Two words. The inn had waited for them for so long. Two words; a Skill, it had waited for its owner to return and bring magic and time to a standstill.
Yet it was the wrong voice who spoke. The wrong woman stood in the common room of the inn. Her eyes were not hazel. If there was kindness in those depths, it was merely the remnants of the emotion, trapped within the layers of undeath by someone who had forgotten what the word truly meant.
The inn warped around her. The air itself seemed to flee her presence. Here was an old [Witch]. The Stitch Witch, some called her.
She was angry. Her eyes flashed with ire, not dispassionate observation. She stood at the door leading to the bright sunlit [Garden of Sanctuary] and could not get in. The inn’s defenders charged at her.
Belavierr spoke the two words and the world went dark. The inn itself?
Mrsha saw it happen. The girl looked past the [Witch], who was so tall that the tip of her hat seemed in danger of brushing the lowest beams in the common room, Moore-tall, at Numbtongue behind her. He was frozen in the act of slicing for her neck, having failed his first killing blow.
He disappeared as shadows blew forwards like clouds, covering him, his sword, his glowing crimson eyes. Mrsha made a sound in the back of her throat. A cry of fear. She looked at the [Witch], and saw the rest of the inn consumed.
Dragged into darkness. Mrsha, horrified, backed away. Was—was the entire inn gone? Had Belavierr eaten them?
There the [Witch] stood. She looked down at Mrsha, awkwardly, amid the darkness. Amid oblivion?
No—Mrsha realized. The [Immortal Moment]. It had swallowed everything, trapping her, Rufelt, and Lasica in this little space where the sun still shone down, unmoving, from the dome in the center of the garden. Past Belavierr and the doorway—there was nothing.
She had eaten the world with her Skill. Mrsha’s heart thundered in her chest, because—because—she knew that Skill, of course.
It was Erin’s Skill. One of her best ones, no matter how early she’d earned it. Her beautiful, even scary Skill, that made precious moments, important ones, last.
But Erin could not do this. Belavierr was stronger.
That terrified Mrsha. The [Witch] terrified her. Mrsha had felt it the instant Belavierr set foot in the inn. Her fur had stood right up on end. As if charged. She had felt something in her tummy.
Something dark. Clawing to get out. The [Witch] stood there, not pressed up against the door. Mrsha had seen—something—when she had tried to get in.
A thing that was not Human at all. Belavierr didn’t look like that—but she was still bad at pretending to be…
“Hello, little girl. Won’t you let me in?”
Mrsha stared as the [Witch] bent slightly. Belavierr’s lips parted. She smiled at Mrsha. Like…someone who had been told what that looked like but never done it. Even Antinium smiled better than she did.
The Gnoll girl backed up slowly, on all fours. Her eyes were wide. Belavierr tilted her head left and right.
“What should be said…? Little girl, I am very friendly. My name is Belavierr. Won’t you let me inside? You see, it is hard to enter without an invitation. I promise, I will not hurt you. You see?”
She reached up and removed the dark blue hat. Belavierr gestured at it.
“I promise on my hat. I promise on my craft. Please let me in. I will reward you.”
Mrsha stared at her. Then both heard a choked sound from behind the Gnoll.
“B-Belavierr. What have you done?”
The [Witch]’s eyes flickered past Mrsha, and a look of—sinister satisfaction—passed over her face. She smiled, but it was not a nice smile. She looked quite a bit more experienced at that.
“Rufelt Owelt. Lasica Feltail. I told you. I wished to speak to you. You have changed your minds so quickly. Let us talk.”
Rufelt and Lasica were standing behind Mrsha. They had gone still with horror as the inn vanished. They held each other, both shaking slightly. Rufelt’s voice was stuttery.
“W-we told you we denied you, Belavierr. You do not offer us fair deals. We were tormented by you.”
Lasica nodded as well, the [Cook]’s scales grey with fear.
“That’s right. I’ve spoken to Rufelt, Witch Belavierr. We…we’ve changed our minds. I want to live with him. So we decline your offer, politely. We cannot make a deal without the consent of all. You—cannot.”
She said that last bit hopefully. Mrsha was still standing in front of the door, trying to see out. Numbtongue! Was he hurt? How had Belavierr survived being stabbed?
Who was she?
Mrsha had no grounding for who or what Belavierr was. She did not know the stories that had made Bezale shudder. She did not even know how Ryoka had met Belavierr; some stories the Wind Runner told only to the grownups.
A vague memory nudged Mrsha’s head. Ryoka hadn’t told her details about her run in Riverfarm, only that Drakes had done bad things and the fire and…she had said, hadn’t she? She had run into a scary [Witch].
Mrsha had never heard Belavierr’s name come up, but it seemed to her there were no coincidences. Which of course—there were not.
The couple stood before Belavierr as the [Witch] regarded them. Belavierr was odd. She could not hide her emotions well, Mrsha realized. It seemed like she could, as her face would go blank, or remain disquietingly still when talking or moving. Yet when she was annoyed, like now, she showed it. She was not good at hiding her emotions. She just had—less.
Right now, she looked annoyed. She looked annoyed—then gave that fake-smile she had given to Mrsha. A [Saleswoman] with two stubborn clients.
“I understand you have changed your mind, Lasica, Rufelt. But you have had…interference. Allow me an hour to change it back. I am sure I am able to.”
She reached out, and her fingers pressed flat against the air. Rufelt shuddered as Belavierr felt at the barrier in the doorway, invisible, inviolate.
“I am sure you can as well. We—our minds are made up. We refuse. Please leave.”
It was a poor injunction. Mrsha felt sure it wouldn’t work. Even Olesm, conscientious Olesm, wouldn’t leave if you said it like that.
Sure enough, Belavierr didn’t so much as blink. Had she blinked yet?
“That is unacceptable, Rufelt. I will have my say. Come out. Time will not resume until we have time to talk. This is my Skill. To ensure we come to a fair decision.”
Rufelt looked at the [Witch] incredulously. She just smiled.
“Let me in, Rufelt. I promise I won’t harm you. Invite me in.”
The Gnoll wavered. Then barked a response.
“No! Begone! We do not want you here!”
The shout made Belavierr’s brows cross. And again—no one here could know why she reacted the way she did. Slowly, the [Witch] drew herself up. Eyes narrowed.
“I am tired of being told that word. I will have my say. Let me in, Rufelt. Let me in, Lasica. Quickly. Before I begin to become—angry.”
The last word was charged with intent, such that the husband and wife quailed. It was Lasica’s turn to stutter.
“N-no. Belavierr, didn’t you promise it was my choice? Leave, please.”
“You did not come to your choice alone. Someone interfered. This place interferes. Do you care nothing for your dead daughter? I can bring her back. You are not seeing clearly. Let. Me. In.”
Now there was a trembling. Did it come from the garden or the inn? The two backed away slowly.
“No. No—you can’t. Leave us! Please?”
Belavierr fixed Rufelt and Lasica with a stare that stopped their hearts for a beat. But—they were both as strong as Erin. They were both the best [Bartender] and [Chef] in Pallass; that was why she wanted them. They resisted her, speaking defiance. So Belavierr’s gaze became more vivid, more hostile, but she looked around.
“Little girl. Little girl? Where did you go?”
She pressed closer, hands pushing—then caught herself. Almost guiltily. With a shake of her head, Belavierr straightened. She frowned, and then put two long forefingers to her face.
“So tricky. So difficult. How did it go? Ah, yes. Little girl?”
She made a smiley face with her fingers. As if her lips had gotten tired of the gesture and needed help. Belavierr peered right and left and found Mrsha.
The little Gnoll froze, creeping left, to stare around Belavierr’s dark dress; she had been trying to see anything in the darkness. Now—
Belavierr squatted down so fast Mrsha tumbled backwards. Yet the [Witch] just hovered there, squatting. She kept her lips smiling with help from her fingers.
“I am a [Witch], little girl. Do not mind the silly adults. Have you ever met a [Witch] before? We are creatures of our word. Won’t you invite me in? All you need do is say yes. I will not harm you. In fact…I will reward you, see?”
Then, Belavierr reached into her robes. Mrsha wanted to back up, but the ringed stare had rooted her. Like she stood before a serpent ready to strike, or…Mrsha’s eyes fixed on something Belavierr drew from a pocket.
“Look at this. Isn’t it beautiful? See?”
The [Witch] drew a dancing marionette on strings. It was…a little Gnoll. A carved Gnoll figure, with golden brown fur, who danced with amazing articulation as Belavierr held up a little cross, controlling it.
“See how it dances and bobs? It is a toy I am sure you have never seen. I make such things. I will give it to you if you let me in. Where did this garden come from, little girl? It should not be here. Oh well. Let me in and you may have this. It is a gift fit for a [Prince]! It is not cursed, see? It is just a lovely toy. It will play with you. Defend you, even. It is a gift worth far more than letting me through a door, but it is yours.”
As she spoke, trying to convince Mrsha, Belavierr made the figure dance and spin, kicking its legs up, waving at Mrsha, beckoning, pointing—and then at the end, she let go and the figure danced by itself, despite no one holding the strings.
It was no doubt a gift worthy of an artifact, as advanced magically as the Box of Wonders owned by Briganda’s son, Cade. Probably more so. However, the [Witch] hadn’t caught up with the times.
At the sight of the dancing marionette, Mrsha’s natural horror made her back up until she was nearly behind Lasica and Rufelt. She gave the dancing figure a look of such deep mistrust that even Belavierr recognized it. She frowned.
“No? Do children not love such toys, anymore? What about this?”
She pulled out a something that was like a dreidel, for those from Earth, a spinning top—only, instead of having four sides like the Earth version—this one somehow had sixteen, and yet each seemed large enough…if you stared at it.
“It will spin and spin without you needing to touch it! But when you do—it will predict the future, see? Don’t you want it?”
Mrsha hesitated. That sounded more interesting. In a vacuum, she might have accepted one. Coming from Belavierr? She shook her head.
Rufelt’s words were cut off. Mrsha looked up in alarm. The Gnoll clutched at his throat.
“Ah. I am making a deal with the child.”
Belavierr looked up, almost wagging her finger. Rufelt and Lasica were helpless, even to gesture at Mrsha. The [Witch] frowned.
“Little girl, are you that afraid of me? Come closer, come closer. I promise not to hurt you if you let me in. I bear you no will at all. If you let me in—just reach out and let me take your paw. I will give you…this. Children love f—”
She pulled out a handful of what might have been treats. Centuries, millennia ago. Mrsha stared at the petrified worm halfway protruding out from what had been some kind of snack. The worm had turned to stone. Belavierr stared at it, and slowly discarded the ‘snack’.
“Hm. It has been a while. What about…this? This is worth more than both gifts together, child. See?”
She held out a crystal flute, delicate glass blown without seams or flaw. It was beautiful, colored light blue. It even had bits of light that danced as you blew it! Mrsha thought it was wonderful. Belavierr blew it and it sounded like a raven calling.
“It can sound like any song in the world if you play it right. Is it not delightful? Come, take it.”
She held it out, just before the door. Rufelt and Lasica tried to shake their heads. Mrsha didn’t move.
Mainly because it was still Belavierr. The little Gnoll was impressed, but—she was a bit hurt. How stupid did the [Witch] think she was? Not even Ekirra would fall for this!
He might have fallen for the next part. Belavierr drew out a little bag. And then she placed sixteen fat gold coins down.
“How about coin, child?”
They were not gold coins as Mrsha knew them. Each one was nearly twice the size, stamped with foreign faces. And they looked like…actual gold. They smelled like it too.
“This is gold from [Pirates]. A fortune for you and your family. You would be a fool not to take it.”
Belavierr coaxed. She saw Mrsha cross her arms. The [Witch] frowned. She had no way of knowing that ‘Aunt Selys’ had changed Mrsha’s views on gold. The girl had also been raised by a [Princess]; she had standards on bribes.
Come to that, Mrsha had a Goblin big brother who routinely chucked raw gemstones at her. So when Belavierr produced a sapphire as big as Mrsha’s paw, the Gnoll shook her head.
It was funny, but Belavierr took longer than most to be exasperated. She just looked confused—but then clearly, slowly began to get…cross. She offered Mrsha more items.
Jewels, gold, toys! A wand fit for a child, with a glowing tip that would never go dark. A little sword forged from the broken blade of a hero. A treasure map so faded with age it turned to dust when Belavierr put it down, a pet bird—she stared at what she half-pulled out and put it back before offering that.
Nothing worked. And what confused Belavierr, plainly, was the lack of a response she got from the little Gnoll. Only a shake of the head, a frown—no words.
“Little girl, what holds your tongue?”
At last, Belavierr frowned. Only then did she look at Mrsha. Oh, her eyes had been in the right places. But it seemed she had never focused on Mrsha before. She did so now and Mrsha’s fur stood right back up. The Gnoll girl, who had been growing amused by Belavierr’s frustration, suddenly stopped smiling.
She stood in front of two spotlights for eyes. The orange and black rings drew her in. Deeper, deeper—Mrsha felt herself flying forwards. Belavierr drew higher, until she towered above Mrsha like a true giant.
The [Witch] looked down, and suddenly Mrsha stood amid orange light. The color of her eyes. There, above her, impossibly distant, impossibly vast, was Belavierr.
Mrsha heard the thundering of her heart. She saw the [Witch] behold her, and she saw everything Mrsha was. Mrsha?
She saw part of what Belavierr was and would have screamed. For what she saw was in that distant giant, a hundred million twisting threads. They made her up, each one thinner than the hairs of Mrsha’s fur. Somehow, Mrsha saw it all in terrible detail and realized that ‘Belavierr’ was part that.
But part of her lay still deeper, behind that layer. Mrsha saw the eyes blink—
—And fell deeper. The orange light carried her down another level of infinity. She floated in a sea without luminescence save for the beam of fulvous mixed with amber. Gold blended with rust mixed with dying embers.
Something was in this sea. Something swam or floated without water. Mrsha looked down and Belavierr looked up. Only—it wasn’t the [Witch]. It had her shape. But she was made up of something.
Little hearts. Each one pierced with a needle, joined together by a single thread. The [Witch] floated there and looked up at Mrsha. There were gaps where she should have been. Some hearts were burned, black, barely beating.
Someone had hurt her. Yet still, Belavierr looked up. Her eyes met Mrsha’s and Mrsha felt herself fall through another ring in the eyes. Deeper—
Belavierr blinked. Mrsha stopped falling. She lay on the ground, panting, flailing wildly, before she recovered. What—what was—
That was why Rufelt and Lasica were frozen in horror. That was what Ryoka had once seen. When Belavierr looked at you, you looked back and wished you had not.
“A white Gnoll child? Curious. Your name is Mrsha. You wear a little charm, girl. Not enough.”
Mrsha stared down at the pendant supposed to keep [Appraisal] and [Scrying] spells off her. She looked up. Belavierr glanced at her.
“And you do not speak. I see. But will you not take my hand? See? I will give you all the presents I showed you. Let me in.”
She knelt once more, offering a hand. Mrsha looked at Belavierr. At last, after seeing Belavierr and being seen, Mrsha was moved to speak.
“Heck no! You scary thing! Go away!”
Well, she didn’t say that. She signed it with her paws, having left all the writing materials outside. It was only for Mrsha, not Belavierr’s benefit, but she felt better.
And then the [Witch] got scarier, if that were possible. Belavierr tilted her head sideways at Mrsha’s flashing paws. Her head twisted right, twisted left, and then it went nearly 90°sideways.
Mrsha heard the click-click-click of the [Witch]’s neck, but Belavierr didn’t bat an eyelid.
That was horrifying. But the [Witch] whispered.
“[True Translation]. Me? Scary, little one? How rude.”
Mrsha froze, paws raised. She stared at Belavierr. The [Witch] regarded her, frowning. Then looked up.
Lasica and Rufelt had been paralyzed this entire time, unable to break into the negotiations. It seemed though, that Mrsha’s final, and only comment had meant it failed.
“Mrsha, back away from the door. Belavierr, you are not allowed in here! We know your Skill! You—you can’t harm us! That would violate your craft; you said it yourself! You aren’t allowed in here, either! So, begone!”
Lasica gathered Mrsha into her arms as the three moved back from the door. Belavierr frowned.
“This is displeasing. I only wish to negotiate on equal terms, Lasica. Mrsha, let me in. The [Garden of Sanctuary] allows no harm. What could I…do? Let me in. I am beginning to become displeased by this waste of time and effort. You would not like to see that.”
Mrsha traded glances with Rufelt. He whispered to Lasica, drawing back another step.
“She isn’t leaving! Lasica, I told you she wasn’t into fair bargains!”
“Do you have to rub it in now? I don’t know what else we can say!”
They were squabbling, but to Mrsha, it was a reassuring sound, because they were talking. Arguing like, well, a married couple, not sad Rufelt alone or the two shouting, biting at each other with words.
Belavierr saw it too, and it did not please her. She frowned deeper.
“I do not bow to this old Skill. I will not be refused. Let me in. I will not ask again so politely. You, child.”
She pointed at Mrsha. Lasica whirled, Mrsha in her arms, and Rufelt put himself between them and Belavierr, protectively, arms outstretched.
Even so, Mrsha felt the finger point at her.
“You will let me in or suffer my ire.”
This time it was not a suggestion or request. It was a threat. Lasica looked down at Mrsha, unsure of what to do. Afraid. Mrsha looked up at her, Rufelt—and slowly pushed Lasica’s arms away.
“Mrsha, no, don’t—!”
Lasica froze again, as whatever Skill that Belavierr was using to enact her deals came into play. She smiled, straightening, as Mrsha padded slowly towards her. The Gnoll looked up as Belavierr bent.
“Yes. I shall give you all the gifts I promised. Wise little girl. Take my hand if you cannot invite me in with words. Just so.”
Mrsha slowed. She tentatively stood on two legs, and toddled forwards. She reached out with her right hand and Rufelt groaned through his teeth; the only sound he could make. Belavierr smiled. She reached for Mrsha’s paw as the Gnoll hesitated, knowing the weight of Belavierr’s threats.
Then Mrsha proved she had learned too much from her guardians of Erin, Lyonette, Ryoka, and more. She held out her paw as Belavierr bent, stuck it through the doorway—and jerked it back at the last second.
Belavierr’s face went slack as her fingers missed Mrsha’s paw. Mrsha held it out—the [Stitch Witch] reached for it. Mrsha jerked it away.
The Stitch Witch stared at Mrsha. Mrsha stared back, eyes wide. But the tiniest, gleeful smile trembling to get out. She held out the paw a third time. Belavierr stared at it. She stared at Mrsha.
Mrsha poked it through the [Garden of Sanctuary]’s barrier. The air felt no colder, nor did the ‘void’ around Belavierr seem painful. She was glad. It was just the Skill. Belavierr saw Mrsha jiggle the paw.
This time I’m serious, okay?
The [Witch] knew. She had to know, but she reached down anyways, quicker this time—but still like a mountain moving, ponderous with eternity. She reached down—and Mrsha jerked the paw back.
Got you again, stupid.
It may be that Belavierr even heard Mrsha’s inner thoughts, because she looked at Mrsha. And her eyes narrowed. Mrsha felt the full force of her gaze, and something else.
Ire. Belavierr’s voice was low.
“Little girl. You have made a mist—”
Mrsha slammed the door in her face. Rufelt and Lasica jumped. They stared at the wall—then the blank wall as the door vanished. Mrsha waited, a juddering heartbeat, then two, and turned. She wiped sweat from her fur, and grinned.
“Hah, I won!”
She signed triumphantly. Rufelt and Lasica didn’t know what Mrsha meant, but the meaning was obvious. They rushed forwards.
“You brave little—I thought you were going to let her in!”
“That was amazing! Stupid, but amazing!”
Rufelt agreed. The two hugged Mrsha, and she hugged back with pure relief. She beamed, still shaky. Take that! Belavierr couldn’t get in!
“Do you think she’ll leave? That was Erin’s Skill, wasn’t it? [Immortal Moment]? How does she have that?”
