Drakes crossed the water line. The old peace that had lasted forever broke with the marching of boots. The burning fires…and a cold promise in metal and magic.
The armies of the Walled Cities had reached the Meeting of Tribes at last. What did the Drakes see as they arrayed for battle, deploying in the Orb Sanctus formation? Fissival deployed nigh on a mile from the edges of the fighting. They adopted a strange, circular formation that consisted of multiple spheres in which an artillery piece or [Mages] were placed. Protecting their powerful spellcasters behind ranks of traditional Drake spears and wand-carrying infantry.
The City of Magic was here at last. After delays, an unexpected defeat from parts of their forces…they had arrived.
Wall Lord Dragial’s scales were turquoise mixed with what might have been pearl. An unusual effect that was the product of magic affecting him as a child. It was enough for a handsome Drake, and the scars he had taken in battle only added to that as he strode forwards in mage’s armor, a high-collared cloak with Fissival’s crest on his back.
A disgraced Wall Lord who had been exiled from the City of Magic—leading their army. Fissival had long denied he was receiving any funding or support from his home after they had expelled him for attacks on Drake cities and Gnoll tribes in his pursuit of Lehra Ruinstrider.
Now, his presence at the head of the army, flanked by three [Generals], and the cheers from the [Soldiers] as he stood on a magical dais which amplified his magic and protected him, put the lie to rest for good. The Wall Lord raised his claws, waving as if he were on parade. Then his eyes locked on the Meeting of Tribes.
“I can see that [Witch]’s magic. That damned Earth Elemental is down, and they’ve exhausted their magic. Wonderful. [Generals], prepare to bombard the Gnolls.”
“Which targets, Wall Lord?”
One of the Drakes looked uneasily at Dragial. He gazed blankly towards the fighting.
“Order the Mage Throwers to target the clusters of Gnolls fighting. Our Wyverns will strike from above at maximum range. Tell Manus to flank the Gnolls; they will pivot if they don’t keep tearing each other to pieces. Salazsar may wish to spread out their advance.”
He glanced to the east, where the City of Salazsar’s smaller army was moving right next to Fissival’s. That Wall Lord Ilvriss had objected to his approach, but he had gone silent. Perhaps he saw now the truth Dragial had learned: when the dust settled and when you were on the back foot, the lesser peoples complained and made their petty gestures.
When it mattered—the real Drakes acted. This? Dragial looked into the Meeting of Tribes and tried to find the Stargnoll, his enemy.
This was the end of it. He began to speak, as, in the distance, Gnolls looked up. The first advent of Fissival was that army in the distance, four hundred thousand strong. A collective of cities. Then the shadows in the sky.
“Wyverns! Badarrow! Perorn—Wyverns everywhere! [Mages]!”
Snapjaw was screaming through the speaking stone. Perorn’s blood ran cold, but she could barely answer as she raised her bow.
The Centaur looked up and saw them. Her lips moved as she remembered her intelligence report on the Walled City’s forces.
Wyverns. Their answer to Griffins when they fought Terandria and the North. Perorn began to give rapid orders.
“Wil, redeploy your front! Tell Torishi to pivot—pivot now! Fissival is going to bombard this entire position! The Plain’s Eye tribe has to do the same or they’ll hit us with spells until no one is alive!”
Every Gnoll surely saw their enemy coming, but the struggle at the center of the Meeting of Tribes continued. Xherw’s warriors trying to kill the Doombearers. Plain’s Eye, still howling hatred.
And her. Perorn’s sides stung with cuts, and she felt the metal embedded in her flanks. That was a small mercy—she had seen a wire of string cutting down her people. She looked up.
There was a story even Baleros knew.
The Witch of Webs stood in the center of the fighting, taller than she had been at the start. A hand reached out and threw a cloud of needles into the fighting. She whirled a needle up like a lance and sent it through a [Shaman] trying to burn her.
That monster was on Xherw’s side. She would have killed everything in front of her but for them. Perorn saw three figures breaking through the warriors fleeing her in every direction.
Saliss of Lights hurled a vial of fire in Belavierr’s face, but a needle exploded the vial in midair. So Saliss threw a dozen, then two dozen, trying to touch her. The [Witch] smiled—until a Gnoll leapt at her in midair.
The Stargnoll, wreathed in the Armor of Stars, tried to bring an axe down on Belavierr’s head. A magical rope grabbed her leg and cracked her through the air like a whip. She landed, slamming into Gnolls and breaking their bones or hers.
But another Gnoll was already there. The World-Pact Traveller struck Belavierr in the shoulder with an arrow that screamed and hissed. A Serpentarrow of Baleros from the Named Adventurer who had been to every continent, Gadiekh.
Three Named Adventurers. Belavierr replied with a shower of writhing bolts of black magic then turned her head. A young woman with fiery hair tossing flame looked up uneasily as Belavierr stared up at the only being taller than her.
“You know the old ways. Shapechanger.”
For answer, Garsine raised a paw, and the [Racdelbear Shapechanger] roared as she struck Belavierr. The [Witch] staggered—then raised a hand as she smiled evilly.
“I return your wrath to thee.”
She touched Garsine, and Perorn saw the gigantic Gnoll go stumbling backwards, howling. Belavierr was proof against mundane weapons. Even magic didn’t seem to touch her.
That monster. Lehra was getting up, looking around with a stunned expression of disbelief and…fear. But Saliss kept advancing, and Belavierr’s smile vanished as she saw Garsine get up and Gadiekh lifting his bow.
No…Gnolls looked at that old villain from their tales, and even the ones who had refused to kill their kind, like Garsine and Gadiekh, strode into the fighting. Even—
A blade tried to pierce Belavierr from the back. Maviola cried out and coated the snarling Gnoll in flame, but he kept stabbing—stabbing into a dress like armor. Belavierr turned, and the Gnoll, whose fur was as grey as metal, looked up and raised a shield as she struck him back.
The Steelsoul warrior, one of Chieftain Iraz’s greatest warriors, collapsed as Belavierr reached into his chest and crushed his heart. The [Witch]’s hand was a ghost’s, immaterial until it touched his heart and crushed it. She frowned as she looked at the body.
“Are we not on the same side? I am fighting for Plain’s Eye. I am Belavierr.”
She turned, and the Gnolls shuddered as they looked at her and heard her voice whispering in every ear.
“Do you have a wish? I will grant it for the right price. Stand against me and die. Call me your ally and take my hand, and I will do what armies cannot.”
Her voice trickled through the camps, into the ears of a group of chained figures. They snuffled, broke off from smelling all that death and whining to their battered leader. They looked up warily, and the worst of them, Nokha, opened her eyes in her cage of metal and grinned.
The Stitch Witch was reversing the battle, occupying Torishi’s forces as the Drakes came at them from behind. Yet—
How could you look at her and not wonder what you were doing?
The Plain’s Eye tribe kept fighting, and Az’muzarre was with them. They were both willing to make a pact with the [Witch]. But Adetr Steelfur saw other tribes breaking away. Pointing at Belavierr in horror.
Many simply saw Fissival’s and Salazsar’s armies and knew. They were abandoning the fighting, turning.
Such a large army. And to the west…Manus. The Drakes were moving in, and they could wipe out the Gnolls. Kill everyone.
What was he doing? What was…
“Iraz! Chieftain Iraz!”
Adetr found his [Chieftain] at last. His mentor, his goal, and the Gnoll who had let him down when Adetr expected more, was standing, no longer fighting. Staring at Belavierr.
Iraz’s eyes were uncertain. That conviction, normally as tough as the metal of his fur, was wavering. Adetr charged at him, and the [Chieftain] met Adetr in the center of his tribe.
Adetr was alone. But he had fought through Steelfur to Iraz. They had…parted for him. Now, the younger Gnoll struck his [Chieftain] as he charged into him. Iraz grabbed Adetr’s arms as his axes rose, and the two were struggling.
“Chieftain Iraz. How could you do this? Can’t you see what Xherw’s done? Are you blind? Can’t you see what’s fighting on your side?”
The [Vanguard of Metal], the [Battle Seeker], shouted at Iraz. The Chieftain was silent; his arms trembled as he threw Adetr left. He drew his axe as the other warrior whirled, but he didn’t raise it and strike. He just looked at Belavierr…and the Daemon standing behind Xherw.
“Steelfur has been Plain’s Eye’s friend. If we’ve followed that lie—we’re all lost. Tradition is lost. Gnolls are lost.”
His paw shook as he lifted a shield in the other hand. His nephew snarled at him. Adetr pointed to the Chieftains’ gathering tent, half on fire.
“We have a future. Everything is changing, Chieftain—but look! They’re coming. Drakes. This is the end of our people, and Steelfur stands here, fighting our kind! We should not be here! Chieftain—”
Iraz had Adetr’s arm as Adetr raised a paw to strike him. The [Chieftain] of Steelfur held Adetr as the warrior wavered. Adetr closed his eyes, knowing he wasn’t Iraz’s equal. He’d said his piece.
He opened one eye as he realized his throat wasn’t being crushed by an axe. Iraz stared at Adetr—then his eyes travelled across the distance to Fissival. Up towards the Wyverns preparing to rain spells down from above.
Without a word, Iraz let go of Adetr. He looked around at his warriors, who had abandoned their positions fighting Gaarh Marsh, Weatherfur, their hunt for Doombearers. Iraz’s head lowered, and the [Chieftain] seemed…smaller than Adetr remembered. He looked up at Adetr, and the younger Gnoll realized he was taller than Iraz.
Adetr had always felt smaller. He looked for that bastion of wisdom, the perfect leader, and saw only a frightened Gnoll so deep in his mistakes he couldn’t admit it. A young battle leader who’d committed to the wrong point and held there as good people died.
They gazed at each other and knew they would never go back again. But Iraz slowly let go of Adetr and turned. He took a metal horn from his belt and blew it. The brass wail was unlike any horn, and his tribe looked up. Slowly, Iraz pointed.
“Steelfur. Steelfur—there. There, and there alone we fall. The Drakes will not have our people. Follow me. Follow—Adetr?”
His voice faltered, and the Gnoll looked at Adetr Steelfur. The [Battle Seeker] raised his head—and pointed an axe forwards.
The Steelfur tribe turned as one, breaking from the battle with their kind. They raced west, forming a barrier as more Gnoll tribes left. They faced Manus, and Adetr looked at a vast army. His tribe was wounded. Iraz stood beside him.
“Adetr…you have seen this battle before. Can we win?”
The [Battle Seeker] had played this battle in his mind, put armies against Manus’ might. He looked right and left.
“I—I did. But—we need the Steelsoul to go with you in the center. Manus will try to surround us. We must strike their officers, but they’ll be spread out. Where’s Shaman Geith? He must cast a [Chameleon] spell on…”
Adetr stopped. The plans and simulations faded from his mind. He looked at Iraz and remembered now.
The cost of winning, even if they ‘won’. Adetr looked at Manus, and his class trembled. He had dreamed of this battle. Now he was here?
He did not want this. This was the nightmare from which there was no waking. Iraz took Adetr’s shoulder.
“Focus, Adetr. You have to focus. Unless they’re pushed back, we will all die or be captive.”
The [Vanguard] looked at his [Chieftain] and then broke out of his stupor. He began to give orders as, in the distance, Gnolls streamed towards Fissival. Then he saw Salazsar maneuvering into position and remembered Zeres was not far behind.
Three Walled Cites upon the plains. Adetr felt a dread certainty. But he looked into Iraz’s eyes and took his [Chieftain]’s shoulder.
“This is where I wanted to be.”
