They called it Norechl. God of the Forgotten. Dead God of Lost Things. It had been named before all of this, in a time when it had first arrived. Not even the others quite knew all of what Norechl was.
Tamaroth. God of Rulers and Leaders. First of his pantheon, first among all.
Kasigna. Three-in-One. Goddess of Death and the Afterlife. Strongest in this place.
Emerrhain. God of Scholars, of Magic. And God of Secrets. A title stolen from the corpse of the last god to hold it.
Laedonius Deviy. God of Dance and Love. Almost as foreign as Norechl, a traveler.
Cauwine. Goddess of War, of Youth. Youngest of all and older than anything else in this world.
Six dead gods. Six beings who had known death and yet refused to fully vanish. Their return had taken an aeon. They had rotted. Corpses without true form. Grasping at anything to live again.
Here in the Deadlands, the afterlife, they had preyed on the smallest of souls like wretched scavengers, waiting for their moment. At last, it had come.
Izril was gone. The continent was stripped of all souls save those who had fled, or hid, or found safe harbor in the last strongholds of ghosts with means to hold off the six.
Relics whose existence transcended mere magic in some way. Objects bound to the souls of those who had held them. Power conferred on rulers even in death.
Dragonfire. Memory of objects so powerful even gods acknowledged them; a sword, an umbrella. Possessions of dead gods and their ilk.
Oberon, the Faerie King. Now that one—the six feared in truth. It would mean His death in surety, of course. And theirs.
Stymied. Hungry, held off by the resilience of mortal souls, the six had been frustrated. For all their strength, even Kasigna, who had shaped this place, who ruled it, had not the strength to harvest the last souls. Not yet.
So they all made plans or found suitable ways to influence the living world. Some did both, like that schemer, Emerrhain. Others waited or scavenged; they had long to wait. A little longer…a little longer would not be so hard. They were ravenous, still. But they could wait a little longer for the oldest plans and failsafes to continue working.
Then, Norechl had hatched its plan. It had gone to the edge of the world, which even ghosts feared, and cast itself into the depths. It had fallen a long time, and even the other five gods had naught but trepidation.
Norechl was not like the others. It was not even the same…as the others. Laedonius Deviy came from distant pantheons, an exile, a survivor, a refugee—he had never given reason. But Norechl…was different.
It was kin to A’ctelios Salash. Kin to…things. Things which even gods had no answer for. Which crept into orderly universes like a plague or gazed into mortal realms and tore holes in reality. Norechl fell into the hole blasted in the world, and not even the other five gods dared follow or look long.
If that were the end of it, it would have been enough. Yet Norechl survived. And it called its kin, the things that the living called Seamwalkers, who sometimes rose over The Last Tide, upwards. Not one. Nor two.
Thousands. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands of its kind. Weaker by far, but they did not rise in the lands of the living. They followed Norechl into a plane they had never known was there. They were not…intelligent in the same way as the ghosts of the dead, but it knew them. Weaker kin though they may be, they were still of Norechl’s get.
All they needed was a change of perspective.
It took them a long time to climb. They grew hungry. They fought each other. Many fell, too weak. More still stayed below, immune to Norechl’s lures, tracing their own strange thoughts. Some…got lost. But the rest followed.
When the first reached the top of their long journey, all the ghosts of the Deadlands felt it. They turned and flocked to the borders of their world and saw something that defied distance. The first…head…rising.
It took them a month to climb. A month to finally drag themselves upwards. To rest, but for a moment. The ghosts, the living soul among them, Erin Solstice, watched. They couldn’t help it.
They watched the end of their world.
Erin Solstice watched them climb for a month. She did not know how long it was until she could tear her eyes from that sight—but she was transfixed. Like a moth ensnared in a web of the mind.
Time, attention, sanity, reality, all blurred away as she looked at them. Seamwalkers. Something spawned past the end of the world. It was not just that they were horrible. It was that they were so alien she couldn’t comprehend what she was seeing. They did not exist like she did. Erin had witnessed strange animals from her world and even stranger monsters and creatures and modalities of life, but they were still understandable.
Norechl’s kin were not. Even looking upon them hurt. Even looking upon the least of them…stole something from Erin. Her eyes were windows to the soul, and they leaked, tiny dribbles of being slowly sucked towards voids of everything she was.
So many. Giants…some as tall as the actual Giants. Others ‘shorter’, but there were so many. Erin Solstice gazed at Norechl, truly a being of nothing—then at them. She had a long time to see.
One of the first to rise wearied, for it was still flesh. It drooped forwards, a scabbed, slumping finger of being. Erin looked up and saw that fulsome flesh, pallid from a land that did not dream of light, shake and part to reveal dilapidated eyes. Blind vessels from which roiling filaments searched, little tendrils of squirming malevolence within the sclera, peeking left and right. The jaws folded morbidly together like the most emaciated arms opened wide, revealing a nostrous mouth which joined stomach and cilium-threads that begged, drooling, for sustenance. A ravenous coffin-carnivore trapped within morbid layers of rotting skin turned, a gesture of open embrace as a centipede might offer. Then it fell forwards and scuttled, blind and loathsome, keening a half-song, half-wail of sucked sounds. Digestion given voice, a craving of malevolent intent.
That was as long as Erin could stand to see it before she looked past it. It was…worse than a Creler. The thing heaved itself onto ‘land’, the Deadlands itself, and lay there, resting. Another being had climbed overlong too and lay, so thin as to be ghastly, mouths gibbering upwards.
Was it speaking? It was truly as tall as a Giant, but with far less mass. Some kind of diseased bone made up its shell-body, a stalk concealing interior flesh.
They were the first of thousands. If it were just those two, the ghosts might have overwhelmed them, even a single nation. Any Giant of Chandrar would have done terrible battle, even without weapons or flesh or magic or Skills to erase them.
But it was not two, but hundreds of thousands. And while every ghost in existence might eradicate them, they were more than simply horrific in and of themselves. Norechl had brought more than doom.
It had brought life.
The stalk-beast was infested. Erin saw tiny shapes scuttling, devouring, squabbling with mindless starvation as they gestated and fell from the giant thing. At this, Gerial moaned.
“It’s a nest.”
He, an adventurer, recognized what it was, and the ghosts shuddered as they realized new life was propagating across some of the beasts. Clones or children or simply more of their kind. They scuttled, were trodden upon, and left stains on the fabric of death, but they followed their giant cousins, prey and servants…colonizers to the world above.
“It was the sacred duty of Khelt and every land to fight against Seamwalkers. To eradicate…what they brought. A’ctelios Salash was one of the few we could not destroy, and it was a rot that corrupted the people of Tombhome. It is one among legions. This is the end if they cross into the Chandrar of now.”
Khelta spoke, and Erin wrenched her eyes from another figure, slowly vomiting the contents of its being onto a new land, the swarm devouring the old vessel and spreading out.
And still, they were so far away that the greatest sea lay between them, along with islands and much of Chandrar. Yet the ghosts saw the Seamwalkers, saw Norechl’s advance, because they drew on the fabric of reality, and everything was tearing as they began advancing.
That was when the spell broke. That was when the ghosts finally were able to move and fled backwards towards Khelt. Nerrhavia herself lifted her head and spoke.
“I have been called the Immortal Tyrant—but I have never stained my soul as badly as some I knew. Even they I would lie abed with and hold close to wipe away that nightmare. All is lost. I would rather one of those six take me than that.”
Eldritch carrion had come for the souls of the dead. Erin Solstice looked back and saw one thing amidst the doom walking forwards now, each step taking forever, but inexorable as fate.
A smile. The God of the Lost smiled…at her. With gleeful malice. It had learned malice and hate and vindictiveness and vengeance and was thus more than any of its lesser kin. It had brought them here to destroy the last safe havens of the dead. To bring an end to all, no matter the cost.
Erin Solstice fled towards Khelt as Norechl smiled. It was well and truly mad—and even the other five were horrified.
“Norechl! Norechl! What have you done?”
It was Laedonius Deviy who cried out first. In horror. And yes—in fright. In true fear, because he had not condoned Norechl’s plan, not been advised—and if he had known, he would have done battle with Norechl to stop this.
He was alone and bitterly cursing a race lost when he saw Norechl’s madness. Though sometimes the six gathered, it was only to break down the dead’s defenses. After that, they fought and went their own ways. Even now, they did not work well together at most times.
They had always been fair-weather friends and enemies, and this…this was the final game, a struggle for survival. To be first was to crush the others. There was emotion in it, schemes and plans and alliances and, of course, desperation.
This, though, was madness even to the other five. Emerrhain was the only one of the five to respond to Laedonius’ message at first. Then Kasigna.
“Where are Cauwine and Tamaroth?”
“One is gone. The other? I do not know. Watching Norechl’s folly. It has brought them. We are all in danger.”
Emerrhain, that smug one, turned his head to Laedonius Deviy, but the God of Secrets had missed the greatest opportunity for once, occupied with his own plans around Wistram. Kasigna must not have known either, and in any other time the God of Dance and Love would also have been God of Laughter.
Not now. Emerrhain’s gaze was wide with a similar fear.
“They can harm us.”
“Not I. I will destroy this infestation of my lands and Norechl next.”
The three-in-one vowed, with the least fear of all, because it was her place. Even so…she did not exactly hasten to do battle. She was one. They were legion.
Emerrhain was muttering to himself as he looked beyond.
“They’ll ruin everything. Fools. I am surrounded by madness. It won’t stop here. They will tear their way through to the mortal realm. Devour the ghosts—my plans! I see only a few of true…”
He gazed, counting, and Laedonius did likewise.
The same horrors that Erin Solstice had witnessed were terrible in nature to mortals, but the gods feared only…he counted.
“…Eleven. Eleven of truest threat. I will make a pact to slay all eleven.”
“In time. They cannot harm me, not in my domain. Do what you wish with the others. Norechl may well destroy itself.”
Kasigna turned, and Laedonius nearly reached for her, but he was too proud to beg. Nor would she have done anything other than laugh at him if he had.
Besides—it was true. Norechl was leading its kin, but it was also fleeing them. Most could not devour it—but eleven might if it were unguarded. It had thrown itself down to teach them how to find this place, like a bright lure cast into the deepest ocean.
“Kasigna is right. Damn Tamaroth or Cauwine. I will find my way and cross over if I must. When the dark hour comes that this horde ravages the known world, they will call to me, and I will be there.”
Laedonius spoke and strode off as well. It was Emerrhain who called out, nerves betraying him. He had always been cowardly in the face of true might—and he had not changed over eternity.
“Laedonius! Kasigna! We must stand together! Do you not fear that?”
The two turned and laughed at him. Laughed and laughed…and Laedonius answered.
“Work together? To slay those, I will. But now no safe haven remains. Mad it is, but Norechl has given us the last souls. So we will take them and fight for the greatest. Abandon your plans, Emerrhain. You will have to learn how to step lively.”
He sneered at the God of Magic and went to find his place. Yes…devour as much as he could. Which continent? Which place? Kasigna turned, and a young woman who looked like Erin Solstice gazed towards Chandrar.
“Vengeance can wait. I will outlast all, here.”
She too left, and Emerrhain stood, cursing with terror. They could tear bits of him away, but they were still not complete like Norechl. Still…he looked up and then turned.
Where were the other two? He did not know, because while he had been at his plans, while Norechl’s army rose, a month had passed in the land of the living. One month…too short and too long. And as the dead streamed back to Khelt, a single undead ruler heard the final toll, the final warning.
Fetohep of Khelt, the 19th Ruler of Eternal Khelt, Revenant and ruler of Khelt—now Protectorate of Jecrass—sat upon his throne and watched the news. What he saw was terrible. Yet the Revenant had perfect posture, dark, regal robes of perfect indigo writ with simple silver listing the names and lineages of everyone he had ever known and loved or hated and respected in his life hanging upon his thin, emaciated form.
Some bandages too, wrapping his fragile, six hundred year-old flesh to preserve it. A single crown sat upon his head, but no jewelry or other marks of frivolous, overcompensating royalty. The golden flames of his eye-sockets, his simple presence was authority without question in Khelt.
He sat and watched the news. It was reflected in the crystal hovering in front of him, each facet showing a different news station, and multiple other scrying orbs, which also gave him access to more points of view. He had a [Message] scroll filled with desperate communiques and a quill ready to scribe any dictation, but Fetohep of Khelt was silent.
Khelt was a nation that had lain quiet for millenia. It was, like the Shield Kingdoms, prepared to wait. A paradise that was a paradise because it zealously guarded its borders and took little role in the world.
That had changed of late, but—Fetohep toyed with something as he watched.
A single slip of parchment. A short missive that he had received four days ago. The Revenant King watched disaster as he held more of it in his hands. He did nothing. Because it was his duty to stay here.
Because…he had done all he was able from this far-off throne. He was waiting to see what happened next.
One month. One month of silence from the Deadlands. Fetohep of Khelt was not a ruler prone to nervousness.
But one month was far too long. He had been told to expect the worst if he were ever faced with silence.
So he did all he could. He assumed the last plans Khelta herself had made were in action. Fetohep had made…choices. Choices for the worse, it seemed.
Disaster. Liscor. It revolved around Liscor. A single thread connected many world events, though Fetohep could only see a part of them. He held a missive from Liscor, from Selys Shivertail, and waited for her to tell him what had happened and suspected the worst.
What Fetohep watched was…the news. And the Drake, Drassi, also came from Liscor. In fact, she had worked at the very inn that was the locus of events. Her voice—was very pained.
She would have made a fine citizen of Khelt. Not that she had earned it from reporting or her class. Not because Fetohep valued her class and levels, which were not yet that high. No…simply because she was honest. Because she had what so many did not always have.
“…if, if you’re just tuning in, I’m Drassi. We are watching—the beginnings of a civil war, I think. Drake armies on the march still. This is all going wrong. That—see that little girl?”
Fetohep saw. He knew her name and face before Drassi spoke and echoed the word.
“Mrsha. She’s an innocent girl. I know her. I don’t care what they’re saying. Listen—someone help her. Anyone. Gold-rank adventurers, mercenaries—I earn 2,300 gold pieces per year. I’ll take out a debt if I have to. Someone—please.”
She was so distraught, her cohosts, Sir Relz and Noass, uniquely somber, broke in as Drassi gulped for air. It was Noass who opened his mouth.
“This is—shaping up to be a really, ah, terrible battle. I know we have Ailendamus’ army from their capital about to meet Tyrion Veltras and the Dawn Concordat on the field, but I think we can all agree this trumps that. It’s unclear which of the armies—including three—four—five Walled Cities—will be taking sides or simply, ah, f—fighting the Gnolls. We can only watch, and we’ll be here all day and night. Do you want to take a break, Drassi? Can I get a Potion of Calm here? Glass of water?”
He turned, and Sir Relz broke in.
“I say, what was that, Drassi? Did you say you were paid…two thousand three hundred? Because I am, uh, fairly certain that my remunerations are approximately five thousand per year with six hundred gold coins in expenses…”
Fetohep said nothing. He just watched. He watched a little girl with white fur suffering because of a color. He did not move.
He saw and felt servants of Khelt fighting, drawn from one of the great relics of Khelt to defend its wielder. That was something. But he held that little piece of paper in his hand.
How much longer will I wait? The piece of paper distressed him…as much as what he saw. He should have told Kevin to stop. To wait.
But he had not known what was happening in the Deadlands. All he could do was make informed decisions, and he had little information. The people with whom he would have been consulting had just—vanished. Gone quiet.
Nothing was more terrifying to the undead ruler than silence. He had waited centuries in control of his kingdom—but the last month was the hardest he had ever lived through. Something terrible had happened. He knew it.
Then—the ghosts came back.
They arrived in a sudden rush. A sea of every ghost that had ever died in Chandrar, countless billions, maybe a number even greater than that, from large to small, from legends to common folk, flooding into Khelt, overlapping, babbling of destruction and the end of the world, horror and despair.
Fetohep, of course, heard almost none of it. But a strange contraption he had ordered dug out of Khelt’s vault, the only one that his people had been able to find, twisted as a Soulweave Veil—a strange object like a dreamcatcher, or so Erin had claimed, but patterned with a thousand strings, creating a beautiful, eerie pattern—swung madly.
Signs of ghosts. It whispered for a moment as Fetohep rose, bulged wildly, then tore itself into pieces. The ruler of Khelt saw the artifact shred itself before more ghosts than its creator had ever dreamed would be in one place. And he heard their voices.
The Rulers of Khelt and Erin. Those were the only ones Fetohep could hear, by virtue of his connection with the rulers of Khelt.
“—return you to your body, Erin. Now. The ritual must be attempted. We must stand here. Stand, I said! Cease your wailing and hear me!”
It was Khelta, first of all, the great [Queen of Necrocracy] that Fetohep heard, calling to the other invisible ghosts around him. Her voice was…strained.
Fetohep saw her striding, gesticulating, but he did not see the other ghosts—only her. Fetohep began to speak when someone stormed towards him, through one of the walls of his palace.
“Fetohep of Khelt! You must awaken Erin! You must hasten the completion of the ritual at any cost! Fetohep, the enemy has made its move, and time has run out!”
It was Queen Xierca, his predecessor and beloved ruler. Fetohep had never seen her as worried as this. Anguished, yes, guilty when she reclaimed his broken body from the battlefield and gave him the weight of his duties.
“Great Khelta? What is happening? Is Erin Solstice alive? Where have you been?”
Xierca blinked at Fetohep, her ghostly body the echo of her living self. She shook her head.
“Alive? No. We have seen the enemy. It moves! They come from beyond the edge! Fetohep—”
She was making no sense—and her voice was one of eighteen. Fetohep heard Serept speaking to someone. Erin Solstice was disappearing through one of the walls, looking confused. She was noticing…Fetohep lifted the piece of paper in his hands. He turned to Khelta as the [Necromancer] whirled to him.
“Great Khelta. Wait. Explain.”
“There is no time! We must move! There is not time to waste!”
It was so funny, coming from her. Fetohep tried to speak—a month of waiting for them! He had been waiting for—but he kept his voice steady. Something truly terrible must be happening, but he needed clarity.
“Time. I thought you had already—Khelta. Where have you been?”
At last, the tone of Fetohep’s voice made the ghosts pause. Serept, Xierca, Khelta looked around. The rulers of Khelt turned to Fetohep suddenly as Erin Solstice reappeared. She floated over to a window.
How ironic that she got it, among all the great souls present. But then—she was still alive. She noticed what they did not. Fetohep saw her glance out the window, then at him with great uncertainty.
“That building wasn’t there before.”
Khelta looked about. Fetohep saw her gaze shift to sudden unease, then she flitted to a window. Fetohep rose. They must be referring to the ritual site. Trials were still ongoing, but it had been completed…he just hadn’t known what to do next. Khelta stared out of the window, then back at him.
“Fetohep? How long…we went to the coast to see…how long has it been?”
Fetohep of Khelt looked around at the ghosts. He knew time passed differently for them, but…he answered slowly.
“It has been one month since I last communicated with you.”
As one, the ghosts of Khelt’s rulers and Erin Solstice turned to stare at each other. If possible—their looks of horror deepened. As one, they whirled and looked to face…something.
Eastwards? Fetohep had forgotten the chill of unease, the scrawl of fear. His dead skin did not react in such a way, but the phantom-memory of that sensation still hovered in his mind. Khelta turned to Erin and exhaled.
“Then it is beyond time. Erin Solstice.”
She reached out and took the [Innkeeper]’s hands.
“Let us go.”
Khelta turned then, holding Erin’s hands. To tell Fetohep what had happened, to explain what was coming and make Khelt ready—and tell him it was beyond time to return Erin Solstice to her body. One last hope for the dead to make a difference among the living, some small good.
“We must make a stand on Chandrar’s borders. We can block them—but we will need to use the single sword and umbrella if light can hurt these foes. The rest? Flee to Baleros or Terandria.”
“What good is flight?”
His-Xe raised a finger.
“Perhaps only to spite those six or choose how to fall. Khelta is right—we must buy time. Time for Erin Solstice to be returned. That is a small victory.”
“Great Rulers. I must tell you something.”
Fetohep tried to interrupt, but now Khelta was shushing the others.
“Silence! The rest of you, save Xierca and Heris, go restore order! I must tell Fetohep—Fetohep, we have just witnessed a portent of the end. Recall what I told you of the six? One of them has summoned an army of Seamwalkers. Into the lands of the dead. I did not think it was possible, but somehow—they are here. And they are no ghosts. I fear they might appear in our world as some specters do. So you must return Erin to her body.”
“Great Khelta. There is something you do not know. You must listen.”
“Not now, Fetohep. Listen—this is not a mere force. A’ctelios Salash is kin in height to some of them—and they are accompanied by the spawn of legions.”
The ghosts spoke over him in a babble. His-Xe was trying to define one in Fetohepp’s other ear unhelpfully.
“It…squiggled. Do you understand? A squiggling horror, that was the motion of so many disparate tendrils. The loathsome appendages had neither true color; I beheld the viscous blood pumping from no less than three dozen hearts. It seemed to me that each one was one and many, a conjoined dark purpose—”
“—The one that has no face or true personality leads them. Understand—they are kin to it, and it is a dead…thing. Three letters. You cannot comprehend it as we have understood, but they are clearly kin in nature. But this one is not like the other five. Three letters—”
The Revenant’s head was spinning trying to hear all the voices. Seamwalkers? An army of…was it connected to A’ctelios Salash stirring? However—before that. Fetohep looked his great predecessor in the eyes. She had to know something.
“Khelta, that is not the only great issue—”
Even Xierca was speaking over him, though.
“Dear Fetohep, I know there must be issues among the living. Yet this is the end. I wished to give you my final blessing. I fear those things devour souls like the six. So please, carry my last will unto—”
“—from every angle, Fetohep. There will be no stand in Baleros or Terandria. The relics of nations and Dragons are not enough in number to kill more than a fraction. They will turn to you next. Marshal my Little Brother-King! Hecrelunn will—must serve you in this dark hour, and even his power must be—”
Fetohep’s lungs had mostly rotted away, but even so, reflexively, he inhaled before he shouted.
“Rulers of Khelt! SILENCE. Hear me now! Silence, I said!”
The babble of voices and orders broke off suddenly. Eighteen ghosts floated there, blinking, as Fetohep roared at them. They fell silent, and Fetohep turned his head.
“Erin Solstice is here?”
“I’m here. Didn’t you see me, Fetohep? Hi.”
A ghost stepped into his view, around His-Xe, and waved a few times. An [Innkeeper]. Fetohep raised the slip of paper.
“Then disaster strikes twice.”
One of the Rulers of Khelt frowned.
“How do you mean, Fetohep?”
At last, the ghostly woman seemed uncertain. She floated forwards and noticed he was holding something, though she could not see the parchment. Fetohep simply lifted it and spoke as he bowed his head.
“A day ago I received this missive. The Goblin, Rags, attempted to revive Erin Solstice.”
The ghosts went silent. Erin Solstice raised her head in sudden alarm.
“What? But we were not ready! We had no warning, Fetohep—”
Queen Heris exclaimed, but Khelta broke in.
“Do not blame Fetohep. We were transfixed watching their rise. A month? A month gone? I gave him orders to attempt it if we were to vanish. What does it say? When did this ritual occur?”
Like a man slowly descending a ladder into drowning waters, Fetohep went on. The sense of doom grew the longer he spoke. Because he was sure…he gazed at Erin.
“The Goblin set out four days ago. The ritual—yesterday. The message I received comes from Selys Shivertail of Liscor.”
“Selys? What did she write? What…what happened?”
Now all the rulers gathered around Fetohep. Faces ranging from shock to confusion. Fetohep just wished he had eyelids to close.
Four days ago…oh, what had he done? Failed to prevent? Fetohep read the paper again. It was a simple transcription. A [Message] spell from Selys Shivertail to Fetohep and an entire list of friends and people with one cause. Fetohep had read it on his [Message] scroll, then ordered it transcribed in hopes he had gotten it wrong.
It seemed he had not. He looked down at the hasty note, which had no followup to the desperate inquiries from the others, himself included. It read:
We tried the ritual. Something went wrong. It’s not her. Relc went after her.
Fetohep looked up. He stared straight at the shocked ghost of the [Innkeeper], and it confirmed the worst. If it weren’t the ghost standing before him…
Who was it? Which one? Did it even matter?
The worst had come to the worst. Disaster struck twice. In the silence, the despair that ate that last firefly of hope…an [Innkeeper] sighed.
So here they were. Erin Solstice was still shuddering from what she had witnessed.
The end of the world. The Deadlands and perhaps more.
Norechl, the God of the Lost, leading an army of its kin to overrun any protections the ghosts of this world had.
Magic sword, stolen umbrella, the sands of Khelt’s rulers, or even the relics of Terandria’s blades and Dragonfire. Even the Dragonlord, Xarkouth, and the gigantic Wyrm were humbled by the sight of foes larger and more horrific than they could dream of.
“And someone hijacked my body.”
Erin couldn’t help but add that one in. Just…it was a bit personal. Not hugely grand…okay, maybe horrible depending on which one had gotten it.
But she felt like it mattered to her.
The rulers of Khelt that Fetohep could see were joined by the great ghosts of old. Erin’s friends. Gerial, Cawe, Califor and the [Witches], the Rebel of String, Elucina, the Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets, Velzimri, the dead Earther, Abel, and so many more.
Facing the end. Not just that—Ryoka Griffin was a kidnap-victim of some huge Wyrm…jerk…in Ailendamus. To hear Fetohep tell it, Mrsha was being hunted by her own kind.
Oh, and there were some wars in Baleros and around here. Just to put the icing on the calamity cake.
Erin Solstice had known terrible days. Days when a single Goblin Chieftain was breaking down her door.
When Skinner was crawling up to her inn.
When a Goblin Lord attacked Liscor.
She was fairly upset that the worst days of her life kept being trumped. And to look around at that sea of ghosts—this was their worst day too. Each and every single one. None could name a greater threat.
…Okay, some of the really old ones and Named Adventurers were comparing this to the Creler Wars, or the time when magic died, but it was tied for worst day ever. Erin Solstice sat, chin in her hands.
“So this is it?”
The rulers of Khelt were putting on a brave face. Erin saw Nerrhavia, the Immortal Tyrant, trying to rally the shocked ghosts who followed her.
She counted…fifty-eight speeches going on. What it looked like to Erin was that the greatest heroes of every age were rather like the people in her inn. Some had shattered mountains and led armies.
But they were still people. When the end came, some panicked. Others raged. Still more stood defiant or resolved themselves for the last. It was patently unfair.
It reminded Erin of something. A very wise Selphid, Jelaqua, had once said something to Erin after the death of Ulrien. When they talked about brave, good people like the Gold-rank Captain and Brunkr dying.
“Sometimes the bad guys win.”
Khelta looked at her—and so did Fetohep.
“What, Erin Solstice?”
The [Innkeeper] shrugged fractionally, chin in her hands.
“I think that’s what she said. Jelaqua. She told me once—that being a Gold-rank adventurer, an adventurer, meant that you had adventures like that. Sometimes you didn’t make it out. Sometimes the good guys lost and the bad people got away. I saw it happen myself.”
It reminded her of that. Of Tyrion Veltras, of Regrika Blackpaw.
