5.01

A Human, a Drake, and a Rabbitman walked through a city. Not just any city, but Pallass, one of the six Walled Cities of Izril. If the premise of their sudden adventure sounded like a joke, well, it was fairly funny. To Erin, at least. Her companions were less amused.

“I’m just saying, it sounds like a joke! A Human, a Rabbit-dude and a Lord of the Wall walk into a bar. Or through a magical portal. There’s a joke there somewhere!”

“The only thing remotely amusing is your simplicity.”

Ilvriss growled at Erin as he walked down the wide, stone street, glancing from side to side at the rows of apartment buildings. The Drake looked north, down the street and turned his head as he followed the sound of the echoing drums and trumpets. Erin and Hawk followed him, mainly because they didn’t have anything better to do.

“Look, okay, maybe we’re stuck here for a day, but that’s not a bad thing, right?”

“I don’t know. I’d love to be lying down in Liscor right now, or having a hot meal and a drink. You do know I’ve been running for four days straight, don’t you?”

Hawk glanced down at Erin and she winced. The Human [Innkeeper] was shorter than both Ilvriss and Hawk, and noticeably smaller, too. The Lord of the Wall wore his fancy metal breastplate over his clothing and walked with a swagger; Hawk strode along with long, languid strides as his runner’s jacket shifted to reveal his stunning physique underneath his clothing. Erin just walked.

“Oops. Sorry Hawk. That was my bad. But since we’re here, we might as well make the best of it, right? Just think about it! We’re all here, in Pallass, about to meet all kinds of new people! In theory.”

Erin looked around. The streets were empty. The buildings were there, and they were quite grand—she thought she was walking through some kind of housing area, because all the apartments looked alike. They were…well, apartments. You could go up six floors and find yourself in what was probably a decently-sized home. But there was no one in said homes, at least as far as Erin could tell.

“It’s really deserted, isn’t it? I wonder why that is? Hey, Ilvriss. Where’s everyone?”

The Lord of the Wall turned his head as he strode forwards, looking peeved.

“I have told you before, Human. I am a Lord of the Wall, one of the few Drake nobility on this continent! I am not to be addressed so casually.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes. Refer to me by my title and with proper respect if you wish to converse with me and I may deign to reply. If not, keep silent. I did not come here on a whim and I have pressing business to attend to.”

With that, Ilvriss turned his head and kept walking. Erin stared at his back as Hawk eyed her oddly. She took a deep breath.

“Hey Ilvriss. Hey. Hey, are you listening? Ilvriss? Drake guy? Hey Ilvriss! Ilvriss! I’m calling your name! I can see you listening! Hey! Hey, listen! Heeeeey. Hey! Hey, hey, hey, hey—”

There was no response, although the Drake’s tail lashed the stones behind him a bit harder than before. Erin stared at the paving stones for a second. They were lovely flat blocks of smooth stone, widely cut and smooth from countless years of use. It actually felt nicer to walk on this stone street than the concrete sidewalk back home. Better to look at, too; the walls, streets, and other buildings of Pallass had been made with a sandy-cream colored stone that was easy on the eyes.

“The streets in Celum aren’t this nice. Liscor either. They have paving stones and stuff. I wonder how this Walled City was made. With magic? It’s three hundred feet high, but are we high up or on the ground? Actually, wait, we’re high up. I can tell because there’s no wall, right?”

Erin pointed past the roofs of the apartments. There was a clear blue sky behind them, but no wall. Hawk nodded.

“We’re high up. I thought that might be the best place to put the magic door. I have to admit, I chose the first empty spot—I thought you could move it later.”

“Right, good idea. Hey Ilvriss where do you think—”

Shut up!

The Wall Lord turned and shouted at Erin. Hawk backed up a step. Erin just wiped her face.

“Don’t spit. Hey, do you think the city’s been abandoned?”

Ilvriss stared at Erin for a second. He looked incredulous, and then resigned. He turned and Erin went on, keeping pace with him.

“I’m just saying, maybe something awful’s happened, you know? We haven’t seen anyone.”

“We’ve walked down one street, Human.”

“Yeah, but it’s a long street, isn’t it? And I know we can hear those drums and horns, but what if they’re like…an illusion? But for our ears? What if the city’s empty and something awful has happened? Like—everyone’s turned into zombies!”

“That is the most idiotic—”

Ilvriss paused. Hawk coughed as he caught up with the Human and Drake on Erin’s side.

“It’s not empty, Erin. I saw people not five minutes ago when I was climbing to the top. They’re here.”

“Right, but did you see them or was it all an illusion? Or maybe it was in your head? That’s how they get you! Illusion Zombies! We’ll walk around the corner and then bam! Zombies in your face! We have to survive for an entire day before we get back to Liscor and raise the alarm! It’s a classic scenario!”

Erin waved her hands over her head. Ilvriss and Hawk stared at her and then exchanged a glance that said it all. Erin saw Ilvriss rub at his temples and lowered her arms.

“Okay, I’ll stop being silly.”

“Wait, that was an act?

Hawk stared at Erin. Ilvriss shook his head.

“Impossible. No one can pretend to be that stupid—”

He broke off, eying Erin hard. She grinned at him and Hawk and shrugged innocently.

“Maybe? I’m just a stupid Human, aren’t I? Oh look, I think we’ve found people.”

She walked ahead as both males halted in their tracks and stared at her back. Ilvriss made a fist with one clawed hand, and then stopped. Because they’d found the citizens of Pallass at last.

The residential street opened up onto a much larger thoroughfare ahead of them. Erin stared. She’d seen streets, and she’d seen roads. This was a mega road, so broad that it could have probably been compared to the six-lane highways of Erin’s world. And it was filled with people.

Drakes, hundreds of them, filled the road, their backs to Erin, Ilvriss, and Hawk. And as they walked closer they saw that the Drakes were lined up down both sides of the street in either direction. They were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, some standing on stairs for a better view, others holding small Drake children up to see.

They were waving flags, and many were armed. But this wasn’t a mob scene—rather, Erin could hear thunderous cheering! She stared and the pieces fell into place. A Drake waving a flag emblazoned with a city and potion and hammer on it? It had to be Pallass’ symbol. And the drums and trumpets? Now Erin was close enough she could hear they were playing a tune.

The Drakes were cheering, their voices one huge mass ahead of her. Erin nodded to herself, seeing a Drake child eating some roasted nuts out of a small hemp bag he was holding. There was only one thing this could be in her mind.

“It’s a celebration.”

She stared at the banners flying from the tops of buildings, as she walked to the back of the line of waving Drakes. Ilvriss shook his head as he eyed the crowds of cheering pedestrians. He gritted his teeth and his tail lashed the stone walkway.

“No. It’s a military parade.”

“What?”

Erin turned to him in surprise. Then she listened and realized he was right. Erin had never done well in music class, but she could tell the drums in the distance weren’t the huge booming drums but a marching drum, playing a very familiar military rhythm. And the trumpets and other horns just added to the similarities. Erin was reminded of the 4th of July back in her home. The music was different, but the effect was the same.

Erin had grown up seeing parade floats going down the street, gotten used to gathering candy thrown from the backs of cars and seeing the American flag waved on those national holidays in her homeland. So as she reached the back of the crowd and stood on the tips of her toes she expected to see something similar. She was wrong, of course.

To start with, there was no candy. And there were no cars. There was a Drake on a horse, though. He was riding with his tail tucked over the left side of the horse, curled around its belly. He was holding a flag with Pallass’ insignia on it and lifted it into the air. The Drakes around Erin roared and waved their flags, cheering him as he rode down the street.

Erin turned her head and saw a rank of Drake soldiers, six abreast, marching down the street after him. She saw a battalion of Drakes pass by her position. The Drake [Soldiers] proceeded down the street, each one armored and carrying weapons. They marched forwards in perfect lock-step, their heads held high.

“The 3rd Infantry Regiment of Pallass!”

A huge, magnified voice suddenly roared in Erin’s ears surprising her.

“Whoa! That’s loud!

Erin shouted, although her voice was lost in the crowd. The Drakes around her cheered louder. She saw the Drakes marching past her salute as the voice continued, setting off another wave of loud cheers.

“The Linebreakers recently served on the Vellir Fields outside of Rheist! Following them is the 4th Cavalry, which heroically fought in the same engagement!”

As the Linebreakers or rather, 3rd Infantry marched past, Erin saw more mounted Drakes pass by. She saw four mounted Drakes, one of whom was missing an arm, and two more that had scars over their arms. She saw nine more file past and then…nothing.

“Wait, where’s the rest of—”

Erin turned her head and saw more Drakes following. But they were on foot. She looked back towards the mounted Drakes and saw them saluting as well. All eleven of them.

“Hmf. They’ve pulled up every regiment in the city, by the looks of it.”

Ilvriss stood by Erin’s side, staring across the parade. She stared at him, and then at the soldiers. And then it hit her.

They were active soldiers, not just military personnel. When the voice shouted that they’d seen action recently, it meant they’d fought in a war. And the eleven remaining Drakes in the 4th Cavalry were all that had survived of their battalion. The sight was enough to make Erin’s heart twist, but the Drakes around her clapped and cheered the eleven riders with all their might.

And why not? Yes, this was an army that fought, an army that actively defended the city. Of course the citizens of Pallass would cheer them. Some regiments would pass by with only a handful of soldiers in their number. Sometimes they were injured, Drakes with missing eyes, lost limbs—the crowd cheered louder when they passed by. Erin stared at a group of old Drakes marching in polished armor, and saw the tears in their eyes as they saluted.

She felt alone in the crowd of Drakes. There were no Humans she could see, and few Gnolls. She did not applaud or cheer as the soldiers marched past. But then, neither did Ilvriss. Hawk clapped along with the crowd, but the Human and Lord of the Wall stood silent. And then Erin heard the invisible announcer shout as the last group of armed Drakes passed her position.

“And now, the hero of the First and Second Antinium Wars, the legendary Tidebreaker, [General] Shivertail!”

A hush fell over the crowd. Erin’s heart stopped. She looked down the street and saw a small group moving down the street. In the silence she heard Ilvriss mutter an oath and saw Hawk cover his eyes. But all of Erin’s attention was on the next group.

She saw a group of eight Drakes marching down the street holding a…coffin. They bore it together, two of the Drakes in front holding flags. Erin put her hands over her mouth as she saw the Drakes marching forwards with the casket. It couldn’t be. Zel was—he had died in Invrisil! It couldn’t be.

“It’s empty.”

She hadn’t heard Ilvriss move up next to her. Erin jumped and turned. The Wall Lord was staring at the coffin-bearers. His eyes blazed and his claws were tightened into fists. Erin looked back at the coffin. The empty coffin.

A blue wreath of flowers had been placed on the top of the coffin. As it passed by her position, Erin saw the Drakes around her go silent, staring at the flowers. And then as it passed they screamed louder, waving their flags, shouting Zel’s name.

Shivertail! Shivertail!

If they knew the coffin was empty, it didn’t seem to matter. Erin heard ringing in her ears and dimly heard the voice again, roaring with emotion.

“Zel Shivertail was a hero who went north to fight for the peace of our continent! He fought against the Goblin Lord to protect our borders! He fought and the Humans failed him! Their army fled and broke as he fought the Goblin Lord’s army alone! They abandoned General Shivertail! They were too weak, too cowardly! But he did not run!”

The crowd roared. Erin turned her head wildly, trying to find the announcer. She felt like she’d been slapped.

“He went north for us! Shivertail died for us! Don’t let his sacrifice be in vain! Zel Shivertail was a hero of the continent, a hero of the Drakes!”

“That’s not right. Zel didn’t—it wasn’t like—”

Erin’s words were lost in the next wave of cheers. She could only listen, helplessly, as the announcer kept shouting to the frenzied crowd.

“Never forget General Shivertail’s sacrifice! Vengeance on the Goblins! Vengeance! Vengeance!

They roared the word with him. Vengeance. Erin saw the Drake child with the bag of nuts who had been so happily now snarling, shouting with the rest of the Drakes. Their anger was a physical thing and Erin shuddered to feel it.

The parade ended. Erin saw the marching band move past last, and then the Drakes began to break up. She stood back, letting the Drakes move in a huge swarm out of the street as they went back to their normal lives. So many Drakes. She turned and saw Ilvriss and Hawk behind her. They were standing, watching the crowd. Hawk was in tears. He hadn’t known about Zel Shivertail’s passing until today. And Ilvriss—

He stood with folded arms, looking around the city. He had neither cheered the Drake parade nor shouted. He was an outsider, for all he was a Drake. He wasn’t from Pallass, but from another Walled City. Salazsar. And as he looked at Erin and their eyes met, he nodded.

“Welcome to Pallass.”

He paused, looked around, and sniffed haughtily.

“Salazsar is better. Come on, let’s find some figures of authority.”

He turned and Erin slowly walked after him. She walked three steps, saw someone waving, turned, and saw Jelaqua striding towards her through the crowd. She raised her hand and was tackled to the ground as sixteen armed Drakes appeared out of the crowd and charged towards her, Ilvriss, and Hawk with their swords drawn.

 

—-

 

About ten minutes ago, Jelaqua Ivirith was standing in Pallass right outside of the door in the alleyway, looking around and talking through the portal to Lyonette on the other side. The [Barmaid] was anxious and Jelaqua was trying to reassure her.

“Relax! I don’t see them around, but they can’t have gotten far. I’ll go ahead with Seborn and uh, Relc.”

She nodded to the other two figures beside her. Relc was looking around with clear interest in his eyes and Seborn had already stepped out of the alleyway to look around. Lyonette looked anxious as she replied.

“I’ll stay here in case Erin comes back. But what happens if you find her and we’re all stuck here?”

Jelaqua shrugged, unconcerned.

“We’ll find a place to sleep. There’s bound to be plenty of inns in a Walled City if we can’t bring everyone back at once. And Moore managed to juice this door up once already—he can at least bring Erin back.”

Lyonette turned and looked up at Moore. The half-Giant was leaning on his staff, looking winded. He nodded at Jelaqua.

“I can recharge the door again. It takes a lot of mana, though. I’m nearly tapped out myself. I could come through if I used a mana potion, though.”

Jelaqua looked around and then shouted back through the doorway at Moore.

“Nah, don’t sweat it. Stay there, Moore! I don’t know if the door’s got enough mana to transport you and you’re beat. If you need to charge it up, use a mana potion but don’t kill yourself until we know what we’re doing for sure. We’ll find Erin.”

The half-Giant nodded tiredly. Jelaqua waved to Lyonette and turned away from the door. Her two companions had already reached the mouth of the alleyway. Relc looked around, jaw gaping slightly as he peered at the buildings around him and stared around, goggle-eyed.

“It is Pallass! I can’t believe it!”

Jelaqua laughed a bit as she walked over to join him. The Selphid had kept her two-handed flail, but she wasn’t wearing armor at the moment. She didn’t think she needed the flail either in truth, but no Gold-rank adventurer would walk around without at least one weapon at all times. She eyed Relc, who had both spear and armor on. She didn’t know the Drake, but she could sense he was no ordinary [Guardsman]. She gestured at the stone buildings as Relc exclaimed.

“What did you expect? You know Erin’s magical door can teleport people far away.”

“Yeah, but Pallass? That’s…far! And this is a Walled City, not Celum. It’s not like you can just walk in here! Normally you have to wait at the gates and they get really mad at you if your city is at war with theirs. And now we’re here!

Relc indicated the city as a whole, his tail wagging excitedly. Jelaqua nodded.

“And so’s Miss Erin. Let’s start walking and find her first. Seborn, thoughts?”

I see some fresh fur this way. Looks like the Courier went this way, and I’d assume that the Wall Lord and Erin went with him.

Seborn stood up and let a miniscule pinch of fur drift to the ground. Jelaqua nodded. She set off at a steady pace with Seborn ranging ahead and Relc caught up after another few seconds of staring.

“Hey, why aren’t you more impressed? We’re in a Walled City! Isn’t that amazing?”

“Sure is. But I’ve been travelling back between Celum and Liscor for over a month now. This is special, but not as surprising as the first time it happened.”

Jelaqua replied casually. The truth was that Erin’s magical door had been incredible the first time the Selphid had laid eyes on it. Even now she was impressed by its capabilities, and not a little bit jealous of Erin’s good fortune in obtaining it. It was like a free [Teleport] spell! And the Horns of Hammerad had given it to Erin as thanks for funding their group? Jelaqua wondered if that was friendship or folly.

As for being in a Walled City…she could only shrug in response to Relc’s indignation.

“I’ve been in large cities in Baleros before. Liscor’s small compared to some of the cities owned by the Four Great Companies. I know this is one of the Drake capital cities, but surely Liscor’s comparable to Pallass?”

“Comparable? Are you joking? I mean, our army’s good, but Pallass is at least three times the size of Liscor! And it’s a major military power. The army here is seriously bad news—I hear it was deployed a month ago at Rheist. They tore up a bunch of other armies in a big battle there.”

“Wait, there was a war between the Drakes? I didn’t hear anything about that!”

Jelaqua frowned. A civil war was huge news! But Relc just shook his head.

“What, that? That’s normal. That’s politics and stuff for you. It’s not a war, war, right? It’s more like an argument.”

“An argument that ends up in a pitched battle?”

“Yup!”

Relc twirled his spear happily. Jelaqua stared. He tried to explain.

“Well, the Walled Cities fight all the time. You know, some Lady of the Wall calls a Watch Captain an ‘eggsucking lizard’ and there’s a big war. Obviously no one conquers the Walled Cities, but lesser cities get stormed now and then, and sieges can go on for months sometimes. I think there’s a siege going on around one of the other Walled Cities right now. Liscor’s army is fighting there.”

Jelaqua shook her head at Relc’s description of Drake politics.

“You make it sound so casual. One Drake insults another and you go to war over it? In Baleros, it’s all about gain. We fight over land, over precious resources, magical artifacts, fishing waters…”

“Oh, we do that too. It’s just that we fight each other even if we don’t need those other things.”

Relc happily assured the two adventurers. Seborn grunted as he looked around. There were very few people about and the Drowned Man was looking wary.

Pretty empty for the middle of the day. Aren’t the Walled Cities supposed to be full of people?

“Eh, this is a residential district. They’re probably all having fun somewhere else. Hear the horns and drums? That’s a military parade going on. Everyone’s probably watching. Hey, I bet that’s the way Erin and the others went!”

Relc pointed down the street and Jelaqua heard the parade in the distance. She nodded and strode towards the noise, talking to Relc as she went.

“So what’s this you were saying about not being able to walk into the Walled Cities? Are we going to be stopped because we’re not Drakes?”

“Nah.”

Relc waved one hand, looking unconcerned. He strode along, light on his feet, chattering away as he looked around.

“It’s more likely they’d stop me because I’m a famous [Sergeant] and I fought against Pallass in two…no, three wars. Small wars, but they really hold a grudge. Adventurers of all kinds are welcome in the Walled Cities so long as you don’t cause trouble. Selphids, Humans…they’ll let anyone in if they’re not known criminals.”

He pointed to his chest with his thumb, looking proud. Jelaqua exchanged a glance with Seborn, but didn’t comment. Relc nodded as if they’d agreed wholeheartedly with everything he’d said.

“Yeah, the last thing you want is to have the Pallass Watch on your tail. Those guys do not play around. Walled Cities have really, really strong City Watches, better than Liscor’s. They—oh hey, there’s Erin!”

He pointed. Erin was standing at the back of a crowd of Drakes. The parade had just ended and the Drakes were moving in a huge mass down the street. Jelaqua walked to one side to avoid the flow of bodies and waved to Erin. She did stand out. The Drakes of Pallass had green scales, red scales, blue scales, yellow scales…some very vibrant colors, others muted, but none of them had the fleshy pale tones of Human skin. Erin was standing with Ilvriss and Hawk and hadn’t spotted Jelaqua yet.

“Erin, hey, Erin!”

Jelaqua shouted, waving at the Human girl. She saw a lot of the Drakes looking at her, surprised to see a Selphid walking about. Jelaqua ignored the attention. She was used to it. Selphids weren’t a common sight in many parts of the world. She could see a few groups of armed [Guardsmen] or perhaps Drake [Soldiers] marching down the street to Erin. She hoped that the girl wouldn’t walk off and waved her arms furiously.

“Hey Erin!

At last, the [Innkeeper] noticed her. Jelaqua took a step towards her and felt someone grab her arm. She turned and saw Seborn. The Drowned Man looked suddenly wary.

Jelaqua! Those soldiers are headed right for Erin and the Wall Lord. And there are more behind us!

“What?”

The Selphid spun. She saw armed Drakes step out of alleyways and a whole platoon marching down the street. She turned and was about to shout at Erin when she saw a Drake in yellow and silver armor hurtle out of the crowd. He tackled Erin to the ground as four other Drakes charged Ilvriss and Hawk. Jelaqua’s eyes widened and then she felt an impact in her side as a Drake charged into her.

The world slowed. Jelaqua stumbled with the impact, and then felt the muscles in her body tense. The Selphid pushed at her body, ignoring the straining tendons, forcing her damaged Human form to push past her limits. She heaved and the Drake who’d charged into her went flying. He crashed into a group of Drake civilians who screamed. Jelaqua saw Seborn’s daggers flash and another Drake staggered back, shouting in pain.

And then there was chaos. Drake [Soldiers] charged down the street as the citizens screamed and ran. Jelaqua’s flail was in her hand and she whirled it in a fast arc. The Drake [Guardsman] who’d charged towards her grunted as the spike flails caught him in the chest. The impact dented his armor and sent him stumbling back. Jelaqua struck low—the flail’s heads struck the Drake in the shins and he dropped.

“Seborn!”

She backed up and the Drowned Man was at her back. The [Rogue] had his enchanted daggers at the ready and there was already blood on the blades, but like Jelaqua he’d struck to wound, not kill. The Selphid had no idea why the Drakes were attacking, but she was acting on instinct. Jelaqua began spinning her flail in dangerous arcs, gritting her teeth. Of all the times to forget her armor! The Drakes charged and she moved into them, lashing exposed arms, chests, backs—

But why were they attacking?

 

—-

 

Don’t move! You are under arrest!

The Drake on top of Erin was screaming in her ears. She was screaming back.

“What? What? Get off of me!”

He had her arm up behind her back and was pushing Erin’s face into the cobblestones. She tried to move, but the Drake was holding her in place. Erin could see running feet around her, and then felt an impact. Someone kicked the Drake off of her and Erin felt a wrenching pain in her arm.

“Ow!”

“Get up!”

Ilvriss strode over to her, his blade bared. Erin staggered upright and saw he was standing over two fallen Drakes. They were rolling on the ground and clutching at deep cuts in their sides. Ilvriss’ sword had gone straight through their armor.

“Erin!”

Hawk turned to them. He hadn’t been knocked down by the sudden attack either. The two Drakes who’d gone for him were lying on the ground, their chest plates dented. The Rabbit Beastkin hadn’t bothered with a weapon—he’d just kicked both Drakes.

“What’s happening?”

Erin shouted at Ilvriss, but the Wall Lord was busy. He was turning as more Drakes charged down the street. They were armed with halberds, pikes, swords—and they were very, very angry.

Evacuate the streets! Get the civilians out of here and surround the intruders!

A Drake [Guardsman] in bright yellow armor was shouting orders. Erin saw Jelaqua, Seborn, and Relc fighting other Drakes to the side. The street was suddenly full of soldiers! She backed up as she saw more Drakes coming towards her.

Throw down your weapons! You are under arrest!

One of the Drakes shouted at him as Ilvriss slashed a halberd in half. Only now did his words reach Erin’s brain. She was being arrested! She wavered, but the sight of a dozen pointy blades aimed at her chest convinced her. She threw up her hands and saw Hawk doing likewise.

The Drakes hesitated. They stared at Hawk, but their attention was grabbed in a dramatic way by Ilvriss. He’d charged into a group of three Drakes and with three cuts of his sword, brought them all down.

“Get that Drake!”

Most of the soldiers rushed past Erin and Hawk while several kept their weapons trained on her. Erin felt her heart beating wildly and she could hear Hawk groaning aloud.

“Oh, no, no, no! I’m a Courier! Look, I have a seal—”

He tried to reach for his belt pouch but the Drakes screamed at him and he raised his hands again. Erin turned her head, searching for Jelaqua and the others.

There they were! Jelaqua was spinning her flail, keeping Drakes back as they attacked from every side. Erin saw a pike thrust at her from the side and the Selphid turned. Her flail whirled, smashed the pike down. Instantly, Jelaqua turned and caught another weapon, knocking it aside before slamming a flail into a Drake’s shoulders. The [Guardswoman] fell, but several more were there to take her place. Seborn was fighting with his daggers, but both Gold-rank adventurers were outnumbered.

“Archers! Stop that Selphid!”

There was a shout and Erin saw more Drakes rushing forwards. With bows. Her eyes widened and she cried out.

Jelaqua!

The pale woman turned and her eyes widened. Jelaqua turned her Human body to dodge, but too late. Erin heard a thud and saw two arrows sprout from Jelaqua’s chest and shoulder. She screamed. The Selphid staggered back, eyes wide, and then roared as she smacked a Drake on the head with her flail.

“That hurt, damnit!”

She whirled, and another arrow flashed past her towards Seborn. The Drowned Man ducked incredibly fast and a Drake cried out as the arrow struck him instead.

“What’s happening?”

Erin shouted at Hawk, but he had no answer. She heard a roar as the Drakes pushed Jelaqua and Seborn back. They were screaming at them to put down their weapons, but neither Gold-rank adventurer was complying. Erin saw a Drake with a sword rush at Jelaqua to the side as her flail got tangled around another Drake’s shield. The Selphid turned, raising one hand to block the sword and—

[Relc Punch]!

A fist shot out and knocked the charging Drake flat. Erin gaped as Relc charged forwards, spear whirling. The Drake [Guardsman] struck two Drakes on the heads through their helmets, incredibly fast. Erin’s heart stopped as the Drakes fell, but then she saw Relc had hit them with the butt of his spear. They fell, unconscious, and Relc whirled.

“[Triple Thrust]!”

His spear shot out, appearing to strike three Drakes simultaneously for one dizzying second. Then Relc was spinning his spear, knocking an arrow down and bashing a Drake on the head. Pallass’ [Soldiers] drew back for a second, unprepared for Relc’s sudden attack. There was a moment of confused shouting, and then another voice rose once more.

“Hold! I said hold, burn your tails!”

The [Soldiers] drew back. Jelaqua, Seborn, and Relc paused and Erin saw Ilvriss standing unharmed in the center of a circle of Drakes with weapons. The Drake in yellow armor strode forwards. He pointed at Relc.

“There’s only one Drake in the world stupid enough to shout his own name. You there, the Drake with the spear! Are you from Liscor by any chance?”

“Hey, do we know each other?”

Relc was holding his spear warily, but he brightened as he stared at the Drake in yellow armor. The Drake snorted.

“We’ve never met, but I know your name. Relc Grasstongue, [Sergeant] of Liscor’s army, is that right?”

“That’s right!”

Relc grinned. He turned his head to Jelaqua, who was staring at him as she stood with her back against a wall.

“Told you I’m famous.”

The [Commander] seemed to agree. He nodded at the guards, and then raised his voice.

“You heard him! That’s Relc Grasstongue, the damned Gecko of Liscor! Make sure he doesn’t break the encirclement and watch him—he’s fast! Someone get me some more battlemages and more [Guardsmen]!”

“Aw. Crap.”

Relc backed up as the soldiers on the street moved towards him. He raised his spear and Jelaqua shouted.

“Why are you lot attacking us? We haven’t broken any laws! I’m a Gold-rank adventurer—”

“You teleported in with an unauthorized spell!”

The [Commander] roared at Jelaqua. Her eyes widened and Erin’s heart skipped a beat. She turned her head to Hawk and saw him closing his eyes.

“Oh, dead gods.”

“We tracked your position! Put down your weapons. You are all under arrest for unauthorized entry to the city, assault on the City Watch and illicit magical activity within the confines of a Walled City!”

“Oh shit.

Jelaqua covered her face. She took one agonizing look around, and then threw down her flail. At the same time, Seborn tossed his daggers to the ground and put up his hand and claw. Relc looked around and groaned.

“Aw! Every time I go to a Walled City I get arrested! Fine, fine! Stop aiming those arrows at me!”

He threw down his spear as the City Watch surrounded them. Now there was only Ilvriss left. He stood with his sword bared. Over half a dozen [Guardsmen] lay on the ground, bleeding or being treated with potions by their comrades. The [Commander] shouted at him.

“Drop the weapon, Drake! Drop it I said, or—”

Silence.

Ilvriss’ eyes flashed. Erin felt a weight on her shoulders and stumbled. The Lord of the Wall’s aura made the Drakes around him flinch, and one actually fell. Ilvriss raised his blood-stained blade, staring at the Drakes in front of him with the same haughty arrogance he always had.

“I am Ilvriss Gemscale, Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar! Lower your weapons now!”

The [Guardsmen] around Ilvriss reacted to his name and title. They hesitated, and the [Commander] in the yellow armor hesitated. He called cautiously at Ilvriss.

“Wall Lord or not, your intrusion here breaks the laws! Put down your blade, Wall Lord, and surrender peacefully!”

Ilvriss’ scorching gaze made the [Commander] flinch. The Wall Lord turned, his blade drawn. He stared down the street filled with [Guardsmen], daring them to attack. His voice rang across the street.

“Unacceptable! I, surrender? Put up your blades, soldiers of Pallass! Or if you intend to strike, strike true, because you won’t have a second chance. If it is war your city wants, mine will happily paint your walls red over my death!”

He brandished his blade and the Drakes nearest to him backed up. Erin’s arms were tired so she lowered them and massaged her shoulders as she waited to see what the Drake [Commander] would do. There was a moment where he hesitated, then he gave the order.

“Blades down. Someone get a Street Runner and find me a representative of the Assembly of Crafts!”

“Oh, I can go—”

Hawk took one step and put his hands up as the Drakes around him raised their weapons. He stared glumly at his feet as the soldiers in the street milled about and several took off at a run. Hawk didn’t quite avoid Erin and everyone else’s gaze as they stared at him. He coughed.

“Okay, how was I supposed to know that was against the law?”

Erin looked at him and then around. She grinned helplessly as the Drakes eyed her.

“Um. Oops. Sorry?”

The Drakes of Pallass’ City Watch stared at her, their expressions hostile. Erin looked at one of the Drakes lying on the ground and moaning from where Ilvriss had cut him. She looked about, and raised her hands again.

 

—-

 

Zevara was the Captain of Liscor’s City Watch. She was a hardworking Drake who didn’t deserve half the news she got. Particularly any of the news involving Erin. For the first five seconds after the Gnoll [Guardsmen] delivered his report about Erin’s new portal to Pallass, Zevara just sat at her desk with her mouth open. Then she began shouting.

“She did what? You’re telling me that there’s an unregulated portal to Pallass open and no one’s informed the security there?”

“I think so, Captain. We didn’t hear about it until just now. The Human [Barmaid] at her inn—the former thief—went to the city to let us know that Wall Lord Ilvriss and the [Innkeeper] had gone through the door about twenty minutes ago.”

The Gnoll [Guardsman] saw the scales on Zevara’s face turn dead white. She leapt up, sending her chair clattering.

“Get me a [Mage] and send a [Message] spell to Pallass right now! Tell them I want to talk to the Watch Captain on duty now! This is an emergency!”

Zevara didn’t wait for the Gnoll to start moving. She ran out of her office, shouting for the [Mage] on-duty in the barracks to send a message at once. She was swearing, cursing Erin’s name with every bad word she knew—and that was before she learned that Relc, a [Guardsman] from Liscor, had been arrested after attacking several members of Pallass’ City Watch. If there was one bright spot, it was that the prisoners in The Wandering Inn hadn’t been hurt.

 

—-

 

The door to Pallass had been open for about twenty minutes when Lyonette noticed a few shadows around the doorway. She was busy keeping Mrsha from chasing Erin through the doorway and feeding Moore a bracing snack so she didn’t have time to investigate it. The Redfang Warriors were all peering at the doorway, and it was only when Lyonette heard the Drake [Captain] right outside the doorway that she realized there was trouble.

Now!

Lyonette heard a roar from the door and turned in time to see a Drake’s hand tossing a potion into the room. The bottle smashed onto the floorboards and erupted into a plume of bright purple and white flames. They shot towards the ceiling and vanished in in instant. But the eruption of smoke billowed upwards. Lyonette shouted, and heard the voice from outside roar again.

Charge in! Take down the half-Giant and Hobs first!”

A Drake in bright yellow armor, a [Captain], charged through the doorway. He was followed by another Drake with plain steel or maybe iron armor, holding an axe. The two Drakes ran through the doorway as the rest streamed forwards—

And the portal went dead behind the second Drake. The Drake [Captain] faltered as four hundred miles south of his location, twenty armed soldiers thudded into the stone wall with commendable force. He slowed and the Drake behind him paused and stared behind him. The two [Guardsmen] looked around the inn at the five Hobs and coughing half-Giant. Lyonette had dived to cover Mrsha. The two got up slowly, coughing, and stared at the pair of Drakes. Neither Gnoll nor Human looked happy as the smoke began to clear.

The five Redfang Warriors traded a glance. All of the Hobs were on their feet with swords in hand and they casually spread out to surround the two Drakes. Moore raised his staff, looking annoyed by the smoke that was making his eyes water. The Drake [Guardsman] behind his commander gulped as Apista buzzed around his head, agitated by the smoke and fire.

Faced with a sudden lack of bodies and cut off, the Drake [Captain] did the most sensible thing he could. He hesitated, and slowly sheathed his sword and raised his hands.

“We surrender.”

 

—-

 

“Okay, so we didn’t mean to illegally enter your city. It’s just that I have a magical door, and we thought, y’know, it’d be cool to have a portal between Liscor and Pallass. Okay? I mean, Ilvriss—Wall Lord Ilvriss, that’s what he likes to be called—said it was okay to do. And if he didn’t know it was illegal, well…it’s not like anyone died, right?”

Erin grinned hopefully at the Watch Captain across the table from her. An hour had passed. In that time she’d first been searched, and then, at Ilvriss’ insistence, left untouched. The Lord of the Wall had demanded both the Gold-rank adventurers and Relc be unshackled and treated as guests rather than prisoners City Watch had been unable to refuse his request.

After that, there had been some awkward standing around, many questions asked, and Jelaqua had asked someone to pull the arrows out of her chest. Then had come the urgent messages from Zevara, a bit too late, and also a notification of the prisoners that Lyonette had taken in The Wandering Inn.

Now Erin sat across a table from the Captain of the Watch on active duty. The Drake was wearing bright yellow armor and massaging his temples with one clawed hand as he listened to her convoluted explanation of what had happened.

“Let me see if I understand you correctly, Miss, ah, Erin. Your inn has a magical doorway capable of teleporting a user over four hundred miles.”

“Yup!”

“And you happen to know a Lord of the Wall who is seeking passage to his home city. And so you and Wall Lord Ilvriss hired a Courier to install this…portal doorway…in my city.”

“That’s sort of how it happened.”

“And—and I can’t believe this is a detail—your inn also has five Hobgoblin warriors and hosts a Gold-rank team of adventurers.”

“And a Silver-rank team. The Horns of Hammerad. They’re nice people, but they weren’t around.”

“I see.”

The [Captain] stared at Erin’s desperate smile and then looked back at the report in front of him. He massaged his temples again. Erin felt rather bad for him, actually.

“So…are we in trouble?”

“Let me see here. Thirteen wounded members of the City Watch, illegal entry, illegal use of a high-grade magical artifact, resisting arrest—”

“Hey, I surrendered! My hands were up the entire time! Mostly the entire time.”

“—resisting arrest, taking two members of the City Watch prisoner, sheltering Goblins—”

“Sheltering and feeding.”

Erin helpfully interjected. The [Captain] buried his face in his claws. Erin reached across the desk and patted him on the shoulder.

“Please don’t do that.”

“Sorry. But are we in trouble?”

The Watch Captain looked glum.

“I should arrest you. I would arrest you, but Wall Lord Ilvriss has asserted his rights. He is in the wrong, but as you were all acting on his orders…I could arrest the others for assaulting [Guardsmen], but he would object.”

“And that’s a bad—”

“That would cause a diplomatic incident that I am not qualified to handle. For now, you’re not under arrest, but we’re keeping the Selphid, guardsman Relc, and the Drowned Man here. Their weapons are being impounded until we sort this out with Liscor.”

“Oh. That’s uh, okay, I guess. But what about Hawk and me?”

The Drake shook his head gloomily. Hawk had already left the barracks after showing them his Courier’s seal.

“The Courier? He fulfilled his request to the letter. That he was unaware of Pallass’ laws is a matter for the Runner’s Guild. We’ll send a formal complaint to them. As for you—”

Erin gave him her most winning smile. The [Captain]’s eye twitched a bit.

“—You’re free to go. But given that your uh, magical door is in use right now for the purpose of communication, I must insist you stay in the city’s limits.”

“Okay, I can wander around—”

No.

The [Captain] shot out of his chair. He eyed Erin, and then sat.

“You are part of Wall Lord Ilvriss’ entourage so I am bound to assure your safety—”

“I am? He said that? Wow, that’s so nice of him!”

The Watch Captain ground his teeth together.

“That is what he claims. Thus, I cannot detain you against your will. But I must insist you be accompanied during your stay here. I will arrange for a guide to show you around the city. Is that acceptable?”

“Oh, totally. Um, does this mean I can—”

Go.

Erin nodded. She got up and tiptoed to the door. She opened it, slipped out, and then peeked back into the Watch Captain’s room.

“Uh, sorry for all the trouble.”

He stared at her until she backed away. When she was gone the Watch Captain buried his head in his hands. He’d been Captain of the Day Watch for over eight years and he’d weathered sieges, monster attacks, and political strife without flinching. Now he was close to tears. It was a feeling Watch Captain Zevara would have sympathized with very well.

 

—-

 

Erin left the Watch Captain’s barracks and looked around. A lot had happened. A lot of important stuff. She felt quite bad for the Watch Captain, but relieved that she wasn’t in trouble and no one had died. A lot of people had gotten hurt—mainly by Ilvriss. But the Wall Lord’s strutting around and acting arrogant had helped, for once. He really was a big shot, so much so that he could stab someone in the middle of a street and then boss people about as if he was the injured party.

“Wow. Wall Lords are important. I guess I should be more respectful after all. Too bad I won’t be.”

Erin murmured to herself as she stared around the street. The City Watch’s barracks had only been a street or two away, so she hadn’t seen much of the city. She yearned to look about, but the Watch Captain had said she’d have a guide. Now where was—

“You there! Are you the Human I’m supposed to be showing around?”

Erin’s head turned. She heard a young male voice and saw a Drake with light orange scales striding up to her across the street. She smiled and went to greet him.

“Hi! That’s me! I’m Erin Solstice. Who are you?”

“I’m Nelliam Hailwing, your guide. Technically I’m a [Greeter], but we don’t have many actual [Guides] and I was the only one nearby. I hear you’re some kind of troublemaker. Did you have something to do with that fight an hour ago?”

“No…what gave you that impression?”

Erin tried to look innocent as Nelliam scrutinized her from head to toe. He was a young Drake, and Erin would have said he was in his mid-teens if he was a Human. He stared at her curiously.

“Well, the rumor is that a crazy Human [Mage] teleported a bunch of Gold-rank adventurers into the city to cause trouble. Apparently she’d been hired by a Lord of the Wall to do it! A Wall Lord from Salazsar if you can believe that.”

