The King of Avel, the current [King], was napping on his throne. He had slept lightly, having stayed awake with considerable, nay, understandable concern over what was going on.
He hadn’t taken part in the war with Ailendamus, although Avel had quietly shipped a lot of arrows to Gaiil-Drome. But his damn councilors and court had told him it was not wise to make a stink.
Anyways, he was hungry and he wished he were the Queen of Desonis. He’d heard she had parked a bed in the throne room and called it a throne. The King of Avel was, incidentally, once divorced. As usual, he was playing with the greatest relic of his kingdom: the Bow of Avel.
A weapon beyond any Named-rank adventurer. A bow that had Skills attached to it—the most powerful war resource of Avel.
He really liked it. Given his druthers, the King of Avel would spend all day shooting it. His court kept telling him it was ‘priceless’ and ‘could run out of magic’.
King Itreimedes of Avel had heard their concerns out and vouchsafed that if they had the most amazing relic of any age, they would probably want to use it too.
He was watching the war in Ailendamus with one eye as he called for snacks. The Archmage of Memory was dead? It looked like Ailendamus was preparing to charge the Dawn Concordat, and he gloomily supposed that was that.
Itreimedes had felt something…odd, which had woken him from his nap. It had been the strangest feeling ever, but that was all he could have said. Just for a moment, and then it was gone. He would have forgotten about it completely in the next minute and chased that worry that Avel was in danger he’d been feeling all week. Maybe seen what Khelt was doing.
Then he felt it.
“Your Majesty? Skelros?”
The stick-like plants that grew out of the ground were as to wheat for Avel; they germinated very well in rocky soil, and Avel had a lot of rocks and heights. You could noodle them with some effort or eat them dry, and his were dipped in a pleasing sauce because he had to watch his figure.
Another tyranny. Even so—this was the first time the King of Avel had ever slapped them out of his [Servant]’s hands.
“Your Majesty! Please!”
An exasperated councilor looked up from the war table where he and some [Strategists] were trying to calculate if this meant the Dawn Concordat were going to lose. The King of Avel was known to be impetuous, childish, but this—
The figure on the throne sat up, face dead-white…then he leapt off his throne and charged down the throne room.
“Your Majesty? Do you need the privv—ulp!”
He shoulder charged a [Duchess] down, bow in hand. Cries of shock and outrage filled the room as the King of Avel looked around. He ran towards a balcony—then gave up and charged for the doors.
“Open the doors! Open them!”
His bodyguard surged to attention and thrust the doors open. An outraged courtroom of Avel’s nobles and court followed King Itreimedes. His [Royal Advisor], who had also been his babysitter—and older sister—snapped.
“Your Majesty! What is the meaning of—”
She saw the [King] skid to a halt. He raised the Bow of Avel up, looked around, wild-eyed—and then activated the [Giant’s Arrow], the five arrows he could fire per day as large as—
“[Overpowering Shot]! [Ten League Mark]! [Doubled Volley]!”
The first arrow blasted into the sky like a second sun. A glowing meteor fired from the most powerful bow in Terandria. The royal court, charging at the King of Avel to give him a piece of their mind, turned and fled, screaming. King Itreimedes whirled, and everyone ducked as a second gigantic arrow aimed.
He fired the arrow through the top of a curtain wall and left naught but melted stone. A [Palace Guard] on her rounds stared at the melted hole right in front of her face.
The horrified onlookers saw the King of Avel activating another function of the bow. Crisscrossing volleys of arrows followed the second shot. Then he was muttering.
“[Bound Skill: My Arrow Shall Not Stop].”
He put the bow up, and that Skill could put a hole through a mountain in the right hands. The legends told that the greatest archer of Avel, the [Princess] who had once held that bow, actually had—
Everyone in Avel saw the third glowing arrow cross the skies. [Farmers] looked up in alarm, and people stopped in the streets as they saw the gigantic arrows hurtling into the air.
“What’s going on? Is Avel under attack?”
They raced to the Mage’s Guild and got word from the capital. A [Mayor] ran through the streets, screaming.
“Everyone take cover! His Majesty of Avel is using the Bow of Avel and shooting arrows in every direction!”
A widow wailed as she grabbed for her children.
“I knew it! I knew he’d snap one day! Someone stop that maniac!”
Everyone assumed that the obvious had happened; their beloved [King] had gone off the deep end of his very short pool.
Itreimedes certainly looked insane. He was wild-eyed, head rotating left and right, and he was fighting his sister and his court for the bow. He kicked an elderly [Strategist] in the stomach.
“Let go of me! I command you!”
“Stop! Stop! What’s gotten into you?”
He was fighting like a lion, and the [King] roared and his court had to step back as he threw his aura at them.
“In the name of Avel, step back! I must loose arrows! Avel is in danger! The bow is calling me—if I don’t answer it, it will break as surely as this kingdom!”
He whirled as they halted, glancing at each other. A mental break? But the King of Avel was staring around.
“Where are my targets? Where…?”
The man whirled and put an arrow to his bow. He frantically searched as he loosed another shot.
“I’m running out of bound arrows. Bring me every enchanted arrow from the armory! Get me [Captains] who can boost my aim! Hurry!”
They weren’t sure what to believe. His voice was hoarse, and the King of Avel could not name what he was aiming at. But his voice rang with a terrible conviction. And the bow…
The bow was shining. The court looked at the King of Avel, and then one of the [Court Mages] did something very sensible. He cast a spell, looked at His Majesty, and slapped himself so hard he nearly dislocated his own jaw. When he picked himself up, the [Royal Advisor] grabbed him.
The [Mage] pointed at the [King] of Avel with a trembling finger. The [King] himself paused, panting, fingers bleeding as he plucked at the string.
“He—His Majesty just leveled. Twice.”
The Level 36 [King of Bows] was now Level 38. In dead silence, the court looked at King Itreimedes. Any last doubts they might have that this was all some shared hallucination or madness was put to rest when they realized one thing.
King Itreimedes was loosing shots from his bow, and they hit the walls or unlucky birds, or even trees as he fired them dangerously low, or in odd places. But…
But no one could find where they had landed.
“There’s another one!”
The King of Avel—the first one, the founder, accept no substitutes—lowered his copy of the Bow of Avel and laughed. He saw another arrow burn into a Seamwalker. It flashed into existence, and the ghosts of Avel cheered.
“Whomever it is has terrible aim! Higher, higher! Get better arrows!”
The rulers of Avel not using bows were screaming encouragement at the Bow of Avel. They could see it now, a glowing bow raising, the string being pulled back. Yet the bow was loosing arrows. Their mortal descendant might have terrible aim—but he was giving them covering fire.
King Itreimedes was shouting at a scared [Princess] holding a frozen staff reflected on a scrying orb.
“I don’t know! I don’t know! Just use the staff! Use it—can’t you feel it?”
The rulers of Cenidau looked at their heirloom. Across Terandria, the relics of the Hundred Families were demanding to be used. And when not used—
A sword smashed itself out of a display case, ran through a [Servant], and shot out of the royal armory. It flashed through the air, slashing at something.
They were feeling it. Every [Witch] on Terandria looked around, and one actually had their eyes pop out of their sockets as she saw what had been invisible, obfuscated by the ruler of Kasginel, suddenly revealed.
One of the parts of the Waning World returned. An alarm begun by Khelt now screaming from a thin veil torn far enough.
At last…at last, they saw.
Rhisveri Zessoprical saw nothing but empty air. He stood there in front of the Scroll of [Resurrection] and saw…nothing. No Faerie King. No great bounty worthy of the scroll.
Just a trick. A glorious host, and now? Something had happened, but he hadn’t been important. He looked around blankly.
That was when he saw Ryoka Griffin. The Wind Runner stood there. Tears were in her eyes. Her clothing was sooty for some reason, and she was panting, cut, the blood and tears in her clothing showing newly-healed flesh.
“What happened to you? No…nevermind. This is your fault. This is a trick. Damn you. I don’t know what this was—wasting my time? Well, they got that bastard, the Archmage, without me. As for you…”
The Wyrm was angry, and he knew he was taking it out on her. But he was confused and worried; his enchantments were shattered by the magic, and he didn’t like the fear he felt.
“Fithea is dead.”
Ryoka Griffin spoke, and Rhisveri kept moving his mouth a moment, but no words came out. He stopped and looked at her.
“…That is a poor joke.”
Ryoka Griffin shook her head. The Wind Runner lifted her hands.
“Fithea is dead. I killed her.”
The Wyrm. He couldn’t help it. The incredulous little giggle of denial escaped him. His eyes wavered, and he realized he was hearing horns blaring in the palace. He looked at Ryoka and saw the soot. The Faeblade’s hilt.
Rhisveri’s open mouth stayed like that, wafting the smell of acid and a sweet-sickly stench of poison. The smile never quite left that mouth, but his eyes…his eyes were not mismatched. They were very distant, old compared to her, and the deepest jade green in the world. Like that beautiful stone, sometimes hidden by mud and wrath, and occasionally, when polished, one of the prettiest things in the world.
Something deep in those depths cracked softly. Just like the hundred little fractures at the center, those slitted pupils and the hole that ran straight through the Wyrm.
He did not cry. He would never weep, much less in front of her. The Wyrm slowly drew himself up and proved he was no Dragon. His body slowly wrapped around the room, covering each exit. He carefully surrounded the Wind Runner and then spoke.
Ryoka had been prepared for death. She was still crying. Eldavin…Teriarch was dead. It was all falling to pieces, but there it sat.
The scroll. Rhisveri looked from her to the scroll.
“You did not kill her for that. No…you would have tried me, first. Tell me why.”
His voice was soft, his eyes focused on Ryoka, trying to make sense of it all. The young woman looked up.
“She heard the whispers of something dead. A dead…thing. A dead god that called itself…”
“Kasigna. Fithea believed that if she killed me, the Dryads would be returned to life. She was about to kill Menorkel and Gilaw.”
“Menorkel and Gilaw? Fithea found Menorkel where he was hidden. She raised Gilaw. Who is…? No. Keep speaking. You are telling me there are g—they are dead.”
The Wyrm’s voice was so soft. He was looking at Ryoka, searching for the truth. She faced him as his body slowly ran around the room in a circuit, undulating.
“Rhisveri. That is part of why the Faerie King watches this world. I did not come here for that. I came here to steal your scroll. And I still…must have it. The Faerie King didn’t take it?”
“He did not. You require it for your friend?”
“She woke up.”
Ryoka was shaking. She pointed at the scrying orb behind him, Ailendamus poised to overrun the Dawn Concordat. Lucifen and Agelum, immortals advancing on mortals.
“I have someone else I need to wake up. He died—but that wasn’t him. It isn’t right. Give me the scroll. Let me wake him up. Teriarch. The Lord of Flame.”
Then the Wyrm’s eyes narrowed, but only a fraction. He sighed.
“Your Dragon. I know that name. One of the oldest Dragons to ever live. One of the greatest…that was his proxy? The Archmage of Memory?”
“Something went wrong.”
“So that was why you tried to kill him. I see. I see. And Fithea…go back to her. She listened to someone? This Kasigna. A god of…death?”
He said the words with difficulty. Ryoka saw the uneasy look in his eyes. The way his scales rippled. Rhisveri’s head roamed the vast room, like a serpent realizing he was trapped in a box for the first time.
“I beheld a vast gathering. A myriad of realms I could not name and armies to make even my kind tremble. I saw Wyrms and Dragons recoil in horror and brighter beings yet which I have no conception of shout in fear. They gazed into the heart of my world and would not linger. Now, a mortal girl comes to me and tells me death whispers in the ear of the immortals of Ailendamus. Khelt screams alarm, and time twists. My Great General died with the words of warning on her lips. I believe you, Ryoka Griffin, so tell me.”
The Wyrm looked at Ryoka, and she spoke. All she could. It was a very simple tale.
“A war is coming, Rhisveri. I don’t know when. It was fought long ago, before levels and Skills, I think. The survivors were nearly killed, but they remained. Rotting. Scavenging. They might be why people from my world arrived here. They’re…growing stronger. They’re coming back. The Faerie King is one of their foes, but I don’t think even he can kill them. Something far worse is going to hit this world, and Ailendamus has to be ready. The immortals…you…”
Ryoka hesitated, and she saw it. Maybe it was a trick of her mind, her ego, but she thought she saw a reason for being here she could pull from all this failure. She faced Rhisveri.
