One day before the Winter Solstice, now, and all the pieces were in a row.
Did you see them?
Were you even sitting at the board, or were you looking up and wondering if you could see the outlines of fingers against the sky? Because there were only a few players on the board as she saw it.
The Dead Gods, vying with each other for supremacy. Virtually uncontested. They had swept the board; they had always had an advantage, even from the very start. The other players who’d risen to their level, Elves, Gnomes, had been forced to quit. Seen how they had to quit or become the things they strove against.
Right now, it was Kasigna and Cauwine. Tamaroth and Norechl were in check; the odds might reverse, but they’d been sidelined from the Solstice by heroic sacrifice.
Laedonius was fallen. He might return, but Emerrhain was well and truly trapped. You didn’t trust such things forever, but they were not the main contenders.
Cauwine. Goddess of Last Stands. The Huntress of Victory. She had killed fellow gods and masters of war. In a sense, she was more dangerous than her mother.
Kasigna, Goddess of Death, the Three-in-One, Corpsemother, the Final Judge…oh, she had many names. Once, they had been to her credit, like laurels hanging upon her brows, a noble, distinguished, and yes, petty goddess at times, but no more so than the rest.
There had been a reason some, like Zineryr, loved her. Now, she was just desperate carrion, eating souls to regain a fraction of her power. So vengeful she was warring with an [Innkeeper] whom she had plucked from another world to play her games.
Not a worthy foe to play against. Not a foe you smiled at or treated with any respect. But a dangerous one? Oh, yes. She had survived so many deaths that had dragged countless gods screaming into oblivion.
All six of them were ur-gods, nothing like lesser numen or deities who could be killed with a magic sword. They were old as the worlds they had been born of, each one travelled here in victory or defeat, leaders of pantheons that could match entire religions at their fullness of strength. They were unto Cronus, not Zeus, to use her understanding of one of Earth’s religions.
No, wait. That was wrong. Cauwine was like Cronus, a firstborn Goddess who had risen far beyond her kin. The others were more like Gaea. Or could have killed the likes of her if pantheons made war.
She had not told Erin Solstice that, or even Ryoka Griffin; what good would it be for them to know they were up against the best of the best, even at their worst? It was plain from how dangerous they were.
And this was their world, crafted for them. So they were playing against at least two right now on their own home turf, during a Solstice.
She had seen worse games, but seldom. And seldom done well. Two goddesses of varying natures on their own sides. Erin Solstice making a stand, and the disparate peoples of the world…each piece moving of its own accord.
There were—variations in the game she didn’t predict, even now. The deadlands and the time travellers had warped the game. Her one solace was that even the gods couldn’t predict what was going to happen. Her one solace was that he, her liege, the King of Avalon, the Ruler of the Fae, Oberon, was on her side.
But he couldn’t enter this world easily, and so he was playing with fifteen pieces against him, forced to use whispers against Kasigna in her strength. Yet he did play, and he had watched his Queen die for this particular game.
That was why she was here. This board, this battle at the Winter Solstice and beyond?
That was Shaestrel’s duty, and she sat across from the goddess of death as they checked their pieces, drew cards, and cheated—for you cheated like you breathed in this game. She had told Erin Solstice how to play this game, of course, but the [Innkeeper] could barely even see the board.
These coming days—Shaestrel had done all she could. She had only a few pieces left to play—and she was watching the odd pieces move. The jokers in a hand of cards, the pawns that got up and decided to kick a bishop in the face because they could.
Kasigna’s eyes were all on the inn and the veil of shadows Erin had baked. Silly tricks, and the Goddess of Death was preparing a grand scheme that Shaestrel feared. But it meant things did escape Kasigna’s notice.
The fae’s as well. She had not seen these [Pirates] coming; it was a distant battle, and yet…she chose to fly over the sea on the last day before the Solstice. Eyes narrowed as she watched a fleet of over a hundred and twenty ships turning towards the Isle of Mages. Pursuers behind and coming in from the sides.
The Bloodtear Pirates. Now, who were they? Shaestrel’s gaze flicked right, and she thought there were two pieces even she couldn’t see.
The [Pirates]. And the Horns of Hammerad. She hoped she wasn’t missing any more. Her one comfort was that if she missed pieces, Kasigna almost certainly did as well. Sometimes, the board was an elegant game of bluffs, trickery, and artful plays the likes of which would make a fine painting if only you had the skill to put it to brush.
Other times, you turned off the lights, tossed the board at the other bugger, and stabbed them in the dark. Shaestrel was hoping either way she came out on top. But she had to know who was moving. So she swooped down and looked carefully.
The Bloodtear Pirates were a mystery. Really, they were.
Ask any seafarer and they would tell you all about them. One of the nastiest, most numerous [Pirate] groups at sea. Not the nastiest because they had an odd streak: they liked bravery and sometimes would let a person go.
Like how they’d escorted the Waterbear to harbor after seeing her survive a magical hurricane, or how they’d back off a fight to the death if they liked the other side too much.
By the same token, the Bloodfeast Raiders had sprung from the Bloodtear Pirates, and the apple had not fallen far from the tree. Look too closely at the nobility of these fickle [Pirates] and you’d forget they were known for slaughtering ships down to the last [Sailor].
However—who were they really? Where did they spring from? How could there be armadas of roving [Pirates] with no repercussions? And perhaps most importantly—what did they want?
From a selfish perspective, from a military one, even, their actions made no sense. The Terandrian Fleet was over a hundred and twenty vessels, many of them warship size. Even if they had a lot of colonists and valuable nobles—this was not a fleet any force in their right mind would take on, and the Iron Vanguard was right behind them.
The trap had been well done. A blocking force that had been ready to fight to the death to stall the Terandrians would have kept them trapped against the coastline while the rest came from the rear. Of course, this had presumed two things:
1. That the Bloodtear Pirates could even match Terandria’s finest at sea, their home turf.
2. That the Bloodtear Pirates were willing and able to go to the death against Terandria.
Both had been proven to be true. But why? Why, why, why?
[Pirates] were not insane. Even the Bloodtear Pirates were not known to literally throw themselves into suicidal attacks—and this was death, even if delayed.
Terandria would never let this slide. Every single Bloodtear Pirate would be pursued as no one had ever been—not just by the Continent of Humans, but by all seafaring folk. They had few harbors now, but would Savere look the other way and taint themselves by association? Would Zeres turn a blind eye to a few crews that might have suspicious ties?
This was their end—if they even won!
Bloodtear Armadas ran thirty-to at best. Two of these armadas, led by their self-styled [Admirals], plus a number of irregulars had all joined the mastermind of this entire affair: the Alchemist, Irurx. Thanks to him, they had healing potions in bulk and a lot of nastiness; his ship, Shifthold, was probably as nasty as any flagship in the Terandrian fleet.
Even so. Equal ships would have been considered too costly. It wasn’t like the Bloodtear Pirates recruited like a kingdom; they took over ships and had to hide if they weren’t actively sailing for blood.
Irurx could not afford them. Even with all the plunder over the years, even with his healing potions being worth a hundred times what they had been due to the shortages—he could not afford two armadas and the many independent [Pirates] who’d thrown in with the Bloodtear Pirates.
To say they were confusing to Earl Altestiel, the Shadewarde Doroumata, Tulm the Mithril, and every other sea-expert would be fair. Even for the Bloodtear Pirates—this made no sense.
The answer was simple. But only the [Pirates] sailing low to the water, laughing and drinking as they watched a storm slowing the Terandrians trying to undo the weather Skill—only they knew why.
“Winter Sprites above; sea storm brewing. Good luck for all or death’s got a date with us down below. Can’t be any other way. The omens’re clear.”
The merry voice had to shout to be heard over the storm. The man standing at the stern of the ship, a guest for yet another war meeting, turned his head reluctantly.
Alchemist Irurx disliked interruptions, especially as he stared at the Terandrian Fleet in the waters ahead, visible to the naked eye by now. Out of range of even magical fire…for now. Soon, they’d be closing, and the exchanges would send many of the ships around him to their doom before they even met.
He had prepared clouds of acid, and Shifthold had been hatching as many fliers as it could in preparation for the fight. Irurx had saved up two [Reactions of Calamity], one of his capstone Skills, to create a mixture that he’d throw at his half-Elven kin the first chance he got.
His scars ached. Such was the half-Elf’s reputation that even the regular Bloodtear Pirates stayed away from him. Again, they did not have a deathwish. But the man coming down the decks, almost singing, was not an ordinary fellow.
“And my boy Irrel.”
The [Admiral]’s good mood instantly became warning. He didn’t reach for his sword, but he didn’t need to.
The Admiral of the 1st Bloodtear Pirates, Rosech, had personally killed one of the Thousand Lances. He’d taken her sword; he wasn’t defined by a magic blade, more by the fact that he was an [Admiral] in class, leader of an entire fleet of the Bloodtear Pirates.
Irurx had seen him fighting. He’d been slashed twice by a sword that seared the skin, probably equivalent to a direct Tier 4 spell, and it hadn’t done more than ruin his fake uniform and cut him half an inch deep. Still bloody, but he had healed by the next day, and his strength had let him overpower his enemy—then jump down into one of the holds and butcher [Knights] in their own bulkheads.
“…And your boy Irrel. Forgive me, Admiral. My mind was elsewhere.”
Rosech’s good mood returned at once. He beckoned forwards his ‘boy’, who loped closer, and Irurx eyed the bright green stare without visible pupils and smelled decaying seaweed. But Irrel did carry a sword, and he could talk.
“Oh, aye, Irrel. Scary ships. He can see them auras, y’know. Damndest thing. His entire people can. The lad’s afeared, but I told him there’s no turning back now. I’ll have Jiupe look after him when the fighting starts. All the Newbloods to the rear.”
“Really? That’s surprisingly noble of you.”
Irurx knew the Bloodtear Pirates fairly well, but time in their company had still surprised him. Then again, they had changed of late…Rosech leaned on the railing, spat into the water, and offered him a grin. He had missing teeth from bad hygiene, but after levelling, even plaque couldn’t touch him.
He was Level 50, at least. Irurx knew that almost for a fact. Rosech was one of the defining individuals of this era for his level and one of the reasons the Bloodtear Pirates were still around.
Well, that went for Irurx too. Two of the most famous [Pirates] leaned on the railings as Irrel offered them a drink, pouring it out of a big gourd he carried.
“It’s not ‘Admiral’ either, if you want it. That’s my rank, and we’ve got [Captains] like Jiupe, but we’re all Bloodtear Pirates. It’s not nobility that makes the old lot go first. Normally, we would tell the Newbloods to get in there and level or die. But everyone wants to be first. You understand.”
“No, not really.”
Rosech eyed Irurx. He patted his sword at his side; it was still bloody from the dead Terandrian [Knights]. Irurx had heard the fourteen ships that were part of the blockading force celebrating all day and night. A few ‘lucky’ ones who’d been part of the first wave had already jumped ship, apparently. They were headed to the New Lands.
Desertion? Not quite. He’d assumed it as such, but Rosech had assured Irurx no one else would leave. The ones who’d left had gotten what they’d wanted. It was the entire reason they’d come to fight, so Irurx tried to understand.
“It appeals to me very little.”
Rosech paused as he lifted a cup. He gave Irurx a sardonic look…brimming with fury under that gaze. He was a good-natured man, but he had what many Bloodtear Pirates did.
“Of course not. You don’t need it. But my boy? Myself, even? We want it. Remember that, Irurx. Remember I’m an [Admiral], but we’re all Bloodtear Pirates to the last. We share the same creed, a simple one, and my boy is one of the lot. No one more or less. That’s why we’ve taken the last armadas, every single Bloodtear Pirate we can muster, those not too far to answer the call. Every single one, save for some idiots who got swept all the way to The Last Tide. After this, the Bloodtear Pirates might survive in some form—but every ship you see knows it might go down. And we’ll do it.”
They’ll charge straight into death for this one. Irurx had seen that. Canny the [Pirates] might be, but those three warships hadn’t died easy. They’d killed over four hundred [Pirates] before being overwhelmed—and the Bloodtears had kept coming.
They wanted this. It was worth dying for.
More ships were moving to join this flagship, Rosech’s Unsettled King, for the war conference. [Captains] were disembarking, howling greetings as the storm whipped on. Irurx could hear them singing.
“We sailed under flags of no quarter. We took no prisoners.
A storm at our backs. Blood in the water, blood in the sky.”
[We Sailed Under Flags of No Quarter]. [A Storm at Our Backs]. [We Took No Prisoner]. [Blood in the Waters, Blood in the Sky].
The song was a Combination Skill, one of the first Irurx had seen of this magnitude. Rosech turned his head, and the storms battering and slowing the Terandrians were so fierce that all the weather magic in the world couldn’t hold them back.
“The Third Tide is blood in the water. See that ship in front moving faster’n the rest? The only reason we haven’t caught them is Earl Altestiel. He owns a tide, too. Zeres has another one…”
“Is the Last Tide a Skill, then?”
Irurx was interested by the phenomenon. Rosech spat into the water again and grinned.
“If it is—it ain’t held by anyone I want to meet. Irrel, go and greet the other [Captains]. Tell them to come by and introduce themselves. When Admiral Maxy gets here, she and I will get the conference started with the Alchemist.”
Irrel began to lope backwards, and Rosech called him back.
“Irrel, Irrel! If any of them give you lip, go and tell me or the crew, and I’ll kill them.”
His smile was like a ray of sunshine in the dark storm clouds. He meant it.
Irurx took this moment to turn and regard Irrel, and the boy’s nature said much about the Bloodtear Pirates, because he got greetings from almost every group disembarking. They waved; a Drowned Woman with pale, glowing skin, being led forwards by a younger one with veils all over his body to suppress the glow.
A Dullahan striding over the deck, head half-shaved, with cheering Newbloods shouting, half swearing at the sunlight: recruits from Izril’s shores.
A swearing half-Shark [Captain], clapping Jiupe’s back and shaking hands with other Bloodtear [Captains]—and making way for Admiral Maxy, who was another half-Elf missing one and a half ears and had more scars than even Rosech.
Every species you wanted, you could find. Selphid? Captain Ereiyne, the Shipbreaker, a top-tier [Geomancer].
Drowned Folk? Jiupe, half-Jellyfish.
Gnoll? Captain Aldrail and his first mate Gorry, swords drawn, having a mock-duel with some of the newcomers. They’d be first onto the other ships…
But Irrel? Irrel wasn’t any of them. He was a Dorhmin, and his eyes were bright green. He had rough, tiny scales more like a shark than a fish, his limbs were long, and his ‘hands’ were finned, and he had feet like flippers, too. His teeth were sharp, and his ‘hair’ resembled the seaweed he smelled like.
Sea-Ogres they were called. Dorhmin, a kind of monster analogous to Goblins or any other semi-intelligent creature group. They loved to raid ships and could use spears and nets, but Irurx had never met one capable of speech.
He would have loved to have Irrel as a sample…but Rosech doted on his boy.
“You raised Irrel?”
“Found the lad after a nasty skirmish on a ship. We rolled over ready to fight—and there weren’t more than dead Dorhmin and Drowned folk. He was yay high to a ship’s cat, new-born. They must send even pregnant mothers on raids or they were desperate. So I picked him up, and he bit me—and I knew he was a fighter. Must have been sixteen years since then.”
“I see. He’s fully grown?”
“Not quite. The big ‘uns get big. We’ve met them a few times. They don’t have ‘ships’; can’t make them work, and they don’t understand the rigging mostly. But they’ll paddle around with these broken shells of ships underwater; that’s where they get you from. And they’ve got their own tricks and food and such. None of it’s good to me, but Irrel’s seen them. They think he’s strange. Strange’n too smart for his own good.”
“The product of a Skill? Yours?”
Irurx was engaging with academic interest as much as his desire to be on Rosech’s side—but the not-so-friendly kick hurt and sent Irurx sliding down the deck. The [Alchemist] steadied himself—his crew on Shifthold stirred, and a buzz filled the air.
Heads turned, and the merriment kept going, but Rosech’s glare was only mitigated when a green ball of light landed near the crow’s nest. The [Lookout] immediately shared his sandwich with the odd Winter Sprite, and Rosech beamed.
“Now there’s a funny one. As odd as Irrel! Green in the winter? Irrel’s bright because I taught him. No one had to give him a Skill, Irurx. Remember that.”
“My apologies. I didn’t mean to denigrate his intelligence.”
“Yeah, well, I degenerate now and then too, so I forgive you. I hate it when people ask if he’s not that smart. Turns out Dorhmin can talk—no one ever bothers to teach ‘em. They’ve got their own languages and smarts. But no one knew that. Not even those fancy [Mages]. Not even you.”
Irurx had harvested Dorhmins for his work many a time and fought them off as well. He had to admit, Rosech was right. It was rather like meeting a Goblin [Pirate] your first time and realizing the rules were different.
“Will Irrel benefit from your…plan, Rosech?”
Then and only then did the Admiral look worried.
“Dead gods, I hope so. I gave him everything I got off that Thousand Lance idiot. He’s my boy, you get it? Everyone else is getting a share—he’d better get it, or I’ll kick whoever made that Skill in the teeth. There’s over a thousand of us with the Skill thanks to the ghost. It’s like it was made for us.”
It may well have been. Here was the thing Irurx had observed about the Bloodtear Pirates: they were, in their way, the most egalitarian group in the world.
Not a single Bloodtear Pirate ranked themselves on any principle other than who was better at killing. They came from ports, yes, but also many people you’d never expect. They were made up of [Serfs] who’d run away from their farmsteads, former prisoners, but also ordinary people.
When Rosech welcomed the other leaders onto his vessel, it was part of his speech to them.
“I was just chatting with Alchemist Irurx about this. So I figured I’d better say it twice in case any of you forgot—and to all you independent [Pirate] Captains.”
He nodded at the last group, which was over forty [Captains] of independent [Pirate] ships who had joined on for the promise Rosech had made to them. This, then, was a fleet almost the same in scope to the Terandrians—and they were all ready to fight, ready to die. It made Irurx smile as Rosech went on.
“We are the Bloodtear Pirates. Right here, right now, we’re aiming to steal the prize of prizes from the Terandrians. It’ll change everything. I daresay the Bloodtear Pirates might end after this—but remember who we are. We’re the folk who don’t have any future. Me? I was a boy when I joined the [Pirates]. Not marked for greatness. None of us were. Or if you were, you’re lucky and you left because what you had wasn’t what you wanted.”
A few eyes slid around, but the Bloodtear Pirates were nodding as a whole. Rosech went on, beaming.
“We have only one goal: to do whatever the hell we want. We have rules, aye. No killing each other without a good reason, no killing kids or doing foul things—that’s because we have to have them. But nothing else. We’ve always been free, and no matter what comes, I want you to remember who you were. Our foe’s the exact opposite. Yonder sails every rule, every blue-blood born to it, and those with classes and Skills better than ours because they were born or chosen. Let’s kill them all.”
The cheer that arose was simple, plain, and then Irurx saw why they were here. Admiral Maxy was the strategist to Rosech’s leadership, and she began giving a more detailed breakdown of the battle. Irurx listened, and they did defer to him…but he hadn’t hired them, he realized at last.
They’d just taken his money.
“We’re gonna have to split them up, and if they get too close to Wistram, we’re in trouble. If the Iron Vanguard hits us, it’ll be a slaughter—but the Dullahans saw we’re in this for good. No turning back.”
The mood was good after the meeting. Alchemist Irurx was standing and still going over the war plans, but the lesser [Captains] were happy.
It’d be a slaughter either way—so they had told the crews not to drink so hard they wasted themselves for the coming days, but to celebrate.
Some of the ‘regular’ [Pirates] were getting jumpy, though. They didn’t want to die, which was fair because none of the Bloodtear Pirates did either. One of the other [Captains] raised a hand.
“There’s no chance we can pull off and hit them while they’re landing? There’s other waves of colonists they have to send.”
“Nah. We’ll get warfleets up our asses. Terandrians outnumber us, and they can hire on what they don’t have. We can’t even stay together as an armada long; we’ll eat our stores of food out.”
That came from one of the Newbloods, Captain Zoler, the Dullahan with a half-shaved head and better armor than most. High-quality steel, one unit, not cobbled-together like many Bloodtear Dullahans.
In another fleet, it might have made her a target as she was clearly from one of those blue-blood families—but she’d risen through her ranks of the largely-untested ‘Newbloods’, and her crew was excited.
She was still a rookie though, so Jiupe cuffed her as the Drowned Woman walked past.
“Look at you talking like you know the fleet. This idiot is Zoler, everyone. She’s a smart one. Gets in the way of her killing people. But she is right; we don’t want their reinforcements. Dead gods, I heard Rhir’s got one of their fleets at sea. No one wants Rhir’s blood on their blades. But I’ll take this chance. ‘Sides, the truth is, we won’t survive another shot at them.”
One of the regular [Captains], leader of the Shoal Reavers, was trying to add to their odds.
“No? What if we took the Third Armada of the Bloodtear Pirates—”
Jiupe picked at her Human-half of her teeth with a toothpick as Rosech and his son sauntered over.
“Can’t. Third Fleet’s mostly sunk or scattered past Baleros. Hey, Rosech, want to tell them about the Third Fleet?”
“All dead! Hey, look at what I’ve got! One of them parrots—only its a Winter Sprite! Here, here—”
He was feeding some food to a glowing green ball on his shoulder and looked pleased as punch.
“Maybe that Skill’s paying off already, eh? I feel lucky as shit!”
“It’s green in winter, Admiral. Maybe that’s the reverse of luck?”
A timid voice from one of the Drowned Folk; the one with veils on his body. He yelped as Rosech kicked at him, but the older Drowned Woman blocked his foot with a staff.
“Don’t bruise my First Mate ahead of the battle, Rosech. We don’t heal like a Troll like you.”
“Captain Lidera, only for you. Since Irrel likes you so much.”
Rosech sighed as Irrel came over, and the Drowned Woman patted him on the head. Here were two more examples of what made the Bloodtear Pirates, though the two Drowned Folk were…different and alike.
Captain Lidera was a kind of translucent jellyfish, close to Jiupe, but luminescent where Jiupe was poisonous. She was old, so old that Jiupe found her a chair and was deferential where the Captain seldom was to anyone.
And not just because of old age, either. Captain Lidera was over seventy years old, and her skin on her Drowned Folk half glowed very faintly. Spent, you see.
She was someone whose past life had followed her even to the Bloodtear Armada, but they had welcomed her where no one else would.
After all, a spent Luminary of the Drowned Cities was mostly an object of pity. She might be cared for all her life, but without her powers to illuminate, Lidera was useless to the cities she had used to help define.
On the other hand, her First Mate was a boy who wore veils on his Drowned Folk side like some dancer because he was too bright. An aspiring Luminary and a burnt-out one. The Drowned Folk had a bounty on Lidera’s head that rose with each year. Her crime, incidentally, was joining [Pirates]…and stealing a prospective Luminary from his city.
Solwes had light-based powers so powerful that the Bloodtear Pirates could afford to dive and hide out in places normally uninhabitable even to them. He and Irrel skulked to one side as the older officers talked, trading murmurs.
“I was part of Third Fleet. You want to tell them or should I? We gave a damn good fight, but half our ships had to flee in every direction; the Iron Vanguard got us.”
The half-Shark Captain Dovom called out, and Rosech grimaced as the other [Pirates] learned, unhappily, that the famed Bloodtear Pirates had been on the outs.
“Keeping three armadas is tough. You can raid and raid and keep growing out of your losses, but one bad battle and it’s over in a way it’s not for a kingdom or nation. Third Fleet is proof of that. Dovom was there if you want to know.”
“The Iron Vanguard? And they’re not going to try to take all of us out in one go?”
A nervous [Pirate Captain] demanded. Rosech picked at his teeth, unconcerned, as the Winter Sprite flew up and landed on Zoler’s head next. The Dullahan froze as everyone laughed at her and offered it treats. But she had already been looking sick, even if no one did more than glance at her.
Dovom was one of them, and his eyes lingered longest. He spat onto the deck and got a kick.
“Yep. We ran straight into one of their Kraken Destroyers. Wasn’t our fight. If they want to try it again—there’s two [Admirals] and the Alchemist. I’ll take one of their Destroyers; it’d make a nice new flagship. But it won’t go down easy. Admiral Meetishek leapt onto their ship and was trying to break in, but it sits almost in the water. It’s round as a dome, and it was shooting lightning. Poor bastard got fried, and the rest of us were throwing rocks for all the damage we did.”
