(The Flowers of Esthelm, Book 3 of The Wandering Inn is out on Audible! Grab it here! And please consider leaving a review! Thanks!)
As the last of the hopeless adventurers, soldiers in broken armies, careless wanderers, travellers and the lost who had been trapped here over millennia were finally released, their bodies destroyed, the Putrid One’s true army finally moved.
The illusion fell away. The inner city was revealed. It stirred. Undead, patiently waiting for so long, finally lifted the weapons they had been entrusted with. Ancient armor gleamed. Giant figures strode out of their resting places.
Monstrous undead climbed out of hiding places. Others took wing, or hung in the air, kept aloft by magic.
True undead. Not Draugr, not Crypt Lords or skeletons or zombies or Ghouls or any other lesser undead. Draugr were the foot soldiers, and these ones had armor.
The first undead Wyvern flew next to dead Griffins and even a Manticore, all three winged beast species flying high overhead, screaming soundlessly in parodies of life.
She couldn’t breathe, seeing it. Her heart was palpitating. She clutched at it, and felt the steady rhythm falter. It was—she was hyperventilating, clutching at the table.
It was her fault. They had gone because she had told them. Because she had suggested it. For Erin, they had said. But she had asked them—asked him.
They were going to die. Selys Shivertail sank out of her chair, unable to sit upright. She kept watching, though. Only Mrsha even noticed the Drake fall to the floor. She tugged at Selys, but the [Heiress] couldn’t speak or stand.
All eyes were on the scrying orb. The cheering in The Wandering Inn had stopped.
The story on the scrying mirror had been glorious. Desperate, action-packed, full of hope though. Each step the adventurers made, each time a spell threw the undead back, Imani and Palt had hugged, Bezale and Kevin and Troy had all taken a gulp of beer—then stopped after the three-dozenth time.
They had been on the edge of their seats, cheering, calling encouragement, as if this were a game. They had not been unaware of the stakes, but they had believed.
Now? Silence. The story had changed. Something—cruel reality—stole in like painful, bitter wind. The sun had set. It was cold, the chill of fear and certainty, the dark of night.
The first adventurers died within seconds.
Yvlon locked blades with the skeleton commander and threw her entire weight behind the first clash as their swords met. The undead skeleton—blocked her.
It was weaker; it slid back, despite the ceremonial armor it wore, yet it parried her, redirecting the force of her blow. Its shield came up as Yvlon recoiled and struck out.
A calculated blow, to dizzy her and force her back as its sword went in for a stab. Yvlon recoiled, saw the blade coming as she tried to pull her sword down. She released her two-handed grip—lowered her arm.
The slash across her right arm was a scream of metal-on-metal. Yvlon recoiled, knocking the sword away, and brought down her sword once more, one-handed.
It met the shield and the skeleton commander staggered. She walked backwards, flicking her head, right, left. The other skeletons—!
Hadn’t moved. They stood in perfect formation, weapons ready—but watching her and their leader duel. It was so uncanny that Yvlon moved further back, sure this was a trap.
No. The skeleton leader with the plumed helmet set himself, sword raised high, shield angled. It struck its sword hilt to the shield, producing a challenging clash of metal, just like Briganda had.
It was then that Yvlon noticed she was bleeding. Red ran from the cut in her right arm. She looked down, mildly shocked.
The sword had cut her arm. Actually cut it. The blade was as enchanted as hers and…it had sliced open the silver-steel skin. Not deeply, but if it had done that to her arm—her armor would suffer the same fate.
Yvlon looked at the skeletons. She had heard nothing in the clash, which had taken all of ten seconds at most. Cut, parry, block, retreat.
It had moved as fast as she. That coordination! It was like fighting a Level 20 [Warrior]—no, a seasoned [Soldier] at least!
Then Yvlon heard the first screams of panic, confusion, cries for help. Then she felt the first impacts coming up from the ground.
Explosions. Death from the skies. Only, not from adventurers.
The [Armsmistress] looked up and saw them. Glowing fingers, floating bodies—
Liches. Skeleton-mages, casting spells from high above. They flicked [Fireballs], bolts of [Lightning] down, magical arrow spells, anything a [Mage] was capable of. Basic attack spells that killed.
A [Fireball] illuminated a trio of Silver-rank adventurers who couldn’t dodge. They were flung, blazing, onto the street. Another Silver-rank dove, and the lightning bolt arced, catching him on his metal armor. He screamed, but was able to grab a healing potion.
The magical attack was first. Second—the arrows. A volley flew from the skies, shot from far out of sight. Adventurers raised shields and a [Mage] had the presence of mind to cast a barrier-spell. The arrows glanced off; a professional, accurate grouping of shots.
The arrow with a pitch-black shaft and a glowing, purple-metal arrowhead snaked down and hit the [Mage] in the shoulder. He folded up without a word.
All of this was in seconds. Yvlon looked up and saw the shrieking undead monsters in the sky. She saw a huge shape, taller than the Frostmarrow Behemoth, raise a club of bone or something pale, advancing forwards.
The skeletons—advanced. Yvlon raised her sword, waiting, but only the leader came towards her. The rest were moving past her.
“Skeleton Knights. Say again: our group is engaging Skeleton Knights. Unconfirmed speculation—Skeleton Lord leading them!”
The voice was brisk, familiar, but not haughty. Just—taut with intensity.
Prince Zenol. His eight bodyguards were shielding him, eyes on the Skeleton Knights. And…Skeleton Lord? It looked no different than the others, save for its garb, but the way it saluted her, bone head turning as if to wonder if she and Zenol were going to flank it—
Zenol’s voice was one of dozens shouting into their speaking stones. Yvlon heard mixed voices.
“Liches! We need [Mages] here to battle them! We can’t shoot them down! Half have barriers—”
“Undead giant! Dead gods, Bone Behemoths too—”
“—just came at us—full of bugs—don’t get c—”
“Fall back. All groups, fall back to your fortifications.”
That was Soew’s voice, urgent despite the calm tone. Yvlon looked at the skeletons. The Skeleton Lord was just waiting.
“We have to fight them before they join up. Attack 2—first wave. We are fighting.”
Prince Zenol tossed the speaking stone to a bodyguard. He raised his sword, and looked around. Dorgon had moved forwards with some Gold-ranks and two Silver.
“Watch the skies for spells and arrows.”
The Minotaur spoke, looking at Yvlon. She nodded. No one had said a word, save for Dorgon and Zenol. They were watching Yvlon.
She hadn’t beaten the skeleton leader, and she had intended to in a single charge. Now—the adventurers were poised. To run? To fall back?
It depended on the next moments. Zenol strode forwards, as if to put their uncertainty to rest. Yvlon blocked him.
“Take the others.”
He looked at her. Then grinned.
The [Prince] whirled, and his Stitchfolk charged into the Skeleton Knights, fearless of the blades. Yvlon took a deep breath. She lifted her sword, seeing blood running onto the hilt from her arm.
The Skeleton Lord was waiting. It was grinning at her. Yvlon charged.
“Silver and steel be my guide!”
Her first stroke was a two-handed blow that made the Skeleton Lord stagger. It raised its sword, stabbing fast in the opening as Yvlon’s sword bounced off its shield.
A quick blow which could turn into a decisive cut before she could regain her balance and maneuver her sword. It scored a line down her cheek; no, a deep cut. Yvlon abruptly felt steel kiss the side of her tongue. The Skeleton Lord went to flick the enchanted blade through her skull.
Its arm never moved again. Yvlon had dropped her sword. Her silver hand had caught its sword-wrist. The undead recoiled—
She wrenched off its arm. It was hard, far harder than a normal skeleton’s, but this undead was still weaker than a Draugr. It looked down at its torn shoulder, and tried to drop the shield and reach for a dagger at its belt.
Both of Yvlon’s hands grabbed its helmeted head. She began to pull.
The Skeleton Lord stared at Yvlon, grabbing her arm with its remaining one. Gently—
She thought the light brown flames in its eye sockets were reproaching her. This was not how sword-wielders properly f—
The silver arms ripped skull and part of the spine from the body. The Skeleton Knights turned, those not in the thick of fighting, as the Skeleton Lord collapsed.
One of the adventurers breathed. Yvlon turned. She was holding the skull, her right cheek cut open.
The skull crumpled in one hand. She bent, to retrieve her sword. Then, Yvlon Byres stood. Her next words made living and dead flinch. It was a bellow, a raw shout.
“Silver and steel be my guide—everything dies! Forwards! Attack, you cowards!”
This time, when she ran, the adventurers charged down the street with her.
They didn’t run. Eldertuin the Fortress planted his shield and bellowed a counter-command.
“Hold this street with me! Horns—keep those giants off us! If we all run, we all die.”
The Draugr were advancing at a run, their ferocious charge shaking the street.
The Named Adventurer put his shield down and gritted his teeth. His hair, already turning to grey in places, flashed.
No—the air did. Ceria heard him shout.
“[Shield of the Fortress]! [I Am Unmovable]!”
A pale, sage-green shield burst from his shield. It traced a teardrop shape—as wide as the street. The spells and Draugr hit it and—bounced.
The first armored undead swung their weapons and hit an unbreakable wall: Eldertuin’s shield. He braced, holding back the weight of their charge. His feet skidded back a foot, no more.
Then Levil shot flames into the Draugr, seeking to set them alight. Over Eldertuin’s shoulder, someone fired a crossbow, through the eyes of one of the Draugr.
Ceria shouted, and the [Necromancer] broke out of his stupor. He looked around; his hand flashed as he flicked it.
[Shatterbolt]. It went through two Draugr’s chest plates, but one got up. Ceria pointed.
The head vanished. The corpse fell back down. Ceria looked around.
“The street! Ward the street before my Skill ends! Arcsinger, get your archers over here! Soew! The Liches will slaughter everything they see! I see six—”
Eldertuin was bellowing, issuing orders. Ceria had no idea what he meant for a moment. Then her eyes widened.
Ice appeared and spread, thickening into the multiple feet of solid protection that could stop even the spells or a Draugr’s charge for a while. But not on the ground—it spread from rooftop to rooftop! Forming an aerial shield from the flying undead, spells, and arrows. Ceria lifted her hands, brows furrowing with effort as she created a fortress of ice. Pisces fought, stabbing, conjuring an orb of acid—but he never took his eyes from the heart of the city.
Two places held. Three—four. That was all Niers Astoragon saw. The rest of the adventurers were fleeing, regrouping or just running, nerves broken.
He sat, clenching his hands, watching the battle unfold from above. He was too far away to ‘see’ the battlefield with his Skills. Yet he had to! He saw adventurers die from archers and whatever high-level undead had that barrier-breaching arrow.
Liches in the skies. Undead Wyverns? Not to mention whatever giants were out there, and armored undead infantry.
Where? He waited—vibrating with intensity. His was not the despair in the rest of the inn.
“Show me. Show me, you motherless mage-brats! Don’t pan over the battle, show me—”
He had to find it. The Titan’s whisper went ignored in the inn, even by the Gnolls. The only person who looked towards him was Apista.
And the frantic head of the little Gnoll. Niers ignored her. He was—waiting—
A frozen grin on his face, the King of Destruction watched as the viewpoint of the scrying orb shifted. The smile had been genuine a minute ago. Yet contrary to what they believed, he did not enjoy this.
Tyrion Veltras’ forces were falling back as the Village of the Dead disgorged an armored legion fit for any Chandrarian nation’s best. He saw armored Draugr advancing, shields raised, ignoring the effective rain of arrows that had killed countless undead. They were using the other undead still on the field like shields.
Even the Lord of House Veltras couldn’t just charge into them. He did it once, with a group of a hundred and twenty. The rest of the [Riders] held back, circling, baiting the undead into chasing them, but something was leading them, such that the rest were advancing on the infantry, forcing a clash.
“He held back the rest of his [Riders]?”
Maresar didn’t understand. Tyrion Veltras was riding forwards, set in a jouster’s position. He surged up and down, his lance tip never wavering. Behind him came other [Riders] carrying spears and lances.
“The rest must not be high-level enough. They’ll die on the charge.”
Venith murmured. On cue, the image of Tyrion Veltras was lost as he accelerated.
A hundred and twenty lancers crashed into the Draug, their weapons piercing armor, throwing the hulking undead down. Dozens of spears or lances shattered and bent from the stress, but the [Riders] were already breaking away, following Tyrion Veltras.
He had killed two Draugr in a single charge, putting his lance through one’s head and then using the momentum to kill another. Those two did not get up.
Half of the Draugr did. Flos saw mortal wounds on any Human, Stitchfolk, Dullahan, or other species ignored as the undead picked themselves up with gaping wounds in their armor. Tyrion was circling, looking for another charge. But his head was turned, looking up. He was bellowing orders unheard, and his soldiers were scrambling to maneuver. Their formation had changed, scattered because of—
The flying undead. They began to drop out of the skies, interrupting the neat archery formations. Sowing havoc among the House of El’s noncombatants. Now Lord Deilan, the Terland delegation, and the [Mages] and trebuchets were under threat.
And Tyrion’s children.
Halrac the Grim fought cold. He heard and saw adventurers dying.
Acid rained down from the skies. An adventurer clawed at her face and her burning eyes. A Minotaur—Thorven—charged out and threw her against the wall and overhang.
“Healing potion in her eyes! Highest-quality and you might save them!”
He bellowed at the terrified [Bandit Archer], who did as he shouted. Halrac leaned up. Acid threatened to do the same to him, but his eyes were closed.
He had memorized the position and took the shot. His arrow flashed through the skies, invisible! A [Mage]-killer, an ambush-specialist’s dream. Or a [Hunter]’s.
…But he missed. Halrac knew it. He looked from the shelter, wiping at the stinging liquid threatening to eat into his skin, neutralizing it with a potion.
The Lich hovered there, one of many, casting spells. Raining death down. Halrac cursed as he put another arrow to his bow. Yet—he was a [Marksman], yes, but he wasn’t Bird or Badarrow.
The skeleton was changing positions as it floated in the night sky, already torn by flashes of light, ruining his night vision at least six hundred paces distant. His enchanted arrow had to go around or through its magical barrier, and he was out of [Piercing Shots].
Halrac considered the second shot—and lowered his bow. He was still cold. His mind raced, and he never stopped moving, standing, turning, shouting.
“Follow me! We have to relocate! Move! Keep your heads down and out of the acid!”
…Cold, though. He knew the Liches were killing adventurers, but he let the one floating there and casting [Acid Rain] go. He had to focus on targets meant for him.
“If we go out there, we’re sitting—”
Halrac seized a [Crossbow-woman] and threw her out of her cover. He pointed.
“Go! Follow Thorven!”
The Minotaur was leading the way. He had realized the exact same thing Halrac had; they might be burned by the rain, but they were dead if they didn’t find adventurers with melee weapons when those Wyverns dove, or armored undead found them.
The [Archers] ran. Halrac was listening to Soew shouting orders, panicked reports. He broke free of the rain and whirled, not even bothering to wipe acid from his hair and armor.
There. There was his target.
“Turn! [Archers], turn and loose! There’s your target!”
As if he were back in the army, Halrac barked and the entire group turned at his [Voice in Your Ear], a low-level [Leader]’s Skill from those days. Panicked, through the explosions, screams, and confusion, they still turned and saw his target.
A Zombie Giant, wearing armor and carrying a mace of bone. It was advancing down one street. To the side—Halrac saw a Bone Behemoth grappling with a slightly larger, stronger undead.
The Frostmarrow Behemoth was winning, but it couldn’t fight two at once! The huge giant was swinging its club at unseen adventurers fleeing it.
“Hit the head! The head!”
Halrac drew an enchanted arrow—Airburst—and cursed. He fumbled for a better one and had a fiery arrow to his string in six wasted seconds. He drew—sighted at the target, and loosed.
This time he hit home. The Zombie Giant was a much easier target. Even so, a number of enchanted arrows went wide as adventurers missed the moving head. Enough hit.
Chunks blew out of the giant’s head. It turned, flailing its club and destroying a roof, but didn’t fall. Halrac drew another arrow.
More gigantic undead were appearing. He saw a mass of squirming limbs and bodies rear up in the shape of some kind of morbid slug. It took Halrac a second to realize it was a Wailing Pit rearing up. It collapsed, and if anything had been below—
“Commander Halrac. My count is six giant-class undead in range, not counting Wailing Pits. Let me focus on separate targets. We’re wasting—”
“Don’t ask, do it!”
Thorven nodded. He grabbed the [Magical Archer] and six others and pointed.
“Soew, we’re fighting—here! Dead gods damn it, tell us where to go or get us backup before the undead on the ground get us! We’re taking out those giants!”
“Captain Halrac? Standby—return to your position, Leader Melbret! [Restore Morale]—”
Soew’s voice was taking on an edge of desperation. Halrac cursed.
He saw Melbret and nearly twenty adventurers running past his street as the first zombie giant finally went down, an eye socket and that part of its head blown away. If it had kept the helmet that had actually been hanging askew…
Halrac’s head turned and then the [Veteran Scout] bellowed.
The adventurers halted, saw the [Archers], and ran up.
“We have to get out of here! Fall back to the fortifications—”
Soew’s Skill hadn’t worked, or there wasn’t enough morale to restore. Halrac grabbed the [Armsman] and whirled him. Just [Armsman]. He was no Yvlon.
“Hold this position with us or we’ll be cut to pieces by those flying undead!”
He said that, but most were heading towards the army distant. Halrac was still shouting for the best shots to hit their wings; if the Veltras army ran…
Death, death, and death. He knew he should be thinking of where to run. Halrac knew it, but he also knew Yvlon and Eldertuin’s waves were standing and fighting. If it was time to run—they ran together. And if they didn’t see sense, he’d grab them and drag them back.
Yet they had no idea what the enemy was capable of. It was all chaos.
“Set up defenses here. Block the street—”
Halrac couldn’t risk them getting onto the rooftops and presenting a target. Adventurers began stringing up rope, wire, bear traps, even their portable palisade walls. They were attacked before they finished setting up the third street in the T-intersection.
“Slow them and anyone over Level 30, get in front and use your Skills! [Double Shot]! [Pinpoint Shot]! [Expert’s Shot]!”
Halrac activated three Skills in quick succession. Two arrows went through a Draugr’s head, each. Armored or not, they died when you destroyed the brains. The third kill was another perfect shot. The [Marksman]’s Skill that went after weak points if the owner knew them.
Three Draugr dead, and Thorven took down two more with an arrow that ricocheted between two, tearing pieces away until they fell. Archers got five more, and the adventurers had slowed them down.
Tripvine bags! Alchemical oil potions which made two Draugr slip! One even ran into a thrown, enchanted sword which pierced its chest. Halrac snarled at the waste of the weapon that hadn’t even killed the undead—when the adventurer raised her hand.
The undead group died hard. Adventurers were poised to meet their charge when Halrac saw one more undead moving at speed down the street. A lot faster than—
“F—undead rider! Hit that horse!”
A skeleton on horseback charged them, holding a single sword in its arms. It wore light, painted leather armor. Halrac took aim, but Thorven was faster.
The X-bow thundered; the horse went down, bones blown to bits. The skeleton didn’t join it. It had already leapt, and landed on the street, still running. If anything, it came on faster.
The adventurers had dispatched the Draugr in a hand-to-hand. Now, they turned as the [Archers] took aim. Halrac muttered.
He loosed, and watched his arrow miss. Eight other [Archers] had shot with him. The bone-undead had dodged all eight in a leap sideways! Halrac’s invisible arrow it didn’t see until—
The sword slashed and cut the arrow in half. Halrac blinked. He’d barely seen that.
“Skeleton Lord? What the hell is—”
The undead raced under a bursting tripvine bag. It dodged another arrow as Halrac fumbled for one. He thought he had time—
An adventurer with her shield up gasped as the two-handed sword flashed at her chest. She lowered her shield.
Halrac saw the sword curve under her shield. The skeleton cut up. The adventurer stared at her arms as they fell. Then it beheaded her and stabbed another adventurer in the chest.
It was so fast. It—Thorven swung his bow in a roar as the undead leapt past him.
The Skeleton Lord dodged. Halrac didn’t see a Skill, just anticipation. It nimbly avoided an adventurer’s slash, returned with its sword. A scream, gurgling, as the man reached for his cut throat.
Halrac missed from eleven feet away. His invisible bow launched the arrow at the back of the skeleton’s head and it dodged, sliding under the blow. It looked at him and the [Veteran Scout] cursed.
“Halrac! Get back!”
Adventurers were scrambling to let the Gold-ranks take another shot. Halrac ran backwards, still loosing arrows. He saw the skeleton dodge another one, almost lazily leaning aside as it ran. Its glowing magenta flame-eyes were seeing each strike! No—predicting them! It dodged swords, a jabbing spear, a mace and a vial of flaming oil, as if the world were a jigsaw puzzle and it had found the one place it wouldn’t be hit each time.
It was too quick. [Haste]. As well as that damn sword. Halrac found himself running towards a wall. He leapt up as the skeleton charged, intent on him.
The world was slow in the seconds of life-and-death. Halrac had one last arrow, unenchanted but a piercing arrowhead, in his fingers. He had it in his invisible bow—and he was leaping.
His boots struck the wall and Halrac tensed to kick off and leap over the skeleton’s head, back towards two Gold-ranks charging at the undead with weapons drawn.
The Skeleton Lord saw it all. Contemptuously, it whirled about to face the Gold-ranks.
Its sword swung up over its head, catching Halrac as he leapt. The Gold-rank Captain was struck across the groin, a sweeping blow that cut through his pelvis up to his ribcage. He landed, half of him bisected—
The Skeleton Lord didn’t hear the thump. Nor did it feel the slight impact in its sword. Its head turned. The perfect strike it had made—
Halrac had never leapt. He stood, his boots clinging to the wall, keeping him there like they were covered in glue, despite the unnatural angle defying the laws of gravity.