“Maybe I came here just because I needed to meet you, Rhisveri. Because the Wyrm of Ailendamus wouldn’t believe anyone—anyone unless I earned your trust. Unless I proved myself worthy of being heard out.”
The Wyrm’s head dipped fractionally.
“It is true, I would not listen to anyone else. Why would you need to come here, then?”
Ryoka took a long breath.
“Because we need you. Because you need to trust me when I tell you that Ailendamus must prepare. It must find allies and join the right side. Rhisveri, turn this terrible, glorious kingdom and stop making war on Terandria.”
“Which side would I even join? The people who have killed and reviled my kind for ages?”
The Wyrm hissed softly, and his head lowered further until they were almost at eye-level. Ryoka shook her head.
“No. There’s no side. At least…not one like that, Rhisveri. This is a war against God. What you just saw was a single salvo. This—this is the opening of a war. And our foes are beyond even you. One tricked Fithea.”
There. She had said her piece. Now, Ryoka Griffin walked forwards and touched the little glass display case. She popped the glass top open. The Wyrm had deactivated all the safeguards for this moment. Ryoka looked down at the scroll. She saw the Wyrm staring down at her.
“I have heard your warning, Ryoka Griffin. I understand now. I have been arrogant and thought this world had no secrets left for me. I will remember what I saw. I will remember that name. For that warning, and indeed, for your service to Ailendamus, I thank you.”
The Wyrm dipped his head slowly. Ryoka looked up at him, a hand on that scroll. She felt the pulse in her veins. She felt…alive. But the Wyrm’s gaze froze her in place, locking every muscle.
He continued softly.
“You are not bad, for a mortal. No Dionamella, but you could fly, and few Humans have ever managed that unaided. You warn me of a great foe, and perhaps it is true that one suborned Fithea. I believe you. But. Fithea is dead by your hands.”
The Wyrm’s head began to rise. A shiver ran through his entire body, and his eyes blinked once as he stared upwards.
“…She taught me magic. I knew her when I found a gloomy little cavern buried deep in the roots of a dead forest and found a creature I had no desire to eat. One who remembered gentility. Who did not call me scourge or fiend. Fithea sor Kerwenas of the Great Forest of Estiphole is dead.”
Then he looked at her, and the Wind Runner saw Rhisveri’s gaze and that cracked stare.
“I couldn’t stop her with words, Rhisveri.”
“No. And perhaps she gave into despair. Perhaps none of this is your fault.”
The Wyrm’s voice deepened. The circle of his body constricted. Rhisveri’s head rose, and his eyes began to glow.
“However. You have slain an immortal of Ailendamus, Ryoka Griffin. And if ever there were one law I will keep, it is this: you who would slay forever will die in turn. You have killed the last Dryad. Little Thief. Little Murderer. We are back to the beginning. Slay me and take your scroll. Or I will destroy you.”
But there was nothing but the void now, and the Wyrm had opened his mouth, wide, wide. Ryoka thrust the scroll into her belt and activated the Faeblade.
A burning jet of superheated air, burning bright pink, white-hot, rose as the Wyrm recoiled a second. Even he was wary of that flame.
The young woman held the burning sword up as the wind blew around her, facing the Wyrm. He would not underestimate her like Fithea. There would be no quarter.
Still, the Wyrm’s jade-green eyes gazed down at the floor of his vast lair. His palace, made of dozens of pillaged kingdoms, a home he had built for immortals. A point of vanity, and the awkward kindness of a Wyrm.
A great kingdom ruled by immortals. A flawed place led by him, where the root of its failings and its strengths was embodied in one person.
That selfish, arrogant Wyrm spoke.
“You pathetic, foolish little mortal girl. You think to challenge me? You are a gnat, and I am a Wyrm. Never should you have come here; I will destroy you. Your threats mean naught at all to me.”
Ryoka shifted, the burning Faeblade in hand, sweating. The wind was ready to lift her into the air, but she had not put on her wingsuit, nor could she grab the glider. It seemed the Wyrm was putting in a few last shots.
He would strike her so fast…she clutched the obols in her other hand, feeling their power. But Ryoka knew the Wyrm was blocking all exits. He was no idiot. He went on, glaring down at her.
“How dare you come here? How dare you brandish that…that worthless weapon at me? What even is that?”
He still didn’t believe the Faeblade was dangerous? Ryoka looked at what might be burning plasma or superheated air. A weapon to scorch even a Wyrm.
“No. Be silent. Shut up. I do not have time for this. I do not care if a thousand of your worthless get stand here. Your friend dies. You have no power over me, little mortal.”
Your friend? Teriarch? He was already dead. Then Ryoka saw the Wyrm snarl, and she saw something very strange indeed.
His eyes. Those two slitted pupils were gazing down in hatred and wrath, and he was poised to strike. Ryoka traced the sightline of the Wyrm’s eyes, and she realized something at last.
Rhisveri wasn’t looking at…her. Rather, he was staring at something on the ground just in front of Ryoka. Around Ryoka’s height. Maybe a few inches shorter. And he was talking to—
The Wind Runner’s eyes opened wide. Her own green eyes, far less magical, but wild with tears and despair and desperation gazed around. She heard the Wyrm hiss as he looked at someone standing there. Someone only he could see. Until Ryoka felt a shimmer in the air, and the perspective…changed. And she saw someone.
A ghost, one hand planted on her hip, waving a frying pan up at the Wyrm and lecturing him. Ryoka Griffin’s eyes burned. She thought she heard a voice.
Then—that head of light brown hair turned, and two hazel eyes found Ryoka’s. An irresistible smile, the impudence to insult a Wyrm, and a weary face of her own. Ryoka Griffin saw someone who could welcome you into her home and share it for a while looking at her. Someone who would always be there when she was needed. An [Innkeeper], defying the Wyrm of Ailendamus to his face.
Tears sprang to Ryoka’s eyes. She whispered, reaching out, forgetting everything.
The veil between their worlds was fraying, unraveling, but there was still a world and an entire life between the two. What stood in Rhisveri’s throne room with its enchantments undone was just…
“One ghost and one little Courier do not frighten me. I can slay even souls. Be silent and die!”
The Wyrm roared. He threw back his head and inhaled, his mouth filling with bile and acid. Then his eyes went wide. Rhisveri looked up and saw them. He saw a vast being of scales the color of space land. A head rose, and two stellar pupils gazed at him.
Xarkouth, the Dragonlord of Stars, landed in front of Rhisveri. The Wyrm recoiled as the largest Void Dragon to ever fly this world struck the ground like a falling comet behind Erin Solstice.
Rhisveri choked on his own bile and hesitated. Then he flinched as a great serpentine being rose out of the ground. A face even larger than his, different from the Lindwyrm. A true Wyrm, without legs.
The last Great Wyrm of the world dwarfed even Rhisveri as she rose, hissing, from the ground. The Wyrm of Ailendamus looked around and flinched as the Dragonlord of Gems, Saracandre, flew through the walls of his palace. She hovered there, wings beating as her scales flashed with a thousand sparkling treasures.
Rhisveri’s head turned left, and a Wyvern landed, roaring. He rotated as the confused Wind Runner looked around. She could only see…something.
He saw his brother writhing through the walls of his palace, his eyes glowing. Then more Dragons were landing. The Wyrm constricted in on himself and realized—
He was surrounded. The ghosts of the Dragonlords, Great Wyrms, Wyvern Kings, the most powerful souls of his kind that had ever existed surrounded the Wyrm.
“Wh—what is this? Why are you all here? Begone, specters!”
The Wyrm howled. He began to cast a spell and saw the one living being run for the exits. The little [Innkeeper] followed her.
Rhisveri went to strike her. He opened his mouth to breathe acid, and the Dragonlords spoke.
The Wyrm’s scales turned waxy with fright as sweat ran from his glands. The Dragonlords shouted that word at him from a world apart. Xarkouth bellowed at Rhisveri.
“Death! Deception! The treachery of the dead.”
Saracandre called down to him.
“The foe of our kind. Hear me. Strike them dead.”
The Great Wyrm looked into Rhisveri’s eyes.
“Child. Witness the end of everything.”
He whirled in panic as the Dragonlords called out to him, their words searing the air. She was getting away! In his panic, Rhisveri realized that the Wind Runner was escaping with the scroll. But the voices roared at him. Then the Dragonlords inhaled. Rhisveri screamed and tried to shield his face as they exhaled.
Plumes of flame from the void, molten stone, acid, deadly mist, flames without end—the ghosts struck the ground of Rhisveri’s throne room, and their breath began to melt the flagstones.
They were here. They weren’t just specters, lost souls. Rhisveri saw ghosts breaking the boundary between worlds. The combined wrath of the ghosts could touch the real world.
But it was not him they scorched. The Wyrm looked down and saw the air rippling as the Dragonlords vented their disdain and hatred. What—his eyes focused on a patch of blank space moving in the center of the firestorm.
What were they attacking? The Dragonlords looked at the Wyrm and spoke to him as he cowered. Delivering their last warning to one of their own who must hear it. Rhisveri was wavering between the door and this when he saw that Wyrm halt next to the ghost of his brother.
Rhisveri looked up into eyes that had been struck from ice itself. Frosted color from Cenidau’s north. A body of scales that had weathered insult, let the owner commit herself to any decision she pleased across a lifetime of satisfactions. A noble gaze without regret.
Noble? So proud of herself. And a smile like the greatest viper ever, looking down at…
“Hear us, this last gathering of Wyrm and Dragon, Rhisveri Zessoprical. We must tell you all.”
The Dragonlords chased that nightmare back as they spoke. The Wyrm looked around. Glowing eyes. A meeting of wings and scales and pride that would never be exceeded. The last conclave of Dragonlords spoke to him as they sneered at their lesser foes.
And they were not alone.
Ryoka Griffin was running through Ailendamus. She was screaming. This could not be happening. Yet as she took into the air, she saw someone running after her. She heard that voice.
It couldn’t be. But Ryoka had seen her there. The Wind Runner took into the skies, flying away from the Wyrm. A little Griffin flew after her, screaming, but the Wind Runner was too fast.
And she held the Scroll of [Resurrection] in her hands. Ryoka felt it burning her side as she dragged it from her belt pouch.
One life among them all. Among all the people dying…
Ryoka’s eyes were filled with tears, and she wavered. That friend of hers was here. She had come here for Ryoka. At last, Ryoka had the scroll. But she thought of the other soul.
Teriarch. Ryoka Griffin’s tears were running across her face as she flew, but someone still tried to brush them away. She looked around and saw a ghostly hand.
She was dreaming. She’d been melted by Rhisveri and this was one last hallucination. How else could this be happening?
The ghost girl offered Ryoka a handkerchief. She was not flying…she was riding a—
A crimson Dragon stared at Ryoka, and the Wind Runner nearly fell out of the skies. Someone tried to grab her. A winged Garuda. But the claw passed through Ryoka’s arm.
She felt a cold touch. The Human girl looked around and into the eyes of…
Ghosts. She met the gaze of a man dressed in leather armor, a sword buckled to his side. He looked more stunned to see her than she did him. But then—he had always worn that expression of gratified surprise from the first moment she’d met him, fighting a Lich at the ruins of Albez. Ryoka looked into brown eyes.
How was this possible? What was going on? Erin Solstice shouted at Ryoka, cupping her hands as if that would help bridge the void between life and death. The Dragon rolled her eyes as she flew, and Ryoka Griffin passed over the army of Ailendamus.
“Advance and destroy them.”
Rhisveri was missing. Something had gone wrong in the capital. Visophecin could not raise Razia. He was wounded—but the Dawn Concordat was right in front of them.
The immortals of Ailendamus were preparing their attack. Now—the mortals of the Dawn Concordat, their ‘glorious army’, knew they were outmatched.
House Shoel aimed spells at the Thronebearers as the Agelum stood. Lance-arrows from the Greatbows trained upon Tyrion Veltras, the Five Families, and the Dawn Concordat saw the first burning spells arc through the air.
