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(Book 6, The General of Izril is available for preorder on Audible! Check it out here.)

[I am taking a small delay of one update to revise and write. The next chapter will be out on the 26th for Patreons, and the 30th for Public readers.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The night after the revelation of the Plain’s Eye’s treachery, as Gnolls fought Gnolls in the darkness, Khelt’s greatest warship sailed from the shores of Chandrar.

 

“I couldn’t save them. Not then. Not now. I have never been able to stop them from dying. What is the point of leveling, of it all? Can we even make a difference?”

Or were they just pawns on a board, watching someone else moving them around? That was how it felt. One second they were on Chandrar, fighting, hoping, trying to change things for the better.

The next, they were on a ship, gathered together to take part in a greater war. No—a war was being fought, but they didn’t even have a way to strike a blow. They couldn’t even see the fighting.

Good people were dying, and his friends were in danger. They had suffered so much, and he had left them behind. Pisces Jealnet had spent years trying to change the day Gewilena died. Amidst selfishness, goals and ambitions, it had always been at the back of his mind.

This time—there would be no Gewilena, no Cawe. He had been made a liar twice already, and those were just two of the times Pisces could name.

Would it truly be different? He looked around as his team surrounded him, feeling the cold, but not uncaring clasp of Yvlon Byres’ metal hand, Ksmvr patting him on the head like a cat, and Ceria grasping his arm with her flesh hand. He looked upwards and saw that golden flame burning in two empty sockets.

Fetohep, the Ruler of Khelt, stopped as he walked down the deck of Sand at Sea, the greatest warship in Khelt’s armada of one. The Revenant looked down as the [Necromancer]’s tears caught in the wind blowing off the prow of the vessel as it left Chandrar.

“Pisces Jealnet, [Necromancer] of the Gold-rank team the Horns of Hammerad.”

Ceria gasped, and Yvlon backed away as Pisces looked up in astonishment.

“You know my name? You’re—Fetohep of Khelt.

The undead monarch nodded regally.

“I am. On behalf of eternal Khelt, I tender you my regrets for any companions left behind. The Scourgeriders of Emrist followed my commands exactly. There is a limit to even their power, but I swear upon Khelt I shall endeavor to shelter your companions if you render their names unto me. We sail for a great cause, beyond any single life. If we fail—we shall all suffer. So we shall not fail. Betimes, even I have known defeat and loss. Even Khelt has suffered failure.”

He looked down at Pisces, and the Horns waited for the next part of the platitude. Yet Fetohep just stood there.

“Excuse me, King Fetohep. Is this statement at an end?”

Ksmvr waved a hand politely, and Fetohep eyed the Antinium. He looked Ksmvr up and down and turned.

“I speak merely to say that every effort in the world can fail. This is the truth every warrior and ruler faces. I was made a Revenant as they carried my shattered corpse from a battlefield where every comrade and friend I had ever known perished.”

He looked past the adventurers.

“I have never forgotten my failures. This time—no one shall die. I shall never be too late, and I will defy the sky itself if it falls. That is the lie a ruler tells their people. Those words—”

His head rotated slowly, and the golden flames met Pisces. The young man saw Fetohep’s being fix on him, and he remembered the treasure chests falling from the skies. The [Necromancer] looked into a being twenty times his age—more. Fetohep nodded at him.

“That pledge, that grand lie is the foundation of every true adventurer and hero I have known. This time, stand and fight so as to have no regrets. Bleed after all has fallen to silence. I have need of your strength. Erin Solstice will need her friends.”

Pisces’ eyes went wide. Yvlon gasped, and Ceria tilted her head, regarding Fetohep with a frown.

“That’s…impossible. How do you know—are you—speaking to her?”

The light in Fetohep’s left eye flickered slightly. The Revenant didn’t respond. He just turned his head.

“Believe there is a chance. We have time yet; Izril will not be reached in a day, even with every Skill and spell. Erin Solstice requires our aid. When the worst occurred, she spoke of you all with every faith. I shall require but a tenth of the trust she placed in you. A tenth, and we shall right all wrongs. When you are rested, we shall talk longer. Eat, drink, sleep. Khelt’s largesse is yours to partake of.”

He began to stride back along the deck, and only now the Horns of Hammerad, catching up from their wild journey across Chandrar on a flying carpet, truly saw where they were.

On a ship at sea, at night. But that was so…blasé compared to the reality of what they were seeing.

They stood on the decks of a warship decorated with the bones of ancient sea creatures, sand and wind streaming behind them in a gale. The sand and wind should have scarred their skin and flayed their bones with the sheer force of passage, but it did not blow them overboard. Pisces gazed up in a bubble of calm; they raced through the eye of a sandstorm.

A sandstorm, blowing across the black waters as the stars shone fit to burst overhead. A thousand skylights blooming in every color, mirrored on the water as waves crashed upon the prow of the war vessel.

Wherever Pisces looked, he saw legends. [Sailors] with glowing eyes of fire, practically skeletons, laughing, Revenants wearing artifacts of old.

Named Adventurers; a Dullahan woman soothing a gigantic hawk so large it perched on the railing, two-thirds her height, glaring around. A Centauress pacing up and down the deck with a patrol of warriors, staring up at a trio of half-Giant skeletons who stood, talking in huge voices with a [King] and [Queen], father and daughter, one of whom had a golden bell glimmering at his rapier’s side.

A man all in bandages stood with the [Ruinbringer Steward], a legendary shadow to the famous King of Destruction, checking a warhorse still breathing hard from its ride. Above—a Named Adventurer Stitch-man holding a glimmering bow like starlight was staring ahead, sitting on one of the masts as it slowly swung around, carrying the ship left.

The air was filled with voices and the distant howl of the storm. It smelled of salt and still of Chandrar’s dry air, but it was being overtaken by the odor of the sea, strange and wild, bearing the watery promise of a hundred different coasts, even the strange spice of food being borne up by living servants and the tang of drinks a thousand years old.

A ship of legends. And there was Fetohep of Khelt, eyes blazing gold, the entire world dancing, begging for his attention as a dozen scrying orbs and speaking stones swirled around him. Yet he was focused on them, a ruler of death incarnate, his aura so powerful that Pisces felt like he could animate the dead just by looking at them.

Death. But such kindly words. An accent of old regality and such deliberate courage that the Horns wanted to get up and follow him. He was already walking away when Ksmvr raised his hand.

“Excuse me, King Fetohep. May I ask Your Majesty one question as a matter of utmost urgency for my future growth?”

The Horns of Hammerad stared at Ksmvr in shock as the Antinium waved his hand politely. Fetohep turned and silenced the first screech from someone on the other end of a speaking spell.

“Ask, Ksmvr of Chandrar.”

Ksmvr of…? Pisces’ lips moved soundlessly, and Ceria and Yvlon experienced a beautiful, pure quill of terror injected straight into their bladders. Ksmvr’s question. It could be anything, and it was being directed to one of the most powerful rulers of…

Ksmvr smiled brightly.

“For the sake of reference, would you categorize your statements to Pisces and my team as a ‘motivational speech’ and or other form of encouragement? How would you rate said efficacy of such statements? I have been informed boosting morale is a crucial talent to develop.”

Fetohep of Khelt eyed the innocent Antinium for a second. Then he turned his head slightly to the left and tilted it just so. As if he were listening to something. He turned—and the adventurers got the distinct impression he was smiling. The grinning skull of preserved flesh opened its mouth ever so slightly, and the disembodied voice spoke as the eyes flashed brighter.

Five out of ten.

“Oh. My scale is completely off, then. Thank you, Your Majesty.”

The King of Khelt threw back his head and laughed once.

 

——

 

“He’s laughing. Who are they?”

The other occupants of the warship saw Fetohep laughing and gazed at the Horns of Hammerad with curiosity or a kind of awe, depending on who it was. Curiosity, faint recognition, extreme interest…as the four got to their feet, those on the deck of the warship looked around and realized—here they were.

This was the team. So, after the breathless ride of Fetohep, they had a moment to think. The first thing they did was size each other up and introduce themselves.

Everyone.

Not pictured in Pisces’ first look around the warship were the other Revenants, including the one, the only, Vizir Hecrelunn and Salui. Mostly because the other two had been catching the [Captain] of this vessel up to speed.

Salui and Hecrelunn certainly got the [Necromancer]’s attention as they appeared on deck. Hecrelunn stared balefully at the Gold-rank adventurers, completely mystified as to why some of the Scourgeriders of Emrist had been deployed for them.

Vizir Hecrelunn and Salui were good counterparts to Fetohep, because what the Revenant King was—they were complete contrasts to.

Fetohep appeared to be a fairly slender ruler, regal, eyes glowing gold with the dark purple robes of office decorated with every name of every person he had ever known and loved in life, the crown of Khelt’s rulers upon his head. He had lost the physique of life; flesh shrunk and clung to bone after so long. If he stood or moved with a warrior’s speed, it was often surprising. He certainly had the aura to match, but he was still a stately king.

Hecrelunn, by contrast, was the [Vizir] of Khelt. He had no burning flames in his eye sockets. Rather, he had two dots of red light which were far smaller and would contract with rage, ire, or all-consuming fury. His gaze was so intense it could leave a mark on a wall. Literally. He boiled with magic and authority, and he floated off the ground, ever gazing downwards at whomever he addressed.

His robes were black and purple and red and orange, like the very gates to some abyssal domain, and his voice was clipped, sarcastic or biting when he was in a good mood, and the Vizir referred to the Vizir in the third person.

Contrasted to both, Salui was twice the size of either Revenant, and even if you put Fetohep and Hecrelunn together, you would not get the…the…intensity of Salui.

He trembled. The deck quivered around him. If there were little birds or animals like Yinah around, they would be running for the hills because Salui oozed a potential for violence. Even in death, his muscle and flesh refused to rot—what Selphids called Galas-muscle was his body.

He made Draugr seem skinny. The pink flames in his gaze were either a herald of imminent violence—or confused. As a dreamer might look, trying to discern a fragile world where everything came undone with a push from reality. The only time he seemed focused, calm was when Fetohep brought up King His-Xe, Salui’s great friend and ruler, to him.

The two Revenants were so potent that even the crew of Sand at Sea, who had been made Revenants as well, souls of living beings trapped in undead flesh, walked wide of them. They talked and acted like what they were: [Sailors], albeit of a Kheltian warship that had been a legendary pirate vessel in days of old.

But none of the [Sailors] tried to spit at or swaggered around Hecrelunn or Salui. Indeed—the inhabitants of Fetohep’s warship were all watching each other. They all recognized the others. Not all of them, but some were just famous.

Like the two Named Adventurers, Frieke of formerly Medain and Alked Fellbow. A discerning eye also instantly picked out the [Knights] from Terandria as well, being [Knights]. Ditto for the nervous half-Elves keeping well away from all the undead. Who they were? Questionable.

And, of course, everyone knew the really famous ones like the Arbiter Queen, the King of Duels—arguably Jecaina over her father because one had appeared on the televisions more. In fact, the most notable and obvious person on the ship that everyone could name was him. The legend himself, who all of Chandrar could probably point out:

Ksmvr of Chandrar. It was natural, then, that once everyone recognized him and realized it was the Horns of Hammerad, they gravitated towards them. The bandaged man and the grim fellow with the spear? Completely unrecognizable—to most. Orthenon had never been one for portraits, and the King of Bandages neither looked nor sounded like a living legend. All you could hear him say was…

 

——

 

Mbigh the Mtingnim.

“Your Majesty?”

Orthenon was cursing the lack of a proper escort. He had barely made it himself when he’d heard about the warship; he would have taken a full complement including Mars, Venith, Maresar…

…But Maresar was dead. The [Steward] had forgotten that. Teresa Atwood wasn’t here either. It seemed Fetohep had meant what he’d said truly. He had taken the most dangerous for this voyage. It spoke to the fact that he believed even Teresa might perish in the coming battles.

That Flos Reimarch was here did not surprise Orthenon, although it was unwelcome. He was not one to abandon a challenge or adventure, and this? This promised to not only heal him, but be a journey even The King of Destruction would want to tell.

Thmight’s. The. Manhtinium.

Flos enunciated with clear pain and annoyance, and Orthenon began to understand.

“Yes, Your Majesty. The Antinium. Ksmvr of Chandrar. Do you wish to meet them?”

Flos nodded slowly, but he flicked his gaze around the ship. Orthenon looked about—and immediately strode for Fetohep.

“Your Majesty of Khelt.”

Once again, Fetohep broke off from speaking with Galei of Wistram.

“—a sound mind in that wretched cesspool of fools. Make ready for—excuse me. Steward.”

The two stopped, and Orthenon and Fetohep regarded one another. The [Steward] bowed slowly, precisely, and economically.

“Your hospitality, Your Eternal Majesty of Khelt, is as always, gracious. Reim sails with you to whatever battle this may bring about. However, I believe your missive to my [King] indicated a healing potion capable of remedying his injuries? I request the use of it now.”

Fetohep regarded the King of Destruction, who glowered at him with what might have been admiration and envy mixed. The King of Khelt tapped one finger to his lips.

“Ah, a Potion of Regeneration. I intend to honor my word, Steward.”

“Then…”

“I am preserving each potion in my armory for what may be a costly battle. Even in Khelt’s vaults, such potions are exceedingly rare. They may be needed for a…ritual. I have set one aside for King Reimarch.”

Orthenon twitched slightly.

“Now would be—”

“—most gratifying for Flos Reimarch, I am sure? It would also inspire him to go his own way at the first venture, I have no doubt. I will not have him interfering in my battles, Steward. He may deploy his Skills in safety.”

“I must insist. A battle is no place for an already wounded king, and my lord requires healing.”

Orthenon’s voice had grown cold. Fetohep ignored the intensity in Orthenon’s voice.

“It may be the only thing keeping him from charging into the enemy with his bare hands. Consider that, Steward. I am no stranger to the King of Destruction’s whimsy, and neither are you.”

Orthenon hesitated. He did know Flos Reimarch. Fetohep turned his head slightly, and both imagined what Flos might do. They knew where they were headed. The idea of him trying to capture Zeres by himself did not seem implausible. Fetohep took advantage of Orthenon’s hesitation and lifted a finger.

“Allow me to propose a fitting compromise. A single Alchemist’s Portion should heal his tongue enough to speak, but not to fight and exert himself to his full…exuberance.”

An Alchemist’s Portion was not a drop of potion. A drop could very well do a lot of healing with such a powerful draught. An Alchemist’s Portion was about as generous as they tended to be with anything that didn’t involve gold. It was about as much liquid as you needed to wet the tip of your finger.

“…I shall accept that proposal on behalf of His Majesty.”

“Indeed. Then, consult with one of my subordinates. Once they have prepared a proper ampule, I will summon it from Khelt’s vaults.”

Fetohep directed a speaking stone at Orthenon, and the [Steward] bowed. He passed by the annoyed King of Destruction and delivered the contents of the exchange. A huge growl was Orthenon’s reply, but Flos couldn’t hide the eagerness in his nod. He had to be in pain; the bandages were slightly red even from him standing.

Still—he was already walking into the conversation around the Horns of Hammerad. The problem was…

 

——

 

A [Knight] gave the bandaged fellow a blank look as he walked over. He was adjusting his armor nervously, and he called out.

“Here’s a wounded man! Is there a [Healer] on deck? Potions? A strange lot, to be sailing under one banner, eh? Antinium and undead. Surely we don’t need wounded folks! What’s next? Children? Cats? Ser, do you need healing? Please, sit!”

He motioned to the outraged man, who indignantly said….

Migb the ming of…

The [Knight] gave him a completely nonplussed look and saw him wave away the healing potion.

“Must be injuries too severe. Or maybe it’s a Revenant as well? Ser Solton—are you sure this is wise?”

A nervous young woman whispered in his ear. The [Knight] adjusted his armor as he tucked the potion back. He had an odd insignia emblazoned on strangely grey, battered armor that looked quite well-made—but didn’t have the coats of paint on every other [Knight]’s gear.

It was…a single stack of gold coins on a balanced scale? The [Knight] removed his helmet to wipe at his brow.

“A strange change of fortunes, Squire Cathenay, but I do not doubt my ears. Are our fellow [Knights] safely aboard their vessels?”

The young woman, also wearing plain armor that had the insignia, glanced to the other ships sailing in the wake of the warship. They were the Crusade’s own vessels—and ships looted from Medain’s harbor, some filled with undead, others bearing [Knights] and the living.

“Safe, although many have sworn not to take up arms under Khelt, merely to forgo battle.”

“Well, each to their honor. But I believe strange company and these ill times call for stranger deals. We do not just sail with hated undead, Cathenay, but Named Adventurers of Chandrar, who are valorous, and even honorable legends such as the King of Jecrass. Let us—introduce ourselves. But fetch this poor man a chair, first!”

He indicated the bandaged fellow, and his [Squire] bowed and hurried off. Then Ser Solton joined the general group of people talking.

“Excuse me, excuse me—does anyone have a chair for that man? Does anyone know where we are bound? I am Ser Solton of the Order of Haegris, in service to the Terandrian Crusade.”

He bowed as a trio of half-Elves turned. Solton recognized them. They were from…the Claiven Earth?

The Herald of the Forests and two half-Elves were very uneasy and very nervous as they jumped and gazed at Ser Solton. He bowed at once.

“Dame Herald. You are present as well?”

“Apparently so.”

She didn’t seem convinced this was real either. The Herald of the Forests, Ierwyn, one of the most famous half-Elf warriors of her time, glanced uneasily around the ship.

“It was the condition for the Claiven Earth’s surrender. We all sail against…whatever Fetohep of Khelt has seen. Seamwalkers or worse.”

Ser Solton was astonished.

“Then the Claiven Earth has surrendered?”

“Unconditionally. What that means…it was a magically enforced seal. They have done nothing yet; the armies are slowing as they reach the shore, and some have returned to Khelt. Should we have held out?”

“Before all the Revenants and those legions?”

The half-Elves were clearly unhappy, but they had all witnessed the terrible magics Khelt had unleashed, the endless armies—and not a one doubted they would have been swept away if it had come to battle.

Indeed…were they on the same side? Ser Solton eyed the Antinium, but decided he had to introduce himself. It was, after all, a fundamental of his order.

“Excuse me. Excuse me. Am I interrupting? Ser Solton of the Order of Haegris.”

He bowed his way into the group around the Horns. Frieke of Khelt, Alked Fellbow, and none other than Queen Jecaina of Jecrass were standing with the Horns, who looked shocked—but remarkably well put together.

Ser Solton had just been staring for the last…twenty minutes? Yet the Horns seemed like they had done this before. If nothing else, they were remarkably aware of their surroundings.

While the other groups tried to process what had happened, the Horns had taken in Fetohep of Khelt’s words, calmed down—and grabbed food.

A woman with extraordinary metal arms was holding what looked like some fanciful dish of lobster baked with a variety of delicious condiments while it was still in its shell—that was what she held it in—and a spoon. Her team was more indecorous, and the Ant…thing…was gobbling grapes off a vine while the young man with white robes shakily created a sandwich out of no less than fourteen hovering condiments.

The final creation was so huge that when he tried to put it into his mouth it wouldn’t go, even when he squashed it together. So he just started taking bites out of the midsection.

The half-Elf had crammed half a plate of food into one cheek and seemed to be adding to it and swallowing as she talked while feasting on what might have been six duck patties stacked together and slathered in sauce.

They were so disgusting that their audience was slightly speechless as they watched the Horns cramming their faces full of food. The Antinium actually had a second, smaller ‘mouth’, and the mandibles only helped him deliver said food into his actual orifice. As for the half-Elf…Ser Solton had never seen an eating technique like that. He kept catching glimpses of everything when she opened her mouth too widely.

He might never forget it.

“Who’s this? [Knights]? Dead gods, what happened? Who’s…hello. I’m Ceria. The Order of Haegris? I know the Order of Seasons, but who’re they?”

Ceria spoke, spraying the air slightly, and Alked Fellbow eyed Ser Solton.

“I don’t know. Hello.”

Frieke snapped her fingers a few times. She was a Dullahan who styled herself rather like a Human, her armor adjusted so it looked like she was just a Human wearing armor rather than distinctly a Dullahan; it came of living in Chandrar. Her companion, the gigantic falcon, Konska, was a Seahawk. She pointed at Solton in recognition.

“Oh! Aren’t you…Haggle Knights?”

Solton paused as the bandaged man blustered forwards, just in time to enter the painful silence as his [Squire] brought over a chair. Frieke hesitated.

“Er…”

“The Order of Haegris has been referred to by that name, Miss Adventurer. We are…a mercantile [Knight] order in Terandria, who tend to conduct our affairs in the northern regions. May I ask who is present?”

Solton bowed, and the others looked around.

“Oh. I’m Frieke of Medain, Named Adventurer. I mean—Khelt! Frieke of Khelt! I am a [Beast Master]—a [Falconer] specifically.”

The Dullahan woman was flustered and bowed several times, looking as young as the Horns, despite being a number of years older. She seemed most in awe of everyone. Alked was next. He raised one weathered hand, looking as tough and rugged as an older Halrac.

“I am Alked Fellbow, in service to Khelt. [Ranger] is my base class. I am a Named Adventurer.”

“We’re the Horns of Hammerad. I am Ceria, the captain…this is Pisces, Ksmvr, and Yvlon. We’re a Gold-rank team.”

Ceria broke in smoothly, nodding around cheerfully. The rest of her team jumped; even Pisces, who was used to sniffing. But Ceria looked unruffled, and she had picked up on something.

There were a lot of important people here. The trick was…to play it cool. And no one was cooler than a [Cryomancer]. Ser Solton introduced himself and his [Squire]. Then the bandaged man cut in before the young woman wearing enchanted leather armor and carrying the rapier with the silver bell and the crown.

Nd I m the fring of frestrufun.

Everyone gazed at him. Ser Solton coughed.

“This poor man appears to be injured. Cathenay, the seat, the seat!”

The [Squire] offered it to the man, and he sat…but looked indignantly as no one picked up on what he’d said. All eyes turned to the last person, and the young woman bowed, eyes flicking around. She frowned longest at the bandaged man but without recognition.

“I am Queen Jecaina of Jecrass.”

The Arbiter Queen?

Frieke squeaked, and everyone stirred. Most had recognized her, if only vaguely, but it was one thing to see her, another to know they were in her presence.

Jecaina—flushed slightly, but she had remarkable poise. She only nodded, looking, well, older. Older than an impetuous teen. Like someone who had held a nation together for however short a time.

Like a [Queen].

“I have joined Fetohep of Khelt to rescue my father. From here…where we are going only Fetohep knows, but I understand it is a mission of dire importance. Has he sequestered the aid of all of you?”

It was a mark of this company that words on a Pisces-level were being tossed around regularly. Sequestered was easy. Or, if it wasn’t, you had to pretend you knew what it meant or be outed.

“Your Majesty, this is a huge honor. I’ve seen all of your judgements—and you’re the Antinium from the documentaries!”

Frieke pointed at Ksmvr as Jecaina bowed to her. All eyes turned to Ksmvr. Pisces narrowed his.

“…What?”

Ksmvr scratched at his antennae.

“What? Oh, Rémi’s little camera. Yes, I am Ksmvr. Hello, Adventurer Frieke. As my superior, I hope to learn much from your guidance. Hello again. I am Ksmvr the Antinium, but I am not here to invade Chandrar. I do not eat people, and I am very friendly.”

He beamed around, and everyone was treated to an Antinium smile. Yvlon broke in hurriedly.

“Do you—does anyone know what we’re supposed to do?”

No one did. Jecaina, Bandages, Solton—all eyes turned to Fetohep, but he was engrossed in talking with dozens of people, including the angry Vizir Hecrelunn. Pisces scratched his chin, looking rattled.

“It appears…we have to wait. Excuse me, Your Majesty? I take it you are a [Fencer] of some competence? You have a silver bell.”

Jecaina blinked. She looked at Pisces and nodded slowly.

“Yes. And you’ve been trained by a [Fencer] too. Are you a [Duelist]?”

Pisces smiled thinly.

“No. No…but I would be honored to meet your father. A Gold-bell [Duelist] is someone one rarely gets a chance to meet—much less the [King] who dueled the King of Destruction. Would that be possible?”

Two furious, green eyes widened, but everyone else nodded. They looked at a tall, gaunt man standing alone at the railing. Jecaina hesitated.

“He has been through a lot. But—maybe it would help. I will ask. Before that. Can I inquire how each of you got here? And about…”

She looked at Ksmvr, and half the boat wanted to ask him questions, including the undead sailors. But the perspicacious ones also wanted to talk to the bandaged man, the half-Elf with the amazing circlet, and Yvlon Byres with her metal arms.

The company of so many famous people—and then came the last. Every head turned as a man with eyes lit up by a thousand strands of color radiating from a single point, light pink and dotted with three faint brown points in each eye.

The Hero of Zethe himself stopped and looked at the Herald of Forests and Salui, who stopped trembling enough to point at him.

“You. You’re real too.”

The company of strange stories. And there sat Flos Reimarch as everyone began to introduce themselves, overlooked, unintelligible. In his worst hell.

 

——

 

“The Order of Haegris are called Haggle Knights. Mostly because they do that.”

“What, haggle? I’ve never heard of that. This is a joke. Like telling Izrilians that Terandrians really do have a salad fork at every meal, even the [Peasants].”

Ceria just shrugged at Yvlon.

“You’re a [Lady] of Izril. What’s so surprising? They’re sort of well-known. Not famous for killing things, mostly.”

“I’ve never heard of them. Are you sure this isn’t a joke?”

The half-Elf rolled her eyes.

“Yvlon, we just met after nearly dying at the Village of the Dead. I was worried you were all kidnapped or hurt…would I lie to you?”

“Y…maybe. Okay, so they’re like my family?”

“Yes…but good at what they do?”

Yvlon glowered at Ceria, and the half-Elf innocently backed away. The two adventurers were whispering as Ser Solton introduced himself around the ship.

“Sorry, sorry. It’s just…they have actual inventories. They buy what’s valuable, be it windmills, fields—and they use the money to defeat their ‘Monsters of Society’.”

“Their what?”

“Uh, poverty. Disease. Sometimes they go on ‘quests’ to slay a shortage of corn. With a wagon of corn. Look, their founder was apparently a [Merchant]-[Knight]. See their armor? They don’t like spending money on paint, so they just do the money bag.”

“It seems like a parody of [Knights].”

Yvlon muttered a bit too loudly as she stared at Ser Solton. Instantly, someone objected.

“I shall have you take that back, Dame Loudmouth! A [Knight] is a [Knight]! The Order of Haegris has saved thousands of lives each year with their charity! They are a model who have inspired even my own Kingdom of Ailendamus!”

Someone slapped Yvlon’s arm with a glove. Both adventurers turned and saw an indignant Knight of the Hydra.

“I’m sorry—who are you?”

“Dame Thuile, at your service! I apologize for my introduction, but I must protest. It does not behoove a fellow [Knight] to besmirch one of their own kind. Neither the Claiven Earth!”

The Hydra Knight had clearly gotten the wrong idea. She was looking from Ceria’s pointy ears to Yvlon’s metal arms and admittedly armored body and getting the wrong idea. Yvlon opened her mouth, but Ceria nudged her. The half-Elf had a twinkle in her eyes.

“I am so sorry, Dame Thuile. What is your Knight Order?”

“The Order of the Hydra from the Kingdom of Glass and Glory, Ailendamus! I understand your leadership may not have desired this alliance, but we are pledged to fight evil wherever we see it, and the horrors from beyond the edge of the world supercede even undeath.”

Ceria was bowing as the uppity Hydra Knight turned to Yvlon.

“And you would be…?”

Yvlon was glaring out of the corner of her eyes at Ceria. The half-Elf seemed so relaxed—even for her and a veteran of Erin shenanigans. She was still wearing the circlet that she’d stolen from The Putrid One, and she had a look of mischief in her gaze.

She clearly wanted to play a prank on this [Knight], and Yvlon…eyed the angry woman and smiled blandly. Ceria interjected for Yvlon.

“This is, uh, Dame Yvlon. Of the Order of…”

She hesitated only a moment.

“Solstice! The Order of Solstice. She’s a [Knight] of one, who just arrived in the crusade, and now we’re headed back. Terribly sorry; she’s new.”

Yvlon rolled her eyes, but the Hydra Knight only did a double-take for a second.

“The Order of Solstice? Ah, of course. Izrilians. Well, milady, your reputation precedes you. I bear no grudge, though we will be enemies on Terandria. Rather, I congratulate you. Is Ser Solstice…no, it must be an assumed title, eh? Is he your Order’s champion or some veteran knight?”

Yvlon felt her hand being pumped up and down as she and Ceria exchanged a sudden glance.

“Ser Solstice of Izril?”

“Oh, dear me. Haven’t you been keeping up with…? No, I suppose if you weren’t on a vessel with a scrying orb—the war in Terandria, you know.”

That was how Ceria and Yvlon, now grinning like the Revenant undead, were treated to a discussion of Ser Solstice’s valorous and sometimes unorthodox deeds on the battlefield and the tragedy of General Dionamella’s fall. Both half-Elf and Human kept staring at each other out of the corner of their eyes. They were having a silent argument bordering on the telepathic. Yvlon glared daggers into Ceria’s pale gaze.

 

You tell her.

No, you!

This is your fault! It’s got to be a coincidence, right?

Ser Solstice. Coincidence? Wanna bet?

 

They knew. But they didn’t know who it was—only that it was connected. And like silly lies…

“I had no idea the Order of Solstice had joined the Crusade. But then—your Order must be very new.”

Ceria smiled blandly as she sipped from a cup of colorless wine.

“Practically just invented.”

Yvlon stepped on Ceria’s toes hard, but the Hydra Knight didn’t notice. She peered at Yvlon.

“Are your arms part of your class, Dame Knight? Some…magical prosthesis from House Terland?”

“No, as a matter of fact, I’m an adv—”

Adventurous, courageous warrior! Who gained her metal arms by valor in battle. Fighting, uh—Goblins. Gigantic Goblins. It’s actually part of her entire Order’s Skills.”

Dame Thuile’s gaze locked on Yvlon’s arms, then on Ceria’s face. A look of cunning realization passed over her expression, covered by a very poor bland face.