Sometimes the sky fell down. Erin Solstice slowly got up. She dusted off her clothing and found she was wearing a stained and worn apron. She looked down at some casual, padded shoes and worn, Drake-style pants. She scrubbed at her hair as the ghosts turned to her.
She did not collapse. Califor drifted over, resolved.
“We must reclaim your body, Erin Solstice. No one must use it.”
“I know. And I know this is…it. Khelt can’t block those things with walls of sand.”
“Perhaps one. Or three. Or as many as we. But some are true monsters to match Giants. And we have no Skills nor magic! We may fight them—or perhaps they will erase us with a touch. The former, I hope. But Chandrar is lost.”
Khelta said it calmly. Fetohep’s head rose, and the undead Revenant’s jaw fell open, but he said nothing. Just listened. Khelta turned, and a sense of purpose entered her eyes.
“We must return you to your body, Erin Solstice. That is the one thing we can do. A small act of defiance. And the rest…we will make a final stand. A last, glorious battle, even if it must be with hand and soul.”
Her words failed to inspire many. However…the [Innkeeper] just nodded.
“Yeah. That’s how it should end.”
Gerial looked at Erin and saw the [Innkeeper] was smiling slightly. She looked into the distance and sighed.
Gerial rested a hand on her shoulder. She couldn’t feel it, but Erin smiled at him anyways. She lifted a hand and made a fist and it was heavy. Small. No [Minotaur’s Punch] behind it.
“Sorry, Gerial. This is it, isn’t it?”
Erin Solstice touched Gerial’s arm with her own, and it wasn’t as…real as she remembered. What had she been wearing? What cloth? It all blurred a bit, like a lost memory.
Witch Califor broke off from talking with the other [Witches] and turned. The ghosts saw Erin Solstice smiling around. But faintly. As faintly as the flickering memory of her clothes.
“Sorry, guys. I just realized—this is it. Really it. No second chances. I’m glad I’m here with everyone. Really. I’m just…a bit exhausted. So I’ll fight hard, then have a sleep. Sometimes you do your best, and then you fail. Then you find out what comes next.”
She looked at her hands and laughed softly. Sadly.
“Then I guess we find out what comes next after even that. Because I don’t think we’ll win this one.”
A little ghost was fading away before their eyes. No…she had been waning ever since she came here. Now she flickered low, but she was waiting. Waiting…for the last burst of flame. One last blaze before it all went out. And this time—it would be the end. Everything ended some day.
The [Innkeeper] looked up, and no one, from rulers to heroes, had anything else to say.
It was true. There was not even a body to get to. The Scroll of Resurrection seemed so far away. Khelta glanced at Erin Solstice as Califor strode over.
“You have somewhere left to be, Erin Solstice. I will see you returned to your body if only for my daughter.”
Erin nodded. Yet—Califor? Gerial?
“Everyone else is gone, though. Even if I get back. That’s true too, isn’t it, Califor? I’ve seen it before. I’m tired of being the last one.”
She lowered her head, and the dead watched her in silence. Erin Solstice closed her eyes as Califor watched her flicker. She took one deep breath. Then another. Then Nerrhavia tried to slap her.
Erin recoiled as the Immortal Tyrant, the hated ruler of the greatest empire of her time, planted her feet in front of Erin. Nerrhavia wore a death’s mask, stained with blood. Captured in the perfect likeness of her face, dressed in the flowing robes cut from a cloth like blood, woven of heartstring and malice.
The clothing she had worn when they came for her in her inner sanctum. She looked like the Nerrhavia whose name they still spoke. Bitterly defiant to the last. She faced Erin Solstice and raised one delicately painted nail, coated with poisonous ink that released deadly fumes.
“…I have never heard such defeatist talk in my life. Let alone from you. Is it our end, Erin Solstice? Then let me tell you this, as someone who has never regretted anything but failing. Do not shake when the [Headman] comes! Poison him with a kiss and smile into the hereafter. If this is Chandrar’s final hour, let our foes forever remember our passing!”
She turned and stared at the Seamwalkers.
“What separates us from filth is not how we fall, but how we descend to meet our end. Raise your chin. Laugh in their faces and spit into damnation’s eyes.”
Erin Solstice looked at Nerrhavia. The Tyrant gazed back at her.
“You would have made a fine servant. With some work, you might have made a great [General] of my empire and had it last another thousand years. A shame you grew up in such a soft land as Izril.”
Every ghost from Izril and many from Chandrar were glaring at Nerrhavia…but her words had worked. Erin blinked at her—then smiled.
“Erin, I think she means…”
“No, it’s okay, Gerial. Nerrhavia’s right for once.”
Erin Solstice took a deep breath.
“I just had a weak moment. I’m sorry. Sometimes you have them. But Nerrhavia’s…right.”
She looked across at the haughty woman many had called the worst monster of her age. Erin Solstice saw a daring smile. The [Innkeeper]’s own smile appeared again.
“I don’t know if I would want to be a [General]. But you, Nerrhavia? You would have made for a good [Innkeeper]. Except for the poisoning people thing.”
“How dare you.”
Yet Erin felt it now. At the end of the world…she needed a weapon. So, she reached out and grabbed for what was most familiar. The heavy weight, the wrapped handle…sometimes you cooked with it, but it was a multi-purpose tool.
Erin pulled something out of a memory. The last living soul in the land of the dead conjured something, and the ghosts turned to see what it was.
A frying pan. Erin waved it around a bit—then decided to add the memory of an acid jar since she had a hand free.
“Uh. Are you intending to fight the foes from beyond the end of the worst, the things that walk the world’s seam, the spawn that even those six fear and come by the endless numbers—with that?”
Nerrhavia poked a finger at the frying pan. Erin hesitated.
“Well, I dunno what you’ve got, but I know how to throw a frying pan. And this is acid. From acid flies. It melts people.”
She waved the jar, and the Tyrant blinked at it.
However, she saw the [Innkeeper] swinging the pan a few times. When Erin Solstice looked up, she saw the ghosts of Chandrar watching her.
“…What? I can make a few more if you want. Even a sword, I guess.”
“Do you not see the end of all coming our way?”
One of the ghosts demanded. Erin peered into the distance. Walls of Khelt’s palace, landmarks—it all faded away. She could see that line of abominations moving. Erin nodded and spoke quietly.
“Oh yes, I see it. I’m not stupid either, no matter what you may think. I see it…and this is what I’ve got. Everyone else ready?”
She looked around.
“I don’t think we can surrender. And if it’s the last moment, then I’m going to hit one of them once. Just once. Let’s go out fighting.”
That was how it had almost ended, many times. Nerrhavia exhaled.
“One last death to end them all. Shall we?”
Nerrhavia offered her arm to Gerial, who blinked at it uncertainly. Erin just linked arms, and they began to walk forwards. The ghost looked tired. But she was smiling.
Fetohep of Khelt saw Khelta glancing at Erin, but he was listening to her speak.
“You must return her to her body, Fetohep. You must.”
“She is…one soul, Khelta. Fetohep must prepare for tears in reality. If what the experts are saying is true, they could begin crossing over once we are gone.”
Serept rumbled, but Khelta stomped one foot.
“He must! The enemy must not have form. And—it is a point of honor. We have sworn to return her—and we shall. Do you hear me, Fetohep?”
She turned to him, and the ruler bowed.
“Great Khelta. It shall be done, upon Khelt’s will.”
“That is what I want to hear. Then…know that if we vanish a second time, it will be a truer farewell. We must speak before then. I do not believe there will be time for all but the briefest farewells.”
Khelta smiled sadly, and Fetohep saw it in her eyes. That valiant despair you saw in battle. He ducked his head silently again, and then spoke.
“Is there aught that can be done, Khelta? The ritual spell—”
Her gaze brightened and the other rulers stirred.
“Yes. How complete is it? That might be the only—the only help. But it will not save all of us. And—it may fail. But there is some hope there. As for warriors—no. Khelt’s strength is ironically in life. The dead are just dead here, and we have no flesh or magic or Skills to fight.”
She clenched her fists helplessly. The stories of her had said she had raised armies with the literal snap of a finger. Had conjured such great magic that all species had respected her and gone to her to speak with their beloved dead. This Khelta was as helpless as a Sariant Lamb.
It was not right.
The rulers of Khelt were issuing last orders to their mortal servant, Fetohep. Xierca was composing a speech.
The rest of the ghosts were just…debating where to go. Where to flee before the end. Some were of the opinion that here was the place to fight. Others had just given up.
“If it is such an end—perhaps we should simply let ourselves dissolve rather than be food. One last act of spite against those who would consume us. I believe it can be done.”
That bitter refrain came from Elucina herself. She gripped at the phantom of a blade. Some ghosts looked shocked, but more and more nodded.
“Well spoken, Rebel of String. Better to go peacefully—rather than aid those craven dogs. Those willing to lift that sword of Kings or fight—but I tire of this. All of this. If the [Innkeeper] needs to return to her body, let some fight for it. But enough. Enough.”
Drevish, the Architect, sat bitterly on the ground. He looked around.
“I did not toil my lifetime to see that it was all meaningless. What a bitter reward for all our tears and dreams.”
More ghosts were nodding. Erin Solstice herself…how could she return to a body that was already alive? Would Fetohep have to kill her twice?
…Would she be put in a skeleton’s body? Toren 2.0? What would you even call that?
She was just tired. They all were. No fiery speeches remained, just resolve and exhaustion.
Still, someone did object. Amidst all the ghosts, one spoke up against Elucina and Drevish’s plan, against the final stand and retreat.
Xarkouth, the Dragonlord of Stars, raised his head and spoke one word.
“No. We will not fight here. Nor will we simply let ourselves vanish to no end.”
Everyone turned to him. Erin blinked as the Void Dragon flapped his wings once. Nerrhavia drifted back over, outraged. She raised a hand as if to slap his huge head.
“Have you lost your nerve, Dragon? If you lack the mettle to face your end well, hide until the last like the rest of your scaly kind!”
Xarkouth glared at Nerrhavia and exhaled a plume of strange fire. He shook his head.
“No. Do not say the end is nigh. Not now. Not yet. The enemy has made its final move in this war—and so it is time for ours. Baleros stands, still. Those things come from every direction—from every land. The last bastions will not hold. That does not mean we have lost. It is time. Human.”
He turned to Erin, and she jumped.
The Void Dragon nodded and fixed her with one huge eye.
“When we first met, you showed me the umbrella—the memory of an umbrella that conjured sunlight from the real world. Gifts of the six turned against them. Are there not two more?”
“Y-yeah. But one’s a noose that you hang yourself with and the other’s a horn that you blow to alert people. Not the most useful. Like a sword.”
The Dragonlord nodded.
“Just so. Yet now is the moment. Doubtless, they see the end—but every battle needs a fitting signal. Use the horn. Tell them Chandrar still holds fast and to sally forth!”
Erin looked up at Xarkouth. She had seen so many…amazing sights in the lands of the dead. Truly. Amazing, heroic, painful like Zel and Maviola, and just strange. Like the Putrid One. Like Yderigrisel.
So many beautiful things, but the heartbreak and loss and despair ground it all down into nothingness. Meaninglessness. It was one thing to resolve yourself to end it well. Almost impossible to see a way to believe anything could overturn that force.
Yet the Void Dragon’s deep gaze asked her to try. Erin hesitated. She reached out and tried to capture that…how had it gone? She tried to pull it out of nowhere, that horn. But it was hard. She couldn’t reach for it.
Blow the horn to sally forth? Why? She needed something that even Nerrhavia couldn’t give. Helplessly, Erin turned to Xarkouth.
“…But even if we fight together, is there really a chance? I need a chance. I need—hope.”
The Void Dragonlord looked at Erin as she ran a hand through her hair in frustration. She tried again, but it was like grasping for smoke. She looked at Xarkouth.
“I can’t do it. Not without a—an idea of what to call for. Tell me there’s even a…a one in a million chance and I’ll take it. I’m not afraid of that. I’m just tired of playing a game where the other side has cards under the table. And a crossbow. And the deck is stacked, and they’re doing some other card-stuff.”
“We all are.”
Queen Merindue of Nerrhavia’s Fallen murmured. The Sage of a Hundred Thousands Secrets, Velzimri, shook his head.
“It seems to me they…invented the rules. We are all chess pieces, standing upon the board of ages. We should have known an age ago.”
Xarkouth looked around.
“Some did. This game is not as badly weighted as you think, Sage.”
Erin looked from Dragon to [Sage]. She squinted.
“…I didn’t know I taught either of you to play chess.”
Both Velzimri and Xarkouth frowned at her. The Void Dragonlord huffed.
“I did not need to be taught by a mortal. I am the Grandmaster of Scales, one of three in Izril. The foremost among my species! In life, that is.”
Velzimri closed his mouth, and Erin blinked several times.
“G-grandmaster of…? Wait, what’s your ranking in death?”
The Void Dragon turned his head. He refused to answer until Erin poked his side a few times.
“…Number four thousand twenty-three from the best. There are more dead than living can dream of. Some are truly great minds and souls. Even to me. Sound the horn, Erin Solstice. If this is the end of all, it deserves no less.”
He looked down at her, and Erin smiled. She reached out, trying to remember what it was she needed.
Ghosts gathered around her, despairing, resolved, the [Witches] still talking of one last design. Some were already fleeing, like Roshal, while others clung to Khelt, hoping their own plans would succeed.
Erin’s friends stood around her: Elucina, Velzi, Cawe, Gerial, Abel, even Drevish, grumbling as he looked at the Kheltian architecture he would never get a chance to work on. And there…Erin saw a group of eighteen figures standing in a line. On each side of a King, their descendant, the one who would remain as he stared at the same throne that each had rested upon.
Except Khelta, of course. She hadn’t commissioned a throne in her lifetime. They arranged themselves youngest to oldest.
So Xierca was the first and Khelta the last. They were smiling, with pride and the dignity of their ages. Humans, Stitch-folk, Serept the half-Giant, a Garuda…united by their duty.
“Come, Fetohep of Khelt. Hear our last words. Each of us must entrust you with our will and blessing.”
Erin Solstice turned and saw Fetohep standing there. She had not known the Revenant long…or had she? She had spent so long in Khelt, now, that she had grown used to Fetohep’s mercurial ways.
She had witnessed him flustered, embarrassed, annoyed…but never so afraid. Not so lost and stricken as now. He faced his forebearers.
“Can I offer you no weapons? Can nothing be done?”
Serept’s huge head bowed as he towered above all.
“Not in the lands of the dead, Fetohep. Make ready for a storm. Warn the living. Return Erin to her body. I have a great favor to ask of you for my people…but keep Khelt’s people safe. That has always been our task. Now, keep them alive as long as you can. Even forever. Let the strength of Khelt be in life, not death.”
Khelta closed her eyes briefly. The greatest [Necromancer] of Khelt took a tired breath.
“Did I choose wisely or poorly? I feel helpless. I, who thought I mastered death itself.”
Queen Heris the Second turned to her predecessor and reached out to touch her arm.
“You have carried us to this day where other nations were consumed. Even now, it was our will that protected the many ghosts of Chandrar.”
Khelta smiled at her. Then, both turned back to Fetohep.
“Come, Fetohep of Khelt. For a last time, listen. You have borne our interference and nagging quite well. It was not meant that more than one head should bear the weight of our duty. We will cease bothering you very shortly. Just one more selfish request from all.”
King His-Xe threw back his head and laughed, but he nodded.
“Keep my greatest friend, my beloved champion, Salui, safe. But I forget myself. Come, son of Khelt.”
He extended a hand grandly, and Xierca simply offered her hand as if they were walking along one of Khelt’s garden paths. Erin saw Fetohep, standing there. Shaking.
He was watching his kingdom vanish. The ghosts of Khelt, citizens, his mentors and guides and inspiration…
“No, no. No…not now. Such petty wars. I have not delivered Erin Solstice to her body. I have…failed to protect even a single one of her beloved ones. Even a child.”
Erin turned, and Fetohep’s head rotated towards her. She didn’t know about what was occurring on Izril.
King Izimire the 17th bowed his head.
“You have guarded Khelt’s borders, Fetohep. Sometimes we fail by standing too zealously apart. I gave my people everything, but ignored the rest of the world. However, even we cannot salve every wound. Khelt is a selfish kingdom.”
“It was not always. Some of us made war.”
Thekheldan’s head was bent low, and Khelta and Heris looked at him with calm understanding. The 3rd King of Khelt looked at Fetohep.
“Simply endure. And choose your successor to be better than you.”
He turned to the next man, Tkayl, who bowed to him like Fetohep to Xierca. Regrets and stories. Erin Solstice saw Fetohep gazing at each one. Eighteen periods of Khelt ascendant or struggling. Soon to be lost.
“No. No, no, no…”
He stumbled backwards. Half-turned, nearly trod on the hem of his robes. Then he looked at Erin Solstice. The [Innkeeper] saw only golden flames, an emaciated mummy’s face. She wondered, if he were here, what his true face would look like.
Six hundred years of service to Khelt. Centuries without friends or any purpose but his people. She knew how he felt.
It was all crashing down. Erin reached for him, but Fetohep just looked at her. And those dying flames of despair grew a tad bit brighter.
“It cannot be. It will not be. No.”
“Fetohep. I am sorry to leave you with such a burden. Come.”
Xierca spread her arms, like a mother’s embrace, but Fetohep turned away from her.
“No. This is not happening. This is not…going to occur. Erin Solstice? Walk with me.”
He turned and began striding away from the rulers of Khelt. They exchanged quick glances, then floated away from the dais after him.
“Fetohep. What are you doing?”
But the Revenant was just walking away, almost stumbling, still. Erin floated after him.
“Uh—Fetohep? Buddy, you’re going the wrong way. I think this is sort of important.”
“No. Thieves. Thieves and wretched fools. I will not have it. No, no—”
He was truly stuck on that word. Erin saw the rulers of Khelt float a bit faster, and now they began whispering.
King Dolenm turned to the others.
“He’s in denial. This…this does not bode well for the future. You said he was unshakable, Xierca.”
King Razzimir stopped Xierca’s anguished call. The 15th King of Khelt, who had ruled during the Creler Wars, looked knowing.
“Panic attacks. My living advisors had them. Fetohep? Breathe. Or rather, imagine yourself breathing. Stop—collect yourself. I didn’t know undead could have panic attacks.”
Khelta floated along, miffed.
“I didn’t design mine to do that, even Revenants. Are you certain you did the rituals correctly? Fetohep! Attend us!”
But the Revenant strode onwards. He was heading towards the balcony. For a breath of fresh air into dead lungs? Now, the rulers of Khelt surrounded him.
“Fetohep, all will be well—we must tell you about the undead.”
“Vizir Hecrelunn is difficult, but he means well. Fetohep, stop—you must hear us.”
“I command you to stop by the will of the 7th ruler of Khelt! Fetohep, remember your duties!”
They were losing patience with him fast. Gracious rulers or not…Erin saw Fetohep’s shoulders hunching. Serept even went to block Fetohep’s path.
The Revenant walked through him. It was the first time he’d done such a thing and such an affront that Khelta lost her patience.
“Turn and gather your nerve, Fetohep of Khelt! Now!”
The other ghosts voiced their agreement, and at last, Fetohep did stop. He turned around swiftly and suddenly—shouted.
“Silence, you wretched cowards!”
Khelta, Xierca, Serept, His-Xe, and all the other rulers stopped in place. Erin’s mouth fell open in delight. Gerial looked from the rulers to the spot where Fetohep was. He could neither hear nor see Fetohep, but he could see the shocked expressions on the others’ faces.
“…What’s going on?”
Fetohep pointed a shaking finger at the eighteen ghosts. His golden flame eyes flared brighter now. Not with anxiety or panic attacks—a ludicrous thought in the undead. No—Erin saw it was anger. Passion.
“The end of Khelt? Last words and will? Do I hear despair from the rulers of Khelt when the last hour is upon us? Have you forgotten who you are? Who I am?”
“We have forgotten nothing, Fetohep. We see the odds arrayed against us. The end of the world is at hand!”
Queen Heris snapped back, startled. Fetohep stared at her. His ethereal voice trembled.
“The end of the world? I refuse. I refuse to allow it.”
Erin exchanged a glance with Serept, but Khelta’s eyes brightened. Queen Xierca gazed at her successor, mouth slightly open. Fetohep whirled. He stared out at the balcony.
The sun was just rising over his city. Early morning. Good. He looked back.
“The world ending? Not this day or any day I rule Khelt. I am Fetohep, 19th Ruler of Eternal Khelt! Eternal Khelt. I did not inherit this glorious throne and millenia of effort to watch it end today. Let the world try to end. When the sea rises, I will order it to turn back on itself. When the mountains crumble, I will build them anew in gold and jewels.”
Erin Solstice saw him whirl. He pointed at the eighteen rulers.
“Fight like you are the meanest warriors of Khelt and speak not of defeat to me. I will return Erin Solstice’s body no matter who has stolen it. Erin Solstice?”
He looked at her, and she jumped.
“Yes, Fetohep, sir?”
“Leave the living world to me. Go. Do not let yourself perish. Leave your friends and family to me. I will deal with this petty civil war between Gnolls and the idiocy of Drakes.”
He strode to the balcony. The stunned rulers of Khelt followed.
“Fetohep? Where are you going? You cannot hear us outside of Khelt’s borders. Fetohep—”
The King of Khelt looked back once.
“That was my false body, Queen Xierca. Come with me. I will never lose your voice. I am Khelt.”
Then he too ran. Erin Solstice saw the rulers of Khelt chasing after Fetohep as the Revenant King began to walk, then stride, then jog, then run.
In the mortal realm, his servants, coming to see what their ruler was shouting about, saw Fetohep of Khelt running. He dashed across the throne-room, into the balcony overlooking his city. Erin Solstice saw Fetohep look back at her. His golden eyes flashed—
Then he leapt off the balcony.
It was a quiet day in Khelt’s capital city. The name of it was, strictly, Koirezune. However, everyone simply referred to it as the capital.
Koirezune was actually a name that Khelta the First had given it—after a small city that she had grown up in, lost to time. A tribute to her first home, rebuilt in splendor and upgraded into a true wonder of the world by nineteen rulers and countless generations.
Each building was a work of art; from above you could see the workings of Khelt’s citizens, who wanted for nothing but great purpose. Even the paving stones had been known to be custom-cut, and there were streets where each stone was a work of art; some had poems etched onto the stone.
And that was the street. Why did Alked Fellbow know all this?
Well…the Named-rank Adventurer thought it was a smart move to know facts about his new employer’s city. Not that Fetohep had demanded he ingratiate himself, but this might be his home. Forever.
It was such a surreal experience to be in Koirezune. For one thing—there was no coin. There were other faux currencies, and social standing was a world unto itself, but the open café they were frequenting didn’t take money in the sense of gold. The latest fad-currency were these delicate rings, some as plain as polished sandstone, others made of platinum.
They were worth something in pure metal, but it was just…fun. However, you tipped each other with them. Alked was a master archer, tracker, and more, so he could see some people exchanging them from his seat or creating loops to hold the rings. That was the latest fad in Khelt—and practicing fighting. He had already seen three impromptu duels break out, and one of the combatants had been an old man!
But then—they weren’t sharp blades, as Fetohep of Khelt had outlawed it so his citizens wouldn’t kill each other. Some were trying to learn how to be [Blademasters], and others shot arrows—all because they had seen their King’s great rampage north.
Fetohep of Khelt. Alked mused on the strange ruler who had met him face-to-face, unlike Queen Yisame, whom he had never actually heard address him personally and only seen at court functions. He was interrupted by a nervous, female voice.
“Are you sure we can eat here, Alked? You said you don’t have the local coin.”
The Named Adventurer stopped his musings. He turned as his mother, his sister and her husband, and his youngest brother all stared at him over the delicate foods of Khelt.
“It’s fine, Mother.”
“Are you sure? Because I remember you saying that when we were celebrating you becoming a Silver-rank adventurer, and then you couldn’t pay—”
Alked Fellbow was a Hemp-caste Stitch-folk man. His skin was made of the very beasts he hunted in part and magical hemp. But it still made him look…rough. He had survived a Manticore savaging him without armor, but he was still considered Hemp-caste by Stitch-folk.
By contrast, his family were all Cotton. They had traces of Hemp—their heads especially, but they had been elevated thanks to his deeds in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Not to Silk…but they had certainly profited from his career.
Still, family was family. Alked shook his head.
“Mother, we are in Khelt. This is not a trial period; we have been granted citizenship forever. For ourselves, our family—until we leave. The café owner was only too happy to let us eat here.”
“For an autograph. And they don’t take coin. How will we work? How will we survive?”
“We don’t have to work. I told you—we will receive food. A bounty of it, from the fields and harvests by the undead, every week. Even if you tossed it all away to rot and lay on the ground, you would be fed. You can walk to any of the places where food is given out and ask for more.”
Of course, there were limits. Someone who kept taking food and just tossing it on the ground might have some of Khelt’s officials inquire as to the situation, but you really couldn’t starve.
His sister’s husband muttered uneasily. Alked’s sister sipped from an expensive tea into which someone had added…a kind of dumpling? Apparently it had come from Fetohep’s chefs themselves. One…Teresa had requested it.
Teresa Atwood? Alked thought he remembered her as a guest. Or was it a Trey? He sighed and rubbed at his forehead.
“They’re safe, Meriede. We all are.”
“But what if you fail one of His Majesty’s requests? We should find work. What do they pay for decent weaving?”
The Named Adventurer looked up.
“Mother…they don’t need basic textiles. I keep telling you—they can get silk clothing practically for free! You should find a hobby—they value art, passion projects.”
“Silk? Truly? They let anyone buy it, not just the Silk-folk? Could we get some? Is that permissible? How much would some of that cost?”
Alked wished Fetohep did have a monster to slay. Instantly, his family was diverted. Only his younger brother seemed to understand just how lucky they were. The rest had grown up in Nerrhavia’s Fallen, but his youngest brother was still fifteen.
“Alked. Do you think I could practice magic? Or…or just go exploring Khelt by myself?”
He was a city-born kid who had not known the bad days of living in the poorest districts, but he was still Hemp.
“…Why not, Ereid? Go ahead. Pack some provisions. You can find how much a wand ‘costs’ later; I think they’d probably trade you for a good weapon. That’s all the rage, so a practice wand might not be as sought after if it’s just [Light]. Spellbooks are hard, but I can buy one. If you want to go—I hear there are any number of interesting sights in Khelt. Just be mindful of others’ property.”
The young man beamed, but his mother threw a fit.
“Absolutely not! He’ll fall prey to monsters!”
Alked clutched at his head.
“There are none, Mother. If he finds one, he just has to shout and a skeleton will literally rise up to protect him. Do whatever you want! We have found a paradise, and you keep expecting it to be snatched away! Run naked in the streets if you want!”
His sister looked interested, and her husband frowned at her. Alked hesitated.
“…No. Not these streets. That is against the law, but there is a town where that’s accepted.”
“We should move there.”
Every desire, inclination, and habit was catered to in Khelt—within reason. Alked himself had taken one look at the mansion he’d been assigned and given it to his mother and relatives.
That had been a mistake. His mother expected this all to vanish, and fair—she had lived in Nerrhavia’s Fallen, where entire districts had been evicted of their people so new landowners could build what they wanted there.
But not Khelt.