They began to charge. The Order of Seasons, Calanfer, the Griffin Prince leading the way through the skies, the [Princess] of Calanfer, Ser Solstice…
Visophecin’s eyes were burning red as he pointed a clawed finger straight at Tyrion Veltras as he stood on a hill that one of the immortals was raising. Below him, the Knights of the Hydra were charging by the thousand.
Wipe them out.
Then—Visophecin saw something that even he couldn’t explain happen to the air. In the narrowing ground between both armies, he saw…
Azemith hesitated, twined [Disintegration] spells aiming from her fingers. She focused on the strange mist that suddenly arose. Both armies slowed, and the [Mages] called out.
“Distortion in the field. Skill?”
“Not magic. Greatbows! Refocus! The Dawn Concordat has engaged a mass-summoning spell!”
On the other side of the battlefield, the Dawn Concordat were pivoting, the charge of House Veltras circling.
“Ailendamus is raising troops! Rally! Hold—hold—”
Tyrion Veltras broke off his charge at the ranks of House Shoel, his heart thundering in his chest. He raised his lance, squinting into the mist.
“It’s not magic, Lord Veltras!”
Jericha shouted in his ear. Tyrion nodded. It had to be a Skill. But…he narrowed his eyes.
What was he seeing? Someone made a sound by his right ear. Lord Swey, one-handed, stared at the figures appearing between both armies.
“Are they…insulting us? What am I looking at?”
“Foul treachery! You disgrace all of Terandria!”
One of the Thronebearers of Calanfer supporting House Veltras’ charge howled as he saw the force appear. First incredulity, then outrage filled the voices of many Terandrians. Tyrion Veltras just narrowed his eyes.
Stepping out of the mist came a paltry force for either side. Merely a thousand warriors—a Skill from one side or the other. Perhaps Princess Seraphel?
No…she wouldn’t do this. Because when the people focused on the faces, the figures appearing there, they gasped in uncertainty and then outrage and disbelief. After all…they knew those faces.
A thousand men stood on the grass. Each one was familiar in some way to the watchers. Maybe not to the rest of the world—but to Terandria, upon the scrying orbs?
No—even in other nations, one face might look familiar. There might be a statue in a square, a page in a history book. A portrait. It had to be some kind of illusion, a disgrace to copy their features.
A thousand [Kings] of Terandria stood on the grassy field, holding the relics they had borne in life. Almost all had crowns, although some had helmets.
A grinning wolf of a man, holding a spear as long as a lance and armored with a garb hung about with Griffin feathers and a crown of bone stalked next to a [King] holding a familiar bow, an arrow ready.
The First King of Avel surveyed the world around him, blinking, his eyes like a hawk noting either side. He raised the memory of the Bow of Avel as each army halted. The Spear of Desonis, the eighth [King] to rule the kingdom of swamps and rains for less than a decade, strode ahead of the others as they halted.
A thousand familiar faces. A thousand outrages. Tyrion Veltras gazed uncertainly at them.
“Madness. What kind of ploy is this?”
Ailendamus was in uproar, but the immortals reacted quickly. Azemith raised a finger.
“I don’t detect any significant magic from them. What kind of summoning is this? I’ll destroy these clones.”
“They look exactly like…that one looks like the eleventh King of Samal. Terandria’s [Mortal Champion]. The man who bested a Giant. Visophecin. Are my eyes deceiving me? He looks just like him.”
Uzine stared down at the figures. Visophecin’s mouth moved.
“They do. Azemith st—”
The Lucifen woman loosed two beams of light. They shot downwards as enchanted Lance-arrows struck the ground. A [Fireball] exploded amongst the thousand figures, and Visophecin saw clearly—they passed straight through the figures.
“They’re not real. It’s an illusion. One of the Archmage’s tricks.”
Someone else came to the next obvious conclusion: Culnous, leader of the Merfolk, exhaled, and the moment of confusion passed. The Order of the Hydra was reforming its ranks as the thousand men began to walk towards them.
However, an outraged member of the Order of the Thirsting Veil had had enough. Their [Knight-Captain] charged down the slopes, whirling a spear overhead. She was aiming for Tyrion Veltras, screaming her fury at this trick.
One of the thousand men broke ranks and raced towards her.
The Spear of Desonis, the [Hunting King] holding that spear, raced across the ground like an arrow. The Thirsting Veil [Knight] whirled. She hesitated as she saw the ghost charging across the ground. She turned to ignore it—
And the spear struck the horse. It reared, screaming, not bleeding, not cut, but it tossed the woman off. The [Knight-Captain] landed as Visophecin stirred. Culnous amended his statement.
“…That’s not an illusion.”
The [Knight-Captain] rolled to her feet, spear whirling. She faced the grinning [King] uncertainly. Then Visophecin saw her activate her [Spear Dance].
The [Knight-Captain] whirled through the air, her spear striking high and low as she pivoted, lashing the air with the enchanted tip of her spear. In response, the [King] stood, leaned sideways past one thrust that cut the air, and slipped under a scything cut. He walked into the flurry of blades, dodging amidst the deadly series of thrusts and cuts like he was walking through the rain, untouched by a single drop.
“She is a [Spearmaster]. That thing is—”
He was dodging her. Not letting the spear pass through him, but actually dodging. With what looked almost like disappointment or contempt. The [Knight-Captain] halted, and the ghostly spear the [King] held rose. She went to parry a thrust as fast as a lightning bolt, and it whirled out of the feint, struck low across her leg, flickered as he reversed the cut and planted the tip of the spear at her throat.
In silence, the Knight of the Thirsting Veil stared into the grinning face, and Visophecin saw the true uncertainty in the way she stood. The Lucifen was far too far away to hear, but he saw those lips moving.
The ghost of the 8th [King] of Desonis was speaking to her. The mortals looked at each other. The living hesitated—but they didn’t quite believe.
“Order of the Hydra! Charge! Engage these illusions!”
Knight-Commander Forcel had seen enough. His [Knights] charged down the hill, not mounted, heading straight for the thousand ghosts. In reply, the other [Kings], who had watched the first of their number advance finally moved.
A man with shoulders as wide as a bear lifted a greatsword that was more of a flat mace than a sword and strode forwards next to a [Duelist] with a golden bell. The King of Avel stood with a [Mage] who sighed as he flicked his fingers and produced a long, curved dagger. The ghosts picked up speed as the Hydra Knights ran at them.
The living faltered as they drew closer. They could see through each figure, but the colors of their armor, the lines of their faces, scars, the intensity of their eyes remained. If they were illusions—they were complete. They even smelled different. A sharp perfume on one, faded blood on another. The tang of metal and the sting of powerful magic.
And they had voices. Ser Yoriven, in the front rank, heard one of them laughing. A huge, booming laugh as a hot-blooded ruler of Cenidau to the north adjusted adamantium knuckles of metal on one fist.
He clapped the shoulder of the man next to him, and the two-headed lion’s pelt on the back of a [King of Taima] swirled with the impact as the other [King] gave him a narrow-eyed glance and hefted a guisarme, a polearm with multiple cutting edges. A [Peasant]’s weapon adjusted for a king. He held it low to the ground, as if he had once tilled fields, a slump to one shoulder and favoring his left side; a broken bone that had never quite healed right.
Then, Yoriven realized the truth. These were not illusions.
Too late, the Order of the Hydra ran into the ranks of [Kings]. The thousand ghosts went through the [Knights] in seconds. Yoriven slashed with all the force in his arms, shouting.
He ran into the 34th King of Cenidau, that giant of a man who had walked naked into blizzards and practiced his Skills on icebergs. The sword met a fist, and Yoriven felt a half-impact.
They weren’t really here. The [King] frowned at the way Yoriven’s sword passed through his hand, but shrugged. Then he struck the [Knight].
Cold. Yoriven half-felt it, but the blow was still from the [King] of Cenidau, a man who had wrestled Trolls and won. The [Knight] collapsed as the man laughed.
“My Skills are useless. Just as they warned us. Enough flesh to humble these children, though, eh?”
No one else answered as he walked on, past the stunned Hydra Knight staring up at the ghosts. They broke the Hydra Knights’ charge. Men and women stared at the relics of Terandria pointed at their throats, grim stares or smiling faces.
Then the living began to believe. A [Knight] fell to his knees, looking up at one of Pheislant’s [Kings].
A thousand ghosts took the field below Ryoka. A thousand [Kings] charging Ailendamus, and some flowing towards the Dawn Concordat. The living fought or just froze, unable to match the ghosts.
Some of the [Soldiers] were fleeing. Dame Voost and the Order of Seasons did not.
“Aura in your blades! Charge them!”
She screamed as she went for a [King] walking forwards with a single blade in hand. Dame Voost leapt from her saddle to match the ghost. She couldn’t have said why. Only that it would have been dishonorable not to.
But it couldn’t be—
The [Summer Knight] pivoted, her sword deflecting a cut to her neck. Voost’s eyes were wide behind her visor. She had barely seen that! She was considered the best swordswoman in the Order of Summer, and the man who had halted there—
He was watching her. He copied her stance, sword raised, pointed at her—and stepped in so fast that his blade would have gone through her forehead had she not parried it. Then he spoke.
“Better. You are a thousand times too young, though.”
Voost attacked, her blade a flurry as she used a Skill.
He beheaded her. Or—would have. The blade passed through her throat as he cut through her Skill. The woman gasped, clutching at her throat. She whirled—and saw the sword aimed at her throat.
The ghost of a [King] who had been a master of blades lowered his weapon. He watched her. Uncomprehending, the [Knight] stumbled backwards as the Order of Seasons found the ghosts besieging them, [Queens] striking [Knights] from saddles, or simply pointing and having them dismount and kneel.
What was going on?
The dead gods didn’t understand either. They saw the ghosts passing through the cracks in Kasignel. Tamaroth hissed as Norechl battled the Dragonlords.
“They are trying to touch the living world. But they have no Skills there. They will be…just ghosts. And we can still touch them.”
In fact, the ghosts could not run once they gave up their Skills. The God of Rulers walked through ghosts, snatching souls by the hundred. What were they doing? The ones who were entering the physical world were being screened by their kindred.
The Bow of Avel loosed an arrow into Tamaroth’s body at point-blank range, and he snarled, tearing the arrow out of his body. Seamwalkers were still fighting Giants at sea and walking onto shore. But those ghosts—
“Enough! You are all mine. This land is the only one I will allow you to touch!”
Kasigna howled, and she opened her mouth. Ghosts began to drift towards her, shouting defiance as Tamaroth whirled.
The two were fighting over the souls. Kasigna was trying to consume everything. Tamaroth realized the souls here were lost and, cursing, looked around. Then he saw the [Innkeeper]. She was clinging to a red Dragon. The God of Rulers followed her.
Kasigna was about to consume the souls who had become ghosts to the living. Her being was a vortex without end, simply dragging everything in sight into her being. Even the Seamwalkers were drifting towards her, though she shattered them as they came. She was going to eat the continent!
The God of Death felt a sting in her chest and recoiled. What was—?
The Bow of Avel loosed another shot from the living to the lands of the dead. The Goddess of Death backed up, eyes narrowed, as a sword from the living world cut towards her. She raised a hand, and it cut her flesh.
Across from her, Cauwine was hunting the skies. Dragons were vanishing by the score as she reached greedily for the glorious souls. The Dragonlords were in danger—she was too quick. The Goddess of the Hunt pivoted, a sword in hand, and a silver blade ran through her stomach.
Cauwine gasped. She recoiled, and her sword cut at the hand holding the blade, but she was too slow. The blade withdrew, and she landed, staring at the soul who’d dared cut her.
“I do not know your face. I thought I would know all of your kind. Who are you?”
The young man lifted a silver blade. He had pointed ears and a timeless face, and the half-Elves who gazed at him gaped at the Elf in astonishment. The Elf pointed his blade at Cauwine’s heart.
“My mother is dead, God of Last Stands. She named me Solveui, and she begged my forgiveness. For no Elf would ever be born again. I grew and died in a world broken by war, and all I knew were my half-kin. I grew up on stories of the death your kind caused. I despaired in a broken world with a hole torn through it. My kin and the old Grandfathers and great souls who knew you do not deserve my company. I have waited an age in the hopes of this moment. I will see you bleed.”
The Goddess of Last Stands lifted her blade with a laugh as the last Elf ever born challenged her. Her eyes drifted across the ghosts. Most were still fighting to keep the five dead gods at bay or slay the Seamwalkers.