“Of course…of course. And the rest of your Order would have metal limbs. Goblin Slayer…will you excuse me a second? I find myself in pressing need of a privy.”

She hurried off to find a speaking stone as Yvlon whirled.

“Ceria! What the hell was that?”

“What? It’s not going to do any harm. And it’s hilarious.”

The half-Elf grinned, her eyes lighting up with humor. Yvlon just gave her an odd look. It was funny—and in another circumstance, Yvlon would have gone along with the prank. Silver-rank adventurers, maybe. But it was just a bit—off. And Ceria was still so relaxed. Yvlon took a deep breath.

“…I’m so glad you’re okay. I didn’t know where you were. Ksmvr I knew about, but when I heard Pisces was a [Slave]…”

Ceria’s gaze softened. She lowered the cup and patted Yvlon on the arm.

“I was worried too. I’m sorry I didn’t find you. I had—difficulties. You’ll never guess what I ran into when I landed. A certain monster decided to pay the village that rescued me a visit. Three guesses which?”

Yvlon hesitated.

“Some sand thing like one of the worms? A Manti…no. There isn’t any way.”

Ceria just smiled wryly.

“It turns out Crelers can detect if you’ve killed their kind. Adult ones, anyways.”

“You killed a—”

“I had help. Relax! Relax! And I had to put on the circlet, but good news—it’s not going to melt my brain. There’s a few interesting things, but what happened to you?”

The Hydra Knight was reporting the Order of the Solstice news to her [Grandmaster] while Yvlon and Ceria talked. Pisces and Ksmvr had been dragged off by Jecaina to meet King Raelt, and Bandages had followed. The two were so engrossed that they barely noticed another interested group approaching.

“Excuse me, may I interject? I couldn’t help but hear you were from the Claiven Earth. Sister.”

Ceria turned and…gulped…as she saw a detachment of half-Elves walking across the deck. Yvlon looked at the Herald of the Forests and stiffened at once. Ierwyn saw Ceria hesitate.

“Uh—well—that’s a lie.”

“Yes. Am I addressing the Horns of Hammerad?”

The two young women instantly bowed as Ierwyn and several senior half-Elves introduced themselves. One kept staring at Ceria’s circlet, but their greatest [Mage] had refused to jump on a ship. As for Ierwyn…

“Are you allies of Khelt, adventurers? Or merely participants to King Fetohep’s designs?”

Ceria and Yvlon exchanged looks. Yvlon answered for both.

“We have never met the…king, Lady Ierwyn. But one of our friends appears to have met him.”

“Somehow.”

The Herald’s brows rose.

“Indeed? Someone who has met the King of Khelt and gained his respect is no light name. May I ask it? Would it perchance be…Trey Atwood?”

She delivered the line like a blademaster drawing back her sword for the final thrust in a graceful dance. And—missed completely as the two adventurers gave her a blank stare.

“No…Erin Solstice.”

“Oh.”

The half-Elves all murmured; this sounded like the truth, but it threw a wrench in their intelligence. Ierwyn collected herself almost immediately.

“May I ask where she hails from? What she does? And I must confess, I would like to personally greet a fellow half-Elf. Excuse me for the rudeness, Adventurer Yvlon, but we are a far-flung species.”

“I—uh—I’m so embarrassed. And so sorry about the joke!”

Ceria turned beet red, much to Yvlon’s satisfaction, and stammered as she and Ierwyn held out hands and touched fingertips. It was a very half-Elven greeting, and Ceria performed an odd bow that Yvlon had never seen.

“Are you from one of the villages, rather than a city, then?”

“I—I—yes. The Village of the Spring. I’ve heard of the Claiven Earth, but I never thought I’d meet you…”

The half-Elves were smiling, and Yvlon took that moment to get a drink of water. On the way back, she heard Ceria exclaiming.

“…Left my village, actually. It’s—complicated.”

The half-Elves all nodded.

“Then we will not dig. We left our homes to create the Claiven Earth. Have you met more of our kind on your travels?”

“Uh—Falene Skystrall. Oh, and…”

Ceria hesitated for one visible second, then lowered her voice.

“…Alchemist Irurx. I was in Savere, and I met his ship at port and survived it. Shifthold.

The effect on the half-Elves was dramatic. All but Ierwyn recoiled instantly in clear horror. Yvlon herself hesitated. That—did not sound like a good name.

“You have met the Writhing Alchemist? That monster? How? And how did you escape?”

Ceria had to relate a bit about Savere’s port laws and her encounters with the Siren as Yvlon listened in horror. She told the story matter-of-factly, economically, but also with a certain…detachment. She was clearly sparing everyone the horrific details, Yvlon realized. Even the Herald was shaking her head at the end of the tale.

“Then you are an adventurer in truth, sister, to have met one of our worst traitors and lived. And you journey in strange company.”

She meant Ksmvr and Pisces. Yvlon re-entered the conversation as Ceria waved it away.

“I would like my kin in the Claiven Earth to know that Antinium are people, Ierwyn. Some might be…obeying orders, but they are a people in service to their Queens. I would trust Ksmvr with my life—I have time and time again. He’s odd, but funny, loyal, and he would be an Elf-friend if I went home in good standing. I hope you’ll think on that.”

“I surely will. A people is different from a plague.”

Ierwyn met Ceria’s gaze as she turned to Yvlon.

“And you, Adventurer Byres, I thank for your forbearance. It has been a long time since even the Claiven Earth have met someone else with a Melded class. Did you gain it by injury or affinity? I apologize if it is a painful question.”

Yvlon’s mouth opened. Ceria’s ears perked up.

“A—I—what? A Melded class?”

Ierwyn blinked at Yvlon, and the [Silversteel Armsmistress] realized—

Half-Elf. She was very, very old.

“Your arms are metal. Some half-Elves have replaced limbs with root or even vine, though it is an exceedingly rare class. Beyond a simple prosthesis—metal has replaced skin. Has no one told you…? Your new class is the kind that made Men of Metal. Or Women of Metal…it may subsume or join with any class you have, be it [Knight] or otherwise. You must choose. Or else you will gain Skills that mean more than your arms will be metal. In time…”

Yvlon’s head spun. She lifted her reflective metal arms and stared at her face as they reflected moonlight and stars. In time—she would become entirely…?

 

——

 

With the little bit of Regeneration Potion, Flos Reimarch only healed enough to stop breaking scabs and flesh open with each move. His tongue was still damaged—but he had worked out a better system to communicate.

The spray of vomit coming from the woman with metal arms splattered him for a second time that night as he lifted a hand. Orthenon dodged it entirely.

“Your Majesty.”

He offered Flos a handkerchief, and the King of Destruction sighed. Then he turned back to the person he had sought out.

Mey meeth again, mero mf mefe.

The silent, somber man with a single sword at his side stared at the King of Destruction’s placid green eyes. Orthenon translated.

“My liege is injured. I shall translate for him. ‘We meet again, Hero of Zethe.’”

“Ah. King of Destruction.”

The Hero of Zethe, a farmer who had a family in the middle of nowhere, bowed very slowly. Flos Reimarch smiled.

Meh mth—

“(My mind returns to the time we fought. I thought you dead. Where have you been hiding?)”

The [Hero] waited for the translation. Indeed…many didn’t recognize him, but those that did, even [Knights], were in awe.

For here was a [Hero]. Not a famous [Knight]. Not a Named Adventurer.

A [Hero].

His legend was in the history books. But the man himself…he looked like he was a casual farmer, dressed in simple clothing. Simple clothing that never tore and had survived for decades, made of finest thread for when he wanted to be anonymous. The rich, regal clothing he had been adorned in when they cheered his name had long since rotted or been sold.

Indeed, anonymity suited him. Until the day he had seen Fetohep calling for aid.

“We battled only twice, King of Destruction. Your legend was on the rise, and I saw your armies marching—but I had no strength to fight you, even as invaders. You had a just enough cause.”

“(I had every cause and need.)”

The Hero of Zethe paused. He met Flos’ gaze and shook his head, straight to the King of Destruction’s face.

“…You had a just enough cause. I wearied of war. Just as I tired of being called Hero of Zethe. Only for Fetohep of Khelt did I take up a sword. Because what we are doing will avert disaster for the ones I love. I trust to that and hope you will let me rest in anonymity afterwards.”

Flos frowned mightily at the man.

“(…But your great abilities waste to nothing. Did the man who broke the Storm of Soldiers truly lose all fire? All passion? You…)”

Orthenon leaned over.

“What was that? I apologize, Your Majesty. Ah—‘you disappoint me, Doubte of Zethe.’”

The [Hero] just shook his head. He gave Flos a searching look.

“…I cannot understand it. You have been Chandrar’s legend, not I, for twenty years. Before that, you became the world’s most famous [King], or infamous, and you beheld no limits. You have conquered more than I. Lost more than I, perhaps. You have seen greater wars and greater loss. How can you still continue? Don’t you tire of it?”

He and Flos looked at each other, and the King of Destruction’s ardor faded slightly. They were very different men, but in this…Orthenon saw a shadow, a mirror of the same look he had seen for twenty years. Flos Reimarch wavered and then met the Doubte’s gaze.

“(Something else is coming, Hero Doubte. My dream was not enough, you are right. But I have found a new one, even larger. It is not just selfishness that impels me. In time, you will see it too. Perhaps it is all connected, Fetohep’s great battle, the secret I hold, and the rest. Will you not consider picking up your sword?)”

Doubte shook his head, yet he was rattled by Flos’ words. He strode down the deck a few paces—then strode back.

“If what you say is true—will you swear to it, [Steward]? I would ask Mars of Destruction, but I will ask you.”

The man who had once battled Mars to a standstill and gone on to face an army and force it back turned to Orthenon. The [Steward] just nodded.

“It is a great change that is coming, Hero. It may not realize itself immediately—but I now believe time is running out.”

Doubte closed his eyes.

“…Then my family and I must find another way. Or I must become that [Hero]. Perhaps…then perhaps it is time to pledge my sword to Khelt. If Khelt is even safe now.”

“(Wait, what? What about me?)”

Doubte turned away. He looked back over his shoulder only once.

“I do not care for you, Your Majesty of Reim. Perhaps we will meet again, but you make such terrible war. I will thank you for one thing. If you have ever known how to create [Heroes]…make no more. Even for your own ends. This class…is too much. I was not the first [Hero], but may I be the last. This class does not fit in the rest of the world.”

Then he left the two, to be alone with his own things. Flos folded his arms, frustrated—but he perked up as someone who had been eavesdropping gasped.

His Majesty of Reim? The—the King of Destruction!?

Hydra Knight Thuile pointed at Flos in horror, surprise, and—backed over the railing and went into the surf, headfirst. Flos Reimarch brightened up as every head turned and people whirled. They looked at him and cried out in surprise.

Well now. That was more like it.

 

——

 

“…Did someone just say that bandaged man was the King of Destruction?”

Pisces’ head slowly rose. He looked about. Then he turned to his left.

“Ksmvr, pinch me. Ow!

Ksmvr pinched Pisces with all three hands.

“Is that suitably hard enough, Comrade Pisces? I have not perfected my pinching skills, only my cat-petting abilities. I am now capable of triple ear scratches. Would you like me to show you?”

“Stay away from my ears.”

The [Necromancer] slapped Ksmvr’s hands down, almost laughing, and it was true their comedy bit was practically guaranteed with Pisces and Ksmvr in the same room.

However, even that bit of humor, the sheer oddity of it and Ksmvr’s polite tone and mystified hurt as to why anyone would deny ear scratchies, was enough.

Raelt of Jecrass, drinking orange juice, sprayed it out of his nose and mouth. The fine mist hit his daughter, Alked, and everyone downwind.

Father!

“I’m sorry. I’m—this isn’t a dream.”

Raelt was coughing and wiping at his face, but he was laughing. He looked at Pisces, who eyed the gold-bell duelist and King of Jecrass that had been prisoner of Medain’s [High King] for months.

The [Necromancer] hesitated—then offered the man a handkerchief.

“Could I offer you this, sir? It’s very clean.”

Raelt accepted it, and Ksmvr saw Pisces watching Raelt’s every move. The [Necromancer] looked at Ksmvr, then at Flos—and then back at Raelt.

It was very, very rare for Ksmvr to see Pisces in awe of anyone. But this? This would be, if he went back to The Wandering Inn and Erin Solstice were there to provide helpful slang from her world—

Well, this would be Pisces fanboying for the King of Duels.

“Thank you…Pisces, was it? I apologize, Adventurer Fellbow.”

“Think nothing of it, Your Majesty. I’ve known far worse at parties.”

Raelt eyed Alked, some of his humor fading a bit as he returned the handkerchief to Pisces. The [Necromancer] accepted it with a slight bow, and Ksmvr saw his eyes were locked on the bell on Raelt’s rapier. It hadn’t chimed, not once, and it looked to be a very sensitive bell. But Raelt did move with a certain grace Ksmvr struggled to find many equals to. The King of Jecrass turned to Alked.

“Yes…you would. Hemp in Nerrhavia’s Fallen?”

It was one of those statements that said a lot but made no sense unless you understood what it meant. Alked gazed at Raelt and nodded, one Chandrarian to another.

“You’re familiar with it, Your Majesty?”

“I’ve travelled to Nerrhavia’s Fallen. It’s amazing they don’t treat Named Adventurers—”

Raelt caught himself, glanced around, and then seemed to catch himself twice. He shook his head as he looked around the Kheltian ship far at sea.

“Well. I suppose here is safe enough, and you’re part of Khelt now? I’ve known—incidents with Stitch-folk. Entire clans expelled over issues with—cloth.”

Both Alked and Raelt looked uncomfortable, and the Named Adventurer nodded.

“That informed my decision to join Khelt, and His Majesty’s generosity. I hope you feel he has acted swiftly?”

Raelt shook his head, then shrugged.

“No—I mean to say, of course. I didn’t expect anyone would pry me out of Medain unless the King of Destruction took it or Perric got his way. That Khelt marched on them…and all because of you, Jecaina?”

He turned wondering eyes to his daughter, and the Arbiter Queen ducked her head, looking younger and tired. And relieved.

“I gave a third of Jecrass away to do it, Father.”

“A third—ah—under very strenuous circumstances, Your Majesty!”

Pisces interjected. He flushed and wavered.

“I’m sorry. I hesitate to interject, but I must add that from what I saw of the situation—it was a war that could only be lost without outside aid.”

Raelt paused only a second before nodding.

“It’s the soundest move. Aside from Herdmistress Geraeri joining Jecrass—which she never would have done…you sold her land to Fetohep?”

“I…she was inadvertently on it, Father.”

The King of Jecrass couldn’t hide the smile, and the look both rulers gave the Centauress nervously trotting around, slightly seasick, was not fond. Ksmvr nodded.

“I do not understand the entire nuance of these statements as I was not there, but I understand this Herdmistress is objectionable?”

“Ksmvr! Don’t interrupt!”

Pisces nudged his companion, but Ksmvr patted Pisces’ arm.

“Do not worry, Pisces. I am used to speaking with rulers.”

Raelt gave Ksmvr a blank look, but nodded.

“Herdmistress Geraeri is…difficult, Antinium Ksmvr. She is an uncontrollable force who can do much good or ill—a problem for any ruler. But she is a good woman—just as stubborn as a mule and inclined to support her own side. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s rare to have her in a nation.”

Both adventurers looked at each other.

“Like Erin?”

“Yes, exactly.”

Raelt and Jecaina raised their brows, wondering what an ‘Erin’ was. Alked Fellbow just frowned at Pisces and Ksmvr. They changed subjects in the short silence as Alked nodded at Ksmvr.

“So you’re the only Antinium to ever become an adventurer. Will there be more?”

Ksmvr looked struck.

“I do not know. I was exiled. Perhaps. My people could do very well as adventurers. Maybe some will come to Chandrar. Although we would have to go over…”

He trailed off. Then he began to scream.

Aaaah! AAAAAH! Aaaaah! AAAAAAH!

Everyone nearly jumped out of their skin. Alked had a hand on his bow when Ksmvr calmed down.

“I apologize. I remembered we were—we are surrounded by water! We are all going to drown! Aaaaaaah—I am better now, thank you.”

Pisces patted Ksmvr on the shoulder, and the Antinium shuddered. He stared at the deck. Raelt looked at his daughter, then cleared his throat.

“I—see. And you are a [Necromancer].”

Pisces braced, but Raelt just looked at him expectantly.

“I…yes, Your Majesty.”

“Hm. Well—it’s fascinating that you also were trained by a [Duelist]. I’ve never heard of the class aside from Az’kerash being viable, but that’s proof in itself, isn’t it? Are there any unique synergies between necromancy and dueling?”

Pisces blinked as Jecaina turned. Alked just scratched at his chin, interested.

“[Necromancers] don’t become adventurers in Chandrar often, though there are lots of bones under the sand. I sometimes partied with one just to send a zombie as bait. None of them were good at fencing at all.”

“I…I…I do practice a bit of the sword. But I am hardly competent. I never earned a silver bell, though my f—instructor was one, and I bested him in an actual duel. But I’m just, ah—a novice.”

Ksmvr felt at the back of Pisces’ neck as the [Necromancer] tried to swat his hands down.

“Comrade Pisces, are you sick? You appear to be. I have never heard you describe your abilities in less than stellar terms.”

“A silver-bell? At your age? My daughter has one…”

“Father.”

“The world knows about it, sure, Your Majesty! And your own duel was sublime—”

Raelt tried to wave this away, looking embarrassed.

“It was the most disgraceful performance. I would have had that gold bell taken away. I don’t know what I was thinking. No poison, and I kept getting trapped against that damn stone wall.”

Not at all! Your Majesty, that was the most extraordinary—I hate to ask this of you, but I would be remiss not to ask for an autograph. And if you were ever so inclined to duel…although your captivity…”

Pisces looked actually enamored. Ksmvr began poking him, just to get him to stop looking like that. Raelt looked embarrassed and pleased by the attention.

“I wouldn’t actually say no. The things I have wanted to stab while I’ve been…and a rolling boat—ship—whatever this thing is isn’t a bad spot. There’s plenty of space. In fact, I confess I’d love to see a Named Adventurer and this [Silver Illusion] sword school.”

Pisces’ jaw dropped, and Ksmvr proudly stood upright.

“I would acquiesce to your duel, King Raelt—but I believe I must first rejoin my captain and other teammate, Miss Yvlon, and speak to them first. As any good adventurer must.”

“Ksmvr! He’s the King of Duels!

“And I am Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad. Pisces, do not embarrass me, please. You do not know how to talk to royalty. I do.”

Ksmvr tried to cover Pisces’ mouth as Jecaina, Alked, and Raelt watched. Raelt lifted a finger.

“…Who is this royal person you’ve been speaking to, Adventurer Ksmvr?”

“Oh. Empress Nsiia of Tiqr. She and I are friends. Also, she is a dirty [Thief] who has stolen my sword. I wish to lodge that objection with her peerage.”

Pisces goggled at Ksmvr. Alked and Jecaina had seen the documentary, but Raelt rubbed at one ear.

“Clearly, a lot has changed since I left. I thought she was a [Prisoner]?”

Ksmvr brightly looked at Pisces’ expression.

“She was. But I landed in Illivere, and I freed—she accidentally escaped and we ended up on a journey together. Yes, that is what happened. Do not believe the lies. Also, there was Yinah, Domehead, and Spitty. I hate Spitty, but he saved my life, and I am motivated to mention this.”

Raelt just stood there, blinking at Ksmvr. Pisces looked horrified, confused, and more horrified by turns, but then the King of Duels threw back his head and laughed. And that…that felt good. It felt like healing.

 

——

 

Look at these meetings. The King of Destruction himself broke away from greeting his would-be foes and allies to watch Raelt of Jecrass take on his daughter and Pisces in a two-on-one duel.

“(Ah, Raelt of Jecrass. I am pleased he was freed. Orthenon, I wish to meet that Antinium adventurer. Who is the other one?)”

“A…[Necromancer]. Pisces Jealnet of the Horns of Hammerad.”

The [Steward] confirmed after a moment. Flos Reimarch tapped his chin and winced with each tap. Now how did he know that name?

He shrugged. Half the [Knights] were queuing up to beg a duel from that famous man, and Flos saw even Orthenon and Fetohep watching with mild interest. He frowned and cursed his damaged body.

It was then that the buzz of conversation faded. Amidst the duel, the swell of waves, and all the rest—everyone had quite forgotten the existence of the undead.

The ship’s crew were making the ship run, doing things with lines or ropes—sometimes just to look busy. As for Fetohep, he had been engrossed in conversation with all the other powers of the world.

It was Vizir Hecrelunn and Salui who had been aloof, watching. However, Flos’ eyes narrowed as Hecrelunn descended from above and Salui leapt from the prow of the ship.

A fight! You? Are you reaaaaaaaaaal—

He swung his sword and crashed into the deck, scattering the combatants like flies. Raelt turned—and found himself staring at the Revenant.

Flos Reimarch just looked up at Hecrelunn.

“Little king. We meet again.”

The King of Destruction’s teeth bared as he met Hecrelunn’s gaze and remembered the last time they had met. To his credit, or perhaps, not, the [Vizir] didn’t even bother to hide. Flos nodded.

“(Yes, indeed, Vizir Hecrelunn. Orthenon?)”

“Your Majesty?”

The [Steward]’s eyes narrowed as he looked up at Hecrelunn. Flos Reimarch lifted a hand.

“(Kill that Revenant, please.)”

 

——

 

A fight broke out on deck as Orthenon pursued Hecrelunn. The [Vizir] was shouting insults as the [Steward] leapt from masts and over rigging, slashing at him. Salui was chasing around Pisces and Ksmvr on the deck when Fetohep strode out of the cabin fit for a [King]—King Dolenm, to be precise—and roared.

“Enough!”

Everyone halted as Ceria drew a bead on Salui’s back. Literally…a bead of ice. He was resisting her magic so badly she couldn’t even freeze him.

“You wretched little—”

Hecrelunn spun with spells glowing off his fingertips, but Fetohep had his and Salui’s measure. The Revenant was still chasing Pisces and Ksmvr, so Fetohep snapped.

Salui! His-Xe is in peril, and you waste your strength? By Khelta, silence Little Brother-King.”

Hecrelunn’s glowing red eyes faded, and he came to a stop. Orthenon halted as Fetohep turned from Salui, who had gone still, to Orthenon.

“I understand the Vizir Hecrelunn has offended The King of Destruction?”

“Yes, King Fetohep.”

“Then he shall pay for it. Afterwards. We have no time for petty disputes. Two issues have arisen. The first is that my Scourgeriders have begun their assault on A’ctelios Salash. If they fail—Chandrar will know devastation.”

The deck went silent as Fetohep walked across it. He turned his head towards Flos Reimarch, and even the King of Destruction was alert. Fetohep glanced ahead and shook his head.

“…The second is that petty fools are attempting to stymie our progress. Zeres has hired every ship on the sea to halt our fleet.”

“What? So we are sailing against the City of Waves after all? Why?”

Someone exclaimed in dismay. Fetohep pointed a finger at a [Knight].

“We sail to end the madness in the Meeting of Tribes. Not to make war on the City of Waves. These impertinent Drakes have nevertheless put a bounty upon Sand at Sea. They are also rallying their armadas to attempt to stop us.”

The passengers quieted. Almost none were seafaring experts. A battle at sea was dangerous. They might have an ancient warship on their side, but the other ships in the fleet had no specialist [Admirals] or other sea-classes, and Zeres—did.

“So what do we do?”

Fetohep’s eyes glinted.

“Were things otherwise, I would simply destroy Zeres’ fleets. However, it may be that we can avoid needless deaths on the Drakes’ side. They have sent their armadas, but it is the mercenary ships that concern me.”

“(How many do we face?)”

The King of Destruction frowned mightily. He had suffered his only major defeats mostly at sea. It was somewhat ironic he asked, because Fetohep gave him a sardonic look.

“Currently? Just one. The Illuminary has accepted the bounty and is on a direct course towards us. I believe their [Captain] quite fancies the notion of besting Khelt, Reim, Jecrass, and half a dozen nations in combat.”

Every head turned to Flos as the King of Destruction growled an oath.

Rasea Zecrew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six days after the Archmage of Chandrar had been freed from Wistram, the Illuminary, having lost all pursuers, turned across the sea, carrying two of the King of Destruction’s Seven.

 

Trey Atwood was a hostage. He hadn’t been, but Rasea’s crew had tied him up with the other Earthers, Calac, and Goelv, and they were rolling around the storm-blown decks as the Illuminary surged towards their target.

Amerys and Gazi…were less easy to tie up. Gazi herself was standing with her back to a railing, her claymore raised. The crack in her armor was barely visible—what you saw was that giant, gleaming eye swiveling in every direction. Four lesser ones glowing with a different color in each, the pupils searing as they spun crazily from [Pirate] to [Pirate].

That smile. It looked eager to Trey, worried—to anyone who didn’t know her, it was like watching a shark grin. Yet Gazi did not attack the Illuminary’s crew. They were some of the greatest fighters at sea.

Similarly—even the glowing woman skip-tripping across the world to keep up with the fastest ship at sea didn’t rain down lightning bolts. Archmage Amerys, muscle so atrophied she didn’t even have the strength to keep herself upright, robes billowing behind her, was far less impressive in appearance than Gazi, who had cultivated her look.

…On the other hand, Trey saw Elena looking up and watching the cascade of electricity trailing behind Amerys like the grin of some thunder god. The dark clouds overhead split as the glowing avatar of lightning danced across the world like she was summoning a storm. Swaying, stepping like thunder across the sky, free.

Yet she did not attack. Nor did Gazi; this vessel was their only way to get to shore, and if it sank, Trey wondered if Amerys could carry all the Earthers—or even herself—to safe harbor. Moreover, Rasea Zecrew and her crew were armed to the teeth, and this was their place.

So it was a good, old-fashioned standoff as the two of the King’s Seven argued with the laughing [Pirate Captain] currently trying to attack Fetohep of Khelt’s ship.

He had a ship? That was a stupid question. Of course Fetohep had a ship, but Trey Atwood knew the King of Khelt. The fact that Fetohep had personally rampaged across the north? Trey was very, very worried.

In fact, the only person more worried than Trey right now was the young girl pacing barefoot on the water-soaked decks as they crashed through waves. The Quarass of Germina was not being tied up. She had taken one look around and made one announcement when the [Pirates] betrayed their contract.

I will remember this.

No one had tied her up. She was still speaking rapidly into the stone.

“—Enter the Direten Sepulcher and retrieve the vessel within. Take it carefully—carefully—to the Djinni and inform Khelt’s representatives it is to be used exactly as stated. How much is A’ctelios Salash moving? How fast is it blinking?”

Oh shit. The Quarass of Ger had the look of a woman seeing a disaster she had prepared for, hoped would never come, and was currently burning down her house while she was a thousand miles away.

In the backdrop of it all, Trey heard that laughter.

Rasea Zecrew’s head was thrown back. Half her face shone with the anglerfish side of her, a bright light replacing one eye. The other—Human—had hair blowing into the wind around the hat of a [Pirate]. She stared ahead, that famous sword hanging at her side, holding the steering wheel of the Illuminary as the glowing ship sped towards its target.

Rasea! This is madness. Desist or the wrath of Reim and Khelt itself will be upon you!

The [Pirate] just shook her head. She looked ahead through that storm, and Trey almost thought he could see the Kheltian fleet.

Lights bobbing across the waves. And…a change to the storm billowing around them. Was it turning brown?

A sandstorm. Rasea aimed at the heart of it, eyes wide with delight.

“There is the King of Destruction, the King of Khelt, the King of Duels—legends and stories. If I did not challenge them, what sort of [Pirate] would I be? Boys, get ready for the fight of your lives!

The [Pirates] cheered wildly as Gazi looked around in frustration. Mad as loons. The same energy that had persuaded Rasea to raid Wistram was impelling her to this battle. Trey wasn’t necessarily worried for Fetohep, either.

He was more worried for himself and the Earthers because they were on the Illuminary. Trey had a good idea of what Fetohep could do if he lost his considerable temper. He also suspected this was a stupid, stupid battle. The Quarass glanced up, and her eyes met Trey’s.

They had no time for this. But Rasea was an ally. The Quarass’ gaze flicked towards the distant ship, and now Trey saw it.

A yellowed prow of bone breaking through the waves, surrounded by the sands of Chandrar. Three times the size of the Illuminary, glowing with old magic. Was that someone floating in the air, turning as they saw the [Pirates] approach?

Trey saw the flash of red for a second. Then he felt the people on that boat.

It was like approaching a bonfire the size of a skyscraper. Trey wanted to shield his face from the intensity of those overlapping auras. Yet Rasea was burning just as hot in reply.

This is the age I have always dreamed of. Prepare for boarding. We’re going to ram them.

Now, the Quarass rose from the deck, and Gazi’s main eye swiveled towards her. Amerys was swooping down; neither would let their [King] be harmed, but they waited for the Quarass’ move. The wisest leader, the ancient, reincarnated being of Ger, looked at the distant warship of Khelt. She peered at the Illuminary, shooting at its side to ram it—or even split the warship in two if the impact were hard enough. The [Pirates] were waiting, grappling hooks and boarding gear in hand. Laughing.

What would she do? Trey saw the Quarass glance ahead, then at him—and then grip the railing. Hard. Gazi blinked at the Quarass. Then she grabbed the railing. Trey wriggled desperately as he remembered he was still trussed up.

Uh oh—

 

——

 

The famous [Pirate] ship was coming straight at them. Which was a bad idea for them, because Doubte, the [Hero] of Zethe, was standing right next to Salui, a [Champion of War], the finest [Knights] from Terandria’s Crusade, two Named-rank Adventurers, and Orthenon, with the Vizir Hecrelunn hovering overhead—

And more. The Horns were in that ‘more’ category, and they didn’t mind. They were more wondering what everyone else was.

How would they deal with this? Fetohep of Khelt did not want to waste lives or energy, and the [Pirates] might do both. Or delay them long enough to run into that Drake armada. In fact, it was Fetohep’s plan.

So, naturally, Flos Reimarch was standing at the railings, arguing with him, and Queen Jecaina and King Raelt were there too.

Rulers. They were arguing as they stood there, their auras warring in close proximity.

It shows that a child inhabits the body of an older man, boy, that you cannot even control those you hire.

