(I am on break for the month of May to write a novel. Check the next post or Author’s Note for details.)
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Snow. It was such a beautiful, entrancing thing to behold. It could mesmerize someone who had never seen it before. Children loved it. Adults…learned that snow meant a long season of cold. Dangers on ice. It could bury you, freeze you.
Snow was, like Winter Faeries, something that was better the less you saw it. Like a friend who was best experienced rarely. You could love them to death, but would rather you only did that once a year for a little bit.
If even that.
Snow was a killer. And it came in beautiful flakes at first, then in great clumps. Then it was so cold it drowned the world out, and you were left alone, without a flame of hope in it.
There were many ways to die. But the ways snow brought—freezing, starvation, burial—they were terrible ways. Snow was, then, a smiling [Thug] with a pleasant face and a hole instead of a heart.
It was something men and women were meant to fight against. Snow was a petty man lying in wait in back alleys that ganged up on you and deserved to be watched; for when he came in numbers, he had no mercy. He was a great foe because he was everywhere. And it was so hard to win and be everywhere.
The strong woman who laughed at snow melting on her skin in warmer climes forgot that in some places, it blanketed and suffocated. Snow was dangerous because it was in so many places and it preyed on the weak. In that sense—snow was a petty killer and deserved to take no lives.
An avalanche, a blizzard, was not an acceptable way for people to die, but one that was far harder to guard against. Snow—there was no excuse for someone dying to snow. There should not be. Not when it could be routed so easily, with effort, with care, with help and a bundle of firewood and enough flour to bake bread in an oven.
If it came through holes in the roof—that was not the fault of the person who had to guard against it. A thousand other weaknesses let snow drive in that final blow. But it could be stopped with just a few silver coins if it could be had. A small buckler of silver could halt the petty thug of snow, but getting that buckler, in some cases, was difficult.
Snow was, therefore, an analogy for income. If a few silver coins could drive it off, what of those who could not afford even those silver coins? Was that a fault of them or perhaps their incomes? The local economy that, yes, snow influenced? Laws? The end result when snow poured through your roof was the same as an actual thug waylaying you. But when snow arrived, it hinted at an underlying issue, like a poor Watch presence in a city.
Snow, in a sense—
—At this point, a huge foot kicked Ser Solton in the side, and the older [Knight] hit snow as he was booted from the rolling wagon. He landed, blankets and all, in the snow he was opining about before he got to his feet.
“I s-say, Miss! That’s quite—”
“If you keep talking about snow, I will drive off without you, [Knight]. Shut. Up. My head hurts, and I’m cold as shit.”
A woman barked at him, and Ser Solton hesitated. He was cold, nigh on frostbitten, and didn’t take kindly to kicks even if he was rested. He’d fought for his life last night against Frostmarrow Skeletons, a nasty type of undead, and his poor [Driver] had been killed.
In such circumstances, even the good-natured Haegris Knight would take umbrage with a kick. But the woman who had given the kick leaned over her upholstered seat, and she had a hold of a club.
She was also as heavy as Ser Solton was, armor and all, and not a lot of it was fat. She was a huge woman, and she had a scowl to match.
They called her Chaoisa, the Contempt of Man. At least, other [Drivers] did, and always under their breath and when she was definitely out of earshot.
She had two huge oxen lashed to her fairly infamous wagon, a heavy, steel-rolling monster that took heavy loads, rolled through [Bandits] and miserable swamps and bad weather, and stopped for no one and nothing.
She was an [Unstoppable Roller], a [Driver] whom you called on if the delivery had to get there, even if it meant arrows were flying or the sky was spitting up on you. And she did not care for Ser Solton’s analogies on snow.
Nor did she, apparently, care for charity because Ser Solton was going to get a bill for her taking the delivery over. His food and supplies for the village of Minarthe were lashed into the back where he had been sitting, and she’d informed him he was paying for the dead driver, her services as backup, and the overnight service.
The fact that anyone had come to pick him up after that blizzard, let alone a [Driver] who could make her way through chest-deep snow in places, made Solton unlikely to argue. As well as the distinct impression she could lay him out with the club she carried.
Chaoisa was not a woman you asked to drive you about, despite her level and vehicle. Even the oxen, both bulls, looked afraid of her and were storming ahead, steam rising from their flanks as they pushed on.
However—Chaoisa’s bad temper turned, of all things, into a saccharine smile as she addressed the other occupant of the wagon.
“Durene, how’s it going back there? You all right? Need more of ‘em blankets? They’re mostly what the bulls and horses use, but we’ve got plenty to spare. We’re bound two hours out from your spot. Tea?”
She even had tea in a huge canister she strapped to the wagon; enough for multiple refills. It was as bitter as sin, and she left bundles of tea leaves in there, which meant that by the time she was running out, the tea was pungent—and woke you up even if you were dead.
Durene had sipped half a cup, and Solton had managed two-thirds. The [Paladin] sat there and gave Chaoisa a smile.
“I’m warm, Miss Chaoisa. Thanks. I’m a big girl, so I don’t get cold.”
“Oh, you hush. Make sure your toes are warm. No one watches out for us large girls, and then you’ve got frostbite. There we are. Have more tea; it’s just a bit of boiled water, and I can always throw in another tea bag. Ser Knight, you back in yet?”
Solton got in the wagon, clutching at his side. He hadn’t healed all the way from last night’s fight, even with the potion Durene had given him. So Chaoisa’s kick really had been the spirit of…
He looked at her scowl and answered weakly.
“I shall desist from snow analogies, Miss Chaoisa.”
She got the wagon rumbling again without a word, and Solton shivered there for a bit.
What a thing.
Not just that Durene had saved his life in the snow. What a fight it had been! The two of them, laying around each other—then the sight of Chaoisa, hugging the embarrassed half-Troll girl as she literally ran over the last skeleton with her wheels!
The two were, apparently, acquainted, and it was to Solton’s great surprise that Durene seemed to be the one woman that Chaoisa would drive around. At a discount, no less!
“Your [Emperor]’s keen on getting you to safety. He’s saying he’ll send that precious [Cataphract] over to help—at least he knows to look out for you. Good fellow, is he? He seemed like a stuck up blind man, not an [Emperor]. But then, he was respectful, and if he likes you, he has good taste.”
Chaoisa’s famous contempt for almost everyone came out again, but she turned to Durene and smiled as Durene ducked her head.
“He knows to watch out for me, but he’s overprotective now I’m trying to do things myself.”
“Oh, that sort, is he? It’s either too protective or not at all! Well, well. Got a way snow’s like that, Knight?”
Solton had an analogy about snow just for Chaoisa and where she could shove the lot of it. He was cold, wet—but Durene whispered as she offered him a bite of a sandwich. It had horseradish in it, and it was big. He chewed and brightened up.
“I actually thought it was fascinating, Ser Solton. I didn’t know Haegris—‘scuse me, the Order of Haegris—thought about people like that. Needing money and such. I thought…it was the kind of thing only a [Farmer] or Laken would appreciate.”
“Ah, Miss Durene, you should hear my fellows argue. And ladies. There are ladies among our Order, but not as many as some. We’re not prejudiced! It’s just…we seem to attract fewer women.”
“Less women want to ride around throwing money and haggling while wearing a steel corset all day and tending to a nagging horse? I wonder why.”
Chaoisa shot back, but Durene just smiled.
“I liked what you said about a [Knight] swinging a bag of coins like a sword. Riverfarm’s had bad winters too. If someone had come by with just a bit of food…that’s why I liked Miss Erin’s idea so much. Laken says it’s all…American commercialism, but he doesn’t like Erin much, I think.”
“I have no idea about that—nation? But Miss Solstice believes in charity, which I take as a virtue, Miss Durene. Dame Durene, I should say, so excuse me.”
The half-Troll girl flushed beneath her grey skin.
“I’m not—Dame? I’m no fancy [Knight].”
Solton smiled as his shivering stopped, and he took another bite of the damn good sandwich. Farming communities had such high-quality food sometimes.
“I just had a conversation about this, you know. You are a [Paladin], Miss Durene? Such a rare class. If you are—then you are de-facto a [Knight], or at least, a type of one and therefore a Dame. And to insinuate otherwise is mere prevarication for reasons that are less than noble.”
He gave her a smile, and she looked flustered and delighted; even Chaoisa gave Solton a neutral grunt, which was practically a nod of approval.
Here they were, on the road, and Durene and Ser Solton were talking, well, about what it meant to be a [Knight] or to have a calling, nevermind Chaoisa’s comments and kicks. The half-Troll girl was waving at the winter landscape.
“There’s all kinds of monsters in the snow, even though I know you were making one of those analogies, Ser Solton. I’ve had to punch wolves, Snow Golems—so many Snow Golems—and those skeletons all winter.”
“And you’ve been doing deliveries on behalf of the Unseen Empire? All this time?”
“Yup. I used to go with a big group, but I decided to go alone to check things out. If someone needs supplies, I can clear the road and let them get there. But they don’t need me, and besides…”
Durene leaned over, and Solton leaned back a bit. She whispered in a carrying voice.
“—I want to do something myself, you know? Make a difference. I can’t do it if Laken gives me Beniar’s Darksky Riders and an army. Not that I want to fight that many undead alone! But I can. You see?”
She reminded him simultaneously of every young [Knight] he had ever met—and being unique. She was a farmgirl turned warrior, a cliché.
But she was a half-Troll girl too and fearsomely strong and tough. He had never actually talked with Dame Merila in private, but Solton was reminded of the other famously huge [Knight].
Mayhaps this is another legend being born on Izril. She’s shorter than Merila, but no less fearsome it seems!
“You’re working with an [Emperor], Dame Durene. That is a calling in itself, surely.”
“Oh, but he doesn’t want me to be his champion. Not that he gets fights. And he has an entire army under Wiskeria. And Griffon Hunt—I need to find my place. I’ve talked to Witch Hedag about it, and this is me—doing my thing. You should meet Witch Hedag, Chaoisa. You’ll like her.”
The [Driver] turned from sipping her tea.
“Is she the [Witch] with the axe? Another big woman—though she’s merciless, and I’m a sweet kitten compared to her.”
One snort and Ser Solton would have gotten another kick. He barely avoided another meeting with the snow as Chaoisa glared—and Durene exhaled.
“You’re a brave man, Ser Solton. I wouldn’t have done this delivery in the cold if I was your height.”
Solton hung his head, ashamed of her compliments for all they were genuine. That made it worse.
“A fool, Dame Durene. A fool. I got a good man killed—and the horses. And I nearly had my own head there too. I should have hired guards or gone with Ser Normen instead. The fact that my cause is just and my intentions good does not excuse failure. If it did, any fool of a [Knight] would be the best of us all. The Order of Haegris believes a [Knight] should be…sensible. And if we do more good demanding [Peasants] earn more than coppers for their work, so be it! I have often heard it said when we debate that Izril has a more egalitarian system without a full hierarchy of classes—but there is poverty, and the problems that come with it, everywhere.”
Durene propped her chin on her hands, fascinated.
“Well, what’s the answer, if there is any, Ser Solton?”
The [Knight] was only too keen to explain.
“Why, Miss Durene, it’s investment. Investment. Nobility and kingdoms do not often do it. They take a tithe, but do they put money into a road to keep it from decaying? Do they buy rarer cash crops for [Farmers] or keep banditry low? All these things factor into the amount of wealth an area generates. It costs more to deal with a flood bursting a dam than a few gold coins to shore up the dam every year, but that’s the first thing a local [Baron] cuts when he wants more gold for an artifact or his army. We believe that wealth is more than the gold you have in your pockets. So, yes, we often give goods or provide help to places that need it. But to use our logic—isn’t it better to give a handful of grain seed ahead of time instead of a wagonload when bellies are empty? As for issues of banditry…”
Chaoisa groaned, but Durene listened with great interest as someone who would have loved the Order of Haegris as a girl. And the [Paladin] and Ser Solton were there. In the snow.
And so was the Order of Solstice. It seemed, on this sunny day, that miracles could exist. That valor was real and stories came true. But what so many forgot was that if this were true—nightmares could also walk under the sun.
A great change was coming to Izril. Things were going to be different, forevermore. What a time to be alive, eh?
The turning of an age.
That was what they said, but it sounded the same. And if you were old enough—you might think.
…Didn’t I hear this twenty years ago?
Didn’t someone tell me that my generation would be the one that would change it all, do it all? We’d be the ones to bring about that new age.
Things are going to be different when we’re in charge. And what those bastards were probably thinking, behind their false, encouraging smiles, was that they’d heard that exact same thing.
Make no mistake. Make no mistake.
The world was going to change—but it was also going to stay the same in all the large parts. Maybe a lot of people would die. Maybe there would be [Heroes] again. Perhaps nations would vanish, and yes, even the maps would be redrawn.
But there would always be men like Korizan Reeles. There would always be shadows under the brightest sun. Someday, there would be another Goblin King. Another great Creler War. Another period of darkness and another rise.
The trick was not to ‘enjoy the moment’. The [Bandit Lord] of northern Izril was a pragmatic man in his own estimation. He cared nothing for short-lived glory or the notion that goodness was its own reward.
He just wanted to be on the side that always won, even in times of calamity. Even if everyone lost, they took less of the loss, got to divide it up, pass it off. And when it came time for the pot—they took the lion’s share.
That was, of course, the nobility, the monarchy, the well-connected, or just the well-to-do. Sometimes it was the magic-users or a specific species, but it was almost always about money and influence in the right place.
If a [Bandit King] emerged, they’d need vassals, and the existence of a king implied a kingdom of riches. Korizan wanted a share, and if the seat looked nice enough, he’d take it too, if he could.
—But he just wanted to live comfortably. To reach out and drink anything he thirsted for. To buy anything and anyone. Power was, after all, freedom from consequences. He wanted to walk under the eyes of the law and have them conveniently go blind.
That was how he’d come up with the Bloodfeast Raiders. Because they got it, they truly did, those worthless sons and daughters he took in like a third parent, their real father, and turned into killers.
They got that rules were a convenient illusion that held things together—but which you could break.
They got that they could do anything, and doing anything was so fun—but being caught would mean the end of it all for them.
Most importantly—they got how worthless they were without him. Because they had artifacts and levels, but he had style, organization, planning, and imagination. Qualities they lacked, and he made them better and let them level, truly level, and discover their talent for death.
And just in case they thought they could go it alone…
Once you were in the Raiders, you were in for life. All these things meant that Korizan was ready for this turning of the age, this new-and-not-new moment in the world’s destiny. If he’d had twenty years, well, he might be too old, but he would have had two generations of Izril’s nobles in his debt.
This one would do. He put on a fur-lined hood and felt the cold of the morning in his bones as they left the hidden cabin. Flame spells were melting the ice, and half were already ranging ahead.
No one was allowed to get within twenty miles of the village before he moved. They waited, impatiently jostling, flirting, boasting, and trading threats and loud laughs. But they moved around him.
That—was how it always would be, Korizan knew. A strong man leading. Followers behind. He exhaled into the sky and wondered if they had anything good to drink. Then he steeled his impartial face into the hint of a smile.
“Ready for the feast, children?”
They cheered with all the enthusiasm he lacked. Korizan watched a Drake punch a fist into the air and thought Salkis looked less enthused than normal. He watched her carefully without letting her know, but he put on a show.
It was, after all, all for them.
You had to make the [Lords] and [Ladies] of both north and south Izril feel like they mattered. It didn’t matter if they were a Drake from one of the Walled Families or a son of a noble Human house.
They were alike. They stood in the shadows of their parents, often low-levelled, and the ones who found him wanted to do things they were not allowed to anymore. Even a generation ago, the rules had been different.
You had—liberties. Things you could do in private that the Watch knew better than to investigate. It was harder for Drakes, but a real switch had come, oh, with the passing of the torch.
Magnolia Reinhart, the Deadly Flower, had made life harder for the nobility. She had—rules. Break the rules and she couldn’t kill you—at least, not for a minor infraction. She was just one woman, even if she ruled House Reinhart. But she could pay you back.
Break the rules and she broke your fingers. Go against her? Well, they’d tried that, and she’d shown the flowers of Izril she could prune them wholesale. She was nicer now, and there were less of them after the Goblin King.
Yet all this meant that it was hard to indulge. Of course, all but the most insane just wanted to know what power felt like. It was Korizan’s job to make sure that as they indulged in dark delights, they not only slipped, but were pushed so far down they’d never emerge clean again.
—Which was why you worked with Roshal, obviously. No one but they knew the job well enough. And Korizan’s gang, his real gang, not the young Bloodfeast Raiders, were experts too.
“Vendyne. Where’s Lord Veltras at?”
A man turned with a long, purplish shortsword in his grip. It was wickedly edged in an artistic design reminiscent of an insect’s fang, and some might have taken it for a showpiece, not one worth using. But those idiots had never seen something made of Orichalcum before.
He was a [Masterwork Sellsword of Corruption]. Level 42. Not the best class—but good enough. He was one of the first and practically a ruler in his own right. That was what loyalty got you, and Korizan made sure everyone knew why Vendyne had his position.
What you could see of the man’s face behind the mask he wore was a lot of scars on his forehead, raised flesh between his messy black hair. Straight, vertical lines—scars from him drawing his own blood with a little razor blade before a fight.
A mask of blood made most warriors hesitate. Of course, it was from their days at sea. The Bloodtear Pirates had long since disavowed both men, and if Korizan ever went back to sea, he was fairly certain they’d try their best to hunt him down.
They had ‘rules’, however few. He did not, and he’d objected to the stupid rules they had. Mercy for prisoners they liked? Don’t slaughter innocents?
No one was innocent long.
“Veltras is doing those deliveries. Hat and all. He’s got to be at least eighty miles from Invrisil even riding around.”
“Want to know where the Wind Runner is? Named-ranks? Ruinstrider’s at the Haven, and Arcsinger is apparently putting together a team. They could make it. Maybe. There’s also Shriekblade…”
“Forget about them. Arcsinger only hunts Goblins. Ruinstrider? If that’s all, we’ll be fine. Shriekblade is either suicidal or she knows it’s suicide. We have an arrow ready for any of them if they’re fools. Alright, start passing around the Selrite and get the spells going.”
This was a more dangerous raid. But he only really worried about the man who could bring an army at him. A single, untested Named-rank? Maybe that was a threat for someone else—
But not the fourteen men and women of various species that surrounded Korizan, let alone the forty-some others practically jumping to clear the ridge. Some were taking packets of bright red dust out and sniffing at them or drinking tonics or just battle potions.
Korizan’s inner circle ignored the merrymaking save to make sure none of the others would start attacking their side. They looked almost as bored as Korizan felt.
This was actually the most tedious part of the job. The part the Raiders loved, their leader didn’t care about. They were just going to erase a village.
If it was even close to a fair fight—he wouldn’t have been here.
Winds began to rise on the clear day, and Korizan glanced up at the skies. It had been blizzards for two days straight, and he’d cursed the idiots combining weather spells. Sitting in that cabin with them getting antsier and antsier was not entertaining. The weather was calm, and bright sunlight was glaring off the thick snow—even the roads were covered.
Hard for anyone to get around. Except us. Now, a wind was picking up again; it was no gust, but a thunderous gale. And where the skies had been bright blue…a dark shadow crept through the air like a spreading stain.
The strangest cloud in the world. The Raiders looked up eagerly and began laughing. Below—that village of a few hundred souls might look up and wonder if it was a spell or, perhaps, feel a prickle of true terror as they sensed what was going on. Maybe someone would, on a hunch, go for a hidden sword or pack up a few valuables. But it was too late.
“Children. When we clear this ridge, you’re going to stand there for ten minutes.”
“Ten fucking minutes? Boss—”
Someone—Gilam—began to protest, and Vendyne struck his arm. Hard. The young [Lord] nearly drew his sword, but simmered down. Korizan continued as if he hadn’t heard.
“Today’s a special day for all of you. Because you finally get your wish. You’re going to stand there and pose for the scrying spell. Check your masks. If any of you have a signature way of speaking or an artifact you haven’t told us about, you’d better hide it. Because if you’re found out, you’ll be dead before anyone asks questions.”
There was a moment of silence—then someone gasped, and there was a flurry as they felt at their masks. A Drake unsheathed his sword, and their resident [Spearmaster] lifted his spear with a whoop.
“Wait—we’re getting on the news? This is live?”
“From start to finish. Vendyne. Slip Sir Relz a tip…now. Enjoy the moment, children. And remember—your fellow Raiders are going to be watching. So put on a show. And don’t act stupid. Remember how we’re playing this one.”
Now they really began whooping—then lowered their voices. They spread out over the ridgeline, and Korizan yawned as he stared at the sky.
[Nightclouds]. They were roiling over the village. Another part of the ‘raid’.
He always gave them rules to follow. This one was fanciful, stupid, even. But it was dramatic, and they loved it because it was a show. Anyone could slaughter, but this was the kind of thing that provoked the mind.
Everything below those clouds was falling into darkness. A deep, unsettling darkness with virtually no light. Now they were passing over this little village, a hamlet in the center of the plains. What it grew, he had no idea. It probably raised herds. He did know it had two people over Level 30. They were marked. Maybe they’d put up a good fight, but…
There were sixty figures now spread out across the ridge in dark clothing. Not always black; Salkis was wearing a red mask and clothing as crimson as blood, only one dagger in her claw, and not her custom-made ones. She must have been trying to hide her identity. The idiot had fought with the Titan?
Just as well that he was gone. Besides, they were all able to avoid detection and identification no matter what spells came down on them. That was Korizan’s doing.
He was, after all, a [Bandit Lord]. And one of his great Skills was [Never Known, Never Remembered: A Crew of Masks].
He was a Level 52 [Bandit Lord of Scarlet Nobility]. Sometimes he felt like he was truer to the heritage of Izril than anyone else. Korizan stared up as shadows fell over the village, and he heard a warning horn, possibly from the [Shepherds], being blown.
Too late, too late. He raised his gloved hand, and figures leapt over the top of the ridgeline as he sensed a [Scrying] spell activate. But they’d need time to put this on television and work out what was going on.
He stared down at a village in the snow, roofs crusted with powder and people running, pointing up at the sky—then at his group as herds of sheep ran towards a barn. The streets were emptying, and he saw men and women and children briefly—but his eyes flicked over their thick woolen clothing, ignoring the screaming.
He finally found his targets: a woman stringing a bow as she urged a group of people towards the barn and a man shouting, waving his hands and pointing at them.
[Master Shepherd]. Level 33. And…a [Village Mayor], Level 36. Interesting.
No wonder this hamlet was bigger than most and everyone was fleeing so fast. There was even a militia gathering with commendable speed.
“Mark the [Shepherd]. No one kills her. No limbs, either.”
Vendyne glanced over.
“Not the [Mayor]?”
“Roshal likes artisans. Mayors aren’t that useful.”
That militia was armed with bows, spears, the kind of thing they’d use to keep wolves or monsters at bay. They even had a few low-power wands, and the [Shepherd] was making Korizan’s nerves tingle. She probably had a bow or Skills that could reach the Raiders from there.
In fact, she fired a single arrow, and it arced towards the silent figures. Someone laughed. Korizan saw it was heading for Salkis. She actually let it come within a foot of her before she leaned at incredible speed and slashed it apart.
The second arrow struck its target as they stood there. But it just shattered on the chainmail armor of one of the other Raiders. The young man with a spear waved down at the [Shepherd], and she lowered her bow.
Now, the nightclouds were overhead. And the militia, preparing for the attack, looked up as the darkness engulfed their hamlet.
What was its name…? Korizan picked at something in his teeth as darkness fell. He glanced behind him and nodded.
“Someone do the timing. Let’s call it—every five minutes, a minute off.”
“Five minutes between waits?”
“Good point. Make it a minute of darkness, two minutes of light. Children, the most kills gets their pick of pastimes back home. Kill the [Shepherd] and you’ll be exiled to the main room for two months!”
More laughter. Now it was a game. Some of them were waving up at the sky or producing scrying orbs.
“Boss, we’re on air! Look at Sir Relz! He’s practically choking on his monocle.”
One of them excitedly showed Korizan the image, and his first genuine smile appeared. This did make it more fun. But his sense of wariness also increased.
Now let’s see what happens. This village—Salefenwool, that was it. East of Celum, just below the High Passes. The damn storm had delayed everything—but then Korizan lifted his gloved hand, and the screaming began before he swung it down.
“Let the feast begin.”
The Bloodfeast Raiders were a nasty group, even objectively. They were Izril’s little plague and not nearly as bad as the Antinium, Goblin Lords, or most of the major threats to the continent.
Purely based on numbers, they didn’t kill that many. They probably did as much damage as a small Drake war per year, famous for surrenders and their code of battle.
What set them apart was how they did it. They found easy targets and wiped them out. They killed, tortured, took slaves…the fear of them was far worse than mere numbers indicated.
Therrium Sailwinds knew of worse groups by far, at sea and on land. The Bloodtear Pirates, whose own members had created the Bloodfeast Raiders, were entire armadas of [Pirates] who could sink a fleet. There were more dangerous cults in Baleros’ jungles, larger organizations.
The Black Judgement of Chandrar—now there was a group that had wiped out entire cities and bloodlines before the King of Destruction had put them to the sword. He wasn’t as familiar with Terandria, but some of those kingdoms got up to—tricks.
Yet the Raiders were showoffs, and the scrying orb was showing him an uncensored image of slaughter. So the Drowned Man grimaced as he watched.
“We—I am asking anyone who is young or—to avert their eyes. Should we cut the broadcast? We—have to see—”
The Drake, Sir Relz, was floundering as he watched. Wavering between cutting the images and sound and reporting on the news.
Therrium suspected that the fact the Raiders had been posing for the scrying spell meant they wanted to be seen, so he would have cut the spell. But Wistram did not.
The [Captain] of The Passing Shadow, one of the famous ships among the Drowned Folk, got up and paced his swaying cabin. He was restless. Not just because rain was pouring down and he was anchored wrongside—that was, floating on the waves rather than under them—but because he was waiting for guests.
The sight of the Raiders sacking the hamlet was not helping his mood. He’d been on both ends of a slaughter, and this one was completely one-sided.
The Bloodfeast Raiders set the houses on fire in their first charge down the hill. The hamlet had been doing its best. Someone clever had put archers in windows, hidden warriors in buildings ready to come out and flank the Raiders. There were hundreds of villagers; they might be able to surround and overwhelm the Raiders.
But the first [Fireball] punching through a window and exploding the roof off a house showed Therrium there was no chance. One Raider swooping down on a flying carpet of all things took an arrow to the shoulder. It didn’t even pierce whatever armor he had, then he was leaping off, cutting the arms off one of the [Archers] before beheading another with a whoop—
“Nasty. Who are those bastards? Friends of yours, Therrium? Wait, this is the news. Chandrar? That’s a flying carpet, so that’s my guess.”
Therrium jumped and nearly drew a wand. He turned—and Rasea Zecrew stood in the cabin’s door way. Water was dripping from her hat and garments, but they were waterproofed, and she stomped into his cabin.
Her anglerfish side was a toothy grin. Her yellow eye in its socket glowed, and her Human one was alight with mirth as she met his gaze. Therrium forced his hand away from his side.
“Captain Zecrew. Welcome aboard. I would have given you a proper welcome, but—the news. It’s Bloodfeast Raiders. Izril.”
Rasea’s eyes swung to the orb and widened.
“I thought no one saw them.”
“No one knows who they are. They’re showing off. Wiping out a poor village.”
“Anywhere in the south by the coast? I always wanted to know what they were made of.”
Rasea’s eyes shone brighter, and Therrium glanced at the orb himself. Now that would be a thought. But they were far enough from Izril’s new coastline, let alone the old one…
“…No. North of the High Passes.”
“Damn. That would have gotten us all in the same bed. Hoi, Captain Jiupe! Get in here! You’re not going to like this. Is—ah. Both of you made it.”
A commotion outside. Therrium turned his head, but he felt the presence of the other two [Captains] before they entered his cabin. He was no man of auras, but each [Captain] and their ship was a unique thing.
Rasea was that spirit of reckless adventure. Even being near Therrium, she made him want to draw his sword and lock blades as they had at sea with the Titan’s [Strategists]. She was a light in dark seas, wild, honorable for a given sense of a [Pirate]’s honor, and her crew was as fearless and tough as her ship, the Illuminary.
By contrast—the other [Pirate] who came into the cabin smelled of blood. She felt like blood, red skies, and a wave coming at Therrium. Her crew and ship were that of no quarter. Captain Jiupe and the Bloodtear Pirates were killers on deck, and they made his skin crawl.
But even they had a code of conduct, though they’d stab you through the eyes if you made them mad. The Bloodtear Pirates had sent only one ship ahead of their armada.
Even so, the Jellyfish Woman had known what was going on before she saw the scrying orb—and the instant she saw it, she spat, and venomous spittle ran from the side of the orb.
“Bloodfeast traitors. Korizan’s mockery. Where are they? Close by coast?”
“North of the High Passes inland. Welcome, Jiupe. Should I turn it off?”
Therrium repeated himself. The Captain glared—but moderated her glare as she met his eyes.
“Drowned Captain. I’ll watch—and you have my thanks for putting me on your deck. Here.”
She slammed something on the table so hard the bottle of wine nearly broke—and Rasea placed another bottle herself. This was just a little formality, and Therrium gestured at some cups. He had a bottle too, some brandy he liked from Balerosian ports. All three bottles might be consumed before the meeting was over. Therrium spoke briskly.
“Pour a drink, Jiupe. Before you break something valuable.”
She grabbed a cup, glaring, and Rasea and Therrium let her busy herself without crowding around. Screamtouch Jiupe, famous for her poisonous jellyfish tendrils, was a threat even to them if she brushed their skin.
Especially because healing potions were so dear. Which was a huge problem with Nombernaught’s venture and Therrium’s own enterprises. He wouldn’t even have been here if—
“In the past, Captains, it was a courtesy to wait until all the bottles had been placed together and pour a drink mixed from each one. I suppose those days are gone. The swill was always foulest when you mixed wine with ale and whiskey.”
The fourth and final [Captain] to enter the cabin was the worst of the other three, to Therrium. Even if Jiupe was blood in the water with sharks abounding and Rasea was a challenge on deck…
The last person was like a crawling sensation on your spine at midnight. A scuttling in your hold. He was a handsome man…or had been, but his cloak revealed a face altered far, far too much by his passions.
The Alchemist Irurx and his ship were so close in the water that Therrium’s skin crawled. He’d ordered Irurx let aboard—and no one else.
I’ll have the hulls scrubbed, inside and out. But what the [Drowned Captain] did was nod.
He even stuck out his Human hand, which could spark with electricity. His eel-side could deliver a jolt that could stop your heart, and his good eye, green like kelp, sparked with electricity when he was angry or passionate.
But Therrium reminded many of a statesman with his old doublet, worn velvet and faded brass buttons. He looked like an old [Lord] of Terandria, but the faded cloth and ancient style gave him the look of what he was—a Drowned [Captain], aristocracy of a different kind.
—Of course, Therrium deliberately had his [Tailors] find him clothing and even age it to give that old look as if it had been salvaged from a shipwreck. The faded brass was actually de-buffed with a cloth, and the entire ensemble was very comfortable.
Captains at sea had to have style. Each one was adorned in considerably more thought-out ensembles than their landfolk counterparts. Rasea had the classic vest, high boots, and jaunty hat of a [Swashbuckler] Captain.
Jiupe’s armored clothing was red, stained like blood, but definitely dyed, and she had a few tears in the cloth that had to be deliberate, as if she’d strode out of a fight.
Irurx…well, when he removed his robes and hood, they revealed burn scars all over his face and body. He had soot-marks in his hair, reddish eyes—all products of nearly being burned at the stake a long, long time ago.
In place of his alchemical robes, though, was a more modern dress, a skirt hanging from an entire ensemble in black with bandages wrapped around his hands and a full alchemical belt at his waist.
But what made him really stand out were the sigils lining his black clothing, which were…flags. Flags and nations and, Therrium realized, the emblems of each ship he had downed while crewing Shifthold, one of the legendary ships of the sea.
All of the four [Captains] represented their own kind of legend, but Irurx’s was the oldest. The pedigree of The Passing Shadow was older than Therrium, and he respected the ship he had won from its previous master. But Irurx was Shifthold.
In this moment, in this place, even the other three proud [Captains] gave him his due. Not least because he’d called this meeting. Therrium was merely the most neutral ground; he was respected and trustworthy, for a pirate.
Rasea’s ship was erratic, and her ship had less amenities. Bloodtear could throw a grand party, but they had an entire armada and could be—unpredictable with their grudges. No one would eat anything or step onto Shifthold if they had a chance.
Hence, here and him. Therrium gestured at the orb.
“Have you seen?”
Irurx raised his brows as his eyes settled on the orb.
“Bloodfeast. I remember when Korizan was said to be the next [Blood Admiral] of a fleet. I remember—”
A growl from Jiupe made Irurx pause, and the Drowned Woman drained a cup of the wine he’d brought to the table and drank another.
“Apologies. I forget the grudge is ongoing. It is an old one. Even for me.”
“You don’t—deal with Bloodfeast, do you, Alchemist?”
There was an edge in Jiupe’s voice, and Therrium cursed. This was not how he wanted the meeting to go.
“We’re on neutral footing here, Jiupe—”
“Nothing’s neutral about traitors. What’s my answer?”
Irurx didn’t look intimidated as Rasea sipped from Therrium’s brandy and then poured a full cup. He just raised his brows.
“Everyone has been a client of mine at one point, Captain Jiupe. Especially if they have few other recourses. If you are asking if I favor or help Korizan—no. My wares have found him by proxy, never in person. He is quite wary of the sea.”
“I don’t like that answer. Not sure the admirals will, either.”
Her oozing half of her face, jellyfish, stirred with her anger. Irurx was equal to the threat, though.
“We are here to negotiate, Captain Jiupe. A stipulation of your agreement could be…cessation of all aid even by proxy to the Bloodfeast Raiders. I would agree to that and force my buyers into compliance. I am sure it would interfere with Korizan’s dealings.”
She hesitated, and Therrium finally took a sip of Irurx’s wine. He grimaced.
Dead gods, the half-Elf was crafty and persuasive and his wine was delicious. He’d expect no less from one of the greatest [Alchemists] in the world, though.
“To business. Should I turn the orb off? It’s…not exactly entertaining. Bloodfeast has no class, even if they’re known.”
The slaughter, even from a remove, really was just brutality. And none of the [Captains] here had to pretend they knew the business. Irurx lifted a hand to show he didn’t care, and Rasea shrugged.
“I’m no fan of theirs. Jiupe?”
“Leave it on.”
So they did. Smoke was rising, and Sir Relz was trying to talk to…Therrium glanced once at the orb and decided it was unlikely any adventurer would rouse themselves to try and stop so many Raiders. It was too far, too quick—and this was familiar to him, even if it was the first time it was broadcast in its entirety.
Izril’s nobility had never stopped the Raiders before.
The talk between the [Captains] was quicker once the orb was muted and playing in the background. They drank, made light talk, and spoke of the news first before getting to business over a hand of cards.
With high stakes. Therrium tossed two cut emeralds into a golden bowl. They rang slightly as he peeked at his cards. Two Archmages. Not a bad hand.
