The siege was almost over. There was a gap in Reim’s walls. A gate had gone down, and [Soldiers] were flooding the breach.
Of course, they were dying. A [Fireball] spell cast by a Level 30+ [Battle Mage] sent bodies flying. Screaming. Fire that Stitch-folk feared.
In such narrow confines, the attackers had to run into lines of spears and area-of-attack spells, not to mention hails of arrows. Only Skills, the press of bodies, and fear of their officers’ wrath kept them moving, and the promise that this would mean glory, gold, and an end to fighting. Their morale held—mainly because the waves of [Soldiers] going in kept marching into the breach without seeing what had happened to the last group.
Like a series of hovering moths, the individual divisions kept moving towards walls, climbing ladders, entering breaches. The trick was to move them around the walls, so they had no idea the breach they were sent to was a killing ground, unlike the groups who’d been staring at the carnage.
From the position of Nerrhavia’s command, it was an acceptable loss. All they had to do was overwhelm the defenders. By holding the breaches, they had to take from existing fortifications, and they were outnumbered. These two gaps were the first weak links. Open another, and everything would be on a needle’s edge. Four breaks in the wall? Six?
Then it would be over.
Now was the time for plans to be executed. So the command tent was abuzz with officers demanding to lead the first charge in. One excited [Artillery Master] was pointing at the north wall where the gate was breached.
“I have, [Supreme Marshal], a Scaied-designed hwacha. Imported and redesigned after purchase from the Drathian isles—a true masterpiece from the first wars of conquest under the foul King of Destruction himself. It would be supreme irony to use it. Allow me the offensive. I will launch four hundred enchanted arrows and destroy all who stand before us—perhaps even clear the way to the palace itself!”
“And I shall execute a Heron’s Strike on the breach, here. I have two hundred jump-capable warriors who will strike past the walls and break their lines. I petition for a Burning Spearstorm maneuver via friendly-fire Skills.”
Another [Major] was begging to lead a charge with his brigade. They surrounded the [Supreme Marshal], who, sensing the end was nigh, had abandoned all luxuries and was standing at the command table.
Mind you, his servants still entertained the guests, but the officers had forgone alcohol and other drugs today and yesterday, knowing they would need full use of their faculties.
Now was the time for plans. To be clear—the plan up till now had been to send the Hemp in. To do just this—mainly because the officers were keen on surviving their assaults. Far better to be known for striking the decisive blow rather than the opening offensive that would fail.
And it would fail, with those terrifying veterans and Reim at full strength. The lightning towers the Architect had set up had inflicted a terrible toll. So had the defenders. At last, though…
“Peace. Each one of you will be granted the autonomy you seek, and my plan of battle stands. What news?”
The [Supreme Marshal] turned as one of his [Strategists] begged an audience.
“Great Supreme Marshal—the primary breach under siege. Something is developing there.”
Instantly, the scrying spells, maps, and entire war room refocused around the breach. The officers winced to see the [Soldiers] engaged in a bloodbath with Reim’s defenders, but it was plain to see they were wearying. Civilians had begun to take up arms, but only a few.
“I see nothing wrong. What is the matter?”
“There is a…young woman. Behind the lines. There.”
The officers peered at the scrying orb, frowning. The [Supreme Marshal] stared at the image of Nawalishifra as she stood there.
Hammering on an anvil, bloody, dirty, a vacant yet intensely focused look in her eyes. Like a dreamer trying to hold onto what she saw as she woke.
“That is indeed unusual. What…is that a hammer and anvil? [Appraisal] spells?”
The [Strategist] bowed.
“Too far. But we have identified that as a [Smith] of Clan Tannousin. Their last smith. She appears to be…forging something.”
The officers began to mutter to each other.
“Forging something in the open? I heard Tannousin was mad—weren’t they disgraced?”
“I thought they were.”
The [Supreme Marshal], on the other hand, took one look at Nawalishifra, then the bloody ground, and turned to the [Strategist].
“What is she doing?”
The woman licked her lips.
“We don’t…know, [Supreme Marshal]. Few of our officers near the front are reporting back, but some claim the blood is—moving. We can hear her hammering. She looks ill.”
She did indeed. The [Supreme Marshal] wished the scrying orbs could zoom further. He was tempted to step outside his tent for a clearer view with another artifact, but Maresar the [Bandit Lord] had sniped three officers already. She had Naq-Alrama arrows, shards of the stuff.
Magic-piercing missiles. Even the poor, broken fragments were good for one death. So the Stitch-man stayed put. He looked at the [Smith] hammering, and his cloth-skin chilled as he watched the blood.
“It’s…pooling around her. She’s covered in it.”
It seemed impossible for someone to be that bloody unless she had rolled about in the gore. Now, the [Smith] stood in a circle of red. The [Supreme Marshal] looked up.
“A high-level [Smith] who uses magic—a disgraced [Smith] is standing in the middle of a blood-pool and creating something.”
“Yes, [Supreme Marshal].”
The general of Nerrhavia’s Grand Army looked at the other officers.
“She is by way of being a civilian in theory, Supreme Marshal.”
The man tapped his beringed fingers nervously on the map.
“That may be so—do it. She is making something, and every story in every dark hour tells me we must not let her finish it. Tell every archer unit on that side of the walls to kill that [Smith].”
He began sweating slightly. Because he had brought an army with the express intention of rolling over Flos’ army, stand or not. What the [Supreme Marshal] feared most was an attack from Takhatres or another of the Seven.
Or some last-ditch Skill, some grand sacrifice. He did not like this one bit. Still, it was one [Smith]. He turned to the [Artillery Master].
“Send your hwacha forwards.”
“But it’s a relic—”
“You were so eager a moment ago! Do it! I want the walls down and the city taken tonight. Send word to all legions—once we have multiple breaches, the army will end this now!”
Take the city. Flood them before the King of Destruction could pull out some trick or Skill. The [Supreme Marshal] saw his people hurry away and waved at a [Slave] to bring him a drink. He grabbed it roughly.
[Slaves] for serving staff. If Elucina could have seen him…
But Stitch-folk forgot and fell so far. And as their siege drew to its conclusion, another plan was falling into place in Wistram.
There were a few rules about planning covert operations, be it great heists, assassinations, betrayals, or anything else.
The first was assuming your plans would somehow twist or fail in some way. Another was secrecy; the more plotters, the more danger. Failure was baked into a true plot’s design. Not the expectation or desire for it, but preparation for failure itself.
The last, which many understood but few could do—was the mentality of it. Ruthlessness. Even cruelty. For a plan like this to succeed—you had to be ready to hide among people you might even come to like. To smile and kiss someone with a dagger. To do whatever it took.
Trey Atwood’s plan had failed, in part. He was captive of Archmage Viltach. Gazi the Omniscient had been found by Ullsinoi. Calac Crusland and his friends had been betrayed by Emirea and captured by Nailihuaile.
Yet parts of his plan were working. Even now, Golems and [Mages] were fighting each other. Or rather, the panic caused by one Lifesand Golem had turned into a kind of magical riot against the Golems. An excuse to demolish them or simple panic from seeing a serving Golem stab a [Mage]?
That was one thing. But then the Golems started fighting back. They hunkered down behind powerful, armored Golems, serving Golems picking up mops, tools, even chairs or tables, and advancing on terrified [Mages]. Subduing them…usually without much harm.
It added to the chaos, but it had been ordered by the true mistress of Wistram, Cognita Truestone, even if she lay a continent apart.
Had Trey known about that? Had he planned not only to incite the [Mages]’ fear but also counted on Cognita and the Golems refusing to suffer in silence?
If so, clever boy. It didn’t end there, either. That night, as Viltach announced Trey’s attempt to free Amerys, and the Golems and [Mages] fought, a second group began to move.
“Go, go, go! Get to the docks! There’s a ship there!”
George stood at one of the doors to the Earther-only passages, ushering a stream of people out like he was a paratrooper and they were deploying. Elena glared at him.
“George, shut up and stay quiet! Everyone, just get to—”
“There you are. Halt, in the name of Archmage Feor!”
The first Earthers exiting Aaron’s secret rooms froze as a trio of [Mages] suddenly dropped their invisibility spells, aiming wands at them. Two Golems, both made of steel, tromped around a corner, and the [Mages]—who hadn’t gotten the memo about there being Golem attacks—aimed their wands at the Earthers.
Sidney screamed, and Sang-min lifted a wand just in time for one of the [Mages] to blast him off his feet with a gust of air. He landed hard on his back and shot Elena in the back. The Earthers devolved into chaos, half fighting to get back into the room, the other half raising their hands or making a break for it.
“Don’t move! Or we’ll—damn it. [Sticky Web: Wall of Binding]!”
A [Mage] cursed and cast a variation on the spell. A wall of thin web, far more nuanced than the basic spell, appeared to catch the students and let the Golems grab them. It was halfway up, and Basil was fighting to stop everyone else ramming him into them, when the web-spell shimmered and abruptly faded away.
The thick strands of greenish silk turned to gossamer light and dematerialized into motes. The [Mage] checked his wand.
Falene Skystrall poked her head out of the Earther rooms, aimed her staff at the [Mages], and snapped.
“[Stone Fist], [Light Cane: Extended Materialization], [Flare Firefly], [Water Jet]!”
The three [Mages] saw four spells flying their way. A fist of stone, which punched the [Mage] who cast [Sticky Webs] out of the air, a brilliant flare of fire, and a jet of concentrated water.
The half-Elf went down. A Garuda flapped backwards, cursing, but cutting both firefly and jet in half. The Lizardwoman looked around.
“Where’s the [Light C—”
A simple cane like a shepherd might use appeared from behind her, hooked one leg, and yanked up. She hit the ground with a scream, and the last [Mage] swore.
“Falene! You traitor—”
The Garuda dove with a shout as a bolt of lightning, jet of fire, and spray of sand followed the first spells. These [Mages] weren’t Ullsinoi or the [Battle Mages] guarding Amerys. Falene stepped out of the rooms and glared over her shoulder.
“We’re already made. We’ll have every Centrist in Wistram coming down on us—my faction! I told you this would be a disaster!”
“Pointy, shut up!”
For a moment, it wasn’t clear who she was shouting at. The Golems, who had watched the [Mages] go down embarrassingly fast, were still moving to block the students without harming them. One, a steel mask on its face, like some gentle giant nine feet tall made of steel, hesitated as it reached for Basil. The [Smelter] was shielding Sidney, who was screaming. The delicate fingers paused—and then the Golem swung as hard as it could to the left.
Towards an invisible patch of space which cursed, raised his shield, and blocked the Golem’s punch.
Ylawes Byres appeared, shedding the invisibility spell, and Dawil gave up their sneak attack as well. He threw the axe which had given him his class, and it cleaved through half of the second Golem’s face. The Golem lurched back as its face fell, but it started swinging its arms blindly.
Ylawes’ sword went up, and he slashed along the steel Golem’s arm. He was rewarded with a gash, but the Golem was big. He and Dawil started trading blows with the Golems.
This was not how their escape was supposed to go! Falene was moaning as she traded spells with the Garuda, who kept retreating—right up until reinforcements came running towards them.
Eight [Mages] opened up the instant they saw Falene, and the half-Elf shouted.
A barrier appeared, and she felt her mana reserves evaporate as it blocked a dozen spells. The half-Elf backed up.
Anywhere else she would be the undisputed best [Mage] around. A Wistram graduate, a [Battlemage] accomplished even by her peers’ standards. Not every [Mage] could walk into Gold-rank class, even if they graduated Wistram.
Here, though? They were all Wistram graduates or students! And the Golems weren’t even Gargoyles—they were magical creations, and one was punching so hard that Ylawes could barely block each blow with his shield. Not because it was bigger, heavier, or stronger than a Troll—but a Troll didn’t throw a haymaker with a [Martial Artist]’s posture and snap-twist at the waist, a full-body rotation!
Some [Mage] had programmed the Golems to fight. Wistram was hard-mode. It was stupid-mode to try and break anyone, especially Earthers, out of this place!
Why had they done it? Falene cursed.
Calac Crusland, or ‘Carn’, met Ylawes Byres in the one place the scowling [Knight] could be found, even angry as he was.
And that was the practice area for people who used swords or weapons, at dawn. The [Knight] was moody, training by himself, but Calac had a way with fellow warriors he lacked with words.
The [Knight] observed after the two had a quick bout. Not a duel, just an exchange of sword blows. Calac nodded.
Ylawes rubbed at his arm. Calac had an odd style that tended to try and go under his shield or around his guard—a quick flick that would twist up and take your sword hand off in battle.
“My father uses a shield. I could show you how he fights?”
“Hm. Fine. Thank you.”
Calac lost the next three bouts; it was a Gold-rank [Knight] versus a [Swordsman]-[Lord] who hadn’t even consolidated both classes. Even so, Ylawes was impressed.
“Your father must be a gifted [Warrior]. That shield-hook where you tried to move mine aside to stab me—that’s a risky tactic.”
“A battlefield one. He always said adventurers didn’t fall for the tricks a [Soldier] does.”
Calac ruefully rubbed at his shoulder; he’d lost fairly badly. That shield-flick trick only worked on someone who didn’t have an arm like stone.
“A level difference. I apologize for my surliness. I…am not in the best of tempers.”
Ylawes flushed guiltily. In truth, he felt poorly because he had been rightfully angry a few days ago. Angry at his friend, Falene, angry at himself for not joining the raid with the Horns…and angry they were here, rather than Chandrar.
Then he’d learned his sister was alive, well, and didn’t want him rescuing her. So he was trying to be angry without a reason. Angry, in fact, because he didn’t have a reason to be angry anymore.
It was odd for Ylawes to lose his temper like this to begin with. Righteous anger was one thing. This made him guilty, but Calac was polite, a good distraction, and they settled to talking about the differences in warfare, adventuring, and when they learned both were [Lords]’ sons, about that.
Calac met and talked with Ylawes for the next week, to the point where he, Dawil, and Ylawes began having drinks at one of Wistram’s bars. The young man was canny and only brought up a special quest with a hefty, hefty monetary incentive after five days.
Even so, Falene had rightfully argued that they’d tank their reputation with Wistram. She was a Centrist, the odds were against them, and a plethora of other reasons. Calac and Trey wouldn’t even have considered it, Gold-ranks or no, except for one thing:
Gazi Pathseeker had briefly observed Yvlon Byres, and she had ventured in Izril long enough to know the Silver Swords’ reputation. More than that? Calac put it to Ylawes Byres, Dawil, and Falene like this:
“They are children who wish to leave. Wistram will not let them, and is that any better than keeping them as prisoners forever? Hostages? Worse?”
If you just happened to know Yvlon Byres had just been unfairly imprisoned, or that Pisces was a [Slave]…and Ylawes Byres was an upstanding [Knight] who practically represented Terandrian ideals. Falene had begun drinking before the [Knight] even articulated his response.
Never let it be said the Silver Swords were known for taking the smart, practical quests. They were in the thick of fighting, as Earthers began to run past the Gold-ranks engaged with the Golems. Ylawes hesitated, putting up his sword, and he saw the giant metal Golem take one look at Julian unwisely ducking between the two fighters—
And step back.
The [Knight] and Golem stared at each other as a group of Earthers ran past, shouting, and then got back to the fighting. Dawil, meanwhile, had dove to pick up his axe.
“Grandfathers, I feel bad about this—”
He hacked the Golem down from behind one kneecap, and his hatchet went straight through the enchanted metal. Dawil jogged past Ylawes.
“Lad! Falene’s in trouble!”
He raised his axe to throw, looked at the [Mages], then cursed and lowered it. Ylawes ran forwards and shouted.
“[Shield of Valor]!”
A giant, glimmering shield took over Falene’s barrier, and she staggered back. The last Earthers exited the room. Elena and George—but the [Mages] were advancing, and the steel Golem walked towards Dawil, shielding its face as he turned with the axe raised.
“Cut them off! They’re all running! Tell the Archmage—”
The Silver Swords saw the [Mages] were shouting at each other. Ylawes looked over his shoulder and heard shouting from down the corridor.
More [Mages]. Feor had prepared multiple groups. The [Knight] cursed and backed up.
“Falene—distract them! We have to run!”
Elena didn’t get a chance to finish the sentence. Falene raised her hands and spoke.
“[Flashbang]. [Noxious Fumes]. [Gust of Air]. [Ink Spray]. [Oiled Floor].”
“Oh, come on—”
One of the [Mages] got a chance to complain before they were deafened, then covered with stink and ink. Some of the smarter ones simply advanced, shimmering barriers protecting them—then slipped on the oiled floor. A few kept going, chasing after the Silver Swords and the Earthers with them.
“You stole that spell from Ryoka!”
Dawil panted as Falene ran. She didn’t dignify that with a response. Wistram [Mages] didn’t steal. They innovated. Ryoka’s spell just happened to be a bang rather than shriek and slightly brighter.
Other Earther groups weren’t so lucky. Saif lifted his airsoft gun and fired a round of bullets. They bounced off a magical shield as a [Mage] raised his brows.
“I don’t see what the problem is. How did you all manage to lose to this thing in the testing chambers?”
“If they’re magic-piercing bullets it’s a cause for concern. Put down the gun, Saif. You all, stop moving.”
A Centaur waved his wand at the group of eight. Saif turned.
“Go, I’ll hold them—”
A few blue arrows flashed from the Centaur’s wand and the Human man’s and hit Saif in the chest. He went over, and the man chuckled.
“Alright, enough. We have you. You won’t be punished much—but enough’s enough.”
“You thugs! You—you tyrants! You jack-booted bastards!”
Caroline shouted at them. The Centaur eyed his hooves.
“I assume that’s an Earth-insult. Listen, young woman. We’ve been very kind and patient, but enough is—argh.”
“That’s right. Wait, what did you say, Clempt?”
The [Mage] turned just in time to see a giant, shadowy hand pick him up and drag him screaming into a similarly giant, shadowy void. His scream was cut off, and the Earthers stared in horror as a wall of shadows roiled in place.
Then, after a second, it spat out both [Mages], unconscious, and morphed into a familiar [Mage] wearing all-black and a dark veil.
“This way. The ship is waiting.”
One of Depth Mage Doroumata’s daughters beckoned the students. They hesitated, and she stepped forwards.
“We are prepared to take you away from Wistram. Come with me. Hurry. The [Mages]—”
She spun, and a ward of darkness flashed around her, catching two dozen arrows of light. Not the glowing orb someone rolled towards her feet, which exploded and tossed her into a wall.
The [Depth Mage] crumpled as someone chuckled.
“I knew it. Ullsinoi to Galei? We’ve got a breakout. Tell Naili and Viltach we’re in trouble.”
A grinning figure stopped, inspecting the downed [Depth Mage] as she tried to struggle up. She raised a wand, but he blasted it out of her hand.
“[Mages]. Even the Drowned Ones never expect alchemy. Hands up, all of you. No—on second thought, [Sleep Mist].”
The Minotaur [Mage], an oddity that might be an illusion in itself, blew a handful of dust over the Earthers. They coughed and tried to retreat as the [Depth Mage] pointed her hand. She blew the dust away, but the Ullsinoi [Mage] aimed a wand at her—
—And someone kicked him so hard he screamed, two ribs broken, turned into a writhing Dullahan, and collapsed. The Earthers and [Depth Mage] both looked up as the flying kick carried the third [Mage] into view.
“[Combat Sorceress] Hezile in Hallway 12B! Earthers located! Backup requested!”
A Drake stomped on the Ullsinoi [Mage]’s back, then covered both directions with a wand. She advanced, as Doroumata’s daughter played dead. The Drake eyed her, pointed a wand, and blasted Doroumata’s daughter into true unconsciousness.
“With me, all of you. We’re getting you out of here!”
“Wh—who are you?”
Saif was sitting up, although his lower body was paralyzed. Eun and Xiang helped him up, and the Drake glanced over her shoulder as two more Drakes stormed down the corridor.
“Fighting on Hallways 11 and 51. We need another route.”
“On it. Golems are hostile, repeat, hostile.”
The three Drakes surrounded the Earthers, ushering them forwards. Eun stared at them.
“Are you our escape?”
He stared at Doroumata’s daughter, and the [Combat Sorceress] looked surprised. She was noticeably more fit than the other two Drakes, and she wore a different Walled City’s emblem on her armor—as opposed to their robes.
“That’s right. This is a joint force from the Walled Cities—”
“Led by Fissival—”
One of the Drakes added unhelpfully.
“—Providing you all shelter and sanctuary, as agreed. Where is Troy Atlas? Where are the others? That announcement…”
“We don’t know!”
The two Fissival [Mages] cursed, but one of Grimalkin’s combat apprentices wearing Manus’ badge nodded.
“Then you’re with us. Move out! Overlap your barriers around the group, and watch for invisible targets! [Sand Spray]!”
She blew a fine veil of sand down the corridor, and the Drakes followed.
“You don’t give us orders. We know perfectly well how to—”
There were Drakes joining the breakout as well as Doroumata’s daughters! Indeed, the ships at Wistram’s harbor were in a state of confusion as a Drake [Captain] chartered for the breakout saw a ship rising from under the sea and braced for fighting.
Drowned Folk answering Doroumata’s call didn’t hesitate. They opened up on all the ships at the dock with spells, aiming at the ships to scuttle them, burn sails, and stop any pursuit. A four-way battle between Wistram’s [Mages], the Drakes of the Walled Cities, the Silver Swords, and Doroumata’s daughters was in full force.