“Skills are Skills. We have to tell Chaldion. The Watch! Um—someone! Is there anyone who could chase her off?”
As they finished celebrating, the two adults turned back to worry; Belavierr was gone, but the Skill might still be working, and if she was in the inn?
Mrsha led them away from the mushroom and dirt biome, towards the center of the garden. She stared at the grass, the Sage’s Grass growing on top of the hill, the dead faerie flowers save for the little patch Ulvama had revived…and then up towards the hole in the overgrown, wooden dome covered in ivy.
The sky was visible through the hole there; even part of Bird’s tower, but never Bird himself, or anyone on the inn. There were clouds, the sun…it was reassuringly normal.
Only, the clouds didn’t move in the sky. Mrsha pointed up. The [Immortal Moment] was in effect; ergo, Belavierr was still outside.
Rufelt and Lasica…didn’t notice. They were conversing, anxiously.
“She can’t take all of Pallass on. We just have to send word. If she’s out there, she’ll get bored.”
“Maybe we run for it? Go for Pallass if she’s waiting in the common room?”
“Rufelt, I love you, but you can be an idiot. Unless—we can open the door right to the portal room? If we were just a foot away and she had no clue.”
“Aha! Who’s stupid now? Er, I love you. It’s good to argue again!”
The Gnoll was beaming. Mrsha kicked him in the shins, or tried to. She couldn’t harm him, so she just sort of nudged him with a foot. She pointed up as he looked down. Rufelt followed her finger.
“Oh! We can climb out of the hole in the roof! Is that right, Mrsha?”
The Gnoll girl looked up at Rufelt. The clouds, you idiot! Ipso facto!
Lasica caught on.
“She’s still out there, Rufelt.”
“Well, let’s try the portal room idea. Mrsha, you know the [Garden of Sanctuary]. There aren’t any secrets we don’t know about, is there? You can help us, right?”
Mrsha nodded as the adults turned to the real leader in this situation. Who had shut the door on Belavierr’s stupid, stinky face? Who had placed the garden’s door behind them so they walked in and saved them? That’s right.
She looked around the [Garden of Sanctuary]. It was, as always, a central hill surrounded by multiple ‘biomes’ of different climates. The arid area with the sand and a few annoying cacti-things. The jungle that had provided the invaluable cacao tree and Niers’ hiding spot—no Niers, unfortunately.
The pond area, next to the mushroom and rock-garden area, the grassy grassland that was lovely to run about in, and finally, a frozen, cold, snowy place in the far side, against the hill.
The hill, where the only other person was. Mrsha stared up at it gravely. The misty hill above the normal one, which you had to climb to, which had the statues and was beautiful and terrible.
That was the garden. Big enough to have lots of people in, a sanctuary where no violence was allowed. Unfortunately—uninhabited. No Niers; the beavers had fled their usual dam in the pond, and Apista was out.
The beavers had fled the pond? Mrsha’s head turned back slowly. That was…strange. The adult Fortress Beavers, the Defenders of the Cave, and their little kits almost never left the garden. They knew how safe it was. If they had left, did that mean they thought something was wrong? Had they known, once Rufelt and Lasica were in that…?
She felt a sense of unease creep over her, but reassured herself that Belavierr couldn’t get in. Mrsha had tricked her, and a [Witch] who had been tricked lost all her power! Or did you have to steal her hat? Throw water on her?
“No secret entrances, huh?”
Lasica sighed as Mrsha gestured around the garden. Rufelt sat down on the hilltop.
“Almost all the Faerie Flowers are dead. That’s a shame. I liked them. Sage’s Grass…are those the beginnings of a garden over there?”
Mrsha nodded importantly at some of the vegetables and growing Blue Fruit trees and such that Lyonette and Erin had added.
“Not very useful unless you want me to make a salad.”
Lasica sighed. Rufelt nodded.
“I could make a magical drink with some Sage’s Grass and…alcohol…but that’s about it. I think we have to leave, dear.”
Mrsha sighed. She was a low-level [Druid] and [Survivor] and somehow she felt like she had the most applicable Skills to this situation. She pointed across the dome.
“The door? Can you make it appear there?”
The two adults hurried after her. Mrsha nodded importantly. She didn’t have to actually walk over to that side; she could make the door appear right where it had been, only with a different exit point—but all of them instinctively wanted to get as far away from Belavierr as possible. She led them to a bare patch of wall.
“Just open it right in front of the portal door, Mrsha. Belavierr’s in the common room and I bet she’s standing where she is or trying to get in. Even if she senses us—we can lure her away, and jump through to Pallass. Even she would have trouble if all the Watch arrived. I think. I’ll go; Lasica, you’ll stay with Mrsha.”
“Don’t be stupid, Rufelt! What if she catches you?”
The Gnoll hunched his shoulders.
“She said she can’t harm us. I just have to run through and call the alarm.”
“What if we’re caught in her [Immortal Moment] Skill even there?”
Rufelt shook his head.
“Pallass is 400 miles south of here. There’s no way her Skill reaches that far, through the door, surely. It’s not that powerful. She’s not that powerful. Right?”
Mrsha and Lasica hesitated. In theory, Mrsha thought that was right. You could probably escape an [Immortal Moment] if you weren’t a willing participant by getting out of its ‘range’. On the other paw…
“We can only try. Open the door, Mrsha. No one make a sound. If it looks safe, we’ll maybe try opening really fast.”
The little Gnoll nodded. She turned to the ivy-covered wall, took a deep breath, and motioned for silence. Rufelt and Lasica nodded, and the door opened.
It revealed the portal room, now set up to take in visitors who might be hostile via the truth-archways and semi-fortified. Mrsha leapt back—and nearly ran into Rufelt.
“Ow! What’s wrong?”
He whispered. Mrsha glanced at him, and the empty room.
She’d just thought Belavierr would be standing there or something. It seemed like a classic ‘evil [Witch]’ move. She shook her head.
“I thought she’d be there. The door’s close! Damn—I’d have to go through the archway to get to it.”
Lasica eyed the door. Unfortunately, in its new setting, it was actually harder to reach than it had ever been; Hexel had set it into the wall, and there was no easy ‘access point’ to it. She turned to Mrsha. The Gnoll nodded, closed the door softly, and adjusted its position so it wasn’t facing the door, but directly adjacent to it. That way, when she opened it, they could just reach out and adjust the dial.
The three saw the door right next to them. And no Belavierr down the entire portal room hallway! Rufelt gave Mrsha a thumbs-up and she nodded.
“We’ll look for her. Just adjust the dial.”
Rufelt whispered. Lasica nodded. She reached out to change the dial. It was on the unused red stone that Ulvama had come through. Mrsha tilted her head.
Strange. She’d thought Belavierr came through the Pallass door from what Rufelt and Lasica had said. Had she teleported here instead? Or had someone changed it? Why—
Lasica’s claw closed on the dial as she put her arm through the door.
Belavierr grabbed it. The Stitch Witch appeared, shedding her invisibility spell. She had been standing right there.
“Hello, Lasica. Come with me.”
Rufelt shouted. He and Mrsha grabbed Lasica and tried to drag her back. The [Chef] screamed in terror as Belavierr dragged at her. The Drake screamed and screamed and the [Witch] was whispering.
“You will not deny me. Come with me.”
“Lasica, don’t let go! Don’t—”
Rufelt was straining with all his might. He couldn’t drag Lasica back, even with Mrsha’s strength! However—neither could Belavierr pull Lasica out.
Mrsha realized they were stalemated at the same time Lasica did. The Drake’s eyes were wide.
“She can’t get me out! Don’t let go, pull me in, Rufelt!”
The Gnoll’s arms bulged. Lasica cried out; he took a risk and grabbed her under the armpits. Even then—
“I can’t! She’s too strong!”
“We will stand like this forever. I have you. I will not let go. Come out. Or lose your arm.”
Belavierr hissed. She held Lasica’s claw lightly, but it was enough to overcome both adults and Mrsha. The Gnoll let go of Lasica’s foot and was displeased to see it affected the stalemate not at all.
“Belavierr—let go. Let go!”
Lasica wanted to claw at the Human, but her claws didn’t even pierce Belavierr’s skin. The Stitch Witch was eye-to-eye with the terrified Drake.
“You have offended me. I am beginning to become upset, Lasica. I will relent if you come out, now. I will even forgive the child. Do not make me—angrier.”
“Begone, foul [Witch]! You have no power here!”
Rufelt roared. Lasica and Belavierr turned their heads to both glower at him. The [Bartender] hesitated. He’d thought it might do something.
Stalemate. Only, this time even worse. The three strained in an invisible game of tug-the-Lasica. Mrsha had run off and Rufelt was holding Lasica as hard as he could, despite Belavierr ‘seeming’ to not be able to pull her out. He couldn’t see the girl; maybe she’d fled.
And now Belavierr was whispering.
“Your daughter will never be born, never draw breath, Lasica, unless you take my deal. Do you want her to die? Look. Don’t you see her? This is her, Lasica. Look.”
She had the picture. She thrust it at Lasica and the Drake tried to look away, but Belavierr held her and her eyes were drawn to the picture.
“I—I want to live and raise more children! I promised Rufelt!”
“You will let your child die. You will not save her, as you can? You have a chance other parents would give all for and you turn away. What will your daughter say? Do you want…to hear her voice?”
Rufelt felt Lasica shuddering. He shouted.
“Monster! Leave us alone! Stop haunting us!”
He saw the ringed gaze swing his way. Belavierr regarded him, and then spoke.
“Rufelt. Do you want to speak with your daughter?”
His heart stopped. The Gnoll [Bartender] nearly let go of Lasica. He saw Belavierr smile, like the face of evil, and reach for something under her robes.
“I can let you do that.”
“No. Please. No.”
Lasica and Rufelt stood there in horror. Trapped, transfixed. Belavierr had them and now the Spider smiled horribly wide. She stood in the darkness as it reclaimed the portal room; that was how they should have known it was a trap! Darkness covering the inn, her oblivion of an [Immortal Moment].
They had no Skills designed to stand against her, those two. They were a [Bartender] and [Chef]! What were they supposed to do? What kind of class save for [Hero] could fight that? What kind of [Innkeeper]…
Mrsha charged down the hill. Her racing paws made Rufelt’s head turn. His grip slackened. Lasica screamed.
“Rufelt! Don’t let go!”
But then her head turned. The only one who didn’t notice was Belavierr, so intent and gloating was she on her quarry. The [Witch] only glanced up when she saw the light.
The light? The [Witch] hesitated. It danced, moving shadows. It was a living thing. Not like the frozen light from the [Immortal Moment]. What was that? She looked up.
What was it that the Gnoll girl held in her paws? She had stolen it from above! Stolen it from where it burned in a little cup and brazier next to the frozen bier! Ulvama had found that too.
Fire, burning on those she had touched. Her last will.
[Like Fire, Memory]. The [Witch] saw the Gnoll holding it, and it was bright, a combination of countless colors. She saw Mrsha lift it up, and offer it to Lasica. The Drake hesitated.
“How does it still burn? Was she here? This is not her place? Girl—where did you get that fire?”
The Stitch Witch demanded. She backed away, shielding her face with her good arm from the flames. She raised her voice as Lasica reached down for it.
“Take it away! Take it—”
Erin’s last flame touched Lasica’s claws. The Drake gasped—and the fire raced up her entire body.
Hope. Kindness. Despair. Mercy. All the flames Erin had known and more, encapsulated in this last fire. The fire that burned even now. It was not one flame. It was…Mrsha felt it burn across her and Rufelt too, feeding off their living souls. She realized what it was, at last.
The fire of life. It could be so cruel, and Mrsha had borne it without knowing until Ulvama rescued her. Yet now, she let it burn across her.
It raced up Lasica’s scales as if they were tinder. Over her body as she cried out in relief and a different kind of agony, for she felt alive. Cruelly alive to mourn and weep and love and lose! Yet she let it burn.
And it raced onto Belavierr’s hand. The [Witch] screamed. Screamed, as if it burned her worse than any mortal flame.
For five seconds, then ten, she tried to hold on. But the flames were reaching up her arm and it was like the flame knew her. For the other owner of this Skill, the origin of this fire, had called Belavierr her enemy.
Even now, Maviola El burned. Mrsha felt tears rise in her eyes. Even now, Erin’s will lived on.
Belavierr screamed and let go. She flung her arm up and Lasica fell into Rufelt’s arms. The fire on them went dim as all three stumbled back, not blazing as brightly as it had when it seemed like they were wrestling for their very lives.
Against her. The [Witch] screamed and the fire licked up her arm, burning her cloth, her skin. Mrsha saw the Stitch Witch burning and didn’t understand why. Wasn’t she alive too?
Yet she was so old. Perhaps memory hurt her. Perhaps living hurt her. And she was thread and needles. This was her antithesis.
“Leave, Belavierr! This is Erin’s inn! This is her Skill! This is her fire! You cannot trespass in her garden! Begone!”
Mrsha shouted with her paws, with her unheard voice. It was a far more powerful statement than Rufelt’s. Belavierr was flailing, still slowly, as if she couldn’t move fast, in the same time and quick reality as the others. She cried out, a kind of wail, but so—Mrsha’s hair rose.
“The fire was inherited. You burn me. You burn me!”
She called to Mrsha, as the flames began to eat at her hair. Her hat. Belavierr swiped at it again, and then stopped. As if realizing there was no way she could simply remove the fire with force. She stopped, and Mrsha, Lasica, Rufelt’s grinning triumph slackened on their faces.
The [Witch] stood there, like a statue, burning as more of her was covered in that multicolored fire. She looked down at it, suddenly back to her normal state.
“Life. A last memory. A last, flickering flame.”
Mrsha looked up at her. Uncertain, now. Belavierr stood tall. She gazed at her burning side. Then—started laughing.
“You tried to burn me with this? With a dead woman’s fire? You tell me this is not my place? That I cannot get in?”
She ignored the fire. Belavierr pointed at Mrsha with a burning finger.
“Twice now, you have insulted me, girl. You think I can burn like little [Witches] of old? You think you can best me in this game? You think you have seen all of my power?”
Mrsha backed up. N-no. She didn’t really think that. Why didn’t they all calm down now? People had said and done things they might regret. Belavierr leaned forwards. Now the flames were covering half her face, but she didn’t even flinch.
“For you, Mrsha. I will use my power.”
The little Gnoll froze. Rufelt and Lasica made a sound. And they realized, all of them, together, that Mrsha had done what not even Ryoka, Califor and the coven, and all of Belavierr’s opponents had accomplished. Not even Ser Raim.
They’d made her well and truly furious.
The Spider stood tall, then. The Stitch Witch looked up. But those were only the names they gave her in this age. Spider? Stitch Witch? Temptress?
Paltry little names. They had forgotten the real ones. The names even Djinni had remembered. The names Dragons passed about. She had walked among species now dead to this world.
Belavierr raised her burning arm to her face. It burned with Erin’s last fire. Life, for her friends she left behind. Happiness and anger and loss and guilt and every emotion…Belavierr regarded it, face impassive as it tried to burn her.
“Petty little flame. Your master is already dead. Begone.”
She took a breath—and blew it out.
Mrsha saw the flames racing across Belavierr’s clothing vanish. The Stitch Witch stood, not even smoking. Mrsha backed up. Now, only those in the garden were on fire. And—the flames seemed dimmer.
“Belavierr. Enough. Can’t you see we will not relent?”
Rufelt and Lasica blocked the [Witch] as she turned to Mrsha. Belavierr glanced at them. Then blinked.
“Ah. Rufelt and Lasica. I have changed my mind. You two may leave the garden. I renounce my claim on your bargain. When I leave, I shall set the last hope of your daughter’s life free. You have chosen. Now—my deal is between myself and this child.”
She bent down. Mrsha stared as Belavierr fixed her ringed gaze on her.
“Mrsha. Let me in. Let me in. That is what I desire.”
Belavierr’s mouth opened wide in a grin. Mrsha stared at her. Why? For what reason? Rufelt and Lasica looked at each other. The Spider only laughed. Why? It was so obvious.
To hurt you.
Mrsha saw the two block Belavierr, linking arms. They stood defiant, the Gnoll and Drake. Belavierr looked at them and shook her head. She spoke past them.
“Mrsha, I will offer you a deal. Let me in. Let me in, and we will strike a bargain. You will offer me what I wish. In exchange for what I will give you.”
“Don’t listen to her, Mrsha. You’ve seen what—”
Rufelt kept speaking but his voice went silent. He and Lasica moved aside, helplessly shocked. Belavierr stood there, demanding Mrsha’s attention. The Gnoll stood slowly straight. Erin’s fire still burned on her fur, lightly, but it was like Erin was with her. She looked Belavierr in the eye and raised a furry little finger.
Belavierr glanced at it. Mrsha added another and waved both for emphasis. The bit of defiance made her feel better, but the [Witch] didn’t even twitch.
“We are past petty insults, you and I, girl. You will let me in. I offer you what you most desire.”
Mrsha scoffed, knowing Belavierr could understand. She braced herself, ready for the [Witch]’s petty bargain. Belavierr looked at her with her endless gaze and Mrsha grew uncertain. The [Witch] looked into her. Searching…then she smiled.
“Mrsha. You stand in a dead woman’s inn. You proudly bear her fire. Give me half your life. Half your years. And I swear to you—I will bring your [Innkeeper] back. I will return her to life.”
The little Gnoll’s confident expression flickered out. She half-looked at Lasica’s quivering lips, her unspoken words, and shook her head. Belavierr just smiled.
Because…that was her opening offer. She leaned forwards, nearly pressing her face against the invisible barrier.
“No? Then I look at you, Mrsha, and know you. I know what the tribes call you in this era. Doombringer. You are marked with the death of your tribe.”
Mrsha froze. The eyes drew her in. Belavierr whispered.
“I could bring them back. I could bring your tribe back. What did you do to slaughter them? Was it your fault? I could take away your cursed fate, girl. Your pale fur. I could give you a new tribe, one who never knew whence you came and never asked. I can bring back your friend. What do you want, Mrsha? Give me five years. Give me your left paw. What would you do to save all those who have died because of you?”
Mrsha backed away, eyes wide. Belavierr didn’t let her go. She didn’t move, but her glowing eyes followed Mrsha. The darkness around her…was growing. Her whisper grew louder, and Rufelt and Lasica tried to shield Mrsha—then fell away from the intensity at the doorway.
“I could do it all. I only want what you offer. Five years? Bargain. Are you so petty you would let her lie, rotting, for only five years? Open the door, Mrsha. Strike a deal. I will use all my power. You will never have it ever again should you live a thousand years.”
The girl ran. She turned and ran from the door, not even running to close it, if it could be closed. She ran in terror because this was what Belavierr had seen. Her fear. Five years? Five—
She raced over the hill, to the other side of the domed garden. So far she couldn’t see the [Witch], breaking her line of s—
“Mrsha. Open. The. Door.”
Belavierr stood in the open doorway. Facing Mrsha. She had appeared around the other side of the dome. Mrsha froze. She—she couldn’t do that.
She turned and ran for the jungle. And the door followed her in. The [Witch] stood, whispering through the vines and brush.
“You will bring ill luck to all those who love you. You have already. Do you think it coincidence? Doombringer. I can remove it.”
Mrsha turned and fled back the way she’d come. Belavierr whispered from past the water as Rufelt went to grab Mrsha, but she was running in terror now, fleeing every time she met that gaze.
“How many died already? You bear the mark of terrible fate to come. Your friends will die trying to protect you and it will be your fault. Don’t you want me to twist destiny for you? Offer you safety for the future? Which will it be?”
“Mrsha, run. Don’t listen.”
Lasica whispered. She seized Mrsha as the Gnoll girl found herself running around the base of the hill. Mrsha looked into the Drake’s panic-stricken eyes.
Safety! She had to—Mrsha looked around. Then she looked up to the only natural place. Oh, of course.
