9.69 H (Pt. 2) – The Wandering Inn

9.69 H (Pt. 2)

“I’m meant to die, you know.”


Ksmvr and Vofea were circumnavigating the entire maze from the outside, looking for a clue on how to find the other Horns—or just a less visibly trapped way in. He was moving deliberately, alert for traps.

Vofea was more relaxed. Her hooves made a soft clicking sound on the stone, and she was still nervous—he could see her trembling, but her voice was relaxed.

“Shaestrel is one of the members of the Court of the Fae. She saw your fates and where you needed to be if you wanted to help Erin Solstice. Your friends will probably survive.”

“You said that is no guarantee.”

The Satyr hesitated as Ksmvr peeked around one corner of the collapsed maze.

“…Well, it’s likely. They will survive.”

“In one piece?”

Her silence said everything Ksmvr needed to hear. He climbed over the collapsed wall on the hunch that a broken piece of the maze meant the magic was either dead—or unpredictable.

This place was clearly overgrown with vegetation for once. A purple carpet of moss or something had grown over stone, and since this place was gel-less…Ksmvr supposed the local flora had emerged.

He hoped it wasn’t poisonous. Magic and plants created dangerous subtypes. Vofea’s voice was overly casual.

“I know I’m intruding. We don’t belong in your…world of levels. ‘Classes’. But we promised to return, and I upheld it. So when this Bograms appears—”

I am not sacrificing you to Bograms.

Ksmvr snapped at her. Vofea folded her arms, wincing as she climbed over the rocks. Her bleeding had stopped, but the cuts looked nasty.

“You can’t stop it. I’m fated.”

Ksmvr did halt in his tracks. He swiveled around to face Vofea and held up a finger; he still had his swords, and one hand held his trusty trap-detection stick. But four arms beat two.

“Firstly. You are not a Horn of Hammerad despite Tekshia Shivertail’s contract because Captain Ceria has not approved your membership. Secondly. I find your presence highly inappropriate. If Yvlon called for aid, I would expect more help. Like Halrac’s team. Or Jelaqua’s team. Or both. Thirdly. You do not know the future or destiny. If it is not certain, stop saying you are going to die. If it is certain, all our choices are meaningless, and I was destined to say this, in which case I am very displeased to have been wasting my time stating the obvious.”

Vofea stared at the three fingers as he waved them in front of her face. She offered him a smile that had a lot of teeth.

“Shouldn’t we be finding your team?”

Ksmvr made a fist and gently bonked her on the head. Vofea rubbed the spot.


They continued onwards. As far as Ksmvr was concerned, lichen or whatever was on the ground proved the traps were largely inactive, but he gave things a damn good poke anyways. Vofea peeked over his shoulder as Ksmvr had a sudden, worrying thought.

“Tell me you can fight.”

“I can kick things. I kicked one of those big shambling things chasing me.”

“Bloodfield Shamblers?”

“Is that their title? Pshaw, you mortals have shite names.”

Ksmvr grumbled under his breath.

I did not name it. Did the kick—work?”

“…I think I pissed it off.”

Wonderful. In that case, stay behind me, and tell me if you spot anything.”

“Er…like that magic thing you’re about to step on?”

The Satyr pointed, and Ksmvr recoiled with an oath.

“Tree rot!”

She snorted with laughter as Ksmvr spotted the faintest glow under the lichen. He poked away the moss and sighed when he saw the spell.

“It must only activate when something heavy enough steps on it. Are there more spells?”

“Ooh, aye. There, there, there—”

Mention that!

Vofea skipped over the spells as Ksmvr followed.

“You won’t die. There’s itty bits of magic in them, even by this world’s standards. This fungi, now…that’s more the thing to stare at. Reminds me of some of the stuff back home.”

“In the land of the faeries? Is it poisonous?”


The faerie drew the word out carefully, and Ksmvr picked up his pace. They cleared the corridor and came to a broken wall and, of all things, some dribbling water. A crack in the ceiling was letting some brackish liquid down, and Vofea pointed at it.

“Water! I am thirsty as—”

Ksmvr kicked her, and she screamed as he accidentally hit her cuts. He pointed.


Both of them stared as something flinched at the sound of his voice. A strange…creature two feet long and on all fours was lapping at the brackish, dark water. When it heard Ksmvr, it curled up, and Vofea exclaimed.

“What is that—it moves!”

“It rolls! Back in case it explodes!”

The thing looked like a version of an armadillo, a creature Ksmvr had seen in Tiqr with Nsiia. Only, it was more compact, and instead of a shell on its back, the inverse was true. When it ‘curled up’, it turned into a weird…orb on its front where its belly was.

A semi-transparent ball of blue liquid sloshed around, and Ksmvr saw the thing zoom away from them down the corridor. He stared after it.

“Did that thing just…wheel away? Like a wagon?”

It had! The rat-roller thing hadn’t run or spun—but its insides had. The liquid had revolved around, and its pouch-belly spun like the wheel of a wagon.

It was the most nonsensical movement style Ksmvr had ever seen, but it was fast. The Antinium heard the thing chirping in alarm.

Aik aik aik aik!

It was high-pitched, faded away, and Vofea doubled-over laughing.

“Is that your monster?”

“Shut. Up.”

Ksmvr lowered his swords, highly embarrassed. He wished he didn’t feel quite so…well, he advanced slowly, and they resumed their conversation.

“Don’t drink that. I have water.”

“Really? Give it to me. How do you have any? You said you were near out of good food.”

“Captain Ceria is a [Cryomancer]. She can make ice out of moisture. I hope she has enough mana to survive on.”

“Psh. There’s lots in the air. Do yeh have food? I am starving.

“We do not have time to—”

Ksmvr’s body gurgled slightly as he turned to snap at Vofea. He stopped, and she snickered at him. He had forgotten to eat all the while he’d been searching, and they grew hungry in the Crossroads of Izril at a faster rate.

“We should keep moving. Bograms is attacking my team. We—”

The gurgling from Ksmvr’s body grew louder, and he stopped. He glared down at his digestive tract.

“If you want to sneak up on this Bogle-whatever, you might as well not sound like a roaring Wyrm, eh?”

Ksmvr glared at Vofea, sat down, and upended his bag of provisions.

“Five minutes. Eat!”

Good provisioning would be to make a nice soup out of whatever they had left. Cheese, bread—Ksmvr just crammed anything he could find into his mouth and chewed furiously. Vofea ate delicately, but he saw her wince as she tried to cross her legs. Ksmvr got madder.

“You are injured. I have no healing potions. Therefore. Extend your legs. I can at least wash the blood off. I have a potion here for such things.”

He’d heard Geneva Scala recommending it to [Healers]—it wasn’t soap, but he pulled out a ball of lye soap just in case since they’d forgotten to wash their hands. Vofea yelped as he poured it over her ankles.

Pain! ‘Tisn’t like the land of the fae at all. So this is how it feels. It’s all…distant there. And real. His Majesty’s subjects don’t die anymore. The older fae told me stories of the times before, when they died and warred, and it was all more dangerous.”

“—No one dies in the land of the fae?”

Ksmvr looked up sharply, and Vofea inhaled as he rinsed her legs with the cleansing potion and some water.

“His Majesty wills it. You know him, eh?”

“The Faerie King, you said? No.”

Had there been a reference to him in one of the plays by the Players of Liscor? Ksmvr hadn’t always watched the silly ones. Vofea looked incredibly disappointed.

“Not one legend? Ah—well—they wouldn’t know here. This place became enemies against him. But any other land they’d have stories of him, even if they knew not his name. The Eternal Trickster? The King of Faeries? Lord of the Beasts. Ruler of the Seelie Court…the Green Lord?”

They sounded like very grand titles. Though Ksmvr had to add.

“I happen to know the Empress of Beasts.”

Vofea laughed at him. She threw her head back and guffawed.

“No mortal ruler is anything like him! You cannot even say his name without invoking him.”

“Oh yes? What is it?”

Ksmvr did not like Vofea. For many reasons. First of all was her presumptuous nature. She strode up, gave him instructions he considered highly dubious, then told him to let her die. She was so…so…uncaring of her life.

He had never met anyone so silly. Ksmvr stared at his reflection in the brackish water a second and then went back to gently patting at Vofea’s legs with a towel. Vofea kept speaking, probably to distract herself from the pain.

“You cannot say his name lightly. I mean it. It all must be strange to you—ow! Can you press less painfully? I may die, but my final hours being scraped at with yon cloth is not what I want, you cunt!”

“I object to the insult. Also, are all faeries so fatalistic as you?”

Ksmvr snapped back. He raised a fist to bonk her on the head again, and Vofea covered her head.

“Of course not. I just—I am fated to die. I am from this world, you know. My parents fled to the lands of the fae. The last Satyrs. They were faerie-kin who came to this world when we were friends and gave up their immortality to be a people here. Then…they endured everything before begging to return to Avalon. I was born, one of a very few to be named faerie. Even if I am nothing like Shaestrel or the others. Faeries cannot be born anymore, so I am more of an imposter, for all I know their tricks. That’s why I’m no help.”

Ksmvr stared at Vofea. His mandibles opened and closed, and after a moment, he made a sound.

“You came from this world?”

“Aye. Yes. And so you know, when I die, I’ll die. But it’s for a good cause. It’s for vengeance. For Her Majesty, Titania, who lies dead. You don’t know the story. Ask Shaestrel, and she’ll tell you. Or Ryoka Griffin. She’s one of the few mortals to befriend a true fae.”

Vofea glanced away as Ksmvr switched legs. He had wrapped a cloth around her cuts and wondered if she could catch an infection. If she was mortal…Ksmvr had another question.

“Why did you choose to come?”

The faerie averted her gaze.

“It was a mistake.”

“Oh. Thank you.”

Not that. It—oh, take your hospitality. Every denizen of Avalon’s laughed at me, so one Antiniwhat’sit won’t be worse.”

Vofea sighed, then closed her eyes. She spoke, and Ksmvr swore the hair on his carapace would rise if he had hair. His antennae gave a damn good shake.

“Once…a girl was born to the few Satyrs that remained. She wasn’t a true faerie of blood or nature, but she learned the rules of the faerie’s lands and the Court of the Seelie and Unseelie—”

“What is the difference?”

Winter and spring. Shut up!


“—The Courts of the Faerie King argued. Many did not want an outsider to join this realm even in name. Guests were one thing, they said. One like us? The Faerie King himself, Oberon, came to visit the girl, and when he smiled, even the loudest, most obnoxious loudmouths like Melidore fell silent.”

Ksmvr thought he’d heard of Melidore. He listened as Vofea stared ahead, resigned and sad—and amused at her own folly.

“That was well. But then the girl said something mightily stupid. So stupid every faerie who heard it laughed and wept, for she was a girl and bloody stupid and knew naught the nature of the Faerie King. You see, words have meaning around him. She swore an oath there and then she’d honor her parents, and if ever the time came, she would go back to the home she had heard they’d lost and strike a mighty blow against their foes. No matter how long or when. And when the Faerie King heard that—he grew terribly sad and rose and left. Which is why he rarely goes anywhere in his full seeming. And the girl was bound by her own words.”

“…That girl was you.”

Vofea kicked him. Ksmvr took that as a ‘yes’. He didn’t understand all this stuff about the Faerie King and destiny, which sounded suspicious, but he got the nature of it. It was like an adventurer making a cursed vow or a Djinni’s wish.

“How long ago was that?”

“Eh…a few thousand years? Maybe ten?”

Ten th—

Ksmvr jerked. Vofea laughed at him.

“Time passes differently there. You can blink a thousand years. I’m still young and new and inexperienced, but His Majesty was sad because a promise is a promise.

“So if you say something wrong around him you die? Couldn’t you…not have come?”

The faerie shrugged.

“Oh, aye. I could have.”

Ksmvr got mad.

“Then why didn’t you? And why did you pretend this was all set in stone? What is destiny if—”

She shushed him with a finger on his face. The Satyr gave Ksmvr a serious look.

“I could have refused my destiny and fled. His Majesty would probably have allowed it. But then I wouldn’t be the me that promised. And I am. I proudly am. I came here because it mattered and because you, the Horns of Hammerad, matter enough for a Satyr to die and nine faeries to never return home. Alright? Don’t be less.”

Ksmvr sat back on his haunches, not sure what to say. Vofea’s gaze was serious, pleading—and he had the same odd feeling in his chest.

This Satyr-person is crazy. She was ready to die. Afraid of it—but ready. Part of him wanted to admire that, but the rest insisted on one fact.

I can’t allow it. Ksmvr stood up quickly and tried to think of something to say.

“You have to tell Captain Ceria everything. She can—”


His sudden movement scared something to his right. Ksmvr heard the familiar sound, twisted—and that little roller-rodent was nibbling on his food. No, wait, not his food—

“My soap!”

It had half-eaten the ball of soap while he and Vofea talked, sneaking up like a…a rodent! It tried to roll away, but Ksmvr snatched it. Instantly, the little thing flailed four short legs as its belly whirled, trying to roll in the air. Then it made a wailing ait sound—and peed on him.

Or something close. The blue liquid in its stomach hit Ksmvr on the chest and dribbled down his armor. It smelled like…soap. Ksmvr held it away from him as Vofea recoiled.


Enough. Ksmvr held the thing delicately in two hands and patted it gently on the head. The wailing…ceased, and the roller-rodent trembled. But Ksmvr of many talents, the [Animal Friend], patted it and felt a soft, slightly rubbery skin. It stopped rolling away.

Disgusting. He knew it wasn’t the right emotion, but it welled up in him, and he couldn’t push it away.

“It is too delightfully cute.”

“It pissed on yeh!”

Vofea recoiled as Ksmvr petted the animal. They were wasting time—but this animal delighted him. Ksmvr put it down gently, and it rolled down the corridor and swiveled to him.


“It feels like soap. It smells like soap. It lathers like…soap.”

The weird liquid in its stomach was like some kind of liquid soap. As far as Ksmvr could tell, the body portion of the roller-rat was more like a really chubby squirrel or armadillo. If it didn’t want to roll, it would awkwardly waddle around on fat legs before ‘inflating’ the rotating ball it used by moving the liquid around it inside.

It moved extremely fast as it zipped right and left—and Ksmvr saw another rodent sneaking up from the other side.

He rescued his soap and put it and the food in his bag of holding as Vofea got to her feet, bandaged up. This, of every moment in the Crossroads of Izril, made Ksmvr smile.

“That was a proper adventuring moment.”

“That was?”

Vofea stared blankly at Ksmvr, but he nodded and waved at the roller-rodent. It sped away as the Antinium settled back into his focused mode. Yvlon. The Horns…Bograms.

“If only all adventures were more like this. My team may die, no matter what your prophecy says. But I forbid it. And you!”

He jabbed Vofea in the chest, and she opened her mouth.

“But I just said—didn’t you hear me, you blind, deaf—”

He bonked her on the head with his sword hilt, gently, and she glared at him. But then Ksmvr patted her on the shoulder. He’d come to a decision.

“You may not realize this, Vofea. But in your naïveté—I shall consider you, a—how old are you?”

“Ten thousand some years?”

“…Ten thousand year old faerie Satyr as a probationary rookie of the Horns of Hammerad. Colth was the rookie before you, but he was also a Named-rank adventurer, so I did not haze him or teach him my ways much because he probably knew the job. But you are now a Horn of Hammerad. There is no badge. But there are lessons I must impart to you.”

Ksmvr hoped Ceria would not be too mad at him, but he felt it was right. Vofea blinked at him, then grinned toothily as she trotted after him.

Bograms was peeking at the two, fuming and wondering where the stranger had come from. They were the weakest two, so he’d kill them first.

Ksmvr’s voice echoed down the hallway as he pointed, and the two advanced. Vofea’s voice was raised.

“What’s the first lesson, Ksmvr?”

“Horns of Hammerad have a motto: get the treasure. Don’t die. Come on.”

Ksmvr led Vofea into the maze after the rolling rat, determined now to safeguard both of them. He turned down the hallway, crunching over little debris he thought were excrement…bones…Ksmvr stared down and then turned a hallway again.

Then he saw a bunch of hanging roller-rats in the air, suspended, seemingly, from nothing, many torn to bits, the only thing remaining of them being the split roller-sacs filled with blue liquid. The rat he’d just met was struggling, enmeshed in something, and squealing frantically.

Ksmvr heard a faint clicking sound as Vofea stopped grinning. The Antinium slowly turned, feeling his sense of danger kick in.


Bograms flexed his fingers as he tip-toed up from behind, waiting for his moment to strike.




Ksmvr didn’t immediately step forwards to rescue the roller-rat. He stared at the weird threads in the air and hmmed.


That was his instinct. Vofea narrowed her eyes.

“Yup. Hundreds. Sticky enough to rip hair off Ratatoskr’s balls.”

“I assume this is some reference. Wait. You see them?”

Ksmvr saw nothing. And he had different eyesight from most beings. Vofea narrowed her eyes and glanced sideways.

“Yep. What’s your plan about the monsters and that Bograms thing?”

“Death or avoidance if they are dangerous. Hmm.”

The clicking was getting louder. Ksmvr expected spiders. Nasty, nasty, horrible spiders, probably variants of Shield Spiders. Unless they were invisible too. He thought they were; he saw a trembling of the other dead roller-rats indicating something moving. Fairly big.

“Can you see them?”

“Yep. Can you…not?”

Vofea was staring back the way they’d come, but eyed the corridor ahead. Ksmvr whispered as he tucked one hand into his belt.

“No. Describe them.”

“Well…the ones coming at us have eight…legs. They’re the size of, uh…one of the golden winged rams—very big pincer things—”

Less references, more measurements!

