(Book 6, The General of Izril is available for preorder on Audible! Check it out here.)
My old friend.
That was how it felt. Like an old friend walking through your door when you least expected it. It might be foreign to other worlds, but all the peoples of this one had lived every day with Skills, such that they were as familiar to their owners as a hand, as unconscious as taking a breath.
It was not just the voice, that dispassionate speech that almost sounded a bit like…you. That announcement, which could be terrible or welcome, that arrived while you were on the verge of sleep or lying on the borders of consciousness with plague or blood loss or fainting in the middle of some great effort.
Skills and classes made people who they were. A [Blademaster]’s Skills gave them some of their legendary talent with the sword. A [Mage] matched Dragons by dint of their great reservoirs of mana.
Now, they returned. Like that friend, walking through your door when you did not look for them. In this case—as the doom of the deadlands bore down on them? An old friend walking in with a shotgun.
A magical shotgun. With silver bullets.
Of course, not everyone in the lands of the dead received levels or classes. Some just felt gravity reassert itself, and their benefits were different.
Dragons faltered as they suddenly realized they had to fly, using magic to keep themselves upright, wings beating with effort. But they roared in triumph, because they felt their hearts beating. And the magic…
The magic was back. Dragonfire took on qualities that had been lacking before. A plume of silver frost became more than a memory. A howling blizzard froze everything in its path, icy storms summoned around the core of magic emanating from a Frost Dragon’s mouth. A Dragon of the forests exhaled, and the magic of green and nature grew stronger, and the Dragon chanted a spell which demanded the earth rumble and heave under his foes.
Force, the power of their magic—and the glorious weight that enabled them to slam into their foes. Rend with talons and maneuver, rather than glide at the same, slow speed.
Magic was back. So was entropy, the power of gravity and other elements this land had never felt. Skills and classes were restored.
Erin Solstice felt it, and she felt…stronger. More complete, and she had only lived with her classes a short time. Her head rose, eyes wide with wonder as she looked at Emerrhain, the God of Magic.
Had he just adjusted the system? Clearly—yes. He had used a backdoor so old that it was built into the foundation of everything, a secret weapon. An unwelcome one, to hear Kasigna rage.
“Emerrhain! You fool! You cowardly wastrel—I will tear your essence apart and spread it across my lands! You have given them that which I forbid. From when did you hide this, you pathetic schemer?”
She was pursuing him as he fled—and it seemed like the two might actually come to blows. Emerrhain was laughing in triumph even as he fled, for Kasigna’s rage was impotent.
It was done—and, clearly, she could not undo it. Laedonius Deviy and even Norechl were incredulous. The oblivious Seamwalkers continued their advance on the souls they intended to devour.
For a moment, at least in Chandrar, there was only silence as ghosts looked up and listened. Listened as their classes were restored, Skills re-enabled. Erin Solstice couldn’t help but feel tears spring to her eyes. However, she kept looking at the figure standing next to her.
The Gnome, Zineryr. He was smiling wanly at Erin. It was a complicated expression on his face. A bit of satisfaction for a trick, a plan in motion. Sadness for some reason, and a strange kind of envy and regret.
He knew what she had to be hearing—but he heard not a thing. He flicked his hand, and the ball of magic he had conjured went out. For a moment it shone with every color he had ever known, and there were far more colors within than any rainbow Erin had ever seen. The very color of magic, lights seen only in deep space and places not from this world or hers.
Then he put his hands in his pockets. Erin gazed at him, speechless. They had helped bring it back. Sprigaena and the Gnomes had reignited hope and given them a fighting chance. But all Zineryr did was nod.
“Tell me one thing, Erin Solstice. Does it make your life better, having Skills or classes? Your world has neither. If you could go back home with them—would you?”
It was a strange question, but Erin answered automatically.
“I—yeah? It makes things so much easier. It’s so cool. It’s amazing. It…it might make things too easy, y’know, and it can do bad things too.”
She hesitated, catching herself, and the Gnome’s gray eyes fixed on her searchingly. Erin bit her lip.
“…But it makes everything magical. Especially the actual magic. Earth needs more of that. The good stuff, not the bad. I don’t know about everyone getting Skills—but I’d like to keep them.”
She didn’t know if that was a bad answer. A few Gnomes in earshot looked at her, and one hmmed, but Zineryr just patted her hand.
“That’s a wonderfully fair answer. I would that Sprigaena could hear it. Her and all the others. It lacks context, but it makes me glad. I will admit—it certainly makes things easier. Something to bear in mind.”
Erin blinked at him, but the Gnome was already stretching. There was still no other sensations, smell, touch, taste, aside from the emotions bubbling up in Erin’s chest. Yet she felt like a person again, almost. She was standing on earth, and if she wanted to get to another continent—she was going to have to swim.
In that sense there were problems—if Erin were alone. She doubted she could drown or get tired, but she was now limited by her speed in life, and she had never gotten running Skills.
But the other ghosts…ah. One finally broke the stunned silence.
A Named Adventurer. She had been wearing spectral armor of memory. The bones of some great beast, fashioned into armor. The Named Adventurer, the woman who had slain Jaws of Zeikhal and armored herself in their bones, one of the greatest warriors of her era, lifted her hand.
With a trembling voice, she spoke.
“[Ever-Prepared, Ever-Vigilant. Ever Armed].”
Erin Solstice’s head turned as she saw light engulf the adventurer. Her eyes went wide.
There used to be periods in Skills?
The dazzling light faded. Zineryr grinned as he lowered his hands, and the Named Adventurer, the Jawbreaker of Zeikhal, was wearing armor and carrying a great, fanged axe.
Real armor. Not a memory, but something realer than even the frying pan Erin could conjure. The [Innkeeper] boggled.
“Did—did she just pull that from—”
“Oho. Interesting. The grand design has no limits on where or what it captures. I wonder if that’s genuine armor or a copy?”
One of the Gnomes was watching with great fascination. And amusement. The ghostly adventurer felt at her armor.
Then she began to laugh.
“Aha. Ahahahaha. My weapons! My armor! I feel it. I am not naked and unarmed any longer. Time—time for vengeance.”
She looked up at the Seamwalkers, and even with her weapons, she blanched at their numbers. But no longer with that helpless resignation—now as an adventurer, seeing a battle she didn’t know she could win. She clenched her jaw—then remembered another foe.
“You treacherous six. A reckoning comes to you!”
She whirled and leapt into the sea with a splash of water. Cursing, the woman realized she couldn’t fly and waded into the waters towards one of the dead gods. At this, one of the Gnomes called out.
“Hold on. That’s a bad idea. Don’t attack them—”
But the Named Adventurer was too enraged to listen, and she had a target. Laedonius Deviy was still floating there. He seemed untouched by the law of gravity’s return, and he slowly rotated as the Named Adventurer lifted the gigantic weapon with one arm.
“Die, you things. [Axe of the Gigant]. [Earthshaker’s Blow]!”
She swung the axe down as it grew. Even the Giants stepped back as an axe that something a quarter of their size—so something as tall as a hill—would have wielded crashed downwards.
The impact as the axe hit the sea and Laedonius Deviy caused a geyser that blinded Erin as water fountained up into the sky and rained down—then dissolved around her. Erin’s mouth was open as she witnessed the greatest attack she had ever seen in her mortal life. The most devastating Skill.
That could have killed multiple Skinners with one impact! It was an attack suited for someone who slew Jaws of Zeikhal. It could have changed an entire battlefield, annihilated hundreds in a single swing.
However—Zineryr just looked through the downpour of rain, and the Named Adventurer stared up, and her expression of triumph faded.
The God of Dance and Love had been struck by the axe made of bone. As water swirled around him, he pushed it off his shoulder. There was not a mark on his body or clothing, which looked like formal attire for the grandest of balls in Erin’s world hundreds of years ago. He could have strode out of a play from the ages of Shakespeare. Or—alternatively—he was the one that had hired the Bard of Avon for a party.
Not even a flinch. He stepped forwards as the Named Adventurer recoiled. She tried to leap back with a warrior’s reflexes. But the God of Dance and Love was—
Faster. He didn’t move with that timeless motion like the ghosts. He leapt like someone descending from the stage, as swift as a swallow darting across the water, and his fingers touched her face.
The Named Adventurer vanished. Her armor, her helmet, and her axe fell to the ground. Erin stared at it, and the God of Dance licked his lips. He whirled and leapt to touch another ghost unawares.
“Back! Back behind Khelt’s protections!”
Khelta shouted. A wall of sand rose, blocking the God of Dance as ghosts fled from him once more. Even now—even now. Nerrhavia called out in frustration.
“Can nothing harm them?”
One of the Gnomes shot back.
“Of course something can. Just not your Skills or weapons you have access to. Great magic. Their own gifts. Someone get that sword.”
Laedonius Deviy looked up and stepped back as a ray of light burned down from the heavens. The memory of Excalibur rose, and he frowned at the ghosts.
“I can see now why Kasigna rages. This is…inconvenient. But it may be for the best.”
The God of Dance trailed backwards a single step, then two, turning left and right to regard the army of Seamwalkers. He pivoted and turned the motion into a bow to his opponents. The Gnomes. They rolled their eyes as he whirled, retreating.
“Trust Deviy to put a good face on anything.”
“That one could trip and pretend he was angling for a way to kiss the ground.”
“He has bad fashion sense.”
Erin’s mind was racing, but that moment had told her…she was staring at the armor. And the gigantic axe. It wasn’t vanishing. It was…here. Lying on the sand and burying itself with each wave that washed over it, heavy as stone. Real—but its owner would never return.
“We can’t hurt them. But our Skills and classes are back. What…what are we supposed to do?”
Zineryr turned. He looked at the ghosts of Chandrar, and even Xarkouth and Rhisveri’s brother, the great Wyrm, suddenly were focused on him.
The Gnome brushed at his spiky silver hair and nodded. He walked a few steps up into the air. Erin saw shimmering steps made out of light magic appear as Zineryr cleared his throat, walking as casually as if the steps had been there all along. He called out, and his voice was magnified.
“Attention, everyone. Stay away from the six. You can’t hurt them unless you bear what you’d call something beyond most Relic-class weapons, or an object that has at least a partial connection to the real world. Weapons connected to a throne or bloodline. That kind of heirloom, Dragonfire, or what you’d call Tier 8 magic will hurt them. Temporarily. Devote your attention to the rot from the edge of the world. Make your stand where you want—and watch for them. But we must stop Norechl’s kin or they will begin to tear their way into the living world. If we need your help, we will ask. Otherwise? This is your chance. Do what you will.”
Erin had expected some great speech, but the Gnome simply hopped down and landed next to her. All he did was warn them that they couldn’t kill the six—and then?
“You’re not going to lead us in some big…counterattack?”
“We never liked being generals or leading armies. Besides—that lot would feast on an army. There is a plan, and we will try to carry it out. But you, my dear, are my only concern. Let the dead fight or flee. That is called free choice.”
He grinned unexpectedly. Erin Solstice blinked at him as the Gnome nodded to the right. He was looking at some ghosts present here.
Roshal’s [Slavers]. They were arguably less empowered, with only the Skills they had in life. And their slaves and command and chains…
But those they had tormented were here, too. Some of their [Slaves] had followed Roshal even in death. Other ghosts long freed in death looked up in a sudden terror. One of the [Slavers] shouted in exuberance.
“I have gained my power! Now—now, Roshal shall return! We shall capture these invaders and turn them against each other! To me I call my old servants. [Summon Slaves: The Spriggan Consort of Roshal].”
Erin Solstice looked up as the world flickered. The [Slaver] was trying to call on other ghosts. Did he say…?
“Huh. It’s warring with itself. There was never any plan for this, I’m sure. I wonder what it’s going to do.”
Zineryr muttered grimly as he watched space bend. Erin thought she saw figures beginning to appear, shouting in terror, some weeping with memory or cursing the [Slaver] who was holding a handful of…chains? Leashes made of dark metal?
Cold iron? He was laughing and the other [Slavers] rejoicing, pursuing their captives, when someone tapped the [Slaver] on the shoulder. The Garuda turned. Then his triumph turned to pale fear.
Elucina beheaded the ghost with a sword made out of blazing fire. Fire, for the first String-folk to break their bonds of servitude.
Fire, for the Rebel of String who had slain the Threadmakers.
The head floated off the body as Erin gasped. She lowered the pan she’d been about to throw as the rest of the [Slavers] whirled in shock and terror. This time—the ghost didn’t vanish instantly.
His head trailed wisps of color, of his…self. It tried to return to his body, not floating back, but trying to rematerialize, yet he screamed, a shriek of pain.
Elucina squatted next to the screaming [Slaver], watching him intently.
“So magic cuts you—like ghosts. But you die a bit harder. Good to know.”
The sword flashed six times, and she diced the Garuda into pieces. This time—they lingered only a moment before fading away. Pieces of the Garuda, bloodless but separated, fading away as they tried to stay together. A whole concept, a soul, too badly damaged. Vanishing with a sigh.
The ghosts of the Spriggans who’d been summoned stopped appearing in midair. They called gratefully to Elucina, some weeping. The Rebel of String just smiled up at them. Then she turned.
“Rebel of String! What madness is—”
One of the [Slavers] began to shout before Elucina strode forwards. She was a blur and planted the sword in the chest of another [Slaver]. Without a word, she cut, lightning-quick, slashing the body to nothingness.
“Elucina! We are fighting the end of the land of the dead! Enough!”
Khelta cried out, but the Rebel of String raised her sword. She aimed it at Roshal’s ghosts, and an army flocked to her. Freed [Slaves], the [Rebels] and chainbreakers of every age. The Rebel of String shouted.
“Even at the end of the world, I will not join hands with those who enslave others. If all will fade away—I will see Roshal die first, screaming. Never again! CHARGE.”
She said nothing more, but charged the next [Slaver] and cut the screaming ghost into pieces. Roshal’s ghosts fled as an army followed them.
A far larger force whose fury had not waned over however long they had been dead. Some of Roshal had the levels to fight—but they were the people who enslaved. Roshal’s victims had fled the [Slavers] after death, but they had never forgotten the wrongs. And the worst of Roshal’s get were not here.
The Rebel of String began the first battle between ghosts for the best of reasons. Against all of Roshal’s monsters, each and every one present. However, she was only the first ghost to strike.
As soon as the ghosts of Chandrar realized they had Skills and a means to kill each other, they remembered their grudges and failed dreams and regrets in life. They looked at their parents and loved ones and remembered—
Those that had killed them were here too.
Most did not have Skills to summon weapons. Erin saw a pair of [Kings] who might have been twins square up and begin punching each other, reenacting the very moment of their death with fists instead of swords.
Cawe herself had seized a blade Elucina had tossed at her and was pursuing Igheriz, who was screaming for a weapon. Other ghosts were pursuing their own vengeance.
Amidst the chaos, Khelt’s rulers tried to restore order, but their authority had vanished as Skills returned power to the dead.
“Hear me! I will have no fighting! I am the [Archmage of Sands]! I demand—”
A Stitch-man flew into the air, booming, and his arms rose and the sands whirled up around him. Geysers of whipping sand that became the hands of giants, walls, and a city of sand, rising ever-higher. Other ghosts backed away as this one lifted his arms, creating a city in a moment. A power supreme even among other ghosts to command them all by force and might. That certainty shone bright in the [Archmage]’s eyes—right until he saw another [Archmage] rising into the air.
“We shall finally settle our match without tricks, you wretched coward!”
The Archmage of Fire howled, a dagger wound still in the Stitch-woman’s back as her cloth-skin burned with the fire of her magic.
Chaos. Their unity was gone in a moment. Erin looked around and saw someone sneaking behind a boulder as the ghosts began to fight.
Nerrhavia, the Immortal Tyrant, the most hated ruler for over a thousand years…peeked around the boulder. She looked very nervous. She scuttled left—straight into someone standing there. The [Tyrant] looked up.
“Ah. Queen Merindue.”
Queen Merindue of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, the kingdom that had sprung up with Nerrhavia’s death—one of the women who had seen Nerrhavia die—looked down with arms folded.
Her people stood behind her. All of Nerrhavia Fallen’s ghosts, the army that had perished trying to slay Nerrhavia, her successors, and champions.
Nerrhavia looked around for her legions and armies, but many had been so depraved they had not even come here. Others had simply forsaken Nerrhavia, having died cursing her name or betrayed, executed for treachery.
She straightened and slowly adjusted her gown. Nerrhavia flicked her hand and reapplied the poison to her nails with a Skill. She gave Merindue a bitter, contemptuous smile.
“Do what you will, little successor of mine.”
For a reply, Queen Merindue simply reached out and grabbed Nerrhavia’s arm. Her gaze was cold, dispassionate, and resolved. The Tyrant hesitated, and Erin saw Nerrhavia produce a little dark dagger out of nowhere. Nerrhavia hid the little dagger as she tensed. Merindue’s grip tightened and Nerrhavia lunged like a cornered snake. Erin was already shouting.
“Nerrhavia, Merindue! Don’t—”
Queen Merindue had seen the dagger coming. She rotated, grabbed Nerrhavia’s other arm, and thrust the dagger up before it plunged towards her breast. Nerrhavia looked bitterly content as she waited for a blow that would end her—but it never came. Merindue held Nerrhavia’s arm aloft with her own. Then she turned and shouted as loudly as she could to the assembled ghosts.
“Nerrhavia’s Fallen—to me! We march with the Immortal Tyrant against the end of things! Abandon your grudges! To arms—to arms for the end of the world!”
She turned, and Nerrhavia found herself facing an army of millions upon millions. Many howled her name, but no one attacked. Merindue pointed towards the first Seamwalkers walking onto Chandrar’s eastern shores.
“To battle! Tyrants shall ever die!”
The ghosts of her nation began to march. Nerrhavia turned to Merindue in surprise, and her painted eyes flickered.
“You—are a practical ruler.”
“We have forever for you to answer for your crimes. I will not have the living land of our people despoiled by those things. If we survive—there will be a reckoning.”
Merindue met Nerrhavia’s gaze icily, and the Tyrant smiled.
“Ah, practical. I knew there was a reason I found your company tolerable.”
Indeed—as the two looked around, they saw many quarrels ending. Some went to the death, like Roshal and their foes, but many ghosts had possessed eternities to resolve them. And these Seamwalkers…
However hated someone had been in life, they were nothing to the wrongness coming. So, for every ghost that went to pursue a grudge, ten thousand turned and set themselves against their foes.
They had much to do in so little time.
One of the Giants boomed downwards at the ghosts. The Ash Giant was watching her feet, flexing her hands, but the ghost who had died and given her body to Khelt was now looking around.
“Little folk! The time has come to let go all grudges. You have slain my kind—now we fight together. So I ask for a weapon. Have you any great [Smiths]?”
King Serept of Khelt looked up. His eyes brightened.
“I have a halberd made for a Giant!”
“Oh dead gods, not that eyesore.”
Queen Xierca muttered, and Serept looked hurt. But the half-Giant was looking around.
“It is functional. If only I had the Skills to pull it from the living world—can anyone conjure a copy of it?”
Another ghost was staring at his bare hands, frustrated.
“I am a [Scythemaster]—without a scythe! How am I to fight without a weapon?”
Few ghosts had the ability to conjure weapons. Erin was lifting a ball of fire in one hand and admiring the glow. Zineryr whistled.
“Oh, quite lovely. Is that the emotion of glory? The grand design does do such interesting things…a shame it was never completed.”
She blinked at him.
“Huh? What—what are we doing? Hey! Anyone want free glory-fire? Got any piece of wood? You could make a torch!”
“Give it to me, and I’ll cover myself in it.”
A stranger strode over with the most amazingly strange skin Erin had ever seen. Oily? She looked at the strange man as he seemed to grow—no, not seemed to. His body changed. The Jinn accepted Erin’s fire and passed it over an arm.
“Ah, it burns my magic. But it will be a fine little weapon. My kin! Lead us to one last battle!”
Erin Solstice looked up, and there they were. The Ash Giant who had called for a weapon looked up and laughed.
“Oh, the great smiths of magic. Unchained. This is a great day.”
She held out her hands—and a Djinni dropped a mace gleaming with blue fires of forging into her hands. A Giant’s mace.
Another threw down blades that ghosts scooped up, exclaiming in awe. The Djinni! They were creating blades and weapons, even bows and arrows!
Out of themselves. They were purely magical beings, and they were expending their very essence in death to create weapons. One tossed a scythe down, and the [Scythemaster] instantly picked up the long, wicked blade and frowned at it.
“Wait. This is a farmer’s scythe. I need a warscythe—”
Chandrar was mobilizing itself to war. The more impetuous ghosts flew ahead, [Archmages] and flying Garuda, [Heroes], [Champions], some determined to fight alone.
A thousand thousand [Generals] were arguing over tactics, trying to form the army of dreams. Every [King] and [Queen] in Chandrar wanted the Excalibur blade.
Erin Solstice was standing with the rulers of Khelt as they held a conference with Nerrhavia and a number of other ghosts. Khelta turned.
“…We will have to spare some of our number to remain. Khelt’s power is still present here. And we will have to let most ghosts stay on Chandrar. We cannot fight by sea. Who will follow Fetohep? Some are pledged to aid the Gnomes.”
“What? What is going on? Why are some leaving? To flee?”
The Rebel of String arrived, panting. Wounded in several places—but she had driven Roshal’s ghosts into the sea, and she had not forgotten Erin.
“No, Rebel of String. We are still committed to restoring Erin Solstice to her body. Moreover…I am still convinced our great battle is not just here. See. We are preparing to join other continents where they make their stand. A first conflict shall occur here, but we must all fight together. Especially against the greatest Seamwalker of them all. The one that consumes time. See—it is almost risen.”
She pointed to the edge of the world, and every ghost turned and saw the Devourer of Gods. Even looking at it was dangerous.
It was stealing time. It was…Erin Solstice looked at the chalk-white ‘skin’ and a hundred million eyes gazing outwards.
Each eye was a well into which time was sucked and distorted. Each one so unlike a normal eye. Some bled, others had too many layers. Others were simply blind.
It was standing, and even Dragons and other Seamwalkers fled its advance. Khelta glanced at Erin and the Gnomes, who were nodding. Then she pointed to their route off Chandrar since no one could fly.
“Erin Solstice—come with us. Let us cross this sea.”
Elucina followed her finger, and even the Rebel of String gasped. For what she saw was…an armada.
An armada and a great bridge across the world.
Erin remembered their saviors at sea, and it was Califor, adjusting her hat, who agreed.
“They will ferry some ghosts and harass their foes. We shall walk across the greatest bridge this world has ever known.”
She pointed, and the Witch Somillune, the Witch of Ashes, alongside the gigantic Witch of Trees, that woman with a body like a vast oak, and the Shark-Witch strode onto the water. They walked into the water…and the earth rose around them. New land, rising from the depths to form a walkway a thousand paces wide.
The greatest [Witches] were passed by a figure skating on the waves. The [Pirates] who had reclaimed some vessels cursed and sailed out of the way of a [Cryomancer] who froze the waves and water itself. On the right, the world’s most legendary [Carpenter] and Drevish were literally building a bridge and arguing about construction.
“We go after Fetohep. Who will join us? To Terandria, to Baleros—to Drath or wherever the ghosts unite for a final stand!”
Khelta called out, and Erin Solstice saw a second legion following her. Erin hurried to catch up—but a hand tugged at her arm.
Zineryr tugged Erin Solstice away as Khelta called out, daring the dead gods to assault them as more Seamwalkers and Norechl itself turned to catch them at sea. It would be a terrible battle—but the Gnome was pulling Erin away.
Zineryr nodded at the great ruler, and Erin saw a young woman shuffling next to her, waving a pan and beaming in a stupid way. The Gnome grinned as Erin Solstice looked at Erin Solstice. He gave her a wink as the God of the Forgotten locked on the fake Erin. Then he patted Erin’s hand.
“Illusion spells. We have a different route. Time to finish telling you everything.”
“But the battle—”
The Gnome looked Erin in the eyes as she wavered. Everything in Erin yearned to join in and fight along Chandrar’s legends.
“Yours will be harder because it will continue when you wake up. You have a life to get back to—and one of the six in your body could be the greatest disaster of all. Please, join me? My kin and I have another route.”
The [Innkeeper] forced herself to turn away from Khelta and followed Zineryr. She was about to ask what their route was when she saw it.
“How many of you? Nine and a Human? Very well…but I am headed to Baleros first! You will have need of my kin, and a thousand Dragons can stop even those six.”
“Yes, yes. Now lower a wing, would you?”
Gnomes were striding up Xarkouth’s wing and sitting on his back. The Void Dragonlord looked at Erin with the most grumpy expression in the world. She put her hands over her mouth.
“I’m gonna ride a—”
“It is for a dire emergency and the oldest of species. Do not think this is because of you, ghost-girl.”
“I’m going to ride a Dragon?”
Zineryr just laughed as Erin stared up at the Void Dragonlord. He gestured to his chuckling kin.
“Everyone should at least once. If only to learn that Dragons are terrible vehicles.”
Xarkouth growled, but then they were flying. The great battle for Chandrar began as Erin Solstice flew with the Gnomes. Into the air, laughing and then immediately getting queasy because she had forgotten she didn’t like heights.
Below her, the battle for the lands of the dead had truly begun.
The reappearance of gravity and magic and the sudden opposition of their food did not seem to dismay the Seamwalkers. Did they even understand what was going on?