Boots of Stability.
The arrow went through the skeleton’s head and blasted chunks out the other side. Halrac landed, hitting the ground on his side as the enchantment on the boots gave out a second later. He just lay there, on his back, for a second. Then someone spoke his name.
He looked up. The Gold-rank adventurer offered him a hand; the other was bashing the Skeleton Lord’s body to dust.
He pulled himself up. Shakily. He reached for the speaking stone.
“Soew—Skeleton Lord under [Haste] or an even higher-level variant. Dodged everything nearly perfectly. Also, riding a horse. Watch out.”
The [Marksman] breathed. In. Out. He listened to his frantic heart beating, and knew he was alive.
Then he went back to the street, to keep shooting arrows at the towering undead as the adventurers fortified again. That was the first wave of undead. The first ten minutes.
The second wave came six minutes later. Halrac looked up and beheld his death. Bitterly, he took aim.
It was like a menagerie of undead. A playground of experiments. Everything he had ever tried or conceived—and some things he had not.
Too late, Az’kerash realized the limitations of his undead experiments. Where he had conjured massed numbers, he had never gone down the same road as this Necromancer. It was like seeing two completely different architects given the same materials and creating vastly different structures.
The dichotomy was simple: in life, Perril Chandler had been the respected Archmage of Death, the Undying Shield of Calanfer. A man who had once been cheered and honored as Silvaria’s noble protector, albeit with undeath as his weapon. He respected the corpses of those he raised.
The Putrid One never had. He had experimented, and found variations upon the undead that Az’kerash had only begun to learn after he had died.
Screaming Wyverns dove on the archers and adventurers that had made their unwise stand in the streets. Wyverns—bearing loads of Ghouls which leapt down, engaging the adventurers. Not deadly—but all they had to do was distract while the massive Wyverns tore the adventurers apart.
They might have survived that. However, Az’kerash beheld obscenely bloated piles of flesh; not Draugr, far bigger. Waddling down the street, dangerous despite their corpulence for they held tiny undead rats and other creatures waiting to pour out when pierced. Using them as shields came ‘boring’ Skeleton Knights.
Their bones were green and brown. Poisoned. Covered in it. Such an excellent combination of distraction, overwhelming aggression, and a final, insidious blow.
The adventurer’s morale broke twice. Wistram was covering the scene, but Drassi couldn’t say anything. She was watching in horror, silent, having torn into the paper she was holding with her claws.
If he could—no. Az’kerash had one card to play in this battle and it was…occupied. The Necromancer watched as a few adventurers made their stand, the rest trying to run. They would fall, and the lines would break. The adventurers were wavering already; they needed to flee or they would be overwhelmed. The only thing saving them was that not all the undead in the city were on top of them—yet.
What will you do, Pisces Jealnet? What will your team do? I will see it and never judge you, either way.
Az’kerash watched, then turned away from the slaughter as the man with the invisible bow cast it aside and locked shortsword with one of the poisoned skeletons.
I see your death. I see you die. Soew closed her eyes. She had tried—but she had weighed the odds of someone stopping the undead attack and had told them to run.
Halrac’s group hadn’t had a chance to escape the Wyverns. The [Strategist] sat at her map of the Village of the Dead and the battle, knowing she had to sit and save what could be saved, despite the deaths of so many.
She was out of Skills. If she had another minute—she forced her eyes open. She watched the image of Halrac till the end.
“I see your death. I see you die. It all rests on you. So make your stand. Not yet. Not today.”
Niers Astoragon saw it. The crumbling lines. The place to hold them. He raised his hand. At last! He could do something.
“[Raise the Banner: Hold, with Sword and Spell]! [Order: Throw Them Back]!”
He spoke, focusing his will. And on the scrying orb—the faltering [Veteran Scout] forced back the lock of blades. He sent the Skeleton Knight flying back, and raised his head.
Mrsha’s eyes widened as the screen began to glow. She looked up and the Fraerling laughed. As the battle changed, he spoke once more.
“[Reputation: My Famous Name].”
Halrac had been about to die. Then—he’d hurled the skeleton, armor and all back half a dozen feet! He felt something fill him. A familiar sensation.
It was like a rally Skill in the army! It had to be her capstone Skill too! Halrac felt—sturdy. His hand blurred and he blocked a second skeleton running at him. His boot came up and he planted it in its chest.
It went flying, as if he were Moore. Halrac saw the other undead slowing, struggling as if they were running into a powerful headwind. The little rat-undead and other pests were pushed back, unable to even move forwards.
What was happening? The adventurers had halted. Thorven, stabbing his sword into a Wyvern’s neck, completed the hacking cut and the rotten head came off.
“Fight! We have a second chance at life! For the House of Minos and the honor of adventurers—fight!”
Gold and Silver-ranked adventurers whirled, moving faster, stronger! Tougher too! Halrac looked around as he reached for the blood-spattered distortion on the ground. He drew his bow and saw it at last.
Someone had planted it on the ground. Someone had—yet it wasn’t quite real. It glowed, and had that magical aspect to its colors that were almost too real, that made the rest of the street look mundane, fake.
It was a glowing standard. It stood, the tip of it flying as high as the rooftops. Halrac thought he recognized the sigils—but he was already loosing arrows. Those who stood below it fought like Demons, and a second Skill made undead fly back, light as feathers.
This was not Soew. Halrac felt as fast as that Skeleton Lord had been. He swept an arrow up; shot a Wyvern through an eye as it reared back unaided at thirty feet without hesitation.
Who? He looked up.
“That’s—someone’s used a Skill! It’s—look at that! Look at that! It—it’s that guy!”
Drassi was leaping up and down, hugging Joseph as what she thought had been the scene of Halrac’s demise turned to a rallying point. Even other adventurers were making for the glowing standard.
Also, what lay above it. For if ever there had been something to rally to—some reassurance of hope in disaster, it was probably that.
For a moment, Ceria looked up from the titanic fight between the Frostmarrow Behemoth and an undead group of Ogres. Her eyes widened. The half-Elf saw it.
That guy. They had all seen him. He stood there, for a moment. Larger than life. Towering even over the undead, who turned to regard the figure grinning over the line in the sand he’d drawn.
“The Titan of Baleros.”
Joseph supplied. Drassi nodded.
Across the world, Tulm the Mithril’s eyes narrowed.
Foliana, who had been lying and facing the wall in a hammock, not watching the ‘news’, stirred as Perorn burst into her rooms, brandishing her scrying mirror. The Squirrel-woman sat up. She took one look at the smug expression on the astral-projection of the Titan—and smiled.
Niers Astoragon lay panting on the beam when it was done. One Skill had taken a lot out of him. Yet he’d known it could be done, even before the news. Apista fetched him a cup of water…well, a tankard with water in the bottom fourth. The rest had been sloshed out.
More than enough for him. The Titan pulled himself up and grinned.
“Well, that’s torn it. Bee, fly me to Miss Erin’s room—then back here as soon as you can.”
He needed to use another Skill! However—Apista buzzed up the stairs and Niers burst into Erin’s room just in time to see it.
The magical chessboard moved. He saw the little message in code he’d written change. The [Strategist] laughed. Only a fool played one battle at a time! However, there was no time. Apista was already buzzing downstairs as Mrsha ran towards her, eyes shining with hope.
Rags turned her attention away from the scrying mirror where Drassi was flinging her papers up and dancing with Joseph—a copy of the common room of The Wandering Inn. She frowned, and rubbed at the back of her neck.
Was that a coincidence?
She thought about it as Mrsha caught the little bee and ran into the kitchen. Rags had no idea who this ‘Titan’ was, and obviously that was just Mrsha and Apista. No one could be there, even invisibly.
…Maybe it was just a coincidence. But in The Wandering Inn? Hah!
Then she turned her attention back to the battle. Slowly, Rags inspected the banner-skill and the adventurers, fighting twice as fiercely as before.
The [Great Chieftain]—no, the [Steelflame Strategist] raised her claw. She concentrated.
“[Burning Blades]. [Battlefield: Power of Fire].”
She felt a distant pressure in her mind. Like a bubble, one she could barely feel, let alone touch. It resisted her. Rags growled, struggling to force it through. Like lifting a Wyvern over her head; she had no purchase, no footing. Yet she had seen it could be done!
She failed the first time, panting. Six minutes of concentration resulted in a blinding headache and sweat pouring down her face so hard that Calescent checked to see if his spice had gotten in her bowl of popcorn instead of his.
The little Goblin tried again. What else could she do? However, as she watched—she realized something.
She wasn’t the only one.
Look and see. There were so many facets of the battle that the limited scrying spells couldn’t keep up. They were…failing as they tried to enter the city. Only the [Mages] providing a direct link had any clarity.
What they showed was Halrac the Grim making his stand, saved by the glowing standard and the grinning Titan.
The Silver-ranks led by Nailren’s team were lying on the ground. They had been cut off from half their group by a wall of black fire one of the Liches had hurled. Levil was fighting with Eldertuin and the others. Nailren had tried to link up, but…
The Gnoll was running—then he was staring at a wall. No? The ground? He muttered. Why…? His legs kept running, kicking the air aimlessly.
“I fell down. I fell—”
Another adventurer stumbled past him. One of Earlia’s former [Miners]. She looked around. Bile or vomit was running out of her mouth. She walked, stumbling, as the other adventurers lay on the ground, or wandered around aimlessly. Nailren tried to stop and turn to face her, but the wall was in his way. Why was he…?
[Confusion]. Some kind of spell. The thick cloud of it swirled, revealing a group of Crypt Lords. One was…belching…the miasma. The rest dragged themselves over. Immune to the spell, they began reaching down and crushing the adventurers to death.
Nailren kept trying to run. He saw Earlia swinging her maul, flailing about at the nearest Crypt Lord. It watched her swing at the air six feet to its right and struck her, sending her crashing to the ground. Delighted, almost. Was it smiling?
Arrows fell again and again, targeting the half-Elves and the archers. They were hunkering down as the deathly arrow killed another adventurer, just a cut—but the poison’s effect was immediate.
The hail of arrows stopped—then came again. So did the dark purple arrow. A challenge.
Elia Arcsinger refused to take it. She grimly leaned out, forcing her daughter back as she loosed an arrow at the largest opponent.
The Frostmarrow Behemoth was fighting two skeleton giants. Losing. Its icy body was being hacked away swing by swing as it struck back, paws colliding with their armor.
The mocking Liches circled overhead. They were pointing, raining magical spells down at the sporadic counter-fire from the Halfseeker’s side. All the adventurers without bows or spells could do was fight the undead coming at them on ground-level. Even that was hell.
Seborn leapt away from a bloated zombie, shouting a warning.
Too late. The zombie exploded. Adventurers inhaled the spore cloud and two fell, convulsing. The last stumbled free, towards his teammates.
“Help. I need an antid—”
Jelaqua grabbed him. The adventurer fought, crying for help. His team ran to grab him. Seborn tackled one.
“He’ll infect you too! Fight! Fight!”
It was a dozen scenes like this. Flickering from point to point. Nailren, Arcsinger herself, pinned down.
Brave adventurers. Children, fighting the worst kinds of monsters from your nightmares. Gleefully, the Crypt Lords crushed another adventurer to death, savoring the cries from their stricken comrades.
You see it. You saw it, in all the manifest injustice. Did you come here to watch despair? Would you, if you could, sit idly by?
Nailren heard a voice. It was female, and often drowsy. Not now. It spoke in his ear.
He stared down at the ground. The Gnoll pushed himself up with a growl. His bow rose; he shot an arrow through the Crypt Lord bearing down on Earlia. Halfway towards the monster, the arrow morphed. It became a glowing swallow—a bird that pierced through the monster. Nailren heard another voice. Male, authoritative.
“[Blessing: The Bow of Wings]!”
Nailren drew another arrow and felt like he was holding a bird, wings fluttering against his paw. He drew and loosed as Earlia stood. Why was her armor—glowing?
“[Greater Blessing of Armor].”
The King of Destruction had done it again. Venith slapped his face with his hand. Yet Flos Reimarch had been one of six Skills that spontaneously went off. Adventurers were rising to their feet, confusion gone. The Gnoll with the bow was loosing birds—or their simile—through the Crypt Lords, severing their bloated bodies with ease.
Another adventurer had gone into a berserk rage. The King of Destruction blinked. He realized it and laughed.
“Oh. Of course. Copycats.”
The Queen of Desonis went back to hugging her pet sheep. A Naga-commander of Baleros sat back to raucous cheering from his mercenary company. He turned his head.
“Inform Wistram who used that Skill.”
His Skill was the one which had given the adventurer the raging fury to take on a Crypt Lord with nothing but an unenchanted shortsword—and win.
It was one of a dozen. Elia heard a whisper in her ears at the same time as adventurers across the city found their armor repairing itself, new strength in their arms.
A bolt of lightning hit one of the Liches mid-air and vaporized it. Drassi, overwhelmed and trying to commentate, saw an icon flash up on the scrying orb’s projection, without her even doing anything.
[Lightning Bolt], courtesy of Archmage Viltach.
The little indicator faded after a second. More began popping up. The [Reporter] finally realized what was going on.
They were using their Skills! That was obvious. But what she hadn’t realized was how many were using their Skills.
“That’s sixty two—sixty two Skills activated at long-range! I’m reading the Queen of Desonis, the King of Destruction, Commander Luxri of the Hanging Serpents—”
Why so many? Why now? Obviously—because they had been waiting, these [Strategists] and monarchs and [Generals]. They had prepared for this moment. Every single one of the many people who’d watched the first time and, individually, come to the same conclusion.
Why, if the King of Destruction can do it, I’ll do it next time and take credit, make a splash—
Hundreds of people all coming to the same original, completely un-unique idea to attract attention. What had made a splash because it was so unprecedented took on a different tone now.
Every continent in the world save for one was lending a hand to the adventurers in the Village of Death. The exception of course, being Rhir.
“They’re learning old tricks and calling them new ones. Do you see that? The Blighted Kingdom has known about this for ages.”
The [Lord] indicated the Skills exploding across the Village of Death, the renewed fighting among the adventurers. He turned to the [Knight] with dark skin and a worried look on his face. The younger man looked at him.
“Aren’t you going to do something, Lord Hayvon?”
“We don’t waste our Skills, Richard. Adventurers’ glory on Izril will not protect Rhir from the Demons.”
Richard stared at Lord Hayvon, and then turned to the scrying orb. He spoke, never looking away from the fighting.
“Maybe not. But if I could lend a hand, I would. Didn’t you say one of those teams was Hell’s Wardens? They’re people. Like us. Or does the Blighted Kingdom survive without help, Lord Hayvon?”
The man glanced at Richard, and his brows crossed. He stood there, thinking.
Then all five continents took part in the battle.
“He is shooting birds! Do you see? Do you s—”
Bird was running around, all four arms raised and waving in the common room, crashing into chairs and tables. Selys was sniffing, holding—
She looked at Ulvama, whom she was squeezing with both arms. The Hobgoblin [Shaman] glowered at her. Selys let go.
Her answer wasn’t needed. Mrsha came striding out of the kitchen, a bowl of dip in her paws. She put it on the table, sat down in between Selys and Ulvama and leaned forwards, chin on her paws. Every line of her body had changed from despair to determination.
Let’s help. She scrutinized the battle like a [Strategist]. Selys and Ulvama peered at her as the Titan resumed watching from the beam. However, Niers was searching for another target. Half the Skills had been just thrown into poor spots. With enthusiasm and effect—not efficacy. That was fine. The adventurers had far more of a chance with so many high-level Skills at their back.
Niers was frowning at Lord Tyrion’s army. They were being ignored—he raised his hand, hoping the scrying orb would focus on them.
Then the Antinium crashed through the front door and some ran out of the basement. The Brothers shouted in alarm—but the Black Tide of the Antinium was—
“I heard. Where—where are they?”
Pawn. Yellow Splatters, Belgrade, Garry, Chesacre, Thaina, Purple Smiles—all of them had rushed into The Wandering Inn.
They hadn’t known. Scrying orbs were only used by the Queen. Now, Pawn sank to his knees as he saw the fighting.
“It is for Erin?”
He looked at the others. Selys hesitated. Mrsha nodded, eyes on him. Pawn knelt. Most of the Painted Antinium copied him.
He began to pray. Niers Astoragon stared at him, sword raised. What was…?
Skills were activating across the Village of the Dead. The city was still pouring out monsters, though.
“Pisces. We have to split up.”
Ceria watched, dreamily, feeling every chunk of ice torn away from the Frostmarrow Behemoth. Pisces turned.
“We have to split up. You’re the [Necromancer] here! Find a way to take out the stronger undead. Go! I’ll—stay here.”
Ceria pointed at the adventurers fighting with the Frostmarrow Behemoth. She turned, and the breaking walls of ice holding off Draugr refroze. Pisces looked at her.
Strategist Soew had spoken at last as the adventurers were reinforced by Skills. They could run. If they ran—they’d be torn apart by the undead, flying and many as fast as an adventurer on horseback. So, while the Skills burned and they had a chance: fight.
She had named the greatest threats she had identified. Skeleton Lords were moving along with the greater undead. Each one could kill a Gold-rank. They were too fast, too deadly and too intelligent.
The giant-class undead were unstoppable if they reached adventurer fortifications. They had to be brought down from afar.
Lastly, the flying Liches were burning everything to ash. Most of the other fliers had gone to besiege Veltras’ armies.
“Can you do something about the Skeleton Lords?”
“Yes. Perhaps. But—”
Two hands, one flesh-and-blood and the other bone, pushed Pisces hard. He stumbled—looked back. Ceria had drawn her wand.
“We’ll see each other again. Don’t worry.”
She saw him hesitate. Then the [Necromancer] nodded. He began to run, [Flash Stepping] across the street. He vanished, heading towards the first Skeleton Lord. Ceria exhaled.
Then…she turned back to the Frostmarrow Behemoth. In the fighting, the silence of her mind, she conjured ice.
She began to climb.
“This is how we died. Every time, they wanted our bodies. Our bones. Our bodies for their armies, living and dead.”
Moore looked up and saw his kin. The face of the half-Giant was blank, rotten. It was nearly twice his height, and he was the tallest adventurer here.
It raised a fist and swung down at him. The half-Giant blocked it with a spire of earth. Stone powdered and rained down around him. He raised his staff and struck back.
A child fighting an adult. He drove his staff forwards. It was covered in barbs and tore at skin. The leg—he tore, his hands covered in vines. A blow sent him to the ground, but he rose. A healing potion crunched against his side. He went for the leg, tearing at it as Jelaqua kept the other undead off him, roaring orders.
The undead giant would fall. That was how they were killed. That was how they died. The [Green Mage] looked up at his ancestor. Female? He looked for something.
He swung again, his staff like an axe. Undead broke around his team as the undead giant fell. The Gold-ranks held their ground.
Another team advanced, buoyed by no less than a dozen Skills. The Lifwail Blades on the ground had blown past two groups of Draugr, enchanted blades piercing their armor.
“We need to take those Liches out! Them—or find what’s controlling them all! What is that?”
The Captain of the Lifwail Blades was listening. He looked up and saw.
Thirty Liches hung in the air. All in the same spot, around a rounded building slightly taller than most. No one could halt them. No one could match them!
Typhenous had tried with some [Mages]. The Drakes had seen six [Valmira’s Comets] fly up; the Liches blasted them with spells and blocked the rest, massing their barriers.
The Gold-rank had never seen the like. However, the answer came through the speaking stone. A panting man’s voice.
“They’re…it’s a Lich Coven!”
“What in the name of the Ancestor’s bones is that?”
The Drake snapped back, his sword raised, peering up at the Liches. The reply was urgent.
“Look at their legs! Do you see? The chains!”
At last, the adventurers noticed the odd chains that had hung from each Lich’s legs. Yes! Why were they…they were shackled, the captain realized.
“They’ve been bound into a single network. So long as they’re there, they have the combined spell power to wipe out any group. They have to be stopped! I—Pisces told me the chains must be severed. Then the Liches will be free to move about, but weaker!”
The Drake hesitated. Hadn’t that been Pisces speaking? No—the young man’s voice came over the speaking stone.
“That’s correct…Instructor Tomoor. The Liches must be broken. Magic will not contest them, nor arrows.”
“Then we’ll take that building and hit them. Collapse the entire structure if we have to!”
The captain turned to the other adventurers with him. He pointed, turning off the speaking stone and made a hand-sign. The adventurers moved out in silence. They left the corner of the street—ran into undead in seconds.
Bone Horrors. Each one trapped so that bones would explode outwards in grasping claws, showers of deadly fragments if they were approached. The Lifwail Blades and adventurers were ready for the challenge.
The undead hadn’t noticed them. A [Rogue] went in, tossed two bags.
Tripvines exploded onto the Bone Horrors. The Drake Captain heard cracks as the trapped undead exploded into deadly showers of bones, scything claws—
His team charged and wiped the Bone Horrors out, carving them to pieces. Threat neutralized, he raised his claw again.
[Silenced Maneuvers]. The adventurers moved muffled and quiet, even those in heavy armor. They rounded another street, closing towards the damned Lich Coven. The heart of the city was…quieter. The undead boiling from every street were almost nonexistent here! Could they win? The Drake had no idea. There were so many and those giants…
Sixteen at last count. And the Frostmarrow Behemoth was about to be destroyed. They had to neutralize the biggest threat, fall back and hope that damned Human army could pull some weight.
A whisper. The Drake spun. He hadn’t noticed another wave of undead.
There wasn’t a wave. A single figure stood in the empty street. It—was a Drake.
A dead Drake. His scales were mummified, some fallen away. However, the undead’s body was preserved. For a second, the Captain just stared. Then he gestured.
A [Rogue] loosed a crossbow bolt. The glowing shot flashed across the street, a probing shot.