Adetr’s head rose, and he sighed as they turned to face the City of War. He knew that when he slept, he would no longer have his class. He would not dream of battle after this. He raised his axe and howled.
Manus was coming from the west. Fissival and Salazsar, from points to the east and south. Zeres was also marching from the south, blocking Oteslia.
Five Walled Cities had an army on the field, though Manus, Fissival, and Zeres were the largest by far. But there was actually one last group of Drakes that represented the final Walled City.
Pallass did have [Soldiers] at the Meeting of Tribes. They were arraying themselves now, actually. All one hundred and twenty of them.
They were, in fact, the same group that had escorted the Raskghar here from the City of Invention. Chaldion had ordered a detachment to stay in the area, and when everything had gone down, he had told [Major] Etella Doscale to avoid clashing with the Gnolls. Even surrender if they had to—but be here.
Here…facing Fissival and Salazsar, who were literally over a thousand times the number of Etella’s force. The Drake looked at a single line of Drakes with spears and another of [Archers]. She had eighteen Drakes armed with alchemical flasks. Two [Mages]. Fissival had more siege weapons than she had soldiers.
But her orders had come from none other than the Cyclops of Pallass. The [Grand Strategist] of the Drakes. She was, in fact, talking to Chaldion right now.
“Grand Strategist. I have a count of…hundreds of thousands of Drakes marching towards us. They have Mage Throwers, and they are preparing to bombard the Meeting of Tribes.”
Gnolls were forming lines behind her. They looked at Pallass’ forces, but the Drakes had their backs to the Gnolls. Etella heard Chaldion speaking calmly to her.
“I understand the odds, [Major]. I am ordering you to advance once Fissival begins their assault. Do you understand?”
“No, sir. We won’t even make it to their front lines. Sir…permission to speak freely?”
The [Major] took a breath. It was shaking. She couldn’t help herself.
“We’re…we’re going to die. Grand Strategist, the [Soldiers] are about to mutiny. I understand Fissival is trying to wipe out entire tribes. There are Gnolls in this force.”
As many Gnolls as Drakes, in fact. A calculated gesture, and probably one of the only reasons they hadn’t been torn apart by the angry tribes. Chaldion’s voice was…
It wasn’t the snapping, harsh orders she had heard a few times, dressing down [Generals] like raw recruits. It was intense, hurried…but there was a tone in it she had seldom heard.
“Yes, [Major]. If your [Soldiers] are going to mutiny, I advise you to let whomever you wish flee. But I need you and at least a quarter of your number to advance. I need you to charge Fissival. Do you understand why?”
She knew he was watching her. Perhaps all of Pallass was. There had to be hundreds of scrying spells, watching Khelt, this battlefield, the armies…and Chaldion knew it too. The Drake spoke quietly in Etella’s ear.
“You may be overlooked in this moment. But I promise—a recording of Pallass will remain. Afterwards, Gnolls and Drakes will see—every nation will see that when the Walled Cities attacked the Meeting of Tribes, Pallass fought with the Gnolls. Pallass has more species in it than any other Walled City as permanent residents. Gnolls, Drakes, Dullahans, Garuda. Major Estella. I am asking you to be a martyr. Do you understand why.”
The Drake was shivering. It was so clear when he said it like that. The [Strategist] stopped a moment.
“I will remember your name, [Major]. Pallass needs heroes like you. Will you do this for our city?”
She could refuse and flee the field. She might lose everything, but she’d live. But he laid out why, and the [Major] closed her eyes.
“I will be here, and any [Soldier] that volunteers, Grand Strategist. That’s all…all I can promise. Just—promise me this matters?”
Chaldion’s voice rasped in her ear.
“I promise. No [Soldier] has fulfilled their duty better than you. Thank you, [Major].”
The howling began as [Major] Etella dropped the stone. For the Drakes…she began to address her people. This was what her city demanded. This was who Drakes were. She had never been prouder or despaired more. The howling of the Gnolls filled the air, their despair and rage and grief all contained in a single sound. It sounded like an echo of the voice in her head.
The howling grated on Wall Lord Dragial’s nerves. He turned his head as the [Mages] in his command busied themselves. They were setting up scrying orbs—Dragial was making a speech.
“This is the last time Gnolls will trouble the cities. They must know it.”
He heard a few chuckles and then adjusted his clothing. The [Soldiers] were waiting for his signal to fire. The Gnolls were forming a wedge, but they were still fighting each other like the fools they were.
Well, that was the difference between their strategy and his. Dragial murmured to his [Strategist].
“Tell Wall Lord Ilvriss to hold and wait for the Gnolls to come to us. Has he issued any statements?”
“No, Wall Lord Dragial.”
Salazsar was neatly arrayed across from Fissival, close enough to see the purple-scaled Wall Lord addressing his forces. He was leading from the front—typical Salazsarian bravado, but Dragial still appreciated it.
“Remind me to mark a decanter for after the battle. There’s a proper Drake, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the spear-wall when it’s necessary.”
He strode on, clearing his throat and casting a few spells. Manus was launching all kinds of complaints by comparison. As if Luciva couldn’t see that this was the perfect moment. She knew as well as he—
The Drake took the dais and felt the magic, the artificial leyline filling him. He waited as the cheering stopped—then raised a hand.
“Soldiers of the cities! Drakes of Izril! This is the last day that Gnolls will spread lies about our city. The last year they will raid our lands. We have come to this battlefield to restore order to Izril. First the Great Plains—then the North! You will remember this day as the beginning of the return of the Walled Cities!”
He looked across the faces of Drakes, the glowing magic wands behind lines of pikes. The Gnolls were beginning to charge. The skies were turning red as Wyverns began to prepare [Fireballs]. The Wall Lord felt the burning excitement in his veins. Magic, begging to be unleashed. But he spoke a moment longer, for these words would be written down in history.
“General Hexa—you will hold the Gnolls down. General Koore, General Qeuse, with me. When they come, we will be the spear that breaks them apart. Drakes—to arms! For Izril!”
He raised a glowing wand, and the soldiers began to shout in reply.
No, no. There was an even more fitting chant. Dragial began to shout, and the [Soldiers] caught on.
“Drakes! Drakes! Drakes!”
Wall Lord Dragial lifted his arms as his heart swelled with pride. He pointed the wand ahead at the Gnolls. His mouth opened as he drew a breath in. And a voice howled one word.
Dragial jerked as the voice echoed across the Great Plains. His eyes swung right, and he saw a Drake riding forwards.
Wall Lord Ilvriss had drawn his sword. He pointed it forwards, and the army of Salazsar followed him. A Drake with bright blue scales rode after Ilvriss, followed by [General] Greex himself. Then the Rubirel Guard, the Erchirite Spears…eighty thousand Drakes charged with Ilvriss, screaming.
“What is that idiot doing? Tell him to stop—he’ll foul our firing lines!”
Dragial broke off from his order to begin the attack, turning to his [Strategists]. They were trying to talk to Ilvriss, but that battle-crazed idiot must have decided to attack! Dragial was formulating a plan when he saw something he didn’t understand.
Ilvriss…was turning. The Wall Lord saw the Drake’s path veer from the Gnolls in front of him. Accordingly, the army of Salaszar began to turn.
Ilvriss’ heart was in his mouth. Osthia Blackwing was at his side, and General Greex was screaming at their soldiers. Or just screaming—but Ilvriss had given one order:
Follow me. The army of Salazsar faltered—then they saw what he was doing. Drakes turned, their formations of spears curving. Officers of the City of Gems cursed as they saw Ilvriss’ true destination.
They had to know. You didn’t charge half a mile towards your opponents. Gnolls and Drakes looked up as the Wall Lord began to charge and saw him turn his head back once.
Then the Drake committed to the charge. Ilvriss’ warhorse raced ahead of everyone. He knew the continent was watching.
His father, his mother, his sister—his city. Everyone saw the Wall Lord of Salazsar curving away from the Gnolls. The City of Gems followed him, and General Greex screamed as they looked at their true target.
Fissival’s army was positioned to meet the Gnolls. Their spears were almost all pointed the wrong way. The Drake officers saw Ilvriss turning and shouted.
“Ancestors—this is it! Get ready! Get r—”
Ilvriss saw [Archers] and wand-carrying Drakes turn. But they hesitated. They raised their weapons, waiting for orders, but the officers were frozen, waiting for Dragial or their [Generals]. And Dragial was just staring at Ilvriss uncomprehendingly.
Ilvriss looked into that fool’s eyes and saw the brilliant light of arrogance and greed shining there. The worst of his people. He gazed at the army poised to make war on Gnolls. Repeat the same folly for the hundredth time in blood and wretchedness. Ilvriss screamed as he pointed his sword at the first Drakes swinging around, eyes wide.
His own people. But the Gnolls were not their enemy. They could be better. They had to be…Ilvriss thought he could see Periss urging him on. Or was it Zel? Both? He realized he was screaming.
“Salazsar! Salazsar! Salazs—”
Then the City of Gems struck the City of Magic. The world’s most magnificent backstab played across Chaldion’s horrified gaze as Ilvriss struck Dragial’s forces from the side. The Wall Lord swung his sword down and cut a Drake holding a wand. Then the Erchirite Spears rammed into Fissival’s forces, and their spears discharged the combined lightning effects.
Drakes howled as the magic exploded across their lines, but the charge kept going. Ilvriss was headed straight for Dragial as the exiled Wall Lord turned on his pedestal. Ilvriss yelled..
“Tessa! Kill that idiot and then go protect Mrsha—protect Lyonette!”
The Named Adventurer buried her daggers into a [Mage-Commander]’s chest and laughed as Ilvriss surged forwards. The City of Gems was at war with the City of Magic. Gnolls stormed across the Great Plains as Fissival’s neat formation broke into chaos, the Magic Throwers and [Mages] trying to turn.
The City of Magic was in chaos. The Wyverns in the sky had begun to loose spells, but a quarter had broken away from their assault to return to their army.
A single Goblin flew through the skies. The only thing that saved Snapjaw was that the Drakes kept thinking she was on their side until they drew closer.
Icecube belched frost into the face of a regular Wyvern and dove as spells crisscrossed the air. Snapjaw was shouting.
“Badarrow! Where is Mrsha? Are we running or not?”
She only got silence from her stone. More spells were overriding it. Snapjaw broke through a layer of storm clouds and saw…chaos.
Gnolls were racing towards the Drakes, still fighting each other—at the center was Xherw. That scary [Witch].
But where…? Snapjaw looked up as Wyverns dove after her. She screamed at Icecube to fly into the clouds once more. Below her, a Hobgoblin loosed arrows up frantically, but even Badarrow had trouble hitting—
An arrow struck a Wyvern through the eye as it dove after her. Screaming, the Wyvern plummeted. Snapjaw’s head turned as a second arrow pierced a wing and hit a [Mage]. There was only one mad archer who had that Skill. She looked around and saw him standing on a wagon.
Bird. The Antinium was gathered with the Fellowship out of the fighting. And a little white Gnoll was waving at her. Snapjaw looked up and saw more Wyverns descending. She ordered Icecube higher.
“What is she doing?”
Salkis was shouting, covered in blood, as they watched Snapjaw flying away from them. Sergeant Gna spat.
“She’s drawing them away! We have to go!”
“Go? Which direction?”
Drakes were coming in from all sides, and the Gnolls still wanted Mrsha dead. The Fellowship stood around her as the Witch kept fighting. She occasionally threw spells across the entire battling army—but never in their direction.
Belavierr had promised Wiskeria not to harm Mrsha. But no one else had, and they still hated her.