“Whoa. I have no idea about that. That’s crazy. And not me. I’m just a visitor to the city.”

Erin lied as convincingly as she could. Nelliam looked skeptical, but then he shook his head.

“I guess you don’t look like a [Mage]. Okay then, you want a tour, right? Where should we start?”

“How about from the beginning? I mean, this is a Walled City and I’ve never been here so…I guess my first question is where the walls are.”

“The walls?”

Nelliam looked blankly at Erin. She pointed to the blue sky.

“Yeah, I mean, where are the walls? Aren’t they like, three hundred feet high? Shouldn’t I be able to see them?”

The young Drake stared at Erin and she knew she’d said something stupid. He coughed.

“Um. This is the highest residential level. You can’t see the walls because we’re so high up.”

“We are? I mean—we are?”

The Drake stared at Erin.

“You did climb all the stairs to get to the top of the city, didn’t you? You do remember going up all this way, right?”

“Uh…no.”

Nelliam stared at Erin. Erin stared back. The Drake blinked and scratched at the back of his head.

“Okaaay then. Let’s show you the city as a whole first! This way, Miss Erin.”

He led her down the street. Erin walked past groups of Drakes, seeing a few Gnolls and other species in the crowd, but mainly scaly bodies. Nelliam kept her moving at a quick pace, talking rapidly and steering her clear of knots of people in the crowd.

“Mind your step, Miss Human! People walk fast in Pallass and if you aren’t careful you’ll be run over! There’s not really many wagons this high up of course, but you have to learn how to walk with the traffic!”

“Where are we going?”

“To see the city! There’s a nice overlook just ahead—are you sure you haven’t seen Pallass before? How did you get up here?”

“Uh…I guess I just wasn’t paying attention!”

“Huh.”

Nelliam shook his head, but he at least seemed used to guiding odd people about. He launched into a prepared speech as the traffic thinned and Erin sensed them heading towards the end of a street.

“Well, if you’ve never been here before you’re in for a treat! Pallass is one of the Walled Cities, one of the jewels of the Drake lands! It’s a massive city—far larger than almost all the Human cities, and much better defended! These walls have never fallen to invasion, and Pallass is the most important northern Drake city!”

“It is? I thought that was Liscor!”

Erin exclaimed. Nelliam snorted and his tail swished across the paving stones.

“Liscor? They’re just a small city that occupies a trade route between the north and south. We’re the real gateway to the north. Our armies are close to both the Antinium and the Blood Fields—if the Humans send their armies we’re the first city to respond. And we manufacture more arms and potions than any other city on the continent! Our [Alchemists] and [Blacksmiths] are second to none! That’s why Pallass is famous across the world!”

“Really?”

Erin stared round-eyed at Nelliam. He faltered. He was guiding Erin towards the end of the street, which didn’t end with a wall so much as a vertical drop. Erin could see a huge wall beyond the edge of the drop. A city lay ahead of her, and she found herself speeding up to see.

“Well, yes. We’re famous. You have heard of us, haven’t you? Pallassian steel? Our potions? You’ve never heard of our latest technological developments?”

“No…but I don’t get out much. You make stuff?”

“Not just stuff!”

Nelliam tried to rally. He raised his voice again as he strode towards the drop ahead of them. Erin was glad to see there were stone guardrails, placed at chest level so no one could accidentally trip over the edge. Closer now. She could see a huge wall stretching across the gap, and what looked like levels with houses on them. They were still a ways away and now Nelliam was chattering to her about Pallass’ many inventions.

“Just the other month one of our [Craftswomen] figured out a way to harness the power of the wind to crank our siege weapons! We invented the smock mill!”

“The what?”

“The—it’s a more lightweight version of the tower mill. It’s designed so you can build it with wood and metal rather than out of stone. It was a huge achievement! You can use it to drain swamps, build them near farms in a tenth of the time since you don’t have to wait for mortar to dry—”

“Oh, right. I bet that takes a long time, even if you blow on the concrete. Or do you heat it with fire magic to make it dry faster? Is there a special fan you use? Wind magic?”

The Drake turned his head and gave Erin the fish-eye. She stared back innocently. He hesitated, and then shook his head.

“Humans. Look, we’re inventors! It’s in our blood. That’s what Pallass is known for! The other Walled Cities might have our specialties, but we stand on the cutting-edge at all times. Our city creates wonders for the rest of the world. And here we are! Look!”

They reached the end of the street. Erin approached the stone railing and Nelliam threw a hand out. He shouted in triumph as Erin got her first true glimpse of the Walled City.

“This is Pallass, the City of Invention!”

Erin stared over the balcony. Out, and down. She stared thousands of feet, perhaps miles across the balcony, to a huge wall in the distance. It was high and long, and was one of four walls in each of the cardinal directions. North, south, east, and west, the walls of Pallass rose, impenetrable stone towering in the sky. But it wasn’t the walls that took Erin’s breath away. It was what had been built in the city.

She was standing on the highest level of Pallass save for the battlements. Erin hadn’t realized that before. That was why she hadn’t seen the walls, because she was too high up. But now, staring into the heart of the city, Erin could look down and see the city below her.

She saw thousands of tiny houses built on ledges that protruded from the walls. Water, actual water being pumped up some odd conveyor belt to tiny gardens hanging below her! Crisscrossing streets filled with minuscule people, a sea of rooftops, four giant stairwells descending into center of the city from each of the walls—Erin’s eyes strained at the enormity of it all. Nelliam grinned in pride as he gestured.

“Welcome to Pallass. Amazing, isn’t it?”

Behind Nelliam, Pallass stretched outwards and downwards, a sprawling city made of multiple levels. Yes, that was the word for it. Levels. Erin was standing on one of the highest points of the city and she could look down into other streets, plazas, and buildings far below.

Pallass had been built so that the urban center of the city was at the lowest point, or ground level. That looked much like a normal city, but where the Walled City had changed was in the four massive staircases that rose upwards towards the walls. It was possible to ascend higher and reach an entirely new ‘floor’ where more buildings had been constructed.

Each new level was progressively smaller and circled the interior of the walls, so that Erin felt like she was looking at an inverted pyramid. Or a bowl. The effect was hypnotic as well as grand, but what struck Erin most was the organization of it all. She could instantly plot a route from her position to the lowest part of the city or anywhere she wanted to travel. Ramps were neatly placed at intervals to allow someone access to a higher or lower floor, and the four central staircases made getting lost impossible. Walk far enough in one direction and you’d get to one of the four staircases.

“Wow. It’s so organized.

“Of course it is! Did you think we’d build a disorganized city?”

Nelliam looked insulted. Erin shrugged, thinking of cities like Venice or London.

“I guess not. But we Humans build weird cities all the time. I guess I didn’t expect it to look so neat.”

“You Humans. So messy.”

The Drake shook his head and pointed down into the city.

“Any new construction has to be approved by an [Architect] and an official who understands the layout of the city. We build in expectation of usage, and our craftspeople move in. See—we constructed the new Blacksmith’s Quarters two years ago in response to complaints about the smoke and noise. They occupy the second-highest level, there, you see?”

Erin looked where he was pointing and saw a plume of smoke rising from a series of buildings. It was very far away but she thought she could see tiny figures hammering industriously on pieces of metal. Or was that her imagination? The Walled City might not have had the horizontal landmass of a megacity like, say, Chicago, but Erin was still breathtaken by the size of Pallass.

Breathtaken, and a little queasy. Erin backed up from the edge of the wall.

“I think I’d like to not look down so much.”

“Visitors always say that. You’ll get used to the heights soon enough if you stay here. Now, let’s head down, shall we?”

“Down? How? You mean the stairs?”

Erin pointed towards one of the four grand stairwells. The nearest one was to their left and looked a good walk away. But Nelliam only laughed.

“No! I told you, Pallass is the city of inventors! We’ve come up with a much faster way to travel between floors! Look, over there, see?”

He pointed and Erin stared over at a place where the stone balcony ended and an odd contraption had been built into the stone. She stared at an…elevator.

Yes, it was an elevator. It was a wood and metal platform with guardrails, controlled by a pulley and system of gears. Nelliam walked Erin over to it and she stood on the wood platform as he fiddled with the hand crank. Then he nodded to her with a huge grin on his face.

“Ready? Don’t be scared—this isn’t magic, but its close! We’re going down, nice and easy!”

He turned something, and Erin felt the elevator begin to descend. She expected them to drop, but to her surprise she saw a gear turning as the elevator slowly descended, regulating the speed at which they went down. Nelliam smiled broadly at Erin, expecting her to be amazed.

And she was, just not for the reasons the Drake expected. Erin stared at the elevator and then put her hand on a lever that was turning slowly. The elevator stopped with a jolt.

“Whoa! This is an elevator!”

“Hey, stop that!”

Looking alarmed, Nelliam made Erin let go of the crank. They continued their descent, and the Drake edged Erin back from the controls.

“Please don’t fiddle with the gears! This is a new piece of technology—it’s a platform which raises and lowers itself without magic!”

“Right, with gears!”

“Exactly—wait, how did you know?”

Nelliam looked shocked and then suspicious. He frowned at Erin.

“You have gone on one of these before, haven’t you? Well, we’re headed down—we’ll take the scenic route. Look, you can see the entire city!”

He pointed and Erin saw that he was right. The elevator was going down level after level, passing by Drakes who were walking down a street with trees planted at intervals, down another level where Drakes were marching in formation, and all the while Erin could see the grand staircase closest to them and Drakes moving up and down the stairs.

“Wow, look at those stairs!”

They ran from the bottom of the Walled City to the top. Erin had to guess there were thousands of steps, and although few Drakes seemed willing to make the entire journey, thousands of them were using the stairway to go up or down a level. It was one of four stairwells and each one had a side for Drakes moving up the stairs and a side if you wanted to descend.

Organization. Nelliam smiled proudly but a bit condescendingly as he pointed to the Drakes heading down the stairs. They were close enough so that Erin could catch fragments of conversation and see the Drakes carrying baskets, goods, and so on with them.

“That’s the old way of moving through the city of course. You’ll have to use the stairs to go up—it’s too much work to crank the platforms up when you’re standing on them. But this is a lot faster and easier than walking down the stairs. It’s only the old-timers who refuse to use this method these days.”

His raised voice carried to a group of Drakes that was descending the stairs near the elevator. Erin saw a few of them look up in annoyance. One of them, an older Drake woman, raised her fist and shouted at Nelliam and Erin.

Real Drakes use steps!

Nelliam’s tail twitched and he bellowed back at her.

Shut up, you old hag!

The Drake made a rude gesture and Nelliam nearly copied her until he remembered that Erin was watching. He turned his back on the Drake as they descended past her and coughed, his cheeks flushed.

“Sorry about that.”

Erin stared at the Drake lady who was descending much slower than her elevator.

“Who was that?”

“My aunt.”

Nelliam shifted, clearly embarrassed and pointed out something else to Erin as they went.

“See those Drakes running down the middle of the staircase?”

Erin turned her head and saw that there were figures running down the center ramp that separated the streams of people going up and down the stairs. The middle of the staircase was wide enough that they could race or slide down the middle several people at a time. The Drakes and Gnolls wore armbands and carried packages. Erin gasped as one leapt from the middle and landed on a level below him, taking off running as soon as he hit the ground. Nelliam smiled.

“Those are Street Runners and City Runners. They use the middle because it’s faster and they don’t run people over. Some of them jump from level to level, although that’s dangerous. But if you need something delivered across the city quick, all you have to do is find one of the drop-off points and write down your address!”

“Wow. I’ve seen Runners before, but I didn’t know it was so different here!”

Erin exclaimed as the elevator descended to what was nearly the bottom level. Nelliam stopped it before they could get to the ground floor and pointed.

“Pallass is a lot different from most Drake cities. Humans ones too, I bet. We’re at the bottom now, and you can see the walls, right?”

He glanced at her somewhat mockingly. Erin looked up. From the ground, the four walls towered over her, casting huge shadows. She stared up towards the sun and shaded her eyes as she peered at the different floors built into the walls.

“Yep, I can see them now. That’s a lot of floors. And a long way up. Hey, does this mean I have to climb all those stairs if I want to get back up again?”

The thought was dismaying, but again Nelliam laughed at her.

“No! Okay, for the small elevators there’s no way up and you have to crank them back up if you want to get down. That’s a pain in the tail, though, so we’ll take one of the magic-powered elevators up.”

“The what now?”

Nelliam pointed and Erin saw another elevator, far larger than the platform she was standing on, shoot upwards. The gears moving the elevator were blurring with speed—but not from any mechanical force she could see. Nelliam smiled.

“Those elevators are powered by mana stones. They’re expensive, but the city has a number of them to let people go from the bottom floors to the top ones when they need to. We’ll take it back up so you can stand on the battlements. Unless you want to look around the bottom levels first?”

“I want to ride that thing.”

Erin stared at the elevator as it went up at dizzying speeds. It looked like fun to her, a girl for whom roller coasters were an attraction rather than a nightmare come to life. Nelliam grinned, sensing her anticipation.

“Okay then! We’ll join the queue.”

He led her at a brisk walk over to the elevator. Erin stared at the line of Drakes and Gnolls, most of whom looked older and thus were in need of the elevator’s convenience. She fidgeted, feeling a bit guilty.

“Is it okay to use this? I can walk if we’re in the way.”

“You’re a tourist. It’s okay, especially if you haven’t ridden one before. Just please don’t be sick. People throwing up over the sides is awful, especially because it gets everywhere.”

Nelliam reassured her as they stepped onto the elevator. Erin saw a Drake conductor standing at the side, waiting for everyone to file in. When he’d judged the elevator was full, he touched a glowing red stone to another stone embedded in the elevator.

The gears began to turn. Slowly at first, and then with increasing speed they propelled the elevator up. Erin felt her stomach drop and clung to the guardrail as Nelliam grinned wildly. She looked around and saw the older Drakes and Gnolls holding on for dear life. It looked like they had fought a battle between the exhaustion of climbing the stairs or the fear of riding the elevator and only barely won.

“Isn’t this amazing? We’re trying to get all the elevators to do this, but without the magic!”

Nelliam shouted to Erin around the rushing air. She looked at the city falling below them and felt a strange sense of familiarity. This was so much like an elevator from her world! Only, it was going a lot faster than most elevators she knew, and she’d never been in an elevator that was exposed like this. Only the guardrails kept her from tumbling off.

“How would you make all elevators like this?”

“With wind! We’re trying to attach a windmill to the elevator gears, but it’s not working! We think we can make them wind themselves up eventually, though! Then we’ll be able to ascend and descend anywhere we want!”

The Drake hollered back just in time for the elevator to slow as they reached the top floor. Erin wobbled out with Nelliam helping her and an elderly Drake. He grinned, used to the sudden ascent.

“Wasn’t that amazing? Just think, someday none of us might have to use the stairs again!”

“I hope I die before that day comes.”

The old Drake muttered as he walked unsteadily out of the elevator. Erin felt he had a point, but then she was on top of Pallass’ walls. She stared around and realized that while she’d been near the top of the city she’d never looked out over the walls.

She did so now. The walls of Pallass were exceptionally wide. So wide in fact, that there were emplacements where trebuchets, catapults, and other siege weapons had been installed and room enough for armed [Guardsmen] to patrol and citizens to walk along the wall. It was so wide that Erin could have had a tennis game on top of the walls with room to spare if she hadn’t been worried about the ball falling off. Because if anything did get knocked off the top of the walls, there was a long way to drop.

“Oh my god we’re high up.”

Erin stood at the battlements of the Walled City, grateful for the guardrail. She looked down, down, and down some more. Below her, muddy ground stretched out, hills, and forests, brown and white in some places as the last of the winter’s frost melted. Nelliam smiled as he pointed to a series of exceptionally high mountains towering over the Walled City in the distance.

“See that? That’s the High Passes, north of here. And if you look left, you can see the roads heading west. And over there—see it? There a village down there, and if you look really close you can see people! You can pay for an enchanted spyglass. Lots of people rent them and sit up here watching. Just mind the wind. It doesn’t usually blow people off, but it can get really strong up here!”

There was indeed a terrific wind blowing at Erin’s hair. It was colder than she would have liked, but she couldn’t tear herself away from the magnificent view. Nelliam grinned smugly as he saw Erin gaping.

“This is three hundred feet high?”

It felt higher, or maybe Erin had been away from home for too long. She’d been far higher—in airplanes and skyscrapers, but standing on the top of Pallass’ walls felt more immediate. Nelliam shrugged.

“It’s actually taller in places. We say its three hundred feet high just because it’s exactly that short in some spots. Impressive though, isn’t it? Have you ever been this high in your life?”

He was clearly expecting Erin to say no. She nodded absently.

“Yes. Higher, actually.”

What?

She could look down and see people entering and exiting Pallass’ gates far below. She could look straight down, in fact. Erin did and felt vertigo nudge her stomach at last. She thought she might faint or trip and hastily backed away from the edge. She had to take a few steadying breaths until she was feeling better.

“The height huh? It gets most people the first time. Some people who’ve lived here their entire lives won’t look over the edge. My mother won’t, and she was born here, same as the rest of my family.”

Nelliam leaned over the railing, completely at ease. Erin swallowed and looked around. It seemed the City Watch was fine with letting civilians on the walls so long as there wasn’t trouble. More than a few Drakes and Gnolls were standing at the balcony, looking through spyglasses. Some were more daring, leaning over the battlements or standing on top of them—

Erin blinked. There was a Gnoll standing on top of the battlements, on one of the stone blocks that archers could use for cover during battles. He had a pair of feathery wings strapped to each arm and as Erin watched he flapped them encouragingly in the breeze. But he wasn’t going to jump, right? That would be—

He leapt from the top of the battlements. Erin shouted in horror as she raced towards the spot he’d dove from. She screamed at Nelliam who hadn’t seen.

“Hey, that Gnoll just jumped!

“Where?”

Nelliam’s head turned, as did several of the [Guardsmen] on patrol. They instantly relaxed when they saw the plummeting figure.

“Oh. You had me scared for a second.”

“What? He jumped—someone do something!”

Erin was in a panic. What could they do? The Gnoll was dead the instant he hit the ground! But Nelliam looked unconcerned.

“Relax. That Gnoll always comes up here. He won’t get hurt. He’s trying to fly.”

“Fly?”

Erin remembered the wings. They’d looked silly, as silly as those old movies of people riding off cliffs with bicycles with wings. She stared at the falling shape, wondering if the wings were magical. The [Guardsmen] behind her were laughing and pointing, making bets on whether or not the Gnoll would fly.

“Looks like—he might make it—aw, no!”

The Gnoll was flapping wildly with his makeshift wings to no avail. They dragged at the air and eventually the left wing snapped off his arm. He plummeted and Erin covered her eyes as he neared the ground. She peeked at the last second, though.

Before the Gnoll could splatter messily onto the ground, his body suddenly slowed in midair. He fell the last fifty or so feet, flapping with his one good arm and looking quite upset. Nelliam shook his head as the Drakes on duty laughed and tossed a few coins towards the bet maker.

“He always does that. That’s the second time this month. I don’t know where he finds the coin for those Featherfall Potions, but he’s wasting them trying to fly. He’s not an Oldblood Drake and his wings break half the time. And when they don’t he just wobbles in the air before he lands.”

Erin stared as the Gnoll landed on the ground and tore the last wing off his arms. He began to stomp on them and she looked at Nelliam.

“Do a lot of people do that?”

“No, just him. He’s weird, isn’t he? But you were lucky to see him—he doesn’t jump often and people like to watch when he does. Too bad he’ll never succeed. A few of the Oldblood Drakes with wings sometimes fly from the walls, but a Gnoll won’t ever fly. Not without a powerful magical artifact or spell, anyways.”

“Oh really?”

Erin cocked her head, a bit surprised by Nelliam’s dismissiveness. She knew Humans couldn’t fly by themselves in her world even with technology, but what about gliders and wing suits?

“I thought Pallass was the ‘city of inventions’. Why don’t you think a Gnoll can learn to fly?”

Nelliam scoffed.

“There’s a difference between invention and things that are just impossible. Everyone knows that. If you want to fly, hire a [Mage]. We’re making things that everyone can use, not wasting our time trying to do ridiculous things like that.”

“Hmm.”

Erin didn’t immediately reply to the young Drake. She stared at the Gnoll who was trudging back to the city with his tail literally between his legs. She smiled.

“Maybe it’s impossible. But I bet all the great inventors did impossible things.”

Nelliam snorted.

“Yeah, but none of them strapped wings to their arms and jumped off walls. That Gnoll’s broken more bones than anyone in the city! If you’re done with the walls, do you want to continue the tour? I can show you our gardens next. Or how about we visit the Blacksmith’s Quarter? Or—”

He was turning Erin away when she saw a familiar Drake in yellow armor striding up to them. The Watch Captain looked harried, and he stopped abruptly in front of Erin and Nelliam.

“Miss Solstice, we’re going to have to cut your tour short. You’re needed back at your magic…portal thing. The Assembly of Crafts, our ruling body, has met with some of your city’s leaders and come to a decision.”

“The Assembly of Crafts? Wait a second, you mean the Human who caused all that trouble is her?

Nelliam stared wide-eyed at Erin and the Watch Captain. She winced as the [Captain] took her arm. The Drake [Greeter] wanted to hurry after them, but a [Guardsman] blocked his way.

“Wait, you’re the Human [Mage]? Why didn’t you tell me?”

The Watch Captain ignored Nelliam as he steered Erin away. She waved at the young Drake apoplectically.

“Sorry! I didn’t teleport anyone! It was my door!”

“What?”

“My door!

The Drake and Human walked off as Nelliam disappeared behind them. The [Captain] was silent, but Erin was curious so she began to pester him with questions.

“What’s so important about the door? Is there more trouble?”

“Not exactly. A few members of our Assembly—that’s ah, like Liscor’s Council only we elect numerous representatives from all of the major Guilds to vote on issues—a few members met with Liscor’s council. They used the door to communicate. I gather that Wall Lord Ilvriss will be fined, but there will be no criminal charges.”

“Oh. Good. So why do they want me?”

The [Captain] avoided Erin’s gaze. He coughed.

“I think the existence of such a powerful artifact that can transport people between locations is the issue at stake. The convenience and possible security risk means you, as the owner, need to be present in case the artifact is subject to fines or confiscation.”

“Confiscation? Hey, wait a minute…that’s not right!”

“I’m just doing my duty.”

“Oh yeah, well what if I have a problem with people taking my door?”

“It is a possible security risk to Pallass. If necessary we may be forced to seize it—”

“Seize it? If you do, I’ll shove this fist so far up—no, wait, that’s gross. I’ll shove the door so far up—”

“It’s not decided yet. Please, follow me.”

The Watch Captain edged away from Erin as he led her back towards the doorway. Erin stomped after him, muttering.

“Some city this is. First they arrest me, and then they try to take my door? We’ll see about that.”

She narrowed her eyes. Erin stomped through the streets after the nervous Watch Captain and found a crowd around the alleyway with the magic door. There were a lot of Drakes in expensive clothing forced to stand elbow-to-elbow in the cramped alleyway. A few Gnolls too, which was surprising. The Assembly of Crafts looked at Erin as she stormed up and she saw Ilvriss, Relc, Jelaqua, and Seborn all standing outside the door. Hawk was there too, sheepishly hiding behind a tall Gnoll.

“Hey! Are you jerks trying to steal my door?”

The important-looking Drakes and Gnolls stared blankly at Erin and then one of them, a Gnoll with a paunch and bright reddish-brown fur, spoke.

“We are considering impounding this magical artifact due to the potential security risk it poses as well as the economic advantages it confers. You are the [Innkeeper] and owner of this artifact, correct?”

“That’s right. I’m Erin Solstice. Who are you?”

The Gnoll blinked down at Erin. He was wearing an expensive vest and had a skullcap on his head—the first time Erin had seen a Gnoll wearing any kind of hat.

“I am Errif Jealwind, a [Merchant] and the current head of the Merchant’s Guild in Pallass. I am one of the Head Speakers for the Assembly of Crafts. We have reviewed the incident involving Wall Lord Ilvriss’s intrusion into this city and are debating what punitive measures may be taken.”

“Okay. And you think you can take my door, huh? Why? Because it’s a threat?”

The Gnoll blinked as Erin glared at him. She wasn’t impressed by his titles. He nodded.

“And because it can open up trade between any city we want. Imagine the possibilities!”

“But it’s my door.”

This fact didn’t seem to impress Errif. He flicked a furry paw.

“We will of course, compensate you for the artifact. However, this is a matter of security. We cannot just have visitors entering the city magically. Wall Lord Ilvriss’ intrusion was highly illegal and his noble status does not render him immune to the laws. Once he is fined we will require his return to Liscor.”

“Wait, what? You’re making him go back to Liscor?”

Erin looked at Ilvriss. He was standing with both arms folded, practically smoldering with anger. The Wall Lord snapped at Errif.

“And it seems Pallass intends to make off with your artifact as well, Solstice. I underestimated how shameless a Walled City could become, but I should have expected nothing less from a city ruled by a democracy.

Errif and the other Drakes and Gnolls didn’t appear bothered by the insult. He gestured, and Erin saw the [Guardsmen] surrounding Ilvriss, Jelaqua, Relc, and Seborn move a hair closer. The Gnoll didn’t quite smile as he stroked at the hair on his chin.

“Laws are meant to be enforced, Wall Lord Ilvriss. You broke our laws first, and so long as this door exists as a gateway outside our city, it is a threat to the security of Pallass. Thus, we are free to confiscate it. Your ejection is simply another matter of course. We are well within our liberties to deny you access.”

“I see. And here I thought Ilvriss was a jerk. But you guys are double jerks!”

Erin narrowed her eyes. Errif blinked as she took a step forwards. He seemed surprised that Erin was taking part in the conversation at all and glanced meaningfully at the Watch Captain.

“I think there is little need for more debate, Captain. Now that the owner of the, ah, door is here, we may inform her of the confiscation and arrange due compensation.”

“Hold up! Don’t I get a say?”

Erin protested. Errif ignored her.

“Escort the Wall Lord through the door. And the other intruders please. I trust the door has enough mana for the trip?”

A [Mage] Drake standing by the door raised his head and wiped sweat from his brow.

“We have charged it as far as we can, Senator Jealwind. We’re maintaining the connection with our mana reserves. It should be more than enough to send a group through, but I advise moderation.”

“Good. In that case—proceed.”

Errif motioned and Erin saw Ilvriss herded through the door with Jelaqua, Seborn, and Relc following after at spear point. She heard Relc complaining loudly.

“This always happens. Every time! I get arrested, I get kicked out. It’s not like I cause trouble each time, either! I—oh, hey Captain.”

“Now then. We will send a battalion through to secure the door and transport it back. It will take some time no doubt, but I am confident that once we have the artifact in our possession we will be able to open up new trade routes between Pallass and the north. Or perhaps between this city and another Walled City. The possibilities are endless, and I’m sure you’ll agree that it will be a powerful incentive when negotiating—”

Errif was animatedly talking with the other senators, ignoring Erin. She stared at him, thought about kicking his stupid wagging tail, and realized that was the stupidest thing she could do. The Watch Captain was apologetic but he would definitely arrest her again if she caused trouble.

They were going to march into Liscor and take her door! Just like that! Erin wondered if Zevara had agreed to this. Either way it didn’t matter. She couldn’t stop them. They would take the door and bring it back with him! Her magic door! And there was nothing she could do. She couldn’t fight and her door was wide open for all the big Drakes with swords to march through.

Wide open. Doorway. Erin stared at the door and then edged towards it. The Watch Captain immediately grabbed her arm, but she glared at him.

“I’m going back through the door, alright? Jeez! I thought you wanted to get rid of me!”

Errif turned. He saw Erin going to the door and nodded.

“Let the [Innkeeper] go, Captain. I am relieved that she is open to reason, unlike Wall Lord Ilvriss.”

A few of the Drakes around Errif laughed. One of them spoke up, playing with a pendant at her neck.

“I thought he might draw his sword on us. Wall Lords from Salazsar are so…temperamental.”

“Hotheaded. Quite unable to negotiate. It’s one thing to bargain from a position of strength, and yet another to stride into our city and begin making demands. Especially given that he was the one responsible for General Shivertail’s…”

Erin gritted her teeth as she walked through her doorway. She was back in her inn in a moment. She saw Zevara and a group of Liscor’s [Guardsmen] standing anxiously in front of the doorway. The Watch Captain looked upset, and Ilvriss did indeed look like he was considering going back through the doorway and stabbing Errif. Erin saw Lyonette wringing her hands anxiously.

“Erin, I’m so sorry—”

Erin cut her off with a hand. She stared back at Errif and raised her voice.

“Hey you! Mr. Gnoll! Yes, you, the fat, ugly one!”

The Senators of Pallass looked around. Errif’s jaw dropped in shock. Erin stepped back through the doorway.

“You may be a big shot in Pallass, but you can’t just take my door! It’s mine! And all your stupid stuff about security? That’s a lie, isn’t it? You just want my door because it’s cool. Well, you can’t have it.”

Errif stared at Erin for a second, and then turned back to his fellow senators and laughed lightly, dismissing Erin with a wave.

“Humans, they’re so…Watch Captain Venim, please deal with her, won’t you?”

The Watch Captain apprehensively raised his hand, but Erin wasn’t done. She pointed at Errif as she edged back into her inn.

“Not so fast, jerk! I’m not letting you have my door! And I’m going to make sure you guys can’t steal it!”

Errif’s brow furrowed.

“What is she talking about?”

Erin stepped forwards again, into Pallass.

“You think you’re so smart. Well, guess what? I can just change whether or not this door opens in Pallass. I’ll cut you off! How about them apples? Then there won’t be a security breach! So you can’t have my door!”

The Gnoll hesitated. One of the Drake senators, the female one, looked concerned.

“Can she do that? That would mean legally—”

Errif eyed Erin apprehensively. The young woman stared challengingly at him. He stared at the door set into the wall and spoke with forced confidence.

“The door is open. It’s a clear threat.”

“Oh yeah? Well, send your City Watch through this door and it’ll be a lot more threat. Anyone puts a claw through my door and I’ll hit them with a pan! And I bet Ilvriss will totally stab them! And I have a bunch of Goblins who’ll beat you up! And an Antinium guard!”

Erin backed up through the doorway, fists raised threateningly. The Assembly of Crafts stared and saw a black hand waving from the back of the crowd in Liscor.

“I believe that is me. Hello, Erin.”

“Antinium.”

Several of the Drakes paled and Errif backed up. He looked at the Watch Captain.

“Those are the Antinium of Liscor? Dead gods, I thought those Drakes were insane, but in an inn? Watch Captain, move your soldiers—”

“Not yet!”

Erin leapt through the doorway. Errif blinked at her, but Erin hopped back through to Liscor. She ran back through to Pallass again, feeling slightly stupid. But then there was a groan from the Drake [Mage] by the doorway.

“Senator Jealwind, the Human is draining the magic—”

“She’s what?”

Too late, Errif and the others realized what Erin was doing. Erin ran back into Liscor, hopped through into Pallass, hopped back into Liscor, hopped through to Pallass—she did three more side-hops and then leapt into Liscor as one of the Drakes grabbed for her. Erin panted.

“Wow, that’s a lot of mana. I didn’t know you could charge it up this much.”

“Keep the portal open! Watch Captain, send your men in now!

Errif shouted as the [Guardsmen] barred the door. He strode forwards, as if he meant to go through himself. He got right up to the portal’s edge and then ducked. A chair sailed over his head and smacked two Pallassian senators in the faces. They cried out and Errif scrambled to his feet.

He rose just in time to see Erin grabbing another chair to throw, and then the portal winked out. Errif stared at the blank brick wall in shock and then looked around. There was a nasty silence in the alleyway except for Watch Captain Venim, who breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

 

—-

 

On the other side of the portal, Erin stared at the wall of her inn. She had never been more relieved to see blank wood in her life. She turned and smiled. The rest of the inn stared at her. Ilvriss, the Halfseekers, Bird, the Redfang Warriors, and Zevara, Relc and several [Guardsmen] of Liscor. Erin smiled, edged over to Lyonette and hugged Mrsha. Then she looked cheerfully around the room.

“Well, that’s that. Hey Ilvriss, those Pallass guys are jerks! Why don’t we undo the connection to Pallass and forget this all happened, okay?”

Everyone stared at her. Erin grinned sheepishly.

“No? Yes? We can always put it back later, right?”

It was Moore who broke the tableau. He carefully reached out and pried loose the colored mana stone that Typhenous and Pisces had attuned to the door. Four hundred miles south, the [Mages] in Pallass reported the link between the doors was broken. Errif and the other senators stormed off, their plans ruined. Ilvriss looked thoughtfully at Erin and smiled.

“That was quite cleverly done. For a Human.”

“Thanks! I guess you’re one of the cooler Wall Lords around too. At least, by comparison with those guys.”

She grinned back at him. For once they were in accord.

All was well. Pallass, the City of Inventions, could wait. Erin smiled as she began to talk excitedly about all that had happened with the others. She couldn’t help but feel as though she’d forgotten something, though. Something rather important…

 

—-

 

Hawk the Courier stared at the blank wall as the [Guardsmen] set up a cordon around the alleyway and the Assembly of Crafts dispersed. He wasn’t angry. He was just footsore, hungry, and a bit hurt. Just a bit. He looked at the blank wall and shook his head.

“Screw the Runner’s Guild regulations. I’m charging them triple for this.”

Then he turned away and glumly found somewhere to sleep for the night. He had a feeling the door between Liscor and Pallass would be staying closed, at least for today. The Rabbitman muttered to himself as his stomach growled. This was why he hated visiting the Walled Cities.

“Politics.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

5.00

Zel Shivertail was dead.

Four words rocked the world in the first days of spring. Like wildfire, the news spread across Izril and then to every continent in the world at the speed of magic. Zel Shivertail had fallen. The Tidebreaker had been slain. The legendary Drake hero of both Antinium Wars had been killed in battle—and by a Goblin Lord, no less.

The world was vast. There were countless nations, hundreds of minor [Kings], any number of [Generals], self-proclaimed heroes and adventurers, figures of renown whose names were known only locally, in one country or a handful of cities. But there were also Named Adventurers, and world leaders, famous [Lords] and [Ladies] and Archmages whose names were known even in lands where they had never set foot. Zel Shivertail was known to the world. And his absence left a hole in the imagination.

He was dead. A Goblin Lord had slain him. In Izril, in the north, the Humans who heard the news were stunned. Not only had the mighty hero of the Drakes fallen, but the power of Magnolia Reinhart, one of the leaders of the realm had been shattered as well. Her army fled the field in disarray, striking a political blow whose effects would ripple from that event for months.

Yet, if the Humans were stunned, it was the Drakes, the people who had grown up associating Zel’s name with history who were truly devastated by the news. When his death was first announced there were riots across southern Izril, pandemonium in the streets. The next day there was only silence. And tears.

The Gnoll tribes were similarly affected by Shivertail’s death. However, instead of making their reactions public the majority of the tribes withdrew from sight. Massed Gnoll howls dominated the plains, and they too mourned. Zel Shivertail had been a friend to their kind, if not their hero.

The Human cities were relatively calm as they weren’t caught up in the loss of a national hero, but fear was the undercurrent that ran across the continent. A legend had fallen. The veil of safety had been torn, and now Humans, Drakes, and Gnolls alike feared what the Goblin Lord might do next.

That was Izril. Across the world the reactions of other species were muted. They did not know the Tidebreaker except as a name. However, those who understood strategy or had a grasp of world events felt the significance of his departure. That a Goblin Lord, a single Goblin Lord, however mighty, had felled a Drake [General] of that level was cause for alarm. To be that young and that mighty meant he might well be another Velan the Kind, or worse, a Curulac.

The leaders of other nations faced the very real possibility that a Goblin King might arise once more in their lifetimes, and the small Goblin conflict in Izril became a much more serious topic of conversation. Plans were hatched. Diplomacy begun. But such were the machinations of only a few.

After all, it was only politics. The rest of the world did not wait overlong after hearing of the fallen Drake [General]. A moment of shock, a pang of regret or fear, and the world kept moving. Zel Shivertail’s death was news, but to the common man…or Lizardman…or Drowned Woman…or Selphid, Zel Shivertail’s passing was just news, a change in the wind.

But return to his home continent and the reaction was far different. Zel had been known. He had been loved. And he would be missed.

Across Izril, there was mourning.

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice woke up at dawn because she was used to it. She stared at the ceiling of her kitchen and then turned over. There was no point to getting up. No one would be awake. Or if they were, they wouldn’t be hungry. Erin lay in the tangle of sheets that was her bed in the kitchen of her inn and just lay there for a while, not quite awake but unable to return to sleep.

In the end she got up. Erin wandered around her kitchen. She opened a drawer, pulled out a toothbrush, towel, and some of the simple toothpaste they used in this world. She brushed her teeth, gargled, realized there was nowhere to spit, and walked outside.

It was cold and wet and the mud and grass squished between her bare feet. Erin paused, stared at her feet, and then walked to one side into a pile of snow. It was dirty and mostly melted. Erin walked back in, scraping her feet against the welcoming mat she’d put there for this very occasion.

She washed her feet more thoroughly with some water from a bucket when she got back to the kitchen. Erin wandered back into the common room of her inn and sat at a table. Her stomach rumbled, but she ignored it.

After a few minutes she heard a faint shuffling sound from upstairs. She looked up and on cue a young woman holding a white ball of fur descended the stairs. Lyonette looked like a ghost. Erin immediately got up and went over to her. She hugged Lyonette silently. The two stood like that for a minute and then Lyonette went over to a table. She put the ball of fur on top of it.

“Mrsha?”

The small Gnoll didn’t move. She lay on the table, looking like a white ball of fluff. A large one. She’d grown a bit since she first came to the inn, as children did. But she was still so small. So young.

Erin patted the Gnoll cub on the head. Mrsha twitched, but made no other sound. There had to be a limit to how much despair, how much sadness someone could feel. Erin knew Mrsha had loved Zel.

And now he was gone. Unconsciously, Erin looked around. It felt like yesterday that the Drake [General] would be sitting at a table, eating pancakes, talking with Lyonette, teasing Mrsha and offering him some of her food.

And he was gone. Just like that. Dead, having fought the Goblin Lord hundreds of miles from here. It didn’t seem real.

It had been three days since the battle at Invrisil. Three days since Olesm had burst into the inn in tears and Erin had heard the Gnolls howling, heard the horns blaring from the walls of Liscor and Selys’ scream.

Three days. It still felt like she was dreaming. Erin busied herself by taking some food out of her pantry for Lyonette and Mrsha. Oatmeal, seasoned with honey. Mrsha refused to eat. Lyonette tried to feed her, but gave up when the Gnoll refused to move. She only ate half her bowl herself before pushing it away.

“I’ll give the rest to Mrsha when she’s hungry.”

“Right.”

Erin realized she hadn’t eaten either. She ate a bowl of porridge mechanically as more guests came down the stairs.

“Morning.”

Ceria waved tentatively at Erin, her face bleak. Erin waved back. The porridge was hot, filling, and some part of her craved the sweetness and warm food. But the rest of her felt sick from eating.

People walked down the stairs. A half-Elf. Ceria. A young man in white robes who was uncharacteristically silent. Pisces. A black-brown ant man with three arms. Ksmvr. A woman in silver armor. Yvlon.

