9.70 (Pt. 3) – The Wandering Inn

9.70 (Pt. 3)

It was all going wrong.

Admiral Rosech lost his first fight that night against Titanguard Etrogaer. The two fought across the ship of the Golaen giantfolk, and he drove his blade into the man’s side, tearing apart mithril chainmail, huge links of metal.

But Etrogaer was too large—and his roar of pain was followed by a hand that captured gravity itself, enough to crush skulls with a simple grasp.

Rosech’s face bled, and his skin contorted, but the [Bloodtear Admiral] wouldn’t die. He fell limply, though, and Etrogaer drove down a maul and snapped ribs—Rosech’s crew dragged the [Admiral] away as they broke from the ship.

Irrel poured a potion over Rosech, and the [Admiral] got up. He had killed his way out of a nest of Crelers and survived everything. He saw a warrior of Golaen, seven feet tall, charging him and grabbed their sword barehanded—drove his sword into the guts of the screaming warrior until he was punching a bloody pulp.

It’s not working! Why isn’t it working?

The [Pirates] backed away from him as he slashed around the deck, hacking at his ship, screaming as they turned, still pursuing that [Prince]. It had to be the [Prince]. Or the sword—his Skill? One of Rosech’s crew cried out.

“He’s gone mad. Admiral! They’re all turning on us. The Iron Vanguard and Terandrians are murdering each other—what’s not working?”

Rosech could see his blade, covered in blood and the lives of Terandria’s nobility. He had killed them. A member of the Thousand Lances. Brave folk, bastards—yet his crazed eyes rose, and the only person who didn’t flinch away from the bloodsoaked man was a scared, slightly hunched boy.

His boy. Irrel, Dorhmin-born, holding a spear. He hadn’t rushed into the fighting. For him—there was nothing but sorrow today. His eyes leaked yellow tears, and he had no pupils, just a coat and hat to protect his head against the cold.

To make the enemy not realize he wasn’t like the other species. Irrel stared at his father as Rosech howled.

It’s not his! It’s worthless—all of it!”

He slashed his sword, and his closest crewmates and friends, who knew why he had done this, stole a look at Irrel.

“It was for him. What’s the point of it if I can’t give it to Irrel?”

His Skill. The Bloodtear Pirates looked at the Dorhmin, a species incapable of levelling, and someone made a sound. A laugh—pained and understanding.

“Rosech. Irrel’s a Dorhmin. He can’t…”

“I. Know.”

The sword pointed at a throat, and a half-Elf froze, but they were past words or fear. The half-Elf had lost an eye and stayed even when he had his own stolen destiny and fate.

“Too late for regrets, Rosech. Your boy…if I’d have known this was why you went for it, I’d have told you to let Maxy die here alone. She’s feasting. Didn’t you ever think Irrel’d rather have a father?”

Rosech looked at Irrel. The lad had seen his friends, ships, and crews he’d known for years vanishing in a night. He had always known this life, but—Rosech turned his eyes to the storm. It was ending. Fire was raining down, and he saw a desperate light piercing the skies.

Captain Lidera was dying.

A maw was dragging the sea down in the distance, and the pull was dragging even the ships behind and ahead of him back, slowing their pursuit. She was not on board her ship; she’d let them flee.

A single glowing figure was standing on a staircase of light as spells fell towards her, shining a beam of light straight down to blind a Kraken itself. It rose, a mangled maw, engulfing the light, and she burned so bright her power lit its flesh itself and tore a hole through the screaming Kraken.

Then—

Gone. Captain Lidera had been a mother to her own adopted son, in her own way. He’d always wondered if she was jealous of the young would-be Luminary. He had an answer. An ending.

Irrel’s eyes were locked on his father as Admiral Rosech leaned on a railing. He could not sit. If he sat…the [Admiral]’s voice rasped as he stared ahead at that [Prince of Men]. That ship…maybe that ship and that one.

He had the strength for it, but he felt someone coming up from behind. A woman he’d never met, but they knew each other. The madness of the [Admiral]’s eyes turned to a bleak smile, and he faced his crew and friends.

“He’d rather have a father? Inseine. Friends. You’re my family almost as much as Irrel. We’re all dead men and women, enjoying our fun. This?”

He lifted his sword and stared at the worthless fates he’d stolen. [Each Door a Destiny]. A way to choose…but only for him. He thought he saw one door now, opening in the distance. He could just sail off and perhaps escape.

But his son. Rosech met Irrel’s eyes, and the lad knew it most of all.

“Father.”

“For one of the Dorhmin; no port on land nor sea will take him save that I am there. What happens when I’m gone? Eh, Inseine? What happens when you’re gone? Should I let Irrel alone? Like the Goblins? Let him have just one. One way out of this—this—”

Rosech was staring at his reflection in the steel of his sword, shouting at it. Desperately. He had thought it would work.

“I didn’t take the Skill for myself. I knew exactly why I wanted it. Why won’t it let me give it to him? Just one. Every almighty triumph and failure I’ve ever writ upon my story has been rewarded and punished in my levels. Just once. Let me give something to him. Please.”

He did not know who he begged, only that he saw the blood running down his blade, the destiny bleeding onto his deck. Then those wild eyes, that man who had lived only for himself and his deeds until the day he hadn’t—

Rosech saw his reflection in the length of his blade lift its lips in a strange smile. A smile that had never graced the [Bloodtear Admiral]’s face.

It had no joy that he knew, for he laughed loudly. No rage in the way he screamed and let blood flow. The smile was calm, and he had never been calm. It filled the face of Admiral Rosech, and those eyes contained a multitude.

The figure spoke with his voice and a flat tone that he had heard since the day he was a boy. The voice of levels and the will of the world looked him in the eye and said:

“[Agreed].”

Then—Rosech looked up at his crew, who stood in awe, and at his boy, who looked at him wide-eyed and reached out for him.

“Please…”

Rosech hugged Irrel with all his strength, then his eyes lifted for one final purpose. Hate me. Love me.

He’d rather have a father? I killed his parents.

His crew had heard him speak it a hundred times as the boy lay sleeping. Rosech stared ahead at the clearing skies, then behind him.

“Faster. Catch those ships. Be it the Throne or Legend, I don’t care. We’re followed by a beast of her own—and she’s got no destiny I want.”

Then he drew his sword and went searching for a gift for his boy.

 

——

 

The Naga’s Den was under attack as it cut the waters ever closer to Wistram. The [Pirates], enemy ships from Terandria, and even the Iron Vanguard tried to bring down the ship now, for it held a Goblin Lord, enemy of all.

—However, those that wished to stop Erin Solstice were forced to board. They had to. At first, the ships attempted to stop The Naga’s Den at range.

It was an art unto itself. Sunder the masts with bolts of lightning. Set the sails aflame. Even shoot lead weights into the hull and drag the ship down; flood its deck with water.

Alas, The Naga’s Den was more than a magical ship. A synergy had developed that was undefeatable.

Admiral Dakelos, the [Intractable Admiral of Sacrifice], had a death-grip upon the wheel. His crew were [Devils of Slaughter]—his ship ran at [Double Speed, By Wind and Oar]. And as water rushed into the shattered belowdecks, the vessel refused to sink.

[My Ship Shall Not Sink Before I Do]. 

Yet even so, they might have crippled her—and she was already in tatters—run her down until she was a floating wreck. However, the [Bloodtear Pirates] who knocked down one of the four masts saw the piece of wreckage float back upright.

Sails ripped into shreds reknit with green magic, and The Naga’s Den might die—but the [Necromancer of Reclaimed Glory] brought her back.

While the two lived, the ship could not be stopped. Nor could any force simply split The Naga’s Den apart or murder the two at range.

Greydath of Blades cut magic and weapons apart like Zeladona, and his sword changed the currents themselves. Bloodtear ships trying to loose a hail of arrows over the decks saw a half-Elf standing on the prow, raising her arms.

A downpour of icy shards fell like sleet. Daggers that struck flesh and ship, shards of ice. [Rain of Frozen Tears], the spell of the Siren of Tides.

Cast by a half-Elf with the aid of the world’s greatest [Supporter], who gave the spell the quality of glass, turning each shard fragile, the shards shattering and spraying into the air wherever they landed.

Magic and might.

Newblood Ships drew alongside The Naga’s Den, and Captain Zoler and her ragged crew were ordered to storm the ship first by Captain Dovom to make up for their failure. They saw six figures standing at the railing.

A woman with silver arms, an Antinium holding four crossbows, a Satyr whirling a sling. The half-Elf and grinning [Supporter]—and the cold eyes of the [Necromancer] standing next to Admiral Dakelos.

The Horns of Hammerad never moved. Only waited for their foe to try and board. Their eyes stared down the Newbloods, and the ship slowed in its advance…fell behind, ignoring the furious orders. Then turned and fled.

Who in their right mind would board that ship? The Hundredfriends Courier was waiting with sword drawn for the first foe, fearless.

—And some ships were refusing to attack, despite the universal condemnation.

Pisces Jealnet heard the arguments as a ship that Admiral Dakelos was preparing to fire upon moved in front of a flotilla, giving furious orders.

—Kaaz will not engage! Protect the fleet!

“The Goblin Lord—”

We have enough enemies!

Dakelos had said less than twenty words since he and Pisces had met. But somehow, Pisces and the [Admiral] glanced at each other, and their brows both raised simultaneously.

“Ah. That is the Kaazian [Lord] I met.”

Strategist Anand said that, and both men turned to him. Dakelos glanced at Pisces, blinking at the faintest ghost of a smile the [Necromancer] wore.

It reminded Pisces, like a dark reflection, of his ride on Sand at Sea with Fetohep and the other strangers. Only, here, he had already found the person he wanted to protect.

If only he were sure he could keep her safe.

Erin Solstice was talking with Greydath. She didn’t sway, but he thought she was so exhausted that she might collapse but for determination keeping her up.

“—plan for now. Just get me to Rabbiteater.”

The Goblin Lord was eying Erin as he grudgingly nodded. She had not asked him one question beyond her plans to save Rabbiteater.

Goblin Lord. Pisces barely knew Greydath’s deeds; he was supposed to be dead, but [Duelists] of Ailendamus had whispered tales about one of the few beings to ever swing a sword and cleave the world asunder.

Another monster like Az’kerash that the Antinium Wars should have ended. Greydath of Blades. Here.

Whatever he was to her, Erin didn’t seem to care. She stood there, the deck rocking, until she noticed Pisces. She had spoken almost as little as Dakelos. When she turned her head, she met his eyes.

There were many things they could have said. Asked why the other was here. Scolded each other. Hugged. Wept or blamed themselves…

“I levelled up.”

It was the worst thing to say, but Pisces followed it with a weak smile.

“—And I still can’t protect you yet, it seems.”

“I know the feeling. I’m going after Rabbiteater. I knew you’d find me. I wish you’d gotten lost a bit longer. I can’t turn back, Pisces.”

He didn’t expect her to. It was so banal that Pisces hesitated as he stood on the deck with her, but he noticed Greydath had not moved off. Ulvama was sitting there, patching up Badarrow’s arms. The two Goblins nodded at him, and Pisces met Ulvama’s gaze. Prisoner of Roshal.

She smiled at him, he thought, for his sake. The [Necromancer] looked around as the Horns came over. Most of the people not busy defending the deck were here, in fact.

But what did you say to the [Innkeeper]? Pisces knew it was the question so many had asked, but he had to say it for once.

“Erin. Can nothing turn you back? I’m sure everyone has asked…but I…”

I have to ask. Erin blinked blank eyes at Pisces and focused on him. Then she chuckled.

“No one’s asked. Told me to, but…no. This is where I have to be, Pisces. I wasn’t sure I would end up here. It’s a lesson I’m learning.”

“…Of what?”

The [Innkeeper] looked past Pisces, into the distance, and turned. When she stood there, she looked like the young woman who had survived Skinner. Only, this one had endured worse than even he. But she remembered it.

“I have learned many things since the day I arrived here, Pisces. I tried, at the beginning, to pretend there were happy endings. But then I discovered monsters.”

She brushed at her wild, tangled hair and went on, glancing at Badarrow.

“Then I did my best, but I could never make a place that could protect people. That would not break or be destroyed. I saw how much I could hurt people without thinking—”

Her eyes flicked to one of his Skeleton Champions silently standing guard at the railings. Then she touched her chest, and he remembered her frozen bier.

“I realized how much I hadn’t done and how much I’d taken for granted. And now?”

She glanced at him, then ahead at something and someone only she could see, then, for the first time, behind her at the wreckage and death. Her eyes met Anand’s and counted the handful of Antinium, then she turned again to Pisces.

“I’ve learned how far I’d go, today.”

It was such a ridiculous statement he wanted to guffaw in Erin’s face. Pisces’ chest burned as he forced a few words out, incredulous.

“Erin. You’ve always—ever since you came here—the day Relc and Klbkch first met me—”

He was trying to say it, but the [Innkeeper] held up a hand. She did not smile.

“That was then, Pisces. I have always been afraid that next time, I won’t have the courage. Next time, I won’t do what’s right.”

Then there was a hoarse, over-loud laugh, and Pisces was glad it came from Ceria. The half-Elf threw her head back, as if it were the funniest thing in the world to hear it from Erin. The [Innkeeper] just looked at Ceria, then around at the others, and her words were for them. Herself.

“I mean it. No one ever gets to know if they’ll be brave when the moment comes, or find the courage to do what’s right when it counts. I am always afraid that I’ll let them down, the people I love. Today, I did what I thought was right. No matter how afraid I was, or how hard it was. Next time, I might not.”

She could say that straight-faced, even now. He loved and hated that about her, and he reached out to touch her arm. She didn’t react, and her skin was wet and cold. He wondered if her heart were beating, and the [Innkeeper] met his eyes.

“If I didn’t come here, I’d lose a part of myself. I am losing other parts, instead. I have to know, Pisces.”

The [Necromancer] closed his eyes, and he was so weary he could sleep. Yet they had miles to go and enemies in the deep. So he bowed with all the elegance he had left, then stepped back.

“Then I shall accompany you until you find that answer, each and every time, Erin. Even if I know the answer.”

She looked at him like a stranger, her hazel eyes wide in a face of bloody makeup, the air whipping her hair, a gold-frocked coat that Dakelos had given her hanging astray across her shoulders.

He had never wanted to follow anyone into certain death like her before. When she turned her head, he thought the wise ships should have sunk themselves and her foes fled screaming from the earth.