In fact, it was the [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands] who spotted Mrsha as he led a wave of Plain’s Eye [Shamans] towards Fissival. Ulcreziek halted as Gnolls streamed past the Fellowship of the Inn. He turned his head, and his eyes flashed, one brown, the other pale and timeless.
Oh no. The Fellowship turned as Plain’s Eye Gnolls charged at them again. Numbtongue cursed, reaching for his guitar. Not that one! He saw a warrior coming for him and nearly grabbed his sword—
“Stop that [Shaman]!”
Garia leapt from the wagon as Bird stopped firing arrows up to cover Snapjaw. He and Badarrow whirled, and the [Martial Artist] kicked one of the Gnolls back. Another brought a sword down and speared the young woman who threw herself forwards to cover Garia.
But it was not a silver blade. The [Shamanic Warrior] recoiled as a thin, inhumanly strong grip cracked his bones. He saw red, glowing eyes. Sergeant Gna spurred her horse.
“Forwards! Don’t let that [Shaman] cast!”
Numbtongue knew that Ulcreziek would wipe them all out. He played on the guitar desperately. Each chord screeched as the [Lightning Melody] charged up. The dark skies made the Skill work even faster. Eight chords as Ulcreziek raised his staff—
A bolt of lightning shot down from the heavens. Ulvama threw a handful of fire as Mrsha waved her wand, tripping up a Plain’s Eye Gnoll. Numbtongue saw the [Shaman] react. Ulcreziek lifted his other paw—
And caught the bolt of lightning. It earthed itself in his paw, becoming a sizzling ball of lightning, contained. The [Bard] lowered his guitar.
The bolt of lightning struck the wagon and turned it into an explosion of splinters. Everyone was sent flying as Ulcreziek blocked Ulvama’s magic. The Hobgoblin surged to her feet, chanting a hex.
Ulcreziek’s magical eye stared at her, and she turned to stone. The stone cracked, and Ulvama emerged, screaming, falling to her knees and coughing out the stone lining her throat, her lungs. The Gnoll ignored her and pointed his staff at Mrsha. One of Bird’s arrows struck his fur and shattered; it was as tough as mithril.
The magic grew brighter as Mrsha raced away from her friends. Badarrow dove for her, but she was running away—trying to spare them from the destruction of Ulcreziek’s spell. Bird and Badarrow fired arrows uselessly into Ulcreziek’s chest and face as The Crimson Soldier and the Antinium and Goblins tried to reach the [Shaman], but the Plain’s Eye warriors were in the way.
The wrathful Gnoll was locked on Mrsha, and nothing in this world would stop him. No spellcaster save for the [Witch] and Theikha was his equal here. He began to whisper his spell.
“[The Bloodless Lands Open—]”
A patch of space, the grass Mrsha was running across, began to shimmer with the same spell that had once made the Bloodfields. Numbtongue tossed the guitar aside, and Reiss, the Goblin Lord, took over.
Five [Deathbolts] hit Ulcreziek, and the [Shaman] barely flinched. He was the center of his tribe’s magic. The power of the greatest tribe in Izril ran through him. Nothing could stop his spell.
Nothing except for the buzzing sound that made Ulcreziek flinch instinctively. Nothing save for the little bee, flying towards his face. The [Shaman] ignored Apista. His body was protected by great magic. All she had was a single enhanced stinger.
And a Naq-Alrama needle buried in the tip. Apista landed on Ulcreziek’s face and stung his eye.
The Gnoll screamed as she stabbed his mortal eye. The spell went wild as Apista flew away.
Got him! Thanks for buying me time, everyone. The most dangerous member of the Fellowship saw the [Shaman] whirling, a bloody socket and pale eye staring at her. She felt a spell blast the air—
Mrsha turned her head as her death once again failed to come. Her faithful protector…she sensed the little bee, often forgotten. That brave, silly buzzing bee who stole Palt’s cigars. Then fire. Then—Mrsha looked around.
The Ashfire Bee woke up on the ground. The [Shaman] was fleeing, his magics torn in half, arrows buried in his flesh. All because of her. She had been hit. She felt…pain.
But she got him alright. The Ashfire Bee scrambled up. She fanned her wings. Too many people around her. Too many feet. She took off—
And fell. Huh? Apista slammed into the ground rather than taking off. She crawled around, but she couldn’t turn her head. Something…she felt scorched. She fanned her wings and felt movement on only one side.
One of her wings was burnt off. And her legs…Apista tried to move her right side and realized that was why she couldn’t crawl.
Dimly, the bee realized what had happened. Oh. Oh…I got hit. She looked around for her boon companions, but they were fighting somewhere else. All she saw were Gnolls, feet…
One smashed the ground in front of Apista. The Ashfire Bee realized she wasn’t going anywhere. A body fell, bleeding next to her in the mud.
She thought she’d lost her stinger too. Apista could have used a cigar for the pain. She crawled forwards and stopped. No—no. Weakly, one antenna rose and flicked in a salute. She felt satisfied. The little white cute girl was safe. Mrsha was safe.
I did it. Mission accomplished, boys and girls. Bring her home.
She collapsed into the darkness as a Gnoll’s foot descended. Then someone stabbed the foot, and the Gnoll screamed. Blood rained down on Apista, but a pair of little grey hands grabbed her up.
“Rasktooth, danger, danger!”
Infinitypear loomed over Apista as a little Cave Goblin grabbed the bee up. Bewildered, Apista saw a grinning face. Crimson eyes and grey-green skin.
Only a Cave Goblin would have noticed something so small as her in the fighting. Rasktooth snatched Apista up and ran as Infinitypear jabbed with his spear, trying to keep the Gnolls back.
“Got bug! Infinitypear, run, run!”
The two scampered for it, the [Adventurer] and amateur [Cook]. A duo made in…Apista felt Rasktooth feeling at her urgently.
“Bad hurt. Give potion.”
The Antinium helped pour a vial over the bee, and the two looked around. The Fellowship of the Inn was in chaos.
“Where do we go, Rasktooth? I cannot see Revalantor Bird. We must run with Mrsha. Where is she?”
The Worker, Infinitypear, looked around as Rasktooth’s head whirled. What the Cave Goblin saw was a mess. Gnolls fighting Drakes. Drakes fighting Drakes. And he, a Goblin, and Infinitypear, an Antinium, were targets for everything. And that damn scary [Witch]?
“We run away! We have bee—we go! Come, come!”
Rasktooth made the most sensible decision and grabbed the Worker’s arm. Infinitypear hesitated, but then ran with Rasktooth towards the closest break in the fighting. They had Apista…that was what they could do. The bee was wriggling in Rasktooth’s grip as the Cave Goblin ran, but that was a good sign. He was grinning desperately, but laughing. She’d poked the Gnoll’s eye out! She’d—
He broke out of the Gnolls and onto the grass. Rasktooth looked up as he nearly slammed into a second line of bodies. He recoiled as he stared up at an armored breastplate, burnished with some kind of magical copper alloy melded with steel, but tougher than either. He saw a sword—no, a city made of swords and blades.
The crest of a Walled City on that armor. The scales of a Drake, dusky green. The Cave Goblin looked up as the Drake [Lieutenant] raised a sword.
Calmly, the officer of Manus ran Rasktooth through his belly and kicked him onto the ground. He stomped once on the Goblin’s back as Infinitypear raised his spear. The [Adventurer] looked down. Rasktooth? He jabbed—
A second Drake severed the spear. Two more stabbed the Antinium Worker, but not fatally. The [Lieutenant] raised a speaking stone.
“Lieutenant, 6th Advance Spears. Goblin and Antinium. Worker. Apprehend or execute?”
“Apprehend Worker for questioning.”
A [Tactician] snapped back. The Drake nodded as Manus advanced straight into the Meeting of Tribes. Around him, Drakes charged into Gnolls, spears lowered. They had targets. Steelfur, Woven Bladegrass…Dragonspeaker Luciva and the Security Council didn’t want the end of Gnolls.
Just some of them. The Drake snapped to his detachment.
“Apprehend the Worker.”
He noticed the Goblin was still alive. It was curled up, but it couldn’t stand. Holding something in its grip. The [Lieutenant] aimed his sword down as the Worker tried to fight. He was looking for the real enemy.
Someone tapped him on the shoulder. The [Lieutenant] twitched—he turned and saw a short Gnoll, old and grey-furred, standing there. Not a [Soldier].
“Civilians? Where’s my battle line?”
The [Lieutenant] put his blade up, turning, and the old Gnoll spoke.
“My son is dead.”
His [Dangersense] was going off. The [Lieutenant] wavered, blade in hand. He pivoted, a Skill burning in his mind. The Gnoll stared at him.
“My son is—”
A [Tactician] of Manus was monitoring his area when his Skill pinged him. He raised a claw.
“Major. My [Casualty Report] just updated. Eighteen dead.”
“No, sir. Direct contact. In seconds.”
The [Major] whirled, and Berr the [Berserker] howled. A ripple went through Manus’ lines as the Gnoll tore through them.
“What is that?”
“[Berserker]! [Berserker]! Fall—”
A line of Drakes disappeared as the Gnoll charged. The fire in the [Major]’s heart, the battle-fury—went out. He felt the anger of conflict vanish, leaving only fear.
The Gnoll was eating it. He was a center, a locus of rage. His son was dead. The Drakes saw the [Berserker] coming for them, bare-handed. Behind him, an Antinium shook a little Cave Goblin.
“Rasktooth? Rasktooth. Get up. You must get up.”
A little bee was buzzing as the Cave Goblin lay there. Rasktooth blinked as Infinitypear poured the potion over him. He grinned.
“Scary Gnoll saved us?”
“Yes. Get up.”
The Antinium tried to help Rasktooth to his feet. The Cave Goblin pushed with one arm, then made a puzzled face.
He stared down at his legs. The Antinium looked down at Rasktooth as the Cave Goblin stared at the scar in his belly and felt…nothing. So the [Adventurer] picked up his friend and ran. Ran, as Manus focused on Berr.
“[Spearmaster]. Berr the Berserker is rampaging through 6th Advance Spears. Permission to engage?”
“Get me six headhunters. I’ll go myself.”
Spearmaster Lulv was not smiling. He looked at his people and lifted his spear. This was not Liscor. He was watching the tribes falling.
“Stay, Lulv. Send eight headhunters. Manus—push into the center. I will have those tribes surrender. Take out the Chieftains. Any civilians not offering combat—separate and cordon them off.”
Dragonspeaker Luciva was leading their advance, but her eyes were locked on Belavierr. Belavierr, that Daemon. Belavierr, and the fighting between Fissival and Salazsar.
“I want that thing contained as well. Not destroyed. If it really is a fount of luck—get me every [Mage] on it.”
Luciva spoke, pointing at the Daemon. Distasteful as her expression was, that was Manus. Targets. Goals. Lulv ground his teeth together. If only every group were as direct as theirs they wouldn’t be fighting each other, letting so many good Gnolls and Drakes die.
Wasted lives. Now the Gnolls were fighting with Drakes on the east and western sides. One more army would collapse them. The sooner the better. They had to surrender.
For here came Zeres.
The Drakes were entering the battle one army at a time. But for Ilvriss, Fissival would have been tearing the tribes apart. However—another Walled City was racing towards the fighting.
And Zeres had sent three of the Admiralty.
Admiral of the Land, Horsthe.
Admiral of Supply, Asale.
And the Sharkcaptain of Zeres, Femar.