It was unclear. Mainly because so many were different. Some clearly shared common traits, but as Erin had seen—
They were so wildly outside of biology that they were literally impossible. And she realized something.
Some really weren’t experiencing gravity that well. As the young woman looked down, she saw a Seamwalker with an upper torso connected to a lower, crawling half by a rail-thin spine waver…and fall.
It snapped itself in half, and a horrific ooze infested with parasites gushed out. Both lower and upper half kept trying to crawl on the ghosts. Erin gagged as she looked down.
“Oh my g—did you see that?”
“One down. Two more crawling about. Plus parasites. Just as well we’re all dead or decontaminating everyone affected would be a nightmare. They’ll rot some souls…well, Kasigna gets to clean it up if she wins.”
One of the Gnomes commented. Zineryr just shook his head as Erin looked downwards in horror.
“That thing was never meant to survive the open air. Norechl has led most of its kin to a demise. If we were in an oxygen-rich environment, they’d suffer more. Some of them.”
It was true; gravity alone was the downfall of some of the Seamwalkers. Others seemed to drink in the surface and grow stronger. Even as Erin watched, a giant pillar of flame hit the two halves of the downed Seamwalker and cooked it. A flying [Mage] was hitting every Seamwalker they could find.
“Look at that. All that free mana—I heard they had the design backing them up, but it’s still something. Wasteful magic, but an ocean compared to even Dragons.”
One of the female Gnomes observed, watching the [Mage] direct another hurricane of fire at a second Seamwalker. This one barely burned, encased in a rubbery hide. The [Mage] dove as Xarkouth banked left; thousands of splinters of flesh shot from the thing’s gaping maw and obliterated several ghosts in the air.
They nearly hit Xarkouth as well, but the Void Dragonlord growled an oath, and a little hole opened up in the world and sucked all the projectiles coming their way into it.
He could cast magic! However, the Void Dragon’s second spell failed; he uttered a few magical words, then flapped his wings and cursed.
“Take us away from the fighting.”
Zineryr called down, and Xarkouth complained.
“I cannot teleport! I tried to blink-teleport across—”
“Yes, yes. I saw. You can’t access other dimensions here. Or else we’d all be able to leave. Teleportation is out or we wouldn’t need your slow wings. Take us away from that Seamwalker! Now!”
Xarkouth and Erin turned and saw a third one coming their way. Fast. It was lunging through the ocean in huge flops of motion. It had neither arms nor legs, and it was…what, bone? Something between the two, flowing and solidifying by turns, slick with liquid.
Solid matter, sickly yellow, forming a lattice of a body, and a lower half that oozed into the water. However, the upper half was just that strange, almost geometric lattice and a single ‘heart’ exposed to the world. Like a skeleton.
Forewarned, Xarkouth flew as fast as he could away from it. When Gnomes sounded urgent…
The powerful pyromancer spotted a new target and conjured a gigantic, green fireball the size of a house. They tossed it down, and Erin saw the beating heart, too spherical by far, laced with diseased blue and purple flesh—
The magic spell vanished. The fire went out, but Erin swore she saw something being sucked into the heart. As if it, like Xarkouth’s magic, were a maw, and it was eating…
“Magic. Is it—?”
The Void Dragonlord flew faster, and Erin saw the ‘heart’ was no heart at all. The center of the Seamwalker expanded as the mouth opened, and it ate the magic around it.
The ghostly [Mage] flew out of the sky helplessly, and Xarkouth flapped desperately. At the edges of the anti-magic zone, he lost momentum but stabilized after gaining some ground; the devourer was circling the waters behind it.
“How are we supposed to fight that?”
The Gnomes were watching the Seamwalkers as the others caught up, using it as a kind of shield against the powerful magic.
“Some will be immune or devour magic. I suppose you get one of your high…level warriors and have them hit it. Giants will do. Or an Elf. Is Sprigaena still dead?”
“I don’t see her. Eyes out for Kasigna, Emerrhain? Norechl’s still back there. Tamaroth or Cauwine? Even if one got the body, I can’t believe they’d share.”
“That would be a hilariously short-lived scenario. Bets on who got it? What’s our optimal scenario here?”
“Kasigna ate Emerrhain?”
“Ooh. I like that.”
They were…calm. Chatting and clearly still on Plan A, whatever Plan A was. In fact—one pointed.
“I see more of Chandrar’s ghosts! Dropping!”
One of the nine Gnomes leapt off Xarkouth’s back as he spotted some [Pirates] on a ship. She adjusted a pair of goggles as she skydived downwards. Erin saw her rotate, give a thumbs up, then land on the ship in front of the startled ghosts.
They were so cool. And they spoke like they’d seen everything, even the Seamwalkers, before. Then she felt a tap on the shoulder.
“Alright, until something comes up, we’ve got time. Back to what you need to know.”
Erin gulped as Zineryr spoke to her. Other Gnomes were chattering, running commentary, giving Xarkouth sass, or preparing to visit more ghosts for reasons yet unknown. But her Gnome was eying her.
“Are you sure? I mean—everything’s happening! Shouldn’t we fight?”
Zineryr shook his head.
“Every ghost in existence is down there, fighting. What would two more do?”
“But you’re a Gnome…don’t you know super-magic?”
He grinned toothily at her.
“You’re thinking of Djinni, Dragons, even Elves, Erin. We’re Gnomes. We make things. If I had to fight, I’d make something to fight in. Besides, you know Norechl’s kin aren’t the real enemy. If they get loose, it will be one thing. Those six…that is our job.”
The other Gnomes nodded, and Erin gulped.
“S-so what, I should listen, and you’ll tell me everything?”
“Yep. You are by way of a contingency in yourself. Someone who might live…isn’t it worth arming them as best we can?”
The young woman opened and closed her mouth. Erin hesitated.
“But what if I forget?”
Another Gnome hopped off Xarkouth’s back with a laugh. Zineryr shrugged.
“Then you forget. Frankly, it’s a huge possibility. Death, trauma, someone eating you before we manage it. Don’t worry. You are not the only plan in motion. I’m the one out of eighteen devoted to you. We have a plan. So just listen and do what you think you can.”
He patted her hand again cheerfully.
“That’s how plans work. The best ones adapt for failure. For instance, we didn’t know Emerrhain had a backup way to access the design. We just suspected it was in his nature.”
Erin was surprised.
“Oh? What would you have done if he didn’t turn on Skills?”
Zineryr winked slyly.
“Ah, well, Kasigna could do it too, I bet. If Emerrhain didn’t succumb to fear, we’d have hoped Kasigna would restore that function once she started losing to that.”
He nodded at the Timewalker. Zineryr raised a finger.
“Failing that? We’d tear a hole straight into the lands of the living. But that would escalate things. Our goal is to find the best outcome. Back to stories.”
Erin and Xarkouth’s heads were both fixed on the Gnome.
“Wait! You can’t just—”
“You can do what?”
The Dragonlord roared. The [Innkeeper] saw the pure mischief on Zineryr’s face. He waved a hand airily.
“Come, come, you two. Focus.”
That was a Gnome for you. Erin began to get it. Stories about Gnomes always made them clever. These ones were the cool grandparents, skydivers, inventors with goggles. Pranksters.
And they made the dead gods nervous. Because…because the Gnomes had humiliated them before. Because they were smart. And they had been there at the beginning.
Zineryr looked across the lands of the dead, so unlike the world he had known. He sat there, legs dangling over the scaly side of the Void Dragonlord as wind blew around them, but the ghosts felt no cold. Such a tiny Gnome, second-shortest of all.
When he had lived, they had been the smallest race. He spoke in a far-off voice, losing the mischief, his tone longing, nostalgic and regretful. He frowned as he looked at the fighting below them, ghosts versus Seamwalkers.
“Drat, if only we had time. If we had a month, a week—but they just had to end the world now.”
Time. Erin saw the largest Seamwalker of them all, dwarfing even the Giants, so large it didn’t fit on this world. Reaching out with the eyes of a thousand hands to swipe at a Dragon who dodged the slow blow—then appeared in its grasp, screaming—and vanished.
They had mere minutes to relate a story across lifetimes. The Gnome frowned—and glanced at Erin.
“Time magic is always dangerous. Your Skills can do things even the greatest magicians of our era couldn’t. Create new matter at no cost. Even creating a speck of dust from nothing would give Elves a great challenge. Why? You sound like you have an idea.”
“What about…an [Immortal Moment]?”
The Gnome blinked at Erin. For the first time, she saw an expression of pure surprise on his face. Then he whirled.
The great Devourer of Time was halted in midair. Xarkouth kept beating his wings, but the Void Dragon realized—he wasn’t going anywhere. Everyone was fighting below—Erin saw magic bloom across a Seamwalker who looked up at her…but it seemed like an eternity for the magic to lash its body.
The world froze a second. The Gnomes looked at each other, then burst into merry laughter.
“What a completely ridiculous ability! And how fortunate!”
Zineryr was nodding. He looked at Erin in approval.
“I think we have time for our chess game after all. But just in case—let’s begin.”
Erin Solstice beamed in pride at her first special Skill as the Gnome waved at the world around him. His eyes lost focus, and he looked backwards. His voice grew nostalgic, since they had the time for it. He spoke less quickly than the patter of words, because these ones mattered. With too much meaning and context left unsaid. But he did tell her—
“When the people of this world rebelled against the gods, it was Elves who stood first, though they were divided. The vast majority would strive against the gods, but some, like Sprigaena, became their champions, and empowered, they were the greatest foes besides the gods themselves. Yet it was Elves who opposed gods first. Some of their own kind as well, in time. They were never united. For instance, Tamaroth, Emerrhain, and Cauwine belonged to the same pantheon. Laedonius Deviy stood apart, and Kasigna and Norechl were part of their own pantheon. Do you know that term? Those are the six to remember as they seem to be the ones that held onto their identity.”
Erin sat there a moment.
“…I do. Are you telling me…?”
Zineryr regarded Erin cheerfully.
“Everything but the dangerous parts means everything. I can skip it if you want only the details, but I find most people want to understand it.”
“I want to know. I want to…I’m not sure I’m ready.”
Erin Solstice took a shaking breath, and the Gnome shook his head.
“Just listen, Erin. It isn’t a long story. When we strove against them, it was the oldest races who made war. Some proud mortal kingdoms, but mostly the immortal species who could see the grand design taking place. You understand? What you have…Humans did not have. Skills, levels, classes. There were other reasons, but that was the greatest of them. We went to war. Gnomes, Elves, Dwarves, Dragons—everyone. War engulfed the entire world.”
“Is it—wait. Is it—round? Isn’t there an end to the world?”
“It’s round. They weren’t stupid enough to make a square, and it’s not one of the ones where you can actually fall off. We just…tore a part of it away.”
The trembling voice came from Xarkouth. Zineryr shushed him.
“That is getting ahead, towards the end. Suffice it to say, it wiped out so many people…it was a blow that should never have been struck, but it had to be. The Kingdom of Drath was the only one that survived even part of the destruction, and their descendants pledged never to forget. They might be allies. But that was one of the last great blows of the war. I wept when I felt it.”
He looked out into the distance. Erin grabbed at her head.
“Yes. All the way to the end. Past it, actually. As I said—”
The Gnome looked at her, and his eyes glinted.
“We won. It is not an original story. To summarize it: long ago, before the grand design, before your…system of Skills and classes, creation fought creators. We did it because of that very issue. They put in place the grand design that shapes this world. Elves, Gnomes, and other species objected. The gods imposed their will and we argued, then began to fight.”
A Gnome looked up wistfully and brushed at a lock of hair.
“So long we argued upon that brink, hoping it would not come to it. But they would not relent. We were their subjects. When the Elves stood against them, the gods smote them with armies and magic and the wrath of heaven. So the Gnomes joined our kin, the Dwarves made weapons beyond the likes of which any had dreamed. They were laughing until we slew the first of their number. Then the blood of god and mortals ran into the oceans.”
The Gnomes looked at Erin. Zineryr’s voice was low.
“…In time, every kingdom was all but rubble and the pantheons emptied. Gods took sides. So did every mortal race. Realms beyond this one joined the fighting and suffered for it. They died, but so did we. It was a war.”
It was just a war. Like every one Erin had known…and greater than she could imagine. She sat there, heart beating, as Zineryr took a long breath.
“And in the end, we won. The gods died, leaving only mortals to pick up the pieces and decide what came next. The survivors of both sides, Sprigaena’s loyalists and the few like we Gnomes, stood in the aftermath and the death of gods, and we knew it was over. They kept fighting, a while, after it ended. Sprigaena hunted us—and killed some.”
“She got me.”
A Gnome waved his hand from the front. Zineryr nodded.
“…The rest of us made preparations as the mortal world forgot and rebuilt. A world without gods was our victory. A world without gods or Elves or my kin, and so many others.”
A tear dripped from one of Zineryr’s eyes, but no more. He had wept it all long ago.
“I lived for thousands of years after that, mostly helping rebuild, battling loyalists, making sure all was safe. Making what amends we could to the other worlds. I spent my last centuries with the tiny people that appeared. Fraerlings. We meddled, made plans, and died. I regret to say that while we made a lot of preparations, we completely missed Rhir. That one was buried so deep we didn’t realize for countless ages something was wrong and then…”
“We were dead.”
“And you didn’t have kids? You said that. Why?”
Zineryr scratched at his beard.
“You know, children are delightful. Ours would have been too intelligent. They would have asked too many questions, you see? We were tired. Every door was shut. Some of us chose to leave, before the war, and the rest after. We bade them best wishes wherever they went. But we eighteen chose to stay. Just in case. The last Elves, Sprigaena included, died out, and their children became half-Elves because only two Elves can create another Elf. Sort of a genetic flaw, that. But the doors were sealed, so nothing could leave. You see—they were alive, but starving.”
“The dead gods.”
The Gnome nodded.
“Exactly. They would have fled—if they could. So no children. No great magics—the world was shattered. We had won the war, but they were not dead…yet. Dying.”
“I don’t get it. How did you win if…how did it end?”
The Gnomes still on dragonback shook their heads. Zineryr looked at Xarkouth.
“Dragons fell from the skies, screaming defiance by the tens of thousands in the first battles. The greatest spellcasters struggled with the divine, and other lands pledged to do such battle that it engulfed multiple realms. The Faerie King and Queen fought, and the Fae were forever wounded as Titania, Queen of the Fae, fell. Elves died. Gnomes died. We slew them one by one, and there were traitors and great battles, but at the end, we had one last plan. We had no more weapons. Literally—only a few things of such magical power or similar scope can kill them. Only a few stood at the end, so we enacted our great plan. We won—but a handful survived.”
One last move in a chess game where all the pieces were on the other side. Erin could almost see it. Her voice trembled.
“How…how did you do it?”
Zineryr just gazed at her.
“You already know. You come from another world. You must be able to guess, young lady. It is so obvious you understand it already. Or does your world lack such ideas altogether? I know it doesn’t; I’ve talked with your people.”
Erin Solstice’s heart raced. She did know. It was so obvious that she had heard it from the start. She had only put the pieces together later. Begun to think it was by design…she murmured.
“The gods are dead.”
Xarkouth gasped because he had just figured it out. The Gnomes just smiled. Zineryr resumed his tale.
“They were not dead when we killed them. They rotted. Starving. We hoped they would die out, but six must have clung to life. Here—we didn’t know they could come here. Eating each other, struggling to survive. Six…well. Six and a half.”
“What’s the half? Rhir? What’s…”
The Gnome tapped at the side of his nose.
“Having never seen who it was, I can only guess based on who would have fallen and been buried that deep. Not the genuine article. But close—she would have been the product of when gods like Tamaroth took lovers among the immortal or mortal. Spawn of gods. I think you’d call them…”
“Ah, a lovely word. Yes, and more dangerous because it has a body.”
Erin was trying to contain all of this. She had every answer—now Zineryr was looking at her.
“You have the history. Now—understand this. When you wake up, you will find all the explanations. All the regrets and sordid history. We left clues, but the clues only appear if there’s a need. Well—some of them. The last of other species left their confessions and treasures, but look for our designs. Each old race had them. Dragons, Elves, Gnomes, Dwarves—each one safeguards. Pull weapons to fight them. The gods can die. They can lose. Remember that.”
Was he talking about…Erin frowned.
“Hopefully more like helpful vaults, but whatever you want to call them—I am sure they are overgrown, protected well, and remote. Now…”
The Gnome was reaching for something, conjuring it out of magic and memory. Erin Solstice leaned over as he produced an object and opened it for her.
“…here’s a map. I’m sure the geography’s changed, but we can do some correcting as long as no one’s messed with the landscape too much. Then again, your High Passes make me think this might be a chore. But they’re not all possible to move. Just hard to get to.”
Erin’s eyes went round.
“You have a map?”
The Gnomes were insulted. One put her hands on her hips.
“Do you forget where you build a gigantic vault? What, did you think we’d give you two riddles and a puzzle box to open? What are we, faeries?”
Zineryr chuckled, then fixed Erin with an eye. He glanced over her shoulder, frowned at something. Erin looked around, but the [Immortal Moment] was still going on. She wanted to go back to everything. Dwarves. Elves…what it had been like. The Gnome was rushing on.
“Just remember—it’s not you alone. Just tell them.”
“But what about you? Can’t you come back to life? Aren’t we going to—win?”
Every ghost in creation was fighting. Yet Zineryr laced his fingers together and gazed up a moment in contemplation.
“…Winning takes many forms. It’s not just a chess game. This is a far more complicated battle. Yes, we have many plans. Some were more drastic than others. But they are still what they are, Erin. Gods. I am afraid we will not last; they will hunt us down, you see. Nothing like being responsible for killing them once to make them hold a grudge. Don’t worry—we’ll go out fighting.”
“One trick left. You just go back to life and do your best.”
“But how do I fight that?”
Erin looked up at the army of Seamwalkers. The great Devourer, still striding through the waters. Was it looking their way? The [Immortal Moment] shivered as Erin’s spirit quailed. The Gnomes just laughed. One nudged Erin.
“You’ll figure it out. As we said—it’s never just you. There’s never a reason to give up. In the darkest hour, we can turn it around. When it’s pitch black, cast fireball.”
She winked at Erin.
“You’re like us. You escaped Kasigna’s clutches yourself.”
Erin smiled faintly and sadly. She looked at a little flame glowing in her hands and wiped at her eyes.
“With help. I couldn’t do it alone.”
The Gnome nodded seriously, still smiling. There was a depth to those smiles. They smiled rather than wept for all the comrades they had ever known. Smiled—because they would not give their enemies the satisfaction of anything else. Zineryr murmured as he glanced about.
“Everyone needs help. But hold onto that. It is the most valuable skill you will ever learn. More valuable than all your Skills. You are like us, you know. You try.”
“I couldn’t do this!”
Erin pointed at—everything. The Gnome pinched her cheek.
“Don’t be silly. Of course not. I said you are like us. Like those [Witches] who took you in. We’re all the same. Meddlesome folk, across species. But we’re the best. We’ve been doing it for thousands and thousands of years. And while you claim you can’t do anything—one girl is currently holding this entire world in check. Believe me—they’re noticing.”
“What do you m—”
Then she looked up at the Great Devourer and noticed it had moved slightly. Of course, it was an immortal moment. But every single eye on that vast being had shifted. All of them were staring at…
Erin gulped. Then she saw an [Archmage], frozen in battle, looking her way, mouth open in wordless disbelief. She peered over Xarkouth’s back and saw the Seamwalkers gazing up at her. Xarkouth muttered.
“Void consume us. They’re all looking our way.”
Zineryr nodded thoughtfully.
“D-did I do that?”
The Gnomes were chortling. One slapped Erin on the back as hard as he could.
“Yes. Did you think your Skill just stopped time for us? This is clearly a mistake. The grand design is stopping everything. Hah! Even the gods! This must really make them mad. Unfortunately—I don’t think we can tell you all the stories.”
The Gnomes were nodding. One look up explained why.
The [Immortal Moment] was…shaking. It was ending, or trying to. Erin felt something tugging at it, trying to eat it. The Devourer of Time was eating her Skill!
She clung to it, forcing more power into the Skill.
“Not yet! I have so many questions.”
“And we have answers. Map!”
One thrust it in her face. Zineryr spoke from the side.
“You will need to find allies. Go to Drath. Find the clues; they’re irrefutable proof, weapons, tricks, no matter who made them. Ours are very helpful, but I’m sure the Elves left some. Dwarves and other species. Ah—other species. The Harpies are all but gone, they tell me. But the last ones might be your allies. On Rhir. They call them Demons now.”
“Demons? But I’ve heard they’re bad guys…”
Another Gnome lifted a finger.
“According to whom, exactly? There are always two sides to every argument. To hear those six tell it, we were the disobedient children who rebelled for no reason other than ignorance and spite. I suggest you make your own informed decisions.”
Zineryr tugged on one finger absently.
“Djinni went both ways during the war. They have all been enslaved, and their children were wiped out. It would be a mistake to generalize across species, and we are not up to date on the entire world. Although…”
His eyes sharpened. One Gnome nudged him.
“—She can trust the fae, can’t she?”
“Of course. But are they even there? The Winter Court wouldn’t have kept bringing winter after all this time. Not after all they lost…”
Erin’s head snapped up.
“You mean Winter Sprites?”
She was not prepared for the way all the Gnomes sighed suddenly. One took off a pair of goggles and wiped at her eyes.
“Ah, those loyal idiots. They kept their word? How are they?”
“U-um, mischievous? They throw snow, and they called my friend—she’s a half-Elf—a whore…”
The Gnomes just exchanged looks. One shook her head.
“They never forget. They will be your allies. At least—Oberon’s lot. But he’d never open a gateway. That was one of the plans if they started winning. Just open a gate and hope the Faerie King would end this war here. It would mean the destruction and contamination of his realm—but he might dare it. No. No…keep them out of this. They have sacrificed far too much.”
Zineryr rested his tiny chin on his hands.
“That will be up to them. The Winter Sprites know more, though they have great rules.”
“I—I think we’ve got that. My friend, Ryoka? She’s friends with one of the fae.”
The Gnomes blinked at Erin. She tried to tell them about Ryoka—but then they were rolling around on Xarkouth’s back laughing. One fell off the side and had to fly back up.
“Friends with one of the Fae? Which one? Ivolethe—ah, that’s hilarious! Which one is that?”
“I know her!”
Erin looked around wonderingly. The Gnomes caught themselves quickly—the [Immortal Moment] was shivering. Zineryr nodded.
“Then they are in this battle. For better or worse. Who else?”
The Gnomes were all agreeing.
“Nothing like a pointed hat to command respect. They went to war with us—and they are always a sensible lot. Talk to [Witches]. Who else? Who can we actually recommend? Drath, [Witches], Fae…”
Erin felt there were two crucial species they had forgotten. And it was a great question, one she needed to know. She timidly raised a hand like she was in school.
“Excuse me. What about…Goblins? Antinium?”
The two monstrous people who she had realized were just people that had no friends. The effect on the Gnomes was…profound.
As one, they all lost their smiles. Wordlessly, they looked up and about. And Erin remembered something.
There were no Goblins in this entire land. Not one. Perhaps, then, the Gnomes had forgotten Goblins. But the name alone clearly made them remember. Zineryr and his kin hung their heads.
“No. Not Goblins.”
Erin was mystified. Zineryr shook his head.
“Leave them be. Do not make them face this cruel destiny. Not twice. They were never on either side, just victims. The youngest deserve nothing but peace.”
They had no idea. They…Erin looked at them. Goblin Kings. Goblin Lords and Goblins, hunted across the world. Her voice shook.
“But they’re called monsters. Each Goblin King who rises—”
She saw the blank look in Zineryr’s eyes. He didn’t know. It slowly turned to horror. And then Erin saw a sight she never wanted to see.
The Gnomes wept. Tears ran from their eyes as the old ghosts cried. One tore at her hair, and Zineryr covered his face.
“Is this one last spiteful act of gods? We saw them not, and I only believed they were excluded from this place or sent elsewhere. Monsters? They are not monsters!”
The Gnome lifted his head. He fixed Erin with a gaze.
“Then you have done us all a service. Goblin Kings? There was only ever one. His wrath has endured this long? No…they were never matured as a people. Memory. Memory and Goblins…”
He looked at his kin, then turned to Erin.
“Tell them, then. Tell them who you are facing and reawaken a Goblin King.”
The Gnomes were clustering around Erin. Zineryr grabbed Erin’s hands. He waved at the others for silence.
“Of course! That is why they become Goblin Kings. She needs to tell them nothing. Their King will remember everything. If there is one true ally—it is the species truly wronged by gods. So. Goblins.”
He looked so wretchedly unhappy. Then Zineryr turned.
“She should meet one of the Elves. Sprigaena—if only we could arrange it. If only…”
He looked up as the [Immortal Moment] shrank. Xarkouth was now silent, flapping along, and Erin felt the…bubble…of immortal time shrinking as it was eaten away. One Gnome cursed and stepped back, giving the others room.
“Almost time. And I suspect this moment will cost us.”
Zineryr murmured. Erin cried out. She held the little Gnome’s hands in hers.
“I have so many more questions! What about Antinium?”
Four Gnomes crowded around her, then three. Zineryr sighed, scratching at his hair.
“I have never met them. Some ghosts whispered of new species—but they can appear organically. Ant-people? Good for them. We had spider-folk, once. Remember they are people.”
He gazed at Erin and smiled.
“What am I saying? You know that.”
The Gnome looked around and shook his head.
“I wish we had all the time to give you answers. But there is one last thing I wanted to tell you: we are sorry.”
