(The final chapter will be released on May 3rd for Patrons. I am taking a one-update break to make sure it is fully edited. Thanks.)
A storm raced across the ocean. To those few at sea who glimpsed it, by magic or on the decks of a wary Drowned Vessels surfacing for a moment, it seemed like a typhoon had blown from Chandrar.
Earth over sea; a sandstorm rushing over the waters. So vast that it engulfed the entire horizon the closer you got.
Yet, it would be too late. Too late for the beginning of the Gnolls’ civil war. Too late for the first Drake armies reaching the Meeting of Tribes.
They might make it in time to avert the worst. Fetohep had unleashed Sand at Sea, and Rasea Zecrew’s famous ship was speeding their passage, as the Illuminary, one of the world’s fastest ships, lent its magic and Skills to the fleet’s passage. Wind spells blew at their backs, and Khelt’s armories were burning spells.
However, the greatest Couriers of this era took three days from Izril to Baleros by Igawiz’s Jet. So the inhabitants of the ship could only wait and hope they made it. An armada from Zeres was positioning itself to meet them at sea.
And all that Fetohep did was listen, watch. Now the rest of the world saw a fraction of what he did. The wild surges of time, omens—
It was all tearing apart. He could only tell the frightened peoples that Khelt was fighting. Now and then, Fetohep would turn his head as if watching something keeping pace with them. Watching. Listening. But there was one person he looked for who wasn’t here.
Erin Solstice. Someone had taken her body, but the ghost of the [Innkeeper] was not with the army of ghosts from Chandrar who dared the sea. She was…somewhere else.
On the second day of Fetohep’s voyage across the sea, the war in the land of the dead reached a turning point. It started as the last god, the Huntress, the God of Last Stands, the Goddess of Glorious Souls, Cauwine, revealed herself.
One hand. That was all she held out. It was more like mist than a hand if you looked close enough. That was what they were.
Forgotten. Dead. Rotted. Only a few details lingered in memory. Even their memory. To look at the six was to realize—you could grow so old you forgot what you looked like.
All they remembered was what stood out. A beard, a remembered grace, as of a man who could pivot and step across any surface in the world as lightly as a whisper. Three ages of a woman, bound to one body.
Nothing at all—secrets and magic kept across ages—
—And in Cauwine, a bow and arrow. The light from her eyes. Oak brown topped by the green of a wild forest, but passion burned at the center of it all. The unpredictable glint of wild defiance. Those hands had held every weapon, championed every lost cause.
The Elf who looked at the dead god remembered what Cauwine had looked like. The faces she had worn. Sprigaena, the Last Traitor, refused to take that hand. She stood beneath the bleeding Devourer of Time and backed away from the two gods.
Tamaroth and Cauwine. The God of Rulers was enraged, calling insults at Cauwine, but she had the advantage here. Not in whatever strength they had recovered from eating souls.
Rather, from sheer martial prowess. They had no flesh to move. Neither did they have Skills, and what magic they had needed to be taken from the world around them. Only Emerrhain was gifted enough to do that for every need. But they were not limited by bodies either. They could move as fast as they could imagine, and Cauwine—
Cauwine was the warrior of the six.
Ghosts were flying in great numbers around the Devourer of Time, fighting across the continent of Baleros, embattled with the Seamwalkers. Each continent was making a stand. As Sprigaena looked up, she saw a Dragon diving at one of the smaller foes jerk. It made a sound and—
The God of Last Stands touched it, and the prismatic scales of a Dragon born of gemstones vanished. One of the rarest species, a great soul—taken in a moment.
“Evade it! Two of the six walk among us! Retreat! Re—”
A [General], a Centaur racing across the ground, sounded the alarm too late. He looked at the hand on his shoulder and disappeared in a second. Again—she was right there.
Tamaroth dove, and ghosts scattered from him. He was quick, and they blinked out, small [Soldiers] and ghosts taken by him in a single touch. But it was nothing to Cauwine’s speed. She moved like a flash of lightning, and ghosts vanished.
All she needed was a touch, after all, and they could not hurt her. Sprigaena, turning, saw a Dragon breathing a stream of gas and liquid straight into Tamaroth’s face. Grimacing, the God of Rulers reached out and touched the Earth Dragon, ignoring the acidic poison.
He would have fled that, before. This battle was empowering them with each soul they took. They were growing…too strong to stop. With each soul, they became a little more real. Remembering themselves, rediscovering their identities. Moving more surely, regaining their old power.
“Come to me, my people.”
Tamaroth called across the world, and ghosts began to walk to him. A Naga screamed defiance and launched a javelin at Tamaroth. The God of Rulers swatted it away, and the ghosts halted. He advanced on the Naga, and the warrior bought the others time as they fled in every direction. The Naga sprang left, darting like a viper, closing its teeth on Tamaroth’s arm as that hand reached out. The fangs sank into nothing, but the Naga still bit. Tamaroth scowled at it, and it vanished.
“Wretched little ghosts.”
They were not omnipotent. You could land the first blow—but there was no harming them. Sprigaena knew that. She had seen them die. But each one was…
She concentrated, and the world shifted around her. See them for what they are. Neither god had forgotten her; they were clearing the space around her, and the Devourer of Time kept bleeding. This was her last stand. So the Traitor of Elves looked, to see how to hurt them.
She had a single blade. No great artifact. She could cut time with it, score a wound across the sky from cloud to grass. That was thanks to the talent that had taken countless thousands of years to master, practicing with the greatest of warriors of every species and nature as a passion, a hobby, then refining it in battle.
She could turn the air into a blade and send it slashing across the ground. However—Sprigaena opened her eyes and looked at the two. What she saw was their true natures.
They were gods. They were an idea made manifest. They were…like a tower built up of concepts. God of Rulers. What did that mean?
Ruling was…leadership. It was memory. It was bravery in the face of adversity. Or was it simply control? Was it power absolute? Fear? Tamaroth embodied that perspective as he chose. He was all those things. He was a memory, a vast construction of concepts, ideas, things he had done and been, the power to alter reality—combined into one being.
That was one perspective. Another was seeing him as a great giant, dwarfing even the Timewalker, hidden as he walked across the world. As small as his ‘body’, but exposing only a fraction of his true nature at one time.
Yes—that was what you had to kill. Sprigaena saw no way to cut either. A tiny cut was all she could do, and they would ‘heal’ from it instantly because it was only a point of view. Only a seeming. She could neither bind them into a single spot nor inflict the damage only another god or great weapon could do.
When gods fought, it was with far more than magic or skill with blades. Sprigaena glanced up at the Devourer of Time. How easy it would be for that thing to make that step. If it did—they wouldn’t be able to stop it. It was a child who didn’t realize it could simply…deny the damage they were doing to its body. It was bleeding, not realizing it bled because it was imagining how it died.
“So, at my end, you will not even let me strike a blow against the corruption that haunts us all. Tamaroth. Cauwine. I gave everything to you, across all my years. Now, at my end—I regret it all. I will not give you my soul.”
Sprigaena leapt up, and her blade dug into the Timewalker’s body, drawing more blood that squirmed and whispered, leaking foulness even here. The two gods followed her. Sprigaena cut a piece of the Devourer’s marrow from one leg and beheld an inside that looked back at her, muttering, a thousand lips behind the eyes. She saw something coming from her, so fast—Cauwine. The Elf dodged, leaping away.
Tamaroth touched her arm. He looked at Sprigaena, smiling widely, victorious, and she flickered—even he could not take her in a moment. She—
Slashed off her own arm.
A fraction of a moment. Tamaroth was left holding nothing. Sprigaena trailed her own essence as she climbed. The arm was returning to her body. It was only a point of view.
Tamaroth howled, flying after her. But Cauwine was ever faster. Again, she reached out and halted, wary of the blade Sprigaena was pointing at her.
Which one? She swore to cut their real selves, even if it were only a single drop of blood she drew. Both knew it.
“Sprigaena. Take my hand.”
“No. Take mine.”
Cauwine and Tamaroth. Yet of the two, the goddess seemed—intent on Sprigaena.
“Ignore that fool Tamaroth. Take my hand, Sprigaena. You know how this will end. Kasigna has this land. Emerrhain has only made it disorderly before the end.”
“Why would I take your hand over his?”
Sprigaena saw the intelligence inside the Devourer’s flesh turn on them. The two, goddess and Elf, kept climbing. Something reached out and tried to grab Tamaroth, drawing him into the wound. He fought, cursing it—the two women were climbing higher.
This time, Cauwine did not try to touch Sprigaena. In fact, they were like twins, mirroring each other as they cut into the Devourer’s body. The Goddess of Last Stands was laughing.
“This is a true battle. I was born a god, and nothing challenged me, so I despaired. Until I walked among mortals. Until I challenged my own kind.”
Sprigaena said naught at all. She knew Cauwine. Again, Cauwine turned. She offered a hand.
“Sprigaena. They are all coming for you.”
The Elf looked out and saw four figures now.
Kasigna, Laedonius Deviy, Tamaroth, and Norechl. Emerrhain was nowhere to be seen, and if the Gnomes had succeeded, he would perish in nothingness. But the others were pursuing Sprigaena.
She was the greatest of souls. Even the Mage of Magic’s End would not be the bounty of Sprigaena. Even her own kind. Even Gnomes…
“I will defy you all to the last breath to atone for what I have done. Why would I take your hand, Cauwine?”
The Elf calmly looked into the hissing, pleading hole she’d cut in the Devourer’s side. She plunged her blade into it and reminded it what pain was. Even Norechl wanted her; her and that Human girl. Of the six, that one terrified Sprigaena the most.
Yet Cauwine insisted. She hovered there, hand outstretched, and Sprigaena, wary of a trick, a lunge—hesitated when the goddess spoke.
“Sprigaena. I am so hungry. We are all…starving. Yet take my hand. I do not offer oblivion or consumption or servitude. Join me, Sprigaena.”
She reached out, and the Devourer’s many eyes, Sprigaena, and Tamaroth looked up and saw Cauwine open a door. It was a tiny little doorway of light. Right across where her heart should have been, a gap in the body she took.
Sprigaena looked into that doorway and saw…everything. It led straight into the center of Cauwine’s being. It was her love, her creation, every moment in her memory, her passion and regrets and flaws and skill at arms. Not even the Elf had ever seen something so naked. Such a weakness. And that doorway called to her.
A million parts of the Devourer of Time reached out, but Cauwine cut them away with her sword. She held the door open for one person alone.
Now, Tamaroth had lost his wrathful ego. He stared up, disbelieving. The God of Rulers pointed at her as the goddess beckoned.
“You have lost your senses. What are you doing?”