The top of the hill of mists. She turned and ran. Belavierr saw the white shape dart up the hill, racing higher. The [Witch] did not curse or bemoan failing to catch Mrsha. She just sighed.
“Foolish child. Do you think I have no power, even here? For you? I will use it.”
A long hand snaked down. Belavierr looked at her own hand as Mrsha ran up towards the hill where Erin lay. She regarded her fingers, as if she had never seen them before. Then her smile widened, stretching across her face.
She snapped her fingers.
Overhead, the sun turned off.
Mrsha stopped in darkness. She looked up.
The sky was gone. The clouds, the frozen blue sky and sun—had all gone dark. There were no stars. It had been eaten, like the rest of the inn.
Belavierr had turned off the light! Mrsha backed up—then nearly tumbled down the hill as she lost her footing. It was so dark!
The only light left in the whole garden came from the Sage’s Grass below. Maybe a glimmer from above, on the hilltop, but…Mrsha stumbled down towards the Sage’s Grass.
“Mrsha! Dead gods, Mrsha! Where are you? Lasica!”
“I’m here! Ow! Ancestors, what was—”
Lasica kicked something hard. Mrsha heard a crash; it was the laptop, abandoned. She found herself running into an empty picnic basket, a soccer ball…
The grass here was wet underfoot from a shower not quite dried away, or the roving watering cloud of mists. The three stood amid the glowing Sage’s Grass. Mrsha looked around.
“It’s so damned dark. How did she do that?”
“The same way she did everything! We need light! Hold on. Let me just…[Light]! Aha!”
Lasica pulled, of all things, a little wand out of her bag of holding. She used the emergency wand to shine the light around. Mrsha and Rufelt were very close. It was…
Scary in the [Garden of Sanctuary] without any lights.
“Dead gods. Let’s—she’s angry at you, Mrsha. Lasica, we have to do something.”
“What? Run for it? I think that’s the stupidest thing we can do, Rufelt. Not that there’s anything smart. Let’s—let’s get up to the hill with the mists. We’ll be safest there, if anywhere. At least if we go up there, she can’t use the door to find us around the edges of the garden.”
All that made sense. The other two nodded. Mrsha felt every hair pricking up. This was—wrong. No light? Even at night, the stars were so beautiful—this seemed wrong. Like the [Garden of Sanctuary] was losing against Belavierr. It couldn’t. She couldn’t get in.
The three advanced up the slope. Mrsha was looking around for the glowing eyes against a far wall. She was looking so hard, she nearly missed the first whisper.
“Let me in.”
It came from an unfamiliar angle. Mrsha heard the whisper, louder.
“Let me in. Let me in, Mrsha. Let me in.”
She stopped dead in her tracks. Lasica had heard it too. She shined the wand around.
“There’s no way…where is she?”
Rufelt whirled, paws raised as if he wanted to fist-fight Belavierr. He looked right, left. The whispers seemed to come from everywhere.
“She’s not in here! It’s a trick! But where…?”
All three began to look around. They had to know where Belavierr was; not knowing was terrifying. The whispers grew louder.
“Let me in, Mrsha. Let me in. Letmein. lEt mE IN. LeT Me In. Let me IN—letmeinletmeinletmeinletmeinletmein—”
Where was she? Mrsha looked right, left, down…and then, because she had exhausted all other options, she looked up at last. And saw her.
Belavierr was craning through the opening in the dome above the garden. Her orange eyes shone down as she leaned down, whispering. Mrsha pointed up and Lasica screamed as she saw Belavierr there.
How was she there? There was no way! Mrsha ran up the hill, screaming now, making the only sound she could in her throat. This had gone from scary to true horror. She ran up the hill. Erin! Save me! Save—
“There you are. I knew I would find my way in.”
Belavierr turned. Her orange eyes glowed as she stared down at Mrsha. The Gnoll girl froze.
Belavierr was standing at the top of the hill. She stood there, as if she had always been there. Rufelt, Lasica, and Mrsha froze.
“She—she got in.”
Rufelt stared up at the hole in the roof where Belavierr no longer was. She’d gotten in. Mrsha’s eyes were wide.
“I take back my deal, Mrsha. Now? I will be angry. Come here.”
Belavierr began walking down the hill. Mrsha backed up.
“Mrsha, run! Run for the portal door!”
Lasica ran at Belavierr, swinging her wand. Rufelt charged after her. Belavierr saw both adults coming and pivoted. She moved unnaturally fast and Rufelt missed, tripping into the darkness. Lasica slashed, but Belavierr whirled past her. Then walked towards Mrsha.
The little Gnoll ran down the hill, screaming, for the door.
Belavierr dodged with unnatural speed again, as Rufelt and Lasica charged her. She moved slow—then with blinding speed. She was following Mrsha, with an inexorable pace that somehow seemed like it was catching up. But Mrsha was running for the wall. Pallass! Celum? Invrisil? Liscor? She was sobbing as she ran past the lake.
“Mrsha, get out of here!’
Again, Lasica missed as Belavierr casually dodged her. For all she seemed so static, she was moving too fast now! She saw Mrsha run to the wall and the door appeared. Then—Mrsha froze.
Rufelt roared. He was hitting only air. He saw Belavierr’s pace quicken. She came at Mrsha as husband and wife turned. They saw the child slowly rotate, eyes wide. Belavierr reached down with clawing hand—
And her arm passed through Mrsha. The two adults stopped. Mrsha flinched. Yet Belavierr’s gaze was only…disappointed. She glanced past Mrsha at the open doorway, which led into the inviting portal room again.
Another trap. How had Mrsha known, though? She looked down. At the pond where the Fortress Beavers’ dam was.
There, reflected in the still water, was the dome overhead. And in it—
Belavierr stared down at Mrsha. She reappeared as the shadow image of her vanished. She stopped moving her hands, stopped playing with the light.
Shadow puppets. Only, as she could make them. She stared down at Mrsha. The little Gnoll looked up at her. A third time she had bested Belavierr, by luck as much as anything. But she didn’t gloat anymore.
For Belavierr scared her more than almost anything Mrsha had known. Almost as much as Facestealer and Nokha. She ran back up the hill and sheltered among the statues, next to Erin’s frozen bier.
Lasica and Rufelt joined her. All three drew back as the shadow of Belavierr walked up the hill. She stopped before the statues and mist, as if she could go no further. She looked…perplexed.
“Three times. Four, to count how Rufelt and Lasica denied me. Four times I was defeated. So strange. Yet you are still overconfident, girl.”
Mrsha bared her teeth in a shaky snarl. She looked at Erin, to give her some kind of hope and guidance. Belavierr just shook her head. She gestured around the [Garden of Sanctuary]. At the flames of life still clinging to Mrsha’s fur, giving her some small strength and support.
“You trust to fire, girl. But fire is a kind of magic, and memory fades. You are in my domain, here. My time. You trust to this garden to hold me back. Yet it is not your Skill. The owner lies dead, and the true owner died long ago. You don’t have the full power of this place.”
She gestured around the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Then Belavierr smiled cruelly.
“You don’t even have the right door.”
Mrsha looked at her. The Stitch Witch met her gaze. Older, more terrible, and still so petty. What would she do next? What could she do? She had tricked and offered. What now?
For answer, Belavierr just stood there. She stood there, and looked down at Mrsha. Almost contemptuously. As if to say, ‘see? All your victories ring hollow in time.’
See? And Mrsha did see. She looked around the garden, in darkness, and despair. At Belavierr. A look of horror stole across Rufelt’s face. Lasica realized it last.
She looked down as the magic of her nearly-depleted wand of [Light] ran out. After all—it was magic. Light, air, all mundane things froze here. But the [Immortal Moment] didn’t allow for forever magic. That would be cheating.
It was dark. Mrsha was panting. She looked at the fire dimly burning on her fur. At Belavierr. And she knew.
“It shall last until we make a pact, you and I. How long can you wait? How long can your soul survive eternity? Longer than mine? As we wait, let me tell you how you will let your loved ones die. Let me recite your pain, girl. We will wait together.”
Belavierr stood in the darkness. She began to whisper. Mrsha put her paws over her ears. Belavierr kept whispering, uncaring. After all—she had an immortal moment.
Forever. And they were trapped with her.
Mrsha finally began to cry. In despair, in fear.
Erin’s fire was beginning to go out.
And then it was over.
Mrsha had met the [Witch]. She had been scared by the witch, but the witch was old. She had made mistakes, even as ancient as she was. She fooled Mrsha by letting the little Gnoll think there was a way you could win.
It wasn’t like that. Now the Gnoll knew, as she sat in a moment of forever—it wasn’t possible. Fighting Belavierr? It wasn’t bringing down the giant. She wasn’t a fire you could put out, like Maviola, so intense until it…extinguished.
She was like the tide. Like a storm. There was no beating her, not unless you could kill the dark sea itself. All Mrsha had done was make the [Witch] angry.
Belavierr’s true wrath, though, was not in dark nightmares. Not in tricks or games. It was just this.
Time. Mrsha felt it grinding against her skull. Time.
She was trapped in this [Immortal Moment]. The moment was immortal. She was not. Things could happen in this time. You could make peace, change, find courage.
Suffer. Oh, the [Witch] was clever. She whispered dark promises to Mrsha. Let me in. But then?
Then she showed Mrsha terrible things.
“Mrsha? Where are you? Stop hiding. You will help the [Gatherers] pluck the Needleplums. Stop running away! We have gloves! Then we will eat. You want to eat, yes?”
Someone spoke to Mrsha. He wandered over the grass hill. She smelled familiar cooking scents as she crouched low in the grass, her brown fur mixing well with a patch of dry grass. She was younger, smaller, and didn’t want to work! She wanted to catch little grasshoppers; they were food. But no…
Urksh came over the hill, calling. Mrsha’s ears perked up as he made his way to her. She hid lower, giggling despite herself. And part of her wailed. Part of her didn’t want to see his exasperated, smiling face, as her guardian, the Chieftain of the Stone Spears tribe, her tribe, came scolding and teasing.
Part of Mrsha wanted to see him again, to be here. But then she saw him and her heart broke at his kind face. He bent down, scolding, and she went to run—
Then she saw him amid the dark night, fighting with his tribe. As Goblins poured down the side of the mountain. Ryoka held her, pleading with the Winter Sprites for Mrsha’s life. Mrsha howled, and howled as she saw the Stone Spears tribe fighting and dying. Sacrificing everything that a few might live.
Zel Shivertail was there, Ilvriss, the Goblin Lord. Mrsha saw the [General] as she had first seen him, leading a charge forwards to try and save the Gnolls, to no avail.
If she could have said it, she would. Belavierr knew what she meant. The [Witch] just looked at her.
“Just what are you doing?”
Zel Shivertail caught Mrsha’s paw as she snatched for a little bit of his breakfast. He looked amused, but Lyonette instantly wanted to scold Mrsha.
Instead, the [General] sat Mrsha on the table. She eyed him, a bit apprehensively. The [General] indicated his plate.
“Are you that hungry? Take what you want.”
The Gnoll girl shyly looked at him, and then ducked her head. She wasn’t hungry—the Drake smiled, a scar stretching.
“That’s what I thought. If you want to play games, be my guest. I was just checking.”
He let Mrsha hop off the table. The Gnoll girl saw Lyonette hesitate, frown at her, but Zel went back to eating. She eyed him, circling around his chair. Then she slyly crept up, reached for his poached egg—
He blocked her paw with one finger. Mrsha’s eyes widened. She tried again, darting, and Zel—
Flicker. Belavierr was smiling. Mrsha tried to hide her eyes. Stop.
Was lying in the coffin. They were going to burn him. How had he died? The Goblin Lord? Mrsha was crying. Crying and crying.
It wasn’t right. He shouldn’t have died. Not him! Not the Tidebreaker.
Everyone else was weeping. Mrsha saw them light the flames and howled for them to stop. Stop! Don’t…don’t…
“Don’t do this.”
The cruelty of it was that it was the past. The past and the future. Rufelt and Lasica held each other, whispering in their own world of pain. They stared at what had been…what might be. The evil power Belavierr had was that she showed Mrsha what the Gnoll had loved and laughed at.
And then what Mrsha had lost. There could be no darkness without light. Even here…
The fire burned. Erin’s fire flickered on Mrsha’s fur. Belavierr let it burn, defiantly. Yet…Mrsha no longer wanted the fire.
It was too dark. The light just made it worse. She curled up. She didn’t know how long it had been.
“This will continue forever. Strike a deal, child. I will take your pain. Your memory. I will restore one you love to life. Give me something of yours.”
The little girl looked up, tears leaking from her eyes. Forever? The [Witch] stood there, and pitted her might against…a child. It was silly. It was petty. Yet of all Mrsha’s foes, imaginary and real, Belavierr alone tried to crush her without regard for her age or size.
“I suffer no insults. I suffer no challenges. How long will you wait? Until your soul tears itself apart?”
The Witch whispered and Mrsha knew she would keep her here until the Gnoll was older than Lyonette and Erin combined. Would she grow older, or just remain, her soul withering with pain?
Rufelt was searching for her, but he was blind. He was choking, looking at something…Mrsha had so many sad memories. How many did he have, as old as he was? Lasica was holding onto him, but curled up, weeping.
Mrsha looked at something on her paws. It was the fire of life.
It was fading away. She tried to call more fury, more energy into it, to burn Belavierr—but only an illusion stood before her. And what good was fire?
The fire was only able to burn on fuel. The three mortals were nearly extinguished themselves by the moment they were trapped in.
Some nights, the abyss could scream so loudly that even the brightest flame went out. Mrsha saw the flame on her paws flicker.
Time stopped. Mrsha saw the past. She heard Belavierr’s whispers.
“I can bring her back.”
Erin had failed. No—she wasn’t here. Mrsha lay next to her frozen bed. The fire in the cup next to the frozen young woman flickered. Mrsha could have kindled it on her fur, but it would just die again. She lay there, in the only light left, aside from Belavierr’s eyes, and knew Erin had failed.
No, if the [Innkeeper] were here…she could have done something more. All Mrsha had left were sparks, and she was too small. Too sad.
“Erin. Erin, please wake up.”
The Gnoll spoke. She spoke, not with any words, or her paws, in the flickering of memories, Belavierr, using memories like weapons, in a dark copy of Erin’s Skill, but with her thoughts.
As if Erin was there. She had to be.
“I’m afraid. Please do something. Please?”
The young woman lay there, lips slightly parted, a slight smile on her face. Mrsha grew angry. She shouted.
“Stop sleeping! I need you. We need you.”
No response. Mrsha buried her face in the frozen grass.
“Please? I’ll be good.”
No help came. Even when she begged.
A dark dress swished across the ground, but left no sound. Feet walked the hill, but left no trace on the grass.
Belavierr. She bent down, and inspected Erin’s grave. She looked at Mrsha, and spoke.
Truth. That was what made Belavierr scary. She used truth, not lies, to hurt you. She used love to create pain. And the worst part? She didn’t care. She only wanted to hurt Mrsha for offending her.
“Ah. So this is the [Innkeeper]? She will never come back alone. The world beyond grows emptier. Unless…someone catches what remains.”
Belavierr tilted her head. She stepped around Erin’s bier, carefully, as if even her shadow did not want to disturb it.
“Not alive. Not dead. I see.”
Mrsha’s tearstained face rose in hope. Belavierr saw it, too? Then—
“However. She may still be lost. You have her body. You don’t know where her soul lies, do you?”
The [Witch] turned. She smiled wider, gleefully.
“She can still die, girl. Don’t you know what haunts the lands of death? There have always been shadows. There are other things that ghosts fear. Don’t you want her back? You cannot bring her back without her essence. And you have no idea where it is, or if it remains.”
Mrsha stared up at Belavierr and realized the [Witch] was giving her the last clue. Poison. Frozen body. Wounds.
They were missing her soul? She listened as Belavierr bent, whispering.
“She will never come back alone. The world beyond grows emptier. Unless…someone catches what remains. Protects it. Before it is destroyed.”
W-what did that mean? Mrsha stared up as Belavierr reached for something in her dress. The witch drew something out. Something made of string and beads and woven like a…a…
Net. A perfect prison of so many threads, it was a pale skein that was both transparent with the glittering cloth, and so thin as to never let anything escape. Mrsha’s eyes went round. She saw something…flutter there for a second.
Somethings. Belavierr showed it to Mrsha and the Gnoll girl backed away, terrified. The [Witch] laughed.
“Don’t you see? I wove it out of dreams and souls. I caught it before it could die in the place beyond, the last true death. I never lied. Can’t you see? Their daughter.”
She pointed into the darkness. Somewhere, two parents cried out in horror. Mrsha cowered away from the soulcatcher. The [Witch] bent down further. She pointed at Erin.
“I can bring her back if she remains. Just give me…everything. You do not have enough. But give me everything and I will do it. For it will mean your end. Do you love her? Then trade. A life for a life.”
Mrsha was quivering. No, no—she knew Erin would never want that. Yet Belavierr’s whispers invaded her head.
“You will never create anything, Doombringer. With your one act, redeem all you have wrought. Is she not beloved, this child? Look at all her gifts. Look at all who wait for her to come back. Who matters more? Her? Or you?”
She gestured to the frozen presents. Mrsha saw Ekirra’s little ball, flowers, letters. She looked at Erin, desperately trying to hear Erin’s voice. She’d say, ‘you stupid Witch! Don’t you talk to Mrsha like that!’
Mrsha couldn’t hear Erin. This was her place! She stood next to Erin’s body, and Belavierr was louder. The [Witch] laughed again.
“You think she could best me?”
She regarded Erin Solstice. Then turned to Mrsha.
“Or you think to best me with the scraps she left? What arrogance, child. You still don’t see me. You still underestimate me. I am offended. So—look.”
Her eyes caught Mrsha’s again. The Gnoll fell into that orange light. She saw the layers of Belavierr’s immortality, protections wrought over countless aeons of existence. Dark magic. The [Witch] turned to her, a thing of thread, a giant of her craft, an amalgamation of hearts—and spoke.
“I am the Witch of Webs. The spider in every story. There have been those like me before. My legend pales next to some. Yet not even I remember them. I am one of many legends that have come before—perhaps none will come again.”
She touched her chest. For a moment, her face was almost sad. Mrsha looked up, eyes wide. Belavierr gestured.
“Do you see me? Once, I stood among equals. There was more than I. Slowly—they died. And none came after. It is a terrible thing, to be alone. But I remain. I am that old world they tell stories about. And you think this one can best me?”
Belavierr pointed at Erin. She looked down at Mrsha and shook her head. Contemptuously. Sadly.
“Place against me your hope of this fragile, small world. I will crush it. I am one of the last stories. That is why I raise my daughters. Perhaps? Is that why? Do I sense my end?”
The [Witch] frowned. She walked back a step, murmuring.
“I came close to true death. What changed in this world? What do I sense?”
She was uncertain, introspective for a moment, and that was scariest of all. Then Belavierr collected herself. She shook her head and returned to the present. Mrsha. She gestured at the adults, one frozen, two quailing in the darkness.
“The [Innkeeper]’s story cannot stand against me alone. The love of those two cannot withstand me. Your story will die here. Take my offer, girl. You have no more tales.”
Mrsha knew it was true. The [Immortal Moment] dragged at her. If she refused—Belavierr would make her live her entire life in its tragedy and happiness, until she wearied. She had nothing left. Erin’s fire was too weak. Erin was gone.
She had no more tricks.
Mrsha looked for the statues. She thought of the Sage’s Grass, the faerie flowers…but Belavierr would laugh at that. They were stories and magic. And she was stronger than all these things. Erin had done wonders with such things before, but this was someone who played Erin’s game. And who had played it long before Erin ever stepped foot on this world.
If the two met, what battles might they have had? Mrsha didn’t know. But she was little Mrsha. And she had no more fight.
She curled up, but Belavierr was waiting. Mrsha had no more stories. She had to let Belavierr in and end this torture. Had it been a day? A month?
Had she been dreaming of the past for a year? Longer?