They marched with hundreds of thousands of marines, although over half were clashing with Oteslia, trying to stop the First Gardener from reaching the Gnolls. However, Zeres had a secret weapon, which they intended to use to draw this battle to a close. It was a far smaller army, but a famous one with tactics that had won the First Antinium Wars.
Liscor’s mercenary army. They were marching with Zeres’ vanguard, and if any one force could be that spear to pierce any lines—it was them. Although—the Admiral of the Land was aware there were issues.
“[General] Axter. Are your forces positioned to engage?”
He heard silence as Liscor’s High Command waited a beat, then a response. Unlike a Walled City, Liscor’s army was more direct.
“Our Gnoll forces are about to riot. Tell me again we’re not going to wipe out the Gnolls.”
“We are supporting Manus’ push. We will consider an attack on Salazsar’s rear. Those gem-addled idiots need to be stopped. Just prepare your forces to take out the center of the fighting.”
“Acknowledged. We’re not entering into a slaughter with the tribes no matter how the battle plan changes. Consider that non-negotiable in our contract.”
Horsthe rolled his eyes as he stowed the speaking stone. Liscor’s touchy army…but they would be a decisive part of taking Oteslia to heel. Their officer charges could take the [Chieftains] or the First Gardener and her son captive.
Besides, it didn’t matter. Zeres’ army was a riotous march as Femar raised his spear, leading them forwards. Asale was silent. His glare spoke volumes about how he felt, but they were committed.
It was the [Admiral] of the Land who spoke.
“I intend to use the First Tide Skill on approach, Asale. No games. We finish this and take on Khelt.”
“Khelt is heading upriver. We may run into them. That makes it three forces—Oteslia, Gnolls, and Khelt we’re fighting. How much more, Horsthe?”
“As many enemies as the waves, Asale. We are Zeres.”
The Admiral of Supply, levelless, the Drake who had risen to his post by virtue of ability, gave Horsthe a bleak look.
“If there is an end of the world coming, that will be a fine inscription on our tombs.”
There was nothing the Admiral of the Land could say to that. Ahead of him, he saw flashes in the sky. Wyverns from Fissival were raining down magic on the Gnolls. Manus was on the western flank; Fissival was getting torn up on the right.
“Femar, I need you to support Manus. Zeres might have to pivot to save the City of Magic. Like usual. Asale, keep a force in case Khelt moves on us. Liscor gets to charge the Gnolls and take out those [Chieftains].”
Cooly, Horsthe reaffirmed his battle-plan. He eyed Oteslia in the distance, but they were being held back by a line of skirmishing troops. They’d have to work through Fissival or Zeres first. Deploy a double defensive line to delay them, and they’d think twice with Manus, Zeres, and Fissival telling them to stand down and shut up.
The sky was so thunderous it didn’t look like day. But no water fell from the sky. Just fire. Fire and magic. Liscor’s mercenary army halted as Zeres slowly caught up.
“Contact! Something in the skies—unfriendlies? Pallass?”
Admiral Horsthe frowned as he saw a brief skirmish and a report from one of Liscor’s officers.
“What did you see?”
“Pair of Pegasi. One’s sniped.”
“Pegasi? Oteslia? No…they’re too far north. The Oldblood of Feathers?”
Horsthe frowned at the sky. He saw Liscor’s army pause a second, probably to collect information. And—like any good [Admiral], Horsthe had a spyglass. He focused the enchanted glass and saw a single Pegasus descending, bows trained on it. A second figure was plummeting from the sky. Horsthe winced and lowered the spyglass.
A terrible way to die.
A single figure fell out of the skies. They had been hit; a screaming Pegasus was dropping, and the rider was in free-fall. The second Pegasus descended, blaring voices from below warning the rider that they would be killed if they did not descend—slowly.
After so long. After so far—the rider reached out, but he was far too removed. Even so, he urged the Pegasus to dive, ignoring the warnings.
That familiar face. That…person that so many had come for. The wrong person. The right body. He saw a wild grin. Heard the cursing.
The bright gaze of General Sserys of Liscor in Erin Solstice’s body as she fell out of the sky.
Relc Grasstongue shouted. He lunged across the Pegasus, but he was dozens of feet away, and the Pegasus couldn’t dive fast enough. Valeterisa was too far above, doing her part. Relc screamed.
They had arrived too late for the fighting and had gone for Liscor’s army. Liscor—had shot Sserys out of the sky. The Pegasus, arrows buried in its wing, caught itself, but nothing could stop the young woman.
She fell. Three hundred feet straight down. There was no Skill. No magic gear.
Relc saw the body hit the ground and bounce. It made such a soft sound he didn’t hear. The Drake slammed into the ground as the Pegasus landed hard, and he fell off.
“Stay down or die!”
Someone was shouting at him. Relc felt the prickle of spells and arrows trained on him, but he ran for the figure. He saw two empty eyes staring up at the sky. He saw Erin Solstice’s body lying there…
Then Sserys wiped at his mouth as he lowered the bottle, and he spat.
“Damn it, that hurt. I’m not Zel. You bastards.”
He stood up, checking his sword, and Relc’s jaw fell open. Sserys got up, a bit shakily even for him. He winked at Relc.
“Don’t worry. She’s okay. Looks like the lads didn’t skimp on anti-flier training. Well, well, well.”
Then Relc Grasstongue raised his head, and they were there. He looked at the [Marines] marching in good order in Zeres’ forces. Salt and sea…and Relc ignored them.
There they were. Drakes with axes propped on their shoulders. Companies neatly divided into groups led by [Wing Commanders]. The main army of new recruits and the countless, countless officers.
More officers than even some Walled Cities had in their army. Hundreds of [Lieutenants]. More [Sergeants] than you could count. Even [Captains] and [Majors] standing in rows.
Rough and ready. The mercenaries of Izril, pointing at the young woman in confusion. Liscor’s army halted, because even they were taken aback by seeing someone survive a fall like that.
And perhaps—they felt it. A sudden, familiar presence. Relc saw a group of officers. Each one scarred, tails—furred or scaled—curled up, scrutinizing this threat.
High Command. He felt weak. Liscor’s army looked at the Pegasus, the Drake and Human who’d suddenly arrived, and slowed. [Wing Commanders] held up their hands, and veterans in the ranks pointed.
“Pallass getting their tails in the soup?”
“Nah. Can’t be. Wait. Who’s that ugly bastard? That can’t be—I’d recognize that meathead anywhere. Is that—”
“Sergeant Relc? The Gecko?”
Voices rose in disbelief, and some of the officers turned to the old guard for confirmation. Of all the Drakes…people fixed on Relc with a mix of incredulity and hostility.
After all—he was someone who had quit the army. What was he doing here? And who was that damn Human? No one knew her face…although some thought they had maybe seen her on the scrying orb?
But what was that—feeling? A few of the oldest Drakes and Gnolls were looking around. One [Veteran] growled at their [Wing Commander]
“Feels as though someone is walking on my grave. Wing Commander—tell High Command something’s making my fur stand on end.”
The [Wing Commander] hesitated, but a hunch like that wasn’t something you ignored. The army slowed, but Zeres was already shouting at them to hurry up and throw themselves into the fighting. Typical of a cowardly big city.
The Drake was helping the young woman up. She put her hands on her hips as a squad trotted forwards to apprehend and question the odd duo. But the Human put up her hand, and the patrol…wavered. They came to a stop, and one of the [Strategists] cursed them out.
“What is going on? Apprehend those two! Are you deaf or blind or do I need to knock you two down to [Recruits], you slow-as-shit idiots?”
Liscor’s officers had a way with words. But the patrol called back.
“Something’s wrong. We can’t move! Something’s…who is that Human?”
The [Strategist] checked his [Appraisal] enchantment, but the Human must have been warded. The class wasn’t showing up. He thought he saw a flicker, but…
“Be advised, all officers. Gecko—confirmed, Relc Grasstongue is present with an unknown quantity. Possibly some kind of high-level irregular.”
Liscor was assessing the situation, and bows were trained on both. One order and they’d fill the air with death. Relc might survive, but he needed to do the right thing and toss his spear down and explain what was going on. Liscor’s army didn’t kill their own, even traitors.
So why did that young woman look on at one of the most dangerous armies of Izril, Drakes and Gnolls ready for a fight, and seem so…unimpressed? She was close enough that almost all of the army had a good look at her as she strutted back and forth.
Something…made High Command hesitate. One of the older [Strategists] kept feeling at her neck.
“No. No, it can’t be.”
A shudder ran through Liscor’s army. A strange sensation rose in the chests of the [Soldiers], even those far too young to feel that nostalgia. It was…a longing.
As if they could feel a void being filled that they hadn’t known had been there until now. A hole in their chests that was being closed. They hesitated, looking at each other, calling out, and then the young woman spoke.
She had a [Loud Voice] Skill. Or maybe she was just that loud. She turned to the Drake—Relc—and said something. Relc jerked in surprise, and then the two were facing Liscor’s army. The young woman strutted forwards as the Gecko’s tail curled for a second, and Relc hurried over next to her.
He was taller than she was—but she drew the eye. Just…a young woman with some decent armor and a sword on her hip. Armor worn over…what, an innkeeper’s clothing? A bloodsoaked apron?
She didn’t seem impressive, even for a Human. But her eyes. They were odd. Almost slitted like a Drake’s, but it was a trick of light. And her voice, when it spoke, was a rasping drawl, elongated ‘s’ like Drakes. A bark of laughter. Then she said:
“Well, well. I have never seen such a worthless lot of rookies in my life. I came here looking for an army. I should have gone to Pallass’ nurseries for some [Soldiers] with better backbone than the soft bastards I see here.”
Liscor’s army stood there, completely silent for a moment. What did she just say? The young woman went on.
“I’ve seen Lizardfolk with better discipline and tougher [Lords] in the Five Families. Did you have a good time powdering your scales and primping your fur? You must have—or you stopped for a dozen tea parties if you just reached the hottest fight in Izril.”
Okay, their ears were working. The Drakes and Gnolls nodded at each other. That Human was dead. The Gecko was looking uncertainly at the Human, as if aware he were watching her kill herself. Zeres was slowing, and the Drake kept twitching his tail and glancing at the fighting.
But that Human just went on.
“So this is Liscor’s army? I’d rather take the crap I just passed into battle. But you’ll do. Some of you are tough bastards. Most of you are as stupid as rocks. But you’ll do. Mind you—I could take half of you on in my bed and use the other half to wipe my tail. What are you doing? Working for Zeres when the Gnolls are about to kill each other? If you’re done stroking each other’s tails—I have a real battle for you.”
It was incredible no one had shot her yet, orders or not. This many insults coming at them? But…one of the [Majors] was muttering.
“I could take half of you in bed…how does she know…?”
That style of insults. The casual allusions to wanting sex. The way she spoke. No—it was that feeling in the back of the mind.
There was no way. But the veterans of the army were looking at each other. They felt it. One [Soldier] nudged her superior, and the older Drake snapped back.
“That’s impossible. He’s dead.”
“Who? Captain, what’s going on?”
The squad looked at their [Captain], and the survivor of the First Antinium Wars just stared at the Human. That unnaturally wide grin on the young woman’s face. The strut.
It could not be. But it was. The army of Liscor was now locked onto the young woman, but they noticed something else. The Drake behind her was Relc.
The Gecko. One of their best officer headhunters—a pure idiot, but one of their best. A [Spearmaster] who had broken every tie with the army. He should have been in the city kissing Ants. But…
“What’s he doing? He can’t be—”
As the Human lit up the army with insults, the Drake was doing something. He turned left, and his tail…slapped the ground twice. Then it traced a circle and pointed. Every eye followed that tail and what it was pointing at.