Glorious chaos. How had it happened? That clever boy. He had negotiated with Doroumata, of course, but he was arguably even more clever in how he persuaded the Drakes.
“Um, is it Mage Lord Ollempus? I was hoping for a private word? Um…about the plan.”
The Drake from Fissival was surprised that anyone wanted to talk to him. He was indeed one of the [Mage Lords] of Fissival, the City of Magic, one of the great magical powers of the world.
Not that anyone would know it here. Especially with the way the Drakes were treated—and especially in light of the revelation with the Gnolls.
Had he known about it? No! The [Mage Lord] felt like this was a disaster. Could he convince anyone, even the other representatives of the other cities? Absolutely not.
The fact that someone had sought him out was so surprising, the Drake stared at the nervous young man shifting from foot to foot for a good ten seconds before he coughed.
“Of course. What is this about…”
He realized this was one of them. Grimalkin’s Earthers, who no one could get near without an inconvenient half-Elf or someone else blocking them. This was an opportunity, so the Drake smiled, remembered Humans hated seeing teeth, and realized he was off to a bad start.
“Privately, Mage Lord? It’s about the…thing.”
“Er, of course. [Sphere of Anonymity].”
The Drake was a good spellcaster, after all. Level 46. One of Fissival’s best. A fitting representative, close to an Archmage in terms of levels, and again, treated like dirt.
He was also not Mage Lord Ollempus and was fairly sure no Mage Lord was named Ollempus and that this young man had his name wrong. But Troy seemed to think he had the right person.
“About the breakout, Mage Lord. I talked with the others, and they agreed. But it has to be in four days. We can’t prepare sooner.”
The Drake stared at Troy and did a double-take, which he turned into a huge cough.
“The b—of cour—right. The breakout. How many of you…? No, er, I’m fully prepared. But I’m not Ollempus.”
He had the wonderful experience of seeing the Human’s face turn dead white, and the [Mage Lord] hurried to reassure Troy.
“But I am on your side! You must have spoken with another one of us?”
“It’s perfectly secret. What’s this about?”
He led Troy to his rooms, and the young man explained the plan—which he’d agreed to with an ‘Ollempus’. The [Mage Lord], whose name was Ascoden, incidentally, cursed as he tried to figure out who it had been. Illusion spells were a thing, but the important part was that one Walled City was trying to snipe all the Earthers!
“We were all informed, don’t you worry, young man. And we will be ready. Free passage, and, yes, we will not hold you like Wistram.”
He made the boy the promise; the High Command would agree, he was sure, especially since they had almost nothing otherwise, although they were looking and investigating odd reports.
Ascoden then went to report to Fissival and his fellow [Mages] after Troy had left, only for [Spell Brigadier] Ssolys to storm into a meeting with all of Manus’ Drakes and accuse him of a secret escape plot.
In the end, all six Walled Cities agreed, no matter who had arranged what to begin with, this needed to be a collaboration. They made plans, set up a diversion, and—
—And a young man’s [Plotter] class levelled up three times that day. So here they were, Drakes, Drowned Folk, adventurers, [Mages], and Golems, in the biggest tossup fight where no one knew what the others were doing.
All a distraction. Masterfully done. The only problem was that as clever as Trey had been…he was up against the pranksters of Wistram.
And they weren’t laughing. Then again—neither was Gazi Pathseeker.
If the fighting in the corridors leading towards the main hallway of Wistram were filled with flashy, low-level spells mostly to block or subdue each other, there was no such restraint in the mid-level hallways around the Creler-murals and the Mershi-lounge.
Mind you, the partying Libertarians didn’t even notice at first. Only when one of them, Timor du Havrington, walked out to find Rievan did he see the magical firefight going on.
A hallway of glowing, black flame stretched across his vision, so hot it was burning everything non-enchanted from the heat of it. Shimmering waves of heat rose amidst equally dark smoke, choking out the light. Timor heard nothing, and realized his own voice, his shout, was lost.
He saw five arcing spells and thought they were basic arrow spells at first—till they crashed against a wall and began to splinter into smaller arrows which rained down like needles. One needle struck him, and he staggered backwards, trying to yank it out of his arm—
The blade of the thin piece of magic cut up his entire hand before it vanished because it had no single edge to grab. Timor ran back as he saw a figure slowly walking through the black fire. A huge hound made of smoke itself, eyes burning with embers like sparks, sprang and tore into a howling Manticore, a summoned beast, which dissipated as a lance of the same too-bright orange arrows pelted it and lanced it from within.
Galei turned, eyes sweeping over Timor and grinning with amusement as he aimed two wands with each hand. The Centaur whirled and blasted as a figure leapt out of the smoke, but the Gazer’s armor took both spells. Needles rained down, but Gazi blocked one that splintered towards her face with a gauntleted hand. The rest bounced harmlessly off her armor, and she slashed, cutting the Centaur’s leg off.
The blood of the blade cutting through artery and bone and the Centaur’s silent scream as he jerked against the wall, fountaining it, made Timor try to shield his eyes. Gazi began to swing down—then hesitated. She stared at Galei and dove as a wall of fire consumed the air behind her, the smoke dog, the dying Manticore summon—
Galei’s illusion vanished as Gazi blurred down the hallway, touching a scroll at her belt. It flashed green with motes of yellow, and she vanished. Timor saw two [Mages] advancing after her, wands raised—
The young [Lord] from Terandria ran screaming into the Libertarians’ party. One hand was cut up, streaming red. The others didn’t even notice at first.
“Timor, I say, you gave me a start! What is it, did you find Riev…”
Charles de Trevalier looked up, saw Timor’s face of pure terror, and stopped uncertainly.
Gazi Pathseeker’s eye spun left, up, detonated a spell mid-flight, and her claymore moved in a complex pattern.
No sword dance.
No blademaster’s art.
Just following the path it needed to save her from dying. She had no true skill with a blade to claim—not like Mars or Orthenon. She was a better warrior than almost any you would find, but her style was her own. A calculation like any [Mathematician] might find beautiful because of how logical, practiced it was.
Deflect the stream of deadly acid with the flat of the blade, move your left arm—slice the tracking spell along its length there, it will splinter, but glance off your armor instead of cutting your face. So the blade must block the flash of light—one eye is blinded, the others see a [Shatterbolt] coming towards my side. My armor shudders, but it holds.
They are surprised, but that is my opening. I flick the dagger down, and the seal explodes, releasing a furious summoned beast. No—this one was contained. Drathian magic.
Of all the monsters, an Eater Goat. One of the two [Mages]—where is the Centaur? He is the most dangerous—instantly lances it with a needle-spell through the neck.
He doesn’t know that the goats will come for him until they are in pieces. This one lunges, and it goes to bits. Some kind of slicing barrier.
Still, it gives me an opening, and I charge them, my sword coming up to parry a spell, but I cannot parry the air itself. One of them throws what might be a pure explosion of mana at me as I lunge. I bring up my hand—it still burns my skin.
Healing potion. But first—I see it with my main eye and no other. A figure aiming a spell at me. I roll, even if my hair catches fire and a pit opens under me.
Is that what he says? Galei—I am on my feet. [Standing Roll]. I have to watch every Skill.
Calculate. One mistake and I die. But I can block almost everything—if only there weren’t three. If only they were not so good and did not cast spells that cannot be blocked or dodged even if I see them.
Still. I activate a scroll, and a barrier catches the second blast of fiery air as it roils around me. Each opening for one of us is a chance for the other to die. I toss my artifact taken from Germina’s vaults themselves at the figure, and he curses—vanishes. I do not look at the floating sigil with any of my eyes. The two [Mages] across from me cry out because it is trying to write madness and death into their very brains through their eyes. I charge, and they teleport.
They’ve predetermined safe-locations. Damn. But then I hear, through the silencing spells, someone dispel [Pealina’s Veil of Hush] and a shout. A Tier 3 spell comes down the hallway and I grin, block the lightning with my sword, and feel it earth.
The lesser [Mages] enter the fray. I think I can hear Ullsinoi cursing.
The first [Mage] burst through the smoke, ran onto the tip of Gazi’s sword, and screamed. The Libertarians backed up, and the Gazer swept an arm around the neck. The woman wasn’t cut—badly. But she used the [Mage] as a shield, swirling her to face her real foes.
Someone cast a spell right at Gazi’s back. It bounced off her armor. Or no…that wasn’t exactly right. Magic wasn’t rubber, mostly. But it…refused to pierce the armor. Like it was Adamantium or one of the greater metals.
The Gazer stared into the hallways of smoke. The woman was shouting, crying out—the other [Mages] were aiming at Gazi uncertainly. She was a mother for goodness’ sake! That monster—how was she here? How was—?
“Don’t be fools.”
Gazi’s head twisted to the side, and the Libertarians froze, staring at her and the hostage. Then they realized she wasn’t speaking to them.
The first pin-point spell flickered across the hallway so fast Gazi barely twisted her head in time to avoid it. She blocked another one and cursed, stepping behind the female [Mage]. A spell blasted past the woman’s cheek, tearing it open.
Who was fighting Gazi? Heedless of her hostage, they were shooting spells—one went straight through the shoulder of one of the teachers, and he stared blankly at the hole in his shoulder before starting to scream.
Gazi abandoned her hostage, seeming to realize Ullsinoi would rather kill her. Instantly, both the Libertarians and Ullsinoi opened up but then—
Not with a spell. With some Skill. Gazi faded out of the world, seeming to go right through a wall. One of the high-leveled Libertarians ran over to the woman who collapsed.
“You idiots! Who’s out there?”
“Stay out of our way.”
A calm retort from the air. Galei, leader of Ullsinoi as far as anyone knew, trotted out of the air. He looked straight past the Libertarians, who instantly began shouting at him. He cursed.
“She’s not bad.”
Another [Mage], a Gnoll with a staff of all things, appeared next to him, shedding a concealment spell. He wiped at his brow.
“She’s not bad? I didn’t come here to risk dying. Let’s get an Archmage.”
“We’ll—we’ll fight with you!”
A [Mage] spoke up. The two Ullsinoi [Mages] glanced back, surprised, and Galei took the cigar out of his mouth. He flicked it down, picked up another one, and shrugged.
“Your loss. We’re not going to protect you. But we could use some shields.”
The Humans didn’t know what to say to that. They hesitated and wisely hung back. Ullsinoi’s three [Mages] turned and multiplied, like ghosts stepping out of their real bodies. A small army. A kill-team, spreading out in search of Gazi. The half-Gazer had vanished, but with neither side able to kill the other, the advantage was to Ullsinoi.
An Archmage was on the way.
Two Archmages were on the way. When Nailihuaile heard of the Earther breakout, Gazi’s appearance, and the Golems on the rampage, she looked like she might have an apoplexy.
The Star Lamia’s eyes bulged, her body contorted—then, mindful of the Revivalists watching her and her captives, she caught herself.
“Who’s handling Gazi?”
“I am. I will link with Ullsinoi.”
“In that case, I’ll fight Fissival and the Drowned Mages. I told you we should have backed Eldavin’s vote to exile them!”
“Archmage Naili, now is not the time.”
She was in a linked call with the other Archmages. Viltach was headed to battle Gazi, and much luck to him; Naili’s scales prickled at the idea of fighting one of the King’s Seven. Here? Even with Ullsinoi as back up, no thank you.
She began sending [Message] spells to the Revivalists, telling them to get out there, restore order, and capture those Earthers. It was a safe bet; Naili didn’t think the Drakes were stupid enough to kill. Doroumata and her weird daughters? Perhaps. But the Star Lamia would bet someone else’s life on that.
“Beatrice. You’re with me. Contact the five best spellslingers and tell them to find me.”
The Star Lamia’s eyes were narrowed. She was going hunting. Feor was speaking to Viltach.
“If you lure Gazi close to me, I will join in the fighting. However—the [Mage Lords] and [Depth Magus] Doroumata are—”
There was the sound of a thunderclap or the air exploding, and he broke off.
It sounded like a three-way battle was going on around the banquet hall. Verdan Blackwood broke in, breathlessly.
“What is going on? I came under attack the instant I left my quarters and heard the notification! Three Drakes jumped me.”
Viltach’s voice cut in.
“Are you alright?”
“I’ve dealt with them. I’m finding students and [Mages] and sealing them into safe zones.”
“No, go on the offensive! The Earthers are leaving, and we have Gazi and Fissival and the Drowned Folk all trying to take what they can! Pick a target!”
Naili argued, but Verdan ignored her.
“I will reclaim zones of Wistram. The Golems are not attacking anyone who avoids them.”
That old, cowardly idiot. Naili’s tail lashed. She turned to Beatrice and hissed.
“Get me my team. We’re striking the Drakes first—then we’ll see to the others. Viltach, is Amerys guarded?”
“My Libertarians should be occupying her area, and no one has breached the maze. Although, I fear…they might have attacked the Melodin-class Golem.”
“Did it…kill them all?”
“No. But it has fallen back. The Golems are all moving in concert. Someone—she is directing them.”
Naili liked that least of all. However, it was clear that Amerys was secure, and Gazi was being countered for now. Which meant the Earthers were priority #1. She turned and nodded to the other Revivalist [Mages].
“Post a two-[Mage] guard on the door. These boys are paralyzed, but it’ll wear off. Bind them with a simple spell, but don’t let them leave.”
Two Level 30 [Mages] bowed to her. Naili turned, and the other [Mages] looked nervous as they followed her—but then remembered the last person in the room and turned.
“Emirea. It’s very dangerous outside, so perhaps you should stay here?”
The young [Lady] jumped. She’d been trying to tend to Tov, who was glaring and slightly bloody; he’d hit his head when he went down.
“H-here, Archmage? But Gazi is here…”
She had been terrified out of her wits by the Gazer, hence her decision to tell Naili about the plan. The Star Lamia smiled, but she was glancing down the hallway.
“Here is safest. You stay with my guards—keep her safe! Barricade yourselves inside if the fighting gets here—Emirea, I will reward you later. I have to go.”
The girl could do nothing but nod. The two [Mages] moved towards the boys as the girl looked pleadingly at Calac, who was glaring at her.
“I’m sorry. I’m…”
I’m sorry, Elena.
Trey Atwood thought the words. By now, it would be a mess, and he hoped the Earthers would get to freedom. Each side was serious—the problem was that there were multiple sides.
He hadn’t expected everyone to keep shut about the breakout, either. He’d had a suspicion it would be Aaron who told one of the Archmages what was happening—he had some kind of mysterious benefactor—but perhaps not?
Either way. Viltach had gone, and Trey was trying to get up.
Minizi, come to me and help!
The Lifesand Golem had achieved her mission. However, she was currently a Golem in the middle of a firefight. Calac was captured with the others. Trey cursed. He should have seen it coming.
That means the guards are still awake and protecting Amerys! However—he was most worried about Gazi. Gazi, alone, facing every [Mage] in Wistram.
This was a nightmare! He had to move! Did they run or try to get Amerys?
They had to try. He knew the Drakes and Doroumata were outnumbered, but the [Mage Lord] could probably fight an Archmage for a time, and so could Doroumata. They would never get another chance.
So Trey had to move. He tried to rock himself in the chair, knock himself out of the Rune of Paralysis that Viltach had drawn. Trey could sense it, just below him, but it was locking down everything.
His magic, his body…but not his Skills. Nor Minizi. Viltach had left Trey alone in his quarters. The young man wondered where that damn key was. But the problem was, he had underestimated a smart man.
And a smart man made precautions. Maybe the key wasn’t in his rooms. Trey strained to move a finger and couldn’t. He thought he burst a blood vessel in his eye.
A little noise made Trey’s eyes widen; he could still talk and even move his head slightly. He turned to the door and heard a thump.
“Minizi! In here! Get me out!”
The Lifesand Golem had made it. He thought she had lost some of her upgrades; she had certainly lost some of her sand-mass—about 11%—but he could easily replenish it with his blood. He heard an energetic thump on the door.
“Just open the door, Minizi. Open the—”
Someone rattled the handle, and Trey’s heart sank. Viltach had locked it, obviously.
“Can you squeeze through the cracks? Or…”
For an agonizing minute, Trey heard nothing. Viltach’s rooms were so well-insulated that he didn’t know what was happening in the rest of Wistram. Minizi was exploring the door for openings. Weak points. A window?
These were an Archmage’s rooms. Maybe she could infiltrate through a crack in any other [Mage]’s rooms, but Viltach’s?
After a minute, Trey heard a whumph. Then another soft thump as she tried to use her head as a battering ram to break down the door. He closed his eyes.
His [Plotter] class had more Skills—none of which applied to escaping. Trey bit his tongue, hard, and stared at the door. Give Minizi a year and she might break down the door with her face. If only she could get in! Calac was in trouble. They were bringing down Reim’s walls.
He tasted blood, he was biting so hard. Trey stopped—then felt at the cut in his mouth with his tongue. He frowned.
He had an idea. Trey Atwood hesitated, but he had once felt the Quarass cut his throat. That terrifying emptiness, the pain and sensation of dying…
She had been right, that damn old-young ruler. It was an experience that made other things easier.
Deliberately, Trey found a chunk of his cheek. Minizi had gone silent outside, perhaps sensing what he was doing. Trey hesitated—
Then bit hard. He felt a searing flash of pain and nearly cried out.
He spat blood onto the plate, table, and Viltach’s carpet. He was definitely bleeding. Why did it hurt so much? Trey kept spitting blood as it pooled in his mouth. But he was staring at it. Trying to use…
There was one thing Viltach had underestimated. He had indulged Trey’s hobby, even found mutual admiration in it, but he didn’t understand the true power. Even Trey didn’t fully, but he was beginning to.
Even in an Archmage’s rooms, even with other powerful magic…
Lifesand…found a way.
[Create Lifesand Golem].
The blood on the table drew together. It began to solidify, like time was passing and it was congealing. Yet the blood began to shift. Morphing into…
Sand. Red-rust sand, and then a head rose out of the sand. Two raised arms. A tiny, tiny figure, even smaller than a Fraerling, rose, growing the more blood Trey spat onto it.
A miniature Viltach rose, stretching—then hopped off the desk. Minitach scurried over to the chair, pulled himself up, and as Trey waited—leapt and punched the Rune of Paralysis.
The miniature explosion made Trey jerk and crash into the table. Mini-Viltach disappeared as the rune interacted with his Lifesand body in an unfortunate way. But Trey was free!
The first thing he did was grab a healing potion and heal the cut in his mouth. The second thing he did was lurch over to the door, yank it open, and let Minizi rush in. The Lifesand Golem stared up at him and then collected the remains of the Lifesand scattered around.
“What happened to you?”
She had scorch marks; someone had torn out one of her mithril ‘bones’, and her gemstones were cracked. Minizi wordlessly looked at Trey.
Trey shook his head. He looked at Minizi and found his heart was racing. He looked out the door and spoke.
“Calac’s captured. We need to rescue him. Gazi’s in danger, and we have to free Archmage Amerys. The Archmages are fighting. Plus Ullsinoi and every [Mage] we run into.”
Minizi drew her imitation-claymore. Let me at them, boss! Trey eyed her.
“…Right. We have to move. Calac…we need Calac.”
Not because the [Lord] was that much of an asset compared to Gazi. Trey just couldn’t bear to leave his friends behind. Not to switch one prisoner with another. How were they going to overpower [Mages] twice his level, though?
Trey was a Level 26 [Sand Mage] from Eldavin’s tutelage. He was also, now, a Level 13 [Plotter], and one could argue his magic was better than his level indicated.
None of that meant he could easily best Wistram’s experienced [Mages]. Trey searched around for his staff…then hesitated as he stared around the room and realized where he was.
Viltach’s…workshop. And personal quarters. And…Trey hesitated and looked at a cupboard filled with private potions, racks of ordered, neatly noted scrolls, and the artifacts Viltach made to sell. For some reason, what he was going to do next made him almost as guilty as everything else he’d done.
Minizi was inspecting a chip in the mithril claymore sadly. A Golem had smashed it into a wall. She looked up as her creator walked around the room—then beckoned her over.
“Minizi. Leave that. Take this.”
The Lifesand Golem indignantly waved her sword—then looked up, saw what Trey was offering her, and instantly dropped her imitation-claymore. She took the shortsword with the gleaming red edge on the blade and pressed a little sigil on the handle.
The sword burst into flame. Minizi stared at the burning sword and then saw Trey stuffing scrolls into his belt pouch. She kicked the mithril claymore aside. It was blunt, anyways.
Gazi Pathseeker hid from her pursuers, eyes darting in every direction. She saw a tracer spell coming her way and avoided the sensor-spell that looked like a glowing bird.
However, her main eye flicked up and spotted more spells moving through the walls. Her eye.
Her eye. She had one power, unlike the others of the King’s Seven. She had her eye, and she had been born with this advantage. Even…bred for it.
Gazers’ eyes were placed unpredictably. On their hands, different parts of their head—with unpredictable levels of power and effects. Gazi, though—she had been an experiment to combine the best functions of their eyes.
Roshal. Her main eye was powerful, and her levels, her training—had all gone to further that. She had not earned her eye like Mars had her skill in battle. But she had been born with it.
I have still practiced to earn my name. Of all the King’s Seven, including Amerys herself—Gazi had known she was best placed for this mission.
Her eye focused, and one of the tracer spells two hallways down abruptly flashed. Instantly, her pursuers changed, moving towards the location warily. One blasted the air with fire, but found nothing.
She was two hallways over.