The two Gnomes nodded solemnly. Erin looked from face to face.
A female Gnome gestured around.
“This is not your affair, Erin. This is our mess. You’ve been dragged into their games, and we are sorry. We will take responsibility. But we cannot end this ourselves. We tried once, and we will do all we can again. But we failed.”
She gave Erin a terribly guilty smile, and the young woman shook her head. She looked at the Gnomes. Eighteen Gnomes, where a people had once been.
“The others were all eaten, weren’t they? Some left. But that’s why there are so few Elves. Gnomes, Dwarves…they were all eaten.”
Zineryr shook his head gently.
“No. Some just died. Died in such a way that they left nothing behind. Many were consumed, yes.”
“Then—then—why do you call it your fault? This isn’t your responsibility. You didn’t do any of this, did you?”
The Gnomes looked at each other, and one froze. Two left. Male and female. Zineryr and a Gnome with bright, pink hair. They both shook their heads and looked at Erin.
“No. We spoke against them when they proposed their grand design. When the Elves rebelled, we stood with them. Then we fought until our people vanished and the world was destroyed. We won—we did not begin this.”
“Then why do you say it like that? Why are you still here?”
Taking responsibility for the folly of gods? Zineryr held Erin’s hand and looked up at her as that immortal moment faded away.
“I suppose it’s simply…this is our world. They were our gods. We worshiped and loved them, once.”
Erin drank in a world of sadness, a time long gone in Zineryr’s kindly, weary eyes. The Gnome’s gaze sparkled.
“They were like our parents, in a way. We take on none of their sins, Erin Solstice. But it does fall to us to stop them. Because someone had to. When something ill happens—someone must step forwards. We refused to run or look away.”
It was the answer that Erin Solstice could understand in her very heart. She took Zineryr’s hand in her own, trembling.
“Thank you, then.”
He beamed at her. Then the [Immortal Moment] was at its end. Zineryr nodded.
“You truly were worth coming here to meet. Erin Solstice—look. What you see here, now?”
He pointed across the lands of the dead as they fought horrors from the edge of the world itself. Ghosts of every species. Zineryr captured Erin’s eye.
“Make it a reality. For they will have allies, and there are always simply those who will profit or do wrong. For there will always be…”
He hesitated. One of the Gnomes looked over Xarkouth’s wing and swore.
“He pierced our spells. Dragon, dodge—”
Xarkouth roared, and Erin saw Zineryr push her urgently. Then a ray of light flashed past her face. It had gone…straight through the Void Dragon’s body. She shouted, and then they were falling as the Dragon roared again and fell out of the sky.
Straight down. Erin slowed and hovered, flailing, and saw Xarkouth plummet into the ocean. The other Gnomes caught themselves and turned. Zineryr grimaced.
“Ah, wonderful. Here comes the first one.”
Emerrhain, the God of Magic, stood in the air, holding an open book in one hand. He pointed at Erin Solstice, face alight with malice.
“There you are. KASIGNA! NORECHL! Your prey.”
He called into the void, and two figures turned, one standing over a collapsed giant of flesh, a Seamwalker. Kasigna turned with Erin’s mother’s face on hers. And the God of the Lost slowly began to smile again. Erin saw Zineryr meet Emerrhain’s gaze.
“Such petty people. Can you believe he ever ruled over anyone?”
Khelta turned as she saw, in the distance, Erin Solstice and the Gnomes facing Emerrhain, with two gods following.
Then another god appeared, and Zineryr sighed.
“Well, that answers that question. We may be saying goodbye sooner than I wished. Time for one last battle.”
There was a kind of grand finality to it. A delightful ending to all the strife and worry. Now, at last, they could put it to rest. The Gnolls and their damned quarrels, unrest in Izril—all of it wrapped up with a neat bow.
To Wall Lord Dragial, the Meeting of Tribes, embroiled in civil war, was the perfect moment. A chance to end it all.
“I don’t intend to wipe out the Gnolls, of course. They are not all there. However, the time has come to finally reclaim the Blade of Mershi. To put an end to Gnollish aggression and claim our land. The Great Plains of Izril. Should they surrender, I will happily spare every Gnoll—we are drawing up a proposed way to funnel them into cities and designated tracts of land. Make no mistake, though—this will be an end to it.”
He smiled, and his words were met with polite applause. No less than three [Generals], one a [Mage-General] of Fissival himself, and two more from the lesser Drake cities, were commanding the joint army led by Fissival.
Fissival’s army was marching towards the site of the fighting, which was widespread and growing as the Gnolls fought each other. They would be within range by the end of the day. As far as Wall Lord Dragial, who had assumed command of the army, knew, only two other forces would be poised to interfere.
Manus was still on the march from the opposite side, and they might make it, but Oteslia and Zeres would both be delayed getting to the battle. Zeres was moving to counter Oteslia, who had declared they were intending on supporting one of the Gnollish factions.
Since that was plain idiocy, Zeres was mobilizing the two halves of its army to cut off Oteslia. The City of Growth had the weakest army of all the Walled Cities by far, and supplemented by Liscor’s mercenary army, Zeres would keep them in stalemate unless Oteslia were mad enough to attack.
Which they might be, given they’d nearly started a war by breaking the siege on their city. But that was a move that weakened the City of Waves and City of Growth, and so Dragial was quite content with having no enemies at his back.
In fact, he would be marching on the Gnolls with not only Fissival, but Salazsar, whose smaller force was moving into a spot on Fissival’s flanks. Wall Lord Ilvriss Gemscale was apparently leading them, as was right and proper.
A Wall Lord to lead an army. A [General] commanded, but they were the scions of their cities. And this Ilvriss had been a sympathetic ear to his cause.
The Blade of Mershi. With it, his disgrace would be forgotten, and he would be welcomed to his city.
Dragial could almost taste it. If there was one thing that made him frown, it was the last force moving into the Great Plains. Ahead of Fissival.
“A ragtag army of Gnolls, Goblins, even Antinium fighting together. Following…the Titan of Baleros. It is just like a Balerosian [Mercenary] to do something like this.”
“It is extraordinary that Antinium would follow anyone, Wall Lord. Perhaps we should attempt to take prisoners?”
Dragial lifted a bejeweled claw as one of the [Generals] murmured.
“Appropriate, General Hexa. The Fraerling himself. A sufficiently small bottle should do. We can mail him to the Iron Vanguard.”
Chuckles. Wall Lord Dragial turned back to the map of the battle. They were on the move, of course; he was not resting on his laurels, even though he stood in a rather resplendent war room.
It was just that the war room was moving. If you stepped outside or into the room like a [Messenger] did now, you exited the outside world and entered the huge, mobile Moving Rooms that Fissival was famous for. Rather like the Moving Cities of old—but all they could do was compress a room into an oversized wagon that could be ported about.
“Sir, Wall Lord Ilvriss has sent a runner requesting an immediate conference with Fissival’s leaders and an agreement to cease hostilities from any Walled City until we can come to a mutual plan of action.”
The [General] reported after a second of scanning the missive. Dragial snorted.
“It sounds entirely like the City of Gems. Do they want a contract as well? Inform Wall Lord Ilvriss I will happily meet with him if he will join my position. Indeed, I invite him to coordinate our assault. But I will strike the Gnolls to pieces while the moment is ripe.”
They were fighting each other over some traditional foolishness. Dragial turned back to the map.
Now—now was the moment. He dismissed the [Messenger] and looked ahead, towards the Meeting of Tribes. Even if the Gnolls had not their civil war, every Walled City was marching on them save one. This was it. The Wall Lord murmured the catchphrase that had led him these last few years. This would be his great victory.
“In the name…of the City of Stars.”
Wall Lord Ilvriss was cursing. He was not a Drake prone to it, but he couldn’t help it.
“Pour quartz dust into your eyes, you ceiling-scraping cave-roach! What about Manus? Can’t we go faster?”
He wanted to ride ahead, but General Greex of Salazsar only shook his head.
“Wall Lord, we cannot cover a mile in moments! If we run our soldiers, they will have no strength to fight!”
Ilvriss knew that was true, and marching Skills and speed Skills only worked so well. But never before had he ever considered Salazsar an impoverished, weak nation.
Yet clearly—they lacked the ability to just buy speed like Khelt or a nation like Jecrass. He fumed every slow step of the marching Drake [Soldiers]. And to be fair—they were marching at a fast clip.
“Then—Manus. Zeres is pivoting to face Oteslia? Can we intercept either army, or move towards them?”
General Greex shook his head, but Captain Osthia interrupted.
“Wall Lord, Manus is coming from across the Great Plains. We could send a rider, but you would not be able to meet with them unless you went yourself.”
And I am needed here. Ilvriss saw his plan collapsing for a number of reasons. The sudden fighting in the Meeting of Tribes had begun—and it was Gnolls killing Gnolls.
Disastrous. Worse—it had inspired Wall Lord Dragial to prepare for his attack. All for Fissival’s grudge against Gnolls for things they had done and his desire to take the Blade of Mershi. Ilvriss had been angling to meet with every leader he could in private before the battle.
Instead, it looked like only Fissival and Zeres would be in close range before the battle began. And of the two…
I could meet Wall Lord Dragial in private, tell him about Az’kerash and why this battle plays into the Necromancer’s hands. Indeed, I could, if I didn’t think that Drake had actual gravel for brains.
The one authority among Drakes he could easily speak to was a Drake who had not only been exiled from Fissival, but been condemned for attacking Gnoll tribes, Drake cities, and pursuing a Named Adventurer for some relic.
Worse, it was clear he had many allies that supported him in Fissival. Enough to let him assume command of a Walled City’s army.
Ilvriss was grinding his teeth as he rode.
“Not Wall Lord Dragial. Call for an immediate meeting with the Admiralty of Zeres. All three of them. Two Admirals and the Sharkcaptain. I will speak with them all directly.”
He sent another [Message] spell off and looked ahead towards the Meeting of Tribes. He thought he smelled smoke.
The fighting had begun last night. He had actually seen some of it. The revelations about the nature of Doombearers and the treachery of the Plain’s Eye tribe were all easy for him to grasp. The shocking part was the revelation of this Daemon of Luck. What was that thing? The worst part, though, was…Mrsha.
That little Gnoll that was too precocious by half, caught up in the middle of the fighting. It would be midday at least before Salazsar was able to intervene. Ilvriss ground his teeth together.
“Wall Lord? Response from Zeres.”
“That was fast.”
“We are communicating on military channels, Wall Lord. Admiral of the Land, Admiral Horsthe, has indicated that Zeres is too busy to engage in diplomatic channels with the Admiralty. He is directing us towards their [Diplomats]—”
Nerul looked up as Ilvriss lost his temper. He grabbed the [Message] spell. Then he shredded it.
“Inform Admiral Horsthe that if Zeres does not want to be flanked by Salazsar to the rear, they will arrange a meeting with me now. Or we will engage in an immediate alliance with Oteslia.”
General Greex paled. He checked his shoulder.
“They are marching with Liscor’s army. And they have a force twice our size—”
“Send the [Message], Captain Shieldscale. I will not have more idiocy. We are not bound to attack Gnolls. Why can no one see this?”
Ilvriss was panting with frustration. He looked around and saw Shriekblade watching him. Ilvriss straightened, catching himself. Xesci was not going to be in the fighting, obviously, so they had asked her to wait with his sister and mother. Ilvriss closed his eyes.
“Someone must stop this madness. Why do we need to fight the Gnolls? Just what did they do to us to warrant this? Not as a species. Not one tribe—all of them. Why are we marching armies on them?”
No one had an answer at first. It was Nerul, sipping from a wine cup as he watched the fighting, who grimaced and turned to his nephew.
“Isn’t it obvious, Ilvriss? We’re afraid that once they stop killing each other and think about how they came to it—we are afraid of what they will do to us with every right.”
Ilvriss shook his head, but what had he expected? Everyone knew why they were attacking. It was just so damned pointless with the Humans in the north.
Shortsighted. That was it. He felt like he’d been living in a tiny shell, a single city as small as could be, and forgot there was a world outside. Drakes and Gnolls fighting over half of Izril.
“…forgetting even the Antinium are here. Forgetting the end of the world is coming. If there ever was an answer, Uncle, we’ve found it.”
“Hm? What answer?”
Ilvriss had a bitter smile on his face as he looked around.
“Fetohep of Khelt, the Empire of Drath, the Blighted Kingdom, and countless nations are sounding the alarm. Here we are, fighting each other.”
To that…there was nothing to say at all. Ilvriss’ head turned, and he looked southwards. Not that he had a perfect sense of direction, but he had asked.
South, towards Chandrar. That was where he had heard it.
That glorious call, echoing across the world yesterday as dusk set. Ilvriss could have ridden into the sea to follow it. Yet he knew that it was not calling him to the location, but to arms.
Many doubted their memories already, Ilvriss was certain it had not been a figment of his imagination. Somehow—somewhere—he knew who had blown that horn.
“Even in death, they won’t stop haunting me. Shaming me by doing more in months than I have in my entire life. General Greex?”
The Drakes were watching him. Ilvriss broke out of his stupor.
“March your [Soldiers] faster. This is the end of something. I will not have it said that when the world called, the City of Gems failed again. Hurry.”
He turned his head to the scrying orb. Osthia Blackwing looked up slowly; she had gone pale as the chatter of news showing the war among Gnolls, Khelt’s dramatic armies crossing the land, war in A’ctelios Salash suddenly…switched.
The first omens of the end appeared for all to see, and not even Wistram could deny it. Ilvriss murmured as every eye turned to the scrying orb.
“Ah. How do we fight that?”
Five gods stood on the water. That was but a parlor trick for them. Erin hovered in the air as the Gnomes regarded their old enemy. Zineryr nodded.
“…That makes five. We’ve eliminated one option. Good. You’d look terrible with a beard. Knowing him, the first thing he’d do would be brewing a potion to give you one—and other appendages I don’t think you necessarily want.”
He pointed at a bearded man standing in the waves, his eyes narrowed like thunder. They were the very eyes of a tempest, a swirl across the irises of brilliant lightning-yellow, hazel-grey, and the cloudy-blue of storms.
The eyes of the God of Rulers, and of course—the beard.
“Gnomes. So this is what caused Kasigna to change the nature of her realm.”
“Not I. The fool, Emerrhain. See what you meddlers do. Norechl and Emerrhain will both suffer. I swear it upon my name.”
Kasigna hissed as she hobbled forwards, an ancient crone of a woman. Literally…if there was any stereotype, she played into it. Hands so gnarled they looked like grasping roots, skin that a corpse would call pallid—and two burning eyes with pale pupils as close to white as Erin had ever seen.
Laedonius Deviy, Emerrhain, Norechl. Why were they all here? Perhaps because the others were.
Probably because of the Gnomes. Zineryr hung in the air, face calm, even smiling, but watching them all.
They were untethered. Like the ghosts, the dead gods were free to move and use magic. And oh—some could.
Emerrhain held a glowing orb of light that produced a thin ray of the kind that had pierced Xarkouth’s body with ease. It writhed in his hand, as if the deadly magic were trying to escape.
“I will see your end, you meddlesome tricksters. Then I shall devour every soul. Beginning with that girl.”
Kasigna hissed at Zineryr. He scratched at his beard.
“Interesting. You annoy them almost as much as we do, Erin. I knew I liked you.”
He grinned and looked around. The other Gnomes floating in the air were nodding at each other. One sighed and conjured an imaginary wand. She aimed it up and shot a beam of cascading colors into the air, like a rainbow.
A flare? A beacon. She shook her head as the dead gods recoiled.
“Time’s up, I guess.”
Another nodded and squared his shoulders.
“Zineryr, would you finish your business with the young Human? I think this is it.”
“It is indeed, little meddlers. Come.”
Kasigna spoke, and all five gods went for the Gnomes. Reaching greedily for the oldest of souls. They were, Erin realized, worth more than even a Named Adventurer.
“Back up! I’ve got fire! Zineryr—how do I fly?”
Erin conjured some flames of glory and waved it dangerously around, but she was caught in Zineryr’s spell. One of the five was going for her.
Norechl. It reached out with terrible malice. But the Gnome who’d spoken first just laughed. Then he flew through the air, shouting at the others.
“Farewell! Get clear—in death, I strike one last down!”
The other Gnomes turned and fled, and Erin yelped as Zineryr and she flew backwards. The laughing Gnome dove at the dead gods. They looked at him barreling towards them and—
The Gnome plowed into the ocean and shot out of it, trailing water. He zoomed left, flying straight at Laedonius Deviy.
“Touch me, Laedonius—”
The God of Dance and Love ducked the Gnome. Erin saw his expression. It had gone from eager avarice to uncertainty and…fear…in a moment when the Gnome went for him.
Especially when he said that part about striking them down. Erin saw the other Gnomes flying away rapidly. She didn’t know what that Gnome had done, but she wondered what would happen if a god ate him.
And clearly—so did they.
All five dead gods backed away from the Gnome as he dive-bombed them. Norechl reached out and hesitated. Emerrhain backed away with a snarl.
“What have you done?”
“Nothing! Touch me, oh glorious gods! Rulers of all! It won’t hurt—me. Touch me. What’s wrong? I thought that was what you wanted!”
He had a wide, manic grin on his face. Erin saw the Gnome reach for Tamaroth, and the God of Rulers blocked his arm. However—the Gnome didn’t vanish. Like when he’d been headbutted by Sserys or Zel had stopped Kasigna, it seemed they had to concentrate to devour souls. And even he wasn’t certain.
“This is a trick.”
The God of Rulers glared at the wide grin on the Gnome’s face.
“Sure it is. Go ahead. Absorb—”
The Gnome dove, and a ray of that killing light hit Tamaroth in the chest. Emerrhain lowered the orb as the God of Rulers snarled at him.
The God of Magic hissed back.
“I do not see you taking his soul. I will destroy this one.”
“Enough. They are fleeing, and that living girl is leaving!”
Kasigna howled, and all five realized Erin was getting away. They began to stride after her, and they were fast. However, the Gnome blocked their way, and they recoiled from him.
“It’s a trick! They cannot do anything that would harm us.”
Laedonius Deviy shouted, but Erin caught the note in his voice. All five knew it was probably true. But…the young woman looked back and saw the Gnome give her and his kin a huge wink.
They weren’t certain. They, the greatest of their kind, the divine, weren’t certain. Even in death, they feared the world’s finest tricksters. The unpredictable foes.
Erin was sniffing again. Zineryr looked at her. His smile was as wide as the horizon itself.
“You see? They are so arrogant. But it seems that even they remember how badly we beat them last time. It is never the end.”
The first Gnome vanished as Kasigna touched him. The three-in-one flinched—but then she smiled cruelly.
The God of Death looked around archly at the other gods, and they glowered at her. Then they turned ahead.
The Gnomes snorted and scoffed at them. Emerrhain lifted that deadly orb of magic, but before he could unleash the magic, he hesitated. Tamaroth’s head rose, and his gaze narrowed. Kasigna cursed.
“That damned pestilence—”
Behind them, the Devourer of Time took one step.
As gods and Gnomes warred and the ghosts assailed the rot of heaven comingled with the world’s filth, the entity that had feasted on the body of the God of Time rested awhile. It had journeyed far to feast on the marrow of chronology itself.
Even time grew weary. Yet this child without a name, kin to Norechl, was young, and it was surrounded by the bounty of souls.
Curious sights that it had never dreamed of in the darkness. Time captured in a bubble. Six strangers.
A strange half-world connected to others.
It had no name. But perhaps—it began to understand that a name was meaning. The other, lesser spawn had little conception of names and meaning yet.
But if they did, they would begin a path far longer than even this long climb. A great journey that twisted around fate and nibbled at the edges of things.
The Devourer of Time stood at the beginning of that long road, and even the six dead gods were no match for it.
It had eaten the body of time itself. It had flesh—though the skin was pale as chalk—it had eyes that stared and drank in the world around it.
It even had hands, feet…a copy of the titan it had eaten, piece by piece, fighting with its kin to devour the whole of.
A squiggling line for a mouth, drawn across melted flesh that was the barest approximation of a face. Rotted flesh…and so the copy of malformed features. A misshapen head as if struck a hundred times and left to further deform.
It stank of that deep carrion, of darkest waters and filth accumulating so far down in the consciousness that thought mired in corruption. Even a single step was pain. Pain and the screaming of time as it was nibbled upon.
One step. It was an eternity of slow movement, for the Devourer was slow—compressed into a microsecond. After all—it had power over time, and it was learning.
Learning, for instance, that the little flying Dragons were too quick to catch, but that most did not swim through time except one way. So they were impossible to catch in one sense—and flew straight into its grasp if it but moved through the order of events from the end.
In the same way—it stepped. Stepped curiously as an infant from sea to land, in one stride. Sensing the world invisible, beyond this one. Like a child…wondering what would happen.
Time stepped onto Baleros.
What Ilvriss saw in the scrying orb had taken over an hour to be reported. Though it had been noticed almost instantly. However—the [Mages], adventurers, and even armies who dared approach the place where a town once was had taken that long to get there for two reasons.
The first was fear. The second was because there was no one there to report what had happened.
“I don’t know what we’re seeing. Named Adventurer Kositer?”
Kositer the Lazy stood. A rarity, for the overweight Naga rarely moved. He was curled around the floating dais that moved for him. Now—he heaved himself up with a slow dignity.
“Stay behind me.”
His swords were still dancing, clearing the way for the army and [Mages] showing the world what had happened here. Kositer the Lazy had twenty-nine swords.
Dancing Swords, and not just swords, but other artifacts that fought for him. He had magical rings and amulets, artifacts, and he had devoted his entire class to a curious combination of sloth and adventure. What people forgot was that he had survived long enough to be called lazy.
He had also been daring enough to lead the expedition there. The Naga was watchful. He gazed around. One of the [Scriers] looked around at the thick overgrowth. Towering trees stood overhead, and the foliage had been so thick it had been practically a wall.
It was visible for miles away—a huge patch of overgrown forest had just…shot up. Some claimed to have seen it happening. Trees growing, withering, blooming, being overtaken in moments. And stranger things still.
“…There should be a town here.”
The Naga leaned over his dais and stared down.
“Are you sure?”
For answer, he just pointed, and a telekinetic hand swept something aside. The Naga lifted something and showed it to the [Mages].
It was…well, just a piece of glass. Broken, fragmented, and mildewed beyond belief…but glass. The Named Adventurer gazed about.
“We are standing inside the town of Yoirthe. The people…they were here.”
“Did they die?”
The Named Adventurer just shook his head.
“Perhaps. But they might have died of natural causes.”
“I wonder how long it’s been. We may be in danger. My [Dangersense] hasn’t stopped going off since yesterday. But we have to know.”
Who had lived here? What had they done over…how long? Kositer’s scales were already crawling. Then he heard a Gold-rank team under his mentorship calling in.
“Adventurer Kositer, we need you here—now.”
“No, sir. It—we found a memorial. They were here. This entire—they built a dungeon. They said the rest of the world vanished. They were here for centuries.”
The Naga spun. The dais lifted, and he shouted.
“Take me to them. And evacuate any city nearby! There is no telling where this could come next!”
The Wistram [Mages] hesitated. One covered the scrying mirror.
“Named Adventurer! We have no idea what happened! A panic—”
There was a shrill scream, and the viewers saw a dancing sword as the hand jerked away. The Named Adventurer pointed down at the scrying orb, eyes flashing.
“Khelt is shouting the alarm, you fools! This is the first wave! We—”
Then they felt it. Kositer looked up, and his eyes bulged. He lowered his claw, and the speaking stones were suddenly chattering with alarm. He fumbled at his waist—then tore something free.
“Sound every alarm.”
The scrying orb swiveled, and the entire world saw it. Kositer looked up as a wave of…creatures began emerging from the site of the second step. His voice trembled.
“I am Named Adventurer Kositer. I call on every Great Company to send forces—and evacuate every settlement in ten, twenty miles or prepare for battle. The time distortion effect has just struck—the Dyed Lands.”
That strange land of contaminated magic and colors, a place for [Explorers] and true adventurers, akin to the Bloodfields, had always been dangerous, but contained. Growing, but watched.
The Devourer of Time stepped onto it, and six hundred years passed. Six hundred years of change. Kositer the Lazy left his dais.
“Sound the retreat. Every adventurer, get to safety. Now.”
He vanished, leaving his dais behind. The swords and his artifacts began to float away as the [Mages] captured an image of the first monster emerging from the Dyed Lands. From the chalk ghostlands of white oblivion came something the size of a young Dragon. It had a lot of teeth. That was all the audience saw—one freeze-frame of it—before the [Mages] were screaming and running.
It caught them four minutes later.
Two steps, and it had changed parts of Baleros forever. Erin felt it. She was screaming as time twisted—all the mortal ghosts were. Even the dead gods and Gnomes felt it.
The wrongness as time was compressed, partitioned off, and forced to advance. Or swallowed—entire parts of it, eaten away, leaving only the future.
Change. It was deliberate. The Devourer had sensed the potential in the Dyed Lands and walked onto it. Time mattered in some places more than others.
It had no idea what it was doing. It was like…a Fire Elemental with no conception of how thermodynamics worked, experimenting with its true nature. There were consequences it could not predict and cared nothing for. Time was linked to more than just time itself. It was space and a fundamental part of the world! It was magic, and this thing was pulling at everything every time it stepped. Every time it moved.
A foe for the six, but only Kasigna seemed inclined to challenge it. If…she could even win.