Cauwine just laughed down at him.
“Look at you, Tamaroth. You are doing the same thing as always. Wasn’t the point of all of this to make something new? To empower and shape mortal lives?”
She held up her arms to indicate it all and then sneered at him.
“Even gods can change. I have always wanted to be more. We must become something else. Or would you come back from an eternity’s death and repeat yourself? Sprigaena…look. Don’t you think this is a better option?”
She held that door open, and the Elf hesitated. They were all coming for her, now. Kasigna, striding along after her delay; Laedonius Deviy, imploring her; Tamaroth, hurrying upwards.
“I…will not halt your dreams. You and I are not the same. I will be a single voice whispering among a thousand.”
The Elf’s finger hesitated. She looked down and saw she was bleeding the fabric of her soul. Ah—was she wounded? The Devourer had eaten some of her, too. When had that happened?
She was tired. Cauwine just extended that hand, waiting.
“You will be one voice in my ear rather than the silence in the background of their contempt. Choose, Sprigaena.”
A mouth opened behind Sprigaena, and she looked back into that curious face drawn in the Devourer’s flesh. Nowhere to run, Tamaroth flying towards her—Sprigaena looked at Cauwine. She raised her sword—and cast it into the Devourer’s body. Then she leapt, like she was younger, running across the ground in a better time, when mortals and gods…
…Touched hands without fear. When they spoke, and for all they warred and quarreled, she believed in them.
She would never again. But the Last Traitor, Sprigaena, walked through that door with a sigh. A tiny little crack in Cauwine’s being. As vast as another world. It was all a matter of perspective. Sprigaena reached into it and felt another door open.
A bright door, revealing a thousand thousand paths that the Elf had ever walked. A girl born in an age of Gods walked side-by-side with a weary warrior, a despairing queen of a new age, a traitor, a hero…into a god’s heart.
Then she disappeared. Cauwine sighed, and Tamaroth and the other dead gods halted. The goddess looked around.
“Thank you, Sprigaena. Now—I must find out who we will be.”
She laughed, a wild, curious, even frightened laugh, and Tamaroth retreated from Cauwine as the Devourer tried to kill both, raging now, realizing another bright bit of sustenance had vanished. Recognizing its true enemies at last. The God of Rulers whispered after Cauwine as she dove away.
Sprigaena was gone. Zineryr and the Gnomes were gone. In a moment—the ghosts of Baleros realized their battle was lost. Five dead gods and the Timewalker were consuming them. They began to flee the continent.
Baleros was lost.
Erin Solstice had seen Sprigaena go. She had been watching her. So many had. The Elf, the traitor to her people…she had drawn the eye, even amidst the chaos. Now—she was gone.
The [Innkeeper] realized two things, then. Seeing Cauwine and Tamaroth made something clear to her.
“Who…who has my body if both of them are here?”
She felt an odd sense of trepidation and hope. Maybe it wasn’t someone evil? Who could it be? Some random ghost? She hoped her body was okay. What if it were a Creler? Did Crelers have ghosts?
The second thing Erin Solstice realized as the Goddess turned was that Cauwine, for all she was as different from the others as Norechl…
She was not kind. Nor would she gain kindness from the Elf who had made war on her kind.
Ghosts were vanishing. Cauwine descended like a storm, flickering from spot to spot. Touching a shoulder, a finger glancing off an arm, ignoring blades and spells.
A hundred ghosts vanished in a heartbeat. More walked towards Tamaroth. Kasigna stepped onto the shores of Baleros and hissed.
“Enough. I have wasted enough time. This is my place. My souls.”
She opened her mouth—and the little chasm in her mouth expanded. This was no door. There was no invitation here. A Seamwalker stared into a stomach, a chasm of want that eclipsed any hunger it had ever known.
A pit with no end. An all-consuming, ravenous darkness so filled with appetite that it became a real thing. More malevolent than a black hole, deeper than any abyssal vortex. There was not even oblivion in those depths. Only her will. They were all her sustenance. Then the hole expanded and reached out.
It began to drag everything in. Erin saw a desperate, flying Harpy trying to escape as ghosts lost their balance and flew towards Kasigna. But she dragged everything in a vast radius towards her. Seamwalkers, ghosts—a vast mask of bone and two arms like blades descended towards her as a Seamwalker tried to attack the Goddess of Death.
Kasigna reached out and shattered the mask with a finger. The flesh running from the broken face dripped downwards, but one arm still swung at the Goddess of Death. It broke across her body. A thousand ghosts were dragged screaming into her mouth.
“Dead…they’re like the stories I’ve heard of the Old Things. But worse. They look like us.”
Someone whispered in Erin’s ear. She turned and saw Gerial flying with her. They were fleeing Baleros. The Silver-rank adventurer looked at the continent of Baleros, then at Erin. His eyes were bleak, but they focused on her.
“We have to get you to your body. Ceria would never forgive me if I failed. Calruz, either.”
“Yes. We must go.”
A booming voice. Serept, King of Khelt, was striding over the waves. He pointed ahead.
“Hasten your steps, companions. Returning to Izril may be impossible. Northwards, towards Terandria. Or Drath.”
Ghosts were fleeing there. Not towards Izril, even though Khelta was still fighting in that direction, following Fetohep. One look into the sea showed Erin why.
Something with no face or body stood there. Nothing…no, not ‘nothing’, but the very idea of nothing made malice.
How to explain it? Norechl was there. It was…the very embodiment of the monster who was lurking around the door. The burglar who had crept into your room. The killer waiting for you to move as you lay, paralyzed in bed.
The God of the Forgotten was that kind of nothing. The unseen fear you could not name when you gazed into the depths of a well. The nothing you heard in your head at night that made you wake and listen.
Norechl walked over the sea, and Serept raised an axe of dark metal tipped with a pearl edge. A fanciful blade, like a razor’s edge, a smile across a shadow.
Rather like the God of the Forgotten, but far more beautiful. The Smith-King, the half-Giant, turned to Erin as she looked at Norechl.
Erin shouted, but the half-Giant set himself. The King of Khelt gazed at the God of the Forgotten.
“Show me your mettle, dark thing. Or will you not heed a warrior’s challenge? I am the son of the sky. The bones of this world were my ancestors. By Khelt—I challenge you.”
He walked left, drawing the dead god away from Erin. Norechl was staring at Erin—but it turned. Smiling.
Erin shouted, and His-Xe, the 9th Ruler of Khelt, saluted the half-Giant. Serept, the forger of countless relics, 5th Ruler of Khelt, the one who had first filled those vaults with great blades and relics, nodded to Erin.
She saw not the withered, undead body of the half-Giant king, but a man with dark hair. So tall he would have made a child out of Moore, standing, soot on his arms, holding an axe on one shoulder as the waves lapped at his heels and the beautiful clothes made for him, an honorary citizen of Khelt.
Shoes and clothing fit for a half-Giant, a wonderful gift for a young man who had gone barefoot as a boy, too large for the rest of the world. Food enough to eat. A bed commissioned for him by Khelt’s generous ruler himself. No wonder he had grown to love this nation enough to serve it for two thousand years after he died.
He stood there, the heavy axe in hand, and Erin looked away as nothing strode at him. She didn’t want to see it. She burned Serept’s image into her mind.
When she looked up, the memories of tears on her cheeks, the God of the Forgotten was walking her way. All she had was that vision.
“Being of the Forgotten. You will suffer a thousand deaths. I swear it by Khelt. You will not have your victory this day.”
It was a curse on His-Xe’s tongue. Erin saw the band of ghosts around her tighten their ranks. She counted them. Some, like Califor and the [Witches], had stayed with Khelta. Nerrhavia, the other rulers of Khelt, were far from here.
The ones who had come after her were the ones Erin had known:
His-Xe and Serept. Now only one ruler walking the dark oceans, fulfilling their promise.
Gerial of the Horns of Hammerad.
Cawe, the [Pickpocket], flying and cursing Norechl.
Velzimri, the Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets, his robe of countless alchemical ingredients trailing behind him as he cast a [Haste] spell on them.
Abel, from Earth, wiping his eyes as he searched the ghosts fleeing Baleros, searching for Jackson.
Last of all, the Rebel of String, Elucina, holding that shining blade that had ended Roshal’s lot.
Norechl followed them, drawing closer despite the magic that let the others race across the waves at a speed that even Couriers would have been daunted by. It was still smiling.
“Don’t look at it, Erin. I’ll—I’ll stop it next.”
Abel whispered to her. The young man from Earth was terribly afraid. He was from Nigeria, like Imani. He had died where they had landed, amidst Crelers. If Erin looked at him, she saw the terrible wounds on his body until he remembered a different time in his life. His brown eyes met hers, and Erin reached out to him.
“No, I will be next. Khelt has made citizens of you all. Not one of Khelt’s children shall die before its rulers. Not now. They called me the serpent, the viper who made terrible war. I shall see if even that thing can ignore my poison.”
His-Xe lifted a hand, and Erin saw his fingers were painted a deep green, flecked with bits of red. The String-Man gazed at Erin and Abel, then with malice at Norechl.
“No. Don’t, His-Xe. I don’t want anyone to do this.”
Erin was shaking as she looked at Norechl. Shaking with fury. She would have hurled the acid jars and pan at it—but it would have just eaten her memories. The 9th King of Khelt just smiled, and his lips were colored too. A deadly kiss in lilac was the greeting Khelt offered to any insult when he had lived.
Perhaps, when their own sense of importance grew too large, when Khelt decided it should rule more than a pocket of Chandrar.
That was one of the eras when Khelt’s armies and fleets had touched even other continents. When it had made enemies, and the Viper-King of Khelt had ruled. Perhaps unwisely at times, but as he had believed was right.
His-Xe had taken many nations into Khelt’s embrace and offered them everything they could want. Except freedom. A flawed man, who looked back at the God of Nothing with narrowed eyes.
“My great warrior and friend, Salui, will never find me. Yet we said farewell when we parted. We are dead. You are not, Erin Solstice.”
He turned to smile at her. That was the last thing Erin ever saw of him. His-Xe’s grand smile. He didn’t even notice the hand that touched him.
Then she was there.
Cauwine. She took Abel’s arm, and the confused young man looked up, his face still resolved. He had walked from his world into a nest of monsters, and his friends had died. One girl had escaped and later come to Erin’s inn to make fine food and recover a bit. The confusion was still on Abel’s face.
They hadn’t ever asked for—
Erin Solstice saw Cauwine straighten as the ghosts around her cried out. Velzimri swung around and looked at Erin as Gerial lifted a blade. He swung it at Cauwine’s face, and the goddess parried it without looking at him.