“I’ve heard the Iron Vanguard’s moving from Baleros. Has anyone sailed those waters? I’ve been occupied with Nombernaught as most Drowned Ships are. And the Krakens are moving. Not a time to try the deep oceans.”
“I visited my sister. No luck here.”
Rasea folded. Daring as she was on deck, she was a surprisingly conservative gambler, and she sighed as her two silver-and-pearl earrings were lost.
The pot held no gold in it. Only jewels or other trinkets. That made it fun. Irurx tossed in a vial.
“That would be a raise. I have inquired—you would do well to stay away. The Krakenbane Destroyers are escorting their fleets. To say nothing of Rhir’s forces.”
All the other [Captains] paused. Even Jiupe looked up.
“Now there’s an army at sea. They must be wary.”
Therrium’s smile was twisted as he gave Irurx a nod of thanks.
“Of actual Krakens, for once. I’ll tell ships to stay clear—not that they wouldn’t. Has the Death of Magic attacked Rhir at sea again?”
“No…at least not the second fleet. The first one had troubles.”
Irurx’s eye glinted as Jiupe paused in the act of inserting a fat Flashwing feather into the cup along with placing a bottle of syrup next to the pot. She frowned at Irurx’s vial.
“Look who knows what sails above and below the sea. Are you sure that vial is a raise?”
“It’s just a fun hand. Come off it, Jiupe.”
Therrium muttered as they all tossed in their unwanted cards. He pulled out a third Archmage and kept his face straight. Aha.
“The vial is called the Scent of Soaria. Aphrodisiac. It’s highly sought after.”
“No. Just arousing. Very well received. It will go for quite a number of gold coins, and it is a significant hit regardless of species. I’ve yet to meet a disappointed customer. The feather is quite nice, but does the syrup…match the pot?”
All the other [Captains] peered at the vial, and Jiupe pointed at the syrup.
“That’s Yellowpopple Apple syrup. It’s good stuff.”
“…I put two emeralds in. They’re beautiful.”
Jiupe now had to defend her ante before they put their cards in. She glared at Therrium.
“That’s just jewels. This is taste. Here—hey, get a cut of that pork roast we had with the syrup on it! It’s a day old, but you should taste it. And that was the marinade.”
Nothing would do but for everyone to wait fifteen minutes while a cut of some old roast was presented. Therrium took a bite, expecting a sweet mess—but his eyebrows shot up.
“That is good.”
Irurx agreed after tasting as well.
“I will take it. Bloodtear Pirates were always good cooks. I forgot they are the rare exception—which was why I refused to dine on Captain Rasea’s vessel.”
Rasea looked pained as she turned to Jiupe.
“I will need the recipe. And do you have more syrup?”
“Well, I’ll put it back in the next hand if we play it. Two pairs!”
Jiupe slapped down her cards, laughing. Irurx sighed as he revealed two [Kings] and almost a flush of moons, one of the suits. Therrium took the bottle of syrup and perfume.
“Excellent. Three Archmages.”
“You bastard. I’ll trade you a second bottle of syrup for the perfume.”
They were so relaxed. Only Rasea even glanced at the Raiders’ attack with anything like concern for the people. Jiupe disliked it all, but her wrath was greater than any sympathy.
“Oh. They’ve stopped. Look. It’s gone dark.”
Everyone turned, and Therrium saw the skies over the hamlet had turned black. He recognized the spell vaguely—but the village was silent. He didn’t see any magical fire…and was uncertain why the Bloodfeast Raiders had stopped. They could surely see.
Ah. When the darkness suddenly cleared, it revealed a group of people in the streets, many without weapons, trying to flee, or save each other, or…
The survivors were trying to hide in the darkness or creep away. When the light resumed, the villagers froze and looked around. And what they saw was—
The Raiders were gone. In their place, two women stared at each other. Both were white-faced, with identical cuts on their arms, the same clothing. They began shouting as duplicates…duplicates pointed and claimed the other was fake.
A father was shouting at his family from one side of the street, and the terrified trio were backing away from the same man, walking towards them with arms outstretched.
Desperate looks on both faces. Identical—except for when one grinned, unable to keep the look of glee off the copy of their face. Then—even Captain Therrium’s eyes darkened. Now that was filth.
“I have sworn to kill Korizan some day. He hides well, but if we ever find where he lurks, we’ll walk onto land, we [Captains] of the Bloodtear Armadas. No matter if it takes multiple armadas or we have to attack First Landing itself. But I will touch him before his end.”
Captain Jiupe sounded calm in the silence, and she flexed that jellyfish hand of hers. Poison dripped onto the floorboards, and Therrium decided everything needed to be cleaned—twice.
But then every eye fell on Irurx—because if the Raiders were one kind of misery incarnate, playing a game with lives and desperation as the clouds rolled over and the killing in the dark began—then stopped as the lights came on, a show of their true nature to the world—
That man who sat across from them all was an older legend still. And perhaps—worse.
Irurx sipped from his cup quietly.
“A fine brandy, Captain Therrium. And a disgraceful way to taunt those poor folk. I have seen far worse done—but I see no point in it. Unless, of course, it were my people there. Then, with respect to your sensibilities, I would not bat an eye.”
He took another sip from his cup.
“…Shall we get to business?”
Niceties were done and unlikely to return. Therrium spoke first. Rasea did not seem inclined, and Jiupe was silent. Bloodtear Pirates did have a code. But he had called them here.
“I came to listen, Alchemist Irurx. But I’m unlikely to agree. I have my own…tasks in the near future. In fact, I may make an offer like yours. With no rewards—but I will ask.”
He glanced at Jiupe and Rasea, and both stirred with interest and suspicion. Especially Rasea, who was not a friend of Therrium. Irurx exhaled.
“I would have appreciated your absence, Captain Therrium, despite the welcome. I dislike bidding wars.”
“The underseas know no fair fights, Alchemist. But perhaps you can buy us all.”
“It had better be a price to command an entire Armada. We have work to do. And your target…”
Jiupe paused. No one had asked which one, but there was only one reason you asked three other legends of the sea to join you. Irurx calmly shrugged, then rose to his feet slowly. He stared out the porthole window of Therrium’s cabin at the pouring rain.
Rain, this far south, rarely snow. It warmed as you got closer to Chandrar, and although this might be freezing rain…his voice was soft as he spoke, staring out the window. But intense, and it put a crawl on Therrium’s spine, for he had met Irurx before and seldom heard this—passion.
“My enmity is with few. Very few. Those I call enemies at sea or land—I have often dealt with or accepted my grievances as a matter for time to deal with. But the days change, and I have seen my chances and taken them. Unfortunately—things have gotten more difficult.”
How many ships had he sunk this month alone? Three? Therrium saw Irurx glance over.
“I am not making a light offer to Bloodtear, who I must have. The Drowned Fleets would be another welcome ally, and Captain Rasea has never fled a great battle. This will be one of history.”
Therrium shook his head.
“The odds don’t appeal to me. Even if we win, we will all be marked. You can claim levels or salvage, but there’s no salvaging ships in the middle of a war. And it will be a war.”
“The deed for your gain appeals to me little. That fight—we pick ours as we may, but you had better have a fortune to command a Blood Fleet.”
Jiupe warned Irurx as well. In reply, the [Alchemist] produced something and set it on the table.
“How would four thousand healing potions do? As payment in advance.”
Therrium thought he’d gone deaf for a second. He stared at the glowing bottle on the table and reached for it, but Rasea got to it first. She eyed the bottle, uncorked it, took one sniff, and blinked.
“That’s not bad. That’s…above mid-grade.”
“I could not make anything less at my level. Half now. Half upon receipt.”
Eight thousand—Rasea and Therrium’s eyes swung towards each other, and they almost recoiled. In these days of lacking potions—!
“You mean for Bloodtear.”
Jiupe sat forwards, suddenly very interested by Irurx’s offer. The [Alchemist] nodded equitably.
“I would have to offer far less to the Illuminary, and Captain Therrium’s price is to be negotiated. But for Bloodtear—I think that would appease, wouldn’t it?”
For the most active [Pirate] group at sea that took wounds left and right? When potions were virtually unbuyable with the Eir Kelp Island…?
“How do you have so many? Alchemist or not, that’s an insane amount.”
In reply, Irurx just smiled calmly.
“Captain Therrium. I am the [Alchemist] of the seas. I have every potion, and I can make those that other, lesser [Alchemists] like Saliss of Lights can only dream of. When I caught wind of the shortage, I bought all the remaining Eir Gel or acquired what I could. These are my potions. And I will spend a fortune of fortunes if I must. Money is no object. Captain Jiupe?”
“I…need to speak to the other [Captains] and our [Admiral]. But you have our interest. The payment is good. But is the cause?”
The Bloodtear’s Captain looked troubled. Irurx just sat there. He gave her a slight smile, but his eyes were—writhing now. Writhing with that rage that he never really lost. The mask…the Alchemist of Shifthold had many masks.
But his true face was always there. That burned flesh. His voice rose slightly.
“The cause? Captain Therrium, you speak of salvage and profits. I admit—I cannot pay you enough to make this a wholesale net gain. But think on the deed. You may not see it, but can Bloodtear not? I have simply chosen the target. Yet the Bloodtear Pirates have never even tasted glory half as rich as what I am offering to pay you for.”
Jiupe rose, eye flashing.
Irurx looked at her, and his flesh crawled. Jiupe froze as Therrium’s [Dangersense] rang—he and Rasea were too-still, waiting. Irurx’s voice dropped an octave.
“I am offering you a war the likes of which will shake the seas, Jiupe! Do you think Rasea’s little skirmish with Khelt mattered? The Meeting of Tribes was a bloody war on land. This will be the greatest engagement at sea. The arrogance of Terandria sails south. Shifthold will break them and send them under bloody tides. Two navies of Bloodtear will be enough. The only question is—who else has the daring to humble a continent?”
He turned his gaze, and Therrium felt his blood running cold in his fish-half. Yet it stirred. If he did not have his own pledge of vengeance…he looked at Rasea and saw Irurx’s wild eyes.
How many [Captains] had he approached before this last meeting? Jiupe’s own gaze was aflame. Despite her distaste—Irurx was dragging her towards him like a whirlpool of hate. But what called her was the blood. She licked her lips.
“I hear your case, Irurx. I forgot you were a man that sometimes inspired even us. We may speak on that traitor, but—can I show them this? Are all your potions this good?”
She lifted a hand, and Irurx’s gaze cleared for a second. He smiled, passed a hand over his face, and his expression calmed as it blocked his expression. The mask was back, and he gave her the smile of an artisan.
“This or better. Captain Rasea? Captain Therrium?”
He turned, and neither [Captain] was fooled.
The Drowned Captain had to think, despite his own imminent tasks. This…he met Rasea’s eyes as he rose.
What Irurx wanted was madness, of course, but the [Alchemist] was mad. You could see it in his eyes.
Woe to his enemies. Woe to the foes of Shifthold. And now blood was in the water and…
Therrium exhaled. Then he glanced at the scrying orb. For there was darkness. False light and false hope as that village was mocked by the Raiders.
And oh…he saw a green flame, and Rasea’s smile was that of someone watching a friend dancing on the way to the noose. A proud, bright smile like death.
For a second even in darkness—there was always a spark.
The first thing the [Knight] thought, when he saw her face and heard the odd note in the [Innkeeper]’s tone, was—
‘Ah. At last.’
He had been feeling so wretchedly good and proud that he had felt it was an illusion. Even when they cheered him, even with magical flame in his breast, there was always a part of Normen waiting.
It was the tiny part of him that counted his sins and held them up to candlelight at night to inspect, all the dark things he’d take to his grave and held under his hat.
The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were not good men. They just pretended to be. But they never said it. Good fellows. Men of style and hats.
But never good men.
He had seen it—on dark nights when you watched life draining out of someone’s eyes. Had Erin known?
Surely she had. She must have known the man she chose to be a [Knight] had listened to more final breaths and last, whispered words than most monsters that adventurers hunted down. And she had looked into his soul and, he thought, still given him a second chance.
Not to be redeemed, not ever. But to try.
That was what called every Brother like him to her banner and inn.
—But he had been waiting, and in that cold night, facing Snow Golems, he had thought he might die and been ready. Yet fate had waited for him to relax and be lulled by saving that girl’s life, helping a village. Now it hit him, and it came as they were leaving the village of Rheirgest.
“Everyone. Normen—there you are. Where are you? Leaving Rheirgest?”
“Miss Solstice? Is everything okay? Is my team…?”
Jewel sat up. The odd band of people dozing in the carriage on the ride back looked up as Erin appeared.
Zanze, the driver, held the reins to Sillias as the cat and two undead horses pulled the wagon. Ama watched, ready to intervene if he so much as scratched her beloved cat. Antherr read one of the spellbooks that the people of Rheirgest had given them while scratching his head. Then there was Jewel, who had been napping with an adventurer’s repose next to Vess, who was calibrating a piece of glass, a sight, on his wand.
Normen had been checking his armor for scrapes and dings. But when she appeared, standing—he knew something was wrong. So did they all.
Erin sounded—there was a note of tension that made Normen reach for his mace.
“Miss Solstice? Is it monsters?”
“I—no. No. You’re heading back? Hurry up and come back to the inn.”
Voices in the background. They were raised in clear distress. Erin Solstice looked around them, then peered…northwest, Normen thought, to judge by the rising sun.
“Is something wrong?”
He repeated himself, and her eyes swung back to him. Then—Erin hesitated. She stopped speaking for a long time and bit her lip so hard he thought she broke skin. Her hands were clenched, and then she gave him—not a smile, but a pretense at one.
“—Just come back fast.”
And it seemed to him like she regretted every word. But she said them.
“What’s going on, Erin?”
The [Innkeeper] didn’t want to say. She knew something, but as they asked whether it was Liscor or something with Larra—it was clear it was not The Wandering Inn that Erin was worried about.
Then, Normen was getting to his feet in the wagon. He looked around, thinking there was no way he could see wh—and his eyes found the [Nightclouds].
“Dead gods! What is that?”
Zanze stopped Sillias, or tried to, and Ama raised a hand and peered up at the unnatural, black clouds in the sky.
“Is that more magical weather? I’ve never seen—it looks sort of like Noelictus’ skies, but even darker. What the heck is that?”
Zanze shrugged, glancing sideways.
“You’re the [Necromancer]. You tell me.”
She didn’t bridle like normal. Ama peered up at the clouds, and her tone grew uneasy.
“That’s not…no, that’s not my magic. That’s darkness magic. Different from death magic, before you lot say anything. It’s huge. What is that?”
She looked to Jewel, but the Gold-rank adventurer didn’t know. Only two people did. And surprisingly, it was Vess and Normen.
“That’s a [Nightcloud]. I’ve heard about them. Special forces use them in some cities. Isn’t it? But not even Luldem has access to the spell—I think. Maybe our best unit does, but they didn’t use them in the war with Liscor.”
Vess was wide-eyed. Normen glanced at him and spoke.
“They don’t use them for wars in the north. That is a [Nightcloud]. It turns everything dark. Like a [Blindness] spell unless you’re enchanted. It’s used by the gangs. But no gang…”
No gang would just conjure one out of nowhere. He looked up at the skies, and a dark conclusion reached him.
It couldn’t be. Not here. But they struck everywhere. And—he turned his head to Erin and saw her eyes tracing the clouds in the sky. She already knew what was happening. But she took a deep breath—and looked at him with her hazel eyes. They were pained, worse than he’d ever seen her.
“Come back to Celum. Now. There’s nothing you can do.”
“What’s happening, Erin?”
She would not say. But Jewel did. She had a [Message] scroll, and her voice rose in genuine fear.
“The Bloodfeast Raiders.”
Everyone but Antherr froze a second. Normen just reached for his helmet and put the gauntlet back on his hand that he’d been polishing. Ah. He had known it already, in his heart.
“H-here? But they—they attacked Celum, and it’s been blizzarding! The Raiders? Are you sure?”
Vess squeaked. Ama was looking around for somewhere to hide.
“We’ve got to get to the waystation. No, back to Celum! That’s why there was weather magic all over the place. How many?”
Zanze was more insistent as his head whirled, and there was a terror in his eyes too. Every [Driver] feared them.
Jewel was reading from the [Message] her teammates had sent.
“The village of Salefenwool. They’ve already started the attack. It’s on the news. Salefenwool. Is that close to Rheirgest?”
Normen didn’t need to look at a map to know the answer. He just met Erin’s eyes.
Why else would she be here? Why else would she say…?
“Don’t go, Normen.”
He was swinging down from the wagon and approaching one of the thick, undead horses lashed to the front next to Sillias. The [Knight] reached for the reins—then just produced a knife and sawed at one lead.
“Normen? What’re you…?”
All he had to do was follow those clouds. They were distant—but the horses that Rheirgest had made were undead. They could plough through the snow, and—he judged it to be at least fifteen miles.
A long ways through the snow, but an undead horse could gallop without end. He might take half an hour to get there with all the covered roads. But the [Knight] was focused.
“Horse Two—gallop. That way.”
He gave the undead instructions, and it broke into a gallop so fast it threw him from the back. He landed, cursing, and Ama clapped her hands.
“Horse Two, stop! Return!”
It trotted back over as the undead obeyed the spells. Then there was a babble of voices around him.
“Normen, you’re not serious. There are sixty of them, and they’re the Bloodfeast Raiders. My entire team wouldn’t—”
Jewel. Another voice was speaking.
“Antherr, stop him. You—Vess! Stop both of them.”
The Soldier fell off the second horse. He was as bad at riding as Normen, worse because the Soldier had never been made to sit on an animal. But Normen could, however bony the horse was. It had been reinforced. He pulled himself up, and someone grabbed his arm.
“Normen. You heard her. It’s them. That’s no [Bandit] group.”
Zanze. Normen barely heard him over the sound of pulsing blood in his ears. He shook the [Driver]’s hand off him, or tried to.
“Go back to Celum without me. But don’t stop me or I will lay you to the ground.”
Zanze hesitated. The earnest, brave [Driver] had a wild look of fear in his eyes. But when he saw Normen’s face, his grip firmed. He put another hand on Normen’s shoulder—
The [Knight] punched him. He felt bad, because he had forgotten he was wearing gauntlets. He opened a cut on the man’s jaw—and Zanze went down without a sound. Then—Normen was on the horse again.
“Horse Two, trot. That way.”
It broke into a slower gait. Shouting behind him. Normen clung to the horse, realizing the lack of a saddle and reins meant he could only grip at the tethers and bones as the animal surged forwards.
Jewel caught up to him. The [Swashbuckler] ran through the snow, sword drawn. She took a swipe at the horse’s legs, but her enchanted blade only bounced off the strengthened bone. Erin must have told her to bring down the horse.
“Let me go.”
“You’ll die. Stop—”
He raised his mace and wasn’t sure when he’d drawn it. Only that it was burning—and Jewel halted as if she could hear the new Skill in the back of his mouth.
[Weapon Art: The Bonfire Rages].
He’d use it. It might come back by the time he got to his destination. But then a thought occurred to him, and he pointed.
[Gravesummon Skeleton Retainer]!
It appeared from an orange portal in the ground, dragging itself out of the snow. A grinning pair of bright orange flames in faintly yellowed bones. A simple helmet and worn set of chainmail on its frame and hatchet and shield in hand. It charged at Jewel, and she navigated around it—but the horse ran on.
She was a [Swashbuckler], not a Runner. By the time she was forced to behead the skeleton, he had a thousand paces on her, and the horse had found some solid ground in the snow. So—no one could stop him.
Perhaps Ama could have, but she was not Pisces and couldn’t deconstruct undead that were not her own so easily. And Rheirgest had made these horses and entrusted them to him.
There was only one person who could halt Normen now. She stood there, appearing in the snow as he passed her by.
Erin Solstice tried to use her aura on him. He actually felt it, even at this remove. He flinched—it was like a pressing hand, and the undead horse faltered, but he kept going.
“I said stop. You aren’t ready!”
The second time, she appeared from behind a snowdrift he rode around. She pointed a finger—and something flashed out and hit the horse in the face.
He landed with a thump as the undead horse reared, as if it had been in actual pain. The [Witch] panted as a spark of—a magical fish?—vanished. She looked at him as he lay there, and he realized he had to speak.
His jaw was clenched so hard that moving it was difficult.
“They’re killing everyone in the village. Am I too late?”
He got to his knees and called after the horse. Erin looked at him, and he wondered what she was seeing. No, there were sounds behind her. She must be using the [World’s Eye Theatre] to see him—but someone was watching the scrying orb in the background.
The faintest sounds of a male voice speaking, a scream as faint as…and the sound of Lyonette telling Ser Sest to take Mrsha and Nanette away. Now.
His hearing was impeccable. He felt every movement in his armor. And he saw Erin looking at him. She was still on her feet.
“You aren’t ready, Normen. Not for this. If I thought you had one chance in a hundred…I’d consider it. You don’t have any chance. Not at all. Magnolia knows what’s going on. Tyrion, even Larra and Chaldion. If anyone can do something, it’s them right now. Or—Niers or someone else watching. Wistram is broadcasting it. They’re all watching.”
That gave him pause. Normen looked up.
“Can anyone make it?”
Her eyes flickered, and she didn’t say ‘yes’. So he got to his feet and pulled himself into the saddle.
“Normen. I will destroy that horse if I have to. I won’t let you kill yourself. That’s not why I asked you if you were willing to be a [Knight].”
She had tears in her eyes. She was seeing something and telling him to stop. He? He did not need to imagine what was happening. And he knew she was right.
Erin had a hand raised, and magic was gathering again. So Normen spoke. He was not a man of words, and he didn’t even think. He just said what was in his chest. That burning flame she had given him that called him.
Green flames flickering away in the distance. Eyes that saw honor—and if he turned away, now, he would never see it again in a mirror. Normen met Erin’s eyes.
“You asked me to be a protector, a champion, Miss Erin. A hero to those who don’t deserve a second chance. A man who will do what is right.”
“What if doing what’s right means nothing? If it’s pointless—”
She didn’t believe it. Normen began to ride. He looked at her as he passed.
“I would go anyways. You only get one chance. There is no next time. Not for them. Not for me.”
Erin Solstice reached out as if to stop him, her illusory arm grasping…and then she stopped. He passed her, and she had no strength to stop him. So he rode—and Erin shouted at his back.
“Then go, my [Knight]! And don’t die. I’ll send everything I have with you. [Boon of the Guest: Rabbiteater]!”
She shouted, and he passed under those first clouds and into darkness. But the [Knight] grinned like a Goblin, and he felt, for a moment, like a champion without equal. He felt like a dead man, and he wondered if Crimshaw were grinning wherever he had gone. Then he began to hum a familiar tune.
The Bloodfeast Raiders were not laughing. Laughter implied they found it all hilarious, the smoke rising from the village, the bodies strewn on the ground.
The senior members, the ones who simply stood and let the other Raiders rampage, were working. They were bored, even, or calculating, with the same look as the [Pirate] captains and the [Bandit Lord], their masked leader himself.
He stood out; his clothing was red like a stain of blood, and he sat on a broken piece of fence, sword planted in the back of the [Mayor]. Watching with bored eyes, the only visible part of his face behind the layers of fabric concealing his identity.
No one could remember his features afterwards, even if some knew his name. None of the Raiders stood out.
One was a Drake.
One was a spearman.
One had a flying carpet.
But even if these details were…there…the power of the [Bandit Lord] meant they just didn’t connect. Their artifacts meant that no one could put together any clues. And everyone had tried.
They struck at random, far from places where help could appear. Magnolia Reinhart had to watch the slaughter at Salefenwool. She had sent Reynold and a full carriage of [Combat Maids]…but Ressa had ordered them to slow.
There were sixty Raiders there. With her famed carriage, they might have had a chance. Without? She was not about to let Reynold and her people die to no good end.
The same with Tyrion. The same with the other Five Families. The Raiders did not fight where there was a chance they might be caught and held to task. Even if Mihaela Godfrey were to appear…
Even she would not. Not with this many.
Watch. The hamlet was burning. Half the thatched roofs were aflame, snow dousing parts of the fire, but the magical blaze was too strong, even in winter. Yet it was not a wildfire.
It was calculated to drive the hiding occupants out. Animals were fleeing the barns, and people were in the streets. Some had gone plunging through the snow—others were trying to hide in it. It was no use.
[Detect Life]. A bowman or bowwoman—it was impossible to say—was loosing arrows from a watchtower. The dead [Archer] they had killed was hanging from the side. The arrows shot into the snow, and there was, mercifully, no sound.
“If you want to live, don’t run! I see you! All six of you!”
The archer was shouting. They loosed another arrow—and gestured.
“Into the village! No?”
Another arrow followed. Then four figures stumbled out of the snow, hands raised.
And that sound rose. Not laughter. It came from the Raiders enjoying the moment, not their bored minders. It was…giggling.
Giggling, like naughty children doing something they knew was wrong. They probably thought it was laughter, but it wasn’t full-throated, genuine. It was the giggling of someone knowing what they did was wrong, taking no responsibility as they hid. Children playing a game with no consequences.
Look at the spearman. He was lazily taking on four desperate armed villagers. Two had spears, one a sword, and the last just a quarterstaff.
The spearmaster held them all off, whirling the enchanted spear, blocking, parrying, stabbing back—but only enough to keep his opponents from advancing. Showing off. It wasn’t a fair fight. He had levels, enchanted armor, and a spear. Only when he got bored did he stab the first man through the leg. The cry was followed by a choked scream as the [Spearmaster] buried the spear up to his hands in the chest.
“Aw. Gross. It’s stuck.”
He groused as blood ran over his hands. Then looked at the dying grip of the warrior. The other three rushed forwards, and the [Spearmaster] cursed.
The archer in the tower took aim, but he tore the spear through the body and whirled it.
“[Viper Strike]! [Needle Rush]—[Dance of the Mantis]!”
His jabbing spear took another villager through the head and then stabbed and stabbed another until he transitioned into a slashing attack on the third and cut them apart from the ribs. Three corpses fell, and some of the other Raiders laughed.
“They almost got you, ████.”
“This rabble? Never. That’s…seventeen.”
The [Spearmaster] did a count with a finger, hoisting the bloody spear across his shoulders. A Drake with a single dagger kicked another warrior off her blade and turned.
The [Mayor] was still alive. The sword was buried in his back, but he was bleeding out. He was trying to move or do anything, but the leader of the Bloodfeast Raiders just sat there, ignoring the man’s pleas and attempts to get him to stop. To do—anything.
This was the first five minutes of the raid. But many of the villagers were alive. The initial slaughter had slowed, and desperate men and women holding blades, even children, were backing away from the Raiders as they ceased their onslaught.
They were all staring up at the skies. The [Nightclouds] swirling overhead were allowing a ray of light to illuminate the village; it seemed as if the rest of the world were gone save for a spotlight of blue skies here. Then—someone called out.
“Here it comes! Get ready.”
The giggling grew louder. Then—the lights went out.
Darkness. The village of Salefenwool was plunged into it. The villagers screamed, then called out in confusion because they were not dead.
“What’s going on? What’s happening? Don’t flee. Don’t—”
The [Mayor] was gasping, trying to understand. He feared they were being butchered in silence. But then, after barely a minute of darkness—
The [Nightclouds] swirled away, and the light shone down. Only this time, the Bloodfeast Raiders were gone.
All of them. Including their leader. His sword was still there—but they were gone.
“What—what’s going on?”
The town’s [Smith] lowered a hammer, his other arm hanging limp, cut down to the bone by one of the knifemaster’s onslaughts until she grew bored. He looked around—and then called out.
“Mayor! Let me—”
“Stay back! It’s a trap! Get your family.”
The dying man screamed at him. He tried to raise his head, and the [Smith] halted. He looked around, chest heaving. Then shouted.
His wife. The second thought he had was for—he turned, and a woman shouted.
He turned with relief, and a woman waved at him. Then a voice screamed, shrieked.
“No! Don’t go to her!”
The same voice. Midias’ twice? Lastere halted—turned—
And a second woman, wearing the same bloodstained apron, scorched with soot, was standing outside their burned home, carrying a hammer from the smithy. Her face was white and pale, and she was staring at…her duplicate, standing in the snow, sheltering two children behind her.
Then you saw their game. The horror on the [Mayor]’s face could increase no more. He was dying, his lungs filling with blood. He had no more terror or outrage to give. He just stared at it all with a bitter disgust that knew no end.
Shock lasted a second. Then the villagers realized what was going on and didn’t know who to trust. A girl looked at two men spreading their arms and shouting to come here and away from the other.
Two pairs of lovers, identical, halted, asking questions. Trying to identify the other.
“What’s my middle name? Antest? Antest, what’s my middle name?”
A knife in hand, a young woman pointed it between two young men grappling with each other and swearing, bare-handed. One of them craned his head back.
“Everfler! Rosere, it’s me!”
They reached for each other, and the other Antest, the fake one, stepped back. He raised his hands, and the desperate look became a huge grin.
Rosere and Antest grabbed each other, and the disguised Raider applauded. Then he ripped a spear from his bag of holding and threw. The [Spearmaster]’s weapon ran both through, and screams filled the air.
And then there was darkness again. It lasted a minute…and when it resumed, the lovers were dead. But there were the villagers, clinging to each other, trying to find out who was who. Begging the Raiders to stop.
One woman ran, shrieking, from her husband, whom she had picked out as an imposter not because his illusion was imperfect.
—Simply because he looked so bored with blood dripping from his face and his neighbors lying dead around him. But the rest of the Raiders were giggling still. Now—they were having fun.
A daughter leapt from her family’s arms, did a cartwheel, and the six-year-old girl changed into a far older Raider who drew a wand and pointed at them. They were still killing. It was just that this prolonged it. Every time the lights went out, the villagers were safe. When the lights came back and the [Nightclouds] parted—that was when someone they trusted would begin snorting with laughter and someone would die.
They were doing this because they were being watched. That was the worst of all. A Raider would pause and wave at the sky, blow a kiss, or admire themselves on the scrying orb. This was the Bloodfeast Raiders’ moment on television, and they wanted their first big appearance to never be forgotten.
“Can anyone stop this? This is—I have been told that the Bloodfeast Raiders have issued a statement to Wistram. If the scrying spell ends, everyone will be killed. But this is just…can someone just kill these monsters?”
Sir Relz sat alone at his table, and for all the Drake had never spoken fondly of the north…he just stared and stared. As if he had never in his wildest dreams believed the Raiders were this bad.
He was looking at something.
“I have been told that this is out of the range of any Walled Cities. Past the High Passes. And it’s far from any noble domain or…you’d need an army to take down sixty people over Level 30 with enchantments. But surely someone? I am, again, warning anyone—don’t let children watch this. Just cut the feed if you’re in a public space. The Bloodfeast Raiders are…as you can see…”
He was watching. Unable to look away. Shielding his face with his claw at times. But waiting. Looking around.
Almost as if hoping something would happen. It had to. But the Bloodfeast Raiders were making an impact not just for the cruelty of their deeds but because—
…Because no one was doing anything.
They had seen this before, hadn’t they? Who—who, even if you didn’t love Izril, even if you would gain nothing from this—who with levels and power would not look at this scene and do something?
Reach out with the power and Skills you had and cease the village’s torment. If not save them—then throw just a single blow back in the Raiders’ faces?
Where were the Skills of monarchs and proud nations? Where was—
“[Aura of the King]. I said. [Aura. Of. The. King].”
The scrying orb cracked the angrier the King of Destruction got. There were holes in the war tent’s fabric, as if blades or great blows were tearing the enchanted cloth. Orthenon had to finally grab Flos’ finger.
“Your Majesty. It’s no good. They have some kind of protection.”
The King of Destruction was incensed—and he was not the only one. Leaders and those who had been able to throw their Skills across the world before were finding, to their dismay and unease, nothing was working.
From the King of Avel to Flos, to [Strategists] and [Mages]—nothing was working. It was a cold-faced man holding the hilt of his sword who spoke.
“They have a [Bandit Lord]. Maresar would have known why. They must be shielded. Like their identities. We can do nothing here. Stop wasting time, Your Majesty.”
Flos Reimarch looked around, breathing hard—then leaned on the table as a new scrying orb was fetched. But he did not leave the tent.
“I will see their crimes first, Venith.”
The [Lord] said nothing. Just bowed coldly and left. And Flos’ green gaze fixed on the orb with true hatred.
Niers Astoragon tried once. Then understood it was pointless.
“No good. See that one? That’s their leader. He must have an aura or something. My guess is, it’s big enough. If they leave his area—we’d do something. It must get magic too. Sensible.”
The Titan sat back in his chair. He was calmer than many watching. Like Therrium, like the Bandit Lord Korizan himself, he was used to it. He did not approve.
But he was tapping his fingers on the armrest of his chair. He knew this was deliberate.
Within the area of The Wandering Inn. He only hoped Erin…no. She saw the same thing he did.
“Can Magnolia Reinhart do something? She’s got [Maids].”
“She’s not a warrior. Her [Maids] fight [Assassins]. This is like an elite mercenary outfit. Sixty, all over Level 30 or armed like Gold-rankers. A Named-rank dies even if they were stupid enough to jump in there. Actually, Saliss of Lights might kill them all, but they probably stay far away from him. And he might not survive even if he blows everything to pieces. You’d get torn up even if you jumped them with your Level 60 capstone.”
Foliana nodded. So they watched. She was thinking the same thing Niers was.
“One woman won’t sit idly. Mm. And Tyrion Veltras. And other people I forgot. Enough to make them wary.”
Niers exhaled wearily.
“Concentration of force, Foliana. It’s our problem. They can’t be everywhere. They can’t. The Raiders are smart. So Erin won’t do anything. She does not want to make them her enemy. Not yet.”
He was nervous for Erin’s sake. And trying to rationalize all the things he, Foliana, and Erin surely knew. But the [Rogue] just looked up with eyes that saw more of Erin than Niers did.
“Spoken like an old man. If you were young like me and her…what would you do?”
Niers Astoragon almost snapped at her. He clenched a fist—then focused on what she was saying. Then he jumped to his feet.
“Someone tell me where that [Knight] is. Now!”
Someone had to do…something.
By the time the thought was in his head, Halrac Everam was striding down the halls of The Wandering Inn. Then he stopped—and went back to the doors.
There was a tense silence everywhere. It hung in the air—and Liska was not immune. The fact that she was by the door and still operating it was probably because Erin had told her to wait for the people from Celum’s side.
But the Gnoll was not about to let anyone through to Celum.
“Are you crazy? Everyone’s coming through—and I have to wait for Jewel and the others. Go there? The Bloodfeast Raiders are moving!”
“I know. I’m not stupid.”
So he was here…Halrac was arguing as Liska distractedly moved through the other locations. Invrisil—Riverfarm—Pallass—
And all the while, people were dying.
Halrac had grown up in a village like that one. He hadn’t made it when Windrest was in danger. Hadn’t known.
He—wouldn’t get there in time. He didn’t have a horse, and even if the Raiders were taking their time, all he’d be able to do would be to shoot at them from a long ways away.
The door was like his flickering thoughts.