“Is it really indestructible?”
Even Captain Aldrail looked unhappy at the idea of a ship like that. The Gnoll didn’t often sail into Balerosian waters, so he turned for answers, and Zoler answered for him.
“They’re not indestructible. There are only two left in the entire world, and the Iron Vanguard has both. The hatches are sealed with a powerful magnetic spell; you’d have to have two people strong as Rosech to have a chance of pulling it up, and they’ll just electrocute you via the hull if you try to board. But it can run out of mana, and they’re out of the old fuel they used to use. If it enters the fight, you can outlast it.”
That kind of detailed answer was so specific that everyone turned to Zoler, but several [Captains]’ eyes had lit up. Zoler turned her head away, cheeks reddening.
“The problem is that Tulm the Mithril is in command. He won’t be in either Destroyer, but he won’t give either one up without a fight. So you’ll run into his [Strategist] level Skills on the way in.”
“I heard he’s not even Level 50. If he comes at us—I’d rather not dance with the Earl of Rains. Or that Baron of the Dance if he’s still around. Dead gods, even that [Prince] or whatnot seem worse than the Iron Vanguard’s ‘finest’ [Strategist].”
Aldrail’s offhand remark got a blaze of anger from Zoler.
“Don’t underestimate him. He was Level 50, but his new class took him down ten levels. That’s how it works if you get a class that much better than your old one.”
Now, a lot of the independents were eying Zoler, but none of them got a chance to ask anything because Rosech spoke.
“Hey, Zoler, your Newbloods are picking fights with the others. Get over there and knock some heads together. I don’t want them getting anyone hurt.”
Sure enough, some of the new lot on Zoler’s ship were swaggering around—albeit in the shade—and calling insults to other Newbloods. Always ready to scrap, a few were walking over for a fight.
“Idiots. Sorry, Admiral. I’ll be back.”
“Take the fast route. [Light Bridge].”
The old Captain Lidera pointed, and Zoler charged over the light bridge, shouting obscenities. A silence followed as she threw a garlic bulb at one of her new crewmates.
“She’s got the stuff of Bloodtear in her. Nearly been killed six times proving her worth. The Bloodtear Armada don’t count who you were—even if it hurts sometimes, right, Dovom?”
The half-Shark [Captain] didn’t seem to agree with Rosech’s assessment, but he bared his teeth.
“You took her in after the third armada went down, Admiral. I’m just here for the promised rewards. Keep her away from my ship. If anything brings the Iron Vanguard in, it’s her.”
“She’s sworn to jump ship with a weight around her ankle first. That’s why they’re not going after us.”
Rosech’s backslap had to hurt. At this, some of the [Captains] not in the know looked at each other, and Aldrail plucked at Jiupe’s shoulder.
The two knew each other fairly well; they were Maxy’s lot normally, and had been at Savere with all the hilarity of that event. So the Gnoll pulled the half-Jellyfish woman back and whispered, careful of her poisonous side.
“What’s all the fuss around a Newblood Captain about? Who’s Zoler? I knew Third Fleet went down, but was she there?”
“She’s why they went down. She’s like Captain Lidera: brought some trouble, but Rosech’s crazy, so he likes them all. She might also be the reason the Iron Vanguard won’t attack, so that’s something. Rosech sinks a ship and captures two for every one he loses.”
It was a popular sentiment among the Bloodtear Pirates, and Aldrail grinned as Gorry came over to listen.
“But who is she?”
Jiupe gave him a smile full of twists as they turned to stare at the Dullahan.
The Gnoll stared at her, and after a second, Jiupe sighed and whispered in his ear.
“Tulm’s daughter, fur-for-brains.”
Aldrail whistled, and he began to grin as the green Winter Sprite landed on Irrel’s head, and the Dorhmin stared up at it. He reached up and held the tiny thing in one hand.
A monster might just squish and eat it. But all the boy said was…
“Luck. Scary ships ahead. We’re going to die, but it’s worth it.”
He didn’t sound convinced, and he looked at his father, who did seem fearless as he strode down the deck. Captain Dovom overheard and grinned as he strode over to the boy.
“It ain’t just worth it, Irrel. It’s everything. Everything. We’re a rough, free lot like your dad said. This is gonna make us something. It’s why my entire crew is going to sail in there, blood in our eyes, tide at our back.”
“No surrender, no mercy, no regrets to be had. Waters gone red, skies gone black. Fearless all; we’ve ever been damned.”
The boy whispered the other end of the rhyme, but Captain Dovom’s smile widened.
“Not after this, lad. Not after this.”
So that was the Bloodtear Pirates. This was why they were here; they were a piece on the board moving without direction from anyone else, and no one could see the path they charted, no matter how hard they tried. The reason for that would become obvious soon enough, but not even Shaestrel could see why—not yet.
But it was a safe bet to blame the ghosts. After all. They’d gone everywhere. And one of them had left the Bloodtear Pirates a gift.
Aldrail could still remember it. They all could. The Gnoll could look out into that storm-whipped sea and recall a ship filled with holes, as if it had been eaten sailing out of the storms. Drawing his sword and preparing to fight—only to see a ghost laughing and striding onto their deck. To give the Bloodtear Pirates a single gift for a new era.
He could still remember laughing in the middle of the storm, like he was a cub again. Weighing anchor and sailing until the ghost vanished in his final battle. [Pirates], forgotten even by the dead, throwing a sword into the world of the living for chaos and hope. So the Gnoll turned his head towards the fleet and blew them a kiss.
“We’ll hit you harder than you can dream, Terandria.”
They had everything the Bloodtear Pirates wanted.
What had the Bloodtear Pirates been given? What was Kasigna’s plan? You would get the answer to everything, soon.
As for where they had been—the Horns of Hammerad had been on an adventure. As ever.
It all began over a week ago.
“Remember. It’s a bag of holding without any limit. You put all of your anger in there.”
“What if it gets overwhelming, Master Berr?”
A paw tapped Yvlon hard on the head. She glared into the huge, furry grin, but Berr had told her that was fine.
“Then your bag isn’t big enough! Upgrade it! Remember—let out anything that you can’t put in there. But keep everything else inside. There’s no limits on feelings. Gold coins? You can’t store gold infinitely, but you can with feelings.”
“But if I can’t—”
Tap, tap. The paw was rapping on her head like it was empty, and it hurt.
“Then you’re weak. If you’re weak, tell me, apprentice, and I’ll find a better way for you. But you asked me how I do it. So. There. Do you understand?”
Yvlon breathed in and out, calming herself—until the paw tonked her on the head again. Then she punched at it, but Berr hopped back around their fire in the middle of the Great Plains. Snow had melted in a wide radius around it, and Yvlon was grateful; it was cold as all hells, and the fur cloak she had bought was the only thing keeping her warm.
“I think I’ve got a hold on it.”
He threw a snowball at her, and she dodged it. Yvlon dodged the second one too with a quick twist of her torso and blocked the third one with a metal hand. She was looking quite pleased with herself when Ceria hit her with a gigantic snowball.
Ceria had been waiting on this part of the test Berr had set up, and the hovering snowball was roughly half as tall as Yvlon and just as round.
Ceria hit her friend hard, and Yvlon pitched forwards and lay on the ground a second as Berr cackled and danced around. Then he began kicking snow onto her as she got up.
Ceria was ready to run. Even for training and even as a [Prankster]…she felt like this one was playing with fire.
Yet when Yvlon Byres slowly sat up, she looked controlled. Self-possessed. She smiled at Ceria—and Berr slapped her with a snowball at point blank range.
You see, that was the Yvlon Byres way. She was very good at keeping control of herself right until she didn’t. Snowball from behind? She controlled herself. Someone kicking her when she was down? She rallied.
Snowball to the face as she was being reasonable and controlled? Yvlon Byres wiped snow from her face and exhaled.
“I didn’t care for that last one, Honored B—”
Then he kicked her into the fire. Ceria saw Yvlon land on her fur coat, yelping as she tried to roll out, and it was catching fire, and then the half-Elf began edging for the tents in the distance. Half a dozen Gnolls who’d been watching Yvlon’s ‘graduation’ from Berr’s training made tracks.
Out she came, singed, mad as hell, and the Gnoll didn’t wait for her; he threw a punch. It was fast, and Yvlon staggered as he hit her in the chest quick as a viper. She snarled as he raised his paws—then kicked.
And she blocked with her knee! Yvlon grimaced because that had to hurt, then blocked a punch to her chest. She was fully mad now, Ceria saw, and threw a punch back that the Gnoll used to throw her—
This time, Yvlon landed on her feet. She turned, raised her hands.
She dodged the snow he kicked at her, and her right metal arm flattened and lengthened, forming a shield to cover her face. Berr skipped sideways, face still deadpan, and then kicked.
This time, the blow sent Yvlon crashing back so far she landed in a snowdrift. She charged out with a shout, swinging a fist at Berr, who made to block, grinning. And his left fist was moving to counter her. He swung fast and compactly, like that boxer in Invrisil, as Ceria watched with bated breath. At the last moment, Yvlon stepped back and threw a punch that extended.
Berr grunted in surprise; he’d forgotten her arms could do that as she punched him in the jaw. It wasn’t the hardest punch, but he missed clocking her across the ribs. Yvlon stepped back, and Berr shrugged.
“Good enough. I’m still not certain you get it, but you didn’t fall for that. Better than last time when you just charged in.”
Yvlon lowered her fists in exasperation. Ceria poked her head up from behind a snowbank, and the [Armsmistress] waved at her friend, looking at Berr with unconcealed annoyance as he grinned.
“It feels like half of my lessons were you teaching me how to grapple or fall or fight with my fists, Master Berr!”
“Yes, well, you were terrible at both controlling your temper and that, so I did both. Berr the Berserker’s students can’t lose bar fights easily. It’s part of my good name.”
He patted at Yvlon’s fur cloak as he came over, and Ceria stepped lightly over to Yvlon. The [Armsmistress] was panting harder than she should have—yet she had been clear-headed enough not to get hit by the sneak-attack. Perhaps more encouraging—she gave Ceria a scowl, and her arms extended too fast for the half-Elf to avoid.
She rubbed one fist into Ceria’s hair as the half-Elf tried to duck away.
“I should have known you would be part of it, Ceria. How do you get enjoyment from making people’s lives miserable?”
“I like to have fun. Hey. Hey!”
Yvlon pulled a bone-white circlet off Ceria’s head and stared at the pale silver of the magical circlet of the Putrid One. Ceria grabbed at it. Yvlon turned and skimmed the circlet into the far distance.
She could throw far. Berr watched as a Relic-grade artifact went sailing over a hundred feet in a second—and it had amazing aerodynamics. Ceria’s mouth opened as Yvlon dusted her hands in satisfaction.
“So do I. It’s for your own good.”
Then she patted Ceria on the shoulder and bowed to Berr the Berserker. He laughed and shouted for a feast; Yvlon had graduated from anger management training. It didn’t mean she was the same as before she had gotten her [Berserker’s Rage] Skill. The [Armsmistress] stretched as Ceria felt at her head and stared into the distance, and Yvlon looked mightily pleased with herself. Learning to express how she was feeling was one of Berr’s addendums. You didn’t hit people in rage unless you were doing it on purpose, but he definitely let you hit people. It was all about control.
Pisces Jealnet and Ksmvr of Chandrar were warming up as well when Yvlon found them. They were both practicing, a rapier and, in Ksmvr’s case, the two looted silver kris blades spinning in flashes of light that confused the eye.
They were fighting pretty hard, actually. Not each other but rather six formidable opponents who were attacking in tandem with wooden blades and practice shields.
A skeleton leaned out of the way of Pisces’ stab, then tried to give the [Necromancer] a flying knee to the face as Pisces swore. Two more were attacking Ksmvr, one calmly blocking his slashes with a shield as it jabbed with a sword, the other using its friend for cover before swinging in hard with a greatsword.
They were—fast. Yvlon Byres guessed that your average Silver-ranker would be pressed by any one of the Skeleton Champions, even with Skills. She was especially impressed when the Skeleton Champion that Pisces was dueling took a slash across the neck, nearly knocking its head off, but then grabbed the next stab and held the rapier bare-handed.
But it was a skeleton, so what did it care if its bones were sliced? Pisces hesitated a fraction too long; the second skeleton spun into him with daggers, and he shouted.
“Ow, ow, argh—stop! Stop!”
“Comrade Pisces is dead!”
Ksmvr slowed a second as the other two skeletons came around him. Then he jumped, switched sword for crossbow, shot the skeleton with a shield and sword in the head, landed and minced the greatsword holder, and got a stab in the butt from a spear.
Well, not his butt, but his back shell, but the last Skeleton Champion had been waiting. It jabbed Ksmvr twice as he halted and stared at the spear, and Pisces called out.
All of the skeletons, including three ‘dead’ skeletons, paused, and he and Ksmvr looked at each other. Yvlon broke into the training session.
“Pisces. Did you just lose against your own creations?”
She was smiling sardonically, and Pisces turned red, brushed at his hair, sniffed—then sighed and let his shoulders sag.
“Embarrassing as it is to admit—yes. It is annoyingly difficult to best six-on-one without sustaining a deathblow with no potions or magic.”
“Or Skills, for me. Hello, Yvlon. Did you pass your test? Is Ceria dead? I have been intrusively sexed upon just now.”
Ksmvr sheathed his swords, rubbing at his posterior. Pisces stared at Ksmvr, and someone snorted and began laughing from the sidelines. Colth spat out his drink he’d been having, and Yvlon turned to Ksmvr.
“Ceria’s fine. I just threw her stupid circlet into the distance. Ksmvr…what was that last thing you said?”
“Have I used another word improperly?”
“Yes. You were stabbed in the rear with a spear. That is not…who told you that other part?”
Ksmvr hesitated, and his antennae waved.
“I have been intruded upon in the posterior region by a phallus-shaped object. Which is my understanding of—”
“Ah. Then I will continue to ponder the mysteries of intercourse. I should send my associates in Liscor a letter. They may have been using this expression wrong as well.”
Ksmvr scribbled a note to himself as Yvlon heard Colth the Supporter keep laughing as he got up. The young-looking man seemed endlessly amused; Pisces was still stuck on his loss.
“Posterior jab or not—I swear they’re too fast for Skeleton Champions. Colth, did you see that last move?”
“I did. It looked like something you’d do. Maybe it has to do with a certain [Duelist] gaining [Undead: Duelist Instincts]? Class synergy Skills? It’s almost as if—”
Here he posed, sweeping his hair back and placing his chin in two fingers.
“—having multiple classes makes sense.”
Oh dead gods. He was still smug about it. Yvlon rolled her eyes, but Ksmvr began applauding again, and even Pisces just blew out his cheeks.
“Well, my Skeleton Champions are so adept as to be undefeatable unless Ksmvr and I use Skills or magic.”
“Or Yvlon or I fight them.”
The [Necromancer] fell silent. Ksmvr stopped applauding and folded all four arms.
“This is an objectionable statement.”
Yvlon began grinning. She glanced at Colth and raised her brows.
“You beat them without Skills? That makes two of us.”
Pisces lifted a finger.
“As a matter of fact, both of you used tactics I object to. Yvlon’s metal arms are as close to magic as anything else, and Colth used arguable strategies to win.”
Yvlon raised her brows at Colth, and he rolled his eyes.
“Using terrain as cover and refusing to fight six-on-one isn’t cheating. I funneled them through one of the yurts, cut out the back side, and used a campfire. It wasn’t easy, but it can be done. They still fight better than almost any undead I’ve ever met.”
“If Ksmvr and I decided to use the entire Meeting of Tribes camp as our battleground—”
“You didn’t. Because it didn’t occur to you to. Therefore, I am better.”
Colth grinned without a hint of self-depreciation, his usual move with anyone but the Horns. Pisces bristled, and someone sniffed.
“Sniff. Sniff. I object to your arrogance, Colth.”
Ksmvr glared at Colth, and Pisces opened his mouth as Yvlon and the Ultimate Supporter began snorting. The [Necromancer] gave up. Glumly, he retreated to his Skeleton Champions, who stood in a row.
There were six. Each one had a different set of weapons.
Sword and shield. Greatsword. Daggers. Rapier. Spear. And lastly, the one Pisces and Ksmvr had downed before Yvlon arrived, one with a big battleaxe. Pisces tapped this last one.
“This Skeleton Champion was notably slower than the rest.”
“Probably because you don’t know how to use an axe. Give it something else. A rapier. If they all carried rapiers, they’d probably be better.”
Colth countered. Pisces began to sniff, glanced at Ksmvr, and desisted.
“I am passable with an axe, I shall have you know.”
“Then this one’s ‘passable’ as well. Which means it’s shit, and I’m not trusting my rear with it.”
“Or the one with a spear.”
Ksmvr rubbed at his backside again, and Pisces protested.
“We cannot give them all rapiers. It’s not—I am an aficionado of the weapon myself, but a sword and shield is an utterly practical style, especially for the myriad of roles we might subject them to.”
“Right, but you know a rapier. So either you have to practice and teach the Skeleton Champions to be better, or we’ll make them into a copy of you. A better copy.”
Colth was, as ever, blunt when he talked to the Horns about adventuring. It probably showed he liked them; Yvlon had heard him talking to other Gnollish adventurers, and he was far kinder to them.
“Better? How? I remind you that now I have [Duelist] Skills, I am more than a match for any one skeleton.”
Pisces was determined to win at least one argument today. Unfortunately, Yvlon was in a good mood, so she shook her head.
“Pisces, if you’re using your rapier, you’re out of magic. We talked about this. If we’re in a fight these days, Ceria’s our caster—and so are you. Ksmvr’s our duelist. His [Silver Illusion] techniques are excellent, and he can use his crossbow attack. I’m the vanguard. Colth is the adaptive one who can shoot, use magic, and do anything. If the Skeleton Champions can copy you, all the better.”
“Yep. You’re the mage. These are a superior Pisces. They take orders, they don’t sniff.”
Colth clapped one Skeleton Champion on the shoulder, and its blue eyes brightened. Ksmvr added.
“They are materially more resistant to harm unlike Pisces, who bleeds and needs healing potions. These Pisceses are expendable. Taller.”
Colth nodded, deadpan.
“And they have armor.”
Yvlon concluded. At the end of it, Pisces stood there, looking at his betters and scuffing at the ground with one foot.
“Yes, well. I shall be content with merely pulling twice as much weight with my abilities as everyone else.”
He grumbled under his breath. Yvlon let him have that one. Colth just rubbed at his chin, taking Pisces’ words at face value.
“Maybe. You know, it’s hard to argue about the utility a [Necromancer] brings to the party. I feel like Pisces is a bit of a deceptive one, though. I have worked with [Necromancers] before, and most of them aren’t useful outside of death magic spells and their minions. They can’t fight, and their spellcasting is weak. If we run into an enemy, they panic, run the wrong way, get minced, and then all their undead go rogue.”
Pisces winced as Yvlon wondered where Colth had gone to meet with such people. But then…he was a man of mystery.
Not many mysteries, admittedly, and most of them had to do with ‘Demons’, at least as far as Pisces was concerned, but even so, having Colth the Supporter on their side had clear dividends.
Such as Colth bustling around the skeletons.
“Alright, alright. Enough messing with Pisces. Let’s armor these poor fellows up. I’m all ready for our first expedition today if you are. Yvlon did pass her test, yeah? Pisces, can they put these on?”
He had chainmail, leather, and fur leggings—Yvlon raised her brows.
“Colth! How much did you spend on this? Is this a full armor set for everyone? That’s expensive!”
Even unenchanted! It was too much to spend—until the Named-rank gave Yvlon a sardonic look.
“Listen. I know I’ve lectured you about not spending gold, but think for a second, Yvlon. No, wait, that’s my job. I’m also good at supplies. Look at this.”
She glowered as Colth showed her what he’d bought.
“Chainmail’s rusted. All the armor is from, uh—dead Drakes. See this breastplate? Some poor sucker got stabbed by an enchanted sword. I almost wonder if it was Rasea herself; it’s not even worth fixing. So here’s what we do…”
He had the skeletons put on the armor and then began stuffing something into the gaps where the armor hung loosely. Ksmvr protested.
“This is surely another naughty touch, Colth.”
“Only if they’re living, Ksmvr…no, wait. Don’t do this on anything but skeletons. Armor won’t fit otherwise.”
He had bought…a vast amount of pillow stuffing. Just down and feathers. And he was adding it to the skeletons like someone filling up a sock puppet! By the time Colth was done, the skeletons had protection inside and out.
Pisces hated it.
“Colth! The armor is fine, but if a single one gets damaged, I will have to repair the bones and undo their armor to mend them! It’s harder to reanimate undead like that!”
“Well, it beats you reanimating them during a fight, Pisces. If you’ve got mana to spare, you should be animating new undead. Buckle up, children. Doing things you don’t like is how you become a big, adult Named-rank like me.”
“Can I kick him?”
Pisces glared at Yvlon, and she shrugged.
“He’s got a point, Pisces. You’d have been happy if we spent half this much time thinking about how to make your undead so effective. Look, he’s even bought them bows!”
“Shortbows, arrows—and gorgets. Done!”
“No. That looks terrible.”
Pisces objected to the last part as well; a metal gorget around the neck, like some kind of distinctly unsexy collar meant to protect you. Colth’s head turned.
“Pisces. A gorget is the most valuable thing for a skeleton. If their heads come off, they die. Guess what this is?”
He slapped the metal gorget, and Pisces hesitated.
“Well, at least let me coordinate the armor sets a bit. You’ve mixed and matched!”
“Dead gods. I studied with a [Tailor] and [Dressmakers]—but we’ve got a real fashion designer here.”
Colth rolled his eyes. He and Pisces began bickering as the Skeleton Champions adopted more aesthetically pleasing armor.
“Horns of Hammerad! Are you lot ready yet? What are you doing?”
Someone came to find them as Yvlon told Ksmvr about her test with Berr. Satar Silverfang was writing things down, as usual, and the sight of Pisces and Colth stripping skeletons surely warranted a mention. Colth called out.
“We’re almost done, Satar. Is Wer ready?”
“Wer, Chieftain Feshi—they’re all waiting. I’m even recording this as a moment in history.”
The Named-rank jumped and cursed.
“Oh shit. We’d better hurry! Pisces, they look fine.”
“They do not! We should give them scarves. Can anyone sell me a scarf? And if we added some motif to each one—”
Colth was grumpy, but Satar tilted her head and whistled, and several Gnolls who’d been watching the adventurers trotted over.
“You want some scarves, Adventurer Pisces?”
“I can sell you some silver paint. Something nice like a skeleton head on their armor? My niece is a [Painter]. Level 14, but she’s got a steady paw. Won’t take five minutes.”
Pisces’ eyes lit up.
“Absolutely not! No! They’ll show up in a night engagement! No fancy colors; I deliberately unbuffed their armor so they don’t shine!”
Colth crossed his arms definitively. Pisces scowled.
“Well, black paint! If they were all one color—I’ll buy black paint.”
“No, you’ll buy grey. Black shows up too much! Dead gods, how have you all survived without a [Rogue] so far?”
They began fighting even harder, and Ksmvr raised a hand.
“I am known to be a cunning person myself, Colth. I have tricked many people, like Femithain of Illivere.”
The Named-rank grinned at Ksmvr.
“I guess that’s true. Dead gods, Pisces, listen to Yvlon. Fashion is overrated, especially in skeletons. We’re going to be late. Yvlon, can you pick up our food and other supplies? I’ll be with Mister Arts here. Ksmvr, go run and tell them we’ll be late.”
“Yes, Comrade Colth!”
Ksmvr saluted and went running. Yvlon shook her head, but she glanced at Colth and thought it rather than say it.
I think he’s sort of one of us. He hadn’t left or gone on his own adventure, and here they were, about to head into the Crossroads of Izril together. And Colth fit.
Not perfectly; he was still very much the stranger opposed to them, and he had strong opinions and sometimes seemed to be trying to be the ‘veteran adventurer’ too much for Yvlon’s taste, or maybe thought he was, but he did fit.
With her a bit more in control of her feelings and them all having had a break from the last big adventure—they were ready.
Even Ceria caught back up, panting and glaring.
“You threw that thing…four hundred paces! I had to dig it out of the snow!”
