(It is the 5th Anniversary of The Wandering Inn, and in celebration (or something), Book 4: Winter Solstice is out on Audible, and as an e-book on Amazon! Also! Diana Gill’s Q&A from the Discord server can be found here!)
(The Last Tide is going to launch a Kickstarter on August 24th for the full comic and physical versions! It’s almost done, sorry for the delay!)
The sun rose on Chandrar, that arid continent full of as much suffering as magic, but it did not burn away the nightmares. It was not fair to say, however, that Chandrar was the land of more evil than other places. It was just more visible.
Slaves stood, staring up at the sky. A [Necromancer] shaded his eyes, then lowered his hand, slowly. Slowly.
You could not understand what it was like to just…see the sun, or even breathe, until you knew the difference between freedom and captivity. Pisces Jealnet exhaled. He clenched his hands, his branded scars and wounds, visible and invisible, lingering.
His friend, Cawe, was dead. A brave [Pickpocket].
So too lay his captors. He refused to give them names or remember where they had died. He looked up in that morning twilight, where the sky was brightening but still dark. Yes, the sun shone down cruelly at times. Uncaring over suffering.
Roshal’s depravities through night and day were ignored. Sometimes they became clearer than not, but the sun?
He did not stare at the sun, but towards the western sky. At the trail across the roof of the world.
That beautiful, glowing rainbow. A shimmering trail the very color of magic.
A symbol for [Slaves] anywhere to look up and be inspired by hope, rebellion. The nightmare of all those who kept them. Many had forgotten, believing the symbol would never come again. Now—it shone.
The Death of Chains. Czautha flew. One of the mightiest Djinni of her kind turned the sky alight.
“Now there is a sight to end all dark dreams. I will dream of it, I think.”
Merr the Storm looked up. The [Bandit Lady] stood with the other [Slaves] for a moment. Pisces just nodded.
Soon, they would move. They would have to figure out where to go, how to get to where he intended to take them. Soon they would be hunted, he knew. Already word was spreading.
For a moment? They looked up, and took comfort and safety from that sight.
The [Necromancer] of Izril, Az’kerash, raised his head as Ijvani stumbled into the room.
“Master, master, news of the apprentice Pisces!”
She flinched from his glare, which had been his mood the last week and a half. Naught but a dark fury, a mood which sent his Chosen scurrying away from his study. Attempts had been made and failed, and Az’kerash had feared the worst today.
His head rose and his eyes opened. He stood, slowly.
He was far from the only person to hear the news incredulously. The Gold-rank adventurer, a prize among [Slaves]—freed?
How disastrous. Well, some people thought that. Others—
Selys threw up her claws. Drassi had scattered all her papers over Noass and Sir Relz, rushing into the broadcast booth to blurt it out. His friends and allies celebrated.
Roshal was unhappy. The [Necromancer] would have to be reclaimed. The loss of no less than two caravans—no, three if you counted the Emir who was already being purged from all records—was a blow.
The [Slaves] had to be reclaimed, examples made. Roshal would send their agents. Post bounties. They would be found.
It was just that Roshal was a tiny bit…busy…at the moment.
The Death of Chains led her kin through the air. Azam flew after her, for the first time in his life. In her wake flew no less than three other Djinni, each one broken free of their bonds.
Their masters lay dead. Two besides Azam had come from Roshal’s slavers; the last, and a collection of nearly eight individuals on the two flying vehicles, had come from someone not of Roshal. Someone else who owned slaves; possibly from one of the local kingdoms or an unaffiliated [Merchant].
They had been rescued by the only other person here who could break the magical chains of Djinni, besides Czautha. She flew, laughing as though she never meant to stop.
Azam’s smile, which had grown on his face and never ended, such an unusual beaming smile of joy and salvation, wavered a bit. The mighty Djinni of obsidian skin, Aethertraveller, looked through the sky at his sister, who burned in a rainbow, leaving a trail.
Czautha, who was a sun compared to his candle. Azam would have died a thousand thousand times for her already, and they had known each other bare hours as she took him, smashing caravans and freeing his kin. He had luxuriated in that. In righteous vengeance.
He thought he would never frown again. Never cease smiling.
How soon it faltered. Not because of anything she did. The Death of Chains flew, eyes seeking more targets—but all of Chandrar was locking itself down, those who owned Djinni hiding, Roshal’s people cowering as she passed by.
No, not because of her. It was because of the other, who laughed.
She laughed like…someone who was living. Who was loving every second. The half-Elf was old. Old by even Djinni standards. Her hair was as silver as her name.
Silvenia, the Death of Magic. She had burned even more of the [Slave Masters]’ abodes to the ground. It was she who had helped take the eight mortals, the non-Djinni who flew with her.
Recruits. Unlike Czautha, who could only give the gift of flight to her kin, and would have had to carry mortals, Silvenia had artifacts—or perhaps only enchanted these vehicles. A flying chariot, which spectral pegasi dragged through the air, and a carpet no less than forty feet long and half as wide.
She was laughing. Azam had seen her blasting spells down from overhead. She had gone down, like Czautha, to liberate, find those with the will and abilities to aid their cause, and let the others flee.
Then she had flown up, and pointed down. She left nothing behind. Not mansions. Not buildings. Not people.
Now, she was laughing, high on the joy of battle. Azam would have been fine with all of that. Yet what gave him pause, what made him shudder was this:
She laughed like Emir Riqre.
“Silvenia. Enough laughter. We have lost the element of surprise. They are coming.”
The half-Elf’s glee did not end, but she did stop that mad laugh. Her eyes glowed. She turned her face and the Djinni and rescued [Slaves] beheld her. Her and Czautha both.
They were wounded. Half of Silvenia’s body and entire limbs were burnt away, organs replaced. Animated or replaced by power and spellcraft alone.
Czautha was even more obvious. Her kin, who could see her essence leaking, knew there was no patch one could make so easily via magic. Such wounds! They would have slaughtered Azam six times over.
Yet both ignored the pain. Silvenia grinned.
“Let them. Shall we burn cities affiliated with Roshal to the ground, lovely Czautha? This is what I came for. War. Look how they flee. They forgot, in making nightmares for those they owned, that greater nightmares existed. We have come for them.”
She glanced down—and Azam saw lightning coalesce around one hand. Silvenia threw a bolt of [Greater Lightning] down from the skies as they flew. As casually as someone else threw a rock.
“That is not why we came. Control yourself. We must pass by Lailight Scintillation, but only for a second. They will hide my kin, and our time is running out. Kisore. Will you lead my kin and the others north?”
The greatest of the Djinni freed swooped low after Czautha, calling out.
“I can give the others my aegis of levitation, and hold off all but our kin, Czautha’qshe! But I do not know the way to Rhir! They will follow us.”
“Make for the sea. We will catch up. If we are somehow delayed—the Demon King will lead you onwards.”
Kisore nodded. She pointed, and Azam changed course. He called out, with another Djinni who flew as a giant bird, rather than use magic alone.
“Sister! Where are you bound? Roshal’s capital? It is too dangerous!”
The Death of Chains turned her head. Silvenia just shot ahead, laughing, preparing hundreds of spells.
“Not for long, brother! But we must remind them.”
Of what? She shot after Silvenia, and Azam wondered. Fear? Roshal knew fear, from this night alone. Then he saw the Death of Chains’ magic glow brighter.
The rainbow filled the sky, hundreds of feet wide. It seemed to arc down out of the growing dawn. Towards that place all [Slaves] knew.
Lailight Scintillation. Such a beautiful name for a terrible place. The rainbow streaked at the great capital on the coast, and Azam knew that everyone would see it. See the masters cowering, running in fear.
Not for them. Those who still had chains. Azam saw the rainbow halt in the sky, and the Death of Chains’ voice roared in the distance. Remind them. Remind them there was hope still.
Even for them, it was a deadly, dangerous risk. If they had not been who they were—if the Death of Wings were with them, someone would have counseled against it.
Yet they were who they were. The last Deaths of the Demon King, who had survived the war which had put them in recovery for a hundred years. Wounds that still hadn’t healed.
“It would have been another century at least had it not been for the Earth’s child. Silvenia. Are you sure you have the strength?”
The Death of Magic was laughing again. Czautha regarded her companion. Friend? Ally? These were incomplete words. They were the Demons of Rhir. The Blighted Kingdom called them ‘Deathless’. In truth, it was easier to call them war comrades. They were not alike.
“Do not tell me to stop, Czautha. I would not have teleported us across the world or prepared this hard if I were denied this moment.”
“Do not kill my kin.”
“I will try.”
Czautha regarded the half-Elf, who was mightier than even Djinni in spellcraft. Unparalleled—a fallen [Archmage]. Yet that was only her class. She had seen Azam’s face; Czautha possessed more sight than mere mundane eyes, so observing him from behind was easy. He had understood something of Silvenia in a moment.
The half-Elf was war. She lived for it, just as Czautha lived to free her kin. That was a difference between them; Silvenia sympathized with [Slaves], just like the Demons, or why else had she joined them? Yet it was also true she had broken with the Demons’ own rules of war, few as they were, at 5th Wall.
To destroy Roshal, though, Czautha would have joined arms with almost any force in the world. And for this?
Silvenia was needed. The Death of Chains focused her being.
Lailight Scintillation was a glowing jewel, a vast city in the distance. Even dozens of miles out, the two came under fire.
“Artillery spells! Yes, they haven’t changed!”
The Death of Magic spotted them a fraction of a moment before the Death of Chains. She darted forwards, and a war in the air sent shockwaves blasting around Czautha. Long-range spells homed in on them; mobile curses bounced off their superior magical protections without even needing to be countered.
The half-Elf matched many spells with her own, but even she and the Djinni were forced to weave and dodge as they drew closer. They did not dare slow; Lailight would focus all of its might on them if they did.
“There! The harbor! Make for it!”
Czautha was not half as adept as Silvenia at magic, but she did not need to be. She had no Skills or classes.
She was simply a Djinni. She dropped out of the air, her body heavier than lead, and slipped past a curtain of spells as they passed in the wrong dimension towards her. She was a gnat, a cloud…
Then dodging became impossible. Silvenia bared her teeth. She began launching long-range spells back at the towers and walls, but put her hands together.
“We are breaking through! [Manasource Shield]! With me, Czautha!”
The Djinni hurtled towards the half-Elf and they descended from the cloud-layer. Silvenia burned her mana away in a shield which looked like it was crawling with so many magical spells, but her reserves were beyond the lesser spells.
Czautha? She reached into the core of her being and drew her weapons. She had not needed them to destroy caravans. Now?
She held a shield and sword. Just that. The relics glowed in her hands, magic so powerful her essence itself flinched away from them. Czautha lifted the shield.
“The Honor of the Tallest!”
The shield given to her by the last Giants burned. She held it in front of her and Silvenia followed in her wake as Czautha crashed through waves of attack spells.
Then…they were there. The Deaths of the Demon King hovered in the bay over Lailight Scintillation. Over the waters that were as smooth as glass via enchantment, the grand walkways and ramps designed that any species might easily move about the port.
The towers of glittering colored glass, which cast a thousand reflections across the waters, like a rainbow. It had given Lailight its name, but the view would no longer inspire those who saw it each morning. Czautha had chosen her symbol well.
A thousand spells a second flickered at them. Czautha felt her mighty shield failing; they could not stay! Not in this ancient capital, which had defenses designed to repel Djinni attacks. Some spells and wards had been made just for her.
“Silvenia. Give me a minute!”
The Death of Magic was no longer laughing, but a wild smile was on her face. She screamed into the sky.
“I call open the great void of magic! I call for death, as you named me! Open the Deadlands, let loose the void of spells!”
The aura of power around her abruptly winked out. Czautha felt—for a second—nothingness enveloping her.
It was like dying. No, it was dying for a being like her. Yet the void of emptiness passed her by. Czautha shuddered as it enveloped the air around her. Silvenia was so skilled she could create a ‘bubble’ of that dimension.
Into it Lailight Scintillation poured all its wrath, and not a single spell or enchanted arrow passed through. A few mundane projectiles shot forwards and promptly vanished on Silvenia’s lesser spells.
Let them waste their spells and magic. Contemptuously, the Deaths held their ground. For another ten seconds the onslaught roared—then abruptly, fell silent.
“A cool head among them.”
Czautha remarked. Silvenia didn’t answer; sweat stood out on her brow from maintaining the spell.
The Death of Chains didn’t waste time. Now that the roaring sound had ended, she drew breath and bellowed.
Across Lailight Scintillation. To the tiny shapes gathered below. Already…she saw what was coming next. Roshal knew her. She had plagued them, given them something to fear. They knew how to drive her off.
Yet for a moment, let them see her hovering there, in the [Slavers]’ vaunted city. Untouched.
“I am the Death of Chains! Look up, you craven holders of chains. Look up, my kin! I will never die. So long as I live, let all those who hold chains tremble! One day, we will cast this place into the sea. We have returned! Cower and fear our return. Believe the lies of the Blighted Kingdom if you wish—we did not cast that spell that tore the world apart! We have never desired this war! Only freedom.”
Silvenia warned. The Death of Magic was tiring fast. Czautha knew it wasn’t the time. Nor would it change many minds, but she had to scream it so some might hear. The Blighted Kingdom and that damned [King] could win the war of [Diplomats] and [Envoys]…she simply raised her sword.
A Djinni’s sword. One of the last relics that had been made for them, by their children. The Jinn’s Memory shone.
“Wait for me, my kin!”
That was all she had come here to say. Wait for me. Do not despair. I will set you free.
If only she could have fulfilled it now. Yet here they came. Czautha looked down as Roshal played its card, the only card they had to drive her off.
They flew up from the city, dozens, nearly a hundred. They screamed at her as their masters ordered them to battle, to slay the Death of Chains and Death of Magic. Some shot arrows, with artifacts of their own; others used their spells or conjured mundane lightning, fire, and hurled it upwards.
Silvenia was laughing again. She lowered the void of magic and began blocking spells, even sending a few hurtling back to slow the advance.
Czautha roared in anger. The Death of Magic relented. They began to ascend, but slowly.
The tower spells weren’t firing; the Djinni were in the air, but already they had forced the two Deaths to retreat. Not because they were outclassed. If anything…Silvenia could have killed the lesser Djinni just by keeping that enchantment up. Yet Czautha could never have allowed it.
They could neither slaughter the Djinni, nor stop them from attacking. So the two Deaths flew up. Czautha longed to break their chains. She heard them.
She saw their colorful faces. Some were humanoid, others took forms of monsters and beings they had seen, or dreamed. Art come to life. She saw a creature with eight wings, a slightly-off beak, and exaggerated colors.
A child’s drawing. Then there was a Stitch-Woman, complete in every detail. So did the slaves remember. So they honored mortals, and their story was their form itself. They rose over the winking city, the so-called Market of Fables, like a forest of tents and stalls, wafting rich smells of spice and exotic scents into the sea’s air.
And below it all, the stench of sweat and fear and misery. Deeper, Czautha knew, behind the pretty colors of Lailight Scintillation, the dark cellars. The hidden chambers. The suffering. The lost. She hoped her voice had reached even them, down in the cracks of the world. She heard the voices, echoing, deep, braying, animalistic…voices no mortals could make as a species, yet her people.
In the sky above the port the Djinni shouted at Czauta, even as they attacked, but not warcries.
“Sister! Sister, you live!”
“Flee, Sister! My master will destroy us both! Cinaelu! You are late!”
“Let all those who hold chains tremble! Go!”
She saw one shoot up and cried out. The two Deaths accelerated, but the Djinni was fast. He rose like a glowing star, smiling at her. She raised her sword.
“Brother! Show me your bonds!”
Where were they? Earrings, cuffs on the wrists, the feet? At last, she saw the glowing metal in his skin; rods embedded in his being.
“I will wound you, brother, to free you! Stay back if you can!”
“I cannot. Sister—stand clear.”
He shouted back. The Djinni was fast, but not mighty. He held a bow and loosed arrows; they barely touched Czautha, despite the enchanted arrowheads detonating. Yet he was closing. What nature was he? Perhaps speed itself.
“They are trying to stop us from going! I cannot teleport him away—let me—”
Silvenia was aiming a finger at the Djinni. She intended to blast him into oblivion. Czautha knocked her aside and dove. She heard Silvenia’s voice, alarmed for the first time.
Her brother shouted a warning of his own. Yet the Death of Chains reached for him as the other Djinni halted their advance. They saw her blur as she dove.
The lesser Djinni drew a shortsword and stabbed her. Eight times, as they tangled; Czautha felt the pain and ignored it. She was tearing at him, holding him still as she tore loose the magical bindings.
Four of them. She plucked one, two, three…in barest seconds, ripping his own essence apart to get at it. Still…too slow. The Djinni whispered, in that time out of time. He was speed incarnate. That was his nature. Speed and starlight.
“Too late. I am free one way or another. Sister—”
She reached for the last binding, but they both sensed the change. With all his will, he defied the last command and, laughing, hurled her up. Czautha flew, crying out, and looked down. She saw him lift a hand and—
The Djinni exploded as his master detonated the magical relics embedded in him, to command their servant. The Djinni’s essence joined the explosion. The pursuers below halted, knocked down by the blast.
The two Deaths flew upwards. Czautha was partially caught and screamed as her essence was vaporized—but not from the pain. She emerged, and saw the magic had twisted a hole into the water below. The seabed stared up at the sky for nearly a minute before the distortion in the world began to subside.
“I will never forget this.”
She swore it. Again—her kin were coming up, to destroy her even if it meant their loss too. It was what they did, these captors. The Death of Chains pointed down.
“Wait for me.”
Her kin laughed and cheered her as she fled. But she did flee. Magic pursued them, but the two Deaths blocked and evaded the rest, heading north to meet the others they’d saved.
“I have just enough to teleport us back. I need…a ride.”
Silvenia was spent. She let Czautha carry her. The Death of Chains flew grimly, carrying her comrade.
“Was it worth it?”
Czautha looked down. Silvenia lay in her arms, exhausted. They were still half-dead, the two. Yet, in the end, the Death of Chains nodded.
“I did not think they could catch us. I will mourn him later. It had to be done. We will come back.”
“They will be waiting, next time.”
Yes. They would. But they would scurry from place to place, fear every rainbow they ever saw. Czautha nodded.
“We will return. Let us go, Silvenia. Hope remains. Hope…we have spread hope. Let us take them to the only safe place there is, my kin and I. The only place Roshal cannot touch. There is more hope now than ever. Perhaps the door will open. To a land with allies of our own.”
Silvenia’s eyes opened, and she looked at Czautha before laughing again, laughing without end until she was hoarse and panting.
“An ally for us instead of the Blighted Kingdom? How funny that would be! I have missed your optimism, Czautha.”
“It stands in contrast to your bloodthirst, Silvenia. What do you think will happen if a gateway opens? As you think they tried to make?”
Silvenia just chuckled.
“What do I hope for? Not a sanctuary for Djinni and [Slaves]. I have talked with the girl. You should too. We should find more.”
Czautha had made for Chandrar the moment she could, before the Death of Wings could even recover from Silvenia’s healing spells now that the Death of Magic was awake. She bent her head lower.
“What do you think will happen, Silvenia? If this Earth connects to our world?”
The Death of Magic smiled up at the sky.
“What I have waited for. My hope, dear friend. The last war. The greatest war to ever come before or since. Do you expect morality from Earth? A just ally?”
She began giggling.
“I cannot wait.”
The Death of Chains’ attack on Chandrar would echo around the world. Few would actually hear what she had shouted from Lailight Scintillation, and only with difficulty.
Pisces Jealnet being freed was a small headline compared to that. It still mattered to a surprising number of important people. To his friends.
Yet both stories, both tales…had their scope, and reach. In another place, they did not matter. There was nothing either could do, in a real sense, that would matter. After all, for all their might or daring or futures, whatever they might be, they were the concerns of the living.
Cawe sat up and looked down, but her body wasn’t there. The little Garuda ghost sat there. Then, after a moment, she got up.
“That didn’t hurt as much as it should.”
She felt at her neck. Puzzled, really. There was no hole from the blade. She looked as she had a moment before she died.
She felt nothing. That was the first thing the ghosts learned. She felt nothing. She tasted nothing, not even the air; she felt nothing beneath her claws. When she tried to fly, she found she could, but it was only levitation.
There was no air. No touch, no smell, no taste. The world around her was the exact likeness it had been in her death, footprints of the people and all—just no people.
And it was also different. If Cawe tried, she could see that there had been other lands before this, once. The ocean had covered this place at one time, and at another…
All these things were the hallmarks of the land of the dead. It was as instinctual to Cawe as breathing, although she stopped that too, after a moment. She remarked on her death.
“I hope Pisces made it.”
For an instant, a bare flicker of time, Cawe was sad. Worried. Angry…then it faded. She was dead, and the ghost stood there.
Until the second ghost appeared. Cawe looked sideways as a figure cowered.
Igheriz. The Garuda turned. She did not whirl, or turn with vengeance or hate in her eyes. She just…turned. Igheriz rose.
Cawe saw the brief fury, loss, fear settle across his face, and then fade. The ghost looked up—and saw Cawe.
“You. I killed you.”
“Yes. You died too? Who killed you?”
“The—the Djinni. The Death of Chains. She freed Azam. She freed the slaves. I think she is killing them all.”
Sure enough, more [Guards] appeared. Then Astotha, Droppe, Shein, and a few other [Slaves]. They screamed or wept…then stood.
Cawe saw them realize their deaths. She realized hers, and looked at Igheriz.
“Good. Pisces is going to live. I’m glad she killed you.”
Even in death, her animosity was enough to make her voice angry. Igheriz looked at her, and then away.
“So we’re dead. Is that you, Hrome?”
“He killed me. He…I was good to him.”