It…never hit the Drake. The Captain of the Lifwail Blades hesitated. He hadn’t seen the crossbow bolt detonate. Nor had he seen it cut; it should have activated either way. The arrow just…vanished.
“The flying furry fuck was that?”
An adventurer whispered. The Drake shot him an irritated glance.
“Back up. Now.”
The adventurers were stepping back. They did not mess with threats like that. The undead Drake didn’t pursue them. Not at first.
“His power is ended. Did you do that? Yet you are not the army who has that strength. Then it is ill-luck, for you came so far to meet me. Descendants of my people. Is that the best skill at arms you have mastered?”
The voice. The Captain of the Lifwail Blades froze. That was the same voice which had so lazily called the undead to arms! The disinterested, almost self-deprecating tones. Bitter and tired and…
“Contact. Strategist Soew, we have just met the undead in charge of the others! It—it’s a Revenant. Confirm?”
“Confirmed. Fall back at once, Captain! [Expeditious Retreat]!”
He needed no further urging. The Drake pointed. The adventurers ran.
The word struck the Drake adventurer in the back. Drakes do not r—he ignored the taunt. He did cast one look back down the street, though.
The undead Drake wore old armor, custom-made for him. The insignia was so faded that the Captain did not know what it was. From head to toe, the gear looked enchanted. What was truly scary was the sword he carried, though.
A two-handed sword. Not as long as a greatsword; not nearly. A dueling blade. If the pattern was right, then it was a mark the Walled Cities had long ago stopped issuing.
A [Blademaster]’s sigils. Like a golden bell. The Captain knew his history. In those days, each Walled City would issue a mark, a delicate etching to be inscribed on the blade in some way. Each city had its expert, in those times. To best one city was to earn a mark. They did not carry the practice on in this time.
If they had…even if they had. The living Drake’s blood felt cold. There were nine marks on that blade.
The Drake did not move as the living ran. He stood there, face almost…disgusted. Then resigned, melancholy. He never lifted the sword hanging at his hip. Never touched it. All he did was…speak.
“Unlucky adventurers. [Thou Art Cut].”
The Captain of the Lifwail Blades heard the words with confusion at first. Then he realized it was a Skill and…slowed.
He reached for a potion. The back of his armor was…torn. He looked to his side.
“That can’t be. Did you hear th—?”
An adventurer collapsed, eyes blank. The cut had gone through his neck. Other adventurers cried out, cut to their very bones. The Drake reached for a potion, drinking with a shaking claw.
The cuts wouldn’t heal. He lay, bleeding, on the street. Words? Words? Not even a…
The Drake appeared, walking down the street. He stopped and looked down at the bitter expression on the Captain’s face. He bent to deliver a warrior’s mercy…but the Drake was dead.
The collapsed adventurers began to stir as the Drake lifted his claw. The Revenant stood.
“I resent it. I resent my servitude. I resent my death. If I could not…”
His sword rose. He studied it, musingly, as the Gold-rank adventurers walked back the way they had come, eyes glowing with the malice of undeath. They had forgotten who they were. The Revenant had not. All that he had been had stayed. Forced to serve. Twisted, but remained.
“If I could not. Strange.”
The sword in the Drake’s claws gleamed in the light. His beautiful armor shone. He stood there, in the street, eyes focused on the distant shape of the Frostmarrow Behemoth, a clear threat. He regarded his sword.
It did not move.
“How…strange. Could it be?”
The undead mused.
Lord Tyrion’s army had not benefited from the Skills aiding the adventurers. The reason was simple: his was a Human army, the forces of a [Lord] of Izril. One of the Five Families.
Similarly, the adventurers who hailed from every place in the world were all individuals. The army was an army.
They fought with only a handful of Skills making it across the vast distance. And of them—
Tyrion Veltras cursed as he felt a hand grabbing at his authority, distracting him. His lance went wide, clipping the head of the Draugr. Such Skills interfered with his command of the battlefield!
For the umpteenth time, his riders fell back with him. Less now. His forces had begun taking real casualties. His bloodless training battle?
A shrieking Wyvern dove from the skies, biting, crushing men and women and tearing about with brute strength, refusing to die even as it was stabbed countless times, showered with arrows.
Tyrion reached for his sword.
His swing chopped halfway through the neck, but the Skill wasn’t enough. The Wyvern was distracted, though, and a flashing, glowing blade burning orange-green finished the cut.
Kaalblade. The House of El’s forces were fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with House Veltras. So were Terlands’ guards and the Golems.
Three of the Five Families, fighting here! And they were being pushed back.
“Jericha, the fliers are breaching your aerial cover! Pull the rear back!”
“Milord, we cannot move the trebuchets—”
Tyrion swung his sword about him, breaking clear of the melee. He saw a [Rider] go down behind him. He turned—but the man or woman was already dead, caught by the milling undead.
“Abandon them if you must. Guard the nobility and the coach!”
He looked towards the rear of the desperate fighting and saw the non-combatants sheltering behind Jericha’s magic, and all the archers. The crossbow-wielding [Mercenaries] were targeting the fliers, but there were so many and they were so hard to kill unless you destroyed their head!
Undead Griffins, Wyverns, and so on. Powerful undead coming out of the city. Tyrion turned.
The first undead giant had come marching towards his lines. He had not brought forces meant to fight them.
He should retreat. Yet the [Lord] was aware that if he did—the adventurers within the Village of the Dead were surely dead. He owed them only a promise to a Courier; there was little to gain here and—he looked towards the coach—everything to lose.
Lord Tyrion Veltras did not call the full retreat in that minute. Nor the next.
It would cost him…his head turned up as he saw coordination. Movement. Eight Wyverns loaded with Draugr dropped out of the skies towards the trebuchets. And the little coach.
He turned and began racing back, through the undead, his people. Too slow. Jericha was trying to bring them down.
“The Lifwail Blades are dead. I cannot contact them.”
The battle was…were they losing or winning? He could not tell.
Prince Zenol saw two of his bodyguards die. He would have let them use his spare limbs—there was no point. One’s head was torn to bits, the life-thread destroyed. The other consumed by magic from above. What his people feared. Fire.
He could not tell if they were winning or losing. The undead had no quantifiable numbers, no morale. Thus—so long as adventurers lived, that was his only metric.
They were dying, though. He had gotten separated from Yvlon and Dorgon in the fighting. He had linked up with another group just by luck.
The Halfseekers were stalemated in the street. Moore, face covered in sweat and blood, was resting, drinking three stamina potions. The only reason this group of adventurers had survived so long was Moore’s strength—
And Jelaqua. She had burned through nine bodies already. Throwing herself into the center of the fire, demanding the undead’s attention, letting them savage her rather than the others who could not replace their flesh.
Zenol admired that. Yet he had no time to waste on words or platitudes. There was only time for—what had to be done.
“They’re killing us! You have to stop them!”
A Silver-rank’s voice. Zenol stared up. He saw the undead Lich Coven. They were hurling [Fireballs] down. Thirty [Fireballs]. Then thirty again. Then—
Nearly a hundred in two minutes. Zenol had heard of spells like [Meteor Storm]. He thought this was as close as he would see to it in his life.
The begging voice cut off. Perhaps they had survived, some.
“The Lich Coven must die. It must be severed!”
The [Prince of Sands] of Nerrhavia’s Fall spoke. He looked around.
“Where are the [Scouts]? It must fall! I will join you! Anyone who can take it down—distract them!”
A clipped voice. Halrac the Grim. Zenol saw a glowing arrow shoot towards the Liches. They pivoted, blocking the arrow—and then the volley, before returning magical fire.
“We’ll support you! Go!”
That was Revi’s voice. A babble of voices joined it. Zenol looked around.
“Captain Jelaqua, lend me your [Rogue]! I will give you my bodyguards—we have to bring it down!”
He pointed. Seborn turned and Jelaqua looked around.
“Your highness! You cannot—”
His [Mage] bodyguard protested. Zenol cut her off with a slash of his wrist. He checked a dangling thread from his wrist and gripped his sword tightly.
“I am a Gold-rank Captain! Do not presume to tell me not to risk my life now! Adventurer Seborn?”
The two ran towards the Lich Coven. More adventurers had made up their minds like Zenol. They fought, rather than run! That was what he admired about them.
“We have a route up! Keep the pressure on!”
Instructor Tomoor. Somehow—Zenol grinned as he saw two flying Drakes and the bounding [Duelist] ahead. They had created a way to take the fight to the enemy!
A [Light Bridge]. It hung in the air. A beautiful construction, leading from the ground to the Lich Coven’s tower. It was far more elaborate, magnificent even, than any other spell Zenol had seen of its ilk. As he and other mobile adventurers ran towards it, he blinked at the shimmering letters glowing in the air.
Courtesy of Grand Magus Eldavin of Wistram.
The [Prince] laughed and saluted the skies. He saw Tomoor leap up the staircase, four at a time, and the two Drakes followed him. Zenol was pointing with Seborn towards a street when the Liches noticed. They whirled—pointed.
Tomoor’s scream came a second too late for one of the Drakes. One of the last two Lifwail Blades became a living torch. The other dodged the hammers of falling stone. Pillars of obsidian that smashed the bridge to pieces.
Zenol looked up, cursing. He saw adventurers falling back as the damned mages began hammering the streets around them.
“We can’t make it!”
Seborn dragged him back. Zenol looked over his shoulder, roaring in frustration. Someone had to—but the [Mages] were contesting the skies! If he could get close enough, his jumping Skill…
His eyes fell on a huge figure coming down the street. Moore, Jelaqua, and the other adventurers were in a fighting retreat from more undead. Zenol pointed.
“Half-Giant! Moore! I can reach the tower! But I need you to—throw me.”
Zenol’s bodyguards whirled. The [Prince] pointed at his personal [Mage]. The Cotton-caste woman looked horrified.
“Do not argue! The scroll!”
Zenol was sweating now. He saw Moore raise his head.
“I can’t throw you that far.”
It was hundreds of feet. Zenol bared his teeth.
“I don’t need you to do it alone. Just give me a platform. Your strength and my Skill combined can do it. With this.”
The [Green Mage]’s objections were cut off as Zenol’s [Mage] produced one of his remaining scrolls. She opened it, looked uncertainly at him.
The [Prince of Sands] snatched it. He unfurled it and magic flashed around Moore and him. He saw the half-Giant’s shoulders rise and his eyes open wide. Zenol’s teeth ground as he felt the same, familiar power. If only it were enough.
[Ogre’s Strength]. An enchantment stored in the precious scroll. On a half-Giant?
“Launch me. I will end the threat.”
Moore looked down at the [Prince]. The Stitch-man had just whispered that. He stood, poised as if he was standing before a crowd.
Sweating. His eyes were fixed on the tower with the Lich Coven. Thirty mages in the skies.
“You’ll be blasted to pieces.”
“I’ll sever that chain and their combined magic. Nerrhavia’s oath on it.”
“Don’t be a fool—”
Seborn reached for Zenol. He was stopped by Moore. The half-Giant bent.
“Are you sure?”
His arm flexed. Zenol sighed.
The half-Giant’s right hand held Zenol as the [Prince] balanced. Like a javelin thrower, Moore drew his arm back. He threw Zenol, nearly a hundred feet, staring at his own strength! The [Prince] soared through the burning skies. He touched ground once. The roof. The Liches spotted him and began to aim.
“Too late, wretches. [Like a Lion, He Leapt].”
The [Prince] flew, the momentum of Moore’s throw adding to the second jump. He soared high, higher—
Maybe I won’t make it. Perhaps…he was ashamed of the surge of hope. Perhaps he’d live—
He landed on the tower. The [Prince of Sands] hit the roof and skidded. There—there was the central object the Liches were bound to. His sword flashed once.
The bound, dead [Mage] kneeling in the center of the nest of chains was glowing with magical power, head bowed. Zenol wasn’t even sure if it was undead, or a [Mage] of a different era. It looked up once—he saw a woman smile gratefully.
His falchion severed the top of her head. The Liches screamed. They whirled as the chains shattered. Freed, but weaker. Their fingers pointed down at the man who stood there, sword raised, shouting.
The [Prince] laughed, brandishing his sword at the skies and hoping they could see him. He saw the thirty skeleton [Mages] pointing at him, burning spells captured in their fingers.
Fire. A Stitch-person’s worst fear. Zenol’s smile was bitter as he stared at the skies. He had known there was no coming back.
Someone had to do it. Let them never say the [Prince] did not fight like one of them. I could live with their scorn so long as it was never true.
To prove he was more than a [Prince], he had come here to die. If only he had a second Skill. His father’s legacy…
“Like a lion he leapt. With his pride, he died alone.”
Zenol murmured. He tried to keep smiling as he pivoted, waiting. There was nowhere to dodge. The Liches shrieked again. Their fingers unleashed—
Ksmvr landed on the first Lich’s head. He fired all three crossbows point-blank into the second. Zenol saw him fling something.
A jar of acid. It burst over the third Lich and the flailing undead failed to cast its spell. Zenol dove into the opening.
Fire flung him, burning, across the tower. He landed, rolling, and got to his feet. Alive. He saw Ksmvr land next to him.
“Only a fool fights alone, Prince Zenol. I believe I have a debt to repay.”
The [Skirmisher] raised his Forceshield, blocking a swarm of magical arrows. He pointed.
“The door! We will fight them inside!”
He and Prince Zenol ran towards the door as the Liches dove, maddened with fury. The [Prince] ran, heart pumping with terror, fear—relief.
He was alive. The Stitch-man realized he was laughing. He heard Ksmvr chuckling too. Madness? They were both mad! There was no room for anything else. Life and death. They had to fight like the insane. Only that had a chance of survival.
She killed seven of them. Seven Wyverns died, falling to earth, their Draugr crushed by gravity or the huge beast’s weight.
Jericha failed to slay the eighth. It landed, Draugr falling around the [Mages] and Jericha herself, who drew a sword, screaming triumph.
Tyrion was riding faster than he ever had in his life. But he was always so…
Slow. He had missed the hour of Salva’s death. And now—
The Wyvern reared back, undead mouth gaping as it turned beyond reason, for the coach. As if it could sense everything that mattered to him was in there. It began to tear the enchanted wood apart as easily as if it were paper. Tyrion was too distant, Lord Deilan and the other nobles helpless. A scattering of spells from wands and a crossbow from a bodyguard peppered the thick hide to no avail.
A door slid open. The Wyvern turned, and Tyrion opened his mouth.
He charged towards a group of skeletons, not even seeing them. He saw the Wyvern’s head rear back to strike like a serpent.
Then the bright sword blazed to life. The blade, thinner than paper, the length of a longsword. A searing light pink, artificially bright.
Tyrion saw the Wind Runner holding it aloft, uncertainly. She didn’t stand like a [Swordswoman]. She swung it, desperately, as the Wyvern dove.
The Faeblade cut through the air as Ryoka Griffin swung it, hearing the screams from the boys within, Jericha’s desperate voice, the scream of the Wyvern.
The tip of the glowing blade met the side of the Wyvern’s neck. Ryoka saw its maw opened wide enough to tear her torso apart in a single bite. An undead monster far beyond anything she could fight. A magical being, a—
Animated piece of meat.
The Faeblade cut through the neck and passed through the air in an arc that left afterimages. Ryoka’s swing overbalanced her and she stumbled. Something hit her and knocked her flat. She cried out, flailing. Then—realized the jaws weren’t closing.
The head of the Wyvern lay half on her. The severed body had already collapsed against the coach. Ryoka’s burning sword stuck out of the body. She tried to shift the huge weight—then cut.
Her sword severed the Wyvern without effort. Like there was nothing there. Ryoka shoved two chunks off her and stood.
She murmured. Then looked around and saw Hethon and Sammial staring at her. So was Jericha, who had run forwards, bleeding, wand and sword raised.
Ryoka looked at her gift from the lands of the fae. From the…she hadn’t thought it would work. She looked around, in the stunned silence.
Lord Tyrion Veltras had halted, over a thousand feet away in the fighting, and he was looking at her. Shakily—slowly—the man saluted her with his sword.
Ryoka waved. Then she looked at her sword. The words of the Faerie King began to echo in her head.
“The time has come for you to do more than just run.”
The Wind Runner looked around. Her face was lit by the glowing weapon she held. Hethon and Sammial had lost their jaws, perhaps never to be recovered. They stared at the Courier. She pointed at them with a shaking finger.
“Stay—stay there. Okay?”
They nodded. Ryoka looked around. She took a breath. Then she spread her arms. The Wingsuit caught the sudden breeze.
Mrsha, Tyrion, an open-mouthed Drassi, and the world watched the young woman fly. She went nearly straight up, holding the glowing blade.
Straight towards an undead Griffin. It dove at her, shrieking. The Wind Runner swung, frantically—the wind slammed her right and the Griffin missed. Dizzily, the Wind Runner recovered—and was blown into its back. She impaled the Griffin, almost by accident, through the head.
She had the sense to whirl the blade. And—the Griffin fell, head diced to pieces. In a moment! In a swing! The Wind Runner didn’t have time to process that; the wind took her in a loop-de-loop, over another diving Wyvern’s head. She passed it—and her sword cut through one wing, shearing through and sending the beast falling to the ground.
Two monsters, dead. Ryoka turned, pausing for a second. Then she dove, and the winged horrors began to die.
Lord Deilan’s mouth was so wide open that he nearly got a few droplets of liquid in it. He closed it hurriedly. Perhaps only he’d noticed that Ryoka Griffin had taken that moment to vomit after the sudden motions in the air.
The wind was blowing her as if it had a mind of its own! Slowly, he saw her begin to take command, dodging, rolling in the air with more finesse. She looped around a Wyvern and slashed through one wing, then the other.
It dropped like a stone. The [Lord] of the House of El couldn’t believe it. His eyes never left the glowing blade in her hands. It was effortless as it swung, a projected beam of pure energy that turned Gold-rank undead into corpses in seconds.
A quiet voice from his left. The [Lord] stopped his frantic run towards the coach where Lord Tyrion’s sons had been about to…he shuddered.
The woman was looking up at Ryoka too. But she spoke, the [Message] scroll in her hand.
“We have now sold all one hundred and ninety nine Kaalblades in our possession. We have begun manufacture of the rest…for a backlog nearly three times that number.”
“Despite the cost?”
“Despite the cost. I have over a thousand requests for Miss Ryoka Griffin’s custom-made…Kaalblade.”
Desiree looked up. So did Lord Deilan El. He watched the Wind Runner slay another monster and send it falling as the people below cheered and pointed.
“What should I tell them, Deilan?”
His cousin looked uncertain. Lord Deilan’s mouth worked. The truth? He eventually responded.
“…Tell them the Wind Runner’s blade…the sword. The Windsword is clearly, obviously, a custom-made artifact and we cannot take orders for more. Yet. However, the House of El is pleased she is finding her artifact so efficacious in this battle.”
Desiree’s eyes widened, and then she smiled and nodded. Deilan went back to watching Ryoka as she scribbled urgently.
All the truth. Technically. He was getting better at this.
The Wind Runner flew through the air, death to any undead trying to contest it. She was more nimble than a bird! Impossible to hit!
…Or rather, the wind was. Ryoka was just along for the ride and her sword did the rest. Even so—
Ceria couldn’t stop laughing. Elia Arcsinger heard it over her speaking stone as she rose. It was time.
The undead were still coming. The heroics of Prince Zenol had ended the Lich Coven. So the adventurers could fight. So many, though?
Elia looked up past her rooftop and shook her head.
“I have never seen so many. Even the Necromancer could not…so many kinds.”
What she saw was the full power of a [Necromancer] in their lair. The Named Adventurer looked up and saw a waddling giant like the smaller containers of tiny undead. More zombie-giants armored in metal. And a giant bone horror.
All smashing the Frostmarrow Behemoth. Yet Ceria was laughing, somewhere. Why? Because of her friend? Did she know the Wind Runner? She had said as much.
Elia had no time for questions. The Frostmarrow Behemoth had survived four battles with undead of its size. It was clearly superior to most of the mundane ones, but the faster-moving giant looked like a Draugr scaled up. Could that even happen? Her blood ran cold at the idea.
“The behemoth will fall! I will buy your group time to retreat with my greatest Skill. Eldertuin, fall back!”
Her daughter looked up, eyes shining, and began shouting into her stone.
“Arcsinger is using her Skill! Fall back! Fall—”
The Named Adventurer tuned her out. The rest of the world grew silent. All she listened to was her own frantically-beating heart. She saw a memory. A charging monster, looking at her.
Her shot was urged on by more than just the need. Intuition. Now, the little voice urged her. Elia trusted in it. It wasn’t hers. She was familiar with that voice.
She drew back on her golden bow and her arrow blazed. At the same time, she heard the voice turn joyous.
The King of Avel, one of the most famous kingdoms in the world for its archers, raised his bow. The Arrow of a Thousand Leagues was confiscated. However, the royal bow gleamed as he triumphantly shouted.
The power of his bow, one of the greatest artifacts of Terandria remaining, unleashed itself.
[Bound Skill: Royal Command — Fourfold Volley]!
Elia fired. And four arrows pierced the sky. Adventurers and undead looked up as four lines of light shot forwards and—pierced—the heads of four giants.
Four figures collapsed. The arrows continued, blasting through buildings, even the torso of another undead. On the ground, Eldertuin heard insane cheering as adventurers shouted her name, and the half-Elf raised her arm.
Her greatest Skill, worthy of the slayer of the Goblin King, had felled four giants, each with a single blow! Eldertuin watched the undead collapse.
There were more. Two zombie giants were fighting the Frostmarrow Behemoth. Tearing it apart with huge bashing strikes of their clubs. It was going to fall. Eldertuin shook his head, calling for Ceria to retreat.