“Oh, you found it? Give it here and I’ll do it again.”
Another new relationship was between Yvlon and Ceria. Yvlon was trying to remove the circlet, but Ceria ducked away. Yvlon kept walking towards a Gnoll they’d asked to fill their supply list, and Ceria caught up.
“What’d I miss?”
“Pisces’ skeletons fight well, and Colth is giving them armor. Pisces has aesthetic objections.”
They walked along in silence a second, and Ceria seemed ready for Yvlon to grab at her circlet, but Yvlon wouldn’t…unless Ceria got on her nerves.
They weren’t the same friends as they had been for a long time. Ceria had that circlet of…well, she hadn’t even really said all of what it did. Yvlon had changed too. They were friends; Yvlon would die for Ceria. But she might kill her friend first.
It worked. It was going to work. Even so, Yvlon felt like the Horns were somewhat new again. And that was the same as ever, in a way.
“We’re a weird team.”
“I know. Colth is throwing us off. Five? I don’t know about a five-person team. It feels pretentious. You know? Like—we’re too good to be a big team like we were under Calruz, but we’re still calling ourselves ‘small’.”
Yvlon’s mouth opened as they stopped in front of a Gnoll adjusting some packs ready to go into their bags of holding.
“…No. That’s not what I meant. I meant we’re just weird.”
“Oh. Well. That’s what I was thinking. I think we should fire Colth.”
“Because five is worse than four? Hello, Supplier Torgrass. Are we ready today? We’d like to settle up.”
The Gnoll was nodding with a big smile as Ksmvr hurried over. Ceria muttered under her breath as he showed Yvlon her list and they went over it.
“No. I think we can’t trust him completely. Or even if we can, he’s going to bring trouble on us.”
Yvlon half-turned, and Torgrass stopped a second. Ceria gave them a big smile, and Yvlon shrugged.
“Well, I like him.”
“I like him too! I’m just saying. If we die, don’t blame me.”
She might be an insane [Prankster] with a potentially evil, mind-altering circlet on her head…but she also had a point. Yvlon really wanted to know if Colth was just coming on an adventure or if he had ulterior motives.
Fair was fair—if he had them, they could help.
“Colth, do you have ulterior motives?”
“Absolutely. Hey, is that sausage fresh? I love sausage.”
Colth and Pisces had come over to inspect the one thing adventurers couldn’t do without and why they were a net boon on the economy despite everything they did: supplies.
Food, tons of it. Water, as much as they could carry in their bags of holding. Reupholstered sleeping bags, tinder, firewood even, anti-bug charms, and a thousand other items.
It wasn’t just Ksmvr’s tools that he loved collecting, like the siren-beetle that attracted enemies, or a bunch of rope. You’d better have a tent if it rained…but if you did, had you pitched it where the water wouldn’t collect? Did you have a fire? Good. Did you have a pot? Also good! What about something to stir the pot with? Water for said pot? Seasoning for your beans, or were you going to live on beans the entire time?
This was one place where Yvlon liked having Colth around because he did what was previously her job.
“That’s a great variety of food, Colth. Not just beans. The Silver Spears once bought just beans for a six-day expedition.”
“Dead fucking gods. How was it?”
“We were picking grass and throwing it in the pot by the third day. And I love Ksmvr, but the last time he did solo shopping, we had an…incident with eggs.”
Ksmvr hung his head as Pisces, Ceria, and Yvlon shuddered. Colth glanced up, and Ksmvr sighed.
“I have bought too many discount eggs. Which I now realize are discounted because of the explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting—”
The [Supplier], Master Torgrass, was someone else good to know. Because the Gnoll’s shudder turned into hastening to assure the Horns that this food was all good.
“Everything is fresh or plucked from preservation spells. One day of actual aging guaranteed. You aren’t going long, yes?”
Colth waved a hand.
“Should be in-and-out, but we wanted enough for two weeks. This is plenty.”
True, they weren’t even committing to one day, but no one wanted to enter the Crossroads of Izril without being ready. Colth held up an egg and sniffed it.
“[Rotnose]…nope. All good. No worries about eggs this time, Ksmvr.”
“This is a relief, Colth. You have once again proven your worth.”
“I even put in some foods in case you’re in there a long time, Adventurer Colth. I have for you…twenty-eight pounds of this if you want it. It’s better than most, but I won’t make you buy it.”
Torgrass held something up, and Colth took a sample of something red, vaguely solid, and tasted it. He shrugged, and Yvlon took a small ball of…
“Oh, Drake’s Ancestors. Not that, Master Torgrass. Did you get it from the stores? We didn’t even give it to the Plain’s Eye Tribe.”
Someone complained—loudly—and the Horns saw it was Chieftain Gireulashia. She was visibly unhappy about not being allowed to go with them, and she instantly shook her head.
Even the voracious eater hated what turned out to be…
It was a dark red to a dark brown dried food that was essentially venison and fat ground up. You could make it into a bar or even ‘shape’ it; it wasn’t bad. It was just like a kind of jerky, albeit greasier.
Yvlon didn’t see what the problem was.
“We don’t make it as much up in the north; House Veltras has mostly jerky. I know this is good for travel, isn’t it?”
Supplier Torgrass was nodding energetically, clearly trying to upsell the stuff.
“It can last for up to half a decade without Skills. Even your beans won’t do as long, I think. Most of this stuff is made by a specialist, so it might last an entire decade.”
“And it’ll probably taste the same. No Gnolls like it. I hope it’s cheap.”
Torgrass was indeed selling the pemmican cheap for how much the Horns could buy. Colth was happy to add it to Yvlon’s bag of holding, and she frowned.
“Is it off or…”
“No, no! It’s more like—it’s the one food we Gnolls can rely on. So if a tribe has a bad time, they’ll run into another tribe and ask for their pemmican stores. Which they always have. Or if hunting is bad, we eat it. Or if we’re short of anything else—”
So pemmican was the taste of starvation and poverty and eaten so much that every Plains Gnoll was probably sick of it. In hindsight…the flavor of the pemmican was sort of hard to get rid of, and it stayed even after Yvlon swallowed a few times. She had a drink of water to wash it out, and Ksmvr nibbled on some.
“This is perfectly edible. Why, it is the most logical creation after the Antinium’s own version of this.”
He kept chewing and, after a second, regurgitated his entire mouthful out onto the ground.
“Excuse me. I am having flashbacks. This is a horribly sensible creation.”
Gire was hopping up and down with impatience.
“From your lips to the ears of [Shamans]. Okay, are you ready? I want to see the Crossroads! Wer says he won’t even let me look, but I’ll get a glimpse!”
The Horns had packed all their goods away, and Colth had even sorted the goods by person so no one had all of one supply. Yvlon adjusted her bag of holding and snapped her fingers.
“Hold on, I forgot my weird gift from that Courier. Let me grab it.”
She strode over to the tents and found it lying on a dresser. She hadn’t used it yet, but Yvlon tucked the odd ‘Goblin pillow’ into her bag of holding, and the other Horns emerged from their guest-tents, having swept them for possessions.
“We should be back. But just in case…”
Everything they owned was now on them, everything they needed. Anything else was at their homes, The Wandering Inn, or stored in their tents. But who the Horns were…was standing around in a circle.
That was adventurers for you. Even the Gnolls might not be so self-contained. The Horns looked at each other.
Yvlon, Pisces, Ksmvr, Ceria, and…Colth.
He grinned, and Yvlon realized she was smiling faintly. Ksmvr was already smiling, and Ceria was rubbing her hands together with a huge grin. Pisces was trying to stay aloof until Colth nudged him.
“Ready, one supposes.”
“I am ready, Comrade Colth.”
“Yahoo! Let’s do this!”
Ceria punched a fist up and stopped when they stared at her. Yvlon was about to snap, but Ceria’s eyes were serious behind her playful look. Colth nodded.
“To the Crossroads of Izril then.”
They were going—
Wer the Wanderer was a white Gnoll with a cloak, a seasoned traveller, as his name indicated, who used a staff and often wore a hat to hide his features.
He was unto a legend among the few Doombearers, someone who found and tried to protect white Gnolls. Now? He didn’t quite know what he was.
But he was definitely, 110% certain that he did not want to be doing this.
“You’re all crazy and going to die.”
Chieftains Feshi, Adetr, Gireulashia, Akrisa, and many more all stared at him. They were gathered in a circle outside the Earth Tent, which seemed like it had become a place for great events to happen.
Snow lazily drifted down as two-dozen Gnolls stood in the first layer of the circle, supported by [Shamans] and their followers, like Satar, in the second.
The other Gnolls had been forbidden from listening in, so they were skulking in the distance a few hundred paces away—still obviously eavesdropping.
The [Chieftains] were not out in their finery; they wore their traditional dresses, supplemented by a cloak or coat sometimes if they were old like Chieftain Orreh. It was an impressive gathering to send the Horns off…and not, at the same time.
There was no Berr. No Garsine Wallbreaker. Many of the tribes had left, and even Gamur the Axe hadn’t come by to make this a grand ceremony.
Adventurers and warriors didn’t. They had come by to have a drink or say something the night before. Right now, they were probably insulting the Horns in one of the bigger tents, grumbling about luck or swapping stories.
If the Horns needed help, they would be first out. It was that kind of gathering, then. One where everyone pretended the wind didn’t feel like it had an extra chill. Where only Satar, because she was young, was bouncing on her toes. Even Gireulashia had taken cues from the others and was tossing her head back so Satar could get her good side.
You had to act like you belonged here.
A thousand campfires lit up the pavilion of round tents in the distance, and the faint stench of burning cow manure had long stopped intruding on the Horns’ noses. A flat, white world stretched out from the Meeting of Tribes until it seemed like they were the only civilization in the flat pond of snow.
The rippling fabric of the Earth Tent was torn, patched from battle, and grander than the plain blue fabric it had once been. Someone had added greens and browns, even blacks, to mend the frame until it seemed almost like that jewel of a world that only Humans had ever conceived was their own planet. A sign.
Rose was fidgeting, her phone lighting up now and then, red-cheeked like her name as Inkar held Tkrn and Deskie’s arms nervously.
This was a moment Satar’s quill tried to capture all of this in mere words. Smell, sight, even the feel of new-fallen snow crunching under her light wraps. The way Pisces and Yvlon both lifted their chins with the same nobility, one trained, the other gained. Ksmvr looking to Colth for guidance and a smile that had no fear crossing the other’s face.
A glinting circlet gleaming like a half-Elf’s eyes. And it still smelled like breakfast in the air, cooking meat overwhelming the rest as the Gnolls stood there and tried to seem impressive.
Unless of course, like the sighing Shaman Theikha, you had been there and it didn’t matter because you were who you were. She turned to Wer, trying to reassure the most visibly nervous Gnoll here.
“You said you use it all the time, Wer.”
“When I have to. Note that I did not say ‘exploring’. I never explore. I told you, I have seen Gold-rank [Mercenaries] die there. I have nearly died there many times. Even Belavierr looked nervous when she was in there.”
“Yes. Because you and she are both cowards. The Horns aren’t.”
Adetr Steelfur shot back. The young [Chieftain] looked as mad as Gireulashia that he was forbidden from looking into the Crossroads.
His comment earned him a bop to the back of the head from Theikha’s staff. Wer just growled under his breath as he turned to the Horns—and found them unmoved. Ceria gave everyone a thumbs up, keeping her confident look.
“We know what we’re doing, Wer. We’ll go in an hour at a time, and we have synched our time spells. Pisces?”
“I have cast it already. One hour starting…now. And you shall be with us the first few times.”
“Assuming we get more than a few times. Alright, let’s do this. Stand close to me, and hold onto one another. I can’t enter and leave more than twice per day. So if you miss it…”
“We stay in the same place. We fall back the instant we see something nasty, and we map—everything. We’ll be back by dinner, Chieftain Feshi.”
The leader of the Weatherfurs inclined her head.
“Good luck, Horns. Master Wer, if you need anything, we’ll be r—”
That was the last thing Yvlon heard from Feshi. She had been saying ‘ready’, and Yvlon heard the word—but it stretched. It seemed as if the word were just part of the entire world and that forever was encapsulated in a single word droning on and on—
But also that in a flash, the world changed, and Yvlon felt the world flip around her or move in some direction she couldn’t explain. Such that everything changed except for the Horns, each one linked to one another, her holding Wer’s arm, Pisces holding onto her metal hand.
When the flip was done, the Meeting of Tribes was gone. The sky as she knew it was gone, and the sun was gone. Yvlon staggered and looked around, and Wer whispered as Yvlon’s nose was struck by a different air, and she felt nauseous and felt him tugging her towards a simple, paved road giving way to reddish dirt in a world that was devoid of the same grass or…or landscape as anything else.
The void, perhaps, but a void if it had been weathered over time. Blank nothingness, not white, not dark, just a kind of translucent matter that seemed to hint at soil below, a sky as grey and uniform as anything Yvlon had seen, terrifying, and a sense of nothingness before and ahead of them. Even Wer’s voice was flat and seemed not to echo as it should.
“Welcome to the Crossroads of Izril. Stay on the road. Scream if you see anything move.”
For a little bit after he looked around, Pisces just felt nauseous.
Which he felt, inwardly, wasn’t really fair to the moment. Here they were in the Crossroads of Izril, a legendary, lost place filled with danger that was at least Named-rank level.
The source of at least two of Erin’s quests. Arguably, and he hated to admit this, grander than what the Horns should have been allowed to meddle in.
But they were here first, ahead of everyone else in a land he knew was a different dimension. And all he wanted to do was puke.
Pisces was just glad he wasn’t the only one. Yvlon was gritting her teeth, Ksmvr was shaking his head slightly, and even Colth just said it outright.
“Teleportation sickness. I’m holding it together well, but that was a nasty one, even with practice. I would have liked to know about that, Wer. Let’s hold still until it passes—unless we’re in danger?”
“You’re not in danger yet. We’re in sight of the road, and the Great Plains are relatively empty. But then again, danger sneaks up on you. Stay on the road. I’m pretty sure it’s warded.”
The Horns all took a few steps towards the road, and Ksmvr regurgitated more food.
“I am very unhappy with this new adventure.”
“Steady on. Wer, is it always like that?”
The Gnoll was glancing around, holding his quarterstaff tightly. Pisces saw Ksmvr’s vomit land on the ground and sink into the translucent material that he was trodding upon. It felt like dirt…except where Ksmvr had thrown up. Then the ground turned soupy.
Strange. What is this material? Pisces almost bent down, and Colth kicked him.
“Up. Stay tight.”
Pisces was getting annoyed by how Colth talked. It was just one—
Then he met the [Supporter]’s gaze and drew his rapier. He had almost forgotten. This was a death-zone. It didn’t look like it, but it was.
“I didn’t realize it would be that bad. In hindsight…the few times I’ve taken larger groups it’s been worse. It’s normally barely a moment for me.”
Wer confessed, and Colth nodded. Ceria raised a hand.
“I’ve got no motion sickness. Felt nasty, but I’m good. Do we have a [Detect Life] and [Detect Death] spell up? Casting [See Invisibility].”
Pisces was feeling ill, and he blinked as Ceria began rapid-casting analysis spells. Colth frowned.
“Magic was said to be fine, but keep your casting muted, Ceria.”
“Can do, boss Colth.”
The [Supporter] looked unhappy to be referred to in that way, but he nodded. Ceria was frowning introspectively.
“Magic feels sort of dulled here. Not much ambient mana at all. Good thing we’ve got mana potions.”
“When did you learn to hide your mana flows, Ceria?”
She just tapped the circlet on her head, and Pisces grunted. He had been given a metric ton of homework by Az’kerash, and subdued mana flows was just one of the things—not even a priority for him. The fact that Ceria was passing him in magical acumen hurt…and also worried him.
Yvlon shared Pisces’ expression, but she was turning slowly to look around. She had her sword, but her other hand was free—and had morphed into a spear-like fist. Ready for her to skewer something from afar.
The road was simple. It was cobblestone in places, but dirt had eroded it, leaving bare patches and uneven terrain that couldn’t be fun to stand on. By now, everyone was feeling better, and Colth gave more orders, glancing at Ceria.
“Okay, we’re good. Instinct says set up base camp here. Defense wards, deploy skeletons—maybe use them as scouts, but walls. Camouflage; we don’t want to attract trouble. Wer, Captain, you have any inputs?”
“We’re all going to die.”
She was tilting her head around, studying the blank, featureless terrain.
“Sounds good, Colth. I’ll put up some icewalls and try to make them transparent. Add anything else you want. How about that? Pisces, get animating. Ksmvr, keep an eye around us with Wer. Yvlon—yank up one of those cobblestones.”
Everyone got working. Yvlon scowled as she got down for manual labor, but Colth was already unslinging some spell scrolls.
“[Traps: Friendly Designator]. You’d be amazed how valuable this one is for low-level scrolls. I’ll put down six.”
Yvlon shook her head in bewilderment.
“Six. Are we made of gold?”
“We’re made of bits of edible flesh if we need to get into cover and whatever’s chasing us goes straight through the walls. How translucent are we talking?”
“Point. I’ve been practicing with my master’s old spellbook, and I had the Death of Magic to study…so look at this.”
What old spellb—Yvlon forgot her question as she watched Ceria demonstrating her new magic.
Ceria’s new icewall wasn’t thicker than her old one, or higher, but it was different. Rather than up the power or intensity or her spell, she’d managed to alter the ice quality. Pisces saw a glass wall rise and begin to turn vaguely opaque as the ice began to condense.
“So there’s air here.”
He muttered as he began raising his Skeleton Champions. They hadn’t known how the transit would affect them or the burden on Wer’s Skill; each Skeleton Champion came out of his and Ksmvr’s packs and rose smoothly with armor and all.
Yvlon grunted, looking amused. But Colth was serious.
“No, he has a point. You know how air’s different on mountaintops? This air is almost one-to-one the same as ours. It suggests we’re sharing the same air—or that this place is a very good copy. Wer, anyone ever died of lung-related problems in your explorations?”
They’d quizzed Wer on many things about the Crossroads, but the Gnoll had not been forthright, so sometimes asking specific questions got them nuggets he didn’t think were important. Such as now.
“Yep. Choked to death on a haze.”
Everyone stopped, turned to Wer, and Colth slapped his face.
“Jars of Air. It would have been helpful to know that.”
Wer shrugged harder.
“I have literally tried to forget the nastier parts of this place so I can use the Crossroads. The haze was visible. Sort of purplish, and we were seeing mushroom things way before we walked into it.”
“Good to know. So there’s fauna; you’ve said as much. What’s the cobblestone reveal, Yvlon?”
“That it’s a stone. Ceria, it’s a nice looking stone. Wide, flat; why am I picking this up?”
Yvlon waved a cobblestone that did indeed look suspiciously…cobblestone-like. No, but think of it. Most stones you put in a road like this were from riverbeds or the like, and you put down what you got. But this one was, despite not being perfectly round, fairly ovid, and the sides and bottom…were flat.
Colth eyed it, and Ceria nodded. She was putting a finger to her temple.
“Here’s my orders. We don’t know if anything here is poisoned or dangerous. Wer’s our canary in a cage, so most things are probably safe if he’s not dead.”
“I resent that.”
“—But let’s not play stupid games. Put it in the temporary camp, Yvlon. Anywhere. Ksmvr, break out our empty jars. Scoop up some dirt from the road. And whatever this clear stuff is. Then the dirt beneath.”
Ksmvr instantly found some spare glass jars, and Pisces raised his brows.
“You’re taking samples?”
“Everything. Think we’re safe, Colth?”
The man was turning left and right, and he hadn’t drawn his swords, but Pisces knew he’d have them out in a flash.
“Never, boss. But I’ll tell you if I think we should ready up.”
Ceria turned her head, her pale, icy eyes alight with a confidence Pisces couldn’t help but find reassuring.
“Good! Then I’m assigning Pisces—can you cast [Magic Picture]?”
“Then I’m assigning me—I’ll cast. We’ll work out slowly from here. You put some bones or some of your magic in this fort, Pisces. That way, you or I can hopefully find this spot if we leave.”
“What’re the pictures for?”
Yvlon was curious, and Ceria explained crisply as she drew a rectangle in the air. When it completed, she’d save a ‘picture’ of whatever she was seeing.
“Intelligence. We’re guests of the Gnolls, remember? And other teams will throw money at us for this. No one’s going to see what we are. That’s why we’re taking samples.”
Even Wer seemed vaguely impressed by Ceria’s methodical approach to this. Pisces hadn’t thought about…of course no one could tell what they were seeing! Pisces sighed.
“A shame we couldn’t link a [Scrying] spell via the Crossroads and here.”
Ceria actually slapped her forehead with the heel of her palm.
“Duh. Dead gods, this circlet must be doing amazing work, and it’s still not enough. We should try getting an orb and linking the pair—”
“Doesn’t work. I’ve tried that.”
Everyone turned to Wer, and the Gnoll was definitely proving he was not even remotely a team player. He might have thought he could do the team thing before this…he could not, and Pisces would sign an affidavit to that effect.
“Good to know.”
Ceria exhaled. She turned her head and nodded at Colth.
“Samples of everything, then what do you want to do? Explore here?”
“If it’s safe, we explore here, we use the roads—then we test the actual phenomenon of the Crossroads for day one. We clear?”
“Clear. Everyone, keep eyes on one another. If anyone vanishes, stop and shout. And if you see anything move—”
Even Wer looked relieved as Ceria got a chorus from her team.
The half-Elf grinned crookedly.
“Or shoot it.”
The first entry into the Crossroads of Izril was more methodical than Pisces expected. Instead of wandering around, they set up a base camp, took samples and pictures of everything, then roamed out very close to their camp to understand the world around them.
No charging into the second floor of a dungeon. No casual jaunt; they took this one at full intelligence, treating everything as unknown and needing verification.
They were surprisingly good at it when Ceria pushed them. Even their least observant members, like Yvlon and Wer, got in the mindset of first confirming everything was normal. The [Armsmistress] nodded to Pisces, who was writing everything down.
“Gravity’s the same.”
“How can you tell?”
“I know how long it takes to drop and catch my sword from chin-height. You practice that sort of thing. What’s the dirt made of, Ksmvr?”
“…Dirt. It seems similar to the dirt of the Great Plains, if more reddish. It is dirt.”
“No interesting things about it? Does it have bugs or is it dead? Plant life? Is it more or less, uh…fertile?”
Ksmvr poked his dirt sample and looked up accusingly at Yvlon.
“I do not know, Comrade Yvlon. If you are asking me because I am an Antinium and live in the Hives…I do not dig. That is a speciesism.”
“How do you not know dirt if you lived in a Hive underground all your life?”
Colth wondered aloud, and Ksmvr looked hurt.
“Am I the foolish one?”
Yvlon assured Ksmvr. Colth nodded.
Yvlon glared at Colth, and he backed up, grinning, then pointed down to the ground.
“Dirt’s the same, I’ll bet. But whatever this layer of gel-stuff is…it’s weirdly adaptive. See how the place where Ksmvr threw up is still wet? It’s like it takes the quality of whatever’s under it…and everything sinks through.”
He tossed some of the dirt they’d dug up, and sure enough, it slowly began to sink through the first layer. Like molasses. Pisces glanced around and noted that was why everything seemed off. Not just perspective.
“Everything’s covered by this strange film. Yet it takes on the properties of what’s underneath. Fascinating. Have you ever—”
The Gnoll was getting highly embarrassed at this point. He had never taken this approach to the Crossroads, only used it. How could you be this incurious? Well, Pisces supposed Wer was traumatized, and to be fair…Pisces wouldn’t have thought to marvel at a place like this.
Yet Ceria had brought it up, and aside from the novelty of confirming basic physics and feeling like they were doing this smart—there were things that suddenly became off once scrutinized.
“Whoa! Distance is off! Did you see that throw?”
Colth had been chucking little mud balls around, and he recoiled as one sailed straight past Ksmvr’s hand and into the distance. Pisces saw the toss go…far farther than it should have. And yet, when everyone jogged over, it felt like it only took three steps.
“Creler eggs, that’s going to make shooting at something hard.”
Yvlon swore, and Ksmvr drew a crossbow and fired it experimentally. The bolt flew…and flew…and kept flying…
They exchanged looks.
Distance was insane! Gravity might be the same, but it felt like they were able to shoot or throw things four times as far as they should. That, at least, Wer was happy to confirm he knew.