Seeing through walls—Trey called it x-ray vision. She could also use her eye to focus. Paralysis was what Gazers and Medusae were known for, but that was simple, inefficient. Gazi could…manipulate magic. Even disrupt other spells from afar.
“Our sensors are all triggering. She’s doing it somehow.”
Gazi heard the frustrated voice as she slipped away. There was some irony to this battle. She counted three Ullsinoi [Mages].
Or one. But it seemed like three. Yet they had illusions, their own powerful cloaking spells and not [Greater Invisibility] alone.
The worst was the Centaur. Galei. His illusions were real. They could cast spells; they even bled. She thought she could sense a tiny bit of uncertainty in the fake ones, but he could avoid her eye to some extent.
However, they were also having trouble finding her. [Scout] versus [Illusionist] was an odd matchup. Gazi was not prepared for a spell she could not see through.
They were not used to being unable to locate her except through actual vision. All their sensor spells she could disrupt, but not [See Invisibility]. So they had to search—manually—for her.
[Bound Spell: Invisibility]. A function of her [War Scout] class from her [Infiltrator] days. Gazi could become invisible twice a day for free, and she could use spell scrolls, of course, but that was like being naked in front of Ullsinoi.
However, their lack of sensor spells meant they had to spot her with their eyes. So the [Mages] warily moved through corridors, flooding them with clouds, trying to blast the air with fire or other magics to reveal her.
Gazi? She carefully extended both hands, planted her legs on the wall, strained, and performed an aerial planking maneuver over the head of one of the Ullsinoi [Mages], supporting herself from wall-to-wall with sheer physical strength.
Don’t look up. Don’t look—
He looked up. Gazi dropped on him with a sword, beheaded him, saw the illusion vanish, and threw a spell scroll.
[Wall of Stone].
“That hallway, there! She just killed my decoy—”
Spells blasted the wall of stone to chunks, but it bought her the time to leap into another hallway. Gazi saw a window, leapt through it, and slapped one hand to the outside of the wall.
She began scaling the wall upwards as the [Mages] followed. She had to get out of their planned area.
A powerful magical aura was headed her way. An Archmage. Gazi kept climbing, saw fighting on the floor above, and grinned in relief. Good! Golems and Drakes fighting [Mages]. She could lose herself among—
Her hand touched a patch of stone, and she realized too late something was wr—
Gazi teleported straight back into the room she’d been in, an old art-room by the looks of it, with enchanted materials for paint and canvases with multiple dimensions and so on.
She had no time to admire the magical, baroque artwork of aeons before. An alarm began ringing.
“She just tried to scale the outside. On me.”
Galei’s voice. Gazi focused on that—then the thing that had appeared just in front of her. A small, red pinpoint of glowing light. Appearing in the air, condensing, rather, into something so tiny…her eye focused on it, and she swore and leapt.
The orb detonated and blasted the art room as the Gazer felt something kick her into the wall. Her hair and face were on fire. She grabbed a potion and smashed it over her face, glass and all. Then she got up and ran.
She had to trust. Trust they were making progress. Trust Trey! Trust…Gazi looked out the window.
Their escape plan. She had never told Trey how they were getting out of here. She froze as a new spell raced down the corridor. Absolute frost—Gazi threw herself left before Viltach’s spell hit her, but her armor was freezing cold.
She cast the spell and her skin avoided frostbite—just. Thank goodness for that spellbook. Gazi started running again.
Who had put it there in that handy block of ice?
[Mages]. Sometimes, it felt like they were cheating. She knew, knew and had seen that was wrong. They trained and learned and grew differently, that was all. She had tried learning magic seriously once, and she could cast a Tier 3 spell.
Maresar had felt like her head was exploding each day. She’d suffered migraines and nosebleeds—the kind she had never known you could have. She knew magic was not easy and they paid their own price.
Even so. When she watched a man or woman raise their hands, point, cast [Fireball], and lay waste to an area—it seemed unfair to her. She raised her bow, sighted, performed a dozen calculations she could never explain about distance, angle, wind speed, and even the weight of her own arrow and draw of her bow—and loosed.
Even drawing her bow was difficult. Her arms shook with exhaustion. How many arrows had she loosed over the course of the siege? Today? At least a thousand today alone.
A woman died, her spell uncast, choking on her blood as it went through her lungs. Maresar turned, plucking another arrow from her quiver.
Looking for another [Mage]. They were the greatest threats. If only Reim had a powerful one. They had Level 30 [Mages]. But if only…
How many arrows was that? A thousand?
No…she was no [Rapid Fire Archer] in a perfectly controlled space. She dodged and wove, but how many arrows per minute? She could put out thirty in rapid succession…but sniping? Let’s say three on average. Three every minute.
Three times sixty is…Maresar heard a ringing sound and looked up. It ran through the ground. A hammer on an anvil.
Someone’s doom. She saw a [Sniper] taking aim at her. [Eyes of the Bandit Lord] saw your direct enemies, even in battle.
Maresar loosed another arrow and saw them dive.
A hundred and eighty. Times eight hours? One thousand four hundred and forty. Not far—
She leaned back as an arrow streaked past her face. Maresar loosed a second arrow and saw it hit…and saw the woman stumble and then dive away from a third arrow.
Enchanted armor. The arrows that flew towards Maresar screamed—piercing, barbed, and poisonous. Maresar had no enchanted arrows left herself. Brave children were picking up enchanted arrows fired at Reim that hadn’t detonated and ferrying them to archers. She had no arrow…
Save for one. Maresar reached up for a worn, little leather bag hanging around her neck. Her bag of holding. She drew one final arrow and hesitated.
A jagged tip. A terribly-made arrow; the arrowhead was poorly balanced because it wasn’t made right. Because it wasn’t an arrowhead but a piece of Naq-Alrama steel. Maresar hesitated in that split-second of indecision.
Do I loose it? Or kill a [General]?
Hesitation was what killed you. A third arrow came towards her, and the [Bandit Lord] realized—she heard a voice.
Teresa Atwood. The [Bandit Lord] turned, saw the young woman slash the arrow in two. Both pieces went flying past the two women and exploded. Maresar lifted the Naq-Alrama arrow, but the [Sniper] was gone. Fled. She put the arrow back in her bag of holding and turned.
That was it. She took aim again, and Teresa grinned proudly. She was wavering, but she had the battle-light in her eyes. Adrenaline; she couldn’t feel her wounds or how tired she was.
“It’s ending. They’re fighting at the north gate. The breach—we’re losing.”
Her eyes went to the north gate. Searching for the one figure she could always find before he found her.
Venith Crusland. He…wasn’t there. Maresar looked around. Had he fallen?
No. The [Lord] was riding towards them on horseback. He dismounted fast and hard, and the horse wheezed with exhaustion. It actually lay down as Venith climbed to the archer’s tower.
He looked worse than the horse.
He was gulping down stamina potions. The [Lord of Battle] had stepped back—to survey the battlefield. He looked at the north gate, then the breach in the walls.
Again, that peal of sound rang out. Plaintive. Loud, but…Teresa’s eyes shifted towards it.
“Nawal. She’s doing something.”
“She’s forging steel amid blood.”
Maresar looked at the young woman standing at the anvil. She exchanged a glance with Venith. They…had seen the like of this before. The [Lord]’s weary head turned. Teresa shook her head, and her face lost its shine for a second.
“I told her to run. I told her to forget her debts.”
“She is a [Smith] of Clan Tannousin. She was brought up every day of her life to serve her clan. Some bonds are deeper than blood. She is a proud woman. She failed.”
Maresar felt at the arrow again. Venith Crusland nodded. He stood there, and Teresa spoke again.
“We’re going to lose.”
She looked at the two adults, and Maresar hesitated. Venith shook his head.
Teresa could count and see the Nerrhavian reserves and Reim’s. Venith just met Maresar’s gaze and turned back to Teresa.
“When Flos Reimarch takes the field, it will be over. There is hope. If there were not, we would surrender. I would. Maresar. What news from Wistram?”
The [Bandit Lord] had been listening. Surely…surely they would know the danger, but she heard nothing. Calac, alone amongst [Mages]…
Teresa looked up as that ringing anvil sounded again. Like a moth drawn to a flame, she began to head towards it.
“Nawal. I have to see what she’s making.”
“She’s sacrificing herself. Stay clear.”
Maresar warned Teresa, but the young woman didn’t listen. Venith turned to Maresar.
“Is that what that sound is?”
He hadn’t seen Nawal from his position. Maresar pointed her out, and Venith stilled.
“It might be a mighty weapon. But she is using blood—and that is not Tannousin’s way.”
The [Bandit Lord] watched Venith’s face. The [Lord] looked at his wife, and he saw the unspoken question there. He shook his head.
He looked at the palace, and they remembered the first time they had met. Meeting and forging a respect after Maresar’s capture and…
Slumber. Waking. Venith’s anger.
“That man has demanded too much of Reim and its people. Of Chandrar, endless war. He asks us to run a thousand miles, arm-wrestle giants, and tear down walls with our own hands. He wades through blood.”
Maresar nodded. She looked at the palace and wondered when it would be. When that ruler would emerge. Soon. Another hammer blow rang out, that pitiful tolling.
“But he brought peace. For one year, after we took Chandrar, I rode through the lands I savaged as a [Bandit Lord]. I rode across country and land, and I heard no drums of war. I saw no [Raiders] nor starving people or monsters.”
“Yes. And though his faults are innumerable—he has never asked us to sacrifice ourselves for him.”
The two looked at each other. Maresar nodded. She lifted her bow, and Venith began to descend through the streets of Reim. Walking tiredly.
How she envied [Warriors] and [Mages]. Maresar lifted her bow and put another arrow into the sky. Ten. Waiting. Buying time for…
The hammer sounded again, like a voice of metal counting down.
Trey Atwood ran into his first enemy not two hallways out of Viltach’s rooms. He saw a [Mage] turn, wand raised, as she and a gaggle of older students formed a circle.
A dead wooden Golem was smoldering in front of them. One exclaimed when they saw Trey.
“Another Gol—no. Over here!”
They waved, and Trey hesitated. He reached for his belt pouch and backed up. The [Mage] waving at Trey frowned, and the Drake shaded her eyes.
“Wait a second. Is that…”
One of his classmates in Eldavin’s lecture classes poked her head out of the group. The Garuda with pink feathers on her face spotted Trey, pointed.
“Troy! Over here!”
The other students turned. Half seemed to recognize him as a friend—the other half glared at him.
“The King of Destruction’s agent.”
Kelaw, the Garuda student, did a double-take and then recalled Viltach’s announcement.
One of the Drakes breathed. Instantly, half a dozen wands rose. Trey froze—and the students stared at him. He braced himself, staff raised, as Minizi raised her sword and triggered the fire enchantment. The students looked at him—and one raised a hand.
“Are you really the King of Destruction’s servant?”
The young man hesitated. The words—[Karas Duststorm]—were halfway out his mouth, but he choked them back.
“No Ancestors-damned way. That was an Ullsinoi prank. It had to be.”
“From Archmage Viltach?”
The students began arguing. Kelaw gaped at Trey.
“Archmage Viltach said you—you, Troy? Worm guy?”
“Hey! Did you cause all this?”
An angry fourth-year Drake pointed a wand at Trey. The young man raised his staff.
“I’m on a mission for Flos Reimarch. If you fight me, I’ll have to defend myself. Don’t make me do that, please.”
The students looked at each other. There were about eighteen of them, one Trey, one Minizi. If it came to it—Trey was going to run around the corner and let Minizi eat eighteen spells. He remembered Naili’s amulet, but he had a feeling he was going to need it later.
However, the students just conferred quickly, and then one of them called out.
“So you’re really the King of Destruction’s agent? Someone said Gazi Pathseeker is in Wistram. Is…she?”
An excited babble broke out, but the fourth-year Drake held up a claw.
“We’ll let you go. If you tell us something.”
The young man did a double-take. The Drake stared at him as if he were stupid.
“Something…important. Something from the King of Destruction.”
Trey Atwood just gaped at the gaggle of students. His mouth moved wordlessly for a second, then he spoke.
“The Emperor of Sands murdered Drevish and sent his head in a block of ice to the King of Destruction. That’s one of the reasons why he awoke.”
Gasps. Someone dropped their wand and began fumbling for a piece of paper to write that down.
“That’s a huge secret!”
The students looked at each other. The Drake lowered his wand.
“We see you—we get another secret.”
Trey backed up wordlessly. He saw them staring at him like an exotic pigeon that had flown into their window or something and turned and ran.
No one cast spells after him. He heard them debating, but…Trey remembered the conversation he’d had with Calac.
“Let’s not involve Gazi in it if we can. You know, most people here aren’t evil.”
“I know. They’re our enemies, though. If we have to fight—I will.”
Calac Crusland looked miserable as he thought of it. Trey shook his head.
“Maybe we won’t have to.”
The young man amended his statement.
“The guards—perhaps. But even if we get found out, the students? [Mages] like Telim? They’re Wistram. We’re two guys, not Gazi.”
Calac’s eyes lit up. He thought about what Trey meant and nodded. Unless it was a monster, would Telim go for a kill-spell? Trey thought of his fellow students.
“Unless they think they’re in danger—we won’t be.”
Even so, they were outnumbered. The Earther-distraction was one thing, but Nailihuaile was right. Wistram’s [Mages] could prioritize. Gazi and Earthers. Two threats alone, with the Golems as a random variable.
Wistram Academy was in chaos. But it was not out-of-control. Yet.
The problem was the levels. Nailihuaile slithered down one corridor, pushing back twice her number of Drakes with her five best Revivalists plus Beatrice. She knew how to concentrate power.
Mage Lord Ascoden and Doroumata could punch with Wistram’s best, and Doroumata was currently giving Feor and his [Mages] a hell of a fight in the banquet hall. Dark void spells were opening everywhere as he threw light magic at her.
There was one last card to play, however. And it wasn’t Trey’s. Gazi had never answered Trey nor Calac on how they were going to leave Wistram.
Arrangements had already been made. Which begged the question, if you really thought about it.
Would Gazi Pathseeker really trust some random [Captain] in a ship with her escape once they freed Amerys? Of course, Amerys could fly, but there was no trusting she could just pick up the others and run.
Even if Gazi had a ship—who? Who was just going to sail into Wistram’s harbors?
Doroumata had her Drowned Folk ship. It was named Sorecue. Its crew had the honor of escorting Shadeward Doroumata, and they had held anchor for months. Watching Gazi just as she watched them.
Right now, the Drowned Folk were fighting on the docks with the other [Sailors]. Drakes hunkered over the balcony of their ship, loosing arrows and throwing spells at the Drowned crew.
“Who are these Drowned Folk? Get the Earthers on board!”
“To me, folk of the sea! The Daughters of the Shadeward require our aid!”
The [Captain] of the Drowned Vessel saw one of Doroumata’s daughters racing out of Wistram’s gates with a gaggle of Earthers. Drowned Folk [Sailors] charged down the gangplanks, clashing with other [Sailors]. One group of Earthers ran towards Doroumata’s ship—another group appeared on one of the balconies overhead.
“There. To the ship!”
The [Combat Sorceress] pointed. Saif hesitated.
“But we’re all the way up—”
The Drake looked over her shoulder. Both of Fissival’s [Mages] were backing up; a dozen Revivalists were advancing, overwhelming their magical barriers.
“Just run. [Featherfall].”
Then she kicked Saif over the balcony, and he went screaming downwards—then floated slowly to the earth. The other Earthers jumped with the spell active, and the Drake-chartered ships sailed along the perimeter of the island, shouting for them to get on.
“Stop those ships, by order of Archmage Feor!”
There were five non-Drake and non-Drowned Folk vessels in Wistram’s port. The [Captains] had watched the breakout with uncertainty, but two were [Storm Captains].
When they got word of what was happening in Wistram, they made up their minds fast. Drowned Folk and Drakes or Wistram’s favor? Easy choice.
[Storm Sailors] and [Depth Sailors] were fighting each other on the dock. Zeres’ Drakes were fighting with aplomb onboard their vessel; the other Walled Cities’ representatives fought with less grace on the water.
Five versus two. One of Doroumata’s daughters was throwing dark magic around, but they were outnumbered.
“Tell [Mage Lord] Ascoden we need him out here now, or we won’t have a ship to get out!”
The [Captain] was shouting. Two ships were boxing him in, throwing grappling lines to tether them together and board from either side. A [Boarding Crewmate] expert leapt across the gap, landed on the deck next to the steering wheel, and the Drake pointed at him with a claw.
“[Get Off My Ship]!”
The [Boarding Crewmate] sailor went flying into the water. The [Captain] drew his sword and looked around, teeth bared. Then he stared out towards the bubble of calm that surrounded Wistram.
His eyes narrowed.
“What is that light?”
Outside of Wistram, a storm was brewing. The sea was choppy and the waves growing higher as night fell. Storms at sea. It would be a trial even if they left the harbor, and the rain was sleeting down.
However, something was moving out there. A bright light amid the waves.
Reinforcements? More enemies? The [Captain] watched as his crew fought. It was too bright to be a ship’s ordinary steering light. A radiance of the kind that illuminated the waters for hundreds of feet in every direction.
Shining through the ocean. His scales began to prickle as he had a sudden suspicion. The [Captain] swore.
A Drake snapping spells off from her wand looked up and saw the [Captain] point.
“Get ready. We’ve got…[Pirates].”
The Drakes turned, and one of the [Storm Captains] angling his vessel for a ram with the reinforced blade-prow on his ship looked left. He paled.
A ship was coming through the waters. It surged through the waves like a bobbing lighthouse. A brilliant yellow light, but not the light of a sun. More like a lantern at night. A glowing hull. There was no mistaking it now, and while the bubble of calm surrounding Wistram let none of the roar of the storm outside in, it did let in faint…voices.
They were singing. As they did. And that ship was moving so fast. Like a glowing fish, surging through the waters. The entire hull was glowing.
That was what Calac realized as he stared out the window. The [Lord]’s lips moved. He knew that ship.
But why was it here? The vessel broke through the bubble of calm, and at last everyone could see it. A strange, semi-translucent hull with a lurid, yellow-green glow. A woman with the same glow coming off part of her body—the Drowned part—was steering the ship herself, a sharp smile across her face. A fearless, mad grin.
Captain Rasea Zecrew and the Illuminary sped towards Wistram. The same ship that had humbled Flos Reimarch in Medain.
They didn’t move with the speed of wind or oars; they rode a wave, moving so fast the other [Storm Captain] was still turning when they crashed into his ship. And his ship was the one whose wood buckled as the Illuminary’s crew boarded them.
“To arms! To the halls of Wistram! Let’s go, my lasses and lads!”
The [Pirate Captain] swung across the decks and locked swords with the [Storm Captain]. She planted her feet, and, swords locked, rushed him to the edge of his ship and pushed him over the railing. The surprised crew saw a Gnoll swing over to their ship—followed by a leaping figure.
A Centaur with two crossbows clattered onto the deck, hooves skidding, and fired both crossbows. Two [Sailors] fell, and one of the Illuminary’s ship-mounted weapons fired.
Doroumata’s daughter saw the ballista bolt coming towards her and raised her hands. The bolt vanished into the [Void Shield], and she backed up.
“The Illuminary is here, Mother! Move the ship!”
She shouted at the [Depth Captain], and he instantly obeyed. The Illuminary’s crew flooded the first ship, and the [Storm Captain]’s crew locked blades with one of the most feared, highest-leveled [Pirate] crews in the world.
Calac Crusland saw Rasea, her anglerfish-half glowing as brightly as her ship, charging down the docks, followed by four dozen of her [Pirates].
“What is she doing here?”
Tov, the Drowned Man, stared out the window, just as awed.
“I heard the Illuminary had been hired, but no one knew why. She’s…that madwoman. She’s storming Wistram.”
Rasea Zecrew was headed straight for Wistram’s gates. Then, Calac understood. Then he saw the plan.
If you were going to breakout, you hired the world’s fastest ship. And someone who had no problem with offending Wistram.
Yes, she’d been hired by Wistram, but so what?
Rasea Zecrew paused as she stood before the gates of Wistram. Her crew halted behind her. She raised a hand, and her first mate growled.
“Cold feet, Captain?”
She turned her head, a manic grin on her face. The same smile she’d had when she attacked Flos and the Minotaurs.
“Cold feet? Me? You could dunk me in Cenidau’s waters, and I’d come out steaming. Look at it, boys. Wistram.”
She spread her arms and took in the citadel. Rasea Zecrew spoke, turning to her crew.
“No [Pirates] have sacked Wistram for over eight thousand years. It was worth taking her money just for this. King of Destruction’s Seven or not…this is our entry into history.”
Her crew cheered. They had her crazy smile. If you knew Rasea—it wasn’t about money alone. It was about this.
“Into the halls of Wistram!”
The [Pirate Captain] laughed and charged through the doors, enchanted sword raised. Her crew stormed in after them.
The first [Mage] who met Rasea got a fist to the face and went over. Rasea saw one of her crew stop to grab the stave, battle-spellbook, and then try to remove the belt, bag of holding, and [Mage]’s robes.
Everything was loot! That gold statue? Loot! Golems? Loot! Wands, robes, spellbooks? The [Pirates] grabbed everything in sight. The confused [Mages] weren’t their targets—their gear was.
Even so, a Centrist tried to stop them and got two crossbow bolts through his legs for the trouble. The second [Mage] that Rasea met was a terrified Lizardman. He raised his wand, and she flicked it out of his hand.
