[I will be doing an AMA on r/progressionfantasy on July 26th, 2022! A post will be made at 8 AM EST. I’ll start answering questions…later than that time. I’ll announce it when it happens.]
Purely hypothetically. What would you consider the worst, most existential threats to existence? The top three answers might not surprise you.
For instance—most of the world would almost instantly say ‘the Demons’ or ‘Rhir’ or ‘Crelers’, and mean the same thing by and large. Which was fair—one half of all armageddon events had come from Rhir*.
*Armageddon events being an actual scale of measurement used by [Historians], which defined the event as a worldwide disaster if at least three nations per continent were destroyed or disintegrated to an extent from which they might never recover. Cataclysmic events were continent or nation-wide by contrast. Disasters just sucked.
The point is that Rhir was the first answer from most. But it might surprise the ordinary citizen who thought of the Demons as a hopefully-abstract threat to know that they also thought Rhir harbored the potential for world-ending disaster.
They just thought that the culprits wouldn’t be them.
When he was younger, an [Archmage] had told him in private confidence that he would get bored of physical intimacy.
Othius the Fourth of the Blighted Kingdom had forgotten many things, but he hadn’t forgotten laughing about that. But then—he had never expected to live this long.
The joys of sex—of any extreme or position—went before you lost your appetite for food. Then went drugs, even magical ones. The desire was still there, but the satisfaction?
It dulled. And no matter how much you tried to…intensify…the old feelings, there came a time when you found yourself putting on a pair of boots and a Ring of Greater Ice Resistance and clearing your schedule for a day and asked yourself—what was the point?
Humans were not meant to live forever. They weren’t even meant to live past two hundred years. It wasn’t even the way their bodies aged or took disease or injury or organs just stopped working—they were mentally weak.
Othius had studied the problem when he realized how long he might live. Half-Elves, Dwarves, the longer-lived species, even Djinni? They had mechanisms that allowed them to function over the centuries.
For instance, half-Elves got obsessed with things. Yes, they had their timeless villages, but they also had passions. Polymaths were rarer among their kind. They might move on from a specialization and study complementary areas, but they tended to throw themselves into being something for a while.
On the other hand, Dwarves were sometimes incredibly, usefully grounded in the present. They could be as ‘normal’ as other species they worked with and functionally live lives in cities or wherever they wanted.
Then, when they moved or retired or found their friends passing, they would retreat for a decade or two and process what they’d gone through. ‘Going home to Grandfather’ was an older term from when they’d been more far-flung.
Well, those days had come again. As for Djinni—Othius had spoken to many, and some claimed their shifting natures made their slavery bearable in a way. They changed, and because they were pure magic, the same Djinni did not bear their torment.
Each species had a method, and generalizations obviously left out the individual ways they succeeded or failed. Othius knew this—and knew he didn’t have their coping mechanisms.
He could not take a few decades off. His work was not a passion in the same way it had been, more of a burden that he struggled to carry. And as for change…all he felt sometimes was his body dying, piece by piece.
Why did he cling to life, then? Vengeance. Vengeance, the belief no one could yet succeed him, and the desire to triumph. For his bones to be the last beholden to war and the despair of the Blighted Kingdom.
What he found was that after lovers, after largesse, after bodily desires, what the Blighted King dreamed of was the time thereafter. Of the completeness that only the Blighted Kingdom had.
Take the Drakes’ miserable, petty wars with each other and the Gnolls, for instance. They had done their best to wipe out a species, and Othius had watched their battles. They acted as if it had been inevitable, and in some ways, would always be inevitable—they were in a battle with Gnolls and now Antinium for dominance of Izril.
But the Blighted Kingdom had Drakes. The largest populations of Drakes and Gnolls hither-to the migration to Chandrar by the tribes.
They didn’t kill each other. They were, in fact, very amicable. The Demon threat united them, as did their identities as a common people rather than a species.
“No species should be wholly isolated from another. A people that function and act purely in service to themselves is a selfish one. Each race should be part of a greater collective or ruled by an outsider.”
He penned that down himself in Memoirs, the 5th Wall, which he had entrusted his thoughts and words of wisdom he hoped would be posthumously read. Of course, he based it on ruling the Blighted Kingdom, and yes, his was a unique circumstance.
But think of what this could be without the Demons.
Here was an example that Othius used when dining abroad or entertaining guests. He would have them visit an infested farm and show them the horrible pests that were Vorepillars, the disgusting vermin that ate everything, sometimes even dirt.
They were a [Farmer]’s worst nightmare. Level 40 [Farmers] had been wiped out and entire famines had begun when these pests spread abroad to other nations. The only thing worse to find in a field, Othius had heard, were Crelers.
Any other nation in the world, when faced by Vorepillars, would see their farms wither, their crops blighted, and suffer. Yet in Rhir—these were standard hazards, like crickets or rats.
The [Farmers] weren’t necessarily that much higher-level than extraordinary individuals abroad, but their attitudes towards their work were completely different. They had complex crop cycling, understood contained silos, and vigilantly checked the quality of their produce, which also led to far less rotten or infected grains and whatnot.
If they could do it on Rhir’s soil, what might they do in fertile Baleros? And—Othius now thought—
What might they do on Izril?
It was a beguiling notion. The Blighted Kingdom received tributes from around the world daily. Not just gold or soldiers, but magic and technology, ideas like sewers from the Drakes, boat designs, Pallassian elevators—and the knowledge of another world of late. The only thing that kept them from being the greatest wonder of the world was a war with Demons.
It was worse now that two of the Deathless were back. Othius felt the trepidation in his bones each day—the spell nets around each major city were being tested, and he had seen the night sky light up each time Silvenia tested the 5th or 4th Walls.
Yet they held, and dead gods, they would win with their reinforcements. However—would it take ten years? Twenty?
What if they suffered a calamity like Crelers? What if the Antinium won on Izril? Othius’ fears woke him gasping many nights. So he distracted himself with dreams of what might be once they won.
Now he wondered—what if the Blighted People, the most hardy, resourceful, and loyal, didn’t have to worry about Demon-level danger? What if the Blighted Kingdom, dependant on scraps from other nations, had a foothold, a colony which provided them food, arms, and more soldiers for the war?
He had long known that few nations would ever give actual land to his kingdom, and he was wary of making enemies and embroiling himself in politics. If other nations began to see his as the enemy or boycotted their tributes, his kingdom died. The only places Othius had ever thought to colonize were the sea—which even his kingdom was not able to do—the Great Desert of Chandrar, or the High Passes.
All highly dangerous, unlivable Death Zones. But now, Othius had seen with his own eyes a new land rising.
“One third the size of old Izril. Seafloor land—mixed with what some [Geomancers] believe is part of Izril’s underground.”
“Explain that last, Nereshal?”
Othius listened attentively in a private court as his trusted [Chronomancer] laid out the findings from preliminary teams. Obviously each nation was keeping what they knew close, but the Blighted Kingdom had eyes and ears everywhere.
They had to, in order to kill Demon [Diplomats] and [Spies] who spread lies and tried to find support abroad. It was a war that the Bighted Kingdom had long won in most corners of the world.
The [Chronomancer] still looked pale and unwell, despite it being nearly two weeks since he had had some kind of reaction to the Seamwalkers and Khelt’s war. Nereshal had speculated it was probably due to some kind of time-catastrophe, barely averted, which had struck the Dyed Lands on Baleros.
Othius was merely glad it hadn’t gotten worse. The [Chronomancer] gestured to the map roughly sketched out.
“Whatever those [Shamans] did, it wasn’t as crude as merely ‘lifting’ the seafloor up, Your Majesty. That might create a void or force them to move the very firmament of the earth. Instead, you could imagine they rolled part of the lands under Izril up, as well as raised the sea floor.”
“Yet they had to take the ground from somewhere. One cannot make soil—can you? Or were they at that level?”
That came from the far younger woman in the room. She was thirty-six years old, eight feet tall, and had lavender-purple hair, cropped short. It didn’t hide the scars on her face, from one running down her cheek to two on her neck and more on the rest of her body.
She was the Blighted Queen, Coretine the First, mother of Erille, and stepmother to Isodore, the two Blighted Princesses—the only two direct members of Othius’ family living.
Coretine was the third Blighted Queen that Othius had married. She could barely sit still for the hours-long briefings, and she kept her arms folded under her breasts while she leaned back in her chair.
Before he had married her, she had been one of the Blighted Kingdom’s [Generals] and had risen to that rank from fighting on the front lines. Coretine was—interesting. In many ways, she was much a stranger to Othius.
Oh, they had spoken longer than he had with anyone but Nereshal, and she was privy to almost all the Blighted Kingdom’s secrets. Coretine was the finest ally that Othius could wish for, and they had raised two children together.
And wasn’t that a task at his age. However, their marriage was exceptionally functional. Coretine still toured the walls, and she was the younger half of the throne; she had time to impress dignitaries, lead from the front, and be the next spark for the kingdom to burn around.
He did care for Coretine. Yet sometimes Othius looked at her and saw one of the other three—or their corpses. And he would wonder how long until poison or war or some other treachery took her, or whether it would be him next.
If that were cruel—it was because Othius had been her. He had been the Blighted Prince and watched his father die upon the throne, screaming as a ring that had bypassed all the [Mages] melted him from the insides.
He had buried his entire family, each queen he had loved—and he had married for love until he realized how cruel that was—and his children.
Some of them he couldn’t even bury. They would have destroyed the earth and everything around it.
And the Terandrians wondered why the Blighted King never attended their courts and had no time for their games.
These thoughts were common, so Othius dragged himself out of it and into Nereshal’s explanation of geography to Coretine.
“…Must have lowered the sea floor dramatically. We cannot tell how deep, Your Majesty, but the [Admirals] and [Captains] both fear the sea currents have changed forever.”
“Fortunes willing, it will allow us to re-establish routes with all the major nations along sea-lanes soon. At least we won’t have to hunt Demon ships in the waters until the right currents are found.”
The idea of burning becalmed enemy ships made her smile. Othius spoke irritably.
“The Death of Magic will just teleport them. She has done so already—and slain Ailendamus’ Great Knight. Another trick no one knew she could do.”
The Blighted Queen’s enthusiasm turned to chagrin as she bowed slightly to him.
“Your Majesty is right.”
He…patted her hand oddly. It hurt when she looked at him like that. Othius had been very up-front about the nature of the marriage. Children, a backup if he died, and the duty of rulership.
He had been surprised that she admired him, even loved him, perhaps. She saw the shield that had kept the Demons at bay. The unbreakable will of the Blighted Throne.
He had felt it waver in him when the Death of Magic returned. He had quailed and reached out for the ritual to summon Earthers. Nereshal watched the rulers of his nation, and when he glanced down, it was too-quickly.
The [Chronomancer] of all people must have sensed how Othius’ will was weakening. Well, he was the most loyal servant Othius had. Even so, the Blighted King watched Nereshal. He had not forgotten how the [Mage] had looked when the second wave of Earthers appeared.
A thousand [Heroes]. A thousand young, untrained [Heroes] with loyalty to their world, not the Blighted Kingdom. Nevertheless—a thousand people who might be Level 30 or Level 40 within a year.
Othius had made a mistake the last time they were summoned and cast them aside. This time, he would bide his time and ensure everything was perfect. When the Demons were struck, it would be a mortal wound.
For now, he enacted contingency plans, and so Othius spoke slowly.
“Poor currents at sea can be overcome with magic. I hear Krakens are moving. A [Druid] or appropriate escort can also mitigate the risk. If the half-Elves, Dwarves, and Drowned Folk managed it, so can we.”
“To settle this new world, Your Majesty?”
There was a small array of advisors in the Blighted King’s court. [Generals], [Admirals], [Strategists]—all the usual elements like [Mages] of Nereshal’s caliber.
However, Hayvon Operland as well, possibly the highest-level [Lord] in the world. At the very least, one of the Blighted Kingdom’s most formidable war leaders. Nobility might not have meant more than a class in other continents, but here, it was assumed to be an indication of competence.
“You disagree, Lord Hayvon?”
Nereshal answered for Othius, as he often did. Even if he didn’t know Othius’ will, it was a kind of simple political maneuver. The [Chronomancer] questioned all perspectives from a rational angle, giving Othius time to think. Not that he had to in this case.
Hayvon barely bowed, but spoke directly.
“I object only if it means weakening our defenses here. Every nation will want this new land. We may well make enemies. The Blighted Kingdom has been historically neutral. We must be.”
“The benefits must outweigh those concerns.”
Othius whispered, and his advisors and queen focused on him. He spoke, and since it was rare for him to do so without hearing council, they listened intently.
“A suitable colony, no matter the condition of the landscape, will do. Enough land for farms. Enough space for a wall—to section ourselves away from their disputes.”
“A 6th wall?”
The whisper came from no less than a [Governor] of one of the major cities, a Dullahan who knew the gold and economy of the Blighted Kingdom better than anyone else. Othius smiled wryly.
“It need not be even a tenth as glorious as the 5th Wall. Only enough to deter other conflicts. Then we will have an oasis. We know how to take stone and make it fertile.”
Hayvon was nodding.
“A perfect outpost to support the Blighted Kingdom. But can we seize that much space without another nation objecting? The Gnoll tribes and Drakes will do so most of all.”
“Other nations can be persuaded. They will see our reasons, and we hardly need more than a fraction of the new lands of Izril. As for the Gnolls and Drakes—I intend to position our colony as a check on the Antinium.”
“Ah. Allies to a Third Antinium war. The Walled Cities might not object to that. And the Gnolls?”
Othius had played this game before. He gestured, and a report slid towards him as he activated the Ring of Greater Telekinesis as naturally as reaching out himself. He tapped the records of rich tributes to the Blighted Kingdom.
“Their people have been badly hurt from the conflict. Exempting them from tribute and gifts of gold and artifacts and more will not go amiss. Buy the land, even if we must spend a fortune for it.”