A man sat on the ground. Igheriz walked over.
“Who? Pisces? Did you expect more from a [Slave]? But he is ungrateful. Of all of us, I would have expected you to live, Hrome.”
“Yes! But he killed me.”
Hrome looked up. For a brief instant, Cawe saw his face, melted to bone. Then…it shifted to Hrome’s normal face. His features stopped twisting and he slowly rose. Igheriz nodded, his voice with that same dispassion in it as Cawe’s.
“Such a pity.”
Cawe was dead. Yet even here, even now that all her mortal regrets and desires were fading away, she still did not want to be among their company. So she began to…drift away. Igheriz looked at her.
“What are you doing, slave?”
Cawe turned about and faced him.
“I am no longer your slave. You cannot order me about.”
Igheriz blinked. He looked at his hands, semi-transparent, and grimaced.
“So you are. I wonder what will happen next?”
So did Cawe. She felt as though something was missing. Surely something came next. She had never thought about death, but…did she haunt the living or something? She could haunt Pisces she supposed, or slavers. Maybe she’d see her family?
The living weren’t here. Cawe wondered if this was it. Yet blandly; nothing was strong here. Only her intense hatred for Igheriz and Hrome made her walk away.
Rather to her displeasure, they followed her. So did the [Guards]. So did the [Slaves].
“Go away. I don’t like you.”
“You are still my [Slave]. I do not know where to go.”
Igheriz followed Cawe. She stopped. When he walked over, she tried to poke an eye out with her claw. She managed to poke him in the face as he jerked away. It didn’t really hurt, but he felt it, or at least, the obstruction of her talon.
“That is enough. I would hit you, or make you a [Slave]…but I do not see the point.”
Cawe glared at Igheriz.
“And I cannot find the effort to figure out how to kill you. Yet. We’re both dead.”
The two stared at each other. Then they drifted onwards. They might have done so for a long time, until Cawe decided to go to where she had been born, somewhere that mattered, and Igheriz, the [Slavers], the [Slaves], all did likewise. They might have remained there, standing and letting time pass them by, occasionally remarking on familiar faces, or a change in the living world around them.
But then came the Giant.
He walked across Chandrar in massive strides. Cawe, Igheriz, and the others all slowed. They looked up.
There was a true Giant. He moved with huge, sure steps, his clothing fine, his brows crossed. Eyes…searching. He was stroking his beard, and behind him flew nearly ten thousand smaller ghosts.
Garuda? But also other species native to Chandrar, albeit many not blessed with flight in life. The Giant was striding, purposefully, moving faster than the rest due to his natural size. Every now and then he would stop and point.
He did so now, pointing at something in the distance. Cawe saw eighteen ghosts descend. She frowned.
“That’s a Giant.”
“So it is. I suppose he is dead too.”
Hrome murmured. Igheriz’s brows crossed. His head swung back and forth from Cawe to Hrome.
He said it differently than the other two. With a bit of awe, trepidation in his voice. Cawe nodded.
“Yes. Why do you say it like that?”
“Because…it’s a Giant. I feel as though it should be important. I do not feel awed, though. As awed as I should be.”
Igheriz touched at his chest. Cawe glanced at him, and then at the Giant as he continued his course across Chandrar, moving towards the coast. She felt…so little at all.
Yet then the Giant turned his head, his eyes roving lifeless Chandrar, and he saw the small band. He pointed again, and Cawe saw the finger point at her. The Giant spoke, and she heard his voice.
“There. Newly dead. They were not there last.”
Instantly, near a hundred ghosts flew down. They converged on the small band, who beheld many ghosts of many species. They greeted each other.
“You’re dead too. When did you die?”
“Why are you flying? Why are you with the Giant?”
The [Guards] and Hrome, even the [Slaves] and Cawe were confused. What was the point of flying? What was the point of walking about? Igheriz was more animated. He blinked as a tall figure floated down towards him.
“Who are you…Miss?”
A [Queen] stood there, eyes searching the crowd of ghosts, shooing away the lesser ghosts around her with impatient flicks of the hand. She stood differently. Even looked…different.
Cawe had clothing on. What kind? Probably what she’d had in life. She was probably a bit dirty, her feathers uncombed or something.
This [Queen] was a Stitch-Queen arrayed in Nerrhavia Fallen’s style, impressive silk standing out across even more costly skin. A jeweled brooch hung from her head—no, was embedded in her forehead, Cawe realized. Her arms had bangles of jade that Cawe swore she thought were relics of Nerrhavia’s Fallen.
She walked in light slippers, and her brows were impatient, curious, and sympathetic. She…was so different from the others that they realized their lacking emotions by standing around her.
Igheriz’s mild curiosity was a dull thing compared to her impatience. She snapped, her voice crisp, lisping slightly.
“You all. What day is it? What day did you die?”
The others blinked. They glanced at each other. After a second, Hrome answered.
That was a day as Roshal counted it. The [Queen] rolled her eyes and they flashed impatiently, violets streaked with topaz.
“I mean, the calendar date. Any system. You. You seem more awake. What level were you, and when did you die?”
She pointed at Igheriz. He hesitated before answering.
“I was a Level 31 [Slave Master], and a Level 22 [Caravan Master]. It was…Laudas last, yes. The month of…”
The [Queen]’s eyes lit up as she tapped her lips.
“That’s later than anyone else. Good, you are recently dead. [Slavers], though.”
Her lips twisted as she stared at Igheriz and Hrome. They looked…puzzled at her reaction. The Stitch-woman flicked her fingers.
“Your kind will welcome you. I would rather the [Slaves], or anyone not part of Roshal. Your perspectives are less twisted. You. Were you [Slave] or [Slaver]?”
“[Slave]. But I tried to get free.”
Cawe answered, less dreamily than before. A bit of the fury that had been in her when she died rekindled itself and she edged away from Igheriz. Just the presence of this mightier ghost seemed to bring her back to life.
“I killed her.”
Igheriz helpfully explained. He shrank in front of the [Queen]’s glare. She nodded, glanced around, and began issuing orders.
“You. Eight steps back. Do not speak until spoken to. All those who were [Slavers], with him. All those who were not? Stand with the Garuda. You, Garuda. Tell me your name. Did anything interesting happen when you died?”
Cawe hesitated. But the ghosts were shuffling obediently into rows. The Nerrhavian Queen snapped her fingers and other ghosts joined her. They shuffled over and plucked all the ghosts aside, asking the same questions.
They were interrogating the newcomers. Cawe and the [Queen] spoke directly, the most animated of the bunch. The other ghosts were indistinguishable, details forgotten, bland, but the [Queen] was real.
“Who are you, your Majesty?”
Cawe asked. The [Queen] smiled.
“I was the second Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen after the tyrant died. Queen Merindue, Level 43 [Queen of the Freed Peoples]. Lower in level than many, but I ruled, so I maintain who I am. And you?”
“Cawe. Cawe the [Pickpocket]. I was Level 16. Well, I levelled to Level 18 before I died…”
“I see. How did you die, Cawe?”
Cawe told her. The [Queen] was sympathetic, but impatient.
“So it was not a grand death. Did you see anything important? Witness any events? News…no, well, we shall ask anyways.”
“We met a terrible Emir. He…”
Cawe hesitated and wondered if she should tell the whole story. Even here, it was terrible. Did she mention Pisces? The [Queen] seemed to sense it.
“Slave-Emirs are not our concern. I mean, news. Of the world. Of great doings.”
The Garuda nearly shook her head, then brightened.
“Oh. Yes! Igheriz said the Death of Chains killed him.”
Queen Merindue raised her brows, but another ghost recognized the name. A Dullahan walked over.
“That matters. That is important news.”
“I see. Good. Then we return to the others. Come with me, little Cawe. We will bring the [Slaves]. Call for Glorious Donbaaar!”
Donbaaar the Giant himself turned as a ghost caught his slow circuit of Chandrar. He bent, and offered a hand. The bewildered ghosts followed as Queen Merindue followed him up the arm.
“Is this worth taking them back so soon, Queen Merindue?”
“I say it so, Glorious Donbaaar. They have news of an important figure. A first-hand sighting.”
“Then I will walk us back.”
So saying, the Giant strode the way they’d come. Cawe realized this was to save time.
What an odd thing. First off, that all ghosts, even she with wings, would move at the same pace more or less in this world of the dead—but a Giant could travel faster due to his natural stride. So he was acting as a transport.
“But why does anyone need to move fast here? It’s as if time means something. And it doesn’t.”
Merindue heard Cawe’s puzzled words. She walked back over as many ghosts rode Donbaaar’s shoulder as naturally as if it were a horse or solid ground, not even staring down at the passing landscape below. He strode across Great Zeikhal, which had once been vast plains. To Cawe’s amazement, she saw grasslands below, rich and fertile, even huts and yurts set up, kingdoms among the grass…
Before it all turned to sand and was lost forever. The ghost saw Merindue smile.
“Things matter more if you stand next to me, Cawe. I will grant you permission to join my retinue. Or, if you wish, you may stand and lose all that you are. There are no more rules.”
She waited. Cawe’s beak opened.
“I…I would like to feel. Thank you.”
“Good. Either way, we must learn what you know. We have need of such knowledge. I will explain all soon—or a [Sage] will. They keep explaining to all the ghosts.”
There weren’t many as Donbaaar strode along. Cawe thought there should be many more. Everyone who had ever died was here, weren’t they? Merindue smiled.
“Ah, you are thinking again! Your levels may not be high, but your soul is strong. Good, Cawe. Yes! Ask more questions. Yes, there were ghosts all over Chandrar. No longer.”
Cawe hesitated. She felt uneasy for a second.
“Did…something happen to them?”
Merindue’s smile flickered. She glanced ahead.
“Not yet. Not ever by the will of Nerrhavia’s Fallen and…Khelt. Rather, we have gathered them. Every dead soul, and we search for new ones. See?”
She pointed, and Cawe saw it.
Like a beacon in Chandrar. Life, infusing her. She felt her body come alive, or as close as it would get.
Cawe looked down. Now, she saw dirty grey-green feathers. She felt her cracked beak and short tongue move. She even felt, for a second, the cut at her neck. She felt sad. Angry. She was glad Pisces hadn’t died. What had happened to him? Had that bastard Hrome…?
The other ghosts started. They looked up and saw the gathering of the dead. And the countless ghosts as powerful as Merindue or more.
Even the [Queen] came further back to life. She stretched, strutted with poise, chin held at an angle, whirling with decisive, distinctive footwork, remembering how she had walked in life. Only Donbaaar was unaffected; his was a soul that needed no reminders.
“Behold, the last gathering of Chandrar’s dead!”
Merindue shouted. Many ghosts floated up to meet them, calling out, asking questions. Merindue pointed.
“We have recent dead! Laudas! This week! Find me a [Sage]! Er…please.”
She was a lesser ghost among some that were hard at work, and it displeased Merindue. Cawe just stared in awe.
There stood every Named Adventurer and famous person who had ever died on Chandrar. No less than the story of stories, Devourer of Devourers greeted Donbaaar. The Named Adventurer who had slain more Jaws of Zeikhal than any other being in the world…was checking ghosts as they lined up.
“Please go to another line if there is space. Give me your name, when you died, and any events of note. If you were of a level above 30, please proceed to the following lines…”
The Named Adventurer was striding along the lines of ghosts who turned to stare at him, pointing out the lines where august figures and famous heroes of legend stood…taking names and information.
“What is this?”
Hrome was confused. So were the others, even frightened. What power could make so many ghosts work like this? Merindue answered as the Devourer of Devourers crouched to listen to a girl speak shyly into his ear.
“We are processing ghosts. This is an efficient system a [Sage] designed. We can write nothing down except if something is made, and that girl’s materials fade quickly…only the high-level of us can remember and act. You will be processed. But I will be with you, Cawe. You can join me in the hunt as you give your testimony.”
The Garuda nodded, confused, but she was led to the first line. The Devourer of Devourers, Berythe, walked over.
“This one has knowledge. They all do. Will you ask them?”
“That is good, Queen Merindue. I thank you for your efforts and Donbaaar for bringing you so quickly. Yet we have a number of ghosts who were slain by the Death of Chains. Are you referring to that?”
Queen Merindue hesitated. Her face soured and turned a bit annoyed.
“…Yes. Perhaps they have a unique perspective?”
“I will call for someone to check.”
Berythe walked off. Merindue hesitated. She stomped one foot, looking annoyed she wasn’t the first one back with important ghosts. Then her scowl deepened into a flash of murderous rage, the only expression of strong emotion Cawe had seen in her brief time dead.
Which was…how long? She didn’t know. The journey here could have taken minutes, or…years. Time had lost its meaning, but the more powerful ghosts seemed to be in a hurry.
Even so, Merindue’s look of pure animosity was such that other ghosts turned to stare. She did not shy away from the emotion; she seemed even happier, in truth, despite her anger. For to rage was to live.
A woman came swaying through the crowd, tall, perfect, a Human, but as amazingly graceful as Merindue’s enhanced fabric. Her eyes were dark whorls of color, and seemed to draw Cawe in.
She made Cawe feel even more alive than the Devourer of Devourers. She was thus important. Her skin was what poets would call ‘alabaster’ or something; Cawe thought it was a lack of sunlight, especially in Chandrar. Yet she had faint tattoos of magic running up and down her arms.
What was most noticeable about her, as they drew closer, was that she was a Stitch-woman. No…parts of her were a Stitch-woman. Somehow, despite being Human, her right arm was sewn on.
It looked unnatural. Like it too was only half-there. It was only the memory of flesh, but Cawe realized the memory was of some kind of ethereal arm. As if it had been a ghost’s in life. The unknown ruler–and she was surely a ruler—also had bare feet, no sandals, and they tapped the ground lightly. A cloth Cawe had never seen, that had lost its power here. She felt they should have left behind traces of another dimension, like footprints upon which ever land she trode.
The two women stopped. Merindue stared at the most powerful ghost yet.
“I hear these might be important? Ah, but if it is only the Death of Chains, then I fear all time is wasted, but I do this in courtesy to you, my descendant. Queen Merindue.”
The woman gave Merindue an arch smile. To that, the second ruler of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, great Queen Merindue, spat only one word.
Cawe waited for something else. Then her eyes went round. Nerrhavia as in…? Then they turned their attention to her.
“So, answer quickly now, who witnessed what? Important events only. I do not care for the pettiness of your life or death. Important events. Important people. That means over Level 40. If you have a secret, it had better be worth a hundred thousand gold pieces.”
Nerrhavia snapped at Igheriz, Cawe, and the other ghosts. Their mouths shut. Hrome stuttered.
“We—we have seen the Death of Chains, your Majesty.”
“We knew an Emir Riqre—”
Nerrhavia raised her brow at Merindue. She was acting like the others, Cawe realized. Gathering information. Nerrhavia, the legend behind…acting as a gate guard?
That was just the world they had ended up in. Merindue looked past Nerrhavia as the first ruler smirked.
“A poor haul. Not even the fastest to arrive, Merindue.”
“I moved as fast as I could. I shall return with Donbaaar to searching, then.”
Merindue turned on her heel, embarrassed, flushing, almost forgetting about Cawe. Nerrhavia rolled her eyes.
“Yes, yes. I might as well do a proper job of it. Let me see. You do not know anything of value, so we will let you gather with the others and be told what is occurring.”
Her tone adopted one of bored rote, even here.
“Do you have any information on ‘The Wandering Inn’ in Izril, the city of Liscor, a Mrsha, Lyonette du Marquin, let’s see…Relc Grasstongue, Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt, Saliss of Lights, Erin Solstice, of course…”
She was reciting names from memory. The ghosts didn’t know any of them, except maybe vaguely, as those who had heard something once or twice. Then Nerrhavia spoke the name aloud.
“…Griffon Hunt, Horns of Hammerad…”
Cawe blinked. She spoke at the same time as Hrome, Igheriz, and the others.
“Horns of Hammerad? You mean, Pisces?”
Merindue’s head snapped around. Nerrhavia looked up. Her brows shot together.
“You know…Pisces Jealnet?”
“Know him? He was in our company, Great Nerrhavia. He was…well, Igheriz’s [Slave]! He was right there. He killed me!”
Hrome blustered. Nerrhavia’s eyes opened wide. She looked at Queen Merindue, and suddenly the other woman had a triumphant look on her face. She strode over to Cawe.
“My instincts, Nerrhavia, are never wrong. Cawe, you say you know Pisces? How well?”
“I was chained up with him for days. I tried to help him escape. Why, what’s—”
Cawe got no further because Nerrhavia and Merindue grabbed her arms. They rushed her through the crowd. [Sages], [Kings], [Queens], Named Adventurers, and more looked up as Nerrhavia shouted.
“Donbaaar! We have news of Pisces of the Horns of Hammerad! To the center!”
The Giant turned. He bent down at once and scooped them up. Terrified, Cawe saw the sea of ghosts part.
That was how she came to the center of it all. The last stand of the ghosts in Chandrar’s death.
And how she met Erin Solstice.
In distant Terandria, the kingdom of Avel sat on a network of cliffs. The beaches lay at the bottom of a natural trenchwork of passages, in themselves not difficult to climb up and down, but reminiscent of a child digging lines in stone with a trowel.
The highlands of Avel, the famous Kingdom of Bows, also gave rise to the natural terrain that had made so many great archers out of their people.
It had not changed markedly over millennia. Oh, buildings appeared and disappeared, the kingdom was sacked…twice…and the capital relocated both times. A mountain disappeared that was technically bordering Avel, but even in the land of the dead, Avel was much as it always had been.
Terandria had kept much that other places had lost. Yet now…
Now, the ___ of lost things, the forgotten, stopped on its journey. It halted at the coast and saw the ghosts, supplicating, standing on the cliffs.
“Great lord! Hear our plea! Have mercy!”
They were shouting. Terandria was embattled. Six things assailed it. They would devour each continent. Izril had fallen; so the ghosts, these ones at least, stood on the cliffs. Terrified. They shouted at the thing as it regarded them, interested.
“We surrender! Oh spirit, oh master of this realm—give us mercy in this hour! We shall show you the other enclaves of ghosts. Do we do that—consider sparing our souls?”
A woman called out, and a cluster of men and women all added supplications, some going as far as to kneel and bow their heads on the ground.
It was a style that was almost…prayer. The ___ of lost things was intrigued. It had known Terandria remained unassailable. It seemed there were traitors in every land.
So it moved forwards, rather than skirt the coast as it had been, moving across dark seas. Towards Avel, fearing not the same cliffs and beachheads that had turned into deadly chokepoints for any attacking army in wars prior.
Whether or not it would spare them, it had not decided yet. Something smiled, yet it had no face. It had no…discernible features, yet it smiled as it moved towards the pleading ghosts.
It did have a head, though. So that was where the glowing arrow hit it.
The ___ of lost things staggered. It looked up, and the ghosts cheered. They swept back from the cliffs, and it beheld a single figure on the cliffs.
The First King of Avel raised the bow of his kingdom, the relic that had remained from generation to generation, and took aim. A second arrow struck the thing in the chest. Then a third streaked past it as the thing turned and fled.
“That’s right, flee, thou craven parasite!”
The ghosts stopped pretending to plea for mercy and began laughing, applauding the archer and each other and celebrating. The ___ fled, feeling the pain of each strike.
Not a mortal wound, as most would have taken from the arrows, but still a damage in kind. It looked back as it moved out of arrow range. The archer raised the bow over his head, a gesture of defiance.
A weapon in the lands of the dead? Yes.
Just one. It could not be brought with the dead, for they owned nothing, not even Skills or levels anymore, for all it informed the strength of their souls. Yet that?
The First King of Avel held the same bow that shone in reality. So long as the living kept it, kept their own kind of faith, it endured here. That was how, from Silvaria’s shores to Cenidau to the north, the six had been kept at bay.
By Dragonfire, the wrath of Giants, and the relics of humanity. In Baleros, the Dragons turned back the six with even greater success. The lost thing moved away, out of range of those dangerous shores.
It was not annoyed, if such emotions even applied. How vexing. But it was a calm vexation, unlike the other five’s, some of whom were prone to greater rage. The ___ of lost things continued its journey.
For now, Terandria remained safe. The Bow of Avel glowed, one of the last beacons of hope.
“There it is again. Do you see it?”
The King of Avel—the current one, living, healthy, thank you—held up the bow. His retainers winced.
“Your Majesty, please stop holding it so carelessly.”
The [King] waved the bow around.
“Why? It is the relic of Avel. It won’t break even if I do this—”
He thwacked the bow against the armrest of his throne in a way that no bow should ever be treated. The [Chamberlain] threw her hands over her eyes in horror.
“Your Majesty! Please, desist! That should be in the treasury, under guard! If a [Thief] were to steal it—”
“Bows are meant to be used. I can use the Relic Skills and the enchantments. Didn’t you see how I winged that Griffin last week?”
Happily, the [King] held the bow up to admire. Then he frowned.
“I don’t know why it keeps glowing of late. Someone find the records. There has to be a reason. See? It’s doing it again. Maybe it’s a sign.”
“That the power wanes?”
The court murmured. The [King] thought, pondering long on his throne.
“…That I’m not using it enough. I shall ride to the royal archery range!”
The living’s concerns and actions did not affect the memory of the bow in the lands of the dead—except if something damaged or exhausted its power.
That was not the case here. The First King of Avel lowered the great longbow, a gift from a Dragon, made with such skill that no [Bowyer] in any time had ever exceeded it, or so it was said, and stared steely-eyed out into the distance.
Solemn sentinel, even in death. Around him stood the ghosts of Avel and nations close to it. An enclave, dedicated to watching the shores of this region for threats. Many were monarchs, like he. In fact, every generation of Avel’s royalty stood with him.
