Epilogue

And then she woke up.

The young woman opened her eyes. Erin Solstice sat up in her bed and thought for a moment it was a dream. Then she realized it wasn’t.

It was her inn. Her bed. Her room.

But the panoply of people who stood around her weren’t ghosts. The Horns of Hammerad, Mrsha, held by Lyonette, who hadn’t put her down for six hours and never would again, Selys, sobbing into an armored Olesm’s shoulder, Antinium [Crusaders] jostling with Klbkch and staring up at a huge Gnoll that Erin had never met before.

She didn’t know them. Not all of them. Erin Solstice looked at the Fellowship of the Inn, grinning Cave Goblins, a white Gnoll with a staff, Inkar, Palt…

And so many others. Ishkr himself was watching the creaking floorboards in alarm, but if the inn exploded—well, they’d gone through worse.

“What happened?”

The exhalation when Erin said that was one of a hundred people each with a story to tell. But Erin didn’t mean that.

She’d thought she was on…a battlefield? The [Innkeeper] looked around as Mrsha tackled her and the room broke into a babble. And tears.

She was alive. What Erin didn’t know…couldn’t know was that when she’d been restored to her body, she hadn’t gotten up and walked around instantly. She’d just been possessed by the greatest Drake [General] of Izril. And he had not only gotten her arm chopped off at least once, but fought using her body.

And she’d been dead. The mysterious Gnoll who’d helped complete the ritual—Teriarch—had pronounced her alive. He had been one of the people who offered to teleport anyone who wanted to go back to Liscor.

Erin had missed…the end of the war at the Meeting of Tribes. She had missed the surrender of a number of armies. Fissival had stood down; Zeres and Manus had fallen back on their leaders’ orders.

The worst carnage since the Second Antinium wars had resulted in the death of tribes. If not every Gnoll—then their leaders. Plain’s Eye was no more, and Izril was filled with white Gnolls who had nothing to cling to, not their beliefs, not their tribe.

Izril would not be the same. Not even the land was the same. An entirely new chunk of the continent had risen, adding to the southern half, and already people were arguing over who it belonged to.

The Gnolls had gone through their reckoning but…what came next? Ghosts had stepped across the world, and their words lingered in the lands of the living.

The Dyed Lands and parts of Baleros had been sped up in time. The Titan had returned. Ailendamus was reeling from a disaster at its palace, and the Dawn Concordat had fallen back, but no one had ended the war.

The Wind Runner of Reizmelt was alive…but what would become of her? Or the Terras faction? Erin Solstice didn’t get even a fraction of this information, of course.

What she got were hugs and tears. She looked at Pisces, leaning against the doorframe and trying to sniff and pretend it wasn’t due to tears.

“Pisces? Ceria! Ksmvr, Yvlon?”

The Horns of Hammerad were here. They stood in The Wandering Inn, and there was still sand in Pisces’ robes from another continent. They had come back.

Through the power of the King of Khelt in this desperate hour, and Pisces looked around as if still searching for the people he had left behind. But in that moment—he stepped forwards and grabbed Erin in a fierce hug that surprised everyone. She returned it with all the strength in her shaking arms.

Mrsha was hugging all of them, sobbing and snotting onto everything. She looked at her mother, Lyonette, and the [Princess] sobbed until one of the Thronebearers handed her a tissue. The golden-ish [Knights] of Calanfer looked on the [Innkeeper] and this gathering with awe.

And a bit of wariness for all the strange folk. Not least because Shriekblade, Adventurer Tessa, offered Lyonette her own handkerchief. She had abandoned Salazsar and stood in the inn, looking at Erin with curiosity.

 

——

 

“Sounds like she woke up.”

Outside The Wandering Inn, more people were gathered on the hill, looking up towards the sounds coming through the window. Not just by choice; there was no room inside for so many people to stand.

So, many of the [Crusaders] knelt or stood as the Antinium prayed around them. Pivr, flexing a broken wing, was doffing his hat to everyone in sight next to Normen and Alcaz. Normen had his arm in a sling, but for once…the Brothers had come back.

Even some of the Antinium had survived. The Beriad of 6th Battalion stood, all seventeen of them. Seventeen, where a hundred had been that morning.

A Minotaur with one arm stood next to them. His head was bowed so far it seemed it should have crushed him down.

But honor and pride in them refused to let Calruz kneel. For once—the Minotaur looked up and saw he was not alone. The son of Hammerad looked at the souls of Minos in seventeen Antinium.

And even Bezale and Venaz saw it too. The Minotaur [Strategist] had left Perorn behind in the Great Plains to come here. But now was not a time of judgement. He stood with Wil Kallinad, Yerranola, Merrik, and Peki, gazing up at the window.

Feshi Weatherfur was not with them. The Chieftain of the Weatherfur tribe could not leave at this moment.

Her adventure had ended here. She would never go back to the academy. Venaz looked up, and he saw less glory and far too much heartbreak on this adventure than he had seen when he first left Baleros with Wil.

But what he had found was…something else. He looked at Calruz of Hammerad and wondered where the traitor and monster was hiding. Because he couldn’t see it. He looked at the Antinium, and his world could never look the same.

 

——

 

Their wounds would never heal. A little bee crawled onto Lyonette’s shoulder, clumsily holding onto the cloth with one set of legs. Her good wing fanned as Gireulashia stared down at the bee.

Was it worth it? Rasktooth grinned as Infinitypear carried him on his shoulders. He patted the Worker’s head, and Fierre hugged Garia as Ulvama wiped her face on Octavia’s hair. But after so long…

They were here again. Someone else joined the chaos threatening to break Erin’s bed, and Numbtongue, Badarrow, and Bird bent down as Erin looked up at them. Then she looked past them and gasped.

“Relc?”

The Drake was leaning on Embria’s shoulder and Klbkch’s. He kept looking at her and then away.

“Klb, pinch me again.”

“I have pinched you ninety one times. She is there.”

“Pinch me, buddy.”

A hundred times a hundred people wanted to meet Erin. The inn had a line stretching all the way to the gates, but that didn’t matter.

It was a public holiday, after all. The Council had declared it in memorial of the battle of the Great Plains, a celebration honoring Strategos Olesm and Liscor’s army, and when pressed, Councilmember Lism had also added the return of Councilmembers Krshia and Beilmark. It was a commemoration of General Sserys’ ghost.

There were no other reasons at all. Nor did he appear at the inn. Neither did Watch Captain Zevara. She just calmly looked at the chaos on that hill and reset her little calendar marking the days since a ‘Solstice event’ back to zero.

She wasn’t smiling as she poured herself a little cup. The Watch Captain had to be at her desk. She’d go there—after clocking out.

 

——

 

Time. It had been a long time. The chaos would certainly return, and the Watch were already preparing briefings for the new recruits.

In time, they’d surely start complaining about that stupid, crazy Human. Tomorrow. But this hour was for meetings.

Some people had waited a long time to meet Erin Solstice. They could wait and watch a second longer. A minute…savoring this moment.

When Rags got tired of savoring the moment, she kicked everyone in the shins, and Erin Solstice looked up from the swearing. Her eyes met a little Goblin’s, and an [Innkeeper] in her inn stared at a familiar, awkward smile.

“Rags…?”

She was taller and older, but then Erin was being helped up, and there they were.

A Drake and an Antinium probably wasting Watch hours when they should be on duty.

A strange Human girl from far away, on a long journey.

A sniffing [Necromancer], pretending he was aloof to it all.

And a little Goblin, who hesitated, all the words she’d practiced flying out of her head.

“Rags!”

“H-hello, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] looked at her in shock.

“You can talk?”

Rags rolled her eyes. But then she smiled, and Erin was laughing. She looked around, and her mind whirled.

They were all here. It was glorious. It was a miracle. Erin looked from face to face and realized—Ryoka Griffin wasn’t here. Nor was…

Was…

For a second, the vision of the living wavered, and Erin thought she saw another company. Of supercilious rulers. Strange legends. Bossy [Witches]. Her smile wavered, and her friends and guests saw the [Innkeeper] look about.

Erin gazed around and felt, suddenly, a terrible fear sweeping over her.

She had returned from the land of the dead. But a war had been lost. A screaming dead god still fell into the wound of the world. Seamwalkers had been destroyed.

Yet the ones who lived stared up from their nest in the grave of gods and other continents and now knew there was a world above. A’ctelios had gone silent, as had Rhir, but for how long?

The gods walked this mortal land. Four out of the six had been vanquished, but forever? One god was screaming in a box. Two more flew through space as the last ghost and Agelum fought them.

A Dragon lived. But how much of him? Teriarch spoke to Manus and Rafaema, but his eyes flickered to the [Maid] standing there and watching him. Not a trace of recognition was in his eyes.

For, like Erin…his memory of what he had been told was changed. But that was not the only reason.

 

——

 

He was still walking. A half-Elf trailed across the ground, bleeding magic. The armies had fled his death. But he was still dying.

“I don’t want to die.”

Eldavin whispered. He was alone. The Simulacrum was untethered forever from the Dragon. He stumbled and fell.

No more magic. No hope of salvation himself. His heart was empty. He lay there until a pair of figures found him.

Were they even there? The half-Elf looked up.

“Who are you?”

It would be a question that echoed around the world in time. It was a herald, but the two just smiled at him. The first, an old woman with eyes like death, bent down. A mother, a young woman, next to a warrior. Both of them reached down. They whispered to him. An offer.

Do you want to live, Eldavin? Take my hand.

The piece of magic and a Dragon’s memories looked up. He reached out.

He wanted to live.

 

——

 

The last foe of the tribes had also survived the battle. She always did.

She had never died. The Spider, the immortal Witch of Webs, always survived. Even the greatest [Witches] of old had gone to their deaths, but Belavierr had defied fate itself.

Why then did she scream? A shriek without ending, which had begun since the [Witches] bound her with truth and magic? They had let her live, for a [Witch], even one who wrought such terrible craft as Belavierr, was a Witch.

But they burned her. And they bound her with something more terrible than any spell she could worm her way out of.

They whispered truth to her and set her the charge of ages. Belavierr tried to resist as she stood on Izril’s shores.

She felt her class trembling. Her very craft threatened to break. A promise older than Belavierr impelled her. She was the Temptress, the Threadbreaker…

A conscript in a struggle against a foe to make Seamwalkers seem small. The last great coven of Witches was not kind. They spared Belavierr her due death to weigh a heavier task on her head.

So, screaming, the [Witch] walked into the sea. Her eyes stared, one orange and ringed, one pale and weeping with the memory of Gnolls. They writhed and danced with outrage, with fury over being compelled. Over being—tricked.

But there was no one to blame. No one to curse. She refused! She would not…the [Witch] struggled. Those eyes stared into the dark waters, and the rings of orange light wavered. The lines of black immortality tried to crawl out of her eye. A spider made of string pulled itself out of one eye, and the other revealed the soul within, bulging with helpless fury.

The woman walked deeper into the waves, for she had no other choice. Her dress spread out like a spill of oil, and her limbs contorted in ways that bones and flesh should not do. In the deep, Krakens stirred and began to suffer nightmares.

Still Belavierr screamed. Her shriek continued, even as the dark waters of the surf raced around her chin. Into her mouth—until her eyes stared up through dark waters. The tip of her hat vanished into the water, and her daughters felt her leave Izril.

On a long, deep journey.

 

——

 

Each nation, each power and group in this world had just witnessed something they couldn’t explain. Khelt had fought…and had it won?

The King of Khelt sailed away from Izril without even bothering to wait for Erin Solstice to wake. He would speak to her again, and besides…the King of Destruction might have been beheaded if Fetohep waited a moment longer.

The presence of Antinium, undead, and Flos Reimarch himself were all threats that the Walled Cities would have done their utmost to eradicate. However—the [Soldiers] had seen their continent split in two. They looked upon the white Gnolls of Plain’s Eye and wavered.

Despite what each city might order, Wall Lord Ilvriss, Dragonspeaker Luciva, First Gardener Shaerrha, and Admiral Asale all refused to lead their armies into battle on the Drakes’ side. Each one for their own reason. Luciva herself listened to the ‘white Gnoll’ with mismatched eyes, and she had found Rafaema.

Moreover, they faced Khelt and the united tribes of Izril. The Drakes still tried to deal with the Goblins and Antinium on the field, but they disappeared beneath the earth or flew away on the backs of Wyverns led by a mysterious [Great Chieftain]. Rags. The rest just vanished, returning home via the power of the Dragonlord of Flame. He had no enemies in any one species, and Fetohep of Khelt swore his vengeance upon any force who drew more blood this day.

In this moment, at this time—when the Walled Cities protested, the world backed Khelt. Their gratitude might wane in time, but when Fetohep spoke, the Four Great Companies of Baleros, the Blighted Kingdom of Rhir, the monarchs of Terandria, and great nations of Chandrar told the Drakes there would be war if they did not heed his words.

So, for once, the Drakes abandoned their vengeance, if not their grudges. They looked forwards and back, counting the cost of this disaster. The wise ones listened to the warnings they’d been given. Perhaps they might change.

As for Chandrar, the warships that had come to Izril had left the bones of countless dead in their wake. The Great Plains were shaped by the magics unleashed there, but the holds of the warships were packed. Not just with the half-Elves or his new subjects, but Gnolls.

They abandoned Izril for a different land that might not be filled with so many petty enemies. Or at least, not Drakes. The King of Destruction was returned to health, but even he looked shaken by what he had witnessed.

King Raelt was free. He and Queen Jecaina, both rulers of their nation, looked at each other and across the sea as Rasea Zecrew took off, chasing her own adventures.

However, the Vizir Hecrelunn did not sail with Fetohep. He had felt Khelta die, and he and the half-Giants of Serept had looked back at their kingdom and found no home there. Hecrelunn flew away from Izril, screaming curses and weeping for his beloved [Queens].

 

——

 

A single Revenant continued the battle after it ended. Though it took him nearly a day, the [Champion of War], Salui, climbed the walls of Zeres. He had no axe. The spells consumed his body, struck his bones—

But he cared not. His-Xe was dead. Salui stood on Zeres’ walls as the magic obliterated him, crying out and looking for his great [King]. Yet he would never find him.

 

——

 

The lands of the dead were no more. A single goddess strode the void, and every soul which perished would belong to her.

In time, she would be too powerful. But the Gnome dangling his legs over the edge of the abyss of nothing, still staring up towards where Xarkouth and Razia had fled, thought that Kasigna would not win so easily.

“You know, they will fight you. Even your daughter, Cauwine. Tamaroth, Norechl, if they ever return. Laedonius may be dead, and Emerrhain’s in a box, but the blood of gods may fuel them. Even the ones who have lost everything. Or interlopers from afar. Who knows?”

Kasigna had begun her great work. In the oblivion, she would remake this place. Better. With some advice. She paused a moment, for the task wearied even her. But she had longer than seven days to do it.

“Little Zineryr. Do you seek to pit me against them? I am aware of every danger, and you will play no more tricks.”

“But it seems I have the honor of being your last ghost. Aside from the Agelum and Void Dragon. Not very complete of you. Don’t you think you’d better wait on remaking the afterlife until Norechl and Tamaroth are gone? You’ll never get it perfect if Norechl stains something. And that beard hair…”

The Goddess of Death glared at Zineryr as he pretended to shudder. She spoke softly.

“This is the end. The ghosts did more than I thought possible, but they are all gone. So, Gnome. So, Zineryr…tell your last joke. Play your last prank. Then take my hand.”

She waited, and the merry look faded on Zineryr’s face. He looked at her and then stood, brushing down the spacesuit he wore. He turned to Kasigna, and when he replied, he looked as young as the days when they had both lived.

“Kasigna. I have always loved you.”

She waited for the joke at her expense, the prank on the divine. But Zineryr went on.

“Of all the gods, I did love you. Because you, for all the arrogance of the others, for all the cunning—even intelligence of some, the bravery of others, I knew that when I died, you would take my hand, and I would have meaning in the afterlife. Even if it was what you thought. I loved you all, but you had a vision for this world I could not countenance. I did weep when I chose to take arms against you. I did hesitate. But I loved you.”

He looked in her eyes, and the Goddess stood there. Zineryr went on.

“When you returned…perhaps the ghosts and I wondered if you had changed. All this strife. This destruction. Even you all wept for what came to pass. An eternity of death, yet you clung to existence. And after so long—you did not change. After all your mistakes? You did what you had done before.”

He hung his head.

“Perhaps…even we hoped you might become something different. Yet even Cauwine only changes slightly. Were the gods we loved so static? Will all of what passed, that even you call a time of legends, be wasted if nothing changes?

The Goddess of Death had nothing to say. Zineryr shrugged his shoulders wearily.

“I am Zineryr, the first Gnome to fly into the stars. I am the last ghost of the Second-Furthest Travelers. I slew my gods, and I watched the ghosts of the world fight until their end. They fought with a glory and courage that has never faded from the days when I lived and breathed.”

He turned, and his eyes encompassed the entire war in this blackness. The Gnome sighed.

“Yet they did end. And here I stand, the last ghost of all. The Goddess of Death whom I loved and still…still a part of me loves, asks me for a final joke.”

The Gnome looked up at Kasigna, and she gazed down at him. Her head lowered slightly, and Zineryr whispered.

The joke is this: the gods did defeat the dead. They ate every last ghost. Two gods fell, and two more were carried away, all by ghosts. A single [Innkeeper] escaped the gods, and the Faerie King drew his odd designs across fate itself. Then…then Kasigna said: we will surely win this time.

He turned and smiled. Up, up at the goddess, and the three-in-one did not smile. Zineryr did, and he chuckled. Then he reached out—

And was gone.

Kasigna stood there a while, his words echoing in her ears. Then she bent her head once more to her great task. After all…they had time.

 

——

 

Time. Erin Solstice looked around in a lull between all the furious voices—she wasn’t hearing much anyways, just getting hugs. Her body was so…weak.

She felt dizzy. She felt despairing and hopeful and…

They had time. But she had a mission. She knew that. Erin Solstice closed her eyes. She…

She had met…?

“Who was he? Who were they? Why can’t I remember?”

Tears sprang to her eyes, and she collapsed backwards. This changing world moved around her, and when she had the strength to get up, there was everything to do.

But Erin was sure…sure she had not just been sleeping. Fetohep of Khelt had known her. Pisces told her he’d heard her horn.

Yet it was all a haze. The memories—too many memories—jumbled in Erin’s mind, and she couldn’t hold onto them. The experiences of a ghost tried to make sense to the living girl, and she began crying.

She had friends. They had been there. She knew it. But the names and faces escaped her. The stories…everything she had been through.

It was too much for one mortal mind. Erin sobbed as she lay in bed. She was so weak.

Her eyes fluttered after she wept, and exhaustion dragged her down. Erin heard a familiar voice as she slept. She supposed being dead really did mean you didn’t hear it. But now…

 

[Magical Innkeeper Level 46!]

[Skill…

 

Then a long, long pause. As if something that wasn’t quite sentient, wasn’t quite…alive, but still had methods and ways, a system, was taking its time and figuring something out.

Then Erin heard an uncertain voice.

 

[Queen of Undeath Level 6!]

[Skill Command Undead: Lesser obt—

<Khelta, [Queen of the Eternal Necrocracy]> [Not found. Canceling.]

[Sage’s Apprentice Level 2!]

[Sk—

<Velzi, [Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets> [Not found. Canceling.]

[Dragonfriend Level 41!]

<Yderigrisel, Dragon> [Not found. Canceling.]

<Xarkouth, Dragon> [Not found. Canceling.]

<Rhiveile Zessoprical, Wyrm> [Not found. Canceling.]

 

On and on it went. Trying to award her…

 

[Rebel Level 11!]

<Elucina, [Hero of String]> [Not found. Canceling.]

 

Erin listened, trying to hold onto the names. Listening to the classes fading out. Only a few tried to stick to her.

 

[Slaver Class obtained!]

[Slaver Leve—

[Level Ups Cancelled.]

 

[Servant of Nerrhavia Class Obtained!]

[Serv—

[Level Ups Cancelled]

 

And then…and then the voice in her head was silent again. As if mulling over things it could not explain. But Erin knew why…and the voice, seemingly put out by all the mysteries, gave up and went back to the start.

 

[Witch Class Obtained!]

[Conditions Met: Witch → Witch of Second Chances Class!]

[Witch of Second Chances Level 12!]

[Skill – School: Witchcraft (Undetermined) obtained!]

[Skill – Basic Brewing obtained!]

[Spell—

 

She was still crying. Erin didn’t push away the levels. She longed for all of them, except the—the bad ones. She would have been any of them.

The [Queen], the [Hero], a [Sage], a [Rebel]…she would have taken each and every class, even [Pickpocket] like…like who had shown her?

She owed it to them. To those glorious souls. She would have been a [Necromancer] if she could remember what they had told her and given her. But all she had was one class from some intelligent women with hats who knew enough to teach her how to be what they were instead of giving her something.

It almost sounded like the voice in her head knew it too. The apologetic tone listed off the Skills and spells as Erin sobbed into the quiet room. Then it tremulously added one more thing.

 

…[Magical Innkeeper Level 46!]

[Skill – Immunity: Crossbow Bolts obtained!]

 

Erin Solstice lay there, and she would have traded everything for just one face. One name. She…

She would never forget them. Never! The [Innkeeper] tried to get up. She had a purpose. She had to…

She had to do more than just things for herself. More than just warn the world or get ready.

They had told her their stories and she could not forget. The [Innkeeper] clenched her fists. She had spit in the face of ___s, or tried to.

“I’ll never forget them! Never! I swore—I swore to break every chain! I promised to tell Pisces—

Her breath caught. Erin fought to remember that name. The faces. No—she refused to forget anything. Even if her head exploded. She screamed, and people came running, but they found Erin collapsed in bed as she fainted.

I will never forget what I owe them. Any one of them. 

The [Innkeeper] could not be them. She had nothing left of them. But stories. But the memory…

In the silence of The Wandering Inn, Erin Solstice felt a flicker in her mind.

There they were. Velzi, Elucina, Xarkouth, Gerial, Califor…the names flickered across the mortal girl’s memory, and she had met the ghosts of every continent. Heard their stories in a place where time had no meaning.

No wonder she couldn’t encompass it. Perhaps—perhaps she didn’t have to. A door opened in the [Innkeeper]’s mind, and Erin Solstice gasped. She heard a triumphant voice speak and bring meaning to everything.

Aha.

 

<Class: Innkeeper> [Quests unlocked.]

[Post: Basic Quest obtained!]

[Post: Rare Quest obtained!]

[Post: Heroic Quest obtained!]

[Post: Mythical Quest obtained!]

[Post: Legendary Quest obtained!]

 

Erin Solstice opened her eyes wide, and there it was. Each face. Each story and each unfulfilled wish.

Cawe’s last words. 

“Tell Pisces…”

Velzimri’s regrets and all his secret potions and the most important man who had regretted being alone. The Djinni’s tears. The folly of Dragons and the glory of small ghosts. Earthers from home and their final words.

The [Innkeeper] lay there a second. And when she opened her eyes—

She remembered.

 

End of Volume 8.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: 

It’s 5 AM, and I have finished writing Volume 8. I know I will be revising it, but I feel…dehydrated. Exhausted. My body’s cramped, and I don’t think this ergonomic chair is working right.

I’ve written so many words this month that I’m not sure how I did it without snapping a tendon. I have never written this much before, I think, and I know it’s not perfect. But at last, Volume 8 is done.

A few things. I’ve left a note at the top of the chapter…one part of it to check out Casualfarmer’s books. Or buy Book 6 on Audible? I say these housekeeping things because I am not going to be around for a month.

I’ve turned off Patreon for a month and I don’t intend to write here until at least a month has passed. A month is a long time…but I don’t know if it’s long enough.

Frankly, these last few days, no this month, this year as I tried to bring Volume 8 to a close, I worked so hard I could feel myself burning out. To explain what that is because everyone has their definition, I stopped smiling even when I knew a good chapter was done. After I finished writing, on days like these, I would sit for four more hours, playing games, watching Youtube videos and zone out.

Even on my weeks off each month, I didn’t have the energy to start a book or new television show. I called it literally being out of thoughts; I did not have the power to conceptually get into a new television show. Even a new anime or something seemed far too taxing.

Because I spend everything on The Wandering Inn. I try to think of what will happen, write dialogue…and I enjoy it. But I did notice at one point that it was all I was. I used to write a chapter twice a week over one day.

Oh, I’d outline, but I’d do other things and just spend one entire day from dawn till dusk writing. Now? Now I write over three days per chapter, and I spent at least two days with 6-9 hours at the keyboard. I get one full day off and when I take my week off each month, I feel normal by the end of it and go back to writing.

I think, for Volume 9, I will make the chapters shorter. Not as a joke; they have to be. I think a 30,000 word chapter can sometimes be good, but when I do it too much I’m reducing the quality of the chapter as a whole. Of course, it’s a trade. Some writers hone each chapter but they take a year to write 100,000 words of pure quality.

But what we all trade is time. Some writers trade a lot of time for a lot of quality, but I’ve traded some of that quality just to…write. Write 9 million words at this point. And I know it’s a tradeoff, but that is also what a web serial is. Consistency. I don’t miss my days off. In a real sense, I am writing novels of content each month because it’s enjoyable—I assume—to read that instead of waiting multiple years for each book.

I do like it, but I myself have come to my final end of the rope for Volume 8. I took one month to end the most ambitious project ever and, in hindsight, I would do it differently. All the dramatic reveals and conclusions I might space out. I would definitely have considered doing multiple volumes…but I wanted Erin back as much as you by the end of Volume 8.

I have made great mistakes and yet there are chapters I am proud of now. But what I find is that I’m so tired. My arms and shoulders may need physical therapy, and I am exhausted from working, emotionally, from the stress…and that makes me realize I love writing more.

If I may digress: one of my favorite authors ever, Terry Pratchett, once claimed to love the act of writing as much as the finished work itself. I thought he was insane. I hated writing. I liked the finished chapter because that was great, but writing isn’t fun. It’s work.

I begin to see his point and it only took me eight million words. Writing is fulfilling. But if I keep up like this—well, I doubt I’ll kill myself, but there might not be much writer left, and no one can tell stories if there’s nothing inside them. I don’t talk about myself, and I think the author doesn’t need to be talked about.

To be precise, I don’t mean the writer is dead or some fanciful way of describing my relationship with the work. I just think the author is less important than the words. The author is distracting, and frankly? Most of us are boring. It’s a rare author who’s half as interesting as the works they put out. Plus, something about social media and attention here.

But I will tell you this: there have been weeks while I wrote that I looked up and said…oh. I haven’t spoken for more than ten minutes all week. That’s about personality. I am the writer in the cabin. But I think I should do more than just write. It’s been five years? Six years? Feels like eight. I think I started in 2016, which would mean six years where I’ve thrown everything I can at The Wandering Inn.

Because it’s the first great story that’s been a success. Because I enjoy it. I am certain that I will want to be back to writing in a month—but I’ll try to strike a different balance in my life. Go out. Smell roses. Kick roses. I don’t know, maybe I’ll go to conventions or get sick with a deadly plague. I mean, a new one, not the one we have.

But I will try. I’ll almost certainly backpedal on my promises and write too much, but it’s a long journey and we have gotten to a point in the road. I cannot say how much more there is. I am bad at thinking in dates and time.

I don’t imagine that way. When I think of something, I can see…well, let’s take the Beriad of the Antinium as an example. I can picture that scene when I write them. I know their names, some of them, the emotion they feel, why they’re here. What comes next. I know why it matters…

But I don’t see them. Oh, I picture them vaguely, but I don’t imagine in pictures. Nor words. My scenes often lack for detail or even sound or smell, and that’s what I have to work to add in. I can’t picture a mile because I haven’t seen it enough, I guess. The same for how long a chapter is.

So when people ask me how long The Wandering Inn is going to be, I get a bit exasperated and assure them there is an ending because there is, or else I’d be blind. But I don’t know how long from here to there.

But I do know the waypoints. If this is a road, I see the huge streetlights. If it’s a sea, I see buoys or something. Lighthouses I’m steering towards.

This is one of them. I think I can say that we are ‘somewhere’ in the story’s arc of being one third done. Or one half of the way there. Or two thirds.

I know that’s vague. The story could be one of those three options, or in between them. And that would change how it flows. But I know we have reached one of those points. Whether it continues depends on whether I can bring justice to the story. Whether people want to read it I guess…and the unexpected.

But here ends Volume 8. It has been the longest volume, the biggest journey so far. We will return to the inn. The world of the dead is over. This world has new lands. This is the age of adventure and old and new things coming out.

Nothing will be the same, but nothing ever is. And that is okay. I hope you’ll be there when I start Volume 9. For now—thanks for reading. See you in a bit. This strange story has certainly changed my life.

 

–pirateaba

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

8.85

Chieftain Torishi Weatherfur fell through the earth.

She didn’t know how long. Minutes? How far down? Her voice howled Belavierr’s name. She only knew the tumbling through air, the despair.

Then she landed.

Eleven minutes of free-fall. What should have ground her bones to dust—didn’t. The hole that Belavierr had opened was a portal. Though it took her eleven minutes to fall to wherever the [Witch] had sent her, the Gnoll only fell a shorter distance.

Even so—she landed far, far down. She felt the searing pain as she landed on her side.

Her arm broke.

Torishi’s howl of pain was one of a dozen. Her bodyguards? Torishi dragged herself up, holding her axe one-handed.

“Where are we? Who is here?”

Voices called out. Eight. One Gnoll was dead, neck snapped. The others stood in darkness.

“Light. Where is…?”

Torishi looked around, but the beam of light that had always accompanied her, the Skill—wasn’t working. How far down were they?

Where were they? A Gnoll produced a magic torch at last and lit it. The Gnolls gazed around. At first, they looked straight up at that cavernous ceiling. The dirt tomb they were trapped in. Then…the light played, flickering down the walls of stone. The faded, dirty letters. Torishi’s heart fluttered.

“No. It was here all along?”

She looked up, and one Gnoll fell to their knees. For there were the steps that led up into a dark citadel. Here were statues broken, but enough words to show them what had stood here. A face lying amidst stone and rubble.

Eleven minutes below the Great Plains…just as the legends said. Torishi’s lips moved.

…and the only Kingdom of Gnolls fell into the earth.

She gazed at the shattered face of a statue. A broken throne, meant to greet visitors. Then Torishi realized where Belavierr had sent her.

Where she had sent…

Them.

Someone laughed in the darkness. A growling, hysterical laugh of triumph. It came from a figure as the Gnoll bearing the torch moved. Torishi’s fur stood on end.

“The Raskghar. Form a circle.”

She and the Gnolls of the Weatherfur tribe formed a circle in the darkness, staring into the night. Their eyes were adjusted to shadow—but the Raskghar lived in this place. Underground.

Torishi heard…sounds. She looked around and knew.

“Nokha.”

Mrsha’s nightmare was giggling. Again—again and again she lived. She was immortal! But that was not what made the Raskghar laugh and howl. It was their prey. Eight Gnolls. And…Torishi sniffed the air. Slowly, she exhaled as a Gnoll moaned.

“So. This is the doom of our kingdom.”

Behind the Raskghar from the Meeting of Tribes crept a thousand shadows. Curious noses sniffed the air. Growls. The new Raskghar turned as the occupants of the Kingdom of Gnolls stalked forwards.

The torch flickered. Torishi felt a dread creeping over her. She looked upwards.

No light. No way back. Was the Stitch Witch here? Was she laughing and watching? Surely…

Torishi spoke.

“Fight, Weatherfur. We will not see our tribe again. But fight them. Raskghar! Your treachery failed long ago!

All she heard was silence and rustling. The Gnoll warriors tried to watch every shadow…but they were surrounded.

In the silence, deep underground—Torishi Weatherfur met her end. First one Gnoll vanished, the torch falling as she struck, howling. Then silence. The Raskghar leapt and tackled another Gnoll. Torishi brought her axe down—she cleaved one head in two and then lost her grip as she buried the axe in a second arm. She looked around and saw three Gnolls.

She drew her dagger and howled. The Raskghar of this old place watched as the newcomers struck again. Then one Gnoll, turning to Torishi. Reaching out as she howled.

Then…

Torishi stood in the darkness. Someone doused the torch. Slyly. With a cunning beyond the others. She stood there, one arm burning with pain.

“Come, Nokha. I know your name.”

I am hungry. Hungry for you.”

Torishi’s head turned in the pitch black silence. One little monster who had stalked Mrsha across a continent. Who had escaped even down here. She waited, as, around her, that Raskghar stalked, the others waiting.

Monsters playing with their food. Torishi panted in the darkness. Feshi…the sky was so far away.

When the Raskghar grabbed her, she struggled, but the grip was so strong—Nokha stabbed her and tossed her away as Torishi’s dagger glanced off stolen armor. The Gnoll landed, scrambling for a weapon. She felt a hand seize her throat, felt the hot breath.

“I win again.”

The Weatherfur’s Chieftain smiled. Here she died, and they would never find her unless they came looking, entombed beneath the earth.

But—she called upon her Skill. Called upon her tribe. She grabbed Nokha’s hand, strangling her one-handed.

No longer, Raskghar.

At least let this nightmare plaguing the girl die.

The dark Kingdom of Gnolls had been lost to light over a thousand years. The predators who stalked this grave had never seen light, not as bright as the torch.

In this dark place…a brighter light burned down from the ceiling. A ray of blazing sun.

It illuminated Nokha as the Raskghar looked up and screamed, blinded. She let go of Torishi—but the Weatherfur’s Chieftain had gripped her. Nokha tried to break Torishi’s grip as the Gnoll grabbed one shoulder, but she couldn’t.

She was a monster who had been granted thought and used it to kill. Torishi was a [Chieftain] of her tribe. Nokha’s arm cracked as Torishi’s paws dug into her flesh.

“Let go. Let go!

The Raskghar howled. She bit at Torishi, but the Gnoll kept gripping. Kept tearing into the Raskghar’s arm with her claws. Nokha began screaming for the other Raskghar to help her. But they slunk away from that burning light.

It was so hot. Brighter than even sunlight. The air…her fur was smoking. Nokha began howling, and Torishi’s grip burrowed through her rancid fur. It tore flesh, ripped tendon, and then the Weatherfur Chieftain ripped Nokha’s arm off.

Screaming, the Raskghar retreated, only to see a blazing Gnoll’s paw shoot out. Torishi’s fingers dug into Nokha’s throat, and the panicked howling stopped. The Raskghar struck her, pleading, trying to bite, flee—but Torishi put every fiber of strength into her claws.

A warrior, a mother, a leader, a shaman…the Gnoll pulled at Nokha’s head.

One less horror in this world. One less nightmare before I go. She cried out into the darkness as the Raskghar flinched from this burning thing that was no easy prey.

Belavierr! Stitch Witch! If this is my end—then grant me one last request. I will pay you nothing. But if you have any soul left—

She tore the throat from the Raskghar and felt the blood spray her fur. Torishi dug her claws into the dying Nokha’s body and then tore the head from the corpse. The blank eyes of the Raskghar stared at Torishi as the [Chieftain] raised the head.

“Tell them I was here. And tell that child her nightmare is over.”

She stood, the head staring blankly at her. Nokha’s last look was wordless confusion. She never understood the Gnolls. Not even at the end. Torishi was about to toss the head down when someone reached out and took it. She jerked—looked around—

But the Stitch Witch was gone. Torishi smiled bitterly. Did even the [Witch] have a soul? If so…

Slowly, the Gnoll gazed around, and her broken arm burned again. She was exhausted, and the burning light faded slightly. Torishi searched around and found a sword buried in a Raskghar’s chest. She drew it out of the body and gazed around.

“There you are. Stories. Horrors at the beginning that will not leave. I am damned by the [Witch] of ages.”

Torishi looked around as the shadows drew in. She pointed up, grinning amidst the blood and faded dyes on her fur. The sun, her friend in the darkest days, warmed her fur.

Down here, you could forget there had ever been light. She looked at the Raskghar and saw them flinch away from the memory of something they had turned their backs on.

Sanity. Love, and even hope. They were the wretched cousins of Gnolls. But even they were not doomed. Torishi looked up, and above her, Weatherfur’s people fell to their knees. She had to tell them.

Deep in the depths of the earth, the [Chieftain] of Weatherfur drew in a breath through damaged lungs, past broken bone and with her blood dripping from her veins. Then she howled.

Miles below them, too far for any ear to hear—they still heard her. She howled in the marrow of their bones, and they raised their heads and called back. A voice from beneath the earth. The death of nightmares.

A ray of sun shone down past the [Witch] who looked at it uneasily and into the earth. A Gnoll stood under its light and howled upwards as the Raskghar flinched and beheld her.

I was here.

The Kingdom of Gnolls still rang as the first of its children looked around into that darkness. Torishi panted for breath, and she smiled like that distant sun.

“My tribe will not have me for the trials ahead. But someday, they will return here. They will find this place and know: I was here. I will have you remember that until my people find me once more.”

Snarls answered her, and they gathered in a throng, but they flinched from her stare. Torishi lifted her axe overhead and called down to them.

Look at me, Raskghar. Look at the thing you called Nokha and choose to change again! For I am proof you shall not devour us in darkness. Your teeth will never find the heart of Gnolls.”

She left the dais of stone, and the light shone down into the Kingdom of Gnolls from the world above. The promise on Torishi’s lips. She fought under sunlight. Until the light faded.

 

——

 

High above, the Witch of Webs lifted a bloody head into the air. She regarded it silently, and the Weatherfur tribe howled and wept. Mrsha looked up at Nokha’s face as Vetn carried her and wept.

Torishi Weatherfur was dead. And at last…so was Nokha. The [Witch] tossed the head down. Belavierr looked around.

“I answered the great [Chieftain] of Weatherfur not for payment. Not for any honor of her deeds or life. But as a mother.”

She looked so self-indulgent, so proud of her gesture in that moment that Mrsha howled at her. The Stitch-Witch smiled to herself, pretending not to notice the Gnoll girl. She only ceased when someone spoke to her.

“You have no right to call yourself a mother. I have seen what you do, Belavierr. You have no morality save for that which benefits you. It was a mistake to seek your aid. Your children deserve better parenthood.”

She turned and saw a Gnoll standing there. He was a warrior, a great undead champion of old. But the voice who spoke through him was that of Az’kerash.

“Watch your words, Necromancer.”

She hissed at him through the magic link. But Az’kerash just replied coldly.

“I have your ‘daughter’. She is safe. You will not see her again. Begone, Belavierr. I am ashamed to call you a fellow spellcaster.”

“You dare to threaten me? My daughter? I will haunt your remains, Necromancer.

Belavierr’s eyes blazed with a sudden rage that went far beyond any emotion this day. For reply, Kerash lifted his blade and struck her. She staggered, and blood ran down her arm.

You have killed more good souls than I can stomach. You—you truly are without any good to this world, aren’t you?

She tore the blade from the Draugr’s hand and threw him back. Now, Belavierr whirled. She howled, her joy forgotten.

“Necrom—”

A blade pierced her side, and she grunted. Saliss of Lights clung to Belavierr, stabbing—but he had no great magic. She knocked the Named Adventurer away. Snapped her fingers. A veil of threads went to tear him to pieces.

No!

Lehra Ruinstrider leapt, and the Blade of Mershi struck Belavierr. The Stitch Witch seized the Gnoll and dragged the Blade of Mershi from Lehra’s grasp. She lifted it, and the soul trapped within screamed at her as the gauntlet glowed. Belavierr threw the relic away.

I am the Witch of Webs! I am the last great [Witch], and I will shatter any foe who defies me! Adventurer, [Mage], or child! Hear me, children of Izril! The N—

Belavierr was still speaking when she turned her head. She threw up a hand, and the pink carriage hit her. Like a car crash victim, she slammed into the hood, bounced off the roof as Reynold stared into the [Witch]’s ringed gaze for one heart-stopping moment—then landed on the ground.

The pink carriage of Magnolia Reinhart did a U-turn and ran Belavierr over as she tried to get up. Reynold didn’t hear or feel the crunch of bones he was for once hoping to sense going through the carriage. He backed up just in time to see a hat rise and two glowing eyes.

That was unwise, servant of—

Moore seized Belavierr. She looked up, and he slammed her head-first into the carriage with one thorn-covered hand. He hammered her into the magical vehicle with enough force to rock the enchanted carriage. Then he raised a thorn-covered fist and hit her so hard she cracked a glass window.

Belavierr gazed at Moore and grabbed his arm. She threw him across the ground. Then she turned for Reynold. The [Butler] was already taking the carriage away. He rocketed across the battlefield, heading for a racing figure still dodging enemies.

What the—

Vetn yelped as Reynold kicked a door open. Magnolia’s pink carriage careened to a stop, and the [Butler] shouted.

Get in!

The Thief of Clouds hesitated, but Mrsha leapt into the pink carriage just in time for the earth to explode. Vetn leapt into the interior as a spike of earth nearly hit the carriage. Reynold zig-zagged away as Ulcreziek howled and Xherw pointed.

Kill them! Kill them already!

The [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands] was drawing on every scrap of magic left to him. His tribe was in tatters. Xherw was out of his mind, attacking Silverfang’s tribe. Killing the ones he thought were responsible for everything.

“Chieftain Akrisa, run.”

Shaman Cetrule lifted his staff as Xherw and his bodyguard charged at them. Krshia, Akrisa, and Satar looked at the mad [Chieftain]. Ulcreziek snarled, pointing at Mrsha.

Enough. He had had enough of this. And so…the [Shaman] saw a glowing light growing brighter out of the corner of his eye. He turned, and the Illuminary surged across the land. The glowing [Pirate]’s ship rode a wave that engulfed screaming Gnoll [Shamans] of the Plain’s Eye tribe. It bore down straight at Ulcreziek.

“Hah! Got him!”

Rasea Zecrew laughed as the Gnoll disappeared beneath the prow of the ship. Flos Reimarch grunted as he stood at the railings, ready to leap into the fighting below. Then…the ship listed. Everyone, the Horns, King Raelt, the half-Elves, the [Knights]…

Hesitated.

What was that? Why is my ship stopped?

Rasea hesitated. Then she felt the Illuminary move backwards. She raced to the prow and saw the wave break around her. Then…she looked down at the drenched Gnoll with one glowing eye staring up at her, one paw holding her ship back.

“Oh sh—”

The Illuminary rocked as a precipice of stone slammed into it. It fell sideways—and the crew and passengers stumbled. They spilled out onto the ground. Rasea was first to roll to her feet.

“My ship!”

The Plain’s Eye tribe surrounded the [Pirate]’s vessel. They waited for any fools to get up and be slaughtered. The first thing they saw was a bandaged man slowly getting up. His green eyes glittered behind a bunch of bandages.

“Another undead? Some kind of bandaged one? Kill it.”

A [Shamanic Warrior] barked. Then he saw a man with a crown striding out of the mud and dust. He was a Human with a rapier in one hand, a parrying dagger in the other. A little golden bell chimed as Raelt of Jecrass stood next to the King of Destruction.

“Jecaina?”

The Arbiter Queen emerged, coughing, and, from out of the darkness, Alked Fellbow shot an arrow that lanced through six Gnolls. The Plain’s Eye tribe looked up as the King of Destruction pointed.

The Steward, Orthenon, rode out of the chaos. Gazi Pathseeker joined him, and then a woman glowing with lightning smiled and floated off the deck.

A girl holding the Serkonian Lance brushed at her clothing and fixed Belavierr with a cold stare almost as old as the Witch of Webs. Half-Giant Revenants, a trembling [Champion of War], and Vizir Hecrelunn passed by Frieke of Khelt and her Seahawk. Centaurs, some heartily sick, clattered off the grounded ship as half-Elves and [Knights] stood next to angry [Pirates].

Slowly, the King of Destruction lifted a finger. The Gnolls backed up from the strangest gathering in the world. Flos Reimarch’s eyes were burning as his bandaged mouth opened. The sands of Chandrar whipped around the warriors from a different continent. The legends of Chandrar looked upon the Meeting of Tribes, and the King of Destruction raised his voice.

Char—

“Chandrar, charge!”

The [Hero] of Zethe roared. Doubte came storming from the ship, and the Horns of Hammerad followed, screaming for psychological effect. The Herald of the Forests raised her horn, and the King of Destruction looked around and then followed the others into fighting, shouting curses.

“The Steward of Destruction! Gazi Pathseeker! The Archmage of Chandrar!”

Screams. Gnolls and Drakes recognized the three legendary figures of Reim. Raelt leapt past the others, sword flickering as he and Jecaina raced into the fighting. Khelt’s undead were surging around Zeres.

Protect the Gnolls. Slay the [Witch]. Save the child—

 

——

 

Each one had a different goal. The sky was crackling as Archamge Valeterisa panted. Fissival was hurling spell after spell at her location, even the Magic Throwers. She was reconsidering her participation in this war as Wyverns flew with the best [Mages], trading spells of their own behind magical barriers.

As [Mages] fought. Right until the sky flashed, and a woman danced into sight.

Valeterisa. Do you need a hand?”

“Archmage…Amerys?”

Valeterisa took a second to check her eyes were working and this wasn’t an illusion. Amerys’ grey hair whipped about her as her eyes glowed with the storm. Valeterisa lifted a weak hand.

“That would be very welcome. I, ah—are you free now? Query: Wistram. Is Amerys supposed to be…?”

Amerys laughed, and the sky turned into burning lightning as Fissival’s [Mages] screamed. Valeterisa looked at Amerys and, for once, canceled the [Message] spell.

No one was going to cage her again.

Two Archmages of Wistram criss-crossed the skies with magic as Wyverns battled with flying Pegasi. Oteslia’s [Pegasus Riders] struck Fissival from behind.

 

——

 

What? What Archmages? Just—kill them and Oteslia’s riders!

Wall Lord Dragial was shouting into a [Communication] spell on the ground. Salazsar’s charge into Fissival had ended up in a melee—and that was the worst scenario for the magical army of Fissival. Gnolls on one side—

And here came Wall Lord Ilvriss. Dragial scrambled away as the Wall Lord of Salazsar rode at him. He teleported across the battlefield as Ilvriss cursed.

Dragial!

The Drake scrambled away. That was when he saw the Blade of Mershi land on the ground as the Witch of Webs tore the relic from Lehra’s grasp.

“The Blade of Mershi. At last!

Wall Lord Dragial ran for the gauntlet. It had landed in the fighting, and he thrust a wand forwards. Drakes—his own forces and Gnolls and Salazsar’s forces went flying as a ripple of force knocked them aside.

Where was it? The Drake hunted around in the mud, falling to his knees to wrench up…a helmet. He looked around for that glint of ancient magic. His [Detect Magic] spell was all but useless—it was cloaked. The key to the City of Stars!

Where…? Then he saw her. That damn Gnoll, running through the fighting with her team.

Lehra!

She had to be sensing it! The Stargnoll was wounded, but she still ran for the relic. Dragial ran at her, wand raised. He lunged as he saw something glinting in the mud.

The Blade of Mershi rose in Dragial’s grip. He laughed as Lehra skidded to a halt.

“No. Dragial!

“It’s mine! It’s mine at last! In the name—of the City of Stars!

The Wall Lord shoved the gauntlet onto one arm and raised it upwards. Just like Lehra had done. He looked up, his face radiant. The world dropped away from him, and he stood in space.

Space! A room with no walls or floor. Just the shining void. Surely this…

This was the magic of the Walled City, Mershi. The Drake wept as the magic interfaced with his being. He saw someone standing there.

A Drake, wearing the armor of stars. She held a sword, and Dragial fell to his knees.

“You’re the one who will lead me to the City of Stars.”

Perhaps.

The owner of the Blade of Mershi, Saturniel Cometscale, whispered. She looked into Dragial’s eyes. Into his soul.

“If you want the power of Mershi—answer me one question.”

The Wall Lord drew himself up. He had waited for this trial forever. He whispered.

“Name it.”

The Drake wavered as her spirit focused on Dragial.

“Who…are our enemies?”

The Wall Lord felt a power compelling him to answer with all his soul. But he didn’t have to think—he only worried it was a singular answer.

“The…Humans of Izril. Or the Gnoll tribes. The Antinium—the Nagas—”

He was going to go on, but the Drake lifted one claw. Dragial waited, heart beating—and Saturniel rolled her eyes.

“Wrong.”

Dragial’s glorious vision of the stars began to fade. He screamed desperately.

“Wait—wait! Tell me what the answer is!”

The Drake closed her eyes and looked away. The enemy of so many species looked at the bearer of the Blade of Mershi. The answer was the one the Stargnoll had once given:

No one. No mortal enemies in an entire species. The Wall Lord was not worthy.

Then the image of Saturniel vanished, and Dragial was left standing on the battlefield. He looked around, staring at the dead Blade of Mershi. Then Lehra kicked him.

Dragial went tumbling down as the Stargnoll raised the Blade of Mershi. Stargazer’s Promise spread out around her as Dragial rose to his feet.

“What…what did you do?”

He looked at Lehra as the armored Gnoll gazed down at him. The Wall Lord looked about, and the soldiers of Fissival turned at his scream.

You’ve corrupted the Blade of Mershi. Kill—kill her!

Stargazer’s Promise closed ranks as Lehra panted, drawing a sword and shield out of the air. Elgrinna, Suxhel, and Emper looked to Lehra.

“He’s getting away. What do we do? Go after him?”

The Stargnoll hesitated, then shook her head. Dragial was scrambling away, calling for Fissival’s troops to kill her.

“He’s not important. We—we have to get out of here. The Stitch Witch is still killing everyone, and Mrsha—”

Then the adventurers realized they were in danger. Fissival’s entire army was turning towards them and the Relic that Dragial had wanted for so long. The young adventurers looked around, and even stolid Emper wilted slightly.

“How are we supposed to fight…?”

Suxhel was counting, her mana almost exhausted, and Elgrinna didn’t seem to know which way to turn. Lehra herself, a Named Adventurer, looked at a sea of Drakes, and that expression of confidence wavered. The four adventurers backed up as spears lowered into walls and Drakes marched towards them and raised their wands.

Then the Selphid leapt into the first spear, and the tip of one pierced her stomach. But the whirling [Steel Tempest] didn’t care. She was holding a flail of Demas Metal, each blade dripping with blood, water, or poison.

She whirled the weapon around, and Drakes broke apart, screaming in terror. Lehra saw a rank vanish, [Soldiers] falling or fleeing as the Gold-rank Captain of the Halfseekers turned.

“Rookies! What are you doing getting cornered? Keep moving if you want to live! Moore! Open a hole!”

Moore? Wh—

A half-Giant ran through another group of Drakes, and a Selphid wearing a Drake’s body webbed down the soldiers on either side. The Named Adventurer and her team saw the half-Giant pick up a [Mage] and throw the Drake into the distance.

You’re—the Halfseekers?

Lehra vaguely recognized them. Jelaqua Ivirith was covered in wounds, but the Selphid had changed her body four times already. They had been pursuing Mrsha when they saw the younger team in trouble.

Now there were two teams against all those Drakes.

“What do we do?”

Jelaqua stepped into the opening she’d cleared, trembling as she Rampaged. She snapped back, eyes glowing faintly orange, veins pulsing with her true body.

When an army’s surrounding you? You fight so damn hard they back away and run. Where’s that Wall Lord?”

She turned, and Lehra saw Dragial, still retreating, but glaring at her with hatred in his eyes.

“There. But he’s lost and—”

Jelaqua grabbed Lehra’s face with one bloody hand. The Selphid stared down at Lehra.

“You don’t leave your enemies alive, rookie.”

The young Gnoll who had been a Bronze-rank adventurer less than two years ago looked into the eyes of a Selphid over forty years an adventurer. Her reply was automatic. The reason why she was chosen.

“I have no enemies in any species.”

She got back a corpse’s smile. The Selphid’s head rotated slowly, and she looked at the Drake who had led a Walled City into the Meeting of Tribes.

“Maybe not. But I see a person who would walk on the corpses of everyone to get his way. Even his own kind. The Halfseekers know evil. Adventurers.

She pointed one hand at Dragial, and the Wall Lord paled, despite a thousand Drakes between him and the Selphid. He had fought Lehra for two years and escaped and triumphed and vowed revenge.

“—He does not live another minute.”

Then she whirled her flail up and sprinted towards him. Moore, Ulinde, and Stargazer’s Promise followed, and the Drakes and their formations looked at a Named-Adventurer and two Gold-rank teams.

Hold them back! Kill the adventurers!

Dragial was already looking for a safe place. He raised his wand and pointed. There!

“[Teleportation]!”

He was midway through the spell when the [Rogue] stepped out of his shadow and calmly ran a dagger into Dragial’s back. The Wall Lord had enchanted armor, and his amulets were some of the best protection in the world. So Seborn kept stabbing until he felt the first prick of his blade against the enchanted cloth. Even that didn’t draw blood, but the Drowned Man just smiled and whispered.

“[Anchoring Stab].”

The teleportation spell fizzled out. Dragial turned, but Seborn just dodged the spray of acid that struck the Drakes behind him. He tried to finish the Wall Lord, but the Drakes nearly ran him through from behind. The Drowned Man leapt backwards, enchanted blades flashing.

Damn you! All of you! Kill them!

The Gnolls fighting with Fissival were howling behind Jelaqua. For all her words—the Selphid tore left and right, shredding limbs. Moore’s charge left only blood and bodies in his wake. Ulinde’s spells left dozens dead with each cast, and the terrified infantry hesitated.

But then spells began to strike the Gold-rank teams. Lehra blocked a glowing comet with a shield only to scream as acid rained down. Moore howled, and a hundred lesser spells cut the air.

Burning [Arrows of Flame] rained down on the Gnoll tribe trying to strike Fissival’s heart from the side. The Woven Bladegrass tribe led by Chieftain Werri were encircled like the Halfseekers and Stargazer’s Promise.

These Gnolls died to the last. Dragial pointed at them, unleashing a [Deathbolt]. The furious Chieftain refused to fall, even as it splashed through her body. She howled as she tried to fight towards the Wall Lord, but [Mage-General] Qeuse stood behind walls of magic.

Chieftain Werri’s warriors threw themselves against the barriers as jets of flame and acid shot from the mouths of Oldblood Drakes. There weren’t just warriors in her tribe. Everyone, young and old, was trapped, but the army of Drakes didn’t care. Werri lifted her head, looking around wildly for a way out.

What she saw were—Centaurs.

 

——

 

“Forgotten Wing! Fall upon them!”

Perorn Fleethoof saw the deathtrap and led her forces straight into Fissival’s flank. But she knew it was a desperation play.

A third of her people had fallen to the Witch of Webs and during the fighting. The Drakes turned as her forces cut in fast, and the Centaurs’ charge faltered as armored spearwalls turned on them.

The officer. Perorn pointed at Dragial and Qeuse.

Officer sniping!

She loosed an arrow at the [Mage-General] as her people fired, but the arrows cracked uselessly against the barriers surrounding Fissival’s general. Perorn looked to the Woven Bladegrass tribe and adventurers.

“Break towards us!”

They were trying, but there just weren’t enough Centaurs to pierce the thousands upon thousands of Drakes. Perorn’s weak leg slipped. She stumbled, and then an arm caught her.

“Sister. Get up. Cover my charge.”

The Centauress looked up into an older face, a woman with a pale lower torso. A Centaur? But not one of Perorn’s warriors, wearing armor. This was a nomad, wearing decorated cloth and charms woven into the colorful tale of her tribe.

As different from Centaurs of Baleros as…Perorn blinked incredulously. She had not looked for Centaurs on Izril.

Herdmistress Geraeri of the People of Zair lifted a quarterstaff as the Forgotten Wing Company saw a second line of Centaurs streaking through their ranks. Only a few dozen—but they followed Geraeri forwards, and Perorn felt her weak legs strengthen.

She felt refreshed, as if she could run another hundred miles. The herd of Jecrass’ Centaurs crashed into Fissival’s spears as if they were made of stone. Steel snapped on their bodies, and Geraeri raced forwards, urging Perorn to her side.

It wasn’t just her. Perorn’s head whirled, and she saw a stream of faded green hair flying beneath a helmet. The Herald of Forests, Ierwyn, rode like a whisper through the trees. She and her half-Elves passed through the Drakes’ lines, and she halted in front of Chieftain Werri.

The myth who had rode Chandrar’s battlefields four hundred years ago lifted her sword as she looked down at the tired Gnolls. Her eyes met Werri’s.

Kin of the plains! I am the Herald of Claiven Earth! Will you ride with me? Fables of the Forest—arise! [A Fraction of My Experience]!”

The Gnolls of the young tribe stared up as the half-Elf called to them, and they felt the experience of centuries sink into their bones. Werri parried a blade and riposted, feeling her exhaustion fade. She howled.

Follow that half-Elf!

Ierwyn was already plunging towards the first wall of magic barriers. She lanced through them in a heartbeat, shattering the magic as she cut a path out of the Woven Bladegrass tribe’s encirclement.

“Officer on the field. Marking them for bombardments! Get—get the Wall Lord to safety.”

The [Mage-General] of Fissival was trying to reform his lines. General Qeuse pivoted as he saw Perorn and Geraeri riding at him.

“[Battlefield: Cascade Shields of Fissival]!”

He reinforced the magic around him as the Centaurs charged. The Drake’s confidence lasted for six seconds. Then an arrow fell like a shooting star and pierced the magic, breaking each barrier in front of him like a bubble.

The [General] deflected the arrow wildly with a swipe of the scepter and shield he held. The Drake whirled, and Alked Fellbow lifted his head as he lowered his bow, turning to the next target. The [General] of Fissival shouted desperately.

Defend the camps—

 

——

 

Wall Lord Dragial was watching the Gnolls led by the half-Elf in stupefaction when the Centaurs overran Qeuse’s position.

“This isn’t right. We are the City of Magic!

And they were. But there charged the Fables of the Forest, a company of old half-Elves and Gnolls blazing with Ierwyn’s fury. Geraeri, the Herdmistress of Zair, and Perorn met the [Mage-General] in combat. He deflected Perorn’s lancing stab, staggered as his armor took a blow from Geraeri’s quarterstaff, and saw both Centaurs gallop past him.

The Drake was trying to recast his barrier spells when the trail of rope that Geraeri had tossed wrapped around one of his legs like a snake and tightened into a knot. A simple rope trick. A [Nomad]’s Skill. The [General] was torn off his feet, and the Herdmistress raced out of the fighting, dragging the Drake behind her. She dragged the screaming [General] across the ground, racing away as Centaurs trampled the body, loosing arrows down until that scream stopped.

“Barbarians.”

Dragial tried to back away. Then he whirled as he saw the Woven Bladegrass tribe cutting their way out of his army on one side. The Centaurs turning for another charge. And the adventurers…

Reached him. 

The Wall Lord saw the Halfseekers charging him. He backed away, raising his wand. A shield deflected Jelaqua’s flail, and he spoke.

“[Ray of Entropy]—”

Lehra deflected the spell. She stabbed forwards and rammed the blade into his shoulder. The Wall Lord tore away, and one of his amulets trapped Jelaqua and Lehra in a field of stasis. Cursing, Emper struck Dragial, and the Drake staggered as the staff deactivated his magic.

The Blade is mine! The City of Magic will never fall! You will all be hunted down and—

Moore picked up the Wall Lord. The bloody thorns on his hand cut into Dragial’s face as he squeezed tight. Lehra looked up in silence as the [Stasis Field] deactivated. She waited for something…a last contingency. A body-double.

All she saw was Dragial’s body jerk once and blood run down from Moore’s grip. A terrible grinding crunch and…and then he was gone. The enemy who had plagued her for two years twitched one last time, and his magic vanished. The half-Giant tossed the Drake’s body down, and Ulinde leapt from his back.

“Looting. Twenty seconds.”

The bloody Halfseekers saw Stargazer’s Promise recoil. Jelaqua Ivirith just turned. The adventurers looked at Fissival’s stunned army. The Woven Bladegrass tribe scythed through them behind the Herald, turning their demise into an unstoppable charge that began to tear the Drake army in twain.

Wall Lord Dragial was dead. The Stargnoll had finally brought down her foe. The Halfseekers had made an enemy of Fissival, and…

Lehra looked around. She had already known it, but now she stared down at the ruined face, the battlefield spanning miles, the army of the dead. Now that she thought it, it was obvious.

Izril would never be the same again.

 

——

 

Fetohep rode through the battlefield, halberd whirling as the undead poured forwards. Zeres faced them, holding the line despite the massive number of undead. They had levels; the dead soldiers had no limit.

Madness. The King of Khelt was raging. How many years’ worth of accumulated mana had the Walled Cities wasted? All their preparations since the last Antinium Wars to loose spells meant for the direst battle?

Five years?

All to wipe out one of their enemies. The worst part was…they succeeded.

And how many dead was Khelt spending to activate and keep the Graven Passage open? Even he couldn’t count the cost, but it was necessary.

Fetohep saw a single tribe of Gnolls fighting Manus in the vanguard of both forces. They were the fiercest warriors of their generation. A famous tribe, led by one Gnoll who had given them their name.

Steelfur. A thorn in the side of the Walled Cities. Fetohep watched as the warriors, fighting with light to no armor, suddenly faltered. A Gnoll stared down at her light brown fur, not the grey of a moment ago. Then a sword cut her down.

There was only one reason for that. Fetohep’s head turned, and he saw Iraz Steelfur die. The despairing Chieftain was holding onto a Drake with brilliant, sky-blue scales, who buried a crackling glaive in his chest. His fur smoked with lightning, and a Gnoll screamed his [Chieftain]’s name.

Adetr Steelfur was the only Gnoll who remained metal after Iraz fell. The only one with a class of his own.

“So ends a great tribe.”

Fetohep’s head turned right, and he saw another [Chieftain] fall. This time to Zeres. A triumphant Drake with scars across his body raised a serrated spear, covered in his blood and his opponent’s. The Sharkcaptain of Zeres was armed with weapons as old and as powerful as the Gnolls who had fought him. And he was the one who rose, not Chieftain Reizet.

Az’muzarre. Steelfur. They had stood against the truth and Doombearers. But two great tribes were falling to pieces. Being cut down.

“Khelt. Upon me!”

Fetohep’s howl made the Admiral of the Land, Horsthe, bring the veterans of Zeres against him. Fetohep’s undead ran into the Drakes. Then they climbed over the dead and living alike. They buried the first rank of Drakes in a sea of bones and armor. The undead ruler rode forwards.

“Fetohep. The ritual. I cannot feel Khelt. Xierca is…dying. Chandrar is lost.”

Khelta was whispering in his ears. Fetohep’s head turned.

“Xierca?”

A shudder ran through the undead. They felt it just as he. A void was being torn open in Fetohep’s heart. Khelt’s rulers were dying.

So the undead monarch rode with eyes of blazing gold, and the living fell away before him and his army that began to shriek wrath. Fetohep looked to Zeres, to Fissival, to Manus, to the tribes of Plain’s Eye and all the fools.

Whom did he slaughter? Which army did he wipe from the earth and leave nothing for even carrion to feed upon? Who died? They trembled as his army kept pouring from the gates.

Then Fetohep saw it. The golden fury in his face wavered…and he pointed.

There! Khelt, to me!

Ten thousand soldiers poured after him, and another ten thousand, heedless of being flanked, the danger, forcing Drakes and Gnolls to flee. Fetohep came to a halt and looked down. His halberd pointed at the ground—not at the figures in front of him.

Gnolls. Tribes fleeing the fighting, surrounded by Drakes on every side, under attack. Which group was this? Silverfang? Plain’s Eye?

Fetohep saw children, parents, families, Gnolls holding bows or simple spears. Looking up at him with horror, and he gazed about and saw more tribes fleeing.

“Here. Warriors of Khelt, protect these Gnolls until your destruction. Not one dies. To me, Khelt!

He plunged into the fighting, as the undead of Khelt encircled this group, carrying them to safety. Fetohep looked around for his queen, Khelta, and saw a smiling face. He grinned back and then looked around.

He had found his glory upon the battlefield and his place. At the despair of their nation—Fetohep did what every ruler before him had ever chosen.

Living over the dead. But his head turned, looking for that last child. He could not save them all.

But he would always try.

 

——

 

The Golden Gnoll of Pallass was no hero and never tried to be. She had hidden every day of her life who she was.

Out of fear. Just like all the others. Now, Qwera stood, and her fur shone white and gold next to Wer, and the air filled with colors as Tesy drew arrows and brick walls next to her.

She loosed arrows down at the Plain’s Eye tribe, and two Doombearers stood in the open, with the tribes of Izril at their back.

Qwera would have traded all the gold she had ever earned for this moment. And all of the gold she’d ever earn that this would never happen.

She couldn’t describe the sensation of triumph and loss. The Gnolls dying and the truth she could finally cling to. The knowledge it wasn’t her.

They were not doom. It had always been misfortune, deeds by good people and monsters. It wasn’t her.

They just had to—struggle. Qwera saw Tesy fall, shrieking with an arrow in his leg. He was bleeding so quickly she dropped the bow and grabbed a potion.

Qwera! Get back!

Ysara backed up, blade parrying a strike from an incredulous Gnoll. The [Merchant] fought with the talent that had been called a prodigy’s.

Once. But she had traded it all for the future she wanted, her own path. She went sprawling as she locked blades with a Gnoll and a Skill tossed her off her feet. Qwera looked up as a Gnoll tackled a huge [Shamanic Warrior] coming up the hill like a bull.

Yelroan, the [Mathematician], looked up as the Plain’s Eye warrior howled.

“Traitor.”

He blocked Yelroan and hammered the Gnoll down. The lines bowed inwards as Wer turned. He tried to get to them as Qwera drew a knife and slashed at the [Shamanic Warrior]’s fur, but it was like armor.

Ysara looked up, searching for her sword, dazed, as a second warrior raised a spear. The Silver Trader cried out as a spear pinned her to the ground through the shoulder. The Gnoll raised his spear, snarling, to stab her through the head. Then he turned, a silver hand on his shoulder.

He looked back, back, and Qwera recoiled from the arm that stretched…five feet? Silver flesh. A furious, blue-eyed stare.

Then Yvlon pulled herself forwards, and her second fist sent a spray of teeth and blood into the air. Ysara looked up as her younger sister whirled.

Yvl—

The second Gnoll whirled, dropping Yelroan, and Yvlon, bare-handed, pointed a finger at him. The Gnoll jerked and stared down at the spike of metal running through his chest. Yvlon’s finger turned into a piercing blade, then withdrew.

Horns of Hammerad! To me!

The Silver Killer of the Coliseum of Monarchs raised her head, and Ysara and the struggling Gnolls saw…a behemoth rise.

Frost and ice crackled as Pisces and Ceria balanced on the back of their signature creature. It raised one paw, and the Plain’s Eye tribe fled screaming as the Horns of Hammerad charged their position.

Ksmvr landed next to Yvlon and cut an arrow out of the sky. The [Skirmisher] lifted his blades. Yvlon whirled.

“You must watch your back more, Yvlon.”

She looked at him, and his third hand patted her on the shoulder. Yvlon turned to her dumbstruck sister.

“Sorry, Ksmvr. Ysara—we’re here. Where’s Erin?”

“Wh—Yvlon?

Ysara stuttered as Ksmvr looked past Pisces and Ceria. The half-Elf tossed herself from the back of the behemoth, and Pisces [Flash Stepped] into the air.

Damnit! That’s the second—

The giant undead exploded as a needle twice as long as Qwera went through its head. The Horns of Hammerad landed, and—there they were. Even the Gnolls fighting for their lives turned as that famous team appeared.

“Is this your sister, Ysara? Hello, I am a landowner from your estates. I own two trees—”

Ksmvr offered a hand, and Yvlon pointed.

There’s Mrsha! Get to her! Ysara—stay here! Ceria, walls!”

“On it, on it—let’s go! Yvlon, get behind Ksmvr, that’s an order! He’s better at deflecting than you are! Horns of Hammerad, go!

A wall of ice rose, guarding the endangered position. Ceria pointed down the slope, and a floor of ice covered the ground. The enemy warriors slipped and went sprawling, but the Horns just leapt down—and went crashing down the slope as Pisces ran into Yvlon and they tripped over Ksmvr.

The Horns got up and kept going. Chasing the pink carriage, Mrsha—a thread of chaos amidst the fighting. Ysara stared at her sister with incredulity and delight. Qwera looked for Vetn, heart beating with surprise. And—hope.

 

——

 

The pink carriage was racing across the battlefield as Mrsha looked around for her friends. Vetn was with her, but Reynold was trying to take them to safety. And Mrsha…Mrsha was hoping no one else tried to rescue her.

Because it seemed as though her rescuers attracted almost as much attention as Mrsha.

The carriage! Magnolia Reinhart’s vehicle! High-priority—[Mark Target]! [Focused Fire]! Bring it down!

Manus saw the carriage, and the vehicle shook as spells began to blast the windows and doors. Mrsha hid under a seat as Reynold swerved right and left.

Then the Oldblood Drakes began dive-bombing the carriage.

You scale-eyed bastards! There is a child in—

The [Combat Butler] ran one through with his sword as Drakes clung to the carriage, stabbing into it, looking for Magnolia Reinhart or just trying to erase her famous carriage. Vetn stole one’s sword, and the cursing Drake was thrown off as Reynold did a complete circle, knocking them off. But more kept coming—the [Butler] felt a sting of pain as one shot a crossbow at him and the bolt hammered him into the driver’s seat.

He parried a sword thrust to his neck, and three Drakes on the speeding carriage fell off, headless. Reynold jerked in surprise—and a pair of silver swords descended over a third Drake.

“Keep driving. Where is Mrsha? Inside?

Reynold stared in horror at Klbkch the Slayer as the Antinium balanced on the carriage. It picked up speed again, and the blademaster of the Antinium leaned out of the way of a spell. His swords cut down a volley of arrows, and he glanced around.

“Ah. Troubles—”

“Mrsha!”

Only a few beings in the world could hope to catch up with the pink carriage. One of them was Mivifa, the Oldblood of Feathers. She dove, and Klbkch ducked the lance. He slashed back, but the Named Adventurer was already cutting left out of range. Both she and the Antinium lashed at each other as Reynold howled at them to get away.

Then someone else hit his carriage, and he saw Drake [Riders] flanking him with nets, trying to drag the carriage to a stop.

Get Mrsha out of here! This is a deathtrap!

Vetn screamed at Reynold, and the [Butler] had to agree. He swerved left as Klbkch and Mivifa broke off fighting.

Manus! Enough!

The Named Adventurer knocked a trio of Drakes from their horses with her lance as her pegasus snapped her wings out and slammed another rider off their mount. Klbkch was more direct. He leapt off the carriage, slashed through half a dozen [Riders], and jumped back on in a blur. Reynold broke out of the press of riders, and Vetn leapt, Mrsha in his arms, onto the ground. Reynold was turning to cover them when he felt a prickle on the back of his neck.

He realized Mrsha had been the one saving him. For as long as she rode in his carriage…Reynold looked around and far, far across the battlefield, but like a beacon of malice…

The Stitch Witch pointed at Reynold. Her eyes were vengeful as she flicked a finger.

“[Your Mortal Doom, Returned], servant.”

Reynold whirled the carriage, but he saw it again. String. Wire—he howled as he ran into the same trap that—

The pink carriage flipped and crashed across the battlefield. The second and last of Magnolia’s famed carriages lay there, wheels spinning as the [Butler] lay in the wreckage. Then he was clambering out.

Where was that girl?

 

——

 

Vetn ran. It seemed like every force in the world was after him. Drakes, Gnolls—Antinium—fighting each other, fighting for Mrsha.

Saliss of Lights blurred out of the fighting, one arm cut down to the bone. He left a trail of explosions in his wake as Manus turned on Vetn. Now, the Thief of Clouds heard them.

Capture the target alive! Get the Doombearer—

They wanted Mrsha. Vetn heard Saliss shouting at him.

You idiot! Get her to safety!

“I’m trying! I’m—”

The Walled City of War was used to fast targets. Vetn and Saliss saw a wall of Drakes appearing, so Vetn looked left. And saw…more Drakes. And right? More Drakes.

A perfect box formation swung into place. Saliss lifted two potions in his claws.

“Get out of my way or I will disintegrate you all.”

The Named Adventurer roared, and the [Soldiers] flinched. But then General Milka, one of the supreme [Generals] of Manus, strode forwards.

“[Unit: Elemental Barrier]. Stand down, Saliss. Put the child down and surrender or—”

She looked up, raised her shield, and Wrymvr dropped on her. No acid. No scythes or biting maw. He just slammed into her so hard the ground shook.

Saliss, Vetn, and Mrsha saw the winged creature modeled after Dragons and Crelers rise. Mouths moved along the pinhole eyes and ever-evolving body.

Important Drakes die.

“Kids? Get out of here.”

Saliss calmly pushed Vetn and Mrsha aside. He walked forwards, and Wrymvr turned. Saliss reached for a bottle in his final arsenal. Wrymvr the Deathless howled as the Named Adventurer lifted a vial and threw it, and the explosion sucked part of Wrymvr into a vortex.

Vetn turned to go as Klbkch and Mivifa appeared, and the Drakes and Antinium began to fight. He looked around, and a second Gnoll appeared by his side in a flash.

“General Milka is dead?”

Who—

Lulv stabbed Vetn in the shoulder and buried a knife in the [Thief]’s arm. Then he grabbed Mrsha.

“Target captured. Two Prognugators. Get me reinforcements.

Mrsha bit one armored hand and nearly broke her teeth. Lulv grimaced and looked around. Then the [Spearmaster] saw a panting [Butler] skid to a halt.

“Put her down or die.”

The [Spearmaster] lifted his spear one-handed, transferring Mrsha to the other arm. His look of confidence never wavered—until he felt that prickle on the back of his neck.

“Mrsha?”

“The girl?”

“White thing?”

“You stupid bastard. Now I’m going to kill you too.”

Klbkch, Mivifa, Wrymvr, and Saliss all turned from their fighting, and the [Spearmaster] decided to drop Mrsha after all. She ran over to Vetn, fumbling for a potion.

Friends and foes surrounding her. Vetn groaned as Mrsha poured the potion onto him. Then…someone picked her up.

Stop it! Stop it! Mrsha began to bite whomever it was, reaching for a knife. Then she looked up.

It wasn’t Klbkch or Lulv. Or even someone like Reynold or one of Magnolia’s maids or…

Her protectors whirled as a young man, face as white as a sheet, picked Mrsha up and began running. A galloping [Rider] passed him by in an instant, and he did not move at the speed of light.

Fals ran with Mrsha under one arm like a priority delivery. He ran straight through the Drakes, screaming as Mrsha looked up at him.

You? The City Runner was running—but to where? Fals carried Mrsha through the fighting, arrows flying around him, Drakes and Gnolls fighting. Straight towards…

Mrsha saw him stagger and cry out as someone shot an arrow through his leg. He kept going, and then Mrsha saw the line of Antinium. Fals fell down, and Mrsha tumbled forwards. But the Antinium saw her, and the Gnoll trying to kill Fals fell. Then…the Antinium crusade stood there, and a [Templar] reached down.

[Heal Mundane Wounds].

The City Runner looked up, panting, and Mrsha saw someone grab her.

We’ve got her. Fals? Fals?

Garia picked up Mrsha, and the Fellowship, the Antinium, and the Gnolls closed ranks. The City Runner’s finest delivery looked down at the young man and then back through the battlefield.

He was something after all. Mrsha clung to Garia and saw Numbtongue running at her with Bird. No more rescues. She looked around.

Here they stood and lived or died. The [Crusaders] of 1st Battalion faced Manus as the City of War focused on their foe. The Fellowship and Gnolls of the tribes turned as the Walled City charged them.

Manus, again. Only this time they weren’t hiding behind Hectval. This was their best. 1st Battalion held their ground, a hundred Antinium fighting with Goblins and Gnolls.

Manus’ damned elites plunged forwards, following their [Spearmaster], and Liscor’s army ran into them. The Antinium, Mrsha, and the Fellowship saw a screaming young woman pointing her sword straight at Lulv’s finest. The [Spearmaster], who had escaped the Antinium and Saliss, turned.

Who—

“Erin?”

Numbtongue and Mrsha stared at the young woman. Mrsha’s eyes went round. It was her! Numbtongue cried out, but Fierre and Ulvama dragged him back.

Not her! What is that?

Ulvama stared at ‘Erin’ in alarm. And Mrsha saw that terrible smile of war on the young woman’s face.

General Sserys charged Manus, and Liscor followed him. He was bound for…

Dragonspeaker Luciva. The Drake looked around, surrounded by her bodyguard. Sserys went for her. He lost his horse as Lulv speared the poor animal. Then he was up. He was the [Spear of the Drakes]—he cut through one incredulous veteran. Parried a spear and stabbed through a throat.

But he was fighting Manus—

“[Blademasters]! Halt Liscor!

A Drake drew her blade as Sserys whirled in the melee. She didn’t see Sserys—just a Human. And the [General] was a fraction too slow.

The [Blademaster] cut off Erin’s arm. Sserys grunted as the Drake pivoted. He ran the [Blademaster] through and dragged his sword up.

“Erin!”

Her friends screamed in horror, but the young woman just whirled and put something to her lips. Sserys was—laughing? Then the blood gushing from that stump stopped. Just like when he had fallen out of the sky—

The Drake took a gulp of the Potion of Regeneration. And the arm began regrowing. It reappeared, and the naked arm reached out and cracked a Drake’s jaw.

“Where was this when I needed it? Charge! Charge, you slugs!”

Liscor’s army ran around him. Sserys threw himself forwards, and a disbelieving Gnoll ran through the young woman’s stomach. He stared at that bloody grin, and Lulv found a second sword in his stomach.

Want to trade, boy? I can do this all day.

The [General] laughed at the [Spearmaster] as Lulv stumbled back. The Gnoll lifted his spear. If she could heal, then he’d destroy that damn head—

A claw grabbed Lulv’s spear, and the [Spearmaster] jerked. He looked left. Who had—

The Gecko of Liscor stood there, eyes fixed on Lulv.

“Spearmaster Lulv.”

Lulv didn’t think. The name was on his lips in a moment. They knew each other; their class always did.

“Gecko. Let go of me—”

“I hear you tore up Liscor at Hectval. And my kid. Which is why I’m going to hit you now.”

The two [Spearmasters] wrestled for Lulv’s spear. The Gnoll looked at the Gecko as Sserys whirled.

Keep that idiot off me! Luciva—

He tore forwards. Then a Human checked Sserys to the ground with one arm. The young woman fell as Lulv and Relc looked sideways. A living ball of bandages knocked Sserys flat, and the Drake cursed.

“Who the hell—hey! Give that—”

The Potion of Regeneration splashed over a face, and the King of Destruction crowed as Orthenon and Gazi stormed through Manus’ ranks. Sserys backed up, cursing.

“Damn. Nevermind—”

“I have returned!”

The King of Destruction tore the bandages from his face, and no one paid attention to him. A Drake and Gnoll locked gazes, and Lulv drew a dagger. He stabbed, and Relc had to let go. The Gecko bounded back, and two [Spearmasters] faced each other.

They had never fought. Spearmaster Lulv was the son of Manus; Relc a veteran of Liscor. Completely different in their roles. Lulv could lead entire forces and fought alone, a champion. Relc ran into the enemy and took them out, but he wasn’t Lulv’s level.

—But he was a specialist. [Officer Headhunter Mode]. Lulv ignored the bodies of the dead clawing at his feet, but he shifted his stance, keeping back. His [Spear Arts] could destroy enemy formations.

Relc’s—

[Triple Thrust]. The Drake struck three times, and Lulv took a hit. It was almost impossible to dodge and block three simultaneous strikes. Even so—

[Spear Art: Fangs of the Dire Wolf]!

The Gnoll tore up the earth, going for a leg and Relc’s shoulder. The Drake leapt, striking the ground with his spear and launching himself up. A [Spearmaster]’s contempt for the ground.

Got you. Lulv broke off the Spear Art and aimed up.

[Hurricane Stabs]! [Impact Spear]!

Relc blocked a flurry, but the sheer force of the blows knocked him backwards, and Lulv kept up the attack as Relc landed, hammering him, striking his armor, his body.

The adamantium-tipped spear tore open Relc’s scales, but the Gecko had a body like steel! And Relc—

He knew he was underleveled. A [Whirlwind Dodge] nearly got him killed as Lulv hit him mid-dodge, but Relc was activating his Spear Dance. Lulv dodged away, countering with a dance of his own.

He saw Relc stepping towards him, spear tracing an arc like a leaping fish while the Gnoll countered with a far more direct dance. What Lulv didn’t expect was for Relc to drop his spear mid-dance. His claws flashed up—

And he grabbed Lulv’s spear mid-thrust. The other [Spearmaster] jerked, but they were fighting for Lulv’s spear again. The Gnoll cursed, but he didn’t dare let go of the spear to grab another weapon. He tried to toss Relc back and saw the Drake pull back his head.

The headbutt made Lulv’s head ring. The Gnoll began to bite, roaring—and the Gecko tore one fist free. In response, Lulv grabbed a second dagger and put it in Relc’s shoulder.

The Gecko slammed his fist into Lulv’s face. Once, twice—and Lulv realized his mistake. He wasn’t engaging in a masterful dance of the spear with the Gecko. Tekshia Shivertail was arguably better than Relc, if no longer as strong. But he was—

Brawling with the Gecko of Liscor. And the [Sergeant] promptly kneed Lulv in the groin, gave him another headbutt, and broke Lulv’s nose. The snarling Gnoll could keep fighting for his spear or—

Relc’s spear. He thrust Relc back, let go of his spear, and leapt for the anti-magic spear. Just in time to see it flash past him.

“[Recall Weapon]. Now I have two spears.”

The Gecko of Liscor grinned as Lulv turned. The [Spearmaster] saw Relc put them together awkwardly, like a single oversized spear.

“Damn. This is weird. Come on, Lulv. Let’s…”

Relc saw the Gnoll back up and run. The Gecko shouted after him.

Get back here, you coward!

Then he checked himself. That was what he would do and…grab a spear and ambush Lulv. The Gecko halted in his run. He looked around for Sserys and cursed. Then he raised Lulv’s spear. He had an idea.

“Hey, you! Catch!”

The Gecko threw Lulv’s spear like a javelin and nearly ran through Infinitypear’s foot. The Worker carrying Rasktooth jerked back, and Relc pointed.

Don’t let anyone take that.

Lulv might come back—but he lost his fancy spear. Relc charged after Sserys.

 

——

 

Lulv had, in fact, done what any good [Soldier] did. Instead of fighting Relc, he had retreated to Luciva’s side. He arrived just in time to see that young woman, who was supposed to be an [Innkeeper], storming her bodyguard.

Protect the Dragonspeaker!

Liscor’s own fought with Manus’ bodyguard, and the entire army was surging towards them—but Luciva motioned Lulv back. She faced the young woman, eyes narrowed.

“Who ar—”

The grinning swordswoman lunged at her so fast that Parentkiller, the glaive of Manus, barely had time to block it. Luciva blocked, knowing that she was slower with the long glaive. And the Human was an expert!

Who was she? This wasn’t Erin Solstice. Luciva saw a glowing ring flashing on the young woman’s hand as she abandoned her two-handed grip. She grabbed the glaive, and then they were face-to-face. Struggling as Luciva caught the sword.

You…I know you.

She stared into what should have been slitted eyes. And that familiar presence…Sserys hissed at Luciva.

“You really haven’t changed, Luciva. But you’re not much smarter than the last Dragonspeaker. Look at Manus. You should have stayed a [General].”

That voice. That…condescension? Luciva wavered.

“Who—”

The Necromancer is alive, you idiot.

In the middle of the battlefield, Sserys watched the glowing ring he’d taken from Chaldion and saw Luciva’s face waver. She almost let him stab her—but the two kept wrestling as Sserys spoke.

“I am General Sserys from the grave, and I came here to tell you everything. The Necromancer killed Zel Shivertail, not the Goblin Lord. I will have you avenge him.”

Spearmaster Lulv was about to leap in, but Luciva whirled. She began to call out, then realized what Sserys’ ring was doing. She lifted a hand, and Sserys did not run her through. She made a quick gesture, and the Gnoll’s eyes went wide. The fighting drew back as the two continued to ‘fight’.

Sserys?

The Drake faced the [Spear of the Drakes] as Sserys looked around.

“We don’t have much time. Deploy a [Time Slow] Skill or spell on me now if you have one. We need a chat.”

He had a date with every leader or Drake who mattered he could find. So far, he’d met two, and the Admiralty of Zeres were next. Sserys had seriously considered killing this Wall Lord Dragial, but someone had done it for him.

He broke out of Manus’ ranks as Dragonspeaker Luciva wavered with the revelations Sserys had spilled as fast as he could. Whether she believed him—whatever came next—

She knew who needed to be avenged. Even if enemies were trying to spy on Luciva and him, Sserys doubted anyone could maintain the spell during a battle with so much magic flying about. But he didn’t bet on one Drake.

There you are.

Sserys had no more Potion of Regeneration. That damn Human—Sserys felt Erin’s body struggling to keep up with him. But he made it leap nearly ten feet up so he could drop on the purple-scaled Drake.

Erin—

Ilvriss hesitated, and Sserys took him off his horse with one arm snapping around the neck. The two crashed to the ground, and the [Spear of the Drakes] laughed.

You’re not bad.

Someone had trained this Wall Lord in the sword or he had seen a battlefield. But he hesitated. He knew Erin Solstice. That was his undoing. Sserys stepped around him, striking out, and Ilvriss parried the blow—but missed the stomp on his tail until it was too late. He went down as Sserys pinned the tail and knocked him flat with another kick.

Liscor’s underhanded fighting beat even experts in the blade. The Drake tried to get up.

Who are—

Sserys had heard that question from a dozen mouths all day long. Just like with the other officers he’d found, he activated the ring. Then he straddled the Drake’s breastplate, pinning the arms.

A young woman bent down.

Listen up, idiot. I’m General Sserys. Shut up and listen. The Necromancer is alive.

He activated his skill as the Supreme General of the Walled Cities, his technical rank, forced the Drakes around him to back away. Ilvriss stared into Sserys’ eyes.

“The—?”

“The Necromancer. Is. Alive. Keep it a damn secret. His minions are everywhere. The Necromancer killed Zel Shivertail, and I will have you—”

Sserys’ greatest desire, vengeance, was warring with his need to…leave something behind. They were not ready for anything that was coming, and even he didn’t know all of it. The six…he had been hiding in Izril, not learning what Erin Solstice knew.

Nor was he prepared for Ilvriss’ eyes to go wide and for him to hiss back.

I know.

Sserys blinked, and the orders he’d been about to give next—which went along the lines of slapping every idiotic mistake into each Walled City’s head—halted on his tongue.

“Really? And are you…hm.”

He looked at Wall Lord Ilvriss. The [Spear of the Drakes] grinned. The leader of every Drake’s eyes lit up.

Oh yes. You’re one of Izril’s kids, alright. Not a minion. You figured it out? No…are you that ponce that Zel told me about?”

“Zel? General Sserys?”

“Wonderful.”

The Human began to laugh, then she patted Ilvriss on the chin as Nerul tried to stride forwards and found himself locked into place. He watched, eyes flickering with confusion as she leaned down to whisper like…a lover? Or like a [General] imparting secrets. But rumors just saw Erin Solstice sitting on Ilvriss’ chest in the middle of a battlefield.

They didn’t hear the Drake’s voice as she whispered in Ilvriss’ earhole. In perfect secrecy, or as much as he could gain, the [Spear of the Drakes] spoke to only the Wall Lord of Salazsar.

“Zel told me you had potential, which is more than I can say for many idiots he met. I was hoping to meet you. So listen up: I’m going to tell you something I won’t tell even Luciva and Chaldion. Especially not the Cyclops or the finest war-idiot from Manus. I have walked the lands of the dead. I have talked to the ghosts of great Drakes. I know where the Walled Cities are.”

Ilvriss’ eyes went wide. Sserys winked.

“Not all of them have what you need—but there are enough. Listen closely and find a map. Maybe write this down because I won’t be around after this. Get some shovels.

 

——

 

The secrets of Izril. A last mission from the [Spear of the Drakes]. A future, a warning from General Sserys of Liscor.

That was what he left behind. But the Gnoll left only death.

Chieftain Xherw was still alive. Despite the death, despite tribes abandoning him or falling—he was still empowered by luck.

He was killing Silverfangs now. No one could stand against him. Not Wer, who retreated, covered in wounds, not Torishi, sent to her end by Belavierr.

No one. Luck ran through him without end. And Belavierr was standing, gloating as she looked at the pink carriage. The two only looked about when they saw the Antinium appearing.

Belavierr stopped laughing and edged behind the Plain’s Eye Gnolls when she saw the warriors of faith. But she was bound to fight until her life was in danger. She was still the Stitch Witch. Oldest of all!

Then…she felt someone’s gaze upon her. The [Witch] turned, and someone cut through the battlefield straight at her. A man with tired eyes and plain clothing. Yet…done so delicately that she might almost call it a fine garment.

Slowly, the [Witch] felt a moment of unease creeping up her back. She looked at the sword that Doubte held. Then she recognized him.

Not his face, for they had never met. Nor his legend, for it was far too small and far too young. But Belavierr locked eyes with Doubte of Zethe and backed up a step.

“Oh. Oh. A [Hero]. How troublesome.”

The [Hero] of Zethe looked up at her.

“[Witch]. We stand at calamity’s door, and you kill while laughing. For you—I will take up arms once more.”

Belavierr’s uncertainty turned into an expression of mocking disdain. She flicked her hand and lifted it, an enchanted razor held between each finger.

I have heard that boast from a thousand [Heroes] before you. Your bones will be the foundation of my magic, boy.”

“Not this time, Belavierr Donamia. You have drunk too deeply of immortality at any cost. Even I despise you and call you a traitor to your class. Traitor to the woman who traded her soul to be called the Witch of Webs.”

Slowly, the Stitch Witch shifted her gaze left. She saw someone she recognized, for once. Those eyes never changed. The face always did, but the soul of the Quarass of Ger…

“Quarass. Is that the Serkonian Lance? Do you aim spells at me again? I will take that staff from your bones and hold your ghost in a prison of heartstring.

The Quarass came to a halt on Belavierr’s other side, and now the [Witch] turned warily to face the Quarass as Doubte nodded to her. Two foes, then. The others had realized the futility of their struggle. Belavierr’s lips drew back, no longer confident, and a final voice spoke.

Foul little hat-woman. This [Vizir] Hecrelunn mocks your false arrogance. Khelt shall humble you.

A Revenant floated down out of the skies, and Belavierr looked from [Hero] to Quarass to [Vizir]. She cursed in one of the old languages, and the words stained the air.

Come, then, broken [Hero]! Bones of a mere servant! Quarass in a child’s body!

She raised her arms and grew until she was taller than Moore, an immortal who drew a sword of her own and blocked Doubte’s slash, who shrieked in fury as Hecrelunn conjured fire from the skies to burn her, who matched the Quarass spell for spell.

 

——

 

Three-on-one, and Belavierr refused to fall to them. She was still the greatest legend.

But she was pressed, and Xherw no longer had her shadow. He didn’t care. He advanced, and his eyes were locked on one of the Gnolls he blamed for everything.

“Satar! Get back!”

Chieftain Akrisa cried out as the young Gnoll turned. Silverfang turned as Plain’s Eye drove into their heart. Beilmark, fighting alongside Krshia, even Rose shooting wildly with a wand.

The [Storyteller] looked up as Xherw charged her, two hatchets glowing. She flung up her arm with a cry, and Cetrule swung his staff forwards.

The [Shaman of Purity] struck Xherw with a glancing blow that shattered an amulet. Poisons vanished on the blades of Plain’s Eye’s warriors. Cetrule, garb hanging with beads of silver, a fang of metal around his neck, saw the staff break as Xherw swung an axe into it.

He had no dagger left. So Cetrule seized the fang of silver and drove it into Xherw’s shoulder, drawing a single gash of blood. The first [Shaman] of Silverfangs looked at his stepdaughter, Satar, as he pushed her back. Xherw swung the axe into Cetrule’s heart, and the Gnoll seized his arm, trying to hold him down.

Cetrule!

Satar screamed as Xherw whirled on her. Akrisa raised her bow, howling, but the string snapped, and the bow exploded. Satar backed up, looking at the bloodsoaked fur and wild eyes of Xherw. He raised both axes to leap at her, and Cirediel exhaled.

A stream of acidic poison ran over Xherw and three Gnolls. Three dropped, screaming, clawing at their eyes, but Xherw shook the poison off and howled. The Dragon lunged, his scales glowing as he swung a sword wildly.

I’ve got—

He gagged on the words, stared down at the axe in his chest. The Dragon stumbled back as Xherw wrenched the blades free, and Oteslia’s army charged. Cire clutched at his chest. He was a Dragon. He…

His true body was too large for Xherw to kill in a single blow. The [Chieftain] stared at the hole in Cire’s chest. Xherw went for Satar again, but Cire tackled the [Historian]. Then he grabbed her, and his wings spread.

Hold on!

He flew for a dozen feet and screamed as Xherw threw one of the hatchets through a wing. He crashed down as the First Gardener screamed.

Cirediel! Oteslia—

They were engaged with Zeres on one side, the Gnolls on the other. Drakes surrounded Cirediel as Xherw abandoned Satar, snarling. He looked around.

Belavierr! Kill the Drakes! Kill—

He saw the Stitch Witch staggering. Doubte had drawn blood. But the [Witch] was conjuring a dark ritual. Her hand began to drag open a portal in the air where something was waiting—until a beast as large as she tore into her arm.

Nalthalistrelous leapt on the [Witch], and the [Druid]’s bestial form tore at her until she threw him off. Xherw saw Oteslia flooding forwards to protect the Silverfang tribe.

Where’s Mrsha? Where’s—

They were all looking for someone. Xherw turned, seeking her as well. He saw the little Gnoll, now protected by her people, and pointed.

Kill the Doombringer!

His warriors looked across the battlefield towards the girl surrounded by Salazsarian Drakes, Gnolls of the Wild Wastes, Weatherfur, the Antinium, and even Goblins. One [Shamanic Warrior] lowered a bloody axe.

“Chieftain…”

“Kill the Doombringers! Kill them all! Kill the traitorous tribes and the Drakes.”

Xherw howled back. The Daemon of Luck writhed behind him as he pointed to it, still weeping.

“We have fate and fortune on our sides! Plain’s Eye will not fail! Fight!”

The [Chieftain] threw himself at the First Gardener, who put herself in front of Cire and Satar. Oteslia’s finest closed ranks, and a single Human in the midst of them cried out.

You wretched monster!

Xherw ignored Lyonette du Marquin, having no knowledge of the [Princess]’ class or her motherhood of Mrsha. But Lyonette looked at the monster who’d been trying to kill her daughter and attacked.

Not Xherw. Nor his bodyguard. Lyonette du Marquin could use a sword about as well as Cire, even though she’d been taught. But she took aim, and her [Flawless Attempt] at a slash was aided by the strange halflight along her blade.

The [Princess] cast a spell. One of a handful she had ever learned. Taken from the spellbook that Krshia Silverfang had presented to the Meeting of Tribes.

[Silverglow Enchantment]. An enchantment of old that allowed warriors like Thronebearers to battle spirits.

The magic flickered along Lyonette’s blade as she half-cast the spell. Even with [Flawless Attempt]—she didn’t practice the magic. But she knew it was the only way to stop this Gnoll.

The Daemon of Luck was impervious to even regular spells, let alone steel. Lyonette cut at it, hacking at the amalgamation of dead white Gnolls. And she hit it.

A shallow gash on that huge shape. Lyonette felt her blade meet some kind of resistance—she wavered as Xherw’s head slowly turned around. The [Princess] cut again and again desperately.

“No—no—”

She thought she had it! But Lyonette saw the sword only cut the Daemon ever-so-slightly. It was nearly sixteen feet tall, a creature made of the dead.

Her sword—and even the spell—wasn’t going to kill it. And she had just attracted Xherw’s attention. The [Chieftain] whirled. He began to charge her way when someone seized Lyonette’s shoulder. A huge, callused hand raised a sword of its own and drove it deep into the Daemon’s side.

Not like that. You don’t need magic. Believe it will be cut and you can cut anything in this world. You don’t know your class. Your aura is all you need.”

The [Princess] started, and her head turned up to a Human face, full of red and gold hair. The marks of royalty—at least in Terandria. Lyonette du Marquin’s mouth opened wide, and the King of Destruction looked at the 6th Princess of Calanfer. He lifted his sword, and Xherw leapt.

Flos met him in a clash of blades with such force that the Gnoll went flying. The King of Destruction laughed and pointed.

Orthenon! Gazi! To me! End this tribe of traitors while I slay this spirit.

A Gazer in cracked armor leapt forwards as the [Ruinbringer Steward] rode down on the Plain’s Eye Gnolls. Orthenon whirled a spear as the King of Destruction and two of his vassals appeared on the battlefield.

“Y-you’re him.”

Flos Reimarch winked one huge eye at Lyonette, delighted as could be.

“And you are Calanfer’s [Princess]! I have seen the Eternal Throne, and I recognize your aura. How came you to this battlefield? No—time for talk later. This thing dies.

Flos’ blade rose, and it cut into the Daemon. The spirit of luck didn’t walk or move its limbs. It just drifted after Xherw, and the wound Flos had left produced a trail of what Lyonette could only describe as ether…the very essence of that being. The King of Destruction frowned.