“I will assemble forces from our Walls, Your Majesty. It will be a balance to take as few capable warriors as possible.”
Anyone over Level 30 was needed to block the Demons’ assaults. A Level 30 Skill or higher, when used right, could save hundreds of lives from Silvenia’s spells. Othius had thought of that too.
“That will not be necessary, [General] Torthe. Lower-level [Soldiers] from our classes will do. Under Level 20, with exceptions.”
A [Catastrophe Aversion Strategist] cleared his throat gently.
“This new land may not be without extreme danger, Your Majesty. The possibility of a calamity-level threat being present is not…impossible.”
The cautious tone. Oh—that told him he was being an idiot. Othius always listened to it and nodded.
“What would you say, then, Hayvon, if I told you we will send champions to break the new lands open, even impress other nations? Not our adventurers—indeed, those that level there may be swayed to our cause with gold and offers of employment. We will send only a handful, but they will return to the Blighted Kingdom as heroes. Or rather—even more the [Heroes] they already are.”
Aha. They got it. The council looked at the Blighted King.
Coretine was surprised. Hayvon—even more wary. Nereshal as well. He made a gesture unseen to the others, and Othius heard his whisper in his mind.
“Disloyalty, Your Majesty…”
Of course. The Blighted King slightly curled his first two fingers on his left hand, and Nereshal fell silent.
“Would…the relative safety of other nations not entice our [Heroes] from the necessarily bitter war here, Your Majesty?”
Someone else said what Nereshal was thinking more diplomatically. Othius shook his head.
“A handful will go, with escorts, and certain requirements of their character. The—interception—of the new generation of Earthers, for instance.”
The way he said that, instead of the summoning ritual, made the room pause a second. Othius continued.
“Geas spells. Magical contracts, for those who agree. I intend to send half of the first [Heroes]. As a reward for their service. The same for those who are suitably promising. Loyal Earthers, who will level higher and return to fight alongside their comrades here.”
“Ah, of course.”
Othius thought of Sir Richard as Hayvon nodded, relaxing at once. He would be a good candidate. Othius knew all too well how weary one could become of war. Richard would go. Or Emily.
Not both. The same for others, especially the new generation. Those with certain levels of loyalty or sympathy. By that token…
“And individuals like Sir Thomas, Your Majesty?”
Nereshal glanced at the Blighted King and saw that old face never move. Othius did not look his age, but he did sometimes think he seemed withered. Frail, certainly, but Nereshal’s magic kept his body young. He just seemed as though time had worn him down. Othius turned his head and murmured.
“Tom the [Clown] is—extraordinary. Unpredictable, a bane to our foes and his allies. He is far too much a [Hero] to ever leave Rhir.”
“…Of course, Your Majesty. Then shall we prepare lists of candidates?”
Othius lifted a ringed finger slightly.
“I have no interest in the selection. I shall leave it to Lord Hayvon, who has been with the new heroes most. My council, we shall draw up plans and waves of reinforcements today that we might expedite the colony onto shore. But I intend to announce the Blighted Kingdom’s efforts tomorrow on Wistram News Network. Within this hour—Admiral Veixl. Launch two warships crewed by our interception forces and the appropriate [Mages] to speed their progress. Have them maneuver to sea then speed up once out of sight of land.”
“As Your Majesty bids.”
And it was done. Othius sat back as Nereshal called for experts to begin the tasks of defining the second wave of ships, but the Blighted Kingdom moved fast. Three species might have landed first, but the other two warships would be sailing for Izril within half an hour if he was right. And more would come.
New land. He didn’t just want it to prove how his kingdom could flourish or create a backup to lean upon. New lands…he would take families who had earned it, take [Farmers] who had lived their lives fighting the worst Demons could unleash and let them be the third wave to settle the colony.
Let them have peace and send back a wave to help drive the Demons into the depths of Rhir. The Blighted King smiled for once, and Coretine squeezed his hand gently, pride in her eyes.
He could not have known it, but Othius the Fourth had echoed plans once spoken on this very continent. Echoed a dream of another world power that had sent their finest to bring back salvation to Rhir.
The Antinium had gone first, and their dream was lost in the wreckage of the oceans. As for the Blighted Kingdom?
They dreamed of land and safety. Othius had one more plan, of course. He always did. But as it pertained to the colony—
If it were safe. If they created but the foothold he wanted, he would take a risk on his life and the future of the Blighted Kingdom.
Othius might be old, but he learned and copied from everything.
Even horrors. He had seen the Dyed Lands change as something struck it, throwing them hundreds of years forwards. Well. If all went well, he wondered what Nereshal might do. His magic was not, perhaps, the same as Dionamella, that incredibly, unnaturally hidden monster of Ailendamus, but it had frozen the Blighted King in time along with Nereshal and a few others, and Nereshal could still act as the greatest [Mage] of the Blighted Kingdom.
For great sacrifice, or with the right tools—what could Nereshal do to the colony? The Blighted King weighed his [Chronomancer] against the risks and costs. After all—he looked around the room of trusted people he cared for and then at his mirror image on the polished wood desk.
They all would give everything for the Blighted Kingdom in time.
The second great threat to the safety of the world was far less old, but no less present in the public consciousness.
Which said a lot about his success. Like it or not, the King of Destruction might not have achieved armageddon-level status, but he had taken an entire continent and almost turned it into a machine of war.
An entire continent. Not ‘most of a continent’ or ‘parts of a continent minus the fiddly bits’, but all of it.
The King of Destruction had recently been to Izril. He had seen the new lands rise. And like Othius, he had designs on it.
Only—his attitude was somewhat different than the Blighted King. He was explaining it to Trey and Teresa Atwood.
It was almost nostalgic. There they were, the two twins, the King of Destruction, like they had when he had begun his return.
They were even in the same place. The throne room, that cracked place of faded glory where a small chair had sat behind the grand throne.
Only, everything was different. Trey Atwood kept looking at Teresa, and he wondered…
Was her chin always like that? She’d had a dimple in it, and while they hadn’t exactly received the chin that receded back into your face, a sign of proper noble breeding back home—it hadn’t exactly been the chiseled jaw you could use to break cement.
The same for their builds. ‘Dumpy’ might be pushing it too far, but ‘dumpling’ in the vague sense that you could see a bit of imperfection rather than an athlete’s build was fair for the twins.
Or—had been. Trey felt like all these things were fair, if hurtful, for him. But Teresa?
She’d gotten rid of the dimple. She seemed like she was an inch taller. She looked like—well. Either she’d been in makeup for an hour or she had changed.
To be more accurate, her class was changing her. Teresa Atwood ignored Trey studiously as she listened to Flos. Trey was tempted to cast [Appraisal], but he knew it wouldn’t work. Still—she’d at least told him her classes.
[Blade of War]. A class for someone who had leapt into the fighting with the King of Destruction, fought in the siege for Reim, and never looked back. It might have been responsible for Teresa’s sharp look—you tended to get defined arms and calves when you spent all day stabbing people and riding around on a horse.
But Trey rather thought her second class was the one that was doing it.
[Glory Seeker]. And if that didn’t say a lot, well. Trey Atwood turned his head to gaze at the young men and women standing at the windows.
They were different, too. Earthers. They stood, jumping every few seconds with shock, alternatively looking from Flos and Trey and Teresa out the windows.
Not the same. Flos himself had changed. He kept running a hand through his hair, smiling, and he had eaten a storm after returning.
Being burnt into a crisp and suffering for months did that to you, but his return to form was also miraculous. He looked rejuvenated. Not least because his crazy plan to attack Wistram had succeeded, not least because he’d gotten to go to Izril and kick up a diabolical fuss, but because the last of his Seven had returned.
Amerys, the Calm Flower of the Battlefield, Amerys, the Archmage of Chandrar, the Archmage of Lightning—had returned.
Oh—that last thing that had changed in the throne room? Trey looked up as the King of Destruction stopped talking, and everything turned blinding white for a second. The flash was brighter than any camera’s bulb, and unlike a camera, the thwoom of lightning made Trey’s bones shake.
It was raining. Storming. Exploding outside, and the Earthers leapt as one from the bolt of lightning coming down literally a dozen paces outside the balcony.
Someone shouted. Possibly George. Elena, the [Beautician], just shouted.
“Fuck, my ears!”
But they didn’t look away. After all, the absolutely pouring rain of the storm was a sight to see on dry Chandrar. Amerys had called it in from the sea and carried it all the way to Reim as a present.
Yet the real thing to see was watching someone catch a bolt of lightning. And Trey was half-itching to watch himself, because the funny part was—it wasn’t Amerys doing the catching. It was Orthenon, and boy—it looked unpleasant when he missed.
The flash of light illuminated them all in one timeless second again, and Teresa Atwood saw Trey glance away. She looked at him, much like he’d been studying her, and wondered what happened to him.
He was the same height. The same build, although he might have gained a few pounds from Wistram if anything. However—his face was a stranger’s.
Teresa had once heard someone claim that you aged internally as much as in your body. She hadn’t quite believed that, but now she thought Trey looked like he’d skipped part of being a man and moved into being older.
Perhaps it was his class. Not [Bloodglass Mage], but the other one. [Chaos Schemer], which was an upgrade of [Plotter].
She saw that in him. A kind of…keenness that pierced through her, made her skin itch. As if he was trying to figure out what you were worth when he put you into a box for later. A cold detachment.
The other Earthers had certainly seen it in him or why were they keeping away? They were all from the same world, but Teresa had seen how that girl, Elena, looked at Trey.
Uneasily. Teresa had heard from Gazi and the rest what Trey had done there, but she wondered if there were things that the half-Gazer hadn’t even told Flos.
At the very least, Trey had left a lot of dead people behind him. Yes, Gazi and Amerys and the Quarass had done most of the killing—but Trey had done that.
Differently from her. Teresa walked onto a battlefield where the other side knew that she would kill them, and that was fair. Trey? He’d gone to Wistram as a student, smiled at some people, and then gotten them killed.
Maybe it was necessary. Maybe they all deserved it. But Trey? He looked like one person to Teresa, and she didn’t think he’d like the comparison. He looked like the Quarass, not Fetohep.
There was a big difference.
Teresa itched to take Trey aside and talk to him further, but they’d had practically no time since the ship, Sand at Sea, had finally dropped them off at Reim. There was celebrating, explaining, recap about Fetohep’s ride—
And she’d missed all of it. Teresa was still furious about it. Trey had seen the events of a lifetime, but he acted like it was a chore. He’d had a chance to fight and address the wrongs the Drakes had done to the Gnolls. After having to watch the entire battle, Teresa frankly envied him.
The Gnolls deserved better. She hoped they’d find it on Chandrar. The first thing Teresa had done upon their arrival was introduce herself to the Chieftains. It had also done a lot of good, because Nawalishifra had stopped moping about to greet the Gnoll [Smiths] from one of the tribes.
Venith Crusland on the other hand…he had greeted Calac and taken him to Maresar’s grave. But he was probably still walking the borders of Reim, destroying everything in his path with his Aura of Wrath.
Teresa had walked with him a few days, but he’d made her stop after she went through two healing potions trying to just talk to him. She’d visit later and take Trey with her, or Nawal, since Venith would talk to her.
However, there was an order to things, and this moment—the King of Destruction—deserved it. Teresa wanted to be here, and as Flos tried to say something, another flash blinded all three staring at his map of Izril.
“Argh, enough! How long will it take them?”
He strode over to the balcony and into the rain as Teresa followed. Trey muttered an umbrella spell, and a little Lifesand Golem ran after them.
Well…‘little’ meant four feet tall. Minizi had been downgraded slightly in all the fighting from her enhanced size, but she now had teeth.
Red, glass teeth, and her eyes were now orbs of fused Bloodglass. Teresa thought it didn’t bode well. She’d reminded Trey of Hal 9000. He’d told her that if Minizi turned rogue, it wouldn’t be a problem.
Frankly, looking down into the courtyard outside of the palace, Teresa got his point. There stood or flew five individuals, each one, she believed, over Level 50.
The King of Destruction’s Seven. Teresa wondered if there were a more high-level group in the world. Possibly in the Demon Kingdom or maybe Wistram…?
No. Individuals might surpass them, but five, six counting Flos? Teresa looked down at them all.
She was counting the individual in the center as one of the Seven. Orthenon, the King’s Steward, might have shied away from the title before Flos went into his slumber, but that was functionally what he was these days.
He was, funnily enough, one of the most thickset of the Seven, and he was still a slimmer build, a treacherous infighter with a sword, and one of the finest spearmasters in the world on horseback.
A long mustache, slightly drooping, and black hair made his gaunt look all the more austere, and he dressed like some kind of butler or chamberlain. What distinguished him from both, even the [Combat Butler] that Teres had heard of, was the way he walked when unguarded or when he forgot himself.
Like a cat. Not like ‘a cat’s grace in a swordsman’, which was also a thing, or a cat in nimbleness. He would hunch his shoulders a bit and give the impression—like an angry cat—he was about to pounce.
He was also touchy, like a cat. Prideful, like a cat. And Teresa truly did admire him. She thought he was exceptionally handsome—the quiet blademaster.
Who—was right now lying on his back, soot marks all over his face and arms, half the clothing on his arm and shoulder blown apart. Teresa saw Orthenon get up with a slightly shell-shocked look and then curse upwards.
He shouted upwards, and Teresa looked at her new favorite member of the Seven. She drifted amidst the storm, her bare feet clinging to the air. A robe made of jet black and topaz highlights made it seem like electricity was crawling up her clothing—a good match for the actual lightning sparking off her grass-green hair.
It blew almost as crazily as her smile, but Amerys drooped in the air, barely able to keep upright. She rested, hovering, in a kind of half-recline, head thrown back, as if she had stopped mid-swoon.
She was so weak from months of captivity she would walk and move around as if half-falling, but with a kind of odd grace. Like a dancer stepping across the air like lightning.
Right now, she was laughing at him.