Elucina was fastest of all. She struck at Cauwine, but the God of Last Stands was quicker still. She stepped back and grabbed Erin’s chin with one hand.
The [Innkeeper] gasped. Norechl made a sound, a screech without words of fury. Then—it and the ghosts looked at Erin.
She hadn’t vanished. The young woman looked at Cauwine.
“So you’re the girl who vexes the others so. Tamaroth, Kasigna, and Norechl. You are not enough to eat. You annoy them so. Run away, little ghost. I didn’t come for you.”
Cauwine let go of Erin. The [Innkeeper] stared as the God of Last Stands turned. Two ghosts gone in a moment. The goddess turned, smiling—
Then blinked back at Erin. The young woman had just punched her in the back of the head. Erin felt nothing; it wasn’t even like hitting a wall. She didn’t know what she hit—but it didn’t do anything.
“Begone. I don’t want you, and Norechl is slow, but it never gives up.”
Gerial and Cawe dragged Erin back. The [Innkeeper] was shouting.
“I’ll—I’ll never forgive you! You—!”
Velzimri whirled and strode after Erin. The last of them fled as Norechl passed by Cauwine, hesitating, but giving chase. One ghost stood on the waters.
“You came for me?”
Elucina, the Rebel of String, held her blade at the ready, uncertain. For answer, Cauwine threw back her head. Again—she opened that door.
“I am Cauwine, the rebel. The Goddess of Last Stands. You are that glorious soul they speak of, Rebel of String. Join me and show me everything you have ever seen or known. Join me—and I will make great war on your enemies.”
She had sought Elucina out. One soul among many. A point of view she desired. The Rebel of String wavered. She looked after Erin, then at Cauwine.
“Swear to protect Erin Solstice.”
“I swear to nothing. Join me and you will be a voice in my nature. Change me.”
The goddess reached out. Elucina sighed. She was not faster than Cauwine. She stepped back, lowered the blade…and shook her head.
“I will not be a prisoner to whatever you are, even if what you show me is true. I am the Rebel of String. I will never be bound again.”
Cauwine gave her a long, frustrated look. Then the goddess shrugged.
“We are often like that. Defiant to the end. But you are not Sprigaena.”
Elucina dodged—but Cauwine had her hand. Slowly, with irrevocable strength, the goddess took the hand and put it against that doorway in her being. Elucina thrust the sword she held into Cauwine’s shoulder…then sighed.
“Oh. That’s what you are—”
She vanished. Cauwine watched the sword of light dissolve, then turned. She disappeared into the air, leaving Erin Solstice behind. Changing.
Norechl was gaining on them. They were now four, headed across the sea. It was Velzimri who saved them. The Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets unleashed his Skills and his magic, then.
Spells to haste their progress, let them walk on water. Walls of ice and stone, rising from the ocean. He hurled potions that exploded into tempests, poisons that would have infected Djinni. He cursed Norechl so roundly that Cawe looked horrified.
The God of Nothing did not slow at all. So Velzimri put his hands in his robes and just looked at Erin.
“He is almost upon us. Do not slow—to Terandria. They held out—they might stop it.”
Erin didn’t think they’d make it. Even if Velzimri blocked Norechl’s way, he’d slow the dead god for a step. And they could not even see Terandria from here, not with the water all about and Seamwalkers and ghosts fighting.
The [Sage] knew it. His brow was furrowed. He looked at Norechl as it bore down on them. Then…as Erin ran…she heard a whisper.
It spoke to her. It called to her. She looked back, and Gerial paled further. Norechl.
Why was this one after her? She had not defied it like Kasigna, nor was it Cauwine or Tamaroth, who had gone for her body. Erin didn’t know when Norechl had tried to claim her body—she only sensed the malice.
The God of Forgotten Things saw something in her it wanted. Of the six…ghosts had every right to fear its touch more than the rest. It was kin to the Seamwalkers.
It was a god…in the sense that it had learned enough to join their pantheons. But Norechl had come from far, far away. The Furthest Traveller.
It was not kind, either. However, unlike Cauwine’s selfish rebellion, Norechl was malice. It was gleeful hatred. So it whispered at Erin to slow her. It whispered…and she heard a voice that was neither male nor female, loud nor soft.
It sounded a bit like her. A bit like nothing, a bit like the voice that whispered her class and levels to her. A bit like the dark voice in the back of her head on the darkest of days. Laughing…spiteful.
“Headscratcher says goodbye.”
Gerial saw Erin Solstice slow. The [Innkeeper] looked backwards.
“…What did you say?”
“Headscratcher says goodbye. Goblins. Ghosts. Goodbye, goodbye. Garden of emptiness. Goodbye. Forever. Your fault. They were there. They were there.”
The [Innkeeper] didn’t understand for a moment. Then she remembered the statues in her garden. What little color the ghost had drained away.
Cawe and Gerial dragged her on as Erin turned. The [Innkeeper] looked at the God of Nothing as it laughed at her. She kept running, but her hatred towards Cauwine, towards…
“What did you do?”
“Ignore it. Erin Solstice—we have no time.”
Velzimri was doing something. He had gathered his robe of countless flowing metals and ingredients and was, barehanded, mixing them together in the air. Norechl reached out for him, and the Sage cursed.
“Another second! An—”
A foot kicked Norechl in the face. It had no discernable features, but Erin thought it still looked surprised. It reached out, grabbed the foot—and a glowing spear made of lightning went through its chest. The God of Forgotten Things stared blankly at the leg it was holding.
Then the foot kicked him again, and a hand punched Norechl in the face. It recoiled, more out of surprise than anything, and a half-Elf cursed.
“Not even a Tier 6 spell? What are you doing? Run! Run! Go for Ailendamus and warn Rhisveri what is coming!”
General Dionamella of Ailendamus, the Great General of Ages, hit Norechl in the face again. The Agelum had taught her how to fight. The Lucifen their magic. The God of the Forgotten put a hand on Dionamella’s face.
She and it stared at the hand as it did nothing at all. To the half-Elf’s…
Real body. Dionamella swatted the hand down. Then she drew a burning arrow out of the air and shot it point-blank into Norechl’s ‘skin’.
That did nothing either. The two regarded each other, mystified by their opponents. The General of Ages shook her head. Then she turned back to the ghosts.
“Go! Go to Ailendamus!”
“Thank you—whoever you are!”
Erin screamed back. She didn’t know who the half-Elf was, but the God of the Forgotten tried to walk past Dionamella, and the half-Elf seized its shoulder.
“[Holy Flame of the Agelum]. Burn, thing.”
A blazing fire erupted from her palm. The dead god—
Flinched. It looked at Dionamella, and her eyes widened.
“Agelum magic? Then—”
She raised her hand and began a spell. But Norechl threw its ‘head’ back and screamed. Erin Solstice flinched; the sound wasn’t something she could have ever heard with normal ears. It was a keening wail…and it attracted every Seamwalker rampaging through the oceans.
Dionamella cursed as she looked around. The God of the Forgotten left, and she grabbed at it, but her path was barred by a titan of a thousand holes from which squirmed voracious offspring. She looked left and swung the burning sword she had called out of the air into the side of a flickering half-being of shadows, which screamed.
“Ailendamus! Here is my end!”
The Great General made her stand as a dozen Seamwalkers charged her. Erin Solstice saw her whirl and call that gigantic Wyrm of magic out of the sky. It bore down on the Seamwalker full of holes, that trypophobic horror, bearing it into the water where it bled bright yellow. Dionamella stabbed the half-there Seamwalker again and again, and bolts of black lightning rained down around her.
The guardian of time died as the living had seen her. For a second, Erin Solstice saw a [Lord], on horseback and surprisingly young, with black hair and a desperate, intense expression, gazing at Dionamella.
Lord Tyrion Veltras looked up as Dionamella screamed defiance. An aged half-Elf who had given her entire life for Ailendamus. For the Wyrm who had offered her power and one wish.
The place she had loved had turned from a small kingdom to a shelter for immortals over her long service, and she had walked among Rhisveri’s folk, received all their gifts. Knowledge, from the clothing she had worn, woven by Fithea, to the artifacts and blade she had carried. The Agelum’s strength and courage, the magic and cunning of Lucifen. She would have done it all again. If only she had known about this, though—Dionamella turned, hand glowing with magic.
Something snatched her up. Tyrion saw a fighting, screaming half-Elf blasting a horror he had only seen once, washed up on Izril’s shores—
Then she vanished, swallowed into a mouth with a hundred thousand teeth. Erin cried out. She looked around, but the [Time Mages] were dying.
The Devourer of Time was bleeding onto Baleros, into the waters. It was looking at Kasigna and Tamaroth, who stood against it, locked in an invisible battle. Parts of it were flaking away, turning to dust as Kasigna showed the Timewalker its mortality. Tamaroth commanded it die, and it tore at its own flesh.
The two dead gods aged, and every nation crumbled in time. Even death could be reversed, the withered flower bloom with time—
War between gods.
The God of the Forgotten was upon them once again. Erin Solstice snarled at it. It laughed at her as Terandria finally came into sight.
Flashing lights in the darkness. Shapes looming over the land. Terandria hadn’t fallen! But they were dozens of miles away, and Norechl was on them, and their magic was fading.
“You will make it.”
Cawe and Gerial turned, swords in their hands, ready to fight Norechl, but the Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets drew himself up.
“Dragons! Fliers! I require your aid!”
He roared into the darkness, and some ghosts turned. They saw the desperate pursuit and swooped lower, but they would never make it. Velzimri looked at Erin Solstice.
“Tell them the Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets made one last creation for you, Erin Solstice. I wish you had been there when I lived.”
He was holding something. Erin didn’t understand at first what it was. Velzimri had created a giant glass bottle and had mixed over a hundred ingredients into it. Each one plucked from his garments or conjured via Skills.
One of the world’s finest [Alchemists] and [Mages], the selfish genius who had created Sage’s Grass, the Stitch-Boy who had never left the streets, only taken a different, grandiose name and hoarded his knowledge until it was all he had—looked at Erin.
A beard that reached down his chest and tickled his stomach, colored by countless alchemical experiments. A robe so long you could trip over it four times as he walked. Every wonder in the world at his fingertips as he lived except the tentative, regretful smile that he gave her now.
Norechl saw Velzimri turn. It touched him as it passed, and the [Sage] vanished. But the gigantic bottle was already breaking. The God of the Forgotten cared little for mundane creations or science. It did not acknowledge such things. So—unlike the other five—it had no context for what Velzimri was doing.
Norechl’s arrogance, and Velzimri’s genius. Erin Solstice saw the bottle hit the ground and detonate. Just like Saliss’ explosion. Velzimri’s last whisper echoed in her mind, for the rest of the world was sound and light beyond counting.