“Uh—uh—five score of various sizes, and one’s at least sixteen stones in weight! They’re eying us! And that one’s on us too!”

Ksmvr had regrets. One of them being not establishing a proper system of measurement like feet, inches, and pounds with a being from another world. They were definitely invisible, and the clicking was getting louder.

Ksmvr made a split-second decision as he threw something. He could shoot with a number of Skills, but he needed to see first. There was only one power he needed now, and a part of him was incredibly satisfied.

Take this, you doubting…team members.

“[Summon Leaves]!”

He had done hard work on his ride south to the Great Plains. Many trees had been acquired. Ksmvr had the deeds to them all, and so a flurry of leaves filled the air. Eighty-one leaves blew across the air and landed on the invisible, hanging webs—and glanced off whatever was crawling towards him.

The invisible spiders recoiled and some snapped at the leaves, but Ksmvr moved faster. The spray of leaves had stuck to webs, and he slashed at the targets. His blade adhered to the sticky webs—but then he used a Skill.

[Silver Illusion: Whirlwind of Blades]!

He slashed in flurry, and the roller-rat fell, still covered in web or whatever it was, and several bodies crashed down. They sounded really heavy for spiders, but Ksmvr sensed them drawing back, pulling the webs with them.

“Hah! They’re all tangled up, the stupid things! Say, Ksmvr—what do we do about Bograms?”

Vofea whispered, pivoting Ksmvr slightly. He shook his arms—she was facing him right for some reason. Ksmvr had his guard up; he sensed the clicking growing agitated.

“Grab the cute little rat, Vofea. Bograms? When we see him—well, he is invisible, but I intend to attack if possible. A sneak-attack. If you were able to see him, I would ask you to point him out to me and I would attack.”

“Sure. Sure…”

She started tapping his arm urgently. Ksmvr paused. His head slowly turned to Vofea, and she stared at the hallway of invisible webs and tilted her head slightly to the right.

Uh oh. 

Wait, she could see—Ksmvr tensed. He was going to jump and take Vofea with him. Then he’d engage somehow—he activated his cloak and vanished.

The clicking grew more agitated. The shuffling forwards stopped, and Ksmvr pulled Vofea and the rat she was holding back. Where is he? Where is—

Bograms had lost track of them and might not know they could see him. Ksmvr and Vofea could see each other, and she was muffling the agitated squeaking of the rat. She pointed, and Ksmvr hesitated.

They were hemmed into a corner. Vofea was gesturing…big…eight feet tall? Half as wide across—she looked startled, surprised, and Ksmvr longed to know if there was a weak spot or anything.

Bograms should have attacked. However, something strange had happened. Vofea was pressed against the wall, and Ksmvr was poised to lunge…but Bograms passed them by. He—apparently—knelt, and Ksmvr heard a strange sound.

It sounded like a sob.

Bograms picked something up, scrabbling on the floor—then suddenly his footfalls were pounding away. Ksmvr stared at Vofea, and she pointed. He hesitated—

“He’s gone! He ran off sobbing! What a big…is that what I think it is? That’s yer foe? He’s got old magic on him!”

“What does he look like? Did he just take what I thought he did?”

Vofea nodded.

“Yep! He grabbed a handful and fled.”

Ksmvr stared down at what had distracted Bograms so. The invisible monster had snatched a handful of…his leaves. The [Tree Collector] stood there until he remembered the other threat.

Invisible spider-things. Invisible Ksmvr. Invisible Bograms. All the [Skirmisher] knew was that his class was very useful after all.

As for the spider-things—Vofea tried to pull the sticky, tacky stuff off the roller-rat, cursing, as Ksmvr prepared a trick while his invisibility cloak remained. He picked up some dust and hurled it across the nets in the air.

Clearly, these were some predators who used their incredible powers of stealth to hunt the fat roller-rats, who seemed to eat the lichen and had adapted to this unique place. There was doubtless more fauna…but Ksmvr was not keen on engaging an entire nest of his foes.

Especially after he got a look at them. The Antinium shuddered and slowly backed up the way he’d come.

“Next time, tell me when you see things.”

“I thought you could see things! Yeh truly can’t see them?”

“Well, now I can. I suppose you are useful after all.”

“Twat. Roll away, you stupid rat.”

Vofea released their little friend as Ksmvr backed away from the very angry beings making their nests here. They were not spiders after all.

Oh, many things were the same. They had eight limbs, and yes, they made a clicking sound…but that was more like clacking of their beaks. And they were indeed big. Shield Spiders got bigger, but…Ksmvr thought this group must have mutated.

What hung in the air wasn’t webbing, but a tacky, viscous fluid that was just as bad. As for the outlines his dust revealed as they tried to clean themselves off…Ksmvr shuddered. Their long, twining limbs, their wet, bulbous heads and huge eyes and…sucker-things on each tendril were extremely upsetting to the Antinium.

“I believe that is an octopus. Gross.”

One was large as a cow. Ksmvr would rather not tangle with those things. He backed up with Vofea. Only now—

Ksmvr had a plan.




Yvlon Byres came to a conclusion after twenty minutes had passed since the last Bograms illusion. She spat, and a loose tooth came out with a string of blood.

The [Armsmistress] wiped her mouth. Then she spat a fragment of the arrow that had gone through one cheek. Her Ring of Barriers had activated a hair too late; the first arrow had hit her hard.

But she was alive. Now she could finally see again, Colth’s face was looking pretty bad too. Someone had punched him repeatedly in the face. Not hard enough to break his bones…well, probably not.

She’d knocked out two teeth. However—his smile felt much like hers. A rictus, that was a better word for how they smiled.

Trap after trap lay smoldering in their wake. Bograms had, apparently, given up on them after the two Horns had run through a dozen traps so fast he couldn’t keep up.

It turned out Bograms wasn’t a good runner. That wasn’t the revelation, by the way. Yvlon squirmed as Colth produced a needle.

“Let me sew that up. Then I can only add a drop of potion.”

“Thought you were out.”

“I lied.”

He applied literal drops to all their injuries. Yvlon had a purple mass of bruises on her side. She grunted when he checked it.

“It’ll keep.”

Colth nodded and grimaced as he felt at his missing teeth.

“Damn. We lost teeth, though. We’ll have to find an [Enamel Maker]. Or someone who does gold teeth. Maybe silver for you.”

“It’s fine. Pisces can make teeth.”

The [Supporter] stopped, then smiled. His eyes lit up.

“Can he make mine hollow and fill one with poison powder? No…I’ll figure something out. Foldable lockpick? Spell?”

He was back to himself. No, that wasn’t right. The two kept moving. If they sensed a trick from Bograms, they’d deal with it. Yet they had survived. The thing that Yvlon had realized was—

“I think I’m not good with traps.”

To that, the [Supporter] smiled wider.

“We just ran through at least four death-traps. What do you mean?

She grinned at the compliment. They were still close enough to touch. Yvlon’s elbow was linked with Colth’s as they kept walking, and he didn’t resist or pull away. When they moved forward, she advanced a step in front of him.

I’ve got you. 

That part they didn’t need to say out loud. Colth kept breathing slower, as if finally coming out of his fugue state. He was glancing at her. Yvlon resisted asking if he thought she’d scar. It sounded trite, like some generic female adventurer stereotype.

Then she decided there had been too much unsaid in the Horns of Hammerad of late.

“I was thinking about asking if I was going to get a nasty scar. But that’s the kind of thing you hear jokes about with female adventurers. Also, when we get out of here, we’ll make sure Bograms doesn’t get you alone.”

I’m going to kill him. It. Colth blinked at Yvlon, then smiled with that crooked, half-mocking expression.

“Female adventurers? You mean Deniusth. I’ve heard him tell that exact joke and then scream about a nick on his nose. Your cheek will be fine. There’s a scar-removing cream Larracel used to have a supplier for.”

“…Is that why Named-ranks still look good?”

“The ones who aren’t missing limbs? Sure. Illusion spells and potions do the rest. Or having a dedicated [Chef]. Even Eld fell for it; he used to have a bit of a paunch. At his age? He could supplex a Mothbear, and he paid for a [Chef] who put him on a weight-loss diet with Skills. When she was still an active adventurer, Larracel nearly spent a fortune on pills for her height. Worse, they would have worked.”

That made Yvlon feel…better, actually. Named-ranks really did sound normal when Colth spoke. Then again—she glanced at him, and he met her gaze.

“He’s called the Naga. The one who bought my contract. I ran afoul of Chandrarian law when I went to the continent. I killed someone in what I thought was self-defense; turns out they were a [Slaver], and the rules are different if Roshal’s mad enough to buy the kingdom’s partiality.”

Yvlon’s stomach twisted. She nudged Colth.

“You don’t have to tell me.”

He ignored that, so she listened. Colth took a deep breath.

“The Naga…has his own way of making you obey. You think you’ll play his game then rebel. You serve for years, passing up chances, then you finally make your escape—only to realize it was all a dream. I can’t remember how many times or how many false memories I have of waking up. Decades. Until you’re afraid of waking up and having to start again.”

“The Wishing Well?”

Colth’s arm tensed, then he relaxed.

“He won. I gained…a lot of levels from him. He was the one bastard in the world who understood how powerful my class was if I met other people with unique Skills and learned from them. Roshal has too many. I was one of his best servants. Six years he took—I would have been twenty…eight?”

“How did you get free?”

Of course, the question that Colth had asked—still probably asked—was whether he had gotten free. However, he managed a smile that was grim and touched the shortswords at his side.

“The Naga doesn’t make many mistakes, but he made one. He sent me to Rhir on a mission: infiltrate or scout out both the Demons and the Blighted Kingdom, especially to see whether the Deaths were really dead. He’d also heard the Blighted Kingdom had found something big and was digging it up.”

“Whose side is he on?”

“The Blighted Kingdom’s. But the Naga doesn’t want them to win. He’d rather both sides struggle without gaining dominance. I infiltrated the Blighted Kingdom, but the Demons were harder. I still worked my way into their society, but guess who I met?”

Yvlon’s arm tensed, and Colth glanced at her sidelong.

“Demons are supposed to be the world’s enemies.”

She said carefully. The [Supporter]’s smile wasn’t wary; he just looked at her.

“Pisces owes one a debt. Goblins are supposed to be bastards too.”

Yvlon hmmed.

“Who did you meet?”

She thought she knew the answer, but Colth just sighed and glanced up a second. As if looking up at something bright and vast. A light shining down even now in the Wishing Well.

“I knew they were alive long before the Death of Magic destroyed Rhir’s 5th Wall. I’m not sure how they healed so fast; they were, all three of them, barely alive when I met them. Suspended in magic. The Death of Magic undid the Naga’s spells. The Death of Chains set me free. And the Death of Wings took away my [Slave] class.”

Yvlon Byres exhaled slightly as Colth looked at her for any sign or reaction. She spoke her thoughts out loud.

“Oh boy.

“…That’s it?”

He prompted her. Yvlon glanced at Colth.

“We’ve got a third troublemaker. Ceria’s cursed. Pisces is a [Necromancer]. Colth likes Demons. Ksmvr’s fine.”

She squeezed his arm gently, and Colth of the Demonic Smile, Colthei—his name that the Demons of Rhir liked—the Ultimate Supporter waited for anything else. Questions. Explanations.

He wondered…how his friends at the Haven would react when he told them.

And it occurred to him that Yvlon might care less which side he was on than his friends. He wasn’t sure if that was insulting or gratifying. No…the latter.

After a while, Yvlon spoke as they rounded another corridor. A Drake sentry chased after them, waving a spear, and she punched it and shattered the construct.

“I lost my entire team in Liscor’s dungeon. I think I’m a mess about that. And I have an anger problem. I think that’s all of my secrets. I don’t like my arms…but I’m getting better about that.”

She glanced down at the silversteel metal and then at Colth.

“The Horns need someone who can deal with traps and knows adventuring. I don’t know if you are going to stay with us. Why…did you? Colth the Supporter is famous for bouncing from team to team. If you leave, I’ll keep your secret. I promise.”

The [Supporter] blinked at Yvlon. He ruffled a hand through his bloody hair and then replied softly.

“…The truth is I liked your team, and I was curious about Ksmvr, but I was mostly here for Pisces. I heard what happened to him, and I got orders to make sure Roshal didn’t get him back. It was for spite. I am…I have, ever since I returned to Izril…Magnolia Reinhart isn’t one of the Demons, but she employed me…”

His voice trailed off slightly, grew husky, and Colth looked at Yvlon. She saw that bleak stare in the depths of his eyes.

“I am revenge. I can’t be anything else.”

She nodded, putting the last pieces into place.

“We all have problems.”

He punched her in the side gently. Yvlon glanced around, wondering if he had an opinion on mazes.

“Think we can find Ksmvr and Pisces and Ceria? Bograms is after them. We’re a mess, but we have to counterattack.”

“…I see a fire. I’m betting that’s Ksmvr.”

Yvlon’s head snapped up, and she saw a telltale string of smoke in the gloom over the maze. She instantly picked up the pace.

“Let’s do that trick where you only take the right-most path. That’s how you find a maze’s exit, right?”

Colth shook his head.

“That only works if the maze walls are all connected to the outside walls. Let’s just navigate towards the fire. If we’re close enough, we can shout at him. Mind you—it could be Bograms.”

Yvlon sighed. She was getting really tired of second-guessing everything. But she reasoned that if it was a trap, they’d just have to punch their way out of it. What were they supposed to do?

“Come on, let’s jog.”

She dragged Colth along faster, and he fell into lockstep with her. They were good at that, Yvlon realized. Colth was even matching her breathing.

“You got it, boss.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Hey, I call people ‘boss’ if I like them. I did that before I was a [Slave]. Yazdil hates being called that. I do like having teammates and having someone telling me what to do.”

They jogged faster, and Yvlon stared at some kind of delicate trap involving urns and a pedestal. The barrier blocking them—she punched through with Colth after eighteen hits.

“[Buffed Up Muscles]. Let’s go, boss.”

“Stop calling me that. Why didn’t you join your old friends, then? Don’t you trust them?”

Colth smiled.

“Them? They’re all mostly retired, and I’m always the kid. Plus—half of them are assholes. I love them, but Larra was the only selfless one. And she’s still petty, greedy, and a control freak. [Advanced Trapsense] says something nasty is coming up.”

“Let’s see how deadly it is. Is that acid? Spilled magicore? I can probably run through it with my [Aspect of Iron].”

They ran faster as Colth jumped onto her shoulders. He panted as he tossed a bunch of pebbles around, and Yvlon shook glowing magicore off her legs.

I hope I don’t get mana poisoned or something. 

“Just so you know—not all the rumors about me are fair.”

“What about the one that says you were divorced three times?”

He glared ahead.

“…Not even once.”

“Excuse me?”

“I never slept with any of them. Let alone married them. I was hanging around First Landing while Larracel was getting famous. Twice before I went to Chandrar, once afterwards. Each time, I met someone lovely. Low-confidence, down on themselves. [Merchant], two [Ladies]—”


“—Trap on your left. And then I helped them out. They helped themselves, but I did a bit. Suddenly they’re getting famous, rising in levels, and I tell myself they won’t let fame go to their heads. The next thing I know, they’ve found a fiancé or end up cheating on me. Because it wasn’t ever serious with Colth—it’s not about sex. I met each one and thought they had something to them. The same potential to be…by the time we parted ways, I wanted nothing to do with them. They could reach Level 40 and it wouldn’t matter. Their personalities were as vapid as sea slugs baking in saltwater. Give them a bucket of gold and a drop of fame and they’ll kick you out like yesterday’s trash—”

“I can see this is a sore subject.”

Colth glared at Yvlon until he started laughing. A rueful, wild laugh of a crazed Named-rank adventurer. Yvlon Byres grinned until her face hurt. What a foolish fellow who pretended to be normal and had a mountain of problems and jumped into trouble.

He’d be a fine Horn of Hammerad. 




He breathed in and out, a stale, dusty air that made him cough but still…exhilarated him. A strange contradiction.

The worn tiles of this room traced the crest of the City of Shields, and he longed to look down and study it. Be it so silly…[Necromancers] were tied to the past.

However, the half-Elf stood there as he wrapped some cloth around his hand for better grip. And the two of them took each other’s focus as he watched the Drake standing across from him.

“My [Dangersense] is going off. Say the word and I’ll cheat.”

Pisces Jealnet shook his head. He had chills. His mind felt clear and distant at the same time.

Bograms was out there. He could not stall forever, but the [Necromancer] still indulged himself for a moment.

“I’ve…been fearing my class of late, Ceria. In Chandrar, I almost gave in.”

“You didn’t. Come on, Pisces. Head in the game.”

She slapped his cheeks, which he didn’t appreciate. Freedom from morality or not, she looked so concerned. She was still just Ceria.

“Listen to me, Ceria. There are so few good [Necromancers]. Az’kerash…the Putrid One…I know a few who were decent. I have never met any who was—who I was proud of. My idol was a monster.”

“Pisces—this really isn’t the time to bring up Wistram.”

Ceria’s face was concerned, but Pisces had to say it.

“Maybe they were right. I have been feeling guilty, Ceria. Guilty—because I do use the dead. The undead are murderous. You saw me steal corpses.”

Ethical use of corpses isn’t—just use [Bandits]. Okay?”

He was sort of enjoying how mad she was getting. Her alarmed look…Pisces sniffed and tilted his head up, indulging himself.