But some, like the rulers of Terandria, like the Dragonlords, suddenly had a new purpose. They were abandoning their Skills, stepping into the living world they could not truly touch.
Why? Then she saw it and laughed.
She was bleeding warmth. Dame Voost was certain, now, that the ghost was real. He had been a blademaster far beyond her, and she was ashamed to face him.
She was also certain that if he wanted her death, he could have killed her, ghost or not. But the blade that cut her did so lightly.
“Stand up. Again. Not like that. Like this.”
The ghost lifted the sword and showed her an odd stance, sword held low, almost vertical, tip aimed towards the ground. The way he held his hands—the first pivot—
He cut across her, and the [Summer Knight] felt the cold blade cut her. But she raised her shaking hands. The [King]’s eyes burned into her own. And she realized—
He was teaching her.
One of the [Kings] of Terandria walked across the battlefield as both armies devolved into chaos. The [King of Taima] held the peasant’s weapon across his shoulders as he looked past [Knights], ordinary men and women. They backed away; some challenged him, but he had no care for them and passed through their blades.
Few things could hurt ghosts, and those they could fight were fleeing or just watching. Listening to the desperate Courier who had flown down from above. Trying to make sense of it all.
A warning was already being delivered. This one ghost had a purpose of his own. They all did. It might be selfish…but this was his last hour.
So the [King of Taima] halted at last in front of a trembling young man. He looked into those eyes.
“At last. You are a son of my lands, aren’t you?”
The boy looked at him. He might have been an immigrant to Ailendamus—but his blood was of the Taimaguros Dominion.
He couldn’t even speak. The [King] just nodded. He reached out and tugged a gauntlet off his hands. The scarred, weathered skin of a ghost reached out to the boy, who had fallen onto his butt.
“Our land needs you. Will you take my last blessing and my will?”
The boy looked up at the ghost of a [King]. He flinched, eyes wide. The ghost only waited, eyes on something in the sky.
“Yes. You will do. Take my hand if you would bear the burden I bestow. But choose.”
The mortal boy looked up at the ghost and slowly reached out. He felt the coldest touch in the world, but that smile was relieved and warm enough. The [King of Taima] bent, one eye cast up at the Seamwalker reaching down for him. But he whispered in the boy’s ear long enough. Then he smiled and raised the guisarme.
Did the dead gods understand it now? It wasn’t just the thousand [Kings], either. Nor the [Queens] of Terandria.
They were everywhere. The fabric was torn, a crack opened.
They had little strength to fight in the living world, and their enemy was at their backs. But this war was never going to be won. So the ghosts chose something else as they willed. Some fought. Some bought time.
And some found…places. People.
The Pride of the Wellfar was sailing up the coast, desperately trying to find a way to support the fighting too far inland. Lord Etril, son of Gresaria Wellfar, was personally steering the ship.
“Lord Etril! Something is happening!”
The crew was in uproar. Etril Wellfar let go of the steering wheel and ran to the prow of the ship.
“What’s going on? Back to your stations, you salt-shitting cowards! What’s…”
Then the entire ship felt it. The Pride of the Wellfar was a vessel without equal. A magnificent ship, which had artifacts built into it from an age when Dragons had played shipmaker. It could manipulate space, shield itself with great magic, and it made other vessels look like toy boats.
Among the many decorations on that hull was a single object that had no actual purpose aside from defining the ship. And that was the figurehead at the front. It was, like House Wellfar itself, a hint to their origins.
A woman with a crown of what might have been coral held a simple staff with a gem at the end. One hand reached out, beckoning—a simple motif.
However, the lower half of the woman was a fish’s tail that seemed to meld into a wave. The figurehead of The Pride of the Wellfar was thus…important. But it had no magic. It was only enchanted to not rot, and it was as ancient as the vessel itself. Etril had long known that beautiful old figure from afar.
Never—never had anyone ever seen those closed eyes of the statue open. Never had they known it to speak.
“Who is the captain of this vessel?”
The Pride of the Wellfar spoke. A female voice, moving through carved lips. That figurehead, turning, regarding the crew, who were prostrating or frozen to statues themselves.
“I—I am. I am Lord Etril Wellfar. Who are you?”
The being in the figurehead gazed at Etril, and he felt the sea drop away beneath him. A wonder, a mystery, a terror unlike anything he had seen at sea seized Etril as someone looked at him.
“I am Wellfar. You. Are you the [Lord] of Wellfar who dares to take the Pride out of safe waters in this day and age?”
Trembling, the [Lord] could only bow and nod his head in reply. He saw the staff rise. Those carved lips moved upwards. The statue smiled, and that ancient wood fixed her gaze on him.
“Yes. You will do nicely. Hear my words, crew and folk of Wellfar. Hear me—for I name this boy Waveleader of Wellfar. Weigh anchor. Full the sails and build ships to make even this one humbled. Call for the greatest fleets Wellfar has ever known.”
The living looked up as a ghost of their ancestors spoke to them.
That was what was occurring across the world. On Baleros, a trio of figures stepped out of the brush and scared a little Lizardgirl to death. She looked up as three weary [Knights]—a Naga, a Lamia, and a Lizardman—came to rest.
They were wounded, fading. They were ghosts…but they planted their blades on the ground.
“Girl. Do you have two boon friends?”
The Naga looked down at the girl, and the Lizardgirl stammered a reply. The warrior nodded.
“Fetch them. We have little time. But fetch them—we have something to offer you. A class. A bond deeper than blood.”
The Lamia whispered, staring at something unseen. The Lizardgirl ran, abandoning her gathering basket.
Not all of the ghosts offered it freely. One furious [Archer] held a city in Chandrar under siege. The ground was scorched where people had tried to kill it with magic or dispel the apparition.
But thousands of Stitch-folk, Humans, and Garuda flinched away as they failed to meet its expectations. The ghost raised a bow.
“Can not one of you show me the talent worthy of inheriting my will? There!”
She drew an arrow and launched it across the distance. A hundred paces away, such that even the young could hit it with the bow she had demanded they fetch, a single pebble the size of a pea lay on the ground, painted silver.
Not a one could hit it without a Skill. The ghost raged at the onlookers, desperate, until a single Garuda lifted a shortbow. Then she sighed in relief and almost wept as she beckoned the [Archer] forwards.
They were desperate. Some chose at random. Others were drawn to places they had been, people they knew, or looked for the qualities they desired. Honor, courage…demanding oaths.
Some never made it and were snatched away by Seamwalkers or dead gods. A few had nothing to give but words.
A Named Adventurer pointed to a [Shepherd] as the confused man stood on a bluff.
“My bones lie there. My bones and my possessions. Dig them up and do what you will with them.”
Secrets. Spells. Skills, classes, and gifts. All across Terandria, Baleros, Chandrar, ghosts were giving their last wills.
Then vanishing. Erin Solstice flew, chasing Ryoka. If the Wind Runner could half-see her, then Erin Solstice was just as confused.
“Excuse me! What do you want with Ryoka?”
The strange people that Ryoka had found were hostile, shouting something about a person called ‘Fithea’ and calling her a traitor. But even the scariest ones with horns were hesitating. They had magic of ages on their side.
Ryoka had a single Silver-rank adventurer with a sword and a [Pickpocket]. But they were ghosts, and Gerial held the sword in front of Ryoka. Erin looked up at a huge eye and a vast, serpentine head.
The red Dragon…Dragoness was not Xarkouth in size, but she was impressive.
“I have business with that girl. She has a scroll. And she is connected to my duties. You are that girl Xarkouth asked us to aid. You must flee. That one is coming for you.”
She pointed her head, and Erin looked around. She sighed.
“Great. It’s always one of them. Hey! I don’t even know you!”
Tamaroth, the God of Rulers, was coming her way. Erin shook a fist and backed up as Ryoka turned.
She was far away. Erin wished she’d stop saying that.
“Ryoka. My body’s alive! I’m just, uh—not in it! Put me back! Put me back and kick whoever’s squatting in there out of it! Okay?”
Erin called to Ryoka. Of course—that assumed she’d survive long enough. Cawe and Gerial stepped back, facing Tamaroth.
“You are mine, child. Take my hand.”
He strode towards her, and Ryoka saw Gerial motioning at her to run. Cawe backed up, and Erin looked around. A continent between them and Izril…
“Erin Solstice! To me! Fly! Face me, you wretched coward!”
Xarkouth burst upwards from the palace, flaming, as Norechl pursued the Dragonlords. Half had vanished, and the God of the Forgotten smoldered with their fire…but it turned to Erin too.
Tamaroth reached for Erin impatiently as Ryoka turned and stared at…nothing. She couldn’t see him. The ghost girl backed away as Gerial reached out for Tamaroth. His face was set, and the Silver-rank adventurer was turning to Ryoka as Tamaroth ignored him utterly. Gerial clung to Tamaroth’s arm—then cursed as he slid across the ground.
The God of Rulers kept moving. Cawe tangled with him, and they tried to hold him back, but they had no weight. He strode at Erin as she ran, not even bothering to eat them. His fingers reached for her arm.
“For what you have cost me, for your insolence, girl, you will suffer a while. I promise you that.”
Erin turned, fist raised, and Tamaroth’s hand closed on an arm. He brushed it aside impatiently—and then frowned as he pushed at an arm.
The woman whom the arm belonged to didn’t budge. She held it there and moved Tamaroth back a step as he turned to face her.
“I don’t know…where I am. Or who you are. Or what is going on. But I take that as unkind. I do not tolerate such actions wherever I stand, little man. Begone.”
Erin Solstice, Gerial, Cawe, backing away from Tamaroth, all looked as perplexed as the God of Rulers. Tamaroth reached out and touched an arm—which slapped his hand down. He blinked at his fingers. Erin blinked at the woman. She had two questions. The first was how she’d not been absorbed by the God of Rulers. The second was…
…Why was she naked?
The Agelum was staring around. She felt at her skin. She was as pale as could be, and she had odd, light blue veins. She was also, and Erin had to focus on this, buck naked.
“Where is this place? There’s no…there’s no air. It’s all half-real. There was a crack, and I followed it. Where am I?”
Then Erin and the others realized what had happened. Like the Drathian Border Fleet—the cracks in the deadlands were opening. This person had wandered in from the real world.
The Agelum looked at Erin, then at her kin. She was invisible to them. She felt…odd. And this man?
“Begone, little bug.”
He went to push her aside, and the Agelum caught that hand. The God of Rulers’ eyes flashed. Dead or not, body or not, even the [Time Mages] had no power against him. He knocked Razia’s hand away and reached for Erin.
Razia slapped him. She opened her palm wide, splaying her fingers, and gave him a brisk slap across the cheek. More of an insult than anything else. Erin knew it would do no good. A Tier 7 spell didn’t even make h—
Tamaroth staggered back, raising a hand to his cheek. The brisk crack of skin on skin made everyone turn and stare at Razia.
“Be told, whomever you are. I will hurt you if you strike her. Dragons, familiar faces—no one can see me and I feel better? This is some wondrous dream—but it isn’t, is it?”
Razia flexed her hand wonderingly. It was the same hand she’d broken. However…she was on her feet, not confined to a wheelchair. In fact, she felt her muscles knitting, her atrophied flesh growing stronger by the second.
She felt alive for the first time since she had been born. Where was this place? Why did she feel like this was what she’d been missing all her life? It was as if she had been born with lungs full of air and never been able to take a single breath for the centuries she’d been alive.
Now—now she inhaled and felt whole. Tamaroth was still feeling at his cheek.
“Wh-wh-whoa! Who are you?”
Erin Solstice gazed at Razia. The Agelum turned and gave her a beaming smile.
“I am Razia of House Shoel! Is that Ryoka Griffin there? Do you know her?”
“Me? Yes! I’m Erin! But watch out—that guy’s evil!”
Erin pointed. Tamaroth was coming back, and he was furious. Razia raised her eyebrows.
The God of Rulers reached for Razia, and she slapped him again. She was so quick—her hands at her side cracked across his face in an instant. Again, the God of Rulers staggered.
This time, all the ghosts and even the dead gods saw it. Kasigna, battling the rulers with the relics of Terandria, Norechl, Cauwine…looked down.
“What is Tamaroth doing?”
