
Two hundred feet distant, the [Mercenaries] touched the curious weapons they carried. A harsh, strange glow filled the air as the Kaalblades sprang to life.
The undead never stopped, unimpressed by theatrics. Unaware of the threat.
The first [Mercenary] saw a Draugr coming his way and blanched with fear. However, he swung the blade, knowing to run was to die—
And cut the Draug in two. The artifact’s beam of power bisected the undead. The other [Mercenaries] swung, beheading zombies, slashing Ghouls in two—as if their weapons were enchanted artifacts wielded by Gold-ranks!
Jericha exclaimed, shocked.
Ryoka muttered under her breath. In truth—the Kaalblades looked more like oversized carrot peelers, with the metal blade being replaced by the electric-plasma arc that could cut through anything.
No wonder they weren’t popular to someone who had no idea what they did. Right now though, the entire world saw the first rank of undead vanish, and the [Mercenaries] advance, swinging into their ranks before retreating with the crossbow coaches cutting down the undead.
That was when House Veltras began to advance once again. Lord Tyrion let the House of El tie up the flank; he went in with thousands of reinforcement riders at his back, followed by [Soldiers] on foot, cutting back towards his lines.
“That was the House of El, showing off their new weapon! Kaalblades! Joseph, did you see that! That was amazing! Didn’t Maviola El have one?”
“Those were lights—very amazing, Drassi!”
Joseph was just as agog. He turned to her as Drassi checked her notes.
“We’ve just gotten information from the House of El—it’s a new artifact—no, a recreation of an old artifact made with the help of Archmage Valeterisa of Izril. They run on mana crystals so I guess it’s expensive but—hey, they’re for sale! Wow! I want one. What about you, Joseph?”
The [Coach] was still staring at the fighting. He turned to Drassi.
“They’re for sale? How much? I’ll pay for one now.”
The commentary raised a few eyebrows. Not least on Flos Reimarch’s head. He turned to Venith Crusland.
“Did you see that?”
The man had a resigned look on his face. Flos waved a hand at him.
“I just want one! No—Mars has to try out new swords. Make it two. However, if we had an entire unit—check the costs and get a hundred. A hundred and two for me and Mars. Make it a hundred and fourteen to be safe. Actually…three hundred if it’s affordable. That’s gold for Gold-rank weapons! Better make it six hundred.”
Maresar rolled her eyes as Venith began to argue.
Lord Deilan El rubbed his hands together, nervous but elated, watching the [Mercenaries]. If even a single Kaalblade was lost—but this was free advertising, not to mention the prestige of the event.
“If we sell sixteen, we have justified this endeavor. And that is not counting goodwill, or gained levels, Lord Marthos.”
The other man nodded dubiously. Of course, that was sixteen Kaalblades’ worth of lost profits, but as far as Deilan was concerned, their entire stockpile was worthless if it wasn’t sold. If they opened the way to more sales…
Besides, he felt Maviola would have approved of this entire endeavor, cost or not. She used to tell the children stories of killing undead hordes with Gresaria and her brother.
“Deilan. Deilan—we’re already getting inquiries into the weapons. Not just Kaalblades, our crossbows too!”
Desinee was reading from a [Message] scroll, scribbling replies frantically. Deilan straightened, some of the tension easing. The [Mercenaries] were in retreat, having done their showy job for now.
“Good. Any offers?”
“I…yes? You could say that? Um, Deilan?”
That was unlike Desinee to be so startled. Deilan turned at the note in her voice.
“Is something wrong?”
Desinee double-checked the underlined number, and then showed Deilan the scroll, where they were talking with the [First Accountant] of the House of El.
“We just sold forty six. Payment in advance. Kaalblades.”
Lord Marthos sprayed the water he was drinking onto the [Captain of the Guard]. Deilan rubbed at one ear.
“Yes. That’s…individual orders. We’re negotiating with eighteen prospective buyers about larger orders! And we’re contracted for over eighty crossbows—and that’s individual orders again, not bulk!”