“For a Naq-Alrama blade! Will I have to hack it apart? With me, [Princess]. What is your name?

“Lyonette—”

The two raised their swords as Lyonette tried to copy Flos. Xherw was charging up the hill and trying to stop them. Even now—Orthenon’s steed threw a shoe as the [Steward] tried to charge him.

This was ridiculous. Lyonette knew they wouldn’t be able to cut it down before Xherw was on them, and sure enough, Flos lowered his blade and turned to face the [Chieftain].

“It has no head nor heart. If this was another battlefield, I would see if someone had a Djinni. Stand behind me, Lyonette of Calanfer.”

He grimly strode downhill towards Xherw as Gazi held back the bodyguard. The Gnoll [Chieftain] had luck on his side, and he was every bit the warrior Flos was. Lyonette looked over and saw the King of Destruction waver. Then curse.

Raelt! This is my foe!

Too late. A second [King] stepped behind Xherw and nearly ran the [Chieftain] through. Flos leapt down the hill as Xherw whirled, and then two [Kings], the King of Destruction and King of Duels, were attacking him.

The luck blazed brighter. Flos swung his blade into Raelt’s, and the duelist stepped into a cluster of Drakes. Lyonette realized it was up to her, but she didn’t know how to kill that thing fast enough.

And perhaps…the [Princess] heard a voice speaking thoughtfully. She turned and saw a crown sitting on a young woman’s head. A silver bell chimed as Jecaina, the Arbiter Queen, looked up.

“Perhaps we’ve all been fools who think we can solve everything with a sword. It weeps. I don’t know if this thing lives, but I don’t think it loves what it is doing, do you?”

Lyonette looked at Jecaina in awe, then stuttered.

“It—it’s Doombearers! White Gnolls! They don’t want to do this. That monster killed them.”

The Daemon of Luck turned, and dozens of dead eyes regarded Lyonette for a moment. The [Princess] flinched, but the weeping tears of luck seemed to intensify. Jecaina drew in a breath.

She was the [Queen] of Jecrass. The Arbiter Queen, people called her. The young ruler who had prevailed in the dark hour of Jecrass not by virtue of her ability with the sword or charisma—but because she was able to listen to advice. Because she had consulted other rulers.

Because she thought. Jecaina’s hazel-green hair blew as she lowered her sword. She looked up at the Daemon of Luck and spoke.

“I see it now. You—Daemon!”

She called up to it as Flos and Raelt fell back before the onslaught of the luckiest Gnoll in the world. Lyonette saw those heads turn and the shambling horror, the creation of dead Doombearers…look at Jecaina. The Arbiter Queen lifted her free hand.

You think. You weep. You are made of death and treachery. But—I do not think you are free. I see you tethered to that Gnoll.”

She pointed down at Xherw, and the Plain’s Eye Chieftain looked up in sudden alarm. He began to run at Jecaina, but Flos and Raelt grabbed him and hurled him back. Jecaina kept speaking, her eyes rising, and Lyonette felt the air begin to tremble.

The Plain’s Eye tribe was trying to stop them. Lyonette raised her sword, and Jecaina turned warily, but the Thronebearters of Calanfer, all four of them, closed ranks. They tangled with six Gnolls, shouting. Dalimont wavered as he blocked a mace, and Sest fell, cursing and keeping a pair of mithril claws from his throat. But they threw themselves in front of their [Princess].

Lyonette was trying to save Sest when a Drake covered in dark armor leapt on the back of the first Plain’s Eye Gnoll. She stabbed so fast that the Gnoll was dead, and the others barely had time to turn before Shriekblade, the Named Adventurer, was on them.

There you are. I came to save you.”

The Drake gave Lyonette a quick glance as the [Princess] stuttered.

“Y-you?”

But then Shriekblade, Tessa, was fighting next to the Thronebearers of Calanfer for the person who’d brought Faerie Flowers to her. And that—that was all the opening Jecaina needed. She had focused on the Daemon of Luck again, and now she cried out in ringing tones, standing as she had before the eyes of the world more than once.

With a dignity that defied age. The weight of a [Queen] and judge.

I am the Arbiter Queen of Jecrass! By the class given to me, by my judgment…I call upon the world as my witness! I call upon the [Kings] of Chandrar, the [Hero] of Zethe, a [Princess] of Calanfer, and the Quarass to hear me! [Chieftains] of the Meeting of Tribes, deliver judgement!”

Her voice began to ring across the battlefield, and those royal figures turned. Gnolls looked up from where they fought. Akrisa, holding Cetrule’s body, Gireulashia, Chieftain Eska, fighting with Inkar and Tkrn, all the Gnolls still living.

Lyonette’s eyes locked on Jecaina, and the young woman opened her palm.

“[Arbiter’s Judgment: Every Nation’s Judge]. I call you a slave. And I say no Gnoll or person shall be your captor. Be free. Rulers of Chandrar and Terandria—what say you?

The King of Destruction hesitated—then he and Raelt thrust their blades into the air.

By Reim, let it be done!

In Jecrass’ name, yes!

The Quarass of Ger looked at Jecaina with an expression of surprise and rare respect. She raised her hand. Trey Atwood, casting spells from the cover of the Illuminary, looked up as Gnolls howled and raised their paws or blades.

Xherw screamed, but Queen Jecaina stood there, facing the Daemon. Rasea Zecrew lifted her head and laughed as the Daemon shivered.

Everyone saw the bonds holding it break. A thin line of blood and treachery, shackles that Plain’s Eye had made over it—as thin as an idea, as solid as the earth—shattered. The Arbiter Queen broke the Daemon of Luck’s bonds, and that sad, despairing spirit sighed.

It looked down at Xherw, the Plain’s Eye tribe, and the unnatural glow of invincibility around Xherw faded. His confidence, his source of power—

Vanished in an instant. That Daemon, that being of dead Doombringers and fate, looked at Jecaina as she saluted it with her rapier, eyes shining with sympathy.

It bowed to her. To her—and Lyonette—and looked across the Meeting of Tribes.

At Mrsha. At Wer, raising his head. At Qwera, reaching out to hold those poor children and innocent Gnolls. And the dead lips…smiled. The Daemon gazed up at the sky and sighed again, louder.

Every single voice in its being relaxed. They sighed, and the Daemon vanished. For a moment, those thousands of Gnolls were not tortured, but standing there, looking around, joining the dead.

White Gnolls, with pale fur. Survivors and heroes and some traitors and villains. But each one just a Gnoll. They pointed at their kin—and the stored luck of the Plain’s Eye tribe returned to Gnolls. It rained down over Fetohep and Khelt, and it made the world—

Change.

 

——

 

Despair in Khelt’s finest hour. [Mages] who had served their kingdom every day in joy found themselves wanting now as they knelt over the greatest magical ritual the world had known in thousands of years.

It wasn’t working. They were fueling it with every treasure of Khelt, but the magic…wasn’t working.

Something was wrong. It was almost done, but the endless checking over every part had ceased a month ago and there was something wrong. The [Mages] couldn’t find it. They had been trying to activate it for two whole days, and the weary [Grand Mage] was calling for more draw-stones of liquid gem, magicore, when the helper carrying the basket ran into something.

A dog, a damned dog, had gone bounding into the ritual site, following its nose, perhaps to the food the [Mages] had been eating. The helper tripped over the dog, and the stones went flying.

No!

A dozen [Mages] dove, but half the stones went clattering down anyways. The [Grand Mage] stopped a cluster mid-flight and saw the other ones…curve improbably in midair. He stopped and stared as they landed, hitting the ritual site in precise locations. A splash of magicore fell down in a pattern.

“In the name of Khelt—”

The [Grand Mage] lifted a trembling hand and slapped himself. Then he looked at the ritual and felt the blockages suddenly—fill with power.

“The ritual is activating! Your Majesty!”

Khelt began to shake as the ritual suddenly burst into life. The wisdom of [Archmages], the magic of Khelt. And…a lot of luck.

 

——

 

The Plain’s Eye tribe met its doom as their captive was freed. Without luck, the Gnolls looked up and saw only their enemy.

The shattered lies and their people, who would never follow them again. At the end of it all, one Gnoll kept fighting.

Chieftain Xherw stood upon a hill, fangs bared, coated in blood, lashing out, calling out for the Doombringers. To slay them again and begin this tale once more.

The King of Destruction, Flos Reimarch, hefted a sword onto his shoulder.

“Wretched [Chieftain]. I have known many fools, but none so pathetic as you. Let us make an end to this.”

He began to stride forwards when a paw shoved him back. Flos Reimarch recoiled.

“Who dares…?”

He looked into brown eyes. Dark brown fur, and Chieftain Akrisa Silverfang pushed Flos back.

“King of Destruction. Stand back. This is our battle. We are Gnolls. This is our tale, not yours.”

Flos opened his mouth to protest and then saw the figures walking up that hill onto the bloody grass. He lowered his blade as Xherw turned, and his eyes fixed on them.

Chieftain Akrisa. Chieftain Eska. Chieftain Orelighn. Gireulashia. Merish. Adetr Steelfur. Chieftain Mrell…

I have tried to save our people. What have you done?”

Not one Gnoll answered him. They had no speeches. They raced up that hill, and the Plain’s Eye Chieftain stuck a blade into Adetr’s shoulder. Gireulashia tore the other axe from his grip. Xherw threw Orelighn down the hill, struck another Chieftain hard enough to crack their skull.

But the Gnolls kept coming. They dragged him down, but the pile of bodies were flung apart as Xherw tossed them aside like feathers. He dragged a dagger out of his belt, and Merish grabbed his arm. The [Shamanic Warrior] struggled with his [Chieftain].

Xherw’s eyes locked on Merish. Betrayal, desperation—and even now, he believed what he had done was right.

“Our ancestors will judge my noble intentions, Merish. It could have been another thousand years.”

He was so strong. That mad light—he didn’t feel his wounds. He was their great [Chieftain].

Still, Merish fought. He wrestled with Xherw for the knife. His mind was blank with grief. All he could whisper was…

“No, Chieftain.”

Xherw’s look of satisfaction faded. Merish’s arm trembled as he grabbed the dagger with one paw. The edge cut him down to the bone, but he slowly wretched it out of Xherw’s grip. Then they were falling, rolling down the hill, and Merish put the blade against Xherw’s throat. The point dug into the flesh and fur, and he drove it deeper. He told the Gnoll what he should have heard long ago, but he had been deaf.

No, Xherw. There’s no redemption or forgiveness for some things. Not this.

The [Chieftain] blinked at Merish. His arms trembled as he tried to keep the knife away. He heaved—but Merish was heavier than Xherw and younger. And Xherw was tired. He looked around for the miracle he had always known was there…

But there was no more luck. No more excuses. Merish drove the knife into Xherw’s throat and tore it left. Blood gushed from Xherw’s neck.

Even so. Even so, he kept moving a while. He threw Merish back and lifted the dagger, tearing it out of his own body. His lifeblood covered Merish as the Gnoll looked up at Xherw.

The Plain’s Eye Chieftain stared into that sorrowful gaze and then around. Breathless, he stood and gazed around at the ruined Meeting of Tribes. He looked for his people and found only…Gnolls fighting, fleeing.

Only Drakes and undead. Xherw turned, stumbling. He was still searching for something when he fell forwards. Merish sat up and howled. In pain. In despair.

In relief.

 

——

 

Fissival had been divided in two by the Fable of the Forests. Now, the Gnoll tribes watched Plain’s Eye breaking apart without luck or their leader.

They turned, weary and bloody, to the rest of their foes. Zeres, Fissival, Manus. Oteslia and Khelt’s armies held down the City of Waves.

But the City of War was advancing despite Liscor gnawing at them. Even Sserys’ orders could not overturn Manus’ desire to see their enemies dead.

Targets. The King of Destruction, the Centenium, and old tribes like Gaarh Marsh, Weatherfur.

“Cowards. Wretched, pathetic, weaselly—Manus!

Lyonette du Marquin struggled with language to express her fury. She pointed a sword down the hill, and the King of Destruction?

He laughed. Lyonette turned pale with shock as Orthenon, the Steward, Gazi Pathseeker, one eye following Lyonette curiously, and the King of Destruction formed on her. The Thronebearers of Calanfer turned, but Ser Dalimont, Ser Sest, Dame Ushar, and Ser Lormel suddenly realized—

They were not alone. A hundred [Knights] rode into a line as the King of Destruction looked at the weary King of Duels.

Gnolls have bled enough this day. Here marches the City of War. Cousins from Terandria. Tribes of Liscor! I am the King of Destruction!”

He raised his arms as Raelt sighed, but Flos Reimarch would have his moment. He pointed down.

For just a second, for this battle—follow me and drive these cowards back behind their walls. You are the [Army of the King]!

Gnoll tribes turned and looked at that Human, and they saw him there. Lyonette’s mouth fell open, and the Drakes looked up in horror as the Humans followed Flos down the hill. Lyonette realized she was riding with him.

Calanfer’s Thronebearers, [Knights] of Terandria, and the Gnolls charging furiously into Manus’ heart. She saw Flos watching her. Looking down at the Drakes. She felt her heart racing out of her chest, more alive and more terrified than she had ever felt in her life. But she didn’t feel that famous Skill enveloping her. Flos Reimarch turned and winked once, with all the guile of…a [King].

Then they were streaming into the heart of the panicking Drakes, and the King of Destruction set foot on Izril at last in wrath and ruin, fighting side-by-side with the 6th [Princess] of Calanfer and the tribes of the Great Plains. The Gnolls turned and fell upon the Drakes. No tribe left to stand against them. The truth had won in the end.

The [Princess] saw a dozen different groups surging past her into that charge. A [Hero] leading a band of legendary [Pirates] into the chaos. A young man raising Golems of sand to protect a group of young men and women.

Then, as the Drakes of Manus tried to plunge towards her and slay the King of Destruction, a bolt of lightning shot down from the heavens. An electric song filled the air, and she turned. A Goblin shot an arrow past the King of Destruction and killed an Oldblood Drake about to breathe frost over Flos Reimarch. Lyonette turned, and a little white Gnoll waved at her.

The [Princess] threw herself from the saddle. She ran across the ground, forgetting the battle, abandoning the King of Destruction and everything else. She ran past Antinium who parted to let her through. Lyonette du Marquin opened her arms, and her daughter leapt into her chest, howling in relief. She swung Mrsha around, and then the world was right.

Lyonette du Marquin abandoned her sword and found her daughter at last. She never let go of Mrsha, even as the weary tribes began to gather, relieved by the forces from Chandrar, their enemies dead or forced back step by step.

Nokha’s head lay on the ground. Plain’s Eye began to flee, broken, and the Drakes fought a Great Company of Baleros, the King of Destruction, and [Knights] from Terandria as they slowly retreated.

Xherw was dead, and the last lies with him.

 

——

 

It was done. Plain’s Eye was broken. Shaman Ulcreziek fell to his knees and knew they would never be a tribe again.

The other Gnolls were hunting his people down. No…Plain’s Eye was turning on itself. For being responsible for this.

“My tribe. Everything—Belavierr! Witch of Webs!

He raised his head, and there she was. She watched Xherw die with that calm look in her eyes. She had seen greater tribes die.

“What do you wish, [Shaman]? Your cause is lost. But I will still fight. See?”

She wiggled her fingers, and a hundred threads dangled from them. Plain’s Eye warriors danced, corpses and the living, fighting like marionettes.

“Let them go. Please. Let them go. And—save my tribe. Save them from the doom we’ve brought upon ourselves.”

That was not our deal. No.”

The Spider giggled at him, and her mouth opened, but there was nothing but blackness inside. An inhuman grin, from ear to ear. Ulcreziek stared at her.

“What do you want? Name your price, and if I can give it—

The [Witch] considered his question. She began to shake her head—then her eyes brightened. Her eyes…focused on the eye that had been passed from [Shaman] to [Shaman].

Ulcreziek’s last eye shook as she pointed a finger at it.

I could use your eye. I lost one of mine. Give me…your eye, Gnoll. And I will save your tribe.”

The [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands] looked up at her. The Spider held out a hand.

Ulcreziek tasted nothing but bile and despair. But as he gazed at his dying tribe…he reached up and dug his paw into his skull.

His scream lasted for minutes. But when the [Witch] closed her hand, a blind Gnoll stumbled forwards. The Drakes of Manus had come to silence his voice. Eliminate a threat. He heard them nocking arrows.

Belavierr. You promised. Belavierr?

He could not see her in the blinding darkness. The first arrows struck his chest and shoulder, and Ulcreziek heard a whisper.

I always fulfill my promises.

Then the [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands] heard a shriek from the battlefield. A howl of terror and pain and loss from every throat. His head turned wildly, and he choked on his own blood.

Belavierr! What have you done? Belavierr?

He couldn’t see. She laughed at him as he crawled forwards. Ulcreziek fell still, reaching, not comprehending what had been done. He touched a shaking Gnoll’s head as the Drakes ran him through from above.

“Shaman dead. Target dead. Civilian. Take it?”

“Custody, yes, sir!”

The little Gnoll child howled in fear, but the Drakes didn’t kill them. Ulcreziek heard the voices, confused.

“Hold on…tell High Command we’ve got the other target. Mrsha or whatever it’s supposed to be. Look. White fur.”

White fur? The dying [Shaman] looked up and heard the [Witch]’s laughter in his ears. Then he knew.

The Plain’s Eye tribe knelt on the ground, staring at their fur. The Doombearers looked up as their kin halted. The last [Shaman] of Plain’s Eye lay there as the [Witch] fulfilled her promise. She marked them all with the same word they had hurled at so many.

Doombringer.

 

——

 

Then it was just one monster left, and she was no mortal Gnoll to despair for the death of her tribe. Rather, she rejoiced with every death. Each note of despair was part of her craft. Each deathblow a piece of magic rarer than any gemstone or artifact.

And she could not be killed.

Belavierr was fighting Wrymvr when she felt something happening. She was locked in combat with the Centenium, hissing at it.

You have severed your mortal strands. Show me how, creature.

“Strange. Human.”

The two were fighting, but even Wrymvr found Belavierr a challenge. Not because she was capable of hurting him; the needles that managed to penetrate his armor left wounds he healed from almost as fast as they cut.

But by the same token—his fangs and claws and blades couldn’t harm Belavierr. She was a poor fighter, even as she recalled all the tricks of war. The [Witch]’s power was always just—

Immortality. Everything had tried to kill her, and everything had failed. So Belavierr was preparing to hex the Antinium when her head turned.

“Hm? What has Khelt done now?”

She felt a magic so powerful it reached around the world emanating from the King of Khelt. The only ritual more powerful than that had been during the Summer Solstice. Belavierr stared at Fetohep. His undead were everywhere, being torn apart, but continuing to advance and rise.

In fact, even the dead were rising to fight for Khelt, but they posed little threat to her, or even the Walled Cities. They were just skeletons in armor, dangerous by the millions to mortal nations. Worthless since Khelt did not raise greater undead for fear of what they might do.

For instance, one such skeleton walked over to Belavierr as she teleported Wrymvr into the ground and forced the Centenium to tunnel upwards. Belavierr ignored it completely.

Luck was no longer on their side. She cared not. She was still not in mortal danger! The [Witch]’s lips curved. She would leave the people here with a legend of her to last ten lifetimes then reclaim her daughter from that wretched Necromancer. She was greater than Az’kerash! She…

…Looked around and saw the battle was lost. Plain’s Eye had surrendered, the white-furred Gnolls kneeling in despair. Xherw was dead. Ulcreziek was dead.

“It appears I have lost. No more Gnolls stand apart.”

Indeed—the tribes stood as one, as undead fought Drakes and the Walled Cities hesitated. Each Chieftain stood together over the corpse of Xherw, and Belavierr had no more allies.

So the Stitch Witch turned and casually began to stride away. She had sworn to fight for Plain’s Eye until she was in mortal peril. But if her employer were dead…

It was time to collect Maviola and be on her way. She counted her possessions greedily as she walked. A third of Plains Eye’s luck, pure thread for the greatest artifacts she could weave. So much death and emotion—

And a new eye! She plucked the copy of her old eye from her head, ignoring the pain, and inserted the eye of the [Shamans] of Gnolls.

Ah, what a wonder! I can see magic as they do!

Belavierr cackled in delight. She had only been wounded; even the Quarass could not slay her, and the [Hero] of Zethe had broken his blade cutting through her dress. She looked at the Named Adventurers, the undead of Khelt, and none dared challenge her.

Oh, they watched her, but none dared step forwards. Klbkch the Slayer held his blades at the ready as he and the Gecko faced her, guarding Mrsha. Belavierr just laughed as her eyes darted victory at the little Gnoll.

Do you see what your defiance cost you? Saliss of Lights clutched at a vial so hard it would break, but the Stitch Witch was just leaving in victory. In style. She passed by the broken carriage with the [Maids] and Reynold. Walked past the invisible Dragon. Smiled at Oteslia’s [Druids] mourning the dead. Even nodded at the Quarass, who was glancing at…

…What was that last bit? Belavierr slowed. Servants. [Druids]. And the…

Invisible Dragon?

Belavierr stopped. She slowly turned her head, and her forehead beaded with sudden, unexpected sweat. She felt…a hot breath on her, but only a few beings noticed the—the—

Dragonlord of Flame. The brass Dragon, crouched there, one eye of heliotrope, the other cerulean. Teriarch looked down at Belavierr, and to all but the Quarass and a handful of others, it seemed like Belavierr spoke to the air.

“Oh. Um. Hello. I have no quarrel with you.”

She tipped her hat very slowly to Teriarch.

They had met before. And Belavierr slowly, slowly reached for a thread of Dragon’s heartstring. A vial of poison a Quarass of old had sold her. She…did not want a conflict, though.

A smaller Dragon pretending to be a Drake and a [Maid] watched as the Dragonlord stared down at Belavierr. The Stitch Witch’s smile was frozen with uncertainty. She edged left, her Seven League Boots trying to activate.

Then he spoke. Only for her ears.

Belavierr the Weaver. You know me.”

“T-Teriarch. Lord of Flame?”

The Dragon rumbled like the wrath of the High Passes. His wings opened, and she braced herself. His eyes were fixed on her face.

“Yes. Do you recall what I said the last time we fought?”

Belavierr’s hand, about to unleash her greatest weapons—wavered. Teriarch glanced at Belavierr and then something behind her. She longed to turn her head, but for once—

The Stitch Witch was taken aback. Her mind raced. Her ancient memory flickered, and she felt a moment of—panic.

Wait a second. Wait…wait…she looked at Teriarch, and her lips moved.

“We have never quarreled. I would have remembered that.”

“No, no. We most certainly did. I remember it as if it were today. Do you remember what I said?”

“No. We never—”

The Dragonlord of Flame spoke one word. He exhaled, and his breath covered the Witch of Webs, ignited a thousand feet of the battlefield. A flame that went from the brightest white of creation to deep purple flame which swirled in the air. A fire of such magnitude that the fighting armies stopped to stare in awe at it.

It was breath, it was Dragonfire, and it was a word.

“Burn.”

A screaming [Witch] tried to reach for the vial, but the fire was burning her. She ran, flailing, and a river of water fell from the skies. Even then, the fire did not go out, and Belavierr shrieked. She turned to the Dragon, but he was already walking off.

“Dragonlord!”

He had burnt her! Burnt her possessions! Burnt her magic and soul!

The Stitch Witch would kill him! She would kill him and the Necromancer! Belavierr tore past the undead and—

Hesitated as she stared at the skeleton walking towards her. The invisible Dragon paused a moment as he headed towards the Dragonspeaker of Manus with Rafaema. He slowed…and to Belavierr’s curiosity, bowed his head low to a mere skeleton.

The Witch of Webs’ wrath abated for a second as she focused on the odd skeleton. A strange magic had come over the battlefield. This skeleton…it was one of many dressed in Khelt’s armor, but something was off about the way it walked.

It did not shamble. It had a strange, curious stride. Too brisk. Not like how an undead of its caliber should move.

It was the bones of some being, perhaps Human, but the typical blue-green ghostly flames had…changed. They had grown to a deep red and orange, like the center of a candle. Belavierr sensed something familiar from that skeleton.

“What…”

The skeleton halted before the gigantic [Witch], engorged on magic and cruelty. It put its hands on its hips and craned its neck up to stare at her.

It was just bones, but the posture was so familiar that it tickled at Belavierr’s memory. The way those eyes judged her. That impatient stride…and the way that woman would always look back to see if her meek daughter was following her.

Nanette. And then Belavierr knew.

“Califor?”

She whispered the name, and the [Witch] smiled with the bones of one of Khelt’s servants. Just…just a skeleton’s body. And she was a ghost! She was a ghost and had no power in the living world beyond her touch! Belavierr recoiled, but then smiled in relief, reaching for a soulcatching artifact.

She’d just capture Califor. It had been long since she had seized any ghost. Perhaps there was a way back? But everyone knew ghosts had only so much power in this world. That was their flaw. That was—

The skeleton was smiling at her. Then…then Belavierr sensed the magic. Califor’s craft engulfed Belavierr’s, and the Stitch Witch recoiled.

“Impossible. You are dead.

“Yes, I am, Belavierr. Dead by your design. By weft and web and wretched threat, to quell a blaze. For my daughter’s life, I burned. Now—it is your turn.”

Califor, the great [Witch] of her age, lifted a hand. Her eyes sparked—

And the fire that had engulfed her burst into flame across Belavierr’s body. Califor’s death-flame engulfed the Witch of Webs, and Belavierr screamed again. But then she pulled at the fire, and it came away from her like a veil.

She had refused it. This was no Dragonfire. She turned, snarling, and looked into those eyes. Then Belavierr realized her mistake. She walked this battlefield mocking the mortals. Now came a [Witch] for a witch’s war.

 

——

 

Califor’s gaze sucked Belavierr into a witch’s body. The Stitch-Witch looked around. Then she looked down, and realized she was riding her steed.

She looked behind her, and the land was burning. She tasted smoke in the air and despair on her lips. A mother’s determination.

Only then did she see Riverfarm burning. Only then did she hear those words on her lips.

“Come, flame, I offer my magic and craft. I offer a [Witch]’s bones, a mother’s love! I offer my life to turn your wrath! So come and burn away. That my daughter might live one more day.”

Califor—Belavierr—tried to unsay them. She tried to force herself out of the body. Then she felt the heat of a wildfire’s blaze engulf her. She began to scream, racing across the ground, a living torch.

Her death, given to Califor. Belavierr burned until the body was ash. But the [Witch] did not die that easily. A fiery death. A great witch’s end.

A—

 

——

 

Belavierr stumbled and fell to the ground, unharmed, yet writhing, burning. Califor stared up at Belavierr as the Stitch Witch rose, shaking. The pain of dying ran through her, but the [Witch] still stood. She hissed, eyes dripping tears.

For those tears she would claim a vengeance beyond death.

“Califor! You—you will pay for that!”

Even in death, with the magic of vengeance, she wasn’t Belavierr’s equal! The Stitch Witch got up, panting, feeling her protections fraying. It was always fire. But—she saw the little skeleton standing there and raised a fist like the wrath of the hills to smite her.

An arm caught hers. The Stitch Witch hesitated. She turned and saw a skeleton, impossibly large, standing there. A giant of bones…but such was the presence of the Witch of Forests that the half-Giant’s ghost warped the air.

A face of gnarled root and wood opened in a smile. Belavierr’s look of rage turned to uncertainty at once.

“Witch Yithiuqess?”

“WITCH BELAVIERR.”

The Stitch Witch raised her hands, enveloping her form with the protections of great magic, tricks of artifice and guile. Yithiuqess, the Witch of Trees, raised one hand that had seen the last forests vanish.

She brought it down with the simplicity of the world falling and smote Belavierr a blow that shook the grass and cracked across the sky.

Belavierr went tumbling forwards and got up on hands and knees, no longer the giant she had been. She stood shakily, and another skeleton walked forwards, this one smiling like the sun. Belavierr turned to run, and for a moment, her hands turned to dying embers. She stared at the legacy of a flame even greater than Teriarch’s and froze.

A being made of dead ash walked forwards, the body burning away despite being a mere vessel. Witch Somillune, the Witch of Ash, stepped into place, and Belavierr feared to approach her. She turned to run the other direction and saw a smile of ivory.

The First Tide halted. It swirled around her, for she had known every sea. A [Witch] smiled like a shark, a Drowned Woman. Barsoijou. A maw opened in those deep waters, and Belavierr backed away.

She turned, and on each side there was a [Witch]. A stare of a thousand eyes fixed her into place as the [Witches] of the last coven gathered.

Eyes older than Belavierr saw her for what she was, her every imperfection, and threatened to turn the layers of immortality inside out. A Gazer who had gone to the very root of her kind’s creation opened one eye that was made of ten thousand, and Belavierr blinked and shielded her face. 

Vexcla, the Witch of Eyes. She inhabited a Gnoll’s corpse, but the thousand stares of her true being peeked out of those dead eyes. Belavierr turned to another whose smile was mischief, inviting Belavierr to stay for this trick. The other half of that smile promised a trick that even the Fae would call unkind if she fled. That smile that had terrified Ullsinoi into honesty, once. The consequences of every trickster and manipulator under a pointed hat.

They were in each corpse, like Revenants! With all the Skills and power they had held in life.

All their craft. All their knowledge. Belavierr began to shake. For—

The greatest [Witches] of every age looked down at Belavierr. And she was no longer sure her legend was unsurpassed. The last great coven spoke.

“Traitor Belavierr. You have slain your own kind. You have been as wretched as any [Witch] to ever live. You do not deserve your hat. We will be your judges. For it takes a [Witch] to hold a [Witch] to account.

Belavierr tried to back away, but the circle of [Witches] closed around her. Their eyes locked her into place, and the Spider of Terandria began to tremble.

“Even you gathered cannot unmake me so easily.”

Unmake you? We are not so wasteful as to throw your immortality away. Why would we be so kind? You must repay your debts, Belavierr. We charge you. We burden you. Listen to a debt of [Witches]. An oath older than you.

The Temptress tried to run, but it was too late. The [Witches] smiled unkindly at their kin. Slowly, the dead raised their hands and lifted pointed hats that had not been there a moment before.

 

——

 

The greatest miracle of the battlefield was occurring: the dead were coming back to life.

Not the undead. The true ghosts were walking into bodies, temporarily given the power of Revenants.

A working of death magic, the greatest minds of Chandrar, a gamble devised by no less than Khelta.

It came in the final hour of the deadlands. Seamwalkers surrounded the army of ghosts as they saw a way to the lands of the living. Khelta herself walked forwards as Queen Emrist and King Dolenm barred the way of a horror from the death of gods.

Go, Khelta.

She turned, and the rulers of Khelt stood upon Izril’s soil. In Chandrar, the last ghosts were fading away. Queen Xierca stood upon her palace, and they all felt her go. Khelta wept as she stepped into the body of an undead vessel. She raised her hand, looking north.

Erin Solstice. You have tarried far too long. I summon ye.”

She lifted her arms and began to call Erin’s spirit across the world. The dead fought, and those who had journeyed this long, abandoning Chandrar, descended into the hosts. Time…time to fulfill their last wishes.

Time to change this living world forever before their end. The dead fell before the living. That was always Khelt’s way. The First Queen of Khelt smiled, the [Queen of Necrocracy] of old days. She had never forgotten the truth so many of her kind did. Death and life needed each other. But one was gone forever.

 

——

 

“Xierca!”

A single man howled, the last ruler of Khelt. Fetohep, halberd in hand, faced the thief of Erin Solstice’s body. General Sserys turned as Fetohep pointed his halberd at his heart.

Enemy of Khelt and the dead—turn. I will see you suffer an age before you are destroyed, whatever you are.

The [Spear of the Drakes] raised his sword, eyes watchful.

“I am General Sserys of the Drakes. Son of Liscor. I am not your foe, whomever you are, you bag of bones.”

Fetohep’s eyes flashed, but his halberd wavered. That—was not whom he expected.

Fetohep. It isn’t our foe. Just a ghost. Drake—my gratitude upon you for protecting the body. I see now what you did. But your time is at an end. Erin Solstice cannot run nor hide any longer. I summon her.”

An undead body walked forwards, and Fetohep dropped to one knee. He raised his head, and she was nothing like the visions of her he had. No glorious woman in life, a [Necromancer] so gracious that she had made a glorious kingdom in death. Just…a rotted face. A bag of bones in truth.

But those eyes shone deep violet with the mastery of death and the wisdom of Khelta.

“Your Majesty.”

Slowly, the ghost urged him up, and her touch was light.

“Fetohep. You, like every ruler, have always had the right to stand beside me and speak as equals. You—more than any ruler have done all we could ask in this hour. See: you have delivered us our last hope.”

She lifted a frail hand, and Fetohep’s head turned. He saw them now. Undead who abandoned the ranks of his legions. Eyes shining with true knowledge. Secrets.

Power.

 

——

 

This entire battlefield was a disaster. Oteslia, traitors. Salazsar? Traitors. Fissival? Incompetents, and Manus wasn’t pulling their weight.

Sharkcaptain Femar knew it was time for Zeres to fix everything. His [Marines] were sortieing with him. First, they’d crush Khelt for attacking Zeres, then apprehend any Gnoll tribes. Most were standing down—

But what were those strange undead? One raised a delicate hand as she looked around, flicking her fingers in distaste at the armor she wore.

What a wretched body, without even the joys of taste. A disgrace for such a one as I.”

“Huh. Revenant.”

Femar swung his spear forwards, and the ghost recoiled in outrage. She lifted a hand, and the Sharkcaptain’s eye went wide as he felt an aura as vast as the sea itself parry his swing without even touching it.

The Immortal Tyrant of Nerrhavia’s Fallen turned her head, and two glowing points of outrage flared in her eye sockets.

You wretched thing.

She raised a hand, and Femar contemptuously raised his spear to block. Only to find…his arms wouldn’t move. He saw a thin, bony hand coming towards his face, palm outstretched.

Nerrhavia slapped the Sharkcaptain across the face. Femar had skin tougher than a shark’s. He had taken blows from Chieftain Reizet in battle without flinching. He—

His head jerked around, and a bruise slapped itself across his face. That slap hurt more than pouring Firebreath whiskey in a stab wound. He staggered, and Nerrhavia’s slap knocked him back a step.

In Zeres, the City of Waves, a Drake mother went sprawling across her house. A second Drake, her husband, slammed down the steps as a hand cracked him across the face. Two of Femar’s siblings went down, shrieking.

The Tyrant of Sands lowered her hand as she hit Femar’s entire family line. She was the greatest tyrant of her age. She pointed down at Femar as he rose.

“Little thing, I would neuter you and nail your genitals to the arch of your house if I had but the time to waste.”

“You—you—

The Sharkcaptain roared. He could have sworn he felt that thing hit his mother! And his father and—

His spear rose with his killing aura, and he locked on Nerrhavia with a furious roar. The immortal tyrant laughed in his face with contempt.

“You do not know whom you face, infant. Strike at me.”

She spread her arms wide, thrusting out a chest bare of anything but worn armor. Femar lifted his spear to destroy her—

And his [Dangersense] went off like a [Fireball]. Every [Dangersense] in Zeres’ army suddenly began to blare. The Serpentine Matriarch nearly threw herself out of her chair as, in her abode, a dozen floating scrolls of parchment appeared.

 

——

 

Queen Yisame, watching everything with her mouth open, holding the Great Sage of Nerrhavia’s Fallen, Etrikah, so tightly the old Fox Beastkin was protesting, suddenly jerked as a magical scroll unfurled itself.

She looked up as Etrikah gazed up and swore.

“What is—”

Dead gods and Zeikhal! We’re doomed!

The great sage screamed. For—hovering in the air was a glowing scroll. Conjured by a Skill, but written in an age long past. It was…

An enforcement scroll. Yisame’s eyes blurred down the page with practice, and she saw words and phrases leaping out at her.

 

…by the will of Nerrhavia, the Immortal Queen of…this region shall make war in perpetuity to any being who strikes…Femar, [Shark Captain] of Zeres and thusly the Walled City of Waves…failure to declare war is enforced by mass [Absorb Life] spells…

 

Etrikah came to the same conclusion as Yisame.

“The Tyrant of Nerrhavia!”

Scrolls were appearing before horrified rulers, city leaders—even on Baleros and Terandria. Each one listing the offending party—Femar—and the Walled City of Waves.

The monster who had lived over a thousand years was back! Yisame ran, screaming for her council, as Nerrhavia’s Fallen wailed.

 

——

 

Femar stared at hundreds of scrolls hovering in front of the smirking [Tyrant]. Contracts daring him to hit her.

He realized what many would in the coming moments. Femar was one of the great warriors of Izril and his age. He had ‘fought’ Khelt, who was busier saving Gnolls, and survived this long.

But now, as the dead reclaimed their stations?

He was outmatched.

“Come, little Drake. For your slight, I believe I will collect a bit of vengeance, even now. The end of the world is a fine time to revenge even the slightest grudge.”

Nerrhavia spoke, and with a snap of her fingers, a glowing crimson scroll made out of blood and skin appeared. She advanced, and Femar backed away, eyes wide with horror. He tried to run and found he couldn’t.

“[No One Leaves My Presence]. I can compel anything. I rule everything.

The smiling monster walked towards him. Femar choked.

“Asale. Asale!

He screamed quite pitifully to Nerrhavia’s delight. Warriors often did. She wondered what she’d make him do—throw himself off a cliff or doom his city to war? Or just exist for the rest of his life naked lest his scales flay themselves from his body?

She smiled to hide the flash of…there was no one here to stop her. Merindue had pushed her out of the way of a horror with too many mouths.

One last spite upon Drakes, then. In honor of all that fell, let them remember us.

The twisted tyrant’s smile widened as she reached out for Femar’s chest. Then a hand almost as thin as hers caught the grip. Nerrhavia sighed—but with amusement.

“You foolish Drake. You just doomed your Walled City.”

She turned her head lightly as the glowing contracts flickered—and went out? Nerrhavia turned her head.

“That’s imp—”

Admiral Asale of Zeres punched Nerrhavia, and the [Tyrant] fell backwards. She did not know how to take a punch—and it didn’t hurt since she had no nerves and this body was dead. She got up and stared at the Drake.

Femar, run!

The Admiral of the Supply faced Nerrhavia. Femar backed up—straight into the glowing gaze of a trembling giant larger than he was.

You—where is His-Xe? WHERE IS HIS-XE?

Salui grabbed Femar and slammed him into the ground. The [Champion of War] drew his axe as Femar got up.

Die! You’re real, so diediediediediediedie—

This was a disaster. Asale whirled, but he saw Femar fighting for his life. And behind him…the Drake’s scales prickled as Nerrhavia got up slowly.

“Curious. My Skills didn’t activate. Ah. Ahahaha. I know what you are.”

She pointed a finger at him, and the Drake turned calmly to face her.

“Levelless. Classless. One of the Rulebreakers. I didn’t think Drakes were smart enough to keep your kind around.

“One Admiral has always been levelless. Stand down.”

Asale whirled his spear up. He was panting. Breaking through her Skills was the hardest thing he’d ever done—and the Revenant didn’t even look worried. Nerrhavia laughed.

I’ve met your kind before, Drake. Your power is inconvenient—but you’re one Drake. [Summons of the Dread Tyrant: The Horror of Caexith]!

“Oh, Ancest—”

A screaming beast shot out of the air, imprisoned for thousands of years, as Nerrhavia laughed. She enjoyed the sight for a minute. Then she turned back to her task.

Her peers were coming into the bodies of the dead. Nerrhavia saw both living and dead in this moment, and the dead…

The Seamwalkers were everywhere. Some were snatching ghosts out of their bodies. They did not have time. Khelta was summoning Erin Solstice. Some ghosts were imparting their wisdom or gifts to the living, using Skills to change the battle.

Not Nerrhavia. She strode across the battlefield, everyone parting before her in a wave. She found her quarry and reached out with a hand to touch a being as dead as she.

However—even Kerash flinched as Nerrhavia looked straight into his eyes and the gaze of the true intelligence.

“[Words Only For You and Me]. Necromancer. I see you.

She whispered, and Az’kerash—wavered. He was not stupid enough to say ‘who are you’?

“What business do you have with me, spirit?”

Nerrhavia laughed lightly. She cast her eyes around the chaos. The dying ghosts. The end of death itself.

“I am Nerrhavia, the Tyrant of Chandrar. You know me. This is the end of ghosts. So we face oblivion or worse. But I am not too proud. My servants—to me!”

More ghosts flocked across the battlefield in stolen bodies. Allies. The Necromancer stared at Nerrhavia uncomprehendingly.

“What can I offer you?”

A vessel. Only a being as powerful as Khelta or the Witch of Webs could—take a soul. Trap it. We may face your mercies, but I will take any last harbor. Don’t you have…a soulprison?

Nerrhavia’s eyes glittered with glee as she glanced at the distracted Khelta. Az’kerash wavered as a bounty of the afterlife’s greatest souls presented themselves to him. He felt…for one of the first times in death…

Uneasy.

 

——

 

But it was done, the offer made. Belavierr found herself being beseeched by ghosts, even as the coven bound her with words and craft beyond her own. She screeched as the knowledge etched itself onto her soul.

Ghosts were fleeing. Some found soul-traps and exploded them as the lesser artifacts couldn’t contain the might of some ghosts. Others begged the living to…preserve them.

The rest fought on to their ends. They did not look for salvation, only to strike a final blow.

On Terandria, Erin Solstice saw Tamaroth, the God of Rulers, gouge out one of Razia’s eyes. The Agelum bled blue. But she fought.

Kasigna was absorbing the souls, pulling them into the center. Erin Solstice felt Khelta calling her—but she watched.

“I’m—what’s happening?

Magic was intertwining itself around her. Curious cloth bands, pulling her across the world. Gerial and Cawe turned as Erin Solstice reached for them. But then Gerial laughed.

“Nerrhavia’s plan! It’s working!”

“Nerrhavia…?”

“She said that you’d never be able to march with us. So she told Khelta to summon you if she could!”

Cawe was laughing and crying as the two ghosts realized that Khelt had made it. They turned, and Erin reached for them.

“No. Gerial. Cawe—”

The dead gods, four now, saw the magic. They had to realize what Khelt was doing. Tamaroth whirled, and they began heading for Izril. Cauwine guffawed as she saw the trick, but the other three…

“Erin Solstice!”

Kasigna howled. A bleeding Razia tackled her, but the Goddess of Death threw the Agelum aside like a doll. Xarkouth landed, belching flame, and Norechl recoiled.

Tamaroth, God of Rulers, the bearded man, strode forwards, and Gerial and Cawe blocked his path. He reached out to brush them aside. Erin—flickered—and saw her two friends there.

The [Pickpocket], Cawe, feathers dirty, a thief from Chandrar made a [Slave]. Standing in front of the God of Rulers just like she had defied Chandrar’s monsters. They were one and the same to her.

Gerial of the Horns of Hammerad. A plain, brown-haired Silver-rank adventurer with a thin mustache. Tall—but no legend. No mythic hero.

But he could have been. They both could have been. The squared shoulders of that adventurer could have been a hero’s shoulders if he lived. Erin saw him walking with a half-Elf and a Minotaur onto that stage of legends.

If only.

She cried out.

Gerial! Cawe!

The Garuda turned back to Erin, and her cracked beak opened wide.

“Tell Pisces I kept you out of their chains.”

Then she dodged left, and the God of Rulers ignored her—until Cawe spat into his face. Tamaroth turned and grabbed for her. She was gone with a laugh.

Gerial touched Erin’s hands as Khelta’s spell dragged the girl across the world. Xarkouth roared.

Ghosts! Fly with me to Izril! Stop the enemy as long as you can! Erin Solstice—

The last thing she saw was Gerial, lifting a sword and facing the God of Rulers. He turned and shouted.

Death before dishonor!” 

He gazed up as the God of Rulers grabbed for Erin, and she vanished. Tamaroth looked down as his fingers came up an inch short, a moment too late. He stared at the adventurer’s hand, gripping his arm.

“I never ran.”

Gerial Doerisel of the Horns of Hammerad looked into Tamaroth’s eyes, and his smile was simply of a man proud of himself. He could say it. Twice now…

Perhaps even the God of Rulers’ eyes flickered in acknowledgement. The memory of a being who had respected and loved such courage. Gerial smiled wider—

And then Terandria was gone, and Erin stood on Izril, weeping and looking around as the gods pursued her to the end. She fell to her knees and pulled something from her soul.

If only they could save but one…as the Dragonlord of the Void flew towards her, as Razia pursued foes without any defeat, Erin Solstice drew a coward’s tool.

A gift from the God of Secrets and Magic. A hangman’s rope. Something to use to hide yourself at the world’s ending. She realized now.

“Not me. Someone else needs it. Please. Just one person?”

She rose, looking for one ghost among the many to give it to. Let something survive. Something…

 

——

 

Dragonspeaker Luciva was losing her mind. She broke into the stalemate where Fetohep, the undead, and that young woman stood.

“General Sserys! Wait!

She screamed, and the Drake turned. Luciva looked around.

“A—a [Necromancer]. Find me a—wait! General Sserys, Izril needs you! The Walled Cities need you! Stay in that body—we will build you another one. Whatever you need.”

A hero of Izril. She looked at the hope of Manus, as much a hope as Rafaema. She stumbled towards Sserys, seeing what had to be done. Yes—save him! Bring back all the—

The [Spear of the Drakes] slapped Luciva. Not with Nerrhavia’s piercing slap across generations, but briskly. Fetohep turned, but Sserys grabbed Luciva with the Human’s hands. His eyes glittered.

Do I look like a thief, Luciva? Do I look like a Selphid? No…do I look like a [Slaver]? I’m dead. I was never the hero you all wanted me to be. I was the [General] of one war, and Zel Shivertail was the Drake who became what you wanted. You let him die. I kept this body for a young woman who’s nowhere near my equal. But it’s hers.”

He stepped back, nodding at Fetohep, who inclined his head in respect. Luciva grabbed for Sserys’ arm.

“But you matter more!”

He shoved her away with a look of disgust. The [General] gazed around as Manus’ officers slowed. Wall Lord Ilvriss, the Drakes. Sserys sneered at them.

“I am not a child. I had one chance. And do you know what? I outgrew my Hoarding years long ago. Enough of the walls! Enough of tradition! Drakes will change or be buried in their cities!”

He drew his blade, looking around. Sserys laughed as he saw Khelta, and the ghost’s eyes searched for the figure he could not see while he walked the living’s world.

“I think…it’s time. Khelta or whomever you are—can you return me to where I belong and her to her body?”

“I will try.”

The great [Necromancer] whispered. She lifted her arms and looked around.

“Rulers of Khelt. Protect me. We are almost out of—”

 

——

 

The dead being possessed by ghosts were driving back the Drakes. Speaking to the living. However—some were just—

Attacking?

Relc Grasstongue, panting, running towards Mrsha, saw a Gnoll, a dead body lunging at a pair of Antinium who stabbed the undead repeatedly.

It wasn’t regular undead from Khelt; they were all on his side. But neither was it a ghost. It was…flailing. Jerking the dead eyeballs in every direction. Opening and closing the mouth and flailing as if it had no idea what was going on.

As if it were unused to—

Then the [Crusaders] did enough damage, and Relc saw a horror like…like Skinner. Something bulged out of the broken wounds in the corpse. Something fought to get out—

“Kill it! Kill—”

The Seamwalker in the undead’s body reached for the Antinium a moment before a [Vizir] landed. He took one look at the thing and pointed.

“[Disintegrate].”

Hecrelunn evaporated pieces of the thing, and a half-Giant of Serept’s forces smashed the corpse. Whatever it was—vanished.

What was that?

Relc ran forwards, staring at the undead. Was he talking to undead? They were the sane alternative, the allies to…

“I do not know. Khelta is there. Khelta!”

Hecrelunn screamed and flew towards her. Relc’s head turned as he heard more cries. More of—something—was using Khelt’s ritual to come through.

And they wanted Erin. She was standing, sword in hand, as a group of undead clustered around her, keeping everyone back. Some kind of magical ritual. But the Seamwalkers saw the body.

Corpses began to stir. Fetohep’s loyal soldiers turned their heads, and putrid flesh oozed from between their eye sockets. Bodies so foul that they twisted reality began to creep through the corpses of the dead, and the undead were sullied by that taint.

Protect Erin Solstice! Protect Khelta!

Fetohep whirled his blade and strode at the first horror. The warriors who had gathered here turned. The King of Destruction, blade drenched in Manus’ blood, whirled.

He seized a shuddering corpse and made to wrench its head off. Then stared as his hand shook.

The strength of the King of Destruction…trembled against the eyes of something that had eaten the bones of gods. The dead scales of a Drake rippled, and the scales flipped up, revealing tiny little eyes under each scale.

“What horrors are these?”

The King of Destruction whispered. Orthenon ran a spear and then his sword through the Seamwalker, and it forced Flos’ hand back. Gazi buried her claymore in its head, and she stared into those eyes. The Gazer’s own central eye went wide, and she froze.

Orthenon turned, but Gazi’s hands froze. Her pupil dilated to a point, and red tears began to drip from her eyes.

“I see—”

Flos raised his other hand and shattered the corpse of the Drake, destroying the link. He lowered his fist, and Gazi stumbled away. One of a hundred, already. Gnolls and Drakes backed away in horror. Khelt’s undead attacked the Seamwalkers, but they were torn to pieces.

Fetohep saw a figure lift his sword. General Sserys shouted, and an army without fear charged down the hill towards him.

“I am the Spear of the Drakes! Liscor—to me, one last time!”

Then came his army, charging into the horrors, screaming his name. Liscor threw itself into a slaughter as hands reached out and dragged them into another realm. But their spears thrust into the eyes, silenced the whispers.

Sserys stood in the center of the ritual, eyes streaming with tears as his army answered his call. Heedless of the cost, Liscor dove into the horrors plaguing Izril, and they were the army he remembered. This was then. Then and now, their finest hour.

Hurry. The gap in the world was widening, and they were trying to pour through. The Seamwalkers and…worse.

 

——

 

A skeleton jerked to life and sat up fifteen paces away from the Drakes clustered around Erin Solstice’s body. Of course, the living young woman was a target beyond compare, but the skeleton looked at its hands, opened and closed them, and began to laugh.

It had a beard. No…it felt at its chin. No, he didn’t. But he had a body.

“You fools. You’ve made your last mistake.”

The being rode, manipulating the corpse. It might be a dead vessel of magic, but it had hands, and that was enough. He raised his arms in triumph.

I am Tamaroth! And I have ret—

Fetohep of Khelt leapt upon the dead god, and his halberd swung down with the weight of Khelt.

Tamaroth caught it, and Fetohep flew backwards, skin breaking as the God of Rulers backhanded him across the ground. The living whirled, and the Herald of Forests charged whatever had attacked Fetohep. Her blade flashed down, and Tamaroth met her in a clash that cracked the air.

Her sword, centuries old and imbued with magic as extraordinary as Ierwyn’s nature—broke. The God of Rulers saw her waver and draw a shortsword. He caught the blade-barehanded and ran the ordinary blade through her. She jerked aside and stumbled away as he strode towards Erin Solstice’s body.

“Wretch!”

Fetohep threw himself forwards, weapon gone. He struck Tamaroth, and then Doubte was there. The [Hero] and Revenant King’s feet dug into the ground as the unstoppable skeleton possessed by the dead god walked forwards.

Tamaroth’s eyes were fixed on Erin Solstice. He parried an arrow shot point-black at his face by Alked Fellbow from the side without even looking at the Named Adventurer. He was laughing. His neck jerked left a fraction, and the Dead God hesitated.

“What was…?”

The skeleton looked puzzled, and then its neck snapped. The light faded from its eyes as a [Necromancer], a young man with white robes, lowered his hand.

“Pisces! What was that?”

Ceria skidded to a stop as the Horns of Hammerad charged towards Erin. Pisces looked around. Fetohep and Doubte staggered, and they looked at the…

[Deathbane Necromancer]. Pisces’ hand was trembling, but whatever he’d seen—it didn’t understand death magic or didn’t care. He spoke shakily.

“I have no idea—but it sounded antagonistic.”

“Well done. To arms, Horns of Hammerad.”

Fetohep rose, looking for his blade. Ksmvr charged past Pisces and ran both his swords into another corpse staring around with its mouth open. The Seamwalker turned to Ksmvr—then Yvlon brought down her fist and shattered its skull, pounding her fist into its brains.

The heads! Take out the heads!

Ceria pointed her hand at another possessed zombie and blasted its head off with a spike of ice. Pisces whirled, and he began breaking the undead apart. They had to protect…

All four heads turned. Pisces, Yvlon, Ksmvr, and Ceria. A Drake [General] stood on the hill. No…a young woman wearing a stained apron under battered arms.

The Horns of Hammerad turned, and there she was. Only…it wasn’t her.

But it would be. It had to be.

 

——

 

The ghosts and dead gods fought around Erin. They had reached Izril in moments! All the way from Terandria?

No. No…Erin looked around. They had made that long journey because…

There was no Terandria left. No Baleros. The world ended at the High Passes…then they began to vanish.

“Kasigna!”

She was unmaking the deadlands. The gods flickered in and out of corpses, but the ghosts were smashing them to pieces. Tamaroth was arguing with the Goddess of Death as Cauwine looked up and down.

“Naught but the void remains. Is this the beginning of your new world, Mother?”

Kasigna smiled.

“This is my domain, Cauwine. You three are not welcome. It will not be a reflection of any world. Flee, Tamaroth. Flee, Norechl. I will allow Cauwine to linger a moment. No one else.”

Even the two dead gods wavered. But before they left…Erin Solstice. They reached for her, and Cauwine drew her blade, aiming for Khelta. Then she turned, and the last Dragons in the world exhaled.

Xarkouth, the Dragonlords, every Dragon there was and had ever died burned Cauwine, and she screamed. Not one jet of flame, not one elemental fury—hundreds. They flickered out of existence as Kasigna reached up.

The last rulers of every nation found the God of Rulers as Tamaroth strode towards Erin Solstice. The Bow of Avel loosed an arrow into his chest. The spears and blades of Terandria’s monarchs ran into the God of Rulers, and he stumbled back. Ghosts vanished as they buried their blades in his chest.

Lesser rulers! I am your god!

He screamed at them, and a single ghost broke through the fighting, holding a blade that was different from any other. Tamaroth’s eyes went wide as Queen Merindue, half eaten, raised the blade of Excalibur overhead.

The sword in the stone plunged into the God of Rulers’ chest and then shattered. Tamaroth screamed, clawing at his chest. Of all the wounds he had taken—

This one would not close. 

Queen Merindue laughed as she lowered the broken blade loaned to her from the King of Camelot. She spread her arms wide, adorned not in gold or gems, but humbly. A [Queen] of a kingdom who had seen a great monster die.

She had helped found a new nation on the very bones of the being who had caused so much suffering. She alone had known the truth of rebels and heroes.

Tyrants died. She gazed into another’s eyes and mocked him as he bled. Tamaroth saw her vanish as he flailed at the air. He clawed at his chest as Norechl lunged at Erin Solstice.

Razia picked Norechl up and slammed it into the ground. One eye bleeding, warform gone, she stumbled. Then she saw the young woman holding the rope. Erin Solstice turned to Razia. To Khelta’s ghost. To…

“Sserys? Someone—it can hide you. One last ghost?”

Kasigna hissed at it.

“That rope was meant to hide from me! Emerrhain’s little tool. All of this was wrought from your wretched gifts! That umbrella! The horn!”

She screamed at the others. Razia stumbled towards Erin.

“A rope? A noose?”

Erin offered it to Razia. The Agelum stared at the noose. Then she grabbed it. Xarkouth spread his wings as his eyes glittered.

“Of course. Ghosts—another minute! Strive another minute!

“We will not last another second!”

King Dolenm shouted. He looked up as a Seamwalker snatched him up. The King of Khelt raised a hand, and the Seamwalker dragged him into its maw as it sank into the earth. The Ruler of Khelt gazed up bitterly—and then stared up at the sky.

The 7th Ruler of Khelt had been a [Pirate]. A brigand and a man who thought differently enough to bury a ship instead of just an army. He had hungered for knowledge and thought of ways to make an unchanging land even more beautiful.

Under his rule, Khelt had begun pursuing the arts. He had plundered examples for them to copy and engendered the anger of countless nations, but he had added more than he left.

Dolenm had felt Xierca fall, head held high, and each ruler save Khelta and Fetohep had disappeared into the same death that now tore his soul apart. His head rose, and he buried a pair of scimitars in dead flesh. Then, skywards his gaze rose, and he laughed as he went. For the world had never ceased surprising him.

The Seamwalkers flooding this last piece of the deadworld were stealing the bodies of the ghosts. The ritual was turning against Khelt—but they needed another moment. The [Witches] looked up as a shuddering mass of entrails pulled itself forwards, whispering secrets from the edge of the world.

It wanted more. It wanted them. The Seamwalker reached for Califor, burning bright as she bound Belavierr with magic—and the last Empress of Harpies dove out of the sky.

Empress Sheta struck the Seamwalker down, and the Harpy fanned her wings.

We were delivering the oldest ghosts to their foe. Come! The last flight of the world is upon us! The Dragonlord of Flame wakes as he always does!”

Even in this dead land—the ghosts looked up, and the Seamwalkers saw a final brigade of ghosts spiraling down towards them. Flying Garuda, Djinni, harpies…

And a tribe of Gnolls. Erin Solstice’s mouth opened wide as a [Chieftain] descended onto the ground. The [Witches] tipped their hats as the Gnoll looked up.

 

——

 

The last ghosts stepped into bodies as Fetohep gave the order for the [Mages] of Khelt to destroy what they had worked so long to activate.

He held the speaking stone aloft as a trio of Gnolls walked forwards, looking at the dead of their kin. Staring down at broken fur.

They did not weep for their kind. They had no time. But every ghost, from Khelt to the [Witches], even the Dragon, turned to them and bowed.

Only Luciva could see him. She stared up at Teriarch as Manus’ child, Rafaema, returned to her. Teriarch spoke—but he was watching the three Gnolls.

Three ghosts amidst a species. Izril had been devoured long ago, but three had made the long journey across the end of the deadlands.

The first’s eyes were pale blue and glowed like the skies above. Her feet never touched the ground, and the air whispered around her.

Satar Silverfang, weeping for all of this, looked up and heard a chorus of voices. She gazed upon the [Chieftain] of old. And a song came to her. Great Plains Sing. A single clue to this Gnoll who flew into the sky in those days of old.

Chieftain Seru’nial took her tribe beyond the clouds. Now, the ghost of the [Chieftain] whispered as she stared at Izril.

“It was always smaller when I stood a world above them. When I died, I thought they were so pitiful and forgot that I had raced across those lands and how vast and welcome they were. When I was young, Gnolls spread across the continent. Now…now they do look diminished. The blood that has been spilled here will never dry. I see Drakes. Our oldest foe.”

She bowed her head, and the second Gnoll walked forwards in the body of a Gnoll—but the magic in her made Valeterisa and Amerys kneel. An [Archmage] of old, one of Chandrar’s stories, lifted a staff she conjured from the dust and ground.

The [Archmage of the Eternal Grasslands], Kishkeria, wept tears of magic.

“It was my tribe who did this. I founded Plain’s Eye, but they left Chandrar. They were blind to their own corruption. I see Drakes and treachery laid in the bones of Izril. But we have always been our worst enemies. Harpies. Drakes. Raskghar. We blame so many, but look at what Gnolls have done this day.”

Both Gnolls gazed at each other, and their eyes turned to the Walled Cities’ armies. Seru’nial shook her head.

“Look there. It is not always just our people. The Walled Cities and Dragons. They have haunted us and hunted us like animals. Now they came to wipe us out.”

“Not all. Some stood with us.”

The two argued briefly, but then the final Gnoll hobbled forwards. He wore Ulcreziek’s body. The sightless, bloody sockets had been replaced by a gaze that had frozen the Drakes trying to stop him. The oldest [Shaman] looked across the battlefield and shook his head.

He gazed at the Walled City’s soldiers, and they shook. The Dragons bowed to him, and the undead turned to a beacon of power of old. The Gnoll’s voice shook with grief and fury.

“Gnorren trr Formilen trr Harpnken…soworl yeh bin Drackelhen lotos Dragonken. Nrkeh dokest.

The other two Gnolls looked at each other and had no idea what he had said, but they took the meaning. Each species wronged. Each one by Drakes and Dragons. The oldest of Gnolls who remembered the heart of their language raised one paw.

“Yes. Let us make an end to this.”

So Seru’nial and Kishkeria agreed. They joined paws with the third ghost, and the coven of the greatest [Witches] approached and removed their hats.

“Our magic is yours, Gnolls. This is your hour to choose.”

Califor’s eyes glowed as the Spider slunk away. But even Belavierr looked up in wonder and fear. The [Witches] and the ghosts turned to the Gnolls, and they did what Khelta had always intended.

All three raised their linked arms and called on the magic of the tribes. All the power they had possessed, by class or might.

All the power of their souls. They did not hold back. Archmage Kishkeria fueled a spell that the living Gnoll had never dared cast—which would evaporate even her soul. It didn’t matter.

There was nothing left. The oldest [Shaman] looked at the [Chieftain of the Skies], and they gazed down at the Great Plains.

What would the oldest and most powerful ghosts of Gnolls do? The Walled Cities trembled. They could drag one of the last Walled Cities screaming into the abyss. And there was enough wrath in their eyes to do just that.

The Gnolls made their choice in an instant, for even the dead gods were afraid of what they might do. The first to act was the old [Shaman].

He lifted one foot like the weight of the sky and pain of every Gnoll. He brought it down on the ground with all his might.

Izril cracked. A jagged wound split the Great Plains, and the entire continent shook. 

Shaman Theikha wept as she fell to her knees. She saw the waters of the ocean pouring into a crack in the continent. It ran into the distance, an opening in the earth so wide it split the armies in half. The Drakes and Gnolls gaped in horror into a divide that threatened to set Zeres drifting into the distance. It passed by Oteslia, and the City of Growth looked up as their great tree shook.

A split across the continent. But it was not death that the Gnoll intended. The next to move was Chieftain Seru’nial. She shouted at the people below.

Drakes and Gnolls have ever fought over land! They have driven our people into this last place. The Great Plains! If the greed of Drakes has no limit to Izril—then we shall go further. To the places where we ever were and further still! Seek the Crossroads of Izril! Seek the home of my tribe! There!”

She pointed up, and every eye followed a finger into the sky. Bird gazed upwards, his mandibles parted in awe. And he saw the Gnoll pointing at a gigantic cloud in the distance. One of many in the sky…but this one would never vanish. He told Erin. He told everyone there were things up there.

But no one believed him. Now, Chieftain Seru’nial pointed up at the city in the sky. And then the shaking started again.

“Great forests.”

Nalthaliarstrelous and the [Druids] of Oteslia were on their knees. They were crying, for across the sea, ancient Treants looked up from their watery grave. The oldest spirits gazed upwards, and perhaps they smiled.

The ocean floor rose to fill the gap in Izril. Seru’nial called a second land upwards, joining the Great Plains. Mrsha looked up, and her heart leapt.

“A new land?”

Ceria whispered as she stared into the distance and couldn’t find the end of a strange land. Sand and places that had sunk into the ocean rose once more. Then the final Gnoll moved.

The Archmage of the Eternal Grasslands pointed, and the grass she had created spread across the new land. But her magic was so much greater than that basic, Tier 0 spell. She smiled as the mortals looked up.

The other lands have long been lost. Seek them out in the ruins of the sixth continent. Seek out each treasure. Seek adventure and fill this world, Gnolls. For we have diminished too long. I am Archmage Kishkeria. We have always had magic. Reclaim it.”

The Gnoll lifted her hand, and Mrsha’s wand blazed with magic. Wonderingly, the Gnoll lifted it, and Gireulasha gasped.

“Mrsha!”

A ball of [Light] appeared in her paws. Fissival groaned as, beneath the earth, the network they had laid long ago and used in treachery exploded. The [Archmage] smiled downwards and then lifted a paw.

The Waning World is over. I name this new age the Journey of the Living. You will make the new world. Ours is over.”

The Gnolls stood there another moment, and their heads turned as one. They sighed—and their bodies collapsed as the last ghosts faded from the world.

Fetohep of Khelt raised his head and cried out.

Khelta!

 

——

 

There Erin Solstice stood. There Sserys stood. The gods, the living, the last ghosts looked at a place in the world where the living and the dead matched.

What did they see? Was it a long bridge between the worlds, small enough to be contained in any one grain of sand, but long enough for Erin Solstice to walk across as a Drake marched to his final battle?

Was it a river, where the two spirits waded into the dark waters for distant shores?

In the lands of the dead, Khelta cut a piece out of reality, and Kasigna’s hands touched a barrier even she could not cross. Erin Solstice felt herself falling, sliding across a rule of the world being bent just far enough for her to go home.

Khelta’s ghost kept the magic flowing, smiling as Fetohep knelt in front of her. His crown hung broken from his head from the fighting. His golden gaze met hers.

She smiled down at him. The last rulers of Khelt were all gone. Khelta’s own eyes flickered, and she hesitated. Almost…the crack was almost wide enough.

She whispered in regret.

“I cannot…finish the spell.”

Erin Solstice hung in a blazing network of magic, and Khelta tried to keep the spell steady. But the Goddess of Death had her arm.

The door began to close, and her working unraveled. Khelta hung on, defying death with the weight of her class. The dignity of the last ghost of Khelt.

She looked at Erin, faltering, and Teriarch whispered to her. A white Gnoll walked forwards and raised his paws. The Dragon. His eyes glinted in two colors, and Teriarch spoke. He took hold of that burden, and Khelta gasped in relief. The Dragonlord bowed to her.

“I will finish it. Go well, great [Necromancer]. Strike them a blow to defy death itself.”

I too.

The Necromancer of Terandria whispered. The spell stabilized. Erin Solstice saw Sserys standing in the middle of a great working, and she turned.

The lands of the living and the dead met. The living thought they saw the dead, turning. The last ghosts facing four shadows.

As for the dead…Khelta looked back. She raised a hand to Erin.

Go, Erin Solstice! Never die again—and live beautifully. For the deadlands lie empty.

Then she turned and struck at Kasigna, bare-handed. The first [Necromancer], the first ruler of Khelt to ever look at sand and dust and envision a place to live in safety, had walked every land in the world.

Many had done the same. But few had ever been as respected as she. When she founded her nation, countless species had flocked to it, and in her days, her class had been one that walked along every kind of magic with head held high.

She had always loved the living and the dead equally, and the balance of the two filled Khelta’s eyes. A living woman who understood death in a way that the goddess couldn’t. A ghost who touched the living. She struck Kasigna barehanded, and her last blow was a slap that rebuked the pettiness of the divine. It could not touch a god’s body, but it struck Kasigna harder than Nerrhavia could have dreamed.

The Goddess of Death stared into the [Necromancer]’s gaze, and Khelt’s undead raised their heads and collapsed as Khelta fell. Fetohep clutched at his chest, and his golden gaze flickered. But he stood there, waiting for the end of it all.

 

——

 

The deadlands vanished. The last Harpy flew into the darkness, chasing the Seamwalkers, crying hope for the living.

A Dragon had returned. The Faerie King had struck his blow. The ghosts had given their blessing to the living.

Some ghosts had made it to safe harbor. Others had left secrets, weapons.

What they had fought for was time. Time…that was all that they could offer.

“Time.”

One last group of ghosts had avoided Kasigna’s notice. Empress Sheta of the Harpies had conspired with the wisdom of Gnolls. Sprigaena had drawn the ire of the dead gods.

But she was not the only Elf who had ever died, or her son. Most had been lost. But there were enough.

Elves stood side-by-side with Dwarves. The oldest species and ghosts from the last age had one last mission of their own.

It had taken them a long time to find their way down here. Much less to walk safely on this land of lands.

Rhir. Even ghosts were not able to walk here. Even Seamwalkers avoided this spot. Because the slumbering god…the child of gods infested this place like a nightmare.

Antinium fought it. They were so close to its heart that the ghosts could almost see the despairing people. The Elves and Dwarves and Halflings and oldest Humans and other species…what did they seem like to those desperate warriors?

“She is waking. All this fighting has empowered her like the others. But she is too strong. She has the flesh of god itself.”

The ghosts nodded at each other. A Dwarf, a true Dwarf, hefted a weapon he had made for a ghost to grasp. His eyes were like the earth itself, immovable.

“She will eat us, Zineryr claimed. Then we must do more damage. Are you all resolved?”

The Elves nodded. The other Dwarves sighed, for they had failed their charge and vigil. But they were resolved.

The last group of ghosts descended towards the slumbering figure. And it was [Priests] and [Clerics], the last until this era, who warded each step.

Rhir shook, and was it in fear? The Dwarf lifted his axe and spoke as the sleeping demigod trembled.

Come, child of gods. Sleep another hundred years. We may be ghosts, but I drenched this axe in the blood of your kin.

The oldest ghosts walked towards the sleeping figure and the Antinium fell back. The waking presence slumbered. The last ghost raised a hand and smiled.

Victory to you, friends.

They saluted the Antinium. Then they were gone.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice stood between the dead and the living, in the middle of the magic, as a Dragon and the Necromancer carried her towards her body. General Sserys passed her with a nod.

“I’ll give them a Liscorian welcome just for you.”

“Sserys…”

The [Spear of the Drakes] raised one brow.

“What’s there to say anymore? I never wanted your body anyways. Skin is disgusting. Just give me one last fight.”

He looked forwards, and Erin saw the last ghosts vanishing. The Deadlands were disappearing…but a handful of ghosts remained.

Rhir held on, the sleeping thing there defying Kasigna a moment. The Great Plains slowly vanished as Cauwine lowered her blade. There was nothing left to kill, and she looked at Sserys and extended a hand. The Drake bared his teeth.

“Do you want me? You’ll have to take my soul first.

He picked up a sword—or maybe he’d carried one from the lands of the living. He did like to cheat. Cauwine laughed as Kasigna whispered to Erin.

“This is not over, girl. Even if you return home—it will never be the same. You may forget us, but we will never forget you. We will hunt you down and make the living world a reflection of your despair. Our time has come.”

Tamaroth and Norechl were walking towards Razia, who had the rope in hand. The Agelum was on her knees next to Xarkouth. The Dragonlord of the Void had survived everything, somehow, and the last Seamwalkers were falling into the blackness—perhaps all the way back down to the pit of the world.

Erin Solstice saw Tamaroth, Norechl, Kasigna, and Cauwine looking at her. Their promise echoed in her veins. For response, the [Innkeeper] just spat.

A glob of spit slid down the inside of Khelta’s ritual. Kasigna stared at it. The [Innkeeper] pointed at Kasigna.

“You better stay right where you are, Kasigna, Cauwine, Norechl, and Tammy.”

“Tammy?”

Erin shook a fist at them. She pointed at the Goddess of Death.

“Stay right there. Because if you come to the lands of the living, I’ll be waiting. And when I have a body, I’ll punch you straight back into being nothing! I’ll do anything to stop you. This isn’t your world, and I’ll call everyone in…everything to fight you!

The dead gods laughed at her. They sneered at the young woman. Then Norechl and Tamaroth went for Razia.

“You know you cannot kill us, Agelum. Come, rest. The last Dragon falls.”

Xarkouth bared his teeth, and Razia lifted the noose. Erin waited for her to place it around her neck—but the Agelum just smiled.

Someone stepped around Xarkouth. A flickering ghost shook his head and winked at Erin. Tamaroth recoiled in horror as Zineryr whispered.

“They’re so arrogant. They think they’ve won, even now. Go. We’ve done all we can.”

Zineryr! The Gn—

Then Razia pounced. She swung the noose, and Erin realized what the Agelum had seen. Not a noose—not a hiding place. She’d seen…

A piece of rope. Unbreakable rope. She caught Tamaroth and hung it around his neck. Then she lashed the other end to Xarkouth’s tail.

Fly, Dragonlord!

Erin Solstice—farewell! I will carry these wretches into nothingness for an eternity if I must!

Kasigna whirled as a choking Tamaroth hung from the noose. Trying not to vanish. Norechl wavered—then Razia seized it. She hefted it overhead as the God of Nothing struggled, and Xarkouth took off as she raced up his back. The two struggling gods flew into the sky, carried by the last ghost of Dragons.

The last thing Erin Solstice saw was Razia standing, wrestling with the gods. Adding to her scars as she bled. But burning with all the mortal passion she had learned. Riding on the back of the Dragon who looked into the void and spread his wings for eternity.

Defiant. So proud, Agelum and Dragon, and never overly proud for they had no limit. She heard those wings beating and the laughter, like a call to arms. Like triumph and the ringing of horns of a thousand victories.

Then they were gone, flying into the void beyond the edge of even death’s land itself. Erin wept into the emptiness, and she saw the last two gods staring up uncertainly.

“He can’t fly forever. Tamaroth and Norechl will get free.”

Kasigna stared at Xarkouth, reaching out as if deciding to stop the Dragonlord, but her eyes flashed maliciously, and she turned away. Zineryr chuckled. Fearlessly, he came to stand in front of the Goddess of Death. Sserys fought his last battle against Cauwine as the world shrank and vanished.

The Drake was outmatched and losing, but he cheated. He dug his claws into his foe and refused to let go. Sserys breathed in, and he fought with treachery and like his city. The son of Liscor held the line until he was relieved of his long duty. He left, still grinning victory.

“Maybe not. But they fought you to the end, didn’t they?”

“Zineryr…”

The Gnome looked…torn. He flickered in and out of reality, but his wink was mischievous.

“Turns out that if you teleport a tree full of Fraerlings in a forest, you have magic left to spare.”

What? What does that mean?

Zineryr laughed at her.

“You’ll see. Now, go. We bought you time. Even this one won’t walk the living world again. Oh, they’ll plot and scheme, but they’re afraid we left traps for them. Which we did. God-destroying traps. Billions. Go live again.”

He waved at her. Kasigna hissed at Zineryr.

“I could destroy you, little Gnome. Your farewells are meaningless.”

Zineryr didn’t even look at her.

“No, you won’t. You’ll give me the honor of being the last ghost. Erin Solstice…goodbye. Now, after so long…”

The Gnome’s eyes twinkled sadly as the world of the dead vanished. Erin Solstice reached out, and she saw Sserys nod to her slightly, fighting to his last. The Gnome, the ghosts of Khelt…Erin felt herself being dragged down. Towards a familiar place. She wanted it so much, but she clung to that vision. The Gnome leaned down.

Open your eyes.

And then…

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: The epilogue.

 

 

Bier by Uni!

 

Ryoka and Erin Cosplay, Reunion, and Vess and Crusader 53 by lnco!

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The Wandering Inn Animation by Eris!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

8.84

Drakes crossed the water line. The old peace that had lasted forever broke with the marching of boots. The burning fires…and a cold promise in metal and magic.

The armies of the Walled Cities had reached the Meeting of Tribes at last. What did the Drakes see as they arrayed for battle, deploying in the Orb Sanctus formation? Fissival deployed nigh on a mile from the edges of the fighting. They adopted a strange, circular formation that consisted of multiple spheres in which an artillery piece or [Mages] were placed. Protecting their powerful spellcasters behind ranks of traditional Drake spears and wand-carrying infantry.

The City of Magic was here at last. After delays, an unexpected defeat from parts of their forces…they had arrived.

Wall Lord Dragial’s scales were turquoise mixed with what might have been pearl. An unusual effect that was the product of magic affecting him as a child. It was enough for a handsome Drake, and the scars he had taken in battle only added to that as he strode forwards in mage’s armor, a high-collared cloak with Fissival’s crest on his back.

A disgraced Wall Lord who had been exiled from the City of Magic—leading their army. Fissival had long denied he was receiving any funding or support from his home after they had expelled him for attacks on Drake cities and Gnoll tribes in his pursuit of Lehra Ruinstrider.

Now, his presence at the head of the army, flanked by three [Generals], and the cheers from the [Soldiers] as he stood on a magical dais which amplified his magic and protected him, put the lie to rest for good. The Wall Lord raised his claws, waving as if he were on parade. Then his eyes locked on the Meeting of Tribes.

“I can see that [Witch]’s magic. That damned Earth Elemental is down, and they’ve exhausted their magic. Wonderful. [Generals], prepare to bombard the Gnolls.”

“Which targets, Wall Lord?”

One of the Drakes looked uneasily at Dragial. He gazed blankly towards the fighting.

“Order the Mage Throwers to target the clusters of Gnolls fighting. Our Wyverns will strike from above at maximum range. Tell Manus to flank the Gnolls; they will pivot if they don’t keep tearing each other to pieces. Salazsar may wish to spread out their advance.”

He glanced to the east, where the City of Salazsar’s smaller army was moving right next to Fissival’s. That Wall Lord Ilvriss had objected to his approach, but he had gone silent. Perhaps he saw now the truth Dragial had learned: when the dust settled and when you were on the back foot, the lesser peoples complained and made their petty gestures.

When it mattered—the real Drakes acted. This? Dragial looked into the Meeting of Tribes and tried to find the Stargnoll, his enemy.

This was the end of it. He began to speak, as, in the distance, Gnolls looked up. The first advent of Fissival was that army in the distance, four hundred thousand strong. A collective of cities. Then the shadows in the sky.

 

——

 

“Wyverns! Badarrow! Perorn—Wyverns everywhere! [Mages]!”

Snapjaw was screaming through the speaking stone. Perorn’s blood ran cold, but she could barely answer as she raised her bow.

How many?

Hundreds—

The Centaur looked up and saw them. Her lips moved as she remembered her intelligence report on the Walled City’s forces.

Wyverns. Their answer to Griffins when they fought Terandria and the North. Perorn began to give rapid orders.

Wil, redeploy your front! Tell Torishi to pivot—pivot now! Fissival is going to bombard this entire position! The Plain’s Eye tribe has to do the same or they’ll hit us with spells until no one is alive!

Every Gnoll surely saw their enemy coming, but the struggle at the center of the Meeting of Tribes continued. Xherw’s warriors trying to kill the Doombearers. Plain’s Eye, still howling hatred.

And her. Perorn’s sides stung with cuts, and she felt the metal embedded in her flanks. That was a small mercy—she had seen a wire of string cutting down her people. She looked up.

There was a story even Baleros knew. 

The Witch of Webs stood in the center of the fighting, taller than she had been at the start. A hand reached out and threw a cloud of needles into the fighting. She whirled a needle up like a lance and sent it through a [Shaman] trying to burn her.

That monster was on Xherw’s side. She would have killed everything in front of her but for them. Perorn saw three figures breaking through the warriors fleeing her in every direction.

Saliss of Lights hurled a vial of fire in Belavierr’s face, but a needle exploded the vial in midair. So Saliss threw a dozen, then two dozen, trying to touch her. The [Witch] smiled—until a Gnoll leapt at her in midair.

The Stargnoll, wreathed in the Armor of Stars, tried to bring an axe down on Belavierr’s head. A magical rope grabbed her leg and cracked her through the air like a whip. She landed, slamming into Gnolls and breaking their bones or hers.

But another Gnoll was already there. The World-Pact Traveller struck Belavierr in the shoulder with an arrow that screamed and hissed. A Serpentarrow of Baleros from the Named Adventurer who had been to every continent, Gadiekh.

Three Named Adventurers. Belavierr replied with a shower of writhing bolts of black magic then turned her head. A young woman with fiery hair tossing flame looked up uneasily as Belavierr stared up at the only being taller than her.

Garsine Wallbreaker.

“You know the old ways. Shapechanger.”

For answer, Garsine raised a paw, and the [Racdelbear Shapechanger] roared as she struck Belavierr. The [Witch] staggered—then raised a hand as she smiled evilly.

I return your wrath to thee.

She touched Garsine, and Perorn saw the gigantic Gnoll go stumbling backwards, howling. Belavierr was proof against mundane weapons. Even magic didn’t seem to touch her.

That monster. Lehra was getting up, looking around with a stunned expression of disbelief and…fear. But Saliss kept advancing, and Belavierr’s smile vanished as she saw Garsine get up and Gadiekh lifting his bow.

No…Gnolls looked at that old villain from their tales, and even the ones who had refused to kill their kind, like Garsine and Gadiekh, strode into the fighting. Even—

A blade tried to pierce Belavierr from the back. Maviola cried out and coated the snarling Gnoll in flame, but he kept stabbing—stabbing into a dress like armor. Belavierr turned, and the Gnoll, whose fur was as grey as metal, looked up and raised a shield as she struck him back.

The Steelsoul warrior, one of Chieftain Iraz’s greatest warriors, collapsed as Belavierr reached into his chest and crushed his heart. The [Witch]’s hand was a ghost’s, immaterial until it touched his heart and crushed it. She frowned as she looked at the body.

“Are we not on the same side? I am fighting for Plain’s Eye. I am Belavierr.

She turned, and the Gnolls shuddered as they looked at her and heard her voice whispering in every ear.

“Do you have a wish? I will grant it for the right price. Stand against me and die. Call me your ally and take my hand, and I will do what armies cannot.”

Her voice trickled through the camps, into the ears of a group of chained figures. They snuffled, broke off from smelling all that death and whining to their battered leader. They looked up warily, and the worst of them, Nokha, opened her eyes in her cage of metal and grinned.

 

——

 

The Stitch Witch was reversing the battle, occupying Torishi’s forces as the Drakes came at them from behind. Yet—

How could you look at her and not wonder what you were doing?

The Plain’s Eye tribe kept fighting, and Az’muzarre was with them. They were both willing to make a pact with the [Witch]. But Adetr Steelfur saw other tribes breaking away. Pointing at Belavierr in horror.

Many simply saw Fissival’s and Salazsar’s armies and knew. They were abandoning the fighting, turning.

Such a large army. And to the west…Manus. The Drakes were moving in, and they could wipe out the Gnolls. Kill everyone.

What was he doing? What was…

“Iraz! Chieftain Iraz!

Adetr found his [Chieftain] at last. His mentor, his goal, and the Gnoll who had let him down when Adetr expected more, was standing, no longer fighting. Staring at Belavierr.

Iraz’s eyes were uncertain. That conviction, normally as tough as the metal of his fur, was wavering. Adetr charged at him, and the [Chieftain] met Adetr in the center of his tribe.

Adetr was alone. But he had fought through Steelfur to Iraz. They had…parted for him. Now, the younger Gnoll struck his [Chieftain] as he charged into him. Iraz grabbed Adetr’s arms as his axes rose, and the two were struggling.

Adetr.

“Chieftain Iraz. How could you do this? Can’t you see what Xherw’s done? Are you blind? Can’t you see what’s fighting on your side?

The [Vanguard of Metal], the [Battle Seeker], shouted at Iraz. The Chieftain was silent; his arms trembled as he threw Adetr left. He drew his axe as the other warrior whirled, but he didn’t raise it and strike. He just looked at Belavierr…and the Daemon standing behind Xherw.

“Steelfur has been Plain’s Eye’s friend. If we’ve followed that lie—we’re all lost. Tradition is lost. Gnolls are lost.”

His paw shook as he lifted a shield in the other hand. His nephew snarled at him. Adetr pointed to the Chieftains’ gathering tent, half on fire.

We have a future. Everything is changing, Chieftain—but look! They’re coming. Drakes. This is the end of our people, and Steelfur stands here, fighting our kind! We should not be here! Chieftain—

Iraz had Adetr’s arm as Adetr raised a paw to strike him. The [Chieftain] of Steelfur held Adetr as the warrior wavered. Adetr closed his eyes, knowing he wasn’t Iraz’s equal. He’d said his piece.

He opened one eye as he realized his throat wasn’t being crushed by an axe. Iraz stared at Adetr—then his eyes travelled across the distance to Fissival. Up towards the Wyverns preparing to rain spells down from above.

Without a word, Iraz let go of Adetr. He looked around at his warriors, who had abandoned their positions fighting Gaarh Marsh, Weatherfur, their hunt for Doombearers. Iraz’s head lowered, and the [Chieftain] seemed…smaller than Adetr remembered. He looked up at Adetr, and the younger Gnoll realized he was taller than Iraz.

Adetr had always felt smaller. He looked for that bastion of wisdom, the perfect leader, and saw only a frightened Gnoll so deep in his mistakes he couldn’t admit it. A young battle leader who’d committed to the wrong point and held there as good people died.

They gazed at each other and knew they would never go back again. But Iraz slowly let go of Adetr and turned. He took a metal horn from his belt and blew it. The brass wail was unlike any horn, and his tribe looked up. Slowly, Iraz pointed.

Steelfur. Steelfur—there. There, and there alone we fall. The Drakes will not have our people. Follow me. Follow—Adetr?”

His voice faltered, and the Gnoll looked at Adetr Steelfur. The [Battle Seeker] raised his head—and pointed an axe forwards.

Follow me!

The Steelfur tribe turned as one, breaking from the battle with their kind. They raced west, forming a barrier as more Gnoll tribes left. They faced Manus, and Adetr looked at a vast army. His tribe was wounded. Iraz stood beside him.

“Adetr…you have seen this battle before. Can we win?”

The [Battle Seeker] had played this battle in his mind, put armies against Manus’ might. He looked right and left.

“I—I did. But—we need the Steelsoul to go with you in the center. Manus will try to surround us. We must strike their officers, but they’ll be spread out. Where’s Shaman Geith? He must cast a [Chameleon] spell on…”

“Dead.”

Adetr stopped. The plans and simulations faded from his mind. He looked at Iraz and remembered now.

The cost of winning, even if they ‘won’. Adetr looked at Manus, and his class trembled. He had dreamed of this battle. Now he was here?

He did not want this. This was the nightmare from which there was no waking. Iraz took Adetr’s shoulder.

“Focus, Adetr. You have to focus. Unless they’re pushed back, we will all die or be captive.”

The [Vanguard] looked at his [Chieftain] and then broke out of his stupor. He began to give orders as, in the distance, Gnolls streamed towards Fissival. Then he saw Salazsar maneuvering into position and remembered Zeres was not far behind.

Three Walled Cites upon the plains. Adetr felt a dread certainty. But he looked into Iraz’s eyes and took his [Chieftain]’s shoulder.

“This is where I wanted to be.”

Adetr’s head rose, and he sighed as they turned to face the City of War. He knew that when he slept, he would no longer have his class. He would not dream of battle after this. He raised his axe and howled.

 

——

 

Manus was coming from the west. Fissival and Salazsar, from points to the east and south. Zeres was also marching from the south, blocking Oteslia.

Five Walled Cities had an army on the field, though Manus, Fissival, and Zeres were the largest by far. But there was actually one last group of Drakes that represented the final Walled City.

Pallass did have [Soldiers] at the Meeting of Tribes. They were arraying themselves now, actually. All one hundred and twenty of them.

They were, in fact, the same group that had escorted the Raskghar here from the City of Invention. Chaldion had ordered a detachment to stay in the area, and when everything had gone down, he had told [Major] Etella Doscale to avoid clashing with the Gnolls. Even surrender if they had to—but be here.

Here…facing Fissival and Salazsar, who were literally over a thousand times the number of Etella’s force. The Drake looked at a single line of Drakes with spears and another of [Archers]. She had eighteen Drakes armed with alchemical flasks. Two [Mages]. Fissival had more siege weapons than she had soldiers.

But her orders had come from none other than the Cyclops of Pallass. The [Grand Strategist] of the Drakes. She was, in fact, talking to Chaldion right now.

“Grand Strategist. I have a count of…hundreds of thousands of Drakes marching towards us. They have Mage Throwers, and they are preparing to bombard the Meeting of Tribes.”

Gnolls were forming lines behind her. They looked at Pallass’ forces, but the Drakes had their backs to the Gnolls. Etella heard Chaldion speaking calmly to her.

I understand the odds, [Major]. I am ordering you to advance once Fissival begins their assault. Do you understand?

“No, sir. We won’t even make it to their front lines. Sir…permission to speak freely?”

Granted.

The [Major] took a breath. It was shaking. She couldn’t help herself.

“We’re…we’re going to die. Grand Strategist, the [Soldiers] are about to mutiny. I understand Fissival is trying to wipe out entire tribes. There are Gnolls in this force.”

As many Gnolls as Drakes, in fact. A calculated gesture, and probably one of the only reasons they hadn’t been torn apart by the angry tribes. Chaldion’s voice was…

It wasn’t the snapping, harsh orders she had heard a few times, dressing down [Generals] like raw recruits. It was intense, hurried…but there was a tone in it she had seldom heard.

Yes, [Major]. If your [Soldiers] are going to mutiny, I advise you to let whomever you wish flee. But I need you and at least a quarter of your number to advance. I need you to charge Fissival. Do you understand why?

“No, sir.”

She knew he was watching her. Perhaps all of Pallass was. There had to be hundreds of scrying spells, watching Khelt, this battlefield, the armies…and Chaldion knew it too. The Drake spoke quietly in Etella’s ear.

You may be overlooked in this moment. But I promise—a recording of Pallass will remain. Afterwards, Gnolls and Drakes will see—every nation will see that when the Walled Cities attacked the Meeting of Tribes, Pallass fought with the Gnolls. Pallass has more species in it than any other Walled City as permanent residents. Gnolls, Drakes, Dullahans, Garuda. Major Estella. I am asking you to be a martyr. Do you understand why.

“Yes…yes, sir.”

The Drake was shivering. It was so clear when he said it like that. The [Strategist] stopped a moment.

I will remember your name, [Major]. Pallass needs heroes like you. Will you do this for our city?

She could refuse and flee the field. She might lose everything, but she’d live. But he laid out why, and the [Major] closed her eyes.

“I will be here, and any [Soldier] that volunteers, Grand Strategist. That’s all…all I can promise. Just—promise me this matters?”

Chaldion’s voice rasped in her ear.

I promise. No [Soldier] has fulfilled their duty better than you. Thank you, [Major].

The howling began as [Major] Etella dropped the stone. For the Drakes…she began to address her people. This was what her city demanded. This was who Drakes were. She had never been prouder or despaired more. The howling of the Gnolls filled the air, their despair and rage and grief all contained in a single sound. It sounded like an echo of the voice in her head.

 

——

 

The howling grated on Wall Lord Dragial’s nerves. He turned his head as the [Mages] in his command busied themselves. They were setting up scrying orbs—Dragial was making a speech.

“This is the last time Gnolls will trouble the cities. They must know it.”

He heard a few chuckles and then adjusted his clothing. The [Soldiers] were waiting for his signal to fire. The Gnolls were forming a wedge, but they were still fighting each other like the fools they were.

Well, that was the difference between their strategy and his. Dragial murmured to his [Strategist].

“Tell Wall Lord Ilvriss to hold and wait for the Gnolls to come to us. Has he issued any statements?”

“No, Wall Lord Dragial.”

Salazsar was neatly arrayed across from Fissival, close enough to see the purple-scaled Wall Lord addressing his forces. He was leading from the front—typical Salazsarian bravado, but Dragial still appreciated it.

“Remind me to mark a decanter for after the battle. There’s a proper Drake, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the spear-wall when it’s necessary.”

He strode on, clearing his throat and casting a few spells. Manus was launching all kinds of complaints by comparison. As if Luciva couldn’t see that this was the perfect moment. She knew as well as he—

The Drake took the dais and felt the magic, the artificial leyline filling him. He waited as the cheering stopped—then raised a hand.

“Soldiers of the cities! Drakes of Izril! This is the last day that Gnolls will spread lies about our city. The last year they will raid our lands. We have come to this battlefield to restore order to Izril. First the Great Plains—then the North! You will remember this day as the beginning of the return of the Walled Cities!”

He looked across the faces of Drakes, the glowing magic wands behind lines of pikes. The Gnolls were beginning to charge. The skies were turning red as Wyverns began to prepare [Fireballs]. The Wall Lord felt the burning excitement in his veins. Magic, begging to be unleashed. But he spoke a moment longer, for these words would be written down in history.

“General Hexa—you will hold the Gnolls down. General Koore, General Qeuse, with me. When they come, we will be the spear that breaks them apart. Drakes—to arms! For Izril!”

He raised a glowing wand, and the soldiers began to shout in reply.

Fissival! Fissival—

No, no. There was an even more fitting chant. Dragial began to shout, and the [Soldiers] caught on.

Drakes! Drakes! Drakes!

Wall Lord Dragial lifted his arms as his heart swelled with pride. He pointed the wand ahead at the Gnolls. His mouth opened as he drew a breath in. And a voice howled one word.

“Charge!”

Dragial jerked as the voice echoed across the Great Plains. His eyes swung right, and he saw a Drake riding forwards.

Wall Lord Ilvriss had drawn his sword. He pointed it forwards, and the army of Salazsar followed him. A Drake with bright blue scales rode after Ilvriss, followed by [General] Greex himself. Then the Rubirel Guard, the Erchirite Spears…eighty thousand Drakes charged with Ilvriss, screaming.

What is that idiot doing? Tell him to stop—he’ll foul our firing lines!”

Dragial broke off from his order to begin the attack, turning to his [Strategists]. They were trying to talk to Ilvriss, but that battle-crazed idiot must have decided to attack! Dragial was formulating a plan when he saw something he didn’t understand.

Ilvriss…was turning. The Wall Lord saw the Drake’s path veer from the Gnolls in front of him. Accordingly, the army of Salaszar began to turn.

“Huh?”

 

——

 

Ilvriss’ heart was in his mouth. Osthia Blackwing was at his side, and General Greex was screaming at their soldiers. Or just screaming—but Ilvriss had given one order:

Follow me. The army of Salazsar faltered—then they saw what he was doing. Drakes turned, their formations of spears curving. Officers of the City of Gems cursed as they saw Ilvriss’ true destination.

They had to know. You didn’t charge half a mile towards your opponents. Gnolls and Drakes looked up as the Wall Lord began to charge and saw him turn his head back once.

Then the Drake committed to the charge. Ilvriss’ warhorse raced ahead of everyone. He knew the continent was watching.

His father, his mother, his sister—his city. Everyone saw the Wall Lord of Salazsar curving away from the Gnolls. The City of Gems followed him, and General Greex screamed as they looked at their true target.

Fissival’s army was positioned to meet the Gnolls. Their spears were almost all pointed the wrong way. The Drake officers saw Ilvriss turning and shouted.

Ancestors—this is it! Get ready! Get r—

Ilvriss saw [Archers] and wand-carrying Drakes turn. But they hesitated. They raised their weapons, waiting for orders, but the officers were frozen, waiting for Dragial or their [Generals]. And Dragial was just staring at Ilvriss uncomprehendingly.

Ilvriss looked into that fool’s eyes and saw the brilliant light of arrogance and greed shining there. The worst of his people. He gazed at the army poised to make war on Gnolls. Repeat the same folly for the hundredth time in blood and wretchedness. Ilvriss screamed as he pointed his sword at the first Drakes swinging around, eyes wide.

His own people. But the Gnolls were not their enemy. They could be better. They had to be…Ilvriss thought he could see Periss urging him on. Or was it Zel? Both? He realized he was screaming.

“Salazsar! Salazsar! Salazs—”

Then the City of Gems struck the City of Magic. The world’s most magnificent backstab played across Chaldion’s horrified gaze as Ilvriss struck Dragial’s forces from the side. The Wall Lord swung his sword down and cut a Drake holding a wand. Then the Erchirite Spears rammed into Fissival’s forces, and their spears discharged the combined lightning effects.

Drakes howled as the magic exploded across their lines, but the charge kept going. Ilvriss was headed straight for Dragial as the exiled Wall Lord turned on his pedestal. Ilvriss yelled..

Tessa! Kill that idiot and then go protect Mrsha—protect Lyonette!

The Named Adventurer buried her daggers into a [Mage-Commander]’s chest and laughed as Ilvriss surged forwards. The City of Gems was at war with the City of Magic. Gnolls stormed across the Great Plains as Fissival’s neat formation broke into chaos, the Magic Throwers and [Mages] trying to turn.

 

——

 

The City of Magic was in chaos. The Wyverns in the sky had begun to loose spells, but a quarter had broken away from their assault to return to their army.

A single Goblin flew through the skies. The only thing that saved Snapjaw was that the Drakes kept thinking she was on their side until they drew closer.

Icecube belched frost into the face of a regular Wyvern and dove as spells crisscrossed the air. Snapjaw was shouting.

“Badarrow! Where is Mrsha? Are we running or not?”

She only got silence from her stone. More spells were overriding it. Snapjaw broke through a layer of storm clouds and saw…chaos.

Gnolls were racing towards the Drakes, still fighting each other—at the center was Xherw. That scary [Witch].

But where…? Snapjaw looked up as Wyverns dove after her. She screamed at Icecube to fly into the clouds once more. Below her, a Hobgoblin loosed arrows up frantically, but even Badarrow had trouble hitting—

An arrow struck a Wyvern through the eye as it dove after her. Screaming, the Wyvern plummeted. Snapjaw’s head turned as a second arrow pierced a wing and hit a [Mage]. There was only one mad archer who had that Skill. She looked around and saw him standing on a wagon.

Bird. The Antinium was gathered with the Fellowship out of the fighting. And a little white Gnoll was waving at her. Snapjaw looked up and saw more Wyverns descending. She ordered Icecube higher.

 

——

 

“What is she doing?”

Salkis was shouting, covered in blood, as they watched Snapjaw flying away from them. Sergeant Gna spat.

“She’s drawing them away! We have to go!”

Go? Which direction?