“It’s safe, Mother. I was given citizenship for being a Named Adventurer. The same as Frieke of Medain—Frieke of Khelt and the Herdmistress Geraeri. In fact…there she is. Frieke!”
Someone jumped, and a magical falcon nearly took off as a Dullahan woman, looking just as amazed as Alked, turned.
She hurried away from browsing a stall of hand-cut gemstones that the owner had left unattended with some relief. She had much the same look as his family, but the Named Adventurers were clearly glad to see each other.
“Alked, is this your family? I’m honored to meet you. Frieke of M—Khelt.”
The rest of Alked’s family were in awe at the famed [Falconer]. With Alked right next to them, they rose and instantly began fawning over her. Alked wished he had some of that. Not that he wanted to lose his connection with his family, but just a smidgen.
“You brought your entire family to Khelt, Alked?”
“It was part of what His Majesty offered me. Not you, Frieke?”
She looked around.
“…No. No, I didn’t think that was too necessary. Half of them would be stealing everything in sight—I have a few I’ll ask about. Have you, uh—gotten any requests from His Majesty yet?”
Alked had been exercising, and he’d gone hunting past Khelt’s borders just to stay in shape. Frieke looked like she’d put on weight, and she patted her stomach.
“This is too amazing. I have a magical bathtub that fills itself, and I’ve been eating without paying at every restaurant in…truly, a bounty. I honestly don’t know if I’m even a Named Adventurer anymore. Of course, I’ll fight in defense of Khelt! Just—”
Alked’s mother looked anxiously at Frieke. She hadn’t even gone out on the town until Alked took her.
“You truly think this is safe, Adventurer Frieke?”
That was it. Alked rounded on her in exasperation.
“Mother, please! I’ve told you again and again. This is better than Nerrhavia’s Fallen by far. Better than Medain—any nation in the world! This is a paradise nation. One of less than ten! No one will ever harm you. No one will knock you down for being Hemp—it is against the law to discriminate, and Fetohep of Khelt himself has issued our family citizenship for our children and children’s children. I know you’re expecting some Silk official to do something, my status as Named Adventurer or not, but we did it. I did it for us. We’re finally s…”
Alked trailed off. He turned his head at the same time as the embarrassed Frieke, who’d been looking around during this family argument.
Both Named Adventurers picked up on the commotion faster than the others. There was a cadence to some shouts and exclamations that you could pick up on as potential trouble. Alked heard it now. Gasps, screams—but the figure that came sprinting down the road was so fast that the sound only followed in his wake.
Fetohep of Khelt, 19th Ruler of Khelt, went running past the outdoor café that the Fellbow family were sitting at. Frieke of Khelt and every citizen stopped, turned their heads, and saw a blur blast past them.
So fast he left a wind current in his wake. Most barely knew what they saw—if you blinked you missed him.
As a [Ranger of the Great Desert], Alked got the best glimpse besides anyone but perhaps Frieke’s hawk. He saw Fetohep, wearing his regal robes, crown shining on his head, dead, mummified flesh—running down the street.
Something Alked noted in that shocked moment was how good Fetohep’s form was. He ran like the warrior he’d been, back straight, arms and legs pumping. Not lazily or in some pretentious way, with his arms spread behind him in a ‘v’ shape like some [Assassins].
He just booked it. At the speed of one of the greatest warriors of his era. Maybe with magic too.
Everyone was silent as the ruler of Khelt passed by. Frieke looked at Alked, and he nodded.
Yep. I just saw that too.
After a second, someone galloped after Fetohep. One of the few officers, shouting.
“Your Majesty! Your M—”
Alked rose from his table. His mother turned from the already-distant ruler to Alked.
“My son. Was that the ruler of Khelt who just ran past us now? Does he…do that for his health?”
Her voice was hopeful. For a second, Alked entertained the notion that this was some civic health program led by the ruler of Khelt. Then he swore, vaulted the table, and took off after Fetohep.
“Go back to your mansion! Frieke!”
“I’m coming! I’m—”
The King of Khelt was already three streets down by the time Alked began to give chase. His citizens turned and saw the blur race past them. At first, they wondered if they were seeing this or had heatstroke. Then they began to panic.
Fetohep of Khelt never ran.
Never. He had moved swiftly at times, to stop an imminent accident in his presence. On the battlefield, he galloped and fought swiftly on foot—
Yet a King did not run.
Fetohep of Khelt despised Flos Reimarch for the King of Destruction’s lack of decorum. Yet here he was, running. His feet struck the paved ground so hard that he thought he damaged the paint on some unenchanted streets.
A few citizens were walking in a group, fearless of wagons, which were a rare sight in—Fetohep dodged around them and saw them whirl and drop their gelato cones. He nearly ran into a little girl crossing the street and, rather than knock her flat, picked her up.
For eight steps, the girl of about eight and Fetohep stared at each other—then he deposited her next to her mother. The Revenant never broke from the dead run.
They were chasing him. An officer who happened to be on horseback, two Named Adventurers—and all the servants and most of the people who’d seen Fetohep— gave chase.
None of them caught up. Not even the woman at full-gallop. Alked and Frieke actually overtook the rider, but Alked Fellbow at full-tilt realized—
Fetohep was faster than he was. They were both high-level [Warriors], and unlike Alked, Fetohep had run across the battlefield in armor.
So the Named Adventurer grabbed a potion from his belt and popped a Potion of Speed into his mouth. He accelerated and finally managed to catch Fetohep after fifteen seconds of dodging past stunned citizens.
“Your Majesty! What’s going on?”
The Named Adventurer knew his voice was condensed thanks to the Potion of Speed, but Fetohep of Khelt heard him. The Revenant turned his head, and Alked realized—he was shouting.
“Follow me you wretched—Fellbow!”
The Named Adventurer’s heart was pounding hard from the chase alone and the sudden panic. Fetohep made it worse.
“Go to the Yasian fields and find Herdmistress Geraeri! Rally with her and tell her to take her greatest warriors and find me! Now! Arm yourself for war!”
“Who? Against who—what? Where?”
Alked had to know. For answer, Fetohep just cursed, spotted someone, and skidded to a stop.
Alked had to stop, turn, and run back because the Ruler of Khelt was staring at a group of friends clearly having fun with one of the many recreational activities in Khelt’s capital. Not swordplay.
Pottery. They were all making crude pots at an outdoor lesson being led by a young [Potter], a young woman that Alked recognized.
Wasn’t he supposed to guard her with his life? She looked fairly unremarkable with a potter’s apron—aside from a deep scar across her shoulder that ran just up to the neck of her high-collared shirt. Alked thought it was a sword-wound.
“Pewerthe of Khelt.”
The [Potter] gasped as Fetohep turned to her. He looked at his named successor in case the worst should happen. The gaggle of friends all froze and looked up.
They were stunned, but Fetohep just looked at Pewerthe, his heir apparent, and spoke. To her, to Fellbow, and Frieke, who sprinted up just in time to hear him, clutching at her chest.
“Pewerthe, go to the palace. You and my trusted servants must keep order while I am gone. Sound the alarm. Ring the Dragonward Bell. Ask a servant where it is if you must. Go.”
Pewerthe looked up, but Fetohep just turned and ran. Alked Fellbow saw him turn his head and snap.
“Find the Herdmistress! Now! Frieke! Go with Fellbow!”
The group of innocent would-be potters saw Fetohep continue sprinting through the capital. They looked at Pewerthe as she turned pale—
Then they began screaming. It was an acceptable reaction. But perhaps premature. As the [Potter] tore the apron from her front and began running—the King of Khelt truly began alarming people.
There were almost no [Farmers] in Khelt. There was little need; the skeletons might lack for Skills, but they could perform most tasks perfectly.
Even so, Fetohep hired [Farmers] with each generation to keep an eye on the crop-yield, and it was actually a fairly prestigious position.
An easy one too; all Colovt had to do was tell the skeletons what their orders were.
Colovt of Reim. He still felt that he was of Reim, even though the King of Destruction had been asleep for three years when he decided to go to Khelt. There was no future in Reim, or so he had believed.
When Flos Reimarch had awoken, Colovt had felt the pull…but only faintly. This was safety. While he could have marched to the King of Destruction’s banner, he had a family to think of, and he didn’t doubt Fetohep would keep them safe even if Colovt asked to leave. He was not that petty a man. However, Colovt would never return.
So he stayed. Today had seemed like another day of adding to the sugarcane yields and finding an entire hundred acre section to begin planting. Climate control was also no issue. If something needed growing out-of-season or in different weather, it would be done.
It sounded noisy near the capital today. The farm that Colovt was working on was quite far away, but he had a home near to the capital so he could occasionally meet with Fetohep himself. There was such noise that even the [Farmer] taking one of the skeletal wagons to his destination looked up from eating.
There was no driver, of course. He just told the horse where he wanted to go and had breakfast on the go. That meant Colovt could admire the scenery, chat…
And he had a perfect vantage point to see the ground ripple and one of his cornfields vanish. The [Farmer]’s jaw dropped open. Then he saw something push itself out of the ground. For a moment, it blinded him; the pale ivory reflected the sun perfectly.
Then he saw a massive, domed head. It shook itself off as if it were alive—then more ground bulged, and three more fields vanished. In horror, the [Farmer] saw it wasn’t hundreds of feet long. It was at least a thousand—it was so large—
The Jaw of Zeikhal clawed itself out of the soil and cast a shadow over everything. The city, Colovt—he gaped upwards as dirt and debris fell from a city-devourer. One of Zeikhal’s greatest threats.
Undead. Bone. The [Farmer] felt even the horse freeze as the Jaw uncovered itself. He was speechless, flat on his back. Staring up at it as ghostly green flames appeared in its eye sockets—all sixteen of them.
What is happening? Was it the war in the north? An emergency? The [Farmer] didn’t know, but then he heard a sound. A…rumble beneath his feet. The horse abruptly began galloping again, taking him out of the radius. Colovt realized what was happening and leapt into the driver’s seat to urge the undead horse to race—but the undead very politely waited until he was clear before the second Jaw of Zeikhal began unearthing itself.
Two. Two—the [Farmer] looked back, petrified, as an eye socket larger than he was rose, flickering with red malice. Not at him—he knew the undead were safe. He knew it—
What terrified him was the third behemoth coming out of the ground. That was when Colovt began screaming. He shouted at the horse.
“Take me home! Take me home!”
The undead steed began turning, instantly obeying. Jaws of Zeikhal were rising from the ground. Colovt knew what they were.
The last defenders of the capital. The largest undead—if they were coming out? He raced back home as four dug themselves out.
Four. Counting the one that had died in the north, that was every Jaw of Zeikhal that Khelt had ever bought or acquired the dead bodies of.
They were not the only undead rising. As he rode, the [Farmer] passed by another section of flat earth breaking apart. He saw the ground cave in, revealing a hollow pocket—and out marched a legion of Kheltian warriors.
These ones were no ordinary skeleton laborers that Colovt bossed around. They were soldiers armed in gold.
Gold, or some other alloy that didn’t rust or tarnish with time. They came out of their resting place in ranks of fifty. They halted only a second to let the wagon gallop past—and Colovt felt the horse slow.
“Keep going! Keep—”
Then he saw the ruler of Khelt. Fetohep of Khelt had found a horse. He galloped past Colovt, his voice like thunder, riding an undead horse, shining bone armored by warplate.
“Rise! Rise in defense of Khelt!”
A thousand undead skeletons on horseback followed him, weapons raised. They streamed past the living man, eyes burning with fire, riding undead mounts—but even they couldn’t keep up with Fetohep on horseback.
He was heading straight north. The [Farmer] watched the cavalcade pass, then saw people streaming out of the city. They halted when they saw the Jaws lumbering forwards. The dead rising.
Not just one legion. Not just two—the dead outnumbered the living as they poured forth. Ten thousand in the first minute. Then twenty…
Colovt left his wagon. He stumbled for his home—then fell to his knees. He looked up. A Jaw of Zeikhal slowly began to walk past him. This one was modified. It had some kind of…shrine? Some kind of altar on its back, like the one with the golden palanquin. Undead streamed around it, following the King of Khelt.
The [Farmer] did not know why they were rising. He did not know where Fetohep was going. But he pushed himself up and ran to find his family. It was…
The end of the world. The Creler Wars had begun again. Something—he didn’t know. He looked up from his panic only when he saw the Giant.
Serept’s kind had ruled Khelt, once. Half-Giants. Smaller than their kin. Even Khelt had known no true Giant citizens. It had only ever sheltered one. She had come here to rest the last three decades of her life. For food, companionship—
She had bequeathed her body to Khelt.
A shadow across the world. The first earthquakes began as the undead Giant unearthed herself. Unlike the others—there was still enough flesh on her body to make her more like a zombie.
Even her flesh refused to rot thousands of years later. Fetohep pointed.
“Go! Rise in defense of Khelt!”
They were all rising. Not just the border’s guard, but the last dead buried at the capital. Emergency weapons—the treasury?
He was racing north, but he knew that Pewerthe would be heading to the palace. He had given orders to let her be admitted—but he had no time.
Fetohep raced forwards. The horse carried him faster than he could run on foot by far. He had been a [Rider]—now the sheer acceleration left a dust cloud in his wake.
Dry Khelt was shaking. Every citizen, from the borders to the capital, could see the giant undead rising. As far as Reim—Hellios? Farther.
A dot on the horizon. A dust cloud billowing into the sky.
The Giant stood and began to walk. And each step was a minor tremor. The damage to the capital—Fetohep didn’t care.
“Your Majesty! What’s going—”
At last, the speaking spells reached him. The intelligent servants of Khelt had realized they’d never catch him. So they questioned him via speaking stones.
“Admit Pewerthe and direct her to the Dragonward Bell. Calm the citizens.”
Fetohep checked himself.
“—Keep them from panicking over duly. The legions of Khelt march! Arm the living! Open the vaults, and arm each soldier and officer with the finest weapons save for the innermost vaults! Send for my principle [Ritual Magi].”
“Yes, Your Majesty! But what is going on?”
It was the most succinct answer Fetohep could give. He didn’t know where the Seamwalkers would be—not yet. He didn’t know…but he knew what must be done.
He had waited for this day all six hundred years of his reign. At last…he gave the orders.
“By my will—[Open the Vaults]. Scroll of Greater Haste!”
The world distorted, and Fetohep snatched the scroll that was written on the air itself. He used a Skill bequeathed to him by his nature. Not one he had gained in life—but in death. But he held it, for one second.
“Get me [Message] scrolls, scrying spells—alert each nation from the Mage’s Guild and summon every [Mage] and [Scribe] to stand ready! Fellbow, Herdmistress Geraeri, Frieke will all follow me. Collect them and follow me at all speed!”
The Giant was turning, and two of the Jaws of Zeikhal were following it with their curious, loping pace. The last was moving to the west.
“Two Jaws and the Giant Zirconia will head southwest. One will stand guard at the border. The last follows me. Vizir Hecrelunn! Report to me, now!”
No response from the damned [Vizir]. So Fetohep spoke to his servants.
“Your Majesty, we cannot catch you—how—?”
“Unseal the last two Revenant Tombs. I will direct them once awoken. Do it now. And tell the [Mages] who are working on the Great Project—I require them to finish their work. No matter the cost. Have them burn through every artifact in Khelt as fuel if they must.”
All Fetohep heard was stunned silence, a faint choking sound. He cared not. The ruler unraveled the Scroll of Greater Haste, and the mount under him sped up as if a slight [Speed] spell were affecting it already.
The world slowed as the words flashed on it. Fetohep looked back once at the ghosts laboring to catch up. The rulers of Khelt, Erin Solstice—
“Follow me, great Khelta. I ride.”
Then the spell activated.
It was the same spell that had once worked on Ryoka Griffin, only in a scroll rather than a potion. But Ryoka Griffin had been unprepared for it. Fetohep was ready, and his horse…
People of Khelt left their homes and turned to see the giant undead rising. They fell to their knees—and heard him. They barely saw him, only heard thunder—and then the flash as Fetohep rode.
He passed Khelt’s border in ten minutes. But he never lost sight of the ghosts, nor they of him.
He was Khelt.
The first thirty minutes of Fetohep’s ride were naught but panic and the dead unveiling themselves. In fact, the Vizir Hecrelunn did not condescend to even pay attention to Fetohep’s summons. He was reading history books and could not be bothered to hear another inane request like attack the Empire of Scaied, Khelta’s will or not.
It took nearly twenty-five minutes for Pewerthe to get to the palace. Not just because the citizens were in full panic—there were so many undead marching through the streets they were literal walls of armor.
She realized that they would part for her and ran through them to get to the palace in the end, but it still took another fifteen minutes to get to the bell.
The servants had been expecting her, but even running after them, the bell took the exhausted young woman twelve more minutes to get to. She stopped before the great bell etched with the downfall of Dragons and looked up at it. It was eight times as large as she and hung in a tower built in the 4th King’s rule—bequeathed to Khelt from the surviving Shield Kingdoms.
Pewerthe hesitated long as she took up the long hammer made of a single bone of ivory. She could barely lift it—so two servants had to help her swing the mallet of Dragonbone.
The ground already shook from the passing of Giants and so many undead marching. When Pewerthe hit the bell—the tolling was deafening.
But it was not a physical sound. It was like a [Dangersense] alarm, but deeper, sonorous, echoing for minutes within the soul itself.
Everyone in a hundred miles of the bell heard it. Babes woke up from their sleep and began to wail. Those sleeping in during the morning jolted out of their bed, shouting in alarm.
A hundred miles. Not very far in Chandrar. But the bells alerted everyone in Reim, Germina, even parts of Nerrhavia’s Fallen and other countries around.
They looked up—and saw the undead rising from Khelt, if they hadn’t already. However, the Dragonward Bell was more than just one toll. When Pewerthe struck it—
They all began ringing.
In Germina, a bell in the capital city of Ger began to toll. In the Shield Kingdom of Merreid, the Bazaar of Fables, Djinni slowed and looked up as a bell at the city’s heart sounded. They laughed as the mortals stared up and screamed in horror.
From Qualvekkaras’ heights, Garuda took to the air, and their [Queen] stared as the bell set onto the top of one of the mountain summits began to sound.
“Who has rung the bell? What is happening? Dragons? Find out!”
She took to the air herself as her bodyguard spread out. All three Shield Kingdoms heard the alarm. Only in A’ctelios Salash, where no Dragonward Bell had ever been given, was there silence.
Some things were better not woken, even if Dragons returned.
Yet the bells rang. Not just in those four kingdoms. They tolled in Roshal too, and the Emir Yazdil stopped dining on breakfast and looked up in alarm.
They rang in the south, in the domain of the Empire of Sands. In Zeikhal itself, buried deep.
They rang in the Iron Vanguard, as Tulm the Mithril came to a halt, and the Seer of Steel whirled. A bell bequeathed to the Iron Vanguard was chiming in the center of Invictel.
That was when the rest of the world began to listen. And that was when the Vizir Hecrelunn realized…he closed the book, rose, and spoke.
“[Long-Range Teleport]. What is that fool…?”
He was a user of magics from the era of Khelta herself, Khelta and Heris, both of whom he had known and served. He could lock onto the amateur [Message] spells and derive coordinates from there. Distance was no object to him.
The [Vizir] popped out of the world and re-emerged into the air over Fetohep’s head. He snapped.
“You fool! What is—”
Hecrelunn looked around, and the red light in his eye sockets winked once. Where was…?
This time Hecrelunn barely caught sight of Fetohep before the Revenant blasted past him. Hecrelunn did a double-take then flew after him.
“[Haste]. Fetohep of Khelt! What are—”
He failed to catch Fetohep. Hecrelunn’s crimson ‘eyes’ became pinholes as he realized the King was using a [Greater Haste] spell.
“That is a relic of Khelt—what is going—”
Then he noticed the Giant and the Jaws. Hecrelunn nearly slammed into a rock spire—Fetohep was outside of Khelt! He blasted it into pieces, then turned.
“The Giant is…? One, two, three—you had five? How did you get—Fetohep of Khelt! Heed me! [Teleport]—”
He failed to catch Fetohep six times. The ruler didn’t even notice Hecrelunn, such was his velocity, until the enraged [Vizir] began throwing lightning spells. Then Fetohep slowed.
“Hecrelunn. There you are.”
The undead had to fly at top-speed just to catch Fetohep, and his voice shook with fury.
“The Vizir deigned to answer your…what is going on? Dragons? When did Khelt receive a Dragonward Bell? What is happening?”
“The end. The ghosts of Khelt are in danger. An army of Seamwalkers. I require you to act—now! I am unveiling the tombs. Khelta herself and Heris fear they will be destroyed.”
Fetohep relayed the information in the most succinct way possible. Too late—he forgot something.
Hecrelunn understood Fetohep was in communication with the dead ghosts, but he was loyal only to them. The Vizir’s red gaze was twin pinpricks, then he spoke.
“An army of…? I—this Vizir will communicate with them. Relay my words! Ask them how it is I shall fight for them!”
“There is no time. They are with me—”
Or they’d catch up. Since there were no physics or Skills in the Deadlands, they moved at the same pace except for the ‘six’, whomever they were. Normally, that could outstrip all but the fastest mortals, but Fetohep had left them behind for the moment.
They would follow him. Yet Hecrelunn was…panicking. Just like Fetohep.
“Do not play games with me. I am the Vizir that has served both rulers of Khelt! I shall speak to them—”
“Vizir Hecrelunn. Silence.”
Fetohep slowed further, and the [Vizir] raised two hands brimming with hostile magic.
“You do not order me, petty little—”
Fetohep’s undead stallion jumped sideways, and the ruler of Khelt, enhanced by [Greater Haste] and his Skills, grabbed Vizir Hecrelunn by the throat. The other Revenant felt a vice grip close on his throat. Fetohep was still riding, but he lifted Hecrelunn and bellowed.
“Now is not the time for your petty pride. I have not a second to waste on you, Hecrelunn! Khelta and Heris are in danger! Are you a servant of Khelt or a rabid dog? Fly north! Teleport as fast as you can—Khelt follows! Find Salui and the half-Giants of Serept and break the Terandrian Crusade, the Claiven Earth, and Medain! Go to the capital city and liberate the King of Jecrass!”
Fetohep had no lungs—and thus no limit to his volume. His voice echoed for over a mile as he roared in Hecrelunn’s face.
“Go! Spare the innocent! Eradicate any who stand in your way, but clear a path from here to the north! I do not care how many cities you must burn—slaughter that [High King] on his throne and put his puppet on the walls to open the gates if you must! Any nation that stands against Khelt—turn to dust, but hurry.”
Then he tossed Hecrelunn aside. The Vizir caught himself and flew forwards. Fetohep had no weapon, and he waited for a spell or words as he rode, slowing just enough to let the other catch up. All the [Vizir] did, though, was nod.
“You have never sounded more like a ruler of Khelt.”
Then he vanished. And Fetohep rode faster. He pushed the undead horse, cursing it. It was racing at full-tilt, but it was still just dead bones and magic.
Fifty minutes since he had been warned by the rulers of Khelt, Fetohep passed by the border of Germina and Hellios, mostly unoccupied border-land. The Dragonward Bells were still tolling. But the [Greater Haste] spell was wearing out already…and something worse was happening.
[Horsefriend] Aret was very proud of his small stable of horses.
‘Stable’ being a charitable word, because they were wild horses he’d befriended, and even some younger ones who’d been born into his care.
He was of the semi-nomadic groups and had big plans to go to the city and win some races.
Never sell his friends. He couldn’t bear to give them to someone to be used poorly and be meat one day, or be whipped, or have other unjust acts done to them.
Perhaps that was why he was so high-leveled. He was no [Hostler] or [Breeder], but friend. He was riding Yellie, the mount who could yell and incidentally liked Yellats, a double-plus since that was some of the only food Aret had to offer, when the boy looked up.
He was scavenging for treats for Touse, the new stallion old enough to ride. He was the one who would win Aret the races, but he wasn’t broken in and was frisky. It was Yellie who snorted and tossed his head, and Aret turned across the huge flatlands and few canyons not erased by sand and time and saw…
At first, of course, the figure was so small that Aret didn’t know what he was seeing. But it was growing larger with such speed and it was moving so fast that Aret thought it was a trick of the mind at first. Then he realized—no. He was seeing it correctly.
What he saw was an undead being, eyes glowing gold, a crown of gold sitting on his head, deep purple robes glowing with magic—riding a skeletal horse.
Blue light burned in the horse’s eye sockets, and Aret went pale with fear as he saw Fetohep of Khelt. He knew it was either a powerful undead—or one of the dead of Khelt. Had he not heard of Khelt’s march—even seen a Jaw of Zeikhal as it headed north?
So he was not out of his mind with terror, but he was still afraid and looked for somewhere to hide and watch the being’s passing. Then someone else caught his eye.
Aret had such a powerful view of the flatlands that he could see some of Germina’s settlements far, far to the south. A hundred miles of flatland—a true barren place, but still more fruitful than Zeikhal—bordered the Great Desert itself. Because of that, seeing anyone wasn’t hard—but that figure was approaching so fast that Aret couldn’t believe it.
No horse, flying carpet, or even Courier could match that speed. In fact, that was why Aret just sat there on Yellie and stared. Because…the undead horse had a problem.
Its hooves were on fire.
The flaming hooves were igniting, going out as they struck the ground—but the sheer friction and speed of its travel had somehow set fire to the lower half of the horse. It didn’t stop, being undead, but the [Greater Haste] spell on it and Fetohep was having an unexpected effect. Unlike a living body—the horse’s sheer durability and necromantic spells were failing.
And the rider knew it. He was cursing, urging the horse to keep going as both its magic and the [Greater Haste] spell failed. But the flaming hooves were a bad sign.
Fetohep of Khelt galloped across Chandrar like an omen of the end. Flaming horse leaving footprints of its own body as it wore down. They were maybe eight thousand feet away and far more visible when Aret saw the undead horse’s magic give out. It collapsed into a pile of bones, and the impact threw Fetohep through the air.
Aret watched the undead king right himself, arms flailing, brace—and then hit the ground. He had to have flown a thousand feet, and Yellie snorted in awe. But the king just lay there a second, in a pile of robes, and then got up.
Then he started running. Aret saw the undead man just charge across the flat ground so fast that, as Aret galloped towards him in awe, he had to race with all his Skills just to catch up.
“Excuse me! Excuse—”
The emaciated head turned to him, and Aret squeaked in fear. But the echoing voice had no breathless quality—just regal authority.
“You. Give me that horse.”
Aret froze. Fetohep of Khelt slowed slightly.
“I will pay for it. I have need of a horse. I am Fetohep of Khelt. Give it to me.”
“I—no! I am Aret, [Horsefriend]! You—you’re the ruler of Khelt?”
Fetohep patently didn’t have time for celebrity recognition. He just turned and kept running—then he spotted Aret’s stable.
Touse was grazing on some weeds, but at the sight of an undead Revenant racing towards him and Aret and Yellie, he froze and snorted.
“That one. I will pay for that one.”
He skidded to a stop, and Aret whistled before Touse could run off.
“[Hear Me]—Touse! Don’t run! Don’t kick! Friendly! I—I can’t sell him!”
Fetohep was grabbing for something he didn’t have—a bag of holding? He snapped his fingers impatiently.
“[Open the Vault]. Gold!”
A shower of it rained down, and he grabbed a double-fistful and offered it to Aret. The boy stared as two hundred coins rained into the dirt.
