After so long, an age of waiting, the first gods returned to Terandria. New strangers washed up on the northern continent. Would-be gods. Carrion of their flesh.
The dead lands that echoed Terandria did not change. They showed the slow change in geography, the advance and destruction of kingdoms, fields that lay fallow until they blossomed. An age of forests, and another when it was all ash.
Footprints of Giants. That was all the past. This land was unchanging, but the souls that battled for it were not.
Seamwalkers had broken the lines. They surged through Baleros as the Timewalker remained locked in combat with the God of Death. Ghosts fled to other bastions or fought and hid, but the armies retreated.
The havens for souls were diminishing. Izril was gone. Baleros was gone.
Chandrar was being consumed. One army of ghosts was bound at sea for Izril. The last two great havens were the Empire of Drath and Terandria.
Both were vanishing.
Laedonius Deviy stalked Drath, and no weapons or Dragonfire could stop him anymore. Seamwalkers battled great spirits everywhere, leaving gaps that the God of Dance, the God of Love and Meetings exploited, weakening points and letting the Seamwalkers advance.
As for Terandria…
The first Seamwalker crawled out of the ocean, its face twisted, tendrils probing. It had no eyes, but it had copied what it knew; a body, twisted, and claws grasping. But the face was maggots of flesh, probing, looking for something to eat.
Even for them, their biology revealed something of their nature. This was no creator; it had no digits to manipulate or design. It was an infestation, rot given form, and it sought something real. Something to lay the next spawn in. A putrid little nest.
It was crawling through Terandria’s north, a frozen land of high glaciers and mountains, heading into the heartlands of the south. Ghosts were fighting from cliffs, launching arrows, using their Skills, but the true weapons present here, the heirlooms of kingdoms, were few and far between.
The entity reached land. It crawled through snow it did not feel, between two cliffs of stone and ice. The Seamwalker was questing for souls, the half-food it desired. It was a newcomer; many had died before it, and it would devour its kin. More Seamwalkers were still climbing, drawn to the light like hungry moths with teeth to a flame they would devour.
The Seamwalker was pulling itself forwards, not used to land instead of dark waters where it could dive. It didn’t…understand why it couldn’t go up, and down was difficult. It never noticed the cliff-faces moving. The blank stone and ice turned into a frown.
The two Frost Giants moved, and they emerged from where they’d been hiding. They lifted no blades; they had none of the weapons they carried in life. So they grabbed the Seamwalker as it whirled. The shrieking thing tried to bite them, mouth-tendrils flailing.
One grabbed the left side—the other the right. They heaved and tore the Seamwalker’s arms apart. Then one picked up the bleeding, dying corpse and used it like a flail, bringing it down upon the lesser spawn.
The Seamwalkers coming through the glaciers focused on the two Giants…only to see more of their kin emerge from where they had been lying in ambush.
Giants using tactics from a different age. Hiding like mountains for decades until they emerged upon unwary foes. Sacrificing their bodies to let mortals or elements carve away at them, waiting for their moment.
They were not alone, either. Dragons flew the skies, battling the Seamwalkers who had learned to defy gravity, raining down their magical breath on foes. They carried passengers; mortals. Other species had joined together, old enemies and allies.
Halflings swarmed one Seamwalker, bringing it down to be hacked apart. Spider-folk skittered forwards under the wings of Harpies, some bearing Selphids and Fraerlings into battle.
Peoples that Erin Solstice had never met were fighting here. But the gods had arrived.
The first to set foot on Terandria was not Norechl or Tamaroth.
It was the shadows. The little nothings that had forgotten even their own name. So small that some couldn’t even devour the weakest of souls. Whispering. Trying to consume each other. Anything.
They could die. But the Seamwalkers chased shadows, and the six would devour them. So shadows fled onto Terandria, hoping, begging for life.
Three followed after. Tamaroth, God of Rulers; Norechl, God of the Forgotten; and Cauwine, Goddess of Last Stands.
Two had marked Erin for vengeance. The last craved only the worthiest souls, and all three were hungry. Between Seamwalkers and dead gods, Terandria would not last. They knew it, too.
So when Erin landed, screaming, with Gerial and Cawe clinging to her, she fell into a strange gathering of ghosts who backed away, alarmed and perplexed as they saw her rise. A man wearing a crown and a remembered suit of armor festooned with keys and locks, an odd look, turned to Erin in alarm. He half-drew a sword shaped like a key that looked as real as Dionamella had been. Real. The [King of Keys], ruler of Samal, the Kingdom of Keys, regarded Erin warily, but relaxed when it was clear she was no dead god nor trick.
“More escapees? What was that explosion at sea? You there! Rise! This is no gathering for you. Join the ranks and stand firm! Terandria will stand defiant to the last!”
He pointed the key-sword at Erin, Gerial, and Cawe imperiously as they got up. The [Innkeeper] said nothing at first. She was looking back.
Velzimri. She only turned when she saw a woman, a [Queen] wearing a gown made of icy cloth holding a stave at the ready. Cenidau’s first queen of frost, who had resettled those cold lands, held the staff, and Erin felt…cold. She shook her head, dislodging pale blonde hair, like light on snow in the earliest hours of dawn.
“Nevermind. They are nearly upon us. We must make our stand, as those Gnomes claimed. The living…”
They were arguing. At the last stand of their kingdoms, Erin Solstice saw thousands upon thousands of ghosts arguing. Each one was wearing regal clothes, expensive armor—okay, that one was dressed in rags like a [Prisoner] and still bore the manacles—but it was not hard to understand who they were.
Their appearances changed according to who they remembered being. Young to old—but most stayed old, because they had changed with the object that adorned their heads.
A crown. A circlet. A tiara—sometimes simply a locket, but mostly crowns, placed perfectly on their head, askew, refashioned into a helm for battle—but always the same weight.
A heavy duty they had accepted. A class. Erin Solstice looked around as she stood and found herself in the gathering of Terandria’s rulers. They regarded her with interest, looking to the battlegrounds as they held a council.
“It is not time yet! Hold them back another hour—I see three coming. And that one with the sword is so swift—she overran part of Drath already.”
They were arguing, watching the three gods advance. Cauwine was darting across the sea, and Erin Solstice saw a hundred men and women turn.
Each one had something. A sword, a bow, that staff in the grip of the [Frozen Queen]…the keyblade.
A real weapon. As real as the memory of Excalibur she had given to the ghosts to fight with. An echo of the real thing that existed in the living world. An heirloom of their kingdoms. Some were stronger than others; a few were faded or broken. But that was how Terandria had held off the dead gods, at cost, engaging them in battle.
Now, they were dividing their forces to hold the Seamwalkers back, but the dead gods were coming from the south, and so the relic-bearers had to choose where to fight. A [Princess] with a bow, one of Avel’s greatest archers, aimed an arrow across the sea. She loosed it—and Cauwine dodged. The archer cursed—and the Bow of Avel was snatched by one of Avel’s [Kings]. He put an arrow to the bow, loosed it—and hit Norechl in the chest.
The God of the Forgotten didn’t even stagger. It kept walking, tearing the arrow from its ‘flesh’. Upon seeing that, the rulers groaned. A [King] removed his crown to tear at his hair.
“We cannot hurt them any longer. Each soul they steal is empowering them. Even the heirlooms of our kingdoms weaken. We can only do what the Gnomes suggested. But the living kingdoms are making war on each other! That Wyrm-possessed kingdom and those new ones—the Dawn Concordat will spill enough blood to ruin one or the other. Damn their foolishness! Is there no way to send word?”
“There will be. We just have to wait.”
Another voice interjected, a fierce woman, arms crossed below what Erin couldn’t help but notice was a single breast. Her hair was bushy and brown, and she had muscle. She looked…oddly familiar? Was it the nose? The men and women arrayed at her back, a smaller group of royalty compared to the oldest kingdoms? That crest she had etched upon her armor?
The answer came to Erin Solstice as the [King] turned to her, exasperated.
“You have no bow, Queen of Calanfer. Nor any other blade.”
“I have my Skills, and we have a cause. We know what is going on. Wait. Have faith and stand with me. If need be, I will take Calanfer to halt them alone. We are needed here.”
She pointed down, and Erin Solstice looked blankly at the ground. Why here? She had landed well north of the shore. The [Innkeeper] gazed around and raised her hand.
“Excuse me. What’s going on?”
A few rulers glanced at her, irritated by the interlopers. One tried to shoo Gerial and Cawe off.
“This is a moment for the rulers of Terandria. Begone, ghosts.”
Another, a younger man with keen eyes, stopped a [Queen].
“No…wait. Where do you hail from? At least tell us what you have seen.”
“Baleros. I’m…we’re running from those guys. The two dead gods. Norechl and Tamaroth. They’re following me. I’m trying to get back to my body. Can you help?”
Some of the rulers gave Erin an incredulous look, but Cawe broke in.
“That’s right! We were in Chandrar—Khelt and the ghosts of Chandrar are still fighting. Baleros is lost. The Elf…Sprigaena is gone. That thing—the Devourer of Time is battling one of them, but the rest are coming here. This is Erin Solstice! She needs help getting back to her body. She’s not dead! Not entirely!”
The ghosts gazed at Erin. One shook his head, flipping hair out of his face. The [Prince] sneered at Erin.
“Ridiculous. I can see she isn’t fully dead—so what? One girl when all of our existences stand at stake? The Hundred Families are about to be erased! Here we stand, on the say-so of some little people claiming to be ‘Gnomes’ when they could be exceptionally short Dwarves…”
Someone stalked through the ranks of ghosts and slapped the [Prince] on the back of the head so hard that his circlet flew off. That strange [Queen] barked in his face.
“Enough whining! Don’t you remember? That’s the girl that Xarkouth spoke of! The Dragonlord who brought us news of other strongholds! Two of the six are coming after her? That’s reason enough to hear her out—or won’t you spit in the face of these monsters at the last?”
“I will slap them with a glove, but spit?”
A [Queen] looked horrified as she clutched her ruby-red dress she wore—no, wait. It was a pearl-white dress, just colored red because someone had stabbed her to death in it. The Queen of Calanfer rolled her eyes. She turned to Erin, and the [Innkeeper] blinked as the woman shouldered aside ghosts.
Even here…she stood out from the thousands of ghosts. She was one of the mightiest, and despite coming from a younger kingdom, they listened to her. Like the [Witches] that Califor had gathered, like Khelta, Nerrhavia, Velzimri, Elucina…here was one of Terandria’s legends. And Erin knew her. Or rather, she knew everything that had sprung forth from her deeds.
The woman put her hands on her hips and looked down at Erin. She had been wearing simple clothing fit for a casual day—now she wore glowing armor, battered from fighting and countless claw marks. She carried the memory of a sword that hurt the eyes, a second dawn.
“I am Queen Marquin, young woman. The first ruler of Calanfer, which stands to this day. And may be in danger of falling. But my kingdom stands, and so do we ghosts. How can we help you? What do you need?”
Erin Solstice gaped up at Marquin and boggled. She had not bowed to Khelt’s rulers at first; she had met the Immortal Tyrant, Nerrhavia, without so much as blinking in recognition. But…
“Marquin? Wait—as in the first queen of—I know Calanfer!”
“Yes, well. She is hardly the only ruler here. Greetings, young woman. I am the first [King of Keys], founder of Samal, the Kingdom of Keys.”
The man who had first spoken, with his weird armor of locks, brandished the keyblade and straightened importantly. Erin gave him a blank look.
“Uh…never heard of you. Hi?”
“But—Samal is still standing. I was assured of it. We are a paradise upon Terandria.”
“I’ve…heard of…nope. Cawe? Gerial?”
The two ghosts scratched at their heads. Gerial snapped his fingers a few times.
“Samal. Samal. Sammial? No, wait, that’s the son of House Veltras. It rings a bell.”
“I’ve heard of it maybe? Samal locks. Good shit. Tough as hell to pick. So that’s the [King] of the kingdom that makes them? Impressive.”
The [Pickpocket] Garuda blinked a few times, then gave the First King of Samal an approving look. He returned it with a look of horrified disappointment. A few other rulers called out hopefully.
“I am Avel’s ruler. Avel? Kingdom of Bows?”
“Your kingdom was destroyed eight thousand years ago. No one cares or remembers.”
Queen Marquin of Calanfer’s expression was of a woman who was fed up with the pettiness of rulers even at the end of everything. She turned to Erin and saw the [Innkeeper] was agog, still.
“So you know my kingdom. What of it? We’re all ghosts here.”
“Yes—but I know—I know your daughter!”
Erin burst out. Queen Marquin opened her mouth, and her brows came together. She looked around, and the rulers of Calanfer, all who had ever died and not been too debauched—and all those who had died anywhere but Rhir—gathered around Erin. Most had red hair, or had styled it like that, and they had gotten less warlike after Marquin. Only her bright blue eyes were the same, and maybe her nose, the jaw which was certainly not weak…
Queen Marquin frowned at Erin Solstice.
“I don’t have a daughter. My son is there.”
She pointed to King Centis, the second ruler of Calanfer, who was eying Erin with as much confusion as Marquin. Erin waved her hands.
“No! Sorry! I meant—your granddaughter?”
Marquin raised a finger and opened her mouth, and an old woman in her seventies gave Erin a suspicious look.
“…Cenizy? She was born nearly six thousand years ago.”
“No! I mean—your great, great…I know one of your descendants! A [Princess] of Calanfer! She’s my friend!”
Oh. The ghosts finally understood why Erin was so excited. Queen Marquin the Radiant, founder of Calanfer, hero of the Creler Wars…gave Erin the most blank look that the [Innkeeper] had ever seen in her life.
“You know a descendant of mine, whom I have never met. Very well.”
The young woman faltered. Yeah, when you put it like that—she saw Marquin’s impassive face twitch. Then the Radiant Queen grabbed Erin up in a bear hug and squeezed.
“Hahaha! Now there’s a coincidence! Then you are twice well-met, Erin Solstice. Come, vaunted rulers. Here is a girl who has a road back to life—have you nothing to give her besides indifference and scorn? She can be one of our ways to warn the living. Put aside your differences and help her. Where do you need to be?”
She swung Erin around as the [Innkeeper] yelped and found herself actually being held up by the giant woman. She was like—like—Lyonette, fussy Lyonette, was descended from her? Marquin was more like Jelaqua’s mom! Or…Erin Solstice saw one huge eye wink at her. Gerial and Cawe stared up at Marquin as well.
She was so cool. Even so, the other ghosts were unconvinced Erin was the person they should throw their last efforts behind. A ghost adjusted the sword he held as he stared into the dark waters.
“Even if she is a girl with a body—should she not cede it to one of us? I volunteer myself. Why would two of those six be after her?”