Drakes were coming in from all sides, and the Gnolls still wanted Mrsha dead. The Fellowship stood around her as the Witch kept fighting. She occasionally threw spells across the entire battling army—but never in their direction.

Belavierr had promised Wiskeria not to harm Mrsha. But no one else had, and they still hated her.

In fact, it was the [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands] who spotted Mrsha as he led a wave of Plain’s Eye [Shamans] towards Fissival. Ulcreziek halted as Gnolls streamed past the Fellowship of the Inn. He turned his head, and his eyes flashed, one brown, the other pale and timeless.

“Doombringer.”

Oh no. The Fellowship turned as Plain’s Eye Gnolls charged at them again. Numbtongue cursed, reaching for his guitar. Not that one! He saw a warrior coming for him and nearly grabbed his sword—

Stop that [Shaman]!

Garia leapt from the wagon as Bird stopped firing arrows up to cover Snapjaw. He and Badarrow whirled, and the [Martial Artist] kicked one of the Gnolls back. Another brought a sword down and speared the young woman who threw herself forwards to cover Garia.

Fierre!

But it was not a silver blade. The [Shamanic Warrior] recoiled as a thin, inhumanly strong grip cracked his bones. He saw red, glowing eyes. Sergeant Gna spurred her horse.

Forwards! Don’t let that [Shaman] cast!

Numbtongue knew that Ulcreziek would wipe them all out. He played on the guitar desperately. Each chord screeched as the [Lightning Melody] charged up. The dark skies made the Skill work even faster. Eight chords as Ulcreziek raised his staff—

A bolt of lightning shot down from the heavens. Ulvama threw a handful of fire as Mrsha waved her wand, tripping up a Plain’s Eye Gnoll. Numbtongue saw the [Shaman] react. Ulcreziek lifted his other paw—

And caught the bolt of lightning. It earthed itself in his paw, becoming a sizzling ball of lightning, contained. The [Bard] lowered his guitar.

“No w—”

The bolt of lightning struck the wagon and turned it into an explosion of splinters. Everyone was sent flying as Ulcreziek blocked Ulvama’s magic. The Hobgoblin surged to her feet, chanting a hex.

Ulcreziek’s magical eye stared at her, and she turned to stone. The stone cracked, and Ulvama emerged, screaming, falling to her knees and coughing out the stone lining her throat, her lungs. The Gnoll ignored her and pointed his staff at Mrsha. One of Bird’s arrows struck his fur and shattered; it was as tough as mithril.

“You…you—”

The magic grew brighter as Mrsha raced away from her friends. Badarrow dove for her, but she was running away—trying to spare them from the destruction of Ulcreziek’s spell. Bird and Badarrow fired arrows uselessly into Ulcreziek’s chest and face as The Crimson Soldier and the Antinium and Goblins tried to reach the [Shaman], but the Plain’s Eye warriors were in the way.

The wrathful Gnoll was locked on Mrsha, and nothing in this world would stop him. No spellcaster save for the [Witch] and Theikha was his equal here. He began to whisper his spell.

“[The Bloodless Lands Open—]”

A patch of space, the grass Mrsha was running across, began to shimmer with the same spell that had once made the Bloodfields. Numbtongue tossed the guitar aside, and Reiss, the Goblin Lord, took over.

Five [Deathbolts] hit Ulcreziek, and the [Shaman] barely flinched. He was the center of his tribe’s magic. The power of the greatest tribe in Izril ran through him. Nothing could stop his spell.

Nothing except for the buzzing sound that made Ulcreziek flinch instinctively. Nothing save for the little bee, flying towards his face. The [Shaman] ignored Apista. His body was protected by great magic. All she had was a single enhanced stinger.

And a Naq-Alrama needle buried in the tip. Apista landed on Ulcreziek’s face and stung his eye.

The Gnoll screamed as she stabbed his mortal eye. The spell went wild as Apista flew away.

Got him! Thanks for buying me time, everyone. The most dangerous member of the Fellowship saw the [Shaman] whirling, a bloody socket and pale eye staring at her. She felt a spell blast the air—

Mrsha turned her head as her death once again failed to come. Her faithful protector…she sensed the little bee, often forgotten. That brave, silly buzzing bee who stole Palt’s cigars. Then fire. Then—Mrsha looked around.

Apista?

 

——

 

The Ashfire Bee woke up on the ground. The [Shaman] was fleeing, his magics torn in half, arrows buried in his flesh. All because of her. She had been hit. She felt…pain.

But she got him alright. The Ashfire Bee scrambled up. She fanned her wings. Too many people around her. Too many feet. She took off—

And fell. Huh? Apista slammed into the ground rather than taking off. She crawled around, but she couldn’t turn her head. Something…she felt scorched. She fanned her wings and felt movement on only one side.

One of her wings was burnt off. And her legs…Apista tried to move her right side and realized that was why she couldn’t crawl.

Dimly, the bee realized what had happened. Oh. Oh…I got hit. She looked around for her boon companions, but they were fighting somewhere else. All she saw were Gnolls, feet…

One smashed the ground in front of Apista. The Ashfire Bee realized she wasn’t going anywhere. A body fell, bleeding next to her in the mud.

She thought she’d lost her stinger too. Apista could have used a cigar for the pain. She crawled forwards and stopped. No—no. Weakly, one antenna rose and flicked in a salute. She felt satisfied. The little white cute girl was safe. Mrsha was safe.

I did it. Mission accomplished, boys and girls. Bring her home.

She collapsed into the darkness as a Gnoll’s foot descended. Then someone stabbed the foot, and the Gnoll screamed. Blood rained down on Apista, but a pair of little grey hands grabbed her up.

Rasktooth, danger, danger!

Infinitypear loomed over Apista as a little Cave Goblin grabbed the bee up. Bewildered, Apista saw a grinning face. Crimson eyes and grey-green skin.

Only a Cave Goblin would have noticed something so small as her in the fighting. Rasktooth snatched Apista up and ran as Infinitypear jabbed with his spear, trying to keep the Gnolls back.

Got bug! Infinitypear, run, run!

The two scampered for it, the [Adventurer] and amateur [Cook]. A duo made in…Apista felt Rasktooth feeling at her urgently.

“Bad hurt. Give potion.”

The Antinium helped pour a vial over the bee, and the two looked around. The Fellowship of the Inn was in chaos.

“Where do we go, Rasktooth? I cannot see Revalantor Bird. We must run with Mrsha. Where is she?”

The Worker, Infinitypear, looked around as Rasktooth’s head whirled. What the Cave Goblin saw was a mess. Gnolls fighting Drakes. Drakes fighting Drakes. And he, a Goblin, and Infinitypear, an Antinium, were targets for everything. And that damn scary [Witch]?

“We run away! We have bee—we go! Come, come!”

Rasktooth made the most sensible decision and grabbed the Worker’s arm. Infinitypear hesitated, but then ran with Rasktooth towards the closest break in the fighting. They had Apista…that was what they could do. The bee was wriggling in Rasktooth’s grip as the Cave Goblin ran, but that was a good sign. He was grinning desperately, but laughing. She’d poked the Gnoll’s eye out! She’d—

He broke out of the Gnolls and onto the grass. Rasktooth looked up as he nearly slammed into a second line of bodies. He recoiled as he stared up at an armored breastplate, burnished with some kind of magical copper alloy melded with steel, but tougher than either. He saw a sword—no, a city made of swords and blades.

The crest of a Walled City on that armor. The scales of a Drake, dusky green. The Cave Goblin looked up as the Drake [Lieutenant] raised a sword.

Calmly, the officer of Manus ran Rasktooth through his belly and kicked him onto the ground. He stomped once on the Goblin’s back as Infinitypear raised his spear. The [Adventurer] looked down. Rasktooth? He jabbed—

A second Drake severed the spear. Two more stabbed the Antinium Worker, but not fatally. The [Lieutenant] raised a speaking stone.

“Lieutenant, 6th Advance Spears. Goblin and Antinium. Worker. Apprehend or execute?”

Apprehend Worker for questioning.

A [Tactician] snapped back. The Drake nodded as Manus advanced straight into the Meeting of Tribes. Around him, Drakes charged into Gnolls, spears lowered. They had targets. Steelfur, Woven Bladegrass…Dragonspeaker Luciva and the Security Council didn’t want the end of Gnolls.

Just some of them. The Drake snapped to his detachment.

“Apprehend the Worker.”

He noticed the Goblin was still alive. It was curled up, but it couldn’t stand. Holding something in its grip. The [Lieutenant] aimed his sword down as the Worker tried to fight. He was looking for the real enemy.

Someone tapped him on the shoulder. The [Lieutenant] twitched—he turned and saw a short Gnoll, old and grey-furred, standing there. Not a [Soldier].

“Civilians? Where’s my battle line?

The [Lieutenant] put his blade up, turning, and the old Gnoll spoke.

“My son is dead.”

His [Dangersense] was going off. The [Lieutenant] wavered, blade in hand. He pivoted, a Skill burning in his mind. The Gnoll stared at him.

My son is—

 

——

 

A [Tactician] of Manus was monitoring his area when his Skill pinged him. He raised a claw.

“Major. My [Casualty Report] just updated. Eighteen dead.”

“Where? Spell?”

“No, sir. Direct contact. In seconds.”

The [Major] whirled, and Berr the [Berserker] howled. A ripple went through Manus’ lines as the Gnoll tore through them.

What is that?” 

“[Berserker]! [Berserker]! Fall—

A line of Drakes disappeared as the Gnoll charged. The fire in the [Major]’s heart, the battle-fury—went out. He felt the anger of conflict vanish, leaving only fear.

The Gnoll was eating it. He was a center, a locus of rage. His son was dead. The Drakes saw the [Berserker] coming for them, bare-handed. Behind him, an Antinium shook a little Cave Goblin.

“Rasktooth? Rasktooth. Get up. You must get up.”

A little bee was buzzing as the Cave Goblin lay there. Rasktooth blinked as Infinitypear poured the potion over him. He grinned.

“Scary Gnoll saved us?”

“Yes. Get up.”

The Antinium tried to help Rasktooth to his feet. The Cave Goblin pushed with one arm, then made a puzzled face.

“Can’t.”

He stared down at his legs. The Antinium looked down at Rasktooth as the Cave Goblin stared at the scar in his belly and felt…nothing. So the [Adventurer] picked up his friend and ran. Ran, as Manus focused on Berr.

 

——

 

“[Spearmaster]. Berr the Berserker is rampaging through 6th Advance Spears. Permission to engage?”

“Get me six headhunters. I’ll go myself.”

Spearmaster Lulv was not smiling. He looked at his people and lifted his spear. This was not Liscor. He was watching the tribes falling.

“Stay, Lulv. Send eight headhunters. Manus—push into the center. I will have those tribes surrender. Take out the Chieftains. Any civilians not offering combat—separate and cordon them off.”

Dragonspeaker Luciva was leading their advance, but her eyes were locked on Belavierr. Belavierr, that Daemon. Belavierr, and the fighting between Fissival and Salazsar.

“I want that thing contained as well. Not destroyed. If it really is a fount of luck—get me every [Mage] on it.”

Luciva spoke, pointing at the Daemon. Distasteful as her expression was, that was Manus. Targets. Goals. Lulv ground his teeth together. If only every group were as direct as theirs they wouldn’t be fighting each other, letting so many good Gnolls and Drakes die.

Wasted lives. Now the Gnolls were fighting with Drakes on the east and western sides. One more army would collapse them. The sooner the better. They had to surrender.

For here came Zeres.

 

——

 

The Drakes were entering the battle one army at a time. But for Ilvriss, Fissival would have been tearing the tribes apart. However—another Walled City was racing towards the fighting.

And Zeres had sent three of the Admiralty.

Admiral of the Land, Horsthe.

Admiral of Supply, Asale.

And the Sharkcaptain of Zeres, Femar.

They marched with hundreds of thousands of marines, although over half were clashing with Oteslia, trying to stop the First Gardener from reaching the Gnolls. However, Zeres had a secret weapon, which they intended to use to draw this battle to a close. It was a far smaller army, but a famous one with tactics that had won the First Antinium Wars.

Liscor’s mercenary army. They were marching with Zeres’ vanguard, and if any one force could be that spear to pierce any lines—it was them. Although—the Admiral of the Land was aware there were issues.

“[General] Axter. Are your forces positioned to engage?”

He heard silence as Liscor’s High Command waited a beat, then a response. Unlike a Walled City, Liscor’s army was more direct.

Our Gnoll forces are about to riot. Tell me again we’re not going to wipe out the Gnolls.

“We are supporting Manus’ push. We will consider an attack on Salazsar’s rear. Those gem-addled idiots need to be stopped. Just prepare your forces to take out the center of the fighting.”

Acknowledged. We’re not entering into a slaughter with the tribes no matter how the battle plan changes. Consider that non-negotiable in our contract.

Horsthe rolled his eyes as he stowed the speaking stone. Liscor’s touchy army…but they would be a decisive part of taking Oteslia to heel. Their officer charges could take the [Chieftains] or the First Gardener and her son captive.

Besides, it didn’t matter. Zeres’ army was a riotous march as Femar raised his spear, leading them forwards. Asale was silent. His glare spoke volumes about how he felt, but they were committed.

It was the [Admiral] of the Land who spoke.

“I intend to use the First Tide Skill on approach, Asale. No games. We finish this and take on Khelt.”

“Khelt is heading upriver. We may run into them. That makes it three forces—Oteslia, Gnolls, and Khelt we’re fighting. How much more, Horsthe?”

“As many enemies as the waves, Asale. We are Zeres.”

The Admiral of Supply, levelless, the Drake who had risen to his post by virtue of ability, gave Horsthe a bleak look.

“If there is an end of the world coming, that will be a fine inscription on our tombs.”

There was nothing the Admiral of the Land could say to that. Ahead of him, he saw flashes in the sky. Wyverns from Fissival were raining down magic on the Gnolls. Manus was on the western flank; Fissival was getting torn up on the right.

“Femar, I need you to support Manus. Zeres might have to pivot to save the City of Magic. Like usual. Asale, keep a force in case Khelt moves on us. Liscor gets to charge the Gnolls and take out those [Chieftains].”

Cooly, Horsthe reaffirmed his battle-plan. He eyed Oteslia in the distance, but they were being held back by a line of skirmishing troops. They’d have to work through Fissival or Zeres first. Deploy a double defensive line to delay them, and they’d think twice with Manus, Zeres, and Fissival telling them to stand down and shut up.

The sky was so thunderous it didn’t look like day. But no water fell from the sky. Just fire. Fire and magic. Liscor’s mercenary army halted as Zeres slowly caught up.

Contact! Something in the skies—unfriendlies? Pallass?

Admiral Horsthe frowned as he saw a brief skirmish and a report from one of Liscor’s officers.

“What did you see?”

Pair of Pegasi. One’s sniped.

“Pegasi? Oteslia? No…they’re too far north. The Oldblood of Feathers?”

Horsthe frowned at the sky. He saw Liscor’s army pause a second, probably to collect information. And—like any good [Admiral], Horsthe had a spyglass. He focused the enchanted glass and saw a single Pegasus descending, bows trained on it. A second figure was plummeting from the sky. Horsthe winced and lowered the spyglass.

A terrible way to die.

 

——

 

A single figure fell out of the skies. They had been hit; a screaming Pegasus was dropping, and the rider was in free-fall. The second Pegasus descended, blaring voices from below warning the rider that they would be killed if they did not descend—slowly.

No.

After so long. After so far—the rider reached out, but he was far too removed. Even so, he urged the Pegasus to dive, ignoring the warnings.

That familiar face. That…person that so many had come for. The wrong person. The right body. He saw a wild grin. Heard the cursing.

The bright gaze of General Sserys of Liscor in Erin Solstice’s body as she fell out of the sky.

Sserys!

Relc Grasstongue shouted. He lunged across the Pegasus, but he was dozens of feet away, and the Pegasus couldn’t dive fast enough. Valeterisa was too far above, doing her part. Relc screamed.

“Erin!”

They had arrived too late for the fighting and had gone for Liscor’s army. Liscor—had shot Sserys out of the sky. The Pegasus, arrows buried in its wing, caught itself, but nothing could stop the young woman.

She fell. Three hundred feet straight down. There was no Skill. No magic gear.

Relc saw the body hit the ground and bounce. It made such a soft sound he didn’t hear. The Drake slammed into the ground as the Pegasus landed hard, and he fell off.

“Stay down or die!”

Someone was shouting at him. Relc felt the prickle of spells and arrows trained on him, but he ran for the figure. He saw two empty eyes staring up at the sky. He saw Erin Solstice’s body lying there…

Then Sserys wiped at his mouth as he lowered the bottle, and he spat.

Damn it, that hurt. I’m not Zel. You bastards.

He stood up, checking his sword, and Relc’s jaw fell open. Sserys got up, a bit shakily even for him. He winked at Relc.

“Don’t worry. She’s okay. Looks like the lads didn’t skimp on anti-flier training. Well, well, well.”

Then Relc Grasstongue raised his head, and they were there. He looked at the [Marines] marching in good order in Zeres’ forces. Salt and sea…and Relc ignored them.

There they were. Drakes with axes propped on their shoulders. Companies neatly divided into groups led by [Wing Commanders]. The main army of new recruits and the countless, countless officers.

More officers than even some Walled Cities had in their army. Hundreds of [Lieutenants]. More [Sergeants] than you could count. Even [Captains] and [Majors] standing in rows.

Rough and ready. The mercenaries of Izril, pointing at the young woman in confusion. Liscor’s army halted, because even they were taken aback by seeing someone survive a fall like that.

And perhaps—they felt it. A sudden, familiar presence. Relc saw a group of officers. Each one scarred, tails—furred or scaled—curled up, scrutinizing this threat.

High Command. He felt weak. Liscor’s army looked at the Pegasus, the Drake and Human who’d suddenly arrived, and slowed. [Wing Commanders] held up their hands, and veterans in the ranks pointed.

“Pallass getting their tails in the soup?”

Nah. Can’t be. Wait. Who’s that ugly bastard? That can’t be—I’d recognize that meathead anywhere. Is that—”

“Sergeant Relc? The Gecko?”

Voices rose in disbelief, and some of the officers turned to the old guard for confirmation. Of all the Drakes…people fixed on Relc with a mix of incredulity and hostility.

After all—he was someone who had quit the army. What was he doing here? And who was that damn Human? No one knew her face…although some thought they had maybe seen her on the scrying orb?

But what was that—feeling? A few of the oldest Drakes and Gnolls were looking around. One [Veteran] growled at their [Wing Commander]

“Feels as though someone is walking on my grave. Wing Commander—tell High Command something’s making my fur stand on end.”

The [Wing Commander] hesitated, but a hunch like that wasn’t something you ignored. The army slowed, but Zeres was already shouting at them to hurry up and throw themselves into the fighting. Typical of a cowardly big city.

The Drake was helping the young woman up. She put her hands on her hips as a squad trotted forwards to apprehend and question the odd duo. But the Human put up her hand, and the patrol…wavered. They came to a stop, and one of the [Strategists] cursed them out.

What is going on? Apprehend those two! Are you deaf or blind or do I need to knock you two down to [Recruits], you slow-as-shit idiots?

Liscor’s officers had a way with words. But the patrol called back.

“Something’s wrong. We can’t move! Something’s…who is that Human?

The [Strategist] checked his [Appraisal] enchantment, but the Human must have been warded. The class wasn’t showing up. He thought he saw a flicker, but…

“Be advised, all officers. Gecko—confirmed, Relc Grasstongue is present with an unknown quantity. Possibly some kind of high-level irregular.”

Liscor was assessing the situation, and bows were trained on both. One order and they’d fill the air with death. Relc might survive, but he needed to do the right thing and toss his spear down and explain what was going on. Liscor’s army didn’t kill their own, even traitors.

So why did that young woman look on at one of the most dangerous armies of Izril, Drakes and Gnolls ready for a fight, and seem so…unimpressed? She was close enough that almost all of the army had a good look at her as she strutted back and forth.

Something…made High Command hesitate. One of the older [Strategists] kept feeling at her neck.

“No. No, it can’t be.”

A shudder ran through Liscor’s army. A strange sensation rose in the chests of the [Soldiers], even those far too young to feel that nostalgia. It was…a longing.

As if they could feel a void being filled that they hadn’t known had been there until now. A hole in their chests that was being closed. They hesitated, looking at each other, calling out, and then the young woman spoke.

She had a [Loud Voice] Skill. Or maybe she was just that loud. She turned to the Drake—Relc—and said something. Relc jerked in surprise, and then the two were facing Liscor’s army. The young woman strutted forwards as the Gecko’s tail curled for a second, and Relc hurried over next to her.

He was taller than she was—but she drew the eye. Just…a young woman with some decent armor and a sword on her hip. Armor worn over…what, an innkeeper’s clothing? A bloodsoaked apron?

She didn’t seem impressive, even for a Human. But her eyes. They were odd. Almost slitted like a Drake’s, but it was a trick of light. And her voice, when it spoke, was a rasping drawl, elongated ‘s’ like Drakes. A bark of laughter. Then she said:

Well, well. I have never seen such a worthless lot of rookies in my life. I came here looking for an army. I should have gone to Pallass’ nurseries for some [Soldiers] with better backbone than the soft bastards I see here.”

Liscor’s army stood there, completely silent for a moment. What did she just say? The young woman went on.

“I’ve seen Lizardfolk with better discipline and tougher [Lords] in the Five Families. Did you have a good time powdering your scales and primping your fur? You must have—or you stopped for a dozen tea parties if you just reached the hottest fight in Izril.”

Okay, their ears were working. The Drakes and Gnolls nodded at each other. That Human was dead. The Gecko was looking uncertainly at the Human, as if aware he were watching her kill herself. Zeres was slowing, and the Drake kept twitching his tail and glancing at the fighting.

But that Human just went on.

So this is Liscor’s army? I’d rather take the crap I just passed into battle. But you’ll do. Some of you are tough bastards. Most of you are as stupid as rocks. But you’ll do. Mind you—I could take half of you on in my bed and use the other half to wipe my tail. What are you doing? Working for Zeres when the Gnolls are about to kill each other? If you’re done stroking each other’s tails—I have a real battle for you.

It was incredible no one had shot her yet, orders or not. This many insults coming at them? But…one of the [Majors] was muttering.

“I could take half of you in bed…how does she know…?”

That style of insults. The casual allusions to wanting sex. The way she spoke. No—it was that feeling in the back of the mind.

There was no way. But the veterans of the army were looking at each other. They felt it. One [Soldier] nudged her superior, and the older Drake snapped back.

“That’s impossible. He’s dead.”

“Who? Captain, what’s going on?”

The squad looked at their [Captain], and the survivor of the First Antinium Wars just stared at the Human. That unnaturally wide grin on the young woman’s face. The strut.

It could not be. But it was. The army of Liscor was now locked onto the young woman, but they noticed something else. The Drake behind her was Relc.

The Gecko. One of their best officer headhunters—a pure idiot, but one of their best. A [Spearmaster] who had broken every tie with the army. He should have been in the city kissing Ants. But…

“What’s he doing? He can’t be—”

As the Human lit up the army with insults, the Drake was doing something. He turned left, and his tail…slapped the ground twice. Then it traced a circle and pointed. Every eye followed that tail and what it was pointing at.

“No fucking way.”

They all watched Relc and the young woman. Of course—she was a Human. She didn’t have a tail, so there was no way she could communicate with one. Especially if she wanted to say something with that semi-secret code.

Liscor’s army knew tail-signs. It was a favorite tactic of their [Generals]—at least, one in recent history. He’d shout all kinds of unrelated things before a battle and then launch them forwards, having told them everything he needed with his tail.

But was this really happening? Everyone was looking at High Command, but they were frozen. They saw it more clearly than the soldiers. And what they saw was…

His aura. His presence. Relc Grasstongue, tail repeating the commands, looked down at the Human. And though it was Erin’s voice and her face and body…

General Sserys of Liscor stood there on the grassy field and bellowed at his army. The [Spear of the Drakes] shouted with a huge smile as he cursed them out.

His people. His sons and daughters, his comrades in arms. They had changed, and he let them have it.

We were the greatest army two decades ago! Now—what are you doing? Did you hang up your spears and forget what we were supposed to be doing? Or are you just that incompetent without me? You left your city behind, and you think you’re tough little boys and girls playing in the mud with a damn dungeon underneath home? You think you’re getting paid well to follow Zeres and kill Gnolls? If I had time, I’d spend all day slapping you idiots, but I don’t. So shut up and follow my tail!”

It was too much. At last, one of the younger officers, looking at the paralyzed seniors, shouted furiously at Sserys.

“Who are you? What gives you the right to give us orders you—you—Human?”

Human? Human? ARE YOU BLIND OR ARE YOU AS STUPID AS YOU LOOK?

Sserys screamed back. He struck his chest.

“Don’t you know me? Don’t you remember me? I led you against the Black Tide. I was there when we fell. I was with you idiots since I was a boy. Who am I? Give me the right answer or I’ll come over there and shove this sword up your ass.

He pointed at the [Lieutenant], and the Drake stuttered. But that name…Sserys heard a whisper.

“Sserys.”

His wild smile grew wider on his face.

“That’s right. Now—I came all the way back here for one last battle. Because it matters. Are you going to leave me hanging? Who am I? Who are you?”

He raised his arms, the sky behind him thundering with fire, armies fighting on the Great Plains. Now it was undeniable. Soldiers began to call out.

“Sserys!”

The forces of Zeres had no idea what was happening. They just saw a Human and a Drake stopping Liscor’s army. Then they heard a distant shout.

Shout it louder!

Sserys! Sserys of Liscor!

“I said shout, not whisper!”

The Admiralty, the [Marines], slowed. A Human tore a sword from its sheath and raised it overhead. Now came that final roar. A relieved, joyous, disbelieving bellow from every voice.

“General Sserys!”

Admiral Asale’s head rose. Admiral Horsthe rubbed at one earhole. They could not be hearing…the Sharkcaptain looked disbelievingly at the young woman. He was already striding forwards, snarling, to get Liscor moving.

He saw that brown hair toss as the young woman turned. The Sharkcaptain slowed. Femar had the distinct feeling that he was approaching a…a [General]. But that was impossible. He narrowed his eyes as the young woman pointed that sword.

“Liscor—forwards!”

The disbelieving army of Zeres, the people watching, heard that name. Then they saw the Human, the [Innkeeper], leap onto the back of a horse. She kicked it forwards as the Gecko of Liscor ran after her.

And Liscor’s mercenary army broke from their target. They ignored Zeres’ demands to come back. They ran across the ground, screaming like the terrors of the battlefield they had been.

The mercenaries of Liscor. The army followed Sserys across the plains—but not towards the Gnolls. They shot westwards. And they were aiming at—

“Manus?”

The City of War looked up from their neat and tidy advance as Liscor rampaged towards them. What—had they taken leave of their senses? Who would attack them? They were the City of War!

One Drake had clashed with them without fear. Sserys had surveyed the battle at the Meeting of Tribes and seen how the Gnolls were in danger of being overrun. So he had told Relc to give Liscor’s army the tail-signs to hit the western flank.

Now, the Drake was charging at Manus. Sserys gazed down at ranks and ranks of armored helmets and fanciful, stupid plumes of feathers gazing up at him. The Drake’s voice was a roar, to himself and them all. Once more, he ordered them to stop, to turn back.

But they only hesitated a moment and ignored the voice in their ears. Their better nature. The Admiralty, Dragial, Luciva—they ignored Chaldion’s wild claims and his orders. They always had, when they saw something they wanted. Like stupid, inbred children who thought they’d always get their way.

Sserys just laughed. If I had lived—would they have really listened to me more than Zel? Especially once they knew who he was, not his legend?

It didn’t matter. He looked back, and Liscor’s army gazed back at him for one moment. They saw their [General], and he pointed ahead.

“This is the Gnolls’ war. Even I can’t order the Walled Cities around. But I will be the Spear of Drakes to save us from our own folly. If you want to fight someone—fight us. Luciva, I’m coming for you.”

Faster, the Drake rode across the Great Plains. Sserys shot ahead of the army screaming his name. Even the Gecko struggled to keep up as the [Spear of the Drakes] rode. This was what he had missed. A sword raised in one hand, the other clutching the reins, Sserys charged into Manus’ lines.

“I am Liscor. I am General Sserys! To arms, Izril!

Laughing, he carved his way into Manus as Liscor’s army spread out. They were loosing arrows at Zeres! They were—fighting for the tribes.

The first Drakes who saw Sserys tried to stop him. He trampled one, blocked a spear-thrust, severed the spear, and cut down the Drake holding it. He rode through the Drakes, sword flashing left and right. A Human who lanced into Manus’ side, forcing the City of War to turn as Liscor hit them.

Not blindly, though. Drakes killing Drakes…Sserys’ head turned. He was on the hunt for targets. He was the greatest [General] of Izril in this moment, and this was his war to lose. Above, the Wyverns were swooping down for another pass at the Gnolls, threatening to bombard them, civilians, warriors—

Until the sky lit up.

 

——

 

Snapjaw was half-frozen to her saddle. Icecube’s frost breath had struck her as well as everything else. She didn’t have any potions left. And the Drakes were heading down for another pass. The Goblin flew past a woman standing idly in the air and chanting spells.

“Oh, a Goblin.”

Valeterisa broke off to stare at Snapjaw with idle curiosity. Snapjaw nearly fell out of her saddle. Valeterisa shrugged. Then she looked down at the young woman trying not to fall off the floating platform of magic carrying them thousands of feet above the battlefield.

“Don’t fall, Montressa. Attention, Fissival [Mages]. I am Valeterisa, Archmage of Wistram. If you do not wish to be killed, kindly descend and refrain from casting magic.

Drakes jerked and looked up at the hither-to cloaked [Mage] in the skies. They called out warnings and redirected their spells at her. Valeterisa blinked as a bolt of lightning struck upwards. It sizzled out on one of Montressa’s barrier spells, not even Valeterisa’s wards.

“They never listen. I told Sserys that. And I also told Fissival that Wyverns are not good vehicles for [Mage] combat. All you have to do is cast [Frozen Winds] and enhance it with a wide area effect, and the ice drags their wings down and…”

Valeterisa watched as the Wyverns began to scream as their wings froze up, taking them into nosedives. The [Mages] desperately tried to warm the wings, and more spells lanced upwards. Valeterisa idly watched [Fireballs], [Acid Orbs], [Lightning Bolts]…

“Tier 3-5 magic. All direct area attack spells. [Battle Mages]. Montressa du Valeros—this is magic. [Hurricane of Darkness].

She lifted her arms, and the skies turned black. Now the Wyverns were frozen and blind. Except…Valeterisa could see. She saw their body heat, the magic trails they left.

“[One Thousand Arrows of Fire]. No. That was most certainly overkill. How about a hundred…? No. [Sixty Arrows of Fire]? Now—copy that spell eight times. Montressa, copy this magic. [Mages] of Fissival. Descend or die.

Wyverns fell burning from the skies as precisely calculated showers of magic began to strike down. Valeterisa did not dodge or move. She just stood there, casting spells down. A [Mage] entrenched behind barrier spells. A classic Wistram move…three thousand feet up. The skies were suddenly a firefight as [Mages] flew higher, fighting against the Archmage of Izril.

 

——

 

The skies. They were contested. The Gnolls realized that the Drakes had stopped bombarding them. This was a chance.

A Drake was riding through their lines. He was hunting for someone. No—the Gnolls blinked and rubbed their eyes.

A Human woman? But he was searching for someone.

A little white Gnoll, being pursued by Plain’s Eye. Even now. A [Thief] was racing after her, and the tribe of Doomslayers had abandoned their part of the battle to chase after her. Az’muzarre followed, and the [General] cursed.

“I thought you were blowing smoke out your tail, Relc. Relc?”

He turned and realized even the Gecko was left behind. Sserys whirled back as he charged the Gnolls. A [General] alone.

“Can’t have that. Someone protect the brat. I have a date with the Dragonspeaker where I kick her teeth in and she pulls Manus out. Get me the bravest bastards. A group with punching power.”

Who was he speaking to? Not to Relc, who was pushing into Manus with Liscor’s army. General Sserys pointed, and his eyes lit up with joy. He breathed.

[Company, On Me]. You’re on babysitting duty.”

His voice echoed across the ground, and the Gnolls, the fighting Drakes—all looked around as the air charged and then split. It wasn’t teleportation—it was as if a group suddenly raced onto the battlefield around Sserys, as if they had been there all along but around a corner in the air. A company of Liscor’s finest marched onto the grass and looked around wildly.

Where are we? Prognugator Dekass?”

“Where is Commander Olesm? Liscor’s gone. Where are—?”

General Sserys heard a babble of voices and the Drake’s triumphant grin—slipped. He stared in disbelief at the hundred soldiers he’d summoned. His eyes passed not over Gnolls. Nor Drakes.

He stared at Battalion 1, Squads 1-10 of Liscor’s army. Liscor’s…

Army. The Antinium looked around, and Squad 5 turned as they saw a young woman sitting on horseback.

“What the fuck.”

That was what she said. What the angry Worker with the zweihander, Crusader 57, said was…

“Erin?”

The [Crusaders] of Liscor looked at Erin Solstice a second before she swung her sword at them. Crusader 53 blocked the swing with a mace on reflex. The Human woman recoiled. The Drake [General] stared at the Antinium.

“My army…?”

His eyes flicked back to Liscor’s forces. Then to the north as he realized who he’d summoned by accident. His Skill had never had to worry about two armies serving Liscor before.

Meanwhile—Olesm had just watched one of his best battalions vanish in front of his eyes as he raced back to Liscor.

Erin? Erin—

Artur waved the banner wildly as he fought to get to the young woman. But she was recoiling, and the look of horror and disgust on her face made the Antinium hesitate.

Was this the sky? Was this her?

No—who was this? The [General] rode back. He wavered, looking at the Antinium. The Plain’s Eye Gnolls had turned in horror. Sserys shook his head. He kicked his horse into motion.

“Forget this.”

He abandoned 1st Battalion in the middle of the battlefield. The bewildered Antinium had no idea where they were. But suddenly—they were the biggest target in the world.

Antinium!

Gnolls screamed as everyone saw a hundred Antinium appear in the middle of nowhere. It was their [Banner Leader], Artur, who rallied the Antinium. He was looking around.

“Someone find our speaking stones. Call for Prognugator Dekass or Olesm or Belgrade!”

But they were way too far away for the local speaking stones to work. The Antinium stared after the young woman riding away from them. Then—Crusader 53 saw something.

A little white Gnoll girl ran past them, being pursued by howling Gnolls. Every single Antinium in the crusade had heard stories of the fluffy, white Gnoll who might be at the inn. She was part of the stories.

Some knew her face. Squad 5 hesitated. Crusader 53 looked at Crusader 57. The Gnolls were trying to kill Mrsha. Artur pointed.

“Mrsha…? Charge! Battalion 1—charge those Gnolls!

Without a word, the [Crusaders] turned. They saw the enemy and charged as Mrsha came skidding to a halt. The hundred Antinium ran straight into a mix of Plain’s Eye and…

Az’muzarre. The Gnolls with artifacts taken from the body of Muzarre, the Dragonlord of Gems, had won every single encounter. Now, they howled as they saw an unexpected enemy. A Gnoll carrying a Dragonbone spear leapt into the air. Another held a mace of Dragonbone and whirled it down as the Antinium charged at them.

The relic that could break Demas Metal armor and shatter bone at a touch met Crusader 53’s iron mace. The Az’muzarre [Relicbearer] was already maneuvering for another blow when he felt something unexpected.

The second mace met the Dragonbone artifact and knocked it back. The Gnoll stumbled backwards, and Crusader 53 followed the first blow up with a second mace-strike.

“Impossible.”

The Az’muzarre Gnoll found themselves blocking the [Weapon of Faith] as Crusader 53 rained down blows on the magical artifact. The Antinium swung the mace up and clipped the Gnoll’s face. With a snarl, the Gnoll struck back, but his mace was just…a mace. When Crusader 53 parried it, none of the magics worked. It should have shattered every bone in his body. It should have—

Chieftain Reizet’s famous tribe ran into Battalion 1 of Liscor’s army. The Antinium who had fought Hectval and Manus for over a month charged into Gnolls with relics.

Faith met magic, and Az’muzarre watched their [Relicbearers] struggle…and begin to fall. The Gnolls, who were used to fighting alone, twenty-to-one with their relics, ran into Antinium who treated the blades like ordinary metal.

Trickery! Fall back! Fall—

eAt ShiT.

Crusader 57 tripped up the Gnoll with the Dragonbone mace as the warrior tried to fall back from Crusader 53’s attack. He did this by swinging his zweihander into the Gnoll’s legs from the rear. With a cry, the Gnoll fell.

Crusader 53’s mace fell one more time. Then the Antinium regarded the glowing mace.

“Magic weapon? Better loot it.

Crusader 57 leaned on the zweihander. Everyone knew you stole magic weapons. Slowly, Crusader 53 picked up the mace. He swung it experimentally—then shrugged. Squad 5 turned to face another group of Gnolls. They were surrounded. They were probably going to die—but they were fighting for that little Gnoll. So Crusader 53 charged like he’d seen Crusader 51 do. He raised the new mace.

[Mace Art: Big Hammer].

Crusader 57, charging after Crusader 53, was blown off his feet. He waved all four arms as he found himself on his back shell.

geT ME uP! geT—

Crusader 50 and 59 helped him up. When the Worker got up, he saw a hole in the ranks of the enemy. Crusader 53 was still frozen with the Dragonbone mace in his hand.

Did I do that?

He looked around, and the Antinium gazed at the mace. The Gnoll with the relic-class spear struck Crusader 21 with a howl—then stared in disbelief at the dented armor.

[Armor of Faith]. The Antninium cut one arm off. Then seized the spear. Az’muzarre fled backwards, howling in dismay. The little Gnoll ran, howling for the Antinium as they encircled her. But then the Thief of Clouds grabbed her.

No! Come back!

Artur screamed, but Vetn was wild-eyed, running in terror from the Black Tide. Mrsha punched at him.

Stop! Stop! They’re Antinium from Liscor!

 

——

 

Battalion 1 was making its stand behind Sserys. He knew it. He felt them fighting. They were…his [Soldiers]?

“Ridiculous. They’re Ants.

He kept looking behind him. Why was he certain some of them had officer classes? One…

One had a banner of Liscor. They’d come when he called. The [General] was more rattled by that moment than anything else in the battle.

But then he saw Zeres was on the attack. They’d ignored Liscor versus Manus and were rampaging towards the Gnolls from the rear.

You salt-soaked idiots!

They were charging. And Sserys knew their Skills. They were chanting as they marched. The air felt…wet. Like the precursor to the storm, and those storm clouds overhead were intensifying. It was beginning to rain.

They were summoning the First Tide. Sserys whirled. He saw more Gnolls forming a battle line, but they’d never make it.

A line in the sand. Sserys stared into the distance. Was that a sail he saw…? He whispered, calculating.

“Ten minutes. Ten minutes—get me the most defensive bastards who won’t flee when—”

He hesitated, a hand raised. Sserys stared at Erin’s hand and then looked at the Antinium. He amended his statement.

“No. No—get me the most honorable group to hold the line. There. [Company, On Me].”

He pointed—and another company marched out of the air. Sserys knew what he had said. He stared in disbelief as a line of Antinium marched into position. One raised a two-handed maul.

Orders?

What is going on?

The Drake screamed. He looked at the Antinium, and that sword rose…but they looked at him.

Commander. What are our orders?

Sserys gazed at an Antinium with an odd helmet and hesitated. Then he pointed.

“Zeres is coming at us! Hold this ground for ten minutes!”

A hundred Antinium looked at the City of Waves charging their position. Sserys heard them speaking. One saluted him.

“It will be done, Commander.”

He looked into an insect’s eyes for too long. At that horned helmet…a steel helm for Antinium that someone had added crude horns onto.

The Beriad of the Antinium, 6th Battalion, looked at the General of Liscor, and Sserys whispered.

“Good job, [Soldiers].”

He stared at his hands as the Antinium turned.

“Ah, I see it now. I really don’t fit in this world anymore.”

Ruefully, he turned. The [General] readied his sword and focused. He saluted the [Soldiers] once. Then he pointed ahead.

“Dragonspeaker!”

Sserys charged straight into Manus’ front lines as the Antinium turned. They didn’t know where they were. But if Erin Solstice were here—

They were dead. This was Heaven, and apparently it was filled with Drakes. Or maybe they were just needed.

Their Minotaur leader wasn’t here…but they saw the enemy. Zeres had spotted Battalion 6, but that just made the [Marines] advance faster. They were screaming hatred at the Antinium.

Thousands of Drakes. But that wasn’t the sight to terrify Antinium. It was…

The water. Admiral of the Land, Horsthe, had unleashed a Skill of Zeres.

“[The First Tide Covered Land]/[We Marched Amidst the Surf]/[The Ocean At Our Backs].”

A Skill from Zeres. Drakes marched through water as if it didn’t bother them, but it was knee-high and rising for everyone else. A sea upon land.

The Antinium’s worst nightmare. 6th Battalion wavered as they saw the odds. So many Drakes. No quarter and only water if they fell.

“We…we…”

A hundred Soldiers and Workers in armor stood there. Holding two-handed weapons. No shields. They each had a curious helmet on their heads.

One of the Armored Antinium’s helms—but they’d added something. It was made out of pieces of wood, even twigs or leaves. Pieces of metal bent and clumsily attached. Not antennae, like you might first think.

They were…horns. As the Drakes marched on them, one of the Antinium of 6th Battalion looked around. There was no Calruz. He wasn’t part of their army.

Very well. The Antinium strode forwards and faced the ninety-nine warriors. He raised a maul—and the army of waves reacted.

“Officer. Loose!”

Arrows struck the Antinium from behind. They pierced the metal armor, and the Antinium fell. Green blood colored the surf around the Antinium, but the body never reappeared.

In silence, 6th Battalion stared down. Then another Soldier stepped forwards. They turned their backs to Zeres and raised a greatsword. They began to speak.

We—

A lance of fire burned through their backs. The second Antinium fell, tried to stand—and six more spells struck them. In silence, they fell into the waters.

So 6th Battalion stood. They had no leader. They gazed into the distance at a foe a hundred times as large as them. Slowly, the Antinium began to stomp in the waters. They lifted their blades.

A battleaxe, a pair of swords. A hammer.

They began to sing.

 

——

 

Venaz of Hammerad was racing through the battlefield to pit Wild Wastes against Zeres. So many angles of battle—he had lost Berr. This—they were losing.

Then he saw them. Antinium. That hated foe. There were two hundred—one group fighting Az’muzarre, the second facing Zeres, who had summoned the waters.

How had they gotten there? Venaz snarled as he hefted the Diamond Greatsword of Serept. He charged, a blur under a permanent [Haste] spell.

Then he heard something. It sounded like…voices. But the Antinium were Soldiers. They had no voices! Yet he still heard it. An echo in his soul. The voices of [Crusaders]. And the words—

He knew those words.

 

“From days of war and wrath we ran

Exiled from every land

Searching for our honor lost

And found the House of Minos’ sands.”

 

The Minotaur slowed. His eyes opened wide with disbelief. 6th Battalion stood there, facing the Drakes, stomping and singing in the surf as it rose around them. The waters dark with mud, white with froth—but the Antinium never wavered.

Their armor gleamed where it met dark carapace. They had no eyes that Venaz could see. They were identical insects, alien to everything he knew.

But they faced the Drakes, stomping as one, a single line in front of one of the greatest Drake cities in the world. The [Marines] slowed as they heard that chanting.

The most honorable force in Liscor’s army stood reflected in a thousand scrying orbs. Across the House of Minos. In the eyes of a Minotaur [Prisoner].

They could have run. They never would. Ninety-eight [Crusaders] dared Zeres to charge them, ignoring the spells and arrows striking the water around them.

A Minotaur stopped as they turned. Half the Antinium raised their weapons, but…they hesitated.

A Minotaur? He was no Calruz, one-armed and glorious. The [Strategist] hesitated as he looked at them. Then Venaz roared, his voice carrying above the roar of waters, the army facing them.

I see your honor as plain as the foe that assails us. I am Venaz of Hammerad! I would be honored to join you!

He was shaking with uncertainty. But—the Minotaur’s eyes were wide as he looked at them. He had to believe. If there were any place on the battlefield that had ever demanded him—it was here. In silence, the 6th Battalion raised their weapons and the Minotaur stepped into line. He turned to face them, and an arrow tried to take his life—but his amulet made it swerve away.

Who are you? Name yourselves, Antinium!

“The Beriad. We are the Beriad of the Antinium!”

Venaz recoiled. But—he looked at them, and they knew what the word meant. The Minotaur’s eyes stung as he lifted the greatsword.

“Beriad! Bear your arms!”

Then he turned and joined their ranks. Ninety-nine warriors of the Beriad stood there. They were only missing one more.

He came striding through the waters, fearless. Even the forces of Zeres hesitated, for he seemed drenched in blood. But if it were blood—it was the blood of his foes, and it would never leave him.

The Crimson Soldier walked down the line of Beriad as they turned in awe towards him. Venaz looked at the greatest veteran of the Free Antinium’s Hive, and The Crimson Soldier spoke.

We are the first of the new Antinium.

He spread all four arms as the Drakes faltered. A Prognugator? He had to be.

Something was happening. The battlefield—the Antinium of 1st and 6th Battalion looked up. They felt it running from The Crimson Soldier. The [Archers] lowered their bows, gazing around and finding a single [Hunter] on the wagon.

Bird shot down the sixty-eighth Oldblood Drake.

“I am killing them. But they are not birds. I am…a bit sad.”

He lifted his bow. The [Thief] holding Mrsha reeled back as a group of Drakes turned, and a [Mage] aimed a staff at Mrsha.

Bird’s arrow hit the Drake in the throat.

Not sad about that. Just—how many? His hands were a blur. Arrow, arrow, arrow…in as many seconds.

Three people died. How many? He gazed at Mrsha. Then looked around.

Bird the Hunter! Kill it.

Manus had seen him. A [Sniper] drew an arrow to the bow and Bird leaned out of the way of an arrow that blew apart the remnants of the wagon he was using as cover. He loosed an arrow back, and the Drake cursed as an arrow thunked into the tower they were standing on. Bird loosed a trio of arrows one after another, and an arrow flashed past him—then turned towards him.

“Ow.”

He stared down at the arrow in his side. Then Bird yanked it out a moment before it exploded.

Bleeding, the [Hunter] looked around.

[Revalantor]. [Hunter]. [Liar]. He shot arrows back at the Drake. One, two, three, four, five, six—the Drake took cover, but now other [Archers] had his position.

“Ow. Ow. That one didn’t hurt.

Bird was struck by three more arrows. He looked up as one of his arrows struck a Drake in the throat. Bird loosed one more arrow, then dove as another enchanted arrow blew apart his position. The Drakes grabbed enchanted arrows as the Antinium got up groggily. One more—

Incoming!

A scream. The lead [Sniper] looked around—then straight up. A Wyvern, an arrow through one eye, crashed down on her position. The Drake leapt out of the way, scrambled up, and Bird shot her through the neck.

Then he put a hand to his side.

“I’m hurt.”

A Gnoll of Az’muzarre put a Dragonbone bow up, and Bird loosed an arrow at the Gnoll. He saw the reply coming his way; an arrow that spiraled through the air, but with such force it left a trail of wind. It blew past him and hit Weatherfur [Archers].

“Uh oh.”

Bird and the Gnoll drew an arrow at the same time—then an arrow sprouted from the Gnoll’s arm. The Gnoll cursed, and Bird loosed a second arrow. The Gnoll skipped out of the way—straight into a third arrow that went through the side of their head.

Perfect shooting. How…? It was as if Bird’s thoughts were being mirrored. He had just thought he needed to shoot the Gnoll in the arm, but he only had one arrow. Someone had…

Heard him.

Bird looked around. The Crimson Soldier’s antennae were twitching wildly as he turned to Bird. 1st Battalion looked around, and one of the [Archers] gazed at Bird. That shot had almost been as perfect as his. Of course—Bird saw how easy it was to calculate wind, distance, movement—but he had never been able to explain that.

It was almost like…

Bird heard a voice in his head. Then he heard a babble of voices.

 

We are the Beriad. Stand and fight…

“We will not return home.”

“Protect Mrsha. Save the sky.”

“Spells from the sky. Dodge—dodge!”

 

As if each voice were right next to him. As if he could tell there was a [Fireball]…Bird looked around. And it was all centered on him. As if he were thinking too loud. Or coordinating it. Or…

The [Revalantor] heard a soft voice in his head. Something Erin Solstice had once heard.

 

[Skill – Unitasis Network learned.]

 

“Uh oh.”

The Antinium reacted as one to the Skill. Suddenly—Crusader 53 felt as though he had a dozen eyes which told him when someone was attacking him. A Worker lifted a bow and shot an arrow two hundred feet and hit an Oldblood on the wing.

The Beriad looked at The Crimson Soldier and suddenly knew exactly how to hit their opponents. They…were linked.

They were True Antinium?

The thought was so surprising that everyone looked up. Then the Antinium saw a figure descend as [Soldiers] of Zeres pointed up. A mouth spat acid, another poison. Half a dozen limbs scythed through the Drakes.

Wrymvr the Deathless landed in Zeres’ army, and a second Centenium leapt off his back. They fell out of a portal in the sky, and a Centenium, jerking, half her head missing, watched them leap across Izril.

Xrn, the Small Queen, threw Klbkch and Wrymvr into the battle. The two Antinium descended into the fighting, one screaming and singing with joy.

The other silent, blades flashing a silver trail through Drakes. Klbkch the Slayer landed in front of Bird. The Worker wavered as Klbkch appeared.

“What is that thing? Aaah! Aaaaah! I can hear it thinking!”

He pointed at Wrymvr, and Klbkch gazed down at Bird.

“You can create a Unitasis Network?”

Both he and Wrymvr gazed at Bird. The Worker hesitated.

“N-no? I can’t hear people thinking and never have been able to. No. Not at all.”

Klbkch wavered a moment, then he vanished. He slashed through a Drake aiming a wand at Bird and almost seemed to teleport back.

Antinium. Rally to me. Queens—we are in combat. Unitasis Network activated. My Queens—

And then a voice spoke in Bird’s head. He felt an invisible presence reach out wonderingly and touch him.

“We are present. This is impossible—we must investigate—”

A babble of voices. Bird caught an image of an unfamiliar Queen—but he knew her now. The Grand Queen, frightened, angry that the three Centenium had defied her orders. Fearing this might mean that she was irrev—

Then a presence as steady as a rock, filled with hope and determination, permeated through his being. Bird saw the battlefield change in front of him, and he understood—the Drakes were threatening to overrun 1st Battalion. They had to move—

And they did. As one, the Antinium surged left, and a hundred warriors found themselves heading back, linking up to support 6th Battalion. Sharing their thoughts. Sharing…

Skills?

“Armored Queen. Joining the Unitasis Network. [Linked Skill: Massed Strikes] activated.”

“Silent Queen. Providing stealth. Irregulars moving. [Linked Skill: Combat Vanish] activated.”

And then he heard the other voices, taking command, directing them to fight together. The Flying Queen, rejoicing in awe, the Grand Queen sulkily adding her abilities, and the Twisted Queen laughing in her mind. And the Free Queen was whispering in his mind.

That Drake.

Bird turned and saw her mark one. The incredulous Drakes saw the two battalions turn. Then the individual [Crusaders] were fighting with faith on their side like one force. Like a vision…

Of True Antinium.

Klbkch focused on that moment only for a second. The dream he had waited two decades to achieve was becoming a reality before his eyes at last, but he looked around for someone else. The Gecko of Liscor stopped on the battlefield and called out, and Klbkch raised one blade high. The two friends looked for her, and Relc pointed. Klbkch whispered quietly.

“Erin.”

Then he plunged into the battlefield, blades whirling. The Slayer, to remind the Drakes of Izril why they knew his name.

 

——

 

Chaos. That was what Belavierr was drawing upon. She was giggling, but also speaking. Negotiating with the rasping Raskghar.

However—even she could see that danger was coming her way. The Gnolls were one thing. The Drake with the alchemy bottles another.

But who was that?

“A…ghost?”

The [Witch] turned as a ghost possessing a body raced through the army. She flicked her fingers to block a shower of spells.

“Belavierr, enough!”

Az’kerash raged in her ears, but the [Witch] saw no reason to relent. She was gaining what she desired.

Sacrifice. Pay me my fee, Raskghar. I have been the enemy of Roshal. There is no chain I cannot break. Pay me and I will give you what you want.

She breathed, and in her cage, beaten, but grinning with dreadful hope, Nokha growled.

“Safe place. For me. My Raskghar. Take payment from them.”

“Interesting. Then give me eight. Willingly. For eight years. Or give me your gift. Or give me something else.

A grin on Belavierr’s face. Gnolls heard her speaking and tried to stop her, but she was proof against lesser weapons. Nokha growled.

“Not me. Eight…eight. You!”

They were arguing. Belavierr rolled her eyes as she listened to the Raskghar arguing. She ignored the arrows striking her. The [Witch] frowned only when she sensed…something coming for her. A real foe. She glanced around then gazed at a strange being.

“What is…that?”

Wrymvr the Deathless roared as he rampaged through the Drakes. As odd as…Belavierr twisted her neck left, right, unnaturally far, and then halfway around. The cracking of her bones and tendons made the air pop.

“Eight! Eight! Do now!”

“Ah, we have an accord.”

The [Witch] went back to business. She beamed as she snapped her fingers.

Stop her! Don’t let her free the Raskghar!

A howling Gnoll screamed. Chieftain Torishi was burning with the radiance of the sun. She lifted an axe as Belavierr turned. Just weather magic. But the light…Belavierr threw up a hand, shading her eyes. Maviola, clinging to her dress, moaned.

“Mother, the light hurts.”

“It is a stronger Gnoll. Don’t worry. Raskghar. Be free.

She smiled. The Stitch Witch lifted a hand, and the caged Raskghar howled. Gnolls charged towards them, but a pit opened in the ground.

They fell. Straight down. Through earth and stone, their cages vanishing. Down, down, down…

Towards a city in the deep. Belavierr smiled. Then the smile vanished as a ray of light struck her in the chest. It seared a brand across her face, and she recoiled.

Pain, real pain, struck her. The Stitch Witch looked up, and Chieftain Torishi howled. The air exploded as Saliss tossed more potions, and Belavierr gathered Maviola to her dress.

“This…is growing dangerous. Maviola, go home.”

She pressed her daughter against her dress, and the undead child vanished. Then Belavierr’s head rose. Her eyes fixed on Torishi, and the Chieftain looked at the Witch of Webs. Belavierr pointed once.

“Begone, Gnoll.”

“Torishi!”

Garsine Wallbreaker lunged for Torishi, but too late. Fast as a thought, the ground opened up into a circle ten feet across, and Torishi and her bodyguard dropped. Straight down. The Gnoll cried out once. And then she was falling…falling.

Torishi Weatherfur dropped into the earth as Feshi screamed. Belavierr laughed and laughed as the air exploded with magic. She looked for the little white Gnoll.

Do you regret it now? She spread her arms. The [Witch] waited as Gnolls fell back, howling. Daring them to slay her. Xherw stood in her shadow, the Daemon bound. Only when she heard the curious call from afar and smelled salt, felt the dry winds of another continent on her face did Belavierr hesitate. She looked up and saw a ship sailing up a river in the distance. Belavierr hesitated. Spoke one word.

“Khelt?”

 

——

 

An age to ride across Chandrar. An age to cross the sea. Lastly, an age to sail as far up the river inlets as possible.

The King of Khelt had covered the distance by magic and Skill and desperation. Still he whispered as he stood on the decks of Sand at Sea.

“I am sorry for taking so long.”

Eighteen warships were running ashore on the Great Plains; some had already been grounded despite Rasea’s wave and the waters they were conjuring to sail upriver. Undead poured from the vessels, leaping to the ground, as Serept’s half-Giants, the other Revenants, and the living held back.

The ground they landed on was filled with ruined grass. Across from them, Fetohep could see the army of Zeres marching on the Gnolls.

The ships should have run aground long ago, but they had sailed closer to the Meeting of Tribes than even Rasea thought possible.

The tide had come in. Armored boots and skeletons splashed down into shallow water as the First Tide ran from Zeres, carried by their army. The waters lapped against the line of Antinium. A wave of Drakes, but not an unbreakable one.

We must halt their advance or they will engulf the Gnolls.

Doubte took one look at the battlefield and saw the Antinium and Gnolls holding back that army like sand before a tidal wave. Oteslia was skirmishing on Zeres’ side, but they were poised to break the entire Meeting of Tribes from the south.

Each second counted, but Fetohep’s knowledge of the Drakes made him hold off on a charge. Indeed, even on the warship, Fetohep raised a hand as the King of Destruction made ready to be the first to charge Zeres.

The City of Waves and the City of War were turning to this new threat, but Fetohep called out.

“Hold! The undead of Khelt shall first go onto Izril’s shores!”

“There is no time to waste! The Gnolls are almost overrun, and I see the [Witch] of Webs in the distance! Your Majesty—”

It was the Herald of the Forests, Ierwyn, who protested with the [Knights], eyes ablaze with sympathy. She knew what it was like to see a people at their end. But Fetohep snapped back.

“The living will join the Illuminary! This—this is a moment for only the dead. My companions. Rise.

All the living he had gathered wavered. Who did…? Then they saw a ragged group of skeletons and torn flesh. So ancient they were almost dust. As old as Fetohep. He descended onto the ground next to an archer whose eyes burned scarlet. Strode onto Izril’s grass with a warrior who carried a sword in a sheath with only one edge.

Fetohep’s companions. Then came the armies of Khelt. Tens of thousands of undead armored in ancient metal. Glowing eyes. Undead.

Khelt had come to Izril to end this war of Drake aggression and Gnollish infighting. The Walled Cities saw the great army of the undead come to their land. Six Walled Cities beheld Khelt.

What did you think they did next? The Drakes focused on Khelt and the army led by Fetohep, who had ridden from his kingdom in this dire hour, to right all wrongs and save what could be saved. They did not see the ghosts who fought onto Izril’s shores, hounded by Seamwalkers. They did not see Khelta, screaming at Fetohep to activate the ritual.

“Your Majesty. The ritual is not working.”

[Mages] were desperately trying to complete the magical incantation, searching over the thousand compartmentalized spells for an error, a break in logic they barely understood. Fetohep just nodded as he strode forwards. The Drakes were arrayed in front of him. But all the King of Khelt did was look up.

I am Khelt. So Khelt…with me.

He looked up and saw the sky turning bright. He had frightened the Humans of Terandria with the [Arrows of Razzimir]. Now he looked up and saw a burning rainbow crisscrossing the sky. Comets from Valeterisa, the Archmage who had called Fissival her home. Even—yes, even stone meteors flying from Oteslia. A bright rain of deadly arrows.

 

——

 

Undead have landed on the Great Plains. Army is tens of thousands strong and growing. Zeres is calling for combined bombardment.

Manus agrees. Activate the Tidebreaker Contingency!

Pallass denies. DENIES. They are on our side. Gnolls will never forget this. The Antinium are still the greater threat. Grand Strategist Chaldion—

Overruled. Fissival—firing.

Oteslia agrees. Undead taint. Firing.

Zeres—bombardment commencing.

Salazsar activating matrices.

Manus attacking.

 

——

 

“Those…damn Drakes.”

That was all he could say. Pisces Jealnet, standing on the railing of the Illuminary, looked up and saw the Walled Cities unleash a wrath they had not used since the Antinium Wars. Every Walled City save Pallass…no, Pallass was firing too.

The Drakes, the Assembly of Crafts, launched their bombardment upon Khelt’s forces the instant they disembarked. The air flashed so hot his skin blistered, and Hecrelunn had to shield them all. The Revenants, even Salui and the half-Giants, the living…

Rasea and the [Pirates] watched in horror as Fetohep of Khelt walked into the firestorm he had known he couldn’t stop. The pettiness of Drakes.

The army he had so painstakingly brought across the ocean looked up, undead without fear in their gazes. Magic melted their bones and set their armor on fire. It blew them apart, and amidst it all, the King of Khelt walked forwards.

His companions raised shields and stood with him. Fetohep lifted a hand as his robes caught fire. The magic tore at his ancient flesh, and he looked up and around.

“I am Khelt.”

Pisces thought he could hear Fetohep whispering. That note of anger and despair at mortals’ foolishness. The King of Destruction rested his hands on the railing, cracking the Illuminary’s wood, eyes burning.

It took five minutes. Five minutes, and so much destruction even Belavierr was taken aback. Five minutes…and the land was glass, the river rushing into a second lake. And where was Khelt’s army?

Dust and scattered bones. A single undead had survived. A skeleton, which crumbled slightly as it dragged itself up. One leg was disintegrated, so it knelt next to Fetohep of Khelt.

The King of Khelt stumbled forwards, his crown askew. His robes almost destroyed despite the royal enchantments. He looked up and around, and the Drakes jeered him as they cheered their own cities. The King of Khelt stood there a moment and looked back at his forces.

My army. He reached back and looked for his companions. One last battle. One last…they lay at the bottom of that lake. Fetohep bowed his head as arrows began to fly. The last skeletal warrior tried to rise again…but Fetohep took the skull from the head, and the bones fell.

“Look how wretched they are. Rest…rest brave warrior. You have fought for me, and they have destroyed your body. Khelt asked all in death that it would not in life. Now—”

Alone, the King of Khelt turned and looked at the army of Drakes. He gently tossed the skull into the waters.

—You have expended your worthless little spells. Allow me to remind you why the Walled Cities fell. Did you not hear me? Are you deaf? I said, I am Khelt. My armies know no end.

The notes of despair fell away from Fetohep’s body. He adjusted the crown on his head. His golden eyes grew again.

Foolish Drakes. The cheering stopped as Fetohep lifted one hand.

Come to me, Khelt.

Then Pisces saw it. The genius of the King of Khelt. Why he had striven so hard to take the army with him across the sea. Because he had surely read history books in his long life. He knew exactly what the Drakes would do, so he forbade the living to join him.

An army destroyed in an instant. An army…of undead. Pisces looked into the crater of magic and wondered how much power the Walled Cities had just thrown at Fetohep. And all of the magic in that army of the undead? Enough to keep them moving, to generate more undead by their presence?

How much had those idiots just unleashed? Pisces felt the answer.

His bones began to shake.

Ceria Springwalker looked down at her skeletal hand.

“Uh—Pisces? What’s happening?”

It was twitching, the fingers writhing against her control. She gripped it with her other hand as the Revenants sighed. Their glowing eyes shone brighter, like little stars. For answer—Pisces just pointed.

“Dead gods. He’s making it. I thought they were just legends.”

Vizir Hecrelunn sneered down at Pisces.

“They were legends. We wrote them. Gaze, mortals, at the magic of true necromancy. King Fetohep of Khelt is opening…the Graven Passage.”

Then it rose from the ground. From the ashes and bones of the army. Pisces saw a twisting arm of bone rise in a single arch—then another. Then dozens more, criss-crossing each other. He beheld an ancient structure that traced itself out of ivory.

Rising higher. Higher. A thousand paces wide. A dais of bone. Behind Fetohep of Khelt, the Graven Passage rose. A…copy of one across the world.

How much magic, how many undead were sacrificed to make it? An army’s worth. Tens of thousands. But what—what did it do? The Walled Cities were panicking. But they had already used their trump card.

The Graven Passage opened. Pisces saw a deep, lurid green portal open, a magic connection linking two continents. Something that only undead could pass through without harm.

Then…then he heard the triumphant horn.

As the Necromancer of Terandria sat back in his chair, trying to find his jaw from where it was probably lying on the floor.

As those arrogant Drakes stopped, the self-indulgent cheering catching in their throats—

Then came the true armies of Khelt.

A thousand undead skeletons armored in plate and burnished gold came marching through the portal and struck their shields like thunder. They passed by the King of Khelt, then another thousand. Then riders, streaming through the doorway without end. A skeletal horse stopped, and Fetohep of Khelt mounted it and raised his halberd. The army of Zeres wilted as the undead poured out of the Graven Passage.

Fetohep of Khelt spoke.

“Now, Walled Cities. I shall answer your every insult a hundredfold. Khelt—bring death to Izril!”

His army surged forwards, ignoring the arrows and javelins that struck their bodies. For every one that fell, there were a hundred more. Rasea Zecrew laughed as she took the Illuminary forwards. Then Pisces realized:

This was the last battle.

He looked for Erin Solstice or whomever it was who had stolen her body. Ksmvr drew his blades.

“I see Klbkch is here. I would prefer not to meet him. Where are we going, Captain Ceria?”

The half-Elf’s head rose. She clenched a fist.

“Where else? Straight towards the [Innkeeper]. Try not to kill her twice.”

 

——

 

Shaman Theikha of Gaarh Marsh had been weeping for Khoteizetrough. When she felt the Walled Cities activate their magic, she looked up and saw all the lies stripped away.

Just like the Plain’s Eye tribe, the Walled Cities showed who they were. They activated a weapon meant for the Third Antinium War. They launched it at the army of Khelt.

And at the Gnolls.

A firestorm rained down from the heavens, and the Great Shaman of the Gnolls felt her heart stop as she looked at the spells aiming for the tribes. Without mercy or care.

The enemy of the Drakes died.

“Not today or ever.”

Theikha vowed. Her heart burned painfully in her chest with every beat. She had known this would be her last battle. She had thought one magic would be her end. Or the next. When she had cast the spell to show the [Chieftains] a vision of Earth, she had wondered if it would be her end and she would feel that beating heart stop.

Now—she asked it one more time to defy age and weariness. The magic of the Tribes of Izril burned in Theikha’s chest as she raised her arms.

Once more. One more miracle. She looked down at the Gnolls gazing up at her. Children of Gaarh Marsh. Warriors of every tribe.

Looking to her. Theikha’s head lifted higher, and she saw the first burning ray of light stab down. She lifted a paw—and blocked it.

High overhead, a pillar of fire like a lesser version of the Death of Magic’s own spells burned across a ripple in the air. The soldiers below looked up and saw a strange limb tracing itself out of the air and light.

A paw. A Giant’s paw. But the hand that blocked the painful spell was Theikha’s own. She lifted her arms, and the spells rained down upon her fur like a thousand tiny gnats of magic.

Her heart—

Khelt had no protections, and she watched them burn as the ships on the river rocked from the magic. The great river Soieln was overflowing as it passed through the Great Plains. The army of Zeres marched with the sea, overflowing the banks and muddying the ground with saltwater and carnage.

The skies split with the magic of countless [Mages], but Theikha drew her arm across the heavens and waited.

Her heart beat in her chest, slowly, slowly, as the magic filled her beyond any limit. The [Shaman] waited and heard it falter. She fell, as the destruction passed her tribes by.

The greatest living [Shaman] of the Meeting of Tribes fell and lay under Khoteizetrough’s corpse. She stared up at the Earth Elemental, and at last—

Her heart did cease. She stared up at the Earth Elemental and thought it was fitting. Theikha closed her eyes.

Then she heard it. A pulse that made her frail body tremble. A quake in the earth.

“Khoteizetrough?”

The weeping Gnolls of Gaarh Marsh that were surrounding Theikha backed away as the old [Shaman]’s body rose. A hand of green lifted her up, flowers and thorns, rot and rebirth. It placed her on the ground, and the [Shaman] opened her eyes. She turned, staggering—and the Earth Elemental did not move.

The hand collapsed. Theikha looked up and thought she saw a smile on that ancient face. A hill smiled at her, and she heard that sound again.

A pulse like the earth shaking. A heartbeat as vast as…the Great Shaman of Gaarh Marsh put a paw to her chest and realized it was coming from her. She looked around and realized what it meant.

“Not yet. A thousand more times, then. If you could do it, so can I.”

She put one hand on Khoteizetrough’s side, then turned. Theikha lifted her staff. One more miracle. Until the earth itself stopped living. She felt young again. She was a young [Shaman], and the endless wonders called to her.

She would never stop learning.

 

——

 

This was it. Khelta laughed as Fetohep of Khelt unveiled an old trick of Khelt. She and the ghosts fought on Izril’s shores. Not against the living…the bewildered dead Gnolls and Drakes were in service to a greater war.

Seamwalkers. The [Necromancer] of Khelt raised a sword and staff in either hand, watching this final struggle.

The last Giants rampaged through the ocean. A warrior with an axe tore a Seamwalker’s head apart, howling, laying about her, the Ash Giant breaking body after body.

The Seamwalkers lay across every continent, bleeding into the water. So many dead—and some fled over The Last Tide rather than die.

The last ones preyed upon the ghosts, and the dead gods…Khelta did not know where Erin Solstice was. But she waited, hoping the ritual they had laid in Khelt would work. If not? If not…she walked across the Great Plains.

If not, she would rest knowing she had done all she could. The [Necromancer] touched the side of a Seamwalker made of bone and cracked the behemoth in two, exposing its insides. She saw the [Witches], the last great coven of them, led by Califor, waiting.

Waiting…for a spark in the darkness.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: One more part.

 

Yvlon by anxietyrock!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/anxietyrock

 

Nawalishifra by Anito!

Godfall by Panzer!

 


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8.83

(Casualfarmer has released their first novel, Beware of Chicken on Amazon! I encourage you to check out their story online and consider reading the story. I am on break for an entire month. Thanks for reading.)

 

After all that time, it was Izril they came back to. The split continent with three species, each acting as if they were the first and only ones to ever matter.

Drakes, children of Dragons, marching into the Great Plains as Gnolls killed Gnolls. Humans in the north watched with the aid of [Mages] along with the rest of the world.

The Ailendamus-Dawn Concordat war had come to a standstill. No more time ripples struck Baleros. A’ctelios Salash slumbered, and the Blighted Kingdom reported no clashes with Demons.

So it was Izril. Izril that a group of adventurers returned to. An Archmage sighted the place where she had met her match, a city extending into the waters, an open harbor with watchtowers like fangs, alight with magic.

The Walled City of Waves watched as Khelt’s fleet approached, led by two famous vessels. It could not see the army of weary ghosts who marched over sea.

The living did not see the end of another world. The lands of the dead were growing quiet. Ghosts returned to the living world briefly. Then there was only quietus.

Corpses of Seamwalkers littered the ground and ocean. The rest walked, crawled, or moved on towards Terandria or followed that army of ghosts to the end. And it was four dead gods now, not six, who vied for the last souls.

On Terandria, Erin Solstice watched the last stand of Terandria’s monarchs. She looked back home, where, a continent away, a Dragon began to wake from death’s embrace. She was mortally tired, but she wanted to go home. She wanted to wake from this dream.

Yes, a dream. The deadlands were fading away. Whether it was Seamwalkers or dead gods—an end had come to this long, empty world. The Goddess of Death stood, looking at this half-formed world like an architect returning to a ruined work of art. To make it what it should have been, what it had been or could now become—it all had to vanish first.

 

——

 

Only when the last lies were unveiled, when the truth shone and all debts were paid, would they be free of it.

An entire species was waking up from a nightmare they hadn’t realized they’d been having. Gnolls too saw the end of something.

The end of the Plain’s Eye tribe’s lies. The end of how they knew Doombringers. Whether tribes would believe the words unveiled by Satar Silverfang—whatever they became—the Meeting of Tribes was at an end.

This was the reckoning that had waited centuries to come. The long lies and deceit, a wretched Daemon weeping luck and tears as it stood behind Xherw. The Chieftain of Plain’s Eye howled as he fought, because he sensed it too.

This was the end. And not even Shaman Ulcreziek could predict what came next. The cost of it all was lives. Countless Gnolls and heroes of their kind.

The tribe’s camps were ablaze within the first minutes of fighting. The gathering in the center of both camps was an all-out war as Chieftain Torishi charged Xherw. Iraz and Reizet led their warriors forwards against Gaarh Marsh, Gire, Tkrn, and Mrsha’s friends and allies. Wer’s staff was a blur as he knocked down arrows loosed at Qwera, and Krshia seized Mrsha, racing back.

In fact—most of the fighting was to get away as warriors charged past children and families, Gnolls who did not have combat classes.

In the tales of great battles that Mrsha had been told, it was armies and [Knights] charging each other. In Lyonette’s stories, or when Urksh had told them—the sides were all brave warriors and cunning [Shamans] versus faceless villains.

Not people. But for every warrior who’d come with their tribe, there were six or even twelve Gnolls who were not fighters. And they were a panicked mass of bodies.

Fall back to the camps! Fall back—guard the tribes!

Shaman Cetrule howled as Silverfang warriors tried to create a defensive line. Plain’s Eye was doing the same. But in that chaos—Gnolls looked distinct, but they were from countless different tribes. You had to see markings to recognize your enemies. Remember which side stood where.

Some tribes were obvious. Plain’s Eye with the markings of eyes on their fur were the largest targets for the outraged tribes. Many had switched sides in a moment, when they looked at the Daemon of Luck and heard Belavierr’s words.

Too many stayed. Steelfur, Az’muzarre…was it luck, denial? Or did they just hate white fur that much?

It was a shockwave rippling from the center. Gnolls further away, who hadn’t heard or seen anything, glanced up as they heard the howling. Their blood chilled, and a terrible numb fear gripped them. Tribes looked up and saw the fighting and realized the worst had happened.

A civil war among their species. They saw the Earth Elemental, Khoteizetrough, raising a fist and bringing it down overhead, and they fought.

It benefited Xherw’s tribe. Many Gnolls did not know what had been revealed, so their tribe fought alongside old allies. In fact, more than one came to arms and found the warriors who had been at that gathering had switched sides.

The despairing Chieftain of Decles’ tribe, his fur dark red, flesh pale with shock underneath, lifted a paw and called out to his confused people.

We fight against Plain’s Eye. Deceivers! They have created a monster—put down your arms and come away!

“Liars! Look—they have addled even your Chieftain’s mind! He has taken leave of his senses!”

A Plain’s Eye [Shaman] howled. Confused Gnolls, each one bearing the Decles tribe charm, a twisted claw of some animal they had hunted to reach adulthood or bequeathed to children until they reached a mature age, looked at their Chieftain. He began to speak, and the words turned into a howl. An arrow struck him in the stomach, and the Decles tribe descended into confusion.

Madness. Someone was throwing fire through the air. Not [Fireballs], but swathes of flame which landed, burning, setting fur alight and catching on tents. Sowing more confusion as each Chieftain turned to their war leaders, gathering for a proper attack.

But all of this was—Gnolls killing Gnolls. They were one people. This was not right. Many warriors and people of each tribe had nothing to do with their leaders’ decisions.

It was only that at least one Gnoll had to die: Chieftain Xherw. Yet his warriors protected him and Shaman Ulcreziek. And on the other side—the Doombringers had to die. The traitorous leaders of the other tribes had to die.

Everything else was a casualty of that. They knew. It was the reflection in Iraz’s gaze, the haunted look in Chieftain Akrisa’s as they pointed or drew blades, watching the fighting begin.

This was the deaths of their people. How many would die? But neither group would relent.

The first great Gnoll of the Meeting of Tribes to die was from the Wild Wastes tribe. The [Barbarians] and [Nomads] of that huge tribe had looked at the Daemon of Luck and charged into the Plain’s Eye warriors.

They wore hide armor, and many had been trained to fight with an axe in each hand; they faced Gnolls with metal armor and overwhelmed their opponents with a whirlwind of blows. They were one of the greatest warrior tribes of their kind.

Even Steelfur’s metal coating wasn’t enough to stop the [Berserker]’s rage once it started. And the angrier the Wild Wastes tribe got—the harder they fought. Looking at that Daemon, hearing the lies?

A thousand warriors were storming forwards, led by a blonde Gnoll who grabbed a sword with a gauntleted paw and thrust it aside long enough to raise an axe of mithril. The gleaming blade fell once, cutting the side of a neck open. Grimacing, the warrior stepped away, but he kept advancing. His other paw drew a lesser throwing axe, and it whirled into a [Shaman]’s chest. A gasping Gnoll stared down at it, their garb running red.

Treachery! Where is Chieftain Xherw? Protect the Doombringer! You all—fall back!

Warrior Dorekh was shouting, drawing the Wild Wastes warriors around him out of their fury. He was turning to find Xherw, to kill him and end this strife, when the dying [Shaman] raised a bloody paw and whispered a last spell.

The world went dark. The Wild Wastes Gnolls were suddenly plunged into a complete and absolute darkness as one of the Eye Totems activated, blinding them. Either their [Shamans] failed to counterspell the hex or they were busy.

Dorekh did not panic. He howled, and the warriors howled back. Forwards! There were enemies attacking them; Gnolls cried out, and the Wild Wastes tribe charged into the ambush.

Fighting blind was a madman’s task, but they didn’t know where to run to. There weren’t many warriors in front of him; on reflex, Dorekh felt a biting blade trying to pierce his enchanted armor and reacted.

“[Viper’s Counterstrike].”

He cut down the Gnoll attacking him. Then he made a bark of sound. It was repeated a dozen times; the Gnolls behind him all confirmed who they were.

Bodies ahead. Dorekh felt their presence, less blinded than his other warriors. He could sense their fury.

“Warriors! Twenty! Ahead! Charge!”

He and his warriors slammed into the knot of Gnolls, charging ahead with such reckless abandon that they were knocked to the ground with their opponents. That gave them an equal footing, even blinded.

Find that totem! More warriors!”

Howls and the bark-signs that let the Wild Wastes warriors distinguish each other were echoing around Dorekh. He got up, tangled with the corpse of another warrior who had been able to see him, and knew they had to find that totem or fall back.

They would kill their own forces, but he was certain they were amongst Plain’s Eye Gnolls for the moment. So Dorekh followed the fighting and…halted.

The tenor of voices had changed. The screaming—Dorekh’s blind head whirled. There were hundreds, thousands of Gnolls around him. But—his axe rose, and he hesitated.

Enemy! Enem—

Dorekh felt someone try to stab him again, but his [Armored Fur] held it off. He swung the axe reflexively and stopped.

He’d—missed. But he had swung at shoulder-height, and he was not a tall Gnoll. Then—the Gnoll’s paw shot out.

“Who am I fighting?”

He grabbed the head of a struggling Gnoll far too short and light to be an adult. The Wild Wastes warriors were fighting…

Hold! I am Dorekh! Hold your blades!

The warriors around him hesitated. Dorekh felt the younger Gnoll tearing away. Now, he heard screams and sensed bodies fleeing around him.

Plain’s Eye’s tribe. The warrior felt the rage in the [Berserkers] around him and himself. It would be so easy…

Dorekh! They are attacking us!

A strangled scream—there were enemy warriors amongst the civilians. Yet Dorekh hesitated. He looked around, eyes blind, then shouted.

Wild Wastes—fall back! Find that totem or retreat! You stand amongst children and civilians! Lower your blades.

The uncertainty in the Gnolls of his tribe was palpable. Dorekh heard a sound. The fwit of a bowstring loosing. A cry of pain.

“Honored Dorekh—”

The Gnoll just grinned, his bloodsoaked blonde fur damp with sweat. They could not see him, and he could not see anything. All around him was screaming; he felt the tremendous impact as the Earth Elemental struck something, that howling from the center of the fighting. But the warrior just thought of one thing and replied loudly.

“Berr’s son knows when to hold his rage. I will not raise my axes. Who will be a true warrior?”

No one answered him, but the Wild Wastes Gnolls didn’t raise their blades. They tried to retreat, calling out, looking for the edge of that magical field.

It was dispelled first. Four minutes later, a [Shaman]—Cetrule himself—burned the totem blinding the warriors enough for their sight to return in a rush. The Gnolls, who had formed a circle, looked around, calling out in relief.

“Where is the enemy…?”

The civilians were fleeing in the distance, and the few Plain’s Eye warriors had drawn back. Then the warriors looked about. One turned, calling, and they knew already.

“Honored Dorekh? Dorekh…?”

They found his body trampled and abandoned amidst the few dead. All Wild Wastes Gnolls—killed with a single wound to the back or neck. Dorekh lay there, a bitter, bloodsoaked smile aimed at the sky. But even in those empty eyes, he didn’t look regretful. Just…resolved.

His tribe gathered around him, and a hundred warriors surrounded that body. His friends picked him up, and they howled as they brought him back to camp. The rest turned and charged forwards, throwing themselves onto the Plain’s Eye warriors. Teeth tore at necks, and [Berserkers] lost themselves to a rage.

A Gnoll climbed forwards out of a pile of dead Plain’s Eye warriors, a sword plunged straight through his chest and two spear hafts buried in his sides. He kept going, bringing an axe down on each head and ending each life, helmet or not, for another minute before he dropped without a word. His tribe avenged him in blood and slaughter and added more names and faces to that growing list on either side.

 

——

 

“Honored Dorekh is dead.”

It seemed that the world was a blur. The only things she saw were Krshia’s paws, Qwera’s look of despair. The howling and that Daemon behind Xherw, watching her.

Then Mrsha was being thrust into a tent as Krshia reached their fortified camp. The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] collapsed, clutching at her chest. Looking back with an expression of horror that Mrsha had only seen once on a Gnoll’s face—that of Elirr seeing the Raskghar’s ritual.

“Qwera—Qwera, in here!”

Vetn and Tesy were next, thrusting the Golden Gnoll into the tent. Mrsha saw to her shock that Qwera had an arrow in her arm. The blood was running down the gold and white where the paint had been erased by Ulcreziek, but she just held one paw to her shoulder, grimacing.

“Where’s—there. Ysara! Ys—

Qwera turned as Yerranola, the Selphid, kept shouting orders into the speaking stone. This was the war tent, Mrsha realized, and the [Strategist] was trying to get ahold of the confusion below.

Then—Dorekh was there. Mrsha looked up as the warriors brought his body back. It seemed like she blinked and he was dead.

That handsome Gnoll from the Wild Wastes tribe who had stood up for her…dead within ten minutes of fighting. Mrsha realized she’d been sitting there, right where Krshia had put her, in a state of shock.

Every Gnoll turned, and the howling from his tribe intensified. Mrsha looked at that resigned smile and the bloody hole in his chest.

“Treachery. He would not slaughter Plain’s Eye’s people, so one struck him from behind. Their totems—”

Mrsha heard the voices very distantly. She looked down at the body and then around the tent. Then she padded over to the tent flaps and gazed out. Not to enter the fighting. Just to see.

What she saw was the chaos of the Meeting of Tribes. Colorful stalls were on fire. Tents were torn down, and Gnolls fought each other, swirling around the center where Xherw and Torishi were still trying to kill each other.

He had a pair of axes in each hand; she had a single sword and shield. The two Gnolls fought as, around them, Az’muzarre and Steelfur’s warriors began to push Gaarh Marsh, Weatherfur, and even Ekhtouch back.

Everywhere—Gnolls were dying.

 

——

 

The Gold-rank team, Plain’s Bow, was a group of seven Gnolls each holding an enchanted bow. Each one loosed an enchanted arrow into the enemy, fighting in a circle—but there were so many. They were adventurers, seven, not seven hundred.

One looked up and shouted.

Behind us! [Piercing Shot]!

She tore a hole through a Wild Waste warrior’s chest, but the [Berserker] was already dead. He jumped on her and, weaponless, tore out her throat with one paw. The adventurer’s companions shot arrows through the [Berserker]’s body, trying to pour healing potions on the wound, but the Gnoll was dead.

The [Berserker] collapsed, dead, but that opening—the Gold-rank team had pivoted towards Wild Wastes’ warriors. They turned back and realized the warriors in front of them were gone.

“The front—”

One loosed another arrow, but Adetr Steelfur took the arrow that rammed halfway into his shoulder and swung his axe into a face. Then he and Silverfang’s warriors were on the rest. The [Archers] tried to switch to their sidearms.

A Gold-rank team died. Nevermind that they had been Plain’s Eye’s. Like warriors of their level, they continued a few seconds after they should have died, but a gasping Gnoll just reached for the spear in her chest and then lay still. Adetr looked into those eyes.

The [Battle Seeker] had seen her end in his [Vision of Greatest Battle]. Only, then, he had laughed, trying to weather their storm of arrows. This?

He looked around as the last adventurer fell, stabbed from behind. Adetr was shaking.

Iraz! Iraz! Stop this!

He howled, but he couldn’t find Iraz in the chaos. Steelfur was still fighting with Xherw. Worse…they were winning.

Az’muzarre’s champions swung Dragonbone weapons, wearing ancient scaled armor which was proof against everything. A Weatherfur warrior saw their spear skate off that armor and raised a shield—but the Dragonbone mace cracked the shield and broke their bones. They looked up as the wielder of the great heirloom artifact brought the mace down.

Protect Xherw!

Chieftain Reizet was howling, and Torishi Weatherfur spun. She saw her people being forced backwards. Another loosed an arrow point-blank into a snarling Steelfur warrior’s fur. The arrow had been meant for one of Az’muzarre’s champions, but the [Archer] had lost their shot. The Steelfur warrior ignored the arrow and cut down the Gnoll.

Luck.

Xherw nearly took off her head. Torshi stumbled backwards, her shield deflecting another blow. His people were trying to surround her, and now she was retreating. But this was no honor duel; paws tried to grab at her.

Then a skeleton of a Minotaur whirled his axe through a Gnoll’s body, and Torishi heard a voice.

Chieftain! Here!

Feshi? Torishi turned, and Khelt’s undead guardians opened a gap. One of Az’muzarre’s champions lifted a Dragonbone bow and shot an arrow into a grinning skull’s head, destroying the undead servant, but the Minotaur simply stepped back from a mace and hit the champion so hard that the Az’muzarre Gnoll went stumbling backwards, Dragonscale armor or not.

Torishi snarled at Xherw, but she backed up. He pursued her another few steps—then realized he was in as much danger as she.

Everyone looked up as Khoteizetrough raised a fist, and Xherw and the Gnolls around him scattered as it descended. The Earth Elemental roared, and Torishi ran towards Feshi, cursing.

Kill Xhrew! He has to die—the luck Daemon too!

“I know! You have to fall back, Aunt! We need to form a battle line! We can’t kill that Daemon without preparation!”

Sure enough—arrows were passing through the Daemon. It had been revealed by Belavierr, but it wasn’t ‘there’ in the way everything else was. Even magical spells didn’t seem to touch it.

And its effect…Torishi saw it everywhere. A slipping foot that made one of her people falter long enough for a blade to ram home, a totem activating with the last words of a [Shaman]—

Reizet and Iraz. The two [Chieftains] stood with Xherw, and Reizet’s eyes burned as she pointed at Torishi and the Doombearers. But Iraz had hesitated. Torishi had seen it.

He’d hesitated a second too long. Or maybe he’d cast his lot in with Plain’s Eye for reasons she didn’t know, but the balance had been altered by a roll of the dice. His gaze was full of more uncertainty, but his warriors were fighting on Plain’s Eye’s side.

And Plain’s Eye was still the largest tribe of Gnolls. Torishi ran backwards as Khoteizetrough struck the ground again. In fact—he was the reason that both sides didn’t continue the chaos.

He was too large, too powerful. Plain’s Eye would not fight in his shadow when a single sweeping arm could kill hundreds. They fell back to their fortified ground while Torishi led the Gnolls around her towards the fortress of dirt and wood that had been raised.

She heard that Dorekh was dead and the Plain’s Bow team likewise. First two. Then more names began filtering into her hearing.

“Honored Bezis fell, Chieftain. I saw her fall, bow in paw. We couldn’t reclaim her weapon…”

“Five of the Steelsoul are dead. Khoteizetrough struck them, and not even their fur could save them. Five of them. Each one is over Level 30—”

“…[Shamans] Ceqe, Hiren, Polloriokh—”

The count was going on already. Adetr Steelfur looked like he was in shock as he counted his own tribe’s losses next to Shaman Cetrule.

And that was the first hour. Torishi watched, giving orders, as Feshi and Yerranola assembled each Chieftain and tribe into actual positions. The warriors prepared for combat and hesitated.

“Are we attacking, Chieftain Torishi, or defending this point? We have the advantage here, but this war won’t end without Xherw dead, and I agree with Feshi—that Daemon is throwing all strategy into chaos.”

Yerranola leaned on the table as the other [Chieftains] and [Strategists] agreed. Torishi looked out of the tent. She didn’t have to think.

“We hold this ground. If even one tribe comes to their senses…let Plain’s Eye retreat if they must. Xherw will die, but I will not rush into a slaughter.”

Plain’s Eye was out there, and by the fading light, she could see so many torches and bodies in the darkness, it seemed like the greatest army in the world had come against them. Many were, of course, Gnolls who had no weapons. But then, the same went for Torishi’s side.

Not every Gnoll was here, but too many. If they all died—Gnollkind would be shattered, possibly forever. A species could fade away from a blow like that.

Surely he knew it. In silence, both groups gathered and mourned their dead. Torishi waited, unable to see him but knowing he was there. How mad was he? How committed to this lie, to the death of Doombearers?

She had her answer in the morning. In the morning…Plain’s Eye uprooted their Eye Totems. They carried them up the hills and planted them, forming shields of magic. Steelfur’s warriors were the vanguard and Az’muzarre’s few the champions. [Shamans] cast spells by the hundred as the Great Shaman, Theikha, opposed them with Cetrule and every other magic-user on their side.

As the second day dawned, the Drakes advanced on them. The first armies arrived by midday. But by that point…it truly was an ending.

 

——

 

Plain’s Eye tried to kill them all. The [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands], heir to the great tribe founded long ago, called on the greatest magics of his people.

Doomsday. Cataclysm. No more pretending.

Torishi watched as Shaman Ulcreziek and a thousand [Shamans] struck the ground, and it opened, forming a red chasm of glowing, molten rock. The magma vented upwards, a volcanic eruption aimed straight at her tribe.

She lowered her weapon and looked up, and the geyser of rock burned higher. Ten thousand Gnolls screamed as the first burning stones fell from the skies.

Annihilation. Xherw aimed that spell at the heart of his people to burn them to dust. Torishi looked up, wide-eyed, and her brown eyes saw the treachery. Even now, she hadn’t believed he would do this. It wasn’t Mrsha. It wasn’t one tribe. All of the Gnolls facing Plain’s Eye looked up as the sky turned red with fire.

Gnolls screamed in despair as the fire rained down—but only for a moment. Then the Earth Elemental, the being of the swamps, the great protector of Gaarh Marsh that had died and come back to life, Khoteizetrough, raised one arm.

He looked up into the sky, and the earth’s gaze burned hotter than the fire. He had been born in the death of the land. He was the last guardian of Gaarh Marsh. Khoteizetrough’s thoughts were surely as strange as the creatures he loved.

The vessel of nature rose and lumbered forwards into an awkward run. He raised rotted limbs, earth turned to mud and mulch.

It was just one more stage in this world. Khoteizetrough looked up with ancient eyes, a hollow of earth. He had always known this day would come. The vast being looked down at the fragile life and shielded them from the fire raining down.

The fire wave scorched him, and he bellowed. His body turned to ash, and his head melted as the burning lock ran across it.

Yet Khoteizetrough was more than a single body. He was an idea, the earth given a soul. More flames jetted up from the ground, but Khoteizetrough was lumbering through the Gnolls. Headed for that fault in the earth.

Shaman Ulcreziek backed away as the Earth Elemental charged him, but it was not the [Shaman] that Khoteizetrough sought. He plunged into that wound that Plain’s Eye had caused. Khoteizetrough leapt into the ground and threw his body into the break in the world. To close it. To mend the burning hole and avert disaster.

The stone bubbled where it touched his body. Magma bathed his mud body, setting fire to roots and plants. Animals, from toads and worms and all the creatures who lived across his body, fled or perished.

Khoteizetrough thrust one hand into the earth, and the Earth Elemental began to ignite. But its being was collapsing, filling the fault-line. The Earth Elemental swung its other arm at Ulcreziek, and the [Shaman] blocked it with a wall of stone that shattered and sprayed the Gnolls around him with chunks of earth.

Ulcreziek pointed his staff at Khoteizetrough, and the inherited eye of Plain’s Eye opened wide, wide in his face. That pupil moved slightly—and saw something.

Khoteizetrough was raising the arm a second time when it saw something on its arm. They crawled out of the pit in the ground, blazing, climbing up his body.

Fire Elementals. The [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands] stepped back as the Earth Elemental burned. Khoteizetrough howled as Gaarh Marsh screamed and pointed up. He raised one last hand as fire raced up his being. Then the vengeful face grew peaceful.

The magma venting at his feet slowed as Ulcreziek lowered his staff. He tried to call another deadly eruption to the surface, but something was wrong. The liquid rock was cooling. The Earth Elemental’s blaze faded as Fire Elementals suddenly winked out. Khoteizetrough lay down, and plants began to bloom where his muddy fingers met the ground. Waters rose and hissed as steam billowed around the crack in the ground, flooding into the land.

One last look. Khoteizetrough’s gaze met Ulcreziek’s, and the [Shaman] wavered. That one eye of his, the eye of his ancestors, watched as the last elemental died, and it wept. Ulcreziek saw that vivid stare fade. The intelligence of the land turned to plain mud, and then…

Khoteizetrough collapsed, and the earth shuddered. His tribe howled, a wound torn in their identity.

Mourning. Grief. And thanks. The death averted. The sacrifice of the last spirit of Izril to walk the land.

Was he smiling? The hill fell to pieces. Mud turned into splashing water as the Plain’s Eye tribe backed away from him. His body cascaded down, but the burnt ash began to bloom with flowers.

A small swamp formed around the Earth Elemental as he died. Where he fell, a hill remained and the land sprouted in magic. The body of Khoteizetrough filled the earth for a thousand years of growth.

But he was dead.

Gaarh Marsh’s [Shaman], Theikha, tears streaming from those old eyes, raised her staff and called the magic of her tribe, of every Gnoll with her, down on the Plain’s Eye Gnolls. The ground collapsed into gigantic sinkholes and the earth split as geysers of muddy water swept over their tribe. They ran past the blank mound of earth.

 

——

 

The last protector of Gaarh Marsh lay there. An Earth Elemental.

No—not just an Earth Elemental. A sentient being. Not a summoned being, but something that had a voice. Even if it had died…Khoteizetrough was a being from before this age.

It died, and everyone saw it, even miles away.

“This Waning World grows emptier.”

Someone whispered next to the Hobgoblin. Numbtongue finally tore his eyes away from the collapsing hill. He had seen the distant fire. He was running towards that battlefield, but his confidence was gone.

Niers Astoragon was gone. That [Witch]…Shaik’s tribe had vanished as Belavierr walked out of the fighting, and her summoned creatures vanished alongside them.

But the wounds they’d left were real. And now the Gnolls and the band from Erin’s inn were following someone else. Chieftain Orni of the Lomost Tribe watched Khoteizetrough with blank, horrified eyes. Then the [Witch] striding back towards the fighting.

“We have to stop her. Kill her. Find Mrsha.”

“Go into that? Are you mad? You saw what Plain’s Eye did. They raised a volcano. Great Khoteizetrough is dead. Dead!”

Lomost’s chief [Shaman] had come to a halt. The sight of that magic and that death had already broken his nerve. But a figure galloping from point to point in this army veered towards them as if she had heard. The Hobgoblin hesitated, a hand on his sword, but Perorn Fleethoof, the Centauress holding a bow, only gave him a long look as she raced over.

A Centauress. Numbtongue had met Palt, of course, but that was a single [Illusionist]. He was, like Jelaqua, a stranger from a distant continent, exotic and odd, but an individual.

What Numbtongue saw now was a species.

Three thousand Centaurs were riding…or was it trotting?…across the ground. Horse-people, taller than even Venaz the Minotaur, heads held high, armed with long spears or bows. And holding banners.

The Forgotten Wing Company. Numbtongue wasn’t sure what had happened after Niers vanished, but the Centauress hadn’t killed him, and she’d claimed to be on their side. Numbtongue had decided anyone who didn’t kill Goblins on sight might be an ally.

The students certainly seemed to trust her. Wil the Human, Venaz the Minotaur, Peki from Pomle, and Merrik the Dwarf all looked stunned, but were heading the divisions that Perorn had assigned. Now, the Centauress spoke crisply, enunciating each word, but as fast as lightning.

“Chieftain, Chief Shaman. That was the Earth Elemental of Gaarh Marsh, wasn’t it? Our ally for this battle. I take it that is an ill sign. Is this Plain’s Eye tribe capable of more mass-spells on that level?”

“That…I have never seen such workings en masse since the Antinium Wars. It must have been thousands of [Shamans] to cast that spell.”

Chieftain Orni was in almost as much shock as her [Shaman]. Perorn tossed her head. Numbtongue saw the exasperation warring with sympathy.

“Focus, please. Chieftain Orni, I need a guess. Can they do that again?”

The Gnoll broke out of her stupor as the Goblin Lord, Reiss, whispered in Numbtongue’s ear.

“Not again. At least—they’d exhaust themselves just to do that once. Maybe once more, but that would leave every [Shaman]—”

“—Mana depleted. Understood. We’ll prepare for the worst. Hob Numbtongue, appraisal?”

“Me?”

Perorn just stared at him, and Numbtongue hesitated. She addressed him with something approaching familiarity after the suspicion where she had nearly shot him in the chest.

“Uh…uh…Plain’s Eye’s [Shaman] used a ritual. Not just a mass spell. One [Grand Ritual]. He can’t do it again easily.”

“How do you know that?”

The Lomost [Shaman] stared at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin hesitated.