“Catch it better, Orthenon! Are you afraid of a little lightning bolt?”
Orthenon got up, and Teresa thought that ‘lightning bolt’ didn’t do it justice. She had seen [Lightning Bolt] spells, and for all they were deadly—they weren’t quite the natural bolts of lightning when cast by average [Mages].
Amerys, now—she’d called down something past the level of [Grand Lightning]. It was so powerful that even the Garuda standing warily next to Orthenon had run four hundred paces away rather than risk getting hit.
Takhatres jogged back, and Teresa heard his voice.
“If you’re going to finish this before we all die of a cold? I’ve run eight miles already.”
Takhatres was almost as impatient in how he shifted from foot-to-foot as Teresa felt. He was the real warrior of the Seven in how he carried himself, always challenging, yet he was also the leader of his tribe. He could be dignified, but mostly—he was funny. That curved beak could often be a sly smile, and of all the Seven, he’d get on Flos’ nerves the most.
His plumage was blue running to green, making him one of the ‘plainer’ Garuda around, and he was always on the ground. He couldn’t fly, but in a storm like this, he was like all Garuda—grounded. And he was the fastest person in all of Chandrar as far as Teresa knew.
“Just hold still. I can’t aim precisely to your exact spot. It’ll come down within fifteen feet.”
“Fifteen feet I need to be exactly within. You had better aim before you were incarcerated.”
Orthenon grumbled. Amerys pointed a finger down at him.
“You try sitting in chains for months and see if you can shoot an arrow and hit a target at a thousand miles, Orthenon. I am dragging lightning out of the sky. Hold still.”
She pointed up at the raging storm. But Orthenon, for once, looked like he was chickening out.
…Probably because the last four lightning bolts had nearly blown him off the entire hill the palace was standing on. He pointed accustorially at a figure clinging to a tower high above Amerys.
“Even Gazi doesn’t trust your aim, Amerys. She could be down here.”
“I…need a good view.”
The half-Gazer called down to the others amidst the gale. She was indeed holding onto a tower from the roof’s ledge, shading her eyes and staring out into the distance. Her brown armor looked as plain as ever, but the crack in it drew Teresa’s eye each time.
Even so, the orange-skinned Gazer with her four-digited hands and sharp teeth was always alien to Teresa. Always…unnerving, because Gazi smiled so sinisterly. And of all the Seven, Trey liked her the most?
She had pushed him out of that tower for training. However, she was as wary of Amerys’ lightning as the other two, and Teresa didn’t blame Gazi.
Even the last member of the Seven, arguably the only one who was actually lightning-proof if she wore the right armor—or maybe even without—was staying out of this.
Out of the rain, too. Mars was sitting in a nearby stable. She’d found a hammock, set it up, and was watching in front of the scared horses. She lifted a piece of cheese on a toothpick and saluted the other four in the rain.
“You nearly got it this time, Orthenon! I believe in you!”
The scowl that everyone but the laughing Amerys gave the dry, snacking Mars didn’t deter the [Vanguard]. Today, she was a supermodel with fire-red tresses drifting down around her, wearing what might have been armor crossed with a bikini.
In short, the most unbelievable sight here. But that was Mars the Illusionist, and Teresa looked at her the least. Because everything you saw about Mars was a lie, her magic. Even her attitude—she was sometimes humble or casual, but then you saw her fight and remembered why out of all of them, even Flos, she was the highest-leveled.
Orthenon that Teresa had a crush on and learned from. Takhatres she liked and hung out with. Mars? Teresa wanted to be Mars in many ways. Someone who could change battlefields, challenge an army and walk away the victor.
However, Mars the Illusionist had no place in this activity, so Orthenon, still breathing hard, took his position in the space next to four other craters in the ground. He held up what he was carrying—
A spear. Not the same spear Fetohep had given him, an artifact, possibly a relic. Fetohep had demanded it back, and besides…this spear was deliberately cheap.
Plain. The spearhead might not have even been steel, but iron. Orthenon raised it overhead and called out.
Amerys lazily floated sideways and nodded. Teresa felt the charge in the air with the others and tensed. The Archmage looked sideways, down at the Garuda.
“Ready…don’t screw it up this time or I’ll quit.”
“Ready. My liege? Do you have confidence in this one?”
Gazi glanced over, and the Seven realized Flos was at the balcony. He laughed into the storm.
“Not at all! If Amerys misses—I’m going to duck! Try not to hit us, will you? I just healed from my last injury!”
They laughed at that. All of them, and Amerys laughed the loudest. She floated up there, and Teresa saw why Flos had lamented her absence.
Each one was a legend. Orthenon—without him, the kingdom fell to ruin. Gazi stopped the [Assassins] and [Saboteurs] that would have cut Flos’ return short in moments. Mars scared armies, and Takhatres and his tribe were the army that had held down the Empire of Sands and then the bulk of Nerrhavia’s Fallen by themselves.
But Amerys was magic. Now, her brows drew together, and her eyes began to glow with power.
The other three of the Seven tensed. Each one was ready. Teresa was still fascinated, despite them trying four times already. She watched as Amerys whispered.
“The bolt is coming. I’m putting everything I have into it. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six…two…watch out—”
She misjudged the timing of the storm building its charge. Teresa looked up as, overhead, the storm clouds began to shine.
A crackling bolt of lightning moved sideways, bouncing from cloud to cloud in a single flash. It was gathering towards a central point with dozens of others.
It happened so fast that Amerys was on two when they linked, flashing across countless miles. Then—they merged and came down.
It was so fast that Teresa thought the Earthers and Trey didn’t see more than a blinding flash or maybe the aftermath of what was happening. However, her Skills and class gave her reflexes that were pushing the Human limit already.
It was still so quick that she only processed it later. But what she saw was the bolt of lightning coming down straight at Orthenon. He reacted almost as fast, shifting left two feet. Then—he leapt straight up as the bolt of lightning flashed down. His straining arm holding the spear came up—
And the bolt of lightning hit the spear.
It should have blown his arm off. Instead, the bolt of lightning…warped around the spear. It didn’t ‘surround’ the spear, because what was it supposed to do, just hover there in a nimbus? Rather, Teresa saw the bolt twist and curve around the spear from the tip, as if it were sucked in by a magnet.
It spun around the spear—how fast? How fast did lightning move? A hundred revolutions every microsecond? Faster?
It made the spear look like it had turned into the lightning itself. Amerys was pointing down, keeping the power from unleashing itself onto Orthenon and the surroundings. But even she was sweating with the effort, or so Teres thought; the pouring rain made it impossible to tell.
She didn’t have long to wait. Orthenon was hovering in the air in the second of his jump. He shouted up.
This is where it had failed twice before. Takhatres was already gone, sprinting ahead, but Gazi’s voice rang out in the connected speaking spells linking them together. She stared into the distance.
“I see your target.”
Her eyes were glowing. All five were fixed on a point. She pointed, and Orthenon pivoted as if he could see what she did. Then Teresa saw the light filling both’s eyes. He was falling to earth, but he tossed the spear.
A bolt of lightning arced up through the air, far slower than the natural strike. It was still impossibly fast, like an arrow, and Teres saw Trey shield his eyes and then track it.
Mars had abandoned her hammock. Flos Reimarch whirled—and the Lord of the Skies ran.
Orthenon couldn’t do more than catch the lightning and bind it to the spear. His throw was as strong as he could make it from that posture, but it barely cleared the city even from the top of the hill. Like a football…shaped like a spear…charged with a super-bolt of lightning…it fell as the [Soldiers] on the wall looked up and ducked.
If it hit the ground, it was all over. Orthenon had aimed it towards Gazi’s target, but it was miles and miles from the location.
But the blur that raced through the city, accelerating, was heading towards it. The Lord of the Skies was moving even faster when he caught the spear. And when he threw it—Amerys snapped her fingers.
The Lord of the Skies crowed as he grabbed the spear. Teres heard his voice.
“A gift from the Archmage of Chandrar!”
The lightning crackled, and the spear flashed through the air. It began to accelerate back into the speed of a bolt of lightning—only this time, the spear was being carried with it.
Oh—and the spear of lightning was about a hundred times bigger. It curved into the horizon as Gazi’s eyes fixed on a point.
“For Nerrhavia’s Fallen, for the siege of Reim and our lord’s injuries.”
She whispered, and Orthenon murmured as all four of the Seven spoke at once. Teres heard the unnatural silence in the storm become a deafening roar that went on, and a streak of light filled the sky.
“—[Combined Skill: Bolt from the Heavens].”
A four-person combination Skill. Teresa felt her arms break out in goosebumps. The spear of lightning seared her eyes, but it didn’t land. Not yet. She heard someone counting softly.
“Thousand one, thousand two, thousand three, thousand four…”
He was counting down the miles. Teres listened as Trey’s voice sounded in the silence. Flos was smiling, and the other Seven were nodding or congratulating each other—but Gazi was still watching.
The rumble in the distance was loud. It was accompanied by a flash that lit up the horizon. Teresa heard wild cheering from everyone watching. The Earthers just looked confused and nervous, but the King of Destruction and the Seven were gazing at Gazi.
“Direct hit. Nerrhavia’s army on the borders is in chaos. We struck their command tent.”
The Gazer was already sliding down the tower. Amerys laughed as Orthenon calmly wiped water out of his eyes.
“See? I told you we’d get it done. And this means more than us going in person. Now—I need a hot bath. I shall meet you all in forty minutes.”
With that, she floated to a higher balcony as if that was that. Orthenon headed into the palace, and Gazi climbed towards Flos’ balcony. Takhatres was jogging back to the city, raising one arm to the cheers, and Mars followed Orthenon inside.
As if that were normal. Teres finally remembered to breathe. She looked at the King of Destruction and saw Trey’s troubled look. Flos just laughed.
“With Amerys—so much more is available to us. Now, where was I? Let’s dry off. A towel for everyone, and a drink for my Archmage! Ask our Chieftains if they want to gather before our council. A shame we can’t hit Izril or I’d throw a few bolts at Zeres.”
The King of Destruction ate popcorn with a towel around his shoulder and a fire raging in the fireplace. He toasted the Chieftains who’d come to Reim as opposed to Khelt and elsewhere as if he hadn’t killed possibly thousands with a long-range spell-Skill moments ago.
That was the man that Trey had delivered the Earthers to.
…It was still probably better than Wistram. Especially if Amerys honored her vow and she and Gazi managed to move Flos’ opinion.
As for Trey, he reflected that at least he was levelling. For instance, Minizi proved invaluable as everyone had snacks. She held the popcorn bowl out and stared at Trey in a way that said that the Golem uprising was coming.
However, Flos just ruffled her ‘hair’ and patted the Lifesand Golem on the head. Minizi stared at him as he chuckled.
“Your little creation comes to life. And as cute as can be! Gazi, isn’t it flattering? We should make those…figurines and sell them across my kingdom! I think there were dolls of all seven of you, but as I recall, not many children wanted yours. Mars? Exceptionally popular. Right behind Tottenval. You and Queravia, though…”
Gazi blushed at the compliment. She took a handful of popcorn, and Amerys drifted back into the throneroom. She needed no Golem. The Archmage of Chandrar had apparently taken half the larder with her as a bevy of floating foods surrounded her—along with a bottle of wine and a cup.
“What vintage is that?”
Orthenon narrowed his eyes, and the bottle obligingly turned around to hide the label from him. Takhatres strode in, shaking his feathers like a dog.
“I will have a cup. Make it two. Are we murdering more children today?”
“No, there aren’t any eggs here.”
Flos rolled his eyes, exasperated, as one of the Gnolls choked on her food. He slapped her on the back as Mars raised a cup. Amerys poured them all a glass, then settled back.
“Are we discussing the war, the new lands, or your kingdom-building ideas, Flos?”
She used his name, and Trey thought Amerys was interesting. Orthenon did his scowl at the lack of decorum, and Takhatres smiled, but Trey knew the other Seven and Orthenon.
Amerys was new. And she…was different. Unlike laid-back Mars or Gazi, who would put on her act. Amerys had revealed some of her personality within days of returning to Reim by her hobbies and inclinations.
What was she? Well, Amerys was…cosmopolitan. In all the ways that were good and bad.
“Flos, you’ve downgraded your baths. No Balerosian mud baths, the hot water isn’t piped any longer, and someone stole the water purifiers. Your beds are, at least, silk, but you’ve got a very distressingly small larder. The wine is only good because it’s been sitting in your cellars for twenty years. And there’s almost no runework in the palace at all. Oh, and your walls are as bare of art as Takhatres’ bald patch.”
The Garuda pointed a fork at Amerys.
“Take that back.”
Dilettante might be another word for Amerys. She was, well—
Wistram. It was true she was far hardier and battle-savvy than the academy, but Trey understood that she hadn’t been completely apart from the academy like Valeterisa. There was a reason that Amerys had gone back there when the King of Destruction slumbered.
“As I recall it, the castle was looted of almost everything—including the piping—by [Servants] with my blessing. Or sold off later as necessity demanded.”
Flos looked amused. Amerys yawned into one hand.
“Yes, well…let’s have it back soon. Not just for here; all the cities I passed by could use some civic-minded improvements. Libraries, for instance? I’m displeased to note half the ones I set up are gone. Books sold, missing, never returned. Well, in the ones with low-level [Librarians].”
Mars raised one hand.
“…What would anyone want with copper piping?”
Amerys rolled her eyes.
“To install them somewhere else, Mars. High-quality plumbing is exceptionally expensive.”
“Ah. Everyone who’s too good to haul up a bucket. Well, the Archmage of Bidets has returned to us, and all of Reim shall rejoice for their cleaner behinds. All hail!”
Mars did a mocking bow, and Amerys flicked a tiny bolt of lightning at Mars’ face. The [Vanguard] sneezed, and it ricocheted into the floor.
“I am serious, you know, Flos. Reim has been looted of all it had, quite literally, and it would be good to return that.”
