9.12

While Erin Solstice was learning a lesson about [Witches], the rest of the world had their eyes on Izril. Not in a grand sense of it being the most important part of the world.

Arguably, the King of Destruction took priority there. He was now back with every living member of his Seven, and Nerrhavia’s Fallen was his only foe who had not yet quit the field. If you had a grudge or saw an opportunity in the ensuing bloodbath…

Similarly, The Dyed Lands dominated Balerosian news. It would have surprised Erin, if she were even near a scrying orb, because Noass and Sir Relz did not cover the news daily. For better or worse, Wistram News Network had become mostly popular in Izril, although it was the most ‘worldwide’ of any cycle.

However, the Great Companies of Baleros rallying the continent against the monsters was a good contrast to Izril. If you found a scrying orb, you could see the cities being evacuated live. Mercenary companies, paid to hold a line in the sand or evacuate settlements.

On the forefront of that news was him.

 

——

 

The Titan of Baleros’ company was closest to The Dyed Lands, aside from the reclusive Eyes of Baleros. His was a vast company, and it was obviously still locked in combat with Jungle Tails.

However—it had been two weeks since The Dyed Lands moved forwards in time. Two weeks, and eight lesser cities had been evacuated or were being overrun by—colors.

Colors. Each one unique. Pale white stalking beasts, all fangs and ivory, their hides fragile, but often invisible as they fought forwards in skirmishing tribes, dragging off prey. They skirted and fought with bright, bright red flower-creatures. Plant-based monsters who often swept forwards under paralytic or allergen-based pollen storms.

Each color fought the other for dominance and, now freed of their temporal prison, were trying to grab land as fast as they could. Their disunity was one of the only reasons The Dyed Lands hadn’t claimed more cities.

For some of the apex predators of each color had already been certified as Gold-rank threats, and they were only going to rise higher. A Named-rank threat was a rare one, but people had pointed up at the three-headed flier that was one of the most famous icons of this new death-zone.

Each neck was reptilian, folds of skin layered over dead-white flesh, curved talons on a body that had six legs and was vaguely like a manticore, two massive wings carrying the monster aloft. Its nickname was a Three-Headed Grabghast. Mostly because the creature would render itself invisible, a trick of the white-zone, then extend each head insanely long.

It could stretch as far as nine feet with each head and bite a victim, whereupon the face, shaped like some weeping lion, oddly distorted, would begin to rend its victims with its teeth and retreat.

It was a fiend, a worthy monster outside of any horde, and they could fly so far and high they were among the fastest-moving threats coming from that place. The Grabghasts went after vulnerable targets, heedless of walls or civilization. They ate and ate and left vein-colored eggs in their wake, some method of reproducing or leaving some aspect of itself behind.

No egg had yet hatched, and those that were found had been smashed. And the Grabghasts themselves could be killed.

The Titan of Baleros was checking his hair when the scrying orb turned to him. He nodded into the camera and spoke curtly.

“I won’t waste your time. We’re pulling the Iron Vanguard and Maelstrom’s Howling together for a full force that will shatter The Dyed Lands into shards. If Jungle Tails would see fit to cease-fire, I’d have an easier time. Nevertheless, the Forgotten Wing company will hold them across the Corthien Valley. Bring it down—[Mark Target]. Loose!”

The scrying orb rotated, and the air vibrated and roared ahead of a marching column of Lizardfolk and Selphid [Mercenaries]. The Corthien Valley was wide farmlands dotted by nali-stick farms, irrigated in classic terraces. Right now, the [Farmers] were peeking out of their houses.

The Grabghast had been hiding in a clump of huge, tangling bushes. It ignored the thick hedges, but not the first volley of stones. The Lizardfolk swung up slings, and pebbles bounced off the hide of the monster. It came surging down towards the braced Selphids as Niers watched.

“Slow it.”

“[Suppressing Fire]. [Mark Target: Reduced Mobility].”

Cameral’s voice trembled as the Dullahan [Strategist] pointed and the Grabghast’s momentum faltered. Its necks were already trying to stretch, and Niers nodded.

Slings, down! Arrows—give me a wood-tipped volley! No Skills!”

The Lizardfolk stopped whirling their strings, and a second rank armed with shortbows loosed a volley. Niers peered at the Grabghast. One head shot out like a snake’s, and a Selphid shouted.

Inc—

Someone speared the head, and the beast howled as it retracted its face. However—the brave [Pikewoman] reeled, and a cry went up.

Body down! Chest wound—”

One of the Selphids in front was missing a chunk of its chest, and the wounded Selphid went reeling. Niers’ eyes narrowed.

“That was nearly thirty feet, not the nine advertised. Someone update the entry in our encyclopedias. It’s got a bite that goes through iron. Wooden arrows—sink into the hide.”

Half the fletchings had stuck in the hide, but only lightly. Niers nodded.

“Enough playing. [Thorn Formation]—flame spells and full volley—now!

The Grabghast’s scream turned into a whine of terror as the third and final volley lanced it. No cheap wooden arrows or stones, but steel-tipped arrows and Skills. It didn’t even turn to Niers’ formation, but tried to run. Thin, pale grey liquid leaked from its sides, and Niers ran a commentary as his [Archers] filled it with arrows.

“Wood-tipped arrows can keep these Grabghasts bleeding. We’ll test poison on more; it’s reported to work. If your local forces have no poison or arrows, you must surround it. They can and will strike and run. Use dust or sand in the air with wind spells to identify them. Astoragon, signing out. Forgotten Wing, advance!

The Grabghast was still dying as a Selphid stormed forwards with an axe to cut off its heads. Niers Astoragon moved ahead with the rest of his battalion. He was scrambling his forces, engaging every monster he came across. Behind him, some fascinated [Scholars] and adventurers and [Naturalists] were vying for a chance to dissect this new monster.

An organized advance from a Great Company. Baleros expected nothing less, and Niers had made a point of doing these broadcasts as efficiently as possible. Thus far, the Dullahans had taken the same cues, although Maelstrom’s Howling was more effusive at times. The Great Companies, for all their vying, had seen a threat and were headed to stomp it out as fast as possible.

 

——

 

The Titan’s brief moment on the scrying orb showcased Baleros’ attitude to new threats. There were elements to be desired, and Niers was certainly winning by engaging the most far-flung of the monsters coming out of that place, but it was a contrastable moment.

…Especially to the horde coming out of the High Passes. Were the Gargoyles and Eater Goats a proportionally far smaller threat?

Absolutely. However, thousands of Gargoyles and Eater Goats were still a force capable of wiping out city after city. And the north, in this hour of need, sent…

Adventurers. Adventurers, militia, a <Quest> with a steadily rising reward, and no armies.

No centralized army. As Sir Relz interviewed the local nobility, he was stressed on that fact.

What you do not understand, ah, Sir Drake, is that there is a difference between noble estates and commonwealth cities. The cities closest to the High Passes, I believe, Celum being the—the one of note, are not under anyone’s definitive authority. Lady Reinhart has a mansion in Celum…but the city pays her no tithes.

“It’s not Celum that’s closest to this section of the High Passes, Lord Gorne. The monsters have exited a higher plateau farther up along the mountain range.”

Really? Er…where are they, then? Are they near about…erm…some other place?

The [Lord] looked surprised, and Sir Relz consulted the map displaying the region.

“Celum is far to the east. The nearest city—well, town—is Somegel, and I believe the populace has mostly fled. Then we reach the city of Orefell—is Celum the only city you know?”

Lord Gorne shrugged and patted at his forehead uncomfortably with a handkerchief. He was wearing full-plate armor, and, despite mostly standing still, even in the fall sun, he was baking a bit. He was one of the ‘closest’ nobles, and his estates lay a comfortable forty miles north of Celum and well clear of the High Passes proper.

“There you are, then. No noble family has migrated that far south or been established. Let alone one of the Five Families. Now, my army is standing ready to repel the monsters, and I anticipate, nay, I am sure House Veltras will lead a counteroffensive well before they reach my lands. I have written to Lord Tyrion himself, and if the man is removed from where we are, his people are not.”

“So what I’m hearing is that the north is waiting on one of the Five Families to do something? You do not, in fact, intend to march to the aid of Orefell?”

Lord Gorne bristled. He indicated his army, which was a thin force of six thousand by some Drake city standards—it still made him the largest force in the region by far. He’d trotted out eight hundred to do some parade drills for this interview.

“I hardly intend to bleed my people’s protectors against the monsters alone, Sir Drake. I might say that the High Passes are everyone’s issue! Where’re your Drake armies?”

Sir Relz ignored that. The Drake shuffled some papers with his claws and nodded to one side at an off-screen person.

“The north is Human land. I think that answers our questions. Thank you, Lord Gorne, and it seems like the adventurers and cities responding to the muster will determine who meets the monsters in the field. Hardly the response of a Walled City for a Drake settlement in need, but I suppose these things happen.”

He almost got away with it, but Lord Gorne’s rapidly-purpling expression turned calm for one moment. He might have been pompous, but he was still a [Lord], and he snapped back coolly.

“A fine sentiment, sir. Where were those armies when Liscor was nearly taken? It seemed to me that Pallass quite ignored the requests for aid, and your Oteslia was the only Walled City to give a damn. I suppose border settlements are ignored everywhere, eh?”

“That is a complete mischaracterization of—

Sir Relz began to respond, but the viewpoint switched, and he was left, fuming, as another guest from the Adventurer’s Guild in Invrisil came on air.

It was sort of amazing. Izril’s coverage of the High Passes disaster as it unfolded was non-stop, and it had a lot more drama—and a lot less actual action. Someone watching the scrying orb of Sir Relz turned to the other people sitting and watching.

“D’you think this makes us look bad?”

Relc Grasstongue scratched under his chin absently as he looked around The Wandering Inn. It was mostly empty, but the inn was back open, and that meant the regulars still came. Menolit, Relc, Klbkch—Ishkr and a small staff were serving the clients watching the news in the rec-room.

Menolit put down a hand of cards and glanced up idly.

“How’s it make us look bad, exactly?”

“As Izrilians. Baleros looked pretty damn sharp. Nice formations, and that Selphid only got hurt because that monster had that trick up its sleeve. Meanwhile, that [Lord] can’t take a single stick out his ass and hit a goat with it.”

A few snorts from around the room. It was comfortable with Erin gone. You hated to admit it, but…there was a time for drama and a time for relaxing.

Having a nice drink of blue juice with a hot toddy for later to accompany a pretzel or some fries? You could bleed a bit of coin to get something piping hot like a slice of pizza, and Ishkr had cleverly opened the windows a bit.

So it was cold as fall blew in, but he’d lit a fire in the rec room, and there were blankets, so it was really better than just being amiably warm. Relc had two blankets on, and he was almost dozing by the fire after a dawn-shift as a [Guard]. He yawned and waited for Menolit to reply, but speaking of hot toddies, Captain Todi put down a card and responded.

“He’s just looking out for himself. It’s classic politics. If he marched his army down, everyone’d call him a hero, but he’d lose two-thirds of his army even if he won. Gorne doesn’t have that many [Knights]; he’s got low-level [Soldiers]. [Militia], even. And if he did march, no one’d help.”

“How’s that, then?”

Menolit frowned. The rec room listened with interest. Relc, Menolit, and Todi were some of the more notable regulars, but there were the usual Antinium, a Goblin—Rasktooth—napping next to Infinitypear, and even some Players of Celum from Invrisil.

More Antinium than regular, actually. Not only did the Free Antinium send patrols up, but the army was now granting leave to a lot of its members since the war against Hectval had slowed. A few [Crusaders] were watching the card games and wondering if this was a good use of their hard-earned gold.

Even Menolit had a heart, though, so he had not fleeced the new Antinium soldiers out of any coin. As for Todi, the Gold-rank Captain explained with casual cynicism.

“Easy. If he’s going to stop the monsters, why should anyone else help? If he stays put, everyone will band together over the threat. Adventurers get called in to do their thing, and yeah, a few cities might have to evacuate or fight off the horde, but the nobles don’t suffer any fucking thing.”

Menolit frowned darkly as he tossed his cards down in disgust.

“That’s terrible. You Humans do it like that?”

Todi gave him a wry look.

“You think we like it? I’m talking noble politics.”

“Oh. Yeah. Like Walled Cities wagging their tails. Fine, fine…poor Orefell, though. Anyone know the place?”

“I bet it’s got lots of ore.”

Relc muttered dreamily. He felt bad, in a vague sense, and Captain Todi shrugged.

“Never been. We skipped by it when we went to the High Passes and hunted Wyverns. Ambrol? You said you worked around there.”

He turned to one of his Gold-rank teammates, and the [Mage] muttered.

“I grew up two towns over. It’s not a huge mining city. Esthelm’s arguably got more. Orefell was more…aspirational. Poor bastards were founded by a [Lord] with no sense of the land. They do better trade panning the rivers. Jade, not ore. Decent fishing—you get the same damn bitey fish around here as Orefell.”

“No herding? It’s pretty flat land coming out of the High Passes’ entrance up north.”

Todi asked idly. His teammate shook his head.

“Carn Wolves, Eater Goats, Gargoyles, Wyverns. Farming’s out for the same reason. Orefell is all about semi-precious stones. If you are mining, it’s cave-mining. You hit a likely spot, grab whatever’s most precious, and leg it back to the city. No permanent seams or mines. It’s all expeditions. Anyone works hard, gets some gold, and moves back east. I did that—got a big chunk of jade and bought my first set of chainmail.”

Todi whistled quietly.

“Well, their already bad luck just ran out. Sucks to be Orefell. I bet it’ll have to be evacuated. Even if the Horns and other Gold-rank teams are making a stand, they won’t be able to do more than pick off parts of that horde. If it divides up, maybe only a few villages will burn. If not…it’ll take a while for one of the Five Families or a few nobles to rally a big enough army to slap it down. All those militias and other cities will do their best, but Gargoyles are tough bastards, and Eater Goats don’t stop.

The rest of the room muttered, and Relc opened one eye and sighed. Poor Orefell. That was the consensus.

Poor Orefell, and what a shame. Relc thought of Liscor’s army, but the chances of them navigating past Esthelm and all the way up and around the High Passes to Orefell from Hectval in time were impossible. Besides—it was the north’s problem. He lay back in his rocking chair and began to snore until someone threw a fork at him to make him stop.

Relc almost wished he’d called in sick—for a week—to go with Erin to Riverfarm. However, he was a trusted sergeant. Plus, he’d heard Manus had been striking the north, and Relc had a pretty good idea of what they’d been up to. It was warm down here, and his kid was getting her own break from the army tomorrow.

So he rested, and The Wandering Inn watched the news, content in the fact that they weren’t part of this particular drama for once.

That was the evening after Erin had left. The day when she posted the <Heroic Quest>. It was a meaningless moment. And it also changed…a lot.

 

——

 

Who went to the High Passes? Who could reach Orefell in time? Erin’s door was limited; even if Liscor had wanted to send Strategos Olesm, they wouldn’t have been capable of doing so. The only people who could move that fast, in general and with the door, were small groups.

Adventurers.

Yet once again, Todi was sitting in The Wandering Inn, completely unmoved by the bounties on the monsters or appeals of the local cities. And while Todi was often considered a bastard and a coward or both—

He was a weathervane for the average adventurer. Todi saw little opportunity in playing [Hero] and a lot of death. However, adventurers did still go.

The Horns of Hammerad were arranging transit to Orefell outside of Invrisil when the Halfseekers arrived. Captain Jelaqua Ivirith, pale-skinned in her dead Human body, was tying something to her belt when she called out.

“Ceria! There you are. Mind if we ride along?”

Ceria Springwalker turned and laughed when she saw the Halfseekers.

“Jelaqua! I thought we were the only ones crazy enough to join in. What’s wrong with your team? Don’t you have Maughin to hold you back?”

The Selphid’s smile was crooked, and she looked less relaxed than some times. Her team, accordingly, looked grimmer. Moore almost seemed to have reverted backwards; he barely nodded to Ksmvr, who was patting some horses on their heads as he came to a halt. Seborn was checking and rechecking his blades, and Ulinde shyly nodded to Pisces.

“Ah, well, we thought about it. It wasn’t Maughin—it was hearing the people begging for help on the scrying orb. Orefell will never evacuate in time. We’re not looking to fight that horde, but Maughin understood; the Halfseekers couldn’t sit in Pallass. You felt the same way?”

Ceria hesitated and glanced at her teammates. Yvlon was stretching her metal arms, and she nodded to Moore’s new set of armor, courtesy of Maughin. She clasped Seborn’s hand, and Ksmvr turned as a wagon was brought out and, surprisingly, unhitched.

“Sure. I mean, of course. It’s all heroic nonsense over here. Yvlon was raring to go, and we had a discussion, and I said we’d die, but we’re going.”

She mimed slitting her throat, and Jelaqua laughed. Unconsciously, she patted the object hanging on her side.

It was a little hammer, so fresh it was still tinged blue from the forge fires. Ceria glanced at it, and Jelaqua explained.

“Lucky charm. For [Lovers]. Which I am.”

“Ooh. Want to play cards tonight?”

It was light banter, and both Gold-rank Captains glanced around and noticed they had a few eyes on them. Jelaqua called out to a group skulking in the distance, a few sheathed blades prominent alongside their armor.

“Any of you fancy on coming with? There’s plenty of room, and we can always get another wagon!”

At her words, the group started and then backed up. Ceria’s eyes followed them. Jelaqua glanced at her.

“Who was that?”

“Some Silver-rank team. I can count how many are going to Orefell on one hand.”

She raised four fingers, and Jelaqua raised her brows.

“Who’re the other two?”

“The Pride of Kelia and a Gold-rank team. Spoken Vow. Ever heard of them?”

Jelaqua had a vague inkling.

“Some mixed-group team, fairly new. Decent. Good on the Pride. Is Nailren still heading it? I’m disappointed the Wings and Flamewardens aren’t coming.”

For answer, the half-Elf shrugged.

“The Wings were really interested in the new lands, so they might be tied up in negotiations for a scouting gig. Plus, they were down a member, remember? As for the Flamewardens…Keldrass’ heavy armor doesn’t move fast. Even if he has the Heartflame Breastplate, I don’t think they want to outrun Eater Goats.”

Her analysis sombered Jelaqua further, and it wasn’t like she’d come dancing out of Maughin’s bed.

“True. We can’t fight them en-masse without an escape route. Maybe we should buy some of those [Lesser Teleport] scrolls…how long are you waiting?”

Ceria turned and jerked a thumb at the wagon. The horses had been unhitched, and the [Stablehand] was asking Ksmvr for an autograph.

“We were about to go, but we’ll wait. Pisces was just conjuring our ride.”

On cue, the [Necromancer] spilled bones from a pouch, pointed, and two undead horses rose upwards to the [Stablehand]’s horror. Horror—but he didn’t scream, and no one called the Watch.

That was the level of fame the Horns had reached. The other horses shied away as Pisces began to tether them, and Jelaqua whistled.

“I forgot how economical you all are. Give us a second. Seborn! Want to check on scrolls in Invrisil?”

The Drowned Man turned from a quiet talk with Yvlon.

“Don’t bother. Word is they’ve all been taken. Black market’s gone to people close to the hordes who want out. Nervous nobility and rich folk bought the rest.”

“Damn. We’re the ones heading to the fighting! Invrisil’s—oh, wait. It was via Celum, wasn’t it?”

Glumly, Jelaqua realized that Erin had enabled unique market conditions where someone living near Celum could, for a nominal fee and far less effort, get ahold of a magical item. Which was normally great—except when the adventurers could have really used the magic.

“We’ll be fine. I’m working on a plan, and I’ve told everyone we are not charging into the monsters. Hop on.”

Ceria assured the Selphid, and the two teams loaded up. Jelaqua looked around, but no other team joined them. She sat there, staring ahead blankly as Pisces trotted the wagon out of the gates.

“I feel like I’ll betray my age if I say something like, ‘when I was a Silver-rank adventurer, any decent team would go and fight’. I’m fifty-eight years old.”

“Well, you’re younger than me. Go ahead and say it.”

The [Cryomancer] leaned back, and Jelaqua tried to smile. She gazed around and sighed.

“Nah. Even in Baleros, it’s risk-reward all the way down. And this…I’ve packed the Raskghar bodies. Frankly, if Ulinde and I burn through them, it’ll just make the Gnolls happier. But I don’t want to lose anyone or even come close. Not for this. It’s a shame to say, but we’ve had too many close calls, Ceria. No Village of the Dead, but I have to go.”

She glanced sideways, hoping the half-Elf wouldn’t castigate her, but Ceria just nodded, eyes sharp.

“Trust me, Jelaqua. I understand. After Chandrar—I have a plan. I’ll lay it on you as we go. No gambling with lives. I just hope there’s more [Soldiers] or the most we’ll be able to do is slow down breakaway packs.”

Jelaqua nodded and sat up, and Ceria offered her some of Erin’s new mana candies for the road. They were eating and talking when they spotted a group of Gnolls on horseback and another wagon headed west. Pisces’ horses didn’t tire, so they caught up to practically the only travellers headed this way. Already, Ceria could see a flow towards Invrisil.

And these are just people worried about the monsters. Not in the line of traffic. They’d be going as fast as they could all day and night. She estimated they’d get there in about three days—faster now that Nailren’s party trotted over and offered to join the expedition. That was about how much time Orefell had too.

The adventurers crammed over, and Ceria met with Spoken Vow, a team of five, who looked slightly intimidated, slightly competitive when they were introduced to the Horns. She shook hands with their leader, a decent [Warrior] with a tower shield named Mickey the Moored, much to Moore’s vague amusement. A self-trained [Hedge Mage] who had learned how to throw flaming sparks, a [Trick-Shot Archer], and a [Dual Slingshot Skirmisher].