“[Lord] to go through now. Excuse me, Miss Gnoll. Don’t close th—”
“Halrac! Someone grab—”
That last one came from Grimalkin of Pallass. He came through the door like a storm, stopping Liska from shutting it. He looked around, and the Gnoll squeaked.
“Um—theatre! She’s trying to stop—”
“Excellent. She’s not insane. [Message]. Grimalkin to Saliss. She’s not insane—”
He moved so fast he didn’t even notice Halrac standing there. And Celum—Liska slammed the door open to Invrisil.
“Who’s making a racket on that end?”
A man strode through. He was big, overweight—and he had the porcelain crest of a kneeling Golem on his chest, a bracer on his arm, and an angry look on his face.
“Lord Xitegen. What a nuisance it is to rely on—nevermind. Change the door, now.”
He dropped a gold coin in the bowl, and Liska blinked at him.
“Celum! I must see this myself.”
He tapped his foot loudly, and Liska raised her paws.
“No one’s allowed in Celum! Erin’s orders! You two, stand back. I have to check—”
“Halrac! Is Halrac here? Revi says he just went through! Don’t let him get to Celum, Liska!”
A cry from down the hallway. Halrac cursed as Lyonette came to the door, and Liska glanced at him. He reached for the door as Liska fumbled with the dial. But Lord Xitegen reached out, and because he could read, he flicked it to the yellow gem that was Celum.
“Hey! You can’t—”
Liska tried to block the man, and she was tall as he was, if not as big. Halrac hesitated and then jumped for the door, and Liska was trying to stop him and Xitegen.
The Gnoll and Gold-rank adventurer both slammed into something heavy in the air. Xitegen hadn’t touched them; he just stormed through the door, yet it felt like he had body-checked them—and he was a big man.
“[Out of My Way, Peasant]! With respect to Captain Ever—”
Then he was gone. Before Halrac could move, Grimalkin put a hand on his shoulder. The huge [Magus] gave Halrac a knowing look as Liska got to her feet, shouting curses at Xitegen’s back.
“It would be, even for both of us, suicide. Saliss claims they would be gone even if he got there—or he would be in danger.”
“I know that.”
Halrac shoved clear of the claw, furious now. But something about Grimalkin’s eyes stopped him.
“Normen is there. Come to the theatre. Our position has changed. If possible—somehow—we have to stop the tragedy from mounting.”
Then Halrac was running, running hard as he could, and when he burst into the [World’s Eye Theatre], he saw it.
Someone doing exactly what he had felt in his bones. And…Halrac’s gaze was pained, and the [Bowman of Loss] stared upwards.
Normen knew the consequences.
A green flame burned on azure armor. It was honor and magic. A [Knight]’s fire. It had never burned brighter on him than now, though it had only come to him twice.
It should have come a thousand times. He was still reaching for it, understanding it. An ember, not a raging flame.
Such a familiar man. Even hearing of him, and from his memories, the [Emperor] of Riverfarm imagined that other [Knight] who had brought flame to end a dark legend. Ser Raim.
He could only listen to the reports as Gamel described it. Imagine it from Sir Relz’s shouting. Hear it…
The [Knight] came over the hill, riding an undead horse as the sun burst amidst the [Nightclouds]. A flame—and the Bloodfeast Raiders turned.
Then they giggled so loudly he heard it even in the [Scrying] spell. Like mischievous children. Psychopaths who had forgotten any morality.
Sixty against one. The villagers were petrified, anyone with a sword dead or bleeding out. The [Mayor] stared up at the dark clouds with empty eyes. The [Knight] saw it all. He had to.
In Laken’s mind, he charged. He heard the shouting. The cheer of Riverfarm’s folk, cut off in seconds. The [Witches] hadn’t cheered, and they were watching.
“Gamel. What do you see?”
“They shot his horse out from under him, sire. He’s on his feet. Running. It’s dark now—oh no.”
Someone had blown the horse to bits. But as the [Knight] reached the village of Salefenwool, mace raised, shield braced—he looked around for the Raiders and saw nothing in the darkness.
And then, when light engulfed the town, a false hope—the villagers were shouting at him, some begging, some shouting.
“—stay away! They’re in disguise. Stay—”
The [Smith] was lying on a leg his ‘wife’ had sliced to the bone, and two women were shrieking at each other, trying to keep the other back. There wasn’t any hope in his tone.
Ser Normen’s chest rose and fell, and he was there. Alone. How could Erin have let him go? Laken’s fingernails dug into his palms.
Durene would have done the same thing. But he couldn’t do anything! Even his Skills—the [Witches] were murmuring.
“It’s a radius around their leader. At least a thousand paces. Possibly two. Does anyone know…?”
“I spat a secret on the ground for all to see. It only took a slice of my tongue to wag and treasures three. I divine it to be: [Aegis of My Contempt]. A ward of all Skills and magic. Nothing from us to them. Unless—”
Oliyaya’s voice, cackling. Laken’s head turned. He raised his head. Called out. Then the [Knight], looking around at the villagers’ desperate faces and the disguised [Raiders]—
He brought the mace down on the first wife’s face. Or tried to. Lastere, the [Smith], saw Midias, his wife, backflip out of the way with a curse.
A Drake with a veil appeared, slashing, but retreating.
“Damn. Not you. How did—?”
Normen pursued a step, then hesitated. The other woman, whom Lastere was now reaching for, his wife, was running, sobbing.
“Oh, thank you, thank you—”
The man was aflame with fire. But he had such a desperate look on his face. A snarl and the same eyes as the mayor’s. Hopelessness.
Yet he had come. Lastere thought he had never seen a [Knight] before that looked braver. The man hesitated as he burned. Then he turned, and the woman grabbed his arm. She pointed at Lastere.
Normen looked her in the eyes. Then he gritted his teeth, drew his head back, seized her arm—and smashed his helmet into Midias’ face.
Lastere shouted and tried to stand despite his leg. But Normen had a grip on his wife’s arm, and the [Knight]—he raised the mace, and an arrow struck his hand.
[Disarming Shot]. He staggered—and Lastere’s wife screamed in a deeper voice.
The smith froze—and a sword appeared in Midias’ grip—no. A second Raider appeared. They were both disguised as his wife.
Then where was…the second Raider struggled in Normen’s grip. And someone called out in a calm voice.
“Enough games. Lights out.”
Darkness again. A shout—ringing of metal—and when the [Nightclouds] parted, the [Knight] was clutching at his hand. Bolts of electricity were springing off his armor, and the second Raider was gone. But when he looked around—
He charged straight at a boy, and the Raider appeared. This time, the [Knight] had no mace or shield—and the other Raider had a sword and was warier.
Normen took a slash across the breastplate—then he grabbed the Raider. How was he seeing? He was burning with that green flame as Lastere watched, begging him to win against all odds.
That green flame. It was in his very eyes. A man looking around into the hearts of those around him.
He saw no honor in some of the villagers. Just a void. But they were—
“You worthless—[Spark Slash]!”
A second jolt ran through him, and the [Knight] was punching now. The Raider—he was so strong.
[Bear’s Strength] potion. Enchanted armor. He had a dagger in his off-hand, and he was stabbing it towards Normen’s face.
The [Knight] had dropped his mace in the darkness. He was—weaker—than his opponent. Outlevelled. Surrounded.
He didn’t care. He did the only thing he knew. And that was to bring up his knee into his opponent’s crotch so hard the other bastard’s feet left the ground.
He felt that. The Raider made a choked sound—and Normen’s fist struck him in the face. Metal tearing skin.
He was still talking and even tried to slash again as he kicked Normen back, or tried to. Then Normen pivoted, and an elbow struck the Raider in the jaw. He staggered, and Normen’s uppercut sent him down. The Raider landed on his back, and the [Knight] stomped him in the groin. Normen didn’t kick. He just knelt on the younger man’s face—if that was who he was—and kept punching. He thought he broke a nose, but he was trying to break that skull in half.
“Oh shit. █████ got got. This is hilarious.”
The other Raiders watched, whispering. The [Bandit Lord], Korizan, just nodded to himself. He stopped staring up at the skies.
Do you see, my fellow [Lords] and [Ladies]? Can you do any better?
He had been waiting for this, too. He had almost hoped it would be the [Brigadier] of Wales. A Gold-rank team or foolish militia would do. This? This was better. He pointed to the side.
“Someone rescue █████.”
A blur leapt at Normen’s back, and the [Knight] pivoted away, fists bloody. He reached for the sword—
—bounced off something. He landed amidst broken wood and…a wall? His head was ringing. He didn’t know where—
Sword coming at him. Someone with a blade, slashing down. Normen rolled, or tried to, and his armored shoulder deflected one slice. Then a boot kicked him across his helmet, and his head rang.
“Tough armor. What’s the call, b—”
Normen dove at the legs. Take the other man down. Beat him to a—
The Raider leapt over him. And the sword went straight through the back of his armor. Then there was agony.
Sword of Pain. And—poison. The Orichalcum blade dug into his back, and Normen collapsed, but he was rising as—
An arrow struck him in the thigh, just above the knee, and his muscles spasmed. It dented the armor, and he stumbled. But he was still—
Still fighting. Eight figures, including the swordsman, surrounded the [Knight]. The screaming Raider he’d struck was begging for a healing potion. The rest were looking to a man lifting his blade out of the [Mayor]’s back.
“It’s one of the [Innkeeper]’s new [Knights].”
“Don’t kill him yet. Let’s see how good our newcomers are. Where’s our [Spearmaster]? Your turn, ████.”
Then the Raider with a spear was twirling it. Normen faced him as he stared at the sharp edge of the curved spear. He reached for his side—and he had no mace.
“Looking for a sword, Ser Knight?”
Normen said nothing. He just drew a belt dagger, and the [Spearmaster] laughed. But the one with the Orichalcum sword nodded, almost approvingly. The [Knight] expected no mercy.
And got none.
The [Spearmaster] ignored Normen’s attempts to rush him and kept backstepping, stabbing, stabbing, using his spear to strike his opponent. It could imbue itself with elements, so he tried to freeze the [Knight]—then shock him.
The spear would kiss the [Knight]’s armor, and smoke would rise as electricity ran through him. The other Raiders were demanding a turn.
And still, no Skills were working. The [Knight] was tough, though. Something—a Skill—was letting him fight despite three wounds visible through his armor and what had to be several burns and electrocution.
But he was slowing, and then the [Spearmaster] was showing off.
“[Needle Rush]! Damn—fall down already.”
Eighteen strikes to the breastplate, and the [Knight] charged at him. He threw the little belt-dagger and tried to grab the other Raider. But the [Spearmaster] just tossed something down, and a cloud of black ash engulfed him. He reappeared ten feet away, like an [Illusionist].
“Enough games. Take him down already, ████.”
One of the others, the [Sellsword], called, and the [Spearmaster] grimaced, annoyed at being told what to do. But then he advanced, lazily moving into a spear’s dance. The [Knight] was panting, bent over—but he was going to charge, and he had more energy than he was pretending to have.
Too bad, but he didn’t have a shot. The [Spearmaster] flicked his spear up—then ducked.
He screamed, his spear whirled, and the second attacker slashed at him in a whirl of blades. The other Raiders stopped laughing and shouted at once.
“[Rogue]! Watch out for the—”
“No, it’s a swordswoman! How did they get—”
A one-armed woman leapt forwards, slashing, and the [Spearmaster] turned, pivoting away from her deadly cuts aimed at his head. And then remembered Normen.
The [Knight] grabbed him and headbutted him so hard the other’s head snapped back—and now the leader of the Bloodfeast Raiders was on his feet. His eyes swung to the swordswoman, then he snapped.
The one with the sword slashed across Normen’s back, laying open the armor a second time. [Paralysis Cut]. Normen sagged—but kept trying to fight.
“He’s tough as a fucking Hob. You lot, kill the—”
The other woman was dodging, slashing, distracting the Raiders, but she wasn’t fast enough and was surrounded. The [Archer] loosed an arrow through Pekona’s midriff—
And the arrow passed straight through the Silver-rank [Bladedancer]. The [Archer] lowered the bow.
It was an illusion. Then, the other Raiders slashed at the woman, and the [Spearmaster] got to his feet.
He and the Raider standing over Normen had a second to notice the flicker in the air. Then a piranha made of blue light swam out of the air and tried to bite.
Both sword and spear destroyed it in an instant, but a dozen more magical fishes swam out of nothingness and tried to attack.
Pekona vanished—and then a woman was sitting in a chair in her place. The [Knight] got up—and the leader of the Bloodfeast Raiders exhaled as it made sense.
“Well, it’s the [Innkeeper] herself. Grab the [Knight]. Don’t kill him yet.”
And there she was. It disconcerted the older Raiders and, perhaps, even their leader.
His Skill should have stopped everything. But her theatre wasn’t exactly an active Skill, was it? And she—
She was panting. Her hat was aflame, but she was using everything up. The attack of the magical fishes stopped as the Bloodfeast Raiders destroyed the spell. She watched as another Raider, grimacing, a Drake with a knife, strode towards Normen.
He swung weakly at her, and she leaned aside. Erin pointed at the Raider—vanished—
“I see you.”
And the Drake leapt back with a wild scream. A burning eye, made of fire, appeared in front of her. A malevolent pupil—
Her dagger cut through the air, and the illusion vanished. The [Knight] lurched past her, looking around—an arrow struck him across the breastplate. He stumbled, and the sellsword ran a blade through his shoulder.
“Got him, boss.”
“Illusions. This is definitely the [Innkeeper]’s knight. Which one was the idiot who thought this was a good idea?”
The [Bandit Lord] actually looked amused. He motioned, and they dragged the [Knight] over. Then he glanced up.
“Well? Are you going to beg for spoiling our fun, woman?”
Erin Solstice was standing there, panting. She pointed at him.
“Let Normen go and leave this place. Or I will have vengeance, I swear it.”
They laughed at her, the Bloodfeast Raiders. But their leader did not. He just sat back, staring at Erin Solstice behind his mask. And for the first time—Korizan Reeles’ eyes came alive.
They both knew they were being watched. Korizan might have realized it more than Erin Solstice. She only had eyes for her [Knight]. And him.
She spoke like she had to Magnolia Reinhart. To foreign [Knights]. To everyone.
He took his time replying. And when he did, he nodded.
“Kill that one.”
The [Archer] lifted a bow and fired it through the [Smith]’s chest before Erin could react. The [Innkeeper]’s head swiveled, and her face went whiter. The [Bandit Lord] nodded. Then he spoke, looking past Erin. Ignoring her entirely.
“We are the Bloodfeast Raiders. Applications are open. No one gets in our way.”
“You…let Normen go. If you kill him—”
He cut the [Innkeeper] off.
“You’ll do what, exactly?”
Korizan looked in her eyes and saw she didn’t know. She was, like everyone who had ever made a threat against him—filled with just self-impotent rage. It was a nice trick, the illusion, the long-range cast.
But she had probably gone begging to the Titan, and he’d told her that he couldn’t use his Skills. Tyrion Veltras was gone, and the Named-ranks knew better than to come alone.
Erin Solstice spoke slowly, looking at the other Raiders.
“Leave my [Knight] alone. Or I will find you all. No matter what I have to do.”
There it was again. That tone was one of the few things that annoyed Korizan in this world. So he turned again to his people.
“Cut off his fingers on his left hand to start with. Then—I tell you what.”
He turned to Erin Solstice as she made a sound and thought of the audience. Korizan thought of his Raiders and smiled. More than one had talked about her inn.
“Since we like to have fun, if you strip naked and beg on your hands and knees, I’ll consider it.”
That got a huge laugh and cheer. He just rolled his eyes internally. It fit his Raiders’ delights to see people humbled. Erin Solstice just stared at him. Then she looked at the [Spearmaster]. He was the one yanking at the gauntlets. Both he and the [Lord] with a sword wanted vengeance.
“Give me a knife. I’ll do it.”
Gilam was spitting blood, despite the potion. He grabbed a blade—and then Erin Solstice pointed at him. This time—Korizan felt a tremor in his blood.
“<Post: Heroic Quest>.”
Her voice echoed in the village’s square. It ran through his veins—and Korizan, about to take a theatrical sip from his flask—felt his heart leap in his chest. He felt a shot of something in his veins…and he slowly lowered the flask.
There was no clue what she’d done, but Gilam froze—and Korizan slowly looked around.
“—Find out what that was.”
It took Vendyne a second to query their base. Then…he slowly showed Korizan something. The Raiders clustered around, and Korizan stared down and then met Erin Solstice’s cold, hazel eyes. And then he saw the reason the Titan surely liked her.
<Secret Heroic Quest – Kill Him>
Limits: ???. Unknown identity. Male. Bloodfeast Raider. The one who tried to cut off my [Knight]’s fingers.
Kill him. It doesn’t matter if you know who he is. Kill that one. Turn on him. You will be rewarded even if I never know your name.
Quest Reward: Secrets of profane sword-school that should be lost. Zeladona’s Arts of Viscera.
She could post a <Quest> without knowing the target? And that description—Gilam spoke.
“I—she can’t—I’m not supposed to be targeted. H-how did she—?”
Everyone was staring at him. The other Raiders’, and even Vendyne’s, eyes were, for a second, calculating.
Secrets? Even if not the school itself—Korizan’s voice made his [Sellsword] start and glance away.
“It’s a trick. The Raiders support their own so long as they’re loyal. Back up.”
Slowly, he got to his feet. Now—he was no longer sneering at the [Innkeeper]. He was thinking now, hard and fast.
How should I truly hurt her?
She had just challenged his authority in the Raiders’ big moment. He had underestimated her. But her [Knight] was in his hands. Killing him…was not going to suffice.
“Erin Solstice. [Innkeeper]. Even the Raiders know you. You will pay for that.”
“And you’ll pay if you touch my friends. The only reason I didn’t post a quest on you was because my <Mythical Quest> is on cooldown. But if you want, I’ll wait. And then I will post a quest on you that will have everyone killing you in your sleep.”
He didn’t like how that made him hesitate. Anyone else, anyone but Magnolia—and it would only be money. But this woman—he snarled under his mask. Then calmed himself.
Show. It was a show. Korizan turned and spoke towards the air. Projecting his voice.
“There is now a bounty on Erin Solstice’s other [Knight]. The one called ‘Ser Solstice’ the ‘Goblin Slayer’. Twenty thousand gold pieces if he dies.”
Her breath halted a second. Korizan glanced at Erin Solstice with contempt. She stood there—then her voice replied.
“I’m adding a twenty thousand gold bounty to the Bloodfeast Raiders. For knowledge about who they are.”
The other Raiders stirred incredulously. Their bounty was not small. Twenty thousand gold pieces, though—
Was she really threatening the boss to his face? Korizan just stopped. He hadn’t remembered being this angry for years. Well and truly. Hearing that Salkis had run off and was showing off her Skills?
Like a pleasant dream compared to this. He spoke slowly.
“Eighty thousand gold pieces on Ser Solstice’s head.”
That would have every worthless brigand and thug after him. Even a [Knight] would have a dagger at his back. The [Innkeeper] was shaking now, with anger.
“Eighty thousand more gold on the Bloodfeast Raiders’ identity.”
“You don’t have that money.”
Korizan snapped the words before he realized how weak that made him sound, how incredulous. And she threw it back in his face.
He just…Korizan exhaled, and his mind went blank.
You’re falling into her trap. So this is how she badgered Tyrion Veltras and the rest into it. I thought they were fools. He looked at Erin, then sat back down. Spread his hands and laughed. He wasn’t amused, but it sounded good.
“You really are an [Innkeeper] who could bully legends!”
He applauded her theatrically, and Vendyne and two other [Raiders] took it up, and Erin got a smattering of applause. But she just pointed at Normen.
“Let him go.”
Korizan stopped applauding and put his hands behind his head.
“Oh, please. Erin Solstice, I would never put a bounty on you. Everyone admires your quests, even me. But your actions have consequences, you know. Do you want to keep playing this game? Very well. Vendyne.”
He turned, and his [Sellsword] looked at him. Everyone else just heard ‘███████’. Korizan savored Erin Solstice’s face for a moment.
“Put an eight thousand gold bounty on that little Gnoll’s head. The one with the white fur. Pay it out to anyone who does her damage. Breaking one arm will pay out half. Both her paws for the full amount. Oh, and the same for her mother.”
Vendyne began to write with a laugh as Erin’s face turned pale with horror. As if she couldn’t believe it? Korizan smiled—
Right up until the enchanted quill snapped in Vendyne’s hands. The Raider blinked at the [Message] scroll. He tried to write on it again—and the second quill snapped. Then the scroll fell apart, cut into two pieces.
And then Korizan well and truly lost his temper.
They were, after all, watching. No one had a Skill that could even touch the Bloodfeast Raiders. The fact that Erin Solstice could project her image there at all was astounding.
It almost justified Lyonette being there. But the child was always causing more trouble than she was worth. At least she was doing something for the crown.
It was tempting to do nothing, but Dame Ushar reported that the girl doted on the little Gnoll child called Mrsha. Like a dog, perhaps, though Lyonette was hopefully aware a child was not a dog.
Therefore and therefore. Queen Ielane sighed. One did what one must. She twirled her own writing quill across her fingers like a knife. It was gold, not a feather, and weighted. Ielane cut at the provision as they tried again, severing the words before they could post the bounty.
“[Royal Will: Annul Contract].”
A powerful criminal was no match for the [Queen] of Calanfer in the realms of statecraft. But her eyes were locked on the orb.
This was no game of houses that the [Innkeeper] was playing. And she well and truly feared her daughter’s safety would be put on the line.
She was right.
He had been humiliated in front of his Raiders and his audience. Korizan analyzed the situation.
He wasn’t sure who had stopped the bounty, and it didn’t matter. It proved Erin Solstice had powerful friends. Had he lost his image?
Perhaps slightly, but not overmuch. He should have just taken one of the children hostage and cut one of their fingers off whenever the [Innkeeper] opened her mouth. He had played her game, and now he was paying the price.
Doing that now was weakness. It showed that he had lost the duel of words with her. But the [Bandit Lord] had one last card to play.
“Just for that, Erin Solstice, when we leave this village, I will make sure all the children die slow. But you win. You win.”
He stood, hands raised, and she gazed at him, white-faced. As if she’d forgotten he’d do that anyways. Korizan pivoted left to his [Archer], Nerised.
He was so angry he had trouble keeping his voice steady. He ignored the warnings in his head that this might be a risk, even for the Raiders. He just wanted to see Erin Solstice look properly hurt.
“Kill the [Princess]. The one staying at her inn. Fire the Deathslayer arrow.”
Nerised’s eyes widened behind the mask. Then she grinned. And she slowly drew a case from her bag of holding as Erin Solstice whirled.
When he heard that, Lord Hayvon in Rhir sought out Their Majesties at once. They were watching the broadcast. Whether or not they had been before—
“King Othius. It seems the Bloodfeast Raiders of Izril have one of the Deathslayer Arrows.”
The old [King] raised his brows.
“So everyone has screamed at me. Perhaps that will aid their investigation. Those arrows only go to our allies as rare, rare gifts. I suspect the Five Families.”
A [Diplomat] was tearing their hair out.
“The archer is going to kill a [Princess] of Calanfer with one of our arrows, Your Majesty.”
Othius nodded gravely.
“A tragedy. But it would at least prove our arrows work. Which make is it?”
Her Majesty, Queen Coretine, murmured.
“We don’t give them the ones that can detonate or with more potent effects. It’s a seeker. The kind they can use to kill a monster. But it will pierce through anything. We used them against Silvenia when she took 5th Wall.”
On the scrying orb, the [Archer] lifted the black arrow to their bowstring. They drew back—and loosed.
The arrows of Rhir that were meant to slay one of the Demon King’s Deaths would pierce any barrier. Hit any target.
They were the most deadly manufactured artifact in the modern era. If other nations even had them, deploying them was similar to using Djinni or a spell like the one Thelican had unveiled against Pomle.
How the Raiders had it was impossible to know. But they had—seconds—
“Get to the [Garden]! Lyonette!”
Erin turned and screamed. The [Princess] was frozen in the [World’s Eye Theatre]. The arrow was locked onto her by name.
Lyonette du Marquin. The leader of the Bloodfeast Raiders knew the same thing everyone did. And the arrow was already in the air—
It was coming for her. Would the garden stop it? She only felt hands when the Thronebearers grabbed her. Then she saw Ushar grimly raising her shield.
But Ser Lormel moved first. He looked down at Lyonette as her head turned, red hair, features pale as snow with fear, as her daughter howled at her, and he drew his sword.
When he brought it down, he cut vertically. The smoothest slice he had ever performed. And he drew blood.
Dalimont shouted. He was staring at the skies—but Lormel just reached towards the [Princess], who was sagging. He’d scored a long gash down her back. He was no swordsman. He was not as tested as Ser Dalimont had been.
But he had been assigned to the throne room to guard [Princess] Ellet. Like Dame Ushar—
He knew what had to be done.
So he took the object he’d lopped from Lyonette’s body. Her red hair. Blood was running down her cut, and he spoke.
“Apologies, Your Highness.”
Then he touched the blood and placed a bloody handprint on his shield. That should do. The hair he simply stuck to the shield with a talisman, fumbling at it.
“[Faint Presence]. Sest, the potion. Into the garden, now.”
Dame Ushar opened a scroll, and Lyonette’s presence grew faint. Even her breathing…slowed…and her shock turned into a coma-like state. Like the stories of a sleeping [Princess].
It all happened so fast that Ushar was dragging Lyonette towards the garden and Erin was shouting about a door—as Ser Lormel jogged out of the [World’s Eye Theatre].
Ser Sest should have gone with Lyonette—but he followed Lormel.
“Give me the hair, Lormel.”
“No time. Stand clear.”
Dalimont had half-followed them out. He must never have been assigned to guard a [Princess] except to escort Seraphel. He looked at Lormel and finally understood.
When the [Knight] halted, it was outside the inn. He skidded slightly, puffing in the snow. His heart was beating too fast. He wondered if his golden armor was polished, and his scrying wards told him he was being pinged already.
“[Decoy: My Ward].”
It was a silly Skill that had no value for most [Knights]. He was, by his own admittance, a silly [Knight] best suited for making a little Gnoll smile rather than fighting. He hadn’t been much use during the war. An adequate bodyguard.
The Thronebearers of Calanfer were bodyguards second to none. Even these four knew what to do—no one had ever had a Deathslayer Arrow used. But the theory was the same.
Ser Lormel raised the shield with Lyonette’s hair attached and her blood on it. The real [Princess] was hidden, and enough of her blood and hair was here to make the [Scrying] spells and everything else think he was her. Indeed, his ward-spell was overloading with how many [Scrying] spells were finding ‘Lyonette’.
Ser Sest reached for him—then backed away as Lormel swung the shield at him. Ser Lormel looked up—and he thought he could see it.
Liscor’s walls were sounding the alarm. But so slowly. It had barely been one minute.
It was a fast arrow to travel a hundred miles in a minute. Very fast. It arced across the skies from the northeast.
A black line in the sky. A death for the Demons made in Rhir. Lormel looked up at it as he lifted his shield high and set himself.
It occurred to him he should say something. But he didn’t know what to say. So he just waited.
As it came down—he saw the impossible happen. A head rose—and another bow twanged in the silence.
It was an impossible shot—but that Worker still made it. His arrow snapped as he tried to shoot the Deathslayer Arrow down. He actually hit it—but it still came down.
The Deathslayer Arrow never wavered as it tracked Ser Lormel. But the pained smile on his face turned to fear as it—split in midair. He thought Bird had split it like an [Archer] of legends—until he realized the Deathslayer Arrow had done that on its own.
It divided, and half went for him.
The other half struck the inn. The [Knight] could not see it dive and phase out of reality, nor did he hear Erin Solstice cry out as it tried to strike the [Princess]. As the 6th Princess of Calanfer hid behind a stone doorway in the center of the [Garden of Sanctuary], the wooden door that led to the garden shook.
If it had been one arrow, not split in half—the arrow left a scar across the door. It burnt away, leaving a single piece of twisted metal in the wood. And the other half fell towards him.
A warm glow. Ser Lormel’s breastplate lit up—and he realized that his [Princess] was trying to shield him. And so long as it lasted, she lived.
A boon like gold enveloped him, and he smiled in that moment and hoped half was enough.
Then the arrow hit his braced shield in the center of the handprint. And the blow felt like a thunderbolt. It drove into his enchanted shield, past all his Skills. It was so heavy it sent him to his knees—
And the arrow didn’t stop. It pushed him down the hill—driving him through the snow. Seeking her heart. But it couldn’t have her. The [Knight] held his shield up for the Eternal Throne as long as he could.
Then it pierced his armor. And flesh. He cried out—it burned, and he felt it tearing through him.
Until it stopped.
They were all watching Lyonette now. Or rather, the golden figure who had taken the blow for her.
Ser Solton, fists clenched, with Durene in the middle of a village.
Gamel, whispering to Laken Godart.
Ser Markus and Rabbiteater, on a ship at sea.
Knight-Commander Calirn and the heads of the Seasons in their headquarters.
The Order of the Thirsting Veil, the Knights of Drell—[Knights] locked on the place where the arrow had finally stopped.
What they saw were—the walls of Liscor. A trough of dirt had been dug through the heavy snows. Overturned dirt. The arrow had kept going—and its target had been pressed into the walls before the arrow halted.
There he lay. Golden armor ruined. Blood spilling into the snow. A fallen man.
Then—he moved as two Thronebearers ran down the hill after him. He stirred.
The Bloodfeast Raiders were outraged. But as the [Knight] rose, he seemed as incredulous as they were. He rose—and when he got to his feet and looked at the crater in the wall where the arrow had stopped, he saw the same thing as everyone else.
He had left something behind.
Ser Lormel touched his left hand to the blood running from his stump of a shoulder. Then—at the arrow which had struck its target. It had torn his shield and arm from his body. He staggered, and his blood touched the snow.
But the [Princess] was alive. She was running from the inn, screaming his name as he stood there.
In front of his family’s eyes. His Order and Their Majesties of Calanfer watching. All of Calanfer, perhaps, saw Ser Lormel touch at his shoulder and his face twist in pain. Then he looked up and did what no lesser [Knight] would have the presence of mind to do.
That golden [Knight]-for-show. That Thronebearer? He raised his good hand to the sky. Raised it high and smiled despite the pain across his face.
And his peers leapt to their feet and cheered him. For there stood a [Knight]. Arrogant with self-satisfied pride. He had fulfilled his every duty.
Then he fell, and his fellows picked him up. Amidst cheering and knightly honor and broken armor and blood.
The [Bandit Lord], Korizan, knew he had lost. Nothing was going his way. No [Princess]. The [Innkeeper] had returned—and they had wasted too much time on this.
“Reinhart’s carriage is coming, boss. They might actually come for us.”
“Fine. We won’t linger. Pack it up. Where’s the [Shepherd]?”
“Someone’s got her.”
Korizan turned away—and there she was. Erin Solstice. She uttered no more threats. They were beyond it. She had that gaze he had seen on his former crew in the Bloodtear Pirates. If they ever met, one would die.
Join the lists of my enemies. He spat at her feet. He was tired. The [Bandit Lord] heard a whisper from his side.
Vendyne was nervous. Korizan swung his head slightly, and his visible eye widened dangerously. It looked like cracks of pale yellow amidst gray stone.
“I don’t want to hear it, Vendyne.”
“I know. But boss—someone wants to speak to you right now. About the [Knight]? It’s a Face.”
Korizan nearly drew his sword there and then. But he slowly picked up the stone.
“I am not in a good mood.”
“Then we won’t take up your time, sir.”
No guesses on who it was. Korizan just snarled into the speaking stone.
“That [Knight] isn’t one of yours. Which one is this? Wilovan or Ratici?”
“Wilovan. Sir. And I might just say that you are entitled to your decisions as it were, sir. But, sir. We would like that man to live. And I speak for all the Brothers of Izril right at this point. If he dies, we will address our complaints to you in person.”
Korizan’s gloved hand crunched the speaking stone without a word. The [Innkeeper] was looking at him. He thought for a second, then raised his hand.
“Kill everyone in the village. Watch for a carriage.”
“And the [Knight]?”
A war with the Brothers? Korizan just shrugged.
“Let’s give him his chance. Cover him with oil and tar. Burn him alive in his armor.”
When they heard that, the Raiders grew excited. They called for pots of oil and produced alchemical mixes. The [Innkeeper] shouted.
“No. Stop! Normen—”
He was fighting still. Korizan heard the screaming begin as the Raiders began to wet their blades. He should have just ignored the [Knight], had him killed, then finished the slaughter. Next time, he wouldn’t make the same mistake.
He locked eyes with that [Knight] and saw wet liquid dripping from his armor. It gave Korizan no small pleasure as Erin Solstice cursed him. He took a wand from Vendyne’s hand and shrugged.
Korizan glanced down at the wild eyes in the man struggling to break free of his chains. He bent down slightly.
“You know. You could have not come. You knew it was going to turn out like this. All the bravado in the world I’d expect from a fool. But not a former Brother. Why did you come?”
He was curious. For a second, Korizan met Normen’s gaze, and the man rasped.
“Yes, why not wait? This was all pointless. You saved no one. Broke one person’s nose. Why now?”
The dead man stopped struggling for an instant—and looked up. And he spat back in Korizan’s face.
“Because it’s today, you bastard. Today, and never tomorrow! A man cannot wait for his hour to come again.”
The [Bandit Lord] gazed down at Normen, baffled. He understood the words, but he shook his head.
“Well said, I suppose.”
He aimed the wand down. Then a tongue of flames lit the man, and he began to burn in his armor. And this was no honorable green flame.
Tongues of black smoke seemed to cling to the bright blue metal, and the fire rolled across the Demas Metal in a fascinating way as Korizan watched for a second. It covered him in a flash, and he made not a sound as he struggled. They’d lashed him to a post with all the ropes they had, even a chain meant for someone they took for Roshal.
He was heaving—but he was burning in that metal, and brave as he was—Korizan heard a rising shout of agony at last. No one could burn without a sound.
The [Innkeeper] stared at her [Knight] as he burned. Korizan walked past her and gave her a salute with two fingers.
“Enjoy your victory, Miss Solstice.”
She didn’t even look at him. She just—stood there. She was reaching out, trying to touch him—and he thought she was speaking to that man alone. Standing so close as he burned and his flesh melted away.
When she turned—he hoped she noticed the dead. Korizan would have smiled then—but he was too angry. And when he looked up, he heard the faintest of voices. As haughty and self-righteous as that [Innkeeper]. Then Korizan snarled. Then he cursed them all and this changing world.
The voice was male and deep. It was breathless—
And it sounded like—
Reynold was taking cover behind the carriage and exchanging long-range fire with the Bloodfeast Raiders.
He’d run into a [Fireball]—because it was that or be hit by one of the archer Skills. The [Maids], including Bekia, had bailed out, and they were using the wreckage as cover.
There was no chance they’d get to Normen in time. They were pinned down, and the only reason they were alive was probably because the Raiders were pulling out.
If he could have run them over—he was listening to Ressa as she snapped orders.
“They are slaughtering the villagers, Reynold. Can you get out of there and force them back?”
