8.85

Chieftain Torishi Weatherfur fell through the earth.

She didn’t know how long. Minutes? How far down? Her voice howled Belavierr’s name. She only knew the tumbling through air, the despair.

Then she landed.

Eleven minutes of free-fall. What should have ground her bones to dust—didn’t. The hole that Belavierr had opened was a portal. Though it took her eleven minutes to fall to wherever the [Witch] had sent her, the Gnoll only fell a shorter distance.

Even so—she landed far, far down. She felt the searing pain as she landed on her side.

Her arm broke.

Torishi’s howl of pain was one of a dozen. Her bodyguards? Torishi dragged herself up, holding her axe one-handed.

“Where are we? Who is here?”

Voices called out. Eight. One Gnoll was dead, neck snapped. The others stood in darkness.

“Light. Where is…?”

Torishi looked around, but the beam of light that had always accompanied her, the Skill—wasn’t working. How far down were they?

Where were they? A Gnoll produced a magic torch at last and lit it. The Gnolls gazed around. At first, they looked straight up at that cavernous ceiling. The dirt tomb they were trapped in. Then…the light played, flickering down the walls of stone. The faded, dirty letters. Torishi’s heart fluttered.

“No. It was here all along?”

She looked up, and one Gnoll fell to their knees. For there were the steps that led up into a dark citadel. Here were statues broken, but enough words to show them what had stood here. A face lying amidst stone and rubble.

Eleven minutes below the Great Plains…just as the legends said. Torishi’s lips moved.

…and the only Kingdom of Gnolls fell into the earth.

She gazed at the shattered face of a statue. A broken throne, meant to greet visitors. Then Torishi realized where Belavierr had sent her.

Where she had sent…

Them.

Someone laughed in the darkness. A growling, hysterical laugh of triumph. It came from a figure as the Gnoll bearing the torch moved. Torishi’s fur stood on end.

“The Raskghar. Form a circle.”

She and the Gnolls of the Weatherfur tribe formed a circle in the darkness, staring into the night. Their eyes were adjusted to shadow—but the Raskghar lived in this place. Underground.

Torishi heard…sounds. She looked around and knew.

“Nokha.”

Mrsha’s nightmare was giggling. Again—again and again she lived. She was immortal! But that was not what made the Raskghar laugh and howl. It was their prey. Eight Gnolls. And…Torishi sniffed the air. Slowly, she exhaled as a Gnoll moaned.

“So. This is the doom of our kingdom.”

Behind the Raskghar from the Meeting of Tribes crept a thousand shadows. Curious noses sniffed the air. Growls. The new Raskghar turned as the occupants of the Kingdom of Gnolls stalked forwards.

The torch flickered. Torishi felt a dread creeping over her. She looked upwards.

No light. No way back. Was the Stitch Witch here? Was she laughing and watching? Surely…

Torishi spoke.

“Fight, Weatherfur. We will not see our tribe again. But fight them. Raskghar! Your treachery failed long ago!

All she heard was silence and rustling. The Gnoll warriors tried to watch every shadow…but they were surrounded.

In the silence, deep underground—Torishi Weatherfur met her end. First one Gnoll vanished, the torch falling as she struck, howling. Then silence. The Raskghar leapt and tackled another Gnoll. Torishi brought her axe down—she cleaved one head in two and then lost her grip as she buried the axe in a second arm. She looked around and saw three Gnolls.

She drew her dagger and howled. The Raskghar of this old place watched as the newcomers struck again. Then one Gnoll, turning to Torishi. Reaching out as she howled.

Then…

Torishi stood in the darkness. Someone doused the torch. Slyly. With a cunning beyond the others. She stood there, one arm burning with pain.

“Come, Nokha. I know your name.”

I am hungry. Hungry for you.”

Torishi’s head turned in the pitch black silence. One little monster who had stalked Mrsha across a continent. Who had escaped even down here. She waited, as, around her, that Raskghar stalked, the others waiting.

Monsters playing with their food. Torishi panted in the darkness. Feshi…the sky was so far away.

When the Raskghar grabbed her, she struggled, but the grip was so strong—Nokha stabbed her and tossed her away as Torishi’s dagger glanced off stolen armor. The Gnoll landed, scrambling for a weapon. She felt a hand seize her throat, felt the hot breath.

“I win again.”

The Weatherfur’s Chieftain smiled. Here she died, and they would never find her unless they came looking, entombed beneath the earth.

But—she called upon her Skill. Called upon her tribe. She grabbed Nokha’s hand, strangling her one-handed.

No longer, Raskghar.

At least let this nightmare plaguing the girl die.

The dark Kingdom of Gnolls had been lost to light over a thousand years. The predators who stalked this grave had never seen light, not as bright as the torch.

In this dark place…a brighter light burned down from the ceiling. A ray of blazing sun.

It illuminated Nokha as the Raskghar looked up and screamed, blinded. She let go of Torishi—but the Weatherfur’s Chieftain had gripped her. Nokha tried to break Torishi’s grip as the Gnoll grabbed one shoulder, but she couldn’t.

She was a monster who had been granted thought and used it to kill. Torishi was a [Chieftain] of her tribe. Nokha’s arm cracked as Torishi’s paws dug into her flesh.

“Let go. Let go!

The Raskghar howled. She bit at Torishi, but the Gnoll kept gripping. Kept tearing into the Raskghar’s arm with her claws. Nokha began screaming for the other Raskghar to help her. But they slunk away from that burning light.

It was so hot. Brighter than even sunlight. The air…her fur was smoking. Nokha began howling, and Torishi’s grip burrowed through her rancid fur. It tore flesh, ripped tendon, and then the Weatherfur Chieftain ripped Nokha’s arm off.

Screaming, the Raskghar retreated, only to see a blazing Gnoll’s paw shoot out. Torishi’s fingers dug into Nokha’s throat, and the panicked howling stopped. The Raskghar struck her, pleading, trying to bite, flee—but Torishi put every fiber of strength into her claws.

A warrior, a mother, a leader, a shaman…the Gnoll pulled at Nokha’s head.

One less horror in this world. One less nightmare before I go. She cried out into the darkness as the Raskghar flinched from this burning thing that was no easy prey.

Belavierr! Stitch Witch! If this is my end—then grant me one last request. I will pay you nothing. But if you have any soul left—

She tore the throat from the Raskghar and felt the blood spray her fur. Torishi dug her claws into the dying Nokha’s body and then tore the head from the corpse. The blank eyes of the Raskghar stared at Torishi as the [Chieftain] raised the head.

“Tell them I was here. And tell that child her nightmare is over.”

She stood, the head staring blankly at her. Nokha’s last look was wordless confusion. She never understood the Gnolls. Not even at the end. Torishi was about to toss the head down when someone reached out and took it. She jerked—looked around—

But the Stitch Witch was gone. Torishi smiled bitterly. Did even the [Witch] have a soul? If so…

Slowly, the Gnoll gazed around, and her broken arm burned again. She was exhausted, and the burning light faded slightly. Torishi searched around and found a sword buried in a Raskghar’s chest. She drew it out of the body and gazed around.

“There you are. Stories. Horrors at the beginning that will not leave. I am damned by the [Witch] of ages.”

Torishi looked around as the shadows drew in. She pointed up, grinning amidst the blood and faded dyes on her fur. The sun, her friend in the darkest days, warmed her fur.

Down here, you could forget there had ever been light. She looked at the Raskghar and saw them flinch away from the memory of something they had turned their backs on.

Sanity. Love, and even hope. They were the wretched cousins of Gnolls. But even they were not doomed. Torishi looked up, and above her, Weatherfur’s people fell to their knees. She had to tell them.

Deep in the depths of the earth, the [Chieftain] of Weatherfur drew in a breath through damaged lungs, past broken bone and with her blood dripping from her veins. Then she howled.

Miles below them, too far for any ear to hear—they still heard her. She howled in the marrow of their bones, and they raised their heads and called back. A voice from beneath the earth. The death of nightmares.

A ray of sun shone down past the [Witch] who looked at it uneasily and into the earth. A Gnoll stood under its light and howled upwards as the Raskghar flinched and beheld her.

I was here.

The Kingdom of Gnolls still rang as the first of its children looked around into that darkness. Torishi panted for breath, and she smiled like that distant sun.

“My tribe will not have me for the trials ahead. But someday, they will return here. They will find this place and know: I was here. I will have you remember that until my people find me once more.”

Snarls answered her, and they gathered in a throng, but they flinched from her stare. Torishi lifted her axe overhead and called down to them.

Look at me, Raskghar. Look at the thing you called Nokha and choose to change again! For I am proof you shall not devour us in darkness. Your teeth will never find the heart of Gnolls.”

She left the dais of stone, and the light shone down into the Kingdom of Gnolls from the world above. The promise on Torishi’s lips. She fought under sunlight. Until the light faded.

 

——

 

High above, the Witch of Webs lifted a bloody head into the air. She regarded it silently, and the Weatherfur tribe howled and wept. Mrsha looked up at Nokha’s face as Vetn carried her and wept.

Torishi Weatherfur was dead. And at last…so was Nokha. The [Witch] tossed the head down. Belavierr looked around.

“I answered the great [Chieftain] of Weatherfur not for payment. Not for any honor of her deeds or life. But as a mother.”

She looked so self-indulgent, so proud of her gesture in that moment that Mrsha howled at her. The Stitch-Witch smiled to herself, pretending not to notice the Gnoll girl. She only ceased when someone spoke to her.

“You have no right to call yourself a mother. I have seen what you do, Belavierr. You have no morality save for that which benefits you. It was a mistake to seek your aid. Your children deserve better parenthood.”

She turned and saw a Gnoll standing there. He was a warrior, a great undead champion of old. But the voice who spoke through him was that of Az’kerash.

“Watch your words, Necromancer.”

She hissed at him through the magic link. But Az’kerash just replied coldly.

“I have your ‘daughter’. She is safe. You will not see her again. Begone, Belavierr. I am ashamed to call you a fellow spellcaster.”

“You dare to threaten me? My daughter? I will haunt your remains, Necromancer.

Belavierr’s eyes blazed with a sudden rage that went far beyond any emotion this day. For reply, Kerash lifted his blade and struck her. She staggered, and blood ran down her arm.

You have killed more good souls than I can stomach. You—you truly are without any good to this world, aren’t you?

She tore the blade from the Draugr’s hand and threw him back. Now, Belavierr whirled. She howled, her joy forgotten.

“Necrom—”

A blade pierced her side, and she grunted. Saliss of Lights clung to Belavierr, stabbing—but he had no great magic. She knocked the Named Adventurer away. Snapped her fingers. A veil of threads went to tear him to pieces.

No!

Lehra Ruinstrider leapt, and the Blade of Mershi struck Belavierr. The Stitch Witch seized the Gnoll and dragged the Blade of Mershi from Lehra’s grasp. She lifted it, and the soul trapped within screamed at her as the gauntlet glowed. Belavierr threw the relic away.

I am the Witch of Webs! I am the last great [Witch], and I will shatter any foe who defies me! Adventurer, [Mage], or child! Hear me, children of Izril! The N—

Belavierr was still speaking when she turned her head. She threw up a hand, and the pink carriage hit her. Like a car crash victim, she slammed into the hood, bounced off the roof as Reynold stared into the [Witch]’s ringed gaze for one heart-stopping moment—then landed on the ground.

The pink carriage of Magnolia Reinhart did a U-turn and ran Belavierr over as she tried to get up. Reynold didn’t hear or feel the crunch of bones he was for once hoping to sense going through the carriage. He backed up just in time to see a hat rise and two glowing eyes.

That was unwise, servant of—

Moore seized Belavierr. She looked up, and he slammed her head-first into the carriage with one thorn-covered hand. He hammered her into the magical vehicle with enough force to rock the enchanted carriage. Then he raised a thorn-covered fist and hit her so hard she cracked a glass window.

Belavierr gazed at Moore and grabbed his arm. She threw him across the ground. Then she turned for Reynold. The [Butler] was already taking the carriage away. He rocketed across the battlefield, heading for a racing figure still dodging enemies.

What the—

Vetn yelped as Reynold kicked a door open. Magnolia’s pink carriage careened to a stop, and the [Butler] shouted.

Get in!

The Thief of Clouds hesitated, but Mrsha leapt into the pink carriage just in time for the earth to explode. Vetn leapt into the interior as a spike of earth nearly hit the carriage. Reynold zig-zagged away as Ulcreziek howled and Xherw pointed.

Kill them! Kill them already!

The [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands] was drawing on every scrap of magic left to him. His tribe was in tatters. Xherw was out of his mind, attacking Silverfang’s tribe. Killing the ones he thought were responsible for everything.

“Chieftain Akrisa, run.”

Shaman Cetrule lifted his staff as Xherw and his bodyguard charged at them. Krshia, Akrisa, and Satar looked at the mad [Chieftain]. Ulcreziek snarled, pointing at Mrsha.

Enough. He had had enough of this. And so…the [Shaman] saw a glowing light growing brighter out of the corner of his eye. He turned, and the Illuminary surged across the land. The glowing [Pirate]’s ship rode a wave that engulfed screaming Gnoll [Shamans] of the Plain’s Eye tribe. It bore down straight at Ulcreziek.

“Hah! Got him!”

Rasea Zecrew laughed as the Gnoll disappeared beneath the prow of the ship. Flos Reimarch grunted as he stood at the railings, ready to leap into the fighting below. Then…the ship listed. Everyone, the Horns, King Raelt, the half-Elves, the [Knights]…

Hesitated.

What was that? Why is my ship stopped?

Rasea hesitated. Then she felt the Illuminary move backwards. She raced to the prow and saw the wave break around her. Then…she looked down at the drenched Gnoll with one glowing eye staring up at her, one paw holding her ship back.

“Oh sh—”

The Illuminary rocked as a precipice of stone slammed into it. It fell sideways—and the crew and passengers stumbled. They spilled out onto the ground. Rasea was first to roll to her feet.

“My ship!”

The Plain’s Eye tribe surrounded the [Pirate]’s vessel. They waited for any fools to get up and be slaughtered. The first thing they saw was a bandaged man slowly getting up. His green eyes glittered behind a bunch of bandages.

“Another undead? Some kind of bandaged one? Kill it.”

A [Shamanic Warrior] barked. Then he saw a man with a crown striding out of the mud and dust. He was a Human with a rapier in one hand, a parrying dagger in the other. A little golden bell chimed as Raelt of Jecrass stood next to the King of Destruction.

“Jecaina?”

The Arbiter Queen emerged, coughing, and, from out of the darkness, Alked Fellbow shot an arrow that lanced through six Gnolls. The Plain’s Eye tribe looked up as the King of Destruction pointed.

The Steward, Orthenon, rode out of the chaos. Gazi Pathseeker joined him, and then a woman glowing with lightning smiled and floated off the deck.

A girl holding the Serkonian Lance brushed at her clothing and fixed Belavierr with a cold stare almost as old as the Witch of Webs. Half-Giant Revenants, a trembling [Champion of War], and Vizir Hecrelunn passed by Frieke of Khelt and her Seahawk. Centaurs, some heartily sick, clattered off the grounded ship as half-Elves and [Knights] stood next to angry [Pirates].

Slowly, the King of Destruction lifted a finger. The Gnolls backed up from the strangest gathering in the world. Flos Reimarch’s eyes were burning as his bandaged mouth opened. The sands of Chandrar whipped around the warriors from a different continent. The legends of Chandrar looked upon the Meeting of Tribes, and the King of Destruction raised his voice.

Char—

“Chandrar, charge!”

The [Hero] of Zethe roared. Doubte came storming from the ship, and the Horns of Hammerad followed, screaming for psychological effect. The Herald of the Forests raised her horn, and the King of Destruction looked around and then followed the others into fighting, shouting curses.

“The Steward of Destruction! Gazi Pathseeker! The Archmage of Chandrar!”

Screams. Gnolls and Drakes recognized the three legendary figures of Reim. Raelt leapt past the others, sword flickering as he and Jecaina raced into the fighting. Khelt’s undead were surging around Zeres.

Protect the Gnolls. Slay the [Witch]. Save the child—

 

——

 

Each one had a different goal. The sky was crackling as Archamge Valeterisa panted. Fissival was hurling spell after spell at her location, even the Magic Throwers. She was reconsidering her participation in this war as Wyverns flew with the best [Mages], trading spells of their own behind magical barriers.

As [Mages] fought. Right until the sky flashed, and a woman danced into sight.

Valeterisa. Do you need a hand?”

“Archmage…Amerys?”

Valeterisa took a second to check her eyes were working and this wasn’t an illusion. Amerys’ grey hair whipped about her as her eyes glowed with the storm. Valeterisa lifted a weak hand.

“That would be very welcome. I, ah—are you free now? Query: Wistram. Is Amerys supposed to be…?”

Amerys laughed, and the sky turned into burning lightning as Fissival’s [Mages] screamed. Valeterisa looked at Amerys and, for once, canceled the [Message] spell.

No one was going to cage her again.

Two Archmages of Wistram criss-crossed the skies with magic as Wyverns battled with flying Pegasi. Oteslia’s [Pegasus Riders] struck Fissival from behind.

 

——

 

What? What Archmages? Just—kill them and Oteslia’s riders!

Wall Lord Dragial was shouting into a [Communication] spell on the ground. Salazsar’s charge into Fissival had ended up in a melee—and that was the worst scenario for the magical army of Fissival. Gnolls on one side—

And here came Wall Lord Ilvriss. Dragial scrambled away as the Wall Lord of Salazsar rode at him. He teleported across the battlefield as Ilvriss cursed.

Dragial!

The Drake scrambled away. That was when he saw the Blade of Mershi land on the ground as the Witch of Webs tore the relic from Lehra’s grasp.

“The Blade of Mershi. At last!

Wall Lord Dragial ran for the gauntlet. It had landed in the fighting, and he thrust a wand forwards. Drakes—his own forces and Gnolls and Salazsar’s forces went flying as a ripple of force knocked them aside.

Where was it? The Drake hunted around in the mud, falling to his knees to wrench up…a helmet. He looked around for that glint of ancient magic. His [Detect Magic] spell was all but useless—it was cloaked. The key to the City of Stars!

Where…? Then he saw her. That damn Gnoll, running through the fighting with her team.

Lehra!

She had to be sensing it! The Stargnoll was wounded, but she still ran for the relic. Dragial ran at her, wand raised. He lunged as he saw something glinting in the mud.

The Blade of Mershi rose in Dragial’s grip. He laughed as Lehra skidded to a halt.