A Gold-rank team. Oh, and their last member was a new rookie who had made Gold-rank on her own. A [Knife Fighter]. Ceria gave her a second look, and Seborn whispered.

“Typhenous’ kind.”

“Ah.”

Ceria shook hands, with the too-polite smile on the woman’s face, and nodded. She sat back with Nailren, who began asking about the Meeting of Tribes, and listened to Ksmvr introduce himself to the other adventurers.

“Hello, I am Ksmvr. I do not eat people. I am, in fact, a great lover of animals except camels. Any stories you have heard about me as ‘Ksmvr of Chandrar’ are greatly exaggerated, except for my personal acts of heroism. I did not free the Empress of Tiqr, although we are friends, and she has stolen my sword. Hello, I am Ksmvr…”

Ceria sat back and stared at the sky, smiling, but in that way that was deliberate, not genuine. She knew she was wearing the circlet of the Putrid One, but even so, she had to believe…

The half-Elf subtly took it off, although it was still invisible. She pretended to be stuffing her face and waited for two minutes as her head felt tighter, more clouded, and she grew decidedly more stupider.

More stupider? More…less intellectual? Less erudite? Ceria gave up. The rebound effect was not fun, and she’d put the circlet back on in a second. She just waited, then exhaled. Ceria flipped the circlet back onto her head and was relieved by everything returning to better-than-normal. But she had to make sure, and she felt the same way.

“Yep. That checks out. We’re in trouble.”

 

——

 

On the second day since the horde’s announcement, the roads became clogged with fleeing people. Each city, town, and village was advised by Wistram to evacuate.

They listened. They had always known the threat of a horde might come from the High Passes, but this was faster than they thought. Worse than they thought.

A smaller horde, even the Eater Goats by the hundreds or thousands, could be defeated by a city’s walls and luck. Eater Goats led by Gargoyles?

One was made worse by the other. Gargoyles alone were strong, tough enough to ignore casual arrows, and capable of flying. They spat out bits of stone like [Stone Shard] spells—but cast by an experienced [Mage]—and their rock-like skin covering their orange insides made them a Silver-rank threat for a whole team.

Yet they could be killed by enough determined people, even at low-levels. Eater Goats, by contrast, never stopped. They were largely stupid, and while they could jump, they died to a lot of things and would eat their own dead. One or the other was a manageable threat.

But together, they could overwhelm a city. And they were moving fast. The first place to fall was Somegel.

The city had been evacuating all night. First had gone the horses as every single person with one was offered increasing sums of gold or begged to hitch theirs to a wagon. Offers became less polite, and by the time day broke, any horse left in the city would be requisitioned—by blade.

Not that many waited till dawn. The first hours after the announcement were full of panic—and many left instantly, grabbing valuables and evacuating.

However—Human or people’s natures were more complex. The gangs in Somegel were small, but they realized there was a profit to be had in acquiring transit, or promising it, and looting houses evacuated by other citizens.

Some refused to go, trusting to the walls of Somegel, which were still fifteen feet high, as befitted a city near the High Passes. They bunkered down, organized into militias…and watched the news.

When the first scrying spells finally found the monsters and revealed the scope of the horde—thousands of Eater Goats surging across the base of the High Passes, Gargoyles bickering with each other, tearing apart weaker monsters who fell or even bled—many more decided to go.

The scramble began as the fastest to leave Somegel left the rest to go on foot, forced to abandon possessions or try to barter them for a horse.

A horse! Or someone with travel classes? More than one [Scoundrel] rode into Somegel, having traveled all night, and traded their horse for a few jewels, a bag of gold. Then they joined the crowds heading out on foot, delighted…until they realized how fast the monsters were moving.

When the horde appeared by daybreak, Somegel was a quarter full. The rest were either hiding in basements or joining the militia defending the walls.

Even with the scrying orb’s visions of the monsters, it hadn’t quite sunk in yet, for the Humans of Somegel, just how many monsters there were. When the Eater Goats began storming over the horizon and braying, braying with their shrieking calls until the stones were vibrating as much as your ear canals—the defenders’ nerves began to break. Some tried to get out the sealed gates or decided to hide instead. But even those who managed to force the eastward gate open and run were far too slow.

Somegel fell in one hour. Not ‘the monsters took the walls’ in one hour or ‘they fought for one hour’. The entire town was gone and the monsters were moving off in an hour.

A town of six thousand was sprawling enough and rich enough to put wooden walls in place. Not enchanted. And yes, more than three quarters had gone rather than fight.

But that still left nigh on a thousand Humans to try and hold the walls against the monsters. Humans with Skills, weapons, tactics—and it worked.

For about five minutes. The Eater Goats swarmed around the gates, trying to eat the wood banded by iron, but even their jaws had little purchase. Some jumped, but unless they springboarded off each other, they never would reach the top of the fifteen-foot walls. The [Archers] pelted arrows down, and even if an Eater Goat was strong enough to take a shot straight through the back, it would be a target for its own kind and weakened.

However—there were so many of them. They began tossing their own up, an Eater Goat leaping up and letting another leap off its back like some kind of circus act. However, those that got to the walls were minced up by half a dozen thrusting blades. They fought, biting, tearing into the panicked Humans, but even a deep bite was seldom fatal. Armor protected flesh, and a bit of healing potion saved even a grave wound.

If it were just the goats—Somegel would still have fallen. The goats pressed in around the walls from every angle, spreading out and trying to find a way inside. Once one pocket was breached, they would flood in and the neat lines of defense would waver.

However, the Gargoyles expedited the process. The Humans in the militia looked up at the first sound of giant wings tearing the air and saw a Gargoyle Bossel crash down. The curved beak opened and spat stone shards at a Human with a shield.

“[Deflecting Parry]!”

The shield deflected the spray of stones, saving the life of the [Warrior]. The Skill did not activate twice. The Bossel swung a stone axe down and crushed the Human as they staggered from the first attack. Then it whirled, ignoring the swords and spears jabbing into it, and began laying about as more Gargoyles landed.

If it was one or a dozen…but it was dozens, and more afterwards. Many of the Gargoyles and Eater Goats just waited outside as a wall was breached. A few hammered on the gates, and when the first gap emerged, they poured into the city.

It was…merciful that the [Scrying] spells showed none of the bloodbath in detail. The Eater Goats sniffed out anything edible, and that included people hiding in their basements. Some might have been spared because the Gargoyles herded the Eater Goats forwards.

Bloated, some so fat their ribs were distended to make room for the food they were digesting, the Eater Goats reluctantly abandoned tearing apart Somegel for everything. The Gargoyles themselves had smashed into homes and looted what they valued: metal for weapons, food they might like, or shiny trinkets. They recognized magic, although Somegel had been left with precious little of it for the Gargoyles to fight over.

Strange. It was all strange to the experts who knew monsters. The Gargoyles might have squatted, even taken over Somegel as a base, some of them. But they kept moving, driving the Eater Goats on as if they were afraid to stay—or aware their enemies were mobilizing against them.

It looked much the same. Somegel was a ruined city afterwards, with few dead bodies or much more than blood—and the Eater Goats had even licked the walls clean in their hunger. A few goats roamed around, still bleating for food, but the horde left before the sun had even finished rising.

A few survivors would emerge later, shell-shocked, to flee or scavenge and try to last, but some would come down with sickness, a strange malady of the skin.

Not that those who watched Somegel’s fall saw the later, insidious effects of the horde’s presence. Drassi somberly covered the broadcast with Colmet, a Gnoll from Pallass who was her new co-anchor. The [Scrying] spells followed the horde as the Gargoyles continued onwards, and a facet of Eater Goat biology revealed itself then.

They were reproducing. Not in a traditional way you expected. Instead, the Eater Goats who’d eaten so much they were bloated to the point of actually rupturing their stomachs digested at an insane, unbelievable rate. But they swelled up as all that excess energy, instead of being converted to fat, resulted in a strange gestation. In little over three hours, an Eater Goat would halt, despite the Gargoyles lashing them or their kind bumping into them, and vomit a younger Eater Goat onto the ground.

Naked, with teeth as sharp as flint and already hungry, the bleating younger goats left the horde. The Gargoyles ignored them as the newborn Eater Goats roamed backwards to the High Passes; it would take them days or weeks to grow their tough fur hides and become a fully dangerous Eater Goat.

As for the cute, small, black goat amidst the horde…it hopped along, sometimes carried by a very unhappy and nervous Gargoyle, a strange collar around its neck. It was upset it had nothing to eat and kept trying to bite off the collar, but it had weak teeth compared to the rest of its kind. When a few other Eater Goats had tried to bite off the collar, they had torn out their teeth with the force of their bites to no avail.

 

——

 

By now, everyone who was headed to Orefell was already en-route. Just who that was became clearer as Drassi sorted out people headed to combat the horde—or fleeing it as best they could. Some forces had not declared their intentions, but the distance was such that anyone as far away as Invrisil had to go—now.

However, like the Goblin Lord’s rampage had shown, the power of the north, was, well, north. Few cities or nobles had an army large enough to contribute to a monster rampage of this size, and those that did, like Lord Gorne, were playing politics.

A city could be rebuilt. People? Better to flee rather than face Somegel’s fate, even if you were a city.

The problem was this: Somegel was a city of six thousand souls. It had been able to let everyone out through the gates, on horseback, riding wagons, or on foot, but the people on foot were now racing to get away from the monsters who could move faster than they could.

But a city? A city of tens of thousands or larger?

The gates were choked, and some of the Watch had abandoned their posts. People were fleeing in such numbers that the roads were practically ignored as people marched alongside the road, tripping, wheels breaking, arguing, fighting, pleading—

Orefell did not evacuate completely because it was impossible to. And even if they did—how would they take enough food for everyone? Where was the organization, the future?

A large percentage of the city’s fifty-six thousand population stayed as the horde began to swarm their way. That was the second day, and by now, their [Governor] was putting out every distress call she could, using speaking stones, appealing to Wistram, Eldavin, the Five Families, calling in every favor she thought she had, threatening and begging.

So—who was coming to help?

 

——

 

On the third day, Gershal of Vaunt arrived and was very unhappy his horse hadn’t thrown a shoe. Or that four hundred horses hadn’t done the same.

He was a [Lieutenant of the Line], and unfortunately, his forces had been able and ‘willing’ to ride to Orefell’s defense. Gershal was doubly-unfortunately the officer assigned to the cause for a few reasons.

Firstly, he was no [General] of Vaunt, a city famous for its cheese. Good cheese, plenty of bries, a few camemberts—soft cheese, none of that hard, break-your-grater nonsense. But Vaunt had cheese, not amazing forces.

Well, they had enough to maintain some proper [Soldiers], and one supposed being a city that traded cheeses gave them a conscience or at least the desire to be a sociable neighbor. The second reason they’d sent Gershal was…

He had done this before. The [Lieutenant] had been six levels lower when he had met Zel Shivertail and fought with the Tidebreaker in the ill-fated battle against the Goblin Lord. He had earned five of those six levels on that day.

He still had nightmares. It gave Gershal no good impressions of this desperate mission of mercy. If he was happy about one thing—it was that Captain Salvia of Nonelmar wasn’t there.

Nonelmar and Vaunt had a famous rivalry which, of course, you knew about. Because it was so famous. Ahem. Gershal was aware it was small cheese curds compared to the rest of the region, but he and Salvia had been cordial rivals and fought with Zel Shivertail. Her [Riders] were far more mobile than his forces, which had only upgraded to horses recently.

…But damn him if he wasn’t glad she was missing. Because Gershal didn’t know if they were going to survive this in many pieces.

“Vaunt’s sent only four hundred? There are more Gargoyles than your soldiers, [Lieutenant]!”

The first thing the [Governor] shouted at him was that—before she collected herself. She had a turban set with a jewel on her head, and she was a [Trade Governor] and very, very stressed. She didn’t look like she’d slept, which made two of them.

“Governor Cuarte, I have ridden night and day to give aid to our distant friends in Orefell. Vaunt is not the closest city to Invrisil, let alone Orefell. We have given what we can.”

“Yes, of course. Just—someone will find a place for your men.”

Gershal nodded and waited, but the Governor lapsed into a blank silence and stare. Her advisory council was half-gone, deserted, and Gershal coughed into one fist.

“Hm? What?”

“…Is there a commanding officer, a [General] of Orefell I should present myself to, Madam Governor? We could use supplies, and I would like to rest our horses. If the monster horde arrives tomorrow, we will need all the rest we can get.”

The [Governor] gave him a bug-eyed look and then ran her hands through her hair.

“Supplies? Half our warehouses were looted—we can find something. You, Danna, find the [Lieutenant] a place to stay. The barracks. But watch your horses, [Lieutenant]. Tie them up, and someone will steal them. Did you say [General]? You are an officer-class, aren’t you? Don’t you have a plan of attack?”

Gershal’s heart sank lower into his boots.

“I—would hope there is someone in the field commanding the defenses.”

The [Governor] laughed bleakly, like someone dropping pieces of glass off a balcony.

“We had a [Militia Commander]. A good one, who’s fought monsters from the High Passes. Only, I can’t find her. I know there are other groups coming to fight. A dozen. Adventurers. I’ll…I’ll find you their names.”

While she searched for a list, Gershal sent a [Message] to Vaunt asking their [General] for orders. He wanted them to tell him to turn around and escort some civilians to safety, but instead, he got the worst news yet.

After consultation with the Five Families, Vaunt has placed its forces under the command of the leading officer in the field. In the absence of any direct commands, you, Lieutenant Gershal, are to skirmish and delay the monsters to allow Orefell to evacuate as best you are able.

“Skirmish and delay…?”

He nearly tore the [Message] up. Gershal had seen the monsters on the scrying orb. He had seen another town burning in the distance and taken fifty of his [Soldiers] to scout it out.

One look at the flying Gargoyles, who moved far faster than he wanted giant stone monsters—the smallest of whom were seven feet tall—to move, or the Eater Goats running full-tilt, and he knew there would be no ‘skirmish’. His Skills were devoted to holding a spot, and unlike other armies, if they were surrounded, his people were dead.

“We’re holding the walls. If we sortie, it will only be because Orefell is overrun. All we have to do is perform a fighting withdrawal. The adventurers will help draw off the monsters.”

He gave a little speech to his command and got bleak looks in reply. Someone muttered as Gershal strode back to find the other commanders in the city.

What adventurers?

There were precious few in the city. Gershal understood, by now, that the Five Families were waking up to the crisis. House Terland and House El had begun mobilizing a number of Gold-rank teams, and a Golem-led force was moving south from one of their strongholds.

Far, far north of Invrisil. They had pledged that not a single monster would sack Celum, which was far enough east of Orefell for that to be at least a week out from the horde’s path. Gershal imagined they would keep that promise, especially because House Veltras seemed to be moving quick too, a force heading down from around the High Passes’ range and going south to pincer the horde.

…Too far from Orefell. Gershal remembered when Magnolia had put out her call for aid and Tyrion Veltras had sucked the forces meant for Zel’s army into his. He felt much the same thing happening here, only this time, he couldn’t blame House Veltras. So he blamed everyone else instead.

 

——

 

Pisces Jealnet didn’t sleep well on the ride to Orefell. Mostly because he hated camping.

In a larger sense, it was his nerves about the crisis and his telling his team what had happened with Roshal. They were very supporting, as Erin had claimed. He had felt silly when, before getting through one of his notecards, Yvlon had leapt up, swearing to hunt down every [Slaver] between here and Roshal.

…But it made him think of his friends in Pomle. And, he had found, sharing his trauma with his team had hurt him by hurting them. Ksmvr had looked so shocked and had been so upset he hadn’t slept for two days before he’d passed out in the wagon. Pisces was glad of it.

He didn’t want it.

Yet the monsters remained. He was an adventurer, and that was an odd thought for the [Necromancer]. Ceria had been joking that they hadn’t been back to Liscor a month before they were called away on adventurer business. To which he had said, ‘that is yours and Yvlon’s concern, I am merely an unwilling participant’.

And then, the Spoken Vow team had given Pisces an odd look, and he had remembered he’d voted to go there. He’d looked around and realized he’d become one of them.

One of those swashbuckling, ale-drinking adventure-havers, who went on errands and…and it felt normal. It felt right. Even if this was the stupidest decision since the Village of the Dead raid, Pisces couldn’t imagine anything else happening.

It was so strange coming to Orefell, too. When he first left Wistram, Pisces had headed straight south to Liscor on a pilgrimage to see where the Necromancer had died. A meandering pilgrimage often falling afoul of the law, it was true, but Orefell was not a place to visit.

It was surprisingly industrial, and he saw two huge cranes designed for picking up huge loads of stone, a rare engineering marvel, in the city from a distance. They had been for the mines that had never panned out, but they were good for loading and unloading, and the walls were high.

“Twenty feet. Stone. Liscor’s got better ones, and these don’t look like they have more than a single Tier 4 binding on them.”

Ceria pronounced at a distance. Pisces raised his brows; she was getting better at enchantments if she was as certain as she sounded. He saw a stream of people passing by, a flow like the last two days had shown him.

Human pettiness and misery in its fullness. Pisces had seen how few teams and people were headed this way. And yet…what surprised him was not that, but the reactions.

To his team. People looked up and pointed as the undead horses clattered down the road, and then they began to cheer. They saw Ksmvr and began to shout.

“The Horns of Hammerad!”

Ksmvr of Chandrar! It’s Pisces the [Necromancer]! Ceria the Ice Squirrel! The Silver Killer of—

Yvlon’s face turned beet red, and Ceria choked on her own spit laughing. Pisces stared down as the people threatened to flood the wagon, and Jelaqua had to get up and shout.

Keep it moving, people! Keep going! We need to get into that city! Thank you!

Moore was trudging next to the wagon, and people stared up at him. He looked down at a family and a crying girl staring at an upended wagon. It had broken, and Moore stepped over and lifted the wagon up, halting the flow of people.

“If you have another wheel, I can hold it. Or we may have one in our cart.”

He told the stunned parents, and Jelaqua cursed.

“Moore! Oh, dead gods—someone get the spare wheel! Moore—alright, alright, I’m coming. Ulinde, can you just [Repair] that or is it too much damage?”

The Halfseekers were quintessentially good people, and they deserved the cheers more than the Horns in Pisces’ opinion. However, it was when Ceria met the [Governor] and was dragged away by the frantic woman that he met Gershal of Vaunt.

The [Lieutenant] almost looked ready to cry when he presented himself as a leader of a four hundred soldier force. He turned to Pisces and, to the [Necromancer]’s amazement, shook his hand.

“Adventurer Pisces? It is good, damned good, if you’ll excuse me, to see some Gold-rank teams here. How many?”

Pisces was so surprised that Ksmvr spoke for him.

“Four. The Pride of Kelia is Silver-rank, but they are excellent archers, and we have Spoken Vow and the Halfseekers. Hello, Lieutenant. I am Ksmvr. You may know me as Ksmvr of Chandrar, but I must assure you that any tales about me are exaggerated except for my skill at petting animals.”

Gershal gave Ksmvr a bug-eyed look, which the [Skirmisher] returned, but then he held out a slow hand.

“I believe I’ve seen you dancing.”

Ksmvr hesitated and clacked his mandibles together.

“…I do not dance upon request, but I am pleased you have observed me in a private act. Hello.”

They shook hands, and Gershal didn’t even wipe his hands—although he was wearing gloves. But that made him a better person than most, and the man proved to be a better information source than the [Governor] practically clinging to Ceria.

“There are two other Gold-rank teams here. Two. One is large enough to be a force—they’re called ‘A Pact of Flame and Sword’. Do you know them?”

“No. How large are they?”

Pisces waved Yvlon over as she spoke to Nailren and Spoken Vow’s Captain, Mickey—he thought they were arranging a place to meet tonight, which would be good. They only had a day left.

“A Pact of Flame and Sword? Thirty strong.”

Thirty?

That caught Pisces and Ksmvr’s ear, but Yvlon nodded when she heard that.

“I know the Pact. Gold-rank team, but they have a few members who are Gold themselves. They’re like Todi, Pisces. More upstanding, more mercenary.”

Well, that was something. Gershal did seem relieved to have three more, and he spoke quickly.

“Frankly, Adventurers, I’m not even sure if we want to come to a battle. Each town and village has gone down in less than an hour. Orefell has fine walls—but the [Governor] is bleeding her soldiers day by day. We thought the city would be a place to fight at—but it’s two-thirds empty.”

“I thought there was no way Orefell could be evacuated.”

Yvlon looked concerned. Gershal gave her a waxy smile.

“It can’t. Not fully, but the scrying spells are waking up everyone to how many monsters are coming. The [Governor] is thinking of calling for a full evacuation.”

“That would be disastrous! If she hasn’t done it already—”

Gershal interrupted Yvlon.

“Half her remaining militia fled, yesterday and today, Adventurer Yvlon. It may be wiser to escort however many can flee on foot.”

That made Yvlon hold her tongue. Ironically, Wistram’s calls for evacuation were going too well. Pisces’ estimation of how bad this was sunk from bad to worse.

“If they do evacuate, we may be able to stall part of the monsters. The rest will surely go for the city. What if there was a fighting withdrawal?”

Exactly what the consensus is among the leadership, Adventurer Pisces, sir!”

Sir. Gershal looked at Pisces with relief, and at this point, the [Necromancer]’s fragile ego forced his tongue into saying something stupid as usual. He sniffed.

“I am, ah, a [Necromancer], you know, Lieutenant Gershal. I might save your thanks. I fear you might be sullied by association.”

To that, the man gave Pisces the blankest of looks.