The King of Destruction’s good mood could not be abated, but it did soften slightly with contemplation as he took a cup of wine.
“You are, as always, my font of foreign culture, Amerys. No one has gone as far as you—save Orthenon.”
“And he is as culturally-minded as Mars.”
The Archmage was snippy. However, the other Seven clearly liked her being back enough that they put up with it—or they were used to it. Flos scratched at his chin.
“We have gold from the Nerrhavian captives we’ve ransomed back. I can see no reason not to put some of it towards the infrastructure of Reim. That was what I intended to discuss, anyways. Along with the new lands and the war. We’re allowing most of the soldiers to rest and return home, anyways.”
Because the war was over. As Trey understood it, Reim was suddenly at peace after the running conflicts with so many nations.
King Raelt and Jecaina of Jecrass had both been returned to their country. Whilst Flos had an outstanding objection against both—Khelt had claimed the western part of Jecrass, and Flos had agreed not to do battle with Khelt. Jecrass was tired of war, and the two largest enemies in the north?
The Claiven Earth and Medain were quiet after Khelt had trashed both. Belchan was conquered, and while that meant unrest, the will to fight had been ground out of the north by the fierce battles.
As for Nerrhavia, they had suffered catastrophic losses at Reim, and Amerys returning had scared them spitless. Pomle was fighting an army to the southwest, and Tiqr was in rebellion.
Trey had heard there were other problems in the great kingdom, but the truth was that now that Flos Reimarch had only one real enemy, they had gotten to the same point that all the nations had feared: him concentrating his forces. They had attacked from all sides to prevent that.
Instead of killing him as hoped, they had instead helped level his armies, and Amerys was back.
Even so, the amount of deaths and war was exhausting to all nations, Nerrhavia included. Yet the King of Destruction just lifted a finger as he addressed his audience.
“We—dead gods, this is good—are moving our veterans across the border. While the regulars take a few weeks of rest, we’ll push forwards and begin hammering Nerrhavia along their borders. They have a lot of damned forts they’ve built since I was asleep. Let’s knock them down so we don’t have to worry when we heat things up.”
There was his power. Not just strategic acumen, or strength, or his charisma over people—it was the fact that Reim kept fighting. When other nations slowed down or began to think of peace, Reim was still fresh.
In fact, it seemed like Reim was not only fresh, but flourishing. Trey had seen countless farms that had been lying fallow now being worked by the people who had come to the King of Destruction’s kingdom. And they were as bountiful as anything he’d seen, positively blooming with green.
“How are all the farms producing so much food, Flos? The rains you kept summoning? It wasn’t enough for this.”
Teresa had noticed it too. Flos just chuckled, and Amerys raised an amused eyebrow.
“They don’t know?”
The King of Destruction turned to the twins.
“I told you I was a [King of War], you two. Every Skill I have is geared around how my kingdom lived. [Blood is Growth]. In Reim, at least, the fields will be three, five times as rich as they were when I slumbered. I have many Skills like that. As for gold—very well! I am going to spend the lion’s share on what we need to arm ourselves, Amerys, but I will reserve a fifth for you. A great project, I agree. Does anyone else have anything in mind?”
The Seven murmured as Trey exchanged a look with Teres. Orthenon shook his head.
“Deeper wells, perhaps?”
Amerys shot back. Takhatres folded his arms.
“We don’t have Drevish. It’s got to come from Amerys unless Mars wants to dig for eight days and nights?”
“Flos, what’s this project about?”
The King of Destruction looked at Teresa and smiled, then included the Gnoll Chieftains in his confidence. And the listening Earthers, hovering in the background.
“I saw it as I was fighting across Belchan. Jecrass was one thing, but Hellios, Germina? Positively as poor as Reim. Stripped of what they had.”
“Civil wars after you fell asleep did that.”
Mars put in succinctly. Flos sighed deeply.
“Yes. But I hated to see it. At least Belchan had those academies that Amerys built! They produced some [Grand Mages], you know. At least one. She’s fighting with Parasol Stroll.”
“Really? I need to catch up.”
Amerys’ eyes brightened, and Flos nodded. Then he scowled again.
“Jecrass’ cities had a few improvements, what I saw of them. But I think…no, there’s no excuses. Reim was a jewel of Chandrar, and the twenty years I let it crumble are entirely upon me. But I looked north and thought that all our great architecture, the wonders of Chandrar—we did them in the nations I conquered later, didn’t we?”
The Seven looked at Flos, and he sighed.
“I suppose each nation did well enough when gold and artifacts flooded in. But my roads I built all over Chandrar’s eastern coast? Drevish’s landmarks, Tottenval’s gardens of plenty? I should have left a few here.”
Orthenon nodded once, but Takhatres disagreed.
“If you did, we’d have had to take a damn fortress that spat Yellat-shaped ballista bolts at us while the statues on the walls sang Chandrarian chants.”
Flos nearly snorted wine out his nose.
“…Yes, well, aside from that. I will not leave Reim penniless twice. But for Drevish…Amerys, you will get to fill his shoes. I need you to prioritize cost—I won’t beggar us, but think of what he made. Your pipes.”
“I need to design houses—streets? Absolutely not. I am a student of Wistram. Where in that description does ‘balancing costs’ seem to come in for you, Flos?”
Amerys was mildly horrified. The King of Destruction winced.
“Well, someone must do it, and Orthenon can only hire people he works with. Not design himself. If the Mad Ones were here—”
“Each house would have a bidet that shot water ten feet straight up.”
Gazi glared, lifting a finger.
“Takhatres—no, you’re right. Someone must, so Amerys should do it. You only need to do a single street.”
“I cannot. I don’t lay bricks, and I need to do everything with ordinary workers, not magic! Isn’t one of Drevish’s apprentices alive?”
“What, all two of them? His workers are, but no one survived his personality—”
The arguing Seven were something of a treat to watch for Trey. But then he was reminded things would be different, because someone raised her hand. And Elena spoke.
“Um. Excuse me. Can I speak?”
The King of Destruction and his Seven turned, and the Earthers drew back. But Elena only gazed cautiously at Flos until he smiled.
“Aha! Elena, isn’t it? Trey spoke of you. I was wondering if one of you would have the courage. Speak—you are guests of Reim. What you will be in the future, exactly, we will find out. But I consider you welcome guests. Hold nothing back. We know of Earth, and my trusted vassals and I harbor no secrets. Unlike Wistram.”
He spread his arms widely, and one of the Gnoll Chieftains nearly leapt out of his fur.
“You know about…?”
Flos stared innocently at the Gnoll.
“Did I not say? Ah, but the Gnolls know of Earth? We have much to talk about! Later—what did you wish to say, Miss Elena?”
His eyes twinkled with interest, and she hesitated. Trey wondered what she thought of Flos now that she had met him face-to-face. Wistram painted one view of Flos, but Elena was open-minded. She had known the Singer of Terandria…
And she was sharp.
“What are you, um, talking about exactly, Your Majesty? You plan to build improvements across Reim? For your people?”
“Something. Some—project. But as you have heard, my greatest Architect, Drevish—is dead. He was the one who could redesign Chandrar. In his absence, I need Amerys to. Or someone else. Simply one thing. Like…a deeper well. Or copper pipes, though we have not enough copper to copy it into every city, even the ones in the few nations we have. And, frankly, the cost in gold scales to difficulty.”
“You plan on sending work teams to redesign your cities?”
Trey was curious. He didn’t know if Reim had that many dedicated craftspeople, at least, not on the scale required. Hellios, Germina, and Belchan might have them, but Orthenon would have a headache organizing that. Flos snorted.
“Hardly. I do not intend to argue with the Crafter’s Guild. I would rather battle Medain again. Medain and the Claiven Earth. If I can redesign one city, or even a village—economically—I will use a Skill and copy it. Kingdom-building Skills run on gold and material.”
The Earthers drew closer, and Elena blinked at Flos. He nodded grandly.
“Have you not ever heard of a palace being built in a day? Djinni can do it—and so can some [Kings] and [Queens]. Some can raise walls, others, adjust part of their cities. When I ruled most of Chandrar, I needed to implement broad changes across the continent. I require gold, materials, and the competency of workers, so Drevish designed cheap, easy-to-build improvements. Then, with my Skill, any city under my control in need of, say, an improved grain silo would begin building one. They don’t just pop out of the air.”
“I truly wish they popped out of the air. I am told the Blighted Kingdom can do that, but then—they can also create beams that turn everything they touch into gold.”
It was more like copying blueprints on a wide scale. An alternative to the internet or Mage’s Guilds. Trey was a bit disappointed, but Flos clarified.
“It doesn’t just work on architecture. Magic runes, ways of…breeding sheep or whatnot? The problem is that it must be simple or else only a Level 26 [Woodworker] with specific Skills can do what is necessary, for instance. [Here, And Everywhere I Rule]! And that is how you get a hundred thousand salt shakers that do not shake salt out the bottom third.”
He put his cup down, and Orthenon shuddered. Yet Elena and the other Earthers were fascinated—or disturbed. She shot a look at Trey, and he nodded.
That’s right. That’s the man in front of you. Someone with the potential for great change, good and bad.
“You should make, like…well pumps. Or—or wind turbines and something useful like that? George is a [Student]. He could design you something from Earth!”
One of the Earthers raised a hand, and George turned pale as Flos looked at him keenly.
“George? Are you a scholar, then?”
“No, no—I just was a student—”
“Ah, a student of Earth. Which, as Trey and Teres tell me, has everything from automobiles to flying planes. If you could develop anything to change Chandrar, I would reward you handsomely. Roads, fortifications, ease of living—that is a [King]’s promise.”
Flos smiled, and George froze up. The King of Destruction peered at him, then patted him on the shoulder. He faced the others and spoke to his Seven and the twins.
“…That is what I will return to my people. It is time to take on Nerrhavia’s Fallen, but I want my vassals back. Amerys proves how sorely we lack for our specialists. The Mad Ones. I hear Loquea Dree and the Monks of Sottheim have both reawakened. We need the rest.”
“Those insane executioners and the horniest [Monks] in the world? Wonderful.”
Takhatres was as sarcastic as usual, and Trey wondered what he meant by that. But Flos had strode back over to the prototype map of Izril.
“Nevermind, nevermind. This ties into Amerys’ wants, my wants for improving my lands. For the war and everything. Look upon the new lands of Izril. What do you see, my Seven?”
They gazed at the map, and Mars stuck a hand up.
“…A butt? A cute one, though.”
Flos’ beaming smile turned into a scowl. Takhatres objected.
“Be civil, Mars. It looks like a boot, to me.”
“It could be a peach?”
Orthenon tried, and Flos glared around.
“I see opportunity.”
“For what, new lands? Every nation in the world wants that.”
Amerys was skeptical, and Flos snorted.
“New land…? Land, Amerys? What need have we of land? Have you not seen Chandrar? Look there!”
He strode to the balcony. The storm had ended, but they could still see the darkening landscape of Chandrar, stretching out into the distance. Flos pointed west and shouted.
“Yonder lies Zeikhal! The Great Desert! In Hellios, Germina, Jecrass especially—I see altogether too much land! We do not need more. People to fill the land, riches for comfort—that is what we need. Resources, perhaps, but if I ever lack for room, I will fill Zeikhal first before Izril!”
He turned away from the balcony and stormed back over. He was excited, and his green eyes were lit up.
“No, I don’t crave land, Amerys. Just think—the new land is filled with adventure! That is romance. If I was not a [King], I would be exploring it now. Even from the outskirts, there are broken cities and, doubtless, dungeons and unearthed secrets. I crave that. Artifacts—no—discoveries of a lifetime. Weapons and spellbooks to take us beyond our opponents, or secrets such as those quests being posted by our [Innkeeper] of some renown.”
He gave Gazi a significant look, and she gave him a half-smile, slightly bitter. Trey recalled the famous young woman who had blinded Gazi.
Erin Solstice. Flos clenched one fist, frustrated.
“To pick her mind about the other quests…! But no, we are sadly an ocean away, and our authority is weak on Izril. Yet I will not pass this opportunity by. I am minded to create an expeditionary force in our own right.”
“They’d be slaughtered before they touch shore.”
Takhatres objected, and Flos waved a finger at him.
“Only if anyone knows they hail from Reim. I predict…a rush. Trey, you had thoughts on this entire event. Repeat what you said to me, and chime in, you others.”
He motioned Trey forwards, and he was conscious of every eye on him as he spoke.
“It’s not the same, but it reminds me of the Scramble for Africa. Or the rush for the west in America. Lots of nations trying to claim land—in this case, it’s actually uninhabited.”
“It belongs to our people. But you are right—who is respecting that?”
One of the Gnolls growled unhappily. Flos turned and strode over.
“I will. And if I take Izril—I will return these lands. Frankly—I have an idea that may involve sending some Gnoll volunteers back, Chieftain Reitx, I believe? I listened to Trey and agree. I foresee a huge rush as every nation tries to colonize this place. Among it—I intend to prioritize great discoveries. Call it—a funded expedition. Perhaps even one of you Seven will join it. Assuming we can disguise you properly.”
Flos Reimarch looked around, beaming, and Orthenon sighed.
“Your Majesty, we could focus on reconquering Chandrar…?”
“Orthenon, what fun would that be without joining the chaos? Besides which—”
Flos’ eyes glinted, and he looked at Trey.
“—Everyone else from the Quarass to perhaps Fetohep himself is surely joining in. I have multiple goals in Izril, and finding the lost City of Stars or this ‘Crossroads of Izril’ makes me ask one huge question.”
He faced the map and then flipped it over the board and stared at the map of Chandrar. Flos Reimarch’s eyes narrowed, and he murmured.
“…Perhaps there was once a Crossroads of Chandrar, too. I want to speak to that [Innkeeper]. I have a feeling there is something else that Fetohep did that he is not telling me. Or some…change in the world. A Fraerling city appears, Seamwalkers distort reality, and Earthers are appearing faster than Sariant Lambs at a noblewoman’s buffet. I will have answers.”