“No. Dragial!

“It’s mine! It’s mine at last! In the name—of the City of Stars!

The Wall Lord shoved the gauntlet onto one arm and raised it upwards. Just like Lehra had done. He looked up, his face radiant. The world dropped away from him, and he stood in space.

Space! A room with no walls or floor. Just the shining void. Surely this…

This was the magic of the Walled City, Mershi. The Drake wept as the magic interfaced with his being. He saw someone standing there.

A Drake, wearing the armor of stars. She held a sword, and Dragial fell to his knees.

“You’re the one who will lead me to the City of Stars.”

Perhaps.

The owner of the Blade of Mershi, Saturniel Cometscale, whispered. She looked into Dragial’s eyes. Into his soul.

“If you want the power of Mershi—answer me one question.”

The Wall Lord drew himself up. He had waited for this trial forever. He whispered.

“Name it.”

The Drake wavered as her spirit focused on Dragial.

“Who…are our enemies?”

The Wall Lord felt a power compelling him to answer with all his soul. But he didn’t have to think—he only worried it was a singular answer.

“The…Humans of Izril. Or the Gnoll tribes. The Antinium—the Nagas—”

He was going to go on, but the Drake lifted one claw. Dragial waited, heart beating—and Saturniel rolled her eyes.

“Wrong.”

Dragial’s glorious vision of the stars began to fade. He screamed desperately.

“Wait—wait! Tell me what the answer is!”

The Drake closed her eyes and looked away. The enemy of so many species looked at the bearer of the Blade of Mershi. The answer was the one the Stargnoll had once given:

No one. No mortal enemies in an entire species. The Wall Lord was not worthy.

Then the image of Saturniel vanished, and Dragial was left standing on the battlefield. He looked around, staring at the dead Blade of Mershi. Then Lehra kicked him.

Dragial went tumbling down as the Stargnoll raised the Blade of Mershi. Stargazer’s Promise spread out around her as Dragial rose to his feet.

“What…what did you do?”

He looked at Lehra as the armored Gnoll gazed down at him. The Wall Lord looked about, and the soldiers of Fissival turned at his scream.

You’ve corrupted the Blade of Mershi. Kill—kill her!

Stargazer’s Promise closed ranks as Lehra panted, drawing a sword and shield out of the air. Elgrinna, Suxhel, and Emper looked to Lehra.

“He’s getting away. What do we do? Go after him?”

The Stargnoll hesitated, then shook her head. Dragial was scrambling away, calling for Fissival’s troops to kill her.

“He’s not important. We—we have to get out of here. The Stitch Witch is still killing everyone, and Mrsha—”

Then the adventurers realized they were in danger. Fissival’s entire army was turning towards them and the Relic that Dragial had wanted for so long. The young adventurers looked around, and even stolid Emper wilted slightly.

“How are we supposed to fight…?”

Suxhel was counting, her mana almost exhausted, and Elgrinna didn’t seem to know which way to turn. Lehra herself, a Named Adventurer, looked at a sea of Drakes, and that expression of confidence wavered. The four adventurers backed up as spears lowered into walls and Drakes marched towards them and raised their wands.

Then the Selphid leapt into the first spear, and the tip of one pierced her stomach. But the whirling [Steel Tempest] didn’t care. She was holding a flail of Demas Metal, each blade dripping with blood, water, or poison.

She whirled the weapon around, and Drakes broke apart, screaming in terror. Lehra saw a rank vanish, [Soldiers] falling or fleeing as the Gold-rank Captain of the Halfseekers turned.

“Rookies! What are you doing getting cornered? Keep moving if you want to live! Moore! Open a hole!”

Moore? Wh—

A half-Giant ran through another group of Drakes, and a Selphid wearing a Drake’s body webbed down the soldiers on either side. The Named Adventurer and her team saw the half-Giant pick up a [Mage] and throw the Drake into the distance.

You’re—the Halfseekers?

Lehra vaguely recognized them. Jelaqua Ivirith was covered in wounds, but the Selphid had changed her body four times already. They had been pursuing Mrsha when they saw the younger team in trouble.

Now there were two teams against all those Drakes.

“What do we do?”

Jelaqua stepped into the opening she’d cleared, trembling as she Rampaged. She snapped back, eyes glowing faintly orange, veins pulsing with her true body.

When an army’s surrounding you? You fight so damn hard they back away and run. Where’s that Wall Lord?”

She turned, and Lehra saw Dragial, still retreating, but glaring at her with hatred in his eyes.

“There. But he’s lost and—”

Jelaqua grabbed Lehra’s face with one bloody hand. The Selphid stared down at Lehra.

“You don’t leave your enemies alive, rookie.”

The young Gnoll who had been a Bronze-rank adventurer less than two years ago looked into the eyes of a Selphid over forty years an adventurer. Her reply was automatic. The reason why she was chosen.

“I have no enemies in any species.”

She got back a corpse’s smile. The Selphid’s head rotated slowly, and she looked at the Drake who had led a Walled City into the Meeting of Tribes.

“Maybe not. But I see a person who would walk on the corpses of everyone to get his way. Even his own kind. The Halfseekers know evil. Adventurers.

She pointed one hand at Dragial, and the Wall Lord paled, despite a thousand Drakes between him and the Selphid. He had fought Lehra for two years and escaped and triumphed and vowed revenge.

“—He does not live another minute.”

Then she whirled her flail up and sprinted towards him. Moore, Ulinde, and Stargazer’s Promise followed, and the Drakes and their formations looked at a Named-Adventurer and two Gold-rank teams.

Hold them back! Kill the adventurers!

Dragial was already looking for a safe place. He raised his wand and pointed. There!

“[Teleportation]!”

He was midway through the spell when the [Rogue] stepped out of his shadow and calmly ran a dagger into Dragial’s back. The Wall Lord had enchanted armor, and his amulets were some of the best protection in the world. So Seborn kept stabbing until he felt the first prick of his blade against the enchanted cloth. Even that didn’t draw blood, but the Drowned Man just smiled and whispered.

“[Anchoring Stab].”

The teleportation spell fizzled out. Dragial turned, but Seborn just dodged the spray of acid that struck the Drakes behind him. He tried to finish the Wall Lord, but the Drakes nearly ran him through from behind. The Drowned Man leapt backwards, enchanted blades flashing.

Damn you! All of you! Kill them!

The Gnolls fighting with Fissival were howling behind Jelaqua. For all her words—the Selphid tore left and right, shredding limbs. Moore’s charge left only blood and bodies in his wake. Ulinde’s spells left dozens dead with each cast, and the terrified infantry hesitated.

But then spells began to strike the Gold-rank teams. Lehra blocked a glowing comet with a shield only to scream as acid rained down. Moore howled, and a hundred lesser spells cut the air.

Burning [Arrows of Flame] rained down on the Gnoll tribe trying to strike Fissival’s heart from the side. The Woven Bladegrass tribe led by Chieftain Werri were encircled like the Halfseekers and Stargazer’s Promise.

These Gnolls died to the last. Dragial pointed at them, unleashing a [Deathbolt]. The furious Chieftain refused to fall, even as it splashed through her body. She howled as she tried to fight towards the Wall Lord, but [Mage-General] Qeuse stood behind walls of magic.

Chieftain Werri’s warriors threw themselves against the barriers as jets of flame and acid shot from the mouths of Oldblood Drakes. There weren’t just warriors in her tribe. Everyone, young and old, was trapped, but the army of Drakes didn’t care. Werri lifted her head, looking around wildly for a way out.

What she saw were—Centaurs.

 

——

 

“Forgotten Wing! Fall upon them!”

Perorn Fleethoof saw the deathtrap and led her forces straight into Fissival’s flank. But she knew it was a desperation play.

A third of her people had fallen to the Witch of Webs and during the fighting. The Drakes turned as her forces cut in fast, and the Centaurs’ charge faltered as armored spearwalls turned on them.

The officer. Perorn pointed at Dragial and Qeuse.

Officer sniping!

She loosed an arrow at the [Mage-General] as her people fired, but the arrows cracked uselessly against the barriers surrounding Fissival’s general. Perorn looked to the Woven Bladegrass tribe and adventurers.

“Break towards us!”

They were trying, but there just weren’t enough Centaurs to pierce the thousands upon thousands of Drakes. Perorn’s weak leg slipped. She stumbled, and then an arm caught her.

“Sister. Get up. Cover my charge.”

The Centauress looked up into an older face, a woman with a pale lower torso. A Centaur? But not one of Perorn’s warriors, wearing armor. This was a nomad, wearing decorated cloth and charms woven into the colorful tale of her tribe.

As different from Centaurs of Baleros as…Perorn blinked incredulously. She had not looked for Centaurs on Izril.

Herdmistress Geraeri of the People of Zair lifted a quarterstaff as the Forgotten Wing Company saw a second line of Centaurs streaking through their ranks. Only a few dozen—but they followed Geraeri forwards, and Perorn felt her weak legs strengthen.

She felt refreshed, as if she could run another hundred miles. The herd of Jecrass’ Centaurs crashed into Fissival’s spears as if they were made of stone. Steel snapped on their bodies, and Geraeri raced forwards, urging Perorn to her side.

It wasn’t just her. Perorn’s head whirled, and she saw a stream of faded green hair flying beneath a helmet. The Herald of Forests, Ierwyn, rode like a whisper through the trees. She and her half-Elves passed through the Drakes’ lines, and she halted in front of Chieftain Werri.

The myth who had rode Chandrar’s battlefields four hundred years ago lifted her sword as she looked down at the tired Gnolls. Her eyes met Werri’s.

Kin of the plains! I am the Herald of Claiven Earth! Will you ride with me? Fables of the Forest—arise! [A Fraction of My Experience]!”

The Gnolls of the young tribe stared up as the half-Elf called to them, and they felt the experience of centuries sink into their bones. Werri parried a blade and riposted, feeling her exhaustion fade. She howled.

Follow that half-Elf!

Ierwyn was already plunging towards the first wall of magic barriers. She lanced through them in a heartbeat, shattering the magic as she cut a path out of the Woven Bladegrass tribe’s encirclement.

“Officer on the field. Marking them for bombardments! Get—get the Wall Lord to safety.”

The [Mage-General] of Fissival was trying to reform his lines. General Qeuse pivoted as he saw Perorn and Geraeri riding at him.

“[Battlefield: Cascade Shields of Fissival]!”

He reinforced the magic around him as the Centaurs charged. The Drake’s confidence lasted for six seconds. Then an arrow fell like a shooting star and pierced the magic, breaking each barrier in front of him like a bubble.

The [General] deflected the arrow wildly with a swipe of the scepter and shield he held. The Drake whirled, and Alked Fellbow lifted his head as he lowered his bow, turning to the next target. The [General] of Fissival shouted desperately.

Defend the camps—

 

——

 

Wall Lord Dragial was watching the Gnolls led by the half-Elf in stupefaction when the Centaurs overran Qeuse’s position.

“This isn’t right. We are the City of Magic!

And they were. But there charged the Fables of the Forest, a company of old half-Elves and Gnolls blazing with Ierwyn’s fury. Geraeri, the Herdmistress of Zair, and Perorn met the [Mage-General] in combat. He deflected Perorn’s lancing stab, staggered as his armor took a blow from Geraeri’s quarterstaff, and saw both Centaurs gallop past him.

The Drake was trying to recast his barrier spells when the trail of rope that Geraeri had tossed wrapped around one of his legs like a snake and tightened into a knot. A simple rope trick. A [Nomad]’s Skill. The [General] was torn off his feet, and the Herdmistress raced out of the fighting, dragging the Drake behind her. She dragged the screaming [General] across the ground, racing away as Centaurs trampled the body, loosing arrows down until that scream stopped.

“Barbarians.”

Dragial tried to back away. Then he whirled as he saw the Woven Bladegrass tribe cutting their way out of his army on one side. The Centaurs turning for another charge. And the adventurers…

Reached him. 

The Wall Lord saw the Halfseekers charging him. He backed away, raising his wand. A shield deflected Jelaqua’s flail, and he spoke.

“[Ray of Entropy]—”

Lehra deflected the spell. She stabbed forwards and rammed the blade into his shoulder. The Wall Lord tore away, and one of his amulets trapped Jelaqua and Lehra in a field of stasis. Cursing, Emper struck Dragial, and the Drake staggered as the staff deactivated his magic.

The Blade is mine! The City of Magic will never fall! You will all be hunted down and—

Moore picked up the Wall Lord. The bloody thorns on his hand cut into Dragial’s face as he squeezed tight. Lehra looked up in silence as the [Stasis Field] deactivated. She waited for something…a last contingency. A body-double.

All she saw was Dragial’s body jerk once and blood run down from Moore’s grip. A terrible grinding crunch and…and then he was gone. The enemy who had plagued her for two years twitched one last time, and his magic vanished. The half-Giant tossed the Drake’s body down, and Ulinde leapt from his back.

“Looting. Twenty seconds.”

The bloody Halfseekers saw Stargazer’s Promise recoil. Jelaqua Ivirith just turned. The adventurers looked at Fissival’s stunned army. The Woven Bladegrass tribe scythed through them behind the Herald, turning their demise into an unstoppable charge that began to tear the Drake army in twain.

Wall Lord Dragial was dead. The Stargnoll had finally brought down her foe. The Halfseekers had made an enemy of Fissival, and…

Lehra looked around. She had already known it, but now she stared down at the ruined face, the battlefield spanning miles, the army of the dead. Now that she thought it, it was obvious.

Izril would never be the same again.

 

——

 

Fetohep rode through the battlefield, halberd whirling as the undead poured forwards. Zeres faced them, holding the line despite the massive number of undead. They had levels; the dead soldiers had no limit.

Madness. The King of Khelt was raging. How many years’ worth of accumulated mana had the Walled Cities wasted? All their preparations since the last Antinium Wars to loose spells meant for the direst battle?

Five years?

All to wipe out one of their enemies. The worst part was…they succeeded.

And how many dead was Khelt spending to activate and keep the Graven Passage open? Even he couldn’t count the cost, but it was necessary.

Fetohep saw a single tribe of Gnolls fighting Manus in the vanguard of both forces. They were the fiercest warriors of their generation. A famous tribe, led by one Gnoll who had given them their name.

Steelfur. A thorn in the side of the Walled Cities. Fetohep watched as the warriors, fighting with light to no armor, suddenly faltered. A Gnoll stared down at her light brown fur, not the grey of a moment ago. Then a sword cut her down.

There was only one reason for that. Fetohep’s head turned, and he saw Iraz Steelfur die. The despairing Chieftain was holding onto a Drake with brilliant, sky-blue scales, who buried a crackling glaive in his chest. His fur smoked with lightning, and a Gnoll screamed his [Chieftain]’s name.

Adetr Steelfur was the only Gnoll who remained metal after Iraz fell. The only one with a class of his own.

“So ends a great tribe.”

Fetohep’s head turned right, and he saw another [Chieftain] fall. This time to Zeres. A triumphant Drake with scars across his body raised a serrated spear, covered in his blood and his opponent’s. The Sharkcaptain of Zeres was armed with weapons as old and as powerful as the Gnolls who had fought him. And he was the one who rose, not Chieftain Reizet.

Az’muzarre. Steelfur. They had stood against the truth and Doombearers. But two great tribes were falling to pieces. Being cut down.

“Khelt. Upon me!”

Fetohep’s howl made the Admiral of the Land, Horsthe, bring the veterans of Zeres against him. Fetohep’s undead ran into the Drakes. Then they climbed over the dead and living alike. They buried the first rank of Drakes in a sea of bones and armor. The undead ruler rode forwards.

“Fetohep. The ritual. I cannot feel Khelt. Xierca is…dying. Chandrar is lost.”

Khelta was whispering in his ears. Fetohep’s head turned.

“Xierca?”

A shudder ran through the undead. They felt it just as he. A void was being torn open in Fetohep’s heart. Khelt’s rulers were dying.

So the undead monarch rode with eyes of blazing gold, and the living fell away before him and his army that began to shriek wrath. Fetohep looked to Zeres, to Fissival, to Manus, to the tribes of Plain’s Eye and all the fools.

Whom did he slaughter? Which army did he wipe from the earth and leave nothing for even carrion to feed upon? Who died? They trembled as his army kept pouring from the gates.

Then Fetohep saw it. The golden fury in his face wavered…and he pointed.

There! Khelt, to me!

Ten thousand soldiers poured after him, and another ten thousand, heedless of being flanked, the danger, forcing Drakes and Gnolls to flee. Fetohep came to a halt and looked down. His halberd pointed at the ground—not at the figures in front of him.

Gnolls. Tribes fleeing the fighting, surrounded by Drakes on every side, under attack. Which group was this? Silverfang? Plain’s Eye?

Fetohep saw children, parents, families, Gnolls holding bows or simple spears. Looking up at him with horror, and he gazed about and saw more tribes fleeing.

“Here. Warriors of Khelt, protect these Gnolls until your destruction. Not one dies. To me, Khelt!

He plunged into the fighting, as the undead of Khelt encircled this group, carrying them to safety. Fetohep looked around for his queen, Khelta, and saw a smiling face. He grinned back and then looked around.

He had found his glory upon the battlefield and his place. At the despair of their nation—Fetohep did what every ruler before him had ever chosen.

Living over the dead. But his head turned, looking for that last child. He could not save them all.

But he would always try.

 

——

 

The Golden Gnoll of Pallass was no hero and never tried to be. She had hidden every day of her life who she was.

Out of fear. Just like all the others. Now, Qwera stood, and her fur shone white and gold next to Wer, and the air filled with colors as Tesy drew arrows and brick walls next to her.

She loosed arrows down at the Plain’s Eye tribe, and two Doombearers stood in the open, with the tribes of Izril at their back.

Qwera would have traded all the gold she had ever earned for this moment. And all of the gold she’d ever earn that this would never happen.

She couldn’t describe the sensation of triumph and loss. The Gnolls dying and the truth she could finally cling to. The knowledge it wasn’t her.

They were not doom. It had always been misfortune, deeds by good people and monsters. It wasn’t her.

They just had to—struggle. Qwera saw Tesy fall, shrieking with an arrow in his leg. He was bleeding so quickly she dropped the bow and grabbed a potion.

Qwera! Get back!

Ysara backed up, blade parrying a strike from an incredulous Gnoll. The [Merchant] fought with the talent that had been called a prodigy’s.

Once. But she had traded it all for the future she wanted, her own path. She went sprawling as she locked blades with a Gnoll and a Skill tossed her off her feet. Qwera looked up as a Gnoll tackled a huge [Shamanic Warrior] coming up the hill like a bull.