More gold than he’d dreamed of having continued to fall out of the air as Fetohep pointed.
“It is all yours. Give me that horse.”
“No! You’ll kill him!”
Aret had just seen the undead ride another horse literally until it exploded. He rode in front of Touse, and Yellie anxiously blocked his son. Fetohep was losing patience.
“I do not have time for this—then lease me that horse.”
“Not if you kill him!”
The undead looked around, but there was no horse or settlement for miles, and he couldn’t summon magical horses from Khelt’s vaults—there were none. Of all the things Serept had not made—
“Very well! Then ride with me. Until you are certain your horse is not dead or I find one. Satisfied? This will be your payment!”
He pointed down at the gold. The Horsefriend wondered how many horses he could feed with that—he nodded and jumped off his horse to pick up the coins, but Fetohep tossed the gold down.
“No. We ride!”
Fetohep leapt onto Touse’s back, and the horse reared. Aret had to mount up. He began to soothe the stallion. This was the first time Touse had a rider besides Aret and an undead? Not to mention Fetohep was riding bareback—but to his amazement, the horse reared once, then dropped. The horse stared back at Fetohep in amazement, but the Revenant just nodded.
“Ride with me, Aret.”
He took off. And Aret knew he had a problem.
He had seen Touse run before, and he was way faster than Yellie, his older sire. But whoever Fetohep of Khelt was or had been—he’d been a high-level [Rider].
Aret couldn’t keep up. Fetohep looked back and saw the young man was two hundred paces behind. He sighed, whirled his horse, and rode back.
“Very well—[Follow My Back]. Ride, Aret! Ride in the name of Khelt as if the lives of all you hold dear depend on it!”
“My horses? Wh—aaaaaaaaaah—”
Then Aret began screaming because they accelerated.
He had seen professional horse racers, and some could hit speeds for a short while that made him dizzy to imagine. To go that fast?
Fetohep of Khelt swept Aret up in a Skill that made him as fast as the Revenant. And even without [Greater Haste]—Fetohep could make Touse charge like a bolt of lightning as if he were on the battlefield.
Then he produced a Potion of Haste and fed it to Touse. The living had one advantage over the dead, and that was a stomach.
“We’re going to die! We’re going to—”
Aret nearly bit his tongue as the landscape flashed past. He was farther than he’d ever ridden in twenty minutes, and they thundered past a village he knew where he traded for gruel and other necessities. The people looked up and screamed as Fetohep rode past.
“Not yet. Fear not death, Aret.”
That was all the King of Khelt said to him. Then it hit Aret.
He was riding with a living legend. Or…undead legend. The King of Khelt himself, riding on some terrible purpose. Aret felt it.
It was the presence of a monarch. A King. The air hummed. That was why Yellie had sensed Fetohep—even if you were standing, minding your own business, you’d turn and spot him. Like a sixth sense.
Everyone in the region felt Fetohep riding. But the sheer speed of his progress was not the only thing that made Fetohep noticeable. He was talking, Aret realized after the panic wore off slightly. Giving orders and communicating nonstop. Floating stones and even a crystal orb hovered around Fetohep, flashing with magic.
“Unseal the Revenants! I gave you that order—I do not have to be there! Unseal them, and I will give orders as they awake! Send Emrist’s Revenants to me—and Dolenm’s first to Herdmistress Geraeri!”
He switched speaking stones at once, and a scrying orb lit up. A babble of voices—
“Your Majesty, the Quarass wishes to speak to—”
“—politest inquiries from the Emir Yazdil—”
“—Qualvekkaras is seeking answers—”
Famous names. Each one! The Quarass of Ger was the one Aret knew most. She could answer any question, could change your class, give you great knowledge if you went to her. Sometimes she asked a price, but he had heard she died. Then came back.
Yet Fetohep just snapped.
“I have no time for any one ruler! Prepare to send a mass [Message] to—”
Then the orb flickered, and someone appeared. Fetohep, Aret, and Yellie all stared at the Naga.
“Apologies, Great Fetohep. I am Emir Yazdil, and I have been inf—”
Fetohep raised the scrying orb and hurled it down. It exploded in a plume of magic, and Touse raced faster as Fetohep conjured another one from his vaults.
“Send a [Message] spell as follows.”
“To whom, Your Majesty?”
“Everyone. Hang the cost. Send it to every [Mage]’s Guild—but hold. Hold on my timing! Where are my Revenants!?”
For twenty minutes, Aret rode with Fetohep, listening to the king speak in stupefied awe. Yellie, Touse, didn’t seem to feel the speed at which they galloped. At first.
Yellie was boosted by Fetohep’s Skill, but Touse had to actually run, and he was growing tired.
“Is there any city nearby? I must have a horse—how far north are we? Only past Hellios?”
He had crossed a nation in little over an hour—a nation and a half since he had come from Khelt. Aret stuttered.
“Th—there’s a large city past the Blademaster’s Cut. It should be—”
He trailed off. He was about to say, ‘it should be three days’ ride north’, but then he realized—they were coming up on it.
A tremendous cut in the ground had created a canyon filled with a river and bountiful life that let a city to the north prosper. Whether or not a [Blademaster] had cut it—it was a huge landmark and impassable, save for one bridge. Fetohep saw it coming up, and Aret pointed.
“The bridge is that way! Left! Left!”
“I know. I do not have time for bridges. Prepare to jump.”
“Prepare to—you cannot jump it, Your Majesty! It’s impossible!”
This was not a jumping gap. It wasn’t ten feet or twenty—there was a river and entire valley between both sides! Aret began screaming at Fetohep, but the Revenant just sped up.
“Leave if you wish. [Open the Vaults]. Scroll of Jumping.”
“Even with it you’ll never make it! You’ll—”
Then Aret saw the ground vanish and open space beyond. He almost turned, but Touse was there, and he saw Fetohep casting the spell. The Revenant urged the horse into a full sprint, and then he leapt. Yellie followed his son with a scream, and Aret screamed his last. He wished he had some fighting final words like—‘I should have never followed the King of Khelt’.
All he had was a scream. Wild, panicked as the horses leapt, and he looked down and saw the Blademaster’s Valley.
A thin river of red under the sun, like blood thanks to the soil, and sparse trees and vegetation—but Swordtrees too, tough and sharp. A flock of birds rising in alarm, a few strange, loping ape-animals. And high above them, an undead and young man, the latter screaming.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Aaaaaah—”
Aret took a breath.
“Aaaaaah! Aaaaaaah…dead gods.”
He looked down as the horses freaked out, feeling nothing below them, and galloped fruitlessly in the air. Aret gulped—
Then they hit the ground. Fetohep kept galloping as Yellie excreted all the food he had ever eaten—then followed. Aret just looked back. His mouth stayed open until something hit him like a punch to the face. He reeled—and then felt at what it was.
He’d hit a fly, and it had splattered across his head.
For one hour, Touse rode like lightning—then even stamina potions couldn’t help. The horse was suffering, and Aret and Fetohep noticed.
By then they had gotten closer to the north, riding along Belchan’s border, and more cities and tiny nations dotted the region.
Past the Blademaster’s Cut, where the descendants of that great warrior still trained themselves to become [Swordswomen] and [Blademasters]—they looked to the walls and saw a living young man and a great undead riding together.
Two horses, one a fine steed, the other a young colt running itself to the edge of injury. Yet they blazed, the living. Pushing themselves beyond every step, hooves kicking up clouds of dust. Following in the wake of two blazing golden eyes, and a mouth open in a shout of desperation. A call to war.
Fetohep leapt from his horse as he and Aret stormed through the gates of the city of Kalcuraz, so fast that they couldn’t be lowered. He landed on the ground, the robes of an ancient ruler swirling around him. Thusly, he turned, lifting a hand, his voice without a trace of breathlessness. Just hurried.
“Here we part, Aret. If you find no gold on your return, Khelt shall pay your price. You have raised your horses well. Level well.”
The [Horsefriend] just fell off the saddle and onto his back as both horses lay down, wheezing. Fetohep strode past the guards and citizens. Someone raised a spear and aimed it at him, but he brushed it aside. The King of Khelt looked around as people gazed at the boy who had ridden by his side. Fetohep looked about and called to them, riding through their city like the stories they had been founded on.
“Get me a horse.”
Within six minutes—six minutes—he was riding again. The people of the city asked questions and panicked, even when they realized who he was. Fetohep solved the problem by tossing gold and gemstones down.
He had no time. An hour and a half after he had begun his ride, finally, the Revenants woke up. The last Revenants from the age of Queen Emrist and King Dolenm. Fetohep sent one to Herdmistress Geraeri then onto another destination.
The second group actually caught up with him as he rode.
Only five Revenant tombs had ever been made across nineteen generations. The later rulers had been lower-level and guarded Khelt’s strength. But it was also the cost.
What great warriors would stay to guard Khelt forevermore?
One was Salui, the warrior of His-Xe without peer.
Another was Hecrelunn, the first and only [Vizir] of Khelt.
The third were the half-Giants who had fought by Serept’s side, each one over Level 30 and tall as the Nomads of the Sky’s largest.
Two more Revenants and weapons of previous rulers had been entombed. Even Fetohep had not unleashed the others, because there was no need.
He did so now. It was Emrist’s Revenants who caught up with him. Fetohep looked up and saw them coming, matching his speed. But of course…they were the fastest beings on Chandrar.
He saw flying carpets. Sixty of them. Their riders were dead, ghostly eyes burning with a fearlessness of people who had already died once. What was crashing to them?
Emrist’s Scourgeriders of the Sky.
“Hail, King of Khelt. What doom befalls Khelt?”
Each one was a Revenant. They flew more than just carpets. Some rode alone, others together, as they had when they had been feared across Chandrar’s skies by even Garuda. In fact—one was a [Witch], riding an actual broom. Another rider simply had two passengers, one a [War Alchemist], the other a [Mage], ready to throw down spells and explosives.
Their leader carried a lance and rode a spectral horse rather than a carpet through the sky. Fetohep raised his hand—then frowned.
“…Why are you here? Queen Emrist thought you dead. Djinni.”
He pointed at someone who was trying to hide in the back. One Revenant among many, looking innocently around. The emaciated half-skeleton man grinned at Fetohep with an undead’s yellowed teeth.
Fetohep’s magical gaze narrowed.
“Do not lie. I can sense my people, and you live. You must be the Djinni Coutei-Dinai. Emrist thought you perished.”
The Djinni laughed and turned into a cross-legged man sitting on the carpet as the other Revenants chuckled or sighed.
“I snuck in, of course. I slept well and free for thousands of years. I did not trust the next ruler to give me Emrist’s goodwill.”
Fetohep eyed the Djinni and saw a beaming, mischievous face. A pair of long-daggers and bow on the Djinni’s back. Even a necklace and bag of holding.
What he did not see were shackles.
Emrist truly was unconventional. Fetohep spoke curtly as the riders flew about him.
“I ride north to great war. But you—I fear your task is difficult still. And it likely means your deaths.”
“For Emrist, we promised to die twice.”
Their leader sat calmly, lance at the ready as he faced Fetohep. The ruler nodded.
“It is Emrist who still exists in the lands of the dead whom you fight for.”
They reacted much like the others, but Fetohep could give them no time. He pointed.
“I require three to fly south. The rest of you—join the Giant and two Jaws of Zeikhal. It will be your ends. Therefore—Coutei-Dinai.”
“Your Majesty. I am of Khelt—will you order me to battle?”
The Djinni bowed, eyes watchful. Fetohep simply gazed at him and made a quick decision.
“…No. I will order you to take two of your number and carry my will to the south. Then? Join the rest at A’ctelios Salash. It is waking up. You will render it sleeping if you must slay every single being in Tombhome.”
A’ctelios Salash sensed its kin. When they heard this, the Scourgeriders sighed. Their leader leaned over his carpet.
“Ah, now there is a fitting end. To fight Chandrar’s old doom—we obey, Fetohep. And thank you for a fitting battle. But Coutei—he is an innocent soul whom we counted amongst our number. I beg you release him, as you seem to intend?”
The Djinni watched Fetohep, and the King spoke curtly.
“Render me my last service, Coutei. Then go. You will be hunted by your kind if you are seen in battle unchained.”
“As always. Thank you. You understand Emrist’s will.”
The Djinni looked sadly at Fetohep, but the King stopped him as the Djinni moved about his final duty.
“…When you leave, fly carefully, but seek Rhir. Not the kingdom upon its eastern edge, the Blighted Kingdom, but the Demons of Rhir.”
“Who? And why would I seek…Demons?”
The Djinni looked interested as Fetohep gazed at him. The ruler nodded his head.
“Because one of your kind, known as the Death of Chains, Czautha, has freed many Djinni. If you go—you are not of Khelt, nor were you save for a Djinni freed accidentally.”
The Djinni’s eyes widened, then he threw back his head and laughed.
“Death of Chains!? I will do this! I shall fulfill your last wish with joy, Fetohep of Khelt. My friends…put that monstrosity to sleep.”
He turned with tears in his eyes, and Fetohep looked at the riders. One offered her carpet to him, but he declined.
“You will all be needed. Go. Keep it asleep a millenia longer.”
They flew, and Fetohep looked back south. He saw faint shapes on the horizon. Following him. Undead legions, the Jaw of Zeikhal he had summoned, another standing on the border. But so far. Fetohep of Khelt knew it. So he spread his arms.
“I am Khelt. To me, my armies! Forwards, the legions!”
In the distance—the Jaw of Zeikhal slowly began to speed up.
One Jaw of Zeikhal had been equipped with a magical palanquin to carry its riders into glorious battle. Another had been given a strange object.
A…shrine. Or was it a beacon? It was made of bone, of course, and it held a kind of sloshing liquid within. The essence of death. This one had been built by Khelta herself. And it had a simple task.
Every undead surrounding it turned [Invisible]. However, the terrified living people who’d climbed onto it finally began to configure it and changed the effect. The invisible undead reappeared, and the Jaw of Zeikhal suddenly began to speed up as the entire magical aura changed from [Invisibility] to [Speed].
Khelt’s hordes marched, and Nerrhavia’s Fallen gazed upon a true foe without end. They were not just all heading north—though the lion’s share did—but spreading out. Holding the borders.
Armies of the undead. By now, Chandrar had heard the Dragonward Bells tolling. Many had seen the Giant and the Jaws of Zeikhal rise.
It was his ride, though, that finally did it. The King of Khelt—not some simulacrum, not a fake double—but Fetohep himself who rode north.
He was not the King of Destruction. He had been far less famous than the Titan, or even someone like Chaldion of Pallass.
But…to everyone on Chandrar who knew Khelt, Fetohep’s ride was most terrifying still. Because he was not some great warmonger. He was Khelt’s guardian.
And he was sounding the alarm.
Did you feel his presence? Coming your way? Did you look up and see the giant undead?
Cities in Fetohep’s path, all the way from Khelt to the north, woke up and felt the air grow heavy. Death magic. They went to their windows and saw the undead. They woke to tolling in the air and saw an army to put any other to shame marching north.
Then the undead began to rise.
So many powerful undead and Fetohep himself saturated graveyards not perfectly warded. It touched the bones of animals.
Skeletons and zombies rose, and mortals fled in fear. But these ones did not strike at the living. They walked past the walls, dug themselves out of the ground—
And knelt. As the Jaw of Zeikhal and soldiers of Khelt wearing armor passed. As the ruler of Khelt passed.
What did it mean? What war was he riding to? Cities in Fetohep’s path—panicked. Before they knew what was going on, they only knew that an army was coming their way.
Some began to evacuate or simply closed their gates and prayed he had nothing he wanted from them. But in some…oddities appeared.
One man saw the Jaw of Zeikhal appear on the horizon, heard the Dragonward Bell toll, fainted, and gained a class. The [Doomsday Shouter] took to the streets of the city of Thorica.
“We have been fools. Fools! Don’t you see? The King of Destruction? The Empire of Sands? We have been blind to the true rulers!”
People turned to him, and the man pointed a trembling finger into the distance. At the aura of the undead king, at the distant bone-white figure moving.
“We have grown small and worthless in the face of our true legacy! Blinded to the one great kingdom that remains on Chandrar! He is coming to end our misery, to take us into the last great nation! Kneel! Kneel before death itself! Swear yourselves to Khelt or be added to their ranks!”
The [Guards] were alerted to the growing commotion and tried to stamp it out when they realized how many people were listening. The [Doomsday Shouter] was already gathering a following, and…several of the [Guard] joined him.
How not? When you saw Khelt coming—were you going to trust to walls? The Jaw of Zeikhal could eat this city. You had seen him. Believe and…
There were riots within an hour. Rebellion in two. The [Mayor] tried to quell the growing movement with force, but found that the force he sent against the believer of New Khelt decided to switch sides instead.
The dry earth of Chandrar had given way to beautiful clay. It swirled in vast colors from a land where water had once run. Deep greens baked brown by sand and dirt. Pale white and other colors that the people of this land dug through.
He raced through the colors, a dead man racing ahead of an army. Monsters fled his presence or cowered. The bravest roared challenges and then saw his head turn. A Manticore taking wing gazed at Fetohep and fled silently as he passed a den it had built in the sands.
Then he came to the Potter’s City of Thorica, built upon this place, and Fetohep slowed for a second when he saw a quarter of the population prostrating themselves in front of him. The gates were open, and there was smoke from fighting.
A man bowed as Fetohep slowed.
“What has happened here?”
“Your Majesty! We swear allegiance to Khelt! Spare us and take us into your wondrous protection!”
The [Doomsday Leader] looked up as the Revenant gazed at the city, mystified. The people gazed up in awe and fear, and Fetohep hesitated.
“I have no time for this. Mage’s Guild—send the [Message] spells. It is past time, it seems.”
He galloped off. The people watched him go, then turned to the [Doomsday Leader].
It was remarkable how fast the man switched.
“Do you see? He has conquered a city without raising a hand! Rejoice!”
The sweating man waited, and then cheers broke out. But Fetohep was far too far away to hear them.
Faster. Fetohep of Khelt demanded speed.
Past Thorica, across one of the rarest sights in Chandrar. Fetohep himself looked down as, for a second, the world grew less arid. The blazing heat faded a bit—and his mount looked down in wild bewilderment at the grass it ran across.
Even now, the grass bloomed across Chandrar. Not green, though. This was lush and yellow, not wizened stalks, but capable of keeping water and living in the driest months.
“The Eternal Grasslands.”
The horse tried to slow, wanting a taste—just one mouthful of that bounty. Fetohep himself looked down and realized he had found what some searched for their entire lives. He could bring a cutting back to Khelt.
He would never find it again if he rode past it. The Eternal Grasslands bloomed only for a short part of the day to devour the sun; the patches that remained would hide the rest of the day. Adapted for Chandrar.
Fetohep hesitated just once, then he urged the horse onwards, racing through the memory of one of Chandrar’s greatest [Archmages]. A Gnoll. He rode in her name. Rode in the name of all that had ever died.
“Faster. Ride for the greatest cause you or I will ever know. Ride, great daughter of Chandrar!”
So the mare raced onwards, and the King of Khelt continued. He passed a thousand feet of grass in seconds. He never looked back.
At last—a group reached him. They only stopped because they found the King of Khelt standing over a horse. And a trail of blood.
She had snapped a foreleg. He was pouring something on her as the horse screamed. It went quiet, and the soldiers saw the terrible damage done to the horse fading. It lay there, and Fetohep looked up as they skidded to a halt.
“[At His Majesty’s Side]! Sire!”
A panting Kheltian appeared with a small force of a few hundred troops. Fetohep strode towards them.
“At last. I require a mount. Someone tend to this one. Bring it back to Khelt and ensure it wants for nothing. What of the final Revenant?”
The lamed mare looked up as Fetohep glanced back just once. Then he was facing the soldiers. One leapt from his steed at once and bowed.
“On its way. Herdmistress Geraeri is moving to reach it—it will head north. Your Majesty…where are we going?”
The ruler of Khelt pulled himself up into the saddle. He saluted the horse, then pointed with one hand.
“Medain. Then further still.”
The soldiers looked at him, but the undead were already marching. So slow…Fetohep snapped.
“We must increase our speed! Vaults—carpet! Find me any Courier to the north and tell them to meet me—now.”
He could move fast—but Fetohep desired more speed. So he began to race with the Kheltian detachment following—and hired Couriers and sent carpet-riders shooting forwards.
“Your Majesty? What…?”
A Garuda landed, panting, and Fetohep handed her three objects.
“Here. Here. And here. [Haste] scroll. Teleportation marking stone. [Message] scroll attuned to me. Fly. Inform me when the scroll ends, and we will teleport to you. Go. Go!”
She hesitated—then flew. Fetohep slowed briefly to communicate. But he kept moving forwards. Each foot of space between her and them meant that [Teleportation] took more mana. It took the Courier thirty minutes to call in that she was in-place, and another ten for Fetohep to get in range.
He left anyone not on horseback to keep moving and link up with the army. Fetohep sent someone else on carpet as the Courier panted for air.
Leapfrogging. An old tactic like a horse supply chain—the only limit was how many teleport spells you had.
Fetohep had a lot. And he was casting [Speed], giving out Potions of Haste—and casting spells with so much raw mana that some of the cities which he passed…
A [Detect Magic] artifact exploded as Fetohep and his people passed through the air and took out an [Artifact Seller]. Another city was burning in more riots.
By the end of the fourth hour of Fetohep’s ride north, over two thousand people had perished. More still looked up, saw his approach…and made their choice.
They had been waiting for him for just over an hour, but they saw Fetohep of Khelt for only eight minutes as he crossed the land like a blur.
Every house and village was surely out of their homes, looking to see that terrible omen. When they did see him—was it a monster they saw?
Or that desperate look, even on a long-rotted face? The way he rode, low to his horse, as if each second were a life being lost?
That familiar…terrible need?
A man with a bared sword stood on the flat ground outside of a farmstead, so remote that few passed by save for today. He watched as Fetohep rode towards them, aiming to pass by the simple road that led up to their home. It could have been coincidence he came this way. Or not. The man turned to a few people peeking down at him from the home he had built, once he learned how. He called out to them, repeating himself one last time. As fathers did.
He faced the rider coming towards him, outracing his escort to the south. The man motioned, and the door to his home shut. His family. He locked gazes with the burning gold and stepped forwards as Fetohep of Khelt moved to ride past him.
Yet the man stepped quickly to block his way. The mortal horse reared, and Fetohep looked down at the bared blade.
“I have no quarrel with you. Stand aside.”
“I can’t do that, King of Khelt.”
Fetohep focused on a man he had never met before—with a strange blade. It looked too good to be in his hands—enchanted, not at all fit for the worn [Homesteader]’s face and the humble place.
Yet it was his. The stranger had a too-blank face, like someone who had practiced impartiality, failing the ability to fake a laugh or a smile. His hands looked weathered from work. His arms were covered by plain cotton, but that which had never known stitching.
Plain cotton? But the thread was so fine that it was a fraction of the weight of regular cotton. Gossamer-thin that a spider would consider light. Yet enchanted so it would not break, and woven delicately into cloth that had never known atrophy or age. Taken for granted, then prized once the owner realized how much of a gift it had been.
The man looked neither tall nor short, deliberately average—until you realized how he stooped slightly. Until you saw that blank look reveal a bitter stubbornness that neither stone nor weather could defeat. Greater foes had tried.
His hair was charcoal black, and only the very roots showed a lighter color, almost pure white. He could not hide his eyes. They had three dots of bright brown among faintly pink irises, and they glittered, shot a hundred thousand times with radiating lines from his pupils.
The sword rose slightly, and it seemed as though if he swung it, nothing could have stopped that blade. That was the measure the undead ruler took of him in one moment, and he halted and reached out for a blade of his own.
Fetohep had no weapon, but he readied his halberd from the armory. He could have defeated most foes with his hands…but not this one.
“I do not intend to despoil your lands. Let me pass.”
“I can’t. You are Fetohep of Khelt, aren’t you?”
So they truly didn’t know each other. The undead ruler nodded shortly.
“Yes. And? Has Khelt done great harm to your people? Your relatives? Your homeland?”
Perhaps he was of Medain or the Claiven Earth. But…the man shook his head.
“No, no, and no. I just know Khelt. I heard that bell toll. Something terrible is happening, isn’t it?”
Fetohep saw someone hurrying out from the farm. A young boy, who was holding the reins of…a horse. The man walked to the saddle and swung himself onto it.
“Something is happening. But you cannot fight it with a sword.”
Fetohep told the stranger. The man just reached down and clasped his son’s hand. Then he looked at Fetohep.
“Then why are you riding north so fast?”
“Because I have a single soul to liberate, a war to end. Promises to uphold. Because I must.”
The man nodded.
“Then let me ride with you.”
The ruler of Khelt hesitated only a second—then he nodded at his escort who were charging, blades drawn. He held up a hand.
“Who are you, stranger? Give me your name if we will ride together.”
The man had a crooked grin on his face. He looked at his family and then at Fetohep.
“They called me a [Hero]. Once. Do you remember the days when the King of Destruction fought against one?”
Fetohep’s gaze flickered.
“The Hero of Zethe? Well met. Ride with me.”
They took off without a word.
He was the first. Another town opened its gates, and two hundred [Riders] spilled out of it. Fetohep slowed, and they raised their blades.
“Let us fight with Khelt! To Khelt! Where is the foe?”
“Everywhere! Return to your city! This is not your war. I can promise only death where I ride. Make ready your walls and wait. The foe will be everywhere or nowhere.”
They conferred, and then fourteen rode towards Fetohep.
“Let us go with you, King of Khelt!”
Fetohep did not object. He rode with the living and the dead now. Faster. Onwards.
Five hours. Now…now they all knew. The messages that streaked through the sky woke every ruler, from the King of Destruction to the Blighted King to the Walled Cities.
At first, they thought it would be on the news. If it could overshadow a Gnollish civil war, Ailendamus, and all the rest…then they heard the reports.
“The King of Khelt has rung the Dragonward Bell. He is…sending a [Message].”
The erudite ones asked a different question.
The answer was—everyone. Every Mage’s Guild listed. To Wistram, to every nation under the sun. In fact, it was individual [Message] spells, blanket spells—it was so chaotic at first that it was hard to communicate back—only receive a simple message. It read:
I am Fetohep of Khelt. By Eternal Khelt, I give warning—doom is coming from beyond The Last Tide. It already walks among us! Prepare for rifts and Seamwalkers. I call upon every nation to halt your fruitless, pointless wars, from Terandria to Izril.
An end is coming. We must stand together or die apart. Khelt marches to quiet A’ctelios Salash. It is waking. It must end. I head north. To the Walled Cities—withdraw your armies. To the warring nations of Terandria, lay down your arms.
These were not words couched in soft language or address. They were…alarming. There was no estimating how much coin Fetohep had spent to send it across the world. And it was so vague…because he had no more answers.
In fact, it was Wistram who decided to issue a statement following Fetohep’s.
Wistram Academy refutes any claim of a massive invasion. While the Academy of Mages looks into the issue, we advise all nations to be calm. We have not detected any Seamwalkers.
Of course, they issued that as a blanket [Message] spell to all the Mage’s Guilds because there really wasn’t a cost to a mass-[Message] spell—it was what Wistram charged for the service of interpreting it and printing it out.