He turned and looked at the others.
“So. Who wants to storm Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and who would like apprentices? If any of you Earthers would like to learn magic from Amerys or study under Mars, speak up! Or if you have any grand ideas, I will hear them now.”
He beamed at the Earthers, and Elena sucked in her breath as she gazed at Trey. Slowly, she raised a hand.
“Yes, Miss Elena?”
Flos Reimarch turned to her. Elena looked at him, then Trey, then took a breath.
“Could I…go to my friends in Terandria? Just leave?”
The King of Destruction looked at her, and his eyes flickered. He rested his chin in his hands for a moment and thought.
“…I am not opposed, but I will ask you to stay at least a while, Miss Elena. Trey Atwood took a great effort liberating you and Amerys. I am in need of help. Do me one service and I will pay passage myself. Otherwise?”
George looked at Flos warily, and the King of Destruction smiled.
“Otherwise, I will deliver you to Terandria once my fleets sail in. I intend to visit too.”
The bloody conqueror smiled and turned back to his maps full of opportunity, but his eyes lingered on Izril and that inn. As if he could tell there was more he was missing and impatient at not being the absolute center of it all.
He had no interest in the land, however it was shaped. Only what—and who lay on it. But even Flos Reimarch was not in possession of all of the facts.
And lastly, if you asked someone for the third greatest threat to world peace, they’d say—Goblins. Or some nation like Ailendamus. Or Crelers, because they were a good option, again.
If they were in a position to know more, they might say ‘Regis Reinhart’, or ‘Ailendamus with immortals’, or ‘vampire Krakens’.
But someone with a lot of information about all the secrets of the world might reasonably say that the third greatest threat to everyone was the highest-level [Necromancer] still…living.
Az’kerash, alone, was a worthy contender for third place. Especially in light of recent events.
He had achieved what few [Necromancers] had ever dreamed of doing: creating levelling undead. The Necromancer had rid himself of Izril’s greatest [General] and had also benefited from the war of the dead in significant ways.
In his secluded castle betwixt the enchanted forest and High Passes, no army or assassin could easily find him. The roads that led in and out of his abode twisted such that even to get in you would need to navigate the labyrinthine true path that was both invisible and changing—one misstep and you’d be walking out of the forest.
Even should an intruder pass the forest, they would emerge into a barren field of dead grass and see an ancient castle that had once been the home of [Knights], then a [Lady] of great renown, a travelling aegis—brought low by treachery and stained with misdeeds.
The stone was black, and the castle’s ramparts had long since given way from the living to the dead. Skeletons holding bows were the least of an attacking army’s worries. Liches, undead spellcasters, and even stronger undead like Skeleton Lords manned the walls as ordinary defenders.
The real vanguard was buried in the ground, skeletal giants and worse waiting to destroy any foe. The castle, then, was a fitting resting place for the Necromancer. An omen of death to anyone who stumbled upon it.
The…giant hole on the left side that had been somewhat clumsily patched up with regular masonry detracted from the image. Undead were not good builders. Nor were [Necromancers], at least with things not made of bone and flesh.
Nevertheless, the castle was mostly old grandeur and tireless undead, whose eyes glowed with malice in this heart of death magic. Unlike the Blighted King and King of Destruction, the Necromancer was largely unknown to the world, and his enemies knew his strength full well. The dread Necromancer, enhancing his strength each hour…who could challenge that?
Well, the six-armed super-titan made of glowing cloth that was punching out three bone giants was probably a good start. It had three heads and, like a monster from Greek legend, was also capable of literally turning the cloth-flesh to a burning radiance that burnt the undead trying to crawl up it to ash.
Unlike monsters of Greek legend, this particular titan of cloth had more tricks up its sleeve. For instance—the undead being smashed to pieces were being covered with bits of string that yanked up their bones and ‘reanimated’ them. Only, what came at the castle’s defenders were half-undead, half-string warriors.
What was the difference between the regular undead and these things? The half-string creatures had a quasi-flesh. And they screamed as they fought the undead.
Back to the cloth titan. It was half again as tall as Az’kerash’s regular bone giants, and it was faster and tougher than both. The observer, a certain skeleton wearing over eight relics, had made a few observations.
Regular giants were dangerous, but slow and arguably fragile if you concentrated on them. Gold-rank adventurers had proven that during the Village of the Dead raid.
Greater giant-class undead were more formidable, but Az’kerash preferred to raise a horde over a single undead. That was biting him in the coccyx now. The cloth titan was currently using one of its hands to hold a skeleton giant in place as it smashed its ribcage to bits.
The other two skeleton giants kept trying to bash it down, but it was tough. They were doing no damage. Nor were the other defenders of the castle.
The swarm-tactics the regular undead were using were getting them vaporized and sent back as minions. And while the cloth-undead were having trouble taking the castle because of the competent defenders that the skeleton with purple eyes had set up in choke points—he was fairly certain the titan would punch through the walls.
This might require the Necromancer himself. No undead present could stop the titan. Well—at least, not the Chosen.
He, the skeleton with purple eyes, who called himself Toren, had just watched the cloth titan kick Venitra into the High Passes. She was probably undamaged, more the pity, but it would take her at least an hour to run back.
Bea had walked up, touched the cloth, and begun corrupting it—right until a fist punched her three dozen feet deep into the earth. She had declined to get back out there and give it another shot.
As for Ijvani, the last of the Chosen deemed combat-ready, well, Toren had found one of her bones. The clavicle was trying to roll across the battlements towards the rest of its body.
He gave it an encouraging toss over the ramparts. Yep, this was a sorry sight. The Necromancer’s finest undead, trashed. His personal abode, under siege. Who could do such a thing? The skeleton put his gauntleted hands to his skull in a parody of fear.
Oh no. It was such a mystery.
Or it would be if every single one of the screaming cloth-warriors and the titan itself weren’t shrieking to the high heavens. It was a female voice, although Toren had never heard her scream like that. The screeching dissonance was probably eerie to mortal sensibilities.
“NECROMANCER. RETURN MY DAUGHTER TO ME.”
Belavierr, the Stitch Witch, had sent this minion against the castle. And it was amazing, really. Toren knew she wasn’t here. She wasn’t even on this continent, according to Az’kerash. Even after those ghostly [Witches] had messed her up, she still was able to throw this minion at the castle.
That was class. Although…Toren turned his head sideways and saw a figure struggling in between two Chosen trying to keep her there. She burned with dark fire.
Maviola, the undead made by Belavierr, shouted as Devail and Wesixa restrained her. She was reaching out, but uncertainly—she could have burned the other two Chosen, but her flames were only coating her own body.
The world’s most high-powered custody battle involved titanic clashes of undead and, among other things that had been besieging the castle, swarms of giant insects, meteor storms, and showers of needles.
Well, the cloth titan had just taken down all but one of the bone giants, and it was finishing off the last one. Toren looked at Maviola, and she went silent a second as he lifted a hand.
[Judge] Toren had been watching the entire affair. The sordid offspring between the Necromancer and Belavierr! The poor parenting on both sides! The skeleton adjusted his skull.
If he had a bone in this fight, he had to admit—Az’kerash made for the better parent, and that was a low bar. Not that Toren liked the Necromancer that much.
But he had to admit—the skeleton did a flying leap from the castle battlements and crushed a cloth warrior between his enchanted boots. He reached up, swung a sword made of glass through another warrior’s head, and strode forwards.
He enjoyed the perks.
The [Relic Guardian] strode into the open ground between the castle as the cloth titan turned its wrath towards Az’kerash’s home. Yet, incredibly, it seemed to notice the tiny skeleton coming its way.
Perhaps the eight aforementioned Relic-class pieces of gear that Toren was wearing did the job. They would normally have generated so much magical interference that it would have caused a chain reaction that destroyed part of the castle. Again. However—Toren grinned as he put the sword on his shoulder.
He had some new Skills. He beckoned to the cloth giant with his free hand. After all his turmoil and torment at the hands of the Chosen—he was back to the good stuff: Inflicting bodily harm on other people.
The cloth titan brought down a fist that caused an earthquake in the surrounding region. Even on the castle’s walls, the defenders felt it.
A wobbling slime glowing purple with brilliant flecks of orange within jiggled in fear, but it was watching the battle. Even the Chosen had fallen silent. The blow should have destroyed the skeleton beyond even regeneration’s capacity to recover.
Yet—when the dust cleared, Toren was still standing there. He’d caught the fist with one hand. Even the cloth titan seemed amazed by that.
“He’s so cool.”
Maviola forgot her tears long enough to stare at Toren. He was grinning. Well, he was always grinning, but he definitely seemed to be enjoying this as he threw the hand back and leapt up the arm.
“The gauntlets did that. They make him as strong as a giant. I could do that. If I had them on.”
A skeleton’s head, black iron and two glowing gold flames, sulked as the rest of Ijvani’s bones slowly rolled towards her. Devail looked at her. The fibrous undead carrying the rapier turned from the cloth titan to Ijvani.
“Why did you not, then?”
The skeleton [Mage] opened and closed her jaw and then glared at him.
“Be silent. I am the original Chosen.”
“Yetyetyet…Toren is the one instructing us to fight.”
A soft chittering sound produced the odd chattering voice. Wesixa’s body dangled with string. She was more of a…puppet than person, but she didn’t look human. Rather, it was as if someone had taken a spider, turned it into cloth and ivory, and given it a puppet’s strings.
She wasn’t creepy at all. The healing slime hid behind Maviola as the undead [Lady] stared at Toren fighting the titan. He would have probably been smashed, even with all the relics he was wearing—Belavierr had sent a true city-destroying nightmare at Az’kerash. But more Bone Giants were rising for backup and the undead were streaming out of the gates.
“I want to go with Mother. Why won’t Archmage Chandler let me go?”
She had asked a variation of that question the last twelve times Belavierr had tried to recover her daughter. However, the Necromancer had sat her down and explained.
Belavierr was not a fit…mother. Maviola would join his Chosen, and she should not listen to mysterious lanterns appearing at her window telling Maviola to follow them. Or spells, constructs, or other phenomena of that nature.
The undead Maviola might have tried to run away despite that, because Belavierr was her mother—but Toren had patted her on the arm. He didn’t speak, but he had communicated via the undead’s shared understanding that Belavierr could be a real Erin. She might be loving, but she could be entirely hurtful by accident, and in the skeleton’s experience, this tended to end with a deathmatch in an inn.
So Maviola had stayed, especially because the cute little slime and Toren kept her company. She didn’t like the other Chosen. Or the evil woman Az’kerash had put in the circle.
“Why is master not coming? Toren will fail. We failed—therefore, he will.”
Ijvani was anxious, but Wesixa answered as Toren tried to saw off a leg.
“Hehehe is busy with his guest.”
“They are always in his rooms. He has missed sparring practice with me. Twice.”
Devail put in, slightly upset. Maviola saw Ijvani’s neck reassembling as the skeleton mage looked askance.
“Why do those petty—ghosts have his attention? They were once alive. They are inferior to us.”
Maviola raised a hand.
“Maybe Archmage Chandler is having sex. Private, illicit rendezvous.”
The other Chosen turned to her. Wesixa looked surprised.
“Sexsexsex? Why would he do that?”
Maviola folded her arms defensively.
“My mother told me that is what a man and women do in private. Or man and man. Or man and animal. Or man and monster. Or man and eighteen women and—that’s all you do in private. We should spy on them and record proof of the affair for blackmail.”
The Chosen looked at each other. Most took Maviola at her word, but the Healing Slime, somehow the most adult member of the audience, reflected that Az’kerash might be the better parent after all.
What the Necromancer of Terandria, the most feared individual for a century of destruction, bane of the living, fallen Archmage of Death, Perril Chandler, was actually doing during the battle outside was suffering.
He, who had long since forgotten the trevails of flesh, had weathered death and all agonies of betrayal and the mortal world’s torment—was in pain.
It was amazing. His body wasn’t being harmed. He was a being of such mana that even a Djinni would look upon him in awe, arguably one of the highest-leveled individuals to ever exist, let alone currently live.
And yet—every time he turned his head to the floating figure in the circle of contained magic she had demanded, demanded he install in his personal workroom, unlike the others in his laboratory below—he almost flinched.
Words. Mere words, not even Skills, made the Necromancer dread going into his private lair.
He had met [Bards] of renown. Even heard [Pun Masters] with wordplay so cutting they could rend flesh. Yet none, not even the scathing rebuke of a sixty year-old [Lady] in a ballroom from behind a paper fan, compared with the mistress of critique.
If Az’kerash was the recent monster in the public consciousness, a myth that was still used to terrify children, he was looking at one of the originals.
Someone so famous she wasn’t a modern hit, but an all-time classic in the history of the world. One of the greatest villains who had terrorized a continent for over a thousand years.
The Immortal Tyrant, Nerrhavia. Az’kerash had looked up some of her history after ‘rescuing’ her from the battle at the Meeting of Tribes.
Nerrhavia, a Human who had gone from a mere commoner in the Empire of Ateverha, a corrupt and failing nation, to ruling everything and scaring even the Walled Cities and nations on other continents. She was called the Suzerain of Cloth, Ruler of the Woven Citadel, and among her names, Twisted Chamberlain of the Lacreous Courts.
Even that last bit was a story in itself. Az’kerash had looked into the tale until he’d grown so uncomfortable he’d had to close the book. That was Nerrhavia.
And her ghost, her actual ghostly soul, was in his possession. To a [Necromancer], that was the ally of a lifetime. The power and secrets of the greatest ruler, someone whose level might exceed his—at his beck and call. Not to mention the other ghosts he’d captured in the prison meant for Fetohep’s enemy.
Why, then, did he regret it so much? Perril Chandler had realized, too late, the mistake so many of Nerrhavia’s enemies had made. Guest, prisoner, ghost in a [Necromancer]’s power or not…
She got inside your head.