“I know that, Adventurer Pisces. But you also went into the Village of the Dead. If there was ever a time for a [Necromancer]…”

He left Pisces with his mouth slightly open. The [Necromancer] looked at Yvlon, but it was Ksmvr who put a hand on his shoulder.

“You have become widely accepted, Comrade Pisces. I am glad, although you must not let other people assert dominance over you so easily.”

His mandibles lifted and opened. Pisces was glad someone could smile about all this. But the more he saw of Orefell, the more he agreed with Gershal’s sudden decision to evacuate more.

This city was not in a good place.

 

——

 

Low-level soldiers. Sparse reinforcements and a magnification, nay, an awareness of how they were on the chopping block since no great armies had come to save them.

That saw Orefell emptying at an increasing rate over the course of the day. The Horns were a single line in the sand, and they were doing calculations on how much weight the Gold-rank adventurers might have to pull.

“Let’s say there’s only a thousand Gargoyles.”

The leader of Spoken Vow spat out their biscuit. Ceria went on as another Gold-rank team Captain nervously did figures with her. The Pact’s leader was a tall man, with, of all things, a bit of Gnollish heritage. It made him almost as hairy as Nailren, albeit only where he should have hair naturally, and the Gnoll had smiled.

For about five minutes until the teams had gathered for a recce. They had a few local Silver and Bronze-ranks, but most had fled. The ones who had come and might come were only here because of…

The quest. That darned Erin Solstice. Ceria smiled ruefully. She shifted from foot-to-foot and kept glancing sidelong at the <Quest> posted to the empty Adventurer’s Guild, which a [Receptionist] was updating with new figures every few seconds.

Even when she was gone…Ceria went on.

“Let’s say the soldiers can handle half or stall them. And let’s say there are only two thousand Eater Goats.”

“There are more.”

Nailren spoke flatly. He was a [Ranger], and Ceria nodded to him.

“Let’s say there are for the sake of easy numbers. That’s 500 Gargoyles, 1000 Eater Goats. We have, with all our adventurers combined, around maybe fifty decent fighters. Gold and Silver. So each one of us takes on five Gargoyles and ten Eater Goats.”

Silence. After a second, Spoken Vow’s leader Mickey laughed nervously.

“I…I can handle ten Eater Goats if they don’t all jump me at once. Hell, all ten at the same time. Five Gargoyles, by myself?”

“That’s reductionist, Ceria. We never fight alone. Hold them, stall them, break them at choke points. We have to do it. I say that if we hold Orefell, we fight building-to-building. Once the walls fall—we barely try to hold them. Let the monsters have them; we should blockade streets, force them into coming after us. Then we hole up in a defensive spot. The mines.”

Jelaqua looked tired as she leaned over a map of the city. Ceria nodded. She had done that math as a point.

“And if they evacuate?”

“We try to stall as many as we can while everyone runs.”

“They’ll catch the civilians eventually. Eater Goats don’t stop runnin’. I’ve seen it happen.”

Pact’s Captain was named Nethengrel, and he looked around slowly. Ceria nodded and glanced at a larger map.

“The nearest village—no, if we want a city, it’s thirty-two miles. But how long would they hold? We’ll be running and defending people getting torn to shreds.”

“Either that or we blockade ourselves in some mines and hope the horde passes us by.”

Two bad options. Some of the lower-level Captains looked like they didn’t want to be here. Ceria didn’t want to be here, but she was, and so she did all she could to survive.

“We can stall them. Frankly, I think it’s a better option. Adventurers keep mobile, on horseback, and we clash with the monsters. I have [Ice Walls]. My entire class is about freezing things. Moore’s an expert in green magic—we can trip up the monsters. What we can’t do is get boxed in by those Bossels. Some of our people can go toe-to-toe with them, like Jelaqua and Yvlon, but my vote is convincing the [Governor] to evacuate everyone tonight. Within the hour, and we hope like hell the monsters divide up enough to sack Orefell.”

“Agreed.”

Nailren spoke instantly. He didn’t fancy dying in a box, and his team were ranged experts. The other two Gold-rank Captains looked uncertain if they had a vote, being individually Silver-rank, but Jelaqua nodded.

“You’re the one with a plan, Ceria, and you’ve got one for the battle.”

One of the other Captains coughed.

“Which is…?”

“[Fortress of the Ice Queen]. [Frozen Floor]. Stagger up the goats, maybe, but keep them off while we hit the Gargoyles. Repeat. I can’t promise I can do it much, but I hope those buggers aren’t that nimble. We can throw one Frostmarrow Behemoth at them—but it won’t last long against that many.”

The adventurers murmured, and they were almost in agreement when the final Gold-rank team captain came striding into the room. He was breathless and pulling off a helmet as he clanked in.

“I’m sorry I’m late. I was helping organize the evacuation—we have to empty this city. Half the battlements were abandoned, and I cannot, in good conscience, claim anyone remaining is safe. Who’s in charge of—Ceria?”

The half-Elf heard a familiar voice and whirled in disbelief. Her mouth opened in a delighted, if resigned, smile, and Jelaqua struck her forehead with a palm.

“Of all the—how are you here? You idiot, do you just smell suicidal causes? Ylawes!”

She spread her arms and hugged and kissed the [Knight] as he blinked at her.

“Jelaqua? You’re here—of course you are. Ceria! I had no idea the Horns were fighting the good fight. You’re a welcome sight.”

He clasped hands with Ceria, and the half-Elf smiled grimly. Even Ylawes Byres didn’t make the odds seem better, but the [Knight] still smiled and actually hugged her.

“Is my sister here? Is she well?”

“I’ll take you to her, Ylawes. But first—the [Governor]. We have to go.”

The city’s full evacuation was declared by evening. The monsters would arrive the next day, and instead of rest, Ceria found herself telling frightened civilians that the adventurers would not hold the walls unless they had to run into the mines for cover. Anyone who wanted to stay could find a hiding spot or find an area of the mines that Moore was helping set up to collapse. Let Sir Relz and the other nobles and [Strategists] offer their far-flung armchair commentary. Ceria’s view was that Orefell was a deathtrap.

Five Gold-rank teams and less than three thousand full [Soldiers] spent a sleepless night in Orefell facing a horde of monsters. When they rose, they had the task of combatting a horde of monsters greater in numbers, and the most appetizing target on the road were trying to flee a horde of monsters with possessions on their backs slowing every damn step.

Those were the stakes, and those were the odds. But by dawn, at least there was some hope. After all—even if she wasn’t here, Erin had sent all she could.

A <Quest>, her hopes and feelings, whatever that was worth, and something far more tangible.

A [Boon].

 

——

 

She had only one. But with Lyonette? It made two. When Ceria woke up, Gershal of Vaunt was shouting across their localized speaking stones.

The horde is visible in the distance! Adventurer Nailren says it has not spread out much—we have reinforcements from the north and east and south all claiming to have arrived but none in sight. Adventurers, is everyone prepared?”

“Hold on, Lieutenant—we have a situation.”

“What kind of—”

A good one! Dead gods! Tree rot! Fortress Beavers!”

Ceria ran out of exclamations. She stared at a member of her team who had been given a boon from the [Innkeeper]. Because Erin wouldn’t let her friends go into danger without doing everything she could.

However, her boon was a Skill seldom used even by herself. Erin had no idea how it worked except in one specific case. So she had needed to choose both a recipient and a guest who had visited her inn. Who had she chosen?

The most hilarious combo possible, that was who. There he stood, in front of the other awed adventurers. His robes blew around him, rippling in the wind as it ruffled Pisces Jealnet’s hair. When he stood with one foot propped up on a chair, he looked like he could be standing in some portrait of a hero upon a quest, a windswept background behind him.

In this case, the wind kept blowing despite Pisces’ clear chagrin at Jelaqua laughing herself sick. [Boon of the Guest]! And who had been the guest?

Ryoka Griffin. Pisces was red-faced as Ksmvr felt at the winds with delight.

“I can’t make it stop! It’s like a wind familiar. See?”

He pointed to a cup where his breakfast plate lay spinning in a circle, and the wind tried to pick the cup up. But it was so clumsy Pisces ducked as a spray of liquid flew past him.

“That is the most useless Skill ever!”

Ceria laughed. Yvlon shook her head.

“There has to be some utility. Pisces, I’ll try to punch you. Stop me.”

“What? No, not you, Yvlon. Anyone but—”

Pisces backed up and threw up a hand as she raised one metal arm, but before he could even summon the wind, a jet blast suddenly kicked Yvlon off her feet. She landed, somewhat stunned, and blinked up at Ylawes as he raised his shield reflexively.

“Automatic wind protection? Nice! Does it do it twice?”

Ceria threw a mug at Pisces. He ducked it with a glower, and she supposed it only worked every so often. He shifted from foot-to-foot uneasily.

“I do not care for this at all. I find it makes me a larger target and—I have the strangest itching in my feet. I feel like I should be jogging a lap around the city. And my shoes are too tight.”

He stared down at his shoes, which, hither-to, he had never bothered to worry about aside from making sure they had no holes in them. Ceria’s lips twitched.

“Are you saying you want to go barefoot?”

Pisces’ head snapped up.

Absolutely not! Yes. And I feel like I can sense minute currents of air, for the useless ability that it is. For instance, Miss Falene just passed wind.”

He turned to a half-Elf and Dwarf coming downstairs, and Falene Skyskrall turned white with fury as Dawil began laughing. That was—until the second boon-holder came walking indoors and everyone went quiet.

Of the two adventurers…Erin probably had Pisces on her mind, but there was someone else that Lyonette had allocated her precious [Boon of the Princess] to. And it was as much her daughter’s choice as hers. So Ceria’s breath caught in her throat, and Nailren was the one who spoke after a moment.

“…Dead gods, Moore. You’re as fearsome as any [Shaman] of the tribes.”

Moore shifted uncomfortably. He had ducked to enter the Adventurer’s Guild because he was so tall, but now, even ducking, his head scraped the ceiling. Or rather…

The antlers. Moore had been wearing chainmail yesterday, good Pallassian steel. Today? It was like the outfit had sprouted with hide legging and shoulders, and a bark covering melded with the metal. To complete it, his helmet had antlers. He looked like some kind of natural guardian underneath it, and the vines winding up his boots were green turning to the blood red he had learned to use.

“I can’t take it off! Or rather, when I put on my armor, this happens. It’s a Skill called [Vestments of the Warrior of Green]. One Skill.”

“And tough as Orichalcum. I gave him a stab and barely went through it. Mrsha knows who needed armor the most.”

Seborn looked approving. Moore scratched at his head and nearly tangled his gauntleted hands with the antlers.

“I just feel silly. I’m glad she thought of me—and Lyonette—but how do I look?”

Ceria beat everyone else to the punch.

“Moore, you look like a legend. A real Gold-rank! Pisces, on the other hand, has turned into the Windy Necro-lad.”

I resent Miss Griffin being used as the catalyst for this boon! Anyone would have been better! Why not Archmage Eldavin? Why not Saliss of Lights?”

“Then you’d be naked.”

Jelaqua chortled, and the adventurers laughed. Levity, before Gershal spoke breathlessly.

They’re coming. Get ready. The [Governor] is leaving the city, and the alarms are blowing—”

The horns began to sound, and Ceria’s laughter halted. As the monsters swarmed over the distance. The last citizens began running, abandoning everything that would weigh them down. Their possessions or their lives? The soldiers and adventurers followed, and Falene, Pisces, and a few [Mages] cast as many illusions to distract the monsters as they could. The horde advanced—then began to split as they saw the fleeing people. Ceria’s blood tingled. It depended on reinforcements, on how many monsters followed. If they were caught—they were all dead.

But she swore that the Horns and their friends would not be surrounded and die. The half-Elf only wondered if she could pull Yvlon, Ylawes, and the others out of however hellish that battle became. Yet as the first Eater Goats began screaming in the distance, Ceria saw Seborn close his eyes and clasp his hands together in an odd gesture. He caught her looking when he opened his eyes.

“Does that do anything, Seborn?”

The Drowned Man shrugged and almost smiled. He looked eastwards as Gershal’s voice broke in excitedly.

“Maybe not, but it doesn’t hurt. Come on, Springwalker. I don’t think we’re dead yet.”

 

——

 

The people fleeing Orefell were the entire city’s population, and in a single shoving mass, they were slow. As slow as their weakest and frailest members; and even a healthy man or woman could not outrun an Eater Goat.

A pursuit and battle was inevitable, but they could have split up in every direction. Accordingly, the horde would have done likewise, and while that might have resulted in butchery, it would have weakened the monsters as they split up.

The irony was that the smartest move for everyone was the most selfish and heartless for a few. Tolveilouka Ve’delina Mer had seen it many times. The defenders had elected to abandon the city, but kept the fleeing people together not simply because they were naive, but because of the boast.

We will protect you. If they all went one way, they could be defended as opposed to a random flight. But that meant the soldiers would be fighting, and the horde was closing in on them.

Tolveilouka knew the Horns were there, and part of him longed to swoop down and end them—but five Gold-rank teams was not an idle boast. Even in his day…or maybe that was the difference between his day and this one.

Nevertheless, he had sworn to make it better. To bring down their home was more artful than their deaths, and besides…

Once revealed, he would be Izril’s foe. He wanted to see how the Five Families reacted, and thus far?

He was not impressed. Or if he was, it was by how few had come to make a stand at this city. It was amazingly pragmatic in the heartless way that dividing the fleeing people would have been.

“A Drake hoards and holds onto every scrap of land even if it costs him his fingers. Is this the way of the north?”

He mused. This kind of self-sacrificial attitude would keep pockets of the Human lands strong, and the rest would bleed out. Contrast that with Drake hegemonic obsession with maintaining ‘their land’? Both ideas had their weaknesses. However, Tolveilouka was no great [Strategist]. Nor was he some kind of infallible information-gatherer. He was far more—direct in most of his approaches.

Hence, his conclusions about the north’s attitude towards their unfortunate neighbors was disrupted as the monster horde split, most heading towards the city like the idiots the Gargoyles were. A good portion were bearing down on the refugees, and Tolve was pleased to let it play out since it looked like the Horns were still in trouble.

…Until he saw the [Riders] coming in from the east. The half-Elf hissed quietly.

 

——

 

Gershal of Vaunt was looking over his shoulder every second. They were coming. Gargoyles, Eater Goats—damn him, but those Bossels were so huge he thought even the Tidebreaker would have looked short compared to them. Half their size!

He wished Zel Shivertail were here. And he told himself the Goblin Lord had been worse. He told himself he had real adventurers on his side, like the Horns and the reassuringly famous Silver Swords.

Yet Gershal had to admit, the sight of a column of dust on the horizon and the horns blowing did make him tear up. He turned and felt the first higher-level commander on the field since he had come to Orefell.

Not one, Gershal realized, but two. Although the [Militia Commander] of Orefell was half-leader, half unwilling captive of the [Brigadier] leading nearly four thousand mounted troops towards them.

“Someone send a rider to them! Who’s this?”

The answer came before the soldiers were even in sight. A howling, strident voice came from a mustachioed—woman—on horseback. Gershal did a double-take as she shouted across the distance.

I am [Brigadier] Forount of Wales! With me flies Ocre, Remendia, Ambault, and Celum’s banners! We will turn back this horde of monsters long enough! With me!

Gershal had a spyglass, and he saw armored riders in heavy gear, with proper barding on their mounts, following her.

Wales? Odd name for a city, but he vaguely remembered it. They had cheap, solid [Lancers] as opposed to a [Knight]-core, and even the Goblin Lord hadn’t sacked their city. He could see why.

A coalition of cities. The people of Orefell were cheering wildly, and so were the soldiers, but a half-Elf raced past on a frozen chariot, shouting.

Stop cheering and run!

That snapped Gershal out of it. He looked back and counted. The monster horde had seen the large numbers of soldiers, but still. They might still outnumber the fighting Humans, and that was not a fight he wanted to take.

They could make it, though. With so many riders, they could throw back the monsters and retreat, either stagger or tire them out! Gershal was racing forwards to add the [Brigadier] to the speaking stone network when he heard a moan from behind him.

He turned—and his face turned as waxy as bad cheese left out in the sun. Because suddenly—every single monster in the horde had abandoned the city. And they were racing—fast—towards him.

 

——

 

Tolveilouka considered it cheating. Just a tiny bit. But he nodded thoughtfully down to the [Brigadier]. And her mustache.

“So some cities have the wherewithal to stand together. Nobles unite for their interest, and these far-flung cities likewise. Very good. And such a beautiful style.”

He meant the mustache. Was it a fake or did she grow it? The poorest option was if her class gave it to her for whatever reason.

He hoped she lived, but the Gargoyles were racing to abandon their siege of the city. This was not what the living wanted, of course. They had banked upon the city distracting the monsters, and woe was them.

Tolve supposed he should be sipping a glass of cordial or some such, but he was alone. Alone…he closed his eyes.

If only some faithful Revenants remained. If only he were here. He buried his face in his hands—then peeked with one eye. At the very least, he’d see a bloodbath. Then his head snapped up, and he growled.

What? How did they get here?

It was one thing for adventurers. Adventurers popped up everywhere, like those ‘Silver Swords’, who had ridden horse after horse into the ground to make it this far east from the coastline. But them? Those stubborn, slow—short—Tolve bit into one manicured nail and pointed.

“Dwarves!”

 

——

 

An invisible undead being’s wrath aside, the Dwarves were really unhappy about it too. Less than two hundred had made it, and their [Field Captain] was clutching at a stitch in his side.

Dead gods and Grandfathers’ beards! We tell jokes about Dwarves sprinting faster than folks on horseback, but I never thought I’d see the day!”

He roared, catching his breath as two hundred of the Dwarves from Deríthal-Vel halted in dismay. Two hundred.

Not two thousand. Not any one of the other groups making it to Dwarfhalls Rest. Oh, no. They weren’t stupid.

Most of the Dwarves heading to the mountain weren’t dedicated fighters. They were [Crafters], [Smiths], [Cooks], and [Scribes] for ore’s sake! And of the many groups who’d disembarked at various ports on Izril’s north, only one had even been close enough to contemplate splitting and heading south.

Two hundred. Two hundred was the most they could spare. Two hundred was—putting aside the lack of any reward until that <Quest> had been posted—the only thing the Dwarves could do.

But it had been the right thing to do. The only thing, and for many reasons, the [Field Captain] had agreed to lead two hundred of his best into battle against the monsters.

After all, they wanted to be a part of Izril, and you could not stand with the Humans and look them in the eye if you were too craven to answer such a desperate call. That was [Field Captain] Rlint’s reasoning.

To look at things, the rest of Izril hadn’t reasoned the same! He was staring in dismay at barely six thousand soldiers and a handful of Gold-rank teams facing almost that number of monsters. They might even be outnumbered.

Where are the Five Families? Where is House Veltras, riding down on the monsters? They did it for Goblins! Where are Wellfar ships sending troops south? Golems? The House of El’s craft?”

He saw none of it. The Dwarf’s lungs were burning from nonstop marching, but he kept half-screaming.

“Ironveil Company, fall back! Fall back!

The Dwarves catching their breaths looked up, having marched hard since dawn, only to hear a retreat order. However, Rlint took one look at the situation and knew it was the call to make.

Dwarves had a different attitude and training to war than most Human kingdoms, let alone however Izril did it. He was aware that eyes might be upon him, but Rlint was scanning the field, and his unit was not entering an alliance of forces converging against the monsters as he’d thought.

Instead, they were alone, coming from north to south, and unsupported. They needed to maneuver around the monsters and link up with the Humans. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like they’d make it.

“[Captain], oncoming Gargoyles.”

A [Scout] snapped, and the Dwarves began unlimbering shields, slamming axes and blades down into the dirt and groaning. Rlint looked up, and his heart sank as a sizable force split from the monsters.

Why? The Dwarves were covered in plate and chain, and they were armed to the teeth. They were—and this was a technicality, but he felt it fit—shorter than the Humans, and there was a lot less to eat than the thousands of Humans!

It was almost as if those Bossels were directing them like a proper army. Rlint had fought Gargoyles at home, and he had seldom seen this level of cohesion.

“Brace yourselves, boys and girls! We might be facing a Suzerain of Stone.”

Rlint spoke, and voices groaned as he named the conclusion of Gargoyle evolution. He didn’t see one—and that would be visible as a giant even among its kin. Rlint considered falling back, but they hadn’t passed many defensible spots. So he just looked around and pointed.

“That hill. There! Set up and prepare for combat! Get a [Message] to the Humans, and tell them we need any support we can get. One adventurer team hitting them from behind or we won’t be reporting back to Grandfather.”

A [Stone Magus] began casting, and the [Field Captain] began to run, still tasting iron in his lungs as the Dwarves pivoted. For this, we came to Izril? Rlint shouted and raised his axe overhead, if they could see him in a [Scrying] spell.

Let them at least see how Dwarves extended our hands. And if no one was there to take them—stone shall weep for us all.

Ready crossbows!

The Dwarves were checking each other, murmuring final words, shouting, and singing as the [Stone Magus] raced over. He pointed, and a wall flanked their defensive line.

Field Captain, the Humans say they’re coming. More reinforcements are coming.

“Well, they had better get here soon. Crossbows—loose! Loose!

The [Field Captain] swung up a black crossbow forged of Dwarfsteel from his home. He aimed at the largest Gargoyle and felt the kick against his chest. Then he swung it down and put his foot in the stirrup. His blood was roaring, and, oh, how he wished they were deploying alongside those Humans in the distance preparing to meet their foes.

Not just because it was safety in numbers. He grinned.

“This is no place for anyone to fall. Better to die arm-in-arm with new friends. Crossbows loose! Throwing axes!