“Well, I shan’t pontificate long about the ramifications of necromancy as it’s applied. There’s no need for it in this duel. It’s only—”

He stared at her skeletal hand, then at Ceria, then gestured at his white robes. Skeletons…and he had not made zombies or Crypt Lords, but he could. Pisces confessed the truth everyone might know but he was afraid to say, to ask of them.

“Ceria. I find death beautiful at times. I admire undead. Not all of them. Not what they do. Am I the fool, the wrong one?”

He was hoping she had some sage wisdom, circlet or not, that would give him confidence. His rapier felt heavy as he felt at that notch a third up from the hilt of the sword. If only the loot from Facestealer’s horde had contained a rapier. His opponent held a long dueling sword, slightly less flexible and heavier, but…Pisces sensed the light construct’s alertness, saw how it was standing.

Silver-bell at least. 

Ceria exhaled. She stared up at the ceiling, took off her circlet, played with it, and looked at him.

“I don’t see it. Beauty or whatever.”

His breath came out slowly. Ceria continued, the words filling the silent maze, louder than the beating of his heart.

“But…I don’t doubt you find it beautiful. I just wish I could see what my friend sees. Pisces is a [Necromancer]. I wouldn’t want you to drop your class or change.”

The overseer was watching, a glowing smile on its face. Features nondescript; he saw nothing beautiful in that, only a certain refinement of light magic. Yet perhaps someone might love the glowing apparitions as much as he admired an undead or a Golem…he thought of Cognita.

Pisces whispered as Ceria looked at him and his waiting opponent.

“Thank you, Ceria. I cannot be a [Necromancer] of the kind I despise.”

He loved it. He hated it. He feared what it might make him.

He supposed that was his relationship with necromancy. Just like fencing. The one thing he could truly love without regrets was moments like these.

What did Ceria Springwalker see in the moments before she stepped out of the ring? A young man with white robes holding a rapier?

His brown hair was covered in dust and messy, like a marmoset or some creature from a far-off forest. His eyes were as focused as she remembered, not lost in study, but the student taking a final test, and he was deceptively relaxed as he faced the Drake side-long, rapier extended, giving his opponent as little a target as possible.

A [Fencer].

A [Necromancer] faced a glowing Drake, who performed the Salute of Fortitude, an ancient gesture from ages past. She swore she saw it smile.

Pisces’ feet slowly moved left on the tiles as the overseer lifted a clawed hand. Above him, a crystal of magic flashed, and the dungeon hummed softly.

His opponent bowed as the clawed hand came down, then lifted their sword. A tail swished through the dust, and her hair stood on end as Ceria saw the sword angle, the claw close to the other duelist’s chest, tip of its blade pointed at Pisces.

The other clawed hand rose in an open, grasping motion. A pose that no artificial construct should have known.

The light grew more defined, and now she thought she saw scales. Features. The face of a [Duelist] long dead to the world. A bell made of light hung from the artificial Drake’s wrist. It made nary a sound.

She would have bet her life’s fortunes it would not have been silver if the construct were true to life. Or gold. The Drake and Human regarded each other calmly as Pisces walked left. Then he sighed.

The first sounds of swords clashing in a lifetime rang through the ruins of the Walled City of Shields. The [Necromancer] smiled as he fought with sword in hand in the shadows of a Walled City.

A story.




Pisces Jealnet had long claimed aptitude with a rapier, and he had won his silver bell in the oldest way. He had defeated his father and taken the bell. But he had been a boy, and his father may have refused to cut down his son.

Pisces had cast a [Slumber] spell, but his father had woken up mid-theft and come after him, bleary and disoriented. His father had had years of experience, levels, and strength on Pisces. Even so, the bell had never been earned beyond the shadow of a doubt.

The style of Ailendamus was new, so Pisces had learned many techniques of fencing schools of Terandria. Had them beaten into him unkindly until he resented it and only took the sword up for survival later.

The principle characteristic of Ailendamus’ fencing was the emphasis on repositioning via footwork and the [Flash Step]—a style derived from Az’kerash himself, who had used the spell and made it famous.

A [Fencer] could touch someone thirty feet away in a single incisive lunge. Or back safely out of a pressing engagement. The subtlety of quick-stepping with [Flash Step] or an equivalent Skill was difficult and took years of practice to master.

The dueling ring hampered Pisces’ ability to flee. It was wide enough, sixty feet in diameter, an entire world to move about in—yet he could not retreat and recover. The moment Pisces stepped into a lunge, he knew his opponent was deadly.

Depth perception issue or not—had Bograms’ magic faded when it accepted his challenge?—the other Drake knocked his strike down and countered so fast Pisces felt the sting on his cheek and realized he had barely survived the counter.

Fast. The precision of the counter reminded Pisces of Padurn’s fastest movements. There was no wasted room—and the Drake stalked left on the balls of his clawed feet, and his first three strikes sent Pisces’ rapier ringing away.

The characteristic of the City of Shield’s dueling style was a wrist-flick normally reserved for foils or epees. There was enough flex in the dueling sword to let it bend if flicked right and slip underneath a guard or become unpredictable to the eye.

—The third strike cut Pisces across the arm as he failed to bring the rapier back in time. The force of those casual wrist-flicks was akin to the Maestro’s strength! Only, this Drake was doing it with such a casual flick—

How? Pisces backpedaled, using [Flash Step] until his back hit a wall, and he realized the dueling circle was fenced in by a [Light Wall]. He caught an oath from Ceria and realized…her interference would be difficult.

[Flash Parry]! [Manacharged Reflexes]!

He was a Level 15 [Duelist of Wistram]. Pisces had one advantage: his mana supply and, in theory, spellblade spells. He sped up, desperately avoiding being skewered—stepped left, circling the outside of the dueling circle as his opponent relentlessly pursued. The light-Drake stepped forwards in that classic lunge, so fast Pisces thought it was emulating a Skill—

[Impaling Lunge]!

The Drake stepped back smoothly, and Pisces felt his best [Fencer] Skill whiff the air uselessly. [Quick Reset]—

He kept circling, panting until he realized he needed to control his breathing. At last, Pisces noticed the way the Drake was moving. Or rather, not just the wrist, which was performing those casual, powerful wrist-flicks that were both a parrying move and pressing attack—

The tail!

The next time the Drake riposted off a parry, Pisces saw the tail moving oddly. It…waggled. Like a snake mid-strike. He saw the motion translate across the Drake’s body, ending in the wrist. All the momentum from the tail created a whip-like strike from the sword.

So their tail could be used like that? Pisces’ feint saved him from another cut, and he performed a running flèche despite having the wrong weapon—bought himself more distance.

He had never known, never heard of tail-augmented fencing, and his father had known [Duelists] of every species.

Pisces was learning every second of the duel—but mostly that he was in deep trouble. The other Drake had a distinctive style that favored a slow, yet indomitable, advance. He would ‘beat’ at Pisces’ rapier, using the whip-like strikes to throw Pisces’ own blade wide and create an opening.

An engagement where the two blades met favored the aggressive style of the City of Shields. Worse, the same offense became a defense just as dangerous; a weak thrust from Pisces would be deflected into the ground or to the side.

The Drake even tried to stomp on Pisces’ sword, and the only thing saving Pisces was the fact that he was used to fighting monsters like Crelers or armored foes and hadn’t committed to a decisive strike. He was used to the blade jarring or the difficulty of finding a weak spot; the Drake was throwing off his tempo badly, and Pisces guessed the breathless feeling he had was how it would feel for any [Fencer] meeting this style for the first time.

This wasn’t a more formal [Fencer]’s duel on a strip where they could only move back and forth—the ability to circle should have given Pisces’ [Flash Steps] an advantage, and he tried to get around the Drake, thinking, naïvely, that if he could strike the tail, he might cut down on the flick-strikes.

The long tail was a weak spot, surely. Drakes got tails tangled up, needed armor on them—Relc had someone step on his tail in The Wandering Inn every other week with all the tables and chairs around.

However, Pisces realized as he tried to outmaneuver the Drake via sheer speed…it wasn’t working.

The [Flash Steps] could carry him thirty feet in a single moment—but what did that matter in this duel? If he was a [Runner] or needed to avoid arrows or get somewhere, it mattered. The light-Drake, though…had perfect control of the five feet around it. If Pisces tried to rotate, the Drake would just turn, and the nature of angles meant that it would invariably turn faster than Pisces circling it.

Even his control was weaker than the Drake’s sphere of aggression. Pisces did feel like he was dueling a ‘shield’—a zone of complete danger that the Drake kept ramming into him, refusing to give him a second to breathe.

Use a spell, Pisces! A spell!

Ceria shouted after what had to be a minute or two of desperate survival. Pisces thought she was right. He had adopted a highly aggressive style from Pheislant that favored close engagements and had tried to shove the other Drake off-balance.

Completely risky, and he paid for it. The Drake’s off-hand came up, and Pisces had thought it was empty—it was.

But the Drakes had damn claws.

One slashed down his wrist so fast Pisces felt it tear open his skin. Sharpened claws—it had barely missed an artery.

Most [Duelists] had an offhand weapon, be it buckler or parrying dagger. Pisces had expected a shield for this Drake. Idiot!

He nearly lost an eye as the Drake pivoted, trapping Pisces’ rapier with the sword, and went for a gouge with his offhand. Pisces’ arms trembled, and he realized the sword was sliding—

Even if his rapier’s guard caught the blow, the Drake would take him in a leg or the stomach! Pisces raised his hand desperately, pointed with two fingers—

The bolt of light missed as the Drake recoiled, but the light arrow forced it sideways, and Pisces broke away, gasping. He fired another arrow, and the Drake deflected it.




Ceria looked sideways at the overseer Drake, fearing it would object—but [Light Arrow] was a common spell, right? And…she saw Pisces smile grimly.

The arrow had come from the Unicorns of the Vale Forest. 

Dueling masters.




His opponent could deflect the arrows with his sword unless Pisces mixed the attack into his swordplay.

Nothing was ever easy—Pisces’ empty hand fired an arrow horizontally at the Drake’s side as they engaged again—the light-Drake recoiled, parried a thrust, and the second arrow came low at their stomach.

Pisces’ opponent angled their sword and reflected the arrow straight into Pisces’ head.

Burnt hair. The spell was more like a punch to the head than burning pain. Pisces reeled, and the sword ran him through.


He [Flash Stepped] back, straight back, before the sword could tear into his stomach and checked his side.

Straight through the right side of his abdomen. Pisces felt blood running down his skin.

Not…good. He had been lucky—it must have missed his stomach or any organs, but the pain was distracting, and he had not a second to even try to stem the bleeding.

Now, red was staining the sigil of shields on the tiles below as Pisces and the Drake trailed a pattern across the floor. Sticky red blood made whorls, circular, captured their footprints in a back-and-forth.

Someone should do that with some high-level [Duelists]. Put their boots in ink. Sell it as art.

Pisces was lightheaded. Ironically—his blood loss seemed to make his swordplay better.

That or he was adapting to the wrist-flicks, learning to absorb the point of impact or deflect it back rather than try to keep his blade steady. It surely looked like he was losing, backpedaling, his rapier going side-to-side, but Pisces’ [Light Arrow] spell was mixing into his attacks with more frequency, and he had begun parlaying the aggressive parries into counter-slashes.

He nicked the other Drake twice, once across the shoulder, then across the offhand, leaving particles of light trailing in the air. If this were any other kind of duel, he was sure his injuries would have probably already stopped the match.

But this was a duel for the honor of the City of Shields. He saw that, now. He should have worded his request any other way.

This was no mere light-sentry programmed to fight well. This…was the style of a dead Drake duelist, captured in this magnificent swordplay.

What a mistake.

How glorious.

Part of him had wanted this—Pisces performed a wrist-flick, and the Drake swayed out of the way. Pisces’ [Light Arrow] was deflected by the handle of the dueling sword—he brought his rapier down hard, hoping to score a blow on the Drake’s head—


The sound went straight through his rapier, and he felt it snap. A piece clattered to the floor as Ceria leapt to her feet. The old rapier had given in.




Stop! Stop! He’s lost his weapon!

The overseer Drake refused to acknowledge her. It kept watching the duel as Pisces leapt back, the rapier in one hand severed a third of the way down.

The light-Drake actually paused a second—and raised its sword to a guard position and halted. But it was watching Pisces, clearly ready to strike.

Ceria was aghast. Did the City of Shields not have a rule for broken blades?

“Challenger. Your weapon is broken. Will you forfeit?”

At last, the overseer asked calmly, and Ceria’s eyes swung to the waiting sentries corrupted by Bograms. Pisces hesitated—then spoke.

“No. I can continue…[Flame Rapier].”

He transferred the broken rapier to his side and flicked his hand. A flaming rapier, the spell he had used before buying his current rapier, appeared in one hand. Ceria relaxed.

The opponent began to attack again, and Ceria realized there was a new problem. Pisces had recovered his weapon—but the spell was not the same as a real blade.

The flames…were just flames. They could wound, but now the two, Pisces and the Drake, would no longer be able to lock blades. There was probably some fascinating interplay for a [Fencer] who would have to adapt to this new style—but Ceria saw this disadvantaged Pisces in a moment.

He wasn’t used to a duel where he couldn’t parry and had to dodge. The replica of this old Drake—was.

Pisces began to purely evade and retreat, but he took three wounds in quick succession, the worst being a stab just above his knee. Ceria looked at the overseer.

“He’s wounded. Is this going to go to the death?”

“The challenge of the City of Shields is ongoing. The challenger may forfeit at his discretion.”

“Fuck you.”

“Bad language is discouraged, applicant.”

Ceria looked for anything she could use in case she needed to intervene. She’d have to break the walls between her and Pisces or just interrupt the duel. She checked how fast her circlet was charging…not fast enough.

And now, Pisces was getting desperate.




His blade! Pisces couldn’t adapt fast enough. He was backing up, pressed against a wall, when he saw the Drake alter tactics. It came at him fast and low and surged upwards in a devastating uppercut.

It nearly cut him apart vertically. Pisces ungainly threw himself right, and the Drake swiveled and planted his sword down in a stab—swept the blade across the floor as Pisces kicked off and slammed into the far wall.


Ceria was lifting her hands, but Pisces rose as the Drake charged at him. He had to—

A piece of metal clattered as Pisces slipped on it. He saw his broken rapier blade—looked up—the sword was chopping down, and the claw was wide. Two attacks.

Pisces’ hands moved, and the Drake spun out of the way of the light arrow spell—that never came. It chopped—and its blade rang against Pisces’ rapier. The claw jerked, but the flaming rapier slashed down the projection’s arm. The enemy [Duelist] looked down and saw Pisces’ shaking arm holding his real rapier…repaired.

Or rather—the artificial Drake’s eyes locked onto the place where the metal was fused back together. With…bone?

“Halt. Unknown spellcasting detected. An inspection is required.”

The overseer spoke suddenly, and Pisces saw the other Drake back off. He hadn’t cast a spell it recognized…the overseer regarded his blade as Pisces panted.

“It’s just—it’s my sword.”

He’d repaired his sword. Pisces had been about to make a rapier out of bones, but he’d been all but certain his opponent would shear through it in moments. But the hairline fracture that had broken the stressed steel…what if he just repaired that?

“It’s an, uh—an undead rapier. Come on, judge. Let him have it!”

Ceria’s cajoling didn’t make the overseer Drake react, but Pisces smiled. Why not? He was reminded of how he’d fixed Yvlon’s arms. The delicate ivory that fused the plain steel together looked…beautiful…

When his eyes rose, the overseer Drake was looking at him. Pisces swore there was something like intelligence in that smile. The lips moved, and Pisces’ heart leapt.

He might never forget this moment as the image of a long-dead Drake looked at him and spoke.

“Continue, Challenger of Graves.”

Slowly, Pisces saluted the Drake, and it stalked forwards, now favoring long-ranged, piercing thrusts. It was getting faster. Perhaps it wanted to end this.

Challenger of Graves. Once, Drakes from the City of Graves had been [Necromancers] and used swords.

Pisces smiled. Then he spoke a spell. Whether or not his father would have accepted it—so what?

Pisces was a [Duelist of Wistram].

A [Necromancer].

And an adventurer. You know how they loved to cheat.

“[Wall of Bones].”

Ivory spilled from his bag of holding, assembling into a wall of bones that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The [Duelist] reacted, aborting his strike and leaping back—

The Drake slammed into the wall of bones behind it, and Pisces’ rapier missed its head by a hair. He hadn’t used the wall like a shield! The Drake backpedaled, sliding away, and Pisces raised another wall of bones.

He was blocking off the dueling ring. The [Wall of Bones] spell was a bad shield—and part of Pisces saw the overseer’s glowing eyes on him. A [Duelist] didn’t run and hide.

But the walls of ivory were suddenly taking up his opponent’s half of the ring. Pisces raised another, and the Drake’s right flank was suddenly constricted.

Controlling space. Pisces kicked off a wall, vanished through the air, landed, and clashed again with the Drake. It went for another eye-gouge. He whirled away, and his elbow hit it in the face.

Ceria’s voice was delighted.


The overseer? Said nothing. 

Was there disapproval in his opponent’s movements as it came at him hard, aggressively? Pisces didn’t care.

This was the way an adventurer fought. Yvlon could fight—and win—against a [Duelist] who’d never fought in a cramped space or had someone sucker-punch them from behind.

Pisces’ sword whirled and deflected another strike. Faster now—like Ksmvr’s [Silver Illusion] school. But he wasn’t there yet.

The bone walls were hampering him as well as the Drake. They were closing in a narrowing field as more bone walls rose, and Pisces knew they were reaching an inflection point.

It would be so easy to cheat and use the [Bone Walls] to impale his foe. To summon a skeleton.

Death magic.