It could eat them, too.
“You’ve destroyed us all.”
Emerrhain hissed at the Gnomes. For answer, they just shrugged.
“Weren’t you going to do that? If we lose, everyone loses. Otherwise—we fight.”
Indeed, the ghosts and even some of the Seamwalkers were turning on a common foe. Kasigna hissed in hatred as the Timewalker paused, choosing where to step next. It seemed to recognize it was in danger, because it was looking down.
Straight at the dead gods.
Foes and such a curious food. Something that had generated nigh-unlimited time. Erin gulped as the hungriest being of all looked at a very tantalizing snack. Using [Immortal Moment] in front of a time-eater suddenly seemed like a bad idea.
That great foe was so wrong it was tied for the dead gods in Erin’s head. No—worse? They might be abhorrent, rotting things, but this thing was consuming reality.
It was wrong.
“Stop, stop, stopstopstopstopstop—”
It wasn’t just Erin saying it. It felt like everything was screaming. Zineryr was looking around.
“Does anyone…feel that? I think I feel magic distorting.”
Kasigna hissed at him, and the Gnome rolled his eyes.
“This is the problem with being known as a deceiver. No one takes you—can’t you feel that? Or are you so atrophied that—”
“What is that?”
Emerrhain sensed it too. Erin, raising her head as she pressed her hands against her ears in a reflexive attempt to limit the cacophony in her brain, realized—
Something was happening that neither the Gnomes nor dead gods had expected.
Like a shrieking wound in the fabric of reality, the world itself screamed out as the Devourer of Time walked across it. A howl of pain that everyone in the deadlands and even mortals sensitive to it in the living world felt.
A building crescendo that had begun the moment the Devourer of Time had begun its climb. It reached a peak now. A siren, a scream before the tears multiplied and became a death-wound.
Louder, until it rang through Erin’s soul. So loud she felt her existence shaking before it. Until, for one moment, it became a peak which she could not tolerate or even exist in. But it was an eternity and age and so short a span—
The scream ended, and there they were. Erin Solstice looked up and saw them, standing in the air, stumbling, waking from their rest.
Summoned by this hour of need. Just as they had sworn.
The defenders of time itself.
There were less than a hundred. They appeared all at once, some screaming, others jerking up in surprise. Many old. Some whirling in the height of battle, or at peace.
As they died.
Erin Solstice saw an ancient Garuda lift his head and catch himself in midair, and saw—for a moment—a bed and children, grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren. The Garuda’s eyes opened wide.
“…so that is how I knew.”
Another figure stumbled, screaming, skin burning as he lifted his hands to ward off a spell. He ran out of a battlefield, and the last words he had ever spoken echoed.
“Thresk! Thresk! They came from behind—”
The warmage looked around, the magical fire on his robes extinguishing. A terrible wound down his shoulder that had literally severed his arm from his body and eaten into his very lungs—slowly unwound. The burning spell reversed, until only whole flesh and the robes of a Warmage of Albez remained.
The [Temporal Mage], Udatron, lowered his hands and whirled in confusion.
“Where am I? What is this? Thresk!”
They knew. Most of them knew. They had felt their deaths. Another [Mage] appeared, a half-Elf so old she had all but turned to dust. She lifted her head and gasped.
“What is this? It is destroying time itself—”
“What? What? What is going on? What has the design done?”
A voice exploded amidst the appearing [Time Mages]. Emerrhain was tearing at his hair. Even the other dead gods were shocked. But the answer was obvious.
“The Oath of Time! We have sworn to protect it!”
An [Archmage] holding an actual clock—an old-fashioned watch—looked around. He called out amidst glory and wonder and horror.
“A second chance! We have been moved through the river of ages itself! But—dead gods! The Clockmakers themselves!”
He goggled at the Gnomes, one of whom waved at him. It was the answer to one of magic’s great mysteries. Why no one had ever found the body of a [Time Mage], no matter how they died.
In every age, from the beginning to the end, they were appearing. Erin’s eyes widened as she saw more appear. A furious Human man.
“I almost ruled Wistram! Almost but for that damned half-Elf and Goblin!”
Another [Mage] was shouting.
“Archmage, the Drakes have our flanks! That Truestone Golem is throwing s—”
The Lamia ducked—then looked up. The Devourer of Time looked down and swatted the Lamia out of existence. The other [Time Mages] recoiled.
The Timewalker did not like this. It sensed some kind of danger and went to attack again. Reality twisted—
And stabilized. A dozen [Time Mages] threw up their hands, and time refused to skip. They dove, some splashing into the water, others just diving. One tried to [Teleport] and was hit.
“What is going on—”
Udatron was still gazing around, but more [Mages] were arriving. One appeared with a howl of magic.
The Great General of Ailendamus, the General of Ages, Dioname, opened her eyes. One hand was still reaching out, stealing the last of Tyrion Veltras’ age. She raised her head and looked up.
“Ah. Rhisveri never told me about this.”
The half-Elf gazed upwards with a terrible fear…and a kind of satisfaction. Indeed, the other [Time Mages] might panic or take time to understand what was happening as their personalities dictated, but they had all known it.
They had all sensed their end. Dionamella saw the truth she had sensed.
So the half-Elf glanced around, then took aim at the Timewalker. She lifted a hand.
The colorless, nigh-invisible beam hit the Timewalker in the leg, so tiny as to be a speck taken out of a mountain beyond Giants. But…part of the Devourer of Time vanished.
It had not learned how to eat magic. It was still a child. The other [Time Mages] saw that. Most acted instinctively.
“[Ritual of the Cataclysm: The Storm of the Lightning Emperor]! Cover me!”
An [Archmage] rose into the air, bellowing as other [Mages] dove. One was swimming towards the Timewalker until an exasperated [Mage] cast [Levitate].
They were not all of the same level. But they knew their foe and duty. Udatron snarled and raised a hand.
“[Grand Fireball]. [Magnify Spell]. [Infuse Spell: Poison]. I will not die here! Thresk!”
They were casting magics from the beginning to the end. The surprised dead gods saw the reinforcements light up the lower half of the Timewalker as it stopped walking and began attacking them.
It was in danger. Seamwalkers were trying to eat it, and the enraged ghosts of every time were assaulting the great horror. Erin Solstice looked up in awe at the terrific battle as Dionamella lifted her hands.
“[Summoning: Avatar of the Wyrm-Queen].”
She was conjuring something big. Spells of such magnitude were flying through the air that the lesser [Time Mages] contributing their [Fireball] spells quickly realized their best bet was to guard their higher-level compatriots against the Seamwalkers.
They didn’t know where this was. And many were simply transfixed by the strangeness. Their death, this land, the Seamwalkers—they all but missed the dead gods but for the Gnomes, Elves, Dragons, and ghostly heroes.
In fact—it was crushing. Daunting, as Erin had felt when she had met the legends of ghosts. They had died. Some hadn’t expected it or thought they could get back, have another chance.
But some were crushed by their despair. Or just the great Timewalker, who had taken enough damage to obliterate a Walled City in a minute and hadn’t even begun to flinch.
Erin Solstice was backing away from the gigantic, spectral form of a Wyrm charging the Devourer of Time and trying to strike and lash its body when she nearly tripped over a man. Out of all the terrific ghosts, especially the half-Elf [General], he was hardly impressive.
In an ordinary room, he would have stood out. The high-backed collar of magical cloth, a suit tailored for someone in one of the high positions he held, the magic swirling around him, and those eyes that had seen centuries only half-Elves could match would have made him the center of any ordinary company.
His hair was swept back, styled faintly indigo to match his eyes, white at the tips, and his face was gaunt. Yet for his age, it was held back by his magic itself. He was young and old. Weathered, but devoid of any lines or wrinkles. He stared up, tears running from his eyes.
“It was all for naught. Why were we so weak? We never matched the magic of old. What was the point?”
He had a single bloody stain under the lapels on his suit. A mortal wound from a dagger. Erin had never met him in his life.
Nereshal, the Blighted King’s most trusted advisor and the great [Chronomancer] of the Blighted Kingdom, looked up at the Timewalker. Someone patted him on the shoulder.
“Hey, buddy. I get it. But there’s sort of a crisis. So…if you’re not fighting that thing, would you mind helping me punch those guys?”
Someone offered him a hand and a big smile. The [Time Mage] looked up into Erin Solstice’s face as she jerked a thumb over her shoulder.
The dead gods were watching the fighting and clearly wondering if they should help or kill the Gnomes or what this meant. Nereshal stared at them in confused horror—then fixed on Erin Solstice’s face.
“Me? Oh, I’m sort of alive. Hey…are you here? Here? Wait a second—you have a body!”
Erin poked Nereshal in the cheek and felt it! He had a body! They weren’t just the souls of the [Time Mages]—they had actual bodies?
One of the Gnomes had heard that. She made a sign, and the dead gods jerked out of their stupor.
“We’re going to have to ash all of them. Actually…let them take them. With our luck, they’ll be stranded in time or vaporized.”
Zineryr made a quick calculation and grinned. Then he clapped his hands, and a directed flash of light blinded Emerrhain. He skipped across the water and grabbed Erin.
“Time to go—head to Izril and your friends! We’ll try to draw the five off, but we have to put our plan into motion. Good luck, Erin Solstice.”
Erin rose as the five dead gods split, chasing after the Gnomes as the immortals opened up with magic, blinding, creating illusions, dodging the dead gods. She took a step—and Nereshal grabbed her leg.
“What? Hey, let go, buddy—”
Erin tried to shake him off, and Zineryr slowed, frowning. But Nereshal was staring at Erin. Staring at her with…recognition.
“It’s you! I—I am Nereshal! The Blighted King’s [Mage]. He betrayed me at the end! His madness—you—you’re Erin Solstice!”
“Let go—this isn’t—hey!”
Erin was watching Emerrhain head towards them. Zineryr cursed and lifted a hand. A wall of light appeared, and Emerrhain walked through it, evaporating the magic. The Gnome pointed a finger at Nereshal’s head.
“Let go, mage.”
His finger was about to unleash something that would kill Nereshal twice—but the [Chronomancer] was babbling.
“You—don’t you know me? No—when is this? You’re…you’re Erin Solstice.”
He’d clearly heard her name. Why was he saying it like that? Then Nereshal burst out.
“The Goblinfriend of Izril!”
Erin Solstice froze.
“W-what did you just say?”
Zineryr’s finger wavered. The Gnome fixed on Nereshal as the [Chronomancer] babbled.
“You’re too young! And you and I have met—you don’t remember?”
“No. Who are…?”
Erin was sure she’d remember this guy. Had she tossed the memory at the dead gods? No—Nereshal had a sudden, desperate look on his face.
“Then I died after whenever this is! Time! Time can be changed. Please! You must listen! The Blighted King will go mad! I will be slain when I oppose him! Stop him! Warn me!”
“Hey—hey—I don’t know what…”
Erin’s mouth was dry. Wait. Was this really what she suspected?
A time paradox? Why not? With the Timewalker…the man was holding her.
“Listen. I know what you will do. But the Blighted Kingdom will not be your ally in the future. The madness…you must warn me. I can change the future. Tell me and I will give you anything you desire, Goblinfriend! We will meet! I will throw my power behind you.”
She looked around, but the Gnome was striding off. Straight towards Emerrhain? Erin looked at Nereshal, but didn’t know what to do. So she listened.
“I…how would I even convince you?”
Nereshal hesitated. He looked at Erin and then burst out!
“A code! Something so secret that I would believe you. Tell me…yes. Tell me this: ‘The Blighted King will betray you.’ I should trust you—trust the [Clown] even, damn him. Convince me! Tell me this. ‘By the sin of Arruif Yal, he was not worthy to serve!’ Do that and the terrible fate for us all can be averted. Or else the Blighted Kingdom will destroy your land and other continents in his mad war, with his army of children from another world, once the Demon King dies.”
Erin staggered back as the [Chronomancer] beseeched her. His words fixed themselves in her head. But could she remember? Would she even survive…?
Time changed. The Devourer of Time saw it splitting off and tried to focus on Erin Solstice. But the Great General of Ages engulfed one arm in bright flames.
“[Holy Flame of the Agelum]!”
That hurt it. Dionamella stared down at Erin and Nereshal.
“What is he doing? Time is…”
She swooped lower, staring at Erin Solstice and the split in time Nereshal was causing. The possibilities…
Emerrhain, the God of Magic, sensed the disturbance, but vaguely. Time was not his aegis. Besides—
He had his enemy. He was advancing on the Gnomes. Another vanished with a curse that faded into a sigh as Tamaroth caught her sleeve.
They had to die. These dangerous foes…but why was Zineryr coming towards Emerrhain? He had always been devious, that leader of Gnomes who had built a contraption to let him go into space.
The first stellar voyager. Emerrhain refused to be tricked again. He reached for the Gnome, confident there was little Zineryr could do to harm him without his gadgets. The Gnome halted in the roiling sea. He raised his hands.
“Time out! Stop!”
The God of Magic sneered at him. But Zineryr just bellowed in his face.
“Infraction in time! Hold on, you fool!”
The God of Magic hesitated.
“…What? If this is a trick—”
However, Zineryr was naming what he was vaguely sensing. The Gnome pointed at Nereshal and Erin.
“Time paradox. That man is from the future.”
Emerrhain wavered. The God of Magic peered at Zineryr with deepest suspicion, then Nereshal…then he began cursing.
The Gnome and dead god exchanged glances. Zineryr lifted a few fingers.
“He’s just created a temporal crossroads. You know what that means.”
The God of Studies and Secrets’ eyes flickered as he parsed this.
“…We must kill her before she can activate the crossroads. It must not be a true loop or conflict. But killing her resolves every issue. That [Mage] must die before he spreads a plague of them.”
“Exactly. The [Mage] has to die. But if Erin Solstice survives, you know what will happen.”
Emerrhain caught himself mid-nod. Wait, who could predict that aside from someone who had seen what would happen? Not even the fae or Gnomes could do that.
The Gnome’s solemn look turned into a mischievous smirk.
“Something you can’t predict. Heh.”
The God of Magic gave him a blank look, then lunged. Zineryr just sank into the water and shot out of it, grabbing Erin and towing her away. Cursing, Emerrhain whirled. Nereshal was fleeing Erin, looking for more ghosts he remembered.
Emerrhain hesitated. But even his hatred and fear of Zineryr weren’t a match for…he whirled.
“Kasigna! Kasigna, I invoke your name in desperation! Heed me!”
The three-in-one turned from capturing another Gnome.
“I should destroy you, Emerrhain. Give me one reason to—”
“You must kill that ghost. Now. Destroy it, but do not absorb it. Just obliterate its essence.”
Emerrhain pointed at Nereshal. Kasigna frowned at him.
“Why? They all belong to me!”
“Causality. It comes from the future.”
Her eyes widened.
Emerrhain was speaking rapidly, watching Zineryr flee as Erin flew north. The other Gnomes were following him, what few remained. Nine. They’d bought the [Innkeeper] time.
“Just make sure it dies. I will finish the Gnomes.”
Emerrhain blurred off after Zineryr as Kasigna called after him. Furiously, she turned. Nereshal looked back just in time to see Kasigna crook a finger. He threw up a shield of magic, and a hand of bone reached out of the sea and caught him. The [Chronomancer] struggled as Kasigna approached, to end one problem.
But the other time paradox ran on. With wrath, vengeance and petty spite—
Four dead gods followed.
The Gnomes bought Erin every moment they could. Half were fleeing with Zineryr from Emerrhain, who was locked onto them. Erin was flying as fast as she could, but the flight spell that Zineryr had cast was no match for the dead gods.
They were fast. First came Tamaroth.
“I may have ceded your body—but not your soul. Come, child. I will lead you to salvation.”
A ghost saw Erin flying overhead and shot a spectral arrow upwards. It hit Tamaroth in the side, and the arrow just…bounced. He was proof against mundane magic, against Skills. Even the Gnomes hadn’t even so much as tried to hurt them.
But they did stop him. The female Gnome who had gone skydiving had returned. She flew on Tamaroth’s left as he caught up. She was too slow to catch the God of Leaders, and she had no weapons. So she used the one thing she could.
“Tamaroth. Tamaroth. It’s so good to see you again. That beard hasn’t changed. Did you pluck it from the ass of a troll or did someone hex you to permanently carry a rat’s nest on your face?”
Erin’s eyes bulged, and she saw Tamaroth’s face change. He turned and dove at the Gnome. She dodged him with a laugh. The God of Rulers cursed and turned back to Erin—just in time for the Gnome to reappear behind him.
“Remember Oltevij? Now there was a fine story. I think we made a great play about it.”
She made a pose in the air.
“Oltevij, he did roar as the gods fought, and Tamaroth, courage he had not! He shat himself so mightily that the stench of it reached across the divine. Then he fled and hid under a child’s bed while better gods fought above his head—damn, what a terrible last poem—”
She shrugged as she sped backwards—too slowly this time. The God of Rulers caught her, and she vanished. But she was smiling.
Erin Solstice was getting away. More Gnomes were flitting around the other gods, calling out insults.
“Laedonius, how does it feel to be the only god to be so inept he has to flee two realities?”
“Tamaroth! Oh, wait, sorry. That’s a brown bush. Tamaroth! Wait, no, that’s some seaweed…”
It worked on all but two. One was the God of the Lost. Norechl walked after Erin Solstice, ignoring the taunts of the Gnomes who had little to throw at it.
The other…was Kasigna. She ignored a Gnome floating just out of reach, daring her to go after them. Nereshal was gone.
“Hey, Kasigna. Kasigna?”
Her eyes were locked on Erin. Even the other Seamwalkers were getting out of her way. The Gnome pulled a face, floating in front of her a second. She swiped at the Gnome, and the immortal flew left, but she never broke stride. The Gnome called out.
“Diotrichne made a better afterlife, and she did it twice as fast. Not that we should be surprised they went with yours. Tamaroth always lacked taste.”
Kasigna’s eyes narrowed, but she never stopped following Erin. The Gnome cursed—and vanished as Tamaroth touched him.
“I will have you. You cannot escape me twice, Erin Solstice.”
The Gnomes were vanishing. Laedonius Deviy realized he was too far and broke off the chase. So did Tamaroth, pursuing other ghosts. But Norechl and Kasigna came on. The last Gnomes fled, pursued by Emerrhain, calling out luck to Erin.
Four had given their souls to buy Erin time. The [Innkeeper] was watching Norechl catch up.
She didn’t know why it wanted her. Kasigna made sense; Erin had defied her and bested her at chess. But Norechl?
She didn’t know she had frustrated it before. If only by proxy. Two gods were left. They reached for Erin, floating through the air. Norechl had no true fingers, just a body. Focusing on any one part was like…static. Haze. It was the God of Nothing and frustrated attempts to pick out any one detail.
Kasigna mocked Erin. She wore Erin’s mother’s face. Shauna Solstice, in her middle years, reached for Erin before the old face of Maviola El, her true age, held out a hand.
“This can all be over. Take my hand, Erin. Do not resist any longer.”
No. Take mine. I offer oblivion.
Two gods reached out for Erin as the ghost tried to fly, shake them from her trail. Norechl was closest, and it greedily reached for her leg. It strode over the water—and Xarkouth’s head rose from the waves. The Void Dragon and the dead god faced each other—then Xarkouth exhaled.
Norechl went stumbling backwards, keening in agony as the Void Dragonlord, wounded, flew up.
“Fly, Erin Solstice!”
He turned the flame of the void on Kasigna. It was almost anti-substance, a void that drew in everything. Deepest purple flames that shone with the stars itself, a constellation burning and wrapping around her.
And…it did nothing. Kasigna walked through the flames.
“I am beyond Dragonfire, little creature.”
Xarkouth backed away, disbelieving. Erin gulped.
Oh no. She had absorbed enough souls that Dragonfire didn’t work? At least not one flame. It hurt Norechl, even if it did no lasting damage. Kasigna? It was more like an irritant.
“Erin Solstice—flee! I will keep this one back!”
Norechl was hissing and retreating as Xarkouth breathed more flame. But the Void Dragonlord couldn’t do it forever. The flame that could have scorched the stone of a Walled City, his mightiest weapon—was only hurting one of the two.
“Erin Solstice! Keep running!”
More ghosts appeared through the dark waters of the ocean. Erin looked up and saw a ship. [Pirates] were sailing with her friends!
The Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets, Velzimri, Elucina, Gerial, Cawe, even Serept perched aboard the boat like a Human man trying to ride a toy vessel. His-Xe…none of the [Witches], but two of Khelt. Even Abel, the Human from Earth.
“What are you doing?”
Erin landed on the boat. It was going faster than she could fly, and the [Pirate] at the wheel was laughing. Erin stared at Serept and His-Xe.
“You should defend Khelt! Where’s Khelta? Califor?”
“They are following Fetohep. We hope to bring you to Izril—but Khelt’s power has been subsumed by the strength of the dead with levels and classes restored. We two of Khelt chose to honor our vow. And it seems we will be needed.”
Serept boomed as he looked at Kasigna. She was still catching up. A [Pirate] desperately slashed at her; she touched the Drowned Man, and he vanished. Then she was on the deck.
“Nothing in this world can stop me. This is my place. I created it—and no force shall oppose me. Not even that.”
She stared at the Devourer of Time, engaged in a terrible battle overhead. Erin Solstice looked at Kasigna, hands balled into fists.
“Oh yeah? Well…I’ll hit you first! I know it can happen! Come on!”
She hopped from one foot to another like how she imagined a boxer would. One punch! One…
The rulers of Khelt and her ghostly friends blocked her, but Kasigna ignored a spear Serept threw. The magic Velzimri conjured didn’t even touch her. She walked forwards until someone hobbled into her path.
“That is enough. Leave this woman to me.”
The effrontery of this ghost was enough to make Kasigna stop. She lifted a finger, but the old man blocking her way didn’t flinch. Erin gasped.
He glanced over his shoulder.
“Remember what I told you. Now…Kasigna, is it? I don’t doubt you could erase me in a heartbeat. But you will not.”
“And why is that?”
The God of Death’s finger rested on Drevish’s cheek, but like another ghost—Zel—he didn’t immediately vanish. She was curious. Drevish batted her finger down and shoved his finger in her face.
The three-in-one blinked as the Architect, one of the King’s Seven, and the grumpiest old man Erin had ever met began to speak in a quick, raised voice.
“I heard you designed this place. And I used ‘designed’ as a pejorative, because this is the most disgraceful afterlife I could fathom. Did I hear the name right? Kasignel? Even the name is wrong. As for functionality—this is disgraceful. No order—we were left to just hang about, and you patently cannot even round up the souls afterwards. A blank slate would be less embarrassing, because this clearly took effort. And it is misguided.”
“How dare you.”
Kasigna halted. Erin had seen the God of Death angry—but never offended. Yet Drevish had struck a nerve. He lifted a quick finger as she reached for his face with a snarl.
“Listen to me. As a fellow architect—the best in any time, frankly—I have ideas. Proposals. You needn’t carry them out, but I have drawn up a list of possibilities if you intend to redesign.”
Erin’s mouth was open wide. The ghosts, including the [Pirates], stared at Drevish in disbelief. And Kasigna…hesitated.
Drevish straightened his back. He looked back at Erin, nodded to her, and then strode over to the railing.
“The most comprehensive overhaul of an afterlife. But if you want to listen—you will have to hear me out. Erin Solstice—would you run already?”
She saw Drevish whirl. Kasigna glanced up sharply, and Erin leapt into the air, and her friends followed. The [Pirate Captain] yelped as Kasigna touched her, and the ship vanished as its owner did. The other ghosts shouted and fled, and Kasigna went to grab Erin—until Drevish grabbed her arm.
He hung onto her leg, dangling there. He looked at Erin, as Kasigna hissed at him.
“What makes you so certain I won’t destroy you, impudent little man?”
Drevish looked up at her calmly.
“Because you are a designer, Miss Kasigna. And anyone who doesn’t even listen to criticism—even if they hold to their vision—that is a poor artist. Erase me and be curious forever. I am Drevish, the genius who should have lived a hundred thousand years. Which is more important? Your vengeance or the Work?”
The God of Death hesitated. Then she lowered Drevish to the water and snapped her fingers. A dais of dark stone rose, and she stood there.
“Speak swiftly, then. The first worthless proposal will be the last you utter. Then I shall catch that girl.”
Drevish reached up and straightened his robes. He had never bothered to comb his hair or pay attention to many of the things that Mars did. His hands were covered with liver spots, and he was balding. But for all that, he stood straight, and his ink splotches on his comfortable clothes were badges of honor.
The Architect of the King of Destruction looked Kasigna in the eye.
“In that case—Erin Solstice will never know any danger from you again.”
And Kasigna, the three-in-one, the Goddess of Death and the Afterlife…smiled at that. Just for a moment, the sheer bravado of one creator to another. Drevish began to speak, making his final stand the only way he knew how.
“Let’s begin with the basic outline of what an afterlife should look like. Not a copy of the living world—rather, it should fulfill more functions than just ‘waiting space’ or eternal forever. Punishment and reward should be shown. But how? Hear me out: you’ve obviously considered subdivisions, but the entire idea of multiple layers of reality is messy. Hell is a term thrown around, but are you then dealing with a hell, heaven, and afterlife? Three entire realms you must administrate? More? Why complicate a system where you might have to send souls from one area to another, however infrequently? Also, do correct me if there’s terminology I am lacking—I am working with concepts hither-to unknown. As I was saying, multiple administrative realms increases inefficiency in organization and communication I must imagine. Yet one conjoined space where those present can witness the other modalities solves that issue…”
Kasigna hesitated. Then she began to listen as Drevish began to draw on the air with a Skill.