The Lizardman, Cessic, stared up at the glittering tip of Rasea’s sword. He froze—and she grabbed him, yanked his bag of holding off his belt, tossed it to her [First Mate], then kissed him on the mouth.
“Haha! It was worth waiting all this time for her job!”
She laughed then pushed Cessic away. The [Mage] stumbled away as one of her crew threw a rope up.
“[Anchor Line]. We’re up, [Captain]! Where are we bound?”
“Find me a library. Once that Gazer gets here, we’re away. Until then—grab everything!”
Rasea grabbed the line, and, with a running start, took off. The semi-elastic rope swung her upwards, and she arced back, like someone on a swing. Cessic stared up as Rasea swung higher, flipping upwards like an [Acrobat] to land on one of the higher walkways in the entrance hall with a few of her crew.
“Wh—what? What’s happening?”
Wistram had [Pirates]. And they were just here for the fun of it all.
The primary choice of spell for the average [Mage] or student was [Light Arrow], [Flame Arrow], or another bog-standard arrow spell. Not a disarming spell like another magical academy.
Disarming spells were hard. You had to literally interfere with someone’s personal magical aura, yank something out of their grip—you could more easily cast [Force Arrow] and put them on their ass.
Higher-level [Mages], especially the duel-loving ones, used tricks like [Oiled Floor], and against Golems, they pulled out [Ice Spike], [Stone Fist], and all the other most common spells.
However, [Fireball]? [Acid Orb]? Let alone other Tier 4-6 spells? There were few flying in the air, even if the [Mages] could cast them.
This was not a killing ground. The Drakes were replying in kind, although most were using higher-grade bolt spells and attacks meant to subdue their opponents non-lethally.
Ullsinoi was the exception, of course, but the other one was…
Trey had gone through three more encounters, two of which had been peaceful; the students hadn’t even recognized him one time. The other time, he’d exchanged [Light Arrows] with [Mages].
“[Light Arrow Cascade]!”
Trey hurled more arrows down at the [Mages] shouting and throwing spells back, and caught nearly six on the [Light Barrier] he’d raised. He kept running, and more spells burst on the barrier, but neither he nor his opponents were hurt. If you couldn’t blast through the other’s shields, it was just a lightshow. And they didn’t want to kill him.
Golems on the other hand—
Trey came to a big intersection and saw a real battle taking place.
“[Blue Bolt]! [Blue Bolt], [Blue Bolt], [Blue—]”
“[Wall of Stone]!”
A glob of molten stone hit one of the giant Golems in the face and began melting through its body. Another kept trying to advance as blue bolts of magic hammered it in the chest. Someone else tried to make a wall of stone, but Trey saw the Golems advancing.
Three Golems versus nine [Mages]. The one struck by lava collapsed, and the other two, a serving Golem and one of the laborer types, had been in full-retreat. It was unclear whether they’d even been fighting. Still, the [Mages] had heard about the Golem attack, and they were fighting on their end.
Trey saw the Golems in retreat suddenly stiffen. The serving Golem’s body was female and cracked all over from the [Blue Bolt] spell. Her ceramic head swiveled around on her neck, and the other Golem, one of the odd brickwork giants, turned.
Both their carved eyes were not like undead, who had a ghostly light in them. The Golems were perfect representations of their material, sometimes like statues come to life.
So why were their eyes glowing…green? The [Mages] hesitated in casting spells as Trey felt an ominous chill run down his back. Also—they were clearly amateurs, because now was the time to cast all spells or run for it.
The serving Golem whirled. She ducked a [Blue Bolt], dodged sideways as another [Lava Orb] came her way, and vaulted the [Wall of Stone] rising up. The other Golem punched through the wall like a movie.
Only, a movie failed to capture the fact that the sheer shrapnel of exploding stone lacerated one [Mage]’s chest, eliciting a panicked shriek. The serving Golem did a spinning leap around a spell, grabbed the wand-arm, twisted it up, and broke it.
Trey saw the carved porcelain face turned to wrath and the punches—three of them he could see. So fast, and into the face of the [Lava Orb] spellcaster, who dropped.
She was among the other [Mages], and he saw what looked like a martial arts move—a palm strike to the side that probably broke ribs, a leg sweep—right before the other Golem reached out and slapped a [Mage] in the face.
A giant brick hand slapping someone, even lightly, was enough to down the Dullahan. The last four [Mages] tried to run, but the Golems were on them. The serving Golem looked up, saw Trey running for it, and…spoke.
“You will regret what you have wrought, Troy Atlas.”
He knew that voice. Trey ran faster. Minizi froze as Cognita—or the Golems embodying her will—chased after her. She raised her sword—
And the serving Golem’s knee crashed through her face. The Lifesand Golem fell, headless, and the serving Golem regarded Minizi as she tried to pick herself up.
“Your master has your loyalty. But he is not Zelkyr.”
The Lifesand Golem stabbed the serving Golem in the leg. The Golem staggered—performed a high-kick that sent Minizi tumbling backwards, and tried to go after Trey.
The Golem tried to hobble forwards and realized her leg was too badly damaged to keep moving. It was breaking, even trying. Cognita spoke in her voice.
“Repair yourselves. Do not let yourselves be destroyed.”
An odd thing happened. The brickwork Golem stopped and nodded. His eyes lost that green sheen, and so did the serving Golem’s. She stepped back as Minizi grabbed her sword and stumbled away. Cognita was no longer there, and the serving Golem let the brick Golem pick her up and carry her off.
None of that stopped Trey from sprinting down the corridors, breaking every personal record, heedless of the pain in his chest. That didn’t compare to the terror in his soul.
Cognita was in Wistram. And she was not happy.
Depth Mage Doroumata was singed. She walked away from the banquet hall with three of her daughters.
Feor did not follow her. The Depth Mage linked up with her last daughter and looked at Elena.
“Where are the Silver Swords?”
“They ran into a Golem.”
Doroumata scoffed. Her daughter licked her lips behind the veil.
“Mother. It was…singing. The Silver Swords volunteered to keep it at bay.”
Doroumata paused. She glanced down the hallway.
“Avoid it. To the ship. Now.”
“We only have a handful of Earthers…”
The Shadeward looked over her shoulder and shook her head.
“We will not have any if we linger, or a ship. We have been tricked. Go, now!”
She led the Earthers at a striding pace down the halls of Wistram. Not at a run; she was sweeping for spells ahead of her. Because of that, she held up a hand and stopped—just as Rasea Zecrew skidded around the corner.
The [Pirate] put her sword up. Doroumata aimed a wand at her chest. The two recognized each other.
The [First Mate] swore. Doroumata’s daughters recognized them and aimed their wands at the [Pirates].
“Hold on! We’re not here to tangle with the Drowned Folk’s [Mages]. Hold on! Truce!”
Rasea Zecrew shouted. Doroumata hadn’t unleashed any spells either. The two regarded each other.
Rasea held out a hand to Doroumata, a wary but fearless smile on her face. The [Depth Mage] eyed her balefully, but nodded.
She put up her wand and began to stride past Rasea. The [Pirate] eyed the Earthers with confusion. Her Gnoll [First Mate] muttered to her.
“Doroumata’s not a [Slaver]. What’s with the Humans?”
“Maybe another breakout. Remember everything. Secrets are worth as much as artifacts. Let’s…”
Rasea glanced ahead of them as her crew checked in with their other groups looting around the entrance hall. She frowned, glanced over her shoulder.
“…What’s that sound?”
The [Pirate] turned and saw Doroumata striding back the way she’d come. She was firing void magic as she went. The Earthers went running the other way.
“What is that? What is that thing?”
“Run! Shut up and—”
Elena was shouting at the others. The Illuminary’s crew turned in just in time to see a Golem appear.
Well…six Golems. But the main one was obviously the one with all the eyes. They weren’t even sure it was a Golem at first. It looked more like flesh than stone. And it was singing.
The Golem had multiple arms, too, and it was still holding onto the remains of Ylawes’ shield. It pursued Doroumata as the [Depth Mage] strode back. The [Pirates] raised their weapons, but Rasea eyed the Golem.
“Back it up, boys. They’re Golems.”
The [Pirates] smartly stepped into a side-room. One noticed a bunch of improvised musical instruments from Earth and nudged the others.
“What? They’re musical instruments—”
“I like music. And I’ve never seen this stuff. Grab them or I’ll stab you in your sleep. We’ve got room.”
“Fine, but you’re holding the chest!”
They looted the room while the Golems passed by. The singing Golem kept following Doroumata; Rasea poked her head out of the room.
“Damn, some of those Golems are good. And I heard Cognita flew the coop. Alright, back to work.”
The [Captain] wasn’t here to pick just any fight. She went strolling out of the rooms with her crew…just in time to see one of the Golems glance over its shoulder.
It was a plain Golem. More like a wooden marionette. But the way it looked over its shoulder, rotating its head a hundred and eighty degrees?
That was unnatural. That was too…intelligent. The Golem with jade-green eyes stopped. Then it walked backwards.
Something interesting about Wistram’s Golems was that they came in every form. Centaur to even, rarely, Minotaur, humanoid variations being the most common examples.
Never Drakes. This Golem was fashioned like a male half-Elf. But it spoke with a woman’s voice.
“You are intruding into my academy.”
Rasea spun backwards lightly. Setting herself. She raised her sword, tilting her head.
“Now what’s this? A Golem that speaks? Who’re you?”
“I am Cognita. Leave or die, Rasea Zecrew. You and your crew are not welcome here.”
The Golem spoke, and Rasea’s smile flickered. One of the crew swore.
“It’s just a puppet, boys. Allow me.”
Rasea stepped forwards before she even finished speaking, her sword snaking out to stab the Golem in the chest. But the surprise attack failed. The Golem twisted sideways, brushed the sword back with its fingers—and came in with a spinning backhand.
The [Pirates] moved away, giving the Golem space, but it was fast, and everyone was a target. More than that? Rasea slashed, and her sword was one of the most feared on the sea. She lopped off the Golem’s arm.
It didn’t care. The Golem dodged her second cut and a crossbow bolt by kicking off the floor. Midway up, incredibly fast, it twisted, and the wooden doll kicked off the ceiling and smashed one of the [Pirates] flat.
The Drake hacked at the doll as its hand wrapped around her throat.
Her voice cut off as the others hacked at the Golem. Rasea shoved one of her people back and beheaded the Golem.
It was still strangling the [Pirate]. Rasea’s sword moved. She lopped the Golem’s hand off and someone pierced the Golem’s Heart.
The hand was still strangling the [Pirate]. Rasea reached down and broke the wooden fingers. The choking Drake’s windpipe was half-crushed.
“Dead gods! What was—”
The Centaur [Arbalist] shot the wooden Golem twice more through the Golem’s Heart. The Drake gasped as two of her buddies dragged her up.
“That thing fought hard!”
“That wasn’t the Golem. That was Cognita Truestone. She’s got some moves.”
Rasea glanced at the Golem. She smiled at the others—then the back of her neck tingled. Something began to ring faintly.
[Dangersense]. Rasea turned her head and muttered.
“Ah, Kraken’s tits. This job might be harder after all.”
Three Golems in maid outfits—sculpted onto them, not a Wistram design choice—were walking down the corridor. All three’s eyes were glowing green. Rasea pointed at them.
Rasea calmly pulled a vial from a wrist-holster. She tossed it down, and red smoke filled the hallway in front of her—then hardened. The Golems began smashing through, and she pointed.
“Run that way! Grab everything, and if you see a Golem, avoid it! And someone find me our employer!”
Things were getting a bit…complicated. [Pirates], [Mages], Earthers…they were all starting to realize there was one group who was going to take this in the long run.
They had to get what they came here for and go. So where…Rasea had a contract, and given how it had been set, even she was unlikely to want to break it. But break it she would if her employer were late. She wondered where she was.
He was almost at Calac’s rooms when a hand grabbed him.
Trey Atwood wasn’t injured. Much. He had cut his own cheek open and been affected by passing spells twice in magical firefights, but he had not bled for his cause.
He saw the consequences of it now.
Ylawes Byres was injured. He had grabbed Trey, a sword in hand. Falene was kneeling over Dawil.
“Wake up, Dawil. Wake up—”
The Silver Swords had lost a battle. The walls were cracked in two places, and Ylawes’ armor was bent from a terrific blow. The [Knight] looked at Trey.
“You’re the King of Destruction’s agent. You used us. Where are the children?”
His grip was tight on Trey’s arm. The young man looked at the Dwarf; he seemed to be just unconscious. Trey hoped he was.
“Heading towards the ships. You should leave too.”
“Leave, and let you do what? Free the Archmage? Let that warmonger start more wars?”
“I am not going to argue with you. My sister is with him. I need to—”
Falene looked up as Trey raised his staff. She pointed, and his arm went numb as a green arrow struck it. Minizi ran forwards and tried to stab Ylawes in the leg; her sword skated off his armor. The [Knight] bared his teeth at Trey.
“That [King] is a monster.”
“I have to do it. Don’t make me fight. I don’t want your team to be hurt.”
Trey had a scroll in his other hand. Ylawes saw it, and Falene’s staff was raised. The Silver Swords looked at Trey, and the [Knight] hesitated. He could run Trey through, perhaps faster than the boy could activate the scroll.
Would he? He knew what Trey was going to do, but kill him in cold blood? The [Knight] looked Trey in the eye.
“Tell me why. Is it your sister?”
“No. It’s a promise he and I made. And something else. Let me go, Ylawes. Please.”
Trey’s grip was tight on his spell-scroll. Minizi lifted her sword and felt it.
A terrible, even frightening resolution. The Lifesand Golem looked at Trey nervously and shuddered again. What was that feeling?
There was more keeping him going than just a promise. Ylawes hesitated—and someone rounded the corner.
“Let him go, Ylawes Byres. I need him.”
Calac Crusland lifted his sword as the [Knight] half-pivoted, letting go of Trey. Tov and Goelv covered Falene with their wands.
“Calac! How did you get free?”
“Someone broke me out. Ylawes—”
“You tricked us.”
Calac didn’t shake his head. He just nodded.
“I swear, if I am freed, I will pay you your full due. More than I gave you.”
Ylawes’ face was a mask of frustration and anger. He watched Calac, and the [Lord] pivoted as Trey stepped back. Could he beat Ylawes without his shield? He clearly thought he could, and Trey looked at Falene as Minizi raised her sword again.
The Silver Swords faced Trey’s group, and Trey didn’t know if Ylawes would charge…until Dawil began to stir.
“Pointy? What hit me?”
Ylawes glanced at his friend. Falene bent, and the [Knight] cursed as all four young men backed up a step.
“Go! Go and—Dawil?”
He bent over the Dwarf. Dawil was looking around.
“My hatchet. It broke my hatchet. I…”
He was more concerned about that than anything else. Trey glanced back before he rounded a corner and saw the blade was snapped. Someone—that singing Golem—had snapped it while it was lodged in its body. He didn’t know why the Dwarf looked so anguished.
Calac didn’t wait to see if Ylawes would change his mind. He hurried Trey down the corridor.
“There you are. I thought Viltach captured you. We were coming to try and free you. Where’s Amerys’ key?”
“Calac? I thought you were captured! How did you get free? Amerys’ key—Viltach doesn’t know where it is! He switched the locks! I don’t know how to…”
Goelv shushed the two, and Calac and Trey fell silent. The Gazer boy held up a four-fingered hand and pointed. Everyone rushed into a side room—just in time for them to hear shouting.
“Find the Earthers! Gazi Pathseeker is on the rampage!”
A group of [Mages] passed down the corridor. The four young men hid, barely making a sound, as Minizi raised her sword, looked at Trey, and lowered it. Goelv’s eyes were flicking left, right, up, and down, like Gazi’s.
“They’re gone. The Silver Swords are moving too. We must hurry! This way!”
“Follow Goelv. He’s the only reason we’ve gotten this far. We have to go to the Creler-murals, key or not. Where is Gazi? Everyone is talking about her fighting!”
Goelv led the way, followed by Trey and Calac, Tov and Minizi bringing up the rear. Trey spoke as fast as he could.
“I broke out of Viltach’s rooms. I snagged as many potions, artifacts, and scrolls—here, take some! And here’s a sword!”
He reached into his bag of holding and pulled out a longsword. Calac checked it.
“Better enchantment than mine.”
He didn’t switch blades immediately, but lifted it, cursed, and offered it to Tov.
“Need a sword?”
Trey looked at Calac. The [Swordsman] explained.
“Different weight and balance. I don’t trust myself with it, sorry.”
“Oh—right. How are we going to free Amerys? I think the singing Golem’s gone—”
“We have to try. At worst, we break her chains and just carry her out. We have to move, Trey. These distractions won’t last long! How did Viltach find out?”
Trey shook his head.
“He knew from the start. You?”
“Emirea. But Trey, she…wait. Wait. Did you not know about the [Pirates] either?”
“Pirates? What [Pirates]?”
Tov spoke up, his voice harsh with excitement and nerves.
“The Illuminary is raiding Wistram as we speak. That’s our way out.”
“The Illuminary is what?”
Calac looked at Trey.
“So you didn’t know.”
“Gazi told me we had an escape route, but that was all!”
The [Lord] nodded thoughtfully. For a second he had seemed reserved, but he nodded, relieved.
“Pieces within pieces. A plan within a plan. It’s clever. Just as you might expect. All we have to do is stick to our plan, Trey. Get to Amerys. We—what happened here?”
They rounded a corner. Goelv gasped, and Tov backed up.
The entire hallway was scorched black. Calac raised his sword, and Tov looked around, but there was only ash. Trey didn’t have to guess.
“They must have found Gazi. She must not have reached Amerys, or she’d have freed her by now.”
“Then we have to. There are Archmages coming here, Trey. Feor was held up by Doroumata, but the Drakes and Drowned Folk are abandoning Wistram. Goelv will take us through the maze. We have to fight the guards—four versus four.”
“Madness. They’re battle-mages.”
Tov whispered. Calac’s face was set.
“We have to try. We have more than just us and Lady Pathseeker, but we have to do our part. Maybe the [Pirates] can fight them? Or perhaps—”
He hesitated. Looked around at Minizi, running to keep pace with Goelv, striding ahead of them, halting, looking back in horror. Trey, staring at Calac, Tov, the Drake, the Drowned Man looking up, aiming his wand at—
“You lot really are a huge amount of trouble.”
The Ullsinoi [Mage] commented. He flicked his off-hand, and the dagger he carried plunged into Goelv’s back as he pointed a wand behind him. A beam of light flashed, and Trey went blind as it struck Tov, but he swung his staff up, and the Ullsinoi mage kicked him between the legs.
Trey doubled over as Calac shouted. His head went white with pain, and he curled up and heard Calac cry out. The Ullsinoi [Mage] listened to Goelv screaming in pain and then snorted.
He stomped on Minizi and looked around.
“Children are taken out, Galei. Have you or Viltach found her? I think we’ve got bait—”
The Drake stopped. He turned, lowered his claw, and murmured as Calac, on his hands and knees, looked up. Trey, through the tears in his eyes, saw the [Illusionist] throw up his hands, toss the dagger, and turn.
He almost made it. He was in the middle of a [Flash Step] sideways when Minizi stabbed his foot. That was enough. The man had a chance to cry out, and he was a man, Trey saw.
No Drake, just a plainer half-Elf man, even a slight bit overweight from Wistram’s fine meals. That was his true body, and Trey saw it as Gazi leapt out of hiding along the wall and cut him from neck to ribs.
It was such a fast cut that Trey didn’t see blood until the man collapsed. Then his head and right shoulder lay, staring up at him, and Trey felt his bile rise. He felt at his neck, and Gazi turned.
“There you are.”
She croaked. Trey looked up and saw burnt, scabbed skin. The Gazer was toasted; her armor was still whole, but the one part of her he could see, her head, was burnt, and she was breathing hard.
Calac scrambled up, but Gazi was already bending over Goelv.
“Poisoned blade. Antidote, now.”
She tossed Calac a vial, and he fumbled at it. Gazi strode over to Tov, dumped a potion on him, and looked at Trey.
“Get to Amerys.”
“Gazi! What about the plan?”
She bared her teeth.
“Ullsinoi is here. So is that Archmage. Get to Amerys and free her.”
Someone struck a gong nearby. The reverberation went through Trey. It went through him, his bones, the floor itself. Gazi spun. The gong sounded again, and Trey staggered.
“There you are. You won’t run again.”
A voice floated down the hallway. It was…Galei. The Centaur trotted down the hallway, looking far, far too calm.
Gazi lifted her off-hand and fired a spell through Galei, but the [Ice Spike] missed; the Centaur truly was an illusion. He trotted towards the dead Ullsinoi [Mage] and knelt. He looked down, then up, sightlessly. But he knew Gazi was there.
Her armor was ringing. The entire half-Gazer was…reverberating in space. As if the sound had coalesced around her and stuck to her like glue. Trey was sure any illusion or concealment spell wouldn’t work.
Gazi looked at Trey. He turned to Tov, Goelv, and saw Calac rise. The [Lord] looked at Trey and took off without a word, sword and wand in either hand. Trey ran after him.
Minizi halted a moment and looked at big-Gazi. The half-Gazer looked at her cute little imitation and then turned. She didn’t try to hide, but she did walk forwards, to keep what was happening next away from Tov and Goelv. The Gazer boy was still screaming; the broad-spectrum antidote must not have worked.