Past and present. Pisces wondered if there was a soul in those glowing eyes and the blade drawing his blood. Would he disgrace himself in the eyes of the past for victory?

He wasn’t a good enough [Fencer]. Pisces took a sword thrust through his other arm, and his hand went limp. He couldn’t raise it easily. Pisces cursed. He was a [Necromancer] in the end—so be what they had always been.

Cheats who refused to die. Summon a horror.

Say the word that defined them:


Pisces’ eyes flickered, and his pupils expanded as the Drake backed up and lowered its stance. Ceria was shouting something, and he looked at her, around at the walls hemming him in, and the Drake.

The reflection of that great duelist from another time came in low to the ground, virtually kissing the blood-stained floor, sword held in both claws, angling upwards. A thrust that would pierce any guard and would follow Pisces and impale him into the sky.

The [Necromancer] sighed—and stepped backwards.




The overseer’s eyes glowed. It had a clawed hand raised, and Ceria saw it was watching Pisces. The pride of the City of Shields and the honor of the duel might provoke more than just disqualification.

The jewel overhead had stopped pulsing. Ceria had stopped breathing. She was watching Pisces as the Drake swung upwards in that piercing uppercut.

The [Necromancer]’s back was to one of the walls he’d made. But even if he dissolved it—the blow would follow him. She heard him sigh and step back.

The overseer’s claw glowed red—Ceria threw herself forwards, arms raised, body covered in [Frost Armor] as the circlet screamed at her and fell off her head.

—She stumbled, fell, and nothing hit her. Ceria rolled and heard a crack of…she looked up.

That wasn’t the sound of a blade piercing flesh. The overseer’s claw lowered. It smiled. Ceria’s head rose—and for a second, Pisces met her eyes.

He was standing in the air. On…a staircase of bone. The [Duelist]-Drake had missed and cut the base of the staircase apart.

A spiral staircase, like the one he had once made in the Ruins of Albez, but more complete. This one had smooth, ivory railings and a helix design. The bones were smooth, like a marble made of stars, and it looked sort of like…ice.

Like Ceria’s own magic.

He had had nowhere to go, so he’d made his own footing. The light-Drake actually looked at the overseer, but the overseer said nothing. Ceria, lying on her side, began to laugh.

So this was dueling as well. The magical duelist, the [Necromancer], flicked his rapier up at the Drake, who slowly stared up at him and—grudgingly—saluted him. Then it leapt up the stairs, but Pisces had the high ground, and Ceria presumed that mattered. He leapt, and his feet touched another platform in the air as his [Bone Walls] morphed.

Not to help him directly, but melting. Changing…to objects Pisces knew. The [Duelist] charged, outraged, Ceria was certain—and Pisces leapt off the table that he and she knew so well.

Round, worn a bit, and the Drake’s tail tangled with the chairs of Erin’s inn. Chairs and tables? What kind of a duel was this?

Pisces kicked a chair up, and the Drake pierced through it. The [Necromancer] swung wide, slashed one arm, and reached a [Bone Wall].

The light-Drake’s blade flickered, and it seemed to decide that if Pisces was using magic like this—it could use a Skill.

Three blades appeared and angled themselves at Pisces. He closed his eyes as he rested his back against the wall. The [Duelist] lunged, blades slamming into the ivory—and looked up.

Pisces had kicked off a ledge of bone. [Flash Step].

He was in the air, white robes fluttering like a great bird—and his sword angled down. The Drake was smoothly turning, aiming for where he’d land—a perfect calculation from a piece of ancient magic.

Then Ceria saw Pisces’ foot catch the lip of his staircase of bone. He was rotating, angling downwards—and he kicked off diagonally, aiming down at the Drake.

[Flash Step].

Pisces’ sword pierced through the Drake’s chest, and he tumbled, landing in a somersault, staring around, then leaping to his feet and conjuring the [Flame Rapier]. Whirling around—

The light-Drake knelt there, sword in its chest, staring up at the sky as it bled motes of light. It gazed up at Pisces—and then disintegrated into a glowing mist.

Panting, incredulous, Pisces’ head turned to the place the Drake had been, his rapier embedded in the floor—and then up as the overseer spoke.


Eleven—no, twelve of those duelist Drakes stood behind it. Ceria got up, groaning, but the overseer didn’t order them to attack. They pointed their swords at Pisces—and the overseer smiled.

I confer upon you a mark of the City of Shields. Congratulations. Thou art a [Duelist] of the Walled Cities. You may challenge any master of blades.”


Pisces just gaped blankly at the Drake—and then he realized he’d won. He’d won. His rapier trembled in his grip, and he recoiled as the light-projection reached up. The jewel overhead flashed—and Pisces thought he saw the clawed hand pulling something out of the air.

His skin froze and his heart trembled as the Drake cupped its hands and produced something that it held gently, reverently—then held out to him.

It caught the light, no magic, but real metal. Though Pisces had never seen it shine so. Ceria Springwalker got to her feet slowly, staring, standing on her tiptoes as Pisces reached for it—drew back…

“Are you sure?”

“It is yours, fairly earned, Duelist of Graves. Take it proudly.”

Pisces stared into those ancient glowing eyes, searching for…what he couldn’t have said. Then he reached out and gently took what it offered him.

It was, of course, a bell.

A silver bell. Only…Pisces wasn’t sure it was silver. The metal seemed to glow, and it was tiny, the size of his thumb’s nail. It was in the shape of those old teardrop bells. He stared at it as Ceria bent forwards. She saw the [Necromancer] turn it over, inspecting the bottom, and laughed.

“Oh no. Pisces…it’s got no bell!”

She meant the inside clapper. There was nothing there; no object to ring against the insides when shook.

Wait a second. Ceria remembered that tale about [Duelists] and something pretentious about how the best of them didn’t let their bells ring in combat. She slapped her forehead.

Wait, was this the truth behind the legend? The [Prankster] began to chuckle. Then she saw Pisces’ expression. He looked up at her, eyes shimmering as the bell reflected light onto his face.

“What? You think you got a dud?”

“What are you talking about, Ceria? I…can hear it ringing.”

The half-Elf stopped. She blinked, then focused on the bell. Wait, did she see something moving as Pisces shook it? He tilted his head, closed his eyes…and she wondered what he heard.

“Only the worthy may hear the Bell of Challenge.”

The overseer Drake spoke softly, and Ceria looked at it. Then she grabbed Pisces and hugged him with all her strength.

“Argh. My injuries—

“Shut up. We’ll patch you up. You did it, you crazy [Necromancer]. You beat a [Duelist] from the City of Shields.

“It was only a replica—”

“Shut. It. You have a silver—no, you have a bell. I knew you were worthy.”

He sniffed, and for once, it seemed entirely accidental. Pisces averted his head, but Ceria’s own eyes were overfull. Slowly, Pisces lifted the rapier in one hand.

“It was everyone’s abilities. I wish I could have…no. Look. I made something besides a horror.”

The staircase of bone looked like it was unfinished. The real thing might stretch upwards. It made Ceria imagine a palace. It had sprung from Pisces’ imagination, and she saw him breathing in and out.

Calm, despite his wounds and the battle for life-and-death. Perhaps it was the blood loss, but he looked at Ceria as if he’d realized something.

“I…think we should find Bograms.”

“In a second. You’re hurt.

“Yes. Ah…yes.”

Absently, Pisces sat down. The overseer Drake was still standing there. Ceria saw the other light-Drakes standing at attention. They must have been reset. But Pisces just lay on the floor.

“I, ah…”

“Hold on, I’ll bandage your wounds and get you a healing potion. Where’s the damn circlet—Pisces! Stay with me!”

Ceria saw it lying there and snatched it up. So it had tried to run when it thought she was a goner, eh? She was alarmed—if Pisces was bleeding out—she needed to find Ksmvr. He probably had the last potion—

Pisces protested as Ceria bent over him urgently.

“No, no. I’m going to just…sleep a second. Okay?”

She was about to slap him hard as she could when she realized what he meant. Ceria checked his pulse, and it was strong enough; the wound on his side had mostly clotted, but she found some linen for a bandage. Pisces’ breathing remained steady as he closed his eyes. Ceria Springwalker stared at him, and her eyes glowed.

She stepped back…and wondered who he would be when he woke up. Her circlet whispered to her as she absently chewed on it. It was telling her that his class was—





Pisces slept for eight minutes. Eight minutes was a long time. When he woke up—he stared at the sky and exhaled.

It felt like a breath he’d been keeping in ever since he’d begun dreading Level 40.

Now…he let it out.

And smiled. For the first time since he’d been born, Pisces wondered what kind of force assigned levels. Everyone took it for granted.

But surely it knew them. It knew him, for the words he’d heard spoken had been waiting for him to sleep. Almost spoken in a rush, tripping over each other, as if that precise voice were ready to tell him what part of him already knew.

Who he was.

When he’d heard it, he’d known it fit. Something that reconciled his grief, his uncertainty, and even the events of today perfectly.

Thank you.

The [Necromancer] realized Ceria had bandaged his side. He hurt all over, but barely felt the pain as he got to his feet. Excitement and determination were in his veins. His team…

Bograms was in the maze.

Pisces hoped Colth, Yvlon, and Ksmvr had found each other, but Bograms knew this landscape perfectly, and they might—might be able to run, but he and Ceria were probably at the maze’s very heart.

Something had to be done. He thought his new class would be perfect for the job. But before that—

“Ceria? Where are y—”

Pisces looked around and found his friend. While Pisces was out, the half-Elf, his team captain, his old friend, the [Arctic Cryomancer] and [Prankster], the Ice Squirrel, had done her own experimenting and found a reward of sorts.

Eight minutes was a long time. Pisces stopped and rubbed at his eyes. Nope.

Ceria Springwalker was definitely naked.

The overseer Drake was speaking to her.

“Applicant. Your attire is insufficient. Please restore your apparel.”

“I lost my clothes. They burnt up in the fire.”

There was a brief flicker…and the overseer dipped its head.

Acknowledged. Please take this, applicant.”

Pisces saw a flicker in the air—and ancient clothing, ancient in style, adorned with the City of Shield’s symbols and colors, appeared in the overseer’s hands.

Pisces’ eyes bulged. Ceria scratched at one buttcheek as she accepted what seemed to be a kind of long-sleeved tunic and leggings.

“Hey, it doesn’t even have a tailhole. Was this made for me?”

Applicant, please clothe yourself before continuing the Trial of Shields.

“Sure thing.”

Ceria put the clothing into her bag of holding. Then she spread her arms.

“Oh, darn. I lost my clothing.”

This time, the overseer paused…longer, Pisces thought…and spoke.

“Applicant. Your attire is insufficient. Please restore your apparel.”

“My friend ate them. Can I get some robes?”

A longer pause. The overseer slowly produced a set of robes. Ceria inspected her feet. She caught Pisces’ eye and winked.

“And shoes. I’ve got to have shoes. Enchanted?”

A pair of shoes grudgingly appeared. Ceria tucked them into her bag of holding.

“You’re never going to believe what just happened—”

She repeated the trick four more times, and Pisces wasn’t sure how many times she’d been doing this already. Each time, the overseer Drake seemed to take a little longer to respond. After the fourth time, as Ceria indicated her bare body and bemoaned her lack of apparel, it changed tactics.

“Applicant, your distress has been logged. The [Mazekeeper] has been alerted. Please wait where you are for assistance.”

“No, if you could just get me some pants…hello? Darn.”

The overseer Drake vanished, and Ceria sighed. She pulled her robes back out of her bag of holding. Then gave Pisces a thumbs-up.

“Guess who just got sixteen sets of clothing? Some of it’s definitely enchanted. How likely do you think the [Mazekeeper] is alive and going to kill us right now? I sort of think no one’s in charge, but maybe we’ll have a magical guardian on us?”

He waited until she put her robes on and hugged her. She laughed, and Pisces saw the circlet was back on Ceria’s head. But visible. And she winked at him.

“Anything new to report, Comrade Pisces? I saw a smoke signal over to one end of the maze…I think we should head there next. We might have to risk teleporting—the overseer Drake says it’ll let us quit. But dead gods, we might get destroyed if the spell’s broken. Either that or we get out. Either way, Bograms awaits. Got any good news for me?”

They were silly people, because Pisces actually gave her a salute and stood to mock attention.

“I have received a new class, Captain Ceria. I beg leave to report I have reached Level 40.”

“Before me? Oho. Did your class change?”

The half-Elf was beaming at him so hard her face had to hurt. Pisces inhaled and exhaled as his eyes traced this crumbling maze, unto a dungeon. The jewel in the air pulsed slowly, and he felt it filling him with magic.

Death…all the dead corpses in this dungeon. Ceria had to also be closer to her regular mana pool. What would Pisces have done if he hadn’t levelled? Probably raised a horde of undead to fight Bograms, regardless of the risk of them running rogue.

He was a [Necromancer].

Az’kerash had long lectured him about quick-summoning undead rather than making more custom ones. Colth had done the same—dead gods, even Yvlon had notes on how he could be better.

He could make the Frostmarrow Behemoth, his greatest achievement, but the [Ritual of the Lord of Bones] had only created one Skeleton Lord—Ivery.

Arguably, Pisces had already achieved a milestone of a Level 40 [Necromancer] with that…but what would he be? Someone able to raise an army of a thousand regular skeletons and fight with them at legion strength?

A specialist who could create…the bone-version of a Draugr? Someone who learned how to raise spectral undead for this new age?

Ceria Springwalker wouldn’t judge. She was waiting, trusting him, but Pisces had not trusted his own class. What he had sought was redemption for necromancy, a vision of a [Necromancer] not lost to madness or greed.

He wished he had been able to talk to Fetohep and ask about Khelta. Pisces wished he had asked Erin about his worries on the off-chance she could tell him.

But he had needed to be here to figure it all out. Blade and bone. The Bell of Challenges. Pride and necromancy and…

He was smiling. Ceria bounced on her toes.

“Pisces. Come on. Don’t tease me. Seriously, Bograms is going to come after us, and the circlet thinks he has buddies.”

He had to do it to her. Pisces sniffed and sneezed. Then he cast his eyes upwards.

“I believe I have the solution to our problems, Ceria. Give me one moment to alter this new spell—well, rather, a Skill that enables spellcasting—”

She looked ready to hug him again or stab him. Pisces lifted his hands and closed his eyes as he called all the mana to him. It might be impossible at this scale. But he stared up at that floating jewel overhead.

He was still a [Necromancer]. That part of him had not changed.




Bograms had not seen leaves—true leaves, not illusions of his own making nor the plants here—in an age.

They had distracted him, and he had realized they were completely real, not the makings of a Skill or spell. Therefore, he decided the one called Ksmvr would live. Bograms would murder the others, leave Ksmvr alive, perhaps legless, and have him make more leaves.

More and more…until someone opened the gates and he returned home.

Home…to his people, if any remained. Or to hurt them. Damn them.


Bograms had hidden the leaves and was prowling the dungeon urgently. The smiling Colth and Yvlon had met up with the strange goat-woman and Ksmvr, and they were too dangerous—and outside the maze.

He had to lure them in and kill the spellcasters. Either that or wait for help. No matter what, Bograms lost if they left the maze, so Ceria and Pisces must die.

They were fragile, even with the spells. That thing the half-Elf wore couldn’t spot him, as powerful as he was, and so Bograms tip-toed around corners, peeking around, searching for them.

He was quiet, for all his size. His people were famously quiet, which is why Terandria had made him. Taken him and…Bograms ground his teeth together.

Hurt him so. And then sent him here to kill Drakes. Long, long, long, long ago.

Bograms had survived it all. Even this City of Shields dying. The specter of the Crossroads. The one who’d hunted down the survivors who hadn’t locked themselves inside Lesegoth. Driven them mad.


His hands clenched and unclenched as he sensed death magic and began to hurry towards the source. What would it be? Undead? Bograms could trick even the dead. Foolish [Necromancer].

Bograms was distant yet, wondering how the two had survived the light sentries who should have chased them down, yet he heard a ringing voice.

Ever and always.

Even in the old days.

Their class always had to speak. He heard the [Necromancer], Pisces, raise his voice. Bograms waited for that word, weaving his own spells to beguile, waiting to break their heads in and eat them. He missed the days of good food and home.

Then Pisces spoke, and Bograms was confused.




Pisces had never attempted a spell this powerful before in his entire life. For the first time, he saw death magic coalescing around him.

It was not black. He had expected it to be, but it was more like the color of a shadow. Everything he saw through the swirling path of the mana took on an eerie, different tone.

Perhaps this was the world only the dead saw.

His hand stretched up to the sky. It was not a new spell Pisces called upon. Rather, it was a new Skill enabling…the simplest spell of [Necromancers].

Animation. Their class truly was one idea. Undeath.

Ceria was watching, shielding her face, as the air whipped dust and debris up into a vortex around Pisces, a swirl of wind and power he knew his team and Bograms would see.

It didn’t matter. He didn’t think Bograms was expecting this. If it worked…Pisces closed his eyes and felt the power building.

It was the word. He had to speak. It only fit. It was traditional. So his head rose as the Maze of Shields itself began to tremble.

The overseer Drake appeared. The sentinel Drakes stepped out of their alcoves and aimed their swords at him. A red glow filled the pointing overseer Drake’s hand, and the crystal above flashed warningly. But it was too late. Pisces called out, forcing the magic through a pattern he only half understood.

It was just…death magic. All the death magic in the maze he could muster, forced into a conduit—crude—but he had to believe it would work.