“I told you. The Crossroads are the best way to get around.”
Pisces was trying to make sense of how that worked.
“Is it…is it like everything’s compressed?”
“Nope. You just go faster. Want to test it?”
They were drawing lines on the weird loam—which refused to take any markings, so they ended up putting glass jars down. Pisces measured out increments of thirty feet, and they began hucking things around.
“Yep. A tiny toss goes thirty damn feet. And how fast can you jog that, Pisces?”
The [Necromancer] thought of himself as quick on his feet, but he would admit, it was all step and counterstep, like a [Duelist]. He did not ‘run’ like Ryoka or Garia for fun.
Nevertheless, when he tried a hundred-and-twenty-foot dash, he promptly broke any record there was and ever would be. Colth confirmed it with a whistle.
“Four-point-two seconds, and that was because you were slow at the jump. Wasn’t even hard.”
“It felt like ten feet!”
“Well, it looked like ten times that. Everything looks properly far off, but we move around like we’ve got Ishkr’s [Waxed Floors] and a [Speed] spell. Ceria! Be warned! Anything that we see is going to hit us fast.”
“Roger! I’m almost done taking [Magic Pictures]—anyone got landmarks? Hey, what did you do to my glass jars?”
Pisces, Yvlon, Colth, and Wer looked down, and Ksmvr was already on his hands and knees, staring at one of the glass jars that had been knocked over. The others had sunk up to their lids, so they could be pulled out slowly, with some effort, but the last one had been submerged.
And all the ‘ground’ around it turned to glass and felt slick. Pisces stepped on it, and Colth whistled.
“Dead gods, it does conform to it. Is it fragile? Let’s try—fuck!”
He stomped, broke the glass, and his boots were surrounded by razors of glass that sprayed around as he kicked out of the ground in alarm. Pisces shielded his face with his hand and felt a sharp edge—he swore and checked his hand.
“Colth! That cut m…oh.”
He had a small cut from the glass that Colth had accidentally kicked, but as Colth strode over, Pisces showed him the transparent gel stuff. It had been, for a second, sharp, fragile, and slick as glass…but as Pisces held it, it became that jelly again.
“Strange. It’s temporarily taking on the glass structure, and now it’s stopped. Here, let me bind that finger for you.”
Colth produced some gauze, and Pisces waved him off, but Colth grabbed his hand.
“You don’t want to be the first person to die of an infection in the Crossroads. Ceria, did you see that?”
“I saw it. My mind is working overtime, Colth. Let’s see…the gel stuff doesn’t conform to Pisces. Because he’s alive? Also, notice that it’s not doing anything in the jars? Maybe it has to be ‘above’ whatever it wants to copy or it only works when it’s all together. More experiments. I know we’re wasting time, but…”
“No, this is fun. Try this.”
Yvlon produced her signature silver dust, and after Ceria conjured some ice to use as a ‘table’, the Horns and Wer found the gel did have rules.
Firstly, it didn’t like the jars. It just became inert if you didn’t place it on a surface connected to the actual ground. But once placed on the ice, it became cold, freezing, and hard. But if you levered it up and placed silver dust under it…
“…Feels like the finest sand imaginable. Eugh. It looks like jelly, but it behaves like sand. I don’t like it.”
The dissonance made Colth shudder, and Pisces also felt that strange disconnect. Ceria was just shaking her head.
“Is this stuff valuable or useless? If it’s everywhere, it seems useless. Or else you’d have everyone digging it up. Replicating surfaces…I mean, you need the stuff beneath it, so it’s not like you’re able to copy a fun surface like a carpet…because you need the carpet beneath. What the hell is the point of it?”
It was a mystery until Colth raised a hand.
“I have a theory. This gel stuff is possibly like magicore. If you can make it do whatever you want, you can create a frozen area by putting ice underneath, and it’d probably keep the ice cold. It’s like…a building tool, right?”
Building? When Pisces turned around, he saw endless miles of the same blank ground, greyish red, stretching out for what he imagined was the Crossroad’s counterpart of the Great Plains. Only, even the Great Plains had some life. It had animals, insects, a sky…
This place was dead.
Just dead. That made even the [Necromancer] shiver as he added a final observation to the list the Horns were making.
“There are no dead bodies anywhere. No animals. No corpses…nothing.”
Every head turned towards him, and Pisces felt compelled to explain.
“Even without the battlefield at the Meeting of Tribes, you can still sense a dead rat or something in the ground. The world is filled with death—and life—and all kinds of magic. This one? It’s flat.”
“It is flat. And empty. Is this all the Crossroads are?”
Yvlon wondered aloud, almost disappointed, now. And Wer smiled as he adjusted his hat.
“Nope. This is just the Great Plains. The Crossroads sort of copy Izril, but they get a lot weirder if you head in any direction. North…I know north up to where the High Passes are. This is one of the safest spots, which is why I like travelling here to get around. Ready to move on?”
Every head turned to Ceria, and she scratched her chin.
She insisted on scoping out the area of the ‘Great Plains’ in the Crossroads, and it made sense. The Horns began testing how fast they could move, and they had no real landmarks in the real world, but Wer assured them they’d notice. What they mainly did was move in one direction until they almost lost sight of the road, then looked around for landmarks. Ksmvr would jump up for a big view, and Ceria, after some consultation, decided to place a pillar of ice as a marker.
Not too tall, but the gel helpfully froze itself, and the magical ice remained for the hour they had allotted. By the time they were done, the Horns had found…
“Nothing. There’s really nothing here. We must have gone miles out in every direction, and this place is a dead, safe zone…but it’s not the entire Crossroads.”
Yvlon exhaled and felt like she let out a breath of wariness. But there was more to see. The Horns knew that because they could see other parts of the Crossroads and had compiled a vague map. Ksmvr’s jumping could get high, and Colth had used himself as a setter to launch Ksmvr even higher—until Yvlon had just used her metal arms to push him up as high as he could go. Then she’d snapped an arm when she made the metal too thin.
“I’m only bleeding! The torn metal heals…I only lost blood, okay?”
Yvlon stepped away from the splotch of red that had formed when blood started gushing out of her snapped arm. Ksmvr was worriedly offering her a potion, but she pushed herself up. Seeing her arm snap like that was bad. But the irony was that since Yvlon had learned to make her arms part of her body, it had resulted in blood loss. Ceria shook her head.
“Be more careful with your arms! Alright, Yvlon’s looking a bit pale, and we’re close to our hour. Back to the camp!”
“I’ll just stop adding blood to my arms if I think they’ll break.”
Yvlon muttered, and Pisces stared at her in abject fascination.
“You can do that?”
“Sure. I learned it from you. I have control over the metal…”
“But you can control the veins and arteries?”
“The tubes? Yep. It took a lot of work, but I figured it out. It feels better when the blood’s flowing. That’s how I cured myself of the sickness. Ksmvr, how about that map?”
The anxious Antinium was very concerned about Yvlon, but he did produce the map after a second, and Colth had helped with his basic competencies in…everything. What Pisces saw was this:
North—wide, open expanse and promising shapes until you reach huge rocky terrain of some kind. Looks porous even from here. Tunnels and mountains? Seems too close for the High Passes.
East—road seems bigger. Shapes in distance, but Ksmvr cannot tell what they are.
South—decline in gradient. Sloping downwards towards something? First indication of ‘weather’: something falling from sky.
West—runs along said rocky mountains, but Ksmvr claims it’s the ‘farthest’. Can we reach the New Lands?
Those were vague, but each one was exciting. North seemed most promising by far, and Wer confirmed it.
“There’s the Crossroads past the High Passes, but I’ve never been. You want to see the city? North. We can’t get in, and it’s dangerous—and further north is where I’ve nearly died. South looks like danger, and east and west are…different danger. But that mountain is huge. It’s the City of Shields. Like I said; someone threw a mountain at it. The City of Crossroads is north of here. Would have been dead-center in southern Izril.”
He was chomping down on some lunch already; Pisces was peckish himself despite only being an hour out here. But the wariness and stress would leave anyone hungry.
“Time to head back or Feshi’ll think we’re dead.”
Ceria was consulting with the timekeeper spell, and Wer nodded. But then he developed a twinkle in his eyes.
The road that the Crossroads followed was not the same as the Drake’s trade roads, but they apparently branched out across this entire place from the City of Crossroads…which made sense. He pointed.
“Want to transit back to the real world after going that way? It’ll be a bit of a wait, but we can [Message] them. Then you can see the real effect.”
Curious, the Horns agreed and followed him five minutes down the road south. Then they stood with Wer as the Gnoll planted his staff in the ground. Pisces checked the base camp, and it was fine; the ice pillars were melting as Ceria’s magic vanished, and nothing wrong had happened.
It was sort of disap—
A thought that took forever and vanished in a second. The world inverted—and so did Pisces’ stomach. Everyone except Wer and Ceria promptly upchucked.
“Alright! That’s not what I signed up for.”
Colth growled. Then he stopped, looked around, and swore, and despite the vomitous incident, Pisces’ head swiveled, and he gasped.
They were not in the Meeting of Tribes. Five minutes of walking shouldn’t have even carried them outside the sprawling camp of countless Gnoll tribes trying to make a permanent settlement.
They could see the Meeting of Tribes. In the distance. Snow blanketed the Great Plains, and they could see Feshi’s dig and the gigantic Earth tent…and little else aside from smoke rising.
“We’ve gone at least four miles or something! We were just walking!”
Yvlon was astounded. Ceria was blinking as she turned to look around—then placed a finger to her temple to send a [Message] to the Gnolls—and Wer was grinning.
“I told you. You can travel fast.”
That’s when everyone started grinning. This was real magic, and Pisces actually jumped up and punched the air in delight.
“We could get back to The Wandering Inn in a week—in days! We could be zipping around Izril! Visit First Landing, get to the New Lands ahead of everyone—”
“And die horribly!”
Wer chimed in. Everyone threw snow at him, and Colth laughed.
“Larra, we’ve found the next big adventure! We should have found it when we were young, not these lucky rookies! Wait till I tell her about this!”
Everyone was excited again—until they realized they had miles to walk in the snow. Thankfully, they and their hosts were up to the task; Pisces was almost done adjusting his patented ice chariot with Ceria when the Gnolls appeared, riding winter dog sleds.
Chieftain Akrisa stared at the magic picture until she had to put it down because it made her so uneasy.
“So this is the Crossroads of Izril. It looks…like if you wanted me to draw a dream. Or if a child drew it. No features, everything off—you truly saw nothing?”
She looked at Yvlon, and the [Armsmistress] nodded to confirm.
“Nothing and no one. Not even grass. It wasn’t unpleasant to be in, but dead gods—it left you checking over your shoulder.”
That night, the Horns recapped with the Chieftains and Gnolls who were fascinated by the adventure. The jars of gel were whisked off by various [Shamans], and Gireulashia got one to experiment on, and even the soil was compared—although some of the testing was, uh, dubious.
A Gaarh Marsh [Shaman] tasting the dirt to see if he could tell any differences was upbraided by Theikha’s staff. On the other end of the spectrum, Rose was wailing like a siren about contamination.
“We could be bringing anything over from the Crossroads! Have you never seen Aliens? Inkar?”
“Well I have. And if we die of chest-bursting parasites—can’t we make a clean room or something?”
Once Adetr understood the concept, he grunted.
“Oh, sure. Let me just lay a foundation, buy up a ton of metal and glass, and make a weird room. How much is that? Who’s paying for it?”
“You’ll regret it if we have a problem. I miss Yelroan.”
Rose grumbled, and Adetr poked her several times.
“Aren’t you going back to Liscor soon? You can make him buy one.”
That caught Yvlon’s ear as she hungrily helped herself to some fresh beef they were liberally ladling into some tortilla-type bread. They’d slaughtered one of the older cows in celebration of the Horns’ return, and she turned to Rose.
“You’re going back for the Solstice? What about you, Inkar?”
“Inkar’s staying, but I…I want to go back.”
Rose didn’t look at Adetr, who sipped from his cup, face impassive. Ceria just grinned.
“We’ll take you. We’ve got almost a week to head back; and with the Crossroads, we can make it a short trip! Here I thought we’d have to be experimenting on the road.”
“No, no. See, this is what I was warning about. That’s how you die. We can take the Crossroads north up to the City of Crossroads—then we should be on foot. I won’t use it in a lot of places; the entire north is out of the question unless I’m there for only seconds or I know the spot.”
Wer flatly refused, and Yvlon eyed him. He didn’t seem to be a coward; he’d fought Belavierr twice. She suspected the Crossroads had a lot more to show. Ceria nodded thoughtfully.
“Well, we’ll stay longer next time. And if Wer the Worrier is so nervous, he can just drop us off and pick us up. I figure once we visit the city and he warns us about the immediate dangers, it’s on us. We’ll take it just like today. Can I get copies of all the Magic Pictures, Feshi? You can all have some, but keep it secret; we’ll be trading intelligence with any other teams we meet.”
The [Strategist Chieftain] smiled as she nodded.
“Of course, Ceria. May I show the Titan? For an acceptable fee. It’s all valuable, what you’re bringing back, especially these gel samples. If we’re short of coin, Adetr, we can literally sell this to any Walled City or an [Alchemist]. But I do want the Horns to bear in mind objectives.”
Yvlon looked up as the Gnolls fell silent, and Feshi leaned forwards.
“There is surely one of the gateways Erin Solstice mentioned. If you could secure one and open it—”
Then Gnolls would not only be the first into the Crossroads, but the Horns might fulfill that <Heroic Quest>. Yvlon’s brows rose as Pisces sipped from a cup, and Ceria assured Feshi they’d try along with Ksmvr and Colth.
“Ceria? A word?”
The half-Elf was reading a book in her tent, which was colder than Yvlon would have liked—but the [Cryomancer] was immune to cold, so Yvlon just hunched into her coat as Ceria sat up.
“What’s up, Yvlon?”
They were a bit wary, but Yvlon sat down as Pisces followed her in.
“Just a quick word—what’s that you’re reading?”
“My master’s spellbook. Illphres’. Remember her? I told you about her.”
Pisces’ eyes locked onto the cover of the book rimed with ice, and he sat down hard. Yvlon just remembered…Ceria’s stories about her past.
The days of being a student in Wistram.
“When did you get that?”
“Gazi gave it to me.”
Yvlon started laughing—then realized Ceria was being serious.
“She picked it up at Wistram, apparently, when she broke Amerys out. I’ve been reading it ever since. Someone had hucked it into the ocean where it sank. Strange that it went that way. But now I have it. That’s destiny or something. Could be chance, but I like to think it isn’t.”
“You didn’t tell us you’d gotten it back! This is preposterous, Ceria! You’ve had it for months and not even brought it up?”
Pisces exploded, turning red, and Yvlon’s head snapped up. That was right! Ceria hadn’t told anyone she’d recovered her master’s spellbook. In hindsight…it explained the clear ice walls and Ceria’s advancing magic.
“Yeah, well, I forgot. And then I thought it’d be nice not to advertise it. There are too many people in Erin’s inn who love taking notes. If we run into, say, Revine, she’s going to get a fun surprise. I’m telling you all now: you’d have figured it out. Listen, don’t get mad. Yvlon didn’t tell us, uh, about something I’m sure.”
Ceria’s eyes were twinkling, and she was slightly defensive, but not apologetic in the least. Pisces looked genuinely hurt. Yvlon just narrowed her eyes a second but dropped it. Ceria noticed even so and winked.
“Hey. I’m just sneakier, but I’m the same Ceria deep down. Sneakier, smarter…”
“Wearing a mysterious artifact.”
The half-Elf paused. She scooted past the conversation as she had every time before. She was a noticeably smarter leader—and a far less trustworthy teammate? Yvlon honestly didn’t know about the second part. Ceria hadn’t done anything to hurt her team, and even this was just annoying sneakiness. But she felt like there had to be a drawback. And Ceria was tapping her circlet fondly.
“It helps a lot with memorizing new spells. And it’s not like I’m able to suddenly cast Tier 6 magic; the spellbook doesn’t even have any, sadly. Illphres’ notes say she could cast at least one spell, but she was too lazy to write it down. I bet it would have taken her months, but sheesh—I would have liked it.”
“Gazi doesn’t even like you. What prompted her sudden surge of generosity?”
Pisces was frowning, clearly recalling their encounters with Gazi hitherto Chandrar. Ceria’s eyes twinkled.
“Amerys insisted, and I think even the other Seven listen when she starts breathing lightning. Illphres was her friend…okay, as close as Amerys had in Wistram…and she threatened to magnetize Gazi’s armor forever if she didn’t hand it over.”
Ah. Well, that was probably why Ceria got the book. The thought of angering a lightning mage made Yvlon even more uncomfortable these days. She rolled her metal shoulders.
“That’s not why we came over. Maybe Colth and Ksmvr should have been here, but Ksmvr’s distracting Colth by learning how to knit. Ceria, did you mean it when you said we’d open up a gate for the tribes?”
The half-Elf paused, then twirled her fingers and sighed.
“You ask that after you signal me to put up a [Silence] spell, Yvlon. I bet the Gnolls listen in on us. Why not?”
“It’s…taking a side in a significant way. I’m not opposed—I like the tribes. They’ve been nothing but good to us. But I was just wondering if you had thought it through.”
Ceria sat back and used the book like a pillow for a second.
“Helping them with the Crossroads isn’t committing. But even if it was—let’s say there are ‘sides’. Antinium are their own side, and frankly, Ksmvr doesn’t speak highly about any of them even if we thought we could trust the Grand Queen. The north doesn’t have much sway down here, so if there are two broad sides, it’s Walled Cities and Gnolls—and even then, Oteslia would be on the Gnolls’ side for some things. Let’s say we found a gate. Would you be dying to turn it over to Pallass or Manus?”
Pisces and Yvlon chorused, and Ceria sat up.
“Exactly. Erin’s on the Gnolls’ side. I bet she’d say that if you pushed her. They might not be the bigger faction, but they’re probably more honest, and our friends like them. Plus, they have the Earther tent. Pisces, objections?”
“Are we just taking cues from Erin, then? We are our own team, you know.”
The [Necromancer] sniffed, and Ceria burst out laughing. Even Yvlon smiled as Pisces looked affronted. Ceria tossed one of her pillows at him.
“Pisces. We’ve been Erin’s team since the day she pulled me out of the crypt and saved you from being stabbed by Relc. She made us, remember? She pulled over Ksmvr…Yvlon, you owe her the least. Are we The Wandering Inn’s team or not?”
Yvlon had never thought about it like that. But she sat there, thinking, and when she looked up, she exhaled in mild exasperation. Not because Ceria was wrong, but only because Yvlon was annoyed she had never thought of it in such easy terms.
“—So we’re going back for the Solstice?”
“Were we ever not going to?”
Ceria asked it as a serious question, and Pisces smiled and tried to hide it with a hand, and Yvlon exhaled and rolled her shoulders.
“I was going to get a souvenir for Mrsha. She’ll complain for ages if we don’t.”
The next day, the Horns and Wer entered the Crossroads. This time, they got more adventurous.
“Northwards, to the City of Crossroads!”
That was one of the few things Wer was content to do as their reluctant guide. Even then, he insisted on a full vanguard of the Skeleton Champions, and they headed north.
Now, for their exercise and because they weren’t slobs, the Horns elected to march rather than ride the ice chariot. Also because moving so fast might give them away, and Ceria and Pisces wanted maximum mana for any encounter.
They had both noticed spellcasting took a bit more out of them than they would have liked. Distances were greatly accelerated; mana casting was harder. Good things to know. Yvlon, Ksmvr, and Colth reported no lack in their abilities, though they all admitted the distances thing threw them.
So they marched and snacked. They couldn’t help it. Erin had sent some ‘new’ recipe of falafel over, and everyone had gotten a literal sack of the stuff from a Gnoll [Baker] in exchange for a place at the fire when they reported in tonight.
“Fink f’ll fee fom fonsters, Fer? I’m fondering fhat fy’re fike.”
Ceria asked, and Wer had to have a translation before he replied.
“You don’t want to see monsters.”
Ceria swallowed and frowned.
“I dunno. Knowing what to expect would be nice. You’ve never been specific on what they are. You said there’s nastiness on par with the Bloodfields—and some regular monsters?”
“I’ve seen some regular ones, yeah. They don’t last long. And I didn’t say nastiness ‘on par’ with the Bloodfields. You want to see why I’m so scared? The city is a perfect place to see why. Just north of there…you’ll see. Oh, you’ll see.”
The Gnoll chuckled to himself darkly, and Pisces wondered if a life of living on the run from Doomslayer squads and keeping your true nature hidden did something to your psyche.
Yes. But he would own that he was not prepared for the City of Crossroads when he saw it.
They came upon it so fast. Ksmvr, who liked to think of himself as Ksmvr of Chandrar, Ksmvr of the Horns, Ksmvr, Baron of the Trees, or just Ksmvr, who had friends, was amazed when he saw it.
Travel, as he had observed, was exceedingly swift. He estimated no non-magic horse in the world could match the speed of the Horns walking. Which had astonishing implications.
The Great Plains, for instance, was a vast landmass, but after only six hours of hiking and chatting, the featureless landscape began to change, and Ksmvr noted a few things. He felt he had to, as a deficient soil-expert.
Firstly, the ‘grey-red’ of the Great Plains was in fact a mistake. The natural color of the ground was probably grey. The red was an increasing gradient of color that made him uneasy the further they walked.
Second—the uniform landscape began to develop irregularities that he attributed to hills, lakes, and all kinds of geology that were represented here less visibly; the gel continued to coat the landscape.
But civilization had once been here, and the Horns slowed as Ksmvr saw the first ruined waystation on the road. Wer had an opinion, having passed by this particular ruin many times.
“I think these were once like inns. Stops for people to come to.”
“Everyone, halt! We’re grabbing samples, checking the spot out—Ksmvr, overwatch!”
Ceria was very much the good leader now, and Ksmvr obediently drew a crossbow along with his sword and leapt to the top of the ruined building. It was, to his eyes, all stone, an expensive proposition without much wood at all. The building might have been a half-dome of some kind? Another odd choice, but it had caved in, and most of it was just rubble, brown stone, and Ksmvr could see rooms and a second floor the Horns combed through as he looked around.
This was not the only building as they left the Great Plains region. No, wait. Were they even out of the Great Plains? If you were moving at a galloping horse’s speed…Ksmvr glanced around and decided to check.
“Wer, does this area correspond to the Great Plains still?”
Colth cleared room after room, sliding through the hallways with his new helmet rendering him invisible. Yvlon brought up the rear, and Pisces’ skeletons roamed around for threats as Ceria stood outside. The Gnoll called up in a hushed voice.
“I think it does. The Crossroads is at the northern part of the Great Plains.”
“Then it was not always the province of Gnolls. Or the Crossroads does not conform to current Drake-Gnoll boundaries.”
“Both, Ksmvr. Do you see anything moving?”
Ksmvr turned slowly and stared north where the red had become a strange, familiar color he did not like but couldn’t place—yet.
“Nothing. But I see many more buildings or structures north. The gel seems to…hmm. The gel seems to end. And I see the City of Crossroads. It is very large.”
It was like seeing Pallass from afar. Ksmvr was excited because that indicated much of the city was intact, but he was wary of his team checking the ruins. Colth called up.
“Swept twice, and Ceria’s spells found…nothing?”
Pisces called out. Ceria paused.
Everyone instantly tensed, and the half-Elf clarified after a second.
“Check the far room on the right. It’s not big. Looks like a lot of ‘em. What’re you seeing?”
Pisces called out four Skeleton Champions as Yvlon murmured.
“Nothing much. This place doesn’t even have any remnants; I can see what looks like cupboards, cabinets; but it’s all broken down. Not even dusty. Does it blow here, with wind?”
Colth shook his head, eyes sharp.
“Nope. Notice how there’s no stone dust? Things just fall over.”
“Right…so where are the mugs or chairs or…anything? This place has been scraped clean.”
“Could be there’s a cellar or hidden spot. Let’s take a look. Far right room. Cover me, Yvlon. Ceria?”
“Ready to [Ice Wall] your spot. Pisces, back them up.”
“Let me send a Skeleton Champion in first, Colth…”
Ksmvr listened with great nervousness as the Horns prepared. He kept glancing down, even though he knew he should be watching for threats from the outside. He was ready to hop down and paused as there were crunching sounds.