That announcement only added to the questions and demands being put to the overwhelmed Mage’s Guild in Khelt and Wistram itself. A response was quick on the wings. Not from Fetohep at first. Rather, it came from an unexpected source.
The Iron Vanguard ratifies Khelt’s warning. Tulm the Mithril and the Seer of Steel caution all nations to take up arms. Seamwalkers are moving unseen. Destination and purpose unknown. Khelt must advise if battle can be given. Take caution.
Wistram once again issues a caution against inflammatory and alarmist statements. Our [Mages] are scanning sky, sea, and land. There is no need for alarm.
The Empire of Drath confirms Khelt’s alarm. Make ready.
That was when they really got nervous. Two world powers plus Khelt…what was the alarm? Where? Wistram must have really been thinking hard, because the next [Message] was far less certain.
Wistram is contacting the Iron Vanguard and the Empire of Drath as well as Fetohep of Khelt about possible threats. Please remain calm and refrain from [Messaging] our [Mages] while we investigate.
The Iron Vanguard is aware there is a threat. There is no other possibility. Drath, what can be done?
Drath: Make whatever sacrificial offerings you have. Empower your ancestors. Nothing else can be done. Two Border Fleets burn. The [Emperor] of Drath swears that Drath will fight to the end. He offers the Iron Vanguard and those who fight his respect.
Wistram: We maintain that no threat has been detected…can the Iron Vanguard and Drath explain where this threat is coming fr—
Fetohep: Damn your worthless academy.
Wistram: Fetohep of Khelt, please conf—
Fetohep: Damn your fraudulent [Mages]. Damn your so-called Archmages without the whit of intelligence to see the doom of ages as it approaches. Damn your uselessness when the world has the greatest need of magic. If you cannot see the threat, then stand aside and be silent while better souls than yours bleed and perish. Be silent, Academy of Mages, and tell Archmage Eldavin to look to doom. I ride to end these pointless wars. Make way for Khelt, or I will end all who stand in my way.
Drath: Spoken truly, if indelicately. So speaks the Emperor of Drath.
Tulm: Fetohep of Khelt. Your Excellency of Drath. How can this threat be found and faced?
Fetohep: It cannot. Not yet. A’ctelios Salash wakes to its kin. Any nation must render it sleeping. Khelt will do so if none other. To every other nation—wait. Wait! What we will see are gateways tearing open. In any location, at any time. They must be closed. But Khelt is fighting already. Hope that we triumph.
That was as far as the Blighted King got before his hands began shaking so hard he had to fold them or reveal it to the court.
He let his [Queen] read the missive—although the contents had been read to the court. Somehow, seeing the writing not couched in diplomatic language made it worse. One of the nobles in the room looked ill with fright.
“What…what does Khelt know? It has rung the Dragonward Bells. And it has unleashed armies without number.”
“There is always a number. Quantify it.”
One of the people in the room, Bastion-General Quietel, snapped. A [Mage] counted.
“…A million plus undead soldiers are heading north. More holding the borders. I count four Jaws of Zeikhal. One Giant—the corpse of one—heading to A’ctelios Salash. Multiple carpet riders, and their two high-level Revenants and the half-Giant force have begun an advance in the north.”
The court of the Blighted Kingdom was silent. That…
They were one of the most powerful nations ever. Empowered by forces around the world and made stronger by their strife with the Demons. But that…was something.
The Blighted King, Othius the Fourth, licked at dry lips. Could this have anything to do with the ritual? Seamwalkers in an unseen location…no. No. Surely not.
“N-Nereshal. Where is Nereshal? Summon him at once.”
His most trusted mage, the [Chronomancer] who also dictated many affairs of the kingdom, was absent. He should have been here already—but the time-mage was absent. He was a servant of Rhir. Where was…?
When he appeared, Nereshal’s appearance said most of why he hadn’t come to the war meeting. He was as pale as death.
“Your Majesty—I am unwell. I believe…something is terribly wrong. I beg leave to investigate it.”
He looked sick. No, not just sick…the [Healers] had tested him, so the sweat pouring down his face, his skin as pale as a corpse—the shaking was all psychological.
Or a product of his class. The Blighted Queen stood. She was an imposing woman, a [General] from the front that Othius had taken when he remarried.
“Nereshal! What is this threat? Can you sense it?”
The [Chronomancer] hadn’t even seen the [Messages]. When he read them, he turned paler still, and everyone around him backed away since it seemed he might vomit.
“So that’s what…I must investigate. Your Majesties.”
He turned and began hobbling away without even explaining. Of course, the Blighted Queen just strode down and grabbed him.
“What is wrong with you, Nereshal? I have seen more spine in a new [Soldier]—get ahold of yourself! Who is doing this? The Demons? The Death of Magic?”
She slapped him a few times across the face briskly, and Nereshal shuddered. It did seem to work, though, and Othius saw him focus.
“It—I apologize, Your Majesty. I do not know. The Death of Magic could not do this. Not alone. It may just be Seamwalkers but—I do not know. I have felt ill at ease since the death of the Great General, Dionamella.”
Othius twitched. The Great General that even Rhir had only vaguely known about, who had surpassed Nereshal. The [Chronomancer] had not taken that well, but he had been rather silent about the issue. Now? Othius understood why.
Nereshal was sick. He was shaking.
“I feel…I feel…I beg your pardon, Your Majesties, but I feel as though someone is walking over my grave. Yet that is no expression. I must investigate it.”
He tore away and stumbled out of the courtroom. Faced with one of his greatest [Mages] looking ready to throw up—the news from two major powers and Khelt, who was famously reclusive and guarded itself…Othius made one decision.
“Put all the walls on high-alert. Bastion-General—to 4th Wall. Send a [Message] worldwide ratifying the nature of this threat. Ignore Wistram.”
It seemed obvious that they had no idea what was going on. And just as obvious…something was.
But what? And where? All they could do was wait.
And watch Fetohep ride.
Jecaina of Jecrass met Fetohep after ten hours. Ten hours, and he had crossed most of Chandrar. Fetohep could not count how many spells he had used. Nor did he care.
“Fetohep! What’s happening? Is it my father?”
“No. We ride for Medain! Use your Skills, Jecaina! I will explain more as we ride! Move!”
The [Riders] of Jecrass fell into line, and Fetohep was grateful for it. He felt his company accelerate as the [Hero], Doubte, shifted in his saddle to regard the Arbiter Queen.
Crossing a nation was no easy task. The [Trick Riders] of Jecrass managed to cross vast spaces with Raelt once by swapping horses, using stamina potions, and the sheer need to catch Jecaina.
This time—they employed it for Fetohep.
“[Company: Lightning Hooves]. [Willowind Charge]! Wind spells at your back!”
The first leader shouted the Skills and began counting down. As soon as the effects of both Skills ended, someone else began.
“[Harried Gallop]—watch the horse’s hooves, loose gravel—[All-Terrain Riders]! Stamina replenishing Skills—thirty minutes! Send word we need more speed Skills—”
They were an arrow heading north, but Fetohep knew his entire army was far, far behind them. Still…the last Revenant was coming, and they had army enough. But what he needed was tens of thousands.
“I do not have a mass-teleportation spell. Vizir Hecrelunn. Come in. Ferry the best soldiers to Medain. I do not care how you do it. Draw from the vaults—but do it. Herdmistress Geraeri is capable of moving vast armies at speed, but I will be in Medain by nightfall. I want the ships loaded and sailing before midnight. Every warship or larger.”
“You want what? How am I supposed to move—that’s seventy thousand—”
The Vizir squawked in his ear, and Fetohep snapped back.
“Do it! Accelerate the Jaw of Zeikhal if you must! It can carry most forces in its wake!”
Jecaina twisted to look at Fetohep; the Jaw of Zeikhal, this one, was able to teleport forces to it. It was Khelta’s creation; all others were weaker, but this one she had defeated nations with. Oh—and it was coming straight for the north.
The Terandrian Crusade? The Claiven Earth? Medain?
They woke up this morning to Salui, Serept’s half-Giants, and all of Khelt charging across the battle lines they’d drawn. Followed by Vizir Hecrelunn, who had one goal. Not to decimate the Terandrian [Knights], the half-Elves, and Medain. That was only the byproduct.
They wanted the warships.
Of course—it might look to the Humans, half-Elves, and more Humans like Vizir Hecrelunn commandeering their way off the continent. Just as Fetohep of Khelt, the genuine article with an aura of death, charged north with all the fury of Khelt behind him.
Look up and see the Jaws of Zeikhal on the march. A Giant’s corpse and a million undead headed your way.
Jecaina saw Fetohep was furiously writing invectives against Wistram, communicating to dozens of people at once. However, some of his targets were ignoring him.
Ailendamus did not respond to his demands to end their war—nor Baleros. The Drakes had one curt reply.
Zeres: We do not take orders from undead.
Fetohep: Then I will see your city shortly.
Jecaina looked at Fetohep, but then an actual scroll popped into the air. She recoiled, and someone drew a blade, but Fetohep just swatted it, and it went flying into the middle-distance.
“Fetohep. What was—”
Jecaina saw him furiously writing to the Gnolls—and then another scroll popped into place. This time Jecaina caught it. Fetohep didn’t stop her as she unrolled it.
To his Eternal Majesty of Khelt, Protectorate of Jecrass, 19th Sovereign in service to Great Khelta…
The address was quite long, and it looked like it was a hurried missive. However, it was the same one as the scroll Fetohep had swatted—and the next one that popped into the air that he ignored. Jecaina’s lips moved as she found the sender and the contents.
…Claiven Earth offer you a ceasefire to this war with generous reparations to be dictated at your leisure…
She looked at Fetohep, then tossed the scroll over her shoulder and hit one of her people in the face. They kept riding towards the border. Vizir Hecrelunn, cursing Fetohep’s name, flew overhead.
“[Summon Allies: Extreme Range]!”
A thousand shining soldiers of Khelt materialized, and the Vizir crashed into the ground with the magical effort. Fetohep tossed a Perfect Mana potion at him.
“Sixty-nine thousand more. Where is that last Revenant!?”
The Jaw of Zeikhal was now…charging across the ground in huge bounds that caused minor earthquakes behind them. The Claiven Earth were not aware of the other two Revenants until the Scourgeriders were seen pouring southwards and the final one began heading north after picking up two Named Adventurers and the famous Centaur, Herdmistress Geraeri. Jecaina saw another scroll appear and unfurled it out of curiosity.
This time the address was mostly the same, but the wording was changed.
…our full surrender pending certain guarantees…
Then Fetohep of Khelt began pulling artifacts out of his vault. He reached up—and the sky split. A bolt of lightning fell to earth, struck his hand, and when the horses stopped screaming and Jecaina could see, she saw a rapier with a jagged tip, filled with electricity.
Or was it a bolt of lightning that just looked like a sword?
Fetohep regarded it and then handed it to her.
“Kill High King Perric with this.”
“If he gets in our way? Are you giving this to—to me?”
“If he gets in the way, I suppose, yes. Name me your four best warriors. I will give them arms and weapons. Ah, there’s our backup. You there. We must move faster!”
Fetohep turned, and Jecaina saw something catching up to Jecrass and Khelt’s lightning advance. She nearly aimed her sword at the [Rider], who actually turned slightly to avoid it. But Orthenon, the King’s Steward, joined their ranks, and Fetohep looked at him.
“Spear or sword?”
Fetohep reached out and called.
“[Open the Vaults]. The Diamond Serpent’s Spear of Serept.”
He pulled out a glittering blade made of gemstones, a sickly green, that seemed to writhe as Orthenon took it. The [Ruinbringer Steward] hefted it and handed it back.
Fetohep sighed and tossed it to one of his people. He reached into his vaults again, and Jecaina saw another scroll appear. She caught it, read it, and handed it to Fetohep who read it with a sigh.
The Claiven Earth offer our unconditional surrender to Khelt.
Medain’s was hot on its heels—albeit via [Message] spell since they couldn’t teleport scrolls. Fetohep ignored both. He only looked up from his ride when he heard that the last great force of Khelt was following them.
When Alked Fellbow found Herdmistress Geraeri, the Centauress was galloping around in a panic.
“W-why are the Jaws of Zeikhal rising? Who’s he angry at? The Claiven Earth? We haven’t done anything! I’m at His Majesty’s disposal!”
She looked exceptionally worried, as anyone who saw a Jaw of Zeikhal was. Alked didn’t know.
“He told me to link up with you and for you to take your best warriors and make ready to join him.”
“For war? He told me he wanted my help—but not for war!”
Alked didn’t know.
“He promised me the same thing, but this is larger than a simple war. We are to join His Majesty at greatest speed.”
Easier said than done. Geraeri was famous for her People of Zair being fast…but Fetohep had just used a [Greater Haste] spell. Geraeri wasn’t a fool, though.
“I’ll bring twenty-four of my finest. I think that will serve. The rest will—stay here. Where are we going?”
“To meet the fifth Revenant. Or rather—it should find us. We’re heading south.”
“South. Not north?”
Frieke frowned. She was riding with Alked, and the two fell into line as Herdmistress Geraeri whistled.
They moved fast with the Centaurs. Geraeri could not only feed her people, but move them without fear of wind-shear and give them a significant boost to how fast they moved.
And that was Centaurs, who were already as fast as horses. Okay, a tiny bit slower since they had a bit more mass. But faster with Skills! She was asking what Fellbow knew, and Alked was relaying all of what he’d heard and seen when they looked up.
The last Revenant from the reign of King Dolenm had taken the longest to ‘wake’. For obvious reasons. Alked’s mouth opened, and Herdmistress Geraeri stared up.
“That’s the fifth Revenant? How…? My Skills work on people. Not boats!”
The warship cutting over the dry ground was floating. And the [Captain] of the ship, slowing to lower the ramp, glared at Geraeri with two magical eyes.
“King Dolenm’s flagship sets sail! Sand At Sea is bound where next?”
The Named Adventurers and Centaurs boarded in awe.
King Dolenm of Khelt was the 7th King of Khelt. He had been an odd one and the ruler who had solved Khelt’s water-crises by creating the deep reservoirs and hoarding water-producing artifacts. He had acquired much of it by being a successful [Pirate].
Sand at Sea was a ship that had been enchanted to sail land and sea, and it hovered.
Hovered. The sails inflated as the warship took off, and the Centaurs trotted up and down the decks, promptly getting landsick. The crew and captain were all Revenants. Like his predecessors, the last ruler to entomb a protection for the future had sacrificed his most trusted weapon.
But it spoke to Dolenm’s nature that he’d buried an entire damn ship in a tomb. It was half-made of ancient, enchanted wood and had magical war-weapons built into the hull. But along with the wood were…
Bones. Alked Fellbow looked over the side and saw hundreds of grasping arms that would literally latch onto a foe during boarding and hold tight. And the prow was a giant skull of some sea-monster, the holes in the eye burning with undead light.
It cut across the land as the [Captain] laughed like a madman, passing by screaming mortals. But not immediately north.
Fetohep of Khelt had sworn to right all wrongs. By eleven hours of galloping, he was closing in on Medain, and the [Knights] had gathered for a last stand around their warships trying to escape. Hecrelunn had stopped their escape the easiest way he knew how; he’d sunk all the warships into the earth, grounding them, and the Humans were unable to dig them out.
A fleet. Eleven ships; seven from the crusade, four from Medain that Hecrelunn had stopped from fleeing. Sand at Sea was the largest by far, but Fetohep had an army he needed to take at sea.
…His million undead were not going to fit. Indeed, Hecrelunn had told him he’d only be able to transport so many directly from Khelt itself. So Fetohep had requested Jecrass’ forces with Jecaina, and he had told Sand at Sea to load up with as many undead as it could, pack the hold full if it had to.
How many did a modern warship hold? Ten thousand at most? He’d have…a hundred and ten thousand, plus Sand At Sea’s complements and sailors.
However, some warships might only hold as few as two thousand. Serept’s half-Giants would have to go one or two per vessel. Fetohep could call on every Jaw of Zeikhal he wanted and send them north…
But the Jaws of Zeikhal didn’t float. Even their bones were too heavy, and he could march his undead into the sea, millions of them, and watch about five wash back up on shore.
He had a plan. But part of that plan accepted that his army would not be able to cross the sea in its entirety. So part of the plan was to take Herdmistress Geraeri, the [Hero] of Zethe, and those who followed him on-board. Named Adventurers.
Oh—and one more stop for Sand at Sea before it headed north. The warship’s triumphant crossing from Khelt’s borders lit up the morning. Glowing sails and that screaming skull’s prow.
Real magic. It feared nothing and scattered Nerrhavia’s armies as they fell back. [Soldiers] ran, shrieking, and the warship didn’t stop.
It didn’t stop even when it saw the jagged, semi-broken crown of towers and walls. The capital of Reim, still stained in blood from its victorious siege, watched the warship coming. The towers juddered with lightning magic…but they didn’t fire. The defenders called on the Revenant Warship to halt—then began calling in alarm.
Too late. Sand at Sea flew at the walls of Reim…then flew over them. The same walls that had thrown back Nerrhavia’s glorious hordes fell under shadow for a brief moment, then the ship was flying towards the palace.
Alked Fellbow’s bow was sweaty in his grip as he saw soldiers racing towards the palace. No. No—Geraeri and Frieke were trying to hide behind each other, but he saw the incredulous, bandaged figure stepping onto the balcony.
The King of Destruction, still covered in more bandages than Fetohep, was nothing like Alked’s image of the man. But the wild-eyed teenager who tore out of the room pointed a finger at the floating warship.
“What’s happening? What is that?”
The [Captain] ignored Teresa Atwood and saluted Flos Reimarch.
“Your Majesty of Reim?”
He pronounced the name of the kingdom Re-Im, rather than ‘rhyme’, and looked at Flos with clear interest and not a hint of recognition. He had no idea who this was. Only Fetohep’s orders.
The [Captain] nodded, and someone extended a boarding plank.
“King Fetohep of Khelt bids you board. He’s got need of your help. I’m to promise you a Potion of Regeneration. We also need your [Steward]. Coming aboard?”
The King of Destruction stared at the ship and the casual [Captain], picking at his rotted teeth, incredulously.
The Revenant shrugged.
“Fetohep—His Majesty said you’d be wary. His exact words to you are, ‘hurry up and follow me, you worthless child. We have battles to win. Unless you are too cowardly to join me.’ Begging your pardon. He might have said brat.”
Alked Fellbow held his breath as the King of Destruction made several incoherent sounds. The young woman was hesitating. She was calling for Venith, and Alked had no doubt that the King of Destruction’s vassals had a definite view on this.
But Fetohep understood something about Flos Reimarch’s invitation. Insults aside…a magical, floating warship, a promised Potion of Regeneration, and Fetohep calling him a coward?
There was only one response Flos would have given. He stepped onto the ship, and the young woman did a flying leap after him. The [Captain] pointed.
“Not you. Specific orders. Teres of Atwood?”
“Teresa Atwood. But I’m his—”
“[Get Off My Ship]. To the north.”
The [Captain] spun the wheel as Teres went flying back into the balcony just as Venith stormed out.
Too late. The [Captain] shouted as he merrily kidnapped the King of Destruction.
“All hands, brace! We’re going quick, and wind-shear’ll knock you off the decks! Someone break out the casks for the living! It’s only a few thousands years old! We might be getting a few more visitors. To Khelt and the end of the world!”
He laughed as the ship took off. The King of Destruction looked around and saw Alked Fellbow. Only his eyes were visible between the layers of bandages. But the interest, anger, delight…all warring with each other were eclipsed by one emotion.
He had no idea what was going on either.
No one could see the threat. Or at least—not nations. Not Chaldion of Pallass. Not actual Cyclopes.
Some of them could sense it. Some simply knew Khelt and rode with the King of Khelt.
Others were just…
Ullsinoi. Galei stormed into the communications center of Wistram with three dozen [Mages]. More of his faction than had ever been seen.
“Stop getting in Khelt’s way. When they say there’s an alarm—when Drath gets nervous, you panic.”
He emphasized his point by aiming a glowing wand between the [High Mage]’s scaly brows. The Centaur wasn’t smiling.
He couldn’t see anything.
But he believed. And but for the Golems blocking the way to the higher floors…he was certain that they would have known.
Some people had no more insight than Galei, but they had seen…things. Ulva Terland read the messages from Khelt, and she remembered one particular event.
Shadows at a grand party during the Summer Solstice. Five strangers. And…strange visitors from afar. She had left those memories as part dream. Part omen. Now?
When she heard Fetohep of Khelt’s warning, she listened. She believed.
Wistram: The academy is now sending [Message] spells free of charge for the duration of the crisis. Signed, Ullsinoi.
Terland: House Terland and the Five Families second the crisis. Let all [Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril return to weather the storm.
What worried other nations with neither eyes nor context was how many great powers were raising that alarm. How did they know?
The answer was that most did not. Only a few beings could even tell something was wrong.
Like the Death of Magic. Silvenia floated uncertainly up, high in the sky. So high up she was at risk of attack—but she had to see.
“Silvenia! What do you see?”
The Death of Chains, Czautha, had her shield at the ready. Yet the half-Elf just turned left and right.
“…It’s not here. I have to leave Rhir, Czautha.”
The Djinni flew higher, grimly watching the Blighted Kingdom’s lands to the east.
“You cannot. The Blighted Kingdom is on high alert. You will not survive if they corner you. Can’t you see…whatever’s happening? Seamwalkers?”
The half-Elf shook her head, her internal organs shifting as the translucent magical skin and replacement limbs shone across her damaged form.
“No. The Antinium may be fighting below—but they are not here.”
She stared, squinting at something, then looked around. She had always seen ghosts anywhere but Rhir. Now she understood.
“They are avoiding Rhir. It’s not here.”
One of the few people who could witness what was happening was in the wrong spot. However—Silvenia heard a chime as another [Message] appeared.
Some nations could tell something was going on. Just not what.
Avel: The Kingdom of Bows agrees. Something is wrong. Stand to arms, Terandria.
Noelictus: The Tombs are stirring.
Isle of Heiste: This is Heiste. The Archmage’s Isle. We are experiencing issues. Please contact us, Wistram, immediately. Something has activated.
Wistram: We are reaching out. Please clarify in private spells, Heiste.
The Archmage’s Isle? That paradise? Then Silvenia saw another…bad omen.
Avenclus: The City of Avenclus is requesting any, any companies to send forces at once. Forgotten Wing, Jungle Tails, anyone.
Wistram: Is this related to the emergency or a private affair, Avenclus?
Avenclus: Yes. The Labyrinth of Souls is activating again. Send Named Adventurers. Send the Titan.
Few things in this world could give Silvenia that feeling of unease. That…she closed her eyes.
That wonderful trepidation. She began giggling to herself, and Czautha just flew downwards as the Deaths of Rhir went to prepare.
Fetohep of Khelt saw the sea as his forces rallied with the advance army led by Hecrelunn, Salui, and the first of Serept’s half-Giants.
“Fetohep. Fetohep…where is His-Xe? Who is attacking him? Tell me so I can kill them.”
The greatest champion of His-Xe’s rule, the berserk warrior Salui, was vibrating in place. Tendons stood out as he gripped the giant axe in two hands. Fetohep halted and turned to Salui.
“He is fighting. We have another battlefield. Trust to His-Xe.”
“Still fighting. Without me?”
For a second, the Revenant calmed down. Then his head rose, and twin lights, like silver beacons, shone from his eye sockets.
“Then they will all die.”
He looked to the one force he could vent his fury upon. Mortals.
[Knights]. They stood alone in front of their grounded ships, teams desperately trying to unearth them or shift the stone and sand encasing the hulls. The [Vizir] pointed as one was on the verge of being unbeached, and it sank another ten feet.
“They have the ships you wanted. As does Medain. They refuse to surrender. Should I drop meteors on them?”
Fetohep looked at the army. He checked the fading sun, then spoke curtly.
“I will give them one chance. If they fail to surrender—Khelt will activate Razzimir’s Arrows.”
Hecrelunn, Salui, and Thitern—the leader of Serept’s warriors—all looked at each other.
“What is that?”
They all predated the 15th King of Khelt, King Razzimir. Fetohep answered curtly.
“A Tier 6 spell bounded to long-range magical fire. It can strike the coastline.”
Hecrelunn’s expression changed to one of deep interest—and disbelief.
“Our enemies allowed us to build such a weapon?”
“Our enemies were Crelers. Other nations petitioned Khelt to build it before Razzimir decided to send his armies alongside magical fire. Pewerthe—”
Fetohep lifted a speaking stone.
“Strike the coordinates Vizir Hecrelunn gives you with three Arrows of Razzimir. It should be as simple as having a [Mage] enter them. Oh—and warn every Garuda in the air to land.”
He rode forwards as Jecaina of Jecrass looked upon the gathering of Revenants. Salui turned to her.
Thitern nodded to Jecaina and moved to shield her slightly with his own sword and shield. Jecaina gulped and bowed to the shaking Revenant.
“Are you Great Salui? I am Jecaina of Jecrass, [Queen]. Ally to Khelt. Practically a vassal nation. Protected by His Majesty, Fetohep himself. We are on the same side.”
She felt the need to emphasize that. The [Champion of War] made the Jecrass forces clutch at their weapons uneasily. He pointed at Jecaina with a shaking finger as Orthenon rode left and right, staring southwards.
“You—you—is that a rapier? Are you Terandrian? Are you…real?”
When the startled [Queen] offered him the rapier to inspect, Salui just turned away.
“Not real. Not that one…you. You’re real.”
The [Ruinbringer Steward] turned in his saddle just in time to see Salui charge him with axe raised. Orthenon swung his spear to meet him—dodged backwards. His horse screamed, and Orthenon rode backwards, staring at the rift Salui had just made in the ground. He aimed the spear, but Salui had calmed down. He stared at Orthenon.
“Yes. You’re real. That makes three.”
He looked around at Hecrelunn, at Orthenon, and included himself in the count. Salui abruptly sat down.
“Three will do. Tell me when His-Xe’s enemies are in front of me. I have killed the plague beyond The Last Tide before.”
It was that kind of army that the brave [Knights] of Terandria’s Crusade against Khelt beheld. They didn’t even look at the ranks of armored Humans.
An undead Revenant halted on horseback for the first time that day. He lifted a hand.
“[Knights] of Terandria—surrender your vessels and you will not be harmed. Resist and I will use your bones to crew the ships. I do not intend war against Terandria today.”
Fetohep of Khelt, the true Ruler of Khelt, pointed down at them. Now they sensed his aura. The real body was incomparable to that…fake he had used.
In the distance, Jaws of Zeikhal were on the march. You could see them on the horizon, and behind Fetohep was that terrible warrior who had slain dozens of [Knights] in hand-to-hand combat before growing bored and leaving the battlefield.
Half-Giants. Not a single one had fallen thus far. And…that wretched Revenant, the [Vizir], hovering behind Fetohep, eyes glowing crimson, the very color of his hateful soul.
Undead. Monsters. The Arbiter Queen rode with Khelt, which just showed her naiveté. And yes, the [Knights] had heard Khelt’s warning.
They also didn’t want to die. But honor and chivalry warred with their practicality. Their commander was riding forwards to tell Fetohep that when the evening sky grew bright as day. Everyone but Fetohep looked up—and saw an [Arrow of Light].