But no one was as wise as he. So the [Necromancer] lifted his sword and escorted the [Innkeeper] as far as he could go.

 

——

 

They fled her then.

Fled the [Innkeeper] who fought across the decks as Bloodtear ships abandoned Admiral Rosech, fleeing into the night. Done with destiny. Filled with their stolen fates or simply counting the cost too high.

Even the half-Shark [Captain], who had come back to prove the [Innkeeper] was nothing. No one would survive on this day, not her, not [Princes] or anyone else. That was—the point—

He stormed onto her ship, and his crew fought ghosts. He charged at her, a howl on his lips, and a Goblin Lord cut Dovom’s ship like paper, and Captain Dovom’s bravado quailed. He looked into the eyes of a [Necromancer] that walked down the deck and heard never a sound from the bell ringing from his rapier.

Dovom cut the air, hammered the decks as that blade stung him. A petty thing. A weak blade from a weak man—then Dovom tore at the robes and saw those eyes—not black, not filled with undeath but a stare unblinking, and the blade drove into Dovom’s ribs until the pain drove him back.

Back a step, then another until a hand seized his with such strength even the massive man struggled—and he looked into the grinning yellow teeth of an Orangutan, who grabbed his face as they pressed their blades against each other and pulled—pulled until he ripped part of the [Captain]’s face away. Dovom lost his nerve.

They fled her. His crew, the Bloodtear Pirates. Ran from the nobles, who fought with bared, sharp teeth, dying by fire; the ghosts and the mad [Admiral], who didn’t flinch as someone hacked him down across the collar to the bone but seized his opponent as if to drag them down to their grave with him; the Antinium; even the Stitch-girl, who fought like the end of the world had come.

Erin though. They fled her, not just for her knife or the fire, for they had seen blades and flame before.

They ran because not a one wanted the destiny of the woman who crewed a ship of the damned, the world’s wrath raining down around her.

Terandrian ships met them, attacking, Greydath’s name upon their lips.

The Order of Seasons struck The Naga’s Den, and the Season of Spring and Season of Summer pointed their swords at the grinning Goblin Lord, cutting down [Pirates] as a Dullahan ship broke out of the waves and opened fire.

Ser Greysten heard a howl—then saw the deck in front of him vanish as something blew it apart. He felt blood falling from his face and saw Tulm the Mithril pointing, aiming at Greydath as well.

Vengeance upon both Goblins and…and…

“Dame Pertheine?”

Ser Markus raised his eyes, and Greysten saw the Spring’s Warden standing there. Her face was youthful, for all he knew she was older than he.

Spring’s Warden. Champion of Fair Days. She who had impressed the greatest [Blademistress], Zeladona.

[When She Drew Her Blade: Time Fled Her]. She stood there, swaying, half her body torn away, and Greysten didn’t understand. She would lead their Order into glorious…

The Spring’s Warden fell into the waves, and the Summer’s Champion turned. The Dullahans ignored the [Knights] as they tore at Greydath’s ship with their spells. Every vessel on the sea was attacking his—but the [Innkeeper] kept ahead.

 

——

 

A ship bearing the flag of the Blighted Kingdom crashed into The Naga’s Den, and the Dullahans hesitated—and saw [Knights] boarding their own vessel.

[The Twice-Born Warlord] stood in two places, Tulm the Mithril and the mighty Xol of Ingrilt. His sword swung down and crushed one of the Summer Knights, Ser Vitin. His booming voice and armored body glowed, and he blocked the Summer’s Champion, who drove his axes into the sword, biting into the giant blade.

The [Knights] were outnumbered, and Dullahans pressed forwards to drive them out and support Xol as Tulm pointed. What should have become an advantaged defense altered rapidly as Tulm’s head rose.

He activated his Skill—but the magic falling from above came from a dozen kingdoms, Tier 5 spells, Tier 6—

The Krakenbane Destroyer began to sink to protect itself, but the Iron Vanguard’s ships that joined it did not have the same luxury. A spell split one of the colony-ships in half as Tulm shouted orders, and his fleet broke apart, now defending itself against Skills hurled against them by enraged monarchs.

A ray of light burning from one of Pheislant’s lighthouses crossed the deck, sweeping over Dullahans, and the relief force faltered.

It just took a few moments. When Tulm’s head rose, he shouted, but it was too late. A pair of figures were locked on deck, and his eyes beheld fire.

A burning flame. Molten metal. Tulm the Mithril whirled, and his hand rose as a single [Knight] drove another axe into a body recoiling—a War Walker trying to tear a smaller man off him. Xol of Ingrilt, bellowing as Ser Greysten burned with Summer’s grief and wrath.

A giant among Dullahans fell, and the Dullahans moaned as metal ran and Xol’s head fell from a steaming body. Tulm the Mithril pointed, and the Summer’s Champion wept fire.

 

——

 

Lords, Ladies, prepare for combat! The Kraken’s but a rising corpse, yet the enemy still lies ahead! The Goblin Lord and the traitors to the world lie aboard that ship!”

They had known it might be dangerous—but it couldn’t be worse than Rhir. Someone said that as the [Heroes] got up.

Richard’s armor had been on the moment they saw the storm. Of course, the Blighted Kingdom’s colony fleet hadn’t been the targets of the Bloodtear Pirates. They’d been heading to Wistram out of an abundance of caution due to the fears that this might be a trap and a Kraken would be unleashed on them.

An odd paranoia for the Blighted Kingdom to have, but it turned out to be spot on. Then the fleet had held back from the Bloodtear Pirates, another sensible precaution. There was little to gain. Yet when that [Knight] had shouted at them…it had been the [Heroes] of Rhir and the pride of the Blighted Kingdom that answered.

Richard wasn’t sure where the other ships from Rhir were, but there were enough [Heroes] to do what had to be done.

The first [Pirate] ship they took out fast. Easily; the Bloodtear Pirates were already wounded, and they weren’t ready for Rhir.

A gas spell didn’t affect the [Knight]-[Hero] who swarmed the deck with Emily, Vincent, and those who’d kept their classes. They were all veterans, the first to be summoned.

I’m sick of this. At least Demons looked like it.

His sword didn’t feel as sure as it had when he was at the top of his form and ready for battle. Tom was gone, sent to Baleros, and these were people. Not Demons.

It didn’t matter. He was still ready.

Emily had shot holes through enemy [Pirates]; she was nearing Level 40. The Bloodtear Pirates might be the greatest in the world, but the average crew weren’t on the level of Rhir.

The warship was different. All Richard heard was a babble about a Goblin Lord, and his blood chilled when he realized they wanted him to engage and kill it.

It’s not the Death of Magic. The [Soldiers] of Rhir pounded onto the deck of the The Naga’s Den, and it looked half-sunk already as the Earthers lined up. Fortune saved them; they were storming up a [Light Bridge] spell when the Goblin Lord leapt down upon one of Rhir’s ships.

“Holy f—”

Up! Up!

They took the decks and found themselves fighting ghosts. Phantasmal warriors locked in combat with more [Soldiers]. Richard saw his first actual Goblin aiming a bow around—right before Emily pointed.

“[Pinpoint Spell]! [Rapid Pulses – Water Jet]!”

She put a hole straight through his arm, his shoulder and stomach—her aim was off, but the Hobgoblin crumpled as Vince, a [Swashbuckler]-[Hero], whirled his sword and deflected a series of [Ice Spike] spells.

Get the [Mage]!

Richard pointed. Some half-Elf he thought he knew was pointing a wand at them. She dodged sideways behind—

A metal fist struck him, and he went sliding back, but the [Knight] had the powers of a [Hero]’s class.

[Heightened Reflexes] let him dodge an explosion of metal spikes like some kind of damn robot or something, and he swung his blade as he leapt back. The woman with metal arms punched at him—and stared as his boots left the ground.

He had Boots of Flight.

“Sorry. [Giant’s Sword].”

She used some kind of [Weapon Art] of her own. A curving blade slammed into his gigantic sword, and the deck rocked—when Richard landed, he saw her sprawling back. He pointed his artifact, activated the enchantment, and a wall of force kicked her across the deck.

Emily!

The [Hydromancer] shot the woman a dozen times with jets of water, but they didn’t go through her underarmor. Richard cursed—and Vincent threw himself forwards.

Invisible—

He cut something in front of Richard, and green blood fountained everywhere.

Ksmvr!

A figure fell backwards as the [Heroes] spun—Richard hoped Keith, Cynthia, and the others on the Blighted Kingdom’s ship who couldn’t fight were alive. Where was the damn Goblin Lord?

A newer Earther pointed and slammed a staff down.

“[Mass Disjunction]! Hah! Got them!

The ghostly crew vanished in a huge fifteen foot radius around them. The [Wizard] grinned—then a lance of ice struck him in the side and carried him off his feet.

Idiot didn’t have a barrier spell up. Richard had told him—only the [Wizard]’s personal Ring of Protection had saved him. The [Knight] threw up a shield, and Emily exchanged spells with the half-Elf, who had a wall of ice up.

“Richard. Hit the [Ice Mage].

Milord.

A crisp response from his speaking stone. The ice cracked—and the half-Elf stumbled as one of Rhir’s [Marksmen] shot an arrow through the [Ice Wall] and into her thigh. She raised her hands, and Emily put a hole in her wrist, her stomach—

Fucking aim, Emily!

Vincent and Richard charged across the deck, swords swinging. The half-Elf backed up to the railing, and he saw her circlet flickering. She smiled, swaying, blood running from her mouth.

“—Can’t die here.”

He drove the sword towards her as a prism of ice engulfed her. The blade pierced through the ice towards her—

[Emergency Dodge].

His Skill saved him. A rapier slashed across his cheek, and a pair of blades rang off Vincent’s armor. More enemies. Two men, one a [Mage], who reached out as the half-Elf tumbled backwards into the sea, encased in ice filled with blood—

He slashed across Richard’s shield, but it was enchanted to catch a blade, and the two dueled. Somehow, the [Mage] deflected a [Piercing Thrust]—countered with a lunging stab, a bolt of black magic—

[Lesser Magic Resistance]. [Automatic Parry]. [Superior Counterthrust]—

Richard was sweating as he burned through Skills, but the [Mage] took a bloody blow across his chest, a [Paralysis Stab] nicking him, and he stumbled. He must have been a [Necromancer]; Rhir’s [Soldiers] kept hacking down undead trying to interfere with the fight.

Emily, help! Someone get this one off me!

Another man smiling like a Demon himself was slashing at Vincent, and Richard pressed the [Necromancer] hard. Rhir’s [Soldiers] abandoned the undead, and one of the skeletons speared a brave woman through the back as they threw themselves forwards to protect the [Heroes] with their lives.

It became a melee, and Richard saw the [Necromancer] run through one of the [Soldiers], the man with two swords hacking at a vacant-eyed man with a [Death Grip] on him—

Emily finally found a bead and spoke.

“[Water Bomb]! [Disable Friendly Fire]—”

The explosion still blinded Richard, and he heard Vincent cursing, but it made the dangerous one with two blades vanish. The [Necromancer] was lying on his back, staring up at the sky as Richard raised his sword, hoping one of the Rhirian [Soldiers] would do it—

—Pisces!

A young woman’s voice. More damn people slammed into him, and he found himself fighting an older man with a torn, ragged suit who had a longsword and fought with more skill than Richard had, firing off black bolts that Richard’s armor rang with. Vincent was fighting…a young woman? She barely had on any armor, and she had on facepaint or makeup of all things, which reminded him of Tom.

[Soldiers] once again bailed Richard out, attacking a group of odd noblemen and more ghosts as Emily swore and shouted.

They’re coming from the side! [Tidal Wave]! We need reinforcements!

“—Lord engaged on deck! Lords of Earth—

They had to fight with what they had. Richard lost track of the others in the melee as he smashed his shield into a Stitch-woman’s face, wondering why she was fighting on the Goblin Lord’s side. That young woman.

Was that Erin Solstice?

Richard looked up and saw Vincent had her on the ground. The [Swashbuckler]-[Hero] had knocked her knife out of her hand with a disarming Skill and was blinking at her in the same recognition.

“Whoa. What the f—”

She threw something in his face. Vincent recoiled and wiped at something green and wet, cursed, and raised a sword. He spoke.

“Don’t make me kill—”

Then his features began to melt. Richard’s eyes went wide as he saw steam begin to rise, and Vincent’s face oozed and ran.

Acid. The [Hero] reached for a potion, desperately tearing it from his belt, skin melting away to expose red flesh as a scream tore from his lips—but he was alive. He raised the potion, and Erin Solstice fired a [Shatterbolt] spell through his open mouth.

Vincent dropped as she turned, and Richard stared as his friend fell over. Emily screamed, and he stared at that familiar woman.

“Erin?”

Her eyes turned to him, and he rasped.

“We’re from Earth. We’re [Heroes]. What are you doing?”

A moment of puzzlement as she heard him. The two stared at each other, the [Knight] and [Hero] and the [Innkeeper]. Vincent didn’t move as acid and flesh ran onto the deck. Emily was pointing her wand at something. Richard saw the [Innkeeper]’s eyes rise and saw Emily was trying to finish off the Hobgoblin, who was trying to pick up his bow.

Erin threw the knife she’d picked up, and Richard leapt for it. It spun past his fingertips, and he heard a soft thunk.

“Emily?”

He landed. Looked up—saw the [Hydromancer] grasping at a red blade that had gone straight through the robes Hayvon had gifted her that were supposed to be as good as armor. Erin Solstice strode across the deck towards the figure who swayed there, legs failing her.

Erin plucked the knife from Emily’s chest and pushed

Round eyes. A hand reaching for him. Hair flying. Then Emily vanished over the railing into the waves.

Then it was just him, and Rhir’s [Soldiers] were pulling back, screaming at him one of their ships was gone, and the Blighted Kingdom was launching more spells. He lifted a shaking sword, and she pointed that dagger at him, and he fled.

 

——

 

“Ceria’s gone. She might be alive.”

Pisces was spitting blood after Rhir fell back. He stared into the waters, but if the half-Elf was alive…

“Who were they?”

Ksmvr was being bandaged up by Vofea. Colth threw a potion he’d looted off one of the dead Rhirians.

“The Blighted Kingdom’s [Soldiers]. That lot fought like adventurers. Lots of Skills—less experience.”

“They were from Earth. Let’s go.”