Then they saw Razia slap the God of Rulers and him try to shield his face, recoiling. The ghosts of Terandria turned, and they saw her.
A…naked Agelum. At first the rulers rolled their eyes.
“Wonderful. We stand with [Exhibitionists] at the last. Surely we have to have some class? What will that woman do, strip our opponents bare?”
A ghost rolled her eyes, but another [Battle Lord] poked his head up from launching arrows at a Seamwalker.
“I say. Is that Razille? Fortress Commander Razille? I served with her—four hundred years ago! I’d recognize that magnificent body anywhere! Commander Razille!”
He shouted at her. More ghosts turned, and they saw the woman with a body, the Agelum. The missing clothes were one thing, but ghosts began to speak.
“Ratiez the Blade! You fought with us against the Goblin King!”
“No, that’s Razize, Lady Razize Shoel! I wondered why I hadn’t seen any of their number—”
A score of ghosts knew her. The Agelum stared about at people she had known over the centuries and centuries she’d been alive. Then she began to understand.
A servant of House Shoel who had died of natural causes less than a decade ago screamed. The [House Servant] had a sword and was fighting the Seamwalkers. He pointed at Tamaroth.
“That is the monster who plagues Ailendamus! Everything—everyone is being killed by his kind! The afterlife is under siege by that foe!”
Everyone turned to the [Servant]. Like Ishkr—he had a way of explaining everything to his employer in as few words as necessary.
Razia’s gaze brightened. She punched one fist into her hand.
“Is that so? He seems not at all strong to me.”
“You punched him. No one can touch him—he eats souls!”
“Not mine. I’m not like you, little Human.”
The Agelum grinned. Her eyes flashed, and she looked at Erin Solstice with a wide, reckless smile. She was the first of her kind here in an age. She wasn’t supposed to come here when she died. Then Tamaroth realized who—what Razia was with the others.
“One of the Agelum? But they should all be long extinct! They have no domain to tend—with us dead—”
Cauwine blinked. Then the Elf ran her through from behind. Below them, Tamaroth was backing away from Razia. Then he caught himself.
He was the God of Rulers! She was merely…a servant of a different kind! He had bested other gods! He could best even the greatest of Seamwalkers besides the Devourer of Time.
She charged him, and the God of Rulers put up his hands. He captured one fist, and she slammed a hand into his. They were grappling, throwing their weight around. Like…well, like two people in a wrestling match. Erin watched open-mouthed as the two fought.
“Not bad, whomever you are.”
Razia strained against Tamaroth, her arms trembling with effort. He was strong! But she was Agelum. Tamaroth’s eyes were wide with outrage and disbelief. He tried to throw her left, and she countered. She tried to sweep a leg—the two struggled backwards as Xarkouth landed, mouth open as wide as Erin.
“How dare you. I am Tamaroth—”
He hissed into her face. Razia just laughed at him.
“Well then, Tamaroth. Rejoice! For you can say that you have wrestled with Agelum! Few can boast of that!”
“I—have wrestled with—you are wrestling with me! I am your ruler! Obey—”
Among the many mistakes Tamaroth was making in this moment, one of them was not realizing that this was an actual fight. The God of Rulers was speaking, and Razia was a warrior. She didn’t give him time to monologue, and he was not invincible to her.
She drew her head back and slammed it into Tamaroth’s nose. The God of Rulers recoiled with a cry, weakening. Razia kneed him in the stomach. Then she threw him back. Disbelieving, the God of Rulers clutched at his face. He saw Razia raise her arms overhead.
“I feel stronger! Yes—this is what I have waited my life for!”
There she was. Erin Solstice saw Razia. The naked Agelum had a body fabulously scarred. Cuts from blades and fangs all over her body, on her arms, across her chest, stomach—she almost had more scar tissue than flesh.
She had been fighting for centuries before she was confined to a wheelchair, and the light cloth that normally adorned her body hid a tapestry of victories and defeats. Now, that thin form seemed to be growing more solid by the second. She was taller than Tamaroth, and her fair hair was brightening, gaining a luster it had never had before.
Her eyes had multiple pupils and were disconcerting, but she smiled like what she was. A soldier. A warrior who burned out too soon. Someone to champion every cause.
Razia activated her Warform, and Erin Solstice’s jaw dropped as the Agelum transformed. When Razia looked down at Tamaroth, she had six arms.
Four eyes. Each one huge, with multiple pupils staring in every direction. A burning ring of light rose over her head. She was horrifying. She looked like an avatar of war, and she was still naked.
She charged Tamaroth, and the God of Rulers put up his fists and tried to fight. The other dead gods saw what he was trying to do.
Razia was a being close to their natures. Like Seamwalkers—the gods fought like concepts. Tamaroth could be the ruler of a thousand worlds, struggling with her across myriad planes, and she was an untested, untried Agelum who didn’t know how to fight.
However—it didn’t work. Tamaroth tried to alter their battleground and failed. Razia had actual flesh. She was here, and he was weaker than her. More than that—she saw Tamaroth, a bearded man, and the Agelum had fought every kind of foe and monster all her life.
She knew exactly how a punch landed, what bones and flesh felt like. She locked Tamaroth into the physical body she saw by her ignorance. And that was what she punched.
The God of Rulers ate the first fist to his face without dodging or even recoiling. Razia hit him, and Tamaroth reeled like a drunk at a bar, taking the full weight of her fist to his face. He raised one hand, trying to remember when he’d wrestled—
An uppercut took him in the jaw, and he stared up at the sky.
The Agelum kicked him in the groin and brought an elbow down on his head. Her right hands hit him across the chest, and a left hand held his clothes. Then she was on top of him.
Erin Solstice was shielding her face as Razia climbed on top of Tamaroth and began hammering his face into the ground. She had seen Soldiers of the Antinium fight, and they had four arms. Razia had six. She was swinging all six fists into his face, beating the God of Rulers into the ground. He tried to punch her, and she recoiled as Tamaroth lunged up.
He was still strong. But he whiffed the air as he spun dizzily. She kicked him in the stomach and, when he doubled over, put her hands together and hit him on the back of the head. When he went down, she charged him and put all her weight behind a kick.
She kicked Tamaroth in the face as he sprawled, and Erin groaned. The Agelum did not fight fair. Tamaroth tried to get up, and Razia kicked him in the stomach. When he rose with a roar, she grabbed him, tossed him down, and began stomping on him. He grabbed her arms, and she began slamming her head into him. Then she tried to put out one of his eyes with her thumbs as two arms held his, and she began hitting him where his liver would be until he tore free.
Erin had never seen such a vicious beat-down. She began to cover her eyes then caught herself.
“What am I doing? Get him! Kick his ass!”
She cheered Razia on as ghosts turned. They couldn’t hit Tamaroth, but they realized—
They could empower Razia.
“[Steel Fists]! [Rejuvenating Touch]!”
“Give him another kick to the privates! Go, Fortress Commander!”
Tamaroth wasn’t bleeding. He was clearly feeling pain from the punches as he tried to shield his face, so Razia kicked him in the groin again, and the God of Rulers felt a weakness he hadn’t considered for aeons. She whirled, a blazing look in her eyes, and Norechl stopped walking towards Erin.
The God of the Forgotten tried to back up. Razia drop-kicked it and then knelt on its back and tried to rip its ‘head’ off its shoulders.
Cauwine was laughing as she watched the fighting. But Razia, ablaze with energy and fighting foes who had neither Skills nor blades—hesitated. She turned to Tamaroth, who was fleeing, and frowned.
“I’m not hurting them badly. And—”
She saw the God of Rulers running for something. He touched a ghost, and the snarling [Knight] vanished. Tamaroth grabbed what fell and whirled, murder in his gaze.
A sword. The Agelum’s eyes narrowed. She picked up the struggling God of the Forgotten.
“What pitiful thing are you?”
The God of the Forgotten didn’t get a chance to answer. Razia lifted it overhead, ran forwards, and slammed it into Tamaroth. As the two went down, she kicked the sword away.
“Clear a space! Don’t let them get a hold of a weapon. Empower Razia!”
The ghosts knew what to do. One snatched a blade up, and they began using their Skills on Razia as she took on the God of Punching Bags and the God of Getting Hit in a ring of souls. Tamaroth and Norechl tried to punch back, but the Agelum had lived her entire life learning how to fight.
They were gods. They were terrible fighters in the realm of fisticuffs. Tamaroth called for help, but the two gods who could do something didn’t seem keen on wading into the fighting.
Cauwine, the warrior of the six, was still dueling the Elf, laughing as they traded cuts. She refused to simply absorb him, and she was enjoying watching them suffer.
As for Kasigna…the Goddess of Death backed away from the Agelum warily. She pursued the ghosts instead. Erin Solstice saw her sweeping across the ghosts and lost her smile.
“Run, Erin Solstice! We will hold them here as long as we can!”
The Dragonlord of Gems swooped down, blasting Kasigna. Saracandre turned to Xarkouth, and he nodded.
“Go well, Terandria.”
“But we can win! She’s totally beating them to a pulp!”
Erin pointed at Razia and then saw both Norechl and Tamaroth flailing in her grip. They weren’t…bleeding. The Agelum was panting with the effort of sustaining her Warform, but she was smiling. A great, last stand.
Gifts of ghosts to the living. Erin looked at Xarkouth, and the Dragonlord smiled. He stared into the middle distance.
“Defiance. We have made our mark on the world. The time you call the Waning World? It ends. Come.”
A thousand [Kings] bestowed their last words and blessings to the people of Terandria. They walked forwards, refusing to look backwards at their end. Their eyes were for the living.
And that was half. The other half appeared on the battlefield in the middle of another army. Every head in Calanfer turned, and people screamed in horror as the scrying orbs showed a thousand female ghosts surrounding one person.
The ghosts of Terandria’s women had gathered for one person. Unlike their counterparts, there was one person they came for. Someone who bore their class. Who knew their burdens.
Their successor. So they descended onto the battlefield like a storm, walking out of the air with chins held high, flying through the air, rising from the ground. All bearing towards one person:
Princess Seraphel du Marquin. The 4th [Princess]. The Cursed Widow of Calanfer.
Princess Seraphel du Marquin was floating in the air. Her steed reared, screaming, and the woman left the horse as it bolted. She hung, suspended, surrounded by the ghosts.
They floated there, warping the air as the living looked up. Seraphel’s eyes were staring around. All of them—reaching out. [Queens] and [Princesses], holding her, whispering to her.
A woman that Seraphel recognized was closest of all, a sword in hand. She looked at her people, and Queen Marquin of Calanfer bared her teeth in a warrior’s grin. The ghosts clung to Seraphel, their touch as cold as death.
But they didn’t want her life. They were speaking to her, each voice grabbing her attention, perfectly audible and far away, but hundreds at once. Etching their words into her mind. Into her soul.
[Princesses] of Calanfer, [Queens] and [Ladies] of other nations. Women who had lived and died on Terandria of every species and age. Whispering their deepest regrets, their hopes and dreams never fulfilled. Their wishes and visions of her future. Tears streamed from Seraphel’s eyes as the weight of a thousand souls clung to her.
Blessing her. Warning her. Begging her to carry their regrets and ambitions forwards.
“Do not make my mistakes. Protect my people.”
“Live better. Live happily, live well.”
“Never give in to their petty words…”
“Arise, [Princess] of Calanfer. Become who you were meant to be.”
“Go where you wished, without the crown chaining you down.”
A thousand voices, offering her contradictory words. Telling her a story written in tears, triumphs. What they saw at the end of a lifetime of service, a regret that had stayed with them even in death.
Hope, for a better future for her. For them all. Ghosts drifted away from the [Princess] as the army watched, reaching out to find more. Striding through the ground to bless their people. To send what the dead had for the living.
Rabbiteater had his axe readied, but he hesitated. The Goblin [Knight] spun, looking around in awe and panic. A [Princess] halted, a sword on her shoulder. She looked at the [Knight] in armor and saw through him in a single glance. Rabbiteater raised his axe—but the ghost made no move to attack. She regarded him one long second, eyes narrowed. Then she spoke.
“I have known your kind, Goblin. Though others spoke of the great death your kind brought, I have seen your people’s greatest sacrifice and honor. But your Kings have always been mad. Mad with a rage that devoured even the best qualities. And you have them.”