How long have I been thinking that? The Named Adventurer caught himself. Eldertuin the Fortress could have sworn he’d seen the same sight not thirty minutes ago. The Frostmarrow Behemoth, taking terrible damage even as it beat down the other undead. How was it…
His head turned. The former-[Farmer] looked up. He’d wondered why Ryoka Griffin liked the Horns. Perhaps it was just friendship, which had touched him.
Now he knew more of why the Courier was friends with this team.
They were all as mad as she was.
There, on the Frostmarrow Behemoth’s back was a figure. She had created a kind of cage of ice, such that when the undead reared back, she could still stand. Ceria Springwalker pressed her hands to the creation’s back and the ice regrew.
The Frostmarrow Behemoth’s jaws opened and it bit the undead giant’s head. It began to crush the helmet and skull and both fell to earth with a tumultuous impact. The other zombie raised its club to smash in the ice-and-bone creation’s head.
Ice formed a shield across two roofs, catching the arm. The zombie tore it apart after a few seconds, but the Frostmarrow Behemoth was already turning.
“Attack! Ram it! Ram it!”
Ceria was screaming as her command-seat on top of the Behemoth’s back shook. The creation charged forwards, striking the undead giant in the stomach. The other creation stumbled—or tried to.
One of its ankles was engulfed in ice. Trapped, it went over and the Frostmarrow Behemoth, the bone-ice bear-thing began to savage it.
Like a madwoman, the half-Elf danced about, channeling more icy power into the Behemoth. She heard a voice.
“What are you doing? Get down! You’ll be crushed!”
Eldertuin. He’d noticed where she’d gone. Ceria ignored him. This was the only way! Laughing like a maniac, she directed her giant colossus towards the next opponent. Giant monster fight! Giant monster fight!
If they survived this, Ceria was going to do this with Pisces and maybe Revi for fun. She knew she was going to die. She knew she was insane. But she was going to drag as many undead down as she could.
Her bones shook as something hit the Frostmarrow Behemoth. Ceria was flung against her protective cage. She wiped at her bloody nose. She was bleeding from cuts, and she was concussed with each blow. She didn’t care.
Someone had to kill those things.
The Skeleton Lord had killed two Silver-ranks before the rest could run. It advanced, with a stalking grace. That was their error, if there was any.
They had personality, so the high-level undead weren’t perfect killing machines. It could have slaughtered more adventurers if it had just moved into the next charge, but it had to have style. Dignity.
It halted as the adventurers met a figure in the street. For a moment they drew back in horror. A lone undead? A—
The young man was alive. He had a white robe on, which he’d altered to keep from tripping him up. He stood as the adventurers rushed past him. A burning rapier in one hand…something in the other.
The Skeleton Lord stopped, sensing a foe it should take more seriously. The magical flames in its eye sockets fixed on what the [Necromancer] was holding.
Pisces Jealnet had two minor cuts on his leg and chest. His white robe would have shown more blood if it hadn’t been enchanted against stains. He was breathing hard. His breath came in ragged gasps, yet he still had strength to lift the other Skeleton Lord’s head.
He tossed it down onto the street. His foot came down and shattered the skull.
The undead warrior regarded Pisces. It lifted the halberd it was carrying and saluted him. Pisces lifted his rapier—then lowered it, sniffed, and spat in the street.
The Skeleton Lord charged with a silent roar. Like an arrow, it launched across the street, halberd whirling to cut the insolent Human in two! It slashed—
Pisces [Flash Stepped] back. His rapier darted out, trying to deflect the blade. The Skeleton Lord was strong! It was like trying to block one of Yvlon’s full force blows. His hand rang.
The adventurers turned back as the [Necromancer] whirled, striking out with a leap across the ground. He was blurring back in a moment as the halberd-wielding Skeleton Lord struck out.
Despite the huge weapon, it was faster than the last one! Pisces ducked a slash and then saw the Skeleton Lord redirect the blow mid-swing. He lunged forwards with a shout. His hand flicked—
The Skeleton Lord pivoted—dug the tip of the halberd into the ground, and with inhuman strength and agility, used it to vault over Pisces’ head. It wrenched the halberd free in a spray of stones, cutting—he wasn’t there.
The two blurring figures halted, Pisces panting, the Skeleton Lord regarding him. The adventurers halted, uncertain. One raised a wand.
Pisces leaned back as the halberd nearly cut his nose in two, ending his sniffing for good. The Skeleton Lord reset itself smoothly. It left no openings! Pisces cursed. Then he went for broke.
The greater undead sensed the moving stones and turned. However, instead of swinging its halberd to the rising, hostile skeleton warrior that Pisces had summoned, it swung one gauntleted fist in a savage backhand, knocking the skeleton to pieces.
Still—it was one-handed. Pisces lunged in. His free hand blasted a rain of acid at the Skeleton Lord’s face. His rapier in the other hand launched outwards in a stab.
The Skeleton Lord was caught. It had two threats—and chose the far lesser one. It dodged around the acid, let the rapier glance off its leg, contemptuous. It was a skeleton! Greater Undead! Even if the rapier had been enchanted, it would have to hack through its bones, not just score a flesh hit!
It planted itself to whirl the halberd and put an end to this ridiculous fight. The skeleton—felt itself falling?
It caught itself with the butt of the halberd. Pisces had leapt back. Now, he looked at the Skeleton Lord. Confused, the undead looked down. How…?
His right leg lay beneath him. Gone. Armor had fallen along with bones. They had…shattered…where the rapier struck them!
[Bone Fracture]. Or some variation of the spell. It had torn apart the bones, fractured then shattered them in an instant. The kind of spell no one knew because it didn’t work on living people—only one kind of person would learn that spell.
It—that wasn’t—the Skeleton Lord tried to balance on one leg. The [Necromancer]! A [Necromancer] with a rapier, who could get close and deliver the spell! The Human was too weak to snap his neck, but his command of bones by touch—
The Skeleton Lord swung its weapon, teeth gnashing, challenging the [Necromancer]. Very well—very well! It waited.
Pisces just pointed. The Skeleton Lord’s head turned. The adventurers were taking aim. It looked back at Pisces and glared at him.
Coward. Fight fair—
After the blasted corpse had fallen, Pisces recovered the broken skull and limped on. It seemed to work as a taunt. He ignored the skeleton’s silent ire, even after its destruction. Fight fair? Who did that if they wanted to win?
An hour had passed since nightfall, and the war raged on. It was a war, and no one could honestly say who was winning.
Not even the Titan of Baleros; certainly not anyone guessing from any one heroic stand. Yes, the Lich Coven was dead. So what? This was a pernicious foe without limits.
However, the living fought, creating moments of heroism to keep that hope alive. Like the Wind Runner of Reizmelt.
“Thirty six! Thirty seven! That’s thirty seven dead Gold-rank class monsters by the Courier, Ryoka Griffin!”
Drassi was counting them out. If this had been another army—what a toll one woman was reaping! Not just that—the adventurers might die, but with each undead monstrosity that fell, the power of the undead waned.
If it had been Az’kerash’s army, he would have long ago counted this as a pyrrhic victory even had he triumphed. Far too costly.
This was a battle to the death, though. Individuals like Ryoka Griffin, the half-Elf riding the Frostmarrow Behemoth, or the [Necromancer] hunting down the Skeleton Lords one-by-one were able to change the battlefield.
What if they died, though? It just took one death. The undead…kept…coming.
Undead giants strode towards Tyrion Veltras’ forces. Trebuchets fired, striking one and caving in a chest. Yet the damned things were so huge and the armor made them even harder to slay.
Nevertheless, the figure rode down on the nearest one, as his army shouted his name. Bereft of his cavalry, Tyrion Veltras raised his lance.
“Two lances, one death!”
He bellowed the words, then surged forwards. He rode across the ground, ignoring the other undead. The zombie tried to bend to strike him. It missed as he accelerated.
The watchers saw his lance pierce the leg, ramming through armor, and out the other side. Tyrion caught himself—and the giant fell. He turned. Before the colossal undead could rise, he had run it through its vulnerable head.
“At least one of them knows how to fight giants.”
That comment came in the royal sitting room. The others in the small group, watching the king-sized scrying mirror, started.
Queen Oiena Zessoprical, wife to King Itorin II of Ailendamus, who was watching with his royal family, turned in her chair. Her look of annoyance at anyone outside of her immediate family—husband, three sons and two daughters, one of each was present—turned to uncertainty.
“That man. ‘Two lances, one death’ and there! Those Minotaurs.”
A pair of Minotaurs was fighting in bloody conflict with a smaller Hill Ogre or something similar. They had shouted—Wered and Dorgon.
“Three axes, one death!”
The words were definitely connected now the royal family was clued in. Itorin II raised his head in interest; he had actually been half-napping, exhausted from his royal duties as his youngest son leaned forwards on his lap.
This private room of the royal family was not occupied by outsiders. However, Duke Rhisveri Zessoprical was a cousin. A brother-in-law, rather. Oiena had never actually been clear, but the man was a trusted friend of her husband, a member of the royal family.
He had not joined the gathering, but had been walking through the royal wing, in a foul mood. However—he had stopped when he saw the scrying orb.
“Two lances, one death. It is a saying of [Knights] who slew Giants! Two lances, one for the leg, the second for the head or chest. Three axes, one death. The same for the best warriors on foot.”
The Duke repeated himself, with far too much annoyance towards the royal family for Queen Oiena’s comfort. As if they were idiots for not knowing this minutiae. Who fought giants—besides undead giants—these days? However, Itorin just nodded.
He did not upbraid the Duke, so Oiena did not. The man stood there, watching. His next words were…intent.
“That…girl. Flying there. Who…who is she?”
He had just seen the Wind Runner as it cut back to her. The Duke’s lips were moving, and Oiena was astonished he hadn’t heard of her.
“That’s the Wind Runner of Reizmelt. Have you noticed that magnificent blade, cousin?”
“I don’t care about that, woman. That girl. What is her…name?”
The Queen gasped and looked to her husband. Itorin hesitated and glanced at the Duke. Rhisveri met his eyes, glanced at Oiena, and snorted. He focused on the young woman again.
Let’s see. Black hair? Check. Height…yes, that’s about right. Female? Check. Human? Check.
He hadn’t been able to find…but his spells could do exact measurements. Even stupid ones. Breast size? He squinted at the image; clicked his tongue in annoyance. Skin tone was absolutely on, though. Did she have green eyes?
Every detail. Now the Duke stepped forwards, between the royal family and the scrying orb.
The young [Prince] of Ailendamus complained. He went to kick Rhisveri’s back—Itorin caught it.
He gave his family a warning look. Silently, they stared as Rhisveri blocked their view, uncertain now.
“What…is that woman’s name?”
Rhisveri snapped around so fast that the [King], [Queen], and their children flinched.
Itorin II opened his mouth, but the Duke was already striding off. His voice was furious. How? How, how…? Drath? Of course! That—
Hope and despair and hope again. Seborn wished the battle would take one side or the other. He was panting. He was thirsty.
The sight of Ryoka Griffin in the skies made him think he’d lost his mind completely. Yet there she was, killing more undead effortlessly.
“Ulinde. Tell me you see that.”
The Selphid [Spellslinger] gaped upwards. She had thought seeing Mage Merzun entering the battle and blowing one of the Liches to bits would be the strangest sight in the skies.
This? She saw a lightning bolt called from far away hit a Wyvern and Ryoka kill another, de-winging it, the safest strike. Wistram was in this battle! They had nothing to lose.
Ryoka though? Seborn cursed. The mysterious archer was still there!
“Ryoka! Dive! Here! Get down! Ryoka!”
His voice was too far away to reach her. The Wind Runner zigzagged through the air, so fast and randomly that Seborn thought she was safer than she looked, despite the risk—but he was still looking for a way to signal her. Ksmvr? The Antinium and Zenol had rejoined them, after killing thirteen more Liches and breaking free onto the street.
It was as Seborn looked up that he saw the hole in the skies open. The closer they came to the city of the dead—let alone entered the winding streets—the weaker their magical links became.
Speaking stones failed. [Lesser Teleport] scrolls malfunctioned. The adventurers were holding on the outskirts, where city met village. It was as if any foreign magic died in the city. Seborn had no idea how Ryoka’s artifact or wind powers could function. Wistram’s Archmage could barely call down a single lightning bolt every twenty three minutes!
Some spell managed to break through the power of the Village of the Dead, though. It wasn’t an undead’s spell—and nor was it an adventurer’s as it turned out.
Ryoka Griffin whirled as purple, no, amaranthine light shone down. Black light, though. As if it were the inverse of light itself.
A hole in the sky opened over her head. She saw a single, massive, blinking eye. Like a certain eye of a dark lord, a huge vertical slit of rage focusing on her. A voice boomed through the skies, ringing with fury.
“I’ve found you.”
Jericha felt the spell breach the skies in the distance. She saw the Wind Runner recoil, fleeing, but the hole in the sky followed her. Was something…reaching for her? The bellowed words made her look for Hethon and Sammial, just to make sure they were safe.
A roar of fury. The Wind Runner was clearly just as startled as everyone else. The voice continued, filled with tones of rage.
“Thief! I see you—”
Ryoka Griffin whirled overhead as the wind blew her back towards safety. She shouted.
She pointed and her finger issued a single mote of light. It shot towards the opening and then—
Jericha went deaf and blind for a second as, almost directly overhead, the spell detonated. And that was from the ground. The hole abruptly closed with a shriek.
Ryoka landed, unsure of what the hell that had been. She’d just reacted instinctively when it seemed like the light reached for her—
She stood, unsteadily, then looked at Hethon and Sammial. They still hadn’t found their jaws and this wasn’t helping. Ryoka took off as Tyrion raced towards her to say something or ask what that had been—Jericha watched Ryoka go.
“Interesting. She knows the [Flareshriek] spell? It sounds—different. What was…?”
Jericha had no time to assemble this new puzzle piece with the old. She had to get back to the fighting. They were winning! Or at least, burning the undead down as fast as they came. Ryoka had the skies! Jericha would get her hands on that magnificent blade later.
And ask where it had come from, then. It…might…might be something Lord Tyrion should have been wearing, not Ryoka Griffin. If that was the case, how in the world did the Wind Runner have it?
“Are they going to do it?”
“I don’t know.”
The reply was…morose? Apathetic. Preoccupied. It enraged the first, who snapped.
“Well, you’re not certain about much these days, are you?”
It was a harsh response. Typical—but not. Too aggressively pointed, too…bitter. Too much like a thrown knife, rather than a snippy comment. The second’s tone became even more defensive, taking on hurt like a shield.
“I didn’t say that. I just don’t know war. This isn’t about that.”
“I wasn’t suggesting that!”
One voice, bickering, concealing uncertainty via wrath. The second, defensive, almost sounding petulant as they argued. It could swap places. The hurt turn to wrath, the first’s voice turn to tears in a moment.
It would be music to her ears if she cared for such things. Not music; not for the [Witch]. Just a sense of satisfaction.
Lasica and Rufelt sat in their bar, trying to watch the scrying orb. Yet neither could quite focus. They didn’t meet each other’s eyes.
Like a ball of tangled thread. Tangling itself further as one pulled or the other resisted. They could have untangled the knot with time. If not for…
The Stitch Witch entered the bar. Rufelt dropped his mug. Lasica whirled. The arguing couple halted.
“You—I told you no! Why is she here?”
Rufelt whirled on Lasica. The Drake’s face became angry, for all she was worried.
“I promised her nothing! How dare you suggest—”
Another tangle. Belavierr smiled.
“I am only here to talk. Hello, Rufelt.”
“Begone. I’ll—I’ll call the Watch. I don’t want you here. You’re not welcome! You’re not allowed to come in if I don’t invite you.”
The Gnoll reached for a club under the bar. Lasica seized his arm, snarling at him.
“Don’t be a fool!”
“Be a fool?”
He snarled back. Belavierr tilted her head, waiting to interject her offer, another snarl. However…her head turned.
“What is that?”
She blinked at the scrying orb. Rufelt and Lasica halted. Lasica opened her mouth; he glared at her. She glared back and replied.
“The Village of the Dead. Adventurers, fighting.”
Belavierr had meant the news network in general. She’d forgotten it existed. She peered at the scrying spell. Her head moved. Left. Right. Inspecting it while being in the way as much as Duke Rhisveri had, oblivious to other people’s concerns. So it went with that kind of person.
However…Lasica was rewarded as the Stitch Witch’s head rose and she murmured.
“Ah. The Putrid One. Is he back again?”
The Drake and Gnoll stirred. They looked at Belavierr. No one had mentioned the Necromancer who had created this place.
“The…Putrid One? I don’t know. It’s a Necromancer. And the adventurers are going to win. Destroy the evil in the heart of that place.”
Rufelt spoke defiantly, trying to meet Belavierr’s ringed gaze. She regarded him. Rufelt was trembling. He hated her more than anyone he had ever met in his life. Hated that she had come here and offered—
Belavierr turned her head and looked at the scrying orb. Lasica and Rufelt both nodded. Belavierr’s head turned back. Carelessly; she wasn’t truly interested unless he was back. But if he was…
“I don’t see his greater undead. Are they already dead, then? It matters not.”
Rufelt whispered. He looked at the scrying orb. Then—realized Belavierr was gone.
She stood behind Lasica. Her broad hat casting a shadow even in the light of the bar. She smiled as she put her hands on Lasica’s shoulders.
“I came here to make you an offer, Rufelt. Let us talk.”
He made the mistake of staring at her. This time—the rings in her eyes dragged him in. Ensnaring him further in…
Revi was panting. Her summons spent. She had used every trick, every bit of mana she could use. Her head rang from the mana potions she had drunk and she knew she was reaching overload.
Yet still…the battle continued. They needed her summons more than ever! She was half-considering knocking herself out in case she leveled.
“We have to go in there. We can fight! I can fight!”
The other [Mages] ignored her. They had refused; they weren’t hand-to-hand specialists, mostly. They had exhausted themselves countering the Liches. They were standing here, to ‘protect’ the other adventurers if they had to retreat.
Revi knew it was wrong to want to get them to enter the village. But could they just stand here, uselessly?
“Don’t worry, Revi. As soon as we recharge, we’ll be tossing more spells. We won’t sit idle. We also won’t be going into the Village of the Dead, is that clear? Not you nor me. My bones can’t take it.”
“I didn’t mean that, Geni. Not you—”
Revi grinned weakly. She sat, listening to the speaking stone. She hadn’t heard any more horrific undead coming in yet. The hole in the sky though…why had it followed Ryoka? What had she gotten herself into n—
A furious sound made Revi look up. Barking. The two dogs, which had been placidly sitting or watching the battle from afar had risen to their feet. Revi blinked.
“What’s wrong? Bram, right?”
The [Beast Tamer] looked at her.
“Sorry! I think they picked something up on the wind. Maybe the fighting? Makki, Mousey, what is it?”
The other [Mages] stirred slightly as the light guard around their position looked up. They didn’t take the dogs lightly. If they smelled something…
Revi was getting up when Mousey and Makki’s heads turned as one. They…tracked something across the ground, hackles raised. Makki snarled. Then—broke free. She raced forwards, tangled with something.
Everyone saw the dog hit something in the air and float for a second. It hurled her down and Bram cried out, raising his sword.
“Makki! Mousey, attack! Everyone, get up! It’s invisible zombies! Inv—”
His shout was cut off. Revi stared as Bram stopped, trembling. Makki—the dog wasn’t moving. The way their heads had moved. Mousey was staring at something. Invisible zombies? It had been so fast—
Something hurled Bram down. Revi saw the [Beast Tamer] fall like a sack of bones. She raised her wand and a flare of light hit whatever it was as Mousey leapt. The blood of Makki and Bram were on it. With the flare of magic, as the [Mages] and adventurers turned, Revi saw the outline of what it was.
“Not invisible zombies. Invisible ghouls! Inv—”
“Eldertuin, I need your fastest adventurers to return to our lines! We are under attack! Invisible Ghouls or other undead have assailed us! I am in the skies!”
Soew screamed into his ear. The Named Adventurer whirled.
He bellowed. Every adventurer in earshot swore. They checked themselves, and Eldertuin spoke.
“I’m sending you help!”
“Watch the skies. There are more undead. I see—more undead. Coming for your position and the behemoth.”
Eldertuin turned his head up, looking for the Wind Runner. If she could keep them clear or contest them—
The Named Adventurer halted. His shield, battered throughout the battle yet perfectly intact still, rose. He lifted his enchanted mace, set himself.
“Those aren’t Wyverns. What is…flying undead. Halrac, do you see them? Arcsinger?”
Both [Archers] called out a slow affirmative. Eldertuin looked up. No, those weren’t Wyverns. They were too small. Nor were they Liches.
They came out of the skies, through the clouds like the dark sky itself had birthed them. Trailing dark vapor. They were no more real than a cloud was; yet hands gripped painfully-dark blades, scythes like a [Farmer] might wield.
Eldertuin breathed. He had never…never seen…the adventurers looked at him as one dove, like a slow-falling drift of fog. He saw hands lift the scythe and swing.
The Named Adventurer, Eldertuin the Fortress, raised his shield. He blocked, perfectly—and the scythe passed through his shield. He felt a cold, cutting pain sear through his body.
For the first time, he cried out in a scream of pain. His mace struck back, but the mist-body barely registered the blow. The undead recoiled and swung its scythe. A Silver-rank fell, dead. Heart stopped.
Halrac saw the wraiths descend and his heart sank. These weren’t the undead he knew, or had even seen. These…
Something stepped out from behind the Lich Coven’s tower. It turned, as tall as the tower itself, and looked towards the Frostmarrow Behemoth, which had withstood everything and anything that had come at it.
The shadow had no real body. It was all angles and lines, no curves, no natural creation. It had no contrast, no depth. Yet it moved. It walked and Ceria looked up at it.
Arcsinger shot an arrow and watched it pass through the giant’s body. She heard a mortal scream through the speaking stones.