“—[Alchemist’s Safeguard: Test Subjec—”
Most [Alchemists] learned something like that if they lived long enough. Norechl reached through the exploding world, uncaring. It could not harm it. Yet the God of the Forgotten realized too late—
It was not what Velzimri had been trying to affect. As any [Alchemist] knew—if you had an unalterable constant, why not alter everything else?
Norechl looked up, and its head traced a screaming trio of ghosts flashing through the air past startled Dragons, Garuda, and Harpies. They were flying at a velocity that might have broken a sound barrier, and because there was no air, they kept going, losing momentum very slowly.
Velzimri had even calculated their trajectory. Erin saw the continent of Terandria growing larger and larger. But she looked back at where the Sage had been. She was crying as his last creation carried them to Terandria. They made it. Norechl stared at Erin Solstice and Terandria. Then it stopped smiling. The God of the Forgotten got…
Angry. Tamaroth broke away from the Timewalker’s duel to follow Norechl. Kasigna hissed at him, but she was locked in conflict and refused to yield. She or the Devourer would rule this world at the end of their struggle, and she refused to lose. But the God of Rulers had something more pressing than even destroying the Devourer of Time.
Vengeance. Vengeance for their prides offended. He and Norechl were the last two to follow Erin Solstice. Laedonuis Deviy, Cauwine, even Kasigna had more pressing matters at the end of death itself. But the gods were offended. So—enough. Enough.
That mortal died.
Terandria. All of the continent was focused on the worldwide catastrophe that no one could quite put a name to.
That, the Meeting of Tribes, and the return of the Titan were enough to dominate the zeitgeist of this moment, but Ailendamus, of course, had a pivotal clash of their own going on.
The Dawn Concordat had won the victory that would define the war. The Great General, Dionamella, was dead, and Ailendamus’ greatest army had been shattered and sent fleeing or been taken captive.
Now, nation after nation was declaring war or turning on the behemoth that was Ailendamus as they sensed weakness in the unstoppable war machine.
Noelictus, Pheislant, Desonis, and Nadel were the nations who had openly declared their contempt for this war and pledged to support the Dawn Concordat in some way. Other nations had sent less overt allies, be it mercenaries or arms.
Now, the Human Kingdoms were watching a great force assemble. Well, they had been watching, and it was something to admire.
Tyrion Veltras and the Five Families, those lost cousins on Izril, had returned to ride with the Dawn Concordat. In fact—Lord Tyrion Veltras had grown younger himself, a sure sign that he had reached a new stage in his classes. Or perhaps it was the legendary [Matchmaker] who no one had heard of till now, Lord Pellmia Quellae.
They marched alongside Ser Solstice, also of Izril, the renowned Goblin Slayer. The Order of Seasons rode side-by-side with the Thronebearers behind the 4th Princess of Calanfer, Seraphel, whom many were already calling the Princess of the Grave, a title of honor from Noelictus that had…implications and was hotly debated.
However, the fact remained that a Lightherald of sorts was marching with Calanfer’s [Princess]. Added to that, Kaliv had pushed back its attackers, and so the Griffin Prince and an army of Kaliv and Gaiil-Drome’s half-Elves had joined the Calanfer forces.
In fact, this was a larger army than the one which had broken the Great General of Ages, because other nations had sent their forces to join this offensive push. The Order of Seasons had broken through the Pheislant borders, and the Summer’s Champion had reached the Dawn Concordat’s grand army after four days of hard riding. Along with the other name who was shaping this world: Archmage Eldavin, the Archmage of Memory.
An Archmage, a real Archmage at their backs. His flying, armored soldiers, the Order of Seasons, forces from half a dozen nations, and one Goblin were already past Ailendamus’ borders. They had taken two border-forts without a fight and were headed straight for the capital.
Despite Ailendamus’ power, their Greatbows, the morale of their soldiers had shattered with the loss of their Great General. And…looking up at Archmage Eldavin and fifty [Soldiers] flying alongside him when he demanded your surrender, soaring over the walls of your fortress, did something to the nerve of average [Soldiers].
Their commanders hadn’t even demanded they fight. Ailendamus almost appeared to be giving up or in such a state of paralysis that the Dawn Concordat was ‘winning’ victory after victory as it advanced.
Of course—that was a feint. Veterans like Tyrion Veltras cautioned claiming territory and suing for peace rather than the reckless advance. However, the Dawn Concordat considered the war as good as won. In the way of Terandrian wars, they intended to claim as much land as possible to give themselves an advantage at the inevitable bargaining table for the restoration of property and reparations when an accord for peace was struck.
It did not…occur to them that Ailendamus thought victory was not only possible, but a certainty.
The capital of Ailendamus had been in mourning. Everyone was shocked to silence by the revelation that the Singer of Terandria was a mortal enemy, the nations declaring war, and the army advancing on them. The loss of General Dionamella stood above it all, shaking confidence apart and turning it to fear.
Their nation was being invaded. Their champions had lost. Now—everything was in danger. Would the Dawn Concordat subsume part of them? Would armies come burning and destroying their homes?
Were there…no more [Soldiers] in the army, if no one was speaking of reforming a new one? Where was the counterattack?
His name was Ser Yoriven of the Order of the Hydra, and he had been a [Knight] less than one month. The young man was still nursing his wounds from the fighting at Krawlnmak’s Pass. When Yoriven closed his eyes, he could still see the Great General falling.
He had returned in disgrace with the rest of his Order. From the Drell Knights to the Order of the Thirsting Veil—Yoriven knew that the shame of failing their kingdom wouldn’t leave them.
But his nation was under attack. The Hydra Knights knew this—and so when he strode on foot to the capital that morning, for Hydra Knights marched and did not ride, he intended to beg an audience with whomever would hear him.
His Majesty himself—Ser Yoriven was prepared to throw himself on the crown’s mercy. But he would ask to go to his home and muster every able-bodied warrior if need be. He had been the fastest, strongest, and tallest lad in his home, but the Order of the Hydra would not want for more good [Knights] if they took only from the province of Kethms.
Yoriven was not alone. He was joined by sixty of his [Knight]-friends who all walked with helmets removed, armor still battered but polished, down the paved roads of the capital. He was prepared for jeering, for people to task him with his failure.
However, the streets of Wrmeriye, the Capital of Glass and Steel, did not look like the graveyard of quiet faces it had been yesterday.
The air was indeed hushed as the crisp autumn air blew across Yoriven’s face, but the other Hydra Knights heard some sounds in the distance.
“Another vigil for General Dionamella, perhaps? The capital still flies black flags from every minaret.”
Dame Cauie murmured. Another [Knight] shook his head.
“I cannot gainsay that—we have lost a truly great leader. But if no army is to be formed…”
The Hydra Knights looked at each other. They had not received any orders to muster up, which was why they were so concerned. Disgrace was one thing; the Bear-General had been reassigned to a border following his disastrous failures, and word was that that [Admiral] who had attacked Nadel had been stripped of his warship. But this?
A sound made Yoriven slow as he marched towards the great palace, a city unto itself in size, the pride of Ailendamus. It was in danger; the capital had been founded in the old heart of Ailendamus, and it was actually close enough that the Dawn Concordat was within three days of threatening it. If an army were to be raised and the enemy kept from the gates…
“Hold…wait a moment. What is that sound?”
The Hydra Knights looked up as they heard a sound break through what they had expected: the trumpets blowing mourning, perhaps weeping, or that grave silence.
It sounded like—cheering. And a familiar thrumming running down the streets. Ser Yoriven looked around as it grew louder, and intuition made him beckon the [Knights] to the side of the street.
They saw the people coming down the main street a second later. Ser Yoriven gasped, and the rest of the [Knights] instantly checked their armor. For—running down the street at a jog, armor gleaming, was no less than the [Knight-Commander] of their Order.
A common-born man who could have stepped into line with the most impressive [Knights] of any generation…and promptly been ignored, the Order of the Hydra’s [Knight-Commander] was not the huge, barrel of a man or giant of a woman like Dame Merila that people imagined of the largest Knight Order in the world.
He looked ordinary. Suspiciously ordinary, in fact, when you realized who he was. To be precise, the man looked like he was a Silver-rank adventurer with a handle-bar mustache, neatly groomed features, combed but not styled hair, and even slimly built and slightly shorter than average height, even with his armor.
He looked moderately unimpressive for a [Knight]. And he would keep looking like that even after running forty miles when you were coughing out your lungs. Yoriven had heard Knight-Commander Forcel had looked a bit pressed when he’d taken on three [Knights] from the Order of the Thirsting Veil. He had never seen the man ruffled besides that.
Now, Forcel was jogging down the street in good form, armored feet beating on the smooth stone, not cobblestone, a paved road laid out for perfect movement of pedestrians and wheeled traffic. Arms pumping, his purple-and-green armor gleaming with the crest of his office, polished like a mirror.
Oh—and he was being followed by a thousand Knights of the Hydra. A half-legion, which was about every Hydra Knight stationed in the capital at the moment. Then…Yoriven saw thousands of young men and women and recognized them too.
“Those are the [Squires] in the order’s academy!”
Dame Cauie exclaimed. Sure enough, they didn’t wear the formal armor of any [Knight], but they had been armed for war. And—many of the Hydra Knights seemed newly minted.
The Order of the Hydra and [Squires] from the capital were headed down the street. That was what the cheering was about. Ser Yoriven hesitated—then stepped out.
Forcel just looked at them, and Yoriven froze. Then—he found himself turning and running alongside Forcel. The rest of the sixty [Knights] did the same—they just turned and fell into line behind the Knight-Commander. That was the force of his aura.
“Knight-Commander, Ser! What is going on?”
“We are marching towards the Dawn Concordat. Ser Yoriven, isn’t it? Are you willing to fight?”
Even Forcel’s tone was fairly bland, albeit commanding. Ser Yoriven saluted.
“Yes, Knight-Commander! But we intended to beg the courts to muster our homes for soldiers. This…this is every Knight of the Hydra in the capital! Even the [Squires]?”
Were they that desperate for forces? Surely not! The Order of the Hydra had thousands of [Knights]—they organized into legions of two thousand. But Knight-Commander Forcel just smiled.
“His Majesty has asked every able-bodied man and woman in Ailendamus to join an army he is mustering. Do not concern yourself about numbers, Ser Yoriven. Three legions of the Order of the Hydra will meet us where we are assembling. The rest will maneuver to join us if need be.”
Six thousand [Knights]? Yoriven’s jaw dropped open.
“Wh—but then, why were we not ordered to join the front, Knight-Commander? Is it our disgrace?”