She was weary. She could not sleep. She could not send herself into oblivion. This moment lasted. So…she was out of stories.
“Take my hand, girl. We will make a pact, here.”
Belavierr extended it. Mrsha’s paw quivered as it rose. Rufelt and Lasica tried to say something, but they were crushed too. They would bring back the quivering soul in the cage. They would all make a pact and…at least Erin would live, right?
Mrsha tried to fight it, but her paw reached out. One more story. One more bit of Erin? There was nothing. If only she had one more flame! One more bit of hope! Yet Belavierr would extinguish that. She fought with such things. Wonder was her game. Wonder and horror, despair and beauty, used like coins to buy what she wanted.
Belavierr waited. She saw Mrsha’s paw quiver, reach for her. And then…stop.
The [Witch] frowned, but waited. She had Mrsha trapped. She was confident. The [Witch] watched Mrsha step back, eyes frowning, suddenly…flickering with thought.
There…was…another story, wasn’t there? A little, silly story. But one that—Mrsha began to move. She’d had an idea. One last idea.
The [Witch]’s confident look wavered. She followed Mrsha, a specter without end so long as her power endured. There was no way Mrsha could break it. She had seen the flowers, the Sage’s Grass, and she even knew this garden. None of it fazed her. The child would expend all hope. There were no stories here to equal her, at least, that the girl could use right now.
Yet Mrsha was going down the hill, leaving Erin behind. Searching for something in the darkness.
She found it at last. Something odd in the garden. Belavierr frowned as Mrsha inspected it, picking it up, opening it. She saw a strange glow.
Harsh. Bright. Too bright. Not like a [Light] spell. The little Gnoll tapped at something. A foreign material. Belavierr tilted her head. She actually lifted the brim of her hat to inspect it. And at last, she had to admit it.
She had no idea what it was. The little Gnoll stared up at her, paws shaking. It was the last thing Mrsha could think of. Belavierr spoke, circling around Mrsha. Her true form watched from the hole in the dome, puzzled, but confident…
“My magic eats everything else in this moment. You cannot break my Skill or craft.”
This was true. Mrsha’s paws were trembling as she typed in Kevin’s password. Belavierr was superior to all magic. The [Immortal Moment] meant that even a faerie flower might fail against forever.
…But this wasn’t magic. It looked like it, but it was made of oil and metal. Electricity hummed, and Mrsha saw light. The light of another world. Less beautiful, but still—light in the darkness.
“Rufelt. Rufelt. What is that?”
Lasica raised her tear-stained face and stared down the hill. The Gnoll looked up too. Belavierr frowned.
“Who made that? Not Gnomes. They are all long dead. What is that thing? It is not magic. It glows. It will not avail you, child. I am the Witch of Webs. I am—”
Bam. Rufelt and Lasica jumped. Mrsha felt her heart leap. Belavierr—recoiled. She stared down. For the bright glow of the foreign screen had changed. She stared down as a strange, green…thing…kicked open the door to an outhouse.
And then there was music. It played from the speakers, a tinny sound in the garden. Completely…at odds with the pervading darkness. Mrsha’s ears perked up.
“Child. What is—”
Belavierr spoke, but her voice was drowned out. Her eyes turned wrathful…but the laptop had no soul to quail. She raised her voice. Mrsha looked up and saw the [Witch]. Disconcerted.
The little Gnoll and Stitch Witch locked gazes. Slowly, deliberately…
Mrsha turned the volume up.
The stupid song began to play louder. Lasica and Rufelt stumbled forwards. They had no idea what this was. But Mrsha let the movie play. She focused on it, not the memories. Not the darkness or Belavierr’s whispers.
The [Witch] tried. She conjured Mrsha’s friends, images from Mrsha’s past. She whispered, raised her voice. Mrsha just pressed her face closer to the screen. She noticed something, as the movie was running.
The clock in the corner of Kevin’s laptop hadn’t moved. The movie played, but time didn’t move for the laptop. And accordingly…
The battery wasn’t running out.
The mundane device hummed, happily contained within the [Immortal Moment]. It didn’t fit. It shouldn’t have run—but nothing in this world had ever existed like it. Pure technology, no sorcery.
It took a mere hour and a bit for the movie to end. When it was done, Belavierr looked down at Mrsha. That was no time at all compared to forever.
Yet it had…irked her. She narrowed her eyes at Mrsha.
“A clever trick. You are still trapped in here, girl…”
She stopped again. Belavierr heard a second sound began to play. She actually bent down, incredulously. It couldn’t be. But it was.
Mrsha was playing the second movie Kevin had stolen and copied to his laptop. The second movie, which was very long, but very nice, that Eldavin had found so offensive. About Dragons and Dwarves and little Hobbits. Or just one.
Lasica and Rufelt sat there, staring at the laptop, Mrsha. Behind them stood the Witch of Calamity, the Witch of Webs, filling the world with her nightmares and dark temptations. And what did Mrsha pit against her?
A laptop? Well—yes. Mrsha stared at the bright, colorful stories being played out from another world.
Movies. Fun stories for children, pastimes for entertainment. They weren’t stronger than Belavierr was.
They weren’t as grand as Erin or the [Witch]. Not as heartfelt as Numbtongue’s story, or as inspiring as Maviola’s.
But—they could be louder than a book. Brighter than fire. They told her a story like the Players of Celum. With pictures and music, such that every moment shouted, too loud to let anything else in. Someone—many people had worked hard to make them wonderful. More than anything else, though?
They were distracting. If you looked at the bright screen, played Numbtongue’s game, it was hard to focus on even Belavierr. It was a way out. So Mrsha sat there and…binged on movies. She played the video games, and let Lasica and Rufelt touch the laptop.
Behind them, the [Witch] stood there. Incredulous. Furious. Confused. She was the old world. This device? She had never seen its like. She tried to turn it off—but she had no power over it. It wasn’t magic.
She tried to fill the air with nightmares. Mrsha, Rufelt, and Lasica just leaned closer to the screen. Belavierr raised her voice, shouting in thunderous tones—then realized she was competing for their attention with the laptop speakers.
And the laptop wouldn’t run out of power. Belavierr looked down at it. She looked up at the little Gnoll’s defiant gaze. The [Witch] stepped back. She gazed upon the device from another world.
Then the Temptress, the last great [Witch], the Stitch Witch, Belavierr of Calamity…gave up.
Not because she had been bested by a greater story.
Not because Mrsha had outwitted her with guile that would fool even Dragons.
Not because she had been outmatched in any way.
Simply in sheer disgust. Disgust at this strange device, this loud, shouting object she had no control over. Harbinger of a changing world.
“A world where my power will wane further. Will my daughter’s craft endure?”
Belavierr walked down the hill. Her shadow vanished. Mrsha’s head rose. Her eyes went round.
The sun was back! It reappeared in the opening of the dome. She looked up and Belavierr was gone!
The door to the inn was lying against the wall. The three, Rufelt, Lasica, and Mrsha got up. Unsteadily, they came down the hill and saw it open to the common room, where Belavierr had first called the [Immortal Moment]. She was standing there, arms folded.
Everyone was frozen where they had been. No darkness. Just halted in mid-motion. Numbtongue, buzzing Apista, Montressa, Palt, and Bezale, frozen mid-spell.
The Stitch Witch looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll stopped there, laptop in her paws.
Belavierr’s lips were a flat line. Mrsha tilted her head, copying Belavierr.
I won, and you lost. Stupid.
She knew Belavierr understood her. The [Witch] refused to acknowledge the fact. She stared at Mrsha, and the laptop.
“Is this what the future holds? Do you feel proud, girl? In creating, possessing a device that wastes time on lesser stories? Tales you can retell at the single press of your finger? There is no [Bard] to sing each tale differently, each time. It cheapens myth. Fable will be dragged down by such petty instruments. Do you relish that? Making Dragons mundane?”
Mrsha stared down at the laptop. She looked up and shrugged. She didn’t know about all that, but the laptop was pretty nice.
Belavierr stared up. She looked so—annoyed, disgusted, that she seemed less immortal and rather more like an Eldavin. Exasperated at this. She looked at Mrsha. And then—the [Stitch Witch] nodded.
“I have lost. You win, Mrsha. With petty lights and the cheapening of wonder itself.”
Mrsha felt like this was an insult, but she wasn’t sure. Belavierr sighed. She looked at Mrsha.
“I will not forget this. You, Mrsha. Mrsha du Marquin, Mrsha of the Stone Spears tribe. Mrsha of The Wandering Inn. I see you. I remember your name. This I shall not forgive.”
Mrsha’s triumphant little smile vanished. She backed up a step. Hold on. We don’t need to be enemies. There was the ancient [Witch]. Mrsha was a cute Mrsha! She didn’t need an eternal oath of vengeance.
The [Witch] hissed. She declared her wrath and vengeance for the first time on…a little Gnoll girl. She stood at the entrance to the [Garden of Sanctuary].
“I cannot enter. You have bested me, Mrsha. Well done. There will be no pacts. None for you, nor Rufelt or Lasica.”
She drew the soulcatcher. Rufelt made a sound.
Belavierr tore it apart. Lasica screamed, lurching forwards. She stumbled out of the door and Mrsha cried out. Belavierr ignored her. Something sighed as it vanished. She could have snatched Lasica. Torn at Rufelt as he ran forwards to protect his wife.
She didn’t care. She pointed at Mrsha.
“I cannot enter to strike my bargain, but you shall not remain unblemished, girl. So.”
The [Witch] turned. Mrsha saw Lasica weeping, calling out a name amid the shreds of the delicate prison, lying torn on the ground. Rufelt was staring at Belavierr, fists clenched. But the [Witch] was walking back. And…
Her [Immortal Moment] was ending.
Mrsha saw it. It had begun with the tearing of the soulcatcher. Her declaration. Numbtongue’s sword was moving. Slightly, slightly—despite the speed at which it was surely swinging.
Yet time was returning. Belavierr walked around the inn. Mrsha saw Niers’ eyes move slightly as he swung himself down from the beam. What did they see? Belavierr moved around the inn, inspecting the other faces, searching for something and eying Mrsha. In the last moments of her Skill, she found what she was looking for. She reached out as the inn began to resume its connection with reality.
She grabbed Apista. The little bee jerked, drawn into the slowed time. She buzzed—and then Belavierr was squeezing her. Tight. She turned as Mrsha dropped the laptop in horror.
“Yes. Come out, girl. Or this child dies.”
Belavierr squeezed and Apista buzzed frantically. The [Witch] looked at Mrsha. Did you think I had no other means to draw you out? She had just wanted to win this game of wills.
Now—Apista was buzzing, unable to scream, but Mrsha heard her. The little [Druid] stared at her friend. Numbtongue was pivoting, incredulous, but the world was slow.
“I will count to five. Then I will crush her. One. Two. Three…”
Belavierr watched the doorway. She saw Mrsha back up. The door vanished. The [Witch] counted, unperturbed.
She turned as the door to the garden opened behind her. Apista buzzed, feeling the pain of the [Witch]’s hand. Don’t come out, Mrsha! Don’t! Lasica and Rufelt said it too.
Of course she came out.
Mrsha leapt through the door of the [Garden of Sanctuary] in a flying head-butt, blazing with Erin’s fire.
She knew it would mean her death.
But she wouldn’t let her family die.
Mrsha crashed into Belavierr’s stomach. The [Witch] took the impact. Mrsha landed on the ground, dizzy. She looked up as Belavierr let go of Apista. The [Witch] laughed. She pointed down.
Reality resumed. What had seemed a moment for the others snapped back to focus. Suddenly, Rufelt and Lasica were out of the door! Mrsha was lying in front of Belavierr.
They felt the [Immortal Moment] pass in one single second of disorientation, a sense of eternity, time compressed. Then it all came flooding back. Belavierr, face twisted with wrath for some reason, standing over Mrsha, not the couple. She pointed down.
Numbtongue slashed the air where Belavierr had been before she blurred past him. He whirled. Niers bellowed, pointing, but he was mid-dive. The bolt of death magic shot at Mrsha’s chest. She looked up, eyes wide.
Wanderer blocked the bolt with his staff. The Gnoll appeared, leaping through the chaos almost as fast as Belavierr. He let the magic splash across his staff and it flickered out. Belavierr blinked. She eyed the Gnoll.
Then Rags shot her through the chest. Belavierr staggered as a fiery crossbow bolt appeared in her body. She was hit by a flash of lightning—Montressa’s Shock Orb. Numbtongue slashed across her back and a cup bounced off her head.
That last one came from Ishkr. Everyone saw the [Witch] stumble—then walk back. Smoking, yanking the crossbow bolt out—she didn’t even care. She pointed at Mrsha.
A flickering rain of a thousand needles burst from the air, shooting at Mrsha like arrows. Again, she flinched, but Wanderer swung his cloak up and blocked the rain of needles.
“Get to the garden!”
Palt shouted, forcing Imani towards the open door. They were still reacting, as he launched several arrows of light at Belavierr’s back. Kevin was still rising to his feet, Joseph nearly colliding with a table. It was moving too fast for the non-warriors. Bezale bellowed.
“No, not her! Not her! It’s the Witch of Calamity! Don’t—”
Her warning came far too late. Belavierr jerked as a flaming ball of fire burst over her dress, but she ignored Ulvama’s fire like she ignored the chair that hit her and splintered; Calescent had tossed his seat. She still aimed at Mrsha. This time? Niers’ blood chilled as he heard a spell of a tier only he was familiar with.
“[Vortex of the Abyssal King].”
Belavierr cast the spell and a hole opened up. A hole to engulf the world. Niers whirled, finger raised. It would eat the inn, not just the little Gnoll it had opened under. It would eat part of Liscor if someone didn’t—
Mrsha felt a terrible pull. She saw a tiny little hole open up, so small, but trying to pull all of her through it. It opened—and vanished with a pop just as fast.
Niers blinked. Belavierr blinked. She frowned at the ground, then looked up and met Wanderer’s gaze.
The Gnoll was panting. Yet he brandished the staff as the cloak shed the needles. He growled.
“[Never Again, Nevermore]. I don’t know who you are, but you won’t kill her.”
The [Witch] eyed Wanderer. Mrsha stared up at the white Gnoll with fur like hers. Wait. This was her mysterious stalker! Was he a nice guy after all?
Numbtongue ran Belavierr through from behind. She stared at the sword’s tip that emerged from her stomach. Again, the inn slowed.
The bloodless blade gleamed. Belavierr put a finger on the tip and forced it back out of her. She glanced over her shoulder. Numbtongue backed up. Everyone stopped, spells, weapons ready.
You had to. When you saw someone eat a [Lightning Bolt], three other spells, a crossbow bolt, and survive two stabbings…
Numbtongue gave it one last try. The [Soulbard] slashed, and bisected Belavierr’s head from her shoulders. His sword cut her head off and he whirled back from the slash.
Just in time to see the thin line close. Belavierr glanced at him. Numbtongue looked at the seamless place he had sliced her. Then he stopped too.
Now, the [Witch] stood in the center of the inn, peering around. Confused. Her eyes flashed venom at Mrsha, who was hiding behind Wanderer. Did they go back for the door? She was looking at Apista, who was buzzing weakly on a table, one wing injured. Belavierr would hurt her!
“What is she? Not hired by them?”
Wanderer’s eyes were flickering around, uncertain of all those in the inn. The Brothers were frozen, aiming crossbows at Belavierr, the other guests looking at the dark legend and beginning to realize what Mrsha had seen.
Belavierr? Her eyes rolled as her head and body slowly rotated. She looked at Wanderer first.
“A guardian of outcasts.”
Her eyes rolled about, unnaturally mobile, moving independently of one another.
“A small warlord.”
She was not looking at Rags. Then she did and the Goblin Chieftain got a glimpse of that terrible immortality. She felt a flash—
“Let us make a deal, Goblin Lord.”
Belavierr looked into her eyes. No—one of Rags’ ancestors! She shuddered, then and now. Belavierr passed over her.
“A Goblin Chieftain.”
“A warrior of ghosts.”
Rags, Ulvama, Numbtongue. She identified each in a moment. Then she slowed and fixed on something…interesting.
“A new class.”
Joseph. She fixed him with a look, then moved on. She ignored Kevin and Imani. Calescent too, much to the Hobgoblin’s hurt.
“A child of the House of Minos. Trickster’s get. Blood of Terandria.”
The three Wistram [Mages]. Ishkr and Liska could have been the air. Belavierr’s head turned.
“Strange. How did all gather here?”
Niers was swearing. Wanderer bent, tensed. Montressa was pointing as Bezale unrolled her scrolls. Rags made hand-signs to Calescent and Ulvama as she touched a claw to her temples. Violence was about to begin, but it held off another shivering second as the [Witch] remained perplexed. Then someone answered her.
“This is an inn. This is where people come by. Did you not know that?”
Belavierr’s head turned. She stared at the Antinium who had come down the stairs, bow in hand. She eyed him.
“What are you, thing?”
He raised his bow.
“A silly Bird.”
Bird shot an arrow straight at Belavierr’s left eye. It snapped in midair. So did his bowstring. Time resumed.
“[Fivefold Arcane Barrier]!”
Montressa threw up a shield over half the inn. Bezale activated her scroll.
“[Haste]! [Stoneskin]! [Lion’s Strength]—”
She lunged forwards in a punch, through Montressa’s barrier. Rags tossed a [Fireball], swearing as she saw the Minotaur charging straight at Belavierr.
The [Witch]’s hands blurred. She plucked a strand from the woven fireball, and lashed it into Numbtongue’s chest as he went for a leg-cut. The air exploded and he was flung backwards. She ignored the dozen arrows Palt sent into her back; they evaporated on her robes.
She caught Bezale’s fist, stared into the Minotauress’ eyes, and tossed her into a wall. She turned back to Mrsha again.
“[Lance of Fire—]”
Her aim was thrown off as Wanderer leapt, Mrsha in his arms, trying to dodge and rolling. Belavierr tracked him.
Calescent knocked her arm down. The huge Hobgoblin [Chef] saw Belavierr look at him, annoyed. He lifted his other claw, and blew his special death-spice into her face and eyes. Belavierr didn’t blink. Calescent’s confident expression turned to unease.
“Fly away, Goblin.”
The Goblin [Chef]’s clothes picked him up and tossed him like Bezale. Calescent hit a wall and Rags heard a terrible crunch as his arm caught the blow. He landed, grunting. The Hob looked at the yellow bone poking out of torn flesh.
Belavierr turned. She saw another burst of light and over two hundred magical arrows unleashed, striking her across her body. Palt nearly galloped into a wall; he stared at his wand, dumbfounded.
Niers Astoragon watched the arrows strike Belavierr head-to-toe. Even magnified, the spells just…vanished. He grunted.
Clothing resists low-tiered magic. Great.
He was keeping back, monitoring and analyzing her now, crouched out of the way of the fighting. Belavierr frowned at Palt. She pointed and a stream of needles shot towards his body. He screamed as they peppered his flanks, but he was halfway within Montressa’s barrier and the rest of the needles glanced off the barrier.
“Kevin! Get in here!”
Joseph and Imani were shouting. Ishkr, Liska—the non-combatants were in the garden, but Mrsha was still pinned, protected by the white Gnoll. Belavierr turned to cast another spell as Mrsha crawled for the door.
“I will kill your friend, Mrsha.”
She aimed a finger at Apista, glowing with fire. The Gnoll stopped. Belavierr took aim at her again. This time Numbtongue leapt forwards. Only—it wasn’t Numbtongue.
Pyrite punched Belavierr in the face, on the basis that all the sword slashes hadn’t worked. He felt his fist meet the [Witch]’s nose—but it was strange. He felt it should have broken, but it seemed like he was hitting a sack. Her head barely jerked and when he drew his fist back—nothing.
Belavierr swung an arm and a glittering pair of scissors cut the place where Pyrite had been. He ducked it with Numbtongue’s body, stamped on her foot, and shoulder-charged her. Again—he bounced off. She was like a pillar! The Hob threw himself left just in time; a jet of midnight flame engulfed the floor where he had been standing. He crashed into a table, rolled over the side, and saw Rags stand up.