“Mggth minh mrds mr—(Mighty fine words for someone too afraid to leave his borders, Fetohep!)”

Both rulers glared at each other as an exasperated [Queen] broke in.

“Excuse me, Your Majesties, but do we have a plan? They are about to ram us!”

“(We fight, of course!)”

“What? What is he—?

He wants to fight. Just like Belchan—you can’t see anything but war. You’ve dragged every kingdom into your mess.

Raelt was glaring at Flos. The King of Destruction lifted his head.

“(I have every reason, Raelt of Jecrass. Did Chandrar seem well to you? There is more than just this world at stake.)”

Fetohep, Jecaina, and Raelt looked at each other as Flos delivered one of the grand secrets he had kept.

What? Someone translate for him.”

“No time. They are upon us. Follow my lead.”

Fetohep of Khelt was watching the lighthouse surging through the waves. Every head turned to him, and bodies tensed. Yet the King of Khelt just stood there as even the King of Destruction grudgingly waited. Then…Jecaina gulped, and Raelt swore under his breath. The King of Bandages began to smile.

What were they doing? Far behind the first wave of fighters, sensibly encased in ice, Ceria Springwalker waddled forwards and peered at the [Rulers]. They were just standing there. The Illuminary was coming straight at them.

Brace!

The Revenant [Captain] roared, and his undead crew stood to action. In the distance, over the roar of waves, Ceria thought she heard a laugh. A roar of voices to match even the Bloodtear Pirates. Her skin chilled as she locked eyes with that famous crew and a glowing figure aboard the ship.

Then—the Illuminary tore through the storm. It plunged towards Sand at Sea like an arrow, a javelin hurled through the night. A missile the size of a warship that would spell untold damage for the weaker ship, a wallbreaking action an insane [Captain] would order.

The Illuminary aimed straight at the four rulers.

Fetohep of Khelt.

Flos, the King of Destruction.

Jecaina, the Arbiter Queen.

Raelt, the King of Duels.

And Vizir Hecrelunn! The four—five great rulers stood there. And the Illuminary

—bounced—

off an invisible barrier in the world. Ceria’s eyes bulged as she saw the warship glance off something and the [Pirates] go crashing across the deck. A wriggling silkworm of a boy careened down the decks until a woman with an armored boot stopped him. The Illuminary went veering left.

 

——

 

“What was that? What’d we hit?”

Rasea Zecrew was shouting in confusion, whirling the wheel and looking around. Her ship had survived hitting…what? Magic? It wasn’t half as terrible as the collision between warships would have been, but it had repelled them. She whirled back to the Kheltian warship as it surged onwards.

It was the Quarass, picking herself up from the impact she’d expected, who answered. She sighed as she stared at the four rulers.

“Their auras. That is a shield…of ego.”

 

——

 

Ego. Arrogance. The very quality of a ruler, magnified with the four…five self-important, all-consuming leaders. The Illuminary had just hit a manifestation of that quality in all five.

It hadn’t even left a dent. 

The smaller ship raced alongside Sand at Sea as Rasea screamed insults. She waved her sword as she strode to the railings.

I challenge you, Fetohep of Khelt! Come and fight me, stories of Chandrar!

“Let me. Letmeletmeletmeletme—

Salui was trembling, axe raised to leap across the waters, but Hecrelunn just sneered.

“Allow me, Fetohep of Khelt. I will sink this obstruction.”

He lifted a glowing finger, and the [Helmsman] of the Illuminary began to juke in alarm, sensing the magic. The ballistae aimed up as Khelt’s warship produced their own ship weapons.

However, Fetohep of Khelt ignored the voices. He strode to the railing of the ship and called down to Rasea, his voice ringing across the waters.

Rasea Zecrew! Desist your foolishness! We sail to end a war and perhaps even battle the horrors that climb the world’s edge! Follow me.”

The [Pirate Captain] hesitated as she locked eyes with the golden flames of Fetohep. Yet she waved her sword in frustration.

“And miss the opportunity to fight the greatest warriors I have ever laid eyes upon?”

Fetohep lifted his chin. Another ruler might have negotiated with Rasea differently. Flos, Jecaina, Raelt—each to their own way. But the ruler of Khelt simply roared across the sea. His voice was so loud that even the other ships trailing in his wake heard him.

“Wretched little [Pirate]! Enough! I have no time to waste sinking your squalid, rotting boat. Follow me and fall into line or I will call across the world that when Khelt sailed against the City of Waves and every foe to do battle with the greatest of armies—Rasea Zecrew lacked the spine to join them.

The woman on her decks recoiled as if Fetohep had hit her. If he had a Skill, that insult would have slapped her across the deck. Even the people on deck had to appreciate it.

“Nice shot.”

“Yonder maiden has been verily upbraided.”

“She is almost certainly not a maiden.”

“I can confirm that.”

“I believe this is a good insult. Seven out of ten?”

“Oh, come on, you do better. Eight out of ten, surely.”

Even the background dialogue was a cut above what Ceria was used to hearing. She was trying to find out who could confirm that part about Rasea’s lack of maidenly virtues as the [Pirate] hesitated. She was clearly torn between answering Fetohep’s demands or answering him with a sword.

“‘Scuse me. ‘Scuse me—get your flesh-faces out of my way.

Someone kicked through the crowd. An undead face pushed Frieke of Khelt aside, and the [Captain] of King Dolenm’s warship appeared at the railing. He looked at Fetohep as the ruler of Khelt turned to him.

“Sire. Permission to parlay with the [Pirates] in language they understand?”

“It is granted.”

Fetohep lifted a hand, and everyone saw the ghastly face of the rotted skeleton turn to the crew of the Illuminary. Two bright blue candles of fire shone as the [Captain] bellowed down to Rasea.

Climb aboard, [Pirate]! There’s no glory in being a footnote in this story. We’ve got a hundred kegs of drink, and we’re going to write a legend in every book. Get on board.”

Rasea lowered her sword. She peered up at the [Captain]. Then she spread her arms and laughed.

“Well, why didn’t you say so?”

The Arbiter Queen, King of Khelt, and other rulers watched the Revenant call for ropes and a ramp to be lowered. He turned, and one blue flame winked at them.

“Got to know how to speak to them, Your Majesties.”

Without a single shot fired, a spell cast, or a drop of blood spilled besides Trey’s nosebleed—the Illuminary docked with Sand at Sea, and Rasea Zecrew came striding up onto the deck. She looked around and sighed, for this is where she wanted to be.

But that was only the prelude. Standing on the decks, the bandaged King of Destruction called out as he saw two figures coming up the deck. Trey was wiping at his nose as Gazi held him upright. He glanced up and saw Flos Reimarch spreading his arms.

“Is that…Flos?”

“He looks injured.”

Gazi peered up worriedly at Flos Reimarch, and then both saw Orthenon standing behind Flos as ever. A shadow. Trey’s eyes were round with wonder as he spied one of Serept’s loyal half-Giants, the floating [Vizir], and even Gazi was taken aback by the strange company above.

But they were all background to the call from above. The King of Destruction’s spread hands lowered, and everyone looked up.

In the dark night, the sandstorm and raging waters abated a moment. The thundering skies of clouds drew back, exposing a bright moon. Lightning crackled through the air—then flashed away.

A line in the sky opened up, and there she descended. Archmage Amerys, drifting downwards, as the King of Destruction stepped away from the others and reached up towards her.

Her eyes, like the very heart of a lightning bolt, met his, green like the very lands he had dreamed of riding across. Amerys, the Calm Flower of the Battlefield, alighted on the deck, and the King of Destruction embraced her.

His greatest [Mage] looked at Flos Reimarch after so long. She had seen him slumbering for twenty years—and now, a year after he had awoken, returned to life, they finally met.

This—was the stuff of stories. Everyone watched as Chandrar’s famous [King] met one of his Seven.

For good or ill. The Terandrian [Knights] watched with a mix of anticipation, knowing they could say they had been here, worry for the future, and…satisfaction.

Satisfaction, because they could hear Flos laughing in relief. Laughing, knowing his friend was safe. His companion.

Amerys was laughing too, but quietly. Tiredly. She was looking Flos up and down. The first words from her mouth were…

“You stink, and you’re covered in injuries. Did you pick a fight with a Flame Elemental again?”

“(No, I was fighting a Djinni, actually—)”

“What? Can’t you speak? I am gone for a year and you’ve crippled yourself. A year? And you send Gazi to rescue me? What are you doing on this ship?”

Flos muttered something incomprehensible, and Amerys just stared at him as Orthenon approached.

“Amerys. It is good to see you.”

“Ah. Wonderful. A man with no tongue, and a man with no personality. Where is Mars? Gazi! Where are you?”

Amerys was quick, and her gaze flashed with mockery, but then she and Orthenon looked at each other, and the [Steward] touched her arm.

“You look thin. Tired. I will find you something to eat, and you will rest as long as you need. Then—we will avenge every wrong on Wistram’s head.”

Amerys tightened a weak grip on his shoulder.

“Ah, Orthenon. I will hold you to that. How has it been? You, who waited the longest with the King of Sloth.”

“(I’m right here.)”

Both his vassals ignored him a moment. Orthenon threw back his head and stared up. Then he smiled at Amerys, who grinned, as fast as a flash.

“Almost worth the wait. It is good to see you back, Calm Flower. Chandrar has need of your wisdom and grace.”

She was laughing at that when Gazi strode onto the deck. She caught sight of Flos but was too slow to avoid his bear hug as he swept her up.

“My lord—enough. This is a public moment—”

The embarrassed Gazer protested, but then there were three of them, all standing together as Orthenon nodded at Gazi.

“Well done.”

“Fair praise, coming from you.”

The two looked at each other as Amerys began to laugh louder.

“Ah, there is the Dour Couple. The worst match in Chandrar—or so I said until Orthenon began to send poetry and flowers and I learned Gazi could blush like anyone else!”

She put her arms around both of them to lean on their shoulders, and both promptly shrugged her off. Amerys almost fell down, but Flos held her, and his head turned.

“(Where is Trey?)”

“There.”

Every head turned, and the young man climbing onto the deck suddenly found himself at the center of attention. Trey Atwood froze, but then Flos was striding across the deck to him. Amerys sighed and looked around.

“Now this—this is something even we have not seen. I wish we were all here. Drevish is dead, Gazi told me, Orthenon.”

“Yes. He did not die of age or in battle, but of treachery.”

The [Steward] bowed his head. Amerys looked up.

“Takhatres and Mars live?”

“Yes.”

She exhaled.

“…Four out of the Seven, plus you. It will be enough. Tell me—why is Khelt sailing? Where are we bound? Then we shall go back and avenge Drevish. I am tired, Orthenon. But I feel myself growing stronger with each second. Let me lean on you a moment?”

For answer, he extended an arm, like they were going to some dance or occasion.

“You weigh less than His Majesty.”

Amerys chuckled again. It seemed like that was when everyone finally exhaled and realized they were part of this scene as well. The first person to move was Rasea Zecrew.

She had a tankard in hand, and she took the largest gulp in the world. Misty-eyed, she grabbed the nearest person by the waist and squeezed.

“This is what I came here to see. Stories. And who are you?”

Frieke stared at Rasea. Say it. You had to say it—she had a terrible sense of déjà-vu.

 

——

 

“Dead gods. Look at this. This is—amazing. Are we seeing this? Pinch me, Ksmv—ow!

Ksmvr’s patented triple-pinching technique convinced Ceria this was real. Indeed, it was so real that one of Gazi’s eyes swiveled around from explaining what had happened to Flos with Trey as Fetohep strode over, and she caught sight of the Horns of Hammerad.

“Ah. Your Majesty.”

“(Hm? Begone, Fetohep. My loyal subject and I must have words.)”

Flos Reimarch was flapping a hand at Fetohep, and the King of Khelt was losing patience, but Gazi whispered to Flos.

“My eyes do not deceive me—those are the Horns of Hammerad. I fought with some of them, briefly. That is the [Necromancer] I mentioned.”

“(Oh?)

Flos’ head turned. And then he was—Yvlon made a squeaking noise, and everyone stared at her.

He’s looking at us, Ceria! What did you do?

“Not me! Pisces! What have you done?”

“I have done nothing! I have been the exemplar of good conduct—”

“I shall introduce myself. I know how to talk to royalt—”

All of the Horns grabbed Ksmvr. Flos Reimarch was listening to Gazi, even as he looked at Amerys, but the Archmage of Chandrar had spotted a buffet. Like any good Wistram [Mage], she was pulling a Telim with the food.

Mf mght’s myrlly—

Dead gods, enough!

The mumbling King of Destruction had clearly aggravated everyone who wanted a clear understanding of what was going on. Even Fetohep of Khelt considered this had maybe lost its appeal.

However, it was the one, the only, the Vizir Hecrelunn who lost all patience at last. He pointed at Flos, and Orthenon and Amerys whirled.

Enough, you mumbling king. [Tongue of the Sphinx: Clarity]!

The King of Destruction blinked a few times. Then he tried his voice. A booming voice, his true voice, echoed from the bandages, perfectly restored.

“I can speak? At last! Gazi, my beloved servant, my wondrous Gazer—is that truly the [Necromancer] you told me about? The one you called the prodigy of his generation? I must meet him.”

His booming voice echoed around the ship. The Horns of Hammerad went still, and all of them looked at Pisces. The [Necromancer] went white—then red as a beet.

“Gazi the Omniscient said that about…?”

He squeaked. Then they realized—Flos was coming across the decks straight at them.

“He can make those…? Ah, I wondered if we could have one. What did I say before? Too dangerous? Khelt has all their Revenants. What about the [Innkeeper] and that City Runner? What was her name?”

“Erin Solstice, Your Majesty.”

Then the King of Destruction in bandages was looming over the Horns. Fetohep of Khelt’s head turned as he heard Gazi’s comment, and the people on the deck of the ship murmured. They had all heard that name.

Gazi met Ceria’s eyes, and the [Cryomancer] hid behind Yvlon. Pisces stared at Gazi, and they recalled when last they had met—Silver-ranks, children watching a Named Adventurer fight all of Liscor and win.

Until Erin poked her in the eye. Ceria had grown since then. She had leveled up—what, over ten times! She looked up, trying to straighten her back, and met the King of Destruction’s gaze.

Tree rot. I’m going to faint.”

Flos, the King of Destruction, looked delighted at the reaction. He reached out and slapped Yvlon on the shoulder so hard she nearly fell down—and winced as it damaged his hands.

A Gold-rank team from Izril! I have seen your exploits, Horns of Hammerad. I am Flos Reimarch, whom you may know!”

He threw his head back and laughed. Then he went nearly cross eyed as Ksmvr stuck out a hand.

“Hello, Your Majesty. I believe I have heard of you. I am Ksmvr, formerly of the Free Antinium of Liscor. Now proud member of the Horns of Hammerad. Empress Nsiia does not speak fondly of you.”

Flos did a double-take as Gazi regarded Ksmvr with clear confusion.

“Is this Klbkch the Slayer? No—Ksmv…Ksmvr? Of Chandrar! Aha! The one who knows the Loquea Dree and helped free Sottheim? And Nsiia? You, my friend, I owe a boon to!”

Then Flos grabbed Ksmvr and lifted him up in a hug. Yvlon’s mouth was open so wide one of the flying fish crashing across the deck hit her square in the mouth.

“What the—?”

Pisces ducked another object as Yvlon stumbled. Flos whirled, and the [Captain] bellowed.

Dead gods damn it—we’ve hit a shoal! Food’s flying!

Everyone took cover or knocked fish out of the way as an unlucky school of flying fish jumped straight into the warship. Ceria raised her hand at the same time as Gazi.

“[Ice Wall]!”

They both said it at once, then stared at each other as a wall of ice formed, two layers which shielded them from the squall of fish. Flos blinked.

“You’ve learned ice magic, Gazi! Now there is a change!”

“And you have improved in your magic markedly, half-Elf. Interesting circlet.”

Gazi’s eyes were on Ceria. The half-Elf blinked at Gazi.

“Th—thank you. You’re, uh, good at ice magic too. How did…?”

The conversations were all halted a moment as Sand at Sea activated a magical shield that took away wind, water, and flying fish. The people on the decks began to gather as the King of Destruction motioned to the Horns and stood, beaming behind his bandages.

“Now I can speak, no thanks to Fetohep the Miser, I have endless questions. Trey! Come here and meet this interesting team. Oh? Who have you there? More friends from…?”

Elena and the other Earthers stopped at this gathering as they broke away from blankets and food. Ceria exchanged a look with Pisces, and the Quarass lowered her speaking stone enough to see Flos.

“King of Destruction.”

“Quarass! You have my gratitude for—”

“Yes, yes.”

She waved him off. Miffed, the King of Destruction watched the Quarass hurry across the decks. Ksmvr pointed at her.

“That is a little girl. Is she the Quarass of Germina, a Shield Kingdom?”

The Quarass halted. She turned her head, even amidst her worries and the urgency of the moment, to regard Ksmvr with narrowed eyes.

“An Antinium. And…”

She eyed Ceria’s circlet and then did a double-take of her own.

“Doubte of Zethe?”

“Quarass. We meet again. I congratulate you on your rebirth. Your second body did not seem to suit you well.”

The [Hero] bowed to the Quarass, who blinked at him. Then at the others. Even she seemed taken aback. Especially because…

“Ah, Quarass. Finally, some intelligent company with age to it. Once again, you have the honor of meeting the Vizir Hecrelunn. He is sure you have not forgotten him.”

Vizir Hecrelunn floated over self-importantly. The other Revenants all knew the Quarass. She took one look at Hecrelunn and grimaced.

“…I have no time for this. Would that I did. Out of my way, Vizir. Chandrar needs me. By Ger and the Shield Kingdoms. Fetohep! Tell me what passes at A’ctelios Salash and the rest of the world that I cannot see. It is waking up.

Like that, everyone fell silent, and that joyous occasion was broken as they were reminded of their task.

Yet they were sailing away from Chandrar and one of the greatest cataclysms ever. Fetohep of Khelt turned, and a single speaking stone floated across the deck, followed by the King of Khelt. Everyone gathered around, and Rasea grabbed a bowl of popped corn on a hunch. They listened as Fetohep met with the Quarass.

“A’ctelios Salash senses its kin. It is trying to wake up. I have sent two Jaws of Zeikhal and legions marching with the Giant of Ash’s corpse if it does rise.”

The Quarass was hunched over her own speaking stone, eyes ablaze with worry.

“They will be like toddlers trying to stop a ghoul if it wakes.”

“Yes. So I have called upon the Shield Kingdoms and every force. Your poison…”

“The Labyrinth City, Merreid, has sent Djinni to transport it. But the Djinni will never prevail. Not inside A’ctelios Salash. It will swallow them.”

Fetohep nodded gravely. He stood there, and his head rose to the speaking stone.

“Yes. That is why the Scourgeriders of Emrist strike A’ctelios Salash. They have pledged to return it to its empty dreams.”

The Quarass exhaled, and a look of relief entered her eyes, subsumed by worry again just as quickly.

“How do they fare?”

For answer, Fetohep of Khelt lifted a stone, and everyone heard a faint voice. Trey Atwood, standing next to the King of Destruction, saw Flos glance at him, and he shuddered as he heard a voice, and behind it, familiar, wild screams of a hundred thousand voices. An alien roar and the sounds of fighting.

Your Majesty. I am Yiraz, First of the Scourge. We have entered A’ctelios Salash. What of Coutei?

“He has left, Yiraz. Your kin fulfill their mission, and three fly to you now. Report what passes as you are able.”

I shall, Your Majesty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That night, after the King of Khelt, Fetohep, shouted his warning, the world watched A’ctelios Salash. As the ghosts of Chandrar regained their Skills, the Scourgeriders of Emrist fell upon the Carven City.

 

A’ctelios Salash was waking up. Those listening to the reports could not see the fighting within.

Only what they saw from the outside. The scrying orbs flicking from the emergence of a Fraerling city in Talenqual, the return of the Titan, war in the Meeting of Tribes, Ailendamus, and Fetohep—

—Stopped here.

Many had never seen A’ctelios Salash. Never beheld Tombhome and understood what it was.

One of Chandrar’s many buried horrors.

A face…the top of a face buried in the sands. Swirling entrances, six, set into the earth, leading into the Carven City.

Eyes. The pupils hollowed out. A monstrosity felled so long ago that no one, not even the Quarass, had seen it die. Occupied and eaten, to make sure it stayed dead.

And it was waking up.

The eyes had moved. They were all staring…northwest. Towards Baleros. Towards the place where time was rippling.

It was looking at something.

The sky was dark, but the area around A’ctelios Salash blazed with light. Djinni from the Labyrinth City of Merreid—even from Roshal and other nations—had joined with soldiers, adventurers, not just Khelt. They were camped around A’ctelios Salash. None of them entered Tombhome through those eyes.

They feared to. Only sixty some Revenants had dared fly into those eyes. The Scourgeriders of Emrist were locked in battle within, and their speaking spells to Fetohep were the only line to knowing what occurred within.

But the view from outside was hardly silent. The flare of magic was blinding—bounding shapes raced out of Tombhome. Figures emerging to be cut down with arrows and spells and steel if they got close enough.

Yet it was hard to kill them. They refused to die. They got back up when they should be dead. An arrow blew part of a head off and…something…kept running.

The scrying orbs focused a few times on what the garrisons hacked down. But the images had to be removed. Wistram refused to show the audience what it was seeing.

The Djinni had lost two of their number already, breaking into one of the eyes to deliver a vessel from Germina itself. The Garuda of Qualvekkaras, Kingdom of the Winds, had also lost several of their number to support Khelt.

This was a matter for Shield Kingdoms. This was one of their own. A weapon meant to stop the advent of Dragons—which was twisting in Chandrar’s grip.

A’ctelios Salash was waking up. There were safeguards, measures that were always taken, and the Carven City was monitored.

But this was different. This was spontaneous, triggered by the Seamwalkers. This, more than anything, proved Fetohep was right.

The ground shook. Every so often, a tremor would run through the ground. Or two, in quick succession. It took the people outside a while to realize what it was.

Heartbeats. But spaced so far apart…and multiple heartbeats? The nerve of many broke simply by holding their ground outside A’ctelios Salash. Some ran.

But the Scourgeriders of Emrist had entered the Carven City. They were not in direct communication with Fetohep at all times. The fighting was so intense that their number could not speak and fight. And…the spell kept cutting out.

Vizir Hecrelunn, Archmage Amerys, and every other spellcasting expert including the Quarass, holding the Serkonian Lance, were trying to amplify their reception and keep it steady. Nevertheless…the reports came in every few minutes.

 

——

 

“…we have broken into the main city. It is as I remember it. Wider…they have gone mad. A’ctelios Salash has woken its inhabitants. Strike them down! Take the vessel to the weakening points! Keep high above them—they’re jumping from the rooftops!”

Scourgerider Yiraz was reporting. His voice was steady in the first area, and the listeners could hear the legendary force of Emrist’s time fighting behind him.

“[Fireball], [Fireball], [Fireball], [Fireball], [Fireball]—”

“[Locust Storm]!”

Ethereal, echoing voices from the Scourgeriders. Explosions and screams—they had entered Tombhome in wrath and ruin once A’ctelios Salash refused to admit them. They were from the age of Queen Emrist. They knew mercy and had delivered it at times.

This—

Your Majesty. Tombhome is filled. What are your orders?

Fetohep paused long and painfully.

“Eradicate them if you must, Yiraz. A’ctelios Salash cannot wake. I have heard testimony from Gazi of—from a Named Adventurer and the Quarass. The leadership of A’ctelios Salash is compromised.”

A beat followed, and Yiraz’s voice was grim.

“I knew the glorious Tombhome of old, who was a friend and offered a choice. Is this the same? It looks changed. The alleyways spiral, the streets are no longer straight. It is so dark here…”

Dark. Trey Atwood remembered how parts of the city—the true parts, not the bright, happy mercantile districts for travelers—had been so ominous. Fetohep replied softly.

“They offered no choice, Yiraz. Spare the travelers and visitors, but offer no quarter.”

He waited, with everyone listening. At last, Yiraz replied, and his voice was low.

“…I see no visitors. I would believe they fled. I do not believe it is so. Scourgeriders—deliver them damnation. [Plague of Filth]. Send them pestilence.

The chanting of the flying Revenants changed, and the shrieking took on a different tone. The Scourgeriders were sending the one thing that A’ctelios Salash’s population had ever feared.

Plague. Disease. The Scourgeriders were swooping through the air, laying waste to A’ctelios Salash. For the first fifteen minutes.

Then—Yiraz broke in.

“—They are climbing the walls! Dodge! D—

“Yiraz? Yiraz, report!”

Silence for three minutes, then the Scourgerider replied.

Your Majesty, we are under attack. Six of our number are down.

“Six? Already?”

“They are everywhere. Our [Blademasters] are fighting every angle…they are climbing. Quarass, we are searching for the entrance you described to deliver your poison. We cannot find it.

“Look for the tunnels along the skull opposite where you enter. They lead down.”

The Quarass snapped back. Yiraz broke off. Someone else replied.

I am Scourgerider Nivita. I am at the location you describe, Quarass. It is not here. It is gone.

The Quarass looked around, and Vizir Hecrelunn floated over.

“Those tunnels which lead into Tombhome’s depths? I remember them as well. They have always been there. They have always…”

He looked uncertainly at the Quarass. Fetohep wavered only a moment.

“Then search. Search for a way down.”

“Down where?”

Ceria looked around. It was the Quarass who answered.

“To the heart. The root of A’ctelios Salash. The head has already been emptied; if it is waking, it is deeper. They must descend. But if not there…”

Gazi opened her mouth, and a young man broke in.

“The pits.”

Everyone turned to Trey Atwood. He was white-faced, listening to the Scourgeriders trying to deliver on the oath he had sworn.

“What?”

“There are pits in the center of—near their headquarters. Gazi, Quarass, do you remember?”

They looked at each other.

“Yes. Yes—there are other entrances. Go towards the old headquarters, search there.”

We are moving. Something is…Pakheil. Pakheil!”

The voice went silent. Trey shouted.

Kill them! Set them free! Set them—

“Trey.”

Flos put a hand on his shoulder, and the trembling young man looked around. Nothing was heard for another minute. Then Yiraz broke in.

Your Majesty, we have found the tunnels leading down. I am leaving a third of my number to hold the area against reinforcements. The other two-thirds descend.

“Yiraz, you will be trapped down there.”

We will be overrun above. They…I report this. The denizens of A’ctelios Salash have reached a second level of transformation. Some of them. Our spells are failing against their hides. We must fight with blades. We must deliver Germina’s poison.

Fetohep exchanged a look with the Quarass.

“Scourgerider Nivita?”

Still fighting. They have no fear. Would that we could turn them against Dragons—I am descending myself. Communication may grow…

 

——

 

Incoherent.

The moment Yiraz and his forces entered the second levels of A’ctelios Salash, past the first city, the speaking spells grew fragmented. They were underground, now, diving past the head.

How far down? And where? He was trying to report.

—all around us. Tunnels opening, closing on…cutting them down…lost. [Bladedancers], stand here.

“Casualties.”

Fetohep of Khelt stood there, conferring with the leaders present and…the stars? He kept looking up and listening to something.

Twenty…of our number. The…do not die easily. Neither do…

They needed to know where to go. Fetohep called out.

You seek the hearts. Explorers of old ventured down there, Yiraz. They say there are hearts. Any one will do.”

“How do you know that?”

The Quarass looked at Fetohep. He didn’t reply. His golden flames were searching the air. Listening to something being related to him.

“Yiraz. There are more than just A’ctelios Salash’s people down there.”

“Yes. I sense them.”

 

——

 

They found them in a single moment of screaming so loud that the speaking spell cut out. Then there was dead silence.

“That’s not a voice. What was that?”

Alked Fellbow had his bow drawn. Fetohep just raised the stone.

“Yiraz. Yiraz?

—Scourgerider Nivita. Yiraz is gone. We…fleeing.

“What did you run into?”

One of us can barely kill…deeper. Hold them back. Your Majesty, our success—

…Was no longer guaranteed. The Scourgerider’s voices broke off. Arguing. They were headed deeper.

 

——

 

They were sacrificing their number. Somewhere in the depths of A’ctelios Salash, through winding corridors that only the inhabitants knew, Revenants, the legends of old, stopped and let their number hold the line.

Undead champions with magic and sword, eyes blazing in the darkness, turning to face their pursuers. Buying time for a dwindling force to carry a vessel from the Quarass’ kingdom downwards, downwards.

“Vessel is cracked. Two more of our number are dead. Can we deploy…?”

The Quarass spoke.

“No. Not even that can quiet A’ctelios Salash. It must run through Tombhome. A heart. If not a heart—an artery. But no blood flows there.”

Understood. We…try.

They were falling. Nivita was reporting them calmly. They had died long ago, but a kind of horror fell over the adventurers, the Horns.

They had heard this before. The Scourgeriders were just…regretful. They had flown in life, now they died. A’ctelios Salash closed in.

Above—do not know. Eighteen of us now. Eighteen.

The [Captain] of the ship looked rattled.

“Eighteen out of sixty? They tore across Chandrar in Emrist’s day.”

“Yes. They did. Scourgerider. Report. Can you find an artery? The heartbeats are intensifying. Scourgerider!

No response. Fetohep lifted another stone to his chest.

“Every legion heading southwards is to prepare for an attack.”

“They won’t be able to fight their way in. Not in those narrow passages. You could send a million soldiers against A’ctelios Salash and break. The Vizir has seen it tried.”

Vizir Hecrelunn hissed at Fetohep. The King of Khelt just shook his head.

“They will prepare for an attack. And I will return you and every force I can spare to do battle. Inform Roshal, Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and every power on Chandrar we must bring it down.”

“Emir Yazdil has already pledged Roshal’s armies to do battle.”

The Quarass murmured. Pisces twitched, but everyone was listening. Listening to the silent speaking stone. That shuddering sound from Chandrar that was now felt, tremors for miles and miles.

Thud. Thud. Thudthudthud……………thud.

An erratic beating from vast hearts. Irregular. Slow. Punctuated by minutes.

Wait…Ceria frowned. She looked around.

“Am I imagining that, anyone? Or am I hearing…?”