Lord Deilan El looked at Desinee, mystified. Almost miffed. The House of El made excellent, artisan-quality weapons, but sales were sporadic. They had consistent customers like Noelictus, but this kind of boom for their admittedly expensive gear?
The power of worldwide marketing. Attention. His heart began to beat faster. He turned to the [Captain of the Guard], and saw his mercenary-forces pulling back.
“Captain—Captain. Can our forces keep fighting?”
“Of course, Lord El. But we’d have to expend more mana stones and munitions.”
The woman was surprised. The House of El was notoriously stingy with what they allocated to fights. More than one battle in history had been lost because they refused to pay for enchanted bolts.
Deilan turned to her.
“Ah. Keep them in the battle. Rotate in a fresh group—no—have them engage the higher-level undead. Enchanted munitions, Kaalblades—try to kill one of those huge undead.”
“…The Bone Horror?”
Like the events preceding it, the raid on the Village of the Dead was generating record-breaking numbers as a televised event. The only regret Wistram Academy had was there was no seamless point to pioneer an ‘ad’ in all the action, which they really wanted to try out.
More specifically though, while all the Archmages and factions seemed content to just…watch…one angry [Mage] was not.
“What is she doing there? Endangering herself like usual, as when I hired her to…go to the Bloodfields and…collect samples? Deliver my letters? Reckless girl!”
Eldavin stalked back and forth in front of the scrying orb, glowering, freezing the few times the image had revealed the Courier, who wasn’t the focus of the event by any means. He looked at the magnified image of Ryoka and spun.
“This is a huge event.”
He did not phrase it as a question. The other [Mages] in the room, Valeterisa, Teura, and some of the new Terras faction including Telim, all nodded.
“Very important. Very engaging. Prestigious in that we’re covering it. Becoming the go-to news source, not that there’s much competition. Yet.”
Telim put in. Eldavin nodded, yet the half-Elf’s reason for discontent wasn’t clear to the others.
“It is a huge event! A raid on a death-zone that might succeed, although I have no idea why. Did they find a Tier 8 scroll or something?”
He broke off into speculative muttering as the other [Mages] leaned in, some nodding. Eldavin’s head rose.
“So. Why aren’t we in this?”
The others looked at him. Teura’s brows crossed.
“…We’re broadcasting this, Grand Magus. Our hired [Reporter] is covering the event, and everyone knows this is Wistram’s production. See?”
She pointed to a tiny, hovering logo that they’d inserted in a corner of the scrying orb. Eldavin stared at it. His eyes actually bulged.
“That? You call that important? My dear, that is nothing. I am saying that this event has every notable nation and countless important individuals watching—so why aren’t we in the event? We are Wistram Academy! If something happens of note in this world, we should be seen to be part of it, tolerating it at least, or needing to be consulted! That is Wistram’s reputation that has been lost!”
The rest of the Terras faction traded glances. Valeterisa raised a hand.
“Query: how do we effect this, if we agree with your sentiments, Grand Magus? The event is occurring and we are not capable of teleporting there instantaneously, even with the new long-range teleport spells we are formulating.”
Eldavin clicked his fingers impatiently, neglecting to mention that he could appear there…with some effort and thirty minutes.
“We have to have some [Mage] in the area. Some Mage’s Guild—get me a list. Halfway decent [Mages] only. Only someone above Level 30.”
He looked at Teura. She blinked, raised a finger to her temple.
“There’s…aside from Mage’s Guilds, only one of which has an actual graduate, the only high-level [Mage] above Level 30 I can find is a ‘Mage Merzun’, who is escorting—”
Eldavin didn’t wait to hear the rest. He whirled, his eyes alight.
“That’s it! Class?”
“[High Mage]. But she has an Earther and she’s a Revivalist— ”
“That doesn’t matter! Tell her to stuff the Earther somewhere safe. She is to head straight to the Village of the Dead before it’s over and make an entrance. [High Mage]—yes. She’ll assault the undead. Toss a few [Chain Lightning] spells into the fray! Can she do [Blackflame Fireball]? Have her join the adventurers!”