She loosed another crossbow bolt and it snapped midair. The Chieftain dropped her crossbow, swearing, a second before the crossbow itself exploded, the steel ‘string’ breaking. Pyrite’s head rose. He looked around.
The plate crashed into the back of Belavierr’s head. She turned slightly, and needles demolished Pyrite’s cover. He rolled behind another table, and Numbtongue felt Pyrite’s time run out. The [Bard] swore as he got to his feet, but Pyrite’s last words were still on his lips.
The Goldstone Chieftain was certain they should be dead. A dozen times over. He might not know Belavierr, but he knew a Greydath-level threat when he saw one.
That no one was…was odd. Pyrite was clear enough to realize it at the same time as Niers. It was as Belavierr tried to aim at Mrsha again and was thrown off—this time by Montressa’s third bolt of lightning—that it became obvious to both. Rags too.
Belavierr was bad at fighting. Either that, or she wasn’t really trying. She was giving it a good try; Wanderer leapt with Mrsha again, avoiding scythes of air that cut apart everything in their path and sliced even into the walls of the inn. But Belavierr herself?
She just let Shorthilt charge at her and slash her body. Her dress blocked spells, and she just…ignored the rest. Because she wasn’t in danger.
They couldn’t hurt her. Niers grunted.
Like damned cats—evil as they could be, but still cats—trying to eat a Fraerling in enchanted plate. Belavierr was taking her time, expending little energy and magic. In fact, she actually grabbed Shorthilt and tossed him a third time, with tremendous, if poorly-directed strength.
Rags didn’t run in with her shortsword. She had a claw to her temples. This wasn’t going to be solved with her blades. Bird charged past her.
“I am a distraction! Oh—”
He dove behind Montressa’s barrier as a needle twice as long as his arm nearly went through his head. Rags swore and went for cover too; half-hearted or not, she could kill them easily. She looked around. Where were the hat-men?
The answer was that they were fighting too.
The Plain’s Eye Doomhunters had seen Okrha enter the inn and then heard nothing from her. They did not think she was alive.
“The Antinium’s gone. Do we go in? She could be alive—”
They were arguing. Their [Hunt Leader] snarled.
“They know we’re here. Seceik, Nisha, Redl, inside! Cover Redl—in and out.”
The three Gnolls rose from the grass. Two covered the inn as the rest advanced, wary of a trap. Redl rose and activated his shaman-markings; his fur was like the Steelfur Tribe’s for a moment. He burst through the doorway. There was a shout.
“Okhra’s dead. Someone’s slain her! I hear—fighting? There’s—”
A snarl. He threw himself back out of the inn, a crossbow bolt buried in one shoulder.
“Ambush! Someone shot me from the walls!”
He howled in pain as the other two Gnolls took aim at the attackers and—hesitated.
“I didn’t see where the arrow came from!”
“It’s poisoned. No—no, it burns.”
The three ran back. Redl realized what it was as his fur smoked and burned. He poured a potion on it desperately.
“Acid! They dipped the bolt in acid—”
“They are waiting for us. How did they know we would arrive? Are there more?”
The Gnolls of the Plain’s Eye tribe growled at each other. The [Hunt Leader] looked at the inn. He wanted to howl his hatred. Doom lay within. It had claimed one of theirs already because they were careless. He looked at Liscor, made up his mind.
“No tricks. No trying that ambush again. We destroy the inn. Nisha. Blow it apart.”
The Gnoll [Ranger] looked at their leader uncertainly, then nodded. She pulled out objects from her bag of holding, one after another, in rapid succession.
They were bundles of arrows, each one in groups of twenty; a single glowing arrowhead in the center of each. Standard for Plain’s Eye warriors of their rank. She placed four on the ground and then raised her enchanted bow. She growled.
“[Piercing Shots]. [Rain of Arrows]!”
Her bow began to sing. All eighty arrows began to loose into the air with the ones she manually fired. A rain flying up and arching down—
One of the [Guards] on the wall saw the first arrows land. The enchanted arrows blew apart in grey blasts of light; the rest shredded wood, mundane or not. The [Guard] sprinted down the wall to the Senior Guard on duty.
“The inn! It’s under attack again!”
“Sound the alarm!”
The Watch on the eastern and southern walls came alive, trying to pinpoint the sudden attack. They watched as the Level 30 Skill shredded the inn! The…
They took out the tower and part of the roof. The Gnolls stared incredulously at the inn. If it rained, there would be flooding on the third floor. That was it.
“Reinforced walls. What level is that Skill?”
“[Hunt Leader], we’ve been spotted.”
Horns were blaring from Liscor’s walls. The [Hunt Leader] cursed.
“Then we go in. Eight.”
He called for a full third of their group. The Gnolls grimly armored up; they had the magic of their tribe and they were all high-level. The rest moved closer. The [Hunt Leader] watched as the first eight Gnolls went into the inn. Fighting began in seconds.
“Ambush! They’re in the walls!”
“There’s no cover! [Wall of Earth]!”
“We can’t break the walls—argh!”
A scream. A [Rogue] had come out of one of the hidden passageways. The Gnolls whirled, but before they could turn on him, another shrieked. Acid was pouring from the ceiling! And they were in the center of a cross-fire from the walls.
Eight went in. Five came out, one with the fur on her arms burning from the acid. The Gnolls stared. They had seen Drake forts with less heavy resistance! That was an inn?
“What do we do? That’s a kill zone. We’re running out of time. The city is going to send soldiers. We can hold them for a few minutes. From the top? Try again later? They knew we were coming.”
The [Hunt Leader] was growling, thinking. He narrowed his eyes.
“Fall back. We’ll wait for another chance. Tell the [Shaman]—”
The Gnolls were racing back to the grass where they could vanish. Then they heard a sound from within the inn, along with the muffled sounds of an altercation within. They heard a whining sound, high-pitched. One of the Doomslayers looked up.
“What is that s—”
A bright, orange-red light flashed from the side of the inn. Just a finger’s width in diameter. It went through the walls, missing its intended target, straight through Montressa’s barrier.
It went straight through one of the Gnolls. She fell without a word. The Doomslayers dove for cover. The [Hunt Leader] stared at the hole in his comrade’s chest.
They stared at the inn. Then they heard the drums and turned their heads.
“[Ray of Disintegration].”
Belavierr missed. Wanderer whirled Mrsha out of the way again. [Perfect Dodge]! She looked around, raised one hand.
The electricity unfolded and spooled into her hand. Belavierr stared at it, and tossed it straight back. The Shock Orb exploded and Montressa screamed.
“A single type of spell is worthless.”
All the lightning bolts had been about as effective as spitting on Belavierr. She frowned at Mrsha.
“[Wall of Blood Thorns].”
Two walls appeared, boxing in Wanderer who had Mrsha under one arm. He growled. Belavierr smiled—
He jumped through the door to the garden, landed in it, and whirled around. Belavierr instantly shifted aim towards Apista. Wanderer leapt back through after Mrsha as she leapt for her friend. Belavierr turned to track Mrsha—and stopped.
She would have missed anyways. Numbtongue tackled her from behind and went for a leg-sweep. He failed the leg-sweep; Belavierr’s legs didn’t budge, but she glanced at him in annoyance.
“This is not working.”
Numbtongue eyed her.
She flicked a finger. He hit something and fell; the shockwave of air left his ears ringing. Belavierr stepped back. She ignored the spells pelting her from the left side; Bezale howled at Palt.
“Stop casting spells! Nothing below Tier 4 even touches her!”
“Maybe it’s annoying her!”
Belavierr grasped at Mrsha. She was muttering.
“I am not direct. This is not my craft. Interference. The little warlord…”
She glanced around, but she’d lost him. Strange. He should be wearing thread and she sensed the other threads, even magical ones. She’d felt his Skills throwing her off, empowering the others this entire time. Fraerlings on Izril? Curious. She’d thought they had all fled.
So Belavierr plucked at something in the air no one could see but her. Montressa narrowed her eyes. She thought she saw something. Some kind of intense current of mana…?
“She’s doing something to Mrsha! Stop her!”
Palt blew a cloud of smoke around Belavierr. It didn’t do a thing; the hallucinogen was as effective as Calescent’s spice. The Hob had given up on that; he’d realized nothing made of string could hurt Belavierr. So he was lighting the most flammable alcohols on fire and chucking them at her. Rufelt was helping.
“That one! Throw that one! That one won’t light! Not that one! It’s expensive!”
Belavierr was looking at Mrsha. The Gnoll felt the [Witch] pulling at her. She cried out soundlessly, and felt Belavierr twist—the [Witch] grinned.
“Ah, yes. White fur. Let me show you the doom following you, Mrsha.”
She drew a glittering needle in one hand, and pierced the air. She ignored all else and whispered. Mrsha felt her hair standing up. She felt a tug, and then the [Witch] whispered.
“[Thread of Fate].”
Her craft exceeded the petty little spells by far. Mrsha felt the [Witch] pull something, threading something coming out of her with the needle. It tugged tight. And then—
Drums. Mrsha’s head turned, and she heard a distant chorus of angry trumpets. Bezale, next to a window, pouring a potion on a cracked rib, chanced a glance outside. Her eyes widened.
“House of Minos. No way—”
The Watch was already on full alert. The inn-response team was halfway out the gates when they heard the drums and trumpets.
They came out of nowhere. Jeiss was already on the battlements. He turned and swore.
“How did they get there? We have sentries—”
An army was coming up the road. An army with banners he recognized. Hectval.
They seemed as confused as Liscor. The sentry alarms began coming in.
“—Just appeared out of nowhere! Like a blur!”
“Hectval! They have catapults—”
“How…how did we get here?”
The [Siegemaster] of Hectval raised a claw to his head. He looked around, confused. They should have been two days away! But they’d been marching and…no, they’d come here as planned.
Two days early? He looked up.
“We’re nearly in range of the city! Siegemaster, orders?”
“Be—begin the assault!”
Confusion was replaced by certainty. They had always meant to come here. The [Siegemaster] shook his head.
“Target the new portion of the city! Catapults to fire as soon as they are within range. And take that inn! Flashfire Riders, go!”
A stream of Drakes on horseback detached outwards. They knew their targets. The new, weak part of the city not protected by walls. And the inn, where the damned perpetrator of the attack on Hectval was. They’d torch both and pull back.
Surprise attack! To…everybody.
Belavierr had just pulled an army out of thin air. Rags turned her head back to the [Witch], eyes wide.
“My craft is far stronger than little spells. See, child? Now, what other threads have you to pull and tear?”
The [Witch] reached for Mrsha. Wanderer blocked her way again, but this time she had his measure. She flicked a finger.
“The hangman’s noose calls you, guardian.”
He froze, and grabbed at his cloak. Too late—it twined around his neck, twisting up—trying to hang him! And again, she ignored the blows raining on her back, spells and arrows both. Bird’s bowstring snapped again and he tossed it down.
“This is cheating!”
Cheating? This was a Level…Rags didn’t know, but it was far beyond her. This was Greydath levels. Beyond Greydath levels?
More articles of clothing tried to strangle their owners. Belavierr seemed amused that such a trick was working on all those present. Nothing made of string could stand against her. Nor…could any of those in the inn hurt her.
“Show me your tricks, child. Your little stories. Show me how they can hurt me.”
She called to Mrsha, advancing at a slow walk. Mrsha backed up. The door opened behind her, but a wall of red thorns grew, blocking off the walls. Belavierr smiled and reached down, hand like a claw.
No one to stop her. Except her peers. She pointed and whispered a spell.
“[Swarm of Pestilence].”
Numbtongue howled. He struggled against his armor, pinning him against the ground. He saw Mrsha cover her face. And the spell…
Didn’t appear. Belavierr blinked at her finger. Then her orange, ringed eyes flicked up. She heard a buzzing sound.
The Titan soared up. On Apista’s back. He was sitting there…buck naked. All he held was his sword. Apista did an aileron roll, as Belavierr jerked back. Too slowly. As if she didn’t understand the danger.
[Battlefield: Even Ground – No Magic, No Luck, No Skills, Only Strategy]. She tried to cast a spell.
Niers stabbed her in the eye as he flew past. He twisted the sword, yanked—
And tore out her right eye.
Mrsha covered her own face in horror, and then saw Belavierr reel back. She cried out. And then felt at the bloody hole in her eye. She whirled—
Calescent slammed into her. He stabbed her twice with a dagger; she hurled him aside. He went flying like before, but now? There was blood on her dress. She gazed at the wounds on her chest.
The Titan and Apista were fleeing across the inn as fast as possible. Niers felt the Skill fighting against Belavierr; it wasn’t going to last five minutes! Yet they’d wounded her! Belavierr turned, as Numbtongue roared and charged with his sword. She looked at him—and screamed.
Her body unfolded as he tried to plant it in her chest. Niers saw her come apart. A million strings, unraveling—and in the center, someone was shrieking at him.
A younger woman, clutching at her eye, standing amid an ancient circle frozen beyond time. She was screaming at him—
And then the threads folded and the image vanished. Belavierr was gone. Numbtongue whirled, slashing.
“She’s all magic.”
Niers was shaken. He’d seen his Skill fail once before when he tried it on a being of pure magic. You couldn’t ‘take’ a Dragon’s magic away, only make it vulnerable. Same with Djinni. He looked around.
“She can’t have gone far. She’s—”
His head turned. He saw Belavierr, felt her reform and reappear.
Outside the inn. She was striding away, quickly, even stumbling, without her Seven League Boots. Niers roared.
“After her! Before my Skill ends!”
She was running away! But she’d be back as soon as the Skill ran out. And she was looking back at Niers, clutching at the hole in her head. Belavierr strode forwards—
Right into the fight between the Doomslayers and Hectval’s cavalry.
The Plain’s Eye Hunters had no idea how the Drakes appeared. Hectval’s army had no idea who they were until they nearly ran over the Gnolls.
The first indication they got was an arrow punching the leading [Lieutenant] out of the saddle. They looked down.
Hectval had some Gnolls in their front ranks, but these were clearly Liscor’s elites! They broke off, shouting.
“There’s an ambush team lying in wait! Gnolls with bows!”
“Who are these Drakes?”
The [Hunt Leader] roared. He drew an object from his pack, tossed it down. The customized bear trap took down a horse and rider and he speared the Drake. This was an army!
“They trapped us! Fight!”
Hectval’s riders ran straight into the Gnolls on the ground. The Gnoll Doomslayers were outnumbered, but they had levels. Arrows slashed through the riders’ ranks; one of the Gnolls grew, and began tearing Drakes from saddles. The [Shamanic Warriors] weren’t invincible, though, and the Drakes on horseback cut down two in the first minute of fighting.
That was when the Witch ran straight into them. She was striding along, clutching at her eye, stumbling. A Drake on horseback turned to her.
“You damned Humans!”
He slashed down. Belavierr saw the blow coming from the sabre. She had no magic spells, no Skills.
She drew, of all things, a pair of huge scissors, like you might use to cut cloth. They gleamed with a foreign metal. She parried the sword-stroke, and snipped once across the Drake’s throat.
It gleamed faintly with a weak magic. Barely able to function with Niers’ Skill on it. It still worked. The Drake jerked, fell off the horse, as some of the fighters noticed her. Belavierr saw one of the Plain’s Eye Gnolls whirl about, axe raised to throw. She drove the scissors down and left them buried in his brain.
The fallen Gnoll and Drake began to jerk. They rose from the ground, and shambled upright. The two weak zombies lurched forwards to protect Belavierr as she backed away from the fighting.
“I ran into the thread. Both of them. They’re tangled. Inconvenient. My eye. He took my eye. No one has ever taken my eye.”
She was muttering. The two zombies blocked the Drakes and Gnolls, who attacked her back, appalled. The [Hunt Leader] shouted.
“Kill that Human! [Necromancer]!”
One of his Gnolls aimed an arrow at Belavierr’s back. The Witch tried to block the arrow—it curved slightly as she twisted her fingers, but her Skill was gone. And when the second hit her in the breast…she stared down at the blood.
Thunk. Thunk. Two more arrows hit her and she staggered. Blood ran down her dress. Belavierr saw a Drake riding down at her and tossed something in her face.
A black vial. The Drake [Soldier] screamed and crashed from the saddle, clawing at—and then going still as a dark substance ate it away, consuming her. Belavierr moved back; the others hesitated to get close. But the arrows pelted her.
The [Hunt Leader] saw more standing out in her chest. Belavierr was staggering, now. She tried to speak, coughed up blood.
“My eye. He took my eye.”
She murmured. The [Hunt Leader] charged with a howl, spear raised. He saw a Goblin, a Minotaur, and three men in hats pour out of the inn, looking towards Belavierr, shouting.
The spear ran through Belavierr’s heart. The Gnoll drew it out to stab again and hesitated.
There was no blood this time. He looked up.
Belavierr’s good eye shone. The ringed gaze…something was appearing in the bloody socket of the other.
A ball of string. It stitched itself into a copy of her eye in seconds. Yet it did not please her. The [Stitch Witch] bent down.
“He stole my eye.”
The Gnoll [Hunt Leader] dropped his spear. He backed up—and saw his fallen comrade and the Drake Belavierr had killed whirl.
Sinew like string connected the severed body parts. They moved with insane strength and speed. One leapt on him and ripped—
Belavierr turned away as her two new minions regained their full power. She looked around. If that warlord had possessed an army…? Her eyes focused on the inn.
Numbtongue, Bezale, and the Brothers looked at the [Witch], standing there, arrows snapping and blood ceasing to flow. Her wounds closed. Her eye was back.
They hurried back inside the inn and closed the door. Inside, Niers Astoragon saw the eye still embedded on his sword swivel around to face him.
Outside, the witch began to chant.
“Buried deep. Left apart. Come together. Vengeance be your heart. Rise from the dark and slaughter until you have had your fill. Vile behemoth, I name you: Rogghiedroth, come. Share my will…”
Lines of force moved around, tracing a vast circle in the ground. Kevin peeked out the window, took one look at the hundred-foot-wide summoning circle, and turned.
“Uh, guys? If the inn disappears…what happens to the garden?”
No one could believe the mana signature appearing outside the inn. The [Mage] on Liscor’s walls just started throwing up; that told Jeiss everything he needed to know.
“Focus the wall spells on whatever’s coming up from there!”
“But Senior Guardsman—Hectval’s nearly about to unleash their catapults!”
Jeiss knew that. The army was intending to bombard his city. But whatever was coming out of that hole? He had a feeling no one could stop that.
“You heard me! Fire! Fire!”
A bolt of lightning shot down, a Tier 5 spell at least in force. It might as well have been another bit of string. The [Witch] didn’t even blink as it touched the tip of her hat—and turned into a thousand little bits of disconnected lines of electricity that earthed themselves around her.
Jeiss was used to inn-level threats and disasters. But he was also used to Tier 5 spells doing something to them. He swallowed hard.
“Siegemaster! That’s a summoning spell! I have no idea what it is!”
“Then bombard the caster!”
The [Siegemaster] was sweating. His [Dangersense] was going off the charts and the Drake cavalry division he’d sent out had been slaughtered. He saw one of the catapults turn and loose. An enchanted boulder shot forwards, not as powerful as the trebuchets those Humans had stolen from somewhere, but enchanted to shatter into a hundred burning fragments. It went for the [Witch]—and bounced off her. It landed on the ground, detonated.
The shards fell from her dress. The [Siegemaster] lowered his spyglass.
Belavierr ignored the attacks from both sides like she had in the inn. She was nearly finished chanting, summoning…something. It came up from the ground, an actual being. With a name. It had heard her call and awoken from wherever it was buried. It was clawing upwards, larger than the inn.
It was nearly out of the gateway. It was a spell beyond any reasonable cost. Belavierr no longer cared. Two, now. She had two grudges. One had offended her beyond belief. The other? The other had taken her eye.