“Not at all. The Crown considered that our [Soldiers] on the front had experienced enough losses. You are welcome to volunteer.”
“We would be honored, Ser!”
A [Knight] called out, and Forcel nodded. Yoriven added.
“We could not abandon Ailendamus in its hour of need!”
“Ah. To that, Knight Yoriven…it is no disparagement on you or even the Dame of the Hills. Say rather—it is a sign of this hour. Even without your blade, all of you, and Dame Merila and myself…we will not make a difference. That is reassuring.”
Then the Knight-Commander smiled. His eyes lit up, and Ser Yoriven gave him a blank look. Not needed?
Then he realized the cheering he’d been hearing in the morning wasn’t just following the Order of the Hydra. In fact, civilians of the capital were running after the [Knights], asking to enlist.
As if they were needed. The Order of the Hydra jogged into the main thoroughfare that led straight to the capital, and Ser Yoriven turned his head and saw bodies in black armor, a thin line of green and dark purple and red, like veins of poison coming their way on horseback.
The Order of the Thirsting Veil were riding from the capital, a hundred abreast. These [Knights] had not removed their helmets, but their leader began to as the [Knight-Captain] bowed to Ser Forcel.
“Knight-Commander of the Hydra. We are honored to ride with you.”
“The Order of the Hydra runs, Knight-Captain. Where is the Order of the Drell?”
The woman removed her helm, appearing slightly exasperated, but her eyes were gleaming. Ser Yoriven’s skin began to prickle as he saw more and more bodies crowding the vast road, which was thousands of feet across. He looked right and left as the Thirsting Veil Knight nodded backwards.
“They have joined their forces to ours. Ah—here comes the nobility. Thirsting Veil, eyes right!”
The [Knights] riding alongside the Order of the Hydra instantly turned their heads right, and the [Knight-Captain] raised her sword. The Order of the Hydra looked to Forcel, and he barked a different command.
“Hydra Knights, Third Serpent salute!”
Instantly, a thousand armored gauntlets struck their left shoulder, across their chest. The ringing impact surprised some of the horses—but it was a salute of their Order.
Ser Yoriven’s head turned right, and he saw the first noble houses streaming from the capital. [Soldiers] marched in ranks, following the banners and often—the [Lords] and [Ladies] of their noble houses.
“Even the court…?”
He breathed. But yes—he spotted a familiar man wearing a coat of nigh-regal purple himself, the shirt beneath a deep, rich red. As if he were already bleeding.
But then—Baron Regalius of House Ecte did not have much reason to smile at the moment. Not after seeing the Singer of Terandria escape. He was marching with his household guard. That was when Knight Yoriven looked around and saw the stream leaving the capital as Ailendamus’ citizens watched—and many more volunteered.
They were all going.
The Hydra Knights were the center of the massive army coming down the central road of Wrmeriye, and yes, they were a thousand strong, and more legions of them would meet this impromptu army in the field.
However, they were still only one shade among many. Some, like the Thirsting Veil, had coordinated colors, but household guards were marching next to the [Soldiers] in the palace. And they were being joined by stranger and stranger forces still.
[Court Mages], students from the academy—and the citizenry. The damn citizenry took one look at the royal palace emptying itself of its forces, from the nobility to their [Knights], and asked to join the army.
They’d be getting classes that night, probably. And they would be armed; this was a patriotic, defiant gathering to defend their homes against the Dawn Concordat. Nevermind who had started this war.
Then the Griffin Riders began to soar overhead, only a few dozen, but the cheering redoubled. All you needed was some music and maybe the national anthem and you had a scene.
Of course, Rhisveri was intelligent enough to have that—or perhaps it was someone else who had organized it. Maybe Regalius himself; Ryoka Griffin did not know.
She had been uninvited to meet his wife and strange cats. Which was unsurprising. But this?
This made her stomach churn. She had seen military parades before, on Earth—never in person since America didn’t really do them. But this…was terrifying. They had no tanks, but they had [Mages], some of who were flying to prove they could. They had no helicopters—just Griffins with armored riders soaring over lancers and so much armor the ground was rumbling with their march.
They were not a modern nation with guns. But Rhisveri had demanded everyone crush the Dawn Concordat. So they had the Wyrm.
And…the immortals. Ryoka’s gaze swept over the thousands of armored figures who would join the other elements drawn from garrisons. Yes—that was the narrative. The capital was throwing all it had against the Dawn Concordat, even civilians who would fight for their home.
Just one problem. In this tale of defiance and glory—people didn’t know that they were marching alongside the kind of forces that made this less a ‘last stand’ or ‘great upset’ and more an exercise in overkill.
House Lucifen was marching in their suits, dark clothing eschewing armor, although a few had taken rapiers or wands for the look of it more than anything. Ryoka had no doubt some were master fencers, but she was just…counting them as they nodded to the cheering people.
“F-forty-one. Holy f—”
She hadn’t known how many Lucifen there were—and these weren’t even all of them! Visophecin himself was gathering some of the Agelum and more of his kin. Forty-one Lucifen could do…how much damage?
Not just them, either. Old Dwarves and half-Elves were as scary as anything to people who knew age often equaled asskicking in this world…but if they focused on them, they’d miss—
The Merfolk. They all had ‘Human’ disguises on and pretended to be a [Hydromancer] division, wearing robes of water, conjuring sprays of water that might be there to keep them hydrated. A figure in armor was leading them—Lady Paterghost. Sophridel—three masks of Sophridel—had joined that number, and Ryoka had heard him saying he would contribute his best ‘war masks’ which meant…clones of people at high-level?
The Elemental of Masks was heading out in person too, and Rhisveri had pledged to be there, if only to match the Archmage of Memory when the time came. And there were immortals Ryoka hadn’t even met, or only glimpsed briefly. The wind shied away from some of them, as if even the air could tell they were dangerous.
The Dawn Concordat…was going to lose. They were going to be wiped out—or would be unless they decided to surrender now. Tyrion Veltras had been warned, and Eldavin had to know what he was up against. But he didn’t know.
And here Ryoka was. Watching an army poised to wipe out some poor idiots. Worse—
—She had no idea what was going on. Why was Khelt on the rampage? She didn’t know. What had happened to Erin? No idea, but Ryoka feared the worst. She feared bodysnatchers or…or…
Was Mrsha okay?
Here she was, watching all this. Because she had to be. Because if anyone could theoretically talk Rhisveri out of this madness, it would be Ryoka Griffin. That was what she was supposed to do, right? Or was it the scroll?
Rhisveri’s auction hadn’t concluded yet. What was her role? The Wind Runner was shaking with nerves as she stood on a balcony of Ailendamus’ palace, watching everything happening. She didn’t know what was going on. But she was watching as Ailendamus’ army marched out to meet the Dawn Concordat’s in the field.
It was all going to happen today. She felt it. This disaster was coming to one point, but she didn’t know where. Where…
Where would she be needed? Was she needed? She waited as the wind blew.
“Erin…why did the fae send me here? Am I in the wrong spot?”
The wind blew across Visophecin’s face, and his hair refused to move for it. The Lucifen did not like having his appearance messed with, so he had no fanciful long clothing to catch. He rather liked Ryoka’s description of the suited Devil and had commissioned a few more pieces of apparel to match what was practically House Shoel fashion at any rate.
…Among the Lucifen, anyways. Their fairer kin liked bright colors. They would happily take loose clothing and invite stains and messes if it meant playing with children or enjoying themselves. It suited them too; their hair colors were in contrast to the Lucifen’s, who had shades of midnight, sometimes with other dark shades naturally enhancing their look.
Bright hair, wide smiles, and that limitless energy and passion that had made so many great heroes out of Ailendamus’ people. The Agelum’s one disconcerting aspect was their eyes, which could have four or more pupils on one eyeball. Their blue veins, fragile skin…their weakness, which was at odds with their burning gazes when they were passionate.
They were passionate now. Gadrea herself was picking out blades from their seldom-used armory and tossing them at Uzine. Visophecin leaned out of the way as a blade passed by one ear.
“You cannot join in the fighting.”
“Your hells we cannot, Visophecin. We will have no arguments. All of Ailendamus is mustering, and we will be there. You will need us if this Eldavin is too dangerous. At the very least, we can keep those [Knights] off you.”
Visophecin tapped at a lapel.
“We will have Great Knights, countless high-level warriors.”
“Not us. When the Goblin King rampaged across Terandria, who stopped him from wiping us all out? Lucifen? Agelum? Or us, together?”
Visophecin’s lips compressed.
“…That day was a disaster for our populations.”
He was rewarded with a glare from Uzine so intense it was on the verge of being physical. The Agelum were still in their wheelchairs, but he and Gadrea were among the most vocal.
“You cannot forbid us to join you, Visophecin. We are not your servants. I have been feeling stronger for months now; perhaps this is why. Try to stop us, and you will waste both our strengths.”
He bared his teeth, and the Lucifen thought quickly. He glanced around, then took a survey of the Agelum.
They were less numerous than the Lucifen, for all both could live forever. The Agelum…waned. The Lucifen could and did repopulate, but not the Agelum. Why bring new life into a world when this was their fate?
But new Agelum did keep their fire for a long time—they just exhausted it quickly. House Shoel had searched for ages, with only hypotheses as to why the Agelum were dying. It was not connected to Selphids or any other species like Vampires; indeed, even a Vampire’s transformation could not stop the Agelum’s weakness. They were…incompatible, although that went one way. Vampires certainly loved both’s blood.
More Lucifen were waiting to join Visophecin; they would unleash havoc on the Dawn Concordat. The Agelum were not needed unless Archmage Eldavin could clone himself ten times.
But if they were going, Vispohecin calculated and came up with a reasonable offer.
“…Very well. All of you may join us—all those without injury, that is. I will have your agreement, Uzine. We cannot let you perish to no end, especially if this war continues.”
The Agelum looked up with a glint that said they understood what Visophecin was doing, but Gadrea and Uzine nodded after a moment.
“…Very well. That still leaves a third of us. Are we taking your portals to the front? What about the Wind Runner?”
“That is my intention. As for Ryoka Griffin—no. She is unpredictable, and Rhisveri has confined her to the palace.”
“Hmph. Very well. That’s sensible. Maybe you can deliver Razia to Ryoka.”
“She must rest.”
Visophecin’s conditions were actually aimed at Razia and two-thirds of the Agelum. Many were still so weak they needed to stay abed; the stronger ones like Uzine and Gadrea could wheel themselves around, even stand without injuring themselves.
…But they overdid it. They always did. Razia, for instance, had just injured herself so badly she was bedridden. Indeed—she was being restrained as Uzine wheeled himself into her room.