“Reiss told me. He’s a Goblin Lord and served the Necromancer, who had files on Ulcreziek as a great enemy of his.”

…Was what he didn’t say. The [Bard] decided to cross his arms.

“Special Goblin knowledge. Uh…from [Shamans].”

Perorn gave Numbtongue a searching look that made him uneasy, but nodded crisply.

“That had to be a Skill-empowered spell. Thank you. I am considering leaving your forces behind, Chieftain Orni, and advancing to engage the enemy with my Centaurs while you catch up.”

Wil protested as he tried to keep pace with the Centaur on horseback.

“Professor Perorn, you can’t! You’re outnumbered, and they’ll shred you with spells. We should attack together! Besides—you’re the only one keeping us moving this fast!”

It was true. Numbtongue turned his head and saw how fast the grass around them was blurring, despite the Hobgoblin only jogging along. Perorn frowned at Wil, but she nodded; she only looked like she was trotting. She must be as fast as a Courier, Numbtongue guessed.

He still would have preferred Niers, especially since the Titan could turn off luck and magic. In fact…Numbtongue uneasily looked behind him and saw another army following.

Fissival. They looked like a wave of glinting armor in the distance, and Numbtongue had been told that Manus, Zeres, Oteslia—everyone but Pallass had sent a big army.

His focus was just on Mrsha. Get Mrsha. He’d promised. Get Mrsha and…and find Erin. What had happened in Liscor?

He didn’t know. Perorn was the one who had to make sense of everything. She nodded to the others.

“Pick up the pace. Break out a quarter dose of stamina potion at eighteen minutes. We need to get there. Now.

The entire army advanced into a run. They would get there tired—but they had to. Numbtongue looked around as Perorn lingered near his group. When she spoke, it was with an eye cast along his strange band.

“Hob Numbtongue.”

“Don’t call me that. I’m Numbtongue.”

“That’s your military designation. Squad Leader Numbtongue, then. I’ve delegated the chain of command to my students. I am willing to put Peki in charge of your…unit.”

She looked at the Antinium, Cave Goblins, Gna, Salkis, Octavia, and the others riding along.

“Not all of them are combatants. I suggest everyone not prepared for battle hang back with our rear lines, but I have to confirm what your plan is.”

“Get Mrsha.”

Perorn kicked a clod of dirt back as she stepped harder in frustration. She looked at Numbtongue.

“That’s not a plan of battle. A rogue element is going to put your forces into danger. The Gnolls don’t know Goblins or Antinium. In that case—Sergeant Gna. Take a speaking stone. I need you to report your actions and respond to my directions. Is that clear?”

Numbtongue hesitated. It was, in fact, fairly reasonable. Perorn gazed at the Hobgoblin with narrowed eyes, and he nodded.

“Fine. We’ll listen. But we get—”

“Yes, yes. Your target. She may be safer where she is—although Plain’s Eye is assaulting their position, so I am completely willing to attempt a rescue operation. But I insist I communicate with Feshi or any leadership first and tell them we are on their side. Have your Wyvern keep circling; she may be the safest way to get that child out of combat.”

Perorn was…interesting. Unlike Niers, she was precise and prioritized lines of communication and very clear bands of command. Niers preferred some chaos he could instill in both sides and could drag out his preferred victory. Perorn made sure everyone knew what they were doing and what their backup was.

“Excuse me, Commander Perorn, but I believe you have forgotten I have beaten the Titan in chess. And I have given many orders. I am therefore in charge, not Gna.”

Someone waved a hand at her, and Perorn turned to stare at Bird. The Antinium was riding the wagon keeping pace with them.

“Are you a military officer?”

“I am a [Revalantor] of the Free Antinium.”

Perorn chewed on this a moment. Then she shook her head briskly, somewhat reminiscent of a horse tossing its head.

“…I don’t know Antinium command. Moreover, Niers described you as the most rogue element of all. Follow my directives.”

“But I beat Niers at chess.”

Bird pointed out, slightly upset. Perorn eyed him.

“That is not a measure of your battle ability.”

“Oh. I suppose this is very factually true. I withdraw my objection.”

She handled Bird with facts and logic. Indeed, even the other students had a different reaction to her. Wil looked like he was going to puke—again—from nerves. Peki flew down to report.

“That’s Yerra’s dirt fort. Still fighting. Lots of Gnolls clashing on lowlands, Professor.”

Perorn nodded rapidly.

“Then we aim for that. Numbtongue’s irregulars towards the hill unless the fighting line changes. Merrik, Wil—keep our infantry in a wide wing. Hold and screen our allies; don’t push in far. Try to draw them out. We can spread out the battle lines, and it’s to our advantage. Weatherfur’s known for cavalry; I’d prefer to maneuver.”

“Yes, Professor.”

The two nodded. Perorn pointed at Peki.

“I need you in the air for scouting.”

“Not fighting?”

“No; there are almost no fliers in our forces, but the Drakes have flying elements. Stay above and give me a battle picture apart from my Skills. I may need you to drop on enemy groups, but you are to hit and run, Peki. Three Skills maximum and then you are escaping. Understand?”

“Yes, Commander!”

Peki saluted. Perorn nodded as three of the four students relaxed slightly, understanding where they had to be and what to do, even broadly. Perorn trotted over to a final figure.

“Venaz, you’re in the vanguard. Venaz—don’t be an idiot!

“Professor! I have done nothing today that merits disapproval.”

The Minotaur drew himself up, frowning at her as he put a hand on his diamond greatsword. In response, Perorn grabbed one of his ears and pinched.

“I know that. I am telling you in advance because this is not a practice battle. This is not a moment for you to duel the enemy captain. You take no risks—you do the most damage or good soldiers die. This is me shouting at you now because I cannot waste time in battle. Don’t be an idiot. You’ve been warned. Understand?”

“Yes, Professor.”

The Minotaur, who was known for questioning even Niers, saluted her briskly and covertly rubbed at one ear as she trotted away. Perorn looked over her shoulder once.

“…Prepare for combat. We have to make an impact now and either resolve the battle or pull forces back. The Drakes will be upon us soon. We could very well face the Duelist’s Demise: we win only to lose the true battle.”

Every head turned, and Numbtongue looked at that line of Drakes again. Drakes…coming to kill all the Gnolls? Not every army put it like that, but the Goblin knew what he thought of their promises. His skin was cold.

Get Mrsha. He was supposed to be her big brother. The Hobgoblin ran a bit faster and looked around.

Bird was riding on the wagon next to Ulvama and Octavia. The [Alchemist] was frantically trying to make one more potion before they got there.

“Just…just stay safe. Okay? If you can grab Mrsha, go for it. I’ll get out of here. Fals is staying with me, and I’m an [Alchemist]. No one kills [Alchemists]. We’re known to explode. Okay.”

Ulvama looked at Octavia and, surprisingly, pulled the [Alchemist] into a big hug that squished Octavia.

“You don’t die either, strange cloth-girl. We get little Mrsha. Hey! Stupid small Goblins! Shaik isn’t here. Go sit in the wagon. You, you, you—”

She pointed at the Goblins marching with the Fellowship of the Inn. Goblins stared up at her. Rasktooth, Gothica…in fact, Ulvama even pointed at a few Antinium.

“You. You. You. All go sit. You all have bad class. Bad fighting. Go sit.”

For reply, one of the Antinium, Infinitypear, shook his head, and Rasktooth grinned.

“We fight! Even Raskghar get stabbed in feet and die.”

Ulvama glared at him, then at another Goblin. Grass Shell pretended not to notice her finger. Gothica? Gothica gave her the middle-finger.

“Make me.”

The timeless retort of a [Goth] Goblin. Fierre grinned nervously as she rode with Salkis, who was checking her daggers, and Gna, worriedly doing likewise with her gear.

What a strange group. Normen and Alcaz jogged alongside Pivr, who was rapidly speaking as he looked up for a sign of Snapjawt.

“I understand we are about to die. When do I remove my hat?”

He adjusted the little cap they’d given him, and Normen laughed.

“When it feels right, Pivr. A fellow knows when the hat comes off. It’s been…a pleasure.”

Alcaz nodded, and Pivr glanced at them.

“Yes, well, neither of you are going to die. You must introduce your concepts to my Hive. That is an order. I am a Revalantor, just like Bird.”

Badarrow was craning his neck too. Xeu, almost unseen, scuttled next to Touma the Great, who was determinedly munching on some berries. He offered some to her, and she ate from one palm. Then to The Crimson Soldier, who waved them off.

What a strange band. Apista landed on Bird’s head as the Antinium looked up. Bird gazed about and said the thing no one else was saying.

“I think we are going to die. I would prefer not to, but I have enjoyed your company. Even you, Pivr.”

The Fellowship of the Inn looked at Bird, and Pivr stared at him as Numbtongue closed his eyes. The [Bard] looked at Garia and Fals as the two City Runners slowed.

“You should go with Octavia. Bird is right. For once.”

“I am? I am. Yes. You do not have to go into battle.”

No one moved. Garia was gulping, but it was Salkis who retorted.

“We all agreed to save that little Gnoll kid. No one’s backing out. Death or glory or both. Let’s do this.”

Numbtongue sighed, and Ulvama pretended to go to sleep. The [Shaman] turned her head away so no one would notice her face. Numbtongue just looked at the Goblins, Antinium, and other strange people. Each one had a future. Dirtmouth, Goblins who hadn’t made something of themselves yet, Antinium lacking a name…

They had journeyed across Izril, further than most of their kind would ever go. No—not even Klbkch had gone as far. They had run with the Titan of Baleros. Now, they were joining a civil war.

The army of the Forgotten Wing and Fellowship of the Inn and Gnolls reached the Meeting of Tribes just before midday. What they saw was chaos.

Gnolls struggling against each other in vast clashes, drawing back…they had lots and lots of horses, but the center of it was that push towards the hill. The rippling earth showed [Shamans] trying to change the elevation itself.

The corpse of the Earth Elemental was a backdrop to the howling. Numbtongue looked into that sea of bodies for a white Gnoll. Perorn just lifted one hand.

Forgotten Wing Company! Gnolls of Izril! Prepare to charge!

Her Centaurs trotted into place behind her. The Gnolls gathered up as the Fellowship looked for the hill. Perorn’s hooves were planted in thick grass. Fleethoof inhaled the air of a different continent, and it felt different.

Where was the jungle in the distance? It was drier—this glorious flatland was amazing! As were those mountains to the north—the distant High Passes. She felt the urge to race across the ground and never stop, but her leg hurt.

Even so—she looked ahead at a folk so much like Beastkin it hurt. War…she knew war. This was unlike any she knew, but she was a mercenary. Perorn lifted a hand, and three thousand Centaurs advanced at a trot.

The Gnolls didn’t notice them at first. Oh—they saw the reinforcements, and both sides swung out a line of fighters to prepare for them. But they saw the distant Centaurs as ‘Humans on horseback’, if they could even make out the lack of fur.

It was as Perorn began to canter forwards with her battalion that the Gnolls realized a different species was riding at them. They turned and saw the horsefolk of Baleros riding forwards.

Faster now, a little faster. The Centaurs were running. Then galloping. Then…it seemed like they kept going faster, faster than you dreamed was possible.

Not just because of a Skill, but because they were Centaurs. Horses were their cousins, yes, but horses, even the best and most intelligent, didn’t train like Centaurs did. They could be taught to fight in battle, obey incredible commands, but they were still animals. The greatest horse and rider were a married couple, two minds in harmony.

Centaurs were one being, and they rode, whooping and raising spears and lances behind Fleethoof. They charged at their cousins of the plains, another nomadic species, as a Weatherfur Gnoll shouted.

They’re on our side! The Forgotten Wing company!

Even so—they waited warily despite Feshi’s assurances. Waited to see Perorn’s target. Fleethoof never wavered. Like an arrow, she charged straight at Plain’s Eye from the side. The Gnolls turned to meet her, looking for spear walls they didn’t have. They charged instead, howling, and the Centauress lifted her off-hand as she loosed a first arrow.

Now!

The Centaurs cut right as the Gnolls charged at them. The bewildered Gnolls saw the Centaurs turn at almost a perfect right angle, thundering past them and loosing a hail of arrows in their faces. Gnolls dropped, screaming, and Perorn’s head was already turning.

Strike in—eight beats!

She pointed, and a wedge of Centaurs followed her into a group of [Shamans]. Centaurs raced towards them, and the Gnolls turned as lances struck home. For eight seconds, Perorn was loosing arrows at point-blank range. A Gnoll charged her from the rear, and she kicked with both back hooves. Centaurs around her did likewise, trampling over their opponents. Then they followed her out, and she was galloping again, circling.

Cavalry on our left!

“Engage them! Galloping Razor formation!”

Gnolls on horseback saw the Centaurs breaking free and went to intercept. In response, the Centaurs split down the center. They flanked the Gnoll force, attacking from both sides and peeling off when the riders tried to attack left or right, exposing their backs to the other direction. Then they kept going as the stragglers were cut down by another hail of arrows.

Perorn, who had endured that brief siege and waited for so long, felt free. She raced ahead of her command, pointing them onwards. As far as you could run—that was her battlefield. She struck across the entire rear of the Plain’s Eye tribe, riding onwards rather than sticking in one place.

Until their [Shamans] noticed her and the arrows rained down. Centaurs screamed as the earth opened, and a barrier of stone rose at shin-height to cripple any Centaur who crashed into it. Perorn loosed an arrow which landed in the distance and blew apart a group of [Shamans].

Keep moving! Watch for geomancy spells!

She kept loosing arrows, watching Gnolls die. If only they hadn’t come here with swords and arrows. She would have loved to run in this place.

If only. But her ears were filled with her students’ chatter now. The battlefield’s orders. And always—always—Perorn’s head kept turning in every direction. East. West…south…three directions. She rode a bit faster. Hurry, hurry…

The Drakes were coming.

 

——

 

On the second day of the fighting, Mrsha saw Khoteizetrough die. She watched as the noble spirit inside him flickered out. What she knew…what she refused to believe was that it was all her fault.

Theikha told her it was not, and the little girl nodded up as the old [Shaman] wept and rested, worn so thin from her battle with Ulcreziek and the other spellcasters that her paws shook and her fur turned greyer with exhaustion.

Mrsha looked out and believed it was not all her fault…because it could not be. So many Gnolls had not gathered here and did not fight and die for one person.

It was all of the Doombearers who had died. It was that weeping Daemon. It was for the sins of Plain’s Eye. The only thing that tore at her, even now, was how many Gnolls were on Xherw’s side.

Tens of thousands of Gnolls, maybe hundreds of thousands; Mrsha didn’t know. Just a sea of faces, so much sound she was deaf and overwhelmed at the same time. They might not even be bad Gnolls. But they were killing the goodest, the best people Mrsha had ever known.

Her people. They came up the hill as the ground sank, reversing the advantages of height and all the fortifications. Pushing up, following Xherw and Iraz and Reizet, the three warleaders, as each picked a place to drive in.

Unstoppable, even as the fighting spread out around this place. They fought with luck and hate on their side. As if they were the heroes of this story.

And if they won, they would be. For another thousand years until the truth forced its way out. Placing themselves in Xherw’s way were…the Gnolls that Mrsha wanted to be.

Not one. Not just one. She wanted to be all of them.

A ray of burning sunlight shone down through the clouds around Torishi Weatherfur. She had marked herself like the rainbow, but the Gnoll walked forwards to war with Feshi’s warriors of Khelt meeting Az’muzarre in combat. The oldest of Gnoll tribes met warriors more ancient than they, who feared their relics not at all.

The sky was split, as if someone had sundered a glass ceiling above and each splinter of glass was a different piece of weather.

Rain lashed Plain’s Eye as mist engulfed Gnolls who fought in its secret veil. The sun blinded yet more as the wind blew arrows back in the attackers’ faces.

However, if Weatherfur and Theikha had won control of the sky, the ground was pierced by a hundred totems, each of which cast fire downwards. One projected a cone of light that sapped the strength of any in its gaze. More simply blinded or created bubbles of magic that protected Gnolls within, accelerated their healing or rest.

Mrsha wanted to be Torishi, who battled Xherw as the two Chieftains engaged and then fell apart. For every blow enhanced by luck, for all the strength he had to hurl Gnolls around like they were made of feathers, she replied with a thunderous blow that unleashed an actual bolt of lightning from above. No mere Tier 4 spell, but an explosion that made Mrsha’s ears ring and sent Gnolls sprawling in every direction.

Across from Torishi, Adetr Steelfur fought towards Iraz, and the Chieftain of Steelfur watched his nephew advance, fighting his own kin. Silverfang warriors led by Beilmark, Cetrule, and Akrisa fought alongside Wild Waste Gnolls against them.

He was howling, a sad warrior made of metal, so tough that no one could bring him down. A warrior who was doing the right thing, like Chief Warrior Merish, who might be evil…but was fighting against his tribe, tears running down his face.

Reizet advanced fastest of all, with her champions and their stupid weapons taken from a Dragon’s corpse. Even Gaarh Marsh couldn’t stop them as Plain’s Eye Gnolls supported Az’muzarre’s charge.

The Chieftain of Az’muzarre looked like she was falling down a cliff. She had jumped, and the wild light in her eyes said there was no way to ever go back. So she had to slay the ground itself. She only halted when she met a wave of Gnolls wearing Demas Metal armor. They fought, their blades coated with oil and water matching Az’muzarre for a few moments. Then arrows were raining down as Longstalker’s Fang supported Demas Metal’s Gnolls.

Tkrn fought on the ground, next to Inkar, who was holding a bow. He was shielding her, and he was proof that even a silly Gnoll [Guard] who did bad things could look like a hero. But Mrsha’s eyes were drawn to her biggest friend time and time again.

Gireulashia Ekhtouch faced half of Ekhtouch with their own people. Chieftain Firrelle pointed a sword at Gire’s chest, and the [Paragon] lifted a spear in one paw. But she was so uncertain. So…guilty. Yet she was fighting because her little friend needed her.

It was all tragedy. Mrsha saw Vetn and Tesy crouched next to Qwera and Ysara. They had all decided to protect her. Krshia was shooting arrows somewhere, and Satar was helping Cetrule in the magical war.

“They’re coming. Where’s Wanderer?”

A group of Plain’s Eye Gnolls pierced the defensive lines and came up the hill as Az’muzarre cut into the heart of the battleground. It looked like three long, sharp spears of enemy Gnolls had pierced the hide of the defenders. Mrsha saw Qwera glance at her—then a white Gnoll hurled himself down the slope.

The [Grasshopper’s Run]. Wer did an actual somersault over a group of [Archers] and landed in the center of the Plain’s Eye Gnolls like a [Fireball]. His staff whirled, breaking heads and bones—but he was one Gnoll. More spread out around him as Yerranola emerged from her tent.

“[Rallying Banner]! Hold that gap! [Empower Officer: Wer]!”

Mrsha just watched. She had her wand in one paw, but she had been told to stay put, and she didn’t want to get anyone hurt trying to protect her. She was waiting.

Was this it? Vetn was shaking. He hadn’t drawn a sword. The Thief of Clouds didn’t fight.

Upwards, the Doomslayers came. They ran into a group of [Maids] next. Mrsha saw the women wearing dresses fighting like [Assassins]—but briefly. They withdrew, blood on their dresses. They were not soldiers. A single Gnoll fired a crossbow into the warriors, and Ferris drew a blade as the warriors reached the command area. He joined the guards, cursing, as Mrsha looked down and saw the luck burning in the Gnolls.

She fought for it and felt Qwera doing likewise. They drained away some—but the Gnolls were made of luck. It was in every blow they landed, every crossbow bolt that snapped, poorly made or finding a fracture point, bouncing off a collarbone rather than shattering it.

“Vetn, Tesy—grab Mrsha and run!”

The little Gnoll looked up as Qwera snapped. Yerranola exploded forwards, Rampaging, as the Doomslayers charged into the camp. Ysara drew her blade and cut down one Gnoll, and Mrsha looked around. Surely there would be…?

There wasn’t anyone. The Doomslayers saw her, and Mrsha’s white fur was like the world’s largest magnet.

Kill the Doombringer!

They ignored Yerranola and Feshi and even the other [Chieftains] and Cetrule in the rear. They should have attacked them, but they were Plain’s Eye and saw only her. Mrsha felt someone grab her.

“Time to go. Tesy. Hold on!”

The Thief of Clouds charged into the white-scaled Drake, and the magical painter, Sellme, Tesy, yelped as Vetn threw him over his shoulders.

Qwera!

The last thing Mrsha saw of the camp was Qwera punching a Gnoll in the face and being knocked down as Ysara swung her blade left, right, fighting three Gnolls at once. Then—Vetn dodged a Doomslayer so fast Mrsha felt her stomach forget where it was supposed to be. He charged down the hill, saw the fighting all around, and—

Leapt.

Heads rose as the Thief of Clouds took to the air. He flew. Mrsha and Tesy screamed, one wordlessly, the other in a shriek as Vetn leapt for safety. But he’d miscalculated. He’d jumped too high, and one [Shaman] saw him as the leap carried them through the air. Mrsha’s head turned with Vetn and Tesy’s—they felt that one eye.

The wrath.

Ulcreziek pointed at Vetn and twisted his fingers. The Thief of Clouds cursed as a gust of wind like a hammer struck them in midair. They began to drift towards Plain’s Eye.

We’re going to land in the center of them! Tesy! Do something!

The Thief of Clouds actually kicked an arrow out of the air. Tesy’s paintbrush blurred as his art book flipped open. What could he do? What could he paint—

Wham.

All three hit a brick wall in midair. They dropped straight down as Mrsha saw Ulcreziek stare at the brick wall falling around them. They landed in the middle of the fighting.

“It’s the Doombringer! Kill her!”

Protect the child! Hawkarrow! Loose!

Gnolls cried out as Vetn landed. The Thief of Clouds was stunned, but he rolled, still with Mrsha and Tesy under one arm. He kicked a sword out of one warrior’s grip and caught it, dropping Tesy in the process.

Sellme scrambled up as the Gnoll hesitated. Mrsha saw a young woman wearing Plain’s Eye markings as Vetn hesitated, sword in hand. Then he cast the blade down. His own arm shook.

Vetn! Fight! Don’t—

The Thief of Clouds backed away. Mrsha saw the Gnoll fumble for a dagger, snarling. Mrsha pointed her wand.

[Stone Dart]! The stinging stone cut the Gnoll warrior’s fur. She snarled, lunged at Vetn, who backpedaled—and fell over as she tripped on the trip-grass Mrsha had conjured. Vetn could have picked up the blade and run her through. He didn’t.

“I can’t. I won’t kill…we have to get away. Where’s…? Tesy?”

He whirled, but the battle was engulfing them all, and the Drake had vanished. Mrsha realized that Vetn wasn’t just bad at fighting. He refused to. She was being protected by a pacifist! In horror, she tried to wiggle free. Nothing against Vetn, but where was a [Warrior]? 

Plain’s Eye was charging at them, howling with manic frenzy. They had to kill the Doombringer, the one responsible for all this evil! Vetn leapt towards safety, but even he couldn’t dodge and weave forever in this chaos. He stumbled, crying out as someone slashed his side. Mrsha tumbled free from his grip and ran towards safety, dodging through feet. She heard shouting.

Protect the child! Where is she?

“The camp—rally towards headquarters! It’s in danger!”

“Centaurs! Centaurs?

What was that last bit? Then Mrsha ran straight into an armored foot and stunned herself. She saw a Gnoll with a beautiful cloak of feathers turn.

“A child? Get her t—Doombringer.

The Gnoll warrior recoiled and lifted his spear with a snarl. Mrsha raised her w—where did it go? She looked around and saw it lying behind her. The Gnoll thrust down with a howl of rage. Vetn and Tesy saw Mrsha and screamed.

Mrsha!

The spear stabbed Mrsha in the stomach, and she cried out—but softly. It didn’t hurt that bad. She stared up at the Gnoll with tired eyes. So this is how it felt? It didn’t hurt that…

The Gnoll warrior stared at Mrsha and stabbed her three more times in quick succession. The Gnoll recoiled.

Ow, ow, ow! Wait a second—it really didn’t hurt that bad, but it still hurt! Wait a second. The Gnoll looked down at her chest.

Had she done it? Had she leveled in battle and gained [Fur of the Fortress]? Lyonette’s boon Skill? Had her mother…?

No, there was no golden light nor had Mrsha heard the Skill. But her fur was tough. As tough as any Steelfur Gnoll’s suddenly! A Skill? No…wait a second…

Mrsha sniffed at the wet liquid on her fur as the Gnoll warrior abandoned the spear and drew an axe to split Mrsha’s head. He raised it, and Saliss of Lights raised a vial.

“A child.”

He exhaled, and a spray of acid blew across every Gnoll for three dozen paces. Mrsha saw the warrior recoil—then begin to smoke and scream. She stared up as the Drake, eyes perfectly calm, two little voids, walked forward. He was naked save for a single sword hanging on his alchemy belt, and his orange-yellow scales flashed as Gnolls turned.

The last bit of [Stoneskin] potion he’d poured over Mrsha dripped from her fur as she gaped at him. Wh—Saliss? But he was supposed to be—

Then someone picked her up.

“Got her! Saliss! Where am I going?”

A Drake that Mrsha had never met picked up the Gnoll as Mirn whirled. Saliss pointed.

“Anywhere not here. Get back, Mirn. I’m going to kill everything.”

Something about the way he said that…a few Gnolls looked around from the sudden wave of acid and spotted him. It might take a second, but he was distinctive. Then they recognized him.

Saliss of Lights.

A Named Adventurer. A Drake of Pallass. Saliss didn’t wait for the outcry to begin. He just uncorked a flaming vial and tossed it. Then he followed it by an oily substance that exploded as it mingled with the flare of fire, raining down flaming gel over Plain’s Eye.

He tossed those two vials and unleashed another spray of acid. And then he threw a final potion, which became a liquid that turned as hard as stone in another moment, immobilizing a group.

All three attacks in a moment. Saliss was so fast that all six vials were in the air and exploded at the same time. The Drake drew a sword and began running through Gnolls immobilized by the stone-liquid as he uncorked a vial. He took a breath and exhaled flames, as if he’d been granted a breath attack—but it emerged from the vial instead.

A Named Adventurer on the battlefield. No…not just an adventurer, but someone who knew how to fight on a battlefield as well as kill monsters. Gnolls died, and the entire battle line collapsed in front of Saliss.

His eyes. They weren’t the friendly, joking Drake. They were a scary person who killed so fast that Mrsha was still staring at him when Mirn began to carry her away.

However, for once, Saliss wasn’t the highest-level person here. Or the only one. No sooner had Saliss finished breathing fire than someone walked out of the smoke and ash.

A Drake of Pallass. Their Named Adventurer dies.”

Saliss threw a vial so fast that the speaker wasn’t even finished when it burned across their armor and body. But the acid smoked away harmlessly. Saliss took one look at the Gnoll encased from head to toe in a strange armor that was like…

Skin? Rough, grey-blue skin? No—it had teeth around the helmet. And it was armor. The Gnoll was one of eight.

All wearing Kraken armor. Saliss cursed. He tossed another spray of acid at the faces, but the Gnolls were carrying shields and blades of Kraken ivory.

“Mirn. Back up.”

“I’m trying. I’m try—no!

Someone snatched Mrsha away. Vetn grabbed Mrsha out of the Drake’s arms, and he was running. Saliss half-whirled as Mirn pointed. He didn’t recognize Vetn any more than the Thief of Clouds did him.

Someone’s got her!

Saliss backed up, cursing, but the Kraken-armored Gnolls charged him. In response, Saliss just webbed their feet down…and watched them tear through the webs like they were spiderwebs, not as tough as steel.

Get back here!

Mrsha patted Vetn’s arm urgently. Wait, wait! That’s my favorite naked Drake! Wait!

But she couldn’t get his attention nor did she have time to write. Her speaking amulet? Where was it? It must have been lost–her bag of holding was gone too and there was no time for Mrhsa to stop. Vetn ran. This time, he was dodging back into friendly lines, and now Mrsha heard the shouting.

Centaurs! They’re fighting with us! Don’t shoot at—

What Centaurs? Izril didn’t have Centaurs! But then Mrsha heard horn calls coming from the right. She saw another force of Gnolls, smaller, but still an army throwing itself at the Plain’s Eyes’s flank. In fact…she thought she saw an odd body amongst the Gnolls, but that was impossible.

There were definitely no Antinium…

Got you!

Vetn went down as someone tackled him from behind. Incredibly, Mirn had caught up with them. Tesy leapt on Mirn as the two fought.

“Get him off! Mrsha—run!

Mrsha did not run. She didn’t know who that Drake was, but he had to be with Saliss! Therefore—no!

She tried to stop Tesy, but the Drake was so fast. He sketched a hole and dropped Mirn into it in a moment. The [Painter] and [Thief] turned to Mrsha, and someone roared.

Mirn. Mrsha.

Mrsha looked back and froze up. She couldn’t help it; something terrifying pointed at her, and the Thief of Clouds and Sellme wavered. Even Plain’s Eye looked up in horror as the Gnolls wearing Kraken armor backed up, calling for support.

They thought they were Saliss’ match without the Named Adventurer’s complete arsenal of potions. They had forgotten one of Saliss’ greatest potions was…

Shapechanging.

A Minotaur with an octopus’ tentacles—a blend of both, but gigantized, a warshape—held the dead body of one of the Gnolls. Neck broken. Saliss had seen Mirn vanish. He locked on the two strangers.

Dysmorphia, fury, and the sight of Vetn holding that child—Saliss of Lights stormed through Gnolls who parted or were knocked sprawling.

What is that? Mr—

Vetn tried to dodge, and a hand grabbed his throat. The [Thief] of Clouds tried to twist, and a hand struck hard enough to crack bone. The Gnoll cried out, and Saliss whirled.

Get off him!

A chain appeared on one arm as Tesy’s paintbrush flashed. Sellme tried to chain Saliss to the ground, and the iron chain snapped and turned into grey and black paint as Saliss tore free. Mrsha ran into one leg and tried to stop Saliss, but the Drake didn’t notice. He was going to kill them! Vetn grabbed Tesy and rolled sideways, but fast as the Thief of Clouds was—he saw a tentacle stabbing, the tip coated with a poisonous stinger, and blurred.

[Impossible Dodge]! But he made a mistake. It was a feint. The Named Adventurer struck downwards at the two with razor claws.

Mrsha screamed. Blood spattered onto the ground as Saliss’ poisoned claws opened flesh and scales. The Named Adventurer halted, another arm raised to crush bones. Vetn and Tesy stared up.

Mirn?

The Drake was bleeding. Mrsha spun towards the hole in the ground and back to where Mirn was standing. He had emerged from the hole and travelled twenty feet so fast that she hadn’t seen it. How…?

Saliss’ voice was distorted in the war-form. The Drake looked at Mirn.

What are you doing, Mirn?

“What…what are you doing?”

The [Protector] stood there, shielding Vetn and Tesy. Saliss had raked his arm and chest, cutting through the armor, but Mirn had shielded them. With a Skill. Vetn and Tesy, holding each other, looked up at Mirn. And Saliss’ battle-crazed gaze focused on them. Then on Mirn.

“They’re…?”

Then the air began to hum, and everyone looked up. Then down as the earth began to split.

“The [Shaman]’s sighted us. Take cover! Now!”

Saliss grabbed Mirn and Vetn, and Tesy grabbed Mrsha. Vetn screamed at Mrsha.

Who is that?

He looked at Mirn and Saliss and then—at last—the two groups recognized each other. Tesy mouthed. He’d recognized Mirn’s class. [Protector].

“Are they…?”

Then they were amidst fighting again. This time it was Steelfur who found them. Saliss dropped a potion and tossed Mirn at Vetn and Tesy.

“Keep him safe!”

Then he was fighting Gnolls who were as tough as steel, scattering potions with one hand as he fought. Mrsha ended up running as Vetn and Tesy carried the Drake.

“Damn…poison! Get to safety. Saliss is supposed to get us—”

Steelfur was pushing even Saliss back, raining down arrows as he protected his face. They pursued Mrsha, howling, and the little Gnoll looked around but realized they were fleeing away from the battle now. At least they could run!

They broke free, a hundred or more metal Gnolls pursuing them, and Mrsha realized that, no, that wasn’t true. They had been ambushed! Another wave of soldiers ran at them, and Vetn and Tesy turned.

“They’re in front of us too! Go right—”

Then they saw the little Gnoll girl bounding forwards a few steps. Mrsha nearly fell on her face. Tesy and Vetn looked up and froze as a small group charged towards them. Wait a second.

That was a Goblin, not a Gnoll. His eyes were crimson, and he was tall, therefore a Hob. In fact, he was muscular, and someone had actually given him a clothing budget, not the rags or clothing taken off the dead most Goblins wore. He had trousers and a shirt with a woven tree with little blue fruits stitched just above the breast—all under some chainmail and armor.

But Mrsha knew it was there because she’d picked it out for him. The sword the Hobgoblin carried was semi-transparent, a glowing crystal blade. Yet it was not the sword which sparked and glowed in his claws.

It was that guitar, slightly worn from being used as a club yet carefully maintained, glowing as lightning played along the strings. And, of course, the Goblin [Bard] was riffing on it.

A song like the electricity crackling through the clouds. Even the Steelfur Warriors had to slow a moment to try and figure out if they were seeing this correctly. A Goblin with a guitar? And was that a Gnoll on horseback behind him, pointing a sword as Antinium, Goblins, a girl with pointy teeth, and a grinning Drake all stood in a line? Two men tossed their hats to the ground, and an Antinium with wings did likewise.

“What is t—”

Thwoom. The bolt of lightning blew Mrsha head-over-heels forwards, and she looked back and saw the metal Gnolls…metal Gnolls either collapsed or getting back up. One pushed herself up with a howl.

“Kill th—”

An arrow sprouted from one eye, and an Antinium with a bow fired another one, then waved.

“That is Mrsha. This was easy. Hello, Mrsha.”

Charge!

Sergeant Gna screamed, and Vetn, Tesy, and Mirn dove out of the way as the Fellowship of the Inn charged. Saliss, who’d ignored the bolt of lightning, looked around and nearly punched The Crimson Soldier.

What.

He stared as the Antinium leapt and took down the first Gnoll with a knee to the chin. The Crimson Soldier knocked another Gnoll flat, sweeping the legs, and engaged two more as Rasktooth and Infinitypear stopped to stomp on the Gnoll.

Numbtongue? Bird? The Hobgoblin drew his sword and cut through a Steelfur Gnoll. Mrsha looked around wildly and saw a green shape striding towards her. Ulvama grabbed Mrsha and promptly pinched one ear.

Stupid girl!

The [Shaman] whirled and immediately began to run away from the fighting. The confused Steelfur Gnolls howled as they backed up.

“Goblins! Antinium! Traitor—”

They were still Steelfur. One took a cut across their chest without flinching and locked blades with the Gnoll [Captain] leading this strange band. They were about to overpower Gna, but the biting insects coming off Gna’s blade made her struggle as they burrowed into the skin under her fur—and Gna forced her back.

[Hob’s Strength]. She heaved, panting, and the Gnoll fell…mainly because a little Goblin had tripped her. Gna finished off the downed warrior as Gothica lifted her umbrella. A Steelfur warrior struck the umbrella, and their enchanted blade bounced off as if Gothica had a shield. They were still snarling when Fierre grabbed them and threw them into Garia’s punch.

Ulvama was still hugging Mrsha and trying to figure out if she was hurt anywhere when Vetn and Tesy caught up. The [Magical Painter] had a paint brush raised, and he’d painted two decoy-Drakes who stood there aggressively as Mirn lifted a wary blade, but Vetn looked from Mrsha to Ulvama to the rest of the Fellowship.

“What’s going on?”

They had found her. Mrsha looked up with wide eyes at mean…poking, food-stealing…Ulvama. She turned and saw her big brother, Numbtongue. Badarrow loosing arrows by his side.

And there was her little brother, Bird. But so many people she didn’t look for, like Fierre fighting next to a Drake with onyx scales that Mrsha didn’t know. But there were Antinium and Goblins, and they had come…

For her. Mrsha’s eyes were filled with disbelieving tears. As if she couldn’t see the huge smiles of relief on their faces. Garia and Fals, and Apista landed on Mrsha’s head, fanning her wings in triumph.

There they stood, forming a line of defiance against Steelfur and the other Gnolls. Pivr tossed his hat into a Gnoll’s face and then leapt on the warrior, biting and slashing. Normen and Alcaz hummed as they beamed.

This was it. Xeu lost an arm as a Gnoll brought down a blade on the Prognugator from the side, but Gothica stabbed the arm, and darkness enveloped Xeu long enough for the Antinium to scurry away.

Friends made on their long journey. Fighting to the end. Gna struggled next to Dirtmouth, and Salkis backed into Fierre, and the Bloodfeast Raider ducked to let Fierre kick a Steelfur Gnoll eight feet and shatter half the warrior’s ribs.

Reinforcements. Mrsha turned just in time to see no less than three Wil Kallinads leading groups of Gnolls into the fighting. Merrik took point in one vanguard, pressing into the enemy from the side and—held the line. He didn’t surge forwards, he just battled, but suddenly Plain’s Eye had two fronts to fight on, and the confused Gnolls suffered as arrows began to rain down.

Alongside Merrik, Venaz was leading the Wild Wastes [Mercenaries] forwards. They cut through their opponents, headed straight for the command camp. Mrsha saw a little figure bounding through the fighting. At first she thought it was a Drake—then she saw the colorful scales, the neck-frill.

 

——

 

Viri found Merish as the [Shamanic Warrior] heard the reinforcements. Merish raised his axes, a snarl on his lips, and someone brought down a staff hard enough to stun a Steelfur Gnoll. Merish lunged, blades swinging, and looked up.

“Viri?”

“You’d better be on my side!”

The little Lizardman had tears in his eyes, but Merish just shoulder-charged another Gnoll. He helped Viri up and looked into his gaze.

“I’m sorry. You were right.”

That was all they had time for. Viri lowered the staff he’d been about to hit Merish with. He whirled and pointed a claw.

There! We’ve come to help!

The [Shamanic Warrior] turned and saw the army assailing Plain’s Eye from the side. He recognized Lomost and other tribes. Fighting with…Centaurs? A Minotaur with a green crystal greatsword?

And of course—

[Berserkers]. They carved a path straight into the embattled command tent as Honored Berr and his fighters followed Venaz, stemming the overrun area at last. Merish heard horns blowing to fall back.

“Adetr—fall back!”

Iraz! Iraz—let go of me, he’s right there!

Adetr pointed two hundred feet away, as if there weren’t an army of Steelfur Gnolls between him and his Chieftain. Merish wrestled him back. They met at the command post and found aid had arrived.

But it was still…Merish looked around.

Gnolls killing Gnolls. No Demons here. The Gnolls on the Doombearers’ side fell back as Plain’s Eye was forced to regroup. But—

 

——

 

They were still dying. Gireulashia killed one Ekhtouch Gnoll who had honed their use of the spear. Not a [Spearmaster]; they were not recognized by any Walled City. Nor had they met one in battle.

Did it matter? What was a class? What was perfection? Ekhtouch loved to ask these questions. Every day, Gire had known the Gnoll with a spot on his right ear of white, the only ‘flaw’ in russet red fur as rich as anything, practicing with a spear.

Decades of practice. Dead. She would have led him in battle, become a [Chieftain] of his. That glorious spear practice, that refinement…he didn’t see her coming. When he did, he turned and tried to use [Elephantslayer’s Thrust] on her. Only to remember she could match his Skill. Exceed it.

She left the spear in his chest as she felt the blood on her fur. Every face stood out to her. The fighting Gnolls. Her people who were dying.

All because of her. Firrelle. Gireulashia advanced on her Chieftain as Firrelle turned with a red blade in her paw. The two looked at each other, and Firrelle wavered.

“Gire.”

The [Paragon] cast the javelin she carried in her other hand. Firrelle parried it, mid-word. Her sword began to trace a sword art, and she hesitated. She looked up at Gire, and her eyes were filled with uncertainty as she gazed at the [Paragon]. A girl. Hope of their tribe.

She hesitated. Gire saw it, and her own eyes were round as orbs. She had expected a great battle. Prepared herself for Firrelle to fight to the death with all her levels.

A moment’s hesitation.

[Basic Perfect Action: Quick Slash]. Gire took Firrelle’s head off at the shoulders. The [Paragon] dropped her blade. Caught Firrelle’s head.

“Firrelle?”

The [Chieftain] of Ekhtouch died so fast that Gireulashia never saw the next words form on her lips. The tall girl stood there, holding Firrelle’s head, as Ekhtouch came to a standstill around her. Firrelle’s body collapsed, and Gire stood there.

“Firrelle?”

The Gnoll who had raised her as much—more, far more than her actual parents stared up at her, and Gire looked around blankly. Suddenly lost.

Chieftain Firrelle of Ekhtouch was dead. A fourth of Ekhtouch was already dead and…Gire stared around.

“What is all of this for? Why did we do this?”

She looked at the Ekhtouch warriors who had been fighting her. Then at Firrelle’s head. A girl, waiting for the Gnoll to speak and explain it to her. Suddenly…totally, utterly, and forever…

Lost.

 

——

 

Yes. No matter what came next, the cost was already too high. For Gnolls…this was a fell day.

Venaz of Hammerad knew it. But he still stood, head bowed, and watched.

He had been laughing a moment ago. Even in the heat of battle—even knowing what was at stake, Berr the Berserker, Honored Berr of the Wild Wastes tribe, had still been laughing. That defiant laugh of a warrior, because he could not weep now.

Then he had looked around, and they had told him.

Honored Dorekh lay there, preserved by magic, and Berr stopped. That wild grin faded from the Gnoll’s face, and he shrank. He was a short Gnoll, old, very old, fur turned to grey rather than its original brown.

Of course, Venaz knew that body held a warrior as fierce as any he had ever met. That Berr could grow and become a mighty force was obvious.

But it was gone. Now, only an old Gnoll knelt and touched his son’s fur. He looked into the deathblow from behind. Around him, the Wild Wastes Gnolls who had not been here when the fighting began howled or covered their eyes.

One group of Humans stood with Berr. The [Berserker] who had come from Terandria to learn control was shaking.

“He—he was kind to me. He was kind to me, and they killed him. When he spared them. He—he—

He was shaking with a violence that would erupt into madness. Venaz’s hand was on his greatsword’s hilt, but Berr just raised his head.

“Calm yourself, Solen.”

“Honored Berr. I cannot. He—he is your—how do you feel nothing?”

The Human man was weeping and shaking with a fury that made Venaz’s skin crawl. But Berr just looked at him, and the rage drained out of the other [Berserker].

“Not here. These are your friends. I told you. Wait. It will never leave you. Look at me.”

Berr knelt there. He stared down at his son’s face.

“My son is dead. Dorekh held his blade. He died to avoid killing children. Just like I showed him. He…”

“It was an act of selflessness, Honored Berr. Courage. We could not see. We—lost track of him.”

Berr gazed at one of the Wild Wastes warriors who was with Dorekh. He nodded slowly.

“My son is dead.”

Venaz’s fur rose as he looked at Berr. Everyone waited, but the old Gnoll’s eyes just glimmered with tears that fell onto his son’s fur. He bowed his head. Then he rose.

“I will bury him later. Where is the girl we are bound to protect? Where is Xherw?”

He turned, and Venaz gazed into those eyes. Berr’s voice was wrought with grief. He wept—but there was no anger on his face. No hint of it. The Minotaur backed up, and Berr turned to Solen, then a wounded Torishi.

Even she bowed and stepped back. For even when he looked into Berr’s eyes…Venaz didn’t see what he knew was there. Berr waited. Torishi shook her head.

“Xherw is regrouping. But with your aid—we may end this. With this Commander Perorn? Surely. We must—and then pivot to face the Drakes. Fissival is closest with Salazsar—Zeres and Oteslia behind them. Manus from the west. We must face them all, perhaps.”

 

——

 

Xherw knew it too. And he saw the Centaurs rampaging across his lines. A [Mercenary Commander] from Baleros.

How? He didn’t see it. It almost didn’t matter. Goblins and Antinium were fighting with the Doombringers. It was part of their…

He had ordered Ulcreziek to slay Gaarh Marsh with the [Ritual of Land’s Cataclysm]. That Khoteizetrough was dead was a tragedy.

Nevertheless. Xherw saw the future clearly, and it was this: he would rally the Meeting of Tribes. End the fighting. Quell the other tribes. To do that…some tribes had to vanish. Silverfang. The Doombearers as individuals. Gnolls would live.

When he turned to give Ulcreziek orders, the [Shaman] looked deep into his eyes, just like Iraz, Reizet. They could not find a hollow void of a soul, only a firm conviction. A confidence that not even this moment could shake.

But what did she see? No Gnoll could make that faith waver. But perhaps the woman who stood in the center of a battlefield, smiling slightly, who looked into his eyes and Ulcreziek’s with a gaze older even still—

Yes. That was when Ulcreziek saw that shadow of doubt creep in. For Belavierr was smiling. Smiling and offering Xherw a scroll.

“Just your signature here, Chieftain.”

Ulcreziek thrust it aside with a snarl. Belavierr, undeterred, watched as a pale-skinned undead girl with bright red hair scurried over to pick up the scroll and dust it off. Then she adjusted her hat.

And she kept smiling. For the Spider had finally found her prey: someone who needed her offer.

“Do not turn me away so quickly, Chieftain Xherw. As I have said—I am willing to fight for your cause. It has been an age since last the Witch of Webs took to the battlefield. I have not made war for centuries upon centuries. But I have not forgotten it. All I ask is a small fee. We may negotiate the rest in each instance.”

“Chieftain. You cannot be considering this. Not her.”

Ulcreziek whispered, but Xherw did not turn away Belavierr as lightly. He was looking across the fighting, and he saw a second army joining the forces of the Doombringers. Xhrew gazed at Belavierr.

“Your terms are too high, Witch. You will not have the luck of Plain’s Eye. Nor your other demands. You do not offer your services to Torishi’s lot.”

Belavierr’s smile never wavered.

“As a matter of fact, I did. However, given the…personal feelings I have towards certain members of their side, I may have offered a price without negotiation.”

“Which was?”

“One thousand.”

The [Witch] twinkled at Xherw and Ulcreziek. The [Shaman of the Eternal Grasslands] longed to attack her and feared that he’d fail and be destroyed. A thousand souls, living, dead, and yet to be born. But the [Witch]’s offer to Torishi…

“I offer you my services for practically nothing, Chieftain Xherw. Of course…I will unleash none of my greatest magics. For a pitiful fee. How shall we bargain? Not the Daemon, then. Nor any other of my more ambitious requests. Half.”

“No.”

Belavierr frowned. She twitched slightly in irritation and stared at that presence hovering over Xherw’s shoulder.

“A…third.”

“A quarter.”

“A third. That is my final offer. My hat upon it. I will have a third at least—a third, and I will fight with every spell and Skill, if not my treasures, until I fear for my life.”

The Stitch Witch stood there, smiling, and Ulcreziek had never seen a darker bargain yet. He had witnessed all Plain’s Eye had done and knew everything they had tried. All the secrets that were hidden.

Yet she…she had begun part of this, and she was in their history. As evil as Raskghar. He whispered to Xherw.

“Chieftain. You cannot…”

For answer, Xherw simply reached out and took Belavierr’s fingers. The Daemon of Luck groaned as the Stitch Witch smiled. One third of their luck. She reached up and began to draw a strand of something from it. Ulcreziek felt his stomach growing sick at the sound and sight. He backed away as the curious girl, Maviola, watched.

That smile never left Belavierr’s face. Now it was a happy little crescent. A polite curve of the lips, very small.

Hiding the grin of a monster, as wide as the curve of the horizon. A nightmare’s bared teeth and laughter.

The Stitch Witch coiled the string of luck around a bobbin and tucked it away in her dress. Then she rose.

“Very good, sir. Maviola. Stand behind me. It is time to teach you a lesson of simple rules.”

She walked out of Xherw’s tent, and the Gnolls saw her then. A woman with dark blue robes and an impossibly large hat. Two ringed eyes of orange, layers of immortality. That smile. She looked around and raised a hand.

“I am Belavierr.”

Her contract with Chaldion of Pallass was at an end. He was cunning enough—for a Drake. He had insisted she keep all traces of his bargain secret. However—he had failed to consider that Belavierr would seek employment of her own.

Thin strings rose around Belavierr. As Saliss of Lights turned his head from the fighting, as great Gnolls looked about, a Named Adventurer raised her blade.

“Belavierr!”

Lehra Ruinstrider pointed the Blade of Mershi at the Stitch Witch, but it was quivering. And the cobweb of string that rose around Belavierr looked…wet. It was dripping with blood. The thread—what was it made of?

Belavierr walked forwards, past retreating Plain’s Eye Gnolls. Towards the uncertain warriors who looked at her. She ignored the arrows, which snapped in midair before they ever got close. Spells were unraveling before her.

She touched one of those strands lovingly. Then she took a handful in her fingers and tugged. The strands trailed across a cluster of Gnolls. They pulled tight and sliced the Gnolls into pieces. With her other hand, the Stitch Witch raised a single needle and flicked it into the air.

Whispers. Then a buzzing as ten thousand struck across the air. They pierced eyes and flesh. The [Witch] sent one swarm of needles into the Gnolls—then another at the Centaurs. Belavierr stood there, and her eyes in that smiling face looked around.

For the little white Gnoll. She never said a word. She never cast a spell in that direction nor even so much as breathed at her.

She just smiled and smiled. Then she began to kill everything she laid her eyes upon. Slowly, as if remembering how it went.

 

——

 

The Stringbreaker, the Witch of Calamity, the Spider stole into view. She killed Gnolls with flicks of her hand, and that monster was a match for any horror of Chandrar.

She had mixed and mingled with them in the past, in fact. Now—she was killing the Gnolls trying to protect Mrsha by the hundred. With such casual glee that it made any sane watchers sick.

It could not stand. But who could fight her? Saliss of Lights called a challenge across the battlefield, and the world bloomed into alchemical fire around him—but he would not last long.

Nor even would the Stargnoll herself. How many would she kill?

All of them?

Never. A pair of golden flames watched the Witch, and for a second, Belavierr hesitated. She looked left, then right. Then straight at Fetohep of Khelt as if she could see through the scrying spell, despite the time delay.

The King of Khelt said nothing at all. His hand simply shattered the enchanted glass scrying orb. When his head rose across the sunlit sea, he gazed at their destination.

Izril. And the closest landmark—Zeres. The City of Waves.

“We’re too far away. They’re in the Meeting of Tribes inland—the Drakes are nearly upon them. We’ll never make it!”

Someone else was agonizing over her scrying orb. The plaintive voice of Ceria Springwalker drifted over to Fetohep, and he turned.

“We will make it, Adventurer Springwalker.”

The Gold-rank adventurer looked up at him, but Fetohep did not elaborate or add to that statement. They would make it. There was no other option.

The City of Waves lay in the distance, and between them and shore—a damned armada. The people at the railing were counting ships.

The King of Destruction was conferring with the anxious leaders that Fetohep had gathered. It was the Herald of the Forests who brought up the obvious.

“Zeres’ entire fleet is headed our way. They have [Marines]. Skills for sea. We have two [Pirate Captains], despite our forces’ level advantage. What is our plan?”

She turned to Fetohep, and the King of Khelt nodded around them. Adventurers, a [Hero], [Kings] and a [Queen]…all waited on his words.

“We will head up the largest river inlet. Captain Rasea’s skills will allow us to sail where ships cannot. Have no fear of turning the vessels; they will run aground.”

That—wasn’t the question. Fetohep just looked past the City of Waves. He only turned back when Flos caught his arm. The King of Destruction had what might have been a grin past all those bandages.

“I have fought Zeres once before, Fetohep. Even Amerys could not break their walls. You must have a plan.”

“I do indeed. Unhand me, King of Reim. I do not have time to waste on Zeres. I do not have time to waste…anywhere. Serept is gone. So is…”

Fetohep trailed off and looked at a figure standing at the railings. Salui half-turned, but he didn’t complete Fetohep’s thought. It was Vizir Hecrelunn who interrupted.

“Their immortal shades are gone? How is that possible?”

“They are fighting for Khelt. Serept, the half-Giant of Khelt, is gone. The 5th king of Khelt is gone. Serept, the Diamond Smith, is gone. He is gone, and the City of Waves ignores every warning.”

Fetohep pointed at the fleet in the distance. Perhaps he was mindful…no, he just acted as if he were being watched via scrying spell, regardless of whether he was or not.

“They stand against us when Khelt fights for everything against foes that every nation recognizes. Drakes march against Gnolls like the cowardly scavengers they have always been. Their greed and arrogance to drown out the light of a species once more.”

His audience on the ship and from afar realized that Fetohep was not just monologuing, but pacing up the deck. And his voice…already loud since he had no lungs nor air to breathe, was growing.

As Khelt witnesses me, and by Khelta’s words and my own, and every ruler who has ever known a modicum of civilization and glory, I look upon Zeres’ spite with the contempt of Chandrar. When Khelt called for aid, Drakes were lacking! When Gnoll cried out, it was the Drake foot who kicked at their fingers holding onto the edge of every cliff! In their vanity, they now seek to delay me a second?

He pointed at the walls of Zeres. And his voice rang out across the sea.

“IN THIS HOUR, I WILL GRIND ZERES’ WALLS TO DUST AND SET FLAME TO THE SERPENTINE THRONE. IF I MUST DRAG THAT WORTHLESS RULER INTO THE SEA, I WILL DO SO. NOT ONE SECOND. NOT ONE MOMENT. PART, YE WARRIORS OF ZERES, OR I WILL EXTINGUISH YOUR LIVES AND CONSCRIPT YOU IN A WAR THAT YOUR WORTHLESS SOULS MIGHT BE REDEEMED IN THE SLIGHTEST.”

 

——

 

The ships heading for Sand at Sea didn’t waver as the King of Khelt howled at them. However, no one could argue they had not been warned. Drakes stared into the distance at that ship coming their way, the sandstorm across the waters. They saw a single figure raise his hand.

Brace for magical attack! Brace for combat!

Their [Captains] warned them, and the crews of [Marines] stood ready. They had been sent to hold Khelt off from Izril—he had already threatened their Walled City. Of course they knew that something terrible was happening. But they had orders.

They were watching a fleet of about fourteen ships, not counting the Illuminary and Sand at Sea, which were both considerably more dangerous than the warships or transport vessels created in the modern age. No matter…over three times that number were poised against them and far more in harbor.

Zeres was a modern superpower at sea. Once they reached the firing radius of Zeres’ walls and towers, Khelt’s fleet would be in even greater danger. The King of Khelt just had to answer the Serpentine Matriarch’s will.

He refused to even acknowledge it. So the Drakes armed ballistas and siege weapons mounted on their ships; weapons that many navies didn’t even have, aside from the House of Minos.

Then their [Admiral of the Sea] received the first worrying report from one of the crow’s nest scouts.

Sir! A vessel is maneuvering to join Khelt and has declared a temporary alliance with them! 165-170!

One ship? The [Admiral] was waiting for Khelt’s move, but then he felt a terrible, wriggling suspicion in the back of his head. Slowly, he rotated to that angle and saw…

It. A ship bearing down in the waters. A sight to make even Zeres’ [Admiral] curl up his tail. Decorated with spines and still bearing the blood red slashes of when a Vampire had crewed it—but the markings on the side were still there.

Unlike The Pride of the Wellfar—this ship had a tally of kills at sea, and it had over a thousand vessels it had sent to the depths over its existence. But then—this was the Velistrane.

The Capital-class ship of House Reinhart had returned to Zeres. This time—it had come to answer the city’s last reception of Magnolia Reinhart and subsequent siege of Oteslia.

All about starboard!

The [Captain] nearest the Velistrane turned, and the fleet broke off to counter the second threat. The Drakes lost some of their confidence. Were they going to take on Khelt and a relic from the past? If they won, they’d seize three of the greatest ships at sea. And Zeres had fire support.

Then the air began to ripple, and they realized…they hadn’t seen anything yet. Drakes looked up at what was now familiar mist…and the [Sighters] began to scream down contacts from the crow’s nests.

“Warship, unknown class—estimated Wyvern-class Warship at 15 degrees!”

“Citadel—repeat Citadel-class warship 330! Citadel—”

“It’s a damned armada! Repeat—summoned armada. No—it’s—”

 

——

 

Ghost ships. Ksmvr was already screaming as he stood at the railings and stared at the rushing water. He screamed louder when the first ship crewed by ghosts came out of the mists.

Aaah! Aaah! What is that?

A grinning [Pirate] was steering a skipper beside an [Admiral] standing upon a vessel that looked like it had gone through a war already. A giant hole gaped in the sides, and something had riddled the deck with more holes.

Yet they still sailed on. The last fleet of ghosts. Rasea Zecrew ran to the railing of the Illuminary. Her cheering crew went silent, and even the Revenants of Khelt raised their heads in awe.

Ships long dead to the world, but still in the stories of [Sailors], crossed the ocean. Ancient ships like the Velistrane. Even Dragonships.

An armada of the dead. Fetohep saw them appearing, and Zeres broke into chaos. But those ships were not bound towards Zeres. A [Pirate King] lifted his hand to Rasea. He grinned, eyes as wild as any storm, and pointed a blade ahead.

Take me with you! Where are you going?

Rasea screamed at them, but the ghosts just pointed. They were sailing towards something, their damaged ships crewed by ghosts who had served with them in life, enemies—even landfolk.

They cut across the Drakes’ prows, and the fleet of Zeres recoiled as Fetohep’s head turned.

“We are running out of time.”

“Your Majesty! What are all these ghosts—they’re ghosts. What is going on?

The rest of the crew had seen ghosts at Ailendamus appear. They turned to Fetohep and realized the King of Khelt still had his hand in the air. Fetohep’s head slowly turned to regard a [Knight] of Samal.

“They are going to war. This was not my doing. Perhaps Zeres shall relent?”

No, not even for that. The City of Waves began to glow as Khelt’s fleet turned. They weren’t actually heading for the City of Waves; they were making for the largest river that ran inland, towards the Meeting of Tribes. They could, with luck, actually get within ten miles of the fighting, as the Meeting of Tribes had naturally settled near one of the great rivers.

But Zeres would attack them first. So Fetohep of Khelt sighed.

“Vizir Hecrelunn. You will hold down Zeres.”

“Alone? Me?”

The [Vizir] made a sound that might have been closer to a squeak and caught himself.

“That is—the [Vizir] is capable of anything. However—”

Amerys. Join him.”

The King of Destruction’s head turned, and a woman floating in the air and watching the ghosts looked up. A [Necromancer] nearly swooned into Yvlon’s arms. Pisces looked from Hecrelunn to Amerys.

“Did he just say—?”

Did Flos Reimarch just order Amerys to attack Zeres a second time? Both great [Mages] turned to Fetohep.

“We cannot just fly at the walls alone. I tried that last time. I need a siege or they’ll take me out.”

Amerys pointed out in a reasonable voice as she floated over to Fetohep. The King of Khelt was still pointing at Zeres…now he looked somewhat silly.

Somewhat, but Trey had an uneasy feeling as he watched Fetohep. The Revenant King was smiling. He was always physically smiling with his emaciated face—but he was smiling. On a hunch, Trey backed away and stood behind Gazi. He peeked out from behind the Gazer as Fetohep addressed Amerys.

“You will have an opening. Strike their walls until we are out of range. The Walled Cities may try another tack—but as long as our fleet is safe from danger until we disembark, that is long enough. They may try what they will, then.”

“Interesting. Get me an opening and I’ll greet them again.”

The Archmage of Chandrar’s eyes flashed. Fetohep just nodded.

“You may wish to begin flying.”

She did a double-take as Hecrelunn rose into the air. Both turned to Fetohep, but he was still pointing…

At Zeres. Now, everyone caught a trace of something in his voice.

“…ts…Trey Atwood. Attend me.

The young man hesitated, but Fetohep was beckoning urgently with his other hand, and the young man stood next to Khelt. Now he felt it. He heard it too, but Fetohep just addressed him as if they were in his palace, looking over his city.

“Tell me, Trey. You see Zeres?”

The City of Waves was wide; it embraced the tide, like a many-fanged trident. Towers rose, threatening destruction, and the port could hold multiple fleets. Trey hesitated as he saw multiple gates that could be sealed; they were open for now, ready to disgorge more ships.

“Yes, Your Majesty?”

“Consider the towers.”

Each one was different. Trey looked at them; one looked almost scaled, built in mimicry of Drake scales. Another was like a hissing head of a serpent. Each one was glowing with spells. Fetohep sneered at Zeres.

…en th…tell me, Trey. Which tower offends your sensibilities most?”

Trey saw every head turn to Fetohep. He hesitated.

“I, uh—”

“Any one. Tell me. [Op…

Trey looked at Fetohep. Then he pointed at the one like a snarling serpent and clung to the railing. Fetohep’s smile didn’t change, but his golden flames grew brighter.

What was he doing? Everyone edged closer, and even Ksmvr forgot his terror of water to approach. Now…they heard it. Fetohep had been breaking off to speak to Trey, but that pointing finger…it was a low mutter, so fast that it had been lost in the background.

“[Open the Vaults]. [Open the Vaults]. [Open the Vaults]. [Open the Vaults]. [Open the Vaults]. [Open the Vaults]. Openthevaultsopenthevaultsopenthevaultsopenthevaults—”

He was…using that Skill again and again. But why was he doing it so much? And no one had seen anything appear. So wh—

Trey looked up. His bladder tried to empty itself. Slowly, the [Hero] of Zethe gazed upwards. He stowed his sword. Alked Fellbow lowered the relic that Fetohep had given him. He could probably hit Zeres from miles and miles away…but he had a feeling he wasn’t going to need to.

Trey knew what Fetohep was summoning. It might be the largest object in Fetohep’s armory. It was, in the King of Khelt’s words, an eyesore. He had complained for four hours to Trey once about its inconvenience.

Even if it were a halberd designed to be wielded by a Giant, it was made of gemstones, King Serept’s largest creation.

It was longer than most of the palace and had to be contained in a room designed just to hold it with dimensional magic. Now—Serept’s largest weapon was hovering over Sand at Sea. The Revenant [Captain] looked up, and the undead light in his eyes diminished.

“Your Majesty—please don’t drop that on us.”

Fetohep was laughing. The gemstone spear was three times as long as the warship, and everyone decided Trey had had the right idea. But the halberd was hovering there as it kept appearing—and it was beginning to rotate.

It began to spin, and it hovered, quivering with what Trey could only describe as…suspended momentum. As if it was being held in place by something. If Fetohep could have broke into a sweat—

But the King of Khelt just pointed at Zeres. The Drake ships were moving out of the way of that gigantic weapon. Now, the sendings from the Serpentine Matriarch had lost their authoritarian tone.

He wasn’t going to—

“In the name of King Serept of Khelt! The 5th King of Khelt sends his greetings to Zeres. You wretched little lizards paddling around in the spray. [Open the Vaults: The Gemstone Giant’s Halberd of Khelt].

Fetohep roared, and the halberd launched itself past Amerys and Hecrelunn. The [Vizir]’s jaw nearly fell off his face as the gemstone spear left a shockwave of air after it. And it was aimed at—

The Walled City of Waves was the greatest remaining Walled City on the waters. Its walls had thrown back armadas. It had even survived the World’s Floods; it had endured wars l—

The Halberd of Serept crashed into the tower and rammed halfway through it. The discharge of magic and force of the impact made the City of Waves quake. Every spell in the towers and the walls flickered and went down for a second.

Drakes who’d been gathered to watch the battle at sea had thrown themselves down when they saw the polearm coming. Now—they looked up in horror at the fortune beyond Salazsar’s yearly net worth embedded in one of their towers. Stone showered down, and the alarms began to ring as the Serpentine Matriarch emerged from her quarters to see the blade’s tip aimed at her palace.

Then she saw the glowing woman shooting through the skies, trailing a hundred bolts of lightning in her wake. Zeres’ fleet was pursuing her, the [Admiral of the Sea] maneuvering far, far away from Khelt in case Fetohep decided to hit a ship with another weapon on his own authority.

The Serpentine Matriarch didn’t have time to countermand his orders. She looked up and closed the drapes as Amerys, the Archmage of Chandrar, the Calm Flower on the Battlefield, waved down to Zeres. Drakes old enough to remember her looked up in horror as the King of Destruction’s [Mage] came back for a rematch.

A storm descended over Zeres. The morning sky had already begun to turn dark. Now—stormclouds gathered at unbelievable speed, drowning out the sunlight. A brighter, closer radiance replaced it.

The flash of lightning and thunder. Amerys trailed through the air, a lethargic dancer barely able to keep on her feet, swaying, each step carrying her across the sky in a flash of lightning.

“Ah. Now I feel younger.”

Her voice was a crackling whisper from the clouds above. Then the lightning began to fall, striking the walls, forcing Drakes into cover. A few unwise fliers rose up and fell, burning. The magic on Zeres was returning, though, and tracers of magic, invisible to all but [Mages], were locking onto Amerys.

Then the wall spells began to fire. Magical arrows, plumes of magic, and anti-flier spells designed to strike at the same speed Amerys was flying began to crisscross the air. In response, the Archmage of Chandrar began to step faster, dodging the deadly spells.

Some splashed across a barrier of magic around her, but she was dodging, flashing across the sky. This…

This was familiar. The Archmage of Chandrar was laughing. She could not do this long. She knew Khelt’s fleet was moving upriver, out of direct range of Zeres. She just had to buy them…

The towers were the greatest threat. One was projecting lines of [Dispel Magic] across the air like a net. If she ran into that—

Amerys’ magic flickered a moment as she passed through one of those spells. She dived, recovering herself, and then remembered.

She needed an army not for the spells, but for—

The Drake [Archers]. They had a bead on her, and their Skills were far more unpredictable than magic. Amerys saw a group aiming for her and braced.

Then a meteor struck the walls, and Vizir Hecrelunn descended. The horrified Drakes looked up into the bright red light of the Revenant of Khelt. He did not step like lightning; he flew, and the spells that tried to strike him down vanished as he created a dead space of magic.

Ahaha.

A wide, incredulous smile filled Amerys’ face. There he was. Just like Eldavin—a legend not meant for this day and age. A being on par with any Archmage…no, beyond them.

Beyond her? That barrier was beyond any spell she knew, and as she watched, he pointed and sent a meteor streaking down to strike a tower. As simply as she threw lightning. Two [Mages] of different kinds and eras regarded each other. Amerys called out first, her voice teasing.

“Great Revenant of Khelt. Shall we compete at spellcraft? For a legend of Khelt—is that all you’ve got?”

For all his magic, Hecrelunn was patently uneasy as Zeres’ defenses threatened to overwhelm his barrier. Amerys or Hecrelunn alone might burn in the minutes they needed to buy. Together?

The [Vizir]’s chin rose, and his eyes flashed. He replied as the two flew over Zeres, raining spells down.

Woman, the [Vizir] Hecrelunn will match you in magic. He will surpass you in every other conceivable way.

His gaze was that of a dead man sneering down at the world. He had magic to equal any Archmage of today. And he was a [Vizir]. Amerys’ laughter was the lightning bolts raining down from the sky. Wild and sad.

Look what we’ve forgotten. Look at me, Zeres. She struck them a hundred times in a minute. But the Drakes just shouted up defiance. And their army…Amerys’ head turned. She could not see them, but she felt the sea marching onto land. A wave of scales and armor. The Archmage bared her teeth in sympathy for the Gnolls. The Drakes had reached the Meeting of Tribes.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: These three chapters are actually one chapter as written but I have split them up like last time for clarity’s sake. Read on.

 

 

Razia vs the Gods by Lanrae!

 

Skinner by AbsoluteZero!

 

Mrsha Sending by HolyChicken!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

8.82 (Pt. 3)

The King of Avel, the current [King], was napping on his throne. He had slept lightly, having stayed awake with considerable, nay, understandable concern over what was going on.

He hadn’t taken part in the war with Ailendamus, although Avel had quietly shipped a lot of arrows to Gaiil-Drome. But his damn councilors and court had told him it was not wise to make a stink.

Anyways, he was hungry and he wished he were the Queen of Desonis. He’d heard she had parked a bed in the throne room and called it a throne. The King of Avel was, incidentally, once divorced. As usual, he was playing with the greatest relic of his kingdom: the Bow of Avel.

A weapon beyond any Named-rank adventurer. A bow that had Skills attached to it—the most powerful war resource of Avel.

He really liked it. Given his druthers, the King of Avel would spend all day shooting it. His court kept telling him it was ‘priceless’ and ‘could run out of magic’.

King Itreimedes of Avel had heard their concerns out and vouchsafed that if they had the most amazing relic of any age, they would probably want to use it too.

He was watching the war in Ailendamus with one eye as he called for snacks. The Archmage of Memory was dead? It looked like Ailendamus was preparing to charge the Dawn Concordat, and he gloomily supposed that was that.

Itreimedes had felt something…odd, which had woken him from his nap. It had been the strangest feeling ever, but that was all he could have said. Just for a moment, and then it was gone. He would have forgotten about it completely in the next minute and chased that worry that Avel was in danger he’d been feeling all week. Maybe seen what Khelt was doing.

Then he felt it.

“Your Majesty? Skelros?”

The stick-like plants that grew out of the ground were as to wheat for Avel; they germinated very well in rocky soil, and Avel had a lot of rocks and heights. You could noodle them with some effort or eat them dry, and his were dipped in a pleasing sauce because he had to watch his figure.

Another tyranny. Even so—this was the first time the King of Avel had ever slapped them out of his [Servant]’s hands.

“Your Majesty! Please!”

An exasperated councilor looked up from the war table where he and some [Strategists] were trying to calculate if this meant the Dawn Concordat were going to lose. The King of Avel was known to be impetuous, childish, but this—

The figure on the throne sat up, face dead-white…then he leapt off his throne and charged down the throne room.

“Your Majesty? Do you need the privv—ulp!

He shoulder charged a [Duchess] down, bow in hand. Cries of shock and outrage filled the room as the King of Avel looked around. He ran towards a balcony—then gave up and charged for the doors.

Open the doors! Open them!

His bodyguard surged to attention and thrust the doors open. An outraged courtroom of Avel’s nobles and court followed King Itreimedes. His [Royal Advisor], who had also been his babysitter—and older sister—snapped.

Your Majesty! What is the meaning of—

She saw the [King] skid to a halt. He raised the Bow of Avel up, looked around, wild-eyed—and then activated the [Giant’s Arrow], the five arrows he could fire per day as large as—

“[Overpowering Shot]! [Ten League Mark]! [Doubled Volley]!”

The first arrow blasted into the sky like a second sun. A glowing meteor fired from the most powerful bow in Terandria. The royal court, charging at the King of Avel to give him a piece of their mind, turned and fled, screaming. King Itreimedes whirled, and everyone ducked as a second gigantic arrow aimed.

Itreimedes—

He fired the arrow through the top of a curtain wall and left naught but melted stone. A [Palace Guard] on her rounds stared at the melted hole right in front of her face.

The horrified onlookers saw the King of Avel activating another function of the bow. Crisscrossing volleys of arrows followed the second shot. Then he was muttering.

“[Bound Skill: My Arrow Shall Not Stop].”

He put the bow up, and that Skill could put a hole through a mountain in the right hands. The legends told that the greatest archer of Avel, the [Princess] who had once held that bow, actually had—

 

——

 

Everyone in Avel saw the third glowing arrow cross the skies. [Farmers] looked up in alarm, and people stopped in the streets as they saw the gigantic arrows hurtling into the air.

“What’s going on? Is Avel under attack?”

They raced to the Mage’s Guild and got word from the capital. A [Mayor] ran through the streets, screaming.

“Everyone take cover! His Majesty of Avel is using the Bow of Avel and shooting arrows in every direction!”

A widow wailed as she grabbed for her children.

“I knew it! I knew he’d snap one day! Someone stop that maniac!”

Everyone assumed that the obvious had happened; their beloved [King] had gone off the deep end of his very short pool.

 

——

 

Itreimedes certainly looked insane. He was wild-eyed, head rotating left and right, and he was fighting his sister and his court for the bow. He kicked an elderly [Strategist] in the stomach.

Let go of me! I command you!

“Stop! Stop! What’s gotten into you?”

He was fighting like a lion, and the [King] roared and his court had to step back as he threw his aura at them.

In the name of Avel, step back! I must loose arrows! Avel is in danger! The bow is calling me—if I don’t answer it, it will break as surely as this kingdom!

He whirled as they halted, glancing at each other. A mental break? But the King of Avel was staring around.

“Where are my targets? Where…?”

The man whirled and put an arrow to his bow. He frantically searched as he loosed another shot.

“I’m running out of bound arrows. Bring me every enchanted arrow from the armory! Get me [Captains] who can boost my aim! Hurry!

“Your Majesty…”

They weren’t sure what to believe. His voice was hoarse, and the King of Avel could not name what he was aiming at. But his voice rang with a terrible conviction. And the bow…

The bow was shining. The court looked at the King of Avel, and then one of the [Court Mages] did something very sensible. He cast a spell, looked at His Majesty, and slapped himself so hard he nearly dislocated his own jaw. When he picked himself up, the [Royal Advisor] grabbed him.

“What? What?”

The [Mage] pointed at the [King] of Avel with a trembling finger. The [King] himself paused, panting, fingers bleeding as he plucked at the string.

“He—His Majesty just leveled. Twice.

The Level 36 [King of Bows] was now Level 38. In dead silence, the court looked at King Itreimedes. Any last doubts they might have that this was all some shared hallucination or madness was put to rest when they realized one thing.

King Itreimedes was loosing shots from his bow, and they hit the walls or unlucky birds, or even trees as he fired them dangerously low, or in odd places. But…

But no one could find where they had landed.

 

——

 

There’s another one!

The King of Avel—the first one, the founder, accept no substitutes—lowered his copy of the Bow of Avel and laughed. He saw another arrow burn into a Seamwalker. It flashed into existence, and the ghosts of Avel cheered.

“Whomever it is has terrible aim! Higher, higher! Get better arrows!”

The rulers of Avel not using bows were screaming encouragement at the Bow of Avel. They could see it now, a glowing bow raising, the string being pulled back. Yet the bow was loosing arrows. Their mortal descendant might have terrible aim—but he was giving them covering fire.

 

——

 

King Itreimedes was shouting at a scared [Princess] holding a frozen staff reflected on a scrying orb.

I don’t know! I don’t know! Just use the staff! Use it—can’t you feel it?

The rulers of Cenidau looked at their heirloom. Across Terandria, the relics of the Hundred Families were demanding to be used. And when not used—

A sword smashed itself out of a display case, ran through a [Servant], and shot out of the royal armory. It flashed through the air, slashing at something.

They were feeling it. Every [Witch] on Terandria looked around, and one actually had their eyes pop out of their sockets as she saw what had been invisible, obfuscated by the ruler of Kasginel, suddenly revealed.

One of the parts of the Waning World returned. An alarm begun by Khelt now screaming from a thin veil torn far enough.

At last…at last, they saw.

 

——

 

Rhisveri Zessoprical saw nothing but empty air. He stood there in front of the Scroll of [Resurrection] and saw…nothing. No Faerie King. No great bounty worthy of the scroll.

Just a trick. A glorious host, and now? Something had happened, but he hadn’t been important. He looked around blankly.

That was when he saw Ryoka Griffin. The Wind Runner stood there. Tears were in her eyes. Her clothing was sooty for some reason, and she was panting, cut, the blood and tears in her clothing showing newly-healed flesh.

“What happened to you? No…nevermind. This is your fault. This is a trick. Damn you. I don’t know what this was—wasting my time? Well, they got that bastard, the Archmage, without me. As for you…”

The Wyrm was angry, and he knew he was taking it out on her. But he was confused and worried; his enchantments were shattered by the magic, and he didn’t like the fear he felt.

“Fithea is dead.”

Ryoka Griffin spoke, and Rhisveri kept moving his mouth a moment, but no words came out. He stopped and looked at her.

“…That is a poor joke.”

Ryoka Griffin shook her head. The Wind Runner lifted her hands.

“Fithea is dead. I killed her.”

“Hah.”

The Wyrm. He couldn’t help it. The incredulous little giggle of denial escaped him. His eyes wavered, and he realized he was hearing horns blaring in the palace. He looked at Ryoka and saw the soot. The Faeblade’s hilt.

Rhisveri’s open mouth stayed like that, wafting the smell of acid and a sweet-sickly stench of poison. The smile never quite left that mouth, but his eyes…his eyes were not mismatched. They were very distant, old compared to her, and the deepest jade green in the world. Like that beautiful stone, sometimes hidden by mud and wrath, and occasionally, when polished, one of the prettiest things in the world.

Something deep in those depths cracked softly. Just like the hundred little fractures at the center, those slitted pupils and the hole that ran straight through the Wyrm.

“I see.”

He did not cry. He would never weep, much less in front of her. The Wyrm slowly drew himself up and proved he was no Dragon. His body slowly wrapped around the room, covering each exit. He carefully surrounded the Wind Runner and then spoke.

“Why?”

Ryoka had been prepared for death. She was still crying. Eldavin…Teriarch was dead. It was all falling to pieces, but there it sat.

The scroll. Rhisveri looked from her to the scroll.

“You did not kill her for that. No…you would have tried me, first. Tell me why.”

His voice was soft, his eyes focused on Ryoka, trying to make sense of it all. The young woman looked up.

“She heard the whispers of something dead. A dead…thing. A dead god that called itself…”

She hesitated.

“Kasigna. Fithea believed that if she killed me, the Dryads would be returned to life. She was about to kill Menorkel and Gilaw.”

“Menorkel and Gilaw? Fithea found Menorkel where he was hidden. She raised Gilaw. Who is…? No. Keep speaking. You are telling me there are g—they are dead.”

The Wyrm’s voice was so soft. He was looking at Ryoka, searching for the truth. She faced him as his body slowly ran around the room in a circuit, undulating.

“Rhisveri. That is part of why the Faerie King watches this world. I did not come here for that. I came here to steal your scroll. And I still…must have it. The Faerie King didn’t take it?”

“He did not. You require it for your friend?”

“She woke up.”

“Then whom?”

Ryoka was shaking. She pointed at the scrying orb behind him, Ailendamus poised to overrun the Dawn Concordat. Lucifen and Agelum, immortals advancing on mortals.

“I have someone else I need to wake up. He died—but that wasn’t him. It isn’t right. Give me the scroll. Let me wake him up. Teriarch. The Lord of Flame.”

Then the Wyrm’s eyes narrowed, but only a fraction. He sighed.

“Your Dragon. I know that name. One of the oldest Dragons to ever live. One of the greatest…that was his proxy? The Archmage of Memory?”

“Something went wrong.”

“So that was why you tried to kill him. I see. I see. And Fithea…go back to her. She listened to someone? This Kasigna. A god of…death?”

He said the words with difficulty. Ryoka saw the uneasy look in his eyes. The way his scales rippled. Rhisveri’s head roamed the vast room, like a serpent realizing he was trapped in a box for the first time.

“I beheld a vast gathering. A myriad of realms I could not name and armies to make even my kind tremble. I saw Wyrms and Dragons recoil in horror and brighter beings yet which I have no conception of shout in fear. They gazed into the heart of my world and would not linger. Now, a mortal girl comes to me and tells me death whispers in the ear of the immortals of Ailendamus. Khelt screams alarm, and time twists. My Great General died with the words of warning on her lips. I believe you, Ryoka Griffin, so tell me.”

The Wyrm looked at Ryoka, and she spoke. All she could. It was a very simple tale.

“A war is coming, Rhisveri. I don’t know when. It was fought long ago, before levels and Skills, I think. The survivors were nearly killed, but they remained. Rotting. Scavenging. They might be why people from my world arrived here. They’re…growing stronger. They’re coming back. The Faerie King is one of their foes, but I don’t think even he can kill them. Something far worse is going to hit this world, and Ailendamus has to be ready. The immortals…you…”

Ryoka hesitated, and she saw it. Maybe it was a trick of her mind, her ego, but she thought she saw a reason for being here she could pull from all this failure. She faced Rhisveri.

“Maybe I came here just because I needed to meet you, Rhisveri. Because the Wyrm of Ailendamus wouldn’t believe anyone—anyone unless I earned your trust. Unless I proved myself worthy of being heard out.”

The Wyrm’s head dipped fractionally.

“It is true, I would not listen to anyone else. Why would you need to come here, then?”

Ryoka took a long breath.

“Because we need you. Because you need to trust me when I tell you that Ailendamus must prepare. It must find allies and join the right side. Rhisveri, turn this terrible, glorious kingdom and stop making war on Terandria.”

“Which side would I even join? The people who have killed and reviled my kind for ages?”

The Wyrm hissed softly, and his head lowered further until they were almost at eye-level. Ryoka shook her head.

“No. There’s no side. At least…not one like that, Rhisveri. This is a war against God. What you just saw was a single salvo. This—this is the opening of a war. And our foes are beyond even you. One tricked Fithea.”

There. She had said her piece. Now, Ryoka Griffin walked forwards and touched the little glass display case. She popped the glass top open. The Wyrm had deactivated all the safeguards for this moment. Ryoka looked down at the scroll. She saw the Wyrm staring down at her.

“I have heard your warning, Ryoka Griffin. I understand now. I have been arrogant and thought this world had no secrets left for me. I will remember what I saw. I will remember that name. For that warning, and indeed, for your service to Ailendamus, I thank you.”

The Wyrm dipped his head slowly. Ryoka looked up at him, a hand on that scroll. She felt the pulse in her veins. She felt…alive. But the Wyrm’s gaze froze her in place, locking every muscle.

He continued softly.

“You are not bad, for a mortal. No Dionamella, but you could fly, and few Humans have ever managed that unaided. You warn me of a great foe, and perhaps it is true that one suborned Fithea. I believe you. But. Fithea is dead by your hands.”

The Wyrm’s head began to rise. A shiver ran through his entire body, and his eyes blinked once as he stared upwards.

“…She taught me magic. I knew her when I found a gloomy little cavern buried deep in the roots of a dead forest and found a creature I had no desire to eat. One who remembered gentility. Who did not call me scourge or fiend. Fithea sor Kerwenas of the Great Forest of Estiphole is dead.”

Then he looked at her, and the Wind Runner saw Rhisveri’s gaze and that cracked stare.

“I couldn’t stop her with words, Rhisveri.”

“No. And perhaps she gave into despair. Perhaps none of this is your fault.”

The Wyrm’s voice deepened. The circle of his body constricted. Rhisveri’s head rose, and his eyes began to glow.

“However. You have slain an immortal of Ailendamus, Ryoka Griffin. And if ever there were one law I will keep, it is this: you who would slay forever will die in turn. You have killed the last Dryad. Little Thief. Little Murderer. We are back to the beginning. Slay me and take your scroll. Or I will destroy you.”

“Rhisveri—”

But there was nothing but the void now, and the Wyrm had opened his mouth, wide, wide. Ryoka thrust the scroll into her belt and activated the Faeblade.

A burning jet of superheated air, burning bright pink, white-hot, rose as the Wyrm recoiled a second. Even he was wary of that flame.

The young woman held the burning sword up as the wind blew around her, facing the Wyrm. He would not underestimate her like Fithea. There would be no quarter.

Still, the Wyrm’s jade-green eyes gazed down at the floor of his vast lair. His palace, made of dozens of pillaged kingdoms, a home he had built for immortals. A point of vanity, and the awkward kindness of a Wyrm.

A great kingdom ruled by immortals. A flawed place led by him, where the root of its failings and its strengths was embodied in one person.

That selfish, arrogant Wyrm spoke.

“You pathetic, foolish little mortal girl. You think to challenge me? You are a gnat, and I am a Wyrm. Never should you have come here; I will destroy you. Your threats mean naught at all to me.”

Ryoka shifted, the burning Faeblade in hand, sweating. The wind was ready to lift her into the air, but she had not put on her wingsuit, nor could she grab the glider. It seemed the Wyrm was putting in a few last shots.

He would strike her so fast…she clutched the obols in her other hand, feeling their power. But Ryoka knew the Wyrm was blocking all exits. He was no idiot. He went on, glaring down at her.

“How dare you come here? How dare you brandish that…that worthless weapon at me? What even is that?”

He still didn’t believe the Faeblade was dangerous? Ryoka looked at what might be burning plasma or superheated air. A weapon to scorch even a Wyrm.

“Rhisveri, please—”

“No. Be silent. Shut up. I do not have time for this. I do not care if a thousand of your worthless get stand here. Your friend dies. You have no power over me, little mortal.”

Your friend? Teriarch? He was already dead. Then Ryoka saw the Wyrm snarl, and she saw something very strange indeed.

His eyes. Those two slitted pupils were gazing down in hatred and wrath, and he was poised to strike. Ryoka traced the sightline of the Wyrm’s eyes, and she realized something at last.

Rhisveri wasn’t looking at…her. Rather, he was staring at something on the ground just in front of Ryoka. Around Ryoka’s height. Maybe a few inches shorter. And he was talking to—

The Wind Runner’s eyes opened wide. Her own green eyes, far less magical, but wild with tears and despair and desperation gazed around. She heard the Wyrm hiss as he looked at someone standing there. Someone only he could see. Until Ryoka felt a shimmer in the air, and the perspective…changed. And she saw someone.

A ghost, one hand planted on her hip, waving a frying pan up at the Wyrm and lecturing him. Ryoka Griffin’s eyes burned. She thought she heard a voice.

Then—that head of light brown hair turned, and two hazel eyes found Ryoka’s. An irresistible smile, the impudence to insult a Wyrm, and a weary face of her own. Ryoka Griffin saw someone who could welcome you into her home and share it for a while looking at her. Someone who would always be there when she was needed. An [Innkeeper], defying the Wyrm of Ailendamus to his face.

Tears sprang to Ryoka’s eyes. She whispered, reaching out, forgetting everything.

“Erin…?”

The veil between their worlds was fraying, unraveling, but there was still a world and an entire life between the two. What stood in Rhisveri’s throne room with its enchantments undone was just…

One ghost and one little Courier do not frighten me. I can slay even souls. Be silent and die!”

The Wyrm roared. He threw back his head and inhaled, his mouth filling with bile and acid. Then his eyes went wide. Rhisveri looked up and saw them. He saw a vast being of scales the color of space land. A head rose, and two stellar pupils gazed at him.

 

——

 

Xarkouth, the Dragonlord of Stars, landed in front of Rhisveri. The Wyrm recoiled as the largest Void Dragon to ever fly this world struck the ground like a falling comet behind Erin Solstice.

“A—”

Rhisveri choked on his own bile and hesitated. Then he flinched as a great serpentine being rose out of the ground. A face even larger than his, different from the Lindwyrm. A true Wyrm, without legs.

The last Great Wyrm of the world dwarfed even Rhisveri as she rose, hissing, from the ground. The Wyrm of Ailendamus looked around and flinched as the Dragonlord of Gems, Saracandre, flew through the walls of his palace. She hovered there, wings beating as her scales flashed with a thousand sparkling treasures.

Rhisveri’s head turned left, and a Wyvern landed, roaring. He rotated as the confused Wind Runner looked around. She could only see…something.

He saw his brother writhing through the walls of his palace, his eyes glowing. Then more Dragons were landing. The Wyrm constricted in on himself and realized—

He was surrounded. The ghosts of the Dragonlords, Great Wyrms, Wyvern Kings, the most powerful souls of his kind that had ever existed surrounded the Wyrm.

“Wh—what is this? Why are you all here? Begone, specters!

The Wyrm howled. He began to cast a spell and saw the one living being run for the exits. The little [Innkeeper] followed her.

Stop!

Rhisveri went to strike her. He opened his mouth to breathe acid, and the Dragonlords spoke.

Death.

The Wyrm’s scales turned waxy with fright as sweat ran from his glands. The Dragonlords shouted that word at him from a world apart. Xarkouth bellowed at Rhisveri.

Death! Deception! The treachery of the dead.

Saracandre called down to him.

The foe of our kind. Hear me. Strike them dead.

The Great Wyrm looked into Rhisveri’s eyes.

“Child. Witness the end of everything.”

He whirled in panic as the Dragonlords called out to him, their words searing the air. She was getting away! In his panic, Rhisveri realized that the Wind Runner was escaping with the scroll. But the voices roared at him. Then the Dragonlords inhaled. Rhisveri screamed and tried to shield his face as they exhaled.

Plumes of flame from the void, molten stone, acid, deadly mist, flames without end—the ghosts struck the ground of Rhisveri’s throne room, and their breath began to melt the flagstones.

They were here. They weren’t just specters, lost souls. Rhisveri saw ghosts breaking the boundary between worlds. The combined wrath of the ghosts could touch the real world.

But it was not him they scorched. The Wyrm looked down and saw the air rippling as the Dragonlords vented their disdain and hatred. What—his eyes focused on a patch of blank space moving in the center of the firestorm.

What were they attacking? The Dragonlords looked at the Wyrm and spoke to him as he cowered. Delivering their last warning to one of their own who must hear it. Rhisveri was wavering between the door and this when he saw that Wyrm halt next to the ghost of his brother.

Rhisveri looked up into eyes that had been struck from ice itself. Frosted color from Cenidau’s north. A body of scales that had weathered insult, let the owner commit herself to any decision she pleased across a lifetime of satisfactions. A noble gaze without regret.

Noble? So proud of herself. And a smile like the greatest viper ever, looking down at…

“Hear us, this last gathering of Wyrm and Dragon, Rhisveri Zessoprical. We must tell you all.”

The Dragonlords chased that nightmare back as they spoke. The Wyrm looked around. Glowing eyes. A meeting of wings and scales and pride that would never be exceeded. The last conclave of Dragonlords spoke to him as they sneered at their lesser foes.

And they were not alone. 

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin was running through Ailendamus. She was screaming. This could not be happening. Yet as she took into the air, she saw someone running after her. She heard that voice.

Run, Ryoka!

It couldn’t be. But Ryoka had seen her there. The Wind Runner took into the skies, flying away from the Wyrm. A little Griffin flew after her, screaming, but the Wind Runner was too fast.

And she held the Scroll of [Resurrection] in her hands. Ryoka felt it burning her side as she dragged it from her belt pouch.

One life among them all. Among all the people dying…

“Erin?”

Ryoka’s eyes were filled with tears, and she wavered. That friend of hers was here. She had come here for Ryoka. At last, Ryoka had the scroll. But she thought of the other soul.

Teriarch. Ryoka Griffin’s tears were running across her face as she flew, but someone still tried to brush them away. She looked around and saw a ghostly hand.

She was dreaming. She’d been melted by Rhisveri and this was one last hallucination. How else could this be happening?

“Erin?”

The ghost girl offered Ryoka a handkerchief. She was not flying…she was riding a—

A crimson Dragon stared at Ryoka, and the Wind Runner nearly fell out of the skies. Someone tried to grab her. A winged Garuda. But the claw passed through Ryoka’s arm.

She felt a cold touch. The Human girl looked around and into the eyes of…

Ghosts. She met the gaze of a man dressed in leather armor, a sword buckled to his side. He looked more stunned to see her than she did him. But then—he had always worn that expression of gratified surprise from the first moment she’d met him, fighting a Lich at the ruins of Albez. Ryoka looked into brown eyes.

“Gerial?”

How was this possible? What was going on? Erin Solstice shouted at Ryoka, cupping her hands as if that would help bridge the void between life and death. The Dragon rolled her eyes as she flew, and Ryoka Griffin passed over the army of Ailendamus.

 

——

 

“Advance and destroy them.”

Rhisveri was missing. Something had gone wrong in the capital. Visophecin could not raise Razia. He was wounded—but the Dawn Concordat was right in front of them.

The immortals of Ailendamus were preparing their attack. Now—the mortals of the Dawn Concordat, their ‘glorious army’, knew they were outmatched.

House Shoel aimed spells at the Thronebearers as the Agelum stood. Lance-arrows from the Greatbows trained upon Tyrion Veltras, the Five Families, and the Dawn Concordat saw the first burning spells arc through the air.

They began to charge. The Order of Seasons, Calanfer, the Griffin Prince leading the way through the skies, the [Princess] of Calanfer, Ser Solstice…

Visophecin’s eyes were burning red as he pointed a clawed finger straight at Tyrion Veltras as he stood on a hill that one of the immortals was raising. Below him, the Knights of the Hydra were charging by the thousand.

Wipe them out.

Then—Visophecin saw something that even he couldn’t explain happen to the air. In the narrowing ground between both armies, he saw…

“Mist?”

Azemith hesitated, twined [Disintegration] spells aiming from her fingers. She focused on the strange mist that suddenly arose. Both armies slowed, and the [Mages] called out.

“Distortion in the field. Skill?”

“Not magic. Greatbows! Refocus! The Dawn Concordat has engaged a mass-summoning spell!

 

——

 

On the other side of the battlefield, the Dawn Concordat were pivoting, the charge of House Veltras circling.

Ailendamus is raising troops! Rally! Hold—hold—

Tyrion Veltras broke off his charge at the ranks of House Shoel, his heart thundering in his chest. He raised his lance, squinting into the mist.

“It’s not magic, Lord Veltras!”

Jericha shouted in his ear. Tyrion nodded. It had to be a Skill. But…he narrowed his eyes.

What was he seeing? Someone made a sound by his right ear. Lord Swey, one-handed, stared at the figures appearing between both armies.

“Are they…insulting us? What am I looking at?”

Foul treachery! You disgrace all of Terandria!

One of the Thronebearers of Calanfer supporting House Veltras’ charge howled as he saw the force appear. First incredulity, then outrage filled the voices of many Terandrians. Tyrion Veltras just narrowed his eyes.

Stepping out of the mist came a paltry force for either side. Merely a thousand warriors—a Skill from one side or the other. Perhaps Princess Seraphel?

No…she wouldn’t do this. Because when the people focused on the faces, the figures appearing there, they gasped in uncertainty and then outrage and disbelief. After all…they knew those faces.

A thousand men stood on the grass. Each one was familiar in some way to the watchers. Maybe not to the rest of the world—but to Terandria, upon the scrying orbs?

No—even in other nations, one face might look familiar. There might be a statue in a square, a page in a history book. A portrait. It had to be some kind of illusion, a disgrace to copy their features.

A thousand [Kings] of Terandria stood on the grassy field, holding the relics they had borne in life. Almost all had crowns, although some had helmets.

A grinning wolf of a man, holding a spear as long as a lance and armored with a garb hung about with Griffin feathers and a crown of bone stalked next to a [King] holding a familiar bow, an arrow ready.

The First King of Avel surveyed the world around him, blinking, his eyes like a hawk noting either side. He raised the memory of the Bow of Avel as each army halted. The Spear of Desonis, the eighth [King] to rule the kingdom of swamps and rains for less than a decade, strode ahead of the others as they halted.

A thousand familiar faces. A thousand outrages. Tyrion Veltras gazed uncertainly at them.

 

——

 

“Madness. What kind of ploy is this?

Ailendamus was in uproar, but the immortals reacted quickly. Azemith raised a finger.

“I don’t detect any significant magic from them. What kind of summoning is this? I’ll destroy these clones.”

“They look exactly like…that one looks like the eleventh King of Samal. Terandria’s [Mortal Champion]. The man who bested a Giant. Visophecin. Are my eyes deceiving me? He looks just like him.”

Uzine stared down at the figures. Visophecin’s mouth moved.

“They do. Azemith st—”

“[Disintegrate].”

The Lucifen woman loosed two beams of light. They shot downwards as enchanted Lance-arrows struck the ground. A [Fireball] exploded amongst the thousand figures, and Visophecin saw clearly—they passed straight through the figures.

“They’re not real. It’s an illusion. One of the Archmage’s tricks.”

Someone else came to the next obvious conclusion: Culnous, leader of the Merfolk, exhaled, and the moment of confusion passed. The Order of the Hydra was reforming its ranks as the thousand men began to walk towards them.

However, an outraged member of the Order of the Thirsting Veil had had enough. Their [Knight-Captain] charged down the slopes, whirling a spear overhead. She was aiming for Tyrion Veltras, screaming her fury at this trick.

One of the thousand men broke ranks and raced towards her.

The Spear of Desonis, the [Hunting King] holding that spear, raced across the ground like an arrow. The Thirsting Veil [Knight] whirled. She hesitated as she saw the ghost charging across the ground. She turned to ignore it—

And the spear struck the horse. It reared, screaming, not bleeding, not cut, but it tossed the woman off. The [Knight-Captain] landed as Visophecin stirred. Culnous amended his statement.

“…That’s not an illusion.”

The [Knight-Captain] rolled to her feet, spear whirling. She faced the grinning [King] uncertainly. Then Visophecin saw her activate her [Spear Dance].

The [Knight-Captain] whirled through the air, her spear striking high and low as she pivoted, lashing the air with the enchanted tip of her spear. In response, the [King] stood, leaned sideways past one thrust that cut the air, and slipped under a scything cut. He walked into the flurry of blades, dodging amidst the deadly series of thrusts and cuts like he was walking through the rain, untouched by a single drop.

“She is a [Spearmaster]. That thing is—

He was dodging her. Not letting the spear pass through him, but actually dodging. With what looked almost like disappointment or contempt. The [Knight-Captain] halted, and the ghostly spear the [King] held rose. She went to parry a thrust as fast as a lightning bolt, and it whirled out of the feint, struck low across her leg, flickered as he reversed the cut and planted the tip of the spear at her throat.