The others looked at the scrying orb. Fetohep checked it. He brought his head down and heard the faint heartbeat—the armies around A’ctelios Salash were falling back. More and more were coming out of the eyes. But that loud sound—

“…Fetohep. We found it.”

“Scourgerider Nivita?”

Fetohep snatched the stone up, and the Quarass looked up. But then they all realized.

“No. Yiraz. We found something. Nivita…heart. Goin…ry…”

“Have you delivered it?”

“…two with me. Must investigate it. It is not…they built it. Your Majesty? They built it.”

The Quarass opened her mouth, but then Fetohep held up a finger.

“What did you find, Yiraz?”

They built it long ago. They’re following…goodbye.

One of the Revenants turned and uttered an ancient challenge. Two more ran through a place deep, deep in A’ctelios Salash.

So deep they had no idea where it was. Another team was placing the poison in the heart. Already—the beating heart was slowing. The tremors subsiding. A’ctelios Salash’s denizens wailed and retreated, the madness leaving them, surrendering, begging insanity and mercy.

But one voice echoed from the darkness. They would not be coming back. Yet Yiraz had thought it so vital that he had left the others trying to break free of A’ctelios Salash. Climbing…they might make it.

“…all following us. They are wearing the same faces. What is this place?”

His voice grew stronger as the speaking spell stabilized. Hecrelunn’s eyes were flickering with the mana he was pouring into the link. The King of Destruction was gripping his hands together so hard they bled.

“What is it?”

Yiraz was alone, now, stumbling forwards. And he was shouting.

…built it ten thousand years ago! Treachery! The corruption…ten thousand…down here! I see something. I see what they made. No. No…[Wall of S—

He stood in the last room, in the final place he had found. Deep. Deep within.

…sty…

What is it?

A’ctelios Salash had gone silent. But Fetohep and his company listened to that trembling, fragmented voice. Yiraz whispered.

“…cannot go down…fear it. I fear it. I will not go down. I will not go down. I will not go…for me. Notformenotformenotforme—” 

“Yiraz? YIRAZ!”

The chanting stopped. Then his voice returned to normal, as if they had heard someone else…

“They made this room ten thousand…dark prophecy. I will try to destroy it. Never let…name…”

“Who? What do you see? Yiraz! Scourgerider!

Fetohep pressed the speaking stone to his face. He waited—they all waited, but they heard nothing.

Nothing but a scraping sound. Then…a distant chorus which grew louder. Voices which echoed from the stone Fetohep thrust away from his face.

They were singing. Trey Atwood’s face drained of color as he recognized one of the voices.

Baosar. A song came through the speaking stone. An old song, changed.

 

“We met two folk who stopped on a lonesome path

One entered full of willing, the other did not stay,

A single soul found comfort in our ancient home

He is one of many, and the other slipped away.”

 

Fetohep’s grip trembled on the stone. He spoke coldly into it.

“The Scourgeriders of Emrist have fulfilled their duty. Their sacrifice will be answered, Carven City.”

A man spoke into the stone, a laughing voice, breathless. Baosar. Even the Quarass looked at Trey as Gazi put a hand on her sword.

“We are still waiting. Today is not our day.”

Then the stone died. Fetohep tossed it aside and looked back to Chandrar. A’ctelios Salash stopped waking. Tombhome went silent.

No one called it a victory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The God of Magic screamed inside a box with no exit. Paeth on the Coast appeared in the city of Talenqual, and morning passed over A’ctelios Salash as it slumbered onwards. The ghosts saw no sunlight. They had been fighting without day or night. Erin Solstice flew past Baleros, looking up at their battle as Drevish lectured the God of Death.

 

They were the corruption of reality. Not just born of sin and the blood of gods—they did not belong here. In the fabric of what should be crept in writhing maggots, putrefaction.

That was what Sprigaena saw. The opposite of magic. The dark cousins of gods.

Seamwalkers was one name for them in this world. These…these were ones without name. Without legend. Some devoured entire realms.

She swore these would never grow so terrible.

The Devourer of Time rose above her, so high that even Giants looked up. Destroying the world by being.

Lesser kin of Norechl swarmed around it, battling every ghost in creation. Somewhere, Sprigaena knew, the Gnomes were battling their oldest foe. They had ever chosen the side they believed in. She had stood against them and slain Gnomes and regretted her actions.

Now—she looked up at a foe she could hate without reservation. The Last Traitor, Sprigaena, marshaled the ghosts around her. She knew that living Human was fleeing to her destiny.

Sprigaena wished her luck. Somewhere, the six dead gods were about their own ends. Sprigaena had not the heart to fight them, even now.

This…this being she had summoned with her blade would do. She had a lesser sword, conjured by one of the ghosts; it cut, and that was all she needed. The Elf stood alone, her kin about their own tasks. Ghosts choosing to heed the advice of Gnomes.

“Plans and secrets and tricks. I am the spirit of regrets and mistakes. My gift to this world was only slaughter. My children will never know my face, only the heritage of a traitor. One last time—for a cause I know is right, I will fight.”

So she took up her blade against a child. A child born of the God of Time’s corpse. It did not understand—it had existed in the deeps of the world’s hollow, consuming its kin, but it was learning more with each moment above than below.

Yet it was destroying everything. It was malevolent. The infection its kind left would grow and spread if they were not wiped out.

Could they do it?

The greatest ghosts stood around Sprigaena. Lesser Seamwalkers tore through the water. One made of whips and tendons leapt, mouth agape to bring down a Giant. A single figure leapt from the cliff of stone.

“[Giant’s Hammer]!”

A famous warrior struck the Seamwalker with a blow fit for a Giant—but the monster took both ghost and Giant down. For—that Skill was just a copy of the genuine blow. And the Giant who howled, striking the beast, did little damage himself. The savaging horror was one of dozens, dozens. Another was surging at a Dragon, lying wounded and trying to fly.

Sprigaena saw a second figure move to block it. This one was no armored figure in Adamantium, but a stranger. She wore a simple robe that many would call scandalously revealing—or the attire of someone who had no cloth but this. Who lived their lives just so. Sprigaena felt no magic from them and dove, sword aimed downwards. Then she broke off the dive.

What strangeness has the Grand Design created? That game of gods, their plan for the world? She had not asked the mortals who died after her what the world looked like. She had hid with only her oldest kin, telling her story to half-Elves and those with every right to the truth.

Now—Sprigaena saw the [Monk] raise a palm. The woman held up a hand—and the Seamwalker stopped.

“[This Palm Shall Move Mountains].”

She shoved the Seamwalker back. Sprigaena gazed at the gigantic form tumbling and saw a ship summoned by a Skill sending thousands of warriors leaping on the Seamwalkers. As she swooped down, a leader, an [Emperor] of his age, planted a glaive on the ground and raised one hand in salute.

The Empire of Drath has come to fight at the end! We remember our oaths.

He called out in a language she remembered, and Sprigaena swooped down.

“Drath? You bear the name of a small nation I knew.”

“We have never forgotten. Lead us, Sprigaena of the Fall.”

She sighed and pointed up at the Timewalker. It wasn’t moving—wasn’t stepping, but it was still fighting. Ghosts vanished out of the air as it ate them, and other Seamwalkers slowed—one crumbled to dust as the Timewalker tried to devour anything and everything.

“That is our foe. The lesser plague must die. They must all die.”

“And the six?”

“Five. I will not fight them.”

Then Drath shall.

The [Emperor] bared his teeth. Sprigaena only bowed her head. Then she leapt back into the air and fought.

She did not need flying spells or Skills. The Elf moved through the air like she had once been taught by their cousins, calling the wind to guide her. She leapt down across a Seamwalker, and her blade sank into the putrid horror. She skimmed across it, cutting without end as it writhed and tried to grasp her—a claw missed her, and she twisted, severing a digit, which sprayed more foul blood into the air.

Not a drop touched her. She was so fast that she was gone, racing after a new target. She ran past ghosts who had never had a combat class, fighting with swords or their bare hands or…guns.

That one! [Mark Target]!

[Generals] on dragonback were marking Seamwalkers for combined attacks from magical artillery and weapons from another world. A single Human man, Jackson, fired his rifle into one eye and tossed a grenade.

We need more ammunition!

“Our Skills have limits! We are preparing—move the weapon!

[Smiths], an [Archmage of Metal], and dozens of artisans were attempting to arm the ghosts. Now—they had nearly completed a project that was only possible if it broke what was real. Sprigaena watched.

A weapon conjured from the Human’s memory and past. Resized by Skills, given form by magic. It was impossible—the work of actual gods; a demigod or the greatest magic-user of her age might conceive of this, but not so quickly.

This was the Grand Design. It allowed the ghosts to create the giant creation of steel, far cruder than a Gnome’s invention, upon the sands and call a Giant to pick it up.

The enlarged rifle rose in the Giant’s grip as the ancient being tried to figure out how it worked. He took aim as the Human man shouted into one ear—and pulled the trigger.

Sprigaena had little concept of how a gun actually worked. But she did see its effect, which was less than the ghosts had hoped.

They had engineered it to figure in the oversized slugs with magic as well as the mechanisms of the gun, but you could not just scale a weapon like that up.

It fired four rounds into a Seamwalker so fast they would have broken the barrier of air, and probably missed by a mile if this were the real world, then the entire thing jammed. The cursing Giant tossed it down, and the armies of ghosts fell back.

Sprigaena ran forwards. Even here—heroes fought alone and armies maneuvered. She dove into a horde of spawn, which writhed and leapt forwards, birthed without end by one Seamwalker.

“[Blademasters]! Ready!”

A Minotaur with an axe had seen the stream of monsters and had gathered eight from that class. But the Elf leapt into the fighting—

Get out of the way! Our Skills—

One of the [Blademasters] trailed off. They knew the Elf was a ghost of old, but they also rightly believed she had no Skills. They were wrong in thinking she was inferior to them.

Sprigaena swept out of the horde of chittering things as they collapsed, cut in half. There was no way she could have physically cut them all in reach or moved as fast as she had. But her blade—

The mother of those monstrosities bore down on Sprigaena as the Elf leapt up one arm, and her blade rose and fell.

She cut the Seamwalker twice as tall as a house apart with one blow. Then she was leaping again, flying towards her next opponent. The [Blademasters] looked up in awe.

“That was a Skill! A Weapon Art!”

“No…she didn’t use one. Then how…?”

The Timewalker was trying to take another step. Sprigaena ran towards it and then climbed one leg. Each eye, staring, eating time—began to close as she ran her blade through one eye at a time.

Even the Timewalker felt that. Sprigaena dodged a shower of spines without looking, charging upwards, blade cutting deep. It was just a sword, no relic, and she cut that horror which even the greatest spells were failing against.

She was the world’s greatest warrior. She had slain everything mortal and wounded even the divine.

The Timewalker had come for her blade. Now—it focused on the Elf wounding it. A hundred eyes swung sideways and locked on her.

Time froze. Sprigaena hung in midair, hair billowing around her, sword dripping with strange ichor. The Timewalker drew back a single hand lazily. It had all the time in the world, after all. It gazed at Sprigaena, confused as she cut—

—Three Seamwalkers dead as time resumed, each one cut mortally deep. The [Blademasters] whirled. Only one had sensed what she did.

That mastery. That blade!

Seven of the eight stayed there, just watching her, transfixed. The last, who had been a legend to match even the most arrogant of Drake [Swordlegends], just whispered. She opened her wings, and a Harpy flew.

“I see it now. It was always you.”

Sprigaena was not invincible. She was fighting alone in a sea of maws and monsters. Dancing, aware that if she were touched it might be her end. She turned as a thousand faces melded into one long snout turned towards her, trying to swallow her into that yawning abyss.

[Sword Art: My Sword Touches the Sky].

The Harpy [Blademaster] cut the thing in two. The slash passed through another Seamwalker reaching down. The Elf saw the Harpy maneuver and flash one wing downwards, changing direction.

“[Sword Art: Two Moons Curve Across the Sky].”

Twin crescents, two lines of a blade that cut the air. A [Blademaster]’s Sword Art. A Skill.

Such powerful displays, yet the Harpy who landed amidst the carnage, in a moment of silence, did not look proud, though she had leveled to gain them. All her life, she had striven towards perfection, a greater level, a more complete understanding of her abilities until she realized she was lacking something and gave up on using Skills to master her blade.

Now—she understood what a Skill was.

A copy of true mastery, bequeathed to someone in a lovely little…box. For the Elf who looked at her slowly swung her sword up and split the sky in half.

Just like her Skill.

No—not just like. It was exactly the same. The [Blademaster] looked up.

“I see it now. This is your sword, isn’t it? We are stealing your talent.”

The Elf’s sword cut magic. It cut time. It was the kind of ability that was not the strength to strike the earth with all the force of a Giant—it was the mastery that [Spearmasters], all their kind, learned. Something beyond a Skill. No…Skills were the shortcut.

Sprigaena bowed to the [Blademaster].

“You are a fine warrior. I would be honored to fight by you. Even my kind would admire your abilities, brave warrior.”

The Harpy ducked her head, ashamed, and whispered.

“It is unearned. I see it now. I began to learn how to cut the air like even a novice warrior could do—but with talent, understanding instead of artificial grace. Now I see how blind I was.”

Because it was so easy, she had never learned, and that knowledge was bitter in death. Yet for answer, Sprigaena reached out and touched the Harpy’s wing shoulder ever-so-gently. The Elf smiled.

“Isn’t it a little fair? To let those without eternity touch what they will never reach? Or will they never stand tall with it? We argued so long…”

She trailed off and closed her eyes. Then opened them. Both Elf and Harpy moved back, and an arm like a scythe crossed between them. They gazed up at another horror, and Sprigaena slashed an arm in two with her sword. She turned to the other [Blademasters] and raised her voice.

“—Lift your blade. Even if it is corrupted and cursed and stolen. We must fight. One last time. I could never have done any of it alone.”

The Timewalker was raising a foot high, and the armies flowed away to battle the other Seamwalkers. The most powerful ghosts remained, drawn to the largest foe like moths to a flame. Sprigaena despaired of killing this beast herself; she hoped another might kill it with those Skills the [Blademaster] so decried.

Or Kasigna. Gods who fought did not bow to size or force; that was why they were immune to magic and mere force of arms.

Twice, the Goddess of Death had struck at the Timewalker, and Sprigaena had seen them struggle. They fought in methods even she could not fully comprehend.

Points of view. Time versus death. A thousand blooming flowers wilting away. Hourglasses of dust. Death racing up the Devourer of Time’s body—then rejuvenating, returning to when it had been strongest.

Kasigna had stepped away, distracted—and because it was learning. This thing had never known how to fight like a god, and each clash taught it more.

It must die before that. So one final ghost entered the battle. Drath and Baleros were engulfed in war, and even Terandria was pushing from their continent to join them.

Minotaurs who had gone to Drath, the last Izrilian ghosts…creatures of every age. Halflings marching under the wings of Harpies. The Spiderfolk, cursing the Centaurs even as they fought under one common cause.

Dust before a mountain. Yet one ghost flew past them all, and Sprigaena saw even her kin looking up in alarm.

“Wait. Wait—who is that ghost?”

She saw a blazing Human man flying upwards, and the Seamwalkers avoided him. The Timewalker stopped gazing at Sprigaena and stared up in surprise.

Stop, you fool! Stop—

A panting Gnoll landed next to Sprigaena. Another great [Mage] of Wistram; they had sallied forth, the Archmages and spellcasters supreme. This one pointed up as the Human man screamed.

Flee me, Seamwalkers! Flee, you worthless specks! I am the greatest mage there was and ever shall be! If this is my destruction and death—then I will destroy this entire realm!

He raised his hands up, and Sprigaena felt the air change.

I ended magic itself once! I can do it again!

“Oh, dead gods.”

The Harpy muttered. The Elf turned to the Gnoll.

“Who is that ghost?”

The Gnoll wiped at his furry brow as he pointed up.

“That is the highest-level [Archmage] to ever live in any era. The Mage of Magic’s End. The ruin of the world for centuries. The Pursuer of the Origin, and the world’s most egomaniacal idiot. I do not know his exact class, but…he is a Level 93 [Mage].”

The [Blademaster] choked. Sprigaena gave the Gnoll a blank but concerned look. She peered up at the Human and shaded her eyes.

“I take it that is a sign of his power. He is…warping magic itself. I have seen greater magical power in one place only a few times. Even among the divine. That one could do such terrible devastation it might sunder an entire continent.”

“Or kill magic.”

The Gnoll muttered grimly. Sprigaena looked at him and had an idea.

“Not if he does it where reality begins to fray at the edges. Can he direct the devastation?”

I doubt it—

Sprigaena was already taking to the air. She flew at the [Mage], as did many ghosts, trying to stop him from destroying everything. Magic burned them from the skies; he was casting hundreds of spells at once. Sprigaena cut through spell after spell and reached the man.

Mage of Magic’s End, you must not destroy the world!

“Leave me be—Elf? An Elf?”

The Mage of Magic’s End did a double-take and that was enough. Sprigaena lifted her blade.

Put your spell in my sword, and I will cut that Devourer down.

“What? What? Let you swing a spell like some neophyte [Spellsword]? You can’t just—”

Both dodged as the Devourer of Time looked in their direction. Everything across the world froze and then vaporized in a cone of destruction. It was just as well they were high up. If it looked down—

The Mage of Magic’s End sighed as Sprigaena caught him.

“I never meant to. I was so close. Aim the spell?”

Yes.

Sprigaena held out her sword. The great mage hesitated, then closed his eyes. He drew on the fabric of reality to fuel that spell. The Grand Design had gifted him power beyond any Elf, Dragon, and even some of the divine. Even if he didn’t know how to use it…Sprigaena looked at him.

“…But why?”

The [Mage] looked up, confused.

“I just wanted to seek the heart of it. Magic. I…”

Then he twisted. Sprigaena swung her blade down with a cry, but it was too late.

Tamaroth, the God of Rulers, touched the Mage of Magic’s End. He reached for her and recoiled as a blade scored across one arm. He retreated as the soul quavered there a moment.

The ghost refused to go. His soul wavered there a moment. Fading—fighting—

“Damn you. I—”

Then it was gone. The God of Rulers exhaled and laughed.

Stronger.

A howling Dragon flew upwards and exhaled straight at Tamaroth. The God of Rulers shielded his face, but he did not scream as the golden flames licked at him. He had just eaten one of the greatest ghosts here.

Tamaroth! I fight for reality’s sake, and you strike the people you swore to protect?

Sprigaena called out as she fled the God of Rulers. He descended, and the ghosts scattered.

“I shall protect them all, Sprigaena. Take my hand and leave existence to me. That one will not stand long against us with even a fraction of our strength. You were loyal to the end.”

The God of Rulers smiled at Sprigaena. For answer, she lifted her sword.

“I was. Yet when we were poised on victory, even then you had no mercy. Afterwards, I walked among a world built on your Grand Design and saw the broken realms from the war close every gate. We have left nothing but destruction. How can you not weep for it?”

For answer, the bearded man simply shrugged, and his eyes were that gaze she had learned to despair and regret ever trusting. Open, almost innocent of guilt. Vast as forever.

“We are gods. This is our right. Come, Sprigaena.”

She dove with a cry, and her sword aimed at the only foe she could lift it against. Not him. Not even now. He had been her beloved friend, her inspiration and purpose.

He had been her god. Now, Sprigaena fled him, and the God of Rulers cursed her, cursed his fate, cursed…everything but himself.

Damn the Gnomes. All these traitors to glory. Almost. I almost walked the world.

Almost. What was happening with that body now? After all, there was one of the six who had not been seen. Emerrhain had…vanished, and that truth made Tamaroth nervous, for he feared the Gnomes had aught to do with it. But there was one more.

The Goddess of Youth and Last Stands. The Patron of Glorious Souls. First of the Hunt. The youngest of the six, who had ever been neutral, choosing sides as she willed. Daughter born of death and battle. Kasigna’s wayward rebel.

Cauwine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five days before Fetohep of Khelt’s great ride, as the first Seamwalkers appeared over the world’s edge, an [Emperor] sat uneasily upon a throne. He received a [Message] as he held court. But he already knew something was wrong.

 

I dream of it, sometimes. Not the moment itself, but I have nightmares. All allegorical. I am walking through Riverfarm, tracing a path with the [Emperor] ‘sight’ I’ve been given.

A gift for a blind man. Then I realize—there’s nothing outside the path. The forest or the village is gone. There is only the road, and seeing only that is more unnerving than not seeing at all. For some reason—I step off the road.

Then I fall. I fall and fall and reach out until I touch that hand.

You see—allegorical. At other times, I’m in a box, and I have to take the hand or drown. My lips are gasping against the top wall when I take it. The box vanishes, and I am still drowning. Only, I’m not alone.

These are nightmares about what happened, but never the moment itself. Because that moment…doesn’t linger with me.

If I remember it—and my memory is already faded—it’s so simple. This stranger who’s found his way into my room and is talking about my class and the future offers me a hand up.

I take it.

It was a trick. A moment I’ve regretted and questioned for a long time. I wasn’t even sure it was real, though the advice was, until later. I don’t think I knew what I was accepting. There was certainly no contract, no signature.

It was…cheating. So why does that make sense to me? In all those stories where brave or cunning mortals deal with devils or faeries, they do so by trickery, playing with the rules. Perhaps because we all understand that if there were no rules, we’d never win.

One moment. Someone else’s trick and designs, and I’m now bound to it. It’s very fitting. It feels real to me.

That is the one thing I will not answer for. All of my other mistakes and failings—yes. But never that.

It is also why I sit here, while the world seems to be ending. While Gnolls are fighting…no. No.

I can tell something is going on. This is all a prelude. I know, through him.

The bearded man. It is not a solstice, nor any other event like a full moon, or two full moons. But—something is happening.

So I sit. The Unseen Empire is flourishing. Lady Rie has returned.

She’s different.

Yet Laken Godart sits here, because he does not know which move is playing into the other game. I sit here and…tell them to go away.

“Your Majesty?”

Gamel is reading out each missive I receive. He has gotten better at it. The husky voice that used to stammer and pause on hard words until Wiskeria or someone else helped him, a [Farmer] who was rudimentary on his letters, has changed.

He is a [Knight]; he actually got a Skill that makes his dictation excellent. Better than any app or automated voice. He also has hands and a sword.

“No. Put the letter down. I don’t want to hear it. Any of it, understand? Anything from…that source, ignore.”

My court is confused. I can sense them around me, Lady Rie, Wiskeria, Durene, Prost, Witch Hedag, and Eloise. That’s the inner circle; even the other representatives of villages, Master Helm, town councilors…

The [Witches] may pick up on my anxiety, but it’s so fast. They’re assuming I’m judging the sender—and I do, in part. But I am trying to stop something in a moment.

“Should I tell her that we are unwilling to help, then? With the—”

I press my hands to my ears. Trying to tune out the voice.

“Yes. Absolutely. I do not want to—know about it. Wiskeria. Nothing. Understand?”

My head turns to seek her, and the [Witch] starts. She’s Belavierr’s daughter; she has to understand something is wrong.

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

I exhale and sense that…presence unseen. Focusing on me for a moment.

He’s growing stronger. Now, I think he can listen in. Or…something is happening. The connection between us feels stronger. Or something else; the dividing line has grown thinner.

My stomach is churning and my heart pounding out of my chest, but I slash across my chest, and Gamel falls silent. The court murmurs as I speak, hoping they will understand.

“Next.”

We’re almost safe. I’ve almost done my part and averted what I believe may be a disaster—and then Durene, beloved Durene, speaks. With that fiery passion that is wrong here.

“Laken Godart! What are you doing? I thought you were trying to help Erin! They’re going to try the ritual—”

My hands clap over my ears, but it’s too late. I have never seen his face, but I imagine…a bearded man. Nothing else is visible to me. A single detail, kept over a thousand forms and faces, sitting in a cottage.

A man made of static, lips, cheeks, face ever-changing. And I do not know faces. When I imagine things, it is in sensation, feeling.

A beard moving slightly as he talks, not too long, but a growth of hair probably combed and attended to. A voice that commands and condescends and speaks like a starving man at times, others as if he owns everything and everyone. 

Tamaroth sits there. And he smiles. Those unseen lips spread wide and reveal what? Rotted teeth? The most perfect, artificially engineered smile? I don’t know.

But I hear him laughing and know. So I rise.

“No.”

Durene stops; Hedag has slapped a hand over her mouth. My court looks at me, and I whirl.

“Tell them—tell them to do it now, Gamel. Hurry.”

“Your Majesty? At once!”

That is how it happened. As I sit, raking my hands through my hair—that is my mistake. As my advisors ask for the thing I can’t speak of or explain—I can sense him moving. Hurrying from wherever he has been towards…

“Tell them to run, Gamel. Tell them to go as fast as they can. Or they’ll be too late.”

He does as I ask, and I ensure a warning is sent. Then it is out of my hands. It always was, and I regret that they trusted me. I tried to keep out of knowing, but too late. Even then, I hoped it would turn out for the best.

But I would learn soon enough that I had failed.

My fault.

I’m sorry, Erin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That very same day, a Goblin stood, holding a scroll in one hand as she spoke to Fetohep of Khelt, who had heard no voices of ghosts. Four days before Fetohep of Khelt rode for the coast, Rags made her decision.

 

This is how it occurred. A little Goblin stood at the base of a volcano, looking out across the world. She determinedly ate some mushrooms that a [Witch] had told her would help her grow taller. They tasted like mush, which wasn’t bad for a Goblin.

But she was…waiting. Waiting and watching the Wyverns flying towards her. They were all wearing adapted masks to survive the poison fumes of this place, and Rags herself had a mask adapted for her face.

She was waiting. She had, in fact, waited for a long time. She had come so far, risked so much for her tribe. They were still hunting her. They might never stop, even if the shivering woman who was being prodded forwards by Goblins were returned to them.

This was not something a Chieftain should do. Not for no gain, although she could argue she had accidentally gained much. The friendship of another powerful tribe, knowledge, even several Goblins who had volunteered to follow her.

After all—she had witnessed a [Knight] rising. A Goblin [Knight], from her tribe, or at least, related, had ridden side-by-side with Humans from Terandria. He had bested the other species at their game.

He had been…glorious.

It was silly, it was definitely stupid, but it was the kind of thing she had learned to believe in. Often, such things failed.

But you could change the world.

A little Goblin could do more than live and die in the Floodplains of Liscor. She owed that to one person. To herself, to the Goblins and people she’d met, even to a silly skeleton.

To one person, though. All of this? It had always been so Rags could selfishly walk into an inn, sit down, order some subpar spaghetti and blue fruit juice, and play a game of chess. Thank that Human to her face.

She had been waiting a long time for all the pieces. She had, in fact, only acquired a few pieces herself. Rags had done all she could, and now she saw it.

“Mage with decent magic. Yes. Special antidote with mushrooms. At Liscor. Potion of Regeneration…check.”

She ticked off the components of the ritual that the strange [Doctor] had outlined. They were all there. She was only missing one element.

“Skill of a great leader…”

That would be important. Rags didn’t have it. No Goblin in ‘Anazuland’, or rather, the Molten Stone Tribe, the tribe of [Witches] and magic-users in this active volcano and poisonous region, had such Skills.

They were rare indeed, but Rags knew it to be the last part. Someone had that Skill and was ready—but she was wavering. Two voices spoke to her.

Not in her head. Two [Messages] warred on the scroll she read. Both were from strangers, though one she had met. The other…she frowned.

Strange undead king from Chandrar? She had seen him and understood he was powerful. Exactly how he fit in with Erin was a mystery, but Rags believed it. Witch Anazurhe had many speculations regarding her knowledge of the afterlife, but Rags just…believed.

And they said two things.

 

R: I am going to wake Erin up.

Lionette: Rags!?

R: No. Shut up. If the potion is done, I will go to Liscor. I just need the Skill, and it is coming.

Saliss of Lights: The antidote is done. You need a good—the best [Mage] and that Potion of Regeneration, assuming those idiots haven’t contaminated it. Do you have…any of that?

R: I have a [Mage].

Saliss: Oh, well that solves everything.

R: ಠ_ಠ. I am going. I cannot wait forever.

Fetohep of Khelt: I must insist you wait.

R: Why?

Fetohep of Khelt: I must consult with specialists on the matter. I have experienced—issues of late. Now may not be the hour.

R: When is? How much longer?

 

He didn’t know. Rags could not figure out why Fetohep of Khelt said that. She had gone over whether he was sabotaging her—but he had no reason to. Nor could she know how the Revenant King felt.

 

——

 

Fetohep of Khelt sat alone in Khelt. He looked up, and called out.

“Great Khelta. Queen Xierca? Erin Solstice? Are you here?”

He walked across his throne room, through the palace, to the chambers where frozen bodies had lain. He paced across his capital, ignoring his subjects.

He heard nothing.

The King of Khelt was worried. Khelta had left him with instructions if she vanished suddenly. She had told him to expect…the worst.

Were they then trying to return Erin to her body? Was he obstructing them? He did not know.

So he returned to the [Message] scroll.

 

Fetohep of Khelt: Wait another day, ‘R’.

R: Everything is almost ready. I have a Skill.

Lionette: From whom?

Saliss: I think you mean, ‘from who’? I have to go. We’re entering the Great Plains, and I sense snobbish Drake [Mages]. Good luck.

R: I cannot wait. Why, Fetohep? Why wait?

Fetohep of Khelt: I cannot say.

 

He would not say, not to all of them. Not if the Witch of Webs could infiltrate that discussion. Or Wistram itself or…Ailendamus or any other force.

There were ways to ensnare ghosts. This was the power of Khelt. So he read.

 

R: I need another Skill, maybe. Does ‘Emperor’ have his Skill? I could use that. [Undying Loyalty]?

Ilvriss: What [Emperor]?

Lionette: Oh! Oh! Is he here?

Riverfarm: His Majesty, Laken Godart of the Unseen Empire, is not accepting direct [Message] spells at this moment. Is this…in regards to Erin Solstice? I will forward any missives for his consideration. A reply is not guaranteed, however.

R: Yes. Ask if he can use his Skill on Erin Solstice, in Liscor.

Fetohep of Khelt: Khelt shall repay His Majesty of Riverfarm any inconvenience.

Ilvriss: And Salazsar. Riverfarm is the capital of this Unseen Empire?

Riverfarm: Please hold. Your request will be forwarded to his Majesty when he next holds court.