“I have to fight, Uzine. Give me a sword. This is it. If I’m going to die…I’ll take this Dawn Concordat down myself.”
She had blood on her lips. Visophecin bent down as the [Healer] gave him a worried refresher on her status.
“She is accepting the strongest remedies, but from what you say, she has an incredible resistance, Lord Visophecin…”
“She has taken healing potions all her life. We may move her.”
“Move her? She’s in no condition to move!”
Razia had gotten so worked up after hearing about Dionamella’s death that she had gone to the training courts and, to hear of it, downed thirty [Knights] back to back. She had broken her arm in four spots and torn her muscles in half. Now—she was coughing blood from torn lungs.
At least the [Knights] could heal their broken bones. Razia looked ready to tear free of the magic bindings that Visophecin had cast, but Uzine slapped her face…sort of gently.
“You did this to yourself, you fool. This isn’t our last battle. If we all perish, you can have your last stand. Lie there. No…Visophecin has agreed to send you to the palace.”
The Lucifen nodded as Razia sat up, coughing. Uzine pushed her back into her bed, and Visophecin was glad Razia lay down; no one could compel an Agelum purely by force. They’d kill themselves resisting if they really wanted to do something.
“The…palace? Ryoka’s going to stay? Sensible—she’s no warrior. Why send me there? To push me onto her?”
Razia spoke between coughs. Uzine patted her hand, and Visophecin nodded.
“If putting you and her in the same bed will keep you from injuring yourself, I will arrange it.”
Razia and Uzine both laughed, then saw the Lucifen’s face was perfectly straight. Razia rolled her eyes, and Uzine put a baaahing Sariant Lamb onto her chest.
Lady Heppe nuzzled Razia’s cheek as Visophecin rolled his eyes, but then both Agelum and Lucifen were speaking quietly.
“You are to remain in your bed. No…wheelchair, I suppose. You can use it one-handed if we get one of the magical ones. You can follow Ryoka about, and if you see anything, you will signal one of us.”
Razia’s eyes brightened.
“Oho. So I’m a guard? I like that. Very well…I can at least keep Rhisveri from eating her. Are you sure you will not take me with you? This—it feels important, Uzine.”
She looked at the other Agelum, and Uzine hesitated. His gaze swung to Visophecin. Razia was looking at the scrying orb in her room, then she met the Lucifen’s gaze.
“Can you all feel it? I asked Sorixt, and he evaded my question and pretended to know something, but he’s young. Something is wrong. Khelt is absolutely right.”
Visophecin hesitated. He looked at Uzine and Gadrea.
“I…cannot confirm what I sense, if anything. What do you feel?”
Uzine and Razia had no idea, nor Gadrea, nor any of the Agelum. They only felt impelled to battle, to the extent that they were hurting themselves by being unable to sit still. As for Visophecin? He dropped Razia at the palace then went back to teleport to the front. He intended to kill Eldavin and end this war as quickly as possible. Rhisveri wanted a crushing victory; Visophecin would win with a razor, showing as little of their power as possible.
He wanted to be prepared for what came next. Because—if he had to name the emotion in his chest, the Lucifen would say it was…
Someone else was feeling a rare moment of unease that had nothing to do with existential crises or the future and everything to do with fear for her being.
She told herself she wasn’t nervous. There was nothing here that could hurt her. Gold-rank adventurers feared this place. However…Rafaema of Manus, the Lightning Dragon, looked up at the High Passes and felt it.
Trepidation. Unease. Fear.
She was a Dragon. She gripped her blade tighter and checked the form-fitting Hearthscale-class armor. She had been trained by masters of the blade! She had lived over a century, and she was a Dragon.
Rafaema only felt…a bit alone. Especially as she looked at the mountains so vast they went into the clouds without stopping and she remembered that she had neither Makhir and Manus’ [Soldiers] to back her up, nor Mivifa, nor even Liscor’s [Guards].
“Which…which is good. Especially if I find my quarry. I couldn’t unleash my full power with them about, either.”
Rafaema checked her gear like a soldier, running down the checklist of her powers once more. She had done it eight times—but nine was okay.
She had just gotten to the High Passes via Celum, after transforming and flying to the closest town then buying a horse to ride into the High Passes. It was a fast journey. Maybe too fast for her tastes, but that teleportation door was an asset.
“Focus. Sword, armor, backup magic-piercing dagger. Lightning breath, eight potions of healing, four of stamina, emergency scroll of [Message], [Stoneskin] scroll, two [Lesser Teleport] scrolls, my magic up to Tier 3, and if all that fails…my other form.”
She could turn into a Dragon, and she was stronger, faster, and could breathe real lightning when transformed. Rafaema…wished she’d taken some of the expendable weapons like an explosive alchemical vial. She could have requisitioned it, but she was so capable she didn’t like bothering.
Now…she thought one or two more artifacts couldn’t have hurt. Makhir kept getting on her for not selecting a personal shortbow to keep; it was twenty free enchanted arrows. She—wished she’d taken his advice.
“I’ll get one and add it to my armory when I get back. And consider a bodyguard unit. Ferris, maybe. He could use a break from his infiltration duties.”
Rafaema muttered to herself as she remounted her horse. It was no warhorse, just an antsy stallion which gave her a questioning look. Hey. Hey. Do you know what you’re doing?
“Shut up. I just need to find him. I know he’s here. Teriarch.”
At least that was certain. Rafaema had caught whiffs of the Dragon’s ‘essence’ or whatever it was she’d picked up on Lyonette. Here?
She knew he was here. Her blood was racing with fear and anxiety over meeting one of her kind. What if he…were hostile? What if this were some kind of trap?
What if this were all just a mistake? She pushed the feelings down. She had to know. She couldn’t be alone.
So Rafaema hesitated another twelve minutes—then forced the horse to enter the High Passes. She traversed the same route that Ryoka Griffin had taken before, through the gigantic crack in the mountains, the trail that led ever upwards, filled with giant boulders and rubble as miniature avalanches fell, dislodging grey and red dirt, leaving plants and what greenery to grow higher up.
The same places that the Titan had walked, which were still capable of maintaining hardy life. But almost all of it was magical or monstrous. There were indeed ways to traverse this place.
Like with a Stink Potion. Or a suicidal City Runner. Or if you had a pink carriage. Or if you were a capable [Rogue] or other stealth class.
However, if you didn’t have any of these things? You ran into monsters who roamed the area, hungry for new prey. Especially something as non-threatening as a horse and a rider. Rafaema’s head was on a swivel, and she had been, as she reminded herself, trained by [Spearmasters] and [Blademasters] and experts of Manus.
She had not been trained by adventurers. Nor had she ever seen a Gargoyle outside of pictures. Nor had Rafaema ever considered the intrinsic biology of her species and that there were things in the magical kingdom even Dragons feared.
Her horse was dead. Rafaema dove, and stone projectiles shattered across the outcrop of rock. Her sword was lodged in a stony flank. Where was her dagger? Where was—?
Eleven minutes after she entered the High Passes, Rafaema was under attack. She had gotten about six hundred feet into the trail, following the ‘scent’, and then the first Gargoyle pack had ambushed her. One had grabbed her horse and nearly gotten her until she breathed lightning in its face.
Now she was fighting for her life. The Drake hid behind a boulder as the Gargoyles roared, fighting over the corpse of her horse. Then she remembered she was a Dragon.
“You damn monsters!”
She burst out of her hiding place and rose. The Oldblood Drake spread her wings, exhaling lightning bolts on par with a Level 20 [Mage]’s spell.
Rafaema…watched the Gargoyles take the lightning bolts, recoil and howl as they tore pieces out of their bodies, then spit shards of stone back. One hit her in the wing, and she faltered. Then they leapt at her, and she realized—Gargoyles could fly.
They were huge, some as tall as eleven feet, made of stone-armored skin coating muscle, and they had huge, beak-like faces and rending talons. One grabbed her and tried to crush her with one talon.
It failed. Rafaema’s armor was far too sturdy, and she forced the Gargoyle’s claws apart with her own. She was stronger than the Gargoyle! The Dragon laughed—and it tossed her and spat stone shards into her face.
They didn’t break her flesh; she had a Dragon’s toughness. But they hurt! Rafaema rose, legs buckling—and a Gargoyle punched her into the ground. Again, she was too strong to take it as more than an unpleasantly heavy impact. Rafaema tried to roll over—and one tossed her into the wall. The Gargoyles spat stone, clawed at Rafaema—and recoiled as she blasted them with lightning.
Panting, Rafaema got up. She looked at the Gold-rank threats, who regarded her with confusion and wariness. She looked for her sword and found it lodged in the side of one.
“By the Walled Cities!”
Shielding her face with one wing, the Lightning Dragon charged. She’d stumbled—let go of her sword—but she seized it now. Like a blur, she whirled, slashing, carving through the outer layer of the Gargoyle’s hide. It backed up, hissing at her. Rafaema laughed.
They couldn’t harm her! Regroup—slay them. Wing tactics! Take out a wing and then their legs. This was a learning experience. She saw them backing up…and realized they weren’t backing away from her.
The first Eater Goat landed on the ground and baahed. It looked normal to Rafaema—oh, the eyes were a bit too wide, and it was a stupid goat to be here with these monsters. Then she saw it open its mouth…and open its mouth…and dislocate its mouth and open wider.
More teeth, more mouth than any creature should have proportionate to its body mass suddenly opened up wide, and the goat made a gurgling shriek as the Eater Goat, scarred, teeth filled with scraps of what it ate, from stone to bug to flesh—looked at the Gargoyles. It lunged, bit, and tore a chunk of stony flesh from the Gargoyle.
Rafaema stared in horror. She recognized the Eater Goats now as an entire herd leapt down. She saw them charging the Gargoyles, and the High Passes’ circle of predation began as the hunters became hunted and began fighting with their enemies. Both were food for the other—but the Gargoyles were outnumbered. They tried to retreat, but goats were jumping on them from above, trying to take bites out of their heads and eat them from the brains down.
Oh—and Rafaema too. She saw one huge maw open, and an Eater Goat leapt. Rafaema dodged with the speed of a striking snake and swung her sword down. She beheaded the Eater Goat, and its kin fell upon it.
“That’s right. Y—”
The Dragon realized she was surrounded. It was in the prickling of the back of her neck. She looked around and saw there were dozens around her. Staring, eyes red and wild. Then their mouths opened, and they shrieked—
Rafaema speared one through the stomach, blasted a dozen with lightning, then they were on top of her. She didn’t panic, just grabbed at her belt. She was a Dragon. She was a—
They were eating her! Their mouths dug into her scales and drew blood. Rafaema screamed.