“No fucking way.”
They all watched Relc and the young woman. Of course—she was a Human. She didn’t have a tail, so there was no way she could communicate with one. Especially if she wanted to say something with that semi-secret code.
Liscor’s army knew tail-signs. It was a favorite tactic of their [Generals]—at least, one in recent history. He’d shout all kinds of unrelated things before a battle and then launch them forwards, having told them everything he needed with his tail.
But was this really happening? Everyone was looking at High Command, but they were frozen. They saw it more clearly than the soldiers. And what they saw was…
His aura. His presence. Relc Grasstongue, tail repeating the commands, looked down at the Human. And though it was Erin’s voice and her face and body…
General Sserys of Liscor stood there on the grassy field and bellowed at his army. The [Spear of the Drakes] shouted with a huge smile as he cursed them out.
His people. His sons and daughters, his comrades in arms. They had changed, and he let them have it.
“We were the greatest army two decades ago! Now—what are you doing? Did you hang up your spears and forget what we were supposed to be doing? Or are you just that incompetent without me? You left your city behind, and you think you’re tough little boys and girls playing in the mud with a damn dungeon underneath home? You think you’re getting paid well to follow Zeres and kill Gnolls? If I had time, I’d spend all day slapping you idiots, but I don’t. So shut up and follow my tail!”
It was too much. At last, one of the younger officers, looking at the paralyzed seniors, shouted furiously at Sserys.
“Who are you? What gives you the right to give us orders you—you—Human?”
“Human? Human? ARE YOU BLIND OR ARE YOU AS STUPID AS YOU LOOK?”
Sserys screamed back. He struck his chest.
“Don’t you know me? Don’t you remember me? I led you against the Black Tide. I was there when we fell. I was with you idiots since I was a boy. Who am I? Give me the right answer or I’ll come over there and shove this sword up your ass.”
He pointed at the [Lieutenant], and the Drake stuttered. But that name…Sserys heard a whisper.
His wild smile grew wider on his face.
“That’s right. Now—I came all the way back here for one last battle. Because it matters. Are you going to leave me hanging? Who am I? Who are you?”
He raised his arms, the sky behind him thundering with fire, armies fighting on the Great Plains. Now it was undeniable. Soldiers began to call out.
The forces of Zeres had no idea what was happening. They just saw a Human and a Drake stopping Liscor’s army. Then they heard a distant shout.
“Shout it louder!”
“Sserys! Sserys of Liscor!”
“I said shout, not whisper!”
The Admiralty, the [Marines], slowed. A Human tore a sword from its sheath and raised it overhead. Now came that final roar. A relieved, joyous, disbelieving bellow from every voice.
Admiral Asale’s head rose. Admiral Horsthe rubbed at one earhole. They could not be hearing…the Sharkcaptain looked disbelievingly at the young woman. He was already striding forwards, snarling, to get Liscor moving.
He saw that brown hair toss as the young woman turned. The Sharkcaptain slowed. Femar had the distinct feeling that he was approaching a…a [General]. But that was impossible. He narrowed his eyes as the young woman pointed that sword.
The disbelieving army of Zeres, the people watching, heard that name. Then they saw the Human, the [Innkeeper], leap onto the back of a horse. She kicked it forwards as the Gecko of Liscor ran after her.
And Liscor’s mercenary army broke from their target. They ignored Zeres’ demands to come back. They ran across the ground, screaming like the terrors of the battlefield they had been.
The mercenaries of Liscor. The army followed Sserys across the plains—but not towards the Gnolls. They shot westwards. And they were aiming at—
The City of War looked up from their neat and tidy advance as Liscor rampaged towards them. What—had they taken leave of their senses? Who would attack them? They were the City of War!
One Drake had clashed with them without fear. Sserys had surveyed the battle at the Meeting of Tribes and seen how the Gnolls were in danger of being overrun. So he had told Relc to give Liscor’s army the tail-signs to hit the western flank.
Now, the Drake was charging at Manus. Sserys gazed down at ranks and ranks of armored helmets and fanciful, stupid plumes of feathers gazing up at him. The Drake’s voice was a roar, to himself and them all. Once more, he ordered them to stop, to turn back.
But they only hesitated a moment and ignored the voice in their ears. Their better nature. The Admiralty, Dragial, Luciva—they ignored Chaldion’s wild claims and his orders. They always had, when they saw something they wanted. Like stupid, inbred children who thought they’d always get their way.
Sserys just laughed. If I had lived—would they have really listened to me more than Zel? Especially once they knew who he was, not his legend?
It didn’t matter. He looked back, and Liscor’s army gazed back at him for one moment. They saw their [General], and he pointed ahead.
“This is the Gnolls’ war. Even I can’t order the Walled Cities around. But I will be the Spear of Drakes to save us from our own folly. If you want to fight someone—fight us. Luciva, I’m coming for you.”
Faster, the Drake rode across the Great Plains. Sserys shot ahead of the army screaming his name. Even the Gecko struggled to keep up as the [Spear of the Drakes] rode. This was what he had missed. A sword raised in one hand, the other clutching the reins, Sserys charged into Manus’ lines.
“I am Liscor. I am General Sserys! To arms, Izril!”
Laughing, he carved his way into Manus as Liscor’s army spread out. They were loosing arrows at Zeres! They were—fighting for the tribes.
The first Drakes who saw Sserys tried to stop him. He trampled one, blocked a spear-thrust, severed the spear, and cut down the Drake holding it. He rode through the Drakes, sword flashing left and right. A Human who lanced into Manus’ side, forcing the City of War to turn as Liscor hit them.
Not blindly, though. Drakes killing Drakes…Sserys’ head turned. He was on the hunt for targets. He was the greatest [General] of Izril in this moment, and this was his war to lose. Above, the Wyverns were swooping down for another pass at the Gnolls, threatening to bombard them, civilians, warriors—
Until the sky lit up.
Snapjaw was half-frozen to her saddle. Icecube’s frost breath had struck her as well as everything else. She didn’t have any potions left. And the Drakes were heading down for another pass. The Goblin flew past a woman standing idly in the air and chanting spells.
“Oh, a Goblin.”
Valeterisa broke off to stare at Snapjaw with idle curiosity. Snapjaw nearly fell out of her saddle. Valeterisa shrugged. Then she looked down at the young woman trying not to fall off the floating platform of magic carrying them thousands of feet above the battlefield.
“Don’t fall, Montressa. Attention, Fissival [Mages]. I am Valeterisa, Archmage of Wistram. If you do not wish to be killed, kindly descend and refrain from casting magic.”
Drakes jerked and looked up at the hither-to cloaked [Mage] in the skies. They called out warnings and redirected their spells at her. Valeterisa blinked as a bolt of lightning struck upwards. It sizzled out on one of Montressa’s barrier spells, not even Valeterisa’s wards.
“They never listen. I told Sserys that. And I also told Fissival that Wyverns are not good vehicles for [Mage] combat. All you have to do is cast [Frozen Winds] and enhance it with a wide area effect, and the ice drags their wings down and…”
Valeterisa watched as the Wyverns began to scream as their wings froze up, taking them into nosedives. The [Mages] desperately tried to warm the wings, and more spells lanced upwards. Valeterisa idly watched [Fireballs], [Acid Orbs], [Lightning Bolts]…
“Tier 3-5 magic. All direct area attack spells. [Battle Mages]. Montressa du Valeros—this is magic. [Hurricane of Darkness].”
She lifted her arms, and the skies turned black. Now the Wyverns were frozen and blind. Except…Valeterisa could see. She saw their body heat, the magic trails they left.
“[One Thousand Arrows of Fire]. No. That was most certainly overkill. How about a hundred…? No. [Sixty Arrows of Fire]? Now—copy that spell eight times. Montressa, copy this magic. [Mages] of Fissival. Descend or die.”
Wyverns fell burning from the skies as precisely calculated showers of magic began to strike down. Valeterisa did not dodge or move. She just stood there, casting spells down. A [Mage] entrenched behind barrier spells. A classic Wistram move…three thousand feet up. The skies were suddenly a firefight as [Mages] flew higher, fighting against the Archmage of Izril.
The skies. They were contested. The Gnolls realized that the Drakes had stopped bombarding them. This was a chance.
A Drake was riding through their lines. He was hunting for someone. No—the Gnolls blinked and rubbed their eyes.
A Human woman? But he was searching for someone.
A little white Gnoll, being pursued by Plain’s Eye. Even now. A [Thief] was racing after her, and the tribe of Doomslayers had abandoned their part of the battle to chase after her. Az’muzarre followed, and the [General] cursed.
“I thought you were blowing smoke out your tail, Relc. Relc?”
He turned and realized even the Gecko was left behind. Sserys whirled back as he charged the Gnolls. A [General] alone.
“Can’t have that. Someone protect the brat. I have a date with the Dragonspeaker where I kick her teeth in and she pulls Manus out. Get me the bravest bastards. A group with punching power.”
Who was he speaking to? Not to Relc, who was pushing into Manus with Liscor’s army. General Sserys pointed, and his eyes lit up with joy. He breathed.
“[Company, On Me]. You’re on babysitting duty.”
His voice echoed across the ground, and the Gnolls, the fighting Drakes—all looked around as the air charged and then split. It wasn’t teleportation—it was as if a group suddenly raced onto the battlefield around Sserys, as if they had been there all along but around a corner in the air. A company of Liscor’s finest marched onto the grass and looked around wildly.
“Where are we? Prognugator Dekass?”
“Where is Commander Olesm? Liscor’s gone. Where are—?”
General Sserys heard a babble of voices and the Drake’s triumphant grin—slipped. He stared in disbelief at the hundred soldiers he’d summoned. His eyes passed not over Gnolls. Nor Drakes.
He stared at Battalion 1, Squads 1-10 of Liscor’s army. Liscor’s…
Army. The Antinium looked around, and Squad 5 turned as they saw a young woman sitting on horseback.
“What the fuck.”
That was what she said. What the angry Worker with the zweihander, Crusader 57, said was…
The [Crusaders] of Liscor looked at Erin Solstice a second before she swung her sword at them. Crusader 53 blocked the swing with a mace on reflex. The Human woman recoiled. The Drake [General] stared at the Antinium.
His eyes flicked back to Liscor’s forces. Then to the north as he realized who he’d summoned by accident. His Skill had never had to worry about two armies serving Liscor before.
Meanwhile—Olesm had just watched one of his best battalions vanish in front of his eyes as he raced back to Liscor.
Artur waved the banner wildly as he fought to get to the young woman. But she was recoiling, and the look of horror and disgust on her face made the Antinium hesitate.
Was this the sky? Was this her?
No—who was this? The [General] rode back. He wavered, looking at the Antinium. The Plain’s Eye Gnolls had turned in horror. Sserys shook his head. He kicked his horse into motion.
He abandoned 1st Battalion in the middle of the battlefield. The bewildered Antinium had no idea where they were. But suddenly—they were the biggest target in the world.
Gnolls screamed as everyone saw a hundred Antinium appear in the middle of nowhere. It was their [Banner Leader], Artur, who rallied the Antinium. He was looking around.
“Someone find our speaking stones. Call for Prognugator Dekass or Olesm or Belgrade!”
But they were way too far away for the local speaking stones to work. The Antinium stared after the young woman riding away from them. Then—Crusader 53 saw something.
A little white Gnoll girl ran past them, being pursued by howling Gnolls. Every single Antinium in the crusade had heard stories of the fluffy, white Gnoll who might be at the inn. She was part of the stories.