The Goblin gazed at the [Princess], and the warrior from another age looked past him, at the Order of Seasons. She lifted her blade and pointed it at Seraphel, at the people of Calanfer.
“Tell me your name, [Knight].”
The [Princess] laughed.
“Now there is a Goblin’s name. Do you swear by your honor to be more than anyone before you? Human, Dwarf, half-Elf, or Goblin? Will you rise for the coming battles?”
She held out that sword. Her eyes gleamed like red drops of ruby, and she bared two fangs. The Goblin looked into the [Princess of Blood]’s eyes.
“If you will—then show them honor that defies any words. Valor beyond any species or petty boundary. Swear to me, [Knight]!”
The woman extended her sword, and the Goblin slowly knelt. She struck him on the shoulder so hard the ghostly blade bruised his skin. Then she drew him up with one gauntlet. That was how she chose to spend her last moments. The [Princess] looked up as the Goblin stood and turned with blade in hand. She vanished, staring up at Kasigna’s face without a word.
A young man was riding across the battlefield uncertainly. Tyrion Veltras felt everything changing. He was in the wrong body. He had lost his power.
And he didn’t know what was going on. Was that Ryoka in Ailendamus’ lines? He began to head towards her, ignoring the danger.
A phantom rode with him, an older Tyrion Veltras. The [Lord] raised his lance grimly. But he never made it to the enemy ranks.
Someone stopped him. A figure on horseback halted Tyrion Veltras in his tracks. Warily, the [Lord] looked into a mocking smile.
“Is this the best warrior of House Veltras? Truly?”
“Name yourself. Who—or what are you?”
For answer, the other rider just flicked his sword from his sheath. He held a sword in one hand and a lance in the other, not a shield. What a strange…
Tyrion’s instincts buzzed at him. He lowered his lance and noticed his phantom doing the same. Yet the stranger turned from one to the other with a look of disappointment on his face.
He resembled some cross between a barbarian nomad and a lancer, his armor clearly made of beast’s fur and ancient metal. But the way he sat on that horse…
“Come, boy! Let’s see what you’re made of.”
The booming voice was a challenge. Tyrion spurred his horse forwards. He had nothing to trust to but his memory. Even if his body forgot—he had practiced with the lance all his life, and he would never forget that. His phantom shot ahead of him, and the ghost laughed as he rode forwards.
“You were granted a gift. This time—you can reforge yourself better. Let me show you.”
Lord Tyrion Veltras’ lance wavered. He saw his phantom charge—and then vanish, blinking down at a sword in his chest. The ghost spun, and Tyrion Veltras raised his shield. He rode at a stranger in the chaos and stared up at the sky as he landed.
A face appeared in his vision with a wild tangle of hair. An uncombed mane of black hair untroubled by the grey that had entered it. Filled with sticks and dust from the road. The man pointed down at Tyrion.
“Get up, boy. I did not hide with that Drake underground and ride across the ocean to watch my house fall to ash for want of skill at arms. Get up and show me our future.”
The First Lord of House Veltras pointed down at Tyrion as the young man gasped upwards.
“You. I know your face.”
For answer, the man only laughed. He rode away, lifting that lance up. Tyrion Veltras got up, his chest screaming, his armor dented despite a ghost’s half-weapon. That wild man called to him as his horse pawed the ground.
“Show me you are worthy of our name.”
He rode at Tyrion like a storm, knocking the [Lord] from his saddle again and again. Laughing until the world ended.
Seamwalkers fighting on Terandria’s soil itself. Dead gods pursuing ghosts. An ending to everything.
That was what the ghosts saw. What the living saw was different. The scrying orbs captured the ghosts. Which might defy logic with cameras and ghosts, but the scrying spells were magic.
Queen Marquin was but one of many ghosts walking the battlefield. Ailendamus and the Dawn Concordat were in chaos. Ghosts were appearing across the world, but the dead of Calanfer stood around Seraphel du Marquin.
Tears leaked from the corners of Seraphel’s eyes, but she looked up at the first [Queen] of Calanfer. She had heard their voices. Now—Marquin pointed her sword into the distance.
Ailendamus’ army was breaking apart. Yet she stared at something unseen. As the living watched, Marquin the Radiant threw her head back and raised her sword.
“Calanfer—no. Terandria. With me.”
The dead looked up, and then they charged. Swords cutting the air, a cold touch. They had the power to kill and haunt the living. That was the authority of ghosts. The Ailendamus [Soldiers] screamed and threw down their blades, but then they looked back and saw the ghosts swarming up something in the air.
Hacking—stabbing—vanishing. Climbing something vast and unseen. Not just one foe, either. Queen Marquin charged into a battle that the living only now realized was going on. She looked around and laughed at a sight fit for sore eyes. Then she lifted a blade, bidding someone farewell. She spotted something heading her way, and her face grew serious.
There she stood. Marquin the Radiant, and her presence upon the waking world caused her old foes to shiver in fear where they hid once more. Her blade shone like the dawn, and she looked around.
Once, she had stood, bloody and weary upon Rhir’s soil and driven back the death of the world screaming into the darkness that had dreamed of them. But that was not all her existence.
A young woman had picked up a blade, without the weight of a crown, without the authority of nations, and fought against the horrors of Rhir. She had prevailed over Crelers, and every honor they had given her, from the throne of Dragons to the titles and land, had been won.
Each scar she bore, the venom that had burned her veins, had never broken her spirit. Then she had walked out of that continent of hell and seen no more foes to fight. Hero, ruler, peacemaker.
Terandria looked upon Queen Marquin as she pointed her blade forwards, and they did not see her foe. So Queen Marquin of Calanfer turned her back on the Goddess of Death, ignoring the enraged Kasigna, defying her to the last. She called out to the people watching.
“Hear me, people of Terandria! People of this world! We have made our stand and given our blessing! This era is at an end. Live long and break every old rule! Live…and choose wisely. The strength of Terandria was never in a single crown. It was always in the hands that grasped for the blade, the arms that reached up through despair. One girl once drew a sword against Crelers. She fought, even when they filled the sky and ground. Later, they called her a [Queen]. But she was never alone. Who will be next to answer Terandria’s hour of need?”
Her eyes captured them all. Marquin turned. She raised her sword high overhead.
“Live well! Live for no more regrets! Not one, and do not throw your lives away! Spend your every second as though it matters most. For there will be nothing in death.”
Then the Queen of Calanfer charged. One arm rose, and she reached out to grab a throat. Marquin swung that radiant blade with a shout that echoed in Seraphel’s ears, in the ears of Calanfer for an age.
Then she was gone. Leaving nothing but words. A thousand scattering sparks from a thousand ghosts.
The Queen of Calanfer defied death itself long enough to score a single strike against her. Defiant to the last.
The greatest souls could do that. They were vast enough, strong enough to defy that touch. The most powerful souls, the highest-level? Dragons and Giants?
They could last for…seconds.
A second to spit in the face of a dead god. A second to try and wound them. Seconds. The brave ghosts of Terandria made their last moments bright as could be, and across the distant sea where Seamwalkers bled and died, falling into the waves, past Baleros where the corpse of the Devourer of Time still fell to pieces, northwards, past Rhir, scattered across many islands and whirlpools, damaged geography and the ever-present threat of typhoons, was a nation few in the living world thought long on.
The Empire of Drath had so little land to build upon compared to any other great power in the world. Only the House of Minos was smaller, founded by Minotaurs in disgrace. Yet this was a place that had endured before the Walled Cities rose.
The hallmarks of their past were on every part of Drath, if you knew where to look. Not at the villages which sheltered themselves on the islands, gathering and refining rare plants to make medicines the rest of the world had never known. Not just the training grounds where Drath’s warriors practiced arts that warriors would make a pilgrimage to learn from.
It was a nation like any other in that it had waned. Still, careful experts drew magic talismans in ink, and they armed their fleets with magic on par with the greatest nations. Still, they kept a watch for the end of the world. But their legacy was built around their capital.
That great palace which had been built of an entire island, extending down into the sea such that there were underwater ports, rising over the rest of the city connected by bridges and magic, a second landmass to join the little space there already was, had impressed even Khelt’s rulers. Bulwarks of jade had magic that the Dragons had taken notes from to build their Walled Cities.
Warriors made of stone had once helped revive the art of creating Golems. Yet Drath’s [Emperor], their people, especially the oldest among them who knew their true history, never boasted of that palace. The armory of great weapons, some so powerful that [Mages] could be granted them in the form of spells?
That was not a point of pride. The hanging lanterns which shone at night, the boardwalks where children could play in peace and safety, the great reefs that bloomed with a thousand colors underwater, and the storms that lashed across Drath to no avail, claiming not a single soul despite destroying fleets at sea?
That was pride. When visitors looked at the tower which had been planted in the ocean and reached from the very depths of the sea floor, over twenty thousand feet down, up so that the tip of it rose over the waves, they called it a marvel of the world. [Archmages] wondered which great ruler of Drath had created it and the cost.
They had no notion of what Drath should be, so they marveled at a watchtower as if it were the greatest thing ever made. They looked upon the ‘palace’, which had once been a border fort standing on the southernmost edge of the true empire, and never looked north at the kingdom which had fallen into the abyss.
The empire that stood now had gathered survivors, rebuilt here. They had replanted islands, filled them with flowers and clippings of plants now lost to the rest of the world. The [Emperors] had unified nations into one last place to gather and watch this new world’s borders. If the sky did blossom with light at night, and there were still boulevards to sit under and stare at warriors refining their bodies and minds under trees filled with petals like soft snow?
It was a reflection of what was. A loving echo.
The ghosts remembered. The survivors of those kingdoms who had not been torn away in that cataclysm lingered here; they had informed their descendants and waited. Even in death, Drath had not fallen to the dead gods.
Now, though—the armies of Drath lay scattered across the sea. Fighting on islands, standing on ships summoned by Skills, battling an army of the very foes they had thought they knew. But they had only fought dozens at a time.
Not thousands. Not tens of thousands. Not…hundreds of thousands.
The folk of Drath were throwing themselves into the sea. Climbing Seamwalkers…a few even hurled themselves over The Last Tide, to try and stem the flow of Seamwalkers still climbing.
However, even the [Emperors] of Drath did not demand that loyalty from their subjects. Each one had ruled over the Empire of Drath, that shattered archipelago, and pledged to keep the horrors from rising. They had learned the history of their empire, the true secret of what The Last Tide was, the history of all, and despaired.
Now, in death, Drath fulfilled their old oaths. Warriors who had perfected their bodies and skills in life struck at Seamwalkers. Yet the ones who tried to wound that dancing man, the God of Love and Meetings, Laedonius Deviy, found they could not.
He was beyond them, and a [Perfect Warrior] lasted two entire seconds, long enough for a face to change to despair as the God of the Dance laughed.
Drath was filling him. He had chosen rightly; the ghosts here had less space to flee and run, and they were just as mighty as Terandria. Especially the old ones. Unlike the other four on Terandria, he was getting stronger still. Perhaps strong enough to even challenge Kasigna?
“Come, my children! You shall never want for anything again!”
He advanced as the Drathian souls fell back. It was one of the last [Emperors], the ghost of one of the oldest, who spoke. In his tongue, not what people called the ‘common tongue’, the only tongue. He was old enough to have heard the stories of many languages, even those who had used them.
“(You pathetic god. I know your name, yet this [Emperor] will not give you the dignity of using it, nor my own name. This world lies ruined from your war.)”
He pointed a glowing glaive past Laedonius Deviy, to where the world…ended. There had been other nations, beyond. Far more of the world to see and explore. Drath had been a small nation that had escaped the worst of it, and the survivors had held here.
A throne at the end of the world. A story and a watch kept until now. Now…the living had their wisdom. But the ghost bowed his head. Because he could not stop the end of things here.
Yet this one…his eyes rose, and the ghosts of Drath threw themselves at Laedonius Deviy. He swatted at them, laughing at the burning gaze of the [Emperor] of Drath.
“Your mastery of selves, your training—what has it yielded you?”
He mocked a warrior who could have split a hill in two with one blow as the warrior lasted a second before vanishing with a cry of despair. Laedonius Deviy reached out and touched another arm.
He stared into the brown eyes shining with white light. A [Monk]’s robes. Laedonius blinked at the bared fist that struck him across one shoulder. He saw the [Monk] draw back another fist and then—vanish at last.