R: No, now.

 

——

 

Waiting and waiting. Rags had been waiting for this, waiting for that. She had been communicating, and they had a Skill—the [Emperor] was to make sure they had the best one. She had heard tales from Goblins about that Skill.

Of all the allies Lyonette had gathered, all her friends—he had never participated in the messages. As if he had tried not to notice, even when Wistram contacted him.

So she waited a day. One day, and she had waited so long to taste that food and see that smiling face. Rags had waited and waited and gotten the other voice.

 

Emperor Laken Godart: I cannot journey to Liscor. ‘R’, can you perform the ritual?

R: Yes. We have one Skill, but two is better. Can you give it?

Emperor Laken Godart: No. Go now. Perform the ritual. Hurry. You have no time.

Fetohep of Khelt: You must clarify your statements, Emperor Godart. What do you know?

Emperor Laken Godart: I cannot say either. Hurry. Go to Liscor as fast as you can. Before it’s too late.

 

That was when Rags felt that resurgence of unease. That was when she made the call. She could wait another day, another month…but she had to try.

The Healer of Tenbault was being loaded on the wing of a Wyvern by Calescent and two Goblins as Rags watched. She turned to the Witch, Anazurhe.

“I go.”

“Yes, Chieftain Rags of the Flooded Waters Tribe. I will cast my magics on your flight to speed and hide you. I wish your tribe…luck. Are you certain?”

Rags was not, but she looked at the crimson glow behind Anazurhe’s half-mask and nodded as she removed her own mask. One of Anazurhe’s daughters was coming with Rags. The [Witch] gave Rags an exasperated look.

“Strange little Goblin. I could imagine you will become a Goblin Lord if you are lucky. You are a strange one.”

Rags just shrugged.

“I have to go. I have to try. Will…will it work? All the parts? Magic and [Doctor] and Skills?”

The [Witch] shook her head.

“I have seen great rituals and magic, but this is not just that. It is…ideas and a combination of things. I would tell you no, if I were a [Mage]. But I am not. Try. The King of Khelt believes her soul is speaking to him. That is proof.”

Her eyes glittered, and Rags felt a leap of hope in her chest. Death was not the end. She wondered if Pyrite, Garen…

No. She just nodded to Anazurhe. There was a lot more, like her talking to that [Rogue] who traded with Goblins, arranging more connections between tribes, blackmailing the Healer of Tenbault, Hekusha, and plotting her route to pick up that Skill.

Redscar was already on the move. He passed in a blur. Rags got on the back of a Frost Wyvern—then she was flying up. Anazurhe cloaked the Frost Wyverns, turning their scales grey then blue as the camouflaged fliers took off with a huge tailwind blowing them forwards.

It felt like a dream. Each minute passed by slowly, but each hour was as long as the blink of an eye to Rags.

They were going to wake her up. The Goblins who flew with Rags did not know Erin Solstice. But the people that knew—they waited.

Lyonette, Saliss, Fetohep, Ilvriss, Altestiel, Eldavin, Ryoka, and more. Everyone who had joined together to help, from people who had never met her like the GSNF, people who were longing for her to wake…they read that last message from Rags.

 

R: I am going. I will wake her, or fail. It won’t be long. We will take a day or two to fly.

 

She pushed them. The Frost Wyverns, her Goblins—she pushed them as hard as she dared, with the Witch’s magic at her back.

It could have been a running battle of chases and desperate deeds all the way back to Liscor. Rags was, after all, being hunted by the Five Families and Tenbault’s protectors. But no one found them.

The Wyverns were cloaked in a great [Witch]’s magic, and there were a lot of suspicious clouds on the way south. Their route also took them away from major cities. Rags, staring up at the sky, thought not all of it looked like [Witch] magic, which was largely incomprehensible to her.

But who could cast spells from that far away and at that magnitude?

Well. She had a list.

There was one thing that Rags needed if the [Emperor] would not help. She had worried about how to get it if he did not acquiesce—and she had felt silly when it was provided.

Everyone was trying. Everyone. So, as Rags stopped on the first leg of her journey, she saw the rider below her looking up and slowing. A brave Human, to abandon her escort like that and not run when she saw Wyverns bearing Goblins descending.

“H-help—”

Hekusha hesitated as she saw another Human, then seemed to realize that she was not going to be rescued. Like Valeterisa—this stranger was not about to slay every Goblin in sight.

She did hesitate. But she had come this far and already suspected whom she was going to rendezvous with. So the foreign woman with silver hair simply took off her glasses and wiped them with a bit of cloth. She frowned at the Goblins and sighed.

“Greetings. Are you…‘R’? I have been sent bearing the Skill to revive Erin Solstice. If you are not, please kill me and get it over with.”

Her reply was a bunch of toothy grins from the Goblins riding the Wyverns. Red light; crimson eyes. The smallest one nodded.

“I am.”

She regarded the strange woman with interest, and the glance was returned twofold. [Strategist] Kiish of Desonis looked up with narrowed eyes as the rain dripped from her silver hair and off her spectacles. However, her vision through the glasses was clear; one did not serve in Desonis without learning to waterproof everything.

“The Earl of the Rains has sent me. I am Strategist Kiish of Desonis. Well…met.”

“Excuse me. Excuse me, did you say Desonis? I’ve been kidnapped—

Kiish glanced at the Healer of Tenbault.

“Desonis is not part of Izril, Healer Hekusha. My presence here is completely deniable. Her Majesty is not aware of any actions taken here.”

The Healer slumped on her Wyvern. Calescent patted her on the shoulder. Kiish strode for the first Wyvern with only a little hesitation; she had flown Griffin-back before.

“You have a Skill that works?”

Rags was curious. That Skill was exceptionally rare. Many leaders had decent Skills, but no Drake in Pallass had possessed the exact Skill that did what they needed.

Namely—empowering dead or nearly dead warriors to fight. Most leaders had Skills that prevented that or gave the living strength. The closest Pallass had was a Skill that used death to strengthen the living. Skills revolving around casualties, not returning them or giving them another moment.

It seemed incredible that a [Strategist] that had once met Erin Solstice just happened to have the right Skill. Kiish explained as she mounted up.

“I can use the required Skill. Once. Are we meeting an [Emperor]? I should be grateful for his help if he is inclined to give it.”

Rags bared her teeth in a grimace.

“No.”

“I see. Then again, [Undying Loyalty] sounds as if it would only work on those loyal to him…there are surely ways to finagle that Skill’s conditions, but the Earl has faith mine will work.”

Rags nodded. The Wyverns were flying as she and Kiish talked. The [Strategist] was remarkably well put together for someone talking with Goblins—until you noticed her shaking hands. But she had come here on request. Rags had to lean forwards and raise her voice to be heard over the rush of cold wind and rain.

“What Skill do you have?”

“[Rise, and Fight Another Minute With Me]. Will that not match your expectations?”

The Goblins in earshot oohed in appreciation. Fancy. Even they knew that the more you had to talk, the better a Skill was. Rags looked at Kiish, impressed.

“You have that Skill?”

The [Strategist] instantly shook her head.

“I am only able to use it once. Earl Altestiel prevailed upon a famous [Captain] from the Lantocracy of Bitorm known for this very Skill. He called upon every favor to expedite my journey there and to Izril. I have sailed by Courier upon the Earl of Rains’ coin to get here.”

Rags frowned.

“Then how will you use it?”

For answer, the [Strategist] gave Rags a smile, like a senior to a junior.

“Not everything is exceedingly difficult. [Copy Skill: Ten Levels]. A Level 42 [Captain of the Last Stand]’s Skill is the best I can offer. I hope it will serve.”

Rags sat back, eyes blinking a few times. She wanted that…she looked at Kiish and nodded.

“I hope so.”

 

——

 

So they kept flying southwards. The news spread to a few people. Not many. Not with the world in chaos, the deadlands shaking.

But it went to the right people. By spell, by word of mouth.

Kevin skidded into Solar Cycles, and his assistant nearly had a heart-attack.

Mister Kevin! Where have you been? We have a backlog of months, and I’ve been answering everyone asking who—”

“No time. I just got dropped—I need to get to Liscor!”

“The door’s scheduled to open this evening…”

Kevin was panting, still shivering from Wyvernflight, and exhausted from running three miles to Esthelm from where the Goblins had dropped him off. He charged towards the door connecting Liscor to Esthelm.

…Then he caught himself, sent a [Message] to Selys asking if they could open the door to Esthelm, and confirmed it would be easier to wait, especially since Rags was still on her way. Kevin walked back to Solar Cycles and scarfed down two toasted baguettes as he answered a bunch of [Messages] and made calls to a number of people. He went to visit Pelt, and the Dwarf cursed him out for twenty minutes before listening to Kevin’s explanations.

Then Kevin caught the door to Liscor and stood in line for eight minutes before he was admitted. He walked to The Wandering Inn just in time for Relc to send him flying.

They’re doing what?

The Drake barged into the inn, looking around wildly. Kevin lay on his back, seeing stars. He could have probably gotten here earlier by causing a fuss, but he had realized there was no speeding up the Goblin on her way.

That was Kevin-logic for you.

Others found out when he returned, like Relc and Klbkch. They skidded into the inn, demanding to know what the others knew. Joseph, Troy—the actual Troy—Imani, Palt, Selys, Drassi, and of course Ishkr converged on the inn.

“Kevin! Where have you been?

“Uh…with Goblins. Hiking.”

Kevin was gobbling more food after hiking up part of the High Passes until they could catch a Wyvern to Goblinhome and then figuring out whether Rags was safe. His return was almost overshadowed by the news.

“She’s coming? Rags?”

Ishkr was the only person not surprised by Rags’ announcement. He was setting out food as The Wandering Inn returned to something like the noise and confusion it had once known.

Selys’ claws were shaking as she clutched the [Message] that Rags had sent her, Lyonette, and everyone else.

“I—yes. Yes. Is everything here? We need to tell…Lyonette knows, but she and Mrsha and—”

She looked around at the small gathering and realized—this was it. Humans, the two [Guards], a few others like Palt…

Everyone else was far away. The Halfseekers had passed by Liscor so fast that Selys had only heard from Drassi she’d seen Jelaqua and Maughin talking before they were gone. The Horns were a continent away.

Griffon Hunt, the Silver Swords…Ryoka…this was it. Selys was also here too early. The Goblins were still flying towards them. She looked about, and Ishkr produced something.

A carefully wrapped vial, the glass specifically enchanted and opaque, lead mixed with something else. She stared at it.

“Is that…”

“Courier Salamani delivered it to me earlier this week. It comes from Saliss of Lights. The bottle is specially designed to prevent the contents from passing through. I’ve kept it stored. I have specific instructions on how to apply it. Here.”

“What about the Potion of Regeneration?”

Kevin was looking around. Selys knew that one.

“Ilvriss’ representative is staying at Peslas’ inn. The Tailless Thief. They still have it.”

“And the Skill?”

“Rags has it. And she said she had the [Mage] who can cast all the spells necessary. She ‘made them learn it’. So that means…that means…”

“Everything is in order, it would appear.”

Klbkch looked up from the copy of the [Doctor]’s instructions. Relc looked to him and then around.

“Wait—it’s all here? No mistakes?”

Palt was checking over the list of spells.

“I could cast some of them myself. Grimalkin could substitute them—the antidote is here. So long as no one breaks it or does something incredibly stupid like drop the Potion of Regeneration…”

Everyone had an image of someone—Troy—taking the antidote and falling, shattering it against the wall. They looked for the bottle, but Ishkr had already put it away. Plus, it was shatterproof.

“I…wait. So we’ve got the potion. We’ve got the antidote, and everything’s ready. Is this—happening?”

Relc looked around. No one quite dared say it. Kevin looked out the window.

“It’ll be a day or two before Rags gets here either way. Let’s…we’re early. We should relax and tell everyone and wait.”

Imani rubbed at one ear.

“Yeah. Kevin, where were you? With Goblins? Say that again?”

Kevin began to explain a longer version of what he’d been doing, censored for the Goblins’ safety, and Klbkch and Relc just stood there. Everyone looked to a door against the far wall, standing there, waiting to be opened.

It led into a garden where a beam of light shone down on a hill of red Sage’s Grass and yellow Faerie Flowers. It led across different biomes of the garden. And up…up towards a hill shrouded in mist, past statues, to that bier of ice.

There she was. This was it. It was going to happen. As they realized it, the inhabitants of the inn…suddenly felt it.

 

——

 

The Goblins on the Wyvern, Kiish, Rags, they all sensed it too, suddenly. As they were flying, talking, going over the ritual’s components again, each one stopped a second and blinked at the others, words unspoken in the backs of their throats.

Was this going to work? Was this…really happening? And if it was, was it actually going to succeed?

They were trying to do the impossible, after all. Erin was frozen, and even the Earthers had been taught to understand that cryogenics was just an idea, science fiction that no one had actually been even close to reversing.

That emotion that everyone had been suppressing so long with desperation, with need, with the conviction that this would work and this was the great quest crept in at last. It was a simple thing, sitting there, as large as the High Passes.

Doubt.

It would have been easier if it were a magical scroll. With every mile, with each wingbeat, with every second, it sounded less plausible. Especially for people who had only ever believed in the power of spells.

This was just…a bunch of components. A Potion of Regeneration, two-thirds empty. A random spellcaster of dubious ability. A potion brewed by a naked Drake. A few spells and a Skill borrowed from someone they had never met.

Was it going to work?

Who could return that little spark of life, captured for far too long in a frozen, damaged body? It seemed too easy, now.

It seemed…impossible.

Her friends wavered, and they sat there, unwilling to say the thing now on their minds because they didn’t want to voice it aloud. Because that was a betrayal of Erin and everything everyone had sacrificed and worked for. All of this, from the Horns to even Lyonette in Oteslia—

It had started from here. Yet now it seemed like they were waking up to cold reality. This wasn’t going to happen. This had been the desperate denial of people who had lost someone precious from the start.

Into that slipping confidence, as night fell and the Goblins flew on, dozing on the Wyverns, protesting sleepily, into the inn as Kevin slept in a familiar, unfamiliar bed and noted how quiet it was, how empty…

Into that uncertainty walked faith. When Ishkr opened the inn the next day, he nearly died of shock.

For inside the inn were Antinium. Outside too. They were sitting on the grass, kneeling, praying, motionless. Little humps of shells, all looking inwards. At a single thing.

A door.

“Pawn?”

The [Priest] lifted his hands as Kevin came downstairs.

“We have arrived. We will stay, if it is acceptable. We can pay. But we must be here. At last. She is returning to us.”

“I…yeah. The ritual’s going to start. But are you s…”

Are you sure? Kevin looked into Pawn’s multifaceted eyes, and the words died on his tongue. Pawn still answered him, all four hands clasped together.

“I have faith.”

The others might doubt, but Pawn’s Antinium had come to witness something at the core of their beliefs. They were free to doubt. Perhaps even Pawn did. But faith…faith was believing in something that might not be.

Not just the Antinium, either. It might be tenuous, it might not work—and many had never met Erin Solstice, nor cared for her.

…But they had sworn an oath.

 

——

 

The Necromancer of Izril was preparing each spell in order. He had tried it on forty dead bodies, and he was aiming for a hundred by the time the Goblin got there.

He knew, now, that it was the Healer of Tenbault that they had sequestered for the ritual. As picks went…Az’kerash was maneuvering agents into place. The little Shield Spider was having trouble securing a site with all the Antinium around, and Az’kerash worried the Small Queen would get there and detect the magic.

However—if at any time during the ritual he sensed the magic going awry, he would personally correct it. In the interim?

Master, I’m using up so much mana—

“Continue cloaking the Wyverns, Ijvani. That is an order.”

“Yes, Master.”

The sulking skeleton [Mage] was blocking Rags from view—and Az’kerash was personally teleporting the beacon spells that the Healer of Tenbault kept dropping every now and then into the sea.

He sensed other magics at work as well. Az’kerash could have warred with them, but he decided not to. He just kept his location hidden.

 

——

 

“There it goes again. Mother—someone’s grabbing those little [Beacon] spells.

“Ignore it, Paxere.”

Azemith admonished her daughter as the Lucifen kept casting spells to make the Veltras trackers run in circles. The Humans were growing increasingly frustrated as they realized they were failing to follow the Goblins.

Paxere was frowning at the stump of a finger as she cast a spell to aid the magic.

“That’s [Witch] magic. And I think some of the weather magic is coming from Chandrar.”

“Khelt, perhaps. The Skill is almost certainly the Earl of Desonis’ [Strategist]. Do not interfere.”

The Lucifen were preparing for war. Only a few of them had devoted spells for this; the rest were arming themselves to crush the Dawn Concordat in the field.

And arguing with the Agelum, who wanted to do the same. Did they believe this was going to work? No—but they were doing it mainly because Visophecin had insisted, because Ryoka Griffin had done them a favor, and because it was amusing to annoy House Veltras.

“That Archmage is casting spells too. I would be surprised if anyone on Izril could track that Goblin.”

Igolze murmured. It prompted silence from the rest of the Lucifen. Azemith glared at her partner as Paxere’s eyes flashed. But then—they would meet Eldavin soon enough on the field of battle.

This? This was just a footnote.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One day before the Meeting of Tribes erupted into chaos and Fetohep left Khelt, a Dragon arrived at her destination as a Named Adventurer, Mivifa the Oldblood of Feathers, dropped her off and circled, heading back towards Oteslia. Rafaema on her lonely journey, ignorant of the Goblins flying this way.

 

Believe it. Desire it. Have faith or none—it didn’t matter. Rags flew towards Liscor, surprised at how fast they were going. And the city of Liscor was fairly ignorant of what was happening.

The Wandering Inn did not advertise this. In fact, the biggest news in Liscor—aside from watching the worldwide events—was celebrating some of the soldiers who had come in for a vacation. Watch Captain Zevara had still been informed of the attempt by Klbkch.

She felt like that was responsible for the churning in her stomach. She clung to the knowledge that if anyone could do it…

Tomorrow morning. To distract herself until then, she suppressed the flames and smoke in the back of her throat and the temptation to exhale it. She smiled with the most saccharine expression on her face.

“I am sorry…Wall Lady Rafaema, was it? I was just confirming the military codes.”

“Not at all, Watch Captain. How soon can you muster your forces?”

The rather incredible young Drake woman with azure scales and mismatched eyes, a perfect Oldblood of her kind from Manus, stood with military straightness, a hand on the sword hilt at her side. She had impressive, enchanted armor on, and she had marched into Zevara’s office after reciting top-level codes from the City of War to the [Guards] at the gate, the desk sergeant, and now Zevara.

The Watch Captain gave Rafaema a happy little smile. She checked her notes.

“You appear to have taken a Pegasus flight into Pallass. May I ask, Wall Lady Rafaema, if this has any connection to Magnolia Reinhart’s coach, which passed north of us this morning? And headed back south at once.”

Rafaema frowned briefly at Zevara.

“Not to my knowledge, no. Magnolia Reinhart is still in Oteslia, so that may be one of her servants. However, I will take this information under consideration as I carry out my duties. Thank you for your perspicacity, Watch Captain. I am not at liberty to disclose my errand, however.”

“Naturally. Naturally. And you would like to sequester eight Senior Guardsmen, preferably my highest-leveled, and a force of at least forty [Soldiers].”

“I can make do with that number. Two hundred would be most satisfactory, but I would not wish to take away from Liscor’s defenses.”

“And their location?”

“Classified, Watch Captain. How soon can you have them ready?”

Rafaema eyed Zevara severely; this was far too much chatting for a top-level request. Watch Captain Zevara certainly seemed pleasant enough, though. Chatty Watch Captains were to be endured sometimes.

She had probably never gotten a military code this high. Of course she knew it; Rafaema memorized all of the military commands that only someone of Spearmaster Lulv’s rank could utter. They allowed her to take charge of any Drake force, even another Walled City, if need be.

Naturally, she’d used it now because she was headed into the High Passes. Not Pallass; the Cyclops was a bit too inquisitive, but Liscor had sufficient forces. Rafaema was impatient to go—she’d intended to check out that inn, but everyone had told her it was closed and the [Innkeeper] was dead.

So—onwards to find that Dragon. She was waiting for Zevara to give her a timeline. Perhaps the Drake woman had problems with her Oldblood heritage? She kept coughing into one fist. Zevara looked up, and her polite, joyous expression never changed as she replied.

“I have reviewed your request and your military codes are completely authentic, Wall Lady Rafaema. However, given Liscor’s pressing need to have [Guards] on the streets, I must deny your muster request. Please, have a good day. Let the door hit you on the way out.”

Rafaema had never experienced this before, so the Lightning Dragon stood there uncertainly for a good few seconds.

“I don’t believe you heard me, Watch Captain. I just requested reinforcements from Liscor under Manus command—”

“I heard you, Wall Lady Rafaema. Request denied.”

“You…you can’t do that. Manus is requesting aid.”

Zevara checked her stack of reports and then looked up at Rafaema, putting her claws together.

“I am sure it is. Would you kindly tell me what this mission is?”

“That’s classified.”

“Ah, well, in that case—is it monsters? A dungeon investigation? Or are you going north to raid or investigate something? If you are negotiating with Master Pelt, I’ll warn you to bring a helmet and direct you to our magic door.”

That was it. Rafaema’s nervousness, impatience, and incredulity caused her to snap. She put her hands on Zevara’s desk.

“What part of classified don’t you understand? You are a Watch Captain of a Drake city! When you hear those codes, you render any aid needed!”

That was how it worked. The problem was…well, Lulv or Makhir or especially Luciva would have been able to use those codes and probably get what they wanted. Even Saliss. Rafaema? Rafaema had never actually seen how those codes were used to sequester aid from a ‘Drake city’. Nor had she ever considered how Drake cities felt about answering to Manus.

Nor did she know Liscor or Watch Captain Zevara. The Drake Watch Captain’s eyes narrowed, but her smile remained, which was uncanny.

“I am going to put Liscor’s Watch on an alert after this meeting, Wall Lady Rafaema. I would appreciate if you told me of any danger that my city might be under. If you do not and we suffer a monster attack any time this week, I will personally hold you accountable for it.”

“You cannot do that. This is a secret operation, and I demand your aid!”

Rafaema slammed a fist down. Zevara stood up.

“In that case, you will not mind if I confirm with Manus that a Wall Lady Rafaema is justified in using their military codes? Military codes that I would expect to get if the Antinium were about to slaughter us all, we were about to suffer a Human attack, or the dungeon were going to explode under my feet?”

Rafaema hesitated, and Zevara gave her a narrow look. She knew. She didn’t know what she knew, but Zevara had just called Rafaema’s bluff.

“You do not need to inform Manus—”

“Do not, for top-level clearance, or should not? If this is truly a secret operation, I will bear the full weight of the responsibility on my shoulders. But I am not sure this is. Why did Pallass not answer Manus’ request? They have countless high-level forces. Why are you asking me for forces without disclosing any danger that would require forty [Soldiers]? Where are they going?”

“Classified!”

“Then you can expect my reinforcements when you dig them up and grab a [Necromancer]. Hire some adventurers, Wall Lady. We even have a Named-rank one and a Gold-rank team in the city. But Liscor’s Watch will not muster without an explanation or official confirmation!

Zevara sat back down, and Rafaema trembled with…indignation? Fury? Shock?

She was a Wall Lady of Manus! She was on the Security Council! She was a Dragon!

But she didn’t see what Zevara saw. Moreover…she had not known that the Watch Captain had been dealing with every superior from General Shivertail, to Wall Lord Ilvriss, to Chaldion, to an annoying Human this last year.

Rafaema turned the intensity of her glare up, and the air ionized around her. Zevara kicked her out of her office. Then she went back to staring at the inn out of her office window. She suspected that this Wall Lady was not here on Manus’ say-so and that she could inform the City of War and they would be very interested to know she was here. But Rafaema might well just go away, and Zevara had enough headaches.

She was right and wrong, and Rafaema stormed out of the Watch House, defeated by the Watch Captain of Liscor. Fine—fine! If she couldn’t get a force of Drakes, she’d go herself. It was the High Passes, but she was a Dragon.

Zevara paid no notice of Rafaema, other than noting she’d left the city in case Manus wanted to know later. She was waiting. They all were. But was it really going to…?

 

——

 

Not even the gods knew. The gods were dead—but they didn’t know. Yet they had information all but Fetohep lacked.

Erin Solstice was a ghost that was neither fully dead nor alive. She had a body. One of them had tried to reach it before, during that pivotal moment of the Summer Solstice.

Norechl had sensed a vessel, but it had failed to capture it, and the [Garden of Sanctuary] kept the others from entering, even Kasigna.

That was a frustration. However—a few salient facts changed things.

The first of which was that the living had worked so hard to come up with a way to make that frozen flesh live. To create a spark such that Erin Solstice could return to life.

To do that…they were going to have to take her out of the [Garden of Sanctuary]. An empty vessel.

The [Emperor] of Riverfarm had thought long and hard about stories. What…certain people might do with a body. That was why he had tried not to pay attention. That was why he had hidden it.

The God of Rulers, the bearded man, Tamaroth, learned of the ritual. He stood and thought a while. He was no Emerrhain, to chart every move precisely and analyze the magic and lay plans. Neither was he a purely instinctual creature like Norechl, who took risks and did things even other gods had called mad.

A body. He had an agent, a connection, but a body was so much more than that. Like the ghosts—like the others—his power was limited by death. Even Kasigna, here, was a starving, rotting corpse.

A body solved countless issues. A body was strength. A body was levels and warmth and…

A female Human was not ideal, yet Tamaroth didn’t care. He was himself. He could change anything else. He turned and strode for Liscor. Following the path of the Goblins, hurrying to overtake them, but he was far, far north, prowling around Terandria’s shores, watching Norechl’s kin rising.

Yet Tamaroth was confident. Erin Solstice’s ghost was too far south, on Chandrar. Izril was practically deserted; the ghosts had all fled, and this was his land, through his mortal agent. A few ghosts appeared, dying naturally, but they either fled, were consumed, or hid; scraps were all that remained. The land of the dead was empty.

Who, then, could stop him? The God of Rulers walked quickly, but confidently. Until he realized—someone else was headed for Liscor. Tamaroth turned and saw her.

“You.”

She walked with a spring in her step, like a young soldier returning home from every war. Auburn hair blew around her, and even long decayed, she was the youngest of all. The youngest god, the wild hunter. The rebel who took upon lost causes.

She had fought him, fought her parents and their pantheon, taken every side. An unpredictable force. A peer—but a reckless one.

Her eyes glimmered like the roots of fate, shining the brightest oak brown, scored with green at the edges, like the very trees themselves. She was a warrior among the six, a true one. They had all fought and knew mighty battles, but that was her aspect, and even the God of Rulers could not match her on the most equal of grounds.

Cauwine, the God of Glorious Souls, was headed across Izril. His ground. Tamaroth snarled at her.

“Begone, Cauwine! This is my land!”

“Then challenge me, oh God of Us All.”

Cauwine spoke lightly, throwing back her head as she strode forwards. Now—Tamaroth was hurrying, but they were trapped in Kasinga’s domain, unable to move faster after a certain point. And she…was ahead of him.

Slightly. Ever-so-slightly, and the way they travelled was such that the two would meet and come to blows. Tamaroth had the advantage here. But more than that…he had claimed this place. Kasigna might dare intrude a while, but the others were used to the wars over domain and stayed back.

Yet she…challenged him. It would be a battle she would lose if they fought to the end; the foothold he had here was a triumph. Cauwine, though—

“You hold to names and titles and meaning so far lost that the people of this world have not even myths for them. Tamaroth. We are all dead. This is an age of change. Will you return to flesh and life and be the same? You are twice more a fool, then.”

“You speak loudly for one who fought on either side.”

Cauwine just laughed derisively in his face.

“I regret only my death. You, who argued and pontificated long about the rightness of your cause—you who claim everything by right of divinity. Stop me, then.”

The God of Leaders seized Cauwine’s arm. The Goddess of the Hunt turned. Neither stopped moving, but they began to fight.

Fight as gods did. Only a few would have been able to see even a fraction of it. Ryoka Griffin might have seen it and understood why she could never hurt them with her Faeblade. Like the fae…they were larger than the mere man and woman who walked the deadlands. The ghosts had almost no substance to do more than outrage or hurt them temporarily.

The two struggling figures slowed as they crossed over Izril like a blaze of fire, each step carrying them countless miles. Time was different here, and so their struggle just…was. Two gods.

Then…three.

Laedonius Deviy came waltzing out of the sea and glided towards Liscor as the other two looked up. He had heard of the ritual as well. Tamaroth, by his very hurry, had given himself away. Cauwine and Tamaroth hesitated—then they abandoned their struggle to catch up.

Laedonius Deviy! Cauwine! My wrath shall know no end!

Tamaroth warned them, but the Dancing Man just stepped around mountains, through stone, hurrying, reaching out. Cauwine knocked Tamaroth aside, her very nature warring with him, and the three dead gods descended on a valley betwixt the High Passes.

A single inn where a body lay.

Waiting. Tamaroth howled with outrage as he and Cauwine threw the God of Dance back, and Laedonius Deviy retreated, cursing in frustration. Then there were only two. A body.

And what happened next…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The morning of the day Fetohep received that terrible warning from Selys, the day before he left Khelt, the city of Liscor was quiet. A Lightning Dragon argued with a Watch Captain and lost. She headed north via the magic door to Celum, alone, making for the High Passes. No one noticed. They were watching the skies.

 

The Wyverns broke through clouds and flew down towards Liscor. A Goblin flew towards an inn as the [Guards] on the wall spotted the Wyverns and sounded the alarm.

The Watch Captain overruled it and issued a warning and advisory to Liscor’s citizens so they wouldn’t panic.

A group of Drakes from Salazsar marched to the inn. A group of Earthers gathered there, where Antinium sat and waited.

A single Gnoll [Head Server] changed the sign to show the inn was open and did a bit of sweeping in the kitchen. His paws were trembling.

That rumor ran through the city as a few people walked towards the inn.

Hey. Have you heard? She might be coming back today.

Who?

Her. The [Innkeeper]. That crazy Human…her.

No one laughed. They just looked up and pretended to go about their day. In the corner of their eyes, in the back of their heads…they were waiting.

Waiting and hoping. Perhaps even praying for one little miracle.