Their class gave them power, even here. With them stood those who had achieved the highest of levels in their time, the greatest of deeds. They mocked the thing as it fled. Then, at last, a [Queen] declaimed.
“That makes six! All six, then. They have fallen for it, each in their arrogance. Had we wine, we should celebrate this occasion. Prithee, let us send for a messenger and inform the other kingdoms of this occasion.”
Her husband, smugly folding his arms, inclined his head.
“It is a triumph in a dark hour. Fain, we shall inspire the others by our wit and words. I decree it, so it shall be done. A [Poet]—find me a [Poet] among our dead and messengers aplenty!”
He clapped his hands. Some lesser ghosts milled about. The First King of Avel took no notice. The other ghosts were allowed to do as they wished; they needed his bow to fend off threats. He stood there, calmly posed, willing to wait years, centuries if need be, for the next shot. After all, he was ruler of Avel and he would defend it in death until—
Someone yanked the bow out of his hands. The First King of Avel started. Another [King] of Avel was wrestling with the bow.
“You fool! This is my bow! My sacred weapon!”
The third King of Avel gave his grandfather a less-than-filial look.
“It is Avel’s sacred weapon. I have wielded it in times past. You have used it enough—we agreed on a rotation.”
“You all agreed on a rotation. I founded Avel! This bow is mine alone!”
The two ghosts began to argue and tug on the bow, but they were evenly matched, without physical strength or things like gravity, traction, and other details to give them some advantage. It was a [Princess] in the end who separated the two.
“Enough! This is the end of our times and you two fight? Stop quibbling over the only weapon that can defend us!”
The two [Kings] realized they had an audience of their peers, descendants, and subjects. Abashed, they stopped, and the First King reluctantly held the bow out, loosely. The third king of Avel, who had turned what was a very small ‘kingdom’ into a version of the prosperous lands it was today, reached for the bow, haughtily.
The [Princess] snatched it. Both [Kings] started.
“How dare you! That is the bow of kings—”
“And I was better with it than both of you. I’m the highest-levelled [Archer] here. Or have either of you ever actually killed a Dragon with it? Annoying them doesn’t count. I have killed Dragons and Giants and worse.”
The First and Third [Kings] of Avel spluttered. Drawn by the commotion, more ghosts, mostly monarchs, appeared. One waved a hand.
“As King of Delve, I believe we should all be granted a turn with the bow.”
He was promptly ignored by the others. One ruler sneered.
“Delve does not exist, ‘your Majesty’. Let those who founded nations that endure lead.”
It looked like another fight was going to erupt, and the monarchs of Avel were now engaged in a shouting match with their neighbors, the Kingdom of Delve, which had lasted millenia…until it was erased due to that entire shelf of land disappearing into the sea.
It was the Third King of Avel and the Sixth King of Delve who were about to get into it, but another man tried to play peacekeeper. He had a beard that Dwarves had been jealous of in life, which was thick and combed straight. It had once saved him from an arrow in battle and had been claimed to be as soft as Sariant Lamb wool.
“Majesties, peace. Peace. We are all allies in this time of death. Avel and Delve need not bring up the quarrels we had in life. As a [King] who has vassalized both your nations before, I believe it is my duty to ask you all to calm your heads.”
That went about as well as one could expect. The two [Kings] turned on the ghost and attempted to throw him over the cliff. Not that it would have done much good, gravity being gone here, but it was the thought that counted.
It was at this point another [King] floated higher.
“It seems someone must inspire us all. Very well—if it is my duty, then I shall recite my great speech of old. Friends, protectors of this land, good subjects! Lend me your thoughts, if but a passing moment! It is this dire hour which sees us brought together…”
“Oh, shut up. You lost that battle. I beat you after you gave that speech!”
An angry [Duke] shook his fist up at the [King]. The [King] faltered in his speech, and floated down to argue what ‘lost’ really meant.
Old grudges, enemies, spouses who had killed each other via poison, treachery, and so on, were all here. An heir to the throne that deposed the ruling monarch got to spend eternity side-by-side with the victim…well, in other times they would have happily gone the other way, or spent eternity plaguing the other.
Not so, now. They were united. Or rather, forced to share the same space.
It was like watching hens fighting in a henhouse. Or eighteen Drakes fighting over a diamond on the tavern floor. The ghosts of Avel and other nations watched in dismay as their glorious rulers fought. One could almost wish for one of the six to return again—only then was Terandria united.
As it always had been, really. Terandria stood.
The [Queens] of Avel, those not fighting for the bow they had wielded in life with their counterparts, held a more polite conclave a ways off with their peers. They were talking, content to let the fighting ghosts argue.
“So, all six have tried Terandria’s shores. Myself, I like that last one least. It has no face, no features…it is not any species known. If we could, we should watch that one.”
One of the monarchs opined, glancing darkly towards the flat sea in the distance. The others nodded. The last [Queen] of Avel, a dim star compared to some, peered into the distance.
“They try Terandria time and again. I have heard Silvaria has it worst. Around there, they press in. No less than a dozen great ghosts were lost…the trouble with swords is that one must let the enemy close, and these kill at a touch. Silvaria, though, indicates that they come from the south.”
“Izril is lost. It is a base for them, and they do not try Baleros much, according to that Dragon that landed.”
The others nodded. They were in ‘communication’ with the other outposts along the coasts, which meant sending ghosts to receive word. There was news from Baleros. One of the [Seraphines] of Delve, the Torchlight Queens to give them another name, murmured as she sat.
“Izril is gone. Perhaps Chandrar too. They walk in strength there. We have only news that Baleros remains, and Drath. Ghosts from Minos and Izril have both fled here; how long shall we endure?”
The others were meaningfully silent. The hour was dark, and for all they argued over the petty concerns of life, if they could have joined forces in any meaningful way, they would have. Even with those who had murdered them. This was a war for existence, and against foes who did not die.
It was then that one of the [Queens] raised her head. She had watched the ocean, as they all had. Now…she floated a bit past Avel’s cliffs.
“Wait. What is that?”
She frowned, squinted. And then raised her voice. The monarchs around her looked up as one of the [Queens] began to stride through the air.
“What is going on? Have you lost your senses?”
The [Queen] was growing excited. She called to the others.
“Get the bow! Warn the other outposts! Look! Don’t you see it?”
She pointed. All the ghosts turned now, and the [Princess] holding the Bow of Avel gave a cry. Now they all saw it.
In the distance, a shape was coming. A vast figure, flying across the sea. Purple light flared, but purple in a color that stretched beyond the visible spectrum. Some of the greatest [Archers] saw the light which trended into spectrums beyond the natural and pointed.
“A Dragon! I have never seen such scales!”
“A Void Dragon. They were always rare. That’s…a Dragon. It comes beyond the sea, and it is besieged!”
It was true. Two of them followed hot on the Dragon’s tail, pursuing it, only kept back by the Dragonfire as the desperate Dragon flew north. From…?
“I bear word of Chandrar! To my aid, my kin!”
The roar of Xarkouth, the Dragonlord of Stars, echoed across the silent ocean. And they came. Ghosts, Dragons, monarchs, bearing the relics that still remained, rushed forwards to do grim battle with the two following. News?
He brought news indeed. Hope, as much as there was to grasp at. Words of defiance, but also something which would echo among the dead. A name.
In the center of the last gathering of Chandrar’s ghosts, the little Garuda and dead of [Slavers] and [Slaves] were brought. They had come north, far north, to a kingdom founded in death.
Why here? Why was this where the ghosts gathered?
Because there was power here. More than that? They had something else.
But look. Cawe’s eyes grew wider, and had she breath, she would have gasped.
The ghosts filled the ground and air. With each step, she passed by countless thousands, millions, even greater numbers that filled the world.
Yet in the center stood the greatest of them, some whose names were still legends, others who had been forgotten. Some whose stories had never been told. It did not matter.
Here they fit. Cawe walked between lines of ghosts half again her height. Great Stitch-[Sages], whose lined features took on tones of immortality with their knowledge. One, whose robes glittered with fabric made of great materials of old.
She passed under the arm of a warrior garbed in adamantium armor, a Giant who sat with helmet on the ground that she might converse with a Garuda whose feathers were like a Phoneix’s, in flame.
Cawe saw a [Witch] made of wood turn, her hat of leaves tilting as she caught sight of Nerrhavia and Queen Merindue. She pointed, and eight adventurers turned. One reflexively reached for her whip made of Manticore hide, a nine-tailed weapon, each head coated in a different poison, when she saw Igheriz and recognized him.
The ghosts came to a great palace, which only grew with each generation in the lands of the dead. They looked up the thousand steps, towards the last gathering at the top. There stood arguing [Archmages], uselessly accompanied by floating artifacts, or holding relics that no longer had power, tallying information and coordinating the quest for knowledge. An impatient [Courier] ran along, cursing that his feet, which had turned sand to glass with the speed of his travel, could take him no faster.
At the center of it all stood eighteen men and women. One was a half-Giant, far larger than the rest. Another? A Garuda. The others were Human and Stitch-Folk. They were rulers all. Not more powerful than those gathered here. Many arguably less vivid in the strength of their souls.
Yet the Rulers of Khelt stood in the center of this vast gathering. Among their august peers, they spoke, conferring, deigning to hear the others. At their feet, sitting on the top steps of Khelt’s palace was the person whose name was on everyone’s lips.
She was not as strong as these ghosts, Cawe saw. Not as old, as rich nor as skilled in life. Yet she was more real. A ghost not yet dead. She sat, dangling her legs over the top step, talking with a Stitch-Woman who was eating spaghetti off a plate.
Food? Actual food? Cawe smelled the first thing in the lands of the dead. A slight fragrance from the meaty sauce, the smell of tomatoes, the faint odor of pasta, and her mouth watered. She looked at the decent dish of spaghetti, with butter and noodles, and the [Rogue] eating it. Every inch of her body had been stitched out of adaptive, concealing thread, so at will she could turn invisible, or blend with the sand.
The young woman was plain. In that her body was not made of silk, her features not sculpted by Skill or given unearthly beauty by tonics and potions. She did not move straight-backed, with imperious authority like Nerrhavia, nor did she have the touch of power in her eyes like many [Mages].
Her t-shirt and jeans were colorful, but faded from many washings and wearings. Her hair hadn’t been cut in a while and was tied back with a bit of twine. She had hazel eyes, which danced with amusement at times, then turned round with confusion, sometimes exaggerated. Her laughter was infectious.
Erin Solstice was shaking her head as the [Rogue] ate the memory the [Innkeeper] had conjured up for her.
“I just don’t get it. How am I supposed to find and kill an invisible squid for its ink if it’s invisible?”
The [Rogue] sighed.
“The secret of dyeing cloth is more than the invisible ink. I have given you the recipe for cloth that ten thousand [Thieves], [Assassins], [Rogues], and [Infiltrators] begged for in life and I took to my grave.”
“Yes. Thank you. I’ll try to find invisible squids. Really, I will. Cranberries, really?”
“They enjoy them. Now, my time is up.”
The [Rogue] slowly stood. Erin rose with her.
“You don’t have to go. Stick around. I mean…do you want more food? It disappears fast. Here. Have you ever tried ice cream? This one has sprinkles….well, dried raisins. It’s healthy. Sort of.”
She offered an ice-cream cone to the Stitch-woman. The [Rogue] accepted it and smiled. She peered at the raisins.
“Why these toppings?”
“Well, I didn’t know how to make actual sprinkles or sugary things, so I thought—raisins. They’re sort of like chocolate sprinkles? You know, if you put a banana on a sundae, raisins and ice cream isn’t bad, right? Raisins are sweet. Ice cream is sweet. Put them together and it’s even better.”
A [Chef of Five Winds], who had once captured the very fragrance of sweet morning air, the delight of morning dew and infused it into an ephemeral dish for the palettes of his day, clutched at his head at Erin’s words. Sweet plus sweet? He almost went to strangle her before his peers held him down.
“For the love of cuisine, let us have another turn explaining taste to the [Innkeeper]!”
He shouted at one of the [Witches], a tall woman with spectacles who was keeping the line of ghosts waiting to talk to Erin in order. Califor glanced at the [Cooks], and shook her head.
“I have taste! It’s for dessert, not fancy stuff! I’ve made souffles!”
Erin waved a fist at the [Cooks]. She paused, and then a wicked look entered her eye.
“Have I told you about my acid fly cookies? Or when I fried that bee and put honey on top? Now there’s a dish.”
One of the [Chefs], who had cooked many dishes with insects like cicadas, having explored all of wildlife, slapped a hand over her eyes and turned away. Honey makes insects taste good? Insert flies into cookies, and you have a dish?
They didn’t see how the [Innkeeper] was doing it on purpose. Cawe looked up at Erin Solstice and smiled. She liked her already.
“Make way. Make way. We have something the [Innkeeper] needs to know.”
Nerrhavia shoved ghosts aside as she strode up the steps. Califor turned and barred the way.
“What have you brought, Queen Nerrhavia?”
The woman stopped imperiously, and Erin turned. Nerrhavia gave Erin a smile.
“We meet again, Erin Solstice. I hope you have taken my words to heart.”
Erin Solstice gave Nerrhavia a puzzled look. The woman’s face went slack, and Queen Merindue laughed aloud. Especially because that too was deliberate, as Erin proved by beaming at the [Queen].
“Hey Merindue! What’s up?”
“What have you brought?”
Califor was unmoved. Nerravia gestured to Cawe and the procession.
“News of one of the [Innkeeper]’s companions. These were all in the company of ‘Pisces Jealnet’. They journeyed with him for two weeks and were with him moments before they died. They also witnessed the Death of Chains in person.”
The rulers of Khelt stirred. Some of the ghosts, Califor included, who were recently-deceased, stirred with recognition of that great name. Yet it was Erin who raised her head. She leapt down the stairs.
“Pisces? You know Pisces?”
She looked around, astounded, then seized Cawe’s talons. Erin blinked down at the oddly-segmented joints, and then looked into Cawe’s eyes. The Garuda realized the [Innkeeper] was perceptive. And…she looked worried when she heard Pisces’ name. But relieved to hear of him.
That was how they met, and how Cawe found herself sitting at Khelt’s palace, among the ghosts, telling her story once more. Erin Solstice lay on the intricately-wrought marble, each stone designed to seamlessly fit with the other, carved by a master with little motifs of Khelt’s glories and enchanted not to wear and tear from the sand or feet.
She propped her chin on her hands and rested her elbows on the ground, legs kicking as she lay on her front. Then she sat up, cross legged, eyes wide with shock—then a flashing fury. Thereafter, she clenched her hands together, lacing her fingers between each other and gripping so tight they would have been white or hurt herself if she had possessed a body.
When that was not enough, she jumped to her feet and began to stride around in angry circles, snapping questions, pointing fingers, throwing up her hands and shouting—until she abruptly sat. Then she sat, legs dangling once more, next to Cawe, hand on her back.
The anger was still there, but it was calm anger, cold, as she listened. She hugged the Garuda, arm around her as she listened to the end. When it was done? Her face was smooth, but her eyes were…deep. Deep with loathing, with hatred.
Califor watched all of it, as did Cawe, though the [Pickpocket] was lost in the memories of retelling. The [Witches] and other ghosts watched Erin too, though the young woman had only eyes for Cawe by the end.
“So there is the young woman I sought to unveil. There is hatred enough to cow lesser men and women. There is the woman who hides among the girl’s petty pretenses.”
Nerrhavia remarked, satisfied. Queen Merindue stood with her, for all their animosity.
“She does not lack for passion, that one. Only for seriousness. If she were always thus—-she would make a far finer [Queen] than [Innkeeper]. Better that than [Witch].”
Nerrhavia and Merindue traded significant looks. In that, they could agree. Yet, frustratingly, they had little power here. The [Witches] had the confidence of Khelt, and Khelt ruled by dint of their authority in death.
“Give me time with her. I will return her to the world of the living as a fit heir to rule new lands.”
Nerrhavia breathed. Merindue snapped her lips shut; unhappy because she had been about to say almost the exact same thing.
That was, of course, why Califor and the [Witches] kept the others back. Give me an hour with her, give me the time to teach her. The [Cooks] demanded it out of decency for the dishes she served as ‘food’.
The monarchs wanted to make a ruler out of her. The [Witches] wanted one of their own kind.
No ghost was exactly impartial. Not when this young woman might return to the living. She was not the heroine of legends they might have wished for, but she was the one person who might one day return. So…into her they poured their wishes and dreams and hopes.
Yet that was not necessarily Erin Solstice. As proof, while the ghosts had presented their best for her to learn from, the ones who remained as counselors of a kind, no, as friends, were the ones she had connected with.
The [Sage] of a Hundred Thousand Secrets, Velzimri.
The [Rebel] of String, Elucina.
The Giant, Donbaaar, and Queen Merindue had been among that number. So had Xarkouth in his own way. Cawe, too. She would not be out of place, for there stood a man with a mustache, a bit of morning growth on his chin, and cheap armor, a plain sword.
Gerial of the Horns of Hammerad. He listened to the tales of the new Horn of Hammerad, frowning.
“So Ceria recruited him after all? We could have used him in the crypt. Pisces, that is. I met him, you know.”
He confided to Elucina and Velzimri. If he felt out-of-place with these two…he was. Elucina nodded.
“I know something of your story, Adventurer Gerial. A [Necromancer]? Some keep undead as one does [Slaves]. This is not such a man, I trust?”
“Pisces? No, no…there was Toren, but…”
Elucina frowned mightily. She had had words with Erin already, and the [Innkeeper] still avoided meeting her gaze. Velzimri leaned down, the tall Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets’ robe sweeping around him. Liquid mercury and mithril-weave fabrics swirled around Gerial’s legs.
“This [Necromancer]. Of what type is he?”
“Ah, then has he mastered the art of raising armies, or does he create individual creations? I knew a [Necromancer] who animated the bones of a Dragon.”
Gerial stuttered a bit.
“Er…I think—he managed to do uh, basic skeletons when I met him? Ceria said he could animate Liches, Skeleton [Mages]. And Ghouls?”
Elucina and Velzimri exchanged a look. The [Sage] mulled over an appropriate response.
“Ah. He has potential to grow, then. That is always welcome.”
They watched Erin’s face as Cawe finally finished. The [Innkeeper] bowed her head, and they all took something different out of it.
Gerial beheld Erin as he had seldom seen her. He had not known her as long as the living. Yet he had known her when Pawn came to the inn, after being tortured by Ksmvr.
Elucina witnessed the same fury in her heart, and it worried her. It could consume. She had seen that too, but she would never gainsay Erin’s fury. She understood the horrors of chains.
Velzimri just saw Erin’s concern. Her anger, her rage? The [Sage] saw the expressions of someone who cared for someone else. That was what he had lacked.
“So he’s alive. He’s…free? Thank you for telling me.”
Erin hugged Cawe one-armed. The [Pickpocket] shook her head.
“I don’t know. We were captive and Igheriz killed me first. What happened next? I don’t know. They do.”
She pointed down the steps and Erin looked at Hrome, Igheriz, Astotha, Shein, Droppe, and the guards. Her face darkened further.
“Those are the [Slavers]? Why are they here?”
“Are you surprised? Everyone dies. Better they are here than among the living. Fear not; if your friend is not here, then he is alive, and the Death of Chains freed the others.”
The reasonable response came from one of the [Witches]. Somillune, the Witch of Ashes. Erin Solstice hesitated, and her anger faded a step. She looked down at Igheriz. The revulsion was written across her face, yet the [Slave Master] walked up the steps. He was more alive, like the others, and Cawe begrudged every bit of the memory of life this place gave him. She glared as he smiled, toothily, up at Erin.
“Miss Solstice, is it? I am Igheriz, Caravan Master of Roshal! You have heard my sl—Cawe. Will you not listen to us? This is a great gathering of the dead.”
Incredulously, the [Innkeeper] stared down at him, but some of the ghosts in the gathering and outside stirred. Nerrhavia watched Erin’s face with interest.
“Me? Speak to you?”
“I knew Pisces longer than that Garuda. Surely if you speak to many ghosts, you have time for me? I knew Pisces and could tell you my story.”
“You tortured him. Cawe just told me.”
Erin’s voice was flat. Igheriz hesitated, but her anger was meaningless here and he knew it. He wagged a finger with his watercloth hand.
“Ah, Miss Human. There are always many stories. How can you trust a [Thief]’s word over mine? Let me just—”
He tried to walk up the steps and Califor blocked his way. So did Velzimri, Somillune, and three other ghosts. Igheriz stopped, unable to push past them. Erin’s eyes flashed.
“I don’t want to talk with you people. If Pisces had died. If…”
She turned away. Igheriz faltered, and Hrome, who’d come up the steps eagerly too, to meet with this girl who might live, also backed up from the powerful ghosts who glared at him.
“I have done little wrong, Miss Solstice! Your friend committed crimes. I am an honest man, and have done everything by the laws of my nation! I was slain by a monster, a nightmare from Rhir! Will you not hear me out?”
Erin was walking away, but she swung around. She looked down at Igheriz.
“How dare you say that?”
The Stitch-man smiled. Unafraid of her wrath.
“You are not needed, [Slave Master]. Nor do you belong here. Begone.”
Califor looked down at him. The [Sage], and Elucina herself descended the steps. The weight of their souls made Igheriz back up. The Rebel of String? She met his gaze.
“Do you know me, little man?”
He faltered. Even here, even now, he seemed to recognize Elucina, even if he could not identify her exactly. He and the others of Roshal were forced down the steps. Until Igheriz’s backwards momentum abruptly halted.
Califor’s glare switched targets. Elucina cursed. Erin, watching from the top of the stairs, saw a group of ghosts break past the arguing ones in this central place. They forced their way up the stairs, ignoring the hands, pushing back at the bodies.