In silence, the Knight of the Thirsting Veil stared into the grinning face, and Visophecin saw the true uncertainty in the way she stood. The Lucifen was far too far away to hear, but he saw those lips moving.

The ghost of the 8th [King] of Desonis was speaking to her. The mortals looked at each other. The living hesitated—but they didn’t quite believe.

 

——

 

Order of the Hydra! Charge! Engage these illusions!

Knight-Commander Forcel had seen enough. His [Knights] charged down the hill, not mounted, heading straight for the thousand ghosts. In reply, the other [Kings], who had watched the first of their number advance finally moved.

A man with shoulders as wide as a bear lifted a greatsword that was more of a flat mace than a sword and strode forwards next to a [Duelist] with a golden bell. The King of Avel stood with a [Mage] who sighed as he flicked his fingers and produced a long, curved dagger. The ghosts picked up speed as the Hydra Knights ran at them.

The living faltered as they drew closer. They could see through each figure, but the colors of their armor, the lines of their faces, scars, the intensity of their eyes remained. If they were illusions—they were complete. They even smelled different. A sharp perfume on one, faded blood on another. The tang of metal and the sting of powerful magic.

And they had voices. Ser Yoriven, in the front rank, heard one of them laughing. A huge, booming laugh as a hot-blooded ruler of Cenidau to the north adjusted adamantium knuckles of metal on one fist.

He clapped the shoulder of the man next to him, and the two-headed lion’s pelt on the back of a [King of Taima] swirled with the impact as the other [King] gave him a narrow-eyed glance and hefted a guisarme, a polearm with multiple cutting edges. A [Peasant]’s weapon adjusted for a king. He held it low to the ground, as if he had once tilled fields, a slump to one shoulder and favoring his left side; a broken bone that had never quite healed right.

Then, Yoriven realized the truth. These were not illusions.

Too late, the Order of the Hydra ran into the ranks of [Kings]. The thousand ghosts went through the [Knights] in seconds. Yoriven slashed with all the force in his arms, shouting.

“[Glittering Cut]—”

He ran into the 34th King of Cenidau, that giant of a man who had walked naked into blizzards and practiced his Skills on icebergs. The sword met a fist, and Yoriven felt a half-impact.

They weren’t really here. The [King] frowned at the way Yoriven’s sword passed through his hand, but shrugged. Then he struck the [Knight].

Cold. Yoriven half-felt it, but the blow was still from the [King] of Cenidau, a man who had wrestled Trolls and won. The [Knight] collapsed as the man laughed.

My Skills are useless. Just as they warned us. Enough flesh to humble these children, though, eh?”

No one else answered as he walked on, past the stunned Hydra Knight staring up at the ghosts. They broke the Hydra Knights’ charge. Men and women stared at the relics of Terandria pointed at their throats, grim stares or smiling faces.

Then the living began to believe. A [Knight] fell to his knees, looking up at one of Pheislant’s [Kings].

 

——

 

A thousand ghosts took the field below Ryoka. A thousand [Kings] charging Ailendamus, and some flowing towards the Dawn Concordat. The living fought or just froze, unable to match the ghosts.

Some of the [Soldiers] were fleeing. Dame Voost and the Order of Seasons did not.

Aura in your blades! Charge them!

She screamed as she went for a [King] walking forwards with a single blade in hand. Dame Voost leapt from her saddle to match the ghost. She couldn’t have said why. Only that it would have been dishonorable not to.

But it couldn’t be—

The [Summer Knight] pivoted, her sword deflecting a cut to her neck. Voost’s eyes were wide behind her visor. She had barely seen that! She was considered the best swordswoman in the Order of Summer, and the man who had halted there—

He was watching her. He copied her stance, sword raised, pointed at her—and stepped in so fast that his blade would have gone through her forehead had she not parried it. Then he spoke.

Better. You are a thousand times too young, though.”

Voost attacked, her blade a flurry as she used a Skill.

He beheaded her. Or—would have. The blade passed through her throat as he cut through her Skill. The woman gasped, clutching at her throat. She whirled—and saw the sword aimed at her throat.

“Try again.”

The ghost of a [King] who had been a master of blades lowered his weapon. He watched her. Uncomprehending, the [Knight] stumbled backwards as the Order of Seasons found the ghosts besieging them, [Queens] striking [Knights] from saddles, or simply pointing and having them dismount and kneel.

What was going on?

 

——

 

The dead gods didn’t understand either. They saw the ghosts passing through the cracks in Kasignel. Tamaroth hissed as Norechl battled the Dragonlords.

“They are trying to touch the living world. But they have no Skills there. They will be…just ghosts. And we can still touch them.”

In fact, the ghosts could not run once they gave up their Skills. The God of Rulers walked through ghosts, snatching souls by the hundred. What were they doing? The ones who were entering the physical world were being screened by their kindred.

The Bow of Avel loosed an arrow into Tamaroth’s body at point-blank range, and he snarled, tearing the arrow out of his body. Seamwalkers were still fighting Giants at sea and walking onto shore. But those ghosts—

“Enough! You are all mine. This land is the only one I will allow you to touch!”

Kasigna howled, and she opened her mouth. Ghosts began to drift towards her, shouting defiance as Tamaroth whirled.

“Kasigna!”

The two were fighting over the souls. Kasigna was trying to consume everything. Tamaroth realized the souls here were lost and, cursing, looked around. Then he saw the [Innkeeper]. She was clinging to a red Dragon. The God of Rulers followed her.

Kasigna was about to consume the souls who had become ghosts to the living. Her being was a vortex without end, simply dragging everything in sight into her being. Even the Seamwalkers were drifting towards her, though she shattered them as they came. She was going to eat the continent!

The God of Death felt a sting in her chest and recoiled. What was—?

The Bow of Avel loosed another shot from the living to the lands of the dead. The Goddess of Death backed up, eyes narrowed, as a sword from the living world cut towards her. She raised a hand, and it cut her flesh.

“Petty defiance!”

Across from her, Cauwine was hunting the skies. Dragons were vanishing by the score as she reached greedily for the glorious souls. The Dragonlords were in danger—she was too quick. The Goddess of the Hunt pivoted, a sword in hand, and a silver blade ran through her stomach.

Cauwine gasped. She recoiled, and her sword cut at the hand holding the blade, but she was too slow. The blade withdrew, and she landed, staring at the soul who’d dared cut her.

“I do not know your face. I thought I would know all of your kind. Who are you?”

The young man lifted a silver blade. He had pointed ears and a timeless face, and the half-Elves who gazed at him gaped at the Elf in astonishment. The Elf pointed his blade at Cauwine’s heart.

“My mother is dead, God of Last Stands. She named me Solveui, and she begged my forgiveness. For no Elf would ever be born again. I grew and died in a world broken by war, and all I knew were my half-kin. I grew up on stories of the death your kind caused. I despaired in a broken world with a hole torn through it. My kin and the old Grandfathers and great souls who knew you do not deserve my company. I have waited an age in the hopes of this moment. I will see you bleed.”

The Goddess of Last Stands lifted her blade with a laugh as the last Elf ever born challenged her. Her eyes drifted across the ghosts. Most were still fighting to keep the five dead gods at bay or slay the Seamwalkers.

But some, like the rulers of Terandria, like the Dragonlords, suddenly had a new purpose. They were abandoning their Skills, stepping into the living world they could not truly touch.

Why? Then she saw it and laughed.

 

——

 

She was bleeding warmth. Dame Voost was certain, now, that the ghost was real. He had been a blademaster far beyond her, and she was ashamed to face him.

She was also certain that if he wanted her death, he could have killed her, ghost or not. But the blade that cut her did so lightly.

Stand up. Again. Not like that. Like this.

The ghost lifted the sword and showed her an odd stance, sword held low, almost vertical, tip aimed towards the ground. The way he held his hands—the first pivot—

He cut across her, and the [Summer Knight] felt the cold blade cut her. But she raised her shaking hands. The [King]’s eyes burned into her own. And she realized—

He was teaching her.

 

——

 

One of the [Kings] of Terandria walked across the battlefield as both armies devolved into chaos. The [King of Taima] held the peasant’s weapon across his shoulders as he looked past [Knights], ordinary men and women. They backed away; some challenged him, but he had no care for them and passed through their blades.

Few things could hurt ghosts, and those they could fight were fleeing or just watching. Listening to the desperate Courier who had flown down from above. Trying to make sense of it all.

A warning was already being delivered. This one ghost had a purpose of his own. They all did. It might be selfish…but this was his last hour.

So the [King of Taima] halted at last in front of a trembling young man. He looked into those eyes.

“At last. You are a son of my lands, aren’t you?”

The boy looked at him. He might have been an immigrant to Ailendamus—but his blood was of the Taimaguros Dominion.

Y-y-y—

He couldn’t even speak. The [King] just nodded. He reached out and tugged a gauntlet off his hands. The scarred, weathered skin of a ghost reached out to the boy, who had fallen onto his butt.

Our land needs you. Will you take my last blessing and my will?”

The boy looked up at the ghost of a [King]. He flinched, eyes wide. The ghost only waited, eyes on something in the sky.

“Me?”

Yes. You will do. Take my hand if you would bear the burden I bestow. But choose.”

The mortal boy looked up at the ghost and slowly reached out. He felt the coldest touch in the world, but that smile was relieved and warm enough. The [King of Taima] bent, one eye cast up at the Seamwalker reaching down for him. But he whispered in the boy’s ear long enough. Then he smiled and raised the guisarme.

“Remember—”

 

——

 

Did the dead gods understand it now? It wasn’t just the thousand [Kings], either. Nor the [Queens] of Terandria.

They were everywhere. The fabric was torn, a crack opened.

They had little strength to fight in the living world, and their enemy was at their backs. But this war was never going to be won. So the ghosts chose something else as they willed. Some fought. Some bought time.

And some found…places. People.

The Pride of the Wellfar was sailing up the coast, desperately trying to find a way to support the fighting too far inland. Lord Etril, son of Gresaria Wellfar, was personally steering the ship.

Lord Etril! Something is happening!

The crew was in uproar. Etril Wellfar let go of the steering wheel and ran to the prow of the ship.

“What’s going on? Back to your stations, you salt-shitting cowards! What’s…”

Then the entire ship felt it. The Pride of the Wellfar was a vessel without equal. A magnificent ship, which had artifacts built into it from an age when Dragons had played shipmaker. It could manipulate space, shield itself with great magic, and it made other vessels look like toy boats.

Among the many decorations on that hull was a single object that had no actual purpose aside from defining the ship. And that was the figurehead at the front. It was, like House Wellfar itself, a hint to their origins.

A woman with a crown of what might have been coral held a simple staff with a gem at the end. One hand reached out, beckoning—a simple motif.

However, the lower half of the woman was a fish’s tail that seemed to meld into a wave. The figurehead of The Pride of the Wellfar was thus…important. But it had no magic. It was only enchanted to not rot, and it was as ancient as the vessel itself. Etril had long known that beautiful old figure from afar.

Never—never had anyone ever seen those closed eyes of the statue open. Never had they known it to speak.

“Who is the captain of this vessel?”

The Pride of the Wellfar spoke. A female voice, moving through carved lips. That figurehead, turning, regarding the crew, who were prostrating or frozen to statues themselves.

“I—I am. I am Lord Etril Wellfar. Who are you?”

The being in the figurehead gazed at Etril, and he felt the sea drop away beneath him. A wonder, a mystery, a terror unlike anything he had seen at sea seized Etril as someone looked at him.

“I am Wellfar. You. Are you the [Lord] of Wellfar who dares to take the Pride out of safe waters in this day and age?”

Trembling, the [Lord] could only bow and nod his head in reply. He saw the staff rise. Those carved lips moved upwards. The statue smiled, and that ancient wood fixed her gaze on him.

“Yes. You will do nicely. Hear my words, crew and folk of Wellfar. Hear me—for I name this boy Waveleader of Wellfar. Weigh anchor. Full the sails and build ships to make even this one humbled. Call for the greatest fleets Wellfar has ever known.”

The living looked up as a ghost of their ancestors spoke to them.

 

——

 

That was what was occurring across the world. On Baleros, a trio of figures stepped out of the brush and scared a little Lizardgirl to death. She looked up as three weary [Knights]—a Naga, a Lamia, and a Lizardman—came to rest.

They were wounded, fading. They were ghosts…but they planted their blades on the ground.

“Girl. Do you have two boon friends?”

The Naga looked down at the girl, and the Lizardgirl stammered a reply. The warrior nodded.

“Fetch them. We have little time. But fetch them—we have something to offer you. A class. A bond deeper than blood.”

“Hurry.”

The Lamia whispered, staring at something unseen. The Lizardgirl ran, abandoning her gathering basket.

 

——

 

Not all of the ghosts offered it freely. One furious [Archer] held a city in Chandrar under siege. The ground was scorched where people had tried to kill it with magic or dispel the apparition.

But thousands of Stitch-folk, Humans, and Garuda flinched away as they failed to meet its expectations. The ghost raised a bow.

Can not one of you show me the talent worthy of inheriting my will? There!

She drew an arrow and launched it across the distance. A hundred paces away, such that even the young could hit it with the bow she had demanded they fetch, a single pebble the size of a pea lay on the ground, painted silver.

Not a one could hit it without a Skill. The ghost raged at the onlookers, desperate, until a single Garuda lifted a shortbow. Then she sighed in relief and almost wept as she beckoned the [Archer] forwards.

 

——

 

They were desperate. Some chose at random. Others were drawn to places they had been, people they knew, or looked for the qualities they desired. Honor, courage…demanding oaths.

Some never made it and were snatched away by Seamwalkers or dead gods. A few had nothing to give but words.

A Named Adventurer pointed to a [Shepherd] as the confused man stood on a bluff.

My bones lie there. My bones and my possessions. Dig them up and do what you will with them.”

 

——

 

Secrets. Spells. Skills, classes, and gifts. All across Terandria, Baleros, Chandrar, ghosts were giving their last wills.

Then vanishing. Erin Solstice flew, chasing Ryoka. If the Wind Runner could half-see her, then Erin Solstice was just as confused.

“Excuse me! What do you want with Ryoka?”

The strange people that Ryoka had found were hostile, shouting something about a person called ‘Fithea’ and calling her a traitor. But even the scariest ones with horns were hesitating. They had magic of ages on their side.

Ryoka had a single Silver-rank adventurer with a sword and a [Pickpocket]. But they were ghosts, and Gerial held the sword in front of Ryoka. Erin looked up at a huge eye and a vast, serpentine head.

The red Dragon…Dragoness was not Xarkouth in size, but she was impressive.

“I have business with that girl. She has a scroll. And she is connected to my duties. You are that girl Xarkouth asked us to aid. You must flee. That one is coming for you.”

She pointed her head, and Erin looked around. She sighed.

“Great. It’s always one of them. Hey! I don’t even know you!

Tamaroth, the God of Rulers, was coming her way. Erin shook a fist and backed up as Ryoka turned.

“Erin…?”

She was far away. Erin wished she’d stop saying that.

“Ryoka. My body’s alive! I’m just, uh—not in it! Put me back! Put me back and kick whoever’s squatting in there out of it! Okay?

Erin called to Ryoka. Of course—that assumed she’d survive long enough. Cawe and Gerial stepped back, facing Tamaroth.

“You are mine, child. Take my hand.”

He strode towards her, and Ryoka saw Gerial motioning at her to run. Cawe backed up, and Erin looked around. A continent between them and Izril…

“Erin Solstice! To me! Fly! Face me, you wretched coward!”

Xarkouth burst upwards from the palace, flaming, as Norechl pursued the Dragonlords. Half had vanished, and the God of the Forgotten smoldered with their fire…but it turned to Erin too.

Tamaroth reached for Erin impatiently as Ryoka turned and stared at…nothing. She couldn’t see him. The ghost girl backed away as Gerial reached out for Tamaroth. His face was set, and the Silver-rank adventurer was turning to Ryoka as Tamaroth ignored him utterly. Gerial clung to Tamaroth’s arm—then cursed as he slid across the ground.

The God of Rulers kept moving. Cawe tangled with him, and they tried to hold him back, but they had no weight. He strode at Erin as she ran, not even bothering to eat them. His fingers reached for her arm.

“For what you have cost me, for your insolence, girl, you will suffer a while. I promise you that.”

Erin turned, fist raised, and Tamaroth’s hand closed on an arm. He brushed it aside impatiently—and then frowned as he pushed at an arm.

The woman whom the arm belonged to didn’t budge. She held it there and moved Tamaroth back a step as he turned to face her.

“I don’t know…where I am. Or who you are. Or what is going on. But I take that as unkind. I do not tolerate such actions wherever I stand, little man. Begone.”

Erin Solstice, Gerial, Cawe, backing away from Tamaroth, all looked as perplexed as the God of Rulers. Tamaroth reached out and touched an arm—which slapped his hand down. He blinked at his fingers. Erin blinked at the woman. She had two questions. The first was how she’d not been absorbed by the God of Rulers. The second was…

…Why was she naked?

The Agelum was staring around. She felt at her skin. She was as pale as could be, and she had odd, light blue veins. She was also, and Erin had to focus on this, buck naked.

“Where is this place? There’s no…there’s no air. It’s all half-real. There was a crack, and I followed it. Where am I?”

Then Erin and the others realized what had happened. Like the Drathian Border Fleet—the cracks in the deadlands were opening. This person had wandered in from the real world.

The Agelum looked at Erin, then at her kin. She was invisible to them. She felt…odd. And this man?

“Begone, little bug.”

He went to push her aside, and the Agelum caught that hand. The God of Rulers’ eyes flashed. Dead or not, body or not, even the [Time Mages] had no power against him. He knocked Razia’s hand away and reached for Erin.

Razia slapped him. She opened her palm wide, splaying her fingers, and gave him a brisk slap across the cheek. More of an insult than anything else. Erin knew it would do no good. A Tier 7 spell didn’t even make h—

Tamaroth staggered back, raising a hand to his cheek. The brisk crack of skin on skin made everyone turn and stare at Razia.

“Be told, whomever you are. I will hurt you if you strike her. Dragons, familiar faces—no one can see me and I feel better? This is some wondrous dream—but it isn’t, is it?”

Razia flexed her hand wonderingly. It was the same hand she’d broken. However…she was on her feet, not confined to a wheelchair. In fact, she felt her muscles knitting, her atrophied flesh growing stronger by the second.

She felt alive for the first time since she had been born. Where was this place? Why did she feel like this was what she’d been missing all her life? It was as if she had been born with lungs full of air and never been able to take a single breath for the centuries she’d been alive.

Now—now she inhaled and felt whole. Tamaroth was still feeling at his cheek.

“What…who…”

“Wh-wh-whoa! Who are you?”

Erin Solstice gazed at Razia. The Agelum turned and gave her a beaming smile.

“I am Razia of House Shoel! Is that Ryoka Griffin there? Do you know her?”

“Me? Yes! I’m Erin! But watch out—that guy’s evil!”

Erin pointed. Tamaroth was coming back, and he was furious. Razia raised her eyebrows.

“Is he?”

The God of Rulers reached for Razia, and she slapped him again. She was so quick—her hands at her side cracked across his face in an instant. Again, the God of Rulers staggered.

This time, all the ghosts and even the dead gods saw it. Kasigna, battling the rulers with the relics of Terandria, Norechl, Cauwine…looked down.

“What is Tamaroth doing?”

Then they saw Razia slap the God of Rulers and him try to shield his face, recoiling. The ghosts of Terandria turned, and they saw her.

A…naked Agelum. At first the rulers rolled their eyes.

“Wonderful. We stand with [Exhibitionists] at the last. Surely we have to have some class? What will that woman do, strip our opponents bare?”

A ghost rolled her eyes, but another [Battle Lord] poked his head up from launching arrows at a Seamwalker.

“I say. Is that Razille? Fortress Commander Razille? I served with her—four hundred years ago! I’d recognize that magnificent body anywhere! Commander Razille!

He shouted at her. More ghosts turned, and they saw the woman with a body, the Agelum. The missing clothes were one thing, but ghosts began to speak.

Ratiez the Blade! You fought with us against the Goblin King!”

“No, that’s Razize, Lady Razize Shoel! I wondered why I hadn’t seen any of their number—”

A score of ghosts knew her. The Agelum stared about at people she had known over the centuries and centuries she’d been alive. Then she began to understand.

Lady Razia!

A servant of House Shoel who had died of natural causes less than a decade ago screamed. The [House Servant] had a sword and was fighting the Seamwalkers. He pointed at Tamaroth.

“That is the monster who plagues Ailendamus! Everything—everyone is being killed by his kind! The afterlife is under siege by that foe!”

Everyone turned to the [Servant]. Like Ishkr—he had a way of explaining everything to his employer in as few words as necessary.

Razia’s gaze brightened. She punched one fist into her hand.

“Is that so? He seems not at all strong to me.”

“You punched him. No one can touch him—he eats souls!”

Not mine. I’m not like you, little Human.”

The Agelum grinned. Her eyes flashed, and she looked at Erin Solstice with a wide, reckless smile. She was the first of her kind here in an age. She wasn’t supposed to come here when she died. Then Tamaroth realized who—what Razia was with the others.

“One of the Agelum? But they should all be long extinct! They have no domain to tend—with us dead—”

Cauwine blinked. Then the Elf ran her through from behind. Below them, Tamaroth was backing away from Razia. Then he caught himself.

He was the God of Rulers! She was merely…a servant of a different kind! He had bested other gods! He could best even the greatest of Seamwalkers besides the Devourer of Time.

She charged him, and the God of Rulers put up his hands. He captured one fist, and she slammed a hand into his. They were grappling, throwing their weight around. Like…well, like two people in a wrestling match. Erin watched open-mouthed as the two fought.

“Not bad, whomever you are.”

Razia strained against Tamaroth, her arms trembling with effort. He was strong! But she was Agelum. Tamaroth’s eyes were wide with outrage and disbelief. He tried to throw her left, and she countered. She tried to sweep a leg—the two struggled backwards as Xarkouth landed, mouth open as wide as Erin.

How dare you. I am Tamaroth—

He hissed into her face. Razia just laughed at him.

“Well then, Tamaroth. Rejoice! For you can say that you have wrestled with Agelum! Few can boast of that!”

I—have wrestled with—you are wrestling with me! I am your ruler! Obey—”

Among the many mistakes Tamaroth was making in this moment, one of them was not realizing that this was an actual fight. The God of Rulers was speaking, and Razia was a warrior. She didn’t give him time to monologue, and he was not invincible to her.

She drew her head back and slammed it into Tamaroth’s nose. The God of Rulers recoiled with a cry, weakening. Razia kneed him in the stomach. Then she threw him back. Disbelieving, the God of Rulers clutched at his face. He saw Razia raise her arms overhead.

“I feel stronger! Yes—this is what I have waited my life for!”

There she was. Erin Solstice saw Razia. The naked Agelum had a body fabulously scarred. Cuts from blades and fangs all over her body, on her arms, across her chest, stomach—she almost had more scar tissue than flesh.

She had been fighting for centuries before she was confined to a wheelchair, and the light cloth that normally adorned her body hid a tapestry of victories and defeats. Now, that thin form seemed to be growing more solid by the second. She was taller than Tamaroth, and her fair hair was brightening, gaining a luster it had never had before.

Her eyes had multiple pupils and were disconcerting, but she smiled like what she was. A soldier. A warrior who burned out too soon. Someone to champion every cause.

Agelum.

Razia activated her Warform, and Erin Solstice’s jaw dropped as the Agelum transformed. When Razia looked down at Tamaroth, she had six arms.

Four eyes. Each one huge, with multiple pupils staring in every direction. A burning ring of light rose over her head. She was horrifying. She looked like an avatar of war, and she was still naked.

She charged Tamaroth, and the God of Rulers put up his fists and tried to fight. The other dead gods saw what he was trying to do.

Razia was a being close to their natures. Like Seamwalkers—the gods fought like concepts. Tamaroth could be the ruler of a thousand worlds, struggling with her across myriad planes, and she was an untested, untried Agelum who didn’t know how to fight.

However—it didn’t work. Tamaroth tried to alter their battleground and failed. Razia had actual flesh. She was here, and he was weaker than her. More than that—she saw Tamaroth, a bearded man, and the Agelum had fought every kind of foe and monster all her life.

She knew exactly how a punch landed, what bones and flesh felt like. She locked Tamaroth into the physical body she saw by her ignorance. And that was what she punched.

The God of Rulers ate the first fist to his face without dodging or even recoiling. Razia hit him, and Tamaroth reeled like a drunk at a bar, taking the full weight of her fist to his face. He raised one hand, trying to remember when he’d wrestled—

An uppercut took him in the jaw, and he stared up at the sky.

Y—

The Agelum kicked him in the groin and brought an elbow down on his head. Her right hands hit him across the chest, and a left hand held his clothes. Then she was on top of him.

Erin Solstice was shielding her face as Razia climbed on top of Tamaroth and began hammering his face into the ground. She had seen Soldiers of the Antinium fight, and they had four arms. Razia had six. She was swinging all six fists into his face, beating the God of Rulers into the ground. He tried to punch her, and she recoiled as Tamaroth lunged up.

He was still strong. But he whiffed the air as he spun dizzily. She kicked him in the stomach and, when he doubled over, put her hands together and hit him on the back of the head. When he went down, she charged him and put all her weight behind a kick.

“Oooh!”

She kicked Tamaroth in the face as he sprawled, and Erin groaned. The Agelum did not fight fair. Tamaroth tried to get up, and Razia kicked him in the stomach. When he rose with a roar, she grabbed him, tossed him down, and began stomping on him. He grabbed her arms, and she began slamming her head into him. Then she tried to put out one of his eyes with her thumbs as two arms held his, and she began hitting him where his liver would be until he tore free.

Erin had never seen such a vicious beat-down. She began to cover her eyes then caught herself.

“What am I doing? Get him! Kick his ass!

She cheered Razia on as ghosts turned. They couldn’t hit Tamaroth, but they realized—

They could empower Razia.

“[Steel Fists]! [Rejuvenating Touch]!”

Give him another kick to the privates! Go, Fortress Commander!

Tamaroth wasn’t bleeding. He was clearly feeling pain from the punches as he tried to shield his face, so Razia kicked him in the groin again, and the God of Rulers felt a weakness he hadn’t considered for aeons. She whirled, a blazing look in her eyes, and Norechl stopped walking towards Erin.

The God of the Forgotten tried to back up. Razia drop-kicked it and then knelt on its back and tried to rip its ‘head’ off its shoulders.

Cauwine was laughing as she watched the fighting. But Razia, ablaze with energy and fighting foes who had neither Skills nor blades—hesitated. She turned to Tamaroth, who was fleeing, and frowned.

I’m not hurting them badly. And—”

She saw the God of Rulers running for something. He touched a ghost, and the snarling [Knight] vanished. Tamaroth grabbed what fell and whirled, murder in his gaze.

A sword. The Agelum’s eyes narrowed. She picked up the struggling God of the Forgotten.

“What pitiful thing are you?”

The God of the Forgotten didn’t get a chance to answer. Razia lifted it overhead, ran forwards, and slammed it into Tamaroth. As the two went down, she kicked the sword away.

Clear a space! Don’t let them get a hold of a weapon. Empower Razia!

The ghosts knew what to do. One snatched a blade up, and they began using their Skills on Razia as she took on the God of Punching Bags and the God of Getting Hit in a ring of souls. Tamaroth and Norechl tried to punch back, but the Agelum had lived her entire life learning how to fight.

They were gods. They were terrible fighters in the realm of fisticuffs. Tamaroth called for help, but the two gods who could do something didn’t seem keen on wading into the fighting.

Cauwine, the warrior of the six, was still dueling the Elf, laughing as they traded cuts. She refused to simply absorb him, and she was enjoying watching them suffer.

As for Kasigna…the Goddess of Death backed away from the Agelum warily. She pursued the ghosts instead. Erin Solstice saw her sweeping across the ghosts and lost her smile.

Run, Erin Solstice! We will hold them here as long as we can!”

The Dragonlord of Gems swooped down, blasting Kasigna. Saracandre turned to Xarkouth, and he nodded.

“Go well, Terandria.”

“But we can win! She’s totally beating them to a pulp!”

Erin pointed at Razia and then saw both Norechl and Tamaroth flailing in her grip. They weren’t…bleeding. The Agelum was panting with the effort of sustaining her Warform, but she was smiling. A great, last stand.

Gifts of ghosts to the living. Erin looked at Xarkouth, and the Dragonlord smiled. He stared into the middle distance.

“Defiance. We have made our mark on the world. The time you call the Waning World? It ends. Come.”

 

——

 

A thousand [Kings] bestowed their last words and blessings to the people of Terandria. They walked forwards, refusing to look backwards at their end. Their eyes were for the living.

And that was half. The other half appeared on the battlefield in the middle of another army. Every head in Calanfer turned, and people screamed in horror as the scrying orbs showed a thousand female ghosts surrounding one person.

The ghosts of Terandria’s women had gathered for one person. Unlike their counterparts, there was one person they came for. Someone who bore their class. Who knew their burdens.

Their successor. So they descended onto the battlefield like a storm, walking out of the air with chins held high, flying through the air, rising from the ground. All bearing towards one person:

Princess Seraphel du Marquin. The 4th [Princess]. The Cursed Widow of Calanfer.

Princess Seraphel du Marquin was floating in the air. Her steed reared, screaming, and the woman left the horse as it bolted. She hung, suspended, surrounded by the ghosts.

They floated there, warping the air as the living looked up. Seraphel’s eyes were staring around. All of them—reaching out. [Queens] and [Princesses], holding her, whispering to her.

A woman that Seraphel recognized was closest of all, a sword in hand. She looked at her people, and Queen Marquin of Calanfer bared her teeth in a warrior’s grin. The ghosts clung to Seraphel, their touch as cold as death.

But they didn’t want her life. They were speaking to her, each voice grabbing her attention, perfectly audible and far away, but hundreds at once. Etching their words into her mind. Into her soul.

[Princesses] of Calanfer, [Queens] and [Ladies] of other nations. Women who had lived and died on Terandria of every species and age. Whispering their deepest regrets, their hopes and dreams never fulfilled. Their wishes and visions of her future. Tears streamed from Seraphel’s eyes as the weight of a thousand souls clung to her.

Blessing her. Warning her. Begging her to carry their regrets and ambitions forwards.

“Do not make my mistakes. Protect my people.”

“Live better. Live happily, live well.”

“Never give in to their petty words…”

“Arise, [Princess] of Calanfer. Become who you were meant to be.”

“Go where you wished, without the crown chaining you down.”

A thousand voices, offering her contradictory words. Telling her a story written in tears, triumphs. What they saw at the end of a lifetime of service, a regret that had stayed with them even in death.

Hope, for a better future for her. For them all. Ghosts drifted away from the [Princess] as the army watched, reaching out to find more. Striding through the ground to bless their people. To send what the dead had for the living.

Hope? 

Rabbiteater had his axe readied, but he hesitated. The Goblin [Knight] spun, looking around in awe and panic. A [Princess] halted, a sword on her shoulder. She looked at the [Knight] in armor and saw through him in a single glance. Rabbiteater raised his axe—but the ghost made no move to attack. She regarded him one long second, eyes narrowed. Then she spoke.

“I have known your kind, Goblin. Though others spoke of the great death your kind brought, I have seen your people’s greatest sacrifice and honor. But your Kings have always been mad. Mad with a rage that devoured even the best qualities. And you have them.”

The Goblin gazed at the [Princess], and the warrior from another age looked past him, at the Order of Seasons. She lifted her blade and pointed it at Seraphel, at the people of Calanfer.

“Tell me your name, [Knight].”

“R-Rabbiteater.”

The [Princess] laughed.

Now there is a Goblin’s name. Do you swear by your honor to be more than anyone before you? Human, Dwarf, half-Elf, or Goblin? Will you rise for the coming battles?”

She held out that sword. Her eyes gleamed like red drops of ruby, and she bared two fangs. The Goblin looked into the [Princess of Blood]’s eyes.

If you will—then show them honor that defies any words. Valor beyond any species or petty boundary. Swear to me, [Knight]!

The woman extended her sword, and the Goblin slowly knelt. She struck him on the shoulder so hard the ghostly blade bruised his skin. Then she drew him up with one gauntlet. That was how she chose to spend her last moments. The [Princess] looked up as the Goblin stood and turned with blade in hand. She vanished, staring up at Kasigna’s face without a word.

 

——

 

A young man was riding across the battlefield uncertainly. Tyrion Veltras felt everything changing. He was in the wrong body. He had lost his power.

And he didn’t know what was going on. Was that Ryoka in Ailendamus’ lines? He began to head towards her, ignoring the danger.

A phantom rode with him, an older Tyrion Veltras. The [Lord] raised his lance grimly. But he never made it to the enemy ranks.

Someone stopped him. A figure on horseback halted Tyrion Veltras in his tracks. Warily, the [Lord] looked into a mocking smile.

“Is this the best warrior of House Veltras? Truly?”

“Name yourself. Who—or what are you?”

For answer, the other rider just flicked his sword from his sheath. He held a sword in one hand and a lance in the other, not a shield. What a strange…

Tyrion’s instincts buzzed at him. He lowered his lance and noticed his phantom doing the same. Yet the stranger turned from one to the other with a look of disappointment on his face.

He resembled some cross between a barbarian nomad and a lancer, his armor clearly made of beast’s fur and ancient metal. But the way he sat on that horse…

“Come, boy! Let’s see what you’re made of.

The booming voice was a challenge. Tyrion spurred his horse forwards. He had nothing to trust to but his memory. Even if his body forgot—he had practiced with the lance all his life, and he would never forget that. His phantom shot ahead of him, and the ghost laughed as he rode forwards.

You were granted a gift. This time—you can reforge yourself better. Let me show you.

Lord Tyrion Veltras’ lance wavered. He saw his phantom charge—and then vanish, blinking down at a sword in his chest. The ghost spun, and Tyrion Veltras raised his shield. He rode at a stranger in the chaos and stared up at the sky as he landed.

A face appeared in his vision with a wild tangle of hair. An uncombed mane of black hair untroubled by the grey that had entered it. Filled with sticks and dust from the road. The man pointed down at Tyrion.

Get up, boy. I did not hide with that Drake underground and ride across the ocean to watch my house fall to ash for want of skill at arms. Get up and show me our future.

The First Lord of House Veltras pointed down at Tyrion as the young man gasped upwards.

“You. I know your face.”

For answer, the man only laughed. He rode away, lifting that lance up. Tyrion Veltras got up, his chest screaming, his armor dented despite a ghost’s half-weapon. That wild man called to him as his horse pawed the ground.

Show me you are worthy of our name.

He rode at Tyrion like a storm, knocking the [Lord] from his saddle again and again. Laughing until the world ended.

 

——

 

Seamwalkers fighting on Terandria’s soil itself. Dead gods pursuing ghosts. An ending to everything.

That was what the ghosts saw. What the living saw was different. The scrying orbs captured the ghosts. Which might defy logic with cameras and ghosts, but the scrying spells were magic.

Queen Marquin was but one of many ghosts walking the battlefield. Ailendamus and the Dawn Concordat were in chaos. Ghosts were appearing across the world, but the dead of Calanfer stood around Seraphel du Marquin.

Tears leaked from the corners of Seraphel’s eyes, but she looked up at the first [Queen] of Calanfer. She had heard their voices. Now—Marquin pointed her sword into the distance.

Ailendamus’ army was breaking apart. Yet she stared at something unseen. As the living watched, Marquin the Radiant threw her head back and raised her sword.

Calanfer—no. Terandria. With me.

The dead looked up, and then they charged. Swords cutting the air, a cold touch. They had the power to kill and haunt the living. That was the authority of ghosts. The Ailendamus [Soldiers] screamed and threw down their blades, but then they looked back and saw the ghosts swarming up something in the air.

Hacking—stabbing—vanishing. Climbing something vast and unseen. Not just one foe, either. Queen Marquin charged into a battle that the living only now realized was going on. She looked around and laughed at a sight fit for sore eyes. Then she lifted a blade, bidding someone farewell. She spotted something heading her way, and her face grew serious.

There she stood. Marquin the Radiant, and her presence upon the waking world caused her old foes to shiver in fear where they hid once more. Her blade shone like the dawn, and she looked around.

Once, she had stood, bloody and weary upon Rhir’s soil and driven back the death of the world screaming into the darkness that had dreamed of them. But that was not all her existence.

A young woman had picked up a blade, without the weight of a crown, without the authority of nations, and fought against the horrors of Rhir. She had prevailed over Crelers, and every honor they had given her, from the throne of Dragons to the titles and land, had been won.

Each scar she bore, the venom that had burned her veins, had never broken her spirit. Then she had walked out of that continent of hell and seen no more foes to fight. Hero, ruler, peacemaker.

Terandria looked upon Queen Marquin as she pointed her blade forwards, and they did not see her foe. So Queen Marquin of Calanfer turned her back on the Goddess of Death, ignoring the enraged Kasigna, defying her to the last. She called out to the people watching.

Hear me, people of Terandria! People of this world! We have made our stand and given our blessing! This era is at an end. Live long and break every old rule! Live…and choose wisely. The strength of Terandria was never in a single crown. It was always in the hands that grasped for the blade, the arms that reached up through despair. One girl once drew a sword against Crelers. She fought, even when they filled the sky and ground. Later, they called her a [Queen]. But she was never alone. Who will be next to answer Terandria’s hour of need?”

Her eyes captured them all. Marquin turned. She raised her sword high overhead.

“Live well! Live for no more regrets! Not one, and do not throw your lives away! Spend your every second as though it matters most. For there will be nothing in death.

Then the Queen of Calanfer charged. One arm rose, and she reached out to grab a throat. Marquin swung that radiant blade with a shout that echoed in Seraphel’s ears, in the ears of Calanfer for an age.

Then she was gone. Leaving nothing but words. A thousand scattering sparks from a thousand ghosts.

Hope.

 

——

 

The Queen of Calanfer defied death itself long enough to score a single strike against her. Defiant to the last.

The greatest souls could do that. They were vast enough, strong enough to defy that touch. The most powerful souls, the highest-level? Dragons and Giants?

They could last for…seconds.

A second to spit in the face of a dead god. A second to try and wound them. Seconds. The brave ghosts of Terandria made their last moments bright as could be, and across the distant sea where Seamwalkers bled and died, falling into the waves, past Baleros where the corpse of the Devourer of Time still fell to pieces, northwards, past Rhir, scattered across many islands and whirlpools, damaged geography and the ever-present threat of typhoons, was a nation few in the living world thought long on.

The Empire of Drath had so little land to build upon compared to any other great power in the world. Only the House of Minos was smaller, founded by Minotaurs in disgrace. Yet this was a place that had endured before the Walled Cities rose.

The hallmarks of their past were on every part of Drath, if you knew where to look. Not at the villages which sheltered themselves on the islands, gathering and refining rare plants to make medicines the rest of the world had never known. Not just the training grounds where Drath’s warriors practiced arts that warriors would make a pilgrimage to learn from.

It was a nation like any other in that it had waned. Still, careful experts drew magic talismans in ink, and they armed their fleets with magic on par with the greatest nations. Still, they kept a watch for the end of the world. But their legacy was built around their capital.

That great palace which had been built of an entire island, extending down into the sea such that there were underwater ports, rising over the rest of the city connected by bridges and magic, a second landmass to join the little space there already was, had impressed even Khelt’s rulers. Bulwarks of jade had magic that the Dragons had taken notes from to build their Walled Cities.

Warriors made of stone had once helped revive the art of creating Golems. Yet Drath’s [Emperor], their people, especially the oldest among them who knew their true history, never boasted of that palace. The armory of great weapons, some so powerful that [Mages] could be granted them in the form of spells?

That was not a point of pride. The hanging lanterns which shone at night, the boardwalks where children could play in peace and safety, the great reefs that bloomed with a thousand colors underwater, and the storms that lashed across Drath to no avail, claiming not a single soul despite destroying fleets at sea?

That was pride. When visitors looked at the tower which had been planted in the ocean and reached from the very depths of the sea floor, over twenty thousand feet down, up so that the tip of it rose over the waves, they called it a marvel of the world. [Archmages] wondered which great ruler of Drath had created it and the cost.

They had no notion of what Drath should be, so they marveled at a watchtower as if it were the greatest thing ever made. They looked upon the ‘palace’, which had once been a border fort standing on the southernmost edge of the true empire, and never looked north at the kingdom which had fallen into the abyss.

The empire that stood now had gathered survivors, rebuilt here. They had replanted islands, filled them with flowers and clippings of plants now lost to the rest of the world. The [Emperors] had unified nations into one last place to gather and watch this new world’s borders. If the sky did blossom with light at night, and there were still boulevards to sit under and stare at warriors refining their bodies and minds under trees filled with petals like soft snow?

It was a reflection of what was. A loving echo.

The ghosts remembered. The survivors of those kingdoms who had not been torn away in that cataclysm lingered here; they had informed their descendants and waited. Even in death, Drath had not fallen to the dead gods.

Now, though—the armies of Drath lay scattered across the sea. Fighting on islands, standing on ships summoned by Skills, battling an army of the very foes they had thought they knew. But they had only fought dozens at a time.

Not thousands. Not tens of thousands. Not…hundreds of thousands.

The folk of Drath were throwing themselves into the sea. Climbing Seamwalkers…a few even hurled themselves over The Last Tide, to try and stem the flow of Seamwalkers still climbing.

However, even the [Emperors] of Drath did not demand that loyalty from their subjects. Each one had ruled over the Empire of Drath, that shattered archipelago, and pledged to keep the horrors from rising. They had learned the history of their empire, the true secret of what The Last Tide was, the history of all, and despaired.

Now, in death, Drath fulfilled their old oaths. Warriors who had perfected their bodies and skills in life struck at Seamwalkers. Yet the ones who tried to wound that dancing man, the God of Love and Meetings, Laedonius Deviy, found they could not.

He was beyond them, and a [Perfect Warrior] lasted two entire seconds, long enough for a face to change to despair as the God of the Dance laughed.

Drath was filling him. He had chosen rightly; the ghosts here had less space to flee and run, and they were just as mighty as Terandria. Especially the old ones. Unlike the other four on Terandria, he was getting stronger still. Perhaps strong enough to even challenge Kasigna?

Come, my children! You shall never want for anything again!

He advanced as the Drathian souls fell back. It was one of the last [Emperors], the ghost of one of the oldest, who spoke. In his tongue, not what people called the ‘common tongue’, the only tongue. He was old enough to have heard the stories of many languages, even those who had used them.

“(You pathetic god. I know your name, yet this [Emperor] will not give you the dignity of using it, nor my own name. This world lies ruined from your war.)”

He pointed a glowing glaive past Laedonius Deviy, to where the world…ended. There had been other nations, beyond. Far more of the world to see and explore. Drath had been a small nation that had escaped the worst of it, and the survivors had held here.

A throne at the end of the world. A story and a watch kept until now. Now…the living had their wisdom. But the ghost bowed his head. Because he could not stop the end of things here.

Yet this one…his eyes rose, and the ghosts of Drath threw themselves at Laedonius Deviy. He swatted at them, laughing at the burning gaze of the [Emperor] of Drath.

“Your mastery of selves, your training—what has it yielded you?”

He mocked a warrior who could have split a hill in two with one blow as the warrior lasted a second before vanishing with a cry of despair. Laedonius Deviy reached out and touched another arm.

He stared into the brown eyes shining with white light. A [Monk]’s robes. Laedonius blinked at the bared fist that struck him across one shoulder. He saw the [Monk] draw back another fist and then—vanish at last.

“Ah. Interesting.”

Six seconds. That was—strange. The quality of some souls was different. Laedonius Deviy realized there was something about them.

It was not about strength. It was…refinement of the soul? Someone who had trained all their lives to master what was unseen as much as their bodies. Proof against death magic, against mental tricks.

He found himself facing a strange group of warriors as the martial warriors drew back, bowing.

“Monks?”

Some were unarmed and struck him with fists. Others used Skills that should have broken his bones or damaged his spirit—but like their counterparts, even their great Skills did no lasting damage.

Neither magic nor Skills worked—not with Laedonius Deviy growing so strong. He was relieved; earlier, they might have hurt him. Now, even Dragonfire was only a hindrance.

The [Monks] took longer to absorb, though. They resisted him, as if they had turned their souls stiff with defiance. He held what might have been a [Priestess] for nearly sixteen seconds.

“Your people are defiant to the last. Will you not kneel and spare them the futility? Or flee? Or will you do neither, oh great [Emperor]?”

The figure standing with blade in hand turned to the forces battling the Seamwalker.

“(…The air barks like it thinks it is a mighty hound. I see only cowardice in one who tricks death.)”

Laedonius Deviy rolled his eyes. He advanced on the [Emperor], to see him run or vanish. Every mortal had his ego. But then…the God of the Dance halted against his will.

He saw someone holding onto his clothes. The little [Monk] stared at the God of Dance before vanishing.

“Your subjects protect you to the last. How—”

Laedonius was going to say ‘how selfish’, but he felt an odd sensation. He was being…pulled. A dozen ghosts surrounded him. They heaved, trying to drag him back from the [Emperor] of Drath, who watched in silence, bowing his head.

[Monks]. [Shrine Priestesses]…even [Clerics] and [Acolytes] of old, what few had ever emerged in their absence, surrounded Laedonius Deviy. They had all gathered here. He took a few steps, laughing, and they vanished.

Another dozen surrounded him at once. A [Sage] fought the God of the Dance, and they moved a single step into the ocean.

“Ridiculous.”

The ghosts vanished once more, and Laedonius grew stronger. But then another group surrounded him, and they were…difficult…to absorb.

Higher-level? This time, Laedonius hesitated. He saw a force walking through the ghosts, and a single, withered hand touched him. At first, Laedonius thought that someone had conjured the undead.

But no, the withered person could have been male or female, but they were so old that they had turned to skin and bones. They had no hair, and they had refused immortality via elixirs and Skills and magic…or they had lived so long that even that hadn’t been enough.

Laedonius Deviy locked eyes with an [Abbot] or some class like it. He saw the faintest, faintest remnant of pale blue in eyes lost to time.

“You are more dead than I.”

The God of the Dance remarked lightly as the ghosts and he walked back a step, onto the waves. The [Emperor] of Drath followed as Laedonius began to absorb more ghosts. Then Laedonius frowned.

The strange [Monk] had only two fingers pressed to Laedonius’ chest, but the God of the Dance could not advance. He had entertained the ghosts trying to keep him from their [Emperor], but now he pushed forwards and…failed.

They walked back a step as Laedonius tried to advance on this skeleton of a person. He drew on the soul…and the soul refused to be taken.

It was like Laedonius had suddenly only a straw and was trying to suck up a pond. A lake…an ocean?

Perplexed, the God of the Dance walked back a few steps, gracefully moving back rather than let more ghosts cling to him. They were annoying him—but they were finite. He was absorbing the lesser ones in moments—but some, like this ghost, took longer.

“You have honed your soul like few I have ever met, stranger. What is your name?”

No reply. Was this ghost even conscious? But it was…looking at him. Laedonius frowned.

“…Futility. What point was there to mastering the soul when you lived? If Kasigna had opened this place, you might have walked among the living. Maybe you did, before she closed this world off. Why not enjoy the living world? Did you meditate centuries just to find this was your ‘reward’? You poor fool. A just reward is there—just not for you. We are dead, you see. Regret that and your ancestors’ folly.”

He nodded at the [Emperor]. All Laedonius Deviy was rewarded with for his speech was…silence. He walked back further and then got angry.

“Answer me! Enough—”

He tried to eat the soul, but the other ghosts vanished and this one remained. Another ancient ghost joined him, and Laedonius realized something else.

Wait a second. He was standing on the sea, now. He looked past the ghosts and the [Emperor] to the palace. When had they left that? They were at sea and…

…and then Laedonius looked behind him and saw a Seamwalker collapsing, bloody, over the edge of the world. It was far, far from Drath. Where the edge of the world met that abyss, where the waters changed direction and flowed down in a torrent into depths so deep they swallowed light and even the regular laws of the world.

Far, far away. But—Laedonius looked up and laughed as he met the [Emperor]’s eyes.

Is this your plan? You cannot—”

He turned and tried to walk left. A [Monk] held him. Laedonius tried to raise a foot, and the ghost vanished; he almost took a step, but then a woman in pale white robes held him. He turned right, and ghosts filled the air and sea. Laedonius decided to go up, but they were there too. Below—

Then he felt the ghosts pulling at him and took a step unwillingly. The God of the Dance lost his smile.

“You—”

The [Emperor] of Drath watched him. Laedonius began to struggle, now. He strained to walk back onto the grounds of the palace. It was the folk of Drath who halted him.

First were [Monks]. [Priests] of a different kind. Many had eschewed all luxuries, garbed themselves in simple, colored cloth, shaved their heads and sat. A lifetime of thought in their eyes, they walked forwards with bare feet and touched the God of the Dance. They gripped him lightly by the dozen and pulled.

Some had struck stone or even metal until their bones broke. Callused fingers that had learned how to bend mithril gripped a sleeve of that traveller, who had come to this world long ago with naught but the clothes on his back. They touched a material not of this world and held their souls against his will.

A scarred warrior who had mastered patience and battle met Laedonius Deviy’s eyes with a gaze that had traded his very sight away to see people’s true nature. Eyes like clouds at night, blooming over rich earth.

That hand rested on the God of the Dance’s chest, and a ghost put the weight of his soul with an entire temple of [Monks]. A temple of a thousand years and so many ghosts who pushed—that warrior strained, and Laedonius Deviy took one step backwards.

One…step. Into the waters. One step on a journey of hundreds of miles. Then the warrior vanished. The [Monks] around the God of Love sighed and were gone. Laedonius caught himself, began to move the other direction, and they surrounded him again.

Some of them walked on bridges of magic. But a few of the [Monks] had learned how to sit on water. Sit so still that fish would swim around them, and such that predators like Reefeyes would swim curiously to be fed or petted. They walked across the water, light as a feather—but their hands were filled with every scrap of defiance they ever had.

One step. Two. That ancient ghost was the only one who didn’t vanish. The ghosts of Drath were warring with the God of the Dance as Seamwalkers fell and the crack in the air opened. How long between each step?

How much farther to go? They were vanishing so quickly for that single step. Laedonius was howling at them. Ghosts flickered out of existence as he walked, one unwilling step at a time, over the waters.

Unhand me! I am your god!

He was using his full force of will to absorb them, but they kept coming. And that strange ghost—he was vanishing, but slowly. And Laedonius kept walking.

Enough! I will devour all of Drath if I must!

There was an end to them! The spiritual masters of Drath were waning, and what had been an army vaster than any living force in the world was now in the hundreds.

…And they were still so far from the edge of the world. So, the [Emperor] bowed his head. Then he raised his glaive and pointed it at the dead god.

(Warriors of Drath, forwards.)

Then, Laedonius Deviy looked up and saw the riders of Drath burst from the palace. Men and women, riding steeds who had every right to be here. Keen intelligence in the eyes of horses of the sea, Kelpies. People kith and kin to Drowned Folk who breathed water as well as air. Immortal foxes and mortals who had learned to perfect their bodies with time and all the effort in the world.

They joined the [Monks] and took hold of the God of the Dance. They flickered out of existence even faster than the others. Yet still. They persisted.

The Seamwalkers fighting the ghosts realized the stream of warriors joining the battle had ceased. Drath’s defenders turned and charged a second time, towards that struggle on the waters.

Another step. Laedonius Deviy was eating them all, but his eyes flickered backwards, and he grew more uneasy with every step.

“Not even…your armies can stop me.”

He spoke to the [Emperor] of Drath. For answer, those imperious eyes simply gazed past Laedonius Deviy. The ghost raised his hand, and the God of Meetings made a sound in the back of his throat.

For behind their warriors, behind their wise folk, stood [Farmers] and [Alchemists]. Children held their parent’s hands, and craftsfolk stood with servants and nobles, immortals and vagabonds. Fools and sages.

Then all the dead of Drath raced into the sea. Pressing around him, vanishing as they touched him. Pushing—crying out and looking into his eyes.

 

——

 

The current [Emperor] of Drath sat upon a throne and watched Khelt sailing towards Izril. Outside, his kingdom was in a panic. Warriors were mobilizing to Border Fleets, pursuing sightings of the Seamwalkers.

Drath was preparing for its doom, and the wailing in the air was only one herald of the end. The statues of venerated ancestors in one hallway had cracked to dust.

Those capable of seeing omens and consulting with the dead screamed and lay weeping. Still, the [Emperor] sat, waiting for the time to call the living forwards.

“(Your Majesty? Something is happening in the waters.)”

A warrior skidded into the throne room, so flustered that they did not announce themselves. The guards raised their blades, halting the messenger, but the [Emperor] of Drath raised one hand.

He was looking at something. Slowly, that weary, despairing head rose. The mortal man who could not aid the dead—looked up from something in his hand.

It was a cup of water. Pure water…just water for this hour, because mortals had to drink. His eyes slowly rose, and the [Emperor] stood. He put the cup down and regarded it.

The water in the cup, against all laws of physics, was pressed against one edge, though it sat on a flat surface. Slowly, the [Emperor] walked from his palace onto a balcony.

An army of Drath’s [Soldiers] looked up at him. People gathered on the boardwalks and shores saw their [Emperor] walk forwards and stared at what was happening. The man looked into the distance and saw it.

The ghosts. They were racing across the waters, men and women, children and noble spirits, flickering shapes racing past the cowering living. A stream of so many faces that they were a river of souls.

All…headed towards something in the distance. Something invisible. Yet the ghosts pursued it, faces filled with a determination, a purpose. They raced past him as he looked over the waters.

Then the [Emperor] saw what had caused the warrior to rush into the room. He looked around, from the shores of each island, from what should have been the waves lapping at Drath. The wind, the tide…

No. Against the logic of what he had known every day since he had been born, the man saw the tide lapping the wrong way. The waves had changed direction. The ocean…was moving one way. With the ghosts. Towards the edge of the world.

Every ghost in Drath was pushing the ocean against itself. Throwing something back. Step by step. Hour by hour.

The living could only watch. But then the [Emperor] sat down.

“(Kneel. And watch.)”

He gave only one order as he looked at a figure who turned their head but once towards the living. A ghost stalked the waves, following the last struggle of Drath’s dead.

 

——

 

Step by step. Children’s hands pushing at his legs. Warriors standing next to that ancient ghost who refused to die.

A Dragon of Drath rose from the ocean and slammed into the God of the Dance. One step. Two. Three—and the serpentine protector vanished. They were all vanishing, now. Every one of them.

Yet they had reached The Last Tide. That stretch of waters rushing to nothingness. The God of the Dance looked over his shoulders and saw the blackness that Norechl had fallen into beyond. The end of the world. His eyes were wide as he struggled, trying to keep away from the edge.

The [Emperor] was watching, clutching the glaive he carried, keeping pace with them as every ghost who had the ability in Drath threw themselves at the God of the Dance. Pushing him towards the edge.

But—they were running out. There were a dozen ghosts clinging to him at every moment. Then eight…then a handful. Then, Laedonius slowed, standing in the waters rushing past him towards the end. He laughed in relief; only one ghost was left. He was stronger than ever!

“You’ve failed! A worthy attempt, but—no—”

He saw those two fingers turn into a hand. The figure standing there put their hand on Laedonius Deviy’s shoulder. They did not push. They did not use any force.

The ghost took a step, and the God of the Dance walked with him. One ghost remained, yet it refused to go. Every ghost in Drath lay in the God of the Dance, but one took a step and dragged the God of the Dance towards the place where water cascaded down.

Only six steps left. Five. The two struggled. Now, Laedonius was crying out. He struck the stranger.

Four. Three…

“Unhand me! Unhand me, I said!”

The ghost was vanishing. Yet now…those blue irises were blazing. Like a blue fire, like another world was contained within. Made purely of will. Of determination. One…step. Another.

They stepped over the edge of The Last Tide, over the abyss. Laedonius Deviy watched the ghost vanishing. He fought—he could still make it back! The ghost flickered…

And the Third [Emperor] of Drath took the God of the Dance’s arm. The dead god looked at the other ghost in horror. They walked into the abyss, and Laedonius Deviy looked down into something even he had no knowledge of. Seamwalkers turned as the god cried out, and the [Emperor] spoke to him.

“(Foul little spirit, by the Empire of Drath, by Chasugen and Toersoo. For the countless souls who were never born for your malice and worthless deeds, I condemn you to your fate. Look not for mercy in heaven nor any life, for none shall be granted to you.)

He looked at the other ghost, and the figure smiled. The [Emperor] bowed deeply, and the two ghosts flickered as the God of Dance clung to them now, begging, pleading. They looked down at him and did the only thing they needed to do.

They vanished.

Laedonius Deviy tried to fly. He tried to defy gravity—but so far from the edge of the world, another law imposed itself over him. He looked down and shrieked.

Screaming, the God of Dance and Love, the Patron of Art and Song, the Smiling Man, the last memory of the renaissance of the divine, the guest of every door and house, Laedonius Deviy, fell into the void. Into the darkness and the hungry things gathered far below. He had an age to plunge into the death of Drath, the broken wound of the world.

 

——

 

“Laedonius Deviy?”

Kasigna turned as she felt him vanish. She looked to Drath, and her eyes opened wide. The three-in-one stood there, incredulous, and felt the only flicker of fear since the Devourer of Time had risen. Then she looked for the schemer and realized the truth.

“Laedonius Deviy? Emerrhain? This is impossible. The mortals? They’re not even the First Peoples. They’re part of the Grand Design. They…can’t do this.

She looked around. An end was coming. But before it, an Agelum wrestled with the God of Rulers and the God of the Forgotten. Dragons still flew, amidst an Elf dueling the goddess in the air. She looked for the [Innkeeper], but Erin Solstice was flying, flying…

It was Kasigna’s hour. But the ghosts ignored her. They had more important business.

 

——

 

So the living and the dead met. The dead had no real power. Just words. The living had the painful duty of what came after.

Was it all lost? It was a glorious last stand…but it was the last thing. Ryoka Griffin was still crying. Ailendamus had gone still in shock, and Fithea was dead.

Good people were dead. She had seen Gerial and Erin…but they had left. Razia was gone.

She knelt there, holding something in her hands. A scroll.

She had stolen it away from the Wyrm. He would never forgive this…but perhaps she might one day make amends even so. No matter what, it had to be used.

“All of this. I don’t hear faeries. I don’t have the fates…I wish someone would tell me what the best choice is.”

However, even the wind was just that. Blowing around her as she knelt in the grass. Ryoka Griffin sat there. However, she had known when she saw that terrible end what she had always been going to do.

Gamble. Hope that this was the right thing. Pay for it and answer to everyone if not. That was what she had to do. She could run…but she had to come back and face…

The consequences. Yet the Wind Runner still knew.

It was a terrible death. The worst she had ever seen. She had not been there when Erin Solstice died, and the sight of how she had fallen for no good reason, for a petty mistake, haunted Ryoka.

But him. It was burned into her eyes. That screaming half-Elf. A raging warrior, attacking his own kind. Out of his mind, forgetting who he was.

That was not how he should have died. Not after so long. Not after all the stories she didn’t know of him. Not when he had gone out into the world one last time to try and make things right.

Not that champion of the forgotten. Hero that only the dead and lost remembered. Ryoka Griffin unrolled the scroll and saw how simple it was.

Just…words and magic. Yes, they seared her soul with power. Yes, the grass bloomed around the scroll. But just as the fae had said—this was just power in a box. It was borrowing something greater.

“It’ll still work. Not for the Faerie Queen. Not for…but him. Yes.”

The scroll shone across Ryoka, and she held up a hand as the light seared her skin. The rays of light went through her soul, and she cried out, but that was just the magic.

She activated the [Resurrection] scroll, and it left the ground. It hovered in the air as the Wyrm looked up from his palace. Every [Mage] on the continent turned. Ryoka Griffin screamed as the spell activated.

It was a beautiful piece of magic. Regardless of body. It cared nothing for distance or time. Only that the soul was there. It asked for only one thing, and the knowledge screamed in Ryoka.

Who?

She just had to give it a name. An identity. So Ryoka did. She cried out. She screamed the words.

Teriarch! Dragonlord of Flame!

Please. Let it be enough. Let him wake and put it to rights. Ryoka Griffin waited. She waited…

And the scroll did nothing. It hovered there, burning her skin. And Ryoka Griffin realized the greatest irony of it all. She saw the scroll searching…searching…the magic of legends looking.

It did not find him. She had the wrong name. No…she had no idea who he was, did she?

Teriarch. No last name. Was he even the Dragonlord of Flame? All she knew was a grumpy Dragon who had told her his name was Teriarch. She might as well have used ‘Eldavin’. That version of the Dragon had at least believed that was entirely who he was for a while.

The magic couldn’t last forever. Indeed, even activating it was changing parts of Ryoka’s skin from the sheer radiating power. She was sobbing and about to say another name when something, someone landed next to her.

“That’s not his name, fool. That’s only what he called himself later. The spell requires more. Repeat my words.”

Ryoka Griffin looked up, and a Dragon with scales as bright red as the hottest ember in existence, a contained blaze of a fading sky, brighter than blood, more vibrant than a spark, looked down at Ryoka.

“Who…?”

It was just one ghost of many. One of the ghosts who had come to Terandria for a last stand with Queen Marquin and the others. This Dragon had arrived early. Following something. Someone.

“You’re trying to bring him back. I hoped you would listen. You’ve met him, haven’t you? Teriarch is the name he uses, but he has many names. However did someone as odd as you meet…no, that’s just like him.”

She snorted ghostly fire, and the ghost of a Dragon looked at Ryoka with narrowed eyes.

“He lost his mind. That half-Elf was the worst of him. It was one of those six, a dead god, who tricked him into his end. Will you truly use the scroll for him? Teriarch? If you will…repeat the name.”

Ryoka, shielding her eyes, gazed up at the Dragon. She stuttered.

“You—you know him?”

“More than know. I have been with him in far more times than this. I have watched over him as he despaired. As he lost his drive. I have loved and hated him and been his enemy and ally and friend. You…you must think highly of him if you will use this for him. I ask you to.”

The Dragon bowed her head awkwardly, the motion unfamiliar to her, especially to Ryoka. The Wind Runner hesitated.

“Are you…his wife? His partner?”

The female Dragon’s eyes snapped open wide, and her look of entreaty turned to outrage. She reared up, flapping her wings, and hissed at Ryoka.

“I am his daughter, you ten-toed snot vessel.”

Ryoka opened her mouth, but the Dragon landed once more and bit back the rest. She tossed her head and looked south.

“…They are waiting for him to wake up. If he is dead, he will see them. His family. His mother…they will tell him what needs to be remembered. Although he’s a forgetful one even at the best of times. I came to do what I could here. Say his name, and give him one last chance.”

The Wind Runner looked up at the Dragon with wide eyes. Then she understood. The ghost of that Dragon would see them all.

All of them. His friends. Those who had loved him, fought with him. Those he thought he had failed. One last gathering of ghosts. And then he…Ryoka turned to the scroll, and now she hesitated. She realized something.

“It is going to break his heart. It’s too much to ask of him, isn’t it? He’s finally done. No matter how it ended, and I’m going to make him come back and…”

Like the fool she was, Ryoka Griffin hesitated now that all the pieces were in place. He was not someone who had done this a hundred years, or even a thousand. Or even ten thousand.

He had fought and failed and given up so many times that even the rest of his kind thought he was ancient of days. Ryoka’s hands trembled, and a Dragon bent her head down to glare at her. A furious, fuchsia gaze laced with a comet of indigo, the two colors almost blended into one until you looked closer, stared venom at Ryoka.

Venom…and sympathy. Venom, and almost respect because Ryoka saw the truth. Yet the Dragon, Teriarch’s daughter, replied softly as Ryoka turned to the scroll. Time was running out.

It waited.

“That is not your choice to make. He was the hero of a hundred million peoples. He has fled and bowed and broken. He has failed and despaired. But my father has ever risen, like the burning sun, in the name of what was ever worthy and right. In the end, he has always chosen to fly.

Ryoka looked up at the Dragon and felt a kinship with someone she would never meet. The Dragon glanced over her shoulder.

“Time. Please…”

“I’ll do it. Tell me his name.”

Softly, ever-so-softly, the Dragon exhaled. She bowed to Ryoka and spoke, looking into Ryoka’s eyes.

“Thank you. Tell him Nirayicel flew across the skies at her end with the flame he left in me. Tell him to burn one last memory of our people into the heart of the world.”

“I will.”

Ryoka’s voice was trembling. She looked at the scroll.

“What do I say?”

Nirayicel closed her eyes.

His first name is Terrium Archelis Dorishe. Teriarch soth Verines. Teriarch of Kerozel. Terrium…”

Ryoka Griffin repeated the words and saw the scroll grow brighter. Nirayicel stopped talking. She and Ryoka took a step back as the scroll lifted into the air. Ryoka shielded her arms as the magic activated. The Wind Runner screamed, and the Dragon took wing. She flew up, breathing fire, laughing as the magic activated.

One last time! Fly! Fly higher, Father! Fly, Dragonlord! Until—

She vanished into the sky. Or Ryoka lost track of her. The scroll ignited. The hill she stood on split, and she felt the air ripple.

A Wyrm screamed in despair and almost adulation as he felt the magic pass through the world. He looked into the distance and knew it was done. The thing he had never been able to do. An immortal’s hesitation and greed—undone by a single damn thief, a girl.

He wept in relief as the magic condensed, and the young woman looked up for an explosion or a sign. But all Ryoka Griffin saw was falling light. She felt a sigh on her skin. Then she heard something.

 

——

 

In Izril, in the High Passes, in a cave in the middle of nowhere, a little Dragon lay there to sleep and never wake. Despair lay next to her, sleeping.

A weary hero who had made a mistake in a life full of mistakes. Triumph and loss.

One soul among many, perhaps. But this one did not fly into the end. He did not join the end, though he cried out as they laughed at him and told him he was needed.

The other souls, who looked at him. Ghosts who called to him one last time to try. Even if he hid. Even if he were a coward and a fool and forgetful. He was the one that the wind chose.

Rafaema, eyes squeezed shut, unmoving, heard something. It sounded in her mind, as loud as everything as she lay there, head pressed against that chest. It filled Ryoka’s head. It was a promise, a return.

Thump. Thump. Thump…

In time, he opened his eyes and saw her looking up at him. The Dragonlord of Flame woke up and knew it was time. Time for the [Innkeeper] whom ghosts spoke of. A debt owed. Another moment of defiance.

Teriarch spread his wings and flew.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Done. In some ways, this may be the climactic chapter of Volume 8. There is one last to go…but this has the most words I have ever written in a single chapter.

One more week. Give me one more week until May 3rd. I think I will need it. I know I hoped to get the volume done in one month, but I need the time to rest and write the last chapter. Somehow, though, despite the delays we are still on time.

I’m tired. I’m so tired I don’t know if I’ve pushed this hard before. Certainly not as long, but I hope the ending of this is at least partly good enough. I know it’s taking a toll on my energy, but not my health.  Don’t worry, if I was actually injuring myself I’d stop. I’m just working to the end of my everything I can throw at this wall.

I will take a second to debrief and talk about it all later. But it’s like a race and even if it was only one person, sometimes you have to run to the ending, not walk. We’re just pushing towards that conclusion, and I think we can make it.

So long as the writing is worth it, I think I’ll be happy once it’s over. I couldn’t rest fully until Volume 8 ends. You’re hopefully waiting for it, and so am I. So. One week. I’ll let you know if anything changes, but this is it. One more chapter. Wish me luck and see you then.

 

The Pride of the Wellfar by Enuryn!

Cara O’Sullivan by Chalyon!

 

Erin Possessed by AuspicousOctopi!


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8.82 (Pt. 2)

After so long, an age of waiting, the first gods returned to Terandria. New strangers washed up on the northern continent. Would-be gods. Carrion of their flesh.

The dead lands that echoed Terandria did not change. They showed the slow change in geography, the advance and destruction of kingdoms, fields that lay fallow until they blossomed. An age of forests, and another when it was all ash.

Footprints of Giants. That was all the past. This land was unchanging, but the souls that battled for it were not.

Seamwalkers had broken the lines. They surged through Baleros as the Timewalker remained locked in combat with the God of Death. Ghosts fled to other bastions or fought and hid, but the armies retreated.

The havens for souls were diminishing. Izril was gone. Baleros was gone.

Chandrar was being consumed. One army of ghosts was bound at sea for Izril. The last two great havens were the Empire of Drath and Terandria.

Both were vanishing.

Laedonius Deviy stalked Drath, and no weapons or Dragonfire could stop him anymore. Seamwalkers battled great spirits everywhere, leaving gaps that the God of Dance, the God of Love and Meetings exploited, weakening points and letting the Seamwalkers advance.

As for Terandria…

The first Seamwalker crawled out of the ocean, its face twisted, tendrils probing. It had no eyes, but it had copied what it knew; a body, twisted, and claws grasping. But the face was maggots of flesh, probing, looking for something to eat.

Even for them, their biology revealed something of their nature. This was no creator; it had no digits to manipulate or design. It was an infestation, rot given form, and it sought something real. Something to lay the next spawn in. A putrid little nest.

It was crawling through Terandria’s north, a frozen land of high glaciers and mountains, heading into the heartlands of the south. Ghosts were fighting from cliffs, launching arrows, using their Skills, but the true weapons present here, the heirlooms of kingdoms, were few and far between.

The entity reached land. It crawled through snow it did not feel, between two cliffs of stone and ice. The Seamwalker was questing for souls, the half-food it desired. It was a newcomer; many had died before it, and it would devour its kin. More Seamwalkers were still climbing, drawn to the light like hungry moths with teeth to a flame they would devour.

The Seamwalker was pulling itself forwards, not used to land instead of dark waters where it could dive. It didn’t…understand why it couldn’t go up, and down was difficult. It never noticed the cliff-faces moving. The blank stone and ice turned into a frown.

The two Frost Giants moved, and they emerged from where they’d been hiding. They lifted no blades; they had none of the weapons they carried in life. So they grabbed the Seamwalker as it whirled. The shrieking thing tried to bite them, mouth-tendrils flailing.

One grabbed the left side—the other the right. They heaved and tore the Seamwalker’s arms apart. Then one picked up the bleeding, dying corpse and used it like a flail, bringing it down upon the lesser spawn.

The Seamwalkers coming through the glaciers focused on the two Giants…only to see more of their kin emerge from where they had been lying in ambush.

Giants using tactics from a different age. Hiding like mountains for decades until they emerged upon unwary foes. Sacrificing their bodies to let mortals or elements carve away at them, waiting for their moment.

They were not alone, either. Dragons flew the skies, battling the Seamwalkers who had learned to defy gravity, raining down their magical breath on foes. They carried passengers; mortals. Other species had joined together, old enemies and allies.

Halflings swarmed one Seamwalker, bringing it down to be hacked apart. Spider-folk skittered forwards under the wings of Harpies, some bearing Selphids and Fraerlings into battle.

Peoples that Erin Solstice had never met were fighting here. But the gods had arrived.

The first to set foot on Terandria was not Norechl or Tamaroth.

It was the shadows. The little nothings that had forgotten even their own name. So small that some couldn’t even devour the weakest of souls. Whispering. Trying to consume each other. Anything.

They could die. But the Seamwalkers chased shadows, and the six would devour them. So shadows fled onto Terandria, hoping, begging for life.

Three followed after. Tamaroth, God of Rulers; Norechl, God of the Forgotten; and Cauwine, Goddess of Last Stands.

Two had marked Erin for vengeance. The last craved only the worthiest souls, and all three were hungry. Between Seamwalkers and dead gods, Terandria would not last. They knew it, too.

So when Erin landed, screaming, with Gerial and Cawe clinging to her, she fell into a strange gathering of ghosts who backed away, alarmed and perplexed as they saw her rise. A man wearing a crown and a remembered suit of armor festooned with keys and locks, an odd look, turned to Erin in alarm. He half-drew a sword shaped like a key that looked as real as Dionamella had been. Real. The [King of Keys], ruler of Samal, the Kingdom of Keys, regarded Erin warily, but relaxed when it was clear she was no dead god nor trick.

“More escapees? What was that explosion at sea? You there! Rise! This is no gathering for you. Join the ranks and stand firm! Terandria will stand defiant to the last!”

He pointed the key-sword at Erin, Gerial, and Cawe imperiously as they got up. The [Innkeeper] said nothing at first. She was looking back.

Velzimri. She only turned when she saw a woman, a [Queen] wearing a gown made of icy cloth holding a stave at the ready. Cenidau’s first queen of frost, who had resettled those cold lands, held the staff, and Erin felt…cold. She shook her head, dislodging pale blonde hair, like light on snow in the earliest hours of dawn.

“Nevermind. They are nearly upon us. We must make our stand, as those Gnomes claimed. The living…”

They were arguing. At the last stand of their kingdoms, Erin Solstice saw thousands upon thousands of ghosts arguing. Each one was wearing regal clothes, expensive armor—okay, that one was dressed in rags like a [Prisoner] and still bore the manacles—but it was not hard to understand who they were.

Their appearances changed according to who they remembered being. Young to old—but most stayed old, because they had changed with the object that adorned their heads.

A crown. A circlet. A tiara—sometimes simply a locket, but mostly crowns, placed perfectly on their head, askew, refashioned into a helm for battle—but always the same weight.

A heavy duty they had accepted. A class. Erin Solstice looked around as she stood and found herself in the gathering of Terandria’s rulers. They regarded her with interest, looking to the battlegrounds as they held a council.

“It is not time yet! Hold them back another hour—I see three coming. And that one with the sword is so swift—she overran part of Drath already.”

They were arguing, watching the three gods advance. Cauwine was darting across the sea, and Erin Solstice saw a hundred men and women turn.

Each one had something. A sword, a bow, that staff in the grip of the [Frozen Queen]…the keyblade.

A real weapon. As real as the memory of Excalibur she had given to the ghosts to fight with. An echo of the real thing that existed in the living world. An heirloom of their kingdoms. Some were stronger than others; a few were faded or broken. But that was how Terandria had held off the dead gods, at cost, engaging them in battle.

Now, they were dividing their forces to hold the Seamwalkers back, but the dead gods were coming from the south, and so the relic-bearers had to choose where to fight. A [Princess] with a bow, one of Avel’s greatest archers, aimed an arrow across the sea. She loosed it—and Cauwine dodged. The archer cursed—and the Bow of Avel was snatched by one of Avel’s [Kings]. He put an arrow to the bow, loosed it—and hit Norechl in the chest.

The God of the Forgotten didn’t even stagger. It kept walking, tearing the arrow from its ‘flesh’. Upon seeing that, the rulers groaned. A [King] removed his crown to tear at his hair.

“We cannot hurt them any longer. Each soul they steal is empowering them. Even the heirlooms of our kingdoms weaken. We can only do what the Gnomes suggested. But the living kingdoms are making war on each other! That Wyrm-possessed kingdom and those new ones—the Dawn Concordat will spill enough blood to ruin one or the other. Damn their foolishness! Is there no way to send word?”

“There will be. We just have to wait.”

Another voice interjected, a fierce woman, arms crossed below what Erin couldn’t help but notice was a single breast. Her hair was bushy and brown, and she had muscle. She looked…oddly familiar? Was it the nose? The men and women arrayed at her back, a smaller group of royalty compared to the oldest kingdoms? That crest she had etched upon her armor?

The answer came to Erin Solstice as the [King] turned to her, exasperated.

“You have no bow, Queen of Calanfer. Nor any other blade.”

“I have my Skills, and we have a cause. We know what is going on. Wait. Have faith and stand with me. If need be, I will take Calanfer to halt them alone. We are needed here.

She pointed down, and Erin Solstice looked blankly at the ground. Why here? She had landed well north of the shore. The [Innkeeper] gazed around and raised her hand.

“Excuse me. What’s going on?”

A few rulers glanced at her, irritated by the interlopers. One tried to shoo Gerial and Cawe off.

“This is a moment for the rulers of Terandria. Begone, ghosts.”

Another, a younger man with keen eyes, stopped a [Queen].

“No…wait. Where do you hail from? At least tell us what you have seen.”

“Baleros. I’m…we’re running from those guys. The two dead gods. Norechl and Tamaroth. They’re following me. I’m trying to get back to my body. Can you help?”

Some of the rulers gave Erin an incredulous look, but Cawe broke in.

“That’s right! We were in Chandrar—Khelt and the ghosts of Chandrar are still fighting. Baleros is lost. The Elf…Sprigaena is gone. That thing—the Devourer of Time is battling one of them, but the rest are coming here. This is Erin Solstice! She needs help getting back to her body. She’s not dead! Not entirely!”

The ghosts gazed at Erin. One shook his head, flipping hair out of his face. The [Prince] sneered at Erin.

“Ridiculous. I can see she isn’t fully dead—so what? One girl when all of our existences stand at stake? The Hundred Families are about to be erased! Here we stand, on the say-so of some little people claiming to be ‘Gnomes’ when they could be exceptionally short Dwarves…”

Someone stalked through the ranks of ghosts and slapped the [Prince] on the back of the head so hard that his circlet flew off. That strange [Queen] barked in his face.

“Enough whining! Don’t you remember? That’s the girl that Xarkouth spoke of! The Dragonlord who brought us news of other strongholds! Two of the six are coming after her? That’s reason enough to hear her out—or won’t you spit in the face of these monsters at the last?”

“I will slap them with a glove, but spit?”

A [Queen] looked horrified as she clutched her ruby-red dress she wore—no, wait. It was a pearl-white dress, just colored red because someone had stabbed her to death in it. The Queen of Calanfer rolled her eyes. She turned to Erin, and the [Innkeeper] blinked as the woman shouldered aside ghosts.

Even here…she stood out from the thousands of ghosts. She was one of the mightiest, and despite coming from a younger kingdom, they listened to her. Like the [Witches] that Califor had gathered, like Khelta, Nerrhavia, Velzimri, Elucina…here was one of Terandria’s legends. And Erin knew her. Or rather, she knew everything that had sprung forth from her deeds.

The woman put her hands on her hips and looked down at Erin. She had been wearing simple clothing fit for a casual day—now she wore glowing armor, battered from fighting and countless claw marks. She carried the memory of a sword that hurt the eyes, a second dawn.

“I am Queen Marquin, young woman. The first ruler of Calanfer, which stands to this day. And may be in danger of falling. But my kingdom stands, and so do we ghosts. How can we help you? What do you need?”

Erin Solstice gaped up at Marquin and boggled. She had not bowed to Khelt’s rulers at first; she had met the Immortal Tyrant, Nerrhavia, without so much as blinking in recognition. But…

Marquin? Wait—as in the first queen of—I know Calanfer!”

“Yes, well. She is hardly the only ruler here. Greetings, young woman. I am the first [King of Keys], founder of Samal, the Kingdom of Keys.”

The man who had first spoken, with his weird armor of locks, brandished the keyblade and straightened importantly. Erin gave him a blank look.

“Uh…never heard of you. Hi?”

He wavered.

“But—Samal is still standing. I was assured of it. We are a paradise upon Terandria.”

“I’ve…heard of…nope. Cawe? Gerial?”

The two ghosts scratched at their heads. Gerial snapped his fingers a few times.

“Samal. Samal. Sammial? No, wait, that’s the son of House Veltras. It rings a bell.”

“I’ve heard of it maybe? Samal locks. Good shit. Tough as hell to pick. So that’s the [King] of the kingdom that makes them? Impressive.”

The [Pickpocket] Garuda blinked a few times, then gave the First King of Samal an approving look. He returned it with a look of horrified disappointment. A few other rulers called out hopefully.

“I am Avel’s ruler. Avel? Kingdom of Bows?”

“Desonis?”

“Lautiene?”

“Your kingdom was destroyed eight thousand years ago. No one cares or remembers.”

Queen Marquin of Calanfer’s expression was of a woman who was fed up with the pettiness of rulers even at the end of everything. She turned to Erin and saw the [Innkeeper] was agog, still.

“So you know my kingdom. What of it? We’re all ghosts here.”

“Yes—but I know—I know your daughter!

Erin burst out. Queen Marquin opened her mouth, and her brows came together. She looked around, and the rulers of Calanfer, all who had ever died and not been too debauched—and all those who had died anywhere but Rhir—gathered around Erin. Most had red hair, or had styled it like that, and they had gotten less warlike after Marquin. Only her bright blue eyes were the same, and maybe her nose, the jaw which was certainly not weak…

Queen Marquin frowned at Erin Solstice.

“I don’t have a daughter. My son is there.”

She pointed to King Centis, the second ruler of Calanfer, who was eying Erin with as much confusion as Marquin. Erin waved her hands.

“No! Sorry! I meant—your granddaughter?”

Marquin raised a finger and opened her mouth, and an old woman in her seventies gave Erin a suspicious look.

“…Cenizy? She was born nearly six thousand years ago.”

“No! I mean—your great, great…I know one of your descendants! A [Princess] of Calanfer! She’s my friend!”

Oh. The ghosts finally understood why Erin was so excited. Queen Marquin the Radiant, founder of Calanfer, hero of the Creler Wars…gave Erin the most blank look that the [Innkeeper] had ever seen in her life.

“You know a descendant of mine, whom I have never met. Very well.”

The young woman faltered. Yeah, when you put it like that—she saw Marquin’s impassive face twitch. Then the Radiant Queen grabbed Erin up in a bear hug and squeezed.

Hahaha! Now there’s a coincidence! Then you are twice well-met, Erin Solstice. Come, vaunted rulers. Here is a girl who has a road back to life—have you nothing to give her besides indifference and scorn? She can be one of our ways to warn the living. Put aside your differences and help her. Where do you need to be?”

She swung Erin around as the [Innkeeper] yelped and found herself actually being held up by the giant woman. She was like—like—Lyonette, fussy Lyonette, was descended from her? Marquin was more like Jelaqua’s mom! Or…Erin Solstice saw one huge eye wink at her. Gerial and Cawe stared up at Marquin as well.

She was so cool. Even so, the other ghosts were unconvinced Erin was the person they should throw their last efforts behind. A ghost adjusted the sword he held as he stared into the dark waters.

“Even if she is a girl with a body—should she not cede it to one of us? I volunteer myself. Why would two of those six be after her?

Marquin’s smile turned into a scowl as the rulers began to bicker again, half against stealing bodies, the other half arguing over whomst it should be. Erin copied her thunderhead expression—these were not great ghosts on the whole, and she was glad she’d gone to Chandrar instead of Terandria if this were what they would have been like.

Then a voice cut through the arguing royalty. Erin Solstice heard a familiar sound.

Wingbeats. She looked up and gasped, and Gerial smiled in relief. A gigantic ghost landed, scattering the rulers, some of whom shouted in instinctive alarm.

Dragon! Dr—

Xarkouth, the Dragonlord of Stars, the Void Dragon, landed, panting. His eyes flashed like the constellations, and he bellowed.

“I should have known that when the world ended, I would find Humanity here, arguing to the death! My kin fall from the skies and wait for the final flight, and the greatest Elf to walk the lands of the dead has fallen in battle. Here you are, without even the courage to aid a single ghost. Erin Solstice! You should be at Izril!”

“Xarkouth!”

Every head whipped from Erin to Xarkouth as Marquin strode forwards.

“Dragonlord. What is happening on the other continents?”

“Baleros is gone. But you knew that. Drath is falling. Is it not time for the Gnomes’ plan yet?”

“Not yet.”

The Dragonlord uttered a curse that hovered in the air, spelling itself out and turning the air foul around it.

—in a Wyverns’ craw—very well. Erin Solstice, I have word from Khelta. They are reaching Izril. But we barely escaped three of the six at sea. It seems we must prepare for battle. Rulers of Terandria, this girl must live. The [Witches] and royalty of Chandrar demand it. As well as the Gnomes and the Dragons. She is another blade of defiance, and it was she who blew that horn.”

The ghosts had been glaring at the Void Dragonlord, offended by his presumptuous demands. But that last bit—more than the people vouching for her, more than what Erin represented, changed their mood. A [King] turned to Erin.

You blew that horn we all heard? How?”

“Um…I stole the horn. Sort of. From the dancing man.”

“You stole…? Wait. Are you some [Thief] of ages? That would be mete company.”

A [Queen] peered at Erin over a hand-fan shielding her face. Xarkouth looked amused as Erin hesitated.

“Um. No. I’m actually a…[Innkeeper]. A magic innkeeper, though.”

“An [Innkeeper].”

The First King of Avel’s face was completely blank, but Marquin just laughed, throwing her head back.

“Now there is a story. An [Innkeeper] who defies those six?”

She turned to Xarkouth, and he rumbled.

“It seems she has managed to make dread enemies of at least three. The faceless one, the bearded one, and the three-in-one all hate her with a passion.”

One of Desonis’ [Queens] bared her teeth.

Now there is a fine quality. It seems this girl has good taste in enemies. By that standard, she is welcome in our number.”

Like that, Erin Solstice found herself in a gathering that grew as more figures flew downwards. She looked up…and her mouth went dry.

“Oh wow. Um, Xarkouth? Did you call your friends just to find me?”

For answer, the Dragon just snorted in amusement. His scales were as dark as space itself, but they shimmered as they caught the light. His eyes, mismatched like all Dragons’, were miniature constellations. He looked up, and his voice was soft as he raised his head.

“Now you sound as arrogant as Khelt’s rulers. They did not come here for you. This is just a fitting place for us.”

The rulers of Terandria backed away as figures began to descend. Each one was the brightest, realest of their kind flying across the waters. They came in every shade, some trailing their very natures behind them like the Djinni.

Fire, burning from the very wing beats of a Dragon who shined brighter than actual gold. Erin looked up, and her hair blew, and she felt a breeze across her face—a Dragon shot down like a comet.

The Dragonlords—and Dragonladies—the rulers of Dragons landed next to Xarkouth. Some were wounded. Some were missing. But the survivors descended, folding their wings, calling out greetings to ghosts they recognized, challenges to old enemies. Nodding to their foes, putting aside old grudges.

Not just Dragons. A Wyrm slithered out of the ground, baring her teeth as she gazed around. A Wyvern wearing a crown strutted into place. A Dragon scoffed at him as he passed and got a wing in the face. Erin saw more relatives she didn’t even have names for. Dragons of kinds from different mythologies, one like a snake, long, flying, a mane of beautiful hair blowing in the breeze.

A Dragon who swam out of the sea, fins and gills and all. In fact, in this great gathering, Erin saw one more shape she recognized slithering forwards. A pair of Wyrms wanted to rebuff him, but a slightly smaller one spat at them.

“Excuse me—I am clearly important enough to be here. It is my brother who rules Ailendamus. Move aside. Hello. Have we met?”

Rhisveri’s brother preened at his head as a female Wyrm gave him a long stare. Undeterred, he sidled over to one of the Dragonlords of the Earth, and she rebuffed him with a single slap of the tail.

Queen Marquin sighed as she looked at the Dragons.

“More than I have ever dreamed of. This is fitting company, eh, pompous cousins?”

She looked around, and not even the rulers of Terandria could gainsay that. The Dragons glared at each other, but they turned to Xarkouth.

“Something is wrong. Are the Gnomes mistaken? I thought now would be the moment—but we cannot tarry any longer. Those gods are eating our kin, Xarkouth.”

One of the Dragons said the word! She was one of the oldest, and even the other Dragons deferred to her. Her scales looked like someone had cut pieces of gems into their shape, and they rippled, semi-transparent, showing her beating heart, even veins. The Dragonlord of Gems, who had once founded a tiny Walled City, surveyed the ghosts, and her eyes fixed on Erin Solstice.

“A living child. I thought you had promised to return her to her body.”

“Those six interfered. Dragonlord Saracandre, I present the mortal who was worthy of a Gnome’s attention. I think…I think they succeeded in trapping one of the six.”

The Dragonlord of Gems bowed her head as she looked at Erin.

“Yes. I think so too. The God of Magic, Emerrhain, is no more. Once again, they have bested even we Dragons in cunning. So for the last of Gnomes, we fly. I saw Sprigaena vanish. We are fading. Is this foolish little war still going on in the lands of the living? We cannot tarry. The Dragonlords gather to attempt to kill one of the gods. It will be in vain, but we will scorch one to ash such that they remember it. I cannot decide between that arrogant Tamaroth or Norechl who has tainted this land.”

She…knew their names. She knew them, she remembered the Gnomes—even the other Dragons stirred at her use of the forbidden, unspeakable word. Gods. The rulers of Terandria were certainly taken aback. Saracandre looked about, and Marquin was brave enough to speak.

“Dragonlord Saracandre! I speak for Terandria—a war is occuring in two places to our knowledge. The Meeting of Tribes in Izril where Drakes and Gnolls fight each other, and here in Terandria. The kingdom of Ailendamus versus an alliance of other kingdoms.”

“Gnolls and Drakes do not surprise me. That is our sin of old.”

A Dragonlord with scales the color of pearls lowered his head, looking tired. One of his eyes was like a flame in reverse, deepening in color from a brilliant white on the edges to the heart of burning red. Another Dragon snorted. His voice crackled like the lightning around him; every time his wings moved or he twitched, electricity earthed itself, emitted from his scales.

“I flew over Izril, and the ghosts of Chandrar assured me they would deal with it. Can we do nothing?”

“Not without—”

The Dragonlord of Lightning flapped one wing.

“Yes, yes. Shut up, oh mighty King of Avel. I cast the blame of this at Wyrms. Truly, a Human was more worthy of inheriting a Dragonthrone than petty Wyrms. Possibly the last Wyrm had to create a conquering nation.”

“And how is that worse than Humans or your precious Drakes who are oh so wise? Berithseid?”

A Wyrm hissed back at the Dragonlord of Lightning. Erin saw Cawe slap her forehead with one wing.

“Oh, wonderful. They’re arguing too. We just had to be stuck with the most petty ghosts in all the dead lands.”

Her voice was a bit too loud. Every single Dragon and ruler turned and glared at the [Pickpocket]. Cawe went pale under her feathers and hid behind Gerial.

“The little Garuda speaks truthfully. I will not be shamed before my cousins. Well met.”

Another Dragon spoke, and Erin gawked at a Dragon with feathers. Not scales—feathers. Cawe’s beak opened so wide it looked like she was trying to swallow her face.

“Wh—who are you?

“Dragonlord of Feathers.”

The…Dragon?…rumbled back with amusement. She had a beak rather than a snout, and Erin Solstice had no idea if she was some hybrid or…

“Dragons. Wyrms. I joined you all in hopes of doing something. Who and what matters in the land of the living? Speak quickly—the dead things are upon us!

A fierce, cawing voice broke in. Erin turned and saw a bright, blue bird speaking. The Phoenix spread her wings, and Erin made a few incomprehensible sounds. Every head turned to those in the know.

“My brother, Rhisveri, is the Wyrm who is raging against the Dawn Concordat. I gather a great mortal died and he intends to wipe them out. I have two ghosts to illuminate us. I spoke with this ‘Great General Dionamella’ ere she fell—she had an all-too-high opinion of Rhisveri, but I know the facts.”

The Wyrm hissed. He moved his tail, and a pair of ghosts who had been riding on his back jumped down. One, Erin recognized. She was…that Great Knight.

Great Knight Eclizza of Ailendamus and a half-Elf who had been in Dionamella’s bodyguard when Lord Swey killed him both bowed to the assembly.

“Great ghosts! I regret to say that Rhisveri, the Wyrm of Ailendamus, does rule the nation. He will not halt; he has called on Lucifen and Agelum, immortals like the last Dryad, Sophridel the Elemental of Masks, and more to wipe out the Dawn Concordat.”

A Dragonlord oozing venom with every word spoke, her scales foul and pitted.

Pity. One army’s loss is not a terrible shame. We have done all we can.

“It will be more than that, milady.”

The half-Elf bowed, shamefaced. He turned to the ghosts.

“The Lord of House Veltras and a number of nobles of the Five Families ride against Ailendamus, as well as a [Princess] and many brave [Knights]. Even Izrilian champions—the Order of Seasons, a Ser Solstice of Izril, the Goblin Slayer, is poised for combat. They may not be of high level, but their loss will provoke a feud with no end.”

The Dragonlords and rulers conferred, murmuring.

“Order of Seasons…I know them. Who are the Five Families?”

“Possibly new. Another great slayer of Goblins?”

“I am still not even sure what or where this Ailendamus is. If we can do nothing, we should better fly against our foes.”

They shook their heads. Eclizza looked helpless as she cried out.

“But Duke Rhisveri—the Wyrm is a kin of yours, great Dragons! If you could but talk to him—”

“He cannot hear us.”

Rhisveri’s brother hissed softly. One of the Dragonlords snorted at him.

“Come now. Wyrms can see the dead, and our kind too if they but look. Have Wyrms of the modern era atrophied such that they have failed even that?”

A gigantic Wyrm who was far, far larger than all but three Dragons slapped the ground warningly with her tail and reared up over the Dragonlord of Waves.

Speak cautiously, little Dragon. Those are my children you speak of.

He hesitated and ducked his head.

“…Beg pardon, Great Wyrm.”

Erin’s head swung from face to face, and then Rhisveri’s brother spoke, his eyes fixed on his…

“Rhisveri has always been able to see ghosts. But he shields himself in his palace. I…may have haunted him for a decade.”

The Dragonlords groaned. Erin Solstice waved her hand frantically.

“Excuse me, did someone say a ‘Sir Solstice’? Who’s killing Goblins? Is that a coincidence or…? No, wait a second. Isn’t that—”

Her eyes went wide with alarm as she remembered a pseudonym that a certain person was using. A guest of her inn. A beloved friend. Her Goblin.

Rabbiteater. He was going to war against Ailendamus? He was going to fight a Wyrm?

Xarkouth fixed Erin with a gaze.

“All connected.”

He murmured, but the Dragonlords were arguing.

“In that case—do we try to break into his palace? The Seamwalkers are tearing this place apart, but the world is still not thin enough. Those armies…we will sacrifice our strength. Is it a worthy end?”

They had some great plan, and because they mentioned Gnomes…Erin knew it might work. Yet the conclave of ghosts fell silent, and Queen Marquin pointed one finger.

“I do not know, but look. Our time is up.”

They all turned and saw something falling. It was…

Flesh. No…stone? A piece of it fell from what had been a face. A rotten face, copied by something that had eaten the God of Time. Had almost…almost become something more. Greatest of Norechl’s kin.

However—even the Devourer of Time could not stand against all the ghosts assailing it then fight the Goddess of Death. In a war of gods, there was no quarter or mercy.

It was falling to pieces. It was dead—or Kasigna had dealt a deathblow. The ghosts sighed. They beheld her, walking after Tamaroth and Norechl.

“This is it. Ghosts—assemble. We must take the battle to each of them and buy time. Erin Solstice—you must flee to Izril. We can send a few to help protect you.”

Queen Marquin spoke, and the ghosts nodded. The [Kings] of Terandria glanced at each other. The King of Samal stalked forwards, blade in hand.

“Where do we gather? Assuming we have our chance—I will lead those who stand on the battlefield. Yes—let every [King] who would join me take up arms! Leave the blades to wound those six behind.”

He handed the heirloom to one of his descendants with a nod. The First King of Avel hefted his bow and did likewise to a [Princess].

A thousand [Kings] separated from the other ghosts for no reason Erin could tell. They were volunteering for something. Queen Marquin glanced at them, and raised her voice.

“If you will take the battle—then let [Queens] and noblewomen of Terandria’s thrones join me. We have a target. You have not; allow us our words.”

The [Kings] bowed their heads in agreement. Marquin turned to look at the dead gods.

“…Though we shall all fight in the end. If it comes to it, we will join the fighting and hold them back as long as we may and let a lesser number go.”

She pointed unerringly at Kasigna and Cauwine. The other ghosts, Dragons included, scoffed at Marquin.

“You cannot hope to hold her back more than a second, [Queen] of mortals! Kasigna cannot be stopped. She rules us all and claims this land.”

The Dragonlord of Gems cautioned Marquin. The Queen of Calanfer nodded grimly.

“Maybe not, but someone must make it. So harken to me, sisters of every age!”

Erin saw Marquin stride past her and address the [Queens] and [Princesses], even [Empresses] of Terandria. [Ladies] and every ghost in that gathering looked at Marquin. The First Queen of Calanfer, Marquin the Radiant, drew her sword and pointed it at Kasigna. The three-in-one had locked her eyes on Erin again, but Marquin barred her way, and Kasigna’s eyes narrowed. Calmly, the ruler of Calanfer spat on the ground and then turned.

“I call on every ghost with no words left to say to join me. We will only scream defiance into the jaws of despair. Come, you brave women from every age! Who will follow me and defy death itself?

Terandria’s ghosts hesitated—then noblewomen stepped out of line as the [Kings] argued and formed their stand, to hold Norechl and Tamaroth at bay. The Dragons watched as [Queens] holding their gowns stepped out as if accepting an invitation to dance. Some strode out wearing pants and holding blades. [Princesses] adjusted their tiaras, and some accepted swords or said farewell.

A single ghost stepped across the divide as the ghosts separated by gender. Erin saw one of Samal’s ghosts leave the congregation around their founder and approach Marquin as she marshaled the army by groups. Marquin turned and caught a wary smile.

The prince of Samal bowed hurriedly, a locked scabbard hanging at their side. Literally—a little key was used even to draw blades in the Kingdom of Keys. Still, he addressed the Queen of Calanfer and the ghosts, who blinked at him in confusion.