Erin looked once after the ship, and Tulm the Mithril’s ship locked against more Terandrians as Greydath pulled himself up from the side of The Naga’s Den, panting. She pointed ahead, and now they could see their quarry.

Terandrian ships making for Wistram, yet in the distance. One of them was the Throne’s Will, but it was being pursued by the last of the Bloodtear Pirates. Behind them, Earl Altestiel was salvaging the fleet, and Admiral Maxy, the Iron Vanguard, and everyone else were fighting, dying—and it didn’t matter.

Admiral Rosech and the Unsettled King lay ahead. Erin counted the survivors. More Lucifen were dead.

“Can you stop them?”

She looked at Greydath, and he counted, shrugging.

“Seven ships. I will try. I can’t kill all of them.”

“Then let’s g—”

The air turned dark. Erin looked up and sighed as the sky, which had been clearing of the magical hurricane, turned black again. A hand made out of ashy lines in the air twisted downwards, and Colth spoke as it reached down and made the mast…vanish.

“The Naga wants you dead.”

Greydath swung his sword and cut a dozen lines, but more kept forming. Pisces grabbed Erin—then the ship rocked, and a flash of light sent him tumbling…

 

——

 

The Masters of Roshal had seen enough.

The Blighted Kingdom and the other nations had seen enough. Not all of them had the will or the magic.

Two at least did. They activated spells to kill the [Innkeeper]. Kill Greydath. Kill Colthei. Kill them all and damn the consequences and cut their losses.

Yazdil could not have her; thus, the Naga would see her dead. The first spells began to destroy the ship—until a shrieking Centenium threw itself between the [Hand of Quiet Closure] and fell, writhing, into the sea.

It was always something or someone between her. The Goblin Lord was powerful. It didn’t matter.

“Unleash a Tier 7 spell this time.”

The Naga whispered as he sat in his tower, waiting for her to die. The Blighted Kingdom was taking aim as well.

Then.

The King of Khelt opened one of his two scrolls in Khelt’s vaults and rained down armageddon from the age of Khelta the First upon Lailight Scintillation and the capital city of the Blighted Kingdom, Paranfer.

It silenced the spell being unrolled in the ritual grounds in the midst of Lailight Scintillation’s harbors. The streets of [Slavers] and [Slaves], of innocent folk and Roshal’s monsters, looked up, and the winds that had rolled across the harbor from the deep sea and the distant magical hurricane became silent.

The sky lightened despite the dark night—but not the light of dawn.

The blue sky hidden behind dark clouds like ash, tinged red by the blood and destruction and Third Tide in the far horizon, turned grey. A weary grey of age and dust—and it was dust which filled the air.

It fell, motes of it, then columns, then pillars from the sky as magical sirens wailed and Djinni took to the air. Yet there was nothing to fight. They looked up and whispered her name—and fled as a breath of air and magic from the Necromancer of Khelt herself, the first Queen, and her last spell activated in the air.

Dust.

The Naga saw it pour down and cover the harbor as his claws shook. He heard the other Masters of Roshal cry out—heard the wailing sirens grow silent—and cowered behind his protections of magic and glass and metal.

Dust fell and fell—then a wind blew. It was as if a somber-eyed woman, with gold painted across her tanned skin and her glittering eyes, bent over Lailight Scintillation for a moment and the dust were stirred by a single breath.

Dust and death fell over Djinni. And buildings. And folk alike, and they froze—and fell.

Then Khelta’s magic blew, and they vanished.

People.

Streets.

Buildings.

Such that only the greatest edifices and protections remained. When the Naga, shaking, looked out again, the harbor was gone. The colors faded and ashy. The Bazaar of Fables, Lailight Scintillation, the great port of Roshal in ruins.

The King of Khelt sat down and mourned nothing.

Everything.

 

——

 

They were all going away, and her only hope was that somehow, in some way, she’d see them again.

She could not cry. There was a hole in her heart, and there wasn’t even sadness there. The Lucifen’s pact had not done that to her.

The hole had been there before the Solstice even began. Had she even wept for her friends?

She wasn’t sad. It was there somewhere. Erin hoped it was. Or she would stop, after this was all over, and throw herself into the sea. She never wanted to feel like this again.

Empty.

The only thing that kept her moving was the one last task before her.

Just one.

She wished they had never cared about her. She wished death were a lie.

“I’m tired.”

The skies were glowing, and Erin Solstice reached up for them.

“That’s right. I’m right here. It was my fault.”

She saw an eye open in the sky, as if they had shown themselves. The people watching and judging her.

A spark travelled down towards her and picked her up, and Erin landed after a while. She crawled forwards, and someone reached down. She smiled vacantly at a Hobgoblin with braided hair, holding a glowing staff into the sky. A little Antinium Worker picked her up, and red blood was running down the side of her head.

Then Erin was dreaming. She dreamed a weeping man with horns lifted his hands full of ashes. A flying woman was setting fire to everything she saw, and a snarling little lamb with a soul as fierce as anyone else’s was the only one of them who did not grow sick of the bodies falling into the water.

She stumbled, and a man filled with ghosts caught her, and she saw him smile. Erin grabbed something…a wheel of spokes, and looked around.

The world was roaring, and though her eyes were open, she stopped seeing for a while—but she knew where she was going.

The horned man held a piece of her heart in his hands and sank to one knee. He said this as a handful of men and women like him looked at her.

“The cost is too high. Please.”

Erin Solstice met Viscount Visophecin’s eyes and smiled. The smile every devil who made pacts with mortals would, someday, inevitably see.

“Not for me.”

His head bowed, and he gave something back to her.

A pact forged in the fires of Hellste broke, and the Devils bowed their heads and turned away. They left the ship, fleeing, and the last of them held something out to the [Innkeeper] who cost too much.

Erin took a piece of herself back and saw Visophecin leave. It did not mend her. She placed that piece of her own being back inside herself, and there was a crack, a scar—and a connection between them.

A memory. The Lucifen turned and fled.

Then it was just her and all the pieces of her. A pointing finger and the young man who had always been better than he pretended to be.

The brother who had never spoken as much as the others, looking at her and nodding. A little sheep who looked at her with the first bit of respect anyone taller than the sheep had ever earned.

The smile of an ape from her species’ distant past, closer to a person than half her kind. A warrior with the heart of a Demon, raising his sword to the glowing skies…

Erin stumbled, and her dream changed. She forgot where she was. Suddenly, she was back home.

On Earth.

In some great city, alone. Her parents weren’t there. She didn’t know where she was, only that the street had passing cars and buses, stopwalks filled with people walking swiftly to and fro—so many that she was lost.

And short. Erin stood on her tiptoes, and people bumped into her, afraid—a girl again, not wanting to cause a fuss.

—She was looking for someone. Someone very important to her. The most important? She didn’t think of it like that, only that she had to find him.

“Rabbiteater? Rabbiteater?

He was ahead of her, but the people were in her way. Erin hesitated—then someone shoved her ungently. A scowling man with torn, burnt clothing and a wild-eyed stare.

She stumbled and shrank away, then saw him vanishing. So the young woman tried to move faster and pushed the other man aside.

But Lord Firrus Kallinad shoved her, and Erin faltered as bodies pressed around her. She saw a desperate father, Admiral Rosech, reaching for someone. A haughty [Prince] whose eyes were locked on the distant horizon.

Behind her, a half-Elf stepping slowly around a kneeling Dullahan, eyes locked on Erin—and the young woman didn’t care. She got up and began to run.

They jostled her. A distant, terrified old man, ancient of centuries, pointing at her and trying to force her to stop. A Fraerling as tall as cities trying to hold her back.

She ran into Firrus again and tried to elbow him away. He refused to move, and he was pushing with every scrap of his strength. So she drew upon her entire being and shoved.

Stumbling, he vanished into the crowd. Then she was almost upon that father with desperate eyes, and when they looked at each other, they thought they understood each other—but each they wanted things that the other could never have.

Rosech and Erin shoved each other down the crowded street. She put an arm out and held him back. Knocked another giant of a man, Etrogaer, sprawling.

Rabbiteater!

Only him. She saw him wearily walking forwards, hand raised as if to shelter three of his friends from the rain. Then his head turned, and she reached out for him.

There you are. She almost touched him, but Rosech grabbed her hand. They looked at each other as Iradoren stopped Rabbiteater and met each other’s eyes. So Erin sighed as the others came up behind.

 

——

 

The Bastion of Contempt was listing. Rabbiteater saw the ship tilting, trying to recover its momentum. He looked back again, and the Bloodtear Pirates had stopped.

Prince Iradoren’s ship, Legend’s Wake, and Throne’s Will were at the heart of the Terandrian fleet, and the 1st Admiral of the Bloodtear Pirates had driven towards them like a promise in scarlet.

His ship had locked with Iradoren’s vessel, and [Pirates] were attacking the Thronebearers. The [Prince of Men] himself was striding over the deck, his bodyguard pointing towards Seraphel, Cortese, Menrise, and Rabbiteater.

It was the end. Lady Menrise was screaming as Seraphel held her back.

Ficombe! Ostevar! Run—”

There was only one ship from the Kingdom of Incantations. All of Tourvecall’s magic and nobility, save for one, on a vessel aglow with magic. The Goblin looked up as [Pirates] wearing crimson armbands crossed the decks.

[Lords] and [Ladies] with hidden faces gently tugged their helmets and disguises off. One raised a hand towards Menrise, and their vessel ignited with magic even Rabbiteater could see.

It bloomed like a terrible flower in the night, and Menrise fell like someone had cut her strings.

There was no more sense to it. Dullahans, Humans, everyone was dying. Rabbiteater’s eyes were on that [Admiral] coming towards him. Then—he sensed a second pair of eyes on him and him alone.

“Your Highness.”

Prince Iradoren stopped, ash and blood marring his complexion. His half-Elven wife, whose name Rabbiteater had never learned, who had never spoken in his hearing, lifted a sword and her veil.

Erribathe’s champions spread out as Ser Thilowen bowed. The Thronebearers surrounded the four wards.

“Prince Iradoren. We will put our lives between yours and Her Highness’. It is our honor to stand with Erribathe at the end. The [Admiral] of Bloodtear shall stop here.”

Ser Thilowen bowed, and when he heard no response, his eyes flicked up towards Iradoren. The [Prince of Men] said nothing. He was just regarding Rabbiteater, his eyes searching the weary [Knight] up and down.

Blood had marred the armor of a [Champion]. There was no brilliant victory that Rabbiteater had won. He had just survived, and his shield still rose, covering the only people he could protect within arm’s reach.

The Hobgoblin was looking back at the [Admiral] making towards them. Another ship had reached his, and his advance had slowed.

She was right there. He began to walk forwards.

“Seraphel, Cortese, Menrise. Stay there.”

The Ivory Three turned to him and tried to stop him, and if Altestiel were here, Rabbiteater knew he’d understand why. The Goblin shook off an arm. He only stopped when a blade cut into his armor.

Prince Iradoren’s sword, the Blade of Humanity, cut into Rabbiteater’s armor as if it were not there and drew blood. The [Knight] pointed.

“My [Innkeeper]’s right there. Don’t stop me.”

“Magus Letfies. Are the [Scrying] spells focused on my position?”

“The—not all of them, Your Highness. Sire, please reconsider. The Bloodtear Admiral is almost upon us, and the Goblin Lord is closing! Golaen will be here in minutes, and the Earl of Rains and the battle with Tulm the Mithril—there’s a ship of Roshal behind—”

Iradoren ignored the worried voices. He only had eyes for the [Knight] in front of him.

“Focus the scrying spells on me. All of them. Now.

The [Prince]’s face was set. His eyes burned bright, like an adventurer Rabbiteater had once met, torch in hand, sword raised to rid the world of monsters. The [Knight] wondered what there was left to make Iradoren look this way. There was no point to killing anymore. Just surviving.

Then he saw the sword come up and swing across his vision. The Goblin blinked at it.

“Uh?”

He didn’t understand, at first. He was so focused on the fighting, looking for her, that he only saw the sword swinging and realized who it was aimed at—

No!

Seraphel screamed. She jumped forwards, trying to shield Rabbiteater, and a sword struck down Iradoren’s blade.

Cortese jerked as Iradoren’s blade was flung wide. Menrise’s helmeted head turned away from Tourvecall’s end.

Prince Iradoren stumbled and for a second looked like a fool. As one did when something they couldn’t predict happened, when he was sure the world would be one way, then it was not.

He caught himself, and his [Soldiers] raised their blades as Ser Thilowen, head of the Thronebearers on Throne’s Will, lowered his sword.

Seraphel caught herself and looked at the [Knight]. Ser Thilowen’s voice rose as the gaunt, pedantic man shouted, and the Thronebearers around him jerked and stared at Erribathe’s warriors.

“[I Sense Treachery]. Defend Her Highness! To arms! To arms!”

Seraphel! Back away from that thing.

Iradoren lifted his sword up with two hands, snarling, and the [Princess]’ hand found Rabbiteater’s and pulled at him. He looked down at her, up at the sword, and exhaled.

“Oh. Really? Right now?”

“Prince Iradoren. What are—

Cortese’s sword cut an arrow and bow a half-Elf raised before the [Marksman] could loose. A [Knight] aimed a sword at Rabbiteater, and a glowing ball of light sent the figure flying backwards, chestplate dented.

Menrise. Cortese. Iradoren looked at them with contempt, for they knew not what he did. But Seraphel? His eyes locked onto hers and widened in recognition, then disbelief, then outrage.

Then?

He forgave her. The [Prince of Men] pointed at Rabbiteater as the Terandrian ships storming towards them faltered incredulously, and the eyes of the world began to focus on the three—no, four ships locked together. The Naga’s Den latched onto the trio joined to the death.

The [Admiral] was right there, but Rabbiteater tore his eyes away from Rosech and looked grudgingly into those familiar eyes.

“Make sure its face is visible. Do not harm my royal sister. Kill it.”

Rabbiteater felt the [Princess] pulling him back. Thronebearers charged into the Kingdom of Myth’s soldiers, and Iradoren strode towards him. Even now—even now.

The Goblin had never understood those eyes.

There they were, three ships locked together, Throne’s Will, Legend’s Wake, Unsettled King—the Bloodtear Pirates and Admiral Rosech virtually on top of them, and suddenly, Rabbiteater was raising his axe and trying to block the Sword of Humanity as it swung towards him.