The woman’s ghost was the same as the last time he’d seen her. She could not alter her appearance, much to her displeasure, and some of the abilities she’d claimed were part and parcel to every ghost in the lands of the dead had left her.
For instance, she looked—as all the ghosts did—just like she had when she had died. In Nerrhavia’s case, the cause of death was simple.
Someone had taken a blade—and Az’kerash, as a student of dueling, thought it was a handaxe—and chopped through half her neck. Of course, that hadn’t killed her. But since, as Az’kerash understood it, Nerrhavia had fled the final siege and used the last of her strength to kill herself and rob her enemies of a trial or a torturous death, he supposed her true death-wounds didn’t show.
Namely, destroying half the palace and all the attackers in a final blaze of spiteful glory. That was the Immortal Tyrant’s legacy, and she certainly had dressed for her death.
She was draped in cloth that revealed her shoulders and upper arms but kept the rest of her body hidden, and Az’kerash imagined she had lounged upon her throne, idly applauding the first people to slay her last guards. She had painted her lips and nails red like blood, which complemented the sheer white dress—the color of death—very well.
Poisoned nails, incidentally. Nerrhavia had also braided her hair back like a stinger.
The entire look was impressive—but the ghost hated it. She floated in the circle he had drawn that anchored her soul to this world. If it broke—she would be returned from whence she came, and she assured him that would be a fate worse than death.
Yet she didn’t sound pleased by being one of the last ghosts to exist in the mortal world. If anything—her tone was exceptionally annoyed.
“…and five changes of clothes. Each in the modern style, assuming they are tasteful. If I had known I would be forced to wear the garb of my death, I would have chosen something more all-purpose.”
The Necromancer was aware his castle was under siege. At any other time, he would be personally assessing the battle, destroying Belavierr’s minions, or talking to Maviola. Right now…his black eyes with white pupils fixed on Nerrhavia incredulously.
“Empress Nerrhavia. You may address me as Suzerain, Tyrant, or Eminence as a gesture of my goodwill.”
She snapped back. Az’kerash’s mouth stayed open a fraction of a second.
“—You wish me to design you clothes a ghost can wear and change into. Clothes for a ghost?”
“Oh, is it beyond your capabilities? I apologize—I assumed I was speaking to a [Necromancer], not a [Corpse Digger].”
She put her head on her folded hands and regarded him with a bright, cheery smile. For a second. Then her scowl resumed.
“And I insist you bring me more entertainment! Those scrying orbs do well enough for mundane entertainment, but send me that interesting child. The one with fire hair, the daughter of the Stitch-Witch.”
“Maviola? Belavierr’s creation? I think not. She is already—distressed about her mother. She does not need poor lessons.”
Especially from you. And especially because, Az’kerash had learned, Belavierr and Nerrhavia had been contemporaries. In fact, they had been friends and allies.
When he had learned that, he had forbidden Maviola from getting anywhere near Nerrhavia. The Immortal Tyrant turned her head slightly, incredulously eying Az’kerash.
“It appears your ears did not survive your resurrection into undeath, [Necromancer]. That was not a request. Send the girl. How long until my body is ready?”
That was enough. Az’kerash turned from what had really been a fruitless time looking into Izril’s new lands. Even his myriad mental processes were running at reduced capacity.
That was how annoying Nerrhavia was. He spoke curtly.
“It seems I was not clear enough before. Allow me to readdress this situation. Great Nerrhavia, Tyrant of old. I am well aware of your legend and might in the histories of the world. However, you seem to be under the misapprehension that you are, in any way, in charge. You came to me, desperate for sanctuary. Now, you are a ghost in a [Necromancer]’s sway. I am no perverse being, but you have no power. If anything, you should hope to court me as the only ally and chance of resurrection you have—which will be as I deem most helpful to myself.”
He had been working on that speech for the last two days. Waiting to hit her with it. Instead of the calculated words finding their mark, however, Nerrhavia just peered at Az’kerash.
She said nothing at all. The Necromancer waited…then snapped.
That was a sign of how much he was losing, incidentally. Losing his patience? Working on a speech? Nerrhavia’s reply was succinct.
“I have known better [Necromancers].”
Archmage Chandler stared at her. She clasped her hands together, turned slightly, and went back to watching the scrying orbs broadcasting the news. Az’kerash snapped.
“I could use your soul as fuel for my magic—”
“Your armies would have been an interesting war for my empire, had they made war upon my nation.”
Nerrhavia broke in calmly. She turned her head back to Az’kerash and glanced out the hallway at the undead he could raise at a snap of his fingers. Az’kerash hesitated. Nerrhavia went on.
“I imagine the hordes of lesser undead would have lasted for about five minutes in the field. When my body is prepared, I expect you to do a better job than on your crude children.”
“My Chosen are the finest undead—”
“Oh yes, a woman carved out of solid bone, a plague zombie, and what were the other ones? A Draugr and a skeleton dipped in a bit of magical metal? The finest work I have ever seen!”
Nerrhavia threw up her hands lightly.
“Never once in my reign have I seen such genius at play! The [Archmages] and greatest golem artificers of Chandrar would throw themselves into the sea would they have witnessed the idea of making a zombie carry disease! Not one [Necromancer] ever surpassed such genius in form—making an undead that looks exactly like she was in life? The art. The passion.”
Was Az’kerash turning red? No, no…good. He was still dead. And yet, why did he think that Nerrhavia could see the blush? He tried to interrupt, but Nerrhavia kept going.
“Cathian Tombwalkers were invented under my reign. Do you know what those are?”
“I…Cathian Tombwalkers? I’ve only heard of them.”
And there it was. He got distracted, and Nerrhavia twirled a finger.
“They didn’t leave the designs into the modern era? Ah, well, one supposes all my people’s creations were destroyed. A pity—but I do recall their look quite well. One was said to be the match for any Silver-rank adventurer.”
“Ah, merely Silver-rank. I see—”
“Of course, that refers to my era’s standards for success. I believe you would call that a Level 30 [Warrior] armed with artifacts. Up to Level 40—Level 50 was the agreed-upon standard for Gold-rank. Naturally.”
Az’kerash’s mouth closed. Nerrhavia turned her head coyly.
“One Cathian Tombwalker was a sign of hundreds. If you would like, I can describe what some of my [Necromancers] viewed as the height of design. You see, their forms were economized with seithbone such that even a Level 15 [Necromancer] could maintain up to four.”
“A Level 15 [Necromancer]? Seithbone—what was that?”
Nerrhavia smiled at the distracted [Necromancer]. She turned back to her scrying orb and then spoke off-handed.
“I believe I shall enjoy some more of those song crystals, followed by a draught—that poor liquid you served me will do. Following that, one of those ‘plays’ those entertaining [Actors] put on. You may have that young Maviola attend me with all and sundry. I assume that disturbance is Belavierr? I grant you leave to attend to her, and we shall reconvene in the evening.”
The Necromancer stared at her.
“…No. Answer my questions.”
He had made the mistake of giving her some of the ethereal liquid that undead could imbibe. Apparently, ghosts derived something from it too. Nerrhavia could lift objects—ghosts had some combat potential, but without Skills or magic, she was more like an ethereal creature who could chill someone and absorb their life force.
And hurt their feelings from a thousand paces. Nerrhavia eyed Az’kerash.
“I don’t believe I recall how seithbone was created. Nor shall I ever, I fear. It is simply gone. Alas, that is what happens to knowledge. Permanently lost.”
She flicked her fingers. Az’kerash refused to be baited.
“I am aware ghosts feel pain. My magic—”
“Cathian Tombwalkers, gone. Another loss.”
“—your bluffing will not—”
Then she turned, and he felt the full force of her stare. Nerrhavia’s light tone vanished, and she advanced to the edge of her protective circle. He almost stepped back, and she tugged at her clothing, almost exposing her bosom.
“Ah, I see I have no recourse after all! Very well, Archmage Chandler! Perril Chandler of Silvaria. Torture me until I give everything away! We are all your captives. No, I shouldn’t have tried for life instead of oblivion! I imagine I shall be ravished—if it were possible, I assume Az’kerash would make it so for ghosts—or spend my days screaming in agony. Any objection—any protest, and you will force your will upon me and the other captive spirits.”
Az’kerash backed up a step before he caught himself. He wasn’t an idiot. He knew she was trying to manipulate him.
Nevertheless, it stung. And he regretted telling her—alright, boasting when she sneered at him—about his past.
“I am not—a monster.”
“Oh, truly? Then you will not be torturing me? And here I thought your threats were merely in line with Roshal’s finest. But perhaps I should remove my clothing and address you as ‘master’ ere we meet?”
“I am no [Slaver]. I torture and coerce none of my guests! My enemies are another matter, and you would do well to—”
The Necromancer shouted. He lost his temper, well and truly lost it. He only realized his mistake when Nerrhavia floated back to the center of the circle.
“Oh, if torture is too depraved, oh mighty Az’kerash, then tell me—does a noble duelist of Terandria, a man worthy of a golden bell and the titles of a Terandrian kingdom, lack for etiquette? Does he indeed keep his guest without repast or entertainment?”
Az’kerash just stared at Nerrhavia, simultaneously exhausted and amazed. How was she doing this? Nerrhavia sighed.
“Oh, pardon me. I forgot I was dead. Millenia of death where I craved naught but to touch and taste one last time. And you—I am sure—have never imbibed any pleasures for the undead. You are, of course, correct to lecture me.”
The Necromancer stared at Nerrhavia. His agile mind thought of a dozen responses, then it asked a salient question.
What was he doing? They weren’t talking about necromancy secrets, plans for the future, or anything else. He had spent three days arguing with Nerrhavia over whether or not she deserved drinks.
He…hesitated, but he had literally gotten nothing out of her. So the Necromancer made his mistake.
He raised a hand and floated a decanter of the ghostly liquid into her ‘cell’. It passed through the containment magic, and Nerrhavia snatched it out of the air. Thus, Az’kerash sealed his fate.
“I shall require a cup. Naturally.”
And that’s how he found himself getting her a cup. And once you’d played servant to a ghost…
The Necromancer actually stood outside his rooms with a cup in hand, staring at it. He heard the cloth titan dying in the background.
He could smash the cup, but if he did, he’d be arguing with her another day. Slowly, Az’kerash closed his eyes.
When he entered the room, he was ready to engulf her in a prison of silence and the void rather than put up with one more petty request. However, Nerrhavia accepted the cup as it floated into her enclosure and then steepled her fingers.
“I suppose I shall make do with entertainment later. To business once more. Do you intend to find the Crossroads of Izril? It would be a potent boon to secure access—although I cannot imagine you will be able to restrict it. There are copious treasures in these lands raised by Gnolls.”
And suddenly she was talking sense. As if she could tell exactly how far he’d be pushed before he snapped. Az’kerash twisted his mouth.
“I do not believe the new lands have much to offer me. Neither land nor most artifacts are beyond my means.”
“Really? You may be surprised at what lies buried. Even at the height of my power, some of my greatest treasures were found, not created. Seithbone, incidentally, is far denser than regular bone. Unlike regular bone, [Necromancers] described it as akin to coral; it acts not like regular bones but the interior generated magic in the ivory, such that greater undead could be formed.”
His head snapped up. Nerrhavia went on, idly sipping from a cup as she faced the window.
“You will need quite a number of bodies to create greater undead. More space than this castle by far, and if the Stitch Witch has found you—others will as well.”
“This castle is exceptionally fortified. It is the heart of my strength.”
“Mm. There is a hole in it. You mentioned a Dragon as an antagonist? Teriarch, the Lord of Flame, never troubled my domain directly, but I knew his name. I also know Reinharts. Either one could potentially kill you, even here. But you will surely die if your real enemies come calling. You think of your level as the highest, your power unmatched. Look at me and know I was greater—and I was laid low.”
She turned to gaze at him, and Az’kerash felt—just for a second—intimidated.
She had been his level, or higher. He had—forgotten.
He could still level up. He was high-level, the highest in the world. But there were still ways to go.
He was a Level 77 [Necromancer]. Well. That wasn’t his class, but Nerrhavia looked at him, and suddenly—he felt like he was thirty levels lower.
“The times have changed, Nerrhavia. My enemies are hardly as dangerous as yours. The only beings who might surpass me still are the Deathless of Rhir.”
They might be higher-level. At least, Silvenia might. Nerrhavia tapped her lips thoughtfully.
“In any other time, I would take your words at face value, Archmage Chandler. That the ‘best’ of your world, this Titan, the King of Destruction, seem to be anywhere from Level 50-60—you would have the advantage. But we are not locked against mere mortals. You and I face foes so dire that I would have thrown my empire into battle preparations even when my armies covered Chandrar. We face powers that extinguished heroes of old with a touch. I saw it.”
The Necromancer saw her gaze flicker, and he wondered if that moment of fear was acting or genuine or both, calculated to affect him. Yet he hesitated and took a second.
Nerrhavia waited. Yet her eyes were alight on his face, and she saw Az’kerash’s throat work, though he needed no breath. He swallowed and then concentrated his will, abandoning all other thoughts. His focus became a pure point of control.
“Gods. I am not unaware, Nerrhavia.”
He said it. And the Immortal Tyrant smiled and nodded.
“This is why you are the Necromancer of this age, Archmage Chandler. Fetohep of Khelt, for all his power and the authority of his predecessors, could not fathom nor speak the word. You can.”
Az’kerash straightened slightly. It had been difficult. He had been rattled by the realization that ‘dead gods’ was such an unconscious phrase. It might have been his death or his level, but he had grasped his foe.
In a sense.
“I still do not quite understand the magnitude of their threat, Nerrhavia. I understand their concept as you described them to me.”
He imagined them as a kind of Djinni or ultimate elemental—capable of absorbing ghosts, entirely knowledgeable, and, by all accounts, impossible to truly harm without objects beyond relics. However, they had no bodies, and they had been dealt severe blows.
Nerrhavia just sighed.