He peeked once and nearly took an arrow to the face. His magical legs were glowing, and he wondered if he could sprint out there. But they had at least one [Spearmaster]—
“I’m sorry, Ressa. I won’t make it. Bekia, keep your head down.”
Behind Ressa’s tense face, Magnolia was shouting at an old man. Demsleth.
“That’s why you wanted me to fix your carriage? You do that with it?”
“How do you not—your worthless memories! Yes, that’s why I need them!”
“I thought it was because you just wanted to travel fast. I…”
“Can you stop them?”
The old man looked wretched as he stared at Reynold.
“I don’t think I can make it in time even if I could shut down the scrying spells. Do I have five minutes?”
Then he closed his eyes. Reynold sat there and saw one of the [Maids] grasping at her belly. A shard of something had struck her there. They were bleeding, and she might be poisoned.
But they were so close, and the villagers…he closed his eyes. Normen had been the only person to go there when it mattered, and he was burning alive. A living torch.
Then Reynold opened his eyes as he heard the crunch of snow. And a loud voice. He looked up—and his mouth opened as the second person shouted breathlessly.
“[Covering Fire]! I said—[Covering Fire]!”
Lord Xitegen Terland ran past Reynold and the [Maids]. They stared at him. He was…sprinting through the snow.
A huge man, stomach moving with each step, a big eater, a [Lord] of the Terland family—and as Capoinelia had noticed—he had huge thighs.
He was running. Like all big men who could move fast, he sprinted across the ground, and his voice was followed by…
Nothing. The Raiders took one look at Lord Xitegen and stared. One took aim at him—and then another pointed up.
“Up! Take cover! Rhir’s hells—”
Then the skies turned black. A shadow passed over Reynold’s head, and he looked up as arrows began falling. Not one. Not a hundred. A thousand came down in the first volley. And then another.
No one in the world could fire that many. What kind of [Archer]? Bekia, a seasoned archer herself, was staring up in disbelief. Ressa snapped at Reynold.
“What’s going on? Who was that?”
“Lord Xitegen! He just called in thousands of arrows—”
They were raining around the village, and even the Raiders took cover. Ressa’s eyes widened.
“Xitegen? Arrows? Those must be his Golems! The ones he pulled from—”
Then it clicked. Reynold remembered the artillery-Golems that could spit thousands of arrows. He looked around, but there was no sight of them.
They could fire incredibly far. And if he was using a Skill—
The Bloodfeast Raiders were trying to target the [Lord]. But Xitegen was running without stopping, and his bracer was glowing. He pointed it at the furious leader of the Bloodfeast Raiders, and an arrow stopped ten feet from him as one of his rings flashed.
“Izril is the home of the Five Families. I will see your heads on pikes, you worthless, opportunistic maggots. To arms! Save those villagers and that [Knight]!”
He waved—and Reynold and the [Maids] abandoned their cover. They began attacking, firing wands and crossbows from their position on the ridge. But they were still outnumbered.
Kill the [Lord] and Reinhart’s servants. Their leader had lost his patience. The Bloodfeast Raiders began to charge—but then one looked up and uttered a soft oath.
“Oh shit. Boss? Xitegen’s not going to stop.”
The Raider backed up—and the furious [Bandit Lord] looked up, and his eyes widened. Lord Xitegen pointed at the Raiders. He said—
The arrows rained down again without a good target. The [Bandit Lord]’s Skill was in full effect—but the arrows were still falling.
Did he just use the same Skill? Reynold turned his head—and Bekia growled.
“I am going to shoot the post that [Knight] is hanging on. Cover me!”
Xitegen heard her, and as the Raiders were poking their heads up, he sucked in more air. He was still running, dodging spells. Reynold remembered he normally stayed with the Terlands in their comfortable coastal retreats.
He had seen enough of war during the Second Antinium War. He’d nearly starved to death in a keep under siege. The arrows that had kept the Goblins back hadn’t filled any stomachs, and he had been the sole member of his family to emerge.
Lord Xitegen raised his hand and howled.
“[Again, and Again, and Ever Again]! [Covering Fire]! Until every arrow in Izril is spent—[Covering Fire]!”
Four times. His Skill kept arrows raining down, a fortune of wood and metal—and the Raiders realized he’d never stop. They began to retreat—and an arrow struck the post where a limp figure was hanging.
Ser Normen fell with a crash of embers and flames, and the Bandit Lord snarled. He pointed, and the Raiders began to fall back. But the rest were still trying to kill the villagers. One was just going around with a sword, beheading the kneeling figures as fast as they could.
The Raider looked up only when they heard the order to retreat. They turned—and saw a [Knight] on his knees. The Raider lifted the sword and ran at him.
He was nearly motionless as he pulled the helmet from his face. Erin Solstice looked down—and reached for the burned face, weeping. Hair turned to ash. Flesh red. Only one eye could see. His helmet fell to the ground, and he had no strength left. He was dying.
But—[His Hat Held Wrath]. The [Raider] swung their sword at his neck, and Normen threw his helmet.
Reynold ran into the village. His magical legs that Teriarch had given him plowed through the snow. A blur of motion. Even the Raiders shooting at him missed.
The [Butler] had sword in hand, but he grabbed the [Knight] and began to drag him towards the [Maids] and Xitegen. The villagers were running.
He was prepared to be struck—but the Raiders were fleeing the arrows. But what had happened to…?
Reynold stared up—and slowed as he saw a Raider flying through the air. Then he ran faster.
The helmet had exploded. Korizan was sick of tricks. He was sick of Xitegen—but the first inkling of true danger was when he saw one of the younger Raiders being sent flying by Normen.
The [Knight] was burned to a crisp, but he had still sent the masked figure tumbling and flying through the snow. Their Ring of Stoneskin had saved them from harm—and the figure was getting to their feet, screaming bloody vengeance.
“Get over here! Now!”
Vendyne was shouting at them, but they were aiming a shortbow and a bunch of enchanted bolts they’d stolen from their family’s armories. But Korizan was eying how far they’d flown—and then he began running.
Too slow. Someone had been watching the entire battle, and they were not on Wistram’s delay, but a personal scrying spell. He felt it as the Raider, just outside his personal aegis, froze.
A finger pointed down, and a Fraerling spoke:
The Raider screamed as a bulls-eye appeared on their chest. They began running, and several Raiders reached for scrolls—but it was too late.
“There! [Pinpoint Volley]!”
Then arrows fell. And fell and fell and—
The first just snapped on the cloth armor. Struck the figure down—but more hammered into their back as they tried to crawl. Then they began piercing the cloth, overwhelming the enchantment. They rained down—and the corpse was already a needle cushion of arrows. But the arrows still kept following. And then—Korizan turned and grimaced. No potion would have saved them from that.
“They just killed ██████████.”
Someone whispered into the shocked silence. Korizan snapped.
“That idiot didn’t fall back. Let’s go.”
“We have to kill them. We have to—”
“Stay in the aegis!”
Vendyne snapped. Their archer, Nerised, reached for an enchanted arrow. Then she began to cough.
“Something’s wrong. Boss.”
She bent over, tore her mask from her face, and began vomiting…mice. Korizan turned—and saw one of her fingers flash. One of her rings exploded and tore the flesh away. He saw what skin was visible break out into huge hives—and she clawed at her face.
“Wh-what’s going on?”
Gilam panicked, but Korizan exhaled.
“Curses. [Witches]. Cut the scrying spell. We’re leaving. Someone torch the body after looting it.”
The Raiders fell silent. Then Korizan began to laugh. He laughed, and some of the outrage, some of the annoyance vented from him as the young [Lords] and [Ladies] turned to him. They didn’t get it.
They thought this was a disaster. But—he laid it out to them as he mounted his waiting horse.
“Children. One of our number is sadly—dead. The [Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril, nay, world powers are after us. We have well and truly become the most feared gang of Izril. Your names will be legends—if ever they knew them. Next time, we’ll have to slaughter real opponents. It’s going to be miserable.”
They looked at him as if he were mad. Then someone whooped—and the Raiders looked at each other and realized they’d gotten what he promised them.
They were monsters. They were on the scrying orbs. They were…laughing as they went. Vendyne dragged the cursed Nerised away, and Korizan looked back the way he’d come. Then and only then his smile vanished.
What an annoying woman. He hoped she suffered for her meddling. But if they were going to play a game of knives, she had made one mistake.
He didn’t really care about losing his Raiders. But she was still kneeling over that distant figure in armor. A burnt ember.
A long silence fell in that aftermath. Somewhere else—people were making noise. Magnolia Reinhart knew it full well. She was watching as her people surrounded Normen and the first of his friends made it.
An Antinium, finally reaching the village, greatsword in hand, a bounding cat made of bones and the terrified [Necromancer], Gold-rank adventurer Jewel…
She didn’t recognize the Drake or [Driver]. Magnolia just listened to Ressa giving orders. She spoke; her [Lady] was silent.
A long, brooding silence that was only interrupted as Demsleth turned away. He only paused at the door.
“You’re not going to ask me to heal them?”
“You would refuse.”
She still surprised him, sometimes. The old man wavered. She didn’t turn her head. He was the one who made an excuse. As if he needed to justify it.
“The [Healers] will never learn if I do it for them. That arrow was meant to kill—I was never a fine healer either. He has a chance. A decent one, I think, if…do you understand?”
And if I asked you to burn that group from the skies, as I have again? Or just tell me their names?
It was entirely possible he didn’t know and the finding out would be hard. Even for him. But the truth was that he feared [Bandit Lords] like Goblin Lords. Their ilk had killed Dragons, and he never forgot any danger.
This was her responsibility. It always had been. Ressa only looked over after Demsleth had long vanished.
“You were crueler to him. I think Teriarch really did try, and he was ashamed to admit he couldn’t do it. Not without leaving his cave and stirring up a mess.”
Magnolia Reinhart shrugged fractionally. For once, she had no eyes for him. She was just staring at that collapsed figure. The [Innkeeper] still knelt there.
“He’s cruelest to himself. It was never his job, anyways. It wasn’t Erin’s. This is mine. I should have sent every [Assassin] in the world against them when they first appeared. Rooted them out. This is my job, and it is the truest failing you can lay at my feet and Tyrion’s.”
“Faces have died. We tried, Magnolia. They slip away. And everyone ends up like…”
Ser Normen. Or the Raiders would just avoid her traps. Slip through her fingers like malicious, bloody ghosts. This frustration had been hers every attack for over a decade, now.
And still, not a clue. She knew the name of their leader, knew something of his history. But no Raider had ever been caught alive or identified. They had even destroyed the body.
She had…one clue now.
“That was a Deathslayer Arrow from Rhir. That…is a hint.”
“We have always known at least some of the nobility may be aiding them. But it could have come from Roshal. Those arrows are sold and traded. Even if you asked Lord Deilan El to account for his two, he’d look guilty.”
That was because the House of El had tried to deconstruct both and destroyed a facility both times. Magnolia lifted a hand.
“It’s a hint, Ressa. Chase it. And they’ll dodge us. But we’ll chase it down. And fail.”
Ressa glanced at her mistress. Unlike other times, Magnolia was speaking softly, and her eyes were flickering, as if tracing something ahead of her quarry. A cat, laying a trap for a mouse where it had been following in vain for so long.
“You have a plan?”
“Yes. I just came up with it. I was unable, Ressa. Unable to do it until now. This time? I have a scheme. I will use it to bring them down. I swear it. It has nothing to do with cunning feints or criminal networks. That’s why it will work.”
She turned and clapped her hands briskly.
“Get me a budget sheet. This will be expensive. Have Zanthia on a speaking stone. She’ll be bound to know what’s going on. I need her to help me shake out the details.”
“Should I call back Demsleth…?”
“No. He’ll be useless. I need a second list, Ressa.”
The [Maid] had produced one sheet in an instant and had another with an enchanted quill ready to go. She flicked impatiently, and it drew neat lines for her to chart names and data down.
“Will you tell me instead of revealing it like some [Magician] hiding all the tricks?”
Magnolia Reinhart’s smile was weary. And guilty. She looked back at that orb, and Ressa thought it was unfair of that man to look so tiredly valiant.
Lord Xitegen stood there, as if he were the only flower of Izril to ever try to fight the Raiders. But Magnolia had never asked for credit, and now…now, at least, they had common cause in that. Terland’s Golems had done what Reinhart poison could not, averting the total slaughter.
But how to kill the Raiders, with all their danger and cunning? Magnolia turned to Ressa, lacing her fingers together.
“Of course I’ll tell you, Ressa. And you’ll tell me if it’s a stupid idea.”
The [Maid] waited. So—Magnolia Reinhart selected a second quill, jotting on the second piece of paper in delicate cursive.
“I cannot stop them alone. I have lost the Assassin’s Guild. Any hammer on them must come like thunder from above. For them, I would claim the Crown of Flowers. But I have to know who they are. Like the Circle—they hide.”
And they had never really found who had overseen the entire Circle of Thorns. Ressa nodded.
“Then—you’re going to make an alliance with Tyrion through Ryoka. And Xitegen. Something everyone can agree on. Chaldion too. Right?”
“Heavens, no. Well, I will, but that’s what they’re expecting, Ressa. We’ll do it anyways and hunt them down, and they’ll outsmart us. Stay ahead. We can move our own agents, but they’re watching us. But right now? In the wake of their first publicized attack and outrage? This will be their downfall.”
Magnolia pointed at the list, and the first name made Ressa change the scrying orb away from the broadcast where Sir Relz was trying to recap everything, reiterating the bounty on the Bloodfeast Raiders that had been increased by both north and south, Walled Cities and Five Families.
Instead, Ressa scried the target. The two women saw—a pacing figure. Someone angry—angrier than even Magnolia was. And that was hard to be.
But the rage that burned in those eyes and the smoke that actually rose in the image of the orb? That was someone who would have been there if she could. Someone who saw a place that deserved her and a thousand like her.
A nemesis for the kind of monster that were the Bloodfeast Raiders. But unempowered, and frankly—the woman had probably never considered them as her direct foe. It was out of her domain, but she paced. Like a stalking cat smelling, in the distance, a foul den that had to be eradicated.
Her lashing tail stopped, and the Drake came to a halt in her office and stared about. Then she glanced at something and glared up suspiciously.
She must have sensed the [Scrying] spell. Ressa turned it off, but only after she’d gotten a good look at the woman’s face.
“Watch Captain Zevara. Why her?”
“I heard the Watch is expanding its roster, and she did not leap at being a [Watch Commander]. Which is perfect. It should be a Watch Captain. She is also placed in the dead center of Izril. She may not be a Human—but she lives in a city with Antinium, so in a sense, she’s as foreign to the Drakes as any other. She’s well-known.”
“They’ll mince her up in a second.”
Ressa had no illusions. Even if the Watch Captain was handy with a blade—Magnolia’s eyes glittered.
“Which is why we begin small. But there are excellent [Guards] across Izril. The proposal should come from…Celum, perhaps. Or maybe the Watch Captain will say it herself. Do you see it, Ressa?”
The [Maid] was struggling to connect the dots. She frowned at Magnolia as her hands hesitated over the quill and paper.
“Do you mean like some kind of organization of City Watches between north and south?”
“Partly. But Ressa, Salefenwool had no Watch. There is no one to chase a criminal outside the city’s limits. There is no one with the authority to lay down the law wherever they go. Terandria has [Knights]. Adventurers, the nobility, and so on do that job—erratically. But what if there was a body of the finest [Guardswomen] and [Guardsmen]? A…force of them that had jurisdiction everywhere and took on any crime. No matter how wide?”
High-level [Guards]. Experts, from every city, coordinating together, funded by the Walled Cities and noble families, able to pool resources and call on whomever was needed. Responsible for stopping…crime. Not monsters, crime. Like the Golden Pyramid scheme.
Or the Bloodfeast Raiders. But they would have to have the power that bridged north and south, and the power…Magnolia kept speaking, seeing something that made Ressa’s heart skip.
“Oh. Yes. They’d have to have the power to hold anyone to account. High or small.”
Ressa stared ahead and finally caught the thread Magnolia was pulling out of the air. A long plan that would change things. Izril had long been self-governed, the Drake cities sharing some rules, the nobility agreeing—but they needed something more.
That Watch Captain was the first. So Magnolia began moving things around her, organizing what she felt was necessary, perhaps just speeding up the inevitable and smoothing its path into existence.
“And when they find one, just one, Ressa. I swear I will kill at least one of my great foes and set fire to that entire nest.”
Magnolia did not look back at the image of the fallen [Knight]. She stared ahead at vengeance. It was easier. But Ressa glanced back at that fallen man being lifted gently into a wagon and spoke.
“It takes so long sometimes.”
Magnolia Reinhart turned back, and her eyes were bleak.
“Yes. Yes it does. I wish I were willing to gamble on stopping them here. Now. So that the next time is the last. But I’m too afraid of losing…you, Ressa. All of you.”
She bent back over the orb, and Erin Solstice still hadn’t moved.
When she ran, it was through the snow. Then she collapsed, and Ishkr brought the wheelchair to her.
“Erin, it’s dangerous—”
“Tessa, push me. Tessa, where are you? Someone has to—Octavia, Ulvama. Does anyone know how to treat burns?”
They were bringing him as fast as they could. Lyonette only convinced Erin to return to the inn by pointing out that she would get in Normen’s way. And reminding her Ser Lormel was hurt.
The [Knight] lay on a table in the inn, and Erin didn’t understand why—until she realized [Healers] were being called in from Invrisil and Pallass.
“Clear the room! [Healers] only!”
She shouted, and a wave of people stumbled back, some running to the sides or exiting as Erin forced them back. That left…
“Healer Demerra is here! Move!”
Grimalkin had brought the Gnoll who had treated Chaldion, Pallass’ finest. The Gnoll rushed in with her crystals—and Liscor’s local [Healer], Pemai, and a man from Invrisil were all working on Lormel.
The [Knight] was bone-white—and Demerra realized something as she saw glowing liquid splashing on his arm.
“The arrow’s cursed. The potions aren’t working?”
“No, we’re trying—”
They’d physically bound the limb. But blood was pooling, and the only thing that was keeping the man alive was…a tube wired into his arm. Demerra stared at it and pointed.
“Th—that’s the thing The Last Light was speaking of. How did—?”
The bloodbag and the transfusion line had not been any of the [Healers]’ first thoughts. It had been Joseph who had demanded it when the potions started failing.
A panting young man was clutching at his chest. He had made the run to Liscor’s blood bank, which almost everyone had forgotten existed—and up to the inn so fast he’d only gotten a light tan. Rivel, Fierre’s brother, had brought the blood transfusion and hooked it up.
The first transfusion of blood was working. Nothing else was. The [Healer] from Invrisil was inspecting Lormel’s arm as he spoke to someone via scrying orb. A Dullahan, demanding to see.
“Last Light, he’s losing blood, but his—artery—is not severed. No, something’s closed it—else he’d have bled to death before we could help. But—”
“I cannot heal him.”
Another worried figure backed away, and Demerra took a step back despite herself. Zimrah, the [Priest], raised her hands and looked around at the other Antinium.
[Cure Mundane Wounds] had completely failed on the wound. And…when Ser Normen arrived, it would fail twice on him. The reason was simple.
Both wounds were magical. Or alchemical, because the Raiders had lit Normen on fire with both magic and alchemy.
He was still, lying on his back, and when he arrived in the inn, he looked dead. There was not a part of him that was unburnt.
“He’s dying. I gave him potions. I’m sorry. I was afraid—I was afraid.”
Jewel helped put him on the table. She was tearing with guilt, but she had rushed him here without slowing. Erin looked up. Lormel’s bleeding had slowed. The arrow that had destroyed his arm almost completely had, ironically, stopped him from bleeding out from his arteries—by compressing bone and flesh.
But Normen? Demerra fumbled with her crystals, then dropped them.
“I need—does anyone have a Potion of Regeneration? He won’t survive long enough for my crystals to work.”
“It won’t work. I’m sorry.”
Zimrah lifted her hands. She had touched his burnt flesh so gently—and some of it had sloughed away from that touch. Her Miracle had done nothing.
The Drake was there, and he had a balm, but he hesitated in applying it.
“I have a burn cream, but Erin—I’m staring at his innards. There’s nothing to apply the cream to.”
He was still alive though. One eye stared up at Erin. He might be unconscious—but she thought he was looking at them.
“Someone save him. I’ll give you anything.”
Erin looked around, and Ulvama hesitated, but Goblinhome was too far away. She had her own cures—but even the [Shaman] had few memories of anyone being this badly burned. Let alone living.
Saliss stared down grimly at the man and closed the tin.
“Send for Ilvriss’ potion.”
The Dullahan, who called herself The Last Light, stared down at Normen with a bitterly painful expression. She acknowledged Erin with a single nod, and the [Innkeeper] almost reached for her.
“Gen—can you help him?”
“Perhaps. Let me work.”
The woman replied quietly, but not unkindly. She was staring down at Normen, her eyes calculating. Weary and frustrated that she could not be there. But they were alight with the will—and the means to do something. The [Healers] listened to her like an apostle of a new age as she spoke.
“None of you have experience with grafting. You will have to attempt it. Use fish skin if you have to. Fresh fish skin.”
“Onto his skin? Are you—”
“Be silent. He requires liquids. You have to get liquid into him. Use a tube and insert it down his throat if you must. Is there a Selphid? Prepare a transfusion of blood. Do you know his blood type? Take a sample, and I will direct you in finding a suitable donor. But find me honey.”
“Honey, and mix silver in the dressing. Honey for a dressing. First, begin removing his contaminated clothing and armor. If you have magical means, get them now.”
The [Healers] began scrambling to follow her orders. As they did, Ryoka Griffin leapt to her feet. She turned to Erin.
“I’ll go. I can get there and back in a day, maybe…two? If you can wait—can you teleport the potion?”
Grimalkin shook his head.
“Not that kind of magic. Fissival’s at war with Salazsar, besides. And there’s no more potion. It was lost during the Meeting of Tribes.”
Ryoka swung around, looking at the others in the silence. Even the [Lord] who had arrived and was forgotten by Erin for the moment.
“Does anyone else have anything? Magnolia? Someone? He’s—”
—Dying. Lord Tyrion shook his head slowly. Normen’s gaze stared up at Erin, and she almost touched his cheek. But she didn’t want to hurt him.
He had to make it. She reached for her hat.
“I can try to make something. I’m out of craft, though. I’ll try.”
“You do not have time.”
Someone said that, and Erin Solstice’s head rose.
“I will make all the time I need, then. If I have to steal an [Immortal Moment]—”
She had never tried. But she was about to, now. Demand that time itself stop for her. For her [Knight]. Prolong his misery. Because he could not go. Not now.
“I was happy.”
She thought that’s what his lips were saying. She refused to hear it. Erin turned, about to run into her [Garden of Sanctuary], when someone spoke. A gaze that was horrified, slightly, despite all she had herself seen, not immune, not allowed to escape, fixed on Normen. And a hand rose as if she were a pupil in class.
“Have you tried magic? I could try a spell.”
Erin turned—and Archmage Valeterisa walked forwards as half the [Healers] made to block her way.
“Keep that woman away from the patient.”
The Last Light instructed sharply. But Valeterisa insisted.
“No. Truly. I have a spell that might work. I could cast…[Restoration].”
Erin’s head slowly swung to Valeterisa. Tyrion—twisted around, looking incredulous. And Ryoka’s eyes opened wide.
“You? You can’t cast—”
A hand shoved her aside. Ulvama. The Goblin was suddenly wide-eyed. She looked at Valeterisa.
“Yes. She can. Do it!”
“But that’s the Healer of Tenbault’s magic.”
Healer Demerra whispered. Grimalkin looked at Valeterisa incredulously. The Archmage of Izril was nervous, but she stepped over to Normen and looked down. She lifted her hands.
“I copied it. It might not work on magical wounds. The efficacy of—”
“Shut up and cast.”
Ulvama shouted in her ear. Valeterisa flinched. Then she looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] just nodded. So, Valeterisa concentrated.
It looked, to those who knew magic, as if the Archmage were trying to force the spell past something. Like a beam of light trying to shine through smoke or mists. She activated the spell—then poured magic into it. Valeterisa began to sweat after fifteen seconds of casting. She should have been able to cast the spell at least three times with her mana supply.
But she was burning through over half her mana pool in moments. Someone grasped her shoulder, and Valeterisa twitched—but her apprentice linked with her; Palt joined her along with Grimalkin in a second, adding their supplies to hers.
Ulvama poked Valeterisa from the other side, and the Archmage pushed. She drew on the magic of the inn, and the portal door went dead. The magic of Erin’s inn drained around her, like a swirling vortex in Erin’s eyes.
Valeterisa pushed—and the spell activated. For a half a second. Then she keeled over in a dead faint over Normen.
She nearly slammed into him, and Relc, who had been watching, grabbed Valeterisa.
“Hey, Archmage. Are you alright? Did—”
He looked down and suddenly exhaled. Erin bent—and she slowly reached down and touched Normen’s red, smoldering skin.
He was still burnt. His flesh was still raw. But it seemed as if several layers had regrown. His clouded, running, good eye had turned into a proper eye that closed suddenly in relief.
He jerked—and almost sat up.
He spoke a second through hissing lips—then the pain hit him. Then—a paw shoved Erin aside, and Demerra was bending over him.
“Lie still! The spell didn’t work entirely, but his skin’s partially back. Saliss, the cream! Last Light?”
“Show me his injuries. I need to know how he’s breathing. His lungs, did the spell restore his hemoglobin or…?”
Erin was forced back, but she saw Normen’s head moving. He was in pain, now, as his nerves regrew, and a painkiller was the next thing Demerra shouted for. It was Saliss who had the answer.
“Get me some Faerie Flowers. There’s a top-level painkiller. Apprentice! Get the recipe for the pain-drops from Oteslia!”
Octavia went sprinting for her shop, and Erin? Erin collapsed. She never took her eyes off Normen.
He was alive. He was alive.
A Gnoll woman shoved people aside as she reached the inn. Krshia shouted.
“I have Ashfire Honey! Someone said he needed it—”
“Right here! Clear a spot! Move!”
Demerra turned in relief, and Krshia raised the pot. She looked at the second [Knight]—and then at Erin. The [Innkeeper] was thinking of Brunkr as well. She moved back, to give them room. Only after that did she let herself feel the guilt again. Then it felt like she was breathing.
Then—the anger and fear and loss came thereafter.
That night, The Wandering Inn was busy beyond belief. People were eating, moving through the inn, and Liska just opened the door and slammed it behind Halrac when he came through a second time.
“Who’s coming through for Celum? Everyone else, make a hole. No one comes through but essential people.”
“What about the [Knight]?”
“They’re both alive! Resting!”
Halrac stood to one side as a dozen people strode through from Invrisil. They were, he realized, the nobility and their entourages. A group of nobles he recognized from the Haven nearly ran into Lady Bethal Walchaís and six of her Petal Knights.
“Lady Walchaís. Are you for…?”
“Salefenwool? Yes, I am. I’m told anyone left alive is on the road and heading for Celum—under Lord Xitegen’s protection. Was there a plan beyond housing those poor people?”
“No…that is, we were going to arrange it and ask questions.”
Bethal stomped a foot as they all waited for Liska to change the door to Celum.
“What about housing?”
“We’re assured Celum will provide it.”
“Very good, Lord Renhurst. Then I shall let you ask the questions while I inspect the housing. Six of my [Knights] will wait in Celum. In case the Raiders come back.”
The nobles paused a second.
“—That is another matter to discuss. A full inquiry is needed. That arrow and the bounty—”
“Fat lot of good it will do. Lord Veltras’ forces lost track of the Raiders already. The man’s out there. Let’s go and—”
They were through the door and into Celum as Halrac watched. The [Bowman of Loss] thought it was something. He had heard Laken asking his [Witches] if they could track the Raiders in their own way, but they were worn out from managing to hex just one Raider.
They were going to get away again. And he had been useless. Now, Halrac realized that Lord Xitegen had managed to run all the way to Salefenwool and rescue the last survivors—and Normen—while Halrac had been held back.
Of course, the [Lord] had a Golem Horse, and he was a member of House Terland. The [Covering Fire] had come from his personal Retainer-Golems, who had used the door in Invrisil to teleport to Celum and fire upon the Raiders.
He was a hero, and many people were asking who he was. Halrac would declare that first.
But he had to see Normen himself. So Halrac went into the common room of the inn and found a crowd.
People were eating, talking, all upset, and Ser Lormel and Normen were nowhere to be seen. The first person to notice him was actually a Goblin cleaning mugs in a corner.
Inkpaper was not a helpful Goblin, nor even a good, friendly one. So Peggy had made him wash used mugs with a basin of soap and water. He called out as Halrac looked around for a familiar face.
“Hey, you. Pebblesnatch’s friend. You want Miss Erin?”
Halrac turned, and the Hob waved at him.
“Yeah. You…Riverfarm Goblin Adventurer Captain.”
Inkpaper had clearly forgotten his name, and his description for Halrac was broadly accurate. The Gold-rank Captain just stared.
“I’m looking for Normen and Lormel.”
“Everyone is. They’re upstairs. Resting. Crystals and guards. You won’t get in. The shiny [Knights] will kick you downstairs. Don’t land on your head.”
What that meant was that the Thronebearers were guarding both rooms, and they refused admittance to everyone. A grave Ser Dalimont nodded to Halrac when he saw him though.
“How are they?”
That was—a telling statement in itself. Dalimont broke away for a second to speak to Halrac. There were a bunch of flowers piled up next to the door, and letters. It reminded Halrac of Erin. He hadn’t seen her, either, in the crowd. Or Lyonette. Dalimont lowered his voice.
“They’re both going to make it. I—think. The [Healers] have done all they can. Ser Lormel is in worse condition now. Archmage Valeterisa managed to partially heal Ser Normen. She claims both men were cursed. Magical wounds. Her spell won’t work twice, and she was unable to even help Lormel at all.”
An Archmage had healed Normen? That she had done it at all was astounding. Dalimont didn’t describe the wounds overlong.
“Ser Lormel’s lost his arm. Normen is burned…from head to toe. Ser Lormel, at least, didn’t lose much blood. I don’t understand how, but the [Healers] say it was luck from how the wound was made. Like a mace, a bludgeoning blow. He’s been given blood…”
“Blood? Oh—that thing Erin made?”
Halrac knew about the blood bank. Dalimont nodded gravely.
“He is resting. Normen was healed, and his life is out of danger. He will be…a very long time to recovery, but he has had potions, balms, and I believe Miss Erin is arranging the final bit of care for him. But he will be affected by the…he’s lost his left eye.”
Halrac’s face didn’t move, but he clenched his teeth together and exhaled.
“He’s alive. How about the villagers?”
“In Celum. There are enough nobles to fight off even a Bloodfeast attack. For now, we are keeping Miss Lyonette safe, and…I think we are all bearing witness to what has been done. Both men were heroes. Lord Xitegen as well.”
That was one word for it. And—no—it was completely accurate. They were heroes.
But Halrac’s sense of injustice and anger would not dissipate from that alone.
Nor his guilt.
He should have run. Maybe he would have been able to help. He had…
It felt like it was burning in his quiver as he marched downstairs and looked around the inn. It didn’t do anything magical. It didn’t—feel powerful like the Heartflame Breastplate did when he’d touched that Relic.
It didn’t feel like anything, but he was scared of leaving it alone, scared of putting it in his bag of holding. He didn’t know what to do with it, and he didn’t—
Remember what had happened when he apparently vanished. He had just felt his sword biting into that Drake’s neck, known what would happen, and braced for death or the punishment for interfering with Zeladona’s Trial of Blades.
Then nothing. Then he’d been starving, landing in the snow, and everyone had been screaming he’d been gone for days. All Halrac knew was that he had been somewhere else.
Because he’d been holding that arrow in his hand.
It was one of his arrows, and he was missing three. He hadn’t told anyone—nor that his bag of holding had been missing two cookies, snacks he’d had in there. Halrac had found, when he later inspected his goods, that he’d chipped the tip of his steel belt knife and the missing arrows.
That suggested…something. But what about the tip of his arrow?
He didn’t know, but no one, not Hedault, not the [Witches], not Erin, had been able to say what the stuff was, the gold-like substance on the tip.
It was…fragile. It could flake off, and yet, everything in Halrac screamed it was essential he treat it like a relic. But he had no idea what to do with it, and he was frankly worried about showing it to anyone. Even Laken didn’t know he had it.
Nor, for once, had the [Emperor] guessed with his ‘vision’.
It didn’t matter. Not now, but Halrac felt the arrow in his quiver because of the guilt in his chest. He should have gone to Salefenwool and fired it at the Raiders.
But he had not. Braver men than he had gone. Normen had paid for going with his eye and burned body. It was a miracle he was alive.
He had gone. Halrac was a coward.
Halrac found Erin in the [World’s Eye Theatre]. Someone was poking her insistently. And someone else was poking her from the other side.
She eventually snapped and took the bowl of soup and ate. The first meal since breakfast. Calescent and Ulvama high-fived, but silently. Erin ate as if she tasted nothing and kept speaking as she sat in her wheelchair.
“…Okay. He’s regrown a lot of skin. So should I do the second treatment?”
“Very good. Very good, Miss Solstice. Yes. I believe that will help him greatly. And the third may prevent the—scarring. I would like to extend my great sympathies to that man, when he wakes. It is an experience I am…deeply sympathetic towards.”
The figure Erin was talking to was a man standing with vaguely stylish robes. He was swaying…no, Halrac realized he must have been on a ship because his image was bobbing slightly.
A half-Elf? Erin ducked her head.
“Thank you, um…”
“Irurx. And thank you for taking my odd request.”
“Well, I owe you a favor. So Ceria said, and the burn treatments—thank you. I…think there’s something about you I don’t know. But thank you.”
Irurx smiled at her faintly and adjusted what Halrac realized was scarred skin. Former burns. The name halted Halrac dead in his tracks.
That foul [Alchemist]? But he just bowed slightly, to her, and then stared at the stone-faced Drake to the side with a hint of a mocking smile.
“I trust the competent Alchemist Saliss can prepare my treatments. Again, I am sure we may speak in other circumstances. But my sympathies—”
“We’ll forget this ever happened, Irurx.”
Saliss snapped, and the half-Elf lifted a hand. Erin thanked him again and then turned.
“Can you make the thing he said would help? Is it bad?”
“No…it’s all above-board. I’ll mix it up since it will help. Irurx is probably the world’s greatest expert in being burnt alive. Aside from Normen.”
Erin twitched at Saliss’ joke, and the Drake gave her a side-long look. Then he patted her on the shoulder.
“He’d probably laugh about it. Well, probably not. Someone would. Irurx would. Don’t beat yourself up too much, and don’t ever speak to him again unless I’m around. I’ll mix it in Octavia’s shop, then I’m gone for the night. Those Thronebearers have you and Lyonette and the kiddos sleeping in the Garden, right? Good. See you. Oh, hey…you…”
Saliss sidled around Halrac, and Erin glanced up. She tried to smile.
He descended slowly and felt like an intruder at once. He was just getting in her way.
“I didn’t mean to bother you. I just came to check on…”
“No, you’re not. It’s not like I’m doing…any good anyways. I’m just in the way, and they’re both asleep. I’m the idiot who can only talk to—and get Normen and Lormel hurt.”