He went silent after a minute. Gazi didn’t look back at him. She found a hallway and placed herself there. Her eyes moved. One for the Ullsinoi [Mage]. Another for Galei.
Two more for Archmage Viltach. Her main eye moved, checking all her points as the Archmage stopped. Gazi put her back to the wall, but they had three angles on her. She saw Archmage Viltach aim a wand at her.
The Archmage hesitated for a fraction of an instant as Gazi lowered her claymore. He shook his head slightly.
“No, you don’t.”
She sighed, and he fired a wave of frost from his wand that turned the air to pain and deathly cold. Galei unleashed a triple-shower of needles which broke on the ceiling, showering down like deadly hail. The last [Mage] filled the air with sickles of cutting magic and a [Deathbolt].
Gazi looked around, eyes spinning. Her sword came up and she—
Her mind blanked. Where was the safe spot? Where was the—
The fighting behind Trey and Calac turned into a roar two minutes later. They stopped in front of the Creler-murals, and Trey turned back to see Minizi running after them.
“She’s Gazi Pathseeker. We have to use her sacrifice!”
Calac grabbed Trey. The [Sand Mage] didn’t argue. He looked at Calac, and they sprinted into the final part.
The two Gemstone Protectors were gone. Or rather, one was downed; it had been half-melted from the firestorm of spells that had struck it. The other was gone, and Trey saw no trace of it. The singer golem was gone, he knew for a fact.
The carpeted interior of the Mershi-lounge was torn up by the Golem’s tread, but that maze remained at the end of the hallway. Ghost-space. Trey Atwood glanced back, but Goelv was gone, and so was Gazi.
Even so, he and Calac ran at the maze, ignoring the ward spells, a dead run. Trey passed by the empty greenhouse and flashed past the taproom, brightly lit up—
“Now! [Magic Tripwire]!”
The world exploded with light. Trey felt something trip him up, then a hammer punched him in the chest. He lay on the ground, immobilized, as Minizi and Calac both hit…what? Trey heard a triumphant laugh.
“We did it! Grab their artifacts! Someone subdue the Golem! We’ll imprison them for the Archmages!”
Trey looked up as the ecstatic voices broke out into a babble. He stared at Charles de Trevalier and the Libertarian [Mages] as he and Calac were stripped of gear and tossed into a magical prison. The Libertarians toasted each other with drinks, then sat back to gloat, interrogate the two young men—and watch the scrying orb of Reim’s fall.
One last hurdle.
“Archmage Viltach warned us there might be intruders. Well, we will not allow Archmage Amerys to be freed. Even Ullsinoi stands with us.”
The Libertarians let Trey stand. Calac sat; there was no point. He, Minizi, and Trey had nothing on them but their clothes. They’d even pulled Minizi’s mithril bones out.
They stood behind a gleaming barrier of magic, and what was worse, magical suppression spells. The Libertarians looked smug as they checked their spells.
They were rather like Viltach. When they had realized what was happening, and seen Gazi fighting Ullsinoi, the [Mages] had made a practical, selfish call.
They’d stayed put and prepared to ambush anyone trying to get to Amerys. There were no angry Golems, no [Pirates] or fighting [Mages] outside of here. They didn’t even bother tying the two boys up.
“Just keep the mana flowing. The magical suppression field is based on a two-to-one mana efficiency quota. Why, we could keep Eldavin himself suppressed, and another Archmage to boot!”
One of the Libertarians was lecturing the others. They nodded, and Trey looked at them.
Libertarians. Charles de Trevalier still hadn’t shut up.
“Chandrarians. I knew from the instant you were a man without honor. But you? Even you…‘Earthers’ cannot be trusted. That is what you are, isn’t it?”
He aimed a rapier, flicking it between Trey and Calac. Neither young man said anything, and a bell jangled noisily on the rapier’s handle. One of the older [Mages] rested a hand on Charles’ shoulder. He looked almost kindly at Trey and then at Calac with cool animosity.
“Now, now, Charles. That would be a greater secret of Wistram. Good that you know it; frankly, after tonight, I rather think we’ll all be deserving of the full story. I’ll arrange it myself.”
Charles glanced up at the older [Mage] and nodded. He lowered his rapier fractionally.
“Just so, High Mage Lallen. And I swear on the Trevalier name that these two will not go free. Nor Gazi Pathseeker herself if she comes!”
“Hear, hear! And I for Havrington!”
Timor du Havrington chipped in. The two were at the front of the group trying to interrogate Trey and Calac. The others had just sat back; the barrier kept them from the two young men as well as the reverse.
“So what else have you planned? How many co-conspirators are there? Tell us now and it might go easier for you.”
Another [Mage] warned Trey. The [Sand Mage] just stood there. He looked at Charles, Timor, the Libertarians, most of whom weren’t even close to battle-mages, and muttered.
“The idiots at the end. The idiots at the end got us.”
“What did he say?”
Charles and his friends bristled. Trey just looked at Calac. The [Lord] rose, and suddenly charged the barrier. The air flashed, and he recoiled and sat back down hard.
The [Mages] recoiled and then laughed at the two young men.
“What a [Brute]. How did you even get to Wistram? No wonder you were spies; you can’t have made it in normally. Any one of us could have stopped you; no need for a group.”
Charles sneered at Calac. The [Swordsman] cursed as he got up.
“Let me out, and we’ll see who could stop who. I’ll take you on with my bare hands.”
He glanced at Trey, and the [Sand Mage] stirred. He’d give Calac that fight—maybe. Charles bristled, but the older [Mage] who had cast the barrier and magic suppression spell was half-listening. He turned to a table and lifted a hand.
“Ah, ah. No falling for their provocations. I have sent word to the Archmages we have prisoners, but they’re busy. Archmage Viltach is capturing Gazi Pathseeker.”
“If he can, I think. Archmage Feor is moving to assist him, and Archmage Nailihuaile says she will come to ensure Amerys is safe.”
“That Lizardwoman would. Just so long as she knows who was here—we didn’t even need the inner guards!”
“Be respectful. And remember, there is still fighting in the rest of Wistram. Most of it towards the entrance, though. So! [Silence] spells up and wands out. Anyone sees someone coming this way, let us know. The scrying orb should be off, incidentally.”
The [Mage] looked pointedly at the orb sitting on one of the tables. As well as the drinks some of the [Mages] were quaffing while they waited. Trey looked up as a young woman protested.
“But [High Mage]—I think Reim is about to fall!”
Calac looked up as the [High Mage] turned, and the Libertarians looked from Trey and Calac to the orb. Trey’s heart squeezed, and he saw the [High Mage] hesitate—then nod towards the table.
“…Bring it over, then. And turn up the volume so we can all hear.”
“Let them hear it, High Mage? But—”
Charles began to protest, but High Mage Lallen gave him a cool stare, and the [Lord] hesitated. The man turned and looked at Calac and Trey.
“They risked everything. They might as well see how it ends.”
Slowly, the orb was brought over, and Trey and Calac looked at the scrying orb as the minutes passed. Trey looked into the orb and saw Nawalishifra’s last creation. Calac Crusland?
Rain fell. Or so she thought, at first. Rain was a glorious thing. Water was precious.
But like Chandrar’s mirages, it was just a bitter illusion.
Arrows fell instead. A shower so dark it did turn the world into one of shade. She looked up and thought she saw a thousand birds.
Then they struck the ground, the anvil, and her. One volley of arrows, and then another. The [Smith] felt an impact on her shoulder—lifted her hammer.
She had to finish her work. She could die then.
Even if they struck her brain. Even if they riddled her full of holes—she had to finish her sword. Her vow.
Yet Nawalishifra felt only the burning pain of one arrow. She lifted her hammer again, brought it down, and the ripple ran through the blood.
They were watching her. [Soldiers]. Warriors on either side. The blood pooled around her. The foul steel was covered in it, yet it seemed as though, each time Nawalishifra raised her hammer, there was even more of it covering the steel.
She had hammered it flat, even without fire. Breaking the metal. Yet it was taking a shape. A bloody…
Sword. Each hammer stroke was far too long apart. Nawalishifra raised the hammer high and brought it down with all her might. She was used to such meter and measure…but this took all her weight and strength. It felt as if part of her ran out with each blow. And it did.
She bled, and the red formed the core of this blade.
More arrows. They sounded like a distant roar, like a giant made of clouds howling as they came towards her. Again, Nawalishifra waited, resolved to raise that hammer until she was done.
But they never struck her. So she raised the hammer again and brought it down and now the entire city shook, or so it felt. A ringing blow through her hammer into the ground.
Perhaps he heard it. The King of Destruction, sitting in his palace, waiting to see the end of it. Did he raise his head?
Was it time? He would surely sally forth at the end.
He did not come. But as Nawal lifted the last blade and saw the blood ripple as the mockery of smithing rose—a third volley flew down. She saw enchanted arrows now—and then a flicker.
The [Smith] looked sideways with eyes that lacked everything except will. Even so, they widened slightly.
Someone cut the air with a one-edged enchanted sword. It looked like one motion, cutting across the air and back. She put her entire body into it, and the arrows split midair as she slashed through the shafts, cleaving a gap in the hail of arrows for herself and Nawal.
Teresa Atwood pivoted, and the two young women beheld one another. The girl with a sword was smiling broadly, her eyes as alight, even delighted, as Nawal’s were empty.
Three arrows stood out in her armor, and she was bleeding around them. She had shielded Nawal with her blade art. Three times. She staggered slightly as Nawal’s head rose.
A girl who had everything she wanted. Or at least, this. A sword and a Skill. A momentous day.
A new class.
The [Blade of War] turned. No [Swordswoman]. Nor [Blademaster], nor [Soldier]. Not a warrior or adventurer. Turned and performed the sword art again, as Nawalishifra went back to her work. With no meaning other than this.
An edge of death, swinging so sharp she might cut herself. Teresa Atwood saw Nawal lift something up.
She muttered. The arrows were poisoned. She fumbled for an antidote, grinning blearily. But she stumbled towards Nawal.
“It’s beautiful, Nawal. It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever…”
Nawal said nothing. The [Smith] looked up and beheld the core of her blade.
Pure steel. A purity of steel you got only from reforging the metal again and again. Wearing away the excess, the impurity, wasting it, in truth. She could have made a dozen blades, two dozen, four dozen, from the metal she had burnt into scale and ash.
She had always known it was worth it for what she made. Art.
This? This…was that beautiful bar of pure steel. One that could become Naq-Alrama steel in time with a thousand other preparations.
Crushed. Beaten into broken pieces by a hammer. Pulverized into worthless metal and turned to slag by blood and dirt.
Worthless. Yet in defiance of that, she had hammered it in the very outline of a sword. If it held together, it was only because the blood had acted like a glue.
That was her blade. The former [Peerless Magical Smith] looked up and beheld the end of her class. She had tossed away her love of metal. Would it ever come back now she had betrayed it?
It didn’t matter. This dirty blade…that was not what Teresa was looking at.
It was the blood. Nawalishifra held up the blade to the sky and felt not the bite of metal scraps and blood on her hand.
Her grip was solid but…wet. The air rippled, and a red blade’s edge ran downwards like water. Nawalishifra had made steel that looked like it flowed as if it were water.
This? This was a blade of liquid. Yet sharp—so sharp it sliced the anvil as she lowered it.
The sacrificial metal was surrounded by blood. It formed a sword around its wretched core. A sword too long to be practical, dark red. Opaque and horrible.
A sword of blood.
That was all. Yet Nawal laid the blade on the anvil, and it did not collapse. She stepped away, raised her right hand, and looked at her wrist.
A thin line of red stretched away from the sword as the [Smith] staggered back. A…trail of her blood.
She and it were connected. But the sword was more than her blood. It was the ichor of the fallen. The price of so many bodies and lives taken.
The pooled crimson on the ground stirred. A perfect moat of it around the anvil. Slowly…rising upwards. Globules of red floating upwards and joining the blade.
It did not grow with the mass of the blood but seemed to condense it. Heavy. It was already filled with the lifeblood of many bodies. It was so heavy—but as light as the mere metal inside of it.
Heavy on the soul, light on the hand.
The [Smith] stared at it. She had never been more ashamed of a work in her life. She was not relieved—but there it was.
“A blade such as you have never seen, King of Destruction. With this, I fulfill my promise.”
The [Smith]’s face was pale under her veil. She raised it, but it was so covered with blood that she let it hang. She looked around.
“Now only a hand to wield it.”
The arrows fell no more. The archers had tried three times to kill the [Smith] in vain. Yet they had slaughtered the people at the gap. A roar of massed voices filled the air, and Nawal looked up.
Nerrhavia’s horde came for the gap, and there was no one to stand there. The end of Reim came. Civilians with weapons held in trembling hands looked towards a line of shining armor marching at the gap.
What a merciless sight, for this cursed continent of dust and blood. What a pathetic blade to leave for my legacy.
She regretted it. Nawalishifra weakly raised her hand to break the blade, but the red string pulsed, and she slowly sat down. She had given it all for this blade. She should never have made it, even to redeem her honor and clan.
She regretted it all. She tried to pull herself up but just lay there, connected to the blade. The weapon lay on the anvil, and someone went to pick it up.
“What a beautiful sword. For a fitting moment.”
Teresa stumbled forwards, eyes locked on the sword and the [Soldiers] beyond. She went to pick up Nawal’s regrets. Nawal looked at Teresa’s wide smile.
Then the young woman’s face turned confused, and she fell down. She reached for the arrows sticking out of her armor.
“Ow. Ow, I…”
She reached up for the blade longingly. She tried to climb up, but someone gripped her leg and held her back.
“Not you. Not you.”
Nawal held Teres. The young woman’s face twisted into confusion. She looked at the weapon, turning her head to Nawal and speaking almost plaintively.
“It suits me.”
“I know. That is why.”
Teresa looked so puzzled, as if she didn’t see it. How well one went with the other. Too well. They would never let each other go.
For Trey, Nawal clung to Teresa. The young woman tried to haul herself up the anvil, touch…but she couldn’t.
Slowly, her eyes rolled up in her head, and Nawal looked at her blade.
It had to be held. Held, and used. Or it had been made for nothing. She regretted stopping Teresa and did not.
A voice rang through the air. A massed chorus turned into one tone. They were chanting as they came. Nerrhavia’s glorious hordes. The last men and women staggered upright, saw what was coming, and wavered.
Into that gap, alone, a man walked. He strode down the street, as fast as he had flown to this spot—suddenly slowed. A figure who walked with all the time left in the world.
He paused by the anvil, and Nawal locked eyes with him. Lord Venith Crusland looked down at what she had made, and she saw the knowledge of how dirty and wrong this blade was in his eyes.
So she smiled as he picked it up. The [Lord]’s arm rose with the weight of the damned’s blood. The toll of a battlefield. He tossed his shield aside to carry his burden with two hands.
“Reim is not lost. Hold your positions. This dream is more than you or I. Now I have picked up my blade, I will pursue it until the end. I will hold this position alone.”
He turned to the others, and no one spoke. The [Lord] walked into the gap, and the charging [Soldiers] hesitated.
They saw a Human man who had ridden by destruction’s side. Just a man, armor battered, weary as could be.
Holding a sword made from blood.
He did not warn them. Venith Crusland uttered no vows. He stood in the gap and waited for them to come to him. The [Lord of Battle] said nothing.
They knew what he was. The [Soldiers] hesitated. Their officers shouted at them and called upon Skills and threats. Some of them went down, pulled down by their very troops who turned and ran.
Others did not. For gold or glory. For bravado or to take that blade—to see the end of this war—for every reason that was theirs alone, they charged into that gap.
The blade of ichor had no edge to break, so it cut through armor and flesh without end. It had no weight on Venith’s arm, but it fell with the weight of all the dead’s blood, crushing guards. It was long, growing, as long as a lance. Light as a feather.
Nawal could see it rising and falling. Feel as every drop added itself to the blade. She would know where it was anywhere in the world.
That little line of red hung in the air. Her fate and the sword’s intertwined. Pulsing with each beat of her heart.
The beating of blood was growing dim. Nawal lay there, bitterly watching as Venith held that ground.
An army came at him. Arrows struck his armor, and spells passed his guard. But his blood…the [Lord] looked down at the sword and paid the toll in someone else’s blood.
Silk followed where Hemp fled. Warriors with beautiful blades and faces traced dances of art in the air and died without a sound. The defenders of Reim looked down where a single point held back Nerrhavia’s great army.
In his palace, the King of Destruction stirred.
One sword. One magnificently broken blade. Nawal tried to smile, she truly did. But she couldn’t.
She wasn’t proud of it. It had been made with nothing but loss. It was nothing but suffering, a mass of it weighted together. Death, a void of it trying to drag everything else in.
But it is done.
They were breaking. Silk, despoiled by crimson. Only pride kept them coming, and that was snapping. Nawal’s eyes fluttered, and the line of red slackened.
Lord Venith Crusland had known blades like this before. Blades worthy of legends. Terrible, cursed instruments forged with hate and glorious metal.
He had seen them break and used and kept until the final hour by people who prized them more than their own lives.
Never had he held one until now. His arm was burning from the fighting, he felt each blow he took, but he did not bleed. But it was so heavy.
Heavy with the weight of the [Smith]’s regrets. Heavy…sucking him into it.
Yet they were dying. He saw the fear in their eyes as they backed away. The [Lord] felt invincible. He wanted to charge into the enemy army and scatter them.
It took all of his might to look away. To look back.
A woman stood on a platform, bow raised, staring at him. His wife. Maresar watched Venith, and he gazed at her. Yes…his heart remembered to keep beating. He regained something.
He looked back. Tracing a thin line of red, almost invisible, in the air. To its source.
That young woman, lying on the ground. She was still alive. The blood kept flowing from her to this blade. She was looking at him, a bitter expression on her face.
The final work of Clan Tannousin’s last [Smith]. A weapon to turn a battlefield around. To win a war. He knew that.
We will have to feed it with every battle until it grows so hungry it will devour us all. But for a time—it will reap that harvest faithfully.
A sword made of a dying girl’s regrets for a sin that was not hers. The [Lord] raised it higher, looking at it.
So beautiful? A ruby-red blade reaching towards the sky, hungrily trying to cut the firmament itself and lick at the ichor of stars. Venith Crusland beheld what it had been made from. Tarnished steel. Broken pride.
He nodded. The [Lord] planted the blade in the ground in front of him. Nerrhavia’s [Soldiers] stopped their flight, and Nawalishifra’s head rose.
Venith Crusland unsheathed his own sword. The blood-blade seemed to quiver in the fading sunlight, a red sky to match its nature. The [Lord] looked up at an army vast beyond counting, his enemies.
Then at the [Smith].
“I am Lord Venith Crusland, vassal of the King of Destruction. In the name of Flos Reimarch—I honor Clan Tannousin’s debt.”
His voice rang out across the battlefield. Venith Crusland took up his sword in both hands and turned. He saw Nawal’s eyes widen and thought, even across the distance that separated them, he could hear her gasp.
The bloody blade cried out for a second. It tried to stop him—but Venith swung through the coat of blood. He struck the core, and his sword broke.
So did the metal inside. It twisted, the slightest chip taken out of it—then the blood bubbled. It twisted, breaking free of the binding and quivered, as if it were alive. Venith stepped back—
And the blood of thousands simply collapsed in a wave of crimson. It spread across the dry soil outside of Reim’s walls, flowing past the boots of [Soldiers] who turned, officers and warriors, as the people on the walls and below them looked down.
They looked at Venith too. Why had he done that? Nawalishifra, the officers turning to look at Venith like a fool—they could not understand. What had he done? That fool. That utter idiot had thrown away a glorious weapon—Reim’s last hope. For a second, it had created a gap in the enemy’s onslaught. Even the [Archers] had put down their bows and run. Why?
The [Lord] looked back at the woman standing there with bow in hand. She nodded at him, and he looked back at the [Smith]. Lying there.
Still alive. Her bond with the sword was broken. Venith pointed at her.
“You are no longer Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin. Your every bond has been paid. You have fulfilled your vows. Be free of your debts, to kin and honor.”
Two confused eyes. Before unconsciousness claimed her, Nawalishifra looked at Venith, uncomprehending. As if her life had ever been worth less than a sword.
Venith knew the feeling. When she picked up that hammer again—
She would walk higher on her long journey.
“Perhaps even as far as Drevish and all the others went. They will make this land’s future. Not me.”
The [Lord] felt light. He turned back and saw Silk-warriors standing there. A double-line of men and women with enchanted blades.
Their leader aimed a partisan spear at Venith’s chest. His armor was enchanted, immaculately made, and Venith saw a feathered helm, a dangling lover’s trinket—a locket—from the tip of the spear.
He reached for his shield, but he had cast it down. He lifted his sword and saw it was a scorched piece of metal snapped at the hilt.
The [Lord] tossed the blade down.
“Will not one of you offer me a sword?”
He turned to the warriors in front of him, a hand held out slightly. Beseechingly.
Nerrhavia Fallen’s soldiers looked at each other. Not one moved. They offered no blade to the [Lord], but they did toss their pride down. The [Spearmaster] advanced, and Lord Venith Crusland sighed.
Trey Atwood pressed his hand against the barrier. He was bleeding, and the blood turned to sand, but the sand helplessly moved against the barrier. Minizi was punching it.
Calac Crusland did nothing. He was just staring at the image in the scrying orb. He had gone still.
“It’s on a delay. Five minutes, I think.”