Marquin’s smile turned into a scowl as the rulers began to bicker again, half against stealing bodies, the other half arguing over whomst it should be. Erin copied her thunderhead expression—these were not great ghosts on the whole, and she was glad she’d gone to Chandrar instead of Terandria if this were what they would have been like.
Then a voice cut through the arguing royalty. Erin Solstice heard a familiar sound.
Wingbeats. She looked up and gasped, and Gerial smiled in relief. A gigantic ghost landed, scattering the rulers, some of whom shouted in instinctive alarm.
Xarkouth, the Dragonlord of Stars, the Void Dragon, landed, panting. His eyes flashed like the constellations, and he bellowed.
“I should have known that when the world ended, I would find Humanity here, arguing to the death! My kin fall from the skies and wait for the final flight, and the greatest Elf to walk the lands of the dead has fallen in battle. Here you are, without even the courage to aid a single ghost. Erin Solstice! You should be at Izril!”
Every head whipped from Erin to Xarkouth as Marquin strode forwards.
“Dragonlord. What is happening on the other continents?”
“Baleros is gone. But you knew that. Drath is falling. Is it not time for the Gnomes’ plan yet?”
The Dragonlord uttered a curse that hovered in the air, spelling itself out and turning the air foul around it.
“—in a Wyverns’ craw—very well. Erin Solstice, I have word from Khelta. They are reaching Izril. But we barely escaped three of the six at sea. It seems we must prepare for battle. Rulers of Terandria, this girl must live. The [Witches] and royalty of Chandrar demand it. As well as the Gnomes and the Dragons. She is another blade of defiance, and it was she who blew that horn.”
The ghosts had been glaring at the Void Dragonlord, offended by his presumptuous demands. But that last bit—more than the people vouching for her, more than what Erin represented, changed their mood. A [King] turned to Erin.
“You blew that horn we all heard? How?”
“Um…I stole the horn. Sort of. From the dancing man.”
“You stole…? Wait. Are you some [Thief] of ages? That would be mete company.”
A [Queen] peered at Erin over a hand-fan shielding her face. Xarkouth looked amused as Erin hesitated.
“Um. No. I’m actually a…[Innkeeper]. A magic innkeeper, though.”
The First King of Avel’s face was completely blank, but Marquin just laughed, throwing her head back.
“Now there is a story. An [Innkeeper] who defies those six?”
She turned to Xarkouth, and he rumbled.
“It seems she has managed to make dread enemies of at least three. The faceless one, the bearded one, and the three-in-one all hate her with a passion.”
One of Desonis’ [Queens] bared her teeth.
“Now there is a fine quality. It seems this girl has good taste in enemies. By that standard, she is welcome in our number.”
Like that, Erin Solstice found herself in a gathering that grew as more figures flew downwards. She looked up…and her mouth went dry.
“Oh wow. Um, Xarkouth? Did you call your friends just to find me?”
For answer, the Dragon just snorted in amusement. His scales were as dark as space itself, but they shimmered as they caught the light. His eyes, mismatched like all Dragons’, were miniature constellations. He looked up, and his voice was soft as he raised his head.
“Now you sound as arrogant as Khelt’s rulers. They did not come here for you. This is just a fitting place for us.”
The rulers of Terandria backed away as figures began to descend. Each one was the brightest, realest of their kind flying across the waters. They came in every shade, some trailing their very natures behind them like the Djinni.
Fire, burning from the very wing beats of a Dragon who shined brighter than actual gold. Erin looked up, and her hair blew, and she felt a breeze across her face—a Dragon shot down like a comet.
The Dragonlords—and Dragonladies—the rulers of Dragons landed next to Xarkouth. Some were wounded. Some were missing. But the survivors descended, folding their wings, calling out greetings to ghosts they recognized, challenges to old enemies. Nodding to their foes, putting aside old grudges.
Not just Dragons. A Wyrm slithered out of the ground, baring her teeth as she gazed around. A Wyvern wearing a crown strutted into place. A Dragon scoffed at him as he passed and got a wing in the face. Erin saw more relatives she didn’t even have names for. Dragons of kinds from different mythologies, one like a snake, long, flying, a mane of beautiful hair blowing in the breeze.
A Dragon who swam out of the sea, fins and gills and all. In fact, in this great gathering, Erin saw one more shape she recognized slithering forwards. A pair of Wyrms wanted to rebuff him, but a slightly smaller one spat at them.
“Excuse me—I am clearly important enough to be here. It is my brother who rules Ailendamus. Move aside. Hello. Have we met?”
Rhisveri’s brother preened at his head as a female Wyrm gave him a long stare. Undeterred, he sidled over to one of the Dragonlords of the Earth, and she rebuffed him with a single slap of the tail.
Queen Marquin sighed as she looked at the Dragons.
“More than I have ever dreamed of. This is fitting company, eh, pompous cousins?”
She looked around, and not even the rulers of Terandria could gainsay that. The Dragons glared at each other, but they turned to Xarkouth.
“Something is wrong. Are the Gnomes mistaken? I thought now would be the moment—but we cannot tarry any longer. Those gods are eating our kin, Xarkouth.”
One of the Dragons said the word! She was one of the oldest, and even the other Dragons deferred to her. Her scales looked like someone had cut pieces of gems into their shape, and they rippled, semi-transparent, showing her beating heart, even veins. The Dragonlord of Gems, who had once founded a tiny Walled City, surveyed the ghosts, and her eyes fixed on Erin Solstice.
“A living child. I thought you had promised to return her to her body.”
“Those six interfered. Dragonlord Saracandre, I present the mortal who was worthy of a Gnome’s attention. I think…I think they succeeded in trapping one of the six.”
The Dragonlord of Gems bowed her head as she looked at Erin.
“Yes. I think so too. The God of Magic, Emerrhain, is no more. Once again, they have bested even we Dragons in cunning. So for the last of Gnomes, we fly. I saw Sprigaena vanish. We are fading. Is this foolish little war still going on in the lands of the living? We cannot tarry. The Dragonlords gather to attempt to kill one of the gods. It will be in vain, but we will scorch one to ash such that they remember it. I cannot decide between that arrogant Tamaroth or Norechl who has tainted this land.”
She…knew their names. She knew them, she remembered the Gnomes—even the other Dragons stirred at her use of the forbidden, unspeakable word. Gods. The rulers of Terandria were certainly taken aback. Saracandre looked about, and Marquin was brave enough to speak.
“Dragonlord Saracandre! I speak for Terandria—a war is occuring in two places to our knowledge. The Meeting of Tribes in Izril where Drakes and Gnolls fight each other, and here in Terandria. The kingdom of Ailendamus versus an alliance of other kingdoms.”
“Gnolls and Drakes do not surprise me. That is our sin of old.”
A Dragonlord with scales the color of pearls lowered his head, looking tired. One of his eyes was like a flame in reverse, deepening in color from a brilliant white on the edges to the heart of burning red. Another Dragon snorted. His voice crackled like the lightning around him; every time his wings moved or he twitched, electricity earthed itself, emitted from his scales.
“I flew over Izril, and the ghosts of Chandrar assured me they would deal with it. Can we do nothing?”
The Dragonlord of Lightning flapped one wing.
“Yes, yes. Shut up, oh mighty King of Avel. I cast the blame of this at Wyrms. Truly, a Human was more worthy of inheriting a Dragonthrone than petty Wyrms. Possibly the last Wyrm had to create a conquering nation.”
“And how is that worse than Humans or your precious Drakes who are oh so wise? Berithseid?”
A Wyrm hissed back at the Dragonlord of Lightning. Erin saw Cawe slap her forehead with one wing.
“Oh, wonderful. They’re arguing too. We just had to be stuck with the most petty ghosts in all the dead lands.”
Her voice was a bit too loud. Every single Dragon and ruler turned and glared at the [Pickpocket]. Cawe went pale under her feathers and hid behind Gerial.
“The little Garuda speaks truthfully. I will not be shamed before my cousins. Well met.”
Another Dragon spoke, and Erin gawked at a Dragon with feathers. Not scales—feathers. Cawe’s beak opened so wide it looked like she was trying to swallow her face.
“Wh—who are you?”
“Dragonlord of Feathers.”
The…Dragon?…rumbled back with amusement. She had a beak rather than a snout, and Erin Solstice had no idea if she was some hybrid or…
“Dragons. Wyrms. I joined you all in hopes of doing something. Who and what matters in the land of the living? Speak quickly—the dead things are upon us!”
A fierce, cawing voice broke in. Erin turned and saw a bright, blue bird speaking. The Phoenix spread her wings, and Erin made a few incomprehensible sounds. Every head turned to those in the know.
“My brother, Rhisveri, is the Wyrm who is raging against the Dawn Concordat. I gather a great mortal died and he intends to wipe them out. I have two ghosts to illuminate us. I spoke with this ‘Great General Dionamella’ ere she fell—she had an all-too-high opinion of Rhisveri, but I know the facts.”
The Wyrm hissed. He moved his tail, and a pair of ghosts who had been riding on his back jumped down. One, Erin recognized. She was…that Great Knight.
Great Knight Eclizza of Ailendamus and a half-Elf who had been in Dionamella’s bodyguard when Lord Swey killed him both bowed to the assembly.
“Great ghosts! I regret to say that Rhisveri, the Wyrm of Ailendamus, does rule the nation. He will not halt; he has called on Lucifen and Agelum, immortals like the last Dryad, Sophridel the Elemental of Masks, and more to wipe out the Dawn Concordat.”
A Dragonlord oozing venom with every word spoke, her scales foul and pitted.
“Pity. One army’s loss is not a terrible shame. We have done all we can.”
“It will be more than that, milady.”
The half-Elf bowed, shamefaced. He turned to the ghosts.
“The Lord of House Veltras and a number of nobles of the Five Families ride against Ailendamus, as well as a [Princess] and many brave [Knights]. Even Izrilian champions—the Order of Seasons, a Ser Solstice of Izril, the Goblin Slayer, is poised for combat. They may not be of high level, but their loss will provoke a feud with no end.”
The Dragonlords and rulers conferred, murmuring.
“Order of Seasons…I know them. Who are the Five Families?”
“Possibly new. Another great slayer of Goblins?”
“I am still not even sure what or where this Ailendamus is. If we can do nothing, we should better fly against our foes.”
They shook their heads. Eclizza looked helpless as she cried out.
“But Duke Rhisveri—the Wyrm is a kin of yours, great Dragons! If you could but talk to him—”
“He cannot hear us.”
Rhisveri’s brother hissed softly. One of the Dragonlords snorted at him.
“Come now. Wyrms can see the dead, and our kind too if they but look. Have Wyrms of the modern era atrophied such that they have failed even that?”
A gigantic Wyrm who was far, far larger than all but three Dragons slapped the ground warningly with her tail and reared up over the Dragonlord of Waves.
“Speak cautiously, little Dragon. Those are my children you speak of.”
He hesitated and ducked his head.
“…Beg pardon, Great Wyrm.”
Erin’s head swung from face to face, and then Rhisveri’s brother spoke, his eyes fixed on his…
“Rhisveri has always been able to see ghosts. But he shields himself in his palace. I…may have haunted him for a decade.”
The Dragonlords groaned. Erin Solstice waved her hand frantically.
“Excuse me, did someone say a ‘Sir Solstice’? Who’s killing Goblins? Is that a coincidence or…? No, wait a second. Isn’t that—”
Her eyes went wide with alarm as she remembered a pseudonym that a certain person was using. A guest of her inn. A beloved friend. Her Goblin.
Rabbiteater. He was going to war against Ailendamus? He was going to fight a Wyrm?
Xarkouth fixed Erin with a gaze.
He murmured, but the Dragonlords were arguing.
“In that case—do we try to break into his palace? The Seamwalkers are tearing this place apart, but the world is still not thin enough. Those armies…we will sacrifice our strength. Is it a worthy end?”
They had some great plan, and because they mentioned Gnomes…Erin knew it might work. Yet the conclave of ghosts fell silent, and Queen Marquin pointed one finger.
“I do not know, but look. Our time is up.”
They all turned and saw something falling. It was…
Flesh. No…stone? A piece of it fell from what had been a face. A rotten face, copied by something that had eaten the God of Time. Had almost…almost become something more. Greatest of Norechl’s kin.
However—even the Devourer of Time could not stand against all the ghosts assailing it then fight the Goddess of Death. In a war of gods, there was no quarter or mercy.
It was falling to pieces. It was dead—or Kasigna had dealt a deathblow. The ghosts sighed. They beheld her, walking after Tamaroth and Norechl.
“This is it. Ghosts—assemble. We must take the battle to each of them and buy time. Erin Solstice—you must flee to Izril. We can send a few to help protect you.”
Queen Marquin spoke, and the ghosts nodded. The [Kings] of Terandria glanced at each other. The King of Samal stalked forwards, blade in hand.
“Where do we gather? Assuming we have our chance—I will lead those who stand on the battlefield. Yes—let every [King] who would join me take up arms! Leave the blades to wound those six behind.”
He handed the heirloom to one of his descendants with a nod. The First King of Avel hefted his bow and did likewise to a [Princess].
A thousand [Kings] separated from the other ghosts for no reason Erin could tell. They were volunteering for something. Queen Marquin glanced at them, and raised her voice.
“If you will take the battle—then let [Queens] and noblewomen of Terandria’s thrones join me. We have a target. You have not; allow us our words.”
The [Kings] bowed their heads in agreement. Marquin turned to look at the dead gods.
“…Though we shall all fight in the end. If it comes to it, we will join the fighting and hold them back as long as we may and let a lesser number go.”
She pointed unerringly at Kasigna and Cauwine. The other ghosts, Dragons included, scoffed at Marquin.
“You cannot hope to hold her back more than a second, [Queen] of mortals! Kasigna cannot be stopped. She rules us all and claims this land.”
The Dragonlord of Gems cautioned Marquin. The Queen of Calanfer nodded grimly.
“Maybe not, but someone must make it. So harken to me, sisters of every age!”
Erin saw Marquin stride past her and address the [Queens] and [Princesses], even [Empresses] of Terandria. [Ladies] and every ghost in that gathering looked at Marquin. The First Queen of Calanfer, Marquin the Radiant, drew her sword and pointed it at Kasigna. The three-in-one had locked her eyes on Erin again, but Marquin barred her way, and Kasigna’s eyes narrowed. Calmly, the ruler of Calanfer spat on the ground and then turned.
“I call on every ghost with no words left to say to join me. We will only scream defiance into the jaws of despair. Come, you brave women from every age! Who will follow me and defy death itself?”