“He went on his own, Erin. You helped.”
Halrac had been so focused on Erin and the center of the room that he hadn’t realized Numbtongue was hovering there protectively. Erin turned to the [Bard].
“Did I? He was ready—whomever that person was.”
The [Innkeeper] touched a hand to her head. And her voice grew unsettled and angrier.
“She? He? I don’t even know. They—were ready. I should have banned Normen. I should have. I should have had a plan. I just did a few illusions, and I couldn’t stop him. Just threaten him. I should have had a weapon.”
She clenched her fists—then caught herself and looked at Halrac. He spoke automatically.
“No one went. Not Jewel, who was there, not anyone else. It was insane.”
“I’m not blaming Jewel! Or Ama or Vess or Zanze or Antherr—no way. But I was the one who gave him his class. I should have…oh.”
Erin had half-risen, but she halted in getting up. She looked down, and the bowl of soup was spilling onto her lap and the chair.
“Aw. Someone get a cloth.”
Erin had completely forgotten she was eating. She stood from the chair and wiped at her pants.
“It’s just the chair and my pants, Numbtongue. It’s okay. Sorry, Calescent.”
She looked so lost that Halrac wished Revi were here with something sarcastically sassy to say. Or Typhenous. Or Briganda or anyone.
He…could just look at her. He wanted to say that it wasn’t her fault, that Normen would have gone and he was alive.
Alive, with one eye missing, and if Halrac knew his wounds—the man might never breathe right again. Being burned like that could have invisible scars.
He knew Erin was thinking the same thing. Instead of saying any of it, Halrac just cleared his throat, and Erin looked at him as Numbtongue went off for a cleaning cloth.
“I’m—I just wanted to check on them. I am glad they survived.”
“Do you want to stay? Eat?”
“No. I won’t bother you. I’ll get something from the common room if I need to. Thank you.”
“Okay. Okay. Thanks, Halrac. I should…Normen’s asleep. I’ll thank Niers, I guess. And then—I need to thank Antherr and Jewel. Where are they?”
Erin turned, and Ulvama replied, her voice both sardonic and kind.
“Where’s Mrsha and Nanette?”
“Eating food. Like smart people. And crying. Like smart people. They are going to make get-well-soon dolls, too. And you are going to go eat first, talk to the tiny man later.”
Halrac left the argument between Ulvama and Erin behind. He went to the common room and paused for a second, but when Rosencrantz asked if he wanted a table, Halrac found himself declining.
He went to Invrisil instead. Liska let him through with a warning that Erin’s door was low on power despite her Skills and he might have to wait for a bit to return.
He wasn’t needed in Riverfarm. Durene was on her way back, and Laken had ordered everyone to take a break in light of what they’d seen.
Halrac couldn’t discuss the attack with Revi and Typhenous in private; they were both going to go to The Wandering Inn and probably be social. Briganda was comforting Cade. Or perhaps it was the other way around, since the boy didn’t know why everyone was upset.
The [Bowman of Loss]?
He went to the first bar he could find. Halrac sat down as a [Bartender] turned. It was overfull, and the room had almost exclusively Humans in it, though he saw two Drowned Folk mixed in.
“What can I get you?”
It was a half-question, and the purple Gnollish drink made the [Bartender] grimace.
“I’ll need to get it from the back. There’s a lot of people. It might be a while.”
“Then—how about a Terland Tint?”
The [Bartender] grinned and had a bottle of the pale, almost greyish liquid. It was still clear, but it had that odd color that made you suspect it was not fit for regular consumption. It was a popular drink up north. But it wasn’t that good to Halrac. It had just popped into his head.
“That’s a popular drink right now. You saw Lord Xitegen chasing off the Raiders?”
“I saw the attack.”
“You and everyone else.”
The [Bartender] indicated the full bar. Everyone wanted a drink after that, and there were two other [Bartenders] working at the same time. Halrac was sure that it was the same in Liscor—The Wandering Inn was a good example of it. People did the same thing when they witnessed tragedy or heroism like that.
But he didn’t want to go to an inn where he might be known. He just wanted to be one in the crowd, and the [Bartender] served him his drink, took a gold coin appreciatively, and gave him a big smile.
“This all tip?”
“Fill me up and keep the rest.”
“Yes, sir. I can do that.”
That earned him speedier refills, and no one chased him away as he sat in a corner of the bar. Halrac blended in, despite his enchanted leather armor and the shortsword at his hip. He could be, well, plain when he chose to be.
There was a reason his ‘nickname’ was Halrac the Grim. He looked like any other man with gray-green eyes, brown, cropped hair, and dark green clothing under the plain brown leather armor. He didn’t have magical eyes; they could contract to needle-thin pinpricks when he was aiming at a target, but few people ever saw him like that.
Halrac was in that kind of repeating thought that had no end. I should have gone. Look at what they did to him.
I can’t do a thing. Laken couldn’t.
Knight of Solstice.
What he couldn’t know was that his guilt was one of many. He had not even been…there. If Halrac had stayed at The Wandering Inn, he might have seen Ama staring into a cup that Ishkr had wisely filled with flavored water and told her was gin.
How many? How many, like Jewel, had seen the Horns go into the center of the Village of the Dead before? Or, like Vess, had jested with a group of Drisshian soldiers heading to the right wing to fight the ‘bug-strategist’ that Liscor’s army was so weak they had to listen to?
Ama was remembering another fire. Halrac? He was thinking of Ulrien. And wondering whether he would ever be high-enough level that these days never came again.
I should have gone.
But what he also thought was that—Erin was right. She had known what her Order of Solstice would entail the moment she helped bring it into existence.
No wonder she feared it.
“If only Ser Solstice had been there. That poor man wouldn’t have been alone. That’s what you’re thinking, right?”
Someone broke into Halrac’s circular thoughts and the silence that kept other bar-goers away like a forcefield. But when Halrac glanced up—he realized the bar had gone quiet. It was that kind of awed hush.
Not one he was used to, mind you. Erin didn’t provoke it that often. Nor Saliss. Nor Laken himself. Even the [Emperor] of Riverfarm didn’t go around stealing people’s voices.
That—suggested to Halrac that the awed hush was something you did when you thought it was what you were supposed to do. And appropriately—it was because a famous woman had paused in the doorway.
Elia Arcsinger. Her team was spread out around her, keeping onlookers back before they even gathered. She turned her head, and Halrac blinked at her.
Had he found his way into her favorite bar? But then he turned—and Capoinelia, Elia’s daughter, was sitting at the bar next to him. She lifted a shot glass of Terland Tint and nodded.
“What did I think?”
“Ser Solstice. You’re friends with the Order of Solstice and that [Innkeeper], right? Everyone was shaken up by the Raiders. Even my mother. ‘If only Ser Solstice were there.’ If only a bunch of us adventurers had up and gone together. Then we’d’ve have beaten the Raiders. That’s why they never strike too close to Invrisil.”
That was not what Halrac had been thinking. Beat the Raiders?
“There’s no way three Gold-rank teams would be able to beat them. They had the advantage and preparation. Killing high-level [Bandits] isn’t like killing monsters.”
“Ah, but what if Arcsinger’s Bows was there?”
Capoinelia gave him a significant look. Halrac gave her a blank one and hesitated in his response. She didn’t notice. Capoinelia turned and waved.
Then Elia Arcsinger was walking towards him. And Halrac realized they were looking for him.
“Captain Everam. Am I disturbing you?”
Yes. Halrac shook his head.
“No. Captain Arcsinger. Do you need something?”
“A private word. I would have come to you, but it’s tricky. When someone mentioned they’d seen you in The Wandering Inn, I went looking only to hear you’d come to Invrisil.”
“We’ve got an offer for you, Captain Halrac. A significant one. I hope you’ll listen carefully, you see. You’re the third group we’ve approached.”
Capoinelia leaned over the bar, cheeks flushed. She was clearly used to having a shot or two, and she looked excited. Her mother glanced at Halrac’s face.
“Capoinelia, will you find us a quiet room? Assuming Captain Halrac has a second.”
“I can do that. Hey, [Barkeep]—”
Halrac noted the difference between the two. Elia’s Gold-rank daughter and the woman herself were a contrast. Elia looked embarrassed.
Halrac was used to all types in adventuring. He’d worked with Captain Todi, and if that was the bar—Capoinelia was smacking it with her head. She had that presumptuous tone some adventurers got when they thought their team was better than yours. Pecking order. And mentioning he was the third team they’d approached was not how he’d lead into a conversation.
But then—he was sitting next to a legend. Halrac pushed his glass away as Elia spoke.
“I apologize for my daughter. She’s excited.”
“I take no offense.”
Halrac nodded at her and felt better—right until a half-Elf with a bow pushed forwards.
“Elia, I can have a word with Captain Everam in private. No need for you to busy yourself.”
“I’ve got it, Toreel.”
The half-Elf had shorter ears than Elia’s. He also had a strange kind of leaf-armor. It was technically scale armor, but it cut off at the knees, a kind of archer’s skirt, and each scale was fashioned like a leaf and painted green.
Enchanted, no doubt, and the other [Archer] had a pair of longswords at his side. A dual-wielding [Ranger]? Halrac had never met a [Ranger] who used two blades like that before, but—he eyed the rest of the team.
A [Mage], a fourth half-Elf, with a ruby-colored orb for a staff. Two warriors, perhaps Izrilians, both Human, wearing enchanted plate armor. One had a hammer and a shield; the other was clearly a greataxe specialist.
“This is Toreel, our acting strategist. Angest, our [Mage], Lilntas and Anwyne, [Hammer Vanguard] and [Axemistress]—”
“Not like a fancy [Spearmaster] or those belled freaks, but it’ll do. Heya, Captain Everam! I’ve heard of you!”
The woman smiled and waved a hand. Halrac nodded, and Elia paused. Toreel turned his head, and Halrac had the distinct impression the half-Elf glared because Anwyne’s face fell and she went silent.
“Capoinelia, and we have our last [Rogue Marksman], Iloid. He’s a half-Elf as well.”
Halrac did not want to meet the team, so he just nodded. Toreel glanced at him, and now Halrac had the sense the half-Elf was offended by him. But he just pointed.
“We have a room waiting, Captain Arcsinger. We’ll be out here. Listen carefully to her offer, Captain Everam.”
With that, the team waited for Halrac to get up and follow Elia into the room. And he thought—
What a dysfunctional team.
Halrac had seen bad teams before. He’d watched the Horns adventure with the Halfseekers and Silver Swords and his own team as a case study in inter-adventurer dynamics.
But he’d also met Named-ranks unlike younger adventurers. Many were rude or eccentric. The Champions of the Coast were an example of good Named-ranks. A loving couple, friendly and open.
Eldertuin? The same. The world knew Deniusth was arrogant but could be generous. Colth? He was too helpful and friendly. But Arcsinger’s Bows were definitely tied with Orchestra for throwing their weight around.
He had the distinct impression that Invrisil’s adventurers had grown tired of them, from what Typhenous had reported to him on his occasional visits to his home city. Arcsinger’s Bows took the most lucrative contracts, were the most famous lot, and had the pecking order at the Adventurer’s Guild. The same Gold-ranks that loved to bully newbies were getting that treatment from a Named-rank team, and they didn’t like it.
But also…the two [Warriors] were clearly not the same as the half-Elves who made up the permanent roster. They didn’t look like they fit or that they thought they were being well-respected.
Still, treating Halrac like a young Silver-ranker was not a good way to make friends. Elia didn’t even seem to realize he was annoyed as she opened the door for him and made a show of ordering a drink for him.
“I’ve got it. I know this is all an imposition, Captain Everam. May I call you Halrac? I won’t take up your time, but I imagine you might want to talk.”
“Halrac is fine.”
He did not thank her for covering his bill of a gold piece, and Elia paused as she sat at the table and received some wine.
Watered, she’d asked. Which meant…she wasn’t intending on getting drunk. He noticed she preceded and chased it with a glass of water—purified water, but still. Elia grimaced as she drank.
“The purified water has lost the purity. That’s what happens with bad storage. I apologize. Do you want anything else?”
“No, thank you.”
“I had meant to talk with you before. We both went to the Village of the Dead, but afterwards, I didn’t have a chance to discuss matters with your team.”
Halrac had heard Elia’s team had been arguing over the loot, but he hadn’t been in the mood to deal with it with the Horns presumed dead. He shrugged.
“I saw your team at work. Your Skill was instrumental in the battle.”
“Oh, thank you. The King of Avel gave me aid; I can’t shoot multiple shots like that, but I can do two shots a battle.”
He hadn’t known that. Elia smiled.
“Practice. I’ve had to show off that Skill almost every day for years. Speaking of which, I only regret I couldn’t do more. Eldertuin was very impressive…and the Horns were of course the stars of the hour. Have you gotten your share yet? Captain Ceria, I hope, is doing well. If you speak to her, please send her my congratulations.”
“I will. And I think we’ve gotten the gold.”
No one had pulled it from the Merchant’s Guild. Laken had a guild now in his lands, but it was definitely not going to honor fifty thousand gold pieces of withdrawal. He wondered what he’d do with it.
“The Helm of Fire finally sold to…the Empire of Sands, I believe. I heard it’s going via ship if a Courier’s reached Zeres already.”
“Mm. Not many of my acquaintances are happy about it.”
Elia fidgeted. Halrac was not giving her much to work with. She smiled slightly.
“Mine neither. Captain Halrac, shall I cut to the chase? I realize you may not wish to talk today after all the distressing events.”
She faltered and then went on—
“But I must speak with you regarding a contract my team and I are on. A lucrative one. I’ve engaged two other teams to help me, actually. I was hoping to talk to yours about it.”
A contract? And she needed three teams including his? Halrac sat up a bit…and a part of his mind suddenly came awake. But he pushed the realization aside as he frowned.
Elia had to think a second.
“The…Spoken Vow, I believe a Gold-rank team. They’re a capable bunch of fighters, which my team likes. Do you know them?”
Halrac was grimacing.
“That’s a new team. They’re fairly green. They fought at Orefell and lost a teammate.”
“They were up to seven when I spoke with them.”
“They must have recruited. They’re a Gold-rank team, not all individually Gold-rank.”
Elia paused a moment and nodded.
“Ah. Well, they’re mostly there to hold any line and give us numbers. But we also have Cosmenaut, the Duelist of First Landing, with us.”
Another Named-rank? Halrac paused with his shot glass raised.
“He’s Gold-bell, isn’t he?”
“Mhm. He’s come from First Landing, albeit belatedly. Every Named-rank is heading south, it seems. The New Lands call.”
Elia didn’t seem called, but she did seem very happy to have a Named-rank on her team. If Halrac remembered right, Cosmenaut wasn’t actually much of a monster-slayer. He took on brigands and [Bandits]. He’d made a name dueling in First Landing, and you called on him to discipline other adventurers or take down [Pillagers].
The prickles on his spine were getting worse. But he forced himself to nod.
“Sounds like it’s mostly melee and bows. That’s…two [Mages] in total.”
“Yes, well, Arcsinger’s Bows doesn’t have that much magic, and my Skill tends to fill the gap. But we could use more [Mages].”
“And you want Revi and Typhenous?”
“Are those your teammates? No…that is, we would like to hire you. But it’s not exactly the same matter. I suppose we’re looking for a noncompetition agreement. I realize it might be difficult, but I’m prepared to recompense you.”
Now every alarm bell was ringing. Ringing…and Halrac played dumb.
“Why would we be competing?”
Elia was smiling, and he realized she was uncomfortable as well. She looked at Halrac. Away. Then she dropped the hammer.
“It’s my understanding you work for the [Emperor] of…the Unseen Empire, Halrac. As it happens—my team has been engaged to work in that region very shortly. I would like your team not to interfere with my team’s work. Tomorrow. I’m prepared to pay you in case this offends your employer.”
He knew what she was saying. Knew it, and it still took his breath away. He didn’t say anything, so Elia went on.
“I’m prepared to offer you two thousand gold coins. You needn’t take part. But I do not make it a policy to fight other adventurers, and I thought I would be up-front about the issue, rather than force you to lose face in the moment. I’m—”
“Goblins. You’re talking about the Goblins.”
Halrac said it, and Elia stopped. The famous half-Elf turned her head and gave Halrac a smile. He didn’t return it.
“—My team has been hired to destroy a group of Goblins in Izril, Halrac. A standard contract for us.”
“Those Goblins are under the protection of Riverfarm and Emperor Laken Godart.”
He hadn’t been mistaken. When she’d come to him, Halrac had thought at once it had to do with Goblins. But his first thought had been that it was for the Goblins of Goblinhome, and he’d been wondering if he had to warn them.
This? This was—incredible. Halrac spoke slowly.
“Emperor Laken is employing my team. He owns the entire region, and he has declared Goblins his citizens. They have their own lands. If your team was hired—I would advise you to retract your services, Captain Elia. Because the [Emperor] has an army.”
“And you think he’d use it to protect Goblins? On Izril of all places? The Goblin King’s rampage—and there was a Goblin Lord just last year!”
“I know. He was there. I was there. But he refuses to let anyone touch them. Your team would never get near them, Captain Elia. And my team would certainly be called to defend them.”
Elia fiddled with her bow. She had it strapped to her back, and now she took it off her back and flexed it. It was golden and had five crests pressed into the old wood. The Bow of Izril’s Shores, Arcsinger’s Bow.
Halrac’s was invisible and in his bag of holding. Elia glanced up at him.
“Captain, I’ve been hired to fulfill my calling. I am Elia Arcsinger—and I do not let Goblins thrive. I came to Izril to slay the Goblin Lord. Now, I have been hired by one of the powers of Izril to eradicate a possible infestation of them.”
Infestation. Halrac knew the term was an adventurer one, and he might have used it before. But it sounded so…odd, now. He frowned at her.
“Which power? Lord Veltras?”
“I’m not at liberty to say, Halrac. But I am asking your team to stand by. We would hate to force the issue.”
“I will not break my promise to Laken Godart. Griffon Hunt do not break contract.”
Halrac’s mind was whirling. Elia raised her hands.
“Oh, no. Captain Halrac—you needn’t do it outright if you think that will look poorly. Is that what you thought? Forgive me. Let me clarify: you could take your team far enough away that you couldn’t answer the call. It will be finished swiftly, I promise. That’s what I meant. Two thousand gold pieces and we will keep it between us.”
She smiled, looking relieved by the silly misunderstanding. Halrac? Halrac stared at Elia and shook his head.
“I am not going to take your coins, Elia Arcsinger.”
“Three thousand is the absolute most I can do, Captain Everam. And that would cut into our margins and the other teams’ as well. This is all compensation; the others are just here to hold off a few Goblins. My Skill should rout them instantly. They are mostly there to keep anyone else from interfering, really. It’s an hour’s job. I truly can’t negotiate, and Toreel would have started at five hundred gold coins. But I want to make sure you don’t feel cheated if your employer is angry.”
She sounded so reasonable. As if she were genuinely trying to do Halrac a favor against her advisors’ judgment. Halrac spoke slowly.
“Elia. I am not haggling over the price. I am saying—I cannot accept the gold.”
Elia’s smile faltered, and she developed a concerned frown.
“Oh. Then if your employer is too prickly, or you think it really will reflect on you, we could possibly arrange—”
“I am not going to let you kill those Goblins. Your team cannot do this, Captain Elia Arcsinger. Laken Godart will not permit it. And if you show up—tomorrow, you said? My team will be right there with an army.”
Then she froze up. Elia gave Halrac an incredulous look. She searched his face, up and down.
“—Captain Everam. They’re Goblins.”
“I know. There’s an inn that hires them. Have you never met Erin Solstice?”
Elia hesitated and bit her lip.
“Everyone talks about her to me. But I—no. I’ve exchanged words with her once, but never actually talked with her personally. She is clearly fond of Goblins, and I doubt she and I would see eye-to-eye. I have met rare people like that, you know. Who have never seen Goblins up close or who are ambivalent. Your [Emperor] must be one of them. But you, Captain Halrac, have seen Goblins. You must have. You’ve fought and killed Goblins.”
“…Yes I have.”
“Then you understand this is more than just a contract. Please, Captain. I know this may be difficult, especially if you are friends with the [Innkeeper]. But I have a job to do. And with all due respect—tomorrow, two Named-ranks will attack a handful of Goblins. Three teams. I have not often fought adventurers. I would not wish your team to be injured, or worse.”
She met his eyes, and Halrac stood. He shoved his chair back and looked her in the eye.
“You will be attacking an [Emperor]’s subjects. I will not stand by. You cannot buy my team’s silence, Elia. Nor do you understand. These Goblins—it’s not just these Goblins. They have attacked no one.”
She met his eyes, alarmed, as if she were talking to a madman. Worse, he knew how she must feel. But Halrac just shook his head. He turned to the door, stared at the crack leading to the hallway and flickering light. Then turned back to face Elia.
“You won’t reach them. You saw Erin Solstice stand up for Numbtongue? The Goblin in her inn? She will bring down the wrath of Pallass, her inn, and all her friends on you. This is not a joke. I cannot allow you to kill them, and Laken has an army.”
“I have been assured that will not be my issue. Besides, my team needs twenty minutes. We could go through the door tonight.”
“Erin will never let you into her inn.”
Elia glanced past Halrac.
“I worried about that—and I wished you would agree. Captain, won’t you change your mind? You know what a Goblin King does.”
He just looked at her, and all the arguments that Goblins were not all the Goblin King, a silly Goblin with a poofy hat, the chance that they had—seeing a Goblin weeping for his brothers, being saved by them, and an [Innkeeper]’s slow perspective on Antinium and Goblins—
All of it flashed through his mind in a moment. But he didn’t say any of it. Halrac just turned—and his punch hit the first adventurer in the face.
The missing [Rogue Marksman] went over instead of touching Halrac with the dagger. He’d been outside.
This was an ambush! A damn—Halrac went for the door as he heard a shout.
He was in the hallways, and he saw the rest of Arcsinger’s Bows moving. Capoinelia swung her bow off her back, and he shoulder-charged into her. The two [Warriors] were groaning and blocking one side—so Halrac reversed.
He ran straight into a fist. The Captain of Spoken Vow, Mickey, swung into him with a punch that knocked Halrac down. He grimaced.
“Sorry, Captain Halrac. But you’re up against Elia Arcsinger. Be reasonable. Come on.”
Halrac just rolled to get up—but he ate a boot to the chest. Because it was his armor, Captain Mickey cursed at the impact. Then he froze as Halrac aimed an arrow at him.
His invisible bow was nigh-impossible to see, but the pose and arrow nocked wasn’t. [Dangersense] had to be going off.
“Hey now. Don’t do anything stupid. My team’s here and Arcsinger’s. Riz—don’t move! He’s got his enchanted bow!”
The other man warned Halrac, but with a nervous edge to his voice. Halrac got to his feet. One of the other adventurers moved to grab him—he swung the bow around and spoke.
“Try to grab me and I will shoot you dead.”
He was surrounded, and Capoinelia had a bow drawn; Toreel had his longswords drawn.
Both bad choices in a crowded hallway. He had Gold-rankers at his back; the rest of Spoken Vow emerged from their hiding places. But no one wanted to grab him. Even the one Typhenous had called a Face, Riz, hung back, daggers drawn and grinning, watching his arrow. No one wanted to move though.
Halrac would only get one shot before they took him out, but this close?
“It’s an enchanted bow. Halrac, put it down. You’re not getting out of here—”
“No one move. Got it? Captain Everam, don’t be crazy. Do you want your team to be slaughtered? Two Named-ranks—”
He had to tell Laken. Did his army have the ability to stop—
The [Witches]. Erin. Halrac spoke slowly.
“I am going to walk out of here. If you force me to fire, I will. And one of you will die.”
He slowly began to walk, and Capoinelia’s arrow was drawn—he stared her in the eyes as the other adventurers halted. Toreel looked like he might grab Halrac’s arm.
If he did, that arrow would go straight through his neck. Halrac’s eyes were wild and furious. He emerged into the bar, which had gone silent. The [Bartenders] were hiding, the patrons staring.
Loose the arrow, fire another enchanted bolt to make them take cover. Then turn and run. They might be waiting for him to lower his guard before they hit him with a spell.
So long as he had his bow trained on them, clustered together, they were afraid for their lives, even the two in plate armor. Once he got to range…he just had to get to that door.
Two Named-ranks. His team couldn’t fight that. Would they? Could Saliss…?
Who would Erin ask to die if it came to it?
I should have gone.
This time—Halrac took one more step back and thought of what would happen if his team fought other Gold-ranks. They’d never set foot in Invrisil again. But he couldn’t put down his bow.
Fire an arrow and pull a frost one out. Three, two, one—
Then he heard a voice that rang like she was on a battlefield. Almost like a play. He saw a flash of golden hair, a fair arm—and Elia Arcsinger stepped out of her room.
Her entire team and Spoken Vow dove. Halrac aimed at her and loosed.
She fired at the exact same time.
Their arrows collided in midair. Halrac’s eyes wavered. He had been aiming for her arm. She’d hit his arrow—
His fingers were in his quiver when he saw that bow raise. And he saw, just once, what the Goblin King had last seen: that fair archer looking so incredibly guilty.
Then the second arrow struck him.
The commotion in a bar in Invrisil and Halrac’s absence didn’t get to The Wandering Inn. Liska had to work until past midnight, and when she finally clocked out, she put Halrac’s absence down to her missing him—or that he’d decided to come back tomorrow.
The inn was somber, anyways. Quiet. An [Innkeeper] sat in the center of the inn as Liska gobbled down weird, bow-tie pasta and sauce.
“This is so good. I’m so hungry.”
“Liska. Shut up.”
She glanced over, about to kick at her brother, but Ishkr was looking at Erin. The [Innkeeper] raised her head when she heard the whispering.
“It’s alright. Liska worked really hard. Do you want leftovers?”
“Um. Y-yeah. Thanks. We love leftovers. I’ve got to run back to the apartment anyways. Unless you can teleport back?”
Ishkr shook his head. Liska was groaning at the thought of having to get back at night. Even with street-torches down the main street and knowing the Watch was larger…she didn’t like it, even with Ishkr.
“Don’t go. We have to have spare rooms. You can stay here. Unless you like your apartment more? Ishkr, you never asked.”
“I didn’t want to take up the guest-rooms, Erin. Liska and I would be two rooms. Plus—I can teleport.”
Liska glowered at Ishkr’s smug look. Erin didn’t really smile.
“What about you, Liska?”
“Me? I’d love a room. It’s not bigger than our apartment, but could I get breakfast here? Yes, please!”
Liska hopped up and down, and Ishkr sighed.
“I’ll get a key.”
Erin watched him head over to the keys, grumbling about never getting away from Liska, and she turned to the Gnoll.
“Thank you for all the hard work, Liska. Really. We’ll sort out your overtime pay and give you a bonus.”
“Oh, no problem, Miss Erin. I know it’s bad, and I’ll probably level. Um. Don’t worry about it. I hope Normen gets better.”
Then Liska remembered what he’d looked like, and her appetite was gone. She kept trying to eat, but there was a lump in her throat.
“He’s going to be okay, right? The [Healers] said he’d make it.”
Erin paused a second. That was all you could say. The [Innkeeper] sat there and then added quietly.
“I’d make sure he wants for nothing again. If only he’d hate me. But he is still a [Knight]. I should have waited a year. There’s no excuse. I should have been a monster. Then I’d have been able to protect him.”
What did that mean? Erin was rambling to herself as well as speaking to Liska. The Gnoll stabbed into a bowtie noodle a few times and missed. Then she dropped it on her fur on the way to her mouth and picked it up and just ate it.
“Good. G-good. Because he was nice. You know? When I was working here, he’d always do that hat-tipping thing, and he helped me when I didn’t know what to do. And when you made him a [Knight]—I got really proud, you know?”
Ishkr was glaring at her, but Liska didn’t notice. She was saying things, but Erin was looking at her, and it seemed like the [Innkeeper] was really listening.
“No. I…I didn’t know him really well. But he and Alcaz were nice. And I was proud, like I said. Really proud. I didn’t even know him that well. I don’t even know his last name. But when I saw him kneeling there, I was, like, the proudest I’ve ever been in my entire life. And I didn’t know him. But when he went out into the snow and everyone saw him fighting there—I thought I was going to tell everyone tomorrow what happened. And say ‘that’s my friend’. When he came back through the door, I mean. I was really, really…”
Her eyes were hot and misting up. Liska brushed at her eyes with her paw.
“Sorry. I’m glad he made it. He was really brave. I’m just—”
She began sniffling, and huge blobs came out of her eyes and her nose filled up. This was so embarrassing. But she couldn’t stop. Once she stopped working and thought about it—
Erin Solstice slowly rolled over. But Ishkr got there first.
He handed her a handkerchief, and she blew into it. Then dabbed at her eyes with a good part.
“Ser Lormel was also nice. And he—and he—I saw him run outside, and I didn’t even know what was going on. C-can I see them? I know they’re okay, but can I…?”
She turned to Erin, and the [Innkeeper] whispered.
She didn’t take Liska up the stairs, but into her garden and out. Erin didn’t even turn as she rolled through. A door was already waiting in front of her, and she opened it slowly. But she halted with one hand on the doorframe and turned to Liska and Ishkr.
“—This is what happens around me. Remember that.”
She met Liska’s gaze with her own, her hazel eyes shining like burnt-out coals. But Ishkr gently pulled the door wider.
“That’s the lie you tell. The Raiders were here long before you, Erin. Never once before did I feel guilty when I heard they had struck. I thought of them like a natural disaster. Now?”
His paws tightened on the door jam as Erin looked up at him.
“—You’re change. He’s alive.”
“I wish he’d blame me. Liska? Do you?”
Erin looked at the [Doorgnoll], and Liska gulped. She looked at Erin and whispered.
“…But he never looked happier than yesterday.”
The [Innkeeper] flinched. She looked at the two Gnolls, then they entered Normen’s room.
The [Knight] was asleep. They’d removed his armor from him, and he looked…Liska didn’t even recognize him at first.
What parts of him weren’t bandaged were red. Now—brown with scabs or black with soot, still. He had no hair. He looked like a version of Fetohep, but instead of dead, sun-darkened skin, his was scorched flesh.
It was worse, seeing him. Liska had to turn away—then look. The door opened, and Ser Sest raised his sword—but relaxed when he saw Erin. He nodded, closed the door, and Erin whispered to Liska.
“He’s asleep. Healing.”
“Will he be okay?”
“Valeterisa cast a spell on him. We used potions on him after that. He might be able to walk in as soon as a week, I was told. ”
Irurx had been hopeful that Normen would recover far better than he had, with self-made remedies and no medical aid. Normen had burned less, but the scars would remain.
Ser Lormel looked even worse. But Liska and Erin didn’t enter his room. A [Princess] was lying on the bed, asleep. Tear marks were on her face, and rather than move either, Dame Ushar had just covered her with a blanket.
He was hooked up to a weird stand with a clear jar of blood attached to one of those alchemical tubes that she had seen the [Driver], Rhaldon, bringing Octavia. It was inserted into his arm. His bandaged shoulder was bloody—but he wasn’t bleeding profusely. Liska went back into Normen’s room and sat with him for a while.
It was too much. After a while, Liska just whispered to Normen.
“You were really brave.”
That didn’t feel like enough. She stopped and, after a second, looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper]…Liska didn’t know what to say. So Ishkr whispered for his little sister.
“He’s not dead. When you get up, Normen—we’ll have a drink.”
That was such an Ishkr thing to say. But when Liska looked at him—the Gnoll was gazing down at him, paws hidden by his apron.
“No one from the Haven dared to even set foot in Celum. You were right there.”
Liska nodded as Erin looked between the two. That was right. Then, Liska got up. The Gnoll went to the door, and Ishkr had her room ready. But she stood there for a second.
Erin Solstice was sitting there, head bowed over the silent man. He never woke, and she sat in her chair, leaning forwards. Her tied-back hair was falling over her face, and Liska had the worst thought in that moment—that the [Innkeeper] looked attractive.
She pinched herself so hard she nearly drew blood because that wasn’t what should matter. But she did. She looked…older.
Wasn’t she supposed to be twenty years old? She looked far older than Ishkr and Liska did. Older than Ryoka. Her shadowed face was illuminated as some of the winter clouds passed over the window.
And instead of the tears that Liska was expecting—she saw such a strange expression on Erin’s face. It wasn’t the weeping tears Liska had. Nor was it the pure grief on Mrsha’s face that had turned her into a ball, hugging Nanette, as both girls cried themselves to sleep.
It was not that grim weariness of Numbtongue, or the watchful anger, the sense of walking forwards in pain that was in Saliss’ eyes. Nor even the guilt written on Jewel, who had drunk herself out of this world with Vess and Ama.
Even the Antinium’s strange looks, like Antherr’s, that silent Antinium who had sat there as if he wished he could have gone back and fought—and killed all the Raiders—not one person was a match for Erin Solstice.
Ishkr had a look of pain in his eyes as he held the door open. Pain and pride. As if he were watching a terrible moment. But the pride—for here was someone worthy of all the inn’s stories. And in that way—he was closest to Erin’s face.
She had a bit of all of it in her look. Anger beyond words. Sadness and guilt so great she couldn’t give voice to it. A terrible, terrible weariness of seeing this. But it was also there too.
Pride. A painful pride like she was still lying there, dying, bleeding to death with crossbow bolts in her chest. And she looked at Normen like that.
As if—Liska realized—she knew exactly what it was like. A knowledge beyond life in her gaze. She had been there and knew what lay beyond, and she was gladdest of all that he was still with them. She saw everything he had lost—and she had heard his last words and seen that strange, relieved smile.
So Erin Solstice sat. Just like that. Head bowed with pain. When she stared at his face—it was as if she were slowly raising her head to meet the gaze of—
A statue in her garden. She was looking at the sleeping [Knight], to see if he was satisfied. With all the regret in the world. Yet, she also saw his finest moments of glory and honor even as he lay there.
She was proud of him. In that moment, and in that second, Liska understood why the Goblins and Antinium would have died for her. And why so many had. She looked at Ishkr, and he saw it too. Gently, Erin Solstice lifted something, and she placed it upon the blankets. It danced there, the tiniest green flame. Then she turned away, and Liska…
She didn’t really sleep. But she lay there a long time, haunted by an image and thoughts she would never be able to give voice to.
Until the morning.
It was a tired Gnoll that admitted the first adventurers from elsewhere into The Wandering Inn. She did it mechanically, and the inn was dead silent.
The first one she let through had a look that fit this place. Yet he had not visited recently. It was just that he carried the same pain of ashes on his silvery armor and on his handsome face that looked—hurt.
Ylawes Byres looked around as Liska changed the dials.
“I’ve come to pay my respects. Is…”
“Normen and Ser Lormel are alive. They’re resting. You’re not the first. Go on through. Invrisil.”
“Three teams for Riverfarm, please.”
“I don’t care. Pay up.”
Ylawes Byres half turned and blinked at a bunch of semi-familiar faces. A few jerked back, and one, Riz, waved, and he half-nodded. But then he was striding into the inn.