One of those basic spells that every [Mage] could cast. Infinitely adaptable. Why, a dedicated spellcaster could make one damage steel armor. [Archmages] could cast thousands as chaff spells.
You could also make one as large as a ship and throw it across a thousand miles. It slowly curved down—and hit the ground. Then two more blasted down, to the left and right of the panicking Humans and screaming horses.
Blinding. The undead watched without moving, though some winced from the sheer power of the light magic, which was anathema to most of their kind. Jecaina’s people shielded their eyes and cried out.
When they looked again—they saw glass. Razzimir’s Arrows had left charred, cooling pits of glass on the sand beach. The Terandrians looked at Fetohep as he lifted his hand.
“You have five minutes. My patience of six centuries is not unlimited. I have no time to waste on you.”
He turned as the [Knights] slowly abandoned their positions. They began mounting up, trading their swords, maces, and axes for lances. They had intended to defy Khelt while they tried to dig out the ships.
Khelt could erase them without losing a single zombie. Then—there was only the charge.
Half the [Knights] were split. They really didn’t want to die. Some, like the Order of Seasons, didn’t even have the confidence that this was where their blades were best used. Each kingdom was calling them home, but they could not surrender to Khelt and let them steal a fleet.
Surely. Surely…there was some hope?
Erin Solstice caught up with Fetohep at last. He had outrun the ghosts of Chandrar. Yet she saw him still, riding a horse. She saw no armies, nor great magic streaking through the air, but she had heard his orders.
So had the Rulers of Khelt, and the ghosts of Chandrar followed their path north. Listening to the one champion of the dead.
“I died in Khelt. I remember that I left my body to your people. Ask Fetohep how it looks.”
One of the Giants confessed to Serept, who stared up at his cousin. The half-Giant was rewarded with a huge laugh from above and a smile like fire.
The Ash Giantess had no weapon, but she still made fists.
“For a single club or blade! Come, kin! We shall wade among the small one last time. Never has there been a more worthy foe.”
She pointed at the largest Seamwalkers, who gazed upon the only things large enough to challenge them.
Fearlessly. Six Giants came to stand with her. Yet the Void Dragon, Xarkouth, flapped around them. He was the size of the largest airplanes on Earth—yet he seemed like a winged cat shouting at the Giants.
“Not yet! Hold, I said! Hold for your kin! More stand to on Baleros and Terandria!”
He looked down at Erin Solstice, and the [Innkeeper] gazed up at him. Then at Fetohep. The King of Khelt turned his head and nodded to her. Then he turned to address someone.
“Salui. His-Xe is watching.”
The 9th King of Khelt gasped and stepped forwards, but he could not see his dear friend. Only relay his words across the gap.
The world felt thin. As if reality were a balloon, not the immutable stuff of the cosmos. A balloon, being stretched thinner by the presence of Norechl’s kin, a weight upon it. Until it…snapped?
Erin Solstice didn’t know. She still saw them advancing. Across that dark sea, she knew, the six were coming. She saw the first walking through the distance, the only being with true power here. The one who had kept Erin in a false prison of Earth.
Young, middling, old. Decrepit, dignified in age, or almost untouched. Youthful, sickly, naive, overwearied too early. Still radiant, fading, deepening with beauty.
An everchanging woman. Three-in-one. One-in-three.
Kasigna, God of Death.
Then came that man who danced across the world, laughing, smiling. The Dancing Man, God of Love. He could have held a cup, joined any party or gathering in the world and shaped it around him. His smile seemed to be the smile of every friend you had ever known and would ever make.
Almost—almost, Erin felt a kinship with him, but he looked at the world like a lover waiting for his embrace. And his smile was rotten. His soul carrion. A hungry leech stripped of his finery and flesh.
The last was unsmiling. A man in robes, whose eyes seemed to hold libraries of knowledge lost to all. Vaults of secrets tucked away for when they would be used. He should have held a book and consorted with the greatest secret-keepers. The Wise Man. God of Secrets. God of Magic and Studies.
“Three. With that one, that makes four.”
Khelta muttered, and Erin turned her head to the distant nothing. How could you describe the God of the Forgotten, God of Lost Things?
You didn’t. It had no substance or form and even the lack was more unsettling than a shadow in the air. It had no eyes, no mouth, yet it saw. Yet it could speak.
It had no face, but it smiled. With gleeful malice.
Four of the six, the other two nowhere to be seen. The fierce huntress and the bearded man. Erin did not know the names of all but three, and she refused to name them.
They waited, like starving vultures. Waiting, watching the monsters from the end of the world coming to shatter Chandrar so it could be devoured.
Erin knew it. Even now, she looked at the hundred thousand horrors, and her soul felt weak and untethered. Helpless.
But Califor stood next to her, tugging on her hat. Gerial muttered with Cawe about taking out one of the tiny spawn-Seamwalkers, and the Rebel of String and Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets stood like bodyguards. Nerrhavia strode about self-importantly, ordering about rulers and heroes more ancient than she.
Heroes and villains.
And Drevish. The Architect just looked at the only light in the world. An umbrella, held aloft by a tireless Garuda, casting a light even the six feared.
And that shining memory of a sword, held aloft by a bearded man with grey and red in his hair. The King of Destruction’s grandfather—until someone tried to take it from him.
Now was the time. Erin Solstice met Fetohep’s gaze and smiled. She laughed and bowed to him. Not yet. The end of the world waited upon Fetohep’s will.
Trust. She had learned to trust she was not alone. So the ghost of the [Innkeeper] reached out and finally felt what she had been searching for.
Fading memory turned golden, like the fire Erin had once conjured. Like the light in Fetohep’s gaze. Erin Solstice reached back in her mind. To a strange meeting with three strangers on a cold day.
When she had been offered that horn, Erin had been told that it would sound in the ears of every friend in the world.
“I hold a horn made of ancient bone. A thing to protect both hearth and home.”
Erin Solstice felt something in her hands. She reached for that little gift and pulled out a tiny, cute little horn made from a bit of ivory and edged with bronze. Someone had hammered a little loop into it and attached a bit of rope.
It was tiny, meant for a child. Cawe eyed it in disbelief—then wavered as she opened her beak. Erin stared down at the horn that Ceria had given Mrsha as a present.
Then she raised a golden horn and felt how heavy it was, written with the lines of Khelt’s glories and failings. Queen Xierca gasped as Erin lifted it higher.
She saw a brass horn, like a [Trumpeteer] would use, a bloodied warhorn which had seen a thousand battles. And shining in the center of it all…
The oldest instrument of all. It had been cut from the horn of something ancient that the Dancing Man had once met. Shaped by his kin, immortal smiths, and decorated to honor a place that no longer was.
Erin Solstice ran one hand down the finery and saw men and women of species that neither Earth nor this world had ever known. Each one following a little figure with gemstones for eyes, a dancing man blowing a horn.
A promise. She did not know who had made it, nor when. It was just a memory. Her memory.
So the [Innkeeper] raised it to her lips. The four saw it and hesitated. Like the umbrella, it was too real. Even a memory…a horn call to rouse every ally. To summon friends and warn all whom you loved.
There was nothing more fitting. Erin Solstice took a deep breath and put her lips to the horn. She blew—awkwardly at first, and the gathered ghosts heard a rushing sound of air passing through a horn and nothing more.
Because Erin had never blown a horn before, and she had no idea how to do it. Then, as an exasperated Razzimir reached for the horn, Erin figured out how to do it. And the first music in an age sounded through the lands of the dead.
The ghosts of Chandrar, even those catching up or fleeing the continent, were not people Erin knew or had ever met. Almost all had been dead far before she had ever come to this world.
Yet they heard it. It sounded like a warbling blare at first, uncertain, unpracticed, about to go out. Then the sound deepened, the hesitation faded, and the call grew louder. It seemed that tremulous call should have stopped at any moment, but it did not. It grew and grew without end because Erin had no need of breath, and then the sound was so vast that it began to reverberate in your bones, deepening to the edge of hearing.
Then you felt it in your very marrow—your soul. Louder the sound came, but not deafening, not intrusive. It was a hand on your shoulder, a call from afar.
Look. Here we stand. A horn, the gift of gods, calling out at the most dire hour. Even the Dancing Man stopped, and his eyes fixed on Erin with a terrible remorse and longing.
The dancing man, Laedonius Deviy, the God of Dance and Love, who had given it to her had meant it as a temptation. A useful relic, but he had not known how to tempt Erin properly.
He had never dreamed she might steal the memory of it and use it here. Here—in the deadlands. Every friend of the [Innkeeper] could hear its call, living or dead.
The question was—was there any ghost here who Erin did not count as a friend in this moment? Yes—the Slavers of Roshal heard nothing. Nor did the six, though they sensed it.
But everyone else did. The sound echoed around the world, and the dead gods felt it and raised their heads in annoyance and fear as they beheld Norechl’s madness. The advance of the monsters from beyond the end of the world hesitated—just one moment of hesitation between steps.
They were not the targets of the call, though. The horn blew, and the dead of Terandria raised their heads. Queen Marquin of Calanfer looked up, and her eyes grew wide.
“Horn call. Someone has sounded battle. It is time for a stand. To arms! To arms, Terandria!”
She flew up, knowing it could only be that. She turned southwards. To Izril? No…Izril had fallen. Chandrar.
The dead of Drath looked out from their ruined homeland, bordering the tear in the world, and knew it was time.
The horn reached the final gathering of ghosts, and it was the signal. They began to sally forth from the deeps of Baleros, some laughing, others resolved. Dragons took wing.
The dead heard the horn.
And so did the living.
“[Knight-Commander]. I hear something. Don’t you?”
It was out-of-place for a junior [Spring Knight] to address the leader of the Crusade—but Spring Knight Caled had already voiced his objections in no uncertain terms. At first, it seemed like the Knight of Keys who had replaced the Keybearer would explode from fury as they prepared to defy Khelt to the last and charge.
Then—the enraged expression on the face of the helmetless [Knight] changed to one of perplexed confusion. He turned his body, and his armor, covered with locks in symbol of his kingdom, caught the fading light.
[Knights] up and down the lines raised their heads. Some warily clapped a hand to protective amulets, but the sound…it came from everywhere.
“What glorious music is that? Does it come from your Order, Dame Areushi?”
Someone turned to the only logical Knight-Order—some Skill or blessing activating from the Order of Chords, who rode alongside [Bards]. But the [Symphony Knight] simply tore a helmet from her head.
“It is not my order. Who…who is sounding it?”
The undead of Khelt, the legion of them arrayed in the distance, had heard it too. They gazed upwards in such clear confusion that it was obvious that they had no idea what was going on.
Even the zombies and skeletons. That was what Caled noticed—as well as how one figure reacted.
Fetohep of Khelt simply raised his head and stared at…something. Not at any person, but just a patch of air. The [Knights] of Terandria shifted. One pumped his fist into the air and drew a mace.
“It is a sign! This is the hour to work great miracles! In the name of Taimaguros! Charge!”
“Hold! Hold! This is no call to petty battle! Listen!”
Another [Knight] looked around wildly and tore the helmet from his head. He turned to the others.
“This is an omen. I feel the call in my bones! I will not die on distant Chandrar to no purpose. I will yield to honor and discretion.”
So saying, he tossed down his lance and raised his hands overhead. Another [Knight] raised a hand to smite the disgraceful conduct—then hesitated.
The call kept ringing in their ears. Louder and louder. Another [Knight] tossed down her lance.
“I will not die here. I have rode with Noelictus and seen their honor. Better to fight alongside death. Nay—I will ride with Khelt wherever their King goes! To Rhir or the end of the world!”
“Have you taken leave of your honor?”
The [Knight-Commander] was aghast. Someone else grabbed him. One of Desonis’ [Knights] supported the Order of the Hydra’s champion as the man calmly looked at the [Knight of Keys].
“Can you not hear it calling to you? Yield! Yield!”
The call was going up across the forces of Terandria. Even before the [Knights] were done tossing their blades down and their [Squires] and fellow [Soldiers] doing likewise, the King of Khelt was riding towards them, fearless of the danger.
“To the ships! I sail for Izril to end this war! Hero of Zethe, to me! We ride on Medain. Jecaina—likewise. Load the living and dead upon the ships and do not wait for us to follow! Set sail and go! Aim for Zeres!”
The [Knights] stirred. Izril? Was Fetohep going to enmesh himself in the war between Gnolls and Drakes? Yet just as they promised, [Knights] rode towards him.
“King of Khelt! Let us ride with you! What battle are we headed towards? Seamwalkers? Demons?”
“Folly. We ride to save the life of one child and an entire people. And to reclaim a single soul. If you wish to fight, I will not stop you. To Medain!”
Fetohep whirled his horse and stormed eastwards. The [Knights] were left speechless as the undead advanced, heading towards the ships. When you put it like that—and between surrender or a battle under those terms?
Which would you choose?
A single soul. The Necromancer, Az’kerash, finally got in touch with Fetohep at the worst moment. However—given the nature of what was occuring, he looked away from the scrying orb.
“Your Majesty. What is occurring at Eternal Khelt? You have raised…all your greatest undead.”
“Necromancer. I make for Izril.”
Fetohep’s voice was harried, and he had none of his usual regal formality. Az’kerash’s dead heart began to stir in his chest.
“To…take part of Izril?”
To support me? He wasn’t ready. The Necromancer of a year ago would have rejoiced to hear of it, wrapped in death, and unleashed all his worst nightmares upon the Walled Cities, Antinium, and Gnolls.
Not Archmage Chandler. Not now. So he was relieved and alarmed at Fetohep’s reply.
“No. Khelt must go to Izril, if only to stop this madness of war. But my task is far greater than that. A foe kith and kin to the Seamwalkers has emerged. It is vulnerable. I will slay it—or damn Khelt in the doing. I have need of your aid.”
Who could be doing something like that? Where? Az’kerash’s mind raced.
“Naturally, Your Majesty. I am hidden, but my servants are well able to help…”
“I do not need that. The might of Khelt joins me. If we cannot prevail, no force can.”
That was…harsh but true. The flying [Vizir] and that Revenant Draugr were potentially stronger than Kerash, Venitra, Ijvani, and all of Az’kerash’s Chosen. For now. The Necromancer tapped a finger urgently on the desk he sat on.
“I have dire need of the greatest [Necromancer] living. Can you…not see what comes?”
Fetohep sounded surprised, and Az’kerash felt an unexpected moment of uncertainty.
“I see nothing, Great Fetohep. Do you mean the dead? There are spells…but I seldom employ them. Nor do I see…ghosts.”
Presumably some might hang around his castle? If only the Drakes he’d slain and travelers. But none were to be found. There were things to be done with spirits, but it was an aspect of necromancy even his class had abandoned because of the difficulty. Yet Fetohep’s voice was urgent.
“You will see none on Izril. Not anymore. Yet master every spell you can, Necromancer. I have great need of an object, and you must build it within days, ere I land on Izril.”
“An artifact? For what?”
There was a hole in his castle from the distortions, and Belavierr was nowhere to be seen. This was not the time to take on projects, and Az’kerash was weighing how to refuse when Fetohep really got his attention.
“This is a matter beyond vengeance or my nation or your goals, Archmage Chandler. I require you to build this relic at all costs, and I will reward you with whatever you desire. But it must be done. Create for me a Soulprison—the likes of which even Great Khelta would admire. And make it as strong as you can. Strong enough to hold something greater than a Dragon’s soul.”
Az’kerash sat straighter, and he had already been in excellent posture.
“A Soulprison? For what? What is this foe? Name it and I will try to slay it myself, Fetohep.”
The Revenant hesitated.
“It—you must take exceeding care not to damage the vessel. I go to slay an [Innkeeper]. Erin Solstice. And capture what lies within.”
Az’kerash was glancing at a scrying orb, but when he heard that, he rubbed at one ear.
It did seem like the world was ending. Khelt’s march into the north had shattered the plans of everyone, from the King of Destruction to the High King of Medain.
He hid in his palace as a man in chains was led out of the dungeon into the light and deposited outside the gates of Medain’s capital.
Raelt of Jecrass looked around in bewilderment. His captors had suddenly pulled him out of his cell, dressed him with the same clothing—even armor and his sword that they had taken from him the day he was captured.
He suspected this was some other dark ploy of Perric, but he couldn’t understand how. He even saw they had tossed the key to his shackles down and hesitated.
If he picked it up…then the [King] of Jecrass turned and saw something unusual.
The…drawbridge was rising slowly. Then with increasing urgency. So were the other gates to the capital. But far from garrisoning the walls—Raelt saw the guards and soldiers fleeing into the city.
“This has to be a trick. He’s…he’s doing something.”
The [King] refused to pick up the key. He was in another hazy dream of captivity, and he’d wake to incense or see them chanting spells over him. Another way for Perric to…
The shuddering man, far thinner than he’d been, looked ahead and saw something bearing for the city gates. So convinced was he that this was another false memory or vision Perric was trying to trick him with that he didn’t believe it at first.
It was a ludicrous sight, anyways. Why would Jecaina, his beloved daughter, be riding for him? She was shouting as she urged her horse to ride faster.
No, this was a blatant…Raelt began laughing. If it were real, there would be no explaining what followed her. Perric’s magicians had to be getting desperate. The Djinni was far better than they were at making illusions when they forced her to it.
If this were real, and the painful, too-tight shackles and sensation of swaying in the sea breeze were real…Raelt stared at the fading light.
If it were real, why was Fetohep of Khelt riding behind Jecaina and an army of the dead following them? Jecrass’ [Riders] galloping with shouts, riding for all they were worth? [Knights]? All bearing down on Medain.
Jecaina was shouting his name, and Raelt refused to look at her. No—he took it back. The illusion was too good. He didn’t want this.
The young woman threw herself from the saddle and nearly broke her neck as she landed. She saw the key, the worn man swaying as the wind nearly pushed him over. The only thing that was the same was his eyes, and they looked at her then jerked away.
“Jecaina? No—you’re not real.”
“Father! It’s me! I’m sorry it took so—”
She threw her arms around him, then, and Raelt refused to believe. He struggled with the hope, the strange way his captors had begun ramping up their efforts, and the horn call that had terrified all of them out of their wits.
Only when a figure stopped in front of him and Raelt felt the touch of death’s aura itself, death laced with the purity of purpose and the grace of the King of Khelt, did he wonder if Perric could ever fake that. He looked up, and a figure leaned over his horse.
“Raelt of Jecrass. Has High King Perric harmed you?”
“Not…with blades. Are you really Fetohep?”
“I am, Your Majesty of Jecrass. Jecaina. Take this blade and free him. Hecrelunn—cease loading the ships. Come here and inspect the King of Jecrass. If you find him harmed unduly—magically or otherwise—hang High King Perric from the tallest tower in Medain.”
Raelt smiled. It had to be the Djinni, Hauste Fyeiz, who was doing this. He liked this dream. But then Jecaina was cutting the enchanted chains free, and Raelt shuddered as he raised his arms.
His people raced around him, tossing themselves from the saddles, but Fetohep just called out.
“To the docks! Salui—break these gates down.”
If it were a dream, why did a screaming giant of an undead race past him and smash through the gate? Why…Raelt began to believe as Jecaina hugged him so hard it hurt. As he saw the undead streaming through Medain’s gate, and that horncall still echoed in his soul. When he saw that gigantic, floating ship coming north and Orthenon himself riding pell-mell towards the King of Bandages standing on the prow…Raelt inhaled.
“Am I saved? What’s happening? What about the war?”
Fetohep rode back to them as ships looted from Medain’s harbor began to set sail. He pointed towards Sand at Sea as a walkway was lowered.
“Raelt of Jecrass, Queen Jecaina. You have been done a great injustice, both, but I have no time to punish High King Perric. Later—perhaps. But I have great need of your strength. Will you join me?”
Raelt looked up, and Jecaina gasped as she saw the fried King of Destruction. Raelt stumbled aboard, and someone handed him ale nearly ten thousand years old. It still tasted good.
That was how four rulers, three [Kings], a [Queen], and one [Vizir] took to sea. It could have been five rulers with High King Perric, but not even in this hour did Fetohep want him.
This was it. All the drama, all the strife, led to a single moment in time. Each had made their own choices. Did he regret some decisions?
Oh, of course. Orjin, Strongest of Pomle, wondered what would have come of things if he had just held himself back and not freed a few [Slaves].
The dry Chandrarian air whipped across the lands surrounding the single oasis of Pomle. It had changed markedly this year. Magical construction had begun, and the practically barren canyon had developed housing, even pastures and the beginnings of a town.
However, it had all been abandoned, repurposed into the walls of dirt and stone—wood being too costly to waste—that shielded people with bows holding each entrance to the canyon. [Martial Artists] stood next to [Soldiers], silently watching an army approach.
Waiting for Nerrhavia’s Fallen. When they had come, they stretched from one end of the flat horizon to another, and they heralded their arrival with drums and horns. The riotous sound had lasted all morning and most of the day, yet the thrumming of their footsteps, the sight of thousands of chariots riding forth was the true threat.
Orjin saw one of the Stitch-folk [Martial Artists] uncross his arms uncertainly. He had surely trained to fight outnumbered, but he would be lost in that sea of bodies. Yet Pomle held its ground. As it had when it had been founded.
So much death. More to come. Yet Orjin had done everything that he had felt was right. It just seemed to him that what was right for a man was not the same as what was right for someone responsible for a nation.
Salii laughed at him when he said that. She was waddling around in armor, but she held up her clipboard like a shield as she passed behind the barricades she’d bought or had made up. Well behind the [Martial Artists] waiting amidst the few fighters holding the pass.
The enemy would come over the cliffs in time, and there were fighters like Salthorn and her grappling experts and Xil and his spear-fighters who needed space and had volunteered to fight up there.
But the heaviest fighting would be at these two choke-points. Ideal with the [Martial Artists].
Ah, but they were few in number. And the army that had come against them at last? It was not a garrison force. Orjin looked across more people than he had ever seen in his life, and it seemed like the glittering army of faces, chariots, and warriors was without end.
The hordes of Nerrhavia’s Fallen. A Grand Army. Orjin almost smiled.
Almost…if it were just him alone, he would have resigned himself to his fate and seen how far he could go. But behind him were people who would die and had not asked for this.
“Did I make a mistake being so selfish, Salii? I should have acted more like a leader.”
In reply, the Drake just laughed and slapped him on the butt with a clipboard. Orjin looked at her, and the Drake shook her head.
“Orjin, I come from the Walled Cities where all they do, from Pallass to Fissival, is pursue their petty ends. Power, appearance—very few thought of the world in terms of right and wrong. Perhaps it isn’t the most advantageous way of doing things. But I like it. Pomle can still win.”
“Hm. If each [Martial Artist] brings down a thousand foes…yes.”
The Drake shook her head. She’d purchased plate armor from somewhere. She slid down the visor and spoke in a muffled voice.
“They don’t have your resolve. Inflict too many casualties and they will retreat. Although—this army’s come for Tiqr. The Empress of Beasts is their target.”
Orjin considered this. He glanced over his shoulder.
“Ah. Then should I not have offered her the Peace of Pomle?”
“That might have been a wise strategic move, but I’m not a [Strategist].”
They were beginning to chant. A trumpeting elephant heralded the arrival of the Empress of Beasts, Nsiia.
She wasn’t much changed from the last time Orjin had seen her; she had lost her spear, and her bodyguard was different. And she had an army.
But the woman herself rode upon a Grand Elephant’s back, if not as large as the other one, a hissing housecat with Golem-legs on her shoulder. The Empress of Beasts was followed by her Wild General, Vasraf, on another elephant, and Tiqr’s army stood with the [Martial Artists] of Pomle, who parted to let her pass.
That was vaguely interesting to Orjin, and her army had been welcome reinforcements—until the Grand Army came calling. But the ones who really attracted his attention were the Empress of Beasts’ companions.
The Monks of Sottheim and the Loquea Dree, servants of the King of Destruction, had challenged the [Martial Artists] of Pomle and traded techniques for a week. Some had lost—many of their best had won.
Orjin himself had sparred with the [Abbot], Shurein, and found the old [Monk] impressive—if different in ethos to Pomle’s folk. He was quick; Orjin still had a bruise from yesterday on the back of his head.
“The largest battle in living memory and you had to punch each other all night long. I suppose that’s a good sign. You didn’t level up, did you?”
The Strongest pushed aside the potion Salii offered him. The Drake sighed—then shuffled behind Orjin as the most interesting duo appeared.
Domehead’s armor was battered from fighting [Martial Artists], but he came through the fighters like he was a prize-fighter, still shadowboxing and practicing the punches he had observed. And behind him…
Ksmvr of Chandrar, the heir to the [Silver Illusionist] sword school, had the twin blades he had stolen from another Gold-rank adventurer in his hands and a crossbow in his third grip. Nsiia still carried the magic sword that glowed with such intensity.
A Gold-rank adventurer. A strange one. He stopped next to Orjin.
Salii poked her head around Orjin and nodded at the Antinium, great enemy to her people. Ksmvr raised his mandibles, and Salii hid around Orjin’s right. The Golem halted, lights shining in its head.
Here they were. Orjin calmly watched the horde of Nerrhavia’s Fallen advance. Ksmvr clacked his mandibles.
“I regret to say, this might be my fault. I may have offered war too many times.”
“I offered it once.”
The two exchanged a look and nodded at each other. Orjin rather liked Ksmvr. It was a shame…they would not have longer to talk. He had been curious how a four-armed species fought.
Poorly, as it transpired. No one had made a martial art for Ksmvr—or if there was, he didn’t know one. An Antinium [Martial Artist]. Now there was a dream to excite Orjin.
One week since Tiqr had rode towards them, fleeing Nerrhavia’s advance with the Monks of Sottheim and Loquea Drea, and proposed an alliance. One week of watching Ksmvr spar with the greatest [Martial Artists] and those who used blades who wanted to learn his sword school.
One week of petting the strange cat as she lay on his head while he stood on piles of stones and perfected his balance-striking. Consumed mostly by preparations for war in Nsiia, Vasraf, and Salii’s case.
Orjin had spent most of that time practicing and keeping company with Domehead and Ksmvr. The Golem had learned how to move—the foundations of it at least.
Antinium [Martial Artists] and a Golem who learned from sparring. They were welcome guests to Pomle’s warriors, who were equally dismayed and enthralled by the idea of an opponent who might one day learn all they had and best them. If they had come in peace, they could have stayed months. But there was no time, and they might all be dead.
This? This was so wasteful. Orjin watched Nerrhavia approaching. Salii was making notes.
“Just like the [Scouts] confirmed. General Vasraf? General Vasraf? You’re right—they only levied general troops from most cities. It’s quantity. A lot of quantity, and I’m afraid to say that is General Thelican. Other officers of note…I have the same list, but I am adding a Prince Zenol to the register and his bodyguard. A Gold-rank team.”
“You know him?‘
Orjin saw Domehead fold his arms, copying the Strongest. Ksmvr searched the chariots that were leading the advance.
“I do. He is a good adventurer. I do not wish to battle him.”
“This is not your war, Antinium Ksmvr. You do not have to join the Empress of Beasts.”
Orjin pointed out quietly. Ksmvr glanced over his shoulder. Some of the people who had fled Tiqr had joined Pomle’s fighters, having trained to defend themselves. Many more were waiting inside Pomle—but over half had joined the fighting, young and old, when their Empress found them.
“…I would be too ashamed to face my team if I did not fight, Strongest of Pomle.”