Terandria’s ghosts hesitated—then noblewomen stepped out of line as the [Kings] argued and formed their stand, to hold Norechl and Tamaroth at bay. The Dragons watched as [Queens] holding their gowns stepped out as if accepting an invitation to dance. Some strode out wearing pants and holding blades. [Princesses] adjusted their tiaras, and some accepted swords or said farewell.
A single ghost stepped across the divide as the ghosts separated by gender. Erin saw one of Samal’s ghosts leave the congregation around their founder and approach Marquin as she marshaled the army by groups. Marquin turned and caught a wary smile.
The prince of Samal bowed hurriedly, a locked scabbard hanging at their side. Literally—a little key was used even to draw blades in the Kingdom of Keys. Still, he addressed the Queen of Calanfer and the ghosts, who blinked at him in confusion.
“I ask to join your number, Queen of Calanfer. I was never born nor named to the right body, but I have been a woman all my days. They called me a [Prince], but my soul knew my nature. Will you let me stand by your side?”
Samal’s ghosts looked incredulous, and those who knew the prince of Samal called out in outrage, but Queen Marquin’s eyes simply narrowed. She looked straight into pale grey eyes staring out of one of the faces of a ruler of Samal.
Someone used to keeping secrets and finding answers. Hoarding keys in a land where they feared no violence or crime or monsters—only other people. A wary light of entreaty in those eyes.
Queen Marquin thought only a second. Then she reached out and grabbed the prince’s hand. She swung the ghost into place, and the ghost…flickered.
The memory of the ghost as they had lived faded away like an illusion. A young woman dressed in silver mail and holding a [Duelist]’s sword, notched—a keyblade of Samal—walked forwards.
A smile of relief spread across the woman’s face, and she bowed. She drew the sword from the scabbard after she unlocked it with a key taken from around her neck. Each step looked more relaxed, just like they had been when she walked from the place people called one of the world’s paradises. Someone who had picked up a sword and left the Kingdom of Keys to find themselves.
Then she turned, and her sword-arm, written with a dozen tattoos etched in ink that only shone under moonlight, a sygaldry of secrets, rose as she pointed back.
“I am Talient du Pelien, the [Princess of Heart’s Lock and Quiet Key]!”
More ghosts in that vast audience looked at her, and the disdain of some ghosts, even here, even now—turned to astonishment as more ghosts broke ranks. Some had never hidden. Others had never had the words to explain what they felt and been told they were wrong.
Some had been buried and lived where they chose and welcomed the others across the gap. An [Emperor] clasped hands with a ghost who started and blinked down at the truth they’d hidden even in death.
Samal’s [Princess] was just one ghost among many, and she stood behind Marquin as the ghosts of Terandria waited. The Dragonlords nodded to the rulers of Terandria, not even blinking. They didn’t see anything different. But then—they had a Dragon’s eyes. Not all had been so wise, among ghosts. But the Dragonlords just bowed as the ghosts assembled.
Marquin was pledging their stand to Xarkouth and the others.
“We will nominate representatives if we must hold them back. As soon as the first cracks appear—they will go, if the thousand of each are already gone.”
Dame Eclizza of Ailendamus stood behind the four rulers of Ailendamus in the deadlands who had served a Wyrm, knowingly or unknowingly. She was lamenting it.
“If only the Death of Magic had not slain me.”
One of the Dragonlords looked outraged. A Wyvern with bright, intelligent eyes snaked her head down.
“Is that bastard still alive? I thought he killed himself!”
Eclizza went pale and bowed.
“No…a Demon of Rhir, milady.”
“A what of what? You mean those Lucifen? A Daemon?”
“No, Demons. Horns, relatives of Devils? Succubi? Delightful…ahem. I thought they were long gone and we destroyed their plane.”
The Dragons were arguing about it, and Eclizza’s head sank lower. She clenched a fist.
“It was that damned girl. She must be the one who led us all to this. Duke Rhisveri will slay Ryoka Griffin at the last. The ghosts tell me she led the Archmage of Memory to battle. She is the one who nearly slew Princess Oiena—and she will be rightly destroyed soon enough.”
“Huh? Wait—wait. Say that again. Rabbiteater—Ser Solstice and Ryoka?”
Then Erin Solstice was there. Pushing through the chaos, shouting at Dragons, and elbowing aside rulers. She stopped in front of Dame Eclizza, and the ghosts looked at Erin.
“Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt? The Courier? You know her?”
Rhisveri’s brother and Eclizza peered suspiciously at Erin. The young woman’s heart was in her mouth. She looked around. Gerial was there, mouth open in surprise.
“She’s my best friend. What’s going on? I can’t—I know Ser Solstice. I know that Tyrion jerk too, but I can’t let—let Rabbiteater die. And Ryoka. Can’t we help? Where are they?”
Her voice rang out, the only ghost here with a connection to the living. Queen Marquin took Erin’s shoulder. She pointed down, and Erin looked around the flat, empty grassland. She stared around—then saw a palace rising behind her. Marquin spoke.
“Here. They are meeting in this very spot in battle. But we cannot see them or touch the living. I am sorry. If there were a chance…”
Erin fell to her knees. She looked around, searching with her hands, stumbling up to look for…she didn’t see the ghosts who might soon litter this land. The [Innkeeper] looked up and saw four gods step onto the shore.
Norechl, Tamaroth, Cauwine, and Kasigna. Marquin put a hand on Erin’s shoulder and urged her up.
“Time. You have somewhere to go.”
“But my friends are here.”
Erin looked around, and the ghosts gazed at her with sympathy. Erin clenched a fist.
“What is it the Gnomes told you to do?”
The Dragonlord, Saracandre, spoke for the others.
“Wait. Wait, as the Seamwalkers, Norechl’s get, and that Devourer of Time broke this place in half. Wait for cracks. But it seems the Goddess of Death holds this place together, even with Emerrhain’s meddling. It is not thin enough yet.”
Erin felt it. That fraying world of the dead…she saw the one woman holding it together. Gaining something close to life, an irony for her. The Goddess of Death. And the plans of the dead gods were coming to fruition.
Ryoka Griffin saw the armies meeting on the grasslands as yet uncolonized by Ailendamus. The Dawn Concordat didn’t flinch at Ailendamus’ numbers; they outnumbered the Kingdom of Glass and Glory.
[Hunters] from Noelictus who had circumnavigated the border or cut through Ailendamus’ territory. The Order of Seasons and the Season of Summer especially, led by their Summer’s Champion, Greysten.
The mysterious Ser Solstice, riding with his friends and Calanfer, marked by the blessing of Calanfer. The 4th Princess of Calanfer, Seraphel, and the Five Families of Izril led by Tyrion Veltras.
On the other side, Ailendamus halted, [Knights] standing in front of ordinary citizens, their nobility and their retainers prepared to fight to the death. But Ryoka only focused on one group.
The Lucifen and Agelum. Just one small patch among many. Yet that was where the immortals stood. Almost all of them. The Immortals of Ailendamus.
Rhisveri himself had not appeared yet, but he was preparing to. The Wyrm was just waiting for his opponent to show himself.
And there…he was. Ryoka’s stomach twisted up as she saw the blazing appearance of the Archmage of Memory as he teleported his entire faction and the flying, armored super-soldiers into the center of the Dawn Concordat’s army.
Eldavin, the Archmage of Wistram, was locked on Ailendamus, and his face was a mask of fury. The Immortals of Ailendamus met his gaze as the leaders of both sides called on the other to surrender.
The immortals on either side paid no attention to the words that were being spoken. They just watched each other.
The battle would be decided between them. And there was one Archmage and many, many of Ailendamus’ eternals.
“He does not look wounded at all. Perhaps we should have brought the Wind Runner after all.”
Igolze murmured to the others. Paxere’s teeth were bared, and it was Visophecin himself who replied.
“No. He has had every opportunity to relent. This, we shall settle. Has Rhisveri not arrived yet?”
“He claims to be attending to ‘business’. Which is an objectionable statement at this moment.”
Sophridel was cloaked by magic and standing behind the Merfolk. The Elemental of Masks’ bland tone made Visophecin frown.
“What business could delay him? Who is missing?”
“Hm. A few of the younger ones. We left Gilaw and Menorkel behind. Fithea is making sure Gilaw does not fly after us. I left Razia with the Wind Runner.”
“Sensible. Fithea need not see this. She has already been whispering that Ryoka has only brought death to us all.”
Some of them might die. The Dryad was a capable spellcaster, but…Visophecin adjusted his collar. He looked straight at Eldavin.
The Archmage of Memory waited. He was glowing with magic, and both armies were waiting for the signal to clash. Tyrion Veltras rode back, looking as grave as ever. Hiding the fact that he had lost…
“He’s lost his levels. He is trying to hide it from [Appraisal], but it’s clear as day. Dionamella has crippled House Veltras’ war leader.”
One of the immortals was peering at Tyrion Veltras. Lady Paterghost scoffed.
“I could take that fool apart with Nube. Prithee, allow me the right to challenge him.”
“Ignore him. Watch the Archmage, Lady Paterghost.”
“As you like, Viscount Visophecin. Where stands that other one? The [Knight] whomst may now be the Lightherald of Calanfer?”
They saw Ser Solstice sitting on a horse among the Order of Seasons. The immortals watched him. Azemith consulted something she had been given.
“Ah. The [Knight] of Izril. Order of Solstice. I have intelligence on him. He is a metallic warrior—one of the Melded classes. Our information suggests he is perhaps a Steelfur Gnoll. I suggest rusting his entire body. I can do it once battle begins.”
The Lucifen smiled at the idea. The other immortals nodded or shrugged. It was the smallest group of twelve people in wheelchairs who stirred.
“Azemith, say that again? Who is that Ser Solstice?”
Uzine, Gadrea, and the Agelum able to move had been wheeled into battle, and they were causing confusion on both sides as soldiers wondered if they were nobles who were unwisely positioned in the battle lines. Some senior [Knights] recognized their mentors or trainers, but still worried.
“I said…that is a metal Gnoll, Uzine. He’s more metal than flesh under that helmet, which explains his durability.”
Azemith snapped, re-reading the latest intelligence report from their [Knights] on Khelt’s ship. She looked at Uzine, and the frail-looking Agelum, hair so pale that it was white, sitting in the wheelchair with a single long axe in each hand, wearing light metal armor burnished bright…gave her an incredulous look.
Uzine’s multi-pupiled eyes focused on Ser Solstice, and Gadrea scratched at her chin. Both Agelum exchanged glances.
“…That’s not a Gnoll. That’s a Goblin.”
The Agelum peered at Rabbiteater as Azemith did a double-take. Uzine nodded.
“That is a Goblin.”
“Are you certain?”
Even Visophecin was taken aback. He focused on Rabbiteater, but the [Appraisal] Skills and other spells didn’t work on him. Gadrea just narrowed her eyes.
“…I can see his eyes through that visor. Crimson. His face is green. That is a Goblin. One wearing armor and tricking everyone. Or maybe they know.”
She began to grin widely. Uzine actually stood up and walked over to a horse where some Agelum were mounting up despite their cousin’s objections. He swung himself into the saddle as the immortals muttered.
“A Goblin? Is it a trick?”
“We could unmask it. Not that it would do much other than embarrass the Order of Seasons.”
Visophecin himself was frowning as Ailendamus’ [General] began to give a speech. Perhaps it was better to keep the Goblin alive, then. Hadn’t Ryoka Griffin mentioned something about…?
Then he realized someone had broken the battle line. Someone was riding past the [General] of Ailendamus, calling out. That someone was a white-haired man sitting in his saddle, two axes held lightly in his grip.
Gadrea shouted, but it was too late. Before the Lucifen and immortals could call him back, the Agelum rode into the open between the two armies and shouted.
“Warriors of the Dawn Concordat. I challenge you. Send forth your highest-level fighter. I am Uzine of House Shoel!”
He rode forwards, holding one axe up, grinning that fearless smile of the invincible warrior. Visophecin covered his eyes.
Now he understood why Uzine had been so insistent. Lady Paterghost gasped in outrage.
“That fool! I was intending to—I shall reclaim him at once.”
She began to stride forwards, but the other Agelum stopped her. Visophecin motioned back the forces looking to him.
“No. Uzine has issued his challenge. He will never relent, and calling him back would cause an uproar. That fool.”
The Lucifen ground his teeth together. He was often annoyed or unpleasantly surprised by his cousin’s actions, but this…he could only wait and watch as the Dawn Concordat milled about and someone answered Uzine.
Rabbiteater didn’t know if this was going to be a good battle or a disaster. He knew which he preferred, but he had been listening. Tyrion Veltras, whom he did not like, had seemed more sensible than the other leaders, who had convinced themselves this would be another great victory and the end of Ailendamus.
The Goblin had seen tribes end, and sometimes it was a complete wipeout, but he didn’t feel like an entire nation would roll over after one loss. In fact…he was reminded of the term ‘counter leveling’ as he stared at the army they outnumbered.
The winner was always the winner right until they took a chance dagger to the throat. Even Gold-rank adventurers could be killed by lowly Goblins. Rabbiteater was nervous…and the sight of this old warrior did not help matters.
He looked ancient, and as if he should be in a [Healer]’s bed. But the intelligent members of the Dawn Concordat looked at that old warrior, Uzine, and remembered a truism.
Anyone who’d lived to get that old often had lots of levels. Not that they could read his class. In fact, his challenge had begun an argument, down to who, if anyone, should answer him.
“This is a delaying tactic for reinforcements. We need not honor it.”
A [Lord] of Calanfer opined. However, it had provoked the [Knights] and warrior traditions of each nation. Uzine had his challengers, and the Griffin Prince himself was ready to answer it. Of course, everyone looked to Tyrion Veltras, but the [Lord] was surprisingly reluctant to volunteer. Rabbiteater would have expected Tyrion to ride out with that stupid pointy stick and joust his opponent.
It was Greysten who rode forwards, ignoring the arguments. The Summer’s Champion raised his own axe, and the Season of Summer cheered as he rode across their lines, then towards Uzine.
“Rabbit! Have a little faith!”
Talia hissed at Rabbiteater as he sat with the forces of Calanfer. Princess Seraphel, who had been entrusted with the banner as no one wanted her to actually do any fighting, rode a bit closer to hear Rabbiteater. The other [Knights] of the Order of Seasons, Meisa, Talia, Markus, Ilm, fell silent as the [Princess] looked at Rabbiteater.
“Ser Solstice. You have reservations? I have heard the Summer’s Champion is one of Terandria’s best warriors.”
“Mm. He’s good. But not the Spring’s Warden.”
Rabbiteater had fought the Spring’s Warden, and she was the duelist that Greysten was not. He tried to explain this to Seraphel, and the [Princess] frowned.
“So Greysten is a superior warrior in massed combat, rather than duels…but surely he can still best that old man?”