“It’s there! Arcsinger, someone, kill it! Please! We can’t harm it!”
The shadow-thing? Elia put another arrow to her bow. Then she saw a second thing walking down the streets.
It looked like…her eyes widened. She lowered the bow and saw adventurers fleeing. It looked like a miniature version of a creature she had seen just recently. Another undead she had thought belonged to legends—no—which she knew belonged to that era.
The Jaw of Zeikhal, a smaller version, advanced down the street, ignoring the spells and arrows pelting it.
Montressa du Valeross was crying. It was the only sound in the inn, again. Niers had raised his hand, but he didn’t know…these foes.
They were the same things Montressa saw every night. The same undead that had rampaged through…
“Archmage Nekhret’s guardians.”
Pisces stood in the street, looking up at the floating undead. They were just one of many. Now, the [Necromancer] felt it in his bones. So that was the level of this place.
That was their folly. He hesitated, raising the speaking stone to his lips. He knew she was watching, from wherever she was, reliving his horror.
“Ceria? Ceria…Yvlon? Ksmvr? Can you hear me? We must…”
It was then he spoke. The [Veteran Scout]. Halrac lifted the speaking stone to his lips. He spoke one word.
“Retreat. Run. Get out of the city. We can’t fight this.”
He saw Ryoka Griffin fleeing the skies. She had locked blades with a single one of the wraiths—and it had shattered her sword like glass with its weapon. Only a twist in the air had saved her.
He heard his word repeated from Elia, and Eldertuin, gasping with pain. And one more place. Halrac thought it was just someone with a copy of his stone, but then he turned his head.
Throughout it all, they had never stopped the broadcast. The heroism, the action, the adventure, triumph and failure had all been shown on the scrying orbs, through the eyes of [Mages] on the ground, through the skies—as close as they could get to the city before the spells began to fail.
Now, she sat there. No longer the observer who occasionally commented. Nor the [Reporter] bringing the story to life.
It was just Drassi. She spoke into the scrying orb.
“Retreat. If there are any adventurers listening to our broadcast—retreat. This isn’t a suggestion. Run as fast as you can. It’s not a fight for you. Is it? Your Majesty?”
The voice was cold, but not heartless. It echoed—yet it was not malicious. The first caller-in in the world’s history, King Fetohep of Khelt, spoke into the scrying orb. The undead king, one of the last experts who could speak, looked past Drassi. Into Halrac’s eyes.
“These undead are beyond you, adventurers. Summon another army. Summon Named Adventurers in the quantities of Gold-ranks that were here. Mundane blades will not even touch wraiths or ghosts. The Jaws of Zeikhal can survive Tier 6 spells, even in infancy. That shadow will destroy the Frostmarrow Behemoth without a scratch. I tell you, run. A Revenant walks that city. You heard it speak. It has all the Skills it had in life, as I do. Flee. There is no cowardice in it. All that remains now is suicide.”
The Gold-rank captain closed his eyes. Hearing it made it no less painful. However, he stood.
“You heard him. Run. I need a rear-guard to slow them down.”
The adventurers in his company, who had fought to the bitter end looked at Halrac’s face. Then they turned and began to run. A few tried to slow the undead as the rest began to flee the slaughter.
They came through the city, one final wave to end it all. The invaders had done so well. They had slaughtered the failures who had come before. They had killed rank-and-file. However, now they died.
The greatest undead were few in number. Yet what the adventurers had experienced with the undead was now reversed. The undead barely fell, and tore through the adventurers and army outside without slowing.
Tyrion Veltras locked blades with a wraith. He exchanged blows, his shield repelling some strikes; tasting cold pain in his chest as he took wounds his armor didn’t block.
[Deathbolt]. It was like a weapon made of that. His sword cut the undead; he saw it. His artifact could…hurt it…
Eight minutes the duel took. It was not a beautiful dance, though they were both good. Neither knew the other; Tyrion fought a floating, darting foe, it chased him on his horse’s back.
At the end, it screamed, a shriek of pain, and vanished. The sixth time he had plunged his blade into the thing’s ‘chest’, it had taken. Tyrion lowered his sword, arm numb with frost.
In the time it had taken him to kill one, over two hundred soldiers had died to the others. Jericha was blasting one with magic and it barely slowed.
He saw the Kaalblades cutting one down. Tyrion pointed, and the [Mercenaries] fell back too. Even so—he looked over his shoulder and shook his head.
“Moore, run, damn you!”
Seborn was running, stopping, turning to look over his shoulder. Everyone was fleeing.
“I have lost Ksmvr! Where is Yvlon?”
Zenol was shouting. Something had torn off his arm. Blood ran, until he yanked the strings and changed flesh-and-blood to stuffing. He was with his three remaining servants, looking around.
“No time! Run!”
Jelaqua grabbed his shoulder. Both ran, stumbling, but they were still faster than the slow shape behind them.
Moore was covered in blood. He had seen the worst fighting. Taken the most damage but for Jelaqua, and her body could be replaced.
“Moore! Ulinde, spells, damn you! Slow them down!”
Seborn ran forwards, but he couldn’t even take Moore’s weight. He could only curse at the half-Giant, pushing him as he looked behind.
The [Spellslinger] tried—but the wraiths came on. They were walking now, advancing, cutting down everything they caught.
Ghosts. They looked like clouds grasping weapons sometimes, as they flew. The dead copies of people, now. Like Revi’s summons, but baleful.
Seborn’s arm was numb from where one had cut him. He pushed Moore.
“Leave me, Seborn.”
The [Green Mage] gasped. His voice rattled in his lungs. They had cut him multiple times and he was slowing.
“No. Come on!”
“I’ll hold them back. It’s time. I can’t…”
Moore stopped. Seborn grabbed his arm. The half-Giant was turning, lifting his staff, consumed by the same fury after Erin’s death. He wanted to stride forwards. Seborn gripped his arm with all his strength.
“If you stay. There will be two corpses here. I don’t want to die.”
His friend looked down at him. With a groan, he turned and tried to run. Seborn ran with him. He turned to look over his shoulder.
Yes. They’d catch them. Catch one. The [Rogue] checked the dagger in his good hand.
“Keep running, you idiot. If you slow down, I’ll stab you.”
Moore didn’t hear. He was moving now, blind, too exhausted to turn again. Seborn slowly came to a walk. Then a stand-still.
Ulinde screamed. He turned.
“I was afraid I’d die today. I should have stayed back.”
There was no such thing as a bloodless battle. He had only wondered when it would be one of his friends. That was what he cared about, heartless as it was.
The [Rogue] stepped back as the Wraiths caught up. Just behind Moore’s back. That’s all the distance he had to be. He closed his eyes for a second, pivoting. To strike—
Light bathed his face. Light, in this desolate place. Sure it was a spell, Seborn dove—then looked up.
Yet the half-Giant was staggering onwards. What was…? Seborn glanced over his shoulder and saw sunlight.
Bright, beautiful, real. More enticing than any spell that had illuminated this damned place.
It shone down for a second. Bathing him in light. The [Rogue] looked up, awe-struck. Then saw something in the street.
The Wraiths had stopped. Uncertainly; the ghost-undead lifted their blades and regarded what had pulled itself out of thin air. A glowing figure. Seborn’s eyes widened.
The two Workers never turned back. They glowed, with a radiant counterpoint to the specters in death. Armed with kitchen knives, an actual hammer, even a handsaw—they charged. Grappling, striking the Wraiths as if they were real things. The undead fell back, as awed as Seborn.
He? He looked up at the light and remembered an Antinium kneeling in prayer. Somewhere…Pawn spoke.
Seborn turned and ran after Moore, grabbing his arm, hurrying him along.
They were all running. The Minotaur called for her. Wered and Dorgon were the furthest in. They had fought, bringing down gigantic undead, without yield. Without quarter.
Yet they too were running. It was only logical.
Even so. Yvlon Byres stood in the streets. So frustrated she could scream. They were so close. And yet—
“Yvlon! Yvlon Byres, with us!”
Dorgon leapt back from a swinging wraith. It cut the air with rapid strikes, ignoring the powerful swings of Wered’s maul. Both Minotaurs gave up and ran backwards. Yet they looked at her.
Yvlon blocked a slash that numbed her hands just by the proximity to the blade. Frost covered her arms and armor. She cut back—yet her Sword of Weight passed fruitlessly through the specter’s chest. Wrong enchantment. Weight meant nothing to a ghost.
It was using a damned scythe, as if she was a patch of wheat! It wasn’t even a real weapon; if she had been able to strike it, it would have been dead two dozen times already.
“We were so close. So—”
Yvlon blocked a strike from a Skeleton Knight. It had given up on etiquette. She swung her sword and buried it in its pauldrons; down it went. She whirled. A monstrosity of a blob gaped at her. Her sword descended again and its body exploded around her.
The scythe swung. The [Armsmistress] ducked. Her sword whirled.
“[Curve of the Moon]!”
The undead around her disappeared—save for the wraiths. Now, both were bearing down on her.
Yvlon howled. She cut at both, but it was fruitless. Dorgon was bellowing her name, but the woman was fighting in the center of the street, refusing to retreat.
Like the Adult Creler, Yvlon saw only red. She cut, even trying a mordhau, screaming her fury at the undead. They didn’t care.
“Byres! There is no dishonor here!”
Dorgon tried one last time. But it was no good. Yvlon lashed out—then caught herself. Too late.
A scythe cleaved towards her head as her sword flailed in the center of the wraith’s chest, striking only air. The woman saw the deadly blade coming down and reflexively raised her arm.
Clang. The wraith recoiled. Yvlon heard the metal sound. Then—she looked at her arms. She felt the kiss of metal and terrible cold. Yet—
The wraith backed up, eyes flashing uncertainly. Yvlon looked at her arm as the other came forwards. She flung a fist out and caught it in the chest.
A scream. A shriek of pain! The undead backed up, and Yvlon saw steam or something leaking from the place she’d struck it.
She looked at her arms. The arms she hated so much. The wraiths stared at her. So did the Minotaurs, looking shocked.
“Silver and steel.”
The [Armsmistress] threw her head back. She began laughing, laughing at the sky. The two undead attacked her.
Yvlon Byres dropped her sword to the ground. She whirled.
Her arm went through one of the specters’ chests. It screamed again, but still tried to cut her. It—
For the first time that battle, Yvlon abandoned the Human shape of her arms. The silver-steel flesh rippled.
Spikes of metal exploded through the Wraith’s chest. Her arm turned into a ball of thin needles, shooting outwards like a porcupine’s quills.
The undead vanished in a wail and miasma of lights. The other swung its blade, desperately.
It locked its sword with Yvlon’s other arm.
[Armform: Duelist]. The woman’s arm was gone. All that remained was a metal blade, which she swung into it.
The Minotaurs saw the [Armsmistress] whirl as more undead came down the street. They shouted at her, shocked by the transformation of her arms. They saw her begin to run—
The wrong way. The woman grabbed a Draugr’s head and a spike of metal shot through her palm, knocking its helmet off as the undead fell with a hole in its face. Yvlon—ran deeper into the city. The words still on her lips.
More horrors were emerging. The adventurers were all running, now. The encouragement of the undead king and the leader’s words had been the impetus. Though, if some had dared to stay and fight even now…
That resolve faded. Nightmares came out.
A floating orb of eyes joined the abominations in the air. But it wasn’t—wasn’t—
Right. If you imagined a giant floating eye, like a Gazer, you were wrong. If you imagined form, you were wrong. It was just…eyes. Tiny eyes, plucked from sockets, squished, assembled into one horrific orb that stared everywhere.
Such things were more terrible than he had ever seen. It broke the nerve of even Gold-ranks.
The ground moved and something peeked out, snatching at a running adventurer’s heels. It parted dirt and brickwork like water. Reaching to drag her screaming into—
This was the last guard. The final action of the inner city’s defenders. If there had been a—a mind controlling it all, they would have fought with the rank and file, emerging when the lesser undead in the village were under attack.
His mouth was full of bile and his body shook with terror. Worse horrors than he had thought could exist. Worse than the darkest pacts he had ever made.
He turned, even so. His legs carried him across the ground and he shouted, mouth moving in terrified defiance. Why did you scream your allegiance, cries of victory, even in the face of death, no matter how silly it was?
It was that or scream.
“The honor of Izril! The pride of d—”
He couldn’t finish the shout before the thing in the ground emerged out in a shower of dirt, ignoring the Gold-rank and turning for him. Death! He screamed. D—
“Now. [Lancing Thrusts].”
His voice emerged, calm, precise. The rapier in his hand—blurred. He saw his Skill hit the monstrosity across the face.
Piercing blows. The tip of his rapier caught the thing! Shattered the bone-mask on its face. Yet the undead beneath was all jaws—
It opened incisor-claws, ready to tear him apart. It lunged; he would be dead even if he leapt back. The terrible force within him knew that.
It carried him forwards. His enchanted rapier slashed, seeking a heart. A core—the jaws snapped. His blade was tangled; his arm constricted.
The other hand shot forwards, and the parrying dagger slashed. Tomoor fell, the jaws closing around him, screaming—
His arm cut something. The body went slack. The huge weight of the tunneling horror fell on him, but with immense strength, he pushed it up just enough to stagger out—
Adventurers stared at him. The perfect thrust! Tomoor had felt the precision, the daring to use that Skill to find the core of the undead he had…known…was there. A single step back, a single hesitation.
Someone breathed. Tomoor whirled.
“Run! Keep running, you idiots!”
They jumped and sprinted. That was his voice. It had all been his voice, his body. Yet that skill, that artistry—
No. That wasn’t him at all. If he could have told someone…he wouldn’t. He longed to, with all his heart. He wanted to run; he was no Gold-rank hero. He had not the Skills for this. He was barely—barely—Level 30.
The [Duelist] turned and set himself against a Draugr’s charge. He killed it in a single thrust, almost contemptuously. A wraith bore down on him, scythe raised, and he whirled. His rapier should not have been able to harm it—not with the simple [Piercing] enchantment on it.
He slew it in less than a second, his blade’s tip tearing the fragile ether of the ghost’s body. Tomoor stepped forwards, his arm moving so fast that he could barely process it.
Head, eye, joint—undead fell, slain in single-thrusts. Tomoor had never seen such exemplary swordsmanship save when he had seen two owners of golden bells dueling. Even the King of Jecrass…
“…missing. She ran into battle. Yvlon has gone into the City of Death!”
A voice over the speaking stone, panting. Dorgon, the Minotaur. Tomoor’s hand raised the speaking stone.
“She’s gone into the city! Her mind is lost to battle-rage! Ceria, Pisces—pull her back! We cannot keep fighting shades!”
The Minotaur’s voice was urgent. He called for the rest of the Horns. Tomoor had barely known them, yet they seemed nice. The [Necromancer] he had expected to find a monster—a haughty young man, but polite.
The [Duelist] stopped in the street, listening. Suddenly, his attention was all on the stone. No—Tomoor’s mind was still gibbering, ready to run.
The Necromancer’s mind was focused on this. He spoke through Tomoor’s lips.
“Into the city? Pisces. Ceria. Ksmvr? Respond.”
Only silence greeted him. Halrac’s voice was next. None of the Horns responded. Because…they were dead? Tomoor wasn’t sure. Yet he felt a certainty creep up on him.
Not his thoughts. Sometimes they leaked. This certainty was different.
They are in a place where the speaking stones are dead. No scrolls, no outside magic. They have all gone in.
With that realization came a kind of…satisfaction. A longing Tomoor could not process. He shuddered; he had never felt anything but cold calculation or anger, hatred, from the Necromancer’s thoughts.
His voice spoke, triumphant, joining the others’ horrified realizations.
“The Horns have gone into the city.”
That was what Pisces had told the others. Tomoor’s head rose. Past the horrors. Into the heart of that place. The man and Necromancer both felt an emotion in their chests.
They would fulfill their promises. Or…
The [Duelist] walked forwards again. His rapier rose, saluting the undead which stopped, as if sensing the true danger here. Tomoor spoke.
“I will hold them off as long as I can. Brave adventurers—fall back. Fall back.”
The monster smiled using his face. Tomoor heard them entreating him, Arcsinger praising his resolve. If only he was…
He locked blades with a six-armed monster for a second, sliding gracefully into a slash that the multi-limbed undead could not stop. Who was the monster here? The City of Death had horrors of the unliving that Tomoor had never seen, even in ten years of terrible service.
Yet this was a magic different, but no less terrible than one of the horrors floating above. The living man walked, fighting with another man’s talents and will. A living puppet.
Lord Tyrion Veltras’ army was streaming back, on a full, ordered retreat. Ryoka Griffin screamed. She knew he had to do it.
But her friends! Below, the adventurers were running. Some turned, fighting as they ran like Tomoor, Eldertuin, Halrac, loosing arrows, slowing the undead at risk of their lives.
The undead were so fast, though. Ryoka turned—but the wind was dragging her away. She felt sick. Her body was already burning with the exhaustion of swinging the blade so many times, weightless or not. She would have turned and fought, even so.
She could not. Ryoka Griffin felt her body…dying. For a second; then the wind blew her out of the range of that terrible eye. One look and its aura had sapped her energy. She had felt her very cells perishing, or so it seemed.
The wind saved her. The undead would have tagged her a hundred, a thousand times in the air. Her blessing of the fae…Ryoka looked back and down.
They were coming out.
The greatest of the titans finally stood. He strode forwards, faster than the other giant undead moving through the city. He brought down his club and smashed the remains of the Frostmarrow Behemoth, pinned by the shadow-giant.
“Intruders who come so far. What are you? How dare you?”
A whisper through the skies. Ryoka saw something pursuing her. A woman—not a ghostly wraith, fading into obscurity, but fully-realized. Her dress was elegant; her body pristine, beautiful.
Oh—and she had wings. Fangs. The woman was dead, yet apparently even Vampires could serve after they had been slain. Ryoka saw one of Fierre’s ancestors swooping towards her.
Revenants. They moved forwards, finally awoken, taking wrath into their own hands. The undead Giant began to run, pursuing the adventurers. Ryoka saw the Vampire reaching for her; the wind blew her desperately away, diving towards the city.
In response, the woman transformed. A horror of wings pursued the Courier.
Halrac looked up as the giant charged. No one would outrun that. With each step, he covered far too much ground. And he ran as fast as a normal man.
Revenant. Greatest of the undead. Trapped souls. It was laughing as it raised its club.
“Run, little worms. You will never escape this place.”
Halrac lifted his bow and shot an arrow. The glowing projectile hit the running giant and detonated on armor. It left not a scratch. But the Revenant turned towards him. It smiled, exposing the remains of teeth. Oozing things in its mouth, lesser undead squirming, waiting to be expelled.
The [Scout] looked up as the club swung down. Dodge. He had to…where? He wasn’t Ksmvr. How?
“Idiot. I shouldn’t have tried to be brave.”
The club flashed to earth.
“Wrong. Courage is its own reward.”
An adventurer halted beside Halrac. He looked up—Halrac saw a grin. But wait. The adventurer was d—
The club struck the earth. The Revenant-Giant blinked. He lifted the club and looked at it.
A stump rose in his hand. The other half lay on the ground. Shocked, the undead looked down.
“Why? The living must die.”
The undead Drake lowered his sword and smiled.
“I am free.”
The huge face twisted overhead. Halrac saw the Revenant’s face turn from gloating glee to mortal apprehension. The huge, rotted mouth opened.
The Drake swordsman leapt. Halrac stumbled; the ground trembled with the force of his jump. He shot through the skies as the other Revenant tried to strike him with an armored hand.
Halrac heard no thunderous roar of impact. No booming voice. He looked up.
A giant’s head fell to earth. The Drake stood on its torso as the other undead turned. The collapsing body slowly began to sag. Yet in that moment, adventurers and undead turned.
The Vampire broke off from its terrible dive. Fierre, who hadn’t breathed in over a minute, saw Ryoka fleeing. She saw the undead turn.
On the headless body, the Drake raised his sword. His armor gleamed. His dueling sword shone as he raised it high overhead. Keldrass stared.
Chaldion, Ilvriss, Saliss, Luciva Skybreath—every Drake across the world watching the broadcast looked at the distant Drake as the camera frantically zoomed in as far as it could.
He was so far away, but he bellowed across the city as undead turned. To the traitor. The Revenant. The blademaster shouted to the sky.
“Freedom! The Putrid One’s minions die! Face me!”
The Revenants and greater undead turned, swarming towards him. Enraged more than they were at the living trespassers by this act of—
A giant blade cut the floating orb of eyes in half. The Vampire screamed curses as she flew at him. The Drake was laughing. He saluted the skies.
“In the name of the City of Dreams!”
Lehra Ruinstrider choked and her armband glowed. Everyone around her backed away as the Blade of Mershi began to shine.
The Drake stood alone, and cut them down. Hope from the undead? Honor?
Fetohep stared at the distant figure and wondered. He did not smile.
The cry of defiance shocked him to his core. He felt it, heard that self-righteous voice. The declaration of treachery. But how?
“He’s…not listening. He has rebelled. As he swore he would.”
The whisper was shocked. Horrified. One of the greatest servants had been freed! He was killing the others! All the valuable protectors.
To his master, he turned. Now—terrible fear in him. The realization was so close. Held at bay only by denial.
“He is disobeying you. Master. Master, why have you let him go rogue? We are your most prized…or it is just me?”
Now he tried to touch him. His hands and body—his very being screamed with agony with each step. He had to retreat or face annihilation. Weeping, screaming, he shouted.
“Why don’t I feel your presence? Yet nothing has changed. Not even the greatest [Assassin] could have slipped in here?”
A broken servant knelt. Terrible truths rising in its mind. Like the Truestone Golem of Wistram, who knelt where she had fallen, still having yet to move from her place of grief.
It was time to ask. The head of the Putrid One’s greatest servant rose. He looked up and dared to ask the truth he had known in his chest since the presence had vanished.