The Horns of Hammerad. They accepted bowls of porridge as Lyonette got up to serve them and ate quietly. They left quietly, too. They were keeping busy with requests. Small hunts, extermination of small monster nests. Erin understood. It was keeping active that matters. Dwelling on things hurt more.

“Is that porridge I smell?”

Someone else came down the stairs after the Horns of Hammerad had left. Jelaqua Ivirith, pale-skinned, her body dead, slightly ravaged by combat and the damage she had taken, walked downstairs. The stitching around her forehead looked slightly…loose. The flesh appeared pallid. Rotting. She only smelled a bit and covered the scent with a strong lavender smell. Erin didn’t mention it.

“There’s porridge. Are Moore and Seborn…?”

“Coming. We’ll be in the dungeon today. Probably be back around noon, though. Don’t want to push too far and we haven’t seen Griffon Hunt for a while so…”

“Got it. I’ll make lunch.”

“Thanks.”

The Selphid smiled quietly, looking tired. Sure enough, Erin heard Moore’s heavy tread and turned her head to see Seborn, the Drowned Man, slipping downstairs. He was quiet as a shadow and his crustacean half—and his claw-hand—didn’t impede his progress at all. She served him porridge as well as a small bucket of water to keep him hydrated. Then she got out a huge bowl for Moore.

“Thank you, Miss Solstice. You’re too kind.”

Moore always said the same thing. Erin smiled up at him, for a second before her features flickered back to empty blankness. The half-Giant was huge as he sat around the table with his two teammates. He looked at Mrsha with concern as the Gnoll lay on her table. The half-Giant’s face twisted with tender concern. Then he noticed the large bee that flew across the room and landed on the Gnoll’s head.

Apista, the Ashfire Bee waggled her antennae as she walked over Mrsha’s head. It was her habit to rest on top of the Gnoll and she did so now, oblivious to the Gnoll’s grief. Erin eyed the bee, but forbade comment. Lyonette put out some honey in a small saucer and the bee crawled towards it.

This was the morning in The Wandering Inn, Erin’s home and place of business. It was subdued, quiet, and Erin had experienced the same morning for three days now. She finished her breakfast by taking a tray and heaping it with five large bowls. Not quite as large as the mixing bowl she’d used for Moore’s breakfast, but certainly oversized portions.

She filled each with porridge, added five tankards of weak ale, realized that was too much to carry, and let Lyonette take the drinks. Erin walked over to a hatch by the kitchen and opened it with one hand. She called down into the darkness, sensing rather than seeing the figures below.

“Breakfast’s here. Porridge. You want to come up?”

In the shadows, a Goblin shook his head. Erin nodded and passed the tray down. Green hands rose to take it. Sitting at their table, the three adventurers eyed Headscratcher as he took the tray carefully from Erin and walked back down the stairs. Lyonette handed the drinks to Shorthilt and the Goblins disappeared into the basement.

Goblins. Hobgoblins, to be exact. Erin was grateful they hadn’t come up. The Redfang Warriors had been tactful these last few days, barely going above when there were people around. They understood the mood in the inn, crazy as that might seem.

Crazy? Erin frowned as she sat back at a table. No. They were Goblins, but they were people too. They could understand grief. And they were smarter than they seemed.

“I’m going to the city, Lyonette. I’ll be back with food for lunch.”

“Okay.”

Erin walked silently to the door, finding her boots and putting them on. It was muddy outside and slippery. She walked out of her inn, tromping through slush and staring up at grey skies overhead. Winter had passed. Spring had yet to begin. The world was dark and grey and miserable. It was perfect weather for a day like today.

The walk to Liscor was short and uneventful. Erin didn’t think of much, but she amended her opinion of the Goblins as she entered the city. Even if they weren’t socially aware, they’d have to be idiots not to sense the mood in the city.

Black banners flew on the battlements as Erin walked through the western gates. She saw they were all at half-mast. The [Guardspeople] at the gates and on the walls made no sound as she entered. She thought the Drake [Guardswoman] at the gates was crying.

The streets weren’t silent as Erin entered. They never were. But there was a quiet nonetheless. No one laughed or shouted here. Erin walked past houses, seeing flashes of blue on each door.

Erin hadn’t known this, but Zel Shivertail’s crest or family symbol was a sprig of blue flowers, curled like a tail. As she walked through Liscor she saw blue flowers everywhere. There was so much demand that some [Traders] and [Shopkeepers] were ordering alchemical dyes to color other flowers. They were selling them for silver pieces on the street.

She had her own bouquet on her door. It was carefully arranged by Lyonette with Mrsha’s help, a splash of color in the muddy landscape and melting snow. It felt small and worthless to Erin. Everything did.

There was not silence in Liscor. But the sounds were worse than silence. Drakes, normally stoic and reserved, wept openly in the streets. Erin saw them standing in groups, talking quietly, touching each other, heads bowed. Some just stared blankly ahead. Others looked at her and then turned away.

Gnolls also walked the streets, in fewer numbers, but they were just as subdued. No tails wagged and they went about their business quietly. They had not lost an icon of their people, but they also grieved. Erin saw more than half of the shops that were normally open at this time were shut, their windows shuttered.

Three days, and Liscor had yet to recover. Erin could remember the days after Skinner and the undead had attacked the city. They had not been like this. During that time the city had been noisy. Full of grief and lamentation yes, but noisy. She remembered the people moving about, some weeping for the fallen, others trying to repair, rebuild. It was not like that this time.

The Goblin Lord had not killed a single citizen of Liscor. He had not damaged their city. But he had killed their hope. He had ripped away part of Liscor, part of the soul of the Drakes. Perhaps if Zel had fallen on Drake lands it would have been different. But no, he had died in the north, at the head of a Human army. And that mattered.

There were very, very few Humans on the streets. Erin walked quickly, head bowed. She was trying to get across the city without incident. She failed. She was walking down a large street when something hit her on the side. She jerked, turned, and ducked as a second clump of mud and snow flashed by her face.

“Goblin lover! Traitor!”

A Drake with light purple scales raised his fist and shouted at her. Erin raised her hands as he threw another clump, but his aim was bad. He missed and a splatter of mud hit her on the cheek.

“How dare you! You Humans are what caused all this! You and your damn cowardly kind! If it hadn’t been for you—”

He choked on the words. He was young, perhaps a year or two younger than Erin. She backed away from him as he advanced.

He was angry. And she was a target. Worse, Erin had Goblins in her inn. That was a known fact. Erin saw other Drakes turning their heads. Many gave her looks akin to the one the mud-throwing Drake had given her. Thankfully, none of them joined in the shouting, but neither did they stop the Drake.

“Your kind should be kicked out of the city! We should burn that damn inn to the ground with the Goblins inside! You race-traitor, you pathetic, damned—”

He was coming. Erin’s pulse accelerated and she braced herself. The Drake didn’t look like a [Warrior], but he was angry and Drakes had sharp claws. She didn’t want to hit him. If she did, the street might turn on her. But if she didn’t—she turned, ready to run.

“Come back here!”

The angry young Drake was quick. He ran at Erin, claws clenched into fists. Erin turned, realizing she wouldn’t get away. She braced herself, ready to take a hit first before she hit him back. The Drake was nearly on her when a hand yanked him off-balance. He stumbled, and Erin turned.

A Drake with light green scales and a huge, muscular body caught the purple-scaled Drake. He grinned at him, showing off his pointed teeth. He had a [Guardsman]’s armor on—a mixture of steel and leather, and carried a spear in one hand. He grinned at the smaller, younger Drake.

“Hi, I’m Relc.”

The Drake blinked at him. Erin blinked too. Relc waited a heartbeat, and then head-butted the other Drake. It was so fast that Erin didn’t have time to blink twice. The other Drake wobbled, and then fell over.

“[Relc Headbutt]!”

Relc raised both his hands over his head like he was a wrestling champion and then looked around. The street was staring at him. He waved at a group of Drakes.

“All taken care of! No need to worry! Senior Guardsman Relc is on the job! Hey, Erin, help me move this guy over here so a wagon doesn’t roll him over, huh?”

He lifted the Drake and with Erin’s help, dragged him to one side of the street. Erin stared at the Drake as Relc casually laid him down next to a building and then at Relc.

“Um. Aren’t you going to bring him somewhere?”

“What? Nah, here’s good enough. He’ll wake up in a bit with a sore head. It’s not worth bringing him to the barracks.”

Relc straightened, casually dusting his claws off. He grinned at Erin.

“Good thing I was here, right? Lots of Drakes are angry at you. But we can’t attack Humans randomly! That’s against the law. I think.”

He grinned cheerfully at her. It was such an alien expression that Erin didn’t know how to react to it. She stared at Relc and then at the Drake.

“Um. Thanks. I hope you don’t get in trouble for hitting him, though.”

“What? Nah, nah. I won’t get in trouble. Probably. I was doing my job. Defending the innocent and all that. Hey, what’s with the long face? How’s the inn going? You still have all those Goblins there, right?”

“I do.”

Weird.

Relc shook his head. He looked around, more animated than anyone Erin had seen all day. He fidgeted, shifting his weight from one leg to another, and then scratched at his stomach. He eyed Erin furtively, with a surreptitious look he probably thought she didn’t notice.

“You doing good in that inn? Lots of inn-like things happening?”

“I guess?”

Erin stared blankly at him. Relc nodded. He bounced on the heels of his feet, looked around, and lowered his voice.

“Uh, got any plans for lunch? I’m kinda hungry and I thought I might drop by if you have something good to eat.”

He misinterpreted Erin’s blank stare.

“It’s just that, y’know, there’s a lot of restaurants closed right now and all the guys in the taverns tell me to shut up when I’m eating. And your place has good food, so…”

“You want to have lunch at my inn.”

Erin said it like it was a question. Relc stared at her.

“Well yeah, that’s what you do, right? Food? Inns? Have you stopped serving food? I’ve got money, I can pay—and I won’t cause trouble with the Goblins. Promise!”

The Goblins. Erin stirred. This wasn’t the first time her keeping Goblins in the inn had caused trouble. She hadn’t dared enter the city on the first day. A small crowd of Drakes had chased her away. She’d asked Bird to watch out for trouble for that reason. He’d had to chase away four Drakes already at night. She looked at Relc, remembering.

“You just want food?”

“Um. Yes?”

“And you’re not going to cause trouble? Really?”

She scrutinized his face. Relc stared at her, perplexed.

“Hey, I don’t cause that much trouble! There are plenty of taverns I’m still allowed to drink at!”

“I’m sure.”

Erin wasn’t convinced. She remembered how Relc had attacked Rags before. And that had been Rags, and that had been before Zel Shivertail had been killed by a Goblin. Her throat closed for a moment and Erin had to pause. Relc waited, uncomprehending, almost insultingly energetic. At last he frowned, sensing Erin’s hesitation.

“Why can’t I come over? Don’t you trust me? Hey—are you still mad at me? I thought I got a pass after Christmas! I got a present from Santa, didn’t I?”

Christmas. Erin nearly laughed at the memory. She controlled the impulse and glared at Relc.

“You did. But as I recall, you hate Goblins. And I have Goblins at my inn.”

“Right.”

Relc stared at Erin. She waited, and then gave up.

“So you’re not planning on attacking them?”

“Why would I do that?”

Erin bit her lip. Relc’s wide-eyed look of confusion was annoying her. She began to feel angry rather than numb. She snapped at the Drake.

“Because you did it last time! You hate Goblins!”

“And you kicked me out. I want lunch. I’m not going to cause trouble now. Duh.”

The Drake spoke as if it were obvious. Erin folded her arms. He sighed.

“Really? Fine. I won’t cause trouble, I promise.”

“Why?”

“I’m hu—”

Why?

The Drake grumbled. He fidgeted, spun the spear in his hand and nearly hit Erin on the head, twitched his tail back and forth, and then answered while avoiding Erin’s eyes.

“I miss the inn, okay? And I’m hungry. I can handle some damn G—I won’t cause trouble again. Okay?”

Erin stared at him. Relc looked away and the scales around his cheeks turned slightly red.

“What?”

“You really miss the inn?”

“‘Course I do! It’s got pasta and blue fruit drinks and fun stuff! It was fun to—look, I don’t have to go. It’s just that—it’s the Goblins, right? I can handle them. Really.”

“But I thought you’d be angry at them. You know, with Zel—”

Erin broke off. Relc’s tail drooped and for a second he lost his energy.

“General Shivertail? Yeah. You’re not wrong. I mean, the entire city’s depressed. I bet the other cities are all like this. Those Goblins…but that’s the thing, right? Those Goblins aren’t your Goblins.”

Erin blinked.

“What?”

Relc scratched the spines on his head, trying to explain.

“Well, I mean, they’re not the Goblins who killed General Shivertail, right? Those are probably the only Goblins that I’m sure didn’t do it. So…they’re innocent. Sort of. You keep saying not all Goblins are alike, right? I know those Goblins didn’t do anything. So I can handle being around them.”

It was possibly the most logical thing Relc had ever said. Erin gaped at him. Relc looked uncomfortable.

“What?”

“Nothing. I just thought you’d be angrier. At the Goblin Lord. But that’s—”

“Oh, the Goblin Lord? We’ll kill him. Don’t you worry about that. He killed General Shivertail so we’ll hunt his entire army down and cut his head off, put it on a pike and mount it over the General’s grave.”

Relc grinned, showing all his teeth at Erin. He didn’t loom, and he didn’t make any provocative gestures, but in a moment his eyes changed. He went from friendly Relc to someone who had killed and was imagining killing. Erin felt a slight chill, but she kept her face straight.

“You think the Drakes will really do that?”

“We’re already forming another army to deal with him. You think we’ll trust the Humans to do it? No—he’s dead. Him and his entire army.”

Relc’s gaze darkened. Then he caught himself and grinned at Erin again, trying to sound light.

“But like I said, your Goblins are uh, okay. I won’t pick a fight with them if they don’t bother me. Just get me a seat facing the wall maybe. So…what do you say?”

His tail wagged hopefully. Erin paused. She still felt like a ghost, a specter without feeling. But the sight of Relc made her feel grounded in a way she hadn’t felt like in days. He looked alive. Alive, and not gripped by despair. She couldn’t help but ask him about it.

“You’re really more energetic than everyone else, aren’t you? I thought you’d be angry or sad about Zel—I mean, General Shivertail.”

Again, Relc paused, and again, Erin saw his tail stiffen. But whatever sorrow possessed him had a fleeting presence. Relc smiled crookedly and yes, sadly, as he played with the long spear in his hands.

“Of course I’m upset about General Shivertail. He’s a war hero, a legend. He was, I mean. But he died in combat, y’know? It happens. I drank myself silly three days ago, and then the day after and today…well, I feel better. I know everyone else is still upset, but there’s not much I can do for the General. He’s gone.”

The Drake shrugged his broad shoulders, glancing around to see if anyone else had heard. He edged a bit closer to Erin as he continued in a low voice.

“Besides, he was a warrior, a [Soldier]. That’s how most of us go out. We don’t die in bed. And even if your buddy dies, even if you lose a friend, a brother, a [General]…life goes on. You know? You can’t mourn forever. You march on and someday the pain goes away. Well, mostly.”

Relc paused and coughed, looking embarrassed. The ghost named Erin stared at the Drake, and she felt her body warm. She blinked. And then she smiled.

“Huh. That was sort of smart. Okay, let’s have lunch. My treat.”

“What—really?”

Relc did a double-take as he scratched his tail. Erin smiled at him, feeling her facial muscles strain slightly with the motion. But the smile stayed, and it felt—oh, it felt good to smile.

“I’m sure. Come on—I’ll treat you to a meal on the house. And I’ve got alcohol now. You want Firebreath Whiskey? I’ve got an entire keg of the stuff and it’s nasty.”

“Oho! Things do change for the better! And it’s on the house you said? Is that because I saved you from that Drake? You can kick him if you like. No? Where are we going?”

Relc followed Erin down the street. She walked with a spring in her step. Just a small one, but it was there. Erin felt like she was waking up and for once, Relc’s chatter helped. He followed her, tail wagging like a dog, pestering her with questions as his stomach rumbled loudly.

“Does that mean one plate, or two? Can I get a free refill? How about an extra helping?”

“You can have a few plates for free. And I’ll refill your drink if you don’t break anything.”

“Ooh, really?

She smiled. And that smile illuminated the street. Perhaps it didn’t stop the tears of a Drake child. Perhaps it made some of the passersby angry that she could be happy while they were not. But perhaps it did help in some way. It certainly helped her. She talked with Relc as they walked down the street, two living people in a city full of ghosts.

“Really. Do you like pork belly? I’m told Gnolls like it so I was going to pick up some from a [Butcher] Krshia knows for dinner.”

“Pork? Give me a belly, tail, liver, whatever! I’ll eat it raw! Wait. Don’t give me a tail or liver. And I’ll eat it cooked.”

“Okay. But I might need you to carry it.”

“I can carry a pig!”

“Awesome. And how do you feel about milkshakes?”

“Say what now?”

 

—-

 

The inn was quiet, like a wake, like a funeral. It was silent like the grave. It was a place of quietus, the silence of a passing soul hovering over it, casting a shadow on every action. Lyonette sat at the table, next to Mrsha, staring blankly ahead. She could hear the Gnoll’s belly rumbling, but Mrsha had refused all offers of food and Lyonette had given up trying after a while.

There was no one in the inn. Well, the Goblins were there, but they were staying in the basement. The adventurers had left and neither Drassi nor Ishkr were coming in. Erin had given them time off. It wasn’t like there was any business, anyways.

General Shivertail was gone. Zel was dead. Lyonette felt like someone had torn out her guts. She couldn’t believe it. She sat, remembering every time she’d talked to him, every time he’d made her laugh or she’d smiled or—the inn was like a crypt, like a mausoleum, like a sigh, a last goodbye—

The door slammed open. Lyonette jumped and the ball of fur and Ashfire Bee both jolted. Insect, Gnoll, and [Princess] looked up in alarm as Erin Solstice barged into the inn, arguing with a huge Drake carrying a huge package of meat wrapped in wax paper.

“I said, get rid of the spear! It’s dangerous and you always poke people with it!”

“I can’t go anywhere without it, Erin! I’m a [Guardsman]! A Senior Guardsman! And I get lonely without a spear. It’s my security spear! I need it to sleep!”

Relc protested as Erin took the meat from him. He clutched his spear possessively as he edged towards a table and saw Lyonette, Mrsha, and Apista.

“Oh hey! You’re that thief-girl! And there’s the weird Gnoll kid, and—is that a bee?”

He stared goggle-eyed at Apista, who fanned her wings warningly at him. Lyonette just stared. Mrsha did too. Then they saw Erin approaching. The [Innkeeper] smiled at them, looking strangely upbeat.

“Hey Lyonette, get some plates out! I’m making lunch and I could use some more water. Oh, and Mrsha honey, if you haven’t had anything to eat, get ready because I’m making pork belly! It’s going to be delicious, so you wait right there, okay?”

She gently touched Mrsha on the nose. The Gnoll stared at her. Lyonette did too. She rose, feeling her legs protest the sudden motion and hesitation before going over to Erin.

“Um, Erin. What’s going on?”

“Lunch!”

Erin beamed at her. She was already moving into the kitchen before Lyonette could ask another question. Erin spread the choice cuts of pork over the counter and whipped into action. Oil? Spices? She thought she’d make a pork belly sandwich. That sounded very lunch-like, and she had a lovely spread of condiments. Even some mayonnaise! Mrsha would love that, although it was a royal pain to make the stuff.

There was no sound in the inn except for Relc calling for a drink and Lyonette hurrying to get him one. Erin began to hum to fill the silence. Yes, that was what her inn needed now. Noise.

Relc was right. Strangely, he was. There was a time for sadness, and a time for not-sadness. Erin knew she’d continue being sad, so she made an effort to be happy, if only for a moment. There was always time to be sad, but happy? She was good at making people happy.

Noise. Erin clattered around with pots and pans, lighting fires, shouting at Lyonette that they might need more pepper, and felt the inn stir a bit. She began heating up the oven. Apparently, you needed to prepare pork belly ahead of time with spices and stuff. Erin had never made it before, but her [Advanced Cooking] Skill had warned her of the time requirement. Thankfully, there were Gnoll [Butchers] who sold pre-prepared pork belly. The spices looked good and Erin scraped them off before shoving the meat into the oven for some cooking.

“I’m hungry! How long until I get food?”

Fifty minutes!

Erin shouted at Relc from the kitchen. She heard an anguished cry.

Fifty!?

“Maybe more! It’s not even past morning yet! Hold on—I’ll get you some snacks!”

Erin finished setting up her kitchen and came out with some bread and soft brie cheese for him. It was a very nice and aromatic cheese from some place called Vaunt. Apparently, they made really high-quality cheeses and Erin had been lucky enough to get some when she’d been in Celum.

“Ooh! Cheese! Is this free too?”

“Yep! But if Mrsha asks you have to share!”

Erin winked at the Gnoll and saw Mrsha stir a bit. Relc eyed the Gnoll child and protectively encircled the bread and cheese with a claw. It was the worst thing he could have done. Mrsha got up, padded over, leapt onto his table and stared at the food. Relc looked at her, grumbled in his throat, and passed her a heel of bread. She began to eat.

There were ways to cure a broken heart, or make it stop bleeding. One of them was food. Food, and other people. Erin had learned this lesson long ago, and she put it into place now. Lyonette arrived with two buckets of water and hesitated before going over to Erin as she prepared lunch. The young woman had a saucepan full of sugar, cream, and milk on one of the stovetops and was grumbling about a lack of ice.

“Oh, Lyonette. Good timing! I need some ice. Can you get it? It’s about the only thing that doesn’t last in this inn. I might need to buy a freezing rune after all.”

“I can do that. But Erin—are you sure it’s time for such a big lunch? I mean, it’s so much and…”

Lyonette eyed the production on the counter. Erin paused, turned and saw the [Barmaid]’s face. Lyonette looked blank and lost, much like Erin had been. The young woman thought for only the merest fraction of a second before winking and nodding her head to the common room.

“I know it’s soon Lyonette, but…we’re cheering Mrsha up. She needs to eat, you know?”

“Oh!”

Lyonette’s gaze refocused. She blinked, and like Erin, woke up. She nodded at Erin and slapped herself lightly on the cheeks.

“Of course. She hasn’t eaten all day and she barely touched supper. You’re making that ice creamed thing again? I’ll get some ice.”

“If you see the Halfseekers, tell them we’re having food in an hour! And if you see that grumpy Drake, tell him he’s invited too!”

“Who?”

Lyonette paused at the door as Erin shouted after her. Relc was busy fighting over the last slice of bread with Mrsha. Erin poked her head out of the kitchen.

“Ilvriss!”

 

—-

 

“I am not a grumpy Drake.”

That was the first thing Ilvriss said upon entering Erin’s inn. The Lord of the Wall glanced around Erin’s inn with his customary sneer, but he didn’t insult her immediately on walking inn. Erin thought that was as close as a ‘hello, good morning’ as she’d get.

“Okay, you’re not grumpy. But you are stuck-up. Do you want a pork belly sandwich with mayonnaise or without?”

“With what?”

The Drake turned up his nose-holes at the sandwich Erin presented him, but she could see the way his eyes followed the glistening sandwich packed with pork belly, fresh veggies, and slathered generously with mayonnaise. He put on a long-suffering sigh as Erin served him the sandwich and only picked it up when her back was turned.

It was gone by the time Erin came back. She looked innocently at the empty plate with a few crumbs.

“Like it?”

“It was—acceptable.”

The Drake tried not to meet her eyes as he drummed his claws on the table. He instead frowned at Relc as the Drake lay in a mini food coma at his table. He’d eaten four huge sandwiches.

“I see your clientele is as unkempt as ever.”

“What, Relc? He’s a friend. And he cheered me up so don’t be mean. You’re like his boss or something, right?”

“Hah!”

Relc sat up slightly at the same time as Ilvriss’ brows wrinkled. The Wall Lord answered for both of them.

I would not have a soldier like that in my army. I am a Lord of the Wall of Salazsar. That [Guardsman] is a former [Soldier] of Liscor. I have no authority over him except in the most dire of situations. Thankfully.”

“Yeah, and I don’t take orders from—hold on, I think the fourth sandwich is coming up—”

Relc covered his mouth with a claw. Ilvriss looked away in disgust and Erin laughed.

“I told you not to scarf them down! Anyways, Ilvriss—”

Wall Lord.

“Ilvriss. I was so down and Relc cheered me up. After Zel—”

She broke off. Sitting at her table, eating a smaller sandwich, Mrsha’s ears suddenly flattened and the Gnoll dropped her food. Lyonette, who’d taken over the churning of ice cream, came out and Ilvriss looked at his claws. The Wall Lord didn’t weep, and his eyes didn’t glisten. They were hard as they stared at the table. But Erin saw the feeling buried beneath the gaze.

“Yes. Shivertail was…a fine [General]. I regret letting him leave the city. If he’d only taken a few Drake soldiers instead of that Human army he might have—he will be avenged, I promise you that.”

The Lord of the Wall turned his gaze towards Lyonette and Mrsha. The Gnoll stared at him. She looked at her food and pushed the plate away, but before she could curl up again Lyonette was there. She stroked Mrsha’s head comfortingly and whispered to her.

“I know, I know, Mrsha. It’s alright. It’s going to be alright. You heard the Wall Lord, didn’t you? Keep eating. You need to eat! Who’s a lovely thing? You are! Do you want Erin’s uh, special new food? I’m sure it’s sweet!”

“Very sweet! It’s liquid ice cream!”

What?

Relc shot up from his table. Erin made up for her slip by disappearing into the kitchen and coming out with some lumpy milkshakes in cups. Mrsha looked up, sorrows forgotten by the promise of something new.

“Want some?”

Erin teased Ilvriss. The Wall Lord sniffed. He took one gulp of the milkshake, put it down, and pushed it aside.

“There is a such a thing as too much sweet, you know.”

“Not in my book!”

Relc was downing his milkshake with record speed. He got halfway through his cup and clutched at his head.

“Gaah! The pain!”

Erin laughed at his brain freeze and then frowned at Ilvriss. She handed Relc the milkshake instead.

“You don’t like sweet stuff, huh? You liked the milk with honey.”

The Drake gave her an arch look as Mrsha lapped at the milkshake and her tail began to wag again. She had to fight with Apista to have the drink—the Ashfire Bee was buzzing excitedly around the milkshakes and Lyonette had to shoo her away.

“I am a connoisseur of food. I appreciate sweet food in moderation, Human. This has all the subtlety of a bag of sugar mixed with milk, which I highly suspect it is. Serve me another half a sandwich and a quality drink. Goat’s milk will do, I suppose.”

“Fine. Jerk.”

Erin grumbled into the kitchen and grumbled out just in time for the door to open. The Halfseekers walked in, looking dispirited and tired. Jelaqua had an arrow sticking out of her shoulder, but they all brightened as they saw and perhaps sensed the change in the inn.

“Hey, is that food I smell? Let me at it!”

Jelaqua waved and grinned at Erin. Erin stared at the arrow. The Selphid noticed and grimaced.

“What, this? Arrow trap, don’t mind me. It’s barbed so I don’t want to get it out yet. Poisoned too, probably. Seborn missed it.”

I did apologize. I told you something was off about the corridor.

The Drowned Man looked apologetic. Jelaqua rolled her eyes as she sat at a table and peered at the milkshake Relc was holding.

“Yeah, that’s why I went first instead of you two. ‘Always send a Selphid first’, remember? This body’s nearly done for anyways. Hey, what’s that stuff the Drake’s drinking?”

“It’s sugar. Sweet sugary cold stuff.”

Relc dreamily grinned at Jelaqua. Ilvriss snorted. The Selphid glanced at him and then raised a hand.

“One of those for me! Seborn, Moore?”

I’ll try it.

“None for me. But I will have whatever’s for lunch.”

The half-Giant and Drowned Man sat at the same table, and Erin was soon bustling around, asking how the dungeon trip had gone. Ilvriss sat, looking grumpy, chewing on his sandwich, but as Erin had observed, deliberately being here rather than elsewhere.

“Thisissogreat. I’llhavethiseveryday. Ilovethisstuff.”

Relc was vibrating in his seat after his second milkshake and Erin decided he’d had enough. Unlike Ilvriss, Relc couldn’t get enough of the drink, and only her finite amount of milkshake stopped him from racing into the kitchen and running off with the entire batch.

“I bet you could sell this on the streets and you’d earn a bit. It’s good—although it probably is the wrong season for it. I’d love this in the summer.”

Jelaqua commented as she sipped at her milkshake. Relc nodded rapidly and repeatedly.

“Why don’t you sell this stuff more often? It’s great! Beyond great! I’ll buy it all the time! I’ll buy it every day! Why isn’t this on the menu everywhere?”

Erin made a face at Relc as she handed Lyonette a handkerchief. The [Barmaid] cleaned Mrsha’s face as the Gnoll scarfed at her food, appetite restored.

“Because it’s expensive, Relc. I’d have to charge a lot for it—and the price of sugar keeps going up!”

“Right, right. Because it’s got to be shipped here and it’s winter. Sugar comes from Baleros and all that. Damn.”

Whatever sugar high Relc was on slowly subsided as the Drake stopped shaking. He had an amazingly quick metabolism. Ilvriss just snorted. When Erin looked at him he dismissively pushed his plate back.

“That drink is disgusting. It might sell well among Humans with no palate and a few Drakes with similar deficiencies—”

“Hey!”

“—But it is no drink for the people. You would do well to avoid selling it, except to children and the easily-satisfied. However, I will give you credit for your other creations. That condiment you used on the sandwich. What is it?”

“What, mayonnaise?”

“Is that a Human creation of some kind?”

“Sort of…I think only I make it. Why? Does it make my inferior Human cooking good?”

Erin smiled at Ilvriss. He stared haughtily at her.

“It is acceptable. I will collect the recipe from you before I leave the city. I’m sure my personal [Chef] will be able to adapt it more suitably into his cooking.”

“Sure, sure…but it’s a trade secret on how to make it! No one else knows. I think. So I could charge you!”

She’d meant to tease the Drake, but the Wall Lord didn’t blink twice.

“Only naturally. And if you would keep your mouth shut about the creation of this mayonnaise, I would offer an additional fee. It would be a suitable surprise for me to entertain my guests with when I return to Salazsar. I will have one of my aides discuss the matter with you.”

“Wait, really?”

The [Innkeeper] faltered. Jelaqua sat up and whistled.

“Ooh, [Lord] money. Nice!”

“It is customary to secure new inventions and developments ahead of time. You Humans might not grasp the idea of secrecy, but even small creations are a political tool to be employed at will. The difference between a successful banquet and an unsuccessful one can be worth a war’s gains in the realm of politics.”

Ilvriss informed the room at large with his haughty tone. Erin blinked at him and stared down at the pot of mayonnaise in her hands.

“Whoa. Mayonnaise diplomacy. I’ve seen everything.”

Lyonette giggled and Mrsha smiled as Erin lifted the mayonnaise high overhead theatrically. Jelaqua snorted, Seborn ate quietly, and Moore smiled. Ilvriss just scowled while Relc laughed and asked for a fifth sandwich.

This was The Wandering Inn. It wasn’t perfect. Some of its guests were missing, but in that moment it was whole again. The shadow of Zel’s passing lingered, but for a brief second there was sunlight peeking out behind the clouds. And then someone opened the door.

Not the door to the rest of the world, to the floodplains of Liscor. No, it was the door on the far wall, the magical door. Erin turned her head, wondering if Octavia was hungry or if a guest had come in from Celum. However, instead of seeing the [Alchemist]’s shop she instead was blinded by a sudden flash of bright sunlight. Loud horns and drums suddenly echoed in the confines of the inn, and she saw a tall figure standing in the doorway. Half-blinded, Erin shielded her eyes and then exclaimed as she recognized the door opener.

Hawk?

The Courier stood in the daylight, his vest stained with sweat. He looked windblown, covered in dirt, but he seemed alive, burning on a runner’s high. The Rabbit Beastkin’s fur was dark and he was still breathing heavily. There were tears in his eyes. He stood in the daylight, on a stone ground, and the sky was blue and bright behind him.

He was somewhere else. Somewhere hundreds of miles away, yet he was connected with the inn through the magic of the door. Erin stared as she heard the distant drums beating and horns blowing. It sounded like there was some kind of celebration or—Hawk stared at her through the doorway.

“It worked. Dead gods.”

His voice was rusty and he coughed as he spoke. Breaking out of her reverie, Erin went to the door. She spoke through it, peering through the other side. She could see houses behind Hawk. He was in a city. No—if he had opened the door that meant—

“Hawk, is this…a Walled City?”

The Courier blinked at Erin. He nodded slowly.

“That’s right. I arrived in Pallass this morning. I didn’t know—I hadn’t heard about the General until then. After that…I found this spot and set up the door like you said. It took a while to figure out how to activate the stone that Pisces gave me. But it worked.”

“Dead gods.”

Someone whispered the words behind Erin. She stared at Hawk, not quite sure she was hearing him right.

“So this is a Walled City? I mean—”

Just like that. Erin stared through the door. It had opened, and suddenly—it was another city. Hawk nodded. He looked tired, but he still seemed surprised as Erin.

“I can barely believe it. I knew that was what you wanted, but—Erin, I ran for the last four days to get here. It wasn’t my fastest run, but I’m a Courier. And now I’m staring at you—that’s one major magical artifact you’ve got here.”

“Wow. I mean—yeah. I knew that, but—a Walled City? Pallass, you said?”

“Pallass! So your door works as you claimed, Human. This is excellent. Extraordinary, even.”

Ilvriss strode towards the door, inspecting it, staring at the place where Erin’s inn stopped and the other city began. Erin stared at the sky. It was the same sky, the same time as far as she could tell, but the sky was bright and blue here. There was no threat of rain around Pallass. It was stunning to see.

“Mind if I come through? I could use a place to sit and rest.”

Hawk gestured to the door. He would have stepped through if Ilvriss and Erin weren’t crowding through. Erin moved aside and them remembered and hopped back in place.

“Hold on! The inn doesn’t have enough mana or whatever to let the door transport more than one person at a time! I think that’s what Pisces said. If you come through, we have to wait twenty four hours.”

“Really? Damn. I suppose there had to be a catch.”

Hawk sighed. Erin hesitated and raised a finger.

“Well, you can come through. I just meant that if you want to go back you have to wait—”

“Oh. In that case—”

I will be using this door first. I commissioned this new portal, after all.”

Before either Erin or Hawk could react, Ilvriss strode through the door. He walked into the streets of Pallass and looked around.

“Incredible.”

“Hey!”

Erin shouted after him. She raised a fist and shook it at Ilvriss.

“You can’t do that! You jerk! What if Hawk wanted to come back?”

The Wall Lord turned back to look at Erin. Hawk stared at the Human, askance.

“Um, Miss Erin—”

“I hardly need your permission to use the door I paid access for, Human.”

“That was a deal to let you go through, not monopolize the door!”

“Erin, did you just—”

“I required a route back to my home city of Salazsar. The conditions I specified were quite generous. You gave me access to this magical door of yours and I would not only pay you for the use of it, but hire the Courier to install your doorway in Pallass. Which, I might add, is still a long distance away from Salazsar itself.”

“Yeah, I get that, but Hawk could have had a break! Now we have to wait for the door to recharge! And what are you going to do without your aides?”

“About that. Miss Erin, Wall Lord Ilvriss, have you noticed—”

“I will survive on my own for a day. And I am not used to being addressed like a fool. Understand me, Human. You may have satisfied some of my requirements with my inn, but the needs of a Lord of the Wall take far more precedence than—”

Excuse me!

Both Erin and Ilvriss turned. Hawk stared at both of them and cleared his throat.

“I appreciate the two of you are arguing, but have either of you noticed where you are?”

“What?”

Erin looked at Ilvriss, confused. He looked back at her and then at Hawk, looking irritated at the delay. Then he paused. He stared at Erin. Erin stared at her feet.

“Um.”

Her feet. They were on stone. Not wooden floorboards. Erin stared down at the smooth, paved stone at her feet. She was standing on a massive block of stone—rather like sidewalk, actually, but smooth-cut. It was cream-colored, only slightly grey and dirty from the passage of many feet and years. Nice stone, in other words.

Definitely not part of her inn. Slowly, Erin looked around. She saw blue skies, tall stone buildings and other, newer buildings of wood. She heard the pounding of drums, trumpets sounding some kind of marching music. And then she turned and looked back at the doorway.

The empty, plain doorway that was set into a stone wall. There was a wood door there, with a gem set in the center of the door, the same mana stone that Pisces had attuned to the door back in Liscor. And in theory, the doorway should be showing Erin’s inn, ready to let someone step through to the other side.

In theory. That theory fell apart if the door was out of mana, however. It only had enough to carry one person across from Liscor to Pallass. Or…perhaps Pisces had been wrong and it was two. And perhaps, just perhaps, Erin had stepped through the doorway to harangue Ilvriss.

“Ah.”

Erin stared at the blank doorway. She stared at Ilvriss. The Lord of the Wall had a very, very curious expression on his face as he stared at the blank stone wall and at Erin. She thought he was trying with all his might not to laugh in her face. She looked past Ilvriss and up at Hawk. The tall rabbit man stared at her and at the blank doorway with chagrin written all over his face.

“That recharges, right? Tell me that recharges.”

“It does! It does! I just takes a, uh, day.”

Erin hastily reassured him. Hawk nodded slowly. He looked at Erin and at Ilvriss, and squared his shoulders. Then he coughed.

“Right. Well. Miss Solstice, Wall Lord, welcome to Pallass, north-most of the Walled Cities.”

He gestured helplessly around the city made of stone. Erin scuffed at the ground. There wasn’t much to see here—Hawk had set the door in an alley. But she heard the drums, heard the horns, and in the distance, the sounds of many voices cheering. She stared at the blank doorway leading back to her home, chewed her lip, and then shrugged.

“Aw, what the heck. I like new places. You said this place is called Pallass? I always wanted to see a Walled City. Let’s go exploring!”

She walked out of the alley. Hawk choked as he stared at Erin, and then back at her door. Ilvriss stared at Erin’s back in shock for a second and then stomped after her.

“Hold on! I go first! Are you completely unaware of protocol? And why did you follow me through—”

“Shut up, shut up! It was an accident, okay?”

Hawk heard the two arguing as they walked out into Pallass. He stared longingly at the door and poked the wall through the doorway as if hoping it would restore power to the magical artifact. Then he shook his head and hurried after the Drake and Human.

“No one pays me enough for this job.”

And then Erin was there, in a Walled City. Just like that. It was sudden, unexpected, but it was real. It had happened. And there was no going back. The world was slightly different for what had passed. She could be shocked about it, but only for so long. This was how things were. It had happened.

Just like that.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The Depthless Doctor

Author’s Note: I wrote this chapter as a non-canonical side story for my grandfather. He is a fan of the story, and while I don’t ever intend to write in real people as characters, or write fan-characters into the series, this was a birthday present.

Bear in mind this is a story written for fun, a myth if you will. The main character will never appear in the story, but legends about him might be mentioned. However, the other details about the story, the lore of the world is true.

Our hero, the mysterious Captain Ad, is not my grandfather. But there is a bit of him in Captain Ad. Truth and myth are intertwined with each other, and perhaps only the [Bards] can tell where fact ends and legends begin. Hope you like the story!