 

——

 

The monsters were coming at the Dwarves, and they would actually hit the Dwarves faster than the Humans, who were still moving backwards with the fleeing refugees. However—even with Tolveilouka’s wrath directing the Bossels to divert their forces at the Dwarves, the two hundred would not die quick.

They were Dwarves, and you could put something down to the doughteyness of their beards and a Dwarf’s stubbornness, as if that made them tougher.

No, as Merrik well knew, what made them tougher was tactics. Tactics forged out of logic that allowed them to beat other Human kingdoms, monsters, everyone, in combat.

The Dwarf was watching with his hands clenched. He regretted not going at once to the battle. But even Venaz had not. He, Peki, and Venaz were in Liscor’s camp, hundreds of miles away.

He could only watch. And admire his people’s tactics that had won him a scholarship to the Titan. Even the Titan respected how they fought.

“[Stone Walls]. Stone walls and…that’s right. Just like that.

The Dwarves had entrenched themselves in stone. One on each side. And a wall at their back. They created a pillbox against which the monsters would break. If they had no natural advantage in terrain, they’d make it! With [Sappers] or magic.

Nor did the other species know how a Dwarf fought. Even Venaz was surprised as the scrying spell focused on the Dwarves. For the first thing that hit the Eater Goats and Gargoyles was a rain of crossbow bolts.

Dwarfsteel, light and tough! Oversized crossbows with a punch any Gold-rank adventurer would respect. Monsters staggered, and even a Gargoyle went down, but it got up, spurting orange blood. The Dwarves managed another volley before the monster crossed a line in the sand. Then the [Field Captain] gave the same order Merrik would have.

“Throwing axes.”

At this, even Calruz and Venaz twisted and stared at Merrik. Peki was hopping from foot to foot, staring out the tent. The Minotaur [Prisoner] and [Strategist] looked back at the scrying orb and saw an unusual sight.

The Dwarves’ first rank had dropped to their knees to fire the crossbows so as not to be hit by the second. Now, both first and second rank drew axes. The second rank threw first, and then the first rose and lifted their axes. They threw, and more monsters went down, screaming as the weighted axes took off a head, bit into Gargoyle flesh.

“That’s…at least a hundred throwing axes. Does every single Dwarf carry a crossbow and throwing axe?”

Venaz turned to Merrik. The Dwarf smiled sadly and looked up.

“Of course. It’s called armaments.”

Venaz and Calruz looked at each other. They hailed from the House of Minos, one of the most elite fighting forces equipped with advanced weaponry in the world. Even to them—the Dwarves were ridiculously overgeared for the average [Soldier].

Especially when the [Scouts] amidst their number turned out to have been fortifying their spot in their own way. Namely—the first Eater Goats ran onto caltrops and steel snares, which snapped and brought them down. They fell, screaming, as two Dwarves planted a wire ‘net’ of steel which tripped up a Gargoyle and two more before the stakes were torn out of the ground. Then—the Dwarves charged, a wall of steel slamming into monstrous flesh and falling back, forming a link of iron. As tough and unforgiving as barbed wire. On their own fortified ground, backs to a wall.

But even iron would bend. Merrik stared bleakly as Peki pointed out the tent, staring at him anxiously.

“I could…fly over and help?”

“In how many days?”

Venaz turned and glared derisively. Peki folded her wings and sulked. She patted Merrik on the back as he watched.

“They’ll make it. Give me three days. They’ll last three days.”

“Yeah. They will.”

The Dwarf lied as he watched the line of Dwarves bow inwards slightly and—hold. He looked for reinforcements, adventurers—there had to be some. Then he saw the Gargoyles and Eater Goats hit the Humans like flesh meeting a hammer’s face.

But—he closed his eyes—

What a terrible sound and battle to fight. He began muttering, trying—again—to throw a Skill hundreds of miles.

“[Unit: Stone Skin]. [Unit: Stone Skin]…”

But it wasn’t working. He was too far away. Too weak.

 

——

 

“[Fortress of the Ice Queen]!”

A year ago, this spell would have been game-changing. It would have made her think she was a Gold-rank, or so close it could be tasted. It would have made her the most valuable member of her team.

It wasn’t enough. Ceria Springwalker ran across a rising battlement of ice and saw the Frostmarrow Behemoth crash into the monsters. The same beast of ivory and ice crushed dozens of Eater Goats as the rest tried to dodge. It raised a paw and slammed it down on the closest Gargoyle’s head, leaving only pulp.

But it was one versus hundreds of Gargoyles, and it slowed as it ran into dozens of them, and they began swinging clubs into its body.

Silver and steel, stop staring and keep casting, Ceria!

Yvlon’s voice broke Ceria out of her reverie. The half-Elf turned and pointed. [Ice Wall]! [Icy Floor]!

Walls of ice shot up along the ramparts of the small fort, blocking off milling goats. It didn’t do as much to the Gargoyles, who could fly and leap, but the icy floor was treacherous. Ceria saw the walls rise and form a kind of barrier across the ground. Not just on her side; Moore was raising walls of stone, and Pisces was helping with bone.

The walls of magic looked like a giant ‘V’ from overhead, only with a hole in the center. And it was that funnel that the [Soldiers] led by the [Brigadier], Gershal, and the others were holding as the refugees fled behind them.

Excellent strategy. Wonderful terrain control, and even Illphres might have called it adequate.

But it wasn’t. These weren’t Crelers, and there were more monsters on the field than Ceria had ever seen in her life. Goats went soaring over the walls as Gargoyles just leapt over them.

They ran into pikes. Vaunt’s soldiers had dismounted, and Ceria saw two pikes snap—and the other two bring down a screaming Gargoyle who went still as the tips rammed into its heart. The Humans fell back, and another howling Gargoyle cleared the ice wall to avenge its brother.

It ran straight into a spear of silver metal. Yvlon Byres’ telescoping arm shot out and rammed a hole through its chest.

But the Gargoyle didn’t fall, and it knocked Yvlon’s shapeshifting arm away, snarling and bending the metal slightly. Yvlon staggered as her arms reformed and raised a sword. The Gargoyle spat, and the stone shards—

Swerved as a [Necromancer] whirled and shouted.

“Yvlon—”

Pisces watched the wind blow the shards past Yvlon. The [Armsmistress] caught herself, one armed raised, then charged the Gargoyle. It raised an axe to strike her, opening its mouth, and Ksmvr landed on its head.

“Blindness.”

He slashed it across its face and missed the eyes, but the orange blood ran across the deep wounds his twin swords left. The Gargoyle screamed, tried to catch itself, and Yvlon shouted.

“[Sword Art: Arc of the Moon!]”

Pisces threw a [Shatterbolt] followed by a [Deathbolt] that sent two Eater Goats crashing down, one broken, the other just dead, and the wind knocked a second Gargoyle out of the air. Wonderful fighting. Perfect teamwork as Ceria finished fortifying her area and slid down a ramp towards Yvlon.

But she had seen what they hadn’t. And that was that there weren’t hundreds of Gargoyles. There were so many—

Fall back! Fall b—

Gershal’s voice came less than eight minutes into the fighting. Ceria turned, panting in disbelief. She’d barely finished casting the—

The Frostmarrow Behemoth’s head was split open. A Bossel climbed it and shrieked. Another crashed into Vaunt’s pikes and swung its axe. Once. Ceria thought she saw eight people die. A head, torn clean off—ribs and shoulder smashed to pulp, a skull ruined—and then those three [Soldiers] were thrown into the other five like projectiles, breaking bones and—

“Fall back!”

The [Brigadier] echoed the call. Ceria cast a glance into the distance. The Orefell folk were running as fast as could be, abandoning everything they had left. But even their panicked sprint had only brought them—

Pisces, the chariot! Move, move!

She leapt after Pisces, throwing [Ice Spikes] faster than she could chant. Not [Ice Spears], just a rain of projectiles to keep the leaping Eater Goats down. Ksmvr appeared, panting, leaping out of the monsters.

“They bit my arm.”

He showed Ceria a chunk missing from his upper right forearm. There was less arm than—Ceria reached for a potion as Pisces leapt into the chariot.

Yvlon! Get her, Jelaqua!

The Selphid pulled Yvlon into a headlock as Yvlon tried to charge into a wall of Eater Goats, screaming wildly. Mad with fury. Moore was already striding back as Ulinde ran, headless, past a stunned Gargoyle.

The flight of the adventurers was fast. Nailren was galloping past her as Spoken Vow shouted that one of their teammates, their own [Skirmisher], was back there. But the voice that interrupted Ceria was desperate.

Ceria, with me! We have to save my people!

Dawil pointed, and Ceria cursed. She saw the Dwarves locked in combat and whirled.

Pisces, follow Dawil!

The [Necromancer] was steering at the fleeing Humans and Gershal, but he rotated the chariot and sped off grimly as Ylawes and Falene held the last monsters at bay. They passed the dead [Skirmisher] and hundreds of dead Humans.

“Stone awakes!”

Dawil howled and drew a mundane throwing axe as they raced across the ground towards the Dwarves. Ceria saw only huge Gargoyles smashing their clubs into something from behind—then Dawil threw his axe, and it struck deep into a Gargoyle’s back. Then he leapt off his horse and crashed into the fighting.

The Horns of Hammerad followed him. Pisces drove his chariot into the goats, and Yvlon leapt down, arms like razors. Ceria saw Pisces’ wind protection save him.

She wasn’t so lucky. She was blasting Eater Goats in the head from the chariot when a Gargoyle’s projectile hammered into her shoulder. Ceria fell down, and only [Frozen Armor] saved her as an Eater Goat jumped on her and began trying to tear her apart. When she was up, she had had enough.

“[Icy Spear].”

Ceria cast the spell, held it in one hand, and aimed her wand at the Gargoyle. Two spears struck it in the chest, one after another. It fell down, and then—the battle was done.

Yvlon was staring blankly at an Eater Goat’s teeth embedded in one arm. She turned, and Ceria saw her armor was battered, but she was intact—until she tried to walk and stopped. Something was wrong from a blow she’d taken. Pisces was the only one not wounded; Ksmvr got up from where a Gargoyle had clubbed him ten feet. Dawil’s face was a mass of blood, and it was hard to tell whether it was his or the goats’; one had taken his helmet.

And the Dwarves? Ceria looked at the enclosed fort of stone. She called out.

“Hello?”

For a moment, nothing moved. She saw fallen Gargoyles, so many dead Eater Goats…then what looked like a wall of battered, bloody stone moved, and she realized it was shields. Dwarves emerged, bruised behind crushing blows, armor torn—

Alive. Their [Captain] clutched at a broken arm as he spoke.

“Dawil the Adventurer. If I’d known you were here, I wouldn’t have doubted it.”

“Always.”

That was the only thing the [Axe Champion] said. Then everyone turned at the desperate horn blaring, and Ceria’s stone screamed at her, though she was almost out of its range.

Ceria—here! You! On you!

She turned and saw the monsters coming this way. Without a word, the Dwarves bent over their dead and hefted their gear. The [Captain] snapped.

“Drop everything but your principal weapon. Go! Which way?”

Ceria pointed, and they began to run. She called on the circlet’s magic and felt it was already half gone. Well, she needed as many walls as she could make.

 

——

 

The first engagement saw multiple Gold-rank adventurers fall. However, only among the Gold-rank teams like Spoken Vow and the Pact. The other Gold-rank teams were all made up of individual adventurers, and even Nailren’s ranged team had made it out with little more than scars from the Gargoyles’ long-ranged projectiles.

However, the [Soldiers] had paid a huge price for eight minutes of fighting. As many as three hundred had died despite the numerous protections, and only their retreat and healing potions had stopped that number from going up.

Gershal made it. In fact, it was his forces that saved the Dwarves as the Horns and Dawil led them on a wild escape. They were racing eastwards, sure they’d never get to safety despite Ceria and Pisces casting spells wildly, when his soldiers came racing with a train of horses.

Get on!

Half his people dismounted, and some rode with the Dwarves and the others ran, fresh, carrying Rlint’s forces out of danger. Unfortunately, not out of the fighting.

Eight minutes of fighting. A retreat that lasted another hour of skirmishing. And guess what?

They weren’t even close to the next city, only halfway there. The refugees halted, barely sixteen miles from Orefell with the monsters closing for a night engagement. When the furious adventurers demanded for them to keep running, they were faced with an ugly truth.

The cityfolk couldn’t. It was true trained [Soldiers] could march twenty-five miles without Skills and a full backpack in a day, but that was them. Some cityfolk were out of shape. They pushed at each other, wasted energy with talking and reassurances and chatter. They were young and old, not in their prime.

Worse? They didn’t pace themselves. They had sprinted until they threw up when the monsters were on them, then they exhausted themselves.

“We can abandon them. Take anyone who can move and keep moving. It’s that or they fight with us and we watch them die by the thousands.”

The words left Ceria’s mouth too quickly. Yvlon grabbed her and stared into her eyes.

“What’s wrong with you? Leave them?”

Ceria bit her lip, and she wondered if the circlet were to blame. But it was so clear to her. The refugees were being given all the spare weapons, and some had training, Skills, and they’d fight with the soldiers as a kind of backup.

…But they were going to die. The [Brigadier], at least, knew where to choose her place to die. She’d taken a hill with a steep cliff in several places; just dirt, some kind of natural erosion. It was as good as an [Earth Wall], and she hoped to form a pike line so that even if a Gargoyle leapt, they’d run into spears and archers. On both sides of this natural hill facing, she wanted the [Mages] to fortify. The Dwarves would take one side, and Gershal would lead the infantry on the other. The [Riders] would circle and try to hammer the monsters from behind.

It wasn’t going to work. Ceria saw it clearly. Gargoyles were not an infantry force. They had ranged attacks, were too large, and could smash through these lines. But no one would abandon a third of the refugees to die. Nevermind that they were all exhausted, some too weak to even hold a sword up straight.

So Ceria began planning her exit. She looked at the other adventurers and saw it unspoken, in every eye but Ylawes’.

How many will die before we run? It was a calculation, not a question. The half-Elf closed her eyes as, in the distance, the first Bossels began to scream.

As Eater Goats surged forwards with their tireless hunger, shrieking, and the first long-range [Archers] began to fire, Ceria hoped Mrsha, Erin, weren’t watching. Because they would see either cowardice or something worse.

Now. Now…her eyes opened, and the half-Elf gave her team a weary, bloody smile.

“Guys? You’re not going to believe this. But my [Dangersense] just went off.”

Pisces, Ksmvr, and Yvlon all turned to her. Pisces’ face went slack, and Ksmvr’s mandibles clicked as if he couldn’t tell she was joking. Ceria stared into the mass of monsters and wondered what the hell was coming their way. She didn’t know it, but Tolveilouka was laughing.

 

——

 

Laughing. The half-Elf stood in darkness, naked except for a light cloak blowing around his body. Arching backwards with mirth. Perhaps it was immortality that made them so…performative. Or maybe it was that when they rejoiced, they cared not who watched them.

He had forgotten he cared about prolonging the Horn’s demise. He just enjoyed it as they made that valiant line in the sand he had seen again and again. As if heroism would make up for everything else.

Tolveilouka had seen that broken line in the blood drawn afterwards. He had squatted among the carrion where the armor of [Heroes] rusted under plague. Now, as night howled down from the High Passes like the monsters below, he stood on a far-distant ravine’s cliff, watching the hill over cracked earth with magic, a distant swarm meeting stationary walls of ice and bone.

A little [Necromancer]. A handful of Dwarves, and a half-made woman of metal. Dead. A half-Giant with a drop of blood, his half-Elf kin with a speck of power. The Revenant laughed. And laughed.

And wondered who the hell was ringing those bells. They came to him on a distant breeze, breaking the manic laughter, the unholy mirth. Tolveilouka heard them, sounding across the distance.

He had no window into the world of [Messages], since he was no [Mage]. He had no [Scrying] spells save what artifacts his master had left. He was, in many ways, a poor version of a [Necromancer]. Nor had he cared; this was an experiment.

So why did his skin crawl and itch? The half-Elf ran his hands down his pristine skin, which could mutate and turn into a bulbous plague in a heartbeat. He shivered as if cold, but it wasn’t that he felt. He…felt a churning unease in his stomach, and it was such a foreign sensation he had almost forgotten how it felt.

Not since those bad days have I—

Tolveilouka whirled. He searched the darkness, and then he snatched at a [Message] scroll at his side, began to scan the lands in front of the High Passes. Even when he found the culprits, he understood it not.

The Putrid One’s greatest servant felt his skin crawl, but not with distaste. More—unease. Confusion. Uncertainty. He backed up, and the laughter stopped, and a thousand lights seemed to burst into light amidst that black night. They surged across the ground, towards the Humans, but they did not cast their bearers into naked relief, in shining gold or glorious colors.

For these creatures…these…he had seen one, and now Tolveilouka whispered as he read the alarms spreading from place to place. A name. They had a name. But—what a strange one. He gazed downwards as a light which had no magic nor flame made him raise his hand and shield his face.

Who…who are these? The Black Tide? Antinium?

Tolveilouka looked down in disbelief as the Antinium poured north across the Human lands. Not just any Antinium.

[Crusaders].

 

——

 

But how? And why? And how?

Three days ago, when the news from the High Passes was hitting The Wandering Inn, everyone was listening. The regulars were speculating, Todi was laying down how unlikely it was for immediate aid to come for the sacrificial buffer cities, and the Horns of Hammerad were heading out.

Depending on who you were, these moments might be familiar. However, what did the Antinium see?

They were there. They were always there. Yet, it was a new group who rested at tables, who had money in their pouches and an odd…sense of disquiet even in peaceful daylight.

They did not stare as long at the sky. Many had no paint, but they looked around with a sharpness, a curiosity some of their kind lacked. They were not only allowed to think, but they had learned lessons in war.

Lessons like how easy it was to die. Occasionally—some would flinch or brace at a loud sound. As if a flying piece of pottery Liska tossed while tripping were an arrow or a stone from a catapult.

They were the [Crusaders] of Liscor’s second army. Off-duty, obviously. On holiday. Olesm had assigned a number of the Antinium who’d fought hardest against Hectval a longer vacation, and Liscor was happy enough to have the soldiers’ coin flowing back into businesses.

A few listened when they heard the High Passes erupt. They looked at each other in dead silence. They might not all know Gargoyles, but some Antinium had fought them and Eater Goats. The numbers were a calculation each [Crusader] could run.

Obviously, it was the same thing Menolit and Relc could do. Todi, Saliss—anyone who had seen war or even large-scale combat had a better sense than civilians did of the true danger and horrors that would follow cities falling and the monsters overrunning fleeing people.

The difference was that there was something off about the [Crusaders]. They looked up at the sky, they walked Liscor’s streets. They politely stood in lines at the crosswalks, and they obeyed every rule they had been told.

…But even [Strategos] Olesm made mistakes. And one of the mistakes he had made was this: he had never told the Antinium the obvious, the plain facts that most [Soldiers] understood. Which was that they only went to war when they were told to go to war.

[Banner Commander] Artur was staring at a map of the High Passes. He had a mug of a hot toddy in his hands, and it was really making him like Captain Todi. The adventurer was abrasive, but he’d invented this?

Artur listened to the news of Hectval. Then he saw Battalion 8, Squad 1, Crusader 802, Embraim, glancing around at the other [Crusaders]. Restless.

It looked like bad stuff was happening to those Humans. Not that the Antinium knew Humans, but they knew monsters. Just remembering the days in the Hive when monsters would pour out of the walls…before Belgrade, the savior of so many lives, had built the trapped hallways.

Imagine that happening to the cute little Drakes or Humans who had no shell and were so tiny? And yet…Liscor wasn’t going to war.

Menolit said so. And while the conversation did stray to The Dyed Lands, the [Crusaders], noticing each other’s restlessness, got up and paid for their food. To the bewilderment of the Painted Antinium and regular Antinium, Artur spoke in such a ringing voice that Relc and Menolit were on their feet before they caught themselves.

Soldiers, on your feet! Rally at Peace Point 1.

The [Crusaders] leapt up and marched out of the inn. Ishkr watched and hurried after Artur.

“I can pack up some food if you aren’t finished with it, Artur…”

“We should move quickly. Thank you, Server Ishkr.”

The Worker spoke. And with such precision and—and confidence that even people who knew Antinium were surprised. He spoke like what he was. A soldier. Relc sat down, blinking, as the [Crusaders] filed out.

“Sharp lads, eh? Brave fellows. I don’t envy Hectval.”

“No.”

Menolit’s eyes followed the [Crusaders] as Relc chuckled weakly. Neither Drake said it, but they saw something different in the Antinium in the army. They were, well, sharp. Full of vim and vigor. Not every [Soldier] leapt to attention like that. But the Antinium were natural [Soldiers]. In fact…the Soldiers might make better [Soldiers] than Antinium Soldiers, if that made sense. Unlike their Hive, this was a class and purpose.

And they acted and moved with the same speed they had learned in battle. Artur found more [Crusaders] waiting for him at Peace Point 1—a smaller plaza where they assembled to take the door back to Liscor or march back on foot.

“Who is in charge here?”

Embraim, as [Battalion Leader] of Battalion 8, stepped forwards. Next came [Sergeant] Crusader 224-5. Three high-level [Crusaders] walked forwards. Their classes had changed, and one of them was a Soldier who stood taller than the rest. Another Soldier had two shields, giant tower shields, that made him walk awkwardly. The last Soldier had a voice.

[Templar]. Finally, Artur himself stepped forwards. The six Antinium looked at each other with uncertainty. The [Templar] with a voice rumbled, and it was a glorious voice. Not like the other Antinium’s staccato tones. He had wanted a voice like Sir Relz, something with tones where you could roll and project each word, savoring it like butter.