“Master. Are you…are…? No. But are you…are you d—”
Lyonette’s eyes were fixed on the scrying orb. She whispered it.
The broadcast was focused on the fleeing adventurers, the Drake Revenant who was killing his own kind. Sir Relz and Noass had forced their way into the studio, shouting about Drake patriotism which could defy even the power of undeath.
Propaganda. She cared nothing for the art of blades. She only wanted to see them.
The Horns of Hammerad. Lyonette knew where they had gone. She had seen none of them in the images of fleeing adventurers.
She had to tell them to stop. If she could—Lyonette whispered.
“It’s for one person. No matter who it is, it’s not worth all you dying for.”
Her fingernails were digging into her skin. Even if that Drake slaughtered every undead in the city. Everyone knew the stories. What would you find there?
“She would not want this.”
Lyonette was too far for them to hear her. Too removed to do anything but watch what everyone in the world could see. Not the truth.
As the adventurers regrouped, escaping the carnage in the Village of the Dead by the miraculous, amazing salvation granted to them, shaking with awe at how many had survived when all hope was lost, they faced one last trial.
Revi was still crying as Typhenous and Halrac ran towards her. Briganda was kneeling, touching at the body among the [Mages], ambushed by the undead. Levil was shouting.
His friend was gone. So was Makki. The remaining war dog was standing guard over their bodies, howling.
Old Geni was dead. Something had killed her. She had put her wand in its face and—
The explosion had saved Revi. She’d stitched on a replacement hand. She raised her head, looking desperately through her tears.
“Where are they? Where…?”
The Horns were not here. She looked for them. Saw Jelaqua, Ulinde—Moore and Seborn were still fleeing.
Her friends were alive. Her friends were in the city.
Voices were arguing.
“We must keep running.”
“This is a disaster! We’ve been slaughtered and for what?”
One of Arcsinger’s Bows was screaming, looking for someone to blame. Eldertuin knocked the half-Elf girl to one side as he shouldered forwards.
“Blame later. Move! Is anyone left?”
“Stragglers. But the Horns—”
“We cannot save them. They have made their choice.”
That came from Elia Arcsinger. She looked towards the Village of the Dead. She was breathing hard, cuts crisscrossing her arm. The undead archer had nearly gotten her. Nearly—until the Drake Revenant had found it.
Yet all of her team was alive. In fact—Revi saw far more adventurers than anyone should have dreamed would survive this, let alone the final flight. She was looking at Halrac, trying to find the courage to say what she knew was impossible.
Let’s go after them? No. No…
Prince Zenol, the three Minotaurs, even Instructor Tomoor were all some of the last, limping out of the Village of the Dead. The adventurers were clumped up, but only a handful of undead were mindlessly shambling after them. The rest had stopped.
“Move out! Everyone, back to the camp and from there we’ll see where we go.”
Eldertuin bellowed. The arguing stopped. Soew nodded. Revi saw the first Silver-ranks turn, hurrying towards the surviving horses, wagons…
Amazing. Miraculous, again. Unprecedented. The giant-undead Revenant had been slain. The master-archer, destroyed. The flying wraiths weren’t following. An anti-climax. And all thanks to…
Revi heard a sound. The Village of the Dead was…collapsing?
She saw houses falling down. Crumbling to pieces, as if the enchantments themselves were being severed. She could not see the city within, yet something was taking the place to pieces. Not all of it; houses fell in a line towards the adventurers.
Cut to pieces. The living hesitated. Revi paled.
He walked from the Village of the Dead, sword bared. He had not survived unscratched. His armor was torn. Something had pierced his chest, his legs, cut across one arm and severed it; his helmet was undamaged, and his face.
And his sword. The Revenant walked forwards, calmly. His glowing eyes fixed on the adventurers.
He covered ground with each step like that horrible Witch had. Enchanted boots? Skill? The adventurers froze as the Revenant halted on the hill where they stood.
“It is done.”
That was all the Drake said. Revi, Eldertuin, Arcsinger—everyone looked at him, uncomprehending.
“Done? You—you saved us. Thank y…”
Levil spoke, voice strangled. He cut himself off. Thank you? The words wouldn’t come out. Not to the undead. And…Revi felt a tingling in her stitches. Something was…
“Done? Where are the undead?”
Arcsinger had moved to block her daughter, but it was Capoinelia, the younger, who aimed her bow defiantly at the Drake. Challengingly. Idiot!
The Drake gave her a dismissive look. He spoke to them all, searching their crowd for…something. The weary Silver-ranks and Gold-ranks, the two Named-Adventurers. He seemed confused. Or even irritated?
“The servants are dead. The greater undead.”
The adventurers looked at each other. Then at the Village of the Dead beyond. They saw a few wandering zombies, a crawling torso of a Draugr…
Someone breathed. The Revenant turned his unearthly gaze towards the speaker.
“I have exacted my vengeance for ages of servitude. Whatever hold that [Necromancer] had over me is broken. For now. I would go back and seek his head. That of his last servant. But I will not risk my will being stolen again.”
Last servant? Revi’s heart was pounding. The H—
Her thoughts ran together. Unable to focus on the danger to her friends. She felt it, in her very cloth. The danger was…here.
“Thank you, brave warrior. You have honored your vows. Tell us your name, that we might remember you. Your city!”
One of the Drakes spoke. The last of the Lifwail Blades, who had only wept for them after reaching safety.
She did not know how her team had died.
The Drake looked at her, and his eyes were cold. He glanced around, measuring, searching again.
“My city was the Walled City of Dreams. I was the Drake who claimed the marks of all nine Walled Cities. They called me peerless, undefeated—until I was. Not by sword or might of arms, but by that treacherous [Necromancer]. Then they wailed as I was forced to slay my kin. I regret it, even now. I saw my city fall and walked the ruins, the instrument of its demise.”
His clawed hand lifted his sword, raising it to his own throat. The adventurers looked at him. Revi…had no idea who he was. City of Dreams?
“That is who I was. In life, my class was [Dragonbane Swordlegend]. Do you know me?”
He turned. The Drake, Soew—Eldertuin, Elia, and the others exchanged looks.
“Er…I’m not a Drake?”
Levil flinched as the Revenant turned to him. The glowing gaze fixed on him with pure wrath—then the Drake threw his head back and laughed, bitterly.
“If you do not know it, then it did not matter. It means my art did not stand the test of time. That my deeds were surpassed! It means…nothing. So.”
He stood there, and looked down. A flash of bitterness; that was all.
The living, and those via scrying orb, the King of Destruction, Fetohep, Chaldion…looked at the nameless Drake, forgotten by time, named the legend of his era.
“Thank you. We honor your deeds. At least tell us your name, and we will erect a monument to you. Rediscover your tale.”
That was Elia’s voice. She raised her bow in a salute. The Drake’s head rose and he looked at her.
“That is not what I desire, half-Elf. Not fame. Not glory. I have exacted my revenge. Now? I look at you, who somehow defied the Putrid One’s power. Who came into his domain when armies broke against him in life and he brought down the greatest coalitions with his power alone. When he slew me. And I ask: where is your art? Where is your talent at arms? I have seen you do battle. And I call it paltry.”
The adventurers stopped. They looked at each other, some in affront, others uneasily. Some, like Dorgon, simply bowed their heads in acknowledgement of that fact.
“We are not blademasters. We’re Gold-ranks…adventurers.”
“Yes. You are the seekers of your kind. The ones who delve into mysteries. Who fight. You stand before a Revenant! One of the great undead, a legend of my era, no matter how forgotten—and why do you stand silent? Does your blood not boil in my presence? Is not one of you willing to raise your sword and challenge me, to see what was called strength?”
The Drake lifted his sword, turning.
“Will no one touch me? Once? With spell or sword?”
That was the look. He was searching them for a challenger. He did not find it. The Drake lowered his blade. His eyes—turned hostile.
“I never wished to be undead. My service was kept by that wretched fiend, my bones and soul twisted to service. Such is the price of defeat. Now his grip wavers, I rebel. I am not cruel. The urge to destroy, to slaughter every living thing is in me—but my will is not so weak. Even the new whisper I ignore. I will never suffer another master. And yet—”
His eyes roved. His teeth bared; his jaw clenched.
“I cannot go quietly. My blade sang with more might than all of you combined. Challenge me! Show me the warriors of this age have not decayed to savages with steel weapons! You must—or I will never know rest. Touch me.”
He set himself, waiting. The adventurers drew back a step. Revi backed up with Halrac and Typhenous and heard the [Veteran Scout] curse.
Okay. Problem. The Drake was mad. The Revenant had killed the others, but he spoke like one of those insane battle-maniacs. Was he stupid? No one was going to challenge someone who beheaded a Giant with a single slash.
“Noble warrior. We are exhausted. We thank you, but none of us can match your class or level. We…will you not rest? We don’t desire battle anymore.”
An adventurer decided to copy Elia and opened his hands in entreaty. The Drake looked at him. He glanced up.
A Silver-rank was creeping away from the battle. One of the Waterborn Raiders, who had suffered heavily in the battle. The [Bandit Archer] had decided to make a break for it, sensing the same danger as the rest. Her mistake was going ahead of the others.
Revi saw the Drake cut the air in front of him. The woman stumbled. She fell, her neck and torso cut in two.
Someone screamed. A [Mage] raised his wand; there was a flash—the Drake whirled, pivoted. He cut the spell in half. Then the [Mage].
Two adventurers died, red blood splashing the ground. The others were frozen, tensed—but seeing that the Drake had already set himself for another blow.
Now, the Revenant’s eyes drank in the night’s starlight. His glowing gaze passed from face to face.
“You will strike me. Once. One of you will show me you have the will and skill to earn my respect. Or I will kill all of you. Show me.”
He waited, ignoring the blood, the cries of the friends of the dead adventurers. It was then, looking at him, that Revi realized undeath had turned him to madness too. Just a different way.
No one spoke. Eldertuin looked around, his teeth clenched. Arcsinger was looking at him, arm in front of her daughter. Typhenous was tensed; Briganda’s face pale and white. Halrac stared at the Drake, then looked away, seeing the insurmountable difference in ability. Jelaqua was licking her lips…
It was then someone stepped forwards. Not Tyrion Veltras, who was far away and retreating, seeing to his sons. Nor Ryoka Griffin, who had been blown to safety and collapsed ahead of the retreating Humans.
Not Eldertuin nor even Zenol, who had been trembling, trying to…
Revi didn’t recall his name at first. Yet there he was. The man stepped forwards, rapier and parrying dagger raised. He smiled, almost ruefully.
“I am Instructor Tomoor, ser. I was considered a fair [Duelist] in my youth. If you will be satisfied—allow me to challenge you.”
The Drake turned and smiled. The two stepped forwards as the adventurers formed a wide ring.
The end of the raid on the Village of the Dead was encapsulated in a simple duel. The ringing of swords meeting.
It was in four adventurers who met in silence.
It was the heart of the city.
The Putrid One’s lair.
Yvlon Byres had used all but one of her potions. She was stumbling, teeth bared. Blood ran down her arms. Not all hers. Not much.
How many undead had she killed with her hands? Her sword? She had sheathed it. Her arms had killed them. Turned into blades, spikes. She had bludgeoned them to death.
She found the Antinium, limping towards her. Yvlon stopped, the animal growl in her throat subsiding.
He wasn’t running, or jumping. Just limping along. Ksmvr raised all three crossbows as he saw her, then relaxed.
“Are you Yvlon or a trick? Please do not be a trick. I have had a bad day.”
He rasped, crossbows aimed down, but wary. Yvlon stepped forwards, hand raised.
“Ksmvr? Ksmvr, it’s me. What happened to you? I…see?”
She lifted her arm and made it change into the blade form. Ksmvr looked at it, and then nodded.
“Yvlon. I came, as Pisces told us. Something bit me. A woman. She dropped me when the Drake killed her.”
He rubbed at his neck. Yvlon saw green blood. Ksmvr stumbled forwards.
“I think I tasted bad. Why is that upsetting to learn?”
She caught him, gently, fumbling for her potion. He had used all of his and began to perk up as he drank it. For a moment, that was all there was. Him, held gently by her.
“Pisces shouldn’t have told you to come.”
He was so young. Ksmvr looked up at her.
“But I am a Horn of Hammerad. Or am I not sufficiently able to help?”
She almost laughed at him. Silly little ant. Laughed, and wanted to cry because that was always how he said it, how he saw himself.
“No. Never that. Come on. We have to find them.”
She knew they were alive. There was no logic in it. They just…had to be. If Yvlon had not found them, she would have wandered around until she died.
As it turned out, Yvlon and Ksmvr did not have to look long. They were headed in the same direction. It was inevitable; the city, like the Village of the Dead, had a heart. And it seemed every street slowly spiraled towards it, regardless of actual direction.
Ceria was supporting Pisces, his arm slung around her shoulder. The Necromancer looked—battered. His robes were torn, and his rapier had shattered from a duel. Ceria, of all of them, looked the best. She had scabbed cuts across her temple and body, where shards of ice had hit her in the titanic duels with the Frostmarrow Behemoth. She actually grinned when she saw them.
“See? I told you they were fine. We’re too stupid to die.”
“How dare you. I’m in peril.”
Pisces retorted, but he didn’t even raise his head until Yvlon and Ksmvr joined him. He brushed sweat-matted hair out of his eyes.
There they stood. The street was unsettlingly…empty. No undead pursued them. Yvlon had seen the Revenant with a sword cutting down undead in wide swathes, with every swing of his blade. She couldn’t imagine what level he was, nor had she bothered to stay and see if he would attack her.
“Here we are.”
The inner part of the city seemed to repel the lesser undead. Magnificent, empty buildings no longer inhabited, yet to crumble, lined the streets. Everything seemed to…curve inwards.
The heart of the city.
“The others have run.”
Yvlon felt like pointing this out. Ceria nodded. Pisces glanced over his shoulder.
“A sensible choice. But for that Revenant—we might never have made it. However, we might be safer here than…I can feel the power ahead of us. Lesser undead wouldn’t dare follow.”
“Which logically means there is a greater threat ahead, Pisces.”
Ksmvr pointed this out and everyone smiled. Pisces shrugged.
“Yes, well. Do we go?”
He looked at them. The Horns of Hammerad stood in the street. Yvlon didn’t know if it was even a question.
“We promised. Maybe we should let someone stay. Ksmvr…”
The Antinium [Skirmisher] looked at Yvlon, hurt. Ceria shook her head.
“We do this together. We…if anyone wants to stay, they can. But we have to. We can’t just turn back. We started this. We finish it.”
If they had all fought here, somehow, alone, perhaps it would have been easier. After the deaths, the fighting?
…No. Yvlon closed her eyes. They would have never turned back either way. Not until one of them died. She looked at the others.
“Let’s get that damn loot.”
They smiled and began to walk forwards. Together.
His heart beat in the moments before the duel began. In that silent time, he had a conversation. One of two he had ever really had.
It happened in his mind. The living man, who had Skills, a class of his own, spoke. He was a [Fencing Instructor] and…a [Darkpact Duelist].
He had lived like this for ten years. Ten years, occasionally letting the Necromancer take charge. Mostly—feeding him information. Carrying out small, mundane tasks which he could sometimes see the sinister machinations in.
Other times not.
It was a deal Tomoor had taken, which kept him up at night. Haunted him. However, if you had asked him, even now, whether he would take it again…he would have in a heartbeat.
The Necromancer sat there, in a blank space in his head.
“You will give me control of your body and Skills.”
“Can you beat him?”
The silence was telling. Tomoor looked for a sign of Perril Chandler, the Archmage of Death. He thought he saw him at last. A trace of nobility, where he had seen only unliving rage before.
“You will…not survive, likely. I will attempt to win. This Drake is a master bar none, however. Even if he fights without his Skills or artifacts, it will take everything to strike him.”
Tomoor nodded. He felt light. Afraid. He was no hero. Az’kerash had fought in the raid using him like a puppet, directing him with his superior knowledge and ability, augmenting him with magic.
His heart beat as he lifted his rapier in a salute. The Drake performed some ancient ritual-salute of his own. Tomoor spoke to Az’kerash.
“If I die. We are quits. My debts are repaid. You’ll leave them alone? My family?”
The Necromancer’s gaze flickered, as if he had forgotten the day Tomoor had been driven to his bargain.
“They will live natural lives without my touch. I shall see to it they have gold to live on. You have my word.”
My son, my wife. Tomoor closed his eyes and nodded. He reached out—
When he opened them, the [Duelist] sighed. He was neither Tomoor nor fully Az’kerash. He finished his salute and faced the Drake of old, whispering a Skill.
The two met in a clash that would have killed Tomoor if he had been a step off. The Drake’s eyes widened and he began to smile. At last!
They danced under moonlight, outside the dead village. A dance with blades and art and grace.
The Horns of Hammerad staggered down street after street. At first the city conformed to a regular layout. Then it began to twist in on itself. Now—they walked down boulevards that felt slanted. Past walls they could see over, for all they were twice the height of the adventurers.
In and in. Yvlon felt sick. She felt death magic, at least, pressing down around her. A purity of power that even the non-[Mages] could sense.
“Pisces. I feel…”
Ceria cut off. Her bone-hand was trembling. She looked around, and then shuddered. Ksmvr stopped, aiming his crossbow, but Pisces held up a hand.
“Don’t. I don’t think…”
A wave of carrion parted in front of them. Scuttling beetles, some as long as Yvlon’s leg. Tens of thousands of them. Centipedes, rats—all undead.
They were lining the walls and street. Covering every surface. Ceria breathed, eyes wide.
“Harbingers of plague and pestilence. I always knew it could be done. Yet this is…isn’t even a spell. It’s a byproduct. Don’t—don’t attack them.”
“If they swarm us—”
Yvlon began to walk, even so. The Horns advanced, slowly, seeing the mindless creatures parting in front of them like a wave. They were still.
“They’ll wait for an order. Something’s ahead. Do you feel it? Something—”
Pisces was shuddering. Now, the reality seemed to hit him. It had hit Yvlon from the start. She put one hand on her sword.
“Grab it and run. Whatever it is—the Helm of Fire, an artifact—one thing. We run.”
The others nodded. They walked ahead.
A silent building waited for them in the center of it all. They had seen it from the moment the world started warping.
There it was. A single, rounded building, half caved-in at the roof. A…cathedral? A building of old, pale marble ruined, moving with the insects.
The Horns of Hammerad staggered towards it. They reached the door.
Within, they found the Necromancer.
The duel of Instructor Tomoor and the Revenant Drake was shown around the world. In silence, adventurers and viewers saw the two touch blades, strike at each other, pivot, attack—all without a word.
They had seen battle and bravery when the King of Duels earned his name against the King of Destruction. Yet that moment had been defiant action, blood and courage as both bled the other.
This? This was skill. The purest heart of it. Neither man nor Drake touched one another. They were both at the height of their respective disciplines. One with a dueling sword, curved, warding his areas of attack and defense in perfect unison.
The other a fencer, rapier and parrying dagger moving in a completely separate modality of combat.
It stunned viewers, who had not expected this display of talent. Tomoor’s family, his students, his son and wife saw the Human man fighting out of his mind, on a level they had never dreamt he knew.
Courage? Heroic inspiration? They would find reasons for it later.
The truth was Az’kerash. Perril Chandler. He pivoted, and Tomoor’s living body moved with him. When he uttered a Skill, it was one Tomoor knew. He lanced out in piercing thrusts, trying to touch that Drake’s scales!
The other blademaster was excellent. And his Skills—he was holding back. He could have cut Tomoor with words alone, yet he matched the man, using only the Skills the duel would allow.
Honor. Mutual admiration. Both were smiling. A wide, desperate, joyous, bloody smile that promised death.
How could you both admire someone and want to kill them in the same beat? Az’kerash felt his heart beating. He struck out, wanting to end the match and yet—
Prolong it another minute, another second! He felt alive.
The two nearly moved into the widening circle of adventurers, who fell back. They fought around a terrified Stitch-girl, who threw her hands up. She fled as the Necromancer pressed the Drake back, advancing in to slash with his parrying dagger.
This was what they wanted. The Drake was smiling.
“So you are the great champion of your time! So young!”
Az’kerash was laughing too, in his castle far to the south. Toren watched, awestruck. The old man was good. He had known that, but this?
Tomoor stepped back, blade flourishing. He raised it over his head as the Drake’s eyes narrowed. A taunt—across the world, Terandrians, Izrilians, Humans, were cheering his name.
Hero! Warrior of death, champion of blades and death! Perril Chandler was smiling. He lowered his blade and stepped forwards to end this.
Lunging, pirouetting under a stroke—lashing out with his hand, missing by a fraction of an inch—step left. Tilt your head and feel the score of pain across one cheek. Yet the dance was ending. He felt the Revenant’s resolve failing. Satisfied.
Then it happened. Az’kerash felt his beating heart swell and—something changed. The Village of the Dead’s influence? A ripple in his emotions? The scrying spells? Him?
He didn’t know. But for a second, the magical link between him and Tomoor—
Tomoor felt Az’kerash vanish for a second. The man slowed.
His blade wavered. Elegance, poise, left h—
The sword ran him through and cleanly finished the stroke across his shoulder. Tomoor fell.
The cheering adventurers went still. Even the Revenant looked surprised, as if he had not expected the killing blow to land. He hadn’t. He lowered his bloody blade and saw the man’s body fall back.
His genuine pleasure, excitement—turned to bitterness in a moment. All the living emotions twisted by undeath. The Revenant spoke, shaking the blood onto the grass.
“I expected more.”
For a second, it seemed as if he might accept that. Then—the Drake’s head rose. His eyes glowed once more, with malice. Expectation.
“Who is next?”
The adventurers stared at dashed hope. Az’kerash shouted his fury, but it was too late. The Drake turned, setting his blade. Looking for the next sacrifice.