 

On land, it is often said that each continent has a claim to the title of the greatest. Citizens of all five continents argue over such things as if it matters. For instance, in Izril, the Drakes will proudly boast of their Walled Cities, pointing to these relics of an era when Dragons flew through the skies as a marker of greatness. The Humans on Izril speak more quietly of a land won by steel and magic, a place where they bow to no [King] or monarch—a place to be free.

Of course, were you to go north to Terandria you would hear much the opposite. The people of the myriad kingdoms on that continent think of their enduring generations of rulers as a treasure, and point to their ancient castles and ruins as a symbol of their status. Too, Terandria is the only home to Dwarves, those master-craftsmen of metal and stone. A place where legends remain. Surely that alone speaks to Terandria’s greatness?

Perhaps though, that is not the measure by which a land can be judged. The enduring folk of Chandrar must survive arid lands and the might of the largest desert in the world bar none—yet that hardiness leads Chandrarians to declare themselves the true survivors in a soft world. They scoff at the soft lives led by those in Terandria and Izril, and are in turn sneered at by the people of Baleros. For what is a harsh land to that of one where war is both a way of life and economy?

And Rhir…the less said about the struggle of those desperate people, the better. But woe to any who might suggest Rhir somehow falls behind the other four continents. The citizens of Rhir claim with some accuracy to be the most courageous, most resilient and stubbornly hopeful of all five continents.

And so the debate continues. From every land, every species will shout their greatness. Much to the amusement of those who have no home on land of course. Greatest continent? It is a laughable joke to compare such tiny specks of earth to the infinite depths of the sea. There is but one land under the waters of the world, and it is more terrible and more awe-inspiring than anything above it.

The sea. The only land where cities have yet to be built in great number. A vast abyss from which monsters emerge that Gold-rank adventurers and Named Adventurers can only dream of in nightmares. This place is the home to the Drowned People, the damned souls who have given their bodies to fuse with other creatures and breathe water as freely as air. Drowned People, the rumored Merfolk, [Pirates] and [Sailors] who merely float on the surface of the ocean, all call the sea home.

But they would never claim to rule it. No. Go down far enough and the sea will engulf you. The abyssal depths stretch deeper than any mountain, so deep that there are places magic itself begins to fail. The deep ocean is a place where an Archmage would find her magic lacking, where the greatest of [Warriors] would find his strength worthless. It is so dark down there, and one can sail for days, weeks, months, without seeing anything in the darkness.

But it is not always quiet. There are songs in the darkness, if one but has the courage to listen.

Most do not. To listen to the siren call of the blackness is to invite madness or worse—sanity. So the crew of the Kraken’s Horn made it a policy to cover their ears as they worked. This crew of Drowned Men and Women had sailed for many years in such places and knew what measures must be kept.

Maintain the bubble. Deafen the ears. Shine no lights above decks. Speak no word of ill against another crew. Such were the litanies of the crew. Each rule was sacred, inviolate.

Maintain the bubble. That was first and foremost. While each of the Drowned Men and Women—former Humans fused with the aspects of crabs, fish, or other sea creatures—could breathe underwater, the crushing pressures they sailed at would smash their bodies into pulp, as well as their ship, in seconds. Were it not for the magical wards that formed a protective sphere around the ship, the Kraken’s Horn would be gone in a moment.

So each sailor checked the runes on the ship and watched the mana stones to make sure the enchantment was not failing. That was their first rule. The second was for safety and sanity. Listen not to the whispers and songs of the ocean. Many a crew had vanished or slaughtered each other when the ocean had talked to them in the depths of their paranoia and fear.

As for the prohibition against lights—more safety. Light attracted attention, and attention underwater was the last thing any sailor wanted. Horrible things craved the light and sought it out.

As for the last rule, it was just common sense. A crew was a crew, and while a crew could brawl and fight over the smallest of issues, the instant it began turning on itself it was finished. It might seem incredible to the land folk that a crew could go for months without quarrel, but that was the law of the sea and the sailors of the Kraken’s Horn usually obeyed this last law without fail.

But today, the arguments between the [Captain] and [First Mate] of the ship came perilously close to breaking that rule. The two sometimes [Sailors] and sometimes [Pirates] strode along the broad deck of the ship, talking in hushed voices.

For them, that was shouting. It was an unspoken corollary to the rule of no light—keep your voice down. Noise travelled far in the waters, after all. But some things had to be said above decks, rather than down in the hold where they might be heard.

“—Ridiculous! I won’t hear of it.”

“She’ll die if we don’t go up, Captain. Or the babe will.”

“We’re tens of thousands of leagues from any port, and that’s without the risk of surfacing so quickly. And for what? A squalling babe? I won’t have it! We’d starve ourselves for your mission of mercy, Rendala. No more arguments!”

The [Captain] was a big, swarthy Drowned Man, as befit a man of his rank. He had once been a huge Human with a beard like a fireball—now his left arm and part of his chest were translucent and elastic. He had merged with a Blackwater Jellyfish, and his body was part monster.

Some might have seen the [Captain]’s tendril-like arms as a weakness, but the poison contained in the [Captain]’s body made up for any defects in appearance. He could paralyze a whale with a touch and his body could heal from wounds that would cripple normal flesh. Now he was staring with no little ire at his [First Mate].

She had been a Gnoll. Only, like all Drowned People, she had merged with a monster. In her case it had been a swordfish and she had lost her arm but gained an unparalleled cutting weapon on her right side instead. It was a tradeoff many would consider not worth the cost, but such was the nature of Drowned People. They did not choose their destiny. The ocean claimed them.

Rendala didn’t speak like most Gnolls did, with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ endings to her sentences. She had left her tribe as a child and like all of the crew of the ship, she spoke like a sailor.

“Captain, she’s fit to bursting. And the babe’s difficult—you know it’s already half fish! She needs a [Healer] or she’s like to bleed to death in the hold. And what would we do then? Jettison her body? That’s no way to do a sea burial and the blood would have predators in the water in minutes.”

“So we do what? Try and surface? Even if we survived moving up that fast there’s little to no chance we’d find a [Healer] out on the open ocean.”

“It’s standard for all ships to have a medical officer. And we wouldn’t be in this place if we had a [Doctor] on board, Tugrim!”

“Bah. Old Sawlegs never did more than hand out healing potions. We have enough on board—why not use them?”

Captain Tugrim had sailed his vessel for over a decade and served with Rendala as his First Mate for over half that time. Still, he couldn’t ever recall her giving him a look with as much scorn as she did now.

“Childbirth ain’t that easy, Captain. There’s ways to lose a babe or the mother that no healing potion’ll fix. Or if it does fix the problem—it’ll fix it wrong, as if the child weren’t ever there. There’s a reason why [Midwives]’re employed when we have magic and potions about.”

The Drowned Captain growled under his breath as he stalked the deck. His footsteps echoed eerily in the silence of the ocean depths around him. He kept his voice to a low hiss as he replied.

“This is all that damned idiot’s fault! Who goes to sea when they’re pregnant?”

His words wavered treacherously close to violating the law of the sea. But Rendala kept her mouth shut. She understood Tugrin’s feelings, she really did.

“I’m not saying it’s right! But you’ve a duty to your crew now.”

“Aye, but it’s the crew I’m thinking of. The crew or the crew, Rendala. What’s worth more, a life we might not save or an empty hold?”

The Drowned Gnoll fell silent. Tugrim was right. Their ship, the Kraken’s Horn, wasn’t an easy vessel to keep repaired and afloat underwater or above it. The mana stones they used to power the ship’s bubble cost hundreds of gold coins and the crew needed pay. Added to that, there were the costs for oil, food, the supplies of healing potions and other enchanted items…

To pay the costs, the crew were [Pirates] of opportunity, [Scavengers] and [Treasure Seekers] whenever they passed by a sunken wreck, and occasionally honest [Sailors] carrying cargo as well. Right now they were on a trawl for sunken wrecks on their way to a Drake port city on the south-eastern coast of Izril. Surfacing would mean going back the way they’d come, costing them precious days in time and resources.

“I can’t believe it’s come to this. We should have turned back the instant we found out.”

Rendala shook her head. Her fur became scales halfway down the side of her neck on the left side. She gestured with her sword-hand.

“It was too late by then. She’d pretended for too long. Sea’s salt, how could we not see it? The vomiting in secret, the eating—”

“I thought she was just getting fat. The depths does that to the best of [Sailors].”

“Well, there’s little more it can do at the moment. Right now it’s us. Up or onwards, Captain?”

Rendala looked at Tugrim, waiting. The [Captain] paced along his decks, navigating in the near-pitch black darkness more by memory than sight. He walked heavily towards the bow of the ship, back along the main deck, and then spun and went towards the bow again. When he walked back, shoulders heavy, Rendala knew what his answer would be.

“We surface, First Mate. And may the seas have mercy on us if a larger fish senses us. We’re too far from a safe zone, but we must ride the Rower’s Currents if we’ve any chance of getting her to safety in time.”

“Aye, Captain. I’ll give the orders.”

The Gnoll woman saluted in relief. It would cause trouble along the ship and no doubt a few unkind words spoken in the privacy of the crew’s heads, but she would gladly take that squall than face a death of both a mother and child on board without anything being done. Besides…the thought of what the blood of childbirth might attract in these depths made Rendala shudder.

She and Tugrim were about to head below decks when they sensed a change in the sea around them. The waters were so black this deep that only the faint light from the runes on the ship itself provided any sort of illumination. So finely trained were the eyes of the two Drowned Sailors that they could see in this blackness. And now the blackness was growing brighter.

“Captain—”

“I see it. Quick, towards the wheel.”

Tugrim and Rendala crept towards the stern of the ship. Neither Drowned Sailor reached for a weapon—their weapons were their bodies. Rendala’s sword-hand cut the air in small circles as she crouched low, keeping an eye out for something—anything—in the blackness.

What could it be? Angler Ghouls? Phantomlight Sharks? A light-based leviathan? All she knew was that if trouble came calling, they had to be close to the wheel.

There was a [Sailor] at the wheel. There always was—it was known as the Ghostwatcher’s Time. The ship needed no real direction most of the time—the [Sailor] on duty simply had to watch out for oncoming obstacles. But the mind would play tricks, so you’d see phantoms coming up on you in the distance. The trick was separating the illusions from a real threat approaching in the murk.

“Sailor. What do you see?”

Tugrim approached the half-squid Drowned Man at the wheel. The man turned, his beard a mass of wriggling tendrils and replied, eyes wide.

“Nothing, Captain! Just a light. Growing brighter?”

“Headed this way? Avoid it!”

“I have! Twice I’ve turned and twice it follows.”

“Then we’re hunted. Rendala, prepare to shout the alarm.”

Tugrim seized the wheel and turned the ship. Not away—there was little use running from something locked onto them. They had to see the threat before they judged whether it was worth the noise of fighting—or fleeing. Rendala nodded as she prepared to yell. A loud voice would wake the entire ship in this silence.

“It’s getting brighter!”

Now the glow was an almighty shine. Rendala had to squint to see, but she could tell the light was coming from something ahead of her. Not too big…which was a relief if it was a monster. But what was that light?

“Ahoy! What have we here?”

There was an exclamation, a sharp intake of breath as Tugrim saw something in the depths that Rendala could not. He spun the wheel and she heard a splash as something breached the bubble of the ship.

“Hold! Who are you? Answer or we attack!”

Tugrim roared into the silence as he faced the source of the light. Rendala raised her sword-arm, staring into the blinding glare. And then—suddenly—the light winked out. In the darkness the spots in the Gnoll’s vision took a few moments to clear. Then she saw him.

Standing at the edge of the bubble surrounding the Kraken’s Horn was a man. He was standing on top of a metal…tube. It was some kind of vehicle—a metal contraption of steel that had opened to let him climb out. The vehicle was beyond strange, but it was the man who drew Rendala’s gaze.

He was dressed in some kind of uniform, a pristine white cloth. He had a white cap with some kind of gold insignia on the front—hardly a proper [Captain]’s hat like the swaggering broad-cut monster of a hat like Tugrim wore. And yet, he was clearly part of some army, albeit one neither Tugrim nor Rendala had were familiar with. Two black epaulets with gold tassels sat on his shoulders along with four black stripes. He stood erect, his back straight as a rod, and his eyes—ah, his eyes.

They were the eyes of the deep itself. Piercing, unwavering—they bore a hole into the three stunned [Sailors] as the Human man descended off his strange vehicle onto the deck of the ship. The maniac glare the man gave Rendala and Tugrim was at odds with his calm voice

“Hello.”

They stared. The man with the steely eyes waited for a response. When none was forthcoming he spoke again.

“My name is Captain Ad. This is my submarine.”

He gestured towards the metal vehicle he’d emerged from. Rendala stared at it.

The black metal contraption was as foreign to First Mate Rendala as any eldritch horror she’d seen dragging itself across the sea bed. It defied her understanding of how a ship should be. And yet, the long, oblong shape, the way it sat in the water rather than swam—it had its own symmetry, its own grace.

And clearly, it could move about the depths without an enchantment of its own. That alone gave her pause, and clearly made Tugrim think twice about a rash move. She could see her Captain shifting and knew he was ready to lash out with his poisoned hand should this strange ‘Captain Ad’ prove dangerous.

“The Peace of the Drowned upon you. I am [Captain] Tugrim of the Kraken’s Horn. What business have you in these waters? No—what foolishness led you to shine a light this far down?”

The question seemed to puzzle the other Captain. Ad stared around, his burning gaze making the other Drowned Sailor flinch.

“It was dark. Darkness needs a light. Or how else would I navigate?”

“You’d sooner end up in the belly of a monster like that!”

The lack of common sense clearly shook Tugrim. He gestured to the submarine, his eyes on Captain Ad’s face. He didn’t dare meet the Human man’s eyes—the piercing stare was too much even for Tugrim’s seasoned years.

“Either you’ve a deathwish or your strange ship can destroy titans, stranger. Which is it? And why did you seek me out?”

“I had a feeling I was needed.”

Once again, Captain Ad gave an incomprehensible reply. Tugrim exchanged glances with his First Mate—it was Rendala who responded.

“What do you mean, a feeling? What is it you do?”

Rather than answer, Captain Ad’s gaze once again swept the ship. He spoke in a distant voice.

“Is there, by any chance, a pregnant woman on board your ship? I have a Skill that senses them.”

Rendala’s eyes widened. Tugrim swore a sailor’s oath.

“Storm waters take me! How did you—”

“I’m an [Obstetrician].”

Captain Ad replied coolly. Tugrim paused.

“A what now?”

“An obstetrician. I deliver babies. If you have a pregnant woman on board, I can help her give birth.”

“Truly?”

Rendala’s skepticism was warring with a sudden hope. Tugrim took a step back, his eyes narrowed.

“Now hold on. How can we be so sure we can trust—”

Captain Ad turned his paralyzing stare on Tugrim and the [Captain]’s words died in his mouth. Slowly, Ad reached into a pocket. Rendala tensed, but the man just took out a strange, long, cylindrical object out and put it into his mouth. She stared.

It was a pretzel. Ad mistook her look and pulled out another.

“Want one?”

“No. No, I—”

“Take me to the patient. Time is running out.”

Rendala hesitated and Tugrim gave her a look. But they had no choice. She beckoned, and Ad strode after the Drowned Sailors, still chewing on the pretzel.

“I have toffee if anyone wants it.”

 

—-

 

Below decks, the crew of Kraken’s Horn were in a small panic. They were clustered outside one of the cabins where the pregnant female [Sailor] had been housed. Until this moment only ghastly groaning noises had echoed from that place and it had been avoided by all but Rendala and the [Cook] who brought the poor woman food. Now Rendala, Tugrim, and the rest of the crew peeked around the doorframe as Captain Ad tended to his patient.

“You’re sure you know what you’re doing?”

Tugrim glared at Captain Ad, breathing heavily. He was protective of his crew, but pale-faced, ill-at-ease in this situation that called for neither steady hands nor a heart of steel. Well, actually, it called for both things, but Tugrim would have happily fought a Kraken naked in a lifeboat than be called on to assist a birth.

Captain Ad nodded. He’d eaten his pretzel and now donned a pair of white rubbery gloves.

“I told you, I’m a medical officer. And this is my patient. Let’s see how she’s doing. Miss, breathe slowly for me. In, out, in, out…”

It had to be his soothing voice that calmed the pregnant [Sailor]; it definitely wasn’t the piercing glare he trained on her. And yet, despite the sudden appearance of this intense, strange man, Rendala saw the young pregnant woman calm down a bit, and after a cursory inspection Captain Ad straightened and nodded.

“She’s due any minute now.”

Nothing could have thrown the crew of the ship into a worst panic. Nothing, except hearing the pregnant [Sailor] cry out and realizing the pregnancy had shifted from being imminent to in progress. Screaming occurred, and only some of it came from the mother-to-be.

And yet, there was an icy void of calm amidst the chaos. Captain Ad calmly delivered the baby with the help of the ship’s crew, ordering Drowned Men and Women to bring hot water, tools from his submarine, scissors of all things—

Rendala watched with a mixture of horror and awe as the baby was born. Tugrim fainted as the head poked out. But in short order it was done, and Captain Ad held up the squalling infant and regarded it.

“It’s a…hmm. It’s a…well, it’s got scales. And tentacles. And a beak.”

“Is he—is the curse—”

The weak mother struggled up. She was afraid. All Drowned People were, to give birth. The ocean’s taint on their bodies could pass on to their children in odd ways. But when she saw her son she cried out and took him from Captain Ad with trembling hands.

“He’s beautiful.”

“That he is. We can’t thank you enough, sir. What can we—”

Rendala was about to ask how they could repay their mysterious savior when she heard a shout from above. Her blood ran cold.

“Leviathan to port! All hands! Leviathan!”

A monster of the depths had found them. The jubilation below decks ended in a moment. The Drowned Child wailed as the [Sailors] scrambled above decks. What they saw terrified Rendala to her core.

A fish thrice the size of her ship was circling them, its wide, gaping mouth showing rows of teeth as it eyed their vessel through a set of multi-colored eyes along its length. It looked like a salmon if you mutated it, gave it wings like razors, three more eyes on each side, a serpentine tail, teeth—actually it looked nothing like a salmon at all.

It looked like death, though. The sea monster had noticed the Kraken’s Horn, that, or it had heard the noise or seen the light in the waters that Captain Ad’s arrival had prompted. Either way, it was here and there was only death now.

Captain Ad had strode onto the decks after Rendala. He was the first to break the horrified silence. He calmly put the pretzel in his mouth, staring up at the giant fish monster as it opened its jaws wide, wide, trying to engulf both ships.

“Well, darn. That’s big.”

The moment was broken. The [Sailors] scrambled across the decks, shouting, firing the magical cannons towards the fish. Rendala scrambled across the deck, towards the steering wheel. The First Mate screamed at Captain Ad as she furiously turned the wheel of her ship.

“Run! We’ll all be eaten by that damned thing if we hang about!”

There was a gas petal by the steering wheel that allowed the ship to rise and sink as need be—she was pressing with all her might to get it to rise as the sea monster swam closer, maw closing in on her ship.

She had to get her ship away, even if it meant abandoning Captain Ad’s ship to the depths. But the man was already swinging himself into the hatch of his vehicle. He gave her a reproachful look as he paused with the hatch’s lid in one hand.

“There’s a time and place for foul language, Miss. And that’s never. I have a plan.”

She stared at him. Captain Ad was turning his submarine. She could hear his voice, echoing out of the sub as he turned it to face the giant fish.

“Now look here, you. I’d reconsider anything you were planning to do. Turn around, swim away, and we’ll all go home happy. Understand?”

The gigantic fish stared at Captain Ad. Perhaps it was his devilish stare, which pierced the fish through the layers of his submarine, or maybe it was his calm, implacable voice, but the monstrous fish hesitated for just a moment.

“Give up?”

The fish hesitated for just one moment and Renalda held her breath, incredulous. Then it made up its mind and swam forwards, not towards the Kraken’s Horn, but towards Captain Ad’s sub. She heard the man’s voice speaking faintly in surprise.

“Oh my.”

The gigantic sea monster’s jaws closed around the submarine. Rendala, pushing her ship upwards as Captain Tugrim marshalled his crew for a desperate defense, saw the ship disappearing into the fish’s mouth. And then there was a flash, an underwater explosion, a wave of heat—

 

—-

 

It was a strange farewell the crew gave to Captain Ad on the surface of the ocean. Strange, awkward, and made all the more surreal by the giant floating fish’s corpse drifting just off the bow of their ship.

“You killed it. Just like that.”

Tugrim was staring at the fish, large enough to feed a city for weeks. It had been blown apart from the inside. Captain Ad hadn’t wanted it, so it was the property of the Kraken’s Horn. Rendala had no idea how they’d transport it—the sharks were already beginning to circle and nibble at the corpse.

“I’m not a [Hunter]. I’m a man of peace. With a submarine.”

Captain Ad answered calmly, sucking on a piece of toffee he’d produced from somewhere. He hadn’t wanted any part of the feast—although the teeth alone were probably worth a fortune in ivory. He had accepted a small payment for delivering the baby, nothing else.

“How’d you do it? Where did you learn all those Skills? Are you some kind of high-level [Captain]?”

The man shrugged in response to Rendala’s questions.

“I am a [Captain] as well as a [Doctor]. But high-level? I like to think it’s just skill.”

“Skill?”

Captain Ad nodded.

“Underwater naval combat…dodging fish, delivering babies…it’s all like tennis. I play it all the time. Underwater tennis, aerial tennis…I’m a [Tennis Player]. I’d like to think I’m good at the game.”

The [Sailors] of Kraken’s Horn stared at him. Captain Ad chewed thoughtfully at the lump of toffee.

“Or ping pong.”

He nodded, and then, with a casual turn of the shoulder, walked over to his sub. He opened the hatch and began to descend.

“It was a pleasure meeting you all. If you should ever have a medical problem, I’ll be sure to drop by.”

He saluted, and then was gone. The submarine sank out of sight. Rendala and the crew of the Kraken’s Horn stared at the spot where a few bubbles rose upwards for several minutes. Then Rendala turned to stare at Tugrim.

“Who was that?”

Legends. Each continent has them. They have heroes, Named Adventurers, famous [Generals] and so on. But what people forget is that the sea has its own myths as well. How could it not? But you seldom see those legends in person. You only hear of them, perhaps on the lips of a sailor who knew a man (or woman!) who knew someone else who’d seen the legend in person. And one of those legends that was told by the now-rich crew of the Kraken’s Tooth was the tale of the mysterious man with the piercing gaze, the fearless Captain Ad.

They say he sails to this very day, the man with the piercing glare, cutting through the depths of the ocean with his metal submarine. Occasionally chewing on a pretzel or toffee. More than one baby owes him their life, or so it’s said.

But who would speak such stories? Who would carry his tales above? Not sailors. Some stories, the real stories are too good to jabber on about like some land-locked fool. Some stories are true.

Or close enough.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

4.49

Outside of Invrisil, a battle was being fought between an army of Goblins and an army of Humans. The cold, muddy ground was warmed with blood and fresh bodies. Both sides struggled against each other, shouting, and the clash of arms filling the air. The battle had been long. The battle had been short.

To Osthia Blackwing, held captive in the heart of the Goblin army, it felt as though the battle had gone on for a week, and yet, at the same time, it had felt like it had rushed by in the course of minutes. She estimated that the true length was just over two hours. She had been forced to watch it all, as Goblins crashed into the ranks of Humans with their undead allies.

Crashed and broke. Despite their superior numbers, the thousands of elite Hobs and the presence of the undead, the Goblins had failed to overwhelm the Human army time and time again. And indeed, they had been forced back, humbled by one figure who had made the battlefield swirl around him.

Zel Shivertail.

Now Osthia watched him streak back across the battlefield, carried by a pink magical carriage that scythed across the Goblin front-line, running down any Goblin careless enough to get in its way. She was not the only one with her attention on the Drake [General]. The Goblin Lord sat astride his massive Shield Spider mount, staring at Zel Shivertail with narrowed eyes. He spoke, his voice filled with hatred and frustration.

“Why is he so strong?”

Silence greeted his question. The Goblin Lord’s lieutenants stood around him. Eater of Spears, Snapjaw, the Goblin [Beastmaster]…none could say it aloud. Their numbers had been cut down by Zel already. Now the Goblin Lord’s eyes turned to Osthia. She glared at him, her mouth gagged.

“What is he doing?”

Coming for you. She glared, her jaw working against the tight leather strips holding her mouth shut. The Goblin Lord nodded. He stared at Zel, and then turned to his lieutenants.

“Prepare. He is coming.”

The Goblins shuddered. He was coming. The hero of the Antinium Wars, the famous [General of the Line], the Tidebreaker. Those titles had been just words before. Now they were all too real. The Goblin Lord’s army was superior to the Human one, but the Goblin Lord had yet to meet Zel Shivertail on the field of battle. Now that was going to change.

Osthia could feel it. Zel Shivertail was not the kind of [General] who would risk a prolonged battle against the Goblin Lord, whose army was matched against his. He was coming.

She hoped he knew he was walking into a trap.

 

—-

 

Faces. That was what you saw in a battlefield. Faces. Even if you didn’t want to—at close range, that was all you could see. You saw the enemy as you gutted them with your claws or with a sword. Their faces, sometimes covered beneath helmets, sometimes full of hate or despair. It was easy to see only the enemy in them, but it was strange how there was a person behind each [Soldier]’s face. The Goblins looked like people sometimes.

Zel Shivertail gripped the side of Magnolia Reinhart’s carriage, feeling the wind blasting off his scales. He saw the battlefield flash by him. Hundreds, thousands of faces turned his way. Human [Soldiers], cheering as they saw the Drake [General] flash by, Goblins, drawing back in fear and hatred. Zel glanced ahead and saw Reynold driving the coach with minute flicks of the reins. The [Butler]’s face was pallid and his hands shook a bit, but he was still upright, still driving with impeccable accuracy.

“Good man.”

Zel waited until he saw his target in the crowd. Another man who stood out in the sea of armored bodies. The [Chevalier] Thomast fought in a doublet of red and gold cloth, much of which had been stained a deeper crimson still by blood. Not his. The clothing was probably enchanted, but Thomast had yet to take a blow. The [Duelist] and [Chevalier] fought with rapid thrusts and lunges that took down his opponents before they could strike. He turned as Zel leapt, scattering enemies and allies with his landing.

“Get ready to execute the plan! Turn and pick me up!”

Zel roared at Reynold and saw the coach speed off and turn—into the Goblin lines. Again the green-skinned monsters scattered, screaming and crying out in pain and horror as the carriage crushed them mercilessly.

Monsters. People. Zel turned his head and looked at Thomast. The [Duelist] was breathing heavily, but like Zel, he was ready to fight. They were the highest-level warriors on the field, or so Zel sensed. Funny, he didn’t know if he’d ever said more than a few words to the man.

“I’m turning over control of the left flank to you! Hold your ground or we’ll be overrun!”

“Leave it to me.”

Thomast nodded as Zel pointed, shouting over the roar of Humans and Goblins clashing. There were a thousand things that he could have said. The [Duelist] could have pointed out his lack of experience or Skills in battlefield command, the dangers of turning over strategy to someone else, or simply asked what Zel was doing. He did none of those things and instead turned his attention back to the battle. Zel was grateful. He ran forwards, cut down a charging Hob with a slash of his claws, leapt—and caught hold of the carriage as it streaked by the other way.

Three Goblins had grabbed on as well and had been crawling towards Reynold with daggers in hand. They took one look at Zel and let go. Zel saw their bodies disappear into the mass of Goblins as the coach turned. He gritted his teeth as he pulled himself closer to the front. All the pieces were in a row.

“Let’s do this. You ready?”

Reynold nodded. The [Butler] flicked the reins and the two spoke at once. Reynold uttered a command as the carriage sped towards the edge of the battle.

“[Flying Wheels]!”

Zel felt the coach lift up, and felt his stomach drop. He ignored the sensation and raised one claw.

“[Rapid Maneuvering]! [Hold the Line]! [Vanguard of Steel]!”

He felt the Skills take hold on the Human army below him immediately. Zel looked down as Humans changed formations, obeying orders he had given. Below him, the battlefield began to shift.

 

—-

 

“What’s he doing?”

From her vantage point apart from the battle, Magnolia Reinhart saw the established lines of battle break and Human [Soldiers] adopt a strange formation. They pushed past the undead and Goblins, encircling them from the right with cavalry and infantry alike crashing into the Goblin formations. A thin wave of Human [Soldiers] trapped the Goblins from the right, but so few that they were a single line compared to the green mass that began pushing back against them.

“That cannot be sound strategy. Sacra? What is General Shivertail thinking?”

“He used a Skill. [Vanguard of Steel]—can’t you feel it?”

Sacra turned her head, breathing heavily. Magnolia frowned and pinched herself.

“No, I can’t.”

I can. General Shivertail’s Skill is—look!”

Sacra pointed. Magnolia saw the thin wave of Humans that should have been immediately overwhelmed by the Goblin numbers holding their ground, roaring as they traded blows with the Goblins. She saw a young woman in armor take a sword strike to her unguarded neck. But rather than drop, the sword bounced off her skin.

Steel bodies. Magnolia’s eyes widened.

“I say, how long will the effects last?”

“Not too long. But they don’t need to.”

Indeed, the Goblins were in disarray as their opponents suddenly became immortal foes, almost impervious to harm. They drew back, and Magnolia saw another strange event take place. Pink, armored [Knights] began striding across the battle lines, hacking their way through Goblins, spacing themselves out across the center and left flank where the undead were pushing at the Human [Soldiers].

“He’s broken up my Knights of the Petal again. What is he doing? The Goblin Lord will begin attacking them again.”

Bethal stared as her Rose Knights began pushing the Goblin lines back. Magnolia glanced up, towards a flying carriage moving across the battlefield.

“I believe the Goblin Lord is about to have his hands full, Bethal.”

Every head looked up. They saw the pink carriage flying over the Goblin Lord’s army. A black bolt rose to meet it. Magnolia’s hands clenched as she saw Reynold frantically swerve to avoid it. But then they saw the carriage dip, and dive. A second lance of death magic shot forwards—a clawed hand blocked it. Zel Shivertail clung to the side of the carriage. He was right over the Goblin Lord’s head now. Magnolia saw his arm tense—then he let go and dropped.

 

—-

 

A hundred feet. Fifty feet. Twenty. The ground—

Zel landed with an impact that knocked the wind out of him. The thud was more like an explosion. He could feel dirt fountaining up around him, feel the crushing pain of impact. For a second the Drake lay there, stunned. Then he moved.

Up Zel rose. A claw shot out and slashed a Hob who’d tried to swing at him, thinking Zel would be too slow to react. Zel felt his claws shear through the Hob’s armor and flesh like parchment. He withdrew his hand and the Hob fell.

Goblins. Zel stood and looked around. There were thousands of them, all staring at him. Many had open-mouths. Some were still staring at Reynold as the [Butler] carried his carriage out of danger. They were stunned, unable to believe Zel had survived the fall.

Strength. Zel’s body hurt a tiny bit from the fall. But he had fallen further and survived. He’d fallen off a cliff once. And the danger of dropping into the middle of an army of Goblins? Zel had fought against Drakes, Humans, Antinium—all without more than basic steel armor and his claws. What was this compared to fighting a Drake Lord of the Wall?

And yet, they stared as if he were the monster. Zel wanted to laugh at them. They were afraid of him for surviving a fall from the sky? This was normal. This was what high-level battles were like. The first breath of air in Zel’s lungs was sweet. He inhaled, and then roared.

Goblin Lord!

His voice caused a hush across the battlefield. Zel turned, staring around for the Goblin Lord’s figure, or that of his spider. He saw neither. The Goblins were moving to surround him. Where was the Goblin Lord? Zel twisted around again as he heard a voice.

“General Shivertail!”

Someone was shouting his name. And the voice—Zel saw a bound shape. A Drake with bright yellow scales was fighting on the ground, her arms and legs bound.

A Drake? Zel stared, shocked. She was an Oldblood Drake. A captive? She’d managed to loosen a leather muzzle on her mouth. Now she screamed at him.

“It’s a trap! Get away, sir! The Goblin Lord—”

She turned and sprayed acid from her mouth at a Hob. He screamed in agony and another clubbed her down from behind with a mace. Zel looked around. All he saw were Hobs. And they had enchanted weapons, wands, bows—

The first arrow Zel blocked on an arm. The other eight glanced off his scales. The bolt of lightning made his side tingle and ache, but his armor caught most of the magic. The Drake turned and caught a sledgehammer blow to the side. He grabbed the Hob who’d hit him and pressed his claws into the Hob’s eyes. Digging deep. She screamed and died.

Turn. A sword slashed across Zel’s face. He felt the tip cutting through his outer scales, drawing a line of blood. An enchanted blade. Zel twisted before it could keep cutting and lashed out. Another killing blow. The Goblins stared as two Hobs fell. Zel wiped the blood from his scales and looked around.

Goblins all around. They closed in, their faces afraid, staring. Zel laughed and spread his arms wide.

For Izril! Sserys and the Drakes!

They were afraid to come to him, so he went to them. Zel charged alone, into the ranks of the Goblins. He cut them down, trying to find a single figure in the midst of the army.

Where was the Goblin Lord?

 

—-

 

“Incredible.”

Sacra breathed the word, her eyes wide. Magnolia saw the blaze of golden-red armor, the sole Drake in the center of the Goblin’s army. Zel Shivertail was a whirlwind, cutting Hobs down as they rushed him from every angle.

It was a sight to motivate the Human army, which was pushing back the Goblins, riding on the momentum of their [Vanguard of Steel] effect. And yet, Magnolia felt nothing but anxiety as she stared into the heart of the battle.

“Where is the Goblin Lord? General Shivertail is alone.”

No one answered. Bethal, Sacra, and the other servants were transfixed, staring at Zel. Magnolia looked around and then kicked Bethal in the rear. The other woman stumbled.

“Magnolia—!”

“Stop gaping and look, Bethal! If the Goblin Lord escapes then General Shivertail will be well and truly cut off. I don’t think Reynold can get back to him!”

It was true. The pink carriage was under attack as Goblins loosed arrows and spells at it. Magnolia knew that the carriage wasn’t that invulnerable—the enchantments might well be breaking. Reynold was already trying to steer it away from the battlefield. She kicked Sacra and gave the same order.

Find the Goblin Lord! We are the only ones who can look!”

The other servants and Bethal turned their gaze to the battlefield. Magnolia stared through the sea of Goblins, trying to connect the Goblin Lord’s visage to the milling crowd of Goblins. It was damnably hard—and not least because the Goblins did look alike at this distance! And yet, he had to be out there. If only she could find out where before he escaped completely. Zel Shivertail had been nearly on top of him and the Goblin Lord couldn’t have moved that far—

A swirl in the army caught her attention. Magnolia saw the Goblins moving slightly, eddying around something. The [Lady]’s eyes narrowed. She was no battlefield expert, but she’d seen more than one ballroom where one person was at the center of attention. She was the attention most of the time.

“There!”

Bethal had seen the same thing. She pointed a finger and Magnolia saw the Goblin Lord. He was dismounted, leading his Shield Spider away through a screen of Hobs. He hadn’t gone more than fifty feet in the chaos and he was moving slowly, confident that Zel couldn’t spot him through the waves of Goblins surrounding him.

What arrogance. For a second Magnolia could almost admire his casual retreat. Then she smiled and a glint appeared in her eyes.

“A shame you and I will never meet in the realm of politics. You might have done better there than on the battlefield.”

Sacra glanced at Magnolia, only having heard the last of what her mistress had said. She stared at the Goblin Lord, her hands clenched on her mace.

“There he is. But how can we get General Shivertail’s attention?”

“Oh, that’s quite simple.”

Magnolia’s fingers raised and she carefully flicked her hand at Zel Shivertail as he cut down another Hob with his claws. She pitched her voice so and tilted her hand as if she was cupping his chin in her hand. She turned her hand and whispered.

Look over there.

Across the battlefield Zel Shivertail’s head turned. Magnolia saw his body jerk and his eyes widened. He stared for a second and then charged into a Hob who was running at him. The Drake lifted one hand as he used the Hob as a shield. One hand, raised in thanks. Then he was charging. And she heard his voice.

Turn and face me, coward!

And the Goblin Lord turned. There was only a hundred feet separating the two as Zel Shivertail and the Goblin Lord locked eyes. The Goblin motioned and a wall of Goblins surged forwards. Zel Shivertail roared and charged.

“Golems!”

Magnolia’s voice was distant but the two War Golems heard. They raised their heads and abandoned their posts, charging into the Goblin army and heading for the Goblin Lord. She heard Bethal shouting at her Rose Knights and saw them slicing into the army. Suddenly, the Goblins were trying to hold back pink [Knights] and a pair of armored giants and Zel Shivertail himself. All headed straight for the Goblin Lord.

To his credit, he held his ground. The Goblin Lord refused to run. He mounted his Shield Spider and began firing black bolts of magic at Zel Shivertail. The Drake absorbed the magic, letting it splash over his enchanted armor, dodging others. Charging.

Unstoppable! The Goblins tried to block him with spears, grabbing at the General, throwing their bodies in front of him. But nothing worked. Zel came on, roaring, and Magnolia saw a pair of Goblins moving forwards to stop him.

 

—-

 

He was coming. Snapjaw’s mouth was dry with fear as she heard Zel Shivertail roaring. He was cutting a path through her people like they were made of grass! And he was heading to the Goblin Lord, her hope, the hope of her people.

He had to be stopped. She ran forwards with Eater of Spears. The two Hobs were ready to die to stop the Drake. Snapjaw raised her enchanted sword.

“Go left!”

She screamed at Eater of Spears. He roared and charged towards the Drake’s left. Snapjaw ran right. She could stab him from behind. She’d poisoned this blade. All she needed was one good strike and—

Snapjaw’s legs carried her past Zel Shivertail as he spun to face both her and Eater of Spars. Snapjaw blinked, tried to turn, and failed. She ran past the Drake [General], unable to turn. It was as if someone was holding her in place! And then she heard a voice.

A Human woman’s voice. It whispered in her ears.

This way, my dear.

Snapjaw fought against the voice, tried to slow her legs. But the voice was powerful and it held her. For three seconds. That was all. But in the time it was too late. Snapjaw turned, weeping, and saw the end.

 

—-

 

There he was. The Goblin Lord was sitting across his giant Shield Spider, only a few paces in front of Zel. The Drake [General] clenched his fists.

A huge Hob blocked his way. Zel looked up as Eater of Spears blocked his path. The Hob was a giant. His face was set, his eyes locked on Zel’s face. The two paused for a second as Goblins drew back, seeing one of their heroes facing the Drake [General].

Zel spoke.

“You can’t stop me.”

Eater of Spears paused. He stared at Zel, his face solid, grim, unflinching. He spoke, a bass rumble.

“Can try.”

He charged forwards, fist swinging fast. Zel leapt forwards as well and the two met in a clash of fist and claw. The Drake [General] slipped around the Hobgoblin’s fist and slashed left-right across Eater of Spears’ chest. He tore the Hob’s front open but the Goblin refused to fall. Bleeding, his body staining crimson, he lashed out and hit Zel in the chest with a mighty punch.

The Drake grunted and spun with the impact. He slashed again—this time Eater of Spears made a sound like a groan and Zel’s claws bounced off bone. His ribs. Flesh sundered, the Hob was too slow. Zel sprinted past him and Eater of Spears fell backwards, grasping weakly for the last healing potion at his belt. Only, Zel had crushed it sometime during the exchange of blows.

Unstoppable.