“Archmage Chandler, the greatest foe is one that lives. I crushed rebellions to the last because the one survivor became the [Hero] who came back a decade later. These foes do not die. Gnomes and Elves and Seamwalkers combined managed to stalemate or delay four of the six. I do not know what these…beings are either.”
She grimaced; she could not say the word. Nerrhavia hurried on.
“Ignorance is a weakness. Yet I do know what they are based on. Children from another world. As well—filth from beyond The Last Tide.”
Az’kerash nodded. His head spun from the revelations she had given him. There was another world. And yet—he felt like he’d known it.
Clues from The Wandering Inn. There had always been other dimensions—why not other worlds? The Necromancer spread his hands reasonably.
“None of this changes my goals. I have created the foundations for the most powerful undead to ever exist.”
“Yes. And in doing so, planted the seeds of your own betrayal in time. But let us move past that and assume they are ever loyal. They will be swept aside by your foes.”
“…Nonsense. My Chosen—”
“—Are what, less than ten? How many will you create? Twenty? Let us say a hundred. Let us assume they all level as quickly as anyone thrust under adversity. There are millions of the living in any one nation. A Level 80 [Paladin] can match your Chosen blow for blow at the same level, even if you made their bodies out of Seithbone or the greatest materials. You. Require. Allies.”
Az’kerash had to sit down. She was pointing out flaws in his reasoning he didn’t like.
“Hence your body.”
This was where all his instincts told him it was the worst idea possible. Yet Nerrhavia just smiled archly.
“It may take you some time to replicate Khelt’s ritual. The greatest ghosts worked with admittedly crude mortal intermediaries to transfer ghosts to bodies, but I have faith in your talents, Archmage Chandler. Not just myself. Allies can be mortal as well. You claim no interest in the new lands, but—how fare your Chosen not present here? Kerash?”
Az’kerash jumped. He glanced to the side and felt his connection with Kerash. The Gnoll was even visible on a scrying orb that Nerrhavia lightly watched.
“…just a bit further, Chieftain. If memory serves, it was around here.”
The Gnoll looked more vibrant than he ever had as Az’kerash’s servant. The Necromancer even felt like Kerash was—satisfied.
And he was leading a tribe of Gnolls after him. They were dubious, weary, and Az’kerash saw the despair and loss from the Meeting of Tribes on their faces. Yet they followed Kerash.
“They should…recover the buried treasure within a day. You disapprove?”
Nerrhavia had watched him hurry to bury said treasure and make it seem like all the artifacts and gold were aged a few years. Az’kerash had been sweating about that, but it was all in place. Kerash and the Lomost tribe, who had agreed to send representatives with him to recover the treasure he’d found, would recover a small fortune.
“Quite a bounty for the Gnolls. Which, of course, is all due to your Chosen Kerash. Your little puppets have also been rendering aid for them. Will Kerash lead them into the new world after he becomes a Chieftain?”
“I…intend his rise to be meteoric. This is merely the first step.”
Why was she switching to Kerash? Az’kerash had always intended this. Nerrhavia tilted her head.
“Of course, he will also help defend the Gnolls from those dreadful Drakes. Did I actually catch you sending a [Healer] with potions you funded when that tribe began getting sick? The adorable little Gnoll cubs were especially grateful.”
“—It all serves Kerash’s reputation.”
If the Necromancer had any sweat left in his glands—he was watching Kerash, not avoiding Nerrhavia’s gaze. The ghost pressed a hand against the barrier keeping her from the mortal world. She watched Az’kerash from the side and whispered.
“I was feared when I took power, but my position was not always safe. My subordinates had power far more direct than I, but I stayed in power for so long because I knew my courts. I could spot true treason, play my enemies against each other, and have those who wanted nothing more than my death act as loyal servants all their lives. Do you know what I see? Weakness. You quite enjoy playing the hero, Necromancer.”
He turned and fixed her with an undeathly glare. She gave him the gaze that had scorched Dragons.
“If what I do serves my ends—”
“Spare me. I am not blind, Necromancer. Allow me to simply warn you of something: you are not the first to go this way. We all have done this.”
Nerrhavia pretended to clean her nails on her dress. For once—she actually blushed faintly, her dark skin mottling.
“—It happens. I think most who find immortality go through a period of altruism. Even I, myself, mentored some individuals in my first three hundred years. Those I have spoken to recount the same—we try to amend our mortal follies. Do things over. I think all but Belavierr truly had times where they took it upon themselves to deny their natures. Or they had—champions.”
Her look was too keen, and Az’kerash wished he hadn’t kept the newpaper articles and other stories about the Horns of Hammerad on a board to the side of his room. Nerrhavia bent slightly.
“It is understandable, but, Necromancer, like parents raising children to succeed where they failed, like the past, we cannot remake ourselves anew. You will rebound into the very wrath and madness that engulfed you the first time when it collapses, that dream. It only takes treachery—or disappointment.”
She floated there, and he tried to muster a response. However, Nerrhavia just turned back to the map of Izril.
“By all means, keep up your project with the Gnolls. You are correct that a warm touch will aid your servant. But let me assure you—you want allies. My entourage you have kept will be fine allies. As for the new lands, explore them, Necromancer. It is my belief we have all yet to find weapons in the war against our true foes. And remember—”
She turned her head and fixed him with a serious gaze.
“—neither you nor I are capable of besting them alone.”
That was why it was so hard for him to simply ignore Nerrhavia. He feared she was right. The Necromancer took a breath and nodded.
“…And what of Erin Solstice, who you mentioned?”
Nerrhavia pursed her lips.
“She refused my class. Which is altogether fine. A worthy servant refuses three times, in my experience. She may be impossible to touch at this time, given the eyes upon her. But as I said. We are in a race against our enemies for the greatest treasures, including my palace. We must begin securing what we can. Your Chosen must be sent out. They are, I hope…mature enough to act alone?”
The Necromancer was silent for a long time. Nerrhavia rolled her eyes, and Az’kerash spoke.
“—They are growing. But I have countless undead. My control over them—”
“Is as finite as your mind, which should be devoted to improving your undead. You make an inchworm’s progress in all areas rather than focusing your intellect. Do you have one servant you trust? Or will it be for us to wait for bodies?”
Nerrhavia stared at Az’kerash. He hesitated—even Kerash. Belavierr was gone. Maviola was her child…Wesixa and Devail were new.
Bea, Ijvani, and Venitra were—
He slowly put his hands behind his back.
“I…have one servant you haven’t met who may be competent. I believe he just slew Belavierr’s greatest creation. Did you have a target in mind?”
Nerrhavia peered at Az’kerash, surprised, but he was sure she couldn’t see the crossed fingers behind his back.
Toren, flush on victory, was letting Healing Slime sit in his ribcage when he was called upon. Apprehensively, he marched into the Necromancer’s rooms and found the ghost there.
She had never noticed Toren, the ordinary skeleton, among the other servants. Nerrhavia gazed blankly at the skeleton and then stared at the quivering Healing Slime in his ribcage.
Az’kerash was rewarded with a look of genuine surprise on Nerrhavia’s face. For one moment. Then she turned her head slightly.
“This is a levelling undead?”
“A skeleton, yes. A [Relic Guardian], in fact. The slime is sentient. It possesses healing and speed qualities thanks to the potions it has imbibed. This is Toren. Toren…this is Nerrhavia, a being you will take instruction from. Within reason.”
Toren eyed Nerrhavia and got the distinct sense that she was dangerous. But she was also a ghost, so he walked around her circle and then tried to stick a hand through.
He felt a freezing touch on his hand as he poked through one leg. It didn’t bother the skeleton at all. Az’kerash watched with increasing enjoyment. Nerrhavia batted at Toren, then ignored his poking. She gazed at the skeleton and frowned.
“What level is he?”
“Level 33 in his main class. He also possesses classes in [Sword Dancer], [Tactician], and, uh, [Carer] and [Barmaid].”
Az’kerash stared at Toren’s classes as he cast [Appraisal]. Nerrhavia stopped and stared at Toren. He offered her a salute. She glanced at him, the slime, and then at the Necromancer.
“Ah. Now I know you did not create him. This one has more originality in a single bone than all your Chosen combined.”
The Necromancer twitched slightly, and Nerrhavia turned back to Toren.
“A talented [Necromancer] gave him life. But he was last in Erin Solstice’s employ…before I discovered him.”
Az’kerash admitted after a long pause. Nerrhavia’s head turned slightly at Erin’s name.
“Oh. Fascinating. Well, well. It seems the [Innkeeper] would have made a fine [Necromancer] as well as [General]. Yes. If she helped give this undead personality—he will do quite nicely. You will have to give him suitable bodyguards. And upgrade him. Can he not speak?”
Az’kerash hesitated. Toren was making it quite clear how he felt about Nerrhavia, but the ghost had none of a [Necromancer] or fellow undead’s power.
“No. Not as such.”
Nerrhavia smiled, looking Toren up and down, and he stopped poking her and backed up a bit. He didn’t know if she beat Belavierr after all.
“Give him a tongue. I will give him a purpose. But first…I want to know what his personality is. Oh, and Necromancer?”
She turned to Az’kerash, and he looked at her expectantly. The new lands of Izril lay open, but Az’kerash cared more about allies. About a means to effect even greater power. Whether that meant bodies for his allies or…precautions, time would tell. Cautious, he had to be cautious.
Nerrhavia turned to him as the Necromancer waited. She smiled.
“—For now, I will settle for due entertainment. Send the Maviola child in with you. And song crystals. Report to me when the skeleton can speak tonight. You have my leave to go.”
The Necromancer looked at Toren, and his eyes flashed. A green tinge filled the room, and Nerrhavia waited for the confrontation she had planned—that she would win—as Toren and Healing Slime ran for it.
If he hurt her, she won. If he stormed out, she won. If he lost his temper—she won. But for once, Nerrhavia’s plans went askew, because the Necromancer’s fury about to be unleashed in no uncertain magical terms suddenly stopped.
The charge of magic halted, and Nerrhavia frowned as his expression focused on something in the room. She twisted, and then she frowned.
He was staring at one of the scrying orbs. Staring with genuine concern. For, as the Blighted King’s council was interrupted, the King of Destruction’s plans for conquest halted a moment by a servant—
A sudden, surprise broadcast began playing on the scrying orbs.
A Wistram News Network special. For the greatest threats to world peace came the smiling face of a half-Elf having a sit-down talk with a certain Drake [Reporter].
They had developed the room in which Drassi was sitting for the purposes of the conference. Or rather, Eldavin had. It had those semi-circular couches, a ‘relaxed on the open terrace’ vibe to the background, and bright colors.
It was amazing, in fact, how similarly generic it was to the kind of ubiquitous room you wanted in the background while you talked the important talk.
Crucially, it was different from the more somber room where you disclosed personal secrets or upsetting events, or the more intimate fireside setting. This was the ‘open discussion’ moment, and it even had the same slightly-forced cheery energy.
“Er—Grand Magus Eldavin. It’s good to see you.”
Drassi was nervous. You got nervous when someone said, ‘we have an interview for you with a dead man, and you’re teleporting to get to it’. The half-Elf, as impressive as ever, gave her a slightly arch smile.
“And to you, Reporter Drassi, a good morning. I hope you didn’t find the journey upsetting?”
“Er—no. Not at all. That is, to our viewers, I’m Drassi Tewing of Liscor, reporting for Wistram News Network. [Honest Reporter], sitting down with Grand Magus Eldavin. I have just teleported to what I assume is—Wistram?”
“Wistram Academy, indeed. Not that this is new magic; we’ve always had the ability to transfer people at great magical cost.”
Drassi hesitated. Her tail was curled up, but it clearly wanted to vibrate, yet she was aware of the cameras on her and Eldavin.
“Yes…but you could probably teleport me and half of Liscor, right? You cast [Grand Teleport], people have said you’re the one true [Archmage] left in the world worthy of the class—and forgive me if I skip ahead, Grand Magus Eldavin, but I think it’s exceptionally pressing—I thought you were dead. Everyone saw you die, or rather, announce your death when battling Ailendamus’ Viscount Visophecin.”
Eldavin laughed lightly; he was half-turned to face the camera, and he sat with perfect ease—or seemed to.
“You know, Reporter Drassi, so did I. Which is why I wished to address the world and put to rest doubts of my death when they inevitably occur.”
“You thought you were dead when you told everyone to flee?”
Eldavin shrugged self-consciously. He even blushed slightly and smoothed at his white beard.
“I truly did. In hindsight, that was a bit of grandstanding, I must confess. Announcing my own death—but I thought I’d taken a mortal wound and was preparing to die.”
“Then what happened?”
The half-Elf paused, and his cheerful expression grew serious on camera. He looked past Drassi and stared ahead for a second.
“—I can only call it fortune or a miracle, Miss Drassi. Counter-levelling, a bit of resolve at the end—I woke up half-dead and managed to pull myself to safety. Who knows? Perhaps it was one of the spirits that struck the battlefield, but I realized that I was just a bit player on a grander stage.”
He gave her a rueful smile, and Drassi nodded as images from the events at Ailendamus flashed up to remind people what happened. It was a very high-quality broadcast, and everyone was taking notes.
“I think that goes for all of us, Grand Magus. But to confirm—you’re alive. Can I, uh—poke you to make sure I’m not talking to an illusion?”
“Poke away, Miss Drassi, hah hah hah.”
There was a bit of pain to the kind of forced laughter and the stilted way that Drassi and Eldavin spoke, especially if you knew either one. But it was probably well-received among the world-wide audience.
It certainly…changed everything. The broadcast was barely fifteen minutes long and only served for Eldavin to let everyone know that he was back in Wistram.
Also—that the Terras faction was falling back from the war with Ailendamus. They’d done what they set out to do, and while Eldavin had not destroyed Ailendamus, they had been forced back from conquering Calanfer.
The one interesting question was where Drassi went off-script. She turned to Eldavin.