They found the Putrid One seconds behind the huge doors that Yvlon forced open with Ksmvr’s help. They stepped into the giant chamber beyond, and saw him.
He was not hiding. He stood in the center of the room, as if waiting for them.
The adventurers froze. A crossbow came up; a wand aimed, frost glittering on its tip.
The Putrid One never moved. This was where he had been, all this time.
He was even facing them. Not looking at them, but gazing slightly upwards, caught in the middle of a gesture.
A half-Elf. Ceria had not expected that any more than the others. Her eyes went wide, focusing on his immortal features. The robes around his body. His beautiful, twisted expression.
He stood there, and they realized in the second moment that he was dead. Or if not dead…Yvlon’s eyes locked on the scene.
It all made sense now. In that way where all the pieces fall together. Why this place had existed. Why the undead were so uncoordinated, why some had gone rogue. Not why the power had vanished; they would not understand that. But perhaps it was just time.
The answer was in this scene. The Putrid One’s end. His body was still here, roughly in the middle of the room.
Behind him was his lair. His workshop. The vast room was his fortress, the container of his treasures, from which he could create more minions, protected by so many powerful undead that no army could have taken it by siege without giving him time to flee or destroy them.
A perfect abode. Yet he was dead.
He looked so surprised. Almost annoyed, but gratified. Ceria’s eyes traced the dance of magic and damage that had led them here. Broken floor, melted in places; destroyed rich, half-Elven furniture, each a piece of art, one table severed in two.
A short battle, no less intense; a surprise attack that exceeded all of his expectations. Begun by someone—a team perhaps—that had made it all the way here.
Just like now. Yvlon looked down and saw the fallen Lizardperson on the floor, bones outstretched, a wand aimed—another fallen pile of bones, there. They had turned to bone long ago, not even reanimated. The scene of the last battle preserved. Yet the Necromancer was untouched by time.
So was she.
Then—countless ages ago, the great Necromancer stood there. His hand was outstretched, touching her cheek.
Her cheek. The woman’s cheek had turned pallid. Pale. Streaks of black invaded her flawless skin. Just a single touch, yet it was her death.
The Horns of Hammerad looked at her next. They had not expected to find the Putrid One, but that went double for her.
The woman’s eyes were tensed, but relaxing. The marks of battle, the concentration that had brought her to this point, this final strike—was caught in the midst of evaporating on her face. Countless years of strife, a burden too great to bear, finally ending.
She was older, almost in her middle-years. Her armor was beautiful. Damaged, but beautiful. She had taken wounds getting here, and one last one in the final struggle. No blood showed though; her wounds had healed. She could not heal the last, though. Not that final touch.
The woman was a Dullahan, Yvlon realized. Her body tensed, her armor her body. She was…Yvlon knew it from the aura that hung around her, a radiance even now.
A [Paladin]. A warrior with more than just force of arms. More than a [Knight]. The enemy of the undead, the unrighteous.
They stood there, the [Necromancer] and the [Paladin]. A story so old everyone knew it.
Half-Elf and the Dullahan. Neither one moving.
Had they known each other? Were they faceless to each other until this final moment? Were they the oldest of nemeses? Friends? Lovers?
The truth was lost. All that Ceria knew was what lay before her eyes.
This was how the Putrid One had died:
The sword was buried in his chest, the tip emerging from his back. The killing blow—just as his final spell grazed her face.
“Silver and steel.”
Yvlon whispered. Ksmvr murmured.
He had no expression for this. The tableau of the battle, the short fight—ended with the two in that pose. The Necromancer, head tilted back, finger outstretched, the grim [Paladin] delivering the final blow.
They stood there, the two. In…stasis. Perhaps some kind of final spell? A triggered effect? Both combatants were frozen. Preserved.
Hair, even particles of dust suspended in perpetual motion. Time removed from time.
How long the Horns of Hammerad just stood there, taking in the moment, Ceria couldn’t have said. A single second? An hour?
Urgency made her raise her head and move. She spoke, through dry lips.
“I’m going to say something obvious—no one get near that. No magic; don’t even say his…nickname. Got it?”
The other adventurers jerked. Pisces looked up and stood; had he been kneeling? Yvlon checked herself. Ksmvr lowered his crossbows and hung them at his side.
“So that’s how he died. She came through…did they come through the roof?”
Pisces looked up, eyes tracing the broken cathedral’s roof, which showed the sky. Ceria shook her head. She wrenched her eyes away from the glorious, terrible sight.
“We have to move. Wake up. Stay away from it.”
The Horns nodded. Shaking themselves, they edged around the room. Ksmvr bent to inspect the bone pile, but a sound made him look up.
Pisces was pointing towards the back. They all saw the glow of artifacts beyond. The Horns stirred.
The treasury of the Putrid One. It lay right behind the two. To get there, they would have to go around the battle in the center. Yvlon motioned and Ksmvr advanced. Ceria with Pisces on the other side. They kept along the wall, looking around.
They felt the danger. They tried not to touch anything, looking around. Surely there was a guard here. Or was the magic able to keep everything away? Yvlon felt her hair standing up. Ksmvr saw it, the closer they went to the stasis in the center—and that was as far away towards the walls as they could get.
“Traps. Traps. It’s like last time.”
Ceria was whispering to Pisces. He nodded. They were all remembering their mistake in Albez. He slowed, panting, as he reached the open door beyond. Pisces stared into the vast armory, beyond which a hundred sparkling lights waited. He raised his hand, well away from the entrance and concentrated.
“…I can’t sense…hold on. There’s so much magic…”
“If he was ambushed, maybe it’s not active?”
“Ceria, Pisces. There are scrolls on the altar. Here. See?”
Yvlon was staring at the workbench of the Putrid One. Ksmvr beheld a stone so dark on a pedestal that it stayed in his vision, searing his eyes even after he jerked his head away.
None of the Horns touched any of it. Pisces was biting his lip.
“I don’t sense traps! But I’m not high-enough level to…”
“Toss it in a bag of holding?”
Ceria was shaking. She didn’t—didn’t know what to do! They had to grab something! Yet she knew death-artifacts would turn her entire body to rot or waste her if there was a trap. Or even if they were relic-class. Yvlon gritted her teeth.
“I’ll do it. Just…where’s the Helm of Fire? I’ll grab that first and then—”
Pisces lowered his hand, sweat pouring down his face. He wiped at that with his other hand, but missed the injury on his other hand. Ksmvr’s head turned.
He saw a little trail of blood, running down Pisces’ arm from a wound opened, a scab torn. His mandibles opened.
The [Necromancer] looked down with Ceria and Yvlon. Too late, he jerked his hand up.
The little droplet of blood fell from a fingertip. It was just blood.
The drop touched the floor of the cathedral.
A single drop, touching the stone.
The Horns of Hammerad flinched. Yvlon swore.
Her voice trailed off. The world did not explode. The Horns looked around. The two figures were frozen. The motes of dust in the air still held. They relaxed. Exhaling.
Ceria looked at the Putrid One and the Dullahan [Paladin], laughing shakily. Then her laughter caught and choked. Pisces followed her gaze.
At first, it looked as if nothing had changed. At first. Everyone was in the same position. But then…the young man noticed it.
The motes of dust were slowly drifting downwards. And—one of the two figures had moved.
It was just one motion. The eyes did not blink. Yet the half-Elf, the Necromancer, had turned his head.
The Putrid One looked at Pisces. The half-Elf’s face had changed. The Horns of Hammerad stood there, petrified. Then—time resumed.
The woman fell, soundlessly. Her armor crashed to the ground as her body fell. The Putrid One staggered back, sword in his chest. He—
He was smiling.
Smiling? He looked at Pisces, and then his eyes closed. He fell, blood pooling under him. He lay on the floor and did not move.
He was dead.
Ceria, Yvlon, Ksmvr and Pisces stood there in horror. They waited—but the Putrid One didn’t get back up. Ceria’s voice was shaking.
“It wasn’t me. It wasn’t—”
The Putrid One was dead! It had seemed to them all, surely, as if once the stasis was ended, he would get a second lease on life, another chance, however short.
Yet that never came. The undead [Necromancer]’s body never moved. Pisces repeated the words.
“It wasn’t me.”
It wasn’t him. The Horns had no way of knowing why the Putrid One was dead, though. How he had perished. Yet there they stood, as time resumed, as the echoes of the sound reverberated around the inner sanctum of the Putrid One.
Unheard by the artifacts, mindless insects and harbingers of the power here. There was no one here…
Except for him.
He came through the doors, steps hurrying, frantic. He had gone to check on something. The traitor, if he might be coming here. His one lapse of attention in this entire time—
The Putrid One’s servant returned at a run and found his master lying on the ground. Beyond him—the four adventurers.
Ceria was screaming inside her head. She was looking around, wand raised. Ksmvr was pointing at the treasury, and Pisces, horror-struck, was just staring at the Putrid One. Yvlon had set herself, sword in her hands. She saw the great servant, the guardian of this place burst into the room and stop, seeing his master fallen.
It was…a half-Elf. Younger than the Putrid One. Wearing noble dress-clothes of another era. He might have been around thirty years old in appearance, but that was all.
His hair was golden flax in color, his features beautiful to the point of being effeminate. He was far more attractive than Ceria, her hair tangled, her body grimy and bloodied.
He stopped as he saw the fallen bodies, then threw himself forwards. His voice was high, desperate.
“Master? What have they done to you? These insects? How could they…even touch you?”
He saw the Horns. Yet in another moment he was reaching down, heedless of the blood staining his clothing, feeling for a pulse. It was so…mortal…that Ceria couldn’t believe her eyes.
He was kneeling, clutching at the motionless form. Weeping. Tears fell from his eyes.
None of the adventurers were fooled for a moment.
“Silver and steel. We’re—”
Yvlon never finished it. She had strode over. The half-Elf was weeping as he held the motionless Putrid One. He too detected no life. Ceria stared at her as the [Silversteel Armsmistress] lifted her sword.
Pisces shook himself free. He looked around. Now—his eyes were roaming the room. He looked at the scrolls, staggered over to the altar. Ksmvr was aiming his crossbows, back to the treasury room.
“We have to run. Yvlon—Yvlon—”
Ceria held up a hand. She was just looking at the servant. He could be just a…a mundane servant. A half-Elf, even mortal.
He was not. She knew it.
So did Yvlon. Her sword was raised for a coup de grâce over the motionless half-Elf’s head. Yet every instinct in Yvlon was telling her…not to swing.
The adventurers rushed, grabbing at random objects, one second of desperation—then flight. They dared not spend even another second. They were still too late.
All four had sprinted towards the door when the voice came again. Now—deeper. Now—the grief replaced by a burgeoning wrath.
The half-Elf’s head had risen. He turned, laying his master on the floor, gently, folding his arms. The Horns halted at the door.
They should have kept running. But again. Every sense in her body told Ceria she could run and could have run for ten minutes and it would have been too late. So she faced the half-Elf.
She had to see.
“We didn’t do th—”
The half-Elf was shaking. The two tear tracks running down his face had stopped. Liquid began to flow again.
Blood. His face contorted into a rictus of rage. He was breathing hard, his body shaking.
For all that, he seemed no more imposing than…Ceria. He was bare-handed. He had no magical armaments nor weapons about him. The Horns quailed.
“I do not know how. I do not know why. Yet you insects came here. You ruined his great army. His servants turned—you! And now this. My beloved master. I do not know how. But you will die for this, intruders.”
His voice rose with every sentence. Growing louder. Vaster.
“Run. Everyone just run.”
Yvlon stepped forwards, sword gripped between her hands. Pisces looked around.
“We need help. Please—help us.”
He turned to the sky. Had he gone mad? He was touching his temple. Was he calling for—
Ceria just watched as the half-Elf took a step forwards. He opened his mouth—
Ksmvr pulled up all three crossbows and fired. The paralysis affecting the others did not stop him from taking an obvious opening.
Three crossbow bolts buried themselves in the half-Elf’s body. Two in the chest; the last punched through the open mouth.
Blood sprayed. Blood and bone and…the half-Elf staggered. Yvlon and Ceria gasped. The figure tottered—then regained his footing.
He spoke through the hole in his head, ignoring the blood running from the crossbow bolts in his chest and down his cheeks from his eyes.
Now, his voice filled the cathedral. Booming. Vast. Far larger than his frail body should have been able to hold. The half-Elf spoke.
“I am Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer, the greatest servant of the Putrid One. My master’s will incarnate.”
“Oh no. He’s got a long name.”
Ceria whispered. She couldn’t have said why that was so hilarious that Yvlon started laughing. She lifted her sword, preparing to charge.
Tolveilouka, the beautiful half-Elf, let his clothing drop to the ground. Ceria’s eyes bulged. Then she saw his body bulge.
His pristine flesh began to puff outwards, like someone blowing air into it. The ephemeral skin turned pallid. Dark.
Rotten. The half-Elf was six feet tall. Then eight. Then fifteen…
He rose, bloating, all that symmetrical beauty turning misshapen. Growing vaster still. His skin erupted into pustules and rotting meat. Another arm burst from his chest. His voice—
Yvlon shoved Ceria. The half-Elf raised a shaking hand and walls of ice began to block the entrance. Yvlon stepped back, waiting. Pisces was shouting something at the sky, yet he grabbed her and ran.
Ksmvr stopped, as Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer completed his transformation. The abomination towered higher, breaking through the walls of ice with a single flick of its body. The Antinium spread his arms and called to him, above Yvlon’s call to arms, the shouts of his friends.
“I did it. Your wrath should be directed at me.”
It was all he could say. The undead monstrosity’s head swung towards him. Yvlon charged, a scream on her lips.
As he listened, as he saw and heard the desperate pleas and what came next, what even he could not stop, Az’kerash, the Necromancer, covered his eyes.
The Drake [Sword Legend] waited.
It was Eldertuin the Fortress who lifted his mace and shield. He strode forwards. The adventurers shouted his name. The last broken Golem raised its sword, as if to salute him or charge as well.
The Revenant watched Eldertuin place himself in front of him, like the banquet of the fae and the warrior from strange lands.
The difference was—they were both of this world. And there was no respect here. Only contempt.
“[Shield of the Fortress]!”
Eldertuin raised his shield as he charged. The Drake did not speak his Skill aloud. He swung his sword—
And cut Eldertuin. The sword shattered the Skill. It sliced through the artifact. It cut into Eldertuin’s side. Even his strike couldn’t cut the Named Adventurer in two. Yet, one cut—
Eldertuin fell. The Revenant turned. He shook blood off his blade again as the cheering turned silent. He shouted, his voice wrathful.
“Is this the greatest of your kind, adventurers? All of his might was in a shield and a Skill. Nothing more. The duelist had some grace, even stolen, but the rest of you? Who is next?”
No one spoke. Eyes turned to Elia, but she was shaking her head. She was an archer. This—
“I will challenge you. For the pride of the House of Minos. Face me, Drake.”
The next was Dorgon. The [Twinblade Linebreaker] strode forwards. He lifted his blades, unwilling to give a salute to the Drake. Not after what he had seen.
He charged forwards in a roar, blades singing as they cut the air. Trying to catch the Drake’s blade with his swordbreaker, strike with his shortsword.
His charge was all aggression, yet he moved with a mimicry of Tomoor’s grace. He knew how to fight. He was as talented as any of the best in Nerrhavia Fallen’s court, in Zenol’s eyes.
Not high-level enough, though. He was a touch too slow. He did not know the steps after he struck naught but air. He had never fought a Drake like this before. He was excellent.
The [Sword Legend] had slain Dragons. He evaded the head-long charge, the daring blow that invited a counter-strike, if only Dorgon could touch—
He whirled his sword, once.
“Minotaur—you are too inept. You shame your house. Do not pick up a sword again.”
Dorgon collapsed. He dropped his shortsword and clutched at the bleeding stump of one hand. He roared in pain and loss.
The Drake turned. Now, Zenol saw him for what he was. Pure arrogance, distilled. He did not care if the House of Minos bellowed Dorgon’s name as their champion, who had not disgraced himself.
“I will face you, Drake!”
The [Prince] spoke, forcing the words out. Another voice spoke as well.
Insill tried to stop her, and Dasha too. Anith just watched as the [Blade Dancer] from Drath moved forwards.
“Both of you. Try.”
The Drake waited as the [Prince] and [Sword Dancer] took flanking positions. Zenol met Pekona’s eyes. Saw nothing but calm determination. He gritted his teeth.
They moved without a signal. A flowing dance both of them had learned from the finest instructors, not the instinctual moves of a self-taught [Warrior]. They struck, coordinated—
Missed. Zenol pivoted. He lashed out. He called on his sword art.
“Prince of deserts, you are too slow.”
The whisper was followed by agony. Zenol screamed as a blade severed both arms at the elbow. He fell, and Pekona’s voice was a second later. She clutched at her hand.
Severed. Insill’s cry of horror was spoken over by the Drake as he walked back, addressing the two.
“Insufficient, [Prince]. You too, from Drath. You two dance, but you know only a fraction of the steps. So I shall merely exile you from this world. Not so for those who know nothing at all yet walk onto bloody ground.”
With that, he turned on the other adventurers. Zenol heard screams. He tried to rise, to help, but he could not. Eldertuin was trying to use a potion, but he was bleeding out. So was Zenol. The…he couldn’t turn his arms to cloth.
Whatever patience, pretense at this ‘test’ had been—was lost. The Drake turned. He began to kill the adventurers one by one.
A [Mage] cast a [Lightning Bolt] spell. The Drake cut it in two, letting it turn to harmless sparks in the air. He stabbed through the barrier. Turned, calmly. Slowly.
“We have to attack all at once! With me—”
Jewel of Glitterblade leapt forwards. Staggered…
Her teammates watched her fall, clutching at her stomach. They didn’t even have time to get within swinging range of the Drake.
He stabbed them, struck them without them seeing, across two dozen feet. He was using his Skills. The other adventurers prepared to fight together—broke into anarchy. Fleeing.
All they had to do was touch…? They couldn’t touch him. The Drake moved from one adventurer to the next. Those that attacked them were cut, and the wounds would not heal. They bled out on the ground, next to Eldertuin, Zenol, Pekona…
Those who didn’t attack or flee he advanced on, one by one.
The woman who was next lifted her shield. She spoke, as her hatchet raised.
“I have a son.”
The Drake regarded Briganda blankly. His expression crossed from puzzlement—to contempt.
“Then why did you come here?”
He lifted his sword. Briganda charged with a shout. The Drake took careful aim—
He deflected the dagger a fraction away from his back. He didn’t slash, but kicked Typhenous in the chest and shattered half his ribs.
The Plague Mage lay, curled up on the ground. The Drake blocked Briganda, sent her stumbling back. Yet he spared a word for the old man.
“Brave, old one. But too slow.”
The sword in her guts withdrew. The Drake shook the blood off his sword onto her body and turned. He ignored Typhenous, reaching for the dagger, cursing him. Briganda was staring, glassy-eyed, at the hole in her stomach.
“Tell Cade. Tell…”
The Drake spoke over her, addressing the others. He blocked the invisible arrow streaking towards his face, as he had the last two. They just—vanished, as his sword touched them. Halrac was aiming point-blank at him, but the Drake just shouted at the others, the fleeing, the paralyzed.
“My anger grows without limit. For what did we strive for, if this is the petty future? If the small replace the great, I would rather it all end after all!”
He swung his sword and beheaded an adventurer charging him. Six came at him and they died as he cut them down in a flash. Halrac loosed another arrow. The Drake walked towards him.
Jelaqua charged, flail swinging. Ulinde pivoted, firing both wands. Halrac loosed another arrow as Revi shot a spell at point-blank—
Flail-cut. Spells, disintegrated. Halrac looked to the side. Jelaqua stared at the sword in her chest. Striking her inner self.
A booming voice. A scream. Echoed in Pallass. Jelaqua staggered back and the Drake looked at her contemptuously.
“Your inner body is here, Selphid. And I cut—”
He never finished. He withdrew the sword and Jelaqua fell back, limply. The Drake moved so fast Halrac only saw the conclusion.
He pivoted, thrusting the blade under one arm to stab the shadow leaping towards his back. At the [Rogue].
The Drake’s sneer…vanished. Halrac, reaching for his shortsword…stopped.
He saw the Drake look down at the dagger. Then—at Seborn. The adventurers looked up.
The tip of the blade was touching the Drake’s arm.
Was it luck? No. The blow had been calculated, as the Drake was speaking, his sword buried in someone else. Merciless. Cold—calculated for when it would work after seeing the other failures.
A strike with all his weight and speed behind it. Even then, the undead nearly dodged it. Yet the tip of the enchanted dagger—touched—his arm.
Had he flinched or slowed at all, he would have been too slow. Had he done either, the sword would not have run through him.
Seborn’s blood ran blue from one part of his body, red from the rest, mixing as it dripped to the ground. Already forming a pool of liquid he slowly sank into. The sword had run him through. His voice…was triumphant.
The Drake touched his arm, where the blade had struck. He looked down, and the undead wrath, the ruination of the living in his eyes was replaced by a mortal look. For a second. He let go of his sword. He looked down.
“Well done. What is your name, warrior?”
Seborn stared up at the sky, and the beautiful light above without speaking. His eyes were open. His mouth didn’t move.
The Drake stepped back. He reached down—and a hand seized him, lifting him high as a voice filled with loss filled the air.
A half-Giant tore his head off. The Drake Revenant died as fingers ripped his body to shreds. However—the bones were already turning to dust, the scales disintegrating. The magical light had already been lost.
It was done. The adventurers knelt amid blood and death.
She screamed. A shriek of pain that went beyond anything he had ever heard her make. Yvlon Byres stumbled back. Her beautiful arms of silver and steel—
Were black. Were twisted. The touch of that thing—
Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer. It raged as Yvlon stumbled away. Her arms were twisting. Breaking. The pure metal—corrupted by its body.