“Get off! Get—”
Lightning burst from the pile of goats, but they were insane. They didn’t stop, just climbed over one another, ate each other—Rafaema howled, then vanished and reappeared with six clinging to her, chewing, trying to tear pieces off this unusually-tough piece of meat—
She tossed them off her, punched one so hard it left teeth clinging to her leg, and snapped one’s back as she crashed into a stone wall. Then Rafaema looked around.
The other Eater Goats looked around after savaging their wounded and dead, spotted her, and charged. The Dragon had had enough. She was half flying, staring at a torn wing, when she snapped.
“You damn goats. You tried to eat me? Me—”
The Eater Goats had little conception of form. They only saw mass and a few things like danger—red stripes on green, for instance. So when the Drake began getting bigger, they didn’t care, only feeling that ravenous hunger driving them on.
Then they realized she was getting a lot bigger. The size of a house. And they put together that form with a familiar ‘death signal’. The Eater Goats looked up as an azure Dragon, scales glittering with every color of the sky, from the white of clouds to the deep violet of the horizon close to space, roared.
Rafaema inhaled—and the bolts of lightning that burst from her mouth turned the Eater Goats into charred corpses. The others ducked and even dodged the bolts of lightning, but they only stopped to grab the corpses of their fallen before retreating behind cover.
The Gargoyles, three remaining, saw a Lightning Dragon coming at them. They stared at it in horror—then Rafaema slammed into one, knocking it against the cliff wall. The other two fled—
Then returned to save their buddy. Rafaema didn’t expect that. And the ‘killing maneuver’ she had envisioned did not squish the Gargoyle; it was stone. She felt it trying to tear at her chest scales and bit awkwardly. Her talons slashed at it, but they were pressed together, and she—
She hadn’t really fought as a Dragon. She didn’t inhabit a Dragon’s body often. She bit and slashed, but she was a quadruped with wings, not a winged humanoid. The Gargoyle tore away and fled backwards, and Rafaema snapped, feeling the other two clawing at her—then retreating.
“That’s right! Run!”
One spat stones into her mouth, and her reply of lightning sent one last body tumbling to the ground. Rafaema saw the other two flying higher—then saw the Gargoyle she’d just blasted get up and limp away before jumping into the air.
Wheezing, the Lightning Dragon caught her breath. She felt…drained. Tired. She looked around, but the Eater Goats had decided they’d had enough too. The bottom two predators of the High Passes along with the Carn Wolves—who could smell lightning, thank-you-very-much, and hadn’t gotten involved—fled Rafaema as she lay there, feeling bites and a few aches and pains.
“This is the High Passes? This is a nightmare. People live near here?”
She got up after a few seconds. She was only bruised and cut at worst. Rafaema decided to stay in her Dragon form, though. She sniffed the air.
“I’m close. It’s…but where?”
She flew up a bit and felt like she was closer to the scent on the ground. Was she looking for…a cave? Did Dragons just live in caves? She’d hate to do that, but maybe it was in hiding. Rafaema banked a bit and wondered why the High Passes suddenly seemed so cold. Was that frost on the rocks? Was that air…on her back…?
Then the Wyvern Lord dropped on her.
A fun fact about Draconid biology that Rafaema didn’t know was that they were a family with far-flung species. Lindwyrms were related to Wyrms, and they were also related to Dragons, as were Wyverns.
They all smelled each other. Of course, Dragons had developed high intelligence, and magic created many, many variants, but Wyverns had been known to grow very intelligent too. Especially the magical versions.
One such was a Wyvern Lord, a young one, an apex member of his species. He had smelled Rafaema the moment she got close to the High Passes. Of course, he took it the way a Wyvern would. Discharging her lightning breath all over the place? All that roaring?
She was coming for his territory! Well, the Wyvern Lord had descended from the heights of the High Passes for greener pastures…then run into terrible death at a city. He’d come back only to have a bunch of green things fire arrows at his pack and take some. He’d been dueling with other monsters, trying to rebuild, and facing challenges from uppity Wyverns.
Now he had a young Dragon muscling in on his territory. The Wyvern Lord had been losing all year long.
Not this time. He had spotted her in the lower part of the High Passes, near the old Dragon who had bested his entire pack. However…the old Dragon hadn’t shown himself, and all the monsters had grown incautious. It occurred to the Wyvern Lord a second after he dropped that maybe she was here to mate?
…Nah, he would have sensed the pheromones. The Dragon was giving off definite ‘do not come near me or die’ smells, so this young Dragon was challenging both of them with her roaring.
The Wyvern Lord saw she was big—but not as big as him, just a bit smaller. About a wagon’s mass or less. And she looked tough, but she flew like a brick.
Plus, he had done what made Wyverns famous in the air: found a spot thousands of feet up and then dove like a stone. When he hit her, it was with all that weight and acceleration behind him.
She didn’t die. Which was frankly amazing, but he was breathing frost on her as Wyverns circled above, then decided to roost and watch the fight. They regarded this as a challenge to their leader; they weren’t above following a Lightning Dragon. If she didn’t want to lead, they’d find a new leader. Their current boss had done too much damage to the pack. Besides, she was cute.
The Lightning Dragon was wheezing as the Wyvern Lord tried to turn her to ice and got a terrible surprise; she was resistant to the frost that had killed so many foes! He’d definitely cracked a lot of bones, so he bent, tearing at her throat for a kill among his species.
She vanished. The Wyvern Lord felt the entire bulk of the Dragon vanish below him. He landed on the ground, swept his tail around, and looked about stupidly, then up at his kin.
Hey. Did you see that? Where’d she go?
They screeched back uncertainly. The Wyvern Lord sniffed—then his eyes, which could see heat, saw the Drake with wings rolled up behind a boulder. Wait a second…that was definitely her.
The Wyvern Lord inhaled and froze the boulder, shattering it with the sudden drop in temperature. The Dragon screamed—but then she was growing again! Could she—change size?
The Wyvern Lord recoiled, then charged forwards, ramming her into the stone. She bit back, and he realized—she’d healed somehow! He snarled.
Well, well, well! A foe indeed! She might have tricks, but she was awkward. Slow! She missed him as she bit, and he slapped her in the face with his tail like a whip. Then he leapt into the air. He wasn’t going to lose. Not this time.
Rafaema had no idea what was going on. Was that the Frost Wyvern who’d attacked Pallass? She had felt him crush her in that dive and screamed in agony—but she’d had the presence of mind to activate the ring and drink a potion.
Three potions, actually. She’d needed three for her true self to heal. Now she was blasting the air with her lightning breath. But he was—
Fast. The Frost Wyvern soared left and right, dodging most of her lightning bolts. Rafaema had never fought fliers—much less in her Dragon form. Manus did hire Garuda to teach their fliers, but Drakes just weren’t as good as Garuda.
And she was grounded, trying to turn and tag the Wyvern. It didn’t occur to Rafaema that that was a bad move. She didn’t want him to drop on her, so she thought she was safe on the ground.
In reply, the Frost Wyvern darted up the cliffs. Rafaema blasted the stones and rocks—then saw an avalanche forming as her attack dislodged rocks, which bounced down, dislodging more rocks…all coming her way.
She began to take off, but the moment she spread her wings, he swooped down and frosted them! Numb and heavy, Rafaema flapped her wings and then tried to run awkwardly across the ground.
Got you. The Wyvern Lord’s eyes narrowed and he grinned as he saw his trick work. The Dragon fought like a land-lizard! The old one had been clever enough, using his cave as cover, but this one was just an idiot.
He picked up a boulder, chucked it down the slope, and watched rocks slam into Rafaema. The Wyvern Lord was a canny fighter who had grown up fighting his kin. He was triumphant…until he realized Rafaema had shrunk again and was using the avalanche as cover!
The Frost Wyvern howled and dove. He began to coat everything in ice and saw her body heat diminishing rapidly. He hovered over the pile of stones. Either she emerged and he snapped her neck—or he froze her solid. His breath attack was also more refined than hers. She had raw power on her side, but she was untrained, unused to combat, and for all her age, she had never encountered a foe on her level. Which was why she was going to die; the Wyvern Lord intended no quarter to a challenger.
The Wyvern Lord was still exhaling, his eyes alight with victory, when the [Maid] jumped on his back and began planting talismans. He twisted, caught sight of Ressa, then she stabbed him in the back with her poisoned dagger, and an explosion engulfed his body.
The [Maid] leapt off the Wyvern Lord a moment before the talismans blew. She hoped it would knock him out of the air; the fall might do some damage.
No such luck. The Wyvern caught himself, and the [Maid] growled a series of expletives. Half aimed at Rafaema, half aimed at herself for jumping in.
Magnolia would have probably asked Ressa to do the same thing, but the [Maid] had still wavered. She was a Face of the Assassin’s Guild, a former top-tier [Assassin].
But that was a Wyvern Lord. She had gotten him six times with her dagger from Regis Reinhart’s vault, and she was going to demand a better blade; she didn’t think the poison was working.
“You damn idiot! Get out of there! Now!”
Ressa howled at Rafaema—and then she was fighting. Unlike Rafaema, she’d stealthed her way to Teriarch’s cave and had been trying to figure out how to open the damn thing. She’d watched Rafaema get into trouble and had hoped the idiot would leave—but the Frost Wyvern Lord had attacked.
Now she leapt from rock to rock, playing the world’s deadliest game of tag, as the Wyvern Lord dove, breathing frost after her. He was quick—but Ressa was a [Maid].
And an [Assassin]. The Wyvern Lord frosted Ressa into ice—and blinked as the clone of her vanished. He saw another Ressa dash upwards, then come to a halt on an overhang.
“Excuse me, sir. You have something in your mouth.”
He opened his mouth, and Ressa tossed three daggers chained to alchemy weapons into it. One was just acid. She saw the Wyvern Lord choke—and then begin howling with pain.
And he didn’t even look badly hurt. The [Maid] leapt off the ledge just in time for Rafaema to emerge, roaring. She looked like she hadn’t healed up. The frost must have destroyed her potions.
Wonderful. A [Maid] and a Dragon whelp against a Wyvern Lord in his prime. At least he didn’t look fully matured either. Ressa landed next to Rafaema as the Wyvern Lord choked out bile and some of the acid she’d fed him.
“You—you’re the maid!”
It was disconcerting hearing a version of Rafaema’s voice, albeit booming, coming from her mouth. The Dragon had a wide-eyed look that made Ressa reach out and slap the wing she could reach.
“Yes, and you’re an idiot. That Wyvern Lord won’t stop pursuing us until we’re dead or you’re somewhere safe like Pallass. Tell me you have a relic.”