His golden axe, edged with jade, a weapon from the dungeon of Liscor, his brother’s blade—

The sword bit into the jade edge, and the axe’s magic dulled. Rabbiteater was too shocked to feel the loss as he pivoted, and the sword glanced away from his helmet.

“What are you doing?”

The Goblin did not roar or scream. Prince Iradoren surged forwards, sword in both hands, chopping down across the deck, and the Hobgoblin backed away. Again, he tried to parry the relic-blade, and his axe lost another fragment of metal. What saved him was the fact he neither charged nor fled; he just pivoted, and the surprised [Prince] swung his sword up, point-first, and the [Knight] stared at him.

Scrying spells showed the confusing battle to an audience. A [Knight], one hand held up, reaching for a shield, backing away from the enraged [Prince of Men].

“Iradoren. Are you serious?”

“Monster. Hold him still, Aradien.”

Iradoren’s consort lifted a wand, her other hand holding an elegant blade, and pointed.

“[Soften Ground]. [Wood to Stone].”

Rabbiteater jumped as his boots began to sink into the deck—a moment later, the melting wood froze and turned to stone. Iradoren slashed for his chest, trying to bisect the Hobgoblin.

He missed as Rabbiteater hopped again, and the [Prince]’s sword sheared through a glowing fragment of magic.

[Bound Spell: Steps of Light]. Rabbiteater backed up, looking around for somewhere to flee. An arrow pierced his Cloak of Plenty and struck him in the back.

“Ow.”

He twisted as more [Archers] of Erribathe fired, and he hit the deck hard. The [Prince]’s bodyguard rushed towards the fallen [Knight], but Cortese shouted, his voice tearing with fury.

[Challenge!]. Face me! Iradoren, Kaaz will never allow—”

He shouted as a trio of bodyguards swerved towards him, but the [Prince of Men]’s gaze silenced the Hundredlord.

“I do this for Terandria itself. [My Will is Yours]—out of my way!”

Thronebearers and Ser Thilowen were trying to push the [Soldiers] back, but they moved aside instantly, and the [Prince] strode past them. Rabbiteater got to his feet and saw Iradoren and his wife coming straight at him.

Rabbiteater wasn’t even sure Aradien was a [Princess]. No one had ever really called her that.

Everything Iradoren was made Rabbiteater mad. But—the Goblin was walking backwards, using the railings of the ship to screen his left side, ducking back, retreating from the [Prince]. His shield came up and blocked a spell that made his feet skid back.

“I don’t want to do this. I never attacked you.”

Do you think I am blind?

There was no stopping the [Prince]. Those eyes were burning with a hatred—Rabbiteater feinted backwards, then rushed forward, axe swinging down.

[Grand Slash]! The [Prince] pivoted, deflected the Skill, and kicked.

—Rabbiteater landed ten feet away. His chestplate was dented. It hadn’t even been a good kick.

Either the [Prince] was stronger than Etrogaer or…he had been born to kill all his kingdom’s enemies. Rabbiteater rose shakily and saw Iradoren coming at him. And he still didn’t have the strength he needed.

I don’t want to kill him. But—Rabbiteater tried to block the sword, and it sheared through his shield, cut down his arm, and he screamed.

The agony. He had never felt a sword cut that hurt that badly! The Sword of Humanity felt like a living brand on his flesh, and it pulsed agony. Rabbiteater jerked, and Iradoren pointed the sword down to spear him to the ground.

Seraphel slapped Iradoren.

Her [Ghost’s Hand] passed straight through his protective spells, and his head cracked around. Aradien cried out, swinging her sword’s flat edge towards Seraphel.

“[Royal Rebuke]!”

It kicked the half-Elven woman like a mule to the chest, and she doubled over. Seraphel tried to shove Iradoren off his feet. He caught one arm, tossed the [Princess] across the deck, and stared at Rabbiteater.

“Look how you corrupt them.”

“Corrupt them? What am I, poisonous? You—aren’t going to stop, are you?”

Menrise was throwing spells as she backed up—a [Warrior] of Erribathe threw a javelin, and it struck her across the helmet. She fell back, and Rabbiteater looked at Iradoren.

“You’re going to kill them. Stop.

The [Prince] just charged, boots clinging to the deck, sword raised. Rabbiteater exhaled, and a wave of flames burst from his visor.

The [Boon of the Guest] vanished—but his last breath of Dragonfire roared across the deck, and the mortals flinched and screamed. The [Prince of Men] saw the flames, pointed at them as he tore a hand from his sword, and spoke.

“[Returned Against the Foe].”

The flames reversed. Rabbiteater rolled, crunching his shoulder across the deck, and his armor was hot and flames clung to it as he got up. Then he lifted his axe, and Iradoren’s blade severed it.

The beautiful artifact that Headscratcher and his brothers had nearly died for fell, broken, and the [Prince of Men] raised his sword he had been born to wield. They weren’t matched at all.

[Split the Earth].

[Giant’s Parr—]

This time, Rabbiteater didn’t get to fly. A shockwave just drove him across the deck, trying to crush his flesh and armor, throwing him and everyone behind him around like ragdolls. Rabbiteater heaved with all the strength of a [Champion] and finally deflected the shockwave.

Then he lay there, arms shaking. Axe and shield gone. When his head rose—the [Prince] was coming.

It would be so easy to lie there. Easy to give in and let it happen. But she was almost here. And…he couldn’t stop seeing it, even now, with the wrath of Erribathe upon him.

The light was so bright. 

The storm overhead was red and grim, dark winter skies and oppressive, crimson rain, the waves reflecting the flashes of magic like distorted flashes of violence.

Yet Rabbiteater did see brilliance. It was coming from the side. From him as well, and it seemed to pulse brighter in response to the [Prince]’s presence.

Rabbiteater stood, feeling as if two clawed hands were pulling him up from afar, and he saw their owners.

Three of them.

Goblins.

They were making towards him, battling [Pirates]—even a damn Djinni flying overhead. Just three Goblins, all of them Hobs.

One leapt, sword in hand, with a grey beard, a faded, gigantic sun long set. Hiding.

Greydath. It shocked Rabbiteater to see the Goblin Lord and realize he had always looked like that. Maybe Rabbiteater had never noticed, but it was so obvious.

He had a beautiful light. He was a story Rabbiteater didn’t know—but for all his radiance, he seemed lesser compared to the other two.

Ulvama and Badarrow were bright. Brighter than any [Chieftain] that Rabbiteater had ever met. It was more than just light; it was a desire to follow and listen to them. Ulvama looked like a door that linked him back to a great gathering of every Goblin that had ever been, wise, petty, but brave.

And Badarrow? He was a bow, a nocked arrow, eyes on his brother. A line of concentration, two narrowed crimson eyes. Still not ready yet—but someday, he would draw back on a bow, any bow, and hit any target he desired.

It was their potential he saw. Potential, and what they might give the world if only—

Rabbiteater!”

Cortese’s howl made Rabbiteater realize he’d just been staring at the other Goblins. He turned, saw Iradoren swing, and backstepped.

[Long Backstep]. He was running out of Skills. By contrast, the [Prince] just halted his swing, pointed his sword, and leaves fluttered down around him. Beautiful maple ones from a tree Rabbiteater saw—before they became flying projectiles that cut across the deck.

It’s just not fair. Rabbiteater understood the [Pirates]. Here was a [Prince], and the Goblin was supposed to fight that? He raised one arm to block, and one of the ‘leaves’ passed straight through half his arm.

Rabbiteater stared at the hole in his arm, a slice that went through bone and flesh. He threw himself left, but the leaves kept flying.

I can’t do this.

He faltered, boots slipping on the deck, and someone caught him. A hand steadied Rabbiteater’s back; he looked back, and there they were.

A pair of grinning Goblins.

—They were hundreds of feet away, on Rosech’s ship, but they were also, simultaneously, right there. Ulvama and Badarrow’s eyes were locked on Rabbiteater, and…what did they see?

Greydath’s gaze was on the [Knight] as he straightened. A hidden face turned, and the presence any Goblin would feel and be drawn to grew stronger. Was it an aura? Not exactly. It was like a vivid soul shining past all the flesh and armor.

The [Knight] turned and didn’t dodge as the leaves cut through the air towards him. The [Shaman]’s eyes glowed as she threw out a clawed hand—

Glowing fishes swam out of the air and drove towards the leaves, intercepting each one in flashes of magic. Iradoren snarled at the ridiculous display. He was sick of chasing Rabbiteater, so the [Prince] pointed, and one of his [Marksmen] lifted a bow. They loosed—Badarrow’s arrow hit their bow before their fingers had fully let go of their arrow.

[Sniper]. The arrow meant for Rabbiteater’s heart went wide, and one of Iradoren’s followers lifted a javelin to throw. They hurled it, and Ulvama crooked a claw. Flowers burst over the javelin, and it fell. Another [Archer]’s arrow exploded in midair as Badarrow’s arrow hit it mid-flight. Not even Badarrow knew how he’d made that shot. Only that he had to, so he had.

Goblins. 

Rabbiteater saw Iradoren hesitate one moment, then come across the decks at him. But this time uncertainly.

Perhaps he felt it too. Rabbiteater was tapping into something in his chest. His own resplendent well of something, and it was not magic or the precision of bows, nor even the mastery of swords he called upon.

It was something else. He had no sword—so he looked around, and Princess Seraphel held out her hand.

Sword!

She was dozens of feet away from Rabbiteater, and one of the Thronebearers didn’t hesitate. They slapped a hilt into her grip, and the 4th Princess tossed the blade through the air.

She was lucky—the Hobgoblin saw it flying at him, ran, jumped to catch the blade—and when he landed and his sword met the Blade of Humanity, he lost a chunk of it. But he was still fighting, backing away from the [Prince] of Men—

 

——

 

There was something wrong with him.

“To the aid of Prince Iradoren!”

Golaen had joined the fighting, or begun to. But Titanguard Etrogaer hesitated as he strode towards Rabbiteater and Prince Iradoren, a maul in his hands.

He was of Golaen, ally to the Kingdom of Myths, one of the Restful Three, and yet he didn’t know why Iradoren was attacking Calanfer and Ser Solstice.

Etrogaer felt, instinctively, the need to aid Iradoren, but the two were fighting so swiftly, Rabbiteater dodging back, trying to evade the [Prince]’s slashes that he couldn’t block, that Etrogaer had to judge his attack.

Etrogaer! To me! Unmask this enemy of humanity!”

Iradoren called out, and Etrogaer saw the helm swing towards him. He did not know what lay behind Rabbiteater’s helm, but Ser Solstice halted as Etrogaer lifted his maul with uncertainty.

“I’m not your enemy. Look.”

His hand pointed, and Etrogaer saw the Bloodtear Pirates. The [Champion] edged backwards from Iradoren as the [Prince] raged.

“Titanguard. Kill him.

And Etrogaer took a step forwards. Rabbiteater’s hand rose, and he said:

No.

Two wills clashed around Etrogaer. The Titanguard’s unthinking obedience halted, and he drew back. Blinking. Staring at—

Iradoren’s mouth was open in horror and disbelief. Greydath stopped fighting. And his eyes locked on Rabbiteater in the distance. Widening with surprise, recognition, incredulity…and hope.

It was just for a second, but in that moment, Etrogaer looked uncertainly towards the [Prince of Men] and found a worthier enemy in the [Pirates] and the Goblin Lord he could see. He stepped back, and the incredulous [Prince] wavered, then called out, and ranks of his [Soldiers] advanced.

“Slay the enemy of Erribathe, warriors of the Kingdom of Myths! If all of Terandria should falter, you will not.”

Hillsfolk of Torek’dale. Osverthian-clad [Soldiers]. Kehndroth lancers—half-Elf Skyguard from the Village of the Spring, all advanced in a single army that had laid legends low in times past. Yet, when they laid eyes on that famous [Knight], they did not see a monster’s face.

He sounded so—normal. Rabbiteater pointed one hand, and Erribathe’s own halted as he called out.

“Enemy? If you want one—there they are. Come on. Let’s get them.”

The Goblin’s finger pointed not at Iradoren, but at the Bloodtear Pirates. For a second, Erribathe’s people wavered until the [Prince] drove his sword down, and his will grated across the air.

[I Command Your Humanity: Kill Him].

Then they charged, an unthinking mass of warriors without fear—but without anything else too. [Archers] swinging their bows like clubs, soldiers forgetting tactics and positioning as they tried to bring down Humanity’s foe.

—But Thronebearers formed a line around Ser Solstice, the [Knight] who had been, just for a second, their Lightherald. They faced down Erribathe’s forces, and Iradoren could not fathom it.

He was a [Prince of Men].

Yet the Goblin? He was a [Champion] of everything. Everyone.

When they came across the decks, Rabbiteater felt his sword rise and understood. The Sword of Humanity would cut the ordinary steel in half.

Unless…his aura twisted along the blade, and his sword struck Iradoren’s. For the first time, the [Prince] recoiled as his strike went wide. Rabbiteater checked his undamaged sword and smiled.

So that’s how you did it. He drew on that force within him, and more [Soldiers] and [Knights] turned to defend him. He swung a sword into the [Prince]’s sword and then saw real fear in Iradoren’s eyes.

Goblin Lord.

Rabbiteater had no idea what he was talking about.

 

——

 

Princess Seraphel saw Rabbiteater and Iradoren dueling now, equally, across the Throne’s Will as [Pirates] advanced towards the two fighting nations.

It was madness, but Iradoren and Rabbiteater ignored everything else in the world. They were locked in strife, and she heard Iradoren panting. He was no longer confident, but his desperation made him deadlier. Fear, now…fear of what he saw.

A single Goblin was matching a [Prince]. Iradoren’s voice rasped as Seraphel ducked away from fighting figures. His bodyguard was winning, and Seraphel looked for someone, anyone, who could help Rabbiteater, and there was no one.

Just [Pirates] battling the ragged force assaulting them from behind. An [Innkeeper].

Djinni and masked figures slaying everyone, led by a Gnoll—enemies—Cortese and Menrise were pinned by the struggling ranks.

“Humanity needs a leader to stand against your ilk.”

Iradoren whispered, and Rabbiteater kicked at his groin, slipping, and shoved the [Prince] back a step, then deflected an axe one of Iradoren’s bodyguards swung at him with an oath.

“Stupid. I don’t hate Humans. I never have.