Then they were flying into the air, passing by Baleros as the dead gods were all distracted for a moment. Velzimri had cast [Levitation] on all but Erin, who still flew under the Gnome’s magic. Across Baleros, in the sea and on land, Erin Solstice saw the Seamwalkers doing battle with the ghosts.
There she was. The wounded ghost of an Elf lifted her sword as Erin’s small band passed by. Elucina dove to strike at a Seamwalker, and Sprigaena met Erin’s eyes again.
It was like a shock, but the Elf just pointed.
“Go, mortal child! Go, child of Earth! Bear warning to any who will listen. To arms, spirits of the dead! Do not let that one die!”
She turned back to face her foe, the Timewalker itself. Erin Solstice saw the ghosts of Baleros rising after her. For the six dead gods were not the only foes they had to fight.
The Gnomes had set themselves against gods, but the advent of Norechl’s kin?
They had left that to the Elves. They were leading a charge, ghosts clinging to the gigantic horrors, stabbing, drowning them in sheer numbers. Yet some were impossible to kill with mere blades or bare hands. Some ate magic.
…But they were ghosts. The cleverest, the bravest, the most magical and mightiest—everyone was here.
Even Fraerlings. They were so tiny that Erin gasped as the little people chose a single Seamwalker to damn into oblivion. The confused beast saw millions of souls charging it.
Another great horror with no solid bones, only a mass of ever-shifting properties, hesitated. It gazed upon…
The Selphids of Baleros had joined together to create a vast amalgamation of ghosts. It grappled with the Seamwalker, and Erin saw a puddle of…she stared at a little Selphid oozing past her on the shores of Baleros and complaining loudly.
“Of all the places not to have a body! I am a Level 69 [Master of Swords and Sorcery]! Give me a body!”
The angry Selphid rolled across the ground as Erin bit her lip. Not all ghosts got fair treatment. Probably a design flaw.
Another Selphid lifted a little appendage.
“To arms. [Construct Vessel: Human].”
A very naked body of a man crumpled to the ground. Instantly, fifteen Selphids began fighting over it. Erin covered her eyes.
“Whoa! Hey! You can do that?”
“Obviously. What, no Selphids thought of it? Are you all fools? Just make a body—get out of my vessel!”
The angry Selphid began to battle the others for control. Then all the Selphids and Erin looked up as a shadow passed over them. Erin looked over her shoulder and saw a familiar horror.
A ravenous coffin-carnivore trapped within morbid layers of rotting skin turned, a gesture of open embrace as a centipede might offer.
The drooped, thin thing with a carnivorous opening fell on the Selphids, and Erin dove away with a cry. She looked back, and the Seamwalker she’d seen first writhed. Serept swung a fist into its side and grappled with it, forcing it back.
“It has followed us! Keep running!”
The half-Giant was smaller than this foe, but it was an enemy he could actually fight! Its teeth and cilia were as sharp as razors, though, and tried to slice his being. Serept’s Skills must have given him skin like steel, because they only cut him lightly.
His-Xe howled, but he pulled Erin back. Elucina had seen the fighting, and Velzimri hurled down a bottle that exploded into a pillar of smoke and ash. The Rebel of String dove and lanced the beast with her shining sword—
But they were all so small. A few angry Selphids that had survived the attack climbed on the Seamwalker, trying to kill it. But it threw Serept and ignored Elucina carving into it.
“Foul beast! In the name of Elves—”
A Dragon landed. It was far smaller and younger than Xarkouth. She exhaled frost over the Seamwalker and did a double-take as the writhing beast barely felt it.
Thousands of Lizardfolk charged the horror on the beach and tried to stab it, but their spears did no damage to its hide. Serept staggered back, clutching at his damaged ethereal body as Elucina floated upwards.
“Keep going. We can’t kill them, nor be trapped. More are coming.”
Indeed—some of the Seamwalkers had bypassed Chandrar entirely and followed the ghosts into the sea.
No…Erin realized they were following her. They were attracted by her [Immortal Moment].
And some were—fast—
Erin saw a stick-like Seamwalker running at them. This one had not only figured out how to move around as a biped—it had figured out how to run. It crossed the distance, running through the open ocean terrifyingly fast.
Gerial had a bow fashioned by one of the Djinni. He shot an arrow; Erin didn’t even see if it hit the Seamwalker. The spray of water it left probably deflected it, and even if Gerial hit the vast creature—what damage could it do?
This was too much for an [Innkeeper] with a frying pan and some magic fire. But then—this part wasn’t her war.
Not yet. And the ghosts knew it. Sprigaena, flying overhead, pointed at the marshal leading Baleros.
A single Dragon broke from the ranks of those flying to aid its younger kin and the Lizardfolk trying to stab two Seamwalkers to death. Two more on the way…but Erin heard a strange sound and heard a voice from above. Then…the sharp retort, the rhythmic sound that was so familiar she flinched.
It sounded like a strange power tool going off. Only louder, scarier. It sounded like—Erin looked up. Cawe blinked.
“What is that?”
A Human man holding a gun opened fire as the Dragon dove. Erin’s jaw dropped.
A ghost had a gun. It looked real—and it was firing actual bullets! Not that Erin saw them, but she definitely saw the Seamwalker flinch at the impacts. Then the man, the soldier, was ejecting a magazine and reloading.
“Hey there. Do y’all need a hand?”
He had on very familiar combat gear, and his accent and voice…Erin locked eyes with a Human from Earth. He looked as amazed to see her as she did to see him.
“Hey! Are you from Earth?”
That was all Erin could think to say. The ghost of a soldier from her world broke into a huge grin.
“Well shit—how did you die?”
“She’s not dead! Focus!”
The Dragon was green-scaled and angry. She snapped at the Human and he nodded.
“Supply drop! Lizardfolk! Get ready for new weapons!”
The Lizardfolk below looked up as the [Soldier] shouted at them. Then a second passenger uncurled, and a [Quartermaster] looked down. One of the world’s finest campaigners grabbed the [Soldier]’s shoulder.
“[Temporary Armory: Every Weapon I Ever Held]. Catch!”
The soldier jumped off the Dragon and landed, fearless of the heights, as Lizardfolk grabbed a small mountain of weapons. A few ordinary things like knives, even what looked like a replica of a sword…but mostly?
Lots of guns.
Every gun the soldier had ever held in a shooting range, combat, or training. And unlike regular [Soldiers], who might have one sword in this world—
He had held lots.
Lizardfolk grabbed the strange weapons as the warrior from Earth landed. He gave them a twenty second crash-course in the basics. Nothing about safety. Just—safety off. Load, aim, and—
The first Seamwalker was thrashing about, obliterating hundreds of Selphids. Then it ran into a new concept:
Lizardfolk with guns. A few even had RPGs. The soldier opened fire and winced as the recoil and terrible fire lanes caused the ghosts to hit each other—but the bullets did no damage to the ghosts. They were, after all, spirits, and gravity didn’t hurt them. The only thing these simple projectiles of metal propelled at incredible speed could hurt were…
The Seamwalkers. Erin’s mouth was still open as the Lizardfolk riddled one side with fire and began reloading.
“We’re going to need someone who can replenish ammunition. Get a [General] with piercing-projectile Skills!”
The [Quartermaster] was summoning someone with the Skills. Elucina’s eyes brightened.
These were tactics that neither world had ever conceived of. The green Dragon was already snarling.
“Next position! Get moving, Jackson!”
The man was already climbing onto one wing. But he looked back at Erin.
“Are you the one with a body to get back to?”
“That’s right. I’m Erin. Erin Solstice. From Michigan. Where are you from?”
He saluted her.
“Jackson Carver, Virginia. I landed in Baleros. If you go back home…”
His pale, ghostly gaze searched hers. A hint of light grass-green, a story she’d never know. Then a wide smile.
“…If you go back home, tell my people that I did the best I could. The Lizardpeople welcomed me with open arms. It was their Naga who made them knife me. Tell them I rode a fucking Dragon and fought with ghosts!”
“I’m letting you ride me!”
The Dragon growled, but Jackson just looked at Erin. She saw his regrets, his longing for a second chance, all laid out in the young man’s eyes. He was barely older than her, maybe a year at most. Like every ghost…and he was from her world. He had died not long ago.
His voice caught.
“Tell them I was here.”
“I will. I promise.”
The Dragon lifted into the air, and then they were flying. Fighting across Baleros. Erin lifted a hand as she flew on. Below her, a Seamwalker bled ichor so dark it stained the waters black as midnight. They were dying. Fighting.
She was just one [Innkeeper]. Erin wiped her eyes as the ghosts fought across this world for reality. It was an end in Baleros. The Timewalker bled. And the blood fell across Baleros, touching even the land of the living.
It was the final battle. But final battles took a long time. The last stands, the desperate flashes of defiance even before the end…surrender or running down the fleeing survivors.
The battle never ended with a single white flag or peace treaty.
Perorn Fleethoof had seen both sides before. The sinking feeling in her chest was familiar too. But even though she had raced across a hundred battlefields before she was even twenty, following legends…
She still thought they could win. She always did. The Forgotten Wing company had been formed from the survivors of the Named-rank team who had conquered the Labyrinth of Souls with an army of soldiers. Niers Astoragon, Foliana, and members of Stalker’s Wings had been fighting in a war when their detachment had gotten lost while fleeing a losing battle.
They had survived, battling the dungeon that would be called the Labyrinth of Souls. Survived—when they emerged, the soldiers who would go on to form that legendary company fell upon their foes with the levels and fearlessness that came of surviving a Named-rank dungeon.
Later…far later, Niers Astoragon would lead one of the greatest raids with adventurers, [Mercenaries], and [Soldiers] into that dungeon. He had never told Perorn all of what he saw.
She had been a girl in those days. A filly racing after the heroes of her day, the Gold-ranked team she knew personally. Then Named-rank. Then—Perorn had served with them and gotten to know all of them. They were more than just names and myths.
But the glory had always stuck there a bit. Now?
Foliana was too injured to fight. Niers was stranded a continent away, and the Jungle Tails company was besieging Elvallian. The [Strategist] who stood against them was Perorn Fleethoof. No matter where Perorn looked—all she saw were Lizardfolk.
Jungle Tails. The largest company that the world had ever seen. They had survived Foliana’s traps. Made it past Perorn’s lightning-strike campaign. Now they were on the walls, and Perorn was determined to make them bleed.
Lizardfolk were putting up ladders and climbing up as the Forgotten Wing fought them. Disciplined Lizardfolk on their side, even their own Nagas, but Dullahans, Centaurs, Humans, and Selphids. Even other species served in their company.
Elvallian was a city built after that principle; it was uniquely suited to the Forgotten Wing’s fighting style. For instance, there were ramps that let Centaurs charge up and down, and the battlements were far wider than normal to let them maneuver. Every strategy and fighting style in the world had been stolen and tested. This was the Forgotten Wing’s heart, and while Perorn had sent some of its greatest defenders to the front, she had kept an army.
Now—the army unleashed everything.
Screaming Lizardfolk fell as Selphids knocked ladders down. The symbiotes of Baleros ignored arrows sinking into their bodies, fearless of slings tossing stones—only magical arms which blew their bodies to bits could harm them.
Lineholders. Niers’ favorite vanguard. When one locked blades with a Lizardfolk and traded an arm for a mortal thrust, the Selphid bent their rotten Human corpse over the Lizardfolk body. Within a minute, the [Soldier] was standing up, a new, stronger body ready to fight. They Rampaged without fear of damaging their bodies, performing incredible leaps and throwing armored foes off the walls with one hand.
When Lizardfolk did take the walls, the Dullahans were waiting in armored groups to charge the breaches. The last species, Centaurs, raced from danger point to danger point. Perorn led them herself, loosing arrows into knots of fighters and watching them crumble.
Their own Nagas and Lizardfolk battled their kin, trading blows, Gorgons and Medusae freezing their foes. It should have been the most costly siege in history. The Lizardfolk had taken few siege weapons in their rush to besiege the capital; they were making siege towers on the spot with Chests of Holding providing some weak catapults.
The Forgotten Wing Company had catapults of their own. Giant stone boulders smashed down, some hitting their own walls and crushing anything climbing up. Others unleashed showers of enchanted projectiles or just…stones, a deadly spray that forced anyone below to raise a shield or have their skulls crushed.
“Spells. [Cross Flameblast]—there!”
One of the enchanted towers drew a cross in purple flame where the Jungle Tails company was clustered too tightly. Perorn heard the shrieking as she galloped down the walls. She was unleashing everything against the Lizardfolk.
Yet they kept coming. The first wave of Lizardfolk were still struggling against the walls when they began their actual assault. The Nagas had flooded Perorn with targets. Now—she looked up and saw feathered shapes gliding towards her.
The [Soldiers] looked up and saw the feathered serpents leap. Hundreds landing on the walls and beheading surprised soldiers. As fast as striking serpents, and one of the strongest forms of Naga—they had no arms, but they didn’t need them. One bit the head off a Centaur, ignoring steel spears which glanced off her scales.
Perorn shot one through the neck. Then she saw the Gorgons coming up stone ramps.
“Hold the line! [Swift Reinforcements: Thunderstrike Division]!”
A magical battalion of soldiers ran towards their position as Gorgons took a portion of the wall—and held it. They were garbed in armor from head to toe. Each one was at least seven feet tall, and the serpents combined the humanoid arms and dexterity of a Naga with the magical gaze of a Medusa and added pure strength.
A Selphid grappled with a Gorgon, throwing the full force of their Rampage against the Gorgon. They were deadlocked—then the Gorgon swept a barbed tail around, captured the Selphid’s leg, and tossed the Selphid behind them into the sea of Lizardfolk.
“Take them out! Lightning spells!”
A dozen [Lightning Bolts] checked the Gorgons’ advance. The screaming Nagas raised magical shields and tried to keep the Forgotten Wing Company from recapturing the walls. Perorn galloped away from the fighting.
She had to. The Quexals. She had to see the entire battlefield, and she saw the Quexals retreating. They were gliding off the walls, blades covered with blood, circling, looking for another weak spot.
“[Speed Formation: Archers 3]. Follow those Quexals and take them out!”
Counterplay. Perorn hated sieges. Her Skills were devoted to mobility, quick attacks, and escapes. She wasn’t favored in this confined terrain—but it meant she deployed and pulled wounded groups of soldiers out with a speed that Jungle Tails had to keep up with.
Or…they did something she couldn’t counter. Perorn heard a warning horn, and the speaking stone exploded into more chatter.
“Commander, they’re at the northern gates! New Naga type—we can’t stop them! They’re going to break the gates without reinforcements!”
Those gates were reinforced such that Trolls with enchanted sledgehammers would take hours getting through. But Perorn realized—it wasn’t the structure in danger, it was the actual control mechanisms. She looked up and saw a head rising over the walls.
“Hydras! Get me every [Slayer]! Enchanted fire arrows!”
Jungle Tails had unleashed their beasts of war. The eight Hydras were so large they were able to attack the defenders on the battlements while Lizardfolk swarmed up. Perorn took aim as she galloped with reinforcements towards the fighting.
“Garuda! Garuda—drop your bags of holding now!”
Fliers and the few carpet riders dropped their cargo—acid and fire from alchemical weapons that the screaming Hydras struggled to recover from. One Hydra’s head was melting, covered in the most potent acid the Forgotten Wing company could buy.
…But they had so many heads. Perorn slowed. Her enchanted longbow came up. Fleethoof’s Wrath. She put a sparking arrow to the tip.
“[Perfect Shot]. [Arrows: Doubled Magnitude]—”
The enchanted arrow flew into a screaming maw of a Hydra about to blow poison at a group of struggling Dullahans and blew it into a rain of flesh as a lightning bolt exploded out of the maw. Perorn saw the Hydras trying to retreat as their handlers ushered them onwards. But where were those Nagas? Her people knew almost every Naga type.
Then Perorn realized something. There were too many serpentine heads snaking across the battlements, even for eight Hydras. She spotted a nest of serpents, twining around like a sea of snakes, fighting terrified [Soldiers] who hacked at them. Then she saw they were connected not to a Hydra—the far smaller serpents were attached to a single body. She took one look at it.
“Scylla! Scylla—kill the main body! Shapechangers! Don’t let—”
Too late. One leapt off the battlements, landed among the surprised [Soldiers] streaming towards the battlements—and changed shape. A gigantic serpent rampaged across the interior of Elvallian, trying to open the gates from the insides.
It died fast, riddled with arrows. But there were more and more. Perorn left the north gates as the eastern wall fell silent. She looked up and saw Medusae by the hundreds freezing the [Soldiers] with their sheer magical glare. They fell back as she ordered the catapults to turn and unleashed artillery spells on them.
But something was wrong. Perorn came to a halt and didn’t know how long she’d been fighting. She saw more fighters ready to go, the wounded accessing their deep stockpiles of potions. Her hooves were covered in blood and grime, and the walls were red.
Something was going wrong. The Jungle Tails soldiers were still coming at the walls, but there was a change occurring.
The Naga were few in number, and when they began to die, they fell back and let their Lizardfolk fight. Their younger cousins were weaker and made up for that with numbers, albeit with good steel or iron, but they did die.
Perorn had always hated how Jungle Tails fought. Niers had bested them for that weakness. Lizardfolk would refuse to fight and enter a slaughter zone.
But…they weren’t dying.
A Selphid [Battle Warden] realized it first. She was mid-rampage, a Naga’s body scything around and attacking the Lizardfolk with a pair of wicked steel hatchets. She hacked down at one Lizardfolk, a blow that caught the unguarded warrior across the neck and shoulder.
It should have been a mortal blow. A straight slash into the collarbone that cut straight into the chest. The Selphid was already turning when she felt the sting of metal on her side. She whirled and saw the Lizardfolk, teeth bared, stabbing into her side.
The cut was only an inch deep. The Selphid reacted instantly. She swept the sword tip away and hacked with her axes. Four blows—six, and the Lizardfolk went down, neck hacked apart. The panting Selphid stared at the [Soldier].
“Strategist Perorn. Enemies are getting tougher—they’re stacking armor Skills!”
She looked around her section of the walls and saw the same thing happening. [Soldiers] were backing up, stabbing at Lizardfolk whose scales were suddenly as hard as steel itself. It wasn’t one Skill—it was multiple, multiple Skills from various commanders overlapping.
Not just any Skills either. Skills from Lizardfolk’s fighting.
“[For Every One That Falls, Our Scales Grow Stronger]!”
The Lizardfolk were screaming what had to be their [General]’s Skill. One of their [General]’s Skills. The Selphid tossed one axe aside and drew a backup weapon. She lunged at a screaming Lizardfolk and buried the magic-piercing dagger into a chest.
“Switch to magical armaments! Commander! They’re too tough to stop!”
The Selphid heard a crack—and the Lizardfolk screamed.
“Incoming! Get away! Get—”
A boulder from a catapult smashed into a cluster ready to climb the ladders. They screamed as they rolled the boulder off them and got up. The Selphid looked down.
They had broken bones, dislocated shoulders, and some had died—but they had survived that? She looked down and saw ten thousand Lizardfolk as tough as steel-coated Dullahans grinning up at her.
The Forgotten Wing Company began to lose the walls.
“It’s not going well.”
Sentry Leader Ekrn was no [Strategist]. His training allowed him to defend Paeth, even fight in mass-battles. Unlike Tallfolk, Sentry Leader was a prestigious position that allowed him to even muster Crelerbane forces at need. Still, he didn’t do armies like this.
But he didn’t need to, to report to Guidance Heish and the other Fraerlings stuck in Elvallian. Even a blind man could have told you what was happening, and there were no blind Fraerlings. At least, none who visited a First Founding city.
[Explorer] Gindal was watching the scrying orb of worldwide news. He had every right to; his home was…gone.
But the other Fraerlings were watching their greatest Tallfolk allies, the Forgotten Wing company, and the Titan’s home, falling.
“How are they doing it, Sentry Leader?”
“Too many [Commanders]. They’re overlapping Skills. Three-Color Stalker didn’t get enough of them. The Skills might expire—but until they do, their Lizardfolk are as tough as metal. We should prepare to evacuate. They still have an air cordon, but we can punch out and risk interception fire.”
“And do nothing?”
One of the Fraerlings, [Emissary] Vuul, who Ekrn had detested as being a fool from a city, protested in shock. Ekrn hesitated.
“There is little we can do.”
There were some things, but the sheer fact was—this army was so vast that Fraerlings had no place in this battle. And Paeth was falling.
No…everywhere was falling. At first, Ekrn had thought the treachery of the Fraerlings had meant that Paeth and Oierdressql were the only cities that had actually been in danger. Now—now he looked up and saw Fraerlings without a home.
Theirs had vanished in a single moment. Explorer Gindal wasn’t focused on the battle. He was just…looking at the flicking viewpoints of battles, waiting for them to cover his home.
The Dyed Lands.
“Torteth of Colors. Explorer Gindal. Is there any word?”
The Fraerling didn’t look up. He had Ekrn’s crossbow in his hands, but it was unloaded. His voice was steady.
“There were two Fraerling settlements caught up in the—effect. I haven’t heard from them. If they were stranded out of time for hundreds of years, they would have given up trying. The Dyed Lands are overrun. If they’re there, I will find them.”
Ekrn had seen the predators from that magical zone attacking everything in a ten mile radius. It was a wave of monsters. Yet Explorer Gindal just kept watching.
He would find his home. He only looked up once.
“Paeth. Is it falling?”
That was all Ekrn said. He sat there, watching Perorn pulling her forces from the first layer of walls. When it ended, they would pull back to the cleared space around the academy. Then fight in the hallways. Some Fraerlings would join the fighting. Most would flee or surrender.
“Has Strategist Perorn called for aid?”
Emissary Vuul demanded. Guidance Heish nodded.
“Commander Foliana has—but she diverted so many forces…and who could break through that army?”
They had some kind of last plan—the Titan always had a plan. But Ekrn couldn’t see it. Even if they won here…
Paeth was falling.
Paeth on the Coast was shaking. The dimensional magic that kept them contained in the tree held. Even as Lizardfolk assaulted the walls, threw [Fireballs]—even when they began to break into the city itself, it held.
The dimensional magic was the most important thing in Paeth. If it failed, the entire city might end up compressed into the tree. And there was no surviving that.
So it held. But the tree was shaking. The Featherfolk Brigade had found their home.
And they were trying to destroy it.
They came in waves. Screaming Lizardfolk, spells striking the tree, and Nagas. The Nagas had to lead the Lizardfolk; they refused to advance into that slaughter without a Naga. It wasn’t a vast camp around Paeth. The rest of the Featherfolk Brigade had pulled back to form a thousand-foot camp, which launched assaults day and night.
They had to.
There were so many dead bodies around Paeth that they had begun to turn into undead. Zombies and ghouls were already rising, and the Featherfolk Brigade had to kill them to get to Paeth.
But they did. They advanced through spells that blew entire groups apart. Into the lull where Paeth’s magic had to recharge, ignoring Tallguard taking shots at them.
To kill one Tallguard, the Lamias would burn an entire tree. So they concentrated on Paeth instead. Lizardfolk ran battering rams into the tree. They hammered on it with weapons, tried to climb it and tear at the branches.
It was almost laughable. Enchanter Ilekrome would have laughed, but the laughter would have been hysterical.
They had no idea how to break the enchantments on Paeth aside from pure brute force. Some tried to cast [Dispel Magic] as if that would work—then they did what a Creler would. They just hit Paeth. He felt that hysterical laughter in his chest because—it was working.
Paeth was made with great magics, but Fraerling magics. Even the best spells failed, had limits when it came to something of this size. Paeth was not a suit of armor; the magics would fail with enough stress.
So an army of Tallfolk just had to hit it until it broke.
Ilekrome watched as the first Gorgon cracked the walls. It was curled around Paeth’s tree, though Paeth was far too large for a single Gorgon to encircle. But this one had used some kind of enlargement spell, and it had hammered on the wood.
A single piece of the wall shattered inwards, and the Gorgon stared into a city of terrified Fraerlings. It opened its mouth wide, shrieking satisfaction as it saw an entire city in miniature, made of magic and technology. It reached in—
Over two hundred Fraerlings loosed crossbows. Not Tallguard, but the security forces and volunteers. The Gorgon screamed as tiny, enchanted bolts blew away parts of its face and body.
But it kept trying to reach inside. Kept slamming itself into the wall. The enlarged Gorgon took another volley of magical armaments—then Paeth ignited and burst into blue flames.
Still, the Tallfolk refused to die. Ilekrome, watching from the Architect’s Perch, looked down in horror as it took a third volley. Then a fourth.
Then…he saw the Fraerlings stop firing. Ilekrome was confused. The Gorgon hung there, mouth open, poised to—
Alchimeer Straesta breathed. Ilekrome realized his hands were white on the balcony. The dead Gorgon hung there, the oversized corpse draped across Paeth. Fraerlings were trying to fill the gap, repair it—
Then there was fire. It burned through the hole, and Enchanter Ilekrome raised his hands.
“No! Barriers! Barrier spells! [Prismatic Wall]!”
The flames halted as [Mages] created a wall. Fraerlings raced towards the opening, to find survivors, to close the gap.
It was the first gap. There would be more.
Alchimeer Straesta and Ilekrome were the only Architects watching from this place. Their Farspeaker was coordinating Tallguard and petitioning anyone for help. Trying to see where their Tallfolk friends were.