“Small, you said, Ceria? I don’t see—spiders!”
Spiders? Ksmvr jerked, aiming his crossbow down, and saw a swearing Yvlon, Pisces, Colth, and the skeletons all stomping on a horde of brown, little spiders.
Not Shield Spiders, but fuzzy-legged and hundreds of them. Ceria began laughing as the cursing adventurers left.
“Not funny! They might be poisonous! I hate spiders.”
Colth cursed as they backed out fast. But Ceria spoke as Ksmvr looked around in relief.
“Calm down. Oops, there’s one on your leg, Yvlon. Take a sample, would you? Now we know there are living things here. Which means something must be here the spiders eat.”
…That was true. Ksmvr jumped down, and the spiders were vaguely tantalizing to munch on. But he helped put a few in jars, and after some prodding, the only brave person who went back in there was Yvlon.
Grumbling, she overturned the spiders’ nest.
“This is disgusting. You like bugs, Ceria. Eh…eurgh. Okay, I can see wings and something that looks like…skin? So they’re snacking on something that flies and maybe a kind of lizard.”
Colth agreed in a flat tone as he and Pisces checked themselves. Pisces sniffed.
Ceria sneered at them from afar.
“You two are bug-fearing cowards. Okay. Let’s do a second sweep for a secret room then get out of here.”
Twenty minutes later, the Horns decided that if there was a basement—it was either buried or they couldn’t find it. Colth opined that if it did exist, it was magically hidden.
“I’ve studied with [Geomancers] and [Treasure Seekers]—I have [Detect Void] as it pertains to walls. Very useful against traps. If it’s there, it’s shielded from me or caved in. North? Anything out of the ordinary, Wer?”
“Putting spiders into jars can be seen as a sign of insanity. Let’s move on.”
As they headed north again, Ksmvr stared at the spiders in the jar. They were sort of funny. No one else wanted to look at them; Ceria wasn’t going to eat them, and they grossed out the others.
But he thought they were funny.
“Ksmvr, what’s funny about spiders?”
“Well, the way they move. These ones dance.”
Everyone else was busy staring at the other ruined buildings that grew in number as they headed towards the City of Crossroads. Yet Ksmvr felt like the spiders were…odd.
They would hold still, then, if they thought they could somehow get free, blur around the inside of the jar or do this kind of weird back-and-forth dance. They moved fast. Ksmvr put that down to the nature of the Crossroads.
The spiders were clearly not great thinkers; they hadn’t figured out this was a jar. Nor were they overtly magical. Therefore, Ksmvr deduced these were Tier 1 fauna. They ate the literal lowest of the low, like flies or whatnot, and yet they could survive here.
Then he turned his attention to the City of Crossroads, which sat like some splendid forbidden land; the walls shining with faded mosaics of stylized Drakes, Gnolls, even Dragons and countless other species walking and smiling towards the pair of bright gates, whose metal had only slightly tarnished in the aeons since. And the proud sign above it which read in Drakish—
‘The City of Crossroads, Imlerith, welcomes all.’
Yet the gates were shut. Despite the way some buildings had clearly crumbled with time, the silence of this great city that was the size of Pallass—yet spread out, the walls the shortest that Ksmvr had ever seen on a Walled City, still forty feet tall, encircling this vast place—the city remained.
Empty? Occupied still? Filled with treasures?
No one could say. For a glowing barrier surrounded the city, rising from the walls and filling in the voids where even the wall had failed—save for the doors. The prismatic lights were too opaque to see through, but every now and then they, would part and give the Horns a view of a faded city beyond, lightless save for the barrier that enclosed the City of Crossroads. The doors were shut, and a glowing keyhole shimmered, waiting for the bearers.
Ksmvr had to admit this was slightly more interesting than spiders.
“Behold the City of Crossroads! I have never found an entrance. Nor would I advise you to break in the door. It has…guardians. I lost some of my companions the first time we tried.”
Wer was happier, now, and raised his arms and staff as his voice rose. The Horns just marveled at it. But that last part made them twist.
“Magical ones. They come out if you try to use force—or pick the lock. It’s very polite, actually. If you knock on the door like this—”
Wer rapped on it, and everyone flinched. Colth drew a blade, but writing appeared just over where Wer had tapped it.
‘Please present a key, friends. Or ask for a guardian to open the doors.’
Ksmvr could barely read Drakish, and Pisces had to squint and translate for Ceria and Yvlon. It was a very friendly door! Wer kept tapping, and the message changed.
‘Violence will not avail you in the Crossroads. Please do not try to force the door.’
“And if you hit it—”
Yvlon interrupted hurriedly.
“I think we’ve seen enough. Thank you, Wer. Well, dead gods. So this is what Erin meant by a ‘key’.”
It was more straightforwards than any of the Horns had thought. Almost disappointing, really. Yet at the same time…fascinating. They all turned to Wer. Ceria pointed at the gates.
“Are there other cities like this?”
“Yup. I’ve found another city—can’t make out the name—eastwards of here. Like I said, the City of Shields is just ruins, so it’s part of that damn mountain range. But I’ll bet if the City of Stars is here—you’ll need a key.”
“They all must have carried one. I bet the doors would open for travellers and citizens…but they’re all in lockdown. So now only someone with a key can enter—unless you find a secret way in. And the key’s lost.”
Yvlon murmured, staring up at the door. Colth nudged her.
“I sort of want to try picking the lock. If your hand can morph into anything—I’ve got [Rogue] skills. How bad are the guardians, Wer?”
The Gnoll scratched at his chin.
“I was here over a decade and a half ago. If I recall right, one was eighteen feet tall. A glowing Drake that shot beams out of its eyes, breathed Dragonbreath—it only stopped when we were a thousand feet away.”
Pisces stopped reaching for the door and backed up.
The Horns backed away from the door. Even so, Ksmvr had the feeling that this door wasn’t impossible to open. If it was, he reasoned, they wouldn’t have a guardian.
And he had to consider the logic of Erin’s quest too. <Heroic Quest> was on the level of stopping thousands of evil Eater Goats and Gargoyles. Very, very heroic, but not impossible.
<Mythic Quest> was finding Mershi. Ergo, it was doable.
“What was Erin’s quest again? Anyone remember what it said?”
Ceria was thinking the same thing, and as it so happened, Colth had a copy. He unrolled it, and they all stared at the wording, then Ceria pointed.
“Reward: The Passphrase of Imlerith. Now isn’t that suspicious?”
“Ten gold coins? It’s so insulting. And she does say the passphrase unlocks all the ‘cool places’. So perhaps the key or passphrase is another way in?”
Pisces muttered, and Yvlon decided to sniff.
“Erin really needs better quest descriptions.”
“I know she practically invented them, but as the adventurer, staring at the destination, it’s just not that descriptive. Would it kill her to put in a two thousand word detailed summary or something?”
“Ten gold coins.”
Somewhere, an [Innkeeper] was sneezing as people badmouthed her, but it did give them an idea. Before they headed around the City of Crossroads, Colth strolled over, knocked on the door, and spoke.
“I am a friend of Imlerith. The City of Inventions honors my craft.”
He waited as the other Horns peeked out from a safe distance. That was a phrase associated with Pallass. There was a flicker of light—and then the most uncanny thing happened.
Ksmvr swore he saw the door smile at Colth. Magic, the same light as the writing, formed a toothy mouth which spread upwards as words wrote themselves—Colth was halfway towards them at a sprint when he slowed.
‘Welcome, friend of Pallass! Please prove you are someone who adds to this world!’
“Dead gods, it worked! Colth, what’s the proof?”
“How should I know? Maybe it’s some token you get from Pallass? Ah, shit—”
The door waited a good five minutes, then the word and smile vanished. Yet that gave them an idea, and the Horns were clustering around the door in no time.
“Excuse me, I’d like to be let in. I am a friend of Manus. The, uh…City of War acknowledges my valor. Which is Manus.”
Yvlon tried next, and her wording sucked—but the door seemed to realize what she wanted. Again, it smiled, and the wording was different.
‘Be at ease, valorous of Manus. Please prove you have fought in defense of Izril.’
Yvlon hesitated. She and the other Horns felt pretty strongly that lying might be a problem. Yet the door just waited, seemed to lose interest, and they tried again with Oteslia, Salazsar, Zeres…
“A token of nature’s esteem. A pact of the waves. A sign of magic…this is excellent. If only the Gnolls were friendly with the Drakes; maybe someone’s got one of these? Wonderful stuff!”
Colth was writing this down excitedly, and Yvlon sighed as she leaned on the door, no longer worried it was going to kill them.
“It’s a shame there’s only six cities left. If only there were more.”
“Well, there were. What were the other ones?”
Ceria scratched at her head, and Ksmvr thought he’d written it down somewhere.
“I have it, Yvlon. Grunvel, the City of Pacts, gone. Lesegoth, the City of Shields. Mershi, the City of Stars. There was a City of Dreams, a City of Graves…”
Lots of cities. Ceria’s eyes lit up.
“This is a good chance for some intelligence, then. Let’s try it.”
Ceria was knocking on the door.
“Hey, Ceria here. City of Pacts. Open up. I’m a Dwarf.”
The door paused, and then the words appeared along with the smile.
‘Any pactfriend of Grunvel is a friend of ours! Do you have a token of true friendship?’
It seemed like there had been the slightest moment where it had perceived Ceria was no Dwarf. However, Colth was writing that down and muttering.
“Too bad Dawil’s not here, eh? I bet they’d let him in with his axe. Try again?”
“City of Stars.”
It was Ksmvr’s turn, and he placed his hand on the door, and the Horns went quiet. He expected a smile—but instead, the door shimmered—and a sigh came from it.
Ksmvr had no hair to rise or do whatever it did, but he felt a shiver.
‘Mershi is vanished. If you come from there, show your proof to a guardian. May the dream of stars endure.’
“Oh snap. They knew the City of Stars was gone. But not Grunvel? Colth—we’re dating when the City of Crossroads got got.”
“Got got by what?”
Yvlon rounded on Ceria, annoyed by the flippant tone, and the half-Elf shrugged.
“By something. Or you’d think they’d be opening these doors asking if we had something to eat and where the hell the other Walled Cities have been. Bad luck for Lehra, though. The one person who does have a sign can’t get in. Okay, let’s try a few more then head out.”
Pisces strode up next.
“I am from, uh, the City of Graves. Whose name I am not quite familiar with, so if you could elucidate me on the exact nomenclature as well as the requirements to get in—”
He was joking around at this point, and the door stirred—and then a thunderclap sent Pisces sprawling. Ksmvr froze, and the smiling face didn’t appear—instead, a wrathful mouth and a voice that had the robotic quality of Golems—yet bellowed.
‘THE CITY OF GRAVES IS NOT WELCOME HERE. BEGONE.’
Then the door started shooting bolts of [Light Arrows], big as Ksmvr’s head, and the Horns ran for it. Wer was already sprinting away.
The door stopped firing after thirty seconds. But the shout had rang for miles in this place, and the warning shots had torn up the gel-ground. They had clearly been warning shots; they’d missed the Horns by a mile. After they were well out of range, a panting Ceria slapped Pisces’ shoulder.
“Well done, Pisces. Turns out no one likes [Necromancers], even the one city that welcomes all.”
“B—you were all getting away with it! This is classism! Even in the past?”
Yvlon shook herself.
“They must have done something. Dead gods, that face looked pissed. I hope we haven’t blacklisted ourselves.”
“Or drawn attention with that shout.”
Colth was glancing around, and now Ksmvr got worried again. Even Wer was disconcerted and harrumphed.
“You had to piss off the door. I’ve never seen anyone manage that. Adventurers. This was supposed to be an outing. Next time, I’ll drop you off, and you can do this on your own t—”
Then he fell silent. Wer’s white fur couldn’t turn any paler, but his eyes went round and huge, and he pointed—everyone turned without a word and reached for their weapons.
Because they’d just found the first big living thing in the Crossroads of Izril. And it did not look friendly.
Ksmvr observed it was big. It was big and had a uniformity of its ‘skin’ that Ksmvr really, really didn’t like. Because that said Facestealer to him—only in this case, it was red, stumped forwards slowly, and its ‘hands’ were trailing razors of thread or something it could swing and probably lay you open with.
It was followed by two shuffling, giant white stalks that walked on crab legs, and the war party of three made Ksmvr’s [Dangersense] ring.
They were coming straight at the door. The Horns had fallen back to a place where the road sloped downwards, and they crouched. Silently, Colth brought out his crossbow, and Ceria whispered.
“Wall spells on the big sucker. No one gets close. Screen with the skeletons and pull back. No one fights up close until we see what they’re made of.”
“What are those things? Do we know them?”
Yvlon was staring, and Ksmvr wanted to tell her they had definitely not run into those monsters before, but he was busy drawing a bead on one of the white things. Yet he somehow felt it too. The entire group stopped at the door, and one of the white stalker things began to dig at the ground. But the road was too hard, and it shuffled off to the side and began to…
Tear up the gel and soil underneath. Then Ksmvr stared because he did know what this was. It was Colth, of all people, who whispered in horror as Wer bared his teeth.
“Deniusth’s violin for firewood! I know what those things are! Those are—that’s a Bloodfields Shambler! Those are Watchertrees!”
Ksmvr saw the Watchertree slowly rooting itself in the ground, and he recognized the red color at last and saw it. The same color as the Bloodfields. And his heart sank, and Yvlon half-rose.
Wer grinned with a horrible, scared expression on his face. He pointed, and the Horns turned north, and they saw that red stain spreading from the north, even to the Crossroads of Izril. The Gnoll whispered with a piercing voice.
“Welcome to the real Bloodfields. Most places north of the City of Crossroads has its taint. Looks like they’ve reached the gates at last. Though—if I were them, I wouldn’t stay there.”
Imlerith, the City of Crossroads, might be dead or inactive or whatever the case may be—but the door was still active. A pulsing warning sign was flashing up around the door as the Shambler cast around, clearly looking for whatever had made the sound. The other Watchertree was shambling away from the first, and when rooted, they’d kill anything they sensed by projecting their sharp roots out of the ground.
…But the door was getting mad. It began firing those [Light Arrows], and the Shambler reacted by smashing a fist against the door. The first Watchertree was clearly having problems with the road and the door—it was jerking, as if trying to burrow into something hard and impenetrable.
Whatever the case, the door clearly recognized these things were not what it wanted hanging around, and it activated. Ksmvr saw a beam so bright he looked away, and when he turned back…there was a fiery ray running through the Shambler’s head.
Setting it on fire. The beam slowly moved down, and then a clawed hand thrust over the top of the gate.
Something came out of the magical barrier, tendrils of light fusing together to form a limb. Akin to Honored Deskie knitting threads together, if the threads were strands of light and formed a clawed hand in seconds.
The barrier’s magic flowed out and formed the arm, then shoulder, chest, head, legs—an entire Drake in moments—out of the bands of light. For a second, it stood above the gates, raising its claw higher and pulling a halberd with an edge of red light out of the aether. Then the figure leapt down from the top of the gates.
The ground did not quake as it landed, though it was nearly twenty feet fall. The articulated neck spines, the sharp teeth as it opened its mouth—these were pale green neck spines and a body of yellow light. No detail. It was a being of light, without such features like scales or nuance to the armor.
A gigantic yellow Drake made out of magic holding a halberd. The last trails of its essence flowed from the barrier as the construct swivelled to the intruders. It turned to the first Watchertree, opened its mouth—
The flash of light only blinded Yvlon, who had been staring, and when Ksmvr poked his head up, he saw the Watchertree was blackened and on fire—a second before the Drake began chopping it up. The second Watchertree began crawling away—slowly—and the Drake beset it.
“Well, that’s our answer on defenses…and that’s our answer about local fauna. Tell me that’s the worst of it. The Crossroads of Izril have been overrun by the Bloodfields for centuries. Possibly millenia.”
Ceria had taken a picture of the apparition before it vanished. Ksmvr was beginning to reevaluate the dangers as he remembered the Horns’ encounter with the Bloodfields. The only thing worse than the fauna had been literal Crelers.
He looked over, and Wer was smiling at last. Glad they’d gotten the message. He seemed to take special satisfaction as he shook his head.
“Nope. The Bloodfields are just the north—and a narrow strip at that. It makes travelling the road north up to where Liscor is hard—but not impossible. They haven’t passed the City of Crossroads, and unless they’ve spread really fast in the last two months, they’re not in the mountain range at all. They’re just one ecosystem around here.”
“Not the top dogs?”
Yvlon swallowed as she blinked rapidly. Wer beamed at her.
“Not at all.”
Before the Horns reported back on the second day, a lot of Gnolls had been talking about joining them, if only around the Great Plains, to look around themselves. The second day’s report quashed any interest once the Horns told everyone what they’d seen.
“It seems clear to me, then. The Bloodfields either originated in the Crossroads of Izril—or have become infected from our dimension. Either way—a door must surely link the two.”
“A door in the Bloodfields?”
Shaman Theikha shrugged as the [Chieftains] cried out in horror. Tkrn and Inkar were trading glances of alarm, especially because Tkrn was one of the few people who lived close to the Bloodfields. But the great [Shaman] knew her craft well.
“Maybe just seeds? Yet it seems complete as an ecosystem; Watchertrees and a full-grown Shambler? These things do not pop up exactly the same. Seeds, plants, must both cross over. There is a door? Perhaps, perhaps not. There was a door? So I believe.”
Sound logic from Gaarh Marsh. Yvlon was more disturbed at the implications.
“But there’s no winter in the Crossroads, according to Wer. And it wasn’t cold there…they go into hibernation every winter in Izril, but never over there! I saw Watchertrees moving, and one of those Shamblers is supposed to take an entire Gold-rank team to take out.”
“It gets worse if you head north. Not just trees; they can’t hit you on the road. I think it’s too hard for them to dig through. But if you hear buzzing, that means there’s a swarm coming. I’d warn you when we’re travelling around there, but…I’m not coming. You want to explore the north? You’re on your own. Actually, you’re on your own after this. I’m not going with you now you get it.”
Wer kicked his legs out and stretched, looking annoyingly happy. The other Gnolls growled at him or turned to the Horns, but they did not find terror. Just a kind of excitement—and caution—a trepidation but a desire to go back that even Adetr found off putting in a way.
Here be adventurers.
Knowing the threat, the Horns prepared accordingly. They had already prepared, but there was something to knowing what lay out there that gave them an edge to the third day of adventures.
For one thing—they got the finished Stalker armor from Master Shedrkh.
The old Gnoll had the pieces ready. Underarmor for Yvlon and Pisces, Ksmvr’s cloak, and Colth’s pieces. He watched as the Horns put them on.
“I will want to adjust and see how it wears on each of you. Take notes, yes?”
Colth was grinning as he activated the invisibility features of his helmet again to see how his new armor improved the effect, and Ksmvr swung the cloak around himself and vanished. Yvlon just felt comfy, even if she had the distinct, unsettling feeling of wearing Stalker’s skin so close to her flesh.
But she grew used to it, and she did feel tougher.
“A substantial upgrade. I’m a proper [Rogue] now. Stab, stab. Stabstabstab—”
Pisces yelped as Colth jumped him from the side. The grinning adventurer with the demonic smile reappeared like the ‘cheshire cat’, as Rose put it. Yvlon supposed even cats could be properly horrific.
They were ready for a real fight. Of course, as Colth cautioned the others, the new armor just made them tougher, not invincible.
“We haven’t really shaken down our teamwork in a real fight. We’ve done practice, but the Bloodfields monsters could press us hard. They have tremorsensing abilities, so Ksmvr’s invisibility and mine won’t have much luck against them.”
Yvlon rubbed at her head, sighing. It was always something.
“Wonderful. At least it’s tougher than anything we’ve ever had before defensive-wise. Offensive…well, we have Skeleton Champions, but that’s not the same as a new spell or Skill. We went defensive; at least our [Mage] is less squishy.”
Pisces opened his mouth defensively; as the fourth beneficiary of the armor, he had the un-stealthed part of Stalker’s hide. Both he and Yvlon would wear the underarmor below their robes or regular armor.
It certainly meant that even when Colth jabbed hard with his sheathed shortswords, Pisces barely felt it. That gave Yvlon some comfort; Ceria knew how to stick to the back row, but Pisces often threw himself into the thick of fighting.
“I say we start figuring out other interesting parts of the Crossroads of Izril. Even with new armor, we don’t run into the Bloodfields instantly. One good stab from a Watchertree and Ceria or Ksmvr are dead, and it’d hurt the rest of us like hell. Named-ranks can die fast. Well, Eldertuin’s hard to kill no matter where you hit him, but no chances.”
Everyone agreed. But they were heading back into the Crossroads again.
The third day of exploration took them in every direction. Wer had agreed to check in when they wanted to return, so the Horns did a full seven-hour day. It would have been nice if he could do every hour just in case, but his limits to the Skill meant if he missed them the first time for whatever reason, he’d try again in an hour. If he failed to get them then, he’d try the next day at the same times.
From their base camp of the icy walls in the Great Plains, they headed east first—then realized they had a problem.
“Damn mountains. They’re the same here as everywhere! Weird, the gel’s not on them.”
Colth made an observation that drew all the Horns’ attention once again to the flora, and as Yvlon recalled…
“Wait a second. Didn’t we see the Watchertrees digging up the gel? And there’s actual plantlife on these mountains!”
She could see it. Long yellow fronts and huge vine-like reeds that were disturbingly orange or dark blue, at odds with the rock itself. The mountains were big, ominous, and the gel didn’t cover them. Where it didn’t cover them…plantlife grew.
Accordingly, so followed wildlife. Including, in this case…
“Acid Flies! Damn it!”
Acid Flies and plants! The Horns saw the glowing green things clustering around some of the vines, which seemed to be dripping a nectar.
Another species that didn’t respect their new armor! No one wanted to tangle with so many of them, especially a massive green one that Pisces swore had to be bigger than a Human.
“Thaaat’s an Acid Fly Queen.”
Colth observed the gigantic buzzing thing as Ksmvr tiptoed away, clearly reveling in the many Acid Flies he had eaten happily. Ceria just grimaced.
“First Bloodfields, now Acid Flies. My guess is that both came via whatever gate Theikha thinks is to the north. Natural monsters…who have no competition here.”
Colth scratched at his head, frowning.
“Sounds about right. But why are there plants growing?
That was obvious to Yvlon, and she pointed excitedly at the mountain.
“I see it now! The gel isn’t just for show, everyone. That’s why the Bloodfields are so slow to expand and why we saw the Watchertrees digging it up; it’s stopping plants from growing!”
Pisces snapped his fingers, and Colth’s eyes lit up. Suddenly, it made sense to Yvlon in a very noblewoman way.
“My mother would cover parts of the garden she didn’t want grown so that grass and weeds couldn’t get any sunlight. Think about it. If you wanted a safe Crossroads—one without bugs or vegetation, how do you do it?”
“Gelify everything. Dead gods. Did they do that? That’s the most…Drake thing I’ve ever heard of. The Gnolls are going to throw ten kinds of shit when they hear that! It didn’t even work!”
Colth was rather impressed, but it explained so much. The gel had zero value in most circumstances—unless you wanted to prevent flora from spreading.
“I bet the Bloodfields is like the one type of flora that can grow with that shit. And even that’s been slowed for a long, long time. Well, well, well. We have our answer. Let’s head back and take a look at the other directions.”
West or south, then. They could do other directions, but the road branched those ways, so after a short vote, the Horns went south. And there they found another sign there was definitely some…leakage.
“Ew, Comrade Pisces. I object to your terminology.”
Colth bent down, sniffed at the water, and rose with a grimace.
“No, Pisces might be right. Look at that rain. It’s not natural; seems like it rains, falls, evaporates, rains…but it’s the same water, and it’s foul as Rhir’s hells.”
The south didn’t last as long as it should have. Before they were even close to Zeres, just past Oteslia, the Horns ran into the sea.
Or rather, a strange sea that had clearly covered the land. Rain kept falling; that’s what they had seen, but a brackish, foul rain that made Yvlon’s skin break into a rash on her cheek.
“Looks like another ‘gate’. Dead gods, if there is something south of here, it’s covered in filthy water. At least the fauna’s natural. Well…what can survive here.”
The foul, marsh-like conditions had given rise to flies—the same ones those spiders ate, no doubt—sickly looking lizards and smaller animals, and yes, fish.