Yelroan, the [Mathematician], looked up as the Plain’s Eye warrior howled.

“Traitor.”

He blocked Yelroan and hammered the Gnoll down. The lines bowed inwards as Wer turned. He tried to get to them as Qwera drew a knife and slashed at the [Shamanic Warrior]’s fur, but it was like armor.

Ysara looked up, searching for her sword, dazed, as a second warrior raised a spear. The Silver Trader cried out as a spear pinned her to the ground through the shoulder. The Gnoll raised his spear, snarling, to stab her through the head. Then he turned, a silver hand on his shoulder.

He looked back, back, and Qwera recoiled from the arm that stretched…five feet? Silver flesh. A furious, blue-eyed stare.

Then Yvlon pulled herself forwards, and her second fist sent a spray of teeth and blood into the air. Ysara looked up as her younger sister whirled.

Yvl—

The second Gnoll whirled, dropping Yelroan, and Yvlon, bare-handed, pointed a finger at him. The Gnoll jerked and stared down at the spike of metal running through his chest. Yvlon’s finger turned into a piercing blade, then withdrew.

Horns of Hammerad! To me!

The Silver Killer of the Coliseum of Monarchs raised her head, and Ysara and the struggling Gnolls saw…a behemoth rise.

Frost and ice crackled as Pisces and Ceria balanced on the back of their signature creature. It raised one paw, and the Plain’s Eye tribe fled screaming as the Horns of Hammerad charged their position.

Ksmvr landed next to Yvlon and cut an arrow out of the sky. The [Skirmisher] lifted his blades. Yvlon whirled.

“You must watch your back more, Yvlon.”

She looked at him, and his third hand patted her on the shoulder. Yvlon turned to her dumbstruck sister.

“Sorry, Ksmvr. Ysara—we’re here. Where’s Erin?”

“Wh—Yvlon?

Ysara stuttered as Ksmvr looked past Pisces and Ceria. The half-Elf tossed herself from the back of the behemoth, and Pisces [Flash Stepped] into the air.

Damnit! That’s the second—

The giant undead exploded as a needle twice as long as Qwera went through its head. The Horns of Hammerad landed, and—there they were. Even the Gnolls fighting for their lives turned as that famous team appeared.

“Is this your sister, Ysara? Hello, I am a landowner from your estates. I own two trees—”

Ksmvr offered a hand, and Yvlon pointed.

There’s Mrsha! Get to her! Ysara—stay here! Ceria, walls!”

“On it, on it—let’s go! Yvlon, get behind Ksmvr, that’s an order! He’s better at deflecting than you are! Horns of Hammerad, go!

A wall of ice rose, guarding the endangered position. Ceria pointed down the slope, and a floor of ice covered the ground. The enemy warriors slipped and went sprawling, but the Horns just leapt down—and went crashing down the slope as Pisces ran into Yvlon and they tripped over Ksmvr.

The Horns got up and kept going. Chasing the pink carriage, Mrsha—a thread of chaos amidst the fighting. Ysara stared at her sister with incredulity and delight. Qwera looked for Vetn, heart beating with surprise. And—hope.

 

——

 

The pink carriage was racing across the battlefield as Mrsha looked around for her friends. Vetn was with her, but Reynold was trying to take them to safety. And Mrsha…Mrsha was hoping no one else tried to rescue her.

Because it seemed as though her rescuers attracted almost as much attention as Mrsha.

The carriage! Magnolia Reinhart’s vehicle! High-priority—[Mark Target]! [Focused Fire]! Bring it down!

Manus saw the carriage, and the vehicle shook as spells began to blast the windows and doors. Mrsha hid under a seat as Reynold swerved right and left.

Then the Oldblood Drakes began dive-bombing the carriage.

You scale-eyed bastards! There is a child in—

The [Combat Butler] ran one through with his sword as Drakes clung to the carriage, stabbing into it, looking for Magnolia Reinhart or just trying to erase her famous carriage. Vetn stole one’s sword, and the cursing Drake was thrown off as Reynold did a complete circle, knocking them off. But more kept coming—the [Butler] felt a sting of pain as one shot a crossbow at him and the bolt hammered him into the driver’s seat.

He parried a sword thrust to his neck, and three Drakes on the speeding carriage fell off, headless. Reynold jerked in surprise—and a pair of silver swords descended over a third Drake.

“Keep driving. Where is Mrsha? Inside?

Reynold stared in horror at Klbkch the Slayer as the Antinium balanced on the carriage. It picked up speed again, and the blademaster of the Antinium leaned out of the way of a spell. His swords cut down a volley of arrows, and he glanced around.

“Ah. Troubles—”

“Mrsha!”

Only a few beings in the world could hope to catch up with the pink carriage. One of them was Mivifa, the Oldblood of Feathers. She dove, and Klbkch ducked the lance. He slashed back, but the Named Adventurer was already cutting left out of range. Both she and the Antinium lashed at each other as Reynold howled at them to get away.

Then someone else hit his carriage, and he saw Drake [Riders] flanking him with nets, trying to drag the carriage to a stop.

Get Mrsha out of here! This is a deathtrap!

Vetn screamed at Reynold, and the [Butler] had to agree. He swerved left as Klbkch and Mivifa broke off fighting.

Manus! Enough!

The Named Adventurer knocked a trio of Drakes from their horses with her lance as her pegasus snapped her wings out and slammed another rider off their mount. Klbkch was more direct. He leapt off the carriage, slashed through half a dozen [Riders], and jumped back on in a blur. Reynold broke out of the press of riders, and Vetn leapt, Mrsha in his arms, onto the ground. Reynold was turning to cover them when he felt a prickle on the back of his neck.

He realized Mrsha had been the one saving him. For as long as she rode in his carriage…Reynold looked around and far, far across the battlefield, but like a beacon of malice…

The Stitch Witch pointed at Reynold. Her eyes were vengeful as she flicked a finger.

“[Your Mortal Doom, Returned], servant.”

Reynold whirled the carriage, but he saw it again. String. Wire—he howled as he ran into the same trap that—

The pink carriage flipped and crashed across the battlefield. The second and last of Magnolia’s famed carriages lay there, wheels spinning as the [Butler] lay in the wreckage. Then he was clambering out.

Where was that girl?

 

——

 

Vetn ran. It seemed like every force in the world was after him. Drakes, Gnolls—Antinium—fighting each other, fighting for Mrsha.

Saliss of Lights blurred out of the fighting, one arm cut down to the bone. He left a trail of explosions in his wake as Manus turned on Vetn. Now, the Thief of Clouds heard them.

Capture the target alive! Get the Doombearer—

They wanted Mrsha. Vetn heard Saliss shouting at him.

You idiot! Get her to safety!

“I’m trying! I’m—”

The Walled City of War was used to fast targets. Vetn and Saliss saw a wall of Drakes appearing, so Vetn looked left. And saw…more Drakes. And right? More Drakes.

A perfect box formation swung into place. Saliss lifted two potions in his claws.

“Get out of my way or I will disintegrate you all.”

The Named Adventurer roared, and the [Soldiers] flinched. But then General Milka, one of the supreme [Generals] of Manus, strode forwards.

“[Unit: Elemental Barrier]. Stand down, Saliss. Put the child down and surrender or—”

She looked up, raised her shield, and Wrymvr dropped on her. No acid. No scythes or biting maw. He just slammed into her so hard the ground shook.

Saliss, Vetn, and Mrsha saw the winged creature modeled after Dragons and Crelers rise. Mouths moved along the pinhole eyes and ever-evolving body.

Important Drakes die.

“Kids? Get out of here.”

Saliss calmly pushed Vetn and Mrsha aside. He walked forwards, and Wrymvr turned. Saliss reached for a bottle in his final arsenal. Wrymvr the Deathless howled as the Named Adventurer lifted a vial and threw it, and the explosion sucked part of Wrymvr into a vortex.

Vetn turned to go as Klbkch and Mivifa appeared, and the Drakes and Antinium began to fight. He looked around, and a second Gnoll appeared by his side in a flash.

“General Milka is dead?”

Who—

Lulv stabbed Vetn in the shoulder and buried a knife in the [Thief]’s arm. Then he grabbed Mrsha.

“Target captured. Two Prognugators. Get me reinforcements.

Mrsha bit one armored hand and nearly broke her teeth. Lulv grimaced and looked around. Then the [Spearmaster] saw a panting [Butler] skid to a halt.

“Put her down or die.”

The [Spearmaster] lifted his spear one-handed, transferring Mrsha to the other arm. His look of confidence never wavered—until he felt that prickle on the back of his neck.

“Mrsha?”

“The girl?”

“White thing?”

“You stupid bastard. Now I’m going to kill you too.”

Klbkch, Mivifa, Wrymvr, and Saliss all turned from their fighting, and the [Spearmaster] decided to drop Mrsha after all. She ran over to Vetn, fumbling for a potion.

Friends and foes surrounding her. Vetn groaned as Mrsha poured the potion onto him. Then…someone picked her up.

Stop it! Stop it! Mrsha began to bite whomever it was, reaching for a knife. Then she looked up.

It wasn’t Klbkch or Lulv. Or even someone like Reynold or one of Magnolia’s maids or…

Her protectors whirled as a young man, face as white as a sheet, picked Mrsha up and began running. A galloping [Rider] passed him by in an instant, and he did not move at the speed of light.

Fals ran with Mrsha under one arm like a priority delivery. He ran straight through the Drakes, screaming as Mrsha looked up at him.

You? The City Runner was running—but to where? Fals carried Mrsha through the fighting, arrows flying around him, Drakes and Gnolls fighting. Straight towards…

Mrsha saw him stagger and cry out as someone shot an arrow through his leg. He kept going, and then Mrsha saw the line of Antinium. Fals fell down, and Mrsha tumbled forwards. But the Antinium saw her, and the Gnoll trying to kill Fals fell. Then…the Antinium crusade stood there, and a [Templar] reached down.

[Heal Mundane Wounds].

The City Runner looked up, panting, and Mrsha saw someone grab her.

We’ve got her. Fals? Fals?

Garia picked up Mrsha, and the Fellowship, the Antinium, and the Gnolls closed ranks. The City Runner’s finest delivery looked down at the young man and then back through the battlefield.

He was something after all. Mrsha clung to Garia and saw Numbtongue running at her with Bird. No more rescues. She looked around.

Here they stood and lived or died. The [Crusaders] of 1st Battalion faced Manus as the City of War focused on their foe. The Fellowship and Gnolls of the tribes turned as the Walled City charged them.

Manus, again. Only this time they weren’t hiding behind Hectval. This was their best. 1st Battalion held their ground, a hundred Antinium fighting with Goblins and Gnolls.

Manus’ damned elites plunged forwards, following their [Spearmaster], and Liscor’s army ran into them. The Antinium, Mrsha, and the Fellowship saw a screaming young woman pointing her sword straight at Lulv’s finest. The [Spearmaster], who had escaped the Antinium and Saliss, turned.

Who—

“Erin?”

Numbtongue and Mrsha stared at the young woman. Mrsha’s eyes went round. It was her! Numbtongue cried out, but Fierre and Ulvama dragged him back.

Not her! What is that?

Ulvama stared at ‘Erin’ in alarm. And Mrsha saw that terrible smile of war on the young woman’s face.

General Sserys charged Manus, and Liscor followed him. He was bound for…

Dragonspeaker Luciva. The Drake looked around, surrounded by her bodyguard. Sserys went for her. He lost his horse as Lulv speared the poor animal. Then he was up. He was the [Spear of the Drakes]—he cut through one incredulous veteran. Parried a spear and stabbed through a throat.

But he was fighting Manus—

“[Blademasters]! Halt Liscor!

A Drake drew her blade as Sserys whirled in the melee. She didn’t see Sserys—just a Human. And the [General] was a fraction too slow.

The [Blademaster] cut off Erin’s arm. Sserys grunted as the Drake pivoted. He ran the [Blademaster] through and dragged his sword up.

“Erin!”

Her friends screamed in horror, but the young woman just whirled and put something to her lips. Sserys was—laughing? Then the blood gushing from that stump stopped. Just like when he had fallen out of the sky—

The Drake took a gulp of the Potion of Regeneration. And the arm began regrowing. It reappeared, and the naked arm reached out and cracked a Drake’s jaw.

“Where was this when I needed it? Charge! Charge, you slugs!”

Liscor’s army ran around him. Sserys threw himself forwards, and a disbelieving Gnoll ran through the young woman’s stomach. He stared at that bloody grin, and Lulv found a second sword in his stomach.

Want to trade, boy? I can do this all day.

The [General] laughed at the [Spearmaster] as Lulv stumbled back. The Gnoll lifted his spear. If she could heal, then he’d destroy that damn head—

A claw grabbed Lulv’s spear, and the [Spearmaster] jerked. He looked left. Who had—

The Gecko of Liscor stood there, eyes fixed on Lulv.

“Spearmaster Lulv.”

Lulv didn’t think. The name was on his lips in a moment. They knew each other; their class always did.

“Gecko. Let go of me—”

“I hear you tore up Liscor at Hectval. And my kid. Which is why I’m going to hit you now.”

The two [Spearmasters] wrestled for Lulv’s spear. The Gnoll looked at the Gecko as Sserys whirled.

Keep that idiot off me! Luciva—

He tore forwards. Then a Human checked Sserys to the ground with one arm. The young woman fell as Lulv and Relc looked sideways. A living ball of bandages knocked Sserys flat, and the Drake cursed.

“Who the hell—hey! Give that—”

The Potion of Regeneration splashed over a face, and the King of Destruction crowed as Orthenon and Gazi stormed through Manus’ ranks. Sserys backed up, cursing.

“Damn. Nevermind—”

“I have returned!”

The King of Destruction tore the bandages from his face, and no one paid attention to him. A Drake and Gnoll locked gazes, and Lulv drew a dagger. He stabbed, and Relc had to let go. The Gecko bounded back, and two [Spearmasters] faced each other.

They had never fought. Spearmaster Lulv was the son of Manus; Relc a veteran of Liscor. Completely different in their roles. Lulv could lead entire forces and fought alone, a champion. Relc ran into the enemy and took them out, but he wasn’t Lulv’s level.

—But he was a specialist. [Officer Headhunter Mode]. Lulv ignored the bodies of the dead clawing at his feet, but he shifted his stance, keeping back. His [Spear Arts] could destroy enemy formations.

Relc’s—

[Triple Thrust]. The Drake struck three times, and Lulv took a hit. It was almost impossible to dodge and block three simultaneous strikes. Even so—

[Spear Art: Fangs of the Dire Wolf]!

The Gnoll tore up the earth, going for a leg and Relc’s shoulder. The Drake leapt, striking the ground with his spear and launching himself up. A [Spearmaster]’s contempt for the ground.

Got you. Lulv broke off the Spear Art and aimed up.

[Hurricane Stabs]! [Impact Spear]!

Relc blocked a flurry, but the sheer force of the blows knocked him backwards, and Lulv kept up the attack as Relc landed, hammering him, striking his armor, his body.

The adamantium-tipped spear tore open Relc’s scales, but the Gecko had a body like steel! And Relc—

He knew he was underleveled. A [Whirlwind Dodge] nearly got him killed as Lulv hit him mid-dodge, but Relc was activating his Spear Dance. Lulv dodged away, countering with a dance of his own.

He saw Relc stepping towards him, spear tracing an arc like a leaping fish while the Gnoll countered with a far more direct dance. What Lulv didn’t expect was for Relc to drop his spear mid-dance. His claws flashed up—

And he grabbed Lulv’s spear mid-thrust. The other [Spearmaster] jerked, but they were fighting for Lulv’s spear again. The Gnoll cursed, but he didn’t dare let go of the spear to grab another weapon. He tried to toss Relc back and saw the Drake pull back his head.

The headbutt made Lulv’s head ring. The Gnoll began to bite, roaring—and the Gecko tore one fist free. In response, Lulv grabbed a second dagger and put it in Relc’s shoulder.

The Gecko slammed his fist into Lulv’s face. Once, twice—and Lulv realized his mistake. He wasn’t engaging in a masterful dance of the spear with the Gecko. Tekshia Shivertail was arguably better than Relc, if no longer as strong. But he was—

Brawling with the Gecko of Liscor. And the [Sergeant] promptly kneed Lulv in the groin, gave him another headbutt, and broke Lulv’s nose. The snarling Gnoll could keep fighting for his spear or—

Relc’s spear. He thrust Relc back, let go of his spear, and leapt for the anti-magic spear. Just in time to see it flash past him.

“[Recall Weapon]. Now I have two spears.”

The Gecko of Liscor grinned as Lulv turned. The [Spearmaster] saw Relc put them together awkwardly, like a single oversized spear.

“Damn. This is weird. Come on, Lulv. Let’s…”

Relc saw the Gnoll back up and run. The Gecko shouted after him.

Get back here, you coward!

Then he checked himself. That was what he would do and…grab a spear and ambush Lulv. The Gecko halted in his run. He looked around for Sserys and cursed. Then he raised Lulv’s spear. He had an idea.

“Hey, you! Catch!”

The Gecko threw Lulv’s spear like a javelin and nearly ran through Infinitypear’s foot. The Worker carrying Rasktooth jerked back, and Relc pointed.

Don’t let anyone take that.

Lulv might come back—but he lost his fancy spear. Relc charged after Sserys.

 

——

 

Lulv had, in fact, done what any good [Soldier] did. Instead of fighting Relc, he had retreated to Luciva’s side. He arrived just in time to see that young woman, who was supposed to be an [Innkeeper], storming her bodyguard.

Protect the Dragonspeaker!

Liscor’s own fought with Manus’ bodyguard, and the entire army was surging towards them—but Luciva motioned Lulv back. She faced the young woman, eyes narrowed.

“Who ar—”

The grinning swordswoman lunged at her so fast that Parentkiller, the glaive of Manus, barely had time to block it. Luciva blocked, knowing that she was slower with the long glaive. And the Human was an expert!

Who was she? This wasn’t Erin Solstice. Luciva saw a glowing ring flashing on the young woman’s hand as she abandoned her two-handed grip. She grabbed the glaive, and then they were face-to-face. Struggling as Luciva caught the sword.

You…I know you.

She stared into what should have been slitted eyes. And that familiar presence…Sserys hissed at Luciva.

“You really haven’t changed, Luciva. But you’re not much smarter than the last Dragonspeaker. Look at Manus. You should have stayed a [General].”

That voice. That…condescension? Luciva wavered.