“I ask to join your number, Queen of Calanfer. I was never born nor named to the right body, but I have been a woman all my days. They called me a [Prince], but my soul knew my nature. Will you let me stand by your side?”

Samal’s ghosts looked incredulous, and those who knew the prince of Samal called out in outrage, but Queen Marquin’s eyes simply narrowed. She looked straight into pale grey eyes staring out of one of the faces of a ruler of Samal.

Someone used to keeping secrets and finding answers. Hoarding keys in a land where they feared no violence or crime or monsters—only other people. A wary light of entreaty in those eyes.

Queen Marquin thought only a second. Then she reached out and grabbed the prince’s hand. She swung the ghost into place, and the ghost…flickered.

The memory of the ghost as they had lived faded away like an illusion. A young woman dressed in silver mail and holding a [Duelist]’s sword, notched—a keyblade of Samal—walked forwards.

A smile of relief spread across the woman’s face, and she bowed. She drew the sword from the scabbard after she unlocked it with a key taken from around her neck. Each step looked more relaxed, just like they had been when she walked from the place people called one of the world’s paradises. Someone who had picked up a sword and left the Kingdom of Keys to find themselves.

Then she turned, and her sword-arm, written with a dozen tattoos etched in ink that only shone under moonlight, a sygaldry of secrets, rose as she pointed back.

“I am Talient du Pelien, the [Princess of Heart’s Lock and Quiet Key]!”

More ghosts in that vast audience looked at her, and the disdain of some ghosts, even here, even now—turned to astonishment as more ghosts broke ranks. Some had never hidden. Others had never had the words to explain what they felt and been told they were wrong.

Some had been buried and lived where they chose and welcomed the others across the gap. An [Emperor] clasped hands with a ghost who started and blinked down at the truth they’d hidden even in death.

Samal’s [Princess] was just one ghost among many, and she stood behind Marquin as the ghosts of Terandria waited. The Dragonlords nodded to the rulers of Terandria, not even blinking. They didn’t see anything different. But then—they had a Dragon’s eyes. Not all had been so wise, among ghosts. But the Dragonlords just bowed as the ghosts assembled.

Marquin was pledging their stand to Xarkouth and the others.

“We will nominate representatives if we must hold them back. As soon as the first cracks appear—they will go, if the thousand of each are already gone.”

Dame Eclizza of Ailendamus stood behind the four rulers of Ailendamus in the deadlands who had served a Wyrm, knowingly or unknowingly. She was lamenting it.

“If only the Death of Magic had not slain me.”

One of the Dragonlords looked outraged. A Wyvern with bright, intelligent eyes snaked her head down.

“Is that bastard still alive? I thought he killed himself!”

Eclizza went pale and bowed.

“No…a Demon of Rhir, milady.”

“A what of what? You mean those Lucifen? A Daemon?”

“No, Demons. Horns, relatives of Devils? Succubi? Delightful…ahem. I thought they were long gone and we destroyed their plane.”

The Dragons were arguing about it, and Eclizza’s head sank lower. She clenched a fist.

“It was that damned girl. She must be the one who led us all to this. Duke Rhisveri will slay Ryoka Griffin at the last. The ghosts tell me she led the Archmage of Memory to battle. She is the one who nearly slew Princess Oiena—and she will be rightly destroyed soon enough.”

“Huh? Wait—wait. Say that again. Rabbiteater—Ser Solstice and Ryoka?

Then Erin Solstice was there. Pushing through the chaos, shouting at Dragons, and elbowing aside rulers. She stopped in front of Dame Eclizza, and the ghosts looked at Erin.

“Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner of Reizmelt? The Courier? You know her?”

Rhisveri’s brother and Eclizza peered suspiciously at Erin. The young woman’s heart was in her mouth. She looked around. Gerial was there, mouth open in surprise.

“She’s my best friend. What’s going on? I can’t—I know Ser Solstice. I know that Tyrion jerk too, but I can’t let—let Rabbiteater die. And Ryoka. Can’t we help? Where are they?”

Her voice rang out, the only ghost here with a connection to the living. Queen Marquin took Erin’s shoulder. She pointed down, and Erin looked around the flat, empty grassland. She stared around—then saw a palace rising behind her. Marquin spoke.

“Here. They are meeting in this very spot in battle. But we cannot see them or touch the living. I am sorry. If there were a chance…”

Erin fell to her knees. She looked around, searching with her hands, stumbling up to look for…she didn’t see the ghosts who might soon litter this land. The [Innkeeper] looked up and saw four gods step onto the shore.

Norechl, Tamaroth, Cauwine, and Kasigna. Marquin put a hand on Erin’s shoulder and urged her up.

“Time. You have somewhere to go.”

“But my friends are here.”

Erin looked around, and the ghosts gazed at her with sympathy. Erin clenched a fist.

“What is it the Gnomes told you to do?”

The Dragonlord, Saracandre, spoke for the others.

“Wait. Wait, as the Seamwalkers, Norechl’s get, and that Devourer of Time broke this place in half. Wait for cracks. But it seems the Goddess of Death holds this place together, even with Emerrhain’s meddling. It is not thin enough yet.”

Erin felt it. That fraying world of the dead…she saw the one woman holding it together. Gaining something close to life, an irony for her. The Goddess of Death. And the plans of the dead gods were coming to fruition.

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin saw the armies meeting on the grasslands as yet uncolonized by Ailendamus. The Dawn Concordat didn’t flinch at Ailendamus’ numbers; they outnumbered the Kingdom of Glass and Glory.

[Hunters] from Noelictus who had circumnavigated the border or cut through Ailendamus’ territory. The Order of Seasons and the Season of Summer especially, led by their Summer’s Champion, Greysten.

The mysterious Ser Solstice, riding with his friends and Calanfer, marked by the blessing of Calanfer. The 4th Princess of Calanfer, Seraphel, and the Five Families of Izril led by Tyrion Veltras.

On the other side, Ailendamus halted, [Knights] standing in front of ordinary citizens, their nobility and their retainers prepared to fight to the death. But Ryoka only focused on one group.

The Lucifen and Agelum. Just one small patch among many. Yet that was where the immortals stood. Almost all of them. The Immortals of Ailendamus.

Rhisveri himself had not appeared yet, but he was preparing to. The Wyrm was just waiting for his opponent to show himself.

And there…he was. Ryoka’s stomach twisted up as she saw the blazing appearance of the Archmage of Memory as he teleported his entire faction and the flying, armored super-soldiers into the center of the Dawn Concordat’s army.

Eldavin, the Archmage of Wistram, was locked on Ailendamus, and his face was a mask of fury. The Immortals of Ailendamus met his gaze as the leaders of both sides called on the other to surrender.

The immortals on either side paid no attention to the words that were being spoken. They just watched each other.

The battle would be decided between them. And there was one Archmage and many, many of Ailendamus’ eternals.

“He does not look wounded at all. Perhaps we should have brought the Wind Runner after all.”

Igolze murmured to the others. Paxere’s teeth were bared, and it was Visophecin himself who replied.

“No. He has had every opportunity to relent. This, we shall settle. Has Rhisveri not arrived yet?”

“He claims to be attending to ‘business’. Which is an objectionable statement at this moment.”

Sophridel was cloaked by magic and standing behind the Merfolk. The Elemental of Masks’ bland tone made Visophecin frown.

“What business could delay him? Who is missing?”

“Hm. A few of the younger ones. We left Gilaw and Menorkel behind. Fithea is making sure Gilaw does not fly after us. I left Razia with the Wind Runner.”

“Sensible. Fithea need not see this. She has already been whispering that Ryoka has only brought death to us all.”

Some of them might die. The Dryad was a capable spellcaster, but…Visophecin adjusted his collar. He looked straight at Eldavin.

The Archmage of Memory waited. He was glowing with magic, and both armies were waiting for the signal to clash. Tyrion Veltras rode back, looking as grave as ever. Hiding the fact that he had lost…

“He’s lost his levels. He is trying to hide it from [Appraisal], but it’s clear as day. Dionamella has crippled House Veltras’ war leader.”

One of the immortals was peering at Tyrion Veltras. Lady Paterghost scoffed.

“I could take that fool apart with Nube. Prithee, allow me the right to challenge him.”

“Ignore him. Watch the Archmage, Lady Paterghost.”

“As you like, Viscount Visophecin. Where stands that other one? The [Knight] whomst may now be the Lightherald of Calanfer?”

There.

They saw Ser Solstice sitting on a horse among the Order of Seasons. The immortals watched him. Azemith consulted something she had been given.

“Ah. The [Knight] of Izril. Order of Solstice. I have intelligence on him. He is a metallic warrior—one of the Melded classes. Our information suggests he is perhaps a Steelfur Gnoll. I suggest rusting his entire body. I can do it once battle begins.”

The Lucifen smiled at the idea. The other immortals nodded or shrugged. It was the smallest group of twelve people in wheelchairs who stirred.

“Azemith, say that again? Who is that Ser Solstice?”

Uzine, Gadrea, and the Agelum able to move had been wheeled into battle, and they were causing confusion on both sides as soldiers wondered if they were nobles who were unwisely positioned in the battle lines. Some senior [Knights] recognized their mentors or trainers, but still worried.

“I said…that is a metal Gnoll, Uzine. He’s more metal than flesh under that helmet, which explains his durability.”

Azemith snapped, re-reading the latest intelligence report from their [Knights] on Khelt’s ship. She looked at Uzine, and the frail-looking Agelum, hair so pale that it was white, sitting in the wheelchair with a single long axe in each hand, wearing light metal armor burnished bright…gave her an incredulous look.

Uzine’s multi-pupiled eyes focused on Ser Solstice, and Gadrea scratched at her chin. Both Agelum exchanged glances.

“…That’s not a Gnoll. That’s a Goblin.”

“Huh?”

The Agelum peered at Rabbiteater as Azemith did a double-take. Uzine nodded.

“That is a Goblin.”

“Are you certain?”

Even Visophecin was taken aback. He focused on Rabbiteater, but the [Appraisal] Skills and other spells didn’t work on him. Gadrea just narrowed her eyes.

“…I can see his eyes through that visor. Crimson. His face is green. That is a Goblin. One wearing armor and tricking everyone. Or maybe they know.”

She began to grin widely. Uzine actually stood up and walked over to a horse where some Agelum were mounting up despite their cousin’s objections. He swung himself into the saddle as the immortals muttered.

“A Goblin? Is it a trick?”

“We could unmask it. Not that it would do much other than embarrass the Order of Seasons.”

Visophecin himself was frowning as Ailendamus’ [General] began to give a speech. Perhaps it was better to keep the Goblin alive, then. Hadn’t Ryoka Griffin mentioned something about…?

Then he realized someone had broken the battle line. Someone was riding past the [General] of Ailendamus, calling out. That someone was a white-haired man sitting in his saddle, two axes held lightly in his grip.

Uzine!

Gadrea shouted, but it was too late. Before the Lucifen and immortals could call him back, the Agelum rode into the open between the two armies and shouted.

Warriors of the Dawn Concordat. I challenge you. Send forth your highest-level fighter. I am Uzine of House Shoel!

He rode forwards, holding one axe up, grinning that fearless smile of the invincible warrior. Visophecin covered his eyes.

Now he understood why Uzine had been so insistent. Lady Paterghost gasped in outrage.

“That fool! I was intending to—I shall reclaim him at once.”

She began to stride forwards, but the other Agelum stopped her. Visophecin motioned back the forces looking to him.

“No. Uzine has issued his challenge. He will never relent, and calling him back would cause an uproar. That fool.”

The Lucifen ground his teeth together. He was often annoyed or unpleasantly surprised by his cousin’s actions, but this…he could only wait and watch as the Dawn Concordat milled about and someone answered Uzine.

 

——

 

Rabbiteater didn’t know if this was going to be a good battle or a disaster. He knew which he preferred, but he had been listening. Tyrion Veltras, whom he did not like, had seemed more sensible than the other leaders, who had convinced themselves this would be another great victory and the end of Ailendamus.

The Goblin had seen tribes end, and sometimes it was a complete wipeout, but he didn’t feel like an entire nation would roll over after one loss. In fact…he was reminded of the term ‘counter leveling’ as he stared at the army they outnumbered.

The winner was always the winner right until they took a chance dagger to the throat. Even Gold-rank adventurers could be killed by lowly Goblins. Rabbiteater was nervous…and the sight of this old warrior did not help matters.

He looked ancient, and as if he should be in a [Healer]’s bed. But the intelligent members of the Dawn Concordat looked at that old warrior, Uzine, and remembered a truism.

Anyone who’d lived to get that old often had lots of levels. Not that they could read his class. In fact, his challenge had begun an argument, down to who, if anyone, should answer him.

“This is a delaying tactic for reinforcements. We need not honor it.”

A [Lord] of Calanfer opined. However, it had provoked the [Knights] and warrior traditions of each nation. Uzine had his challengers, and the Griffin Prince himself was ready to answer it. Of course, everyone looked to Tyrion Veltras, but the [Lord] was surprisingly reluctant to volunteer. Rabbiteater would have expected Tyrion to ride out with that stupid pointy stick and joust his opponent.

It was Greysten who rode forwards, ignoring the arguments. The Summer’s Champion raised his own axe, and the Season of Summer cheered as he rode across their lines, then towards Uzine.

“Uh oh.”

“Rabbit! Have a little faith!”

Talia hissed at Rabbiteater as he sat with the forces of Calanfer. Princess Seraphel, who had been entrusted with the banner as no one wanted her to actually do any fighting, rode a bit closer to hear Rabbiteater. The other [Knights] of the Order of Seasons, Meisa, Talia, Markus, Ilm, fell silent as the [Princess] looked at Rabbiteater.

“Ser Solstice. You have reservations? I have heard the Summer’s Champion is one of Terandria’s best warriors.”

“Mm. He’s good. But not the Spring’s Warden.”

Rabbiteater had fought the Spring’s Warden, and she was the duelist that Greysten was not. He tried to explain this to Seraphel, and the [Princess] frowned.

“So Greysten is a superior warrior in massed combat, rather than duels…but surely he can still best that old man?”

Rabbiteater gave Seraphel a long look.

“Old men are the worst. Scary. Doesn’t matter their level.”

“Why, pray tell?”

The Goblin rolled his eyes and spoke slowly, trying to explain it to the stupid princess.

Old men are not afraid of dying. Nothing is scarier than someone with a death-wound.”

And that old warrior looked like he had a foot in the grave. Seraphel gulped, and they watched as Greysten approached Uzine.

The Agelum sat on his steed, perfectly straight, smiling as the wind blew across these plains. Ser Greysten saluted him.

“Ser, will you not consider retreat or parlay? Ailendamus is outnumbered. I would not like to spill your blood.”

For answer, Uzine just laughed at him. He threw back his head and laughed. He had no helmet, and his armor looked far lighter than Greysten’s plate decorated with the Season of Summer’s colors. Affronted, the Order of Seasons murmured, but Uzine just called back.

“You cannot spill my blood, young man. When you were crawling around as a babe, I had already put aside my blade for a wheelchair. I have known the Order of Seasons. And believe me: Summer fades.

Greysten stiffened as Uzine invoked the very motto of his season. Slowly, he lowered his visor and offered the Agelum one salute. Uzine waited a beat—then he kicked his horse into a charge. Greysten answered him, surging behind his horse, axe raised. Neither was using a lance, and they were poised to hit each other; this was no complex duel of shield and lance and maneuvering. Both warriors clearly thought they could hit the other harder and faster.

The Dawn Concordat was still cheering when the two met, and the mortals got the shock of their lives. Greysten was fast, used a Skill, and his axe burned through the air as he summoned his aura to scorch Uzine.

The Agelum leapt from his saddle and came crashing down like a comet. Greysten saw the Agelum drop on him, both axes swinging, and raised his shield. Rabbiteater saw a flare of fire—but Uzine never flinched.

He dropped Greysten from the saddle, and the [Knight] landed on the ground then blocked an axe that hammered him down. He pushed himself up—and Uzine swung the other axe into his side. Again, Greysten blocked the blow, and Rabbiteater saw something impossible.

The Summer’s Champion went skidding across the ground. He caught himself, boots plowing into the grass and sending up a spray of dirt. But he had almost gone flying from the axe strike.

The Agelum advanced, grinning, as Greysten caught himself. Rabbiteater saw Greysten raise his axe and shield, and that uncertainty was enough.

“Uh oh.”

 

——

 

“That [Knight] is dead. And Uzine lectured me about going overboard. He’s going to put himself in a bed for the next three months.”

Ryoka jumped as Razia wheeled herself over. The Wind Runner turned. She had been transfixed by the fighting. She looked around.

“Razia—we have to stop this.”

“Stop what? Us answering the Dawn Concordat for Dionamella’s death? This war? Rhisveri could do it, but good luck reaching him.”

Razia was wheeling herself around one-handed. Ryoka was in her room, just outside Rhisveri’s quarters. Yet she couldn’t see the Wyrm of Ailendamus.

The double doors were sealed, and Rhisveri had secluded himself. He had no time for Ryoka; he was preparing for a battle with Eldavin. That he hadn’t appeared on the battlefield already probably meant he was waiting for his moment. Ryoka had been hoping to catch him; he had to lower his protections to teleport out, right? Especially if his main body moved…

She had been waiting for the wind to tell her when that was. She had been waiting for a sign. The uncertainty of it all…Razia had agreed to back Ryoka up. She was out of her mind with that same feeling in Ryoka’s heart. Both of them felt it.

Something was happening. Ryoka looked back to the scrying orb and saw an Agelum fighting. She didn’t know who the Summer’s Champion was. But she realized why the Goblin King had never killed House Shoel. The Lucifen had fought him with magic and trickery and their own vast powers. But when Curulac of a Hundred Days had come against them—the Agelum had taken the field. They were the warriors to the Lucifen’s magic.

Uzine was tossing around the Summer’s Champion like a pinball with each axe strike. Ryoka didn’t know how heavy each blow had to be to send the huge, armored man stumbling around or skidding to the side. She was impressed the armor was taking it.

The Dawn Concordat had gone silent. Ailendamus was just as quiet. They were in shock. None of them had ever known House Shoel had that kind of warrior. Except for the very same elites that Uzine had sometimes mentored. They watched their strange teacher fighting.

The Summer’s Champion was using his aura, and it was a mistake. He was setting the grass on fire. The heat was making the image of him ripple. Any other [Knight] not prepared would be roasting in their armor, sweating, feeling the metal burn as the Summer’s Champion cut the air with a burning axe and shield.

The Agelum was laughing. Ryoka had an image from her days in church before she had managed to get herself banned.

An Angel with a flaming sword…no wonder he didn’t fear fire.

The duel was short. Perhaps the Summer’s Champion deserved better, but Uzine just hammered him again and again with those axes. Greysten’s feet were mired in earth; his armor held, but he was a sitting duck. Two axes rose, and the shield blocked the blow, but it knocked him flat on his back.

“Is Uzine going to…?”

Razia just looked at Ryoka, one eyebrow raised. Ryoka’s mouth was dry as the Agelum strode over to the struggling [Knight], trying to stand back up. There was no mercy in his eyes.

First the Summer’s Champion, next the Dawn Concordat. Tyrion…Ryoka turned, but the wind told her the Wyrm was still in his lair. Then she saw someone break the silence of the Dawn Concordat. She saw a commotion, people trying to stop the strange, masked warrior with slightly battered armor and no crest or paint riding on Uzine.

Ser Solstice charged the Agelum to a howl of outrage from both forces. But Uzine just turned, grinning.

 

——

 

Rabbiteater knew he was in trouble. The [Knights] were screaming at him to come back, but he saw Greysten fall and knew the Summer’s Champion was a dead man. He also knew he was outmatched.

But he was a [Knight]. And a Goblin [Knight] saw nothing wrong in this.

Fight me.

He called to Uzine. The Agelum whirled.

Ah. Ser Solstice. If there were one [Knight], it would be you. En garde!”

Rabbiteater swore as he leapt from his saddle. He raised his axe and shield.

“[Grand Slash]!”

He reminded himself he had new Skills, an aura. He opened up with his biggest Skill, and the Agelum…ducked it. Then he lunged at Rabbiteater, blades swinging, and the Hobgoblin had a thought.

Greydath—

It was a familiar feeling. He was so fast. Rabbiteater spun, put his shield up, and his feet left the ground. He touched down, skidding, sliding, and felt his arm go numb. Had that crazy old man just launched…? What was wrong with his eyes? Rabbiteater looked up and saw an axe descending towards his helmet.

[Long Backstep]. [Mistreach Cut]! [Lightsoaked Armaments]—[Radiance of the Dawn]!

His armor flashed. The shining light blinded his foes, not his allies, and the [Champion] leapt at the Agelum, [Greater Speed] making his Skills even faster. He missed as the Agelum knocked aside his axe. One of those long axes swung at his face.

“[Giant’s Parry]!”

Rabbiteater tossed the blade aside with his shield. Then he felt a searing line of pain on his chest. He looked down and saw the tip of the axe scoring his chest. When had he—?

It wasn’t deep. Rabbiteater raised his shield to use [Shield Ram]. He was charging forwards. The Agelum backed up, wrenched his axe free, and kicked Rabbiteater in the chest.

The Hobgoblin slammed into the ground, rattling around in his armor. He got up and saw that smile.

Greydath and this old man. I hate old men with white hair. The Hobgoblin checked himself. That—Uzine was impossibly strong. But something was wrong. He was so…

The Agelum twisted and dodged the Summer’s Champion’s slash. That was it. His eyes. He’d just seen that. And the counter he gave would have sheared Greysten’s head from his shoulders but for the armor.

Rabbiteater! Back away! This is my d—

Greysten roared a second before Uzine put the axes together and hit him like he was playing baseball. Rabbiteater began to back away—then saw the Agelum sprinting at him.

 

——

 

“My lord.”

“I see it.”

Tyrion Veltras was watching the fight. His hand was sweaty on his lance. Who was that old man? Tyrion Veltras a few days ago and twenty levels higher would have relished the chance to try that warrior.

This younger man felt…sweaty-palmed, and he hadn’t experienced that in decades. He was currently watching this member of House Shoel, a reclusive branch of Ailendamus’ nobility, take on…

The Summer’s Champion and Ser Solstice at the same time. They were both [Knights], and both were honorable enough in their way to demand a single duel. But neither one could back off.

They were fighting for their lives. They couldn’t even retreat—Uzine was hammering them both such that they had to fight or die. Ser Solstice was already bleeding, and from the way Ser Greysten was moving, it was clear he’d cracked some bones.

The Agelum was a whirlwind of battle. He fought like a [Blademaster]. Tyrion was trying to understand his class.

His eyes. He was some kind of peerless expert. Strong—[Greater Strength]? [Greater Speed]? Yes, like an ultimate barbarian, but he had the skill with those axes to back it up. Tyrion looked across the battlefield and saw more figures in…wheeled chairs?

Were they all as good as he was? Then he saw Ser Solstice go down.

Rabbiteater!

Dame Talia shouted an odd name, and Meisa, Markus, and half a dozen [Knights] rode forwards. This time, the Order of the Thirsting Veil rode at them, howling fury at this breach of conduct. It might be a battle if both sides clashed. But as the Agelum raised both blades to bring them down on Rabbiteater as Ser Greysten tried to cover his friend—something happened.

Tyrion saw it as clearly as everyone else. Uzine was laughing—then he was coughing blood.

Blue blood. It surprised Uzine as much as everyone. It spilled out of his mouth like vomit…a pool of it. He spat a string of blood and stepped back. Then…Tyrion saw the Agelum bleed.

 

——

 

Rabbiteater looked up with Ser Greysten and saw Uzine bleeding. The Agelum lifted one hand and looked at the blood running down his body. A huge wound. But neither Greysten nor Rabbiteater had tagged him. So how…?

“Ah.”

Uzine looked at his hand and the fragile skin that had split from his knuckles halfway down his arm. He flexed his fingers, and Rabbiteater saw the arm wasn’t straight.

He’d…broken his own bones. To look at him—something was wrong with his lungs. The Agelum hacked up more bright blue blood.

“Summer’s…wrath. What is that?”

Greysten was staring at the blood. Rabbiteater had thought it meant Uzine was noble—blue-blooded. But it was clearer and clearer…

 

——

 

“That fool. He’s injured himself. Badly.”

Uzine was pursuing Ser Greysten and Rabbiteater, but he was bleeding a trail onto the grass. The Agelum stumbled, then tossed one axe aside. He’d clearly decided he couldn’t use that arm. Even so—his eyes were locked on the two.

He intended to finish them off. The Lucifen were in a frenzy, wondering how to explain this. A class? But the blood—

The Agelum grabbed Ser Solstice bare-handed, swatting the Summer’s Champion aside with a blow that damaged his other arm. Then his bloody arm began to squeeze.

The metal helm of Ser Solstice’s armor began to deform around the gorget. He was…crushing the [Champion]’s armor. Visophecin watched as he strode across the ground with Igolze and Azemith.

 

——

 

Rabbiteater couldn’t breathe. He was staring into those strange eyes. Too many pupils. Who…then Uzine whispered to him, as Greysten tried to get up.

“Only one Goblin who has ever locked swords with me has lived, Ser Solstice. He was named Greydath of Blades.

Ah. That explained a lot. Rabbiteater grinned behind his helmet. He knew. The Agelum’s fingers tightened, and Rabbiteater saw spots appearing in his vision. He waited for the crunch…but then Uzine let go of him. Gasping, Rabbiteater swayed, and Uzine grabbed him.

“Igolze. Here’s your answer. Visophecin. I’m bleeding.”

Who were they? They smelled like oil and metal. Rabbiteater was gagging. He saw some slim figures with…grey skin stopping. Uzine was coughing, and they were fussing over him when they all went silent.

“I believe the point has been made. This duel is over. Summer’s Champion. It is my turn.”

Uzine turned his head, and Rabbiteater, clutching at the metal digging into his throat, looked up. He saw a white beard, two mismatched eyes of heliotrope and cerulean. A half-Elf, floating in the air.

“Archmage of Memory.”

“Where is Duke Rhisveri? If you would challenge anyone—challenge me.

Someone was grabbing Rabbiteater, helping Greysten up. Ailendamus was retreating, even Uzine reluctantly being led away. Rabbiteater looked up and saw a too-young face. A clean-shaven man, without his beard. Tyrion Veltras hauled Rabbiteater onto his horse.

“Archmage—”

“Retreat, Lord Veltras. If we are to settle things, then I, the Archmage of Wistram, challenge Ailendamus’ greatest spellcasters. Send forth Duke Rhisveri.”

The air was…shimmering. Ailendamus’ cheering had gone silent again. The Archmage of Memory hovered there and looked at the army of targets as his eyes blazed with magic.

Even Tyrion Veltras decided not to argue. He rode away from the fighting with Rabbiteater as Ser Greysten was carried off by Talia and his people. Rabbiteater looked up at the man.

“You.”

“Ser Solstice—”

Rabbiteater tried to punch Tyrion in the face. The [Lord] blocked the punch, cursing, and behind them…

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin watched Eldavin standing there. This time, it was her heart that was breaking.

Eldavin, not Teriarch.

Half-Elf, not Dragon. The same man in some ways—so different in others. The ego was there, the personality was the same.

That brave warrior, sometimes a condescending, grouchy old man, often caring, fierce and despairing and intelligent.

But without the wisdom of aeons. A Dragon in a mortal’s body without his memory.

Out of his mind. Betrayed by Ryoka Griffin. But all he said…even after what she’d tried to do, all he said as he looked down at the three Lucifen—Azemith, Igolze, and Visophecin—was this. For the world to hear.

What magic did you cast on Ryoka Griffin? I will have Duke Rhisveri answer for that and every transgression with his life. Send him forth.”

Ryoka was sick. Razia was silent, and the Wind Runner looked towards the Wyrm’s chambers. But Azemith just sneered back.

“We have not ensorcelled her, Archmage. You should know that. Or are our magics beyond yours? House Shoel will be your opponent if Duke Rhisveri is too busy to oblige you. I have something to settle with you as well. My daughter will wear your hand around her neck.”

Eldavin’s gaze flicked to her and Igolze, then past them. He lifted a finger.

“If Duke Rhisveri will not answer me, I see no need to delay this farce.”

You arrogant—

Azemith lifted a hand and wavered. Ailendamus’ forces looked up, and everyone from Baron Regalius to the Order of the Hydra gazed upwards. Those brave warriors who had mastered the art of swinging metal, fighting, putting their bodies on the line saw the contempt of [Mages].

They gazed upwards at a burning [Fireball] spell. Just a ball of fire ready to detonate. Sometimes as large as a basketball from a low-level mage with a small radius. Greater [Mages] could link and make one as large as a house.

These…these were masses of stone surrounded by fire. Hovering in the air as they appeared. One hundred, two hundred…

“[Meteor Storm].”

The Archmage of Memory silenced even the Terras faction as Ailendamus began to desperately spread out. He was glowing with magic. And still—Duke Rhisveri had not appeared. Igolze pointed a finger at Eldavin and wavered as he saw the Archmage aiming a wand at him. Even the Lucifen looked up in horror.

He was going to kill—

That finger began to crook downwards, and the burning meteors flickered—then a gloved hand halted it. Eldavin recoiled, and a carefully pointed smile and the red irises of Viscount Visophecin of Ailendamus met his.

“If Duke Rhisveri is unavailable…I am the head of House Shoel. Visophecin of Ailendamus. You have been most unwise, coming here, Archmage.

Brimstone and fire. Metal and oil. Ryoka could almost smell it in the room. She had no idea what it was like standing between the two. The Lucifen stepped backwards as Azemith and Igolze hesitated. Visophecin motioned them back, and Razia murmured.

“Visophecin himself?”

The Devil and the memory of a Dragon in a half-Elf’s body regarded each other in dead silence a moment. Eldavin’s burning, contemptuous gaze met the pinholes of darkness amid red light. The appraising gaze of someone adding him up into a number to be subtracted into nothing.

“Stand aside or perish.”

The Archmage of Memory issued one curt warning. For the look of it. He was already drifting backwards, and the swarm of meteors had vanished. [Mages] cried out as their [Detect Magic] spells grew so bright they overloaded.

“They’re creating so much mana the air is transforming. Look at it!”

Ser Ilm shouted in horror and awe. He pointed at the wavering lines in the air. Rabbiteater, groggy, looked up and saw something akin to the lines of heat radiating up from the ground. Only…instead of heat, it was magic, and it made the entire world shimmer as if it were all a mass of colored lines.

Rabbiteater looked at Visophecin and Eldavin, then counted the Lucifen. He put his head back down.

“We’re in trouble.”

Unless the Archmage could take them all on? He looked ready to. Visophecin was adjusting the suit he wore, flickers of darkness magic and his own cloaked spells appearing around him. Eldavin was far less subtle. He was chanting and binding spells to himself by the dozens.

Two spellcasters far, far beyond this age faced each other as both armies drew back two hundred paces. They were casting as fast as they could, waiting for the other to attack.

Eldavin was the first to lose patience. He pointed a finger at Visophecin and spoke one word.

“[Disintegrate].”

A beam of nigh-colorless light ate away everything in its path. Visophecin was about three dozen paces away from the hovering half-Elf, but the ray crossed the distance faster than an arrow. For reply…the Devil leaned out of the way.

His eyes never wavered from Eldavin. The Archmage of Memory’s gaze flashed at the bored look on Visophecin’s gaze. So he crooked his finger.

“[Splinter Spell]. [Recast: Rays of Disintegration].”

The ray passing behind Visophecin stopped, hit something in the air, and shot back the way it’d come as if it’d passed through a prism. Instead of one—a dozen rays of deadly light criss-crossed the air. The Lucifen turned. He had a microsecond to react. Too slow to portal out, as many Lucifen would do. He raised two fingers, and a cloak of dark liquid-fire ran down, covering him.

A cloak of some magic shielded the Lucifen, and the [Disintegration Rays] vanished into them. Eldavin’s eyes narrowed.

“So you are as good as you claimed in the [Message] spells.”

‘Viscount V’ turned, and his eyes were so calm that finally, Eldavin saw the little core of rage buried deep underneath that polite expression. Something of Visophecin’s true nature leaked out in those blandly spoken words.

“I am often humble for the look of it. And you are underestimating me, Archmage.”

He clicked his fingers, and Eldavin exploded. Or—the air around him did. There was no warning. No [Fireball]. The contained zone of space that Visophecin had been outlining just ignited in a moment.

The explosion was contained within a flickering sphere of magic. It could contain air, the force of the spell—and the Archmage’s escape attempts. Visophecin stood there as Eldavin reappeared.

The Archmage of Memory’s robes were scorched. He himself…Visophecin’s bland look changed to one of…disquiet.

His skin. The shaking half-Elf was regrowing his skin. Had the explosion touched him? He’d survived the lethal attack that should have vaporized his bones. His body—Dionamella had communicated something was wrong with—

[Doubled Spell]. [Finger of the Fire Giant].”

A pillar of searing fire, molten rock, and flame hit Visophecin’s position and gouged up a world of dirt. The Lucifen vanished as the black bolts of magic criss-crossed Eldavin’s position. The Archmage of Memory flew up, wings burning with a phoenix’s fire as one punched a hole in his body.

Then—then they began to do battle.

 

——

 

Of course, Ryoka Griffin was already running for Rhisveri. She had hammered on his door and was trying to break in. Razia was watching the fighting, calling out to Ryoka via a speaking stone.

Ryoka, you cannot break in! Even I couldn’t—

“What is he doing? I have to—Rhisveri! Rhisveri!

Ryoka Griffin was howling at the Wyrm as she flew around the palace. The wind was on the rampage with her, but even when she slammed an entire ottoman into the gigantic double-doors so hard it turned the furniture into splinters, nothing happened.

So Ryoka Griffin dug into her pouch and pulled out the Faerie King’s obol. She would break in herself if she had to.

But she had no idea how the stones worked. In fact…Ryoka stared down at the runes and the magic stones and realized she’d been so busy investigating immortals, even her Faeblade…

She had never thought about what the stones did.

 

——

 

Were they just magic? Or were they actually…something more? They were certainly currency, and it was a practical thing to tie the currency to value. Like coins—before the advent of paper, gold coins were actually gold.

Of course, the modern civilizations made faux gold coins because gold was a precious metal. But Rhisveri could appreciate money. In fact, he had been deciphering what the obol that he’d made Ryoka give him did.

“So obvious. Each stone is a bit of magic. But those runes…they are words. Multi-faceted meaning like all these imprecise, conditional languages. Their tongue?”

The tongue of the fae, those far travelers. Of course…Rhisveri saw it now. Their language was magic. The words, the very words the fae used, their real tongue, not the language they probably condescended to use with Ryoka Griffin, was so charged with magic that if they spoke something, they manifested it.

When they said fire, fire might actually appear. No wonder when he had asked Fithea about them, she had claimed they didn’t lie. How could you lie when you had to speak truth in power? The stones were thusly…

“She paid me in words. Heh. Heheheheh. That’s hilarious.

The Wyrm was laughing. He supposed there was a lot of sense to it. When you could speak the language of magic itself, you weren’t going to stoop to much less. He approved.

What he did not approve of…what had kept Rhisveri from appearing on the battlefield and was distracting him even now was the fae themselves.

This was the story of an impatient Wyrm. He had been ready to teleport to the front and sort out Eldavin. He had exiled Ryoka Griffin from annoying him—he had given orders to spare Tyrion Veltras, if only to spare himself the whining. Besides, hostages were worth more than a feud, and he had even considered that it might be wise to end the war after this.

However—he had never gotten a chance to teleport. Because something had happened. The obol of the Faerie King had begun shaking. And the Wyrm had known what that meant.

As Ryoka Griffin finally noticed the shaking obol in her hand, she and Rhisveri remembered that event they had almost forgotten with Eldavin and Dionamella’s death. The Wyrm’s cunning plan. His offer to the Faerie King.

The auction for the Scroll of [Resurrection].

It was time. Rhisveri watched Visophecin fighting as he cursed.

“How much longer? I hear you! I am ready! By your name, I invoke you not lightly, King of Faeries, but I will offer you the bounty of my treasures and a…fair share of its worth! Oberon.”

He hesitated. Even Rhisveri’s incalculable ego knew this was a dangerous thing. But the obol had been shaking for nearly an hour, and he wasn’t sure whether it meant the Faerie King was opening the gateway or if he were just heralding his arrival overlong. So he spoke again.

Oberon.

Then he felt it. Rhisveri gulped. It wasn’t in the bottom of the palace anymore, that old gateway. It was in the air itself. In fact…he sensed his barriers and protective spells on the verge of being torn apart. Hurriedly, Rhisveri cursed and canceled them. That damn Wind Runner would be here. Of course.

He spoke one last time, and his voice was a roar that faltered.

Oberon!

Rhisveri then felt it. The crack in reality. The auspice of fall, the cloying scent of atrophying life, the promise of the chill to come. A world in beauty and fading, from good to ill. From rot to new life of a different kind.

The Faerie King began to open the gate. Rhisveri braced, his claw hovering near the scroll. Riches uncounted. He waited for Ryoka Griffin as the doors to his throne room swung open. The wind had been blowing like a damned hurricane around his palace. Rhisveri turned his head.

“You might as well enter, Thief. You did introduce me—so you will witness my riches increase.”

He turned to the right and saw…no one. Rhisveri frowned at the air.

“Well, come on. Don’t sulk. Ryoka Griffin!”

She had to be just out of sight, right? The Wyrm peered down with one huge eye. He stared into the corridor and saw no Ryoka. She had just been there a minute ago…

Where had she gone?

 

——

 

It was then that Razia realized something was wrong. She felt that crack in the world.

Rhisveri! What are you doing? Stop! Stopstopstop—

It was adding to whatever was wrong! She felt a hole open, and she did not not know what felt to her of fall. Her bones were shaking. The Agelum looked around.

What is this? Ryoka? Where did you go? What’s…?

 

——

 

The ghosts felt it too. A crack opened in the deadlands. Their reaction was immediate. The five dead gods turned.

Him again!

Kasigna howled. Tamaroth saw the Seamwalkers turn, sensing something they had never felt before. Erin Solstice looked around.

“What’s going on? Why do I want pumpkin pie? What’s that?

She pointed up at a crack so thin that no piece of paper or needle could have fit in the gap. So wide it let through another world. A paradox, a point of view. Above Erin, she heard a sigh of wonder.

“Oh. I had thought he would never return. Not after Titania. Yet he has ever honored his vows. It is him.”

“Who…?”

Queen Marquin looked up, and Erin thought she saw one eye of amber looking at her. The very embodiment of the fall. Two vast hands pulled a gate open, just a sliver, and waited. The Dragonlord of Gems breathed in wonder.

“The Faerie King.”

 

——

 

Ryoka Griffin felt the gates opening. She was running, running back towards Rhisveri’s lair. She had gone to find His Majesty, Itorin, and beg for his aid. But this…

Now? Now!?

This was the moment.

“Razia! Meet me at Rhisveri’s lair! We need to stop him! Razia—don’t worry, I’ll explain everything!”

The Agelum was silent. Ryoka wavered.

“Razia? Razia?

She skidded around a corner and saw something that made her stop completely dead. Menorkel and Gilaw, who had been banned from going to war, much to one’s relief and the other’s ire, were standing over something. They looked…afraid. Searching around. Gilaw saw Ryoka and made a fist.

“Ryoka!”

“Razia? Where’s…?”

Ryoka Griffin looked down at what they were standing over. Her mouth grew dry, and she forgot even the Faerie King a moment. Because she was looking down at an empty wheelchair. An empty wheelchair and clothes that had just been on an Agelum.

“Razia?”

She—she had vanished. Menorkel pointed at her.

“I was just…she raced past us, and we went around the corner and…maybe she took off her clothes and left?”

Gilaw and Ryoka stared at the Titan, and Menorkel looked around. It was a bad hypothesis, but what else could explain this?

“Well, what happened?

Something bad. Ryoka looked around, then began to run.

“Rhisveri. I have to go. They’ll know what I’m supposed to do. Ivolethe will.”

She was about to run down the corridor when an aged, cracked voice interrupted her.

“What to do? Why do you think you have to do anything? What have you done to Razia, Ryoka Griffin? You’ve brought only chaos and danger and death.”

Ryoka turned and flinched as a Dryad hobbled forwards. Fithea’s gnarled body, once blooming, had turned to stone. She was petrified wood, two faded yellow lights burning in old stone. She knelt by the wheelchair, looking down in confusion as Menorkel and Gilaw, her wards, joined her.

“Ryoka didn’t do anything, Fithea. Razia just…”

“I’m sorry. Fithea. I am. I…”

Ryoka began to trot away as the Dryad bent down to touch Razia’s clothing. She was just trying to do the best she could. She had done some good. She befriended the Lucifen, she had failed to save Eldavin. She had gotten Sammial home and survived Rhisveri’s wrath. She didn’t know she was fated to make a difference. She just—wanted to help.

She was running towards Rhisveri’s rooms when Gilaw barred her way. The Griffin had not transformed to her true self, so she was a tall, twenty-something warrior with dark skin and a mane of black hair who glared down at Ryoka and made one huge fist.

Staeeeey heeeeere.

She pronounced the words with difficulty. The young Griffin saw Ryoka back up. The Wind Runner raised her hands.

“Gilaw. Please…”

Ryoka didn’t want this. She had always loved immortals. She just wanted to impress them and learn about them. Why was she so afraid she was doing nothing when the worst was happening? She heard Fithea calling to Gilaw.

“Gilaw, get out of Ryoka’s way. She has brought death to Ailendamus’ immortals.”

“I’m sorry. Fithea…”

Ryoka turned as Gilaw stalked out of the way. She couldn’t explain how true that was and not…that they were all part of something terrible happening that had never quite died. Those six coming back. The Faerie King’s warning. She saw Fithea raise her head and look at Ryoka. The Dryad lifted a hand as Gilaw hopped aside.

“Thank you, Gilaw.”

Ryoka blinked at Fithea. Then the wind howled. It blew her to the side, and she stumbled. Then she looked down at the arrows made out of wood sticking out of her left leg and stomach.

“Fithea?”

Menorkel’s head turned. He saw the Wind Runner waver—then the wind slammed her into the wall. It stopped the floor of the palace from smashing her flat as Fithea dragged up a slab of stone and slammed it down.

Ryoka was fumbling for a potion. The arrows were digging into her. Trying to grow into—she was screaming as she dragged a potion out, tearing an arrow from her flesh. Ryoka smashed the potion against her skin as the wind threw her away from another spell. A spire of stone blossomed beneath her and would have skewered her like a rat, but for another last-second dodge.

“Fithea! What are you doing?”

Menorkel was screaming in horror. Gilaw had frozen, eyes wide, looking at the Dryad. The old immortal was pointing, and another shower of arrows flew at Ryoka, and the wind snapped them in midair. She frowned as Ryoka began to heal.

A wall exploded, and the shrapnel cut Ryoka’s back to pieces. But the potion was still working on her, and it was one of the best potions House Shoel had. Fithea hissed.

“There was an age when healing potions were not so plentiful. When those would have been death-wounds in battle. Gilaw, Menorkel, stand aside.”

Fithea was trying to kill her. Ryoka realized it as she drew the Faeblade. She leapt from another spire of stone, cut apart an axe made of wood slashing for her face with the Faeblade—she was dodging, reacting on instinct.

Fithea was trying to kill her. Ryoka understood something at the speed of thought. The trap for her. But why…?

She was weaving, the air helping her dodge the sprays of stone and arrows Fithea was conjuring. But the Dryad was an expert from an older era; while Ryoka was busy weaving through the air, a little loop of vine caught her leg. She came to a halt as the wind cracked her entire body in the air. Dazed, Ryoka dangled there. Then Fithea pointed, and the vine slammed Ryoka into the ground. She was covered in vines in a second.

“There. It would have been so easy had you died to that spell. Now, I must take Gilaw and Menorkel and the worthy and leave. You are as troublesome as Rhisveri claimed.”

Fithea watched as the Wind Runner gasped up at her. Ryoka’s body was screaming at her.

“You? You?

Why? How? What had she done to Fithea? Anyone would have made more sense to Ryoka. Even Rhisveri or Visophecin.

But the petrified Dryad looked triumphant. No…that faded yellow light in her eyes grew bright, dangerous, and Fithea’s voice rose. The Dryad was…trembling. Her body was old wood, so old it had gone to stone and then been covered with moss and lichen. A parody of the bright being born of great forests.

She was the last of her kind. A Dryad who had despaired at ever seeing her people blossom, who had taken in other immortals. A lonely being who had craved even the memory of true earth magic in the obol.

So why was she smiling? She came forwards.

“You brought death here, Ryoka Griffin.”

“N-no. I…”

Then something about the way she said it caught Ryoka’s ears. Fithea said that word so longingly. The Dryad bowed her head.

“I have heard her voice. Faintly at first—then louder. Death whispers in my ear. A story so old that even the oldest forests only whispered it when I was a sapling. Yet Death walks this world again. The Maiden, the Mother, the Matriarch. Kasigna.”

Ryoka’s ears burned at that word. Did she just…? Ryoka flashed back to the gathering of the fae, Oberon’s warning. She felt a terrible dread creeping up her body. Her right hand hurt. She felt two fingers, burning.

“No.”

“Yes. There are things older even than I. And she has told me her return is nigh. For you, for your little life—she has sworn to return my kin. Nothing is beyond her.

The Dryad was laughing and weeping tears like sap. She had gone mad. She had spoken to the Goddess of Death, strongest of the six, and been promised the souls of her kind. Rebirth.

Gilaw and Menorkel had no context for any of this. They only saw Fithea putting a finger on Ryoka’s body as the vines began cutting Ryoka apart.

Fithea! Stop, stop!

Menorkel tore forwards. The young man ripped the vines free, crying out in pain as they cut his hands. Fithea turned to him.

“Menorkel! Stop! She is bound for death!”

“Fithea…that’s a monster. Don’t listen to her.”

“Be silent. You are a mortal. You don’t know whom you speak of. She is a g—she is one of the…she is the—

Fithea struggled with that word. Gilaw was hesitating, looking at Ryoka and her gentle, if stern mother. She had never seen Fithea like this; the Dryad’s legs were spattered with Ryoka’s blood. Menorkel tore Ryoka free of the coffin of vines, and Fithea looked at him.

“Menorkel, enough. My forests, my people—enough.

“Fithea, I w—”

Ryoka saw a spire of earth hit Menorkel. A wall of the palace collapsed inwards, and she stared at the hole in shock.

“Menorkel?‘

“Meni?”

Gilaw croaked. Fithea looked at the gap in the wall and turned to Ryoka. She was shaking, now.

“My forest. Die for my forests, Ryoka Griffin. You are a traitor to the oldest powers.”

Ryoka Griffin felt sick. She looked at Fithea and shook her head. Her hand hesitated as she held the Faeblade.

“Fithea. The gods are dead. They must stay that way. This is wrong. Menorkel…what have you done?”

She aimed the Faeblade at where Fithea’s heart should be. The Dryad reached out—and the blade of concentrated light shattered at a touch.

“I will not be alone any longer. You are the wind in the trees, Wind Runner. I was the land itself.”

The earth opened up beneath Ryoka, and she fell towards a world of spikes, stakes of wood and stone. The wind dragged Ryoka up, but Fithea clapped her hands, and the wind—faded.

“You are not the only one who knows wind magic.”

Ryoka fell, screaming, and Gilaw grabbed her. The Human girl looked up into a gigantic beak as claws seized her. Two black wings opened, and Fithea shouted.

Gilaw! Stop! Let her drop! Kill her!

The Griffin hesitated, but she disobeyed her mother. Fithea pointed a finger at Gilaw as she tried to fly out of the palace. Gilaw stared with wide eyes. Ryoka croaked.

“Fithea. The door is open. Don’t…”

She saw the Dryad hesitate. That finger wavered—then Fithea fired a lance of wood through Gilaw’s wings. The Griffin screamed. Ryoka saw it. She grabbed the Faeblade.

Fithea!

Her scream was despairing. The Dryad watched her adopted daughter fall, and the ground opened to swallow them both. She was now weeping sap as red as blood from those hollow eyes. And her mouth was open. She was trying to smile.

My home.

A hand caught Gilaw before the ground could swallow them. Gently, a giant’s hand…a Titan, a young one, cradled Gilaw. Ryoka looked up, and her eyes went round.

Menorkel was crying too. But the other hand rose and struck Fithea. The entire palace shook. Ryoka saw Menorkel trying to lower Gilaw down—then the world exploded into root and vine. It raced up his entire body. The entire hidden wing of the palace was covered in green. It swallowed the Titan, and Ryoka saw Fithea emerge.

Her stone body was cracked, but the Dryad was unleashing her magic. It covered everything—a wave of green that ate into the palace, swallowed people.

Fithea!

Menorkel was being brought down by thorns and roots trying to strangle him and Gilaw as he shielded them. Ryoka leapt from the Titan’s arms. She flew towards Fithea. She had only the Faeblade in her hands.

Fithea, the gate is open! The land of the Fae! Don’t do this!

“The land of…”

For a second, the Dryad hesitated. She looked around, and that conviction wavered. But then she looked at her wards, immobilized, being choked, the palace she had helped build engulfed in leaves. When she looked at Ryoka, there was an insanity in her eyes.

“But that is me, and I will be alone, even if my kin are there. I was promised everyone. Death is kind.”

“She lies. Fithea. Don’t make me do this.”

Ryoka held the Faeblade in hand. Fithea just looked past her, at Menorkel, as a wall of red plants the color of the Bloodfields sprang up around Ryoka and her.

“Your sword can cut nothing of magic. Don’t cry, Gilaw, Menorkel. No one will die again. We will be Death’s chosen. Even Rhisveri is nothing compared to her. The day of her return will be soon.”

Ryoka looked at Fithea, and her own tears were running down her face. Fithea turned to Ryoka and aimed a finger at her, ignoring the Faeblade. She didn’t care for it; she had seen it break, and it was a thing of technology, not the Faerie King’s obol. She controlled the wind, the earth, and she was a spellcaster second only to Visophecin and Rhisveri.

She looked at the bright pink light of the Faeblade. Then the yellow glow of her eyes flickered in confusion.

What is…?

The Faeblade ignited. It was not light which sprang from the handle. It was…fire. All the heat in the world, maybe plasma. Maybe just directed flame.

Ryoka had changed the output of the Faeblade according to the manual. The creators had designed it to kill any number of threats. Now it spat heat, and heat, mere flame, was worthless in space unlike light. But in this world…

It could destroy an Archmage’s enchantments. The hardlight, which was useless against anything made of magic, was different from flame.

A burning, bright pink sword of flame shot out and touched Fithea’s chest. It burnt her body of old root and stone black in a second. Fithea gasped—then she shrieked.

“Fire? Fire—

Ryoka Griffin saw the petrified stone refusing to burn. Then the flames found their way into a heart of wood deep in that body of stone. Proof that the Dryad was still there. That there was a seed of something glorious deep beneath the stone and death. The tears baked on Ryoka’s cheeks as the Dryad put up her hands.

Around Ryoka, the green world screamed, and Gilaw looked up as the Wind Runner stood there, flaming sword in hand. She saw an ashen body collapse. The Wind Runner fell to her hands and knees. She looked at what remained of the last Dryad. Then at Gilaw and Menorkel.

She would never forget how they stared at her. The Wind Runner got up to run away, to run to Rhisveri—then she stopped. She walked towards them.

“Gilaw. Menorkel.”

They flinched. Ryoka felt sick. She was shaking in horror. She felt that crack in the world and knew there was no time. Something was happening. In the distance, she heard more screaming as people saw the sky explode. Visophecin and Eldavin were fighting to the death.

But she stood there one second and knelt by the two. Looked into their eyes.

“I need to tell you something.”

Before she ran, the Wind Runner had to stay. She looked up and saw the trap closing.

The dead gods’ plans.

 

——

 

The Lightning Dragon had battled the Wyvern Lord in the skies for an hour. She didn’t know where Ressa was. She and the Wyvern Lord had fought each other, the monsters of the High Passes…

And when Rafaema looked in his eyes, she saw more than a monster. Not the same knowledge as another Drake, but an intelligence far too keen.

The young Dragon landed on a crag of rock melted by lightning and covered with ice. The Wyvern Lord roared a weary challenge to her as his pack watched.

“Enough. Why are we fighting?”

He hissed at her, and she looked at him with no knowledge. And yet…Rafaema saw how he warily circled her, hissing, staring at her. She realized—it was her.

Like when she and Cire had first met. This was his land. And she…she looked at the Wyvern and wondered if he were like her.

The Wyvern Lord watched suspiciously as a young Drake appeared, concealing her true nature. She held up her claws, and he inhaled warily.

“Stop. Here. Here. Will this do?”

Slowly, Rafaema took something from her belt and tossed it down. She offered him her sword. The Wyvern sniffed at the sword suspiciously, then growled at her. Rafaema hesitated—then she produced her bag of holding and emptied it onto the ground.

Gold pieces fell by the hundreds into a pile. The Wyvern’s eyes blinked at it, then at Rafaema. She waited—and it flicked a tongue out.

“No.”

A growl was her only answer. Rafaema stared at the Wyvern Lord and then slowly unbuckled her plate armor. She removed it and stood in her clothes, glaring at him. Then she tossed her vambraces, gloves…and the last five bottles of frozen healing potion down.

The Wyvern Lord considered Rafaema, then snorted. It gave her a wide, toothy grin, and she hissed at it. But then she warily changed back.

The Lightning Dragon and Wyvern Lord looked at each other, and he flapped a wing and went to inspect the spoils of his victory. She gave him a narrow-eyed look and slunk away. Just like when she and Cire had fought…

Winner took all. But only possessions, not life. The two, Wyvern and Dragon, looked at each other and saw two of a different kind. He ducked his head uncertainly, and Rafaema flew down, painfully, but alive. They could find some common ground and respect.

Not elsewhere. When the first drops of blood fell, they wouldn’t stop until one or the other was dead. That was pride and rage and…

Hatred.

Rafaema heard a sudden sound ring out in the High Passes. It was a terrible roar that filled everything. Monsters ran; the Wyverns took flight in alarm. The Lightning Dragon spun. She dove, searching, calling for Ressa. Hurry—she followed the source of that sound. It shook the air. It was so familiar…the Dragon forced her torn wings to flap harder, fly faster. Everything in her soul was telling her—

Hurry.

 

——

 

Eldavin and Visophecin were killing each other. The Lucifen and Dragon were equally matched at first. Or so it seemed to the armies watching their duel.

Portals opened, spitting dark magic everywhere. The Lucifen was calculation and hidden traps, dark magic and order. Eldavin was elemental rage incarnate, endless spells firing, maneuvering as he flew across the battlefield.

Teleportation magic. The portal magic of the Lucifen, Eldavin was flying with fiery wings.

A glorious battle?

One of them would die. And with each second, the two grew more desperate, more vicious. Visophecin’s polite mask slipped as he was engulfed in flame. He walked out of it, burning, and Eldavin snarled as a hole opened in his side. But his body knit.

“That’s not regeneration magic. Something’s wrong with his body.

The Lucifen were watching Visophecin fight. They were some of the few who could understand the scope of the magic. What they saw was the Dragon’s simulacrum. A beheading couldn’t kill him; he was healing, closing every wound.

Paxere was shaking with nerves.

“Is Visophecin—losing?”

That was inconceivable. Even Rhisveri had to use his true body to fight Visophecin. But the half-Elf was doing it. Uzine was letting Gadrea bandage his wounds, which refused to heal even with potions. The Agelum were watching grimly.

“He fights with more skill than even the Goblin King’s best [Mages] did. Who is he? Visophecin…he’s losing.”

“How?”

Gadrea just watched as Visophecin darted into another portal. Her eyes swiveled around at the watchers.

“—He’s in the open. He can’t drag this into his domain. You Lucifen fight better in your space. And he can’t reveal all his tricks here.”

In their pocket domains, in the places they owned. Visophecin was fighting with illusions on. But the greatest difference between the two were their bodies. Eldavin was healing. No—the center of it all was…

His mana supply. How much power does he have? Only Rhisveri has more. And he is…”

Sophridel was wondering. They were all coming to a conclusion. Only a few beings could do this. Ryoka had told them that Eldavin was an immortal, like them. But this was…

The world split in two. Visophecin created a void which contracted into a hole in a moment, eating space. Eldavin dodged it and replied with a complex shower of [Valmira’s Comets] that changed angle, homed in on Visophecin, ricocheted

The Lucifen walked like he was waltzing, twirling, knocking spells out of the air. His clothing was damaged, but he didn’t speak a word, just fought. Then—he stepped in the wrong place, and Paxere realized what Eldavin had done.

No! He’s put him in the ritual spell! The one that got us!

The Lucifen looked up as a pentagram traced itself on the ground. Eldavin came to a halt.

“[Pentagram of the Five Alchemies: Annihilation].”

Five spells: a wall of blue fire, a whirlwind of steel blades, a geyser of poisonous water, a lance of wood, and a blade of diamond formed that familiar pentagram, trapping Visophecin inside. The Lucifen spun as the pentagram flashed, unleashing the apex of magic on him.

—He had heard of this. Paxere had told Visophecin about the spell. The Lucifen’s eyes darted around. He picked a spot.

Wood, fire, water, metal, earth—each one arranged in a pentagram of weakness and strength. Visophecin cast a spell.

“[Body of Mithril].”

Then he leapt at the weak point—the lance of wood, which shattered on his metal body. The elemental ritual wavered, and the magic locus was broken. Visophecin escaped and looked up straight into Eldavin’s face.

“[Spear of the Lightning King].”

The Archmage of Memory hurled the bolt of lightning down, and the force of the impact knocked the front rank of Ailendamus’ forces down. The flash of lightning sent a charge through every piece of metal in ten miles.

He had expected Visophecin to try to break the [Pentagram of the Five Alchemies] by embodying one element. That did not mean you escaped; you left yourself open to another weakness.

The Dragonlord of Flame had fought a thousand battlefields, and the knowledge was half instinct in him now. He looked down…and faltered.

Visophecin was alive. The Devil stood, one arm shielding his face. The other arm had been blown off his body.

The Lucifen shouted in horror, and the Agelum rose. Visophecin stood there, looking at his missing arm.

The arrogance of immortals. Eldavin had not expected one of the Lucifen to match him this long. Visophecin…even knowing Eldavin was one of their kind, he had not expected to lose. He looked at his arm, and his eyes glowed red.

“Oh no. He’s losing his temper.”

Gadrea muttered. The younger Lucifen’s heads swung to the Agelum. They had never seen or heard of Visophecin—

Eldavin showered the Lucifen with more spells, trying to erase him. The cloud it kicked up was settling, and the Archmage of Memory was panting when something emerged from the smoke.

It was…not the Visophecin that Ailendamus knew. The one-armed man who had gone staggering into the cloud was gone.

A Devil emerged, skin dark with soot. Horns and bright red eyes over a pair of clawed hands. Sharp teeth—he was taller, and his missing arm had regrown.

“He’s activated his Warform! Cut the scrying spells! Tell them it’s a shape-changing—”

The Lucifen and other immortals severed the link to Wistram as Eldavin flew back uncertainly. The true Dragon might have remembered this, but the Archmage of Memory…

“What are you? Something born of Rhir? A Demon?”

Visophecin spoke, and his voice was like the tolling of a death sentence. It had no empathy, only a boiling hatred.

No. Not so kind. [Law of the Lucifen: Cease Breathing].

The spell engulfed Eldavin and the Dawn Concordat’s forces in a vast bubble of dark command, like an aura. Men and women grabbed at their throats and choked. Even Eldavin himself, eyes bulging in fury.

Visophecin pointed, and a hundred portals opened up, spitting bolts of death magic into the Archmage from every angle. Eldavin’s mouth opened in a wordless roar, and the world—

—Shattered—

“Did he just break the law of…?”

The Archmage of Memory flew at Visophecin and received a slash from those wicked claws as the two closed ground and began firing spells point-blank. But now Gadrea was mustering Azemith, Igolze, and the oldest of their number.

“We have to grab Visophecin. He cannot sustain his Warform for more than a few more minutes. He is losing.

Visophecin was no Agelum. Even empowered, he was losing to the Archmage of Memory in hand-to-hand combat as Eldavin summoned a blade from Drath and drove it into Visophecin’s shoulder.

Yet even now—the Devil raised one hand, and his kin halted. He was shaking with fury, but there was a cold logic in those eyes.

He was trying to wear Eldavin down. Visophecin had realized he was outmatched. The half-Elf had shattered one of his domains with pure mana. Now—he was trying to exhaust Eldavin so they could kill him. They needed Rhisveri or to attack at once.

Eldavin had taken the opposite approach. He intended to kill Visophecin rather than let him escape, rid Ailendamus of their best spellcaster.

More magic. He drew from what he now knew was his true body. Not just scraps or enough to fuel one spell. He pulled everything he could. Tapped deep into the heart of the slumbering Dragon’s reservoirs.

“[Vortex…of…Annihilation].”

He had Visophecin as the Lucifen fought. Eldavin was dragging him upwards, and he was going to erase the Lucifen with pure magic. No teleportation. No tricks or games, just overload him with more power than Visophecin had left.

He pulled at it, and the magic filled him to the brim. Yes. Yes! The Archmage’s eyes were burning as Visophecin howled—

—And in Wistram, the God of Magic’s spell activated. The Dragon had pulled enough magic for the spell to activate. Bereft of the God of Magic to activate it himself, it had lain there. Waiting. Waiting…

Now it cast itself, and the magic reached out across the world and found something. A spell so complicated that even Visophecin and Eldavin, locked in combat, both hesitated a moment.

What is that? The greatest spellcasters saw something settling over Eldavin. Reaching into him—but not fighting him for control of his fake body. It was going after—

The link.

The link that only Eldavin should have known was there. The Archmage of Memory’s eyes went wide in a sudden terror. The magic homed on the link between Dragon and simulacrum. And it—made—

Eldavin suddenly lit up with magic. The Lucifen shielded their eyes. He had been about to obliterate Visophecin, but this made even them halt in terror.

“The magic!”

A [Mage] went blind in agony, clawing at their eyes. Eldavin screamed in confusion. More magic than he had ever dreamed of was flooding him! Then—it was gone. Drained, he felt his body—

Magic surged through him. He was overwhelmed, exploding with it—it was gone—like a flickering bulb, he was filled and emptied of magic as it raced through the connection between him and his body in a moment.

What is h—

Flicker. Flicker. The magic was passing through him and his true self. Every second. Every half-second—exploding through his artificial body. Racing through the Dragon’s beating heart.

A Dragon was a magical being, but nothing could withstand that. Nothing was meant to take that much power and—it flashed between them. Ten times in a minute as Visophecin flew back. Twenty times. Eight times a second.

A spell from old ages, when simulacra had existed. Magic woven by the greatest expert there was or ever would be. A spell from the God of Magic to rid himself of a dangerous element he could not predict in his great game.

A simulacra-killer. It was aimed at one thing. Forcing the spell to overload both bodies until the one thing that could give—

Eldavin, Teriarch, opened his eyes. A Dragon in his cave opened his eyes, and the brilliant brass scales that had not seen light in so long flashed. He raised his head as an Archmage clutched at his chest, screaming. The Dragon roared, and the High Passes shook.

Then the sound faded. That heart that had beat for so long.

Thump. Thump. Thumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthump—

Stopped. The Dragon looked around. Then he put his head down and closed his eyes. Never to wake.

The man lasted a little longer. Eldavin, the Archmage of Memory, hovered in the air, and Visophecin and the army of Ailendamus, gazing up at him in terror, saw a calm, terribly resigned look upon his face.

He touched at his chest and felt nothing there. He felt the last magic in him keeping him alive. But…there was nothing at the other end.

“What have I done?”

He looked at his hands. Then he gazed down at the armies. The half-Elf bowed his head and then shouted for the world to hear.

“People of Terandria. Warriors, enemies, mine. Hear me now. I am slain.”

Such calm words. Spoken like a warrior of old, informing them just so, for such things should be done right if at all. Eldavin’s head hung. He looked around, and his smile was bitter and tired and empty.

“Flee. Leave this spot. For I am dead, and where I fall—nothing shall remain.”

A single body fell from the sky and landed on the ground. Both armies looked, uncomprehending, at the half-Elf who lay there a moment. Then slowly got up and began to walk. The last vestiges of magic burned in him. A Dragon’s worth of fire. He began to walk away, looking at his body as it began to dissolve.

No one, not Visophecin, wounded, not Eldavin’s people, knew the whole of what had occurred. Only that the Immortals of Ailendamus wept, for they felt it. Despite being their enemy, one of their kin had died. They turned back to the mortals. And there was only death now. The laughing dead gods.

 

——

 

She had been defeated. She was not the most dangerous thing in the skies. Her heritage, the name of her species, her birthright, did not make her better than monsters or a Wyvern.

Rafaema didn’t care. She flew down to where she had seen Ressa, weary, humbled, bloodied, and battered beyond belief. She saw a body lying against the lip of a cave that had not been there a moment ago.

“Ressa?”

The Lightning Dragon bent over a woman in tattered [Maid]’s clothing. A hand jerked, and a broken blade halted in front of Rafaema’s face.

“It’s you. Isn’t it…?”

The woman wasn’t sure. She was staring around. The Lightning Dragon looked into the cave uncertainly.

“Is this…?”

“Go. I didn’t open it. Something…the magic went away.”

Ressa was staring into the cave. She was as wounded as Rafaema, if not more so. But she hadn’t entered, though the cave had opened a few minutes after the roar shook the High Passes. She was afraid to.

Alone, the Lightning Dragon slowly crawled forwards into the cave, limping slightly. She saw how plain the rock was, how shabby and dark this place was. A terrible place for an intelligent creature to live. A hideaway in the middle of nowhere, too small for her to spread her wings and fly.

It widened after a while, and she came to a brighter spot where someone had installed a modicum of civilization. Marble floor plucked from somewhere else, a lantern inserted into a wall…and a glowing barrier.

Something lay beyond it. The Lightning Dragon halted in front of the entrance and tried to see inside. She smelled a lot of metal, magic…and something she had wanted to see all her life. She heard a voice as she halted behind the glowing magic.

Intruder. I do not know how you found this place, but that you have found it means you have, by virtue of extraordinary luck or intention, stumbled upon my domain. If you are hearing this…it means I am dead.

The voice was deep, old, and…Rafaema stared blankly up at the magic.

“No.”

“That you have entered here is surely after my treasures. I regret to inform you, visitor, that since you are here, the likelihood is far greater that you have had a hand in my death. In which case, I must remind you: when a Dragon falls, naught remains. Perish, along with my hoard.”

“No. No—not after so long!”

The Lightning Dragon whirled, but a barrier had closed off her exit. Ressa’s head rose outside the cave as a shimmering barrier of impassible power closed off the cave. A Dragon’s last revenge.

Rafaema felt a spell activating behind her. But as she opened her mouth, blasting the rock and exit with magic, she felt the crescendo of vengeance halt, and the voice spoke again.

Ah. One moment. My spell appears to have detected you are one of my kind. I suppose you may be the Dragonlords of War or Waves, in which case I would kindly ask you to trigger the kill-spell and off yourselves, you pathetic ingrates. I cannot imagine you bested me fairly.

The voice hesitated, and a Dragon gulped as he recorded his last words. Rafaema listened to that voice as it croaked, a moment, then picked up again, almost whispering now.

…But perhaps you are not. Perhaps you are one of my kind, be it Wyrm or Wyvern. Perhaps you slew me, and you deserve all the vengeance of mortals. No matter who it is though—my kin. I am tired of watching us die. Let me be the last. So. Enter. Be welcome. Remember, I was Teriarch. Dragonlord of Flame.

Then the magic faded, and the killing spell dissipated. Rafaema stared blankly up at the ceiling. One overengineered final trap by a Dragon who had prepared for every eventuality. She stood there, mouthing that name.

“Teriarch.”

Then the light showed her what lay beyond. A grandiose treasury of countless artifacts; only the best, rarest, would do. The hoard of a Dragon. A hoarder’s hoard. The Lightning Dragon wrinkled her snout at it all.

What good were jewels and gold? Or even the fancy books, but…vainglory? Memory? To have and to hold was a Drake and Dragon conceit, but surely one tired of it.

Unless the objects were a memory unto themselves. Something that would not fade or die. A way to pass time. She walked forwards and halted.

She had almost missed him there. Taken him for a pile of gold because those burnished scales of brass reflected everything so beautifully, and he was curled up upon himself. Rafaema of Manus halted, and her breath stilled in her chest.

For there was a Dragon. A brass Dragon lay in his hoard, eyes closed. Lying on his side.

He was not sleeping. She ran forwards.

“No. No! Not after all this! I came as fast as I could. How can you do this to me? I was so close!

She rammed into him, far smaller, and saw how old he must be. Rafaema put her head next to his chest but heard no sound at all. She knew…knew it had been just a few minutes ago. When he had roared and that heart had ceased.

Teriarch lay there, eyes closed forevermore. Rafaema looked at him and around this vast and lonely cavern. This hidden refuge with all the treasures of the world. And the one she had come here to find…gone.

The young Dragon did not roar or rage. She did not weep, either. She slowly crawled forwards. Looked up at the Dragon and curled up next to him. She lay there, wings covering her face, and didn’t move as the [Maid] followed her and wept.

 

——

 

The young woman wept too as she walked away from the dead Dryad. Towards the Wyrm. It was all over.

Teriarch was dead. But she still walked, leaving the Griffin and Titan behind to try to make sense of it all. They could have killed Fithea’s murderer, but they didn’t.

An entire glorious life, gone. Now—Ryoka Griffin understood. No. She was done with chasing prophecies. She knew the only thing she wanted.

She wanted that scroll. And she wanted…one more chance. So she walked, sword in hand, to challenge a Wyrm for a treasure. For a friend. A good person.

Erin Solstice? Teriarch?

“Why can’t they all come back? Why do I have to lose them all?”

 

——

 

The Wind Runner was one of every single person in the world, any world, that was and would ever be that would one day ask that question. Why now? Why not a second chance?

What would you give for that second chance? What would you do?

Challenge god or death itself? Make great war? What rule was so inviolate that you would not break to gain something like a Scroll of [Resurrection]? Assuming it worked?

They believed. The guests of the Faerie King, the denizens and refugees, all asked that question. Whether it was for them, for their loves, their family…

Whether it was a King of Chivalry who wished to change the fate he had left his kingdom. A lone Wyrm. One of countless billions who wept for someone.

A nation missing a hero. A friend looking for a friend.

They gathered. The Wyrm’s announcement, his auction had run through the realm of the Faerie King. So the day Oberon gathered them in his court—they were too many to fill any normal space in any building ever conceived.

Representatives of worlds apart disembarked great vessels. Fleets hovered, poised for…something. Mortals strutted, armed, into a gathering where Dragonfolk walked in mortal bodies and alliances had been struck.

All to one end to buy or…take what they wanted. Yet all those who had even a whit of intelligence looked at the being on the throne and the other empty seat and thought twice.

He was the Faerie King. Once, there had been a Faerie Queen, but taking up arms against him…

Oberon sat upon his throne, and he also stood at the gateways on those hills, surrounded by flowers. He stood amidst the offerings, the riches of lifetimes, material, and weapons of every make and caliber, secrets and objects worthy of stories—in many places at once.

It was all perspective, and his court, now the Winter Fae once more, stood around him. Only one being refused to change.

Melidore, the Summer Fae standing like one unfading bloom amidst the cold folk of the Tuatha Dé. Ivolethe was looking into that gap in reality.

Your Majesty. Who will take the scroll? You must make a choice, or this Wyrm. And we must have our say.”

One audacious representative demanded, and the Wild Hunt stirred. The greatest warriors in the land of the Fae bared their blades, but they were facing multiple realities, and there were those who would challenge even greater foes than them.

There were gods seeking cures for even their kind’s death.

And then there was Rhisveri’s wide, self-satisfied smile. The King of the Fae opened the crack in worlds, and he was there.

“Ah, Your Majesty of the Fae. I present the object all must surely desire. A scroll to return anyone to life. I take it my payment is ready. How shall we begin this choosing? Shall we negotiate upon your fee?”

Oberon, the Faerie King, held the door open, and it was not a light thing to do. He stood there, the avatar of fall, a laurel of faded autumn leaves on his head.

…A crown made by the greatest smiths ever known across any realms on his head…

…Wearing nothing, his hair the only crown he had ever needed. The crown was him…

The Faerie King gazed at the Wyrm, and Rhisveri’s confidence faltered. The representatives of each nation were tensed, weapons drawn, preparing to argue or simply try and steal the scroll that sat in a glass case.

So small. Grand enough in its way; it felt like that first breath after drowning. It drew the eye, like a spark in the darkness of a monitor. It even filled the air with magic, like a heartbeat.

“I see it. That was made with more than mortal craft. That has the power of the divine in it. Then perhaps it is all we seek.”

A god in the court of the fae, a young one, leaned forwards and whispered. He looked around, and his expression wavered.

For there stood three Kings of Knights. There was Nama, holding her offerings. There was the Winter Court and Dragons and Wyrms and every visitor there was to the realm of the Fae and travelers from further still. A Phoenix with a handbag, a fleet from distant stars. Hundreds of realms.

“Er…ah…i-impressive.”

Even Rhisveri’s confidence faltered as he began to take in that gathering. Even that crack in the world wasn’t enough to show them all, and he was caught in the spotlight. He gazed at Sikeri and Wyrms larger and older than he had thought could exist. They could wrap around his world and squeeze it to pieces.

All of them wanted what he had. Still…the Faerie King did not speak. Rhisveri was just about to suggest they somehow expedite choosing the gifts when it happened.

Your Majesty! We beg the right to offer this ‘Wyrm’ the first gift! Let us make a quick deal of it!”

A desperate diplomat threw the only card they could, and the court burst into arguments. Rhisveri licked his lips. He saw a Dragon roar and spread his wings, and it seemed like the violence might begin.

Then…then the Faerie King lifted one finger to his lips. He spoke one word into that gathering.

“No.”

The word ran through the realms of the fae. It silenced even gods, and it overpowered even the fiercest desire. Rhisveri’s wide grin faded. The King of the Fae looked at him, and the uncertain Wyrm wavered.

“Then…do you desire it yourself, Your Majesty? I will take your offer among all others if it is fair.”

The Wyrm had not missed that other empty throne. Every eye turned to the Faerie King uncertainly. Yes…if he wanted it, what could they do? This was his place. It might mean the greatest of wars, but he had need for that scroll too.

The Faerie King’s eyes locked on the scroll a moment, and everyone heard that whisper.

“Titania. Queen of the Fae.”

“Maeve. Queen of the Fae.”

A flower rested on that hill outside this gate. A terrible loss. Yet the Faerie King just shook his head, and a voice mocked Rhisveri.

“Aye, ye daft cunt. And you think your oh so powerful magic would bring back the Queen of the Fae herself? Was it made by aught that was more powerful than she?”

“E-excuse me?”

Rhisveri recoiled as one of the Fae turned to him. She sneered at the Wyrm. It was her counterpart, Melidore, who finished Ivolethe’s explanation.

“That scroll has the power of the divine behind it. But it cannot unmake a god. So how can it return one to life? Mortals, surely. Even those whom time will never touch. If one could so easily bring back the Queen of the Fae, she would live again with or without your bauble.”

Everyone exhaled in relief. Or was it disappointment? Then they looked at Oberon again. Then…why his words? Rhisveri’s tongue flickered out of his mouth, wetting his lips.

“King of the Fae, would you kindly, ah, elucidate us with meaning? I thought this auction was agreed upon.”

Rhisveri saw the Faerie King regarding him. He realized something, in the time it took for that look on the Faerie King’s face to change.

He had dared the Courts of the Tuatha Dé. He had cast his great treasure into the realms of every world with all the arrogance of his kind. Rhisveri had thought he had outsmarted the Faerie King. He had certainly thought he had bested Ryoka Griffin.

But he had never heard the Faerie King agree to an auction. He had just…inferred it. Believed that even the Faerie King would like the auctioneer’s fee for a treasure this great.

When he put it like that…the Wyrm realized the oldest truth of every dealing. No one ever got what they wanted from the fae. But they didn’t tell those stories in his world. And the one person who could have told him, Ryoka Griffin, he’d refused to listen to.

The Faerie King’s face slowly changed. Those distant eyes, the auspices of fall, twinkled. And then, the king with the crown, the king of the woods, the king of the fae—all his natures and perspectives…

Smiled.

And Oberon, the King of the Fae—vanished. The horrified Wyrm stared at the empty air.

“What…what…what?

Yet the crack in the door remained. The King of the Fae just…changed where it was pointed to. His audience cried out in outrage and confusion. And then…stared.

They looked into a strange world, one with no real end or beginning. No light or air…more of a concept than anything else. Mortals shouted in horror, for they looked into an afterlife.

The ghosts of this world turned and gazed at that crack into the lands of the fae. And the guests of the Faerie King looked up and saw the ghosts; the dead gods were practically ignored. What they saw, what they screamed and clawed at their faces at the sight of, was them.

The Seamwalkers. They turned, that mass of things half-realized, consuming souls, and they were caught like the foundation of nightmares and insanity before the bright spotlight of the Faerie King’s eyes.

His guests turned away in horror. A Dragon spread his wings. He bellowed, a champion from another world, and breathed flame that could have melted any ring in the world.

“This world is infested! I see the death of reality!”

Another voice cried out, shaking. A goddess pointing down in horror, spilling the ambrosia of whatever they ate.

“The Ctheziborn!”

“The Rot Between Worlds!”

Suddenly, the Courts of the Faerie King were in uproar. Those who knew what they beheld shouted amidst those who had only legends or stories.

“I have never seen so many. That—that many could devour a thousand stellar empires given time. What is wrong with them?”

“They look hungry.”

Then some realized where they were. They blanched at the gateway. A trembling hand of the divine pointed through the crack.

“This was the hegemony of gods. Their grand…this was where they gathered and where that war took place. It is overrun. They are here.

Five dead gods stared into that crack in the sky, uncomprehending. What was he doing? The Faerie King showed them all, pointing into the darkness of the afterlife as the ghosts turned. It was one of the Dragons who finally spoke, raising his voice amidst the shouting.

“I see it. I see it, now. This is the plague that threatens us once more? It is this you wished to show us?”

That head nodded, and the Dragon bowed. Slightly shamefaced—a courtier wrapped in the body he had assumed, rather than his full form.

“Your Majesty. We withdraw our complaint and beg the forgiveness of the Tuatha Dé. I see now that any object from that place would be—tainted. We take your warning to heart.”

His kin looked at him and then out.

Seamwalkers. They had many names, but they were all headed towards that crack in reality now. Clawing, drawing closer. And these were only the ones born of this world. At last…the court began to understand.

The Faerie King had a hand in a library’s worth of stories. A library without end, with shelves reaching up to the sky. Each book a thrilling story, a sad tale, an adventure of a million lifetimes.

A journey so long it preceded even him. He touched them all, and the possibly primate-based librarians could have organized every story by when he was there.

Oberon, in his many guises, across the many perspectives of him. The great warrior, the noble king, the petty immortal no better than those who came to his court. The inscrutable ruler of a dying land.

This moment—this Faerie King wrote an entry in countless stories. He pointed, and the worlds open to this moment, their representatives looked at the Seamwalkers of the Lost Realms. The rot of ages, doom of sanity.

The dead gods. The ghosts locked in strife and their own mortal frailty. As the young woman skidded into the room with the Wyrm, they caught a fragment of the Faerie King as he stood back.

He looked at the Wyrm and young woman, and one eye flashed with the heart of fall, the mischief of the fae.

Oberon…winked. Then he turned to his court of visitors. And Ryoka realized it really wasn’t about her after all.

Perhaps it was larger than even her. Like Cara, she was walking across an even larger stage for an audience of…

This was the day the Faerie King showed the gathered nations who had come for a drop of revival, resurrection, the death of worlds. This was the Faerie King’s trick, his warning to the realms who would heed it or fall screaming in their own time.

It was not about Rhisveri or Ryoka.

The guests of the Faerie King looked at each other, suddenly aware of how fragile the box of reality they existed in was. How hungry the things trying to get in were. They whispered stories, their own horrors. The slow ones finally picked up on the fact that no, they would not be bidding for the scroll. The Faerie King did not run auctions.

The Daoine Sídhe, the Tuatha Dé, whatever you wanted to call them, faeries, were laughing at them. A traveller from another realm with the light of the sun in his eyes bowed before Oberon. A god lifted a bow and a single arrow. Not in outrage, but supplication.

“Your Majesty. As you will it. Before this omen passes. I ask one thing.”

For they had seen the ghosts doing battle, the last stand and blight overrunning them. And the five dead things whispering their names as the fae denied them, shouting over their voices. The bright-eyed warrior’s eyes blazed with hatred. He met the Faerie King’s gaze, which twinkled as he waited.

“…May we offer one parting gift to this plague?”

Thus, the Faerie King sat on his throne as every head turned to him. Slowly, ever so slowly as he looked at them all, he nodded his head. So the god of the sun turned and put an arrow to his bow. He loosed it through that crack in the world, and it burned through a dozen bodies.

Dragons leapt into the air and breathed flames which roared through the doorways. Wyrms screamed insults that split the air and hurled acid. The Phoenix tossed the handbag.

It was not just in the court of the Faerie King; they might have hit each other if they were aiming for a single spot. The crack in the world was so vast entire armies were launching arrows through, close enough to hit a Seamwalker—far enough to call upon any weapon. The screaming battle that emerged through the crack silenced the ghosts.

 

——

 

Erin Solstice looked up as she saw what could only be a…ghostly fever dream? Who was the guy with horns? Was that a spaceshi—

She saw the world turn into a second dawn as countless weapons flew through the crack between worlds. Time itself bent, such that Erin watched a single arrow loose from a bow and saw an entire fleet turn and open up with multiple salvos.

It was too much to take in. She felt like she was staring through a kaleidoscope, watching multiple places at once. A panicking dignitary pointed through the crack in reality, screaming even as their forces unleashed all their weapons.

“THOSE ARE RADIOACTIVE NUCLIDE WARHEADS. ABORT! ABORT! THE FALLOUT—”

A crackling intercom raced through one of the thousands of perspectives. At the same time, Erin ‘heard’ the crackling intercom as a bridge crew communicated with each other.

“(Nervis-grain Railguns. Firing. Full volley.)”

Erin turned to Marquin, who was staring upwards in awe. She pointed at something which flashed through the crack in the world. Erin saw a somewhat familiar object burning gas and fuel in this strange place, angling towards its intended target, counting down a timer.

“Hey. Did that guy just s—”

The flash lit up the entire sea—and it was one of eight. Erin Solstice’s mouth stayed open as she looked around. There was no air to shockwave outwards, and that did really weird things to the physics. They were also really lucky that the ghosts had no bodies. The blinding light itself didn’t last long; the Seamwalkers burned and shrieked, but only three fell.

Three?

In fact…not all the weapons being fired through were helping. One of the Seamwalkers looked up at the bloom of nuclear fire from the warheads as if sensing something that made it…stronger. It kept walking a second—until a glowing arrow struck it.

A fragment of the sun, so microscopic compared to the large being that it surely didn’t matter. Yet it kept going, burning a trail through the chitin and shell. The Seamwalker halted and began to claw at the arrow. Then the radiating heat caused flesh to burst into flame. Parasites burned and the flesh began to bubble—then disintegrate.

Other Seamwalkers and ghosts fled the glowing shape a moment before it vaporized itself into a ball of fire to dwarf the first explosions. It consumed everything…then faded.

One arrow. One Seamwalker.

There were so many. Yet each horrified realm was unleashing their full might. The bridge crew were cheering as they watched trails of light following their volley. Holes the size of…Erin gazed up at one Seamwalker falling, riddled with so many impacts that it was torn to pieces.

“(Kills. Sixteen. Continue firing.)”

Then—the crisscrossing volleys of light focused on one Seamwalker, and Erin saw a mask of bone and dripping flesh stumble a bit—and keep walking. Thirty-two beams of light hit it. Then again, lightning-fast, and it rocked slightly. Then it walked forwards, slathering obliviously.

The cheering from that place stopped. The crew confirmed, victory turning to uncertainty in a flash.

“(…No damage? Repeat scans.)”

“(No result. We can’t see—it is rising.)”

One of the ‘dead’ sixteen was getting up. The holes blasted in its body were closing, and it looked around, confused, then kept walking. Another had been shattered to pieces, and each piece was crawling, even if it shouldn’t. A piece of head sprouted little ‘legs’. A mouth opened in what had been putrid flesh.

“(It…it cannot do that. They have no traces on any sensors. Collect a sample—)”

“(Denied. DENIED. Keep firing. Redirect to target quadrant A33—)”

Horrified visitors were watching their great weapons doing spit, while a bunch of ‘magic fire’ melted one screaming Seamwalker into its own juices. They were witnessing the Faerie King’s warning themselves.

And no matter how humble, or great, they took a moment to cast one ray of defiance, one shard of help into the void. A flight of arrows landed across a Seamwalker’s back, and it stumbled. Just…arrows. Launched by a group of wild men and women with pointed ears and dark skin who raised their hands in regret. Gazing in awe at the ghosts of their half-kin.

A god’s javelin, striking target after target until even the divine weapon faltered and shattered upon a crest of decayed ivory. A burning orb of light that washed away color and consumed two Seamwalkers.

If only they could have fought forward. But the volley was a single, glorious, immortal moment that was just that. Endless and ending.

As for the ghosts, Erin, Gerial, Cawe, the rulers of Terandria, even the Dragonlords, they watched a storm of fire coming through the crack in reality. A twenty-one gun salute from the other realms a million times over.

It took months and a heartbeat. Then it was done, the guns smoking, the last arrow shot. A crew of soldiers removed their helms to look at Erin Solstice. A god with the eyes of the sun bowed once. Erin saw a strange salute from a people unlike her in almost every way, their glowing flesh neither skin nor scale nor fur. They still showed her everything she needed to see with one gesture.

The Seamwalkers fell, burning, and the Faerie King looked out into the world. He gazed at Erin. He looked at Cawe. He stared into Kasigna’s eyes as the Goddess of Death cursed him.

Slowly, that head nodded, and the fingers closed the gap between worlds. Leaving only the memory of fall where he had been.

A single moment, a temporary hand interfering. Enough to slay a score of Seamwalkers. Not change everything. All he could do, perhaps. The largesse of a ruler who remembered his enemies and honored his oaths.

Still, the Seamwalkers advanced. Still, the dead gods came on, enraged now, cursing his name but not quite daring to use it.

It had done nothing. It was a kind gesture, a single arrow at the end of the world. Erin Solstice hesitated. Or was it? That crack the Faerie King had opened…

“A crack?”

Then she felt a tremor as the warheads of alien dimensions, magic, and the storm of attacks rippled through this realm. She saw Kasigna halt and raise her hands, as if she were a spider trying to repair a web. A mason trying to hold up a roof.

Then Erin Solstice saw it. A crack in reality. She felt the veil tear and thought she saw the Faerie King smiling at her. The ghosts looked up, and Marquin laughed.

“At last!”

The tear was even smaller than the door he’d opened. It was too small to flee through. But at last—after so long—

They all felt it.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: One more part.

 

Erin punching Grimalkin POV by LeChatDemon!

 

The ‘[Innkeeper]’ by Miguel!

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/cmarguel

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cmarguel

 

A comic of Relc meeting Sserys by lnco!

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

8.82 (Pt. 1)

(The final chapter will be released on May 3rd for Patrons. I am taking a one-update break to make sure it is fully edited. Thanks.)

(Podium is hosting an apron giveaway! Check out the contest here! The General of Izril, Book 6 is out on Audible! Purchase it here!)

 

 

 

A storm raced across the ocean. To those few at sea who glimpsed it, by magic or on the decks of a wary Drowned Vessels surfacing for a moment, it seemed like a typhoon had blown from Chandrar.

Earth over sea; a sandstorm rushing over the waters. So vast that it engulfed the entire horizon the closer you got.

Yet, it would be too late. Too late for the beginning of the Gnolls’ civil war. Too late for the first Drake armies reaching the Meeting of Tribes.

They might make it in time to avert the worst. Fetohep had unleashed Sand at Sea, and Rasea Zecrew’s famous ship was speeding their passage, as the Illuminary, one of the world’s fastest ships, lent its magic and Skills to the fleet’s passage. Wind spells blew at their backs, and Khelt’s armories were burning spells.

However, the greatest Couriers of this era took three days from Izril to Baleros by Igawiz’s Jet. So the inhabitants of the ship could only wait and hope they made it. An armada from Zeres was positioning itself to meet them at sea.

And all that Fetohep did was listen, watch. Now the rest of the world saw a fraction of what he did. The wild surges of time, omens—

It was all tearing apart. He could only tell the frightened peoples that Khelt was fighting. Now and then, Fetohep would turn his head as if watching something keeping pace with them. Watching. Listening. But there was one person he looked for who wasn’t here.

Erin Solstice. Someone had taken her body, but the ghost of the [Innkeeper] was not with the army of ghosts from Chandrar who dared the sea. She was…somewhere else.

On the second day of Fetohep’s voyage across the sea, the war in the land of the dead reached a turning point. It started as the last god, the Huntress, the God of Last Stands, the Goddess of Glorious Souls, Cauwine, revealed herself.

 

——

 

One hand. That was all she held out. It was more like mist than a hand if you looked close enough. That was what they were.

Forgotten. Dead. Rotted. Only a few details lingered in memory. Even their memory. To look at the six was to realize—you could grow so old you forgot what you looked like.

All they remembered was what stood out. A beard, a remembered grace, as of a man who could pivot and step across any surface in the world as lightly as a whisper. Three ages of a woman, bound to one body.

Nothing at all—secrets and magic kept across ages—

—And in Cauwine, a bow and arrow. The light from her eyes. Oak brown topped by the green of a wild forest, but passion burned at the center of it all. The unpredictable glint of wild defiance. Those hands had held every weapon, championed every lost cause.

The Elf who looked at the dead god remembered what Cauwine had looked like. The faces she had worn. Sprigaena, the Last Traitor, refused to take that hand. She stood beneath the bleeding Devourer of Time and backed away from the two gods.

Tamaroth and Cauwine. The God of Rulers was enraged, calling insults at Cauwine, but she had the advantage here. Not in whatever strength they had recovered from eating souls.

Rather, from sheer martial prowess. They had no flesh to move. Neither did they have Skills, and what magic they had needed to be taken from the world around them. Only Emerrhain was gifted enough to do that for every need. But they were not limited by bodies either. They could move as fast as they could imagine, and Cauwine—

Cauwine was the warrior of the six.

Ghosts were flying in great numbers around the Devourer of Time, fighting across the continent of Baleros, embattled with the Seamwalkers. Each continent was making a stand. As Sprigaena looked up, she saw a Dragon diving at one of the smaller foes jerk. It made a sound and—

Vanished.

The God of Last Stands touched it, and the prismatic scales of a Dragon born of gemstones vanished. One of the rarest species, a great soul—taken in a moment.

Evade it! Two of the six walk among us! Retreat! Re—

A [General], a Centaur racing across the ground, sounded the alarm too late. He looked at the hand on his shoulder and disappeared in a second. Again—she was right there.

Cauwine.

Tamaroth dove, and ghosts scattered from him. He was quick, and they blinked out, small [Soldiers] and ghosts taken by him in a single touch. But it was nothing to Cauwine’s speed. She moved like a flash of lightning, and ghosts vanished.

All she needed was a touch, after all, and they could not hurt her. Sprigaena, turning, saw a Dragon breathing a stream of gas and liquid straight into Tamaroth’s face. Grimacing, the God of Rulers reached out and touched the Earth Dragon, ignoring the acidic poison.

He would have fled that, before. This battle was empowering them with each soul they took. They were growing…too strong to stop. With each soul, they became a little more real. Remembering themselves, rediscovering their identities. Moving more surely, regaining their old power.

Come to me, my people.

Tamaroth called across the world, and ghosts began to walk to him. A Naga screamed defiance and launched a javelin at Tamaroth. The God of Rulers swatted it away, and the ghosts halted. He advanced on the Naga, and the warrior bought the others time as they fled in every direction. The Naga sprang left, darting like a viper, closing its teeth on Tamaroth’s arm as that hand reached out. The fangs sank into nothing, but the Naga still bit. Tamaroth scowled at it, and it vanished.

“Wretched little ghosts.”

They were not omnipotent. You could land the first blow—but there was no harming them. Sprigaena knew that. She had seen them die. But each one was…

She concentrated, and the world shifted around her. See them for what they are. Neither god had forgotten her; they were clearing the space around her, and the Devourer of Time kept bleeding. This was her last stand. So the Traitor of Elves looked, to see how to hurt them.

She had a single blade. No great artifact. She could cut time with it, score a wound across the sky from cloud to grass. That was thanks to the talent that had taken countless thousands of years to master, practicing with the greatest of warriors of every species and nature as a passion, a hobby, then refining it in battle.

She could turn the air into a blade and send it slashing across the ground. However—Sprigaena opened her eyes and looked at the two. What she saw was their true natures.

They were gods. They were an idea made manifest. They were…like a tower built up of concepts. God of Rulers. What did that mean?

Ruling was…leadership. It was memory. It was bravery in the face of adversity. Or was it simply control? Was it power absolute? Fear? Tamaroth embodied that perspective as he chose. He was all those things. He was a memory, a vast construction of concepts, ideas, things he had done and been, the power to alter reality—combined into one being.

That was one perspective. Another was seeing him as a great giant, dwarfing even the Timewalker, hidden as he walked across the world. As small as his ‘body’, but exposing only a fraction of his true nature at one time.

Yes—that was what you had to kill. Sprigaena saw no way to cut either. A tiny cut was all she could do, and they would ‘heal’ from it instantly because it was only a point of view. Only a seeming. She could neither bind them into a single spot nor inflict the damage only another god or great weapon could do.

When gods fought, it was with far more than magic or skill with blades. Sprigaena glanced up at the Devourer of Time. How easy it would be for that thing to make that step. If it did—they wouldn’t be able to stop it. It was a child who didn’t realize it could simply…deny the damage they were doing to its body. It was bleeding, not realizing it bled because it was imagining how it died.

“So, at my end, you will not even let me strike a blow against the corruption that haunts us all. Tamaroth. Cauwine. I gave everything to you, across all my years. Now, at my end—I regret it all. I will not give you my soul.”

Sprigaena leapt up, and her blade dug into the Timewalker’s body, drawing more blood that squirmed and whispered, leaking foulness even here. The two gods followed her. Sprigaena cut a piece of the Devourer’s marrow from one leg and beheld an inside that looked back at her, muttering, a thousand lips behind the eyes. She saw something coming from her, so fast—Cauwine. The Elf dodged, leaping away.

Tamaroth touched her arm. He looked at Sprigaena, smiling widely, victorious, and she flickered—even he could not take her in a moment. She—

Slashed off her own arm.

A fraction of a moment. Tamaroth was left holding nothing. Sprigaena trailed her own essence as she climbed. The arm was returning to her body. It was only a point of view.

Sprigaena!

Tamaroth howled, flying after her. But Cauwine was ever faster. Again, she reached out and halted, wary of the blade Sprigaena was pointing at her.

Which one? She swore to cut their real selves, even if it were only a single drop of blood she drew. Both knew it.

“Sprigaena. Take my hand.”

“No. Take mine.”

Cauwine and Tamaroth. Yet of the two, the goddess seemed—intent on Sprigaena.

“Ignore that fool Tamaroth. Take my hand, Sprigaena. You know how this will end. Kasigna has this land. Emerrhain has only made it disorderly before the end.”

“Why would I take your hand over his?”

Sprigaena saw the intelligence inside the Devourer’s flesh turn on them. The two, goddess and Elf, kept climbing. Something reached out and tried to grab Tamaroth, drawing him into the wound. He fought, cursing it—the two women were climbing higher.

This time, Cauwine did not try to touch Sprigaena. In fact, they were like twins, mirroring each other as they cut into the Devourer’s body. The Goddess of Last Stands was laughing.

This is a true battle. I was born a god, and nothing challenged me, so I despaired. Until I walked among mortals. Until I challenged my own kind.

Sprigaena said naught at all. She knew Cauwine. Again, Cauwine turned. She offered a hand.

“Sprigaena. They are all coming for you.”

The Elf looked out and saw four figures now.

Kasigna, Laedonius Deviy, Tamaroth, and Norechl. Emerrhain was nowhere to be seen, and if the Gnomes had succeeded, he would perish in nothingness. But the others were pursuing Sprigaena.

She was the greatest of souls. Even the Mage of Magic’s End would not be the bounty of Sprigaena. Even her own kind. Even Gnomes…

“I will defy you all to the last breath to atone for what I have done. Why would I take your hand, Cauwine?”

The Elf calmly looked into the hissing, pleading hole she’d cut in the Devourer’s side. She plunged her blade into it and reminded it what pain was. Even Norechl wanted her; her and that Human girl. Of the six, that one terrified Sprigaena the most.

Yet Cauwine insisted. She hovered there, hand outstretched, and Sprigaena, wary of a trick, a lunge—hesitated when the goddess spoke.

“Sprigaena. I am so hungry. We are all…starving. Yet take my hand. I do not offer oblivion or consumption or servitude. Join me, Sprigaena.”