There was one last wall of Hobs between him and the Goblin Lord. Zel counted. Six—four—three—two—

The last two Hobs fell back, fighting furiously, until they heard a voice. They moved backwards, and Zel saw the Goblin Lord staring down at him. The Goblin was tall as a normal Human man, and proportioned in much the same way. He was no giant, no inhumanly large monster. But then, Velan hadn’t been either.

This Goblin was no Goblin King. But he still faced Zel, unafraid. His hands grasped a black blade of magic. He pointed it at Zel and the [General] opened his crimson claws. They stared at each other for a second.

And then Zel charged. He roared as he came, and in the distance the Human army screamed and shouted. The Goblin Lord charged, and the Goblins around him howled defiance.

The Shield Spider lashed out at Zel, trying to trap him with its legs, biting. The Goblin Lord swung—Zel ducked under both black and legs and found the Shield Spider’s belly. He cut into its center and tore pieces of carapace from its body.

The Shield Spider screamed. It bled as Zel dodged back, a pale blue ichor. The Goblin Lord raised his finger and shot a blast of death magic at Zel. The [Deathbolt] pierced Zel at point-blank range. He stumbled. But did not fall.

“Not enough. [Titan’s Cut]!”

Zel raised his claws and slashed. The arc of his claws traced through the air, and the air itself bent as he cut. An imprint of four claw marks opened up across the Shield Spider’s entire body and it screamed. The massive strike severed one of its legs, crushed another at the base and opened up its bulbous abdomen. The giant spider collapsed in a bloody pool and the Goblin Lord tumbled from its back. Zel walked forwards, claws ready.

The Goblin Lord had fallen behind his spider’s abdomen, out of view. Zel walked around the side, trying to get a good look. He saw a foot—then the Goblin Lord. The Goblin rose, pointing at Zel’s chest—

“[Bone F—]”

[Antimagic Slash]!

Zel’s claws went through a barrier of magic and into the Goblin Lord’s side. He tore—the Goblin Lord screamed as Zel ripped his stomach open.

Blood, red and wet, splashed to the ground. The Goblin Lord stared down at his open stomach and then up at Zel.

“Oh.”

That was all he said. It was such a normal word. Zel nodded. He stepped forwards, his claws open.

Goblins screamed as they saw their leader fall. They swarmed Zel. He turned and cut them down. Regular soldiers, fighting a [General]. He was five steps away from the Goblin Lord.

Four.

Three.

Two.

One—

 

—-

 

Do it!

Gershal of Vaunt screamed the words as he carried Salvia away from her downed mount. His voice joined thousands of others. The Humans roared, cheering.

“Finish him.”

Magnolia clenched her hands as she saw Zel cutting down Goblins left and right. They were all over him, leaping on the General’s back, trying to hold him back—trying to save their Lord. But Zel stepped forwards. He was close. So close. She saw his claws raise—

And then a pillar of white blocked her view. Magnolia blinked. She saw something—a yellowish-white thing—erupt from the ground. A pillar? No, more like a spike of ivory. A wall of bone. Magnolia stared.

And then she saw another. A spire of bone shot out of the ground, implaling a Hob and two smaller Goblins. More bone pillars began rising out of the ground in a circle around Zel and the Goblin Lord. They grew like obscene flowers, stained red with the Goblins they impaled, raising higher, higher—

“Magnolia. What’s happening?”

Bethal stared at the bone walls as they knitted together, forming a dome in the middle of the battlefield. A circular wall of ivory engulfed Zel and the Goblin Lord, blocking them from view from every direction. Magnolia stared. Bethal looked from her to Sacra, her face pale.

“Is it a spell or—”

“I don’t know.”

Magnolia whispered. Her heart was suddenly beating very fast. She stared at the dome of bone. It couldn’t be the work of the Goblin Lord. If he could cast that spell he would have done so before Zel reached him. But if not him, then there could be only one other person who cast the spell.

Az’kerash.

And now Magnolia truly felt afraid. She stared at the ivory wall as Goblins began to bang on the impenetrable bone with their weapons. She turned to Sacra.

Get me all the [Mages] you can find! Open that dome now!

 

—-

 

Zel twisted as he saw the bone spires rising from the ground. He saw the Goblin Lord’s eyes widen, and felt that sense of unease at the back of his mind spike into bells of alarm. He turned, ignoring the Goblin Lord, and saw the walls of bone close, obscuring the sky overhead. Suddenly, everything was dark.

Only his enchanted breastplate shed any kind of light in the enclosed space. Zel eyed the smooth ivory walls, wondering if he could break them. Then he felt…something.

Magic. It was a palpable presence at times, when great spells were cast. Zel could feel it being concentrated here, a tingling on his scales. He looked around and saw the air shimmer.

It wasn’t a tear in space, or a portal. It was more like a bridge or an—opening—that someone stepped through. The air twisted, and a shape stepped out of the shadows. Zel saw a bone-white woman, no a woman made of bone, a giant wearing bone armor and holding a sword and shield step out. She stared at him with green eyes that blazed with undead light.

And she spoke. One word.

“Venitra.”

The air moved. Zel turned and saw more shadows flickering, becoming people. Four more figures stepped into place. A skeleton of black bone, dressed in a [Mage]’s robes. The flames in her eyes glowed gold as she twirled the staff in her hand.

“Ijvani.”

A woman, a rotting corpse walked out to Zel’s left. By her side, a strange figure dressed in a trench coat, a humanoid creature with no face, features concealed by a hat.  The rotting undead spoke for both of them.

“Bea. And Oom.”

And the last, a Gnoll dressed in armor. His eyes glowed blue. His body was dead, but for the light in his eyes he might have been alive. He was powerful, taller than Zel, and he had a sword that glowed with magic in one hand. He spoke last, his voice deep, booming in the enclosed space.

“Kerash.”

The five undead stood in the dome. Zel’s heart was pounding in his chest. He stared from face to face. They had entered this place with a spell. Not [Invisibility]. He would have sensed it. No, the spell, the way they seemed to appear—[Teleport]? [Greater Teleport]? They had to have used an artifact.

There was no time to ask what was happening. No reason to either, really. Zel looked from face to face, and focused on Kerash. The undead Gnoll raised his sword and pointed at Zel’s chest.

“Surround the Drake.”

The five undead moved around the dome, trying to flank him. Zel backed up until his back was at one of the bone walls. Bea and Oom took his left side, while Venitra and Ijvani his right. Kerash stood in front of him. The five undead readied themselves, waiting. Zel eyed them as he shifted, his stance low, his claws open.

Five. Each undead was clearly unique. They all radiated danger, but—he appraised them quickly.

Venitra, the undead bone woman was clearly some kind of [Knight]. She looked like a kind of golem. Dangerous, but not unbeatable. The skeleton by her side—the way she held her staff reminded Zel of something. Had he met her before? She was a spellcaster, but that too was manageable.

The real threat was coming from Zel’s left. He had no idea what the rotten ‘Bea’ could do, but all his instincts screamed at him not to let her touch him. As for Oom—Zel risked a glance and saw a featureless, smooth face. Oom’s body was black, almost translucent, and the way he stood—the trench coat and hat were concealing something. He had no face. Was he even humanoid?

Kerash was the last. Zel thought he was a Draugr of some kind. They were powerful, hard to kill and strong, but it was only the enchanted sword that could hurt him. Get rid of that and—

Too many. Zel knew he was tired, but even if he had been rested, five high-level enemies at once would be—his eyes narrowed. He glanced towards the Goblin Lord, but the Goblin was trying to hold his guts in. Good. Even a healing potion wouldn’t heal that quickly. He had been shocked to see the bone walls go up. So he hadn’t planned this.

“So you’ve sent your minions to do what you’re too afraid to do in person, Az’kerash?”

The undead shifted when Zel spoke their master’s name. As if they were surprised. But who else could it be? Zel looked from face to face. Yes, who else?

“It seems you’ve planned this well. Did you plan on stabbing me in the back or were you always hoping that I might walk into a trap like this? Come out and face me yourself, coward. I know you’re watching.”

His words made the fires in the eyes of the undead glow brighter. Zel watched the bone woman—Venitra’s—eyes blaze bright green. So they could feel emotion. That was important to know.

A cold, precise voice filled the air in the dome, echoing. Zel had only heard Az’kerash speak a few times, but he could never forget that voice.

“I had intended to slay you at Liscor, but circumstances forced me to abandon that plan. Nevertheless, a strategy may be utilized again. My apprentice was the crux of this trap, though he did not know it. I am afraid I have little time to risk myself in battle, General Shivertail. It is my children you fight today. And it is they who will claim your life.”

That voice. Zel snarled, twisting around. But the Necromancer wasn’t here. He was speaking through his minions.

“Too afraid I’ll kill you a second time?”

Again the undead servants rustled. Az’kerash had called them his children? What had he done in the years since the Second Antinium War?

“Hardly. My battle was never with one individual. I wage war with Drakes, with species as a whole. The living are my enemy, Shivertail. You do not merit my presence. My creations are enough for you. Each one is a masterpiece, unique among their kind. Look upon them and despair, for they are your betters.”

“So you say. But you sent five.”

Again, Zel studied the undead. They had names; they had some kind of personality—were they Revenants? Spirits bound to flesh? Yes, they had to be. But two of them bothered Zel. Ijvani—he could have sworn he’d seen that staff before. Zel’s eyes widened as he recognized it.

“Ikriss.”

The flames in the skeleton’s eyes flashed at Zel’s voice, and Venitra shifted. The Necromancer’s voice was amused.

“Yes. You encountered Venitra and Ijvani before. A shame neither one managed to accomplish their tasks. Tell me, how did you realize I was still alive? It seems you were…informed of my survival before now.”

His voice was…probing. Zel lied as he tried to think. The bone walls were meant to hold him. Cutting his way out while the undead attack from behind was suicide.

“It wasn’t hard to figure out. Your illusion spells aren’t as potent as you thought. And you have enemies.”

“Only naturally. But was it Magnolia Reinhart who told you I was alive, or someone else? I had suspected she was aware of my deception. Did she warn you about me, or had you known before that?”

There was a pressure in the air that made Zel want to talk about Ryoka. Truth spells. He bit his tongue and focused on the other undead. Ijvani was one thing. But Kerash? The undead Gnoll was clearly the leader, but there was something else about him.

Draugr weren’t too dangerous to Zel. They were strong, but there was a limit to their strength. They couldn’t exceed the capability of their bodies in life. So unless this Gnoll had been particularly powerful, he wasn’t as dangerous as, say, Venitra. But that name—

“Are you really Kerash, the Gnoll Warrior-Chieftain who died over a hundred years ago?”

Zel addressed Kerash. The Gnoll shifted his grip on his sword, his eyes never leaving Zel’s face.

“I am my master’s loyal servant. That is all you need to know before you die, Drake.”

“Well spoken, first of my Chosen.”

Az’kerash’s voice was approving. Zel’s eyes narrowed. So. Kerash. That might be…his eyes flicked again to the five undead. What were they? Assassins? Vanguards? But why have them at all?

“Children, you said? You created these horrors, Necromancer? That’s strangely sentimental for someone who uses the undead as disposable tools.”

“Hardly. These are my champions, my chosen few. They are created to be superior to all other undead, to lead and instill despair among my foes. You gave me the idea for them, in fact. After my defeat and ‘death’ in the last war I reflected on my weaknesses. These five, my Chosen, are my answer to that flaw.”

An answer to a flaw? But the Necromancer’s greatest weakness was—Zel’s eyes widened. He murmured out loud as the pieces fell into place.

“So that’s why you made them. I see. They truly are your masterpieces. Your…hope. And if I crush them, your plans are set back, aren’t they?”

There was a pause. Az’kerash’s voice did not reply. Zel smiled as the undead shifted. When the Necromancer did speak, there was a twinge, the slightest sense of uncertainty in his voice.

“Enough of this! Kerash, finish Zel Shivertail off.”

“Yes, master. Everyone, on my mark. Attack as one.”

Kerash’s voice rumbled as he gripped his sword with both hands. Venitra raised her shield and both Oom and Bea took a step forwards. Oom’s hands were in the pockets of his coat; Bea’s rotting palms were turned towards Zel. Ijvani raised her staff.

Silence. The five undead and one Drake waited. For one eternal, immortal moment, there was nothing but the pumping of Zel’s heart, the burning eyes of the undead. Then he saw Kerash’s mouth open. Zel moved before the undead could speak. He sprinted right, into Venitra and Ijvani and slashed.

“[Lightning Slash]!”

Ijvani cried out as Zel raked a claw across her arms and ribs, slicing across her black bones. Zel grunted as he hit her bones—they were metal, or coated with it! He recalled the same sensation as when he’d fought her the first time. But his slash had cut deep across her ribs and sent her stumbling back. Zel turned and saw Venitra rushing at him, ready to stab.

“[Bonebreaker Headbutt]!”

Another Skill. Zel stepped forwards and smashed his head into Venitra’s. He heard a crack, and saw her stumble back. Zel whirled, and sidestepped as Kerash charged him with his sword. Zel kicked and the Gnoll stumbled. He would have leapt on Kerash and torn the sword from his hands, but Oom and Bea were on his left, and Zel moved away rather than let either get close to him. They were just approaching. Were their attacks touch-based?

He turned, looking for Venitra, and saw a black, skeletal hand. Ijvani pointed with her staff and uttered a spell.

“[Blackfire Fireball].”

And then there was flame. Zel roared as the flames engulfed his body, burning every exposed part of him not covered by armor. He struck at Ijvani but she was already fleeing. And then Venitra crashed into his left, stabbing. Zel stumbled, regained his footing and pushed back as she tried to bowl him over.

The two titans struggled as Oom and Bea circled. And then Kerash was closing in with his sword. He stabbed Zel in the arm as the Drake fought. The [General] turned and roared again. But he was alone. And outnumbered.

 

—-

 

Bring down that dome!

Sacra screamed the order and over a hundred [Mages] blasted the dome with spells from afar. Humans, a few half-Elves, and Goblins. Both armies were trying to crack the shields of bone, although the Goblins had switched to a defensive strategy to keep the Humans from nearing their Lord’s last line of defense.

Or so they assumed. Magnolia knew this had to be the work of the Necromancer. She stared as the rain of spells and enchanted arrows ceased.

“Nothing. Not a scratch.”

The bombardment hadn’t left a mark on the ivory surface, just cleaned it of the Goblin blood staining the outside.

“It’s impenetrable! Focus your attacks elsewhere! I want covering fire on our [Knights]! Take down that Crypt Lord!”

Sacra ordered the [Mages] to begin targeting Goblins. Magnolia knew it was the correct decision, but she would have rather kept trying to bring down the dome. Zel Shivertail could be in peril—

No, he was in peril! She knew it. Magnolia cursed, and saw a shape flick into the shadows behind her.

“Ressa, give me the weapon.”

Magnolia raised her hands and Ressa put the strange tube that her grandfather had given her into her hands without argument. The [Maid] stood behind Magnolia, her maid’s uniform covered in blood.

“Are you sure?”

“Zel Shivertail cannot be lost! Hold on, I’m aiming!”

Magnolia snapped as she raised the tube. She was no [Markswoman], but the dome was a big target and she felt like accuracy was not a requirement. She hesitated as she felt the magic contained in the artifact.

“How did grandfather Regis say to activate it? What was the command spell? Thaurmodesium?

Thaurmodenasium!

“Yes, that! Thaurmodenasium! By my command, fire or—”

Magnolia felt the tube warm slightly, felt it kick in her hands, and heard nothing.

Precisely nothing. A cone of silence had burst from the tube. Magnolia felt it leave her hands and stepped back as the tube floated in place. It was a simple metal tube, inscribed with glowing runes on the inside and outside. Now these same runes glowed brighter and brighter, so brightly that they became a beacon.

Heads turned. Goblins and Humans alike stared as the tube glowed, and then emitted a series of—sparks. A few paltry sparks jettisoned out of the front of the tube. Magnolia stared as they flickered forwards and turned to Ressa.

“Is that it? Because if it is, I’m going to the family estate and burning it down—”

Ressa gripped Magnolia’s arm and pointed. Magnolia turned her head back just in time to see the sparks of lightning continue forwards. They were just flickering bits of energy, but for some reason, they neither earthed themselves nor dissipated. Instead, they hung in the air, and changed.

They became…diverse. Or perhaps they created more copies of themselves, because the air was suddenly dancing with bolts of lightning. They played over the Goblins and Humans in front of the tube, making the soldiers yelp and drop their metallic weapons. And then, from the tube, there came more lightning.

It was like lightning had come to life. Magnolia stared as a dragon made out of lightning took wing, emerging from the tube and flying forwards. She saw ships made of lightning, proud warriors and [Knights]—it was a light show! The lightning danced over the heads of both the Human and Goblin armies, making soldiers look up in awe. And as the Dragon soared overhead, doing absolutely no damage to the Goblin army, it left a trail of words in the sky.

The script was elegant, cursive, and hard to read. It was a different writing script than Magnolia had ever seen, but ancient as it was, it was still perfectly legible.

 

From the armories of the Emperor of Storms: a gift. To his enemies, see light and sound, ever fleeting, the wrath of the skies. Behold the advent of lightning.

 

And then there was light from the front of the tube. Magnolia blinked at it. The opening of the tube glowed and that was the last thing she saw for a while. She felt the impact as the air shattered, though. It threw her backwards and only Ressa catching her saved Magnolia from breaking her neck.

A bolt, a beam, a cascade of lightning burst forth from the mouth of the tube, cutting through the bemused ranks of Goblin soldiers and some of the Humans too close to the radius of the blast. The lightning did not fry those it touched—rather, it vaporized them. It left a trail of melted ground and smoke around fifteen feet wide as it shot across the battlefield. It hit the bone of dome—

And cracked it open. The bone splintered, the Necromancer’s magic broke. For a second, Ressa could see six shapes struggling in the darkness—then the magic of the lightning flashed around the opening. It obscured the rest, as the tube earthed its charge on the dome of bone.

It had been broken open, but as the shock of the spell reverberated across the battlefield she could see the walls of bone shudder and begin closing. The spell was reassembling itself.

“No! Get in there! War Golems, go to General Shivertail’s aide!

Magnolia struggled to get up. She thrust away Ressa’s hands and stumbled upright. Her ears were bleeding, her vision still blinded. Still she pointed. And the War Golems, cutting through the Goblins, turned.

They charged, shrieking, racing across the ground. Goblins raced to stop them, screaming. The first War Golem blasted them with a beam of fire. The second blasted the rest with lightning, far less powerful than that of Magnolia’s artifact, but still strong enough to shock and kill.

Go, go!

Magnolia screamed the words, Ressa holding her back. Across the battlefield, the Goblins were screaming the opposite.

 

—-

 

“Stop them!”

Snapjaw raced at the second Golem, seeing Goblins with chains and rope trying to slow it. But the massive beast was unstoppable. She grabbed a chain and felt herself being dragged along. Lightning blasted her, travelling down the chain. Snapjaw felt her body shaking, saw flashes—she hung on.

Goblins seized her from behind. Two more Hobs grabbed a chain. Snapjaw saw them jerk as they held on. One Hob spasmed—she could see him dying as he held the chain. His heart—hers was fluttering, stopping. Still, they dug their heels in the mug.

Stop!

The Goblins had formed a chain twenty bodies deep on each rope, but the War Golem had only slowed. It was still moving forwards. Still moving—

A shape blocked its way. Eater of Spears roared as he charged into the War Golem. He swung a fist and the massive metal monster punched back. It’s dagger-fingers sank into the giant Hobgoblin’s stomach, tore. Eater of Spears roared in pain and Snapjaw tried to drag the War Golem back.

The rift in the walls of bone was closing! They just had to hold the Golem—hold it—

Snapjaw wasn’t sure when the next bolt of lightning stopped her heart. She saw everything flash—found herself lying on her back. She sat upright, saw the Golem pounding Eater of Spears down. Saw him hold on to its legs.

The first Golem was at the opening. It pushed inside as the bone began to flow around it. The second threw aside Eater of Spears and raced for the opening. It crashed into the gap, made it halfway inside—and lodged in place. The bone covered it, entrapping the struggling Golem. It fought, and then, slowly, began to die. The magical dome was crushing its insides, bending the enchanted metal of its body. The Golem stopped moving and Snapjaw saw the bright light in its mouth dim and go out.

It was dead. But one of the Golems had entered. Snapjaw hoped it would be enough. But she had no idea what was going on inside. She only knew her Goblin Lord was alive.

The rest was a mystery.

 

—-

 

Zel Shivertail was alone. He had been alone before. But never like this.

The undead surrounded him. Venitra cut at his left—Kerash his right. Zel blocked with his arm and leg. Both blades bit into his flesh. He roared and slashed at Kerash—a wall of oozing gelatin blocked him.

“Eat him, Oom!”

Bea cried out, circling Zel, afraid to get cut by his claws. Oom extended his ‘arm’, letting Zel’s claws sink further into his body. The Drake roared as he felt his scales burning and yanked his arm out.

“My second eldest creation, Oom. He was made to destroy you, Shivertail.”

Az’kerash’s voice was calm as the undead continued their attack. Ijvani blasted Zel with a spray of something black that tried to obscure his vision—he blocked it with his hand, and kicked at Venitra as she charged. But the bone woman was so heavy—her body was solid bone and the momentum of her change carried her in to him. She knocked Zel over and he grunted as her sword stabbed towards his head.

“Not—”

He threw her off her with all the strength he could manage. A sword stabbed at his breastplate and failed to penetrate his armor. Kerash slashed at Zel’s head and again the Drake blocked with an arm as he rose. More blood—another cut—the blade was terribly, terribly cold, but Zel could handle the pain.

What was worse was Oom. The undead creature had tangled around his legs, engulfing them. Zel tried to break free, and failed. Ijvani scorched him with another fireball made of black flames.

“Slimes! It’s not undead, it’s a damned—”

Zel roared as Oom tried to engulf him. He swung a fist and part of Oom’s body sprayed outwards, but the rest kept sticking to his body. The Necromancer’s voice was amused.

“Indeed. An Acid Slime, given sentience and far more power of course. It is rare for such a creature to form naturally, but a simple matter for me. Oom is your natural enemy, Shivertail.”

The acid was burning Zel, and if Oom covered his mouth, he’d be in Zel’s insides, suffocating him. Zel heaved and part of Oom splattered across the bone walls.

“Not yet.”

He moved his feet, but they were still stuck. Now Venitra and Kerash were on either side. Venitra swung and this time her blade cut deep into Zel’s arm. He staggered and Kerash sliced into his leg. Both blades hit bone.

Falling. Zel felt it. He twisted, reaching for a potion at his belt, but Oom was pulling him down again, trying to hold his arms. He had to—Zel felt more fire burning him, opened his mouth and felt it scorching his body. And Bea was reaching for him with a rotted hand.

And then the wall exploded. Zel felt the impact, felt something lift his body, Oom, and all the undead and throw them into the far wall. He slid to the ground, stunned, and then got up.

“What—”

There was daylight! Something had blown open the wall of the dome! Zel saw shocked Goblin faces turning towards him and heard the Necromancer’s voice.

“How—what artifact was—Kerash! Do not let Shivertail escape!

His voice was urgent. Kerash and Venitra threw themselves in the way of the gap. Zel charged and his fist collided with Venitra’s shield. For the first time in that battle, Zel ran up against something he couldn’t push back. Venitra struck at him with her sword and he dodged left. The gap was closing! Zel ran at Kerash, not caring if he took a blade to get out—

And then Oom abandoned his trench coat. He surged out of his clothing and into the gap, creating a wall out of his body. The slime formed a wall and the undead created a wall in front of him. Zel halted. He stared at the undead and thought for a second.

Then he backed up. Kerash stared and Venitra lifted her sword uncertainly. She took a step forwards, but too late. Zel had a potion at his belt and was downing it.

“Stop him!”

Ijvani tried to cast a spell, but Zel sidestepped the bolts of lightning. The undead wavered, but if they moved they would have to abandon the closing gap to the outside. Grimly, Zel downed two more potions, feeling his wounds close and his body surge with energy.

And the gap closed. He couldn’t escape. Oom and the four other undead flowed away from the gap as it narrowed. Then Kerash’s head turned.

“What is that sound? Oom?”

Zel heard a shriek. The slime turned—and was splattered as one of Magnolia’s two War Golems surged into the gap. It turned, its glowing mouth appraising, and immediately slashed at Kerash. The undead scattered.

The gap in the ivory walls closed. Zel saw another Golem racing at the opening, saw it get caught—he was already leaping at Ijvani.

“Golem, cover me!”

He roared at the War Golem as it slashed at Venitra and Kerash. The two warrior-undead scattered to either side, blocking the Golem’s sharp dagger-fingers and cutting at its legs. Both their blades cut into the Golem’s enchanted body more easily than Zel’s flesh.

Help me!

Ijvani screamed at the other undead as Zel savaged her with his claws. He was trying to destroy her head, but her bones were tough and she was blocking with her staff. He ripped one arm off and then felt a cold stickiness engulf his left arm. His scales began to burn at the same time.

“Oom! Hold him so I can touch him!”

Bea dashed forwards. Zel kicked at her and she stumbled back. She was least agile of the undead. But she managed to distract him long enough—Oom finally managed to engulf Zel’s torso.

“Finish him, Oom!”

Kerash roared as he cut at the Golem’s legs. The Golem was on its knees—it couldn’t handle the onslaught of both undead at once. Zel saw its mouth glowing red and shouted.

“Golem—fire on me!

The War Golem looked up. It focused on Zel and he saw a fiery inferno grow in its mouth. The fiery laser erupted from its mouth and blasted Zel and Oom as they stood locked in place.

Oom!

Bea screamed. The undead woman lurched forwards. Too late. The slime screamed, a soundless wail as the fire blasted its body apart. Zel felt Oom’s body vaporize around him. He stumbled, felt his scales flaking off. But his hands were reaching. Where—

There. He found a core in the slime’s body. A mana stone, his heart. It was large, as large as Zel’s fist. Oom’s gelatinous body wriggled around it, burning Zel, trying to infiltrate his body, burn it. Zel gripped the stone tightly.

All four undead were staring at him. Bea raised one hand. Her eyes were wide. Why had Az’kerash made her so much like a normal Human woman? Her voice shook.

“Don’t—”

Zel’s grip tightened. Oom screamed as the mana stone broke. And then there was silence.

The slime dripped from Zel’s body as he stood. The Drake swung his arm and the acid that had been Oom’s body splattered across the ground. He tossed the shattered mana stone to the ground and looked around.

The War Golem collapsed as Kerash drove his enchanted blade into the back of it’s head. Venitra rose, her shield smoking after having blocked a second fiery beam. The four undead stared at Zel Shivertail.

He was burned. His arms screamed—he could feel his bones cracked in places, feel the acid eating at him. But still Zel stood. He looked around at them, the confident undead, now, suddenly aware of their mortality.

“That’s one. Who’s next?”

“Oom.”

Az’kerash’s voice was a hiss. Kerash raised his sword as he and Venitra flanked Zel again.

“You will pay for that.”

Venitra’s voice was deep. Zel laughed at her.

“Venitra, don’t rush in!”

Kerash stopped Venitra before the bone woman could charge at him. The Gnoll pointed.

“Ijvani, lock down the Drake’s movements. Venitra, cover me.”

He advanced, sword at the ready. Zel gritted his teeth as Ijvani tossed a spell at him. It was some kind of ooze—like Oom it stuck to whatever it touched. He got some on his leg as he pivoted to dodge—Kerash slashed at Zel’s eyes and was blocked. Venitra charged with her shield and Zel scored her twice across the chest with his claws. He could cut her body! But the strikes weren’t deep and the impact jarred his hands. Zel hissed, raised his claws.

“[Rending—]”

And Bea touched his body.

It was quick, just a touch on his arm. But the instant her pallid flesh made contact with his, Zel felt a hot flash run down his arm. And then—a terrible uneasiness.

He whirled, seeing Bea’s hand stretched towards him. The undead woman had lunged at him, ignoring the danger. Zel’s claw took off her arm as she tried to retreat. But the second touch felt just as bad as the first. And as Bea stepped back there was a sense of…satisfaction in her eyes.

“What was—that?”

Zel sensed the other undead moving back. He grabbed at his belt and shattered a potion bottle as he smashed it over his arm. The liquid splashed across the spots Bea had touched him at. But instead of healing the spots she’d touched, the burning sensation ran down Zel’s arm. And—pain.

“Excellent job, Bea.”

Az’kerash’s voice sounded satisfied again. Bea picked up her arm and retreated. The undead watched Zel as he clutched at his arm. His arm and his claws hurt. Whatever the burning was, it was spreading like wildfire. Why? Because of the touch?

No, because of the potion. Zel realized his mistake too late. Healing potions healed most things, but they weren’t cure-alls. They couldn’t regenerate lost limbs, and they could only heal what a normal person could be expected to get through. That was because they amplified a body’s healing process, made it faster. And while that worked on damaged flesh and bone, it didn’t work on—

“Plague.”

Bea spoke the words mockingly. Zel coughed, and stared at the blood on his claws. His lungs burned as the magical disease coursed through his body. He looked around. The undead grinned at him. Four mocking eyes. Zel closed his and straightened.

Then he smiled. The undead hesitated. Zel opened his claws as he tossed his belt and the healing potions to the ground. He nodded to them, and clenched one fist.

“Well then. Let’s end this, shall we?”

He charged Venitra first, ignoring the blade she stabbed into his side. His claws were sharp. And there was nothing holding him back anymore.

 

—-

 

The battle had been long. The battle had been short. To the Goblin Lord, it felt as though the battle between Zel Shivertail and the undead had gone on forever. He knew it couldn’t have been more than…no, how long had it been?

Five minutes? Ten minutes? Twenty minutes? Half an hour? It continued. Zel Shivertail whirled, striking left and right, refusing to let the undead regroup. They had burned him, cut him, smashed his bones, poisoned him, infected him—and yet he stood.

The Goblin Lord had seen it all. He had lain where Zel had fallen, clinging to life with his own magics as the undead and the Drake battled. Now, he desperately uncorked a healing potion, one of the ones Zel had dropped and poured it over his stomach.

His organs began to heal. The Goblin Lord pushed them into his stomach, trying not to scream as Zel cut at Venitra. The Drake [General] was gasping, his green scales mottled with the disease as it spread unnaturally fast. Part of his body was simply black with ash and soot—his scales were flaking off. Yet still he attacked. Venitra raised her shield as the claws slashed across them. Zel hit her with a punch that cracked her pristine face.

“You dare—”

She cried out in outrage as fracture lines ran from one cheek. Venitra swung her sword and Zel grabbed it.

Weak!

He roared as he yanked the blade away. Venitra abandoned her shield and raised a massive fist. She swung and Zel punched. The Drake’s fist shattered her nose. His next blow cracked her bone chest plate.

The Drake lifted Venitra, her entire massive body and threw her at Bea, who’d been sneaking up on him from behind. The blow sent both female undead tumbling to the ground and Bea’s body broke as Venitra landed on her. Zel turned and Kerash’s sword lanced into his shoulder. Zel’s slash opened the Gnoll’s chest, exposing his ribs.

“[Blackfire Fireball]!”

Ijvani fired the same spell again, engulfing Zel in flames, giving Kerash a second to retreat. Zel turned, his body blazing, and kicked Ijvani. The skeleton broke into pieces and crashed to the ground. Venitra struggled to her feet and Az’kerash’ voice spoke in the silence as Zel paused a moment to gasp for air.

“Still?”

The Goblin Lord could hear Zel’s lungs wheezing for air. The Drake took a step towards Kerash and stumbled. The Gnoll backed up. His chest hung open, the dead flesh severed. Venitra raised her sword unsteadily.

“Hold.”

The undead paused. Az’kerash’s voice was sharp as Zel coughed more blood up.

“[Flesh Regrowth]. [Mend Bones]. Venitra, support Kerash! Your role is to take his blows not charge in alone! Ijvani, advance! Use more powerful spells to decimate the area—the other three will survive your magic! Bea, attempt to find the Drake’s back!”

“He’s still standing, master! He shouldn’t be—he should be dead by now!”

Bea cried out as she circled Zel. The Drake turned to face her, his eyes burning. He was slowing though. The Goblin Lord could see it. And yet, it was Zel who made the first move. He slashed at Bea, cutting into her stomach as she leapt back. Again, the contact with her body made whatever infection that was coursing through Zel intensify, but he ignored the spreading stain on his claws. He stood and beckoned at the other undead as they circled him warily.

“Come on. Come on! I thought you were supposed to be monsters!”

His eyes blazed beneath the blood and burnt scales on his face. Again, the four hesitated. But they attacked as one, moving in perfect unison.

Venitra low, Kerash high. Bea from the left, Ijvani from the back. Zel cut Kerash and seized Venitra’s head. He twisted and the bones forming her neck began to crack.

Weak!

Again Zel roared the word. Venitra managed to loosen his grip on her and stumbled back. The undead retreated as Zel swung at Ijvani, staring. Zel stumbled.

“You cannot win this battle, Shivertail. I am impressed you are still standing. But—”

“Four left.”

Zel regained his balance and grabbed Kerash’s blade as it swung at his head. His claws bled as the enchanted metal dug into his claws. He hit Kerash in the face, bashing the Gnoll’s face in. Kerash stumbled back. Bea leapt at Zel and he kicked her. The tip of his foot pierced her abdomen and he stomped her to the ground. She gasped.

“Your minions can’t kill me.”

Zel rasped as he ground Bea’s body underneath his foot. She was grabbing at his leg and he was ignoring it. Venitra and Kerash attacked with Ijvani, but Zel refused to budge.

“You think you understand strength! I am the shield of the Drakes! I am a [General]! And a general does not fall!

He bent and cut Bea in two. She gasped and stared at her lower half, separate from her torso. Zel turned.

“Three!”

He charged into Venitra, trading blows with the bone knight. It was she who fell back, cracked and broken. Zel ignored Kerash as the Gnoll cut at his back. And the Goblin Lord moved.

Slowly, ever so slowly he rose. His body was weak, and he had no more magic for a spell. But Venitra had dropped her sword as Zel continued his assault. The bone blade was heavy, but strong. The Goblin Lord grabbed it stealthily.

Drake!

Kerash was dueling Zel as Venitra fell to one knee. He was falling back—Ijvani was cowering, her body nearly torn to bits. The Goblin Lord crept up on Zel from behind, sword raised. He aimed for Zel’s neck as the Drake beat Kerash down with blows that cracked the undead Gnoll’s shoulders and arms. Wait…Zel’s claws were on Kerash’s head. He began to twist—

Now. The Goblin Lord leapt forwards. Zel turned, fast as a snake. He kicked the Goblin Lord and the Goblin felt his ribs crumple from the blow. He fell, gasping, as Zel flung Kerash backwards.

“Idiot.”

He coughed more blood out as he kicked the Goblin Lord before he could go for the sword again. Kerash stumbled up—Zel’s fist cracked his skull.

“Now.”

The Drake [General] was slowing, but he still charged Venitra as she came at him. The two grappled, desperate, Venitra’s body breaking. The Goblin Lord tried to get up. He grabbed the sword and slashed at Zel’s legs. The Drake grunted as the blade pierced his thigh. He turned, grabbed the Goblin Lord and raised a claw as he shoved Venitra back. The undead woman stumbled, and the Goblin Lord looked into Zel’s eyes.

“I—”

Someone moved behind the Goblin Lord. He saw Zel’s eyes widen, felt the Drake release him. Too slow.

“[Diamondshard Spray].”

A hand rose and pointed. The Goblin Lord felt something flash past his face—tear through one of his ears. Zel stumbled. Glittering shards of diamond shot through the air, some as long as daggers, tearing into his face, his body. The Drake turned towards Az’kerash as the Necromancer raised his hands. He moved.

“[Accelerate Spell]. [Stone Lance].”

Zel’s head twisted. The Goblin Lord saw a flash, felt the impact on the far wall as the lance of stone broke. And as Zel Shivertail turned his head back, the Goblin Lord saw part of his head was missing.

“[Deathblast].”

Again, the Necromancer pointed. This time the black magic that washed over Zel was a wave, far stronger than anything the Goblin Lord could create. It sapped the last of the Drake’s energy, rendered his body stiff. Az’kerash pointed, at the Drake’s chest and uttered the spell again.

“[Deathblast].”

The dark magic struck Zel. He stumbled, his leg moved—stopped. He stood in place, eyes vacant.

“[Deathblast].”

There was no light in his eyes. The Goblin Lord wanted to cry out. Treachery! He had attacked from behind! But that was how Goblins fought. And yet the Necromancer…Az’kerash’s black eyes were locked on Zel’s own. The Drake’s gaze was unmoving.

[Deathblast].

The fourth spell was the last. Zel didn’t move as the spell struck him. Az’kerash lowered his finger then, and looked around.

“Ah, my apprentice. Your timing was quite useful. For that distraction I thank you.”

The Goblin Lord stared up at his master, at Az’kerash. The Necromancer was here. Here. He must have used one of his Scrolls of Greater Teleport to come here. The Goblin Lord knew he had only eleven left. No—four now. He had spent those valuable artifacts for this.

For Zel Shivertail. The Necromancer turned his gaze back to the Drake. Zel Shivertail stood in place, part of his head simply…gone. He had dodged the worst of the Necromancer’s spells, but a shard of diamond had taken his left eye. And his body was burnt black in places, cut from a thousand blades, and discolored from where Bea’s plague touch had spread.

And still, he had fought through it all. And if the Necromancer had not come at the last—the Goblin Lord looked away.

“Master!”

A voice interrupted the silence. Bea crawled towards her creator, her body badly damaged. The Goblin Lord moved away from her as she dragged her torso towards Az’kerash. She was holding a broken stone in her hands.

“Ah, Bea.”

Az’kerash greeted her with obvious satisfaction in his voice. The undead woman did not share his joy. She held the pieces of Oom’s mana stone in trembling hands.

“Oom! He’s dead, master. Can you—is he—”

“Gone.”

The Necromancer’s voice was cold and dispassionate. Bea stared up at him, her legs separated from her body, cradling what remained of Oom.

“But he fought! Master—”

“I warned him to safeguard his mana core at all costs. He was foolish, allowing that War Golem to damage him so. No, perhaps it was Shivertail I underestimated. Or was it the capabilities of my Chosen? Venitra, Kerash, rise. I am disappointed in you both. And perhaps you most of all, Ijvani, how is it you failed to damage Zel Shivertail in any meaningful way throughout the battle?”

The other undead, the Necromancer’s Chosen, began to rise, shamefaced. Venitra had to have Kerash’s help to stumble upright.

“Master. We are grateful.”

Kerash’s voice rasped. Az’kerash eyed him.

“You are badly damaged, Kerash. I must restructure your body when we return to the castle. All of you. Prepare yourselves for transit. I will destroy the enchantment protecting this place momentarily. Ijvani, you will make your way back with an invisibility spell; there are no more scrolls of teleportation.”

Yes, master.

The Goblin Lord stared at the black skeleton as she stumbled away from the others. Bea still pleaded with her master.

“Master, what if I took the fragments back? If I put it in Oom’s special place, maybe—”

“He is gone, Bea.”

Az’kerash’s eyes flashed with annoyance and the undead woman shrank back. He turned, his face displeased, and then relented as he looked towards Zel again.

“Ah, General Shivertail. What a formidable opponent you were. Perhaps if you had been a touch faster in battle, or escaped Bea’s touch a moment sooner, I might have reconsidered arriving myself. But for all your strength in life, you will be the finest of my servants in death. For that I thank you.”