“She’s a Revivalist, Grand Magus!”
“Then I’ll talk to Archmage Naili. Come on, Magus Valeterisa. She will participate as a representative of Wistram—”
“—and if she dies?”
The question came from High Magus Telim. The half-Elf stopped at the door. He looked back at the portly [Mage]. Eldavin raised his brows.
“If she’s careless, it is a possibility. However, she might also level. If she dies, she wasn’t worthy of her rank as High Magus. That’s not a [Mage] that Wistram needs. Also—it’s not one of ours.”
He turned, and was out the door in a moment. The other [Mages] exchanged looks. Valeterisa got up and followed without another word, and soon a luckless Dullahan [High Mage] was receiving the last orders she wanted to hear: participate in a raid in a death-zone, and not to retreat until she’d killed at least a thousand undead.
“We’re doing it. Flanks are secure again—the undead are piling into the armies in the east. We’re going to do it!”
Levil breathed. He looked around as the setting sun turned the sky orange and red. It had taken hours, but they had survived.
With minimal casualties too! It had begun getting bad when the undead were flooding at them. Gold-ranks had died as well as Silver. However, the arrival of House Veltras had prevented the worst.
Now? He stared at the street. Or rather…two streets.
The Frostmarrow Behemoth had smashed every house flat, thus joining both roads together. While the undead were piled up and some reanimating just because of the ambient death mana, many were on fire, having been covered with oil and lit up to prevent even a chance of them coming back.
The adventurers were on the move once more. No undead teleporting from houses. The streets were far less crowded. The Village of the Dead might have had hundreds of thousands of undead over the years.
Well, they had died crammed up like bugs in a basket, and without the immortality-effect, the adventurers and armies had reaped a full harvest. After rallying, resting, and replenishing their Skills, the adventurers were ready.
“Enough waiting around. Let’s get to the heart of this place.”
Elia Arcsinger stood on a roof and spoke, to cheers from the adventurers in her wave. She pointed, posing with her bow—although she did not actually join the first wave ready to go in once more. She was an [Archer]; she’d be fighting from above.
Ceria and Pisces’ group had cleared enough streets to join their group to Elia’s. Ceria looked up at the Named Adventurer as she drank a mana potion. She herself had found a burnt-out wall to sit behind—then promptly decided to raise [Ice Walls] to do her business. She’d eaten, although she couldn’t remember what.
She felt a bit shaky with tiredness, but she was ready. She pushed herself up as Pisces rose. He was in better shape than she was, despite having used his rapier—no. Maybe because of that. He’d split his exertions between the physical and magical.
Cheering adventurers were forming up behind Eldertuin. He had been joined by four huge Golems, like the ones Magnolia Reinhart owned. Steel—no, iron? Not as expensive as the Terlands could afford to field, but four of them had smashed through the undead to protect him.
Pisces rose to his feet, wiping his mouth as he lowered the canteen of soup.
Across the city, the adventurers were pushing in again. Jelaqua, in a new body, was whirling her flail, having already worn out one body and weapon already.
Halrac had taken a new position with his [Archers] and was conserving magical arrows, watching Yvlon cut her way forwards once more with Zenol and Dorgon.
Ksmvr sat, discussing mobile-tactics with the two Drakes, Dullahan, and Tomoor. They were waiting for someone to call for help.
Briganda marched up with her adventurers, giving Keldrass’ group time to recharge their flame breath.
Even old Typhenous was fighting with Levil, stabbing a Ghoul that had tried to jump them from behind.
Pisces and Ceria watched as Eldertuin strode forwards. He and the four Golems cut into the undead, bashing them down as adventurers joined them. Elia loosed an arrow to more cheers. It was a magnificent sight. The kind of thing you’d see in a picture book.
However—Ceria glanced sideways. Eldertuin halted, and glanced up, past a roof.