Perhaps not even Yellow Splatters had such a fine voice, because this went beyond even the Free Queen’s ability to shape flesh.

“Strategos Olesm is not present. Nor is Strategist Belgrade. We are without leadership. Commanders Tersk and Dekass are equally absent.”

The other Antinium nodded. Artur checked his [Message] scroll.

“We are not on-duty. Liscor’s army is not moving to intercept the monsters. This is not a Liscorian affair. Therefore, it is almost certain none of our forces will move to combat the monsters unless they reach Celum.”

And by that point, at least a week or two would have passed, and cities would lie burning. The [Crusaders] felt it, but they were bound by a number of factors.

“We are off-duty.”

Embraim pointed out carefully. Artur hesitated.

“We are. But I feel a calling. It is not…Heaven. I wish Zimrah were here. Perhaps Pawn may explain what I am feeling. It is not a calling of my class. It is a calling of my intention. I wish to go.”

The other [Crusaders] nodded. Artur was a [Soldier] more than he was a [Crusader]. Those who had become [Templars], or [Priests] like Zimrah, had a different role. They felt it too, though. Not quite like a prayer. More like a desire.

They wanted to go. But they were part of Liscor’s army. However, at this point, as the Antinium had done before, [Battalion Leader] Embraim spoke again.

“We are off-duty.

Artur was about to repeat himself when he noted how Embraim emphasized that. Glory Battalion’s leader had no handy book on Liscor’s army’s regulations to follow, but they had all memorized all the standing orders.

Let’s see. Don’t cause trouble off-duty. Conduct yourselves as members of Liscor’s army…report back at your muster times…

There wasn’t anything about conducting military operations. Obviously, it was assumed that everyone understood not starting a war was part of it, and Olesm had mentioned refraining from brawling with Pallass’ [Soldiers] and entanglements with Human cities.

…But nothing about monsters. Artur put together what Embraim was hinting at along with the others. [Sergeant] Crusader 224-5 spoke cautiously.

“[Crusaders] present in the city number three hundred and twelve off-duty. Far too few.”

This was also true. The Antinium hesitated. They didn’t want to die. Or rather, die to no end. Heaven called them, but here was pretty nice too. And they had to watch each other’s backs.

Their answer came as the new guests of Erin’s inn saw another member of the inn strolling along the plaza. Well, strolling implied he was happy.

“Normen, you aren’t going to the High Passes. Put it out of your head.”

Alcaz and Normen were walking along. They stopped when they saw the large group of Antinium, but Alcaz tipped his hat, and the Antinium nodded and stepped aside. A number of Brothers were walking with Normen. It was Alcaz and Normen, the two former members of the gang, who were talking.

“Explain to me why not, Alcaz? I’m a [Knight]. By rights, this is the sort of thing a fellow does.”

Normen was adjusting his clothing, but he had not the plate armor promised from Mrell yet. And while he had a sword that Lyonette had bought for training—

Alcaz was no [Knight]. Nor had Erin worked any wonders on him yet. Nor had he asked. He was smiling, though. As proud as he had been the day Normen was knighted. Yet this time…he looked at Normen. Then the other Brothers. They were all proud of him.

And, like the [Crusaders], keenly aware of the odds. Alcaz nodded.

“That’s the kind of stupid thing a fellow should do, Normen. By rights, we should all head down. But we’re not that sort. You…you’ve taken a step into the light. But your hat’s a bit too big for your head, yet.”

He touched Normen’s cap with one hand, then looked pointedly at Normen’s lack of armor.

“You as good with that sword as Crimshaw was with a club?”

“Not at all. An artful man, that fellow. Swung it like a [Painter].”

Another, older Brother murmured, and all nodded. Normen’s jaw clenched.

“I was given a chance. I can’t sit here.”

He didn’t see how they smiled. Proudly. Each Brother beamed and then hid it—ashamed. Alcaz himself hid his grin as he turned his head.

“Right you are, Normen. But I have to tell you, as it were—I don’t think you can beat a Gargoyle. For instance, you never saw this coming.”

Artur saw Normen turn his head straight into the fist that decked him. The [Crusaders] watched appreciatively. Not for the violence, but for the quality of the punch. Normen went down and got up with his fists clenched. Alcaz waited, adjusting his bowler hat.

Alcaz!

“Let’s make a deal, Normen. You prove you can take us on, sword or fist, and we’ll let you go. Otherwise, I’m afraid we’ll have to keep you from killing yourself. It’s a pathetic thing to do, stopping a man from doing what’s right. But we’re a bunch of bastards and happy with that.”

The other Brothers lined up as the lone [Knight] raised his fists. He looked around at the cheerful group of men stopping him from rushing to his death.

 

——

 

The [Crusaders] watched the fistfight until someone called for the Watch, and they stepped away to let the [Guards] through. Normen gave a good showing of himself, even if the Brothers only fought him two-on-one, like gentle-ish-men.

The entire moment gave Artur an idea. It was true that the [Crusaders] off-duty in Liscor had nowhere near the numbers to combat thousands of monsters. But…he was checking the rules over and over in his head. Then he turned to the others.

“I have an idea. Battalion Leader Embraim. Do you know how many spare sets of armor the Armored Queen has left in the Free Hive’s armory?”

The other Worker turned, and the [Crusader]’s antennae waved frantically. Now there was an interesting thought.

Just like Battalion 6, Calruz’s Beriad, the Antinium were learning there was a lot of empty space in the rules. So when a group of Antinium marched into the Free Hive and began claiming suits of armor and weapons, who would stop them?

 

——

 

Prognugator Maev wasn’t sure what she was here to learn from the Free Antinium, but it had certainly changed her fellow Prognugator, Xeu. The Silent Antinium were not here in numbers, but like the other Hives save for the Twisted Antinium, they had sent gifts and their own Prognugators to learn.

What she had learned so far, and reported to the Silent Queen, was this: the Free Antinium’s food tasted good. Their Hive was uniquely defended by layers of traps. Their Antinium with paints and ‘prayer’ had a lot of non-essential tasks that seemed to contribute to their levelling. They were good at chess.

Xeu…Xeu was odd, after she came back. She’d broken a scythe, and she no longer conducted her usual patrol routes. She had a ‘friend’ called Icecube, and she missed him.

All very distressing. Prognugator Maev was composing a report suggesting that Xeu’s mental state was addled, but she did not want the Silent Queen to decommission Xeu, so she was…hesitating. Did that mean she was compromised?

Do her duty. Prognugator Maev fought monsters. She had leveled once as a [Prognugator], which might be down to the Free Hive’s influence? Her one distraction today was seeing a large group of Antinium entering their armory.

“Query. What are you doing? No fighting has begun. What orders from the Free Queen necessitate this?”

The Prognugator de-cloaked her body, and some [Crusaders] from the group sent to fight with the Drakes jumped. One tried to hide a piece of plate armor behind his back.

“We are requisitioning supplies from the armory, Prognugator.”

A Worker spoke, an oddity, because he sounded so…authoritative. Maev rubbed her talons together.

“No action from the Free Queen suggests this. What orders were given?”

She was in the Free Queen’s telepathic network, and to her understanding, the Free Queen was, ah, vegetating. She had gone silent mentally, which suggested she might be asleep. Revelantor Klbkch was occupied with his [Guard]-duties, and thus Maev felt she had to inquire.

“We do not have an order from the Free Queen. But there is no rule saying the Antinium cannot take armor out of the Hive.”

Another [Crusader] spoke, and Maev recoiled from a Soldier with a voice! She almost attacked on the assumption he was an Aberration, but remembered her orders. Then she saw how many regular Workers and Soldiers were cowering against the walls.

Hundreds. And there had been a huge line…Maev thought she understood what they were doing, but it was also incomprehensible. Antinium did not take independent action. She wrestled with this.

“No explicit permission has been granted by the Armored Queen or Free Queen for items of war. Desist.”

The [Crusaders] looked at each other as the regular Soldiers and Workers instantly turned around and began to file away. Maev felt better—right until the one with the banner raised a hand.

“No, stop. We are not under your command, Silent Antinium Prognugator. With respect, you are not our commanding officer.”

Maev felt like she was drowning in water. What was going on? She skittered right and then left, as if someone had slapped her with Rxlvn. She clicked her mandibles.

“I am Prognugator of the Silent Antinium.”

She reminded them of her rank. [Banner Commander] Artur nodded reasonably.

“I am [Banner Commander] Artur of Liscor’s Second Army, serving under Commander Olesm with broad dispensation for authority as I see fit. What rank would a Prognugator have equivalent to mine?”

Maev stared at him. She rubbed her scythes together in a keening sound and was just about to either kill him or wake up the Free Queen when someone else scuttled through the Hive.

“Hello, what is going on here? Good day, good day to you all, sirs and possibly madams. I am the friendly, beloved Prognugator, Pivr.”

Wonderful. Maev did not get irritated, as these were lesser emotions and the Silent Queen was the embodiment of Antinium grace, superiority, and knowledge. But Pivr? He had changed too, and somehow—he was even more annoying.

He had a hat now. A top-hat that was perched unsteadily on his head. To anchor it so he didn’t have to balance to keep it on, Alcaz had helped him add a strap that looped around his face. The other quadrupedal Antinium halted when he saw the [Crusaders] requisitioning gear.

“Prognugator Maev. Good day to you, Miss.”

He tipped his hat, and Maev spoke.

“Prognugator Pivr. What are you doing?”

“I am a gentleman, Prognugator Maev. You must try it. You will not be likable, otherwise. Good day to you. Are these the [Crusaders]? What is going on?”

Maev explained the objectionable activities as Pivr listened. She waited for him to back her up, but Pivr only rubbed his legs together and fanned his wings a few seconds before he came to a decision.

“This all sounds unusual…but acceptable.”

Prognugator Pivr. Is this standard for the Flying Antinium?”

Pivr fanned his wings in a ‘shrug’.

“No, but I am attempting to be likable. Stymying this would likely earn Pawn’s wrath or some kind of censure. I, Pivr, give my permission to the [Crusaders] to take as many Antinium as needed and armor. It is not as if they are crucially needed for the defense or operation of the Free Hive.”

It was true. Thanks to Belgrade’s network of traps, the Free Hive had a lot of Antinium on downtime. Maev was, of course, furious, but as a Revelantor, Pivr outranked her! She could only scuttle away and watch as the Antinium resumed filing into the armory. Pivr watched with interest, but only vaguely. He had a drink with Alcaz he meant to get to, and he scuttled off after a few minutes.

More [Crusaders] being armed was all he saw. Maev was so…so…bland. It never quite occurred to Pivr to ask just how many new [Crusaders] were being ordained. Or note that in all this fuss…

Not a single Painted Antinium was present, much less Pawn. They were doing it all on their own.

 

——

 

And they knew what they were doing. You could deny it, like Maev, or be oblivious if you only saw elements, like Pivr.

But this was no little escapade. No prank, no innocent Painted Antinium doing their thing. The [Crusaders] knew.

They knew, and that knowledge pulled them forwards. Like a forbidden honey, like a dream. Every species had an apple and a serpent, to use another religion as a metaphor.

In this case, the serpent was a conscience, and the apple tasted like…it tasted right. Like righteousness.

It was in his heart. Artur watched as the two hundred plus [Crusaders] stood in front of ranks of kneeling Antinium. The regular Soldiers and Workers waited as suits of armor and weapons sat in front of them. It was the [Templar] with the voice, who had been known as Crusader 120-2, that spoke.

Theogrin, a name that Drake, Gnoll, and Human soldiers of Liscor had helped him choose, raised his voice.

I am [Templar] Theogrin of Liscor’s Army. Battalion 3, Tersk’s Vanguard. This is no action of Liscor’s army. But we are [Crusaders]. This is not an order of the Free Queen or any Prognugator. The Painted Antinium are not part of the army.”

The Antinium wavered. They were not idiots. These were Antinium…doing something of their own accord.

Blasphemy. If there was any such equivalence in Antinium ideals, this was as close to Aberration as it came. Yet they held still. They had heard of Ksmvr of Chandrar. They had seen the Painted Antinium, and so many had longed to be one of that sacred number.

Yet the [Crusaders] of the Free Antinium were a different breed from even the rest. It was something in their eyes. The way they spoke. The [Templar] had no paint, only armor, some battered, worn by dead comrades behind them.

But look at that one. He stood taller than the others. Like Yellow Splatters, but he had not been chosen. His deeds had won him his voice alone.

The Painted Antinium prayed. The [Crusaders] did likewise, but they marched. So no Antinium Workers or Soldiers fled as Theogrin went on.

“There are no orders that drive us forwards. Only need. Once, we marched on Hectval to avenge the [Innkeeper], for war. I hear it now, again. Until my leave of vacation is over, I, Theogrin, declare a crusade against the monsters of the High Passes. If you would be a [Crusader], take up arms.”

The Antinium looked up at him, then down at the sets of armor and weapons. Then they knelt as an [Acolyte] passed down their ranks, swinging a censer that smelled like cinnamon. When they rose—Artur sighed.

“If any are hellbound, it is the ones who will lead so many to Heaven.”

He looked down at the army of untested new [Crusaders], and Embraim heard him. The Worker’s mandibles rose, and an echo of that pink flame that had baptized his battalion glowed in his voice.

“Someone must go to Orefell. We are [Crusaders].”

Artur’s lowered head rose, and he exhaled. Then he nodded as the [Templars] began giving orders, reorganizing the ranks as the new recruits were given crash-courses by the veterans. They had to march—now. They had days, only days to teach these Soldiers and Workers how to fight.

This was against all laws of the Hive if there were any that had ever been written down. They had no authority save the one they had given themselves, and they knew Commander Olesm, Revelantor Klbkch, would not approve.

But even Erin Solstice, the [Innkeeper] of Liscor, had underestimated these new Antinium. For they were [Crusaders]. And if they had no crusade, they would find one for themselves.

 

——

 

That was how it had begun. The Free Queen and Klbkch had been so complacent, so relaxed with so many capable helpers in the Hive, that they had slacked off their eternal vigilance. A decade of fighting and work…weren’t they allowed to have a drink and a snack and fall asleep petting Deferred Sustenance?

When they woke…when Klbkch got off-duty, he realized something was off. But it was only when he sensed the great march that he went to query the Free Queen. And she…sat still for a whole minute and then began shrieking.

“They did what? They took what? How many—they are leaving the northern attack tunnels. They are using the war-tunnels for the northern invasion.”

Klbkch’s mandibles opened wide in horror. He whirled and realized the Antinium were using the furthest tunnels in the Free Hive. The ones that had been dug around the Second Antinium War.

Untold in the history of the Antinium Wars was an encounter where the Antinium had attempted to seize elements of the north. They had tunneled past Liscor and attempted to secure a foothold in what they had viewed as the weaker, uncoordinated north.

They had run into a Dragon. Two armies had burned before the Queens elected to never try that again. But the tunnels remained. And now…the Antinium crossed under parts of the High Passes and emerged along the mountain range.

A swarm of bodies, marching in ranks behind a banner of Liscor’s flag. The Black Tide. But how they shone. [Templars], striding in front of experienced [Soldiers] teaching new [Crusaders] how to fire a crossbow and hold a shield.

Singing.

[Combined Skill: Wrath of the Righteous]. Even the Soldiers with no voices joined in. As for the bells? One of Erin’s first remarks upon hearing about the [Crusaders] was remembering church bells. So Artur had bought the largest portable bell he could on the off-chance it helped.

Three days of marching. By day and night, crossing the rocky mountain range into the furthest-flung elements of Human lands. Only the other Antinium had any inkling of what was going on, and when they did notice, when the entire world saw the Antinium armies marching across the ground, everyone thought it was the Free Queen.

The Grand Queen launched an immediate inquest only to hear the most shocking news of all: the Free Queen denied doing anything. And now—

 

——

 

Ceria Springwalker thought she was dreaming. She heard the strange tolling of a dozen bells, discordant in the air, and whirled. Her wand rose as she conjured a spear of ice and launched it at a Bossel, but the damn Gargoyle had a shield, and it blocked the spell, reeling and opening its mouth. The shards blasted into Ceria’s armor, and she shouted.

Yvlon, get back! [Ice Walls] going up!

“Ceria, stop blocking me—”

The [Armsmistress] was already covered with gore, and the Eater Goats were actually avoiding her. She was less edible than the other fighters, and her other arm stabbed out as she swung a sword one-handed, the metal morphing. Pisces and Ksmvr were holding the top of the hill, cutting down goats as they leapt.

But the Gargoyles kept crashing forwards, landing amongst the [Soldiers]. They tore around and died hard. The Dwarves and adventurers were the only ones with weapons who could reliably penetrate their skin.

And the goats! Ceria’s [Dangersense] was howling at her. She heard a whine, and the Gargoyles and Eater Goats began pressing forwards in a rush on the right wing of the battle. As if they were afraid of something behind them.

Then—she heard the first screams, and her head turned. She felt at one bloody ear.

“What?”

The Black Tide is marching! Antinium!

Gershal of Vaunt was screaming in the speaking stone. Ceria whirled, and she saw them storming across the ground. Thousands of Antinium, surrounded by lights like her [Illumination] spell. But such lights…they weren’t magical, nor were they mortal flames. They looked like someone had captured a bit of sunlight and turned it into a floating orb.

Ceria’s wand wavered, and her mind went blank. Then she began shouting and screaming at the sky.

Erin! You maniac! You—

She was, of course, wrong. But the monsters didn’t care. The Eater Goats turned in a swarm as a Bossel roared a note of alarm. The horde split, and the Eater Goats regarded their newest food source. And…hesitated.

The crusade of the Free Antinium halted as the monsters began to pivot towards them. They had been marching all day to reach this point, and many of the Antinium were tired. But a rank of larger Antinium, some wearing brilliant armor, stepped forwards.

“Crusaders! Prepare to charge! Battalion 1, split left! Companies 4-6, flanking.”

Artur roared. He pointed, and Antinium groups broke away from the main force, spreading out. The Eater Goats weren’t charging. The Gargoyles clubbed at them, some even whipping and howling, but the fearless monsters were tilting their heads, slowing.

They heard something. The Eater Goats had no language. They had ideas, their own form of communication, but only a few species had ever managed to get through to them like the red paint of the Redfangs.

So what was this…sound? What were these voices, such that even the goats understood them? The [Crusaders] came to a halt, lines of steel armor shining under the light of faith and the stars.

The Soldiers and Workers were doing something. As one, they raised one of their four arms, and their fists clashed against their armor. The Antinium stomped their feet, and their heads rose.

They stared up at the night sky. At the stars, glowing with every color.

War. War and death. A crusade against you.

The Eater Goats looked at each other. Death? They brayed a challenge, but the mysterious, eerie creatures just kept chanting without a voice.

Come. Come and die.

Nothing in the Eater Goats’ lives had ever uttered a challenge to them aside from their own kind. The monsters began shrieking and started charging across the ground. The [Crusaders] waited, and the Antinium with the banner shouted.

Crossbows!

A rank of Antinium swung up their crossbows. The Soldiers fired and then began to reload. Artur watched a rank of goats stumble.

Bows!

Workers with bows loosed a volley into the air. The stone-tipped arrows glanced off the Gargoyles, wounding the Eater Goats. Artur cursed until an arrow streaked past his face and took a Gargoyle through the eye.

The [Banner Commander] turned, and one of the [Avengers] lowered his bow in the squad he was commanding. He was already shaking with rage. These were not Hectval’s soldiers, but monsters? How many monsters had killed his people? His second arrow blew a chunk out of a Gargoyle’s face, and it dropped as Eater Goats began to bite at the corpse.

The Bossels realized that this army was dangerous. More and more Gargoyles were loping away from their onslaught on the Humans and Dwarves. The first rank of Eater Goats surged forwards, a ravening mass of mouths looking to bring down the Antinium. Even the Dwarves’ defensive line had struggled to stand against that onslaught.

Then—to the disbelief of the watchers and against strategic sense—a group of Antinium began a counter-charge. They broke past the lines of braced Antinium and ran at the Eater Goats.

Something—the Eater Goats looked up and saw something strange. In their eyes. They were just an insect’s eyes, edible like everything, multifaceted and pupilless. Foreign even to strange creatures like Eater Goats. But there was something else there. A kind of fervor, an idea given a material presence in this world.

It surrounded them like an aura or magic, as Tolveilouka had seen before. But like the rarest of classes, like the hated [Paladin], there was something else there. That uneasy feeling before his beloved master died. Something beyond even the Putrid One’s craft.

That had been a dream in his era, a long-lost secret. This was the conceptualization of that idea. The Antinium pounded across the ground, sixty strong. The [Crusaders] who had served in the army.

[Templars]. The one in front raised a sword and shield, holding two daggers in his lower hands as the first Eater Goat leapt. He had no voice, but he spoke.

“[Miracle: Holy Sword].”

He had seen Manus break. Tolveilouka’s skin erupted into goosebumps. The Grand Strategist of Pallass quailed. Those watchers—what did they see?

A high-level Antinium. Terrifying. The Eater Goats looked up and wondered why a sword hovered above them. Made out of that light that was so terrifyingly bright. Then it fell, and a dozen Eater Goats vanished.

The new [Crusaders] watched in awe and a terror of their own. One of their kind had summoned a sword made of light! This wasn’t what Antinium were! They were doomed to die, dozens to bring down a single Crypt Worm. But another of their kind, the one with a voice like beauty, Theogrin, raised a shield.

“[Barrier of Faith]!”