He walked over to Zel, his hands reaching out to touch the Drake’s chest. The Goblin Lord saw Zel’s eyes flicker, saw the Drake’s claws move.

[Antimagic Slash]!”

The cut was fast. It scythed through the almost-invisible aura of protection around the Necromancer’s body, cut into his neck—but only just. Zel was too far away. His claws only opened the Necromancer’s throat. And as the Necromancer staggered back, his black eyes wide with shock, Zel collapsed.

“What—”

The Necromancer’s throat did not bleed. He covered his pale flesh and stared at Zel. The Drake looked up at him, fallen, unable to move. Just looked.

“Return! Apprentice, finish the Drake! Secure his corpse!”

Az’kerash’s voice snapped. He grabbed for a scroll at his side and vanished. The undead around him stared at their master—Ijvani disappeared in a pop as she cast [Lesser Teleport] and the others fled, pulling out scrolls of their own. The Goblin Lord looked around, stunned by the sudden absence of the other undead.

“Hah. Hahaha. Coward.”

Zel Shivertail lay on the ground, laughing. He was still alive. Somehow. The Goblin Lord could see into his head, but the Drake still clung to life. His eyes turned to the Goblin Lord.

“I’m sorry.”

The Goblin Lord said it as he knelt by Zel’s side. He stared down at the Drake, seeing how the enchanted armor had failed in places. The magical metal had been melted in one place, pierced in two. Zel Shivertail stared up at the ivory ceiling overhead. The enchantment was breaking up—the dome was collapsing in places, letting sunlight in.

The Goblin Lord could hear Humans and Goblins shouting outside the dome in confusion. There was still a battle going on. But in this moment he only had eyes for Zel. He felt he should say something.

“I’m sorry. It was not a worthy death. Cowardly. It was—”

He got no further. A hand shot out and grabbed him by the throat. The Goblin Lord choked, tried to move back. He couldn’t. Zel Shivertail sat up, his grip crushing the Goblin Lord’s throat.

“I’m not dead yet.”

He stared at the Goblin Lord with his one good eye. It blazed with a strange light. How could he still move? How could he—the Goblin Lord was choking.

“I could kill you. It would be so easy.”

Zel Shivertail said the words casually. He stared at the Goblin Lord, and then, suddenly, released him. The Goblin Lord stumbled backwards, gasping for air.

“I don’t feel like it. Not anymore.”

Zel stared ahead. His head was—blood dripped from the missing part of his head. His voice was distant.

“I feel so tired. So this is how it ends? Funny, I always thought it would be—quicker.”

He turned his head. The Goblin Lord stared at him. But Zel was no longer looking at him. The Drake [General] looked ahead, and his voice was very distant.

“Sserys, old friend. I couldn’t lead them. I couldn’t inspire them like you did. But I tried. I wonder, would you say this was a job well done? I couldn’t kill the Necromancer, in the end. I only got one of his minions. And…”

His voice trailed off. Zel’s head drooped. His voice was lower. The Goblin Lord moved forwards to hear. Zel’s voice was a whisper as he looked ahead, looked at the past.

“My mentor, my friend, wings of my heart, did I do a good job? Defending our people? It was so very difficult without you. Will I see you, I wonder? Will you say I did a good job or a bad one when we meet?”

“You did.”

The Goblin Lord spoke, his voice trembling. He reached out, hesitated. He spoke, as gently as he could.

“You did. You protected them. Your people. You did it. It was a good job.”

Zel stirred. His eyes focused on the Goblin Lord’s face and he frowned.

“I’ll let Sserys tell me in person, Goblin.”

He stared at the Goblin, and then smiled. It was such a strange thing that the Goblin Lord nearly smiled back. The Goblin brushed at his eyes and was surprised to find water on his claws. Zel looked at him.

“Do you have a name?”

“No. No name. Just Goblin Lord. Apprentice. Goblin.”

The Goblin Lord sat next to Zel as the dome broke. The Drake looked up at the sky. He sighed.

“How strange. Everyone should have a name. It doesn’t seem right. You—should have one.”

The Goblin Lord was silent. Zel stared up, blood dripped slowly from his wounds. And then stopped.

“How about Reiss? It’s a proper Drake name. If I had a son—Sserys always talked about wanting to raise a boy and name him that.”

Reiss. The Goblin Lord stared at Zel for a second. The Drake laughed.

“Take it if you want it. I don’t think Sserys will mind. And—no, never mind.”

“I will. And I will avenge. Avenge you and my people. I swear it. The Necromancer will die by my hand.”

The Goblin Lord looked at Zel. The Drake eyed him, and then shrugged.

“Good. I hope you do it. But I won’t be around to see it. And truthfully…I would have liked to…”

His voice trailed off. Reiss looked into Zel’s eyes and saw the Drake’s vision had gone distant again. Zel whispered as the Goblin Lord wiped at his eyes again.

“A good job. Did I do it?”

He laughed once.

“I suppose I’ll never know. But I did try. I did—”

Reiss waited a long time, but Zel never finished his sentence. He sat there, the last traces of laughter still on his face. The Tidebreaker stared up at the sky as the walls of ivory finally broke and both armies could see into the dome at last.

There was just silence at first. Reiss sat with Zel, head bowed, until he realized that it looked like both he and Zel were dead. He stood slowly, and heard the Goblins roaring. But from the Human side there was no noise.

There was only silence. Then the Goblin Lord heard a groan from the Humans. It sounded like something living had been torn from them. He saw the armored ranks of men and woman falter, saw some fall to their knees and others begin to weep. The news dawned on the army slowly as they saw the Goblin Lord standing over the distant form of their [General].

Zel Shivertail was dead. The Tidebreaker had fallen.

And the Goblin Lord had slain him.

It was not the truth. Reiss wanted to scream it out loud. But he couldn’t. And the Goblins roared as they saw the fallen Drake and their victorious leader. They streamed towards him, screaming, staring in awe at the fallen Zel Shivertail.

“Dead! Dead, dead, dead!

Snapjaw shouted the words in triumph. She and the other Goblins were fighting to get to the Goblin Lord, offering potions. One Goblin reached to push Zel Shivertail aside. Reiss whirled and shouted.

Stop!

The Goblins froze. The Goblin Lord looked around and pointed to Zel Shivertail’s body.

“Leave body. Anyone who touches, dies.”

They stared at him, and then at the fallen Drake. Reiss wiped at his eyes. He said one word.

“Withdraw.”

He turned and walked away. Uncomprehending, the Goblins stared at him and then followed. Reiss the Goblin Lord led his army away as the Humans stared at the slumped figure in shining armor. They wept, and the cry went up. It echoed across the battlefield, across the city of Invrisil, and out onto the rest of the continent. The words shook the world.

 

—-

 

Magnolia Reinhart wept as she retreated from the battlefield. Ressa, beside her, was dry-eyed, but her hands were tight on her mistress’ arm as she guided Magnolia away. The Lady Reinhart spoke only once as they retreated behind the procession bearing the Tidebreaker’s body away from the battle.

“I am offering a hundred thousand gold coins. No, I will offer a million gold coins or whatever artifacts I own. Spread the word among the Assassin’s Guilds, in every part of the world. I will have the Necromancer dead, Ressa.”

“Yes, milady.”

 

—-

 

A’kerash strode through his castle, his damaged servants, his Chosen trailing after him. They were four now, and they dared not speak to him. The Necromancer had triumphed today, but that victory was hollow as well.

“Oom’s death was unfortunate.”

That was all Az’kerash said as he halted in front of his rooms. The four undead looked at him. Bea’s face was a mask of grief. The Necromancer looked at each of them and then away.

“I see I have overestimated your capabilities. Or perhaps underestimated that of my foes. The next generation of your brothers and sisters will lack your weaknesses.”

They bowed their heads. Az’kerash turned.

“I will repair you all shortly. Rest, and regain your strength. I have need of you yet. I have eliminated one of my greatest foes today.”

He turned and smiled bitterly. And from his castle, the same words were repeated. They broke upon the Walled Cities, and shattered the hearts of the Drakes. The end of a legend. The death of an era.

Fear for the future.

 

—-

 

The news struck Liscor like a wave. Grief-stricken Drakes stood in the streets, weeping, and the Gnolls were little better. Zel Shivertail was dead. The hero of the Second Antinium Wars, the shield that had protected Izril for so long, had fallen.

In The Wandering Inn, Klbkch saw Erin weeping at the counter and Lyonette slumped at a table. Mrsha was howling from the top of the inn. He turned, and left the building.

Klbkch did not weep. The Antinium did not cry. He slowly walked through the streets of Liscor, hearing the horns blowing, seeing grief in every corner. He walked into the Antinium Hive and heard a hush. The Workers and Soldiers did not understand the grief and fear, yes, fear that gripped the hearts of those above.

Well, that was their nature. Klbkch descended through the tunnels, walking by memory, and came to a large room. The Queen of the Free Antinium looked down at him.

“Klbkchhezeim.”

“My Queen. Has the artifact been installed to your satisfaction?”

“So it seems. The Courier delivered it to the door of the Hive this morning. I have placed it here.”

The Queen indicated a mirror made out of black glass, a tall frame that was far too small to reflect her entire body. Klbkch stared at it. It did not fit in this room, but it was a powerful artifact and there were few good alternatives.

“Have you activated it yet?”

“No.”

The Queen of the Free Antinium stared at Klbkch as he slowly walked over to the mirror. He placed a hand on it and the surface rippled. It changed. Instead of reflecting the Queen and Klbkch, the surface swam until it was reflecting another room.

It was quite similar to the one Klbkch stood in. The only difference was that this room was carved of stone, and there were quite a number of tunnels leading to and from this cavernous room. And the Queen in the center was far, larger than the Queen of the Free Antinium. She was massive, bloated, and rested on a huge dais in the center of the room. She stared towards the mirror.

“Klbkchhezeim? The connection is strong it seems. How fares the Free Antinium?”

“Zel Shivertail is dead.”

Klbkch’s voice was flat. The Grand Queen of the Antinium went still. In the frame, Klbkch saw one of the Antinium gathered around her turn. Xrn stared at him. The Grand Queen was silent as she stared at Klbkch. Then her mandibles parted and rose.

“Good. We have much to do, Klbkchhezeim, my Queen of the Free Antinium.”

She waved a languid feeler. The Antinium turned to face Klbkch, and the Grand Queen spoke.

“The Goblins are moving once more. The Humans stir for war. The Drakes have lost their shield. And the Antinium will rise.”

Klbkch nodded. He stared at the Grand Queen of the Antinium, and his hands tightened on the hilts of his sword. He said only one word.

“Perhaps.”

 

End of Volume 4.

 

 

 

Author’s Note:

 

So, we come to this at last. At last, the volume ends. And I had planned to write this last chapter directly before the break. Perhaps it’s better that I didn’t. Perhaps it would have been better had I not had the break.

We’ll never know. But it is done, and the world is changed now. Zel Shivertail is dead. And what follows will be…different.

This is the darkest end to a volume, and speaks of what is to come. And yet, and yet, our story is about Erin, about hope, and about more than just war. But it does feel like war and conflict threaten us despite our best hopes. As in this world, so in ours.

Thank you for reading. I had a good break, and I think it was appropriate—I hope to take a week long break after every end of volume, if only to recharge a bit. I have a lot of ideas for the next volume and a lot of story yet to come. Some of it will be tragic, some horrific (hopefully not due to bad writing), other parts hopeful, or sad or silly or…

Thank you all for supporting the story, whether it be from pledging or talking about it, or simply reading. I have a lot I want to do, from releasing the e-book to fixing typos and plot points and adding a glossary. I have a lot to do, but what I start and end with is this: writing. I hope you enjoy the story and if you do, I have a lot more to tell.

See you soon. I’m back to writing and Volume 5 begins in two days. I’ll put the monthly side stories poll up soon too, and maybe another short (non-canonical) piece side story I wrote during my vacation. Thanks for reading as always,

–pirateaba

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

4.48

Time was peculiar. Lady Magnolia knew that well. Some days, some moments could seem to last forever while entire years could flash by. It was all a matter of how much was happening. When it seemed like the world was ending and dire news was the headline of each morning, time could be at a standstill as every day became an unfolding disaster. By the same token though, when there was too much to do and time was precious, it slipped away like shadows in the sun.

She planned with Zel Shivertail, letting the [General] take command of his forces, assisting where she could without getting in the way. Magnolia pulled strings, marshalled all the resources at her immediate disposal, flattened gossip in places and encouraged it in others, and heard reports from [Scouts]. A day passed like that and then it was time.

The Goblins were here.

The first sign of their presence was the distant drum beats that echoed across the grasslands like thunder. The last of the winter’s cold fled with their arrival, and the dark skies and overcast day heralded a wet, if temperate battlefield.

“Muddy. Bad footing. I wish we could have had better weather for today’s battle.”

Magnolia Reinhart turned her head as she stood on those same fields. She had been staring at a black mass in the distance. Now she looked at an armored woman by her side. The woman was dressed so she looked nothing like the [Maid] she was—wearing thick metal armor and carrying an enchanted mace, she was the spitting image of Odveig, the former leader of the Celestial Trackers. But Sacra had many disguises, many faces. And Magnolia appreciated the depth of her knowledge in moments like these.

“Why is mud disadvantageous, Sacra? Aside from the obvious reasons. I would assume that the danger of slipping applies to Goblins as equally as Humans.”

Sacra bowed her head slightly, not taking her eyes off of the distant Goblin host.

“Your pardon Lady Reinhart. But Goblins are experienced in fighting in almost all forms of weather and terrain. Humans are not. Some of the soldiers here won’t have practiced in these conditions. They’ll be at a slight disadvantage.”

“I see. Hopefully General Shivertail will be able to compensate.”

Magnolia turned her gaze back towards the Goblins. They had been marching steadily towards Invrisil for two hours now, across the plains outside of Invrisil. The Human army had decided to meet them four miles outside of Invrisil’s suburbs. Any closer and the Goblins might use the houses and buildings as cover, or worse, scale the outermost walls and threaten the city itself.

Invrisil had not come under attack since the Second Antinium Wars. It had grown without fear, safe from [Bandits] and monsters due to the high number of adventurers who lived within its confines. But now, in the face of the Goblin Lord’s armies those same adventurers were in hiding.

All but a few. Magnolia shifted her gaze and stared at the army of Humans that had formed up ahead of her, in the path of the approaching army. The armor of thousands of [Soldiers] gleamed in the light drizzle from overhead, and Magnolia could see hundreds, maybe thousands of banners, each proclaiming a unit from a different village, town or city.

Just over forty thousand soldiers. A vast army. And yet the Goblin Lord’s forces were reported to be almost double that number. True, his forces would be comprised of noncombatants as well, children, pregnant Goblins, the elderly…and a good half of his army was the undead horde.

Even so, the numbers alone made Magnolia’s heart beat quicker. She stared at the Goblins until another voice spoke up.

“It’s not right.”

“What is?”

Lady Bethal stared at the Goblin Lord’s army. It was spreading out across the grasslands, growing larger by the second. So many. Magnolia tried to count and gave up. Bethal’s voice was pained, the only sound in the silence.

“We should have brought twice as many soldiers to this battlefield. Three times. These are Goblins. Why hasn’t every city within a thousand miles turned out their garrisons to support us? This isn’t a matter of politics! Why are we so divided? But instead Lord Tyrion siphons off soldiers we need, and so we have to send a Drake legend in with a half-formed army—”

“I know.”

Magnolia cut her friend off. She sighed.

“I know, Bethal. But we Humans do not always act in the best interests of our people. We are selfish, paranoid, petty…I should have known my enemies would fight me even in this. They would let a city of hundreds of thousands burn to hurt me.”

“Fools.”

“Not fools. Not entirely. Just…uncaring, I think. To his credit, Zel Shivertail realized how lackluster a force he had been given. But he chose to lead it anyways. He thinks he can win, not just defend, Bethal.”

Magnolia stared out across the ranks of Human soldiers, at the lone figure standing on the front lines. Zel Shivertail’s armor glowed in the dim light, a beacon for all those who looked for such things. Bethal shook her head.

“I pray he’s right, Magnolia. My Thomast is out there and almost all of my Knights of the Petal. If they are lost—”

Her eyes flicked to her husband, lost in the seas of soldiers. Magnolia could spot the iconic [Knights] in their light pink and red armor. She tried to soothe Bethal, although she didn’t feel that calm herself.

“Your husband is quite competent Bethal. As for your [Knights]—they are the most elite force on the field, bar none. We must commit all we can to this battle. And remember, if you should see Thomast in trouble, you have given me your word not to go into the battle.”

“I know.”

Bethal sighed loudly and Magnolia eyed her. That had been the condition she’d imposed on Bethal before she’d let the other [Lady] observe the battle. Magnolia and her small retinue stood at a distance from the army and battlefield itself. Close enough to observe, but far enough in theory that the Goblin Lord would not trouble himself with them. And if he did…

Sacra stood with both feet planted on the ground, mace by her side. She was joined by eighteen other [Maids] and [Servants]…none of whom were wearing their usual uniforms today. They were all former spellcasters and warriors and they were all armed with magical artifacts.

A small guard. Magnolia had put her faith in Zel Shivertail. She wasn’t here to fight herself; she was an observer in this battle. Well, an observer with a small role to play. Magnolia’s flicked her gaze to the two huge covered wagons parked by her small escort. Both lacked mounts to pull them anywhere and were sinking slightly into the ground at the moment. Each one was large enough to hold several horses if you managed to get them up into such a confined space, and they were large enough to take shelter behind.

But again, if it came to that then something had gone wrong. Magnolia trusted Zel Shivertail to win this battle. And as if her thoughts had summoned him, she saw his figure heading her way.

Zel Shivertail rode a horse briskly towards Magnolia and her escort, and Magnolia walked forwards to meet him. She had been only vaguely surprised to learn Zel Shivertail was a competent rider—he never rode horses when fighting, so it was rare that he got a chance to show off his skills.

“Is there something wrong?”

“No. I’m changing the plan, though. Hold the secret weapons until the Goblin Lord makes his move. Don’t unleash them unless you think you have a shot at him.”

“Why, pray tell? They could cause extensive damage—”

Magnolia bit her tongue as she realized she was asking questions of a [General]. She was no [General]; she should just let him do his work. Zel answered her curtly as he eyed the distant Goblin Lord’s army.

“I don’t like the looks of the Goblin Lord’s vanguard. I took a look at them with a spyglass—it seems like he has a very strong escort and he’s entrenched himself in his army. It will be hard to get a clear shot at him unless it’s by surprise.”

“I understand. I will wait for the opportunity, then.”

Magnolia smoothed her skirts, glad the magical fabric couldn’t get dirty or wet. She looked at the Drake [General] and couldn’t help but ask a few more questions.

“Do you believe you’re prepared? There are still a few more contingency measures we could take. The magical artifact my grandfather gave me—”

“That thing?”

Zel turned his head and eyed the strange tube-like object that Magnolia had brought with her. It was resting on a small pedestal, guarded by two of her [Maids]. He shook his head.

“Unless the battle turns badly, don’t use it. I’d rather save that for the Great Chieftain you were talking about. And I’d rather not risk collateral damage since we don’t know exactly what it does.”

“Very well. And I see you have equipped the artifacts I gave you. Excellent.”

Zel frowned as he scratched at the pair of rings on his fingers. Magnolia knew he also had a pendant around his neck. They seemed to be annoying the Drake.

“Yes. I’m grateful, really, but I don’t like rings. I fight with my claws you know. These things can catch when I hit something.”

Magnolia pursed her lips, unsympathetic.

“I should imagine their effects outweigh whatever awkwardness you feel, General. They will protect you from unfortunate teleportation, curses, metal attack spells…they should be standard fare to someone of your rank. I can’t understand how you survived this long without them!”

“Probably because everyone thought I had them on and never bothered to test whether I had them or not. And I’ve survived nasty spells before. One time I got teleported off of a cliff…”

Zel grunted. His eyes were going back to the Goblin army. They were coming so slowly. Magnolia tried to keep her voice light and bantering. She and Zel were both icons after all. They had to pretend to be calm for the sake of others.

“I suppose Drakes don’t bother with magical protections, then? You, what, trust the strength of your scales?”

“Hardly. You should see some of them. I know a Lord of the Wall that has rings on every finger. No, I was never supported by the Walled Cities so I had to make do without. And any artifacts I used I returned. Well, I’ll try to get these ones back to you in one piece.”

“Please, consider them a gift. It would hardly do for me to be seen as stingy and I have quite a few ugly rings in my collection.”

“Thank you.”

They traded words like that for a few more minutes, both keeping their eyes on the Goblin Lord’s army. And then Zel nodded towards the black host in the distance.

“It’s time. Remember what I said. Wait for the Goblin Lord to be exposed. And as for the rest…”

He paused. Magnolia waited, her heart beating fast, her face composed. Zel Shivertail just shrugged.

“It’s time.”

“Fortune in battle!”

Magnolia called after Zel’s back as he turned his horse. She heard Sacra and the others around her saying something similar. Magnolia shook her head. Such old sayings. Such trite words. As if that would help one whit.

This was a battle. And as the Goblins came close enough for Magnolia to see their faces in the distance, she heard the drum beats striking louder now, the thumping in rhythm with her chest.

Doom. Doom.

The sound was like the steps of a giant. Only this giant was made of tens of thousands of black-armored Goblins, hordes of shambling undead. Magnolia stared across the ranks of Human swordsmen, mounted riders, archers, nervously staring at their foe. She wondered how they could look at that massive army and not run. There were so many! But the Humans were numerous too. The Goblins approached, spreading out like a breaking wave. Closer, closer—

And then the drumbeats ceased. Magnolia’s heart skipped a beat as the absence of sound affected her more powerfully than the noise. She stared at the Goblins and then saw him.

A Goblin sitting on a massive Shield Spider. A figure dressed in robes. He didn’t shine with an aura or radiate malice, but there was no mistaking him. The Goblin Lord rode his mount to the head of his army and raised his hand.

“Sacra, what is he—”

Magnolia turned to Sacra, about to ask her opinion. Without Ressa she was acting as commentator and analyst of the battle. But she never got a chance to voice her question. Because as the Goblin Lord raised his hand the Goblins around him raised their weapons and shouted one word.

Goblin.

The noise broke the silence and rippled across the plains, causing a physical ripple in the army of Humans. Magnolia’s ears rang and she saw the servants around her wince. Only Sacra, Bethal, and Magnolia didn’t flinch.

The effect on the Human army was just as effective. Magnolia could see ranks of Soldiers waver for a second before standing straight. Just one word had caused their morale to waver.

And it wasn’t over. The Goblin Lord raised his hand again and the Goblins shouted.

Goblin!

The noise was fury and bloodshed, monstrous, the very definitions of what Goblins could be. Magnolia calmed herself with a Skill, looking across her army. They weren’t breaking, but the Human soldiers were clearly unnerved by the sound.

“He’s trying to shatter our morale!”

Sacra shouted at Magnolia, explaining the obvious. Magnolia nodded, noting that Sacra had taken the mace from her belt. Again, the Goblin Lord raised his hand and the sound rolled forth.

Goblin!

Again the massed voices of the Goblins struck the Humans. Magnolia had to admire the simplicity of it. It was like being attacked, but there was no way to fight back. A few of the Human officers tried to raise their own cheers, and Magnolia heard the cries taken up, but only by a small percentage of the army. And the wavering voices made the Goblin’s earth-shattering chant all the more terrifying.

“Idiots. You can’t beat Goblins in a shouting contest.”

Sacra shook her head as she twirled the mace in her hands, eying the Goblin army restlessly. Magnolia raised her voice to be heard.

“How do you do it, then?”

What?

How do you beat them?

“Like that!”

Sacra pointed. Magnolia stared until she saw the lone figure standing at the head of the Human army. Zel Shivertail. He had advanced a few paces ahead of the front rank of swords and pikes so he was visible by most of his army. He stood, his armor shining, arms folded as the Goblins shouted again.

Goblin!

They had spotted him, Humans and Goblins alike. The Goblins were screaming, their noise filling the air and the Humans were shouting too. They wanted Zel to raise his hands, to fight sound with sound. But Zel did nothing.

He just stood. Waiting. And as Magnolia watched the Goblin Lord exalting his army again she realized what Sacra meant.

The Goblins roared at him, screaming, tens of thousands of Goblin voices howling their rage and fury. And still, Zel stood with arms folded. Waiting. And as they screamed, the Goblins stared at him. And their voices began to falter.

They all knew him. Foolishly, the Goblin Lord had studied Zel Shivertail, had read his stories. Tidebreaker, [General of the Line], hero of two Antinium Wars. The greatest [General] of the Drakes. And so rumors had spread. Zel Shivertail had trickled into the Goblin consciousness like poison. And now he was here, and that knowledge was magnified by his presence.

Zel Shivertail was huge. It wasn’t just his physical appearance, which was already imposing. He was like a giant shrunken down and contained within a much smaller body. He dominated the attention of the battlefield.

And he stood there, listening to the Goblins cheering, staring at the Goblin Lord. Just stood. But as Magnolia stared at his back she felt the apprehension from the Goblin’s chanting vanish. The Humans standing behind Zel stood straighter. His armor shone like fire and Zel waited.

Slowly, the Goblin chanting stopped. They stared at Zel, frustrated, angry, and perhaps, afraid. Because of what he was. What he represented.

There stood one who had fought the Goblin King, had fought his Goblin Lords. He was right there. And he was terrifying.

The silence had regained the battlefield. Magnolia saw the Goblin Lord waving his hands, shouting, frustration clear in his motions as the Goblins advanced again. By her side, Sacra nodded approvingly.

“We might not have won the battle of morale, but we certainly didn’t lose.”

“And now it begins.”

Bethal stared at the Goblins as they began to march rapidly on the Human army. Magnolia waited, her heart beating loudly, her eyes scanning the battlefield. She realized that the waiting, the chanting, all of it, had just been the most basic of preludes. The battle began in earnest as the Goblins streamed towards the Humans, shouting, marching in black ranks.

The arrows came first. Magnolia saw a company of [Archers] led by one of the few Gold-rank adventurers raise their bows. The highest-level [Markswomen] and [Snipers] among them had the Skills and enchanted weapons to fire across hundreds of feet and began loosing arrows into the front rank of Goblins. Black bodies tumbled downwards, just a handful, and the Goblins raised their shields higher, snarling and trampling over their fallen.

And they had archers of their own. Magnolia saw arrows flying back towards the Human army—just a few at first, but more and more as the two armies closed in distance. The Gold-rank adventurer in the archer’s group—a Gnoll woman with a longbow—dodged as an arrow shot towards her head. She nocked an arrow and loosed it—Magnolia saw the Goblin who’d aimed at her fall, clawing at an arrow in his chest.

The duel between archers halted abruptly as the Goblins came within a hundred feet. Now Magnolia heard [Captains] calling out orders.

“Hold! Draw! Wait for it—loose!

A rain of deadly projectiles shot across the muddy ground towards the front rank of Goblins. Several fell, but the black armor the Goblins wore shielded them from the worst of it, as did their shields. They were coming faster now. The Goblin Lord pointed and his voice snapped an order. The front rank of Goblins surged towards the Human army.

And now Magnolia could see the Hobs. A line of over a hundred Hobs charged towards Zel Shivertail and his army, giant green warriors coated in black armor, holding massive weapons and roaring as they came. The Human [Archers] were aiming at them, trying to bring them down but for every one they, felled ten more came on.

“Dead gods. They’re going to be overrun!”

Bethal stared at the front rank. The Humans there were low-level. They weren’t [Lineholders] or experienced warriors! Hobs were a Silver-rank threat! Magnolia watched as well. She bit her lip and whispered.

“Come now, General Shivertail. Tell me you know how to deal with this.”

 

—-

 

“Oh, dead gods.”

Lieutenant Gershal of Vaunt felt his heart stop as he saw the Goblins charging. He had been assigned to the front ranks with his unit and had lamented the fact with the other sympathetic officers. But he hadn’t realized what it meant until this moment.

A wave of Goblins was coming at him, as endless as the sea. And at the head of them—

Hobgoblins. The closest one was a head taller than Gershal and three times as wide. Gershal could see the flecks of spit, see the frenzied crimson eyes staring at him, the gigantic maul in the Goblin’s hands—

“Steady.”

A voice snapped Gershal out of his trance. He looked to one side and saw another officer, the [Captain] assigned to the area speaking to him. Gershal realized he’d taken a step back. The soldiers around him were doing the same. Horrified, Gershal realized the entire front was pulling back in face of the Goblin’s charge. He shouted at his men, ashamed and terrified.

Hold your positions! Hold, damn your cheese-rotted heads!

Cheese-rotted heads. It was a petty insult children used in Vaunt. But it worked. The soldiers jumped and half-looked towards Gershal before snapping out of their fear. They reformed the line, men and women holding shields, pikes trained on the Goblins, swords ready for when they broke past the pikes.

Gershal carried a sword and shield as well. He breathed heavily, his eyes on the Drake in shining armor ahead of him. If he stared at Zel Shivertail he could hold his ground. But the Hobs! They were seconds away. What was going to happen when they hit? They’d be swept away, all of them!

Zel Shivertail hadn’t moved in the face of the Goblin’s charge. Now, as they were about to hit the front line he shifted. He raised one claw and spoke. Gershal barely heard his voice over the roar of the Goblins.

“[Stonewall Formation]. [Chargebreaker Guard].”

Something filled Gershal and he gasped as his shield felt warm. His footing on the slippery mud and grass felt firmer. But he couldn’t analyze the feeling. The Goblins hit his line and the entire army in a roar and crash of metal on metal that dwarfed every sound Gershal had heard in his life.

The first wave of Goblins smashed into the soldiers around Gershal. He saw a gigantic Hob charging towards him. The [Lieutenant] raised his shield, heart pounding. The Hob had a massive hammer and swung towards Gershal. It was too late to dodge, but Gershal knew he’d never block the blow. He braced—

And the hammer glanced off his shield. Gershal gaped and the Hob staggered. Gershal stumbled back. The blow had been incredibly strong, but it hadn’t smashed through his iron and wood shield! Both Human and Goblin were so surprised that they stared at each other for a moment.

And then instinct took over. Gershal swung his sword desperately as the Hob raised his hammer. His sword glanced off the Hob’s gauntleted arm and again the hammer came down! And again, it was blocked.

Gershal staggered under the force of the blow. It was tremendous! He could feel the incredible impact, and yet his shield and body held. No—more than that! With one arm he thrust the hammer away and the Hob stumbled backwards. Gershal charged into the Hob, screaming and thrust his sword towards the gap between his chest plate and leg armor.

The Hob howled as Gershal’s blade struck him in the thigh, glancing off bone. He swung his hammer and Gershal darted back. The two traded blows and again, Gershal found his shield could handle each of the Hob’s devastating attacks! But the Hob was quick and powerful. He blocked each of Gershal’s thrusts, snarling, trying to strike around Gershal’s shield with his slower weapon.

So caught up were the two in their duel that neither one realized where they were. Gershal backed up from the Hob’s swing and collided with something from behind. He turned—

And another Hob twisted around, her axe covered with blood. This Hob was taller than both Gershal and the hammer-wielding Hob. She was standing over a Human soldier, or what remained of them. The pike in their hands had been hacked in two from the Hob’s blows. Now both Hobs closed in on Gershal from either side.

He jabbed at them with his sword, trying to back up. But the Hobs were fearless. The female Hob swung her axe and only Gershal’s shield saved his head from being split open. The hammer-wielding Hob charged, roaring, his weapon aimed at Gershal’s back—

And a flash of green charged into him. Gershal spun and saw the Hob falling. Gershal stared.

The Hob was falling to the ground. His black armor, impervious to Gershal’s iron sword, was torn open and his chest was a bloody mass. And standing over him was a Drake in shining armor.

Zel Shivertail.

Gershal stared. He heard the female Hob scream and Zel turned. The Drake caught the blade of the axe as it swung towards his face and his left hand slashed across the female Hob’s chest. His claws were long and cut through the Hob’s armor like it wasn’t there. Gershal stared as the female Hob sagged. Zel dropped her and turned towards Gershal.

“You’re out of line! Get back!”

He roared and Gershal thought he was reprimanding him for a second. Then he realized—he was out of line! His duel with the Hob had carried him out of the line of Human soldiers and into the Goblin army. He backed up as Goblin soldiers streamed forwards around him, jabbing at him with spears, swinging swords he barely blocked with his armor and shield—

Zel Shivertail turned. He kicked a Goblin into eight of his friends, so hard the black metal bent and the Goblin screamed, and then slashed with his claws. Left, right, left! Each time a Goblin fell, their armor rent and torn open by Zel’s claws. He caught their weapons with his bare hands, impervious to the cutting edges and cleared a space around him, cutting down Goblins while Gershal found his unit.

Hold your ground!

The Drake roared as the Humans pushed back the first line of Goblins. He turned and charged towards a Hob—seconds later the Hob was dead and Zel was finding his next target. The Human [Soldiers] and Gershal himself roared in response to their [General]’s heroics. Gershal felt like his arm was ablaze with energy—he blocked a Goblin’s thrust as if it was nothing and cut the Goblin down, shouting. They could win this! They could win!

And then the arrows came and more Goblins. Gershal held the line with his soldiers, fighting, falling, dragging wounded friends to safety while more [Soldiers] rushed forwards to fill the gaps.

That was the first five minutes of the battle.

 

—-

 

“It’s working! They’re doing it!”

Bethal clutched at Magnolia, shaking her shoulder as they watched the battle from afar. Magnolia endured the shaking. She was a [Lady] and she couldn’t display an undignified countenance.

Of course, Bethal was a [Lady] as well, but they were quite, quite different. Magnolia eventually got Bethal to let go by grabbing her hands.

“I see that Bethal. Sacra, it looks like the Goblin charge has failed.”

“For now.”

Sacra eyed the Goblins as they clashed with the front rank of Humans, led by Zel. It was a slaughter on both sides, but one that was definitely favoring the Humans. They were holding, reinforcing gaps in their lines while their soldiers cut down wave after wave of the Goblins. The Goblin Lord’s Hobs, his elite shock troopers that gave him an advantage over the Human soldiers were being stalemated by Zel’s defensive Skills.

But that was only the beginning of the battle. Magnolia saw the mass of Goblins that had crashed against Zel’s front line moving left and right, trying to flank the Humans. Correspondingly, battalions of Human soldiers were racing across the ground.

“We don’t have the numbers to keep spreading out like this, surely?”

Magnolia pointed the extending front line out to Sacra, worried. The Goblins were racing to encircle Zel’s army. Sacra shook her head.

“We don’t have to. Look—we’re holding them off across this line while our archers hit them. Our mages are slowing their advance—”

Fireballs and lightning were blasting ranks of Goblins apart where they clustered most heavily. The Goblins were answering in kind—Magnolia saw flashes of magic blasting into Humans soldiers, shards of ice splintering off shields and acidic splashes causing some to drop their weapons and claw at their faces.

“—And our cavalry’s moving. If the Goblin Lord splits his forces too far trying to encircle us—yes, there they go!”

Magnolia followed Sacra’s gaze and saw a wedge of mounted Humans smash into a section of the Goblin line where they’d extended themselves too far. She saw the mounted riders hacking their way through, cutting off that group of Goblins from their main army. Surrounded, the Goblins quickly succumbed to the encircling Humans as the riders broke away.

 

—-

 

“That’s right! Hit them and away! On me!”

Captain Salvia laughed and shouted as her [Riders] cut into the Goblins. She raised her sword and whirled it, spraying Goblin blood. At once, the mounted warriors under her command wheeled their horses. The Goblins were already surging after them, loosing arrows and trying to catch her soldiers. Salvia grimaced as she saw an arrow pierce a horse’s side and both animal and rider went down. The Goblins on foot charged the fallen soldier, intent on tearing him to shreds.

Not yet. She galloped past the man and caught his outstretched hand. Her own stallion slowed as Salvia pulled the man into her saddle. She patted him and prayed he could hold their weight. Just a little further!

Break away! Back to the lines! Move it, move it!

Her soldiers streamed away too quickly for the Goblins to catch. Salvia let the horseless man drop as soon as they were close to their lines—he sprinted towards the back where more warhorses were ready to go. She turned her mount, listening for the next order from General Shivertail or a [Strategist].

The Goblins were floundering, surprised by their inability to break the Human front line, unprepared for the lightning-fast attacks. Their own spider riders were too slow to catch up with the Humans and that meant they were prey to Salvia’s forces. She grinned, her heart still pumping fast in her chest.

This is the way to fight a battle! Come on lads, let’s hit the Goblins again!”

She spotted an opening—a gap in the Goblin lines at the same time a [Messenger] rode towards her, pointing and shouting. Salvia kicked her horse into a gallop and she rode towards the break, her soldiers screaming war cries behind her. She hoped Gershal and his cheese-eating lot were alright. But then the battle overtook her and Salvia’s only thoughts were to cut and block and turn her mount.

They were winning! At least—for the moment.

 

—-

 

“Too fast!”

Goblins. Osthia Blackwing was chained and muzzled as she stood by the Goblin Lord’s personal guard. He’d dragged her onto the battlefield although she’d fought her captors. She wasn’t sure if it was a blessing or curse; he was using her as a tool to gauge the enemy’s tactics. Now she watched as the Goblin Lord gave rapid orders, trying to overtake Zel Shivertail’s forces and hammer them from all sides.

She’d watched his disastrous first charge with grim satisfaction. The Goblin Lord had known Zel Shivertail was a defensive [General], but hearing that and seeing a Hob being bested by a low-level [Soldier] with a shield and spear was something else entirely. Now the Goblin Lord was raging as the Human cavalry stymied his force’s advance.

Move! Order undead—there!”

He pointed and a ripple went through the Goblins around him. Goblin [Necromancers] and [Shamans] began pointing and chanting and Osthia saw the undead horde move at last.

Tens of thousands of zombies, some halfway towards skeletons themselves, lurched into motion. They’d been circling the Human army, ignoring the arrows and spells that had cut down their number by the hundreds with each passing minute, and now they advanced on the Humans from the left.

Slowly. Only a few of the zombies were ‘fresh’ enough to run, and only the Goblin Lord could make them do that. A few hundred Ghouls raced out of the ranks of undead and surged towards a group of Humans who’d formed a line to meet them.

The Ghouls lunged into the ranks of Humans, tearing, biting with unnatural speed. They were outnumbered and quickly dispatched, but they’d dragged down quite a number of soldiers before they fell. And they were just the first wave. The zombies met the Humans and died as the soldiers sliced the slower undead apart.

But a second wave was already crawling over the first, grabbing at shields and advancing despite being speared through the chest. They threatened to overwhelm the Humans by sheer numbers, and Osthia saw a giant Crypt Lord belching bile over a group of Humans, making them vomit and fall to the ground—

“Good! Now. Break lines.”

The Goblin Lord was pushing on two fronts. The undead were now threatening Zel Shivertail’s left and he had to pull his forces back. [Archers] and [Mages] began hitting the undead, easing up pressure on the Goblins from the front. Osthia saw the Humans begin to struggle a bit as they fought the Goblins without support. Still, Zel’s Skills were holding the ground and creating a wall of steel the Goblins struggled to break. If that was all—

A Hob was on the front lines, fighting a knot of Humans with pikes. He was unable to break their shields with his large club despite his massive strength and as Osthia watched, a pike pierced the crude black iron armor on his chest. He stumbled backwards, mortally wounded.