Rabbiteater gave Seraphel a long look.
“Old men are the worst. Scary. Doesn’t matter their level.”
“Why, pray tell?”
The Goblin rolled his eyes and spoke slowly, trying to explain it to the stupid princess.
“Old men are not afraid of dying. Nothing is scarier than someone with a death-wound.”
And that old warrior looked like he had a foot in the grave. Seraphel gulped, and they watched as Greysten approached Uzine.
The Agelum sat on his steed, perfectly straight, smiling as the wind blew across these plains. Ser Greysten saluted him.
“Ser, will you not consider retreat or parlay? Ailendamus is outnumbered. I would not like to spill your blood.”
For answer, Uzine just laughed at him. He threw back his head and laughed. He had no helmet, and his armor looked far lighter than Greysten’s plate decorated with the Season of Summer’s colors. Affronted, the Order of Seasons murmured, but Uzine just called back.
“You cannot spill my blood, young man. When you were crawling around as a babe, I had already put aside my blade for a wheelchair. I have known the Order of Seasons. And believe me: Summer fades.”
Greysten stiffened as Uzine invoked the very motto of his season. Slowly, he lowered his visor and offered the Agelum one salute. Uzine waited a beat—then he kicked his horse into a charge. Greysten answered him, surging behind his horse, axe raised. Neither was using a lance, and they were poised to hit each other; this was no complex duel of shield and lance and maneuvering. Both warriors clearly thought they could hit the other harder and faster.
The Dawn Concordat was still cheering when the two met, and the mortals got the shock of their lives. Greysten was fast, used a Skill, and his axe burned through the air as he summoned his aura to scorch Uzine.
The Agelum leapt from his saddle and came crashing down like a comet. Greysten saw the Agelum drop on him, both axes swinging, and raised his shield. Rabbiteater saw a flare of fire—but Uzine never flinched.
He dropped Greysten from the saddle, and the [Knight] landed on the ground then blocked an axe that hammered him down. He pushed himself up—and Uzine swung the other axe into his side. Again, Greysten blocked the blow, and Rabbiteater saw something impossible.
The Summer’s Champion went skidding across the ground. He caught himself, boots plowing into the grass and sending up a spray of dirt. But he had almost gone flying from the axe strike.
The Agelum advanced, grinning, as Greysten caught himself. Rabbiteater saw Greysten raise his axe and shield, and that uncertainty was enough.
“That [Knight] is dead. And Uzine lectured me about going overboard. He’s going to put himself in a bed for the next three months.”
Ryoka jumped as Razia wheeled herself over. The Wind Runner turned. She had been transfixed by the fighting. She looked around.
“Razia—we have to stop this.”
“Stop what? Us answering the Dawn Concordat for Dionamella’s death? This war? Rhisveri could do it, but good luck reaching him.”
Razia was wheeling herself around one-handed. Ryoka was in her room, just outside Rhisveri’s quarters. Yet she couldn’t see the Wyrm of Ailendamus.
The double doors were sealed, and Rhisveri had secluded himself. He had no time for Ryoka; he was preparing for a battle with Eldavin. That he hadn’t appeared on the battlefield already probably meant he was waiting for his moment. Ryoka had been hoping to catch him; he had to lower his protections to teleport out, right? Especially if his main body moved…
She had been waiting for the wind to tell her when that was. She had been waiting for a sign. The uncertainty of it all…Razia had agreed to back Ryoka up. She was out of her mind with that same feeling in Ryoka’s heart. Both of them felt it.
Something was happening. Ryoka looked back to the scrying orb and saw an Agelum fighting. She didn’t know who the Summer’s Champion was. But she realized why the Goblin King had never killed House Shoel. The Lucifen had fought him with magic and trickery and their own vast powers. But when Curulac of a Hundred Days had come against them—the Agelum had taken the field. They were the warriors to the Lucifen’s magic.
Uzine was tossing around the Summer’s Champion like a pinball with each axe strike. Ryoka didn’t know how heavy each blow had to be to send the huge, armored man stumbling around or skidding to the side. She was impressed the armor was taking it.
The Dawn Concordat had gone silent. Ailendamus was just as quiet. They were in shock. None of them had ever known House Shoel had that kind of warrior. Except for the very same elites that Uzine had sometimes mentored. They watched their strange teacher fighting.
The Summer’s Champion was using his aura, and it was a mistake. He was setting the grass on fire. The heat was making the image of him ripple. Any other [Knight] not prepared would be roasting in their armor, sweating, feeling the metal burn as the Summer’s Champion cut the air with a burning axe and shield.
The Agelum was laughing. Ryoka had an image from her days in church before she had managed to get herself banned.
An Angel with a flaming sword…no wonder he didn’t fear fire.
The duel was short. Perhaps the Summer’s Champion deserved better, but Uzine just hammered him again and again with those axes. Greysten’s feet were mired in earth; his armor held, but he was a sitting duck. Two axes rose, and the shield blocked the blow, but it knocked him flat on his back.
“Is Uzine going to…?”
Razia just looked at Ryoka, one eyebrow raised. Ryoka’s mouth was dry as the Agelum strode over to the struggling [Knight], trying to stand back up. There was no mercy in his eyes.
First the Summer’s Champion, next the Dawn Concordat. Tyrion…Ryoka turned, but the wind told her the Wyrm was still in his lair. Then she saw someone break the silence of the Dawn Concordat. She saw a commotion, people trying to stop the strange, masked warrior with slightly battered armor and no crest or paint riding on Uzine.
Ser Solstice charged the Agelum to a howl of outrage from both forces. But Uzine just turned, grinning.
Rabbiteater knew he was in trouble. The [Knights] were screaming at him to come back, but he saw Greysten fall and knew the Summer’s Champion was a dead man. He also knew he was outmatched.
But he was a [Knight]. And a Goblin [Knight] saw nothing wrong in this.
He called to Uzine. The Agelum whirled.
“Ah. Ser Solstice. If there were one [Knight], it would be you. En garde!”
Rabbiteater swore as he leapt from his saddle. He raised his axe and shield.
He reminded himself he had new Skills, an aura. He opened up with his biggest Skill, and the Agelum…ducked it. Then he lunged at Rabbiteater, blades swinging, and the Hobgoblin had a thought.
It was a familiar feeling. He was so fast. Rabbiteater spun, put his shield up, and his feet left the ground. He touched down, skidding, sliding, and felt his arm go numb. Had that crazy old man just launched…? What was wrong with his eyes? Rabbiteater looked up and saw an axe descending towards his helmet.
[Long Backstep]. [Mistreach Cut]! [Lightsoaked Armaments]—[Radiance of the Dawn]!
His armor flashed. The shining light blinded his foes, not his allies, and the [Champion] leapt at the Agelum, [Greater Speed] making his Skills even faster. He missed as the Agelum knocked aside his axe. One of those long axes swung at his face.
Rabbiteater tossed the blade aside with his shield. Then he felt a searing line of pain on his chest. He looked down and saw the tip of the axe scoring his chest. When had he—?
It wasn’t deep. Rabbiteater raised his shield to use [Shield Ram]. He was charging forwards. The Agelum backed up, wrenched his axe free, and kicked Rabbiteater in the chest.
The Hobgoblin slammed into the ground, rattling around in his armor. He got up and saw that smile.
Greydath and this old man. I hate old men with white hair. The Hobgoblin checked himself. That—Uzine was impossibly strong. But something was wrong. He was so…
The Agelum twisted and dodged the Summer’s Champion’s slash. That was it. His eyes. He’d just seen that. And the counter he gave would have sheared Greysten’s head from his shoulders but for the armor.
“Rabbiteater! Back away! This is my d—”
Greysten roared a second before Uzine put the axes together and hit him like he was playing baseball. Rabbiteater began to back away—then saw the Agelum sprinting at him.
“I see it.”
Tyrion Veltras was watching the fight. His hand was sweaty on his lance. Who was that old man? Tyrion Veltras a few days ago and twenty levels higher would have relished the chance to try that warrior.
This younger man felt…sweaty-palmed, and he hadn’t experienced that in decades. He was currently watching this member of House Shoel, a reclusive branch of Ailendamus’ nobility, take on…
The Summer’s Champion and Ser Solstice at the same time. They were both [Knights], and both were honorable enough in their way to demand a single duel. But neither one could back off.
They were fighting for their lives. They couldn’t even retreat—Uzine was hammering them both such that they had to fight or die. Ser Solstice was already bleeding, and from the way Ser Greysten was moving, it was clear he’d cracked some bones.
The Agelum was a whirlwind of battle. He fought like a [Blademaster]. Tyrion was trying to understand his class.
His eyes. He was some kind of peerless expert. Strong—[Greater Strength]? [Greater Speed]? Yes, like an ultimate barbarian, but he had the skill with those axes to back it up. Tyrion looked across the battlefield and saw more figures in…wheeled chairs?
Were they all as good as he was? Then he saw Ser Solstice go down.
Dame Talia shouted an odd name, and Meisa, Markus, and half a dozen [Knights] rode forwards. This time, the Order of the Thirsting Veil rode at them, howling fury at this breach of conduct. It might be a battle if both sides clashed. But as the Agelum raised both blades to bring them down on Rabbiteater as Ser Greysten tried to cover his friend—something happened.
Tyrion saw it as clearly as everyone else. Uzine was laughing—then he was coughing blood.
Blue blood. It surprised Uzine as much as everyone. It spilled out of his mouth like vomit…a pool of it. He spat a string of blood and stepped back. Then…Tyrion saw the Agelum bleed.
Rabbiteater looked up with Ser Greysten and saw Uzine bleeding. The Agelum lifted one hand and looked at the blood running down his body. A huge wound. But neither Greysten nor Rabbiteater had tagged him. So how…?
Uzine looked at his hand and the fragile skin that had split from his knuckles halfway down his arm. He flexed his fingers, and Rabbiteater saw the arm wasn’t straight.
He’d…broken his own bones. To look at him—something was wrong with his lungs. The Agelum hacked up more bright blue blood.
“Summer’s…wrath. What is that?”
Greysten was staring at the blood. Rabbiteater had thought it meant Uzine was noble—blue-blooded. But it was clearer and clearer…
“That fool. He’s injured himself. Badly.”
Uzine was pursuing Ser Greysten and Rabbiteater, but he was bleeding a trail onto the grass. The Agelum stumbled, then tossed one axe aside. He’d clearly decided he couldn’t use that arm. Even so—his eyes were locked on the two.
He intended to finish them off. The Lucifen were in a frenzy, wondering how to explain this. A class? But the blood—
The Agelum grabbed Ser Solstice bare-handed, swatting the Summer’s Champion aside with a blow that damaged his other arm. Then his bloody arm began to squeeze.
The metal helm of Ser Solstice’s armor began to deform around the gorget. He was…crushing the [Champion]’s armor. Visophecin watched as he strode across the ground with Igolze and Azemith.
Rabbiteater couldn’t breathe. He was staring into those strange eyes. Too many pupils. Who…then Uzine whispered to him, as Greysten tried to get up.
“Only one Goblin who has ever locked swords with me has lived, Ser Solstice. He was named Greydath of Blades.”
Ah. That explained a lot. Rabbiteater grinned behind his helmet. He knew. The Agelum’s fingers tightened, and Rabbiteater saw spots appearing in his vision. He waited for the crunch…but then Uzine let go of him. Gasping, Rabbiteater swayed, and Uzine grabbed him.
“Igolze. Here’s your answer. Visophecin. I’m bleeding.”
Who were they? They smelled like oil and metal. Rabbiteater was gagging. He saw some slim figures with…grey skin stopping. Uzine was coughing, and they were fussing over him when they all went silent.
“I believe the point has been made. This duel is over. Summer’s Champion. It is my turn.”
Uzine turned his head, and Rabbiteater, clutching at the metal digging into his throat, looked up. He saw a white beard, two mismatched eyes of heliotrope and cerulean. A half-Elf, floating in the air.
“Archmage of Memory.”
“Where is Duke Rhisveri? If you would challenge anyone—challenge me.”
Someone was grabbing Rabbiteater, helping Greysten up. Ailendamus was retreating, even Uzine reluctantly being led away. Rabbiteater looked up and saw a too-young face. A clean-shaven man, without his beard. Tyrion Veltras hauled Rabbiteater onto his horse.
“Retreat, Lord Veltras. If we are to settle things, then I, the Archmage of Wistram, challenge Ailendamus’ greatest spellcasters. Send forth Duke Rhisveri.”
The air was…shimmering. Ailendamus’ cheering had gone silent again. The Archmage of Memory hovered there and looked at the army of targets as his eyes blazed with magic.
Even Tyrion Veltras decided not to argue. He rode away from the fighting with Rabbiteater as Ser Greysten was carried off by Talia and his people. Rabbiteater looked up at the man.
Rabbiteater tried to punch Tyrion in the face. The [Lord] blocked the punch, cursing, and behind them…
Ryoka Griffin watched Eldavin standing there. This time, it was her heart that was breaking.
Eldavin, not Teriarch.
Half-Elf, not Dragon. The same man in some ways—so different in others. The ego was there, the personality was the same.
That brave warrior, sometimes a condescending, grouchy old man, often caring, fierce and despairing and intelligent.
But without the wisdom of aeons. A Dragon in a mortal’s body without his memory.
Out of his mind. Betrayed by Ryoka Griffin. But all he said…even after what she’d tried to do, all he said as he looked down at the three Lucifen—Azemith, Igolze, and Visophecin—was this. For the world to hear.
“What magic did you cast on Ryoka Griffin? I will have Duke Rhisveri answer for that and every transgression with his life. Send him forth.”
Ryoka was sick. Razia was silent, and the Wind Runner looked towards the Wyrm’s chambers. But Azemith just sneered back.
“We have not ensorcelled her, Archmage. You should know that. Or are our magics beyond yours? House Shoel will be your opponent if Duke Rhisveri is too busy to oblige you. I have something to settle with you as well. My daughter will wear your hand around her neck.”
Eldavin’s gaze flicked to her and Igolze, then past them. He lifted a finger.
“If Duke Rhisveri will not answer me, I see no need to delay this farce.”
Azemith lifted a hand and wavered. Ailendamus’ forces looked up, and everyone from Baron Regalius to the Order of the Hydra gazed upwards. Those brave warriors who had mastered the art of swinging metal, fighting, putting their bodies on the line saw the contempt of [Mages].
They gazed upwards at a burning [Fireball] spell. Just a ball of fire ready to detonate. Sometimes as large as a basketball from a low-level mage with a small radius. Greater [Mages] could link and make one as large as a house.