Some knew her face. Squad 5 hesitated. Crusader 53 looked at Crusader 57. The Gnolls were trying to kill Mrsha. Artur pointed.
“Mrsha…? Charge! Battalion 1—charge those Gnolls!”
Without a word, the [Crusaders] turned. They saw the enemy and charged as Mrsha came skidding to a halt. The hundred Antinium ran straight into a mix of Plain’s Eye and…
Az’muzarre. The Gnolls with artifacts taken from the body of Muzarre, the Dragonlord of Gems, had won every single encounter. Now, they howled as they saw an unexpected enemy. A Gnoll carrying a Dragonbone spear leapt into the air. Another held a mace of Dragonbone and whirled it down as the Antinium charged at them.
The relic that could break Demas Metal armor and shatter bone at a touch met Crusader 53’s iron mace. The Az’muzarre [Relicbearer] was already maneuvering for another blow when he felt something unexpected.
The second mace met the Dragonbone artifact and knocked it back. The Gnoll stumbled backwards, and Crusader 53 followed the first blow up with a second mace-strike.
The Az’muzarre Gnoll found themselves blocking the [Weapon of Faith] as Crusader 53 rained down blows on the magical artifact. The Antinium swung the mace up and clipped the Gnoll’s face. With a snarl, the Gnoll struck back, but his mace was just…a mace. When Crusader 53 parried it, none of the magics worked. It should have shattered every bone in his body. It should have—
Chieftain Reizet’s famous tribe ran into Battalion 1 of Liscor’s army. The Antinium who had fought Hectval and Manus for over a month charged into Gnolls with relics.
Faith met magic, and Az’muzarre watched their [Relicbearers] struggle…and begin to fall. The Gnolls, who were used to fighting alone, twenty-to-one with their relics, ran into Antinium who treated the blades like ordinary metal.
“Trickery! Fall back! Fall—”
Crusader 57 tripped up the Gnoll with the Dragonbone mace as the warrior tried to fall back from Crusader 53’s attack. He did this by swinging his zweihander into the Gnoll’s legs from the rear. With a cry, the Gnoll fell.
Crusader 53’s mace fell one more time. Then the Antinium regarded the glowing mace.
“Magic weapon? Better loot it.”
Crusader 57 leaned on the zweihander. Everyone knew you stole magic weapons. Slowly, Crusader 53 picked up the mace. He swung it experimentally—then shrugged. Squad 5 turned to face another group of Gnolls. They were surrounded. They were probably going to die—but they were fighting for that little Gnoll. So Crusader 53 charged like he’d seen Crusader 51 do. He raised the new mace.
[Mace Art: Big Hammer].
Crusader 57, charging after Crusader 53, was blown off his feet. He waved all four arms as he found himself on his back shell.
“geT ME uP! geT—”
Crusader 50 and 59 helped him up. When the Worker got up, he saw a hole in the ranks of the enemy. Crusader 53 was still frozen with the Dragonbone mace in his hand.
Did I do that?
He looked around, and the Antinium gazed at the mace. The Gnoll with the relic-class spear struck Crusader 21 with a howl—then stared in disbelief at the dented armor.
[Armor of Faith]. The Antninium cut one arm off. Then seized the spear. Az’muzarre fled backwards, howling in dismay. The little Gnoll ran, howling for the Antinium as they encircled her. But then the Thief of Clouds grabbed her.
“No! Come back!”
Artur screamed, but Vetn was wild-eyed, running in terror from the Black Tide. Mrsha punched at him.
Stop! Stop! They’re Antinium from Liscor!
Battalion 1 was making its stand behind Sserys. He knew it. He felt them fighting. They were…his [Soldiers]?
“Ridiculous. They’re Ants.”
He kept looking behind him. Why was he certain some of them had officer classes? One…
One had a banner of Liscor. They’d come when he called. The [General] was more rattled by that moment than anything else in the battle.
But then he saw Zeres was on the attack. They’d ignored Liscor versus Manus and were rampaging towards the Gnolls from the rear.
“You salt-soaked idiots!”
They were charging. And Sserys knew their Skills. They were chanting as they marched. The air felt…wet. Like the precursor to the storm, and those storm clouds overhead were intensifying. It was beginning to rain.
They were summoning the First Tide. Sserys whirled. He saw more Gnolls forming a battle line, but they’d never make it.
A line in the sand. Sserys stared into the distance. Was that a sail he saw…? He whispered, calculating.
“Ten minutes. Ten minutes—get me the most defensive bastards who won’t flee when—”
He hesitated, a hand raised. Sserys stared at Erin’s hand and then looked at the Antinium. He amended his statement.
“No. No—get me the most honorable group to hold the line. There. [Company, On Me].”
He pointed—and another company marched out of the air. Sserys knew what he had said. He stared in disbelief as a line of Antinium marched into position. One raised a two-handed maul.
“What is going on?”
The Drake screamed. He looked at the Antinium, and that sword rose…but they looked at him.
“Commander. What are our orders?”
Sserys gazed at an Antinium with an odd helmet and hesitated. Then he pointed.
“Zeres is coming at us! Hold this ground for ten minutes!”
A hundred Antinium looked at the City of Waves charging their position. Sserys heard them speaking. One saluted him.
“It will be done, Commander.”
He looked into an insect’s eyes for too long. At that horned helmet…a steel helm for Antinium that someone had added crude horns onto.
The Beriad of the Antinium, 6th Battalion, looked at the General of Liscor, and Sserys whispered.
“Good job, [Soldiers].”
He stared at his hands as the Antinium turned.
“Ah, I see it now. I really don’t fit in this world anymore.”
Ruefully, he turned. The [General] readied his sword and focused. He saluted the [Soldiers] once. Then he pointed ahead.
Sserys charged straight into Manus’ front lines as the Antinium turned. They didn’t know where they were. But if Erin Solstice were here—
They were dead. This was Heaven, and apparently it was filled with Drakes. Or maybe they were just needed.
Their Minotaur leader wasn’t here…but they saw the enemy. Zeres had spotted Battalion 6, but that just made the [Marines] advance faster. They were screaming hatred at the Antinium.
Thousands of Drakes. But that wasn’t the sight to terrify Antinium. It was…
The water. Admiral of the Land, Horsthe, had unleashed a Skill of Zeres.
“[The First Tide Covered Land]/[We Marched Amidst the Surf]/[The Ocean At Our Backs].”
A Skill from Zeres. Drakes marched through water as if it didn’t bother them, but it was knee-high and rising for everyone else. A sea upon land.
The Antinium’s worst nightmare. 6th Battalion wavered as they saw the odds. So many Drakes. No quarter and only water if they fell.
A hundred Soldiers and Workers in armor stood there. Holding two-handed weapons. No shields. They each had a curious helmet on their heads.
One of the Armored Antinium’s helms—but they’d added something. It was made out of pieces of wood, even twigs or leaves. Pieces of metal bent and clumsily attached. Not antennae, like you might first think.
They were…horns. As the Drakes marched on them, one of the Antinium of 6th Battalion looked around. There was no Calruz. He wasn’t part of their army.
Very well. The Antinium strode forwards and faced the ninety-nine warriors. He raised a maul—and the army of waves reacted.
Arrows struck the Antinium from behind. They pierced the metal armor, and the Antinium fell. Green blood colored the surf around the Antinium, but the body never reappeared.
In silence, 6th Battalion stared down. Then another Soldier stepped forwards. They turned their backs to Zeres and raised a greatsword. They began to speak.
A lance of fire burned through their backs. The second Antinium fell, tried to stand—and six more spells struck them. In silence, they fell into the waters.
So 6th Battalion stood. They had no leader. They gazed into the distance at a foe a hundred times as large as them. Slowly, the Antinium began to stomp in the waters. They lifted their blades.
A battleaxe, a pair of swords. A hammer.
They began to sing.
Venaz of Hammerad was racing through the battlefield to pit Wild Wastes against Zeres. So many angles of battle—he had lost Berr. This—they were losing.
Then he saw them. Antinium. That hated foe. There were two hundred—one group fighting Az’muzarre, the second facing Zeres, who had summoned the waters.
How had they gotten there? Venaz snarled as he hefted the Diamond Greatsword of Serept. He charged, a blur under a permanent [Haste] spell.
Then he heard something. It sounded like…voices. But the Antinium were Soldiers. They had no voices! Yet he still heard it. An echo in his soul. The voices of [Crusaders]. And the words—
He knew those words.
“From days of war and wrath we ran
Exiled from every land
Searching for our honor lost
And found the House of Minos’ sands.”
The Minotaur slowed. His eyes opened wide with disbelief. 6th Battalion stood there, facing the Drakes, stomping and singing in the surf as it rose around them. The waters dark with mud, white with froth—but the Antinium never wavered.
Their armor gleamed where it met dark carapace. They had no eyes that Venaz could see. They were identical insects, alien to everything he knew.
But they faced the Drakes, stomping as one, a single line in front of one of the greatest Drake cities in the world. The [Marines] slowed as they heard that chanting.
The most honorable force in Liscor’s army stood reflected in a thousand scrying orbs. Across the House of Minos. In the eyes of a Minotaur [Prisoner].
They could have run. They never would. Ninety-eight [Crusaders] dared Zeres to charge them, ignoring the spells and arrows striking the water around them.
A Minotaur stopped as they turned. Half the Antinium raised their weapons, but…they hesitated.
A Minotaur? He was no Calruz, one-armed and glorious. The [Strategist] hesitated as he looked at them. Then Venaz roared, his voice carrying above the roar of waters, the army facing them.
“I see your honor as plain as the foe that assails us. I am Venaz of Hammerad! I would be honored to join you!”
He was shaking with uncertainty. But—the Minotaur’s eyes were wide as he looked at them. He had to believe. If there were any place on the battlefield that had ever demanded him—it was here. In silence, the 6th Battalion raised their weapons and the Minotaur stepped into line. He turned to face them, and an arrow tried to take his life—but his amulet made it swerve away.
“Who are you? Name yourselves, Antinium!”
“The Beriad. We are the Beriad of the Antinium!”
Venaz recoiled. But—he looked at them, and they knew what the word meant. The Minotaur’s eyes stung as he lifted the greatsword.
“Beriad! Bear your arms!”
Then he turned and joined their ranks. Ninety-nine warriors of the Beriad stood there. They were only missing one more.
He came striding through the waters, fearless. Even the forces of Zeres hesitated, for he seemed drenched in blood. But if it were blood—it was the blood of his foes, and it would never leave him.
The Crimson Soldier walked down the line of Beriad as they turned in awe towards him. Venaz looked at the greatest veteran of the Free Antinium’s Hive, and The Crimson Soldier spoke.
“We are the first of the new Antinium.”
He spread all four arms as the Drakes faltered. A Prognugator? He had to be.
Something was happening. The battlefield—the Antinium of 1st and 6th Battalion looked up. They felt it running from The Crimson Soldier. The [Archers] lowered their bows, gazing around and finding a single [Hunter] on the wagon.
Bird shot down the sixty-eighth Oldblood Drake.
“I am killing them. But they are not birds. I am…a bit sad.”
He lifted his bow. The [Thief] holding Mrsha reeled back as a group of Drakes turned, and a [Mage] aimed a staff at Mrsha.
Bird’s arrow hit the Drake in the throat.
Not sad about that. Just—how many? His hands were a blur. Arrow, arrow, arrow…in as many seconds.
Three people died. How many? He gazed at Mrsha. Then looked around.
“Bird the Hunter! Kill it.”