Iradoren’s consort, Aradien, hesitated one second as she aimed a wand at Rabbiteater until the [Prince] howled at her, and she loosed a spell. Seraphel looked back as the Hobgoblin went sprawling—but a Thronebearer caught the next spell on a shield, then Iradoren ran the brave [Knight] through.

Help me.

The [Princess] saw a grinning [Pirate], and one of Rosech’s crew pointed a hand-crossbow at her. Her desperate voice and her eyes were fixed on…

The [Pirate] blinked as a sword slashed his hand off. Then—turned—and he saw a forgotten warrior, the last of its number, who had fought across ship after ship and come from Izril’s shores—hesitate.

The Skeleton Champion ignored the [Pirate] fleeing and looked at the [Deathtouch Princess]. And a ghost fighting across the deck, a [Strategist] pointing a killing wand, halted.

Admiral Dakelos turned as the ghost of [Strategist] Veine and a Skeleton Champion halted. One looked towards a [Necromancer], the other towards the [Admiral].

Seraphel pointed at them, and the two dead beings slowly bowed and knelt. Seraphel met Dakelos’ eyes, and the [Admiral] hesitated—and nodded.

Pisces Jealnet stared at Seraphel as if he had never met anyone like her, yet the [Princess] just waited for a disbelieving nod—before she turned.

[Royal Bodyguard: Two of Life, Two of Death].

A ghost’s eyes brightened, and the skeleton’s flaming eyes burned white as its armor changed and became golden. Dame Neranthei lifted a sword that was now glittering—and Seraphel pointed.

Save him!

The two undead and the [Knight] charged Prince Iradoren, and he whirled, snarling when he saw Seraphel. Rabbiteater kept laughing.

Sister! Can you not see what he is?”

She herself ran past her bodyguard, and Iradoren caught her arm as she flailed at him with a dagger. But her face was outraged, for all it was dead white.

“Brother. The age is turning. We have seen kin die and Dragons flying—and you still cannot hope for one good thing in the world?”

Her eyes were locked on Rabbiteater as the Hobgoblin stopped, panting. Iradoren turned from Seraphel to Rabbiteater, and he shook his head. Then he seized Seraphel as Rabbiteater leapt, and the Hobgoblin hesitated, unable to swing for fear of hitting the [Princess]. A spell struck his armor, and he jerked.

“[Paralysis]—”

Aradien caught Seraphel as Iradoren shoved the [Princess] away. Seraphel kicked the half-Elf, fought, bit—and cried out as she saw Rabbiteater sit down.

“Ah.”

That was all he said as his helmet rose to take in that silly [Prince] with death in his eyes.

 

——

 

Admiral Rosech was almost there, but he turned at the last moment slowly. Resignation in his eyes.

They had never spoken before. But the [Innkeeper] and the [Admiral] recognized each other as she came down the decks. The last of his crew were around him. Murderers, rogues, [Pirates] all.

Her enemies were behind her, and the ship that had carried her this far was sinking into the waves.

She left it behind. The [Innkeeper] had a single kitchen knife in hand. He lifted his sword and nodded to her.

Erin said never a word as the [Pirates] charged across the deck. Rosech pivoted towards her reluctantly and heard the voice of a Goblin Lord in his ears.

You. Die.”

A sword swung through the air, faster than Rosech had ever seen, and his blade compressed against his chest as the greatsword flicked him.

Rosech hit the mast of his ship, and the enchanted wood cracked like his ribs. He saw a disappointed Goblin lower his blade.

[Adamantium’s Guard]. Rosech’s sword was half cut in twain. The Goblin spun, and a rank of [Pirates] vanished.

The [Innkeeper]’s crew were outnumbered. She had barely two dozen actual souls against his entire crew. Ghosts vanished as [Pirates] cut them down, and Rosech got up onto a shaking knee.

“Irrel?”

Where was his boy? He saw someone running at him, and black flames seared over his arms as he shielded his face.

They would not stop burning and ate away at his skin. He would lose that arm before they quit.

It mattered not, so he lifted a flaming arm and backhanded her. The [Innkeeper]’s head snapped sideways. She put the knife through his shoulder, and the tip cut his uniform and sank into his flesh.

“—me go.”

He kicked her. She flew back across the deck, rolling, tumbling, still holding her knife, and Rosech staggered upright.

Another [Admiral] came at him next. A proper man of the sea fired a crossbow into Rosech’s chest, and the two did not duel.

They stabbed each other. Rosech’s blade exited Dakelos’ back, and he kicked the man off him as the ghosts flickered.

“Not you either. Not you, nor you—

None of them were what he needed. Stumbling, Rosech turned and looked for the right one, ignoring Dakelos, who tried to push himself up and slid in his own blood.

The [Innkeeper] tried to come after Rosech, but a figure wearing a mask of black cloth leapt for her. An [Assassin]—a glowing pink blade swept his head off, and a little lamb shot two more swathes of magic through a second [Assassin].

“Not Roshal either. Nor you nor you.”

A little Sariant Lamb. Rosech’s laughter was wheezing, a hiss through his lungs. Someone shot an arrow into him, and he saw a Hobgoblin lower his bow, incredulous, as the tip barely went through Rosech’s neck.

I’ve always been tough. Rosech limped forwards, gasping. The [Prince] was fighting…his own kind? Golden men and women were locked in combat with Erribathe’s finest.

Why?

There you are.

Rosech began to run. His eyes were on the three of them. That [Prince]. Or that [Princess], touched by fate. Or that lad the world loved.

A Goblin wearing a helmet, Irrel said. Give me that. Rosech lifted his sword, a howl upon his lips.

He crashed into a warrior with bare chest and axes, who swung them again and again into Rosech’s side, and the [Admiral] cracked the skull with one hand. He swung into a half-Elven [Blademaster]’s sword and kept pushing until the locked blades sheared through the [Blademaster]’s own chest.

He raised his sword like a javelin to hurl it at one of them, and the [Innkeeper]’s people poured over him again. His crew was backing up; a Skeleton Champion beheaded Inseine, Rosech’s [First Mate], and the [Admiral] stopped for a second.

His fist shattered the glowing lights—and then he saw a silver fist.

A hook. Rosech felt his feet leave the ground a second and punched back, but the woman’s face barely deformed. Her metal face dented, and she hit him again with a fist full of spikes.

He smashed her across the jaw with his sword hilt, and her arms exploded into spikes that rammed in skin-deep—and refused to go any further.

Tough. Rosech’s second punch tore the floorboards apart as Yvlon Byres skidded. He tried to hack down on her back, but she was too close, so he punched her again and felt her teeth crack—but the [Armsmistress] tackled him until his knee sent her head craning skywards.

They traded blows across his deck, smashing into railings, and she—wouldn’t—fall—

Her punches to his chest finally snapped a rib in two, and Rosech cut down. He sheared through half of her arms, and blood ran, but she didn’t feel a thing. Her blue eyes were wild and insane, a beast made of metal.

“I’ve got no time for this.”

The [Bloodtear Admiral] tried to back up. He whirled, eyes on his target, and she lunged, snarling.

A feint. Admiral Rosech spun as Yvlon Byres punched through the railing of his ship, and wood rained down into the waters below. The deeps. She pivoted, and Rosech grabbed her hand.

His own smile was filled with broken teeth and blood. He spat a Skill.

“[Damned Weights]. Get off my ship.”

Glowing chains with metal balls appeared and locked themselves around Yvlon’s ankles. She tried to dodge—he kicked her off the ship. One arm reached up, stretching, stretching—but her body was pulled down into the deeps.

Rosech turned away and met a Courier at sea. Seve-Alrelious swung a sword into Rosech’s face, and the [Admiral] looked him in the eyes. He never flinched when Rosech stabbed him through the heart, and he kept cutting the [Admiral]. Rosech struggled, sliding on the decks with his own blood.

Not you either.

 

——

 

“Yvlon?”

They were under attack from behind. Roshal. One last ship. Ksmvr had killed six [Assassins], and Erin was limping forwards, ignoring Rosech.

Greydath was slaughtering Erribathe’s warriors as Bloodtear Pirates tried to protect their [Admiral]. He would—not—die.

No one could snuff out his life. Greydath, not Dakelos, not anyone he ran into. He might already be mortally wounded, but like all of them, he had a strength beyond reason at his end.

Yvlon went for the [Admiral]. Ksmvr saw the two fighting across the deck and ran after her. He leapt—but an arrow from one of Erribathe’s [Archers] struck him in the chest. He landed, coughing, and saw the weights appear around her ankles.

Then—Rosech kicked Yvlon off the ship.

A [Pirate]’s way of fighting. And she was already too heavy to—

Yvlon!

Colth turned, eyes scanning the frenzied deck, shouting at Erin.

Erin! They’re after you! Er—

Ksmvr ignored the [Supporter]. He ran to the broken railing and looked down. She was down there. 

She was already—gone. Ksmvr stared into the black waters. She was down there.

He began to leap overboard, but Vofea caught him. The Antinium struggled—until he saw something break out of the waters. He recoiled, then grabbed for it desperately.

It was—a line of metal. An elongating, silver hand, thinning with each passing moment, already half the normal width of her arm.

She was reaching up. Ksmvr caught the hand and tried to drag it up. How far down was she? 

“Pull. P—

His feet skidded across the deck, and he slammed into a good section of railing. Ksmvr tried to heave with all his strength as Vofea desperately locked her hooves against the railing, but he felt his arms cracking with the weight.

How far down was she? How heavy—

—The arm was thinning. The Silversteel metal was thinning as she sank, unable to pull herself up. He saw it bending under the weight. It was as thin as two fingers—then one—

It was going to snap. The [Skirmisher] tried to pull her up, his beloved friend. Yvlon.

He was too weak. The abyss had her. The waters he feared so greatly would not let her go, and her grip was fraying. She was drowning.

“Ksmvr—I can’t—”

One of Vofea’s hooves cracked under the strain. Pisces was running towards them, but Ksmvr knew it was too late. He looked down at Yvlon’s hand. It was slowly letting go. Could she feel his grip from above? 

One last failure, Ksmvr. The Antinium had all four arms on Yvlon’s. Slowly, one hand let go. Then another.

“I’m sorry, Yvlon.”

Vofea looked at Ksmvr as the hand began to snap, and the Antinium removed something from one of his hands. Then, gently, he slipped a pale ring like the wind and water itself, like a breath of air, onto her finger.

His Ring of Waterbreathing. Ksmvr held that hand one last second—squeezed hard with all his might—

Then he let go.

Pisces stopped, panting, and Vofea slammed back into the decks as the two recoiled. Ksmvr sat up and looked down.

The waters were black now. Black, and the waves were breaking against the ship’s hull. The silver gleam had already vanished. If she was alive—

The Antinium whispered louder than his thoughts.

“She’s alive.”

“Ksmvr.”

Pisces looked at the Antinium’s bare hand. Ksmvr stood and drew his swords. He turned to face the decks and saw shadows racing after Erin. When he looked at Pisces, the [Necromancer] turned and saw a Gnoll prowling across the decks, two swords in hand.

“Come. They will not die before us. Goodbye, Yvlon.”

 

——

 

They got in his way.

They were in her way. Now, there were giant-folk on the ship, Golaen’s warriors, trying to stop her. Trying to help that [Prince of Men], even if they didn’t know why.

Titanguard Etrogaer was in her way. Seve-Alrelious was fighting Rosech, and they were all trying to get to Rabbiteater. The giant warrior of Golaen pointed at Erin, eyes wide with fury as he made for the allies of Greydath.

Traitors.

Erek raised his sword, and Etrogaer’s own gigantic maul crushed the Orangutan. Erek’s form vanished, and his tattoo glowed across Seve’s body as his sword hit the deck. The massive man turned to Erin, and gravity itself became a weapon that smashed Colth out of the air.

The [Innkeeper] threw black flames onto the Titanguard, and he recoiled, roaring. That howl of wrath as he tried to brush gauntleted hands over his flaming armor became a cry of pain. Then a shriek.

Gravity and his strength could not extinguish the flames. He rolled, burning, as she stumbled again.

The [Prince] was cutting down everyone in his way as men and women tried to shield a figure lying on the deck. Rabbiteater, unable to move, staring up at Iradoren. A [Princess] tried to tackle him, and the half-Elf consort dragged her back. The [Prince] was speaking something, face locked with wrath and bitter triumph.

Ryoka called out to Erin as the [Innkeeper] raced forward, alone, but she was so close now, she could not stop.

Erin! Erin!”

Greydath was fighting Iradoren’s entire bodyguard, crimson eyes locked onto the [Prince]’s back as his own blood finally hit the decks. Erin took another step, and someone shoved her.

“Sorry.”

Anand sounded relieved. Erin fell forwards, twisting, and a blade pierced her shoulder. But it missed her heart.

Poison and agony. She hit the ground, turning—and Anand looked down at the sword Iert had plunged through his chest. The Gnoll howled.

The Naga’s servant. Fur had burnt black off half his body, and his armor was in ruins. He shoved the [Strategist] aside, and Erin saw Anand collapse.

“Anand?”

 

——

 

Wrymvr was locked in the depths of the water when he felt Anand die.

The Centenium was trying to swim, but the Archmage of Memory and a Dragon churned the waters, flame and magic battering him.

They hated him.

Wrymvr had no time for them. The Centenium was trying to rise when he froze.

Anand?

The Worker’s life flickered out high above. A soul untethered. The Centenium caught it. Caught it and…spoke. His mind reaching out far as he could.

Someone. Catch.

 

——

 

The Queens of Izril were in uproar. They were watching like everyone else.

Six thrones. Six Hives.

Even the Flying Queen. Even the Grand Queen.

Watching a [Prince] attacking the [Knight] and Calanfer for reasons only he knew, trying to unmask Ser Solstice.

Watching an [Innkeeper] and Goblin Lord. They saw an Antinium fall and heard Wrymvr’s voice, but so faintly that even together—

Link. Do not let his soul vanish.

The Free Queen cried out. She was furthest, but reached out, mind straining to do the impossible.

“I cannot…”

The Silent Queen whispered. The Armored Queen was rising, limbs beseeching the invisible sky.

“First Queen, grant us the strength to do what we must—!”

The Flying Queen was speaking rapidly, antennae twitching.

“No response. We are too far. Xrn is dead. Klbkch is too far. I hear nothing. Impossible.”

The Grand Queen hesitated, then raised her voice.

“Do it. Combine your efforts! I command you!