She had lived for all this time without ever losing her eyes. And one was gone now, after the [Knight] had burned away so many protections, in an unguarded moment, victim to a Skill with nearly as much power behind it as hers.
So…she was going to kill everything. Belavierr beckoned to the figure crawling out from below.
“Slaughter the child and the Fraerling. Destroy them. Come. The warlord lacks an army. You have nothing to fear. Nothing I have seen can threaten you nor I.”
The eye didn’t count. Belavierr ignored every petty mortal around her as she spread her arms wide, calling the beast upwards. Until…someone interrupted her.
“I was already in an appalling mood. Excellent.”
The [Witch] glanced dismissively to one side. Then she did a minor double-take. She looked back into Grimalkin’s fist.
For the first time, the [Witch] moved. The bound spell unleashed itself, a contained earthquake in his fist. She stumbled back, and the summoning circle flickered. She felt at her jaw. Then looked at the huge, muscle-bound Drake.
Grimalkin of Pallass. Both looked as disappointed as the other. Grimalkin grunted.
“Superlative physical resistance. That’s…disappointing. A Greater Frost Wyvern felt that. I’ll add it to my notes. Now—[Greater Dispel].”
He bent down and focused the second spell down. At one of the points in the hole opened below. Belavierr hissed. But a point of light broke away.
Below, something howled. Grimalkin glanced down in satisfaction as he saw the projected opening waver. Belavierr lifted her hands to stabilize the spell.
[Haste]. [Flash Step]. [Body of Flames]. [Bound Spell: Fireball].
Grimalkin struck her again. A mage-killing blow that should have incinerated her broken body. Instead, he saw Belavierr stumble again.
The Sinew Magus saw her glance at him, irritated. She went back to focusing on the spell. But a hail of needles flickered out of her robes and pelted him.
The Sinew Magus shielded his face, feeling the enchanted needles scoring his scales and failing to break in. He stepped back.
“[Stone Spire]. Fracture spell—[Accelerated Movement]. [Lion’s Strength]—”
His second trick manifested itself in a shard of stone half the size of his torso. He drew a quick rune of acceleration on it, and heaved it at her. Another trick to kill Wistram’s [Mages] if he faced them in combat.
The impromptu spell hit Belavierr with all the force of a ballista bolt. The stone powdered on impact. And she was still standing there.
The Sinew Magus grunted. His day was going from bad to worse. Lasica and Rufelt had raised the alarm and he’d already been responding to the claims the checkpoint had been attacked.
Belavierr did feel both blows, because one eye swiveled at him.
“I have no time to deal with you, [Mage]. Begone.”
For answer, Grimalkin just began layering spells into his fist for a second blow. She had some kind of magical barrier he wasn’t seeing. He did not like whatever was about to come out of the ground and only his magic had even slowed it. He charged Belavierr, dodging with [Flash Step] to avoid counter-spells…
Belavierr looked up. She pointed, and Grimalkin’s fist stopped a moment before it hit her. Black threads had shot out of the ground, wrapping themselves around his arm with amazing speed. He struggled, began to tear free.
“I said. Begone.”
The threads twisted. Grimalkin tried to cut fr—
He felt the snap, the impact that hurled his entire body through the air like a ragdoll. A normal Drake might have broken bones and muscle from the impact alone; Grimalkin only felt a few sinews tear. He was disoriented, but the [Haste] spell let him understand.
She’d thrown him like a child snapped a stone with a bit of cloth! He was falling—
Jeiss looked up. He didn’t want to believe it. But—had he just seen Grimalkin flying over the walls? The Drake hit the street like one of the catapult projectiles.
Could nothing stop Belavierr? Or—Hectval? Now, the wall spells were engaging the one target they could hit. Hectval’s army was returning fire, but it had split up. Two third of its force were guarding the catapults. They just wanted to shell Liscor and retreat. The other third? Heading for Belavierr and the inn.
“Prepare for combat! We need those catapults down!”
Jeiss was bellowing, but his stomach was in a knot. The army wasn’t ready! Hectval wanted to defend themselves; they were digging in. And that thing coming up…
Nightmarish, nightmarish. Watch Captain Zevara was mustering all the [Guards] she could, but it would be Watch versus whatever that [Witch] called out and Hectval’s soldiers. He got a missive from her. A panting Street Runner shouted up at Jeiss.
“Watch Captain reports—she is going to counterattack Hectval with Embria’s 4th Company and Liscor’s army! Strategist Olesm will coordinate the attack! Hold the walls!”
“That’s suicide! I’ll join—”
Jeiss whirled, about to argue. Then he looked back.
“Oh, Ancestors. Tell the Watch Captain—we might not have time for either.”
The first claw reached out of the hole in the ground. Every [Dangersense] in the city, already ringing, screamed three times as loud. Then Jeiss’s gaze swept up.
Belavierr was laughing. Evil, gloating laughter didn’t really become her. She was out of practice. She had not fought directly like this for a long time.
However, she could still appreciate it. The first claw broke into the air, heralding damnation. Slaughter.
Belavierr ignored Grimalkin, charging back towards her, Niers Astoragon, swearing and shouting, trying to figure out how to leverage his useless Skills. She paid no attention to the spells and munitions from Liscor and Hectval.
Of all the things in the battlefield across the Floodplains. It was a little ‘pop’ of displaced air that made Belavierr turn around. She lowered her arms. The portal wavered and something bellowed its annoyance below. The [Witch] couldn’t help it.
She turned all the way around and looked up at something which had appeared in the air behind her. Bird, who had been energetically tossing rocks at the thing coming out of the hole, looked up.
“Ah, at last. Reinforcements. Let us run away.”
He turned to Bezale. She looked up and froze.
Belavierr peered up at the figure hovering in the air slightly above her. It was a blue…Antinium. She had only two arms, and she did not look like the other one. Her eyes shone with myriad colors, flashing between them. And she…radiated power. Enough so that the [Stitch Witch] turned around. Belavierr tilted her head left slowly.
The Small Queen of the Antinium, Xrn, aimed her staff down. Her mandibles opened.
Molten rock, so hot it burned the soil and grass itself, cascaded from a small opening in the air. It covered Belavierr and the thing below.
The [Witch] raised a hand and the lava split around her. She looked behind—something was doused by the magma, but it kept climbing. Belavierr looked up at Xrn.
“I do not wish to quarrel with you, stranger—”
She looked around. Xrn had teleported behind her. The Small Queen touched Belavierr’s arm.
An unseen force flung Belavierr upwards, as if a catapult had hurled her up. Grimalkin, charging forwards, slowed as he saw the Stitch Witch go flying up, tossed like he had been.
Xrn leapt up and regarded what was coming out of the pit.
“We cannot have you. One army and that creature is enough. Begone, thing. [Bolt of the Lightning Giant].”
The largest flash of electricity so far struck downwards. Montressa’s [Chain Lightning], the other bolts of magic—looked like static electricity to the discharge that thundered downwards.
The impact made Xrn float a bit higher. She peered downwards. Something was still climbing up. She clicked her mandibles in annoyance.
“[A Thousand Shooting Stars].”
Miniature comets formed around her and began shooting downwards. Not as large as [Valmira’s Comet] but—Palt’s cigar dropped out of his mouth. It was like his [Light Arrow] spell, only on Xrn’s level! He felt a hand drag him back.
“Stop staring! There’s a damned army coming at us! Help fortify the inn!”
Bezale roared at him. Hectval’s army was streaming past the blaze of magic, wisely staying clear of the Small Queen.
The bombardment was enough. Whatever climbed up from dark depths had had enough already, Belavierr’s urgings or not. It let go and fell. Xrn watched the portal close with satisfaction.
Then she looked up. Belavierr had just slowed in her ascent. The Stitch Witch was falling out of the air. She saw Xrn shooting up at her, a blue arrow.
The Stitch Witch landed on the air. She slowly got up, and stood on an invisible platform, brushing at her dress. She peered down at Xrn as the Antinium halted in the sky next to her. Belavierr was…confused.
“Have I done something to off—”
This time she raised her hands. Both spellcasters unleashed magic at the same time.
“[Ray of Disintegration].”
“[Flight of the Phoenix King].”
Two spells flashed across the sky. Belavierr saw Xrn dodge the ray of light, casually. She tried to dodge in turn—and failed.
A burning, winged spell slammed Belavierr into the ground, and kept burning. The [Witch] rose, swiping at the flames. She strode forwards—
“[Ray of Disintegration].”
Xrn struck her from behind. Belavierr froze, and her body flickered around where the blue ray from Xrn’s finger struck her. She replied with a jet of black magic, a rising cloud. In response, Xrn clapped her hands together.
The cloud exploded. The impact knocked Belavierr flat. She blinked.
A pillar of earth punched her upwards. Then Grimalkin struck her. Belavierr struck the ground twice in as many seconds. The Sinew Magus eyed Xrn. She and he exchanged a glance.
“I was in Pallass. What’s your excuse?”
“I am always late. No one invites me to the inn.”
They turned back to the Stitch Witch. She got up, dusting herself off. She didn’t look hurt…on the other hand, she had lost her smile. She eyed Xrn.
“…Ah. The things of Rhir. I thought you stayed below. When did you leave? What do they call you? Archmage of Wistram?”
Xrn’s response was to freeze Belavierr solid. The air was a match for the Frost Wyvern’s breath and Grimalkin threw up a claw, grimacing at the memory. The frozen [Witch] began to crack before the spell even ended.
“Elemental magic doesn’t work. Physical damage doesn’t work. She’s more theoretical than present. Either that, or her magical shielding is capable of amazing diffusion.”
That was his analysis so far. Xrn turned to him.
“I have no idea what that means. My spells haven’t worked. But they will. Give me a minute.”
He nodded. Belavierr was moving.
“—seek no quarrel, Antinium. It is a personal matter—”
Grimalkin stomped and Belavierr went flying, shot away by another pillar of stone. He knew it did no good, but he conjured a pair of fireballs and tossed them at her.
She blocked both, sending back a needle twice as long as he was. It could have skewered him—Grimalkin punched it and shattered the metal projectile. He cursed; that hurt.
Belavierr was trying to stop Xrn; both she and Grimalkin could see the Antinium gathering magic. Xrn’s eyes began shining like a lighthouse’s light. And the Stitch Witch…looked a bit worried.
“I would like you to desist. [Deathlance]—”
The spell shot towards Xrn’s chest. Grimalkin would have blocked it, but Xrn just dodged left. He seized Belavierr and threw her. She struck him once and he staggered, but physical combat was his specialty. Locking her down in a fistfight was advantageous even if he didn’t hurt her. She landed a few blows on him as he tackled her.
“Identified! Grimalkin of Pallass and the Small Queen of the Antinium are fighting whatever that Human is!”
The [Siegemaster] of Hectval felt his stomach heave. Grimalkin? Pallass? This was going too far. And the Antinium’s nightmare? Hectval had not come for that.
“We’re just here for Liscor. Issue a statement to Pallass that if the Sinew Magus gets in our way—this is an inter-city dispute! Volley the new section of the city again!”
More spells blasted the earth, but most were blocked by Hectval’s [Mages]. By now, the [Siegemaster] wanted nothing more than to do what he’d been ordered to do and retreat. However, the Council would have his tail unless he did at least some damage.
The first volleys had been intercepted, but the catapults had the range now and they were prepared to demolish the residential districts and new area of Liscor. The inn-destruction detachment had nearly reached their target.
If Liscor lost both its new expansion and the inn, morale would plummet. The [Siegemaster] knew Liscor’s army wasn’t finished yet. He saw them mustering at the gates, but his forces were dug in and he’d switch the catapults to them and wipe them out. It was an ideal battle in short—
Except for whatever the hell that [Witch], Grimalkin, and the Small Queen were doing. The [Siegemaster] prayed they’d all be distracted for ten minutes. Ten minutes, and he could unload enough ordnance to wipe out multiple blocks.
“Liscor’s army is advancing!”
“Idiots. Prepare to volley on them as they come into range.”
The [Siegemaster] turned. The Watch Captain and [Strategist] were leading the assault. Hadn’t they ever fought a proper Drake army? Hah! They’d been too far gone from the south. He raised his claw.
“Siegemaster, incoming from the left!”
The Drake [General] swung around. He saw…nothing. But one of his [Tacticians] was pointing. The Drake squinted for the enemy attack and saw a single figure.
“You idiot. That’s a civilian.”
“No, it’s a soldier! It’s coming our way!”
The [Siegemaster] stared. Sending a single warrior out to fight was incredibly stupid. Unless—was this Klbkch the Slayer? He’d heard the Antinium was weakened. He focused on the figure.
…Unless Klbkch the Slayer was a Minotaur, he doubted it. The [Siegemaster] frowned.
“A one-armed Minotaur? Maybe an adventurer. It must be suicidal. Take it down.”
He turned back to the approaching army, half-listening to the order.
“Bows! Archer Squad Three, target the Minotaur. [Homing Arrows]. Loose!”
Bowstrings snapped. There was a pause and the [Siegemaster] shook his head. Although something nagged at him. Why a lone minotaur? Maybe he was an adventurer or a fool.
…But hadn’t he seen something on the scrying orb a while back? When had it been?
Oh yes. When the Minotaurs had forced the King of Destruction back. They’d sent Minotaurs forwards, too, hadn’t they?
Their criminals. He glanced up.
“Minotaur is still coming. Archer Squads Four to Seven, take aim! Loose!”
Arrows snapped through the air. The [Siegemaster] waited. Liscor’s army was still coming, just out of range…he turned his head as someone muttered an oath.
“They just bounced off his skin. He’s—healing the ones who got through. [Mages]! [Lightning Bolt] spells on that Minotaur!”
The [Siegemaster] looked left. He saw the Minotaur charging. At their catapults. Four arrows had managed to pierce his hide. And…he had an axe raised. He was roaring, so loudly that Hectval’s entrenched army heard it.
“Liscor’s army is beginning to charge!”
“Kill that Minotaur!”
The [Siegemaster] roared. Lightning bolt spells flashed out.
It was a bad day for lightning. They struck the Minotaur, three missing, two landing home. He stumbled—and then kept running. The Drakes looked at the Minotaur as he charged.
Death before dishonor. Then he was upon the catapult teams. He swung his axe and two Drakes vanished. The [Siegemaster] whirled around.
“Kill that Minotaur!”
Riders thundered down on Calruz, but he swung his axe, bellowing. The catapults hesitated, in disarray from this threat. Liscor’s army was charging now. 4th Company leading the way, coming in from the flank.
The [Siegemaster] was telling them to fire, fire any catapults at the army! But something was wrong. The chaos around the catapults was getting worse. He saw one of the war machines…sink into the earth. Like the ground was spongy. Another area collapsed. Then he saw the Antinium.
They stared up at him. Armor painted with their colors. The [Siegemaster]’s scales went grey with horror. Yellow Splatters murmured.
They forgot so soon that Liscor was an Antinium city as much as Drake. Perhaps they just thought there was no way Liscor would ever use Antinium tactics. But Olesm would.
The [Crusaders] surged out of the secret tunnels. Just in time; Zevara’s Watch and Liscor’s army were nearly on Hectval. Yellow Splatters chanced one look for the inn before he was leading the charge. The Antinium were fighting here—Tersk and Dekass and the other Prognugators had joined the Painted Antinium to destroy this army. He had to trust Xrn would guard the inn.
He saw the Small Queen activate her spell in the distance.
Belavierr was getting tired of this Drake [Mage]. He was…persistent. And while he was not at her strength, he could distract her.
The Sinew Magus was panting. He ducked another blow from those enchanted scissors, and charged backwards. Just in time.
“[Wail of the Banshee].”
The scream tore the air, but Belavierr realized her magic wouldn’t kill the Drake. Worse—she looked up.
Xrn was done with her spell. The Antinium pointed her staff down at Belavierr and spoke. But it was no attack spell. Grimalkin swore as he unconsciously reached for a notepad. He and Belavierr understood at once as Xrn spoke.
“[I Call Open the Manaforge]—”
A…gap opened up in the sky behind her. Like the one Belavierr had torn open, but shining. Dimensional magic. Belavierr murmured.
“A [Thaumaturge]. I may be in danger.”
Xrn was glowing. Her voice was like thunder.
“[My Soul Shall Forge New Magic]—”
Belavierr began walking back slowly. Her eyes fixed on the glowing astral land beyond. Power, mana, raw and untamed, was flowing into that land of creation. To birth weapons never seen before.
“[Until Infinity Exhausts Itself].”
Xrn completed her spell and hovered between two worlds. It was that spell that told Belavierr the Small Queen’s class. The spell every [Thaumaturge] learned. But—always different.
A spell flickered in the air, half-writ, barely completed. Xrn had used her great magic to create a place where new incantations could be created. It was a process only the greatest [Mages] could dream of enacting, even with all this help. If you knew magic, you could see what she was working on. Belavierr looked.
Her skin crawled. She grew uneasy.
The unfinished spell read to her eyes: [The ___slayer’s Arrow].
Xrn placed it aside. She looked at Belavierr and began forging her new spell. Prototypes lashed outwards.
“[Binding of Belavierr]. Hm. Shall we reverse it? [The Bane of Belavierr]. What kills you, [Witch]? I have never met your ilk, but you seem familiar to foes I have seen. It vexes me. So let me kill you and learn how it is done.”
A ray of condensed mana struck Belavierr. Fire swirled around her. Xrn was probing for her weak points. Fashioning the beginnings of new spells.
“We will not part amiably. I must use my craft or be endangered.”
Belavierr spoke. She was creating barriers of magic now, cloth and magic. No longer could she rely on mere spellcraft. She had to expend her hoarded power. This simple trip to Pallass was costing beyond belief.
She blamed Mrsha for all of it.
The Stitch Witch whirled something out of the air. She blocked the first lance of magic with it. The cascade of raw magic nearly hit Grimalkin, forced to stand back.
“You challenge me, spellcaster. But I am older than even you! You misjudge your foe!”
“You have never met my ilk.”
The two exchanged spells. Xrn turned the air to fire and created a globe of burning sky around Belavierr. So intense even the [Witch] cried out. Yet she whirled the object around her and the fire could not pass it.
What is that? Xrn stared out of the Manaforge, and it analyzed the strange cloth for her.
Dragonscales. A cloak of Dragonscales—
Belavierr drew a long thread of hair and placed it in a needle. Xrn read the composition of both. The hair of a unicorn and Naq—
She dove, too late. The needle pierced her barriers and stabbed into one arm. It tried to dig itself into her chitin. She pointed at the thread.
“[Ray of Disintegration].”
Simple enough. Yet she bled green. Xrn stared at her blood as the needle was severed. It flew back, as the Naq-Alrama needle tried to flee. The Small Queen shook her head.
“[Cenidau’s Complete Chill]. So you can fight, Human.”
She was surprised; Belavierr had been so oddly stationary. Now Xrn’s blood began to boil. Belavierr eyed the needle. It shattered and she frowned.
“Such needles are hard to obtain. I do not waste them. Begone, strange thing.”
Her fingers moved in a crawling pattern. Xrn glanced around; she snapped the threads before they could tighten around her and cut her to ribbons. It was a copy of the [Trapmaster Assassin]’s trick…no. He copied Belavierr. Xrn wondered if those threads could have gone through Liscor’s walls without slowing.
The sun’s light burst into full blast around Belavierr, and the [Witch] cried out, shielding her face. Xrn flew higher, warily.
The Naq-Alrama needle had pierced her wards. She had not bled badly, but she had to re-establish defensive spells. She cast a familiar magic as she targeted the ground.
“[Magical Field: The Somber World of Blue]. Ah, pests. Begone.”
She blasted part of Hectval’s army, which had nearly reached the inn. Counterspells and arrows shot at her; she ignored them. Wrong color. She turned back to Belavierr.
The [Witch] was not impressed. She looked at the field of color around Xrn.
“You wish to dance with colors against me, girl? [The Cerulean Eater Awakes].”
She powered the spell with something she drew out of her robes; a little figurine of an [Archmage]. It turned to dust as Belavierr sacrificed it, scowling.