But horrible-looking fish. Yvlon saw a dead catfish being nibbled on by a few fish with too many eyes, and she wondered if the contamination in the water was more than just dead bodies. One thing was clear, and Ceria, as a water-expert in a sense, said it outright.
“It’s all stagnant water. Something’s leaked water in here from Zeres’ side, and the water’s filthy and foul. But it’s big enough to let some animals in. Look, there’s even a dead Rock Crab over there.”
The iconic shell of one of the Rock Crabs was more proof that some kind of sea-faring creatures got trapped here. Either that or one had come all the way via the Bloodfields only to die when it found water.
In fact, the Horns encountered their first larger type of animal here. Or maybe monster?
Fishing in the dirty waters was a crab—but not as big as a Rock Crab. Still massive, eight feet across, and with huge, long claws that looked sharp. Colth spotted one and yanked the Horns back as they toured the edge of this swamp biome.
“Oh shit. I should have known they were alive. That’s a Sword Crab! Looks sickly, though.”
A single Sword Crab was fishing for, well, fish. It was plucking them out of the water fast and chewing on them, but every now and then, it’d spit one out. Colth admired its black shell, a product of the waters.
“Poor bugger must have gotten lost. It doesn’t look happy.”
“So that’s a Sword Crab? Huh, I like Rock Crabs more. This one’s got pincers on it like Yvlon’s fingers.”
Ceria put her hands on her hips. Unlike some crabs, both of the Sword Crab’s long pincers were equally sized. It made it look dangerous and gave it that distinctive name.
“Careful around it. They’re a Gold-rank threat. Not the same as a Shambler, but still.”
“That’s a Gold-rank threat?”
Colth gave Pisces a deadpan look as the [Necromancer] snorted. Big and nasty as it was, it looked like a Silver-rank threat, which was what a Rock Crab was, not gold. But the [Supporter] nodded and patted Pisces on the shoulder.
“Yep. I know it hurts your ego, but that thing’s equal to you, Pisces. Might be a better sword fighter, actually.”
Pisces had had it up to here with Colth’s mockery of him. At this, the [Necromancer] flushed.
“Even for a joke, there are limits, Colth.”
“No, no, I’m serious. Don’t piss it off. Actually, let’s get out of here. I think it’s spotted us.”
Sure enough, the Sword Crab was slowly scuttling their way sidelong. It wasn’t as if there was much to see, and the Horns were a lot bigger than the fish it was eating.
Yvlon could practically hear it thinking that. It was moving at them fast, and she remembered the rules here meant…
“Ceria? Let’s go!”
The half-Elf had been snapping magical pictures of the landscape, and she looked up.
“Alright, run for it. I bet it’ll go into the water—whoa!”
The crab accelerated, and it was on top of them fast. The Horns knew how fast you could travel in the Crossroads, but even so, it caught them off-guard. The crab just seemed to appear, and Yvlon drew her sword, but Pisces waved her back.
“I have it. Back—”
The Skeleton Champions formed a wall, and the Sword Crab hesitated, scuttling away as they slashed at it. It focused on Pisces, who strode forwards. The Sword Crab snipped at the air in a warning gesture.
Pisces lunged. He stepped forwards in a [Fencer]’s stab, rapier extended, [Flash Step] carrying him forward so his rapier could pierce one of the Sword Crab’s eyes. His sword flickered—
And the crab caught the rapier with its claws.
Yvlon had been ready to jump in, but even she hesitated as Pisces’ hand jerked, and he tried to withdraw the blade.
Then he nearly lost his head as the second pincer snipped right where his neck should be. Pisces leapt backwards, reappearing with [Flash Step], and Yvlon shouted.
“Pisces! Cover me, Ksmvr!”
She charged forwards—and ran right past the Sword Crab. Yvlon turned, thirty feet away, cursing. Her steps had carried her too far! Everything was off—
And Ksmvr was having a hard time.
“I have this under contr—no, I don’t have it under—it is very fast!”
The [Skirmisher]’s blades were cutting the air, two of them, performing his signature whirl of blades. He lashed out fast with swift strokes and jabs—and the Sword Crab started blocking him.
Two claws intercepting Ksmvr’s swords with a ting-ting sound. They were moving so fast that as Yvlon charged in from the side, sword raised, she barely saw the crab whirl, deflect her sword, then riposte so hard the tip of one claw punched her on the shoulder and sent her stumbling back.
It hit hard too! But that wasn’t the main problem. The main problem was—
Ksmvr took a step back and went way out of range, and his swords missed his parry. He tried to step in and got slapped so hard he skidded. Yvlon had the same problem; each step carried her too far in battle.
“The Crossroads is messing with your steps! Back up!”
“We’ve got this! Ksmvr, on three—”
Yvlon launched into a flurry of slashes with her sword as Ksmvr leapt and tried to land and slash the crab from above. It turned into a blur, and Ksmvr bounced onto the ground, rolled to his feet, and Yvlon grunted.
Ksmvr rubbed at his side, and Yvlon recoiled, sword ringing with the impact. Pisces had found his rapier and had shuffled to the side. He stepped in—and once more, the Sword Crab parried his blade with one claw angled downwards. The [Necromancer] gaped at the crab.
Ceria was having trouble standing upright she was laughing so hard. Colth calmly fired a crossbow bolt. The crab blocked it, and Pisces leapt back.
“Are we—losing? To a crab?”
Yvlon couldn’t believe it. She had never, ever seen a monster with anything close to swordsmanship. Undead didn’t count. But this—this crab was taking on all three Horns. True, disoriented, but it seemed to be having fun!
It came forwards, snapping its claws together, and Yvlon had to back off. Pisces tried to get around its rear, and the crab just retreated, refusing to let itself be surrounded. Colth fired a second bolt at an eye-stalk, and it blocked. Ksmvr went in for a straight attack, a silver whirlwind meeting…crab claws.
Ksmvr fell back with a long cut from the sharp claws on his arm. He stared at it, and Yvlon checked it.
“Do you need a potion, Ksmvr?”
It wasn’t deep, but the Antinium stared at the green blood.
“No. I need a potion for my pride. It is mocking us.”
The Sword Crab had backed up and was assessing its foes, but it seemed to also know how to taunt. Because it was bouncing up and down on its legs, snapping its claws together, scuttling from left to right…
Yvlon Byres had wondered how anyone could have trouble with a ‘colony of Sword Crabs’ as she’d heard Drowned Folk had run into on the coast. Now? Now she was wondering how the hell you took care of these things.
“It’s mocking us. Let me take another shot at it.”
Pisces was panting, unable to credit the crab beating him. Colth interrupted.
“Oh no. Send in the skeletons. I told you it’s good.”
The Sword Crab had stopped dancing in place and had clearly decided if they weren’t coming to it, it was coming to them. It was heading for Ksmvr, which the crab either regarded as the most appetizing food or closest in nature to it and the greatest threat. Colth still hadn’t drawn his blades.
“Back up. Skeletons…”
Pisces hesitated, for once struggling with literal pride. The Sword Crab turned sidelong and jabbed with its claw like a rapier! It flurry-stabbed at Yvlon as she threw a punch, which turned into an explosion of steel sp—
The crab parried her metal arm. It recoiled, backing up as her arm kept morphing, trying to stab at it, and the claw moved faster.
It backed away as Yvlon pulled her arm back, and it started dancing once more. Then it scuttled forwards. Yvlon swore—and Ceria spoke as she lifted her wand.
The crab froze, raised a claw, and the giant spike of ice smashed into it. The crab jerked—and Ceria fired with her other hand.
Three spikes of ice shot out. Amazingly, the crab blocked another, but two hammered its shell and left poc-marks. It recoiled, then scuttle-charged at her—
And ran straight into an [Ice Wall]. Ceria saw the crab edge around it, then fired another spike of ice. This time, the crab’s claws twisted trying to deflect the giant [Icy Lance], and Ceria blew, holding her skeletal hand out.
“[Icy Wind]. And…it’s cold.”
The Sword Crab was backing up fast, but it couldn’t stop frost from appearing on its shell. Ceria’s aura and the spell she’d cast were freezing it! Panicked, the crab began retreating, and Ceria kept shooting [Ice Spikes].
“Wow, it can really block them all. But it’s no good against magic, is it, Colth?”
“You’re lucky it didn’t get near you. It might be able to cut an [Ice Wall], but yup.”
Colth had a wand in one hand and his crossbow in the other. He watched as the Sword Crab started backing away faster, towards the water. It was clicking in agitation now.
Pisces stared at his rapier; it had a faint notch in the steel. He raised a finger, concentrated.
The crab tried to block that too, but the black magic passed through the claw, and the crab visibly staggered. Then it rallied and began scuttling right and left, like a moving target. Pisces stared at his finger. Virtually unbeatable with a sword and weak to magic?
Ceria and Colth kicked him at the same time. This time, he screamed at them.
“What are you doing?”
The half-Elf poked Pisces in the cheek with a wand.
“What are you doing? Stop bullying that crab! I like him!”
“Yeah. We just chased it off. What’s with the [Deathbolt]?”
Pisces spluttered as both senior adventurers shoved him. Colth pointed at the Sword Crab, now trying to sink into the water.
“Don’t piss off Sword Crabs. If there were more, it’d be calling buddies in and we’d be dead. This guy’s lost, and he was just looking for a meal.”
“Yes, us. And he took on all three of us!”
“Well, don’t take it out on him for bruising your ego.”
Colth scolded Pisces. Ksmvr had sat down, and Yvlon was shaking out the arm that had met the crab. She needed practice.
“Come on, Ksmvr. We won. That proves we’re better than your average Gold-rankers. Ceria chased it off no problem.”
“All my training. All my practice. Klbkch’s sword school. You should have just hired a Sword Crab instead of me.”
Ceria snorted, and Colth rolled his eyes as the Horns of Hammerad fell back from their first major defeat in the Crossroads. The foe who had no equal. The invader from the sea.
Colth shook his head.
“You all know it’s not even endemic to this place, right? You’re all underleveled for the Crossroads. Rookies.”
Two more directions explored, at least in general direction, and Colth was trying to cheer the three melee-oriented Horns of Hammerad up as they went back to camp.
“Hey, listen. Even Deniusth has had a moment when a Sword Crab slapped him around. Ever heard of his duel to the death with this old Sword Crab? It’s not a story the [Bards] will tell you. Mostly because every single one has died laughing when I told them the tale. I shit you not, there he was, wading into the surf, and he turns to Larracel, me, and Eld and says, ‘if I die, don’t go after it’. And the Sword Crab’s waiting there like some [Gladiator]…”
He had them all chuckling by the time they got back to the base camp. They were early, Ceria realized, and she told them it was a twenty-two minute wait. So Colth told them the rest as they broke out some food.
Yvlon was stuffing crumbled goat’s cheese into her mouth and thinking of dinner—she really did feel like she’d earned it, humiliating tale or not—when Colth stopped telling them about the grave Deniusth had paid for.
“—so if you ask about ‘his greatest duel’ and that damn statue, just tell everyone—huh. Arm up.”
He went from joking to serious so fast that Pisces was still blinking as Yvlon and Colth drew their swords.
“What is it?”
Ceria woke up from her nap, and Colth swung around, staring.
“Someone’s been messing with the runes. Two fired off. Should have been [Stun] and [Flashfire Jet].”
He pointed down, and Yvlon saw faint scorch marks around a burnt-in rune on the ground in the middle of Ceria’s ice walls. The half-Elf instantly whirled.
“No one’s touched my ice walls. Let me check the integrity—”
“Skeletons, form a perimeter. Ksmvr, get down!”
Pisces ordered, and Ksmvr stopped leaping up to the top of the ice walls for a good view. Colth’s head swung left and right, and he vanished.
“I’m going evasive. Ksmvr?”
The two vanished, and Yvlon hissed.
“Stay close! It might have been something else. What about an animal, Colth?”
“There are no animals around here. What’s there to eat? Plus—I should have seen scorch marks beyond the spell going off. It looks like something triggered both but tried to clean up the marks. That’s why I didn’t notice. Damn, I should have checked—”
Colth’s voice was everywhere and nowhere. The Horns fell silent, listening, looking around as Ceria reported her basic spells were revealing nothing.
There was nothing to see for miles upon miles where they were. But Yvlon felt her skin crawling now, and sweat was suddenly running down her back.
Minutes passed. She was shifting around, wondering if she was hearing Colth or Ksmvr moving when suddenly Wer appeared just beyond the fort. He jumped as Ceria and Pisces aimed their wands at him.
“You’d all better be here or you’ll have to camp out here! And I don’t want to explain to Shaman Theikha why I don’t h—what’s going on?”
“Trap spells? Could it have been something else or an animal?”
“Maybe. It’s not the highest-tier magic, and there are animals there. We ran into a Sword Crab. It just looked way too neat.”
Colth admitted he could have been wrong after they got back. Feshi was rightfully concerned, but aside from that one thing, there had been no signs of real danger in the Crossroads.
Again, Wer claimed that since they’d stuck to the roads, the ‘real danger’ wasn’t going to show up.
“It’s all off-road. I’m telling you. You enter the mountain and you’re dead. You step off the road? Death. But even Watchertrees can’t strike you on the road; it’s funny to watch them try. A few things can hurt you on the road, but most of them you can literally outrun.”
“It could be nothing.”
Feshi agreed. Then she and Colth eyed each other, and the Ultimate Supporter grinned mirthlessly.
“I’ll bring more trap spells next time and set them up so anything that runs into them will trigger a lot more. I didn’t set them up in expectation of having to counter something smart.”
“Wait, are you going back? After maybe having something prowling around your camp?”
Rose was incredulous. The Horns just gave her a blank look. Ceria shoved pasta into her mouth with her bare hands, earning her looks of disgust from the Gnolls who were using utensils.
“Well, yes. You’ve got two choices here, really. You can go back, or not. Everything else is preparation and whatnot. We’re not running because of one thing.”
“I’d like to run. If I see anything bad, I’m heading out, got it?”
Wer growled, and the Horns all pelted him with pieces of bread. But they went into the Crossroads on the fourth day wary.
“Let’s see if we can tell if the Crossroads really do extend west. They shouldn’t….but we should be able to see if Ksmvr’s hypothesis was correct.”
Ceria decided to check the last cardinal direction the next day after the Horns had appeared and had a good look around to ensure all was well.
Nothing was off about their base camp from the last night, and Colth did set up a ton more trap spells. He even asked Ceria to melt part of her walls so he could angle and hide them; it’d be very hard to enter and not trigger a few from the two entrances.
The Horns didn’t waste time on paranoia; they kept an eye out, but their job was to keep exploring, and figuring out if the Crossroads were really extending over the New Lands would be huge.
Ksmvr believed they did. Colth, Ceria, and Pisces, as magic-users, all stated that it was impossible; the Crossroads had been made for Izril as it had been, not the new butt of Izril.
Yvlon…she trusted Ksmvr’s eyes. And she sort of wanted him to be right just so she could laugh at the [Mages].
“Hah. Hahaha. Hah!”
It turned out Yvlon’s laughter wasn’t very good. And her pointing at Ceria’s and Pisces’ faces when they used an enchanted spyglass and stared far further than they should have, even accounting for the rest of the western side of Izril—she stopped after a while.
“I’m measuring out rough distances. We go really far after…what has it been? Three hours of hiking? Edge of the Great Plains. But with Ceria’s ice palace and this elevation…I think I should be seeing the sea or something. It just looks like more land.”
The horizon was very tiny, but between the spyglass and height, it was probable—well, maybe Pisces’ calculations were off?
Yvlon was eating a hamburger, and she had just had lunch three hours ago! But she was hungry, and Ceria was shaking her head.
“I almost want to tell Wer we’ll be here multiple days. We can’t go that far if we don’t commit to travel. Maybe we can bully him into coming with us? Then we can transit out.”
“Works for me.”
Colth chomped down as well as Pisces folded his arms.
“I simply maintain that if there is a new part of the Crossroads, it was spontaneously generated, not hitherto existing. Otherwise, it makes no sense!”
“Ah, but you think it could be there. As opposed to you denying my eyes earlier. I have good eyes.”
“You have the best eyes, Ksmvr.”
Yvlon rubbed at his head, and the Antinium happily nodded. Pisces swung the spyglass south.
“We were hardly close to Zeres before we ran into the swamp, but I swore I saw…yes, I think you can see it, even here. See that blackness? Wait, are you eating my burger?”
Yvlon turned her head as Ceria hid Pisces’ half-eaten burger behind her back. Yvlon could see something on the horizon, incredibly far as it was. Since they only had sightlines south, it suggested to her that was the ‘end’ of the Crossroads.
“Looks like a wall of blackness. Reckon it’s like a bounded dimension?”
Pisces glared at Ceria as he started eating. He sniffed.
“If the Crossroads was meant to travel across Izril, it follows that they would end at Izril’s shores. We requested an eight-hour trip. What if we took another hour going westwards? I can see the beginnings of settlements again.”
“Works for me.”
Everyone got to their feet. Yvlon licked her fingers as Colth refused to share the last of his meal with Ceria. They were hungrier than she expected. Yvlon knew she got hungry because of her arms, and Ceria ate everything, but Ksmvr and Pisces and Colth?
Well, they headed out until they came once again to the end of the Great Plains. Here they ran into the first unsettling thing.
Not broken waystations of an empty city, which were disconcerting in their own right; ruined walls. Ksmvr was taking the lead this time; he was fastest on his feet, and he jogged back when he could confirm, yes, this was a ruined place.
“It resembles a city, Captain Ceria. But not a Walled City.”
“How d’you know, Ksmvr?”
“It has no outer walls.”
Pisces smirked as he nodded at Ksmvr. Ceria sighed.
“Sounds like we’ve run across a regular city, then. Drake?”
“I could not tell from the walls, Captain Ceria. That is all that remains. Just walls. And as Colth observed…there is not the same rubble from crumbling or overgrowth of plants. The stones look like they have simply turned to dust.”
The Horns were interested in that, and they had to jog forward to see. What Ksmvr pointed out to them was indeed odd and unsettling via their world’s standards.
The lack of much flora meant that you didn’t get vines or moss—here at least. What you did get was the effect of age and oxygen on stone; they wore away and just fell to pieces. But without wind, it just became a sea of dust, which in turn made the gel-stuff become dusty.
The entire effect was suddenly walking into a wasteland of grey desert. The same grey, Ksmvr realized, as everything else.
Had…there once been many amazing structures that just wore away into nothingness until they became the grey the Horns walked over? At any rate, the ruins were mostly buildings, the remnants of a city.
No outer walls, but a good number of free-standing walls. It seemed like the absolute lack of a breeze meant that the erosion targeted the thinnest parts of a structure first. Leaving the thick retaining walls or foundations intact at the last.
The Horns hacked up a storm for the first few minutes until everyone put on a piece of cloth that cut down on the dust. Then they stuck to the streets; wading through dust was no fun.
“Damn. Sort of makes it hard to imagine treasures sticking around. If this is what happened to stone…we haven’t found many valuables around here. Any. I wonder if there’s any profit here?”
Ceria wondered aloud, and Colth coughed and tapped her on the shoulder.
“Excuse you. Did you not see an entire Walled City protected by a giant magical barrier?”
“Oh. Yeah. Well, aside from that. I’m not confident we’ll be first in, Colth. What about our humble loot for being first? Just a few bucketloads of pearl necklaces would do.”
The Horns were chatting quietly as they passed through the city. At first, Ksmvr had been checking each building, but there were so many that Colth had advised him to let the skeletons screen their advance.
Pisces had the skeletons marching ahead, and so the Horns were chatting. Ceria was checking her timekeeper spell.
“Aaaaaalmost halfway. We should be going back soon.”
“Aw. Can we do some treasure seeking in this city, boss? I feel like there has to be something. Come on, luck. We all rubbed Wer’s head for luck this morning.”
Colth pleaded. Yvlon scoffed.
“I think he cursed us all. Wer talks about this place like it’s full of wonders and horrors, but everything we’ve seen is rather dull.”
Pisces was rubbing at his chin. He seemed to want to compete with Ceria’s circlet-intelligence, so he did his best here in his most scholarly voice.
“He did vouchsafe that the Great Plains was an anomalous zone, Ceria. I can postulate that the effect of the ‘gel’ substance has a stifling effect on flora and fauna. Not to mention that it is a historically Gnollish demesne. Therefore, it follows that the Crossroads of Izril, if they are a Drake holding, are the least developed around this region.”
“Yeah, that was what I thought, but it sounds more pretentious when you say it. Thanks, Pisces.”
Ceria smiled, and he deflated. Yvlon kept frowning.
“But this stuff is from the old era of legends. Where’s all the Gnollish glory?”
Colth answered that, simply and plainly.
“Easy. Straight down. Remember where Torishi fell?”
All the Horns fell silent at that. Yvlon’s back of the neck tingled as she had a thought. Maybe, then, the Crossroads was also…
They passed by another building, turned the corner, and in the middle of a house with all three walls still standing, save for the front, they saw a crouching Drake kneeling and weeping silently into the dust.
Only, the Drake was over twenty feet tall, and he had strange, backwards legs like another animal. Only, when the Drake’s head rose, he had only one huge eye that was yellow and had a regular pupil.
Only, he was so silent and they only heard him boohooing when they saw him. And his huge clawed hands parted to reveal that eye that swung down towards them.
“Boo. Hoo. Booo. Hoooo. I am so terribly sad and lonely. W-what’s this?”
The thing lowered its hands as Yvlon came to a dead stop, and Pisces bounced into her, froze, and reached for his rapier. Colth had already drawn his blades, and Ksmvr stared up with open mandibles, then pulled out a crossbow. Ceria’s laughing smile had frozen over, and then she stared up with frosty eyes. Yvlon felt her arms tingle and imagined them turning into spikes.
Here it was. The figure peered down at the five Horns, and then, after a great pause, its eye swung across them. Counting.
“One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six? Only five. But five! Five new friends met in this land of emptiness and woe! Oh, a glorious day! Hello, hello! Are you travellers? What are your names?”
He sat up, and his head nearly brushed the top of the crumbling house. Yvlon swallowed.
Dead gods, it’s bigger than the Adult Creler. What is it? It doesn’t look like any species I know. None of its body parts make sense!
“Er…hi. We were lost. Know where the City of Crossroads is?”
Ceria Springwalker, damn her, was cool as a thousand cucumbers in the winter. And Yvlon was never more grateful for her. The half-Elf pointed right, as if genuinely lost.
It seemed to throw even the giant…whatever it was.
“City of Crossroads? You’re too far southwest for that. Are you visitors to Imlerith? Visitors at last? Oh, how delightful!”
He smiled, and Ceria gave him a thumbs up as Pisces stared and mouthed.
Skeletons didn’t see this cyclops thing. He was calling them back as Ceria bantered.
“Sure is. We’re looking for the key. Not that we don’t have the key; we’re all friends of Zeres.”
“The City of Waves. Oh, another old name. You know the names! You must be…wavefriends!”
“Friends of the Serpentine Matriarch.”
“Friends of the Serpentine Matriarch! Incredible!”
The voice rose even louder, and the boom should have shaken dust from the walls, but the rest of the city was silent. The figure crawled forwards on its claws and knees.
“I…I…I would like to be your friend, strangers. Are you a half-Elf? And you’re a Human, and you’re…a what?”
“Hello, I am an Antinium.”
Ksmvr waved as fingers pointed at Pisces and then him.
“An-ti-ni-um. Is it new to Izril? Is it new? I have not heard of them. But oh, let me know your names, first!”
The giant clapped its hands again, remarkably dustless for sitting in the home. Was it a denizen of the city? No, it was too big.
Yvlon had the distinct impression it had been waiting for them, and her bad senses—well, they were already screaming at her. But she was waiting for Ceria, and the half-Elf was still smiling.
“I’m Crossbow Stan. That’s Captain Todi, and this is Jelaqua. The fellow with robes is Halrac, and that’s Deniusth. What’s your name, big fella?”
She pointed at Ksmvr, Yvlon, Pisces, and then Colth. The half-Elf was so relaxed and so calm that Yvlon had to believe the circlet was giving her that. But she wasn’t stupid.
Nor was the giant. For just one second, that huge eye narrowed, and the cyclops paused. Then it smiled with all its teeth, and it had three rows of teeth, narrowing to a circle in the back of its throat, which undulated as it spoke.