She reached out, and the Devourer’s many eyes, Sprigaena, and Tamaroth looked up and saw Cauwine open a door. It was a tiny little doorway of light. Right across where her heart should have been, a gap in the body she took.

Sprigaena looked into that doorway and saw…everything. It led straight into the center of Cauwine’s being. It was her love, her creation, every moment in her memory, her passion and regrets and flaws and skill at arms. Not even the Elf had ever seen something so naked. Such a weakness. And that doorway called to her.

A million parts of the Devourer of Time reached out, but Cauwine cut them away with her sword. She held the door open for one person alone.

“Cauwine?”

Now, Tamaroth had lost his wrathful ego. He stared up, disbelieving. The God of Rulers pointed at her as the goddess beckoned.

“You have lost your senses. What are you doing?”

Cauwine just laughed down at him.

“Look at you, Tamaroth. You are doing the same thing as always. Wasn’t the point of all of this to make something new? To empower and shape mortal lives?”

She held up her arms to indicate it all and then sneered at him.

Even gods can change. I have always wanted to be more. We must become something else. Or would you come back from an eternity’s death and repeat yourself? Sprigaena…look. Don’t you think this is a better option?”

She held that door open, and the Elf hesitated. They were all coming for her, now. Kasigna, striding along after her delay; Laedonius Deviy, imploring her; Tamaroth, hurrying upwards.

“I…will not halt your dreams. You and I are not the same. I will be a single voice whispering among a thousand.”

The Elf’s finger hesitated. She looked down and saw she was bleeding the fabric of her soul. Ah—was she wounded? The Devourer had eaten some of her, too. When had that happened?

She was tired. Cauwine just extended that hand, waiting.

“You will be one voice in my ear rather than the silence in the background of their contempt. Choose, Sprigaena.”

A mouth opened behind Sprigaena, and she looked back into that curious face drawn in the Devourer’s flesh. Nowhere to run, Tamaroth flying towards her—Sprigaena looked at Cauwine. She raised her sword—and cast it into the Devourer’s body. Then she leapt, like she was younger, running across the ground in a better time, when mortals and gods…

…Touched hands without fear. When they spoke, and for all they warred and quarreled, she believed in them. 

She would never again. But the Last Traitor, Sprigaena, walked through that door with a sigh. A tiny little crack in Cauwine’s being. As vast as another world. It was all a matter of perspective. Sprigaena reached into it and felt another door open.

A bright door, revealing a thousand thousand paths that the Elf had ever walked. A girl born in an age of Gods walked side-by-side with a weary warrior, a despairing queen of a new age, a traitor, a hero…into a god’s heart.

Then she disappeared. Cauwine sighed, and Tamaroth and the other dead gods halted. The goddess looked around.

“Thank you, Sprigaena. Now—I must find out who we will be.”

She laughed, a wild, curious, even frightened laugh, and Tamaroth retreated from Cauwine as the Devourer tried to kill both, raging now, realizing another bright bit of sustenance had vanished. Recognizing its true enemies at last. The God of Rulers whispered after Cauwine as she dove away.

“Madness.”

 

——

 

Sprigaena was gone. Zineryr and the Gnomes were gone. In a moment—the ghosts of Baleros realized their battle was lost. Five dead gods and the Timewalker were consuming them. They began to flee the continent.

Baleros was lost.

Erin Solstice had seen Sprigaena go. She had been watching her. So many had. The Elf, the traitor to her people…she had drawn the eye, even amidst the chaos. Now—she was gone.

The [Innkeeper] realized two things, then. Seeing Cauwine and Tamaroth made something clear to her.

“Who…who has my body if both of them are here?”

She felt an odd sense of trepidation and hope. Maybe it wasn’t someone evil? Who could it be? Some random ghost? She hoped her body was okay. What if it were a Creler? Did Crelers have ghosts?

The second thing Erin Solstice realized as the Goddess turned was that Cauwine, for all she was as different from the others as Norechl…

She was not kind. Nor would she gain kindness from the Elf who had made war on her kind.

Ghosts were vanishing. Cauwine descended like a storm, flickering from spot to spot. Touching a shoulder, a finger glancing off an arm, ignoring blades and spells.

A hundred ghosts vanished in a heartbeat. More walked towards Tamaroth. Kasigna stepped onto the shores of Baleros and hissed.

Enough. I have wasted enough time. This is my place. My souls.

She opened her mouth—and the little chasm in her mouth expanded. This was no door. There was no invitation here. A Seamwalker stared into a stomach, a chasm of want that eclipsed any hunger it had ever known.

A pit with no end. An all-consuming, ravenous darkness so filled with appetite that it became a real thing. More malevolent than a black hole, deeper than any abyssal vortex. There was not even oblivion in those depths. Only her will. They were all her sustenance. Then the hole expanded and reached out.

It began to drag everything in. Erin saw a desperate, flying Harpy trying to escape as ghosts lost their balance and flew towards Kasigna. But she dragged everything in a vast radius towards her. Seamwalkers, ghosts—a vast mask of bone and two arms like blades descended towards her as a Seamwalker tried to attack the Goddess of Death.

Kasigna reached out and shattered the mask with a finger. The flesh running from the broken face dripped downwards, but one arm still swung at the Goddess of Death. It broke across her body. A thousand ghosts were dragged screaming into her mouth.

Dead…they’re like the stories I’ve heard of the Old Things. But worse. They look like us.”

Someone whispered in Erin’s ear. She turned and saw Gerial flying with her. They were fleeing Baleros. The Silver-rank adventurer looked at the continent of Baleros, then at Erin. His eyes were bleak, but they focused on her.

“We have to get you to your body. Ceria would never forgive me if I failed. Calruz, either.”

“Yes. We must go.”

A booming voice. Serept, King of Khelt, was striding over the waves. He pointed ahead.

“Hasten your steps, companions. Returning to Izril may be impossible. Northwards, towards Terandria. Or Drath.”

Ghosts were fleeing there. Not towards Izril, even though Khelta was still fighting in that direction, following Fetohep. One look into the sea showed Erin why.

Something with no face or body stood there. Nothing…no, not ‘nothing’, but the very idea of nothing made malice.

How to explain it? Norechl was there. It was…the very embodiment of the monster who was lurking around the door. The burglar who had crept into your room. The killer waiting for you to move as you lay, paralyzed in bed.

The God of the Forgotten was that kind of nothing. The unseen fear you could not name when you gazed into the depths of a well. The nothing you heard in your head at night that made you wake and listen.

Norechl walked over the sea, and Serept raised an axe of dark metal tipped with a pearl edge. A fanciful blade, like a razor’s edge, a smile across a shadow.

Rather like the God of the Forgotten, but far more beautiful. The Smith-King, the half-Giant, turned to Erin as she looked at Norechl.

“North, then.”

“Serept!”

Erin shouted, but the half-Giant set himself. The King of Khelt gazed at the God of the Forgotten.

“Show me your mettle, dark thing. Or will you not heed a warrior’s challenge? I am the son of the sky. The bones of this world were my ancestors. By Khelt—I challenge you.

He walked left, drawing the dead god away from Erin. Norechl was staring at Erin—but it turned. Smiling.

Serept!

Erin shouted, and His-Xe, the 9th Ruler of Khelt, saluted the half-Giant. Serept, the forger of countless relics, 5th Ruler of Khelt, the one who had first filled those vaults with great blades and relics, nodded to Erin.

She saw not the withered, undead body of the half-Giant king, but a man with dark hair. So tall he would have made a child out of Moore, standing, soot on his arms, holding an axe on one shoulder as the waves lapped at his heels and the beautiful clothes made for him, an honorary citizen of Khelt.

Shoes and clothing fit for a half-Giant, a wonderful gift for a young man who had gone barefoot as a boy, too large for the rest of the world. Food enough to eat. A bed commissioned for him by Khelt’s generous ruler himself. No wonder he had grown to love this nation enough to serve it for two thousand years after he died.

He stood there, the heavy axe in hand, and Erin looked away as nothing strode at him. She didn’t want to see it. She burned Serept’s image into her mind.

When she looked up, the memories of tears on her cheeks, the God of the Forgotten was walking her way. All she had was that vision.

“Being of the Forgotten. You will suffer a thousand deaths. I swear it by Khelt. You will not have your victory this day.”

It was a curse on His-Xe’s tongue. Erin saw the band of ghosts around her tighten their ranks. She counted them. Some, like Califor and the [Witches], had stayed with Khelta. Nerrhavia, the other rulers of Khelt, were far from here.

The ones who had come after her were the ones Erin had known:

His-Xe and Serept. Now only one ruler walking the dark oceans, fulfilling their promise.

Gerial of the Horns of Hammerad.

Cawe, the [Pickpocket], flying and cursing Norechl.

Velzimri, the Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets, his robe of countless alchemical ingredients trailing behind him as he cast a [Haste] spell on them.

Abel, from Earth, wiping his eyes as he searched the ghosts fleeing Baleros, searching for Jackson.

Last of all, the Rebel of String, Elucina, holding that shining blade that had ended Roshal’s lot.

Norechl followed them, drawing closer despite the magic that let the others race across the waves at a speed that even Couriers would have been daunted by. It was still smiling.

“Don’t look at it, Erin. I’ll—I’ll stop it next.”

Abel whispered to her. The young man from Earth was terribly afraid. He was from Nigeria, like Imani. He had died where they had landed, amidst Crelers. If Erin looked at him, she saw the terrible wounds on his body until he remembered a different time in his life. His brown eyes met hers, and Erin reached out to him.

“No…”

“No, I will be next. Khelt has made citizens of you all. Not one of Khelt’s children shall die before its rulers. Not now. They called me the serpent, the viper who made terrible war. I shall see if even that thing can ignore my poison.”

His-Xe lifted a hand, and Erin saw his fingers were painted a deep green, flecked with bits of red. The String-Man gazed at Erin and Abel, then with malice at Norechl.

“No. Don’t, His-Xe. I don’t want anyone to do this.”

Erin was shaking as she looked at Norechl. Shaking with fury. She would have hurled the acid jars and pan at it—but it would have just eaten her memories. The 9th King of Khelt just smiled, and his lips were colored too. A deadly kiss in lilac was the greeting Khelt offered to any insult when he had lived.

Perhaps, when their own sense of importance grew too large, when Khelt decided it should rule more than a pocket of Chandrar.

That was one of the eras when Khelt’s armies and fleets had touched even other continents. When it had made enemies, and the Viper-King of Khelt had ruled. Perhaps unwisely at times, but as he had believed was right.

His-Xe had taken many nations into Khelt’s embrace and offered them everything they could want. Except freedom. A flawed man, who looked back at the God of Nothing with narrowed eyes.

“My great warrior and friend, Salui, will never find me. Yet we said farewell when we parted. We are dead. You are not, Erin Solstice.”

He turned to smile at her. That was the last thing Erin ever saw of him. His-Xe’s grand smile. He didn’t even notice the hand that touched him.

Then she was there.

Cauwine. She took Abel’s arm, and the confused young man looked up, his face still resolved. He had walked from his world into a nest of monsters, and his friends had died. One girl had escaped and later come to Erin’s inn to make fine food and recover a bit. The confusion was still on Abel’s face.

They hadn’t ever asked for—

Erin Solstice saw Cauwine straighten as the ghosts around her cried out. Velzimri swung around and looked at Erin as Gerial lifted a blade. He swung it at Cauwine’s face, and the goddess parried it without looking at him.

Erin! Run!

Elucina was fastest of all. She struck at Cauwine, but the God of Last Stands was quicker still. She stepped back and grabbed Erin’s chin with one hand.

The [Innkeeper] gasped. Norechl made a sound, a screech without words of fury. Then—it and the ghosts looked at Erin.

She hadn’t vanished. The young woman looked at Cauwine.

“W-what?”

“So you’re the girl who vexes the others so. Tamaroth, Kasigna, and Norechl. You are not enough to eat. You annoy them so. Run away, little ghost. I didn’t come for you.”

Cauwine let go of Erin. The [Innkeeper] stared as the God of Last Stands turned. Two ghosts gone in a moment. The goddess turned, smiling—

Then blinked back at Erin. The young woman had just punched her in the back of the head. Erin felt nothing; it wasn’t even like hitting a wall. She didn’t know what she hit—but it didn’t do anything.

“Begone. I don’t want you, and Norechl is slow, but it never gives up.”

“Erin—run—

Gerial and Cawe dragged Erin back. The [Innkeeper] was shouting.

“I’ll—I’ll never forgive you! You—!

Velzimri whirled and strode after Erin. The last of them fled as Norechl passed by Cauwine, hesitating, but giving chase. One ghost stood on the waters.

“You came for me?”

Elucina, the Rebel of String, held her blade at the ready, uncertain. For answer, Cauwine threw back her head. Again—she opened that door.

I am Cauwine, the rebel. The Goddess of Last Stands. You are that glorious soul they speak of, Rebel of String. Join me and show me everything you have ever seen or known. Join me—and I will make great war on your enemies.”

She had sought Elucina out. One soul among many. A point of view she desired. The Rebel of String wavered. She looked after Erin, then at Cauwine.

“Swear to protect Erin Solstice.”

“I swear to nothing. Join me and you will be a voice in my nature. Change me.”

The goddess reached out. Elucina sighed. She was not faster than Cauwine. She stepped back, lowered the blade…and shook her head.

“I will not be a prisoner to whatever you are, even if what you show me is true. I am the Rebel of String. I will never be bound again.”

Cauwine gave her a long, frustrated look. Then the goddess shrugged.

“We are often like that. Defiant to the end. But you are not Sprigaena.”

Elucina dodged—but Cauwine had her hand. Slowly, with irrevocable strength, the goddess took the hand and put it against that doorway in her being. Elucina thrust the sword she held into Cauwine’s shoulder…then sighed.

“Oh. That’s what you are—”

She vanished. Cauwine watched the sword of light dissolve, then turned. She disappeared into the air, leaving Erin Solstice behind. Changing.

 

——

 

Norechl was gaining on them. They were now four, headed across the sea. It was Velzimri who saved them. The Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets unleashed his Skills and his magic, then.

Spells to haste their progress, let them walk on water. Walls of ice and stone, rising from the ocean. He hurled potions that exploded into tempests, poisons that would have infected Djinni. He cursed Norechl so roundly that Cawe looked horrified.

The God of Nothing did not slow at all. So Velzimri put his hands in his robes and just looked at Erin.

“He is almost upon us. Do not slow—to Terandria. They held out—they might stop it.”

Erin didn’t think they’d make it. Even if Velzimri blocked Norechl’s way, he’d slow the dead god for a step. And they could not even see Terandria from here, not with the water all about and Seamwalkers and ghosts fighting.

The [Sage] knew it. His brow was furrowed. He looked at Norechl as it bore down on them. Then…as Erin ran…she heard a whisper.

Stop.

It spoke to her. It called to her. She looked back, and Gerial paled further. Norechl.

Why was this one after her? She had not defied it like Kasigna, nor was it Cauwine or Tamaroth, who had gone for her body. Erin didn’t know when Norechl had tried to claim her body—she only sensed the malice.

The God of Forgotten Things saw something in her it wanted. Of the six…ghosts had every right to fear its touch more than the rest. It was kin to the Seamwalkers.

It was a god…in the sense that it had learned enough to join their pantheons. But Norechl had come from far, far away. The Furthest Traveller.

It was not kind, either. However, unlike Cauwine’s selfish rebellion, Norechl was malice. It was gleeful hatred. So it whispered at Erin to slow her. It whispered…and she heard a voice that was neither male nor female, loud nor soft.

It sounded a bit like her. A bit like nothing, a bit like the voice that whispered her class and levels to her. A bit like the dark voice in the back of her head on the darkest of days. Laughing…spiteful.

It said:

“Headscratcher says goodbye.”

Gerial saw Erin Solstice slow. The [Innkeeper] looked backwards.

“…What did you say?”

Headscratcher says goodbye. Goblins. Ghosts. Goodbye, goodbye. Garden of emptiness. Goodbye. Forever. Your fault. They were there. They were there.

The [Innkeeper] didn’t understand for a moment. Then she remembered the statues in her garden. What little color the ghost had drained away.

“Erin—no—”

Cawe and Gerial dragged her on as Erin turned. The [Innkeeper] looked at the God of Nothing as it laughed at her. She kept running, but her hatred towards Cauwine, towards…

“What did you do?”

Goodbye.

“Ignore it. Erin Solstice—we have no time.”

Velzimri was doing something. He had gathered his robe of countless flowing metals and ingredients and was, barehanded, mixing them together in the air. Norechl reached out for him, and the Sage cursed.

“Another second! An—”

A foot kicked Norechl in the face. It had no discernable features, but Erin thought it still looked surprised. It reached out, grabbed the foot—and a glowing spear made of lightning went through its chest. The God of Forgotten Things stared blankly at the leg it was holding.

Then the foot kicked him again, and a hand punched Norechl in the face. It recoiled, more out of surprise than anything, and a half-Elf cursed.

“Not even a Tier 6 spell? What are you doing? Run! Run! Go for Ailendamus and warn Rhisveri what is coming!”

“Who—?”

General Dionamella of Ailendamus, the Great General of Ages, hit Norechl in the face again. The Agelum had taught her how to fight. The Lucifen their magic. The God of the Forgotten put a hand on Dionamella’s face.

She and it stared at the hand as it did nothing at all. To the half-Elf’s…

Real body. Dionamella swatted the hand down. Then she drew a burning arrow out of the air and shot it point-blank into Norechl’s ‘skin’.

That did nothing either. The two regarded each other, mystified by their opponents. The General of Ages shook her head. Then she turned back to the ghosts.

Go! Go to Ailendamus!

“Thank you—whoever you are!”

Erin screamed back. She didn’t know who the half-Elf was, but the God of the Forgotten tried to walk past Dionamella, and the half-Elf seized its shoulder.

[Holy Flame of the Agelum]. Burn, thing.”

A blazing fire erupted from her palm. The dead god—

Flinched. It looked at Dionamella, and her eyes widened.

“Agelum magic? Then—”

She raised her hand and began a spell. But Norechl threw its ‘head’ back and screamed. Erin Solstice flinched; the sound wasn’t something she could have ever heard with normal ears. It was a keening wail…and it attracted every Seamwalker rampaging through the oceans.

Dionamella cursed as she looked around. The God of the Forgotten left, and she grabbed at it, but her path was barred by a titan of a thousand holes from which squirmed voracious offspring. She looked left and swung the burning sword she had called out of the air into the side of a flickering half-being of shadows, which screamed.

Ailendamus! Here is my end!

The Great General made her stand as a dozen Seamwalkers charged her. Erin Solstice saw her whirl and call that gigantic Wyrm of magic out of the sky. It bore down on the Seamwalker full of holes, that trypophobic horror, bearing it into the water where it bled bright yellow. Dionamella stabbed the half-there Seamwalker again and again, and bolts of black lightning rained down around her.

The guardian of time died as the living had seen her. For a second, Erin Solstice saw a [Lord], on horseback and surprisingly young, with black hair and a desperate, intense expression, gazing at Dionamella.

Lord Tyrion Veltras looked up as Dionamella screamed defiance. An aged half-Elf who had given her entire life for Ailendamus. For the Wyrm who had offered her power and one wish.

The place she had loved had turned from a small kingdom to a shelter for immortals over her long service, and she had walked among Rhisveri’s folk, received all their gifts. Knowledge, from the clothing she had worn, woven by Fithea, to the artifacts and blade she had carried. The Agelum’s strength and courage, the magic and cunning of Lucifen. She would have done it all again. If only she had known about this, though—Dionamella turned, hand glowing with magic.

Something snatched her up. Tyrion saw a fighting, screaming half-Elf blasting a horror he had only seen once, washed up on Izril’s shores—

Then she vanished, swallowed into a mouth with a hundred thousand teeth. Erin cried out. She looked around, but the [Time Mages] were dying.

The Devourer of Time was bleeding onto Baleros, into the waters. It was looking at Kasigna and Tamaroth, who stood against it, locked in an invisible battle. Parts of it were flaking away, turning to dust as Kasigna showed the Timewalker its mortality. Tamaroth commanded it die, and it tore at its own flesh.

The two dead gods aged, and every nation crumbled in time. Even death could be reversed, the withered flower bloom with time—

War between gods.

The God of the Forgotten was upon them once again. Erin Solstice snarled at it. It laughed at her as Terandria finally came into sight.

Flashing lights in the darkness. Shapes looming over the land. Terandria hadn’t fallen! But they were dozens of miles away, and Norechl was on them, and their magic was fading.

“Velzimri…”

“You will make it.”

Cawe and Gerial turned, swords in their hands, ready to fight Norechl, but the Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets drew himself up.

Dragons! Fliers! I require your aid!

He roared into the darkness, and some ghosts turned. They saw the desperate pursuit and swooped lower, but they would never make it. Velzimri looked at Erin Solstice.

“Tell them the Sage of a Hundred Thousand Secrets made one last creation for you, Erin Solstice. I wish you had been there when I lived.”

“Velzi—”

He was holding something. Erin didn’t understand at first what it was. Velzimri had created a giant glass bottle and had mixed over a hundred ingredients into it. Each one plucked from his garments or conjured via Skills.

One of the world’s finest [Alchemists] and [Mages], the selfish genius who had created Sage’s Grass, the Stitch-Boy who had never left the streets, only taken a different, grandiose name and hoarded his knowledge until it was all he had—looked at Erin.

A beard that reached down his chest and tickled his stomach, colored by countless alchemical experiments. A robe so long you could trip over it four times as he walked. Every wonder in the world at his fingertips as he lived except the tentative, regretful smile that he gave her now.

Norechl saw Velzimri turn. It touched him as it passed, and the [Sage] vanished. But the gigantic bottle was already breaking. The God of the Forgotten cared little for mundane creations or science. It did not acknowledge such things. So—unlike the other five—it had no context for what Velzimri was doing.

Norechl’s arrogance, and Velzimri’s genius. Erin Solstice saw the bottle hit the ground and detonate. Just like Saliss’ explosion. Velzimri’s last whisper echoed in her mind, for the rest of the world was sound and light beyond counting.

“—[Alchemist’s Safeguard: Test Subjec—

Most [Alchemists] learned something like that if they lived long enough. Norechl reached through the exploding world, uncaring. It could not harm it. Yet the God of the Forgotten realized too late—

It was not what Velzimri had been trying to affect. As any [Alchemist] knew—if you had an unalterable constant, why not alter everything else?

Norechl looked up, and its head traced a screaming trio of ghosts flashing through the air past startled Dragons, Garuda, and Harpies. They were flying at a velocity that might have broken a sound barrier, and because there was no air, they kept going, losing momentum very slowly.

Velzimri had even calculated their trajectory. Erin saw the continent of Terandria growing larger and larger. But she looked back at where the Sage had been. She was crying as his last creation carried them to Terandria. They made it. Norechl stared at Erin Solstice and Terandria. Then it stopped smiling. The God of the Forgotten got…

Angry. Tamaroth broke away from the Timewalker’s duel to follow Norechl. Kasigna hissed at him, but she was locked in conflict and refused to yield. She or the Devourer would rule this world at the end of their struggle, and she refused to lose. But the God of Rulers had something more pressing than even destroying the Devourer of Time.

Vengeance. Vengeance for their prides offended. He and Norechl were the last two to follow Erin Solstice. Laedonuis Deviy, Cauwine, even Kasigna had more pressing matters at the end of death itself. But the gods were offended. So—enough. Enough.

That mortal died.

 

——

 

Terandria. All of the continent was focused on the worldwide catastrophe that no one could quite put a name to.

That, the Meeting of Tribes, and the return of the Titan were enough to dominate the zeitgeist of this moment, but Ailendamus, of course, had a pivotal clash of their own going on.

The Dawn Concordat had won the victory that would define the war. The Great General, Dionamella, was dead, and Ailendamus’ greatest army had been shattered and sent fleeing or been taken captive.

Now, nation after nation was declaring war or turning on the behemoth that was Ailendamus as they sensed weakness in the unstoppable war machine.

Noelictus, Pheislant, Desonis, and Nadel were the nations who had openly declared their contempt for this war and pledged to support the Dawn Concordat in some way. Other nations had sent less overt allies, be it mercenaries or arms.

Now, the Human Kingdoms were watching a great force assemble. Well, they had been watching, and it was something to admire.

Tyrion Veltras and the Five Families, those lost cousins on Izril, had returned to ride with the Dawn Concordat. In fact—Lord Tyrion Veltras had grown younger himself, a sure sign that he had reached a new stage in his classes. Or perhaps it was the legendary [Matchmaker] who no one had heard of till now, Lord Pellmia Quellae.

They marched alongside Ser Solstice, also of Izril, the renowned Goblin Slayer. The Order of Seasons rode side-by-side with the Thronebearers behind the 4th Princess of Calanfer, Seraphel, whom many were already calling the Princess of the Grave, a title of honor from Noelictus that had…implications and was hotly debated.

However, the fact remained that a Lightherald of sorts was marching with Calanfer’s [Princess]. Added to that, Kaliv had pushed back its attackers, and so the Griffin Prince and an army of Kaliv and Gaiil-Drome’s half-Elves had joined the Calanfer forces.

In fact, this was a larger army than the one which had broken the Great General of Ages, because other nations had sent their forces to join this offensive push. The Order of Seasons had broken through the Pheislant borders, and the Summer’s Champion had reached the Dawn Concordat’s grand army after four days of hard riding. Along with the other name who was shaping this world: Archmage Eldavin, the Archmage of Memory.

An Archmage, a real Archmage at their backs. His flying, armored soldiers, the Order of Seasons, forces from half a dozen nations, and one Goblin were already past Ailendamus’ borders. They had taken two border-forts without a fight and were headed straight for the capital.

Despite Ailendamus’ power, their Greatbows, the morale of their soldiers had shattered with the loss of their Great General. And…looking up at Archmage Eldavin and fifty [Soldiers] flying alongside him when he demanded your surrender, soaring over the walls of your fortress, did something to the nerve of average [Soldiers].

Their commanders hadn’t even demanded they fight. Ailendamus almost appeared to be giving up or in such a state of paralysis that the Dawn Concordat was ‘winning’ victory after victory as it advanced.

Of course—that was a feint. Veterans like Tyrion Veltras cautioned claiming territory and suing for peace rather than the reckless advance. However, the Dawn Concordat considered the war as good as won. In the way of Terandrian wars, they intended to claim as much land as possible to give themselves an advantage at the inevitable bargaining table for the restoration of property and reparations when an accord for peace was struck.

It did not…occur to them that Ailendamus thought victory was not only possible, but a certainty.

The capital of Ailendamus had been in mourning. Everyone was shocked to silence by the revelation that the Singer of Terandria was a mortal enemy, the nations declaring war, and the army advancing on them. The loss of General Dionamella stood above it all, shaking confidence apart and turning it to fear.

Their nation was being invaded. Their champions had lost. Now—everything was in danger. Would the Dawn Concordat subsume part of them? Would armies come burning and destroying their homes?

Were there…no more [Soldiers] in the army, if no one was speaking of reforming a new one? Where was the counterattack?

His name was Ser Yoriven of the Order of the Hydra, and he had been a [Knight] less than one month. The young man was still nursing his wounds from the fighting at Krawlnmak’s Pass. When Yoriven closed his eyes, he could still see the Great General falling.

He had returned in disgrace with the rest of his Order. From the Drell Knights to the Order of the Thirsting Veil—Yoriven knew that the shame of failing their kingdom wouldn’t leave them.

But his nation was under attack. The Hydra Knights knew this—and so when he strode on foot to the capital that morning, for Hydra Knights marched and did not ride, he intended to beg an audience with whomever would hear him.

His Majesty himself—Ser Yoriven was prepared to throw himself on the crown’s mercy. But he would ask to go to his home and muster every able-bodied warrior if need be. He had been the fastest, strongest, and tallest lad in his home, but the Order of the Hydra would not want for more good [Knights] if they took only from the province of Kethms.

Yoriven was not alone. He was joined by sixty of his [Knight]-friends who all walked with helmets removed, armor still battered but polished, down the paved roads of the capital. He was prepared for jeering, for people to task him with his failure.

However, the streets of Wrmeriye, the Capital of Glass and Steel, did not look like the graveyard of quiet faces it had been yesterday.

The air was indeed hushed as the crisp autumn air blew across Yoriven’s face, but the other Hydra Knights heard some sounds in the distance.

“Another vigil for General Dionamella, perhaps? The capital still flies black flags from every minaret.”

Dame Cauie murmured. Another [Knight] shook his head.

“I cannot gainsay that—we have lost a truly great leader. But if no army is to be formed…”

The Hydra Knights looked at each other. They had not received any orders to muster up, which was why they were so concerned. Disgrace was one thing; the Bear-General had been reassigned to a border following his disastrous failures, and word was that that [Admiral] who had attacked Nadel had been stripped of his warship. But this?

A sound made Yoriven slow as he marched towards the great palace, a city unto itself in size, the pride of Ailendamus. It was in danger; the capital had been founded in the old heart of Ailendamus, and it was actually close enough that the Dawn Concordat was within three days of threatening it. If an army were to be raised and the enemy kept from the gates…

“Hold…wait a moment. What is that sound?”

The Hydra Knights looked up as they heard a sound break through what they had expected: the trumpets blowing mourning, perhaps weeping, or that grave silence.

It sounded like—cheering. And a familiar thrumming running down the streets. Ser Yoriven looked around as it grew louder, and intuition made him beckon the [Knights] to the side of the street.

They saw the people coming down the main street a second later. Ser Yoriven gasped, and the rest of the [Knights] instantly checked their armor. For—running down the street at a jog, armor gleaming, was no less than the [Knight-Commander] of their Order.

A common-born man who could have stepped into line with the most impressive [Knights] of any generation…and promptly been ignored, the Order of the Hydra’s [Knight-Commander] was not the huge, barrel of a man or giant of a woman like Dame Merila that people imagined of the largest Knight Order in the world.

He looked ordinary. Suspiciously ordinary, in fact, when you realized who he was. To be precise, the man looked like he was a Silver-rank adventurer with a handle-bar mustache, neatly groomed features, combed but not styled hair, and even slimly built and slightly shorter than average height, even with his armor.

He looked moderately unimpressive for a [Knight]. And he would keep looking like that even after running forty miles when you were coughing out your lungs. Yoriven had heard Knight-Commander Forcel had looked a bit pressed when he’d taken on three [Knights] from the Order of the Thirsting Veil. He had never seen the man ruffled besides that.

Now, Forcel was jogging down the street in good form, armored feet beating on the smooth stone, not cobblestone, a paved road laid out for perfect movement of pedestrians and wheeled traffic. Arms pumping, his purple-and-green armor gleaming with the crest of his office, polished like a mirror.

Oh—and he was being followed by a thousand Knights of the Hydra. A half-legion, which was about every Hydra Knight stationed in the capital at the moment. Then…Yoriven saw thousands of young men and women and recognized them too.

“Those are the [Squires] in the order’s academy!”

Dame Cauie exclaimed. Sure enough, they didn’t wear the formal armor of any [Knight], but they had been armed for war. And—many of the Hydra Knights seemed newly minted.

The Order of the Hydra and [Squires] from the capital were headed down the street. That was what the cheering was about. Ser Yoriven hesitated—then stepped out.

“Knight Commander!”

Forcel just looked at them, and Yoriven froze. Then—he found himself turning and running alongside Forcel. The rest of the sixty [Knights] did the same—they just turned and fell into line behind the Knight-Commander. That was the force of his aura.

“Knight-Commander, Ser! What is going on?”

“We are marching towards the Dawn Concordat. Ser Yoriven, isn’t it? Are you willing to fight?”

Even Forcel’s tone was fairly bland, albeit commanding. Ser Yoriven saluted.

“Yes, Knight-Commander! But we intended to beg the courts to muster our homes for soldiers. This…this is every Knight of the Hydra in the capital! Even the [Squires]?”

Were they that desperate for forces? Surely not! The Order of the Hydra had thousands of [Knights]—they organized into legions of two thousand. But Knight-Commander Forcel just smiled.

“His Majesty has asked every able-bodied man and woman in Ailendamus to join an army he is mustering. Do not concern yourself about numbers, Ser Yoriven. Three legions of the Order of the Hydra will meet us where we are assembling. The rest will maneuver to join us if need be.”

Six thousand [Knights]? Yoriven’s jaw dropped open.

“Wh—but then, why were we not ordered to join the front, Knight-Commander? Is it our disgrace?”

“Not at all. The Crown considered that our [Soldiers] on the front had experienced enough losses. You are welcome to volunteer.”

“We would be honored, Ser!”

A [Knight] called out, and Forcel nodded. Yoriven added.

“We could not abandon Ailendamus in its hour of need!”

“Ah. To that, Knight Yoriven…it is no disparagement on you or even the Dame of the Hills. Say rather—it is a sign of this hour. Even without your blade, all of you, and Dame Merila and myself…we will not make a difference. That is reassuring.”

Then the Knight-Commander smiled. His eyes lit up, and Ser Yoriven gave him a blank look. Not needed?

Then he realized the cheering he’d been hearing in the morning wasn’t just following the Order of the Hydra. In fact, civilians of the capital were running after the [Knights], asking to enlist.

As if they were needed. The Order of the Hydra jogged into the main thoroughfare that led straight to the capital, and Ser Yoriven turned his head and saw bodies in black armor, a thin line of green and dark purple and red, like veins of poison coming their way on horseback.

The Order of the Thirsting Veil were riding from the capital, a hundred abreast. These [Knights] had not removed their helmets, but their leader began to as the [Knight-Captain] bowed to Ser Forcel.

Knight-Commander of the Hydra. We are honored to ride with you.”

“The Order of the Hydra runs, Knight-Captain. Where is the Order of the Drell?”

The woman removed her helm, appearing slightly exasperated, but her eyes were gleaming. Ser Yoriven’s skin began to prickle as he saw more and more bodies crowding the vast road, which was thousands of feet across. He looked right and left as the Thirsting Veil Knight nodded backwards.

“They have joined their forces to ours. Ah—here comes the nobility. Thirsting Veil, eyes right!

The [Knights] riding alongside the Order of the Hydra instantly turned their heads right, and the [Knight-Captain] raised her sword. The Order of the Hydra looked to Forcel, and he barked a different command.

Hydra Knights, Third Serpent salute!

Instantly, a thousand armored gauntlets struck their left shoulder, across their chest. The ringing impact surprised some of the horses—but it was a salute of their Order.

Ser Yoriven’s head turned right, and he saw the first noble houses streaming from the capital. [Soldiers] marched in ranks, following the banners and often—the [Lords] and [Ladies] of their noble houses.

“Even the court…?”

He breathed. But yes—he spotted a familiar man wearing a coat of nigh-regal purple himself, the shirt beneath a deep, rich red. As if he were already bleeding.

But then—Baron Regalius of House Ecte did not have much reason to smile at the moment. Not after seeing the Singer of Terandria escape. He was marching with his household guard. That was when Knight Yoriven looked around and saw the stream leaving the capital as Ailendamus’ citizens watched—and many more volunteered.

They were all going.

 

——

 

The Hydra Knights were the center of the massive army coming down the central road of Wrmeriye, and yes, they were a thousand strong, and more legions of them would meet this impromptu army in the field.

However, they were still only one shade among many. Some, like the Thirsting Veil, had coordinated colors, but household guards were marching next to the [Soldiers] in the palace. And they were being joined by stranger and stranger forces still.

[Court Mages], students from the academy—and the citizenry. The damn citizenry took one look at the royal palace emptying itself of its forces, from the nobility to their [Knights], and asked to join the army.

They’d be getting classes that night, probably. And they would be armed; this was a patriotic, defiant gathering to defend their homes against the Dawn Concordat. Nevermind who had started this war.

Then the Griffin Riders began to soar overhead, only a few dozen, but the cheering redoubled. All you needed was some music and maybe the national anthem and you had a scene.

Of course, Rhisveri was intelligent enough to have that—or perhaps it was someone else who had organized it. Maybe Regalius himself; Ryoka Griffin did not know.

She had been uninvited to meet his wife and strange cats. Which was unsurprising. But this?

This made her stomach churn. She had seen military parades before, on Earth—never in person since America didn’t really do them. But this…was terrifying. They had no tanks, but they had [Mages], some of who were flying to prove they could. They had no helicopters—just Griffins with armored riders soaring over lancers and so much armor the ground was rumbling with their march.

They were not a modern nation with guns. But Rhisveri had demanded everyone crush the Dawn Concordat. So they had the Wyrm.

And…the immortals. Ryoka’s gaze swept over the thousands of armored figures who would join the other elements drawn from garrisons. Yes—that was the narrative. The capital was throwing all it had against the Dawn Concordat, even civilians who would fight for their home.

Just one problem. In this tale of defiance and glory—people didn’t know that they were marching alongside the kind of forces that made this less a ‘last stand’ or ‘great upset’ and more an exercise in overkill.

House Lucifen was marching in their suits, dark clothing eschewing armor, although a few had taken rapiers or wands for the look of it more than anything. Ryoka had no doubt some were master fencers, but she was just…counting them as they nodded to the cheering people.

“F-forty-one. Holy f—”

She hadn’t known how many Lucifen there were—and these weren’t even all of them! Visophecin himself was gathering some of the Agelum and more of his kin. Forty-one Lucifen could do…how much damage?

Not just them, either. Old Dwarves and half-Elves were as scary as anything to people who knew age often equaled asskicking in this world…but if they focused on them, they’d miss—

The Merfolk. They all had ‘Human’ disguises on and pretended to be a [Hydromancer] division, wearing robes of water, conjuring sprays of water that might be there to keep them hydrated. A figure in armor was leading them—Lady Paterghost. Sophridel—three masks of Sophridel—had joined that number, and Ryoka had heard him saying he would contribute his best ‘war masks’ which meant…clones of people at high-level?

The Elemental of Masks was heading out in person too, and Rhisveri had pledged to be there, if only to match the Archmage of Memory when the time came. And there were immortals Ryoka hadn’t even met, or only glimpsed briefly. The wind shied away from some of them, as if even the air could tell they were dangerous.

The Dawn Concordat…was going to lose. They were going to be wiped out—or would be unless they decided to surrender now. Tyrion Veltras had been warned, and Eldavin had to know what he was up against. But he didn’t know.

And here Ryoka was. Watching an army poised to wipe out some poor idiots. Worse—

—She had no idea what was going on. Why was Khelt on the rampage? She didn’t know. What had happened to Erin? No idea, but Ryoka feared the worst. She feared bodysnatchers or…or…

Was Mrsha okay?

Here she was, watching all this. Because she had to be. Because if anyone could theoretically talk Rhisveri out of this madness, it would be Ryoka Griffin. That was what she was supposed to do, right? Or was it the scroll?

Rhisveri’s auction hadn’t concluded yet. What was her role? The Wind Runner was shaking with nerves as she stood on a balcony of Ailendamus’ palace, watching everything happening. She didn’t know what was going on. But she was watching as Ailendamus’ army marched out to meet the Dawn Concordat’s in the field.

It was all going to happen today. She felt it. This disaster was coming to one point, but she didn’t know where. Where…

Where would she be needed? Was she needed? She waited as the wind blew.

“Erin…why did the fae send me here? Am I in the wrong spot?”

 

——

 

The wind blew across Visophecin’s face, and his hair refused to move for it. The Lucifen did not like having his appearance messed with, so he had no fanciful long clothing to catch. He rather liked Ryoka’s description of the suited Devil and had commissioned a few more pieces of apparel to match what was practically House Shoel fashion at any rate.

…Among the Lucifen, anyways. Their fairer kin liked bright colors. They would happily take loose clothing and invite stains and messes if it meant playing with children or enjoying themselves. It suited them too; their hair colors were in contrast to the Lucifen’s, who had shades of midnight, sometimes with other dark shades naturally enhancing their look.

Bright hair, wide smiles, and that limitless energy and passion that had made so many great heroes out of Ailendamus’ people. The Agelum’s one disconcerting aspect was their eyes, which could have four or more pupils on one eyeball. Their blue veins, fragile skin…their weakness, which was at odds with their burning gazes when they were passionate.

They were passionate now. Gadrea herself was picking out blades from their seldom-used armory and tossing them at Uzine. Visophecin leaned out of the way as a blade passed by one ear.

“You cannot join in the fighting.”

“Your hells we cannot, Visophecin. We will have no arguments. All of Ailendamus is mustering, and we will be there. You will need us if this Eldavin is too dangerous. At the very least, we can keep those [Knights] off you.”

Visophecin tapped at a lapel.

“We will have Great Knights, countless high-level warriors.”

Not us. When the Goblin King rampaged across Terandria, who stopped him from wiping us all out? Lucifen? Agelum? Or us, together?

Visophecin’s lips compressed.

“…That day was a disaster for our populations.”

He was rewarded with a glare from Uzine so intense it was on the verge of being physical. The Agelum were still in their wheelchairs, but he and Gadrea were among the most vocal.

“You cannot forbid us to join you, Visophecin. We are not your servants. I have been feeling stronger for months now; perhaps this is why. Try to stop us, and you will waste both our strengths.”

He bared his teeth, and the Lucifen thought quickly. He glanced around, then took a survey of the Agelum.

They were less numerous than the Lucifen, for all both could live forever. The Agelum…waned. The Lucifen could and did repopulate, but not the Agelum. Why bring new life into a world when this was their fate?

But new Agelum did keep their fire for a long time—they just exhausted it quickly. House Shoel had searched for ages, with only hypotheses as to why the Agelum were dying. It was not connected to Selphids or any other species like Vampires; indeed, even a Vampire’s transformation could not stop the Agelum’s weakness. They were…incompatible, although that went one way. Vampires certainly loved both’s blood.

More Lucifen were waiting to join Visophecin; they would unleash havoc on the Dawn Concordat. The Agelum were not needed unless Archmage Eldavin could clone himself ten times.

But if they were going, Vispohecin calculated and came up with a reasonable offer.

“…Very well. All of you may join us—all those without injury, that is. I will have your agreement, Uzine. We cannot let you perish to no end, especially if this war continues.”

The Agelum looked up with a glint that said they understood what Visophecin was doing, but Gadrea and Uzine nodded after a moment.

“…Very well. That still leaves a third of us. Are we taking your portals to the front? What about the Wind Runner?”

“That is my intention. As for Ryoka Griffin—no. She is unpredictable, and Rhisveri has confined her to the palace.”

“Hmph. Very well. That’s sensible. Maybe you can deliver Razia to Ryoka.”

“She must rest.”

Visophecin’s conditions were actually aimed at Razia and two-thirds of the Agelum. Many were still so weak they needed to stay abed; the stronger ones like Uzine and Gadrea could wheel themselves around, even stand without injuring themselves.

…But they overdid it. They always did. Razia, for instance, had just injured herself so badly she was bedridden. Indeed—she was being restrained as Uzine wheeled himself into her room.

I have to fight, Uzine. Give me a sword. This is it. If I’m going to die…I’ll take this Dawn Concordat down myself.”

She had blood on her lips. Visophecin bent down as the [Healer] gave him a worried refresher on her status.

“She is accepting the strongest remedies, but from what you say, she has an incredible resistance, Lord Visophecin…”

“She has taken healing potions all her life. We may move her.”

Move her? She’s in no condition to move!”

Razia had gotten so worked up after hearing about Dionamella’s death that she had gone to the training courts and, to hear of it, downed thirty [Knights] back to back. She had broken her arm in four spots and torn her muscles in half. Now—she was coughing blood from torn lungs.

At least the [Knights] could heal their broken bones. Razia looked ready to tear free of the magic bindings that Visophecin had cast, but Uzine slapped her face…sort of gently.

“You did this to yourself, you fool. This isn’t our last battle. If we all perish, you can have your last stand. Lie there. No…Visophecin has agreed to send you to the palace.”

The Lucifen nodded as Razia sat up, coughing. Uzine pushed her back into her bed, and Visophecin was glad Razia lay down; no one could compel an Agelum purely by force. They’d kill themselves resisting if they really wanted to do something.

“The…palace? Ryoka’s going to stay? Sensible—she’s no warrior. Why send me there? To push me onto her?”

Razia spoke between coughs. Uzine patted her hand, and Visophecin nodded.

“If putting you and her in the same bed will keep you from injuring yourself, I will arrange it.”

Razia and Uzine both laughed, then saw the Lucifen’s face was perfectly straight. Razia rolled her eyes, and Uzine put a baaahing Sariant Lamb onto her chest.

Lady Heppe nuzzled Razia’s cheek as Visophecin rolled his eyes, but then both Agelum and Lucifen were speaking quietly.

“You are to remain in your bed. No…wheelchair, I suppose. You can use it one-handed if we get one of the magical ones. You can follow Ryoka about, and if you see anything, you will signal one of us.”

Razia’s eyes brightened.

“Oho. So I’m a guard? I like that. Very well…I can at least keep Rhisveri from eating her. Are you sure you will not take me with you? This—it feels important, Uzine.”

She looked at the other Agelum, and Uzine hesitated. His gaze swung to Visophecin. Razia was looking at the scrying orb in her room, then she met the Lucifen’s gaze.

“Can you all feel it? I asked Sorixt, and he evaded my question and pretended to know something, but he’s young. Something is wrong. Khelt is absolutely right.”

Visophecin hesitated. He looked at Uzine and Gadrea.

“I…cannot confirm what I sense, if anything. What do you feel?”

Uzine and Razia had no idea, nor Gadrea, nor any of the Agelum. They only felt impelled to battle, to the extent that they were hurting themselves by being unable to sit still. As for Visophecin? He dropped Razia at the palace then went back to teleport to the front. He intended to kill Eldavin and end this war as quickly as possible. Rhisveri wanted a crushing victory; Visophecin would win with a razor, showing as little of their power as possible.

He wanted to be prepared for what came next. Because—if he had to name the emotion in his chest, the Lucifen would say it was…

Unease.

 

——

 

Someone else was feeling a rare moment of unease that had nothing to do with existential crises or the future and everything to do with fear for her being.

She told herself she wasn’t nervous. There was nothing here that could hurt her. Gold-rank adventurers feared this place. However…Rafaema of Manus, the Lightning Dragon, looked up at the High Passes and felt it.

Trepidation. Unease. Fear.

She was a Dragon. She gripped her blade tighter and checked the form-fitting Hearthscale-class armor. She had been trained by masters of the blade! She had lived over a century, and she was a Dragon.

Rafaema only felt…a bit alone. Especially as she looked at the mountains so vast they went into the clouds without stopping and she remembered that she had neither Makhir and Manus’ [Soldiers] to back her up, nor Mivifa, nor even Liscor’s [Guards].

“Which…which is good. Especially if I find my quarry. I couldn’t unleash my full power with them about, either.”

Rafaema checked her gear like a soldier, running down the checklist of her powers once more. She had done it eight times—but nine was okay.

She had just gotten to the High Passes via Celum, after transforming and flying to the closest town then buying a horse to ride into the High Passes. It was a fast journey. Maybe too fast for her tastes, but that teleportation door was an asset.

“Focus. Sword, armor, backup magic-piercing dagger. Lightning breath, eight potions of healing, four of stamina, emergency scroll of [Message], [Stoneskin] scroll, two [Lesser Teleport] scrolls, my magic up to Tier 3, and if all that fails…my other form.”

She could turn into a Dragon, and she was stronger, faster, and could breathe real lightning when transformed. Rafaema…wished she’d taken some of the expendable weapons like an explosive alchemical vial. She could have requisitioned it, but she was so capable she didn’t like bothering.

Now…she thought one or two more artifacts couldn’t have hurt. Makhir kept getting on her for not selecting a personal shortbow to keep; it was twenty free enchanted arrows. She—wished she’d taken his advice.

“I’ll get one and add it to my armory when I get back. And consider a bodyguard unit. Ferris, maybe. He could use a break from his infiltration duties.”

Rafaema muttered to herself as she remounted her horse. It was no warhorse, just an antsy stallion which gave her a questioning look. Hey. Hey. Do you know what you’re doing?

“Shut up. I just need to find him. I know he’s here. Teriarch.”

At least that was certain. Rafaema had caught whiffs of the Dragon’s ‘essence’ or whatever it was she’d picked up on Lyonette. Here?

She knew he was here. Her blood was racing with fear and anxiety over meeting one of her kind. What if he…were hostile? What if this were some kind of trap?

What if this were all just a mistake? She pushed the feelings down. She had to know. She couldn’t be alone.

So Rafaema hesitated another twelve minutes—then forced the horse to enter the High Passes. She traversed the same route that Ryoka Griffin had taken before, through the gigantic crack in the mountains, the trail that led ever upwards, filled with giant boulders and rubble as miniature avalanches fell, dislodging grey and red dirt, leaving plants and what greenery to grow higher up.

The same places that the Titan had walked, which were still capable of maintaining hardy life. But almost all of it was magical or monstrous. There were indeed ways to traverse this place.

Like with a Stink Potion. Or a suicidal City Runner. Or if you had a pink carriage. Or if you were a capable [Rogue] or other stealth class.

However, if you didn’t have any of these things? You ran into monsters who roamed the area, hungry for new prey. Especially something as non-threatening as a horse and a rider. Rafaema’s head was on a swivel, and she had been, as she reminded herself, trained by [Spearmasters] and [Blademasters] and experts of Manus.

She had not been trained by adventurers. Nor had she ever seen a Gargoyle outside of pictures. Nor had Rafaema ever considered the intrinsic biology of her species and that there were things in the magical kingdom even Dragons feared.

 

——

 

Her horse was dead. Rafaema dove, and stone projectiles shattered across the outcrop of rock. Her sword was lodged in a stony flank. Where was her dagger? Where was—?

Eleven minutes after she entered the High Passes, Rafaema was under attack. She had gotten about six hundred feet into the trail, following the ‘scent’, and then the first Gargoyle pack had ambushed her. One had grabbed her horse and nearly gotten her until she breathed lightning in its face.

Now she was fighting for her life. The Drake hid behind a boulder as the Gargoyles roared, fighting over the corpse of her horse. Then she remembered she was a Dragon.

You damn monsters!

She burst out of her hiding place and rose. The Oldblood Drake spread her wings, exhaling lightning bolts on par with a Level 20 [Mage]’s spell.

Rafaema…watched the Gargoyles take the lightning bolts, recoil and howl as they tore pieces out of their bodies, then spit shards of stone back. One hit her in the wing, and she faltered. Then they leapt at her, and she realized—Gargoyles could fly.

Manus!

They were huge, some as tall as eleven feet, made of stone-armored skin coating muscle, and they had huge, beak-like faces and rending talons. One grabbed her and tried to crush her with one talon.

It failed. Rafaema’s armor was far too sturdy, and she forced the Gargoyle’s claws apart with her own. She was stronger than the Gargoyle! The Dragon laughed—and it tossed her and spat stone shards into her face.

“Gaaah!”

They didn’t break her flesh; she had a Dragon’s toughness. But they hurt! Rafaema rose, legs buckling—and a Gargoyle punched her into the ground. Again, she was too strong to take it as more than an unpleasantly heavy impact. Rafaema tried to roll over—and one tossed her into the wall. The Gargoyles spat stone, clawed at Rafaema—and recoiled as she blasted them with lightning.

Panting, Rafaema got up. She looked at the Gold-rank threats, who regarded her with confusion and wariness. She looked for her sword and found it lodged in the side of one.

By the Walled Cities!

Shielding her face with one wing, the Lightning Dragon charged. She’d stumbled—let go of her sword—but she seized it now. Like a blur, she whirled, slashing, carving through the outer layer of the Gargoyle’s hide. It backed up, hissing at her. Rafaema laughed.

They couldn’t harm her! Regroup—slay them. Wing tactics! Take out a wing and then their legs. This was a learning experience. She saw them backing up…and realized they weren’t backing away from her.

The first Eater Goat landed on the ground and baahed. It looked normal to Rafaema—oh, the eyes were a bit too wide, and it was a stupid goat to be here with these monsters. Then she saw it open its mouth…and open its mouth…and dislocate its mouth and open wider.

More teeth, more mouth than any creature should have proportionate to its body mass suddenly opened up wide, and the goat made a gurgling shriek as the Eater Goat, scarred, teeth filled with scraps of what it ate, from stone to bug to flesh—looked at the Gargoyles. It lunged, bit, and tore a chunk of stony flesh from the Gargoyle.

Rafaema stared in horror. She recognized the Eater Goats now as an entire herd leapt down. She saw them charging the Gargoyles, and the High Passes’ circle of predation began as the hunters became hunted and began fighting with their enemies. Both were food for the other—but the Gargoyles were outnumbered. They tried to retreat, but goats were jumping on them from above, trying to take bites out of their heads and eat them from the brains down.

Oh—and Rafaema too. She saw one huge maw open, and an Eater Goat leapt. Rafaema dodged with the speed of a striking snake and swung her sword down. She beheaded the Eater Goat, and its kin fell upon it.

“That’s right. Y—”

The Dragon realized she was surrounded. It was in the prickling of the back of her neck. She looked around and saw there were dozens around her. Staring, eyes red and wild. Then their mouths opened, and they shrieked—

Rafaema speared one through the stomach, blasted a dozen with lightning, then they were on top of her. She didn’t panic, just grabbed at her belt. She was a Dragon. She was a—

They were eating her! Their mouths dug into her scales and drew blood. Rafaema screamed.

Get off! Get—

Lightning burst from the pile of goats, but they were insane. They didn’t stop, just climbed over one another, ate each other—Rafaema howled, then vanished and reappeared with six clinging to her, chewing, trying to tear pieces off this unusually-tough piece of meat—

She tossed them off her, punched one so hard it left teeth clinging to her leg, and snapped one’s back as she crashed into a stone wall. Then Rafaema looked around.

The other Eater Goats looked around after savaging their wounded and dead, spotted her, and charged. The Dragon had had enough. She was half flying, staring at a torn wing, when she snapped.

You damn goats. You tried to eat me? Me—

The Eater Goats had little conception of form. They only saw mass and a few things like danger—red stripes on green, for instance. So when the Drake began getting bigger, they didn’t care, only feeling that ravenous hunger driving them on.

Then they realized she was getting a lot bigger. The size of a house. And they put together that form with a familiar ‘death signal’. The Eater Goats looked up as an azure Dragon, scales glittering with every color of the sky, from the white of clouds to the deep violet of the horizon close to space, roared.

Rafaema inhaled—and the bolts of lightning that burst from her mouth turned the Eater Goats into charred corpses. The others ducked and even dodged the bolts of lightning, but they only stopped to grab the corpses of their fallen before retreating behind cover.

The Gargoyles, three remaining, saw a Lightning Dragon coming at them. They stared at it in horror—then Rafaema slammed into one, knocking it against the cliff wall. The other two fled—

Then returned to save their buddy. Rafaema didn’t expect that. And the ‘killing maneuver’ she had envisioned did not squish the Gargoyle; it was stone. She felt it trying to tear at her chest scales and bit awkwardly. Her talons slashed at it, but they were pressed together, and she—

She hadn’t really fought as a Dragon. She didn’t inhabit a Dragon’s body often. She bit and slashed, but she was a quadruped with wings, not a winged humanoid. The Gargoyle tore away and fled backwards, and Rafaema snapped, feeling the other two clawing at her—then retreating.

“That’s right! Run!”

One spat stones into her mouth, and her reply of lightning sent one last body tumbling to the ground. Rafaema saw the other two flying higher—then saw the Gargoyle she’d just blasted get up and limp away before jumping into the air.

Wheezing, the Lightning Dragon caught her breath. She felt…drained. Tired. She looked around, but the Eater Goats had decided they’d had enough too. The bottom two predators of the High Passes along with the Carn Wolves—who could smell lightning, thank-you-very-much, and hadn’t gotten involved—fled Rafaema as she lay there, feeling bites and a few aches and pains.

“This is the High Passes? This is a nightmare. People live near here?”

She got up after a few seconds. She was only bruised and cut at worst. Rafaema decided to stay in her Dragon form, though. She sniffed the air.

I’m close. It’s…but where?”

She flew up a bit and felt like she was closer to the scent on the ground. Was she looking for…a cave? Did Dragons just live in caves? She’d hate to do that, but maybe it was in hiding. Rafaema banked a bit and wondered why the High Passes suddenly seemed so cold. Was that frost on the rocks? Was that air…on her back…?

Then the Wyvern Lord dropped on her.

 

——

 

A fun fact about Draconid biology that Rafaema didn’t know was that they were a family with far-flung species. Lindwyrms were related to Wyrms, and they were also related to Dragons, as were Wyverns.

They all smelled each other. Of course, Dragons had developed high intelligence, and magic created many, many variants, but Wyverns had been known to grow very intelligent too. Especially the magical versions.

One such was a Wyvern Lord, a young one, an apex member of his species. He had smelled Rafaema the moment she got close to the High Passes. Of course, he took it the way a Wyvern would. Discharging her lightning breath all over the place? All that roaring?

She was coming for his territory! Well, the Wyvern Lord had descended from the heights of the High Passes for greener pastures…then run into terrible death at a city. He’d come back only to have a bunch of green things fire arrows at his pack and take some. He’d been dueling with other monsters, trying to rebuild, and facing challenges from uppity Wyverns.

Now he had a young Dragon muscling in on his territory. The Wyvern Lord had been losing all year long.

Not this time. He had spotted her in the lower part of the High Passes, near the old Dragon who had bested his entire pack. However…the old Dragon hadn’t shown himself, and all the monsters had grown incautious. It occurred to the Wyvern Lord a second after he dropped that maybe she was here to mate?

…Nah, he would have sensed the pheromones. The Dragon was giving off definite ‘do not come near me or die’ smells, so this young Dragon was challenging both of them with her roaring.

The Wyvern Lord saw she was big—but not as big as him, just a bit smaller. About a wagon’s mass or less. And she looked tough, but she flew like a brick.

Plus, he had done what made Wyverns famous in the air: found a spot thousands of feet up and then dove like a stone. When he hit her, it was with all that weight and acceleration behind him.

She didn’t die. Which was frankly amazing, but he was breathing frost on her as Wyverns circled above, then decided to roost and watch the fight. They regarded this as a challenge to their leader; they weren’t above following a Lightning Dragon. If she didn’t want to lead, they’d find a new leader. Their current boss had done too much damage to the pack. Besides, she was cute.

The Lightning Dragon was wheezing as the Wyvern Lord tried to turn her to ice and got a terrible surprise; she was resistant to the frost that had killed so many foes! He’d definitely cracked a lot of bones, so he bent, tearing at her throat for a kill among his species.

She vanished. The Wyvern Lord felt the entire bulk of the Dragon vanish below him. He landed on the ground, swept his tail around, and looked about stupidly, then up at his kin.

Hey. Did you see that? Where’d she go?

They screeched back uncertainly. The Wyvern Lord sniffed—then his eyes, which could see heat, saw the Drake with wings rolled up behind a boulder. Wait a second…that was definitely her.

The Wyvern Lord inhaled and froze the boulder, shattering it with the sudden drop in temperature. The Dragon screamed—but then she was growing again! Could she—change size?

The Wyvern Lord recoiled, then charged forwards, ramming her into the stone. She bit back, and he realized—she’d healed somehow! He snarled.

Well, well, well! A foe indeed! She might have tricks, but she was awkward. Slow! She missed him as she bit, and he slapped her in the face with his tail like a whip. Then he leapt into the air. He wasn’t going to lose. Not this time.

 

——

 

Rafaema had no idea what was going on. Was that the Frost Wyvern who’d attacked Pallass? She had felt him crush her in that dive and screamed in agony—but she’d had the presence of mind to activate the ring and drink a potion.

Three potions, actually. She’d needed three for her true self to heal. Now she was blasting the air with her lightning breath. But he was—

Fast. The Frost Wyvern soared left and right, dodging most of her lightning bolts. Rafaema had never fought fliers—much less in her Dragon form. Manus did hire Garuda to teach their fliers, but Drakes just weren’t as good as Garuda.

And she was grounded, trying to turn and tag the Wyvern. It didn’t occur to Rafaema that that was a bad move. She didn’t want him to drop on her, so she thought she was safe on the ground.

In reply, the Frost Wyvern darted up the cliffs. Rafaema blasted the stones and rocks—then saw an avalanche forming as her attack dislodged rocks, which bounced down, dislodging more rocks…all coming her way.

“Oh Ancestors—”

She began to take off, but the moment she spread her wings, he swooped down and frosted them! Numb and heavy, Rafaema flapped her wings and then tried to run awkwardly across the ground.

 

——

 

Got you. The Wyvern Lord’s eyes narrowed and he grinned as he saw his trick work. The Dragon fought like a land-lizard! The old one had been clever enough, using his cave as cover, but this one was just an idiot.

He picked up a boulder, chucked it down the slope, and watched rocks slam into Rafaema. The Wyvern Lord was a canny fighter who had grown up fighting his kin. He was triumphant…until he realized Rafaema had shrunk again and was using the avalanche as cover!

The Frost Wyvern howled and dove. He began to coat everything in ice and saw her body heat diminishing rapidly. He hovered over the pile of stones. Either she emerged and he snapped her neck—or he froze her solid. His breath attack was also more refined than hers. She had raw power on her side, but she was untrained, unused to combat, and for all her age, she had never encountered a foe on her level. Which was why she was going to die; the Wyvern Lord intended no quarter to a challenger.

The Wyvern Lord was still exhaling, his eyes alight with victory, when the [Maid] jumped on his back and began planting talismans. He twisted, caught sight of Ressa, then she stabbed him in the back with her poisoned dagger, and an explosion engulfed his body.

 

——

 

The [Maid] leapt off the Wyvern Lord a moment before the talismans blew. She hoped it would knock him out of the air; the fall might do some damage.

No such luck. The Wyvern caught himself, and the [Maid] growled a series of expletives. Half aimed at Rafaema, half aimed at herself for jumping in.

Magnolia would have probably asked Ressa to do the same thing, but the [Maid] had still wavered. She was a Face of the Assassin’s Guild, a former top-tier [Assassin].

But that was a Wyvern Lord. She had gotten him six times with her dagger from Regis Reinhart’s vault, and she was going to demand a better blade; she didn’t think the poison was working.

You damn idiot! Get out of there! Now!

Ressa howled at Rafaema—and then she was fighting. Unlike Rafaema, she’d stealthed her way to Teriarch’s cave and had been trying to figure out how to open the damn thing. She’d watched Rafaema get into trouble and had hoped the idiot would leave—but the Frost Wyvern Lord had attacked.

Now she leapt from rock to rock, playing the world’s deadliest game of tag, as the Wyvern Lord dove, breathing frost after her. He was quick—but Ressa was a [Maid].

And an [Assassin]. The Wyvern Lord frosted Ressa into ice—and blinked as the clone of her vanished. He saw another Ressa dash upwards, then come to a halt on an overhang.

“Excuse me, sir. You have something in your mouth.”

He opened his mouth, and Ressa tossed three daggers chained to alchemy weapons into it. One was just acid. She saw the Wyvern Lord choke—and then begin howling with pain.

And he didn’t even look badly hurt. The [Maid] leapt off the ledge just in time for Rafaema to emerge, roaring. She looked like she hadn’t healed up. The frost must have destroyed her potions.

Wonderful. A [Maid] and a Dragon whelp against a Wyvern Lord in his prime. At least he didn’t look fully matured either. Ressa landed next to Rafaema as the Wyvern Lord choked out bile and some of the acid she’d fed him.

“You—you’re the maid!”

It was disconcerting hearing a version of Rafaema’s voice, albeit booming, coming from her mouth. The Dragon had a wide-eyed look that made Ressa reach out and slap the wing she could reach.

“Yes, and you’re an idiot. That Wyvern Lord won’t stop pursuing us until we’re dead or you’re somewhere safe like Pallass. Tell me you have a relic.”

“I don’t—”

“Great. Then you need to help me take it down. I have one series of Skills that might do some damage. Cover me. Use your lightning breath, and for the loveless marriages of Reinharts, don’t let him get above you!

“You can’t give me—”

Ressa ignored Rafaema. She took off running and heard the Dragon take to the air a second later. She had a limited number of weapons she could use; the dagger worked—but how were you supposed to hit that?

Ressa looked up and saw the Frost Wyvern circling. He was in the air, and he was too canny to be caught on the ground twice. She needed him to slow in order to hit him. Rafaema gave her that opening as she flew.

Now she was learning how her kind fought; they circled, Rafaema dodging frantically so as to not be caught by his killing dive. The Wyvern Lord traded ice breath with her lightning.

“She’s not even advantaged in the air.”

Ressa knew more about Dragons than most people living, and she knew—the Frost Wyvern was a master of aerial battles. Even Teriarch would have hesitated to fight an old Wyvern King in the skies.

Frost-type Draconids were the most feared air-fighters along with Lightning Dragons for different reasons. One had an instantaneous breath attack that did a lot of damage…if they were trained. Rafaema’s breaths were spread out and were weak—she was even panting for air.

By contrast, the Wyvern Lord could spit actual balls of concentrated frost and project thin streams of it. He was aiming for her wings. That was how they killed. Freeze their opponents and let them drop a thousand feet or just move down for the kill.

They were battling through the narrow canyon, and Ressa barked at Rafaema. She’d slapped a speaking stone into the Dragon’s earhole, which couldn’t be pleasant, but the [Maid] could give orders.

Dive low! Low! Through that archway of stone!

Rafaema obeyed, and the Wyvern Lord dropped after her, pursuing her now. He passed under the arch, then realized it was a trap! He twisted, maw opening up, incredibly fast, to freeze Ressa—

—And realized she wasn’t above him. On the ground, Ressa exhaled. It was lucky she’d thought that trick wouldn’t work twice.

She hated intelligent foes. As the Wyvern Lord twisted and saw her, Ressa activated her Skills. She’d only get one shot at this—Rafaema passed over her, eyes wide, and the [Maid] spoke.

“[Offense Mode]. [Battlefield: Footholds of Stei-Stone]. [Danger Zone: Multiplied Velocity].”

Three things happened. The first was that Ressa lost the comfortable stealth she almost always activated. The second was that the air changed, and little stones, floating footholds, appeared as she leapt from one to the other, heading up. The third?

A…bubble of control appeared, and in it, Ressa sped up. So did the objects she threw. Weighted daggers, connected to more explosive weapons, talismans—or just daggers. Made of lead.

She could already throw them fast. Now? They passed the velocity of an arrow and hit the Wyvern Lord with a force that could strike a mithril helmet and turn the brain inside to paste.

Four dozen projectiles took him in the wings, chest, even neck and face, and he roared as they dented his scales. But that was just to slow him—Ressa landed on his back, drew the dagger, and activated her truly unique Skill that she’d gained as a [Maid].

Synergy. She’d always been a deadly warrior. The young [Assassin] who’d taken a sabbatical in Drath had learned to throw a dagger through an enemy’s eyes and do things like walk on walls and fight from cover. But a [Maid] leveled easier, and she got—

“[I Carry My Mistress’ Burdens]! [Blade Art: The Heron Descends Upon the Waters]!”

 

——

 

Rafaema saw the [Assassin] hit the Wyvern Lord like a whirlwind. She executed a weapon art along its back and hit the howling Wyvern dozens of times, cutting into it from above, poisoning. But what struck Rafaema wasn’t just Ressa’s ability—which any one of Manus’ military would have considered top-tier officer abilities.

It was…the force of her impacts. She stomped, and the Wyvern Lord dropped a foot or five. How—how much force did Ressa have? Which was the wrong question, of course. The question was—how much did she weigh? Each dagger thrust had far, far more force behind it than any regular blow should. It was an odd synergy, [Maid] and warrior. But it had something to do with Magnolia Reinhart’s ability to eat as much sugar as she wanted and stay at a sublime weight which she chose.

After all—a [Maid] had helpful Skills for her employer.

The Wyvern Lord crashed into the ground, howling, wheezing, as Ressa finished her weapon art. Then she just began stabbing it, and Rafaema dove, breathing lightning until Ressa shouted at her.

Don’t hit me, you idiot! Hurry! Before he calls his entire pack! We need to get inside the cave!

“The cave? So it’s true! You knew—where is it?”

Ressa was cursing as she sprang away from the Wyvern Lord. He was getting back up, looking woozy, but furious.

“It’s been magically sealed! I need a moment! Hurry!”

Rafaema gulped, but then she bared her teeth and roared at the Wyvern Lord. On the ground, he had only two legs, not her four. She descended, and the two fought.

 

——

 

Why did the small things always, always hurt so damn much? 

The Wyvern Lord felt bruised all over. His back was lacerated, and he felt sick, hot—a bad thing in a Frost Wyvern—and dizzy. But he was still going to fight. He and the Dragon were on the ground, biting at each other, and he blasted her in the face with frost breath.

She was screeching something at him, but it wasn’t proper language. He howled in her face, and the two snarling Draconids were so locked in combat they didn’t realize the Gargoyles were back until one hit the Wyvern Lord in the face with a mallet half the size of the Wyvern Lord’s head.

Two fighting giant creatures like the Wyvern Lord and Lightning Dragon attracted a lot of attention in the High Passes, especially this low down. Higher up, they would have already marked themselves to the other creatures, but the regular Carn Wolves, Eater Goats, and so on were not inclined to fight them. They were higher-level predators, after all.

So…higher-level monsters decided to give it a shot.

Gargoyle Bossels flew down, half again as large as their kin. These ones carried crude weapons, mallets, axes made out of bone and stone, and they began battering both Wyvern Lord and Rafaema as they pinned both down and went to smash in their skulls.

What? What?

Rafaema was howling. The Wyvern Lord roared.

What? More of you stupid stone-skins? Die!

But the Bossels were pack-fighters, and the two tired Draconids were on the ground, pinned, and they were about to kill both! The Wyvern Lord blasted the ones he could see with frost—the ones on the Lightning Dragon. She exhaled onto the ones on top of him, and they struggled as the largest Bossel raised his club. The Bossel blinked at the red light shining into one eye. It waved a claw as the Lightning Dragon went still. What was that ann—

The [Maid] fired the magical beam, and the fiery lance blew off the Bossel’s head. The other Gargoyles recoiled, and both Wyvern and Dragon surged up. They looked at each other—then charged past one another to attack the Gargoyles.

Now it was a melee, Gargoyles versus Draconids! Rafaema realized she was fighting alongside the Wyvern Lord—because she refused to die to Gargoyles! She rammed into one and found her enemy was skilled in the art of fisticuffs—he punched her in the face until Ressa ran up his back and stabbed him in the back of the neck. But her little dagger was too small to do a killing blow amongst this battle of giants.

Indeed, the Bossels were so preoccupied they didn’t even notice Ryoka Griffin until the young woman was walking amongst them. Ressa did and froze as a buck-naked City Runner stood there, smiling oddly.

With a broken neck. No one should have had a neck like—Ressa backed up, eyes wide, as a Bossel saw the ‘Human’ and tried to squash her.

The creature took the punch and covered the arm. Then it swallowed the Bossel and began crunching it to pieces as the monster writhed…then went still. Everyone turned to look at the malformed face of flesh, rising upwards, Ryoka’s face horribly bloated and twisted. She…it…spat out the mangled body, then tried again.

“H-hello. I am R-r-r-rrrrrrrrrrrryyyyyy—”

It stared in confusion at the red light emanating from Ressa’s ring. It reached up, felt at the line of red, then reached for Ressa. The thing’s face changed to look like her, and the arm stretched…and stretched…and stretched—

Ressa blew it apart with the second charge of the ring Teriarch had given her. A burning torso stood there, then the Frost Wyvern coated it with ice, and Rafaema blasted it with lightning.

The torso of flesh fell down. Ressa, panting, stared at it with the monsters, Wyvern Lord, and Rafaema. Then they saw it get up, and Ryoka Griffin’s face was attached to the Gargoyle Bossel’s body.

H-hello.

Now it was a four-way melee. Gargoyles, Wyvern Lord, Rafaema and Ressa, and the flesh-Gargoyle with Ryoka’s face that cracked a Bossel’s head open without apparent effort. Every other monster was running for the hills, except for two.

Carn Wolves were scavenging parts, and so were Eater Goats, desperate for food, ignored. Ressa saw the deranged Eater Goats fighting the Carn Wolves for scraps…then as one, every Eater Goat looked up, bleated suddenly in panic, and ran for it.

Ressa put down her blade. The Carn Wolves looked at the Eater Goats, whimpered, and ran, evacuating their bowels. The not-Ryoka turned with the Bossels, two Draconids, and [Maid] as the final newcomer appeared.

It looked…like a little black goat. The size of other Eater Goats, with two slightly disjointed eyes staring in either direction. That long, black pupil in slightly yellow eyes, not white, stared at the huge fighters with great, vacuous interest.

“Uh. What is…?”

Rafaema whispered. Ressa whispered back.

“Get back. I don’t know what it is, but get—”

Then she saw the goat, which was to Eater Goats what Gargoyle Bossels were to regular Gargoyles, open its mouth. It opened its…face up until the entire goat’s mouth split at nearly a hundred and eighty degree angle. And in the center, between teeth, instead of a tongue was just…an orb.

A black orb that swallowed stones, the ground, the dead bodies—everything in an expanding radius.

The Void Goat opened its mouth, and the fight ended. Every monster ran for it, mockery of Ryoka, the Dragon and Wyvern Lord—Gargoyles flying into the distance as it swallowed everything in sight, then baahed and hopped away.

Rafaema and the Wyvern Lord were left hovering in the air, looking down in horror at the toughest monsters of the lower part of the High Passes. Then they realized they were still there. Ressa looked up as the two began to fight and ran for the entrance of the cave. She ran into the strange creature who stole appearances as she felt at the stone wall that had been the entrance, under the scarf of yellow fluttering from a branch. Ressa straightened as a figure waved at her.

It had her face.

H-hello.

Ressa the [Maid] looked up and calmly gripped her dagger over the thundering in her heart. Wake the Dragon, her mistress said. Someone needs to do it, she said. Ressa stared up at the screaming Lightning Dragon and sighed.

“Well. It’ll be one of us, hopefully.”

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: This is part one of three due to the length of the ‘chapter’. It is 58,000 words long. Consider breaking up your reading. If not–read on.

 

The General of Izril book cover by John Anthony di Giovani!

 

Sserys-Erin by pkay!

 

Sserin by Lanrae!

 


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(Book 6, The General of Izril is available for preorder on Audible! Check it out here.)

[I am taking a small delay of one update to revise and write. The next chapter will be out on the 26th for Patreons, and the 30th for Public readers.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The night after the revelation of the Plain’s Eye’s treachery, as Gnolls fought Gnolls in the darkness, Khelt’s greatest warship sailed from the shores of Chandrar.

 

“I couldn’t save them. Not then. Not now. I have never been able to stop them from dying. What is the point of leveling, of it all? Can we even make a difference?”

Or were they just pawns on a board, watching someone else moving them around? That was how it felt. One second they were on Chandrar, fighting, hoping, trying to change things for the better.

The next, they were on a ship, gathered together to take part in a greater war. No—a war was being fought, but they didn’t even have a way to strike a blow. They couldn’t even see the fighting.

Good people were dying, and his friends were in danger. They had suffered so much, and he had left them behind. Pisces Jealnet had spent years trying to change the day Gewilena died. Amidst selfishness, goals and ambitions, it had always been at the back of his mind.

This time—there would be no Gewilena, no Cawe. He had been made a liar twice already, and those were just two of the times Pisces could name.

Would it truly be different? He looked around as his team surrounded him, feeling the cold, but not uncaring clasp of Yvlon Byres’ metal hand, Ksmvr patting him on the head like a cat, and Ceria grasping his arm with her flesh hand. He looked upwards and saw that golden flame burning in two empty sockets.

Fetohep, the Ruler of Khelt, stopped as he walked down the deck of Sand at Sea, the greatest warship in Khelt’s armada of one. The Revenant looked down as the [Necromancer]’s tears caught in the wind blowing off the prow of the vessel as it left Chandrar.

“Pisces Jealnet, [Necromancer] of the Gold-rank team the Horns of Hammerad.”

Ceria gasped, and Yvlon backed away as Pisces looked up in astonishment.

“You know my name? You’re—Fetohep of Khelt.

The undead monarch nodded regally.

“I am. On behalf of eternal Khelt, I tender you my regrets for any companions left behind. The Scourgeriders of Emrist followed my commands exactly. There is a limit to even their power, but I swear upon Khelt I shall endeavor to shelter your companions if you render their names unto me. We sail for a great cause, beyond any single life. If we fail—we shall all suffer. So we shall not fail. Betimes, even I have known defeat and loss. Even Khelt has suffered failure.”

He looked down at Pisces, and the Horns waited for the next part of the platitude. Yet Fetohep just stood there.

“Excuse me, King Fetohep. Is this statement at an end?”

Ksmvr waved a hand politely, and Fetohep eyed the Antinium. He looked Ksmvr up and down and turned.

“I speak merely to say that every effort in the world can fail. This is the truth every warrior and ruler faces. I was made a Revenant as they carried my shattered corpse from a battlefield where every comrade and friend I had ever known perished.”

He looked past the adventurers.

“I have never forgotten my failures. This time—no one shall die. I shall never be too late, and I will defy the sky itself if it falls. That is the lie a ruler tells their people. Those words—”

His head rotated slowly, and the golden flames met Pisces. The young man saw Fetohep’s being fix on him, and he remembered the treasure chests falling from the skies. The [Necromancer] looked into a being twenty times his age—more. Fetohep nodded at him.

“That pledge, that grand lie is the foundation of every true adventurer and hero I have known. This time, stand and fight so as to have no regrets. Bleed after all has fallen to silence. I have need of your strength. Erin Solstice will need her friends.”

Pisces’ eyes went wide. Yvlon gasped, and Ceria tilted her head, regarding Fetohep with a frown.

“That’s…impossible. How do you know—are you—speaking to her?”

The light in Fetohep’s left eye flickered slightly. The Revenant didn’t respond. He just turned his head.

“Believe there is a chance. We have time yet; Izril will not be reached in a day, even with every Skill and spell. Erin Solstice requires our aid. When the worst occurred, she spoke of you all with every faith. I shall require but a tenth of the trust she placed in you. A tenth, and we shall right all wrongs. When you are rested, we shall talk longer. Eat, drink, sleep. Khelt’s largesse is yours to partake of.”

He began to stride back along the deck, and only now the Horns of Hammerad, catching up from their wild journey across Chandrar on a flying carpet, truly saw where they were.

On a ship at sea, at night. But that was so…blasé compared to the reality of what they were seeing.

They stood on the decks of a warship decorated with the bones of ancient sea creatures, sand and wind streaming behind them in a gale. The sand and wind should have scarred their skin and flayed their bones with the sheer force of passage, but it did not blow them overboard. Pisces gazed up in a bubble of calm; they raced through the eye of a sandstorm.

A sandstorm, blowing across the black waters as the stars shone fit to burst overhead. A thousand skylights blooming in every color, mirrored on the water as waves crashed upon the prow of the war vessel.

Wherever Pisces looked, he saw legends. [Sailors] with glowing eyes of fire, practically skeletons, laughing, Revenants wearing artifacts of old.

Named Adventurers; a Dullahan woman soothing a gigantic hawk so large it perched on the railing, two-thirds her height, glaring around. A Centauress pacing up and down the deck with a patrol of warriors, staring up at a trio of half-Giant skeletons who stood, talking in huge voices with a [King] and [Queen], father and daughter, one of whom had a golden bell glimmering at his rapier’s side.

A man all in bandages stood with the [Ruinbringer Steward], a legendary shadow to the famous King of Destruction, checking a warhorse still breathing hard from its ride. Above—a Named Adventurer Stitch-man holding a glimmering bow like starlight was staring ahead, sitting on one of the masts as it slowly swung around, carrying the ship left.

The air was filled with voices and the distant howl of the storm. It smelled of salt and still of Chandrar’s dry air, but it was being overtaken by the odor of the sea, strange and wild, bearing the watery promise of a hundred different coasts, even the strange spice of food being borne up by living servants and the tang of drinks a thousand years old.

A ship of legends. And there was Fetohep of Khelt, eyes blazing gold, the entire world dancing, begging for his attention as a dozen scrying orbs and speaking stones swirled around him. Yet he was focused on them, a ruler of death incarnate, his aura so powerful that Pisces felt like he could animate the dead just by looking at them.

Death. But such kindly words. An accent of old regality and such deliberate courage that the Horns wanted to get up and follow him. He was already walking away when Ksmvr raised his hand.

“Excuse me, King Fetohep. May I ask Your Majesty one question as a matter of utmost urgency for my future growth?”

The Horns of Hammerad stared at Ksmvr in shock as the Antinium waved his hand politely. Fetohep turned and silenced the first screech from someone on the other end of a speaking spell.

“Ask, Ksmvr of Chandrar.”

Ksmvr of…? Pisces’ lips moved soundlessly, and Ceria and Yvlon experienced a beautiful, pure quill of terror injected straight into their bladders. Ksmvr’s question. It could be anything, and it was being directed to one of the most powerful rulers of…

Ksmvr smiled brightly.

“For the sake of reference, would you categorize your statements to Pisces and my team as a ‘motivational speech’ and or other form of encouragement? How would you rate said efficacy of such statements? I have been informed boosting morale is a crucial talent to develop.”

Fetohep of Khelt eyed the innocent Antinium for a second. Then he turned his head slightly to the left and tilted it just so. As if he were listening to something. He turned—and the adventurers got the distinct impression he was smiling. The grinning skull of preserved flesh opened its mouth ever so slightly, and the disembodied voice spoke as the eyes flashed brighter.

Five out of ten.

“Oh. My scale is completely off, then. Thank you, Your Majesty.”

The King of Khelt threw back his head and laughed once.

 

——

 

“He’s laughing. Who are they?”

The other occupants of the warship saw Fetohep laughing and gazed at the Horns of Hammerad with curiosity or a kind of awe, depending on who it was. Curiosity, faint recognition, extreme interest…as the four got to their feet, those on the deck of the warship looked around and realized—here they were.

This was the team. So, after the breathless ride of Fetohep, they had a moment to think. The first thing they did was size each other up and introduce themselves.

Everyone.

Not pictured in Pisces’ first look around the warship were the other Revenants, including the one, the only, Vizir Hecrelunn and Salui. Mostly because the other two had been catching the [Captain] of this vessel up to speed.

Salui and Hecrelunn certainly got the [Necromancer]’s attention as they appeared on deck. Hecrelunn stared balefully at the Gold-rank adventurers, completely mystified as to why some of the Scourgeriders of Emrist had been deployed for them.

Vizir Hecrelunn and Salui were good counterparts to Fetohep, because what the Revenant King was—they were complete contrasts to.

Fetohep appeared to be a fairly slender ruler, regal, eyes glowing gold with the dark purple robes of office decorated with every name of every person he had ever known and loved in life, the crown of Khelt’s rulers upon his head. He had lost the physique of life; flesh shrunk and clung to bone after so long. If he stood or moved with a warrior’s speed, it was often surprising. He certainly had the aura to match, but he was still a stately king.

Hecrelunn, by contrast, was the [Vizir] of Khelt. He had no burning flames in his eye sockets. Rather, he had two dots of red light which were far smaller and would contract with rage, ire, or all-consuming fury. His gaze was so intense it could leave a mark on a wall. Literally. He boiled with magic and authority, and he floated off the ground, ever gazing downwards at whomever he addressed.

His robes were black and purple and red and orange, like the very gates to some abyssal domain, and his voice was clipped, sarcastic or biting when he was in a good mood, and the Vizir referred to the Vizir in the third person.

Contrasted to both, Salui was twice the size of either Revenant, and even if you put Fetohep and Hecrelunn together, you would not get the…the…intensity of Salui.

He trembled. The deck quivered around him. If there were little birds or animals like Yinah around, they would be running for the hills because Salui oozed a potential for violence. Even in death, his muscle and flesh refused to rot—what Selphids called Galas-muscle was his body.

He made Draugr seem skinny. The pink flames in his gaze were either a herald of imminent violence—or confused. As a dreamer might look, trying to discern a fragile world where everything came undone with a push from reality. The only time he seemed focused, calm was when Fetohep brought up King His-Xe, Salui’s great friend and ruler, to him.

The two Revenants were so potent that even the crew of Sand at Sea, who had been made Revenants as well, souls of living beings trapped in undead flesh, walked wide of them. They talked and acted like what they were: [Sailors], albeit of a Kheltian warship that had been a legendary pirate vessel in days of old.

But none of the [Sailors] tried to spit at or swaggered around Hecrelunn or Salui. Indeed—the inhabitants of Fetohep’s warship were all watching each other. They all recognized the others. Not all of them, but some were just famous.

Like the two Named Adventurers, Frieke of formerly Medain and Alked Fellbow. A discerning eye also instantly picked out the [Knights] from Terandria as well, being [Knights]. Ditto for the nervous half-Elves keeping well away from all the undead. Who they were? Questionable.

And, of course, everyone knew the really famous ones like the Arbiter Queen, the King of Duels—arguably Jecaina over her father because one had appeared on the televisions more. In fact, the most notable and obvious person on the ship that everyone could name was him. The legend himself, who all of Chandrar could probably point out:

Ksmvr of Chandrar. It was natural, then, that once everyone recognized him and realized it was the Horns of Hammerad, they gravitated towards them. The bandaged man and the grim fellow with the spear? Completely unrecognizable—to most. Orthenon had never been one for portraits, and the King of Bandages neither looked nor sounded like a living legend. All you could hear him say was…

 

——

 

Mbigh the Mtingnim.

“Your Majesty?”

Orthenon was cursing the lack of a proper escort. He had barely made it himself when he’d heard about the warship; he would have taken a full complement including Mars, Venith, Maresar…

…But Maresar was dead. The [Steward] had forgotten that. Teresa Atwood wasn’t here either. It seemed Fetohep had meant what he’d said truly. He had taken the most dangerous for this voyage. It spoke to the fact that he believed even Teresa might perish in the coming battles.

That Flos Reimarch was here did not surprise Orthenon, although it was unwelcome. He was not one to abandon a challenge or adventure, and this? This promised to not only heal him, but be a journey even The King of Destruction would want to tell.

Thmight’s. The. Manhtinium.

Flos enunciated with clear pain and annoyance, and Orthenon began to understand.

“Yes, Your Majesty. The Antinium. Ksmvr of Chandrar. Do you wish to meet them?”

Flos nodded slowly, but he flicked his gaze around the ship. Orthenon looked about—and immediately strode for Fetohep.

“Your Majesty of Khelt.”

Once again, Fetohep broke off from speaking with Galei of Wistram.

“—a sound mind in that wretched cesspool of fools. Make ready for—excuse me. Steward.”

The two stopped, and Orthenon and Fetohep regarded one another. The [Steward] bowed slowly, precisely, and economically.

“Your hospitality, Your Eternal Majesty of Khelt, is as always, gracious. Reim sails with you to whatever battle this may bring about. However, I believe your missive to my [King] indicated a healing potion capable of remedying his injuries? I request the use of it now.”

Fetohep regarded the King of Destruction, who glowered at him with what might have been admiration and envy mixed. The King of Khelt tapped one finger to his lips.

“Ah, a Potion of Regeneration. I intend to honor my word, Steward.”

“Then…”

“I am preserving each potion in my armory for what may be a costly battle. Even in Khelt’s vaults, such potions are exceedingly rare. They may be needed for a…ritual. I have set one aside for King Reimarch.”

Orthenon twitched slightly.

“Now would be—”

“—most gratifying for Flos Reimarch, I am sure? It would also inspire him to go his own way at the first venture, I have no doubt. I will not have him interfering in my battles, Steward. He may deploy his Skills in safety.”

“I must insist. A battle is no place for an already wounded king, and my lord requires healing.”

Orthenon’s voice had grown cold. Fetohep ignored the intensity in Orthenon’s voice.

“It may be the only thing keeping him from charging into the enemy with his bare hands. Consider that, Steward. I am no stranger to the King of Destruction’s whimsy, and neither are you.”

Orthenon hesitated. He did know Flos Reimarch. Fetohep turned his head slightly, and both imagined what Flos might do. They knew where they were headed. The idea of him trying to capture Zeres by himself did not seem implausible. Fetohep took advantage of Orthenon’s hesitation and lifted a finger.

“Allow me to propose a fitting compromise. A single Alchemist’s Portion should heal his tongue enough to speak, but not to fight and exert himself to his full…exuberance.”

An Alchemist’s Portion was not a drop of potion. A drop could very well do a lot of healing with such a powerful draught. An Alchemist’s Portion was about as generous as they tended to be with anything that didn’t involve gold. It was about as much liquid as you needed to wet the tip of your finger.

“…I shall accept that proposal on behalf of His Majesty.”

“Indeed. Then, consult with one of my subordinates. Once they have prepared a proper ampule, I will summon it from Khelt’s vaults.”

Fetohep directed a speaking stone at Orthenon, and the [Steward] bowed. He passed by the annoyed King of Destruction and delivered the contents of the exchange. A huge growl was Orthenon’s reply, but Flos couldn’t hide the eagerness in his nod. He had to be in pain; the bandages were slightly red even from him standing.

Still—he was already walking into the conversation around the Horns of Hammerad. The problem was…

 

——

 

A [Knight] gave the bandaged fellow a blank look as he walked over. He was adjusting his armor nervously, and he called out.

“Here’s a wounded man! Is there a [Healer] on deck? Potions? A strange lot, to be sailing under one banner, eh? Antinium and undead. Surely we don’t need wounded folks! What’s next? Children? Cats? Ser, do you need healing? Please, sit!”

He motioned to the outraged man, who indignantly said….

Migb the ming of…

The [Knight] gave him a completely nonplussed look and saw him wave away the healing potion.

“Must be injuries too severe. Or maybe it’s a Revenant as well? Ser Solton—are you sure this is wise?”

A nervous young woman whispered in his ear. The [Knight] adjusted his armor as he tucked the potion back. He had an odd insignia emblazoned on strangely grey, battered armor that looked quite well-made—but didn’t have the coats of paint on every other [Knight]’s gear.

It was…a single stack of gold coins on a balanced scale? The [Knight] removed his helmet to wipe at his brow.

“A strange change of fortunes, Squire Cathenay, but I do not doubt my ears. Are our fellow [Knights] safely aboard their vessels?”

The young woman, also wearing plain armor that had the insignia, glanced to the other ships sailing in the wake of the warship. They were the Crusade’s own vessels—and ships looted from Medain’s harbor, some filled with undead, others bearing [Knights] and the living.

“Safe, although many have sworn not to take up arms under Khelt, merely to forgo battle.”

“Well, each to their honor. But I believe strange company and these ill times call for stranger deals. We do not just sail with hated undead, Cathenay, but Named Adventurers of Chandrar, who are valorous, and even honorable legends such as the King of Jecrass. Let us—introduce ourselves. But fetch this poor man a chair, first!”

He indicated the bandaged fellow, and his [Squire] bowed and hurried off. Then Ser Solton joined the general group of people talking.

“Excuse me, excuse me—does anyone have a chair for that man? Does anyone know where we are bound? I am Ser Solton of the Order of Haegris, in service to the Terandrian Crusade.”

He bowed as a trio of half-Elves turned. Solton recognized them. They were from…the Claiven Earth?

The Herald of the Forests and two half-Elves were very uneasy and very nervous as they jumped and gazed at Ser Solton. He bowed at once.

“Dame Herald. You are present as well?”

“Apparently so.”

She didn’t seem convinced this was real either. The Herald of the Forests, Ierwyn, one of the most famous half-Elf warriors of her time, glanced uneasily around the ship.

“It was the condition for the Claiven Earth’s surrender. We all sail against…whatever Fetohep of Khelt has seen. Seamwalkers or worse.”

Ser Solton was astonished.

“Then the Claiven Earth has surrendered?”

“Unconditionally. What that means…it was a magically enforced seal. They have done nothing yet; the armies are slowing as they reach the shore, and some have returned to Khelt. Should we have held out?”

“Before all the Revenants and those legions?”

The half-Elves were clearly unhappy, but they had all witnessed the terrible magics Khelt had unleashed, the endless armies—and not a one doubted they would have been swept away if it had come to battle.

Indeed…were they on the same side? Ser Solton eyed the Antinium, but decided he had to introduce himself. It was, after all, a fundamental of his order.

“Excuse me. Excuse me. Am I interrupting? Ser Solton of the Order of Haegris.”

He bowed his way into the group around the Horns. Frieke of Khelt, Alked Fellbow, and none other than Queen Jecaina of Jecrass were standing with the Horns, who looked shocked—but remarkably well put together.

Ser Solton had just been staring for the last…twenty minutes? Yet the Horns seemed like they had done this before. If nothing else, they were remarkably aware of their surroundings.

While the other groups tried to process what had happened, the Horns had taken in Fetohep of Khelt’s words, calmed down—and grabbed food.

A woman with extraordinary metal arms was holding what looked like some fanciful dish of lobster baked with a variety of delicious condiments while it was still in its shell—that was what she held it in—and a spoon. Her team was more indecorous, and the Ant…thing…was gobbling grapes off a vine while the young man with white robes shakily created a sandwich out of no less than fourteen hovering condiments.

The final creation was so huge that when he tried to put it into his mouth it wouldn’t go, even when he squashed it together. So he just started taking bites out of the midsection.

The half-Elf had crammed half a plate of food into one cheek and seemed to be adding to it and swallowing as she talked while feasting on what might have been six duck patties stacked together and slathered in sauce.

They were so disgusting that their audience was slightly speechless as they watched the Horns cramming their faces full of food. The Antinium actually had a second, smaller ‘mouth’, and the mandibles only helped him deliver said food into his actual orifice. As for the half-Elf…Ser Solton had never seen an eating technique like that. He kept catching glimpses of everything when she opened her mouth too widely.

He might never forget it.

“Who’s this? [Knights]? Dead gods, what happened? Who’s…hello. I’m Ceria. The Order of Haegris? I know the Order of Seasons, but who’re they?”

Ceria spoke, spraying the air slightly, and Alked Fellbow eyed Ser Solton.

“I don’t know. Hello.”

Frieke snapped her fingers a few times. She was a Dullahan who styled herself rather like a Human, her armor adjusted so it looked like she was just a Human wearing armor rather than distinctly a Dullahan; it came of living in Chandrar. Her companion, the gigantic falcon, Konska, was a Seahawk. She pointed at Solton in recognition.

“Oh! Aren’t you…Haggle Knights?”

Solton paused as the bandaged man blustered forwards, just in time to enter the painful silence as his [Squire] brought over a chair. Frieke hesitated.

“Er…”

“The Order of Haegris has been referred to by that name, Miss Adventurer. We are…a mercantile [Knight] order in Terandria, who tend to conduct our affairs in the northern regions. May I ask who is present?”

Solton bowed, and the others looked around.

“Oh. I’m Frieke of Medain, Named Adventurer. I mean—Khelt! Frieke of Khelt! I am a [Beast Master]—a [Falconer] specifically.”

The Dullahan woman was flustered and bowed several times, looking as young as the Horns, despite being a number of years older. She seemed most in awe of everyone. Alked was next. He raised one weathered hand, looking as tough and rugged as an older Halrac.

“I am Alked Fellbow, in service to Khelt. [Ranger] is my base class. I am a Named Adventurer.”

“We’re the Horns of Hammerad. I am Ceria, the captain…this is Pisces, Ksmvr, and Yvlon. We’re a Gold-rank team.”

Ceria broke in smoothly, nodding around cheerfully. The rest of her team jumped; even Pisces, who was used to sniffing. But Ceria looked unruffled, and she had picked up on something.

There were a lot of important people here. The trick was…to play it cool. And no one was cooler than a [Cryomancer]. Ser Solton introduced himself and his [Squire]. Then the bandaged man cut in before the young woman wearing enchanted leather armor and carrying the rapier with the silver bell and the crown.

Nd I m the fring of frestrufun.

Everyone gazed at him. Ser Solton coughed.

“This poor man appears to be injured. Cathenay, the seat, the seat!”

The [Squire] offered it to the man, and he sat…but looked indignantly as no one picked up on what he’d said. All eyes turned to the last person, and the young woman bowed, eyes flicking around. She frowned longest at the bandaged man but without recognition.

“I am Queen Jecaina of Jecrass.”

The Arbiter Queen?

Frieke squeaked, and everyone stirred. Most had recognized her, if only vaguely, but it was one thing to see her, another to know they were in her presence.

Jecaina—flushed slightly, but she had remarkable poise. She only nodded, looking, well, older. Older than an impetuous teen. Like someone who had held a nation together for however short a time.

Like a [Queen].

“I have joined Fetohep of Khelt to rescue my father. From here…where we are going only Fetohep knows, but I understand it is a mission of dire importance. Has he sequestered the aid of all of you?”

It was a mark of this company that words on a Pisces-level were being tossed around regularly. Sequestered was easy. Or, if it wasn’t, you had to pretend you knew what it meant or be outed.

“Your Majesty, this is a huge honor. I’ve seen all of your judgements—and you’re the Antinium from the documentaries!”

Frieke pointed at Ksmvr as Jecaina bowed to her. All eyes turned to Ksmvr. Pisces narrowed his.

“…What?”

Ksmvr scratched at his antennae.

“What? Oh, Rémi’s little camera. Yes, I am Ksmvr. Hello, Adventurer Frieke. As my superior, I hope to learn much from your guidance. Hello again. I am Ksmvr the Antinium, but I am not here to invade Chandrar. I do not eat people, and I am very friendly.”

He beamed around, and everyone was treated to an Antinium smile. Yvlon broke in hurriedly.