The Frostmarrow Behemoth stomped forwards, squishing undead like rats in front of an elephant. It opened its maw, swallowed a Bone Horror and began chewing it to pieces. Ceria and Pisces waved, and their group advanced in the wake of the construct, killing anything not run flat by the rampage.
Somehow, theirs was the team with the most firepower, which even Keldrass’ team couldn’t equal. Ceria looked up at the glistening ice on the Frostmarrow Behemoth. She had ‘regrown’ its body, repairing damage in the fight.
“I don’t understand. It’s been…five hours? Six? We should be bleeding our brains out our noses trying to keep it up for so long.”
“What a charming image.”
Pisces grumbled as he stabbed a half-squashed Draugr in the neck a few times. He shook his head, looking at the Frostmarrow Behemoth. Both had used mana potions and Ceria knew the cost was split between them. However…
“It’s the death magic. We are barely sustaining it. This place…”
His eyes glittered as he inhaled, and Ceria realized his lack of fatigue was due to more than his fencer’s training. Pisces looked ahead.
“We are closing in on the center. With each step, I feel more power.”
The heart of the village lay beyond. A maze of houses it might be, but Ceria could tell the artificial village was running out of space. Just a few more streets and…
Artificial village? Why had she thought that? Ceria turned her head. Perhaps it was some thought that came to her when she’d been on the Behemoth’s back. Or…
No. Just look at the houses. They were so uniform. So straight and narrow, each street a fighting ground, a killing zone for adventurers or undead.
That was not something natural to Ceria’s world. To Ryoka, it might be more familiar, mass-manufactured houses, planned layouts like the Unseen Empire.
Here, though? Where every [Carpenter] or [Builder] might alter a design? Families put in little improvements, quirks? At least one or two houses should have been torn down, rebuilt.
In a normal village. More thoughts came to the half-Elf, belatedly. Where were the wells? There were none, and the river was far, far too far for this place to survive without water. What about a central hall, upscale buildings by the richer members of the village, even a [Mayor]?
This place was…fake. The houses looked more like undead themselves, the more Ceria looked at them, burned, shattered, or sealed by the adventurers.
They had grown here, piece by piece, along with the dead lured into this trap. Like a fake skin over whatever had really started this place.
The Putrid One.
The Helm of Fire.
A chill began to run down her skin. A familiar…sensation. She had felt this before. This unease.
A little song began playing in her head, although she had never heard it sung. It sounded like her voice. It was her voice.
He’ll eat your tails and tear off your skin!
He’ll pluck out your eyeballs and devour your kin!
Run while you can!”
The Frostmarrow Behemoth had reached a strange place in the Village of Death. A…circular street, unlike all of the straight lines. Houses, joined together to form a wall. Yet as it tore down the street—it came around the other end. It was a perfect circle in the heart of the Village of Death.
Pisces looked worried as the Frostmarrow Behemoth halted. Down the street came a jet of fire; Keldrass’ team appeared, looking annoyed they’d been beaten. Eldertuin was just a minute behind Ceria’s group.
“What is this? Is there nothing in the center?”
The Drake demanded, clear worry in his voice. Was this all just a waste of time? Pisces shook his head, although uncertainty lingered.
“No. I was told—no. Whatever it is—considering the geography, it must be hidden behind this…circle. The center.”
The Drake nodded, eying the aberration of architecture. He glanced at the Behemoth and couldn’t hide the disgust on his face, but he looked at Pisces.
“Your thing should do the honors. We’ll blast whatever comes out. Named Adventurer?”
He looked more respectfully at Eldertuin. The older man leaned on his tower shield, looking tired, but resolute.
“And here I said I wouldn’t be at the front. Old habits die hard. No adventurer has ever come this far. We never made it past the first two streets. We’d never…”
He looked at Pisces and Ceria, expression troubled. Then he smiled ruefully.
“For all the adventurers before and since—let’s crack this damn place open.”
Pisces and Ceria nodded, but the half-Elf couldn’t put the song out of her head. It sang on. A warning from her subconscious as clear as day.
“Skinner, Skinner, never open his door.
Or soon your bones will lie on this floor.”