Thence the [Necromancer] raised his hand, and his eyes flashed. Green, lighting up until they were the brightest thing in a world of deathly shade. He said:


Ceria Springwalker stared at Pisces. What had he said? Return? Not…arise? Then she saw where his death magic was going and gasped.

It was flowing into the walls of the maze. The overseer pointed at Pisces, but its words were lost as the [Necromancer] poured his mana into something he had only considered just now.

When he had repaired his rapier, Pisces had asked himself a strange question.

What was necromancy? Was it just the dead? Was it just ghosts or souls? Or could you reanimate…in some form or other…


The Maze of Shields was shaking. Inside of it, Bograms panicked as he felt magic flowing around him. The Horns of Hammerad outside the maze took cover, and the broken stones…began to move.

A great chunk of debris had been smashed into a wall Pisces could see from here, likely from high above. It had broken the wall, exposing the magicore, which had run out, then left a gap for power to flow through.

Now…stones floated into place, reassembling, and Pisces’ brow filled with sweat. His mind was bursting—but he understood this.

Like a body—the maze had a form. It was long…dead? Yes, dead. A corpse powered by a still-beating heart, but it had once lived in a different form.

He could not bring it back. Not completely.

But he could reanimate it.

New stone did not fill the break in the walls. It did not fuse seamlessly into place. But like a rotting zombie or a skeleton—the stones fused into the wall, hovering, bound and animated to how it should be.

The magic was changing. The overseer was flickering like that crystal power source overhead. Pisces felt it. He had not a chance of tapping into it; the wards would ash him in a second—but the heart of the maze was powering this spell.

Even the designers of the maze had never imagined someone would try to reanimate it. So the spell Pisces began took the power of the maze.

The traps began resetting.

Bones attached to sawblades snapped off. Bograms’ illusions shredded as walls shifted, restoring their positions long damaged by seismic activity.

Ceria even saw the magical spells reforming. Ghostly lines completed broken circuits, the logic of the spells restoring themselves.

It was not perfect—but the power in this place was such that the animation was almost complete.

The shaking grew worse, and the overseer flickered.


That blank gaze seemed to focus on Pisces. The Overseer of the Maze of Shields vanished—then reappeared.

When it spoke, there was no distortion. A clear, calm voice, almost like the voice of the system of levels itself, for the Overseer had likely been based on it, spoke.

“Welcome to the Trials of Shields, newcomers! Applicants who would seek the approval of the City of Shields, please speak your names and choose a trial to overcome. ‘Fortitude shall overcome all obstacles’.”

Pisces fell to his knees, gasping. The magic was still burning through him. Ceria looked at her friend and saw his eyes glowing.

“Your class?”

A new kind of [Necromancer]—no. An old kind of [Necromancer] lifted his head. Someone who would not stop at mere bodies. A wretched lover of history who would raise ruins in undeath.

The [Necromancer] levered himself onto one knee, and Ceria swore she saw the Overseer nod at Pisces. As if perhaps the intelligence recognized what he had done.

Pisces was breathless. He had done…well, the impossible. Now it was Ceria’s turn. For once, she didn’t need the circlet’s help.




Bograms was frozen in terror, no longer recognizing ‘his’ dungeon. All the traps had reset—the invisible foe reminded itself they weren’t dangerous.

The Trial of Shields was safe…until he heard Ceria calling out.




Help! Help! I’ve been attacked! My friends and I—there’s an invisible enemy here! He tried to kill us! And stole my clothes!”

The Overseer instantly grew alert.

“No one may be assaulted in the Trial of Shields. The [Mazekeeper] is…unavailable. Please confirm the identity of the intruder.”

Ceria’s mind raced. She spoke rapidly, drawing on her knowledge of this place—and just Drakes.

“It’s…he’s called Bograms, but we can’t find him. But help us! Bograms is an agent of…Manus! The City of War is attacking!”

The Overseer’s eyes grew brighter as Ceria rapidly manipulated her bag of holding. The Overseer was restored to much of its functions.

But it was still dumb as shit. And if she was right…


“I’m not an applicant. I’m a citizen of the City of Shields, and Pisces is a [Duelist] recognized by the Walled Cities. See? He has a Bell of Challenge.”

“Ceria! Are you mad—

Pisces had overheard that. He raised his head; he’d nearly puked with the energy coursing through him, then he blinked. His mouth opened so wide he heard his jaw click.

Ceria Springwalker innocently flipped the hood of the robes of…The City of Shields at the Overseer. The very same robes it had given her! And she pointed at Pisces’ bell hanging from his rapier.

The Overseer reacted instantly. Its eyes focused on Ceria’s robes, and a thin layer of light flashed up and down. It…scanned her clothing, then the bell.

“Acknowledged. The Bell of Challenges marks ‘Pisces’ as a Duelist of Shields. The half-Elf—”


“—Bears clothing of the City of Shields. The [Mazekeeper] has been summoned. The Trial of Shields is now in lockdown. Activating maximum trap levels and all defensive measures. All intruders—flee or surrender. You have been warned.”

Its voice was growing louder and louder. Pisces opened his mouth. What did it mean by ‘maximum’ trap lev—




Bograms was running to kill the half-Elf, murder on his mind. He knew the traps of the maze. He ignored a harmless room that only shot light flame spells at you and extinguished the fire aft—

The first flame boiled over his body and hit the other wall with such force that a pillar of flames licked up into the air. Bograms shrieked and recoiled, burning, as that calm—loud—voice spoke.

“Intruder detected. Intruder detected. Defend the City of Shields.

Light-Drakes appeared ahead of and behind Bograms. He wailed, still burning, tearing at his skin, and they charged. They could not see him—but they could see the flames and struck at the air. Shrieking, Bograms began to run, and one buried a halberd in his back—




“…My [Dangersense] is telling me not to go in the maze.”

“Mine too.”

There were four Horns of Hammerad outside the Trial of Shields.





Horns of Hammerad. The Satyr was getting weird looks from Colth, but Yvlon had linked arms with Colth and Ksmvr, and Ksmvr had Vofea’s arm in his grip. They had seen the maze shaking and heard the warning.

“That has to be Pisces and Ceria. Maybe they reactivated a repair function?”

Yvlon was speculating. Colth stared at the broken walls.

“Some repair function. It’s not fully fixed. See the mana still leaking out of those cracks? That’s not [Repair]—if you could even repair magic like that. It sort of looks like…”


Ksmvr saw another explosion in the maze and hesitated. Ceria and Pisces were in there! He looked at Yvlon, and the [Armsmistress] squared her shoulders.

“I’ll use [Aspect of Silver]. If Colth can extend my Skills…Ksmvr, use your cloak, but be careful. Find them, and I’ll run in and—”

They were about to do something incredibly stupid and potentially brave when they heard a voice. Ksmvr froze. Colth began smiling even as he began chucking pebbles—just in case this was an illusion—and Vofea hopped up and down.

She pointed, and Ksmvr saw a duo—no, a trio exiting the dungeon. One was that annoying glowing Drake…and following it were Ceria and Pisces.

“We are at the entrance.”

“Thank you. But I’m, uh—out of underclothes. Also, as a Citizen of Shields who was just attacked, I need healing! Potions! A wand! I’m highly mentally distressed, you know.”

“The [Mazekeeper] has been alerted. Please remain in the Trial of Shields if you believe you are unsafe until—”

“Ksmvr! Yvlon! Colth—”

Pisces shouted and ran towards them. He looked hurt! But he pulled up when he saw Vofea. Ceria blinked.

“Illusion? I think Bograms is getting roasted—no—”

“This is Vofea. We are real! I think—”

Ksmvr saw Pisces run at him and grab him in a hug. Yvlon felt at his hair, and Colth patted Pisces’ chest. The [Supporter] winced as he touched raised flesh.

“Scar’s real. Sorry, Pisces.”

Yvlon nodded.

“I think it’s him. Pisces, what happened to—”

“He reached Level 40! He animated the damn maze!

Everyone was shouting. Vofea was looking around, shifting from hoof to hoof and giving Ceria’s circlet a very dubious look. Ksmvr was busy hugging Pisces, and Yvlon just exhaled. She clapped Pisces on the shoulder, and he nearly fell on his face as Colth blinked, then smiled.

“Welcome to our world, Pisces. The Haven owes you a drink.”

Then they were together again. Ceria grabbed Vofea’s arm, and Ksmvr spoke.

“This is Vofea. She is a very silly fae, but I have inducted her into the Horns of Hammerad. I hope that is alright.”

They looked at him, and he was worried…but not really. They laughed, and then Ksmvr knew it was going to be alright.




Bograms was hurt.

Bograms was angry.

Bograms was…afraid.

He survived the reactivated maze—barely. It was on high alert, and only fortune had meant Bograms was near enough to slip out an exit. The maze had four sides, and from the sounds of it, other creatures within were fleeing the traps.

How had the wretched [Mages] done it? Bograms had to know. Was it the circlet—well, whatever it really was instead of what it pretended to be?

Crush their heads. Grind their bones like flour. Kill them.

Bograms was hurt, but they had made Bograms to be dangerous. He didn’t like pain. His kind, altered like this, could still die. Drakes had killed so, so many of them.

And the Horns of Hammerad had let down their guards. That was how everything died. They were sitting around a fire that they’d set up to signal each other. Bograms saw the bug-thing curled up in a ball near the fire, watching a pan frying the last of their eggs.

Bograms was hungry. He’d kill them now. One blow to their heads and rip them apart no matter how much they stabbed—Bograms was beyond caution. He approached slowly, listening.

“So Shaestrel sent you, and Erin’s where?”


“And we’re supposed to go west?”

Ceria was speaking to the new…thing. Bograms felt like she was familiar. Had he ever heard a story of goat people? Maybe. It was so long…

He raised his arms as he stole towards Ceria. Colth was checking Pisces’ side. Yvlon got to her feet with a sigh.

“People, we have to get moving. Bograms might be alive. Give me one second to, er, pee, and let’s go. Ksmvr, douse the fire.”

The Antinium didn’t move as Ceria groused at Yvlon.

“Yv, really? Language. Also—I think we got that bastard. The maze is amazing. Don’t glare at me, Colth. You probably have [Punner] Skills.”

“That’s not a class, Ceria. I need to use the faculties too.”

Colth hopped to his feet. Bograms saw Yvlon walking right, past him, and Colth heading the other way. He hesitated. Best pick off the woman with metal arms first. Colth was too quick and might sense him.

Bograms trailed after Yvlon and raised one hand as she halted. Yvlon turned her head back, and Bograms snarled.

Time to die. He waited for her to move and lower her guard. Once she grew complacent—

That was how you died. 

Bograms only realized something was wrong when something fell over behind him. He glanced back and realized Ksmvr was dead.

His head had fallen off his body. No…Bograms stared at the travel pack with two ‘antennae’ sticking out of it propped up on a stuffed sleeping bag. That wasn’t Ksmvr.

The Antinium could vanish, and not even Bograms could find him. Then wh—

Then Bograms saw Yvlon was staring through him…or rather, right where he was standing. While her eyes weren’t focused and she was squinting—she was looking right at him.

Then Bograms saw the one called Vofea staring at him. That bright-eyed—

She could see him.

Terror welled up in Bograms, and he began to run, cast an illusion—all too late. Colth spun as Ksmvr appeared, shedding his cloak, and threw the bucket of water mixed with dust straight at Bograms.

His aim was almost dead on with Vofea’s guidance. Water covered Bograms, and his outline appeared. Ceria Springwalker leapt to her feet as Pisces scrambled up.

Get him!

“Damn you! DAMN—




Yvlon Byres got to Bograms first. She used no Skills. She just raised a fist and punched Bograms as hard as she could. Finally, she had eyes on her opponent—and Colth was right behind her.

“Let’s go, boss. [Combined Skill: Merciless Beatdown]. [Spiked Gauntlets].”

He had Bograms’ back. Yvlon threw a punch that connected hard—she felt a huge mass of flesh, heard a scream, and Colth began wailing on Bograms’ back.

He was a huge, squat monster! Humanoid—she saw a mouth opening and heard his shriek.

Die. Die! DIE—

A massive fist larger than her face struck her, but the [Armsmistress] was made of metal, and her arms exploded into spikes. Bograms recoiled with a shriek, and she jumped forwards. Her next punch made him recoil—and Colth’s punches were drawing blood. He drew his shortswords, slashed across Bograms’ back—

The giant thing was all muscle and lumpen flesh. No wonder all their attacks hadn’t killed him; he was so big he was hard to seriously injure. Bograms raised an arm—and Ksmvr dropped on him.

“[Whirlwind of Blades].”

Silver swords slashed Bograms from above, and he shrieked, staggering again. Yvlon felt red blood raining down as she kept punching the same spot. Harder—she reached for her sword, and Bograms vanished.

Something knocked her flat, and Yvlon cursed as Colth snapped.

“He’s invisible again!”

Bograms had turned the water outlining him invisible. He began to run—but Vofea pointed.


She could see through all his spells! Bograms smashed into a wall of ice, and Ceria Springwalker pointed her wand ahead.

“[Ice Lance].”

The impact and shower of ice didn’t result in a scream but a choked howl. Bograms recoiled and ran into Pisces.

And six Skeleton Champions. The [Necromancer] slashed twice, his repaired rapier aflame, then pointed.

“[Deathbolt]. [Deathbolt].”

Two rays of darkness hit Bograms as his skeletons swarmed the invisible figure, slashing madly. One of the skeletons went flying, and Pisces ducked. He backed up as Bograms swiped and knocked three more off their feet. He was huge—a threat in his own right—

Yvlon Byres, the Silver Killer, ran straight into him, and her arms exploded. The shriek grew higher. The [Armsmistress] ate a punch and came back. Her eyes were open wide, and she was grinning—

She hadn’t lost her calm—yet. Colth backed up as Bograms tried to get away again.

“[Boost Kick]—”

He kicked Ksmvr from behind, and the Antinium’s lunge buried one blade over halfway into Bograms. The shriek grew higher—and Ceria shouted.

“He’s visible. Get him!

Bograms appeared at last. His magic faded as he lost concentration, and Pisces saw…

A huge, bloated figure, half as squat as he was tall. His flesh was oddly lumpy; it wasn’t just fat. His face looked overgrown, as if he had a permanent allergic reaction. He was covered with filth, Humanoid—he was shielding himself as Colth instantly put two arrows into his side.

“Mercy! MERCY! Have pity on Bograms!”

He wailed even as he swung at Ksmvr, who jumped over the hand. Colth glanced at his bow.

“Poison’s not working. Everyone in—now!

The Horns jumped Bograms. He was large enough that Pisces and his skeletons were on one side, slashing, as Ceria fired [Ice Spikes] into his thick flesh, past Ksmvr and Colth hacked at Bograms in tandem. Yvlon was punching at the face, and Bograms was screaming. He bit at her, and Vofea kicked him in the face.

Take that, you bugger! Halfling or not, yer killing no one on my team!”

Pisces hesitated. Did she just say—


He backed up a second and stared at Bograms. The thing was eight feet tall! He wasn’t…

Wait a second. Bograms looked distinctly unwell. It reminded Pisces of stories of [Enlargement] spells or potions gone wrong. Halfling. Weren’t Halflings some dead species? Or just interbred with Humans to the point they’d vanished.

A…Halfling turned into a giant? Bograms was huge and dangerous, and he could be invisible. And he was stealthy as—

The Horns of Hammerad came to the same realization, at least some of them, and stopped for one moment, glancing at each other. Ceria checked herself, met Pisces’ eyes, and nodded at Yvlon, whose arms had become blades.

“Go for the eyes. Take him out.

Lost species or not—Bograms died. The horror of the Crossroads of Izril was crawling away as they lacerated his flesh. Pisces was just about to cast [Deathbolt] again—Bograms must be resisting spells and the blades because Pisces’ rapier barely went through Bograms’ skin—when he heard a new voice.


Pisces froze. Colth twisted and snarled.

“Illusion! Don’t let up—”

Bograms shrieked as he raised his head towards the mouth of the cave.

“Mahadak! Asgrel!”

That new voice was—female. Booming. Pisces felt sweat suddenly run down his back. He saw Ceria’s head twist, and she looked at him.

There was no movement that Pisces could see. Of course not. If there were more of Bograms’ people, they’d have his powers. But Pisces didn’t know.

It could be a cunning ploy. Bograms was pointing at Yvlon, who was still pounding into his side, and Colth was stabbing deeper.

“To me! To me! Kill the Terandrians! Help!”

It could be a trick. Pisces twisted around and stared at Vofea for confirm—the Satyr was running. Ceria shouted.

“Pisces! Horses! I’ll do the chariot! Yvlon, Colth, Ksmvr, withdraw! Now!”

The other three Horns looked up, and Ksmvr sprang over Bograms as he vanished again. Colth, swearing, tossed two jars as he backed up.

This isn’t over. I’m coming for you, Bograms.


Bograms began wailing again as a jar of flammable oil ignited. Colth backed up, still firing his bow at the air, now trying to keep the enraged two voices from him. Yvlon flinched as something landed next to her with a tremendous crack.

She raced back and saw the Horns’ iconic vehicle, their chariot, as Pisces tied the reins to the horses. Ceria was screaming.

“Get us out of here! Out of the cave!”

That was where the other two apparently were. Vofea was pointing, and Ksmvr sheathed his swords as Yvlon swung Colth into the chariot. Pisces had the reins—Ksmvr waited and spoke.

“[Weapon Art: Aggregate Volley].”

He flipped his crossbows up as Colth slapped his shoulder.

“[Basic Enchantment: Quarrels].”

The explosion was even louder than normal. A voice shrieked, and Yvlon saw two figures outlined a second. One was bigger than Bograms, the other his size.