“Then we fight.”
Ksmvr nodded, and Domehead clenched one hand. He did something that the strange Humans from ‘Earth’ had taught him and held out a huge fist. Without looking, Orjin and Ksmvr both extended an arm and tapped their knuckles against the chunk of steel.
“Tiqr stands! With me! We will meet Nerrhavia in a great charge and smash them against Pomle’s cliffs!”
The Empress of Beasts had a complicated strategy that involved exploiting Nerrhavia’s arrogance and their love of chariot charges against Pomle’s rock walls with the Monks of Sottheim. Orjin had told her she was welcome to it; Pomle would be here and advance if they saw an opening.
Nerrhavia was already chanting and blowing a panoply of horns. They hurt Orjin’s ears, especially because it was evening. Salii was hurrying around, cursing her heavy armor; she’d been agitated all day. She ran back to him, panting from only walking about fifty feet.
“Orjin! Orjin! More news!”
“If it is about Khelt, I do not care, Salii. Khelt is far from here, and we are about to do battle.”
“No! It’s not Khelt! Although that’s bad enough. I thought he’d get Nerrhavia to back down with his warning but—there’s more armies coming our way!”
That made Orjin turn. So did Vasraf, who slid off his elephant with some urgency.
“Don’t tell me—Illivere?”
Salii groaned as everyone turned to look at Domehead. The Golem swiveled slowly.
“—only too happy to discuss Nerrhavia’s wishes, General Thelican. However, I must respectfully insist that we hold our ground. Domehead—the Golem of Dellva, is a national treasure. It must not be destroyed.”
Femithain was trying to reason with the [General] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen—to little avail. He had a choice—to either join the fighting at Pomle, or withdraw. No commander wanted a foreign army nearby.
However, Femithain was not willing to participate in another Tiqr. Especially not against Pomle. He thought it was foolhardy; even if Nerrhavia won, and they had the forces to do that, they’d have to fight their way into Pomle, and the entire oasis was a chokepoint and the [Martial Artists] were the greatest experts in the world at hand-to-hand fighting.
Worse, the Loquea Dree were in the air, and no Garuda that Nerrhavia’s Fallen or Illivere employed would take to the skies against them. Add in the Monks of Sottheim and Tiqr’s own army seasoned by countless battles and Femithain was not half as confident as Thelican.
“Armsmaster Dellic, pull back our ranks another five hundred feet. Make it clear—very clear that our approach is aimed at Pomle, not threatening Nerrhavia’s flanks.”
That was a difficult order as Dellic’s expression made clear; Nerrhavia’s army was disciplined, but it was so large and spread out that it was all flanks. Femithain was sweating despite the fading sun as Thelican remonstrated with him.
“I insist you withdraw or pledge your army to the attack! Crafter-Magus, I have had a deep respect for your forces. Your Golems would be invaluable in capturing the chokepoints into the oasis.”
General Thelican of Nerrhavia’s Fallen was a blustery man who alternated between orders and a bluff wheedling that never quite went to actual requests, but half-hearted courtesy and vague promises he thought would work.
He was a jovial Stitch-man of the Silk, confident in his nation’s superiority in every sense of the word. It did not mean he was a terrible man or leader; he certainly could move a vast army, larger than any Yvlon Byres had ever seen in Izril, with fair ease. Even with underlings, Thelican’s ego had led them here.
To Pomle. Across from her was Tiqr’s army. And perhaps…Ksmvr.
“Do you see him, Zenol?”
“Not yet. But I am certain he will spot us once Thelican orders the chariots forwards. I doubt he’d be foolish enough to fight in a war.”
Prince Zenol was riding with Yvlon in no less than Thelican’s personal chariot. It was certainly large enough; the war-chariots of Nerrhavia’s Fallen were more like mobile…mobile super-wagons. The only thing close to them in Yvlon’s experience was Magnolia’s carriage.
They were then the second-most dangerous vehicles she’d ever encountered. If not as fast or as enchanted, they could be deadly sledgehammers that ran into poor infantry with nasty tricks like literal scythe-blades that popped out of the sides.
And the most dangerous switchblade of all was standing right next to Thelican. Yvlon felt responsible for this army, never mind that Yisame had assured her it would kill two birds with one stone. She did not want to attack Pomle, whose worst deed was apparently freeing some [Slaves].
But she needed to find Ksmvr. Yvlon turned to Zenol.
“I hope so, Prince Zenol, but he has a bad influence. Pisces and Ceria rub off on him sometimes.”
“Well, just so long as he didn’t learn too much from you, eh, Silver Killer? Or else he’ll be charging us alone with a piece of rusty metal.”
Both adventurers turned as the cheerful voice interrupted them. On another war chariot stood three of Yvlon’s friends. Thexca, Mectail, and Relladen.
Vitte was notably absent, and Relladen, who was steering the chariot, hadn’t spoken, but the Stitch-woman from the Empire of Scaied was applying a poison to her daggers. Mectail was just staring at his home of Pomle in silence, arms folded.
Thelican eyed the [Gladiators] who had come with Yvlon—Mectail most of all. He had been pleased by their presence; they were famous, and he enjoyed their company.
However, Mectail was from Pomle. But the man was surrounded by Nerrhavia’s Silk warriors, and he had volunteered to fight his people—if Thelican agreed to spare all he captured. The Great General had graciously agreed.
Yvlon Byres scowled at Thexca.
“I’m not a bad influence.”
“Whatever you say, Silver Killer. Whoa, don’t bite my fingers off.”
“I didn’t bite anyone’s—”
The Silver Killer of the Coliseum of Monarchs, standing with Prince Zenol of House Isphel and the Great General of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, was a well-known face in Nerrhavia’s Army by now. Friend to Queen Yisame. The bloody butcher of the arena. The Human who had eaten more fingers than any Creler—and slain an Adult Creler! With arms that could change shape!
Even the Silk warriors watched her carefully. But Thexca just grinned at Yvlon.
“We’ll get your little friend out, Yvlon. Don’t you worry. Time to show these bastards from Tiqr what Nerrhavia’s [Gladiators] can do, eh? If I’m lucky, I’ll have vengeance for Scaied!”
She had been angry since hearing about how her people had been beaten in two running battles. Yvlon just shook her head as she looked anxiously at the lines of warriors.
“Ksmvr takes risks. He thinks he needs to do that or we’ll stop accepting him as a teammate. It wouldn’t be out of the question for him to enter the battlefield and put himself at risk.”
“So…he’s exactly like you.”
Relladen muttered, and even Mectail smiled. Yvlon opened her mouth, and all three [Gladiators] stared pointedly at her. Zenol turned his head to hide a smile, and Yvlon looked around, then flushed crimson and muttered.
“Just—help me pull him out if he gets in danger?”
Thexca just smiled as she tossed her head back, tying her hair into a ponytail.
“If we have to Knight with half of Tiqr and Pomle, we will. Don’t worry—surviving is what we do best. And if Vitte were brave enough to come with—ah, well. We’ll save your Antinium, Yvlon.”
Thelican heard that and finally broke off from arguing with Femithain. He turned, and the [Great General] beamed at Yvlon and slapped her on the shoulder. He winced; her metal flesh was as tough as steel.
“Not to worry, Adventurer Yvlon! As Her Majesty wills it—we will have your friend, this, er, Antinium, in Nerrhavia’s great embrace within the hour. Even if I must personally capture the Empress of Beasts—then we shall see what Khelt is about!”
Everyone had heard about what was happening this morning. Yvlon, Zenol, the [Gladiators], even many of the chariot drivers looked north. They were a bit too far away, but if you were further north, you could see—
“You don’t intend to heed the warning, General?”
Prince Zenol and Thelican exchanged wary glances; Yvlon didn’t know what Zenol’s ranking was, but she was fairly certain he had been elevated by Yisame to an uncertain position, and Thelican, a very important man, was wary of him. Thelican traced a curt bow.
“Your Highness, I have been given an order by Queen Yisame herself. Should I then listen to anyone, even a foreign ruler?”
“Of course not. However, the capital has given no further orders—”
Thelican interrupted impatiently, but even he had glanced north and then at the scrying orb showing what was happening.
“—And thus it is my war to lead. I am well aware of the risks, but I am told Her Majesty has ordered two more great armies begin mustering. Well and so; if need be, she will have three, and no enemies to fear on this front. Even if we must follow Khelt…”
Here Thelican’s bravado faded slightly. He looked at Yvlon, and she saw a trace of fear in his eyes, covered a second by bravado as he raised a hand and made a fist.
“…And face whatever comes next. I will do it without hyenas at my flanks. Since Illivere is not joining us, I have every intention of not letting this be a night battle. Signal the chariots to advance! I hope you will stay with me, Adventurer Yvlon? ‘Tis a glorious sight, to command from chariot-back.”
Yvlon was spared from making a decision as someone rode up to Thelican.
“General! General! The army you sent to confront Savere is retreating towards our lines.”
Thelican roared in outrage. He whirled on the [Strategist].
“Why? Has Savere attacked? If so, we will crush them after Pomle!”
Zenol and Yvlon looked up in alarm. Savere had been pursuing the Empress of Beasts as well, but Thelican had sent a mere thousand to head off Savere and warn them that Nsiia was going to Nerrhavia. He outnumbered Savere by far, and while insulting, the thousand warriors were representative of Nerrhavia.
Even the piratical, criminal Siren of Savere that Yvlon had heard about had to know this was an act of war. However, Thelican’s fury became confusion as the [Messenger] responded.
“No! No, General—they never reached Savere! The Siren is still advancing and it seems our forces ran into…undead. Undead and escaped slaves! It must be those bandits! The ones who have been raiding the trade routes for the last month!”
Yvlon’s head turned. She hadn’t heard of this—well, the raiders, yes, but undead?
Thelican was pulling at his epaulets while Yvlon and Zenol exchanged a quick glance.
It couldn’t be…
Merr the Storm screamed as a sandstorm kicked over the Nerrhavian [Soldiers]. She pointed at the disant oasis, and the freed [Slaves] rode. Behind them, zombies, ghouls, skeletons, and even more advanced undead like Bone Horrors were still fighting with the terrified Stitch-folk.
Of all the times to run into Nerrhavia’s Fallen! They were so close! Her [Bandits] were fighting alongside freed [Slaves], and Merr turned to see one of them raising a butcher’s cleaver. A little half-Elf boy was refusing to go with Qshom, the Dullahan, and throwing knives as a [Rebel] roared.
“Never chained! Not again! Fight for Pomle!”
Bearig lashed around with the cleaver as the [Cook] rode at some scattering [Soldiers]. One raised a spear to stab at Bearig as Eloque shouted.
“Bearig! Your left!”
Rophir threw a dagger, and it bounced off the helmet. Bearig turned, but before the spear could stab, a bolt of black magic passed through the [Soldier]. Someone raced past the [Rebel Cook], brandishing a flaming rapier.
Pisces flicked his wrist, and a [Shatterbolt] made another breastplate explode. He pointed, and three more [Deathbolts] lanced his opponents.
The air was thick with death magic. The undead [Slavers] and Roshal’s guards from the caravans that Merr had raided with Pisces’ help were fighting Nerrhavia—but they were not nearly enough to stop that giant army.
Their only hope was Pomle. Pomle, which was under siege.
No help for it. They could only pray the [Martial Artists] took them in and that they survived. Merr could have used those strange Prophet’s folk or whatever they were called, but they’d gone their own way.
At least she had an enchanted sword. Merr the Storm roared as she pointed.
There was…one other safe haven she could have taken. She glanced over her shoulder and saw a second army to their south. But she didn’t trust it. The huge gold palanquin supported by a giant wave of water lazily rolling forwards contained a single woman whose gaze pierced Merr’s back.
However, the [Bandit Lady of Storms] rode for Pomle. No—until she had a good bargaining chip, she didn’t feel like taking the one-million gold boy, Pisces, anywhere near the Siren of Savere. She just hoped Revine wasn’t going to start lancing their back with water spells.
“That’s Merr. What in the name of Kraken’s tits is she doing? Tell Nerrhavia’s Fallen that’s not our force. Where’d she get all those undead?”
Revine was cursing a blue streak as she watched two disasters unfold. Not only was Nerrhavia skirmishing with a bunch of freed [Slaves] and undead—they’d gotten to Pomle first.
“General Thelican is refusing any direct communication spells, Siren—”
Revine pounded a hand on her armrest.
“Tell them Nsiia is mine! And why is Femithain there?”
She pointed at the army of Illivere, watching the [Slaves] make a break for Pomle. Thelican had seen it too, and Nerrhavia was swinging an entire wing of soldiers out to try and catch them. The sandstorm was slowing them, but it was a race.
So that was…Pomle, Tiqr, Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Illivere, and Savere. Five armies! At least it was fairly obvious that they were all arrayed against Pomle’s fools and Tiqr. The Siren relaxed and pursed her lips.
“Keep advancing. Get me Thelican or Merr and have one of those idiots explain what is going on. Don’t advance too far—but get close. If we have to, we’ll grab the Empress of Beasts and that Ant in the chaos.”
Her people did what she commanded, reluctantly hurrying forwards, but the [Rogues] and [Bandits] of Savere did not like being outnumbered or the thought of fighting [Martial Artists], who, as they were well aware, lived to beat people’s faces in. They had a healthy respect for that.
As Revine gave orders, the rest of her army woke up or stretched with a great lack of discipline. Some were still riding wagons and snoozing before the fight. In fact, one dirty blonde head—literally dirty—popped up. A glowing ivory circle was the only notable thing about the half-Elf—that and her hand of bone.
Oh, and the fact that she was currently trying to swallow about a pound of iskender kebap and trying not to choke to death as she chewed.
“Dish Revne shay shomething about undead?”
She turned to one of her passengers, who covered her face. Omusc, the Mollusc Drowned Woman [Pillager], spat back.
“Stop talking and swallow!”
Ceria did and jumped off the wagon to find Revine as the Siren of Savere stood up.
“Revine! What’s happening? Do you see Ksmvr? What about the undead?”
“Shut up! I’m checking…this is a precarious situation.”
The Siren’s army slowed as all the pieces fell into place. Five armies, all watching each other as the evening fell. Ceria shaded her eyes, trying to cast [Hawkeye] with the circlet completely untrained as she looked at the various armies camped about.
“Soldiers attacking! Undead too! They’re coming for us, Empress!”
Ksmvr’s head rotated as Nsiia and Vasraf spotted an unexpected first wave. The Empress shaded her eyes.
“That is not Nerrhavia’s fallen. They’re fighting against Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Odd sandstorm—that’s a Skill. They’re no [Soldiers], either. There’s women and children there. Refugees?”
“Did someone say undead? Excuse me—”
No one listened as Ksmvr did a few hops with his Ring of Jumping. He was trying to see the undead, but even when he soared overhead—he didn’t see more than a dust cloud and fighting. Nsiia hesitated.
“If those are refugees—they might be Tiqr’s. Vasraf—let them through!”
“Empress, they might be saboteurs! This might be Savere’s doing or—or someone has given Thelican an idea!”
Vasraf protested, and Nsiia hesitated. Salii interrupted the two.
“They’ll never make it unless you go out there. Again—not a [Strategist], but that looks like a bad idea. Nerrhavia’s closing in.”
Indeed, a wing of chariots were racing to intercept the desperate people and undead. Nsiia hesitated. All they had to do was nothing, and she didn’t sense they were her people. If she rescued them, they’d be caught out in the open. Ksmvr kept hopping.
“Excuse me. What undead? What undead? Hello? Domehead, give me a boost. What undead?”
“Who are they, Thelican?”
Yvlon was allowed to use the [General]’s name, and Thelican actually broke off insulting the Siren via proxy as the two leaders growled at each other.
“Ah—no matter, Adventurer Byres. I gather they’re mostly [Bandits]. They’ve been raiding Roshal’s caravans on their way here. Merr the Storm, a [Bandit Lady] who escaped—we just arrested her! Damn the woman—I will post her head on a pike before the day is done. On my honor! Somehow she’s gotten undead too. Typical [Bandit] tricks…”
Yvlon moved to one side with Zenol. Undead?
“There is no way that is a coincidence, Yvlon.”
“There is no way that can be true, Zenol! He was so far west—”
The [Prince] looked at Yvlon. He hefted his scimitar.
“You wish to talk coincidence when I found you in my homeland, a continent away from the Village of the Dead?”
That was a good point. Zenol whirled. Mectail, Thexca, and Relladen were tensing. Exchanging looks. Thexca was crouched, dagger hilts in her hand, ready to draw.
Mectail was just watching Yvlon. She glanced at him and made a sign they’d worked out in their brief stint as a team. Thexca groaned as Mectail nodded at Yvlon.
“The plan’s changing. I hate improv—”
The [Gladiator] watched as Zenol seized the [General]’s arm.
“General Thelican, we may have found Yvlon’s comrade. Abort the chariot charge!”
“What? I can’t do that! They’re about to hit—”
Yvlon turned to the [Slaves], eyes growing wide. She stared into the dust cloud.
“So that’s the Empress of Beasts you want to kidnap to…what? Torture? Add to your servants and humiliate? And an independent nation about to be wiped out. And that’s Illivere. Why are they here?”
“I don’t know.”
Revine watched Ceria’s expression, but the half-Elf was supremely unconcerned with the war—just watching. She was eying the place where the undead were fighting.
“What is Savere doing?”
“We’re going to get my prisoner and find your Antinium—and avoid making war with Nerrhavia’s Fallen. I have no idea why Illivere is here. Probably their precious Golem, in which case we ignore each other.”
“Ah. So you don’t want to attack Nerrhavia’s Fallen?”
The [Cryomancer] glanced at the Siren, and Revine bared her teeth. Her water magic spells were ready to go, but she shook her head.
“I…do not wish to make them an outright enemy. I would sorely love to.”
Ceria glanced over her shoulder. The army of Savere was just as ready to fight Nerrhavia as Pomle; they were eying the flank of Nerrhavia with a hatred that the Stitch-folk were matching. Bad blood. Ceria felt at the circlet she had on her head. She scratched a few times at her scalp; it got itchy. Then she put the relic on as the Siren looked at her.
“I see. Could I persuade you to attack Nerrhavia’s Fallen?”
The Siren broke off from her calculations and turned to Ceria. The [Cryomancer]’s pale eyes were glowing as she stared into the dust cloud.
“Because I’m fairly certain I’m going to insist.”
Then both she and the Siren saw it. The two [Mages] needed little actual vision to detect magic. Both saw the bloom of death magic, and the Siren focused on Ceria. For the first time in a while—she saw Ceria smile, broadly, genuinely.
“That’s my teammate.”
He had no idea about the other armies. Unlike the rest of his team, the young man had neither gotten near a [Message] spell nor communicated any other way.
He was too understandably wary of Roshal tracing his position. And all he had done, he’d done for his friends.
Eloque the Lizardwoman, Qshom the Dullahan. Bearig the freed [Cook]. Rophir the half-Elf, and the dead like Cawe.
Merr the Storm saw her Skill clearing up and then a wall of chariots coming their way. She turned.
“Stormbandits! Fight! Hold them off! Get to Pomle, Eloque!”
She tried to rally her people as she turned her mount, but her people were still…[Bandits]. They looked at Nerrhavia’s famous chariots and just kept running. Merr shouted at them desperately, searching for Bearig and Rophir. Then she saw the biggest fool on the battlefield emerge from the fighting and undead.
“No—nonono—Pisces! Necro boy, come back!”
He didn’t answer her. The [Necromancer] burst out of the sand with one goal in mind. And that was to defy Roshal to the last and all those who would help them.
Buy time. He was the only one who could. And though he didn’t have access to ice-magic and couldn’t summon a Frostmarrow Behemoth—
The Nerrhavian [Charioteers] saw something strange coming at them and pointed. They turned on Pisces as he rode out of the sandstorm, in outrage and because he was heading towards them.
In a chariot.
It was far smaller than their war-chariots, and it was more of a bad oval made out of bones attached to some wheels—also bone. Oh—and it had two skeletal horses pulling it.
The Horns of Hammerad’s wild and dangerous method of entering the fray, minus the ice and customary bone bears. The [Necromancer]’s brown hair was whipping in the wind as he waved his flaming rapier, shooting [Deathbolts] at the swerving chariots. They were all racing towards him.
Buy them time. He looked back at Merr as she shouted in horror.
She saw him facing ahead, eyes blazing. Alone. Like a foolish Gold-rank adventurer. Merr tried to turn her horse through the galloping [Slaves] heading for Pomle. Then she saw something—a ripple in Nerrhavia Fallen’s lines.
“Dead gods. They’re attacking. Go—go!”
Merr screamed, but she was wrong. The chariots were racing forwards, but no one had ordered the attack.
It was just that…the largest and grandest one was shooting across the battlefield. The problem was? There was no General Thelican.
Yvlon Byres kicked Thelican off the chariot. She missed Zenol as he jumped backwards, but the [Prince] saw her looking at the bone chariot racing over the battlefield. And that rider. The [Prince] saw Yvlon look at him and—tripped.
He landed on Thelican as the [General], confused, tried to push himself up. Thelican and Zenol tangled.
“Ambush! Enemy attack! Adventurer Byres—wait. What’s happening?”
Thelican got up, red-faced, sword drawn. Just in time to see Yvlon driving away with his chariot. She shouted, and the warhorses began to gallop forwards.
“For the glory of Nerrhavia’s Fallen! Charge! Charge! Wait. Where’s General…?”
The [Charioteers] just saw Thelican’s chariot move and assumed someone had given the order. They followed Yvlon with whoops and horns, but she was curving her path, forcing other chariots to halt. She was heading straight for the [Necromancer].
“Stop her! Stop the attack! We’re not in position yet—”
Thelican roared, but it was too late. His personal, customized chariot was faster than any other, and it caught up to the rest of Nerrhavia’s chariots on the western wing with ease. The surprised [Charioteers] saw Yvlon riding next to them. Then—they realized something was off.
But before they could move, the [Armsmistress] released the reins. She pointed her metal arm at the wheels of the chariot racing next to her. The disbelieving Silk Warrior saw her metal arm elongate—and a spike of silversteel shot out, snapped the wheel—
The chariot flipped. Yvlon whirled, and the other chariot swerved away—then her arm severed the wheels, and it spun out. A chariot racing behind it slammed into it with a roar of wood.
She was surrounded by chariots, and they were trying to ride into her, slow her or halt the horses. However, one of the drivers looked up as a cursing Stitch-woman and a second chariot screened Yvlon’s right. Relladen blocked Yvlon’s right flank, and Thexca tossed a handful of powder into the air.
“Time for my villainous arc!”
The sand mixed with stun dust and hot peppers hit the face of the first driver, who screamed, clawed at his eyes, and crashed his chariot. Mectail leapt past Yvlon, vaulted her chariot, and kicked another driver out of his seat. Then he was fighting, surrounded by surprised Silk warriors.
“Mectail! Thexca! Relladen—”
They fell behind her as Yvlon saw the [Gladiators] buying her time. Killing no one, throwing up their hands—Mectail looked back at her and raised one fist. Thexca, cursing as she was knocked flat, looked up. She met Yvlon’s eyes and grinned as the Human woman looked back. Mouthing.
“Go for it, Silver Killer—”
Then Yvlon was racing ahead of the others.
Straight at the howling [Necromancer], who was bracing himself for the fight. Pisces conjured a [Fireball] in one hand, aiming it at the lead chariot. He looked up—and he and Yvlon passed each other. Both turned their heads, faces incredulous.
They frantically tried to spin around as chariots rode at both of them. One of Nerrhavia’s chariots ran into Pisces’ skeletons and erased a dozen in the first clash of bones—and kept going, scything straight through their lines. It hit a Bone Horror, and the chariot stopped—and so did the Bone Horror for good as it practically exploded.
The [Charioteers] saw a furious pair of glowing flames emerge out of the dust storm. Then Ivery threw a rock into the face of the first [Charioteer] and cut the other down. The Skeleton Lord was riding an undead bear and charged into battle. A chariot ran him over and knocked him and his steed into pieces, but the furious Skeleton Lord just put himself back together.
Yvlon turned her head. It was him! She’d known—but she just stared at him. He looked like he’d seen a ghost.
Someone slashed as a chariot passed, and he ducked. A chariot hit his, and the explosion of bone made Yvlon shout as she whirled her chariot around. She saw his chariot overturned and Pisces on his hands and knees, shaking his head. He looked up and threw himself backwards with a [Duelist]’s reflexes, dodging a spear—but the net caught him.
Tangled, Pisces fell to the ground, thrashing and screaming like a madman. Yvlon rode towards him, but a chariot slammed into hers, and she was nearly thrown flat. A horse went screaming into the chaos as someone severed the lead reins.
Yvlon locked blades with a Stitch-woman and shoved, but someone else passed by and kicked her so hard she slammed against the lip of the chariot. They were trying not to kill her, but Pisces—!
Then the chariots turned as horns began to blow. They were tangled in a confusing melee, a mess of a charge as Nerrhavia’s Fallen followed Yvlon. And into that gap came Tiqr.
“Tiqr! Tiqr, to me!”
The Empress of Beasts and her Grand Elephants led the way as the tangled charioteers saw her army coming straight at them. One charged at her—and ran straight into Domehead.
The enchanted wood splintered across the Golem’s front, and Domehead stumbled. He caught a flying Stitch-man before he became paste against Domehead’s armor and tossed him down. Around him, the [Martial Artists] were joining the fighting too.
A Dullahan knocked a [Charioteer] off their ride and found herself amidst several surprised soldiers of Nerrhavia. They drew their blades—she punched them off the chariot.
“To the Empress of Beasts! Sottheim! Hold the line!”
Vasraf roared and looked around for the Loquea Dree. They were in the air, but half of them were following a figure as he ran through the battlefield. Vasraf did a double-take.
“Ksmvr! Ksmvr! What are you doing?”
The [Skirmisher] was running towards the chariots, not Tiqr’s push. His silver blades were raised. The chariots were coming at him—until someone launched himself into the air.
Orjin blew the first chariot off-course. He saw a Garuda dive, and Xil speared a chariot from above. The explosion of bodies and wood was matched only by a final expert.
Salthorn. The Selphid waited until the horses were almost on top of her—then she dodged around them and grabbed the front of the chariot.
Orjin didn’t see what she did, but he did see the chariot…flip. The passengers landed on the ground, then were dragged behind the panicked horses a dozen paces underneath the overturned chariot.
But where was Ksmvr going?
Yvlon found him on the ground, slashing at the enchanted net. She grabbed it and hauled him into the chariot.
She had only one horse, but it kept racing forwards. Pisces fought clear of the net, and he and Yvlon looked at each other.
“How are you here?”
Someone passed over them with an actual scythe slashing overhead, and both looked up.
“Was that a Garuda? What was what?”
It swept overhead and took out eight chariots just by holding its scythe at head-height. Yvlon saw more doing the same trick as the [Charioteers] ducked or died.
“Dead gods! Loquea Dree!”
“What? Who? Yvlon—your arm!”
He was staring at her other arm, which was regrown. Yvlon flexed her arm. Then she looked at Pisces.
“What happened to—”
They hit a final chariot, and both went flying. Neither had a Skill, and Thelican’s enchanted chariot took the force of the blow, but they were knocked off it again.
A dozen [Soldiers] of Nerrhavia’s Fallen were on top of them at once. One pointed a spear down at Yvlon.