“Who—”

The Necromancer is alive, you idiot.

In the middle of the battlefield, Sserys watched the glowing ring he’d taken from Chaldion and saw Luciva’s face waver. She almost let him stab her—but the two kept wrestling as Sserys spoke.

“I am General Sserys from the grave, and I came here to tell you everything. The Necromancer killed Zel Shivertail, not the Goblin Lord. I will have you avenge him.”

Spearmaster Lulv was about to leap in, but Luciva whirled. She began to call out, then realized what Sserys’ ring was doing. She lifted a hand, and Sserys did not run her through. She made a quick gesture, and the Gnoll’s eyes went wide. The fighting drew back as the two continued to ‘fight’.

Sserys?

The Drake faced the [Spear of the Drakes] as Sserys looked around.

“We don’t have much time. Deploy a [Time Slow] Skill or spell on me now if you have one. We need a chat.”

He had a date with every leader or Drake who mattered he could find. So far, he’d met two, and the Admiralty of Zeres were next. Sserys had seriously considered killing this Wall Lord Dragial, but someone had done it for him.

He broke out of Manus’ ranks as Dragonspeaker Luciva wavered with the revelations Sserys had spilled as fast as he could. Whether she believed him—whatever came next—

She knew who needed to be avenged. Even if enemies were trying to spy on Luciva and him, Sserys doubted anyone could maintain the spell during a battle with so much magic flying about. But he didn’t bet on one Drake.

There you are.

Sserys had no more Potion of Regeneration. That damn Human—Sserys felt Erin’s body struggling to keep up with him. But he made it leap nearly ten feet up so he could drop on the purple-scaled Drake.

Erin—

Ilvriss hesitated, and Sserys took him off his horse with one arm snapping around the neck. The two crashed to the ground, and the [Spear of the Drakes] laughed.

You’re not bad.

Someone had trained this Wall Lord in the sword or he had seen a battlefield. But he hesitated. He knew Erin Solstice. That was his undoing. Sserys stepped around him, striking out, and Ilvriss parried the blow—but missed the stomp on his tail until it was too late. He went down as Sserys pinned the tail and knocked him flat with another kick.

Liscor’s underhanded fighting beat even experts in the blade. The Drake tried to get up.

Who are—

Sserys had heard that question from a dozen mouths all day long. Just like with the other officers he’d found, he activated the ring. Then he straddled the Drake’s breastplate, pinning the arms.

A young woman bent down.

Listen up, idiot. I’m General Sserys. Shut up and listen. The Necromancer is alive.

He activated his skill as the Supreme General of the Walled Cities, his technical rank, forced the Drakes around him to back away. Ilvriss stared into Sserys’ eyes.

“The—?”

“The Necromancer. Is. Alive. Keep it a damn secret. His minions are everywhere. The Necromancer killed Zel Shivertail, and I will have you—”

Sserys’ greatest desire, vengeance, was warring with his need to…leave something behind. They were not ready for anything that was coming, and even he didn’t know all of it. The six…he had been hiding in Izril, not learning what Erin Solstice knew.

Nor was he prepared for Ilvriss’ eyes to go wide and for him to hiss back.

I know.

Sserys blinked, and the orders he’d been about to give next—which went along the lines of slapping every idiotic mistake into each Walled City’s head—halted on his tongue.

“Really? And are you…hm.”

He looked at Wall Lord Ilvriss. The [Spear of the Drakes] grinned. The leader of every Drake’s eyes lit up.

Oh yes. You’re one of Izril’s kids, alright. Not a minion. You figured it out? No…are you that ponce that Zel told me about?”

“Zel? General Sserys?”

“Wonderful.”

The Human began to laugh, then she patted Ilvriss on the chin as Nerul tried to stride forwards and found himself locked into place. He watched, eyes flickering with confusion as she leaned down to whisper like…a lover? Or like a [General] imparting secrets. But rumors just saw Erin Solstice sitting on Ilvriss’ chest in the middle of a battlefield.

They didn’t hear the Drake’s voice as she whispered in Ilvriss’ earhole. In perfect secrecy, or as much as he could gain, the [Spear of the Drakes] spoke to only the Wall Lord of Salazsar.

“Zel told me you had potential, which is more than I can say for many idiots he met. I was hoping to meet you. So listen up: I’m going to tell you something I won’t tell even Luciva and Chaldion. Especially not the Cyclops or the finest war-idiot from Manus. I have walked the lands of the dead. I have talked to the ghosts of great Drakes. I know where the Walled Cities are.”

Ilvriss’ eyes went wide. Sserys winked.

“Not all of them have what you need—but there are enough. Listen closely and find a map. Maybe write this down because I won’t be around after this. Get some shovels.

 

——

 

The secrets of Izril. A last mission from the [Spear of the Drakes]. A future, a warning from General Sserys of Liscor.

That was what he left behind. But the Gnoll left only death.

Chieftain Xherw was still alive. Despite the death, despite tribes abandoning him or falling—he was still empowered by luck.

He was killing Silverfangs now. No one could stand against him. Not Wer, who retreated, covered in wounds, not Torishi, sent to her end by Belavierr.

No one. Luck ran through him without end. And Belavierr was standing, gloating as she looked at the pink carriage. The two only looked about when they saw the Antinium appearing.

Belavierr stopped laughing and edged behind the Plain’s Eye Gnolls when she saw the warriors of faith. But she was bound to fight until her life was in danger. She was still the Stitch Witch. Oldest of all!

Then…she felt someone’s gaze upon her. The [Witch] turned, and someone cut through the battlefield straight at her. A man with tired eyes and plain clothing. Yet…done so delicately that she might almost call it a fine garment.

Slowly, the [Witch] felt a moment of unease creeping up her back. She looked at the sword that Doubte held. Then she recognized him.

Not his face, for they had never met. Nor his legend, for it was far too small and far too young. But Belavierr locked eyes with Doubte of Zethe and backed up a step.

“Oh. Oh. A [Hero]. How troublesome.”

The [Hero] of Zethe looked up at her.

“[Witch]. We stand at calamity’s door, and you kill while laughing. For you—I will take up arms once more.”

Belavierr’s uncertainty turned into an expression of mocking disdain. She flicked her hand and lifted it, an enchanted razor held between each finger.

I have heard that boast from a thousand [Heroes] before you. Your bones will be the foundation of my magic, boy.”

“Not this time, Belavierr Donamia. You have drunk too deeply of immortality at any cost. Even I despise you and call you a traitor to your class. Traitor to the woman who traded her soul to be called the Witch of Webs.”

Slowly, the Stitch Witch shifted her gaze left. She saw someone she recognized, for once. Those eyes never changed. The face always did, but the soul of the Quarass of Ger…

“Quarass. Is that the Serkonian Lance? Do you aim spells at me again? I will take that staff from your bones and hold your ghost in a prison of heartstring.

The Quarass came to a halt on Belavierr’s other side, and now the [Witch] turned warily to face the Quarass as Doubte nodded to her. Two foes, then. The others had realized the futility of their struggle. Belavierr’s lips drew back, no longer confident, and a final voice spoke.

Foul little hat-woman. This [Vizir] Hecrelunn mocks your false arrogance. Khelt shall humble you.

A Revenant floated down out of the skies, and Belavierr looked from [Hero] to Quarass to [Vizir]. She cursed in one of the old languages, and the words stained the air.

Come, then, broken [Hero]! Bones of a mere servant! Quarass in a child’s body!

She raised her arms and grew until she was taller than Moore, an immortal who drew a sword of her own and blocked Doubte’s slash, who shrieked in fury as Hecrelunn conjured fire from the skies to burn her, who matched the Quarass spell for spell.

 

——

 

Three-on-one, and Belavierr refused to fall to them. She was still the greatest legend.

But she was pressed, and Xherw no longer had her shadow. He didn’t care. He advanced, and his eyes were locked on one of the Gnolls he blamed for everything.

“Satar! Get back!”

Chieftain Akrisa cried out as the young Gnoll turned. Silverfang turned as Plain’s Eye drove into their heart. Beilmark, fighting alongside Krshia, even Rose shooting wildly with a wand.

The [Storyteller] looked up as Xherw charged her, two hatchets glowing. She flung up her arm with a cry, and Cetrule swung his staff forwards.

The [Shaman of Purity] struck Xherw with a glancing blow that shattered an amulet. Poisons vanished on the blades of Plain’s Eye’s warriors. Cetrule, garb hanging with beads of silver, a fang of metal around his neck, saw the staff break as Xherw swung an axe into it.

He had no dagger left. So Cetrule seized the fang of silver and drove it into Xherw’s shoulder, drawing a single gash of blood. The first [Shaman] of Silverfangs looked at his stepdaughter, Satar, as he pushed her back. Xherw swung the axe into Cetrule’s heart, and the Gnoll seized his arm, trying to hold him down.

Cetrule!

Satar screamed as Xherw whirled on her. Akrisa raised her bow, howling, but the string snapped, and the bow exploded. Satar backed up, looking at the bloodsoaked fur and wild eyes of Xherw. He raised both axes to leap at her, and Cirediel exhaled.

A stream of acidic poison ran over Xherw and three Gnolls. Three dropped, screaming, clawing at their eyes, but Xherw shook the poison off and howled. The Dragon lunged, his scales glowing as he swung a sword wildly.

I’ve got—

He gagged on the words, stared down at the axe in his chest. The Dragon stumbled back as Xherw wrenched the blades free, and Oteslia’s army charged. Cire clutched at his chest. He was a Dragon. He…

His true body was too large for Xherw to kill in a single blow. The [Chieftain] stared at the hole in Cire’s chest. Xherw went for Satar again, but Cire tackled the [Historian]. Then he grabbed her, and his wings spread.

Hold on!

He flew for a dozen feet and screamed as Xherw threw one of the hatchets through a wing. He crashed down as the First Gardener screamed.

Cirediel! Oteslia—

They were engaged with Zeres on one side, the Gnolls on the other. Drakes surrounded Cirediel as Xherw abandoned Satar, snarling. He looked around.

Belavierr! Kill the Drakes! Kill—

He saw the Stitch Witch staggering. Doubte had drawn blood. But the [Witch] was conjuring a dark ritual. Her hand began to drag open a portal in the air where something was waiting—until a beast as large as she tore into her arm.

Nalthalistrelous leapt on the [Witch], and the [Druid]’s bestial form tore at her until she threw him off. Xherw saw Oteslia flooding forwards to protect the Silverfang tribe.

Where’s Mrsha? Where’s—

They were all looking for someone. Xherw turned, seeking her as well. He saw the little Gnoll, now protected by her people, and pointed.

Kill the Doombringer!

His warriors looked across the battlefield towards the girl surrounded by Salazsarian Drakes, Gnolls of the Wild Wastes, Weatherfur, the Antinium, and even Goblins. One [Shamanic Warrior] lowered a bloody axe.

“Chieftain…”

“Kill the Doombringers! Kill them all! Kill the traitorous tribes and the Drakes.”

Xherw howled back. The Daemon of Luck writhed behind him as he pointed to it, still weeping.

“We have fate and fortune on our sides! Plain’s Eye will not fail! Fight!”

The [Chieftain] threw himself at the First Gardener, who put herself in front of Cire and Satar. Oteslia’s finest closed ranks, and a single Human in the midst of them cried out.

You wretched monster!

Xherw ignored Lyonette du Marquin, having no knowledge of the [Princess]’ class or her motherhood of Mrsha. But Lyonette looked at the monster who’d been trying to kill her daughter and attacked.

Not Xherw. Nor his bodyguard. Lyonette du Marquin could use a sword about as well as Cire, even though she’d been taught. But she took aim, and her [Flawless Attempt] at a slash was aided by the strange halflight along her blade.

The [Princess] cast a spell. One of a handful she had ever learned. Taken from the spellbook that Krshia Silverfang had presented to the Meeting of Tribes.

[Silverglow Enchantment]. An enchantment of old that allowed warriors like Thronebearers to battle spirits.

The magic flickered along Lyonette’s blade as she half-cast the spell. Even with [Flawless Attempt]—she didn’t practice the magic. But she knew it was the only way to stop this Gnoll.

The Daemon of Luck was impervious to even regular spells, let alone steel. Lyonette cut at it, hacking at the amalgamation of dead white Gnolls. And she hit it.

A shallow gash on that huge shape. Lyonette felt her blade meet some kind of resistance—she wavered as Xherw’s head slowly turned around. The [Princess] cut again and again desperately.

“No—no—”

She thought she had it! But Lyonette saw the sword only cut the Daemon ever-so-slightly. It was nearly sixteen feet tall, a creature made of the dead.

Her sword—and even the spell—wasn’t going to kill it. And she had just attracted Xherw’s attention. The [Chieftain] whirled. He began to charge her way when someone seized Lyonette’s shoulder. A huge, callused hand raised a sword of its own and drove it deep into the Daemon’s side.

Not like that. You don’t need magic. Believe it will be cut and you can cut anything in this world. You don’t know your class. Your aura is all you need.”

The [Princess] started, and her head turned up to a Human face, full of red and gold hair. The marks of royalty—at least in Terandria. Lyonette du Marquin’s mouth opened wide, and the King of Destruction looked at the 6th Princess of Calanfer. He lifted his sword, and Xherw leapt.

Flos met him in a clash of blades with such force that the Gnoll went flying. The King of Destruction laughed and pointed.

Orthenon! Gazi! To me! End this tribe of traitors while I slay this spirit.

A Gazer in cracked armor leapt forwards as the [Ruinbringer Steward] rode down on the Plain’s Eye Gnolls. Orthenon whirled a spear as the King of Destruction and two of his vassals appeared on the battlefield.

“Y-you’re him.”

Flos Reimarch winked one huge eye at Lyonette, delighted as could be.

“And you are Calanfer’s [Princess]! I have seen the Eternal Throne, and I recognize your aura. How came you to this battlefield? No—time for talk later. This thing dies.

Flos’ blade rose, and it cut into the Daemon. The spirit of luck didn’t walk or move its limbs. It just drifted after Xherw, and the wound Flos had left produced a trail of what Lyonette could only describe as ether…the very essence of that being. The King of Destruction frowned.

“For a Naq-Alrama blade! Will I have to hack it apart? With me, [Princess]. What is your name?

“Lyonette—”

The two raised their swords as Lyonette tried to copy Flos. Xherw was charging up the hill and trying to stop them. Even now—Orthenon’s steed threw a shoe as the [Steward] tried to charge him.

This was ridiculous. Lyonette knew they wouldn’t be able to cut it down before Xherw was on them, and sure enough, Flos lowered his blade and turned to face the [Chieftain].

“It has no head nor heart. If this was another battlefield, I would see if someone had a Djinni. Stand behind me, Lyonette of Calanfer.”

He grimly strode downhill towards Xherw as Gazi held back the bodyguard. The Gnoll [Chieftain] had luck on his side, and he was every bit the warrior Flos was. Lyonette looked over and saw the King of Destruction waver. Then curse.

Raelt! This is my foe!

Too late. A second [King] stepped behind Xherw and nearly ran the [Chieftain] through. Flos leapt down the hill as Xherw whirled, and then two [Kings], the King of Destruction and King of Duels, were attacking him.

The luck blazed brighter. Flos swung his blade into Raelt’s, and the duelist stepped into a cluster of Drakes. Lyonette realized it was up to her, but she didn’t know how to kill that thing fast enough.

And perhaps…the [Princess] heard a voice speaking thoughtfully. She turned and saw a crown sitting on a young woman’s head. A silver bell chimed as Jecaina, the Arbiter Queen, looked up.

“Perhaps we’ve all been fools who think we can solve everything with a sword. It weeps. I don’t know if this thing lives, but I don’t think it loves what it is doing, do you?”

Lyonette looked at Jecaina in awe, then stuttered.

“It—it’s Doombearers! White Gnolls! They don’t want to do this. That monster killed them.”

The Daemon of Luck turned, and dozens of dead eyes regarded Lyonette for a moment. The [Princess] flinched, but the weeping tears of luck seemed to intensify. Jecaina drew in a breath.

She was the [Queen] of Jecrass. The Arbiter Queen, people called her. The young ruler who had prevailed in the dark hour of Jecrass not by virtue of her ability with the sword or charisma—but because she was able to listen to advice. Because she had consulted other rulers.

Because she thought. Jecaina’s hazel-green hair blew as she lowered her sword. She looked up at the Daemon of Luck and spoke.

“I see it now. You—Daemon!”

She called up to it as Flos and Raelt fell back before the onslaught of the luckiest Gnoll in the world. Lyonette saw those heads turn and the shambling horror, the creation of dead Doombearers…look at Jecaina. The Arbiter Queen lifted her free hand.

You think. You weep. You are made of death and treachery. But—I do not think you are free. I see you tethered to that Gnoll.”

She pointed down at Xherw, and the Plain’s Eye Chieftain looked up in sudden alarm. He began to run at Jecaina, but Flos and Raelt grabbed him and hurled him back. Jecaina kept speaking, her eyes rising, and Lyonette felt the air begin to tremble.

The Plain’s Eye tribe was trying to stop them. Lyonette raised her sword, and Jecaina turned warily, but the Thronebearters of Calanfer, all four of them, closed ranks. They tangled with six Gnolls, shouting. Dalimont wavered as he blocked a mace, and Sest fell, cursing and keeping a pair of mithril claws from his throat. But they threw themselves in front of their [Princess].

Lyonette was trying to save Sest when a Drake covered in dark armor leapt on the back of the first Plain’s Eye Gnoll. She stabbed so fast that the Gnoll was dead, and the others barely had time to turn before Shriekblade, the Named Adventurer, was on them.

There you are. I came to save you.”

The Drake gave Lyonette a quick glance as the [Princess] stuttered.

“Y-you?”

But then Shriekblade, Tessa, was fighting next to the Thronebearers of Calanfer for the person who’d brought Faerie Flowers to her. And that—that was all the opening Jecaina needed. She had focused on the Daemon of Luck again, and now she cried out in ringing tones, standing as she had before the eyes of the world more than once.

With a dignity that defied age. The weight of a [Queen] and judge.

I am the Arbiter Queen of Jecrass! By the class given to me, by my judgment…I call upon the world as my witness! I call upon the [Kings] of Chandrar, the [Hero] of Zethe, a [Princess] of Calanfer, and the Quarass to hear me! [Chieftains] of the Meeting of Tribes, deliver judgement!”

Her voice began to ring across the battlefield, and those royal figures turned. Gnolls looked up from where they fought. Akrisa, holding Cetrule’s body, Gireulashia, Chieftain Eska, fighting with Inkar and Tkrn, all the Gnolls still living.