Six seconds. That was—strange. The quality of some souls was different. Laedonius Deviy realized there was something about them.
It was not about strength. It was…refinement of the soul? Someone who had trained all their lives to master what was unseen as much as their bodies. Proof against death magic, against mental tricks.
He found himself facing a strange group of warriors as the martial warriors drew back, bowing.
Some were unarmed and struck him with fists. Others used Skills that should have broken his bones or damaged his spirit—but like their counterparts, even their great Skills did no lasting damage.
Neither magic nor Skills worked—not with Laedonius Deviy growing so strong. He was relieved; earlier, they might have hurt him. Now, even Dragonfire was only a hindrance.
The [Monks] took longer to absorb, though. They resisted him, as if they had turned their souls stiff with defiance. He held what might have been a [Priestess] for nearly sixteen seconds.
“Your people are defiant to the last. Will you not kneel and spare them the futility? Or flee? Or will you do neither, oh great [Emperor]?”
The figure standing with blade in hand turned to the forces battling the Seamwalker.
“(…The air barks like it thinks it is a mighty hound. I see only cowardice in one who tricks death.)”
Laedonius Deviy rolled his eyes. He advanced on the [Emperor], to see him run or vanish. Every mortal had his ego. But then…the God of the Dance halted against his will.
He saw someone holding onto his clothes. The little [Monk] stared at the God of Dance before vanishing.
“Your subjects protect you to the last. How—”
Laedonius was going to say ‘how selfish’, but he felt an odd sensation. He was being…pulled. A dozen ghosts surrounded him. They heaved, trying to drag him back from the [Emperor] of Drath, who watched in silence, bowing his head.
[Monks]. [Shrine Priestesses]…even [Clerics] and [Acolytes] of old, what few had ever emerged in their absence, surrounded Laedonius Deviy. They had all gathered here. He took a few steps, laughing, and they vanished.
Another dozen surrounded him at once. A [Sage] fought the God of the Dance, and they moved a single step into the ocean.
The ghosts vanished once more, and Laedonius grew stronger. But then another group surrounded him, and they were…difficult…to absorb.
Higher-level? This time, Laedonius hesitated. He saw a force walking through the ghosts, and a single, withered hand touched him. At first, Laedonius thought that someone had conjured the undead.
But no, the withered person could have been male or female, but they were so old that they had turned to skin and bones. They had no hair, and they had refused immortality via elixirs and Skills and magic…or they had lived so long that even that hadn’t been enough.
Laedonius Deviy locked eyes with an [Abbot] or some class like it. He saw the faintest, faintest remnant of pale blue in eyes lost to time.
“You are more dead than I.”
The God of the Dance remarked lightly as the ghosts and he walked back a step, onto the waves. The [Emperor] of Drath followed as Laedonius began to absorb more ghosts. Then Laedonius frowned.
The strange [Monk] had only two fingers pressed to Laedonius’ chest, but the God of the Dance could not advance. He had entertained the ghosts trying to keep him from their [Emperor], but now he pushed forwards and…failed.
They walked back a step as Laedonius tried to advance on this skeleton of a person. He drew on the soul…and the soul refused to be taken.
It was like Laedonius had suddenly only a straw and was trying to suck up a pond. A lake…an ocean?
Perplexed, the God of the Dance walked back a few steps, gracefully moving back rather than let more ghosts cling to him. They were annoying him—but they were finite. He was absorbing the lesser ones in moments—but some, like this ghost, took longer.
“You have honed your soul like few I have ever met, stranger. What is your name?”
No reply. Was this ghost even conscious? But it was…looking at him. Laedonius frowned.
“…Futility. What point was there to mastering the soul when you lived? If Kasigna had opened this place, you might have walked among the living. Maybe you did, before she closed this world off. Why not enjoy the living world? Did you meditate centuries just to find this was your ‘reward’? You poor fool. A just reward is there—just not for you. We are dead, you see. Regret that and your ancestors’ folly.”
He nodded at the [Emperor]. All Laedonius Deviy was rewarded with for his speech was…silence. He walked back further and then got angry.
“Answer me! Enough—”
He tried to eat the soul, but the other ghosts vanished and this one remained. Another ancient ghost joined him, and Laedonius realized something else.
Wait a second. He was standing on the sea, now. He looked past the ghosts and the [Emperor] to the palace. When had they left that? They were at sea and…
…and then Laedonius looked behind him and saw a Seamwalker collapsing, bloody, over the edge of the world. It was far, far from Drath. Where the edge of the world met that abyss, where the waters changed direction and flowed down in a torrent into depths so deep they swallowed light and even the regular laws of the world.
Far, far away. But—Laedonius looked up and laughed as he met the [Emperor]’s eyes.
“Is this your plan? You cannot—”
He turned and tried to walk left. A [Monk] held him. Laedonius tried to raise a foot, and the ghost vanished; he almost took a step, but then a woman in pale white robes held him. He turned right, and ghosts filled the air and sea. Laedonius decided to go up, but they were there too. Below—
Then he felt the ghosts pulling at him and took a step unwillingly. The God of the Dance lost his smile.
The [Emperor] of Drath watched him. Laedonius began to struggle, now. He strained to walk back onto the grounds of the palace. It was the folk of Drath who halted him.
First were [Monks]. [Priests] of a different kind. Many had eschewed all luxuries, garbed themselves in simple, colored cloth, shaved their heads and sat. A lifetime of thought in their eyes, they walked forwards with bare feet and touched the God of the Dance. They gripped him lightly by the dozen and pulled.
Some had struck stone or even metal until their bones broke. Callused fingers that had learned how to bend mithril gripped a sleeve of that traveller, who had come to this world long ago with naught but the clothes on his back. They touched a material not of this world and held their souls against his will.
A scarred warrior who had mastered patience and battle met Laedonius Deviy’s eyes with a gaze that had traded his very sight away to see people’s true nature. Eyes like clouds at night, blooming over rich earth.
That hand rested on the God of the Dance’s chest, and a ghost put the weight of his soul with an entire temple of [Monks]. A temple of a thousand years and so many ghosts who pushed—that warrior strained, and Laedonius Deviy took one step backwards.
One…step. Into the waters. One step on a journey of hundreds of miles. Then the warrior vanished. The [Monks] around the God of Love sighed and were gone. Laedonius caught himself, began to move the other direction, and they surrounded him again.
Some of them walked on bridges of magic. But a few of the [Monks] had learned how to sit on water. Sit so still that fish would swim around them, and such that predators like Reefeyes would swim curiously to be fed or petted. They walked across the water, light as a feather—but their hands were filled with every scrap of defiance they ever had.
One step. Two. That ancient ghost was the only one who didn’t vanish. The ghosts of Drath were warring with the God of the Dance as Seamwalkers fell and the crack in the air opened. How long between each step?
How much farther to go? They were vanishing so quickly for that single step. Laedonius was howling at them. Ghosts flickered out of existence as he walked, one unwilling step at a time, over the waters.
“Unhand me! I am your god!”
He was using his full force of will to absorb them, but they kept coming. And that strange ghost—he was vanishing, but slowly. And Laedonius kept walking.
“Enough! I will devour all of Drath if I must!”
There was an end to them! The spiritual masters of Drath were waning, and what had been an army vaster than any living force in the world was now in the hundreds.
…And they were still so far from the edge of the world. So, the [Emperor] bowed his head. Then he raised his glaive and pointed it at the dead god.
“(Warriors of Drath, forwards.)”
Then, Laedonius Deviy looked up and saw the riders of Drath burst from the palace. Men and women, riding steeds who had every right to be here. Keen intelligence in the eyes of horses of the sea, Kelpies. People kith and kin to Drowned Folk who breathed water as well as air. Immortal foxes and mortals who had learned to perfect their bodies with time and all the effort in the world.
They joined the [Monks] and took hold of the God of the Dance. They flickered out of existence even faster than the others. Yet still. They persisted.
The Seamwalkers fighting the ghosts realized the stream of warriors joining the battle had ceased. Drath’s defenders turned and charged a second time, towards that struggle on the waters.
Another step. Laedonius Deviy was eating them all, but his eyes flickered backwards, and he grew more uneasy with every step.
“Not even…your armies can stop me.”
He spoke to the [Emperor] of Drath. For answer, those imperious eyes simply gazed past Laedonius Deviy. The ghost raised his hand, and the God of Meetings made a sound in the back of his throat.
For behind their warriors, behind their wise folk, stood [Farmers] and [Alchemists]. Children held their parent’s hands, and craftsfolk stood with servants and nobles, immortals and vagabonds. Fools and sages.
Then all the dead of Drath raced into the sea. Pressing around him, vanishing as they touched him. Pushing—crying out and looking into his eyes.
The current [Emperor] of Drath sat upon a throne and watched Khelt sailing towards Izril. Outside, his kingdom was in a panic. Warriors were mobilizing to Border Fleets, pursuing sightings of the Seamwalkers.
Drath was preparing for its doom, and the wailing in the air was only one herald of the end. The statues of venerated ancestors in one hallway had cracked to dust.
Those capable of seeing omens and consulting with the dead screamed and lay weeping. Still, the [Emperor] sat, waiting for the time to call the living forwards.
“(Your Majesty? Something is happening in the waters.)”
A warrior skidded into the throne room, so flustered that they did not announce themselves. The guards raised their blades, halting the messenger, but the [Emperor] of Drath raised one hand.
He was looking at something. Slowly, that weary, despairing head rose. The mortal man who could not aid the dead—looked up from something in his hand.
It was a cup of water. Pure water…just water for this hour, because mortals had to drink. His eyes slowly rose, and the [Emperor] stood. He put the cup down and regarded it.
The water in the cup, against all laws of physics, was pressed against one edge, though it sat on a flat surface. Slowly, the [Emperor] walked from his palace onto a balcony.
An army of Drath’s [Soldiers] looked up at him. People gathered on the boardwalks and shores saw their [Emperor] walk forwards and stared at what was happening. The man looked into the distance and saw it.
The ghosts. They were racing across the waters, men and women, children and noble spirits, flickering shapes racing past the cowering living. A stream of so many faces that they were a river of souls.
All…headed towards something in the distance. Something invisible. Yet the ghosts pursued it, faces filled with a determination, a purpose. They raced past him as he looked over the waters.
Then the [Emperor] saw what had caused the warrior to rush into the room. He looked around, from the shores of each island, from what should have been the waves lapping at Drath. The wind, the tide…
No. Against the logic of what he had known every day since he had been born, the man saw the tide lapping the wrong way. The waves had changed direction. The ocean…was moving one way. With the ghosts. Towards the edge of the world.
Every ghost in Drath was pushing the ocean against itself. Throwing something back. Step by step. Hour by hour.
The living could only watch. But then the [Emperor] sat down.
“(Kneel. And watch.)”
He gave only one order as he looked at a figure who turned their head but once towards the living. A ghost stalked the waves, following the last struggle of Drath’s dead.
Step by step. Children’s hands pushing at his legs. Warriors standing next to that ancient ghost who refused to die.
A Dragon of Drath rose from the ocean and slammed into the God of the Dance. One step. Two. Three—and the serpentine protector vanished. They were all vanishing, now. Every one of them.
Yet they had reached The Last Tide. That stretch of waters rushing to nothingness. The God of the Dance looked over his shoulders and saw the blackness that Norechl had fallen into beyond. The end of the world. His eyes were wide as he struggled, trying to keep away from the edge.
The [Emperor] was watching, clutching the glaive he carried, keeping pace with them as every ghost who had the ability in Drath threw themselves at the God of the Dance. Pushing him towards the edge.
But—they were running out. There were a dozen ghosts clinging to him at every moment. Then eight…then a handful. Then, Laedonius slowed, standing in the waters rushing past him towards the end. He laughed in relief; only one ghost was left. He was stronger than ever!
“You’ve failed! A worthy attempt, but—no—”
He saw those two fingers turn into a hand. The figure standing there put their hand on Laedonius Deviy’s shoulder. They did not push. They did not use any force.
The ghost took a step, and the God of the Dance walked with him. One ghost remained, yet it refused to go. Every ghost in Drath lay in the God of the Dance, but one took a step and dragged the God of the Dance towards the place where water cascaded down.