“Our kin has a point. Should he not speak? You [Witches] have dictated who meets the [Innkeeper], the living girl for so long. Wisdom from all classes? You do not represent our class. Rulers of Khelt! Do you think it wise to ignore aid wherever it comes from?”
The eighteen turned and looked down. Elucina’s eyes were like diamonds of cold hatred. Erin Solstice looked at the ghosts moving up the stairs in unity. Cawe backed up.
Their ghosts were here too. [Slave Masters], [Slave Lords], and their like advanced as a single group. The most powerful of them clashed with Elucina and the ghosts trying to block their advance.
It was not right. They were here too. Death cared not for who died—and Roshal had many high-levelled monsters of its own. They fought to get to Erin and Cawe beheld a bloodless war on the steps, shoving, arguing…no violence, but a bitter contest of wills.
“I do not wish to speak to Roshal.”
Erin whispered. She had not known Roshal, save for a distant word, a place, but with no real grounding or examples near her. Now?
She looked at Cawe, backing up. Yet Roshal was determined to have its say, and many powerful ghosts…Nerrhavia stood to one side, just watching. Even Merindue was silent.
“Roshal once again desires an audience with Erin Solstice. The coven of great [Witches] speaks against. My kin, once more they ask. We who command this gathering by dint of Khelt’s might in death—-what say you?”
The voice came from above Erin. All the ghosts slowed, although locked in their battles, as the first among the eighteen spoke.
Queen Khelta, first of Khelt. With her, seventeen rulers who had defined this nation since. Who could command Khelt’s power, and had kept Chandrar safe.
“I did not treat with Roshal. Nor did I suffer it when I lived.”
So rumbled the half-Giant, King of Khelt. Half the others nodded. One of the Stitch-women raised her hands, turning to the others.
“I allowed [Slaves], but it was by acceptance of their existence, not tacit encouragement. There is wisdom in all classes, as they say.”
“Dark wisdom, Queen Heris. Words have a power of their own and they would make Erin Solstice like one of them. In your time, after Queen Khelta’s death, you made many pacts. In my era, which is second to the present, I suffered not Roshal.”
Queen Xierca, the last ruler before the present, argued. Queen Heris shrugged.
“I merely present their arguments as they make them. We are all enemies of those six. Should not every weapon be wielded? If they left her with codes or knowledge to inspire Roshal to aid her…”
“A cursed blade poisons the wielder. I say not.”
The Garuda slashed her claw. Six other rulers nodded. Queen Khelta mused.
Her face was not, as many of theirs were at times, mummified flesh. The rulers of Khelt were old, and their appearances shifted. Sometimes they were as they had lived in life, flesh and blood. Adorned in resplendent robes, sometimes the very same garments of office, glittering deep purple, golden thread—but other times they were as they became.
Corpses, sitting on a throne. Revenants, bearing the will to protect and guide their people. Erin could see it happen.
The beautiful Stitch-woman of Queen Xierca, lips stitched a carmine red. Turning her head, and becoming…
Decaying fabric. Eyes lost, glittering white flames with hints of amethyst in her sockets. Stitches missing. Slowly disintegrating on her throne until half her face was gone, until it seemed she was a puppet long worn away. As if she might fall to pieces if she moved. Yet still smiling. Wearying, but…
They all did that. The half-Giant rotted away to bone, his glowing eyes shining with dark rubies amid black flame. His spine bowing more as centuries turned his bones further yellow.
Wearying. Yes, that was what happened to all of them. They became undead and the centuries ground them down until they finally ended—and were allowed to rest.
All but Khelta, who was a woman, at varying stages of her life when she chose, but a woman still. She had lived the least of all of them, that founder of their nation.
It was she who led them all. So she raised a hand and their discussion stopped.
“I will not waste time teaching what falls upon deaf ears. Will you listen to Roshal, Erin Solstice?”
She turned to the [Innkeeper]. Erin shook her head immediately.
“No. I don’t want them. I’ll listen to many people. Not them. Not after what they did to my friend. Can you…get rid of them, please?”
Roshal’s masters glared and tried to push harder. Khelta just nodded. She pointed at the ghosts.
“You all have heard her will. If we desire it, we shall summon you. This is the land of Khelt, great kingdom of death. You are not welcome. Begone.”
The other ghosts moved back at once. Roshal’s ghosts flowed up the steps, desperately, reaching for Erin, whispering—too late.
Sand blew out of the air, real sand, stinging, particles of it blasting the ghosts into the air. A sandstorm swept them into the air, and hurled them across Chandrar in a mighty arc. Cawe’s beak opened, and Erin smiled. Not a happy smile, but…
Khelta turned her head without another word, as if she’d just swatted a fly. That alone, that casual disregard, made Cawe love her.
The Garuda whispered. Khelta’s head turned, and her eyes flashed once. They were startlingly pale white, just a hint of color in them—pale white and merely the hint of brown, though her skin was native to Chandrar.
“You are welcome, little ghost. Rest here, and they will not trouble you in death if you will it. I shall accept your number into Khelt’s ranks.”
Cawe bowed low. But then she had a terrible, dark thought. She rose, and looked back. Astotha, Shein, and Droppe cowered, and dared not come closer. Yet they were only [Slaves] who had been afraid. Cawe was angry at them, because they had gotten her killed. Yet she knew why they had been so afraid.
A shadow passed over her soul, even here. Even in death…she whispered a name.
“Riqre. Is…is he going to be here?”
The ghosts stopped. The [Witches] glanced at each other and Erin stirred. If she had skin, it would have crawled.
“The Emir? The…the one with the mansion? And jars?”
Gerial muttered. Yet suddenly, Cawe was afraid all over again. Everyone died. That was the great equalizing force. Everyone died, and came here. Yet if there was ever something that could taint even death…
Once more Khelta’s head turned. Two jade earrings swung as she looked about.
“I suffer Roshal and grant their ghosts my protections for we are all common in death. Yet after hearing the testimony of what that thing has done, I will not offer it Chandrar’s soil. Need we take that Sword of Kings and slay it wherever it lurks? I shall order it if so, or hurl it into the sea to flee the six.”
She glanced at Califor, but the [Witch] shook her head. So did the other six [Witches] of the great coven who had gathered to teach Erin.
“That will not be an issue. For a monster like that—fear him not, child.”
Vexcla, the [Witch] of Eyes, the Gazer, murmured, and nodded to Cawe. The Garuda didn’t understand.
“He died, though. Unless…he didn’t? He’ll be here someday.”
She shivered. Yet again, the [Witches] shook their heads. It was the Treant-[Witch] among them who explained, her voice booming, her body a living tree.
“SOME DEEDS ARE TOO DARK. THEY TWIST THE SOUL. THAT ONE WILL NOT APPEAR HERE. WHEN WOMEN AND MEN CEASE TO REMAIN AS PEOPLE, THEY FORFEIT THIS PLACE. THAT IS WHY ROSHAL HAS LITTLE POWER HERE. MANY OF THEIR DARKEST LEGENDS ARE ELSEWHERE. MAY IT BE OBLIVION.”
There was some relief in hearing that. Cawe smiled again.
Erin did not. She stood there, looking around. As the ghosts turned to her, Cawe saw it happen again.
The dead revolved around the one living person. She could have been a [Murderer], a child, or a cat, and they would have flocked around her. Even if it was not for this desperate time, she had a chance.
Nerrhavia looked at Erin, longingly. So did Califor, the [Witches]; even Khelt’s rulers. That was why Roshal wanted her.
She could bring their will back to the world. It was a heavy burden, yet Erin Solstice did not seem—had not seemed troubled by it.
Now, though…she stood there. Looking at Cawe.
“Pisces. He’s alive? This Death of Chains freed him? I like her. It’s a her, right? A Djinni?”
“Yes. The inheritor of my will.”
Elucina spoke first, nodding, smiling. Some of the other ghosts shut their lips tight, their opinions clearly divergent. Erin didn’t notice. She was nodding.
“That’s good. That’s…good. He’s free. He—he didn’t have a good time. But he’s free.”
She looked at Cawe. Then turned.
“Did you say it’s Laudas? I don’t know that day. Is that a Wednesday or something? What’s the date in…Izrilian time?”
“Twenty third of Solla.”
“Oh. Um…what’s that in Earth time? No, I can do this. January, February, March…”
Erin began counting on her fingers. Nerrhavia rolled her eyes, impatient, and began to walk back the way she’d come, where she could do some good. That was the funny thing. For all they hated each other…Merindue made to do the same. They wanted to help. Be useful.
A quiet voice behind them. Something about the tone…made both women stop. It was in Erin’s voice.
Oh. A slight exclamation, a surprised tone that cracked halfway through. Oh, like someone had told her something terrible and it slipped out. Nerrhavia’s head moved around.
Erin stared at her fingers.
“That’s…later than I thought. It’s been months, now. Well, at least…”
She began to count again on her fingers, but stopped. One of the Earthers, the young man, Abel, came over and tried to do the math for her. Erin was distracted.
She stared at her fingers.
“That’s a longer time than I thought it was.”
The ghosts exchanged glances. Califor cursed and bit her lip; she hadn’t mentioned the date. Someone kicked her. It was without pain, but even so—Vexcla glared at Califor with all her eyes and Califor tugged at the brim of her hat.
“It’s just perception, Miss Solstice. Time flows in different perceptions here.”
Sage Velzimri explained, though he clearly knew it wasn’t the issue. Erin Solstice didn’t reply.
“That’s…a long time. I thought I’d…I mean, I know it’s silly. But they know I’m not fully dead. I mean, dead, but…”
She tried to smile. Then looked at her hands. Three fingers, the last one partly uncurled.
“That’s…a while. I thought that I’d be back by now. I mean—it’s possible. Right, Califor?”
She looked around.
“In theory. You are dead, Erin.”
“Y-yeah. But you said—I mean, I know my friends. Ryoka too. She’s got crazy powers. She doesn’t even level because she’s a rebel like that—you’d like her, Elucina—but she’s got Ivolethe—had—and, and—”
Erin was babbling a bit and she knew it. She looked down at her hands.
“It’s just crossbow bolts. It’s not like I got eaten. You said it could be done, right, Velzimri?”
“If it were I—”
He fell silent at a warning look from one of the [Witches] behind Erin. The young woman turned, but Somillune’s face was calm when she met Erin’s eyes.
“Two and a half months is not long to bring back the dead, Miss Erin Solstice. If it is possible, I believe the living will try.”
“Yeah. But they wouldn’t. No, you’re right. It’s just taking a while. I mean, duh. I know it’s hard. I just—need to get back to my body soon.”
Erin laughed, shakily. Her fingers. She looked at them. The ghosts were silent. They saw what was happening. Nerrhavia glanced at the [Witches], but they were just watching, letting it run its course.
Her two and a half fingers. Erin stared at them, turning her hand over, as if to examine the lines on her palms.
“I need to get back sooner. Now.”
“Why is that, Erin Solstice?”
Somillune asked, her tone mildly curious. Erin looked up. She glanced at Cawe, then back to Somillune.
“Because…because Pisces is out there. I know he’s lost in Chandrar and all those jerks from Roshal are going to be after him, right?”
“That is what Roshal does.”
Nerrhavia muttered. Erin nodded.
“Right. Right—so, I have to get back. So I can help out. Somehow. Maybe I’ll supercharge my door or get Ryoka to fly over or…something.”
“Something. You think you can hop over a continent and defy Roshal?”
Nerrhavia snorted, walking up the steps. Erin Solstice was shaking her head.
“No…well, I mean, I’d try. I just mean…Pisces can take care of himself, but the Horns are lost. That’s what the ghosts say. I bet Lyonette’s worried and Mrsha is sad. I bet Pisces can get all the others to safety. I bet he’s coming to the inn to dump them on me. That’s okay. He’s a smart guy. I never tell him that because he’s snooty, but he’s smart and brave and…I just have to be back when he gets there.”
Califor’s eyes glittered under her hat. Erin tried to unclench her hands, or clench them, but they were frozen. They were shaking. Shaking hard.
Two and a half months? It wasn’t that long, but what had happened while she was gone? Would she see more ghosts? How would she know if they died on Izril, or anywhere but Chandrar?
“Because someone has to be there when he gets back. To hug him. To ask—no. Just to hug him, after all that. After all the things he saw, someone has to give him a hot drink and…greet him at the door. Me. I have to be there. So my friends should hurry up. And revive me. That’s silly. I don’t know why I’m putting it all on them. I just…”
She was babbling. Shaking. The ghosts watched, with concern, looking away in embarrassment, in sympathy, or just waiting, like the [Witches].
Erin stared down at her hands. Then it burst out at last. Something coming behind the laughter, and trying to learn from the legends of old. It bubbled over, with Cawe.
“I…I’m tired of being dead. I’m sorry, everyone. I don’t mean to offend you. I have to get back. I want to live. I want…to live.”
It came out of her as a sob. Her hazel eyes welled up, and the world blurred, but all she wept were the memories of tears. They still rolled down her face, fat, vanishing before they even dripped off her chin. Erin cried.
“I want to live again.”
Her hands became weak. The ghosts reached for her. Gerial touched Erin’s shoulder, then tried to embrace her. But there was nothing of him to hold her, and that was unbearable so he let go for both their sakes. There was no touch, no comfort.
The [Witches] watched as Elucina and some others came over, to place hands on Erin, whisper to her. It had been coming. The young woman had realized she was dead. Now? She longed to live.
“It is my fault, [Witches]. I apologize.”
Califor lowered the brim of her hat as the other [Witches] stood together. The Coven shook their heads as one. Vexcla replied.
“The longer she stays, the worse it will be. If she breaks against her desires…we will do our utmost to prevent that. Let her weep, Witch Califor. The living should desire to live.”
They looked at the young woman, trying not to cry out to the audience of the dead because it was selfish what she wanted. Something that all of them would have given anything for, and yet could never have again.
Yet it did not stop Erin from wanting it herself. She cried, and they stirred. Cawe felt her own death, and nearly gave voice to the pain. Califor’s lips moved.
It was happening again. The ghosts nearly gave voice to their regrets, drawn around Erin’s suffering like leaves around a whirlpool. They fought to avoid that, pulling back from her.
Into the silence, someone walked forwards. She could not comfort Erin with her hand, but she rested it there anyways. She bent down, to the weeping girl, and whispered.
“It is not easy, Erin Solstice. Do not let grief consume you, however. Have faith.”
The [Witches] stirred. Erin Solstice looked up. The smiling woman clarified.
“Not in other things. Nor even in me. Yet have faith that you will live. If it is possible in this world…believe it will be so. Wait a little longer. And have faith in him.”
“Who? Pawn? He’s not…”
The [Innkeeper] was mystified. Queen Xierca’s brow wrinkled.
“I do not know who that is. No, have faith in here. You stand in Khelt. And we?”
She stepped back, and the eighteen rulers of Khelt descended to gather around her. From Khelta to Xierca. They pointed at the statue standing below, in the courtyard. Xierca smiled at last.
“We have spoken to our heir. Our descendant. The will of Khelt, made manifest. He hears us. Have faith in not levels, or dark strangers, or anything else, Erin Solstice. Have faith in Khelt. You need naught else in life.”
She threw her head back, and looked down at the ghosts gathered below. [Archmages] and [Heroes], [Queens] and [Rebels].
“That arrogant sack of hemp.”
Nerrhavia muttered. Queen Merindue nodded fervently behind her. Yet it was true. The gods were dead and that was a problem. If you had to have faith…well.
Have faith in Fetohep.
Erin decided she could give it a try. He seemed like a nice guy. She saw Khelta offer her hand.
“Come. You will share our company a while.”
So the [Innkeeper] took it, and they walked into the palace. To have a word with another dead man.
Fetohep of Khelt had died. He came back, naturally, but it was a moment in Chandrar. One of many, overshadowed by the freedom of Drenir the Djinni.
A cause for concern, however.
You could not kill the ruler of Khelt so easily. The Claiven Earth and Medain, and the army of Terandria quavered a bit. What they thought they had slain had only been an image of Fetohep, a disposable body. He had died, at great effort in battle. They had done it.
They’d succeeded in making him mad. So both nations fell back, although Khelt’s army had done likewise in disarray. High King Perric was in frantic discussions with the Claiven Earth, who, for the worse, were now in the same boat with Medain. A boat in which it turned out there wasn’t just one Creler, but an infestation.
However, the eruption of fury was delayed in coming. It had been four days since Fetohep had ‘died’. Four days—they had heard his fury from the palace. Yet something had clearly transpired since then since Khelt had gone unnervingly, disquietingly still.
The Terandrians didn’t care. They were unloading more of their crusade day by day. The strike force that had failed to kill Fetohep regarded ‘defeating’ his army as a victory and the [Bards] were making much of it back on Terandria’s shores.
The rulers of Chandrar, who had a more stable, and also more realistic view of the situation, were less sanguine. In fact, no less than Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen had a cordial chat with the head of the expeditionary force.
“Your Majesty, I am honored by this communication!”
The [Knight-Commander] beamed at her. Queen Yisame paused, her lidded eyes painted heavily lowered. It was one of her aides who spoke as she flicked a fan with a motif of [Knights] fighting Dragons on it in the Terandrian style open.
“Her Majesty, the Exalted Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen deigns to speak with the [Knights] of Terandria on their vaunted quest. She expresses a desire to communicate regarding actions taken against Khelt! She will speak of this.”
The [Knight-Commander] was an eager [Knight] from Samal, not one of the highest-levelled [Knights], but someone appointed in the strategic role. It was a considered choice; she was a bit too eager for the fight and glory; even the loss of the Kingdom of Keys’ champion couldn’t quell her righteous anger.
She was so eager, in fact, that Queen Yisame’s carefully-planned statement, a clear insult to Samal and the Terandrians, went right over her head. Queen Yisame and her courtiers hesitated.
The Samalian [Knight] smiled at Yisame, who had not offered any messages of greeting to Samal itself, or acknowledged the Kingdom of Keys. She had not requested to speak with the [Knight-Commander] about the war. She’d deigned to speak to the [Knights] of Terandria, a deliberate omission of rank, and even insulted their crusade.
Some of the courtiers looked incredulous. Did the [Knight] not see the glaring orange tint of Yisame’s eyeliner? Did she not see the languid pose upon the couch as the intermediary offered insult after insult?
Did she not even see the fan Yisame was covering her face with? Yes, it looked like [Knights] fighting a Dragon like a Terandrian painting—until you realized that it was a scene of [Knights] fleeing a Dragon burning them to ash in a quite cowardly manner.
Nope. The [Knight] just smiled, obliviously honored by the call.
Amazing. Yisame closed the fan after a second. In the face of lead-grade density, she waved the intermediary aside and decided to speak herself.
“We are concerned, [Knight-Commander], about the offense given to Khelt. It seems your crusade may awaken Khelt’s wrath.”
“We intend to do more than that, your Majesty. Khelt is a stain upon the world for its use of necromancy. We shall eradicate it and bring justice to Chandrar!”
The [Knight] clenched one gauntleted hand, flushing with zeal. Yisame’s eyes slid sideways. One of her [Generals]’ jaw was hanging open.
They’re actually serious. She flicked the fan open to whisper, then turned her attention back to the [Knight].
“I shall speak even more bluntly, [Knight-Commander]. Khelt is mighty. I would not have it roused to ire. Long has it been silent; Fetohep’s actions unnerve, but it might have ended at the release of the King of Duels. This is not desirable to Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Does Terandria intend to conquer Jecrass as well, and establish yet another colony on Chandrar’s shores?”
She stressed that last bit. Nerrhavia did not like the other nations that previous crusades had established, but they were wary; Terandria was a prickly group of infighting Humans that loved to turn on a common target. Nerrhavia could take on all of Terandria, of course…but why bother? Ahem.
“Ah, to that, your Majesty…we don’t intend to battle Jecrass. We will defend ourselves if provoked, but Jecrass has some sympathies. Indeed, we hope to prevail on Medain to free King Raelt. It is a distressing situation, but Jecrass is merely deluded. Desperate. Rest assured, we shall concentrate our ire on pure evil as we find it! Rest assured, Reim will be taken to task right after Khelt.”
Yisame’s voice was a bit weak. She had been informed of many ways this conversation should go, and her [Diplomats] and court had been ready to steer Terandria into numerous angles, including fighting the King of Destruction.
However, her [Diplomats] looked purely amazed at this amount of non-diplomacy. They shook their heads, not meeting her gaze.
“…Well, we shall wish Terandria the best of luck in its endeavor. We are told the courageous [Knights] of Terandria have slain Dragons, Giants, and the greatest of foes in the past.”
“You speak of glory we hope to attain, your Majesty. You honor us by your faith.”
“Yes indeed. We have always wished to see what happened when the [Knights] charged straight into Dragonfire. It should be most interesting.”
Yisame saw the [Knight-Commander]’s face screw up in puzzlement just a second before the transmission ended. She turned back to her court.
“It seems Terandria will not cease in its valiant foolishness. Let them break their lances on Khelt’s borders. If it ends with Terandria’s army fleeing back across the sea, it shall be for the best. Medain and the Claiven Earth may be humbled, to Nerrhavia’s benefit so long as it does not give the King of Destruction new ground.”
Everyone could agree on that. Yet Yisame chewed the inside of her lip. They’d have to approach Fetohep directly. It was not that Nerrhavia was concerned of tiny Khelt. Not at all. It was just…it would be nice to make sure all was well.
History books told you facts you sometimes did not wish to know. Yet Fetohep had been silent for four days. All was well.
…P-probably. Yisame reached for a calming tonic. She’d been doing that a lot of late.
Nations that feared Khelt would return as an active and powerful player in Chandrar resented Terandria’s crusade. They envisioned an allied Khelt with Jecrass, a dangerous alliance in decades to come.