As if her will could…then the Queens felt another set of minds reaching out. Hundreds, thousands of linked Antinium.

A Unitasis Network. It came from Liscor, reaching out for Wrymvr. Over the seas, trying to bridge thousands of miles by will and faith alone. Each Queen added their will to it, desperately trying to touch Wrymvr’s mind.

All save one.

“It is. Impossible.”

The Twisted Queen did nothing. She sat still, silent. Thinking. Watching. Waiting.

The Antinium of Izril reached out across the sea, and Wrymvr shrieked—and they touched nothing at all.

Then a silence fell over the Hives. The Free Queen’s despairing gaze lifted, and she saw the [Innkeeper] look up.

 

——

 

Ulvama and Badarrow threw themselves at Iert, and the Gnoll backed away, slashing, sending Ulvama falling to the deck. He leapt a spell Nerry shot at him, dodged a sword made of flashes swung by a screaming Ryoka—

Erin looked down at that smiling Worker’s face.

“Anand?”

He didn’t move. Erin saw Pisces attacking Iert, and the Gnoll severed one of Ksmvr’s arms and ran the Antinium through the side.

“Boss. Boss.”

Someone picked her up as Iert spun towards Erin. The Gnoll barrelled forwards, ignoring Pisces’ blade in his side. He leapt—and Colth met him in the air.

The Ultimate Supporter, Colthei, and the Naga’s first servant. They stabbed at each other, their swords moving in identical patterns.

Iert had taught Colth how to use his blades like that. The [Supporter] had lost his smile. They crashed to the deck, and the Gnoll whispered.

“The Naga wants you dead too.”

No more captives. No more—Colth tried to run his blade through Iert’s throat as Badarrow shot an arrow straight down. Iert whispered.

“[Die For Me].”

Two [Slave]-[Assassins] jerked and fell. Iert vanished, reappeared with a slash across Badarrow’s chest. Colth flickered up into a d—

“[Djinni’s Body].”

Iert passed through Colth, turning to lightning. The [Supporter]’s charred body and armor crashed down as Iert backed away from Dakelos’ ghosts. Rivel leapt on him, no sword, just clawing, biting, helm torn away, ignoring the swords slashing him.

Iert still had the arrow sticking out of his chest. His throat was torn open, but the arrow was slowly moving out of his flesh, and his wound was closing. Colth lay there a second, then grabbed a leg.

“Boss.”

Erin was striding towards the Gnoll. She kicked off Colth’s hand, and he rose.

“Leave him to me. I just need—”

His lungs were filled with soot, and his arms were shaking. He was almost out of Skills. She looked at him, and the [Supporter] smiled. A desperate baring of his teeth.

Rain was falling, but there were no tears in her eyes. Nor his. They had to die before she would weep. Rosech had buried his sword in Seve’s neck, and the Sea Courier was laughing, refusing to die as the desperate [Admiral] cursed at him.

“Can you kill him?”

That was all she asked. Colth looked at Iert. The Gnoll was coming at them again.

“I’ve never beaten him. I can do it, but I need—give me a hard job, boss. Please. Larracel is too soft.”

Her eyes were aglow as Pisces turned and saw Colth straighten and face Iert. Erin Solstice’s eyes fixed on the man, and she nodded.

The skies were prepared to unleash more fury, but they were waiting to see who triumphed or died on these swaying ships. Colth stared up at the sky, looking for a miracle. But the night was dark.

It was just him. And her.

The [Magical Innkeeper] pointed at Colthei, and he felt his weary body fill with energy as she spoke. Just words. That was all she had, but they were all Colth needed. He saw the promise in her eyes as she spoke.

“Go.”

The [Supporter] charged across the deck and slammed into Iert. The Gnoll’s blades kissed his armor, but slid off of Stalker’s hide. Then Colth had Iert lifted, was carrying him, ignoring the blows, hurtling towards the railing—

He passed by Pisces, laughing, and Erin Solstice’s voice filled his ears as they fell from the deck. Iert was howling, fearless—until he looked in Colth’s eyes and Erin’s voice filled his mind.

<Mythical Quest – Don’t Come Back Up Until He’s Dead>.

Then the Gnoll was trying to get away, and Colth was laughing, laughing until they hit the water and vanished into the deep.

 

——

 

Colthei vanished into the waters, struggling with Iert in a frenzy of blades and limbs. Pisces stared into the water, and Erin met his eyes.

Colth can’t do it alone. The [Necromancer] looked around for Ksmvr, Vofea. Ceria and Yvlon were gone—

Pisces didn’t know what to do. Until she pointed at him.

Go!

He looked at her and then at Ksmvr, then the young man whirled. He leapt from the ship, after Colth, into the freezing water, eyes locked on the two living shapes sinking deeper. Somewhere, a Naga was screaming, but Pisces dove as the servant of the Naga struggled. Then two of them were on him and refused to let him go, dragging him down—

Let all those who hold chains beware.

 

——

 

The decks were clearing of voices. The crowd thinned, and he knew she was right behind him. But—he was almost done.

The Hundredfriends Courier would not die. His heart was cleft in twain, yet it reknit. Rosech ripped out an eye, and still that mouth laughed.

Rosech…was bleeding. Seve’s sword kept digging for his heart. Admiral Rosech stumbled, and Seve drove the point of his blade into Rosech’s skull, hammering it until Rosech’s vision went blurry.

Immortal. Fearless. The light of a Shield Kingdom in his gaze.

I do not want your destiny for my son.

Admiral Rosech straightened as a bolt of lightning came down and sent the Goblin Lord sprawling for a second. Light illuminated Seve-Alrelious’ face, his wounds regrowing, flesh unnaturally vibrant, sword swinging down like the executioner’s axe.

It bit into Rosech’s neck, and the enchanted blade snapped and stayed there, embedded in the [Admiral]’s bone.

Rosech beheaded Seve-Alrelious.

A look of surprise crossed Seve’s face as the Courier’s body staggered. Yet it still remained upright. His head landed on the deck as blood poured from the stump of his neck, and for a second—his insanity, the madness of Tombhome ceased.

Seve spoke, though he had no lungs or throat. A voice that echoed suddenly, in quietus.

“Alas.”

Rosech stared down at the head as the body slowly collapsed. Then—began to mutate. Something began to crawl towards him, and those of the mortal world started to attack it, Golaen, Erribathe, [Pirates]—

But Seve’s head just watched the [Admiral] step away. Seve’s tattoos flared—and Erek appeared on his hands and knees.

Rainwater drenched the Orangutan’s fur, and he caught a cat who landed on the deck. A Nelgaunt screamed as it appeared in the ocean.

Real bodies.

Erek looked around and saw Rosech. He reached out, but Seve whispered.

“Don’t, Erek. I’m sorry.”

The [Admiral] was wandering away. A vacant look in his eyes. Erek stopped and looked down. The Hundredfriends Courier whispered.

“Now, no one will stop the flesh of A’ctelios Salash. My home is beset by madness.”

Then he closed his eyes, and Erek picked up his friend’s head and howled.

The Hundredfriends Courier was dead.

 

——

 

Admiral Rosech saw the [Prince] finally reach Rabbiteater. The [Princess] tore free of the chokehold Aradien had on her, and the [Prince] kicked her away as she tried to grab his legs.

“No more. Your corruption is the doom of Terandria.”

He laid it all at the Goblin’s feet as Rabbiteater’s steel helm rose silently, paralyzed, limbs jerking as he tried to raise a sword. Iradoren lifted his sword high and stopped.

The [Prince of Men] looked surprised. His ancient mail armor, the Kingdom of Myth’s heraldry, was gleaming even in the fading red rain.

His blood was redder still. A blossom of crimson, running from the tip of the kitchen knife sticking out of his chest.

Pelt’s knife snapped as Erin Solstice twisted the blade. Rabbiteater looked up at Iradoren as the [Prince] staggered—and Erin tore the blade sideways through his chest.

The handle and the broken fragment of metal were still in her hand as Iradoren’s wife, Aradien, looked at the [Prince] of Erribathe.

“Iradoren?”

He crumpled without a word, head twisted to look back at the [Innkeeper], utter confusion in his eyes. His hand touched his chest, mystified to find the gash through his body.

“Rabbiteater. Are you alright?”

The [Innkeeper] ignored Aradien’s cry. She did not hear the lamentations of Erribathe’s folk or care that they saw her. She took a step, and the [Princess] of Calanfer flinched.

Soot was baked into Erin’s skin and faded Goblin paint smeared on her soaked face. Blood was running down one cheek and covered her hand holding the knife. Erin was panting for air, but her other hand gently reached out.

Rabbiteater felt the magic around him dying as a half-Elf sank to her knees and screamed. He took that hand, and it was real and pulled him up.

“Why?”

He knew the answer, but she beamed at him as if it were a silly, funny, slightly stupid question. A smile full of loss and madness and regrets—but not for him.

“There you are.”

Behind her, the [Prince] fell, and she didn’t even know his name. The [Innkeeper] didn’t look at him. She just held Rabbiteater’s arm—then slowly hugged him.

He didn’t feel it. His armor was battered, and he was bleeding, and the world was ending—he was just shocked and horrified.

What had she done?

Then—he looked down at her and felt his armor vanish. Then the Goblin was in the [Innkeeper]’s inn, and she was looking up at him, and he felt safe again.

“But why?”

The violence was continuing around them. Erribathe was fleeing, broken by the sight of Iradoren’s death. Now, the [Innkeeper]’s people were sweeping forwards, and the Calanferians, Golaen, the [Pirates], had no more will to fight them.

Not the ones who walked forwards without fear of dying, nor the Goblin Lord. Greydath of Blades had not halted with Rosech’s crew or the [Slavers] of Roshal.

He killed a fourth Djinni in a flash of light, headless bodies of [Assassins] falling to the decks, and hundreds of dead [Pirates] in his wake. A humming Goblin. When he leapt, a warrior of Golaen looked up, and the Goblin swung a sword straight down. Then he straightened and found his next quarry.

A gigantic man was running behind his [Soldiers], and Greydath’s smile took in another foe from an old nation.

Titanguard Etrogaer was burned, face a mess, and his will broke before the Goblin Lord’s delighted smile. Greydath hopped forwards, sword poking out like a child with a stick—

Rabbiteater’s fist met Greydath’s face, and the [Champion] punched the Goblin Lord into the deck. He owed Greydath that.

The kick to the Goblin Lord’s groin was extra. Greydath was on his feet so fast Rabbiteater felt a hand on his helmet and a blade halfway through his chestplate before the Goblin Lord recognized him and stopped.

What are you—

“Enough killing.”

That moment of hesitation was all Rabbiteater needed. He seized one of Greydath’s arms and headbutted the Goblin Lord, twisting so the greatsword fell to the deck with a clatter.

Then the two were struggling, but for once, Rabbiteater had the advantage. Greydath was overwhelmingly strong—and fast—but he wasn’t holding a sword. Grimacing, the Goblin Lord tried to kick Rabbiteater off him, then blinked and grinned.

“So that was why she helped me. Clever—”

Rabbiteater didn’t know what Greydath meant. The Goblin Lord pivoted—tossed Rabbiteater across the deck, and had his sword again. He charged at Etrogaer’s back, making to kill the Titanguard—

Stop.

The Goblin Lord turned and slashed across Ser Solstice’s chest, but his blade bounced off the armor. He was laughing now, grinning, as Etrogaer looked back and saw Rabbiteater seize Greydath’s arms—pivot—

He tossed Greydath over the side of the ship, and the laughing Goblin Lord vanished into the waves. Rabbiteater thought Greydath let him do it. Then he staggered—and Erin caught him.

“Good job.”

Once more, he stopped, and this time, he actually had a chance to look at her and breathe in and out. It was no less surreal.

She looked completely different. Her clothing was…she was burned across her wrists. Her face was covered with faded, smeared paint and blood. Her eyes had been huge and empty, her hair blown wild—the broken edge of Pelt’s knife was in her hands, and the dead she had walked through to get here had no end.

Erin looked like war. And death. Some kind of dark stranger, a mockery of the cheerful [Innkeeper] to so many.

—He had seen this side of her, and when she looked up at him, for a moment, he saw that relief in her eyes. Then he hugged her tightly.

“Why me?”

She looked up at him wordlessly, as if Rabbiteater were the biggest fool in all the worlds for needing to ask. Every time. No matter where he was…

“I wanted to hear your stories. I had to make sure of it. Even if…”

She turned and looked back at the decks still rife with fighting. Anand was back there. Seve. Erin gazed back, then up at Rabbiteater, and then began to walk away.

As if she had done all she’d come here for, said all that mattered, and it was time to go. Erin turned, and he saw those huge, empty eyes blink at him.

“They’ll never forgive me for that, Rabbiteater. Now they’re not sure who you are thanks to Greydath. He did his job. Now…”

She stared up at the sky and didn’t finish the sentence.

“What? What are you talking about?”

Erin forced a smile.

“Don’t worry. I did it. You’ll be okay. I did it.”

The [Innkeeper] said it again, and he still didn’t understand. He was slow and stupid.

“You’re…you killed him. Iradoren. He wasn’t a good person, but he wasn’t evil. He was a man. A [Prince]. Someone loved him.”

“Who?”

That blank look. Then Erin looked around, but she didn’t see Iradoren. Neither did Rabbiteater. Had they recovered his body? He put his hands on Erin’s shoulders as her head turned again.

“There’s one last person who might hurt you. Then I’ll go.”

“Erin. Why? It wasn’t worth it. I’m not worth it.”

He shook her until she blinked at him and scowled. They were alone for a moment, save for a gasping [Princess], who just looked at the most terrifying woman she had ever met, even worse in some ways than Belavierr.

The Witch of Webs had been a monster and legend. This…was a person who had done this all. At least, Seraphel thought she was a person.

Why this? The [Innkeeper]’s eyes fixed on the [Knight], and she saw he really didn’t understand. So she stopped a moment, and when she blinked and looked around, then wiped at her cheeks and raised her gaze—

Then Erin Solstice was there. An [Innkeeper] far from her inn, but her again, not the person who’d come this far at any cost.

They were the same woman. The laughing, silly young woman who used to serve him pancakes and shout at a silly Goblin trying to creep around naked and look for pants, and the [Witch] who’d slain a [Prince] and burnt her own chains—one person.