Lyonette’s eyes locked on Jecaina, and the young woman opened her palm.

“[Arbiter’s Judgment: Every Nation’s Judge]. I call you a slave. And I say no Gnoll or person shall be your captor. Be free. Rulers of Chandrar and Terandria—what say you?

The King of Destruction hesitated—then he and Raelt thrust their blades into the air.

By Reim, let it be done!

In Jecrass’ name, yes!

The Quarass of Ger looked at Jecaina with an expression of surprise and rare respect. She raised her hand. Trey Atwood, casting spells from the cover of the Illuminary, looked up as Gnolls howled and raised their paws or blades.

Xherw screamed, but Queen Jecaina stood there, facing the Daemon. Rasea Zecrew lifted her head and laughed as the Daemon shivered.

Everyone saw the bonds holding it break. A thin line of blood and treachery, shackles that Plain’s Eye had made over it—as thin as an idea, as solid as the earth—shattered. The Arbiter Queen broke the Daemon of Luck’s bonds, and that sad, despairing spirit sighed.

It looked down at Xherw, the Plain’s Eye tribe, and the unnatural glow of invincibility around Xherw faded. His confidence, his source of power—

Vanished in an instant. That Daemon, that being of dead Doombringers and fate, looked at Jecaina as she saluted it with her rapier, eyes shining with sympathy.

It bowed to her. To her—and Lyonette—and looked across the Meeting of Tribes.

At Mrsha. At Wer, raising his head. At Qwera, reaching out to hold those poor children and innocent Gnolls. And the dead lips…smiled. The Daemon gazed up at the sky and sighed again, louder.

Every single voice in its being relaxed. They sighed, and the Daemon vanished. For a moment, those thousands of Gnolls were not tortured, but standing there, looking around, joining the dead.

White Gnolls, with pale fur. Survivors and heroes and some traitors and villains. But each one just a Gnoll. They pointed at their kin—and the stored luck of the Plain’s Eye tribe returned to Gnolls. It rained down over Fetohep and Khelt, and it made the world—

Change.

 

——

 

Despair in Khelt’s finest hour. [Mages] who had served their kingdom every day in joy found themselves wanting now as they knelt over the greatest magical ritual the world had known in thousands of years.

It wasn’t working. They were fueling it with every treasure of Khelt, but the magic…wasn’t working.

Something was wrong. It was almost done, but the endless checking over every part had ceased a month ago and there was something wrong. The [Mages] couldn’t find it. They had been trying to activate it for two whole days, and the weary [Grand Mage] was calling for more draw-stones of liquid gem, magicore, when the helper carrying the basket ran into something.

A dog, a damned dog, had gone bounding into the ritual site, following its nose, perhaps to the food the [Mages] had been eating. The helper tripped over the dog, and the stones went flying.

No!

A dozen [Mages] dove, but half the stones went clattering down anyways. The [Grand Mage] stopped a cluster mid-flight and saw the other ones…curve improbably in midair. He stopped and stared as they landed, hitting the ritual site in precise locations. A splash of magicore fell down in a pattern.

“In the name of Khelt—”

The [Grand Mage] lifted a trembling hand and slapped himself. Then he looked at the ritual and felt the blockages suddenly—fill with power.

“The ritual is activating! Your Majesty!”

Khelt began to shake as the ritual suddenly burst into life. The wisdom of [Archmages], the magic of Khelt. And…a lot of luck.

 

——

 

The Plain’s Eye tribe met its doom as their captive was freed. Without luck, the Gnolls looked up and saw only their enemy.

The shattered lies and their people, who would never follow them again. At the end of it all, one Gnoll kept fighting.

Chieftain Xherw stood upon a hill, fangs bared, coated in blood, lashing out, calling out for the Doombringers. To slay them again and begin this tale once more.

The King of Destruction, Flos Reimarch, hefted a sword onto his shoulder.

“Wretched [Chieftain]. I have known many fools, but none so pathetic as you. Let us make an end to this.”

He began to stride forwards when a paw shoved him back. Flos Reimarch recoiled.

“Who dares…?”

He looked into brown eyes. Dark brown fur, and Chieftain Akrisa Silverfang pushed Flos back.

“King of Destruction. Stand back. This is our battle. We are Gnolls. This is our tale, not yours.”

Flos opened his mouth to protest and then saw the figures walking up that hill onto the bloody grass. He lowered his blade as Xherw turned, and his eyes fixed on them.

Chieftain Akrisa. Chieftain Eska. Chieftain Orelighn. Gireulashia. Merish. Adetr Steelfur. Chieftain Mrell…

I have tried to save our people. What have you done?”

Not one Gnoll answered him. They had no speeches. They raced up that hill, and the Plain’s Eye Chieftain stuck a blade into Adetr’s shoulder. Gireulashia tore the other axe from his grip. Xherw threw Orelighn down the hill, struck another Chieftain hard enough to crack their skull.

But the Gnolls kept coming. They dragged him down, but the pile of bodies were flung apart as Xherw tossed them aside like feathers. He dragged a dagger out of his belt, and Merish grabbed his arm. The [Shamanic Warrior] struggled with his [Chieftain].

Xherw’s eyes locked on Merish. Betrayal, desperation—and even now, he believed what he had done was right.

“Our ancestors will judge my noble intentions, Merish. It could have been another thousand years.”

He was so strong. That mad light—he didn’t feel his wounds. He was their great [Chieftain].

Still, Merish fought. He wrestled with Xherw for the knife. His mind was blank with grief. All he could whisper was…

“No, Chieftain.”

Xherw’s look of satisfaction faded. Merish’s arm trembled as he grabbed the dagger with one paw. The edge cut him down to the bone, but he slowly wretched it out of Xherw’s grip. Then they were falling, rolling down the hill, and Merish put the blade against Xherw’s throat. The point dug into the flesh and fur, and he drove it deeper. He told the Gnoll what he should have heard long ago, but he had been deaf.

No, Xherw. There’s no redemption or forgiveness for some things. Not this.

The [Chieftain] blinked at Merish. His arms trembled as he tried to keep the knife away. He heaved—but Merish was heavier than Xherw and younger. And Xherw was tired. He looked around for the miracle he had always known was there…

But there was no more luck. No more excuses. Merish drove the knife into Xherw’s throat and tore it left. Blood gushed from Xherw’s neck.

Even so. Even so, he kept moving a while. He threw Merish back and lifted the dagger, tearing it out of his own body. His lifeblood covered Merish as the Gnoll looked up at Xherw.

The Plain’s Eye Chieftain stared into that sorrowful gaze and then around. Breathless, he stood and gazed around at the ruined Meeting of Tribes. He looked for his people and found only…Gnolls fighting, fleeing.

Only Drakes and undead. Xherw turned, stumbling. He was still searching for something when he fell forwards. Merish sat up and howled. In pain. In despair.

In relief.

 

——

 

Fissival had been divided in two by the Fable of the Forests. Now, the Gnoll tribes watched Plain’s Eye breaking apart without luck or their leader.

They turned, weary and bloody, to the rest of their foes. Zeres, Fissival, Manus. Oteslia and Khelt’s armies held down the City of Waves.

But the City of War was advancing despite Liscor gnawing at them. Even Sserys’ orders could not overturn Manus’ desire to see their enemies dead.

Targets. The King of Destruction, the Centenium, and old tribes like Gaarh Marsh, Weatherfur.

“Cowards. Wretched, pathetic, weaselly—Manus!

Lyonette du Marquin struggled with language to express her fury. She pointed a sword down the hill, and the King of Destruction?

He laughed. Lyonette turned pale with shock as Orthenon, the Steward, Gazi Pathseeker, one eye following Lyonette curiously, and the King of Destruction formed on her. The Thronebearers of Calanfer turned, but Ser Dalimont, Ser Sest, Dame Ushar, and Ser Lormel suddenly realized—

They were not alone. A hundred [Knights] rode into a line as the King of Destruction looked at the weary King of Duels.

Gnolls have bled enough this day. Here marches the City of War. Cousins from Terandria. Tribes of Liscor! I am the King of Destruction!”

He raised his arms as Raelt sighed, but Flos Reimarch would have his moment. He pointed down.

For just a second, for this battle—follow me and drive these cowards back behind their walls. You are the [Army of the King]!

Gnoll tribes turned and looked at that Human, and they saw him there. Lyonette’s mouth fell open, and the Drakes looked up in horror as the Humans followed Flos down the hill. Lyonette realized she was riding with him.

Calanfer’s Thronebearers, [Knights] of Terandria, and the Gnolls charging furiously into Manus’ heart. She saw Flos watching her. Looking down at the Drakes. She felt her heart racing out of her chest, more alive and more terrified than she had ever felt in her life. But she didn’t feel that famous Skill enveloping her. Flos Reimarch turned and winked once, with all the guile of…a [King].

Then they were streaming into the heart of the panicking Drakes, and the King of Destruction set foot on Izril at last in wrath and ruin, fighting side-by-side with the 6th [Princess] of Calanfer and the tribes of the Great Plains. The Gnolls turned and fell upon the Drakes. No tribe left to stand against them. The truth had won in the end.

The [Princess] saw a dozen different groups surging past her into that charge. A [Hero] leading a band of legendary [Pirates] into the chaos. A young man raising Golems of sand to protect a group of young men and women.

Then, as the Drakes of Manus tried to plunge towards her and slay the King of Destruction, a bolt of lightning shot down from the heavens. An electric song filled the air, and she turned. A Goblin shot an arrow past the King of Destruction and killed an Oldblood Drake about to breathe frost over Flos Reimarch. Lyonette turned, and a little white Gnoll waved at her.

The [Princess] threw herself from the saddle. She ran across the ground, forgetting the battle, abandoning the King of Destruction and everything else. She ran past Antinium who parted to let her through. Lyonette du Marquin opened her arms, and her daughter leapt into her chest, howling in relief. She swung Mrsha around, and then the world was right.

Lyonette du Marquin abandoned her sword and found her daughter at last. She never let go of Mrsha, even as the weary tribes began to gather, relieved by the forces from Chandrar, their enemies dead or forced back step by step.

Nokha’s head lay on the ground. Plain’s Eye began to flee, broken, and the Drakes fought a Great Company of Baleros, the King of Destruction, and [Knights] from Terandria as they slowly retreated.

Xherw was dead, and the last lies with him.

 

——

 

It was done. Plain’s Eye was broken. Shaman Ulcreziek fell to his knees and knew they would never be a tribe again.

The other Gnolls were hunting his people down. No…Plain’s Eye was turning on itself. For being responsible for this.

“My tribe. Everything—Belavierr! Witch of Webs!

He raised his head, and there she was. She watched Xherw die with that calm look in her eyes. She had seen greater tribes die.

“What do you wish, [Shaman]? Your cause is lost. But I will still fight. See?”

She wiggled her fingers, and a hundred threads dangled from them. Plain’s Eye warriors danced, corpses and the living, fighting like marionettes.

“Let them go. Please. Let them go. And—save my tribe. Save them from the doom we’ve brought upon ourselves.”

That was not our deal. No.”

The Spider giggled at him, and her mouth opened, but there was nothing but blackness inside. An inhuman grin, from ear to ear. Ulcreziek stared at her.

“What do you want? Name your price, and if I can give it—

The [Witch] considered his question. She began to shake her head—then her eyes brightened. Her eyes…focused on the eye that had been passed from [Shaman] to [Shaman].

Ulcreziek’s last eye shook as she pointed a finger at it.

I could use your eye. I lost one of mine. Give me…your eye, Gnoll. And I will save your tribe.”

The [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands] looked up at her. The Spider held out a hand.

Ulcreziek tasted nothing but bile and despair. But as he gazed at his dying tribe…he reached up and dug his paw into his skull.

His scream lasted for minutes. But when the [Witch] closed her hand, a blind Gnoll stumbled forwards. The Drakes of Manus had come to silence his voice. Eliminate a threat. He heard them nocking arrows.

Belavierr. You promised. Belavierr?

He could not see her in the blinding darkness. The first arrows struck his chest and shoulder, and Ulcreziek heard a whisper.

I always fulfill my promises.

Then the [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands] heard a shriek from the battlefield. A howl of terror and pain and loss from every throat. His head turned wildly, and he choked on his own blood.

Belavierr! What have you done? Belavierr?

He couldn’t see. She laughed at him as he crawled forwards. Ulcreziek fell still, reaching, not comprehending what had been done. He touched a shaking Gnoll’s head as the Drakes ran him through from above.

“Shaman dead. Target dead. Civilian. Take it?”

“Custody, yes, sir!”

The little Gnoll child howled in fear, but the Drakes didn’t kill them. Ulcreziek heard the voices, confused.

“Hold on…tell High Command we’ve got the other target. Mrsha or whatever it’s supposed to be. Look. White fur.”

White fur? The dying [Shaman] looked up and heard the [Witch]’s laughter in his ears. Then he knew.

The Plain’s Eye tribe knelt on the ground, staring at their fur. The Doombearers looked up as their kin halted. The last [Shaman] of Plain’s Eye lay there as the [Witch] fulfilled her promise. She marked them all with the same word they had hurled at so many.

Doombringer.

 

——

 

Then it was just one monster left, and she was no mortal Gnoll to despair for the death of her tribe. Rather, she rejoiced with every death. Each note of despair was part of her craft. Each deathblow a piece of magic rarer than any gemstone or artifact.

And she could not be killed.

Belavierr was fighting Wrymvr when she felt something happening. She was locked in combat with the Centenium, hissing at it.

You have severed your mortal strands. Show me how, creature.

“Strange. Human.”

The two were fighting, but even Wrymvr found Belavierr a challenge. Not because she was capable of hurting him; the needles that managed to penetrate his armor left wounds he healed from almost as fast as they cut.

But by the same token—his fangs and claws and blades couldn’t harm Belavierr. She was a poor fighter, even as she recalled all the tricks of war. The [Witch]’s power was always just—

Immortality. Everything had tried to kill her, and everything had failed. So Belavierr was preparing to hex the Antinium when her head turned.

“Hm? What has Khelt done now?”

She felt a magic so powerful it reached around the world emanating from the King of Khelt. The only ritual more powerful than that had been during the Summer Solstice. Belavierr stared at Fetohep. His undead were everywhere, being torn apart, but continuing to advance and rise.

In fact, even the dead were rising to fight for Khelt, but they posed little threat to her, or even the Walled Cities. They were just skeletons in armor, dangerous by the millions to mortal nations. Worthless since Khelt did not raise greater undead for fear of what they might do.

For instance, one such skeleton walked over to Belavierr as she teleported Wrymvr into the ground and forced the Centenium to tunnel upwards. Belavierr ignored it completely.

Luck was no longer on their side. She cared not. She was still not in mortal danger! The [Witch]’s lips curved. She would leave the people here with a legend of her to last ten lifetimes then reclaim her daughter from that wretched Necromancer. She was greater than Az’kerash! She…

…Looked around and saw the battle was lost. Plain’s Eye had surrendered, the white-furred Gnolls kneeling in despair. Xherw was dead. Ulcreziek was dead.

“It appears I have lost. No more Gnolls stand apart.”

Indeed—the tribes stood as one, as undead fought Drakes and the Walled Cities hesitated. Each Chieftain stood together over the corpse of Xherw, and Belavierr had no more allies.

So the Stitch Witch turned and casually began to stride away. She had sworn to fight for Plain’s Eye until she was in mortal peril. But if her employer were dead…

It was time to collect Maviola and be on her way. She counted her possessions greedily as she walked. A third of Plains Eye’s luck, pure thread for the greatest artifacts she could weave. So much death and emotion—

And a new eye! She plucked the copy of her old eye from her head, ignoring the pain, and inserted the eye of the [Shamans] of Gnolls.

Ah, what a wonder! I can see magic as they do!

Belavierr cackled in delight. She had only been wounded; even the Quarass could not slay her, and the [Hero] of Zethe had broken his blade cutting through her dress. She looked at the Named Adventurers, the undead of Khelt, and none dared challenge her.

Oh, they watched her, but none dared step forwards. Klbkch the Slayer held his blades at the ready as he and the Gecko faced her, guarding Mrsha. Belavierr just laughed as her eyes darted victory at the little Gnoll.

Do you see what your defiance cost you? Saliss of Lights clutched at a vial so hard it would break, but the Stitch Witch was just leaving in victory. In style. She passed by the broken carriage with the [Maids] and Reynold. Walked past the invisible Dragon. Smiled at Oteslia’s [Druids] mourning the dead. Even nodded at the Quarass, who was glancing at…

…What was that last bit? Belavierr slowed. Servants. [Druids]. And the…

Invisible Dragon?

Belavierr stopped. She slowly turned her head, and her forehead beaded with sudden, unexpected sweat. She felt…a hot breath on her, but only a few beings noticed the—the—

Dragonlord of Flame. The brass Dragon, crouched there, one eye of heliotrope, the other cerulean. Teriarch looked down at Belavierr, and to all but the Quarass and a handful of others, it seemed like Belavierr spoke to the air.

“Oh. Um. Hello. I have no quarrel with you.”

She tipped her hat very slowly to Teriarch.

They had met before. And Belavierr slowly, slowly reached for a thread of Dragon’s heartstring. A vial of poison a Quarass of old had sold her. She…did not want a conflict, though.

A smaller Dragon pretending to be a Drake and a [Maid] watched as the Dragonlord stared down at Belavierr. The Stitch Witch’s smile was frozen with uncertainty. She edged left, her Seven League Boots trying to activate.

Then he spoke. Only for her ears.

Belavierr the Weaver. You know me.”

“T-Teriarch. Lord of Flame?”

The Dragon rumbled like the wrath of the High Passes. His wings opened, and she braced herself. His eyes were fixed on her face.

“Yes. Do you recall what I said the last time we fought?”

Belavierr’s hand, about to unleash her greatest weapons—wavered. Teriarch glanced at Belavierr and then something behind her. She longed to turn her head, but for once—

The Stitch Witch was taken aback. Her mind raced. Her ancient memory flickered, and she felt a moment of—panic.

Wait a second. Wait…wait…she looked at Teriarch, and her lips moved.

“We have never quarreled. I would have remembered that.”

“No, no. We most certainly did. I remember it as if it were today. Do you remember what I said?”

“No. We never—”

The Dragonlord of Flame spoke one word. He exhaled, and his breath covered the Witch of Webs, ignited a thousand feet of the battlefield. A flame that went from the brightest white of creation to deep purple flame which swirled in the air. A fire of such magnitude that the fighting armies stopped to stare in awe at it.