“General Thelican has placed you under arrest, Adventurer Byres.”
Pisces was snarling and raising a finger, but neither he nor Yvlon had to move. Someone leapt into the [Soldiers], and Yvlon saw a flash of…silver?
The [Soldiers] were veterans and swung their weapons up to impale the leaping fool in the air. Half a dozen Skills lanced the Antinium—who vanished. The [Soldiers] wavered, and Ksmvr’s real body dashed low under their guards.
“[Silver Illusion: Whirlwind of Blades].”
It was just as well they were Stitch-folk. Ksmvr delimbed half of them, and the screaming Stitch-warriors fell back. One raised a throwing dagger to toss at the Antinium, and Yvlon punched him off his feet.
“Reporting for duty, Yvlon, Comrade Pisces! Oh. Your arm is regrown. I didn’t know Humans could do that.”
Ksmvr did a double-take and stared at Yvlon’s arm. He looked around wildly.
“Wait. I have a sword for you, but Empress Nsiia has it. We must get to safety—this way!”
Both were staring at him, but then the first attack spells began raining down around them. Yvlon, Pisces, and Ksmvr took cover in the safest place—Thelican’s overturned chariot as Pisces saw both mounts were gone. Ksmvr raised a blade to shield his face—then frowned as everyone took cover.
“Hm? Frost magic?”
Needles of ice were raining down across the battlefield. Pisces stopped gazing at Ksmvr and turned his head. A little floating butterfly made of magic and light appeared and landed on his shoulder. He slowly reached for it.
Omusc was watching the chaos with the appreciation of someone not in that mix. Tiqr and Pomle had charged Nerrhavia when they launched their mistake of an offensive. Now it was chaos—undead and those [Bandits] with Merr fighting for Pomle.
It all looked good to her, in short—right until someone rode down their lines.
“Hey! We’re attacking Nerrhavia’s Fallen! Get ready!”
The [Bandits] looked at each other. Then at the messenger.
“We’re doing what?”
“They’re unguarded! Let’s go! Sneak attack, you bastards! Go, go!”
The [Bandits] hesitated, but they looked up at the half-Elf riding down the line and then at the Siren. She was the Siren’s ally. Then they saw Revine’s spell, the shower of icy needles falling across the battlefield.
The other half of the army was already moving towards Nerrhavia as the Stitch-folk army turned on them. Omusc squinted at Revine. The Siren hadn’t moved, but she wouldn’t exactly charge into battle herself. She sat on her palanquin of water and…Omusc hesitated. Then turned dead pale on her Human half and looked at Ceria.
Savere charged Nerrhavia from the rear and side as the Siren’s palanquin stood there. Only the ones close to it noticed something was…off. They did a double-take and stopped as they realized something.
There was a lot of water holding Revine up, better than any mortal servants. It was the weapon she could draw from for ammunition, a shield, drown her foes…water was adaptable. Perfectly suited to almost any climate and temperature if you brought enough.
It was just…water. The same amount.
But frozen. And indeed, the Siren was staring out of a frosted bubble of ice, almost invisible. Her look of surprise and shock was slowly, slowly turning to fury.
The half-Elf winked at Omusc as she touched the magical circlet that could cast different spells. She jumped off her horse as the giant [Ice Wall] she’d frozen Revine in exploded and the Siren began screaming.
But it was too late. Ceria went running past the surprised [Bandits], past Omusc and the others in one of the greatest double-crosses in Savere’s history. She leapt forwards—and a floor of ice spread across the battlefield.
She windmilled her arms and shot past the fighting soldiers, ducking the first lance of water. The [Cryomancer] skated into the battlefield.
The Nerrhavian [Charioteers] were reforming for another charge, and their deadly rampage ran straight across Ceria’s path. They targeted the half-Elf, rightly connecting her with the dangerous ice-rain. One chariot shot towards her, engulfed in magical flames—and hit the ice ramp she summoned.
It vaulted over the half-Elf, caught eight seconds of air-time, and crashed to the ground. Another chariot swerved as another wall of ice ran it in front of the others.
A third just slammed into an [Ice Wall]. A laughing half-Elf raced past the others as their wheels skidded on the ice. She was heading straight for a magical chariot being dragged along by two skeleton horses. And the three riders saw her.
“There she is! Turn left! Turn left!”
Pisces tried to steer left, and they ran over a row of [Bandits]. Or—almost did. The [Bandits] ran screaming, and the chariot did a U-turn.
“Is that Captain Ceria? What a happy coincid—arrow!”
Ksmvr deflected an arrow out of the air. Yvlon raised both her arms, and a giant shield appeared, the metal of both arms fusing together. Pisces and Ksmvr stared at it.
“How did you do that?”
“I learned how! I’m a [Gladiator]!”
“That thing tore your arms off!”
Pisces pointed at Yvlon’s other arm. She screamed back.
“It healed! Where have you been?”
“What? I’ve been a [Slave]—Ceria!”
The half-Elf slid up a ramp, into the air—and missed the chariot. They did another U-turn, and Ceria grabbed Ksmvr’s hand.
“You’re alive! What are you doing, you idiots?”
She was laughing as Yvlon hauled her into place. Pisces whirled the chariot.
“Where’s Eloque? Merr?”
“There! Empress Nsiia! She has Yvlon’s sword!”
“My what? Ceria, what are you wearing?”
Both Pisces and Ksmvr turned to stare at the glowing circlet on Ceria’s head. Was that…? Ceria grinned.
“It’s a relic! Wait! Watch out for the—”
They hit one of her ice ramps and went flying. Yvlon and Pisces hung on, as did Ksmvr, but Ceria nearly went flying. But Ksmvr kicked off and tossed her back into the chariot.
He landed in a whirlwind of blades, surrounded by soldiers.
The Horns turned back to look at him, but the flash of silver was blinding. Ksmvr was holding off six, eight—
Yvlon’s fist shot out and floored a [Vanguard] charging Ksmvr as he leapt up and landed in the wagon. Ceria gaped at Ksmvr.
“How did you—you leveled up!”
Ksmvr nodded proudly.
“I am now a credit to the team. I would like to report my new class is only [Brave Skirmisher], but I have inherited the [Silver Illusion] sword school and—”
“Would you two catch up later!? We’re surrounded!”
Pisces screamed at the others. He turned to Ceria; they were deep in Nerrhavia’s lines, and Yvlon or not—the soldiers were definitely not on their side. They were trying to board the chariot, and Ksmvr began defending their rear. Pisces reached out.
“Got it! [Animate Frostmarrow Behemoth]!”
The half-Elf raised her hands, and Yvlon, Pisces, and Ksmvr turned to look at her. Her circlet shone like a lighthouse for a second—
Then the first paw of a Frostmarrow Behemoth punched out of the earth. Ceria wiped sweat from her brow as Pisces froze.
“I’m out of the circlet’s mana. Let’s do another! Pisces!”
She grabbed his hand. The [Necromancer] stuttered at her.
But then he focused. And pointed.
“There! Not here! There—”
Ceria’s eyes narrowed, and Yvlon did a double-take as her arm extended, grabbed someone by the throat, and retracted so she could punch them with her other hand.
“What is that? Did you make a Skeleton Lord?”
She recognized the superior undead fighting around a group of strange people. A Lizardwoman, a half-Elf, a few Stitch-people, a Dullahan…
Then a second Frostmarrow Behemoth emerged from the ground.
Femithain couldn’t believe his eyes. Savere was attacking Nerrhavia! Was that linked magic he was sensing? Had the Siren lost her mind?
Then he saw the two Frostmarrow Behemoths attacking Nerrhavia’s Fallen. And in the middle of it all—there was Domehead.
He was being charged by chariots, fighting Nerrhavia as they scored his armor with dozens of blades. Following Nsiia.
Someone fired one of the ballistae Nerrhavia had brought, and Domehead blocked it to a cheer from Illivere’s forces.
The glowing comet from one of the magic-throwers hit him and knocked him down. Femithain didn’t remember what happened after that. One second he was watching—the next?
Illivere was attacking Nerrhavia’s other flank. They passed by terrified freed [Slaves]—and the Crafter-Magus found himself face-to-face with a furious woman on a palanquin. The Siren aimed her wand at his two bodyguard Golems and froze.
“Crafter-Magus? Get out of my way!”
He lifted his own staff defensively, but a trumpeting call broke through the fighting. Both turned, and someone on an elephant called out.
“Siren of Savere. I hear you’ve been looking for me.”
Revine whirled, and Nsiia, the Empress of Beasts, charged her. The first impact tossed Revine from her palanquin into the chaos. Nsiia and Femithain locked gazes, and the Crafter-Magus raised his staff.
“Empress of Beasts!”
Ah, and here came the last one. General Thelican had a backup chariot and was riding at her. The Empress turned, cursing, as the [General] rode at her with his escort. He and his bodyguard were clashing with Vasraf, and Thelican roared around.
“Take them all down! All of them! Move, you idiots!”
He whirled to his [Strategist], but the giant fool with dark skin didn’t even move. He was the most impressive [Strategist] that Thelican had ever seen, mind you. A worthy backup since Zenol and Yvlon Byres had…wait a second.
“Who are you?”
General Thelican stared at the stranger, who had neither weapons nor actual armor. And where had his bodyguard gone? His chariot was empty. For answer, Orjin adjusted his posture as the [General] turned pale.
“The Strongest of Pomle.”
Eloque was galloping towards Pomle’s lines in a mortal terror. It was a battle between armies, and she didn’t know where Pisces had gone. Was that him on the chariot being pulled by bears? Was that…his team?
“Please! We’re not [Soldiers]! Don’t attack!”
The ex-[Slaves] were heading for the armored warriors, who raised their weapons at the sight of them. Merr hesitated as a line of strange fighters appeared.
“Oh shit—back it up! Back it up!”
But the Monks of Sottheim didn’t attack. They took one look at the desperate children, civilians, and the [Abbot], Shurein, lifted a hand.
“Let them through. Advance and support the Empress of Beasts.”
[Monks] made two lines and marched past the [Slaves] into the fighting. Eloque almost fainted in relief. Qshom actually did, lying on his back, his head rolling off his shoulders.
Bearig was following them, a gash on his shoulder and armor, but Merr had gotten him and Rophir here. That just left—
“Pisces! Merr, where is he?”
For answer, the [Bandit Lady] just pointed.
“With his team.”
She was smiling. Everyone looked at a single chariot screaming around the battlefield. Literally screaming as four figures clung to it. Two giant Frostmarrow Behemoths were rampaging around them, and the chariot was hurtling around, dodging enemy chariots, running through the ranks of one of Chandrar’s greatest nations.
Occupying the entire battlefield.
“Ceria Springwalker! You treacherous—!”
Pisces ducked the spray of water. It nearly blasted Yvlon off the chariot. Only her armor saved her. Ksmvr dragged her up.
“Who is that, Ceria?”
“The Siren of Savere! Go, go—she’ll drown us! I may have double-crossed her!”
Ksmvr lifted his head, spotted something, and waved his hands.
“Ah, there is Nsiia. Nsiia! I need the sword back! I have found Yvlon—Nsiia?”
The Empress whirled, having leapt off her elephant to chase the Siren. Yvlon, Pisces, and Ceria locked onto the blade she held.
They chorused as one. But then a howling [General] fleeing a [Martial Artist] pointed at her.
“Yvlon Byres! Is this how you repay the generosity of Queen Y—argh!”
Orjin kicked him into a line of Savere’s [Bandits]. Everyone turned to Yvlon. Ksmvr’s mandibles opened as wide as they’d go.
“Queen Yisame. Where’s Zenol? He’s somewhere around here!”
She whirled around, and Pisces found the [Prince] fighting with his team.
“There! Is he on our side?”
“Whose side are we on?”
The four Gold-rank adventurers looked at each other. Ceria lifted a finger.
“Probably not Savere, but we can patch things up.”
“No. Tiqr is on our side. And Pomle.”
Ksmvr and Yvlon looked at each other, but Pisces pointed.
“There! Merr is leading the freed [Slaves]! We’re fighting with them! To Pomle!”
That put them against…Nerrhavia. Everyone turned to Yvlon, and she hesitated only a second.
She grabbed the reins as Ksmvr began cutting arrows out of the air. Pisces took the left side, firing [Deathbolts], Ceria the right, with [Ice Spikes].
And then…in the middle of screaming at each other, calling out danger—they looked back. The Horns of Hammerad gazed at the others, wide-eyed, in the middle of a crisis—but there they were.
Same as ever.
We found each other. Even so.
Then they were facing the waving [Bandit Lady], the desperate battle around Pomle as Nerrhavia’s Fallen struggled to withdraw and Savere and Illivere began to fall back, one with a Golem in tow. Pisces was waving at Merr.
“We have to protect them from Roshal! We have to defeat Nerrhavia’s Fallen.”
He turned to the others, and Yvlon shook her head.
“No—I need to talk to Yisame. We might be able to get them to withdraw.”
She wasn’t sure how likely that was, but Ceria took one look at the screaming [Siren] and hesitated.
“I, uh—I don’t think Revine’s going to forgive me.”
Ksmvr lifted all three arms.
“And I would like my sword back! I wish to clarify, I only loaned it to Empress Nsiia. I believe we are owed interest.”
Every eye was on them, from the horrified courts of Nerrhavia’s Fallen to secret fans of the team to the enraged Roshal [Slavers] to Pisces’ comrades. Even Savere had to admire Ceria as they shot towards the waiting [Martial Artists].
“Now there’s a Gold-rank team. Crazy as loons.”
Salii muttered as the stolen chariot screamed towards their lines. Then she looked up.
“Yvlon! Stop! Don’t do this!”
Prince Zenol was racing after Yvlon. She could not take up arms with Tiqr! Everything else could be excused, no matter how angry Thelican was, but for her sake—Queen Yisame’s—
He had only one shot. The [Prince] raced clear of the fighting, ignoring Tiqr’s soldiers coming for him. He tensed—
And [Like a Lion, He Leapt]. Scimitar blazing with magic.
The four adventurers saw him. One of them turned and saw the [Prince] coming in what could only be described as a hostile maneuver. The Antinium whirled with two shining blades—and jumped.
His team turned to follow him, and every head craned up as Zenol and Ksmvr locked gazes. The [Prince] hesitated in that moment.
Was he going to…? Ksmvr had joined Tiqr. The Antinium was staring at him. They were on different sides.
But they had fought together. Zenol’s blade felt like it was wavering in his hands. The Antinium’s swords flashed uncertainly. They were on a collision course, and Zenol uttered the only prayer he knew.
“Nerrhavia’s bones guide me…”
He raised the sword as Ksmvr’s blades flashed. A boot kicked Zenol out of the air.
The [Prince] fell, shouting, as Ksmvr twisted too late. He tried to cut at the figure on the carpet, but the masked rider just laughed and caught the blade. The other Revenant piloting the flying carpet watched Zenol fall.
“Got one. Coutei—where are our targets?”
“Below! Strike whatever armies they are! In the name of Khelt!”
Ksmvr, struggling in the impossibly strong grip, stared as undead Revenants, three, each on a flying carpet, dove through the air. The last, a passenger, casually put Ksmvr in a headlock.
“Don’t fight, strange whatever-you-are! By Eternal Khelt—stand aside or die!”
Of course, the bewildered forces had no idea who the undead were. Indeed, the sight of undead on carpets? Every bow went up in Nerrhavia’s army below.
That was their mistake. One rider peeled off instantly. The Scourgeriders of Emrist swept down. One targeted the chariot and three adventurers. The other two blasted over the [Soldiers]. One raised a bag.
“[Create Cloud: Paralysis Dust]!”
A cloud of yellow particles swept behind the undead in its wake. The other was less merciful.
“[Fireball]. [Fireball]. [Fireball]. [Fireball]. [Fireball]. [Fireball]. [Fireball]—”
The carpet-riding [Mage] saw a Loquea Dree Garuda coming at her, and the undead tilted the carpet, clinging to it as it went vertical, and dodged Leka Thri as the Garuda whirled his scythe. Then they whirled, and the Horns of Hammerad looked up.
Yvlon was first. Coutei clotheslined the armored woman with one arm, a maneuver that would break any arm but his, and he was holding both Yvlon and Ksmvr. Pisces tried to dodge—he flashed—then froze as the [Mage] caught him.
“[Suppression Field]. Three!”
Ceria looked at her team, then did a hop—and the last carpet caught her, and the rider nodded in approval. The four adventurers realized a few things.
Firstly, undead were kidnapping them on flying carpets.
Secondly, they weren’t dead. The undead were shouting about Khelt and Fetohep of Khelt.
Thirdly? They were heading away from the battlefield.
Nsiia howled upwards, and Ksmvr struggled in the grip of the impossibly strong ‘undead’.
“My sword! Give me—put me down, please!”
“Revenants! They’re Revenants!”
Yvlon stared in horror at the other undead. Ceria just looked around and wiped at her brow.
“Whew. What a strange—”
“Eloque! Merr! Bearig! Qshom!”
Pisces nearly threw himself off his carpet, and the rider had to wrestle with him. The [Necromancer] was shouting.
“Put me down! Put me—”
“He’s going to crash the carpet!”
“I have him.”
Coutei leapt from carpet to carpet and restrained Pisces, but the [Necromancer] fought. He tried to cast magic, and the Djinni wrenched his finger away.
“Northwards, cousins! The Scourgeriders are assaulting A’ctelios Salash! We have a ship to catch!”
He roared, but Pisces was still fighting. They were passing over Pomle, and he was screaming down.
“Eloque! Put me down!”
“Fetohep of Khelt has summoned you! We are taking you to Izril!”
“No—what? Take them!”
Pisces pointed down, but the Scourgeriders saw only chaos below. The Revenants shook their heads. Pisces caught sight of a Lizardwoman staring up at him.
Ceria thought she heard his name being called. She saw Pisces fighting helplessly against…she narrowed her eyes. That wasn’t an undead.
“Why are we being taken? Put us down, please. We are a team. I have left a Relic-class weapon behind.”
Ksmvr tapped the other Revenant’s shoulder, and Yvlon balled a fist. But the [Mage] just aimed a wand at her, and the Horns hesitated. Only Pisces refused to stop.
“I promised to protect them! Let me go!”
Merr the Storm was racing after them on the ground, but she couldn’t keep up. Still—the riders looked at each other and flew lower.
“Merr! I’m going to—leave me behind!”
“Pisces? Hey, we’ll all stay! I don’t know why you want us, but—”
Ceria looked at him, but the Revenants were adamant. And Merr? She shouted.
“Pisces! Just go! Get out of here before Roshal fucking eats you, gold-boy! Go!”
“Not without you.”
Pisces was ready to jump off the carpet; he could easily damn all the riders if he kept fighting. Coutei had him restrained, but the [Necromancer] was firing off increasingly dangerous spells. At last, the Djinni snapped.
“Mighty Fetohep—desires you! We are taking you to Izril, you fools! He needs you to rescue Erin Solstice! Or protect her! Do not make me knock you all out!”
The Horns of Hammerad stopped. Merr the Storm just blinked as she saw Pisces’ eyes go wide. He looked at the Djinni, and Coutei grinned.
“A friend, eh?”
Pisces looked back at her, but the fight had gone out of him. The Bandit Lady shouted.
“I’ll keep—safe! Just—when you—luck!”
Pisces looked down at her, but then he gazed around. He hesitated and then collapsed.
Away they flew from the battlefield. Leaving friends, enemies, all behind in a sudden flight. Up, up—Ceria turned green and began throwing up until they leveled out. Ksmvr’s mandibles opened wide with delight as they flew up towards the clouds—then a stricken look crossed his face.
“Wait. My sword! My sword! I have left it behind! And Spitty. Wait, we can leave him. Maybe. But not Yinah! Or Domehead!”
He turned, but they were already far, far away. Pisces sat, pale-faced. Yet he had a hand to something—a scar around his neck—and he kept hesitating.
“Ivery! Eloque and Bearig, Rophir, Merr, Qshom…”
Yvlon looked down.
Ceria wiped at her mouth. She looked around.
“Uh…Omusc, I guess. I’m pretty good.”
They wavered there. They were leaving so much behind—and heading a continent away. They could turn back. Try, at least. The Revenants and the strange one, Coutei, watched them, and the Horns looked at each other.
Then, as night fell…they heard it. Each adventurer suddenly looked up, and the Revenants themselves turned their heads. Coutei’s voice boomed.
“Wait. Do you hear that?”
“I hear it.”
A horn began to echo across the sky. Ceria’s head turned, and her ears perked up. Yvlon felt at her own ears, and Pisces raised his head and gazed northwards. Ksmvr murmured.
“This is…not possible. But I believe—”
Ceria breathed. Her eyes stung, and the Horns of Hammerad looked at each other. Then, as one, they stopped. They sat on the carpets as they flew northwards.
“The end of Emrist’s Scourgeriders. The end of Khelt, perhaps. My friends—I will leave you after this.”
Coutei the Djinni looked up, and he did weep. For the horn. For reawakening.
For the end of things.
That was how the Horns of Hammerad caught up with Sand at Sea. They landed as Herdmistress Geraeri pointed them out, and Alked Fellbow and Frieke of Khelt…just accepted this as another layer of the mystery.
“Who are they?”
A [Knight] standing aboard the ship as it left the sand and headed into waters looked suspiciously at the adventurers. Another nearly drew their blade when they saw Ksmvr. Pisces walked onto the deck, and Jecaina and her father turned when they saw the rapier and the walk.
“Gold-rank adventurers. I thought they were on Izril.”
Alked murmured. He saw a half-Elf totter to a railing and immediately begin throwing up again. It turned out Ceria got carpet-sick. Especially when a Revenant demonstrated how to do a loop-de-loop on a carpet with no seatbelts. Or anything to hold onto but the carpet.
“Where…what is this ship? It’s almost as grand as the Reinhart’s capital ship, the Velistrane. ”
Yvlon looked around in awe as Pisces sat down hard on the decking, staring at all the powerful undead. He gazed up at a floating [Vizir] and flinched as Hecrelunn snorted.
“You mean the Velistrane? Is that damn ship still kicking?”
The [Captain] of Sand at Sea scowled at Yvlon, and she stared at the Revenant. Ceria, wiping her mouth, looked at someone who had been splattered a bit by her puke and was glaring at her. She eyed a man covered in bandages.
“Who’s bandages over there? What is going on?”
“Mfh fa rng f dthtion.”
The bandaged figure informed her. Ceria looked blankly at him and then at Orthenon as the [Steward] offered him a handkerchief.
It was King Fetohep himself who met the Horns of Hammerad. Each of them gazed at him in surprise. They had never met him, but Pisces bowed to him unexpectedly.
“Your Majesty of Khelt?”
“Yes. It seems the Scourgeriders of Emrist executed my will too well. For that, you have my apologies. However—no matter what you have left behind, my oath to Erin Solstice was such that I had to collect you. We go to Izril to aid her. And to fight to protect another child I think you know.”
Fetohep of Khelt stood there as the Horns exchanged looks. Ceria wiped her mouth and eyed the King of Destruction as Raelt of Jecrass limped over. Pisces did a double-take as he saw the golden bell and heard it chime. Herdmistress Geraeri nearly backed off the deck from Ksmvr of Chandrar, who was staring at Alked Fellbow. Yvlon Byres saw one of the undead sailors give her a wink.
All of them looked back at the sands of Chandrar and realized they were speeding north, leading a fleet of the undead. Khelt’s warriors. Heading north.
Straight to Izril.
As the last strains of that glorious call faded, Erin Solstice saw Fetohep sail north. She even saw the ship he was standing on faintly, but no one else.
“The Horns? Ceria? Ksmvr? Pisces? Yvlon?”
She didn’t see them, but she was smiling. Then she looked at the four of the six and the army coming towards her. Erin waved her pan at them.
“Okay. Okay. Come and get it. Especially the ugly ones. Like you. And you.”
She pointed at the wise man and the forgotten thing. Emerrhain gazed at the horrors from beyond and then at Erin Solstice. The ghosts of Chandrar stood ready. But Erin Solstice just waited. She knew it now.
They were not alone. Then she saw it. As if someone had suddenly turned on a light switch, as if she had suddenly noticed something that had been there all along but never been important until now, Erin Solstice looked up and beheld…ghosts.
Across Chandrar’s lands, across sea, as if her gaze had suddenly zoomed across that vast distance and rendered it meaningless, she saw Baleros. The continent consumed by war. One of the last refuges of ghosts.
Erin saw the Drathian empire standing, closest to the old foes they had warded so long against, rising to arms. Terandrian [Kings] and [Queens] hearing the sound and rallying for a last stand. Answering the call to arms.
But Baleros? Erin Solstice watched as the ghost of every Dragon, young and old, took wing. Only a few like Yderigrisel had refused to join their kin where they gathered in death, even before the six had begun preying on them.
Erin had never asked why. Nor, in hindsight, had she seen many ghosts, from Fraerlings to the ones who had surely existed long ago. She assumed Baleros was a subjective, random decision. Now, Erin Solstice saw a ghost, many ghosts, rising and following the Dragons as they swept up in a huge spiral, abandoning Baleros to fight the enemy.
Many ghosts, but one led them all. One that made Erin squint…but she had no eyes to be deceived, and there was nothing else to confuse her. So Erin just murmured as the [Witches], rulers of Chandrar, Djinni, Giants, Wyrm, mortals and immortals alike, gasped in shock and disbelief.
“Oh. So that’s where they were.”
The ghost of the Elf pointed a finger at Erin Solstice and then turned. She led the last charge of Baleros as more Elves followed her. Elves and Halflings and Giants, the Naga and Lizardfolk of Baleros and more. Even Norechl hesitated as the army of Baleros swept outwards—but Erin saw a small group detach itself and slowly head her way.
They were dead too, and an entire species. Erin had never met even their descendants, nor did she have much reference to guess what they should look like. But one look and she saw eighteen, an entire species, walking towards her and laughing.
Author’s Note: This is the final arc of Volume 8.
I think you can tell.
A few things. I will not be streaming any chapters this month. I normally do and write as live as live can be, but I will not be doing that and even attempt to write an advance to give myself a lead time before publishing. I wouldn’t normally do this, but I’m willing to delay a chapter’s publishing.
Because it matters. Because, even if I don’t get an editor, I need to make sure this is done right. It might not be done in one month exactly; if I need to take more time for any one chapter I will, and I’ll let you know but I’m going to give it my best shot.
I’ve even been counting dreams-to-nightmares and I’ve had three out of the last seven days. Better than expected, actually. I expected nightmares every day. I get them when I’m worried a chapter won’t be good, when it matters.
Weirdly, two of the three dreams have been scenarios where I’m fighting the Flood from Halo, the video game. I haven’t played it in a while, and nor do I get to be a super-soldier. It’s just me…and the world…infested by an alien race of parasitic supermonsters. I’m sure there’s nothing prophetic or ironic about that dream.
They cleared up after this chapter. It is far from perfect and I don’t think I did Fetohep’s ride complete justice. However, I was happy enough with it to publish it if you’re seeing this. It’s taken us a long time to get here. At least. Well. At last we’ll get to see what happens next. Prepare yourself for an interesting month.
Seamwalker and Silence by ArtsyNada!
The Wandering Inn on r/place by fans! Go find it here!
The Faeblade by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!