The [Mages] were looking at him. They could read his name without his warding stones.
Calac Crusland. Lord Venith Crusland stood unarmed in the gap. Calac watched him, and touched a little bag of faded leather. His face was so blank…
He never blinked.
Gazi Pathseeker was grinning. She was not happy.
A smile was just an expression. Like tears, it was something you showed people. She raised her sword and parried a spear of lightning. She swung around, pivoting, and let a pillar of stone punch her across the hallway. She hit the ground, rolling, more spells striking the ground.
“Don’t let her do that again.”
“[Deathbolt] failed. Switch to other spells. What is her armor made of?”
The [Message] spells flitted through the air. Words too, on speaking stones.
She could read the [Message] spells. A Centaur aimed two wands at her, and she threw herself sideways. She cried out in pain as her shoulder exploded into fire.
“She felt that.”
Still, the half-Gazer scrambled up. When she whirled, her eye forced a bolt of lightning to explode mid-arc. She thought her Skills.
[True Gaze of the Gorgon].
The spells flying her way winked out. One of the Ullsinoi [Mages] screamed, a layer of stone on her skin. But alive—her magic protected her. The Centaur grimaced, and the Archmage’s wards flashed and exploded.
Two dozen ward stones burnt away. But Archmage Viltach remained. He aimed at her, and the [War Scout] breathed.
[I Moved Like Thunder].
A thunderous roar. She vanished, skirting down a hallway, around the next, appearing in a blur. Not to run. Nor hide. She had to buy them time.
Instead of running, she stopped, lifted her sword, and grinned wider.
[They Feared My Name].
Distract them. The Archmage striding towards Amerys’ cell whirled. His fake white beard moved as he lifted his fingers. So much magic—
The first of [Valmira’s Comets] was easy to dodge. She cartwheeled away from the next, made another explode with her eye. Her sword pierced a third—and Viltach flung a stone, which unfolded into a spell she couldn’t dodge with Galei’s twin [Shatterbolt Storms] aimed at her face.
The Centaur, panting, lowered his wands as he saw the [Web of Magnesis] catch Gazi. The Gazer looked back at Viltach, and the Archmage nodded at Feor. The Archmage of half-Elves was preparing his great spell that even Eldavin had struggled against.
[Valmira’s True Comet Storm]. Galei sniped from the side as both Archmages filled the hallway with fire. He never saw the Gazer woman beg for mercy or surrender. She just smiled, suffering. She had known worse. She slid across the ground and finally lost her grip on her claymore. She shielded her face with her gauntleted arms and felt her armor crack for the first time ever. Her skin was far weaker.
Even so, she bought them another minute. Another minute. Another…
The first arrows landed around Venith Crusland as he threw himself behind a shattered block of stone. He reached for a blade, but they were all broken or submerged under blood. He looked up as a spearman charged the gap, a glittering tip aimed at his heart.
The [Lord] looked up, teeth bared, struggling. Struggling, in this last moment. Just a little longer and those gates would open. And—
The spear wove towards his heart, and Venith heard the air scream. He heard a whistling sound—an impossibly large thunk—and a cry.
The [Lord of Battle] looked up—and saw the [Spearmaster] stop, mid-lunge, and look in confusion at the weapon sticking out of his chest.
A sword, the hilt of it rammed all the way through his ribs. Venith stared at the sword blankly.
Where had…his head rose. He saw a figure standing in a tower raise her hand in salute.
Maresar. Venith reached for the sword, almost laughing. What a shot! What a beautiful…
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the figure look up. A cloud passed over Venith’s head, and he slowed, turning.
Four hundred flaming arrows tore through the sky. Each one launched by an artifact of war. Four hundred arrows as the [Bandit Lord] raced for cover.
Only one touched her. That silver arrow, loosed from a [Sniper]. It streaked across the walls and struck her through the side.
Venith Crusland saw it, forgetting the [Soldiers] charging the breach. He saw the dark-skinned woman, the [Bandit Lord]—stagger. She reached for the arrow buried in her side and looked at him.
Venith’s heart died.
Maresar Crusland stood there, swaying, as her tower burned. Slowly, every head turned to her. Fleeing citizens of Reim. Her fellow [Soldiers].
Her husband. She saw it all. Saw the triumphant [Sniper] she had missed. Saw Nerrhavia’s army roar and charge as the [Supreme Marshal] beheld the end.
It was all there, stretching out before her. A vast plain of understanding. A single second—she tried to breathe, but her lungs had stopped.
The [Bandit Lord] stood there and looked at it all. Peacefully. With every regret in the world. She spoke, and her voice carried itself across the winds. It echoed from every building and roof, in every ear.
“I have repaid every debt I can. Every home I despoiled, every life I ruined…”
Maresar felt at her side. Death had its hand on her shoulder, but she was granted the right of everyone who had walked her path. There was no wrath left in her heart. She had to tell them. Maresar licked lips bloodied and wet.
“I will pay them again if I have but the chance.”
There was no air left in her lungs. The woman felt her legs collapse under her. Her head lowered, and she felt herself going.
She had no breath. But still, the last words came to her lips. The [Bandit Lord] raised her arm and tore the arrow from her side. She raised it to her bow.
“[Share My End].”
An arrow curved through the sky. For the first time in her life, Maresar did not aim it. She did not even watch it land, striking the fleeing woman in the same place, the same death.
The [Bandit Lord] was reaching up to her neck. She fumbled at the object. The right of her class. Her long list of sins…she held something to her chest and whispered.
“My son. [Inheritance of the Bandit Lord].”
The bag hanging around her neck flickered—and vanished. For a second, she saw Calac’s face, staring like his father’s, angry—then confused. She smiled.
What a glorious last…
The woman crumpled. Nerrhavia Fallen’s army was silent as Reim—for one moment. Then they cheered.
Maresar the [Bandit Lord] was dead.
“Charge! Take the city!”
Heedless of the towers, of the rest, the legions swarmed closer. This was their moment of triumph. They came through the gaps as another gate fell. Chariots racing ahead of infantry.
The [Soldiers] went through the breach and found a single [Lord] there. He stared up at that burning tower. When he turned back to them, his face was blank. He brought his sword up and down like a Golem, like a machine, and chopped through a shoulder and chest. Someone raised their shield to block, and he crushed the arm and body.
The first Silk-warriors vanished, and the Hemp stopped again. They looked at the [Lord] standing there, and his aura was wrath. He said not a word, and they backed away.
Then he shouted. Then he screamed and wept and lashed out. A blind, deaf man, heedless of death or pain. Looking around as shadows fled around him. Searching for something to stop him from feeling. He could not find it.
Maresar was dead. Trey Atwood was weeping. The [Mages] looked at him, some sneering at his tears. Others were somber, but then the [High Mage] was puzzled.
“What was that last Skill?”
The little bag around Maresar’s neck…the scrying spells had zoomed in so far they had seen it vanish.
A little leather bag of holding. One of the [Mages]—Timor—frowned.
Hadn’t he seen it? It looked so familiar. But where…
The young man turned and looked over his shoulder. He saw a [Lord], a boy, a son, holding something in his hands.
A bloody leather bag.
But they had taken all his possessions. Trey stopped weeping. He looked at Calac Crusland, then at the scrying orb.
It was on a five minute delay. One of the [Mages] hesitated. Something had changed about the air in front of the two boys.
“Where…where did the magic barrier go?”
She waved a hand in the space it should be. The field, too.
Calac Crusland said nothing. Like his father—he looked at the scrying orb. Then down at his inheritance.
He held a piece of wood in his other hand. A thin shaft of wood…tipped with a glimmering piece of Naq-Alrama steel. Calac looked up as the Libertarians turned and saw what he was holding. He gazed at his mother’s gift, up, with lost eyes at Trey and then around at the hateful world without her.
Then Calac went insane.
An army charged across the ground towards the gates. A ruler stirred within the palace.
Maresar was dead. What came next was earth-shaking. Grand acts and battle and desperation and more death.
But, for a moment…a figure turned away from the scrying orb. She looked away from the battle.
“Halt the army.”
The people around her were confused. The Siren of Savere raised her voice.
“Halt the army. Now.”
Ceria Springwalker looked up as Revine Zecrew stood upon her golden palanquin of water. The Siren looked around, as [Rogues] and [Bandits] stopped marching or laughing or watching the battle. She gave one order.
“Open the stores. Fetch me a keg of the finest. Open a barrel for everyone.”
The words were repeated in Izril as well. The laughing, merry, hidden gathering of young [Lords] and [Ladies] had a number of others.
Rough folk, not nearly as well-off—at least in rank. They rubbed shoulders here. Equals, even if that was only the lie they said.
The Bloodfeast Raiders respected no heroism. They had nothing invested in Reim aside from entertainment. So a laughing [Lady] looked at the strangely-silent man.
“Why? That was—”
He reached out and grabbed her shoulder. The man’s grip was so tight his fingers were white. She gasped in pain and reacted, reaching for her side—but the room went quiet as the [Bandit Lord] whispered.
“Raise a glass.”
Confused, the Bloodfeast Raiders looked at him as someone poured a mug. The contents didn’t matter.
Fine wine. Rotgut. Fermented juice or water.
Whatever they had at hand. The Siren of Savere halted her army. The Bloodfeast Raiders looked at their leader and heard the same words.
Revine looked at the scrying orb. Rasea Zecrew looked at her crew, stopped fighting, and drew a flask from her side and lost her smile.
This is what they said:
“Raise a glass for a murderer, a thief and a knave.
A [Bandit], a [Pirate]’s gone to their deserved grave.
Now listen, for their seat’s open for another bastard’s ass
One of twelve the world over, the rarest noble’s class.”
Eleven men and women. The oldest [Bandit Lord] toasted the second most ancient to fall.
“Someone’s met the headman’s axe or gotten their just reward
Laugh if you hated them or go searching for their hoard
Spit upon their graves or swear they’ll be avenged
If you care not at all, go on your merry way and laugh.
They tipped the cups up and drank.
“—raise a fucking glass.”
Then they laughed, or cursed her name. Or turned away and said nothing more. That was all she would ever get, and more than they ever asked for.
A tribute to the fallen [Bandit Lord].
Teresa was crying. Weeping as well. She stumbled back up the hill, towards the palace.
For Maresar. For the end. For the loss of that precious blade that could have changed it all. She was excited, too, so she was smiling behind her tears.
They were coming through the gates. Over the ladders on the walls. Reim’s soldiers were shouting Maresar’s name, but…
He would be there at the end. She would ride down with him and see what Trey always talked about. For the end or a miracle—
She wanted to be there.
Aside from one man standing at a breach, every [Soldier] was falling back. The only reason the [Soldiers] did not charge Venith Crusland was because they looked at him, a [Lord] bereaved, arrows snapping in midair before they could even touch him. The [Soldiers] were not fools.
They did not want to die.
Bast’s 14th took the walls once more, and this time they were one of a hundred points breaking.
A [Captain of the Line] was shouting. If she could close her eyes and put her head down…she would level.
It wouldn’t be enough. She swept a sword down and beheaded her opponent, but there were six for every [Soldier] here. More were coming. She looked over her shoulder and saw—to her disbelief—reinforcements.
Every [Soldier] who could stand was committed. To saving Lord Venith’s life, to holding the gates as the first chariots charged in. So who…?
She saw a pale-faced boy, barely nine, struggling up the walls with a decrepit man holding a club. A veiled woman, possibly a mother, holding a spear.
“No. Not you.”
The [Captain] calmed down, despite the fire in her blood. She looked at the massed civilians and saw more groups headed towards the wall. She actually put out an arm to stop them, walking backwards.
Even the Nerrhavian [Soldiers] hesitated for a second. They had eyes; they saw their next opponents coming up the stairs and hesitated. The little boy looked up, his eyes focusing on the soldiers. He dropped the shortsword he was holding.
Bast’s 14th saw him raise his head. The boy had a thin bone flute in his hands. Was he a [Piper]? No, it wasn’t quite a flute. He looked at a [Soldier], and his cheeks puffed.
A faint sound. One of the [Soldiers] made a sound. Then…dropped. One of his friends caught him, and she saw something strange buried in his cheek.
A feathered…dart? A tiny little—
Two more puffs and two more [Soldiers] fell over. They stared at the boy and then saw him change targets. Someone raised their shield, and the blowdart pinged off the metal.
The next words were a gurgle as the veiled woman swept something up from her robes and clicked the trigger of the crossbow.
The bolt went through an armored chest at nigh point-blank range. Bast’s 14th saw another of the civilians calmly draw a curved dagger, a strange, angled blade, a kukri, and sweep it across the first face.
A spear stabbed, and one of the civilians dodged in a blur and threw something into the face of his attacker. Flames. The screaming Stitch-woman clawed at her face, and a kick sent her over the walls.
What was that? Reim’s soldiers put up their blades for a moment as more figures wearing cloth clothing covering all but their eyes or children took the walls.
An old man with a bow looked down at a group of [Soldiers] climbing the ladders. His cold stare met the eyes of the boys climbing.
Eight figures loosed a single arrow each. The [Assassin] lifted his bow and spoke into a stone at his wrist.
The first chariots were coming through the north gates, and the shield line was braced in a desperate attempt to block the charge. The whooping [Chariot Riders] saw the first chariot’s lead driver and passengers jerk.
Dozens of arrows feathered their bodies, and the chariot slid, crashing and overturning, as the poor horses went down first.
[Assassins] on the rooftops. They threw down scrolls, and the next chariots slammed into the first, the barriers forming a wall of wreckage. Warriors struggled to get out of the crashed vehicles—just in time to look up and see the first bottles of exploding oil land and set them ablaze. The others kept loosing arrows as Nerrhavia’s charge came to an abrupt stop before it had begun.
What was going on? Teresa Atwood’s smile wavered. She looked towards the gates of Reim’s palace.
They opened. Slowly, the two broad doors revealing a ruler. Just as promised.
But it was not the King of Destruction. A far, far shorter figure wearing a veil strode through the gates, flanked by a tall, beautiful lady with a green tint to her skin, dark veins—a [Highborn Lady] that Teresa recognized. If changed.
Vaitsha Zectiou followed the little figure as she stopped at the top of the hill. As Trey, the scrying spells, and the people focused on her, the little personage raised their arm.
Then they said it. The civilians running towards the walls abandoned their disguises. The [Assassins] standing on the walls, the warriors raised their voices and screamed that famous name.
The—? Nerrhavia Fallen’s [Soldiers] didn’t understand what they were hearing at first. But then the roar came louder, from her people.
“The Quarass of Germina!”
Down the hill she came, at a run. A blade in hand. Her sworn protector followed, and they headed towards one of the gates as Germina’s hidden soldiers revealed themselves.
The Quarass? Teresa stared at the little figure wearing a veil. She looked at the palace. But that meant—
[Assassins] took the walls. A group of Cotton-[Soldiers] looked up and saw a strange figure, carrying…was it a bucket and a ladle?
Nonsensical, like a [Cook] with a pot of soup. Until the figure flicked the contents of the ladle at them and they realized it wasn’t water or soup.
It was…burning water. No—the flames burst on their armor and clung to them as the warriors shouted and tried to knock it off. But it just spread. Flaming…slime? Flaming—
The Stitch-folk panicked, screaming, trying to put out the flames that wouldn’t end. The alchemy-bearing [Assassin] continued spraying them with fire, setting them alight, burning them in their armor.
[Fireballs] were exploding around the walls, and another figure wearing a strange suit of cloth set themselves alight. They ran at the first [Soldiers]—
“[Full Body Throw].”
And threw them. The [Soldiers] touched the burning figure and started to catch fire themselves. The panicked [Spearmen] stabbed at the grappling expert as they lunged, trying to set them all alight like tinder.
The [Supreme Marshal] was horrified as he heard the shouting. He saw the fires shooting down from Reim’s wall and knew it was her.
Only she was that cruel. She didn’t fight like the King of Destruction. Her [Assassins], far fewer in number, sowed terror as much as trying to kill the enemy.
Fire, fire! And Nerrhavia Fallen’s army was surging at the walls. This was what the Quarass had been waiting for.
A commitment. The chariots at the gates were being sniped from above, his prized warriors being slaughtered.
“Pull the ranks back! Pull back!”
The [Supreme Marshal] roared around the panicking command. They had to regroup! Germina would pay for this. They had to…
The [Strategists] and officers not attacking the city were in a flurry, trying to shout orders at each group, address the sudden attacks. They barely noticed one of the serving girls drop her tray and reach for something.
The [Slave] ran at the [Surpreme Marshal], and he noticed the motion, twisting, fumbling for his sword—
His [Bodyguards] ran the [Slave] through. The command reeled back from the glaring eyes, the gasping lips.
“Assassination attempt! Order every officer to watch themselves! That—that damned woman! Inform the capital the Quarass has fully sided with Reim!”
The [Supreme Marshal] staggered back, nodding at his guards who stabbed the [Slave] again. She was grinning glassily at him. The [Supreme Marshal] snarled at her, as if she had wronged him. His [Slave].
The young woman gurgled as she died. She was still…smiling.
“The Quarass can set us free. [Death Spell—”
The [Supreme Marshal] looked at her and then went pale. He leapt with a scream as his [Bodyguards] shouted and—
The [Soldiers] marching towards Reim were staring at the fire from the walls when they heard the explosion. They whirled, looked back in horror, and pointed.
[Firestorm]. The spell engulfed the [Supreme Marshal]’s tent, raining blue fire down around them. Nerrhavia’s forces, in disarray, stared at their burning command and saw Reim launching its counterattack.
The Quarass had sided with Reim! The little figure fighting with sword and shield, inspiring her people to greater ferocity, greater terror—
Nailihuaile was shaking with frustration. Why now? Why…
“There’s a group of [Riders] coming from the northwest, Archmage. The [Strategists] are all reporting a force of cavalry. Barely four thousand strong. Nerrhavia’s Fallen is—wavering.”
Beatrice was keeping abreast of the rest of the battle as it happened. Naili snapped at her.
“Shut up! Don’t talk to me about strategy! We’ll bombard them with spells ourselves if we have to! Where is Troy Atlas? If I need to, I’ll put a wand to Amerys’ head and threaten the King of Destruction myself!”
The Gazer was fighting Viltach and Feor. Naili slithered faster as her bodyguard of Revivalists kept pace. Troy Atlas, that Earther—
She came across two fallen young men and stopped for a second. Tov was breathing, but scorched badly—yet a potion had saved his life. Goelv?
One of the [Mages] bent down. It was Beatrice who asked; Naili didn’t even care, but she slowed to let them check. How had they gotten free?
The Gazer’s eyes were all moving around randomly, rather than rolled up. Disconcerting. Eerie, even to someone who had met Gazers. He was definitely unconscious, but…
A young voice screamed through the hallway. Naili snapped her staff—the Serkonian Lance—up but relaxed as she saw who it was.
A terrified [Lady] ran towards them, screaming.
“He’s killing them! He’s killing them all!”
One of the Revivalists turned, and the others stopped as the [Lady] threw herself towards them. Her dress was torn, and someone had blackened one of her eyes.
“What happened? How did they get free?”
Emirea was sobbing.
“Calac—he’s killing them! He has a Naq-Alrama dagger, and he’s—help! Help, please!”
Tears rolled down her cheeks, and she was shaking uncontrollably. Naili cursed.
“That [Bandit Lady] or whoever…keep clear of him. With me.”
“What about—Emirea, let go, let go, please.”
She was clinging to one of the [Mages]. Hysterically shrieking. Naili eyed her and suspected she’d been taken hostage. Those damned idiots! She hissed, but mindful of the girl, jerked her head.
“One of you take her somewhere safe!”
“No, Archmage! They hurt me last time! Please, take me with you!”
The girl instantly turned and grabbed at Naili’s lower half. The Star Lamia really, really did not have time for this! She smiled and tried to prise Emirea off her.
“Emirea, it’s dangerous. I—fine, come with us if you must! But stay behind me. I’ll shield you. Let go of my staff, please? That’s the Serkonian Lance. It doesn’t like people who aren’t its owners.”
She jerked the relic back; Emirea was clinging to it like a monkey. A bit worried, in fact.
“Beatrice, get her off. It will attack her.”
It was a relic of her people, after all. Beatrice bent down and winced.
“Ow! Lady Emirea, don’t scratch me! I…”
The girl clawed at Naili, and the Archmage yelped. Her nails were sharp! She lost her patience, hysterics or not.
“That’s it. Someone grab Emirea and put her in time-out. Just pull her off and—huh?”
There was a faint thumping sound. Like…a head hitting the floor. She looked over her shoulder. One of the two Dullahans had collapsed. Naili stared dumbly at him; his head had rolled off his body. Then she saw Beatrice sag and fall flat.
Attack! Naili spun, or tried to with the weight on her staff. She cursed, abandoning it. Her head felt…fuzzy, all of a sudden. She spun left, right, and saw another Revivalist choking, foaming at the mouth.
Naili whispered. One of her Nagas was last to slump over. Someone had poisoned a Naga? Nailihuaile…
Felt a creeping sensation running down her scales. Her mind had fuzzed, but she put together the pieces instantly. After all…who could it be? She turned and saw a little figure wiping at her face.
Her tears had run down her face, and her eye was black and bruised, but when Beatrice had tried to grab at her, she had accidentally smudged…Emirea’s skin?
The little [Lady] brushed at her cheek, and Nailihuaile stared at the dark, sand-bronzed skin, not the pale, Terandrian features of a [Lady]. The little girl kept wiping and more of the false makeup came away.