Xrn saw something coalesce out of the blue. It came at her, a different shade amidst her spell. She began to blast it and nearly forgot—she had to use blue magic!
“[Paint Spray]. Hmf.”
Grimalkin leapt. The blue paint over his scales shone wetly. He hit whatever was cutting towards Xrn and landed. She blasted it with blue fire and it screamed. The Sinew Magus folded his arms. He and Xrn gave each other unfriendly looks of respect.
“Interesting. Your counter?”
“Only a fool doesn’t take countermeasures. You played your hand at Invrisil.”
“I have more cards in my analogy than you could dream of, Drake.”
Xrn cancelled the spell. She was free to attack the cerulean monster with spells outside its color. She whirled, and aimed again at Belavierr.
This time her spell broke on a shimmering ward like a face. Accordingly, the talisman Belavierr held up burned away. The [Witch] stared at it. She flexed her hands, and looked—upset.
“They do not make such objects anymore. This costs too much.”
Costs too much? That was it, though. Belavierr’s lips twisted in genuine distress as she looked at her broken Naq-Alrama needle. The Archmage’s weapon she had used to attack Xrn…
“Far too costly. Mana is nearly free. I dislike doing battle with those who can threaten me. Please stop.”
She aimed a flurry of free spells at Xrn, but the Antinium was superior in pure spellcraft. Belavierr was forced to throw up walls of a strange, transparent silk that absorbed spell after spell, but eventually broke. She stared at them, distressed, and then reached for a mana potion crafted by a [Sage]. She drank it, sourly.
“I would rather bleed.”
The [Witch] hissed, dropping the empty vial. Grimalkin charged in, landing a punch that sent her staggering as Xrn burned the last of the silk-barriers again.
He grunted. Belavierr whirled. Grimalkin dodged a wand which discharged a spray of brown pestilence that might have killed him; of course, it was in the air. He froze the air around him, praying it had been enough.
No good. He felt sick as he stumbled back. Belavierr looked at the wand, snapped it in irritation.
“So say those who have nothing of value.”
Of all the things to retort to—Grimalkin desperately crunched counteragents against his scales, trying to neutralize the plague. But it was already—
“[Greater Dispel]. [Bubble of Purity]. [Aegis of Saimune]!”
Xrn pointed down. Grimalkin, choking as his throat closed up, felt the three spells fighting the plague. The spell was cut short—then the physical manifestations vanished in the soothing grey glow. The last spell made him feel alive. He felt his throat open and gasped.
“Stay clear of her artifacts.”
Xrn warned him. Grimalkin nodded, shakily. He looked up at her. The words of thanks strangled in his throat to the small Queen. But he murmured, looking at Belavierr.
“Inferiority. What a farce. The Strongest Mage in Pallass?”
He shook his head, looking at the other two [Mages]. Xrn and Belavierr. For some reason, that alone produced a cessation in the battle. Xrn’s mandibles raised and Belavierr raised one eyebrow. Both were…amused?
“So says the infant. I can walk, but not fly already.”
Belavierr whispered. She was flickering her fingers. Xrn pointed, and the [Witch] blocked a beam that tried to eat her as it clawed at her shields. The Small Queen looked at Grimalkin and one eye turned yellow with humor.
“You are so young.”
The Sinew Magus absorbed this, and looked at the two ancients of days. He nodded, and redoubled his attack, to give Xrn the opening to deal the critical blow. But by then—Belavierr was smiling.
The Stitch Witch held something up. She licked at it. Frowned. She shrugged, sighing.
“Strange. New species. Yet you are too close. And you do not know my craft, girl.”
Xrn looked down. Grimalkin uttered a curse and Xrn didn’t see why. All Belavierr had was a bit of green on her fingers. Her blood. So what?
The Small Queen had never faced a [Witch]. Let alone a hex and curse expert. Belavierr smiled wickedly. She looked at Grimalkin as he shouted up at Xrn.
“Now. [Blood of Enemies, Boil].”
Xrn raised her staff. She called a searing prism of magic to life and shot a ray of burning red towards—Grimalkin. The [Sinew Magus] dodged. He roared—and pointed up.
Xrn blocked the spell. Why had Grimalkin attacked her? Why had—
Drake! My foe! Slayer of my kin! Die—we were always going to slay each other!
A wave of lava poured forth at Grimalkin. He was running, aiming more spells at her. Everything he had prepared to fight her. Kill the Antinium. Kill the—
Belavierr watched, smiling. The strange [Thaumaturge] was strong. But she had no protections against Belavierr.
Still—the two weren’t idiots. They exchanged another withering blast of fire, and then Grimalkin growled.
“I am under some sort of magical attack, Magus Grimalkin. We are wasting energy. She is…doing something with my blood.”
Grimalkin spread his arms. Xrn didn’t hesitate. But she pulled the blow. Instead of annihilation, she flicked her finger.
A gigantic copy appeared and did the same to the Sinew Magus. He tasted blood as he flew for the second time that day. However—that left Xrn free.
“Enough. Perish, Human.”
She conjured her incomplete spell from the Manaforge and hurled it down. Belavierr shrieked as something cut into her. Xrn saw something snap. For a second she saw the same thing Mrsha had—and saw her burn away Belavierr’s protections.
Not enough. Yet she saw a weakness and poured more mana into research, adjusting the spell.
Belavierr finished her spell first. The last drop of Xrn’s blood she was whispering to, completely at odds with Xrn’s creation in the Manaforge. She was just…
“We shall strike a pact, you and I. Power for power’s get. Your enemy mine, so I shall grant you my strength this time. Come and twist, destiny’s thread. Come—take her head.”
Xrn felt the air twist. She whirled, wondering wh—
Facestealer tore her left arm off. It crawled out of the portal. Her—
It grabbed her head and yanked. Xrn flailed. A claw tore half her head off. Xrn’s eyes went…blank.
Oh. Klbkch, Wrymvr. I may be dying.
Across Izril, in the Hivelands, Wrymvr froze. He heard it.
Klbkch, flexing an arm, froze. The Queens stopped. Incredulously.
The Grand Queen’s mandibles opened in horror. Klbkch’s head rose. It could not be. It could not—
Xrn’s head began to tear. The claw sliced—and magic poured forth.
Raw magic. Her very being exploded outwards. It lashed Facestealer, tearing all the hide off its body and revealing the bone shell. It began to dig deeper, pure mana unleashed.
It let go, fleeing, retreating back through the portal. Belavierr hissed, but she watched, smiling, as Xrn flew back. The Small Queen put her good hand to the gap in her neck. Her eyes were flickering. She stared down at her missing arm and shoulder, at Belavierr.
“yOu. i wILl RemEMbeR tHIS.”
She flew back, trailing her life essence. Fleeing. The Stitch Witch watched her go. Then her head turned.
“Now, the inn. Come, fate’s soldiers. Come…let us end this.”
Monsters poured forth from the gaps she had torn open. Threads of fate. Mrsha’s, Xrn’s…
Monsters of the dungeon. An accord had been reached. Grimalkin saw the suits of enchanted armor, Crypt Worms, Liscor’s dungeon disgorge a horde. They all converged on the inn, already fighting Hectval’s army.
And there came Belavierr. Striding for the inn. She looked back as Grimalkin bellowed.
He had seen Xrn flee. He had to know the difference between them. Even so—
The Sinew Magus charged.
The Wandering Inn was under siege. The first battle to ever take place in the new inn’s walls.
That was to say…the first attack to ever truly come as the defenders had imagined. Against the hallway of traps, the reinforced walls and checkpoints.
Erin Solstice had been slain outside the inn. Belavierr had not been stopped by mere bulwarks of stone and wood.
It was almost refreshing to get a foe that had to obey the rules. Almost. But at least…here was someone they could fight. They had failed time and again.
At last, the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings discharged their debt.
First came the Doomslayers, in a desperate push, fleeing the [Witch]. On their heels came Hectval’s army.
Hundreds of [Soldiers] had been sent to destroy the inn. They tried to set fire to it, smash through the windows. But the inn had withstood Creler attacks, an army of the undead, Face-Eater Moths and that was before it had been rebuilt.
[Soldiers] who managed to break the windows of reinforced glass found walls of magic blocking them. A Centaur blew out a cloud of noxious smoke that drove the [Soldiers] into a confusion, hitting each other. A Minotauress held one window, smashing helmets in until it was closed off.
An Antinium loosed arrows from the rooftop as Rags grimly aimed spells out the windows in the common room. Calescent and Ulvama were on the upper floors, keeping the enemies trying to climb up off.
Everywhere a bee buzzed, the attacks grew slack. [Soldiers] ran into each other, or heard the wrong orders. Kevin, Joseph, and Imani, were nearly about to be killed by a Drake who’d climbed through the window they were trying to keep clear until Ishkr could reach them with a board and nails. They suddenly found themselves fighting with more skill than the confused Drake [Veteran] and drove him back out.
Fortress Beavers overwhelmed a Drake, bearing the confused [Soldier] down.
First [Soldiers] came, then monsters. They flooded around the inn, but the common room and even roof were easier to hold. Mrsha heard the shouting from inside the garden. She wanted to help, but all she was allowed to do was run from door opening to door opening, bringing potions and supplies to the others. It was more than enough; her healing potions passed through the door saved them more than once.
Antinium came to fight. They climbed out of the basement, rushing to where Rags and the unseen Niers directed them. Just in time; Mrsha saw a suit of armor grappling with Purple Smiles. Then a Flesh Worm trying to break through the outside.
Belavierr had called forth the enemies of the inn. That they failed to take the common room, and merely struggled at the windows, was because the vast majority of them broke in one place.
The hallway. That was where they came first. Hectval’s [Soldiers], the Doomslayers. Then monsters. All three were there at one point, fighting each other, confused, unsure of who their enemies were, just knowing they wanted to kill everything in this inn.
They never made it into the common room. There they died. They tried.
Oh, the Plain’s Eye veterans, as skilled as Hectval’s finest—more so. Drake [Soldiers], an army of them, far more than the treacherous fools who had killed the [Innkeeper]. Monsters, howling from the dungeon’s depths.
They were cut down by crossbows in the corridor, until their bodies blocked the arrow slits. Acid coated them, and they hammered on the reinforced walls, unable to break through. There was one entrance alone.
A [Bard] with a sword held that gap. A Hobgoblin who carried the dead with him. Who had waited for this day. To die here.
The men with hats fought by his side. Falling, despite Mrsha trying to save them. Some crawled away. Others lay still, never to pick their hats off the ground.
Numbtongue fought on. He slashed arrows in half, carved shell and bone and armor apart with the deadly sword that Pelt had made for him. No one had a blade to match his. Yet his body was…weak.
They wounded him with arrows and Skills and fangs. Spells burned him. His wounds healed and opened and…he stumbled. He was about to fall, and there was no man with a hat to block the blow. They lay where they had died. Numbtongue saw a snarling Drake charge at him.
A pair of curved blades swept the head from the shoulders. Numbtongue saw the [Soldier] fall, and stabbed the last Gnoll sent to kill Mrsha through the chest. He fought on, and saw a pocket open in the hallway.
Someone else was slashing about her. Clearing the bodies. Laughing. As if this was what she had waited for too. But she lived for this.
The onyx-scaled Drake caught his eyes as they slowed a second. The [Bard] hesitated, his sword raised—and the two held their ground, cutting down the monsters trying to get through.
Until the [Witch] arrived.
She stepped through the hallway filled with bodies, leaving the Drake [Mage] where he had been. He had slowed her for a little while.
A desperate Goblin blocked her way, covered in wounds. She looked at his sword.
His clothing picked him up and tossed him aside. Someone kissed Belavierr’s lungs with daggers enchanted to kill. Belavierr looked at the little Drake and threw her aside as well.
Inside the inn were Antinium and the annoying [Mages]. They turned on Belavierr, and she saw the little warlord raise his finger.
Belavierr clapped her hands together and the shockwave blew out the last windows. Mrsha was spared the fury of the spell; she stared in horror at the prone bodies.
The Stitch Witch stopped in front of the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She was…breathing hard. Her dress was damaged, and she looked wounded. Xrn had hurt her. Yet Belavierr was still here.
“We will end this now, Mrsha. Come out. Or…”
She lifted a foot and pressed it against a little bee and man. Mrsha heard a little crunching sound. She came out of the door. Belavierr pointed at her.
Ulvama rose to her feet. She cast fire at Belavierr. The [Witch] turned, scowling.
“Little [Shaman], get out of my way.”
Half of Ulvama’s magical paints burned off her body as a black bolt went through her chest. Niers sat up and roared.
She ran. Away from Belavierr. Not to the [Garden]—the brave, idiotic child ran out of the hallway, trying to draw the [Witch] away from her friends! Belavierr followed after.
Mrsha emerged into the area outside the inn. Where Erin had died. Monsters from the dungeon were everywhere. They turned on her, prey. Belavierr’s quarry. Mrsha saw a Flesh Worm rear up, palps raised to drag at her, and Liscor’s army was so far away, routing Hectval’s…
Belavierr watched, smiling, in the doorway to the inn. At last. At last…
She saw another of the girl’s threads appear. Wanderer, appearing out of nowhere again, striking with his quarterstaff. Annoying. But he was one Gnoll, and the monsters attacked him. Belavierr waited. Then she heard a familiar cry. A familiar…unexpected…irritating cry.
“The Eternal Throne of Calanfer! To glory! Protect the child!”
The Stitch Witch’s head turned incredulously. What? Here? But like the pests they were, the four golden [Knights] thundered up the hill, waving their swords.
Ser Lormel was first, hacking at a caterpillar-thing. Ser Sest, Dame Ushar, behind, riding around Mrsha, trying to drag her up, ride to safety.
The last of them rode at Belavierr. She looked up as Ser Dalimont called a challenge.
“Stitch Witch! We meet again!”
Ser Dalimont had known it was her the instant he heard about a [Witch] causing havoc outside. It had barely been thirty minutes and it was a sea of carnage! Only she could have done this. He rode at her, lance aimed at her chest.
“I have seen you beaten and fleeing before! The Singer of Terandria laid you low; you will not triumph here! Begone!”
Belavierr’s eyes widened as he spoke. She looked up, saw Dalimont coming. She whirled, and he missed. Cursing, Ser Dalimont turned, bringing his lance down for a second charge. The Stitch Witch stared at the Thronebearer. He had been there. Princess Seraphel, Cara—
“Who are you?”
Ser Dalimont struck home. Belavierr stared down at the lance in her chest. She reached out—snapped it. The Thronebearer swore.
There was no Cara here. He saw Belavierr glance at him. Then focus on Mrsha again.
“Where are all these threads coming from? So many would die for one girl?”
Dalimont rode down on her, sword drawn. Belavierr pointed.
A needle went straight through his side and out the other end, tearing through armor and flesh. Dalimont wavered. He tried to hack at her as he passed. She didn’t even stagger from the blow. He fell out of his saddle and Mrsha cried out.
Sest saw the man fall. The Thronebearers and Wanderer were trying to get Mrsha out of the press of monsters. More kept coming. They were pouring out of the hole in the air. They hadn’t overcome the adventurer’s defenses; Belavierr was summoning them directly.
“We’ll never make the city! The inn—is it overrun?”
Ushar turned to the others. Wanderer didn’t reply; was there anywhere safe from Belavierr? The monsters were…more direct than she was, though. They were closer to killing everyone.
Rags stumbled to the entrance of the inn. Her ears were bleeding and she could barely see, let alone fight. She shouted.
“Run! Keep running, idiots!”
The [Knights] didn’t see her, only heard the shout. They turned, trying to do just that.
Flesh Worms crawled at them. Dozens. Mini-Skinners. Each one more than a match for one Thronebearer. Rags stared at them, and the [Witch].
Some things never changed. Only got worse. She bared her teeth. That was fine. They changed. She changed.
A naked, gigantic worm reared up, herald of the dungeon’s evil. It reached down for Mrsha as Ser Lormel’s horse went down, screaming. He was pinned under it. Mrsha aimed her wand up at it.
[Arrow of Light]!
She spat a single arrow from her wand into one tiny little eye. The beast roared—then its head exploded.
Mrsha stared at her wand. So did Wanderer, Ushar, and Sest. Belavierr’s head slowly swung around.
A second Flesh Worm went down. This time—pinned. Like a worm with a needle run through it, appropriately. Mrsha saw the oversized bolt dig into the ground. Then another tapped a suit of armor and sent it sprawling, armor bowed in. She followed Belavierr’s gaze and saw a shape flash overhead.
The Frost Wyvern spat ice over the monsters as Snapjaw dropped a jar of alchemist’s fire over another monster’s face. The Wyvern flew on another strafing run, but another had dropped its cargo.
A small group of Carn Wolves led by Redscar and Thunderfur charged down the slope. The Goblin was swearing.
“Chieftain! Find the Chieftain!”
The others broke off as he charged into the fighting. Behind him, the Thunderbows fired again. The Hobs had set up on a hill and were firing the oversized bolts at range at the monsters.
Not at Belavierr; they had no idea what was happening; they’d only received her order to arrive now. Badarrow looked for Numbtongue; he was loosing arrows as fast as he could.
The monsters broke as the Flooded Waters tribe and 4th Company of Liscor’s army hit them from two sides. Zevara and Olesm had seen the fighting and turned back to help.
Countless armies, fighting, friends of the inn. It was like the movie Mrsha had used to chase away the darkness. A glorious, sad, brave story, even without the [Innkeeper].
The [Witch] lost her temper once more. She snatched a passing Drake from the saddle, one of Embria’s 4th Company, and shattered every bone in the [Soldier]’s body. She was growing. Her body grew, like the giant Mrsha had seen in her eyes.
“Enough! Little threads of coincidence and chance cannot save you. You are dead, Mrsha! Dead!”
She roared. Embria looked up at the [Witch].
“What is that?”
She had no idea, but she knew an enemy when she saw one. The Thunderbows changed their targets on Rags’ order. They fired—
The bolts snapped in midair. Eighteen good [Soldiers] ran into a wall of shadows and never came out. Belavierr pointed and Dame Ushar shouted as her armor—the threads underneath picked her up and slammed her so hard into the ground she broke half her ribs.
Niers Astoragon shouted, saving Embria from the same fate with a Skill. Yet none of his worked on one target. And Belavierr fought all of them at once.
Grimalkin slammed into her, cradling his broken arm. She raised one hand and hit him so hard he collapsed. She strode towards Mrsha, ignoring everything and everyone.
“I will take your skin and fur. I will destroy this inn, and the body of your beloved [Innkeeper] so she will never return. You shall not die, for I name you my enemy. I killed the [Lady] of fire who walked here. So perish all those who offend me.”
Mrsha didn’t run. Wanderer looked at her, pinned by his enchanted clothing and cloak. Mrsha couldn’t run. How many more would get hurt because of this…this evil, unstoppable, petty [Witch]?
Someone had to stand up to her. Mrsha raised her wand, glimmering with her little spells. The [Witch] bent down towards her.
Someone stepped forwards. He raised the smoking censer, and brandished the shield and club. He barred Belavierr’s path.
The [Priest] had been with Yellow Splatters, leading the charge against Hectval. Xrn had promised him she would take care of the inn. Now? Pawn blocked this strange Human’s way.
“No one will hurt Mrsha. Which kind of strange enemy are you?”
He was weary, and the simple shield and club had traces of blood on them. Pawn stood there, as Belavierr stopped. Mrsha looked up at him. Pawn, no! Don’t do it! She went to tug at him and realized—
He was standing in front of Belavierr. Everyone else had fallen down. Their clothing choking them, the very threads and dark bindings dragging them down.
The [Witch] stared at Pawn’s armor and clothing. She gestured; Pawn’s armored hood, customized for Antinium, moved slightly. He stopped it with his fourth arm.
“Strange. Is she some kind of clothing-mage?”
“Strange. You…have I ever met a thing like you?”