These…these were masses of stone surrounded by fire. Hovering in the air as they appeared. One hundred, two hundred…
The Archmage of Memory silenced even the Terras faction as Ailendamus began to desperately spread out. He was glowing with magic. And still—Duke Rhisveri had not appeared. Igolze pointed a finger at Eldavin and wavered as he saw the Archmage aiming a wand at him. Even the Lucifen looked up in horror.
He was going to kill—
That finger began to crook downwards, and the burning meteors flickered—then a gloved hand halted it. Eldavin recoiled, and a carefully pointed smile and the red irises of Viscount Visophecin of Ailendamus met his.
“If Duke Rhisveri is unavailable…I am the head of House Shoel. Visophecin of Ailendamus. You have been most unwise, coming here, Archmage.”
Brimstone and fire. Metal and oil. Ryoka could almost smell it in the room. She had no idea what it was like standing between the two. The Lucifen stepped backwards as Azemith and Igolze hesitated. Visophecin motioned them back, and Razia murmured.
The Devil and the memory of a Dragon in a half-Elf’s body regarded each other in dead silence a moment. Eldavin’s burning, contemptuous gaze met the pinholes of darkness amid red light. The appraising gaze of someone adding him up into a number to be subtracted into nothing.
“Stand aside or perish.”
The Archmage of Memory issued one curt warning. For the look of it. He was already drifting backwards, and the swarm of meteors had vanished. [Mages] cried out as their [Detect Magic] spells grew so bright they overloaded.
“They’re creating so much mana the air is transforming. Look at it!”
Ser Ilm shouted in horror and awe. He pointed at the wavering lines in the air. Rabbiteater, groggy, looked up and saw something akin to the lines of heat radiating up from the ground. Only…instead of heat, it was magic, and it made the entire world shimmer as if it were all a mass of colored lines.
Rabbiteater looked at Visophecin and Eldavin, then counted the Lucifen. He put his head back down.
“We’re in trouble.”
Unless the Archmage could take them all on? He looked ready to. Visophecin was adjusting the suit he wore, flickers of darkness magic and his own cloaked spells appearing around him. Eldavin was far less subtle. He was chanting and binding spells to himself by the dozens.
Two spellcasters far, far beyond this age faced each other as both armies drew back two hundred paces. They were casting as fast as they could, waiting for the other to attack.
Eldavin was the first to lose patience. He pointed a finger at Visophecin and spoke one word.
A beam of nigh-colorless light ate away everything in its path. Visophecin was about three dozen paces away from the hovering half-Elf, but the ray crossed the distance faster than an arrow. For reply…the Devil leaned out of the way.
His eyes never wavered from Eldavin. The Archmage of Memory’s gaze flashed at the bored look on Visophecin’s gaze. So he crooked his finger.
“[Splinter Spell]. [Recast: Rays of Disintegration].”
The ray passing behind Visophecin stopped, hit something in the air, and shot back the way it’d come as if it’d passed through a prism. Instead of one—a dozen rays of deadly light criss-crossed the air. The Lucifen turned. He had a microsecond to react. Too slow to portal out, as many Lucifen would do. He raised two fingers, and a cloak of dark liquid-fire ran down, covering him.
A cloak of some magic shielded the Lucifen, and the [Disintegration Rays] vanished into them. Eldavin’s eyes narrowed.
“So you are as good as you claimed in the [Message] spells.”
‘Viscount V’ turned, and his eyes were so calm that finally, Eldavin saw the little core of rage buried deep underneath that polite expression. Something of Visophecin’s true nature leaked out in those blandly spoken words.
“I am often humble for the look of it. And you are underestimating me, Archmage.”
He clicked his fingers, and Eldavin exploded. Or—the air around him did. There was no warning. No [Fireball]. The contained zone of space that Visophecin had been outlining just ignited in a moment.
The explosion was contained within a flickering sphere of magic. It could contain air, the force of the spell—and the Archmage’s escape attempts. Visophecin stood there as Eldavin reappeared.
The Archmage of Memory’s robes were scorched. He himself…Visophecin’s bland look changed to one of…disquiet.
His skin. The shaking half-Elf was regrowing his skin. Had the explosion touched him? He’d survived the lethal attack that should have vaporized his bones. His body—Dionamella had communicated something was wrong with—
“[Doubled Spell]. [Finger of the Fire Giant].”
A pillar of searing fire, molten rock, and flame hit Visophecin’s position and gouged up a world of dirt. The Lucifen vanished as the black bolts of magic criss-crossed Eldavin’s position. The Archmage of Memory flew up, wings burning with a phoenix’s fire as one punched a hole in his body.
Then—then they began to do battle.
Of course, Ryoka Griffin was already running for Rhisveri. She had hammered on his door and was trying to break in. Razia was watching the fighting, calling out to Ryoka via a speaking stone.
“Ryoka, you cannot break in! Even I couldn’t—”
“What is he doing? I have to—Rhisveri! Rhisveri!”
Ryoka Griffin was howling at the Wyrm as she flew around the palace. The wind was on the rampage with her, but even when she slammed an entire ottoman into the gigantic double-doors so hard it turned the furniture into splinters, nothing happened.
So Ryoka Griffin dug into her pouch and pulled out the Faerie King’s obol. She would break in herself if she had to.
But she had no idea how the stones worked. In fact…Ryoka stared down at the runes and the magic stones and realized she’d been so busy investigating immortals, even her Faeblade…
She had never thought about what the stones did.
Were they just magic? Or were they actually…something more? They were certainly currency, and it was a practical thing to tie the currency to value. Like coins—before the advent of paper, gold coins were actually gold.
Of course, the modern civilizations made faux gold coins because gold was a precious metal. But Rhisveri could appreciate money. In fact, he had been deciphering what the obol that he’d made Ryoka give him did.
“So obvious. Each stone is a bit of magic. But those runes…they are words. Multi-faceted meaning like all these imprecise, conditional languages. Their tongue?”
The tongue of the fae, those far travelers. Of course…Rhisveri saw it now. Their language was magic. The words, the very words the fae used, their real tongue, not the language they probably condescended to use with Ryoka Griffin, was so charged with magic that if they spoke something, they manifested it.
When they said fire, fire might actually appear. No wonder when he had asked Fithea about them, she had claimed they didn’t lie. How could you lie when you had to speak truth in power? The stones were thusly…
“She paid me in words. Heh. Heheheheh. That’s hilarious.”
The Wyrm was laughing. He supposed there was a lot of sense to it. When you could speak the language of magic itself, you weren’t going to stoop to much less. He approved.
What he did not approve of…what had kept Rhisveri from appearing on the battlefield and was distracting him even now was the fae themselves.
This was the story of an impatient Wyrm. He had been ready to teleport to the front and sort out Eldavin. He had exiled Ryoka Griffin from annoying him—he had given orders to spare Tyrion Veltras, if only to spare himself the whining. Besides, hostages were worth more than a feud, and he had even considered that it might be wise to end the war after this.
However—he had never gotten a chance to teleport. Because something had happened. The obol of the Faerie King had begun shaking. And the Wyrm had known what that meant.
As Ryoka Griffin finally noticed the shaking obol in her hand, she and Rhisveri remembered that event they had almost forgotten with Eldavin and Dionamella’s death. The Wyrm’s cunning plan. His offer to the Faerie King.
The auction for the Scroll of [Resurrection].
It was time. Rhisveri watched Visophecin fighting as he cursed.
“How much longer? I hear you! I am ready! By your name, I invoke you not lightly, King of Faeries, but I will offer you the bounty of my treasures and a…fair share of its worth! Oberon.”
He hesitated. Even Rhisveri’s incalculable ego knew this was a dangerous thing. But the obol had been shaking for nearly an hour, and he wasn’t sure whether it meant the Faerie King was opening the gateway or if he were just heralding his arrival overlong. So he spoke again.
Then he felt it. Rhisveri gulped. It wasn’t in the bottom of the palace anymore, that old gateway. It was in the air itself. In fact…he sensed his barriers and protective spells on the verge of being torn apart. Hurriedly, Rhisveri cursed and canceled them. That damn Wind Runner would be here. Of course.
He spoke one last time, and his voice was a roar that faltered.
Rhisveri then felt it. The crack in reality. The auspice of fall, the cloying scent of atrophying life, the promise of the chill to come. A world in beauty and fading, from good to ill. From rot to new life of a different kind.
The Faerie King began to open the gate. Rhisveri braced, his claw hovering near the scroll. Riches uncounted. He waited for Ryoka Griffin as the doors to his throne room swung open. The wind had been blowing like a damned hurricane around his palace. Rhisveri turned his head.
“You might as well enter, Thief. You did introduce me—so you will witness my riches increase.”
He turned to the right and saw…no one. Rhisveri frowned at the air.
“Well, come on. Don’t sulk. Ryoka Griffin!”
She had to be just out of sight, right? The Wyrm peered down with one huge eye. He stared into the corridor and saw no Ryoka. She had just been there a minute ago…
Where had she gone?
It was then that Razia realized something was wrong. She felt that crack in the world.
“Rhisveri! What are you doing? Stop! Stopstopstop—”
It was adding to whatever was wrong! She felt a hole open, and she did not not know what felt to her of fall. Her bones were shaking. The Agelum looked around.
“What is this? Ryoka? Where did you go? What’s…?”
The ghosts felt it too. A crack opened in the deadlands. Their reaction was immediate. The five dead gods turned.
Kasigna howled. Tamaroth saw the Seamwalkers turn, sensing something they had never felt before. Erin Solstice looked around.
“What’s going on? Why do I want pumpkin pie? What’s that?”
She pointed up at a crack so thin that no piece of paper or needle could have fit in the gap. So wide it let through another world. A paradox, a point of view. Above Erin, she heard a sigh of wonder.
“Oh. I had thought he would never return. Not after Titania. Yet he has ever honored his vows. It is him.”
Queen Marquin looked up, and Erin thought she saw one eye of amber looking at her. The very embodiment of the fall. Two vast hands pulled a gate open, just a sliver, and waited. The Dragonlord of Gems breathed in wonder.
“The Faerie King.”
Ryoka Griffin felt the gates opening. She was running, running back towards Rhisveri’s lair. She had gone to find His Majesty, Itorin, and beg for his aid. But this…
This was the moment.
“Razia! Meet me at Rhisveri’s lair! We need to stop him! Razia—don’t worry, I’ll explain everything!”
The Agelum was silent. Ryoka wavered.
She skidded around a corner and saw something that made her stop completely dead. Menorkel and Gilaw, who had been banned from going to war, much to one’s relief and the other’s ire, were standing over something. They looked…afraid. Searching around. Gilaw saw Ryoka and made a fist.
Ryoka Griffin looked down at what they were standing over. Her mouth grew dry, and she forgot even the Faerie King a moment. Because she was looking down at an empty wheelchair. An empty wheelchair and clothes that had just been on an Agelum.
She—she had vanished. Menorkel pointed at her.
“I was just…she raced past us, and we went around the corner and…maybe she took off her clothes and left?”
Gilaw and Ryoka stared at the Titan, and Menorkel looked around. It was a bad hypothesis, but what else could explain this?
“Well, what happened?”
Something bad. Ryoka looked around, then began to run.
“Rhisveri. I have to go. They’ll know what I’m supposed to do. Ivolethe will.”
She was about to run down the corridor when an aged, cracked voice interrupted her.
“What to do? Why do you think you have to do anything? What have you done to Razia, Ryoka Griffin? You’ve brought only chaos and danger and death.”
Ryoka turned and flinched as a Dryad hobbled forwards. Fithea’s gnarled body, once blooming, had turned to stone. She was petrified wood, two faded yellow lights burning in old stone. She knelt by the wheelchair, looking down in confusion as Menorkel and Gilaw, her wards, joined her.
“Ryoka didn’t do anything, Fithea. Razia just…”
“I’m sorry. Fithea. I am. I…”
Ryoka began to trot away as the Dryad bent down to touch Razia’s clothing. She was just trying to do the best she could. She had done some good. She befriended the Lucifen, she had failed to save Eldavin. She had gotten Sammial home and survived Rhisveri’s wrath. She didn’t know she was fated to make a difference. She just—wanted to help.
She was running towards Rhisveri’s rooms when Gilaw barred her way. The Griffin had not transformed to her true self, so she was a tall, twenty-something warrior with dark skin and a mane of black hair who glared down at Ryoka and made one huge fist.
She pronounced the words with difficulty. The young Griffin saw Ryoka back up. The Wind Runner raised her hands.
Ryoka didn’t want this. She had always loved immortals. She just wanted to impress them and learn about them. Why was she so afraid she was doing nothing when the worst was happening? She heard Fithea calling to Gilaw.
“Gilaw, get out of Ryoka’s way. She has brought death to Ailendamus’ immortals.”
“I’m sorry. Fithea…”
Ryoka turned as Gilaw stalked out of the way. She couldn’t explain how true that was and not…that they were all part of something terrible happening that had never quite died. Those six coming back. The Faerie King’s warning. She saw Fithea raise her head and look at Ryoka. The Dryad lifted a hand as Gilaw hopped aside.
“Thank you, Gilaw.”
Ryoka blinked at Fithea. Then the wind howled. It blew her to the side, and she stumbled. Then she looked down at the arrows made out of wood sticking out of her left leg and stomach.
Menorkel’s head turned. He saw the Wind Runner waver—then the wind slammed her into the wall. It stopped the floor of the palace from smashing her flat as Fithea dragged up a slab of stone and slammed it down.
Ryoka was fumbling for a potion. The arrows were digging into her. Trying to grow into—she was screaming as she dragged a potion out, tearing an arrow from her flesh. Ryoka smashed the potion against her skin as the wind threw her away from another spell. A spire of stone blossomed beneath her and would have skewered her like a rat, but for another last-second dodge.
“Fithea! What are you doing?”
Menorkel was screaming in horror. Gilaw had frozen, eyes wide, looking at the Dryad. The old immortal was pointing, and another shower of arrows flew at Ryoka, and the wind snapped them in midair. She frowned as Ryoka began to heal.
A wall exploded, and the shrapnel cut Ryoka’s back to pieces. But the potion was still working on her, and it was one of the best potions House Shoel had. Fithea hissed.
“There was an age when healing potions were not so plentiful. When those would have been death-wounds in battle. Gilaw, Menorkel, stand aside.”
Fithea was trying to kill her. Ryoka realized it as she drew the Faeblade. She leapt from another spire of stone, cut apart an axe made of wood slashing for her face with the Faeblade—she was dodging, reacting on instinct.
Fithea was trying to kill her. Ryoka understood something at the speed of thought. The trap for her. But why…?