Manus had seen him. A [Sniper] drew an arrow to the bow and Bird leaned out of the way of an arrow that blew apart the remnants of the wagon he was using as cover. He loosed an arrow back, and the Drake cursed as an arrow thunked into the tower they were standing on. Bird loosed a trio of arrows one after another, and an arrow flashed past him—then turned towards him.
He stared down at the arrow in his side. Then Bird yanked it out a moment before it exploded.
Bleeding, the [Hunter] looked around.
[Revalantor]. [Hunter]. [Liar]. He shot arrows back at the Drake. One, two, three, four, five, six—the Drake took cover, but now other [Archers] had his position.
“Ow. Ow. That one didn’t hurt.”
Bird was struck by three more arrows. He looked up as one of his arrows struck a Drake in the throat. Bird loosed one more arrow, then dove as another enchanted arrow blew apart his position. The Drakes grabbed enchanted arrows as the Antinium got up groggily. One more—
A scream. The lead [Sniper] looked around—then straight up. A Wyvern, an arrow through one eye, crashed down on her position. The Drake leapt out of the way, scrambled up, and Bird shot her through the neck.
Then he put a hand to his side.
A Gnoll of Az’muzarre put a Dragonbone bow up, and Bird loosed an arrow at the Gnoll. He saw the reply coming his way; an arrow that spiraled through the air, but with such force it left a trail of wind. It blew past him and hit Weatherfur [Archers].
Bird and the Gnoll drew an arrow at the same time—then an arrow sprouted from the Gnoll’s arm. The Gnoll cursed, and Bird loosed a second arrow. The Gnoll skipped out of the way—straight into a third arrow that went through the side of their head.
Perfect shooting. How…? It was as if Bird’s thoughts were being mirrored. He had just thought he needed to shoot the Gnoll in the arm, but he only had one arrow. Someone had…
Bird looked around. The Crimson Soldier’s antennae were twitching wildly as he turned to Bird. 1st Battalion looked around, and one of the [Archers] gazed at Bird. That shot had almost been as perfect as his. Of course—Bird saw how easy it was to calculate wind, distance, movement—but he had never been able to explain that.
It was almost like…
Bird heard a voice in his head. Then he heard a babble of voices.
“We are the Beriad. Stand and fight…”
“We will not return home.”
“Protect Mrsha. Save the sky.”
“Spells from the sky. Dodge—dodge!”
As if each voice were right next to him. As if he could tell there was a [Fireball]…Bird looked around. And it was all centered on him. As if he were thinking too loud. Or coordinating it. Or…
The [Revalantor] heard a soft voice in his head. Something Erin Solstice had once heard.
[Skill – Unitasis Network learned.]
The Antinium reacted as one to the Skill. Suddenly—Crusader 53 felt as though he had a dozen eyes which told him when someone was attacking him. A Worker lifted a bow and shot an arrow two hundred feet and hit an Oldblood on the wing.
The Beriad looked at The Crimson Soldier and suddenly knew exactly how to hit their opponents. They…were linked.
They were True Antinium?
The thought was so surprising that everyone looked up. Then the Antinium saw a figure descend as [Soldiers] of Zeres pointed up. A mouth spat acid, another poison. Half a dozen limbs scythed through the Drakes.
Wrymvr the Deathless landed in Zeres’ army, and a second Centenium leapt off his back. They fell out of a portal in the sky, and a Centenium, jerking, half her head missing, watched them leap across Izril.
Xrn, the Small Queen, threw Klbkch and Wrymvr into the battle. The two Antinium descended into the fighting, one screaming and singing with joy.
The other silent, blades flashing a silver trail through Drakes. Klbkch the Slayer landed in front of Bird. The Worker wavered as Klbkch appeared.
“What is that thing? Aaah! Aaaaah! I can hear it thinking!”
He pointed at Wrymvr, and Klbkch gazed down at Bird.
“You can create a Unitasis Network?”
Both he and Wrymvr gazed at Bird. The Worker hesitated.
“N-no? I can’t hear people thinking and never have been able to. No. Not at all.”
Klbkch wavered a moment, then he vanished. He slashed through a Drake aiming a wand at Bird and almost seemed to teleport back.
“Antinium. Rally to me. Queens—we are in combat. Unitasis Network activated. My Queens—”
And then a voice spoke in Bird’s head. He felt an invisible presence reach out wonderingly and touch him.
“We are present. This is impossible—we must investigate—”
A babble of voices. Bird caught an image of an unfamiliar Queen—but he knew her now. The Grand Queen, frightened, angry that the three Centenium had defied her orders. Fearing this might mean that she was irrev—
Then a presence as steady as a rock, filled with hope and determination, permeated through his being. Bird saw the battlefield change in front of him, and he understood—the Drakes were threatening to overrun 1st Battalion. They had to move—
And they did. As one, the Antinium surged left, and a hundred warriors found themselves heading back, linking up to support 6th Battalion. Sharing their thoughts. Sharing…
“Armored Queen. Joining the Unitasis Network. [Linked Skill: Massed Strikes] activated.”
“Silent Queen. Providing stealth. Irregulars moving. [Linked Skill: Combat Vanish] activated.”
And then he heard the other voices, taking command, directing them to fight together. The Flying Queen, rejoicing in awe, the Grand Queen sulkily adding her abilities, and the Twisted Queen laughing in her mind. And the Free Queen was whispering in his mind.
Bird turned and saw her mark one. The incredulous Drakes saw the two battalions turn. Then the individual [Crusaders] were fighting with faith on their side like one force. Like a vision…
Of True Antinium.
Klbkch focused on that moment only for a second. The dream he had waited two decades to achieve was becoming a reality before his eyes at last, but he looked around for someone else. The Gecko of Liscor stopped on the battlefield and called out, and Klbkch raised one blade high. The two friends looked for her, and Relc pointed. Klbkch whispered quietly.
Then he plunged into the battlefield, blades whirling. The Slayer, to remind the Drakes of Izril why they knew his name.
Chaos. That was what Belavierr was drawing upon. She was giggling, but also speaking. Negotiating with the rasping Raskghar.
However—even she could see that danger was coming her way. The Gnolls were one thing. The Drake with the alchemy bottles another.
But who was that?
The [Witch] turned as a ghost possessing a body raced through the army. She flicked her fingers to block a shower of spells.
Az’kerash raged in her ears, but the [Witch] saw no reason to relent. She was gaining what she desired.
“Sacrifice. Pay me my fee, Raskghar. I have been the enemy of Roshal. There is no chain I cannot break. Pay me and I will give you what you want.”
She breathed, and in her cage, beaten, but grinning with dreadful hope, Nokha growled.
“Safe place. For me. My Raskghar. Take payment from them.”
“Interesting. Then give me eight. Willingly. For eight years. Or give me your gift. Or give me something else.”
A grin on Belavierr’s face. Gnolls heard her speaking and tried to stop her, but she was proof against lesser weapons. Nokha growled.
“Not me. Eight…eight. You!”
They were arguing. Belavierr rolled her eyes as she listened to the Raskghar arguing. She ignored the arrows striking her. The [Witch] frowned only when she sensed…something coming for her. A real foe. She glanced around then gazed at a strange being.
Wrymvr the Deathless roared as he rampaged through the Drakes. As odd as…Belavierr twisted her neck left, right, unnaturally far, and then halfway around. The cracking of her bones and tendons made the air pop.
“Eight! Eight! Do now!”
“Ah, we have an accord.”
The [Witch] went back to business. She beamed as she snapped her fingers.
“Stop her! Don’t let her free the Raskghar!”
A howling Gnoll screamed. Chieftain Torishi was burning with the radiance of the sun. She lifted an axe as Belavierr turned. Just weather magic. But the light…Belavierr threw up a hand, shading her eyes. Maviola, clinging to her dress, moaned.
“Mother, the light hurts.”
“It is a stronger Gnoll. Don’t worry. Raskghar. Be free.”
She smiled. The Stitch Witch lifted a hand, and the caged Raskghar howled. Gnolls charged towards them, but a pit opened in the ground.
They fell. Straight down. Through earth and stone, their cages vanishing. Down, down, down…
Towards a city in the deep. Belavierr smiled. Then the smile vanished as a ray of light struck her in the chest. It seared a brand across her face, and she recoiled.
Pain, real pain, struck her. The Stitch Witch looked up, and Chieftain Torishi howled. The air exploded as Saliss tossed more potions, and Belavierr gathered Maviola to her dress.
“This…is growing dangerous. Maviola, go home.”
She pressed her daughter against her dress, and the undead child vanished. Then Belavierr’s head rose. Her eyes fixed on Torishi, and the Chieftain looked at the Witch of Webs. Belavierr pointed once.
Garsine Wallbreaker lunged for Torishi, but too late. Fast as a thought, the ground opened up into a circle ten feet across, and Torishi and her bodyguard dropped. Straight down. The Gnoll cried out once. And then she was falling…falling.
Torishi Weatherfur dropped into the earth as Feshi screamed. Belavierr laughed and laughed as the air exploded with magic. She looked for the little white Gnoll.
Do you regret it now? She spread her arms. The [Witch] waited as Gnolls fell back, howling. Daring them to slay her. Xherw stood in her shadow, the Daemon bound. Only when she heard the curious call from afar and smelled salt, felt the dry winds of another continent on her face did Belavierr hesitate. She looked up and saw a ship sailing up a river in the distance. Belavierr hesitated. Spoke one word.
An age to ride across Chandrar. An age to cross the sea. Lastly, an age to sail as far up the river inlets as possible.
The King of Khelt had covered the distance by magic and Skill and desperation. Still he whispered as he stood on the decks of Sand at Sea.
“I am sorry for taking so long.”
Eighteen warships were running ashore on the Great Plains; some had already been grounded despite Rasea’s wave and the waters they were conjuring to sail upriver. Undead poured from the vessels, leaping to the ground, as Serept’s half-Giants, the other Revenants, and the living held back.
The ground they landed on was filled with ruined grass. Across from them, Fetohep could see the army of Zeres marching on the Gnolls.
The ships should have run aground long ago, but they had sailed closer to the Meeting of Tribes than even Rasea thought possible.
The tide had come in. Armored boots and skeletons splashed down into shallow water as the First Tide ran from Zeres, carried by their army. The waters lapped against the line of Antinium. A wave of Drakes, but not an unbreakable one.
“We must halt their advance or they will engulf the Gnolls.”
Doubte took one look at the battlefield and saw the Antinium and Gnolls holding back that army like sand before a tidal wave. Oteslia was skirmishing on Zeres’ side, but they were poised to break the entire Meeting of Tribes from the south.
Each second counted, but Fetohep’s knowledge of the Drakes made him hold off on a charge. Indeed, even on the warship, Fetohep raised a hand as the King of Destruction made ready to be the first to charge Zeres.
The City of Waves and the City of War were turning to this new threat, but Fetohep called out.
“Hold! The undead of Khelt shall first go onto Izril’s shores!”
“There is no time to waste! The Gnolls are almost overrun, and I see the [Witch] of Webs in the distance! Your Majesty—”
It was the Herald of the Forests, Ierwyn, who protested with the [Knights], eyes ablaze with sympathy. She knew what it was like to see a people at their end. But Fetohep snapped back.
“The living will join the Illuminary! This—this is a moment for only the dead. My companions. Rise.”
All the living he had gathered wavered. Who did…? Then they saw a ragged group of skeletons and torn flesh. So ancient they were almost dust. As old as Fetohep. He descended onto the ground next to an archer whose eyes burned scarlet. Strode onto Izril’s grass with a warrior who carried a sword in a sheath with only one edge.