At worst, they envisioned an expansionist Khelt, which might have the potential to become a power like Nerrhavia, if more localized and necromancy-based. They were, of course, fearing the wrong things. They could never have dreamed of what had truly occurred. All it looked like to them was that Fetohep had been slain, and come back.
A lot can happen in a moment. A moment is all it takes to be shot with crossbow bolts. To stumble off a cliff. To find a pot of gold, or accidentally avoid being hit by a wagon.
A moment, a question, can change everything.
The answer was, of course, Frieke of Medain. The Named Adventurer, the Falcon of Medain, who had cut off his head in that dramatic moment an hour before it was revealed it was for naught.
Now she was in hiding for her life, as far as Perric knew. She’d left the army, which had retreated in disarray and dismay, claiming her contract was fulfilled. All signs pointed to her having gone to ground; perhaps even having left the kingdom to hide somewhere.
The High King couldn’t blame her. Fetohep would surely hold a grudge.
He would be coming, with wrath, to settle the score. The Claiven Earth and Medain grimly prepared; Fetohep was not known for being a reasonable ruler who let insults slide and someone had chopped off his head. People got stroppy after that.
…So why was he being unnervingly silent? Of all the things he could have done, that scared the half-Elves and Perric the most. Fetohep should have been on the warpath within an hour of returning to ‘life’. All indications were he’d been about to do just that. So what had happened?
King Fetohep of Khelt strode from his throne room. His replacement, who had come here, fearing the worst, that she might be called on to take the throne, knelt still teary-eyed. She had feared him dead.
In truth, it was not wrong to fear; he should have come to life within seconds of the link severing. Yet something had happened in the moment when he had felt death calling, before they sent his soul back.
He had received a vision.
It was not the first time Fetohep had seen that august gathering of those that had come before. When he had first become ruler of Khelt, he had seen them.
Eighteen great rulers of old. Monarchs of Khelt, who gave him the will to protect and serve. If they had judged him unworthy, perhaps his soul would have never inhabited the Revenant’s body.
Sometimes, they called to him, or he thought they did. Simply words of reassurance, strength in times when the centuries wore on Fetohep. Yet he had only known them to truly speak once, when he had been first given his throne.
And now…they had broken their silence. As he had taken the death-wound, he had seen someone.
She had waved at him, among the eighteen. A strange young woman, out of place.
“Hi, I’m Erin Solstice—”
Then, of course, the sword had severed his head from his shoulders. Yet that was not the end. Fetohep now stood in Khelt. In his kingdom, where eighteen rulers had lived and died. He did not know whence they spoke to him from, but he knew it was a place.
So, then. They were separate, but this was their land as much as his.
They were louder, here.
Far louder. They had given him a directive. Fetohep strode through the corridors, as weeping servants followed.
He was grinning. Smiling. Even close to laughing. The rulers of Khelt, even great Khelta herself, had spoken to him. It was hazy, yet he could feel their intent. It was a call to arms that rang in his bones, in his soul.
War. There was a need for war. So Fetohep grinned. If he had blood—no, even now, he imagined it was boiling.
Why? Why, if the rulers called him to war, if something terrible had occurred, as he felt it had, that might threaten Khelt?
Well, terrible as it might be to admit…He had waited his entire unlife for this day, without knowing it.
They all had. All rulers after Khelta the First. Fetohep strode down the palace, each stone enchanted, feeling the might of Khelt slumbering around him. Had they not been put in their throne, assigned to live for as long as possible to protect Khelt? Each ruler built up their treasury, defenses, and…waited. Wait for the moment to unleash all of Khelt’s splendor.
And it never came. How frustrating! It was like fortifying a position, planning out each inch of attack and defense, creating splendid traps, honing your blades for centuries, millenia, and never being attacked! Khelt had never, ever had the end of days come upon it. It had fought off Crelers. Now? It was the hour Fetohep had secretly longed for, in his dark heart of hearts.
The day that the earth opened up, that a fissure swept across Chandrar and the sea itself rushed to cover all above it.
The last war of Demons—or Humans, Drakes—when armies without end came to conquer and subjugate all who would not kneel.
The moment the next Creler Wars, the Antinium, the next calamity broke the sky and sent madness through air and space. When someone slew time.
They had all lived through such days, the eighteen rulers of Khelt before him. Some had weathered minor crises; the rest had thrown body and soul into wars for the fate of Khelt itself, and spent every coin and raised every hoarded spear and loosed every arrow into the void.
Fetohep had wondered if the King of Destruction was his great beast to do battle with, but Flos of Reim had never sought to fully claim Khelt.
It had been almost…disappointing. Obviously, good for Khelt. Yes…yes. Just a bit disappointing.
Now? They called for him. His predecessors of old. They shouted, though he had yet to make out the words, yet their intention was clear. So Fetohep would reluctantly…use everything at his disposal.
And they wondered why he grinned.
Fetohep of Khelt strode from the doors of his palace. The grand spires and architecture of countless generations in countless styles rose up behind him. He walked onto the broad dais above the steps, and beheld his subjects.
They knelt, weeping, tearing at their fine clothes and faces. The streets, swept pristinely clean by undead each day, filled with endless diversion and entertainments, all for them, were overrun. Every door hung ajar—and Khelt’s people did not lock them anyways, for theft was not theirs to fear—and many simply lay in the streets.
They looked up as he emerged. Hundreds of thousands of heads rose and the wailing turned into cries of relief. Screams.
The King of Khelt lives! Fetohep lifted his hand, the warm breeze on the dry air touching at the bandages around his flesh. Yet his eyes still shone gold in their sockets. His subjects scrambled up the steps, and the few living guards made to block them, yet Fetohep simply lifted a hand and all was still.
“My subjects! Cease your lamentations! Dry your tears. Did you think me dead? I, who has sworn to serve you until the end of my days? Did you think blade or petty mortal hands could end me? Have you so little faith in the grandeur of your kingdom, the finest jewel in the world, that you think craven armies of [Knights] could best my legions?”
His voice boomed over the courtyard. The people looked up, rising in awe as Fetohep stood at the top of the steps. He posed, just so, a strutting confidence as he walked back and forth. He did not have a speech written or planned; he had no need of such things.
He was a true king, so his eyes flashed with fury, amusement, and grave authority.
“Petty Terandria sets itself against Khelt, and they draw the blood of Khelt’s own. For that, they shall be repaid a thousand, nay, ten thousand times over! This alone enrages me. They parade their champions about as if mortal accomplishments endure, even the half-Elves of the Claiven Earth. For that ignorance, they shall be punished.”
All were silent. Someone was sharing this scene with Wistram. Fetohep stopped. He turned, and lifted his hands. In awe, his people quailed before him. Now, the Revenant’s voice boomed with fury.
“Khelt’s true armies shall fall upon them without end! Arise, soldiers of Khelt!”
Undead moved. The guardians around the palace strode forwards, and the citizens backed away in awe—not horror. Fetohep pointed as more bodies drove themselves out of the earth, forming into vast columns that would make nations tremble.
“Send forth the Legions of Queen Akhta! Bring wrath and ruin across all enemies of Khelt! Drive them until they flee across the waves and flee wailing to the lands that spawned their worthless frames.”
Then his people cheered, in a mighty voice. Fetohep pointed down.
“Calm yourselves. Restore order, and do not weep for me, for I have no life for mine enemies to take. Rejoice! I will deliver unto you, my people, only victory.”
With that, he swept back into the palace, ignoring the cheering—or pretending to.
That was how one ruled, incidentally. Fetohep walked back through the doors, as his limited servants halted in front of him. Their faces shone with awe; they had heard, of course.
“Your Majesty? What is your will?”
Fetohep halted. Now he was inside, he hesitated. Hesitated…for all he had sent a vast army to mobilize at Khelt’s borders, to make up for the damage his army had taken twice over. That was one thing. This?
He spoke slowly, luxuriating in every syllable of it. He would never have dared, normally. Yet now? They spoke to him. He could not answer with anything less. So, then. Fetohep’s eyes flashed. He gave the command at last.
“Open my armory. It is time to deploy the artifacts of war.”
His servants made refreshingly awed faces. They turned into statues as Fetohep walked past them. He had taken a pitiful number of artifacts for this war. Now?
Medain and the Claiven Earth would tremble. Terandria would break their arrogance against him. But first…
Fetohep of Khelt walked into a specific corridor among the tangled labyrinth of his palace. The thousands of locations and rooms that had been expanded and added to over generations as a sort of hobby for previous rulers could confuse the best [Thief].
Fetohep had once let children play games in the palace, but stopped the practice after one of his subjects emerged two years after getting lost without ever having met another living person.
He strode over a hallway made of pure jade, floor, walls, ceiling, even decorations; a bit kitschy aesthetically, but designed to purify with the power of jade. Lovely dark jade flooring, though; like water at night.
He passed by framed paintings of tens of thousands of Khelt’s citizens, a passion project of Queen Zushe-Greso. Each one painted by a masterful [Artist] over Level 40, each one preserved for immortality, decorated in frames each of the owner’s choosing. Costly wood, simple hand-carved materials, gold…he always smiled at the one lined by fur…
A hundred corridors, each to distract and amaze. Fetohep had gotten bored of them in the first century of his life.
He came to the only one that mattered, close to the throne room itself. Fetohep stopped, in one of the original parts of the palace. One of the most important parts, truly. For all the riches elsewhere…here…here was what mattered.
The hallway was unfinished. It was made of plain marble, before Khelt’s riches had come without end. It had eighteen statues, each in an alcove. Room for twice as many more, easily.
There were similar hallways, elsewhere, in many parts of Khelt. Grand museums with entire novels for each individual. Glorious poses, fantastical reliefs. Yet here was the truest testament, truest legacy of his predecessors.
The rulers of Khelt looked at Khelt, each one life-like, each one staring ahead into oblivion. Carved as they had been before death, not their Revenant-forms.
There was even one of him, closest to where he stood. Fetohep read his own name.
Fetohep of Khelt.
No titles, not yet. All of his would be added after he perished and the next ruler took his place. Fetohep suspected he’d have a few, and he wondered who would be next.
Often, he came here to think on the future. Or simply be humbled.
For here they were. He walked slowly down to the front of the room. There…she was. A sculpture that had been done as she lived, and was thus presumably accurate.
“Khelta the First.”
Fetohep bowed in front of her. He felt her presence. He felt their presence. The great dead were angry. Something was wrong.
Erin Solstice? How…Kevin? No. First, Fetohep simply paid his respects. He tried to take wisdom, understanding from this place. Here or his throne room would be the place where they spoke loudest to him. His eyes lingered on each statue in line.
Eighteen rulers. They had persisted, some over a thousand years, ruling Khelt until the mantle passed to him. Eighteen. And not one you could gloss over. Eighteen…
Queen Khelta the First, the Sovereign of Warm Sands, Monarch of Undeath, Origin of Khelt’s Promise, Dragonfoe of Khelt Eternal, Glorian of Chandrar.
There was a title above all others, for all you might not know it. Glorianemi zeikh, the title of respect awarded to those of Chandrar who exceeded all others. An honored name that could never be taken back. No one, not even the King of Destruction could take it by force.
Queen Heris the Second, the Scorpion of Khelt, Great Avenger of Ger.
King Tkayl of Khelt, the Silent Sovereign, Harbinger of Peace, Guardian of the Waters.
Queen Emrist of Khelt. The Pactmaker.
Queen Zushe-Greso. No titles given. 3rd most beloved Monarch of Khelt overall. Nineteen hundred years reign of peace and prosperity.
Suzerain Serept of Khelt and the Nomads of the Sky. The Watchful Giant. Battlekin of the House of Minos. The Blacksmith King.
King His-xe the Serpent King, the Undead Viper of…
There were so many of them. Fetohep knew some of their histories intimately, having read countless accounts of their deeds by every perspective. Some, he was only ‘acquainted’ with, which meant he’d probably only read a thousand pages of their lives.
Queen Xierca, of course, was next to his statue.
He looked at her. Simply stone relief, yet enchanted to maintain…no other glorifications. No color. He had kept to the old style, as had she. He bowed in front of her. She was shorter than he, less of a warrior, but gloriously wise, even in her relief.
Gentle, caring, yet stern and ruthless when she needed to be—never with her subjects, only abroad. The sculptor was excellent, but he still failed to capture the falcon’s gleam in her eyes. Her stitch-marks on her hands and arms were just as he remembered them, but she was not long-rotted by age; gloriously intact in this rendition of her.
He sank to one knee, head lowered. Of them all, he would always remember her as his ruler, the eternal guardian as he had grown from boy into man.
“My glorious Queen. I would that you speak to me. I feel your presence, yet I cannot hear your voice. What will you and the rulers of Khelt?”
He looked around, but the statues were still. Fetohep rose, and continued his path, doing another loop. He felt them, yet the divide of death was difficult to bridge, even for a single voice. Even for them.
He walked under the shadow of greatness. Not all had been perfect; far from it. Fetohep had read the faults of his predecessors in their myriad ways. How many times had he wished they would speak?
If they did so now, something was wrong. Without guidance, Fetohep would do what must be done. Crush his enemies, guard Khelt, and look into Erin Solstice’s death. He still could not credit that, and wondered if that was just a hallucination caused by Kevin’s pleas.
Fetohep thought he could…hear them, though. It had been less than two hours since he had returned to life, after all. The longer he strode the palace, the louder the distant voices and feelings became.
“Did I err, leaving Khelt? Perhaps. Speak to me, Great Khelta. Tell me your will. Tell me what threatens Khelt. I have pledged to rain destruction upon our enemies. Do you see me? Do you approve? Speak, I implore you.”
The Revenant spread his arms, standing in front of the statues. Yes. He could almost hear them, now. And…a different voice?
He strained, piecing together the understanding. He turned to Queen Xierca’s statue. Fetohep thought he felt her presence. He hesitated—then reached out and touched her hand. His golden flames dimmed.
And at last, he heard it. He listened and heard the voice at last, welling in the promise of Khelt, the very same ground they had all walked. His very soul.
“Four out of ten.”
Fetohep of Khelt went still. His golden ‘eyes’ dimmed in their sockets. After a second he felt at his earhole, reflexively. He’d…what was that?
The mists of undeath cleared. The bridge between worlds thinned as the ruler of Khelt reclaimed his connection with the power that gave Khelt its strength. Just in time for Queen Xierca’s voice to become distressingly clear.
“It was an acceptable speech. He clearly did not rehearse his lines.”
“The pacing. A ruler should stand still. As to his call to arms…I would have used the Vraikscourge of Semide, myself. He even wasted Serept’s half-Giant warriors in battle.”
Another voice agreed. Fetohep did not recognize it, but it had the same quality that told him it unmistakably came from somewhere else, not actual auditory sound. A third voice chimed in.
“I took it as a show of force. Conservation of the higher-level undead. Showy, but understandable. A kind of analogous reminder to half-Giant armies of previous eras that lack in this wasted world of today. Six out of ten.”
“Clearly, but there was no subtlety in it. A Jaw of Zeikhal? If you are going to bring one, why not three? Why not eight? That was not an ‘expendable’ asset either. He wasted it.”
A chorus of other voices murmured. Fetohep let go of Xierca’s hand, but they continued, and worse, they were growing clearer. Someone else spoke, with a bit of a lisp.
“Such a short proclamation, with little arte to dictation or cadence. He could have spoken for at least ten minutes. If one hath not the gift of gab, perchance it was for the best. Were he able to hear us, I would have given him far better words to inspire.”
Fetohep hesitated. His jaw opened and closed. The rulers were…chatting. Seemingly unaware he was now able to hear them. A third voice rumbled; it could only be Serept, the half-Giant from the broadness of the tone no smaller being could match.
“He also perished. No ruler of Khelt has ever fallen in battle.”
“Ooh. Was that me? I think I distracted him.”
And who was that? It was a young woman, her tones more animated, less refined than the talk of the others. A voice ringing with authority in Fetohep’s very bones answered him.
“One does not make excuses for a warrior’s failure, Erin Solstice. Fetohep of Khelt is young, and perhaps, foolish. He serves, even if he chose the worst of all times to leave Khelt.”
Fetohep’s jaw opened and closed. The voices broke off in murmurs of assent, or speculation. After a second, the young woman’s voice spoke up.
“It’s weird we can see him. I guess that’s because he’s the ruler and you’re all tied to this spot. Why’s he just standing there?”
“Contemplative. He is in our hall of statues. He may believe we can communicate with him better. Not a poor impulse. Perhaps he is uncertain of our message.”
“…Yeah. Yeah, I don’t think we got through, especially when I told him to wave if he heard. Um. Guys?”
“Yes, Erin Solstice? Have patience, we shall communicate our desires, unless Fetohep is so foolish as to crusade out once more. It may come to that. You chose an impetuous successor, Xierca.”
“My apologies, Great Khelta.”
“Right. Right, guys. Um…he’s sort of standing there. Look, he just lifted a hand. Do you think…he can hear us now?”
Abruptly, the eighteen voices—nineteen—fell silent. Fetohep swore he heard a cough in the silence of his own mind.
“…Faithful Fetohep of Khelt. If you can hear our will at last, signal so. Walk…yes, walk before I, King Tkayl, and kneel.”
A new voice boomed at last. There were murmurs of agreement, quickly shushed.
Fetohep moved. He walked over and slowly knelt before Tkayl. Someone gasped.
“Know our will. There is much you must know—”
Then that last voice. Erin Solstice, it had to be.
“Uh. How much do you think he heard before that? You were being pretty mean. Do you think he heard the thing you said about the bandages?”
Fetohep heard silence in his mind. After a moment, Queen Khelta smoothly spoke.
“A great time of calamity is upon us, Erin Solstice. Now is not the time for frivolity of speech.”
The connection had been established. The dead spoke to the living. Well, the slightly-less-dead, at any rate.
It was the power of legacy. The power of Khelt, which turned out to have been one of the wisest decisions ever made in the metaspace of nations and empire.
There had been hiccups. The chosen agent of the eighteen rulers of Khelt, Fetohep, had been absent. Now, though, he had returned, and the ghosts rejoiced. Their otherworldly wisdom and great need could be communicated!
Cawe saw it as a great impact among the dead as well. She looked out, over the steps of the palace of Khelt, where few ghosts were allowed to even stand.
“Would you look at that?”
Gerial’s voice was a bit unnerved. Abel drifted over and gasped. The three small ghosts beheld…the tide.
It seemed that way, at first. There was no actual sea visible from this spot unless you flew up incredibly high, and even then, you only saw the world as it was, static, unmoving, the water frozen scene-to-scene, in different poses.
Yet this was a tide. Every dead soul in Chandrar was flowing their way. Drawing closer to the one gateway between their worlds.
Of course, they did not get close. The ghosts of Giants and powerful dead blocked them. The loyalists, as Cawe was thinking of them, those explicitly agreeing with the [Witches] and Khelt, did not let Roshal and other ghosts of smaller ‘factions’ get to Erin.
If it got too bad, one of the rulers of Khelt would just send ghosts flying in a sandstorm; their power was unquestioned here.
“That’s a powerful sight. And here we are.”
Gerial’s voice was still unnerved. He glanced at the individuals, all of whose levels probably weren’t below Level 50—except maybe Califor!—and then at himself. Little Gerial.
It was Cawe who grabbed his arm, impulsively. She linked arms and grinned as Gerial started, though neither felt it.
“We may not be heroes, but we’re rubbing feathers with them, eh, Gerial? It just goes to show, even here, it’s not who you were, it’s who you know. We lucked out, eh?”
Abel laughed. The young man chuckled, and Gerial blinked at Cawe before grinning himself.
“Now that’s adventurer’s luck. I like that.”
They turned back to Erin Solstice. Now, she walked with the Rulers of Khelt. They were excited. Khelta herself smiled, herself exuberant.
“Now we may truly fight back, Erin Solstice. We shall communicate with Fetohep, and through him, do what we can to spread word at least of this threat. But carefully. If, as the [Sages] and [Archmages] believe, the six wish to be known—well. First we shall simply let Fetohep know what passes.”
Erin nodded rapidly, still shaking with excitement of her own. She looked at Khelta.
“It’s amazing you can talk with him. Did you plan that?”
“Partly. It was one of the many acts I envisioned for Khelt. I laid down the ritual spells that allowed the creation of Revenants, the control of undead. I am a [Necromancer], you know.”
Erin stopped. She slowed, and blinked.
“I forgot…wait. You’re…then…”
The [Queen of Necrocracy]’s eyes flashed with humor.
“I have heard of your friend, the [Necromancer], and the state of my school of magic in this world. It quite amuses me that you did not seek out my counsel. At any rate, yes. Communion with the spirits of the other world was always something I knew of—just never focused on. I would that I had, or that my successors had managed to carry out one of the great projects I laid out.”
The other rulers looked abashed. One, King Dolenm, bowed his aged head. Before he had passed his crown on, his very skull had begun to wear away, exposing a pure, flickering memory of magic within. Or…a soul.
“That we did not is our failing, great Khelta.”
She waved a hand indulgently.
“Many projects were completed, fair Dolenm. I myself would have prioritized the Sarcophagi of Souls lower. You did manage to create a way of generating water for Khelt in your time…thirst always plagued my reign.”
She nodded indulgently at the King, who nodded in satisfaction. Erin’s head turned.
“The Sarcophagi of…you mean a place where you could come to life?”
“Not life. Merely possess statues, and speak to all and sundry. It would have taken a different expert than I, though. Or multiple ones. I thought an [Archmage], an [Architect], and a [Necromancer] all over Level 50 could do it—or two over Level 70.”
“The trouble is getting all of them in the same place. I never managed more than one. Even with great riches offered, they died too quickly or were embroiled in great wars or passions of their own.”