It didn’t look like Ksmvr had killed them. Vofea was still tracking the nearest one with a finger, and she looked at Ceria. The half-Elf saw one of the figures moving to cut them off. She pointed her wand as her eyes glowed.

“Steer us straight at them, Pisces. Horns of Hammerad! Death or glory! Charge! Kill them all!

One of the figures flinched away and backed up as Pisces charged the chariot ahead. Yvlon shouted as she prepared to hop out of the chariot—Colth, Ksmvr, and Vofea dragged her back in.


The chariot went straight past both invisible foes as Pisces altered his course at the last moment. The flinching war Halflings realized they’d been—tricked! They roared and gave chase as Bograms wailed behind them.

“[Ice Floor].”

Ceria froze the ground, and one of them slipped with a crash. She blew a kiss and raised the middle finger of her skeletal hand. The Horns burst from the mouth of the cave as Ceria sealed it with an [Ice Wall]—and crashed halfway down the slope, and the chariot turned over. Ceria was cursing in a panic.

“Oh shit. It’s all rocks! Out! Out! We’ll remake it! Run!

The Horns had completely forgotten that the terrain around the City of Shields was impossible to just ride down. Vofea was pinned by one wall of the chariot.

“Run! I’ll—”

Hup! Let’s go!”

Yvlon tossed the chariot off her, and Ksmvr grabbed Vofea. They ran as Ceria’s [Ice Walls] began cracking at the mouth of the cave. Ice splintered outwards despite Ceria’s attempts to slow the two, no, three angry, invisible monsters before the Horns were on the ground.

Faster, Pisces! Get us out of here!

Ceria and Pisces threw together the chariot a second time, burning through the last of their mana they’d taken from the Trial of Shields. Roaring voices were all around them, and the landscape began to distort; this time, Vofea took the reins.

“I see the path! Faster, faster! They’re almost on us, and one has a—”


Something hit the ground

“—giant ball and chain!”

The chariot took off as furious blows tore the air, and the Horns fired in every direction, trying to keep the two Halflings off them.

Ceria was out of mana. She saw massive footfalls appearing on the ground and realized that the other two were damn fast. Or they were mad enough to…

Pisces was down to his rapier, slashing at the air. Ceria?

The [Cryomancer] calmly reached up and pulled the circlet off her head. She slapped it on one side.

“Hey. I know you’re holding back on me. Do something or I’ll toss you off the chariot, and they’ll wear you.”

She tilted her head as something hit the chariot and cracked the ice and bones. The half-Elf grinned.

“I’ll do it. I’m stupid and crazy.”

So saying, she raised the circlet overhead and began to toss it—and the circlet flashed. The two skeleton horses racing ahead of the chariot suddenly blurred.


Ceria cackled as the chariot sped up, and Vofea sent them curving across the Crossroads. The illusion spells began tearing, and for a second, the Horns saw two screaming figures, like Bograms, wearing rags and chasing them—

Then the Horns were shooting ahead, the world blurring around them, and Ceria laughed as she smacked the circlet against the side of the chariot again.

“I knew it.”

She slapped the circlet back on her head as the other Horns looked at her. Yvlon opened her mouth, and Ceria winked.

“Guess who learned she can threaten her headwear?”

Then they were riding the chariot, shouting, laughing in relief, swearing at Bograms—and Vofea looked around.

“I’m not dead?”

Would you stop that? Captain Ceria, can you believe this one? I think she has a problem.”

Ksmvr rubbed his fist into her head as he put Vofea in a headlock. And there they were.

The Horns of Hammerad.




The Horns of Hammerad didn’t slow down after they left Bograms and the Maze of Shields behind. They just…kept going. Ceria kept glancing over her shoulder, even though she knew she’d never spot them.

“I don’t know how fast those guys move, but we’re not giving them a chance to jump us. Odds are Bograms won’t try tricks. So we’re running. Too bad we didn’t get him. I’m hungry. Please tell me someone recovered our bag of provisions.”

The first thing they did was eat. It had been some ordeal in the Maze of Shields, and they were all starving. Then they caught up on what each person had gone through.

Yvlon tried to spare them the details of Colth’s suffering, but he insisted on telling them—though she grew red when he described her coming to his rescue.

Pisces patted Yvlon on the shoulder, and when Ksmvr explained how he’d met Vofea and her objectionable attitude towards her own survival, everyone patted Ksmvr on the head and laughed themselves silly, much to his indignation.

The challenges of the Crossroads of Izril weren’t over. In fact, the Horns were unwittingly about to face another test—but Ceria stopped chomping down on the eggs she’d been making to fool Bograms and made a face.

“Yuck. They’re bad. So Erin is west?

Vofea nodded rapidly as everyone turned to her.

If Shaestrel wins at the Solstice, ‘tis likeliest.”

“What if she loses?”

The Satyr hesitated.

“—Then death herself has marked us as her enemies, and we will die—and it’d be dire war again. But if it isn’t…Shaestrel saw the likeliest future as one where some right bastards grab Erin and vanish. In the best case, it’s just her. Worst case is they have six Djinni explode and blow half the Floodplains to bits.”

Yvlon’s head snapped up, and Ceria stared. But Colth and Pisces suddenly sat up in terrible alarm. Colth grabbed Vofea urgently.

“Who? Who’s grabbing her?

“Eh—ah—I don’t know names—”

The Satyr was unnerved by Colth’s stare. He shook her so hard her head bounced.

Roshal? Is it Roshal!?

“Yes! She’ll be on a ship! If—”

Pisces made a sound that Ksmvr had never heard before. He shot to his feet and nearly went over the chariot’s side. Colth just began swearing.

Ceria had lost her smile. She looked at Vofea, then yanked Colth down.

“Okay, everyone shut up. Vofea, start from the beginning. And tell us everything. No. First—which way is west?




The Horns had one advantage with Bograms gone: they could see the road.

Wer had described the road he used, and it did span the Crossroads of Izril. They found it leading south and took it south—then, at the City of Crossroads, spun west. The chariot was being pulled by undead horses; they moved at a ridiculous speed.

The Crossroads of Izril had that effect that accelerated movement, so Colth estimated they were moving at speeds that made even Magnolia Reinhart’s chariot look like a slug. Colth was excited.

“We’re already just north of the Great Plains? It’s not even been half a day! We can make it there within two days.”

That was the good news. The bad news was that the Horns had just realized something. Or rather, Ceria had.

The Ice Squirrel was not shy about eating at the best of times, and everyone had stuffed themselves on anything they had. Stale cheese, bread—Yvlon had actually just chugged the remainder of the maple syrup.

[Warriors] after an adrenaline rush were like that. However…she’d gone back for two helpings of a stale soup and then stopped.

Ceria did not stop. She was a [Mage] and—generally—could burn more energy even if she ate a lot. True, she’d gotten pudgy at times, and she’d eaten well among the Gnolls.

Either she’d burned all of that fighting Bograms or…Ceria pinched her stomach. She felt like she was looking close to her normal weight. Or even thinner.

And she was still hungry. She’d chewed down all the snacks they had. She was hunting around.

“Anyone got more to eat?”

“We’ve got some flour, and—it’s not time for food. We stuffed ourselves, Ceria.”

Yvlon’s stomach growled, belying that statement. Ceria eyed Yvlon.

“You look hungry. No one’s been eating well with Bograms around.”

“I’ll make some bread. If you’re hungry, eat the eggs.”

Colth offered and tried to find room on the bumping chariot—it was a largely smooth ride—to make bread in one of their pots.

“They were nasty.”

Ceria grumped as she looked around for the plate they’d rescued from the fire. Colth rolled his eyes.

“They can’t be. I made them, even for a show.”

Everyone was silent, though Pisces was smacking his lips and about to suggest Colth make a lot of bread—he had certainly earned it. They were…starving, actually. But they really had eaten a ton—

Then Ceria spoke.

“Uh. Guys? Problem. Colth? Your eggs aren’t just bad.”

He looked up, about to get mildly upset, when Ceria lifted something. Colth saw a huge, fungus-covered mound of—Ceria tossed it as Yvlon flinched.

“What was that?

“The eggs.”

Those weren’t eggs. That was rotted to Rhir’s hells and back! What’s—”

“Er. I think I just figured out what’s going on.”

Colth stared at Ceria, then at the dough he was making. They didn’t have any yeast, but basic bread was literally flour and water. He’d had butter, but most of their perishables were long gone.

In fact, they’d begun spoiling rather fast. Everyone had blamed it on their [Supplier], but Master Torgrass had been a well-respected Gnoll, and Gnolls knew how good things were by smelling them.

However, the truth became more obvious as Colth lifted up the dough and everyone saw it drying out and…growing stale before their very eyes. Pisces’ mouth opened, and even Vofea looked impressed.

“What’s this? Does food age in seconds, or are we all cursed?”

Ceria had a hunch. She grabbed the reins and looked at Pisces.

“Slow the horses a second, would you? I think it’s not a curse—how did Wer not notice it? Do we have anything else that’s edible?”

“…This potato is overgrown.”

Ksmvr found a potato literally sprouting roots. He nibbled at one, then held it up. Ceria performed a basic test.

With water, the roots grew slowly as the chariot decelerated. Then—when she picked the chariot back up to normal speed, it grew faster. Yvlon spoke with a slow voice.

“…The Crossroads of Izril is aging all our food.”

“Not just that. I don’t think we’re just hungrier than normal, guys. Yvlon. You’re, uh…looking really thin there.”

Everyone looked at Yvlon and realized Ceria was right. Yvlon wasn’t just looking hungry, she was looking sort of gaunt. Ceria snapped.

Stop the chariot!

Despite their urgency, the Horns halted the chariot and ran an inspection. Colth was muttering.

“Hair’s not growing abnormally fast. You’d expect our fingernails to be long—but everyone’s lost weight.”

“I have not…maybe. I feel faint.”

Ksmvr staggered. Even Vofea felt at herself and exclaimed. Pisces checked his very thin stomach and nodded.

“I have a hypothesis. Wer must not notice because he can provision himself and doesn’t stay in here long. But if I am correct—the Crossroads of Izril does have a cost.

“Time is distance.”

Ceria swore under her breath. Now she looked around, and there was more bad news.

Everything that wasn’t enchanted and just mundane that could age—was aging. One of Ksmvr’s water pouches looked cracked, as if it had been months out instead of newly made. Pisces waved one of his bones.

“This has noticeably aged as well.”

Everyone stared blankly at the bone, then Yvlon licked her lips.

“That, uh…that bone, Pisces. Does it have any marrow in it?”

“It’s, er—a [Bandit]’s bone I believe, Yvlon.”


She looked really hungry now that she realized it wasn’t just in her head. Colth was searching their supplies.

“Bad news, people. We’ll have to stop and hope Wer’s at the Great Plains and looking for us—or we need food, and we need it now.”

“You can eat me.”

Vofea lifted her hand, and Ksmvr raised the hand of wrath—the faerie began laughing.

“Gotcha! Yer faces!

Ceria chuckled; she liked that kind of joke. But even Vofea was rubbing at her stomach. Clearly, the law of this place wasn’t exempting her.

“We have to get to Erin. Maybe some of us could remain here and the others take the majority of what food we have? We still have nonperishables like flour, water…”

Pisces squared his shoulders. Ceria was rubbing at her head.

“Leather’s not good to eat. We might be in trouble. Damn. Ksmvr, can you plant that potato in some soil? We don’t have the water…and I’m mana-locked again.”

“I shall try, Captain Ceria! Vofea, grow the potatoes, please.”

“I, ah, don’t think ye know what Satyrs do, Ksmvr.”

The two jumped down and dug at the ground as the Antinium looked outraged.

“I thought you said Satyrs were in tune with nature.”

“…I said we danced around and drank and shit in meadows. Those were my ancestors. We party. Listen, what if we hunted for something?”

They could try. Ceria was grimly anticipating how the members of her team would take her suggestion to move to a bug diet. She wasn’t looking forward to this. She remembered starving in the forests of Erribathe as she tried to sneak out of the Kingdom of Myths.

She hated starving.

As luck might have it, the Horns didn’t have to resort to the most dire of options right away. Colth’s head rose with triumph, and he spoke.

“I have a solution. Hold on while I calculate out my best Skills. Damn. I don’t have many nutrition-adding Skills, and I never managed to learn a cornucopia one. Well, I can do something about taste, and I’ll throw on any preserving spells I can. We need to put everything we can on ice.”

Ceria rubbed her hands together, relieved.

“Good idea, Colth. What have you got?”

Colth raised a huge bag out of his bag of holding, and the Horns cheered—then groaned. Because the [Supporter] had planned for a long haul. Just in case. And he had a metric ton of one of the most imperishable…one of the most filling…

“I mean—it’s fatty. It’s supposed to keep years. Give me some.”

Ceria took a handful first, and Yvlon was so hungry she ate hers. It was semi-solid, like a sort of wet dough—the wetness was the grease. It tasted like…meat…

Well, sort of. Ksmvr took one bite and stopped. He sighed, recognizing the familiar texture. Home. He hated nostalgia.


Colth held up the Gnolls’ travel rations that could last forever, was cheap and filling—and had the flavor of old jerky. The texture…something like grease pattied up that mushed in your mouth and gave you nothing to really chew.

Perhaps like if you poured wild game bacon minced into pieces into a lot of butter and ate it—but without any of the good taste of butter. The Horns looked at each other. Even Ceria swallowed hard.




The good thing was that they were so hungry the pemmican tasted good.

The bad thing was that they were eating nonstop.

Four hours later, Yvlon asked a salient question after she realized she had eaten about five pounds of pemmican by the handful. She was feeling exceptionally queasy, but there was nothing to throw up; her stomach was digesting everything almost instantly.

At least she’d stopped losing weight. But Yvlon had a greater fear.

“I hate to ask this—but what happens when we, er—have to excrete?”

Ceria was halfway through one of the bags and stopped. Colth looked up, and Pisces closed his eyes as Vofea began laughing then stopped in horror.

“Wait a second. I’m mortal now, and I’ll feel it. H-how bad would that be?”

The [Supporter] gave them a grim smile.

“Drink more water. If we’re lucky, we’re so hungry there won’t be much waste. If we’re unlucky—a healing potion fixes torn skin and ruptured intestines if we use it right. Ksmvr has one bottle left.”

The other Horns blanched as they kept eating. They had to. Yvlon’s jaw actually hurt from wolfing down pemmican.

But they were moving so fast—Ceria tried to throw up, and nothing came out.

“Okay. The Crossroads of Izril is going to be hell when anyone else finds it. I will never eat pemmican or jerky again.”

If their dauntless [Captain] felt that way—that spoke to how the other Horns were doing. They were so fast—




The Horns of Hammerad reached what Pisces and Colth estimated to be near Manus by the end of the first day. And the chariot kept going into the night.

The Horns woke each other up not for sentry duty—they followed the road and could see few monsters at all—but for eating breaks. They would wake up, eat pemmican until Colth complained he felt like it was coming out of his ears—then pass out.

There was one good moment when they realized there was a jar of jam that hadn’t rotted away—the Horns had dipped pemmican in jam and eaten the entire jar out in an hour. Then they just went back to eating pemmican.


Erin was in danger. Vofea had best-cases and worst-cases based on what she saw. Best case? Erin needed them to get back if a flying Djinni didn’t carry her into the sunset.

Worst case…they were taking on one of Roshal’s slave-ships. Maybe even a fleet, and Erin was a captive. Colth spoke grimly.

“If the Naga got her, he sent Iert. I know him. He’s a—no one has much choice, but he’s a willing [Slave]. He’s dangerous. Think of him as a Named-rank with topline gear. I heard there were new players in Roshal.”

Yvlon held up a hesitant hand like a student asking a question.

“Isn’t the Naga the worst of the lot?”

Colth nodded.

“But somehow they have more [Slavers] just as bad as him. They might have been lurking around. Or…”

He lapsed into silence. Pisces’ face was pale, but he was staring west. He hadn’t said a word, but Ceria spoke for all of them.

“We’ll get her back. Even if we have to fight a fleet. Right, Pisces?”

He blinked, looked at her, and his features firmed.


But first they had to get to the coast. Ceria feared that it would be a problem once they reached the end of Izril. After all—the Crossroads of Izril only covered Izril, right? The New Lands—




“I see more land! It’s blank—no, wait, I see a few things. Purple grass? Dead gods! The New Lands are part of the Crossroads!

Colth shouted, and Pisces poked his head up as he gagged more pemmican down.


Ceria was on hands and knees, begging Ksmvr for mercy. He had found in his belt pouch, in desperation, the oldest and stalest cookie from Garry imaginable. The Horns were gambling over it—Ceria had been knocked out first.

Colth was standing up, balanced on top of the chariot, and Vofea was making sure he didn’t fall off. The [Supporter] let Pisces stare through his spyglass.

“See where the land ends south of us? That’s Izril’s former coast.”

Oh, yes. Izril had been a longer peninsula to the south—before the New Lands—but where it should have ended…Pisces saw more earth. Unnaturally flat and, he felt—new.

“Even the Crossroads of Izril has expanded. Perhaps it’s part of the spell?”

Already, the local flora and fauna were trying to expand into the new real estate, and Pisces did see a few landmarks, easily notable in the unnatural flatness they were approaching. He sat back, longing to explore it.

But Erin came first. Yvlon Byres lay on her back, trying to sleep, as Ceria tried to grab the Garry-cookie.




Yvlon had one final dream in the Crossroads of Izril.

The wind was blowing on her face, and she was flying high over this foreign land. The part of her that was conscious supposed it was a representation of how fast she was moving.