The Frostmarrow Behemoth reared back, onto two legs. It brought its front paws down and struck the houses in front of it with all its weight. Thousands of pounds of force hit the rotting wood—
Thunder. The adventurers staggered with the impact. Yet when they looked up, the Frostmarrow Behemoth was resting its weight on the cracked façade of the old houses.
They hadn’t broken. Ceria saw Eldertuin frown. Adventurers reaching the heart, following the sight of the huge construct of ice and bone, saw the Frostmarrow Behemoth strike again. The wood…cracked…but that was all.
The [Necromancer] turned. He felt the death magic in the air humming around him. He felt alive, afraid, hopeful. His thoughts raced about his head as he waited, impatient, for his creation to break open the secrets of this place.
I shall find the secrets of true Necromancy here. I will bring Erin back. I was promised. I will recover the Helm of Fire. I will—
He saw the [Cryomancer], Ceria, looking at him. His old friend was looking at her hand. The hand of bone, skeletal fingers and bone ending where flesh began. She spoke, her voice quivering.
“Pisces. My [Dangersense] went off.”
The young man looked at her.
“Obviously whatever is in the center is…”
He trailed off as the meaning of her words took on a different shape. He looked at her for clarification.
“Your [Dangersense] went off? Had it not been going off already? With the Draugr and…”
The half-Elf shook her head. She had come all this way here, resolute. Borne by urgency, a desire to bring her friend back.
Hope and desperation and courage.
Now—something else seeped in. Just for a second. Ceria remembered.
She didn’t run. She looked at Pisces. Slowly, both of them looked at the heart of the village.
The Frostmarrow Behemoth had reared back a second time, to break through. It collapsed forwards, but the mighty impact never struck the houses standing in a ring.
The frost-and-ivory paws hit the street, with such force they shook the ground. Yet they did not crack the smooth bricks. The huge construct raised its head. It was level with a building, a glass window, dark and empty.
A burning mage-light hung from an iron street-lamp, blown glass letting the inner light shine through. The light burned as the sun’s light faded from the sky.
The houses were gone. Where had stood a small ring of buildings in the center of the labyrinthine village was something else.
Adventurers halted on the dirt and cobblestone street. Ruined buildings, a pathetic village in squalor lay around them. The last of the undead hemmed in street by street, or fighting the army of Izril’s noble families to the east.
Ceria looked at the magical lamp, fit for a mansion, hanging so casually in the street, providing illumination. She looked at the smooth bricks.
Bricks, a pale ocre color, seamlessly joined together. Laid by an expert, with mortar, cement holding them together. A sidewalk on each side. And rising taller than the Frostmarrow Behemoth—
Buildings. Some had glass windows. Others were simply tall with classic shutters. They were not alike. This was true architecture, some with more wealth or craft poured into solid stone or metal; others made of wood.
The adventurers looked ahead. The street was one of many. It lay beyond the center, as the village changed. Revealing what it had hidden, protected by immortal undead for so long.
Briganda’s voice quavered nervously as she looked past the others. Keldrass spoke, his claws suddenly sweaty.
A city indeed. It lay beyond, as if it had always been there. The village was just a shell, Briganda realized. A shell which, when you pierced it…
Ancient buildings stood, empty. Magical street lamps hung there, only a few still working. It was not a full city, like Invrisil. It was as if…someone had simply scooped up part of Invrisil or wherever this had been and put it here.
The adventurers stood uncertainly. Suddenly, the end of their fighting had become a segue into a larger, unknown space. Eldertuin was frowning, but he held up his hand, stopping other adventurers from moving forwards.
“I think we should link up—no one advance into…”
Whatever the Named Adventurer might have said was too late. It had been too late the moment the Frostmarrow Behemoth had triggered the change.
Something moved in the city within. The adventurers tensed. Someone raised a bow.
Ceria breathed, turning.
Too late. Pisces had grabbed the arm of the [Archer], but someone else had raised their wand.