Judiciary Honst was fighting below. He had taken command of Paeth’s security forces, switched their paralysis batons for swords and archaic weapons, and ordered them to fight once the Tallfolk began to break in.
The Tallguard of Feiland were still fighting. So were the last Crelerbane forces, less than a dozen. The evacuation ship had launched. The other group was making its way through the emergency tunnels; they would be marching for miles.
Paeth was standing. Standing and hoping it could still push back the Tallfolk. Ilekrome had been asked if he wanted to leave. The survivors would need an Architect, a powerful [Enchanter], which he was.
But he had refused. The Last Box was here. The repository, their gift from Gnomes. If Paeth ended…Ilekrome had told the others he would remain if Paeth had to be evacuated. Like Oierdressql, the Tallfolk would have only ashes to pick through.
He still thought there was a chance. There had to be. But another shudder ran through Paeth, and Ilekrome saw a building collapse, throwing down debris.
“What hit us?”
Farspeaker Humalepre raced into the room. He was bleeding—Ilekrome looked at him and almost called for a healer on the spot. Then he closed his mouth.
“Catapult. They built a catapult. It’s launching enchanted munitions.”
“We have to destroy it. I will muster the spells. Can the Tallguard—?”
“They are almost out of Signim.”
Alchimeer Straesta was trying to make just one more as they spoke. She looked up.
“They’d die. The Tallfolk are guarding it.”
Ilekrome looked at her, and Paeth shook again. All the Fraerlings stumbled, and Ilekrome saw a crack appear inside Paeth. He looked up.
“Ask for volunteers. We will unleash everything we can. But they’ll make more. Ask for volunteers. Farspeaker. What’s happening at Talenqual?”
The Fraerling shook his head without a word. His voice shook.
“The United Nations company and their allies are fighting the Featherfolk Brigade. That’s why the Tallfolk have pulled back. They…they might lose there too. They are trying to take the city.”
Ilekrome just looked at him. He had some idea of the battle that their friends were going through. Luan the Giant, their Tallguard, Alchimagus Resk, who Ilekrome personally knew.
“Tell them to hurry.”
“They’re fighting for their lives, Ilekrome!”
Humalepre shouted back. Ilekrome just looked down at the city, his city. His voice was very steady.
“I know. But tell them to hurry. Paeth does not have very long left. Can you communicate with Sentry Leader Ekrn and Heish?”
Humalepre’s voice was trembling. Ilekrome wiped at his eyes, then began running to tell the mages to take out that catapult. If they weren’t trying already.
“…Tell them not to come back.”
What did the Tallfolk see? No…what they saw was very little.
The Lizardfolk, the Featherfolk Brigade who were fighting here, had any reason they wanted. Selfishness, obeying orders, a lack of care for the lives of Fraerlings, vindictive hatred, jealousy—
It didn’t really matter, did it? They were here. They had made their choice, and if they thought this would have been easy, the Fraerlings had long ago shown them that wouldn’t be the case.
So they saw almost nothing.
Bodies. They saw the bodies of their own. Littering the ground, rising as [Necromancers] among the small folk of Baleros encouraged them to spawn.
And that single huge tree, standing among the burnt ash of a forest cleared for a thousand paces in every direction.
Pure destruction. What the Tallfolk saw of the Fraerlings was so very little. Most [Soldiers] had not seen their foe. Perhaps a single, tiny corpse.
Or they would see a single flicker, like a bug, and then someone’s head would explode in a shower of magic. They would gaze upwards as a cluster of leaves on Paeth’s branches began to shine—and little spells would stab across the ground and earth themselves in a Naga’s brain.
Terror. The Fraerlings’ magic was so much more advanced than the Featherfolk Brigade’s. It could kill anyone.
Especially you. The officers were in hiding. Every Naga in range of Paeth was in danger. They had hidden behind shields only for Paeth to fire a railgun spell that melted through them. They camouflaged themselves only for Tallguard to snipe them.
Any single soldier was dead. That was the terror. If the Fraerlings wanted you dead—you were dead, and the commanders of the Featherfolk Brigade attacking Paeth were hiding.
But Paeth could not destroy an army. So each [Soldier] knew they would die if they didn’t destroy Paeth. That they went was because they were threatened with execution if they didn’t. Their superiors threatened them, reminded them they were Jungle Tails.
Mostly—they were in too deep. Talenqual had lost its forest. They had made enemies of every company around.
They had to have something, or they would have nothing. So the Lizardfolk charged and wondered who would die next. That horrifying settlement of Fraerlings.
Their home was in danger as well. So the Featherfolk Brigade had to hold both places. Or they would have no home and no future.
Luan arrived in Talenqual to find the city in chaos.
Gravetender’s Fist had taken the western walls and parts of the city. Kissilt’s forces, Marian, Cameral were all coordinating with the United Nations, even enraged citizens of Talenqual, and fighting the Featherfolk Brigade’s forces in the streets.
Part of their troops were holding off reinforcements coming from Paeth, but Fezimet’s troops were clashing with the United Nations.
Luan arrived in a contested zone. Contested—because Dullahans were storming the docks.
“The Iron Vanguard?”
The Courier was shocked to see their armor and the seasoned Dullahan troops from one of their smaller warships fighting Lizardfolk. Someone was directing them.
Noa saw the Lizardgirl issuing orders and holding the docks. Umina herself whirled.
“Luan! Do you have reinforcements?”
“No! Just Noa—where is Daly? Where’s Resk and Ken and—”
Kirana! The United Nations company who wouldn’t fight! Umina strode over the decks.
“They’re safe! Do you have a weapon? If not—stay here! [Company: Free Dodge]! Get away from that Gorgon group!”
She pointed, and Dullahans fell back from a charge. Luan hesitated. He saw the Iron Vanguard’s [Captain] watching the fighting. Counting the casualties as he reported in.
“Where’s Tulm the Mithril? You said—”
“I know what I said! He wouldn’t come. This is all we have!”
The Lizardgirl screamed back. Luan looked around.
“Are we winning?”
It was a stupid question to ask, but he couldn’t tell. Talenqual was burning. Umina’s gaze was bright.
“We aren’t losing. Not yet.”
Luan nodded. He hefted the crossbow—one of Paige’s with Resk’s strings, not the customized one. Daly had that. Umina saw the man begin to run.
“Luan! You’re not a warrior! Get back here!”
But the man was already running. He looked around wildly and saw chaos.
Talenqual was a port city. Not made of stone in many places, so it was burning. Lizardfolk were fleeing, trying to salvage their homes or protect themselves, adding to the confusion.
Amidst them, the Featherfolk Brigade were fighting in the streets. They had gone mad. Talenqual’s own citizens had taken arms against them in part, and the Featherfolk Brigade, under attack by Quallet’s forces, had decided anyone who wasn’t a Lizardfolk—wasn’t them, even—was a threat.
The city was a mix of panic and no fighting at all as Luan ran down the streets. He saw Landowner Hastel, hiding with her newborn child and a group of civilians, staring out of their houses and a barricade they’d built on one street. They recognized Luan and called out, but he kept running.
On another street, it was a straight battle. Kissilt was leading a force of Drakes with spears, holding their ground as Lizardfolk and Nagas attacked them. Quallet’s forces were advancing down a third, forcing Lizardfolk back as a War Walker advanced.
A fourth street had nothing but dead bodies. Gravetender’s Fist had lost it.
And—the United Nation company’s headquarters had no fighting at all. Luan sprinted down the street and saw bodies on the ground. Mostly Lizardfolk. But no fighting. Had they…? Had they…?
“Hold fire! That’s Luan! Luan!”
The man looked up and saw a figure rise slightly from a rooftop. Tofte and a group of Bushrangers and Earthers rose slightly—then someone shouted.
“Snipers! Get down!”
An arrow bounced off the roof, and they ducked. Instantly, crossbows rose, and they shot back. Then Luan understood why no Featherfolk Brigade were here.
The Bushrangers were fighting from rooftops, the walls. While the mercenaries fought on the streets, they were picking off anyone in the open. Luan hefted the crossbow.
“What can I do? Tofte?”
“Stay under cover! The Featherfolk Brigade will slaughter you—get into the headquarters! Daly is holding the north side, and Quallet’s in there. Fezimet’s still alive—we’re fighting a running battle.”
“What about Paeth?”
“I don’t know! Resk, Cotm, and Kessice are all fighting with Daly, Marian, and Siri!”
Luan ran into the headquarters. He found himself with the Bushrangers. Noa was trembling. She had a crossbow in hand, but she couldn’t join the Humans. She looked around.
“I—my Signim is still here. We have to find the fighting. Paeth is in danger.”
Her voice was distant. Luan looked at her. He hefted his crossbow and looked for a target. Tofte pointed.
“I don’t think…no. No. Fire!”
Luan saw the Earthers raise their crossbows. He saw Myron, an aspiring [Mage] from Greece, aim one of Paige’s crossbows through a slightly-opened window. Luan raised his crossbow, but when he saw the distant Lizardfolk hurrying along, shields raised, he hesitated.
His finger was on the trigger. But Luan hadn’t truly killed—
Tofte fired and put another bolt in the crossbow. Myron fired, and the Lizardfolk went down screaming. The Earthers reloaded.
“I see them. Kill the Naga. Kill the Naga!”
A Lamia was screaming as he tried to flee, a crossbow bolt sticking out of one arm. Tofte took another shot and hit a Lizardwoman in the back of the helmet. She went down without a word. Luan aimed at the Lamia. He squeezed the trigger.
The bolt missed. The Lamia still went down, three more bolts buried in her back. Luan was panting as the other Humans looked at him.
“You don’t have to be here, Luan.”
Tofte’s voice was slightly accented as the Norwegian adventurer looked at Luan. The Courier was sweating harder than he had from the run and desperate rowing to get here.
“No—I have to fight. Where’s Daly? I need to get to him.”
“We’ll find out. We have speaking stones. You sure?”
Tofte grabbed Luan’s arm. He had a burn down one arm; the Featherfolk Brigade were launching spells at the snipers. Luan hesitated—then met Tofte’s eyes and nodded.
The Bushranger’s grip tightened. He snarled back.
“Then fucking aim.”
The Featherfolk Brigade were winning. Or were they losing? They had so many Lizardfolk, and their Nagas fought like lions.
Daly didn’t know. He wasn’t Kissilt or Marian or Cameral, who were in charge of the entire battle.
All Daly knew was that they were dying. They were a major company, Quallet’s forces were far less experienced, and this was their city.
But where he saw them—they died. There were two things they lacked.
Gunpowder and Fraerling magic. Daly raised the hand crossbow, far smaller than the ones the rest of his people were carrying. But this one was made by Fraerlings. The bent metal was pure steel, and it would have been as smooth as a mirror, beautiful.
If not for the blood and grime. It moved like perfect clockwork, the pulley moving back automatically. Magic. It reloaded on its own, and when he squeezed the trigger—
Click. He felt the slightest kick, and it punched through two Lizardfolk. Daly reached for a crossbow bolt in slow motion. He inserted it into the crossbow. Aimed.
Click. It was such a fast motion. Sometimes he fumbled or dropped ammunition, but he had an entire quiver. An experienced [Arbalest] with Skills could put up to eight shots into the air in a minute at Level 30.
How fast could Daly shoot? Ten shots a minute? Eighteen?
Click. Click. Click.
Draw a bolt, place it in the groove, aim—pull. A Medusa savaging some Drakes with glowing eyes that ignited the metal on their armor dodged the first shot. And the second. And the third. She raised an enchanted shield, and the impact from the forth made her wobble. Then Daly shot her through the head.
“Advance. Advance! Daly—you’re too far forwards!”
Marian was trying to catch up, but the Bushranger knew he wasn’t. He was just leaning out of cover, shooting down targets in the battleground.
His finger was trembling. He felt like he was right back where he had started. Amidst the fighting companies of Baleros. It didn’t feel real.
But he was here. He had chosen to be here. Here—it ends.
“Kill that Human!”
A Gorgon came at Daly, and the young man stepped out of cover. He saw Siri shoot a [Mage]—saw the crossbow bolt hit the Lizardman in the chest. But Daly’s focus was only on the Gorgon.
Magnificent armor. A writhing charge, mouth open. A look of pain. Surprise and fear.
Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click—
“Daly! He’s dead!”
Someone was shouting in his ear. Daly stopped shooting the corpse as Lizardfolk fled, screaming. A Naga, someone who had achieved everything they dreamed of. Dead in seconds.
A Human with a crossbow advanced as Resk stood on his shoulder. The Alchimagus was [Appraising] targets, stopping the spells from killing Daly. He had saved the Human several times. Daly’s skin hummed with magic.
“A-advance with us. Down the street and right. Quallet is falling back.”
Daly ran. He smelled blood. But he wasn’t even hurt. Luan had given him the Fraerlings’ crossbow. How many of Quallet’s people had died? How many of the United Nations?
Daly didn’t know. Just—he skidded around the corner and brought the crossbow up.
Just kill them.
Click, click, click…
Siri watched Daly advance. He was holding down an entire street by himself. His face was perfectly blank.
They were all changing. Talenqual would never be the same.
Baleros wouldn’t. She was aware of the rest of Baleros being in danger—but it seemed far away. All she had was this battle. And…Kessice, whispering in her ear.
“They’re at Paeth’s walls again. Cotm—where’s Cotm?”
He was surely with Marian. The Centauress was galloping around, loosing arrows, but she was intelligent enough to know that the battle was more than just the fronts. That was why Siri had abandoned her position to lead a team under Cameral’s direction.
The Dullahan’s voice was quiet in her earpiece. The Featherfolk Brigade couldn’t hack their speaking stones. But the same was not true for Resk.
“A force just retreated. Now is the time, Strike Leader Siri.”
“Understood. Dawson—cover me.”
The Australian man lifted his crossbows as Siri strode for the door. She stopped there a second, and two Bushrangers fumbled with their bag of holding.
We will never be the same. If she listened, the [Ranger] could hear voices from inside. Lizardfolk. They had no idea the Bushrangers had infiltrated their position.
Kami and Tobi whispered. Siri nodded. She saw them fumbling with the long string of oiled cord. Kami held the cord far away from the keg. Tobi’s hands were shaking as he watched her murmur a spell.
The oil ignited. The fire would take a few seconds to burn—as many as ten, fifteen? But the Bushrangers reacted instantly.
Siri kicked the door in, and Dawson and three Bushrangers fired. They saw a barracks, one of the garrison points full of Lizardfolk. The bolts cut off the laughter and chatter.
They screamed as Tobi heaved with Kami and pushed the keg inside. Then Siri shouted, and her humming blood exploded into fear and terror.
The Lizardfolk charging at them took another crossbow bolt and hesitated as Siri swung the crossbow up. But she was running, arms pumping. She heard their voices.
“It’s on fire! Put it out! Put it out! Kill the Humans!”
Siri waited for the sound, but she didn’t hear it. She looked back and saw Lizardfolk stamping on the cord. Oh. Dawson cursed.
“I have it. Run!”
Someone shouted in Siri’s ear. The [Ranger] saw a little woman anchored to her shoulder raise a bow. Kessice fired a single glowing crossbow bolt into the barrel. A tiny little enchanted bolt…which exploded into a bloom of fire.
Her aim was good. The bolt of fire burned straight into the keg. Siri whirled—and something kicked her across the ground.
—She got up and kept running. Blood was running down her face. Her nose. Kessice was still clinging to her shoulder, dazed, but anchored to her with her grappling hook. Both women turned, ready to fight.
But the Bushrangers had no pursuers. All they saw when they looked back was a broken building and soot.
Peclir Im flinched when he saw the detonation.
“What was that? More Fraerling magic?”
He whispered—to himself. There was only one person in this tower, and he was in no mood for conversation.
Commander Fezimet was losing his mind. He leapt to the window.
“My people. How did they—?”
“Some kind of alchemical weapon. They’ve been using it across the city.”
So stop clustering your forces in barracks! They had struck towers, parts of the wall, and places like this six times already.
Peclir had not expected this. The [Chamberlain] was wondering if this battle were lost. He pulled something from his robes as Fezimet howled.
“All forces! Advance—no—no, rally on me. Where is that Human who is slaying my officers? Where are they concentrating? I will kill them all. Is that Fraerling city not down yet?”
He was screaming at his subordinates. Breaking under pressure. A Titan he was not. Peclir Im saw the Quexal whirl on him.
“You—you must give me reinforcements! Where are my reinforcements?”
“They cannot arrive. Destroy Paeth, Commander Fezimet. Those are your orders.”
“They are in my city!”
“You will have a dozen cities once this is over!”
Peclir Im was watching Fezimet’s face. The Quexal didn’t think the battle was lost. As far as Peclir could tell, it wasn’t.
Yet…Peclir did not like uncertain battles. So he hid the scroll he was holding behind his back as Fezimet clutched at his chest. He had healed from the two crossbow bolts that Daly had put through him, but the damage must not have been gone.
“Strike them. Strike them dead. We cannot be stopped. We will not.”
He was losing his mind. Peclir Im debated whether now was the time to use the [Teleport] scroll. He did not have to be here to win or lose, and he had few Skills that could have done anything. But he waited—Fezimet’s nerve might break without him. The Quexal was ranting at his subordinates when Peclir Im looked out across Talenqual and raised his voice urgently.
“—find me that Quallet Marshand. Identify them, and I will kill them myself. There are only a few dangerous ones. Find—”
“Commander Fezimet! Are there any Dullahans in your forces?”
Slowly, the Featherfolk Brigade’s commander looked up.
“…Only in the hundreds. None here. Not more than sixty. Why?”
Peclir felt his heart sinking. He stepped back and pointed out of the dome tower towards the east.
Kenjiro Murata had a crossbow in his hands, but he had not killed anyone yet. He was ready to. But he was standing with Aiko, who had created a nursing tent and was trying to save lives.
She was no Geneva, but she was trying. Ken was no warrior, but he was here.
That was all he could do. So he was also poised to see the four hundred Dullahans coming their way. Kenjiro ran towards them, ignoring calls to get back.
They could be the enemy—but Ken took one look at the Grasgil Blockade and knew.
“Diplomat Murata. We have arrived.”
Ken stared first at the Dullahan wearing Grasgil armor and then at…
“Kirana? Why are you here?”
She was back. The [House Keeper] and over half of the Earthers that had left had suddenly come back. Not alone either. The four hundred Dullahans were not the only force. Centaurs, even other Lizardfolk and Humans were joining them.
A combination army. They were only about two thousand strong, but they were made up of over half a dozen companies.
“Our leader has directed our forces to enter the battle for Talenqual. We are preparing for danger from Seamwalkers. But we are poised to render aid. Where is your battle commander?”
“Strategist Cameral! Reinforcements!”
The Dullahan came running out of a tent as Kenjiro felt his heart soar. But he turned to Kirana.
“Why are you here?”
For answer, she pointed at the Centaurs.
“They saw us and demanded we come with them. Some [Mages] are also here to protect us. They said they wouldn’t march if we didn’t.”
The mercenaries from the Stormhooves Company pawed the ground, ready to enter the battle. Ken shook his head.
“But you’re not fighters.”
“If you wish us to die for another city and your company, you will have to risk this much, Human.”
A Centaur tossed his head. But he was already following the others as they headed into the city.
We can win this. Ken was sure. In fact, Cameral was looking from the veterans to Talenqual.
“This is it. We must strike—Paeth is in imminent danger of falling, according to Enchanter Resk. We must force the Featherfolk Brigade into believing the battle is lost.”
“Why are they still fighting?”
Aiko had emerged to see what was happening. She had blood on her hands, but she was looking towards the city in ruins. The company engaged in two bloody battles they might never recover from.
Cameral had his head under one arm. The [Strategist] spoke for the mercenaries’ benefit as well as Ken’s. He pointed one hand.
“Only one figure can inspire them to keep fighting. Commander Fezimet is more than just a leader. His Skills may keep them in line. If he dies—it is a shame Adventurer Daly did not kill him. But it must be done. Moreover, there is a sign for the Featherfolk Brigade to see.”
He raised a speaking stone to his lips.
“Strike Leader Siri. Are you safe?”
There was a pause, then Siri spoke.
Cameral looked at Kenjiro Murata, then up calmly.
“I am going to send an advance force towards you consisting of War Walker Bastiom and our new forces. They will punch through the Featherfolk Brigade’s lines and buy you time. My orders to you and Engineer Paige are conditional on one thing: how many blackpowder explosives do you have left?”
Slowly, Ken looked up. Aiko, Kirana, the Earthers, all followed Cameral’s gaze. The new [Mercenaries] didn’t know what Cameral was talking about, but explosives…
“Alchimagus Resk here. How much do you need? What are you intending to destroy?”
Cameral just looked up at the most notable landmark in Talenqual. The Featherfolk Brigade’s headquarters and Fezimet’s tower.
Hope amidst despair. The Gnolls were fighting as the Drakes advanced on them. Numbtongue’s heart was racing out of his chest.
That maniac was laughing. Mrsha could be dead with those Gnolls fighting each other.
Yet the Titan of Baleros laughed. He laughed, with his company burning behind his eyes. With his people dying.
It was that kind of laugh. Part of Numbtongue was glad to hear it, because their motley force, multiple tribes, a Goblin army, and the Fellowship of the Inn—they were no Walled City.
But with the Titan behind them, they might be.
The Fraerling was riding on his pedestal as the Goblin [Bard] played a marching song. It sounded like the growl of lightning on the wind.
Antinium, The Crimson Soldier, Infinitypear and Rasktooth, Goblins, and Gnolls ran after the Titan. They were racing to be the first to the Meeting of Tribes across the Gnoll Plains.
“Fissival is hot on our heels! Titan, what is our strategy?”
The Lomost Chieftain was howling with nerves. Niers Astoragon just pointed ahead.
“We cannot fight a Walled City alone. We strike the Meeting of Tribes first. We’re barely an hour outside of range. When we arrive—I will join forces with Weatherfur. Take out Plain’s Eye and pivot! The Gnolls have enough warriors to fight each Walled City if they plan it right, especially if Oteslia isn’t hostile.”
He looked at the armies preparing for one of the greatest battles Izril had ever seen, and there was a confidence in his gaze. No—more than that.
A lust. A hunger that even Snapjaw had never seen in Reiss, the Goblin Lord. The Titan had been here before. His teeth were bared, and his eyes were locked on the distance.
“Can we beat Plain’s Eye that quickly?”
The Gnolls were worried. They knew that famous tribe, and they had all seen the truth. Numbtongue’s skin still crawled when he thought of the Daemon of Luck. Like Facestealer—there were some things that were not meant to exist.
The Titan just shook his head. He calmed slightly and reminded them all of one fact.
“I am Baleros’ greatest [Strategist]. Let him use luck. Is it fate, or is he just that unlucky? Because I accept no luck in my battles. I will have more targets when we reach the battlefield, and I see the situation, but—Bird!”
The Worker sat up on the wagon he was riding on. Niers turned to him.
“You are going to wait until I use my Skill. Then—I want you to shoot that damn Gnoll through the head. We go from there. No luck. No magic. If we are very lucky, someone will be able to recharge my Skill. In which case, I intend to rout Fissival—then Zeres and Manus can negotiate on the tip of a sword. If they don’t want to play, the Antinium Queens can make a bid for an alliance on the spot, or the Five Families.”
“Are you sure you can win?”
Bird asked the question that was most pressing and most annoying to the Titan. The Fraerling threw his shoulders back and calmed. Numbtongue was relieved to see it; he wasn’t mad with glory.
“I can. Whether or not I do? We can never know. But if I laugh—it’s because I have a hand full of cards, Bird. Because I see the enemy’s best card, and mine counters his. Because I finally can fulfill my promise to that girl. And…”
The Titan stood there, grinning like a madman.
“…because I leveled up last night. At last. And I am going to use my new Skill to hammer everyone to pieces.”
The Level sixty-six [Grandmaster Strategist] exhaled. Fighting the Witch of Webs, surviving Peclir’s treachery, the High Passes, leading an army around—plus all of what he’d been doing before this?
It took a lot to level at his stage. But the rewards were worth it. Even the Antinium goggled at him.
“What’s the Skill?”
Ulvama sat up, eyes narrowed with inquisitive interest. Niers just smiled at her.
“You’re going to have to wait. Nothing like a surprise element.”
He didn’t dare say it aloud just in case. It would not end the battle single-handedly—but it was a Level 66 Skill. Even he didn’t know entirely what it did without testing, but if it was as good as he hoped—
It might change the Forgotten Wing company forever.
So he spoke fire and promised them all glory, the people racing with him. That glorious horn call still rang in their ears. Niers Astoragon promised it victory. He promised it…hope.
Until they saw the antithesis to such things. The dark web that ensnared every magical blade. The end of every last charge. The ending to every good tale.
Belavierr, the Stitch Witch.
Perorn Fleethoof ceded the walls to Jungle Tails, and the gates opened. The army poured into the city, but slowly. The academy was also a fortress, and it punished them as they grouped up.
But they were too tough. Thusly, Perorn prepared for the worst even as her forces formed up in the last place to make their stand.
The practice fields, where young [Strategists] learned from their teachers. A fitting end.
The Centauress herself trotted through the academy and found some of her students waiting there. Young cadets, some on the cusp of graduating.
“Professor Perorn. We want to fight.”