Monsters and good folk, and just average people. And…some people who had been waiting a long time for this news. Months and months.

They looked up from where they sat and heard the call. Oh…it was time? Well then. One nudged the other as they sat at an outdoor café because they had standards and it was morning—not bar time.

Some went to their rooms for their gear, but most were ready. A group of people gathered.

“It’s today?”

“Yep. Ready up.”

Who they were wasn’t exactly important right now. They belonged to an…organization. They armed themselves quietly. They checked wands in their holsters and lifted backup weapons as they assembled.

Crossbows. They had been waiting for this day as well. You see—more than just Erin’s friends were headed to the inn.

Those Goblins on Wyverns. There was no mistaking them. So a group headed to Liscor, and more went to intercept them. Crossbows carried in secret on the streets of Liscor. An armed group of elites. An old story.

An adventurer was headed for the inn, eyes locked on the sky. He was a huge, operatic man. Literally—his voice had the magnitude to shake a city to pieces contained in a single ribcage. He was followed by his Gold-rank team. But they halted as a group armed with crossbows sauntered into the street.

“Crowdcaller Merdon. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to stop here. Remember me? We’ve met a few times.”

A man holding a crossbow, a killer’s weapon, a very efficient tool, lifted it and aimed it at the Named Adventurer’s feet. Crowdcaller Merdon, who had been sitting in Liscor and Invrisil, waiting for news of Goblins, came to a halt. His team put their hands on their weapons and saw a dozen men and women standing there.

Holding those deadly weapons. A wand in the other hand. Merdon looked across the street, confused—then his eyes narrowed.

“Captain Todi. Get out of the way.”

Captain Todi of Todi’s Elites stood in the street. He put a pinkie into one ear and swiveled it around; the wax he’d put there was itching. But his Gold-rank team didn’t move.

Indeed…they had been waiting a long time. Todi smiled at Merdon. The proper, shit-eating grin of a man who knew he was holding all the cards and going to make someone else’s day worse.

“Can’t do that, Merdon. We’ve been hired to make sure those Goblins get to their destination.”

He nodded around, and the men and women with crossbows and wands sighed. It had been a long time. But they had been waiting, doing odd jobs for their employer, and Selys Shivertail knew how to employ Todi.

She knew…Liscor. And she had been waiting for this day. Certain that something would occur. Todi had been preparing too, and Merdon was on the top of his action-list.

“Someone’s hired you to—get out of the way! The Healer of Tenbault is being held captive by those Goblins!”

Todi lit up one of Palt’s puffers and blew a plume of smoke. He frowned; he’d wanted a smoke ring for effect, but he wasn’t good enough. He shrugged.

“And you’ll get her. Just not right now. Did you hear she’s supposed to save someone’s life? Proper [Healer] business, that. What comes after is up for negotiation. But if I were you, I’d save your revenge for another day. My employer’s assured me that the Healer of Tenbault will be returned safely once this is over.”

Merdon was shaking with anger. He looked at Todi, and his voice deepened ominously.

“You think you can stop me, Todi? You and your artifact-team? What happens if I ignore your ‘advice’?”

Todi sighed. Dead gods damn it. He tossed the puffer down and stomped on it. Then he lifted a wand in one hand and aimed the crossbow at Merdon’s gut.

“Then we throw down, Merdon. If it gets nasty? Well…I bet you can shout a [Fireball] out of existence, but my team and I all have Wands of [Fireball]. Don’t.”

It was about then that one of the Gold-rank adventurers nudged Merdon.

“Boss—they’ve got an angle on us.”

Merdon looked up, and if the crossbows had laser sights, he would have noticed now that not all were on his front. A figure was sitting on a roof, crossbow aimed down at Merdon. The Named Adventurer’s veins bulged, and one actually burst as Todi watched.

“Ah, shit. He’s losing his temper. Get ready.”

He muttered out of the corner of his mouth as a red stain spread over Merdon’s purpling face. He wished the man weren’t so clever; Merdon was a bit of a bull, but he was clever enough to realize that Invrisil was a good point to jump to various locations to find those Goblins thanks to the magic door. Once he heard about a certain Goblin tribe and an inn and a dead [Innkeeper]…

Well, he would never reach that inn. He might blow out every unenchanted window in Liscor, but the Watch wouldn’t take that, and Todi had promised Selys Shivertail. His finger tightened on the crossbow’s trigger.

“Merdon. I don’t feel like getting a name for team-killing today. Back off.”

Too many people had waited too long for this moment. The Named Adventurer would never make it to that inn. Todi waited as Merdon opened his mouth and braced himself. But Merdon never spoke a word.

He hesitated…and looked down at a reflection of his chin. He needed to shave, and he had a wart or something on the side of his neck. He could tell because a silver mirror was placed very handily there, showing him the underside of his jaw and that if the person holding that sword sneezed, Merdon’s throat would have a second exit.

His team recoiled; they hadn’t even seen the warrior sneaking up. But he was there, so fast that even the Named Adventurer had been caught off-guard. The voice that emanated from the insect’s mandibles was polite, precise…and intense.

“I would like you to note, Senior Guardsman Relc, that I am not part of the City Watch.”

“Really, Klb, old buddy? I thought you were.”

Klbkch shook his head as he held one of his swords at Merdon’s neck. The man inhaled, and blood ran from his neck as Klbkch pressed the sword a bit closer to his throat. With his other finger, he wagged it at the Drake, admonishing him.

“Incorrect. I resigned my commission for an extended leave of absence. Therefore, I am a citizen knowingly committing an illicit act in the City of Liscor. Feel free to arrest me, Guardsman Relc. Although, I would request you take in this Named Adventurer as well as a matter of public interest.”

Senior Guardsman Relc and Klbkch stood in the street as Relc leaned on his spear. The adventurers were transfixed; Todi was grinning widely, watching Klbkch. Relc checked the sky, squinted at the sun, and shrugged.

“…I’m off-duty, Klb, buddy. What do you take me for? I’m Relc. This seems like a matter for the next guard-patrol to sort out.”

“Indeed. Then my felonious actions will go unchecked a while longer. I will register a formal complaint later.”

They were bantering. Merdon’s jaw worked.

“You—don’t you dare stop me. The north will—”

“Do what, Adventurer Merdon? No, do not answer that question. I am aware of the issue. The Healer of Tenbault will be returned. But you will not go near that inn.”

I will not—

Merdon tried to move, but the sword cut deeper into his neck, and Relc winced. Klbkch’s voice was suddenly very, very serious.

“Move or speak and I will rid Izril of a Named Adventurer. I am Klbkch the Slayer of the Antinium. Do you think I will hesitate?

A stream of red dripped from Merdon’s neck onto that silver mirror. The Named Adventurer did not bleed like that. Merdon was not supposed to bleed like that. He was a Named Adventurer. He had answered everything from Wyverns to armies with his voice! He opened his mouth and…froze as he looked at his opponent.

Klbkch the Slayer stood there, the quiet legend of Liscor. The genuine article, returned. He looked across Merdon’s team and smiled. The Centenium saw nothing but corpses. That insect’s head turned, and two blank bug eyes looked at Merdon, tilting left and right.

Merdon Crowcaller said nothing. He held very still, eyes wide. Relc lifted his claws as Merdon looked at him.

“I think you’d better listen to what he says. He’s crazy. He even attacked me. Klb—are you going to stand here all day?”

“No. Just a while longer until I am arrested. You will have to go without me, Relc. I will follow you shortly.”

Relc looked at Klbkch, and the Slayer gazed back at him. Klbkch’s mandibles moved.

“…When she wakes up, I will see her. I am a bit ashamed. Go.”

Relc nodded. The Drake Guardsman stood straighter and eyed Todi.

“You got this?”

“With the…yes. Definitely.”

The Gold-rank Captain jumped and nodded. So Relc walked on. He lifted a hand, and Klbkch nodded to him.

It was Relc who walked across Liscor. Senior Guardsman Relc. Watch Sergeant Relc. The Gecko of Liscor, Relc the…

Just Relc.

He felt a bit bad about leaving Klbkch there. But they had flipped a coin, and Relc had won. So the Antinium stood there.

Klbkch looked so different from the friend that Relc had known. A tall, slim, intense Antinium who was the blade expert that had won great victories for the Antinium.

He had changed quite a bit. But then—so had Relc. The Drake felt different.

He was a [Watch Sergeant]. On the street, he spotted some Gnolls, who waved to him.

“Guardsman Relc! Guardsman Relc! I got a job!”

“Hey, great! I’ll talk to you later, alright, Vok?”

He nodded at the Gnoll with the spear and sauntered on, carrying his enchanted spear across his shoulders.

Something was happening in Liscor. Something familiar but which he’d never seen before at the same time. People were slowly drifting across the city. They pretended not to, but Workers looked up from carrying their burdens. A [Cleaner] swept out the front of a shop then hurried down the street, broom in hand, his silver antennae twitching.

Drakes, Gnolls, and even Humans were looking towards the eastern wall. A few were telling stories. Some…

“Mom? Can I have pizza tonight?”

“We’ll see, dear.”

A little Drake girl tugged at her mother’s claw, and Visma waved at Relc as he passed. Yet he didn’t slow, and they didn’t go to that inn.

Relc had won the coin toss. Which meant he’d sort of lost. He walked out of the gates and up towards that inn, staring at Bird’s empty tower. Watching as Antinium filed into it.

The Wyverns had landed. A green-skinned figure stared at the walls of Liscor and waved at the [Guards] before disappearing inside. Yellow Splatters had to discipline one of the Watch, an Antinium, for waving back to a monster.

They were all there. But so few walked up that hill. It was about…the right. The right to be there, to see it fail or succeed.

Relc Grasstongue stopped at the door and hesitated a long moment before he knocked. Then he laughed.

“Wait. No one’s gonna—”

Someone pulled the door open, and Relc leapt backwards. But he recognized the Gnoll.

“Uh…”

“Inn’s open. My brother’s inside. Read the sign—oh, hi, Senior Guardsman.”

Liska nodded at Relc, and Ishkr’s younger sister stood back. Relc walked into The Wandering Inn, down that long hallway that made his spines tingle. But when he heard that—he stopped and walked back outside.

There it was. A bit worn, but someone had refreshed the paint. Relc stared at the sign for a second and reminded himself of that. He closed his eyes…then nodded.

No Killing Goblins.

Into the inn, like a dreamer. Relc opened the doors, and people turned.

Drakes from Salazsar, staring at the Goblin in pure horror. Earthers, a Centaur smoking fit to burst as he trotted around a nigh-hysterical woman.

“I’m the Healer of Tenbault! I’ve been kidnapped—”

“Yes, yes. Tragedy. Are you sure you’re good to go on those ice spells? Need any backup?”

Palt inspected the runes being laid out on the floor. Relc even noticed a spider crawling by the window, but he decided it could wait.

“Hey. I’m here. Is…”

The Goblins turned, and one recoiled as she saw Relc. He looked past the sea of Antinium and then at a little Goblin he vaguely recognized.

Rags and Relc locked gazes for a moment, then Rags tore her head away as a warrior with a scar over his face and two magic swords sat up slightly.

“Chieftain?”

“No. Almost ready.”

Rags curtly spoke to the room, and Relc looked at her a long while before he heard a voice.

And that is Relc. He was the first. Or second. The first to meet her, in the days when she first came to Liscor.”

“Ooh.”

“Aah.”

Antinium were sitting around as an [Acolyte] pointed at Relc. Not Pawn, but he carried a censer. The Antinium gazed at Relc in awe.

“He and Klbkchhezeim were there. Now he is here again. Let us pray.”

Relc opened and closed his mouth, but a Gnoll bustled up to him.

“Drink? Food?”

“Me? Uh—no, Ishkr. Not right now.”

The Gnoll nodded. Relc saw to his surprise that some people did have food. Kevin and Joseph were sitting together, chatting and watching everything. They could eat?

No…the food was purely ornamental. No one had so much as touched a morsel, even the Antinium. Relc could have used a drink. He—saw another door open.

Then there was sunlight. The morning’s air blew in with the scents of plants as Relc looked into the [Garden of Sanctuary].

He saw everyone’s heads turn, and they all went silent as someone walked into the room.

“We are almost ready. Who will help carry her into the inn? It must be in the inn?”

Pawn looked around, and Rags nodded.

“For magic. Right?”

The Healer of Tenbault stuttered as she stared at an Antinium and nearly collapsed, but Strategist Kiish just nodded, fiddling with her glasses.

“Excuse me. Should we have a scrying spell…? I am sure others would want to watch.”

“No. No outside magics.”

Palt objected instantly. Kiish nodded at once.

“Of course. Afterwards. Do we need to wait on anyone…?”

The others susurrated.

“Where’s Pelt? Hedault, where’s…?”

“I sent him an exact schedule. It appears he is not here, Kevin.”

“Neither’s Olesm. Relc—did you see Captain Todi? Did he…?”

“He and Klbkch are bullying a Named-rank adventurer. Don’t worry, Selys.”

The [Heiress] sat down as Relc saw Pawn glance at him. Belgrade was behind Pawn, and the [Priest] looked about.

“Should we then begin, or is there anything we are waiting for?”

No one had a reply. After a second, Palt coughed.

“…The—the bier. How are you going to move it?”

“We shall lift it. Though some magic to stabilize it may be acceptable? Who will carry her?”

Relc’s claw twitched, but then he kept it low. He watched as people stood. Pawn gazed about, and he and Belgrade were two of the six.

Pawn, Palt, Ishkr, Belgrade, Selys, and Rags herself walked into the [Garden of Sanctuary] slowly. Relc stood there.

“Relc? Do you want to…?”

Drassi had arrived, panting after running from Liscor. So was Silveran. No Grimalkin…no Chaldion. No Saliss or Lyonette or…Mrsha.

No Horns.

No Ryoka.

Relc tried not to count. He leaned against one wall, baring his teeth in what he hoped looked like a smile.

“I’m great, Drassi. What? Me? No—I’d just trip or do something stupid. I’m…is it happening now?”

No one answered that question. Relc stood there as Drassi walked forwards, and the first thing she did was address the Goblins.

“H-hello. Don’t I know you?”

Calescent and Redscar turned, and the Goblins blinked at Drassi. Then Calescent grinned, and she smiled back.

“Do you want anything to drink…?”

Relc listened, and it all sounded faraway. He was panting, he realized. The Gecko of Liscor looked up, and then the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] opened into the common room again. Before he was ready—he saw frost, mist rising. And—

 

——

 

Relc stood in the connecting hallway, panting, listening to the voices from the common room.

“—right there. Are you ready, Healer?”

“I think so. W-w-we just follow the instructions. Who has the…?”

“I will pray as well, if it is acceptable.”

“Pray…?”

The Drake’s claws trembled on the door to the common room. He cracked it back open and saw everyone gathered around a space in the center of the inn. Someone had drawn glowing runes on the floor, bright magic, and he felt the springtime in the air as the Potion of Regeneration was opened.

Ishkr had the antidote in his paws, and Strategist Kiish stood in the center as Palt ashed his cigar and stepped forwards. Even the damn spider looked like it was watching.

They were all here. People who deserved to be. Relc saw the ones who weren’t.

Fortress Beavers were clustered next to watching Antinium. Lism wasn’t here. Not Krshia or Mrsha or…

“Stop it. Go in there.”

Relc opened the door further and saw a figure, lying on a frozen piece of stone, hands folded over her chest. The broken pieces of wood still embedded in her skin, ice beginning to thaw, red staining the fabric of her apron—

The Drake stumbled away. Relc thrust open a different door and walked into a brighter room. He shaded his eyes and realized—he was in the [Garden of Sanctuary].

He stood there, trembling, and the door closed behind him. Relc stood there and thought of Ryoka Griffin. She would be there, with Lyonette holding Mrsha. Moore and Jelaqua and Seborn—Ceria would be doing the spells and…

It was all wrong. He fought with something, something he was afraid to say. Until someone spoke his name.

“Guardsman Relc?”

Relc jumped and saw who had come in after him. Noticed his absence. He saw an Antinium.

“Pawn…? No. Belgrade.”

The [Strategist] nodded. He had returned from the Hectval front for today. But Olesm wasn’t here. The Antinium looked at Relc curiously, then back at the door. Someone was beginning to chant behind him.

“Will you not be there to watch, Guardsman Relc? Olesm did not come. Nor did Calruz—although, he was not welcome within Liscor. But surely you will be there.”

Relc was panting. He put a claw over his chest. He looked at Belgrade, and the words finally burst out of his chest. The words surely Olesm and Palt and all the others had swallowed. They came out now, in the final minutes.

“I can’t. It’s not gonna work, Belgrade.”

The [Strategist] froze.

“It surely will, Guardsman Relc. Every component has been acquired, and everything is in place. It will work. It will…”

He was trembling. Relc saw the Antinium look backwards and then at him accusatorily.

“You must not say such things. Why are you saying such lies?”

Relc almost laughed. He wished he’d actually won that coin toss. He tried to explain, in a shaking voice. He still could not look behind him. Instead, Relc gazed at the domed ceiling letting in light. The hill with the mist.

“I don’t know how to…I’ll try. Belgrade. I want it to work. If I thought saying it would work—I’d say it until my tongue fell out of my head and keep doing it. Erin’s gone. I know it. You know it.”

“But she is not dead—

Relc was shaking his head.

“I’ve seen too many good people die. When I heard about Erin…”

The Drake closed his eyes and gulped.

“…I believed there was a cure the instant my kid wrote to me about it. I believed it, and that was what got me through Cellidel. Asking what Erin would say when I came back and told her. I believed when I got that strange [Message] thing and Selys showed me everything. I believed when I heard that Goblin was coming. Now? Now I remember.”

His eyes were watering. The Gecko wiped at them, and a young Drake stood on a battlefield, in a [Healer]’s tent. In a hundred places, in a hundred times. He spoke to Belgrade.

“I’ve always believed they were gonna make it. Every buddy whose claw I held. Every time I poured a potion, I thought—they’re just a bit cold. They’ll pull through. They’re too tough to…”

He trailed off. The Antinium saw what he saw. He had already known what Relc was talking about. He was a [Soldier], and he had been there at the start. Relc closed his eyes.

“There’s always a chance. Right until I wake up and realize that was twenty years ago. And I’m still waiting for them to open their eyes.”

“Oh. Is that why they have not come? They are afraid.”

Belgrade looked past Relc, and the Drake nodded. Klbkch, Pelt, the others…

When she wakes, I will see her. He ran a claw down his neck spines. Maybe…maybe…he heard someone speaking behind him, making sure everyone knew their places. Relc took a breath

“If she wakes up, I almost won’t be surprised. If she wakes up—”

He couldn’t finish it. He couldn’t be there. Not to see that. He would rather face a hundred thousand Skinners, Crelers, and see every horror on the battlefield than see it fail. Belgrade understood.

That was the difference between the two. The Antinium believed. He hoped. Relc hung his head, ashamed.

“—Tell me when it’s over. Please.”

The [Strategist] looked at him a long time, then slowly nodded.

“I will be the first to do so.”

He walked back towards the door, and Relc heard the first words of magic. Belgrade peered into the inn—then back at Relc.

“…No. I will be the second.”

That alone almost made Relc go back. Almost…but he couldn’t. He knew the ending of this tale, so he walked deeper into the garden. Hiding from despair.

The Drake walked up the hill, wondering how long it would take. Counting seconds into minutes, losing track…he walked past the Sage’s Grass cultivated in neat rows. Saw the Faerie Flowers had bloomed well.

Relc reached down and picked one up. He stared at the precious, little flower and wondered if this could bring the dead back.

…No. There were some things that didn’t happen.

But maybe—

He had seen miracles. The Drake walked higher, wrestling with the very concepts taking place behind him. He walked up into that misty hill, past statues, and then stopped when he realized he was where she had been.

The body was gone. Relc exhaled—but then he saw the magic circle, still keeping the piled gifts and objects hidden. Tributes to the Innkeeper of Liscor.

One stood out to him, one of the first that had been placed with the other mourners so long ago. Relc had not been here. He imagined…how it must have been. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people filing up and down the hill. Relc bent down, seeing one of the things someone had put there to keep Erin company.

It was a doll, covered in ice.

It was stitched to look like a cute little Gnoll, with a mane of fur on the edges since fur everywhere just made it look like a hairball. Very artistically done, albeit all in brown. Cheap? Maybe, but hand-crafted by a good [Sewer] who cared enough to make it last. Worn down and restitched in the arm where it had torn—twice. With little, button-black eyes. A little Gnoll doll that Relc recognized.

Visma loved that little doll. Relc looked there, and it struck him again.

She really had died. He hadn’t been here to stop it. He hadn’t even known about it until a month or more afterwards. Even now—

How much had they all cried? Relc tried to summon some tears, but all he heard was the nervous beating of his heart. He tried anger instead.

“Why her? You bastards. Why her?”

There was no reason. Relc had walked so many battlefields since being a soldier of Liscor. Before he had been the Gecko…he had asked that question a thousand times.

“Why her? Why him? Why like that?”

There was no good answer. Relc had seen arrows miss bastards by a fraction of a hair’s width and the greatest of souls die for no reason.

That was why he knew. Knew it wasn’t going to work. If it did—what did that mean about all those other times? How was it fair?

Relc knew it wouldn’t be. He knew it wouldn’t work. Even so—he knelt in the soft grass and rested his head on his arm as he clutched at the soil.

“I know. But…please. Just this time?”

A single Drake lay there, waiting, listening with all his heart, wondering if he could sense the moment it happened. Like someone who had lain in the darkness far too long, eyes closed…waiting to sense the sun. A hundred times, Relc thought he heard something—felt something.

But he knew that when it happened he would feel it.

Hope, fear, despair, terror, and desperation. So many flames warring in his chest.

Maybe just this once. Maybe this time…

Relc Grasstongue lay there as all of Liscor waited. Waited, disbelieving, hoping out of the corner of their eyes.

Waiting…but the answer was already written in the future. Relc raised his head when he heard a voice through that cracked door.

“…not working. The Skill—”

“Keep going. Keep—”

They shouted her name. It was still failing. Even that Skill wasn’t enough. A body was lying on the bier in ice. No spark to kindle. The voices shouted in desperation, as if sound could reach her.

Then—something was there. A catalyst to hold onto. There was a great cry, and Relc whirled. He heard only silence. Saw the flash of light into the Garden of Sanctuary.

Nothing. Nothing but silence in his ears. Then he heard a single voice.

“Erin…?”

Relc stood—and then heard a terrible scream. A shout—and a whirlwind of noise and violence. He stood on that hill, staring down with wide eyes.

 

——

 

“Erin?”

When the Drake tore into the common room, that was all he heard. All he saw was…devastation.

Chairs and tables were overturned. People were collapsed against walls, knocked down—he saw Antinium lying stunned, one lying flat from where it had been kicked. He saw the body closest to the place where the ritual had taken place…trying to rise.

The smallest Goblin was lying on her back, staring up at the ceiling with a confused look in her eyes. Tears had run down her cheeks, but all that was in her gaze now was shock. Shock and…horror.

“What—what happened?”

Relc looked around. Then he focused on the bier of stone. It was still wet with melted ice. But the body was gone.

She was back. She was back! She was—

“That’s not Erin. Pawn? Pawn?

A Drake was holding a Worker who had collapsed, weak with shock. Pawn was staring upwards, his mandibles open.

It had been seconds.

Where—

Redscar was getting up. Blood ran down one arm. He pointed.

“There.”

Relc turned and saw the door to the common room was open. Even so—he looked around another second.

The common room was destroyed. Like so many times before it…but this wasn’t the same. One person had done this. Workers were getting up, Soldiers staring in horror at—

It wasn’t her. What was that?

Selys was shouting, wild-eyed. A low moan was coming from the Antinium. Relc stood there, in the slivers of time cut out by horror. Realization. He turned.

Relc! Don’t—

He went after her. Selys heaved herself up, then looked around. Rags was just lying there, eyes staring at the ceiling and that moment of hope. Everything…everything…

 

We tried the ritual. Something went wrong. It’s not her. Relc went after her.

 

——

 

Relc knew something was terribly wrong. Did Liscor feel it? He could not hear Tamaroth’s howl of rage. He only knew what he saw.

And what he saw as he tore out of the inn…was the path she left. So fast.

He was the Gecko of Liscor. Even slow with shock, even when he took in time to see—Erin Solstice would never have been able to move that fast.

She was already in Liscor. He saw the eastern gates open; there was a commotion around it. Relc ran.

The Drake flashed down the hill, running over grass, shouting. His spear—he’d left it behind. The Drake didn’t care. He had no armor, no spear—he just ran.

He had to see. 

The gates were open when Relc got there. The [Guards] were staring down, charging down the steps after…one saw Relc skid to a halt.

“Relc! Was that—?”

Which way?

A Gnoll was babbling.

“That looked like her—but I’ve never seen her move like—it felt different, and she—”

Relc shook him.

Which way did she go?

“Teleport Plaza!”

The Drake recognized the name. The largest space, Shivertail’s Plaza, repurposed for the door. Where…his head snapped up.

The door. He charged after her, following the voices in the street, running—running—trying to catch a glimpse.

He was too late. He saw something…someone familiar vanishing into a door, the stunned attendants and people lined up all shouting, pointing. Relc saw a glowing yellow stone and realized where she was going.

Pallass.

 

——

 

Where might someone go? If you thought long and hard about it, and you knew…

Where might you go? Invrisil, perhaps. Or Pallass. Important places with valuable things.

Not just artifacts. Centers of power for information, gear. Even vehicles. Like Pegasi.

There was just one complication in Pallass over Invrisil. Even the checkpoint guard had heard today was important.

They were not ready for this. What they saw…what they looked at seemed to be a Human woman. Some even recognized her. The Drakes looked up.

“You…”

“Let me in, please. I’m in a hurry.”

It even sounded like her. Her face. Her voice. The Drakes looked at each other. A Gnoll reached for the switch uncertainly, and a claw captured his arm.

Sergeant Kel of Pallass looked up.

“You need to go through?”

“Yes.”

He locked eyes with…Erin Solstice, and the Drake’s claw trembled. His eyes were stinging. She waited, blinking at him innocently. The Drake saw the rest of his checkpoint looking at him. One of the [Guards] whispered.

“Sergeant Kel? What’s wrong?”

Slowly, deliberately, Kel, the Drake who had suffered so much at the hands of this damn Human, who had…heard she passed away, reached for something at his side. He triggered the stone and spoke calmly.

“That’s not her. She never says please when she’s in a hurry. And she knows my name. That’s not her. Sound the alarm. Sound the—

 

——

 

Relc took thirty seconds to try to explain as the panicked door attendants got in his way, then forced his way through. He found the checkpoint gates open and the guards collapsed.

She—she—we couldn’t stop her.

An alarm was ringing through Pallass. Sergeant Kel was lying on the ground. He’d tried to block her. He looked up, dazed, head bloody.

Who is that?

Relc had no answer. He ran into the street as citizens of Pallass ran indoors, looking around, looking up. The entire 8th floor was on high-alert. Relc ran as the alarm spread.

Nothing was stopping her. She was moving so fast—he found a patrol of Pallass’ own slumped to the ground. Not even hurt—one had been knocked aside, a Dullahan, but the rest had just collapsed.

Where was she going? Where was…

Then he saw her. Relc came to a stop and saw a Human girl with brown hair, an apron even flapping behind her and stained with blood and six holes in the front. Casual clothes.

An [Innkeeper], maybe plain at first, until you looked at her and saw what she did. A young woman with a quick smile and a laugh that was infectious. Someone who could stand in a common room or at the head of an army and belong.

Erin Solstice. But that wasn’t her.

She was running, running so fast that Relc was barely faster than her, vaulting a staircase, leaping with the grace of a trained warrior.

Heading for the Grand Staircase. There was a wild smile on her face. A glow from her eyes of excitement. Relc knew it wasn’t her.

That smile was all wrong. Every way she moved, the way she bared her teeth in a feral grin—

He sprinted towards her. The hesitation wasn’t gone. That wasn’t her. The Gecko of Liscor forgot he was unarmed and unarmored.

“You! Who are you?”

He was screaming. The [Innkeeper] barely noticed him. An entire city was on the alert, but they were not prepared for one Human, even if they had encountered her before.

She looked around, and another group of Pallass’ Watch just…fell, their strings cut as they ran towards her, uncertain. Relc saw it, and his eyes went wide.

Aura? Or something else? He felt that. No wonder no one had been able to even stop her. They just…stopped, collapsed.

All but one. One person had been aware of this day. He had not expected this. But he had remained in Pallass because he had believed the same thing as Relc, deep down.

Now…now, Grimalkin of Pallass leapt up the stairs of the City of Inventions like a boulder hurled from a catapult, blurring towards Erin Solstice. The Sinew Magus’ eyes were locked on the young woman.

He reached Erin first. Cloaked in magic, the strongest mage in Pallass reached for her arm. The grinning Human turned. She saw one huge claw closing over her arm and…

Dodged. Like he was moving in slow motion, Grimalkin missed her as she slid around him. He turned, but even under a [Haste] spell…

He was not the fastest thing in the world. This wasn’t an [Innkeeper]. It was a warrior. She did not know him, and he did not know her.

He hesitated and then threw a punch as Relc vaulted a staircase and flew down a floor, landing so hard he heard his bones creaking. When he caught sight of them again—he saw they were fighting.

The Sinew Magus had studied martial arts. He was regarded as one of the best [Mages] in the world in hand-to-hand combat.

…He was losing. He threw up one arm to shield himself, and she struck him in the ribs so hard Relc swore he saw Grimalkin’s feet leave the ground. The body was Erin’s, but the force and speed—

Grimalkin was holding back. He jabbed, but his concentration, his killing intent—she grabbed the arm and threw him. The [Mage] caught himself and lifted a glowing claw.

She picked up a sword. Relc lost sight of them one second. He shoved aside staring people and saw Erin running. Grimalkin was bleeding.

Eight cuts, each one so deep he had to drink a healing potion or bleed out in less than a minute. The Sinew Magus turned as Relc ran by.

Gecko! Stay back! She’ll kill you! The Assembly of Crafts! Guard the Assembly—she’s headed for—

He was pointing at one of the largest buildings in Pallass. The Assembly of Crafts, where all the [Senators] and leaders of Pallass’ civilian government were. Relc saw the guards at the entrance collapsing.