Ylawes was not the only person who had arrived. In truth, he was one of the last. He had been sorting out his family’s business in the ruins of their estates in House Byres lands—then in Riverfarm, getting his parents situated.
Now, he was signing onto caravans headed to the New Lands for as much gold as he could command. Or supposed to be.
No one wanted to hire an Antinium or Goblin, you see. Rasktooth and Infinitypear. And the caravans said that right until he turned away—in which case they allowed they could accept a Gold-rank team plus Vuliel Drae and two new Bronze-rank adventurers.
For a reduced price.
Almost everyone knew what had happened to his family. But despite that, because of it, they thought they could get his services cheap, play upon the ‘objectionable’ pair.
Ylawes couldn’t stop thinking of his burned manor. The ruined mines and…it made him the best at negotiation he had ever been. With Falene and Dawil’s help, he had nailed down six prospective clients and was getting them to outbid each other.
He was tired. When he had heard of Ser Normen and the deliveries, he had thought he should help. It had felt right—then he had wondered if he should charge Erin for his help because he needed to earn gold and had been ashamed.
Now…he just wondered if there were enough good people left in Izril. Or rather, if there were so many monsters they were sinking into the sea. He didn’t know.
Someone recognized him. The ‘Ser’ came from a silent [Knight] sitting with his head bowed.
Ser Solton looked worse-for-wear after his own winter adventures, but his scrapes were the last thing on his mind. He was accompanied by an angry woman that Ylawes recognized.
“Isn’t someone going to do something? I’ll volunteer if anyone finds where them Raiders are hiding.”
“Durene, stop it.”
“But—he didn’t deserve that. He was one of the bravest men I’ve seen, and—I need to hit something. I—aaah!”
Durene’s fists were clenched, and her face was flushed. Ylawes slowly looked around the inn.
“Captain Ylawes. Is your team here? Can I get you anything?”
Ishkr appeared, and Ylawes shook his head.
“The others are…elsewhere. I think. Vuliel Drae’s following Rasktooth and Infinitypear around. I think they’re on an adventure.”
Infinitypear kept finding them, and Laken had allowed it if he split whatever he found with the Unseen Empire. Little adventures, and Vuliel Drae had agreed to mind them in case anyone panicked.
Not that they should.
“Falene and Dawil are in Invrisil and Pallass. Negotiating. They might be here tonight.”
“I understand. Do you want to see the [Knights]? They’re both awake. Miss Erin is asleep, though.”
That made Ylawes’ head rise. Ishkr gave him a tired smile.
“Everyone’s taken heart. Normen nearly got out of bed. Ser Lormel’s in the [World’s Eye Theatre]. I understand he’s receiving congratulations.”
“As well he should. There stood a [Knight].”
Ser Solton half-rose to his feet, then sagged.
“—I realize it may be forwards of me, but if he should want for an…escort to Calanfer, I will make it a mission to accompany him and see he wants for nothing, whenever that is.”
Everyone turned to him. The Knight of Haegris looked around.
“He can no longer serve. At least, not without training and rest. It would be best for him to return a hero.”
“Yes. I just didn’t think of it like that.”
Durene nodded after a second. She clenched her fists.
Then she went silent. Because Ishkr had put a finger to his lips and jerked his head to one side.
Jewel sat there, staring into her mug. She sipped from it. Next to her was Ama. Vess.
They hadn’t so much gone to sleep as woken up from drinking themselves under the table and pulled themselves upright. Well, they’d had half drinks, half flavored water, and exhaustion had done the rest. Now, they were trying again.
“Ishkr. This isn’t Firebreath Whiskey.”
Jewel waved her mug at him.
“No. It’s water. It comes with breakfast. Do you want some?”
The Gold-rank adventurer stared past Ishkr. Her hand shook as she put the mug on the table.
“Breakfast is for non-cowards. Again. I had the chance. I thought I was doing it. Then I froze up. I tried to stop him. I’m supposed to be an adventurer. And I keep…”
“C’mon, Jewel. That was crazy. You knew it was the Raiders. No one would blame you for—dead gods, you killed a bunch of Snow Golems the night before that! No one’d think you were a coward.”
One of her two teammates, Toimt, tried to reassure her. Jewel didn’t respond. She just looked down at the table, even when Ishkr put a plate of steaming buns in front of her. They were odd and twisted, and Ylawes suspected Imani had taught Calescent another recipe. Jewel swiveled out of the way of the smell, and Ishkr moved it right and left until she took a bun.
“Where’s Zanze? And Antherr?”
“Antherr’s over there. I believe [Driver] Zanze just walked in.”
Ylawes looked about, and Antherr was sitting at another table, shoulders hunched, looking much like Jewel in body language, though he had no voice. He was sitting with the Beriad, and a rare guest was sitting with him.
“You could do nothing. Being unable to ride a horse is a physical incapability. Mourn. Embrace it. But do not harm yourself. That is the difference between acknowledging guilt and letting it rule you.”
Calruz stood up slowly. Ylawes stared at him, and the Minotaur froze a second when he met the [Knight]’s gaze. Then he ducked his head.
“I must return to my place. Excuse me.”
He walked past Ylawes, and the [Knight] said nothing. Not right now. It felt like all kinds of old faces. And new.
He had no idea who…no, didn’t he recognize one of the Antinium there? Ylawes didn’t know many, but he knew one of them. Like the Beriad—it was one of the Antinium who’d helped save them all at Orefell.
Embraim was sitting with Antherr and speaking.
“You were there. You mattered. He is awake. If you are ashamed—go up and speak to him. He is not dead. Erin Solstice’s flame will not go out. No matter who tries. The Order of Solstice she started is not one [Knight]. Or even two.”
The leader of Glory Battalion raised his voice, and it felt like a dozen heads in the inn stirred. Zanze looked over and made a bee-line for the others. A Runner, Herove, was sitting at a table by himself, white-knuckling a sandwich.
As if he didn’t know what the future held anymore.
There they were. There were others, of course. An old man with a haggard face was sitting by himself, not eating, looking as if he were waiting for someone to stand up and blame him. But his eyes were lingering on someone here.
Nobility came in and out, talking about ‘what must be done’, ‘lines in the sand’, and ‘Xitegen pushing boundaries’. Ylawes barely took notice.
Some people saw opportunity in this moment. He? He just saw a great injustice, and he no longer knew how to right it, because it was not something he could hit with a sword.
Perhaps if he had been ready, he would have noticed the little commotion in the inn behind him when he came in. Some self-important adventurers waiting in the hallway, including a woman trying to shield her face in case someone recognized her.
Liska never noticed as she processed them and let fifteen adventurers through the doorway. Arcsinger’s Bows, Spoken Vow.
The Duelist of First Landing, striding forth with swept blue hair and a fencing estoc in hand. Then—almost shortly after that, a man, striding through the door covered in glory.
It fell away from Lord Xitegen in this place as he asked Liska to change the door to Riverfarm as well. In fact, a number of nobles followed after, and Liska’s tired mind began to wonder why so many people wanted to go there.
Probably for the [Emperor]. Ylawes Byres didn’t notice. He was walking up the stairs to where he could hear voices coming from Normen’s room. Alcaz, Nanette, speaking for her and Mrsha, Numbtongue…he paused there, saw the gifts lined up, and wondered if he should have brought something.
When the cry came, when it rang out and came from the open door to Riverfarm and [Message] spells and Durene whirled in the inn and shouted—it felt like the smoke was still rising from Normen’s armor.
They had all seen it all. And somehow—today, the morning after—even Lord Xitegen didn’t see how familiar it all looked. To them, it probably looked like the right thing to do.
—But when Normen’s empty eye socket opened and his good eye stared up, he saw it. Always, and always.
Elia Arcsinger drew her bow, and a line of adventurers walked towards the Goblinlands.
They’d been noticed within eleven minutes of entering Riverfarm. Elia had kept a hood over her ears. Her daughter was less circumspect.
But any adventurers that weren’t Griffon Hunt stood out.
[Witches] looked for such things. It only took one apprentice noticing too many half-Elves, recognizing a Named-rank adventurer…and then peering at Elia.
Then she ran for the closest [Witch] she could find. That turned out to be Witch Agratha. When the [Teacher] heard who was apparently walking through Riverfarm, she came to a common-sense deduction. She dropped her chalk, hiked up her skirts, and sprinted, shouting for anyone in earshot.
Emperor Laken had felt something as well. He was in his throne-room, talking about what to do if the Raiders hit Riverfarm with Rie and Prost when he held up a hand.
“…Someone powerful just came through the door. No. Wait. Two…plus nobility. I think we have guests.”
The shouting reached him three minutes later. Then Laken turned.
“What was that?”
“Arcsinger! Elia Arcsinger is here!”
Gamel started. Rie cursed—and Laken’s heart began to pound. He turned.
“Sound the—get Wiskeria. Sound the alarm! Now! Get Durene! Get to the—”
The adventurers began running the moment someone blew a horn. They looked over their shoulders, saw a bunch of [Witches] pointing at them, Riverfarm’s folk turning—and Elia shouted.
“Run! Don’t fight!”
“Some of them have bows, Mother!”
Capoinelia had her bow in hand, but Cosmenaut shouted excitedly, slashing with his already-drawn estoc.
“No blood! No deaths! I will not allow it! No folk of Izril, only monsters die! Once the job is done, we’ll surrender if need be! Run!”
And he set the pace. The adventurers behind him said nothing—he had not heard of yesterday. They sprinted over the bridge and towards the forest. [Farmers] tilling the fields looked over, and a few started towards the adventurers—but the Gold-rankers were far faster. And armed.
The Goblinlands heard the distant horn call, and the feeling of vague dread, the [Dangersense] that had gone off in many of their inhabitants turned into a kind of certainty.
“Is it today?”
Raidpear wondered. He was glad that Rasktooth and the funny Infinitypear weren’t here, then. Or maybe not. He grabbed a spear, and Leafarmor was calling every Goblin to the walls.
The folk of Riverfarm had gotten bored, and only children and a few watchers would pace along the double-walls or come to trade with the Goblins or just—talk or watch. But the Goblins had never given up their watch.
They had been waiting for this. Small Goblins could still hold a bow and hide behind cover. But as Raidpear ran with every Goblin warrior, he didn’t see the regular rotation of Goblins on the walls. Instead…he saw them fleeing towards him, some having dropped their weapons.
He grabbed at one and kicked another. Even if it was an army, giving up the walls was idiotic! They could hold off—
It was only when he saw the wild gaze on one of the Goblin’s faces and the tears running from Holdnose’s eyes that Raidpear placed a name to the feeling in his stomach.
Dread. Not just fear. Not just terror.
It felt like death itself was coming for him. He would have fought a Gargoyle bare-handed. But he wanted to run. When he got to the battlements—Raidpear saw what had caused the Goblins to flee.
A woman was marching on the walls. And he knew her. He saw his death—she raised a bow over her head, and the Goblins wailed. They screamed—and fled, dropping their weapons, unable to face her.
A little Goblin in the camps raised her head as she tried to make breakfast. Her silly, poofy hat fell off her head, and she heard that word and knew it was time.
The one who had been harbinger for the Goblin Lord’s death, for Tremborag, for so many had come for them at last. All Pebblesnatch thought was…
“Oh. It’s time.”
When Erin Solstice awoke and heard what was going on, she demanded to be pushed to Riverfarm. Now.
Tessa did just that, and Erin was one of the last to go through the door as a terrified Liska shouted about the adventurers and she hadn’t known and Halrac…
She was not too late in getting there. The adventurers had not had that much of a lead, walking through the village and getting oriented before all hell broke loose. They’d run for the Goblinlands, but slowed when an entire army of the [Emperor]’s citizens, himself, the Darksky Riders, his soldiers, and [Witches] pursued.
Let alone the inn’s guests. In fact, word had spread so fast that Goblinhome was in alarm, sending Wyverns first towards Riverfarm—then as they realized how far it was, towards Erin’s inn.
Numbtongue was running across the grass with Klbkch, Calescent, Peggy, Relc—it did not matter.
For as Elia Arcsinger’s team hesitated and Laken Godart told them to stop, stop or be attacked, a man spoke. Even though he was on the [Emperor]’s lands—
Lord Xitegen spoke two words:
A rain of arrows came from the sky, and Riverfarm’s citizens cried out. A [Knight] shielded Laken—and everyone had to halt. Erin Solstice skidded to a stop—and there he was.
The [Lord] of House Terland, standing between Elia Arcsinger and her adventurers and everyone else. He pointed at them as his enchanted bracer glowed, and his eyes were set. As confident what he was doing was right as he had been yesterday.
She almost admired him for that. For doing what he thought was right. Then she swore she would kill him if his plans came to pass.
“Ah, Erin Solstice and the famous [Emperor] laying claim to our lands. Halt. I am Lord Xitegen, and by House Terland and the flowers of Izril, I have promised Elia Arcsinger no forces will assail her. Cross this line and it will be war.”
A pair of Golem servants bowed behind him, and a line of [Lords] and [Ladies] stood behind him. Allies willing to stand up and be counted. Erin Solstice didn’t recognize many of them—they stood with Xitegen, unlike Alman Sanito and Lady Edere, in the crowd of observers.
That mattered. Not standing with the [Lord] of House Terland was a statement in itself. As for the [Lord] defying an [Emperor] on his own lands? Xitegen glanced over his shoulder and grimaced.
He had hoped Elia would be more—tactical. But it was clear she thought this was most expedient. And he had been resolved to stand here if need be. After all.
That was why he’d brought the Golems in the first place.
Erin Solstice looked at Lord Xitegen, and her voice rasped.
“If she kills those Goblins—I will send Shriekblade after you and Elia, Lord Xitegen.”
He turned to face her as voices gasped. Laken Godart strode forwards to join Erin.
“This is my land. Pull your adventurers off it or you will plunge Izril into strife, Xitegen. An [Emperor] and [Witch]’s word on it.”
He looked at them, exasperated, and the [Lord] refused to budge.
“No. And if it costs us war—so be it. House Terland will move for its son, no matter who. We are at an impasse. Any adventurer who intervenes, I will mark forever. The eyes of Izril watch you! Tread carefully, guests of The Wandering Inn. The Haven has bullied and persuaded and stood against the nobles of Izril. And well and good Innkeeper Larracel is. But even she listens when I tell you I stand here for war and nothing less.”
Erin saw Klbkch hesitate as Xitegen swung his finger to him.
“You too, Slayer. You Antinium keep asking when it will be war. It will be war if you draw your swords.”
“It’s just a handful of Goblins, Xitegen. Leave off! Is this worth this—this madness?”
Lady Bethal screamed at him. But Lord Xitegen retorted calmly.
“A handful of Goblins, Bethal? You, of all women? No. I will not besmirch your name like other cowards. Your choice is your own. This is mine. It stops here. Hold your people back, Erin Solstice. I will not have you nor that Goblin army hiding in the High Passes interfere. If they fly their Wyverns overhead, I will shoot them down. This is how we fight, we nobles of Izril. Either prepare to grind every Golem into dust from here to First Landing—or hold to.”
He was willing to die for it. Erin felt Laken’s aura like a great hammer pressing down and the wrath of [Witches]. Her own aura…yet that man stood there, and if he was not resolved to die, the sight of Shriekblade taking aim with one of her daggers would have made anyone hesitate.
But Xitegen did not waver. He just looked over his shoulder to where Elia’s team was approaching the barricades. He shielded his gaze as a bright red light glared at him.
“What is that obnoxious thing?”
The [Witch of Law] strode towards him and halted. Wiskeria, General, [Witch], daughter of Belavierr, had a sword in hand.
“If you kill those Goblins, you will violate the laws of this land, Lord Xitegen. And that will be just as deadly as if we attack you here. Are you prepared for it?”
Wiskeria was the calmest voice here. She just sounded…curious. Like someone watching a tidal wave oncoming or armageddon beginning and remaining unmoved. Xitegen looked at her and the moving traffic light. He hesitated, shielded his eyes, then retorted slowly, as if he were suddenly dancing to an unfamiliar tune.
But he was a surprisingly good dancer.
“…I…the laws of this land? I am of this land. I am of House Terland, and this is how it is done, [Witch]. Whatever you are trying to throw at me—it will not work.”
Wiskeria nodded slowly and almost respectfully. She lowered the sword and shrugged at Laken.
“He’s right. He had some cause. Sorry.”
Laken shook his head. Erin was whispering to Tessa. He grabbed her arm.
The blind man opened his eyes once, and Erin Solstice held up a hand.
The Named-rank paused, and Xitegen, who had been watching her and Erin, frowned. He glanced up—and a voice called out nervously.
“I—I’m an adjudicating force, you know. I technically have a lot of power, and I’m also one of the nobility.”
Valeterisa said that behind a dozen magical shields. Xitegen spoke very politely up to her.
“Archmage Valeterisa. With the utmost respect for House Imarris and your own position in Wistram—if you intervene, I will have you shot with arrows. The same applies to damned Wistram and their spying orbs!”
“You do that, buddy, and I’ll stab you.”
Relc shouted. Xitegen turned and spread his arms wide.
“Very well! Liscor and the Walled Cities too! Where is Adventurer Saliss? Bring Chaldion and the Titan! Do you think the Five Families can endure being taunted when they make a stand? Come and test us! No side, including mine, will cross this line in the sand. Beyond there—is only Elia Arcsinger and adventurers. Come forth, Erin Solstice, and this will no longer be a war by proxy.”
He looked at her. And Xitegen’s eyes narrowed because instead of rolling forwards or doing something with her hat—instead of threats—the [Innkeeper] just gave him a long look.
It was the look of a woman who would see him dead. He had seen that look before. But what made Xitegen spin—
She no longer looked desperate. Instead…she seemed suddenly resolved. So did the [Emperor].
“Well then, Lord Xitegen. You have come to my lands and laid out your rules. An [Emperor] abides. Just beware of what you said. I intend to hang you with that rope of your words.”
Xitegen turned—and cursed. He counted and slowly looked back at Erin Solstice and Laken Godart. Then he shrugged and almost smiled.
“I do not recognize your authority, [Emperor]. This is not your land in my eyes. This is mine. This north of Izril. I have seen my family starve and seen every hand bloodied to hold back the Goblin King. You are an interloper. I do not recognize you.”
He said it so—easily—now. Easily, as if he were pulling an arrow from his flesh. It had been a long time, but Xitegen stared down at Laken Godart, and the [Emperor]’s wrath flowed around him. His eyes turned to the Goblinlands and he spoke quietly. Without even seeming to count the Goblins there.
“You have no right to stop me.”
He raised his hand—and a woman called out. Lady Rie walked forwards, finger raised. Pointing at him.
“You speak of rights and these lands as if they were yours, Xitegen. I throw those words in your face. How dare you? These are the places that were under House Valerund. I, too, was there. If there is any authority that matters—it was always mine.”
She came to a halt, and he gave her a pained look.
“Bethal. You, Rie. Tyrion himself. Magnolia Reinhart. How do you forget?”
Lady Rie looked like she had experienced a second youth. She stood there, filled with a vitality and the daring to face down Xitegen that left the other nobles watching speechless. She met Xitegen’s gaze full-on.
“I have forgotten nothing. But I am able to see what is new and remember the old. You wish to do this in the old way? Have a care, Xitegen, or I will turn the land against you until the river gets up and walks and the mountain comes down to smite you.”
Wiskeria’s head turned—and the [Witch of Law] smiled. Xitegen bit his tongue—and lowered his hand. He turned his head and counted the figures breaking past him. Then—he shrugged and, frustrated, stepped back. But his eyes still held that note of triumph, as did his voice, as he called out to Laken and Erin.
“If you wish to place your mark against the woman I saw kill the Goblin King. Very well.”
Every head turned—and Numbtongue, panting with desperation, nearly went running before Nanette and Mrsha tackled him. He looked up—and his eyes widened. Then he saw it. Erin Solstice turned, and someone shouted.
He shouldn’t have been able to stand. Let alone armor himself. He had to be in pain with every step he took. But still—
That [Knight] ran. And he was not the only one. It was not one team. They were not adventurers, not even half of them. But one man was running ahead while he shouted at Briganda to keep back.
“Captain Everam? Captain Everam. Wake up.”
He woke and knew he’d been shot and wasn’t dead. Elia Arcsinger had shot him straight through his armor.
—She’d missed his heart. No—she’d aimed at his shoulder before someone had taken him down. She was…
Not trying to kill him. She was a Named-rank adventurer. He was a well-known Gold-rank Captain.
Her aim. He’d heard Arcsinger was more hot air than…Halrac’s arm was burning. His shoulder wouldn’t move.
He was bound up from head to toe. Not rope, either. Enchanted chains. The kind you used to capture a monster. Or enslave someone.
It was dark, and he was in a cellar. Clearly, the other teams had decided to capture and imprison him until they were done. It was the best thing to do. Assuming Halrac didn’t try to murder them once the Goblins were—
Halrac tried to move. But he was also blindfolded, and he couldn’t budge the chains. There was no way for him to get free; an expert had bound him.
Yet who had woken him? A voice spoke.
“So I see. Someone fetch the keys to his chains. Where are they?”
“I—I—I can’t give you—”
“Ressa, break his fingers one by one. Or something else horrible. We don’t have time for this.”
That voice. He knew that voice. Halrac still stared when, in the darkness of the cellar under the bar he’d been at—the blindfold was yanked back by a [Maid] and he saw Lady Magnolia Reinhart.
She was pursing her lips, consulting a glowing time-piece.
“They just left. They will be going for the inn, and a few mudshowers from the wagons might slow them, or some unhelpful crowds, but Captain Everam will be behind them. Ressa! Fingers!”
“Please! Lady Reinhart—”
It was a [Mercenary], one of the hired caravan guards standing watch over Halrac. They had surrendered—six [Maids] aiming crossbows at the other kneeling figures had inspired that decision.
Halrac was dizzy and sick from the blow, but a [Maid] was offering him a tiny draught of potion.
“Apologies, Captain. We are forced to ration potions.”
“Give him the entire damn bottle, Noline.”
“That’s enough, Magnolia. They don’t have the keys. Arcsinger probably didn’t want chances. I’m unlocking it. Stand back and let me pick this damn stuff. At least it’s not Roshal’s. It’s just a simple tumbler…but there are six fucking locks. Got one.”
Halrac felt a click, and Ressa straightened with some lockpicks in her hand. She sighed.
He repeated himself. Then blurted out the obvious.
“The Goblins. Lord Xitegen—”
“I know. And Elia Arcsinger had an altercation with you at the bar whereupon her team decided to lock you away and assault Emperor Laken’s Goblins and make a statement to Izril. Captain Halrac, I will admit I’ve been a buffoon many times, but when I am in my city, my people do keep tabs on these things.”
Magnolia Reinhart was ablaze with energy. Her eyes were flashing, and the green glow from them seemed to illuminate the entire cellar as she swung her gaze around.
“—Xitegen would happily throw House Reinhart against House Terland and damn the consequences. Which is why I am not here and you did not see me. Do you know what must be done?”
He looked at her and kicked at the chains on his legs as Ressa undid two more locks.
“Yes. My bow? My gear?”
“Bag of holding. They did not rob you.”
“They’re heading towards Erin’s inn?”
“Yes…and I would have blocked them if you were dead. If you were dead, I would have arrested them myself. Do you know what to do? Understand me, Captain Halrac. There are ways for the nobility to do things. I can play Xitegen’s game. Are you willing to?”
She was looking at him almost like Erin Solstice did. With a terrible reserve in her eyes. She knew what she was asking him to do…but did he?
The Captain of Griffon Hunt slowly pushed himself forwards to let Ressa get at his back. His legs were pins and needles. His head was swimming, but he felt his frozen shoulder moving as the potion worked. He met her eyes.
“Yes. But I can’t do it alone.”
Magnolia reached down as Ressa undid the chains. She heaved him to his feet with a grunt of effort. Then slapped him on the cheeks.
It felt like that slap knocked all the exhaustion out of him. Halrac started—and Ressa tied the bag of holding to his belt. Magnolia Reinhart looked him in the eyes.
“Wait until they go through. Lord Xitegen will follow. A man will tell you when to go. As for the rest—Captain Everam. Do you think you will be alone?”
He looked at her. Then she stepped back—
And he ran.
When he’d burst through the door into the common room of the inn, everyone had looked at him as if he were crazy. Halrac hadn’t had time to explain. He’d just shouted—
And somehow, that [Knight] had heard him. He had woken, dreaming of green fire and the [Innkeeper] kneeling in front of him.
That was what had stunned Halrac Everam and the others. Magnolia Reinhart waking him up? Elia’s terrible deeds?
All of it, ordinary. Commonplace. Compared to the sight of that man putting a helmet on his face as he slowly walked down the stairs.
Alcaz was trying to stop him. Jewel said he shouldn’t be on his feet. He would die. He could not be standing.
Yet again, Normen rose. He came down the stairs and met Halrac’s gaze.
“You’ll be pariahs if you follow me. Your career as an adventurer might end. You will be marked. I can’t save you from the consequences. I won’t involve my team.”
Halrac had warned them all. The ones who followed him had looked at each other. And they thought the same thing.
I should have gone. The last time, they had seen that [Knight] go on alone. This time—they would have died rather than stay back.
That was who came to a halt as Elia Arcsinger aimed for the gates of the Goblinlands. Her team was excitedly shouting.
“We go in right after her first shot! She should take out most of the Goblins—wait. Who’s that? Lord Xitegen said—”
Toreel Branchwrath had his bow aimed and a silver-painted arrow nocked. But he swivelled uncertainly. Then swore.
“It’s him. How did—?”
Cosmenaut swung slowly and called out.
“Halt! Lord Xitegen has sworn to take vengeance against anyone who interferes! We are working under the authority of House Terland!”
They didn’t slow. But the man in front did come to a halt, almost a hundred feet away. He was panting; there was blood on his shoulder and a hole in his armor. But Halrac Everam aimed an arrow at Elia Arcsinger.
“Stop! Or we will—”
He hesitated, unsure of what to say. Another figure in burnt, ash-covered, cerulean armor halted, swaying, and raised a mace and shield. Capoinelia stared, and even the other adventurers hesitated.
A rasping voice bellowed across the ground. Ser Normen pointed the mace at them.
“Stop or we will put you in the ground.”
“What? Are they insane? They’re…”
One of Spoken Vow’s members made an incredulous sound. Their Captain, Mickey, already felt like they were in way deeper than Elia had said. She’d claimed this was easy. They were doing this for five hundred gold coins, and now—
An [Emperor] and Erin Solstice’s wrath was not worth this. But he was committed. The sight of that ragged line of people stopping—he counted.
Halrac’s side was outnumbered. But why…his eyes widened as a huge figure thundered into line.
Is that a half-Troll? She wore armor and carried a huge club and shield that looked like an actual door. But she stood next to a man he well knew.
“Captain Byres? What are you doing?”
Ylawes Byres didn’t answer. He didn’t seem to know himself. But he lifted his sword as a third [Knight] halted.
Ser Dalimont, alone. He was glancing to the left where he could see Lyonette and the other two Thronebearers.
“—Disavowed and exiled from my Order for this.”
That was all he said. Someone else panted as she came to a stop next to him, clutching at her side.
“I don’t know why I’m here. What about your [Princess]?”
Ser Dalimont raised his brows.
“She’d exile me if I weren’t here.”
“That…sounds like a cool [Princess], actually.”
Ama panted. She looked to her right, and Vess skidded to a halt. Someone caught him, and the Drake froze up—then nodded.
Antherr Twotwentyonethree Herodotus adjusted his grip on his greatsword, and someone else strode into place next to him.
“I got lost in the snow, Ser Normen. I’m sorry. We are outnumbered. They are Gold-rank adventurers. Jewel?”
Ser Normen turned as a second Antinium, his eyes glowing with pink flame as he took a lantern from his side, adjusted his grip on his sword. Embraim had a battalion to lead. He was a [Soldier] of Liscor’s Army and a member of the 7th Hive. A [Crusader].
He felt like he had never belonged more to one spot in his life. The Antinium turned to a panting woman, and she straightened.
“I—don’t know. Get them.”
Jewel could count. She knew how many Gold-rankers were standing across from them. She pointed.
“That’s the Duelist of First Landing. Named-rank. And Elia Arcsinger. I’ll try to slow him down. Just fight.”
She looked so relieved. Her teammates were staring at her as if she were crazy, but Jewel was smiling. As if to say, ‘at last. I’m finally where I should be.’
Another man wore the same smile as he clutched at his side.
“Shame I don’t have a wagon for cover. I’ve never been in a fight with blades. But if I can help keep them off Normen—”
Zanze gritted his teeth so hard they might crack. A [Driver] stood there where Gold-rankers and a City Runner had hesitated. It just felt right.
Jewel was not the only one who smiled. Durene was staring down the [Warriors] across from her.
“I’ll get as many as I can. This is what it means for my class. I get it now. This is what matters.”
Antherr nodded at her and saluted her with a free hand. Durene gave him a nod. And the others also felt it.
You only got one chance. Now, they formed a line as Halrac faced down Elia and her team.
Normen, Jewel, Ama, Vess, Antherr, Embraim, Dalimont, Ylawes, Zanze, and Durene.
Ten versus fifteen. The Gold-rankers were shaking their heads. That was—until they saw three figures slowly break ranks and pass by Lord Xitegen.
He let them go. But his disbelieving stare—didn’t phase the Stitch-woman [Summoner], the old [Plague Mage], and the woman with shield and hatchet looking back at her son.
Griffon Hunt joined them, and then it was thirteen. Halrac turned his head, and Revi punched him in the shoulder. Typhenous struck him in the side. Briganda checked his wound.
“Who gave you that?”
“And why didn’t you tell us today was an Erin-day?”
“You don’t have to be here.”
Revi stepped on his foot.
“Shut. Up. Pebblesnatch is behind that door. I was just trying not to be turned into a pincushion. You know we’re not getting reinforcements?”
“Yes. We have to take on Arcsinger’s Bows. The rest of you—stay behind us. We know how to fight adventurers.”
A Named-rank team was facing them down. Revi licked her lips, and Typhenous drew a blade.
“Riz. You’d better come straight at me. Or I’ll find you.”
She almost laughed at him and bowed. Mickey was calling out, looking between Elia and Halrac.
“This is insane. You all, back off. You’ll get killed.”
“You stand down or die. We know what we are doing. Do you?”
Embraim pointed at him. The Captain hesitated, and the finger swung to Elia.
Her face was white. She was staring at the sky and whispering.
“Scrying spells. No turning back. Capoinelia, fall back.”
Her daughter shook her head reflexively. Elia looked at Xitegen, and he waved at her. She didn’t have his stare of conviction. But there was no way to turn back.
“This is a mess. I’ll disarm the Gold-rankers. Don’t injure that [Knight]—anyone!”
Cosmenaut gritted his teeth as he brushed at his hair with the palm of his hand. He was counting high-level foes, and he was the most confident person there.
…Until he saw the final person jogging towards them. She was late. And she too had abandoned her team. But they were cheering her name. Her hair was a mess, and she was disheveled. She’d almost slept through it.
“Saliss says he’ll start a war. But you needed at least one Named-rank. Is that the Duelist of First Landing? I’ll take him on.”
Lehra Ruinstrider walked into line, and the Stargnoll made the other adventurers shiver for the first time. The Blade of Mershi was glowing on her wrist, and she wore a smile like a real Named-rank for the first time in her life.
There they stood. Waiting. Elia was staring at the wall—and Halrac saw her bow slinging to him. The two archers locked eyes. Capoinelia sighted down her arrow, straight at Antherr’s face—until she noticed Vess had aimed two wands at her.
Two wands. The [Arcane Warrior] had gone running, shouting that he was almost out of magic in his wand. Then he’d tripped on the way out of his inn.
And an old man had handed him a second wand. It felt like it was vibrating in his shaking grip.
Small things. Everything was narrowing into a focus. But they were waiting. The adventurers were hesitating now. But Normen?
He just turned, and that burned eye beneath the helmet turned to seek someone out. She had been sitting there, but now she stood.
Erin Solstice cupped her hands to her mouth, and she shouted. She felt it, just like he did in his bones. And so, she gave it voice. Shouted it past the fuming Lord Xitegen and gave it reality.
“Knights of Solstice! Protect the Goblins!”
Vess’ head rose, and he actually looked over his shoulder in relief. Jewel started, mouth opening into an ‘o’. Ama laughed. Antherr sighed as if he were coming to a great realization. Zanze laughed and then pointed at his chest, confused.
Halrac blinked at Erin.
And Normen nodded. Then he lifted his mace—and pulled his helmet off his head.
A thousand Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings waited. Then the [Knight] hurled his helmet towards the adventurers, and when it struck Capoinelia’s arrows, it shook the air and blew the needles off the nearby pine trees. Like a fireball’s wrath. It made the adventurers stumble—and the [Knights] charged without a word.
Were we on the wrong side? Perhaps—even Lord Xitegen hesitated when he saw Normen standing there.
The Gold-rank teams were nervous. They saw the [Emperor] and [Innkeeper]. They knew they were being watched, and they were fighting other adventurers.
The Knights of Solstice didn’t hesitate. They had all the conviction their opponents lacked. Even so.
There were two Named-ranks facing down the Order of Solstice, and they were better coordinated. Spoken Vow’s and Arcsinger’s Bows’ groups used to fighting side-by-side.
Lehra Ruinstrider charged Cosmenaut, raising a sword into the sky as her armor enveloped her and glowed a vibrant void-purple like the depths of space. Her armor shone with green and pink as it caught the light.
Ser Normen was burning with honor’s flame. Embraim had lit his sword and shield on fire. Durene thundered forwards, her huge club raised, shield at the ready as she headed for Arcsinger’s [Warriors].
The numbers were almost equal. But Ama and Vess and Zanze were hanging back as Revi shouted.
“Come to me, you creeping thing from the deep! Show them who they’re facing.”
She hurled something into the air—and a piece of amber glowed.
A Shield Spider the size of a house landed on the ground, and Riz slowed, her daggers drawn. She ducked a glowing green bolt of pestilence that Typhenous had shot and backed up.
“Summoner! Take out the—”
Toreel swung up his bow as Capoinelia got to her feet. She’d been knocked over by the blast from Normen’s helmet. They swung their bows up, and Revi ducked—but three arrows sang from the other half-Elves’ bows.
Toreel, Capoinelia, and Iloid loosed. One arrow went for her neck, one for her arm, one for her chest. Briganda threw her shield out and blocked one—
The other two shattered on a wall of shimmering air. Typhenous flicked another spell at Riz as Ama and Vess took cover with Revi. The [Summoner] was calling forth more of her summoned warriors.
“We have the numbers advantage! Get them! I’ll—”
Her Shield Spider was huge, lumbering—and dangerous if it got on top of you. It took two scuttling steps forwards, legs stabbing into the ground. Captain Mickey backed up as Spoken Vow retreated.
His team had grown after Orefell. They had lost one of their friends, but they were now a team of seven.
They had killed monsters like the giant Shield Spider before. It couldn’t be worse than dozens of Gargoyle Bossels. Mickey pointed.