The teacher slowed a second and looked at her students. She was limping, her old injury acting up, and only willpower kept her on her hooves. She smiled as she saw the young [Princess], terrified Lizardfolk with swords, Dullahans, and Centaurs who looked at their professor and saw her at her lowest.
“No. This isn’t your battle.”
“We don’t make our students take the consequences of losing. You will all surrender; you’ll be treated well or Jungle Tails will make an enemy of every company and nation in the world. We will surrender too, some of us.”
If it came to it. Perorn trotted on. She would have liked to make a lesson of it, but she had no time.
There would be no surrender for the Forgotten Wing’s top officers. Even if she thought of it—Perorn doubted Jungle Tail’s integrity. She just had one thing left to do.
“Fraerlings, I must apologize. I believe the battle is almost lost. I have hopes to turn it around… but I must prepare, as any [Strategist] does, for the worst.”
Perorn strode into their midst, the war room, and saw them turn. They were watching the battle and the news. No doubt following Paeth.
Ah, Paeth…Perorn bowed to Sentry Leader Ekrn and Guidance Heish, and the Sentry Leader just nodded to her.
“You fought well, Strategist. We understand. If you only had four species of Baleros, you might have won.”
“Centaurs, Dullahans, Selphids, and Fraerlings.”
They were looking at each other. Perorn’s smile was bitter.
“I’m afraid I am no Titan. And I have no idea what Fraerling tactics he might use, Sentry Leader. Only he could ask it of you.”
Ekrn met Perorn’s gaze, but she had no time for that.
“Where is Commander Foliana?”
The [Rogue] was half out of her bed when Perorn found her. The Centauress and three Selphid soldiers picked her up; Foliana had put on her damaged armor, and she had her daggers.
“I will fight. M-meh. Give me a booster.”
“You will tear your body apart.”
“Yes. And kill them. You need more officer killers. Too many.”
The Squirrel Beastkin woman was still bleeding from the hexes and curse Skills that had prevented her healing. Perorn found the ruined object Foliana had pulled from the last group. She put it on Foliana’s chest.
“Not you. And not today, Three-Color Stalker. Come on. Carry her.”
The Selphids picked up Foliana’s bed, and they trotted after Perorn. Foliana’s head rose dizzily.
“You…is this treachery? Mm.”
Perorn slapped her with her tail, but gently.
“Don’t be stupid. You silly nut-hoarder.”
Perorn actually laughed. She threw her head back and walked a bit straighter.
“You have been so aggravating all the years I’ve known you. Ever since you took in a lost little Centaur girl. Time to repay the favor.”
Foliana was blinking up at Perorn. One of the Selphids almost tripped as he looked from Three-Color Stalker to Perorn Fleethoof. But Perorn was directing them down the servants’ quarters. To a place they had never heard of.
“They’ll kill you.”
“If they catch me. We will try to break out of the postern gates at the end. But Forgotten Wing doesn’t collapse because it loses one battle, or three. You know that. In here.”
Perorn touched a door and opened it. She trotted into one of the regular rooms with a bunch of spare clothing. Coats and so on. The Selphids halted.
The Centauress bent over a carpet and pulled it aside. She revealed…nothing but stone. She muttered several passcodes as she trotted around. She got it wrong and had to do it twice.
“I know. It’s designed for you, not me. Hooves are—there.”
The Selphids watched as a hole in the ground opened. Just a long rectangle of space. One recognized what it was at last and looked at Foliana.
“A Dead Woman’s Coffin?”
“Correct. [Rogue] spaces. Put her in—gently. There’s food and potions.”
Foliana glared at Perorn as the Centauress gently inserted her and put a pillow in.
“You’ll recover. And Three-Color Stalker will haunt Elvallian and the Jungle Tails company in a week, a month’s time.”
The Centauress was smiling at Foliana. The [Rogue] tried to spring up, but Perorn pressed her down.
“I will see you later.”
Then the stone closed. Perorn stood calmly and felt the last burden fall from her shoulders. Fleethoof turned and nodded at the Selphids who bowed.
“Time to eclipse even the Titan’s legend. Who rides with Fleethoof?”
She began to walk from the room. Then trot. Then she galloped down the ramps and stairs as Jungle Tails advanced. Above her, the Fraerlings watched. Sentry Leader Ekrn muttered.
“There’s one tactic that the Titan could ask of us.”
Emissary Vuul whispered.
“I told you. I tell everyone. Niers Astoragon is a mad bastard. But he wins wars.”
Hope and despair. The Featherfolk Brigade’s headquarters shook. A tower fell, and a [Chamberlain] vanished before it hit the ground. The Featherfolk’s Company gazed up in horror as the dust cloud rose, and Gravetender’s Fist and the United Nations’ side cheered wildly.
But Commander Fezimet was not dead. A single Quexal emerged from the ruins of his home, his pride, his work. He looked around blankly, taking in his colorful little city turned grey with ash and rubble. His grand tower, shattered and lying across his home. His ruined company. The Quexal shuddered.
Then Fezimet went insane with fury.
Gnolls fighting Gnolls. Hope as allies came to the rescue. The despair of long treachery.
One person was not embroiled in any of it. She watched and pointed it out to her daughter like a tourist showing a newcomer the best sights.
No…like a connoisseur staring at the finest vintages in the world. Belavierr the Stitch Witch had never been happier. She was many things. A merchant, an artisan—but she had and ever would be…
“Look at it, my beloved daughter. You will never see emotions like this for a generation in this species. Betrayal. Fear. Would that Wiskeria were here to witness it, she would surely level and learn something of her craft. Hold it. Can you feel it?”
A dead girl laughed.
“Yes, Mother! It’s so sad and furious and…and everything.”
“Take as much as you can. From this—from these moments, you shall spin the stuff of myths. This is why we do such things. It is part payment and why I took the Drake’s offer. Of course, one must be paid for the doing in itself.”
The Spider of Terandria smiled. It was a cruel smile, one that savored all of this. That rejoiced in putting it into practice. Then she turned her head as she walked across the ground.
The Titan of Baleros’ army slowed as Belavierr appeared. One woman, confronting tens of thousands of warriors.
But they shuddered. Antinium, Goblins, Gnolls, Drakes, even the Fraerling.
Even a bee who gazed at her opponent, ready for round two. Belavierr’s eyes flared malice at Apista.
Yet she smiled.
“Stitch Witch! Stand aside or die!”
The Titan of Baleros called out. He was wary of her, but he knew [Witches]. He was prepared for bargains and threats.
He was not prepared for Belavierr to raise her arms and the skies to turn dark. The Stitch Witch whispered.
“For I have been wronged once and yet again, I call to ye, the specters of my wrath. [Summon the Swarms of Nerrhavia’s Gardens].”
Niers Astoragon looked up, and Apista, buzzing, beheld someone else’s pets. Wretched, malevolent, fed on flesh and bred to be a weapon for the Immortal Tyrant. Nerrhavia had been a very good client of Belavierr.
The Titan’s army came under attack, but the Fraerling was at least good enough to handle one spell. He halted his army’s flight, ordered them to turn and face the monstrous wasps bred with the essence of Wyverns and far worse.
Belavierr felt someone tug at her dress as she watched.
“Mother. I thought we weren’t hired to take part in the fighting?”
The Stitch Witch’s smile did not abate. Her gaze flicked backwards, and that orange glare focused on a little white Gnoll at the center of all this.
“Sometimes, my daughter, vengeance must have its say. But you are right. Follow me. Watch the Goblin with the Dragonblood crystal sword.”
Belavierr strode into the chaos, past Gnolls, a Goblin loosing arrows upwards. She saw an arrow flicker towards her and grabbed it. She didn’t slow.
Bird loosed another arrow without any feathers, and it burst into flame. A strange young woman smiled and pointed as it turned to ash before hitting either.
“Mother! Mother, look! An Ant-person!”
“Pay it no mind.”
The [Bird Hunter] reached for another arrow as the Stitch Witch walked past him. But she didn’t even glance at him. And Bird—Bird hesitated and dropped an arrow.
“He knows my name! Mother—”
“Keep up, Maviola.”
Like a moment of horror, the familiar lady hurried after her mother, pouting.
Like a bad dream. Numbtongue’s head turned, and his expression turned to one of horror. Incomprehension.
But she was so quick. Belavierr strode through the fighting, into the gap she had opened. Towards a single person who saw her coming.
Niers Astoragon raised his finger, hesitating.
Hesitating, because his greatest Skill could only be used once. Hesitating because—
His [Foe Sensor] hadn’t picked her up. Could she dodge that even in an open battlefield after ambushing him? Why was the Stitch Witch smiling?
“Take her down!”
He shifted his finger and pointed at Maviola. The undead girl squeaked, and Belavierr’s gaze snapped to the Fraerling. A Goblin with a crystal sword charged her from the side as Ulvama leapt up, fire blazing from both claws, ready for round two.
Yet Belavierr just raised her robes and put them around Maviola, who hid in her dress.
The Titan just howled a curse. He drew his sword. Wavering between Belavierr and the Meeting of Tribes. What was she up to? Belavierr did not make enemies lightly. Why was his [Foe Sensor] not going off?
He did not want to make her a true foe. She could reverse any battle. But what did she want? Vengeance? No…no.
He looked at her, and his mind raced to a wild conclusion. Suddenly—Niers saw Belavierr.
So many names—but one of her core personalities—something he had forgotten? Niers bellowed.
And he dove. He dove—as a flurry of needles destroyed his pedestal. They lanced through the air, a flurry whirling around the tiny Fraerling like lances. But Belavierr was a master of her craft.
She only needed one. It was a single needle that was as white as bone, for it had been made of a Unicorn’s horn, attached to a single thread redder than blood. It struck Niers Astoragon in the shoulder, and the Titan howled in pain.
He looked at the red thread, and Belavierr whispered.
“[The Red Thread of Destiny].”
Numbtongue leapt, and something that had Maviola’s face caught his hands with an impossibly strong grip. Niers’ voice was a howl.
He was too slow. Numbtongue tore one arm free and slashed for the string, but his sword couldn’t cut that. Belavierr laughed, and Niers Astoragon—
She stood there a moment and then snapped her fingers. Maviola released Numbtongue, and the Goblin staggered back.
The summoned horrors vanished. Belavierr took Maviola by the arm and tugged her away.
“There. Now we go, my daughter.”
The Stitch Witch walked out of the army, smiling. She walked back towards the Meeting of Tribes. Her contract was ever fulfilled. Now—
She walked towards Chieftain Xherw. Belavierr whispered in his ears and Ulcre’s.
“It seems you have a terrible engagement, sirs. Do you need the services…of a [Witch]? My magic is yours for a small fee. Even a discount.”
Her eyes flashed malice at the white Gnoll girl staring at her, but Belavierr said not a word. It was just…every other Gnoll she might be paid to target.
That little warlord thought he was the only one who could play every side? She was a [Mercenary] far older than he. The Stitch Witch laughed as Gnolls looked up at her.
“Sometimes, my daughter, vengeance is the only reward.”
Commander Fezimet climbed out of the rubble of his home. The Quexal had no weapons. Just his teeth and armored body. He had no words. The leader of the Featherfolk Brigade simply leapt into the air with a scream that echoed his company’s.
They charged among the rubble. Lizardfolk fighting Dullahans.
Gravetender’s Fist were fighting alongside Niers’ students. Alongside the Bushrangers. The United Nations company.
The officers of the Featherfolk Brigade stood there, two dozen of them, across from Daly, Quallet, even Luan, Siri, Fraerlings, and Humans pitted against their company.
“Your precious Fraerling city is about to fall. You have nowhere to hide anymore, Humans.”
They had all pushed in to destroy the tower. They were caught in the open by the Featherfolk Brigade.
Daly raised his crossbow, but the standoff wasn’t over. Not yet. The Lamia was shaking with fury.
“You have destroyed Talenqual. Everything…everything.”
She aimed a trident at Daly, but someone interrupted her.
“No. You destroyed it yourselves.”
Noa stepped onto Luan’s shoulder. The Tallguard had drawn her sword. She pointed it at the Lamia.
“We never attacked you. We never wanted this. Paeth…”
Paeth was falling. A Lizardfolk was stomping among the shattered roots. Just…stomping as Fraerlings clung to her legs. A single Fraerling raised a sword.
He chopped her leg off, and the first giant fell. The Fraerling was no Tallguard nor security. He was just…someone who liked to practice with the sword.
Who had leveled ten times in less than that many days. A single Fraerling, howling with madness and grief as he climbed and launched himself into the air. Another Lizardfolk was bashing his way into the city. He looked up, and the sword bit into his helmet.
It was a curse. The Fraerling leapt off the collapsing shoulder, sword swinging.
A third [Soldier] swatted him out of the air. The Fraerling, who had learned how to cut a beast ten times his size, landed. He looked up, and a foot stomped down.
Terrible giants. The Lizardfolk were breaking into the base of Paeth. Trying to topple the city. Enchanter Ilekrome stood in front of The Last Box.
“Give the evacuation order. Paeth is lost. Tallguard. Defend me for ten minutes. Use everything you have left. Signim free.”
Signim free. It was the last resort of the Tallguard. From Sentry Leader to Noa—it was the most valuable object any Tallguard was issued. An object they could only use at last resort because even the best Fraerling Cities could only produce a little bit each year.
That rare, expensive weapon of the Fraerlings.
Signim was a little, shatterproof bottle marked with a simple sign. Because each bottle was reused—enchanted to keep the magic—it could be stylized more than a cheap potion bottle.
It looked…like a little Fraerling, sword raised to the sky. Like the boast of young Fraerlings.
I will slay the sky.
Noa lifted the one Signim she carried as Sentry Leader Ekrn flew away from Elvallian on a hawk. He looked at his Signim.
“Noa. Give it to me.”
Someone interrupted Noa. She looked up and saw a Fraerling with no Signim.
Alchimagus Resk reached for the bottle as they stood amid the two sides facing each other. Noa’s eyes went wide.
“No. I have to—”
“I am a Level 35 [Mage] and a Level 32 [Alchemist]. You are lower-level than me. Give me the Signim.”
Noa looked at Resk. Then, slowly, she handed him her Signim. The Alchimagus cradled the little bottle in his hands.
“It’s so little. I hated making it whenever we got enough ingredients for some. I resented it every time you Tallguard used it. How silly. I see it now. Signim…it’s the only thing that makes it fair. Stand clear, Noa.”
He lifted the little bottle, ignored by the Tallfolk in their drama, even though they were fighting over Fraerlings. Resk drank the potion down and laughed.
“It tastes like chicken broth. You know? It tastes like—”
He leapt from Luan’s shoulder as the Human looked at the two Fraerlings. Luan met Noa’s eyes and saw they were sparkling with tears. Then Luan saw Resk falling through the air, tumbling.
Luan reached out to catch him. But the tiny Fraerling just met his eyes.
Alchimagus Resk landed on the ground. He caught himself, stumbling, as the Featherfolk Brigade whirled to stare at him. The Fraerling mage with pink hair brushed at it, felt at his robes, and then looked up…then down, slowly.
He looked down at Luan Khumalo as the Fraerling straightened. Alchimagus Resk turned and gazed at the Lizardfolk.
“I was tall all along!”
He was six-foot-five. A barrel-chested man who could have wrestled a Minotaur. The Fraerling felt at his body and then whirled. He looked at the tiny young woman gazing at him.
It was a whisper of awe. Luan saw Daly and the other Tallfolk turn in sudden shock. But Resk just straightened.
“Yes. Signim. I am Alchimagus Resk of Paeth. In the name of my city—you are all dead.”
He pointed at the Featherfolk Brigade. Signim.
A Fraerling’s last resort.
“Tallguard of Feiland.”
A single warrior in bloody armor stood in front of the scared Lizardfolk and Nagas. He was wounded, but one Fraerling had a single Signim that the Alchimeer had managed to create.
Four minutes. For four minutes…the Tallguard laughed and charged the Tallfolk. They surrounded him, stabbing, eating spells, outnumbering him—
But it was easy.
So easy. He had fought giants all his life. Cats killed Fraerlings. They had trained to be stronger than their size!
Signim let them keep that. It was more than a Potion of Growth. Fraerling-made gear, from a sword to armor, grew with him. He locked blades with a Naga and threw the entire Naga backwards. Then the Tallguard swung his sword through a Lizardfolk’s guard. Stronger. Fearless.
He staggered as someone ran him through the side. The Tallguard whirled as his kin watched him die.
Alchimagus Resk stood, facing the blustering Lizardfolk, who had retreated a step. He was flicking his fingers, flexing his shoulders.
Cotm watched. He and Kessice had their Signim too, but Resk was just…talking.
“You dare claim this was their fault? You—do you not see how we die? Do our lives mean so little?”
The Lamia had a cruel smile on her face, but she was flicking her eyes to the others. She sensed how much magic the Fraerling had in him.
It was little threat when he was six inches high. But now? His magical power had just magnified tenfold. He might be the highest-level person in the city.
But he had a time limit. Resk was shaking with fury.
“You hoard magic like this like a Wyrm, Fraerling. If you only shared—”
“Enough excuses! Enough lies! Fezimet! Face me!”
Resk lifted his hands over his head, but the Quexal was nowhere to be seen. Luan was still stunned, but Daly realized the same thing as the Lamia.
“The Signim wears off—”
Enchanter Resk jabbed a finger at the Lamia.
“Pull your forces back or I will destroy you all! My oath on it!”
She made a show of looking around, distracting the civilian.
“Only Fezimet could do that. Perhaps we can parlay?”
She smirked, and Cotm was counting.
Forty seconds…forty-six…Alchimagus Resk closed his eyes, and one of the Lizardfolk raised a bow. Instantly, both sides raised their weapons.
“Do you really want to die so badly, Fraerling? There is only one of you, and that potion has a limit. Parlay.”
“We are beyond that, you foul Tallfolk.”
Resk was wiping at his eyes. But when the Alchimagus raised his head, he was dry-eyed. And his magic burned. The Lamia tensed, but she sneered at him anyways as she raised a pair of wands.
“We may be fools—but we are warriors. You’ve wasted your valuable potion.”
Resk just blinked at her as Cotm shook his head. The Alchimagus closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“Tallfolk Lamia. You are a poor [Mage]. I would fail you out of my second-year classes. I am an [Alchimagus] of Paeth. The entire time we have spent talking? I have been casting spells. Including now.”
The Lamia blinked at Resk, mouth open. Then the cobblestones under her glowed.
The first [Fireblast] obliterated her and three officers. Resk lifted his hands.
Daly recoiled as the air ionized and dozens of bolts of lightning struck the soldiers across from Resk. Panting, he touched his chest.
“[Mithril Body]. [Magnesis—”
He ran over to touch a fallen wagon. He was an Alchimagus, not a warmage. The Featherfolk Brigade charged.
Lizardfolk fighting in the streets. Daly shot one through the chest, but there were so many that his bolt went through two and didn’t slow the oncoming rush. Then a dozen Lizardfolk ran into the open ground and—
The leaping spell that Resk had cast on that span of stone hurled them up like cartoon characters. Daly saw them fly up, screaming, and land—
There were no cushions or spells to catch them. Alchimagus Resk whirled. He pointed.
“[Magnesis: Attraction Polarity]!”
What was he doing? Luan swung a short oar like a razorblade, keeping Lizardfolk back. Then he saw the wagon begin flying through the air. It was—
Magnetized. It crashed into the first rank of Lizardfolk and kept going. They were knocked off their feet. Then the press of bodies struck a wall. And the wagon kept…going…
Until it stuck to the wall of a building.
The Alchimagus looked at the blood and death from the spells, but he kept going. The armor of the Lizardfolk ignited, heating up until it was white-hot. He raised his hands and howled Paeth’s name.
And Cotm…drank his Signim. The Tallguard [Arbalest] grew into a thin warrior with tears running down his cheeks. He fired his customized crossbow once. Then tossed it aside and drew two blades.
“Paeth! Kessice! Your Signim! Kessice!”
His partner wasn’t anywhere Cotm could see. Was she injured? Where was she?
“Tallguard of Feiland!”
Cotm had four minutes. Four minutes—he leapt into the Featherfolk Brigade. Lashing around him so fast they were dead as fast as he could swing the Fraerling-made blades.
Their levels were greater than the Tallfolk. The Tallguard were meant to die for their homes. Cotm was shouting.
One versus a hundred. Not like fighting roaches or other monsters. These Lizardfolk—
One bit his arm, a Naga grinding his bones under his leather armor. Cotm stabbed him in the head. He felt someone try to take him down by the legs.
Kessice swung through two torsos with an axe. She pulled Cotm up. The two partners looked at each other.
“Paeth on the Coast!”
Four minutes. Four minutes was a long time. Or a short one. It was maybe longer than you needed to kill a single monster or have a really hurried romantic rendezvous if you were absolutely ready and had low expectations—
But it was so short.
Cotm was counting, but he lost track. He was bleeding, but he had wedged a potion bottle in his teeth and drank it. It didn’t matter.
Once the Signim ran out…
Two minutes? The Featherfolk Brigade were screaming. Resk’s magic ran through them. The Alchimagus was killing a score.
Then—then Cotm saw him. A single Quexal. The others were dead.
Fezimet leapt into the battle, screaming without end. His eyes were wide, and the Quexal’s mouth was bloody, frothing, as he tore and bit like an animal.
Cotm pointed at him, and Kessice tried to line up a shot, but Fezimet was surrounded by berserk Lizardfolk. He surged through the battle, and Resk pointed a finger at him.
The Quexal dodged it. Resk lifted his hand.
“[Wall of Flames]. [Chain L—”
Fezimet leapt on him, and the Quexal’s teeth closed on Resk’s throat. The Fraerling Alchimagus staggered—and fell. Cotm heard a scream from Luan.
The Quexal whirled. Cotm saw Daly aim a crossbow at him, and the Quexal leapt. He flew into the air, and the Bushranger shot him.
His body had been mithril. Fezimet didn’t care. He had shattered his teeth on Resk’s throat to crush it. He took one volley of crossbow bolts, then another, jerking with the impacts. The bolts stuck out in Fezimet’s body, but the commander kept charging. He didn’t care. His wings spread, shedding blood and yellow feathers. Cotm looked for Resk.
He didn’t see the Alchimagus. Resk…
The magic was gone.
Luan was screaming. He aimed a crossbow up and saw Fezimet crawling over a howling figure larger than any other. Bastiom, the War Walker, tore at Fezimet, but the Quexal had done something to his body.
Razor spines. His scales were coated in razors. And blood. He encircled Bastiom’s head and squeezed. Cutting…cutting…a blow struck him hard enough to crack his bones, but the Quexal kept screaming.
Blood fell as the War Walker’s head slowly toppled from his body. Bastiom’s lifeless gaze met Luan’s as his head fell to the ground.
Fezimet leapt again at a third target. Quallet Marshhand looked up and raised his axe and shield. Luan was looking for Resk. He couldn’t find…find…
In the distance, he saw Cotm slowing, blades red. Noa was firing crossbow bolts, shouting something at him.
His time was up.
The Fraerling felt the Signim wearing off. Tallguard Cotm threw one of his swords, then whirled. He was shrinking.
The Signim activated in a moment but gave him seconds to hide. To run. It…it did no good.
The screaming Lizardfolk were around him. Cotm shrank. How many had he killed? Two dozen? Three?
“Tallguard of Feiland.”
He lifted his sword, a six-inch-tall man looking up at a Lizardfolk as a foot rose to stomp down. Everything he had ever trained for. All their magic. Erased just because they had been born bigger.
Cotm raised his blade to stab the Lizardfolk through the heel. Then a hand scooped him up. He stabbed it.
“Ow, you idiot.”
The Fraerling looked up into a familiar face, far larger than his.
His partner smiled down at him, bloody and panting. Cotm looked up and realized—she had activated her Signim after him.
Oh. Of course.
It was on purpose. Kessice lifted Cotm up so they were eye-to-eye.
“Look after Noa, would you?”
The Tallguard spun. She lifted her partner as the Lizardfolk tried to drag her down. She was shrinking too. Then she threw Cotm.
He saw her before the world blurred. His partner, fighting alone. Cotm was spinning, flailing. Trying to—
He hit something and fell down.
It was all going wrong. Umina looked around.
“Where are you going? Where’s…?”
Bastiom, one of the War Walkers, was dead. Two of the Fraerlings—three?—were dead.
The Iron Vanguard were retreating to their ship. They had left half their company behind. The [Captain] turned to Umina.
“We have done all we can. We cannot keep fighting. That Quexal—we cannot stop him.”
He pointed across the shattered city, houses burnt or leveled from the explosions and fighting.
One Quexal. Just one. Leader of the Featherfolk Brigade.
Fezimet had transformed into a bloody serpent, eyes glassy with hatred, blood and flesh dripping from his fangs.
He met Quallet Marshhand, towering over the Human man as the two fought. An axe cut into his side, and Fezimet buried his teeth in Quallet’s shoulder, crunching into bone. The [Mercenary] swung his axe into Fezimet’s side again and again, but the Quexal bit and bit.
The two fought in silence, trying to tear and cut each other apart. Quallet’s arm rose, and he buried the axe so deep it nearly cut Fezimet’s tail from his body. Then he looked up as a hissing mouth of fangs opened. He stared up as the teeth closed and let go of his axe. He drew a dagger and stabbed once. The Quexal jerked as the dagger went into his side.
Then he lifted his head. The United Nations Company gazed at a familiar sight. A warrior of Baleros. A mercenary who had forgotten everything. Nothing was left in his eyes, not gold, not power or survival.
Just death and murder.