But there she was. The young woman looked back once and saw the Gecko running after her. The only person who could catch her. She pointed at him, and he felt something pressing him down. Trying to sap his strength.

Relc—refused. Erin. He leapt at her as she whirled, blade in hand. That bright light behind her gaze.

One claw caught the sword-hand, the other grabbed Erin. The fastest Drake in all of Liscor saw her react—so quick. And those lips moved and he heard her voice.

So familiar. So foreign. Someone else spoke with her mouth. Relc looked into those eyes and asked for the last time.

“Who are you?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sprigaena, confronting the God of Rulers who had failed.

 

Tamaroth was howling in the lands of the dead as Sprigaena fell away from him. She arced downwards like a broken dream, her sword cutting across the Devourer of Time’s front. One cut from sky to land, trying to divide the world in half.

—Even the greatest skill with the blade wasn’t enough. Not to kill something on the threshold of godhood. The Devourer of Time reached out for Sprigaena as the Last Elf looked up at one fate.

Tamaroth. Reaching down for her. Then at the horror reaching for her through time itself. She tried to move and lifted her blade for one final cut.

A second blade cut across the horizon. A second slash, horizontally, drawing the blood of the Timewalker. A Skill without a Skill.

Grace, given to someone who had learned the art of the sword as well as every other weapon from the moment she had been conceived.

Sprigaena blinked upwards as someone leapt downwards and landed. As a hand reached for her, the God of Rulers recoiled. The Last Traitor looked up in confusion. She backed away.

Twice now. Twice! Cauwine!

The Goddess of Last Stands, the warrior among the six, stood there, drenched in the blood of Norechl’s kin. Her eyes were sparkling with excitement.

Tamaroth and Cauwine. Sprigaena was confused. She had been told one or the other…Laedonius Deviy, pursuing the ghosts of Drath, looked up suddenly.

“Impossible. Then—who is in her body?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We tried the ritual. Something went wrong. It’s not her. Relc went after her.

 

Relc stared down into hazel eyes and that maddening grin. The force wearing Erin’s body, the thief…had such a terrible smile. Not fitting to the [Innkeeper]. Wide and full of teeth.

And that voice…his claws trembled as he tried to hold her, but she was so strong. The person in Erin spoke.

“My. Aren’t you a generous cup of amentus juice?”

Relc blinked. Then he felt a foot underneath him. The young woman kicked him into the air.

The Drake landed, cursing, and saw a sword aimed at his chest. The being standing there tilted her head, that smile never fading. She looked Relc up and down as he froze.

Could he kill her? But his mind was locked on that…saying. And that smile. Then ‘Erin’ snapped at him.

“Ugly as the underside of a boot and twice as tough. What’s a Drake like you doing in the Watch instead of the army?”

“Huh?”

The sword jabbed as ‘Erin’ stepped in, and Relc recoiled. The figure backed up, and more [Soldiers] and [Guards] were arriving.

They had to know they were dead. Grimalkin had nearly been killed, but the warrior had turned her blade before the last strike. Relc saw a Drake with a bow aiming—the figure whirled.

“No! Get out—”

Before he could shout or jump forwards, the sword had slashed the bow apart. The other [Guards] collapsed, one clutching at a cut across the wrist. ‘Erin’ held her sword casually.

“Get lost. You don’t want to die, do you?”

She addressed the Pallasians. A Drake reaching for her sword hilt gasped as Relc scooped up a spear. ‘Erin’ stomped the blade and claws flat, but the Drake just hissed up at her.

Drakes don’t run. Do your worst.”

The young woman’s eyes narrowed. Then she threw back her head and laughed. She laughed contemptuously and kicked the sword hilt away. She turned her head, and a spear was aimed at her back.

“Don’t move.”

The [Innkeeper] shifted her grip, and Relc felt his [Dangersense] chiming in the back of his head. He felt the pressure.

She knew how to use that sword as well as his spear. But the young woman…the person inside Erin’s body just kept chuckling. She shook her head. Then, unexpectedly, she spat.

Every eye saw the glob of spit hit the paving stones of the City of Invention. ‘Erin’ wiped at her mouth with the other hand.

“‘Drakes don’t run?’ What a stupid thing to say.”

Everyone stared at her, nonplussed. Of all the things to stop her…Relc was looking for an opening, but the ‘young woman’ continued.

“Drakes absolutely run. It’s called a strategic retreat. You do it all the time when you’re losing—then you ambush the bastards or regroup.”

Something about the way they were speaking was making every scale on his body crawl. The cadence? The way she was pronouncing her words? No…more than that. What had she called him? That was an expression. The angry person went on.

“Drakes don’t run…that’s the kind of thing you tell a bunch of limp-tailed cowards in other cities hiding behind their walls. That’s what you shout at a handful of shivering recruits who need to hold onto something before they go into the grinder. When we need to win a battle. To put up their spines.”

She looked at him, and Relc’s arms grew weaker. It was that smile. Full of teeth. Humans hated that smile. It looked like how a Drake…

He went on, spitting again, standing at a kind of half-slouch, that sword he held tightly in one grip, a swordsman trained by battle. So confident. Looking around, eyes distant.

“That’s what you tell children when they ask where their fathers and mothers went. You tell them they never ran, even if you lie through your teeth. Even if you never knew them—or saw them die with a spear in their back. They never ran. Fine words for heroes. Stupid as Creler bait for a species.”

“You…”

Those words. Relc was an old [Soldier]. So old…his spear was shaking, and the person noticed it. He turned. It was Erin’s face. But that sharp look.

“What’s that? Spear trembling? Are you some kind of rookie? Hold it straight. You’d never shape up in my army like that.”

His army. Then the young woman squinted at Relc.

“…Or not. You. You’re familiar.”

“Yes.”

The shaking [Spearmaster] was locking eyes with someone. The [Guards] and [Soldiers] of Pallass looked up as the person in Erin Solstice frowned at Relc. Then he grinned.

“You want to know me. I think you do. Don’t you know my name? Or are you too young?”

Relc was speechless. It could not be. It wasn’t—but the young woman strutted around, putting one hand on her hip as he lowered his sword, peering critically around the City of Inventions. Like he knew it. Remembered it. He nodded to Relc as he gazed at the onlookers. Kicked a blade out of a Garuda’s grip.

“Look at them. They’ve forgotten me so quickly. And things are the same as ever and different. Pallass hasn’t changed, but I don’t even remember my city. Damned Antinium infesting it—I thought Zel was blowing smoke out of his tailhole.”

No. But then that head turned, and he looked Relc up and down, and the Drake stood straight, like a teenage boy standing before…before a [General] inspecting the ranks. That gaze.

“You know me. And I met you, when I was alive. Come on, you must get it by now.”

Every eye turned to the Gecko of Liscor, and he whispered the only name he could think of. The only one that fit. It was impossible. He didn’t know how—but he saw those bright eyes light up, that waiting smile.

“General Sserys.”

General Sserys of Liscor threw back his head and laughed. He brushed at Erin’s hair as if he were reaching for his neck spines. Then he rolled her shoulders and shrugged.

Correct, rookie. Now shut up and follow me. I am a Drake on a mission. Is this your friend’s body? Don’t worry. I’m just borrowing it.”

He put the flat of the blade on one shoulder, and Relc nearly dropped his spear. When everyone had forgotten him, while the three gods fought—no one expected the only Drake to push the Antinium back. The Hero of the Antinium Wars.

[Spear of the Drakes]. The [General] of Liscor’s army. The name that had helped to form every officer and leader in the decades since his passing. The God of Rulers and Goddess of Last Stands had expected victory as they reached for Erin’s body.

They had found a Drake and a headbutt.

 

——

 

How had it happened? What was going on? Relc ran after Erin—after General Sserys. It was him. Only a few things could explain that unnatural talent with the sword. And the Skills.

He strutted along in the chaos of the City of Inventions, and no one could stop him. It wasn’t just an aura—it was him.

The command. Patrols came skidding to a stop. Squads of [Soldiers] were unable to attack him. Relc could barely fight off the sheer influence; no one else could get in his way.

[Supreme General of the Cities: Shut Up And Follow My Orders]. Dead gods, but Pallass hasn’t changed much in twenty years. Still stinks like alchemist shit and metal on the top floors. Who’s in charge?”

“The—Assembly of Crafts—”

Erin—Sserys—rolled her eyes. It was such a familiar look, but he had biting sarcasm and impatience in the gaze he gave Relc.

“Ancestors. I meant really in charge. Who’s the [General] of 1st Army—no, wait. Is that bastard still kicking around? The Cyclops? Chaldion?”

“Wh—yeah. Where are we—how is this happening?

The Drake just snorted as he gazed around and then felt at Erin’s nose. He pulled at it and looked disgusted.

“What the hell is this? Dead gods, I’m in a Human body. I feel like someone’s rolled me in a beef steak. A female body. Eh. Too bad she’s weak as shit. At least my Skills are still working. In fact…”

That grin again, and it was a terrible grin. The kind of grin that a Drake might wear as he stood over his mortal enemy on a cliff and began kicking fingers off the ledge. The grin of a [Mercenary General], the toughest bastard who fought for pay and kicked everyone below the belt as a warmup to the real underhanded fighting.

I leveled up. I guess if you possess a body you count as living. Fancy that.”

You levelled—

“Where’s Chaldion’s house? Hey! Directions!

Sserys grabbed a Garuda by the chin and barked in the [Soldier]’s stunned face.

“Chaldion’s house? What floor? Where? Good. Get out of my way. Who’re you, kid?”

The answer provoked an instant response. Relc saluted.

“Sergeant Relc, 4th Company! Headhunting [Spearmaster]! Nickname: Gecko, s—I mean, Senior Guardsman Relc. Watch Sergeant Relc! What is going on?

Sserys picked at his teeth with a fingernail.

“Long answer? Ghost stuff. Two bastards were coming for the body, so I stepped in.”

“You’re dead!

Even other ghosts thought he had died. Even Erin…but Sserys just chuckled.

“I don’t die that easy. I’ve always been good at getting out of the soup when it’s boiling. I ran and hid since I didn’t have any way to fight back. I rallied a few ghosts, found places to hide. Besides—I had a feeling this was a good spot to wait to kick those idiots’ tails twice.”

Who? But the [General] was striding so fast Relc had to jog to catch up. He still had the bloody sword on one shoulder. Erin’s body…Sserys kept poking the healed holes in her chest.

“Good thing I was here. I don’t think that ritual was working. That Skill had all the force of a Lizardboy behind it until I stepped in. Besides—she’s not here to use it.”

“What are you doing with her body? That’s Erin’s. How do you know her?”

Relc put a claw on Sserys’ shoulder, but the [General] swatted it away.

“Shut up, brat. I’ll just borrow her body for a bit. Izril needs someone to slap it on the ass and give it a kick in the tail. At least—my people do. What are they doing right now? No—I need a list of every military leader. The intelligent ones can’t all be dead. All five of them? Izril needs me to tell them what’s coming.”

What’s coming? Relc hesitated as Sserys found Chaldion’s home. The guards in front of it had been reinforced by Grimalkin. Sserys just walked at them.

“Halt—who are you?”

“I’m General Sserys of Liscor. Get out of my way.

Grimalkin’s arm jerked as he tried to bar the door. He looked at Relc, then Erin’s face, lost for words. The young woman walked forwards, halted, and then kicked him just below the kneecap so hard the Sinew Magus’ arm jerked. She nodded at Relc.

“Tell the cute idiot to stop getting in my way or I’ll remove a testicle. Explain it—[Spearmaster]? We could have used more of you back when I was alive. Ah, here we are.”

A Gnoll [Housekeeper] and a Drake were in the doorway. The Drake aimed a wand at Erin, eyes wide, but the young Human took two steps into the house, slapped the wand across the room, and grabbed his shoulder.

“You—”

He was treated to an ivory grin. Sserys whispered in Chaldion’s ear as he kicked the Gnoll out.

“Hey, you scheming, one-eyed fiend. I should have known you’d fight old age as bitterly as everything else. I need a word. Even you can be useful.”

He pointed to Relc as the Drake stood there, lost for words. Sserys flicked a hand, and the sword he had stolen slammed into the stone of Chaldion’s doorway.

“I need ten minutes. Get me a Pegasus and a sword.”

 

——

 

It took forty minutes. By then…Relc’s head was still spinning. Liscor and Pallass were in uproar. Even if you said it—it was impossible to believe.

Nor was Sserys giving anyone a chance to sit down and process it. Like a [Bandit], he was moving and getting what he wanted by sheer momentum.

Relc didn’t know what he’d said to Chaldion, but the Drake almost looked dead when the [General] marched out of the house. Certainly—Chaldion didn’t stop Sserys from getting what he wanted.

Which was armor, a sword, and a Pegasus. And a drink.

The sight of Erin Solstice taking down an entire cup of Firebreath Whiskey with every sign of delight…Sserys exhaled.

Twenty fucking years. Now, all I want is fifteen minutes and the right Drake or Gnoll.”

Relc’s look of horror made Sserys snort.

“Don’t get your scales twisted up. I said ‘want’. You’re ugly enough, or that giant ‘Sinew Magus’. But the genuine article’s dead.”

He lost the smile and tossed the glass across Tails and Scales. Then Sserys strode out of the bar, past Rufelt and Lasica.

“Dead. I’m some legend, and people quote me like I was a hero. My city’s infested with insects, and we’re making war on the Gnolls? I’ve had bad dreams. This…this is just stupid.”

“Sir. You’ve been dead twenty years…I was just a raw recruit when you led the army into the Hive. What happened? What—can the dead return to life?”

Sserys leaned on the balcony of Pallass. He looked at the faces staring up at him and spat. Someone yelped, and he nodded.

“Let’s get back to Liscor, Sergeant. Talk and walk. It was a stupid idea, and I was high on my own fumes. Zel told me to wait—I thought we had the Antinium on the edge and we couldn’t. They wiped us out. Pulled out new types—all their Prognugators went at me.”

“Centenium.”

“What?”

Sserys didn’t know about the Antinium. It was strange—talking to someone who knew more and less. Relc thought that was the least strange thing. He gulped.

“Centenium. Those are the immortal ones. Xrn. Wyrmvr? Klbkch? They killed you?”

Sserys’ pace slowed. He checked the sword at his belt and stared up at the sky. Out of the corner of one eye, he looked at Relc.

“…Yeah. Do you know how…no, they probably never found the bodies.”

“They found yours. One strike through the heart. Was it…?”

Relc had always wondered about that. One blow had torn through armor and flesh and bone. Sserys hadn’t even looked like he’d been fighting. He’d always wondered if the greatest swordsman of the Antinium…

The [Spear of the Drakes] just spat.

“It was two. The Small Queen and the Deathless. I don’t know what stories they tell, but it went like this. They ambushed us—every Antinium in the night. Invisible ones, exploding ones—experimental. Wings on some.”

Silent and Flying Antinium. The Human passed a trembling hand over his face.

“…More than we thought they had. It wiped us out. I could have seen it going our way; we had a combined army of Gnolls, Drakes, even Humans. But they didn’t have a chance, poor bastards. Not one chance. General Sserys was dead before they struck. He stood in his tent, and his last grand moment was him standing—still as a statue—as the Small Queen held him still long enough for Wyrmvr the Deathless to run him through.”

Relc came to a complete stop. Sserys looked at him bleakly. The Gecko’s knees buckled. He had to hold himself up with the wall. He went to sit and looked up at…

Erin. But he almost saw the Drake standing there, shorter than the stories made him out to be. Wearing a sword at his side. Looking down at the hole in his chest and facing two of the oldest of the Antinium. Baring his teeth in one last, painful grimace.

Relc couldn’t stand up. Sserys just opened and closed one claw. He looked at Relc and the moment faded. Erin Solstice gave Relc a wry grimace.

“That was the day they learned how to use teleportation scrolls and the artifacts they looted from us.”

The two Drakes looked at each other a moment, and Sserys kept walking.

“I should have seen it coming. Not one damn [Mage] detected them waltzing into my tent? Maybe the Slayer got them. Either way—that’s how it went. And then the Tidebreaker became the last [General] standing. The poor bastard who all of Izril put their problems onto and then left to die in the north.”

“General Zel.”

“No, the other General Shivertail. Yes, him. I heard from his own lips how much help he got. Another war. Another war and a Goblin King and the Necromancer of Terandria, and we couldn’t band together long enough to follow his orders. All because someone figured out…”

Sserys looked around and shook his head. Then they were in Liscor. He walked into a sea of faces.

“Erin?”

Someone whispered, but General Sserys just strode on. The people of Liscor parted before him. Relc walked after him, looking for Selys, Rags…but they all had to be at the inn.

They thought it was a monster. Maybe it was. Sserys walked towards an Antinium Worker who stared at the glorious [Innkeeper], and he stopped as Relc barred his way.

“…What are you doing?”

“That is a citizen of Liscor and one of Erin Solstice’s friends.”

Sserys’ hand was tight on the sword. He looked at Relc.

“You’re one of mine.”

“I was—until I got tired of being sent on suicide missions. I am [Trusted Sergeant of the Watch], Relc Grasstongue, a [Spearmaster] of Liscor and a friend of Erin Solstice. And if you try to hurt anyone here—I’ll kick your ass.”

That familiar mouth opened, teeth bared—then Sserys laughed again.

Someone’s got balls. Fine then. I don’t want to linger. I just need to see something. Tell me—what the hell happened to the army? Why did Chaldion say they’re not affiliated with Liscor anymore?”

That was how Relc Grasstongue found himself telling the story of how he’d left the army, joined Liscor, and become a [Guardsman] and all the rest that had happened since Sserys had died. The Drake listened, walking down the streets.

He knew where he was going. He looked at every Antinium he passed, and Erin’s hand was glued to the sword hilt.

“Zel told me he met an Ant. I told him he was mad. He reminded me about the Humans. They’re uglier, but not much worse. He told me a lot of things. He told me he named a Goblin Lord—”

The Drake’s eyes opened wide. He raised his voice in outrage.

He named a Goblin Reiss. Gave him that name as if it meant nothing. As if a Goblin deserved—”

He spun and saw Relc had no idea what that meant. Sserys looked around. He put a hand on a wall, and the brickwork cracked. Relc took another step back.

Was Liscor trembling or was it him? Gnolls and Drakes on the streets looked at Sserys. They couldn’t get close, but they looked at him. As if he was a second sun, and he was blinding, but demanding all their attention. They didn’t know—but they knew. They were trailing after him, but only Relc saw Sserys close his eyes.

“…When I met him, he was different. Twenty years changed Zel Shivertail. I felt younger than he was. Twenty years he was the Drake who held together the south. They abandoned him. All because he wasn’t me. Because they tossed one word at him as if it wouldn’t work on me.”

“Then it’s true.”

Sserys looked up at Relc, and his eyes dripped.

“Maybe that was why he found more in common with a Goblin Lord than any other Drake. I left him here. I left him, and the Antinium took my city—

He raised his voice…then kicked a cobblestone savagely. It sailed through the window of a shop, and both of them looked up as someone cried out in dismay.

Relc caught up with Sserys as the General stopped two streets away. Sserys looked ruefully back at the shop.

“…I don’t belong here. From what you’ve said, it sounds like Liscor’s army didn’t change for the better after I died.”

“They were the heroes of the First Antinium War and the second…”

“Heroes. You’re saying that again. Ever met a real [Hero]? They are depressing as hell, and our Walled Cities would love to manufacture them, if we could control them. Heroes…we were a bunch of die-hard [Mercenaries] who got to fight the fight of our lives. They gave me a class and called me a great [General], but I don’t think they listened to me. Or they wouldn’t say things like ‘Drakes don’t run’. I died before I even got to enjoy being Izril’s darling. Zel was the one who continued.”

Sserys leaned on a wall. He felt at the nose again.

“…Now I’m a ghost stuck in a Human’s body. I only came back because there’s things my people have to know.”

“What?”

Sserys glanced at the sky and around with a glower for Relc.

“The kind of thing I can’t say without making sure we’re in private. I have to…go. Yes. We’re attacking the Gnolls? That is as stupid as anything I’ve heard. But my army’s there. I can feel them. I am the highest-level [General] on all of Izril. Until Erin finds me—I need to correct our path. And Zel. He deserved better.”

Sserys had seen the statue of the Tidebreaker. He looked around the city he walked through, just like Pallass. With disgust and betrayal. A Drake city that had not been there when the Tidebreaker met his end. A people that had taken him for granted.

“Zel had only one flaw as a [General]. One thing I could do better than him. He was no good at feints. He never liked deception. He was never good at laughing loud at small little Drakes and lying to their faces while hiding the bile behind his tongue. He never could tolerate people who left their own out to dry for their ambitions and vainglory.”

The young woman was cracking the very cobblestones of the street with each step. Not with force—with that shaking emotion in the Drake’s soul. Sserys spat.

If he were a Gnoll, they would have made a kingdom around him. I should have never told him what he was. We should never have met. I wish I had lived. I would have torn down the walls of every damn city and hung those idiots over a pot of Crelers. I—

His voice was rising. Relc realized where they were going as Sserys stalked down the street. They made one stop—and only one—in Liscor. It was a small place against one of the city’s walls. A neatly tended, rather private space, given Liscor’s limited real estate.

It was a graveyard. Only a few people could afford a space, carefully maintained to prevent any chance of undead rising. In fact—Relc knew the graves were exhumed and swapped with new owners after the [Gravetenders] stopped being paid or an appropriate time had passed.

But then—that was actually regular. Only one grave would never be touched. It was a rather magnificent one, and several other occupants had been moved away from the gigantic tomb in the center of the graveyard.

Even now, it had flowers, ornamental blades, and other tributes. Especially since Zel Shivertail’s passing. Sserys walked on top of it, looked at the inscription, and kicked a bouquet off his grave.

“Ancestors. Don’t I have a statue, at least?”

“There’s three in Liscor. Do you want to…?”

It was beyond surreal. The Human woman just looked at the grave, and then down.

“Sserys. Hero of Liscor. There I am. It does not feel real. One second I was in the lands of the dead, apologizing to him, arguing with that damn Silver Dragon and watching those things creep about—the next, skulking around, dodging the bearded bastard. Now?”

He lifted his nose and sniffed.

“…I smell my city. I’m standing over my grave, and I need to piss, and I’m terrified of that. I know I’m dead, but I feel alive and it’s wonderful. My people are being idiots, which is nothing new. I could handle all of it. But…you told me you dug up my grave.”

“Uh—uh—yes?”

Relc hid behind a tombstone, but Sserys just knelt down. He pressed one of Erin’s ears to the marker on the tomb.

“Zel’s ashes are here. Half? I’d take one half of him over an entire army. Either half.”

He grinned at Relc, and the Drake gulped. There was an old rumor in Liscor’s army that even a rookie had known about the openly affectionate, foul-mouthed, and great [General] they had. They didn’t really care, but it was secret to everyone else.

His family. His niece. Everyone but the people who had despised Zel Shivertail, the Tidebreaker. The two great heroes of the Antinium Wars were…

Sserys bent down, kneeling on the hard stone. He whispered as he put a palm down.

“There you are, my greatest friend. My soulmate. We should have fought together a hundred wars instead of just one.”

Relc said nothing. He averted his eyes as Sserys lingered there a moment. Just a moment…and then Sserys rose and looked around his home. He nodded to Relc and looked at the Pegasus pawing at the ground, snorting.

“Thank you. Now we can go.”

 

——

 

Where? To do what? Sserys would not explain. He only knew where his army was. He was the [Spear of the Drakes], and his Skills were fit for the greatest [General] in living memory.

Skills that burned in his eyes as he flew over his city. Sserys looked down, swearing at the new part in progress.

“A Lamia built that? And we’ve got a damn dungeon and Antinium Hive underneath?”

“Uh—yeah?”

Relc felt sick. He clung to his Pegasus, who looked as worried as he did. He should land and tell them—but Sserys just wheeled the Pegasus around and pointed.

“We have to hurry. Keep up, Gecko. I need good [Soldiers] at my back, and you’ll do.”

“Where are we going?”

Sserys rolled his eyes at Relc.

Where else? Wherever the fighting’s thickest. Where we make a difference. There is a war, and General Sserys did not come back to hold hands. One last time—”

But he lingered a moment over Liscor. A young [Innkeeper] drew a sword, but it was a [General] who looked down at the city as his people looked up at him.

Drakes and Gnolls, Humans and Antinium. Sserys exhaled.

“Liscor.”

He looked it up and down, noting the city’s cracks and imperfections. All the milling people around, the High Passes rising from either side, and the lumpy Floodplains. He grinned down at a Rock Crab and spoke. Only Relc heard his sigh as the [General] of Liscor lifted his voice. It was impossible, surely, for the Drake was so high above Liscor that it was small in the Floodplains below.

Yet Relc thought every single person in Liscor, from children to the oldest souls, were standing in the streets. Looking up at him. It was not a woman’s voice who spoke, but the gravelly drawl of a Drake. He looked down, and Liscor looked up.

As if his voice was echoing from every cobblestone, every corner, from the statues and the sewers, the tallest roofs and the humblest stores. Antinium gazed upwards at a Drake whose narrow gaze pierced them with distaste.

Yet his name was Liscor’s. This was their city. The Councilmembers stumbled out of their city hall. A [Shopkeeper] clutched at his chest, panting, looking up.

That voice. Those feet had kicked through pubs, left tabs unpaid, started fights and caused trouble. Tekshia Shivertail’s claws shook so badly she couldn’t hold her spear. She had practiced with an idiot who got lazy.

The Gnolls of the Silverfang tribe hadn’t been here when that Drake had died, but they had come to the city just like the others. Joined the army, fought and bled and earned coin and had children here.

A city so unlike the one he had left stood below the General of Liscor. And it had never changed. His eyes glimmered as he looked down at it.

“…We have always been that cornerstone of Izril. Forgotten and alone. These coming days—I need you to be the city we have always claimed to be. Build higher. Strengthen the walls. Join tails with Gnolls, even Humans, and Ants if you have to.”

He saluted them. A Drake sitting tall, tail curled up as he looked at the only city he had ever loved. Sserys clenched one claw tight. He roared down to them, the only army he had ever needed and desired.

“I have always been your son. I hope you were as proud of me as I always was of you. Go well. You are beginning to look like how I dreamed of you.”

The people gazed up at him as Sserys raised one hand. Then he looked at Erin’s hand, at the callused palm, and felt at her face. He spoke, so quietly even Relc didn’t hear him, to her.

“Thank you. Let me borrow this for a bit. I promise—I’ll do what I can.”

They were flying through the air, a long way from where Sserys wanted to be. They left only confusion in their wake.

Confusion…and the words of the great [General] of Izril. They wiped at their eyes, the people below, and didn’t know why they were crying. Then the City of Liscor said the farewell it had never been able to. The General of Sserys smiled as he heard the shouting below.

“Liscor always was wild. That has never changed. It sounds just like I remember. Come on. Let’s go.”

They flew off, on one final journey. The Drake had seen his home. Now—he went to find his army. They had strayed too far from home. He would remind them who they were.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While Fetohep rode, two Drakes flew across Izril and encountered someone else flying through the air.

 

One lost thread amidst the chaos. The only other person who saw Sserys was also in the air. In fact—Montressa du Valeross nearly fell out of the sky, screaming, when she saw Erin and Relc flying past Valeterisa.

The Archmage of Izril was headed south, but cautiously because she’d heard there was a war. Her eyes went wide when she saw the young woman pointing at her, the Pegasus racing alongside the flying Archmage.

Sserys roared at Valeterisa.

You—aren’t you a citizen of Fissival?

He didn’t seem certain, because she was Human—but he knew. Valeterisa hesitated.

“Wh—is that body—? Yes! Hello! May I ask what’s going on?”

Sserys didn’t bother explaining. No sooner did she shout that he then bellowed.

Then follow me! You’re conscripted!

“Me?”

The Archmage of Izril floundered, then she swooped after Sserys and Relc as Montressa screamed questions and Relc just screamed; he had decided he didn’t like flying.

“How is this possible? No, the ritual is clearly at play, but a soul possession in this era is the most fascinating—I need a sample of everything. The magical signature and aura are the most unique…”

Sserys slapped a hand away as she reached for Erin’s hair. The Drake caught Valeterisa’s arm, and the two locked gazes.

“Are you a daughter of the walls? If you are—come with me. We’re bound for war.”

Valeterisa blinked at Sserys. She had no idea who he was—but she was old enough to have known his stories. She hesitated, then shook her head.

“I wanted to be. But they did not want me.”

The Drake [General] stared Valeterisa in the eyes, then he spat over one wing. He looked back at Valeterisa, a wild glare in his eyes.

“That city didn’t deserve you. But we need you now. We are called upon to serve until we break. But we got it wrong. What we need to break is everything else. Follow me. Our people need us.”

The Archmage of Izril hesitated until he told her his name. Then she followed him through the skies. Sserys kept flying, looking ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, it began with the Archmage of Chandrar freeing herself and fleeing Wistram. As the Illuminary sailed from Wistram, leaving the Isle of Mages in chaos, Archmage Eldavin and Tyrion Veltras fought alongside the Dawn Concordat.

There, General Dionamella fell and the Wyrm of Ailendamus swore vengeance. But he heard nothing. He saw no ghost of her, for there was none to see. 

Nor did Fetohep of Khelt, sitting upon his throne. He talked with the Goblin Rags, and the [Emperor] of Riverfarm, who told the Goblin to fly for Liscor as the God of Rulers walked south to steal Erin Solstice’s body.

As Mrsha’s allies gathered in the Meeting of Tribes and Rafaema left Oteslia to seek a Dragon, Rags flew to Liscor. She arrived at the same time as Rafaema of Manus and attempted to wake Erin as the pall hanging over the ghosts in the Deadlands began to fade and they saw the end coming.

The God of Rulers and the Goddess of Last Stands, Tamaroth and Cauwine, both failed to steal Erin Solstice’s body. The Spear of the Drakes, General Sserys, took it into Pallass briefly, then said farewell to his city and flew south. He met the Archmage of Izril in the air and kept flying.

That very night, the Meeting of Tribes ended in a civil war as the Plain’s Eye tribe was revealed to have created a Daemon of Luck. The Witch of Webs walked about the task Chaldion of Pallass had given her. 