“How did you…? That’s my staff. You can’t hold my staff.”
The Star Lamia looked dumbly at Emirea. Or whomever this was. The little girl calmly lifted the staff, and her eyes glowed. The Archmage of Baleros choked as she saw the staff activate.
“I have disguised myself ten thousand times and fought your kind and every other, Archmage Nailihuaile. I have prepared myself for every occasion. Twenty-one lifetimes ago, one of the Quarasses of Ger visited Baleros and asked to hold the Serkonian Lance. Just once. I did not know if this day would ever come, but I have laid every plan and contingency.”
The little girl’s voice changed. The Archmage heard old, even wearied tones. Immortality, scraped out of countless mortal lives.
The Quarass of Germina looked at the Archmage. The Star Lamia looked dumbly at the orb.
“But the Quarass…”
The little girl smiled thinly. She gazed at the small, veiled figure of a little child who could well be the Quarass since they were vaguely alike in height. Children all looked the same from afar. And Khalid, her [Champion], was fighting with sword and shield well enough as Vaitsha protected him.
Enough to inspire her people. She hoped he would not die, or Vaitsha. Maresar had already given up her life.
“Enough. All plans eventually must come to action or fail. I have what I want. The King of Destruction will have his Archmage.”
The Quarass gently touched the Serkonian Lance, and Nailihuaile’s eyes bulged as she swayed in place. The ruler of Germina looked at her and smiled without a hint of mercy or regret.
It was about plans. When Flos Reimarch had first known he would free Amerys, he had not known how to make his plan work.
Oh, he had surely seen Trey Atwood’s talents, but the King of Destruction was also canny enough to know throwing one boy—even with an ally or two—against Wistram’s cunning was a fool’s errand.
It was Gazi who had beheld the Quarass and seen a better plan. The King of Destruction had presented it to her thusly.
“I will send Trey, Gazi, and I think Calac or some others. But you will free my Archmage, Quarass of Germina. Not even Gazi will know where you are, and Trey will believe he is the only agent.”
“Cunning. Why would I agree, and why do you think I would succeed where your Seven would not?”
The King of Destruction snorted softly as he offered her a cup. She wanted wine but took goat’s milk for a growing body.
“You are the Quarass of Ger. Also, I think, you might relish the chance to take what you will from Wistram. As for what I can offer…name it. You could, of course, betray me, Quarass. Don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind. But I believe you will not.”
Her eyes narrowed as she considered his offer. She could have always betrayed his trust later, so it hurt her not at all to go with his plans.
It was not hard to pretend to be a [Lady] from Terandria. Changing one’s skin tone was easy, and she had been Terandrian in past lives.
As an [Actor], a [Spy], an [Alchemist] especially…even as a [Mage], Flos was right. Gazi was nothing compared to the Quarass’ ability—if only she was willing to risk herself.
The tipping scales for her were simply three factors. The Serkonian Lance. Nailihuaile walked around with it so casually.
The second? Earthers. The danger of Earthers and what Wistram was doing. The third?
Archmage Eldavin’s warriors of the future, clad in metal armor. The Shield Kingdom’s ruler recalled a similar sight—only with Drakes. But it bothered her.
So, now. Reim could not fall if she was allied with the King of Destruction. Maresar’s death was regrettable, but the Quarass had told Khalid only to signal the counterattack once Nerrhavia committed fully.
She had laid a careful plan. Of course, Trey had made his own plans and the Quarass had hijacked them. Naili hissed as she saw part of it.
The girl nodded.
“Asleep. I freed the boys. Ullsinoi was my opponent. And getting to Amerys.”
Even for her, it was difficult. But…the Quarass was taking command of the Serkonian Lance. She was fighting Naili for control, so she spoke as she stepped back. The Star Lamia wasn’t falling to her poison. She was swaying, barely upright, but her eyes were locked on the Quarass with slitted pupils.
“Give me my staff!”
She attacked with a shriek of magic. The Quarass planted the staff.
“[The Serpentine Shield of Queth]!”
The spell activated, and Naili’s eyes bulged as a pair of [Shatterbolts] splintered right in front of the Quarass. The girl didn’t flinch.
“How can you cast…?”
“I am the Quarass. I have been [Archmage] and great spellcasters of lives past. Seldom do I have the chance to employ all my magic.”
Passingly seldom. Archmage Eldavin had given her tips that would help every Quarass in the future. Who was he?
Naili attacked again, screaming, striking like a serpent, but the Quarass shielded herself, broke the spells, and let the poison do its work. Soon, the Star Lamia was lying on the floor, unable to move as her muscles gave up. Feverishly, she stared up at the Quarass.
“You won’t get away with this. I’ll remember this. Do you know who you’re crossing?”
The Quarass sighed. She walked around the Star Lamia, shaking her head.
“I have known the Archmages of Baleros, and many were more cunning than you, Archmage Nailihuaile. Most would not be foolish enough to threaten me as they were helpless. But even if they were not—I know. I do know you would bear a grudge. So.”
She planted the tip of the Serkonian Lance on Naili’s tail. The sharp tip—it could be used as a weapon as a last resort—pierced Naili’s scales. Instantly, the Star Lamia went still.
“You…you wouldn’t. I’m an Archmage.”
“Yes. One that bears a grudge.”
“I’ll forswear it!”
The Star Lamia shouted instantly. Her eyes turned to sudden fear. She looked at the Quarass, and the girl hesitated. Her lips moved silently and she peered at Naili curiously.
“What would you swear by? What would you do to convince me to let you live?”
“I’ll ally the Revivalists with you. I’ll give you artifacts. I’ll swear by Nagas and anything on truth spells not to go after you.”
Naili was panting. She was burning up with the damned pain and poison! This little—she’d swear.
Or she’d unleash every ounce of magic and vaporize everything in this corridor. Her teeth bared, her body arched—
And she felt a pain beyond the poison, beyond anything she’d ever felt, even Hydra venom, tearing up from the inside. She looked at the Quarass and saw those calm, cruel, impartial eyes.
She’d cast a spell. The Star Lamia shrieked.
She still tried to cast one last spell. The Quarass shielded herself—but the impact of pure mana, the Archmage’s last attack, threw her back so hard she snapped a collarbone against a wall.
She got up, grabbing for the staff, and saw Nailihuaile die. Collapsing into a pool of acid. The Star Lamia had never intended to surrender.
The girl stared at the dead Archmage and then, limping, picked up her new staff. Using it as a crutch, she dragged a potion out of her pouch and hobbled onwards.
This was not over yet.
The Libertarians were fleeing. Running, fighting in a panic, but they were running. From one young man?
Yes. Yes, because he had an arrow, which he wielded like a dagger that pierced all barriers. That killed. They would have blasted him apart, even so, but Trey put his fingers together the moment he realized the barrier was down and cast one spell.
The sand and wind blinded everyone, so spells flew as the [Mages] fought for cover. Calac was howling, charging them, stabbing—
And he was a [Warrior]. A warrior who had lost his mother.
Charles de Trevalier was going to kill him. The young man had his rapier out. His rapier—he thought of it like that. The bell dinged as the wind blew, and Timor raised a dueling sword. They both had wands, but they couldn’t tell where their friends were, so they hesitated.
“Charles! Charles, stop that damn bell! It’s giving us away!”
The [Lord] fumbled for Pisces’ bell, but too late. Both young men saw something coming at them through the storm.
A glowing light. Timor aimed his wand at it.
“Stay back or we’ll kill you!”
Was it Trey or Calac? Surely Trey—Charles hesitated as the light bobbed—then charged.
He [Flash Stepped] into the light spell and stabbed his rapier home. He felt the impact and stumbled backwards.
“I got him! I got—”
The storm cleared slightly, and Charles saw the Lifesand Golem rubbing at her head. The glowing decoy-sword she held overhead waved slightly.
Trey burst out of the sand from the side, staff raised. He spoke.
Charles jerked back. The spear went through Timor’s chest, and the [Lord] stared at it, greatly perplexed.
He had no speeches, no time left. He fell down, and Trey whirled. Charles dropped his rapier and ran as Minizi pursued him.
Death. Calac and Trey fought to kill. The Libertarians weren’t ready.
They ran. The young man turned to Trey as he collapsed. The [Sand Mage] looked down at Calac and saw the tears running down his face. So he bent down for a second, murmured to him, and called Minizi back towards him.
The two went onwards. Towards the maze. They saw a little girl waiting for them, and Trey raised his spear—then stared at the Quarass. After Maresar’s death, he was almost not surprised.
“You. You…all this time?”
The Quarass smiled like Emirea for a moment, then looked at him solemnly. Those pitiless eyes…Trey had never disliked anyone or respected them like the Quarass.
“Let us put an end to this, Trey Atwood.”
At the end of it, Galei leaned against a wall and laughed. He laughed as hard as he could, even as a clone of himself, a perfect illusion, galloped towards the Mershi-lounge.
He would not go himself. Ullsinoi had lost two of its number. One to Gazi…
The other to her.
“Enough. Enough. We tried being serious and it failed. That [King] is going to shatter it all again. We almost did it right. Almost. But we lost!”
The two Archmages looked at him. They didn’t get what was so funny. Gazi was curled up behind a shield on the ground—but she was just the distraction. Galei laughed until he wheezed.
Ullsinoi was so damn confident. But they had been betrayed! Betrayed! Defeated! Their maze? All the traps, the tricks? They’d lost, not just because they’d been outsmarted or out-sneaked.
They’d lost because they had been betrayed…by one of their own.
That was the damn problem with immortals. They should never have inducted her, even for a laugh. She never forgot anything. She made amazing plans.
They were going to burn Germina for this. Or maybe shake her hand. It depended on how Galei and the others felt. Right now? All he could do was laugh.
Nerrhavia Fallen’s army was breaking. First their [Supreme Marshal] died. Next? The ferocity and revelation that Germina had allied with Reim broke their confidence and added to the horror of trying to take the city.
The [Soldiers] didn’t look at it like a numbers game, because they still could have probably overwhelmed Reim and Germina together.
They looked at it as one of the numbers, and they saw their kin burning alive, saw the blood blade and their leaders fall.
That was when someone noticed the four thousand [Riders] coming from the north. It was unclear who screamed it at first, but rumor spread like wildfire.
“The Steward of Destruction is coming! The Left Hand of the King of Destruction is coming to slaughter us all!”
It just took a few voices, panic—and, of course, the sight of a single [Rider] streaking across the ground at the head of a small army of mounted warriors.
The look of the thing. It didn’t matter that Orthenon was confirmed in the north, countless miles away. The Quarass understood the hearts of men and women; she had been both children and adults and on the winning and losing side of everything.
It just took one [Swift Rider], a flag, and a group of Germina’s youths riding together to break the spirit of an army.
[Soldiers] began to flee—or threw down their arms and surrendered. And like a wave—
It was done. Nerrhavia’s Fallen broke on Reim’s walls, and Teresa looked around blankly. It was a glorious victory. But—she went to find Maresar.
Too high a cost. Too high, and it would have been wonderful but for that one cost to her.
So, like an afterthought, Amerys lay in her new bindings, wriggling slightly. She could move—a bit—but they had cast a sleeping spell and changed her lock.
She feared that boy’s attempts would fail. Especially when the announcement came and the wary [Guards]—four now—were joined by two more.
The Archmage of Lightning, the Archmage of Chandrar, the Calm Flower of the Battlefield—a name given to insult her—watched as they conferred, deliberating whether to join in the fighting.
Calm Flower. Why was it always flowers for women? Well, Mars got ‘the Illusionist’, but the point stood.
They were too smart. None of the guards went to help at first. That was, until they heard the Earthers were breaking loose. Then two Revivalists and a Centrist broke ranks after a loud argument.
Three remained. They conferred about the door and the maze—not to mention a quarter of all the Libertarians at some party or other. The [Battle Mages] watched her, and Amerys waited.
“Ullsinoi changed their maze. Only they can get through. And there’s the door. They’ve got Gazi the Omniscient cornered.”
Yolv, the Dwarf, murmured to the other two. The Naga nodded, and one of Viltach’s Libertarians choked up on the staff she was holding. They were trying to raise the other [Mages] for news.
Rasea Zecrew was in Wistram. Amerys’ neck was tingling. She had heard stories—from Naili mainly, to gloat—about how she’d beaten Flos. But a [Pirate]…?
Gazi? Gazi hated bad plans. Amerys had a suspicion, but she waited. The [Mages] were watching the war in Reim, and she was checking their expressions when someone reached the magic door.
They went through the maze only Ullsinoi’s people could crack. They came to the door, the one that had sealed off the passageway and in their grand plan, their scheme amongst a scheme—
The Quarass blew the door down with magic.
All three [Battlemages] opened up with spells. One came back straight at them.
[Chain Lightning]. No…red lightning that created smoke. A rolling orb Yolv saw and projected a barrier around—
Someone good had come to save Amerys. The Archmage watched. It was…three against one. No! Three against two? Low-level spells and sand were flying through the air. Then a little Lifesand Golem charged forwards, got blown to pieces by own of Yolv’s spells, and the Dwarf shouted.
“Troy! No! Don’t do this—”
He hesitated—a spray of sand burst against his shield, and he ignored it. The Libertarian went down, choking, as a pellet of gas she hadn’t noticed finally took her out. The Naga swayed, and Yolv’s anti-poison charms fought it off.
A girl and a young man charged the [Mages]. They ran into killing spells. The girl had her own barriers. The boy?
His amulet flashed, and a scintillating cage rose around him. It ate three Tier 4 spells as the Dwarf swore, and the boy created a [Light Spear]. A powerful artifact. Amerys wondered where he’d gotten it.
The girl, Emirea, had the Serkonian Lance. But she was not the [Lady]—Amerys’ eyes widened as she saw the removed makeup.
Trey grappled with Yolv. The Dwarf dodged the [Light Spear], cast a force-spell at close range, and blew Trey off his feet. The Naga and Quarass fought in a close-range spellcasting duel. One was mature, had levels, and had a far larger mana pool.
The other was the Quarass. And she had the Serkonian Lance.
Yolv knocked Trey down and pinned him. The boy stabbed at him, and the Dwarf grunted—his barrier spells went out.
He was too merciful. He just held Troy down, a knee on his back, suppressing his magic as he went to draw a bead on the Quarass.
It was sand. Amerys grinned as she saw the Lifesand the boy had thrown at the Dwarf slowly coalescing. A little figure swung itself out of Yolv’s beard—and hopped onto his face, covering his nose and mouth.
The Dwarf choked and cast spells wildly as the Lifesand Golem suffocated him. The Quarass ended her duel with a paralyzing spell that knocked the Naga out—but not before the Naga struck the girl into the ground with a barrier-breaking tail slap.
Trey Atwood staggered up and looked around. The Quarass, the guards…he saw Amerys, and there they were again.
Slowly, the young man walked into her cell and met the Archmage’s eyes. He had found the key to her mask, but none of her shackles. Even so, he unlocked her mask, and she snapped at his fingers.
More as a joke than anything else.
The boy didn’t smile or react. He just looked at her. He breathed, in and out, the remnants of tears in his eyes. Exhausted, battered; he had thrown it all at this plan and moment.
“Archmage Amerys? My name is Trey Atwood. The King of Destruction sent me. I came to set you free.”
“Why did you come?”
Amerys looked at him, so curiously. She understood Gazi. She even understood what had to be the Quarass, swearing in another language as she felt at her ribs. She could understand a child of Reim or follower of the King of Destruction.
But why Trey Atwood? She also didn’t know how she’d be freed; she was shackled, and while she could have cast magic in this cell if her bindings were off…the enchanted cloth now had a damned Adamantium lock that Viltach had claimed a Level 50 [Rogue] couldn’t break.
Trey Atwood wearily knelt. He met Amerys’ eyes and looked her up and down. Not in a lecherous way—more like someone trying to understand something. See…some quality that was seldom revealed on appearance alone.
“Flos asked me to. That’s not why I did it, Amerys. I told him to go to hell—I even thought so, even though he promised me that he would help me in a great way. By destroying A’ctelios Salash.”
“He keeps his promises. He rewards loyalty. But…that isn’t enough, is it?”
Trey shook his head.
“My sister is with him. But that isn’t my reason either. I’d rather knock her over the head and carry her off, or take her to Khelt. She’s getting worse with him.”
“I could help with that. I could change this war.”
His face didn’t move markedly.
“I know. But I knew what I’d do. Kill people. Make them suffer. And…lose friends. Maresar is dead.”
Amerys’ eyes flickered.
Trey nodded. He watched her face. The Archmage, for a second, debated lying and pretending to great emotion, but the truth was it was a distant blow.
“I’m sorry. I knew her, but I have been captive here a long time. Will you…free me, Trey Atwood?”
“I would be a fool not to, after all this time.”
The Archmage waited, but Trey held his ground.
“…Amerys. I thought and thought about why I might free you. The resolve it took to do it. I’m here to free you. And I will. If you do something for me.”
Aah. This was it. Amerys smiled in relief, because she hadn’t known why. The boy—she couldn’t even speak to him directly on his visits, but she had worried because she hadn’t known if he had some great loyalty or desire. Now, Trey reached into his bag of holding and put something on the ground.
A simple little object. A truth stone. He looked ruefully at it.
“I hoped it would work in here, but I guess not.”
It was dead in the magic-suppression field. Trey shrugged, flicked it away, and looked at her.
“I only have your word, then. Can I trust you? Do you…keep your promises?”
Amerys’ green hair was tangled as she raised her head. She had had dreams of great vengeance, wrath, rejoining her [King]…but at some point she had just dreamed of running her hands through her hair. She looked at Trey so longingly she wanted to scream.
“Yes. Free me, and I will do what you want. Give you what you want. I will not forget this…what is it?”
What would he ask? Something craven and dark? Ask for a gift? For control? Ambition? Her hand in marriage? Ludicrous or twisted—she would agree to be free for many things.
The [Sand Mage] took a deep breath, and a little Lifesand Golem came to stand by him. One look at it and Amerys was sure he didn’t want her. She almost laughed—but Trey fixed her with a calm gaze and spoke.
“Archmage Amerys. If I free you, swear by the King of Destruction, by Reim and your magic…that when you are freed, you will fight for Flos Reimarch. You will serve him and do everything to support him—and end slavery within his kingdom and every land. Until the day it is outlawed, until he changes his mind…fight for every person in chains against their will, even if he stands against you.”
Her eyes opened wide, and the Archmage stared at Trey Atwood. At last…at last. She saw the color of his soul.
So Amerys raised her head, considered Trey’s words seriously, and all they meant, and then nodded. So that was his great plan.
Trey Atwood sighed. He bent down, and the arrow of Naq-Alrama steel cut her bindings. Not the lock. Amerys gasped as the little arrow snapped and the magic flared. The anti-magic metal screamed and broke, disintegrating.
Amerys looked up—
And she was free.
Gazi Pathseeker had her hand on her claymore. She looked up, lying on the ground, panting.
“Will you capture me or kill me?”
She croaked at Viltach. The Archmage hesitated. He looked at Feor as the half-Elf watched her warily.
“Either option will end this. Must end this war. Viltach—”
Gazi blurred. She leapt—and they hit her with spells. She curled up but kept dashing on all fours, like an animal.
“She won’t quit until she’s dead.”
Viltach spoke, in that too-calm voice of someone who had made up his mind. Gazi swung around, eye shining, and Feor nodded. The Archmage of half-Elves raised his staff—and hesitated.
His fingers shifted and Viltach froze. His head turned slightly, and Gazi saw the blood draining out of his face.
The Gazer’s mad grin turned into a smile. Feor’s lips moved.
They were in the banquet hall. [Mages] watched from afar, like the first time Eldavin had come to Wistram. The two Archmages slowly swung around.
Gazi saw the hair on Viltach’s head lift. The carefully groomed hair…rose into the air. She felt it.
The overturned tables and broken plates, cutlery, began to vibrate. The metal…began rising off the ground. Feor said not a word. Viltach groaned.
“It’s over. Rhir’s hells. Dead gods.”
He searched for a greater epithet. Feor slowly projected another barrier around himself.
What a strange oath. The Archmage of half-Elves was breathing quicker as Viltach glanced at him. Viltach swung around, looking about. Then he noticed Gazi was gone.
But neither man went after her. They stood, back-to-back, eying the other hallways leading into this room.
By now, the other [Mages] had noticed the charge in the air. One of them whispered.
“I feel lightning magic in the air.”
Someone looked out the window. A storm was brewing. Wistram’s bubble of calm was changing, and rain and winds were beginning to pick up.
One of the [Mages] muttered. The younger students glanced at him, but everyone else knew exactly who it had to be. Their heads turned to the two Archmages who were casting barrier spells.
“[Greater Lightning Ward].”
“Put it on me.”
Viltach hissed at Feor. The Archmage hesitated and then cast the spell. Feor looked around.
“Where is Galei?”
The Centaur was gone. And—as Feor watched—one of the older Council-[Mages] calmly and deliberately cast a spell.
Everyone turned, wondering if the [Mage] was going to fight—they saw the Selphid float upwards, yank open a window, and fly out of the banquet hall. Another [Mage] cast [Invisibility]. More began to leave.
Viltach looked around uncertainly. Feor snapped.
“Centrists, to me! Stand together!”
But no one came. Some of the [Mages] drew together rather than run.
“She’s one Archmage. We’ve got two here and she was locked up for…she’s only one woman.”