Individual dreams flickered around her, and she wondered, if they had stopped, whether she could find the dreams of those in the ‘real’ world and communicate. As it was, it was like…

Flying over a sea of shimmering stars.

The Crossroads of Izril was so empty, Yvlon realized. Compared to the real world, it had only a fraction of the species, like insects or animals, that she took for granted.

Yet it was not devoid of life. Somewhere out there was Bograms, and perhaps the other ruined Walled Cities had people or…or anything, really.

From her vantage point, she could not tell how the Solstice was going. There were no dreams during the Solstice, only eternal midnight and courage, and Yvlon Byres knew she’d wake and weep when it was done.

There was only the Crossroads of Izril, and she saw a truth in it.

There were…


The higher she flew, the more she saw them. Colors, yes. But not the endless grey of the Crossroads. There was, if she had to state it, purple…and red.

No, there were a number of colors, but two predominated. They were like—stains? Some kind of strange painting? Once more, no, Yvlon realized.

It looked more like a map. Or battle. 

The colors were everywhere, though the New Lands had not yet acquired more than splotches of either, but they clustered together. What she saw was that purple…

Well, it was more like a mauve? Maybe a rich mauve or an amethyst with a hint of rose, though that was the [Lady] part of Yvlon, which could identify colors, speaking.

Purple fought red. The red was definitely closer to imperial red, bright, mixed with vermillion orange and hints of fire.

This was how Yvlon would describe it when she woke and told her friends, though not even Colth could use his [Diviner] lessons to interpret the dream—yet.

It was as if a vast carpet of purple had been overtaken by the red. And in some places, purple pushed back, but it had become more like islands of purple surrounded by red in many places. 

There was a huge core of purple, but red had overtaken half the Crossroads already. 

Smaller colors vanished or appeared rapidly, but they didn’t…matter? Red mattered. Red was a sea, an engulfing force. Purple was different.

Purple rose in what Yvlon thought of as ‘spires’, towers, like sentinels, that red could not devour. They stood stronger together, but each tower of purple kept red at bay. A war…that one side would win.

She drew closer to one of the purple spires, curious, and one actually noticed her. It pulsed curiously, and Yvlon’s dream-self rippled. Alarmed, she tried to swim away from the dream, but something pulled her towards the nearest purple tower.

They all began to pulse, that mauve glow inspecting her. A strange intelligence—Yvlon felt an overwhelming pressure pulling at her being. She cried out, but it was relentless. Before she could be drawn into the purple, something grew hot against her cheek—

The pillow was so hot it was smoking when Yvlon woke up. The delicate stitching and little Goblin on the front glowed—and Yvlon woke up shakily and described what she’d seen to the others.

A strange dream.

Perhaps many beings saw the Horns of Hammerad as they raced down the main roads, westwards, nearing the edge of Izril. If so—it was too bad for them.

The Horns were going at ludicrous speed, fueled by pemmican and the power of undead horses who could not go hungry. Nothing could risk pursuit, even if they had the inclination to fight six crazy adventurers. Not with the look in the eyes of the Horns of Hammerad.




One last thing of note happened on the Horn’s long ride west. They skipped past a war, treasures, ruins, monsters, and adventure.

They did not stop, nor slow, except to use the restroom. They had only one goal: to reach the coast.

In fact, they didn’t even stop when they reached the ruins of a very suspicious road that interrupted the bare earth.

Oh tree rot, it looks trapped! Anyone’s [Dangersense] going off? Vofea, use your special eyes!

Ceria shouted as the Horns slowed and saw a bright, shining road of glossy bricks, a literal yellow-brick road, polished and beautiful.

It was crumbled to pieces where the dirt road they’d been following met it, but the section that remained was almost entirely intact.

“It looks magic.”

“Really. Magic? You don’t say.”

Colth was sarcastic. Vofea sniffed.

“I can’t tell magic apart! Ksmvr, he’s bullying me!”

“Rookie Colth, you do not bother Rookie Vofea. Rookie Vofea, you take responsibility for your failings…though you are also a rookie so these things happen. Do not beat yourself up about it.”

Ksmvr scolded the two junior members of the Horns. Colth gave Ksmvr a sinister look; he was not in the mood for jokes. Worse, Ksmvr was not joking. Ceria was busy trying to make a decision.

“…It’s go off-road or take it. I say we risk it. The land’s bumpy, and we might throw a wheel again, and I don’t have the mana for that or a fight. Pisces, what are you running at?”

“There’s enough death magic for me to cast a spell or two. Why?”

Pisces rubbed his hands together. Ceria narrowed her eyes as she stared ahead.

“Pisces—reanimate the road.

Ksmvr spat water out of his mandibles. Vofea looked around in delight as the [Necromancer] stared at Ceria, and Colth gave them all a crazy grin.

“I think I like this team.”

The remaining stones moved, shuffling into place, and magic flashed and reknit as the [Necromancer] reanimated the road. Ceria pointed, and the Horns of Hammerad screamed as she shouted.

Charge! Get ready to jump—”

The chariot raced onto the new section of road, and the rocking and bumping stopped. The bricks were glowing, and Pisces gulped as he wondered if he’d dispelled a trap of some kind…by activating whatever original magic was here.

“Vofea, tell me what you see.”

Colth was determined to train up the faerie, and Vofea leaned over the chariot, staring down. The bricks were glowing the moment a wheel ran over them. When Ksmvr tossed a piece of pemmican over the side, a brick glowed where it landed for a bit as they zoomed onwards.

“What does it mean?”

None of the Horns knew, not even Vofea, but she peered around sharply, then pointed.

“Everyone, look that way!”

The Horns of Hammerad turned, and they saw the magic activating. It had to race to keep up with the chariot, but race it did—and Ceria sat back, lowering her wand. Pisces began to really smile. Ceria exhaled.

“That’s so stupid.”

“No. This was a different time. A better one, perhaps.”

Pisces corrected her softly. The [Necromancer] stared at the words writing themselves in the air for the Horns to see.


Welcome, travellers, to the Crossroads of Izril. The City of Imlerith invites you to come and visit!


The Horns of Hammerad laughed, or rolled their eyes, and relaxed. Then looked ahead. And what they didn’t know was…Vofea lifted a hand and waved.

On a hunch.




The Solstice was long and dark. Liscor was under siege, and every eye there was captured by the undead.

Kasigna, Goddess of Death.

An inn, alight with glory and sorrow and the faeries’ tricks.

Everywhere else in Izril, some people paid attention to Liscor, stared at the Archmage of Memory’s failed broadcast, or just looked into that dark night with fear, wondering when it would end.

Then…as Dragonspeaker Luciva paced around Manus’ inner keep, asking how many forces could get to Liscor on time and receiving no answers she liked, as Drakes of the Walled Cities turned to their leaders for support, as Gnolls fought undead—

—As Ylawes Byres and the Silver Swords rode westwards, skirting the Hivelands, grim-faced, counting coins and looking towards the New Lands—

—As half-Elves and Drowned Folk stayed vigilant on the walls they had built in their colonies, staring at the storm at sea and wondering if any Terandrians would make it—

The sky brightened. Heads rose as something flashed across those dark clouds. Dragonspeaker Luciva heard a strange siren going off in Manus’ inner keep.

No, not an alarm of danger for once…some kind of alert rigged up by her predecessors? It sounded joyous. Her officers panicked as she stared up at the sky. Something was up there.

What was moving across the clouds? It had to be the size of a Giant—no. Wait.

It wasn’t coming out of the clouds. It was being reflected onto the night sky. Luciva looked up, called off the alarms beginning to ring through Manus, and grabbed her speaking stone.

“Get me through to Erin Solstice—now.”

She demanded answers, but Erin Solstice had none to give. The Horns of Hammerad? She had no idea where they were.

How did Luciva know they were in the Crossroads of Izril?

The Dragonspeaker had no time to explain. Only that if you passed the Bloodfields to the north and looked up, from Pallass’ walls to the Hivelands, where some Antinium looked up amongst the milling Hives, to Zeres in the south…

You could look straight up and see an image being shone across the skies. It was very simple, a projection of another place. One of those silly things a Drake city would think up to welcome new visitors.

The Horns of Hammerad were riding a chariot, Ksmvr tossing pieces of pemmican off the side and staring at where they landed. Ceria Springwalker was leaning off the side of the chariot and laughing, and Colth was holding onto her while he rolled his eyes.

Pisces was half-standing, staring ahead with an urgent look on his face. A bell shone on his side, attached to the handle of his rapier, ringing silently in another world.

Last of all was a strange woman who looked part goat. Peeking over Ksmvr’s backshell, staring around in wonder and delight. Then she looked straight at you—and waved hesitantly.

The Horns of Hammerad raced across the skies of Izril for a long minute, and Ylawes Byres looked up, and his heart leapt in relief. And envy. And wonder.

“There you are.”

He focused on Yvlon Byres, his sister, who was patting Ksmvr on the head, pointing at something they were both staring at with a huge smile on their faces. Her metal arms shining.

Then they vanished, but the dream and memory of them didn’t. And a hundred adventurers across Izril shook their fists at the sky, and Deniusth nearly snapped his violin.

They’d gone first.




The Horns of Hammerad found the exit to the Crossroads of Izril where the world ended. The flat grasslands were untouched, and they could see forever. They passed a ruined tower half-poking into the Crossroads from reality. They avoided a cloud of dark mists and weird weather that had a presence even here.

“That’s it!”

It was an archway of stone that Vofea thought was disturbingly familiar. It had appeared—no one had built it. The Crossroads of Izril hadn’t existed in the New Lands before now.

…Had it? Had it once stretched further? The Horns of Hammerad saw the entrance gleam as they sped towards it, like a mirror that reflected a dark night beyond, and grass-and-sand mixed together.

They sped straight through the door and ploughed into a huge coastline. The moment they crossed through, Pisces gasped as he felt salt air, felt himself snap through reality like he had when Wer teleported them—

Vofea threw up. Ksmvr patted her on the shoulder as she retched, but nothing came up. The Horns were thin; the pemmican had run out, literal months of food eaten away, exhausted and bewildered.

Keep the horses moving! We’re still miles from the sea!

Ceria shouted at Pisces as the chariot wallowed in the sand. He cursed, fighting them as he snapped back.

“Then what? Do we—do we drive into the sea?

“We find a boat, genius!”

Colth was fumbling with something as Ceria looked around. Where were they? She didn’t know, only that on the horizon was a vast stormfront. She looked up and groaned.

“Magical hurricane.”




The Bloodtear Pirates’ Skill had created a tempest so vast that the edges of Izril’s New Lands began to get hit by the wind and rain after five hours. Ceria finally got her bearing and the time.

Three AM. It wasn’t going to get light any time soon; the place they wanted to head to was a milling tempest, and according to Vofea, Erin was out there.

“We need to either catch her ship or get to her! We have a day; the Solstice just ended!”

Pisces unnecessarily repeated himself for the umpteenth time. Ksmvr stared at the water in horror.

“I am going to drown.”

Yvlon shook his shoulder, trying to be kind.

“Ksmvr, you have a Ring of Waterbreathing. Ship, Ceria. We have to find one!”

They were rolling down the beach on the chariot, miles upon miles of terrain; the spiked wheels ran through the surf as Ceria nodded.

“I’ve been sending [Message] spells. Colth. Are you ready with whatever you’re doing? Tell me you have some kind of…Demon…contacts that have a ship.”

Colthei glanced up and raised a finger to his lips.

“You lot have no subtlety. Shut up, Captain. Also—wrong spot.”

Pisces blinked and opened his mouth. But Colth just finished writing on the thin roll of parchment he’d pulled out of a hollow spot in the handle of his sword. He grimly lifted it between two fingers.

“Everyone, out of the chariot. You don’t want to be in the way of this thing.”

Everyone piled out. Colth stood up, aimed the bit of parchment straight up and ahead, and whispered a word. It began to glow. He held it steady—then let go fast.

Pisces saw the bit of paper glow brighter. It hovered in the air rather than fall as the [Supporter] leapt off the chariot. Colth threw himself down, and the Horns stared at him—the d—

Ceria saw a burning comet blast upwards through the night. It kicked her off her feet, and her circlet told her that was definitely not a mere Tier 5 spell.

But it also said it wasn’t an attack spell. It was just…

A kind of message.

“…Is that our boat?”

Pisces groaned as he sat up. Colth pulled his head out of the sand and grinned wildly.

“I don’t think so. I just sent my biggest emergency request I had. Don’t count on help—but if help comes, we won’t need a damn boat.

Ceria liked that. It smelled like trouble, chaos, and bad news—for someone else. The comet streaked through the air as she shaded her eyes. The storm was blowing water into her face, and she remembered how Illphres had once skated across the sea to fight [Pirates].

“…Well, even she wouldn’t skate all the way to Wistram. It’s far. And my knees hurt.”

No one got the reference but Pisces. However, Vofea leapt up and down and began waving her arms.

“I see it! I see it! It is a ship!”

Everyone looked around, and Colth blinked. This time, it was Ceria’s turn to give everyone a thumbs-up. She winked as they turned to her.

“Guess who I called?”




It was the fastest ship they had, an enchanted cutter with a skeleton crew. The [Captain] pulled Ceria aboard and gestured at something being pounded by the rain.

We set sail the moment the Shadeward gives the word and not a moment before!

Drowned Folk. The moment Ceria had seen where they’d pop out, she’d thought of the two powers who could help her.

Between the two—Drowned Folk knew the sea. But how had she gotten Nombernaught to pick up the Horns?

…Well, a shivering Yvlon suspected the Drowned Folk would do it just for the story. Apparently they’d seen the Horns of Hammerad, but Ceria was shouting at the image of Shadeward Doroumata in the scrying orb.

“—Straight to sea! I asked for a navy! Point us west, and we’ll figure out where Erin Solstice is—no, you tell us!

To say the Drowned Folk in the orb and on deck were unhappy at Ceria shouting at the Shadeward herself was an understatement, but the half-Elf was almost literally insane by this point. The old half-Starfish woman replied slowly.

“We do not war lightly with Roshal. This alone will be noticed. This alone—”

She broke off as someone pushed at Ceria, and Pisces jabbed a finger at the scrying orb. The Horns were all swaying on their feet. They looked starved, battered, and yet the [Necromancer] had the lungs to scream in Doroumata’s face.

Honored Shadeward, we have just crossed the entire Crossroads of Izril, fought a Bograms, survived the City of Shields’ trial, and we will find Erin Solstice and bring her back if we have to kill every [Slaver] between us and Chandrar! I humbly suggest you order the [Captain] to get this cutter moving.”

The Shadeward blinked at Pisces, and even he blinked as if he hadn’t heard what had come out of his mouth. But that was nothing to Colth’s follow up.

“If you don’t, we’ll capture the ship and take our chances. Or just find one of Roshal’s other ships. I reckon we can take it—even if they try to scuttle it.”

“Are you threatening Nombernaught?”

The acting City Captain of Nombernaught spoke ominously. Yvlon looked around for one of the Horns to say something reasonable like ‘of course not’.

Ksmvr was rocking back and forth, staring at the waves, as Vofea patted him on the shoulder. Yvlon cleared her throat.

“Not if we don’t have to, sir. We’re desperate. We’ll pay you for this favor and then some. Never let it be said the Horns of Hammerad don’t repay their debts.”


The Shadeward stopped the furious reply. A ship to put them against Roshal. A favor to put Nombernaught itself in their debt? Yvlon Byres looked at Ceria for confirmation, and the half-Elf winked.

“Just for you, Shadeward—just for you and no one else save the Gnolls. Lean in, please. Everyone else, back.”

Colth and Ceria jabbed the [Captain] and his officers back. The Shadeward, frowning darkly to suggest this had better not be stupid, leaned in. Yvlon whispered softly, hoping only the Shadeward could hear.

Well. She saw the proof of it. The Silver Killer’s lips moved—and one of Doroumata’s daughters cried out as she saw something glowing move from Yvlon’s lips.

Watch out, Mother—

They threw up barriers, but it was too late. The glowing trail left Yvlon’s lips, entered the scrying orb—and passed through to Doroumata.

The great spellcaster might be mighty as an Archmage, but she was too slow to jerk back. Something swirled through the air, ignoring a slash, the dark magic trying to stop it—and twined around her head. She froze—and the Human side of her face—her ear—twitched.

Then the magical string stopped, and Doroumata’s eyes, both of them, opened. Her eyes glowed as her mouth opened—and she swallowed something.

What did you do? [Captain], slay the—

The acting City Captain roared, but Doroumata stopped him with a gesture. She turned, and the Luminary of Nombernaught, a bright figure, looked down. He bent over as she whispered in his ear, and that glowing thread passed from her to him.

No…not thread. If you looked very closely, you might catch the outline of a letter. Or perhaps a string of letters. Even—

A passphrase, maybe. Written in magic. Passed from person to person. Ceria grinned like a loon. Yvlon stepped back and brushed the sword at her throat out of the way. The Luminary froze, then whispered.

The Passphrase of Imlerith.

The Drowned Folk stopped shouting. They turned, and Ceria gave them a thumbs-up.

“You can’t get anywhere without that. Be careful. Once you speak it to too many people, it spreads. But we won’t say a word, on our honor. The only people who know are you, Chieftain Feshi, and Shaman Theikha. I’m sure you’d share it with everyone who needs it, though. So long as they ask nicely.”

Only the Drowned Folk and Gnolls knew it? Wait—the <Heroic Quest> had been completed?


Then the slow ones realized what that meant. The Horns had sped through the Crossroads. Found a gate…if someone else wanted to access the Crossroads, they’d have to enter and exit. Or…be a friend of the Drowned Folk or Gnolls.