“I? I am Bograms. I’m a Drake, you know. Do you want me to show you around my city?”
Yvlon blurted out. She stared at the thing that was definitely not a Drake, and Bograms smiled wider.
“Yes. Can’t you see? I have scales. And claws. And sharp teeth.”
“You’re not a Drake. I’ve seen Drakes, you know.”
Ceria laughed at Bograms, and his smile turned into a frown, and that huge eyelid narrowed.
“You’re awfully rude for a visitor to my city. There hasn’t been a Drake on this side of the mountains for a long, long, long, long, long—”
His head descended, and now he was close and smelled of a strange pong, like a mushroom mixed with foul breath. Yvlon expected to feel the air over her face, but all she got was a stench.
“—long, long, long—”
“Time? Sorry to cut you off there, fellow, but I think we got the point.”
Now, Colth was smiling. Not his usual smile where he tried, but the smile that looked like a mask. Like a Demon.
Now, Bograms was getting upset, and he reared back.
“You’re not very nice to me. You should be. I can be terribly mean when I’m upset.”
“You mean, you weren’t going to be mean to us and this isn’t a weird setup?”
Ceria scratched at her head. She narrowed her eyes at Bograms, and the giant Drake-thing fell silent. Bograms’ mouth moved slowly.
“You’re a bit smart for a half-Elf.”
“Yep. And you’re full of hostile magic. I can’t tell what sort, but let’s be frank and negotiate. Okay? We’re adventurers. You live here or know the spot. Want to be open?”
Ceria raised her hands. Bograms hesitated, then got onto one knee.
“Okay. [Icy Lance]. Run for it!”
Ceria’s wand flashed down, and she shot her spell straight at the thing’s groin. Yvlon heard a terrible crash of ice meeting something hard, and the house began falling in, and she was already turning and pumping her arms as Pisces shouted.
Behind them, Bograms was shouting in rage. Then a bellow was rising.
“Treachery! Treachery in the Crossroads! Bograms! Mahadak! ASGREL. I WILL EAT YOU FOR THAT.”
There was a moment of silence as Yvlon, swearing, arms pumping, glanced over her shoulders. Then she saw the house explode, and Bograms came tearing out, crawling, not running, mouth open and screaming at them.
“The skeletons didn’t do shit!”
Colth pulled his crossbow up and fired. The bolt disappeared into the maw, and Pisces screamed.
“He just ran past them! Run—[Bone Wall]!”
Ceria and Pisces both blockaded the street with walls, and the giant crawling at them hissed like a snake—turned—and began crawling right. Yvlon was alarmed at its dexterity; she’d have thought it would hit the walls.
“Run faster, please! I am about to have a nervous poop! It is very scary!”
Ksmvr was hopping, demanding more speed, and Ceria snapped.
“Pisces, ice chariot! I’m walling us off!”
More streets were filling with [Ice Walls], and Yvlon caught Bograms now crawling past buildings, screaming.
“Ceria. Ceeerriiaaaaa—I won’t forget this!”
Yvlon was sweating hard, ready to charge at it the moment it came at them, but she feared it’d swat her or swallow her like a fly. Her arms would surprise it. Ceria didn’t blink as she walled the street off; Pisces was pouring bones out, swearing as skeleton horses rose, and Ksmvr and Colth hooked them up to a sled. Only Ceria stood there, calm as ice. And she said this as Yvlon leapt into the chariot and pulled Ceria up.
“I never told it my name. It’s been watching us.”
The [Armsmistress]’ eyes widened, and Colth swore softly. Then they were riding out of the city on a chariot, speeding back the way they’d come. A second later, they saw Bograms slam out of another street and begin clawing after them. But he wasn’t as fast as the chariot—at least, not at first.
The Horns began leaving the city behind as Pisces and Colth fired spells after Bograms; Ceria was just poised, ready to cast [Ice Wall] if he spat something like the Adult Creler.
Yvlon was standing there, guiding the chariot with the reins. She glanced over her shoulder, seeing the giant receding fast as they sped away. Pisces let out a breath.
“What the fuck was that?”
“Boss monster? Miniboss at least. I didn’t even see my bolts making contact. Boss, that thing’s huge, and if we tangle with it, it’ll smash us. You need to slow it so we can carve its brain out. Assuming it doesn’t have tricks or backup. I wonder why it did that.”
Colth was checking his crossbow. Ceria was staring backwards.
“I think it was having fun. Right up until we started messing with it. Did you see it smile? It knew I was lying to it…ah. Well, that’s not good.”
“I believe I would like to use the restroom now.”
Ksmvr whispered. Yvlon looked back. Bograms had stopped crawling and was bellowing outside that ruined city of dust. As he looked at the Horns, he slowly, slowly pushed himself up onto his strange legs. Then he began to run.
The worst thing about this chase was that it was not fast. Oh, Bograms was quick. Faster than the galloping skeleton horse. But not that fast.
He began catching up in the distance, that one eye glaring, screaming at the Horns as they raced down the road, heading back the way they’d come. Ceria was counting down the time to Wer opening the door.
Behind them, Bograms ran with its backwards prehensile legs in a kind of galumphing run, clearly taxing it. It was catching up by virtue of its sheer size, but slowly.
It gave the Horns time to plan. Colth was speaking fast.
“I’m guessing it’s a magical experiment of some kind. We’re on-track to get to the shelter—early. So we land, hold it off…”
He glanced over his shoulder. They’d been over an hour on the road, and the one thing slowing Bograms down was Pisces and Ceria. They would raise a wall of bones or ice, and the swearing giant would dodge around it, cursing. That would slow Bograms down, but both [Mages] would have to rest. And Pisces snapped back.
“Well, you’d better hope we have enough mana potions to survive a siege! Because I just realized something—my mana isn’t regenerating!”
Colth looked up, and Yvlon turned.
“Pisces is right. It’s not even mana-neutral. I’m getting a trickle of regeneration from my circlet; nothing from my own body. Pisces?”
His eyes were flickering.
“My skeletons are due south of us and I could pull my mana out of them, but I had to drink a mana potion already. The Crossroads of Izril are—we’re at a disadvantage.”
“Then we give you a crossbow, Ceria, and we hunker behind your walls and hope it can’t break through. Try to go for that eye.”
Yvlon was panting hard, and she was nodding. Ceria was rubbing at her head.
“We’ve been an hour on the road and it’s still chasing us?”
“Two hours. It’s got no end to stamina.”
Pisces reported tersely. Ceria’s head snapped up, and she stared back at that giant pupil staring at them as the thing lurched around. Then she swore, looked at Yvlon, and for some reason, slapped her friend in the face.
Yvlon jerked, but it didn’t hurt as badly as it should.
“What was that for, Ceria?”
“You didn’t swing back. Dead gods damn it—we’re under a [Confusion] spell! Dispel, dispel!”
Yvlon blinked at Ceria stupidly, and Colth’s head jerked up. He swore, reached for something, uncorked a vial, and then held it under his nose, blinked—
When he held it under Yvlon’s nose, she woke up. The stench was so potent, so painful that it shook her into wakefulness. She turned and wondered what the hell was going—
Pisces’ head slammed back, but he was on his feet, panting. Ceria took a deep sniff, and her eyes focused.
“It’s draining our mana on purpose! That’s why it’s letting us try to slow it down! It knows we have a limit to magic! There’s more—I need to think!”
Ksmvr was the last to ‘wake’, and when he did, the Horns felt the tension ratchet up. Yvlon couldn’t believe it. How long had she been driving the wagon like some addle minded idiot in a never ending horror sequence?
“I’m coming for you, Stan!”
Bograms was roaring, and he picked up speed, clearly waiting for Ceria or Pisces to try and trip him up. When they didn’t, his eye narrowed. Then he began running full-tilt.
He was almost on them when Colth tensed to leap. Ksmvr shot an arrow, and Ceria glanced at Yvlon as the woman prepared to jerk the chariot around and enter the fight. But then Bograms pulled back. He jogged, letting them pull ahead, and tilted his head.
“Too many swords. Too scary.”
He muttered and slowed. The Horns looked at each other as Bograms fell onto all fours. Ceria was glancing ahead.
“No way. He’s not letting us go.”
Bograms was crawling now, staring at them and at Colth’s shortswords warily. Was he that afraid of them? Ceria’s lips were moving.
“Anyone see the camp? I can sense it mayb—”
Yvlon pointed. She saw the camp in the distance, the walls of ice, and Colth shouted.
“Here he comes!”
Bograms must have seen the camp too because he was clawing across the ground now, following them down the road, and now he was on all fours, mouth open, screaming.
“Bograms, Bograms, BOGRAMS!”
They leapt from the chariot as it galloped past, and Yvlon rolled, and Colth motioned them over the trap runes. Yvlon had never been so grateful for his ability that let them detect which were which.
“He’s coming, and he’s not stopping! Get ready! Wer’s—”
The giant thing hit the ice walls like thunder as Ceria fired an [Icy Lance] at it. The shockwave snapped at Yvlon’s face, and she heard him screaming, Pisces shouting, and saw a [Deathbolt] flying. She charged in and swung her sword and let her arms explode into a pincushion of metal as she heard Ksmvr shouting.
The battle with the cyclops was over fast. Yvlon swore she missed all her strikes, but someone had gotten it, because when she whirled, she saw Bograms screaming as blood ran down his scaly arms.
“The pain! THE PAIN!”
He was fleeing now, and she saw half his teeth had been smashed out from the ice walls. Colth was swearing.
“I missed him! Get on the chariot and—”
“No! Don’t go after him!”
Ceria shouted, and the Horns hunkered down. She stared at the ice walls, then raised more around them, remelding the old ones. Panting, the Horns saw Bograms vanishing.
“Wer. How long do we have—?”
It was a long thirty-eight minutes, and they only managed eight of them before Ceria started swearing.
“We’ve been duped.”
Ceria Springwalker realized it eight minutes later, far, far too late. All the clues. She stared around, half admiring, half in horror.
Everyone else was tense, but she thought Colth had begun to realize it too. He’d been studying the trap spells, and Ceria turned to Yvlon as the [Armsmistress] lowered her sword.
“This isn’t our camp. This is all a trick!”
Ceria snapped, and Colth began swearing a blue streak, but even Pisces had to have things explained for a second. Ceria pointed at the ice walls, sweating now.
“Those aren’t mine. At least—the ones we ran behind? They felt like they were sort of mine, but I just checked, and I’m not even sure they’re real. I’m not even sure Bograms is real.”
Ksmvr was stunned, but Pisces put it together too.
“My death mana isn’t in here either. That thing didn’t notice. Curse me for a fool with a glass bowl for a head, I didn’t either! He never hit our wall spells. He gave us way too much time to get away…and my skeletons weren’t destroyed by him. Dead gods, they’re still catching up. And they’re s—”
His eyes widened, and his look of alarm grew.
“They’re south of us. They should be due west.”
“You mean we took the wrong road? But the camp—”
Yvlon started, and Colth leapt up, swearing.
“He’s tricked us! Dead gods, look!”
He’d just slashed a blade through his trap runes, and they hadn’t gone off; they just kept glowing. Colth spun.
“Even my new runes! Copied down to a tee! We’re at the wrong camp. We’re north and lost, and Wer is about to appear in thirty minutes, and he’s either going to be jumped or we’ll miss him!”
The Horns stared at Colth—then they were running, dashing out of their ice walls and back into the chariot. Ceria snapped as she leapt on board.
“We’re not dead yet! I can sense where my original magic is…there! This guy’s some kind of top-tier illusionist, everyone. He’s fooled even my circlet!”
“Faster, faster! What if he was asking our names so he could trick Wer? He already knew Ceria’s!”
Exactly. All of it was coming together to Ceria, but what she didn’t know was why the thing hadn’t gone after them while they were looking around. Maybe it had been biding its time, sensing their abilities.
Or was it just an illusion?
They arrived at the camp after an hour and forty minutes. Too late. Ceria leapt down, and Colth checked the spells. They didn’t like what they found.
“Wer’s gone. What the hell happened here?”
It wasn’t like they stored much, but Wer had left a message on one of Ceria’s ice walls. He must have dashed it off fast; the message was literally carved in the ice, and all the trap runes on one side had exploded outwards. Wer wouldn’t have set them off.
The message was simple, and it made Ceria’s hair stand on end.
IT WASN’T YOU.
“We’re two hours too late. He must have showed up twice. One of the times…Bograms was trying to pretend to be us. We’re stranded.”
“Did he get Wer?”
“Doubt it. He’s still Wer the Wanderer, a Doombearer. If he can fight Belavierr, I think he’s smart enough to get away from Bograms. But we have been played like Bronze-rank rookies. Damn. This is my fault. I hate [Illusionists].”
Colth leapt down, swearing. Pisces looked around, and Yvlon was hunkering down, eying the trap spells and trying to see if she could glean anything from the tracks. But there was so little to note…
“Okay. Okay. Let’s—”
“Ceria! Yvlon, Colth, Ksmvr! There you are!”
A loud voice called out, and they jumped. Wer sat up from the soil, a concealment charm fading as he became visible. He waved at them.
“Come on! Let’s get out of here!”
“That is not Wer.”
Ksmvr said that decisively. Not a single Horn moved. Wer ran over, looking around nervously and wringing his paws.
“I barely got away. Take my hand and—”
Ceria stuck her hand through Wer’s face, and he recoiled too late. His worried look became a snarl. Pisces smirked.
“That one wasn’t even good. Hand, not paw? And Wer’s no coward. He could probably fight—”
“Don’t tell him what he’s doing wrong.”
Colth snapped, and the Gnoll jumped back and began bloating. Ceria saw Bograms emerging out of Wer’s body like a puffing kernel of popcorn exploding the Gnoll’s body and revealing scales, that one eye, gleaming with joy—
“Well done. But Bograms isn’t done playing.”
“Yeah, well, we’re done with you. No wonder he looks so damn stupid. See? Someone just made up his body and thought he looked horrific. I doubt you could even swallow with a mouth like that. What is he, half leech, half Cyclops…and his legs don’t even work.”
Bograms’ eye narrowed as Ceria pointed up at him. He bent over and raised a fist. Ceria stared up as the giant thing held it there…and held it…
Bograms swung, and his fist passed through Ceria. She swore despite herself. Then the giant, laughing, sank into the earth.
“Bograms is watching you, Ceria. Bograms won’t forget this. Bograms will eat your bones.”
“You don’t even know my last name. Piss off.”
Ceria raised a middle finger, and the giant’s eye narrowed again. It glared as it sank into the ground, and Colth muttered.
“Assume it’s here and watching us. Also, might not be the wisest thing to piss it off, Ceria.”
“I don’t know why it’s after us. Did we make it mad at the City of Crossroads? Or is it just some roving horror?”
Yvlon was looking around, clearly ill-at-ease, and Ceria was trying to think.
“I don’t know. Pisces, get your Skeleton Champions back here. I’m going to upgrade this fort. We need to hold here until Wer gets back.”
“What time, Ceria?”
Ksmvr tilted his head, and Ceria half-turned.
Then she hesitated. Hesitated…and someone waved frantically through the image of Ksmvr.
“—did not ask. I did not ask!”
Ksmvr, the real Ksmvr, screamed, and Ceria grabbed him. She shouted as Pisces, Colth, and Yvlon spun.
“Link arms! Everyone grab each other, got it?”
“Dead fucking gods, I thought you were just there, Ceria! I just told it Feshi would have reinforcements!”
Yvlon shouted. Ceria was sweating, now. It was everywhere, and her circlet was telling her, screaming at her, that whatever Bograms was, it had magic superior to [Greater Invisibility].
She’d only noticed that wasn’t Ksmvr because he didn’t say ‘Captain Ceria’—and he would know when Wer was coming back.
“Pay attention to no one and anything. Just hold onto each other. Even if one of us says something right next to you—we move as one. It has superior illusion powers, but I think—that’s all it has. Or we’d be dead. If you don’t know if it’s us or not, ask for something only we’d know. But don’t tell unless—we have to make sure to always ask for a new secret. Got it?”
The Horns stood together, and Yvlon exhaled.
“Good thing that monster didn’t have me swinging a sword around.”
“Or make us think one of us was Bograms. I wonder why it didn’t try that? I’ve done that to—I mean, I’ve seen it done a lot of times.”
Colth wondered aloud, and Ceria frowned harder. But she relied on instincts in times like this, and her instinct was the same that Pisces whispered.
“Easy. It’s having fun with us. It smiles like a [Slaver] of Roshal.”
The others fell silent, and Ksmvr’s mandibles clacked in the silence. He pulled out two crossbows as they stood together.
“I am disliking these Crossroads of Izril more and more by the second. 2/10.”
The Horns of Hammerad spent a long, long night checking each other and watching corners as Ceria added more mana to the fort here.
She didn’t want to play into Bograms’ trap, but after some thinking, Pisces, Ksmvr, Colth, and Yvlon agreed her logic was sound.
Assuming this all wasn’t some gigantic illusion—Ceria had to trust she had one thing Bograms didn’t: her circlet. And her circlet had helped her fight off his tricks and led her here.
Touch was a valuable thing. Bograms might be able to fake touch, but could he fake Pisces bringing up the skeleton fashion sense issue, or Colth reciting their breakfast?
Possibly, but he’d have mind-reading powers then, and Ceria was fairly certain the one thing that was safe was her mind.
Her circlet had let her down, in a sense: she’d never been duped with it on. But it gave her intelligence, clarity of thought, and most importantly, powerful magical casting. She supposed it wasn’t perfect.
The other thing that Bograms couldn’t fake was Pisces’ skeletons or Yvlon’s arms. The skeletons jogged back and took positions around the ice fort, and Yvlon realized she could use her arms to manipulate things even while they held each other.
Therefore, while linking arms, Yvlon broke out their rations, and everyone got some food.
Not any rest. They were sitting together, trying to figure out how badly Bograms could mess with them if they slept, and Ceria pointed out that the moment they woke up, he could take the place of the other Horns, maybe even make them dream something.
“I say stamina potions and wait it out.”
“Peeing is going to be horrendous. Just do it where you sit. If you take a crap, pull your pants down, and we’ll kick it out, but don’t let go.”
“Dead gods, Colth.”
The [Supporter] growled at the Horns.
“Don’t argue with me. You want to know how many people I’ve seen die because they took off armor to piss outside of it and a bug wriggled into their armor and started eating them from the inside? One! And you don’t need more than that!”
Here was the thing. Ceria was almost certain that Colth was Colth right now. She was even certain Bograms wasn’t here.
Well…nothing had happened. Maybe Bograms could play the long game, but it had seemed rather capricious. It was sort of like an evil Wesle, actually. It had tried to really scare them with the routine of pretending to be a ‘Drake’, and it had seemed royally pissed when they refused to be scared or even banter with it.
Ceria supposed she’d met one too many monsters. After Skinner, Bograms seemed like a horrible imp. But not a terror.
She was just about to ask the others for theories on what it might be—though honestly, it might be anything based on their limited understanding of the Crossroads of Izril. They’d have to make real certain they didn’t take it with them when Wer arrived, and hopefully Feshi had taken countermeasures.
If Bograms wasn’t already in the Meeting of Tribes. Ceria had the image of Bograms slaughtering Gnolls, and she felt…cold.
She’d be guilty, she supposed, but she didn’t have the same panic that Yvlon, Ksmvr, Pisces, and even Colth were feeling. The circlet, again. She just had to keep the Horns safe.
Ceria was about to speak when her head snapped up. A spell she’d set up went off, and Ksmvr muttered one word.
Colth’s head rose, and his eyes gleamed, and they stood together. They stared around, and then Ceria began speaking quietly.
“That Elf-kissing, tree cutting piece of Creler-infested wormwood bait. Guys? I think that’s not an illusion. I think Bograms got mad.”
She pointed, and there, across the flat Crossroads, they saw them coming. Not one, not two, or even dozens, but hundreds of what Ceria’s eyesight spell picked out as Bloodfield Shamblers, crawling creatures with sharp legs, a galloping deer-thing with dripping horns and bared teeth—
Denizens of the Bloodfields. And why were they coming here?
Well, possibly because they were following five shrieking figures. Each one looked like the Horns, but their heads were thrown back, and their mouths were open wide, wider than their jaws could move, forming giant ‘o’s from whose black depths the most ungodly shriek was echoing.
The Bloodfields did not appreciate that kind of sound. And something—Bograms—had led hundreds of them at the fort.
No guesses why.
“He wants to drive us out of here! If we don’t stay, Wer will have no idea where to find us! Up! To arms!”
Colth roared, and he pulled a glowing bolt out, inserted it into his crossbow, and fired. It hit the deer straight in the face and, after a pause, blew the thing’s head off.
It kept coming in a staggering run, and the torso opened up, revealing a second set of jaws. Colth began swearing oaths.
“Don’t leave the ice fortress no matter what! Yvlon, hold the front! I’ll keep the ice as high as possible. Pisces! [Frostmarrow Behemoth]!”
“We don’t have the mana, Ceria!”
He didn’t. Ceria reached for her well of mana in the circlet—and hesitated. What if this was a trick, though? If this wasn’t actual Bloodfields—
The first crack of something hitting her ice walls made her believe it was. But she just took aim through a window and began firing [Ice Spikes].
I might need all my mana, and it isn’t regenerating. Ceria Springwalker snarled as the first monsters began to climb the frozen battlements, and one of Yvlon’s fingers pierced straight through a Shambler’s body. But it kept coming; it was all plant life. And another one exploded and began to rain the horrible flesh-eating insects.
“I hate the Crossroads! 0/10! -5/10!”
Ksmvr started screaming, and no one could argue with that.
Bloodfields Shamblers had no nervous system in the same way a regular person did. It had some kind of root-structure that if you severed it, mostly killed it. But it was at the center of its mass.
They went down hard, but Yvlon Byres was at least happy to fight them. Unlike Bograms where she’d been useless—
She punched a hole into a Shambler, and it exploded as her arm turned into jagged needles that arched out of it. Yvlon pointed, and her other arm punched through a Watchertree trying to burrow down. She grimaced and checked the metal of her arm; it had bent a bit to do that.
“I can turn to steel in a bit!”
“A bit isn’t going to save us! They’re fucking coming from everywhere! Pisces, get your skeletons back!”
Colth—was it Colth?—was howling as he slashed Shamblers down. But in this moment, in the thick of fighting as they pounded on Ceria’s fortress, Yvlon was the strongest Horn of Hammerad.
Even Colth couldn’t destroy the Shamblers as fast; he was a blur, dodging and cutting, but Yvlon had the most destructive arms of all the Horns.
The problem was…it would avail them little. She didn’t know if Ceria was going to say it first or she was—but they had to run.
Pisces’ Skeleton Champions were holding the line amazingly well. One staggered as a Shambler hit it with those whip-vine flechettes, cutting into even steel armor. It would have given the plant-thing all the blood it wanted—but the skeleton just stabbed back with its daggers. The two were locked in combat until Ksmvr delicately bisected the thing.
“I am observing Bograms is not smart enough to create an illusion of the battle! Though he is trying!”
The Antinium shouted, and Yvlon punched something red with too many teeth and a strangely humanoid body climbing the ice walls. It exploded, and she stopped breathing as the red dust surrounded her.
Ceria blew it off her, and Yvlon inhaled. She had a tang of something—but the half-Elf knew it was her.
Bograms might be an amazing illusionist, but he had limits. He hadn’t been able to replicate more than one big, chaotic event like him hitting the fake base with ice walls—and even then, Yvlon had noticed she hadn’t hit him.
In this battle? The most he could do was make the monsters coming up seem invisible—but the illusion instantly began fraying. He hadn’t even done that more than twice, actually.
What he had done was vanish and come back with more reinforcements. And said reinforcements?
They were everywhere, and Pisces was panting as he staggered back, clutching at his arm.
“Pisces! You’re on fire!”
“Their teeth are hot!”
Ceria grabbed at Pisces, but he was unharmed; his robes were burnt, but the underarmour had saved him. Ksmvr vanished again, whirling his cloak, and Colth stepped back from his side.
“I’m not fucking Bograms because you all know it—we’re getting slaughtered the moment one side wins. I count at least three factions out there. You?”
Yvlon Byres had wanted to know what monsters there were in the Crossroads; well, she was seeing three kinds.