She was weaving, the air helping her dodge the sprays of stone and arrows Fithea was conjuring. But the Dryad was an expert from an older era; while Ryoka was busy weaving through the air, a little loop of vine caught her leg. She came to a halt as the wind cracked her entire body in the air. Dazed, Ryoka dangled there. Then Fithea pointed, and the vine slammed Ryoka into the ground. She was covered in vines in a second.
“There. It would have been so easy had you died to that spell. Now, I must take Gilaw and Menorkel and the worthy and leave. You are as troublesome as Rhisveri claimed.”
Fithea watched as the Wind Runner gasped up at her. Ryoka’s body was screaming at her.
Why? How? What had she done to Fithea? Anyone would have made more sense to Ryoka. Even Rhisveri or Visophecin.
But the petrified Dryad looked triumphant. No…that faded yellow light in her eyes grew bright, dangerous, and Fithea’s voice rose. The Dryad was…trembling. Her body was old wood, so old it had gone to stone and then been covered with moss and lichen. A parody of the bright being born of great forests.
She was the last of her kind. A Dryad who had despaired at ever seeing her people blossom, who had taken in other immortals. A lonely being who had craved even the memory of true earth magic in the obol.
So why was she smiling? She came forwards.
“You brought death here, Ryoka Griffin.”
Then something about the way she said it caught Ryoka’s ears. Fithea said that word so longingly. The Dryad bowed her head.
“I have heard her voice. Faintly at first—then louder. Death whispers in my ear. A story so old that even the oldest forests only whispered it when I was a sapling. Yet Death walks this world again. The Maiden, the Mother, the Matriarch. Kasigna.”
Ryoka’s ears burned at that word. Did she just…? Ryoka flashed back to the gathering of the fae, Oberon’s warning. She felt a terrible dread creeping up her body. Her right hand hurt. She felt two fingers, burning.
“Yes. There are things older even than I. And she has told me her return is nigh. For you, for your little life—she has sworn to return my kin. Nothing is beyond her.”
The Dryad was laughing and weeping tears like sap. She had gone mad. She had spoken to the Goddess of Death, strongest of the six, and been promised the souls of her kind. Rebirth.
Gilaw and Menorkel had no context for any of this. They only saw Fithea putting a finger on Ryoka’s body as the vines began cutting Ryoka apart.
“Fithea! Stop, stop!”
Menorkel tore forwards. The young man ripped the vines free, crying out in pain as they cut his hands. Fithea turned to him.
“Menorkel! Stop! She is bound for death!”
“Fithea…that’s a monster. Don’t listen to her.”
“Be silent. You are a mortal. You don’t know whom you speak of. She is a g—she is one of the…she is the—”
Fithea struggled with that word. Gilaw was hesitating, looking at Ryoka and her gentle, if stern mother. She had never seen Fithea like this; the Dryad’s legs were spattered with Ryoka’s blood. Menorkel tore Ryoka free of the coffin of vines, and Fithea looked at him.
“Menorkel, enough. My forests, my people—enough.”
“Fithea, I w—”
Ryoka saw a spire of earth hit Menorkel. A wall of the palace collapsed inwards, and she stared at the hole in shock.
Gilaw croaked. Fithea looked at the gap in the wall and turned to Ryoka. She was shaking, now.
“My forest. Die for my forests, Ryoka Griffin. You are a traitor to the oldest powers.”
Ryoka Griffin felt sick. She looked at Fithea and shook her head. Her hand hesitated as she held the Faeblade.
“Fithea. The gods are dead. They must stay that way. This is wrong. Menorkel…what have you done?”
She aimed the Faeblade at where Fithea’s heart should be. The Dryad reached out—and the blade of concentrated light shattered at a touch.
“I will not be alone any longer. You are the wind in the trees, Wind Runner. I was the land itself.”
The earth opened up beneath Ryoka, and she fell towards a world of spikes, stakes of wood and stone. The wind dragged Ryoka up, but Fithea clapped her hands, and the wind—faded.
“You are not the only one who knows wind magic.”
Ryoka fell, screaming, and Gilaw grabbed her. The Human girl looked up into a gigantic beak as claws seized her. Two black wings opened, and Fithea shouted.
“Gilaw! Stop! Let her drop! Kill her!”
The Griffin hesitated, but she disobeyed her mother. Fithea pointed a finger at Gilaw as she tried to fly out of the palace. Gilaw stared with wide eyes. Ryoka croaked.
“Fithea. The door is open. Don’t…”
She saw the Dryad hesitate. That finger wavered—then Fithea fired a lance of wood through Gilaw’s wings. The Griffin screamed. Ryoka saw it. She grabbed the Faeblade.
Her scream was despairing. The Dryad watched her adopted daughter fall, and the ground opened to swallow them both. She was now weeping sap as red as blood from those hollow eyes. And her mouth was open. She was trying to smile.
A hand caught Gilaw before the ground could swallow them. Gently, a giant’s hand…a Titan, a young one, cradled Gilaw. Ryoka looked up, and her eyes went round.
Menorkel was crying too. But the other hand rose and struck Fithea. The entire palace shook. Ryoka saw Menorkel trying to lower Gilaw down—then the world exploded into root and vine. It raced up his entire body. The entire hidden wing of the palace was covered in green. It swallowed the Titan, and Ryoka saw Fithea emerge.
Her stone body was cracked, but the Dryad was unleashing her magic. It covered everything—a wave of green that ate into the palace, swallowed people.
Menorkel was being brought down by thorns and roots trying to strangle him and Gilaw as he shielded them. Ryoka leapt from the Titan’s arms. She flew towards Fithea. She had only the Faeblade in her hands.
“Fithea, the gate is open! The land of the Fae! Don’t do this!”
“The land of…”
For a second, the Dryad hesitated. She looked around, and that conviction wavered. But then she looked at her wards, immobilized, being choked, the palace she had helped build engulfed in leaves. When she looked at Ryoka, there was an insanity in her eyes.
“But that is me, and I will be alone, even if my kin are there. I was promised everyone. Death is kind.”
“She lies. Fithea. Don’t make me do this.”
Ryoka held the Faeblade in hand. Fithea just looked past her, at Menorkel, as a wall of red plants the color of the Bloodfields sprang up around Ryoka and her.
“Your sword can cut nothing of magic. Don’t cry, Gilaw, Menorkel. No one will die again. We will be Death’s chosen. Even Rhisveri is nothing compared to her. The day of her return will be soon.”
Ryoka looked at Fithea, and her own tears were running down her face. Fithea turned to Ryoka and aimed a finger at her, ignoring the Faeblade. She didn’t care for it; she had seen it break, and it was a thing of technology, not the Faerie King’s obol. She controlled the wind, the earth, and she was a spellcaster second only to Visophecin and Rhisveri.
She looked at the bright pink light of the Faeblade. Then the yellow glow of her eyes flickered in confusion.
The Faeblade ignited. It was not light which sprang from the handle. It was…fire. All the heat in the world, maybe plasma. Maybe just directed flame.
Ryoka had changed the output of the Faeblade according to the manual. The creators had designed it to kill any number of threats. Now it spat heat, and heat, mere flame, was worthless in space unlike light. But in this world…
It could destroy an Archmage’s enchantments. The hardlight, which was useless against anything made of magic, was different from flame.
A burning, bright pink sword of flame shot out and touched Fithea’s chest. It burnt her body of old root and stone black in a second. Fithea gasped—then she shrieked.
Ryoka Griffin saw the petrified stone refusing to burn. Then the flames found their way into a heart of wood deep in that body of stone. Proof that the Dryad was still there. That there was a seed of something glorious deep beneath the stone and death. The tears baked on Ryoka’s cheeks as the Dryad put up her hands.
Around Ryoka, the green world screamed, and Gilaw looked up as the Wind Runner stood there, flaming sword in hand. She saw an ashen body collapse. The Wind Runner fell to her hands and knees. She looked at what remained of the last Dryad. Then at Gilaw and Menorkel.
She would never forget how they stared at her. The Wind Runner got up to run away, to run to Rhisveri—then she stopped. She walked towards them.
They flinched. Ryoka felt sick. She was shaking in horror. She felt that crack in the world and knew there was no time. Something was happening. In the distance, she heard more screaming as people saw the sky explode. Visophecin and Eldavin were fighting to the death.
But she stood there one second and knelt by the two. Looked into their eyes.
“I need to tell you something.”
Before she ran, the Wind Runner had to stay. She looked up and saw the trap closing.
The dead gods’ plans.
The Lightning Dragon had battled the Wyvern Lord in the skies for an hour. She didn’t know where Ressa was. She and the Wyvern Lord had fought each other, the monsters of the High Passes…
And when Rafaema looked in his eyes, she saw more than a monster. Not the same knowledge as another Drake, but an intelligence far too keen.
The young Dragon landed on a crag of rock melted by lightning and covered with ice. The Wyvern Lord roared a weary challenge to her as his pack watched.
“Enough. Why are we fighting?”
He hissed at her, and she looked at him with no knowledge. And yet…Rafaema saw how he warily circled her, hissing, staring at her. She realized—it was her.
Like when she and Cire had first met. This was his land. And she…she looked at the Wyvern and wondered if he were like her.
The Wyvern Lord watched suspiciously as a young Drake appeared, concealing her true nature. She held up her claws, and he inhaled warily.
“Stop. Here. Here. Will this do?”
Slowly, Rafaema took something from her belt and tossed it down. She offered him her sword. The Wyvern sniffed at the sword suspiciously, then growled at her. Rafaema hesitated—then she produced her bag of holding and emptied it onto the ground.
Gold pieces fell by the hundreds into a pile. The Wyvern’s eyes blinked at it, then at Rafaema. She waited—and it flicked a tongue out.
A growl was her only answer. Rafaema stared at the Wyvern Lord and then slowly unbuckled her plate armor. She removed it and stood in her clothes, glaring at him. Then she tossed her vambraces, gloves…and the last five bottles of frozen healing potion down.
The Wyvern Lord considered Rafaema, then snorted. It gave her a wide, toothy grin, and she hissed at it. But then she warily changed back.
The Lightning Dragon and Wyvern Lord looked at each other, and he flapped a wing and went to inspect the spoils of his victory. She gave him a narrow-eyed look and slunk away. Just like when she and Cire had fought…
Winner took all. But only possessions, not life. The two, Wyvern and Dragon, looked at each other and saw two of a different kind. He ducked his head uncertainly, and Rafaema flew down, painfully, but alive. They could find some common ground and respect.
Not elsewhere. When the first drops of blood fell, they wouldn’t stop until one or the other was dead. That was pride and rage and…
Rafaema heard a sudden sound ring out in the High Passes. It was a terrible roar that filled everything. Monsters ran; the Wyverns took flight in alarm. The Lightning Dragon spun. She dove, searching, calling for Ressa. Hurry—she followed the source of that sound. It shook the air. It was so familiar…the Dragon forced her torn wings to flap harder, fly faster. Everything in her soul was telling her—
Eldavin and Visophecin were killing each other. The Lucifen and Dragon were equally matched at first. Or so it seemed to the armies watching their duel.
Portals opened, spitting dark magic everywhere. The Lucifen was calculation and hidden traps, dark magic and order. Eldavin was elemental rage incarnate, endless spells firing, maneuvering as he flew across the battlefield.
Teleportation magic. The portal magic of the Lucifen, Eldavin was flying with fiery wings.
A glorious battle?
One of them would die. And with each second, the two grew more desperate, more vicious. Visophecin’s polite mask slipped as he was engulfed in flame. He walked out of it, burning, and Eldavin snarled as a hole opened in his side. But his body knit.
“That’s not regeneration magic. Something’s wrong with his body.”
The Lucifen were watching Visophecin fight. They were some of the few who could understand the scope of the magic. What they saw was the Dragon’s simulacrum. A beheading couldn’t kill him; he was healing, closing every wound.
Paxere was shaking with nerves.
That was inconceivable. Even Rhisveri had to use his true body to fight Visophecin. But the half-Elf was doing it. Uzine was letting Gadrea bandage his wounds, which refused to heal even with potions. The Agelum were watching grimly.
“He fights with more skill than even the Goblin King’s best [Mages] did. Who is he? Visophecin…he’s losing.”
Gadrea just watched as Visophecin darted into another portal. Her eyes swiveled around at the watchers.
“—He’s in the open. He can’t drag this into his domain. You Lucifen fight better in your space. And he can’t reveal all his tricks here.”
In their pocket domains, in the places they owned. Visophecin was fighting with illusions on. But the greatest difference between the two were their bodies. Eldavin was healing. No—the center of it all was…
“His mana supply. How much power does he have? Only Rhisveri has more. And he is…”
Sophridel was wondering. They were all coming to a conclusion. Only a few beings could do this. Ryoka had told them that Eldavin was an immortal, like them. But this was…
The world split in two. Visophecin created a void which contracted into a hole in a moment, eating space. Eldavin dodged it and replied with a complex shower of [Valmira’s Comets] that changed angle, homed in on Visophecin, ricocheted—
The Lucifen walked like he was waltzing, twirling, knocking spells out of the air. His clothing was damaged, but he didn’t speak a word, just fought. Then—he stepped in the wrong place, and Paxere realized what Eldavin had done.
“No! He’s put him in the ritual spell! The one that got us!”
The Lucifen looked up as a pentagram traced itself on the ground. Eldavin came to a halt.
“[Pentagram of the Five Alchemies: Annihilation].”
Five spells: a wall of blue fire, a whirlwind of steel blades, a geyser of poisonous water, a lance of wood, and a blade of diamond formed that familiar pentagram, trapping Visophecin inside. The Lucifen spun as the pentagram flashed, unleashing the apex of magic on him.
—He had heard of this. Paxere had told Visophecin about the spell. The Lucifen’s eyes darted around. He picked a spot.
Wood, fire, water, metal, earth—each one arranged in a pentagram of weakness and strength. Visophecin cast a spell.
“[Body of Mithril].”
Then he leapt at the weak point—the lance of wood, which shattered on his metal body. The elemental ritual wavered, and the magic locus was broken. Visophecin escaped and looked up straight into Eldavin’s face.
“[Spear of the Lightning King].”
The Archmage of Memory hurled the bolt of lightning down, and the force of the impact knocked the front rank of Ailendamus’ forces down. The flash of lightning sent a charge through every piece of metal in ten miles.
He had expected Visophecin to try to break the [Pentagram of the Five Alchemies] by embodying one element. That did not mean you escaped; you left yourself open to another weakness.
The Dragonlord of Flame had fought a thousand battlefields, and the knowledge was half instinct in him now. He looked down…and faltered.
Visophecin was alive. The Devil stood, one arm shielding his face. The other arm had been blown off his body.
The Lucifen shouted in horror, and the Agelum rose. Visophecin stood there, looking at his missing arm.