It was breath, it was Dragonfire, and it was a word.

“Burn.”

A screaming [Witch] tried to reach for the vial, but the fire was burning her. She ran, flailing, and a river of water fell from the skies. Even then, the fire did not go out, and Belavierr shrieked. She turned to the Dragon, but he was already walking off.

“Dragonlord!”

He had burnt her! Burnt her possessions! Burnt her magic and soul!

The Stitch Witch would kill him! She would kill him and the Necromancer! Belavierr tore past the undead and—

Hesitated as she stared at the skeleton walking towards her. The invisible Dragon paused a moment as he headed towards the Dragonspeaker of Manus with Rafaema. He slowed…and to Belavierr’s curiosity, bowed his head low to a mere skeleton.

The Witch of Webs’ wrath abated for a second as she focused on the odd skeleton. A strange magic had come over the battlefield. This skeleton…it was one of many dressed in Khelt’s armor, but something was off about the way it walked.

It did not shamble. It had a strange, curious stride. Too brisk. Not like how an undead of its caliber should move.

It was the bones of some being, perhaps Human, but the typical blue-green ghostly flames had…changed. They had grown to a deep red and orange, like the center of a candle. Belavierr sensed something familiar from that skeleton.

“What…”

The skeleton halted before the gigantic [Witch], engorged on magic and cruelty. It put its hands on its hips and craned its neck up to stare at her.

It was just bones, but the posture was so familiar that it tickled at Belavierr’s memory. The way those eyes judged her. That impatient stride…and the way that woman would always look back to see if her meek daughter was following her.

Nanette. And then Belavierr knew.

“Califor?”

She whispered the name, and the [Witch] smiled with the bones of one of Khelt’s servants. Just…just a skeleton’s body. And she was a ghost! She was a ghost and had no power in the living world beyond her touch! Belavierr recoiled, but then smiled in relief, reaching for a soulcatching artifact.

She’d just capture Califor. It had been long since she had seized any ghost. Perhaps there was a way back? But everyone knew ghosts had only so much power in this world. That was their flaw. That was—

The skeleton was smiling at her. Then…then Belavierr sensed the magic. Califor’s craft engulfed Belavierr’s, and the Stitch Witch recoiled.

“Impossible. You are dead.

“Yes, I am, Belavierr. Dead by your design. By weft and web and wretched threat, to quell a blaze. For my daughter’s life, I burned. Now—it is your turn.”

Califor, the great [Witch] of her age, lifted a hand. Her eyes sparked—

And the fire that had engulfed her burst into flame across Belavierr’s body. Califor’s death-flame engulfed the Witch of Webs, and Belavierr screamed again. But then she pulled at the fire, and it came away from her like a veil.

She had refused it. This was no Dragonfire. She turned, snarling, and looked into those eyes. Then Belavierr realized her mistake. She walked this battlefield mocking the mortals. Now came a [Witch] for a witch’s war.

 

——

 

Califor’s gaze sucked Belavierr into a witch’s body. The Stitch-Witch looked around. Then she looked down, and realized she was riding her steed.

She looked behind her, and the land was burning. She tasted smoke in the air and despair on her lips. A mother’s determination.

Only then did she see Riverfarm burning. Only then did she hear those words on her lips.

“Come, flame, I offer my magic and craft. I offer a [Witch]’s bones, a mother’s love! I offer my life to turn your wrath! So come and burn away. That my daughter might live one more day.”

Califor—Belavierr—tried to unsay them. She tried to force herself out of the body. Then she felt the heat of a wildfire’s blaze engulf her. She began to scream, racing across the ground, a living torch.

Her death, given to Califor. Belavierr burned until the body was ash. But the [Witch] did not die that easily. A fiery death. A great witch’s end.

A—

 

——

 

Belavierr stumbled and fell to the ground, unharmed, yet writhing, burning. Califor stared up at Belavierr as the Stitch Witch rose, shaking. The pain of dying ran through her, but the [Witch] still stood. She hissed, eyes dripping tears.

For those tears she would claim a vengeance beyond death.

“Califor! You—you will pay for that!”

Even in death, with the magic of vengeance, she wasn’t Belavierr’s equal! The Stitch Witch got up, panting, feeling her protections fraying. It was always fire. But—she saw the little skeleton standing there and raised a fist like the wrath of the hills to smite her.

An arm caught hers. The Stitch Witch hesitated. She turned and saw a skeleton, impossibly large, standing there. A giant of bones…but such was the presence of the Witch of Forests that the half-Giant’s ghost warped the air.

A face of gnarled root and wood opened in a smile. Belavierr’s look of rage turned to uncertainty at once.

“Witch Yithiuqess?”

“WITCH BELAVIERR.”

The Stitch Witch raised her hands, enveloping her form with the protections of great magic, tricks of artifice and guile. Yithiuqess, the Witch of Trees, raised one hand that had seen the last forests vanish.

She brought it down with the simplicity of the world falling and smote Belavierr a blow that shook the grass and cracked across the sky.

Belavierr went tumbling forwards and got up on hands and knees, no longer the giant she had been. She stood shakily, and another skeleton walked forwards, this one smiling like the sun. Belavierr turned to run, and for a moment, her hands turned to dying embers. She stared at the legacy of a flame even greater than Teriarch’s and froze.

A being made of dead ash walked forwards, the body burning away despite being a mere vessel. Witch Somillune, the Witch of Ash, stepped into place, and Belavierr feared to approach her. She turned to run the other direction and saw a smile of ivory.

The First Tide halted. It swirled around her, for she had known every sea. A [Witch] smiled like a shark, a Drowned Woman. Barsoijou. A maw opened in those deep waters, and Belavierr backed away.

She turned, and on each side there was a [Witch]. A stare of a thousand eyes fixed her into place as the [Witches] of the last coven gathered.

Eyes older than Belavierr saw her for what she was, her every imperfection, and threatened to turn the layers of immortality inside out. A Gazer who had gone to the very root of her kind’s creation opened one eye that was made of ten thousand, and Belavierr blinked and shielded her face. 

Vexcla, the Witch of Eyes. She inhabited a Gnoll’s corpse, but the thousand stares of her true being peeked out of those dead eyes. Belavierr turned to another whose smile was mischief, inviting Belavierr to stay for this trick. The other half of that smile promised a trick that even the Fae would call unkind if she fled. That smile that had terrified Ullsinoi into honesty, once. The consequences of every trickster and manipulator under a pointed hat.

They were in each corpse, like Revenants! With all the Skills and power they had held in life.

All their craft. All their knowledge. Belavierr began to shake. For—

The greatest [Witches] of every age looked down at Belavierr. And she was no longer sure her legend was unsurpassed. The last great coven spoke.

“Traitor Belavierr. You have slain your own kind. You have been as wretched as any [Witch] to ever live. You do not deserve your hat. We will be your judges. For it takes a [Witch] to hold a [Witch] to account.

Belavierr tried to back away, but the circle of [Witches] closed around her. Their eyes locked her into place, and the Spider of Terandria began to tremble.

“Even you gathered cannot unmake me so easily.”

Unmake you? We are not so wasteful as to throw your immortality away. Why would we be so kind? You must repay your debts, Belavierr. We charge you. We burden you. Listen to a debt of [Witches]. An oath older than you.

The Temptress tried to run, but it was too late. The [Witches] smiled unkindly at their kin. Slowly, the dead raised their hands and lifted pointed hats that had not been there a moment before.

 

——

 

The greatest miracle of the battlefield was occurring: the dead were coming back to life.

Not the undead. The true ghosts were walking into bodies, temporarily given the power of Revenants.

A working of death magic, the greatest minds of Chandrar, a gamble devised by no less than Khelta.

It came in the final hour of the deadlands. Seamwalkers surrounded the army of ghosts as they saw a way to the lands of the living. Khelta herself walked forwards as Queen Emrist and King Dolenm barred the way of a horror from the death of gods.

Go, Khelta.

She turned, and the rulers of Khelt stood upon Izril’s soil. In Chandrar, the last ghosts were fading away. Queen Xierca stood upon her palace, and they all felt her go. Khelta wept as she stepped into the body of an undead vessel. She raised her hand, looking north.

Erin Solstice. You have tarried far too long. I summon ye.”

She lifted her arms and began to call Erin’s spirit across the world. The dead fought, and those who had journeyed this long, abandoning Chandrar, descended into the hosts. Time…time to fulfill their last wishes.

Time to change this living world forever before their end. The dead fell before the living. That was always Khelt’s way. The First Queen of Khelt smiled, the [Queen of Necrocracy] of old days. She had never forgotten the truth so many of her kind did. Death and life needed each other. But one was gone forever.

 

——

 

“Xierca!”

A single man howled, the last ruler of Khelt. Fetohep, halberd in hand, faced the thief of Erin Solstice’s body. General Sserys turned as Fetohep pointed his halberd at his heart.

Enemy of Khelt and the dead—turn. I will see you suffer an age before you are destroyed, whatever you are.

The [Spear of the Drakes] raised his sword, eyes watchful.

“I am General Sserys of the Drakes. Son of Liscor. I am not your foe, whomever you are, you bag of bones.”

Fetohep’s eyes flashed, but his halberd wavered. That—was not whom he expected.

Fetohep. It isn’t our foe. Just a ghost. Drake—my gratitude upon you for protecting the body. I see now what you did. But your time is at an end. Erin Solstice cannot run nor hide any longer. I summon her.”

An undead body walked forwards, and Fetohep dropped to one knee. He raised his head, and she was nothing like the visions of her he had. No glorious woman in life, a [Necromancer] so gracious that she had made a glorious kingdom in death. Just…a rotted face. A bag of bones in truth.

But those eyes shone deep violet with the mastery of death and the wisdom of Khelta.

“Your Majesty.”

Slowly, the ghost urged him up, and her touch was light.

“Fetohep. You, like every ruler, have always had the right to stand beside me and speak as equals. You—more than any ruler have done all we could ask in this hour. See: you have delivered us our last hope.”

She lifted a frail hand, and Fetohep’s head turned. He saw them now. Undead who abandoned the ranks of his legions. Eyes shining with true knowledge. Secrets.

Power.

 

——

 

This entire battlefield was a disaster. Oteslia, traitors. Salazsar? Traitors. Fissival? Incompetents, and Manus wasn’t pulling their weight.

Sharkcaptain Femar knew it was time for Zeres to fix everything. His [Marines] were sortieing with him. First, they’d crush Khelt for attacking Zeres, then apprehend any Gnoll tribes. Most were standing down—

But what were those strange undead? One raised a delicate hand as she looked around, flicking her fingers in distaste at the armor she wore.

What a wretched body, without even the joys of taste. A disgrace for such a one as I.”

“Huh. Revenant.”

Femar swung his spear forwards, and the ghost recoiled in outrage. She lifted a hand, and the Sharkcaptain’s eye went wide as he felt an aura as vast as the sea itself parry his swing without even touching it.

The Immortal Tyrant of Nerrhavia’s Fallen turned her head, and two glowing points of outrage flared in her eye sockets.

You wretched thing.

She raised a hand, and Femar contemptuously raised his spear to block. Only to find…his arms wouldn’t move. He saw a thin, bony hand coming towards his face, palm outstretched.

Nerrhavia slapped the Sharkcaptain across the face. Femar had skin tougher than a shark’s. He had taken blows from Chieftain Reizet in battle without flinching. He—

His head jerked around, and a bruise slapped itself across his face. That slap hurt more than pouring Firebreath whiskey in a stab wound. He staggered, and Nerrhavia’s slap knocked him back a step.

In Zeres, the City of Waves, a Drake mother went sprawling across her house. A second Drake, her husband, slammed down the steps as a hand cracked him across the face. Two of Femar’s siblings went down, shrieking.

The Tyrant of Sands lowered her hand as she hit Femar’s entire family line. She was the greatest tyrant of her age. She pointed down at Femar as he rose.

“Little thing, I would neuter you and nail your genitals to the arch of your house if I had but the time to waste.”

“You—you—

The Sharkcaptain roared. He could have sworn he felt that thing hit his mother! And his father and—

His spear rose with his killing aura, and he locked on Nerrhavia with a furious roar. The immortal tyrant laughed in his face with contempt.

“You do not know whom you face, infant. Strike at me.”

She spread her arms wide, thrusting out a chest bare of anything but worn armor. Femar lifted his spear to destroy her—

And his [Dangersense] went off like a [Fireball]. Every [Dangersense] in Zeres’ army suddenly began to blare. The Serpentine Matriarch nearly threw herself out of her chair as, in her abode, a dozen floating scrolls of parchment appeared.

 

——

 

Queen Yisame, watching everything with her mouth open, holding the Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Etrikah, so tightly the old Fox Beastkin was protesting, suddenly jerked as a magical scroll unfurled itself.

She looked up as Etrikah gazed up and swore.

“What is—”

Dead gods and Zeikhal! We’re doomed!

The great sage screamed. For—hovering in the air was a glowing scroll. Conjured by a Skill, but written in an age long past. It was…

An enforcement scroll. Yisame’s eyes blurred down the page with practice, and she saw words and phrases leaping out at her.

 

…by the will of Nerrhavia, the Immortal Queen of…this region shall make war in perpetuity to any being who strikes…Femar, [Shark Captain] of Zeres and thusly the Walled City of Waves…failure to declare war is enforced by mass [Absorb Life] spells…

 

Etrikah came to the same conclusion as Yisame.

“The Tyrant of Nerrhavia!”

Scrolls were appearing before horrified rulers, city leaders—even on Baleros and Terandria. Each one listing the offending party—Femar—and the Walled City of Waves.

The monster who had lived over a thousand years was back! Yisame ran, screaming for her council, as Nerrhavia’s Fallen wailed.

 

——

 

Femar stared at hundreds of scrolls hovering in front of the smirking [Tyrant]. Contracts daring him to hit her.

He realized what many would in the coming moments. Femar was one of the great warriors of Izril and his age. He had ‘fought’ Khelt, who was busier saving Gnolls, and survived this long.

But now, as the dead reclaimed their stations?

He was outmatched.

“Come, little Drake. For your slight, I believe I will collect a bit of vengeance, even now. The end of the world is a fine time to revenge even the slightest grudge.”

Nerrhavia spoke, and with a snap of her fingers, a glowing crimson scroll made out of blood and skin appeared. She advanced, and Femar backed away, eyes wide with horror. He tried to run and found he couldn’t.

“[No One Leaves My Presence]. I can compel anything. I rule everything.

The smiling monster walked towards him. Femar choked.

“Asale. Asale!

He screamed quite pitifully to Nerrhavia’s delight. Warriors often did. She wondered what she’d make him do—throw himself off a cliff or doom his city to war? Or just exist for the rest of his life naked lest his scales flay themselves from his body?

She smiled to hide the flash of…there was no one here to stop her. Merindue had pushed her out of the way of a horror with too many mouths.

One last spite upon Drakes, then. In honor of all that fell, let them remember us.

The twisted tyrant’s smile widened as she reached out for Femar’s chest. Then a hand almost as thin as hers caught the grip. Nerrhavia sighed—but with amusement.

“You foolish Drake. You just doomed your Walled City.”

She turned her head lightly as the glowing contracts flickered—and went out? Nerrhavia turned her head.

“That’s imp—”

Admiral Asale of Zeres punched Nerrhavia, and the [Tyrant] fell backwards. She did not know how to take a punch—and it didn’t hurt since she had no nerves and this body was dead. She got up and stared at the Drake.

Femar, run!

The Admiral of the Supply faced Nerrhavia. Femar backed up—straight into the glowing gaze of a trembling giant larger than he was.

You—where is His-Xe? WHERE IS HIS-XE?

Salui grabbed Femar and slammed him into the ground. The [Champion of War] drew his axe as Femar got up.

Die! You’re real, so diediediediediediedie—

This was a disaster. Asale whirled, but he saw Femar fighting for his life. And behind him…the Drake’s scales prickled as Nerrhavia got up slowly.

“Curious. My Skills didn’t activate. Ah. Ahahaha. I know what you are.”

She pointed a finger at him, and the Drake turned calmly to face her.

“Levelless. Classless. One of the Rulebreakers. I didn’t think Drakes were smart enough to keep your kind around.

“One Admiral has always been levelless. Stand down.”

Asale whirled his spear up. He was panting. Breaking through her Skills was the hardest thing he’d ever done—and the Revenant didn’t even look worried. Nerrhavia laughed.

I’ve met your kind before, Drake. Your power is inconvenient—but you’re one Drake. [Summons of the Dread Tyrant: The Horror of Caexith]!

“Oh, Ancest—”

A screaming beast shot out of the air, imprisoned for thousands of years, as Nerrhavia laughed. She enjoyed the sight for a minute. Then she turned back to her task.

Her peers were coming into the bodies of the dead. Nerrhavia saw both living and dead in this moment, and the dead…

The Seamwalkers were everywhere. Some were snatching ghosts out of their bodies. They did not have time. Khelta was summoning Erin Solstice. Some ghosts were imparting their wisdom or gifts to the living, using Skills to change the battle.

Not Nerrhavia. She strode across the battlefield, everyone parting before her in a wave. She found her quarry and reached out with a hand to touch a being as dead as she.

However—even Kerash flinched as Nerrhavia looked straight into his eyes and the gaze of the true intelligence.

“[Words Only For You and Me]. Necromancer. I see you.

She whispered, and Az’kerash—wavered. He was not stupid enough to say ‘who are you’?

“What business do you have with me, spirit?”

Nerrhavia laughed lightly. She cast her eyes around the chaos. The dying ghosts. The end of death itself.

“I am Nerrhavia, the Tyrant of Chandrar. You know me. This is the end of ghosts. So we face oblivion or worse. But I am not too proud. My servants—to me!”

More ghosts flocked across the battlefield in stolen bodies. Allies. The Necromancer stared at Nerrhavia uncomprehendingly.

“What can I offer you?”

A vessel. Only a being as powerful as Khelta or the Witch of Webs could—take a soul. Trap it. We may face your mercies, but I will take any last harbor. Don’t you have…a soulprison?

Nerrhavia’s eyes glittered with glee as she glanced at the distracted Khelta. Az’kerash wavered as a bounty of the afterlife’s greatest souls presented themselves to him. He felt…for one of the first times in death…

Uneasy.

 

——

 

But it was done, the offer made. Belavierr found herself being beseeched by ghosts, even as the coven bound her with words and craft beyond her own. She screeched as the knowledge etched itself onto her soul.