The two regarded each other, equally puzzled. No—Belavierr more so. Pawn just saw a giant Human with a hat, threatening to kill Mrsha.
“Begone, whoever you are. I will hurt you if you try to hurt Mrsha.”
He brandished the shield and club. They weren’t magical. He held the censer in his other two hands, and it smelled of cinnamon.
Belavierr made an incredulous sound.
“Begone, little ant. I have bested your great [Mage]. You cannot harm me.”
Pawn glanced towards where Xrn had done battle. He nodded, slowly, not ignoring the truth of that. His head rose and his mandibles clicked softly as he looked up at Belavierr.
“That may be true. But you will not harm Mrsha. I have promised.”
So saying, he advanced. Belavierr was a giant now, forty feet tall. She could have attacked Liscor’s walls themselves. Pawn seemed comically small as he strode at her leg, covered by her dress. He charged and swung his club.
“For Erin and the inn!”
He did not expect to hurt her, just slow her, to save Mrsha. Belavierr expected nothing either. Mrsha saw her reach over Pawn, ignoring him. Pawn swung his club and smacked her shin.
And Belavierr winced. Mrsha saw the involuntary reaction run across her face, then a look of astonishment. Mrsha gaped too.
That was not Belavierr acknowledging pain, or stumbling. It was not her saying ‘ow’ when her skin was on fire. It was actually…pain. She recoiled. Pawn swung his club again. Belavierr’s face twisted into one of confusion.
She was normal-sized in a moment. She stared at Pawn, backing away. Then she bent and…rubbed at her shin. Pawn hesitated.
“I thought I was dead. What is this person? Some [Mage]?”
He looked at Mrsha. She just gaped at him. Belavierr frowned.
“…I cannot see your class. What—what are you?”
She eyed Pawn, disturbed. He looked at her. Then he charged.
“For the inn! Defend it once more!”
Belavierr produced a staff of dark metal and blocked Pawn’s club. Light flashed and she stumbled. She stared at the artifact she held, and then Pawn’s club. It should have exploded, and taken the Antinium with it! Yet he had matched the Stave of Nerrhavia, given to the Stitch Witch long ago, like it was a relic of the same class! She tested it on a Flesh Worm crawling away nearby and it exploded.
Pawn flinched at the rain of flesh. He eyed the staff and backed up a step. Belavierr eyed his club and pointed at it.
“How did you come by that relic?”
The Worker eyed his club.
“…I bought it for three coppers on discount from a [Blacksmith].”
The two looked at each other. Then Belavierr spun. Her eyes went wide, the replacement and immortal one.
Mrsha saw two figures advancing on her from the side. Niers, Rags—everyone lying on the ground looked up. Mrsha had seen, heard about the things Pawn could summon; he had told Lyonette about them.
But those were not Aberrations. Two glowing Workers stepped forwards, armed with simple weapons. They looked…like Pawn. Yellow Splatters, lying prone, held down by the armor suddenly twice as heavy as lead, looked up and whispered.
“Erin would make a pun. I cannot.”
Pawn looked at the two Workers. They flanked Belavierr. She spun around, lashed out with her staff.
One of the glowing Workers vanished, mid-detonation as the staff struck his chest. The other lunged. He stabbed and she cried out.
“How do these things exist? They should not be here!”
She tore it apart with a hail of needles. It worked on the Worker, but she seemed unnerved. She whirled to Pawn.
“You—stay back. [Deathlance]!”
Mrsha saw the spell shoot at Pawn and screamed. The [Priest]’s mandibles opened. The deathly spell struck the air around him and—vanished.
A wall of light blocked Belavierr’s magic. She tried again, this time with tendrils that melted as they tried to get close to him.
[Holy Barrier]. It protected Pawn. It was not invincible; it flickered as Belavierr struck it with her staff. It even went out from the third spell, overloaded.
Yet it unnerved her. The [Stitch Witch] looked at Pawn.
“What are you? What is your class? How can you—”
He struck at her and there was another flash as she parried his club. She struck—and her staff hit his shield, and was knocked aside. If she had touched him, he would surely have died. But the [Priest] fought on. He swung the censer like a makeshift flail and she recoiled from it.
Niers Astoragon saw Pawn slow, panting. The [Priest] gasped. An answer at last, as Belavierr backed up, wary of him. Yet she held the deadly staff. Pawn lifted the club, touched it.
“[Weapon of Faith].”
He looked up at Belavierr. The [Stitch Witch] stared at Pawn. Her eyes focused on him. She looked at him, the simple club, and where the two Workers had stood. The barrier of light.
Belavierr had challenged the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She had laughed at Erin. She had not acknowledged Grimalkin of Pallass.
She had only stopped when Xrn appeared, and she had bested her foe, outraged by Xrn underestimating her.
An army stood before her—multiple armies, and she had walked through them. Only Niers Astoragon had wounded her in a significant way—and only once.
Belavierr, that old legend, faced down all of Liscor and had not even contempt for them. Now? She looked at the slightly clumsy Worker, waving a club at her.
The Witch backed away. Pawn stared at her, confused. Then he saw Belavierr raise her staff. She struck the ground with it, and a wall appeared.
An old, gigantic wall. A fortress so old it seemed to bear every century on it. Yet the wall still stood.
For a second, Pawn stared at the wall, and fortress beyond. Called forth by the staff. Then—he saw Belavierr walk through the walls. The Staff of Nerrhavia swung at his face.
“Begone, mysterious thing.”
She struck with all her might. Pawn blocked the staff and his knees buckled, chitin cracking with the impact. Belavierr whirled the bottom of the staff up, to strike his chest.
Bird shot her in the back of the head. She didn’t blink. Bird stared at his bow, tossed it aside, and drew four kitchen knives.
“Bird! Be careful!”
Pawn saw Bird harrying Belavierr’s back as he retreated, shield barely turning aside the deadly blows. Belavierr was strong and the staff had reach and could kill him in a stroke—but she was more scared of his club than he was of her. She kept her distance, trying to touch him from afar.
Bird? She glanced over her shoulder and saw the Antinium. She flicked a finger—then frowned. The Antinium spread all four hands. He had knives, and he had abandoned his bow, but he was missing his normal ‘clothing’, which was just his loincloth.
“I am naked. You have no power over me. Take this! Stab, stab—is this working?”
She spun her staff horizontally. Bird ducked, slashed at her legs. He backed up slowly.
“You are not a bird. Why can I not kill you? I have never met anything I cannot kill. Hm. Hiyah.”
To Pawn and Mrsha’s horror, they saw Bird drop his knives. He jumped at Belavierr and kicked her in the shin. He punched her in the stomach, tried to go for an uppercut to her jaw, but he was too short. He stamped on her foot.
Belavierr tried to strike at him, but Bird whirled sideways. He gave her a jump-kick to her chest and Belavierr didn’t move. Bird fell onto his back and waved his arms and legs as he tried to rock back upright.
“This one does not hurt me. Why that?”
Belavierr whispered. She just thrust the staff forwards and Bird flinched.
A second time, the holy barrier blocked the staff. Belavierr recoiled. She whirled around.
Faith didn’t have a cool down. Pawn advanced from one side, giving Bird time to roll away and get up.
“Bird, don’t let her touch you. Pick up your knives.”
“They are Erin’s knives. Give me your power, Pawn.”
The two Workers advanced, one from each side. And now—Belavierr saw Pawn look at Bird’s knives.
They did not glow. They did not shine. But she backed away from both, and saw more Antinium coming up the slope. They had also divested themselves of clothing; unlike the others, they cared nothing for nudity. Her eyes flickered to Pawn, to Bird, crabbing left to stab her in the ankles…and she threw her head back.
“Wretches! Do you think you can hurt me?”
Suddenly, Belavierr boomed, and grew. Pawn recoiled and Bird hopped back. Belavierr was growing again! She pointed down, a giant with eyes flashing orange and evil.
“I am the [Witch] who comes for the end of all stories! I am the last offer of age, the oldest of stories! I have toyed with you all—you now feel my wrath.”
She pointed down at Pawn as the sky turned midnight behind her, like before. Dark threads spun through the sky as everyone looked up. Mrsha stared at Belavierr. Afraid, but—was she—monologuing?
Pawn also seemed confused. He advanced, but Belavierr swung a finger down.
“You will know my ire, little thing, and I declare it on all your kind until the last of you die in your sleep of horrors I will inflict. Return to your deep nests on Rhir and stay my designs no further unless you wish my wrath. I…”
Her wrathful eyes flickered.
“…Hm. What else is normally said?”
Pawn looked up, perplexed. He wasn’t sure if this giant Belavierr boded better or worse, but he saw one of his kind move. Bird didn’t care for speeches.
“Aha! Got you!”
He stabbed with all four knives at Belavierr’s foot. And…the blades passed through her. Bird stared at the knives, and gave Pawn a look of betrayal.
“You made them worse. How could you?”
“No. No, you idiots. She’s getting away!”
A voice shouted, male and furious, invisible, as people started getting to their feet. Embria felt her armor stop pressing her down. She realized it at the same time as everyone else.
The giant Belavierr who had been announcing her wrath and enmity—wavered. Mrsha saw it vanish in a second. She gazed across the blank space, searching, knowing—
There. Belavierr lowered her hands and stopped making signs in front of the lantern she’d pulled out. She resumed walking away, blurring across the Floodplains with each step.
Pawn hesitated. He looked at the place the illusion had stood—then at the distant [Witch]. His mandibles clicked a few times.
Mrsha peeked around behind him. She saw Belavierr, but in the distance. The [Witch] wasn’t looming anymore. The staff was gone. She was already a speck across the Floodplains, and with each step, she went further.
She was—running away. Mrsha couldn’t believe it. Belavierr, who had faced down Xrn—was running?
She had not been afraid of Xrn, just wary. But this? The Stitch Witch played no games with her life. She had no idea what Pawn was. She had seen him give his power to Bird. So she ran.
Just ran away.
Everyone, the people from the inn, the army of Liscor, the Antinium—just watched her go for a second. Running away after all she’d done?
“4th Company, with me!”
Embria roared. She was in her saddle again, streaking after the figure. Dozens of people followed as well, shouting in fury. Pawn himself began to run forwards, but half-turned back.
Intuition, maybe. Belavierr was still looking back. And her eyes were still wrathful.
Mrsha stared after Belavierr—then jerked. Pawn whirled around and lurched forwards, charging towards her.
The arrow hit him in the stomach. It had been meant for Mrsha. A snarling Gnoll, the [Hunt Leader], still alive, gasped. Belavierr’s magic, which had given him a second chance, faded. He collapsed, dead again, before Numbtongue speared him through the face.
Everyone was on their feet. Pawn reached for his stomach. He was murmuring.
“[Heal Minor Wounds]. Poisoned? Of course. Of…”
Yellow Splatters shouted for an antidote. Not this time! Not—
He saw everyone mix up around Pawn. Antinium, Drakes, Goblins—some of them baring their weapons at each other. Unsure of who was friend or foe.
One of them called out. A Goblin ran forwards, to where Mrsha had been. Numbtongue.
Someone else changed paths in the crowd. A Gnoll bounded forwards, sword raised. He howled—brought the sword down on top of—
Nothing. Numbtongue ran the Doomslayer through. He looked around.
She was gone. The Doomslayer died, howling. The Plain’s Eye warriors had failed! But—more would be sent! They would find her! Find—
Her? The others looked around. But there was no little white Gnoll. Not here. Or here…where was she?
Embria broke off pursuit first. Belavierr was running, but as soon as she saw pursuers, she sent a flurry of needles through the air—then called fiery meteors out of the sky.
And that was to cover her escape. Embria aborted her pursuit instantly. It wasn’t worth it. Yet every nerve in the Drake’s body, in all of them, felt it was wrong to let Belavierr go. Not after all she’d done!
Someone else pursued the [Witch], shouting profanities.
“Get back here! You coward! I’ll hunt you down! Do you think you can just run away? Do you know who I am?”
Niers Astoragon tried to follow Belavierr. The [Strategist] was beyond angry. Apista flew with him, uncertainly. Belavierr was far too fast for them. Niers shouted obscenities at her back, infuriated. And…guilty.
He’d barely been able to touch her! All the [Strategist]’s Skills had helped fight the army, but this [Witch]? Her craft was opposed to his. An old monster.
Niers killed monsters like that. He vowed to remember this, and turned back to the inn, disgusted. Then he felt a prickle on his back.
The Fraerling turned back just in time to see the distant [Witch] stop a second. And lift a tiny hand. I remember you too.
Niers dove. But Belavierr’s parting gift flashed through the air. The tiny little sewing needle struck him in the stomach and nailed him to the grass.
He screamed, roaring, as he grabbed it. The [Witch] turned back and continued her journey. Niers Astoragon lay there, swearing, trying to pull the needle free. He couldn’t, as Apista buzzed around him. Not until someone knelt down and plucked it out.
Niers looked up and cursed. By the time he returned to the inn—he realized Mrsha was long gone.
No one saw Niers fall—well, only those who had been there. The rest was important enough.
Hectval in retreat. The [Witch] of legends on the rampage! You could write a headline with each story—but no one was going to.
They even missed the Gnollish assassins. It was understandable; to the observers, you might well focus on Belavierr alone.
Yet there was no Wistram News Network special. No commentary.
Wistram was watching, but the waxy expressions on half the Archmage’s faces meant Wistram was also close to throwing up. Naili felt—uneasy. And saw it reflected on Viltach, Verdan Blackwood’s expression.
On the other hand—Feor had focused on Xrn, and she had noticed his intense, even rapturous expression. Valeterisa? She was just fascinated.
Naili shuddered. The [Witch] who had used so many spells so casually was a nightmare to her. She tried to backtrace the other [Scrying] spells. Who else had been watching the firefight? Manus? Pallass—definitely.
Someone had to say something after a scene like that. A joke, a wry comment—something to break the paralysis. The Star Lamia swished her tail uncertainly. Then she cleared her throat.
“Uh—who said the inn and Liscor didn’t matter after the Human died? Go eat your tail. We have to do something about that place.”
Belavierr? Wistram took one look at her and decided…to let her be.
It was not a sentiment shared by all. Chaldion focused on the image of the [Witch] with his one good eye. He made a sound in his throat. That had been lurking in his city? But that was one concern of many.
He had noticed the skills of a high-level [Strategist] and he read the news. And…his claws danced urgent orders on the [Message] scroll as his quill scribbled.
Chaldion had noticed Mrsha was gone. But who was that Gnoll who had grabbed her?
Wanderer strode across the Floodplains, ignoring the kicking, biting Gnoll. He was panting, clutching at his wounds. He spoke, as he covered ground almost as quickly as Belavierr, albeit differently.
Let go of me, let go! Kidnapper! Smelly, evil—
Mrsha couldn’t speak, but she made her displeasure known well enough. She squirmed so hard and kept trying to cast thorn spells that Wanderer had to slow. He panted.
“Stop struggling. They’re coming after you. You can’t stay here.”
They were still close enough to the inn—but he was already at the southern edge of the Floodplains. He looked back towards the inn. The inn, surrounded by the dead. Wanderer shook his head.
“That—[Witch]? An army of monsters and Drakes? That’s no place for a child. Madness.”
He had seen a lot of things, but the battle had thrown him. Mrsha opened her mouth to howl so Wanderer covered it quickly. Accordingly, she bit.
“Gah—stop! Enough! Didn’t you see that Gnoll? The [Witch] or not—he was coming to kill you! He was Plain’s Eye, do you understand?”
Wanderer forced Mrsha off his paw and put her on the ground. She looked back at The Wandering Inn and him. He squatted down.
He was injured. He’d taken wounds in battle—the worst of them simply the twisted fur around his neck. His eyes had a bit of red in them; Belavierr had nearly strangled him to the death with his own cloak. Wanderer coughed.
“I was trying to warn you. You have protectors.”
Mrsha nodded. She had to go back! She backed away, trying to explain—but she had no quill or paper. She pointed at the inn.
That’s my home. Don’t take me away!
She was poised to bolt, and Wanderer knew she would howl. He had only one chance, so the white Gnoll held out his paws.
“Child. Mrsha. Look at me. Look at…me.”
She looked, at the white-furred Gnoll. The mysterious traveller who had hid from even the Brothers, and whom she thought was bad…but had saved her? She hesitated. Wanderer nodded.
“I’m like you. I came here because I saw you on the scrying orb. White fur. If I saw you—they did too. You know Plain’s Eye?”
Of course she did! She was a Plains Gnoll! Mrsha nodded. Wanderer pointed back.
“They sent those Gnolls to kill you. Their best killers. Because of what they call you. And me. Doombringer. You know this, don’t you?”
Mrsha shrank. No—no—but she knew the rumors. She had known, in Liscor, that Gnolls feared her.
But those were City Gnolls. Krshia had learned. She’d be…
“They nearly got you, even with your protectors. They’ll come out of the shadows, they’ll try again. More tribes will. They will burn down a city to kill you. That inn—you have to hide. It’s the only way. Come, I know where you can hide. Where you’ll be safe. There are more of us.”
More of…? Mrsha looked at him, astonished. Even so—she backed away. Wanderer cursed.
“Girl! You’ll put them in danger!”
Mrsha looked at The Wandering Inn. That was her home, though. They loved her. Lyonette would come back and Erin…she couldn’t abandon it. She looked at Wanderer and saw how worried he looked. She didn’t believe he was lying. Even so—Mrsha thought of Pawn who promised to protect her. He was hurt because of her!
But run away? Mrsha drew in breath to howl, to call for her friends and protectors. Wanderer could have covered her mouth. He could have silenced her. Instead, he took a gamble and spoke.
“That [Witch] won’t forgive you, but even she will have trouble attacking you where we’re going. You know you might have drawn her? The attacks—you don’t know how to control your power. Not yet. You’ll put all of them in danger until you learn, and only we can teach you.”
The breath caught in Mrsha’s throat. She made a sound—looked at Wanderer. He knelt there, panting.
Liar. Mrsha stared at him. Everyone said—but it was just a myth.
He shook his head. The Gnoll fixed her with two serious eyes.
“Why…do you think they fear you? Plain’s Eye? The other tribes? They forget—and they hate you because we are easy to blame. But there is a seed in every story, Mrsha. You don’t know the power of your fur. It can help you, the last gift of your tribe. However, so long as you don’t know it, you will endanger them all. Come with me, and I will protect you. Come; and you will be safe.”
The Gnoll waited. He saw Mrsha recoil, her face turning to shock, horror. Then—she looked back. Wanderer felt a pain in his heart. He did not want to tell her so soon. But the Doombringer looked at the other Doombringer. She did not resist as he slowly picked her up. Mrsha looked back at the inn, all the havoc and chaos.
Was it her after all? The Gnoll child wondered, hearing the terrible fear Belavierr had whispered to her.
Was it…me, Erin?
She did not have the strength to fight as Wanderer ran with her. For a moment, she was all the doom that caused misery and pain to her family, and it was better if she were gone.
But her family knelt there, searching for her, grieving and worrying. Doom? They had faced the [Witch] of legends for her. What was mere doom?
They followed soon after.
Author’s Note: No levels. There were more scenes I could have written; I have been editing at least for an hour, but I’ve used all my energy.
This chapter, the last one which hasn’t been published but is in editing—are big chapters. And I am still working for two more updates, until the end of the month; I’m going on a little vacation, and I might extend my usual break.
Either way, it’ll be rougher, but the chapter is done! I hope you like it, even though I could add bits and pieces. Levels, more with Ulvama, tighten and cut and…
Well, I’m exhausted, and the web serial pace means I can’t. For some, important chapters, yes! But I’d rather give this chapter to you than keep you hanging two updates. Rest assured, levels and consequences and what happens next are to come! But later. We have all the words I can type, and I can type a lot of words.
Thanks for reading and look forwards to more chapters coming at you…after I rest!
Belavierr, Horns Posing, Noears and Eater of Spears, and more by Gridcube!
The Florist, the Hill, and Belavierr by Lire!
Numbtongue and The Putrid One’s end by ArtsyNada!