A jet of fire shot across the street. Levil’s burning orb of fire shot forwards, slower than an arrow, illuminating the silent homes and buildings on each side of the street. The orb of fire hit what had moved there.
It burst into flames across metal and rotten flesh. The fire burned bright for a moment, trying to incinerate what lay beneath, catch, grow…
But it couldn’t. The Draugr stood there, eyes glowing. Unmoved by the spell.
For a second, Ceria felt nothing but relief. Draugr. Oh—just a Draugr. That was all.
Then she heard Pisces draw in breath sharply. Ceria looked again, and her heart sank.
The superior version of a zombie stood, arms clasped before it. Unmoved, despite the attack. It had shifted, but only to look up. Levil’s flame had not burned it.
Because the Draug was wearing armor. Steel or some other fine metal; head to toe. Not torn, not broken by rust or battle like the other undead. Fine, intact metal. Even a helmet on its head, under which two glowing eyes looked out.
That was not the scary thing. What made Ceria’s heart skip a beat was what the Draugr was holding. Its hands were clasped around a two-handed axe, planted on the ground.
“Armor and a weapon? What kind of…”
Keldrass looked at the undead, as well-armed as he. He stared at Pisces. The [Necromancer] was silent. Slowly…he raised two fingers. He tried once—then managed to snap his fingers on the second try.
A ball of light appeared in his hands. Slowly—seeing or sensing something that the others could not, Pisces flicked his hand. The ball of light flew across the street.
He could not stop smiling. He felt his body trembling. His skin crawling. His teeth were bared, and his heart pounded.
For them—all his sympathies. Yet all Niers Astoragon could do was remember. Remember as he had stood in similar places, and beheld similar sights.
The audience of the world watched as the ball of light flickered down the true streets of the Village of Death. It halted, glowing, and someone sighed in the common room below.
Tears ran down her eyes as the Drake looked. Rags stirred. Numbtongue gripped his sword more tightly and Mrsha held the clawed hands tightly. As if that could make it go away.
Ryoka Griffin felt the same sense of terrible nostalgia as Ceria. But not for the same memory. The same feeling but a different place. Another time.
Something reaches up out of the ground, a hand, grey-green flesh, rotten sinew. But pink in places, too, oozing red. And bone. An arm, but not one any Human would have.
It reaches towards the sky, each finger as tall as I am, and the colossus rises. A head breaks the snow, and two eyes filled with huge, squirming maggots gapes at us. I’m screaming in my head, but the cold air is filled only with silence.
This was not the same as the Zombie Giant. Yet every part of Ryoka, held by the two now-silent boys, felt it.
The ball of [Light] illuminated the ranks of Draugr. Eighteen across, four ranks down.
Human. Drake. Half-Elves? Standing silent, each one wearing the same armor, clasping weapons. Garbed for battle.
They stood in the street, looking ahead. Waiting. The adventurers had gone still. Ryoka heard someone counting in the feed from the scrying orb.
No one spoke. Not Drassi or Joseph, or the adventurers. No one could. No one knew what came next save for one.
Az’kerash closed his eyes. They had made it to the inner city. He reached up, and his fingers found curved lips. A smile?
Now—he listened, but his heart did not beat—now, it began. His eyes fixed on the half-Elf and young [Necromancer] standing together.
A voice cried out. In bitter ecstasy, in triumph. In grief?
“They have come. Will you do something now, master?”
He danced, in the heart of the city. Waiting.
The Putrid One never moved. So his servant grew uncertain.
Who broke the silence at last? Ceria couldn’t tell at first. The voice had no spatial qualities at first. It was just…there. Hovering, ephemeral. Yet growing more solid.
“Intruders? Intruders. They have breached the perimeter. They have defiled this ground.”
The Draugr stirred. The voice—was not an adventurer’s voice. Nor one from the scrying orb. It came from within. It had a quality that Ceria realized, with a shudder, was familiar.
She had once heard it from…the scrying orb. When listening to Fetohep of Khelt.
It was not a voice produced by lips or a tongue, or lungs.
It was an undead’s voice. It spoke, again.