Ghosts were fleeing. Some found soul-traps and exploded them as the lesser artifacts couldn’t contain the might of some ghosts. Others begged the living to…preserve them.

The rest fought on to their ends. They did not look for salvation, only to strike a final blow.

On Terandria, Erin Solstice saw Tamaroth, the God of Rulers, gouge out one of Razia’s eyes. The Agelum bled blue. But she fought.

Kasigna was absorbing the souls, pulling them into the center. Erin Solstice felt Khelta calling her—but she watched.

“I’m—what’s happening?

Magic was intertwining itself around her. Curious cloth bands, pulling her across the world. Gerial and Cawe turned as Erin Solstice reached for them. But then Gerial laughed.

“Nerrhavia’s plan! It’s working!”

“Nerrhavia…?”

“She said that you’d never be able to march with us. So she told Khelta to summon you if she could!”

Cawe was laughing and crying as the two ghosts realized that Khelt had made it. They turned, and Erin reached for them.

“No. Gerial. Cawe—”

The dead gods, four now, saw the magic. They had to realize what Khelt was doing. Tamaroth whirled, and they began heading for Izril. Cauwine guffawed as she saw the trick, but the other three…

“Erin Solstice!”

Kasigna howled. A bleeding Razia tackled her, but the Goddess of Death threw the Agelum aside like a doll. Xarkouth landed, belching flame, and Norechl recoiled.

Tamaroth, God of Rulers, the bearded man, strode forwards, and Gerial and Cawe blocked his path. He reached out to brush them aside. Erin—flickered—and saw her two friends there.

The [Pickpocket], Cawe, feathers dirty, a thief from Chandrar made a [Slave]. Standing in front of the God of Rulers just like she had defied Chandrar’s monsters. They were one and the same to her.

Gerial of the Horns of Hammerad. A plain, brown-haired Silver-rank adventurer with a thin mustache. Tall—but no legend. No mythic hero.

But he could have been. They both could have been. The squared shoulders of that adventurer could have been a hero’s shoulders if he lived. Erin saw him walking with a half-Elf and a Minotaur onto that stage of legends.

If only.

She cried out.

Gerial! Cawe!

The Garuda turned back to Erin, and her cracked beak opened wide.

“Tell Pisces I kept you out of their chains.”

Then she dodged left, and the God of Rulers ignored her—until Cawe spat into his face. Tamaroth turned and grabbed for her. She was gone with a laugh.

Gerial touched Erin’s hands as Khelta’s spell dragged the girl across the world. Xarkouth roared.

Ghosts! Fly with me to Izril! Stop the enemy as long as you can! Erin Solstice—

The last thing she saw was Gerial, lifting a sword and facing the God of Rulers. He turned and shouted.

Death before dishonor!” 

He gazed up as the God of Rulers grabbed for Erin, and she vanished. Tamaroth looked down as his fingers came up an inch short, a moment too late. He stared at the adventurer’s hand, gripping his arm.

“I never ran.”

Gerial Doerisel of the Horns of Hammerad looked into Tamaroth’s eyes, and his smile was simply of a man proud of himself. He could say it. Twice now…

Perhaps even the God of Rulers’ eyes flickered in acknowledgement. The memory of a being who had respected and loved such courage. Gerial smiled wider—

And then Terandria was gone, and Erin stood on Izril, weeping and looking around as the gods pursued her to the end. She fell to her knees and pulled something from her soul.

If only they could save but one…as the Dragonlord of the Void flew towards her, as Razia pursued foes without any defeat, Erin Solstice drew a coward’s tool.

A gift from the God of Secrets and Magic. A hangman’s rope. Something to use to hide yourself at the world’s ending. She realized now.

“Not me. Someone else needs it. Please. Just one person?”

She rose, looking for one ghost among the many to give it to. Let something survive. Something…

 

——

 

Dragonspeaker Luciva was losing her mind. She broke into the stalemate where Fetohep, the undead, and that young woman stood.

“General Sserys! Wait!

She screamed, and the Drake turned. Luciva looked around.

“A—a [Necromancer]. Find me a—wait! General Sserys, Izril needs you! The Walled Cities need you! Stay in that body—we will build you another one. Whatever you need.”

A hero of Izril. She looked at the hope of Manus, as much a hope as Rafaema. She stumbled towards Sserys, seeing what had to be done. Yes—save him! Bring back all the—

The [Spear of the Drakes] slapped Luciva. Not with Nerrhavia’s piercing slap across generations, but briskly. Fetohep turned, but Sserys grabbed Luciva with the Human’s hands. His eyes glittered.

Do I look like a thief, Luciva? Do I look like a Selphid? No…do I look like a [Slaver]? I’m dead. I was never the hero you all wanted me to be. I was the [General] of one war, and Zel Shivertail was the Drake who became what you wanted. You let him die. I kept this body for a young woman who’s nowhere near my equal. But it’s hers.”

He stepped back, nodding at Fetohep, who inclined his head in respect. Luciva grabbed for Sserys’ arm.

“But you matter more!”

He shoved her away with a look of disgust. The [General] gazed around as Manus’ officers slowed. Wall Lord Ilvriss, the Drakes. Sserys sneered at them.

“I am not a child. I had one chance. And do you know what? I outgrew my Hoarding years long ago. Enough of the walls! Enough of tradition! Drakes will change or be buried in their cities!”

He drew his blade, looking around. Sserys laughed as he saw Khelta, and the ghost’s eyes searched for the figure he could not see while he walked the living’s world.

“I think…it’s time. Khelta or whomever you are—can you return me to where I belong and her to her body?”

“I will try.”

The great [Necromancer] whispered. She lifted her arms and looked around.

“Rulers of Khelt. Protect me. We are almost out of—”

 

——

 

The dead being possessed by ghosts were driving back the Drakes. Speaking to the living. However—some were just—

Attacking?

Relc Grasstongue, panting, running towards Mrsha, saw a Gnoll, a dead body lunging at a pair of Antinium who stabbed the undead repeatedly.

It wasn’t regular undead from Khelt; they were all on his side. But neither was it a ghost. It was…flailing. Jerking the dead eyeballs in every direction. Opening and closing the mouth and flailing as if it had no idea what was going on.

As if it were unused to—

Then the [Crusaders] did enough damage, and Relc saw a horror like…like Skinner. Something bulged out of the broken wounds in the corpse. Something fought to get out—

“Kill it! Kill—”

The Seamwalker in the undead’s body reached for the Antinium a moment before a [Vizir] landed. He took one look at the thing and pointed.

“[Disintegrate].”

Hecrelunn evaporated pieces of the thing, and a half-Giant of Serept’s forces smashed the corpse. Whatever it was—vanished.

What was that?

Relc ran forwards, staring at the undead. Was he talking to undead? They were the sane alternative, the allies to…

“I do not know. Khelta is there. Khelta!”

Hecrelunn screamed and flew towards her. Relc’s head turned as he heard more cries. More of—something—was using Khelt’s ritual to come through.

And they wanted Erin. She was standing, sword in hand, as a group of undead clustered around her, keeping everyone back. Some kind of magical ritual. But the Seamwalkers saw the body.

Corpses began to stir. Fetohep’s loyal soldiers turned their heads, and putrid flesh oozed from between their eye sockets. Bodies so foul that they twisted reality began to creep through the corpses of the dead, and the undead were sullied by that taint.

Protect Erin Solstice! Protect Khelta!

Fetohep whirled his blade and strode at the first horror. The warriors who had gathered here turned. The King of Destruction, blade drenched in Manus’ blood, whirled.

He seized a shuddering corpse and made to wrench its head off. Then stared as his hand shook.

The strength of the King of Destruction…trembled against the eyes of something that had eaten the bones of gods. The dead scales of a Drake rippled, and the scales flipped up, revealing tiny little eyes under each scale.

“What horrors are these?”

The King of Destruction whispered. Orthenon ran a spear and then his sword through the Seamwalker, and it forced Flos’ hand back. Gazi buried her claymore in its head, and she stared into those eyes. The Gazer’s own central eye went wide, and she froze.

Orthenon turned, but Gazi’s hands froze. Her pupil dilated to a point, and red tears began to drip from her eyes.

“I see—”

Flos raised his other hand and shattered the corpse of the Drake, destroying the link. He lowered his fist, and Gazi stumbled away. One of a hundred, already. Gnolls and Drakes backed away in horror. Khelt’s undead attacked the Seamwalkers, but they were torn to pieces.

Fetohep saw a figure lift his sword. General Sserys shouted, and an army without fear charged down the hill towards him.

“I am the Spear of the Drakes! Liscor—to me, one last time!”

Then came his army, charging into the horrors, screaming his name. Liscor threw itself into a slaughter as hands reached out and dragged them into another realm. But their spears thrust into the eyes, silenced the whispers.

Sserys stood in the center of the ritual, eyes streaming with tears as his army answered his call. Heedless of the cost, Liscor dove into the horrors plaguing Izril, and they were the army he remembered. This was then. Then and now, their finest hour.

Hurry. The gap in the world was widening, and they were trying to pour through. The Seamwalkers and…worse.

 

——

 

A skeleton jerked to life and sat up fifteen paces away from the Drakes clustered around Erin Solstice’s body. Of course, the living young woman was a target beyond compare, but the skeleton looked at its hands, opened and closed them, and began to laugh.

It had a beard. No…it felt at its chin. No, he didn’t. But he had a body.

“You fools. You’ve made your last mistake.”

The being rode, manipulating the corpse. It might be a dead vessel of magic, but it had hands, and that was enough. He raised his arms in triumph.

I am Tamaroth! And I have ret—

Fetohep of Khelt leapt upon the dead god, and his halberd swung down with the weight of Khelt.

Tamaroth caught it, and Fetohep flew backwards, skin breaking as the God of Rulers backhanded him across the ground. The living whirled, and the Herald of Forests charged whatever had attacked Fetohep. Her blade flashed down, and Tamaroth met her in a clash that cracked the air.

Her sword, centuries old and imbued with magic as extraordinary as Ierwyn’s nature—broke. The God of Rulers saw her waver and draw a shortsword. He caught the blade-barehanded and ran the ordinary blade through her. She jerked aside and stumbled away as he strode towards Erin Solstice’s body.

“Wretch!”

Fetohep threw himself forwards, weapon gone. He struck Tamaroth, and then Doubte was there. The [Hero] and Revenant King’s feet dug into the ground as the unstoppable skeleton possessed by the dead god walked forwards.

Tamaroth’s eyes were fixed on Erin Solstice. He parried an arrow shot point-black at his face by Alked Fellbow from the side without even looking at the Named Adventurer. He was laughing. His neck jerked left a fraction, and the Dead God hesitated.

“What was…?”

The skeleton looked puzzled, and then its neck snapped. The light faded from its eyes as a [Necromancer], a young man with white robes, lowered his hand.

“Pisces! What was that?”

Ceria skidded to a stop as the Horns of Hammerad charged towards Erin. Pisces looked around. Fetohep and Doubte staggered, and they looked at the…

[Deathbane Necromancer]. Pisces’ hand was trembling, but whatever he’d seen—it didn’t understand death magic or didn’t care. He spoke shakily.

“I have no idea—but it sounded antagonistic.”

“Well done. To arms, Horns of Hammerad.”

Fetohep rose, looking for his blade. Ksmvr charged past Pisces and ran both his swords into another corpse staring around with its mouth open. The Seamwalker turned to Ksmvr—then Yvlon brought down her fist and shattered its skull, pounding her fist into its brains.

The heads! Take out the heads!

Ceria pointed her hand at another possessed zombie and blasted its head off with a spike of ice. Pisces whirled, and he began breaking the undead apart. They had to protect…

All four heads turned. Pisces, Yvlon, Ksmvr, and Ceria. A Drake [General] stood on the hill. No…a young woman wearing a stained apron under battered arms.

The Horns of Hammerad turned, and there she was. Only…it wasn’t her.

But it would be. It had to be.

 

——

 

The ghosts and dead gods fought around Erin. They had reached Izril in moments! All the way from Terandria?

No. No…Erin looked around. They had made that long journey because…

There was no Terandria left. No Baleros. The world ended at the High Passes…then they began to vanish.

“Kasigna!”

She was unmaking the deadlands. The gods flickered in and out of corpses, but the ghosts were smashing them to pieces. Tamaroth was arguing with the Goddess of Death as Cauwine looked up and down.

“Naught but the void remains. Is this the beginning of your new world, Mother?”

Kasigna smiled.

“This is my domain, Cauwine. You three are not welcome. It will not be a reflection of any world. Flee, Tamaroth. Flee, Norechl. I will allow Cauwine to linger a moment. No one else.”

Even the two dead gods wavered. But before they left…Erin Solstice. They reached for her, and Cauwine drew her blade, aiming for Khelta. Then she turned, and the last Dragons in the world exhaled.

Xarkouth, the Dragonlords, every Dragon there was and had ever died burned Cauwine, and she screamed. Not one jet of flame, not one elemental fury—hundreds. They flickered out of existence as Kasigna reached up.

The last rulers of every nation found the God of Rulers as Tamaroth strode towards Erin Solstice. The Bow of Avel loosed an arrow into his chest. The spears and blades of Terandria’s monarchs ran into the God of Rulers, and he stumbled back. Ghosts vanished as they buried their blades in his chest.

Lesser rulers! I am your god!

He screamed at them, and a single ghost broke through the fighting, holding a blade that was different from any other. Tamaroth’s eyes went wide as Queen Merindue, half eaten, raised the blade of Excalibur overhead.

The sword in the stone plunged into the God of Rulers’ chest and then shattered. Tamaroth screamed, clawing at his chest. Of all the wounds he had taken—

This one would not close. 

Queen Merindue laughed as she lowered the broken blade loaned to her from the King of Camelot. She spread her arms wide, adorned not in gold or gems, but humbly. A [Queen] of a kingdom who had seen a great monster die.

She had helped found a new nation on the very bones of the being who had caused so much suffering. She alone had known the truth of rebels and heroes.

Tyrants died. She gazed into another’s eyes and mocked him as he bled. Tamaroth saw her vanish as he flailed at the air. He clawed at his chest as Norechl lunged at Erin Solstice.

Razia picked Norechl up and slammed it into the ground. One eye bleeding, warform gone, she stumbled. Then she saw the young woman holding the rope. Erin Solstice turned to Razia. To Khelta’s ghost. To…

“Sserys? Someone—it can hide you. One last ghost?”

Kasigna hissed at it.

“That rope was meant to hide from me! Emerrhain’s little tool. All of this was wrought from your wretched gifts! That umbrella! The horn!”

She screamed at the others. Razia stumbled towards Erin.

“A rope? A noose?”

Erin offered it to Razia. The Agelum stared at the noose. Then she grabbed it. Xarkouth spread his wings as his eyes glittered.

“Of course. Ghosts—another minute! Strive another minute!

“We will not last another second!”

King Dolenm shouted. He looked up as a Seamwalker snatched him up. The King of Khelt raised a hand, and the Seamwalker dragged him into its maw as it sank into the earth. The Ruler of Khelt gazed up bitterly—and then stared up at the sky.

The 7th Ruler of Khelt had been a [Pirate]. A brigand and a man who thought differently enough to bury a ship instead of just an army. He had hungered for knowledge and thought of ways to make an unchanging land even more beautiful.

Under his rule, Khelt had begun pursuing the arts. He had plundered examples for them to copy and engendered the anger of countless nations, but he had added more than he left.

Dolenm had felt Xierca fall, head held high, and each ruler save Khelta and Fetohep had disappeared into the same death that now tore his soul apart. His head rose, and he buried a pair of scimitars in dead flesh. Then, skywards his gaze rose, and he laughed as he went. For the world had never ceased surprising him.

The Seamwalkers flooding this last piece of the deadworld were stealing the bodies of the ghosts. The ritual was turning against Khelt—but they needed another moment. The [Witches] looked up as a shuddering mass of entrails pulled itself forwards, whispering secrets from the edge of the world.

It wanted more. It wanted them. The Seamwalker reached for Califor, burning bright as she bound Belavierr with magic—and the last Empress of Harpies dove out of the sky.

Empress Sheta struck the Seamwalker down, and the Harpy fanned her wings.

We were delivering the oldest ghosts to their foe. Come! The last flight of the world is upon us! The Dragonlord of Flame wakes as he always does!”

Even in this dead land—the ghosts looked up, and the Seamwalkers saw a final brigade of ghosts spiraling down towards them. Flying Garuda, Djinni, harpies…

And a tribe of Gnolls. Erin Solstice’s mouth opened wide as a [Chieftain] descended onto the ground. The [Witches] tipped their hats as the Gnoll looked up.

 

——

 

The last ghosts stepped into bodies as Fetohep gave the order for the [Mages] of Khelt to destroy what they had worked so long to activate.

He held the speaking stone aloft as a trio of Gnolls walked forwards, looking at the dead of their kin. Staring down at broken fur.

They did not weep for their kind. They had no time. But every ghost, from Khelt to the [Witches], even the Dragon, turned to them and bowed.

Only Luciva could see him. She stared up at Teriarch as Manus’ child, Rafaema, returned to her. Teriarch spoke—but he was watching the three Gnolls.

Three ghosts amidst a species. Izril had been devoured long ago, but three had made the long journey across the end of the deadlands.

The first’s eyes were pale blue and glowed like the skies above. Her feet never touched the ground, and the air whispered around her.

Satar Silverfang, weeping for all of this, looked up and heard a chorus of voices. She gazed upon the [Chieftain] of old. And a song came to her. Great Plains Sing. A single clue to this Gnoll who flew into the sky in those days of old.

Chieftain Seru’nial took her tribe beyond the clouds. Now, the ghost of the [Chieftain] whispered as she stared at Izril.

“It was always smaller when I stood a world above them. When I died, I thought they were so pitiful and forgot that I had raced across those lands and how vast and welcome they were. When I was young, Gnolls spread across the continent. Now…now they do look diminished. The blood that has been spilled here will never dry. I see Drakes. Our oldest foe.”

She bowed her head, and the second Gnoll walked forwards in the body of a Gnoll—but the magic in her made Valeterisa and Amerys kneel. An [Archmage] of old, one of Chandrar’s stories, lifted a staff she conjured from the dust and ground.

The [Archmage of the Eternal Grasslands], Kishkeria, wept tears of magic.

“It was my tribe who did this. I founded Plain’s Eye, but they left Chandrar. They were blind to their own corruption. I see Drakes and treachery laid in the bones of Izril. But we have always been our worst enemies. Harpies. Drakes. Raskghar. We blame so many, but look at what Gnolls have done this day.”