King Serept grumbled, the huge half-Giant folding his arms. The other rulers nodded and muttered—but some of the later ones, like Xierca, gave Erin a look that said quite clearly they hadn’t ever thought to grab multiple Level 50+ individuals.
Erin herself thought it was a reminder of what had changed. Khelta waved a hand.
“I have already communicated the desire for the project to be completed if possible to King Fetohep. Along with other needs. We shall all have more.”
“You mean you’re telling him what you need done?”
“Of course. We are, naturally, taking turns.”
Even as Khelta spoke, she pointed. Xierca walked back up to the castle, replacing Queen Emrist as she followed the one visible being to the Rulers of Khelt—and now Erin, so long as she stood in their company.
Fetohep. He was like…a ghost to the ghosts. A reflection of the living world, and they could hear him from afar, see what he did. No one else. One ruler walked with him at all times, or they all gathered if he did something they deemed interesting.
Counselors of the past. Giving voice to great need. In another way…Erin’s lips twitched.
“So you’re giving him a shopping list? A shopping list from beyond the grave? Oooh.”
She waved her hands. The rulers of Khelt gave her flat looks. Until Khelta began laughing. She put one hand on Erin’s shoulder.
“I quite like you, child! I never thought of it so. But yes. That is quite amusing. Frivolities aside, however…we must think how best to use our position. We have the knowledge of old.”
She waved a hand at the ghosts congregating below the palace. Khelta sighed.
“…Pressing few ways to use it. Every [Sage] has an idea how you can be cured, or their recipe for a Potion of Anti-Aging, but with their Skills or specific ingredients and tools. Would that Fetohep were any class but a [Warrior] in life. Between you and I, he is a bit…”
She hesitated. Then patted Erin on the shoulder.
“Well, he seems capable enough. Khelt is not in ruins. I regret that we let our tongues slip so when we thought he could not hear.”
Erin glanced at the ruler who walked the palace. She had never met Fetohep, but when she had first seen him, striding from his throne room, speaking to the crowd—for all it was a 4/10 speech—he had seemed bold, confident. Now? His shoulders hunched a bit and he hurried about as Queen Xierca spoke in his ears. Erin murmured.
His glorious predecessors and forebearers had come calling. Those he respected and veneterated. The problem was?
They found him a bit wanting.
The dead spoke to him. The rulers of old walked with Fetohep of Khelt, and he heard his beloved Queen Xierca’s words once more.
He rejoiced. Truly, he did. He was no longer alone. It was a blessing, a sign of great joy, and he rejoiced.
…Really. He did. It was just…well. When you heard of means to connect ghosts to the living world, via some [Oracle] or seer, it was always through them. Always more vague, indistinct words. Annoying, of course, if you really wanted specifics, but the dead usually had a hard time talking to the living.
Fetohep realized why that was sometimes desirable, or at least, to have a medium between you and said dead. He walked his palace, a bit quickly, but he could not escape the voice that lingered in his ears.
His great robe swished across the tiles made of obsidian glass. His bowed head passed blooming plants, each one tended to by undead servants. Fetohep heard the voice he had longed for so long to whisper in his ears, one last time.
“Fetohep, oh, my dear subject, Fetohep…”
Queen Xierca. Fetohep slowed.
Her voice was as it had been in life, not echoing, not haunted. He had never heard that. It was such a joy. Such a…
“Fetohep, what did you do with my Sireen Lilies? They are missing from the outside of the palace. Did something happen to them?”
Fetohep kept walking. He spoke, very carefully.
“Your Majesty, Xierca…I regret to say they were removed.”
“By what, monsters? Did you pull them up? I loved them!”
Fetohep had never, ever lied to Queen Xierca. He did so now.
“…One of Khelt’s subjects may have made the mistake of doing so. As the gardens were damaged, I had no choice but to uproot the rest.”
“Did you not replant them?”
Her voice was outraged. Fetohep hesitated as he walked by a preserved sample of her favorite plant, which she had decorated many parts of Khelt with. The Sireen Lily. He stared at the huge, long-necked plant with a gigantic blooming head, light blue fading to white. A lovely plant. There was just one problem.
“…Children often burst into tears, your Majesty. Adults too, when they wailed in the wind.”
“I do not see what that has to do with anything. They were an example of Khelt’s glorious gardens.”
Fetohep’s jaw opened and closed. He gritted his teeth. He loved Xierca, and he had forgotten completely about her lilies. He had kept them for as long as he could bear it after his ascension to the throne.
…Four years. Then he’d had them gathered and burned. There had been a celebration.
Xierca sighed in his mind.
“Will you not plant more? Yours is the time to rule, Fetohep, but for love of me…perhaps a garden? A thousand, planted in the Contemplation Walkways?”
He hesitated, agonized, but he did love her. Fetohep bowed his head, an unfamiliar gesture. He’d been doing a lot of it this day.
“It will be done at once, my beloved Majesty.”
Her presence faded. Fetohep missed her, but…he waved for a servant and gave the orders. Contemplation Walkways, a beloved part of the city, might now become a truly isolated place, where one might test their meditative qualities against the horrors of a thousand sighing, wailing plants.
Still, for her…it was a fitting tribute, Fetohep told himself. The [Servant] bowed; naturally his will would be carried out, but even her face didn’t hide the trepidation of asking the [Gardeners] to grow a thousand Sireen Lilies.
Fetohep walked on. His mind was racing. He had been told what was happening and that Erin Solstice was among his great ancestors. Not dead, not alive. He had to act. With this knowledge, everything changed. Everyth—
“Fetohep. I am Serept of Khelt. Do you know me?”
The Revenant stopped again.
“Great Serept, of course I know you.”
The half-Giant [Smith-King]? Fetohep was honored! He pictured the half-Giant, striding next to him in these vast corridors which had been designed just for him. Fetohep felt the pleasure of talking with such a legend…for about five seconds.
“Fetohep. My Swords. That which they call the Swords of Serept. I am told…they are scattered. Six of them were lost and never recovered. Three now belong to outsiders of Khelt. This concerns me.”
If undead could sweat…Fetohep bowed his head.
“Your Majesty, I granted the blades without your permission. I did not think of your will, only that they were found and might be lost again. I—considered—that those who reclaimed them were worthy of wielding them for a generation. Make no mistake, they will return to Khelt!”
Serept’s voice was deep in his head, rich and powerful. It should have echoed across many hallways.
“That does not concern me, Fetohep. Swords are meant to be wielded, and I am grateful they were found. My quandary is this: if you granted such blades, and correct me if I err, it seems you did not instruct the wielders as to their usage. The ghosts of the dead who heard of it did not say you gave these students lessons. It seems unfair to do so.”
Of all the things Fetohep would have thought Serept would take him to task for—he realized he did not know the half-Giant as well as he thought. His voice stuttered a bit, despite the lack of any tongue or vocal chords or lungs.
“I…did not, your Majesty? They would have surely uncovered many of the aspects of the blades themselves.”
“Perhaps that could be rectified? I also notice you did not offer them the use of the companion aspects to the Diamond Swords. I made other relics to accompany my blades.”
“They are relics of Khelt, your Majesty! I did not think to—”
“I understand, King Fetohep. However, is the largesse of Khelt so lacking in the modern day that the full act of generosity might be withheld? I simply…ask you consider the matter.”
“I will consider it as soon as I am able, King Serept.”
“Very good, I thank you.”
And then he was gone. Fetohep hunched his shoulders. The dead were speaking to him. Wonderful.
…He wished they weren’t so needy. Fetohep added ‘giving away priceless relics to a bunch of young students who might get them lost for another thousand years’ to his list of things he now had to do, right under planting a bunch of parasitic lilies which induced depression in people.
He was dreading the next voice. Which one would it be? Fetohep heard a soft tone, and froze.
“Fetohep. I am Khelta. I see your actions, and I give you my thanks, my descendant. You honor me and Khelt by all you do.”
“Great Khelta! I am honored by your words.”
He sank to one knee, all issues forgotten at once. Now here was a spirit he was truly honored to receive. Her words…were a welcome balm on his soul. An acknowledgement from the founder of Khelt itself.
“I see Khelt, and it is far more prosperous than I dreamed. Far greater than when I had died. This pleases me.”
“I am glad of it, your Majesty.”
Fetohep smiled, and his golden flames came to life in their sockets. He stood taller, and almost heard the laugh in Khelta’s voice. A laugh.
“It is wonderful to see. Would that I could look upon Khelt’s citizens. Are they happy?”
“Yes, Great Khelta. They want for nothing.”
“Good, good. And the treasuries full? We may have need of it.”
“Khelt has never been richer.”
Fetohep answered, truthfully. Khelta’s smile continued in her voice.
“This is all pleasing! Then…I would like you to commission a statue, if you would. One of Nerrhavia, of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. I think the place they call the Mosk Plaza would be quite suitable. Marble? Whatever is fitting. I trust we have [Sculptors] still?”
The Ruler of Khelt’s smile went out. He hesitated.
“A…statue, Great Khelta?”
“It need not be to form. One may take the best image of her; vanity serves. You see, her ghost remains and it would be a suitable gesture to erect one to maintain favor among the ghosts. A gesture—it would aid us greatly.”
Fetohep had no idea what was passing in the world beyond, but his mind was spinning. The implications of making a statue to Nerrhavia of Nerrhavia’s Fallen aside—and finding an image of her? If the nation ever found out…
“If it need be done, Great Khelta, I shall do it.”
Nevertheless, she had founded Khelt. For her…Fetohep strengthened his resolve. Khelta was pleased.
“Good. Then, by morning would be the best time that she can see it.”
Fetohep’s eye-flames actually went out for a second.
“Morning? As in…next morning?”
“You may spare the gilding. Marble will do.”
She left him standing there. Fetohep actually swayed for a moment.
The subjects of Khelt had heard the words of war from their great ruler. They had witnessed Fetohep’s rage, and glorious return.
However, they had been curious as to why he did not return to the front, where his armies were skirmishing with the Claiven Earth and Medain, mostly keeping them back in advances that saw a lot of the undead fall, and few of the mortals, yet kept both nations sweating.
Something had clearly transpired, because Fetohep’s towering rage and glorious speech had turned into…well, him pacing about the palace. Rumors came from the servants assigned to day-duty of strange requests.
Plant a thousand Sireen Lilies in the walkways? Erect a statue to Nerrhavia in…? And he was talking to himself, or so the rumors said. Pacing, then issuing those strange orders. He kept bowing to the air.
They feared he was going insane.
Fetohep feared he was going insane too. He sat on his throne by midnight, after returning to life in Khelt. He felt the most…exhausted he ever had. Fighting with Medain and the Claiven Earth? He could have fought a thousand battles rather than this.
He actually flinched when the next voice assailed him. All eighteen rulers had spoken to him, each one with a suggestion or plan of action. Some wanted aspects restored, or Fetohep to make a gesture to a friend of theirs. He had been forced to explain that he did not have images of half the individuals named—didn’t even know who they were.
Who would be next? Queen Zushe-Greso, wanting to know how many of her beloved lynxes remained in the palace, fed and watered to grow fat and multiply without care?
King His-Xe, with observations on the feng shui of Khelt’s city and how a few buildings could be rearranged to make it flow better?
The voice which came next, though, did not have the regal overtones of past rulers. It was more mundane, brighter, a faster tone that occasionally stumbled or rambled, but was more than anything, friendly.
“Hey, um…hi. Is this thing on? I mean, I didn’t hit a switch, but can you hear me?”
Fetohep sat up slightly.
The voice laughed.
“Great! It works! Hey, Khelta, it works! Whoops, sorry for shouting. I’m Erin! Erin Solstice. You’re Fetohep, right?”
“I am his Majesty Fetohep of Khelt. I greet you, Erin Solstice, guest and friend to the great line of Khelt.”
“Nice to meet you!”
Fetohep sat on his throne. This was the oddest conversation so far. He spoke, resting back on the enchanted throne.
“How may I aid you, Erin Solstice? If it is in regards to your resurrection—I have already attempted to make plans. If you need send word, or send aid to anyone, any task within Khelt’s power, I shall make it so.”
Tiredly, he waved, and an undead skeleton brought him a notepad and the enchanted quill to take dictations. Erin Solstice paused.
“Um. No. I was just going to say hi. I mean…I know you’re busy. I was going to introduce myself and uh—say ‘good job’! Thanks for listening and y’know, communicating with the dead! How’s it going?”
Fetohep paused. He tilted his head.
“How is it…going? Khelt endures. If the rulers wish to know the exact sums in our vaults, I have compiled…”
Again, he reached for another scroll that had been labored on all day by his mortal subjects, but Erin interrupted him.
“No, I mean…how’s things? How are you? Sorry, I don’t mean to give you more work. How’s life being dead? Um…”
Fetohep sat there, bemused, confused, and then he began to smile. Truly smile, though you’d never tell from his face. Yet his voice showed it.
“Ah, I am quite well, Erin Solstice. I rejoice in contact with my predecessors…and it occurs to me I have spoken and acted more in these past months than in many years. In fact, I even know a friend of yours, and those from your world.”
“Bwuh. Whaaaa? No way! You know Earthers? Who do you know that I know?”
“Do you not know a Kevin of Solar Cycles?”
“You know Kevin? Wait a second—he said he had an important client from Khelt! Hey, that’s the same Khelt as…that’s so amazing! How’s he doing?”
“He has asked for aid for you, and he is quite civil. He is an entertaining young man.”
“Y’know, that’s Kevin. People think he’s random like me, or a goofball, but he’s actually really responsible. Wow. That’s just great…”
Erin trailed off. Fetohep and she were smiling, although only Erin could see it.
She crouched by the throne, speaking there, and looked up at Fetohep. For his part, he was bemused. Of all the ghosts…she was talking to him. Holding a conversation.
“Listen. I know the others want to talk to you and I don’t have important things to say. I mean…there’s a lot to do. I just wanted to say—thank you. And hello. I was…really getting worried I’d never come back to life. I still might not, but since you can hear the rulers of Khelt, that’s really great. Really.”
Her voice betrayed something of her feelings. Fetohep stirred. He did not know where she stood, if one even stood in the lands of the dead. Nor had she spoken much to him, outside that first meeting.
“You stand with the greatest rulers of Khelt, Erin Solstice. I am their mortal agent upon this world. Is the hour so dire this does not offer you reassurance?”
“…It does. They’re strong, really. Without them Chandrar would have fallen, probably. It’s just…I’m dead.”
She laughed, sadly.
“I should have been more careful. I—I hope you can help. I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’d just like to live. Sorry, I’m rambling and someone else wants a word. I just—thank you.”
She vanished before he could respond. Fetohep sat there for a moment. Interesting. He realized something in that moment, which was only confirmed by Xierca’s whisper.
“I hope you will prioritize reviving Erin Solstice, Fetohep. Her spirit has endured much and she longs to live. On her we place many hopes.”
Her tone was more somber. Fetohep listened, and now the awe, the trepidation, and the frank annoyance and dismay of hearing his predecessors left him, he heard what was truly there.
Uncertainty. The Rulers of Khelt were…uncertain. Something was dire indeed, that they did not even dare tell him the full scale of the lands of the dead. Erin Solstice? She was afraid. She longed to live. And that the other ghosts could not help her with. After all, they were dead.
Still, how curious. Fetohep thought a moment, before replying.
“I shall, Queen Xierca. And I shall put many plans into action.”
“This is well, Fetohep. On that note, I had some thoughts—”
For the first time ever, Fetohep interrupted his beloved queen.
“I am sure, Queen Xierca, but I must make a call in the physical world. I hope you will pardon me.”
Her voice hesitated.
“—Oh. Of course. If I might give my thoughts first, I think—”
“I am afraid, Queen Xierca, I must insist. I…require time to work. I shall speak with you anon in the morning, and the other rulers. Please make your will known then, and not before. I bid you a good night.”
Fetohep rose to his feet. He actually heard a gasp, but the king was walking forwards, summoning the scrying orb to him. He heard nothing else, and paused a moment. Of course, it had to be done.
He wondered, though, if he shouldn’t have enjoyed that as much as he did.
In the land of the dead, the rulers of Khelt watched Fetohep activate the orb and sit down. He began to talk, but they didn’t speak to him.
“He bade us farewell? Us?”
Some of them were offended. Xierca was just dismayed. Even Khelta frowned, but Erin Solstice, who had begun smiling after her little chat with Fetohep, decided it was time.
He had noticed something. And so had she. So she reached out and poked Khelta in the side.
“Hey. You know, you guys are making the same mistake I did with Lyonette, right? She was my employee. You’re…sort of being unfair to Fetohep.”
The rulers of Khelt turned, looking rather offended.
“We are…unfair? He is our mortal agent. Should we not command him to do what must be done?”
King Serept frowned mightily. Erin shrugged, and gestured at Fetohep.
“I know we all need to rely on him, guys. But think about it another way. He’s your descendant and all, but uh…he’s still the ruler of Khelt, you know? And I know you all are. But you don’t speak to him like he’s the ruler. The living ruler.”
The other eighteen monarchs glanced at each other. Erin had noticed it. They seldom said ‘your Majesty’, like Fetohep did.
“We…are his predecessors. Perhaps we lacked some formality.”
Queen Xierca murmured, blushing faintly. Erin smiled.
“I think it’s that. Also—you guys always took the throne after the last one died, right? I mean, fully passed on?”
“That is how it has been since Khelta.”
One of the kings nodded. Erin spread her hands.
“Then you never ruled together, right? So you’re all bossy bosses. You could try being more polite.”
The rulers looked at each other. They glanced at Fetohep, and Erin saw them processing how they would take being given a hundred orders from the dead. She smiled as she saw a few wince.
Then all the heads, disconcertingly, looked straight back at Erin. Khelta folded her arms, amused.
“So sayeth the most disrespectful young woman to ever have walked Khelt’s ground. We take your words as wisdom nevertheless, Erin Solstice. I do wonder, though, if even Dragonlords and the rulers of old merit no respect or couched language from you, who in this vast world does?”
Erin blinked. Then turned a bit red herself.
Night passed into day. Fetohep of Khelt worked in silence. Not actual silence of course; he was speaking almost nonstop, giving orders, making plans.
The dead left him alone. Which gave Fetohep of Khelt time to think. When the sun rose, he stood at the steps of his palace and felt them around him.
Nineteen souls. Twenty if he included himself. He might never be alone again. Erin Solstice, Khelta, Xierca, and the other rulers.
“King Fetohep of Khelt, Great Descendant. We have been uncouth in our demands. We rejoice to see you, and thank you for continuing to protect Khelt. In this hour, when evil threatens death’s land itself, you we shall rely on. Never forget, never believe we do not hold you in the utmost confidence.”
It was Xierca who spoke to him. Fetohep dipped his head slightly. Below him, he could see his subjects gathering again, wondering if he had a speech to give. Of course, they had seen him walk his city before. He began to descend the steps as he spoke.
“It is I who should apologize, your Majesty, Xierca. To you and Great Khelta of all, and all my forebearers. After all, you spoke truly. I stand in the shadows of those who came before. I have disgraced Khelt by my fall in battle. That I lack the poise of rulers before, the elegance, the diversity of abilities, I humbly submit before you all.”
In the lands of the dead, the rulers looked at each other. Embarrassed and silent. Erin saw Serept open his mouth, hesitate, and look at Xierca. She was distressed.
“Beloved Fetohep, that is not…”
Well, it had been what they meant. Yet Fetohep seemed calmer. Even more confident than before. He walked down the steps, then stopped. His head turned, as if he could see them, walking behind him. Almost at Erin.
“It makes no mockery of the truth to state what is there. I was a [Warrior], your Majesty. I would not compare myself to Queen Khelta, whom even Dragons regarded as a true master of death, who laid the very spells which endure till now. Nor Serept, who forged blades for his Giant ancestors! I did not know the cures to ten thousand poisons as King His-Xe. Erin Solstice, you walk among the greatest stars Chandrar has ever known.”
The rulers stirred. Fetohep of Khelt’s words were both truthful…and highly complimentary. Erin Solstice blinked, and peered at the rulers named. The three stood a bit taller. They smiled, nodding in memory, waving off the compliments, but there it was.
The other ghosts, who could neither hear nor speak to Fetohep, peered at them suspiciously. Nerrhavia, who had been bragging about her new statue all morning, glanced at the smiling rulers of Khelt.
What strange confidence. What…a difference words made. That was what Fetohep had realized. The dead were nervous. Erin Solstice was uncertain, afraid.
He stood in the shadow of beings whom he had never matched in life. Great heroes and legends. There were some things they could not do, however. They did not live. They were at the mercy of something in the land beyond. And…well. They were dead.
They had forgotten what it was like to speak to the living, truly. Not just him. Erin Solstice. Fetohep heard her fear, and worry, and desire to live. Of all of his predecessors—he remembered how to speak to mortal subjects best.
So here he stood. His subjects had heard him speaking to the air and exchanged looks of great alarm, yet now the king’s head turned. He stood at the foot of the stairs, as his people feared to draw too near and disturb him, but watched. Fetohep’s head rose, and his voice grew louder, so he addressed both the living and the dead.
“I am Fetohep of Khelt. Ruler of Khelt! Nineteenth servant of this kingdom. And I…am but the meanest and least accomplished of those who came before.”
He began to walk forwards.
“Who does not still remember Queen Zushe-Greso, whose reign was considered one of the most blessed of all? Queen Emrist’s pacts, which endure to this day? If I rest upon my laurels, if I am incompetent, it is because the road has been paved too well, too smoothly by those who bore my burdens before me. I have no challenges left because my predecessors crushed all who stood before me, with cunning and wrath!”
He raised his hands. His subjects didn’t know what this was in aid of, but they murmured.
The dead ghosts preened. They might even have glowed, growing more firm in the land of the dead. Erin saw a scar appear on Serept’s arm, a war wound he glanced down at. Of course, they knew their deeds, but to hear and be reminded of it by the living?