“I know we’re almost done, Archmage—but I have to ask. Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt? Everyone saw the—dramatic moment where she attacked you in your camp. It’s been said that one of the reasons you fought against Ailendamus was because, in your own words, she was magically suborned. What is your stance on her now?”
Eldavin’s face froze a moment, and the watchers in the background nearly grabbed Drassi, but he replied after a moment, holding up a hand to stop anyone from dragging her off set.
“Ryoka Griffin? I can’t say where her allegiances lie, Drassi. Honestly? I was hurt. Physically, as you might imagine, but also personally. I think the most honest thing to say is that we will resolve our differences if and when we next meet. For now—there’s a reserve between us.”
“I can just imagine. Thank you, Archmage, for your time.”
That was that. Drassi had a mildly discontented look, as if she could tell she’d run into a polite spin on things, but the broadcast was being played across the world.
As for Eldavin, he was already in another meeting, because they had pre-recorded the broadcast two days ago. What people took to be live didn’t have to be.
It also meant that by the time he met with Archmage Feor, Blackwood, and Viltach, they had time to process him being back.
Viltach had prepared for this meeting by drinking as much stomach medicine from the [Alchemist] as he could. He had at least one ulcer. Perhaps two.
Why wasn’t hard to guess.
Nailihuaile was dead. Wistram had been attacked, the Earthers stolen—and Eldavin was alive. Alive, and Khelt had done something, Wistram’s reputation was as low as it had ever been—
And the Archmage of Memory was here. Verdan, Viltach, and Feor had all discussed the issue, and they’d agreed they were allied. Eldavin could not have Wistram. They might not have his magic, but their factions outnumbered his by a huge margin. This was their moment to take over Wistram, and it amazed the Human Archmage that he was working with Feor, his longtime opponent.
A common enemy did unite them. The Archmages had just gotten past pleasantries, and Viltach was waiting for Feor to let Eldavin know things would be different, now. The King of Destruction had freed Amerys, and they needed to all work together, which meant that Eldavin had to work with them.
He might squirm or wriggle, but if he wanted to get anything done in the Council, he’d need their help. That was the theory.
Right up until Archmage Eldavin leaned back with a puffer in his hand.
“Archmages, thank you for meeting with me. I won’t waste our time with grand pronouncements or showboating. The Necromancer of Terandria is alive. To my knowledge, he’s been building an army of undead, and he’s somewhere in the south of Izril.”
Viltach began choking on his cup of purified water, and his stomach hurt so badly he reached for the medication. The problem with healing potions was that his body thought the ulcer should be there, so it just re-opened it when he drank one.
Feor turned pale, because he had been Archmage Chandler’s student. Verdan looked sick as his magical armor activated a few defensive enchantments automatically. Viltach had grown up on horror stories of the Necromancer; he remembered when the undead armies had attacked kingdoms and hiding under his bed as a child.
“Alive. He killed Zel Shivertail, and unless we do something, I believe he may ally with the Antinium and turn the south of Izril into a charnel house. It was my goal to destroy him prior to arriving at Wistram, but I don’t have the power after battling Great General Dionamella. I’ve elected to tell you first, and obviously this is a secret; if he knows we’re onto him, he’ll go to ground, and he must die.”
“You knew before—how long have you known?”
Eldavin calmly answered Feor, and Viltach realized they’d lost control of the conversation. He almost didn’t care. He just sat back and listened as Eldavin explained in brief his knowledge of Az’kerash.
“…I knew because I hired Ryoka Griffin to look into the matter. She escaped the Necromancer, hence our association.”
It was impossible to tell if he were lying; truth spells just bounced off anyone of their level, but it all made sense. Viltach’s blood chilled, but he looked at Eldavin with almost a hint of respect.
“You thought you could take down the Necromancer by yourself, Archmage Eldavin?”
The half-Elf gave Viltach a guilty smile that reminded Viltach of the custom wand he’d been gifted.
“Well, I did have a high opinion of my battle abilities, as you may have seen. I’ve been humbled, well and truly. But I think it’s clear that the Necromancer is Wistram’s greatest threat, and I hope you can all work together in helping me bring him down.”
“Wait. Just wait, Eldavin. The Necromancer…is a true danger. To Wistram especially, since he was one of us. But surely—the King of Destruction is worse. Amerys is free.”
And she held grudges. Verdan looked afraid, but Eldavin shook his head.
“The King of Destruction is…not an issue to me.”
The Archmages were incredulous, but Eldavin steepled his fingers calmly.
“He is just a man. A [King] with some high-level vassals, but he is, compared to Az’kerash, a minnow before a shark. High-level individuals like the Necromancer are the greatest threat to the world.”
His eyes flickered.
“Naturally, that count includes Ailendamus in an existential way, but I’d put the Necromancer and the Demons of Rhir as our greatest threats.”
Of course, he wasn’t wrong, but Viltach was amazed. He had no love for Chandrar, but the King of Destruction…
“What if the King of Destruction takes over Chandrar?”
“He can try. But he has a lot to conquer, and it is my belief he will run into obstacles beyond merely Wistram, Feor. I want us to focus on matters Wistram can deal with. We’re not an army. But we can take down one spellcaster if we perfect our actions. Let me put it another way—I am open to dealing with all threats to world peace, but shall we agree the Necromancer is a good first target?”
Eldavin looked about, and he didn’t get much pushback there. He nodded to Viltach and smiled about.
“We need to bring Wistram higher, Archmages. More lessons, repairs after the chaos the King of Destruction wrought…Terras is coming back to the academy, and I intend to make this a true renaissance of magic.”
With you at the head? The Archmages looked at each other and tried to object. Feor smiled at Eldavin like his face hurt.
“We will listen to your input on Wistram’s future, Archmage Eldavin, but this is a meeting of equals. We must align our interests.”
He stressed the word and waited for Viltach to back him up. Then he realized Viltach was smiling at Eldavin, and Feor looked at Verdan and saw the old Archmage of Baleros looked pale, rattled by the news.
The alliance of three began to collapse as Eldavin nodded at Viltach.
“Exactly so, Archmage Feor. Viltach and I have talked quite a bit in private—would you care to catch up tonight, Viltach? After dinner—I have company.”
“Certainly, Eldavin. Over some wine? I’d be happy to.”
Viltach avoided Feor’s gaze. He’d done a swift recalculation and come to a simple conclusion. Valeterisa had already thrown over for Eldavin.
Far better to be the first to join than the last. The Archmage of Memory nodded to Feor and then dropped the hammer.
“As for Nailihuaile’s tragic passing—I assume her replacement will come from her faction?”
“Her…oh, yes. At some point someone suitable will emerge.”
Feor blustered. Whomever it was would have a hard time establishing control, but Eldavin thoughtfully nodded his head.
“I look forwards to it. We should confirm her successor within the month. Although—perhaps we should space out the additions to the ranks of Archmage.”
All three men looked at Eldavin, and he smiled at them.
“Why, surely you agree that the most valuable mage to prove they deserve, nay, already walk among us as equals is Galei, or Taxiella, or whatever their name is from Ullsinoi? I believe we should appoint an Archmage from their number and reach out to see if there is interest in a representative from the Drowned Folk or even an honorary Archmage among the Drakes.”
“Foreign Archmages? Archmage Eldavin!”
Feor leapt to his feet, but Eldavin stared pointedly at Verdan Blackwood.
“Archmage is nothing more than a title, Archmage Feor. If it’s loyalty to Wistram that’s a factor, well, we can discuss that. But Wistram must change. It already has, but I intend for it to be even more crucial to the world. If not, we will fade away, and we must be the beating heart of magic.”
He looked at everyone and smiled.
“In a year, we’ll all be ten levels higher. We’ll break Zelkyr’s test in half and march up to the thrones of magic. That is my goal. The Necromancer dies this year. Now…let’s discuss Wistram’s defenses. The Golems of Wistram are all very well, but it has been a long time since we have had an army. And I believe—one may be required to safeguard ourselves and our interests abroad.”
Archmage Eldavin spent two more hours browbeating the other three Archmages mostly in the direction he wanted. He did it because while Feor might object, Verdan Blackwood was old and cowardly and Viltach knew when to jump ship.
The Necromancer was what did the trick. Feor was afraid of Az’kerash, and he had every right to be. The half-Elf might be just as old, but he was only an Archmage in name.
The real [Archmage of Death] could walk into Wistram and kill everyone there. But for Cognita. It made sense he was a threat, but if he was considering the matters of the world in an unbiased way, Eldavin would have gone after Ailendamus or the King of Destruction after all. Or, frankly, the Walled Cities for their egregious actions towards the Gnolls.
However, he had a mission. He had orders, and the Archmage of Memory thought about his future as he wrote missives to the people [Messaging] him.
He felt…old. Tired. His bones hurt. It was hard to keep a smile on his face when he felt a sudden drag to his steps.
That damned half-Elf. Dionamella had done something to him, and Eldavin had lost a step. Not only that—the blazing fire of magic he had been able to draw upon was gone.
He hadn’t lied to the Archmages or Drassi. He had already realized his arrogance fighting Ailendamus. Now? He was in danger. Eldavin was weaker.
But he had another chance. And that was worth all the pain in the world. Eldavin breathed in and out, and he felt a half-Elf’s old body—but all the potential in it.
He…was alive. Youth treatments were not impossible, and he could…
He could have children. He could marry or change or…
It hurt him because this freedom meant he was untethered. He was no Dragon. And in a sense, he’d always be inferior to the image he had in his head.
But he was grateful to be alive, and he, Eldavin, knew he was on a side with a lot going for it. His challenges were immense, even at the head of Wistram, but the half-Elf had taken the hand of fate itself.
Or something greater. He was annoyed at being tired, though; a simulacra barely needed to sleep. Now, he got exhausted more quickly, and he napped.
But, oh—there was one more thing. One tiny, teensy little thing that he had gotten. Eldavin’s eyes closed as he stretched out in an armchair, and he heard a voice.
[Level 8 Magus!]
What a charming sound. So low-level, but then—he’d only been alive a handful of days. Eldavin listened to the sound and heard no Skills or anything else this time, but already, he understood the obsession of the people of this world.
Such a lovely announcement. He thought he would never get tired of it.
Eldavin’s return spiked fear into the hearts of his enemies. It astounded the world and made even the powers that be move warily.
It provoked bowel-moving anxiety in a certain young woman named Ryoka Griffin. Disbelief and uncertainty in Magnolia Reinhart. Because they did not know if this was a good sign—or the worst.
Someone who wasn’t concerned by the announcement was a Brass Dragon who watched the announcement with a huge frown on his face.
“Archmage of Memory, Eldavin? What a pretentious name. Eldavin. That means in the Elf tongue—imposter. Seeming, rather. I wonder if he knows what it means.”
He put it out of his mind. The Dragon was headed north. His great, austere form…did not fly in the sky. He lay on the ground, panting.
“Alright. One more hundred mile set. I can do this.”
He flapped his wings and then felt the ache. Teriarch decided to rest another hour.
“When did flying get so hard? Someone must be doing something to the air. That’s it.”
It was definitely some flux in the air after all the chaos. Not him barely going two hundred miles before needing a break. The Dragon knew he had to get a move on, but he…decided the most prudent course of action was to hone his strength.
That was why travellers on the road north to First Landing occasionally stared at the huge pile of logs being transported via wagon along the plains. Some people called out to the drivers who were idiotically taking the wagons in the soil and grass, but they clearly had skills that let their wheels make good time, because they only waved and shouted back.
The ‘pile of logs’ and wagons was Teriarch. He lay on a platform of light he’d enchanted to roll forwards, muttering about air density. He was tired.
“Maybe a little nap?”
No, no. He couldn’t do that. But the Dragon was tired, and he was on the move. So—small steps. The sun was quite nice, and if he curled up just so…he began to snore, and a distant [Herder] wondered if the [Lumberjacks] transporting the giant felled trees were doing some sawing.
Dragons on the go. Kings and Archmages, dead and alive. What a wonderful time for it all. But their plans, while grand, relied on mortal agents, because even a Dragon couldn’t be everywhere and do everything.
It required a sassy skeleton, vassals of the King of Destruction, soldiers of the Blighted Kingdom, or [Mercenaries], the brave and the crazy.
Adventurers for the new lands of Izril. How many would head out in search of opportunity or wealth? The first wave was moving towards the new lands, and only later—only later would the news break.
An inconsequential story, at first. Something with no relevance unless you were an [Alchemist] or [Merchant] who understood the implications. It had bearing with the sudden sharp rise in the price of healing potions, and when people did understand—
Well, it was too late. It had been too late. But word came that the last shipment of Eir Gel for the foreseeable future had come from the isle of Hesheit. The world’s supply of healing potions had just…vanished.
Author’s Note: That’s right. We have a merchandise store! And I’m doing an AMA! And I’m already tired.
Mostly of things that don’t pertain to writing. I am a writer of one talent. And that’s writing, not doing anything else in life.
Cleaning, self-promotion, knowing what a mile is, realizing there are only twenty-eight days in February…all beyond me.
And speaking of my one ability, this chapter is short! It’s only 22,000 words long and I think that we can all agree it might not be as fulfilling as 30,000, but perhaps we can live with it? I hope you understand and will take the merchandise store as an apology.
And also the amazing art! Including the next cover for Book 7: The Rains of Liscor! Events, happening left, right, and center! But the chapter always comes first. I hope you enjoyed this look into our top…well-intentioned viewpoints from around the world.
I plan on trying to do the side story chapter next, then we’ll see where the month takes us. Thanks for reading and hopefully no more chipmunks. I keep looking for them but maybe they’re just plotting my demise in hiding.
Silveran Merch Store and Erin In Love by ArtsyNada!
Wandering Inn Pillow by MarkTechv7 [Bachatero]! (And cat).
The Rains of Liscor book cover by JAD and Shawn King!
JAD Illustrated: https://www.jadillustrated.com/
Shawn King: http://www.stkkreations.com/