The arrogance of immortals. Eldavin had not expected one of the Lucifen to match him this long. Visophecin…even knowing Eldavin was one of their kind, he had not expected to lose. He looked at his arm, and his eyes glowed red.
“Oh no. He’s losing his temper.”
Gadrea muttered. The younger Lucifen’s heads swung to the Agelum. They had never seen or heard of Visophecin—
Eldavin showered the Lucifen with more spells, trying to erase him. The cloud it kicked up was settling, and the Archmage of Memory was panting when something emerged from the smoke.
It was…not the Visophecin that Ailendamus knew. The one-armed man who had gone staggering into the cloud was gone.
A Devil emerged, skin dark with soot. Horns and bright red eyes over a pair of clawed hands. Sharp teeth—he was taller, and his missing arm had regrown.
“He’s activated his Warform! Cut the scrying spells! Tell them it’s a shape-changing—”
The Lucifen and other immortals severed the link to Wistram as Eldavin flew back uncertainly. The true Dragon might have remembered this, but the Archmage of Memory…
“What are you? Something born of Rhir? A Demon?”
Visophecin spoke, and his voice was like the tolling of a death sentence. It had no empathy, only a boiling hatred.
“No. Not so kind. [Law of the Lucifen: Cease Breathing].”
The spell engulfed Eldavin and the Dawn Concordat’s forces in a vast bubble of dark command, like an aura. Men and women grabbed at their throats and choked. Even Eldavin himself, eyes bulging in fury.
Visophecin pointed, and a hundred portals opened up, spitting bolts of death magic into the Archmage from every angle. Eldavin’s mouth opened in a wordless roar, and the world—
“Did he just break the law of…?”
The Archmage of Memory flew at Visophecin and received a slash from those wicked claws as the two closed ground and began firing spells point-blank. But now Gadrea was mustering Azemith, Igolze, and the oldest of their number.
“We have to grab Visophecin. He cannot sustain his Warform for more than a few more minutes. He is losing.”
Visophecin was no Agelum. Even empowered, he was losing to the Archmage of Memory in hand-to-hand combat as Eldavin summoned a blade from Drath and drove it into Visophecin’s shoulder.
Yet even now—the Devil raised one hand, and his kin halted. He was shaking with fury, but there was a cold logic in those eyes.
He was trying to wear Eldavin down. Visophecin had realized he was outmatched. The half-Elf had shattered one of his domains with pure mana. Now—he was trying to exhaust Eldavin so they could kill him. They needed Rhisveri or to attack at once.
Eldavin had taken the opposite approach. He intended to kill Visophecin rather than let him escape, rid Ailendamus of their best spellcaster.
More magic. He drew from what he now knew was his true body. Not just scraps or enough to fuel one spell. He pulled everything he could. Tapped deep into the heart of the slumbering Dragon’s reservoirs.
He had Visophecin as the Lucifen fought. Eldavin was dragging him upwards, and he was going to erase the Lucifen with pure magic. No teleportation. No tricks or games, just overload him with more power than Visophecin had left.
He pulled at it, and the magic filled him to the brim. Yes. Yes! The Archmage’s eyes were burning as Visophecin howled—
—And in Wistram, the God of Magic’s spell activated. The Dragon had pulled enough magic for the spell to activate. Bereft of the God of Magic to activate it himself, it had lain there. Waiting. Waiting…
Now it cast itself, and the magic reached out across the world and found something. A spell so complicated that even Visophecin and Eldavin, locked in combat, both hesitated a moment.
What is that? The greatest spellcasters saw something settling over Eldavin. Reaching into him—but not fighting him for control of his fake body. It was going after—
The link that only Eldavin should have known was there. The Archmage of Memory’s eyes went wide in a sudden terror. The magic homed on the link between Dragon and simulacrum. And it—made—
Eldavin suddenly lit up with magic. The Lucifen shielded their eyes. He had been about to obliterate Visophecin, but this made even them halt in terror.
A [Mage] went blind in agony, clawing at their eyes. Eldavin screamed in confusion. More magic than he had ever dreamed of was flooding him! Then—it was gone. Drained, he felt his body—
Magic surged through him. He was overwhelmed, exploding with it—it was gone—like a flickering bulb, he was filled and emptied of magic as it raced through the connection between him and his body in a moment.
“What is h—”
Flicker. Flicker. The magic was passing through him and his true self. Every second. Every half-second—exploding through his artificial body. Racing through the Dragon’s beating heart.
A Dragon was a magical being, but nothing could withstand that. Nothing was meant to take that much power and—it flashed between them. Ten times in a minute as Visophecin flew back. Twenty times. Eight times a second.
A spell from old ages, when simulacra had existed. Magic woven by the greatest expert there was or ever would be. A spell from the God of Magic to rid himself of a dangerous element he could not predict in his great game.
A simulacra-killer. It was aimed at one thing. Forcing the spell to overload both bodies until the one thing that could give—
Eldavin, Teriarch, opened his eyes. A Dragon in his cave opened his eyes, and the brilliant brass scales that had not seen light in so long flashed. He raised his head as an Archmage clutched at his chest, screaming. The Dragon roared, and the High Passes shook.
Then the sound faded. That heart that had beat for so long.
Thump. Thump. Thumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthump—
Stopped. The Dragon looked around. Then he put his head down and closed his eyes. Never to wake.
The man lasted a little longer. Eldavin, the Archmage of Memory, hovered in the air, and Visophecin and the army of Ailendamus, gazing up at him in terror, saw a calm, terribly resigned look upon his face.
He touched at his chest and felt nothing there. He felt the last magic in him keeping him alive. But…there was nothing at the other end.
“What have I done?”
He looked at his hands. Then he gazed down at the armies. The half-Elf bowed his head and then shouted for the world to hear.
“People of Terandria. Warriors, enemies, mine. Hear me now. I am slain.”
Such calm words. Spoken like a warrior of old, informing them just so, for such things should be done right if at all. Eldavin’s head hung. He looked around, and his smile was bitter and tired and empty.
“Flee. Leave this spot. For I am dead, and where I fall—nothing shall remain.”
A single body fell from the sky and landed on the ground. Both armies looked, uncomprehending, at the half-Elf who lay there a moment. Then slowly got up and began to walk. The last vestiges of magic burned in him. A Dragon’s worth of fire. He began to walk away, looking at his body as it began to dissolve.
No one, not Visophecin, wounded, not Eldavin’s people, knew the whole of what had occurred. Only that the Immortals of Ailendamus wept, for they felt it. Despite being their enemy, one of their kin had died. They turned back to the mortals. And there was only death now. The laughing dead gods.
She had been defeated. She was not the most dangerous thing in the skies. Her heritage, the name of her species, her birthright, did not make her better than monsters or a Wyvern.
Rafaema didn’t care. She flew down to where she had seen Ressa, weary, humbled, bloodied, and battered beyond belief. She saw a body lying against the lip of a cave that had not been there a moment ago.
The Lightning Dragon bent over a woman in tattered [Maid]’s clothing. A hand jerked, and a broken blade halted in front of Rafaema’s face.
“It’s you. Isn’t it…?”
The woman wasn’t sure. She was staring around. The Lightning Dragon looked into the cave uncertainly.
“Go. I didn’t open it. Something…the magic went away.”
Ressa was staring into the cave. She was as wounded as Rafaema, if not more so. But she hadn’t entered, though the cave had opened a few minutes after the roar shook the High Passes. She was afraid to.
Alone, the Lightning Dragon slowly crawled forwards into the cave, limping slightly. She saw how plain the rock was, how shabby and dark this place was. A terrible place for an intelligent creature to live. A hideaway in the middle of nowhere, too small for her to spread her wings and fly.
It widened after a while, and she came to a brighter spot where someone had installed a modicum of civilization. Marble floor plucked from somewhere else, a lantern inserted into a wall…and a glowing barrier.
Something lay beyond it. The Lightning Dragon halted in front of the entrance and tried to see inside. She smelled a lot of metal, magic…and something she had wanted to see all her life. She heard a voice as she halted behind the glowing magic.
“Intruder. I do not know how you found this place, but that you have found it means you have, by virtue of extraordinary luck or intention, stumbled upon my domain. If you are hearing this…it means I am dead.”
The voice was deep, old, and…Rafaema stared blankly up at the magic.
“That you have entered here is surely after my treasures. I regret to inform you, visitor, that since you are here, the likelihood is far greater that you have had a hand in my death. In which case, I must remind you: when a Dragon falls, naught remains. Perish, along with my hoard.”
“No. No—not after so long!”
The Lightning Dragon whirled, but a barrier had closed off her exit. Ressa’s head rose outside the cave as a shimmering barrier of impassible power closed off the cave. A Dragon’s last revenge.
Rafaema felt a spell activating behind her. But as she opened her mouth, blasting the rock and exit with magic, she felt the crescendo of vengeance halt, and the voice spoke again.
“Ah. One moment. My spell appears to have detected you are one of my kind. I suppose you may be the Dragonlords of War or Waves, in which case I would kindly ask you to trigger the kill-spell and off yourselves, you pathetic ingrates. I cannot imagine you bested me fairly.”
The voice hesitated, and a Dragon gulped as he recorded his last words. Rafaema listened to that voice as it croaked, a moment, then picked up again, almost whispering now.
“…But perhaps you are not. Perhaps you are one of my kind, be it Wyrm or Wyvern. Perhaps you slew me, and you deserve all the vengeance of mortals. No matter who it is though—my kin. I am tired of watching us die. Let me be the last. So. Enter. Be welcome. Remember, I was Teriarch. Dragonlord of Flame.”
Then the magic faded, and the killing spell dissipated. Rafaema stared blankly up at the ceiling. One overengineered final trap by a Dragon who had prepared for every eventuality. She stood there, mouthing that name.
Then the light showed her what lay beyond. A grandiose treasury of countless artifacts; only the best, rarest, would do. The hoard of a Dragon. A hoarder’s hoard. The Lightning Dragon wrinkled her snout at it all.
What good were jewels and gold? Or even the fancy books, but…vainglory? Memory? To have and to hold was a Drake and Dragon conceit, but surely one tired of it.
Unless the objects were a memory unto themselves. Something that would not fade or die. A way to pass time. She walked forwards and halted.
She had almost missed him there. Taken him for a pile of gold because those burnished scales of brass reflected everything so beautifully, and he was curled up upon himself. Rafaema of Manus halted, and her breath stilled in her chest.
For there was a Dragon. A brass Dragon lay in his hoard, eyes closed. Lying on his side.
He was not sleeping. She ran forwards.
“No. No! Not after all this! I came as fast as I could. How can you do this to me? I was so close!”
She rammed into him, far smaller, and saw how old he must be. Rafaema put her head next to his chest but heard no sound at all. She knew…knew it had been just a few minutes ago. When he had roared and that heart had ceased.
Teriarch lay there, eyes closed forevermore. Rafaema looked at him and around this vast and lonely cavern. This hidden refuge with all the treasures of the world. And the one she had come here to find…gone.
The young Dragon did not roar or rage. She did not weep, either. She slowly crawled forwards. Looked up at the Dragon and curled up next to him. She lay there, wings covering her face, and didn’t move as the [Maid] followed her and wept.
The young woman wept too as she walked away from the dead Dryad. Towards the Wyrm. It was all over.
Teriarch was dead. But she still walked, leaving the Griffin and Titan behind to try to make sense of it all. They could have killed Fithea’s murderer, but they didn’t.
An entire glorious life, gone. Now—Ryoka Griffin understood. No. She was done with chasing prophecies. She knew the only thing she wanted.
She wanted that scroll. And she wanted…one more chance. So she walked, sword in hand, to challenge a Wyrm for a treasure. For a friend. A good person.
Erin Solstice? Teriarch?
“Why can’t they all come back? Why do I have to lose them all?”
The Wind Runner was one of every single person in the world, any world, that was and would ever be that would one day ask that question. Why now? Why not a second chance?
What would you give for that second chance? What would you do?
Challenge god or death itself? Make great war? What rule was so inviolate that you would not break to gain something like a Scroll of [Resurrection]? Assuming it worked?
They believed. The guests of the Faerie King, the denizens and refugees, all asked that question. Whether it was for them, for their loves, their family…
Whether it was a King of Chivalry who wished to change the fate he had left his kingdom. A lone Wyrm. One of countless billions who wept for someone.
A nation missing a hero. A friend looking for a friend.
They gathered. The Wyrm’s announcement, his auction had run through the realm of the Faerie King. So the day Oberon gathered them in his court—they were too many to fill any normal space in any building ever conceived.
Representatives of worlds apart disembarked great vessels. Fleets hovered, poised for…something. Mortals strutted, armed, into a gathering where Dragonfolk walked in mortal bodies and alliances had been struck.
All to one end to buy or…take what they wanted. Yet all those who had even a whit of intelligence looked at the being on the throne and the other empty seat and thought twice.
He was the Faerie King. Once, there had been a Faerie Queen, but taking up arms against him…
Oberon sat upon his throne, and he also stood at the gateways on those hills, surrounded by flowers. He stood amidst the offerings, the riches of lifetimes, material, and weapons of every make and caliber, secrets and objects worthy of stories—in many places at once.
It was all perspective, and his court, now the Winter Fae once more, stood around him. Only one being refused to change.
Melidore, the Summer Fae standing like one unfading bloom amidst the cold folk of the Tuatha Dé. Ivolethe was looking into that gap in reality.
“Your Majesty. Who will take the scroll? You must make a choice, or this Wyrm. And we must have our say.”
One audacious representative demanded, and the Wild Hunt stirred. The greatest warriors in the land of the Fae bared their blades, but they were facing multiple realities, and there were those who would challenge even greater foes than them.
There were gods seeking cures for even their kind’s death.
And then there was Rhisveri’s wide, self-satisfied smile. The King of the Fae opened the crack in worlds, and he was there.
“Ah, Your Majesty of the Fae. I present the object all must surely desire. A scroll to return anyone to life. I take it my payment is ready. How shall we begin this choosing? Shall we negotiate upon your fee?”
Oberon, the Faerie King, held the door open, and it was not a light thing to do. He stood there, the avatar of fall, a laurel of faded autumn leaves on his head.
…A crown made by the greatest smiths ever known across any realms on his head…
…Wearing nothing, his hair the only crown he had ever needed. The crown was him…
The Faerie King gazed at the Wyrm, and Rhisveri’s confidence faltered. The representatives of each nation were tensed, weapons drawn, preparing to argue or simply try and steal the scroll that sat in a glass case.
So small. Grand enough in its way; it felt like that first breath after drowning. It drew the eye, like a spark in the darkness of a monitor. It even filled the air with magic, like a heartbeat.