Shamblers were fighting alongside the sharp-edged fauna of the Bloodfields against some orange, glowing…things. They looked like orange-red beasts, loping along, with huge teeth, and they ran from weird fanged anglerfish with legs to humanoid things with massive claws.
But they were also hot and literally set fire to things they clawed; the Bloodfields fauna was in full retreat against them. They had a hundred forms. Yvlon saw one spitting gouts of flaming…something in arcs at her, and she took cover, fumbling with her bag of holding.
Projectile weapons. More of the humanoid ones were climbing up, clawing at everything that wasn’t like them. They attacked fast…then would shamble back, as if recharging their energy. But they were so fast that Yvlon saw one graze Colth. He stuck his sword through its chest, and it twitched—then dove onto his second blade, and he had to bisect it at the chest.
Even then it kept trying to claw at him. It had no mouth. When Yvlon looked down, she didn’t see organs before Colth’s boot drove the head in.
There were a lot of them, and they poured into the fight, getting bigger and nastier. One rolled into a Shambler and revealed it was quadrupedal, covered in hard spines, and the Shambler’s slashing limbs caught on fire as it bit and tore.
The same species? The same people? They were all that odd, too-bright color of orange. They fought in tandem, albeit like a single wave of onslaught. As Ceria collapsed a wall of her fortress down, only the ones closest to the wall were hit by the falling chunks of ice; the others maneuvered away, even the ones locked in combat.
At this moment, they were currently smashing the flying insects, burning the Watchertrees alive as the frantic towers of pale roots stabbed everywhere. And accordingly, the Bloodfields was falling back fast.
If the Bloodfields fauna was running—but these odd fiery monsters were locked against the third group coming in.
Odd, purplish demi-people. They were largely people-shaped, but some of them were closer to cats or dogs that bit and wrestled with their counterparts. This last group had actual weapons, albeit primitive, and one of them was busy stabbing a Shambler to death.
Because they were tough. All three groups were no match for a Yvlon Byres stick-your-arm-in-them-and-they-explode-with-needles attack. But none of them had blood save for, ironically, the Bloodfields monsters.
Someone caved in the head of a weird lumpy purple person with a spear, and it got right back up and began stabbing at the burning red thing with claws. The furious attack by the orange clawer was deflected by a whirl of the spear. Then a jab so fast it looked almost like a Skill.
The orange clawer twitched as the purple spear-wielder drove the spear through it, impaling it on the ground, then began to wrench the spear up, smashing a foot into the other thing’s body as it writhed. It nearly had its foe destroyed when a bunch of small, orange claw-things scuttled over the purple one. It tore them off it as they began to light it on fire.
A second purple spear-wielder came to the first’s aid, stabbing the orange ones right off it. The first recovered its spear, and then the two were fighting side-by side, clearing dozens of the orange ones trying to get at them with fast sweeps of their spear, knocking the smaller ones flying. It was almost entrancing, and the Horns took a break to stare as the two sides clashed again.
“They hate each other’s guts more than us—but everything hates us!”
That was a brilliant way of putting it by Pisces. The Horns were watching as their ice fort began to melt under all the fire monsters, and it had already been taking damage for…at least a few hours.
Only a few things saved them from being overrun; firstly, Ceria’s [Fortress of the Ice Queen] which had been over half-diminished. Second, the Skeletal Champions that Pisces had thrown into the fighting and repaired, though the effort had left him taxed.
Third, the defense of the Horns at the chokepoints; numerous the foe might be, but they weren’t as individually tough as Colth, Yvlon, and Ksmvr.
Yet…they seemed like they were ramping up for an assault.
Yvlon whirled as she fit something around her finger and cried out. A new purple thing had leapt up. This one seemed more articulated, and it was a lot faster. It had blocked one sword slash of Ksmvr’s with a rock, and it held a fang ripped from the orange things in its other hand.
Ksmvr was the better dancer of blows; he ran the thing through the neck, almost taking the head off, and cleaved straight through where the ribs should have been. Mortal wounds. But it just ran onto him, stabbing fast.
Not wild—and when Colth leapt at it, the thing twitched its head his way—and something punched Colth out of the air.
Not another purple thing. Not any spell Ceria or Pisces saw. Just…something. And Ksmvr was under the same effect; he was straining with all four arms to push the thing off him or stab, but they were lying flat on the ground as Yvlon charged. The head turned, and she felt something slow her limbs.
Yvlon still hit the purple thing in a full charge. No rage, just intensity. She tackled it off the fort as Ceria shouted.
The two landed hard, and the thing stabbed like Typhenous, the sharp tooth bouncing off her armor. Then it recalibrated, tried to wrench an arm up to go under one armpit—Yvlon’s arms exploded into spikes.
The thing was out of the way even as her arms turned into pincushions, impaling a bunch of the tiny purple creatures around Yvlon. But this advanced thing did a backflip backwards, rotating twice, landed, and froze.
It stood there, regarding Yvlon as she rose. Then the two spear-wielders came in from opposite sides, and it dove at her, dagger going straight for the gap in her helmet.
What incredible foes. Yvlon Byres would have saluted them in the past. Present Yvlon just raised one hand as the spears and fang struck in tandem.
A ring flashed on Yvlon’s hand as the blades skittered off a wall in the air, and the fang blade recoiled before it touched a blue current of something around Yvlon’s body. A nimbus of light that had become solid, a roiling blue mass like the sea, had decided to engulf and protect Yvlon. She brought her fist down before the recoiling purple leader could move.
It still dodged, slashing at the barrier around her. But Yvlon’s first ring glowed, a seam of blue river in a metal band.
Ring of Barriers. It hadn’t expected that. Her second fist extended, and the thing leapt over it—and the arm exploded into a pincushion.
Impaled it like a bug on a stick. It kept trying to move; Yvlon leapt on it, her other arm swinging like a scythe. She diced it as the other purple things attacked her in a mania, then shouted.
“[Reel Her In].”
A rope fell, caught one arm, and yanked her up. Just in time; the blue barrier faded, and Yvlon checked herself as the purple things surrounded their fallen leader.
“They’re losing cohesion. Falling back—looks like you minced a big one. Now we’ve got orange!”
The purple things did indeed fall back, and Yvlon saw one of the spearwielders now clumsily fending off the orange clawers, which overwhelmed it in a second. It was noticeably slower, and its teammate just abandoned it. Even so, the purple ones fell back in neat order as the orange ones gained ground.
But Yvlon could tell the purple were reforming for a second push. And the tug of war just meant that now Colth was slashing down climbing orange things on the other side. Pisces was checking Yvlon for injuries, and snapped at her as she plucked the ring off and tucked it into her bag of holding.
“You used up one ring?”
“Got the other! Give me a sec…”
She had to catch her breath, barrier or not. Yvlon was exhausted, and she had seen the others going for healing potions. Her metal arms had taken most of the damage, but everyone else was flesh and blood.
Weaker than me. Even Ceria. How many potions did they have left?
She wasn’t angry, she realized. She was—concentrating. Fierce, but not losing her head. She couldn’t. If she got hurt in this moment—everyone died.
She noticed the orange things were once again more preoccupied with the purple than the Horns. In fact, they had raced to where the purple leader was and were…burning the remains? Strange. They were doing that to all the purple things and vice versa when purple hacked up orange. Yvlon rasped as they finished disposing of their enemy. Now orange was encircling them.
“We have to evacuate. Make sure all five of us are here. Then we go.”
“That’s what Bograms wants.”
Ceria was panting, frustrated. Yvlon raised her voice.
“Well, if we stay here, we’ll die! Do you see that?”
She pointed, and there was a glow in the distance.
“Looks like the flaming ones have called in a heavy hitter! That looks like it’s the size of a house. And there’s more. We don’t run, we’re dead.”
The Horns looked at each other, and Colth spun. Ksmvr was holding one arm, and the Antinium was very quiet when he spoke.
“Wer will be in danger if he appears.”
“Wer’s a big lad. He knows there’s trouble. Worry about us, Ksmvr. Bograms is hunting us—if we make it back here, it’ll be a miracle. Short of that? We have to find a gate. Yvlon, Ceria, Pisces, Ksmvr. If we leave this spot, that’s our only way out.”
The other Horns looked at Colth in silence. Then Pisces snarled as they all felt something hit the ice palace.
“I vote we go! Even if we survive this night, can we survive a day of this? These could be legions of monsters. Into the Crossroads, and if Bograms follows us, we’ve survived worse!”
“Stick together. And take this.”
Ceria produced a bracelet of ice and clipped it around each of the Horns. Pisces blinked, then copied it with bone. Colth grunted as Ceria checked the bracelets.
“Cold as shit. Good idea! Okay—I’m going to use my biggest Skill. Yvlon, clear a path and get that chariot up. Go, go—”
The Horns were shouting, and the night was burning, and Ksmvr’s head hurt. He stared at the purple things fighting the orange ones and thought…something was off.
He almost thought he could hear something, like a voice, running through the purple ones, and the purple and orange ones seemed to hate each other more than even the Bloodfields things.
Bograms was out there, and the Crossroads of Izril was dark. He hesitated once as he leapt from the melting fort, then threw something down in midair.
He hoped Bograms hadn’t seen it. If the Gnolls followed Wer, they might not see it—but they were smart. They could pick it up, and if they got clear of Bograms’ illusions, they’d see the note in the jar.
‘This is Ksmvr. We are leaving. Danger. Many monsters. Don’t trust us if we meet. We will make it out as soon as we escape Bograms.’
Then he was leaping down to the chariot as Ceria’s eyes glowed, and they were fleeing into the night.
That was over five days ago. The last the Gnolls heard of the Horns—aside from finding the ruins of their camp and countless, moldering bodies of monsters they could not identify, even Shaman Theikha.
Shaestrel listened to the summary Feshi gave to Erin in the [World’s Eye Theatre]. She even flew to the Great Plains to see herself, but when she returned to The Wandering Inn, moving via the fae’s routes, which were unknown even to the likes of Wer, the fae laughed at her.
“Aye, Shaestrel, ye look as pleased as punch!”
“Someone who’s punched, ye mean!”
“Shut up! One of Erin Solstice’s greatest allies is gone—even from my sight—and ye lot want to laugh and play games?”
Shaestrel was in no mood to play along with her flighty cohort. Most of them were idiots, pure and simple. Pixies and lesser fae who came to spread winter and frolic.
But…brave idiots. They all knew what they were signing up for this time. And a few of them…one of the fae joked around.
“‘Tis just like you to want everything so and so. Did yeh think you’d have an easy, neat board to play against Kasigna? There’s places even she’s forgotten to look into, and the Horns are in one of them. Better to have chaos than trust Shaestrel can play an equal board against that lot and win!”
Because this was true, and pissed her off, Shaestrel gave the faerie in question the biggest damn kick she could, sending the crystalline figure—the appearance they took—crashing through the air.
“Shut yer gob, Theillige. It’s the last day before the Solstice, and I cannot see them. I cannot…we play our hands as well as we might, but the Solstice is a locus of destinies. Beyond it, I see not a thing. Nor do I think even Kasigna can.”
“You mean Kaligma. Guess what that means. Hey, guess what—”
Aside from one idiot, the other Winter Fae were silent now. Shaestrel was almost happy.
After the Solstice…destiny itself would be asking for clues on what came next. She knew why part of it was broken to bits. It was good. It meant even the gods would pull on strings and come up empty-handed.
But it meant she could do little besides what she saw for Ryoka. Shaestrel spoke slowly to the assembled fae, and they were so few. They looked like they flitted around and were many, but only twelve had come.
Twelve for a world. A big job to deliver snow, but everyone knew it wasn’t about that. Eleven winter fae…of varying natures.
“I must stay with Ryoka Griffin and Erin Solstice. You all know why. I promised Ivolethe, and we are bound by prophecy.”
“Oh, aye, that one. I never liked those touched by the fates.”
One of the faeries laughed. Shaestrel shrugged tiredly.
“I like her a bit. ‘Tisn’t enough to die over. But now I tell you this, kin: this is the end of our fellowship.”
She hadn’t rehearsed a speech or anything so trite, but she remembered that movie and liked it. Shaestrel warmed to her theme as the fae went still, almost respectfully.
“Here we part ways. Perhaps not all of us. I hope some return to His Majesty, but you know your purpose. I shall be here when Solstice dawns, but at least one of us will walk a different path. Now—I ask ye a favor. One of you to go and do what we know should be done. Yet to go it alone.”
The fae stood there. They knew what she was asking of them. Slowly, one raised a hand.
“I will do it! I will carry the r—”
Shaestrel threw something at Theillige, and the other fae cackled, breaking off the solemnity of the moment.
“Not you, you idiot! You know your place. Someone else.”
One of the fae broke off, raised her hand, and changed. Shaestrel saw a bright smile, and the crystal faerie shifted. The others did go silent then. A long silence. Shaestrel closed her eyes a long moment, then nodded to the other in respect.
“Can you find a door into the Crossroads?”
“Aye, if one exists. I am one of the greatest travellers, and if I must, I will run the breadth of this world. Have I permission to meddle?”
The faerie’s eyes glinted, and Shaestrel grew sad as she floated over and took the other one’s hands and felt fur, not frozen, crystalline skin.
“Oh, aye. No more rules. No more laws. Go, Vofea, and make such war against the gods in your way that they regret coming back to their shells of life.”
The winter fae laughed and sped downwards, coming to earth, and when she landed, she flew no more and looked no more like the winter fae, but rose in one of her true forms, and they waved at her and shouted.
“Goodbye! Hurry up and find them, Vofea!”
“Don’t forget where and when you should be!”
Then Shaestrel flew down for one last thing as the fae laughed and flew in wild delights. And she sensed fate itself had no idea how her kind were meddling.
But there was one thing in the world Shaestrel would pay dues to, in honor of it.
On the eve of the Solstice, Tekshia Shivertail was polishing her spear, and that was no euphemism. Her granddaughter had come by for a long chat about what might or might not happen, and Tekshia had told Selys to respectfully and lovingly mind her own business.
Selys had left with a harrumph, and Tekshia had closed the guild early. The adventurers were annoyed, but they’d stay and gossip like children and drink too late fretting, some of them.
Best they slept or pretended to. She was sitting and thinking of all the stories she’d seen come into guilds like this one with. Thinking of the future, the past.
The door opened, and Tekshia called out without looking up.
“We’re closed. Since the door was locked, you’re either my granddaughter or a thief, and you’ll get stabbed either way if I have to get up.”
“Nay, nae. We’re neither, and it isn’t a time for stabbing. Yet. We have business, Tekshia Shivertail.”
A voice like spring spoke, and Tekshia Shivertail hesitated—and lifted the spear anyways, for she had never heard that voice. She knew, vaguely, who was speaking, but when Shaestrel landed on the table…the Drake still stared.
“So that is what you look like. Hmph.”
She tried to sound casual, but her heart was racing. Ten faeries plus the bright green one were flickering about the table, and Tekshia heard their voices at last, not the faint bell-like chimes.
“Ooh, she’s got a spear!”
“Grumpy Drake, angry Drake, brave Drake. Lend us your ear!”
“She ain’t got an ear, hah!”
“Shut up, Theillige.”
Shaestrel ignored the lot and looked at Tekshia with eyes that were disconcertingly old, but not like a half-Elf who’d forgotten time. They scared the Drake, but Tekshia was too stubborn to admit that to anyone.
“Can I help you? We’re closed. Unless you have adventuring business, I’m out of cookies or whatnot.”
They giggled at her, and Tekshia feared they could see right through her. Shaestrel smiled.
“Ah, but my business is for adventuring. I have a small favor to ask. And I think this is how ye do it? One of you, give me a coin.”
They threw down a gold one, fat and bright, and Tekshia stared at it as Shaestrel kicked it across the table. It was wider than Shaestrel was and looked beautiful. Worth more than your average coin.
“This should do for handsome compensation.”
The Drake paused, eyed the coin, and sighed.
“That’s a Faerie Flower. I heard about Erin Solstice’s mishap.”
Shaestrel paused, and one of the faeries cursed.
“Shit tits and all! We can’t even scam people these days!”
“It’s probably worth more than a gold coin due to market value. What am I being paid for?”
Tekshia picked up the coin and marveled at how real it seemed. Shaestrel shrugged, seemingly at home with the oddities. Yet her eyes seemed to plead with Tekshia to be serious, so the Drake sat up.
“We would like to register someone with your guild. Can ye oblige us?”
Paperwork? Now of all times? Tekshia hesitated, then got up and rummaged in a drawer. She found a slip, pulled out a quill, and eyed the faerie.
“Okay, you have my interest. If I feel like I’m being pranked, I will stab you with this.”
“Very fair. How does one fill it out? Need we witnesses?”
“Bronze-rank adventurer? Nope. You pay a two-silver registration fee for the materials and, depending on the guild, a bit more. I charge three more silver. Five is steep for a kid, but it cuts down on the idiots who just want to say ‘I’m an adventurer’. No other requirements. If you want a higher ranking, you need all kinds of references. Otherwise, I file this. Is that all you want?”
Shaestrel hesitated and then raised a hand.
“…Can I get change on my coin?”
“No. If I’m doing this…name?”
Then the Faeries were serious. Tekshia saw them land, and Shaestrel spoke, and occasionally one would call out an answer.
“V-o-f-e-a. No last name?”
“Many names. None you need. What comes next?”
“When she’s feeling it—female! Wait, what is she asking again?”
“I’ll write down ‘female’. Or else it’s ‘not applicable’ for a Selphid—”
“Do female. After that?”
They’d never filled out a form before and clustered around. They did debate, but they seemed intent on getting this right.
“Shh! That’s a secret!”
Tekshia’s quill paused, and Shaestrel hmmed.
“Write ‘Satyr’. And if there is room, ‘Fae of Avalon’. She was not born to us, but we claim her. She was born in our lands and danced among us and therefore she is ours. Will that suffice?”
It would indeed. There was even a subspecies column on the Drake forms. Humans didn’t have any, which played hob with filing. Now, Tekshia’s heart was picking up.
“Older than your mom!”
“Uh…I need a lot of fingers. How many do we have in this city?”
“Does age count if time matters less?”
Shaestrel raised a hand, annoyed at the shouting.
“Ten thousand eight hundred and ninety-two. She’s not as old as some of us by far.”
“Place of origin?”
“Avalon. But she belongs here, you know. Her parents remembered this world.”
“We opened the door! At great cost!”
“First of new children, even if they were not born of us in an age! No more. Nevermore.”
They chimed like singing bells, saying the saddest of things with laughter because you should laugh at fate, and thumb your nose at it. These folk bowed to nothing and no one.
Now, the faerie’s eyes were boring a hole to Tekshia’s soul, and the Drake felt like a force possessed her quill. The form needed very little you had to fill out. The Drake found herself reaching for some tea as she croaked.
“Is she good with a sword? Fighting capabilities…”
“Eh. She’s not that good.”
“She sucks. Not a bad left hoof when she gets kicking, though.”
“Hopefully nothing kills her right off! She’s quick! And she’s got the magic of her folk here, even if she gives up our powers.”
Magic…of…fae. Good legs. Tekshia’s quill paused, and Shaestrel was smiling, now. Smiling and smiling, and Tekshia whispered.
“I take it she’s going on an adventure?”
“Oh, aren’t we all? A fine one, I hope. She’s gone where I can’t see, you see. Hopefully it matters. Oh, put down for ‘team’—‘Horns of Hammerad’.”
“They’ve only got four members on file. Is that approved?”
Even now, Tekshia hesitated to mess with the files, and Shaestrel snorted.
“Four? Four!? Put down Colth of the Demonic Smile too! It’s only fair for now.”
She glowered until Tekshia pulled out their file and scribbled in a note. They were coming to the end of the page as the faeries laughed about her ‘equipment’ and all kinds of things they found silly to write down. Until one last entry made it clear.
“And lastly…before I witness this. ‘Next of kin’. Family. People we can contact if she’s…hurt. Or dies. Hometown too.”
Tekshia looked down at Shaestrel, and the faerie beamed at her through the tears.
“Leave it blank.”
“I have to fill it out. Otherwise, her possessions go to Liscor or her team…”
The faerie shook her head wordlessly.
“Leave it blank. She’s not going home. She’s come to it now. If—someday, there should ever be a chance, tell her deeds to the Court of the Faerie King. But Vofea will not be the one who tells it.”
Slowly, Tekshia Shivertail wrote that down, as close to word for word as she could. She stared at the bottom of the form and signed her name.
“Do you want me to make you a copy?”
Each document was made of thin paper, so the ink would come through and make a copy. It wasn’t the nicest thing, but as Tekshia tore the piece of paper off and looked up, Shaestrel was gone.
The fae were gone. The Drake held out the piece of paper, and a laughing, dancing being with horns and hooves, furred like a Gnoll but different, with a clean shaven face and twinkling blue eyes, turned as she raced through a frozen red land that Tekshia knew. The Drake could feel the cold and smell the tainted air; the two spaces melded in one moment like the lands of the fae.
The Drake recoiled, but Vofea reached out across time and space.
“One last trick says I, and to Shaestrel, I thank thee. Tell them I came back, and write it down for a few or all to see: my kin fled, and one came back for pride and glory. Thank you, Guildmistress. I wish I could stay, but we all have to run.”
Vofea took the form and stepped back, bowing. Winter Fae and Shaestrel’s green lights descended around her, calling a second farewell, and the Drake stared at a species she had only read about in books.
The old adventurer’s eyes tried to burn every line of the laughing Satyr into her memory. And Shaestrel shouted.
“Go on then, Vofea! And send them where you see it matter! Go, adventurer, go, wild kin and cunning tricksters. Let us meet again in some form, some day.”
So the Satyr sprang lightly to an ancient door and swung herself into it as Tekshia watched, longing to leap in after her, and the fae were laughing and crying.
Shaestrel liked to pretend it was all defiance and chaos, but she had known Vofea would volunteer. Each of them, from her to Theillige to Oberon himself, could see their own fates in part.
The difference was whether you went to it gracefully or strove the world over to change one thing for the better. Then the Satyr was gone, and Shaestrel was flying higher to set the last pieces upon the board before she threw it in Kasigna’s face.
Tekshia Shivertail did not rise for a long time after that. She simply sat, replaying what she had seen, the backup form held loosely in her claw. Her heart beating too fast. Her mind trembling, as it had on a thousand adventures. Reminding her how young she still truly was.
The hours ticked down to minutes, which fell to the ground of the adventurer’s guild, and seconds slipped between the cracks as Tekshia Shivertail rose, slowly and painfully, to file the most important document of her life. Then she was waiting with everyone else, wondering where the Horns were.
Where everything was. Bloodtear Pirates at sea, Roshal’s ghosts plotting, allies and enemies and a dead goddess all waiting.
So came the Winter Solstice. Thereafter, questions turned into answers that could not be taken back.
Author’s Note: It’s never perfect. I did not get to where I expected the Horns chapter to be, but I got it to a point that fits, and I can do the rest during the Solstice.
Am I ready?
…I could do a bunch more chapters, filling in gaps, foreshadowing harder. Perhaps I will come back from my break and say ‘I need another week’ or ‘this wasn’t really the last chapter before the Solstice! Here are five more!’
But I think I won’t. No one is ever ready, truly, for a challenge. And this is hardly the kind of, say, doing an Olympic event. You might be sick or unwell or something bad happens, but hopefully you have prepared and you can do it even if you forget your own name.
I think it’s time. Maybe not beyond time, but I am going to take my break until November 11th with the full intention of heading into the Solstice. There is a lot to write. I cannot afford to get it wrong because you get one chance for some readers, even if I can edit.
If I need to, I will delay chapters. I will try never to publish anything I think is below the highest bar—but we are doing it. I will see you on the other side of the month. Have a spooky Halloween without me; this was hopefully scary enough.
Wish me luck resting, and I will see you soon enough. I hope I’m ready but again, no one is.
Irrey, PeachCat, Colth the Teaser, and Colth the Adventurer by Artsynada!
Ghost Scares, Waterbear, and Three-Headed Grabghast by Brack!
Dorhmin by Pontastic!
Irurx by LeChatDemon!
Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0
Irurx by Gridcube!
Imlerith, the City of Crossroads by Moerchen!
Horns by jamcubi!
Yvlon by lurker85!
Pisces Magic by OnionLittle!
Pisces in Chandrar by Paraffin!
Ceria by Deepsikk!
Pisces and Warbear by Ashok!
Ksmvr by seenkay!