“Riz, get back in formation. Eherne, give me a [Distracting Shot]. Take the legs on the left, then circle and surround the—”
An arrow flashed past his sword as the [Warrior] focused on the giant Shield Spider. It flashed over Antherr’s head—struck the spider in the head—and exploded. Mickey choked on his words as he looked over his shoulder at—
Elia Arcsinger adjusted her aim as her shot blew the Shield Spider’s head off. She loosed a second arrow, and it exploded in midair—this time from the force of meeting one of Halrac’s arrows. The [Bowman] stepped left. He and Elia each drew an arrow and loosed—Elia leaned out of the way of one arrow, sweating, and Halrac caught hers.
[Ranged Dodge]. [Arrow Catch].
One Skill used. Their eyes locked as they reached for another arrow, as fast as could be, nocked it—aimed—loosed—
Revi screamed. It was down, fading into motes of light, within seconds of being summoned! All the mana she’d spent was dissolving into the air. Worse—one of her silvery apparitions, a Stitch-man with a longsword, charged across the ground and straight into a second blade.
The Duelist of First Landing beheaded her summon with a flourish of his blade, then stepped back, avoiding Lehra’s charge. And Embraim and Antherr, the two Antinium, saw a wall of protective flames spring up around Arcsinger’s Bows, an inferno of red.
Embraim halted. Antherr ran into the blaze. The [Immortal] kept charging as Spoken Vow turned.
“That’s it! Box them in against the flames! Flank the [Mages] and break the barrier! Support Riz! Toreel, backup?”
Mickey was shouting, but the half-Elves were ignoring him as the two [Warriors] stood behind the wall of flames. He cursed; they weren’t coordinating at—
They could win this no problem. Lehra took her first slash at Cosmenaut, and the man just backstepped, a [Duelist] fighting a [Magical Warrior]. He riposted, and his blade nearly touched her face before she twisted her head away.
They were veterans. It was one Gold-rank team versus two, really, and a few [Knights]. A Thronebearer and a burned man. Two independent Gold-rank adventurers.
Then the man called Mickey the Moored looked up and realized that ‘Gold-rank’ didn’t mean the same thing.
Another Gold-rank Captain reached enemy lines first. He was faster, faster than Durene and Normen and even Jewel.
Ylawes Byres, Captain of the Silver Swords, had begun running when he felt something happening to his—arms.
His sword and shield, the blades forged of silver and steel, the heirlooms of House Byres, were changing. His father, watching from the silent standoff—stirred.
It looked like the sword was elongating. Ripples of silver, stretching out, like a mirage or afterimage. Trails of light.
Like wings. His shield was doing the same thing, and the [Knight] was running faster. Then—he felt like he was flying. He couldn’t have said why—only that he knew it was right. So he tensed his legs—
Then he leapt.
He was still thirty feet away when Mickey saw the [Knight] take into the air. He didn’t fly high, but straight at Mickey.
[The Knight Charged With Wings of Steel]. He was coming like an arrow, and Spoken Vow backed up as Mickey lifted his shield.
Ylawes’ face behind his visor showed two blazing blue eyes. A snarl of wrath. Mickey froze up and then took a step back. Then he braced—and heard a voice.
“In the name of the Silver Dragon! Yderigrisel!”
The name was like a bolt of lightning that caused silence. Spoken Vow’s [Mage] pointed a [Fireball] spell up—and it fizzled. It felt like his streams of mana had suddenly—fuzzed—
Then Ylawes hit Mickey like thunder, and the [Warrior] was reeling backwards.
“He flew! Ylawes—”
Lord Yitton Byres was having chills, and it had nothing to do with the weather. His son looked like one of the burned tapestries. That name—the way he’d struck down the other Gold-rank Captain—
Mickey was backing up, defending himself from an onslaught and clearly—losing. Ylawes only broke off to block a series of point-blank shots from the [Trick-Shot Archer]. He stumbled as one arrow swerved at a right angle and punched into his side. It didn’t pierce his armor, but it left a divot and threw him off-balance as Mickey tried to overwhelm him.
But Ylawes kept going. He brought his sword down, and Mickey’s own enchanted shield screamed as Ylawes tried to use his Skill.
[Shieldbreaker]! Another spell, a jolt of lightning, tried to strike him, but it fizzled out.
“[Negate Spell]! Get him, lad! Did you see that? He flew! My boy flew!”
A deep voice, panting, shouted, and Dawil hugged Falene’s arm. They’d both just arrived.
Lord Yitton turned to Dawil, but the Dwarf was shouting too loudly to notice. And then—
[Light Arc]! [Launch Kick].
Jewel flicked a crescent of cutting light through the flames, then kicked the ground. The [Wall of Fire] spell was shielding Arcsinger’s Bows, but they were shooting through the flames. Mostly at the stationary [Mages].
They had to be taken out. There were even a pair of skeletons, the first of which Toreel beheaded. The other was attacking Spoken Vow. Just—skeletons.
But who had summoned them? The [Necromancer]? Somehow, the Order of Solstice had an army at their back taking blows for them. Vess, Ama, and Revi were throwing spells back, but they couldn’t see their foes. Antherr had gone through the flames.
And so had Normen. Jewel kicked the ground and jumped over the flames.
She saw her [Light Arc] attack make Capoinelia duck—but Toreel swung his bow up. He loosed. Jewel—
[Quickslash]! She cut the arrow in half, then hit the ground as a second flashed over her head.
[Double Shot]. But her [Swordswoman’s Dive] had carried her out of the way. So many Skills!
They were all over Level 30—and she landed just in time to see Antherr stumbling back. He was bleeding, green blood running from his chest. Two arrows stood out in his carapace—and a slice had cut him across one side.
But the [Immortal] just lifted his greatsword and kept trying to advance.
“[Fourfold Volley]! It’s not falling—”
Capoinelia loosed her fourth arrow, and it wasn’t at full-draw. So it broke before it pierced his body. His shell was tough as steel!
But he couldn’t get past Lilntas and Anwyne. The [Hammer Vanguard] and [Axemistress] blocked his greatsword while the other attacked. A perfect duo—and Toreel stowed his bow and drew his longswords as he saw Jewel closing with Normen.
“Swords out! Capoinelia, covering fire! Iloid, disable them with a flank!”
The [Rogue] vanished, and Jewel cursed. Outnumbered. The small mercy was that Elia Arcsinger was loosing shots through the flame, ducking behind a tree. Halrac was distracting her.
Normen came to a halt, panting, smoke rising from his armor like a terrible echo of being burned by the Raiders.
But—Jewel realized, the [Wall of Flames] had barely burnt him. His skin should have been singed—Antherr had been. Yet Normen looked barely touched.
[Greater Fire Resistance]. A second jet of flames came from Angest, and Jewel backflipped out of the way, rolling into a tight ball. Normen shielded his face, and when he lowered it—
“I’ll take Toreel! You take the [Mage]!”
Jewel shouted. He nodded, and Angest backed up.
The two [Warriors] moved to block Normen as he and Antherr tried to charge again. Normen raised his mace and brought it down on Lilntas’ shield as the [Hammer Vanguard] struck back. Normen caught a blow on his own shield and staggered.
He was hurt. Antherr was swinging left and right, trying to hit Anwyne, as Jewel slowly stepped left. Toreel was striking out with his two longswords in a confident pose. He thought he could beat her? A [Ranger] beat a [Swashb—
An arrow stabbed at her midsection, and Jewel twisted. Capoinelia’s shot made her flinch, and Toreel’s blade sliced across her cheek.
“Surrender or I’ll have to cut you down, rookie.”
He drew back as she deflected his second sword, cursing. Toreel circled, and she realized he was distracting her from the [Archer]! And the [Mage]…
“Watch out for the [Rogue]!”
Antherr had swung his sword. A Level 14 [Honorable Immortal].
[Mighty Swing]. The [Axemistress] shouted as she swung her axe.
He lost the trade. The blow twisted his blade out of his hands and bit into his shoulder and arm. He went over backwards, reeling.
The [Axemistress] turned as Normen backed up, covering Antherr. And Iloid crept behind him, daggers drawn. Normen raised his mace overhead as Jewel screamed—
Then there was fire. Far more magical than the flames the [Mage] had cast. It looked like it came out of the skies. A finger of green flame from the clouds. It struck down on Normen and Antherr—but the [Immortal] didn’t burn as he sat up, lowering his hands, which were shielding his face.
It was honor’s flame, and it coated both Normen and Antherr. To Jewel, it looked like the same fire she had seen on Normen in the waystation.
A warm glow. It felt like a breeze on her face. It felt like righteousness, knowing what she was doing was right. It was the memory of being a girl and lifting her sword in defense of every worthy cause.
But Arcsinger’s Bows screamed as if it burned. It knocked back both [Warriors] like a slap from a half-Giant’s palm. Toreel flung up his arm, screaming.
[Weapon Art: The Bonfire Rages]. Normen swung down his shield, and Antherr got to his feet.
The two [Warriors] advanced, only slightly burnt from the flames. They slowly stepped through the flickering green flames coating the snow and trampled grass. It burned from the limbs of the tree branches, but it did not eat anything away.
Honor’s flame. Yet still they came, even as it seemed to sap at their strength, question their will. A harsh flame that burned like pain at times. The fire that so many feared to wear, because it might burn their very bones.
Normen and Antherr stood in it—and as Lilntas and Anwyne advanced, a fifth figure emerged from the dying [Wall of Fire]. She charged straight at Lilntas; the [Hammer Vanguard] set his shield and raised his hammer—
And looked up.
Durene’s club crashed down on his shield, and he flinched. But he was a wall. A rock!
“Antherr! Normen! Spoken Vow is—”
Normen glanced over his shoulder and realized that only Dalimont and Ylawes were fighting an entire Gold-rank team on their front. Briganda was trying to keep Riz back as she came at them.
“We’ll hold them here. Antherr, go!”
The [Immortal] never hesitated. He charged back through the dying flames. Four versus six again. Iloid tried to stab at Jewel’s back, but she slashed with her parrying dagger in her offhand and stepped back as Toreel slashed with both swords from each side. Toreel pointed, trying to focus his group on one target.
“They’re tying us up. Take one out at a time!”
—But Capoinelia was stepping back. Normen had charged her and Angest, and they were forced to scatter.
“Lilntas, Anwyne, get him!”
“We’re trying! It’s—”
Durene was raining blows down on Lilntas’ shield. He was bracing, waiting for a moment to counter. That was how he fought. She was huge, outweighed him, but she had a door for a shield and her greatclub was cheap compared to his armor.
She might be big, but he was a Gold-rank adventurer. He had levels on her.
—But his arm was shaking.
[Braced Shield]! [Reinforced Guard]. [Onslaught Defense]!
He had been hired to hold against any foe! The man was waiting, and he parried a blow with his hammer. He felt it as Durene hit him again with the huge club.
It was breaking. Durene noticed it, and her brown eyes flicked to the club with confusion. The weapon she’d used for so long was battered and worn with impacts, but she felt—
Anwyne tried to slash at Durene’s side. The half-Troll girl blocked it with a shield, and Lilntas raised his mace. But she had such long reach he was out of range! He stepped forwards—
And she brought her club down on his shield again. They both felt the cracked wood finally give. It snapped in an explosion of wood. Durene recoiled, holding the jagged half of her club as it ricocheted off Lilntas’ armor. He roared.
“Now! We’ve got—”
The hilt of her club punched into his helm so hard it rang. He recoiled.
[Steady Self]. [Lesser Bludgeoning Resistance]—
She was still attacking! He gritted his teeth as he held his shield up. Then he saw her drop the broken club.
The edge of her door-shield hit him as she swung it two-handed. Lilntas’ feet slid in the snow and mud. He groaned.
The shield slammed down so hard the wood cracked. Then she raised a gauntleted fist and punched his shield down. The [Axemistress] was trying to move around her, but Normen struck at her, and she backed up. She saw Lilntas waver.
Durene brought the shield up one-handed and slammed it down again.
[Shield Art: Shockwave Slam]! She saw his hammer-arm rise—she brought the shield down again. Backed up and hit him with it sideways.
Again and again, like she was driving a stake into the earth to build a house. An arrow hit her in the arm, and she didn’t even notice. She brought down the shield on his head and realized his guard was down.
The Gold-rank adventurer fell down, and Durene turned. Anwyne backed up.
“Lilntas? What are you doing? Get up! Lilntas!”
“I need a weapon.”
Durene was panting. Her shield was in pieces, but she hefted it up to block another bolt of flames. She grunted as it burned her, but it wasn’t that hot—
Jewel kicked a blade out of Toreel’s hands as the half-Elf tried to cross his blades defensively. It fell, and she ran for it. Toreel cursed.
“Stop them! We are Arcsinger’s Bows! We—”
Iloid tried to leap at Normen from behind. He thought the [Knight] was distracted with Anwyne—until he saw the man’s one good eye swivel.
It was impossible. He was half-blind and half-dead.
Normen had been a Brother of Serendipitous Meetings. His armored fist backhanded Iloid in the face and knocked a tooth into the back of the man’s throat.
He brought the mace up to hammer the man’s chest—and an arrow punched him in the chestplate. It knocked him off his feet.
“Good work, Capoinelia—”
Toreel turned, and Capoinelia hadn’t fired the shot. Elia Arcsinger ducked an arrow and shouted.
“Shoot them in the legs and fall back! Don’t let them engage us.”
She nocked another arrow and loosed it into the distance. And again—
She struck Halrac’s arrow straight out of the skies.
She—was a peerless shot. Every time Halrac loosed an arrow directly at her, she would knock it down. He had shot at her daughter, and she’d intercepted the shot.
Halrac could split an arrow down the center with a Skill. Most Level 30 [Archers] could. But Elia Arcsinger—
She was proving why she was a Named-rank adventurer. It wasn’t Skills. She just saw where his bow was aiming and—
She had to dodge that. But the second time he tried it, she shot the arrow out of the skies. Her return shot nearly went through his knee.
He was crouched, taking cover behind a tree recently felled for lumber. The branches and dead wood were giving him cover.
But she was just standing there, loosing arrows across the battlefield. Supporting the other adventurers. So long as they were trading fire, she could only do it when he gave her an opening.
Halrac drew another arrow from his quiver, nocked it, loosed. As fast as he could with the invisible bow he carried. She did the same.
They collided again. But as he reached for another arrow, he saw she was doing the same—
And she was faster.
She pulled three arrows from her quiver at once, holding them in one hand, between her fingers, by the fletching. Then drew and loosed, one, two—
Halrac ducked. Too late, he realized she wasn’t aiming for him. The first arrow struck the tree, and the entire felled tree jumped.
[Impact Arrow]. He reeled as the tree struck him. Then looked up.
Halrac rolled as an arrow she’d shot up came down. [Seeker Arrow]!
It thudded into the ground next to his arm, and he rose as she loosed the third arrow. It shot past her team and towards Spoken Vow.
The [Knight] turned from his duel with Mickey, and the shot struck his shield. He slid back a step, but his shield just flashed with his Skill.
[Shield of Valor]. Elia switched back to Halrac as he rose. This time, the [Bowman of Loss] abandoned his cover.
He had to advance. He was a former [Soldier]. He reached for his quiver and realized he was out of enchanted arrows.
He’d fired twelve, and she’d blown each one to bits. Damn. A fortune in—
She had an arrow drawn. He grabbed it out of the air, and it burned his gloved hand as he stopped it. Elia’s eyes seemed to be glowing as she reached for another arrow. Halrac switched quivers. He delved for a second one, a smaller quiver below his main arsenal. Each arrow there wasn’t bought from a market.
It was hand-made. More primitive, and the shafts were local ash. The feathers simply cut. But the dark wood looked slightly…
Blue. He nocked one and aimed it at her.
He was striding across the ground, now, through the snow. Advancing. He was a [Soldier]. A former [Ranger] and [Scout]. A [Fletcher]. His path was less pure than hers, a pure adventurer. If they had not died fighting Drakes, he might never have quit.
Then, his friends had died to Griffins. Freak accidents. Traitorous Named-ranks.
Ulrien had been the last. Each step, Halrac felt, was sometimes taken in the blood of better men and women. He never forgot them. Never spoke their names to the living who had never met them.
But he would never forget. He was a [Bowman of Loss].
And these were his [Arrows of Will], crafted. This was his—
“[Arrow of Regret].”
He loosed the arrow, and a streak of blue, the color of sadness, left his bow. It shot across the air, a trailing line from him to her. And she saw it.
She hit it with her arrow—and wavered. His arrow didn’t stop. Elia pivoted—and the arrow glanced off her enchanted armor.
It snapped, the force reduced by her own arrow meeting it. But when it broke—
The air screamed, and Elia’s face went pale. She stumbled, and her limbs lost strength. She backed away as the air itself wailed—and raised her bow with shaking arms. Capoinelia flinched away, then saw Halrac striding at Elia.
Another [Arrow of Will] was nocked. Elia swung her bow up.
Again, they met. And again—his arrow kept going as her painted, silver arrow exploded. Elia dove. She rolled, and Halrac aimed at her. Then an arrow struck him across one shoulder, and he winced. He swiveled—and Capoinelia shouted.
“Mother! I’ll back you up!”
Halrac broke into a run. He loosed another arrow, and Capoinelia took cover as Elia got to her feet.
“No, watch out—”
Capoinelia ducked as Halrac’s arrow reached her. It went wide, striking the ground next to her, and she laughed.
This man’s aim was so poor! He was a Human, slower, and a worse shot than half-Elves. They had all the time to train.
She shot him in the side, and he staggered even as he kept running. Toreel was moving to stop him with one sword, and it was true. Even Capoinelia had better aim than Halrac. She was a [Markswoman], as talented as her mother.
He? Elia shouted as Capoinelia sighted, waiting for Toreel to distract him. She’d put an arrow through his neck this t—
For what? Capoinelia jerked—then looked down. And her eyes went round. The arrow Halrac had ‘missed’ her with—
It was a [Rope Arrow]. And hanging from the end of it was—
The Tripvine Bag exploded around Elia’s daughter, and Toreel snarled as he raised his sword. Halrac pivoted as the [Ranger] came at him.
“You should have—”
The sword slashed at Halrac’s chest. But to Toreel’s surprise, the [Bowman] didn’t back away. Instead—he blocked with his bow—then swung it across Toreel’s face. The tip snapped across the half-Elf’s face and tore open his cheek.
Then Halrac drew his shortsword in his off-hand. He punched the guard into Toreel’s face and ran past him. Capoinelia had cut the vines away from her as she got free of the Tripvine Bag’s reaches. She looked up—
He brought the sword down, and it went halfway through her bow, snapping the enchanted string. Capoinelia tried to slash at him with a scream—Halrac kicked her in the face. There was nothing glamorous about his swordsmanship—but it was far better than—
He brought the sword up—and the shortsword exploded. The handle twisted out of his grip, and he dove as Elia aimed at him. She was back on her feet, and now the Named-rank adventurer and Halrac were a dozen feet from each other.
Halrac raised his bow, desperately as Elia took aim once more. They both turned—and loosed. Elia staggered as an arrow punched her in the shoulder. Halrac clutched at his leg where an arrow had gone into his bone. He stood—and ran as she drew her bow.
Elia’s eyes widened. She swung the bow at him, like he had done with Toreel, but he ducked it. He tackled her, and then they were rolling, fighting for her bow. She tried to kick him off, and he threw a punch.
The Named-rank adventurer—was losing. She rolled away, nose bloody, aimed her bow at him—and he threw a vial.
It exploded, and both of them screamed as a Pepperspray Vial detonated. But when she tried to back away, unable to see, eyes streaming, he found his fallen bow. Halrac swung his bow like a cudgel. Clipped her. She blocked as he brought the bow down—he kicked her off her feet again.
“Arcsinger! What are you doing?”
Lord Xitegen was screaming, but no one could hear from the remove. They were all watching, though. Watching a Named-rank being taken down by a Gold-rank Captain few had heard of. Watching, where so few had ever seen her fight before.
Even her employers. She was quick and a beautiful shot. But her team was being beaten back by four fighters, and she was losing to Halrac alone now.
Was this really the woman who had killed the Goblin King? Even Lord Xitegen’s eyes reflected a kind of uncertainty. Unable to understand why Elia was falling behind.
The Duelist of First Landing was not the greatest of Named-ranks—but he was proving his name, at least. Lehra was barely keeping up, and he had scored wounds on her, despite the armor that the Blade of Mershi gave her.
He was like a flash of steel, attacking and defending with his blade in one move. But the Stargnoll, that youngest of Named-ranks—
She had a halberd in her hands as the Blade of Mershi changed.
“No, not that! Lehra, you idiot!”
The Gnolls of the Meetings of Tribes shouted. Some tore at their hair. The same weapon that had lost her a duel with Khelt’s champions—she executed a quick stab at Cosmenaut.
But he was not an opponent you could clumsily attack. He stepped to one side and then lunged the entire gap, sword aimed at her visor. Lehra blocked with one armored fist, but he pivoted around her, executing a heel step turn.
“[Cross Slash]. [Duelist’s Leechblade].”
His blade slashed in an ‘x’ pattern and the steel changed, glowed a lurid color. A green blade, stealing energy with every blow it struck, armor or not. He had faced armored foes before—
Cosmenaut’s confident smile turned into a look of alarm. He stepped back—
The halberd nearly took off his arm as it whirled. Lehra had swung it without even turning. Now, as she pivoted, it lanced out, flicking, and scored the first cut on him so far. He shook blood from his arm and retreated—
But she was charging. Off-guard—he thought she wasn’t used to the halberd. The Duelist of First Landing hadn’t realized—
She’d been practicing. And as she got too close for the halberd to swing properly, the Blade of Mershi changed. Lehra came up with a different weapon in her hands, and Cosmenaut—
Threw himself to the side. He hit her arm once, but her armor deflected the blow. And her whirling flail punched him on the shoulder and chest once before he retreated. Then it was a bow—
An ever-changing weapon. A blade with no peer. Cosmenaut panted. He looked right and left. Spoken Vow had to fight alone. He wasn’t losing, but—he looked up and nodded to himself.
There stood a Named-rank adventurer. She was coming again.
Spell after spell forced Riz to dodge back as she took on Vess, Typhenous, and Briganda at the same time. The old man was pressing at his stomach with the back of his knife-hand.
She’d knifed him once. He was slow to heal from the trial—and he was just old. He didn’t seem to notice the poison, though. He just grimly held his staff in one hand. Knife in the other.
He flicked an exploding orb at her—then threw the knife as she dodged. He wasn’t fighting like a proud expert of blades but who he was. A Face. A killer. Typhenous the Plague.
But she was so fast as she engaged Briganda, then danced back as the [Shieldmaiden] cleaved the place where her head had been. Vess swung back to Riz—then opened fire as Spoken Vow clashed with Antherr, Ylawes, and Ser Dalimont.
Sillias, the cat undead, was stalking left and right, its beautiful bones damaged from repeated impacts, and Ama was hurling insults even as she repaired her beloved undead. Revi was busy throwing spells at the [Archer] and [Mage]—
Stalemate all the way down. But Spoken Vow were Gold-rankers. If they could just overwhelm Ylawes, Antherr, and Dalimont—! The cat would go down when the [Necromancer] fell, and it couldn’t chew through Mickey’s armor.
Antherr and Dalimont weren’t Gold-ranks. Spoken Vow kept back from Ylawes, holding him off with Elia’s help as Riz tied up three of the enemy. She normally took down foes from behind while they—
“Take the Antinium down!”
Embraim was fighting in the midline. He had a spear, sword, and a torch in his four hands. Two held the spear, one held the sword, and the last held a torch. Zanze was throwing rocks, pivoting with his club, protecting Ama and Vess and Revi.
They weren’t Gold-ranks! The Antinium weren’t even Level 20! Mickey charged shoulder-to-shoulder with one of his friends. Dorid, a [Lanceman].
He carried a huge lance, which he could use to strike his foes almost as hard as a charging [Knight]—but he had no horse! He rammed into Ylawes, and Mickey got past.
Mickey battered down the jabbing spear as Embraim backed up. The sword bounced off Mickey’s shoulder. Weak weapons! Mickey raised his sword—and Embraim raised the torch.
The Commander of 8th Battalion, Glory, blew a stream of pink flames over Mickey. It burned. The man screamed and backed away, swatting at the flames.
Unlike honor, glory burned hot and bright. It seared. He felt a jabbing spear—and Embraim was burning. His eyes seemed to be on fire with the rest of his body.
The greatest deeds he had ever borne witness to and the ones in his future burned in his eyes. It was hot. He swung his sword.
And again, the flames tried to burn Mickey alive. The man retreated. Embraim lifted the spear as Spoken Vow wavered, and he looked up at it.
It seemed for a second to those watching—that the spear changed. Relc, watching from a distance, thought he saw a Drake for a second. Captured in the Antinium’s memory.
A [Spearhunter], raising her spear overhead. Then—Embraim threw the spear.
It struck the [Trick-Shot Archer], and the adventurer hit the ground and lay there a second, stunned and reeling.
Embraim advanced. Spoken Vow was growing more desperate.
“They’re not even adventurers. Take them down! Take them—”
Toreel was screaming at them from their side. He stumbled away from Jewel, who had scored another blow as she faced Iloid. They were losing!
Because—because the Order of Solstice was matching them blow for blow, spell for spell. And because—
The flames were spreading.
Antherr’s greatsword had green fire on it. The same as Normen’s armor. He swung it, and the light was painful. It made his opponent squint. It dazzled—and he carved an arc through the air with every strike.
Embraim’s pink flames were bright, even under the day. He walked forwards, and they made everyone fight twice as hard around them on his side.
Do you see it? The [Knights]…were catching fire.
Three of them, for now. The others watched, and Ser Dalimont locked blades with a Gold-rank adventurer, a Gold-ranker. The other man had an enchanted sword; he was an [Artifact Mercenary]. A simple class.
A Gold-ranker with enchanted artifacts. He faced a [Knight], but a Thronebearer! The man snarled. They’d been dueling for fifteen minutes, but it felt like an hour.
He had better gear. He had to have more levels. So why—he cut at Dalimont’s chipped shield and used a Skill.
“[Activate Artifact: Incredible Effect]!”
His sword was enchanted to hit his opponents with increased force. When his Skill struck the Thronebearer, the ground quaked.
A spiderweb appeared in the earth behind Dalimont’s boots, and the man reeled. His head fell back, and he seemed like he might fall over. The [Mercenary] whirled his blade up—
And the sword struck him so hard he nearly sat down. He looked up, and the [Knight] was stronger. He seemed to fight like a dead man, reeling, but with the strength of—of—
A Ghoul? No, even stronger. Dalimont’s eyes cleared, and the [Mercenary] realized he’d been unconscious. The [Knight]’s nose was bleeding, his head ringing—
But he fought, and the [Mercenary] realized his golden armor was etched with a paint, pale silver. Old, even…unsettling. Like the markings of a tomb.
The sigils of Noelictus. Had his armor looked like that before? Ser Dalimont raised his blade. The oathsworn of a [Princess].
Seraphel’s [Royal Bodyguard]. [Two of Life, Two of Death]. His eyes burned, and the [Mercenary] whispered.
The [Mercenary] raised his sword and knew that if this man died—his corpse would still keep fighting. Who was this [Knight]? Weren’t Thronebearers supposed to be weak?
Then the [Mercenary] turned as he heard a shout and sagged in relief. Ser Dalimont hesitated—and grimaced as he swiveled. He heard the thing he had feared most.
Elia Arcsinger was wiping away the snot and tears from her face, splashing a healing potion in her eyes as Halrac yanked the arrow out of his leg.
She looked around at the battlefield and realized her team was losing. Or if not losing—
They might lose. Might lose…and there was nothing to gain here and everything to lose. She looked at her daughter, shouting for a bow, and then at Halrac.
Elia backed away. She swiveled her head—and saw Lord Xitegen was watching her. The [Innkeeper], [Emperor]. The damn scrying spells.
There was no running. So there was only one thing she could think of. The employer was always right.
Elia Arcsinger lifted her bow. Halrac got to his feet. She loosed an arrow—and this time leaned out of the way of his.
His arrows were too heavy to block. She had [120% Draw]—yet his felt heavier. If she had the mithril arrows, if she had one more Skill—
If she were Level 50, not Level 40. She backed away from the honest fight as her arrow struck him in the leg. But rather than go through, it lodged in his boot. Yet he registered no pain, because the tip of the arrow wasn’t in his flesh.
It was in the ground.
[Anchoring Shot]. Elia turned—and she shot an arrow left. Then dodged another arrow. Halrac took aim, refusing to try to free himself—
Elia Arcsinger vanished. His eyes widened. Then—he looked left and saw, where her arrow had landed—
The half-Elf had reappeared.
“[Arrow of the Traveller]. I have Skills too.”
She was panting. Elia took swift aim. Not at Halrac. She pivoted—and faced the walls of the Goblinlands. She spoke—and Halrac shouted.
Too late. Elia whispered, and her bowstring pulled back.
Even if she whispered it—it came out like a tolling voice across the ground. She drew back, and her arrow shone. A bright, unforgiving light. Oblivion.
Erin Solstice cried out in the distance. Xitegen shouted in triumph. But all Elia saw—
Was Velan’s face. Her arrow glowed. It turned red, a crimson like a Goblin’s eyes. Then—she let go.
No one saw the arrow travel, save Halrac. He saw it pierce through the gates of the Goblinlands, go through the wood and stone and vaporize a hole twice as wide as he was tall, a circular hole that left a smoking crater around it.
Everyone had seen and heard Elia draw her bow. Goblins had thrown themselves out of the way. Halrac knew this because—he was staring into the Goblinlands.
Staring at the trench of torn up ground, dirt still raining from the sky, at Goblins, cowering, looking up with wide eyes at the hole—and the trench.
It had blown through part of their village, gone through walls and destroyed everything in its way without slowing. It had hit the mountain, and Halrac saw—for a second—a hole before it caved in.
The arrow had kept going after that. It went through half a forest on the other side of the mountain before it stopped.
A hole through the Goblinlands. Elia lowered her bow, panting. She couldn’t tell how many she’d killed. They’d been vaporized, but she saw too many Goblins staring at her.
“—Missed. One more shot.”
The Goblins hadn’t been behind the gates like she’d thought. Of course they’d been taking cover. She hadn’t killed nearly enough. She just had to hit as many as possible.
That might be enough.
An arrow hit her in the back and pierced her armor. She felt the tip of it cut into her spine.
Halrac Everam was on his feet. But Elia just turned and loosed an arrow that cut his cheek open. They locked eyes. She almost felt bad for him. Elia simply stepped behind a tree as she prepared to use her Skill again. She was panting with the effort, but—
She was an adventurer. She didn’t need to kill him to win. She could have, even now. But she didn’t want to kill these people. The more they fought—
Then the Gold-rank adventurers grew desperate. Elia closed her eyes as she heard a scream.
Ylawes had beaten Mickey down again. The other man was on his hands and knees, and he stared up at the sword aimed at his head.
“Drop your weapons. I will not give you a second chance. Tell your team to do likewise.”
“Keep fighting! You idiots, we paid you to do your jobs!”
Toreel screamed. He looked around, and Normen was striding away from Anwyne. The [Axemistress] was retreating as Durene traded blows with her. Angest had been knocked out by the [Knight]’s mace—and Jewel was taking down Iloid. The [Rogue] and Capoinelia were trying to beat the [Swashbuckler], but Jewel was winning.
Even Elia had been forced back by Halrac. They still had—
Vess was hammering spells into the [Mercenary] from the side as Dalimont engaged the [Trick-Shot Archer]. They had to take out the [Mages]!
A blow sent Toreel reeling as he tried to charge at Typhenous and the others. He stumbled—and turned as Sillias raised a paw.
“[Webwork Riposte]! Damn [Necromancer]!”
He cut—and the undead cat was tangled in sticky webs. It tried to remove them from its face and claws, and it was tearing—but Toreel charged at Ama, who screamed for help when she saw everyone was distracted.
Briganda whirled. Vess shot arrows at Toreel, but the half-Elf [Ranger] deflected two. He snarled—they hurt! That wasn’t a normal [Light Arrow]—
A blow caught him across the face, and this time, he reeled. Blood spurted from a broken nose, and the half-Elf stumbled.
Who? He’d had a clear shot at—
“You bastard! Get back!”
A club smacked him on the head again. Toreel stumbled back—it wasn’t heavy, just a man’s swing. He looked up and realized—
It was the [Driver]. Zanze was striking at him, shouting. His skeleton retainer, missing an arm, swung a hatchet, and it struck Toreel’s other armored shoulder. Toreel cut the skeleton’s head off and it vanished, but the club hit him again and pain blossomed across his jaw.
“I’ve got him! I’ve got—”
He was turning his head like the amateur he was. Shouting, eyes wide, looking for Normen, who had turned towards the brave man. Zanze looked as if he might burst into flames himself. He stood there, facing Gold-rank adventurers with nothing but courage.
Toreel wiped at his nose with one hand. With the other, he ran Zanze through the chest without a word. The [Driver] stiffened—and the half-Elf tore the blade left, out of his chest. Ama screamed.
“—Ridiculous. Look what you forced us to. You fools.”
The Driver’s Guild might boycott them after this because one of their members was an idiot. Toreel shook the blood off his blade. That was his first thought.
Zanze fell over, still clutching his club, two-handed. He looked surprised, and then his eyes began to fade out of life. The blade had gone straight through his heart. He sat down and stared up at the sky.
An ember died just as it was about to catch flame. Ama made a choked sound as Toreel strode to her. Normen lowered his mace.
The Order of Solstice stopped a second, Halrac, Antherr, Jewel, Vess, Ama—looking down at the dead man lying there. Lips parted to shout. Then at the half-Elf. He was running, now, and they were going after him. But Ama was backing away, and Jewel—
Jewel was striding away from Iloid, but her face was white. Again. And again. And always, again, it felt like her fault.
She had been fighting with all her might. But—she should have just killed them. If she had, properly, a good man wouldn’t be dead. They had all fought like raging flames.
They should have been a forest fire. An all-consuming inferno. Zanze was dead? He shouldn’t have been here.
He had come because it was the right thing to do. He would have been—
He was a [Knight] of Solstice. Now, he was dead.
Jewel pulled something out of her bag of holding as she ran. She saw Toreel snarling, looking at her, Normen, Briganda—an arrow tearing a chunk out of one of his damned ears as he ran at Ama.
Something cold and hard sloshed in her grip as Toreel turned his head. Jewel had never dreamed of using it before. Now—
She threw it before she thought. Her arm arced up, and she hurled it like a fastball. It struck the back of the half-Elf’s head as he half-turned, sensing it.
But the acid jar broke and covered Toreel’s back as he whirled. A splash of green liquid landed next to Ama, who had fallen, hands raised. She flinched. Then she looked up—and saw the half-Elf freeze.
His skin began to bubble. Then burn. Then—steam rose, and he began to melt in moments. He didn’t seem to realize it at first. When he screamed and began to claw at the green liquid, reach for a potion—
It was too late.
Capoinelia stopped. The half-Elf she’d known from the start was screaming. Clawing at the back of his head. His face—he was melting.
A body hit the ground, and it was liquid. Blood and flesh and steam. He was dead. The other Gold-rank adventurers stared at the corpse.
The shaking [Mercenary] raised his blade. He went to stab Dalimont in the back. Then he saw a figure charging at him.