The Hob stared at the blood gushing from the wound on his chest and looked up. His eyes flickered—he reached behind him and grabbed something. Osthia saw the Hob lift a small figure onto his back and charged the pikes, roaring.

They speared him halfway. The Hob sagged and Osthia saw the Humans cheering. But that small figure on the Hob’s back was moving. It slipped from his body and stumbled towards the Humans. Osthia saw a Human with a sword turn, puzzled by the tiny Goblin. She shouted, her words lost by distance and the leather restraining her mouth.

No! But it was too late. The Human impaled the Goblin with his sword. No, not the Goblin. The Goblin child. The undead Goblin child.

The undead Goblin exploded. Osthia heard the roar of the blast from her position near the Goblin Lord. She had to look away as the explosion engulfed the Humans and nearby Goblins—when she could see again the entire group of Humans was gone and Goblins were flooding into the gaps.

Exploding undead. The Goblin Lord’s secret weapon, courtesy of Az’kerash. Osthia turned her head and stared at the Goblin Lord with pure hatred. She saw the Goblin Lord staring towards the sight of the blast, claws clenched into fists.

His hands were bleeding. Osthia stared as his claws dug into his flesh, red rivulets of blood dripping down his hands. The Goblin Lord turned, and the pain and fury in his gaze found her. He stared at Osthia for a second and then pointed. His voice was cold.

“Destroy the front lines.”

Osthia turned and saw more explosions. The undead Goblin children were slipping through the ranks of struggling Goblin and Humans and detonating themselves or being killed. They destroyed the Human’s lines, turning them into chaotic battles as Goblins capitalized on the broken formations and charged ahead. Osthia stared in silent despair.

The exploding undead! Zel Shivertail had known about this, surely! He had to have heard the reports—but how could you deal with such a tactic? He couldn’t just retreat, and yet, each time the Goblins detonated his army was thrown into disarray! She saw Zel Shivertail turning, shouting orders as the Humans scattered to reform their lines. And then she saw the first pink [Knight] striding forwards.

“What is that?”

The Goblin Lord’s eyes narrowed as he spotted the first Rose Knight. The armored warrior stepped into place where a Goblin child had detonated. The Goblins were charging into the gap, trying to fill the space before the Humans could replenish their ranks. They ran at the pink knight as he raised a halberd. The [Knight] swung—

And a row of Goblins disappeared in a blaze of flames. Osthia’s eyes widened and the Goblin Lord sat up on his mount. The Rose Knight twirled his halberd and stabbed—flames shot from the blade and burned through a group of Goblins, making them scream and roll on the ground to quench the magical flames. The [Knight] calmly held his ground as regular Human [Soldiers] pushed forwards, resetting their lines.

And across the battlefield, more Rose Knights were on the front. They stood on the front, calmly cutting down the Goblins. Holding the line. Osthia saw one Rose Knight strike down a Goblin and then crush an undead Goblin with his foot. He vanished in an explosion, but when the smoke cleared he was getting back on his feet, stunned, but still alive.

“Pink-armored warriors too strong! Cannot kill!”

The Goblin Lord snarled as a Goblin cried out. He narrowed his eyes as a group of Human [Archers] began sniping at the explosive undead Goblins scattered in his ranks. One shot took an undead Goblin through the throat—the blast eradicated a pair of Hobs and a group of Goblins in the back lines of his army.

“No more undead! Move to left!”

He pointed, and Osthia saw the undead children lurching away, joining the mass of undead. Osthia grinned. His tactics were failing. The Goblin Lord stared at the Rose Knight with the halberd. He was cutting down a Hob, unscathed, his armor painted red with Goblin blood. The Goblin Lord made a sound of outrage. Then he stood up and pointed.

“[Deathbolt].”

 

—-

 

Magnolia was listening to the cheering from the Human army when she saw the black bolt of magic fly across the battlefield and strike the Rose Knight in the chest. She saw the armored man stumble as the magic splashed across his armor, almost like a liquid. He raised his halberd and struck down a nearby Goblin, but his movements were palpably slower. And the Goblin Lord wasn’t done. He pointed and another black bolt flew across the battlefield.

This time the Rose Knight tried to dodge. But a group of Goblins surrounded him and seized him, weighing him down. The black magic struck the Rose Knight twice more in the chest, splashing across the pink armor in quick succession. The [Knight] wavered, stumbled, and as the third spell struck his head he collapsed.

“No!”

Bethal stared in horror as one of her elite [Knights] fell, struck dead by the Goblin Lord’s magic. The Goblins swarmed over his body, cheering, seizing his halberd and using it against the Humans around him.

“Sacra, what was that?”

Magnolia snapped at Sacra. The [Maid] shook her head.

“I know what that was.”

A voice spoke up. The three women turned and saw Reynold, dismounting from Magnolia’s pink carriage. He was breathless—he must have just arrived because the tracks in the mud were still oozing back into place.

“Reynold, do you know—”

“One company of Gold-rank adventurers, the Fire Fingers and a Silver-rank team, Embryion’s Delight agreed to your terms Lady Reinhart. I just dropped them off. They’re fighting the undead.”

Reynold pointed and Magnolia saw a group of Dwarves and [Mages] fighting their way into the undead from the left. She nodded in approval. A few adventurers had been enticed by her offers and Magnolia had quadrupled the gold reward in the last hour. Reynold had been assigned to deliver whomever was willing to fight to the battlefield.

“Thank you, Reynold. Now, what happened to Lady Bethal’s knight?”

“Sir Evimore.”

Bethal whispered through pale lips. Reynold clenched his jaw grimly.

“I’ve seen that spell before. It’s death magic. The Necromancer used a similar one. It’s instant death to anyone below Level 20. That might not be the same spell—maybe a weaker one, but it’s powerful enough. Look, he’s going to continue casting.”

The [Butler]’s face was grave as he pointed. The Goblin Lord was drinking from a bottle and as he downed the last dregs of the mana potion one of the [Archers] shot an arrow at him. The arrow swerved as it neared the Goblin Lord and bounced off his Shield Spider’s carapace. The Goblin Lord turned his head and casually pointed a finger. The black magic shot across the battlefield and the archer and four of his fellows fell over, dead in an instant.

“He’s taking out our high-level soldiers!”

Magnolia exclaimed in horror. The Goblin Lord was casting the [Deathbolt] spell rapidly now, and another Rose Knight found himself under attack. The armored woman was forced to dodge the black magic, which left her open to a Hob. He smashed her across the head with a glowing mace and her helmet bowed in slightly. The Rose Knight stumbled, another [Deathbolt] hit her from the side and she fell.

“Why isn’t that armor working! I thought it was supposed to protect those knights from practically anything!”

Magnolia turned to Lady Bethal. The [Lady] shook her head. Her face was white as a second of her prized [Knights] fell, the second in minutes.

“There’s no armor in the world that will protect against every kind of magic. Magnolia, tell that Drake to pull my knights back before they’re slaughtered!”

She grabbed Magnolia, pointing to Zel as the [General] turned, seeing the effects the Goblin Lord’s magic was having on the battlefield. Magnolia shook her head.

“I am in no position to tell Zel Shivertail anything. He must see the issue—yes, look!”

The Rose Knights were retreating from the front. Faced with this separate threat they were regrouping. A wall of forty or so took up positions on the right flank of the battlefield and Magnolia saw the Goblins backing up fast rather than charge their position. The Goblin Lord pointed and another [Deathbolt] flew, but this time it failed to strike down a Rose Knight.

One of the armored pink knights raised his shield and the magic burst against the shield. He failed to catch the second bolt that struck him in the chest, but as he staggered his fellows dragged him back. They shielded the [Knight] with their bodies as he staggered upright and opened his visor to down a potion. The Rose Knights locked formation, anchoring themselves against further death magic.

“That’s good! We won’t lose any more of them.”

Sacra was approving, but Reynold frowned.

“True, but we’ve just lost our advantage on the front.”

Sure enough, the concentration of Rose Knights on one side of the battlefield meant that the Goblins could now push forwards while they stalled the Rose Knights with expendable infantry and undead. A group of Hobs was rampaging towards the front, through the Soldiers who had lost the benefits of Zel’s Skill or were just too low-level to stop them.

The Hobs were cutting a line straight through the humans, trying to separate an entire group of them to be overrun. Magnolia saw eight Hobs, fighting in step. They turned as the Humans surged against them. Eight—no, was it seven? Magnolia blinked. Seven Hobs, wait, there were only six—

Another Hob fell as she watched. Magnolia gaped, seeing the Hob falling without spotting what had caused his death. Then she saw a shape moving around another Hob with a greataxe. The Hob turned, snarling, but Thomast was too quick. The [Duelist] ran his opponent through from behind, his enchanted rapier spearing the Hobgoblin in an instant. Quick as lightning, Thomast turned and his blade cut the air, wounding two Hobs from afar as they tried to encircle him.

Thomast!

Bethal’s voice made Magnolia’s ears ring. The [Lady] Walchaís was beside herself as her husband took down all eight Hobs and began rallying the Soldiers around him.

“We have the higher-level warriors it seems.”

“We do, but far less numbers. And the Goblin Lord is eager to reduce our count of elites.”

Sacra and Reynold were debating the battle amongst themselves. Magnolia turned her gaze across the battlefield, searching for the Goblin Lord once more. He was pushing to the front, but still entrenched well behind his army. Not yet. She spotted him at the same time Bethal did.

“What is he—no! Thomast! He’s aiming towards you!

The Goblin Lord had spotted Thomast’s heroics on the front and his finger was aimed, black magic swirling around his hands and arm as he carefully targeted Thomast’s location.

Thomast!

Bethal would have run forwards, into the battlefield herself to warn her husband. He was too far away to hear Bethal’s screams as Magnolia and Sacra had to hold her back with their combined strength. It was too late anyways. The Goblin Lord fired another [Deathbolt] as Thomast was fighting on the front.

The black streak of magic was streaking through the air, fast as an arrow, towards Thomast’s back. He was dueling a Hob, and he stepped forwards to pierce the Hob through his unarmored neck.

The Goblin Lord’s spell flashed towards Thomast’s back as he stepped forwards. The Chevalier pierced the Hob’s throat, and then spun out of the way, sidestepping the bolt of magic and letting it pierce the Hobgoblin instead. His foe fell, lifeless and bleeding from a hole in his throat. Thomast flicked his rapier, spraying the Goblin’s blood across another foe’s face and turned towards the Goblin Lord.

He bowed slightly and raised a hand and coolly beckoned to the Goblin Lord across the battlefield. Magnolia saw the black-eyed Goblin’s gaze widen slightly in incredulous anger. Lady Bethal stopped fighting Magnolia and Sacra and made a besmitten sound. Magnolia dropped her.

The Goblin Lord declined to answer Thomast’s challenge and instead turned his magic towards other targets. Again he blasted a group of archers, taking out the unprotected Humans in small knots. They were helpless to defend themselves. However, the Goblin Lord’s spells were only a single factor in a battle where thousands of arrows and spells were flying every minute. If that had been all he would have done nothing. But then he pointed and Magnolia saw a group of eighteen bodies rise where they had fallen. The Humans turned in horror as eighteen Ghouls got up and began tearing into their unguarded ranks.

“Dead gods! He’s starting to reanimate the undead behind our lines! Our archers and mages will be slaughtered!”

Reynold was aghast as he saw the undead begin to stir all across the back ranks of the Human army. Zombies and Ghouls were indeed rising as the Goblin Lord and his own [Necromancers] began to raise the dead. Sacra grabbed Reynold’s arm as he started forwards.

“Calm down! General Shivertail planned for this!”

“How—”

Reynold was pointing at the carnage as the Ghouls began fighting the archers at close range. Then his eyes widened. He saw the flicker of black at the same time Magnolia did. She spotted a shape moving out of the shadows behind a Ghoul, stabbing it in the back, and another, slicing a Ghoul across the neck. Reynold gaped.

“Miss Ressa?”

 

—-

 

The first Ghoul was an easy kill. It didn’t notice Ressa as she stabbed it in the back. Her magical dagger, the Vision of Grasses, went into the undead’s body with ease. It froze up as she pulled the dagger out.

The dagger that she had been given by Regis Reinhart wasn’t meant for combat against the undead, but at least one of the myriad poisons it had been coated with still worked on an undead’s nervous system. The Ghoul fell, paralyzed, and Ressa turned. She slashed across the face of another Ghoul as the archers around her shouted, surprised by both the undead and her appearance.

By her side, a man in black sliced across a Ghoul’s throat. It was a good cut, but the undead was still alive. He had to hack at its neck as it fought to slash him. Only when he’d severed most of its head from its body did it fall.

“This is not how [Assassins] are meant to be used!”

Theofore the luckless [Assassin] screamed at Ressa as he turned his blades, slashing at one of the reanimated Ghouls. She grunted as she slid around another Ghoul and beheaded him with a slice with her dagger. Enchanted weapons were very nice to use. Theofore had to struggle as he repeatedly knifed another Ghoul in the chest.

“None of my Skills work on Ghouls! I can’t poison or paralyze something that’s already dead!”

“Shut up and stab.”

The two turned as more undead began to rise. Ressa moved like a shadow, flicking from target to target as Theofore struggled to keep up. Across the battlefield more disguised [Maids] and [Butlers] appeared. Not all of Magnolia Reinhart’s staff were good at domestic help. True, few of them were [Assassins], but they were high-level and enough to turn the tides.

For now. Ressa’s eyes narrowed as she gazed around the battlefield. She was no [Strategist], but she had a sense of how the battle was going. They weren’t losing, but she wasn’t sure they were pulling that far ahead of the Goblins anymore. And then she heard the Goblin drums begin to beat and heard the shout.

Commander charge!

 

—-

 

Commander charge. It was a term common to this world. It meant at least two [Commander] class leaders were leading a charge. And that mattered because such leaders were always high-level. When they charged a line, they could cut holes right through an enemy army.

And this time the Goblin Lord had sent all of his commanders. Former Goblin Chieftains, now his lieutenants, charged into the Human lines with their personal vanguards. And where they charged, Humans died.

Snapjaw, leading a group of Goblins on horses. Her teeth sank into a Human [Captain]’s throat, bearing him down as her Goblins charged through the broken Human unit. Eater of Spears, towering over the Hobs around him, breaking a group of seasoned [Lancers] as their weapons broke on his tough skin.

A Goblin with no face blasted ranks of Humans with fire as a [Beastmaster] Goblin rode a Shield Spider as large as the Goblin Lord’s mount into battle, his spider snatching up Humans and tossing them screaming into the air. Across the battlefield the Goblin commanders were charging, and the Humans lines began to buckle at last. Snapjaw grinned, raising her bloody head, turning her head to survey the landscape of despairing Human faces. Across from her, Noface was blasting Humans with fire magic. On her other side, Illbreath was leading his Hobs forwards. This massive Hob had once swallowed an artifact that produced poison. Rather than die from ingesting it, he’d begun to breathe poisonous vapors. Now he advanced in a toxic cloud, the Humans ahead of him coughing and gagging, unable to put up a fight.

Push! Push Humans!

Snapjaw raised her sword, her teeth gnashing together. In front of her, the Humans were retreating! They were winning! She saw Goblins pushing forwards. Illbreath’s unit was pursuing a group of fleeing Humans, cutting them down one by one—

And then Snapjaw got a bad feeling. A bad feeling. The kind she only had when death was imminent. Warned by her [Dangersense], the Hobgoblin turned and saw a blur heading her way. She screamed a warning to Illbreath.

Tidebreaker!

He turned. Zel Shivertail charged through the ranks of Goblins, trampling them, ignoring the blades that glanced off his armor and body. He collided with Illbreath in a clash of claws on steel. Snapjaw wheeled her mount, shouting, and saw other Goblin Chieftains running to the Hob’s aid.

There was only thirty feet between her and Illbreath, no distance at all! Snapjaw saw the Hob breathing poison in Zel’s face, raising his mace. The Drake [General] turned his head, coughing, was struck by the mace—

And then he grabbed Illbreath’s head and tore it off his body. Snapjaw froze. Zel tossed the head to one side as Illbreath’s corpse collapsed. He wiped at his eyes, sighed, and then blocked Snapjaw’s sword with one hand.

Casually. Just like that. She screamed at him, lashing at the Drake with her sword, but his arms and claws were harder than steel! He punched her mount and the horse screamed and fell. Snapjaw tumbled off the side, losing her grip on her sword. She saw the Drake [General] appear over her. His claw shot towards her face. She sat up and bit.

Her teeth had bitten through steel, through weak enchanted armor—even through a Wyvern’s hide! Snapjaw’s jaw engulfed Zel Shivertail’s hand with a snap, just like how she’d earned her name. She felt her teeth digging into his scales, piercing the General’s tough hide! Then she heard his voice.

“Ow.”

Zel Shivertail lifted his hand. Snapjaw rose, trying to bite into his tough skin. He punched her so hard her head rang, and then threw her. Snapjaw flew screaming through the air and hit a group of Goblins. She landed on their armor, shields, and a sword. The Hob rolled off the groaning Goblins and reached for the healing potion at her belt, gasping. She downed it and her vision cleared and the wound on her back closed. And then she looked towards Zel Shivertail and saw despair.

He was holding Noface’s head. The Drake [General] raised the faceless Goblin’s head, giving Snapjaw a clear view of the scar tissue that had replaced the Goblin’s entire face, the legacy of an encounter with a Human [Pyromancer]. He showed the Goblins their dead officer and then threw the head to the ground. The Goblins howled at him in rage. Zel waited.

And they did not advance. The Goblins held their ground, screaming, some daring to loose arrows at him or cast spells, but all too afraid to get in range of those deadly claws. Zel Shivertail towered over the Goblins, staring at them. Snapjaw froze in place, fear holding her heart. The Humans were one thing. But this?

The Tidebreaker turned away. He charged into another group of Goblins where the Human lines were faltering and Snapjaw heard her people screaming. The Humans regained ground, shouting. Where the Tidebreaker went Goblins retreated.

He could not be stopped! Snapjaw found another horse, shoving a Goblin out of the saddle. She rode back towards the Goblin Lord, retreating. She had to let him know.

They could not kill Zel Shivertail. So they’d have to kill his army. That was the only way. Then they could surround him, beat him to death. But kill him with smaller numbers, with an army at his back?

Impossible. That knowledge was bitter on Snapjaw’s tongue.

 

—-

 

“They’re pulling back! Look! I think General Shivertail’s taken out another one of their commanders!”

The Humans standing and watching the battle cheered as Zel Shivertail downed another Hob. Where he went, the Human lines surged forwards and the Goblins retreated. He was truly inspiring, and Magnolia understood now how one [General] could defeat any number of [Strategists] or lesser officers. If you couldn’t slay the [General], you couldn’t stop him from tearing apart your army.

And yet, that was also a weakness. Sacra was the first to spot it.

“We’re starting to buckle. Our lines are beginning to collapse.”

“Surely not. We’re winning on the front.”

Magnolia pointed to the spot where Zel was fighting. Sacra nodded.

“Yes we are. And where the Rose Knights are fighting. But everywhere else—Sir Thomast is holding his side with General Shivertail’s support, but our left flank is being overrun by the undead!”

She indicated the left and Magnolia saw for the first time how far they’d been pushed by the undead. The overwhelming tide of bodies was thrusting the Humans back. The zombies didn’t care if their fellows were dying like flies—they’d push past their fallen friends and tear out a Human’s eyes while he was occupied with three more undead. And now some of the highest-level undead were advancing.

A Draug Drake was throwing [Soldiers] around, ignoring the arrows a battalion was sending into his body. He’d taken several cuts to his body, but nothing short of a solid axe blow would slow him. He was a juggernaut, and the other Crypt Lords, Draug, and higher undead were similarly hard to kill. Even the few Gold-rank adventurers were hard pressed to fight with them as undead crowded around from every angle.

“There’s just too many! The Goblins can push us on all sides and we can’t crush them in any one spot for fear of being overrun!”

“But we are winning, yes?”

Magnolia sharply looked at Sacra and the [Maid] nodded slowly, twirling her mace.

“If it’s a count of how many we’ve killed compared to how many they’ve killed, we are. But Lady Reinhart, numbers aren’t everything in a battle. A superior position could reverse all our gains in a moment.”

And as if her words were prophetic, Magnolia saw a disaster unfold right before her eyes.

The Human cavalry, some six thousand horse in total, had been a pivotal part of the battle despite their fewer numbers. The Human cavalry was a famous part of their fighting force, and they had employed their superior mobility to great advantage, circling around the Goblins, striking from the rear and then moving away before they could be caught.

Now the Goblin Lord had focused on them. And Magnolia saw his [Deathbolts] begin to strike the cavalry at the same time two groups of Goblins on horseback and Goblins riding Shield Spiders set out to encircle them.

If they had been free from attack, the cavalry might have been able to make their escape. But a wall of seemingly preoccupied Goblin pikes shifted and revealed a battalion of hidden Goblin [Archers] that cut off one escape route with a deadly hail of arrows. Reynold groaned aloud as he saw the riders being cut down by the hundreds.

“Those idiots! Evade! Don’t they know how to dodge?”

 

—-

 

Incoming fire!

Captain Salvia saw the Goblin Lord’s death magic strike the first group of [Riders] and turned her horse, trying to present as narrow a target as possible. She saw arrows and other magical spells blasting into the riders around her and screamed.

“Break formation! [Scatter Gallop]! Weave and dodge—don’t stay in one place!”

Her unit of [Riders] immediately broke out of their wedge formation and began to scatter, moving in unpredictable ways left and right as they fled. However, the rest of the cavalry had never trained in such techniques and fell prey to the arrows and spells hitting from the side.

And then the Goblins charged into their flank. Salvia saw a Goblin with gleaming metal teeth and another Goblin riding an enormous Shield Spider leading the charge. They began tearing up the lines of her fellow riders, encircling them, threatening to tear their entire force apart!

That couldn’t be allowed to happen. Salvia screamed an order and turned her horse.

“This way! Break up those Goblins! Keep moving! Hurry!

She led her unit back towards the Goblins on horseback, trying to cut a path free. But the Goblins had the riders well and truly encircled now, and they were cutting the helpless riders down by the dozens with each passing second.

 

—-

 

“Those fools! We’re going to lose our horse! If they don’t break out of that encirclement now—where are the [Commanders]? They should know how to escape!”

Reynold groaned aloud as he stared at the entrapped cavalry in the distance. Magnolia’s hands were clenched. She glanced at the two covered wagons and then at the destructive tube artifact.

“Sacra, is there anything we can…?”

“Nothing we have will reach that far Lady Reinhart. And General Shivertail most likely doesn’t have the Skills to help them that far away. I’m afraid they’re lost.”

Sacra’s face was pale as she stared at the slaughter. Reynold turned. Magnolia stared at him anxiously.

“Reynold, you were a [Lieutenant] once. Do you know what they could do?”

“They need to pick a weak spot and break out! There’s ways to slow down a pursuing force while escaping—I could do it myself if I—”

The [Butler]’s hands were clenched helplessly as he stared at the cavalry and then he broke off. His face changed and he turned to Magnolia with a curious, desperate light in his eyes.

“I may be able to save them. Lady Reinhart, may I have your permission to escort these good [Soldiers] to a safe spot? I fear I might place your transportation in jeopardy however.”

Magnolia’s eyes widened. She stared at her carriage.

“Escort them? Go, man! Run!”

He ran. And as he threw himself into the chair and flapped the reins, Magnolia saw the pink carriage shoot across the battlefield. Sacra stared at her mistress, worried.

“Lady Reinhart, is this wise? If we lose the carriage—”

“Sacra. Desperate times call for running people over. With an enchanted carriage.”

Magnolia interrupted her [Maid]. She watched Reynold streak across the battlefield as heads turns and the Goblins noticed him.

“Besides, I’m sure that Reynold will be perfectly civil to the Goblins. He does have a way with monsters. I think we’ve scraped off more [Bandits] from the sides of the carriage since he began driving than we ever did with all my other drivers. He does have a knack.”

 

—-

 

Snapjaw was cutting down Humans on horseback, biting the necks of horses, when she heard a Goblin’s voice.

Fast-fast magic pink death thing coming this way!

That was a loose translation and Snapjaw’s head turned, in confusion. She realized at once what the Goblins meant. The pink carriage of nightmares hurtled towards her group of Goblins and Snapjaw screamed an order.

“Run!”

The Goblins turned too late. The pink carriage moved hundreds of miles per hour, faster than anything else on the battlefield. It splattered the first rank of Goblins and curved through their lines, headed straight for Eggsnatcher, the Goblin [Beastmaster] on top of his giant spider.

The collision between pink carriage and Eggsnatcher’s mount was tremendous. Snapjaw saw several Goblins go flying, thrown by the impact, and then saw the Human [Butler] in the front of the carriage hacking at Eggsnatcher with a gleaming sword. The two traded blows as the carriage turned and sped away. Snapjaw breathed a sigh of relief for all of two seconds until she realized the horrible truth.

The carriage was coming back.

 

—-

 

“This way! Move your mounts you flea-bitten slugs!

Salvia’s head jerked around as she heard the roar of an officer’s voice. But it was coming from the well-dressed [Butler] riding the pink carriage! In any other situation she might have had a few questions to ask, but here the voice of authority was a light in the darkness. She turned her mount and rode desperately.

Behind her the cavalry streamed out of the gap Reynold’s attacks had opened. The [Butler] drover his carriage around the horses, effortlessly weaving the massive vehicle through them, shouting.

Break up! Stop galloping in a cluster or I’ll pull your damned helmets off and feed them to you! Move! I’ve seen wheelbarrows that rolled faster than you worthless sacks of shite!”

The profanity was nonsensical, abusive, exactly what the soldiers needed to hear. They moved, ignoring the Goblin death that was hot on their heels. Captain Salvia saw the [Butler] shift his grip on the reins and then spin the carriage. Quick as a flash he rammed into a group of Goblins that had nearly caught up to her unit and scattered horses and Goblins onto the ground. In pieces.

The impacts had to be taking a toll on the carriage, but the [Butler] kept it moving. He circled the Goblins, hitting the giant spider repeatedly but failing to knock it over. His attacks saved the cavalry, but the Goblins, frustrated by his attacks on them, began to circle the carriage instead.

Salvia was about to order her [Riders] to go back for the [Butler] when she heard him scream a word as he raced away from the Goblins towards an oncoming group of Goblin pikes.

“[Flying Wheels]!”

She turned her head and gaped as the pink carriage began to fly. It soared over the Goblin pikes as they gaped in amazement, up high over the battlefield. It was heading back away from the front lines. Salvia cheered as she saw the pink carriage make its escape, and then saw the Goblin Lord raise his hand.

He pointed, and a midnight bolt struck the [Butler] in the chest. He slumped in his chair and the carriage plummeted into the ground, scattering Humans and Goblins alike as it crashed across the front lines.

 

—-

 

Reynold!

Sacra screamed as Magnolia’s heart stopped. She stared at the [Butler], slumped across the front of the pink carriage as Humans and Goblins alike surged around him.

He wasn’t moving. The Human [Soldiers] were valiantly trying to shield the [Butler] as the Goblins tried to climb onto the carriage. Magnolia’s hands dug into her palms. Was Reynold alive? The Goblin Lord’s spell had hit him squarely in the chest. But he was a high-level warrior and [Butler]! Maybe—

She could see Zel turning towards the [Butler], aware of Reynold’s plight. But the Goblin Lord was closer. And as Magnolia Reinhart watched, he began to move.

“The Goblin Lord is charging!”

A cry went up across the battlefield. The Goblin Lord and his vanguard began charging towards Reynold’s position on the field. Over a thousand Hobs and the Goblin Lord’s personal Shield Spider tore through a group of Humans, overrunning three Rose Knights and burying the Human lines in a sea of green. He was coming for Reynold. He wanted that carriage.

“It’s time.”

Magnolia took a breath. She pointed towards the Goblin Lord and her voice snapped across the battlefield.

In the name of the Reinharts, I order you to slay that Goblin!

To the side, the two covered wagons that had been so curiously abandoned in the mud exploded. Magnolia, Sacra, and Bethal ducked and a [Butler] held a parasol up as chunks of wood rained down around them. And standing in the remains of both wagons, two giants of metal unfolded. A glowing white eye turned to Lady Magnolia and a faceless Golem stood. His hands extended and his ‘fingers’ spread. Five razors splayed out and the War Golem, a full twelve feet of towering magical metal, stormed towards the lines of Goblins and Humans.

Screaming.

Magnolia Reinhart hadn’t been prepared for that. The War Golem emitted a terrifying shrieking sound as it ran—on all fours, like some demented dog—emitting a sound like a hundred shrieking children filled with pain and rage. It drew the Goblin’s attention. And as both Golems rammed into the Goblin’s ranks from the side, they began to fight.

War Golems. Behemoths made from another era. These weren’t Archmage Zelkyr’s personal creations, but they had been made during the same era his Golems had dominated the world stage. They had been made to slaughter enemy armies by the thousands. And that’s what they did.

The first Golem swung a hand full of razors as it crashed into a group of Goblins. It beheaded a group of them and then the glowing white light in its ‘mouth’, the only actual feature on its face turned red. It spat a beam of blazing red light across a rank of Goblins, incinerating everything it touched in an instant. By its side, the other Golem’s body glowed and it began to arc bolts of lightning, which struck nearby Goblins and Humans alike and earthed themselves on their armor.

Goblins fell as the two Golems raced through their lines, straight towards the Goblin Lord. He turned, and Magnolia was glad to see his eyes widen in fear or horror for the first time. He raised a hand and a black [Deathbolt] struck one of the Golems squarely in the chest—

And did nothing. The Golems were neither alive nor dead. They raced towards the Goblin Lord, overrunning even Hobs with their sheer size. He was turning his mount, retreating, but too late. The first Golem was about to leap on him when a gigantic Hob tackled it.

Eater of Spears, one of the Goblin Lords’ lieutenants knocked the first War Golem off-balance. The huge Hob snarled. He was actually shorter than the War Golem was by a few feet! But he began trading blows with the metal behemoth, ignoring the crimson beam that set his body afire. He roared as he fought and the second Golem found itself surrounded by Hobs who beat at the metal monster as it fought to get at the Goblin Lord.

“He’s going to get away!”

Magnolia’s hands clenched. The Goblin Lord was retreating, scattering the Humans who were pursuing him with his black magic as his warriors screened him from the two War Golems. Soon he was well behind enemy lines and Magnolia had to call the War Golems back or risk them becoming overwhelmed in the sea of Goblins. The Goblins weren’t idiots—they were trying to pull the Golems down with ropes and crack their metal bodies with mauls and sledgehammers.

“It looks like General Shivertail’s reached Reynold!”

Sacra cried out as Zel Shivertail reached Reynold’s coach. With the War Golems screening him, the Drake shook Reynold. Magnolia and the others cried out in relief as the [Butler] woke up, looking disoriented. He weakly drank the potion that Zel offered him and then sped away from the battlefield. To Magnolia’s surprise, Zel Shivertail rode with him.

“General! Are you alright?”

Magnolia strode towards Zel, concerned, as Sacra and Bethal helped Reynold down. The [Butler] was very pale, but he was alive, and so Magnolia focused all her attention on Zel.

“I’m fine, Magnolia.”

Zel panted as he wiped sweat and blood from his face. He uncorked a second potion and downed half the bottle, grimacing.

“I’m exhausted. Been fighting—if this goes longer we’ll have to rotate groups, feed the soldiers—but it shouldn’t.”

“How is the battle going?”

Magnolia watched the Drake’s face carefully. Zel turned back towards the battlefield and grimaced. He pointed with one claw.

“It’s still too even for my liking! That damned Goblin Lord—he’s forced us to withdraw those pink [Knights] and he keeps aiming for our high-level warriors! We’re getting pushed too far by the undead—there’s too many of them! [Surge of Strength]! [Scything Arms]!”

He pointed to a group of struggling Soldiers and they began to push forwards, their blades suddenly hacking apart zombies with ease. Zel sighed.

“I’m using my Skills, but it’s a draw so far. I can keep cutting down Goblins all day, but the Goblin Lord’s doing the same and they have more Goblins…those two War Golems are tearing up their flanks, though.”

“I’m ashamed to say I might have used them too early. If I had waited—I was concerned for my [Butler], General Shivertail. I do apologize.”

The Drake shook his head, pouring water over his face and chest as a [Maid] handed him a canteen.

“It was the right call. That carriage was too powerful to fall into their hands. I’d question using it, but your butler saved all our remaining horse—good man. Drop the honorifics, Magnolia. Call me Zel when we’re in the field.”

She smiled, surprised by the sudden change in attitude. Zel looked around, dripping, and his eyes narrowed as he found the Goblin Lord’s form, again entrenched behind his soldiers.

“I don’t like this.”

“We are winning, aren’t we?”

The Drake shrugged.

“We’re cutting down more of them then they are of us…but that doesn’t matter since they outnumber us two to one, does it? I don’t want this to become a battle of attrition, but the Goblin Lord’s realized I’m hunting down his lieutenants. If I can’t get to him or the other important Goblins, this could get ugly.”

He sighed, his eyes focusing on the War Golems as they held a section of the line, tearing up the Goblins around them.

“We should have unleashed the Golems earlier. That was my fault. I didn’t think the Goblin Lord would hesitate to charge in for so long. But if they had gotten him—”

“How do you wish to proceed? Is there a way to corner the Goblin Lord? Or must we simply eradicate his army first?”

“I’m thinking. That trick with the carriage—can you make it fly again?”

Zel addressed Reynold, who had come over. The [Butler] saluted, pale-faced.

“I can, General. But I’m wary of flying it once more—that Goblin Lord is an expert shot. I was attempting to dodge but—”

“I understand. Magnolia, if I propose a dangerous strategy would you lend me Reynold? I can’t guarantee either he or I will survive, but it might end the battle now.”

Magnolia hesitated. She looked at Zel and at Reynold.

“Do you think it will work? Is it worth the risk? What am I saying; it must be if you’re asking. Go! We will support you as best we can!”

“Thank you. Reynold, I need you to drop me off by Thomast’s position first.”

“Yes sir!”

The carriage spun back across the battlefield. Magnolia watched them go and turned to Sacra.

“Do you agree with General Zel’s assessment?”

Sacra ducked her head.

“I do milady. This battle’s had its turns, but neither side is crushing the other. If there’s a way to end it faster, I’d agree with General Shivertail that it’s worth attempting. The longer this goes on the more exhausted our forces become, and the Goblin Lord can start rotating fresh troops in or use his undead. We can’t.”

“I see. Then we must trust—”

Magnolia broke off. There was a group of Goblins approaching her small escort, and she could see more Goblin archers turning towards them.

“Oh dear. It looks like the Goblin Lord has finally noticed us.”

Indeed, Reynolds’s contribution to the battle, not to mention the appearance of the War Golems and Zel Shivertail’s impromptu conference had drawn the ire of the Goblin Lord. His archers sent a shower of arrows flying through the air towards Magnolia’s position. She sighed.

“Bethal? It’s time.”

Both [Ladies] straightened, and as the arrows flew downwards, Magnolia lightly gritted her teeth and whispered a Skill.

“[Deft Hand].”

She reached up and pushed the arrows out of the sky with a flick of her wrist as Bethal used her [Tranquil Skies] Skill to the same effect. It was a thousand times harder than nudging someone across the ballroom or accidentally pushing a [Waiter] so he spilled a drink at the right moment, but Magnolia was a high-level [Lady]. She saw the flight of arrows hit the ground a good twenty paces to her right and sighed in relief.

“Now for the cavalry. Oh, I see we have some of our own coming to our rescue.”

Indeed, a group of riders led by Captain Salvia was racing towards them, but the Goblins would arrive first. Magnolia sighed again, and this time as the Goblins were about to trample over them she raised one hand and flicked it.

“[Polite Deflection]. Shoo.”

The Goblins swerved before colliding with the [Lady] and her escort, much like an unfortunate suitor deflected on the dance floor. Magnolia saw their charge slow, and then her [Maids] and [Butlers] charged into their number with Sacra at their head at the same time the Human [Riders] hit them from behind. The Goblins were routed in a matter of moments and Magnolia enjoyed seeing the Goblin Lord’s baleful stare.

She was a bit disappointed he didn’t try casting magic at her—she’d never reflected a spell with [Deft Hands] before, but she was sure she could send it right back at him with a bit of practice.

“Milady, are you unharmed?”

Sacra returned with blood on her mace and Magnolia gently pushed Sacra back with the tip of her finger before the woman could get blood on her dress. It wasn’t for vanity’s sake either.

“I’m fine Sacra. I know you’d rather have me run around in armor and a shield, but my Skills as a [Lady] only work if I am sufficiently ladylike. And while Bethal may run about in the nude and keep her Skills, I am, alas, a bit more genteel than that.”

“You used to run about naked with me, Magnolia. Don’t act so prim and proper.”

Bethal scowled at Magnolia and both ladies watched the servants push away the corpses of the Goblins with some satisfaction. A [Lady] might be a rose, but a rose had thorns. The Goblins had learned that during the last Antinium War as well.

“Well, enough of this. I want to see what Zel Shivertail has in mind.”

Magnolia turned her head across the battlefield, forgetting about the dead Goblins around her. She spotted Zel as he cut a path towards Thomast. Her eyes narrowed as the two conferred and then Zel headed back towards the carriage.

This was it. Magnolia knew that the Drake was planning something that would end up with the Goblin Lord’s head. It could be a simple ploy or a complex one, but her intuition told her that simple might work far better than complex. Either way, the battle hinged on Zel Shivertail’s ploy.

They were winning. She kept telling herself that. For all his strength, the Goblin Lord had declined to meet Zel Shivertail in battle and none of his best warriors had slowed the Drake [General]. So long as Zel Shivertail remained standing there was hope. No, more than hope, they could win!

So why was she so vaguely uneasy. Magnolia Reinhart didn’t know. She stared at the battlefield as it reached its most critical moment and she edged just slightly to the left. Towards the pedestal with the magical artifact her grandfather had given her on it. A magical tube. It made things explode, or so he’d said. Very dangerous. You could kill a Great Chieftain of the Goblins with it. Or—if need be—

A Goblin Lord. Magnolia waited. It wasn’t as though she had to use it. It was just in case things went south. She just hoped her aim was good. Well, even if it wasn’t it would probably be spectacular.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

S02 – The Antinium Wars (Pt.5)

“The Black Tide! The Black Tide marches!”

“The Antinium are to the south! Watch the walls!”

“Rally on me!”

Zel Shivertail’s voice was a roar as he turned his soldiers to face the new threat. His heart sank as he saw the waves of black bodies marching towards the city, a seemingly endless mass of Soldiers. Liscor didn’t have the strength to fight two enemies! And even if the Antinium overwhelmed the Necromancer, what then?

There was one desperate shred of hope that Zel clung to. He unfurled the dirty little bit of parchment the Courier had sent him two days ago, the mysterious note from the Drake high command. It had one simple message that had infuriated and puzzled Zel. After his countless requests for assistance, they had sent him a single reply that consisted of one line:

 

Prepare for irregular reinforcements.

 

The parchment crumpled as Zel clenched his fist. He stared at the approaching Antinium army. This couldn’t be what they’d meant, could it?

There was someone leading the Antinium, a figure that stood out from the rest. Klbkch the Slayer stood at the head of his army, two silvery swords in his hands. He alone carried weapons; the other Antinium were uniform. He raised his voice as Zel could hear it, amplified by some spell or Skill over the battlefield.