“Great. Then you need to help me take it down. I have one series of Skills that might do some damage. Cover me. Use your lightning breath, and for the loveless marriages of Reinharts, don’t let him get above you!”
“You can’t give me—”
Ressa ignored Rafaema. She took off running and heard the Dragon take to the air a second later. She had a limited number of weapons she could use; the dagger worked—but how were you supposed to hit that?
Ressa looked up and saw the Frost Wyvern circling. He was in the air, and he was too canny to be caught on the ground twice. She needed him to slow in order to hit him. Rafaema gave her that opening as she flew.
Now she was learning how her kind fought; they circled, Rafaema dodging frantically so as to not be caught by his killing dive. The Wyvern Lord traded ice breath with her lightning.
“She’s not even advantaged in the air.”
Ressa knew more about Dragons than most people living, and she knew—the Frost Wyvern was a master of aerial battles. Even Teriarch would have hesitated to fight an old Wyvern King in the skies.
Frost-type Draconids were the most feared air-fighters along with Lightning Dragons for different reasons. One had an instantaneous breath attack that did a lot of damage…if they were trained. Rafaema’s breaths were spread out and were weak—she was even panting for air.
By contrast, the Wyvern Lord could spit actual balls of concentrated frost and project thin streams of it. He was aiming for her wings. That was how they killed. Freeze their opponents and let them drop a thousand feet or just move down for the kill.
They were battling through the narrow canyon, and Ressa barked at Rafaema. She’d slapped a speaking stone into the Dragon’s earhole, which couldn’t be pleasant, but the [Maid] could give orders.
“Dive low! Low! Through that archway of stone!”
Rafaema obeyed, and the Wyvern Lord dropped after her, pursuing her now. He passed under the arch, then realized it was a trap! He twisted, maw opening up, incredibly fast, to freeze Ressa—
—And realized she wasn’t above him. On the ground, Ressa exhaled. It was lucky she’d thought that trick wouldn’t work twice.
She hated intelligent foes. As the Wyvern Lord twisted and saw her, Ressa activated her Skills. She’d only get one shot at this—Rafaema passed over her, eyes wide, and the [Maid] spoke.
“[Offense Mode]. [Battlefield: Footholds of Stei-Stone]. [Danger Zone: Multiplied Velocity].”
Three things happened. The first was that Ressa lost the comfortable stealth she almost always activated. The second was that the air changed, and little stones, floating footholds, appeared as she leapt from one to the other, heading up. The third?
A…bubble of control appeared, and in it, Ressa sped up. So did the objects she threw. Weighted daggers, connected to more explosive weapons, talismans—or just daggers. Made of lead.
She could already throw them fast. Now? They passed the velocity of an arrow and hit the Wyvern Lord with a force that could strike a mithril helmet and turn the brain inside to paste.
Four dozen projectiles took him in the wings, chest, even neck and face, and he roared as they dented his scales. But that was just to slow him—Ressa landed on his back, drew the dagger, and activated her truly unique Skill that she’d gained as a [Maid].
Synergy. She’d always been a deadly warrior. The young [Assassin] who’d taken a sabbatical in Drath had learned to throw a dagger through an enemy’s eyes and do things like walk on walls and fight from cover. But a [Maid] leveled easier, and she got—
“[I Carry My Mistress’ Burdens]! [Blade Art: The Heron Descends Upon the Waters]!”
Rafaema saw the [Assassin] hit the Wyvern Lord like a whirlwind. She executed a weapon art along its back and hit the howling Wyvern dozens of times, cutting into it from above, poisoning. But what struck Rafaema wasn’t just Ressa’s ability—which any one of Manus’ military would have considered top-tier officer abilities.
It was…the force of her impacts. She stomped, and the Wyvern Lord dropped a foot or five. How—how much force did Ressa have? Which was the wrong question, of course. The question was—how much did she weigh? Each dagger thrust had far, far more force behind it than any regular blow should. It was an odd synergy, [Maid] and warrior. But it had something to do with Magnolia Reinhart’s ability to eat as much sugar as she wanted and stay at a sublime weight which she chose.
After all—a [Maid] had helpful Skills for her employer.
The Wyvern Lord crashed into the ground, howling, wheezing, as Ressa finished her weapon art. Then she just began stabbing it, and Rafaema dove, breathing lightning until Ressa shouted at her.
“Don’t hit me, you idiot! Hurry! Before he calls his entire pack! We need to get inside the cave!”
“The cave? So it’s true! You knew—where is it?”
Ressa was cursing as she sprang away from the Wyvern Lord. He was getting back up, looking woozy, but furious.
“It’s been magically sealed! I need a moment! Hurry!”
Rafaema gulped, but then she bared her teeth and roared at the Wyvern Lord. On the ground, he had only two legs, not her four. She descended, and the two fought.
Why did the small things always, always hurt so damn much?
The Wyvern Lord felt bruised all over. His back was lacerated, and he felt sick, hot—a bad thing in a Frost Wyvern—and dizzy. But he was still going to fight. He and the Dragon were on the ground, biting at each other, and he blasted her in the face with frost breath.
She was screeching something at him, but it wasn’t proper language. He howled in her face, and the two snarling Draconids were so locked in combat they didn’t realize the Gargoyles were back until one hit the Wyvern Lord in the face with a mallet half the size of the Wyvern Lord’s head.
Two fighting giant creatures like the Wyvern Lord and Lightning Dragon attracted a lot of attention in the High Passes, especially this low down. Higher up, they would have already marked themselves to the other creatures, but the regular Carn Wolves, Eater Goats, and so on were not inclined to fight them. They were higher-level predators, after all.
So…higher-level monsters decided to give it a shot.
Gargoyle Bossels flew down, half again as large as their kin. These ones carried crude weapons, mallets, axes made out of bone and stone, and they began battering both Wyvern Lord and Rafaema as they pinned both down and went to smash in their skulls.
Rafaema was howling. The Wyvern Lord roared.
What? More of you stupid stone-skins? Die!
But the Bossels were pack-fighters, and the two tired Draconids were on the ground, pinned, and they were about to kill both! The Wyvern Lord blasted the ones he could see with frost—the ones on the Lightning Dragon. She exhaled onto the ones on top of him, and they struggled as the largest Bossel raised his club. The Bossel blinked at the red light shining into one eye. It waved a claw as the Lightning Dragon went still. What was that ann—
The [Maid] fired the magical beam, and the fiery lance blew off the Bossel’s head. The other Gargoyles recoiled, and both Wyvern and Dragon surged up. They looked at each other—then charged past one another to attack the Gargoyles.
Now it was a melee, Gargoyles versus Draconids! Rafaema realized she was fighting alongside the Wyvern Lord—because she refused to die to Gargoyles! She rammed into one and found her enemy was skilled in the art of fisticuffs—he punched her in the face until Ressa ran up his back and stabbed him in the back of the neck. But her little dagger was too small to do a killing blow amongst this battle of giants.
Indeed, the Bossels were so preoccupied they didn’t even notice Ryoka Griffin until the young woman was walking amongst them. Ressa did and froze as a buck-naked City Runner stood there, smiling oddly.
With a broken neck. No one should have had a neck like—Ressa backed up, eyes wide, as a Bossel saw the ‘Human’ and tried to squash her.
The creature took the punch and covered the arm. Then it swallowed the Bossel and began crunching it to pieces as the monster writhed…then went still. Everyone turned to look at the malformed face of flesh, rising upwards, Ryoka’s face horribly bloated and twisted. She…it…spat out the mangled body, then tried again.
“H-hello. I am R-r-r-rrrrrrrrrrrryyyyyy—”
It stared in confusion at the red light emanating from Ressa’s ring. It reached up, felt at the line of red, then reached for Ressa. The thing’s face changed to look like her, and the arm stretched…and stretched…and stretched—
Ressa blew it apart with the second charge of the ring Teriarch had given her. A burning torso stood there, then the Frost Wyvern coated it with ice, and Rafaema blasted it with lightning.
The torso of flesh fell down. Ressa, panting, stared at it with the monsters, Wyvern Lord, and Rafaema. Then they saw it get up, and Ryoka Griffin’s face was attached to the Gargoyle Bossel’s body.
Now it was a four-way melee. Gargoyles, Wyvern Lord, Rafaema and Ressa, and the flesh-Gargoyle with Ryoka’s face that cracked a Bossel’s head open without apparent effort. Every other monster was running for the hills, except for two.
Carn Wolves were scavenging parts, and so were Eater Goats, desperate for food, ignored. Ressa saw the deranged Eater Goats fighting the Carn Wolves for scraps…then as one, every Eater Goat looked up, bleated suddenly in panic, and ran for it.
Ressa put down her blade. The Carn Wolves looked at the Eater Goats, whimpered, and ran, evacuating their bowels. The not-Ryoka turned with the Bossels, two Draconids, and [Maid] as the final newcomer appeared.
It looked…like a little black goat. The size of other Eater Goats, with two slightly disjointed eyes staring in either direction. That long, black pupil in slightly yellow eyes, not white, stared at the huge fighters with great, vacuous interest.
“Uh. What is…?”
Rafaema whispered. Ressa whispered back.
“Get back. I don’t know what it is, but get—”
Then she saw the goat, which was to Eater Goats what Gargoyle Bossels were to regular Gargoyles, open its mouth. It opened its…face up until the entire goat’s mouth split at nearly a hundred and eighty degree angle. And in the center, between teeth, instead of a tongue was just…an orb.
A black orb that swallowed stones, the ground, the dead bodies—everything in an expanding radius.
The Void Goat opened its mouth, and the fight ended. Every monster ran for it, mockery of Ryoka, the Dragon and Wyvern Lord—Gargoyles flying into the distance as it swallowed everything in sight, then baahed and hopped away.
Rafaema and the Wyvern Lord were left hovering in the air, looking down in horror at the toughest monsters of the lower part of the High Passes. Then they realized they were still there. Ressa looked up as the two began to fight and ran for the entrance of the cave. She ran into the strange creature who stole appearances as she felt at the stone wall that had been the entrance, under the scarf of yellow fluttering from a branch. Ressa straightened as a figure waved at her.
It had her face.
Ressa the [Maid] looked up and calmly gripped her dagger over the thundering in her heart. Wake the Dragon, her mistress said. Someone needs to do it, she said. Ressa stared up at the screaming Lightning Dragon and sighed.
“Well. It’ll be one of us, hopefully.”
Author’s Note: This is part one of three due to the length of the ‘chapter’. It is 58,000 words long. Consider breaking up your reading. If not–read on.
The General of Izril book cover by John Anthony di Giovani!
Sserys-Erin by pkay!
Sserin by Lanrae!