Leaping Eater Goats slammed into a wall of light, like a magic spell. It lasted for moments as more plowed into the gap, but the dazed monsters halted. They saw the shimmering barrier appear, and an Antinium brought down a tower shield. It snapped an Eater Goat’s back, and a Gargoyle swung into it, but the club rebounded as the [Templar] refused to budge. The Gargoyle’s eyes widened, and it spat projectiles into a [Crusader]’s chest. The Antinium fell back as the point-blank stone shards cut into his chest, piercing the steel. He raised a hand as green blood ran from a deep wound.

“[Heal Minor Wounds].”

A [Crusader] grabbed him, and the wound closed. The [Crusader] charged, screaming, and the Gargoyle backed up as a glowing sword pierced his stomach.

Then the mass of monsters hit the center of the Antinium forces, and Antinium fell back as Eater Goats swarmed them. Gargoyles began leaping, spitting stone and landing among the low-level [Crusaders]. The Antinium bunched up, bringing the Gargoyles down. Soldiers and Workers falling as Eater Goats brought them down. Biting back with their mandibles.

They were not invincible. A [Crusader] fell, brought down by goats. A dozen Workers armed with bows found themselves facing a Bossel. But then the [Avenger] shot an arrow at point-blank range, and an experienced squad stormed left, cutting down the goats.

The Antinium were here. And they were maneuvering.

 

——

 

Gershal of Vaunt couldn’t believe his eyes! It was one thing to fight alongside an experienced adventurer like Pisces, [Necromancer] or not, or see Ksmvr of Chandrar, but this was an Antinium army. How had it gotten here? From the south? How had no one seen it?

This was all in the back of his mind. Most of his attention was still devoted to surviving. Vaunt’s lines were breaking.

Too late, he realized Ceria’s dire pronouncements had been right. The half-Elf had been blunt, but she had told him to sacrifice the civilians of Orefell in their own battalion. Not place them among Vaunt’s soldiers.

They were like cork in a brick wall. They fought hard, but they gave way, and the areas where they died or fell backwards bowed inwards. On the other side, the Dwarves were like a rock, refusing to give an inch. The Antinium had come from that side, but Gershal was screaming for the other officers posted on his end to use their Skills.

[Axebreaker Formation]! Axebreaker—where’s my Skill?”

He looked around and got his answer as he saw a corpse standing amongst a terrified group of screaming men and women. A Gargoyle Bossel had sniped one of the [Strategists].

“Fall back! Fall back!”

Which city’s soldiers were shouting that? Gershal howled.

“Hold your ground or we’re all dead! Vaunt, hold the line! Tidebreaker’s stand!

He invoked that day, and his diminishing [Soldiers] halted their flight. They looked up as Gargoyles lunged forwards. Gershal raised his sword, and a sword of bent iron struck him so hard his other arm nearly broke. He landed and saw a Gargoyle staring down at him.

The [Lieutenant of the Line] rose in a single leap. His sword shot straight up in a thrust.

“[Piercing Leap].”

His sword’s tip went up and through the roof of that red mouth. The orange blood gushed around the curved beak, and the Gargoyle screamed. Gershal landed on his feet, and his enchanted sword hacked at the stone flesh.

“To the lieutenant!”

Three spears came to his rescue, knocking the Gargoyle back. It retreated, still covering its mouth, and Gershal found he was alive another second. He—had he just used that Skill to regain his footing? He had never thought to use that Skill like that before.

If he lived through the battle—Gershal looked around and heard no more Skills ringing in the air. They were used or the officers were dead. He was calling for adventurers, knowing they were about to expose their flanks and damn them when, to his astonishment, the fleeing civilians and soldiers came back.

“Charge! Charge, damn you!”

A voice roared in Gershal’s ears, and he saw a wild-eyed [Soldier] charging an astonished Eater Goat and clubbing the monster down. The Gargoyles blinked in the face of this sudden onslaught of courage, and Gershal felt a furious anger engulf him.

A Skill? Then he saw and felt his spirits rise. They rose, and the odds against him seemed, if not worse, than something to fight rather than despair at. Gershal looked around for the source of this strange feeling and saw it.

A foreign flag, waving in the breeze. And the being who held it was—an Antinium. The [Banner Commander] pointed, and Humans rushed forwards.

“[Unit: Moment of Frenzy]! Bring down the Gargoyles!

Artur’s waving flag was deflecting the Gargoyles spitting shards of stone at him. Gershal halted, panting, and his broken arm almost rose in a salute as the Antinium snapped at him.

“Where is your commanding officer? I am Artur, [Banner Commander] of Liscor’s Second Army.”

“I’m in charge of this spot! Lieutenant Gershal of Vaunt!”

“We are being overrun. Your lines are in disarray.”

Artur spoke calmly, as if he was used to speaking to Humans. Gershal looked around and knew it was true. He glanced over his shoulder.

“The [Brigadier] is leading the charge, and the adventurers are fighting the Bossels. There are no more reinforcements!”

Just civilians, and their wild attack was already faltering. Artur glanced around sharply and then pointed straight ahead, along the edge of the hill where they were fighting beside Ceria’s melting ice-walls.

“I see. Then we hold them here. I need reinforcements to my position! The lines are about to break!

He called into a speaking stone, and Gershal looked around wildly. But the Antinium had the other flank—this lone standard bearer must have run into the fighting to support them.

Gershal felt light, somehow. Fighting alongside Antinium and Dwarves? He gave Artur a wild salute with his sword.

“We hold them, then. If your flag stops the Gargoyles spitting stone—we’ll stop them. Vaunt, to arms! Liscor’s with us, and the Black Tide! Do the Tidebreaker proud!

Men and women joined a line as the [Lieutenant] laughed. Then—an Eater Goat was biting into his leg and he was stabbing it through the face, but the jaw kept biting even when the monster was dead, and he had to saw it off his armor. Gershal screamed as he tore its teeth loose and set himself against a charging Gargoyle. Fighting desperately. For pride. For life.

He wanted to live and ask that Antinium with a flag—everything.

 

——

 

Artur whirled around, but there was no one but the Humans. He saw adventurers putting up a terrible fight in the distance, and some of the [Crusaders] were maneuvering around the back of the battle, but that brave man was dying.

He did not charge into the front lines. He was no great warrior. As he had done many times now, Artur watched as good people died in front of him and he held a flag.

But he was not the Worker who had watched his comrades die. The [Banner Commander] was shouting, directing Humans into the breach, a magnet for the Gargoyles shooting stones at him. Yet…this was not all he could do.

There was something else. Artur kicked an Eater Goat who had gotten past the fighters in the face, shattering its jagged teeth, and hesitated.

Hesitated for one second. He turned his head to the glorious [Templars], fighting in a knot and pushing the monsters back. The dying Soldiers and Workers fighting in his new crusade. He had started this.

So. It was one second. Only one, and Artur broke all the rules. Not just ducking through loopholes or unwritten rules.

He broke all of them. Intentionally, in a moment, with no regrets. Because he could, and it mattered. Because—

The Antinium had been there when General Sserys brought the Antinium into the Meeting of Tribes. He had seen, reflected in the [Innkeeper]’s face, another great legend of the Drakes. His enemy?

His inspiration. Soldiers of Liscor. And he had been there.

Artur had leveled up. So the Level 31 [Banner Commander] raised his hand as he pointed to the side of Vaunt’s final stand. He looked up at the sky and spoke.

“Get me the group with the best punching power. [Company, On Me].

His finger felt electric. A charge ran through the battlefield, and Artur’s eyes flashed for a second as Gershal’s head rose. Then—a hundred [Soldiers] appeared in a flash.

Squad 5, Battalion 1, raised their heads as something dragged them across the world. Again. Crusader 53 was sitting in a chair, and his butt hit the ground, the bowl of soup he was holding spilling all over him. Crusader 57 raised his head.

whAt the FuCK.

“What’s going on?”

Zimrah scrambled to her feet. Poor Crusader 87 was caught, squatting in what he’d thought was a latrine. The Antinium scrambled for their weapons, and then they caught onto what was happening.

Monsters? Soldiers. Crusader 53 shot up and grabbed a mace as a familiar voice called out to them.

Artur.

Battalion 1, flank the monsters! Charge, charge!

That was all they needed to hear. They might have been relaxing in Liscor’s camp, but this was the second time it had happened. Squad 5 found each other in seconds. Crusader 57 was still screaming insults.

DeaD gOds damnIT. gODdaMnit! It’s her fault! I know it!

“Shut up!”

Someone shouted at him, and the offended Worker looked around, then hefted his greatsword onto one shoulder. Squad 5 prepared to charge. It took them eight seconds as the Gargoyles turned to face a hundred Antinium.

The horror of the watching officers, seeing Sserys’ famous Skill in the hands of an Antinium, was lost on Crusader 53. He heard a piercing sound.

Crusader 57 had bought a whistle in Liscor with his money. A tin flute, it was called. He stuck it between his mandibles and blew a mocking tune. The Gargoyles had seen their kin fighting the Antinium and knew they were a threat. A Bossel turned, still confident he was the biggest and most dangerous thing on the field aside from that fearsome half-Giant clubbing his kin.

Squad 5 charged. The Bossel raised a club as long as Crusader 53, and the [Maceman] raised his mace. It…sparked. The Bossel’s eyes fixed on the strange material in the elegant, nay, beautiful mace with flanged edges as sharp as the day it had been carved out of Dragonbone. It swung at Crusader 53, and he swung the mace he had taken from a champion of Az’muzarre.

The Gargoyle’s arm twisted, and the club half-exploded in a roar as the relic unleashed a discharge of furious lightning. The Bossel recoiled and realized something was wrong.

These Antinium had levels. Crusader 57 whirled his sword down.

“[Zweihander Chop]. Rookie, get back!

He kicked Crusader 59 as he cut down a line of Eater Goats. The ‘younger’ [Crusader] stumbled back, and the Bossel’s arm strained as it tried to bring the club down. It saw Crusader 53 raise his mace and braced itself.

[Mace Art: Big Hammer]. 

A giant, glowing copy of 53’s mace struck the Bossel in the chest and face. Crusader 53 ran at the toppled monster as it fell backwards and looked down. He clubbed what remained of the face just in case and whirled. A Gargoyle saw what had happened to its leader and backed up. The Dragonbone mace sang.

 

——

 

“Battalion 1!”

Liscor’s camp was in uproar. They had vanished! Belgrade was screaming Artur’s name, and [Strategos] Olesm had come racing down from his command tent where he’d been watching the Antinium do battle. Everyone from the Council to the High Commands of the Walled Cities were shouting at him, but Olesm had only one thing in his mind.

Artur’s summoning companies!

Just like at the Great Plains. He had inherited Sserys’ Skill, or close enough. Now, with all the foresight in the world, he was involving Liscor’s full army in the battle for the north.

Merrik was laughing. Tears were running down his face as he saw Battalion 1 charging into battle.

“Glorious. Professor, do you see it?”

He had no doubt that the [Banner Commander] would be used as a lesson in class tomorrow. Now the Eater Goats and Gargoyles were stalemated as Battalion 1 slammed into their side, but it was the main crusade that was faltering.

The veterans were fighting without losing ground, but inexperienced Soldiers and Workers were suffering Gargoyles rampaging through their ranks. That banner was racing back to cover his army, and Olesm felt an electric shock in his veins.

Because he knew what would come next. And a few people saw history repeating itself.

A horned head slowly rose. Calruz turned and looked around.

“No. Not them. Let me—at least let me—”

Venaz gave Calruz a blank look as the one-armed [Prisoner] whispered. Then Calruz was running, breaking out of the mess tent. Venaz realized what was happening a second later. He tore something out of his belt pouch.

Your Majesty. My King. I have something to show you.

They were waiting. The instant they had heard Battalion 1 was gone, another hundred Antinium, new recruits and veterans, so few veterans, had gathered. Horns on their helmets, as silly or as glorious as you chose to see it.

Stop! St—

Calruz was running towards them, and at first he was shouting orders, but he halted and his voice died. As if he couldn’t bear to stop them and couldn’t bear to see it happen at the same time. Venaz held the scrying mirror up and showed the House of Minos a sight he had come all this way to see. His blood chilled, and he broke into a cold sweat, but his smile—

Battalion 6, the Beriad, had formed a line as Liscor’s army shouted and watched. They all had their single weapons—greatswords, hammers, battleaxes—in hand. They were stomping and raising their blades to the sky.

Demanding, demanding Artur do what they knew was coming next. Honor and glory, just like when they had halted Zeres amidst the waves.

The [Banner Commander] was calling them. But—he was not the only clever person who saw an opportunity. Peki whirled, looking at the scrying orb on delay. She looked at the chanting Beriad, Calruz’s expression of pain and awe. Then she seized Olesm.

“I enlist in Liscor’s army. Okay?”

“What? Wh—I accept.

Olesm took one look at the Garuda, and his eyes flickered. He pointed.

“Battalion 6! Commanding officer—Peki, whatever your last name is!”

“Peki of Pomle! [Drop Strike Lieutenant]! Last names are stup—”

The Garuda charged across the ground as the Antinium looked up. Merrik shouted.

“Peki!”

Then she vanished. Along with a hundred Antinium.

 

——

 

They appeared in battle, ready. Like thunder. Like a roar of voices, unheard.

Antherr saw them. He was stomping, his bandaged arms raised as he lifted a blade he’d seized from the Gnolls. Termin and the other Human were watching him, but the Soldier was screaming silently at the sky.

The [Immortal] was shouting.

Me! Take me too! His Battalion appeared in a blaze, facing the Gargoyles and Eater Goats.

But Antherr did not. He felt the pull—and then it failed.

He was too far away. Perhaps he was separated from his company. Perhaps Artur wasn’t that strong. All the Antinium could do was watch.

 

——

 

Once again, they appeared.

Though it was not water and mud rushing through their feet. Though it was monsters instead of Gnolls and Drakes—the Beriad cared not.

What did Minotaurs see? A hundred Antinium stomping and raising their blades. Fearless, a Garuda taking wing and surveying the battlefield so she could tell the Titan—what it was like to lead Antinium.

The Beriad pushed past the low-level [Crusaders]. Antinium were knocked aside, kindly, by striding [Juggernauts] and [Warriors of Honor]. Their leader pointed, and a Gargoyle Bossel howled.

A single Antinium with a greatsword charged, but not even Crusader 57 was so mad. The other Beriad stood back as a Bossel pounded towards him.

Madness. Honor? The first cut was thrown back by a shield, and the Bossel struck the Antinium [Honorguard] like a hammer. Armor tore, and the Antinium cut back, dodging another blow. He hacked into the leg—the Gargoyle crushed his shoulder. One of his arms went limp, but he had three more.

He was half the size of the Bossel, and it brought down the axe, crushing part of the Antinium’s head. The Beriad watched as the Antinium swung the greatsword once. It bit into a leg, and the Gargoyle brought the axe down again.

Then a second Antinium strode forwards with a greathammer. The Gargoyle whirled and spat shards of stone that lodged in gauntlets as the Antinium shielded its face. Again, that axe swung down—and the greathammer knocked it aside.

A Skill. The hammer came down and crushed a foot. The Bossel screamed, and the Antinium followed it up with another blow—then went stumbling backwards as a strike caved in part of his chest. He strode forwards, bleeding, and struck the knee again.

Then the Gargoyle fell. It clawed at the ground, raising a shield to defend itself, and saw the Antinium—waiting. The Gargoyle tensed—lunged—and a hammer struck the Bossel’s face.

The Beriad watched as the Bossel went still. Then another warrior faced down a Gargoyle. An Antinium swung a battleaxe up as he pointed at a Gargoyle who answered the challenge with a shriek.

They were fighting like Minotaurs engaging in honor-duels! To anyone who understood what they were seeing—

Peki landed and scream-shouted at the Beriad.

“Stop!”

They looked at her, offended as she pointed.

Stop fighting one-on-one! Kill and take them down!

“Not honorable.”

A Worker offered her haughtily. The Garuda gave him a tilt of the head and spoke like she was talking to Venaz.

“Honorable is letting your friends die? Follow me and kill everything with tactics!

The Beriad hesitated and saw the embattled [Crusaders] falling. Without a word, they abandoned their duels, and Peki found herself commanding Antinium.

She didn’t know what it would be like. Would they even follow orders? She had to know. The [Lieutenant] pointed a fist.

Follow in a wedge! [Unit: Thunder Punch].

She leapt across the ground as she activated a Skill. A free Skill. Did they know how to use it? Would they—?

The Garuda looked back, and every Antinium was charging after her. She pounded out of the fighting and ran in a curving arc. Like they had been drilling this for a month, the Antinium followed. They hit the side of the monsters, and Peki leapt up.

“[Half-Giant’s Launch Kick]!”

A Gargoyle went tumbling over Eater Goats, and the [Martial Artist] kicked an Eater Goat’s skull in. She shouted.

“Keep moving! There, there—”

She pointed, and two more wedges pierced in from alternate angles. The Garuda was astonished, but she couldn’t have realized how obvious her commands were. Not her voice, but the way she gestured. Intuitively, like a [Martial Artist], something Antinium could read perfectly.

 

——

 

The Beriad followed Peki into battle, swinging with such force they cleared everything around them. On the other side, Battalion 1 was stabilizing the battle as adventurers broke away from their spots to reinforce this weaker area.

The Antinium crusade was turning the odds towards victory. But as Battalion 1, Battalion 8, and the Beriad entered the fray like thunder, a curious thing happened among the rest of the crusade.

The Antinium’s momentum and morale—faltered. The new [Crusaders], still Level 1 or 2 at most, looked up, and their fighting slowed, because they were too busy watching.

The [Templars] were fighting in a knot, surrounded by monsters and warded by faith. Some were physically taller than any other Antinium, but only by a foot at most. Yet it seemed like a hundred feet.

They looked like Giants. The ordinary Workers and Soldiers gazed at the fearless Antinium, and they had not seen how the grinding brutality of war struck sparks of courage and sacrifice. How faith made commonplace heroes out of lowly insects like them.

Even he, Embraim, understood. Crusader 802, Battalion 8. He looked at the Soldiers and Workers, then to the distant [Templars]. The fearless Beriad. Battalion 1, from whom had come the legendary Crusader 51.

He did not feel able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. He felt short. His spear felt heavy, and his shell fragile, a bare layer over thin blood in his body.

Faith took some of the crusade like a magical hurricane, sweeping them forwards over their foes. Not so for mortal Antinium. How could they ever aspire to be that?

Yet he was a [Soldier]. He had seen Manus break. Now, Embraim saw mortal men and women, like him, rallying for the charge.

“To the rear! I will split their lines or I will plant our banners where I fall!”

The [Brigadier], amidst all this chaos, was riding across the rear of the monster horde. She had fought through the screaming goats, and even now, she was performing pure strategy. She deserved backup.

Battalion 8’s veterans had taken several hundred Antinium Soldiers and Workers and moved to Artur’s flanking spot. They were advancing, but the hypnotic battle ahead was making the Antinium’s famously unbreakable will—falter.

This would not do. So the bug, the [Battalion Leader], the mere man who was Embraim took something out. Something he had found, that covetous thief. Like the first legends of Earth, he had stolen it. Hoarded it, for it made him strong.

A few Gargoyle Bossels were turning to face the Humans on horseback. They feared the charge of the [Lancers] less than most, but they were wary of the Antinium group too. What they saw, amidst that small force poised to charge their rear, was something curious.

It looked, to the confused [Brigadier] and the Human allies as well, nonsensical. To an Earther, it might appear as though Embraim was…having a cookout.

Like he had set up a barbeque grill and was making burgers. He had a kind of brazier that he had bought from Liscor’s street-vendors who did that very outdoor grilling. The Antinium had loaded up the metal frame with wood and charcoal. Now—to the bewilderment of all, he lit a flame.

It was pink. Embraim, Battalion 8’s leader, drew it from a locket around his neck. A coal burst into fire as he reverentially placed it in the brazier, and every Antinium, these ordinary insects, turned to stare at it. Hypnotized by the glow.

It burned pink and bright. It reflected every fallen soldier of Liscor, Antinium and Drake and Gnoll and Human, that Embraim had ever served with. In it, he saw Embria, dipping her spear and letting the fire burn across the wood and steel.

It gave him strength. Slowly, Embraim lowered his own spear into the flame, and the veterans joined him. Swords, even shields and maces, coating themselves in that glorious fire.

“Come.”

The other Soldiers and Workers slowly approached and laid their blades along that fire. Passing and carrying a part of it. The monsters turned, and the Eater Goats looked up as the Antinium turned.

A single brazier became an inferno. Now, they were ready. Embraim saluted the [Brigadier], who gave him a wondering look. Then he kicked over the brazier, and the flame licked across the ground. He ran through the flames, shouting.

Eighth Battalion, forwards!

They followed him, burning insects, and even the Eater Goats backed away from them. Even they couldn’t eat flame. 

 

——

 

Six hundred flaming Antinium made the night glow like wildfire. The half-Elf was laughing, for she knew that fire. Even when she was gone—those Antinium!

Prometheus, like the legend she had heard Erin telling Mrsha and Bird, hundreds of them, stealing the [Innkeeper]’s flame.

The Antinium are pushing the monsters back! Erin’s in so much trouble!

Ceria was still shouting her misinformation, but the relieved fighters would have kissed the [Innkeeper], mistake or not. Nailren’s team, the Pride of Kelia, were loosing arrows into the monster horde.

Eater Goats. Headshots. Nailren’s paw burned as he lifted his recurve, and he cursed not being Gold-rank. If he were Halrac, he’d be using enchanted arrows to kill the Gargoyles. As it was, he thought he’d killed at least fifty goats.

So why was he still shaking with fear? In fact—why were all the Gold-rank adventurers suddenly here? 