“Our target is Az’kerash, the Necromancer! Soldiers, the Drakes are allies for this battle! Do not injure any Drake soldier for any reason! Now! Target the Necromancer’s position! Destroy his undead army! The first rank will charge!”

The Antinium moved like lightning. Before the Drake army and the undead had quite digested what was happening the Soldiers in the first rank were already charging across the ground towards the Necromancer’s army. The undead turned to meet the Soldiers and the Antinium crashed into them like a breaking wave.

Zombies were crushed in an instant while Draugr held their ground and grappled with the Soldiers. Zel, frozen, saw one of the monstrous hulking undead crush a Soldier before two more bore it down. The Soldiers stomped on the fallen undead, brutally pounding them with their fists. But the undead army was full of horrors and the Soldiers stalled. Again, Klbkch’s voice echoed as he raised one of his swords.

“The second rank will charge!”

Another wave of Soldiers set forth. This one raced towards the undead just like the first. Zel expected them to slow and join the fighting, but the Soldiers didn’t slow down. The Drake gaped.

“Are they insane? They’re going to hit—”

The second wave crashed into the backs of the first wave of Soldiers, not slowing even as they ran into the backs of their comrades. They trampled ally and enemy alike, pushing forwards without regard for casualties on their side. The undead were unprepared for the savage momentum that carried the Soldiers forwards, and their lines began to cave in.

“Dead gods! They’re actually doing it!”

The undead formations that had withstood Zel’s army were crumbling, unprepared for the savagery of the Antinium. Zel could see the Necromancer, shielded by a Bone Giant, turning in surprise. Zel thought he could see Az’kerash’ eyes widening in surprise as the Antinium ignored Zel’s forces altogether.

“The third rank will charge!”

Klbkch’s voice heralded another wave of Antinium. Zel saw them coming, saw the undead buckling and knew this was it. He raised his fist into the air and roared so all his soldiers could hear him.

“All forces, follow me! This is it! Hit the Necromancer! Bring him down!

He sprinted to the front of the line and smashed into a pair of Draug. The Drakes behind him, caught up in the surge of momentum from the Antinium, roared and poured into the breach. Zel heard Drakes on Liscor’s walls cheering, saw arrows flying from the walls and the spells blasting into the Necromancer’s army.

Az’kerash held his ground, trying to stop the attacks from Zel and Klbkch’s armies. But then Liscor’s gates opened and a group of Drakes poured out. Attacked from three sides his army was engulfed. And Zel, fighting through the undead, found himself face-to-face with the Necromancer for the first and last time in the battle.

“You!”

Az’kerash was cutting down Drakes and Antinium with black magic, reanimating their corpses and hurling them at his enemies. He snarled as he saw Zel and he turned to run. He fired a jet black beam of energy at Zel’s head.

The Drake ducked and lunged. He shouted as his claws swiped left to right.

“[Antimagic Slash]!”

His blow caught the Necromancer on the chest and tore through whatever protection the mage had on him. Az’kerash stumbled as Zel laid his chest open. He snarled.

“You fool! Do you really th—”

Zel’s claws went through his chest. The Tidebreaker roared as he tore the Necromancer apart, throwing both halves of Az’kerash to the ground. There was a moment of stunned silence as the fighting Drakes and Antinium saw the Necromancer falling in two bloody halves and stopped.

And then the undead around Az’kerash stumbled and then began to fall. Zel turned and saw one of the remaining Bone Giants begin to crumble, unable to sustain itself without its master’s mana. He heard cheering and raised his bloody claws, roaring in victory. And then he turned and saw Klbkch, standing across the battlefield, his two silvery swords covered in gore. The two locked eyes as Liscor cheered their heroes.

Drake and Antinium. Zel stared at Klbkch the Slayer for all of three seconds and then charged him with a roar. Klbkch charged as well and the two collided in the center of the battlefield, cutting at each other, shouting as their soldiers tried to pull them apart—

 

—-

 

“Wait, what?”

Erin sat up suddenly, the empty bowl of popcorn tumbling to the ground. All the Antinium looked at her and Klbkch broke off.

“Is something wrong, Erin?”

“You two fought? I thought you were on the same side! Didn’t you say you went to Liscor because the Grand Queen ordered you to help the Drakes?”

Klbkch hesitated. He raised one finger.

“Nominally. I was ordered to consider the Necromancer a target and assist the Drakes. However, Zel Shivertail and I had clashed on numerous occasions before this. Our animosity was such that we began fighting despite our victory. It still persists to this day, in fact.”

Erin stared at Klbkch. She had noticed how neither Zel nor Klbkch liked being in the same room and how they never met each other’s eyes, but this?

“What did you do? I know you didn’t kill him, but—was it just like hitting each other a few times?”

“No. I believe I stabbed him in the chest before our forces separated us. With this sword.”

Klbkch indicated the sword on his left and then paused. He unsheathed the sword on his right and stared hard at it.

“Or was it this one? I cannot recall.”

He looked at Erin’s gaping mouth and shrugged.

“What? He survived. And he tore off my arm. I was quite upset about that.”

“But you stabbed—

Erin’s voice rose, but before she could shout someone poked her in the side. She looked over and saw Bird glaring reproachfully at her. The Worker raised a finger to his mandibles.

“You are interrupting the story. Be shush.”

He shushed her, ignoring Pawn, Belgrade, Anand and Garry’s horrified looks. Erin stared at Bird and then looked back at Klbkch. She coughed.

“Sorry. Go ahead, Klbkch.”

The Revalantor nodded and flicked to the next page.

“As I was saying, that battle marked the end of the Necromancer’s threat, as well as the end of hostilities between the Antinium and Drakes. At least for the duration of the war. For our aide against the Necromancer and promise of aide against the Goblin King, we signed a peace treaty. The terms of which included establishing a Hive in Liscor.”

“And they agreed to that? Really?”

Erin raised her voice. Bird reached out to poke her but Pawn slapped his hand. The two Workers stared at each other as Klbkch nodded.

“Neither Zel Shivertail nor I liked the peace, but we did abide by it. Well, eventually…”

 

—-

 

The unexpected arrival of the Antinium had saved Liscor and prompted an opportunity to turn the war around for the Drake high command. Against the urgings of Zel Shivertail and a number of Drake [Commanders] they signed a peace treaty with the Grand Queen, giving the Antinium a number of small concessions in return for their aid and an immediate cease to hostilities. This writer believes any peace with the Antinium is foolish, but at the time the Drakes had no choice. And perhaps the Antinium felt the same way. The Goblin King was too great a threat, and so the Peace at Liscor prompted an unlikely alliance.

What is notable about that period is the reaction of the two leaders in the field at Liscor. Klbkch the Slayer and Zel Shivertail both objected to the peace and engaged in several clashes before their armies separated. However, the rest of the Antinium and Drake armies were able to coordinate without the same incidents occurring. While no Drake army ever fought with an Antinium army, the two sides were able to focus solely on the Goblin King’s army and divide targets between themselves.

Now the Goblin King found himself at war with all of Izril, and only now did the tides of fortune begin to turn against him. While the Drakes were occupied with the Necromancer and Antinium they were at the mercy of the Goblins, but now the hammer of the Drake armies was free to march against their foe without needing to guard their tails.

With the Antinium. And the Humans. And some Gnoll tribes. And armies from three other continents who had landed their forces. But it was the Drakes who spearheaded the assaults on the Goblin King’s armies! And it was they who drove the Goblins back at last, winning battles, defeating the Goblin Lords in a series of victories!

But never the Goblin King. Alas, the fortitudes of the Drake armies had been sapped slightly by the two wars they had fought beforehand and even their [Generals] were unable to defeat the Goblin King in a pitched battle. It became clear that the Goblin King was still unassailable in his main army, which continued to win victory after victory, forcing the defending forces to retreat rather than suffer defeats at his hands.

Part of the issue lay in the scattered nature of the forces fighting against the Goblin King. Some, like the Terandrian armies, had joined with Izril’s humans to create a powerful army while other groups like the Balerosian companies fought alone on their fronts. The Antinium were naturally impossible to work with and the cooperative Drake armies suffered from numerous communication failures with other forces, leading to a number of uncoordinated attacks and defeats.

In this writer’s opinion, part or most of the blame can be assigned to the Humans in the north, who had squandered their advantage by separating their strength. The Five Families of Izril who had united in its last defense against the Goblin King did not fight against him together after the battle.

Instead, each of the five houses fought against the Goblin King in their own way. Lord Tyrion Veltras pursued an aggressive campaign against the Goblin King with his forces while Magnolia Reinhart focused on linking up with Niers Astoragon’s forces and maintaining a defensive perimeter to halt the armies of the Goblin Lords. Had they but worked together, the Goblin King might have fallen sooner. Alas, their disunity cost the continent weeks of continued warfare. A typical Human failure of course; putting their own self-interest before the greater good.

 

“A poor analysis. But I should expect no better from a [Writer], much less a Drake.”

A cold voice interrupted the narrative. Lord Tyrion looked up as he sat in a chair in the dark candle-lit room. A small voice spoke up by his left hand side.

“Father? Did you really fight with the Reinharts?”

Tyrion Veltras, the famous [Lord] and scion of the Veltras family looked over at a young boy of eight or nine. The young boy had dark brown hair and a slightly flushed face. He was caught between youthful energy and sickness, so that it seemed as though his vitality couldn’t be contained with his frail body.

“Lie back down.”

Tyrion ordered his son and the young boy did so, wheezing gently. Tyrion Veltras paused and an expression of distaste crossed his face as he chose how to reply.

“It was an alliance of necessity, Sammial. I would not ally with Magnolia Reinhart for anything less than the safety of Izril, but in that she and I are united. For all her many flaws, Magnolia Reinhart is at least dedicated to the safety of the realm, unlike some of our peers. But the way she pursued that safety during the war was at odds with the way I chose to fight. So we separated our forces. It was not a tactical error so much as a necessity; if we had stayed in one place we might have been crushed by the Goblin King, a fact that this author fails to note.”

He turned his gaze to stare at the book, making the man holding the book flinch. However, if Tyrion had hoped his words had impressed the seriousness of the situation on his son, he was instantly disappointed. Sammial shot back up indignantly and glared at his father.

“My name is Sammy! I keep telling you and you keep forgetting!”

Lord Tyrion sighed slowly and spoke with clear patience in his tone.

“Sammy is not a name appropriate for a [Lord]. Your name is Sammial, a fine name—”

“It’s gross! I want to be Sammy!”

“You will refer to yourself as Sammial. Is that clear?”

Lord Tyrion’s eyes flashed and Sammial hesitated. He bowed his head sulkily and lay back, breathing harder. Tyrion eyed his son  and turned his head to look at the other occupant of the bed.

“You would do well to copy your older brother, Sammial. Hethon listens before he speaks. Do you have any questions about my strategy, Hethon?”

The other boy in the bed sat up nervously.

“No father.”

“Very well.”

Tyrion nodded at his second son, Hethon, who was perhaps twelve. Hethon didn’t have the same sickly complexion as Sammial, but he was thin and nervous, hardly as imposing a figure as his father. Tyrion turned his head and his son breathed a sigh of relief. The [Lord] nodded and spoke in a crisp, commanding voice.

“Continue, Ullim.”

The man sitting across the bed on a stool jumped. The [Majordomo] of the Veltras estate nervously flicked to the next page and read in a steady voice.

Of course, Lord Tyrion was too busy to read to his sons, which was why he had ordered his [Majordomo] to keep them entertained at all times. That normally meant bedtimes as well, but this was a special occasion.

Lord Tyrion’s rage upon hearing that Magnolia Reinhart, his hated nemesis, had allied herself with Zel Shivertail had led to the destruction of his personal parlor, including the slashed drapes, broken windows, and two complete suits of armor, now looking quite battle-worn. His anger had frightened his two young sons, which was why he had agreed to sit with them for a bedtime reading.

That was uncharacteristic of Lord Tyrion, who had been absent from the household of late. The loss of his late wife had driven a rift between him and his sons. He was not, Ullim reflected, the most intimate of fathers in any case. Even now he sat on a chair next to his son’s beds rather than in them, sharpening a dagger with a whetstone.

The balding Ullim cleared his throat and read out loud as clearly as he could. He had served the Veltras’ for years as had six generations of his family, but he was aware that a single terrible mistake could end in his dismissal. Lord Tyrion valued loyalty, but he did not tolerate incompetence or betrayal.

“The ah, ‘failing Human armies’ had yet to repel the Goblin King, forcing the Drakes to once again come to their rescue. However, it seemed as though Velan the Kind was determined to fight to the bitter end and his Goblin Lords refused to give in, slaying [Assassins] sent to kill them, beheading Human [Lords] and [Generals], and escaping when defeat threatened their armies. While the Goblin King and his Lords lived, there could be no true victory.”

“Father? Is the Goblin Lord going to destroy Invrisil?”’

Ullim stopped reading and Lord Tyrion looked at Hethon. In keeping with his nature, he did not reassure his son, but pondered the question as he would any military matter.

“We shall see if Zel Shivertail’s claws have dulled with age. He was defeated by the Goblin Lord once—I can only trust that he will either repel the Goblin Lord or retreat before the battle is lost.”

He scowled, not reassured by what should have been positive news for his people.

“Either way, I must hope that the Goblin Lord’s army remains strong enough to enact my plan. Curse Reinhart. It’s as if she is determined to ruin all of my designs, even the ones she knows nothing of!”

He slapped his knee and sheathed the dagger at his belt in a brisk motion. Hethon and Sammial watched their father, almost as fearfully as Ulliam. Tyrion strode towards the windows and stared out into the dark night. It was Sammial who asked the next question with all the recklessness of youth.

“If the Goblin Lord is strong, how strong is the Goblin King? Could you beat him, father?”

Ullim flinched and Lord Tyrion turned from the window. His voice was glacial as he replied.

“Most likely not, Sammial. Not without the ancestral relics and more risk than I would care to take. But an intelligent [Lord] would not gamble victory so in any case. The Goblin King was a threat, yes, but he was one that we could deal with. This Drake would have you believe we were struggling to defeat his armies—the truth is that we had a plan and we were enacting it. His forces were pulling back across the continent, giving us concrete targets to strike at, opportunities to rout his forces. We were winning even if we had to sacrifice thousands of soldiers to cut down his own.”

“Why? If he was stronger than everyone else, doesn’t that mean he’d win?”

Sammial wrinkled his nose, confused. Tyrion laughed shortly and shook his head.

“The war was won by numbers and strategy, not the heroics of a single figure, Sammial. The Goblin King had not the strength to fight on so many fronts. Despite his hordes, he left himself exposed. Vulnerable. We could not defeat his main army so we crippled his limbs. We went after his Goblin Lords. Remember that, Sammial, Hethon. If a foe is too strong for you to take on from the front, bleed him to death.”

Lord Tyrion’s eyes blazed fiercely and his children shrank in their beds. Ullim the [Majordomo] thought it was a shame. Even when Tyrion Veltras smiled he still lacked fatherly warmth.

But who better to fight a Goblin King? He had been there, and seen his fall. Ullim gulped and continued reading as Lord Tyrion brooded, recalling the past and the ending of the Second Antinium War.

 

—-

 

The strategy that ended the Goblin King was simple: take out his Lords. The Goblin King was, after all, only one Goblin. Like any [King] or [General] he required subordinates to coordinate his massive army efficiently. Additionally, his Goblin Lords were all powerful combatants and their ability to act autonomously had allowed Velan to challenge so many armies at once.

However, with the Antinium and more reinforcements arriving each week, even the Goblin Lords were finally outnumbered. They had to retreat or be overwhelmed from every side. The Goblin King attempted to break through the encircling armies, but Antinium armies advanced from the south, drawing away a good portion of his forces. Wrymvr the Deathless even slew a Goblin Lord in personal combat, further damaging the Goblin King’s leadership.

It was the fall of Tallis Stormbreaker that truly told the world the Goblin King was on the verge of defeat. Three Archmages of Wistram cornered the Goblin Lord’s army with their own and engaged him in a magical battle that lasted for two days and two nights. On the second day, Xrn the Small Queen and an Antinium force attacked from the Goblin Lord’s side. It is thought that the unpredictable magics employed by Xrn combined with the might of the Wistram’s Archmages overwhelmed Tallis the Stormbreaker. As the Goblin [Shaman] fell he unleashed a storm which battered Izril for a week with drenching rain and hurricane winds. But he had fallen.

At this point the Goblin King had a handful of Goblin Lords left. It is hard to tell how many truly existed or remained at this point since his Goblin Chieftains could lead huge armies of his own, but the Goblin King had lost many of his vassals and abandoned his multi-sided war across the continent. He formed his remaining forces into one massive army and marched straight towards the combined armies of the world, meeting them in a battle that would last four days and decide the fate of the Antinium Wars.

Eighteen companies from Baleroes. An army of [Knights] from Terandria. The battle-hardened forces from Rhir. A small detachment from Chandrar’s kingdoms. The might of Wistram. The Humans of Izril and of course, the glorious armies of the Drake cities. This is the force that engaged the Goblin King in the final battle, while smaller forces drew away his Goblin Lords.

It was a daring plan. The Antinium and Niers Astoragon both cut off parts of the Goblin King’s army, forcing several of his Lords to battle them and leaving the Goblin King exposed. In that brief window, the allied armies attacked, aiming for one goal and one alone: the death of the Goblin King.

The battle opened with a direct charge on the Velan the Kind by six [Generals] and an army of [Knights] and mounted adventurers, including three Named Adventurers. They sought to best him by strength of arms—and failed.

The Goblin King slew two of the [Generals], a [Lord] of Terandria and Ironheart Calecum, the Named Adventurer in personal combat, forcing the vanguard to retreat in disarray. The Goblin King chased after the retreating soldiers and found himself in a mage bombardment that cut him off from his army.

Unbeknownst to the Goblin King, a separate detachment had been created apart from the main army that was clashing with his forces. It was led by the three Archmages of Wistram and the majority of the high-level [Mages] and [Archers] began to rain death on his position, attempting to destroy the Goblin King at range.

They too failed.

The Goblin King survived the area of attack spells and arrows meant to take his life. However, his personal invincibility did not extend to his army and his vanguard was wiped out to the last Goblin by the powerful spells concentrated on his position. The Goblin King was now left in a precarious position. His army was being subjected to massive attacks from the detachment led by the Archmages, yet any attempt to charge their position led to destruction.

Without Tallis Stormbreaker the allied world forces had an overwhelming magical advantage that they intended to use to decimate the Goblin King’s forces. There was no one who could survive the magical onslaught even at a distance to close and destroy the mages. The end of Velan the Kind seemed to be on hand at last.

 

“No!”

A groan went up from the Goblins clustered around the book. The lieutenants and former Goblin Chieftains in the Goblin Lord’s tent crowded around the open history of the Second Antinium Wars lying on his table. They had found the book faster than Osthia Blackwing had anticipated—raiding cities and libraries for this very copy.

The lone Drake prisoner sat in the Goblin Lord’s tent, watching Goblins read their own history. They did not know it, which surprised her. Oh, they knew the broadest of strokes. They knew their King had been slain, but not how. Now Snapjaw bared her metal teeth, snarling.

“Cowards! They attack from afar! Not fair!”

Fair? Osthia wanted to laugh at her. What was fairness in battle? But she didn’t speak, knowing the mood in the tent was murderous.

And full of grief. The Goblins acted like their King’s death was fresh and personal, which surprised Osthia. They didn’t seem to be acting. But Goblins, grieving over Velan the Kind? It was hard to accept.

“How? How does it happen?”

Another Goblin pushed forwards, a tall Hob. He jabbed at the book. Snapjaw, one of the more literate Hobs in the tent, peered at the book. She read, her face screwing up with the effort.

“It say—Goblins dying. Mages from Wis—Wis Tram attacking. Killing by thousands. Goblin King sees. And he—he—”

She choked on the words. Osthia looked at her, knowing what had happened. But Snapjaw couldn’t say it. Her eyes filled with tears as the others looked at her, prodding her to speak.

“Say! Say!

“Cannot. Cannot. Too—”

Snapjaw shook her head. A voice interrupted the Goblins as they pestered her.

“Leave her. I know what happened next.”

A Goblin standing apart from the others spoke. Osthia looked around, and saw the Goblin Lord standing, looking out of the tent flaps. Her eyes narrowed. He hadn’t read the book—he’d just listened while the Goblins had torturously read page after page. How could he know?

But he did, somehow. The Goblin Lord turned. His eyes were distant, staring back at another battlefield in the past. All of the Goblins in the tent looked at him. The Goblin Lord’s eyes were filled with tears. Osthia stared.

Tears. They were clear and ran down his face from his white pupils. Ordinary tears, bitter and filled with regret. The Goblin Lord answered in place of Snapjaw.

“What did he do next? What he could. The only thing he could. To save his people, for victory, he did all he could do.”

A tear fell from the Goblin Lord’s eyes and he caught it. It glimmered in his hand. Wet. Memory. The Goblin Lord whispered into the silence.

“He charged alone.”

 

—-

 

Alone! Into the heart of the maelstrom, through fields of fire, weathering the spells of three Archmages and bombardment from all sides! The Goblin King advanced on the small army of mages, his forces struggling to come to his aid, his Goblin Lords scattered on the battlefield.

The Archmages of Wistram threw death towards him. They broke the earth and unleashed magics that burned the air itself. They struck him with lightning, they ensnared him with magical nets and the lesser [Mages] and [Archers] filled the skies with fireballs and arrows.

And yet the Goblin King came on. Velan the Kind charged ever onwards, his magical defenses slowly failing in front of the incredible assault. His flesh burned, the spells tore his body apart.

But still he came on. And here we come to one of the mysteries of the Second Antinium Wars, one of the places where history clearly diverged. Because of chance, dear readers. The Goblin King was approaching the first ranks of the mages, unstoppable. And one word separates this history from being a triumph to a tale of despair.

If.

If Velan the Kind had survived to rampage among the mage’s ranks, the battle might have been lost despite the combined armies. His Goblin Lords had yet to begin falling, and the Archmages of Wistram might have well decided to flee rather than confront the Goblin King in person. And if they had, there was no guarantee of their survival, given how Velan had survived their most deadly spells at range. Had he lived, Velan might have rallied his forces and cut apart the allied armies, rallying his Goblins and dooming Izril.

But it was not to be. The Goblin King’s charge that had crushed the finest of soldiers, gone through spell after spell and through an elite group of Gold-rank adventurers stopped before it could cause disaster. And it was stopped by the simplest of things:

A single arrow through the eye.

It was incredible, unprecedented. The Goblin King’s protections had been destroyed by the magical attacks on his person, but his body was still as tough as diamonds, his reflexes unhindered by the damage he had sustained. He was almost upon the first rank when a lone Silver-rank adventurer half-Elf by the name of Elia Arcsinger loosed an arrow that hit the Goblin King in the eye. She used the Skill of [Piercing Shot] and at nearly point-blank range her arrow was able to do what every other arrow and spell could not. The lucky shot pieced the Goblin King’s skull and killed him in an instant.

To this day, the death of Velan the Kind remains a contentious point among [Strategists] and [Tacticians] alike. Many argue that Velan the Kind should not have perished as he did, regardless of luck. While it is a known fact that a stray arrow or blade can kill all but the most well-defended warriors on the battlefield many [Strategists] argue that the Goblin King should have been able to dodge the shot.

That the arrow was capable of killing the Goblin King was not in dispute. Elia Arcsinger was in possession of an enchanted Arrow of Slaying known for its piercing properties and was using a similarly enchanted longbow certified by several Gnoll [Bowmakers] as capable of propelling arrows as far as four hundred meters across the battlefield.

Combined with the [Piercing Shot] Skill, her arrow would have stood a good chance of piercing even the Goblin King’s skin at point-blank rank. That she struck him in the eye resulted in the fatal injury, all of which is understood to be accurate by most who take up this debate. The crux of the issue is that the Goblin King did not avoid the arrow, which most [Strategists] concede he should have been able to do.

The general argument is that the Goblin King had been known to catch arrows and dodge them in other battles. That he failed to do so in this case might have been due to the chaos of the battlefield, or the effects of one of the spells he endured. Nevertheless, there remains a vocal minority who claim that Elia Arcsinger used a special Skill or had some other enchantment on her body she herself may have been unaware of. Or perhaps her latest abilities were the reason for her miraculous shot.

After all, the half-Elf’s fame for killing the Goblin King has resulted in Elia Arcsinger becoming known as one of the greatest Named Adventurers of this age. The title of Kingslayer and her famous [Line-Ender Shot] Skill obtained from killing the Goblin King do seem to indicate that the credit for the Goblin King’s death should lie with Elia Arcsinger and no other. And yet, many [Strategists] still argue the event to this day.

To this writer’s mind there is little purpose speculating overlong as to the cause of the Goblin King’s death. It is enough to say that he died, and the world will ever be grateful to Elia Arcsinger for her steady aim in that last hour of desperation. So let this bring an end to pointless debates. The Goblin King should have dodged. But he did not. And history will note that as fact. There is no point arguing over what occurred, especially when more important issues demand the attention of [Strategists] and their ilk.

 

“But that’s so suspicious!

Olesm leapt to his feet, tail thrashing as he forgot where he was and shouted in his small office. He angrily waved the book he was holding about, shouting at it as if his voice could reach Krsysl Wordsmith if only he was loud enough.

“That’s the entire point! If the Goblin King should have survived, why didn’t he? Was it a spell or a Skill or what? Was it betrayal like some theories indicate? Or did an Archmage cast a spell? What about the interview where Elia Arcsinger said herself she doesn’t know why the Goblin King didn’t dodge? Don’t just gloss over all the important details, you egg-headed moron!

He collapsed into his chair, panting, and held the book open.

“How did it happen? Why? Why did he die there when he should have won? Was it just luck? Really? Or was it something else?”

Olesm stared at the book, and turned the next page.

“This is a terrible historical account. I hope no one takes this seriously.”

He read on, knowing what had happened next. What had happened, yes, but not the why. The why of it was lost to Olesm, a precious secret that no [Strategist] or [Archer] had even been able to puzzle out. Why didn’t Velan the Kind dodge? What did he see? What happened?

Only the Goblins knew the truth. And even then, only a Goblin King could explain why it had happened. But it had. And that was that.

Or so the book said.

 

—-

 

The battle finished minutes after the Goblin King’s death. Although only a fraction of the Goblins present had witnessed the event, every Goblin on the field and perhaps every Goblin in the world sensed Velan the Kind die the moment it happened. Witnesses report seeing Goblins falling to their knees or throwing down their arms, allowing the combined armies to cut them down, too grief-stricken to fight back.

While it may be amusing to readers to imagine Goblins exhibiting any kind of grief, it does appear this was the case, as the Goblins fled, their morale broken by their King’s demise. And with that, the last battle of the Second Antinium Wars was won. The Necromancer had been destroyed, the Goblin King slain, and the Antinium had been pacified. At least for the moment.

However, I would urge you good readers to consider this last warning—

 

The story ended. The Goblin King died on the pages as he had on the battlefield, and across the world, readers closed the book and looked up.

Some wept to hear of the Goblin King’s death. The Goblins around the Goblin Lord bowed in grief, and with that grief harbored their terrible rage against the world. Others, like Tyrion, smiled and promised his sons the same truth in the world—that evil would always be vanquished and good triumph.

And some, like Erin and the Antinium, just closed the book and sat in silence for a while, absorbing this tale of what had been. It was a flawed history, true, but one with grains of truth. Those readers would sit in a moment of introspection, as time flowed strangely around them and they felt, just for a second, as if they could see the very fates that had led to that moment in history.

And then the moment would break and Erin would offer everyone popcorn with yeast, which was, as she claimed, the only way to eat popcorn. And the Antinium would eat and Klbkch would let Erin take over to tell another story—Charlotte’s Web, a story which would cause much emotional distress on the part of every Soldier who had killed Shield Spiders.

Life went on, sometimes informed by the past, other times going on in blissful ignorance of it. Erin Solstice’s attempts to comfort a Soldier and explain that Charlotte was a special spider would be entertaining if confusing, but that story was only a backdrop. The narrative had not ended yet, and one pair of readers continued on. They flipped the page and continued the history, reading the final notes of Krsysl Wordsmith.

 

However, I would urge you good readers to consider this last warning before closing this book. Yes, the war was over. The last of the Goblin Lords died as they hurled themselves into battle. Without their King, the Goblins fled, only to be cut down to the last Goblin by the victorious armies. The world was at peace again.

And yet, what a hard-won peace! And at such a cost! Velan the Kind’s rampage might not have been as devastating as the last Goblin King’s path of destruction across Terandria, but it was certainly catastrophic to the Humans. More importantly, the battles with the Necromancer, Antinium, and the Goblins had laid waste to the beloved Drake cities and would be the work of years rebuilding.

Unfortunately, that also meant the truce with the Antinium had to be honored. The allied armies declined to attack the Antinium despite the urging of many sensible minds. Foolishly, the various world leaders decided they were sick of war and let the Antinium remain a threat. Worse, they allowed the Antinium to establish a Hive in Liscor, one of the stipulations of the peace treaty!

Why the heroic people of Liscor allowed this is beyond this writer—indeed, the Liscorian army criticized and then resisted this move, leading to a rift between the public and army. Subsequently, the Liscorian army has rarely returned to its home city and spends much time on the campaign. A true shame.

But Liscor’s problems are, alas, the world’s problems. The Antinium are the one enemy side that survived the Second Antinium Wars, and their ‘help’ only highlights their threat as a group. Their victory was forestalled by the greater threats of the Goblin King and the Necromancer, but that does not erase their menace. They surprised us all with their advancements since the First Antinium War—I dread to think of what they might do if given time to prepare again.

It is my hope that this book will serve to warn readers of the Antinium and present them with a greater understanding of Drake sacrifices. We must stand together against the Antinium threat. Alone we are prey to menaces like the Goblins. Let this history be a record: the Antinium have been our enemies once, and our allies of convenience a second time. But they will never be our friends. They remain our invaders and we must resist them. And it falls on the world to lend us their aide, lest the fall of the Drakes herald the death knell of the world.

We have survived Goblins, the undead, and the Antinium in this second great war for Izril. Let there never be another one in this writer’s lifetime. But if there is, I, Krsysl Wordsmith will document the war and history to the best of my ability. History must not be forgotten and I will retell it as it should be again and again. Thank you for reading. I remain yours, most humbly,

–Krsysl Wordsmith

 

At last it was over. Zel Shivertail lowered the book and closed the cover slowly with one claw. Then he looked over at Lady Magnolia.

“What a terrible book. Why did you have me read through it again?”

She smiled sweetly at him and sipped from her cup of sugar and tea.

“Oh, perspective. My dear General Shivertail, don’t tell me you object to such a glorious retelling of Drake history?”

Zel grunted. He felt like he should wash his claws after touching the book. He pushed it across the table towards Lady Magnolia.

“I do, actually. History should be impartial, not biased and certainly not glorifying one species and insulting others. We all fought the Goblin King—to say any one species did more is insulting to all of us.”

“Ah, well, your opinions are not that of Mister Wordsmith’s. I said as much to him when he first published the book, but I’m afraid he didn’t listen to me. A pity you weren’t there; I think he might have listened to a fellow Drake, let alone the famous Tidebreaker. I think he admires you.”

“Ancestors.”

The Drake [General] shuddered and shook his head. He was sitting in a tent—his personal tent—at the small table he’d requested. This wasn’t the command tent so he had little to look at, but he did have a smaller map of Invrisil and the surrounding landscape he was studying.

Lady Magnolia and her [Maid] Ressa were sitting in Zel’s tent as if there was nothing odd about them being there. They had dropped by unannounced earlier that evening and Lady Magnolia had forced the history book on Zel. He wished he’d refused.

“I heard about this book coming out. And I heard how widely it was criticized so I never bothered to pick it up. I understand quite a lot of copies were made—why would you ever fund something like this?”

“I? I wouldn’t put my name on this book if Krsysl Wordsmith paid me.

Lady Magnolia’s eyebrows shot up. Zel glanced at her.

“I thought you funded this.”

“I funded the first history. Not the second.”

She corrected him. Lady Magnolia frowned and sighed as she put her tea cup on the table. She picked up the book and flipped through it sadly.

“I paid Krsysl Wordsmith to write the history of the First Antinium Wars shortly after it had ended. He was an eager young [Writer] and he did an excellent job of writing the history. It was widely praised as you know.”

“I do know. What went wrong with the second one?”

“The fame went to his head I fear. And he decided to take the money that had made him rich from writing the first book and invest it in the second. He wrote the second as a patriot, thinking it would make him beloved. Instead, it earned him criticism from his own people. Although he does have quite a number of Drakes who still think of him as a good writer. I did try to persuade him to write a more unbiased history, but he detests me I’m afraid.”

“That idiot.”

Zel grunted. He picked up the book and shook his head as he flipped through pages of commentary, maps of the battlegrounds, sketches of the Goblin Lords—and one of himself. Zel stared at a rather flattering image of himself holding the Necromancer’s head with Liscor in the background.  He shook his head in disgust.

“This helps no one. The answer is simple and this author should have seen it. We have to fight together. That’s how we beat the Goblin King. Peace between Humans and Drakes is more important than pride.”

“Some would say that peace with the Antinium is just as important.”

Lady Magnolia spoke cautiously, watching Zel. The [General] looked up.

“If you believed that, why invite me here? No, the Antinium don’t believe in peace. And neither does the Necromancer.”

“True. That is my view as well, which is why I have been preparing ever since the Second Antinium War ended. But some do say such things. And there is a…thought that the Antinium of Liscor might be less dangerous than the rest of their kind.”

The Drake paused. He didn’t know how Magnolia had heard that, but it didn’t surprise him. He thought about Klbkch and his claws clenched into fists. But then he thought about Pawn and shook his head.

“Perhaps. I wouldn’t know. But one Hive is far from all of them.”

“Indeed. It is a thought though, and I want you to be aware of the opportunity that exists there. However, you are correct. The Grand Queen of the Antinium rules over her kind and she…bothers me. She will seize any opportunity she feels is right.”

“So will the Necromancer. I can’t believe he survived me ripping him apart.”

“Mm. Next time we’ll see about using a spell. I intend to make sure he is dead this time. But you can see why I haven’t pursued him yet.”

“Because he’s south of Liscor? A Drake problem?”

“Well, yes. Frankly, the problem is that both he and the Antinium are south of Liscor. Let’s assume the Drakes attacked one. The other would surely seize on that opportunity to force the Drakes into a war on two fronts.”

“Not a problem if we had Human help.”

“Indeed…but I am afraid that Human help might not turn up at all. Many Human [Lords] and [Ladies] would leave your people to fight alone, in the hopes of swooping in and defeating the victor. Or worse, your help might turn into a dagger in the back if Lord Tyrion were to march an army south of Liscor. He still dreams of conquering Izril, you know.”

“Wonderful. No wonder you wanted a Drake [General].”

Zel sighed. He felt old after hearing so much history. He had lived through most of it, true, but it felt like another lifetime. He was so old. He could still remember the First Antinium War. And the Second…Zel wondered if he’d live to see a third one. He didn’t want a third one, but what other choice was there?

A thought occurred to him as he pushed the book around on his table. Zel looked up at Magnolia with a frown.

“Where was your powerful magic-user ally during the Second Antinium War? Did he take part in the fighting at all? Or does he hail from another continent, like Niers Astoragon?”

Magnolia’s expression changed slightly. She pursed her lips together and looked slightly annoyed. She toyed with her teacup as she replied.

“He…excused himself from the war. The Goblins are not his enemy and he refused to battle them, much to my displeasure. He did succeed in stalling the Goblin King for a few days in the High Passes, though. I suppose that I owe him some credit for that.”

“Wonderful. So I can’t expect help against the Goblin Lord?”

“Do you need it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. I’d like more certainty, but if I can’t have it then I’ll fight and see how it plays out.”

Zel stood up. He paced around his table, looking at the small map. So close. He’d plotted the Goblin Lord’s advance relative to his army. Magnolia Reinhart turned to face him. Her foot was jiggling just the slightest bit as she asked the question that had to be on everyone’s mind.

“How soon?”

“The day after tomorrow. Or tomorrow if he really marches his troops. He won’t, though. So it’s the day after tomorrow at some point. Day, night…I’ll force him into a day battle if I have to. I won’t let him play any tricks with the undead this time. It’ll be a straight-up battle.”

Zel Shivertail’s voice sounded loud in his ears. His heart pumped a little faster, thinking of it. So soon.  But the Goblin Lord had turned towards Invrisil, against all expectations. He was coming here. And Zel was ready.

“I have given you all the tools at my disposal. We shall go over all of my estate’s resources tomorrow once more. If there is anything you need—”

Magnolia’s voice was brisk as she stood up. Zel turned his head and nodded absently at her.

“Battle Golems, that magical artifact…I’ve reviewed it all. I could use more adventurers if you can hire them.”

Magnolia pursed her lips.

“They don’t want to fight in a battle. This is technically not the defense of Invrisil so I can’t conscript them easily. But I will double the reward for Gold-rank adventurers.”

She paused and looked at Zel.

“Are they so necessary?”

“Necessary? No. I think I can win this. Even without any adventurers. But I like stacking the odds in my favor. Call it the wisdom of age or something.”

Zel sighed. Magnolia stood next to him in silence for a few seconds.

“You will win, won’t you?”

“Probably. I don’t make promises before a battle. But yes, probably.”

“The Goblin Lord—”

“—Is not Velan the Kind. Your history book proves that. He’s a threat, a danger, and one I refuse to underestimate. But he’s no Goblin King.”

“Not yet.”

Magnolia’s words hung in the silence. Zel shook his head.

“Maybe not ever. A Goblin King is something rare. Something…I saw him during the final battle, you know. From a distance. I was on the front lines against his regular army. Holding the line. I saw him charging minutes before his death. And I thought he seemed so—so—”

“Dangerous? Strange? Frightening? Lonely?”

The Drake shook his head.

“Sad. As if he knew what was going to happen next.”

Magnolia stared at him. Ressa blinked. Zel turned away, embarrassed by the confession.

“It was just a feeling. But it stuck with me. And if that book you read taught me anything, it’s that we don’t know much about Goblins. Not truly. We don’t know why Velan ran berserk, why he died like he did…nothing. And this Goblin Lord is the same. We think he’s allied with the Necromancer, but is that as an equal, or as a servant?”

“Some questions have no answers. At least, none we can discern. I suspect the Goblin Lord is the only one who could answer your questions. Besides Az’kerash, at any rate.”

Zel nodded. His claws tightened on the book and he tossed it to one side. His head turned south, towards the coming battle. Soon. Tomorrow? The day after. Zel felt his heart beating faster. The Second Antinium War was over. The Goblin King was dead, but here was another Goblin Lord. Was he connected to the Necromancer?

“In that case, I’ll ask him when I have a claw around his throat.”

He turned and left the tent. Magnolia Reinhart’s gaze traced the same invisible line in the distance. She tapped a finger to her lips and whispered.

“We’ll see. Nothing is set in stone.”

Then she turned and kicked the book on the floor. Magnolia scowled at the book, rubbing at the tips of her toes and grimacing.

“I truly do hate history books. Honestly, I think I’ll hire a Gnoll to write the next one.”

She stomped out of the tent, leaving The Second Antinium Wars, a History lying on the ground. After a moment Ressa picked it up and followed her mistress and Zel Shivertail outside. The stage was set, the pieces all in place. It was time for another page in the story of the world to begin.

Soon.

 


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