“Because, Rabbiteater, it matters. I had to know. Know you’d be alright after so many have died. I didn’t think of what it would cost. I had to come. Just like everyone else—but there was another reason. A selfish one.”

“What’s that?”

For an answer, the [Innkeeper] pointed up at the sky overhead. She had no eyes for the [Knights] of Calanfer, and she did not know Markus, even if she remembered his name. The Lucifen, the Humans of Terandria—they were just people to her, and the [Innkeeper] had put aside her soul to move them out of her way.

Rabbiteater saw only the storm until he realized, surely, the horrified peoples of countless nations were watching. The [Innkeeper] didn’t flinch at their judgment nor care what came next. She was aware of it, but that was not who she meant.

Her finger found Rabbiteater’s chest. A Goblin. She had known Goblins since the day she came to this world, but he didn’t see it. She did.

“I had to know it was possible, Rabbiteater. Once. Just once. With the entire world in my way and every single person trying to stop me. No matter what they tried, I still managed to find you. No matter what that [Prince] tried or anyone else—this is what I had to have. A happy ending. For you, at least. The Goblin lives.”

“The Goblin…”

Chieftain Rags. The five Redfangs. No, before that. Garen’s tribe. The Goblin Lord, Reiss.

She had beheld each and every one’s tragic tale. She had seen them die at Liscor. The one who was alive was Rabbiteater when Headscratcher and Shorthilt and Pyrite and all the others had deserved a chance as much as him. Grunter and Garen and all the rest.

That was what she meant. Erin prodded Rabbiteater in the chest and looked up again.

“I have never saved any Goblin. Not really. Today, I think I helped, at least. They see it. You see it.”

He looked up, then around, and then realized she meant Goblins. How many of them could see…a distant torch, a figure like a lighthouse amidst a storm?

Him?

“Me?”

Erin gave Rabbiteater a faint smile and nodded.

“Maybe then they’ll believe it can happen again. No matter what it takes—the Goblin lived. You see, Rabbiteater, it always ended wrong. Each time—it’s a dark night I’ve lived through. It’s not the first time.”

She brushed at the blood on her face and stared at it. Her voice went on, steady.

“I have lived through other bad nights. And each time…I woke with tears. Cursing the unfairness. It always ends so: and then the Goblin dies. Even if he was brave or good or happy.”

He stumbled, as if struck, and Erin’s gaze lifted, and she offered him a half-smile now.

“This time? Other people died. Was it worth it? Was there anything fair? Either way, the Goblin lived. And the [Innkeeper] had too many regrets and failures, and she would pay for it. But she did not regret that. Now, I know it’s not impossible. Anything I need to do can be done. That’s why I did it. Selfishly. And because it was you. So they could see I meant it.

She lifted a finger, pointing straight up at the watching little Goblins who looked at their champion who lived, at the [Innkeeper]. At a reason to believe it might not end the way they had always known.

“But what did it cost you?”

Erin Solstice saw the [Knight], the Hobgoblin, the [Champion], her wounded, weary guy, a traveller with a story to tell, her eternal guest, her family, looking at her. In response, the [Innkeeper] glanced to the side. She didn’t answer, but sighed.

“…Time to go. You—can you keep Rabbiteater safe?”

She looked past him and pointed, and Seraphel froze.

“Y-yes.”

The 4th Princess of Calanfer stuttered. Seraphel heard the [Innkeeper] inhale, let out her breath, and then the Goblin reached for her. But she was walking back the way she’d come.

“Keep going, Rabbiteater. I just have to finish this.”

An [Admiral] stood in the rain, a look of surprise on his face. The [Innkeeper] walked towards him as someone began to shout.

There are spells coming down on us! Sever the ropes! Take us away! Now, now!”

Hundredlord Cortese was screaming, and the Thronebearers were trying to take Throne’s Will away. Erin saw Admiral Rosech striding towards them across the gangplank from his ship. The [Innkeeper] pointed at him, arm shaking with weariness.

“Step back.”

“I need it. For my boy. Just one fate worthy of him. He’s cursed. Not by his blood or who he is, but how they all look at him. I need something to spit in their eyes. Keep him safe or let him beat the entire damn world.”

He pleaded with her. Admiral Rosech was staring at Rabbiteater, but the [Innkeeper] barred his way.

“You can’t have him. Come on.”

A sword was buried in his neck. His body had more holes in it than intact flesh. Rosech had stopped bleeding, and he stumbled towards her as she charged.

Pelt’s broken knife dug into Rosech’s chest, and he swung a fist, trying to knock her down. They both stumbled—the strength of a Bloodtear Admiral against an innkeeper.

She pushed, and he flew. Pushed with all the weight of an inn, hurling him back onto his ship.

Erin!

Rabbiteater ran for the gangplank as she charged across it. But Seraphel grabbed him, and he saw Erin leap onto Rosech as the howling man got to his feet.

Flames licked over the deck as the two struggled. It was burning him and her, and then she was just punching him, all the weight of a Minotaur behind the blows as he struck her back.

A dead man and a damned woman until she found her broken knife and drove it into one of his eyes. He was running out of strength—but he kicked her off him.

The [Innkeeper] might have shattered her bones—she got up, and she could kill him.

He did not fear that. Rosech rose, eyes empty, and then saw someone get between him and the [Innkeeper]. Then put out a hand with fear and terror.

Irrel.

The Dorhmin boy had fled the slaughter aboard the deck. The Bloodtear Pirates were dead or running. Erin Solstice’s friends—likewise.

The boy still had his spear in his hands, and he was shaking, backing away from the woman who turned to him, a burning, broken knife in hand. Rosech reached out, pleading. He’d watched his crew die, his friends, without blinking. But not that one.

“Not him.”

Her eyes flicked up to Rosech. Erin Solstice looked at Irrel, seeing a monster wearing a knitted beanie hat. Fishy eyes without pupils or irises, faintly aglow in the dark. Big lips, a mouth full of teeth, a squat body compared to a Human.

A monster.

A boy.

She looked up at Admiral Rosech, and he held out a hand, slipping in his life’s blood. Then they recognized each other, and the [Innkeeper] passed Irrel. Rosech got up and smiled in relief.

This time, Pelt’s knife shattered entirely, and she left the piece of metal in his chest. The sword cut her twice, and her blood spattered onto the decks, but neither one cared. Rosech tried to lift an arm, and it wouldn’t move for the first time in his life.

He looked up and saw the black flames had disintegrated his arm. Rosech tried to move. Still alive.

No longer breathing. He grabbed her head in his one hand, and she had picked up his blade. Now, she knelt over Rosech, plunging his own sword into the man’s chest.

A desperate look of concentration on his face, and despair in his pupils, held back only by will.

Her hazel eyes were glowing, heedless of the pain as his grip tightened. Almost relaxed—almost.

One last thing to do before the end. 

She drove that sword of his down and down, and the grip closed to end her life—and she saw the will of the [Bloodtear Admiral] holding death at bay. Fearing nothing but failure.

Then—suddenly?

Rosech smiled. His twisted grimace relaxed. And his grip on her skull stopped crushing her bones. He let go and relaxed.

Her blade touched his heart, and he had no more blood to give. The [Admiral] lay back, smiling upwards at the sky.

—She didn’t understand why. The [Innkeeper] looked into Rosech’s dead eyes that had not quit until the last. And she realized, it was the end.

“Sorry.”

It was not she who said that. The voice was deep and sad and grieving and warbling with tears that leaked from the boy’s eyes.

Dorhmin could cry. Yellow tears. His father was dead.

Irrel stood with his back to Erin, feet braced, and when he looked down at his father—Rosech was already gone. He had watched the [Admiral]’s end till the last.

His spear. Erin turned slowly, and the Dorhmin said it again.

“Sorry.”

The spear had gone straight through Iradoren’s neck. The [Prince] stood there, eyes emptying of a dead man’s rage. His blade fell from his hands, and she realized he had come after her, to avenge his own death.

His blood was running down Irrel’s spear. The [Prince of Men] collapsed and hung there from the tip of the spear until Irrel let go, a grim puppet, and Rosech smiled up at the sky, his mouth open, letting out a sigh of relief.

All promises kept. The boy turned to his father and knelt there as Erin looked around.

Erin!

A voice was screaming her name. She saw an armored figure struggling on the railing of a ship. Rabbiteater. She waved at him and saw he’d made it.

He had nice friends. They were keeping him from jumping overboard. Erin looked around and saw…the decks were cleared.

 

——

 

An [Admiral] had fought his way onto Throne’s Will only to realize Erin had returned to Rosech’s ship. Dakelos whirled—and saw her standing on the Bloodtear Admiral’s ship.

The surviving five Antinium. Badarrow. Ksmvr, Vofea, Revi—looking around, not sure why she was alive—Rivel, Erek—

They had crossed onto Throne’s Will where the last of Erribathe’s soldiers were retreating towards their own ship with the half-Elven princess. Golaen was retreating, blowing wild horns mourning Iradoren’s death.

But Erin.

Erin was on Rosech’s ship, which she had fought across, with a handful of people. Ryoka Griffin, pulling bodies off of Nerry, the Sariant Lamb twitching and bleeding.

Ulvama, limping across the decks to Erin.

And that was it. The [Innkeeper] looked around and almost sat down as Irrel closed his father’s eyes. Then he pointed up at the sky as Ulvama halted.

“It’s coming.”

The [Innkeeper] looked at him, raised her head, and exhaled.

“Run away.”

The Dorhmin looked at her, confused, and she pointed. The sky was swirling overhead.

The storm of the Third Tide had ended. The battle was over. The Iron Vanguard and whatever was left of the Terandrian fleet were separating. The last survivors being cut down as someone won…or lost…

If there were any winners or losers beyond death.

Erin had done it. A single Hobgoblin was sailing away, shouting her name. The Throne’s Will refused to turn back, let alone pick her up.

After all, the sky was gazing down at only one woman. Friend of a Goblin Lord. Murderer of Prince Iradoren of Erribathe.

Erin Solstice. Irrel took one look at the sky, bent to pick up Iradoren’s sword, and looked at Erin. She didn’t glance at him, and he waddle-ran over to the deck’s railing and dove into the sea, vanishing into the water he had been born to.

“You did it.”

“Run, Ulvama. Ryoka—take Nerry and fly.”

The Wind Runner looked at Erin as the [Innkeeper] calmly found the ship’s broken wheel and tried to turn it a few times. The Unsettled King was moving, more from momentum than anything else, but Erin had nowhere to go. Not Wistram. Not after Rabbiteater, so she took them away from everything.

Her hands moved the wheel, though the ship was so broken and empty that it was likely nothing she did mattered. Erin pretended, anyways, for the sake of it, turning the wheel as her eyes rose to scan the sky.

“Erin! I’ll carry—”

Ryoka was setting up her glider, but it was built for one person. She tried to grab Nerry, but the Sariant Lamb bit her.

“Fly away, Ryoka. They want me.”

Somewhere, the Blighted Kingdom had made a ruling. The Blighted King stood up from his throne and gave an order.

For the ally of Goblin Lords.

To the murderer of Rhir’s first [Heroes].

In the name of Prince Iradoren.

The Blighted Kingdom unleashed its wrath. Lesser nations hesitated and held their fire as the King of Khelt raged and warned them.

The five walls of Rhir’s Blighted Kingdom lit up, and magic poured across the world. Erin Solstice tried the wheel again and checked the sky. She swiveled the wheel as the first spell landed in the water, and the world rocked. The Wind Runner screamed as she reached out, arm shaking, eyes filled with fear.

Erin!

“Take Ulvama and go!”

Ryoka was slipping on the deck, and Nerry ran towards Erin as a figure hauled himself onto the deck and lay there, panting. Ryoka ran towards Ulvama, but the [Shaman] shook her head. She was standing there, and a voice rasped.

“I will try to keep her safe. That stupid flying thing can’t carry two. Get lost.”

Greydath of Blades was wounded. Arrows stood out in his skin, and it was baked black. Erin glanced down at the Goblin Lord as he sat up.

“You’re alive.”

“Good job. Now you see?”

The [Innkeeper] stared up at the sky as the Blighted Kingdom’s wrath poured down.

“I see.”

 

——

 

Erribathe, the Kingdom of Myths, was shaking with grief. The descendants of the Hundred Families of Terandria cried out in horror and loss—but the nations hesitated.

The Blighted Kingdom poured its death into the sea as a single ship sailed on alone, heedless of the warnings. The proud nations of Terandria, the Walled Cities and Five Families of Izril, the ancient kingdoms and empires of Chandrar, and mercenary companies of Baleros hesitated.

From the grim Minotaur King of the House of Minos to the Emperor of Drath—they halted and saw hellfire of Rhir raining down. But they did not join in.

King Fetohep’s second spell of cataclysm struck Paranfer, the great magics of the Blighted Kingdom and First Wall or not—and the wrath of even the Blighted Kingdom fell silent a moment.

But then the damnation continued to fall.

 

——

 

“Dead gods. Kingdoms fall. Tree…rot.”

Admiral Maxy of the 2nd Bloodtear Fleet had no curses or oaths that fit. She looked into the horizon and saw that ship sailing under a storm of magic.

Not her ship. Not her surviving six ships, the remnants of the Bloodtear Fleet.

The [Innkeeper].

Rosech was dead.

The [Prince of Men] was dead.

Xol of Ingrilt, the Spring’s Warden—

Names she well knew, including Captain Jiupe and—

They were all gone.

Admiral Maxy was alive, though. She looked around and saw the Iron Vanguard were regrouping. Pulling back. Their sudden assault on Terandria and the Bloodtear Pirates had cost them, and they had no stomach to continue. Did anyone?

A Kraken’s corpse was rising, scorched and ruined. Admiral Seagrass’ serpents were in the water; she’d seen at least one of them beheaded, blood staining the sea.

“Bloodtear’s over. I guess Bloodfeast gets to be the only one left after all. Bastards.”

Of all the things, one of her people griped about that. Shipbreaker Ereiyne was dead pale, Selphid or not, and still shaking. She’d lost her entire ship and all but two of her crew to the Goblin Lord.

Was it worth it? Even Maxy wondered as she counted faces. How many ships and [Pirates] had made it out with a new destiny or name or fate?

How many would be hunted down in the coming weeks or years?

“—We’ve left our mark upon a new era. It’ll never be the same. The New Lands, the Iron Vanguard…wars’ve begun over this, and it’ll make this battle look like drops of blood in the sand when all’s said and done.”