Both Gnolls gazed at each other, and their eyes turned to the Walled Cities’ armies. Seru’nial shook her head.

“Look there. It is not always just our people. The Walled Cities and Dragons. They have haunted us and hunted us like animals. Now they came to wipe us out.”

“Not all. Some stood with us.”

The two argued briefly, but then the final Gnoll hobbled forwards. He wore Ulcreziek’s body. The sightless, bloody sockets had been replaced by a gaze that had frozen the Drakes trying to stop him. The oldest [Shaman] looked across the battlefield and shook his head.

He gazed at the Walled City’s soldiers, and they shook. The Dragons bowed to him, and the undead turned to a beacon of power of old. The Gnoll’s voice shook with grief and fury.

“Gnorren trr Formilen trr Harpnken…soworl yeh bin Drackelhen lotos Dragonken. Nrkeh dokest.

The other two Gnolls looked at each other and had no idea what he had said, but they took the meaning. Each species wronged. Each one by Drakes and Dragons. The oldest of Gnolls who remembered the heart of their language raised one paw.

“Yes. Let us make an end to this.”

So Seru’nial and Kishkeria agreed. They joined paws with the third ghost, and the coven of the greatest [Witches] approached and removed their hats.

“Our magic is yours, Gnolls. This is your hour to choose.”

Califor’s eyes glowed as the Spider slunk away. But even Belavierr looked up in wonder and fear. The [Witches] and the ghosts turned to the Gnolls, and they did what Khelta had always intended.

All three raised their linked arms and called on the magic of the tribes. All the power they had possessed, by class or might.

All the power of their souls. They did not hold back. Archmage Kishkeria fueled a spell that the living Gnoll had never dared cast—which would evaporate even her soul. It didn’t matter.

There was nothing left. The oldest [Shaman] looked at the [Chieftain of the Skies], and they gazed down at the Great Plains.

What would the oldest and most powerful ghosts of Gnolls do? The Walled Cities trembled. They could drag one of the last Walled Cities screaming into the abyss. And there was enough wrath in their eyes to do just that.

The Gnolls made their choice in an instant, for even the dead gods were afraid of what they might do. The first to act was the old [Shaman].

He lifted one foot like the weight of the sky and pain of every Gnoll. He brought it down on the ground with all his might.

Izril cracked. A jagged wound split the Great Plains, and the entire continent shook. 

Shaman Theikha wept as she fell to her knees. She saw the waters of the ocean pouring into a crack in the continent. It ran into the distance, an opening in the earth so wide it split the armies in half. The Drakes and Gnolls gaped in horror into a divide that threatened to set Zeres drifting into the distance. It passed by Oteslia, and the City of Growth looked up as their great tree shook.

A split across the continent. But it was not death that the Gnoll intended. The next to move was Chieftain Seru’nial. She shouted at the people below.

Drakes and Gnolls have ever fought over land! They have driven our people into this last place. The Great Plains! If the greed of Drakes has no limit to Izril—then we shall go further. To the places where we ever were and further still! Seek the Crossroads of Izril! Seek the home of my tribe! There!”

She pointed up, and every eye followed a finger into the sky. Bird gazed upwards, his mandibles parted in awe. And he saw the Gnoll pointing at a gigantic cloud in the distance. One of many in the sky…but this one would never vanish. He told Erin. He told everyone there were things up there.

But no one believed him. Now, Chieftain Seru’nial pointed up at the city in the sky. And then the shaking started again.

“Great forests.”

Nalthaliarstrelous and the [Druids] of Oteslia were on their knees. They were crying, for across the sea, ancient Treants looked up from their watery grave. The oldest spirits gazed upwards, and perhaps they smiled.

The ocean floor rose to fill the gap in Izril. Seru’nial called a second land upwards, joining the Great Plains. Mrsha looked up, and her heart leapt.

“A new land?”

Ceria whispered as she stared into the distance and couldn’t find the end of a strange land. Sand and places that had sunk into the ocean rose once more. Then the final Gnoll moved.

The Archmage of the Eternal Grasslands pointed, and the grass she had created spread across the new land. But her magic was so much greater than that basic, Tier 0 spell. She smiled as the mortals looked up.

The other lands have long been lost. Seek them out in the ruins of the sixth continent. Seek out each treasure. Seek adventure and fill this world, Gnolls. For we have diminished too long. I am Archmage Kishkeria. We have always had magic. Reclaim it.”

The Gnoll lifted her hand, and Mrsha’s wand blazed with magic. Wonderingly, the Gnoll lifted it, and Gireulasha gasped.

“Mrsha!”

A ball of [Light] appeared in her paws. Fissival groaned as, beneath the earth, the network they had laid long ago and used in treachery exploded. The [Archmage] smiled downwards and then lifted a paw.

The Waning World is over. I name this new age the Journey of the Living. You will make the new world. Ours is over.”

The Gnolls stood there another moment, and their heads turned as one. They sighed—and their bodies collapsed as the last ghosts faded from the world.

Fetohep of Khelt raised his head and cried out.

Khelta!

 

——

 

There Erin Solstice stood. There Sserys stood. The gods, the living, the last ghosts looked at a place in the world where the living and the dead matched.

What did they see? Was it a long bridge between the worlds, small enough to be contained in any one grain of sand, but long enough for Erin Solstice to walk across as a Drake marched to his final battle?

Was it a river, where the two spirits waded into the dark waters for distant shores?

In the lands of the dead, Khelta cut a piece out of reality, and Kasigna’s hands touched a barrier even she could not cross. Erin Solstice felt herself falling, sliding across a rule of the world being bent just far enough for her to go home.

Khelta’s ghost kept the magic flowing, smiling as Fetohep knelt in front of her. His crown hung broken from his head from the fighting. His golden gaze met hers.

She smiled down at him. The last rulers of Khelt were all gone. Khelta’s own eyes flickered, and she hesitated. Almost…the crack was almost wide enough.

She whispered in regret.

“I cannot…finish the spell.”

Erin Solstice hung in a blazing network of magic, and Khelta tried to keep the spell steady. But the Goddess of Death had her arm.

The door began to close, and her working unraveled. Khelta hung on, defying death with the weight of her class. The dignity of the last ghost of Khelt.

She looked at Erin, faltering, and Teriarch whispered to her. A white Gnoll walked forwards and raised his paws. The Dragon. His eyes glinted in two colors, and Teriarch spoke. He took hold of that burden, and Khelta gasped in relief. The Dragonlord bowed to her.

“I will finish it. Go well, great [Necromancer]. Strike them a blow to defy death itself.”

I too.

The Necromancer of Terandria whispered. The spell stabilized. Erin Solstice saw Sserys standing in the middle of a great working, and she turned.

The lands of the living and the dead met. The living thought they saw the dead, turning. The last ghosts facing four shadows.

As for the dead…Khelta looked back. She raised a hand to Erin.

Go, Erin Solstice! Never die again—and live beautifully. For the deadlands lie empty.

Then she turned and struck at Kasigna, bare-handed. The first [Necromancer], the first ruler of Khelt to ever look at sand and dust and envision a place to live in safety, had walked every land in the world.

Many had done the same. But few had ever been as respected as she. When she founded her nation, countless species had flocked to it, and in her days, her class had been one that walked along every kind of magic with head held high.

She had always loved the living and the dead equally, and the balance of the two filled Khelta’s eyes. A living woman who understood death in a way that the goddess couldn’t. A ghost who touched the living. She struck Kasigna barehanded, and her last blow was a slap that rebuked the pettiness of the divine. It could not touch a god’s body, but it struck Kasigna harder than Nerrhavia could have dreamed.

The Goddess of Death stared into the [Necromancer]’s gaze, and Khelt’s undead raised their heads and collapsed as Khelta fell. Fetohep clutched at his chest, and his golden gaze flickered. But he stood there, waiting for the end of it all.

 

——

 

The deadlands vanished. The last Harpy flew into the darkness, chasing the Seamwalkers, crying hope for the living.

A Dragon had returned. The Faerie King had struck his blow. The ghosts had given their blessing to the living.

Some ghosts had made it to safe harbor. Others had left secrets, weapons.

What they had fought for was time. Time…that was all that they could offer.

“Time.”

One last group of ghosts had avoided Kasigna’s notice. Empress Sheta of the Harpies had conspired with the wisdom of Gnolls. Sprigaena had drawn the ire of the dead gods.

But she was not the only Elf who had ever died, or her son. Most had been lost. But there were enough.

Elves stood side-by-side with Dwarves. The oldest species and ghosts from the last age had one last mission of their own.

It had taken them a long time to find their way down here. Much less to walk safely on this land of lands.

Rhir. Even ghosts were not able to walk here. Even Seamwalkers avoided this spot. Because the slumbering god…the child of gods infested this place like a nightmare.

Antinium fought it. They were so close to its heart that the ghosts could almost see the despairing people. The Elves and Dwarves and Halflings and oldest Humans and other species…what did they seem like to those desperate warriors?

“She is waking. All this fighting has empowered her like the others. But she is too strong. She has the flesh of god itself.”

The ghosts nodded at each other. A Dwarf, a true Dwarf, hefted a weapon he had made for a ghost to grasp. His eyes were like the earth itself, immovable.

“She will eat us, Zineryr claimed. Then we must do more damage. Are you all resolved?”

The Elves nodded. The other Dwarves sighed, for they had failed their charge and vigil. But they were resolved.

The last group of ghosts descended towards the slumbering figure. And it was [Priests] and [Clerics], the last until this era, who warded each step.

Rhir shook, and was it in fear? The Dwarf lifted his axe and spoke as the sleeping demigod trembled.

Come, child of gods. Sleep another hundred years. We may be ghosts, but I drenched this axe in the blood of your kin.

The oldest ghosts walked towards the sleeping figure and the Antinium fell back. The waking presence slumbered. The last ghost raised a hand and smiled.

Victory to you, friends.

They saluted the Antinium. Then they were gone.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice stood between the dead and the living, in the middle of the magic, as a Dragon and the Necromancer carried her towards her body. General Sserys passed her with a nod.

“I’ll give them a Liscorian welcome just for you.”

“Sserys…”

The [Spear of the Drakes] raised one brow.

“What’s there to say anymore? I never wanted your body anyways. Skin is disgusting. Just give me one last fight.”

He looked forwards, and Erin saw the last ghosts vanishing. The Deadlands were disappearing…but a handful of ghosts remained.

Rhir held on, the sleeping thing there defying Kasigna a moment. The Great Plains slowly vanished as Cauwine lowered her blade. There was nothing left to kill, and she looked at Sserys and extended a hand. The Drake bared his teeth.

“Do you want me? You’ll have to take my soul first.

He picked up a sword—or maybe he’d carried one from the lands of the living. He did like to cheat. Cauwine laughed as Kasigna whispered to Erin.

“This is not over, girl. Even if you return home—it will never be the same. You may forget us, but we will never forget you. We will hunt you down and make the living world a reflection of your despair. Our time has come.”

Tamaroth and Norechl were walking towards Razia, who had the rope in hand. The Agelum was on her knees next to Xarkouth. The Dragonlord of the Void had survived everything, somehow, and the last Seamwalkers were falling into the blackness—perhaps all the way back down to the pit of the world.

Erin Solstice saw Tamaroth, Norechl, Kasigna, and Cauwine looking at her. Their promise echoed in her veins. For response, the [Innkeeper] just spat.

A glob of spit slid down the inside of Khelta’s ritual. Kasigna stared at it. The [Innkeeper] pointed at Kasigna.

“You better stay right where you are, Kasigna, Cauwine, Norechl, and Tammy.”

“Tammy?”

Erin shook a fist at them. She pointed at the Goddess of Death.

“Stay right there. Because if you come to the lands of the living, I’ll be waiting. And when I have a body, I’ll punch you straight back into being nothing! I’ll do anything to stop you. This isn’t your world, and I’ll call everyone in…everything to fight you!

The dead gods laughed at her. They sneered at the young woman. Then Norechl and Tamaroth went for Razia.

“You know you cannot kill us, Agelum. Come, rest. The last Dragon falls.”

Xarkouth bared his teeth, and Razia lifted the noose. Erin waited for her to place it around her neck—but the Agelum just smiled.

Someone stepped around Xarkouth. A flickering ghost shook his head and winked at Erin. Tamaroth recoiled in horror as Zineryr whispered.

“They’re so arrogant. They think they’ve won, even now. Go. We’ve done all we can.”

Zineryr! The Gn—

Then Razia pounced. She swung the noose, and Erin realized what the Agelum had seen. Not a noose—not a hiding place. She’d seen…

A piece of rope. Unbreakable rope. She caught Tamaroth and hung it around his neck. Then she lashed the other end to Xarkouth’s tail.

Fly, Dragonlord!

Erin Solstice—farewell! I will carry these wretches into nothingness for an eternity if I must!

Kasigna whirled as a choking Tamaroth hung from the noose. Trying not to vanish. Norechl wavered—then Razia seized it. She hefted it overhead as the God of Nothing struggled, and Xarkouth took off as she raced up his back. The two struggling gods flew into the sky, carried by the last ghost of Dragons.

The last thing Erin Solstice saw was Razia standing, wrestling with the gods. Adding to her scars as she bled. But burning with all the mortal passion she had learned. Riding on the back of the Dragon who looked into the void and spread his wings for eternity.

Defiant. So proud, Agelum and Dragon, and never overly proud for they had no limit. She heard those wings beating and the laughter, like a call to arms. Like triumph and the ringing of horns of a thousand victories.

Then they were gone, flying into the void beyond the edge of even death’s land itself. Erin wept into the emptiness, and she saw the last two gods staring up uncertainly.

“He can’t fly forever. Tamaroth and Norechl will get free.”

Kasigna stared at Xarkouth, reaching out as if deciding to stop the Dragonlord, but her eyes flashed maliciously, and she turned away. Zineryr chuckled. Fearlessly, he came to stand in front of the Goddess of Death. Sserys fought his last battle against Cauwine as the world shrank and vanished.

The Drake was outmatched and losing, but he cheated. He dug his claws into his foe and refused to let go. Sserys breathed in, and he fought with treachery and like his city. The son of Liscor held the line until he was relieved of his long duty. He left, still grinning victory.

“Maybe not. But they fought you to the end, didn’t they?”

“Zineryr…”

The Gnome looked…torn. He flickered in and out of reality, but his wink was mischievous.

“Turns out that if you teleport a tree full of Fraerlings in a forest, you have magic left to spare.”

What? What does that mean?

Zineryr laughed at her.

“You’ll see. Now, go. We bought you time. Even this one won’t walk the living world again. Oh, they’ll plot and scheme, but they’re afraid we left traps for them. Which we did. God-destroying traps. Billions. Go live again.”

He waved at her. Kasigna hissed at Zineryr.

“I could destroy you, little Gnome. Your farewells are meaningless.”

Zineryr didn’t even look at her.

“No, you won’t. You’ll give me the honor of being the last ghost. Erin Solstice…goodbye. Now, after so long…”

The Gnome’s eyes twinkled sadly as the world of the dead vanished. Erin Solstice reached out, and she saw Sserys nod to her slightly, fighting to his last. The Gnome, the ghosts of Khelt…Erin felt herself being dragged down. Towards a familiar place. She wanted it so much, but she clung to that vision. The Gnome leaned down.

Open your eyes.

And then…

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: The epilogue.

 

 

Bier by Uni!

 

Ryoka and Erin Cosplay, Reunion, and Vess and Crusader 53 by lnco!

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The Wandering Inn Animation by Eris!

 


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26 thoughts on “8.85

  1. (Volume 8 helpers and typo finders: Arcane, ArtsyNada, Blue Juice, Bobo Plushie, DM Rat, Gorexn, Gunmandude2, Kehl, Linnet, Litwickee, Mr Wiggles, Nef, Nobody1111, Oshi, Quynin, Qwiliman)

    • “Xherw ignored Lyonette du Marquin, having no knowledge of the [Princess]’ class or her motherhood of Mrsha.” – [Princess]’ class -> [Princess’s] class

      • The world does not have a consensus here, but most authorities say that singular nouna get an ‘s’ after the apostrophe and plural nouns do not.

        the Princess’s daughter (Mrsha belongs to Lyonette alone)
        the Princesses’ home (the Eternal Throne belongs to Lyonette and her sisters together)

        However, I think the possessive should be outside the class name, as in “the [Witch]’s ringed gaze”.

    • “However—even Kerash flinched as Nerrhavia looked straight into his eyes and the gaze of the true intelligence.”
      Should be Az’Kerash

      • I believe she was looking at his servant, the body of Kerash that he’d had infiltrating the gnollmoot. I do not believe that Az’Kerash was there in person.

    • Thronebearters of Calanfer -> Thronebearers

      He caught the blade-barehanded -> blade barehanded

      She had hidden every day of her life who she was -> She had hidden who she was every day of her life

      Yvlon, get behind Ksmvr, that’s an order! -> Ksmvr; that’s

      She walked this battlefield mocking the mortals -> battlefield, mocking

      Then, skywards his gaze rose -> Then skywards

      and never overly proud for they had no limit -> proud, for they

      Was it a long bridge -> Was it a bridge (Eliminates echo of “long” with “but long enough for Erin Solstice to walk across”.)

      hung broken from his head from the fighting -> hung from his head, broken from the fighting

      Thank you for the Volume. Enjoy your break!

  2. “The Tyrant of Sands lowered her hand as she hit Femar’s entire family line.”

    That one made me laugh. Oh, Nerrhavia.

  3. “The Plain’s Eye tribe was trying to stop them. Lyonette raised her sword, and Jecaina turned warily, but the Thronebearters of Calanfer”

    “thronebearTers”

  4. Oh man, Kasigna remaking the afterlife. Maybe the endgame is somehow changing the system to route ghosts to the antinium heaven instead? Rather than feed Kasigna.

    • Very patriotic, seems partially insane. Could be played as someone who Azzy was secretly manipulating behind the scene’s. Less of a direct assassin, and more someone who was in the influence of someone who was in the pocket of Azzy or one of his many alter-egos.

  5. The half-Giant tossed the Drake’s body down, and Ulinde leapt from his back.

    “Looting. Twenty seconds.”

    Thank you! So many high level, well geared deaths and I was worried that the opportunist angle had been forgotten. I love that the halfseekers immediately thought of looting the rich dude with the expensive gear.

  6. This was so amazing, it was everything I wanted and nothing I expected. At first I was a bit leery at the infinity wars level cross over but this is so well written! Thank you pirate for the great volume.

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