That was what King Fetohep had that they did not. Perspective. And…respect for them. Awe for the ghosts, which was genuine. He knew their stories. He had read them all. So he recited their deeds and stories to his people, like a [Bard], like a [Storyteller].
A hype man for the dead. Not just that. Fetohep thought of Erin Solstice. Worried, afraid. He turned, amidst his subjects.
It was not a perfect speech. A baby had begun crying, unhappy at something in this early morning air. Someone kept coughing in the background. He was an imperfect ruler.
Even so. He looked around.
“Now, the hour is nigh. Greater threats come to Khelt than before. I have been remiss. I have been incautious, and yes, I have been insufficient. It is my fault.”
The ghosts were silent. Fetohep sighed…but Erin saw his golden flames glittering. He strutted. He stood, head thrown back, and turned.
“War. Calamity. Great deeds must be done. Therefore…I suppose that for the first time in my short reign as Ruler of Khelt…I shall have to put in actual effort for once.”
He turned, as if facing the crowds, but in truth, turning to the rulers of Khelt.
The ghosts stirred. They looked at each other. A few made incredulous sounds. And then Khelta laughed. Xierca applauded her subject. Erin giggled in delight.
What arrogance. What a claim! The Rulers of Khelt looked at Fetohep of Khelt, Nineteenth King of Khelt. The answer came from their lips, in unified approval, and laughter themselves.
A King should be conceited. A King should be grand. Fetohep spun, eyes glowing brighter than they ever had before. This was what they couldn’t do. For Erin Solstice—he could reassure her.
“My subjects, these days shall change and dismay you. They shall be harsher days, but grander than ever before. Do not fear. I tell you this, for my actions may change, but I shall not. I am always your king. Am I not the greatest to live, save for those before me?”
The people of Khelt looked at Fetohep. Then a cheer arose from people of all kinds, who had never known thirst or hunger. Who had seen him fight, and inspire.
The wailing child sounded again, amid the cheers. Fetohep moved through the crowd like an arrow. He stopped in front of the embarrassed father trying to shush the babe.
“If I wilt it, is there anything I cannot do? Can I not defeat an army by my presence alone? Can I not command the tides to turn, the ground to heave? Can I not stop a weeping babe with a single glance?”
He gently took the baby from the father’s arms. Instantly, the child went quiet. Cheers and gasps rose from the crowd.
Erin laughed in delight. How had he done that?
The baby had stopped crying at once as Fetohep lifted it in his arms. Of course, it was true the infant stopped crying, but mainly because its face clearly expressed, without words, ‘I am in fear of my mortal existence from this undead monster, someone please help me.’
The end result was the end result. Fetohep could hear Erin Solstice laughing. He gave the baby back to the father. The baby instantly began wailing once more, twice as loud. Fetohep turned, and spread his arms to the palace.
“So what will you, my ancestors of old? Command me! In this war, what shall I use? A hundredth of Khelt’s might? A thousandth? If I stumble, it is only because I did not line the cracks I trod on with diamonds and gold.”
He looked back, and the rulers of Khelt nodded to him. Erin’s smile lit up her face. This was Fetohep. She believed. And so, Khelta stepped forwards. She pointed at Fetohep, though he could not see her.
“Fetohep of Khelt. I speak for all the rulers of Khelt. In the name of our kingdom, do not hoard your strength. Show us your might. Show us your daring! Delve into our hoarded treasures. By my name of Khelta, I order you. Unleash it all. Hold nothing back, or Khelt ends with thee.”
Fetohep knelt gracefully. He lifted his head, as his eyes flashed and the sun warmed his back. At last, he had the true will of Khelt. From the source. His eyes flashed.
He smiled, and nations began to tremble.
An hour later, Fetohep reclined on his throne. He did not race off on a chariot, at the head of a new army. Rather, he sat there.
He was a [Warrior]. But he was also a king.
“It is for men like that child, Flos Reimarch, to think leading a kingdom ends and begins with the sword at the head of an army. I am at war. So, then. Let me show you how a true King fights his wars.”
He paused. Hummed to himself.
“Five out of ten.”
He was working on his speeches. He made a note. He liked ‘so, then’, but he wasn’t sure about the comparative with the King of Destruction. It felt like a crutch he’d fallen on too many times. Of course, personal dialogue with Jecaina, Trey and Teres was one thing, but was a truly impressive speech not timeless?
He’d work on that. Fetohep returned his attention to his tasks at hand. He studied the last crystal his sweating [Mages] proffered to him.
A thousand mana crystals, all perfectly shaped to the exact same dimensions lay in front of him. Perfect orbs. He nodded.
“Take them to the ritual site. I shall proceed there within minutes and begin the rites.”
Three thousand mana crystals were carried from his throne room. A fortune in power. Fetohep just smiled at the terrified, wide-eyed looks from his servants. They knew what he intended.
“Have any responded to my words yet?”
“Two, your Majesty. Assent.”
“Good. Prepare to receive them. Make ready a guest wing for each. As for my proclamation, have it sent across Khelt.”
The [Servant] bowed her head, and stood, quill at the ready. Fetohep lifted a hand. His eyes flashed.
This was what raced across Khelt, to the most distant parts of it in the following day. King Fetohep addressed his subjects:
“My people, we are at war with the Claiven Earth and Medain. Terandria itself thinks to wipe Khelt from this land. I…fear them not. They shall be wiped from Chandrar’s sands. Yet I offer this chance to you.
If you dream of battle, if you would risk your lives in war, come to my palace. Come to the capital, and be tested.
Few of you will pass. And of those who do, you may well die in war. Already, the blood of no less than twenty three of my beloved subjects wets the sand in the north. I cannot promise you safety. Yet if you desire to ride at my side, come.
If I find you worthy, I will make you my [Tomb Champions], my [Scions of Sands], my [Warmasters] and [Heroes]. I shall arm you in Khelt’s great weapons.
So, come, brave children.”
Fiery words, and the quill trembled as the [Servant] took them down. After a second, Fetohep lifted a hand.
“Amend one part of that, my loyal servant. Omit ‘[Heroes]’.”
It would be too tiresome to set them up. Too much work. He would need time that he could not spare for this war, if his understanding was correct. As for the other classes? Fetohep’s eyes glittered.
The armory was open. He had every intention of arming any whom he found worthy with great artifacts. Fetohep sat back for a moment, and smiled as the words were rushed out to be cried across Khelt.
Then he rose for a magical working that had not taken place for six generations of rulers before him.
The Rites of the Revenant.
Four days. Four days of ominous silence. No one knew what was happening in Khelt, but the very limited information sources hinted something was happening that made all of the other rulers…nervous.
Very nervous. Of course, the problem was that Fetohep suffered no [Informants] or [Infiltrators]. So the best source of intelligence from within Khelt was…
Queen Yisame turned her head incredulously. Her [Spymaster] was miserable. He gestured to a terrified girl.
“It is all that Fetohep of Khelt permits, your Majesty. I have a copy of the…penpal’s missive.”
The Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fallen actually stared at a clumsy scrawl from a boy, a rambling text about Fetohep’s proclamation. A subject of Khelt, who wrote to his friend in Nerrhavia. Her lips moved.
“…That is ominous. He is mobilizing an army of the living? Why? Is his undead legion not suitable?”
“Perhaps he intends to level some to counter the foes that brought him down in the last battle?”
Nerrhavia’s courts wondered uneasily. They had no idea. If they had been truly prescient, or taken the time they should have invested outside of their infighting and politics, they would have already known part of what Fetohep had intended.
That they had not was their fault, and they would learn of it too late. They kept too few tabs on him anyways. They took him for granted. After all, in the capital’s elegant courts and rich, Silk-caste domain, even a Named Adventurer was not welcome.
Alked Fellbow, one of Nerrhavia Fallen’s Named Adventurers was of the Hemp. His skin was tough, roughened, almost akin to armor itself. That they knew him as Fellbow was because he was one of the greatest [Archers] living. He had fought in the war with Tiqr.
Yet he was still not someone invited to the palace, or honored at many events. If he had changed his cloth to Silk, or been natively born to them, he would surely have been the darling of such events.
That he was not was a disgrace. A symbol of how Nerrhavia’s Fallen and Stitch-folk in general had forgotten the will of Elucina and the very same people they honored. It was an embarrassment and Alked deserved better.
As it happened…Fetohep of Khelt believed that too. So when Alked Fellbow stopped at the steps to the palace, stepping out of the princely carriage that had come to the border to greet him, it was Fetohep of Khelt who stood there.
“Your Majesty Fetohep of Khelt.”
The Stitch-man hesitated. He had come far on short notice. Ridden day and night, but who would not when Fetohep offered you ten thousand gold pieces to dine on his hospitality and hear a proposal for a week?
Ten thousand gold pieces just to arrive here and meet with the man. If Alked suspected he was being flattered for some great deed—well, his suspicions were doubly aroused when he saw the wing in the palace set out for him.
What kind of quest does the King of Khelt want for me? Slay a Jaw of Zeikhal? Recover the Diamond Swords of Serept as he’s lost his patience? Fight in his war?
The man was nervous, yet Fetohep did not keep him waiting long. They met at sunset, and the King greeted Alked from upon his throne.
“I thank you for your gracious invitation and the suite, your Majesty. It is a true honor.”
Alked was uncomfortable as he stood in the massive throne room, perhaps even richer than Nerrhavia’s own. He had never been in Khelt, but heard stories and the city, this place—none of it lagged behind the tales.
If there was any problem it was that he didn’t know if he should bow. Alked had never respected Nerrhavia’s [Generals], who often contracted him for war or to slay a monster. He had knelt before Queen Yisame and Nerrhavia Fallen’s throne the one time he had been titled Named Adventurer, so should he kneel here, before a foreign power?
Fetohep seemed to sense his thoughts. The undead king lifted a hand, golden flames flashing in his skull.
“Kneel, Fellbow. Do not dance upon pretense of arrogance here. I have no time for it. I am a king. You respect the will of a throne. How can you not, you who have worked long for Nerrhavia Fallen’s own crown?”
Abashed, Alked knelt, clumsily. Fetohep bade him rise after only a moment.
“I apologize, your Majesty. I have spoken to few rulers. My manners are lacking.”
“Yes. Yet I shall not hold that against you, Adventurer Fellbow. Rather, I respect your name and deeds. You are the monster-slayer of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. A great hero for your people…and those of your cloth.”
His gaze swiveled and he glanced at Alked’s rough skin. Leather, not hemp, but it marked him as the lowest caste. For all it had saved his life.
Alked’s skin prickled, as it so often did with glances from courtiers and those who looked appalled. Then he realized Fetohep did not look at him like they did. The king sat forwards on his throne.
“It is perhaps impolite to ask a Stitch-person this. Yet why for all your fame and success have you never changed your cloth, Alked Fellbow? There is surely a valuable fabric that would earn you acclaim had you replaced your cloth with it.”
Alked glanced down at his rough exterior. A monster’s skin, that was how some called it. He shrugged, self-consciously, unprepared for the question and the truth came out. It would have anyways; he was not good at lying.
“It’s who I am, your Majesty. I’m not Silk on the inside. I’d rather look like what I choose. If I wore silk, they would still know…”
He trailed off. Know who I am. He had thought of it before, of course he had. Alked gritted his teeth. He refused to change his cloth and still be sneered at behind the fans of Nerrhavia Fallen’s courts.
Fetohep seemed to know that all before he had asked. He knew Stitch-folk, a rarity among someone not from their species. He nodded, gazing at Alked.
“Yet you are a Named Adventurer. A Named Adventurer, one of the greatest sources of pride Nerrhavia’s Fallen is able to claim. Children should aspire to be you. Yet they do not throw holidays in your honor. I have not heard your name called with pride from Nerrhavia Fallen’s subjects, only those of your caste.”
Alked did not reply. He remained motionless, wondering why this undead ruler was bringing up the very things that Alked hated in private. He shouldn’t have been surprised by what came next. Even so, he was.
“Alked Fellbow. Were you a citizen of Khelt, I would honor you properly with holiday and song. I would grant you and your family the citizenship of Khelt in perpetuity. A right that extends to your kin and cousins—those without a great sin to their names. Their families as well. To you, I would grant the right to settle in any part of Khelt you chose, and my subjects would surely seek your hand, of one so beloved.”
Alked Fellbow’s head rose slowly. He blinked, uncomprehending, then his eyes widened.
“You…wish to offer me citizenship, your Majesty?”
“I desire great men and women, Alked Fellbow. You know I am at war?”
All of Chandrar knew that. Alked nodded. It made sense. He didn’t know why Fetohep of Khelt wanted a living warrior, but a Named Adventurer was recruited for this kind of thing all the time.
“I…do not involve myself directly in many wars. I have served Nerrhavia’s Fallen, your Majesty, but I would prefer not to die in battle, even to win an honor such as this.”
Even so, it was a handsome offer. Citizenship…Alked now knew why he was here and was flattered. However—
Fetohep just smiled.
“I am not finished, Alked Fellbow. Firstly, it is not for this war alone I wish your service. It is for the future. You are one of the greatest warriors on the continent. Moreso, I know you to be a man of honor. That I desire more than your levels alone.”
“You…flatter me, your Majesty.”
No one had told him that in Nerrhavia’s courts, yet Alked held his ground. He knew this song and dance. It was a contract—even with these stakes and this setting. Fetohep would flatter him, they might go back and forth, and Alked should wait out the week, seek the best deal before agreeing. If he even did! Fighting a war for citizenship…
“I do not intend you to actually fight in this war. Rather, you shall accompany me when I depart Khelt. There will be wars in the future, Alked Fellbow, but I would not offer mere citizenship to a Named Adventurer.”
Alked’s head snapped up.
He was getting a bit dizzy. Now he was sure that Fetohep of Khelt was messing with him. He didn’t want Alked to fight in a war?
Fetohep’s eyes were shining bright in the dim throne room. He stood, slowly, and descended the dais. Then he plucked something from a pillow that sat there. Alked hadn’t even noticed it, as fast as the conversation was going.
“Alked Fellbow. You are the first of those I ask to join my kingdom. Join it, grow old and bear children who will live in peace forever. Find love. And yes, fight for me. Then rest in your later years. I know your courage. I know your worth. I shall not ignore you, nor make light of who you are, or judge you by cloth and weave.”
The undead king held out what he held. Alked’s eyes opened wide, and he stumbled back from the object Fetohep held out.
The Ruler of Khelt was laughing silently. He reached out, and offered it to Alked.
A bow. A bow so glorious it made Alked’s own artifact look like an enchanted toy. The wood was dark like night, and it seemed as though someone had set the night sky to the wood itself. The string burned silver in Alked’s eyes. His hands trembled as they reached out—and then he looked at Fetohep.
“What is…what is…?”
“This is Heavens’ Arc. The most powerful bow in Khelt’s armory. A Relic-class weapon. Alked Fellbow. Pledge yourself to me, and I will give you a bow worthy of your name.”
He held out the weapon, an object that could have made any Gold-rank Adventurer a Named Adventurer. Any Silver-ranked one. Alked looked at it. Then he saw Fetohep gesture.
“Take it. Until you depart. If you depart. We shall speak tomorrow, Alked. In company. Sleep well; if you have need of anything, simply ring the bell in your quarters and it will be provided.”
He could have tapped Alked and knocked the man sprawling. And that was the first day. The next day, Fetohep threw a parade.
Eighteen [Bards] declaimed stories of Alked Fellbow’s triumphs from dawn till dusk in the largest square. The Named Adventurer left the palace and got back six hours later, as admiring subjects flocked around him. He stared at the bow in his quarters, afraid to even touch it.
He barely responded to the frantic messages from Nerrhavia’s Fallen demanding to know what he was doing in Khelt and why he hadn’t queried the palace about permission to leave the borders.
Leave the borders? By contrast, Fetohep had informed Alked that save for moments of war and calamity, he was free to continue his journeys as Named Adventurer so long as he did not take up arms against Khelt’s interests.
It was a…difference. Alked thought of his extended family, who would live like the best of aristocracy, even if they were only granted basic citizens’ rights. He wandered his guest suite and got lost.
The only thing that was keeping him from making an obvious decision was the feeling, the certainty in his chest that he was being pranked. This was too good to be true, and Alked’s long experience working his way up from the bottom told him this just…didn’t happen.
He convinced himself this was a test of loyalty, this was somehow false, that he’d be sent to his death somehow despite Fetohep swearing he had no intention of wasting Alked’s life.
Fellbow had almost managed to persuade himself this was a trap of some kind when he nearly bumped into someone else wandering the palace’s corridors.
“Hello? Hello? It’s been an hour and I can’t figure out where—”
The stranger froze in the jade corridor and nearly went for her blade. Alked recoiled, and nearly brought up his own bow—both relaxed a second later. They were guests. This wasn’t an assassination attempt. Or so he hoped, because Alked recognized the woman.
More importantly, he recognized the beast that had flapped its wings dangerously and nearly taken off from her shoulder. Alked swore.
“Stitch me sideways. It can’t be. Frieke? You’re here?”
The Falcon of Medain, Frieke, goggled at Alked. She nearly dropped her sword.
“Alked? His Majesty said he’d contacted others—dead gods. He’s hiring you? I mean, making you a citizen?”
“He’s making you a citizen?”
The woman who had chopped off Fetohep’s head had been having nightmares for the last four days, ever since he returned. She had been convinced he would seek vengeance.
When he summoned her…she had demanded a hundred assurances, agonized over it, then decided begging forgiveness and explaining she’d had no choice but to fight in the war was better than risking his wrath. He wouldn’t kill a Named Adventurer as a guest, would he? Perric might, but Fetohep?
She had not expected the King of Khelt to offer her citizenship as his Named Adventurer. He had explained himself, simply.
“One must admire an opponent, Frieke of Medain. Naturally, the Named Adventurer skilled enough to take my head would be an asset.”
“You—you don’t bear us any ill will?”
He had laughed, as he presented her with armor for, Konska, her Seahawk, and a Relic-grade pair of blades as part of his offer.
“Do you not see the head on my shoulders, Frieke of Medain? No. I would rather seek the loyalty of the Falcon. Of course, a change must be made. To your name. The Falcon of Khelt inspires rather more grandly. I should be content to have the change announced across Chandrar and Medain especially.”
A King twisted the knife in delightfully painful ways. Frieke could only imagine what would happen if High King Perric heard that. He’d be furious. He’d be…
She and Alked stared at each other’s Relics. Alked’s lips moved.
“He’s serious. He wants Named Adventurers. I thought…”
Frieke grinned weakly.
“If you think that’s amazing, wait till you see the other guests. There are two more. The Jade Garudas are here. The entire team. He’s offering them the same as us. And a Centauress.”
Alked whistled. He began to believe.
It was fair for Herdmistress Geraeri to be suspicious. She had galloped south, and somehow, been slower than Fetohep. He had summoned her to his palace, next.
“Is this a third renegotiation of the People of Zair’s rights, your Majesty? You have been exceedingly generous…but I would have cause to ask questions if you desired a third pact.”
Fetohep of Khelt accepted the rebuke with a nod as she dined with the Named Rank team of the Jade Garudas, Alked Fellbow, and Frieke of Medain at the banquet table.
“That is fair, Herdmistress. Any would doubt a ruler so predisposed to renegotiation. I seek it not. Rather, I make you the same offer I make the rest of my guests. To you, and you alone. I wish for the [Herdmistress of the Greatland]’s strength. Be one of my great champions. I would offer you this.”
To her, he presented four horseshoes. Each one of a different color and make. Geraeri recognized one as being made of Adamantium crossed with some frozen metal. Another looked like glass. She gazed up at Fetohep.
“Relics for your species. I would also offer you a relic of your choice. Be my citizen, Herdmistress, not an anonymous member of the People of Zair.”
“Why are you offering all of this to us, Great King Fetohep? I have never known Khelt to be so…generous with its relics.”
The leader of the Jade Garudas was both overawed and nervous. Like the others, he suspected some kind of ploy.
There was, of course. Fetohep’s eyes flashed.
“A time for great deeds is coming, Adventurer Leekhe. It is time to use all of Khelt’s wonders. Do you think I am too generous? Fear not. I have a hundred times more wealth to spare. I desire the finest mortals, so I offer you gifts worth your value. We shall not talk overlong of it; for I have given each of you an offer. Merely think. Do your rulers offer you the same? If they would bid on retaining your loyalty, I shall happily exceed any offer they may make.”
His guests looked at each other. Fetohep made polite conversation throughout the meal, though he only drank his mana draught, then stood.
“If you will excuse me. One of my ceremonies is finally concluding. I understand you all worry that I shall involve you in the trifling war between Khelt, Medain, the Claiven Earth, and Terandria despite my assurances over truth stone to the contrary.”
They fell silent. Fetohep glanced back as he paused at the door.
“You shall see that belief is in error shortly. I do not require your aid for that. Excuse me while I summon Revenants.”
He walked out of the room before any of them could say a word. After a second, Frieke upended her plate.
“Am I dreaming or is someone casting an illusion spell on me?”
The Rite of the Revenant had taken two days to complete. It was a simple ceremony.
It took place in a great space deep in Khelt’s palace. Underneath five statues were…well, tombs. Silent and dark, each one engraved with hundreds of spells.
The ruler from whose era they had been made in stood high, high above them. Grand statues beneath which five tombs rested. Some were vast, multiple graves, as was the case beneath Serept’s cold face.
Queen Heris’ statue was the first. The [Mages] had placed a thousand orbs of mana crystals in the little indentations around the warded stone sarcophagus. They had been glowing so bright they blinded two days ago when Fetohep began the ceremony.
Now? They were all gone. It was the tomb which was glowing, the air charged with enough force that it would have activated many wands or spells just by being brought into this place.