“I see it. That was made with more than mortal craft. That has the power of the divine in it. Then perhaps it is all we seek.”
A god in the court of the fae, a young one, leaned forwards and whispered. He looked around, and his expression wavered.
For there stood three Kings of Knights. There was Nama, holding her offerings. There was the Winter Court and Dragons and Wyrms and every visitor there was to the realm of the Fae and travelers from further still. A Phoenix with a handbag, a fleet from distant stars. Hundreds of realms.
Even Rhisveri’s confidence faltered as he began to take in that gathering. Even that crack in the world wasn’t enough to show them all, and he was caught in the spotlight. He gazed at Sikeri and Wyrms larger and older than he had thought could exist. They could wrap around his world and squeeze it to pieces.
All of them wanted what he had. Still…the Faerie King did not speak. Rhisveri was just about to suggest they somehow expedite choosing the gifts when it happened.
“Your Majesty! We beg the right to offer this ‘Wyrm’ the first gift! Let us make a quick deal of it!”
A desperate diplomat threw the only card they could, and the court burst into arguments. Rhisveri licked his lips. He saw a Dragon roar and spread his wings, and it seemed like the violence might begin.
Then…then the Faerie King lifted one finger to his lips. He spoke one word into that gathering.
The word ran through the realms of the fae. It silenced even gods, and it overpowered even the fiercest desire. Rhisveri’s wide grin faded. The King of the Fae looked at him, and the uncertain Wyrm wavered.
“Then…do you desire it yourself, Your Majesty? I will take your offer among all others if it is fair.”
The Wyrm had not missed that other empty throne. Every eye turned to the Faerie King uncertainly. Yes…if he wanted it, what could they do? This was his place. It might mean the greatest of wars, but he had need for that scroll too.
The Faerie King’s eyes locked on the scroll a moment, and everyone heard that whisper.
“Titania. Queen of the Fae.”
“Maeve. Queen of the Fae.”
A flower rested on that hill outside this gate. A terrible loss. Yet the Faerie King just shook his head, and a voice mocked Rhisveri.
“Aye, ye daft cunt. And you think your oh so powerful magic would bring back the Queen of the Fae herself? Was it made by aught that was more powerful than she?”
Rhisveri recoiled as one of the Fae turned to him. She sneered at the Wyrm. It was her counterpart, Melidore, who finished Ivolethe’s explanation.
“That scroll has the power of the divine behind it. But it cannot unmake a god. So how can it return one to life? Mortals, surely. Even those whom time will never touch. If one could so easily bring back the Queen of the Fae, she would live again with or without your bauble.”
Everyone exhaled in relief. Or was it disappointment? Then they looked at Oberon again. Then…why his words? Rhisveri’s tongue flickered out of his mouth, wetting his lips.
“King of the Fae, would you kindly, ah, elucidate us with meaning? I thought this auction was agreed upon.”
Rhisveri saw the Faerie King regarding him. He realized something, in the time it took for that look on the Faerie King’s face to change.
He had dared the Courts of the Tuatha Dé. He had cast his great treasure into the realms of every world with all the arrogance of his kind. Rhisveri had thought he had outsmarted the Faerie King. He had certainly thought he had bested Ryoka Griffin.
But he had never heard the Faerie King agree to an auction. He had just…inferred it. Believed that even the Faerie King would like the auctioneer’s fee for a treasure this great.
When he put it like that…the Wyrm realized the oldest truth of every dealing. No one ever got what they wanted from the fae. But they didn’t tell those stories in his world. And the one person who could have told him, Ryoka Griffin, he’d refused to listen to.
The Faerie King’s face slowly changed. Those distant eyes, the auspices of fall, twinkled. And then, the king with the crown, the king of the woods, the king of the fae—all his natures and perspectives…
And Oberon, the King of the Fae—vanished. The horrified Wyrm stared at the empty air.
Yet the crack in the door remained. The King of the Fae just…changed where it was pointed to. His audience cried out in outrage and confusion. And then…stared.
They looked into a strange world, one with no real end or beginning. No light or air…more of a concept than anything else. Mortals shouted in horror, for they looked into an afterlife.
The ghosts of this world turned and gazed at that crack into the lands of the fae. And the guests of the Faerie King looked up and saw the ghosts; the dead gods were practically ignored. What they saw, what they screamed and clawed at their faces at the sight of, was them.
The Seamwalkers. They turned, that mass of things half-realized, consuming souls, and they were caught like the foundation of nightmares and insanity before the bright spotlight of the Faerie King’s eyes.
His guests turned away in horror. A Dragon spread his wings. He bellowed, a champion from another world, and breathed flame that could have melted any ring in the world.
“This world is infested! I see the death of reality!”
Another voice cried out, shaking. A goddess pointing down in horror, spilling the ambrosia of whatever they ate.
“The Rot Between Worlds!”
Suddenly, the Courts of the Faerie King were in uproar. Those who knew what they beheld shouted amidst those who had only legends or stories.
“I have never seen so many. That—that many could devour a thousand stellar empires given time. What is wrong with them?”
“They look hungry.”
Then some realized where they were. They blanched at the gateway. A trembling hand of the divine pointed through the crack.
“This was the hegemony of gods. Their grand…this was where they gathered and where that war took place. It is overrun. They are here.”
Five dead gods stared into that crack in the sky, uncomprehending. What was he doing? The Faerie King showed them all, pointing into the darkness of the afterlife as the ghosts turned. It was one of the Dragons who finally spoke, raising his voice amidst the shouting.
“I see it. I see it, now. This is the plague that threatens us once more? It is this you wished to show us?”
That head nodded, and the Dragon bowed. Slightly shamefaced—a courtier wrapped in the body he had assumed, rather than his full form.
“Your Majesty. We withdraw our complaint and beg the forgiveness of the Tuatha Dé. I see now that any object from that place would be—tainted. We take your warning to heart.”
His kin looked at him and then out.
Seamwalkers. They had many names, but they were all headed towards that crack in reality now. Clawing, drawing closer. And these were only the ones born of this world. At last…the court began to understand.
The Faerie King had a hand in a library’s worth of stories. A library without end, with shelves reaching up to the sky. Each book a thrilling story, a sad tale, an adventure of a million lifetimes.
A journey so long it preceded even him. He touched them all, and the possibly primate-based librarians could have organized every story by when he was there.
Oberon, in his many guises, across the many perspectives of him. The great warrior, the noble king, the petty immortal no better than those who came to his court. The inscrutable ruler of a dying land.
This moment—this Faerie King wrote an entry in countless stories. He pointed, and the worlds open to this moment, their representatives looked at the Seamwalkers of the Lost Realms. The rot of ages, doom of sanity.
The dead gods. The ghosts locked in strife and their own mortal frailty. As the young woman skidded into the room with the Wyrm, they caught a fragment of the Faerie King as he stood back.
He looked at the Wyrm and young woman, and one eye flashed with the heart of fall, the mischief of the fae.
Oberon…winked. Then he turned to his court of visitors. And Ryoka realized it really wasn’t about her after all.
Perhaps it was larger than even her. Like Cara, she was walking across an even larger stage for an audience of…
This was the day the Faerie King showed the gathered nations who had come for a drop of revival, resurrection, the death of worlds. This was the Faerie King’s trick, his warning to the realms who would heed it or fall screaming in their own time.
It was not about Rhisveri or Ryoka.
The guests of the Faerie King looked at each other, suddenly aware of how fragile the box of reality they existed in was. How hungry the things trying to get in were. They whispered stories, their own horrors. The slow ones finally picked up on the fact that no, they would not be bidding for the scroll. The Faerie King did not run auctions.
The Daoine Sídhe, the Tuatha Dé, whatever you wanted to call them, faeries, were laughing at them. A traveller from another realm with the light of the sun in his eyes bowed before Oberon. A god lifted a bow and a single arrow. Not in outrage, but supplication.
“Your Majesty. As you will it. Before this omen passes. I ask one thing.”
For they had seen the ghosts doing battle, the last stand and blight overrunning them. And the five dead things whispering their names as the fae denied them, shouting over their voices. The bright-eyed warrior’s eyes blazed with hatred. He met the Faerie King’s gaze, which twinkled as he waited.
“…May we offer one parting gift to this plague?”
Thus, the Faerie King sat on his throne as every head turned to him. Slowly, ever so slowly as he looked at them all, he nodded his head. So the god of the sun turned and put an arrow to his bow. He loosed it through that crack in the world, and it burned through a dozen bodies.
Dragons leapt into the air and breathed flames which roared through the doorways. Wyrms screamed insults that split the air and hurled acid. The Phoenix tossed the handbag.
It was not just in the court of the Faerie King; they might have hit each other if they were aiming for a single spot. The crack in the world was so vast entire armies were launching arrows through, close enough to hit a Seamwalker—far enough to call upon any weapon. The screaming battle that emerged through the crack silenced the ghosts.
Erin Solstice looked up as she saw what could only be a…ghostly fever dream? Who was the guy with horns? Was that a spaceshi—
She saw the world turn into a second dawn as countless weapons flew through the crack between worlds. Time itself bent, such that Erin watched a single arrow loose from a bow and saw an entire fleet turn and open up with multiple salvos.
It was too much to take in. She felt like she was staring through a kaleidoscope, watching multiple places at once. A panicking dignitary pointed through the crack in reality, screaming even as their forces unleashed all their weapons.
“THOSE ARE RADIOACTIVE NUCLIDE WARHEADS. ABORT! ABORT! THE FALLOUT—”
A crackling intercom raced through one of the thousands of perspectives. At the same time, Erin ‘heard’ the crackling intercom as a bridge crew communicated with each other.
“(Nervis-grain Railguns. Firing. Full volley.)”
Erin turned to Marquin, who was staring upwards in awe. She pointed at something which flashed through the crack in the world. Erin saw a somewhat familiar object burning gas and fuel in this strange place, angling towards its intended target, counting down a timer.
“Hey. Did that guy just s—”
The flash lit up the entire sea—and it was one of eight. Erin Solstice’s mouth stayed open as she looked around. There was no air to shockwave outwards, and that did really weird things to the physics. They were also really lucky that the ghosts had no bodies. The blinding light itself didn’t last long; the Seamwalkers burned and shrieked, but only three fell.
In fact…not all the weapons being fired through were helping. One of the Seamwalkers looked up at the bloom of nuclear fire from the warheads as if sensing something that made it…stronger. It kept walking a second—until a glowing arrow struck it.
A fragment of the sun, so microscopic compared to the large being that it surely didn’t matter. Yet it kept going, burning a trail through the chitin and shell. The Seamwalker halted and began to claw at the arrow. Then the radiating heat caused flesh to burst into flame. Parasites burned and the flesh began to bubble—then disintegrate.
Other Seamwalkers and ghosts fled the glowing shape a moment before it vaporized itself into a ball of fire to dwarf the first explosions. It consumed everything…then faded.
One arrow. One Seamwalker.
There were so many. Yet each horrified realm was unleashing their full might. The bridge crew were cheering as they watched trails of light following their volley. Holes the size of…Erin gazed up at one Seamwalker falling, riddled with so many impacts that it was torn to pieces.
“(Kills. Sixteen. Continue firing.)”
Then—the crisscrossing volleys of light focused on one Seamwalker, and Erin saw a mask of bone and dripping flesh stumble a bit—and keep walking. Thirty-two beams of light hit it. Then again, lightning-fast, and it rocked slightly. Then it walked forwards, slathering obliviously.
The cheering from that place stopped. The crew confirmed, victory turning to uncertainty in a flash.
“(…No damage? Repeat scans.)”
“(No result. We can’t see—it is rising.)”
One of the ‘dead’ sixteen was getting up. The holes blasted in its body were closing, and it looked around, confused, then kept walking. Another had been shattered to pieces, and each piece was crawling, even if it shouldn’t. A piece of head sprouted little ‘legs’. A mouth opened in what had been putrid flesh.
“(It…it cannot do that. They have no traces on any sensors. Collect a sample—)”
“(Denied. DENIED. Keep firing. Redirect to target quadrant A33—)”
Horrified visitors were watching their great weapons doing spit, while a bunch of ‘magic fire’ melted one screaming Seamwalker into its own juices. They were witnessing the Faerie King’s warning themselves.
And no matter how humble, or great, they took a moment to cast one ray of defiance, one shard of help into the void. A flight of arrows landed across a Seamwalker’s back, and it stumbled. Just…arrows. Launched by a group of wild men and women with pointed ears and dark skin who raised their hands in regret. Gazing in awe at the ghosts of their half-kin.
A god’s javelin, striking target after target until even the divine weapon faltered and shattered upon a crest of decayed ivory. A burning orb of light that washed away color and consumed two Seamwalkers.
If only they could have fought forward. But the volley was a single, glorious, immortal moment that was just that. Endless and ending.
As for the ghosts, Erin, Gerial, Cawe, the rulers of Terandria, even the Dragonlords, they watched a storm of fire coming through the crack in reality. A twenty-one gun salute from the other realms a million times over.
It took months and a heartbeat. Then it was done, the guns smoking, the last arrow shot. A crew of soldiers removed their helms to look at Erin Solstice. A god with the eyes of the sun bowed once. Erin saw a strange salute from a people unlike her in almost every way, their glowing flesh neither skin nor scale nor fur. They still showed her everything she needed to see with one gesture.
The Seamwalkers fell, burning, and the Faerie King looked out into the world. He gazed at Erin. He looked at Cawe. He stared into Kasigna’s eyes as the Goddess of Death cursed him.
Slowly, that head nodded, and the fingers closed the gap between worlds. Leaving only the memory of fall where he had been.
A single moment, a temporary hand interfering. Enough to slay a score of Seamwalkers. Not change everything. All he could do, perhaps. The largesse of a ruler who remembered his enemies and honored his oaths.
Still, the Seamwalkers advanced. Still, the dead gods came on, enraged now, cursing his name but not quite daring to use it.
It had done nothing. It was a kind gesture, a single arrow at the end of the world. Erin Solstice hesitated. Or was it? That crack the Faerie King had opened…
Then she felt a tremor as the warheads of alien dimensions, magic, and the storm of attacks rippled through this realm. She saw Kasigna halt and raise her hands, as if she were a spider trying to repair a web. A mason trying to hold up a roof.
Then Erin Solstice saw it. A crack in reality. She felt the veil tear and thought she saw the Faerie King smiling at her. The ghosts looked up, and Marquin laughed.
The tear was even smaller than the door he’d opened. It was too small to flee through. But at last—after so long—
They all felt it.
Author’s Note: One more part.
Erin punching Grimalkin POV by LeChatDemon!
The ‘[Innkeeper]’ by Miguel!
A comic of Relc meeting Sserys by lnco!