Quallet Marshhand was dead. One his axes was buried in Fezimet’s tail. Yet the Quexal didn’t stop. A single healing potion began to knit his wounds as he shrieked and charged.
Siri took aim, but the Quexal barely flinched as the bolts slammed into him. He was charging them.
Dawson whirled. He yanked a sword free as a monster faster than they were dove into them. Its scales deflected his sword—it felt nothing. It fought like—
Fezimet ripped Siri’s arm off, and Tofte went down as the razor blades lashed him.
They were all dying. Someone ran Dawson through from behind, and he went down, roaring and screaming, trying to drag a potion out as Siri lay on the ground, staring at the blood rushing from her arm.
Someone was screaming his name. The Quexal looked around. Dawson knew that voice.
The Quexal leapt again. Dawson dragged a potion out of his belt as someone killed the Lizardfolk on top of him. Ken dragged Dawson up. The young man bent over Siri and poured the potion on her and Tofte. Then he looked up.
Daly and Marian were waiting for Fezimet. The Centauress had her bow raised, mithril string gleaming. Daly raised his crossbow and held a little blackpowder bomb in one hand. Fezimet dove at them.
Dawson closed his eyes. He looked around and finally realized it. He saw Gravetender’s Fist retreating, the mercenaries falling back.
The Titan reappeared, still screaming.
He stood, howling in the middle of his company. In Elvallian, as Perorn lifted her arm to signal a charge.
The Centauress turned her head, and there he was. Clothing ragged and improvised, only holding a shortsword. Terrible desperation on his face.
She breathed it like hope, but the Titan just looked up and knew.
He had lost.
She had done the one thing that she had been hired for. That damned [Witch]. That…
Not her. His mind was spinning to a conclusion. The Stitch Witch’s strange actions. She was a meddler, but she seldom did things for no profit. This? Her revealing the Daemon of Luck, her sending him to Baleros—
It was all part of someone else’s scheme. One that had outmaneuvered Niers. Someone had hired Belavierr for all of it.
Only one person could have hired Belavierr to do all this. Reveal the treachery in the Meeting of Tribes. And…erase the greatest threat to the safety of the Walled Cities.
Yes. Chaldion of Pallass sat, watching the fighting at the Meeting of Tribes. Belavierr had joined Plain’s Eye.
He hadn’t hired her for that. But he had known that any deal with Belavierr could go south. Yet the Cyclops of Pallass had still chosen this path.
His [Path to Victory]. Chaos among the Gnoll tribes who could discredit Pallass. And the Titan—put back on his board. Killing him made too many enemies. He was necessary.
“But not on my continent. This is my land.”
The Drake with one eye exhaled a plume of smoke, smiling like a devil in the darkness.
Daly and Marian were down.
“What’s he doing?”
Ken looked up. Dawson was staggering forwards, but everyone was running. He looked at the Lizardfolk charging them. Ken answered once as he fired his crossbow.
“He’s…eating them alive.”
The immortal Quexal couldn’t be killed. Dawson drew his sword and tried to fight towards Daly’s screaming voice. Kissilt turned to call for Marian and a Naga leapt on him.
Some days you lost.
It was not just the Titan who tasted despair, but his people. Sometimes, with all the help in the world…
Even their great inspirations, their mentors and protectors—
Even Gnomes died.
First there were seven. Then there were six. Five…three…
They were fleeing across the ocean. Then they were running through the jungles of Baleros, dodging behind trees, flashing and leaping nimbly through the canopy, blinding their opponent, conjuring illusions.
But it was just magic.
He was their god.
Emerrhain was hunting them down. Zineryr saw the beatific pleasure it caused Emerrhain each time he caught one of the Gnomes.
Eighteen…now three. The Gnomes were no longer smiling. They just kept running, splitting up. The God of Magic spoke, taunting them.
“You will interfere in no more plans. No more schemes, tricksters. How does it feel, to know that I was ever the victor? I play games far longer than you can imagine.”
One of the Gnomes leaping through the air raised a hand.
“Serious question, Emerrhain? Ere I end? Will the God of Magic answer me one last thing?”
Zineryr ducked away as Emerrhain turned, gracious, condescending in victory.
The Gnome hovered there as Zineryr and the other Gnome looked at each other. She and he nodded and headed to their goals. A location. The Gnome spoke, staring Emerrhain dead in the eye.
“Are you scientifically, biologically, truly ‘gods’ or a kind of advanced divine amoeba? Because spiritually—you are not gods. Gods are a concept. Other religions had them as omniscient. You are all too real and too fallible.”
The God of Magic met her dancing smile and snarled. He reached out as she saluted her kin.
Then there were two.
Zineryr wondered if he would be the last one. He waited—but the God of Magic had chosen the other Gnome as his second-to-last target. She led him on a merry chase as Zineryr did what had to be done.
“You defied us. Did you not see the grandness of our ideas? Truly, Ameitp?”
The Gnome swept him a smile as she swung through the branches, her burnished skin glinting over tattoos she had been given from a dozen realities. A sad, contemptuous smile.
“Your grand ideas, Emerrhain? Don’t blame us. Blame yourselves. You all created us to be intelligent, then grew upset when we grew bored of your playground. We looked up in wonder at the stars above. Then we took a closer look and discovered that the constellations were mere orbs you hung in the night sky because you didn’t understand how it worked.”
She dodged one hand, slipping around him.
“We went to other worlds to laugh and see what wonders lay in all realities. They suffered for it. They suffered for your entertainment. Have you forgotten what it is like to stand against cruelty? Or did you never kn—”
He touched her, and she vanished. Panting, shaking with fury, he turned to the last Gnome.
Now, Zineryr was walking. He couldn’t help it. He knew the urgency. He knew his time was up.
But still…he walked a moment.
Walked and shed no tears for the last of his kin. They had all died long ago. If he did weep—it was because they had failed, in the end.
“We should have been cleverer. We have left you such a burden, you children of another world. My little cousins. The world has never been kind to the small.”
The last Gnome in existence came to a stop at his destination. He looked at the broken city and came to rest where the world was just a bit warped.
Folded over, so if you were careful…you could see the weeping Fraerling kneeling there. Zineryr bent down. He sighed, and whispered as the God of Magic came for him.
“The Smallest Folk in the world have ever been the bravest. Little cousin, little cousin. I have a favor to ask you.”
Enchanter Ilekrome was waiting for the end. Paeth was evacuating, but many Fraerlings were just trapped. Waiting for him to finish the ritual that would deny the Tallfolk their secrets.
And bury The Last Box deep.
He thought he was dreaming. How else to explain…the figure who stepped out of the air. He was actually shorter than Ilekrome, because he had sized himself down. A sad smile on his face, and as transparent as a thought.
Yet the Gnome waved to Ilekrome, and the Enchanter looked up.
His breath caught, and Zineryr smiled at him. He looked into the distance. There was a world of things to say and no time.
The Lizardfolk were trying to chop Paeth down. Each blow made the tree shudder. The Gnome looked into the eyes of his greatest foe. There was only one thing he could say.
One thing to ever say.
“Open The Last Box.”
Enchanter Ilekrome’s head rose. The Gnome slowly pointed and traced something on that cube of infinite dimension, countless puzzles.
It was something they had learned from the fae. It responded to him. The Gnome’s finger traced a square—and the door was there. Enchanter Ilekrome saw it appear, before all the other puzzles. A single door.
He looked at the Gnome, and the figure waited. Enchanter Ilekrome ran to the door. He grasped at the little handle and threw it open. He looked into the greatest mystery of the Gnomes, and his breath caught. The tears on his eyes, the despair…
He looked up at the Gnome.
“Is this a joke?”
The Fraerling slowly dropped his hands to his sides as he stared into The Last Box. There was nothing there. Just…blank space. He turned to rage at this apparition, this—this cruel trick! This ghost who mocked Fraerlings in their last hours.
Then he saw Zineryr smiling. The Gnome was smiling and laughing. He leaned forwards, and despite his fury, his despair and shock—the Enchanter leaned forwards. Zineryr whispered in Ilekrome’s ear.
“No. It’s a trick.”
Emerrhain, the God of Magic, didn’t know why Zineryr had stopped. Perhaps the Gnome had given up? Or was he preparing a final gesture?
The God of Magic expected a trick, but he was drunk on victory. The Gnomes had practically walked into his grasp. It was so easy.
Of course it was. Zineryr looked up calmly as his kin’s sacrifice was realized. He stepped sideways, and Emerrhain saw it.
He beheld The Last Box and the Gnome’s final trick. It was just…a tiny cube hidden away in Fraerling cities. So small that even the dead gods wouldn’t notice it, and hidden from the rest of the world as well. A series of puzzles. An instruction manual in the form of the greatest riddle.
And one more thing.
There was a little door that was open in The Last Box. Fae magic—perspective. Emerrhain stared into the blank space and saw a void the size of infinity beyond. Great magic—but Gnomes had always made amazing things.
Then he realized he was inside the white space, staring out. The world flipped suddenly, and Emerrhain was inverted. He stood in a blank space and saw a tiny little door in the distance.
The God of Magic whirled. Then he leapt for the door.
Zineryr slammed it shut. The opening vanished, and Emerrhain realized—
He was in the box. This wasn’t just a puzzle. It wasn’t just a cube. It was…
A container. A container made so well and hidden for so long no force in the world could destroy it. A prison for something greater than a soul.
A box meant for a god.
What was in the great secret box of myths? It depended on the story, but it was usually symbolic. A revelation. Or all the evils in the world—that was one of the bad options.
Usually, though, the cop out from the divine entity, the wise master, was something pithy like ‘nothing’ because the answer was inside you all along and they couldn’t live up to expectations.
The Last Box was sort of like that. Except…instead of nothing? It was exactly nothing.
Nothing. Including a way back out. Emerrhain had nothing to hold. Nothing to grasp. There was literally nothing here. He had no magic. No access to the grand design.
This place was nothing. The God of Magic looked around, speechless…then he did realize—hold on! There was something.
He whirled and found the one thing in this entire void. Desperately, the God of Magic approached it. It was…what was it?
Letters. Just magical letters. They drew themselves in the air, and Emerrhain read them. It was the old language of Gnomes, Taeric, which they wrote in. The words cycled, and he realized it was also a simple spell.
It was…sorting itself. Trying to determine which one it had.
Dear Laedonius No Last Name…
Deliberately misspelling their names. To deny them even that…Emerrhain stared at the words as they finally locked into place.
Dear Emerrhoon. You are a fool.
And below it was Zineryr’s name. Calispe’s. Hundreds of names, thousands…
Every Gnome who had ever lived. Had ever fought in those wars.
One last little service from the greatest tricksters in the world. Emerrhain looked at the words as they glittered. Then around his new home of forever.
Enchanter Ilekrome didn’t know what had happened. One second he had been about to rage at the Gnome. Then he had sensed something entering The Last Box. Then—the Gnome had shut the door.
For answer, the Gnome just sat down. He was smiling, but tiredly.
“Victory, little cousin. Victory. Thank you for safeguarding it so long. Now…it is over.”
Paeth was over. And so…so was The Last Box. As Ilekrome watched, the door vanished. The Last Box shifted—and then a calm voice began to speak.
“Hello, Fraerlings or whoever has found this box…we are the Gnomes. We congratulate you on solving thirty-four thousand, two hundred, and twelve puzzles. However, we must regretfully inform you that this object is about to vanish.”
The Last Box was beginning to shimmer. The bright voice kept speaking.
“This box is going to teleport itself into a space no one will ever find. Please stand clear. You have…four minutes. Three minutes fifty-eight seconds. Three minutes fifty-six seconds—I am speaking slowly. Now three minutes fifty-three—”
Ilekrome saw panels sliding open. Little portals appearing. He looked into thousands upon thousands of rooms and saw the puzzle that the Fraerlings had been working on so long.
The portal activated as stones flew into place.
The Last Box opened up, exposing every secret it had ever contained. As it prepared to vanish.
“No! No! Why is this happening?”
“We have to get rid of what’s inside it. I’m sorry.”
The Gnome was tired as he sat there. Ilekrome looked at him—then he was running, shouting.
He burst into the rooms where [Mages] were preparing the last ritual. They looked at Ilekrome as he pointed at The Last Box—then saw what had happened. The Enchanter was screaming.
“G—get me charcoal and paper! Take recordings! Look––look!”
Fraerlings ran, staring at answers to every riddle and magical question, formulas, alchemic secrets…frantically writing everything down. Ilekrome ran through the rooms as the Gnome greeted his cousins and looked down into the destroyed Paeth.
Then Zineryr followed Ilekrome. He found the Enchanter running from wall to wall, staring up at it.
He was looking for something. The Gnome tapped Ilekrome on the shoulder.
“Not that wall. Try two rooms back, through the secret wall.”
Ilekrome whirled. The Gnome was smiling at him. He ran and found what he was looking for.
“…two minutes and eleven seconds…”
The Fraerling stared up at what he needed. What he was sure was there. He turned as Zineryr walked into the room.
“Is that what you want?”
“Yes! How did you know? Have you been watching…?”
Zineryr looked around as Paeth shook again. He shook his head.
“I’m sorry, little cousin. We have been battling other things. Even we forget about you. But we left you these just in case. It will vanish—and the others probably won’t fall for the trick. But remember everything. Prepare for war. Tell all your kin—this is it. Oh—and look out for a Human named Erin Solstice, would you?”
He snapped his fingers with a smile that made him look as young as Ilekrome’s children.
“Hah! Now there’s a contingency plan.”
He laughed, and the Fraerling clung to the laughter. As if…everything could be solved.
Then he was running, calling for the ritual spell to be disbanded. Ordering Fraerlings to maneuver the spells and draw new lines out of magic.
The burning magic spell in his brain. He tried to copy it, improvising with magic. The Clockmakers had made their knowledge easy to understand. It wasn’t one specific way of doing things, but the theory.
So Ilekrome wrote the most complex magical spell he could, taking every shortcut he knew how. Ignoring questions from the other Architects. They fell silent as Zineryr walked among them.
He watched Ilekrome write as Fraerlings looked upon the last Gnome and asked all the questions. But Zineryr had only a short amount of time.
He spent the last words he had simply.
“You made a mistake here, here, and there. You need to edit this magical channel like…”
[Mages] were running around as Zineryr flicked his fingers, showing them how to complete Ilekrome’s magic. He told them nothing of what to do. Just watched and corrected their work like a teacher.
“Is it done?”
Ilekrome stopped, and Zineryr squatted down. He double-checked the spell.
“It will work. Nice location. Ah, but you’ve made one mistake.”
The Enchanter was stepping into the center. Zineryr smiled at him as Ilekrome, sagging with relief, went to fuel the spell.
“You can’t sacrifice yourself to activate it.”
The Enchanter saw the other Architects and Fraerlings looking at him. He was standing in the center of a circle meant to fuel this great spell. Zineryr had not stopped him, but he did walk over.
“Sacrificial magic was made by fools. It gives more power than you put into it, but even so—you do not have a fraction of the magical potential to fuel this spell.”
“Then I will do it.”
Farspeaker Humalepre raised his hand. Zineryr stopped him.
“No, no. Every Fraerling in this room couldn’t fuel this spell. You are all regrettably small, and your bodies don’t contain enough magic. To move this tree?”
Ilekrome tasted bile. He stepped back and went to retch—then call for every relic and reservoir of magic they had. Until he noticed who was standing in the center of the circle, lighting it up by his presence.
Zineryr, the Last Gnome, stood there, whistling innocently. He glanced over his shoulder.
“Fifteen seconds. Do it now, before the distortion ends. We were never the most magical—but I’ll do.”
Alchimeer Straesta whispered. Enchanter Ilekrome looked up, then raised his hands.
“Activate it! All Fraerlings! Inside Paeth! Prepare for distortion!”
His voice sounded throughout their home. Fraerlings paused in confusion, and Zineryr smiled around.
“I’m sorry. The tall folk can be cruel. No one likes people who laugh too loud.”
He smiled, and Ilekrome’s eyes were running as the spell activated.
“Why? All this? All these gifts? This?”
He looked at the Gnome as the spell activated. For answer, Zineryr just threw back his head and laughed.
The last Gnome, Zineryr, stood there, slouched slightly so he stood taller on his left side, head tilted slightly. Grinning with the purest spark of mischief in his eyes. He had lines of age, and his hair had gone white, so he had dyed it silver and combed it into a frizzy spike of hair and made it stay there. He aged, but he refused to grow old.
He was the first Gnome to ever see the stars. The one who had built a vessel to defy gravity. His clothing was like a jumpsuit and tinkerer’s vest, where old tools hung, the collar and sleeves strung with metal to lock his gloves and a helmet into place. He had made everything he wore, from his all-terrain boots to the pouches and zippers built into his suit.
If he had flesh, he would have had a gadget for any moment. A surprise for children. A bit of hope in half a dozen pockets.
The magic illuminated him fully, and Zineryr winked at the Fraerlings. He lifted a hand in a casual salute, one last farewell.
“Silly cousins. Helping people never needed a reason. It was just fun.”
The magic activated. Zineryr vanished with a laugh, and a god screamed as he was cast away. The Tallfolk looked up as the Great Tree of Paeth on the Coast shone. Soldiers ran back in fear—and they all looked up as Paeth vanished.
One last trick. But because he was a Gnome, Zineryr managed two.
The Titan of Baleros stood. At first, they didn’t see him. Then he leapt from Perorn’s shoulder and drank the Signim.
There was a reason for his name. It told people what Signim was. It wasn’t that big a secret.
The Jungle Tails company saw Niers Astoragon walk to the head of his army. Calling out to [Soldiers], clapping hands.
Apologizing for being late. He had tears in his eyes.
At first—they thought he was a double. A fake. But the Titan just looked at them. He raised a speaking stone to his lips.
“Tallguard. I will repay every debt.”
“Shut up, Titan. We weren’t doing this for you. Avenge Paeth.”
Sentry Leader Ekrn barked back. Niers Astoragon looked up at the birds circling the carrion fields.
“I swear. Forgotten Wing! To me! Prepare to charge!”
The empowered Lizardfolk were squaring up as their officers quashed the sudden dismay and fear. Perorn trotted forwards.
“Niers. We’re still outmatched.”
“We have the momentum against them. I have one last trick. I need you to take Centaurs—and some of your finest. Your personal command; not a generic vanguard, but skirmishers—and do a suicide charge straight at their [General].”
Fleethoof looked straight into Niers’ eyes. She didn’t hesitate.
She was already mustering when Niers pointed ahead.
“Wait for it. Wait…”
The Centaur galloped across the field at the Lizardfolk, who looked at her death-charge with her personal forces. They were never meant for close-combat fighting—hit and runs. She was headed straight for their command. Niers Astoragon looked up at the sky.
Sentry Leader Ekrn was already falling. They had already begun the Fraerling combined tactics that Niers had once invented.
Not for him. For the Forgotten Wing. For vengeance and Paeth.
Explorer Gindal hadn’t given Ekrn back his crossbow when the Tallguard asked for it again. He was falling too. Ekrn couldn’t see him.
He was falling alone. One little Fraerling, diving into a sea of Lizardfolk. But he had a target. He saw the Lamia [General]. The former Great Company of Balaeros was all focused on Niers. Even then—
How did you stop a man as small as a cup? With an arrow? Could you even see him?
Ekrn was laughing as he fell. Fraerlings didn’t fear falling. They were too light.
He landed as softly as could be on the Lamia’s head itself. The Naga recoiled.
She grabbed him and saw the grinning Fraerling looking at her. The Lamia blanched, and she began to squeeze.
Ekrn had already drunk his Signim.
The Fraerling saw the Lamia recoil as he exploded out of her grip. He landed on the ground.
He lifted the spare crossbow and shot her through the chest. For good measure, Ekrn beheaded the armored Lamia and stabbed her twice more. He looked around as Jungle Tails officers recoiled.
The Fraerling took one breath.
“Tallguard of Feiland! For Paeth on the Coast!”
Around him, Fraerlings were landing. Changing size. An officer recoiled as Gindal fired a Vortex Bolt straight into his face. After that, nothing was left of them at all, nor a fifteen foot space around them. Then—Ekrn stabbed another Naga through the face. He whirled his blade, saw them coming for him, and felt the microdose of Signim wear off. He was shrinking as they stabbed at him.
Gindal was bleeding as he shrank. Another Tallguard was already dead. She had missed her target. But enough—enough officers had died. Ekrn knew he had to wait. A bleeding, six-inch-tall Fraerling lay on his back.
Then he activated his [Teleport] scroll and vanished.
The Titan saw Jungle Tails losing their officers. He pointed ahead.
“[Charge of the Strategist]. Follow me!”
The Titan began to run, sword raised. It was a stupid, Venaz-intelligence move. But sometimes you had to do it. Just to show the enemy they needed to be afraid.
The Forgotten Wing Company was right behind him. The Titan locked eyes with Perorn as her forces fought in the middle of Jungle Tails’ company.
“Fleethoof! Deliver them our wrath!”
The Titan of Baleros screamed. Perorn saw him point his blade at her. She was stumbling, surrounded by foes, but her force waited, fighting the Lizardfolk as they began to surround and tear them apart.
Skirmishers. Centaurs and mobility experts, the worst forces to have in a siege and close-quarters. So why…?
Then she heard it. The Titan’s lips moved.
“[Brigade: Castling the Pieces].”
And Perorn saw the Titan vanish. She saw a Gorgon poised to strike her turn into a stranger, whirling, a guitar singing with electricity in his grip.
Numbtongue met Perorn’s gaze in astonishment and confusion. She raised her bow—then looked around. Her forces, an entire brigade’s strength, had just…swapped places with another force under the Titan’s command.
Across the entire world. Numbtongue saw the Centauress whirl.
“Are you the Titan’s allies? I am Strategist Perorn. Give me an appraisal on the situation.”
He lowered his guitar as his eyes went wide.
Goblins looked around as they appeared in the middle of the Jungle Tails formation. The Naga recoiled in surprise and horror. Niers just bellowed.
“Chieftain Shaik! Ghost mushrooms! Take them apart!”
A surprised Goblin riding a giant spider whirled. She didn’t know where she and her tribe were—but Goblins could see a threat. Niers bellowed.
He led the way forwards as Jungle Tails began to panic. A continent away—Perorn Fleethoof found herself galloping across the Gnoll Plains.
Commander Fezimet was eating the Centauress and Human. Slowly. He was starting with their legs.
He raised his head, dripping with blood, lost in a class so dark it would soon whisper to him in his sleep.
His city in pieces. Yet he would slaughter them all and take Paeth. He would rebuild Talenqual! He would make it the greatest, most beautiful city in the world and restore his tower with Jungle Tails.
Yes—he could almost see it. A shining city of great magic. Fraerling technology. A tower, like the one they had destroyed.
Only not a tree.
The Quexal looked up as his vision of the future, his delirium, was replaced by…
A strange reality. A confusing one.
No, he was imagining the future. But he wasn’t imagining…a tree. A huge redwood, so wide you had to walk around it. Taller than his tower.
Then Fezimet saw into it. Saw that promised city, half in ruins, but free of danger for now. As his company looked up—as the fleeing mercenaries and Gravetender’s Fist gazed up at the sight of Paeth by the Coast, Fezimet’s eyes drifted upwards.
He heard someone laughing at him.
Daly. The Human looked up at Fezimet as a bright light shone on the Quexal’s head. The Commander of the Featherfolk Brigade gazed up at Paeth for one more moment.
“How did it come to…?”
Then he vanished. A laser of magic pierced him, and he evaporated without a word.
Just…like that. The Featherfolk Brigade looked up as Paeth began firing spells in their new home.
They could go anywhere with a [Grand Teleport] ritual spell. But to hide and be found again? Leave the Tallfolk who had fought for them behind?
They were done hiding. Umina led the charge of mercenaries through the rubble as Fraerlings began to attack the Lizardfolk as their morale shattered. Daly lay there, looking up at Paeth.
Then he covered his eyes and started crying for all the people he’d gotten killed. Paeth stood amidst the ruins of Talenqual as the Featherfolk Brigade fled, and the Jungle Tails forces withdrew from Elvallian in dismay as the Titan reappeared. In Izril, Perorn Fleethoof rode towards the Meeting of Tribes.
In the lands of the dead, the dead gods realized Emerrhain was gone. The last of their smallest foes had vanished. But when they looked around in fear, trepidation, and uncertainty…
They could still hear the Gnomes laughing.
Author’s Note: We are now three out of six chapters in. I talk like this because I planned on writing six chapters and so far, we have stuck…mostly…to my outline. Which is a good thing. It is exceptionally difficult to outline every chapter and sometimes I like writing organically.
But when it matters—I have notes. I think I have pages of notes. Checking—only 6,500 words of notes in the doc I have, but a lot is in my head or in other documents. For The Wandering Inn? The old doc I used had over 100,000 words of notes.
Sometimes it’s scenes, so take that with a grain of salt. But we are going fairly well. I did have to split off an important plotline into another chapter—but I think it’s good since I had one chapter out of the six mostly empty for this eventuality.
I am writing about my process because…I can’t say much about the story itself. I am alive, stressed, but I don’t feel horrible about the chapters. We have to see how it ends. No story is perfect or a failure until that final chapter, and Volume 8 is almost up. Let me know what you think, and thanks for reading.
Supreme Muffin Commander and Seamwalkers by pkay!
BelavierrPaint by QtheBird, Sketch by SirDuckless!
Zineryr, The Last Gnome by ArtsyNada!