But no one, no one even knew that the passphrase had already been found. Colth was speaking quicker.

“The <Heroic Quest> didn’t end, so you have until someone else does what we did. It’s definitely possible. In fact, there’s even a gate nearby.”

The City Captain of Nombernaught growled with sudden excitement.


For answer, Ceria Springwalker checked her belt.

“My goodness. I think I’m out of healing potions, and I’m hungry as shit. Hey, this boat isn’t moving. Maybe we should have gone to my people after all. But I would have gotten sick of them calling me ‘sister’. Can we do anything about that?”

The Shadeward was faster now. She looked up.

“Captain. Take Worldrider out at top speed. We will give you directions and updates shortly. Luminary, mark a heading for a resupply ship.”

The Luminary strode off-screen, and minutes later, a light flashed across the sea. Like Pheislant’s lighthouses. Ceria leaned forwards, smiling, as Pisces made a show of leaning over.

“You might wish to tell the Shadeward about the hazards of the Crossroads, Ceria. It wouldn’t do to let Drowned Folk suffer as egregiously as we did.”

The Shadeward’s face never moved as Ceria glanced at Pisces seriously.

“That’s a good point, Pisces. But—eckh—ackh—my throat’s dry. Let’s see what we have to eat, then talk, okay? How fast does this boat go?”

The Horns of Hammerad. Someone was calling for a diplomat, and many [Captains] doubled as their own diplomats, so they were reviewing the files.

There were four Horns of…

No, wait. Five.


Ksmvr of Chandrar, Antinium [Skirmisher], lovable dancer, the first Antinium to become an adventurer, master of the two swords at his sides. Petter extraordinaire.

Pisces Jealnet, [Necromancer], graduate of Wistram, bountied, a former [Slave], known as the Bane of Roshal by many Chandrarian caravans he’d liberated. Silver-bell duelist.

Ceria Springwalker. [Cryomancer] and half-Elf from Erribathe. The Ice Squirrel. Known associate of Revine Zecrew. Graduate of Wistram. Hell’s Warden along with the original four including…

Yvlon Byres, the Silver Killer of the Coliseum of Monarchs in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. Metal arms and foot. One of House Byres’ own. Former Silver-rank Captain. Used her own arms as weapons.

Colth the Ultimate Supporter, associate of The Adventurer’s Haven. Divorced three times. The Demonic Smiler, accomplished blademaster, spellcaster, scout, all-around-expert. Possibly a virgin.

‘Vofea’. Species unknown. Possibly Goat Beastkin? Origin unknown. Has ‘special eyes’, quote unquote. Never seen before exiting the Crossroads of Izril.

Horns of Hammerad.




He didn’t sleep despite the possibility of more level ups. It didn’t matter.

Pisces stared across the dark sea until Yvlon put a hand on his shoulder. Rainwater doused them, and the wind made it impossible to hear her voice—until the Drowned Folk reactivated their shield.

The storm was so intense the waves had knocked it down. Pisces didn’t care.

The weather lashing his face should hurt. Erin was out there, a captive of someone worse than even Riqre, and he wondered what was happening to her. Not just her—Ulvama.

He was thinking of Eloque. Or Cawe. Or anyone else.

“Pisces. Ceria just got in touch with someone. She can’t tell who it is. A [Message] about Erin. She’s confirming it.”


Pisces stirred, but Yvlon tightened her grip.

“Let her talk. You looked—different, you know.”

That second part came out of nowhere. Pisces wanted to go and ask questions, but his voice was hoarse from shouting at the [Captain] for speed, from hearing of the Solstice, and—


Yvlon hesitated, then faced the sea.

“I never would have thought, when we first met, that a [Necromancer] had any integrity. Just now, you looked ready to storm Roshal’s harbor.”

That sounded like bravado. Adventurer talk. Yvlon had never given into that part of them that Pisces despised. He turned, too upset to speak a second.

“—We have to get her.”

“We will. I’m trying to say…silver and steel, I’m sorry, Pisces. I’m bungling what I meant to say. Even if my brother, my father, and everyone else would never see or admit it—there’s no one I’d be prouder to face down all of Roshal with. No one more honorable or with better intentions.”

Pisces looked at Yvlon and didn’t know what to say. He’d remember that another day. Forever, probably. Right now…

“Pisces. Yvlon.”

Colth emerged onto the deck with Ksmvr. The two Horns turned, and Colth’s face was pale. But his eyes—Pisces’ head rose, and the two exchanged an unsaid look.

“Where’s Erin?”

“I think she’s free.


Pisces’ heart leapt, and Yvlon punched a railing, exhaling. Colth was grinning—he jerked a thumb behind him.

“Ceria and Vofea are confirming—the Satyr knows something about lies. Some ‘friend’ just gave us coordinates. The ship’s heading north.”

They had been sailing blind in the wake of The Naga’s Den. Yvlon almost laughed.

“She did it? I should have known no one can predict Erin…does this mean we weren’t needed? It was right to come—”

“No. They’ll never stop chasing her. She unchained herself.”

Pisces’ hands began shaking. Colth grabbed one and clasped it, his hand grinding at Pisces’ fingers, and the pain snapped the [Necromancer]’s head back up. The [Supporter]’s smile was back, but not the demon’s smile. A desperate baring of teeth, genuine and raw.

This is when we’re needed. Every ship Roshal’s got has to be bearing down on her, and she’s not heading back to us. Every single one of them burns. The real fight begins right now.”

Pisces’ hand tightened as Ksmvr nodded coldly.

“No quarter.”

He took Pisces’ other arm, and the [Necromancer] spoke those burning words, as if he could still see her. A rainbow, reflected in Colth’s eyes.

We’ll never let her be chained again. No one.”

“Spoken like a free man.”

Colth let go of Pisces, and the two nodded at each other. Yvlon saw Pisces turn to her, and wordlessly, she made room as a half-Elf and Satyr walked onto the deck. Pisces faced his friends and teammates.

“We’ll get Erin. But I left them behind. I’ve been guilty about it. They helped me free myself, but so long as the others are on Chandrar—Merr, Eloque, Bearig, Qshom, and Rophir. I shouldn’t have gotten on that carpet.”

Ceria Springwalker wiped water out of her face. Her circlet glowed, and he saw, when he looked at her, she didn’t feel the emotions in his chest. Not all of them.

But she looked at Pisces, exhaled, and clasped one shoulder with her flesh-and-blood hand.

“Then after we get Erin back, we’ll go to Chandrar and rescue them.”

She said it like it was easy. The entire continent? Roshal’s own homeland? The half-Elf looked at Yvlon, and the [Armsmistress] nodded. Ksmvr solemnly placed a hand on Pisces’ and Ceria’s shoulders.

“Any friend of Pisces is a friend of mine. No one will be chained. Captain Ceria, are we now bound to defend Erin from Roshal?”

“Roshal, [Pirates]—and more.”

They looked at her uncomprehendingly, and Ceria glanced at Pisces, and he knew, suddenly, where Erin was going. He closed his eyes, but then opened them as even Colth seemed puzzled.

“If she’s aboard that ship with help after all, Izril is behind us. Is an enemy ship why she’s turning north, Ceria?”


Pisces told him, feeling relaxed. He understood, now, and he would have Erin no other way. That was how he knew it was her. Pisces stared northwards.

“She’s going to save a friend, even now.”

“That’s our [Innkeeper].”

Ceria agreed. The two of them looked at each other. That hadn’t changed. Then Pisces breathed out and knew—

It was still Erin Solstice. They would find her. Pisces stared into the dark sea as Ksmvr shaded his brows. Yvlon looked around as Vofea licked her lips.

“Not even the gods know what comes next. It’s all upon us.”

The [Armsmistress] smiled down at the fae like an older sister.

“That’s how it always is. Horns? Time to go hunting.”




Six adventurers were staring into a storm. Erin’s friends, her only allies that would have a hope of reaching her.

There were so few ships willing to even risk the sea, let alone anyone ready to sail into a maelstrom and face both [Pirates] and one of the world’s powers.

Every faction was already at sea save two—

One was the Archmage of Izril. She had set forth the night Erin Solstice had been kidnapped.

She was running numbers with the only other person qualified to count them and add them, calculating the cost of magic with distance and weight.

Yelroan. Valeterisa looked up from her calculations and spoke briefly.

“I will be able to reach one of the ports and perhaps—move a ship out to sea with enchantments within one hour. It will require every mana potion I can imbibe, and I will then collapse. I cannot reach Wistram directly; Archmage Eldavin is not responding, and the teleportation network I have is being disrupted by the magical maelstrom, even had I the mana to carry four people all that way in one night. My passengers are likewise limited.”

“How many?”

Yelroan looked up as someone spoke.

“Four, five if the Archmage wants to risk it. Who will go?”

A young woman stepped forward, barefoot, shaking. Ryoka Griffin’s Faeblade was in hand, and she looked at the only person faster than her, pleading.


“Then I will go as well.”


A dozen people overrode Tyrion Veltras. He began to argue as Valeterisa looked around for people she was sure of.

“I will go.”

Normen was clutching at his side. He tried to limp forwards; a Draugr had hit him hard enough to break ribs. Someone put their arm out.

“I am the least harmed. I will go.”

Embraim looked around. That made two. Who’d be third? Dozens of voices began to argue. Many were wounded—the Archmage pointed, and a thunderclap struck the shouting voices deaf.

“Who will go?”

She spoke, and a hand rose. A single figure pushed past the others and joined the small group.

“Take me. I can catch her. I swear I’ll bring her back.”

Seve-Alrelious, the Hundredfriends Courier, nodded to Ryoka Griffin, and the Archmage of Izril, for the first time in her life, felt old. She looked at the younger people stepping forwards without hesitation and then at the sky.

She swore she saw the silhouette of a long-lost species, wings beating through the sky. But that was probably her imagination. Then Valeterisa gathered her magic to do what only an Archmage could do: cross a continent and send Couriers to sea.




Wounds or not.

Danger or not.

Some things had to be done when there were no more excuses or reasons other than it was the right thing to do.

The man shoved aside [Healers] and idiots trying to bar his way. There was no one to stop him. Every senior Lucifen had vanished.

Rhisveri Zessoprical knew where they were—and knew exactly what those idiots were sailing into. Roshal had possibly dozens of ships in the area, and the Bloodtear Pirates?

Everyone was an idiot besides him.

The Wyrm was wounded—badly. He had a kingdom to run. Even if he had considered it worth the risk—he slammed through the healer’s wing and literally broke a door off its hinges.

The capital had the best [Healers] in all of Terandria. Fithea had been a healer. He conjured a wall and blocked the mortals behind him.

There was a single occupant in this room who turned their head slowly and without much expression as the panting Duke halted.

Rhisveri clutched at his bandaged chest and rasped.

“You. There is a situation at sea. I cannot get there myself. An asset of Ailendamus and a number of our people are about to clash in multiple naval engagements. We have no ships in the area. There are no reinforcements we can buy and no allies in the area. With my magic, I can send only one person that far—if the spell even works.”

Silence. Rhisveri knew he was incoherent. He stumbled over to the bed and rested his weight on the end. He looked at the person sitting there.

“I need volunteers for a suicide mission. You’re top of the list. Name what you want and you’ll get it.”

Admiral Dakelos met the Wyrm’s gaze. Only then did his eyes seem to lock onto something. Slowly, he pushed the covers of the enchanted bed aside and stood. The Wyrm heard a voice that hadn’t spoken in weeks rasp.

“…Do I have a ship?”




That was all of them. Desperate last plays. Racing friends and allies.

Enemies, lost in the storm. The rain kept pouring down, and now it was tinged crimson like the seas ahead. Blood. Blood, destiny, and somewhere in that, an [Innkeeper] and at least one Goblin.

It was new. And somehow, it felt familiar.

They stood at the railing as the storm grew worse. All together after the flurry of everything was done.

It felt like they were dreaming or living so loudly everything else before and after might seem pale in comparison.

A great, terrible, and urgent adventure awaited them. A life-or-death struggle. The only kind of adventure that mattered.

Colth, Ceria, Yvlon, Pisces, Ksmvr, and Vofea felt the ship surging up and down, boosted by the Shadeward’s magics, white-knuckled by a [Captain] into the heart of a storm.

Wistram. Or close enough. The heart of the storm after all.

“She’s heading after Rabbiteater. Roshal’s sending ships after her.”

“We’ll get her. Point us at the nearest one, boss.”

That was all Colth said. He looked at Pisces, and the [Necromancer] nodded. Ceria looked from face to face, and even Ksmvr straightened.

“No amount of water will stop us from getting her.”

“Aye. And we loot all the treasures and try not to die. Am I doing it right?”

Vofea looked around, and Ksmvr held onto one of her arms. Purely for her emotional support. Ceria gazed past them and saw, for a second, a Minotaur scowling at the waters with his arms folded. Gerial nervously checking his sword and belt, and all the others.

Then she blinked. Ceria slowly nodded and pointed ahead. A glowing comet was streaking across the skies, and the Horns looked up. Softly, Ceria made a vow, the kind she’d never had to say aloud. But some of them were new.

“Until Erin Solstice returns home, not one of us will set foot on Izril. Agreed?”

She looked left, and they spoke.

Agreed, Captain Ceria.


“Absolutely, boss.”


“I swear it on Oberon’s name.”


“By silver and steel, I swear.”


“I promise.”


There. Ceria leaned back, and then she could relax. And wonder if she should pass out now or eat whatever Doroumata had sent her first. The Horns sighed, and then Colth cracked a joke. And they became ordinary people once more.

They had a day to wait…well, less now. Maybe they’d run into Roshal first. Or something else. Or, knowing their luck, a damn Kraken. There were plans to be made, circlets to threaten, and Ceria would do all in her mortal ways to make sure they made it.

However, she was just waiting. Waiting until she returned to this spot. Then…she’d say it.

Horns of Hammerad—charge.”



[Conditions Met: Deathbane Necromancer → Necromancer of Reclaimed Grandeur Level 41!]

[Necromancer of Reclaimed Grandeur Level 41!]

[Skill – Animate Undead (Objects) obtained!]

[Skill – Monumental Animation obtained!]

[Skill – Reanimation: Reclaim Earthly Possessions obtained!]

[Spell – Unearth the Tombs obtained!]

[Skill – Manufacture Stellar Ivory obtained!]


[Duelist of Wistram Level 17!]

[Bound Spell – Rapier: Boneclad Enchantment obtained!]

[Skill – Rising Spearthrust obtained!]


[Seeker of Stories class ob—]

[Seeker of Stories class cancelled.]


[Title – Duelist of Lesegoth obtained!]

[Title Skill – Sword Art: Joveln’s Parry granted!]


[Silversteel Armsmistress Level 42!]

[Skill – Helmet Head obtained!]

[Skill – Ox’s Charge obtained!]


[Dreamer Level 8!]

[Skill – Instant Nap obtained!]


[Reckless Explorer class ob—]

[Reckless Explorer class cancelled.]


[Brave Skirmisher Level 36!]

[Skill – Stealthblade’s Mithrilbreaker obtained!]


[Teammate Level 12!]

[Skill – Teammate: Coordinated Action obtained!]

[Skill – Monitor Attribute (Health) obtained!]


[Antinium Explorer Class obtained!]

[Antinium Explorer Level 8!]

[Skill – Powerful Recital (Stories) obtained!]

[Skill – Directionsense obtained!]

[Synergy Skill: Teammate – Locate Teammates obtained!]

[Bound Spell – Create Water obtained!]


[Explorer of the Fae Lev—]

[Level Ups cancelled.]


[Arctic Cryomancer Level 38!]


[Prankster Level 18!]

[Skill – Threaten Object obtained!]

[Skill – Trickster’s Mana Conversion obtained!]


[Explorer class obt—]

[Explorer class cancelled.]


[Ultimate Supporter Level 48!]

[Skill – Declare Foe: Bane obtained!]

[Bound Spell – Conjure Sticky Pebble obtained!]



<Quest Reward: Skill – Open the Crossroads of Izril (Gateway) obtained!>

<Quest Reward: The Passphrase of Imlerith awarded.>



Author’s Note:

It’s almost done. The count is over sixty thousand words, now, in four days. I told you I counted in chapter-arcs.

The Horns of Hammerad.

The last chapter-arc of the Solstice is entitled ‘Battle at Sea’ in my notes. I will not be writing it now.

As I said, I will be taking my weekly break now, even though I fully intend to rest when this volume is done. I will begin writing on the 14th, and give myself until the 19th of December if I need to, to post the final chapter.

I am surprised I had the energy to do this much. I hope I have continued to meet the standards of the Solstice. The final chapter awaits. I need rest for it. So I hope you enjoy December and family and holidays or perhaps just colder weather. Assuming you’re not living in like, Australia.

Let’s just say I wish you well on this month, and I am not yet able to fully rest. I will recover and do my best. I am not sure everything went as well as it could have, but I do not feel guilty about the Solstice so far. I want to finish it well.

That’s the feeling that’s kept me going the last seven years, and it hasn’t changed, at least. One more chapter, well, of the Solstice. See you then.




Stream Art, Colth by Artsynada!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/illudanajohns/

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/illudanajohns


Stream Art, Ksmvr, Baron of the Trees by Tatolord!


Erin’s Resuce and Infernal Pact by pkay (dance is NSFW and not featured here).

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/peekay


Solstice Erin by Miguel.

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/cmarguel

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cmarguel


Erin by Fiore.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/atlasphenomenon

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/fiorepandaphen


Erin’s Warpaint, Chainbreaker, and Erin’s Pact by Yootie.


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