Only six steps left. Five. The two struggled. Now, Laedonius was crying out. He struck the stranger.
“Unhand me! Unhand me, I said!”
The ghost was vanishing. Yet now…those blue irises were blazing. Like a blue fire, like another world was contained within. Made purely of will. Of determination. One…step. Another.
They stepped over the edge of The Last Tide, over the abyss. Laedonius Deviy watched the ghost vanishing. He fought—he could still make it back! The ghost flickered…
And the Third [Emperor] of Drath took the God of the Dance’s arm. The dead god looked at the other ghost in horror. They walked into the abyss, and Laedonius Deviy looked down into something even he had no knowledge of. Seamwalkers turned as the god cried out, and the [Emperor] spoke to him.
“(Foul little spirit, by the Empire of Drath, by Chasugen and Toersoo. For the countless souls who were never born for your malice and worthless deeds, I condemn you to your fate. Look not for mercy in heaven nor any life, for none shall be granted to you.)”
He looked at the other ghost, and the figure smiled. The [Emperor] bowed deeply, and the two ghosts flickered as the God of Dance clung to them now, begging, pleading. They looked down at him and did the only thing they needed to do.
Laedonius Deviy tried to fly. He tried to defy gravity—but so far from the edge of the world, another law imposed itself over him. He looked down and shrieked.
Screaming, the God of Dance and Love, the Patron of Art and Song, the Smiling Man, the last memory of the renaissance of the divine, the guest of every door and house, Laedonius Deviy, fell into the void. Into the darkness and the hungry things gathered far below. He had an age to plunge into the death of Drath, the broken wound of the world.
Kasigna turned as she felt him vanish. She looked to Drath, and her eyes opened wide. The three-in-one stood there, incredulous, and felt the only flicker of fear since the Devourer of Time had risen. Then she looked for the schemer and realized the truth.
“Laedonius Deviy? Emerrhain? This is impossible. The mortals? They’re not even the First Peoples. They’re part of the Grand Design. They…can’t do this.”
She looked around. An end was coming. But before it, an Agelum wrestled with the God of Rulers and the God of the Forgotten. Dragons still flew, amidst an Elf dueling the goddess in the air. She looked for the [Innkeeper], but Erin Solstice was flying, flying…
It was Kasigna’s hour. But the ghosts ignored her. They had more important business.
So the living and the dead met. The dead had no real power. Just words. The living had the painful duty of what came after.
Was it all lost? It was a glorious last stand…but it was the last thing. Ryoka Griffin was still crying. Ailendamus had gone still in shock, and Fithea was dead.
Good people were dead. She had seen Gerial and Erin…but they had left. Razia was gone.
She knelt there, holding something in her hands. A scroll.
She had stolen it away from the Wyrm. He would never forgive this…but perhaps she might one day make amends even so. No matter what, it had to be used.
“All of this. I don’t hear faeries. I don’t have the fates…I wish someone would tell me what the best choice is.”
However, even the wind was just that. Blowing around her as she knelt in the grass. Ryoka Griffin sat there. However, she had known when she saw that terrible end what she had always been going to do.
Gamble. Hope that this was the right thing. Pay for it and answer to everyone if not. That was what she had to do. She could run…but she had to come back and face…
The consequences. Yet the Wind Runner still knew.
It was a terrible death. The worst she had ever seen. She had not been there when Erin Solstice died, and the sight of how she had fallen for no good reason, for a petty mistake, haunted Ryoka.
But him. It was burned into her eyes. That screaming half-Elf. A raging warrior, attacking his own kind. Out of his mind, forgetting who he was.
That was not how he should have died. Not after so long. Not after all the stories she didn’t know of him. Not when he had gone out into the world one last time to try and make things right.
Not that champion of the forgotten. Hero that only the dead and lost remembered. Ryoka Griffin unrolled the scroll and saw how simple it was.
Just…words and magic. Yes, they seared her soul with power. Yes, the grass bloomed around the scroll. But just as the fae had said—this was just power in a box. It was borrowing something greater.
“It’ll still work. Not for the Faerie Queen. Not for…but him. Yes.”
The scroll shone across Ryoka, and she held up a hand as the light seared her skin. The rays of light went through her soul, and she cried out, but that was just the magic.
She activated the [Resurrection] scroll, and it left the ground. It hovered in the air as the Wyrm looked up from his palace. Every [Mage] on the continent turned. Ryoka Griffin screamed as the spell activated.
It was a beautiful piece of magic. Regardless of body. It cared nothing for distance or time. Only that the soul was there. It asked for only one thing, and the knowledge screamed in Ryoka.
She just had to give it a name. An identity. So Ryoka did. She cried out. She screamed the words.
“Teriarch! Dragonlord of Flame!”
Please. Let it be enough. Let him wake and put it to rights. Ryoka Griffin waited. She waited…
And the scroll did nothing. It hovered there, burning her skin. And Ryoka Griffin realized the greatest irony of it all. She saw the scroll searching…searching…the magic of legends looking.
It did not find him. She had the wrong name. No…she had no idea who he was, did she?
Teriarch. No last name. Was he even the Dragonlord of Flame? All she knew was a grumpy Dragon who had told her his name was Teriarch. She might as well have used ‘Eldavin’. That version of the Dragon had at least believed that was entirely who he was for a while.
The magic couldn’t last forever. Indeed, even activating it was changing parts of Ryoka’s skin from the sheer radiating power. She was sobbing and about to say another name when something, someone landed next to her.
“That’s not his name, fool. That’s only what he called himself later. The spell requires more. Repeat my words.”
Ryoka Griffin looked up, and a Dragon with scales as bright red as the hottest ember in existence, a contained blaze of a fading sky, brighter than blood, more vibrant than a spark, looked down at Ryoka.
It was just one ghost of many. One of the ghosts who had come to Terandria for a last stand with Queen Marquin and the others. This Dragon had arrived early. Following something. Someone.
“You’re trying to bring him back. I hoped you would listen. You’ve met him, haven’t you? Teriarch is the name he uses, but he has many names. However did someone as odd as you meet…no, that’s just like him.”
She snorted ghostly fire, and the ghost of a Dragon looked at Ryoka with narrowed eyes.
“He lost his mind. That half-Elf was the worst of him. It was one of those six, a dead god, who tricked him into his end. Will you truly use the scroll for him? Teriarch? If you will…repeat the name.”
Ryoka, shielding her eyes, gazed up at the Dragon. She stuttered.
“You—you know him?”
“More than know. I have been with him in far more times than this. I have watched over him as he despaired. As he lost his drive. I have loved and hated him and been his enemy and ally and friend. You…you must think highly of him if you will use this for him. I ask you to.”
The Dragon bowed her head awkwardly, the motion unfamiliar to her, especially to Ryoka. The Wind Runner hesitated.
“Are you…his wife? His partner?”
The female Dragon’s eyes snapped open wide, and her look of entreaty turned to outrage. She reared up, flapping her wings, and hissed at Ryoka.
“I am his daughter, you ten-toed snot vessel.”
Ryoka opened her mouth, but the Dragon landed once more and bit back the rest. She tossed her head and looked south.
“…They are waiting for him to wake up. If he is dead, he will see them. His family. His mother…they will tell him what needs to be remembered. Although he’s a forgetful one even at the best of times. I came to do what I could here. Say his name, and give him one last chance.”
The Wind Runner looked up at the Dragon with wide eyes. Then she understood. The ghost of that Dragon would see them all.
All of them. His friends. Those who had loved him, fought with him. Those he thought he had failed. One last gathering of ghosts. And then he…Ryoka turned to the scroll, and now she hesitated. She realized something.
“It is going to break his heart. It’s too much to ask of him, isn’t it? He’s finally done. No matter how it ended, and I’m going to make him come back and…”
Like the fool she was, Ryoka Griffin hesitated now that all the pieces were in place. He was not someone who had done this a hundred years, or even a thousand. Or even ten thousand.
He had fought and failed and given up so many times that even the rest of his kind thought he was ancient of days. Ryoka’s hands trembled, and a Dragon bent her head down to glare at her. A furious, fuchsia gaze laced with a comet of indigo, the two colors almost blended into one until you looked closer, stared venom at Ryoka.
Venom…and sympathy. Venom, and almost respect because Ryoka saw the truth. Yet the Dragon, Teriarch’s daughter, replied softly as Ryoka turned to the scroll. Time was running out.
“That is not your choice to make. He was the hero of a hundred million peoples. He has fled and bowed and broken. He has failed and despaired. But my father has ever risen, like the burning sun, in the name of what was ever worthy and right. In the end, he has always chosen to fly.”
Ryoka looked up at the Dragon and felt a kinship with someone she would never meet. The Dragon glanced over her shoulder.
“I’ll do it. Tell me his name.”
Softly, ever-so-softly, the Dragon exhaled. She bowed to Ryoka and spoke, looking into Ryoka’s eyes.
“Thank you. Tell him Nirayicel flew across the skies at her end with the flame he left in me. Tell him to burn one last memory of our people into the heart of the world.”
Ryoka’s voice was trembling. She looked at the scroll.
“What do I say?”
Nirayicel closed her eyes.
“His first name is Terrium Archelis Dorishe. Teriarch soth Verines. Teriarch of Kerozel. Terrium…”
Ryoka Griffin repeated the words and saw the scroll grow brighter. Nirayicel stopped talking. She and Ryoka took a step back as the scroll lifted into the air. Ryoka shielded her arms as the magic activated. The Wind Runner screamed, and the Dragon took wing. She flew up, breathing fire, laughing as the magic activated.
“One last time! Fly! Fly higher, Father! Fly, Dragonlord! Until—”
She vanished into the sky. Or Ryoka lost track of her. The scroll ignited. The hill she stood on split, and she felt the air ripple.
A Wyrm screamed in despair and almost adulation as he felt the magic pass through the world. He looked into the distance and knew it was done. The thing he had never been able to do. An immortal’s hesitation and greed—undone by a single damn thief, a girl.
He wept in relief as the magic condensed, and the young woman looked up for an explosion or a sign. But all Ryoka Griffin saw was falling light. She felt a sigh on her skin. Then she heard something.
In Izril, in the High Passes, in a cave in the middle of nowhere, a little Dragon lay there to sleep and never wake. Despair lay next to her, sleeping.
A weary hero who had made a mistake in a life full of mistakes. Triumph and loss.
One soul among many, perhaps. But this one did not fly into the end. He did not join the end, though he cried out as they laughed at him and told him he was needed.
The other souls, who looked at him. Ghosts who called to him one last time to try. Even if he hid. Even if he were a coward and a fool and forgetful. He was the one that the wind chose.
Rafaema, eyes squeezed shut, unmoving, heard something. It sounded in her mind, as loud as everything as she lay there, head pressed against that chest. It filled Ryoka’s head. It was a promise, a return.
Thump. Thump. Thump…
In time, he opened his eyes and saw her looking up at him. The Dragonlord of Flame woke up and knew it was time. Time for the [Innkeeper] whom ghosts spoke of. A debt owed. Another moment of defiance.
Teriarch spread his wings and flew.
Author’s Note: Done. In some ways, this may be the climactic chapter of Volume 8. There is one last to go…but this has the most words I have ever written in a single chapter.
One more week. Give me one more week until May 3rd. I think I will need it. I know I hoped to get the volume done in one month, but I need the time to rest and write the last chapter. Somehow, though, despite the delays we are still on time.
I’m tired. I’m so tired I don’t know if I’ve pushed this hard before. Certainly not as long, but I hope the ending of this is at least partly good enough. I know it’s taking a toll on my energy, but not my health. Don’t worry, if I was actually injuring myself I’d stop. I’m just working to the end of my everything I can throw at this wall.
I will take a second to debrief and talk about it all later. But it’s like a race and even if it was only one person, sometimes you have to run to the ending, not walk. We’re just pushing towards that conclusion, and I think we can make it.
So long as the writing is worth it, I think I’ll be happy once it’s over. I couldn’t rest fully until Volume 8 ends. You’re hopefully waiting for it, and so am I. So. One week. I’ll let you know if anything changes, but this is it. One more chapter. Wish me luck and see you then.
The Pride of the Wellfar by Enuryn!
Cara O’Sullivan by Chalyon!
Erin Possessed by AuspicousOctopi!