As if they had sensed something, Spoken Vow, the Pact, the Silver Swords, and the Halfseekers had joined the Horns. Ylawes was still staring at the [Crusaders] in a kind of stupefaction, but it was Moore, tallest of them all, who shaded his eyes and spoke in a booming voice as he hefted a mace covered with bloody thorns.

Something is coming. It’s among the monsters. Get ready.

Nailren’s head snapped up. Then he saw what had made the Eater Goats and Gargoyles hurl themselves forwards with such ferocity. It wasn’t just bloodlust.

It was fear. As the monster press let up, he saw a Gargoyle run forwards, flailing its limbs. And it—vanished.

No, half of it vanished. Its arms dropped, as if perfectly severed, and the Gnoll blanched.

“What the—?”

Then he saw a little black goat hop forwards, open its mouth, and swallow a fifteen-meter section of land in a huge sphere. It opened its mouth again, and a little hole with no light opened, not black, but a void. It sucked in fleeing goats, the ground, even half of a trembling Gargoyle Bossel holding…

A leash. The Void Goat had been unleashed, but Tolveilouka hadn’t told the Bossels what would happen when they used their secret weapon.

“Dead fucking gods and my grandmother’s tits! What is that?

Even Jelaqua had no idea. Nailren had never heard of this goat-type, but he didn’t need to think. His bow rose, and he aimed an arrow at the goat.

The arrow sped straight and true at the Void Goat’s head and was sucked into the void. Nailren saw the arrow twist, elongate, and his stomach churned as it was subjected to physics he could barely understand.

What happened if that were done to flesh? The other Gold-rank adventurers didn’t want to find out.

They opened up. [Mages] began casting spells, and [Archers] shot arrows. Ksmvr raised his crossbows, but hesitated.

He saw Ceria’s lance of ice and Pisces’ [Deathbolt] both curve into the void that the goat was merrily projecting. It was eating up everything, such that the goat was even standing on a single piece of land as everything else eroded below it. A near-perfect sphere of annihilation.

And it ate the magic. Ceria swore softly, and Pisces stared as the death magic was captured like it was Nailren’s arrow.

“Aw. Hells.”

Dawil muttered. He hefted his axe, felt at the broken piece of metal that had been his throwing axe…and shook his head.

The Void Eater Goat beamed. It had been getting really upset, but look at all this…it stared at the Gold-rank adventurers. Yum.

It had a priority list. Unlike its lesser kin, it was really interested in whatever was on that half-Elf’s head and the woman with metal arms. And that mace that bug-thing carried.

It hopped forwards merrily, and Ksmvr fired.

“[Weapon Art – Aggregate Volley].”

All his crossbows unloaded at once as the void the goat had conjured vanished. The Void Goat blinked, its two independent eyes staring vacantly around in the seconds it had—

Its mouth opened, closed, in a snap. Ksmvr lowered his crossbows as his shots fired.

“That is distressing.”

It ate his Skill and then opened its mouth. This time, the little vortex began sucking everything up in front of the goat, and it trotted forwards.

It could direct whatever the hell that was? The Gold-rank adventurers were already backing up, and so were the regular [Soldiers]. But they were adventurers. This was a monster.

“No one get near that thing.”

Jelaqua’s flail with the Demas Metal blades was practically useless, as were Seborn’s daggers, unless he wanted to try a sneak-attack. It might come to that, but the Selphid glanced at Ulinde.

“Moore, Ulinde. Sneak spire. Give it something to eat, Ulinde.”

“Yes, Jelaqua!”

The [Spellslinger] leapt up. With a Drake body, she began firing spells from her two wands. Tier 2 spells, [Flame Bolt], [Lightning Jolt], a stream like Falene was capable of.

The Void Goat actually halted to let her feed it, and it never noticed Moore moving left. The half-Giant struck the ground and concentrated. Then a spire of earth, piercing, shot upwards.

The goat hadn’t expected that. Nailren heard a confused baaaah and hoped it had died. The impact had killed three Eater Goats around it, sending their broken corpses flying. He looked around and then saw a black shape land.

On its hooves. The same [Earthen Spire] that had punched a Gargoyle in the chest and broken its ribs had hit the Void Goat. The miffed animal landed, hopped forwards, and began advancing faster.

“What?”

Someone whispered. Nailren shot another arrow as Jelaqua barked.

Moore! Pits!

This time, the half-Giant struck the earth, and a hole opened under the goat. It tried to leap it and sucked up a volley of spells.

But it missed the jet of wind that came from Pisces. The [Necromancer]’s finger trembled as Erin’s boon slammed the goat down from overhead.

Nice, Pisces!

Ceria whooped as the Void Goat fell into the hole. Moore was sweating as he struck the ground. The earth snapped shut, trapping the goat in a tomb of dirt. Everyone stared at the ground.

“No way it works. No way that worked.”

Someone muttered. A Gnoll in Nailren’s team. He snarled.

“Shut up. Don’t jinx—”

Then the ground vanished, and a Void Goat clambered out of the ground, looking peeved. It had just eaten its way out of the earth.

“Okay. That’s it. Run. Unless we catch it off-guard, there’s no way it dies!”

Jelaqua snapped, and the adventurers began trying to flee. But the Void Goat began galloping after them. It wasn’t as fast as its kin, but it was like a terrifying tag. The vortex had a gravitational pull, and if it caught you—

It saw the adventurers running for it and merrily swerved. The Gargoyles, Eater Goats, screamed, and the Void Goat began devouring monsters. Then it headed straight for the soldiers. The adventurers turned and tried to slow it down, but it was too late.

 

——

 

“Squad 8?”

Crusader 57 turned his head as he sensed something happen. He looked over, but the Antinium supposed to be fighting behind them were gone. Just…gone. The Worker looked around and then heard the screaming.

The silence. The roaring vortex as the Void Goat approached. Crusader 53 motioned everyone behind him. A rain of arrows fell, and those around the goat were sucked into oblivion. It looked at Squad 5, grinned, and then plunged into the Antinium crusade’s ranks.

Hunting them. Hunting them all.

Workers and Soldiers vanished. New [Crusaders] and old. The Void Goat trotted forwards so fast that the Antinium had no idea what was going on until Peki, Artur, and the other commanders screamed at them.

“Run!”

Then everyone was running. Into Eater Goats and Gargoyles, their formations breaking as a single monster destabilized the entire battlefield. Crusader 57 was looking around as Squad 5 ran. Zimrah, their [Priest], was screaming.

“You—you—!

“Squad 8? Those idiots owe me money.”

He looked back at that merry little goat running around with its mouth open. So cute and small compared to the others. Crusader 57’s grip tightened on his zweihander.

“I’m going to kill you.”

Half of Squad 5 had to drag him back. Even the Beriad were backing up as the Void Goat ran around. A hundred Antinium had vanished. More. It curved left, towards Squad 5, and a knot of fighting Antinium refused to budge.

A [Templar] with two tower shields was taking on a pair of Bossels. [Taunt the Foe]. They swung weapons like cudgels into his shields, but the Soldier refused to move. Then the Templar heaved, and his shields began to glow.

[My Noble Virtue: Protection]. [Retribution of the Defender].

He heaved, and both Bossels went stumbling back. But the Void Goat was coming, and a [Templar] spotted it.

An Antinium went striding forwards as desperate arrows and spells were sucked into oblivion by the goat. The few that struck it…it seemed to be tougher than its kin. It barely noticed one of Nailren’s arrows that found the small gap in its creation of the void. The Void Goat smiled merrily as the [Templar] pointed.

“[Holy Swo—”

He vanished. The ground, the Antinium—the Void Goat did a backflip of joy. An obscene little monster. Then its look of delight turned to confusion. It stared around, and those two vertical pupils blinked once. It narrowed its eyes and stared at something.

The Void Goat opened its mouth and inhaled. The air warped, and the other [Templar] fell back. The Void Goat stared at where the [Templar] had been and then skipped over. It circled the ground, confused. Then it looked around, and another [Templar] split off from his fellows.

He had a pair of crossbows and fired, one after another, circling, feinting. This time, the Void Goat concentrated whatever it was doing. It ate an arm, and the Antinium stared at his arm. He charged, swinging. Fell.

The Void Eater Goat stood over the Antinium as it bit at the monster. It trotted around the Antinium—and a hole appeared in the world. But the goat didn’t seem satisfied. It stared at something. Perplexed. Annoyed.

Just like Tolveilouka—no, the undead thing was different. This…this wasn’t a failure to use its power. The Void Goat baahed.

I can’t eat that. What is that? It had thought, naively, that it had figured out the ultimate solution to life’s many difficult substances. It could eat magic, even Skills.

But not that. Whatever the Antinium had, it was vexing. So the Void Goat decided to consume as many of them as possible.

It began to run, and now the remaining monsters had the living at their mercy. Gargoyles formed up to hack the desperate Humans, Dwarves, and Antinium to bits. So long as the goat focused on them

The first Bossels, the ones with the magical blades, the looted armor, strode to the [Riders] led by the [Brigadier] fleeing the Void Goat. A collision that the Humans couldn’t avoid. They opened their mouths as the [Brigadier] screamed.

Charge for Wales! Charge for Orefell and—

Her horse went down as the first volley of stone shards lanced the [Riders]. The Bossels charged amid the vortex of the goat’s destruction. The screams, the Eater Goats’ shrieking, and the beating of wings. One heard a familiar sound, a tearing of air, and felt a chill on its back.

It looked up at that uneasy memory and made a strangled sound. Just one before the Frost Wyvern exhaled.

The other Bossels froze in place. Some—literally, but most shook off the covering of ice, feeling the deadly chill. They gazed upwards in alarm, and one leapt up to strike at the Frost Wyvern, their old foe, pursuing them from the High Passes!

The Bossel saw a strange thing riding on top of the Wyvern. Why, it looked like a saddle. Like some of those stupid Wolves. And on it was a Goblin with a helmet with glass goggles and a Hobgoblin. The Hob lifted a big, big crossbow and—

It sounded like thunder.

The Bossel’s headless corpse dropped to the ground with a crash. The monsters gazed upwards as a familiar shriek gave them pause. Then a second Frost Wyvern dove and coated Eater Goats in a layer of icy death. More explosions of sound—a bolt blasted into the ground straight in front of [Field Captain] Rlint. He swore, then eyed the bone bolt.

“Who’s got crossbows like—?”

He looked up as a Wyvern passed overhead. The gaping Dwarf caught sight of a little Goblin as she gave him a two-fingered salute. Then the Hob aiming a Thunderbow fired again.

“Goblins?”

Suddenly, there were Goblins. Frost Wyverns dropped out of the sky, coming from the west. From the High Passes. A disbelieving Gershal watched as a Hob leapt off a Wyvern with a squad of Goblins and set up another of those oversized crossbows.

Five hundred feet distant, he calmly set up with two more and began firing into the monsters’ backs. With a pure, contemptuous disregard for close-quarters combat.

Strategy. The Frost Wyverns were strafing the Eater Goats, and the Gargoyles were suddenly targets for the crossbows and Goblins on the ground. A racing group of Carn Wolves leapt onto the backs of some Gargoyles, and their riders speared the monsters. One, holding twin blades, beheaded a Gargoyle with a single cut as he rode forwards.

The Goblins are shooting down the monsters! Don’t attack! Don’t attack!

Someone shouted that, but the Antinium didn’t even need to be told. The Goblins were clearly attacking the monsters, so the [Crusaders] pushed forwards as the Void Goat halted.

Oh, it’s you lot again. Hello. It stared at the Goblins and then hopped left as a crossbow bolt ploughed into the ground.

A flaming crossbow bolt. One of the Wyverns was carrying a Goblin Chieftain. She pointed—and a [Fireball] shot downwards, as fast as a baseball being thrown by a professional pitcher. It exploded just in front of the Void Goat’s protective vortex, and the creature looked annoyed.

That’s how you do it! Area spells—hit it! Ceria, freeze that bastard!”

The adventurers realized the trick. The Void Goat could eat even the blast of a [Fireball], but the shockwave and heat annoyed it. Frost Wyverns circled as their riders unloaded, shooting crossbow bolts from all angles.

Now, the Eater Goats were fleeing. They recognized the Redfang stripes on some of the Goblins, and Frost Wyverns were a threat that preyed on them. The Bossels hesitated, but as another fell to the Antinium with their faith-powered weapons, they realized that even if the terrifying half-Elf massacred them—this was a sure death.

That left only the Void Goat. It stood, defiantly consuming arrows, magic, even the instruments of faith hurled against it. Someone was making it cold, and it was shivering a bit, but even Ceria couldn’t freeze the wretched monster.

However, the Void Goat’s stretched open mouth was trembling. It stood under the onslaught of fire as a Goblin shouted down at the stunned [Brigadier].

Fire, fire! It can only do it for forty-eight seconds!

“Forty-eight?”

Then the desperate fighters saw the Void Goat snap its mouth shut and dodge. It leapt forwards, then it opened its mouth again.

But an arrow was sticking out of its side, and it looked mad. The Void Eater Goat began running towards the nearest group of archers, but they fled, and it could only do its void trick so long.

Like someone holding their breath. And now, Hobs were reloading their bows. Waiting, waiting, firing in cycles. The Void Eater Goat’s eyes rolled, and Rags snapped.

[Instantaneous Reload]! Loose!

The Void Eater Goat tried to dodge. Three dozen Thunderbows fired. Two struck it, but even the powerful bolts from the Wyvernbone bows only sent it stumbling backwards. It screamed—and a black bolt passed through it at the same time as a [Fireball] lit up the entire Void Goat.

Falene’s [Fireball] and Pisces’ [Deathbolt] made the goat stumble. Burning, eyes wide with wrath, it began running back towards the High Passes. But it had an army after it this time, and they wanted it dead. It opened a void as it ran backwards, but its jaw was already trembling with exhaustion.

A line of Antinium [Archers] were loosing arrows at it, and the Void Goat looked back at the Goblins in the air, the adventurers. Its eyes narrowed.

The Void Goat closed its mouth. Then—suddenly—its body bulged, and it opened the maw and—

Reversed the void.

 

——

 

The thunder in Gershal’s ears was replaced by cries and shrieks. It turned out to be from a Wyvern, lying with wings shredded.

He got up, looked around, and saw someone had torn a line through the earth. Gershal wandered around as people got up, some having survived…what?

The Void Goat. He looked around, but it was gone. Fleeing—and no one seemed ready to chase it. After all, it had shown another trick—which was reversing its ability.

It had thrown…flesh. Blood. Dirt, stone, all compressed, out of whatever pocket-dimension it had. Its stomach? They had re-expanded as they came out, and the explosion was something like a Tier 5 spell.

Maybe Tier 6.

A lot of people were down. The Antinium…no, they were picking up their comrades, forming into groups. The Goblins were shouting, half-deafened, as the small one, their leader, screamed curses.

Stupid goat! I will eat you! You and the thing with faces!

Rags howled, but then she pointed at Redscar, who was riding at the fleeing Gargoyles.

Kill monsters! Someone find Hungry Hungry Goat!”

The monsters were fleeing. But as one, the Humans, Dwarves, Antinium, adventurers, and now Goblins turned on the last Eater Goats and Gargoyles with a vengeance. Charging [Crusaders] joined [Lancers] and a [Necromancer] on a chariot as Goblins aimed crossbows down at the horde.

It was a sight never seen before in the history of the world. Not by Tolveilouka, not by anyone. When it was done, at least for now, Field Captain Rlint stared at the first Goblin Chieftain he had ever seen up close.

“What happened here?”

That was all the Dwarf said. He looked at the Antinium, who were admiring [Brigadier] Forount’s mustache. The woman seemed dazed from hitting her head after going down, but she was speaking energetically to a curious Goblin. With a [Chef]’s hat. And Artur, the [Banner Commander] who had saved Gershal’s life.

“The mustache? Entirely real. You don’t get points for buying some fake hair and gluing it to your face. There’s hair tonics for everyone. I heard some Drake grows his own beard.”

“What points?”

Artur was patently confused. The [Brigadier] laughed, staring at him, then at Calescent, who was gathering Eater Goat meat for a roast.

“Ah—that’s just an expression. I just—liked mustaches. Splendid things. So I got one.”

“Such style.”

Fightipilota was grinning. The [Brigadier] straightened and looked proud.

“I’m glad—you think so, Miss.”

This was something. Rlint just knew it. He couldn’t tell whether he was endangering the Dwarven expedition or not. The Five Families were sure to be throwing a fit at anyone consorting with what was clearly a powerful Goblin tribe and the Antinium. The Walled Cities would not be happy.

But then, the Dwarf thought—where the hell were any of them? He glanced at Dawil and coughed.

“Field Captain Rlint of Deríthal-Vel. We’re resettling Dwarfhalls Rest. May I present my compliments to the commanders of both forces?”

He held out a hand, and both Antinium’s bug-like eyes and the Goblin’s crimson eyes found him. Rlint had misgivings about this—but the Grandfathers had many stories of bastards, and that was apparently everyone, even women, at times in history.

They had never said much bad about Goblins, though. He found himself shaking a [Templar]’s hand and asking about the class. Then a little Goblin called ‘Rags’ shook his hand. He noticed her crossbow.

“That’s Dwarfsteel. Did you—get it from a customer of ours?”

The Goblin peered at him, then grinned.

“Found it off a dead adventurer. Good stuff. How much for a hundred?”

To which he had nothing to say. But the Antinium were standing in formation, and they were here. Antinium in the north.

One of the vocal ones, a Worker with a huge sword, made a kacshaw sound. A sneeze? The rest of his squad stared at him. He looked so offended as he wiped at his mandibles that he turned.

“Ew. I think I caught a cold again. Zimrah. Cure me.”

A [Priest] walked over, sighing, and put a hand on Crusader 57’s head, and he brightened up.

“That feels nice. Thanks, I guess.”

The moment passed almost everyone by but a certain half-Elf standing about sixteen miles away, who began flipping out. Rlint didn’t notice; he was shaking hands with everyone, gore-spattered or not.

“What’s going to become of this now?”

The consequences were so huge that no one could guess, not even Ceria. She looked at the Antinium [Crusaders] and the Goblins, and Rags’ eyes glittered.

“Where’s Erin?”

“Not here, for once. Apparently, she had nothing to do with the Antinium.”

Rags’ eyes rose in pure disbelief, but then she shrugged and sighed. She nodded at the [Chef], Calescent, who was bouncing on his toes excitedly.

“I have a stupid [Chef] to get rid of. My best [Chef]. I will go to Liscor, soon. Had to help fight monsters. Not sure why they all left.”

“Oh. Thanks. Are you sure…”

Ceria didn’t know what to say. Are you sure it was worth it? Rags glanced around and then up at the sky, as if she could see the scrying spells. She grinned and waved, then held out a clawed hand.

“Maybe. Maybe not. But this? Maybe this makes sense to them.”

She held out her claw, concentrated, and Ceria wondered what she was doing. Then Rags blinked, and a shower of gold coins fell into her claws. Quite a lot of gold coins, in fact. It came down so hard that the little Goblin ran, cursing and shielding her head as her portion of the <Heroic Quest> rained down.

Not just gold. Ceria saw a half-empty tub of…butter fall out of the sky. Straight into her hands. The half-Elf stared at it and then at the gold raining down. An agate hit Jelaqua in the head, and then she blinked.

Whoa! What the—a wand!

A redwood wand landed amidst her rewards. Gershal of Vaunt stared up, and the pommel of a magic sword clocked him in the jaw.

That wasn’t on the quest reward! Ceria gaped around, and Ksmvr placed a hand on her shoulder solemnly.

“I believe we have received the half-pot of butter. In the future, Captain Ceria…”

She waited for him to ask for the butter or say something humorous, but the [Skirmisher] just gave her a grave look.

“…Perhaps the quest rewards should be given to someone luckier? I would like a free magic sword.”

The Free Antinium were all getting a share of the rewards, so only a handful of coins popped out of the air, or a few objects per Antinium. But again—sometimes—something clearly unusual appeared, like a glowing gem that bounced off a Worker’s head. Ceria stared around and then down at her rewards.

She had gotten quite a good amount of gold, given her contributions, so she wondered how it was divided up. But—if she glanced at the lucky Gershal, swearing and exclaiming as Pisces and Falene told him not to touch the sword until appraised, the celebrating people, the Goblins and Antinium, she slowly picked up one of the coins in the pile at her feet amidst the mud and gore.

On a hunch, Ceria bit into it, and the slightly off-gold dented a bit, revealing a brassy surface underneath. Ceria stared at the fake coin and sighed.

“Predictable.”

Then she put her arms around Pisces and Yvlon’s shoulders as Ksmvr peered at the [Crusaders] and they peered back. As Rags and Artur and a few Antinium met the wide-eyed [Governor] of Orefell, and the civilians looked upon their rescuers with the rest of the world. In the chaotic moment, Gershal of Vaunt slowly unwrapped a piece of brie and looked around surreptitiously.

“…Is anyone hungry?”

 

 

 

 

Author’s Notes: I did this in two days. Not three.

I would like you to understand my writing process. I have, in the past, remarked that I now write over the course of three days. It used to be one and frankly, the more time I have for a chapter, the better.

This was done in two days. I wrote more, and faster, and I hope, better, than average. But I did it to a reason.

I am hoping to cut (most) chapters shorter so I have one day to work on Volume 1 revisions. This may not work, or it may temporarily lower the quality or length of the chapters, but my goal has been getting Volume 1 done by Christmas of this year. To avoid this rewrite taking ages, I need to sacrifice something.

Well, this chapter is done and I had it planned for a while, which was why it came out more speedily. Was it done well? I hope you enjoyed this changing world and yes…a lot is going to happen.

As ever. Thanks for reading and I will, if successful, append any finished chapters to the rewrite pages, but I’ll just mention them every time. Let’s see if this works. Thanks for reading!