This was true. And the Golems were led by a green-eyed presence, who had restored order with the threat of violence to anyone who attacked her. Feor turned to her.
“I am restoring order with the [Pirates] and last outsiders. Do not bother me.”
The Golem turned her head to stare at him. The Archmage looked at her.
“Amerys is free.”
The Truestone Golem’s proxy looked amused. Feor hesitated.
“I see no reason to intervene in a dispute between Archmages of Wistram. Golems. Clear the area. Protect any students, I suppose.”
The Golems began to evacuate the room as well. The [Mages] ran. Viltach hesitated.
Feor just stood there. They wouldn’t make it.
The charge in the air was reaching a peak. Bits of electricity were zapping between hovering pieces of metal. Even with their ward-spells, the Archmages felt it.
It was one element. They had greater electricity wards.
But they also hadn’t…fought…Amerys the first time. Three Archmages had ambushed her.
She was coming for them.
“Amerys! You have a mission, and this will be a costly battle for the both of us! Let us negotiate or go our own ways!”
Feor raised his voice, projecting it into the hallways. He sounded bold, a force of power negotiating with an equal.
Gazi, hidden, cloaked, and drinking healing potions, could have told him how stupid and fruitless his bartering was. Her main eye was locked on one point. She was counting down.
Amerys appeared in the banquet hall so fast that the flash of lightning beat both Archmages’ bound spells. They fired, a series of ray-spells, a comet, a flare as a wall of fire erupted.
All far too late. Even Gazi couldn’t predict how Amerys would move.
Because she was lightning. She drifted into the room at a speed only Gazi could see. Head angled slightly to one side, almost as if she were sleepwalking. Barefoot—a sleepy walk from a woman whose muscles were atrophied from lack of use.
She left a trail of blue lightning in the air after her. At a speed beyond eyesight, she stepped through the world, leaving a trail of static and electricity. She swayed, coming to a halt in the visible world, and Feor and Viltach whirled. Their spells loosed harmlessly at her trail.
Amerys swung around, like a swaying zombie, and one eye opened.
Bright yellow, like the core of a lightning bolt. Her green hair was brighter, now. It waved around her, magnified by the static. The Archmage’s robes were a brilliant cloud pattern. Sky-blue and silver like clouds, mixed with red, the color of Flos’ hair.
Gazi smiled. She saw the Archmage look at her. Dreamily. Amerys breathed in as Feor and Viltach hesitated, spells on their fingertips.
They had never seen her fight directly. Quarrel, yes. But they didn’t walk battlefields. She did. Surely they had seen recordings, heard tales.
Amerys lifted a hand like a dancer. Her left arm, crossing her chest and arching back, like the curve of the moon. Her other hand extended outwards behind her, and she swayed, rotating her body around.
The world turned to lightning. A bolt of it came down from the ceiling and blew the two Archmages back.
Feor’s barrier flashed, and the lightning struck him, but he was warded against it! He was warded against—
His barriers evaporated underneath the spell. The half-Elf felt a force throwing him. Viltach popped out of the air to the left. He looked rattled; both [Mages] were alive, but their barriers had shattered. The electricity wards weren’t working.
“No one can resist my lightning. Hello, Gazi.”
Amerys threw her head back as Feor fired eight of [Valmira’s Comets] at her.
“[Two Hundred Arrows of Stone]!”
Viltach filled the air with lesser spells instead, focusing on rebuilding his shield. Amerys tossed her head back and her hair crackled. Each strand became the inverse of a lightning rod.
For a moment, some strange creature with crackling eyes and hair like a stormcloud flashed—
Then the bolts were travelling across the ground, leaping and striking Viltach, Feor—and blowing everything else around her to bits. Gazi ran for cover. She’d almost forgotten how much damage Amerys did to everything. She could take Feor and Viltach on her own. Where was Trey?
The eight [Valmira’s Comets] missed Amerys. Her counterattack frazzled Feor, and he looked around for her.
Amateur. He was an Archmage of Wistram, and he stood still like a tree. Amerys was a war-mage. She reappeared in another odd, slanted step as the spells passed her by harmlessly.
“Stop talking and get her!”
A wave of fire flew from Viltach’s hands. Feor threw all his magic at her as well. If she would dodge—then tracer spells! An orb of magic, like an Earther’s landmine, floating slowly after her but which would never—
Amerys charged them. Viltach had already cast [Haste]—Feor hadn’t because the self-enchantment spell was interfering with his other enchantments.
Viltach saw Amerys’ entire form glow and then elongate in a blur. Again, her entire body became more like a Lightning Elemental—or a woman made of energy.
She moved and crashed into Feor. No spells. She just hit him and carried him straight towards a wall.
Like Eldavin but—
The sound Feor made when he hit the wall made Viltach check if he were dead. The Archmage was surrounded by a magical, glowing shield, panting—and dazed. Viltach looked around and saw a glowing form coming straight at him.
Amerys saw him brace, triggering his spells, and swung past him. She skidded, angling her body like a sprinter, and flicked across the gap; she couldn’t turn easily. But she hopped onto Viltach’s back as he loosed a Tier 5 spell harmlessly and looked around.
No perspective. No reflexes.
She poked his barrier on the back. Viltach screamed, whirled—and Amerys flickered away. What had she done? What had she—?
His barriers were all against energy and lightning magic. Some were against all forms of harm, but he knew Amerys as a lightning mage.
Silly man. Amerys reappeared, floating, arms stretched like she was lying on a bed of clouds above. Flying.
Below her, every piece of metal in the room took aim at the target she’d painted on Viltach’s shields. Forks, knives, candelabras—they came at him in a metal storm.
Feor was getting up, dazed, muttering one of his Tier 6 spells or some ritual as if he were an artillery mage, not on the front. Amerys dropped. She actually lay on the ground; her body was so weak. Feor was confused.
He looked at Amerys, lying like she’d collapsed. As if that meant she was harmless. She looked at him.
A Tier 5 spell flashed and struck his shields. Feor threw up his staff, rebuilding them. Amerys rose, like an odd zombie. She flung out a finger.
“[Burning Grand Lightning].”
A bolt of it blasted past Viltach and set the air on fire. He threw up his hands, backing away. The woman alternated fingers.
“[Frozen Grand Lightning]. [Transformation of Elements]. [Grand Lightning Tidal Wave].”
Two more bolts. The first frost—then a bolt of lightning that blasted a reeling Feor—and turned to a wave of water that rushed around him.
It wasn’t even a good offensive spell. It was…Amerys looked at him.
“Is this enough magic for you, Feor? [Empower Spell]. [Grand Lightning].”
Her mana reserves! Viltach was an Archmage and could cast countless spells, but he’d been fighting Gazi and he used magic on a daily basis.
Amerys hadn’t cast a spell for—she was holding Feor down with one spell. She turned to Viltach and set herself. Amerys smiled.
“I’m a bit angry, Viltach. Now that I’ve greeted you, I can express that honestly.”
Amerys’ battle with the Archmages of Wistram sounded like thunder. Trey Atwood didn’t see it. He found Calac sitting where he had come to rest.
Three Libertarians were dead. Trey had thought it was more. The Quarass barely noticed. She had a broken collarbone and ribs.
“We are leaving. To the ships. Calac Crusland, stand. Amerys is freed.”
“My mother is dead, Quarass.”
The Quarass’ eyes glinted. She stopped as Calac knelt there, white-faced. Trey reached for his friend, but the Quarass was faster.
“Yes. Your father lives. Will you leave him alone? Or greet your mother’s shade?”
Calac jerked and looked up. Trey instinctively grabbed the amulet at his neck. Nailihuaile had not told him you had to activate it. The Quarass had. He wished the Archmage of Nagas just a bit of suffering for that.
It might have simplified so much. Or maybe it had led them to this point.
Calac Crusland looked up at the Quarass with pain, anger—and rose. That was what the Quarass did. She stabbed you in the heart to get your legs moving.
“With me. Watch for Ullsinoi. They will likely not trouble us—but perhaps.”
“They won’t take revenge for this?”
The Quarass grimaced as she felt at her ribs. She stopped.
“Someone carry me. I am about to puncture my skin.”
Trey hesitated, but Calac picked up the little girl. The Quarass spoke as they ran through burnt corridors, and Amerys’ duel continued.
“They could kill us. To what end? Amerys is free. They hold grudges, but they are practical. They tried so badly to hold Amerys because they did not want Flos Reimarch to win. Now she is free? They will hedge their bets against him rising to power.”
Trey just nodded. He felt…empty.
Relieved Amerys was free. Empty, as he ran down the hallway. He kept waiting for one last thing.
He jerked and the amulet flared to life, but Gazi was leaning against a wall. Her armor was cracked; a noticeable line down the breastplate. The Quarass eyed it. Gazi five-eyed the Quarass, Calac, and Trey.
The Gazer looked like someone had beaten her to hell and back with magic. She rasped.
“You did it. We must leave. Zecrew and her [Pirates] are fleeing Wistram. Cognita is here.”
The Quarass tilted her head.
“She is? I did not anticipate that. We go, then. Amerys will find us.”
“Will she kill the Archmages?”
Trey saw Gazi join them and realized someone else was there.
The Gazer boy was sickly, but he and Gazi picked up another, comatose young man and dragged him after them. Tov. The half-Gazer had rescued the two. She spoke to Trey, curtly.
“She might try, but I don’t think she can.”
The Quarass finished Trey’s startled sentence. She glanced up as another roll of thunder boomed.
“Too weak to risk the magic it would take to kill either, I think. She is distracting them. But she will only batter them then join us. Too many defensive wards. They would have to lower their guards first. Archmages die in battle seldom. Off-guard is how I have killed most.”
Something about the way she said that and Gazi’s stare made Trey focus on the Quarass’ staff.
The girl just looked at him as she carried the Serkonian Lance. Calac said nothing at all.
Hallway after hallway. They passed by Golems, students and [Mages]. The Golems turned, and Trey saw a green-eyed stare appear in one of them.
“We are leaving Wistram. Hold, Cognita Truestone.”
The Quarass spoke, aiming her staff at the Golem. Cognita’s green eyes bored into Trey’s, but she saw Gazi and the Quarass. The Golem hesitated and seemed to check herself, realizing her body was not Truestone, but fragile.
Another Golem’s existence.
“I will remember this, Troy Atlas. You have been marked.”
Her voice followed the group. Troy’s stomach lurched, and Gazi looked at him.
“You have paid a dear price for this, Trey. I will remember it too.”
“You tricked me. Gazi—you and the Quarass! You knew! I thought I had to do it alone!”
The Quarass looked at Trey calmly.
“Yes. You made a good plan. I was proud of it. But you are young. We will speak on it later.”
Trey Atwood wanted to punch the girl—no, the Quarass behind the girl’s face. Calac spoke.
“Reim is standing. Nerrhavia’s Fallen has retreated?”
The girl looked up at him, and her tone did not change. Her voice did not soften, but she spoke directly to him, like a [Commander] to a [Soldier].
“Yes. They have surrendered or fled. It is a great victory. Your mother saved you—and perhaps us all.”
He didn’t react, but he kept running.
Students. Mages. Golems. The students looked at Trey, and the monster ran. That was how they gazed at him. He had brought war to Wistram.
A part of him, a terrible part that was like Teresa, almost laughed. Almost relished showing them how easily it all fell apart.
But the rest of Trey was aching. Grieving. Remorseful. But…
I will change that idiot’s mind. Change Reim. The Quarass had heard Trey’s secret plan that not even Gazi or she had expected. She kept glancing at him.
“You have an ambition beyond even what I could dream, Trey Atwood. And it will be the harder of your two desires. Believe me.”
Her pale yellow eyes glinted. Gazi glanced curiously at Trey, and Goelv wheezed.
“I’m dying. Lady Pathseeker, I’m dying.”
“Yes, Lady Pathseeker.”
Rasea Zecrew was on board her glowing ship when the group burst from the gates of Wistram. The other ships were gone—or sunk. The detritus of a war covered the academy’s front, yet the [Pirate Captain] looked nervous.
“Get on, quick! The bastards nearly took us out, but they’ve stopped! I nearly left, promise or no, Quarass!”
The woman was the most antsy yet—even Orthenon climbing onto her hull hadn’t spooked her.
“Fucking Golems. Giant bastards with beams like the damn crab!”
The [Helmsman] swore. The Illuminary was knocked up, but the guardian-Golems hadn’t wiped out the ship.
The Quarass alighted on the decks, taking charge in a moment.
“Archmage Amerys called off the attack. She certified you as guests. Cognita abides; there are rules. Barely. I believe she would rather prevent more of her Golems being destroyed.”
Rasea tipped her hat to the girl, looking her up and down.
“So here’s the new Quarass, same as the last one! Remember me? Nice to meet you again.”
“You do not change markedly, Rasea Zecrew. Set sail.”
The [Pirate Captain] hesitated, although the helmsman was already spinning the wheel.
“What about the woman we all came to get? Amerys? She dead, or didn’t we get her?”
“She will find us.”
The [Pirate] laughed, and the Illuminary shot from port. Trey Atwood saw them break through the rainclouds—into more rain.
It was stormy within and without Wistram, although the lightning was only falling inside the bubble, oddly. Suddenly, he collapsed next to the Quarass. Calac sat, head bowed, holding the bag of holding. There was something inside it for him.
“I’m on the Illuminary. I’m alive?”
A voice spoke. Tov jerked to wakefulness, looked up at Rasea, and nearly fainted. She laughed.
“Now, who’s this lad? Hello, my boy!”
He just gaped up at her. The [Pirate Captain] helped him up, whistled for the [Ship Doctor], a class Trey had never heard before.
The Quarass had, and she was telling him how to bandage her wounds properly. The [Pirates], male and female, were whooping; someone had breached a cask.
“Wistram’s finest! We’re drinking tonight! To Maresar, the [Bandit Lord]! To legends and, if she graces us, the Archmage of Chandrar!”
Rasea climbed one of the masts and raised her sword. Calac looked up at the grinning [Pirate Lady] with all the hatred in the world for her laughter.
“She is being respectful. In her way.”
The Quarass told him. He didn’t respond. Trey didn’t know what to say. He just lay there, as a magical bubble surrounded the ship and the rain stopped.
Such a jolly crew. The Illuminary’s [Pirates] were simple, uncomplicated, and Trey envied them. They thought this was a grand day. They had looted, fought, leveled, and made their mark.
Trey looked for Minizi. The little Lifesand Golem tottered over to big-Gazi with a healing potion in her hands. She handed it up, and Gazi took it.
She was smaller, now. She’d lost most of her upgrades but…Trey thought when he leveled, when he slept, and in the days to come, Minizi would be more dangerous than Viltach had ever made her.
Dangerous. War. Amerys would return to Reim, and Flos would probably go on the offensive soon; Nerrhavia’s Fallen, his biggest nearby foe, had suffered a massive blow.
Back to war. Trey closed his eyes. Was that all this was for? He saw light peeking on the edge of his vision and looked up.
The cheering and laughter slowed. Voices rose, and Trey opened his eyes.
In the dark sky of Wistram, a light shone. Not a star. Something brighter. Closer. It flew from the Academy of Mages, freed. Like a firefly made of shining magic itself.
It did not fly directly at the Illuminary; like two lights in the sea, one racing and leaping among the waves and the other soaring through the sky—Archmage Amerys rose higher.
Amerys, one of the King’s Seven. The Archmage. The lightning mage. The great warrior.
But that was not what Trey saw. He saw the woman fly up in a nimbus of light, and do a loop in the skies. Soar through the darkness, dive and skim along the waves, even dip into the ocean and out in a spray of color and magic.
He looked at her and saw the joy in her.
Free. They should all be free. She would keep her vow. He had to believe that. If for nothing else than because she had known it.
A beautiful sight. The Archmage flew after the Illuminary, and the vessel slowed. Rasea Zecrew, beaming, saluted Amerys as she alighted on the decks.
Barefoot, a bit battle-worn. Exhausted, but smiling. She looked at Gazi, the Quarass, and then found Trey. She nodded to him, then Calac Crusland.
The two looked at each other coolly, and Trey wondered if they would be like the other of the Seven when they squabbled. Then Gazi put out her hand, touched Amerys’ arm, and the Archmage threw her arms around her.
“Of all of them, I should have known you would never leave me behind.”
“We would all have gone. He missed you every day.”
Amerys’ voice was muffled.
“I will see him soon. Thank you. Thank you.”
Trey Atwood sighed. For legends, for freedom, for a change and just the next part of his life…he saw Rasea throw her head back and laugh—then slap the autograph-card out of her [First Mate]’s hands.
“Don’t ruin the moment, you idiot furball.”
“But [Captain]—I used to buy cheap shock-wands and pretend I was her!”
Amerys looked around. She swayed.
“Food. Food. I haven’t eaten in…aside from snacks. Food. Food, and tell me. And show me. And…and food?”
“Oi! Food for the Archmage! Get everything! Get the [Ship Cook] out! Where is that bitch?”
Rasea howled. A door flew open, and a figure pointed a finger at her.
“I am a [Saucier Sea-Chef]!”
The [Pirate] spread her hands and went to calm down the angry food-preparer. The crew bustled around Gazi and Amerys, just watching them. Trey realized Amerys was older than Gazi by almost ten years. She looked younger when she cast her great magics.
“It’s time. For better or worse—this will be my last war. We have much to discuss. Much…but show me Maresar’s son. Your armor.”
The Archmage was speaking to Gazi, leaning on her. The Gazer shrugged.
“It might be for the best. Here…”
And so it was over. Trey Atwood lay back. The deck was so…wet and hard and smelly and frankly muddy too. A [Deckhand], probably the most fearsome [Deckhand] in the world, paused as she swabbed past Trey’s face.
“You want a bed or something?”
Trey would love a bed. He would sleep, Illuminary at sea or not. Sleep…and then talk to Calac. Process what he’d done. Feel regrets.
Level up. Would he advance both his classes? Would Minizi gain something? He pushed himself up, halfway tempted to lie down and find out now. He saw Amerys speaking to Calac, who’d risen to bow before her.
Goelv, gazing at him and Gazi. Tov, eyeing the [Pirates]—Trey.
They gave him a strange look. The boy who had caused this all. His friends…aside from Emirea—that was, the Quarass.
“I thought you were my friend.”
Trey knew it was the stupidest thing for him to feel betrayed after all he’d done, but he told the girl that anyways. As she wrote on a [Message] scroll, the Quarass glanced up briefly.
“Am I not? You and I will see more of each other, Trey. Especially for what you intend. Both things. But we will speak on that later. You are the key to Germina’s future or death. All of you children are.”
He didn’t know what she meant, at first. But then Trey saw them.
Standing together. A handful.
Some of the Earthers had been captured. Some had gone with Doroumata, or fled with the Drakes. Where they went now? Trey didn’t know. But he did see something that was entirely Rasea Zecrew.
A [Pirate] stole everything, after all. She had her own morality; she had let the Drowned Folk go because of their truce, and even refrained from attacking the Drakes. She had even helped toss the Gold-rank team on their ship.
And she had found that last group of Earthers and taken them aboard. There were a handful of them. But the one who Trey saw first, who was staring at him…
Elena. The [Beautician] looked at Trey, her gaze not even fully betrayed. Not even sure what he was. Trey looked at her, and put his head down. Minizi patted him on the head, and Amerys breathed in.
“I am free. Once more, my [King]. And…”
She hesitated, closed her eyes, and spoke, the words that made Gazi look up at her old friend, Rasea Zecrew turn and laugh, and the Quarass close her eyes and think.
“Let all those who hold chains, beware.”
[Conditions Met: Plotter → Chaos Schemer class!]
[Chaos Schemer Level 16!]
[Skill Change — Prepared Signal → Plotter’s Network obtained!]
[Skill — Chaos Theory (Low-Risk) obtained!]
[Skill — Walk Out of Trouble obtained!]
[Conditions Met: Sand Mage → Bloodglass Mage!]
[Bloodglass Mage Level 30!]
[Skill — Spell Refraction obtained!]
[Skill — Advanced Golem Shaping obtained!]
[Skill — Create Lifeglass obtained!]
[Spell — Arrows of Filled Glass obtained!]
Author’s Note: When I reach the end of an arc, or volume, especially something I have planned for a long, long time—Raelt’s duel being a good example—I get nervous.
I am a ball of stress suspended over a pool of sharks on fire. And the pool is filled with oil, so the sharks are probably dead, but that’s how it feels. I don’t often post about it.
I write ‘I’m tired’ a lot and I like to complain, but I am always nervous about writing big chapters. Because you get one chance in web serials. You can revise and edit…but a lot of readers will only read your story once, the first time.
All this to say I hope you enjoyed this. Or didn’t enjoy this, but found it thrilling, sad, emotional…found it something rather than nothing, which is the worst a story can be.
It was a long time coming. And we have more to go. In fact, I think next chapter might be the Navah Wolfe chapter and so it might go to her and you’ll see it sometime later and much improved! So be warned the next one might not come out but come later.
I uh…I’m gonna have to work hard on that. But I do like to write. I like telling stories well, so the nightmare is telling it poorly. Hope you enjoyed and see you next chapter…which might be actually in a week…
Someone Got a Tattoo! Kelli has a tattoo of Wistram! That’s amazing! Uh…great chapter to feature the art?
Stained Glass Erin by Momo!
Numbtongue the [Cat Bard], Liscor’s Finest Duo and Cara O’Sullivan by Artsynada!