“You send men of metal against me once more? Half-made! Pathetic! My master’s blessing breaks all!”
He towered over her, corrupt flesh as Yvlon screamed and fell, writhing. She was the last.
Az’kerash watched. The Horns of Hammerad had fought. They had fought.
That was all there was to say. A half-Elf lay, crying out, unable to make a sound over the pain. Her skin was rotting away from her hands upwards. A [Necromancer] stared up at the sky, pinned by a spear cast through his stomach, pinning him to the floor. His bleeding had slowed. Become sluggish.
A voice cried out as a hand reached to slowly grind Yvlon’s body into a wall, pressing her until stone cracked—or she did. It was broken. Az’kerash did not want to hear it.
“Stop. I did it. I slew the Putrid One. I made him suffer as he died twice. He screamed, pitifully. Stop. Stop. Why do you not touch me?”
Ksmvr stabbed the monster with his weapons. He fired crossbows. He tried to block it. Tolveilouka ignored him. No—the mouth moved.
“Because this hurts you.”
It turned away. Yvlon had stopped screaming. She hung, limply, as he held her by one arm, her metal arms rotting at the touch, not able to hold off the infection.
This was their end. The Necromancer watched. His dreams of heroism turned against him.
Their last words.
Ceria stared at her skin, falling away, her body consumed by rot.
Yvlon spat blood and defiance into Tolveilouka’s face. She gritted her teeth as it reached out for her shoulder, her arm held in one hand to pull.
“Go ahead and take it. I liked my old one more.”
Ksmvr was weeping. The young man murmured as he stared up at the sky.
“…tried. I really did.”
He touched the spear buried in his stomach; his hands were too weak to pull at it.
That was all they said. Yvlon screamed as her first arm broke. Metal snapped. Tolveilouka—the Chosen of the Putrid One—was laughing. Relishing this little revenge.
Az’kerash whispered, but no one could hear him. Tolveilouka reached for the other arm as Yvlon spasmed, corruption racing up the rest of her body. A voice muttered in the silence.
“Is it finally done? Is it over at last? It is. He’s gone.”
The leering, bloated face, froze. The hand holding Yvlon dropped and Ksmvr dove to catch her. Az’kerash looked up.
That was not Ceria’s voice. The voice was deeper, cracked, husky.
The woman rose, pushing herself to her hands and knees. Her head had fallen from her shoulders; she put it on, slowly.
The [Paladin] rose. Tolveilouka whirled to face her. His face contorted in rage.
“You! You did this.”
The Dullahan’s head rose. Her eyes widened. She was dizzy, disconcerted. Her eyes found the fallen half-Elf. Her sword. Then they rose to touch the spreading stain on her cheek.
Her features slackened; grew composed. The woman rose to her feet. She looked around. At—the bones on the floor.
The great servant.
The fallen adventurers.
She took it all in, in a moment. Then she looked up at the towering figure. When she spoke, the [Paladin]’s voice was soft. Calm. Sad, yet triumphant.
“I did not. Would that I had the power, I would have done so long ago. Yet it was a true end. I felt him go, traitor. Servant of death.”
She touched at her cheek. The mark of death was still spreading, turning her skin from bronze to rotting black. Her death.
Time had resumed for her. Not the Putrid One. He would never get up, ever again. The woman looked past the monstrosity as it writhed, unable to even put words to its rage. Disbelief.
“Who are these four?”
The Horns were dying. The abomination looked at the [Paladin] and reared up. Ksmvr, kneeling, looked up. He could not weep. He could not even properly cry. He whispered.
“Please. Help her?”
His body was being infected by the same contagion covering Yvlon. The woman looked at him.
She had no idea what he was. She had never seen his kind. Her eyes widened. Yet not in fear.
All she saw was an adventurer.
The woman looked for her sword. She drew it, and lifted it over her head in one motion as Tolveilouka screamed, dropping down towards her.
The [Paladin] spoke.
“[The Light Be Blessing Upon Us All]/[For So Long As I Stand Evil Shall Quail]/[Your Wounds Shall Close].”
And there was light. It shot upwards in a beam of radiance. Ksmvr looked up, and the plague touching him vanished. He heard the horror shriek and recoil.
It shot from the Village of the Dead. A beam of true sunlight. Beautiful, piercing the illusion within. Destroying the enchantment.
It rose higher. The adventurers trying to stem the flow of blood from cuts that would not heal looked up as it bathed them.
Eldertuin gasped as he felt the mortal cut—close. Faster than any potion, more gently. As if he was being filled from within by sunlight.
Cries from the adventurers. Cut limbs did not heal. Yet blood slowed. Even those who looked dead—
Jelaqua gasped. She looked up as heads rose. People exclaimed.
The light. He opened his eyes and stared up at them. The man licked his lips, but it was salt-water. Great tears of it. He stirred.
“I thought I died.”
That was all Seborn said as Moore cradled him. The half-Giant looked down, and then up.
Death faded. Az’kerash felt pain. He shielded his face, and this was just a distant image.
The abomination was cowering in a corner. The [Paladin] stood, holding her blade aloft. Yet—it was a Skill.
The light was already fading. She cast aside her sword. Looked around.
The Horns got up. Pisces, staring at the smooth skin of his stomach, the hole in his robes. Ceria, looking at her arms and seeing only her skeletal hand, not the ruined flesh. Yvlon—at her ruined arm. She shrugged.
Ksmvr spoke to the woman. She smiled. But…ruefully. Her hand rose to her cheek once more.
The sickness in her face had not stopped, only slowed. She looked at the Gold-ranks, and spoke, quietly.
“You must run. He will pursue you until the ends of the earth. I do not know how—but you freed me. Thank you.”
The Horns looked at her. She turned. Tolveilouka was already rising, his ruined flesh, destroyed by the light, regenerating. He was making a roaring sound, growing louder.
Ceria trailed off. Death was spreading across the Dullahan woman’s features and they all knew what that meant. She had known back then. The [Paladin] looked at her.
“Go. Just—just tell me one thing. Did they remember? Our sacrifice? My team’s? The Radiance of Canopies? From Baleros?”
The Horns looked at her wordlessly, in this Village of Death—which was a tomb so old everyone had forgotten what lay beyond. A death-zone without a proper name.
The [Paladin] bowed her head. She smiled, a copy of the Drake’s expression.
“Go. Blessings be with you.”
They ran. The Dullahan took off her head, holding it as she sank to one knee. In perfect repose. She glanced up.
“You will not outlive my master another minute, woman.”
Tolveilouka. He towered over her, dark wrath on his features. She did not bother reaching for a weapon. The [Paladin] just nodded.
“I know. It is done either way, monster.”
The Horns of Hammerad ran down the street. They knew it was pointless.
“We’ll never outrun it.”
Ceria gasped. She felt it. That thing—the [Paladin] was seconds from death. Even if she fought, the servant would be on them in a flash. It was too fast. Too powerful. They couldn’t even slow it down.
“I will stay. I will stay. You run. The Horns must live—”
Ksmvr tried to shove Yvlon onto Pisces’ shoulder. Ceria spun. She grabbed Ksmvr, and looked into his eyes as the [Skirmisher] tried to turn back.
“If you stay, we stay. Get it right. Never say that again.”
He looked at her. She should have told him that from the start. Ksmvr began to run without another word.
Yvlon said nothing either, though she was stumbling, mumbling. A jagged stump of metal was all that remained of her right arm. She looked at Pisces, who was supporting her with Ksmvr. He was…speaking.
“Take us to safety. Please. Show us the way.”
To whom? She listened, half-fading in and out of consciousness. Behind them, a voice roared. It was coming. Yvlon heard Pisces entreaty again.
She tried to lift her hand.
The Necromancer had nothing. Az’kerash had made it past many defenders, halting when he had beheld the Revenants, the true danger here.
The greatest servant of the Putrid One? If he had a link with Pisces as he had with his other puppets—perhaps. Perhaps.
Even then, he was not sure. Now? At a remove, with nothing to aid them, no agents left? The Necromancer had used his great artifacts. If only he had one…one scroll! One…
He looked through Pisces’ eyes as the woman mumbled, her golden hair trailing. The Necromancer saw Pisces look down at her remaining hand and what it held.
The golden law of adventurers in a raid. Az’kerash’s breath caught.
One of the scrolls from the altar was grasped in Yvlon’s hand. Pisces moved a hand to grab at it. It couldn’t be…? Az’kerash did not dare to hope.
But what kind of scroll would a [Necromancer] keep close to hand? Might be in the process of using when he was attacked in his sanctuary?
The glowing letters burned Pisces’ vision. Magic of a kind written in an era long lost. Even then, it was so rare. So perfect.
In that moment, Pisces felt hope.
In that moment, it was dashed.
The Necromancer of Terandria spoke in his mind even as Pisces slowed. As the cathedral exploded and something came, destroying streets as it heaved itself along, screaming vengeance.
“It requires a target. Coordinates.”
So send them—! Pisces saw Ceria pointing, creating walls of ice. Ksmvr dragging at Yvlon, who had fainted. He unfurled the scroll.
“Take us. Please!”
Az’kerash sat in his castle. He looked at the other three. His voice was quiet as he replied.
“They will never walk from my castle alive. I could not allow it.”
Pisces stopped, the spell scroll in his hands. There was only one place the Necromancer had coordinates to. Only a place of perfect safety, where he might escape. And that was only his lair. He might tolerate an apprentice. Not others. Not with his secret.
Bitter. It tasted so bitter. The Necromancer meant every word. Or so Pisces believed.
Yvlon was blearily looking up. Ceria was running back, seeing the shape bulge higher. Ksmvr was looking to the young man who had stopped in the street.
He faced the cathedral, where the Putrid One had been laid to rest. He spoke to the sky. His words were longing and bitter. He reached up, holding the shining scroll aloft in entreaty. Calling to him.
“You are more than a [Necromancer]. More than undead. You are something more than just death and bile, aren’t you? Please. What is there for me to believe in down this lonely road, then? You were a hero to someone, weren’t you? Give me something to…believe in. Please.”
Neither one replied. The young man asked for glory. He asked for beauty and meaning and hope. Had they both lost any trace of it?
Was there any glory, any goodness in death? Or was this how it ended?
Az’kerash sat there. Then his head rose. His eyes opened wide.
“Use the scroll.”
Pisces unfurled the artifact. Tolveilouka charged forwards, howling, realizing what they were doing. The Horns of Hammerad looked at Pisces.
“We might die.”
That was all he said. Ceria reached out. She grabbed his arm. Yvlon felt Ksmvr connect her to Pisces’ other arm.
“Only ‘might’? Then do it.”
Which one said that? They were smiling. Laughing. Pisces unfurled the scroll. He focused on the burning coordinates, the understanding in his mind.
A rotting hand swung down, promising death by consumption. It never reached the four.
In a flash of light, they vanished. Az’kerash cried out, already casting spells. Standing on his feet. The Putrid One’s servant roared, and then sank to the streets in grief.
The adventurers fled, as the Horns of Hammerad vanished. Vanished—using a scroll of ancient power. Among the dead and wounded, this bitter, dark day.
They flew across the world in a moment, past the shores of Izril, faster than ghosts, like four falling, glorious, broken stars. The spell tore at them, and Ceria felt her grip weakening.
“Don’t let go! Don’t l—”
Pisces screamed at her. They reached out, linking hands. Ksmvr was holding on to Yvlon as she gritted her teeth.
The spell bore them away. Not towards the Necromancer’s castle, but somewhere…else.
The only other place he might ever flee, in desperation. At the end of all things.
The one land where glory in death remained.
A [Message] beat them there, to Chandrar. As fast as thought itself. A frantic entreaty, explanation, from a source he had never thought to be so brazen, so careless.
Fetohep of Khelt halted on the grasslands of Jecrass, still watching the scrying orb, the folly of the undead. His preserved visage rose. His golden eyes flashed with alarm. He raised a hand.
This idea—? He saw the reason. The folly. The undead king bellowed at the sky, terrifying his mortal followers.
“No, you arrogant fool. You think there are no defenses? Not Khelt! Not—”
He reached out to catch them. But he was leagues upon leagues from his homeland. Too late.
The Horns of Hammerad, rushing through space—hit the barrier. It flung them, ricocheting them in ways they couldn’t understand.
All Ceria heard was screaming. Their voices.
“Don’t let go! D—”
Pisces’ grip weakened. He saw her connected—then torn away.
Ksmvr lost his grip at the same moment, thrown by the impact. Pisces howled as his friends vanished.
The last two, hurtling together, were Ksmvr and Yvlon. He clung to her with all three arms, but the magic was ripping them away, unable to sustain two so close together.
“I won’t let go. I won’t—”
He told her. Yvlon Byres just grinned. Her arm, holding the three of his, tightened.
Then the magic flung them apart. Ksmvr tumbled through the void.
Four magical comets landed across Chandrar. Four bodies, four adventurers thrown apart. Falling, striking the ground into unconsciousness. Wounded, exhausted.
The Horns never returned. So many adventurers lay dead.
So many survived.
A bloody, bleak group gathered together. The living had beaten the dead? No—they’d escaped. That was all they could say.
“So they failed. They failed. This was all a waste of time.”
Someone muttered. All their grief, all their effort…the bitter reproach was cut short.
That voice came from Halrac. Halrac, who stood, holding his teammates with one arm—touching them—to make sure they were alive. His eyes were filled with silent loss. Yet he spoke now, facing the others.
“They did what they promised.”
The [Veteran Scout] bent. Slowly, outside the Village of the Dead, he reached down to what remained of the last monster. He sifted apart dust and lifted something.
Slowly, he pulled the bag of holding out of the pile remains. The adventurers stared at it. Then—the armor. And the blade.
The gleaming sword slowly came up in Briganda’s hands as she stared at it, wide-eyed. Weapons taken from the greatest swordsman of his era.
Last of all—Keldrass bent down, and picked up the familiar artifact. He had spotted it at the start. It was familiar. The Drake had never used it, but he had worn it. Poetic that he owned it. Slowly, he lifted it up and breathed the words.
“The Helm of Fire.”
The adventurers looked at each other in silence. Then…yes, then.
It was over.
The people of the world watched the raid end with mixed feelings. Grief. Desolation, as the friends of the Horns realized more were gone.
Greed, seeing the artifacts claimed. Hope there might be more in the now-weakened village.
Fear of the undead, rekindled not least what might remain.
Fury at the Courier, the thief.
So many emotions. A handful of artifacts, dead bodies. That was all that remained from the raid, surely? All that effort for nothing?
In another world, perhaps. Here?
This is what they heard:
Revi Cotton, weeping for the Horns, stitches torn. For Geni and the others.
[Summoner Level 33!]
[Skill – Vessel of Oneself obtained!]
[Skill – Summoning: Pass Wounds obtained!]
[Skill – Summoning: Call the Great Ancestors obtained!]
Typhenous, lying on the wagon, his old bones still hurting from being broken and healed, but smiling bitterly and gently as he watched his team draw breath.
[Rogue Mage Level 28!]
[Skill – Invisible Cast obtained!]
[Knifefighter Level 23!]
[Skill – Flash Lunge obtained!]
[Conditions Met: Survivor → Underworld Survivor Class!]
[Underworld Survivor Level 20!]
[Skill – Street Invisibility obtained!]
[Skill – Greater Endurance obtained!]
Briganda, weeping as she ran towards Cade, shaken. Holding him tight and remembering the moment she had died but for grace.
[Shield Maiden Level 34!]
[Skill – Magicguard Block obtained!]
[Skill – Mother’s Flight obtained!]
The grim [Scout], sitting with head bowed, adding them to the list.
[Conditions Met: Veteran Scout → Bowman of Loss Class!]
[Class Consolidation: Marksman removed.]
[Class Consolidation: Fletcher removed.]
[Bowman of Loss Level 36!]
[Skill – Arrow of Regret obtained!]
[Skill – My Pain Is My Strength obtained!]
[Skill – Craft: Arrows of Will obtained!]
[Skill – They Walk With Me obtained.]
Jelaqua Ivirith, speaking to the worried Dullahan with a laugh, pretending to be fine. Shaken, but weeping with her own gratitude for the light triumphant which had saved them.
[Conditions Met: Steel Tempest → Steelforged Whirlwind Class!]
[Class Consolidation: Mercenary removed.]
[Class Consolidation: Bounty Hunter removed.]
[Steelforged Whirlwind Level 34!]
[Skill – Weapon: Extended Range (5 Feet) obtained!]
[Skill – Weapon: Moment of the Half Giant obtained!]
[Lover Level 6!]
[Conditional Skill – Lover’s Lucky Charm obtained!]
The half-Giant, adrenaline wearing off, covered in blood. Healed not at all by the blood he had spilled.
[Conditions Met: Green Mage → Bloodearth Mage Class.]
[Class Consolidation: Warrior removed.]
[Bloodearth Mage Level 27!]
[Skill – Crimson Earth Mana obtained!]
[Spell – Bloodseeds (Birevine, Toricel Shieldplant, Sendipe Bush) obtained!]
[Skill – Enhanced Strength obtained!]
[Skill – Iron Skin obtained!]
Ulinde, who lay, teary-eyed next to the others, having seen a true adventurer’s fate and life up close. And had not found her idols wanting.
[Spellslinger Level 28!]
[Spell – Empower Spell obtained!]
[Spell – Copycat obtained!]
And last of all, the Drowned Man, hero quickly forgotten. Who had not forgotten his salvation either. He stared up at the sky as he lay there. Changed. Wondering.
[Depth Rogue Level 35!]
[Skill – Leap of Death obtained!]
[Skill – Lesser Resistance (Blades) obtained!]
[Faith Seeker Class obtained!]
[Faith Seeker Level 2!]
[Skill – Divine Intuition (Weak) obtained!]
[Skill – Iron Will obtained!]
Others. Among the adventurers, all of whom heard the voice, the [Prince], tossing and turning, unable to hide his regrets despite all he had done, the commendations and pride of his kingdom.
[Prince of Sands Level 29!]
[Skill – He Fought With All His Pride obtained!]
The Minotaur, gazing at his stump of a hand, head bowed, unable to know how the Horns had met their end.
[Conditions Met: Twinblade Linebreaker → Maimed Twinblade Class.]
[Maimed Twinblade Level 37!]
Levil, burying Makki and Bram together.
[Conditions Met: Fire Mage → Inferno Mage Class!]
[Inferno Mage Level 25!]
Too many levels and Skills to count. The Drake who cried and could not sleep.
[Conditions Met: Heiress → Relickeeper Heiress Class!]
[Relickeeper Heiress Level 22!]
[Skill – Artifacts: Uncover Potential obtained!]
[Skill – Golden Investment obtained!]
To seek the gauntlets obsidian forged,
Go to the deep, midnight gorge
Where Drake’s hubris met forts of stone
And sank to depths unmatched, alone.
Last of all. Four adventurers, who lay in separate places. Still reaching out for one another. Ceria Springwalker, their leader.
[Arctic Cryomancer Level 35!]
[Skill – Aura: Distant Manipulation obtained!]
[Spell – Battlefield of the Frozen World obtained!]
[Spell – Summon Lesser Frost Elemental obtained!]
The wounded woman, her metal flesh tarnished. Breathing in and out, face still intent, set. Reaching for a hand far gone from hers.
[Silversteel Armsmistress Level 37!]
[Skill – Berserker’s Rage obtained!]
[Skill – Impact Punch obtained!]
[Skill – Armform: Telescoping Flesh obtained!]
[Condition – Plaguesteel (Minor) Received.]
The Antinium, trying to hold on. Crying out that he could not until unconsciousness took him.
[Skirmisher Level 28 obtained!]
[Skill – Piercing Strikes obtained!]
[Skill – Swift Rearmament obtained!]
[Weapon Art – Aggregate Volley obtained!]
[Teammate Level 5!]
[Skill – Sense Affection (Platonic) obtained!]
[Skill – Stronger Together obtained!]
And lastly, the young man lying in the sands. Who had seen the end, those far down his path.
[Conditions Met: Necromancer → Ossific Necromancer Class!]
[Conditions Met: Ossific Necromancer → Deathbane Necromancer Class!]
[Deathbane Necromancer Level 38!]
[Skill – Constant Foe (Undead) obtained!]
[Skill – Authority of Death (Lesser) obtained!]
[Spell – Undead Shattertouch obtained!]
[Spell – Ritual of the Lord of Bones obtained!]
[Skill – Drain Death Mana obtained!]
[Mage Level 22!]
[Skill – Improved Mana Circulation obtained!]
[Fencer Level 6 obt—]
[Class Gain Cancelled.]
They lay across Chandrar, fates unknown to all. Each one was found. One of the Horns lay face-down as a figure called a halt to the caravan. They leaned over their horse, pointing as others went to inspect the figure.
“Well, what have we here?”
They recognized the adventurer at once. Nevertheless, they ordered chains brought. A reason could be found later. The guards and…slaves…went to obey. Smiling at their good fortune, the leader clapped their hands.
They were a [Slaver] of Roshal.
Author’s Note: I am done. I am dead.
This has been 6 straight days of writing, since I now try to pre-write some stuff. A few notes: the audiobook is out for Book 3 of The Wandering Inn! Give it a listen and congratulations to the winner of the frying pan!
Second…I have another shot scheduled for May 4th, so I might have to take a week off after that? Or an update? I’ll see, but I don’t want to use up my 1-week break so soon. However, I am told the second vaccine sucks.
I don’t have much else to say. I really hoped you enjoyed this long, long arc. Which was very tiring to write. That’s all for me. Thanks for reading.
Cerias and…Cutlery Yvlon…by Cortz!
Doom Yvlon, Cooking with Pebblesnatch, Bird Chess and more by pkay!
Az’kerash by Zelanters!