“They come for your Master. Rise, servants. To arms, guardians. We are bound to defend this place. So: arise. Let us spill bitter blood once more, as our service dictates.”
Such a curious call to arms. The voice was not furious, not angry. It sounded resigned. Even regretful. Ceria heard nothing after that.
Then—the Draugr moved. Slowly, as one, they shifted. Their clasped weapons rose. They began to march forwards.
Eldertuin breathed. His mace rose, and the Golems, fearless, lifted their weapons. His voice stirred the adventurers. Ceria saw Pisces lift his rapier. Some of the paralysis freed itself from her veins.
Yet she was waiting. Sure that this wasn’t it. The vision, the warning in her mind had not feared this.
Ah. As the city stirred, she felt bitterly reassured. She saw more lights flickering across the dark sky. More shapes moving. Ceria looked up—and laughed sadly, despite herself.
Good, good. She hadn’t been wrong.
A Lich, a skeletal [Mage], floated in the air over a rooftop. It raised a staff as tattered robes fluttered about it. It was not by itself. Ceria saw another rising, chains around the bones of its legs.
She stared at it—then saw a building move. She heard an oath.
“No. That’s not fair. We’re supposed to have the only damn one…”
Briganda stared at the giant Bone Behemoth which slid out of the shadow of a building. Gleaming bone face armored with a metal mask.
More giant shapes began to move above the buildings. Shapes fluttered through the air.
Lord Tyrion Veltras slowed, looking towards the city, at the mirror. Then—he saw the first winged undead burst out in the distant village. He spoke, his voice terse.
“Undead Wyvern. Fall back. Lord Deilan, join your forces to mine—now!”
He whirled, racing back towards the carriage behind his lines. Ryoka Griffin stood just outside of it, looking towards the Village of the Dead.
“No. It’s not fair. It’s never fair.”
The wind felt black, blowing up from there. Like poison. It told her of things flying and crawling within.
A hundred, a thousand voices spoke to her. Yvlon Byres saw the first Wailing Pit creeping forwards, the damned collection of undead pleading, speaking to the living.
The adventurers shuddered. She saw the giant undead, heard the sound of despair from behind her.
The [Silversteel Armsmistress] gazed towards the city.
“The center of the center, then.”
Prince Zenol and Dorgon looked at her.
Yvlon didn’t reply. She drew her sword from its resting place in the ground. She began to walk forwards, like she had at the start of this all.
“Forward. Set up fortifications. I’ll stall them. We’re going in. Horns of Hammerad? Forwards.”
The Wailing Pit was blocked by a line of undead. Skeleton Knights, wearing armor over bone, and, leading them, a richly-dressed commander of some kind, moving with impatient animation. It raised its sword and saluted Yvlon.
She stopped, blinking and her sword rose. She copied the gesture, and saw a plumed helmet nod once. Then, Yvlon was running again. She swung her sword and met enchanted steel in kind as the last forces of the Putrid One awoke in their dead city.
Author’s Note: This has been…the worst writing vacation of 2021. Which I grant you, is not a hard bar to pass, but it’s been the roughest of the four so far.
The vaccine…is not good for relaxation. Worse yet, in only a few updates, I’m getting the second one, which I’m told is rougher.
Well, I’ll let you know what happens. For now, this chapter is one I have mixed feelings about. I was down because I felt like I had to get…everything…done in one go. Which includes the city-battle, which we have just gotten to.
However, poor sleep made me feel my writing wasn’t optimal in writing this chapter. Poor sleep—as opposed to exhaustion, which is different. But we’re not here to talk about writing. If I had time, perhaps I would have revised this to be more action-packed, get to the point faster?
I don’t know. One more chapter should do it unless I’m all wrong, but I hope this was entertaining enough, even if it isn’t pure action. Not all chapters can win everything. I hope you enjoyed this, and the next chapter is coming out…very soon. Thanks for reading!
Today’s art is Healing Slime and Toren by Auspicious Octopi, commisioned by pirateaba!