Fetohep’s companions. Then came the armies of Khelt. Tens of thousands of undead armored in ancient metal. Glowing eyes. Undead.
Khelt had come to Izril to end this war of Drake aggression and Gnollish infighting. The Walled Cities saw the great army of the undead come to their land. Six Walled Cities beheld Khelt.
What did you think they did next? The Drakes focused on Khelt and the army led by Fetohep, who had ridden from his kingdom in this dire hour, to right all wrongs and save what could be saved. They did not see the ghosts who fought onto Izril’s shores, hounded by Seamwalkers. They did not see Khelta, screaming at Fetohep to activate the ritual.
“Your Majesty. The ritual is not working.”
[Mages] were desperately trying to complete the magical incantation, searching over the thousand compartmentalized spells for an error, a break in logic they barely understood. Fetohep just nodded as he strode forwards. The Drakes were arrayed in front of him. But all the King of Khelt did was look up.
“I am Khelt. So Khelt…with me.”
He looked up and saw the sky turning bright. He had frightened the Humans of Terandria with the [Arrows of Razzimir]. Now he looked up and saw a burning rainbow crisscrossing the sky. Comets from Valeterisa, the Archmage who had called Fissival her home. Even—yes, even stone meteors flying from Oteslia. A bright rain of deadly arrows.
Undead have landed on the Great Plains. Army is tens of thousands strong and growing. Zeres is calling for combined bombardment.
Manus agrees. Activate the Tidebreaker Contingency!
Pallass denies. DENIES. They are on our side. Gnolls will never forget this. The Antinium are still the greater threat. Grand Strategist Chaldion—
Oteslia agrees. Undead taint. Firing.
Salazsar activating matrices.
That was all he could say. Pisces Jealnet, standing on the railing of the Illuminary, looked up and saw the Walled Cities unleash a wrath they had not used since the Antinium Wars. Every Walled City save Pallass…no, Pallass was firing too.
The Drakes, the Assembly of Crafts, launched their bombardment upon Khelt’s forces the instant they disembarked. The air flashed so hot his skin blistered, and Hecrelunn had to shield them all. The Revenants, even Salui and the half-Giants, the living…
Rasea and the [Pirates] watched in horror as Fetohep of Khelt walked into the firestorm he had known he couldn’t stop. The pettiness of Drakes.
The army he had so painstakingly brought across the ocean looked up, undead without fear in their gazes. Magic melted their bones and set their armor on fire. It blew them apart, and amidst it all, the King of Khelt walked forwards.
His companions raised shields and stood with him. Fetohep lifted a hand as his robes caught fire. The magic tore at his ancient flesh, and he looked up and around.
“I am Khelt.”
Pisces thought he could hear Fetohep whispering. That note of anger and despair at mortals’ foolishness. The King of Destruction rested his hands on the railing, cracking the Illuminary’s wood, eyes burning.
It took five minutes. Five minutes, and so much destruction even Belavierr was taken aback. Five minutes…and the land was glass, the river rushing into a second lake. And where was Khelt’s army?
Dust and scattered bones. A single undead had survived. A skeleton, which crumbled slightly as it dragged itself up. One leg was disintegrated, so it knelt next to Fetohep of Khelt.
The King of Khelt stumbled forwards, his crown askew. His robes almost destroyed despite the royal enchantments. He looked up and around, and the Drakes jeered him as they cheered their own cities. The King of Khelt stood there a moment and looked back at his forces.
My army. He reached back and looked for his companions. One last battle. One last…they lay at the bottom of that lake. Fetohep bowed his head as arrows began to fly. The last skeletal warrior tried to rise again…but Fetohep took the skull from the head, and the bones fell.
“Look how wretched they are. Rest…rest brave warrior. You have fought for me, and they have destroyed your body. Khelt asked all in death that it would not in life. Now—”
Alone, the King of Khelt turned and looked at the army of Drakes. He gently tossed the skull into the waters.
“—You have expended your worthless little spells. Allow me to remind you why the Walled Cities fell. Did you not hear me? Are you deaf? I said, I am Khelt. My armies know no end.”
The notes of despair fell away from Fetohep’s body. He adjusted the crown on his head. His golden eyes grew again.
Foolish Drakes. The cheering stopped as Fetohep lifted one hand.
“Come to me, Khelt.”
Then Pisces saw it. The genius of the King of Khelt. Why he had striven so hard to take the army with him across the sea. Because he had surely read history books in his long life. He knew exactly what the Drakes would do, so he forbade the living to join him.
An army destroyed in an instant. An army…of undead. Pisces looked into the crater of magic and wondered how much power the Walled Cities had just thrown at Fetohep. And all of the magic in that army of the undead? Enough to keep them moving, to generate more undead by their presence?
How much had those idiots just unleashed? Pisces felt the answer.
His bones began to shake.
Ceria Springwalker looked down at her skeletal hand.
“Uh—Pisces? What’s happening?”
It was twitching, the fingers writhing against her control. She gripped it with her other hand as the Revenants sighed. Their glowing eyes shone brighter, like little stars. For answer—Pisces just pointed.
“Dead gods. He’s making it. I thought they were just legends.”
Vizir Hecrelunn sneered down at Pisces.
“They were legends. We wrote them. Gaze, mortals, at the magic of true necromancy. King Fetohep of Khelt is opening…the Graven Passage.”
Then it rose from the ground. From the ashes and bones of the army. Pisces saw a twisting arm of bone rise in a single arch—then another. Then dozens more, criss-crossing each other. He beheld an ancient structure that traced itself out of ivory.
Rising higher. Higher. A thousand paces wide. A dais of bone. Behind Fetohep of Khelt, the Graven Passage rose. A…copy of one across the world.
How much magic, how many undead were sacrificed to make it? An army’s worth. Tens of thousands. But what—what did it do? The Walled Cities were panicking. But they had already used their trump card.
The Graven Passage opened. Pisces saw a deep, lurid green portal open, a magic connection linking two continents. Something that only undead could pass through without harm.
Then…then he heard the triumphant horn.
As the Necromancer of Terandria sat back in his chair, trying to find his jaw from where it was probably lying on the floor.
As those arrogant Drakes stopped, the self-indulgent cheering catching in their throats—
Then came the true armies of Khelt.
A thousand undead skeletons armored in plate and burnished gold came marching through the portal and struck their shields like thunder. They passed by the King of Khelt, then another thousand. Then riders, streaming through the doorway without end. A skeletal horse stopped, and Fetohep of Khelt mounted it and raised his halberd. The army of Zeres wilted as the undead poured out of the Graven Passage.
Fetohep of Khelt spoke.
“Now, Walled Cities. I shall answer your every insult a hundredfold. Khelt—bring death to Izril!”
His army surged forwards, ignoring the arrows and javelins that struck their bodies. For every one that fell, there were a hundred more. Rasea Zecrew laughed as she took the Illuminary forwards. Then Pisces realized:
This was the last battle.
He looked for Erin Solstice or whomever it was who had stolen her body. Ksmvr drew his blades.
“I see Klbkch is here. I would prefer not to meet him. Where are we going, Captain Ceria?”
The half-Elf’s head rose. She clenched a fist.
“Where else? Straight towards the [Innkeeper]. Try not to kill her twice.”
Shaman Theikha of Gaarh Marsh had been weeping for Khoteizetrough. When she felt the Walled Cities activate their magic, she looked up and saw all the lies stripped away.
Just like the Plain’s Eye tribe, the Walled Cities showed who they were. They activated a weapon meant for the Third Antinium War. They launched it at the army of Khelt.
And at the Gnolls.
A firestorm rained down from the heavens, and the Great Shaman of the Gnolls felt her heart stop as she looked at the spells aiming for the tribes. Without mercy or care.
The enemy of the Drakes died.
“Not today or ever.”
Theikha vowed. Her heart burned painfully in her chest with every beat. She had known this would be her last battle. She had thought one magic would be her end. Or the next. When she had cast the spell to show the [Chieftains] a vision of Earth, she had wondered if it would be her end and she would feel that beating heart stop.
Now—she asked it one more time to defy age and weariness. The magic of the Tribes of Izril burned in Theikha’s chest as she raised her arms.
Once more. One more miracle. She looked down at the Gnolls gazing up at her. Children of Gaarh Marsh. Warriors of every tribe.
Looking to her. Theikha’s head lifted higher, and she saw the first burning ray of light stab down. She lifted a paw—and blocked it.
High overhead, a pillar of fire like a lesser version of the Death of Magic’s own spells burned across a ripple in the air. The soldiers below looked up and saw a strange limb tracing itself out of the air and light.
A paw. A Giant’s paw. But the hand that blocked the painful spell was Theikha’s own. She lifted her arms, and the spells rained down upon her fur like a thousand tiny gnats of magic.
Khelt had no protections, and she watched them burn as the ships on the river rocked from the magic. The great river Soieln was overflowing as it passed through the Great Plains. The army of Zeres marched with the sea, overflowing the banks and muddying the ground with saltwater and carnage.
The skies split with the magic of countless [Mages], but Theikha drew her arm across the heavens and waited.
Her heart beat in her chest, slowly, slowly, as the magic filled her beyond any limit. The [Shaman] waited and heard it falter. She fell, as the destruction passed her tribes by.
The greatest living [Shaman] of the Meeting of Tribes fell and lay under Khoteizetrough’s corpse. She stared up at the Earth Elemental, and at last—
Her heart did cease. She stared up at the Earth Elemental and thought it was fitting. Theikha closed her eyes.
Then she heard it. A pulse that made her frail body tremble. A quake in the earth.
The weeping Gnolls of Gaarh Marsh that were surrounding Theikha backed away as the old [Shaman]’s body rose. A hand of green lifted her up, flowers and thorns, rot and rebirth. It placed her on the ground, and the [Shaman] opened her eyes. She turned, staggering—and the Earth Elemental did not move.
The hand collapsed. Theikha looked up and thought she saw a smile on that ancient face. A hill smiled at her, and she heard that sound again.
A pulse like the earth shaking. A heartbeat as vast as…the Great Shaman of Gaarh Marsh put a paw to her chest and realized it was coming from her. She looked around and realized what it meant.
“Not yet. A thousand more times, then. If you could do it, so can I.”
She put one hand on Khoteizetrough’s side, then turned. Theikha lifted her staff. One more miracle. Until the earth itself stopped living. She felt young again. She was a young [Shaman], and the endless wonders called to her.
She would never stop learning.
This was it. Khelta laughed as Fetohep of Khelt unveiled an old trick of Khelt. She and the ghosts fought on Izril’s shores. Not against the living…the bewildered dead Gnolls and Drakes were in service to a greater war.
Seamwalkers. The [Necromancer] of Khelt raised a sword and staff in either hand, watching this final struggle.
The last Giants rampaged through the ocean. A warrior with an axe tore a Seamwalker’s head apart, howling, laying about her, the Ash Giant breaking body after body.
The Seamwalkers lay across every continent, bleeding into the water. So many dead—and some fled over The Last Tide rather than die.
The last ones preyed upon the ghosts, and the dead gods…Khelta did not know where Erin Solstice was. But she waited, hoping the ritual they had laid in Khelt would work. If not? If not…she walked across the Great Plains.
If not, she would rest knowing she had done all she could. The [Necromancer] touched the side of a Seamwalker made of bone and cracked the behemoth in two, exposing its insides. She saw the [Witches], the last great coven of them, led by Califor, waiting.
Waiting…for a spark in the darkness.
Author’s Note: One more part.
Yvlon by anxietyrock!
Nawalishifra by Anito!