“Do you—does anyone know what we’re supposed to do?”

No one did. Jecaina, Bandages, Solton—all eyes turned to Fetohep, but he was engrossed in talking with dozens of people, including the angry Vizir Hecrelunn. Pisces scratched his chin, looking rattled.

“It appears…we have to wait. Excuse me, Your Majesty? I take it you are a [Fencer] of some competence? You have a silver bell.”

Jecaina blinked. She looked at Pisces and nodded slowly.

“Yes. And you’ve been trained by a [Fencer] too. Are you a [Duelist]?”

Pisces smiled thinly.

“No. No…but I would be honored to meet your father. A Gold-bell [Duelist] is someone one rarely gets a chance to meet—much less the [King] who dueled the King of Destruction. Would that be possible?”

Two furious, green eyes widened, but everyone else nodded. They looked at a tall, gaunt man standing alone at the railing. Jecaina hesitated.

“He has been through a lot. But—maybe it would help. I will ask. Before that. Can I inquire how each of you got here? And about…”

She looked at Ksmvr, and half the boat wanted to ask him questions, including the undead sailors. But the perspicacious ones also wanted to talk to the bandaged man, the half-Elf with the amazing circlet, and Yvlon Byres with her metal arms.

The company of so many famous people—and then came the last. Every head turned as a man with eyes lit up by a thousand strands of color radiating from a single point, light pink and dotted with three faint brown points in each eye.

The Hero of Zethe himself stopped and looked at the Herald of Forests and Salui, who stopped trembling enough to point at him.

“You. You’re real too.”

The company of strange stories. And there sat Flos Reimarch as everyone began to introduce themselves, overlooked, unintelligible. In his worst hell.

 

——

 

“The Order of Haegris are called Haggle Knights. Mostly because they do that.”

“What, haggle? I’ve never heard of that. This is a joke. Like telling Izrilians that Terandrians really do have a salad fork at every meal, even the [Peasants].”

Ceria just shrugged at Yvlon.

“You’re a [Lady] of Izril. What’s so surprising? They’re sort of well-known. Not famous for killing things, mostly.”

“I’ve never heard of them. Are you sure this isn’t a joke?”

The half-Elf rolled her eyes.

“Yvlon, we just met after nearly dying at the Village of the Dead. I was worried you were all kidnapped or hurt…would I lie to you?”

“Y…maybe. Okay, so they’re like my family?”

“Yes…but good at what they do?”

Yvlon glowered at Ceria, and the half-Elf innocently backed away. The two adventurers were whispering as Ser Solton introduced himself around the ship.

“Sorry, sorry. It’s just…they have actual inventories. They buy what’s valuable, be it windmills, fields—and they use the money to defeat their ‘Monsters of Society’.”

“Their what?”

“Uh, poverty. Disease. Sometimes they go on ‘quests’ to slay a shortage of corn. With a wagon of corn. Look, their founder was apparently a [Merchant]-[Knight]. See their armor? They don’t like spending money on paint, so they just do the money bag.”

“It seems like a parody of [Knights].”

Yvlon muttered a bit too loudly as she stared at Ser Solton. Instantly, someone objected.

“I shall have you take that back, Dame Loudmouth! A [Knight] is a [Knight]! The Order of Haegris has saved thousands of lives each year with their charity! They are a model who have inspired even my own Kingdom of Ailendamus!”

Someone slapped Yvlon’s arm with a glove. Both adventurers turned and saw an indignant Knight of the Hydra.

“I’m sorry—who are you?”

“Dame Thuile, at your service! I apologize for my introduction, but I must protest. It does not behoove a fellow [Knight] to besmirch one of their own kind. Neither the Claiven Earth!”

The Hydra Knight had clearly gotten the wrong idea. She was looking from Ceria’s pointy ears to Yvlon’s metal arms and admittedly armored body and getting the wrong idea. Yvlon opened her mouth, but Ceria nudged her. The half-Elf had a twinkle in her eyes.

“I am so sorry, Dame Thuile. What is your Knight Order?”

“The Order of the Hydra from the Kingdom of Glass and Glory, Ailendamus! I understand your leadership may not have desired this alliance, but we are pledged to fight evil wherever we see it, and the horrors from beyond the edge of the world supercede even undeath.”

Ceria was bowing as the uppity Hydra Knight turned to Yvlon.

“And you would be…?”

Yvlon was glaring out of the corner of her eyes at Ceria. The half-Elf seemed so relaxed—even for her and a veteran of Erin shenanigans. She was still wearing the circlet that she’d stolen from The Putrid One, and she had a look of mischief in her gaze.

She clearly wanted to play a prank on this [Knight], and Yvlon…eyed the angry woman and smiled blandly. Ceria interjected for Yvlon.

“This is, uh, Dame Yvlon. Of the Order of…”

She hesitated only a moment.

“Solstice! The Order of Solstice. She’s a [Knight] of one, who just arrived in the crusade, and now we’re headed back. Terribly sorry; she’s new.”

Yvlon rolled her eyes, but the Hydra Knight only did a double-take for a second.

“The Order of Solstice? Ah, of course. Izrilians. Well, milady, your reputation precedes you. I bear no grudge, though we will be enemies on Terandria. Rather, I congratulate you. Is Ser Solstice…no, it must be an assumed title, eh? Is he your Order’s champion or some veteran knight?”

Yvlon felt her hand being pumped up and down as she and Ceria exchanged a sudden glance.

“Ser Solstice of Izril?”

“Oh, dear me. Haven’t you been keeping up with…? No, I suppose if you weren’t on a vessel with a scrying orb—the war in Terandria, you know.”

That was how Ceria and Yvlon, now grinning like the Revenant undead, were treated to a discussion of Ser Solstice’s valorous and sometimes unorthodox deeds on the battlefield and the tragedy of General Dionamella’s fall. Both half-Elf and Human kept staring at each other out of the corner of their eyes. They were having a silent argument bordering on the telepathic. Yvlon glared daggers into Ceria’s pale gaze.

 

You tell her.

No, you!

This is your fault! It’s got to be a coincidence, right?

Ser Solstice. Coincidence? Wanna bet?

 

They knew. But they didn’t know who it was—only that it was connected. And like silly lies…

“I had no idea the Order of Solstice had joined the Crusade. But then—your Order must be very new.”

Ceria smiled blandly as she sipped from a cup of colorless wine.

“Practically just invented.”

Yvlon stepped on Ceria’s toes hard, but the Hydra Knight didn’t notice. She peered at Yvlon.

“Are your arms part of your class, Dame Knight? Some…magical prosthesis from House Terland?”

“No, as a matter of fact, I’m an adv—”

Adventurous, courageous warrior! Who gained her metal arms by valor in battle. Fighting, uh—Goblins. Gigantic Goblins. It’s actually part of her entire Order’s Skills.”

Dame Thuile’s gaze locked on Yvlon’s arms, then on Ceria’s face. A look of cunning realization passed over her expression, covered by a very poor bland face.

“Of course…of course. And the rest of your Order would have metal limbs. Goblin Slayer…will you excuse me a second? I find myself in pressing need of a privy.”

She hurried off to find a speaking stone as Yvlon whirled.

“Ceria! What the hell was that?”

“What? It’s not going to do any harm. And it’s hilarious.”

The half-Elf grinned, her eyes lighting up with humor. Yvlon just gave her an odd look. It was funny—and in another circumstance, Yvlon would have gone along with the prank. Silver-rank adventurers, maybe. But it was just a bit—off. And Ceria was still so relaxed. Yvlon took a deep breath.

“…I’m so glad you’re okay. I didn’t know where you were. Ksmvr I knew about, but when I heard Pisces was a [Slave]…”

Ceria’s gaze softened. She lowered the cup and patted Yvlon on the arm.

“I was worried too. I’m sorry I didn’t find you. I had—difficulties. You’ll never guess what I ran into when I landed. A certain monster decided to pay the village that rescued me a visit. Three guesses which?”

Yvlon hesitated.

“Some sand thing like one of the worms? A Manti…no. There isn’t any way.”

Ceria just smiled wryly.

“It turns out Crelers can detect if you’ve killed their kind. Adult ones, anyways.”

“You killed a—”

“I had help. Relax! Relax! And I had to put on the circlet, but good news—it’s not going to melt my brain. There’s a few interesting things, but what happened to you?”

The Hydra Knight was reporting the Order of the Solstice news to her [Grandmaster] while Yvlon and Ceria talked. Pisces and Ksmvr had been dragged off by Jecaina to meet King Raelt, and Bandages had followed. The two were so engrossed that they barely noticed another interested group approaching.

“Excuse me, may I interject? I couldn’t help but hear you were from the Claiven Earth. Sister.”

Ceria turned and…gulped…as she saw a detachment of half-Elves walking across the deck. Yvlon looked at the Herald of the Forests and stiffened at once. Ierwyn saw Ceria hesitate.

“Uh—well—that’s a lie.”

“Yes. Am I addressing the Horns of Hammerad?”

The two young women instantly bowed as Ierwyn and several senior half-Elves introduced themselves. One kept staring at Ceria’s circlet, but their greatest [Mage] had refused to jump on a ship. As for Ierwyn…

“Are you allies of Khelt, adventurers? Or merely participants to King Fetohep’s designs?”

Ceria and Yvlon exchanged looks. Yvlon answered for both.

“We have never met the…king, Lady Ierwyn. But one of our friends appears to have met him.”

“Somehow.”

The Herald’s brows rose.

“Indeed? Someone who has met the King of Khelt and gained his respect is no light name. May I ask it? Would it perchance be…Trey Atwood?”

She delivered the line like a blademaster drawing back her sword for the final thrust in a graceful dance. And—missed completely as the two adventurers gave her a blank stare.

“No…Erin Solstice.”

“Oh.”

The half-Elves all murmured; this sounded like the truth, but it threw a wrench in their intelligence. Ierwyn collected herself almost immediately.

“May I ask where she hails from? What she does? And I must confess, I would like to personally greet a fellow half-Elf. Excuse me for the rudeness, Adventurer Yvlon, but we are a far-flung species.”

“I—uh—I’m so embarrassed. And so sorry about the joke!”

Ceria turned beet red, much to Yvlon’s satisfaction, and stammered as she and Ierwyn held out hands and touched fingertips. It was a very half-Elven greeting, and Ceria performed an odd bow that Yvlon had never seen.

“Are you from one of the villages, rather than a city, then?”

“I—I—yes. The Village of the Spring. I’ve heard of the Claiven Earth, but I never thought I’d meet you…”

The half-Elves were smiling, and Yvlon took that moment to get a drink of water. On the way back, she heard Ceria exclaiming.

“…Left my village, actually. It’s—complicated.”

The half-Elves all nodded.

“Then we will not dig. We left our homes to create the Claiven Earth. Have you met more of our kind on your travels?”

“Uh—Falene Skystrall. Oh, and…”

Ceria hesitated for one visible second, then lowered her voice.

“…Alchemist Irurx. I was in Savere, and I met his ship at port and survived it. Shifthold.

The effect on the half-Elves was dramatic. All but Ierwyn recoiled instantly in clear horror. Yvlon herself hesitated. That—did not sound like a good name.

“You have met the Writhing Alchemist? That monster? How? And how did you escape?”

Ceria had to relate a bit about Savere’s port laws and her encounters with the Siren as Yvlon listened in horror. She told the story matter-of-factly, economically, but also with a certain…detachment. She was clearly sparing everyone the horrific details, Yvlon realized. Even the Herald was shaking her head at the end of the tale.

“Then you are an adventurer in truth, sister, to have met one of our worst traitors and lived. And you journey in strange company.”

She meant Ksmvr and Pisces. Yvlon re-entered the conversation as Ceria waved it away.

“I would like my kin in the Claiven Earth to know that Antinium are people, Ierwyn. Some might be…obeying orders, but they are a people in service to their Queens. I would trust Ksmvr with my life—I have time and time again. He’s odd, but funny, loyal, and he would be an Elf-friend if I went home in good standing. I hope you’ll think on that.”

“I surely will. A people is different from a plague.”

Ierwyn met Ceria’s gaze as she turned to Yvlon.

“And you, Adventurer Byres, I thank for your forbearance. It has been a long time since even the Claiven Earth have met someone else with a Melded class. Did you gain it by injury or affinity? I apologize if it is a painful question.”

Yvlon’s mouth opened. Ceria’s ears perked up.

“A—I—what? A Melded class?”

Ierwyn blinked at Yvlon, and the [Silversteel Armsmistress] realized—

Half-Elf. She was very, very old.

“Your arms are metal. Some half-Elves have replaced limbs with root or even vine, though it is an exceedingly rare class. Beyond a simple prosthesis—metal has replaced skin. Has no one told you…? Your new class is the kind that made Men of Metal. Or Women of Metal…it may subsume or join with any class you have, be it [Knight] or otherwise. You must choose. Or else you will gain Skills that mean more than your arms will be metal. In time…”

Yvlon’s head spun. She lifted her reflective metal arms and stared at her face as they reflected moonlight and stars. In time—she would become entirely…?

 

——

 

With the little bit of Regeneration Potion, Flos Reimarch only healed enough to stop breaking scabs and flesh open with each move. His tongue was still damaged—but he had worked out a better system to communicate.

The spray of vomit coming from the woman with metal arms splattered him for a second time that night as he lifted a hand. Orthenon dodged it entirely.

“Your Majesty.”

He offered Flos a handkerchief, and the King of Destruction sighed. Then he turned back to the person he had sought out.

Mey meeth again, mero mf mefe.

The silent, somber man with a single sword at his side stared at the King of Destruction’s placid green eyes. Orthenon translated.

“My liege is injured. I shall translate for him. ‘We meet again, Hero of Zethe.’”

“Ah. King of Destruction.”

The Hero of Zethe, a farmer who had a family in the middle of nowhere, bowed very slowly. Flos Reimarch smiled.

Meh mth—

“(My mind returns to the time we fought. I thought you dead. Where have you been hiding?)”

The [Hero] waited for the translation. Indeed…many didn’t recognize him, but those that did, even [Knights], were in awe.

For here was a [Hero]. Not a famous [Knight]. Not a Named Adventurer.

A [Hero].

His legend was in the history books. But the man himself…he looked like he was a casual farmer, dressed in simple clothing. Simple clothing that never tore and had survived for decades, made of finest thread for when he wanted to be anonymous. The rich, regal clothing he had been adorned in when they cheered his name had long since rotted or been sold.

Indeed, anonymity suited him. Until the day he had seen Fetohep calling for aid.

“We battled only twice, King of Destruction. Your legend was on the rise, and I saw your armies marching—but I had no strength to fight you, even as invaders. You had a just enough cause.”

“(I had every cause and need.)”

The Hero of Zethe paused. He met Flos’ gaze and shook his head, straight to the King of Destruction’s face.

“…You had a just enough cause. I wearied of war. Just as I tired of being called Hero of Zethe. Only for Fetohep of Khelt did I take up a sword. Because what we are doing will avert disaster for the ones I love. I trust to that and hope you will let me rest in anonymity afterwards.”

Flos frowned mightily at the man.

“(…But your great abilities waste to nothing. Did the man who broke the Storm of Soldiers truly lose all fire? All passion? You…)”

Orthenon leaned over.

“What was that? I apologize, Your Majesty. Ah—‘you disappoint me, Doubte of Zethe.’”

The [Hero] just shook his head. He gave Flos a searching look.

“…I cannot understand it. You have been Chandrar’s legend, not I, for twenty years. Before that, you became the world’s most famous [King], or infamous, and you beheld no limits. You have conquered more than I. Lost more than I, perhaps. You have seen greater wars and greater loss. How can you still continue? Don’t you tire of it?”

He and Flos looked at each other, and the King of Destruction’s ardor faded slightly. They were very different men, but in this…Orthenon saw a shadow, a mirror of the same look he had seen for twenty years. Flos Reimarch wavered and then met the Doubte’s gaze.

“(Something else is coming, Hero Doubte. My dream was not enough, you are right. But I have found a new one, even larger. It is not just selfishness that impels me. In time, you will see it too. Perhaps it is all connected, Fetohep’s great battle, the secret I hold, and the rest. Will you not consider picking up your sword?)”

Doubte shook his head, yet he was rattled by Flos’ words. He strode down the deck a few paces—then strode back.

“If what you say is true—will you swear to it, [Steward]? I would ask Mars of Destruction, but I will ask you.”

The man who had once battled Mars to a standstill and gone on to face an army and force it back turned to Orthenon. The [Steward] just nodded.

“It is a great change that is coming, Hero. It may not realize itself immediately—but I now believe time is running out.”

Doubte closed his eyes.

“…Then my family and I must find another way. Or I must become that [Hero]. Perhaps…then perhaps it is time to pledge my sword to Khelt. If Khelt is even safe now.”

“(Wait, what? What about me?)”

Doubte turned away. He looked back over his shoulder only once.

“I do not care for you, Your Majesty of Reim. Perhaps we will meet again, but you make such terrible war. I will thank you for one thing. If you have ever known how to create [Heroes]…make no more. Even for your own ends. This class…is too much. I was not the first [Hero], but may I be the last. This class does not fit in the rest of the world.”

Then he left the two, to be alone with his own things. Flos folded his arms, frustrated—but he perked up as someone who had been eavesdropping gasped.

His Majesty of Reim? The—the King of Destruction!?

Hydra Knight Thuile pointed at Flos in horror, surprise, and—backed over the railing and went into the surf, headfirst. Flos Reimarch brightened up as every head turned and people whirled. They looked at him and cried out in surprise.

Well now. That was more like it.

 

——

 

“…Did someone just say that bandaged man was the King of Destruction?”

Pisces’ head slowly rose. He looked about. Then he turned to his left.

“Ksmvr, pinch me. Ow!

Ksmvr pinched Pisces with all three hands.

“Is that suitably hard enough, Comrade Pisces? I have not perfected my pinching skills, only my cat-petting abilities. I am now capable of triple ear scratches. Would you like me to show you?”

“Stay away from my ears.”

The [Necromancer] slapped Ksmvr’s hands down, almost laughing, and it was true their comedy bit was practically guaranteed with Pisces and Ksmvr in the same room.

However, even that bit of humor, the sheer oddity of it and Ksmvr’s polite tone and mystified hurt as to why anyone would deny ear scratchies, was enough.

Raelt of Jecrass, drinking orange juice, sprayed it out of his nose and mouth. The fine mist hit his daughter, Alked, and everyone downwind.

Father!

“I’m sorry. I’m—this isn’t a dream.”

Raelt was coughing and wiping at his face, but he was laughing. He looked at Pisces, who eyed the gold-bell duelist and King of Jecrass that had been prisoner of Medain’s [High King] for months.

The [Necromancer] hesitated—then offered the man a handkerchief.

“Could I offer you this, sir? It’s very clean.”

Raelt accepted it, and Ksmvr saw Pisces watching Raelt’s every move. The [Necromancer] looked at Ksmvr, then at Flos—and then back at Raelt.

It was very, very rare for Ksmvr to see Pisces in awe of anyone. But this? This would be, if he went back to The Wandering Inn and Erin Solstice were there to provide helpful slang from her world—

Well, this would be Pisces fanboying for the King of Duels.

“Thank you…Pisces, was it? I apologize, Adventurer Fellbow.”

“Think nothing of it, Your Majesty. I’ve known far worse at parties.”

Raelt eyed Alked, some of his humor fading a bit as he returned the handkerchief to Pisces. The [Necromancer] accepted it with a slight bow, and Ksmvr saw his eyes were locked on the bell on Raelt’s rapier. It hadn’t chimed, not once, and it looked to be a very sensitive bell. But Raelt did move with a certain grace Ksmvr struggled to find many equals to. The King of Jecrass turned to Alked.

“Yes…you would. Hemp in Nerrhavia’s Fallen?”

It was one of those statements that said a lot but made no sense unless you understood what it meant. Alked gazed at Raelt and nodded, one Chandrarian to another.

“You’re familiar with it, Your Majesty?”

“I’ve travelled to Nerrhavia’s Fallen. It’s amazing they don’t treat Named Adventurers—”

Raelt caught himself, glanced around, and then seemed to catch himself twice. He shook his head as he looked around the Kheltian ship far at sea.

“Well. I suppose here is safe enough, and you’re part of Khelt now? I’ve known—incidents with Stitch-folk. Entire clans expelled over issues with—cloth.”

Both Alked and Raelt looked uncomfortable, and the Named Adventurer nodded.

“That informed my decision to join Khelt, and His Majesty’s generosity. I hope you feel he has acted swiftly?”

Raelt shook his head, then shrugged.

“No—I mean to say, of course. I didn’t expect anyone would pry me out of Medain unless the King of Destruction took it or Perric got his way. That Khelt marched on them…and all because of you, Jecaina?”

He turned wondering eyes to his daughter, and the Arbiter Queen ducked her head, looking younger and tired. And relieved.

“I gave a third of Jecrass away to do it, Father.”

“A third—ah—under very strenuous circumstances, Your Majesty!”

Pisces interjected. He flushed and wavered.

“I’m sorry. I hesitate to interject, but I must add that from what I saw of the situation—it was a war that could only be lost without outside aid.”

Raelt paused only a second before nodding.

“It’s the soundest move. Aside from Herdmistress Geraeri joining Jecrass—which she never would have done…you sold her land to Fetohep?”

“I…she was inadvertently on it, Father.”

The King of Jecrass couldn’t hide the smile, and the look both rulers gave the Centauress nervously trotting around, slightly seasick, was not fond. Ksmvr nodded.

“I do not understand the entire nuance of these statements as I was not there, but I understand this Herdmistress is objectionable?”

“Ksmvr! Don’t interrupt!”

Pisces nudged his companion, but Ksmvr patted Pisces’ arm.

“Do not worry, Pisces. I am used to speaking with rulers.”

Raelt gave Ksmvr a blank look, but nodded.

“Herdmistress Geraeri is…difficult, Antinium Ksmvr. She is an uncontrollable force who can do much good or ill—a problem for any ruler. But she is a good woman—just as stubborn as a mule and inclined to support her own side. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s rare to have her in a nation.”

Both adventurers looked at each other.

“Like Erin?”

“Yes, exactly.”

Raelt and Jecaina raised their brows, wondering what an ‘Erin’ was. Alked Fellbow just frowned at Pisces and Ksmvr. They changed subjects in the short silence as Alked nodded at Ksmvr.

“So you’re the only Antinium to ever become an adventurer. Will there be more?”

Ksmvr looked struck.

“I do not know. I was exiled. Perhaps. My people could do very well as adventurers. Maybe some will come to Chandrar. Although we would have to go over…”

He trailed off. Then he began to scream.

Aaaah! AAAAAH! Aaaaah! AAAAAAH!

Everyone nearly jumped out of their skin. Alked had a hand on his bow when Ksmvr calmed down.

“I apologize. I remembered we were—we are surrounded by water! We are all going to drown! Aaaaaaah—I am better now, thank you.”

Pisces patted Ksmvr on the shoulder, and the Antinium shuddered. He stared at the deck. Raelt looked at his daughter, then cleared his throat.

“I—see. And you are a [Necromancer].”

Pisces braced, but Raelt just looked at him expectantly.

“I…yes, Your Majesty.”

“Hm. Well—it’s fascinating that you also were trained by a [Duelist]. I’ve never heard of the class aside from Az’kerash being viable, but that’s proof in itself, isn’t it? Are there any unique synergies between necromancy and dueling?”

Pisces blinked as Jecaina turned. Alked just scratched at his chin, interested.

“[Necromancers] don’t become adventurers in Chandrar often, though there are lots of bones under the sand. I sometimes partied with one just to send a zombie as bait. None of them were good at fencing at all.”

“I…I…I do practice a bit of the sword. But I am hardly competent. I never earned a silver bell, though my f—instructor was one, and I bested him in an actual duel. But I’m just, ah—a novice.”

Ksmvr felt at the back of Pisces’ neck as the [Necromancer] tried to swat his hands down.

“Comrade Pisces, are you sick? You appear to be. I have never heard you describe your abilities in less than stellar terms.”

“A silver-bell? At your age? My daughter has one…”

“Father.”

“The world knows about it, sure, Your Majesty! And your own duel was sublime—”

Raelt tried to wave this away, looking embarrassed.

“It was the most disgraceful performance. I would have had that gold bell taken away. I don’t know what I was thinking. No poison, and I kept getting trapped against that damn stone wall.”

Not at all! Your Majesty, that was the most extraordinary—I hate to ask this of you, but I would be remiss not to ask for an autograph. And if you were ever so inclined to duel…although your captivity…”

Pisces looked actually enamored. Ksmvr began poking him, just to get him to stop looking like that. Raelt looked embarrassed and pleased by the attention.

“I wouldn’t actually say no. The things I have wanted to stab while I’ve been…and a rolling boat—ship—whatever this thing is isn’t a bad spot. There’s plenty of space. In fact, I confess I’d love to see a Named Adventurer and this [Silver Illusion] sword school.”

Pisces’ jaw dropped, and Ksmvr proudly stood upright.

“I would acquiesce to your duel, King Raelt—but I believe I must first rejoin my captain and other teammate, Miss Yvlon, and speak to them first. As any good adventurer must.”

“Ksmvr! He’s the King of Duels!

“And I am Ksmvr of the Horns of Hammerad. Pisces, do not embarrass me, please. You do not know how to talk to royalty. I do.”

Ksmvr tried to cover Pisces’ mouth as Jecaina, Alked, and Raelt watched. Raelt lifted a finger.

“…Who is this royal person you’ve been speaking to, Adventurer Ksmvr?”

“Oh. Empress Nsiia of Tiqr. She and I are friends. Also, she is a dirty [Thief] who has stolen my sword. I wish to lodge that objection with her peerage.”

Pisces goggled at Ksmvr. Alked and Jecaina had seen the documentary, but Raelt rubbed at one ear.

“Clearly, a lot has changed since I left. I thought she was a [Prisoner]?”

Ksmvr brightly looked at Pisces’ expression.

“She was. But I landed in Illivere, and I freed—she accidentally escaped and we ended up on a journey together. Yes, that is what happened. Do not believe the lies. Also, there was Yinah, Domehead, and Spitty. I hate Spitty, but he saved my life, and I am motivated to mention this.”

Raelt just stood there, blinking at Ksmvr. Pisces looked horrified, confused, and more horrified by turns, but then the King of Duels threw back his head and laughed. And that…that felt good. It felt like healing.

 

——

 

Look at these meetings. The King of Destruction himself broke away from greeting his would-be foes and allies to watch Raelt of Jecrass take on his daughter and Pisces in a two-on-one duel.

“(Ah, Raelt of Jecrass. I am pleased he was freed. Orthenon, I wish to meet that Antinium adventurer. Who is the other one?)”

“A…[Necromancer]. Pisces Jealnet of the Horns of Hammerad.”

The [Steward] confirmed after a moment. Flos Reimarch tapped his chin and winced with each tap. Now how did he know that name?

He shrugged. Half the [Knights] were queuing up to beg a duel from that famous man, and Flos saw even Orthenon and Fetohep watching with mild interest. He frowned and cursed his damaged body.

It was then that the buzz of conversation faded. Amidst the duel, the swell of waves, and all the rest—everyone had quite forgotten the existence of the undead.

The ship’s crew were making the ship run, doing things with lines or ropes—sometimes just to look busy. As for Fetohep, he had been engrossed in conversation with all the other powers of the world.

It was Vizir Hecrelunn and Salui who had been aloof, watching. However, Flos’ eyes narrowed as Hecrelunn descended from above and Salui leapt from the prow of the ship.

A fight! You? Are you reaaaaaaaaaal—

He swung his sword and crashed into the deck, scattering the combatants like flies. Raelt turned—and found himself staring at the Revenant.

Flos Reimarch just looked up at Hecrelunn.

“Little king. We meet again.”

The King of Destruction’s teeth bared as he met Hecrelunn’s gaze and remembered the last time they had met. To his credit, or perhaps, not, the [Vizir] didn’t even bother to hide. Flos nodded.

“(Yes, indeed, Vizir Hecrelunn. Orthenon?)”

“Your Majesty?”

The [Steward]’s eyes narrowed as he looked up at Hecrelunn. Flos Reimarch lifted a hand.

“(Kill that Revenant, please.)”

 

——

 

A fight broke out on deck as Orthenon pursued Hecrelunn. The [Vizir] was shouting insults as the [Steward] leapt from masts and over rigging, slashing at him. Salui was chasing around Pisces and Ksmvr on the deck when Fetohep strode out of the cabin fit for a [King]—King Dolenm, to be precise—and roared.

“Enough!”

Everyone halted as Ceria drew a bead on Salui’s back. Literally…a bead of ice. He was resisting her magic so badly she couldn’t even freeze him.

“You wretched little—”

Hecrelunn spun with spells glowing off his fingertips, but Fetohep had his and Salui’s measure. The Revenant was still chasing Pisces and Ksmvr, so Fetohep snapped.

Salui! His-Xe is in peril, and you waste your strength? By Khelta, silence Little Brother-King.”

Hecrelunn’s glowing red eyes faded, and he came to a stop. Orthenon halted as Fetohep turned from Salui, who had gone still, to Orthenon.

“I understand the Vizir Hecrelunn has offended The King of Destruction?”

“Yes, King Fetohep.”

“Then he shall pay for it. Afterwards. We have no time for petty disputes. Two issues have arisen. The first is that my Scourgeriders have begun their assault on A’ctelios Salash. If they fail—Chandrar will know devastation.”

The deck went silent as Fetohep walked across it. He turned his head towards Flos Reimarch, and even the King of Destruction was alert. Fetohep glanced ahead and shook his head.

“…The second is that petty fools are attempting to stymie our progress. Zeres has hired every ship on the sea to halt our fleet.”

“What? So we are sailing against the City of Waves after all? Why?”

Someone exclaimed in dismay. Fetohep pointed a finger at a [Knight].

“We sail to end the madness in the Meeting of Tribes. Not to make war on the City of Waves. These impertinent Drakes have nevertheless put a bounty upon Sand at Sea. They are also rallying their armadas to attempt to stop us.”

The passengers quieted. Almost none were seafaring experts. A battle at sea was dangerous. They might have an ancient warship on their side, but the other ships in the fleet had no specialist [Admirals] or other sea-classes, and Zeres—did.

“So what do we do?”

Fetohep’s eyes glinted.

“Were things otherwise, I would simply destroy Zeres’ fleets. However, it may be that we can avoid needless deaths on the Drakes’ side. They have sent their armadas, but it is the mercenary ships that concern me.”

“(How many do we face?)”

The King of Destruction frowned mightily. He had suffered his only major defeats mostly at sea. It was somewhat ironic he asked, because Fetohep gave him a sardonic look.

“Currently? Just one. The Illuminary has accepted the bounty and is on a direct course towards us. I believe their [Captain] quite fancies the notion of besting Khelt, Reim, Jecrass, and half a dozen nations in combat.”

Every head turned to Flos as the King of Destruction growled an oath.

Rasea Zecrew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six days after the Archmage of Chandrar had been freed from Wistram, the Illuminary, having lost all pursuers, turned across the sea, carrying two of the King of Destruction’s Seven.

 

Trey Atwood was a hostage. He hadn’t been, but Rasea’s crew had tied him up with the other Earthers, Calac, and Goelv, and they were rolling around the storm-blown decks as the Illuminary surged towards their target.

Amerys and Gazi…were less easy to tie up. Gazi herself was standing with her back to a railing, her claymore raised. The crack in her armor was barely visible—what you saw was that giant, gleaming eye swiveling in every direction. Four lesser ones glowing with a different color in each, the pupils searing as they spun crazily from [Pirate] to [Pirate].

That smile. It looked eager to Trey, worried—to anyone who didn’t know her, it was like watching a shark grin. Yet Gazi did not attack the Illuminary’s crew. They were some of the greatest fighters at sea.

Similarly—even the glowing woman skip-tripping across the world to keep up with the fastest ship at sea didn’t rain down lightning bolts. Archmage Amerys, muscle so atrophied she didn’t even have the strength to keep herself upright, robes billowing behind her, was far less impressive in appearance than Gazi, who had cultivated her look.

…On the other hand, Trey saw Elena looking up and watching the cascade of electricity trailing behind Amerys like the grin of some thunder god. The dark clouds overhead split as the glowing avatar of lightning danced across the world like she was summoning a storm. Swaying, stepping like thunder across the sky, free.

Yet she did not attack. Nor did Gazi; this vessel was their only way to get to shore, and if it sank, Trey wondered if Amerys could carry all the Earthers—or even herself—to safe harbor. Moreover, Rasea Zecrew and her crew were armed to the teeth, and this was their place.

So it was a good, old-fashioned standoff as the two of the King’s Seven argued with the laughing [Pirate Captain] currently trying to attack Fetohep of Khelt’s ship.

He had a ship? That was a stupid question. Of course Fetohep had a ship, but Trey Atwood knew the King of Khelt. The fact that Fetohep had personally rampaged across the north? Trey was very, very worried.

In fact, the only person more worried than Trey right now was the young girl pacing barefoot on the water-soaked decks as they crashed through waves. The Quarass of Germina was not being tied up. She had taken one look around and made one announcement when the [Pirates] betrayed their contract.

I will remember this.

No one had tied her up. She was still speaking rapidly into the stone.

“—Enter the Direten Sepulcher and retrieve the vessel within. Take it carefully—carefully—to the Djinni and inform Khelt’s representatives it is to be used exactly as stated. How much is A’ctelios Salash moving? How fast is it blinking?”

Oh shit. The Quarass of Ger had the look of a woman seeing a disaster she had prepared for, hoped would never come, and was currently burning down her house while she was a thousand miles away.

In the backdrop of it all, Trey heard that laughter.

Rasea Zecrew’s head was thrown back. Half her face shone with the anglerfish side of her, a bright light replacing one eye. The other—Human—had hair blowing into the wind around the hat of a [Pirate]. She stared ahead, that famous sword hanging at her side, holding the steering wheel of the Illuminary as the glowing ship sped towards its target.

Rasea! This is madness. Desist or the wrath of Reim and Khelt itself will be upon you!

The [Pirate] just shook her head. She looked ahead through that storm, and Trey almost thought he could see the Kheltian fleet.

Lights bobbing across the waves. And…a change to the storm billowing around them. Was it turning brown?

A sandstorm. Rasea aimed at the heart of it, eyes wide with delight.

“There is the King of Destruction, the King of Khelt, the King of Duels—legends and stories. If I did not challenge them, what sort of [Pirate] would I be? Boys, get ready for the fight of your lives!

The [Pirates] cheered wildly as Gazi looked around in frustration. Mad as loons. The same energy that had persuaded Rasea to raid Wistram was impelling her to this battle. Trey wasn’t necessarily worried for Fetohep, either.

He was more worried for himself and the Earthers because they were on the Illuminary. Trey had a good idea of what Fetohep could do if he lost his considerable temper. He also suspected this was a stupid, stupid battle. The Quarass glanced up, and her eyes met Trey’s.

They had no time for this. But Rasea was an ally. The Quarass’ gaze flicked towards the distant ship, and now Trey saw it.

A yellowed prow of bone breaking through the waves, surrounded by the sands of Chandrar. Three times the size of the Illuminary, glowing with old magic. Was that someone floating in the air, turning as they saw the [Pirates] approach?

Trey saw the flash of red for a second. Then he felt the people on that boat.

It was like approaching a bonfire the size of a skyscraper. Trey wanted to shield his face from the intensity of those overlapping auras. Yet Rasea was burning just as hot in reply.

This is the age I have always dreamed of. Prepare for boarding. We’re going to ram them.

Now, the Quarass rose from the deck, and Gazi’s main eye swiveled towards her. Amerys was swooping down; neither would let their [King] be harmed, but they waited for the Quarass’ move. The wisest leader, the ancient, reincarnated being of Ger, looked at the distant warship of Khelt. She peered at the Illuminary, shooting at its side to ram it—or even split the warship in two if the impact were hard enough. The [Pirates] were waiting, grappling hooks and boarding gear in hand. Laughing.

What would she do? Trey saw the Quarass glance ahead, then at him—and then grip the railing. Hard. Gazi blinked at the Quarass. Then she grabbed the railing. Trey wriggled desperately as he remembered he was still trussed up.

Uh oh—

 

——

 

The famous [Pirate] ship was coming straight at them. Which was a bad idea for them, because Doubte, the [Hero] of Zethe, was standing right next to Salui, a [Champion of War], the finest [Knights] from Terandria’s Crusade, two Named-rank Adventurers, and Orthenon, with the Vizir Hecrelunn hovering overhead—

And more. The Horns were in that ‘more’ category, and they didn’t mind. They were more wondering what everyone else was.

How would they deal with this? Fetohep of Khelt did not want to waste lives or energy, and the [Pirates] might do both. Or delay them long enough to run into that Drake armada. In fact, it was Fetohep’s plan.

So, naturally, Flos Reimarch was standing at the railings, arguing with him, and Queen Jecaina and King Raelt were there too.

Rulers. They were arguing as they stood there, their auras warring in close proximity.

It shows that a child inhabits the body of an older man, boy, that you cannot even control those you hire.

“Mggth minh mrds mr—(Mighty fine words for someone too afraid to leave his borders, Fetohep!)”

Both rulers glared at each other as an exasperated [Queen] broke in.

“Excuse me, Your Majesties, but do we have a plan? They are about to ram us!”

“(We fight, of course!)”

“What? What is he—?

He wants to fight. Just like Belchan—you can’t see anything but war. You’ve dragged every kingdom into your mess.

Raelt was glaring at Flos. The King of Destruction lifted his head.

“(I have every reason, Raelt of Jecrass. Did Chandrar seem well to you? There is more than just this world at stake.)”

Fetohep, Jecaina, and Raelt looked at each other as Flos delivered one of the grand secrets he had kept.

What? Someone translate for him.”

“No time. They are upon us. Follow my lead.”

Fetohep of Khelt was watching the lighthouse surging through the waves. Every head turned to him, and bodies tensed. Yet the King of Khelt just stood there as even the King of Destruction grudgingly waited. Then…Jecaina gulped, and Raelt swore under his breath. The King of Bandages began to smile.

What were they doing? Far behind the first wave of fighters, sensibly encased in ice, Ceria Springwalker waddled forwards and peered at the [Rulers]. They were just standing there. The Illuminary was coming straight at them.

Brace!

The Revenant [Captain] roared, and his undead crew stood to action. In the distance, over the roar of waves, Ceria thought she heard a laugh. A roar of voices to match even the Bloodtear Pirates. Her skin chilled as she locked eyes with that famous crew and a glowing figure aboard the ship.

Then—the Illuminary tore through the storm. It plunged towards Sand at Sea like an arrow, a javelin hurled through the night. A missile the size of a warship that would spell untold damage for the weaker ship, a wallbreaking action an insane [Captain] would order.

The Illuminary aimed straight at the four rulers.

Fetohep of Khelt.

Flos, the King of Destruction.

Jecaina, the Arbiter Queen.

Raelt, the King of Duels.

And Vizir Hecrelunn! The four—five great rulers stood there. And the Illuminary

—bounced—

off an invisible barrier in the world. Ceria’s eyes bulged as she saw the warship glance off something and the [Pirates] go crashing across the deck. A wriggling silkworm of a boy careened down the decks until a woman with an armored boot stopped him. The Illuminary went veering left.

 

——

 

“What was that? What’d we hit?”

Rasea Zecrew was shouting in confusion, whirling the wheel and looking around. Her ship had survived hitting…what? Magic? It wasn’t half as terrible as the collision between warships would have been, but it had repelled them. She whirled back to the Kheltian warship as it surged onwards.

It was the Quarass, picking herself up from the impact she’d expected, who answered. She sighed as she stared at the four rulers.

“Their auras. That is a shield…of ego.”

 

——

 

Ego. Arrogance. The very quality of a ruler, magnified with the four…five self-important, all-consuming leaders. The Illuminary had just hit a manifestation of that quality in all five.

It hadn’t even left a dent. 

The smaller ship raced alongside Sand at Sea as Rasea screamed insults. She waved her sword as she strode to the railings.

I challenge you, Fetohep of Khelt! Come and fight me, stories of Chandrar!

“Let me. Letmeletmeletmeletme—

Salui was trembling, axe raised to leap across the waters, but Hecrelunn just sneered.

“Allow me, Fetohep of Khelt. I will sink this obstruction.”

He lifted a glowing finger, and the [Helmsman] of the Illuminary began to juke in alarm, sensing the magic. The ballistae aimed up as Khelt’s warship produced their own ship weapons.

However, Fetohep of Khelt ignored the voices. He strode to the railing of the ship and called down to Rasea, his voice ringing across the waters.

Rasea Zecrew! Desist your foolishness! We sail to end a war and perhaps even battle the horrors that climb the world’s edge! Follow me.”

The [Pirate Captain] hesitated as she locked eyes with the golden flames of Fetohep. Yet she waved her sword in frustration.

“And miss the opportunity to fight the greatest warriors I have ever laid eyes upon?”

Fetohep lifted his chin. Another ruler might have negotiated with Rasea differently. Flos, Jecaina, Raelt—each to their own way. But the ruler of Khelt simply roared across the sea. His voice was so loud that even the other ships trailing in his wake heard him.

“Wretched little [Pirate]! Enough! I have no time to waste sinking your squalid, rotting boat. Follow me and fall into line or I will call across the world that when Khelt sailed against the City of Waves and every foe to do battle with the greatest of armies—Rasea Zecrew lacked the spine to join them.

The woman on her decks recoiled as if Fetohep had hit her. If he had a Skill, that insult would have slapped her across the deck. Even the people on deck had to appreciate it.

“Nice shot.”

“Yonder maiden has been verily upbraided.”

“She is almost certainly not a maiden.”

“I can confirm that.”

“I believe this is a good insult. Seven out of ten?”

“Oh, come on, you do better. Eight out of ten, surely.”

Even the background dialogue was a cut above what Ceria was used to hearing. She was trying to find out who could confirm that part about Rasea’s lack of maidenly virtues as the [Pirate] hesitated. She was clearly torn between answering Fetohep’s demands or answering him with a sword.

“‘Scuse me. ‘Scuse me—get your flesh-faces out of my way.

Someone kicked through the crowd. An undead face pushed Frieke of Khelt aside, and the [Captain] of King Dolenm’s warship appeared at the railing. He looked at Fetohep as the ruler of Khelt turned to him.

“Sire. Permission to parlay with the [Pirates] in language they understand?”

“It is granted.”

Fetohep lifted a hand, and everyone saw the ghastly face of the rotted skeleton turn to the crew of the Illuminary. Two bright blue candles of fire shone as the [Captain] bellowed down to Rasea.

Climb aboard, [Pirate]! There’s no glory in being a footnote in this story. We’ve got a hundred kegs of drink, and we’re going to write a legend in every book. Get on board.”

Rasea lowered her sword. She peered up at the [Captain]. Then she spread her arms and laughed.

“Well, why didn’t you say so?”

The Arbiter Queen, King of Khelt, and other rulers watched the Revenant call for ropes and a ramp to be lowered. He turned, and one blue flame winked at them.

“Got to know how to speak to them, Your Majesties.”

Without a single shot fired, a spell cast, or a drop of blood spilled besides Trey’s nosebleed—the Illuminary docked with Sand at Sea, and Rasea Zecrew came striding up onto the deck. She looked around and sighed, for this is where she wanted to be.

But that was only the prelude. Standing on the decks, the bandaged King of Destruction called out as he saw two figures coming up the deck. Trey was wiping at his nose as Gazi held him upright. He glanced up and saw Flos Reimarch spreading his arms.

“Is that…Flos?”

“He looks injured.”

Gazi peered up worriedly at Flos Reimarch, and then both saw Orthenon standing behind Flos as ever. A shadow. Trey’s eyes were round with wonder as he spied one of Serept’s loyal half-Giants, the floating [Vizir], and even Gazi was taken aback by the strange company above.

But they were all background to the call from above. The King of Destruction’s spread hands lowered, and everyone looked up.

In the dark night, the sandstorm and raging waters abated a moment. The thundering skies of clouds drew back, exposing a bright moon. Lightning crackled through the air—then flashed away.

A line in the sky opened up, and there she descended. Archmage Amerys, drifting downwards, as the King of Destruction stepped away from the others and reached up towards her.

Her eyes, like the very heart of a lightning bolt, met his, green like the very lands he had dreamed of riding across. Amerys, the Calm Flower of the Battlefield, alighted on the deck, and the King of Destruction embraced her.

His greatest [Mage] looked at Flos Reimarch after so long. She had seen him slumbering for twenty years—and now, a year after he had awoken, returned to life, they finally met.

This—was the stuff of stories. Everyone watched as Chandrar’s famous [King] met one of his Seven.

For good or ill. The Terandrian [Knights] watched with a mix of anticipation, knowing they could say they had been here, worry for the future, and…satisfaction.

Satisfaction, because they could hear Flos laughing in relief. Laughing, knowing his friend was safe. His companion.

Amerys was laughing too, but quietly. Tiredly. She was looking Flos up and down. The first words from her mouth were…

“You stink, and you’re covered in injuries. Did you pick a fight with a Flame Elemental again?”

“(No, I was fighting a Djinni, actually—)”

“What? Can’t you speak? I am gone for a year and you’ve crippled yourself. A year? And you send Gazi to rescue me? What are you doing on this ship?”

Flos muttered something incomprehensible, and Amerys just stared at him as Orthenon approached.

“Amerys. It is good to see you.”

“Ah. Wonderful. A man with no tongue, and a man with no personality. Where is Mars? Gazi! Where are you?”

Amerys was quick, and her gaze flashed with mockery, but then she and Orthenon looked at each other, and the [Steward] touched her arm.

“You look thin. Tired. I will find you something to eat, and you will rest as long as you need. Then—we will avenge every wrong on Wistram’s head.”

Amerys tightened a weak grip on his shoulder.

“Ah, Orthenon. I will hold you to that. How has it been? You, who waited the longest with the King of Sloth.”

“(I’m right here.)”

Both his vassals ignored him a moment. Orthenon threw back his head and stared up. Then he smiled at Amerys, who grinned, as fast as a flash.

“Almost worth the wait. It is good to see you back, Calm Flower. Chandrar has need of your wisdom and grace.”

She was laughing at that when Gazi strode onto the deck. She caught sight of Flos but was too slow to avoid his bear hug as he swept her up.

“My lord—enough. This is a public moment—”

The embarrassed Gazer protested, but then there were three of them, all standing together as Orthenon nodded at Gazi.

“Well done.”

“Fair praise, coming from you.”

The two looked at each other as Amerys began to laugh louder.

“Ah, there is the Dour Couple. The worst match in Chandrar—or so I said until Orthenon began to send poetry and flowers and I learned Gazi could blush like anyone else!”

She put her arms around both of them to lean on their shoulders, and both promptly shrugged her off. Amerys almost fell down, but Flos held her, and his head turned.

“(Where is Trey?)”

“There.”

Every head turned, and the young man climbing onto the deck suddenly found himself at the center of attention. Trey Atwood froze, but then Flos was striding across the deck to him. Amerys sighed and looked around.

“Now this—this is something even we have not seen. I wish we were all here. Drevish is dead, Gazi told me, Orthenon.”

“Yes. He did not die of age or in battle, but of treachery.”

The [Steward] bowed his head. Amerys looked up.

“Takhatres and Mars live?”

“Yes.”

She exhaled.

“…Four out of the Seven, plus you. It will be enough. Tell me—why is Khelt sailing? Where are we bound? Then we shall go back and avenge Drevish. I am tired, Orthenon. But I feel myself growing stronger with each second. Let me lean on you a moment?”

For answer, he extended an arm, like they were going to some dance or occasion.

“You weigh less than His Majesty.”

Amerys chuckled again. It seemed like that was when everyone finally exhaled and realized they were part of this scene as well. The first person to move was Rasea Zecrew.

She had a tankard in hand, and she took the largest gulp in the world. Misty-eyed, she grabbed the nearest person by the waist and squeezed.

“This is what I came here to see. Stories. And who are you?”

Frieke stared at Rasea. Say it. You had to say it—she had a terrible sense of déjà-vu.

 

——

 

“Dead gods. Look at this. This is—amazing. Are we seeing this? Pinch me, Ksmv—ow!

Ksmvr’s patented triple-pinching technique convinced Ceria this was real. Indeed, it was so real that one of Gazi’s eyes swiveled around from explaining what had happened to Flos with Trey as Fetohep strode over, and she caught sight of the Horns of Hammerad.

“Ah. Your Majesty.”

“(Hm? Begone, Fetohep. My loyal subject and I must have words.)”

Flos Reimarch was flapping a hand at Fetohep, and the King of Khelt was losing patience, but Gazi whispered to Flos.

“My eyes do not deceive me—those are the Horns of Hammerad. I fought with some of them, briefly. That is the [Necromancer] I mentioned.”

“(Oh?)

Flos’ head turned. And then he was—Yvlon made a squeaking noise, and everyone stared at her.

He’s looking at us, Ceria! What did you do?

“Not me! Pisces! What have you done?”

“I have done nothing! I have been the exemplar of good conduct—”

“I shall introduce myself. I know how to talk to royalt—”

All of the Horns grabbed Ksmvr. Flos Reimarch was listening to Gazi, even as he looked at Amerys, but the Archmage of Chandrar had spotted a buffet. Like any good Wistram [Mage], she was pulling a Telim with the food.

Mf mght’s myrlly—

Dead gods, enough!

The mumbling King of Destruction had clearly aggravated everyone who wanted a clear understanding of what was going on. Even Fetohep of Khelt considered this had maybe lost its appeal.

However, it was the one, the only, the Vizir Hecrelunn who lost all patience at last. He pointed at Flos, and Orthenon and Amerys whirled.

Enough, you mumbling king. [Tongue of the Sphinx: Clarity]!

The King of Destruction blinked a few times. Then he tried his voice. A booming voice, his true voice, echoed from the bandages, perfectly restored.

“I can speak? At last! Gazi, my beloved servant, my wondrous Gazer—is that truly the [Necromancer] you told me about? The one you called the prodigy of his generation? I must meet him.”

His booming voice echoed around the ship. The Horns of Hammerad went still, and all of them looked at Pisces. The [Necromancer] went white—then red as a beet.

“Gazi the Omniscient said that about…?”

He squeaked. Then they realized—Flos was coming across the decks straight at them.

“He can make those…? Ah, I wondered if we could have one. What did I say before? Too dangerous? Khelt has all their Revenants. What about the [Innkeeper] and that City Runner? What was her name?”

“Erin Solstice, Your Majesty.”

Then the King of Destruction in bandages was looming over the Horns. Fetohep of Khelt’s head turned as he heard Gazi’s comment, and the people on the deck of the ship murmured. They had all heard that name.

Gazi met Ceria’s eyes, and the [Cryomancer] hid behind Yvlon. Pisces stared at Gazi, and they recalled when last they had met—Silver-ranks, children watching a Named Adventurer fight all of Liscor and win.

Until Erin poked her in the eye. Ceria had grown since then. She had leveled up—what, over ten times! She looked up, trying to straighten her back, and met the King of Destruction’s gaze.

Tree rot. I’m going to faint.”

Flos, the King of Destruction, looked delighted at the reaction. He reached out and slapped Yvlon on the shoulder so hard she nearly fell down—and winced as it damaged his hands.

A Gold-rank team from Izril! I have seen your exploits, Horns of Hammerad. I am Flos Reimarch, whom you may know!”

He threw his head back and laughed. Then he went nearly cross eyed as Ksmvr stuck out a hand.

“Hello, Your Majesty. I believe I have heard of you. I am Ksmvr, formerly of the Free Antinium of Liscor. Now proud member of the Horns of Hammerad. Empress Nsiia does not speak fondly of you.”

Flos did a double-take as Gazi regarded Ksmvr with clear confusion.

“Is this Klbkch the Slayer? No—Ksmv…Ksmvr? Of Chandrar! Aha! The one who knows the Loquea Dree and helped free Sottheim? And Nsiia? You, my friend, I owe a boon to!”

Then Flos grabbed Ksmvr and lifted him up in a hug. Yvlon’s mouth was open so wide one of the flying fish crashing across the deck hit her square in the mouth.

“What the—?”

Pisces ducked another object as Yvlon stumbled. Flos whirled, and the [Captain] bellowed.

Dead gods damn it—we’ve hit a shoal! Food’s flying!

Everyone took cover or knocked fish out of the way as an unlucky school of flying fish jumped straight into the warship. Ceria raised her hand at the same time as Gazi.

“[Ice Wall]!”

They both said it at once, then stared at each other as a wall of ice formed, two layers which shielded them from the squall of fish. Flos blinked.

“You’ve learned ice magic, Gazi! Now there is a change!”

“And you have improved in your magic markedly, half-Elf. Interesting circlet.”

Gazi’s eyes were on Ceria. The half-Elf blinked at Gazi.

“Th—thank you. You’re, uh, good at ice magic too. How did…?”

The conversations were all halted a moment as Sand at Sea activated a magical shield that took away wind, water, and flying fish. The people on the decks began to gather as the King of Destruction motioned to the Horns and stood, beaming behind his bandages.

“Now I can speak, no thanks to Fetohep the Miser, I have endless questions. Trey! Come here and meet this interesting team. Oh? Who have you there? More friends from…?”

Elena and the other Earthers stopped at this gathering as they broke away from blankets and food. Ceria exchanged a look with Pisces, and the Quarass lowered her speaking stone enough to see Flos.

“King of Destruction.”

“Quarass! You have my gratitude for—”

“Yes, yes.”

She waved him off. Miffed, the King of Destruction watched the Quarass hurry across the decks. Ksmvr pointed at her.

“That is a little girl. Is she the Quarass of Germina, a Shield Kingdom?”

The Quarass halted. She turned her head, even amidst her worries and the urgency of the moment, to regard Ksmvr with narrowed eyes.

“An Antinium. And…”

She eyed Ceria’s circlet and then did a double-take of her own.

“Doubte of Zethe?”

“Quarass. We meet again. I congratulate you on your rebirth. Your second body did not seem to suit you well.”

The [Hero] bowed to the Quarass, who blinked at him. Then at the others. Even she seemed taken aback. Especially because…

“Ah, Quarass. Finally, some intelligent company with age to it. Once again, you have the honor of meeting the Vizir Hecrelunn. He is sure you have not forgotten him.”

Vizir Hecrelunn floated over self-importantly. The other Revenants all knew the Quarass. She took one look at Hecrelunn and grimaced.

“…I have no time for this. Would that I did. Out of my way, Vizir. Chandrar needs me. By Ger and the Shield Kingdoms. Fetohep! Tell me what passes at A’ctelios Salash and the rest of the world that I cannot see. It is waking up.

Like that, everyone fell silent, and that joyous occasion was broken as they were reminded of their task.

Yet they were sailing away from Chandrar and one of the greatest cataclysms ever. Fetohep of Khelt turned, and a single speaking stone floated across the deck, followed by the King of Khelt. Everyone gathered around, and Rasea grabbed a bowl of popped corn on a hunch. They listened as Fetohep met with the Quarass.

“A’ctelios Salash senses its kin. It is trying to wake up. I have sent two Jaws of Zeikhal and legions marching with the Giant of Ash’s corpse if it does rise.”

The Quarass was hunched over her own speaking stone, eyes ablaze with worry.

“They will be like toddlers trying to stop a ghoul if it wakes.”

“Yes. So I have called upon the Shield Kingdoms and every force. Your poison…”

“The Labyrinth City, Merreid, has sent Djinni to transport it. But the Djinni will never prevail. Not inside A’ctelios Salash. It will swallow them.”

Fetohep nodded gravely. He stood there, and his head rose to the speaking stone.

“Yes. That is why the Scourgeriders of Emrist strike A’ctelios Salash. They have pledged to return it to its empty dreams.”

The Quarass exhaled, and a look of relief entered her eyes, subsumed by worry again just as quickly.

“How do they fare?”

For answer, Fetohep of Khelt lifted a stone, and everyone heard a faint voice. Trey Atwood, standing next to the King of Destruction, saw Flos glance at him, and he shuddered as he heard a voice, and behind it, familiar, wild screams of a hundred thousand voices. An alien roar and the sounds of fighting.

Your Majesty. I am Yiraz, First of the Scourge. We have entered A’ctelios Salash. What of Coutei?

“He has left, Yiraz. Your kin fulfill their mission, and three fly to you now. Report what passes as you are able.”

I shall, Your Majesty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That night, after the King of Khelt, Fetohep, shouted his warning, the world watched A’ctelios Salash. As the ghosts of Chandrar regained their Skills, the Scourgeriders of Emrist fell upon the Carven City.

 

A’ctelios Salash was waking up. Those listening to the reports could not see the fighting within.

Only what they saw from the outside. The scrying orbs flicking from the emergence of a Fraerling city in Talenqual, the return of the Titan, war in the Meeting of Tribes, Ailendamus, and Fetohep—

—Stopped here.

Many had never seen A’ctelios Salash. Never beheld Tombhome and understood what it was.

One of Chandrar’s many buried horrors.

A face…the top of a face buried in the sands. Swirling entrances, six, set into the earth, leading into the Carven City.

Eyes. The pupils hollowed out. A monstrosity felled so long ago that no one, not even the Quarass, had seen it die. Occupied and eaten, to make sure it stayed dead.

And it was waking up.

The eyes had moved. They were all staring…northwest. Towards Baleros. Towards the place where time was rippling.

It was looking at something.

The sky was dark, but the area around A’ctelios Salash blazed with light. Djinni from the Labyrinth City of Merreid—even from Roshal and other nations—had joined with soldiers, adventurers, not just Khelt. They were camped around A’ctelios Salash. None of them entered Tombhome through those eyes.

They feared to. Only sixty some Revenants had dared fly into those eyes. The Scourgeriders of Emrist were locked in battle within, and their speaking spells to Fetohep were the only line to knowing what occurred within.

But the view from outside was hardly silent. The flare of magic was blinding—bounding shapes raced out of Tombhome. Figures emerging to be cut down with arrows and spells and steel if they got close enough.

Yet it was hard to kill them. They refused to die. They got back up when they should be dead. An arrow blew part of a head off and…something…kept running.

The scrying orbs focused a few times on what the garrisons hacked down. But the images had to be removed. Wistram refused to show the audience what it was seeing.

The Djinni had lost two of their number already, breaking into one of the eyes to deliver a vessel from Germina itself. The Garuda of Qualvekkaras, Kingdom of the Winds, had also lost several of their number to support Khelt.

This was a matter for Shield Kingdoms. This was one of their own. A weapon meant to stop the advent of Dragons—which was twisting in Chandrar’s grip.

A’ctelios Salash was waking up. There were safeguards, measures that were always taken, and the Carven City was monitored.

But this was different. This was spontaneous, triggered by the Seamwalkers. This, more than anything, proved Fetohep was right.

The ground shook. Every so often, a tremor would run through the ground. Or two, in quick succession. It took the people outside a while to realize what it was.

Heartbeats. But spaced so far apart…and multiple heartbeats? The nerve of many broke simply by holding their ground outside A’ctelios Salash. Some ran.

But the Scourgeriders of Emrist had entered the Carven City. They were not in direct communication with Fetohep at all times. The fighting was so intense that their number could not speak and fight. And…the spell kept cutting out.

Vizir Hecrelunn, Archmage Amerys, and every other spellcasting expert including the Quarass, holding the Serkonian Lance, were trying to amplify their reception and keep it steady. Nevertheless…the reports came in every few minutes.

 

——

 

“…we have broken into the main city. It is as I remember it. Wider…they have gone mad. A’ctelios Salash has woken its inhabitants. Strike them down! Take the vessel to the weakening points! Keep high above them—they’re jumping from the rooftops!”

Scourgerider Yiraz was reporting. His voice was steady in the first area, and the listeners could hear the legendary force of Emrist’s time fighting behind him.

“[Fireball], [Fireball], [Fireball], [Fireball], [Fireball]—”

“[Locust Storm]!”

Ethereal, echoing voices from the Scourgeriders. Explosions and screams—they had entered Tombhome in wrath and ruin once A’ctelios Salash refused to admit them. They were from the age of Queen Emrist. They knew mercy and had delivered it at times.

This—

Your Majesty. Tombhome is filled. What are your orders?

Fetohep paused long and painfully.

“Eradicate them if you must, Yiraz. A’ctelios Salash cannot wake. I have heard testimony from Gazi of—from a Named Adventurer and the Quarass. The leadership of A’ctelios Salash is compromised.”

A beat followed, and Yiraz’s voice was grim.

“I knew the glorious Tombhome of old, who was a friend and offered a choice. Is this the same? It looks changed. The alleyways spiral, the streets are no longer straight. It is so dark here…”

Dark. Trey Atwood remembered how parts of the city—the true parts, not the bright, happy mercantile districts for travelers—had been so ominous. Fetohep replied softly.

“They offered no choice, Yiraz. Spare the travelers and visitors, but offer no quarter.”

He waited, with everyone listening. At last, Yiraz replied, and his voice was low.

“…I see no visitors. I would believe they fled. I do not believe it is so. Scourgeriders—deliver them damnation. [Plague of Filth]. Send them pestilence.

The chanting of the flying Revenants changed, and the shrieking took on a different tone. The Scourgeriders were sending the one thing that A’ctelios Salash’s population had ever feared.

Plague. Disease. The Scourgeriders were swooping through the air, laying waste to A’ctelios Salash. For the first fifteen minutes.

Then—Yiraz broke in.

“—They are climbing the walls! Dodge! D—

“Yiraz? Yiraz, report!”

Silence for three minutes, then the Scourgerider replied.

Your Majesty, we are under attack. Six of our number are down.

“Six? Already?”

“They are everywhere. Our [Blademasters] are fighting every angle…they are climbing. Quarass, we are searching for the entrance you described to deliver your poison. We cannot find it.

“Look for the tunnels along the skull opposite where you enter. They lead down.”

The Quarass snapped back. Yiraz broke off. Someone else replied.

I am Scourgerider Nivita. I am at the location you describe, Quarass. It is not here. It is gone.

The Quarass looked around, and Vizir Hecrelunn floated over.

“Those tunnels which lead into Tombhome’s depths? I remember them as well. They have always been there. They have always…”

He looked uncertainly at the Quarass. Fetohep wavered only a moment.

“Then search. Search for a way down.”

“Down where?”

Ceria looked around. It was the Quarass who answered.

“To the heart. The root of A’ctelios Salash. The head has already been emptied; if it is waking, it is deeper. They must descend. But if not there…”

Gazi opened her mouth, and a young man broke in.

“The pits.”

Everyone turned to Trey Atwood. He was white-faced, listening to the Scourgeriders trying to deliver on the oath he had sworn.

“What?”

“There are pits in the center of—near their headquarters. Gazi, Quarass, do you remember?”

They looked at each other.

“Yes. Yes—there are other entrances. Go towards the old headquarters, search there.”

We are moving. Something is…Pakheil. Pakheil!”

The voice went silent. Trey shouted.

Kill them! Set them free! Set them—

“Trey.”

Flos put a hand on his shoulder, and the trembling young man looked around. Nothing was heard for another minute. Then Yiraz broke in.

Your Majesty, we have found the tunnels leading down. I am leaving a third of my number to hold the area against reinforcements. The other two-thirds descend.

“Yiraz, you will be trapped down there.”

We will be overrun above. They…I report this. The denizens of A’ctelios Salash have reached a second level of transformation. Some of them. Our spells are failing against their hides. We must fight with blades. We must deliver Germina’s poison.

Fetohep exchanged a look with the Quarass.

“Scourgerider Nivita?”

Still fighting. They have no fear. Would that we could turn them against Dragons—I am descending myself. Communication may grow…

 

——

 

Incoherent.

The moment Yiraz and his forces entered the second levels of A’ctelios Salash, past the first city, the speaking spells grew fragmented. They were underground, now, diving past the head.

How far down? And where? He was trying to report.

—all around us. Tunnels opening, closing on…cutting them down…lost. [Bladedancers], stand here.

“Casualties.”

Fetohep of Khelt stood there, conferring with the leaders present and…the stars? He kept looking up and listening to something.

Twenty…of our number. The…do not die easily. Neither do…

They needed to know where to go. Fetohep called out.

You seek the hearts. Explorers of old ventured down there, Yiraz. They say there are hearts. Any one will do.”

“How do you know that?”

The Quarass looked at Fetohep. He didn’t reply. His golden flames were searching the air. Listening to something being related to him.

“Yiraz. There are more than just A’ctelios Salash’s people down there.”

“Yes. I sense them.”

 

——

 

They found them in a single moment of screaming so loud that the speaking spell cut out. Then there was dead silence.

“That’s not a voice. What was that?”

Alked Fellbow had his bow drawn. Fetohep just raised the stone.

“Yiraz. Yiraz?

—Scourgerider Nivita. Yiraz is gone. We…fleeing.

“What did you run into?”

One of us can barely kill…deeper. Hold them back. Your Majesty, our success—

…Was no longer guaranteed. The Scourgerider’s voices broke off. Arguing. They were headed deeper.

 

——

 

They were sacrificing their number. Somewhere in the depths of A’ctelios Salash, through winding corridors that only the inhabitants knew, Revenants, the legends of old, stopped and let their number hold the line.

Undead champions with magic and sword, eyes blazing in the darkness, turning to face their pursuers. Buying time for a dwindling force to carry a vessel from the Quarass’ kingdom downwards, downwards.

“Vessel is cracked. Two more of our number are dead. Can we deploy…?”

The Quarass spoke.

“No. Not even that can quiet A’ctelios Salash. It must run through Tombhome. A heart. If not a heart—an artery. But no blood flows there.”

Understood. We…try.

They were falling. Nivita was reporting them calmly. They had died long ago, but a kind of horror fell over the adventurers, the Horns.

They had heard this before. The Scourgeriders were just…regretful. They had flown in life, now they died. A’ctelios Salash closed in.

Above—do not know. Eighteen of us now. Eighteen.

The [Captain] of the ship looked rattled.

“Eighteen out of sixty? They tore across Chandrar in Emrist’s day.”

“Yes. They did. Scourgerider. Report. Can you find an artery? The heartbeats are intensifying. Scourgerider!

No response. Fetohep lifted another stone to his chest.

“Every legion heading southwards is to prepare for an attack.”

“They won’t be able to fight their way in. Not in those narrow passages. You could send a million soldiers against A’ctelios Salash and break. The Vizir has seen it tried.”

Vizir Hecrelunn hissed at Fetohep. The King of Khelt just shook his head.

“They will prepare for an attack. And I will return you and every force I can spare to do battle. Inform Roshal, Nerrhavia’s Fallen, and every power on Chandrar we must bring it down.”

“Emir Yazdil has already pledged Roshal’s armies to do battle.”

The Quarass murmured. Pisces twitched, but everyone was listening. Listening to the silent speaking stone. That shuddering sound from Chandrar that was now felt, tremors for miles and miles.

Thud. Thud. Thudthudthud……………thud.

An erratic beating from vast hearts. Irregular. Slow. Punctuated by minutes.

Wait…Ceria frowned. She looked around.

“Am I imagining that, anyone? Or am I hearing…?”

The others looked at the scrying orb. Fetohep checked it. He brought his head down and heard the faint heartbeat—the armies around A’ctelios Salash were falling back. More and more were coming out of the eyes. But that loud sound—

“…Fetohep. We found it.”

“Scourgerider Nivita?”

Fetohep snatched the stone up, and the Quarass looked up. But then they all realized.

“No. Yiraz. We found something. Nivita…heart. Goin…ry…”

“Have you delivered it?”

“…two with me. Must investigate it. It is not…they built it. Your Majesty? They built it.”

The Quarass opened her mouth, but then Fetohep held up a finger.

“What did you find, Yiraz?”

They built it long ago. They’re following…goodbye.

One of the Revenants turned and uttered an ancient challenge. Two more ran through a place deep, deep in A’ctelios Salash.

So deep they had no idea where it was. Another team was placing the poison in the heart. Already—the beating heart was slowing. The tremors subsiding. A’ctelios Salash’s denizens wailed and retreated, the madness leaving them, surrendering, begging insanity and mercy.

But one voice echoed from the darkness. They would not be coming back. Yet Yiraz had thought it so vital that he had left the others trying to break free of A’ctelios Salash. Climbing…they might make it.

“…all following us. They are wearing the same faces. What is this place?”

His voice grew stronger as the speaking spell stabilized. Hecrelunn’s eyes were flickering with the mana he was pouring into the link. The King of Destruction was gripping his hands together so hard they bled.

“What is it?”

Yiraz was alone, now, stumbling forwards. And he was shouting.

…built it ten thousand years ago! Treachery! The corruption…ten thousand…down here! I see something. I see what they made. No. No…[Wall of S—

He stood in the last room, in the final place he had found. Deep. Deep within.

…sty…

What is it?

A’ctelios Salash had gone silent. But Fetohep and his company listened to that trembling, fragmented voice. Yiraz whispered.

“…cannot go down…fear it. I fear it. I will not go down. I will not go down. I will not go…for me. Notformenotformenotforme—” 

“Yiraz? YIRAZ!”

The chanting stopped. Then his voice returned to normal, as if they had heard someone else…

“They made this room ten thousand…dark prophecy. I will try to destroy it. Never let…name…”

“Who? What do you see? Yiraz! Scourgerider!

Fetohep pressed the speaking stone to his face. He waited—they all waited, but they heard nothing.

Nothing but a scraping sound. Then…a distant chorus which grew louder. Voices which echoed from the stone Fetohep thrust away from his face.

They were singing. Trey Atwood’s face drained of color as he recognized one of the voices.

Baosar. A song came through the speaking stone. An old song, changed.

 

“We met two folk who stopped on a lonesome path

One entered full of willing, the other did not stay,

A single soul found comfort in our ancient home

He is one of many, and the other slipped away.”

 

Fetohep’s grip trembled on the stone. He spoke coldly into it.

“The Scourgeriders of Emrist have fulfilled their duty. Their sacrifice will be answered, Carven City.”

A man spoke into the stone, a laughing voice, breathless. Baosar. Even the Quarass looked at Trey as Gazi put a hand on her sword.

“We are still waiting. Today is not our day.”

Then the stone died. Fetohep tossed it aside and looked back to Chandrar. A’ctelios Salash stopped waking. Tombhome went silent.

No one called it a victory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The God of Magic screamed inside a box with no exit. Paeth on the Coast appeared in the city of Talenqual, and morning passed over A’ctelios Salash as it slumbered onwards. The ghosts saw no sunlight. They had been fighting without day or night. Erin Solstice flew past Baleros, looking up at their battle as Drevish lectured the God of Death.

 

They were the corruption of reality. Not just born of sin and the blood of gods—they did not belong here. In the fabric of what should be crept in writhing maggots, putrefaction.

That was what Sprigaena saw. The opposite of magic. The dark cousins of gods.

Seamwalkers was one name for them in this world. These…these were ones without name. Without legend. Some devoured entire realms.

She swore these would never grow so terrible.

The Devourer of Time rose above her, so high that even Giants looked up. Destroying the world by being.

Lesser kin of Norechl swarmed around it, battling every ghost in creation. Somewhere, Sprigaena knew, the Gnomes were battling their oldest foe. They had ever chosen the side they believed in. She had stood against them and slain Gnomes and regretted her actions.

Now—she looked up at a foe she could hate without reservation. The Last Traitor, Sprigaena, marshaled the ghosts around her. She knew that living Human was fleeing to her destiny.

Sprigaena wished her luck. Somewhere, the six dead gods were about their own ends. Sprigaena had not the heart to fight them, even now.

This…this being she had summoned with her blade would do. She had a lesser sword, conjured by one of the ghosts; it cut, and that was all she needed. The Elf stood alone, her kin about their own tasks. Ghosts choosing to heed the advice of Gnomes.

“Plans and secrets and tricks. I am the spirit of regrets and mistakes. My gift to this world was only slaughter. My children will never know my face, only the heritage of a traitor. One last time—for a cause I know is right, I will fight.”

So she took up her blade against a child. A child born of the God of Time’s corpse. It did not understand—it had existed in the deeps of the world’s hollow, consuming its kin, but it was learning more with each moment above than below.

Yet it was destroying everything. It was malevolent. The infection its kind left would grow and spread if they were not wiped out.

Could they do it?

The greatest ghosts stood around Sprigaena. Lesser Seamwalkers tore through the water. One made of whips and tendons leapt, mouth agape to bring down a Giant. A single figure leapt from the cliff of stone.

“[Giant’s Hammer]!”

A famous warrior struck the Seamwalker with a blow fit for a Giant—but the monster took both ghost and Giant down. For—that Skill was just a copy of the genuine blow. And the Giant who howled, striking the beast, did little damage himself. The savaging horror was one of dozens, dozens. Another was surging at a Dragon, lying wounded and trying to fly.

Sprigaena saw a second figure move to block it. This one was no armored figure in Adamantium, but a stranger. She wore a simple robe that many would call scandalously revealing—or the attire of someone who had no cloth but this. Who lived their lives just so. Sprigaena felt no magic from them and dove, sword aimed downwards. Then she broke off the dive.

What strangeness has the Grand Design created? That game of gods, their plan for the world? She had not asked the mortals who died after her what the world looked like. She had hid with only her oldest kin, telling her story to half-Elves and those with every right to the truth.

Now—Sprigaena saw the [Monk] raise a palm. The woman held up a hand—and the Seamwalker stopped.

“[This Palm Shall Move Mountains].”

She shoved the Seamwalker back. Sprigaena gazed at the gigantic form tumbling and saw a ship summoned by a Skill sending thousands of warriors leaping on the Seamwalkers. As she swooped down, a leader, an [Emperor] of his age, planted a glaive on the ground and raised one hand in salute.

The Empire of Drath has come to fight at the end! We remember our oaths.

He called out in a language she remembered, and Sprigaena swooped down.

“Drath? You bear the name of a small nation I knew.”

“We have never forgotten. Lead us, Sprigaena of the Fall.”

She sighed and pointed up at the Timewalker. It wasn’t moving—wasn’t stepping, but it was still fighting. Ghosts vanished out of the air as it ate them, and other Seamwalkers slowed—one crumbled to dust as the Timewalker tried to devour anything and everything.

“That is our foe. The lesser plague must die. They must all die.”

“And the six?”

“Five. I will not fight them.”

Then Drath shall.

The [Emperor] bared his teeth. Sprigaena only bowed her head. Then she leapt back into the air and fought.

She did not need flying spells or Skills. The Elf moved through the air like she had once been taught by their cousins, calling the wind to guide her. She leapt down across a Seamwalker, and her blade sank into the putrid horror. She skimmed across it, cutting without end as it writhed and tried to grasp her—a claw missed her, and she twisted, severing a digit, which sprayed more foul blood into the air.

Not a drop touched her. She was so fast that she was gone, racing after a new target. She ran past ghosts who had never had a combat class, fighting with swords or their bare hands or…guns.

That one! [Mark Target]!

[Generals] on dragonback were marking Seamwalkers for combined attacks from magical artillery and weapons from another world. A single Human man, Jackson, fired his rifle into one eye and tossed a grenade.

We need more ammunition!

“Our Skills have limits! We are preparing—move the weapon!

[Smiths], an [Archmage of Metal], and dozens of artisans were attempting to arm the ghosts. Now—they had nearly completed a project that was only possible if it broke what was real. Sprigaena watched.

A weapon conjured from the Human’s memory and past. Resized by Skills, given form by magic. It was impossible—the work of actual gods; a demigod or the greatest magic-user of her age might conceive of this, but not so quickly.

This was the Grand Design. It allowed the ghosts to create the giant creation of steel, far cruder than a Gnome’s invention, upon the sands and call a Giant to pick it up.

The enlarged rifle rose in the Giant’s grip as the ancient being tried to figure out how it worked. He took aim as the Human man shouted into one ear—and pulled the trigger.

Sprigaena had little concept of how a gun actually worked. But she did see its effect, which was less than the ghosts had hoped.

They had engineered it to figure in the oversized slugs with magic as well as the mechanisms of the gun, but you could not just scale a weapon like that up.

It fired four rounds into a Seamwalker so fast they would have broken the barrier of air, and probably missed by a mile if this were the real world, then the entire thing jammed. The cursing Giant tossed it down, and the armies of ghosts fell back.

Sprigaena ran forwards. Even here—heroes fought alone and armies maneuvered. She dove into a horde of spawn, which writhed and leapt forwards, birthed without end by one Seamwalker.

“[Blademasters]! Ready!”

A Minotaur with an axe had seen the stream of monsters and had gathered eight from that class. But the Elf leapt into the fighting—

Get out of the way! Our Skills—

One of the [Blademasters] trailed off. They knew the Elf was a ghost of old, but they also rightly believed she had no Skills. They were wrong in thinking she was inferior to them.

Sprigaena swept out of the horde of chittering things as they collapsed, cut in half. There was no way she could have physically cut them all in reach or moved as fast as she had. But her blade—

The mother of those monstrosities bore down on Sprigaena as the Elf leapt up one arm, and her blade rose and fell.

She cut the Seamwalker twice as tall as a house apart with one blow. Then she was leaping again, flying towards her next opponent. The [Blademasters] looked up in awe.

“That was a Skill! A Weapon Art!”

“No…she didn’t use one. Then how…?”

The Timewalker was trying to take another step. Sprigaena ran towards it and then climbed one leg. Each eye, staring, eating time—began to close as she ran her blade through one eye at a time.

Even the Timewalker felt that. Sprigaena dodged a shower of spines without looking, charging upwards, blade cutting deep. It was just a sword, no relic, and she cut that horror which even the greatest spells were failing against.

She was the world’s greatest warrior. She had slain everything mortal and wounded even the divine.

The Timewalker had come for her blade. Now—it focused on the Elf wounding it. A hundred eyes swung sideways and locked on her.

Time froze. Sprigaena hung in midair, hair billowing around her, sword dripping with strange ichor. The Timewalker drew back a single hand lazily. It had all the time in the world, after all. It gazed at Sprigaena, confused as she cut—

—Three Seamwalkers dead as time resumed, each one cut mortally deep. The [Blademasters] whirled. Only one had sensed what she did.

That mastery. That blade!

Seven of the eight stayed there, just watching her, transfixed. The last, who had been a legend to match even the most arrogant of Drake [Swordlegends], just whispered. She opened her wings, and a Harpy flew.

“I see it now. It was always you.”

Sprigaena was not invincible. She was fighting alone in a sea of maws and monsters. Dancing, aware that if she were touched it might be her end. She turned as a thousand faces melded into one long snout turned towards her, trying to swallow her into that yawning abyss.

[Sword Art: My Sword Touches the Sky].

The Harpy [Blademaster] cut the thing in two. The slash passed through another Seamwalker reaching down. The Elf saw the Harpy maneuver and flash one wing downwards, changing direction.

“[Sword Art: Two Moons Curve Across the Sky].”

Twin crescents, two lines of a blade that cut the air. A [Blademaster]’s Sword Art. A Skill.

Such powerful displays, yet the Harpy who landed amidst the carnage, in a moment of silence, did not look proud, though she had leveled to gain them. All her life, she had striven towards perfection, a greater level, a more complete understanding of her abilities until she realized she was lacking something and gave up on using Skills to master her blade.

Now—she understood what a Skill was.

A copy of true mastery, bequeathed to someone in a lovely little…box. For the Elf who looked at her slowly swung her sword up and split the sky in half.

Just like her Skill.

No—not just like. It was exactly the same. The [Blademaster] looked up.

“I see it now. This is your sword, isn’t it? We are stealing your talent.”

The Elf’s sword cut magic. It cut time. It was the kind of ability that was not the strength to strike the earth with all the force of a Giant—it was the mastery that [Spearmasters], all their kind, learned. Something beyond a Skill. No…Skills were the shortcut.

Sprigaena bowed to the [Blademaster].

“You are a fine warrior. I would be honored to fight by you. Even my kind would admire your abilities, brave warrior.”

The Harpy ducked her head, ashamed, and whispered.

“It is unearned. I see it now. I began to learn how to cut the air like even a novice warrior could do—but with talent, understanding instead of artificial grace. Now I see how blind I was.”

Because it was so easy, she had never learned, and that knowledge was bitter in death. Yet for answer, Sprigaena reached out and touched the Harpy’s wing shoulder ever-so-gently. The Elf smiled.

“Isn’t it a little fair? To let those without eternity touch what they will never reach? Or will they never stand tall with it? We argued so long…”

She trailed off and closed her eyes. Then opened them. Both Elf and Harpy moved back, and an arm like a scythe crossed between them. They gazed up at another horror, and Sprigaena slashed an arm in two with her sword. She turned to the other [Blademasters] and raised her voice.

“—Lift your blade. Even if it is corrupted and cursed and stolen. We must fight. One last time. I could never have done any of it alone.”

The Timewalker was raising a foot high, and the armies flowed away to battle the other Seamwalkers. The most powerful ghosts remained, drawn to the largest foe like moths to a flame. Sprigaena despaired of killing this beast herself; she hoped another might kill it with those Skills the [Blademaster] so decried.

Or Kasigna. Gods who fought did not bow to size or force; that was why they were immune to magic and mere force of arms.

Twice, the Goddess of Death had struck at the Timewalker, and Sprigaena had seen them struggle. They fought in methods even she could not fully comprehend.

Points of view. Time versus death. A thousand blooming flowers wilting away. Hourglasses of dust. Death racing up the Devourer of Time’s body—then rejuvenating, returning to when it had been strongest.

Kasigna had stepped away, distracted—and because it was learning. This thing had never known how to fight like a god, and each clash taught it more.

It must die before that. So one final ghost entered the battle. Drath and Baleros were engulfed in war, and even Terandria was pushing from their continent to join them.

Minotaurs who had gone to Drath, the last Izrilian ghosts…creatures of every age. Halflings marching under the wings of Harpies. The Spiderfolk, cursing the Centaurs even as they fought under one common cause.

Dust before a mountain. Yet one ghost flew past them all, and Sprigaena saw even her kin looking up in alarm.

“Wait. Wait—who is that ghost?”

She saw a blazing Human man flying upwards, and the Seamwalkers avoided him. The Timewalker stopped gazing at Sprigaena and stared up in surprise.

Stop, you fool! Stop—

A panting Gnoll landed next to Sprigaena. Another great [Mage] of Wistram; they had sallied forth, the Archmages and spellcasters supreme. This one pointed up as the Human man screamed.

Flee me, Seamwalkers! Flee, you worthless specks! I am the greatest mage there was and ever shall be! If this is my destruction and death—then I will destroy this entire realm!

He raised his hands up, and Sprigaena felt the air change.

I ended magic itself once! I can do it again!

“Oh, dead gods.”

The Harpy muttered. The Elf turned to the Gnoll.

“Who is that ghost?”

The Gnoll wiped at his furry brow as he pointed up.

“That is the highest-level [Archmage] to ever live in any era. The Mage of Magic’s End. The ruin of the world for centuries. The Pursuer of the Origin, and the world’s most egomaniacal idiot. I do not know his exact class, but…he is a Level 93 [Mage].”

The [Blademaster] choked. Sprigaena gave the Gnoll a blank but concerned look. She peered up at the Human and shaded her eyes.

“I take it that is a sign of his power. He is…warping magic itself. I have seen greater magical power in one place only a few times. Even among the divine. That one could do such terrible devastation it might sunder an entire continent.”

“Or kill magic.”

The Gnoll muttered grimly. Sprigaena looked at him and had an idea.

“Not if he does it where reality begins to fray at the edges. Can he direct the devastation?”

I doubt it—

Sprigaena was already taking to the air. She flew at the [Mage], as did many ghosts, trying to stop him from destroying everything. Magic burned them from the skies; he was casting hundreds of spells at once. Sprigaena cut through spell after spell and reached the man.

Mage of Magic’s End, you must not destroy the world!

“Leave me be—Elf? An Elf?”

The Mage of Magic’s End did a double-take and that was enough. Sprigaena lifted her blade.

Put your spell in my sword, and I will cut that Devourer down.

“What? What? Let you swing a spell like some neophyte [Spellsword]? You can’t just—”

Both dodged as the Devourer of Time looked in their direction. Everything across the world froze and then vaporized in a cone of destruction. It was just as well they were high up. If it looked down—

The Mage of Magic’s End sighed as Sprigaena caught him.

“I never meant to. I was so close. Aim the spell?”

Yes.

Sprigaena held out her sword. The great mage hesitated, then closed his eyes. He drew on the fabric of reality to fuel that spell. The Grand Design had gifted him power beyond any Elf, Dragon, and even some of the divine. Even if he didn’t know how to use it…Sprigaena looked at him.

“…But why?”

The [Mage] looked up, confused.

“I just wanted to seek the heart of it. Magic. I…”

Then he twisted. Sprigaena swung her blade down with a cry, but it was too late.

Tamaroth, the God of Rulers, touched the Mage of Magic’s End. He reached for her and recoiled as a blade scored across one arm. He retreated as the soul quavered there a moment.

The ghost refused to go. His soul wavered there a moment. Fading—fighting—

“Damn you. I—”

Then it was gone. The God of Rulers exhaled and laughed.

Stronger.

A howling Dragon flew upwards and exhaled straight at Tamaroth. The God of Rulers shielded his face, but he did not scream as the golden flames licked at him. He had just eaten one of the greatest ghosts here.

Tamaroth! I fight for reality’s sake, and you strike the people you swore to protect?

Sprigaena called out as she fled the God of Rulers. He descended, and the ghosts scattered.

“I shall protect them all, Sprigaena. Take my hand and leave existence to me. That one will not stand long against us with even a fraction of our strength. You were loyal to the end.”

The God of Rulers smiled at Sprigaena. For answer, she lifted her sword.

“I was. Yet when we were poised on victory, even then you had no mercy. Afterwards, I walked among a world built on your Grand Design and saw the broken realms from the war close every gate. We have left nothing but destruction. How can you not weep for it?”

For answer, the bearded man simply shrugged, and his eyes were that gaze she had learned to despair and regret ever trusting. Open, almost innocent of guilt. Vast as forever.

“We are gods. This is our right. Come, Sprigaena.”

She dove with a cry, and her sword aimed at the only foe she could lift it against. Not him. Not even now. He had been her beloved friend, her inspiration and purpose.

He had been her god. Now, Sprigaena fled him, and the God of Rulers cursed her, cursed his fate, cursed…everything but himself.

Damn the Gnomes. All these traitors to glory. Almost. I almost walked the world.

Almost. What was happening with that body now? After all, there was one of the six who had not been seen. Emerrhain had…vanished, and that truth made Tamaroth nervous, for he feared the Gnomes had aught to do with it. But there was one more.

The Goddess of Youth and Last Stands. The Patron of Glorious Souls. First of the Hunt. The youngest of the six, who had ever been neutral, choosing sides as she willed. Daughter born of death and battle. Kasigna’s wayward rebel.

Cauwine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five days before Fetohep of Khelt’s great ride, as the first Seamwalkers appeared over the world’s edge, an [Emperor] sat uneasily upon a throne. He received a [Message] as he held court. But he already knew something was wrong.

 

I dream of it, sometimes. Not the moment itself, but I have nightmares. All allegorical. I am walking through Riverfarm, tracing a path with the [Emperor] ‘sight’ I’ve been given.

A gift for a blind man. Then I realize—there’s nothing outside the path. The forest or the village is gone. There is only the road, and seeing only that is more unnerving than not seeing at all. For some reason—I step off the road.

Then I fall. I fall and fall and reach out until I touch that hand.

You see—allegorical. At other times, I’m in a box, and I have to take the hand or drown. My lips are gasping against the top wall when I take it. The box vanishes, and I am still drowning. Only, I’m not alone.

These are nightmares about what happened, but never the moment itself. Because that moment…doesn’t linger with me.

If I remember it—and my memory is already faded—it’s so simple. This stranger who’s found his way into my room and is talking about my class and the future offers me a hand up.

I take it.

It was a trick. A moment I’ve regretted and questioned for a long time. I wasn’t even sure it was real, though the advice was, until later. I don’t think I knew what I was accepting. There was certainly no contract, no signature.

It was…cheating. So why does that make sense to me? In all those stories where brave or cunning mortals deal with devils or faeries, they do so by trickery, playing with the rules. Perhaps because we all understand that if there were no rules, we’d never win.

One moment. Someone else’s trick and designs, and I’m now bound to it. It’s very fitting. It feels real to me.

That is the one thing I will not answer for. All of my other mistakes and failings—yes. But never that.

It is also why I sit here, while the world seems to be ending. While Gnolls are fighting…no. No.

I can tell something is going on. This is all a prelude. I know, through him.

The bearded man. It is not a solstice, nor any other event like a full moon, or two full moons. But—something is happening.

So I sit. The Unseen Empire is flourishing. Lady Rie has returned.

She’s different.

Yet Laken Godart sits here, because he does not know which move is playing into the other game. I sit here and…tell them to go away.

“Your Majesty?”

Gamel is reading out each missive I receive. He has gotten better at it. The husky voice that used to stammer and pause on hard words until Wiskeria or someone else helped him, a [Farmer] who was rudimentary on his letters, has changed.

He is a [Knight]; he actually got a Skill that makes his dictation excellent. Better than any app or automated voice. He also has hands and a sword.

“No. Put the letter down. I don’t want to hear it. Any of it, understand? Anything from…that source, ignore.”

My court is confused. I can sense them around me, Lady Rie, Wiskeria, Durene, Prost, Witch Hedag, and Eloise. That’s the inner circle; even the other representatives of villages, Master Helm, town councilors…

The [Witches] may pick up on my anxiety, but it’s so fast. They’re assuming I’m judging the sender—and I do, in part. But I am trying to stop something in a moment.

“Should I tell her that we are unwilling to help, then? With the—”

I press my hands to my ears. Trying to tune out the voice.

“Yes. Absolutely. I do not want to—know about it. Wiskeria. Nothing. Understand?”

My head turns to seek her, and the [Witch] starts. She’s Belavierr’s daughter; she has to understand something is wrong.

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

I exhale and sense that…presence unseen. Focusing on me for a moment.

He’s growing stronger. Now, I think he can listen in. Or…something is happening. The connection between us feels stronger. Or something else; the dividing line has grown thinner.

My stomach is churning and my heart pounding out of my chest, but I slash across my chest, and Gamel falls silent. The court murmurs as I speak, hoping they will understand.

“Next.”

We’re almost safe. I’ve almost done my part and averted what I believe may be a disaster—and then Durene, beloved Durene, speaks. With that fiery passion that is wrong here.

“Laken Godart! What are you doing? I thought you were trying to help Erin! They’re going to try the ritual—”

My hands clap over my ears, but it’s too late. I have never seen his face, but I imagine…a bearded man. Nothing else is visible to me. A single detail, kept over a thousand forms and faces, sitting in a cottage.

A man made of static, lips, cheeks, face ever-changing. And I do not know faces. When I imagine things, it is in sensation, feeling.

A beard moving slightly as he talks, not too long, but a growth of hair probably combed and attended to. A voice that commands and condescends and speaks like a starving man at times, others as if he owns everything and everyone. 

Tamaroth sits there. And he smiles. Those unseen lips spread wide and reveal what? Rotted teeth? The most perfect, artificially engineered smile? I don’t know.

But I hear him laughing and know. So I rise.

“No.”

Durene stops; Hedag has slapped a hand over her mouth. My court looks at me, and I whirl.

“Tell them—tell them to do it now, Gamel. Hurry.”

“Your Majesty? At once!”

That is how it happened. As I sit, raking my hands through my hair—that is my mistake. As my advisors ask for the thing I can’t speak of or explain—I can sense him moving. Hurrying from wherever he has been towards…

“Tell them to run, Gamel. Tell them to go as fast as they can. Or they’ll be too late.”

He does as I ask, and I ensure a warning is sent. Then it is out of my hands. It always was, and I regret that they trusted me. I tried to keep out of knowing, but too late. Even then, I hoped it would turn out for the best.

But I would learn soon enough that I had failed.

My fault.

I’m sorry, Erin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That very same day, a Goblin stood, holding a scroll in one hand as she spoke to Fetohep of Khelt, who had heard no voices of ghosts. Four days before Fetohep of Khelt rode for the coast, Rags made her decision.

 

This is how it occurred. A little Goblin stood at the base of a volcano, looking out across the world. She determinedly ate some mushrooms that a [Witch] had told her would help her grow taller. They tasted like mush, which wasn’t bad for a Goblin.

But she was…waiting. Waiting and watching the Wyverns flying towards her. They were all wearing adapted masks to survive the poison fumes of this place, and Rags herself had a mask adapted for her face.

She was waiting. She had, in fact, waited for a long time. She had come so far, risked so much for her tribe. They were still hunting her. They might never stop, even if the shivering woman who was being prodded forwards by Goblins were returned to them.

This was not something a Chieftain should do. Not for no gain, although she could argue she had accidentally gained much. The friendship of another powerful tribe, knowledge, even several Goblins who had volunteered to follow her.

After all—she had witnessed a [Knight] rising. A Goblin [Knight], from her tribe, or at least, related, had ridden side-by-side with Humans from Terandria. He had bested the other species at their game.

He had been…glorious.

It was silly, it was definitely stupid, but it was the kind of thing she had learned to believe in. Often, such things failed.

But you could change the world.

A little Goblin could do more than live and die in the Floodplains of Liscor. She owed that to one person. To herself, to the Goblins and people she’d met, even to a silly skeleton.

To one person, though. All of this? It had always been so Rags could selfishly walk into an inn, sit down, order some subpar spaghetti and blue fruit juice, and play a game of chess. Thank that Human to her face.

She had been waiting a long time for all the pieces. She had, in fact, only acquired a few pieces herself. Rags had done all she could, and now she saw it.

“Mage with decent magic. Yes. Special antidote with mushrooms. At Liscor. Potion of Regeneration…check.”

She ticked off the components of the ritual that the strange [Doctor] had outlined. They were all there. She was only missing one element.

“Skill of a great leader…”

That would be important. Rags didn’t have it. No Goblin in ‘Anazuland’, or rather, the Molten Stone Tribe, the tribe of [Witches] and magic-users in this active volcano and poisonous region, had such Skills.

They were rare indeed, but Rags knew it to be the last part. Someone had that Skill and was ready—but she was wavering. Two voices spoke to her.

Not in her head. Two [Messages] warred on the scroll she read. Both were from strangers, though one she had met. The other…she frowned.

Strange undead king from Chandrar? She had seen him and understood he was powerful. Exactly how he fit in with Erin was a mystery, but Rags believed it. Witch Anazurhe had many speculations regarding her knowledge of the afterlife, but Rags just…believed.

And they said two things.

 

R: I am going to wake Erin up.

Lionette: Rags!?

R: No. Shut up. If the potion is done, I will go to Liscor. I just need the Skill, and it is coming.

Saliss of Lights: The antidote is done. You need a good—the best [Mage] and that Potion of Regeneration, assuming those idiots haven’t contaminated it. Do you have…any of that?

R: I have a [Mage].

Saliss: Oh, well that solves everything.

R: ಠ_ಠ. I am going. I cannot wait forever.

Fetohep of Khelt: I must insist you wait.

R: Why?

Fetohep of Khelt: I must consult with specialists on the matter. I have experienced—issues of late. Now may not be the hour.

R: When is? How much longer?

 

He didn’t know. Rags could not figure out why Fetohep of Khelt said that. She had gone over whether he was sabotaging her—but he had no reason to. Nor could she know how the Revenant King felt.

 

——

 

Fetohep of Khelt sat alone in Khelt. He looked up, and called out.

“Great Khelta. Queen Xierca? Erin Solstice? Are you here?”

He walked across his throne room, through the palace, to the chambers where frozen bodies had lain. He paced across his capital, ignoring his subjects.

He heard nothing.

The King of Khelt was worried. Khelta had left him with instructions if she vanished suddenly. She had told him to expect…the worst.

Were they then trying to return Erin to her body? Was he obstructing them? He did not know.

So he returned to the [Message] scroll.

 

Fetohep of Khelt: Wait another day, ‘R’.

R: Everything is almost ready. I have a Skill.

Lionette: From whom?

Saliss: I think you mean, ‘from who’? I have to go. We’re entering the Great Plains, and I sense snobbish Drake [Mages]. Good luck.

R: I cannot wait. Why, Fetohep? Why wait?

Fetohep of Khelt: I cannot say.

 

He would not say, not to all of them. Not if the Witch of Webs could infiltrate that discussion. Or Wistram itself or…Ailendamus or any other force.

There were ways to ensnare ghosts. This was the power of Khelt. So he read.

 

R: I need another Skill, maybe. Does ‘Emperor’ have his Skill? I could use that. [Undying Loyalty]?

Ilvriss: What [Emperor]?

Lionette: Oh! Oh! Is he here?

Riverfarm: His Majesty, Laken Godart of the Unseen Empire, is not accepting direct [Message] spells at this moment. Is this…in regards to Erin Solstice? I will forward any missives for his consideration. A reply is not guaranteed, however.

R: Yes. Ask if he can use his Skill on Erin Solstice, in Liscor.

Fetohep of Khelt: Khelt shall repay His Majesty of Riverfarm any inconvenience.

Ilvriss: And Salazsar. Riverfarm is the capital of this Unseen Empire?

Riverfarm: Please hold. Your request will be forwarded to his Majesty when he next holds court.

R: No, now.

 

——

 

Waiting and waiting. Rags had been waiting for this, waiting for that. She had been communicating, and they had a Skill—the [Emperor] was to make sure they had the best one. She had heard tales from Goblins about that Skill.

O