Antherr brought his blade down, and the [Mercenary] felt his enchanted blade bury itself in the ground. He raised his hand as he tried to pull it up—
The Antinium cleaved through the man’s shoulders. His flaming greatsword left a bloody trail as Mickey screamed.
“No! You bastards!”
He threw himself forwards, forgetting he had surrendered. The man stumbled forwards and traded blows with Dalimont. He smashed into the man’s chestplate. He buried his blade in Dalimont’s armor, halfway into his gut.
The enraged Gold-rank Captain only noticed the wand poking his cheek through the visor of his helmet when the red rage cleared for a second. Then he saw Vess’ clawed hand tighten.
The flash of light burned from Mickey’s helmet as Vess fired both his wands point-blank. The Arrows of Radiance bounced around in the steel helmet until black smoke rose. The Drake stepped back from the body as it fell, sickened. Then he aimed his wands up.
Jewel had another jar of acid. She threw it as Embraim walked towards the [Trick-Shot Archer] with his flaming blades. The [Archer] shot the jar in the air, and the mist spray ate at his scream. He looked at the Antinium—and threw down his bow.
They were surrendering. Spoken Vow threw down their blades. The first to do it had been Riz, in fact. She had looked at Toreel—and put her blades up, even though she had had a dagger at Typhenous’ throat.
Arcsinger’s Bows kept fighting another second. There was still—
The Duelist of First Landing was bleeding. He had seen Toreel die, but it only made him fight harder. For a second.
He and Lehra were leaking red into the snow, and both refused to surrender.
Behind the dueling Named-ranks—Lord Xitegen stared at the dead half-Elf. He turned and spoke very calmly to Erin and the audience watching. Which was everyone, really.
“That was a war crime.”
He spoke it calmly, every word deliberate. Erin Solstice stirred. But it was another man who raised his brows.
Laken Godart’s head turned slowly, and the [Emperor] replied in calm, quiet tones.
“Not on my lands it isn’t.”
Then he smiled as the flowers of Izril shivered.
Cosmenaut saw Jewel walking towards him. Normen came to a halt. The Duelist of First Landing pivoted slowly, still attacking Lehra as she backed up, shield and sword in hand. Her fur was bloody.
Three on one? They’d foul each other up if they didn’t know teamwork. He’d defeat them all! Lehra was the only Named-rank. He’d—
He was waiting for the acid jar. Ready to dodge it, even at point-blank range. But he didn’t see Jewel make to throw it. She had it in hand, and she looked at Normen. Then…
A slash at his face. Cosmenaut ducked, scored a line of red down Lehra’s cheek, but he lost track of them.
What did they do?
He got his answer as Ser Normen walked behind him. The [Knight] swung his Demas Metal mace, a straight, crushing blow. Of course, Cosmenaut blocked it with a buckler as his estoc threatened Lehra’s eyes.
He heard not the familiar ring of metal on metal, but an odd sound. Cosmenaut’s eyes slid left—and then he saw something unfamiliar.
The [Duelist] thought it was an enchantment at first. Then he remembered that Demas Metal had special properties. Things clung to it. Flame. Liquid.
Or…the green liquid that collected on the flanged macehead, like a dewdrop clung to a leaf of grass. It rippled and moved with the force of the [Knight]’s swing. And when the impact of mace met shield—
The acid sprayed forwards in a splatter. Cosmenaut turned his head, and some drops struck his cheek. The mace rose—and he stared at that burned [Knight]’s good eye.
His acid-covered mace rose—and the Named-rank Adventurer dropped his blade. He backed away and raised his hands. He whispered, reaching for a healing potion as he felt his skin burning.
He was not prepared to die. Not like that. The [Knight] of the Order of Solstice raised his mace and looked around.
The fight left the Gold-rank adventurers. Capoinelia was on her back, staring up at Durene’s shield ready to hit her as the bloody half-Troll woman looked around.
Then—there was only Elia Arcsinger.
The most famous half-Elf in the world, the slayer of the Goblin King, had seen Toreel die. She was afraid.
She didn’t want to die. That man was pursuing her, walking through the trees.
A [Bowman of Loss] versus the [Nemesis of Goblins, Ranger of Renown]. She knew she could defeat him, maybe even reposition and take down the others if they didn’t take her team hostage.
She had always been more mobile with her [Arrows of the Traveller] than her team allowed. She had levels on Halrac and better gear.
But she feared him.
Was this what the Goblin King felt like, at his end? Outmatched, despite his great strength? Elia didn’t know. But she looked at him, and perhaps he didn’t realize it.
His face was so…grim. Like his nickname. He walked through the forest, bow drawn, ready to loose. He didn’t even seem to realize it. His tread was so heavy, and he always walked like he was weighed down, she realized.
So perhaps he didn’t even notice that he was on fire. It clung to him. To the trees and branches he passed by. It was in his footsteps.
A painful, dark blue flame. It was every sadness and regret that Elia had ever seen. It was in his arrows. It made them as heavy as guilt.
As unstoppable as tears. If she looked at those blue flames, she thought she saw men and women following him. Like some great procession, a funeral march.
She closed her eyes one second. Then, Elia stepped out from behind the tree she’d been hiding behind. She held three arrows in her offhand, like an [Archer] of old. She fired the last three arrows of the battle.
The first she shot up. The second she shot at him, at point-blank range.
[Impact Shot]. It didn’t stop that [Arrow of Regret]. It punched her in the chest, hammered her so hard into the tree she was sure she broke two of her ribs. She slumped down, holding her bow. The last arrow was in her grip.
“Arcsinger, surrender. Or—”
Halrac’s finger scraped his empty quiver. He was out of [Arrows of Will]. It didn’t matter. He aimed a regular arrow at her forehead. Then—his eyes flickered.
Why did she fire the first arrow into the sky? He craned his head up and tensed to dodge—but the arrow had gone far wide.
Then he realized what she’d done and loosed the arrow point-blank. Elia inhaled—
Halrac’s arrow thunked into the tree trunk. Halrac turned. He screamed.
He ran from the forest, looking where—
She had chosen her spot, somehow. Sent an arrow spiralling up—and then down, onto the walls of the Goblinlands itself. Elia Arcsinger reappeared and got to her feet. She lifted her last arrow and turned. She drew it as Halrac shouted.
He stopped and drew an arrow and heard her speaking. As both [Archers] drew, he saw her head turn ever-so-slightly. She gave him a bleak smile.
Nothing in the world could stop her.
‘I can do two shots a battle.’
She’d told him that. She was aiming down, into the Goblinlands, at the greatest concentration of Goblins hiding in the mines. Her arrow wouldn’t stop. Rock couldn’t stop it. Steel couldn’t block it. No Skill below her level had a chance. Her arrow would shatter magic and destroy everything.
Halrac Everam drew an arrow faster than he ever had in his life. He loosed it at her back, and she saw it. That perfect [Archer] saw his arrow and side-stepped. She leaned back, and it missed, actually skimmed her armor as she turned. And the arrow—
The tip of his arrow cut something. Halrac heard her voice hesitate—
And the world—
In the moments between Elia activating her Skill, something went wrong.
<Skill Activation: ‘Line-Ender Hot’> [Error. Error. Skill ‘Line-Ender Hot’ not detected].
<Replace Skill: ‘Line-Ender Hot’> [Skill – Line-Ending Inferno assigned].
<Query> [What just happened?]
Her face turned into a mask of confusion. Halrac’s own despairing gaze grew wide-eyed—and then he heard the half-Elf scream.
The arrow in her bow vanished. Elia raised her hands. She stared at her bow—and then down at the ground. Her head turned to Halrac with a growing horror in her eyes.
“What did you d—”
Then—there was fire. There was…heat.
It sprang up from the ground. It emerged in a roar, like the erupting mountains of lava and fire he had heard about. It burned.
The wall vanished in an inferno of flames as the Goblins cowering there looked up. They saw a distant figure on the walls, their dread nemesis taking aim—
Catch fire. She had called forth the fires that none of them had ever seen—on herself?
Elia Arcsinger was on fire. She threw down her bow, began screaming. She stumbled away—but the blaze was pouring down.
She was on fire. More and more of it—it was engulfing the walls. A burning inferno, raining down on the forest, the area around the Goblinlands.
“What is going on?”
Lord Xitegen was staring. Erin Solstice swung her head to Laken, and he was clearly unsure. He thought it was her—
“Someone conjure rains! Now! Elia Arcsinger is—”
She was burning. Burning alive. A wordless scream on her lips. But the fear—she had heard the impossible. The Named-rank adventurer fell to her knees, unable to escape the flames falling around her. No one could get close. Halrac was backing away—shouting for water, water.
The [Witches] were calling on rain spells. Typhenous was trying to cast a jet of water—but it wouldn’t reach her in time. Elia Arcsinger was on the ground as Capoinelia shrieked.
The Named-rank adventurer stared down as she tried to move. At that…
Arrow. Lying there.
Then a foot crunched on the ash. A [Knight] picked up Elia and ran. The flames kept pouring down as water covered them both. But he had been burned once.
He did not fear fire. Ser Normen came to a halt in the ashes of everything. The walls of the Goblinlands burned. Arcsinger’s Bows knelt in defeat. And the Named-rank Adventurer, the Slayer of the Goblin King?
Elia Arcsinger’s head fell back as the nobles of Izril watched. As the scrying orbs focused on the silent figures bearing Zanze. The [Knight] of Honor’s Flame. Griffon Hunt and Halrac the Grim.
And on the cheering Goblins.
What, exactly, had happened on that day was a mystery. One that no one knew the answer to.
Only one man even had a clue, and he hid the evidence in his belt pouch. Not much had survived the fire, but the arrowhead had. When they asked him what he had done, he claimed it was an artifact, an arrow of last resort that he hadn’t wanted to use because he didn’t know what it did.
He’d gotten it from around Liscor.
That was the truth. But the real, unabridged reality of what had happened took a much longer time to process.
Three Gold-rank Adventurers were dead. So were Zanze and twenty-nine Goblins, who had been in the path of the first [Line-Ender Shot]. Elia Arcsinger had been burned. Not nearly as badly as Normen, but the image of Elia Arcsinger had been shattered.
In its place…came the Order of Solstice. For better or worse. Lord Xitegen’s expression when he finally walked away suggested that this was the outcome he would have wanted least. If he’d even dreamed it could occur at all.
The true consequences for Elia Arcsinger herself would become more apparent later. For now…it was done.
The Dragon watched from his perch until he heard what they were calling Normen. The [Innkeeper] stood next to that man who stood, despite his injuries, and called him an appropriate title.
All of them, by what they were.
“Knights. They’re the Knights of the Order of Solstice. The first members. No objections. No arguments. Each and every one of them who wants the class. I dunno if Griffon Hunt all want to be one—but I have my members.”
Erin Solstice was smiling, not happily with all the blood that had been shed. Not with Goblins dead. But with the painful light that this would never happen again.
She put a hand on Normen’s shoulder. He was sitting in her wheelchair, despite his objections.
“Unless you want to object?”
“Me, Miss Solstice?”
Erin smiled down at Normen. She did smile, despite the burned man’s face staring up at her with his flesh raw and bleeding. She looked into his empty eye-socket, and never once did she flinch or look at him as if he were broken.
She had seen a face like his, and the two men had found a dignity that defied the appearance of their flesh. Yet. She also squeezed his shoulders gently. Erin Solstice’s voice was light, her tone conversational. Even upbeat.
As if she weren’t falling to pieces, leaving parts of her heart on the ground. She replied, slowly, looking down at him as she gave him everything she could.
“The Grandmaster of the Order of Solstice has to give the annoying [Innkeeper] orders sometimes. I’m just—an advisor. After all, you’ll need someone who does horses or living animals. People to help manage stuff like finances. I nominate Furfur and Yelroan for that. Honorary members.”
He looked at her and had trouble getting past the first thing she’d said.
“Me? But Ser Solstice was…”
“He’s a silly guy. You’re the serious one, and he doesn’t want to lead. He’s the [Champion] of the Order. Not the one in charge. I asked him, and he agreed.”
Normen just blinked at her. Erin tightened her grip.
“Say yes, please. Now you won’t ever be alone again.”
An [Emperor] coughed. Smoke was drifting from the burned Goblinlands, despite the water being called down to quell the blaze. It was turning to snow, which made extinguishing the fire harder, but they wouldn’t let it turn into a full forest fire, especially with all the snow. He’d seen several Winter Sprites debating whether they should protect ‘their’ kingdom so they kept their titles.
“Erin. Several members of your new Order…are [Knights] sworn to someone else.”
“Ylawes isn’t. He’s always been a [Knight] alone. He was always a [Knight]—but he can be part of my Order if he wants. That just means he gets backup. He can still be an adventurer. I like that. People can have lives, but they’ll be a Knight of Solstice as well.”
Erin smiled. Laken raised his brows.
“What about Ser Dalimont? And Durene?”
“Can’t a [Knight] be a member of two Orders?”
“I feel like that’s illegal. And Durene is my [Paladin].”
Erin sighed and leaned over the chair. She spoke challengingly.
“Show me where it’s written down. Dalimont can be an honorary member so long as no one objects. A representative of the Thronebearers. As for Durene—she’s super-interested in joining. You said she wants a purpose.”
“Yes, but she’s my [Paladin].”
“Well, I’m stealing her. I’m giving you a mean smirk, by the way. She can be your [Paladin] and one of my Knights of Solstice. Or can’t you share?”
Erin gave Laken a sunshine smile. She left the [Emperor] temporarily without words. She looked around.
“If Lehra wants to be one as well—I won’t turn her down. All you have to do is—go to each other’s defense if you’re in the area. Just like you said, Normen.”
He looked up at her, and then he did smile as he recalled.
“When one of us calls—we come running. That sounds rather like the Brothers, Miss Solstice.”
“Well…maybe they do things right. You’ll be the first. Vess. Zanze. We’ll put his name down there. Ama—”
“Laken, I’ll kick you.”
The [Emperor] stepped smartly out of the way and turned to face Erin.
“I am just making the observation. You’ve made a stand today. How far do you want to push the bar? Antinium, a [Necromancer]—you’ve pushed the bar all the way to the edge. Gnolls, Humans, and a Drake. The only thing you could do that’s more outrageous would be to add a Goblin. But even you aren’t that crazy.”
Erin didn’t say a word. She just smiled as Normen tried not to make a sound. Laken, still blind, swung his head between the two. His voice grew incredibly suspicious.
“You haven’t inducted a Goblin. Or they would have shown up. But I will bet every gold coin in my treasury I’m being smirked at again. You—wait a—Ser Solstice—”
He made a strangled sound as he put it together. Erin shouted at him as he had to step back, clutching at his hair.
“That’s a secret! Remember, Durene’s in the Order now! You’d better be nice to them! Speaking of which, we need headquarters, Normen. Not Liscor.”
“Nah. Somewhere else. Maybe here? Or maybe multiple ones. I think you guys need a proper fortress, or at least, a place to sleep and put your things. It’s not my personal Order. That would make you more like hired mercenaries. Or thugs. When you go places, I want people to know you’re representing just you.”
“And what about your name on the Order?”
“Inspiration? Once you all do something I don’t like, I think it’ll prove that you guys aren’t mine. I’d make you never get hurt. Ever.”
She looked sad about that and squeezed his shoulders gently.
“—But you’re too brave for that. So there. My valiant and honorable [Knight]. What do you think?”
Normen looked at her and then around at the devastation. He thought of Zanze. Normen felt every part of his body screaming in pain, and half of the light of the world was gone from his eyes. And still…
The man closed his eye and thought for a long second. Then he spoke.
“I believe before I go, I should speak to those Goblins, Miss Solstice. And apologize and talk to all who are here. Or perhaps after a rest.”
“We’ve got time. Yeah. How do you feel?”
Normen put his head back a moment, and he replied honestly.
“To tell you the truth, Erin? I’m in great pain. My heart hurts for Zanze. I feel as though I failed those villagers and the Goblins. I wish those three adventurers didn’t die. I fear for whatever side Lord Xitegen’s made and worry we’ve made enemies or we’ll let the brave people down, the new [Knights].”
Erin said nothing. She just listened as Normen poured out everything, honest as green flame. Then Normen opened his eye and stared up at her.
“—And one more thing. Truthfully, though I don’t know if I deserve it—I think that I’ll sleep well for the first time since I was a boy tonight.”
“The sleep of an honest man? A good man?”
She teased him lightly. Normen shook his head seriously.
“Of course not, Miss Erin. But the sleep of a fellow who’s trying decently hard.”
Oh, then, how she laughed at him. She put the gentlest kiss on his brow, and the [Knight] sighed in relief.
One more thing.
A [Knight] was walking in deep contemplation around Riverfarm after it was done. His armor was battered, but not scorched.
Ser Solton felt as if he had missed the opportunity of a lifetime. He had the feeling many had—that he could have been there.
Oh, he had not, and he accepted that the moment had passed. In truth…he felt like the Order of Solstice was for a next generation, but he pledged to at least ask Grandmaster Normen if the Order of Haegris and the Order of Solstice might consider a friendship.
It might be scandalous with their Antinium and their odd stances—but he thought many of his Order would agree it was worth it despite any reservations they had.
He had none. And he had heard Erin Solstice openly talking about having ‘trainees’, recruits and other people not ready to be full [Knights]. [Squires] and [Pages], in short. The men and women who had fought against Gold-rank Adventurers?
They were already full members.
Solton had only a few questions left. Such as—what this meant for Izril’s politics. Lord Xitegen had left, as his gambit had failed, but this would not end with one attempt, and he had essentially set himself out as another leader for nobles. What would happen?
Also—what had Halrac Everam done to Elia Arcsinger? Solton had good eyes. He had seen Elia use her Skill; the scrying orbs hadn’t the best view from overhead. But Solton swore that despite not seeing it on the footage—
The arrow had struck Elia Arcsinger. Then she’d erupted into flames. But if he wasn’t mistaken—she’d fired her arrow. Yet her [Line-Ender Shot] hadn’t activated. And the arrow that had struck her had already fallen to the ground in that split second. Maybe it was a delayed effect…but why had the flames come down thereafter like that? If he was a judge of things, and he was—
It almost felt like she’d used a Skill on herself that had backfired so spectacularly. But what kind of a stupid Skill called down fire on you?
It had to be his imagination. Ser Solton only stopped when he realized someone was walking next to him in the snow.
“Oh. Excuse me. Am I intruding on anyone’s lands, perhaps?”
Conscious he was in this new [Emperor]’s domain, Solton bowed slightly. But the slightly pot-bellied man just waved a cheerful hand.
“Not at all, young man. Apologies—Ser Knight. This is not my land at the moment. Someone else has claimed it for now, with that brash arrogance and thoughtfulness for others. But then—land lies fallow when untended. Perhaps he is asserting his control over the people here, but they seem glad of it for now. May it long continue.”
—That didn’t sound like a local. The man looked…familiar to Ser Solton.
“Are you perchance a guest of The Wandering Inn?”
The man replied with a slight, knowing smile. He had mismatched eyes.
“From time to time. You may call me…Teriarch. Though I go by many names. Some call me Demsleth. Others, Dragonlord of Flame. I too have been called ruler, though I was never truly a knight in spirit. Only honorary.”
Ser Solton gave him an affable nod—which turned into a confused look as the man walked beside him in the snow. No one was around, but as Solton turned and felt at his ear with a cold glove…
“Excuse me, sir. I must have misheard. Did you say…Dragonlord?”
He turned back—and a Brass Dragon, scales running like a molten river, was walking next to him. He was smaller than some stories said—but his scales shone like mirrors, and steam rose from his mouth every time he opened it.
The [Knight] nearly fell on his face in the snow. Teriarch exhaled.
“Hrm. That’s a most gratifying expression, Ser Solton of Haegris. I rather miss the effect.”
“You—you’re the Dragon who appeared in Calanfer!”
Solton knew who he was in an instant. Teriarch exhaled slowly.
“My, word spreads. How did the Order of Haegris hear about that? None of their members were at the banquet.”
His mind was racing, but Ser Solton tried to tell if this was an illusion or trick or…if it was real, what did it mean? He replied honestly as his head spun.
“We—heard it from one of the dignitaries. A member of Golaen conferred it to our Grandmaster—”
“Those talkative half-Giants. Mouths as big as…well. I suppose they never learned how to properly whisper. At least it saves us the introductions.”
Teriarch’s tail waved in the snow idly. Ser Solton gulped.
“Are you—may I ask why you’ve approached me, Great Dragon?”
“Oho. Someone knows the most basic of titles. Ser Solton—you are, of all men, in this moment, the mortal I most wish to confer with. I have been watching and thinking carefully, and it occurs to me that you and I might help each other.”
If this was flattery—Ser Solton was too shocked for it to work. Teriarch dipped his head.
“I have a great task before me, Ser Solton. One which I may share the broad details of—but it is to arm and prepare Izril, nay, much of the world for great strife. To help uplift and to guide, but not to carry. I must say, I am out of touch. I am…well, out of shape in more ways than one.”
He gave an embarrassed chuckle, and Ser Solton wondered if the Dragon thought he was fat. The scariest [Knights] Ser Solton had ever dueled had huge bellies—and enough muscle and fat to take a blow before laying you in the ground.
“I have heard of your stories, Lord Teriarch. There was speculation of which Dragon you might be—and I know you.”
The Dragon waved a wing, embarrassed.
“Forget all of it. Ser Solton, we will have more time to chat. But in brief—I approach you, Knight of Haegris, and I ask you whether your Order is one of good and noble intent.”
Ser Solton inhaled. It was a shocking question—but from this person? He answered slowly.
“Not all our members are as good and true as we could be. But I believe we try. I compare us to no other Orders. I admit our faults. But I believe…I must believe…that the Order of Haegris does what it must.”
Two mismatched eyes found him. Heliotrope and cerulean, ancient as days. That voice rumbled deep in Solton’s bones.
“Ah. Good. Then is your Order an intelligent one? Are they [Knights], or also men and women of reason, who understand when to use a sword and when to use a soft voice?”
Solton blinked. This time, he answered slower still.
“I…cannot claim that either in good conscience, Great Teriarch. But I would like to think we try.”
The Dragon nodded.
“That is what I believe and observe. And what I hope. You see, Ser Solton. It occurs to me I have been a fool. Imagine I were someone trying to start a fire—an apt metaphor, today. Yet instead of a great blaze, I have a thousand small ones. I have been flapping around, trying to nurture them myself. Deal with dangers. But I am old and out of practice—and I do not have the time. But you…I saw you at the marketplace. I heard of you doing deliveries of goods, and it occurred to me a [Knight] like that must know the hearts of people. It occurs to me you would be able to adapt. Tell me, have you ever taught a young man how to fight to defend himself?”
Ser Solton blinked.
“Teach a lad how to fight? Not often with a sword, but I’ve shown many a village how to hold spears or build a palisade.”
“And you understand logistics. You must be diplomatic. And your Order is large enough. Ser Solton. I have a proposal for you. I have locations of people who must be armed and made ready. A [Mercenary] boy who has sworn to start a great company. A fool of a slime breeder who needs someone to take him back from madness. Artifacts dug up that need to go to the right place. I need a man, I need an organization capable of helping me. Across all the continents. If I supply locations—your people would need to ride from place to place and do what must be done.”
The idea was astounding—and terrifying at once. Ser Solton’s stomach twisted.
“The Order of Haegris is large, Great Teriarch, but we are not the largest Order by any means! And—do you mean those visited by ghosts?”
The [Knight] spread his hands.
“—If there are a thousand across the world, we would struggle to reach a quarter! Even with our means, we are, as you say, mortals.”
Teriarch nodded gravely.
“My thoughts exactly. Yet you are a thousand mortals, and I am one Dragon. The Order of Haegris must always want for gold and transport and quality goods for those they help, yes?”
Ser Solton’s hair was rising, and he had a sudden suspicion. He nodded.
“Well, I possess a treasury and the means to send people at great speed anywhere they are needed. What say you, Ser Solton?”
The Dragon then smiled, and his teeth gleamed in the winter.
“—Have you ever heard of a [Knight] and Dragon joining forces to vanquish great evil? Let us talk. And if we come to a conclusion, we can present ourselves before your Order and let them decide. I can teleport us to Terandria if our negotiations and planning goes well.”
Ser Solton exhaled as the ball dropped. And thence…he decided the Order of Solstice was not the only Order that would change suddenly.
How the world moved and moved. The Dragon winked as Ser Solton tried to keep the smile from his face, both surprised, wondering, and delighted at what might be. And that was, of course, just how you were supposed to smile at a Dragon.
One last thing, then.
As the Dragon spoke to the [Knight], Lord Tyrion Veltras was walking towards Erin Solstice as she spoke to Normen and Laken Godart.
He was aware that this was not a good moment. But he never found a good moment. He never knew when to strike outside of battle.
His eyes were focused on Normen’s burned face, and if the [Lord] of House Veltras had respect for anyone…he was willing to speak.
Whether the [Innkeeper] would turn that tremulous smile into wrath or not—Tyrion Veltras marched forwards like the will of the land, steadfast tradition about to collide with the changing of days.
He only stopped when he realized someone was pacing alongside him and trying to shove him off-course with an elbow. It didn’t work, but Magnolia Reinhart got his attention.
“Magnolia. I am trying to be diplomatic.”
“And I am trying to get your attention, Cousin. Do I have it? Leave poor Erin alone for at least a day and step with me, now, please. I need your help.”
“Magnolia, I said I am trying to—my help?”
He was distracted by that. The [Lady] looked tired. But he had seldom seen her more determined. Lord Tyrion wavered, and he turned, against his will.
A [Deft Hand] as heavy as the rudder of a ship swung him slightly left, and Ressa tripped Jericha as the woman tried to stride forwards. Magnolia Reinhart knew that Tyrion could have literally shoved her to the side, but he was listening.
The two old rivals gazed at each other, and Magnolia spoke quietly.
“I need your help, Tyrion. I have a plan to combat the Bloodfeast Raiders. A subtle scheme. I would have you hear me out—and then I need you to throw your will behind mine. Whatever else we are, we are the stewards of Izril. It is time to prove it.”
He hesitated. Tyrion Veltras turned his gaze back to Erin Solstice, and the younger man—felt the calling in his bones. It was easy to want to ride into the dawn.
But a [Lord] listened. So he turned and slowly changed course. He bent his head and nodded.
“I can at least agree to listen.”
Magnolia gave him a look that was almost surprised. But then she was nodding.
“Do not repeat any of this. Give me five minutes for the privacy wards to go up. Nor is this going to be a simple checklist of funds and one-time actions, Tyrion. This will require subtlety.”
“I can do that.”
They walked off, one talking and the other listening. Both watching the other, mystified, wondering when they had changed so much.
Oh, and one last thing after the last thing. That evening, between all the levelling up, the consternation, the planning and chaos that engulfed the world—
A young woman was sitting in her rooms, exhaling before she went out to see the world. She was worried. Everyone knew Lyonette du Marquin was now at The Wandering Inn.
Or they greatly suspected if they couldn’t prove it.
What would that mean for her from now on? She didn’t know, but she’d done her duty well, and the [Body Double] of Lyonette just worried this would mean an end to the luxurious lifestyle she’d had.
Ah, well. She’d seen a bit behind the scenes, and being a [Princess] seemed—tough. Queen Ielane was endlessly polite to her, though.
Someone came into her rooms, and ‘Lyonette’ stirred.
“Oh, Dame Vensha? I am ready to make a public appearance. Do I have a script?”
One of the most senior Thronebearers in the Order, always attached to the Queen or King themselves, stepped into the room. Dame Vensha went to the curtains and opened them; ‘Lyonette’ kept them closed because everyone was looking for her at this moment. She peered out the window and turned to a second Thronebearer in the doorway.
“Not yet, Your Highness. Would you stand just there? Behind the bed, please.”
Puzzled, the young woman did. She stood behind the bed, facing the window, and frowned. She thought she saw a bird or something black in the distance.
“Dame Vensha, what is—”
The Thronebearer raised her shield as the third fragment of the Deathslayer Arrow blasted through the window. She heard the [Body Double] scream and cower as the window blew in, but Dame Vensha barely grunted as she lowered the enchanted shield she’d taken from the armory.
Practically spent of magic, especially in three pieces. She checked on the fake Lyonette, then rang a bell.
“Cleanup. Dispose of the arrow—carefully, and tell me we got that on the scrying orb.”
She walked out of the room, sighing, as the terrified young woman peered over the bed. Dame Vensha decided Ser Lormel had done a rarely decent job. At least there was one capable man among those idiots. Ushar had let her down, and Dalimont…well.
[Knights] would be [Knights].
When they gathered for the final time that day, it was not in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. They stood around the man who had fallen.
Zanze Envergall. No one but Normen had even known his last name. He was still lying there, and someone had placed three blades next to him.
Three other bodies had been taken away and covered in shrouds. There was no glory or honor or even a good meaning in how they’d died.
Zanze, though, stared up at the sky as if he had an answer. One he would speak to death itself if she asked if it had been…worth it.
Some men were so lucky enough to judge themselves. Now, as rain turned to snow and the last fires died, they gathered.
Those that had watched. The folk of Riverfarm. The guests of The Wandering Inn. Goblins. They came, all of them, to see one of the [Knights] who had died to stop Arcsinger.
But the group that surrounded Zanze was the Order of Solstice. Each one was wounded. Each silent, looking towards the man who knelt there.
Ser Normen, Grandmaster of the Order of Solstice, had no great words in his heart. But he did burn.
Burn, with honor’s flame. A green glow now sorrowful, like the blue flames that clung heavy to Halrac Everam’s shoulders. It stood in contrast to the fire blazing in Embraim’s eyes. A fierce pride. The Antinium would never forget.
Flame. That was what defined them. The Order of Solstice was flame and wrath. A line in the sand. But they were not heroes larger than life.
If they were—this man would never have been part of them. But there he lay, and the Driver’s Guild and common men, [Thugs], bore witness. Chaoisa stood with her driver’s cap mangled in her hands, her eyes on Zanze’s face, face expressionless.
The [Witches] took their pointed hats off their heads, and an [Emperor] halted next to an [Innkeeper] in the silence.
But none approached that inner circle. The [Knights]…burned.
Three flames, at first. But the fire was growing. A fourth had begun to blaze—but it was so faint that few saw it.
There was nothing glamorous about the way it clung to Vess. It was, to even Erin Solstice’s eyes, a dull flame. Grey. Grey and flat, the perfect middle ground between white and black.
Yet Normen thought it might be the sharpest of all. The Drake wore it as if he were unworthy, afraid it would cut him. But that was what had saved him long ago, and now it followed him. A memory. A warning. A need.
Four flames. Normen slowly bent, and a spark of green ran over the piled tinder and caught. Embraim stepped forwards after him, and Halrac knelt and touched the body. Jewel put her hand on Zanze’s a second.
“I should have been better.”
That was all she said. Antherr knelt, and whatever words in his heart were for that man alone. Durene’s tears fell, even as she touched his arm.
They rose and fell. Ylawes, Ser Dalimont, Ama, Lehra—they all beheld an end to the path they had chosen. And still.
Vess’ claw was the most tentative yet. But the grey flames joined the other three. Then, it seemed like the flames gathered and more bloomed into color along with theirs.
The audience turned to Erin Solstice, but she was just watching. Now, the pyre rose, and Ser Normen stepped back with the Order of Solstice. It was consuming the man, but Normen’s eye strained to take in the colors.
He had never seen them. Not the shades of brilliant red, somber brown, laughing orange, and…he stared awhile, because he would never see those colors again.
“I don’t remember those flames.”
Erin Solstice spoke softly. She looked at the fires burning from Zanze’s body and wondered what his fires would have been.
He should have lived a thousand years. Now, the [Driver] was burning away, and Normen turned. His gaze roamed the audience, as if only now realizing they were there.
Young and old. Mighty and weak. Goblins, Humans, Drakes, and Gnolls. He was no man of words, but he had heard the right ones before. Now, he spoke.
First, Normen looked to Menolit and Herove in the crowd. Then—to children staring at him up with tears in their eyes. Boys and girls who saw something in that fire that mattered. He saw the future—and looked to Zanze and bowed his head before he spoke.
“In the past, there were ages of dark skies. Shattered thrones. There have been times when monsters walked and spoke like men. These times shall come again.”
He met his audience’s eyes.
“But when they come, men like Zanze shall step forwards and count themselves. We are not perfect crusaders. We will never be heroes. What we do matters. Here fell a [Knight]. Zanze Envergall stood in Arcsinger’s path because it was right. So long as the Order of Solstice exists, we will remember that.”
Perhaps they were not the best words. But they were enough. Slowly, Normen took the helmet off his head. Then he knelt in the snow. Watching the fires of a man tell his story. Everyone had shame and guilt and poor deeds and sin.
But this flame was so beautiful as it faded. The Order of Solstice watched, chasing meaning in the falling snow.
The fire would never die again.
[Grandmaster Knight of Honor’s Flame class obtained!]
[Paladin of Fire’s Oath class obtained!]
[Knight of the Glittering Blade class obtained!]
[Indomitable Knight-Warden class obtained!]
[Pyre-Knight of Glory class obtained!]
[Knight-Artisan of Bones class obtained!]
[Magical Knight-Seeker of Mershi class obtained!]
[Spell Knight of Mercy class obtained!]
[Knight of Death and Dawn class obtained!]
[Knight-Archer of Lost Flames class obtained!]
[Title – End of a Legend: Arcsinger’s Downfall obtained!]
Author’s Notes: No Skills. See last chapter for my reasoning why.
The definition of a novella is 10,000 to 40,000 Words. So some pedants keep telling me I write a ‘novel’ when I write more than 50,000 words.
I don’t respect novellas. Until last year I think, I didn’t know it was even a thing. But I wrote 52,600 words for this final part before edits and you know what?
It is a pretty decent self-contained story if you take all three parts of the Order of Solstice arc and put it together. It misses for a proper beginning but it was an ambitious plot and I still cut the heist.
…But I can do better. I write to you hungry and tired. My body hurts not from just my arms or whatever, but from sitting for like 9+ hours and typing nonstop. I hunger for food.
And I tell you that I can do better. I can re-edit, strengthen prose, add in scenes and make this even better…but the chapter needs to come out.
Yet this is why I’m taking a full month off to write Gravesong 2. Because I realized while I was working on it during the update off after my break that I can’t write a good novel. I have a longer explanation that I’ll post, but the long and short of it is that I’m taking a break for the entire month of May. I’ll put Patreon on pause—and I will write a novel that hopefully puts this story to shame because I’ll have time to really work on it.
Check the next post for details and a short story, but I am done with the side story you voted on. I am on break. I will be writing Gravesong 2 and I feel guilty about taking a month off, but sometimes I have to do these things. Sorry, thanks, and hope you enjoyed this…chapter. It’s just a chapter.
Stream Art — Erin and Normen by Artsynada!
EmberMrsha by Bobo Plushie!
Geneva, TWI 40k, Sleep, and more by Guliver!
Acid Jar, Song, Knitting, and more by Brack!
Silvenia Spellcasting, Stitch Witch, Terrifying Costume, and more by Kalabaza!