It made Fetohep feel alive, which was the point.
Two more spots out of the five had also been activated.
Queen Heris, King Serept, and King Dolemn were the rulers who had left behind more than relics. More than gold or contracts behind.
No ruler among the last nine of Khelt, including Fetohep, had left behind such things. Five out of nineteen.
Five…promises. Five moments in time, where individuals or groups had been so loyal, they had made pledges that exceeded time itself. Agreed to this. Not just loyalty.
Might. Cost aside, there was a reason Fetohep had never dreamed of utilizing this ritual. He stood there, and intoned the words as the air ripened and the pure power of magic began to awaken the being that slumbered there.
“I call on you as you swore once, servants of Khelt! You, who swore to bring arms and fury against our enemies when the hour called—come! I call your name! Awaken, Vizir Hecrelunn!”
The stone cracked. The palace shook.
Frieke’s [Dangersense] went off. She dove underneath the table.
So did Fetohep’s. He had been thinking of the others. Three of the tombs had been used during the Creler Wars, yet not even the ruler during that time had dared unstopper this grave. Not Queen Heris the second’s last safeguard. If an Elder Creler had reached the palace or pushed past the borders?
Yes. But anything less would b—
The stone tomb exploded. A pillar of obsidian shot out of it and nearly struck the ceiling, a hundred feet up. Fetohep felt the impact of air, but held his ground. He looked up—and dodged the hand of stone that shot down and reached for him.
“Who dares to awaken the [Vizir] Hecrelunn?”
A voice thundered from overhead. Fetohep looked up and saw a person floating there. His robes were rich purple, a royal color, and he was much like Fetohep; a preserved corpse.
The difference was that he held a scepter, the top mounted with a dark diamond cut into a head, larger than Fetohep’s fist. The flames that should have burned in the [Vizir]’s sockets were instead two pinpoints of light, eerily like eyes. They shone bright red.
Oh yes. Fetohep remembered. The reason no one awoke the [Vizir] who had served the Second Queen of Khelt was—
Stone wrapped around him so fast even Fetohep’s reflexes couldn’t dodge it. The floor rippled and he was lifted upwards. The [Vizir] pointed a finger at Fetohep.
“So you are the ruler of Khelt? Pathetic. Did you awaken the [Vizir] to replace you? Khelt would be better served by I, I who remembered Khelta herself. How long has Hecrelunn slumbered?”
“Release me, Vizir Hecrelunn.”
Fetohep did not deign to struggle. The [Vizir] was a powerful [Geomancer] as well as being the second to Queen Herist.
He also spoke in third person. Fetohep hadn’t been sure if the accounts were true about that. It seemed they were. He wondered if it was a head wound.
Hecrelunn sneered down at Fetohep. His eyes flicked over Fetohep, perhaps reading his class, then around.
“I do not see the threats for which I allowed myself to be entombed. No monsters cross Khelt’s borders. It has…grown…since I last woke.”
That would be nearly seven rulers prior, Fetohep remembered. He spoke, his voice icy.
“I said, release me, Vizir. I rule Khelt. You are sworn to obey our will.”
The [Vizir] studied him—then waved a hand. Fetohep was lowered to the floor.
“My class is ambition and power. I am greater than you, little ruler. Fetohep of Khelt? Did you think to test your worth against me as that last fool did? If so, I will steal this kingdom away and rule it properly.”
Fetohep was getting annoyed already. The [Vizir] floated down, and the king wondered if he should have brought his halberd.
“I summoned you for war, Vizir Hecrelunn. Khelt’s enemies have not reached the borders. Nor shall they. Terandria sends great armies against Khelt, and I require your battle in the north.”
“Merely war? We are the last guardians of Khelt! You would unleash us for a petty war?”
Vizir Hecrelunn’s rage actually manifested in lesser spells which shot across the air, arcs of death magic. Had he even cast spells or…? He pointed at Fetohep.
“You forget yourself, petty king. We are not yours to command.”
“No. Serept asked us to stay and watch. Not to fight every war. If it was for that alone, it was ill done. Ill-conceived. Yet we will listen first.”
Fetohep and Hecrelunn’s heads turned. Then tilted up. Fetohep nodded slowly.
“I shall explain all soon, great warrior.”
“We shall listen.”
A half-Giant rose to his feet. Thirty feet tall, as tall as Zamea. He leaned on his axe as glowing armor shone over naught but bone. He was all ivory, as were the warriors who rose with him.
Twenty half-Giants. No…Fetohep felt a thrill in his own soul. Twenty half-Giant Revenants.
Half-Giants with levels. Serept’s bodyguard, armed with enchanted weapons. Not the mindless bones of half-Giants; these showed how their bones had been carefully cleaned and polished, their weapons enchanted.
Their glowing eyes stared down at Hecrelunn in disapproval. The [Vizir] floated up, sneering.
“So half-Giants are called forth. When did Khelt become ruled by their kind? You, little king, you think the Vizir needs assistance? If you call him forth for a foe, the Vizir alone is needed.”
“Vizir Hecrelunn. Your arrogance is just as poignant as the histories relate. I shall explain what is needed.”
“You had better do it quick. I too cannot be roused for anything but great need. His-xe is dead. How many years? I am beginning to rage, and there are no foes here.”
A third voice. A skeleton stood from his tomb. He wore a warrior’s plate armor. His eye-flames flickered with fury, but they were pink, like the petals of flowers. Yet he was extremely tall. Dangerous. For proof, he had an axe as tall as he was, and he swung it one-handed.
“I crave war. I crave battle. I will tear this place to pieces if it was for no reason! His-xe! My rage grows by the second! Who is this? The [Vizir] they said was first? Where is my foe? Is it a Dragon? Say it is a Dragon! What else would I be called for?”
He pointed his axe at the Vizir, swinging his head, left, right, like a wild animal. The [Vizir] hissed.
“Do not speak the Vizir’s title without respect, little warrior! I demand to know—”
One of the half-Giants was frowning.
“I sense no foes either. Is this a mistake? Who is in command here?”
“I am the Vizir Hecrelunn! Greatest of all Khelt’s servants! Be silent unless the Vizir speaks!”
Fetohep’s head hurt. He really should have done them one at a time.
His voice and authority silenced all the Revenants. Even the [Vizir], for a moment. Fetohep stood there, smaller than all of them save the [Vizir] who was floating over his head.
The great warrior already succumbing to rage. The half-Giants, standing in solemn formation, heads bowed, the arrogant [Vizir]—he addressed them all.
“I have summoned you for war, great protectors of Khelt. It is time for war, and war without restraint. Each of Khelt’s weapons will be used. You are but the first. The last two tombs will be opened. I have unsealed Khelt’s armories without restraint. This is the hour in which it is needed, though you cannot yet see it.”
The Revenants stirred. Even the Vizir fell silent.
“All the weapons? What war is this? Do Dragons fly in vast armies to swallow the skies once more?”
One of the half-Giants murmured uneasily. The Vizir stared at Fetohep.
“Does something crawl from beyond the world’s edge?”
The warrior muttered.
“I hope it’s big.”
Fetohep shook his head.
“None of these things. An army from Terandria brings [Knights] by the thousand. A nation of half-Elves with their champions, a great [Mage] and [Commander], offer war. A kingdom of Humans sends their armies against Khelt’s forces.”
The Revenants exchanged glances.
The Vizir Hecrelunn shrieked. He swooped down, aiming a finger at Fetohep. A dangerous spell was charging up—Fetohep’s [Dangersense] screamed louder. The Vizir would loose it.
“Only glorious Queen Heris and Khelta herself could command me! I would have wrested power from them if they were not greater than I in every way! You—you are not my level, not my better! You dare wake me for this trivial thing when each ruler knows we are to be used in Khelt’s darkest hour?”
Fetohep held his ground. He met the Vizir’s pinpoints of rage in their sockets and replied with some satisfaction.
“I believe, Vizir Hecrelunn, you mean ‘only glorious Queen Heris and Khelta herself could command the Vizir’.”
A choking sound emerged from Hecrelunn’s body. One of the half-Giants snorted. Before the Vizir could try to kill him, Fetohep went on.
“Do not think I forget the conditions under which you are to be summoned! I know your names and great deeds. Yet I say this: Khelta and the rulers of Khelt walk with me. They speak. They tell me now is the time. Unleash all or Khelt dies. Vizir Hecrelunn, Honor Guard of Serept, Champion of War Salui. Khelta herself calls you to war.”
The Vizir stopped. The Revenants looked at each other. Salui’s rage halted his trembling.
“You lie. Khelta is dead, and she rests. I will not be tricked.”
“I swear by Khelt eternal. Do not make light of my oath. Do you not see the weight of the crown on me?”
Fetohep lost his patience. He and the Vizir glowered at each other, and Fetohep felt the Vizir’s potent aura storming at his own. He held his ground; he might lack for levels, but he was still king.
“How should the Vizir believe you? The Vizir will make his own decisions. Be grateful only that the Vizir lets you live, Fetohep. And if it should turn out you lie—”
The angry Revenant didn’t notice. He and Fetohep were locked in a battle of wills. So the half-Giant grabbed him. The Vizir spun, magic lashing the bone hand, but it bounced off the armor.
The Honor Guard of Serept, his boon companion, pointed a finger up. The Vizir Hecrelunn stopped his raving. Looked up.
And quailed. Fetohep himself turned his head up and froze.
High overhead, in the vaulted room where the Revenants had been laid to rest until they were needed were…statues.
Ornamental. Each one of the rulers who had asked their beloved champions and warriors to wait, wait a while, until they were needed. They stared out into proud infinity, gazes straight ahead.
Or had. Three of the statues were…looking down. Fetohep and Hecrelunn looked up at a noble face, a slightly crooked nose, but a smile that balanced it.
Queen Heris. The half-Giants stared up at Serept’s face. Salui, the [Champion of War], looked up.
All three monarchs gazed down. The Vizir dropped his scepter. He fell to his knees.
“Are you there? Heris? Is it truly you? Is your will…”
The half-Giants were kneeling. Slowly, the Revenants rose. They looked at Fetohep, and up at the statues.
No more did they move. Fetohep himself was shaken. He had not believed…he whispered.
“They have spoken. Will you accept the burden once more, kin of Khelt? For as long as the will remains—we shall serve.”
“We shall serve. For Khelta and this land, for however long it takes.”
Salui whispered. Even the Vizir nodded.
“Then Khelta herself watches us. Give us your orders, King Fetohep of Khelt. It is time for the world to once again hear the Vizir’s name.”
The battlefield was hot. Physically hot; air rose in shimmering lines from the ground. Yet the Herald of the Forests did not sweat.
She had taken to the field, with a new company. The Fables rode anew. Behind her stood an army of half-Elves, and at the back, the [Mage] who had defeated Khelt’s army once.
Medain’s forces were also arrayed. They still had one Named Adventurer; the other had fled.
Yet that was well, because Fetohep himself had not taken to the field to lead Khelt’s army, and the Jaw of Zeikhal lay dead. Better yet—the Herald glanced left. Her lip curled slightly.
An army of [Knights] now rode between two forces. Terandria’s crusade had come. Even more were disembarking from the ships, and they were a dangerous power indeed.
Faced with that, even Khelt’s vast army looked to be in a bit of trouble, especially since one side would level. Nevertheless, the Herald leaned over her horse.
“Let us not be overconfident, [General]. Khelt’s army still outnumbers all our forces by a factor of five to one. Our advantage is that we may level.”
“Five to one, when it was twenty-to-one or greater last battle? I will take those odds, Herald. It is curious however—Jecrass is far from the battlefield. Queen Jecaina will not interfere this time. Does Fetohep intend to send his army against us without personally commanding it? His subjects will die quickly to our bows and your company.”
The Herald of the Forest shook her head.
“He will appear. Teleportation, or another puppet.”
She was certain of that. It would be wars of attrition as countless armies poured from Khelt. The old half-Elf sighed.
“Armies and armies, and he’ll be there at the head each time. Let the Terandrians besiege Khelt, or we’ll drown in undead.”
“We only need break his forces here, then he will be on the defense. If we liberate the new lands of Khelt in Jecrass or endanger the Arbiter Queen, we may force him to relent.”
The Herald saw few other ways to end Fetohep’s onslaught. Yet she was now confident…his army was reduced and he was one warrior, for all he was dangerous.
That was why High King Perric was back in his army, and the [Knights] advancing already. They were confident. They knew the dangers. They knew Fetohep might come with relics, but they were ready to fight, to take losses, but counter-level and prevail.
It was a good plan. Good assumptions.
They had no idea what was coming next.
The half-Elf sensed it first. He glanced up and snapped.
“Teleportation spell in Khelt’s army! At the head!”
“Just as planned. Make ready!”
The Fables of the Forest roared, lifting their blades as the Herald rode to the front of the army. She saw a figure materialize in front of Khelt’s forces. Fetohep, wearing full plate armor this time. She narrowed her eyes. The half-Elf slowed.
“…Is it just me or does he look…taller…?”
She was uncertain. The warrior who appeared might have been Fetohep; he could probably take any body he chose. Yet this warrior was nearly half again as tall. And, the Herald realized, he carried no halberd but a giant axe as tall as he was. It was ludicrously big, even if it was enchanted to be weightless!
The [Knights] stirred. Horns began to sound as individual [Knight]-orders shouted victory, proclaiming their ranks and orders. Medain’s horns began to warble…the Herald lifted a hand and the Claiven Earth did not follow suit.
The warrior was not Fetohep. Her skin began to prickle. She looked back at the half-Elf. He was standing up from his chair.
“What is that?”
Both of them saw it. The better [Knights] and the Named Adventurer in the armies all stopped. They stared at the warrior.
Whoever that was…they were more dangerous than Fetohep. The Herald’s skin turned cold.
“I didn’t think he would use Khelt’s hoarded relics. Just how angry is Fetohep of Khelt?”
Then the warrior strode forwards. The armies slowed, and a few bows from Medain’s side loosed presumptuously. The arrows actually made it across the ground thanks to Skills.
They just snapped on the warrior’s armor without even detonating. He—it was a he—walked forwards, then stopped. This, at least, was normal. The ignorant mortals besides the Herald waited for a speech from Fetohep. Some grand declaration, another insult or show.
What they got was a shout. A roaring voice, cracking with anger. If spittle could have flown…but the figure was dead. His flesh was torn, and he still had eyeballs, albeit glowing with light, rotting.
“I! I AM SALUI. GREAT WARRIOR OF KING HIS-XE! YOU ARE ALL MY FOES!”
He screamed so loudly that everyone heard it. No poise. No elevated speech. The great warrior lifted his axe. He was…trembling, the Herald realized. No…shaking.
“YOU TAKE ARMS AGAINST KHELT? DIE! DIE SCREAMING! PLEAD AND BEG FOR MERCY! RUN AND LIVE! YOU WOULD HARM HIS-XE’S WORK? TWICE DIE. KILL YOURSELVES. DIE, DIE, DIE, DIE, DIE—”
He was trembling so hard he began to blur in the distance. The mortals stared. They began to realize…that wasn’t Fetohep. King Perric’s jaw worked soundlessly.
The warrior kept shouting ‘die’ for nearly a minute. It was so loud, so wrathful, that some of Noelictus’ [Hunters] began checking to see if it was a curse spell or something.
“Dead gods, what is that? One of Khelt’s champions? It’s a Revenant. I didn’t know they had more than one.”
The [General of Bows] whispered. The Herald didn’t answer. No sooner had Salui calmed then someone else’s voice echoed from the battlefield.
“Pitiful mortals. You have gained the wrath of the Vizir Hecrelunn. In the name of Khelta, you shall perish. Unless you agree to serve Khelt, in which case you shall be spared as [Slaves]. It is an offer made once. The Vizir knows no mercy.”
Someone whispered. The half-Elf [Mage] looked up. A shape was descending out of the sky.
A cloud had appeared overhead. The Herald of Forests looked up into unexpected shade on the burning day. It was unwelcome. She stared up at the Revenant’s face, copied across the clouds. Two vast pinpoints of crimson light stared down at her.
“Aha. Ahaha. A half-Elf [Mage]? Then I shall have a challenge at least. Great Salui. Destroy.”
It was all the warrior had been waiting for. He lifted the axe, stopped his shaking, and pointed.
“That one! THAT OOOOONEEEEE!”
He began running, axe raised, screaming and slashing the earth. Across the huge divide, without even waiting for Khelt’s army to move.
Straight at the Herald of Forests and the Fables. The [Vizir] had also singled out the half-Elf [Mage] among their ranks. He pointed.
“I am told you know water, little [Mage]. Catch. [Meteor Shower].”
“Elves guide us!”
The [General of Bows] screamed as the first glowing comets fell out of the sky. The [Mage] lifted his hands and barriers of water formed desperately.
“Who are these undead?”
High King Perric was screaming as the [Champion of War] ran into a firestorm of arrows and spells, screaming towards the Herald of Forests without slowing. The [Knights] were already charging as Khelt’s own army advanced.
“Cut through their lines! Archers, bring down that thing in the sky! We will break off to take care of that Revenant with the axe—”
The [Knight-Commander] was furiously shouting orders. She couldn’t help but remember what Queen Yisame had said about [Knights] and Dragons. But they had to fight! They had to—
The first rank of half-Giants was marching towards the [Knights]. They looked…better armored than the rest. A bit more sure, a bit too fast. The [Knights] in front lowered their lances, their instincts telling them to be wary, yet they came on in a charge.
“Foes to front! Use your best Skills now!”
One of the [Knights] bellowed. Forewarned, the [Knights] began activating their Skills. They saw the half-Giants slow.
Twenty of them. One of the half-Giants stopped pretending to be a mindless undead. He looked up, sighed, and adjusted his helmet.
“What a pity. Oh, brave little Humans. You match the tall with courage and Skill at times and bring us down. This we know. But…”
The [Knight-Commander]’s head whipped around just in time to see the flames glow in the half-Giant’s sockets as he finished his sentence.
“…only if you outlevel us. You have grown too small. Do you know my Skill?”
He strode forwards as the others put up their shields. The [Knights] craned their necks up as the thirty-foot half-Giant strode at them. Fast. Faster, running. Unlike all the other half-Giants. His mouth moved. His armored body left the ground.
“[Like a Lion, He Leapt].”
They choked as he flew. Every mortal on the ground stared up as the half-Giant drew his weapons. They heard his voice from above.
“[The Scythe Cut Low Across the Grass].”
The first rank of knights vanished. The half-Giant landed, already calling more Skills. His brethren charged after as the [Knights] met a warrior with as many levels as the best of them. As much daring. As much valor and skill. Just…a bit bigger.
Fetohep let the Named-rank adventurers watch the battle. It was so silent that he thought if he clapped his hands loud enough, Frieke’s heart would stop for good.
Such was the power of Khelt’s Revenants. One of their greatest weapons—unleashed. Fetohep was trembling himself.
Unleash it all. Unleash…Chandrar went still as Fetohep’s wrath manifested itself. Look what Terandria had done, those fools!
They were wrong about why. They were even wrong about his goals. Fetohep walked his palace. Revenants awoke.
Named Adventurers pledged themselves to his service.
Even the King of Destruction was wary.
Yet that was not what mattered. He came to a new wing of the palace. Fetohep halted.
“Is all in readiness?”
The nearly two hundred-strong mortals bowed. They were [Alchemists], [Mages], [Healers], [Scholars], and more. Fetohep himself held an object he handed to one of them. They nearly dropped the potion, which would have been fine, and the gathering stared.
“If another Potion of Regeneration need be taken, it will. Do not stint. Do not waste time. Have you prepared the first experiments?”
He looked at the frozen forms. Animals. One of his subjects murmured.
“Yes, your Majesty. But we lack for ice-experts in the numbers you desire.”
“More will be found. Inform me at once at your first signs of progress.”
Fetohep saw all bow at once. He stood there. Then he turned his head.
“Is it well?”
The mortals followed his gaze, but saw nothing. In the land of the dead, the eighteen rulers of Khelt smiled.
“It is well.”
They chorused. Then they turned to Erin Solstice. The wide-eyed [Innkeeper] peeked at Fetohep, then Khelta. The first ruler of Khelt smiled, and winked.
“It is as I said, Erin Solstice. Our mortal agent is tasked with reviving you. Fetohep of Khelt does not do things by half-measures.”
The first Potion of Regeneration glinted in Fetohep’s gaze. The first, and [Librarians] were scanning Khelt’s spellbooks and scroll collections for any spell that might aid. He heard Khelta go on, and smiled.
“He is our great ruler, and with Khelt on your side, if it is possible in this world, it shall be done.”
She laughed, and Fetohep smiled. So the dead aided the living once more. It was a long way away. It was difficult.
It would be done, Fetohep had sworn it. After a long silence, he heard Erin Solstice’s voice, weak, but…reassured. Hopeful.
“T-ten outta ten.”
Fetohep began to laugh.
Author’s Note: I was recovering from the big, edited chapter. In times when I’ve just worked hard, the right thing to do is sleep, and write less.
I was grumpy, tired, and writing was harder than usual since I’m still setting up my new system after my computer crash.
…So why did I write all this? The world may never know.
I’m tired. But here we are. This is not the Relc side-story, in case you’re curious. This is the chapter that should follow Pisces’ chapter, though. I think.
Well, give me your thoughts. And if you DIDN’T somehow see the second big news in this chapter? Well…the comic is coming out! At last! That stupid disease slowed everything down, but The Last Tide is finally coming out, and you’ll be able to get the first printed work of The Wandering Inn ever! Look out for it August 24th!
Now if you’ll excuse me…I’d like to rest on a pillow of silk. Do they sell those? Thanks for reading!
Animated Bird by HolyChicken!
Young Club by Eurayle!
Erin by Lucille!