 

Face-Eater Moth by LeChatDemon!

 

Garuda by Adventurer!

 

Bells by QtheBird!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/q_thebird

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/quintenthebird

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

93 thoughts on “9.12

  1. Leave a typo for the crusade! Against misspelled words!

    (Crusade readers: MrWiggles, Litwickee, Quynin, Gorexn, emphes, Aox, dradford, afkcuzbookiscool, ChronoMager, Comrade Birv)

    • Oh, it appears that WordPress gets rid of anything in the quest brackets. So where there’s a word missing I meant to put Quest.

    • Hi, great chapter!

      This is just a minor note but with the sentence “Goats went soaring over the walls as Gargoyles just leapt over them.” perhaps you meant to have the Goats and Gargoyles swapped?

    • “When they rose, they had the task of combatting a horde of monsters greater in numbers, and the most appetizing target on the road were trying to flee a horde of monsters with possessions on their backs slowing every damn step.”

      I think “target” should be “targets”. The verbs are plural.

      “This kind of self-sacrificial attitude would keep pockets of the Human lands strong, and the rest would bleed out.”

      Something is wrong here. Possibly “self-sacrificial” should be “sacrificial”.

      “alright” -> “all right” x2

    • Of course, it’s her fault. I can just imagine a number of Drakes having massive seizures when they hear a human saying “Do the Tidebreaker proud!” when surrounded by Antinium and later Goblin allies.

      This entire fight was so amazing. I can’t wait for the world’s reaction to seeing Antinium healing sick humans and goblin cookouts.

    • Isn’t the whole point of the words dedicated to the Antinium showing how they didn’t need Erin to want to do the right thing? Most of them became individuals after Erin died. You could argue that events set in motion due to Erin’s actions since volume 1 led to this but that removes agency from pretty much everyone.

      • Ahem.

        its been softly hinted several times that Pawn lied about the contents of the religious book and actually it worships erin.

        And they used Erin’s flame.

        I think the answer is in between.

  2. I’m not sure about the ending of this chapter.
    I think it was very solid up through the Antinium showing up. But the goblins seem a bridge too far.

    Them appearing makes sense–for the rewards. It’s more the how of it. Things like why they’re suddenly very familiar with the Void Goat, and being able to so easily coordinate with the army just felt . . . off. I don’t know how to put it.

    Maybe just too easy? The goblins show up and they got the intel, the wyvrens, the crossbows (how are they even firing them off the wyverns?) and then everyone immediately sits down for kumbaya afterwards? Like, Gershal fought the goblins at Invrisil and saw Zel die there, it’s hard to imagine he’d be so OK with them here, even if they did save the day.

    Granted, the other threat here is the plague, and that’s still going strong regardless of the Antinium.

    Feels like maybe the head bossel was forgotten about? Was it the half-eaten one when the void goat appeared? Wasn’t clear to me. Though that’s not very important of course.

    Also, the dwarves not having bad things to say about the goblins? That just strikes me as plain wrong. There is no way the dwarves don’t have their grudges with the goblins, even if they aren’t recent ones.

    • I think you’re right, we did stray a bit too far into deus ex territory. Usually new volumes are a bit slower.

      Interesting to see dwarves not immediately hating goblins. That seems very out of left field.

      On an unrelated note… Calruz got some more seeds of redemption planted. Venaz is certainly going to be pulling for him now.

      Also fun to see Arturr’s growth. Weird that his level 31 skill was an improved version of the summon unit skill (he used it twice, in raid succession?!).

      • Why would the dwarves hate goblins in this context though? Its a trope sure, but the dwarves are one of the old races. The old races don’t seem to hate goblins as the younger races do.

        • Not in this particular context, just the thought “Well the ancestors have never said goblins are bastards.”
          They’ve never said the race that plagues the world and occasionally goes on rampages are bastards? Gotta doubt that one pretty hard.

          • Funny you mention context, because again; they’re one of the old races.
            Like most others who’ve lived long enough, they’re aware that literally every other race has done that.

            Not to mention the fact they said “ancestors” with the context of a few months ago The Dead Came Back.

            Everything has context.

        • Grandfathers might not have but the threat of Goblin Kings is known to everyone. Before Velan, there was Curulac which was on Terrandria. I don’t know how prevalent Goblins are on Terrandria, but they are supposedly on every continent.

    • I think the problem with the goblins showing up is that it feels like they were there just for the heck of it.

      This feels like something that could have been planned by Rags as a calculated way to build trust, which I think would jive with her character development to this point. But, just showing up like this does feel out of place.

      The Antinium working well with the goblins makes sense, no problem there, butyou do need something for the other races. If it felt like they were in a desperate situation, and the goblins saved them, it may feel better. Though, as for the dwarves, we really don’t know anything about them, so dwarves might be cool with goblins, but it seems very unlikely.

    • They FOUGHT the void goat once previously!!! It was when Niers turned the high passes to shit! There were like 5 armies + bodychanger and then this goddam goat appeared and everyone just bailed

      • That was Rafaeme+Ressa vs Bossels vs Eater Goats vs Wyvern Lord vs Bodychanger in 8.82, neither Niers nor the Goblins were involved in that fight.

      • This chapter tells us that, but it’s never come up before. The void goat was only introduced at the end of last volume to us, and it’s a predator from higher up than Goblinhome–an altitude that’s too dangerous for Goblinhome–and it being down here is unusual.

        • Void goat was introduced before, don’t remember when exactly. Not introduced by name. I think, but there was a moment it appeared and everyone ran. It was described that it used a void to consume things and that it had a more “normal goat jaw” appearance in contrast to the regular eater goats

  3. Oh boy do we need a world reaction chapter. Hive queens freaking out, drakes scared shitless, 5 families stunned, and a which innkeeper speechless.

  4. Omg! Bonus OP rewards!

    Rip antiniums :(

    Rags be rich hehe. Hopefully the guards that went back to give the horses to the adventurers and ran back survived and got some nice rewards too

    • I think the exp boon might be more valuable for her than the other rewards. Given that she led an army on the field and actually won the day, thereas the other forces were losing badly, the goblins should be getting the lions share of the exp.

      • I agree. Hope her whole team got levels from it.

        But I meant the rags=rich as a joke. Adventurers struggling for gold to buy gear and Rags saving the day gets showered in gold haha

      • Goblins and Antinium, they were what really clinched the win. The Antinium provided and unshakable front that kept the rampaging monsters used to people fleeing in terror in check. The [Templar], [Juggernaut], and [Honor] skills were incredibly effective.

        Of course had the Goblins not come in then we would’ve seen a pretty costly Pyrrhic victory. But since they came, the monsters had to face high level Antinium who would never give ground while the equivalent of a military spear punched through their behinds and unleashed a bunch of high level skills.

        The Gargoyles and Goats were already exhausted from fighting the Antinium, when the Goblins came it was basically game over.

        So if I had to say anything, Antinium and Goblins tied for first with experience differing in slight margins. Remember a lot of the Antinium who fought were low level so they got a bonus, but the Goblins giving the win would give them a lot as well. The high levels on both sides got a lot of experience as well. Maybe a level or two for all of them. Artur should be seeing anywhere from 3-5 now. Mainly due to the fact that he’ll probably be involved in negotiations afterwards and deal with the political fuck fest he caused with his military force. Although most of the level will come from the battle.

        Vaunts [Liuetenant] I want to see more of.

        Hopefully a Border city power block forms naturally after this entire thing calms down.

  5. Did Zimrah cure the plague that was placed on 57 before it can spread?

    “The moment passed almost everyone by but a certain half-Elf standing about sixteen miles away, who began flipping out.”

    Or was Tove just flipping out because it can be cured at all and wasn’t expecting it to be that easy?

    • I really doubt Crusader 57 is the only one infected, so it’s probably the latter point. They’re probably shocked there’s a simple, easy way to cure the plague, but I bet it will be like Yvlon’s plaguesteel where it’s still going to spread and cause massive problems.

      • I expect goblins and dwarfs may prove immune or at least extremely resillient against the disease. Humans and antinium are clearly vulnerable and with so many people gathered who will now be returning home, they will be causing outbreaks all over the place.

        Liscor has its clerics and the drakes are highly organized making it relatively easy to contain outbreaks, but the north has little such organization and healers are rare.

        • The strange thing it that it could affect the Antinium at all. They were engendered to survive far worse then plague. It would have to be a fairly powerful one for that.

      • Tove is spreading a plague. It made mention that some people from the forst town the few left were sick I’m pretty sure. So I think that’s what’s being referenced.

      • Remember when he was first meeting with the gargoyles and goats a few chapters ago? Last thing he did before the goats started moving down the high passes was grow some weird mushrooms on his arm and spore a bunch of goats. Plague Spore Mushrooms.

  6. Reading this chapter it struck me that doing Quests would probably be something the Antinium Queens should be interested in, since they give out class experience and it’s so hard for most Antinium to level

    • The free queen needs to open an inn inside of her hive. She has enough room and tons of Antinium visiting. I bet the even her own people would pay to have better accommodations and access to the Queen’s good food.

  7. The one day sacrifice did not hunder this chapter in the slightest for this chapter was an absolute banger. The only thing I would have asked for on top would be level ups

  8. “Ew. I think I caught a cold again. Zimrah. Cure me.”

    A [Priest] walked over, sighing, and put a hand on Crusader 57’s head, and he brightened up.

    “That feels nice. Thanks, I guess.”

    The moment passed almost everyone by but a certain half-Elf standing about sixteen miles away, who began flipping out.

    The Antinium [Priest] casually curing a horrible plague that was supposed to ravage the north. I bet they eventually become known as one of the only ones to be able to cure it easily and efficiently, and they go around the local cities spreading faith and the cure.

    • And the North and South wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing. Magnolia would be flipping mad and cursing like crazy. Suddenly a bunch of human cities are now indebted to Antinium. And if it affects her city itself and she’s seen preventing Antinium aid. She’ll start entering free fall. No good options.

      And the Drake cities as well, it’d be an absolutely nightmarish diplomatic incident. And if they start blaming Antinium and killing [Priests] just trying to help. They’ll risk either dying out entirely by plague or starting a war. Or both.

      A nightmarish situation for anyone who isn’t a friend of the Antinium.

    • While nice, I doubt the cooldown on the [Skill] will let them spam-heal everyone. Key people, yes but not everyone. After all, in Persua’s chapter we saw that one possible future for the runner was her dying from the disease in less than a year.

      Another possibility, that would really make the plague-elf flip his lid, would be if the antibiotic developed for Yellow Rivers turns out to be super-effective.

  9. I loved this chapter. The only part that felt a little deus ex to me was the situation with the crusaders… which makes sense if you think about it. If classes have an effect on people, maybe being a [Crusader] encourages some deus ex-like behavior? Though I understand how some people can get that feeling.

    I feel like Rags intervening was actually what made more sense. She lives in the high passes and there is no way that, after the horde dies, there won’t be a named-rank adventuring team doing a follow-up investigation or something. Intervening at the opportune moment was probably what she was waiting for.

    I love the sick burn that the [Lord] gave to Sir Relz and drakes in general. It really was completely in-character for Sir Relz to try a take-down piece on humans and for it to backfire.

    I also wonder if the place that the dwarves are heading to is already occupied by Rags’ tribe.

  10. This is one of my favorite chapters so far this volume. I feel like it captured some of the magic of the big, hectic, tons-of-people-showing-up chapters that pirateaba does so often without being so ridiculous and massive that it fell apart like a lot of the conclusion of last book did.

    It helps that Artur and the [Crusaders], as well as the Horns, got a lot of focus relatively recently, and I really liked those chapters, so it was great continuing to see them.

  11. The goblins showing up did feel a little more dues ex machina than the crusaders, but only because we weren’t given any foreshadowing like we were with the antinium. I don’t think that it’s out of character for the humans and dwarves to not be overly hostile to the goblins, they were literally just saved from being eaten alive, the euphoria of not dying horribly can do wonders for one’s worldview.

    • It didn’t need as much foreshadowing, though. I expected the goblins to show up from the start of the chapter, pretty much, because they live in the High Passes, they have experience with these various monsters, they’re very mobile, and Rags wants to work on PR.

      • I agree it didn’t need much. Maybe like a short paragraph or a couple sentences about Rags watching the scrying orb and being annoyed at the trouble her crazy friend got into again(even though Erin is not there)

    • The antinium showing up didn’t get any forshadowing either, the closest we got was basically “and there were antinium in the Inn to”

      • Yea, there were a lot of antinium at the inn listening to a lengthy discussion about how no one was gonna help those people. Then afterwords the reveal it shifts to the antinium pov about how they show up. The goblins get none of that. I am not saying there needed to be a lengthy scene of them gearing up, just a little taste to remind us they are still in play and are aware of the situation.

  12. While it does look like a good victory we have to remember that the fight technically isn’t over as seen by the sneezing ant… And the previously fallen villages falling victim to the “gift of undeath” woven into the fur or the eater goats.

    The issue was never the monsters, but the undead plague they left behind them.

    Though for the monster horde I could see Rags joining in as a chance to prove Erin right thinking that this was an Erin scheme due to the ant army… Or a chance to kill the void goat which is one or the high level threats that need to be killed.

    That and goblin petty vengeance.

    This was Rags who had fought the Goblin Mountain [Great Chieftain] when being hounded by the human armies towards Licsor… If she was willing to fight him with an army behind her ready to kill her… Then a surprise attack from the air to cull the monsters and to kill the void goat isn’t too unexpected.

    • I actually don’t think there’ll be too many undead after the monster horde. I think the “gift of undeath” was spread elsewhere, all over Izril’s north, and that the monster horde was a distraction.

      My reasoning is just that eater goats EAT what they kill. I can’t imagine too many dead bodies being fit for undeath after a whole horde of eater goats walk past them.

  13. At her level, Not sure how Lynnette could throw a boon over distance. Seemed out of place. Arthur’s skill seems overpowered for level 31. But other than that, quite fun.

    • I believe Lyonette already did that to Rabbiteater.

      And yes, multiuse instant troop teleport seems pretty nuts for level 30ish.

    • I think Artur’s acquisition of such a good skill at level 31 actually makes sense considering his class is [Banner Commander]. It seems like a class entirely focused on the directing and management of units in armies.
      Sserys probably had to wait a long time to get the skill since he was a [General] so he had a bunch of consolidations that made him a warrior as well as a leader, but Artur doesn’t fight directly like Sserys did. If even a normal monster or [Soldier] gets into Artur’s face he’ll probably die.
      So in the end it just comes down to his specialization, as well as the fact that every 10 levels is a capstone that either grants one particularly amazing skill, or several normal ones. I imagine it was his level 30 capstone.

  14. Idk how you even have to ask if the chapter is well written!!
    YES IT ISSSSS!!!
    ITS INCREDIBLE I DID NOT STOP SCREAMING WITH GLEE THE WHOLE TIMEEE

  15. It took me 2 nights to read this. As a writer I’m just downright jealous not only of the volume but of the quality. Well done, Pirate.

    I swear this is one of those chapters I’m going to be noodling on and reflecting on in the months to come and can’t wait to revisit it when it eventually hits Audible. Great rising action, delivery of expectations, twist on expectations, and a battlefield awareness that I really would like some insight on.

    More than that though, I didn’t realize how much I needed to read a story about a bunch of people who don’t normally get along coming together to kill a bunch of monster goats and gargoyles. The timing of this was perfect and I really just love the fact that even though Erin wasn’t here, her attitude that people should help people trickles down to the oddest corners of the world.

    Thanks for this. Well timed and well executed. I felt the wow moments were earned though I did half expect someone named to die (I really though the mustache Brigadier was going down). Yet in spite of that I find I’m happier as a reader for not losing anyone major. Though I must say anytime the antinium go down I want vengeance.

    Anyhooze, good stuff. Great growth too, writing style wise, from previous volumes. :-D

  16. Anyone else getting bored of how repetitive these parts of the story are getting? Especially with the antinium, we know that the main characters are going to make it because someone or something is going to save them, we know the antinium are going to show just to die because that’s what thery do, and we know that no matter what, the true bad guy is going to get away or get killed heroicly, then something else comes along to make it seem irrelevant. Rinse and repeat. I think the chapter was well written, but it’s just do easy to guess who dies and what’s going to happen.

  17. If you need to write shorter chapters to keep on schedule, I’d much rather see shorter chapters and a happy Pirate than you burning yourself out.

    Loved how everyone came together this chapter, though the Goblins might have been one group too far, it felt like it was already in hand by then.

    But it does set us up for one hell of a reaction thread (hopefully in the next few chapters?) if only because I want to see how everyone else reacts to the sheer insanity that was this battle.

  18. I love this chapter! I can’t tell if I want an party after or a world wide reaction. Probably not a party cause of the plague. I think it’s so funny how they were all like Erin’s in so much troublee when the truth would freak out world leaders so much more. And my last thought is that it’s really cute how Maughin (probably) used the mithril block to make Jelaqua a lucky charm.
    Now I need to reread the chapter cause I read it too fast and probably glossed over the dramatic bits.

  19. I can’t help feeling that maybe zel shivertail with his invulnerability and pile of leadership skills and personal experience specifically gained by surviving an impossible siege and boosting people under him to do the same might have been a better choice then ryoka for a boost, obviously with a guest more leader then Pisces getting the boost.

    • Well, I think part of Erin|s plans is to enable Pisces understanding of true magic. That could be done this waz as he struggled with the spells from the Djinni|s Spellbook before.

      • Plus Erin didn’t exactly have much contact with anybody at the battle. She didn’t know who or where the commanders were most likely, so buffing Pisces was the best option.

    • Recall that the last chapter, we saw a whole bunch of “Erin doesn’t know what’s happening” reminders. So this is probably not coming as “Erin brainstorms the optimal permutation of buffs to deliver victory!” but more likely as “Erin walks in to someplace with a scrying orb and sees ‘ZOMG my friends are about to die what can I do?’ and yells for immediately knee-jerk responses from everyone.”

  20. A little bit too chaotic for my tastes.Yes, it’s all about the random monster war in some random city with some random adventurers, and it all harking back to Erin, why not. Still, it was chaotic, a lot of things were happening more or less simultaneously or without reason, it reads like a huge bunch of pileovers, and I can definitely believe you’ve written this in two days.

    Peace and pace yourself, Pirateaba. Calm, tranquility, and meditation. It never killed everyone, last I heard, unless you’re one of those buddhist that meditated until they were dead. Or meditated while they were put on fire, that happens.

    • It’s been hinted that they do several times, but never confirmed.

      I think Crusader 57 is not a believer.

      Also Pirateaba keeps making biblical illusions like messiah comes back to life etc…

      I wonder if antinium faith in erin is causing dues ex?

  21. This…….you have GOT to love chapters like this. I have a feeling that the world will be blown OUT OF THEIR MINDS by the revelations of this chapter. I mean, the BLACK TIDE appeared, out of nowhere as far as they are concerned and not only did they fight alongside humans, dwarves and the rest, they are actually fairly high in levels, have some INSANE skills at their disposal and unlike the former Black Tides, which simply used Zerg rush on everything, they use some very, very, advanced military tactics. And the Goblins make a show of force that will NOT be forgotten any time soon. What they did was on par with some very skilled Airdrop move a modern military would use, deploying ground forces with artillery and providing aerial support. The rest of the world will now HAVE to sit up and pay attention. Because not only did they display some serious combat skill, they did so while fighting alongside the *normal* races without being asked for help and without any thought of attacking them

    Excellent work wordsmith, as always. Keep up the good work.

  22. Oh! There are no [Wyvern Pilots] in the void!
    No, there are no [Wyvern Pilots] in the void!
    The place is full of drakes, eater goats, and even snakes!
    But there are no [Wyvern Pilots] in the void!

    Oh! There are no [Wyvern Pilots] in Chandrar!
    No, there are no [Wyvern Pilots] in Chandrar!
    They are all across the bay, getting shot at every day!
    Oh! There are no [Wyvern Pilots] in Chandrar!

    Oh! There are no [Wyvern Pilots] in Pallass!
    No, there are no [Wyvern Pilots] in Pallass!
    The place is full of brass, sitting round on their fat ass!
    But there are no [Wyvern Pilots] in Pallass!

    Oh! There are no Garuda flyers in the fray!
    No, there are no Garuda flyers in the fray!
    There still sitting on their nest, doing that which they do best!
    But there are no Garuda flyers in the fray!

    Oh! There are no [Wyvern Pilots] in Liscor!
    No, there are no [Wyvern Pilots] in Liscor!
    They’re all off to foreign shores, making [Mothers] out of [Whores]!
    And there are no [Wyvern Pilots] in Liscor!

    Oh! There ain’t no [Wyvern Pilots] down below!
    No, there ain’t no [Wyvern Pilots] down below!
    They are all way up above, drinking whiskey and making love!
    And there ain’t no [Wyvern Pilots] down below!

  23. Good chapter. I enjoyed the other readers questioning whether it was good or too cute to have the ants and goblins come together (separately) to save the day. I think I’m pretty firmly on the “it was good” side.

    It makes sense to me because of the development of both of those parties. Ants were simple hive beings, and goblins were simple tribal savages, at least from the perspective of liscor and the narrative. They’ve changed a bit, plus the setting has changed (mostly due to the influence of bringing in Earth humans) and our understanding of them has changed too.

    It seems plausible to me that goblins (especially Rags who wants to be able to live in peace) might assist in this situation. It makes sense to me that Ants who are gaining some independence and free will while still existing within the hive structure might head out to a cause they feel drawn to.

    It might have wrapped up a little too cute, but i felt like it mostly worked even if it could be finetuned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s