The Forgotten Wing Company was under siege, Foliana lying wounded, and Talenqual was engulfed in battle as Gravetender’s Fist and the United Nations company fought the Featherfolk Brigade in the streets. Paeth was falling.

The next morning, Fetohep of Khelt left Chandrar and sounded every alarm in existence. The ghosts of Chandrar watched him ride, and then the [Innkeeper] lifted the memory of the horn and blew it, and they heard. Ghosts and the living.

General Sserys laughed when he heard it, and Relc Grasstongue looked around for her, but the [Innkeeper] marched with the dead, leaving Chandrar. The God of Magic pursued the last Gnomes into a trap as the Witch of Webs stole the Titan from Izril. He routed the Jungle Tails company at Elvallian, and Paeth on the Coast teleported into the heart of Talenqual and ended the fighting.

The Last Traitor, Sprigaena, looked up then, and Cauwine reached down to her as Erin Solstice flew from Baleros. Pursued only by Norechl, the God of Nothing, for now. Wall Lord Ilvriss, Princess Lyonette du Marquin, Cire the Dragon, and the armies of Drakes advanced on the Gnolls of Izril as General Sserys flew towards them.

Ailendamus and the Dawn Concordat were poised to meet upon the borders of their nations, and Fetohep of Khelt looked north for the shores of Izril, trying to reach the Meeting of Tribes in time. 

As for Rags…

 

——

 

The inhabitants of the Wandering Inn knew none of this. They despaired, unable to process what they’d heard. A day after Erin’s body had vanished, they still didn’t know what to do. Where to go. They stood around, asking questions.

Was that really Sserys? Or was it some other monster?

No one moved. No one knew what came next. They had failed. All that effort had…gone to waste.

Gone to waste? It had brought someone back. And that someone…but it wasn’t her, and how much longer would they have to try and wait?

Then they heard that glorious horn call. It ran through the inn, through the ground, and everyone in Liscor heard it.

A little Goblin lying on her back and staring up at the ceiling sat up. A bunch of Goblins, Antinium, guests of the inn, looked at Rags. Redscar sat up too.

“Chieftain? What happened?”

How was she supposed to answer that? But because she was a Chieftain, a guest of Erin’s inn, Rags summarized it all with a general answer.

“Big mess. Wrong person.”

Then she stood up, dusted herself off, and grabbed her crossbow. Rags listened to the horn call and nodded. Her eyes lit up.

“She is still fighting. Get the Wyverns ready.”

The Goblins followed soon after. So, on Pegasus-back, the body of Erin Solstice flew. Possessed, arguably stolen.

From Liscor, the Spear of the Drakes, their greatest [General] in living memory, flew in the body of an [Innkeeper]. To strike fear into the hearts of his enemies and right all wrongs. Or just to pick a fight.

Whichever came first.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Notes: This chapter worried me arguably more than the last three. I have a few things to say. I always hope they’re good, and I will have had one day to edit it.

However, I’m running out of backlog. I had as many as two chapters, going into the end arc, which I wrote in advance partly on my break. The gap…has narrowed. I’m running out of energy fast, which makes sense. This is the end of The Wandering Inn’s largest arc and volume by far. I just need to make sure the last two chapters I have planned stay good.

So, if I need to, I will skip Saturday’s update. I will let you know, but revision, more time than regular is what these chapters need.

We are close to the ending. I’ve seen comments and I think you’re seeing it somewhat like I envisioned. Wait a little while longer. We’re almost done Volume 8.

Here’s to the general of Izril. Zel Shivertail, and that other guy. See you next chapter.

 

KsmvrDance by VulpyDoodlesStudios, commissioned by Spanner!

 

Relc Dry and Relc Wash…cloths by Kalmia!

 

Crusader  51, Fetohep’s Ride and Artur by Lanrae!

 


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93 thoughts on “8.81

    • “The Elf moved through the air like she had once been taught by their cousins, calling the wind to guide her.”

      There is no referent for “their”. I am guessing the cousins are the Fae, so it could be “her kind’s cousins”.

      “Erin was frozen, and even the Earthers had been taught to understand that cryogenics was just an idea, science fiction that no one had actually been even close to reversing.”

      “cryogenics” -> “cryonics”

      “The next morning, Fetohep of Khelt left Chandrar and sounded every alarm in existence.”

      Wrong. He sounded every (major) alarm in the world. Other worlds exist, and Erin sounded the horn in the deadlands.

    • More of a discrepancy than a typo, but when A’ctelios Salash was first introduced it was described as having five eyes, but in this chapter it had six.

    • So I started reading this story at the beginning of November, and I just now caught up. That is an insane amount of writing. I love the story, and I look forward to seeing if Erin gets a class change from being resurrected and having made friends with all the famous ghosts. My only critique of the series so far, is that sometimes the fight scenes stretch on a bit long. Also I really am looking forward to Erin being alive again. It feels like so much is in limbo waiting for her to come back, even though plenty of other stuff is happening.

  1. Holy shit. I always thought Sserys (who had been hyped up in the first few volumes) got done dirty way back at the beginning of this volume, but it looks like he’ll be done justice after all.

    It looks like the finale of the volume is going to be very Izril focused, with so many parties converging there. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends with Izril’s area of Kasignel being protected again, or something similar happening. Also, calling it now, Sserys is going to name Relc as the new [Spear of the Drakes].

    • I don’t think Relc is much of a leader at the moment. He’s growing into one, but he’s not there yet. But he is the best fighter amongst Izril’s guards so maybe [Guard of Izril] and later consolidate into [Spear of Izril]?
      Either Relc or Olesm are my top candidates for that class.

      • Olesm could be a [Spear of Izril] and I could definitely see Relc becoming a [Shield of Izril] or a [Guardian of Izril] or [Guardian of Liscor] which seems more in line with his character then anything else.

        Really wonder if Sserys consolidated his class into something like [Ethereal Spear of the Drakes] or [Deathless Spear of the Drakes].

        Hope he doesn’t gain any [Horror Ranks] out of a desperation to live at the end. But he doesn’t seem to be going that route yet.

  2. Fun twists and turns, and great to see the khelt gangs interacting. Sserys leveled (in spear of the drakes maybe?) Immediately after returning, suggesting if Erin gets back she might as well!

    • It’d be a massive let down if Erin didn’t level at all due to her shenanigans in the dead lands. Sure a desire to keep power Cree from affecting the major conflicts in the story is appreciated.

      But no levels at all would just be a major letdown and kinda stupid. At the very least Sserys level up stops an butt clenching on that part of the story.

      Leaving us to one of the true passions of Litrpg lite books. Theory crafting [classes] & [skills] for the main characters.

  3. Especially as it started, I thought the revival should have been done before it was revealed as a failure. It felt a lot less suspenseful than it could have I think.
    Having the whole story in one flow was nice though, and it would have been worse to reveal the Sserys thing till now. Also, I think people would have been screaming if everything jest ended with Erin racing away. So, this might have been the best way to handle it.
    It must be hard with all the different story arcs to decide which piece goes where.

    • I would imagine it played out this way because of all the time shenanigans going on as the seamwalker eats away at time. Time’s going wonky and inconsistent as it tries to walk and fight and then you have the gods moving about in that space making moves with divine bullshittery

    • TBH, the scene with the Horns fell flat. Narratively, Ceria “pranking” the knights about the Solstice Order just did not make much sense and felt totally out of place. Their reunion called for a scene where they just focused on each other and caught up after each going through the wringer…likely at the expense of all of the other people surrounding them. It just did not feel correct that they would immediately jump into conversations with strangers instead of ignoring everything/everyone and focusing on their own group until Erin’s name jerked them back to the realities of where they were and who they were with.

      • I think you can make an argument that the circlet is impacting her there. She was never real smart, but it seems like something a casually evil magic item might do.

      • Honestly, I kind of liked that scene. I think it struggles for attention because of so many characters there. But it’s kind of their happy chaos they had going on post-Creler and pre-Village. I liked the “Solstice Order” possibilities too possibly spiraling out of control.

    • I know right. I’ve been going over earlier chapters so I recently read Gazi’s visit to Liscor. But wait until Fetohep learns of leveling undead. I didn’t even think about it, but he could really use that information well. If he learned of it earlier I’d say it was going to play a big role in the end of the volume, now I don’t know

      The ice magic spellbook has been on my mind for a while. Maybe because it was such casual cruelty by that wistram mage or Ceria’s mentor trying and failing to be helpful. But I can’t wait for Ceria to be reuninted and then get some very fancy ice magic

      • With Khelt’s expended resources. Bringing in some leveling undead revenants and other high tier undead would be quite fine and dandy.

        Plus, imagine all the hanging experience Fetohep would gain should he become a leveling undead. Over 600 years of rule and the current shenanigans would be quite some levels, around five to eight barring any consolidations or advancements.

        A [Grim King of Sands & Spirits] would not be unneeded. Or a [Reaper King of the Sands, Champion of Khelt Beyond the Planes].

  4. Well that was an unexpected bodyjacker! Moar!

    …but take your time to get it right, we can wait as long as it takes!

  5. The system was made partly so mortals could get some of what only immortals had the time to acquire. :)

    Level 93 mage whoa!

    Liscor’s army is going to get a spanking.
    Thankfully it was a warrior and not a god of warriors.

    • I really wonder how they managed to regain magic when that mage cast their spell. Did the [Mages] of that time find a way to shift magic back into the useable are for most [Mages]?

      If I remember correctly [Wizards] could still exist due to magical artifacts still being around. And magical beasts didn’t all die out. So maybe a bunch of [Arch Wizards], [Magical Researchers], [Arcanologists], [Shamans], and others managed to restore magic.

      Maybe magic just reappeared naturally. After the [Mage] went all apocalypse on magic itself.

      Wonder what his class was. Guessing it may be an [Archmage of the True Origin, The One Grasped The Truth of All of Magic] or some other more epic variation of [Archmage of Origin/Truth].

  6. Damn.

    Love this chapter, really digging this last batch of chapters, it ties both the end of everything with the Seamwalkers and the deities and it goes back to the start, with Rags, Relc and Kblkch all there to see Erin in a very nice callback to the start of the story.

    We also see everything and everyone else, as all the other plots all stop to let us see where we came from, all these words ago.

    In short, I love this six chapters volume conclusion, really feels like we’re back on the earlier volumes when everything was smaller and we were still learning about the characters with how excited I am for a new chapter.

    Oh and as a side note, I love Sserys. He is not the type of person I can stand for more than a short while but in a story where the pov tend to switch a lot, he is perfect. And as much as I would have loved to see him earlier, I feel that it is better to see him now, kicking every rust-encrusted door in his way, especially when we are so used to them that we do not even really notice them.

    • Though now that I’ve thought a bit, I realise that this chapter would have perhaps gained by being split into two, by the time I got to Valeterisa I had almost forgot about A’ctelios Salash and what they’re hiding (probably something from the deities but who knows, it could just be something like Teriarch, the Quarass or Rhisvery who put it there, just someone smarter than that dumb warmongering lizard).

      • From what we got from the lines of treachery and knowing that some [Alchemists] experimented with A’ctelios Salash and got summarily genocide out of existence barring the most part *cough cough Shifthold cough cough*.

        So if I’m guessing correctly, probably some alchemical nonsense is involved.

        For some theory crafting I believe that there’s some deeper material in Salash that couldn’t be destroyed or dealt without mass cost.

        Or some secret part of Salash’s physiology that left it a threat even more than it already was as a corpse.

        Either way it’s some substance that could be harvested, likely related at least in part to the corruption the Gnomes discussed last chapter.

        It was this material that some alchemists would probably discover in their experiments with a stable source of Seamwalker material. Leading to some widespread destruction and general mayhem that caused the purge we’ve heard about from Saliss.

        This substance seems to have been exploited by several leaders before the modern era in where a structure that betrayed Tombhold’s original purpose was created.

  7. God this was good. The boat stuff with the Horns was fun. A’ctelios Salash was terrifying — did they build it an artificial heart? Or something worse?

    The initial sequence with Erin, where they were setting it up, was heartwrenching and anxiety-inducing, as if I didn’t know what was going to happen. The half of my brain that was Relc and the half that was me were fighting about how I should feel, but both were nervous as hell.

    The initial bit where she exploded out was terrifying and sickening. It was terrible (in how it made me feel, not that it was badly written), and I loved it.

    I was almost a little disappointed at first when it was revealed that it was Sserys and not a god, because that was less scary and awful. And yet… the uneasiness never really fully went away, instead becoming part of this wonderfully uncomfortable mixture of fear and excitement, of happiness, sadness, and dread. His incredible, constant anger (cracking the stones as he walked, etc) was very effective, and I just really liked that section in general. He’s so incredibly bitter and vulgar and generally out-of-place, and him being uncomfortably stuck in somebody else’s body just makes that all the stronger. I like how the narration messed with that too, mixing his and Erin’s species, class, gender, and pronouns willy-nilly to emphasize the dissonance.

    Finally, a bit ago I commented that I was worried that the Seamwalkers would be too much of an escalation of stakes and it would throw off the balance of the story. I meant to write this last chapter (but forgot): it seems more like the Seamwalkers are simply a different KIND of threat from the gods, not necessarily a stronger or weaker one. They’re more actively aggressive and immediately dangerous, but less existentially threatening (well, except for the Time Eater). I’m glad that’s the case, and the gods are still very very much an extant and powerful threat.

    • Judging by the song, I’m guessing A’ctelios’ original founder or his descendants built a shrine/cult around himself. So the whole everyone changes/goes mad from eating it has less to do with the A’ctelios being and more to do with the mad cult hidden in the depths.

    • I suspected it wasn’t one of the gods before the reveal, just because it was obvious whoever it was wasn’t killing anyone. Clearly deliberately so. And it’s equally clear that the gods don’t give half a shit about the lives of non-gods, so it would have been wildly out of character.

  8. Was not surprised another ghost stole her body. Was surprised at who stole the body.

    Still got to love that even in death Erin by Proxy can still cause so much chaos… And everyone realized it wasn’t her when she/he said please.

    It still feels like a triumph, but we still have the Stitch Witch in play, A Time devouring eldritch god… And yet the witch feels more threatening then the eldritch being.

  9. Holy crap, you are the master of the bait & switch. I was dreading seeing the moment Erin got resurrected with the spirit of a dead god, and instead I got an absolutely amazing curveball. Can’t wait for the next chapter, however long it takes!

  10. Skip as many updates as you need to, Pirate. Your health comes first, your story comes second, and everything else comes after!

  11. Am I reading this excerpt correct? Skills are based on elfs natural learned ability?

    “Now—she understood what a Skill was.

    A copy of true mastery, bequeathed to someone in a lovely little…box. For the Elf who looked at her slowly swung her sword up and split the sky in half.

    Just like her Skill.

    No—not just like. It was exactly the same. The [Blademaster] looked up.

    “I see it now. This is your sword, isn’t it? We are stealing your talent.”

    The Elf’s sword cut magic. It cut time. It was the kind of ability that was not the strength to strike the earth with all the force of a Giant—it was the mastery that [Spearmasters], all their kind, learned. Something beyond a Skill. No…Skills were the shortcut.”

    • It seems any of the original worshippers who at this point seem to be elves, dwarves, dragons, and gnomes. A subset of the gods wanted a way to grant followers more power for whatever reason, likely to attract more worshippers or to expand to different worlds. Mortals can’t spend eternity mastering a skill so gods made the system to give them a shortcut. Most of those who’s talent is being copied and given to others who might be their enemies aren’t happy about the situation and boom war.

      • Also Giants and Djinni, I think. Maybe the various immortal species we’ve seen in Ailendamus too. But I don’t think it’s just the copying of talents that led to the war… something else about the system must really have rubbed the immortals up the wrong way. Remember the ways it’s held society in technological stasis by denying people true understanding since they take shortcuts instead, for instance. Or the limits placed on magic by it being “put in a box” the way mages use it. Or the “playthings” label, or the many ways Skills and Classes can influence personality and decision making. Or Ryoka gaining the friendship of the wind and hence the power to fly without ever needing to be granted a Skill.

        • The key here is to realize the state of Innworld. There’s no progress of any kind because they rely on skills too much.

          As to why so many were against what we can only presume was the skill and leveling system of the gods, I’d say it is because gods would dominate without contention. Immortals would have to subdue themselves completely to it and in doing so would never surpass the gods. No more gods could come to life, no goal in life and a forever prison. Gods would go unchallenged and literally just not give a f*ck anymore, never being held accountable and do without restrain. A forever playground for them. Luckily the gods died before the system took over completely.

          My bet is that gods from several worlds gathered and created Innworld. (Shitty understanding/physics) Leeching from their respective places to rule forever in a new place that in time would take over any other land/world.

  12. That bold summary conclusion was so powerful!!! Every faction being mentioned sent chills and made me yell out loud when it said that nobody in the Inn knows the whole picture. It would have been even cooler to add in Ryoka, Cara, Aaron, Geneva, and The Blighted King’s Earthers, and what they’re doing/thinking now, but really all the most important pieces were there. Maybe that’s what the next chapters will be about, what the Earthers think! This sorry is so dang cool and amazing.

    Side note, where’s the antinium heaven? Do they have a god/pantheon? And what’s up with the [Prophet] and Earth religion? And goblin heaven? These are the big questions and I wonder why the dead gods haven’t made more noise about them.

    • We’ve heard of multiple afterlifes when the gnomes are taunting Kasigna:

      “Diotrichne made a better afterlife, and she did it twice as fast.” ~ 8.80

      And we know there exists Hellste, which is presumbly where the really bad people go. When Drevish is lecturing Kasigna, he mentions that an afterlife can be “Not a copy of the living world”, which implies that afterlives have their own geography rather than being parasitic on the living world. I don’t think the question of “where” antinimun Heaven is really makes sense.

      It was explicitly stated that Pawn created a god in 2.31:

      “And then there were Gods. Or at least, one.”

      However, it might have disappeared when he decided to only believe in Heaven, not a god.

  13. I was wondering about Laken, I thought his leveling was weird. Declaring yourself a royal title is explicitly mentioned as not being possible so it makes sense that it would’ve come from one of the gods since it now sounds like the system was set up by them. Also the karmic scales of Innworld point to Laken being an antagonist, compare the worst thing that happens to every one else and then like his forest got burned.
    Are the Lucifen not of Innworld because no one mentions them in the list of forgotten or lost races.
    I’m curious how the Ailendamus war gets wrapped, I’m imagining Ailendamus just gets squashed in a Waterloo type deal.

    • We already knew about Laken’s involuntary bargain with Tamaroth, it happened way after he became Emperor. Presumably he could do it because he didn’t know that it couldn’t be done, that’s not uncommon with this kind of story.

      There’s lots of races that weren’t mentioned, not just Lucifen. Most of the immortals are very rare, Dragons and presumably Elves (pre-genocide) excepted.

    • I was wondering if the Lucifen and Agelum had been servants of the gods, with behind the scenes roles such as presiding over a previous afterlife. Explains the debilitation of the Agelum and them recently getting a bit better as the gods themselves grow in power, especially if they had closer ties to the gods than the Lucifen.

      Or maybe they were created just prior to the war between gods and immortals to preside over the planned afterlife (Lucifen) or inspire and nurture the gods’ followers (Agelum), but never got to fulfill their role.

  14. This was amazing.

    I couldn’t fully enjoy it because of a bad headache (I can get emotional while reading, but that would make my headache worse so I had to stop and disconnect a few times), but it was still great. I did not expect who the body jacker was, but I’m relieved it wasn’t one of the Five (haha get wrecked Emm).

    I look forward to more, whether it’s on Saturday or the next update later.

  15. Wow, I don’t think I’ve got the words for how epic this story just got.

    I mean, the Iliad was already looking on with jealousy, I don’t think I’ve got the vocabulary to describe how pumped I am for this!

    Please, take all the time you need for this, I’m sure every reader would much rather you feel happy with the chapter and miss an update or two than you put out something rushed.

  16. The only thing that I think might be inconsistent with the summary in bold (which was MUCH NEEDED to keep up with the timeline of events) is that Chaldion would know Sserys is back before sending Niers back to Belaros. For someone that just learned that dead gods are feasting on the dead in the afterlife, he sure seemed content with screwing over gnolls. Why does he care about Pallass’ credibility when Sserys just told him about a much larger battle?

    Maybe when Chaldion mentioned that Niers was “necessary” he meant for the upcoming efforts to battle the gods and the big upcoming scavenger hunt for godslaying weapons in dungeons? Just how much did [Path to Victory] show Chaldion? Wouldn’t he have known that Sserys was going to come back before the ritual? I don’t think I fully understand his skill.

    • Chaldion is a huge jerk, so I’m not really surprised. Also, I’m not sure on the relative timeline of his deal with Belavierr vs meeting Sserys – he set that up in advance.

      • The thing that I am confused about is his [Path to Victory]. How much does he really know about the events we’ve seen. He sent Belavier because his [Path to Victory] said that it would end beneficially for Pallass, but how much did it show him.

        From last chapter we see the motives for his actions:
        “His [Path to Victory]. Chaos among the Gnoll tribes who could discredit Pallass. ”

        Did it show him Sserys’s return? He seemed shocked to see Sserys, so it must not have. Did it warn him about Fetohep’s seemingly sudden and inexplicable aims to get to the meeting of the tribes and intervene in the drake-gnoll war? Or did he just use it to beat Niers?

        We also know that several deviations can appear in it due to factors that are seemingly beyond his control from what we saw during the wyvern attack, so how reliable is the outcome that he saw? It’s just a very confusing skill that makes his actions seem somewhat inconsistent with this timeline.

        In the last chapter, Chaldion seemed really satisfied and smug with pulling that trick to send Niers back to Belaros. But according to this timeline, he would have met Sserys by the time Niers was sent away, someone that undoubtedly intends to reclaim Liscor’s army from Zeres and put an end to the war with the gnolls, therefore jeopardizing Pallass’ credibility when Plains Eye is defeated and evidence of their involvement with the walled cities comes to light.

        TLDR: His skill has either failed and he should KNOW that by now and be worried, or I’m missing something.

        • chaldions path to victory skill is not omniscient, or anything even remotely close to it.

          he uses it in the big wyvern attack and notes four deviations from what it guided him for in a half hour fight in which everyone involved except bird and the big wyvern are his own known soldiers.

          it’s generally effective in helping get the results he wants or he wouldn’t use it but it isn’t remotely infallible even on local events let alone when gods and many high level people are working at cross purposes he knows nothing about

        • I don’t think the Skill is that precise. Erin got some insight into how it worked during the chess games. She discovered that the way to beat the Skill was to do something random & unpredictable. (Presumably, the Skill provides solutions based on the input at the time of using it.) Not sure whether it showed Chaldion “hire Belavierr to get Niers out of the picture” as a way to avoid getting Drake arses kicked by Gnolls, or also showed an outline of what would happen next; but there’s no way it could have anticipated random factors like Sserys taking over Erin’s body.

      • Yes, seems likely Chaldion made the pact with Belavierr before the events of these last few chapters. It just took her some time to get to the Meeting of Tribes

  17. What could there be in A’ctelios? Well, what’s a faction that hasn’t even started to circle the whirlpool so far? Ryoko’s space opera friends, that’s who. What the scourgers found deep down inside was some kind of automated system that’s highly resistant tio magic and enforces its own alien laws of reality. Fortunately, Ryoko’s light saber will be able to destroy it.

    • Doesn’t work. We have heard repeatedly that magic trumps technology. This is why Ryoka’s sword cuts through all normal matter but shuts off whenever it hits magic armour.

    • From the word “treachery”, I was wondering if the people of A’ctelios might have betrayed their role as a shield kingdom by hatching dragon eggs and feeding young dragons the flesh of A’ctelios to keep them loyal to their cause.

      • Either that or they might have somehow tricked a dragonlord of the old days into eating the flesh, but that seems a bit of a reach.

  18. General ex machina!

    Great chapter. For a moment I thought that Az’kerash was behind the body snatching.

    I love how the story is so totally unpredictable. Great work. :)

  19. Thank you Pirate!
    The king of mmfgh is still hilarious.
    I’ve been wondering about the idea of the afterlife since it’s probably artificial and since the boundary between life and death is imposed by the system? Thre must be a truer afterlife since beings from other realms such as Faelands also have to go somewhere.
    I’m glad to see Ssserys since that might mean he and Zel have at least a small chance at a good ending.

  20. Huh, so Gazi and Ceria are now both in the same ship. Does Ceria finally, finally get the Ice book of her mentor?

  21. I need a password I have been reading for more than a year and would very much like to continue. I am very happy about Audiobooks having your series, I wish the books could come out faster. Thanks, Lynn

    On Tue, Apr 19, 2022, 10:23 PM The Wandering Inn wrote:

    >

  22. The horns give me so much joy whenever they’re featured. But also the jump from happy fun ship adventure to terrible death in A’ctelios Salash gave me whiplash. I loved it! What’s in the room? Something like the last box?

  23. Yeah, that makes sense, it wasn’t one of the ____!! I tought it was weird when instead of running around shouting THE ____ ARE ALIVE, THE NAME OF THE GOD OF GLORIOUS SOULS IS CAUWINE!!! “Erin” just ran

  24. Got mixed feeling on this one. In the previous chapters, it was hinted that Erin’s body is possessed but I always thought it was by one of the gods. Fortunately it is Sserrys. Flos is really in the decline here. He seems very petty in this chapter. The Carven City is definitely one of the scariest moment in The Wandering Inn Arc.

  25. Call me petty but I absolutely ADORED how the crispy king got bullied and that Trey got to see that “the only monarch who could promise him the destruction of Tombhome” did absolutely nothing while Fetohep singlehandedly saved the day, the night and the multiverse!

    Was it worth it Trey? To backstab people that trusted you? To initiate a pogrom against innocent golems? All for the worthless promise of a has-been king…

    • I don’t get all the hate for Trey. Sure, he’s a backstabber and a schemer, but to be frank, Wistram needed a good backstabbing. They come across as bullies and control freaks that were entirely willing to imprison people against their will with the flimsiest of excuses. They have no idea that they’re actually a bunch of relatively small fish among sharks for world powers. They quite frankly needed an ass whoopin and Trey gave it to them. Sure Trey has faults, but I consider him far FAR better than his sister. At least Trey has reasons that he genuinely sticks to for committing heinous acts (like abolishing slavery). Teres doesn’t even have that excuse.
      As for the golems, correct me if I’m wrong but thus far there are only 3 sentient class golems that can actually care if they’re oppressed. Cognita, Domehead, and MAYBE Trey’s little sand golem? Soooo… yes. It was absolutely worth it.

  26. I found this chapter a bit messy, but it’s understandable with the pace Pirate’s been writing and the need to deliver a good ending for Vol. 8. Author’s under a lot of pressure it seems.

    Very interesting bits about the leveling system. The Spear of the Drakes really came out from nowhere

    Postponing the next chapter is smart. Quality above all. The author of A Practical Guide To Evil did consistently it for pretty much the last 20-30 chapters and the results were amazing.

    I’m hoping volume 9 will be a bit more focused, without jumping to 5 different places and characters in a chapter

  27. Really enjoyed this chapter – but one bit rang a bit false to me.
    Of all the people in the land of the dead … like 99% of everyone who has EVER died on Innworld … you know, millions of mages, including the most powerful who have EVER lived … millions of necromancers, including the most powerful who have EVER lived … the most gifted thieves, pirates, scoundrels and rouges who have EVER yadda yadda yadda …
    And Sserys is the only one other than the gods who thinks to try’n steal (sorry, borrow!) Erin’s body?!
    In the land of the dead, Sserys is a flat-out nobody power wise. Even as a general there are probably millions of generals from the glory days of Innworld’s vast past much more powerful/intelligent/cunning than Sserys. Him pulling off the greatest body snatching in history, right out from under the noses of no less than three gods seems to me like a baby stealing candy from a pro linebacker.
    I get that Sserys suddenly showing up IRL (lol) to stop the gnoll/drake war is a nifty twist, but him being the one to break out of the underworld just seems a bit too implausibly convenient.
    … Still, lovin’ every minute of it!

    • You’re forgetting a couple factors.
      Sserys is NOT a nobody, and especially not in Izril’s history. The first antinium war was insanely dangerous for Izril. While it is mentioned that the antinium were weakened by their travel across the ocean, they still could have absolutely taken over the continent if not for Sserys rallying the drakes and bringing them together. That is probably something few drakes throughout Innworld’s history could have done. Even Zel couldn’t manage it.
      Izril also didn’t have as many souls left, especially ones that would linger around Liscor. Izrilian souls needed to hide from the gods. Why wouldn’t Sserys hide near both his home city and the body of someone that he KNOWS to be not-quite dead. There’s nothing convenient about it. It just makes perfect sense to me.

  28. Think it’s weird how sserys can perform as well as he did when alive using Erin’s body. I mean even he has access to skills Erin just isn’t a soldier, she’s fit and healthy but not trained to anywhere near the degree she would need to be to out fight grimalkin and most of the guards she did

    • Except she’s like level ~45, and the body transformation that comes with it.

      She used to be an adventurer, with pure determination fought off the Fear spell that had a whole city overrun, she explored other cities on a carriage, farmed acid flies for a living, spits unending blood, prepares, drinks and sells the most poisonous fruit on a daily basis, led an army of goblins vs another army and came out alive from it, led the rescue against rashkgar, fought an infestation of crelers and gigantic sized flies and sneaked and dozed off a horde of bees for their delicacies and 1v1 dueled a never before come to existence Leveling Death Knight powerful enough to have an army of undead on the Gold Rank Dungeon under Liscor.
      Am I missing smth? Literally perfected a minotaur punch in an evening with pure dedication and motor skills.

      Sure sure, she’s «not a soldier», she’s «not fit» okok. Please tell me more.

      • That still doesn’t take into account strength/speed compared to grimalkn, yea she’s done a lot but still not a that level off stuff. Being level 45 on applies to her innkeeper and her level doesn’t factor into it because she isn’t inhabiting the body. That’s my take anyway

  29. This may be my favorite chapter of the volume! Loved all the crossing paths, and reuniting groups. This chapter really has that magic that is special to the series, feels like looking at Erin’s all-in-one fire.

  30. My heart is not particularly old but sometimes when I read this story it feels frail indeed. #Rags is awesome, good chieftain I follow!

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