For some reason, the words didn’t give Admiral Maxy the satisfaction she craved. Her eyes found that doomed ship, and she scowled.

That woman had done it as much as Bloodtear. She wondered if she had the chance to ask what Erin Solstice might say.

Was it worth it? One of the [Lookouts] continued a report, voice soft, each word a quiet fact Maxy didn’t bother to check or dispute.

“—Admiral. The Throne’s Will’s got Golaen with it, and it’s almost at Wistram. Even if we were to all turn and race after it with all our Skills, I doubt we’d get her. Even if we did, we’d be within Wistram’s range, and those [Mages] would rip our ships up.”

“Fine.”

The half-Elf scowled. She let the idea of getting that [Princess] go, or Titanguard Etrogaer. She’d realized it sometime halfway through the battle.

In the frenzy and chaos of it all, it hadn’t been obvious…but the more obvious thing was the Lord of the Dance.

“Where’s Nadel?”

“—Griffindance’s got them. Doubt we can catch up.”

“Yeah, thought so.”

Maxy surveyed the only ships in range. Most were escaping, and she could run down a few, but the really valuable prizes had all but escaped her fleet.

Even from the start, though. The Throne’s Will was at the outside of the battle, and but for that crazy [Prince] and Rosech going after it, it might’ve escaped.

Her fleet had never even gotten close. Why? How?

That took some doing, but the answer was obvious in hindsight. You’d have to have a good head at strategy—to save a ship or two in all this chaos. But more than that…you’d have to be in command of the fleet.

Earl Altestiel of the Rains must’ve had a soft spot for some of them. Lord Bel made sense. Maxy grunted softly.

“Well, we took the bait. How many [Captains] we got left, including me?”

“—six, Maxy.”

Six. Ereiyne, lined up next to four other battle-worn figures, and Maxy stopped watching the disappearing prizes and focused on the only ship not fleeing for the hills.

Rainbringer, Altestiel’s flagship, wouldn’t have been able to get far even if the [Earl] wanted to run, but he’d dragged her away from the other ships.

“Looks like he’s sent everyone on board off of it.”

Lifeboats were carrying [Soldiers], civilians—one of her [Lookouts] was eying them.

“There’s a few high-level ones on board, Maxy. No nobles, but there’s even a [Strategist]. Should we pick ‘em off?”

“He’s got his whirlpool Skill, and he’s not using it. I reckon he’ll hit us with it if we go after his people. It’s just one man on that ship.”

“Is it a trap, Maxy?”

Captain Ereiyne wasn’t happy about it, but Maxy turned and spat.

“Probably is, but it’s more like a deal. Take us in. The other ships? Stay wide, near those liferafts. [Captains] boarding only.”

She waited as the rain cleared, like something out of a book. The storm was over. The Third Tide had come and passed and swept away those who owned it. She might never use that shared Skill again.

Maxy had too much integrity to ask the man leaning against one of the shattered masts of his ship whether it was worth it. He had style. He hadn’t changed clothes, but she bet he had combed that stupid hair.

And he had a sword, and the [Captains] and Maxy paused a second before they boarded his ship. [Dangersense] hummed in Maxy’s ear.

“Earl Altestiel of Rains. Battle’s over. You can make this fast or painful, but you know me. I’m a bastard of the seas, so if it goes painful, I’ll have to cut down your entire crew.”

“You’d ransom them off anyways, Admiral Maxy. How many ships are you going to sink? Are you sated?”

The half-Elf gave Altestiel a rueful salute with her sword as her hand grasped the wand hidden in her coat jacket.

“This might be my last voyage. So you’re going to make this hard, eh?”

The [Earl] looked at her briefly, then past Maxy at that lone ship still somehow surviving on the waves. As if she were an afterthought. It made her angry.

“If you give it up—”

“Let’s cut a deal, [Admiral]. I don’t intend…to lie down and die. But you will let my people go, and when you leave this ship, you will go. And I’ll have you and each [Captain] here swear an oath by your class and levels and in blood.”

The Bloodtear Admiral’s eyes bulged—then she laughed in outrage.

“Will you tender me that at the point of a sword after you beat us all?”

Five Bloodtear Captains were spreading out as Altestiel looked around. The [Earl of Rains] calmly met Maxy’s eyes, and she snarled.

“You’re not as romantic as Rosech. But you’re still Bloodtear Pirates to the last. Hear me out as one, or what was the point of it all?”

She listened, and her eyes flickered to Altestiel—then to the [Captains]—then to the lifeboats and the other ships and the wreckage of navies and everything else. Maxy thought a second, then ruefully drew a sword across her palm and let blood run onto the deck.

“I swear on my class, on my blood, my ship, the Bloodtear Pirates, and my soul itself. Honor your part of the deal and let’s finish this.”

The Earl of Rains laughed in her face a while. He brushed his hair out of his eyes as the half-Elf stared at him until he wheezed and coughed and panted for air.

“You don’t have a soul, Admiral. I’ll believe the rest. Write this down because I won’t say it twice. Then let’s finish this.”

 

——

 

Five [Pirates] returned to Longshot Gamble, not six. Admiral Maxy was limping and called for a healing potion, but the deck was silent.

Captain Ereiyne kept looking back, but even some of the [Pirates] seemed like they’d had enough. Cowards. Maxy was panting, and she rasped.

Take us about. We’re leaving.”

Rainbringer was sinking. Maxy heard, now, more horns wailing in the distance. Terandrians. She spat blood again. They must have been watching.

“Maxy. What was that? Did we get bought off?”

Ereiyne was mad. She grabbed Maxy as the [Admiral] limped towards her cabin, and the half-Elf shook her off.

“Of course we did. He had one last piece to move. Himself. Hey. Let the survivors go! No one fires as much as a single arrow or I’ll kill them myself!”

The [Pirates] nodded, and Ereiyne pursued Maxy.

“I could’ve stolen what he gave us myself. He could have lied about the wording of that <Quest> he got from the [Innkeeper] anyways. Even if it is a magical keep—”

Ereiyne. Shut up.”

Maxy spun and grabbed the Selphid’s jaw hard. Maxy was tired.

Altestiel was dead. He’d sold his life and the location of a treasure—and the life of a Bloodtear Captain, and the Selphid didn’t get it.

Even Maxy understood. She hissed it slowly.

“You idiot. He sold me more’n just a keep. He sold a story. A stupid love story, a sacrifice—”

Her eyes scanned the waters, the people she’d agreed to let go free, the ships and the ruins of Terandria’s ambitions. Maxy turned away.

“You were never a good Bloodtear Pirate. Neither was I. Both of us are good at piracy—but leave it be. One last story for the Bloodtear Pirates.”

She opened the door to her cabin, looked back out across the empty waters, and spoke to them all.

“Farewell.”

 

——

 

Then a silence fell. Not the calm before the storm, the calm after the storm.

Ships sailed away, passing through bodies and the broken dreams of kingdoms. The air was filled with wailing horns, and the horizon was lightening, but it was another bloody dawn.

There was only one last place where the sky kept falling. A figure burst out of the clouds and saw the Unsettled King.

It was rocking, pieces falling from the ship, as the Blighted Kingdom unleashed all its wrath on the vessel. A single figure fled the ship, screaming.

Erin! Erin!”

Ryoka Griffin was flying, holes burned in her glider, but the wind itself was forcing her away, a typhoon blasting down, razor shards of magic piercing the deck—

A Hobgoblin [Shaman].

Greydath of Blades.

A Sariant Lamb.

And Erin Solstice. She was steering her ship ahead, but it was futile. The sea around her was churning, and a wave rose, hundreds of feet tall, and began to break over the ship.

The Blighted Kingdom wanted her dead. Therefore, Silvenia, the Death of Magic, wanted her to live.

She was too late.

Too late.

The Death of Magic’s voice rasped. Her magically repaired flesh hurt. She was weary from battle and a long journey through the turbulent sea. They had hunted her across the ocean, and it had taken her every second since Colth’s message had reached her to get here.

Czautha and Serinpotva did not follow. Only she had come. Why?

For the lark of it? No.

For Colth alone? No, not even for her broken and brave agent.

To thumb her nose at the Blighted Kingdom? To protect a Goblin Lord, an enemy of her enemies?

None of these were good enough reasons. Not for this. The destruction just got worse as she descended and they saw her.

She made the world worse, for all of her magic and might. The Death of Magic was woe, no shining star for the world to follow. Silvenia had become the consequences of ill deeds and lies and a war that had taken too much with no meaning.

Just like the young woman she was streaking downwards towards.

That was why Silvenia flew. She was dodging more magic, and she split the tidal wave with a sword as thin as a ray of light—erased a wave of magic overhead with a flick of her hand, like a [Magician]. The torrent of hatred kept coming.

“I cannot perform miracles, Colth!”

Was he even alive? Down the Death of Magic dove. Now, she saw a pillar of fire touch down on the water, pulling everything around it up into an inferno that could have destroyed so many Bloodtear Pirates.

Do you see it? They could have done something, but they reserved this only for their enemies. 

The Blighted Kingdom had judged Erin Solstice their enemy. Look at her.

—She glanced up, hair whipping in the storm, her flames extinguished, the ruin behind her, and her eyes met the half-Elf’s a second. The Death of Magic saw the young woman’s friends around her, not even paying attention to the Islandbreaker, the Death of Magic, the Traitor of Elves—eyes focused on Erin.

It reminded Silvenia of who she’d been. And why she had come. She gazed down and wondered how this story might change the world.

So she swore it would not end, and she lifted her arms and held up that falling sky. Below her, a Goblin was shouting at the [Innkeeper].

Erin! It’s—

Ulvama was shielding her face as flames whipped around her. Greydath raised one arm and stared at the golden light that illuminated his skin. He vanished as a pinpoint of light flickered down, and he tried to cut—

The wind was hurling Ulvama into the air. Erin reached for her—grabbed her hand—and the [Shaman] tried to hold on.

The Death of Magic brought down a mountain of stone, hurling it into the pillar of flames—whirled—arrows were striking down by the thousands, each one exploding into an orb of blackness that weighed down the ship.

The colors of the world inverted, and Erin found herself in an alternate dimension that began to fracture apart. The Hobgoblin’s hand tore from her grip, and the [Shaman] vanished, flickering into the sea, still reaching for her as a vortex opened.

Innkeeper! You cannot die here. The world needs no more Deaths.”

Then it was the Death of Magic diving towards her, hands aglow with power. Silvenia twisted and gazed up—

A bolt of black lightning, corruption incarnate, the doom of Pomle, flashed down, and she caught it. Erin saw someone crawling towards her and took one step—

Her body turned to salt—Silvenia undid the curse, and parts of the ship cracked away. Erin saw Nerry look at her and gazed upwards.

“Oh.”

A shadow over the sea. They did let the sky fall, then. A cloud overhead slowly fell, no longer vapor, but lead raining down, and the little lamb gazed up at Erin curiously as Erin picked her up and hugged her. Then the [Innkeeper] turned to the sky.

“I have run out of regrets. The world will give before I do.”

Erin took a shuddering breath, and the ship tilted—the sea fountained upwards, and she was flying, and gravity was screaming with the rest of reality breaking at the seams.

The [Innkeeper] felt Nerry vanish, and she was flying, falling—and destruction was one single sound louder than anything else. A roar of blackness. A shadow engulfing everything.

—A falling [Mage], her finger pointing down at Erin, a final spell on her lips.

[Fantastic Polymorph—]

Then Erin Solstice vanished.

 

——

 

The world kept rocking for almost an hour after the Unsettled King was destroyed utterly. The magic still tore entire seas apart, shockwaves sending waves crashing down on every coast, even spawning lesser magical storms as a result.

The Blighted Kingdom unleashed no more magic after that. Not even upon the Death of Magic, who few thought had perished.

Of Erin Solstice? Ulvama? Greydath or anyone else?

There was no trace. The Bloodtear Pirates, what few there were left, attempted to flee to the four corners, aided by the shockwaves of magic that buried everything in chaos.

A vast storm of dust blew from Chandrar’s coast and Roshal’s harbors. The bloody rains of the Third Tide ended, but the red in the waters washed across the corpse of a vast Kraken, which bobbed to the surface until millions of birds and sea life began to feast on its remains.

Navies set forth not to do more battle, but to hunt for survivors. The ships that had survived the Terandrian Fleet’s destruction scattered, blown across the sea by the final oblivion. Around Wistram, magic itself refused to function properly, and the rest of the world was left in silence, piecing together news for a long time to come.

The Throne’s Will survived. A ship blown in the ensuing storms far, far from its harbor. A Hobgoblin lived.

A single presence was the only thing that could count the scope of what had been done fully. Not even the gods nor the fae knew what might happen next.

Fate had been stolen. Destiny usurped.

The voice spoke, briefly, and watched souls flow from the realms of the living to the new land of the dead. It counted the victories of mortals with the defeat of gods and the cost.

It spoke and spoke until even the voice of the world might go hoarse.

Then, the Grand Design of Isthekenous said one final thing:

 

[Magical Innkeeper Level 55!]

[Conditions Met: Magical Innkeeper ? The Wandering Innkeeper class!]

[The Wandering Innkeeper Level 55!]

[Skill – The—

[Skill – A…

[Sk—

 

Silence. The world paused, and the voice halted, stuttered.

Grew quiet.

At last, the voice spoke.

 

[Capstone Skill deferred. Other level ups deferred. Processing appropriate Skills.]

[Processing…]

 

Then, somewhere…

Erin Solstice woke up.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

The Skill will be revealed in the Epilogue. I would not keep it from you. It just doesn’t fit.

Not here.

Not now. I have finished this chapter, and I knew it would be difficult. When it was over, I talked with the people I asked to proofread it ahead of time, and I am sure it was difficult.

To them, I write my deepest appreciation. Because the chapter, these last three parts, would not have been the better of experiences. There were small and large edits, and I cannot summarize what they asked me to change fully except that many said they had to see the Epilogue to take in the scope of what has happened.

I agreed—it would have been different, to read this and wait one last time. The Epilogue is there, and you may judge it for yourself, but once more, thank you to the group of people that gave me their honest emotions and comments.

I have written a longer note for the end of Volume 9. If you wish, you may find it there, but regardless.

The epilogue is done.

 

The [Innkeeper] by Artsynada.

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/illudanajohns/

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/illudanajohns

 

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter


Subscribe
Notify of
guest
30 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments